Giving Up Cynicism for Lent

The 40 day period of preparation leading up to Easter is upon us. The Lenten season is intended for us followers of Christ to slow down for introspection and reflection upon our sinfulness. It is a time when we “bury the Alleluia” until Easter Sunday morning.

One of the things that usually occurs around this time of year is that people say they want to “give up something for Lent.” It’s an effort to deprive oneself of something as a means to test one’s discipline to live life without it. Giving up sugar, chocolate, and Diet Coke are among the items that are sacrificed.

To be honest, I didn’t make an official decision about what to give up. However, I’m leaning toward giving up cynicism for Lent. However, it was a close call. I thought about embracing cynicism for Lent.

It’s far too easy to become cynical in our country these days. We look at our politics and wonder “what in the world is going on!?” It’s hard to find a voice of sanity among the people in Washington. You can find any number of talking heads to contribute to your cynicism and personal political persuasion by tuning in to your favorite cable news channel. Hope is short supply, and fear is growing like Kudzu.

Politics isn’t the only thing to be cynical about; religion offers it’s share of opportunities. I’m not Southern Baptist anymore, but even I am concerned about what might happen to Russell Moore who heads the ERLC. He has the audacity to speak truth to power, and is criticized for having views that are not sympathetic with the majority of the denomination. It’s disturbing.

A week ago I attended a lecture by Ben Simmons at Missouri State. He was the keynote speaker for Black History Month for the campus. The lecture was entitled, “Race, Law Enforcement, and Faith Based Racism” This son of a Baptist preacher lamented that “the white American church has never repented of slavery and racism.” He also noted that during the early 1900s that lynchings took place on Sunday mornings, sometimes before worship was to occur. He said it was hard to imagine hanging a black man and then going into a church building to sing about and hear about Jesus. The church had divorced its theology from social concerns.

I came away from that lecture hall filled with students of all races and backgrounds thinking about the disconnect between what the church says it believes and how it implements those beliefs. That’s a big reason there is so much cynicism directed toward the church.

Lent gives us pause to reflect on such things. It should create a hunger in each one of us for a deeper understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. One of the ways we can start is by remembering his words, “More blessings come from giving than receiving” (Acts 20.35 CEV).

We all have our reasons to be cynical, and no I’m not talking about a healthy skepticism that doesn’t believe anything and everything you hear. I am, to a certain degree, talking about how we can diminish this narrative of “fake news” and come to know what the truth is when we are confronted by it. I do want to be part of a people who “walks in the truth” so the world will know there’s an alternative, more positive approach to life (3 John 4).

And, to be sure, I’m not talking about giving up humor for Lent. That’s the only thing that can get me through this malaise I see and read about on an almost daily basis. But, I do want to be more mindful of how my own words and actions can hinder or help those around me. I want to be more discerning about how the political and religious landscape is polluting my own spiritual development.

The gospel is still about faith, hope, and love. Let’s use these next few weeks to slow down, embrace these qualities, and allow them to make a difference in how we treat others. May God help the church to be the antidote for an overdose in cynicism this Lenten season. We can start by practicing gratitude. It’s pretty much impossible to be grateful and cynical at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cost of Unity

It’s Groundhog’s Day! But, I’ve been seeing a different kind of shadow. And I don’t know how many more weeks of bad weather are heading our way.

Division has become more than a word in our vocabulary. It’s become a way of life, and making it increasingly difficult to keep people together literally and spiritually in the local church.

I serve as pastor of what I would consider a politically and socially diverse people. We usually behave ourselves around each other when it’s election time. It’s often a good idea not to talk about certain topics in our society: religion and politics come to mind. But, how do you avoid those particular topics in the church? The short answer is: you can’t.

When people ask me what it’s like to be a pastor these days, my usual response is “it’s not boring.” That’s about the most truthful and accurate answer that I have. Being in a local church has always offered it’s share of challenges, but in our national climate, there is a greater sense of urgency and fear relating to our future. I find myself walking an unusually narrow divide among individuals who find biblical evidence to support whatever social or political opinion they happen to hold. This is nothing new. However, in an age where “fake news” is part of our national dialogue, I want to carve out a space where people of all races, opinions, and political persuasions can find common ground.

It isn’t easy, and it never has been.

Tom Brokaw celebrated his 50th anniversary as a news correspondent for NBC News. He reflected upon decades of history making events as he conducted interviews and was interviewed. When asked if he could recall a time when our country was as divided (or more divided) than today, he responded “1968.” This was a year when the nation was in turmoil over the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The country was divided over the Vietnam war, and the uncertainty and drama of that time made it appear the nation was coming apart at the seams.

Brokaw’s critique of that turbulent time period offered me hope. It made me realize that this country has been through and survived tremendous stress and obstacles. It also prompted me to take a longer view of things and to do my best to not view things as “the end of the world.” The church has been going through hard times and persecution for centuries, and we ought not act like we are entitled to an easy go of things. The political and societal divides that separate us can also provide opportunities for the church to bridge them. We do, however, need to mindful that divisions can find their way into the church if we aren’t careful.

The Apostle Paul admonished the church at Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4.3). He offered several virtues which would be necessary to carry this challenge out: humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, all of these rooted in love. He continued to list seven “ones” which reflected the tremendous unity that is ours as the body of Christ, including but not limited to the fact that we are one body and have one Lord.

As I spent more time reflecting on Paul’s words, it occurred to me that unity of the Spirit requires effort. It requires “every” effort, which is a continual process of exerting our spiritual energies toward “keeping the main thing the main thing.” Unity in the church was a challenge in the 1st century; it’s a challenge in the 21st century.

I marvel at the opinions of fellow believers. One moment I’m talking to someone who is scared to death about what is happening in the White House. Another moment I’m hearing someone talk about how excited he is about the political changes in the works. How in the world am I going to keep all these folks together? The range of social and political perspectives represented in the pews these days creates a monumental challenge, unless of course you are in a church with a homogenized view of politics.

That hasn’t been my story, and I’m really glad. I’ve been working hard to provide space for persons with differences, even when I am disturbed by what I hear and read from people who call themselves Christians. It grieves me to see and hear about conflict over what is happening in the political or social arenas. But, it also encourages me to see and hear people raise their voices to protest injustice.

This is an important season for the church. We must remember that the criterion for being part of the body of Christ is affirming “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Being part of a church isn’t always easy. Christians have been persecuted for their faith for years, and dissent has been part of my Baptist heritage for centuries. There are times when the church facing opposition may actually be a blessing. At no point do I read anything in Scripture about how Christians should be comfortable with their culture. Maybe the church is finding its voice once again. Hopefully, we are realizing the theological differences that have separated Christians in the past are far less important than what unites us. We don’t have to divide over our disagreements. We can learn from one another and as Paul said”put up with one another” by putting those radical Christian virtues to use.

I’ll be using the passage on a Sunday when we celebrate the Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Some people call this communion. We will eat the bread and drink the cup as a church, doing this to remember that brings us together is far more important than what can tear us part. It’s an amazing thing to sit around this table with people who share such diverse views on just about everything. Yet, there is room for each one of them. And for me.

Unity is costly. It cost Jesus his life, and it put Paul in prison. I wonder what cost the church is willing to pay to promote and preserve our common faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ. Whatever happens, it’s not going to be boring. Thanks be to God!

The Apostle Paul and Donald Trump

On January 20th, we witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Interestingly, the MSU Chorale made the trip and was part of the weekend of events.
Last Wednesday night, I led our church in prayer for the man with the twitchy Twitter finger. The Apostle Paul encouraged the church to pray “for kings and those in authority” (I TM 2.2). He made this instruction while the church was going through extreme persecution during the time of Nero. Christians were being tortured and killed for their beliefs. Asking the church to pray for the person responsible for these horrific acts is about as audacious as you can be.
The admonition to pray is non-partisan and non-preferential. It is not dependent on the political party, ideals, or positions of the person who is holding office. Nor does it imply or require agreement with the office holder’s political views. It is not an endorsement of the one holding office.
The biblical response for the church in a time like this is to pray for those in authority–in this case it is Donald Trump.
I’ve been here long enough to know that our church is a tapestry of different theological and political threads. Pull too strongly on one thread, and it endangers the fabric of the entire fellowship. Our church, perhaps like many others, is navigating through a certain degree of shock and acceptance of reality, depending one’s political views. Even though this can be a difficult reality, it is one for whom I am extremely grateful.
Last Sunday, I preached from the prophet Amos and on the phrase “let justice roll on like a might stream.” I stressed the importance of education and engagement as followers of Christ related to the societal challenges and opportunities we face. Afterwards, as I usually do, I stood in the Narthex to greet people on the way out. One person said, “Thanks for that Danny. We really needed to hear that. I am SO worried about our nation’s future.” Then, a few persons later I heard, “Thanks for that message Danny. We really needed that. I am so excited about our nation’s future.”
It’s not always easy to maintain such a fellowship. There are tensions and differences of opinion. But, we are held together by a common creed “Jesus Christ is Lord” and a mutual love and respect for each other.
There aren’t too many Baptist churches like ours around the Ozarks (I think we’re the only one). We don’t ask for voter registration or your political persuasions. What we endeavor to do is “check our egos at the door” and realize the Kingdom of God is a far greater and more lasting kingdom than this one.
Let’s pray for Donald Trump as well as Mike Pence. It’s important and perhaps the most audacious thing we can do.

2017: Providence and Perseverance

Henri Nouwen talked about how difficult it was to wait, as most people think waiting is a waste of time. He related waiting to a desert between where we are and where we want to be. And no one wants to be in a desert.

It’s been a tumultuous year, to be sure. The election, political divide, and international drama has caused enough angst to make us lose our dignity and civility.

It’s a tough deal to be a pastor these days. I’m working with people who have a wide variety of social and political views, and want to celebrate and complain about the way things are to whomever might want to listen. The Facebook landscape is a perfect breeding ground for these ideals (and the lack thereof). I’ve learned to filter out views that are too incompatible with my own. It’s not because they are different, because I think contrasting opinions can be an opportunity for growth and personal development. It’s just that there is enough hatred in the world that I can’t control, so when I can limit my vitriol intake I want to take advantage of it.

So, here I am about to enter the new year and I’m wondering what’s ahead. I’ve become more cautious about attributing every action or result to the will of God. Much of what is next is directly related to our attitude and actions.

I’ve appreciated the article by theologian Frank Tupper, as he talks about the distinction between God’s sovereignty and God’s being in control. It is too simplistic to say that everything that happens is “God’s will.” Yes, there are examples from Scripture to affirm what I would call “the providence of God.”   We don’t always understand what is going on around us at the time, nor how certain events can be woven into the overall tapestry of life. I embrace the paradox of human freewill and God’s sovereignty, even though this tension is difficult to rationalize. It is biblical, but this approach is not logical. Still, we cannot explain away our own behavior with a fatalist approach to the future.

Whenever I struggle with current events, I return to the story of Joseph. Even after being sold into slavery and experiencing prison, God was still involved as evidenced in the phrase “the Lord was with Joseph.” When he confronted his brothers, who were afraid for their lives, Joseph responded with an understanding of a deeper purpose: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50.20 NIV).

It’s easy to hurriedly flip through the stories of the Bible and quickly see how they ended. Yet, the persons involved in these accounts were very much living day to day, without knowing how things would turn out for them. It was only with the benefit of time, experience, and perseverance that God’s people could look back and realize God’s involvement in them.

Looking back on 2016, I have come to believe that many of us Christians have forgotten what our task is supposed to be. We rely too much on the government to normalize and nationalize Christianity, rather than realize that work belongs to the church. Rather than lament political and social ills, perhaps we should take a cue from our spiritual predecessors and persevere. The apostle Paul (from prison), wrote to a fledgling group of Jesus followers:  “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.14-15). 

There are many things about 2016 I’d like to forget. It was a rough year in so many ways, yet those experiences can make us more sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit. The challenges and disappointments we have gone through can make us stronger as the people of God. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens will be enjoyable. But, if we can adopt an eternal perspective, it will help us identify with the people of God through the centuries who have struggled and suffered. And our first world problems don’t compare in any way to people who are going hungry, being persecuted, and dying for the cause of Christ.

We’ve been blessed with many freedoms in this country, and while I am very much thankful for them, believe that they can lead to a sense of entitlement for the church. My hope for the church in 2017 is that we will move forward with a sense of confidence in Christ and persevere through what is yet ahead. This can be our finest hour. In order for this to occur, we must pray for “thy Kingdom come” while at the same time realizing “my Kingdom goes.”

For these next few days leading into 2017, I am going to hang out “in the desert.” I don’t want to launch out into another year without getting spiritually centered and remembering what it means to have “the mind of Christ.”

For sure, there are many lessons that I still need to learn about what it means to be a follower of Christ. I suspect there are others who will be with me in that desert for a while, waiting and listening for the Spirit to lead us forward.

We’ve finished an Advent season in which we celebrate Emmanuel “God is with us.” Let that be an affirmation for our faith moving forward. May we live each moment, trusting in God’s providence while we persevere as the people of God.

The Other Side of Christmas

Gatlinburg, TN is one of the most beautiful places in the country. It is a popular destination for vacations, weddings, honeymoons, and hiking. My family, like many others, have enjoyed the hospitality and scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains.
This area, sadly, has become consumed with far too much fire and smoke these last several days. The images of people losing their homes and livelihood are painful, and knowing this is the holiday season makes the situation even more difficult. Perhaps the most horrible aspect of this tragedy is finding out that someone started this on purpose.
This Sunday, I’ll be dealing with a seldom used passage related to the “Slaughtering of the Innocents.” It’s about Herod, a powerful and paranoid King, ordering the execution of all the baby boys two years old and younger. In his rage, he thought that at least one of them could be the messiah the Magi went to see.
While it’s been called “the most wonderful time of the year,” Christmas can also generate a variety of emotions. There are those who struggle with stress and sadness, relating to death, loss, and grief. It’s important to note this as we relate to each other.
Jesus came into a world filled with pain, violence, and despair. It was a time of political unrest. And, his own arrival caused great collateral damage in the form of death and grief from families who fell victim to Herod’s rage.
It’s easy to get caught up in our own issues, and fail to realize our connection with the rest of the world.
One of the events I look forward to each Advent season is the Parade of Flags. It signifies the beginning of Global Missions month at our church. The flags represent people of all races, nationalities, and customs. This activity serves as a great reminder that we are a small part of the human tapestry.
The best known verse illustrates God’s attitude toward us: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). This verse, along with the Great Commission and Great Commandments, serve as the foundation for our missions endeavors.
Our Global Missions Offering will be divided between CBF and ABC missions causes. I hope you will join me in being part of giving to this Kingdom cause.
Sunday’s coming! Shane and Diane McNary will be our special guests in morning worship. They will speak to us about their work at the Missions banquet at 4 pm. Several of you have had a part in getting ready for this, and others will take part in the program. Thank you in advance for all your good work.
Finally, I wanted to thank Bob Perry for handling the preaching duties last Sunday. It means a great deal to call upon him and others so I can visit with family around the holidays. It’s good to be back in the Ozarks, and I look forward to seeing you all Sunday!

The Death of Gratitude

In the movie “Finding Neverland” Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a struggling writer who was inspired through a friendship with the Davies family to write a play called Peter Pan. It’s a story of an eccentric boy who never grows up and lives in a place, of course, called Neverland.

As opening night approaches, the theater owner voices his worry that an adult audience won’t appreciate the play and it will be a failure. In response, Barrie invites 25 orphans to the play.

It’s quite a contrast. The adults are dressed up in handsome tuxedos and beautiful dresses, seemingly unimpressed with the appearance of the theatre. The children enter and are immediately enthralled with the beauty of room, and laughter fills the room as the children enjoy what they see. The adults are caught up with the joy of the moment and follow the lead of the orphans. It becomes a magical experience for everyone in attendance.

Our church recently completed it’s participation in Operation Christmas Child. It’s collection week, and we made sure to pack up and send 100 boxes to a neighboring church who is serving as a collection site. This number is a personal best for our church, and it’s rewarding to watch our people engaged in an effort to improve the lives of boys and girls living in poverty.

I’ve been amazed at what goes in those boxes. Just little things for the most part. Dolls, and small toys. Gloves and socks. Even those plastic toys that come in kids’s meals at fastfood places are put in there. These “dollar store” items wouldn’t be missed by people in “first world countries” but they are precious to children who are desperate for any kind of gift. Their faces light up in gratitude for things that we would easily cast aside.

It’s Thanksgiving. I am wondering how our nation is going to celebrate the holidays–if at all. I’ve heard from several people who wonder aloud how they are going to be with family members who voted the opposite way from them in the presidential election. It’s apparent to me that the divisions and wounds are not healed, and we are a long way from any since of normalcy.

We’re quite good at acknowledging our own problems. These come front and center in our thinking. But, it’s harder to recognize that others who have a different worldview and opinion also struggle. Perhaps it would be useful the adage, “Let us remember to be kind to one another. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

The battle right now seems to be getting in the mood for Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I’ll take the days off and make the trip to visit family. We’ll gather around the table and enjoy a meal together, and I will offer a prayer for thanks for the people with me. Yet, I am concerned for us a faith community when it comes to realizing how much we have to be thankful for.

I’ve done a lot of funerals in my life; now I’m wondering if it’s time to do one for Gratitude. Can we recover the lost art of being thankful?

In Luke 17, Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. This is a journey to the cross. On the way, he is shouted to by ten lepers who cry out to be healed. They cannot get close to Jesus, they are social outcasts and make their living begging alongside busy highways and roads. Jesus does something that most of us would never do: he sees them and says something to them. Jesus responds, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Amazingly, they do it. The priests are the ones who would pronounce them clean and ready to enter society.

I’ve read this passage a few times, and I marvel at this exchange. There are no special words. Nothing dramatic. No “Be healed!” from Jesus. Simply a command to go, and they do and as they go they are healed.

That would be a great ending to the story, except it isn’t. One of them returns–a Samaritan. An important detail. A man who had two strikes against him with the leprosy and his heritage; now he still has the one. He falls to his feet in gratitude before Jesus who looks around and asks, “Where are the other nine?” Then he offers a personal message to the Samaritan, “rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”

Not only is the Samaritan physically healed. He is also spiritually healed. Salvation has come to his lonely house.

There is one characteristic about this Samaritan that sticks out to me: he has a BIG mouth. He is loud while voicing his problem to Jesus. And, he is loud voicing his praise to Jesus.

This Thanksgiving, it would be good if we could find a way to be as vocal with our gratitude to God as we are griping to God about our problems. I wonder who else we might find at the feet of Jesus.

There is a condition worse than leprosy; it’s called ingratitude. And, it’s contagious. May God help us remember the leper in each one of us who needed healing and acceptance.Gratitude is the path to grace.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

A Modest Proposal for November 8th

It’s finally here. . . we are in the final few days of the ad blitzes. The news channels let us hear what the candidates are saying 24/7. Then, the talking heads tell us what we just heard.

It’s a strange season. And on top of that the Indians and Cubs are in the World Series. At the same time. We can be thankful for a short period of time for the distraction.

Here in this bell-weather, “show me state” of Missouri, airways have been saturated with enough attacks on our presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates to last a (political) lifetime. Even after living here for almost a decade, I am still having a difficult time getting used to all these commercials. I don’t recall getting this much media attention while living in Mississippi.

I’m pretty sure I know why.

I’m noticing the anxiety level creeping up. After the All Saints Day worship service, I stood in the Narthex like I usually do to greet people who have the time or desire to talk with the pastor. One of our older (very conservative) members asked me “Are you going to tell our people to vote next Tuesday (November 8) ?” I paused for a moment, thinking he might have said “who to vote for.” I assured him that I was confident that election day hadn’t slipped anyone’s mind, but that I usually encouraged people to vote.

It’s been a strange dynamic, this election cycle.

I’ve had folks tell me about the country’s demise if Hillary Clinton gets elected. I’ve also had others tell me pretty much the same thing if Donald Trump wins. My favorite response is from those who tell me it doesn’t matter because they are planning to move to Canada after the election.

This isn’t the first election cycle for me at our church. From the pulpit, I have seen a Republican U.S. senator sitting in a worship service next to the County chairman of the Democratic party. It’s a wonderful dynamic to see them talking to each other, knowing that they are friends but obviously have different opinions. And, I’m pretty aware of the political views of our people, not because I ask them, but because I know how to log on to Facebook.

We are a Baptist church, but I quickly add the “not that kind of Baptist” moniker to this identification. So, that means we are very diverse in our social, economic, theological, and political views. What my older, very conservative, church friend has been discovering as he and his wife serve the Lord with us, is that we don’t have a political litmus test in order to be part of the church. I have observed that this has been difficult for him, as he obviously has a preference for whom to vote for and that others should be urged to follow suit. It can be a surprise to learn that the people you love, know, and sit on the pew with have different political views. For some people, it’s a bridge too far to cross in order to maintain fellowship. That’s a sad reality. Churches ought to be a place where there is space for people who have different views but who also can affirm “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

I’ve never “endorsed” a political candidate. I believe in a free pulpit and the separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, but I recognize that after this election is over, we are all going to have to find a way to live with each other. Unless, of course, there are people who really are going to move to Canada.

I would expect some degree of angst about this political malaise from church people, but what has me more disappointed is the behavior of pastors. It’s discouraging when clergy endorses a political candidate, and when so much time is spent opining about the terrible state of affairs of our nation. A pastor friend, whom I love dearly, offered his “We need God in the White House!” lament to me over the phone the other day. I simply listened but knew, of course, that God wasn’t running for office. My greater concern has been praying that God would be evidenced in and through our churches.

It might be a good time to remember that our political candidates are not perfect human beings–far from it in fact. And, if we are going to demand public expressions of faith from them in order to get our vote, then we are simply begging to be deceived. The ancient yet timely words of the Psalmist come to mind: “Do not put your trust in princes (or in princesses, I might add), who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4).

This is not an easy time for our nation. Admittedly, this is an unusual election in so many ways. There’s a lot of frustration, anxiety, and fear. While affirming freedom of speech, I do want to urge caution against the statement “I don’t see how  you can be a Christian and vote for _________________.” It’s bad enough when people in the pew say this, but when pastors weigh in like this, it’s theological malpractice.

As important as this election is, let’s take a breath and remember that we’ve been through this before. We need to act like it. And, we Christians should be focused not only on November 8th but what happens the day after.There is a more important and lasting Kingdom, and I want as many of us as possible to embrace that–no matter who you vote for on Tuesday.