Sunday, August 31, 2008

Football Season and the Need for "Team Players" in the Church

In addition to the beautiful leaves and crisp air that accompany a Maryland fall, one of the things I love most about this time of year is the inauguration of football season. This season, however, hasn't started off very well. I find myself typing these words the morning after my team's humiliating opening game loss to Alabama. A 4 point favorite going in, the Clemson Tigers looked more like the Clemson Cub Scouts. For the next several weeks I am sure I will be frequently reminded of this sad example of a football game by Crimson Tide friends of mine with whom I shared a vibrant back-and-forth "whos gonna beat who" conversation before the game. Turns out, "trash talk" isn't such a great idea after all.

Anyone who watched this game would conclude that the majority of the blame for this loss is to be placed on an inexperienced offensive line. Clemson is currently picked to win their conference, have a strong defense, and the best quarterback in the ACC, but none of that mattered last night. And as I continue to think about this loss, I see a sharp and clear parallel to what is happening in many churches.

The offensive line simply failed last night, and when that happens, the effects eventually trickle over to every other area of the team. Although offensive lineman get little attention when things are going well in a game, their role is crucial. If they don't block for the QB and other ball carriers, it cripples the ability of the offense to move the chains. Consequently, their lack of blocking becomes the cause of short "3 and out" drives that move all the playing time to the defense. Over time, this wears down the defense, thereby further weakening their ablity to stop the opposing team. This is precisely the scenario that occurred last night.

As I consult with churches, particularly when they are in the pastor search phase, it becomes apparent that most feel all that ails them will be solved if they can only find "the right man to lead us." I think I've found a new term for this sentiment: "Star Quarterback syndrome." It's what Clemson had going into last night's game, and it cost them a humiliating defeat. Churches that don't wake up from this deluson will face similar and more serious defeat at the hands of the enemy.

The answer to this dillemma is for churches to realize that Billy Graham himself can't make a difference in a church where, as Paul would put it, all the parts of the body aren't working together. (1 Corinthians 12:11-13) Having a "star quarterback" in the pulpit will not help the church if the linemen, defensive ends, special teams, and even the managers and trainers are not functioning within their roles in the way God intended. Such is the reason we encourage churches to utilize the interim period to shore up in weak areas before they install a new pastor.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with a game such as that played last night is simply forget about it. Other times, its good to learn from it. Cullen Harper can't win a football game without the rest of his team, and a "star" pastor can't fix a dysfunctional church all by himself. The members of the body have to take responsibility for their own dysfuncation, repent, and begin to function as the body Christ has called them to be.

I hope Clemson can pull themselves together and have a good season. But more than this, I pray that our churches will truly be the local body of Christ so that others will see Jesus in them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

God and Gustav: A Guest Blog

It was exactly three years ago today when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and left horrible destruction in her wake. Via a partnership our churches have with the Gulf Coast Association, we continue helping the people of Mississippi rebuild, and now it appears that yet another strong hurricane may very well hit that same area.

Of course,a lot can happen between now and 2 PM Monday. But at its current course, it will make a dead hit at Gulfport Mississippi and travel straight up Highway 49. Lot's of people are, understandably, upset and on edge, and regardless of how strongly you believe in Providence, such convictions are very difficult to apply in these kinds of situations. But I have a friend who seems to be doing a pretty good job at laughing in the face of Gustav, even if he does so with a lump in his own throat.

Unlike most of us who merely watched Katrina from afar, my friend Jack Allen actually lived through it. As such, when he speaks of God's sovereingty and goodness, he's not just waxing eloquent. He has applied such teaching in a very real way in the past. Jack teaches missions at New Orleans Seminary. He is a dear friend, and I asked his permission to share his latest thoughts with you.

As you are reading, pray for the people who live along the Gulf Coast. But more than anything else, pray that the faith of which you read in Jack's post will be present in even more people as this storm moves toward its mainland destination.

Can Gustav Get er Done? (Dr. Jack Allen)
I spent most of this morning doing a hurricane continuance plan for my students. I did this little marvel of strategic planning for several reasons.

(1) Because I love my students and I know that even if they are evacuated in the middle of the night to unknown shores because a terrifying storm is bearing down on their behinds, they will want to know what to read in their course textbooks.

(2) My students will need something to keep them busy so that their minds do not drift to thoughts of The Killer Storm, The Surge, The Flood, The Looting, or The Drowned Furniture (those all sound like great punk rock bands, don’t they?).

(3) The academic boss of bosses around here--Dr. Dallas Cowboy Lemke--told me to do it, and I want to be a joy to lead.

All that academic strategery aside, there are several people around here who confide in me that THEY ARE SCARED. Those of you who know me, I want you to imagine what level of terror might prompt someone to tell me that he or she is scared of the possibility of another hurricane hitting New Orleans. Was the counseling office closed? Maybe so, maybe they left town! I would sooner go to the checkout lady at Walgreens for a shoulder on which to whine than come to me. But, there they are, all five of them (now six) Facebooking, emailing, stopping me at the coffee shop, calling me for advice. My advice? GET OUT NOW! (Not really.)

It’s curious though. If that many people are asking me what to do, where to go, and if there can be any hope, it probably means that literally tens more are thinking of ending it all and moving to Jackson. Oh please, Lord, bring them to their senses.

Dude, I know you’re scared. Your wife admits, but you’re a Southern boy and think you’ll turn gay the instant you admit fear. You won’t. I’m a little bit scared, and I wear hardly any makeup at all.

You’d be a fool not to be a little scared. I went through Katrina. I lived apart from my students for a year, then apart from my wife and daughter for another year. I do not wish the loss of family time or grandmother’s antiques on anyone.

We prayed and prayed, for that storm to hit someplace it wouldn’t matter, like Lake Charles, but God had other plans. It was our turn to suffer, and we lived through it. In fact, for many of us, our faith grew more in the year or two after Katrina than it did the ten before. I see benefits from Katrina. I got new clothes and new furniture! I am significantly less tolerant of peoples’ junk than I was before the storm. Maybe that’s good. I am significantly more grateful for my wife than I was before the storm (she denies the last statement, but I know the truth), and that is very good. In many ways I am a better instructor now than I was before the storm.

So, I have a counterintuitive plan. I am challenging Gustav to finish what Katrina could not. Come on in brothah! I dare you. Bow up to Cat 5 and waltz right up the Mississippi. I do not care. You, Mr. Hurricane, cannot touch me, this city, or anyone in it without the express permission of your Creator. If He says to have a go at New Orleans, then fine. Otherwise, stop making people scared. We have better things to do with our time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Isaiah and Immigration The Second; Legal Considerations

You don't have to be an expert in legal matters to conclude that our current immigration situation is a mess. As I said in my last post on this issue, our current system rewards those who break the law, and sends those trying to obey it back where they came from. Laws that create this kind of environment are, by default, unjust, and we have already heard Isaiah speak poignantly and with resolve to God's views of unjust law. But what instruction can we find in his prophecy that will help us chart a more equitable way forward?

Woe to those who enact evil statutes,
and to those who constantly record unuust decisions
so as to deprive the needy of justice
and rob the poor of My people of their rights
so that widows may be their spoil
and that they may plunder the orphan. -Isaiah 10:1-2

By the prophet's own words, unjust laws:
-remove justice from the needy. With regard to immigration, this would, I think,include removing the opportunity for a better life from one who is willing to work, pay his or her share of taxes, and assimilate into our culture. Yet this is exactly the case for thousands of immigrants who are denied the opportunity to make this better life for themselves.

-robs the poor of their rights. When social services, public education, emergency medical care and other wellfare services are given to those who will, because of their illegal status, likely never pay taxes, the result is that many of our own citizens have needed social services "robbed" from them and given to others.

-widows and orphans are taken advantage of. In other words, an unjust law is one which allows the opportunity for government exploitation of the weak. (For some reason, the lottery comes to mind) Yet immigrants, legal and illegal, rather than having consistent law to which they can refer, are instead constantly subjected to the whims of individual INS agents, whose scope of authority in this regard exceeds that of a federal judge. And frankly, if you throw into that mix the absolute incompetence I have personally witnessed from several who work for INS, the picture is one that would rightly frighten anyone trying to immigrate to the United States. Our current system strips immigrants of the dignity they deserve as human beings created in God's image, and replaces the rule of law with the monarchial tyranny of an INS agent.

The challenge then, is to develop an immigration system that is "just," that delivers justice to those who seek it, grants rights regardless of socioeconomic status, and subjects all applicants for residency to the same rule of law; one that is clear, and treats those subjected to it with the dignity God would expect.

What would such a system look like, and how would we arrive at its adoption? Again, I admit being as qualified to write laws as I am to pilot a nuclear submarine. Nevertheless, I would suggest the following general direction, subject to the scrutiny of those who are more competent that I:

1. Totally dismantle the current immigration system, release all employees of this agency and make them re-apply if they want to continue to be paid with our tax dollars. This includes embassy employees worldwide. Its a radical move, I know. Still, Ronald Reagan's words of more than 20 years ago have never been more true than when applied to immigration. Government isn't the solution to our problem. It IS the problem! While I am sure there are many competent and able professionals who work for immigration, the incompetence I have witnessed has convinced me that this move is neccesary. The raw power INS agents have is scary enough. Mix that raw power with ignorance, and you have a real mess!

2. Design a new system that takes into account the current realities we face as a nation. Such a system would include:
-The ability to concentrate manpower on multiple entry points.
-More deliberate and clear guidelines and policies for INS workers, so that the decisions that affect immigrants are based on law rather than the whims of an agent.
-Expedited processing of immigration requests. Responses from the government taking longer than 6 months would result in penalties to those who work for INS. The one exception to this would be below...
-"Red flagging" of anyone coming from a nation known to harbor terrorists (call it profiling if you want, its the right thing to do. In spite of our culture of political correctness, anyone with half a brain knows the people who attacked our country were not of Latin American descent.) More thorough background checks and longer periods of probationary stay would be required.
-Temporary worker permits to all current residents, whether or not they were legal under the former system. Give them 90 days to secure the permit, and one year beyond that to find gainful employment and pay taxes. If they find a legal occupation, keep it, and learn English, after a certain amount of time they can receive a "green card," and a path to citizenship if they want it which would take no longer than five years to obtain. If they fail to secure the permit, or don't prove themselves productive, or add to our crime problems by their behavior, send them packing pronto!

3. After the new system is in place, build tighter security around both borders (not a literal fence. What a silly waste of time and money, in my opinion) Anyone entering the country illegally after this point is automatically deported, with exceptions granted to those claiming assylum as political refugees.

4. Utilize NAFTA and other legal measures to encourage further business investment in Mexico and Central America. Yes, this would cost us at first. But eventually, a prosperous Mexico would mean few illegal immigration problems for the United States, and subsequently, much less of a drain on our own economy. In fact, the eventual American revenue generated from the likely sale of businesses to Mexican and other nationals would create more prosperity on this side of the Rio Grande as well. Two neighboring, prosperous nations will compliment each other, and help each other build a prosperous future.

Human rights. Human equality. Human dignity. All three are mandated by God's Word to every government to whom He allows continued existence. Re-inventing our immigration system is, I believe, an absolute neccesity for our nation to acheive this end. While I am certain others far more knowledgeable than me could devise much wiser plans than I have suggested above, my hope is, in the end, to see a system that is truly "just."

But just laws alone are not enough, nor are they the first priority for God's people. The church and those who make up its membership have great responsibilities toward our immigrant friends that transcend the legal and political arenas, and we sin if we wait for the legal issues to be solved before we seek to fulfill those responsibilities. I'll talk about these in my final post on this subject in the coming days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Evangelicals and the Political Process: A Conversation with Brian McLaren and Richard Land

Believe it or not, Richard Land and Brian McLaren had a cordial conversation! Though its hard to believe, these respective representatives of conservative and progressive evangelicalism spent more than a half-hour on issues of agreement, and in the end, I think the church will be better for having listened to it.

Make no mistake, I'm still no fan of McLaren's theology (though every time I've been around him, he makes it very difficult to dislike him personally), nor do I find myself in unanimous agreement with Land. But through my friend David Phillips, I was made privy to the recorded conversation below, and I was positively challenged by its contents. Given that I'm in the middle of a few posts on political issues such as immigration, I thought this video would serve as a great primer going into the coming election season. Some highlights (with which I strongly agree) were:

-Political parties are, by their very nature, Machiavellian, and thus, only as "good" as they have to be to garner votes and retain power.
-Evangelicals should not be committed to any political party unconditionally, but instead, should demand that political parties committ to evangelical ideals regarding the sanctity of life, traditional family values, poverty, social justice, and religious freedom.
-While "conservatives" and "liberals" can (and should) divide over a number of issues, there are also many issues on which we can (and should) stand shoulder to shoulder.
-Labels (such as conservative/liberal, etc.) can be helpful in identifying positions and vantage points, but too often are used to stereotype and malign individuals.
-Overall, the media is not your friend, regardless of your political or theological persuasion.

Have a look for yourself! The video is about 40 minutes in length, and it really is worth your time, especially if you want to think more deeply on the relationship between evangelical faith and politics.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Isaiah and Immigration

With the recognition that we are a nation built on immigrants, I find it ironic that the current immigration debate has become so vitriolic on both sides. What I find even more paradoxical is that a nation of immigrants presuming to live under the rule of law is seemingly losing its respect for both immigrants and the law. Thankfully, the prophet Isaiah, though he lived more than 2500 years ago, has more wisdom than either the Democrats or the Republicans.

I've been thinking about the immigration issue for some time now, due to my own intimate dealings with the subject matter. I say this to point out that the immigration issue, for me, is not merely an abstract, academic discussion, but rather, one that I deal with on an almost weekly basis. Every Sunday, our churches worship in six different languages. More than 25% of our member congregations are non-Anglo and non-English speaking. As such, many of the pastors of those churches are not American citizens, and consequently, part of our service to our churches is to help immigrant pastors navigate through the legal jaggernaut that is the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. In fact, our office keeps a close relationship with an immigration attorney, whom we often consult for just this purpose.

After more than five years of dealing with this issue in both South Carolina and Maryland, I've come to the conclusion that the problems which permeate the current immigration debate have their roots in the immigration system itself. And here is where Isaiah speaks pointedly and prophetically:

"Woe to those who enact evil statutes
And to those who constantly record unjust decisions,
2 So as to deprive the needy of justice
And rob the poor of My people of their rights,
So that widows may be their spoil
And that they may plunder the orphans.
3 Now what will you do in the day of punishment,
And in the devastation which will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
And where will you leave your wealth?"

Sound a bit strong? Not if you have had much experience with our immigration system, which has itself produced the following problems:

1. A nation awash in lawbreakers. Organizations like casa de Maryland here in my state actually encourage immigrants and employers to break the law, and are strong advocates for granting to illegal immigrants the same social benefits my father has worked more than 40 years to obtain. Marches have been held in Montgomery county, not far from my home, where illegals, with the help of this organization, demand their "rights," which strikes me as funny. Were I to go to France, stand outside a government building and demand the same rights, privileges, and social benefits as those who have lived and worked legally in that nation for decades, I suspect it wouldn't be long before I was given a complimentary ride in a French police car to the nearest American consulate.
But overall, illegals themselves are not the problem. Many in fact do not "demand" rights. They only want a fair shot at being able to make a life for themselves in the US, and are prevented from doing so by a system that is complicated, intimidating, and hopelessly unclear. In short, while a loud minority of arrogant lawbreakers make the news, a huge number of illegals wish to be legal, but are made to be criminal by a system that gives them no chance of a normal American life.

2. Mistreatment of those who try to do the right thing.. I have seen it over and over again. Even in my own association, immigrants who try to obey the law are hassled, harrassed, delayed, stonewalled, and mistreated. While thousands cross our borders illegally every week with INS looking the other way, simultaneously, good people trying to obey the law are sent packing.

In other words, the lawbreakers are being rewarded, while those who try to obey the law are being punished. Laws that create this kind of environment are, by default, unjust laws, and therefore fit Isaiah's descrpition. Our current system of immigration deprives the needy, the widows, and the orphans by stripping those who have worked, paid taxes, and invested in our nation legally from their right to continued residency, while simultaneously granting these same benefits to those who are here illegally, thereby depriving American poor, widows, and orphans.

Part of the problem, of course, is the antiquated nature of our current system. Originally set up to accomodate a mostly European population entering the nation through Ellis Island and San Francisco, our curent system cannot possibly be expected to accomodate immigrants from all over the world, coming through multiple entry points.

But to solve these, and many of the other issues with our current system will take more than the "get rid of them all" approach of many Republicans, or the "ignore the law" approach of many Democrats. It will require a Biblical conviction to write and enforce laws that are just, and an American church that understands our responsibility to minister to "aliens and strangers" (Leviticus 19:34). To treat our foreign-born friends with dignity means that we have laws that are fair to them, while simultaneously holding them accountable to obey those laws.

How do we do this? While I'm far from a legal expert, I'll try to offer a few ways to "move forward" in the coming days.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Atonement Applied

Evangelical Christians rightly confess that Jesus Christ is God, who came in the flesh, came into the world through the womb of a virgin, lived a completely sinless life, died as a substitute for sinners in a bloody mess on a Roman Cross, was raised bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is personally coming back. Any message that includes less than the above is not the Gospel.

Still, we often have trouble making application of these precious truths beyond the challenge to "be saved." In the end, the world responds to the statements above, not so much with disbelief, but instead with a resounding "so what?"

Mark Driscoll's newest book gives as clear an answer to that question as I have heard in some time.

Death by Love is a thorough exposition of the atonement of Jesus, and how the truth of His sacrifice changes lives, purifies hearts, removes guilt, and overcomes the myriad of struggles we all face. The book will be out early next month, but you can get a sneak peak if you want. It is practically pastoral, deeply missional, connected to the real world, and most important of all, faithful to the Biblical Gospel.

Also, check out the video below that tells just a few of the stories behind the book.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

In Memory of a Colleague

Dr. Bruce Revel was a friend, and cherished colleague. As Director of Missions for Eastern Baptist Association on Maryland's shoreline, Bruce had a heart and desire to see that entire area changed by the Gospel. The last time he and I sat down together, he was planning to launch a huge ministry to the deaf in one of his churches that he envisioned would multiply across his association, and even the state. That meeting was on July 17, just days before I left for vacation. I had no idea it would be the last time we would speak in this world.

I was with my family, on my way back from the Tennessee mountains when I received the call telling me that Bruce had suddenly and unexpectedly gone to be with Jesus this past Sunday. Today, someone sent me the last blog post Bruce wrote before his death. It was surreal, to say the least, to read thoughts of mortaility from a man just weeks before his death. I pray that he was able to reorganize his life in the way he wished prior to his departure for the next world. But even more so, I pray that I can make those same priorities.

This Friday, I will join what I am sure will be throngs of mourners as we lay our brother to rest. He was a very young 59-years-old, which only proves that death is non-discriminatory. I'd encourage you to read his last blog post, and act accordingly.

It's Getting Busy . . .not that anything has changed!

As I type, I'm sitting in the customer service area of my local Ford dealership, waiting on my Taurus to be serviced. Aside from a 10-day vacation from which I just returned, moments like this have been rare over the past couple of months. But its been exciting to see God at work in so many ways!

First, there was a trip to the Eastern Caribbean. I had the opportunity to spend several days on the island of Antigua with my pastors, Jerry Cooper and Rob Stephens, and help them begin to map out a church planting strategy for the island. Less than two months later, plans have moved forward at a fast pace. The first training event for indigenous church planters is next week! Through this trip, God providentially alligned us in relationnships with pastors and laity who share a passion for reaching the island. The long-term vision is for the movement to "go viral." Given the centrality of this island to the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, our prayer is that the Gospel will eventually spread from Antigua to other islands.

Then, there was the Southern Baptist Convention. I know, I know, there are a few of you out there who think the SBC has seen its best days. While I value your friendship, I don't share your pessimism, and this year's convention gave evidence, I believe, that our best days are (potentially) ahead of us. Overall, there was a somber, introspective spirit among the messengers that was reflected in many ways, cheifly in the resolutions. While I personally have always felt resolutions to be a total waste of time, I am unusually perturbed to see them often aimed at people who aren't in the room. This year, things were different. In particular, in the resolution on integrity in church membership, Southern Baptists sent a clarion call . . .to ourselves! And of course, there is always the opportunity to re-connect with old friends. All in all, I walked away from this year's convention very encouraged about our future. In the coming days, I will deliver on what I promised at the beginning of the year with a post on why I'm still Southern Baptist.

Two weeks later, I was on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Through a partnership we have with Gulf Coast Association, our churches have worked for the past three years to help bring continued relief to this area, which was hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. With the hurricane now three years removed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the needed resources for continued rebuilding. In our "fix-it-fast" culture, it is sometimes hard to fathom that hurricane victims would still need help after three years. But category 5 hurricanes don't leave behind the kind of problems that can be fixed quickly, and thankfully, the churches in my association understand this. 40 volunteers joined us in Gulfport, rebuilt homes, hosted VBS at two churches, and shared the love of Jesus with the people in this area. It was also great to have my family with me on this trip. My lovely wife headed up the kitchen crew, without which we would all have been very hungry!

Now that the fall season is upon us, it looks as if things aren't likely to slow down! The next three Sundays are filled with speaking dates. I'm privileged to speak in a lot of places, but I genuinely love preaching to the churches in my association. My current position doesn't lend itself to close relationships with laity, or to regular Biblical expositional series', and preaching in MMBA churches is the closest I can get to the pastoral role that I so often miss.

September is full as well. The good folks at Southeastern Seminary have invited me to their campus to talk about Maryland/Delaware church planting, along with my good friends David Jackson, and Troy Bush. As an "occassional" professor, I always enjoy being around students, especially those preparing to make sanctified trouble for God's Kingdom. In fact, I'm praying that a couple of future Maryland church planters will be around.

I'm back from North Carolina just in time for our second Frontliner's conference of the year. We held this conference in January, and the response has been outstanding.

Immediately after the conference, I board a plane for Atlanta, where I will speak Sunday at Orange Hill Baptist Church in Marietta. My good friend Spencer Haygood gave me the opportunity to speak to their Missions Conference four years ago, and evidently doesn't think his church has been punished enough! :) It will be great to see the people of Orange Hill again, and it is always an honor to be invited to challenge God's people toward better Great Commission fulfillment.

Oh, and don't tell him, but my son Sam will be joining me on the trip to Atlanta. The trip will be a surprise for him, but I'm also looking forward, in the midst of all the scheduling chaos, to some "father-son" time.

In the meantime, I've had a couple of months to think about a few issues, and although I'm far from a political expert, the upcoming election season provides a great opportunity to address issues the church dare not be silent about. The first item on my list: immigration. More on that later.