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Graduation 2016

imageI don’t know where time went! One minute I was holding a newborn daughter and the next minute she was graduating high school. Amazing. Congratulations to my not so little girl Cally and the entire class of 2016!

These graduates are entering a rapidly changing world. Most recently, Prince (the artist formerly known as) died. ISIS remains an ongoing threat and these graduates will be voting in a presidential election for the first time. A much less significant yet more notable development, Kelly Ripa came back to “Kelly and Michael” after a brief hiatus caused by the shocking news of Michael Strahan’s departure. Upon her return she said, “Our long national nightmare is over.” A Nixon parody for sure.

I don’t remember much about my graduation ceremony, but I did finish third in the class. This doesn’t sound as impressive when you consider there were only 16 students involved. I also don’t recall who the commencement speaker happened to be or what was said. This is probably a common occurrence among graduates. However, I did find a notable quote offered by Dr. Seuss at a graduation ceremony: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

I’m proud of Cally and look forward to what is ahead for her. I also care a great deal about this millennial generation and what the church can do to minister to them. Wesley Spears-Newsom wrote about this recently in “6 Essentials for Churches Engaging Millennials.” He indicated that millennials are the largest generation in the United States, and church pews are now filled with those who are 50 and older. We can’t afford to ignore this younger demographic, and as a pastor, I can appreciate how the older generation is lamenting their shrinking population and the changes that are taking place is society.

Churches must also change to remain relevant. While this is a vital topic for our congregations, I won’t be talking about what churches ought to do for millennials on this graduation Sunday. Instead, I will be offering a challenge to our graduates about what they can do as they enter this next phase of their lives. I’ll be using 2 Timothy 3.10-17, as the Apostle Paul is instructing Timothy how he is to live faithfully to the gospel message.

In short, I will be challenging our graduates to remember who they are in relationship to Christ and the church. I will also be praying that they realize what’s truly foundational for their lives so that they might know why they are in the world.

I memorized 2 Timothy 3:16-17 early on. I don’t remember how old I was, but these verses have served me well as I’ve gotten older. However, I have also learned that not everyone interprets the Scripture the same way. I’ve also come to see how people have used the Bible to hurt and cause great harm to others. For this reason (among others), millennials have skepticism about the Bible and the church.

CNN is producing a documentary called “United Shades of America.” It is hosted by a black comedian named W. Kamau Bell who was invited to meet the KKK. It is funny, sad, and disturbing. In one scene, Bell meets the president of the local Klan who is wearing a white robe and hood. The encounter happens on a dark country road outside of Harrison, Arkansas. Bell asks who can be in the Klan. The Klansman responds, “You have to be white, and you have to be a Christian.”

The climax of the show occurred at a cross lighting. The Klansmen gathered around the wood cross and each one was asked, “Do you receive the light of Christ?” Each responded “I receive the light of Christ” and then would walk up and light the cross with a flaming torch. After witnessing this cross burning, Bell said he left that place reminded of the horrifying role the Klan played in terrorizing black people.

The show illustrates the point that people can do hateful things in the name of Christ and the Bible. The challenge for graduates is to realize that these kinds of behaviors do not accurately portray the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. I recall the words from the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message in stating that “the criterion by which we interpret Scripture is Jesus Christ” (even though this was later changed by Southern Baptists, it is still the most accurate depiction of how to view the Bible).

It’s paramount that our graduates have mentors and churches who not only talk about Jesus but also live out his teachings. I have confidence in our graduates and pray that they follow the admonition of Paul given to Timothy so long ago. Many graduates will not enter the ministry as Timothy did, but they are created to make a difference in our world for Christ.

I’ll keep praying for Cally and there might be a few tears at her graduation. But, I’ll look to Dr. Seuss and celebrate “not because it’s over, but because it happened.”  I’m excited for Cally and her fellow graduates, and hope that the church will remain a vital part of their lives. The church needs them, and they need the church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sabbatical

Recently I visited a friend who happens to be a university president. During our conversation, she told me a story about a group of missionaries who were making their way into the jungle to share the gospel. Some local people were hired to be tour guides and assist them on the journey. It was going to be a challenging and potentially dangerous effort, but the missionaries were eager to get to their ultimate destination. On the first day, they got up before dawn, encountered few obstacles, and covered a great distance. The second morning they did the same thing and had the same results. The missionaries were thrilled and went to bed that night thinking they were going to arrive ahead of schedule!

They got up the next day, early and rearing to go. But, the missionaries were surprised to see that their tour guides were not moving and breaking camp in order to proceed on with the trip. Instead, they sat around in the shade and rested. Frustrated, one of the missionaries remarked to the translator, “What’s going on ? This is a waste of valuable time. Why aren’t they getting up and moving on?” The translator looked calmly at the man and answered, “They’re waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

That’s a good description of a sabbatical.

I can’t thank UHBC enough for allowing me this time for rest and renewal. I’m taking the month of April and then the month of June for this purpose. In their wisdom, UHBC included in its personnel manual a sabbatical stipulation for its senior pastor. For a variety of reasons, I had postponed, rescheduled, and delayed taking advantage of this provision. Fortunately, there were a number of concerned friends and leaders who realized that this was important for me to do. I am thankful for what I have experienced thus far.

It means a lot to know there are capable leaders who are taking care of the preaching and teaching in my absence. Our church has a wonderful staff who are supportive of me and each other, and are doing a little bit more than usual to make sure things are taken care of while I’m gone.

When speaking when other ministers who have returned from sabbatical, to a person each one has said in one way or the other, “I didn’t realize how tired I was.” I am beginning to realize this to be true in my own experience.

Pete Scazzero talks about the importance of solitude as a spiritual discipline. He writes, “Elijah understood that silence and listening are the starting points for true, authentic spiritual leadership. Without it we lead from our own mind and ideas. But the only way to listen is to deeply engage the radical spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude – the most challenging and least experienced disciplines in the church today. 
 
Elijah lived in the desert for years – dependent on God alone for food and sustenance without projects or programs. The silence and solitude positioned him to listen and be formed into the leader God desired.  The longer he remained in the silence of the desert, the more free he became to follow God’s direction.

I’ve been going back through the gospels and am amazed at how Jesus dealt with the issue of time management. I do wonder how he would have handled twitter, Facebook, and cell phones though (what would his profile picture look like?). In a variety of situations, Jesus opted to withdraw from people and look to find time for himself, and sometimes his disciples. I find this incredible because he only had three years to do his work, yet Jesus recognized the limitations of humanity and how fatigue weakens the mind and spirit. These references to rest and “withdrawing from the crowd” are meant for all of us, but especially us minister types who feel guilty about not working 24/7.

Not everybody can take a sabbatical, but we can take a Sabbath. For Christians, this relates to Sunday. And, while I realize many people have to work on this day, we all should seek to find a time for reflection and rest. Ironically, Christians are not always the best examples of doing this for the world.

So, I want to thank our church for allowing me some time away and for all those who are stepping up in my absence. This is turning into a time to “allow my soul to catch up with my body.”

 

 

 

 

The Alleluia is Buried

We buried the Alleluia on February 14th. This was kind of strange doing this on Valentine’s Day, but we made it work.

On this first Sunday of Lent, several children came down the center aisle carrying a banner which had one word on it: Alleluia. The went to the chancel area, folded the banner, and placed it on the floor. They then piled rocks on it. It made an awful sound which echoed through the room. Good sound effects, but later caused some older members to tell me they were concerned the marble had been chipped.

It’s quite a spectacle, really. Having those rocks on the platform in front of the Lord’s Supper table. But, this simple symbol reminds us that there was a period of suffering and sacrifice culminating in the death of Jesus. It’s not a very attractive sight. It doesn’t seem to fit up there with all the other beautiful candles, tables, pulpits, and stained glass. But, I guess that’s the entire point.

I didn’t grow up in churches that recognized the Lenten season. At the time, I didn’t know what I was missing. As I got older, however, this commemoration became important to me after I got beyond the “this isn’t Baptist” kind of thinking. I was thankful to be in churches that introduced me to this season.

I’m not sure why the Southern Baptist churches I grew up in didn’t talk about Lent, but I suspect it had to do with the fear of looking too much like a Catholic church. Southern Baptists tended to stay to themselves.

Fortunately, I’m in a spot now that doesn’t worry about that too much. It’s more important to embrace our unity as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ across denominational lines. Christians should come together to worship and remember the One who suffered and died for our sins.

Lent should help us slow down a little bit. I think that’s important. As I said, growing up the main (and only) emphasis was Easter Sunday. There wasn’t a build up or preparation or explanation to why this Sunday was so significant. We avoided talking about death or “from dust you are, and from dust you shall return.” There certainly wasn’t any notice of Ash Wednesday (I do remember hearing criticisms of Mardi Gras and to stay away from what was going on in the Big Easy). Anyway, it seemed like we fast forwarded through all the suffering of Jesus in order to get to the good part–the resurrection. Of course, that is the main and most important thing, but what about death, sorrow, and loss?

Lore Ferguson wrote an article entitled, “When Doubt is More than Just a Season” which appeared in Christianity Today. She writes, “Christian culture has groomed me to believe that as sure as spring, summer, autumn, and winter, my spiritual life operates in seasons. Elation. Joy, Discouragement. Fear. Worship. Obedience. Death.Life. During extended times of doubt, someone is always ready to tell me, ‘This is just a season, wait it out!’ But are they right?”

If for no other reason, we ought to recognize Lent as a season in which we can acknowledge our disappointment and pain. It’s okay to do this. I find it helpful in relating to my own disappointments and attempting to help others who are wrestling with their own kind of pain. It might be uncomfortable, and may be tempting to skip it all to get to Easter Sunday. But, slowing down helps us marinate our difficulties in the context of what Jesus experienced. We can embrace his humanity and be thankful for it as well.

So, we’re going to leave the Alleluia buried. We know what’s coming, but let’s not miss out on some powerful lessons about disappointment and pain. And, let’s be thankful for the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”

 

 

 

 

In God We Trust: 2016 edition

A few days ago I learned that one of my fellow pastor friends agreed to serve on a political committee to get one of his party’s candidates elected president of the United States. My friend is currently serving as a pastor of a local church. I am disappointed that he is taking such a prominent role in influencing people to vote for a certain candidate.

This sort of thing has gotten ministers in trouble before. On more than one occasion candidates have not been completely”vetted.” When unflattering revelations about the candidate are revealed, it makes those pastors who endorse them look foolish. It is even more problematic when pastors espouse biblical values yet endorse those who have a track record of doing the opposite. I believe this confuses the people in the pew who are being challenged to live holy and effective lives for Christ.

It’s also made me more aware that in certain states, the divide between religion and politics has become almost non-existent.

Each one of us has an opinion and can participate in the political process. However, for ministers, there is an inherit danger in aligning oneself with a presidential hopeful. This is even more significant when the candidate has a long track record of character flaws and has made harsh and questionable remarks about people of non-Christian backgrounds. It’s also troubling when the candidate has somehow developed recent proclamations of faith that seemingly coincide with his effort to earn the nomination of a political party.

We’re not electing a pastor of the United States. We’re electing a president of the United States. Still, it baffles me how ministers can choose to jettison their own moral and theological views for the purpose of endorsing political candidates. This is not aimed or limited to Democrats or Republicans.

Some ministers, especially the more visible ones, feel the necessity and cannot resist the fascination in endorsing a candidate and all the publicity that this generates. This practice is dangerous and ministers are setting themselves up to be disappointed. Politicians seek to get people to vote for them, and will frequently say and do anything to accomplish that end.

This realization was demonstrated well in the television show “The West Wing.” In the episode, “In God We Trust,” the Republican candidate Arnold Vinick is having problems with his own political party who expect him to take on religious views to satisfy their concerns. Ironically, this political problem was caused by his Democratic rival who affirmed theistic evolution during a town hall meeting at an elementary school.

When asked by reporters whether he would attend the church of a well-known pastor to gain his support, Vinnick responds:  “I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church.”

Christians need to get involved in the political process to enact positive change in our country. There any number of ways to do this. However, I think our primary task as ministers is to enact Kingdom change in our world. Our people need to know that the most important cause we have is leading people to Christ.

The other thought about this political business is that the church in general is losing influence in the world. It’s disappointing yet not unsurprising to see prominent pastors bless one candidate over the other. I believe this alienates persons in the pew who hold different political views, and it also exaggerates the influence that pastors have in getting people to vote a certain way.

It’s important to learn about the presidential candidates and the issues of our day. But, pastors should be careful about how they utilize their influence. We don’t want to exchange our eternal calling for one that lasts only for a political season.

 

 

 

 

 

A Modest Hope for 2016

lucy baptism

I have two teenagers in the house now. And they both have birthdays in December. Cally is 18, and now Lucy is beginning her ‘ager’ years at 13 (the photo is when I baptized her a few years ago!).Seeing both my daughters as teenagers give me pause to think about what kind of world they are going to inherit. I also am keenly aware that Matt, at 11, is coming along all to quickly as well.

This upcoming year is an election year. This will mark the beginning of a new president taking us into the next four or eight years. But, there’s also other matters to consider.

One of the things I have learned (re-learned) is that the church has a great capacity to enact change without the government’s involvement. There are numerous occasions in which I’d like our politicians to do more and say less. Yet, the same could be true of churches as well.

This past year has been a good one, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I’ve done my share of funerals and seen our church family grieve the absence of loved ones. It’s difficult to absorb the loss of friends who have been part of the church for decades. This ongoing season of death and dying can have an adverse impact on the body of Christ. It leaves pastors and people discouraged as they see fewer people sitting in the pew.

When our church engaged in a 40 day period of prayer earlier this year, I asked God to show me and our people what it was He wanted us to do. That season of intercession has concluded, but there are lessons still being learned after that informative time. I pray that these lessons will translate into hopes for a new year.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is still involved in the world. I hope I can tune in to what He is doing all around me. He is not out of ideas and is still creating new ways to influence the world for Christ. I’ve been surprised at the ways that our church has been able to make a positive impact on persons in our community. I would never have imagined that we could get involved in payday loan debt relief and provide a model for other churches in how this could be done. I am so grateful to the credit union across the street from our building for their willingness to work with us on this issue. This is one example of how the church can do more and say less when it comes to improving the lives of the poor and oppressed around us.

I’ve also been thrilled to see the Holy Spirit convict individuals about their need for Christ. It has been rewarding to baptize men and women into the fellowship of believers. There’s nothing more powerful than when an adult comes to Christ. The gospel still makes a difference, and I am thankful to be a small part of that process of transformation.

Second, I am learning to “bloom where I’m planted.” I hope I can focus on doing my best and let the Lord handle the rest. I enjoy cultivating friendships over a period of years, yet know anxiety is just around the corner. Our church, like many others, is an intergenerational community that is continually adjusting to changes brought about by aging and death. This can create a sadness for long time members. However, it’s also exciting to see younger individuals and families find a home among us. We’ll continue to show hospitality and look for creative ways to share Christ.

Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to persons who have been in the church a very long time how the world has changed. This has an impact on the place of the church in the lives of boomers and millennials. Rachel Held Evans described the new normal in this way: “As nearly every denomination in the United States is facing declining membership and waning influence, Christians may need to get used to the idea of measuring our significance by something other than money, fame or power.” I agree with her sentiment. Our effectiveness as the church isn’t always about how many people show up for an hour or two on Sunday. We have to discover more accurate metrics to describe whether or not the church is effective in its work in a 21st century culture.

Finally, I hope I can find balance and stay healthy. I want to keep things in perspective and keep my priorities straight. I may never be the pastor of the largest church, but I can make a difference in the lives of those around me, beginning with those in my own house. This will mean showing concern for others while realizing I can’t fix all the problems that are brought to my attention.

Pete Scazzero stresses the importance of living your own life and not someone else’s. He puts it a better way: “To quit living someone else’s life requires not trying to run other ­people’s lives. It means not overfunctioning – doing for others what they can and should do for themselves. Controlling the lives of others takes time and energy; it also takes the focus off God’s call for your own life.”

That’s great advice. I hope I can implement that, because it’s not easy to be self-differentiated person. It’s difficult to distinguish between success and faithfulness, and knowing when to let go and allow the Holy Spirit to take care of things. So much of who we are can be tethered to what we do, while this is often reality, it is not always healthy.

Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the Hope of the world. Our value is found in Him. I hope I can be an authentic witness and be part of a church that shares that desire as well. There’s never been a more important time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Surprise of Christmas

Christmas is about surprises.

Of course, I like the kind of surprises  that end of up being good for me. Usually that means it helps my situation become more enjoyable. Some surprises don’t end that way.

When doing my taxes last year, I counted all three of my children as exemptions. I do this every year. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out my taxes, but several months afterward I received a letter from the IRS saying I owed them $1000! Needless to say, this was not the surprise I was hoping for but owing that exact amount sounded odd to me. Upon reading the letter, I discovered that my oldest daughter could no longer be counted on my taxes in that way. She had her 17th birthday during the year.

Like any good father, I rebuked her for getting older and costing me $1000.

There are, on the other hand, surprises that can change a person’s life and renew her faith in humankind. This happened to Helen Johnson, a woman living in a small Alabama town who made a mistake in a tough situation.

Helen and her family had gone without food for two days, and she went to the Dollar General store with $1.25 to buy a carton of eggs. Upon getting to the store, she realized that wasn’t enough to purchase the eggs. Helen made $120 disability for herself, two daughters, niece and two grandchildren. In desperation she stuffed five eggs in her pocket. As she walked out, she was stopped by an associate of the store who called the police. Helen admitted stealing the eggs to the police officer, who told her to remain by the door. Helen waited for handcuffs, but but instead the officer came out with a carton of eggs.

In addition to this kind act, the officer took her to police headquarters and signed her up for the Toy Drive for her children. He later took her two loads of groceries and got her help from a nearby church as well.

Upon receiving these tremendous acts of kindness and seeing her pantry full, Helen broke down in tears. She said, “The last time I saw my house this full, I was 12 years old and staying with grandmother.”

Surprises can be a good thing.

I can’t imagine anyone expecting the Son of God to arrive on earth like he did over two thousand years ago.  Read the gospel accounts, especially those of Matthew and Luke. God chose unassuming, regular people to be responsible for bringing God incarnate into the world.  There didn’t appear to be anything special about Mary and Joseph. There wasn’t anything especially beautiful about the place where Jesus was born. It wasn’t a prestigious audience that first heard the birth announcement about Jesus’ arrival. The whole situation seemed unlikely and undeserving for the Son of God.

The words of angel must have surprised those first hearers: “This will be a sign unto you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes, and lying in a manger” (Luke 2.12 NIV). Shepherds. What an undignified, undervalued congregation!

I enjoy Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of the nativity scene: The hole in the heavens had closed up and the only music came from the bar at the inn. One of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of competing with sheep for a place to sleep (Home By Another Way, 23).

There had to be at least some humor in that situation.

There isn’t any record of that exchange taking place, but I have to think that Mary and Joseph were overwhelmed by the journey and the circumstances. It was surpassed only by the distance God went to arrive in fragile, human form on a planet in desperate need of hope and a surprise that would make a difference.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 plus years now, and believe that churches need to surprised on occasion as well. That’s what the Holy Spirit is good at doing, and that is evident on several occasions in the birth narratives. This is also reinforced by the adult Jesus when talking to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).

We can’t program the work of the Holy Spirit. Like many pastors, I have read and told the birth narrative countless times. It’s easy to allow the words to become repetitious and for our heart to become callous to its meaning.

My prayer for myself first and for all of us this Christmas is that something will take us off guard, maybe even surprise us a little bit, as we get closer to the little town of Bethlehem once again.  I am hopeful that the sign first seen by the shepherds would create wonder in our hearts once again.

May we allow the Holy Spirit to move among us and remind us that God knows who we are and that there is a purpose in all things. And for this reason, we ought not be afraid.

 

 

 

 

The Good Neighbor Test

Being a good neighbor is becoming more difficult, but has never been more important.

These last few weeks have been unbelievable. We have all been watching the horrific images coming out of France relating to the events of a week ago. Now I am seeing images of a Mali hotel in which at least 21 people were killed by attackers.

It seems like every time I turn on the television there is “breaking news” and it usually not very good. All of these images are elevating the already high anxiety of our world, and closer to home, those of us in the United States.

Living here in the Show Me State, I am sensitive to what has been happening at Mizzou. A university president and chancellor resigned over the demands of an on campus student organization and one student went on a hunger strike. I’ve also read about students here in Springfield at Missouri State who have their own list of “demands.” They are claiming racial discrimination and insist upon a more inclusive environment.

If that wasn’t intriguing enough, I am hearing presidential candidates weigh in on the Syrian refugee crisis. Many of them oppose offering any assistance, with the exception of one Republican candidate who says we should help “Christian refugees.” When asked how can you distinguish the Christian refugees, he replied, “I think you can prove it.”

Perhaps most troubling to me personally has been the ongoing rhetoric of former Southern Baptist minister and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. In responding to a question of receiving Syrian refugees, he responded, “It’s time for us to wake up and smell the Falafel.”

There has never been a more important time to respond to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan has radical implications for us who claim to follow him and his teachings. Those who are familiar with this story realize that Jesus allowed a Samaritan to become the hero of the story. It involved helping a stranger who had been beaten and left on the roadside to die. Two religious leaders came by that scene and passed “on the other side of the road” to avoid seeing the need. I can only imagine the shock and angst among those Jewish listeners when revealed the Samaritan as one who acted with compassion.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus didn’t provide an answer, but brilliantly led the initial questioner, a religious leader, to offer an answer to his own question: “The one who had mercy on him.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” And Jesus responded, “Go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10).

I get the fact that we need to enforce our laws and ensure our security as a nation.  I am a father with three children and am concerned about the world they are going to live in. I am also concerned about how the church as a whole is going to respond to these challenges and dangers. In short, I believe that a culture of fear is infiltrating the body of Christ and making it difficult to distinguish the behaviors of the world and the church. It’s ironic that such hateful words and actions are coming from those who would also argue vehemently that this nation is “Christian.”

The church needs to find its voice during these turbulent times. We ought not jettison biblical teachings when faced with the politics of the moment. The words of Jesus continue to challenge us:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me. (Matthew 25:37-41)

I sympathize with the presidential candidate who thought the Syrian refugees should be able to “prove” they are Christians. My concern is whether we can do that as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Payday Loans and the need for Just Lending

It’s a start. I was pleased to hear that the Springfield City Council has agreed to place the Payday Loans issue on their legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

There is agreement among faith leaders in our community that payday loans exploit at risk families who are at or below the poverty level. It is encouraging to me that this kind of support has been found among Baptists as well. I never thought I would see the day when the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship could agree on an issue and work together.

I recently attended a gathering of Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri, an organization that desires to bring human dignity to the center of public life. Our lunch meeting focused on the question “What Can Springfield Do About Predatory Lending in our City?” We listened to a cross section of political and religious leaders, a panel discussion, and also the personal stories of two individuals whose lives have been affected by payday loans. One woman in particular lamented the need for a payday loan of $200 in order to travel to St. Louis for a medical procedure. She is unable to repay this amount because she can’t even keep up with the interest rate. It has created an embarrassing and shameful predicament for her and her family.

These kinds of stories need to be heard. It is not easy to talk about one’s personal and financial troubles in front of a crowd. But, the willingness to share the stress and anxiety created by payday loans is vital to moving faith groups and politicians to act.

I wasn’t tuned in to the ongoing damage that payday loan companies caused until I started listening to the stories. The number of families impacted is staggering. More than 20,000 payday and car title loan stores operate in our country. Many of these lenders can offer loans at 300% APR and higher because they are not regulated in the same manner as banks and credit unions.

The most remarkable discovery I made relates to the intent of payday loan companies. Their loans are predatory in nature and are extended to those who are most vulnerable and unable to pay. Payday loan companies provide money not on the borrower’s ability to pay, but rather on the loan company’s ability to collect. These companies charge astronomical rates of interest for their loans, often keeping borrowers in a perpetual cycle of crushing debt.

Our church has begun a process of education and information about payday loans. Part of this process has been working with Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri to discern what is happening on a personal and community level to those who are being affected by this practice. We are looking into ways to offer solutions in partnership with lending agencies like credit unions. It is important to offer personal, spiritual, and financial assistance to persons who need to escape the trap of payday loans. I am hopeful that with the council’s support and involvement, our community can respond in a productive manner.

In thinking of our own church’s efforts, I began to realize that more churches like ours could get involved in this important social issue. Many people are suffering under the weight of predatory loans. I have been hopeful that more pastors and congregations could come together and agree that something should be done about this immoral practice. It is easy enough to find controversial issues which can divide us as a faith community. It is time to unite and find common ground in helping those who are the most in need.

There are numerous examples in the Bible about treating the poor with respect. There are admonitions to help those who are weak and helpless, and to fight for justice for the oppressed. I’m hopeful that we are seeing this take place on this issue, but there is much work to be done.

My challenge for fellow pastors is to get educated on payday loans. Find out who is most affected by the debt trap that is set by payday loan companies. Join me in looking for ways to change existing laws to require regulation so that reasonable interest rates are charged. This should based on an ability to repay within the original loan period, mindful of the borrower’s income and expenses.

On a positive note, I was encouraged to learn that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is preparing to issue new rules regarding payday lending practices in the upcoming year. Let’s work together to make these regulations as strong as possible so that these immoral business practices will no longer take advantage of the poor and least among us.

Neville Callam comes to UHBC

callam.1On Sunday, November 1st, our church celebrates its annual Baptist Heritage Day. UHBC appreciates its unique position as “free and faithful Baptists” situated here in the Ozarks. We are the only American Baptist and/or Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation in southwest Missouri. We also maintain a partnership with Greene County Baptist Association, the local grouping of Southern Baptist Churches.

Each year, we invite one of our Baptist leaders to help us acknowledge this important time in our church’s life. This year we are grateful to have Dr. Neville Callam with us. He is the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). Callam has served in a variety of ways in church life, including pastor, administrator, educator and media manager, theologian, and ecumenist. He was ordained to the Christian ministry by the Jamaica Baptist Union in 1977, and has taught in the United Theological College of the West Indies and the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Callam also served for 13 years as a member of the Standing Commision on Faith and Order in the World Council of Churches.

Callam has authored or edited seven books, the most recent being “Pursuing Unity and Defending Rights: The Baptist World Alliance at Work.” He has made presentations at symposia, seminars, worships and services of worship in more than 70 countries.

He and his wife Dulcie Allison have been married for more than 30 years, and are proud parents of two adult children, Deidre and Gairy. The Callams are also happy grandparents of two girls, Krista and Kari.

While having lunch with a preacher friend of mine, I was reminded of the diversity and differences among Baptist churches and entities. I’m fortunate to be friends with several Southern Baptist ministers in this area (I am not certain they would admit that in their circles, however). We can enjoy being together without having to agree on all aspects of polity and theology. Baptists have done of good job of being a schismatic people on a variety of issues. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention defunded the Baptist World Alliance years ago. Still, it remains a vibrant and active organization which includes many races, cultures, and diverse locations. It is truly a global community of Baptists.

For this reason and others, our church is grateful to maintain our support of the BWA. We’re excited about having Neville with us, and are looking forward to that time of renewal and reminder of our commonality as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with those in different places around the world.

The Circle Maker Comes to UHBC

pastorappreciation.1Our church is beginning the 40 day prayer challenge “Draw the Circle” by Mark Batterson. We start on Sunday, October 4th and I have done what I can to encourage our people to secure the book and participate.

This season of prayer comes at an opportune time for me. Several months ago, I was making preparations to go on sabbatical and would have been gone this Fall. The church, in its wisdom, included a sabbatical provision for its senior pastor in the personnel manual. I am actually two years beyond the time to go, so I’m overdue. And, I’m feeling it, too. I’ve been serving as a pastor for more than 20 years now, and here at UHBC for over eight of those. I’m grateful to have people encouraging me to do this, but it’s been hard to disconnect with all the challenges we’ve been going through. My hope is to move on this in the Spring, around the time that Cally graduates high school.

It’s also an appropriate time for the church. We’ve been experiencing a numerical decline for several decades, yet this reality is becoming more acute with the aging out of so many people. I’ve performed well over 100 funerals since I’ve been here, and see about half that many more get to a point where they can’t get out any more. I’ve observed a bit of grieving process taking place, as our members look at pews and places where their friends once were. Now, they have been ushered into the presence of the Lord to receive their reward.

This transitional phase is being felt by congregations and denominations all across our country. Bill Wilson alluded to this reality is his recent article entitled “The Beginning of the End for Baptist Entities?” It’s noteworthy that he put a question mark on the end of that statement, but it could very well have been a period or exclamation point. Wilson adds that thousands of churches close their doors each year.

Traditional churches like UHBC go through transitions too. It’s tough to bury so many devoted members. I’m reminded of the George Jones song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” whenever I have another death to prepare for. On the other hand, churches are receiving younger, newer members who don’t know the traditions and sacred cows of the church. It’s refreshing to hear the questions about why things are done a certain way. I can also appreciate the nervousness of remaining older members who wonder out loud “how can we get more young people?”

Jared Wilson has helped me with this question quite a bit. In his book, “The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo,” he warns his readers that “if we treat people like consumers, they will act like them.” In other words, we can’t simply try to find out what will get people in the doors of the building, because what attracts them now might bore them later on. The latest and greatest events may bring people in temporarily, but they don’t provide lasting value. Wilson contends that getting more people in the building isn’t necessarily building up the church itself.

For me, I want to use the 40 days to “draw a circle” around who it is that God wants me to be as a person, husband, father, and pastor. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that God might have something entirely different in mind when it comes to his church.

I’m preaching from Acts 10 this Sunday, using the story of Cornelius. This is one of the most important passages in the New Testament, signifying that Gentiles were included in God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Cornelius had three character traits that I want our people to model: he prayed regularly, he cared about his community, and he was open to the leadership of the Lord. God orchestrated a “divine appointment” between him and Peter which transcended geographical, racial, and religious barriers. I’m hoping for barrier breaking to take place here as well.

It also has occurred to me that October is pastor and staff appreciation month. It’s a great privilege to lead a church, and also can be a great burden. I keep reminding myself that this church belongs to the Lord, and my prayer is that these 40 days will reinforce my need for Him and our church’s desire to seek His direction.

Even if you’re not part of our church family, I invite you to pray with us. I’m expecting great things and asking the Lord to center us as a people into seeking the Kingdom of God rather than our own Kingdom.

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