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Harper Lee’s “Watchman” a timely work

Harper Lee’s new book is out. It only took half a century to get it.

There’s been a lot of controversy leading up to its release, particularly as it relates to how Atticus Finch is portrayed. I believe Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this character is one of the best performances in movie history. He makes Atticus come to life as the ideal father and lawyer who fights injustice during an extremely ugly period of our nation’s history. I’d like to remember him that way.

Apparently, that’s about to change. The new book, “Go Set a Watchman” has already set pre-release sales records and stimulated conversation about Atticus becoming a “racist” and attending KKK meetings (Ok, no more spoilers).

The setting of this story is two decades after “To Kill a Mockingbird” and has Scout returning to her hometown. She learns some difficult lessons along the way, and it looks like we will too.

The timing of this release couldn’t be more appropriate. Our nation is dealing with the recent racially charged events of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse.

This is an eagerly expected work and guaranteed to generate a great deal of discussion. I would like to think this is going to be a good thing. However, many people don’t want their sentimental version of Atticus (as provided by Peck) to be tainted. I’ve seen numerous reactions on Facebook and Twitter, and recall one person stating “Harper Lee you ruined my life!”

I’m not sure how I’ll react upon reading the entire story. Very few books have affected our culture like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I envision Lee’s second work to have a similar impact.

Mercer University professor Brett Younger wrote an article recently called “When the Klan came to our Revival.” He talks about how a young black student came to church with a white friend and was asked to leave. The next night the Klan showed up. Younger remembers a sign with the church name with the phrase “Everyone is welcome” underneath it. Younger says, “but everyone knew what that meant.”

This has been a great week for UHBC. We’ve hosted VBS and with that children of a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds. It’s been encouraging to see that and not be concerned about someone in our church telling one of these precious children “we don’t want you here.”

I hope that our church is serious about “everyone is welcome” when it comes to people attending our church services. We need a (Baptist) church like that in the Ozarks. Let’s continue the practice of hospitality and being the presence of Christ in Springfield.

On that note, let me say thank you to ALL of you who helped with VBS this week. You should be tired, but it’s a good tired! You can check out some photos of the week on our church’s Facebook page.

Finally, my family and I will be on vacation this week. I appreciate Drs. Bob Perry and Mike Haynespreaching in my absence these next Sundays. This Wednesday, Dr. Brad Arnold will be handling the program. We are blessed to have such talented individuals part of our church family. I know you will be supportive and attentive to their efforts

Let the Children Come

everestvbs.1“Let the little children come. . .”

Those were Jesus’ words to his disciples when they tried to keep them away. Actually, even before saying those words, Jesus brought the children close to him. It’s a beautiful image of Jesus, as he is surrounded by the least and often overlooked of his day (Luke 18:15-17 NIV).

I’ve heard people describe children as “little angels.” I can appreciate the cuteness factor, depending on the age of the child. But, Jesus doesn’t get sentimental with children or talk about their goodness quotient. He does, however, refer to them as an object lesson as it relates to how persons ought to relate to the Kingdom of God. And, it must have surprised his disciples. After all, they had Jesus on a schedule and these children were taking up valuable time. They weren’t doing a good job with crowd control and it was frustrating them. They thought this situation was doing the same to Jesus too, but what he did and what he said showed them otherwise.

Vacation Bible School starts next week at University Heights Baptist Church. The building is being transformed into the snow related “Everest” theme. It takes a great deal of effort to put on such a presentation, and fortunately we have the man and woman power to get us ready. I’m also glad that our people pull together and don’t stress out too much over the decorations. Sometimes we have to move things around to create an environment conducive for learning.

Children are among the most neglected and vunerable in our world. This is true even in our community. The Springfield Public Schools provides information about the number of students on free or reduced lunch, and the numbers are staggering. It is especially troubling to realize that for many of these students, were it not for meals being offered at school, they would not eat. When school is in session, they can anticipate at least two meals a day. During the summer, however, the circumstances are different. Our church is becoming more educated about these needs with the intent to help our neighborhood elementary school. Many of these students face the triple threat of hunger, hygiene, and health issues. The need is great.Let

I don’t think we can approach church work the same as it has been. Perhaps the social and economic needs have been present for a long time, but it seems nowadays there are greater difficulties and churches are facing the realities of their neighborhoods with their eyes open to them.

Jesus affirmed children and said that adults can learn something extremely important from them. He said, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18.17 NIV).

There are many things children cannot do, but the one thing they can do really well is receive. Children are great receivers. Jesus knew that, and he also knew that adults have problems with this aspect of life. We prefer to see how well we measure up in comparison to others. This is probably why Luke positioned this incident between the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, and the encounter with the rich young ruler. The behavior of children as they put themselves in a receiving posture goes counter to those who think they measure up on their own.

Of course, the Bible does admonish us to give. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, “It’s not only more blessed to give than to receive, it’s also a lot easier.”

Children face many pressures in our world. Although written decades ago, David Elkind’s The Hurried Child remains an important resource in working with and understanding children. The subtitle of his work is “Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon.” Elkind writes, “If child-rearing necessarily entails stress, then by hurrying children to grow up or by treating them as adults, we hope to remove a portion of our burden of worry and anxiety and to enlist our children’s aid in carrying the load. . . yet we do our children harm if we hurry them through childhood.”

Those disciples were in a hurry, and as a result wanted to hurry those children along and get them away from Jesus. I think we need to be careful that we don’t fall into that trap as well.

In one of my earlier pastorates, I had a woman come to me and make a comment about my family. She was unhappy with the amount of time I was spending on church people and attending social functions. At that time, my daughter was very little and I was trying to balance being a dad with being a husband and pastor. From this woman’s perspective, I wasn’t doing a very good job with the last duty. She said, “Your family is hurting your ministry.”

That comment was made over 15 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but I do recall how I felt. I got upset at her critique but at the same time renewed my commitment to my wife and daughter. From that experience I learned that my family is my ministry. They are going to be with me a lot longer than any group of church people will.

We adults, especially parents, struggle with the balance of being at work and at home. We constantly wrestle with the amount of time we spend with our children. What we don’t need to do is “hinder” the children from reaching Jesus, like those disciples were doing. It is through our love and actions that children see and learn about Jesus.

That’s what I hope happens at VBS next week. The children are coming. Let’s do all we can to get them to Jesus so he can touch their lives. In so doing, let us also be grateful that at some point our lives someone else helped us get to Jesus too.

The Wall of Separation

Walter Shurden, in the classic Baptist primer “Four Fragile Freedoms, ” said that “Christians have to work hard at distinguishing between pietism and patriotism, assessing critically where one begins and the other ends. When the cross of Jesus is wrapped in the flag of any nation, danger, if not downright heresy, is close by” (52).

I do my best to keep a nice yard. I don’t want to be OCD about it, but it is a source of pride and one of the few things that I can do and look back at say that it’s finished (at least for a while). As I was mowing the backyard the other day, I noticed that there were weeds and grass poking through the fence. It was coming from my neighbor’s yard. The fence is not close to his house nor is he within the subdivision itself, so it is “out of sight and out of mind.” I’ve had to continually monitor that fence in an attempt to keep what is on his side of the fence from coming over to mine. It’s an ongoing effort.

This kind of struggle with weeds between two lawns is a good analogy for what is taking place in our nation. But, it certainly isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. With the July 4th celebration on the horizon, it’s a good opportunity to reflect upon our freedoms and liberties as American citizens but more importantly as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The relationship between church and state is an important one. Perhaps the most pivotal biblical passage comes from Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees and Herodians, religious and political parties of the time, came together with the intention of tricking Jesus with the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar or not?” I find it insightful that the Pharisees were patriots of their nation and hated paying taxes, whereas the Herodians appreciated the status quo and supported the government. These two groups despised one another yet agreed that taxes was a pivotal issue. At least they could agree upon that. Ordinarily they wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. However, there was one thing they both despised more than the other, and that was Jesus. If Jesus said “yes pay your taxes” then he would have been labeled a traitor. If he would have said, “no don’t pay taxes” he would have been accused of treason against the government. It was a clever ploy.

George W. Truett, once pastor of FBC Dallas, preached a famous sermon on the steps of the National Capitol Building in May 1920. He said that Jesus’ words about rendering to Ceasar things that were Ceasar’s, and things that are God’s to God were “one of the most revolutionary and history making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once for all, marked divorcement of the church and state.” Jesus’ remarkable words have been utilized by Baptists in the development of a “separation” between government and the church.

Baptists have been at the forefront of the separation ideal. The phrase “separation of church and state” was not commonly used when the Constitution and Bill of RIghts was written. The concept was there, however. The “wall of separation” origins can be linked to 17th Century Baptist Roger Williams and later attributed to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, indicating that he believed the 1st amendment erected a wall of separation between the church and state. It has been used by the Supreme Court as well.

We are going to continue to have skirmishes relating to the separation concept, and both the establishment and free exercise clauses will come into play.

County clerks are refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples out of religious convictions. I haven’t heard any clerks refusing to grant licenses to persons who have been divorced multiple times out of religious conviction though. The Bible does record God’s view on the subject “I hate divorce” and Jesus’ words “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” So, is this a religious liberty issue or an act of discrimination? What is our posture relating to Romans 13 giving deference to the government? We can also cite Revelation 13 about opposing the government as well. Then we return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 22.

We’ve been here before. Until 1920, women weren’t even allowed to vote. It wasn’t until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) that “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional and effectively ended segregation. It’s hard to imagine, but an owner of a restaurant could refuse service to an African-American and be within their rights to do so. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in the United States. These couples could not be granted a marriage license, and I would envision there would be those who would have refused to grant them one based on their own views.

One of the more recent religious liberty cases relates to Bob Jones University. BJU banned interracial dating in the 1950s and did not admit a black student until the 1970s. They lost their tax exempt status in 1983 because the IRS ruled that their school policies violated federal law. BJU held these views because of their position and interpretation of the Bible. Interestingly, BJU dropped their ban on interracial dating in 2000.

The Supreme Court has ruled on marriage equality. The next area for debate will be that of religious liberty. Churches and their ministers have concerns over the implications of this ruling, but I believe the more significant areas will be relating to institutions who have certain convictions based upon their religious views. Time will tell how this turns out.

Not everyone is supportive of the concept of “separation of church and state.” Opponents lament the nation’s declining morals and say the only way to get back to God is to do away with it. I’m reminded of what Jesus decided to do when confronted with a similar temptation.

After his baptism, he went out into the wilderness to endure a series of temptations which would essentially answer the question “What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4.8-10 NIV).

Jesus could have chosen to use earthly power, politics, and position to implement his mission. He could have chosen to “get things done” through natural means, but instead his response was to tell Satan to get away from him.

Religious liberty is a precious right and we need to do our best to fight for it. We need to learn from our history and view our Bible and culture through the lens of what Jesus taught and how he lived. Let us be consistent in the interpretation and application of Scripture, while remembering that  “this world is not my home.”

In the meantime, I’m going to continue keeping an eye on that fence.

Charleston and the Price of Forgiveness

I’m continuing a sermon series on the scripture themes from VBS this year. This Sunday, I’ll focus on one of the last sayings of Jesus from the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34 NIV).

He could have been referring to those Roman soldiers who were carrying out their orders. They were the ones to actually nail him to the cross, and that would certainly be an obvious choice. Maybe he was talking about the religious leaders who put him in that position in the first place. They accused him of being a revolutionary, telling people not to pay their taxes to Ceasar, and claiming to be a King. Along the way  they accused Jesus of “stirring up the people.”

Well, that is what Jesus does.

The timing of the passage comes at a good time, for obvious reasons. We’ve all seen and heard the stories of horror and hatred that were aimed at those nine persons in a Bible Study last Wednesday night. The gunman sat among them for about an hour, received their hospitality, and then proceeded to stand up and start shooting them. He said he wanted to start “a race war.”

What is even more startling than the act of violence has been the reactions of the Emmanuel AME church, especially the families of the victims. They confronted the killer, not with words of hatred, but with words of forgiveness. One person said, “You’ve hurt me. But, I forgive you.”

Forgiveness. You’ve hurt me, but I forgive you.

With all the racial unrest that has been present in our country, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if there had been violence in the streets of Charleston. Many people may have expected it and were disappointed. During his Father’s Day message, Rev. Norvel Goff said, “Lot’s of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We have shown the world how we as a group of people can come together and pray and work out things that need to be worked out.”

The only thing more striking than the actions of that gunman has been the reactions of that community and congregation. And, what is also notable is how surprising their response has been, especially when we are conditioned to see violence breed violence. The racial tensions that have been on display in Ferguson and Baltimore could have been evidenced with similar behavior in Charleston.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It requires an acknowledgment of pain, and a decision to give up the right to get even. It is absorbing all the pain and hurt, and making an intentional effort to respond in love. These families are responding as Jesus would have them (and us) to do. Many unbelievers do not understand how these victims could respond in this way. The sad thing is that many Christians are also surprised at this. We are taught to forgive one another, but when forgiveness is actually extended, we can become angry at the idea. It’s one thing to talk about forgiveness in theory, another to put it into practice.

I have returned from a Baptist gathering last week, and was challenged along with other participants to “build bridges.” The importance of creating avenues of service into our communities, discovering meaningful ministries, loving our neighbors of differing ethic and social backgrounds, and extending hospitality to those who need it. These are not new concepts. In fact, they have been around a very long time. Yet, it’s important for the church to be reminded of our purpose, which is to share Christ with those around us. Sometimes that requires words. Sometimes it requires actions.

One of the actions I think needs to occur is the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. I realize that politicians will use the shooting as an opportunity for political posturing, which can result in great form but little substance. And, while the flag itself did not kill anyone, it has become a symbol of hatred and divisiveness. I can appreciate the history aspect of the “stars and bars” and agree that following generations need to be educated about what happened over 150 years ago. Let the stories be told. But, let the flag be shown in a museum rather than flying over the state capitol. Removal of this symbol would be a good step forward in bridging the racial divide for the state and the nation.

The Emmanuel AME church has shown the nation how to respond when hatred strikes at those who are most loved. Their pastor was killed doing what he usually did on Wednesday nights, and what many pastors do at that time: leading Bible Study and showing hospitality to a stranger. That’s what he was supposed to do. That’s what we’re supposed to do also.

It’s one thing to forgive someone when they say something to hurt your feelings. These occasions can make it hard to move on with our lives, we can become “stuck” at some moment in the past. We can feel like hanging on to our pain and feel justified at harboring grudges toward the offending persons. It’s natural to desire revenge for injustice. But, this kind of response doesn’t cause our world to sit up and take notice like the actions of that congregation in South Carolina. The world needs to know there is an alternative to violence. And, it isn’t more violence. It isn’t burning down buildings or looting stores. It isn’t in forgetting about what has happened either. It should result in incorporating that narrative of pain into our lives today. It should help us be sympathetic to those who are oppressed and hurting as well.

Jesus offered words of forgiveness because “they don’t know what they are doing.” I wonder how that resonates with those of us who do know what we are doing. Forgiveness is costly. It cost Jesus his own life, and that example of forgiveness should stir us as his people to do the same to those who hurt us. Besides, there are times when we’ve all done things to hurt someone else.

Forgiveness is a wonderful topic to talk about on a Sunday morning. It’s even more beautiful when it is demonstrated for the entire world to see. Justice needs to be done, to be sure. As pastor Goff said, “there is a time and place for everything.” Justice and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. There are consequences to behavior. However, let this season of forgiveness which has been ushered in by our Charleston friends be entered into by all of us who claim the name of Christ. I cannot imagine the depth of pain and grief these families are going through right now. Soon, the media attention will go away and they will be left to go through holidays and birthdays without their loved ones. Let us grieve with them and pray for them. Let us also remember honor their example in our own communities. The world is watching to see what we’re going to do.

CBF General Assembly comes to Dallas

Baptists know a little bit about Dallas.

Decades ago, the Southern Baptist Convention met with more than 40,000 messengers coming together at the height of the “conservative resurgence.” Here is one perspective provided by the publications arm of the SBC.

Nowadays, it difficult to get 4,000 Baptists to show up at the convention meeting. The same is true for the CBF General Assembly or ABC Biennial meetings. Times have changed in that regard. Thanks to a decreasing interest in denominational matters from a younger generation, along with the convenience of live streaming of these events, have resulted in folks staying closer to home. There are times I don’t want to attend meetings with five Baptists, let alone several hundred.

I was too young to be directly involved in the denominational warfare that occurred between moderates and conservatives. I do know that the timing of the conflict couldn’t have been worse from a missions standpoint. Dr.Keith Parks, then President of the Foreign Mission Board, was hoping to launch a global missions initiative called “Bold Mission Thrust.” This is old news for us who came along during the conflict or soon afterwards. But, time has proven that the dangers of liberalism that were supposed to deter baptisms and growth were unfounded. Southern Baptists are wrestling with their own problems relating to decreasing membership in their churches. Hopefully, things like cooperation over social issues like predatory lending with take precedence over which ones of us believe the Bible more than others.

It’s been several years since I’ve attended a CBF Assembly. So, I am looking forward to making my way to the Lone Star state to listen and learn about how things are going among us in the CBF. I don’t look at how many people show up as an indicator of interest, for the reasons I mentioned above. But, it should be encouraging to connect with friends and make new ones. There’s usually a lot of good energy at these gatherings and gratitude for being part of the Kingdom. My primary hope is that renewal is ahead and that we can truly be in the business of “forming together.” I would also like to know more about what that phrase means too.

There is one concern that I have moving forward, and that is our own global missions effort will be derailed by controversial social issues. It’s good that these issues can be discussed, hopefully in a respectful and attentive manner. I pray that that we can agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary thread which keeps CBF churches together. This may be easier said than done. But, the effort is definitely worth it  and there is a lot at stake.

I’m looking forward to good things. See you in Dallas.

Pentecost Musings: Learning My Limits

We see them all the time. They are everyone in town and easily visible when driving on streets and highways. I’m talking about speed limit signs.

Yes, I know these symbols that appear on the side of the road are often interpreted as “suggestions.” We don’t often press to drive exactly the MPH that appears in black and white, but if we drive too far over that number we’ll see another “black and white” with sirens appearing behind us.

Sometimes bridges have limits too. I’ve seen these warning signs posted for drivers to see before passing over it. Many bridges are constructed to withstand a certain amount of weight. Any thing over that can result in tragedy.

People have limits too, it’s just that we don’t often go through life with that in mind. One of my favorite Clint Eastwood quotes from his Dirty Harry character is “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Being in the ministry is tough. One of the more difficult aspects of this kind of work is realizing what your limitations are and then living within them. It doesn’t have to do with how much faith you have but rather an awareness that human beings only have a certain stress level threshold before things get ugly. Each person responds differently to stress, and some of us are better at it than others. However, the ugly little secret in the ministry is that pastors and others in vocational service can get so discouraged that depression can set in. Even worse are the discoveries that seemingly healthy people have taken their own lives because of the pent up frustration and despair.

Another tough part is that no matter what you do there will be disappointment. You will disappoint some people because of what you do, others because of what you do not do, and still others who aim a continual beam of disappointment in your direction. The latter situation isn’t due to you necessarily, but rather an inability to control circumstances in their own lives. They have to control something, and since it can’t be their own circumstances, they will seek to find fault in what you are doing. And, for pastors like myself, it can be terribly frustrating and painful to realize that others around them. There is something within that wants to “fix” what is wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t always work. I acknowledge my own shortcomings and hope that they don’t cause problems with others. Regardless, living with disappointment is difficult but hopefully for a finite period of time.

In a recent blog entry, “Looking for God in Our Limits,” Peter Scazzero said: Limits are one of the most counterintuitive, difficult truths in Scripture to embrace. They fly in the face of our natural tendency to want to play god and run the world. Yet it remains a steady truth that we return to, over and over, in our role as leaders under Jesus.Yet God reveals himself to us, and to the world, through limits in unique and powerful ways—if we have eyes to see.

Like some of you, I follow trends in ministry and Christianity in general. There’s already been a lot written about the latest Pew Forum research findings about the demise of the church. CNN printed an article about it entitled, “Millennials are Leaving the Church in Droves.” I didn’t find anything particularly new, other than a reminder that the church needs to do a better job at communicating the faith to the next generation.

I’m preparing a sermon for Pentecost Sunday from Acts 2. I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the crowd to the disciples upon the arrival of the Holy Spirit: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is that each of us hears them in our own native language?”

I am trying to get a better handle on the problem the church is having, namely that of speaking to our culture and this generation in a language that is understood. Millennials (not to overuse that demographic) need to be addressed in a language with the gospel that is relevant and practical. The institutional church has struggled with this reality, and I am slowly and reluctantly coming to the realization that the church is choosing to respond with this mantra: We don’t care.

That’s a tough thing to say, and I hope I am wrong.

Darrell Guder put it this way, “For many people in North America, the church is a place for individuals to go passively to receive goods and services.” I translate that to mean that many of us are accustomed to “having our needs met” and if we don’t, then we leave for another place (church).

One of the other tough parts of ministry is taking time with people in their darkness and pain, and then having those people tell you that they are leaving because their needs aren’t being filled. In a similar manner, there are people who come into the fellowship for the same reason. I am finding it ironic that in some cases, people leave and come in for the same reason. It’s just that there are different reactions to the same situation.

At times, I don’t have a grip on my emotions like I need to, and this might be one of them. There are so many good things to accentuate about life as a community of faith, but some things bother me more than they probably should. Maybe that’s a sign of caring about people and what’s going on. However, I am grateful to Scazzero’s email a few days ago to remind me that I can only control certain things, and how people react isn’t one of them. There’s always something for someone to be upset about, and if I seek to control what I can’t I will lose a grip on my own emotional health. I also live with the awareness that if enough folks in the constituency agree that I’m not getting it done, it could mean I’m “out” in terms of church ministry. This has happened to many good people in the past and can happen again (cudos to MTM for their ministry).

The Holy Spirit came upon those disciples with power and in a such a way that their witness changed the world. My desire is that the same power will help me to live boldly. I ask that the Lord and His people will forgive my failures and allow me to live with my shortcomings. And, on this Pentecost Sunday, my prayer will be that I have trust in God with no limits while acknowledging my own weaknesses (limits) and trust Him with the rest.

Kingdom Business is better than Church Business

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnanimous votes hardly ever happen in a Baptist church. I have had people tell me that they voted “no” just to make sure that the ballot count was authentic and that every vote mattered. That’s part of it I suppose. That’s what made last Wednesday night so unique, in that our church had two 100% votes which related to the launch of a five year Preparing for the Future capital campaign, and the continued relationship with the Chin Community Church. UHBC is sharing its chapel space with this congregation.

Showing hospitality in this way is not without its complications, especially when there are cultural and language barriers to navigate. But, it is a wonderful gesture of Kingdom business to open doors to those who can utilize space for worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation. Sometimes churches can become territorial with their space. That temptation and danger exists among our people too, which is why we must continue to pray and be reminded of our purpose on a regular basis.

I have to admit, I am not a fan of church work. I am not the only pastor who feels that way. Many pastors get into this line of work in order to care for souls rather than run a church. I know that’s why I did. It’s difficult to explain that distinction to the people at times, but it is important to note the difference. Kingdom business is not always church business. That is a sad but realistic commentary on life in many American congregations.

It drains my soul to count the “nickels and noses” on Mondays. But, every now and then, something happens to renew my spirit and encourage me as pastor. That happened about a week ago when I got to baptize Savannah. Baptisms are among my favorite things to do, and I suppose the reason for that is it’s consistent with life in the Kingdom of God. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having people “transfer their membership” too. But, there’s nothing like being part of a new believer’s baptism experience. I cherish those moments, and refer to them often to keep me encouraged.

I read recently about a prominent pastor who resigned because of ongoing issues with declining church membership and revenues. This was particularly painful because of the public nature of the situation. But, this isn’t the first time something like this happens in a local church. It won’t be the last, either. These difficulties play out each and every week on a much less noticeable basis all across our country. Sadly, it’s not an unusual development or problem. Pastors are under a great deal of stress and are dealing with factors that are often not of their doing. We can get blamed for things that aren’t our fault, and occasionally get credit for things that we had little to do with as well. It’s frustrating for the pastors and their congregations.

When this starts to happen, then the shift away from Kingdom business is not far away. The “business” of church takes over. It can be a subtle sensation that comes in the form of thinking of what to do to “keep the doors open” rather than how to “get out of the doors” into the community. That pressure is real and surfaces in business meetings and parking lot conversations. However, I have read through the New Testament and have not been able to locate a passage of Scripture which indicates that self-preservation should be the priority of the body of Christ. There’s also nothing to indicate that a particular local church is supposed to exist forever. Local churches have their functions and if they true to their mission, then the Lord can be trusted to take care of the rest. That’s an interesting and sobering perspective: not every church is supposed to remain viable forever. I won’t say that a church can’t “exist” indefinitely, because some do as long as the money or endowment is there. But, existing as a church is not the same thing as engaging its community with the gospel.

Kingdom business is risky. Despite all the challenges that come with ministry in America, our “first world” problems are not worthy to be compared to the real dangers that churches in other countries face on a regular basis. Martyrdom is a real possibility for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we ought to remember that the next time we’re prone to complain about how many people showed up for an hour on Sunday morning. This numerical basis isn’t always the best way to measure effectiveness in the Kingdom. When Jesus was delivering the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t say “Look at what a big crowd we have today!”

It’s a privilege to be part of the Kingdom. It isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. It’s vital to stay focused and allow Jesus’ admonition to “seek first the Kingdom of God” to take hold of our hearts and minds. Church work can be tiring and discouraging. Ask any pastor, though, and s/he will tell you that baptizing new converts never gets old. It is the one thing that can make all the ‘church business” more bearable. That’s because it’s the one thing for sure that is Kingdom business. And, Kingdom business is more fun that church business any day.

Sabbaticals are Gifts of Grace

Several of my friends in our church have been encouraging me to take a sabbatical.

Fortunately, they are on the personnel committee. And, even better, there is a stipulation in the personnel manual which allows for such an experience for the senior pastor. We don’t have to sell the idea to the church.

I have been postponing the idea of taking a sabbatical, mainly because I have had difficulty getting my mind around the idea of leaving the church for two months. It’s hard enough to leave for a week, not because I don’t enjoy my time off, but as with other jobs, it takes a while to “dig out” of the stuff that accumulates over time. There’s also the possibility of folks dying, getting sick, and other things happening in the church family which might require my attention. There’s also the possibility that some people might not understand their pastor “not being there” during those moments too. The phone can ring anytime, and well, that has the capability of changing my plans in a heartbeat.

I warmed up to the idea of sabbatical after having four funerals in two weeks. Our church is at that age when we are burying some of our long time, faithful members. Churches go through grieving stages as well, especially when they are looking at the prospect of their own mortality and saying farewell to people who have sat beside them in the pews and have had shared life experiences. It’s been a tiring process, and along with everything else that challenges a pastor with administrative tasks and pastoral care, the rationale for a sabbatical is more readily understood.

I believe ministerial burnout is real, and pastors are especially at risk. Some pastors who might not resign have thought it about seriously, and not just the proverbial feeling on a Monday morning. Here is a good article by Peter Chin which explains some of the pressures that come upon a pastor. The title “How to Destroy Your Pastor” is accurate enough for those who have taken it upon themselves to “keep their pastor humble.” While reading Chin’s account of being in the house of an irate church member, I could relate to how tough it can be to be honest with people. Chin was attempting to resolve a problem with a member and wasn’t getting anywhere in that effort. Chin’ reminds pastors and congregations of how things in the church can get toxic when small groups can deteriorate into gripe sessions. I’ve heard about the “gang of two or three” from my Ministering to Ministers friends. It’s a real threat if not handled by others in the congregation.

I’ve used a quote from a book by John Killinger entitled “Seven things they don’t teach you in seminary.” One of the chapters is called “There is a meanness in some people that is simply Incredible.”  It’s hard to explain that to someone who thinks that churches are utopian environments. They are not. But, they can be places for people who understand their own brokenness and sinfulness to gather for the purpose of extending grace to each other.

When a church plans for sabbatical leave for its pastor, that is one of the most gracious things they can do. I am grateful for our congregation for their wisdom and willingness to provide this feature for their pastor. Prolonged stress, conflict, along with the privileges and burdens of leadership can lead someone to say and do things she wouldn’t ordinarily so. And, over a period of time compassion fatigue can set in. It is encouraging to know that there this condition is not unique to this pastor. It is even more encouraging to know that our church recognizes this reality and cares about the spiritual and personal well-being of its pastor. I applaud churches who provide this benefit as a way of encouraging longer tenured ministries.

The other point I would make about sabbaticals is that I believe they can be useful to the congregation as well. Hearing other voices for a period of time can be beneficial. It can provide opportunities for others on staff to step up and be appreciated for their leadership roles in the church. It might offer a season of prayer and renewal for the congregation as they seek the Lord’s direction for themselves and their pastor.

I was glad to hear that the CBF is making such an emphasis at the General Assembly this year. My prayer is that that idea will permeate all of our congregations, and that those who don’t offer sabbaticals will imitate the actions of those who do.

Religious Freedom and Kenyan Christians

These last several weeks we’ve had a lot of news related to religious freedom. Indiana and Arkansas are among the states most recently to sign into law protections for religious freedom. They are attempting to strike a balance between people who have strong opinions about and against LGBT persons while protecting the rights of LGBT persons. The public relations efforts have been remarkable. No one wants to be seen as discriminatory, and one of the arguments now being used in that of religious freedom.

One of the better explanations of the issue came from the Baptist Joint Committee. Here is Brent Walker’s approach to the matter. He argues for better conversation and more consideration when seeking to affirm religious liberty while avoiding discrimination. Ultimately, this comes down to how we treat each other as individuals. I appreciate Walker’s reaction to RFLA and especially these words:

“We need to tone down our hyperbolic rhetoric and understand that our supposed “enemies” are really our neighbors and fellow citizens. For our conservative Christian friends, try loving your LGBT neighbors unconditionally and understand that providing them goods and services in the marketplace is an act of Christian hospitality, not an indication of approval of their nuptial decisions. To our LGBT friends, try extending grace to others who have religiously informed objections to same-sex marriage and not ask them, in their eyes, to participate in your marital ceremony. Give that privilege to businesses who will celebrate your marriage along with you.”

Baptists have always been a champion for religious liberty. This is one of our historic values and we have John Leland and a few others of our Baptist forefathers for that being included in the Constitution.

My emotions have been stirred upon hearing of the tragic deaths in Kenya at Garissa University College. It is located approximately 90 miles from Somalia. Militants charged the gates of the school at killed 157 people. The death toll is still rising. The killings began with a Christian prayer service. The militants went throughout the school, separating Muslims and non-Muslims, and brutally executing the latter group. Essentially, if you were a Christian who happened to be there at that terribly unfortunate time, you would be killed.

I’m getting ready to preach for Easter Sunday. It will be about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how that eternal truth makes a difference for us in the here and now. While it’s a great privilege to bring this good news, it is also a great challenge to present news which transformed the direction of human history. History rotates on the axis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Either you believe it or you don’t. My hope is that our church family will once again be stirred by the news that “Christ is risen” and they will respond “Christ is risen indeed!”

I won’t have to worry about terrorists keeping me from attending worship on Sunday morning. It won’t be in the back of my mind that I might be killed for telling people about Jesus from the pulpit. The same holds true when I talk about the Lord on the street corner, on the campus, or at other places I might go. Living in this country offers a great privilege to worship and express my faith in any number of ways.

Christians have been persecuted and even killed for the faith throughout the centuries. The adage “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” still holds up. Even now I marvel at how Christ can instill boldness and peace in people to the point that they would not deny him even when it meant their deaths. How few times we American Christians are called upon to make that kind of sacrifice?

While recognizing the political and religious issues relating to recent local and national events, I cannot bring them to the same level as those Kenyan students who were killed simply because they were Christians. They were praying, minding their own business, and that turned out to the be last act of service to the Lord they performed. These students were executed because of Jesus. Their act of sacrifice in the midst of what must have been sheer terror should be shared among us who claim the name of Christ.

May God help us to realize how much we’ve been given and to keep things in perspective. Life goes on here in America, and this Easter is a time to embrace the words of the angel at the empty tomb, “He is risen, just as He said!” The resurrection is a validation of everything Jesus did and said while he was living with us. My hope is that more of us Christians would take time to re-discover all the things that Jesus said and find ways to implement them as a way of life.

Schweich’s Suicide another Sad Story

Tom Schweich committed suicide. He was 54 years old.

He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at this home. Schweich had been elected to a second term as state auditor and was positioning himself for the GOP gubernnatorial nomination.

Former U.S. Senator John Danforth and now Episcopal priest performed the eulogy. He had been a friend to Schweich and his death had particular impact upon him. Danforth reflected upon the tragedy, which was related to political and personal attacks upon Schweich as he sought higher office.

Danforth questioned whether Schweich was suited for the rough and tumble nature of politics, indicating that he “was a person easily hurt and quickly offended.”

One example resonated with Danforth, as he referred to an attack ad on Schweich: “As for the radio commercial, making fun of someone’s physical appearance, calling him ‘a little bug,’ there is one word to describe it: ‘bullying.” And there is one word to describe the person behind it: ‘bully.'”

I am fully aware of the toxic nature of our politics. It is routine to hear politicians and political action committees attack opposing candidates and office holders. We’ve become so saturated by it that it’s easy to become numb to its affect. And, in this case, I can sympathize with Danforth’s assertion that temperment should be a consideration when seeking the kind of work Schweich was in. You have to have an extremely “thick skin.” Still, it doesn’t excuse hateful and harmful speech.

Why would someone commit suicide? It’s a haunting question. I don’t understand how a prominent political figure with a wife and children would take his own life. I think it has to do with the fact that none of us can truly know what is going on in a person’s life. I felt similarly when I heard about the death of Robin Williams. I also struggle with it when I hear the cries of parents when their child takes her own life.

Suicide victims, regardless of their age, must have reached a level of hopelessness from which there seemed to be no return. Christians and Non-Christians alike can experience this.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 years, and I can tell you that vitriol and hateful speech can manifest itself in any number of situations, including the church. I’m reminded of John Killinger’s work “Seven things They Don’t Teach You in Seminary.” One chapter is entitled: “There is a Meanness in Some People that is Simply Incredible.”

I am writing this to challenge us to choose our words carefully and be mindful of the devastating impact they can have on others. I also want us to be sensitive to the struggles of others and do our best to encourage them. We may not be able to “fix” their problems, but we can offer them support. And, let’s do our best to make sure our words are consistent with the witness we profess on Sundays.

Suicide isn’t a political issue. Neither is bullying. I have three children in our public school system who are being taught that bullying is wrong and that there should be “zero tolerance” for it. I fully support that. As adults, we ought to model that behavior as well. We can’t expect our children to rise to an example that we ourselves are unwilling to set

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