On Saturday morning January 30, scores of church leaders, along with a smathering of parishioners, gathered in the basement of an old department-store-turned-church in Richmond, Virginia for a discussion on Race and the Church. The invited primary speaker was Dr. Sean Lucas, pastor of historic First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, Mississippi; adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary; and author of the recently released For A Continuing Church.  I considered it a privilege to be among those gathered, though participation was an open invitation.

My primary takeaway from that morning meeting is that much of our current racial rifts, and the prevailing voluntary segregation of Sunday mornings, is due in large part to a history that has barely been openly acknowledged, much less genuinely and transparently repented.  Dr. Lucas provided ample examples, as the video above reveals (and his book expands upon).  And while in many respects progress has been made, and reconciliation is occuring, there is still work to be done for the church in America to truly be one, as Jesus prayed for us to be. (John 17) A large part of what is left to be done is for White Christians – the “White” church – to go back in time, to understand and to own our sins, and our forefathers’ sins, related to racism.

Some may balk. Perhaps understandably.

“How many times must we say we are sorry?”

“I was not even born during the period of the Civil Rights Movement, so how can I be responsible?”

While such rebuttals may be honest and true, they have not proven effective to bridge the reconciliation gap.  The desire and demand of Jesus is not that we merely go through the motions, but that we be “One” just as he is one with the Father, and with the Holy Spirit.   No doubt that in many cases there is forgiveness that has been withheld.  But even where this is the case, there is still a need for those of us who were born into the majority side to repent – to take steps back, to come to understand what was done in the name of the Church bur for the cause of bigotry.  And we do not go alone, but rather we go there with our brothers and sisters of color. We go together that we may walk together, retracing the ways we have failed – failed one another, and failed our God – moving together in repentance and faith.

Take some time to watch the video. If you are in the Richmond area, join us for a future event.

Baseball 1886 Currier and Ives

Forget the groundhog a couple weeks ago, the real sign of the coming of Spring takes place today: Pitchers and Catchers report to Major League Baseball Spring Training. Baseball may not hold the hearts of American culture like it once did but, for those of us who still enjoy the game, this is one of the dates to look forward to on the calendar.

Many who are still fans of baseball today can trace their love for the game back to their own childhood playing days.  Whether playing for organized teams or in the backyard, many young boys dreamed of one day playing in the big leagues.  What could be better than spending afternoons (or now mostly evenings) in the green grass outfields or the combed dirt infields?  While dreams of fortune and fame were probably prevalent, it is not difficult to understand why some old timers said they would have played for free. Just the thought of playing, and of being considered among the best, was tantalizing enough.

I suspect this is why what Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) said in Field of Dreams resonates with so many of us:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

I never got to live that dream. My baseball career got shelved after junior high school, when I put my attention to other games: tennis, track, and mostly football.  But I did get a little taste of the dream, as I have had the privilege over the years to serve at different times as a chaplain in the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox organizations – for their minor league affiliates.  There I saw gifted young men pursuing the dream.  Several  made it to The Show, a few of my chapel regulars even made names for themselves.  They achieved the dream.

But as baseball begins anew today, prepping for the 2016 MLB season, I am reminded of an article I recently read by Rachel Balkovec, the first strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball, titled: Lost Boys.  Rachel reveals a side of professional baseball that few see.  It is the harsh reality associated with the dream.  She does not diminish the allure of baseball for those who adore the game, but after reading her brief piece baseball fans may have a greater appreciation of the cost of achieving the dream – a dream that few really experience.  And for those who, like I once did, dreamt of careers with seeming numberless innings, perhaps it can also help us to appreciate a little more the lives we now do have, away from the playing fields.

Dr. Os Guinness speaks to Acton Institute, a message titled: The Power of the Gospel No Matter How Dark the Times. This message, though long, is powerful, and is related to a post I published earlier this week titled: Culture Shaping Power of the Church.

Potter's Hands

Os Guinness, in his excellent book, Renaissance, concerning the church in midst of the present challenges unprecedented in Western Culture, notes the culture changing and culture shaping power of the gospel, when the gospel is both declared by God’s People and is actively shaping God’s People.  When many of our churches are caving in pursuit of “relevance”, which is hoped will cause people to “like” the church, so we can keep our numbers up, I think Guinness offers a both prophetic and strategic word:

What we have here in the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures, and amplified in Augustine, is the very heart of the secret of the culture-shaping power of the gospel in the church. When the church goes to either of two extremes, and is so “in the world” that it is of the world and worldly, or so “not of the world” that it is otherworldly and might as well be out of the world altogether, it is powerless and utterly irrelevant.  But when the church, through its faithfulness and its discernment of the times, lives truly “in” but “not of” the world, and is therefore the City of God engaging the City of Man, it touches off the secret of its culture-shaping power. For the intellectual and social tension of being “in” but “not of” the world provides the engagement-with-the-critical-distance that is the source of the church’s culture-shaping power.

In short, the decisive power is always God’s, through his Word and Spirit. But on her side the church contributes three distinct human factors to the equation: engagement, discernment, and refusal.

First, the church is called to engage and to stay engaged, to be faithful and obedient in that it puts aside all other preferences of its own and engages purposefully with the world as the Lord commands.

Second, the church is called to discern, to exercise its spiritual and cultural discernment of the best and worst of the world of its day, in order to see clearly where it is to be “in” and where it is to be “not of” that world.

Third, the church is called to refuse, a grand refusal to conform to or comply with anything and everything in the world that is against the way of Jesus and his kingdom.

Divided Heart (Pink-Green)

I don’t do politics on social media (nor in the pulpit), but I feel an exception is warranted – on social media, anyway. With the exception that I don’t really care that Donald Trump has not previously held public office, nor do I care that neither Ben Carson nor Carly Fiorina have ever held public office, pretty much everything else Peter Wehner writes in his Op Ed for the New York Times, Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump, reflects my sentiments. I am disturbed by Trump’s behavior, and even more so by some of his supporters who have compromised core values and beliefs to empower him.

I know. This is politics. And Trump’s supporters have every right to support him, for whatever the reasons.  For a time I was open to the possibility, despite questions about the basis of his present positions.  I accept that people change.  But with no history, or substantive rationale for changes in convictions, I can only wonder how long it will be, or what circumstances might arise, before we see some of these key convictions shift back.

More disturbing to me than Trump are some of his supporters.  Here I do not mean the rank-and-file Trump supporters, who enjoy the bravado, and with whom the simple catch phrase “Make America Great Again” resonates.  I too am entertained, or at least I have been, to a degree. And I appreciate the vision of restoring the greatness of the USA – even if I am a little unclear whether Trump’s definition of what would make America great and my definition are similar; and even if Trump’s specific plans to usher in such restoration seem a little fuzzy to me.  I am disturbed most by those who are endorsing Trump, even when Trump clearly does not represent their core values and beliefs.  In other words, I am most chagrined by Christians – especially those claiming to be Evangelicals – who are compromising their faith to endorse Trump.

Now let me be clear here.  Every citizen of the USA has a right to support whatever candidate they want. I do not believe Christians have a responsibility to restrict their vote to only Christian candidates. Therefore, I support the right of my fellow Christians, even fellow Evangelicals, to support Trump, if they believe he would be the best leader for our country. (Check out Mark Tooley’s thoughtful piece: Trump, Evangelicals & Security.) What I do not accept are Christians – especially Evangelicals – who will rewrite the Faith to justify their support.

The poster boy of my ire is Jerry Falwell, Jr.

In recent months Falwell has made some asinine statements and decisions. Among them was to invite Trump to speak at Liberty University, where Falwell is currently president, on Martin Luther King Day.  Again, I need to be clear. I support Liberty University’s decision to have Trump speak, just as I appreciated them inviting Bernie Sanders to speak. A university is a place of ideas, where a variety of viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed.  So as long as a clear distinction is made between a chapel service (during which any speakers should intelligently and faithfully exalt the One True God) and a convocation (where any variety of ideas could be expressed) I have no problem.  But given Trump’s history, or at least his reputation, of bigoted statements, it seems more wisdom could have been exercised about the date when Trump would be invited to speak.  A day that is designated to highlight efforts to bring about racial reconciliation does not seem the most sensitive or appropriate.  Of course that is just a judgment call. (For anyone interested, my friend Marc Corbett, a Liberty University alumnus, wrote an excellent piece for The Gospel Coalition.  Take a moment to listen to Marc’s lament: Why I Will Protest a School I Love.)

Most disturbing to me is Falwell’s recent total redefinition of Christianity in his justification for inviting Trump to speak on MLK Day, and in his subsequent official endorsement of Trump.  Again, I believe Falwell has the right to support, and even endorse, whoever he wants.  In his formal endorsement Falwell said only that:

“[Trump is] a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

But Falwell’s previous justification and reasoning was this:

“I have seen firsthand that his staff loves him and is loyal to him because of his servant leadership. In my opinion Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”

Falwell has since offered an explanation, an Op Ed in the Washington Post.  And I concur with much of his reasoning, even if I would not land on the same candidate. Nevertheless, his reasoning and his freedom – both as an American and as a Christian – to endorse Trump does not negate Falwell’s compromise of the gospel,  and his misuse of the scripture.

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Endangered Pawn

Researcher Thom Rainer identifies Six Ways Ministry Spouses Get Hurt.  I have listed them below, slightly reworded:

  • Complaints About Their Minister-Spouses
  • Complaints About the Children
  • Unreasonable Expectations About Ministry Involvement
  • Gossip & Murmering
  • Isolation
  • Attacking the (non-Staff) Spouse to Get Desired Results

Every non-staff church leader should be aware of these. Every church member should be aware of these.  They are very real.  I have experienced all of these in one form or another, in one church or another.  I see these happen to friends serving other churches.  While I am fortunate that all of my children, now grown or in college, have not only continued in their faith journeys but have actually increased ministry involvement, such patterns of behavior are common contributors to the high numbers of ministry children leaving the church, if not also the faith.  The behaviors Rainer identifies are often devastating to ministry families.

For those serving in churches where you are experiencing some of these abuses, perhaps causing you concern for your spouse and children, I will share the counsel I received from a godly older minister during a time when our experience was most acute.  I was told: “If you don’t let it crush you, it won’t crush them (the children).  Don’t share details (with your children) – they likely already know.  But do talk with them, be honest about it, and make sure they understand that those in the church are also broken and sinful, just like those outside the church.”  Our children learned this lesson; they consequently have a pretty good grasp of Total Depravity and Luther’s concept of simul iustus et peccator (Simultaneously Just and Sinner) -even if they don’t necessarily know the term. But because they understand that even as believers – as those “credited” as “righteous” – we are all still infected by our own selfishness and sin, they have a greater appreciation of why we all are in need of Jesus’ redeeming grace.   Though the blood of Christ was shed “once for all”, bringing forgiveness, we all have an ongoing need for the blood of Christ to continually cleanse us from our sin.  Though shed “once for all”, a one-time shot of Jesus’ blood is not all there is.

I encourage you, whether on church staff or a church member, click the link above to read Rainer’s descriptions.  One important thing to note, Rainer does not limit this behavior against only the Pastor’s family; it happens, at one time or another, to almost all ministry families.  Check your own church to see if (where) this is happening. Then step up, and step in where necessary.

Evangelical Typecasts

January 23, 2016

For God and Country

It is interesting. It is even more troubling.  CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke has posted an article to CNN Politics titled 7 Types of Evangelicals: And How They’ll Effect the Presidential Race.  The post is interesting in that it describes differences among those who label themselves “Evangelical”, and creates categories for each.  It is troubling, at least to me, because little to nothing in the post conveys what an actual Evangelical essentially is.

Burke begins with the tired old refrain:

It’s an axiom in American politics, duly repeated every four years: Evangelicals are the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc, especially during the GOP primaries.

But then he offers something that offers a hint of something fresh:

Like many political axioms, though, it papers over a complex reality.

It is true, Evangelicals are not monolithic.  Evangelicals are individuals who have different ideas about different candidates for office – from both parties.  Many of us are able to see positive characteristics even in candidates with whom we disagree.  Few of us are likely to find any candidate that represents everything we would prefer.  At least not those of us who think for ourselves – as God gifted us (and all humanity) to do. So I appreciate Burke’s explanation to those who do not understand Evangelicalism that we Evangelicals reflect a complex reality.  Our complexity should not be confusing, just diverse.

Evangelicals are diverse in may ways. Some among us believe more water should be used in a baptism than others of us do; and some believe a lower age for that baptism is appropriate (maybe even preferable) than others of us.  Some among us like a little wine or a few beers, others prefer to stick with Iced Tea. Some among us like the excitement and activity of a large church, others among us prefer the intimacy of a small family-like church; most among us are somewhere in between. Some of us prefer newer songs, others the hymns from ages past; some prefer cheerful music, others tunes that set a more reflective tone; most enjoy a mix of all of the above.  Some of us appreciate the connectivity of a denominational affiliation; others, aware that no denomination has the corner on the market of God’s favor, choose to remain organizationally independent.  There are all sorts of ways in which Evangelicals are diverse, different, complex.  But none of these differences has anything to do with what makes us Evangelicals in the first place. Nor does Burke in his attempt to analyze and categorize an Evangelical political landscape.

Burke’s categories are interesting, even somewhat amusing. They are as follows:

  1. Old Guard
  2. Institutional Evangelicals
  3. Entrepreneurial Evangelicals
  4. Arm’s Length Evangelicals
  5. Millennial Evangelicals
  6. Liberal Evangelicals
  7. Cultural Evangelicals

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