Blessed is the man

Steve Scalise was at baseball practice at 7 am with other congressional leaders getting ready for a charity baseball game.  Then he got shot and that changed things. For a lot of people.

He wasn’t the only person injured, and the whole situation served as a reminder that these kinds of events occur all too often. The more troubling detail is that the shooter knew who would be on that field at that time, and targeted those individuals with his gunfire.

I had not heard of Scalise prior to a few days ago. I’ve since learned that he holds a leadership position in the Republican Party and that he enjoys playing baseball. Who else would get out on a field around 6 am to practice?

Many times we don’t know a person beyond their persona on television, but I’ve discovered that he has family who is deeply concerned about his well being. He’s been married to his wife Jennifer for more than a decade, and he has two beautiful children named Harrison and Madison.

We have all heard that he is in critical condition, and we should be in prayer for him along with the others who have been injured in this horrific event. Political preferences should not matter when we enter times like this.

It has been refreshing to see members of both political parties come together to express unity, even though I don’t expect this to last. However, it makes me lament the toxicity present among our governmental leaders. Why can’t things be like that joint press conference held by the managers of the Republican and Democratic teams? We often ask why it takes a tragedy to bring us together.

On a more personal level, I’ve been wondering how the Scalises are going to handle this weekend. This terrible situation has taken place only a few days before Father’s Day. I would imagine this Sunday will take on additional meaning due to the circumstances of the last week.

Father’s Day is an emotional day. Many people are fortunate to have had positive experiences with their fathers, while others not so much. Not every man is a father, and not every father is a “dad” to his children. Many fathers hope to be a “good dad” and wonder what that means. Sadly, there are all to many men who abdicate their responsibility when it comes to leading and caring for their children. And, not all children have or had good relationships with their fathers. This whole holiday can be complicated for these reasons and more.

In the days before cell phones, we had to use “land lines.” And, if you go a little farther back in years, there was a time when you’d pick up the phone and talk to someone called an “operator.” The operator would help you place a call. It was a big deal to call someone “long distance” because it would cost you more to place the call. But, if you called “collect” the person receiving the call would have to agree to accept the charges so you wouldn’t have to pay for it. If they didn’t accept the charges, then the call couldn’t go through.

It has been said that there would be more long distance calls placed on Mother’s Day than any other day. Conversely, there would be more “collect” long distance calls on Father’s Day. I guess that’s how it goes.

On Sunday, I’ll be referring to Psalm 1. It is a wonderful prologue to the entire collection of psalms and hymns in our Bible. Especially on this occasion, I will do my best to be both gender specific and gender inclusive in its use. I will say “Blessed is the man. . .” while ensuring my listeners understand it means “Blessed is the one. . .” This is a classic text intended to challenge readers to “watch their step” in regard to whom they associate with and whom they allow to gain influence in their lives. Their are two paths, and it’s important to stay on the right one.

There’s never been a more important time for men to “watch our steps” as it relates to our words, actions, and attitudes. People are watching, especially the non-church going world, to see whether there’s any real difference between a community of faith and everybody else. It’s also vital to watch our steps when we consider all the children who are observing how we live and how we respond to things.

I’m grateful to have a wonderful wife and three active, healthy children. The greatest blessing is the awareness that my children know the Lord, and that I had the privilege to baptize each of them. Whatever else I might accomplish in this life, nothing will surpass being present at their births and being able to baptize them to celebrate their new birth in Christ. For me on Father’s Day, this is the greatest gift I could hope for.

My hope in writing this is to challenge each of us to be careful in our steps. For Father’s Day, I challenge myself and all men to consider the words of the apostle: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (I Peter 2.21 NIV).

 

 

 

 

The Church as Life Together

A few weeks ago I spoke with someone who had stopped attending church. I asked him where he had been going and he replied, “I don’t go to church anymore. I’m in a different place now.”

I recall the story of a man who woke up on Sunday morning, not wanting to attend worship as was his usual custom. He called his mother and said, “I’ve had enough! I can’t go to church anymore. Those people are so rude, and they don’t even like me.” His mom responded, But son, you have to go. You’re the pastor!”

The church is an attractive thought for many of us, but it can also be a difficult one for those who have had bad experiences. Some people have gone through “church abuse” which can make it difficult for a return to any house of worship. Others have simply grown apathetic but seem to make the annual Easter Sunday service, only to return to their lives away from the church.

Christians aren’t supposed to live in isolation from each other. We are supposed to live in community and experience life as a family of faith. In an essay written about 15 years after his conversion, C.S. Lewis commented on the value of community:

“I thought I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches. . . But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with such devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of sermons that I heard while sitting in the pews. What I do remember, however, are the people who have impacted my life through the years. That’s what church is really about–it’s about the people. It’s about going through life together with a group of people who are unified in their devotion to Christ.

The early church was described as “being together and having all things in common.” It is also known as “koinonea.” The CEV says it this way:  “they were like family to each other.”

It’s important to realize the difference between “attending” a worship service and “belonging” to a church. It has to do with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “Life Together.” I hope to touch on that subject Sunday morning when we’re together once again. I’m grateful we’ll be able to share the Lord’s Supper and commission our students to “Serve Springfield.”

I also wanted to congratulate you on your generosity to missions. UHBC was recognized as a “Top 200 Giving Church” in the latest edition of the CBF magazine Fellowship! Let’s keep up the good work!

Let’s uphold the 1954 Johnson Amendment

Several weeks ago, on the “National Day of Prayer”, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” It directs the IRS not to take “adverse action” against churches and tax-exempt entities who are involved in political activity. It stops short of allowing churches to endorse political candidates and maintain their tax exempt status. Only a repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment could do that.
 
The Johnson Amendment restricts faith groups and tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or explicitly opposing political candidates. Such groups can lose their tax-exempt status if they are found endorsing politicians, but this reality has rarely occurred (maybe once in 60 years).
 
There are other important results that impact other non-profit organizations. However, I want to limit my reaction to how it impacts the church.
 
In signing the executive order, the president offered these thoughts: We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church and progress from the pew. Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. We are giving our churches their voices back and we are giving them back in the highest form.
 
Pastors and churches are already free to offer opinions about social, political, and religious issues of our day. In that regard, the church has always had “its voice.” The church maintains a prophetic role in our culture to speak “truth to power.” However, churches cannot endorse candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
 
Amanda Tyler, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the president’s act was largely a symbolic one. However there was a greater concern relating to the weakening of the Johnson Amendment. She writes, “getting rid of the protection of law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
 
What has Baptists (not as many Southern Baptists) concerned is that this is a step toward weakening the Johnson amendment. Congress would have to enact such a change, but the president has signaled that he is open to this course of action.
 
In my view, this would be compromising the prophetic voice that the church should have in exchange for obtaining favor from political groups. It would also expose the church to lobbyists who could seek to influence pastors (and their churches) through financial means.
 
On a church level, this executive order is a distinction without a difference. It offers protections for religious liberty that are already in place. As I said earlier, the impact on other non-profits and their constituents may be more pronounced. However, this action won’t impact how we go about doing church.
 
Some churches might see this as an opportunity to be more aggressive in their involvement in political action committees or political candidates. One columnist I like to read said the president’s action could lead to “red churches and blue churches.”
 
I am not so naive to think that each of us has his/her own political viewpoints and enjoys sharing them. But, our church as a whole cherishes the historical Baptist distinctive of the separation of church and state.
 
As Tony Campolo said, “Mixing the government and the church is like mixing manure and ice cream. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure destroys the ice cream.”
 
I recently signed an open letter by the Baptist Joint Committee to urge Congress to maintain support for the Johnson amendment. The church and state much remain separate. The church always loses when infringed upon by the state.

Mother’s Day Ups and Downs

One of the enduring memories I have of Mother’s Day as a pastor comes from my days in Mississippi.

The custom had been to recognize the moms in the church by handing out a pink carnation to those whose mothers were still living. We also handed out white carnations to those whose mothers were dead.

After one Mother’s Day service, I heard from a dear friend who was in our church. She was a cancer survivor and a wonderful human being. She told me she felt like skipping Mother’s Day because she knew she’d get that white carnation. It was a reminder of sadness and she felt singled out on that day.

From that point on, I resolved to hand out only one color carnation to not only the mothers, but to ALL women in the worship service.

There’s another superhero movie coming out in a few weeks. It’s about a heroine who can deflect bullets with her bracelets, pick up tanks, and demonstrate great bravery in an effort to bring an end to World War I. It’s about Diana Prince, who becomes known as “Wonder Woman.”

I think it’s going to be a great movie, not simply because I’m a fan of the Marvel and DC comics series, but because it will allow girls to see a woman in a strong leadership role. This woman also possesses great beauty in addition to strength, but my hope is that what she is able to do will overshadow how she looks.

I’ll be preaching from Proverbs 31 on Mother’s Day. It records advice from a mom to her son who just happens to be King. It’s a beautiful acrostic poem (in the Hebrew alphabet) intended to be a literary device for memorizing its content.

In what could be the first “Hallmark Mother’s Day card”, these words are shared: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;  but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31.30).

Mother’s Day is a nostalgic day for a variety of reasons. For new moms, this is an exciting day as the first time to celebrate the day as a mom. It’s also a bittersweet day for those whose mothers or wives died in the past year; this is the first time without that person. Some mothers have strained relationships with their children. Some women are not wives, and some wives are not mothers. Some women want to have children but cannot. So, it can be an emotional time.

I think it’s important to celebrate our moms. I also think it’s important to use this occasion to celebrate all women and recall their contributions in our lives. Our church in particular affirms women in leadership and positions of authority, and for this I am grateful.

The last chapter of Proverbs could be considered heroic in its description of the ideal woman, or the initial”wonder woman.” Physical appearance may have some value, but it doesn’t take the place of a woman’s character. This is important to keep in mind in this culture of “body shaming” which scrutinizes young women on what they eat and how they look.

Regardless of whether a woman is a wife or mom, all women should be praised for the “fear of the Lord.” This quality provides the means for a woman to be secure in who she is. May God help us appreciate ALL women in our lives, regardless of the roles they play in the community, church, and family.

Do we need a “National Day of Prayer”?

I received an email invitation to our city’s version of the National Day of Prayer breakfast. The subtext is to “pray for the needs of our government.”

This government sponsored call to prayer was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Since then, the first Thursday of May is known as the “National Day of Prayer.”

The national day of prayer website says, “Our theme this year is For Your Great Name’s Sake! Hear Us …Forgive Us …Heal Us! which is inspired by Daniel 9:19. As the 2017 National Day of Prayer on May 4th quickly approaches, thousands of individuals, churches, and communities will be working to rally millions of Christians to once again heed this national call to prayer.”

I know there are other pastors who find it strange that a church leader would feel this way. What could be wrong with prayer?

Nothing is wrong with prayer, but I am skeptical about this government endorsed prayer event. I do not believe this should be the government’s role; plus the fact I remain dubious to the effects of such a prayer event upon the policies and actions of our elected officials. There will be a breakfast, prayers offered, and perhaps a sermon or two calling “America back to God.” And afterwards, if history is any guide, politicians will go back to their offices to continue business as usual.

I’m not opposed to praying on May 5th. I’m pretty sure I will be saying a prayer on that day, along with many others who practice such a spiritual discipline. I’ll be praying before and after that day as well, but it won’t be because of a bill passed by Congress and signed by the President. It shouldn’t be the government that calls people to pray. It is the church’s job to call people to pray. The church doesn’t need the government’s sanction or admonition to pray.

I’ve appreciated the show “The West Wing” for a long time. Every now and then, I’ll start binge watching it with my wife Lori. I know it’s just a TV show, but it raises some important issues and retains its shelf life decades later. In one episode, Arnie Vinnick (played by Alan Alda) is a senator who is also a candidate for president. He has concerns about the government getting involved with religion, connected somewhat to his own life experiences. Some of his friends are asking him to “go to church” to pacify his political base. He 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.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 66.18: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” God wants to hear from us, but there must be a willingness to confess and turn from our sinful ways. The church, with its prophetic voice and witness, is in the best position to call people to repentance. Prayer must result in a change of behavior, not a continuation of the same kinds of behavior that have resulted in policies that oppress the poor and alienate people.

There are times when I’ve called our family of faith to prayer. We’ve had “40 days of prayer” and also used prayer guides from our larger Baptist community of faith. In addition to these corporate appeals for prayer, it’s important to have a daily, personal practice of prayer. We must always be mindful of Jesus’ teachings concerning our attitude when we pray (Matthew 6:5-8).

Tony Campolo put it this way, “”Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

If there was a doubt, let me clarify that the church is supposed to be the ice cream.

May God help us as Christians to make every day a national (and international) day of prayer for our nation (and all nations).

Loss and FBC New Braunfels

“April is the cruelist month”
These are the opening words to T.S. Eliot’s 1921 poem “The Waste Land.” Decades later, these words carry double meaning for the people in Oklahoma City, Columbine High School, and Virginia Tech University.
You can add New Braunfels, TX to that list. The First Baptist Church and a broken community are grieving the loss of 13 friends who were killed in their church bus while coming home from a choir retreat. This Sunday, and Easter in particular, will take on a more significant meaning for them.
Eliot’s words have contributed to my understanding of what loss means. It isn’t a subject that many of us are comfortable talking about, yet none of us are immune to its impact on our lives. Loss affects us on a personal as well as community level.
I’ve lost count of the number of funerals I’ve presided over or attended at this church, but a safe estimate is 125. It’s hard for any congregation not to be impacted by the kinds and frequency of losses that accumulate over the decades.
Sometimes we get busy and forget what kind of result this change can have in our church. Fortunately, there are signs of new life with baby dedications, graduations, and other celebrations. The church is a living organism in which we can share the joys and sorrows of life, together.
As we make our way through the Lenten season, let’s take time to slow down and realize the losses we’ve experienced. The season leading up to Easter lends itself to recalling memories of our loved ones. It’s not easy working through the hurt and pain associated with these moments in our lives, yet over time and with the help of God and others we can learn through them.
I am convinced that it is better to go through life together than by oneself. Our church has so much to be grateful for, and in light of the recent tragedy in Texas, let’s spend a little more time showing appreciation for each other. Each Sunday should be a celebration of life in Christ, and shared life with each other.
Yes, April can be a cruel month in regard to these terrible losses. Yet, it also brings about a season of remembering the suffering of Jesus and his tremendous sacrifice on the cross for our sins. We can be assured of his presence with us, even when and especially when we don’t understand the reason behind events like the ones that occurred in April through the years.

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.