Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Prepare ye the way for the Lord

The American church may be losing its grip on Christmas. Last year, while Christians were lamenting the decision of some major department stores to drop the word Christmas from their advertising, some megachurches decided to drop Sunday worship because Christmas fell on a Sunday .

Perhaps the desire to drop Christmas worship was due to Christmas burn out caused by an overdose of frantic shopping, office parties, sappy TV specials and gaudy decorations. One megachurch told the local paper that the decision was made because people are so busy during the holidays and Christmas is supposed to be a family day.

What!? Do we need any more encouragement to be more self-absorbed? Does the church want to go on record stating that public worship is optional even on one of the few days that most people come to church?

Since Wal-Mart has given the nod to “Merry Christmas” greetings this year, it would seem that the American church has turned over the ownership of the holiday to the department stores. Advent was replaced long ago by the “Christmas shopping season.” This year the high priests of marketing have decided to start the shopping season early in order to boost the economy. America is looking to Wal-Mart and Macy’s to preserve Christmas traditions rather than the church. Even Jerry Falwell is concerned that Christmas celebration might be removed from the department stores .

A 2005 survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found an overwhelming sense that Christmas is losing its religious theme. Only 11% believe that most people still “focus on the birth of Jesus at Christmastime.”

The faithful observation of Advent can help us prepare for the real meaning of Christmas and keep our perspective amid the holiday madness. Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “coming” and designates the four weeks before Christmas when Christians reflect on the meaning of the coming of Christ.

While the ancient Hebrews yearned for the promised Messiah, anticipation celebrated through Advent can awaken our deep yearning that Christ come more fully into our lives. Advent traditions such as lighting a candle for each Sunday of Advent, decorating a Christmas tree during the last week of Advent and lighting it for the first time on Christmas Eve to mark the light of Christ coming into the world, help us prepare for Christmas. By observing the Advent season as a time of devotion, worship and service, Christmas Eve and the 12 days that follow can be a time of feasting and celebration worth waiting for.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The intergenerational church

Building an intergenerational church in a society that separates people by age groups can be a challenge. From preschool through high school children are put in classrooms with others their age. At the other end of life, we put our aged into nursing homes.

The church seems to have perfected this age segregation with our age-graded Sunday schools, youth groups, seniors’ groups, singles’ ministries, etc. Gen X churches, where a single demographic is targeted, was the latest trend until Willow Creek dropped its once popular Gen X service, Axis, because of a large drop in attendance.

Sunday school experts agree that this segregation leads to growth. Decades of data support this “birds of a feather flock together” thinking. On the other hand, many have observed that youth tend to drop out of church after high school graduation and young adults rarely integrate into the life of the church.

If the church is to be a community, then it needs to reflect the intergenerational quality of the traditional family. Norm Wakefield, Spirit of Elijah Ministries, suggests that a biblical model of youth ministry involves adults modeling appropriate behavior to the younger generation. He recommends men’s and women’s retreats that include the children. He has observed that teenagers behave differently with adults of their gender than in peer groups. Boys will model adult behavior when on a fishing trip with men because they want to be accepted.

Small groups tend to follow an intergenerational approach to adult ministries. This helps to fulfill the older women and older men mentoring the younger women and men mandate of the Bible. This can be done without a drop in numbers. The multiplication of small groups, particularly in cell churches, surpasses that of the traditional Sunday school.

One way to bring generations together is through big projects that involve the whole church. We had a car wash at Grace Chapel that involved children, teens, college students, older adults and seniors. It is one of the most endearing memories I have of a church working together. Our ministry to the nursing home has also involved people of all ages.

Building an intergenerational church can be a challenge but it is a witness to the world of the holistic community that God wants us to be.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A House of Prayer for All Nations

The church I attended as a teenager was a sharp contrast to the city that surrounded it. Miami in the 70’s was a mix of African-Americans, Haitians, Cubans, Jews, Anglos and other groups that usually kept to themselves and were often at odds. That was what the world looked like. My church was different.

Although we were small, we represented a cross section of the transitional neighborhood we worshipped in. Smiling faces of different shades sang of the love of Jesus in a mixture of accents. When we hosted a Haitian group that was starting a new church we became bilingual. During the week English as a second language was taught to recent immigrants seeking to improve their lives.

It was much later that I learned that the church could be as racially and ethnically divided as the world. Nevertheless, the local church is God’s answer to racial and ethnic strife. It should be an agent of healing and an example to the world. After all wasn’t the church born in the multicultural milieu of Jerusalem where God-fearing Jews of many nations heard Peter’s message each in his own native language (Acts 2)? Didn’t Jesus pray for the unity of all believers (John 17:20-23)?

Unity is not easily achieved even when people share the same language and culture. Sometimes, churches share a building but not ministries. This was the case in one church I served where Korean and Filipino congregations also met. There was bickering between groups, misunderstandings and prejudice on all sides. Eventually the two language groups moved on.

The economic reasons for multicongregational churches are obvious but the spiritual reasons are more important.

The people of God are not to be barrier builders, but barrier breakers through Jesus who makes us one (Eph. 2:14-15, 19). In the face of negative church perceptions, a multicultural church can serve as a gracious apologetic to the unbelieving world.

The multicultural church prepares us for a picture of eternity. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9 NIV

While we cannot ignore the cultural heritage of those who we are trying to reach we must heed God’s call to unity. Two major barriers are that people who speak different languages also tend to have differing worldviews and every cultural group tends to consider itself superior to others.

Christians from different cultures can work together if the spiritual needs of people take precedence over cultural differences and the Bible is viewed as superior to cultural differences. One other factor must be that the building and grounds must be viewed as owned by God; a place for worship and ministry to people, rather than an economic investment.

This was the case in New Orleans where I was called to start a Spanish language church. Although we were very small, we felt a call to start an English-language mission to share our building. The two groups worshipped in different languages but we were united during the week with children and youth ministries and a variety of events. Our children’s ministries led to an apartment ministry among African-Americans.

My fondest memories of that church revolve around Christmas Eve, when we shared a meal and some bilingual caroling. It was fun to watch the faces of the Anglos as the roast pig was brought in, whole, with the head attached. One year the joke was on me as I bit into a Nicaraguan meat pastry and found a very hot pepper.

I can already envision Grace Chapel with multiple services, multiple languages and a church open every day reaching out to EVERYONE in the community. It won’t be easy but it certainly will be worthwhile.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Gimmicks and church growth

I recently received an email asking if I’d like to see my church double in 100 days. Who wouldn’t? The email was, of course, an ad for the latest gimmick that will bring church growth.

I’ve noticed that church growth is a lot like investing in the stock market. There are some who try every trick and short-cut in order to make a lot of money fast. If it’s not China, it is India, gold, Russia, or the Iraqi Dinar. They are gambling. A few will get lucky and strike it rich. The majority who lose money are rarely mentioned.

Some investors conservatively invest in mutual funds and ignore the hype. They use the tried and true methods of investing a little bit each month and end up with a respectable return.

I’ve noticed that some pastors and denominational leaders want church growth to be quick and dramatic. They go to seminars, read books, and subscribe to newsletters. Whenever some pastor “strikes it rich,” he is the latest expert and sells his own seminars, books and tapes. If it’s not cell churches, it’s purpose driven or emergent.

Like the market mavens who try (and fail) to spot the latest stock market trends, church growth experts tell us that we need to get on board with the DaVinci Code phenomenon which followed the Passion, 40 Days on Purpose, the Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind, Experiencing God, etc. None of these things significantly changed the American church. Some churches have experienced good results but, most often, gimmick growth results in the transfer of bodies from a small church to a larger one.

The church has been around a long time. I’m sure there have been many gimmicks in the past. Ultimately it is the power of the Holy Spirit that draws people to Christ. It is his grace that changes hearts and builds churches. This can happen fast but it usually happens at a slower pace and rarely results in a Megachurch.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Light the night on Halloween

Some Christians hate Halloween. They point to its ancient pagan roots and cry "witchcraft!" They see kids dressed like witches, vampires and sorcerers and homes decorated with jack-o’lanterns, ghosts, and skulls and cringe in disgust.

There are those who turn off the porch light and dim the inside lights in hopes that the neighborhood kids will think they're not home. "No trick-or-treating here."

Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. Should we hide that light under a bushel one night a year? Jesus calls us to be his witnesses in difficult and, uncomfortable places. Jesus said, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one." (John 17:15).

The issue of the occult on Halloween is serious. TV shows and movies reveal a continuing interest in the occult and contemporary practitioners of the occult (a very small number) claim this day as their own. We know that Satan is real and that he "prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1 Pet 5:8). We also know that we are engaged in spiritual warfare "against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph 12). But Halloween is not a night to surrender and declare to be "Satan's Day." God did not give Satan a holiday; neither should the church! The Bible teaches, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:21).

On Halloween night more of your neighbors are out and open to contact than on any other night of the year. Their children are coming right to your door. Children don't know anything about witches or Satan. They just know that they get to dress up and get free candy. It's the only time they can accept candy from strangers.

Light up your house and yard. Make it the brightest spot in your neighborhood. Get out and interact with your neighbors. Offer prayer or a blessing for every child that comes to your door. Hand out candy with a smile and a kind word, maybe even a tract. Be a blessing on this night and make Satan hide.

Imagine the impact of every Christian in the nation lighting up their homes on Halloween? If Halloween night is dark it's because the light is not on!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Are radical Christians dangerous?

Rosie O’Donnell, the former Queen of Nice, raised some eyebrows when she recently said “Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam.”

That got me to thinking about radical Christians. Here are a few:

* Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who was recently murdered outside a hospital where she worked as a missionary in Somalia. The 65 year old nun lived and worked with the starving and sick in Kenya and Somalia for 38 years in Africa.

* Mother Teresa committed her life to the dying untouchables in India.

* Martin Luther King, Jr. led the fight for civil rights for people of color in America.

* William Wilberforce was not martyred but he did give 44 years of his life to lead the fight to abolish slavery in England.

* St. Patrick was so radical that he returned to the Irish tribe that had once enslaved him to teach them about the love of God.

* The Apostle Paul endured beatings, prison and death threats to teach gentiles about Christ.

There are so many others and, also, there are ordinary Christians who gave so much money in response to the tsunami in India, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan. Come to think of it that’s kind of radical, too.

Maybe radical Christians are dangerous. They willing give their lives as a “living sacrifice” to show God’s love to the world in tangible ways. Dangerous, maybe, but to whom?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Another look at prosperity

While wealth is not an indicator of spiritual health, the Bible does have much to say about work ethic and social justice. Proverbs is full of wisdom like this:

“He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!” Proverbs 28:19 (NKJV)

“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Proverbs 29:7 (NIV)

There are many provisions for taking care of the poor in the Bible. A church is not out of line in helping its members and people in the community better their lives. One big issue in many churches is debt. Teaching our members to spend money wisely, live within their means and save for a rainy day will improve their lives and allow them to bless others with their finances.

Some in our churches and community lack the skills to get a decent job. Even the smallest churches can offer training in how to dress for business and conduct yourself in an interview (maybe, even, provide some clothes) and help prepare a resume. Churches with greater means can provide literacy classes, basic math, computer training, etc.

On a larger scale churches can pool resources to provide affordable housing through groups such as Habitat for Humanity or clean up a neighborhood.

On a political level, churches can ensure that government provides equal opportunities and does not allow the disadvantaged to be exploited.

“Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9 (NIV)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Prosperity preaching v. the gospel

This week’s TIME cover story asks, “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” It looks at a number of prosperity preachers who teach that faith in God can lead to material blessings. Remember Jim Bakker?

Saying that God wants you to have nice things does have a nice ring to it. How can the gospel compete with that? Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself…” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34 & Luke 9:23) He told a rich young nobleman to rid himself of all riches (Mark 10). He called a prosperous businessman a fool for focusing on the material rather than the spiritual (Luke 12:16-21). One of his most well-known stories is about a wealthy man and a poor, sick beggar. The prosperity preachers of that time would have us believe that God smiled down upon the rich man, while the beggar, Lazarus, was paying for some sin. Jesus taught that the opposite was true. Lazarus went to heaven, while the rich man went to a place of suffering. (Luke 16). This is but a partial list of Jesus’ condemnation of materialism.

If God wants his people rich, why was Jesus poor? Why were the apostles poor? Do the prosperity preachers know something that our Lord did not? I don’t think so. Prosperity preaching plays well to the greedy, materialistic American society but it won’t play in Sudan.

It’s not just the wealthy who are obsessed with money. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautioned us not to worry about food or clothing. We are to rely on God for our daily bread.

I must admit that living by Christian principles can lead to a measure of prosperity. Giving your employer an honest day’s work can lead to a promotion. Staying out of debt can put interest in your savings account instead of the credit card company. Owning a home and putting your children through college are good things. The accumulation of material things for the status they bring and extravagant luxuries while others suffer is not.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19 - 21 (NIV)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sometimes you've got to cowboy up

You can find a lot to complain about in the Army, especially if you are deployed to the Middle East. I must confess that I have found a thing or two to complain about. Most of the time, I try to focus on the small comforts that are available to me. I know that there are soldiers who are suffering greater hardships than I.

There are others, however, who are so negative that their lives are a never-ending song of woe. They frequently repeat their litany of all the wrongs, real and imagined, that they have suffered in the hands of the Army. While most people will steer clear of these grumblers, others will gathers around and add their voices to the chorus of complaints.

Grumbling should not be a part of a Christian’s life. “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” Philippians 2:14 - 15 (NKJ)

A bad attitude can be contagious and detrimental to the morale of those around you. In the Army it can lead to punishment; at work it can lead to dismissal; at home it can lead to divorce. Moreover, bitterness can blind us to small blessings we can enjoy in spite of difficult circumstances.

Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said that through all his suffering, anguish and loss he learned that, in the end, the only thing a person can control is his attitude to a given situation. The Apostle Paul knew suffering, too: prison, 39 lashes (five times), beaten with rods (three times), stoned, shipwrecked (three times), a night and a day in the open sea, constantly on the move. He knew hunger, thirst, cold, danger and betrayal. (1 Corinthians 11:23-27) Yet Paul said, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Philippians 4:11(NIV)

When I face another 130+ degree day, an extra shift, sandstorms, or some other unexpected hardship, I will think of Paul’s words and strive to be content.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV)

I’m not taking about a rose-colored glasses, glass is half full type of optimism. It’s just that sometimes you have to cowboy up.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Competition destroys peace

This is of one of the shepherds I frequently visit. We always share food with him and cold bottled water.

Living in the Arabian Desert this past year has brought the Bible to life for me. I have had ample opportunity to observe the desert and its inhabitants and meditate on Old Testament passages. I have seen foxes and the holes they live in; I have seen Bedouins and bandits; I have seen grazing sheep, poor shepherds and watched the grass wither.

I now understand what a precious commodity grass is. It is abundant in the spring and but withers in the heat and drought of summer. Although the land is very poor, there is enough to sustain camels, sheep and goats. The herds provide sustenance for people. In ancient times a man’s wealth was measured by the size of his herd. Herdsmen compete for the best grazing today as they did in ancient times.

In Genesis (GEN 13) we read about Lot's shepherds fighting over grazing rights with the shepherds of his uncle, Abraham. Lot and Abraham wound up going their separate ways. Abraham graciously gave Lot the choice of lands. Lot chose the better grazing.

Sharing was not a concept that Lot appreciated. It is a rare thing today. Whether it is grass, oil, market position or a comfortable seat, people compete for an advantage. I have watched as corporate executives have taken control of potential website names and vanity phone numbers so as to deny a competitor their use. I have seen supervisors slander bosses in order to get their jobs. One individual that comes to mind was always bringing up the faults of coworkers to his boss in order to divert attention from himself.

Lot made a choice that seemed to make sense at the time but things started to go badly for him. His family was ultimately destroyed by the choices he made. Abraham was a peacemaker and made a sacrifice that proved to be the wise choice.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9) Instead of seeking to gain an advantage at the expense of another why not seek to live in harmony? You’ll probably get ahead faster and will be called a child of God.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Public School v. Homeschooling

I remember seeing a tract back in the 70’s that showed a school bus with the name Sodom & Gomorrah Public School on the side. This tract from a fundamentalist group illustrates the alarming rhetoric coming from some people that want Christians to pull their children out of public school.

We homeschooled (OK, my wife did) for a time but now my kids are in public school. Both choices were based on circumstances and both turned out to be good. I have met many homeschooled children and have been impressed by how polite, intelligent and socially adjusted they were. On the other hand, I have met a few who were withdrawn and not as educated as their peer group. I guess it depends on the quality of their education, just like public school.

It is possible that my school district might be the best in the USA. It is certainly far different than the horror stories circulated by Roger Moran, who is trying to get the Southern Baptist Convention to endorse a public school pullout. My guess is that the SBC telling parents to pull their kids out of public schools will have as big an impact as the Disney boycott.

Sadly, the inflammatory words coming from the supporters of the public school pullout, cast suspicion on all homeschoolers. Most of the homeschooling parents I have met were not fundamentalists. They included Lutherans, Catholics and Jews. In fact, my own view of homeschooling was more unschool, “Let the kids express themselves and study what interests them,” than a rigid, curriculum-based approach of religious indoctrination.

Those who are sounding the alarm that a Christian exodus from public schools will bring about the collapse of society can stop. The vast majority of Christian parents aren’t going to homeschool. Guilt trips and hyperbole will not sway them.

The truth is that homeschooling is a great option for parents who have the patience, aptitude and economic viability. Homeschooling out fear, rather than love is a bad idea. However, parents who choose public schools would be wise to be involved in the schools and not neglect moral and religious instruction at home.

“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)

CCN.com article

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cooperating churches build the Kingdom

When I was a young Christian I attended a church that participated in a softball league. The other teams were churches from various denominations. Our softball team created a door into the church for those husbands who stayed home on Sunday mornings.

I remember one very talented player who, after getting to know our athletic pastor and some of the guys, began to accompany his wife to church and Sunday school. Soon he committed his life to Christ, was baptized and was serving as an usher. Because he was an officer in the US Marines, I expect his conversion would have had a positive impact on both the troops who served under him and his colleagues. Stories like these were found every year.

Not all churches appreciate such cooperation. One area church launched a protest over the inclusion of a congregation they believed to be doctrinally in error. The protesting church believed that playing in the same league with such a heretical group would be the same as accepting their beliefs. Other churches in the league disagreed over excluding a team based on beliefs and the protesting church left the league.

The protesting church lost sight of the greater good. In order to bring doctrinal purity to a softball league, they gave up an opportunity to bring new believers into their congregation. Instead, they went back behind their walls and added a few more churches to their list of heretics.

Churches can cooperate, despite doctrinal differences, to meet their own goals and kingdom goals. Jesus only established one church. Paul did not start his own denomination for Gentiles in protest to Peter’s Messianic Movement.

Some churches don’t play well with others. (They might run with scissors, too.) Ever see a sign that reads: Independent, fundamental, King James, pretrib, premil, EVERYONE WELCOME?

Jesus said, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:20-21 NKJ)

Jesus prayed not for our agreement but for our unity. Through our love for each other, outsiders would now that our love and our faith is true (JN 13:35). The world is watching.

One winter in Havelock, NC, (the same community with the church softball league) the churches decided to have a community Christian music festival in the park. This was very loosely organized. Everyone was welcome. There were choirs, bands, gospel groups, and soloists with taped accompaniment.

When rain threatened to end the event, the Roman Catholic Church opened their gym and the show went on. As a young Christian I learned the lesson that other Christians are not the enemy. They are not even competitors. We are partners in building the Kingdom of God. I know that there will be no divisions in heaven, why should there be divisions on earth?

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Monday, August 28, 2006

Do you experience God in church?

Worship ought to be an encounter with God. I envision Isaiah 6: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.” (IS 6:1 NKJ)

We know that worship can occur anywhere but how often does it happen on Sunday morning? If you conducted an exit poll after Sunday services, how do you suppose people would answer the following question?

“Did you experience God today in worship?”

People seek different things from the Sunday morning service including a good sermon, entertainment and fellowship. All of these are good but they are not worship.

Many larger churches have a worship leader to set the stage for worship. But I wonder if emotional manipulation is the same as worship. An opera can make a person cry but that’s not worship, either.

Worship services at the small desert camp where I am currently stationed are far different from the “sermon-centered” Baptist services and the “praise-music-heavy” contemporary services to which I have become accustomed. These are liturgical worship services with lots of ritual, formality and quiet reverence. The chaplain doesn’t warm you up with a few jokes at the start of the service. We sing traditional hymns (with an organ), read prayers in unison and Psalms responsively, listen to three readings from the Bible and brief sermon, and celebrate communion.

I have truly felt God’s presence in these simple services. There are no stars here; neither the preacher nor the song leader attempt to draw attention away from God. I feel more like a participant than a spectator through the singing and the responsive readings. There are no long periods where I sit and enjoy a performance.

Am I being fed? Am I being challenged? I know that my soul has been nourished and refreshed through worship and, because I have been in the presence of God, I am confronted with my sinfulness and filled with a desire to me more like Christ. Like Isaiah I cry, “Woe is me,” but then I feel God’s cleansing and I am ready to respond, “Here am I, send me!”

I am not ready to discount lively worship and challenging sermons. I, also, understand that ritual can become meaningless repetition. But an encounter with God must be the object of worship. Otherwise we have a motivational seminar, political rally or sing-a-long.

“…Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Religion at its worst

Mark 9:38-42 

One day the Apostle John reported to Jesus that they had caught a person not of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-41). They made him stop. After all, he had not been approved by the board. The Apostles were unsure of where this outsider stood on certain issues. Perhaps the demon-caster’s denominational affiliation was of greater importance than freeing people from Satanic domination

Jesus was not pleased. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40 NIV)

Religion is at its worst when Christians attack one another. How can one say vile things about another believer and be called a Christian?

“Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (James 3:10-11 NKJV)

As a free and faithful Baptist who believes in the autonomy of the local church and soul competency, I cannot be drawn into a fight unless I choose to participate. I have been criticized and shunned but have refused to strike back. I have, instead, chosen to reach out to those around me who are in need and without the hope that Jesus offers. It has satisfied my soul and brings me peace in the midst of the storm. I will work with any group that will help me exercise the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and expand the Kingdom of God (even if they baptize infants or have a different interpretation of whatever is the current hot button issue).

Institutions and buildings will come and go. I will invest my life in people and the word of God. I will pray for my enemies and turn the other cheek to written assaults that are often displays of spiritual immaturity. I am too busy to debate side issues.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Religion at its best

When Jesus and his followers encountered a man born blind (John 9), their initial plan was to discuss the reasons why this man was blind. This is often our first instinct. We want to understand or, maybe, to place blame. Jesus showed us the most appropriate response. He healed the man.

Religion is at its best when it is seen helping people in need. This is when the church shines. It demonstrates God’s love in a concrete way. A vivid example of this is in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (an event to which I was an eye-witness). While some are still arguing about whose at fault and what could have been done, churches have stepped up by sending money and volunteers to clean up and rebuild.

Here is one of many great stories:
Church-to-family model pays dividend in Louisiana hurricane relief
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27 NKJV)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Waiting for rain in the desert

The author in the Arabian Desert
It is hot in the Arabian Desert: 120F (usually) to 140F (often). The midday sun bears down you relentlessly. You cannot escape it. There is little shade and clouds are a memory from another season.

“It’s a dry heat,” they say, but it’s still hot. The wind is hot, too, like the max setting on a giant hair dryer. It blows around dust as fine as talc. You breathe it; it clings to your damp skin, it forms a layer on all horizontal surfaces. You can’t escape the dust either.

When the wind kicks up, it envelops you in a cloud as thick as early morning fog. Now it chokes you and blinds you and peppers you with coarser bits of sand that stings any exposed flesh.

When there is no wind, the humidity rises. We are drenched in sweat under our body armor, laboring under the added weight of our weapons and ammunition.

How we long for rain. It will cool the land and cleanse the air. It will replenish the grass. The herdsmen will bring back the camels, goats and sheep. The desert will come to life.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.” (Isaiah 35:1 NIV)

As I renew myself daily in Jesus, he refreshes the dryness of my soul. He softens the hardness of my heart. He takes the barrenness of my existence and gives it purpose.

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19 NIV)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

This is a good time to be a Christian

This is a good time to be a Christian. I know this is contrary to popular opinion but I am convinced that it's true. Some will point to the wars and the crimes that are reported in great detail on our ever-growing media outlets but the increase in reporting doesn't necessarily correlate to an increase in these events. We have always have had crime and wars. We've just gotten better at reporting them.

In the First Century, the Roman conquest of a large part of the world brought relatively safe and speedy travel and the widespread use of a single language (Greek). We are experiencing a similar opportunity in the growth of media outlets and the their availability to a large number of people. This, combined with innovations in transportation an communication, make this an excellent time to be a Christian.

This blog is an excellent example. It has the potential to connect me to millions of people. First it was mimeographed newsletters, then it was email and cable access channels, now its blogs and podcasts. Other important ministry tools are the laptop, cellphone and, of course, the internet.

All these innovations are tools that will help Christians to exchange ideas, share messages of encouragement and hope, and provide Bibles and study material anywhere in the world. One missionary I knew was an advanced thinker. He had a computer that would help him continue his studies while in the Middle East. This was in 1988, when we had dial up speeds of 9600 and very little content. Now he could have a huge library of study material on a laptop!