Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween, Anfechtung, and the Protestant Reformation

"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scripture, or from plain and clear reason and arguments, I cannot and will not recant. To go against conscience is neither right, nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!" -Martin Luther

Tomorrow evening, Amy and I will join other parents who walk their children around a mall, or church parking lot, or to neighbors houses, in the effort to fill their Halloween bags with candy. Non-profit organizations all over the country will rake in the money by hosting haunted houses and scaring the living daylights out of people who, ironically enough, are paying big money to have the daylights scared out of them.

As is usually the case on October 31, churches are taking advantage of the season by sponsoring “trunk or treat” outreach projects, or taking their youth through a “judgment house.” I find it strange that at this time of year, the church pays so much attention to a holiday that has nothing to do with its history and heritage, and so little attention to the historical event that continues to define us to this day. 495 years ago tomorrow, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a 95-point statement of concern to the door of a church in Wittenburg Germany. This single gesture ignited a movement that resulted in the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, the empowerment of the laity, the uncovering of the true church, and probably most important, the escape from something more terrifying than anything our imaginations could invent on Halloween.

Luther had a word for this terror. He called it Anfechtung. Although there is no English word that corresponds exactly to the German phrase, we know that Luther was expressing the deepest kind of dread and darkness that one experiences when his worst moments of terror, depression, doubt and despair coalesce. Born in 1483, young Luther aspired to practice law, but in 1505 after a near-death experience, he fled to a monastery, and would spend the next decade struggling with doubt about the condition of his own soul.

Living under the constant fear of God’s judgment caused Luther to confess with regularity the slightest offense to his spiritual guide, Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz, who served as the chaplain of the University of Wittenburg where Luther taught Theology, eventually grew tired of Luther’s perpetual appeals for forgiveness and said to him “God is not mad at you. You are mad at God.” Eventually, Luther would come to agree with Staupitz’ assessment. Indeed, Luther admitted later on that he in fact hated God, and came to realize shortly afterward that this hatred was but one part of a fallen will that sought to rebel against the Creator.

Ironically, it was through his assignment teaching Psalms and Galatians that Luther finally began to develop a different picture of God. He discovered that Jesus, in dying on the cross, took our iniquity on Himself, and subsequently, the penalty for such iniquity. In short, Christ took our anfechtung, that terror of God's wrath which the human soul rightly dreads. But it was a prior trip to Rome coupled with his studies in the Scriptures that brought Martin Luther to the conclusion that the Medieval Roman Catholic Church was not interested in taking away anfechtung, but instead profiting from it!

Luther had traveled to Rome because he wanted to see Roman Catholicism at its best. What he found was a cultic center of medevial ecclesiastical power that disappointed him greatly. The selling of “indulgences,” or offerings by which one could supposedly free himself and others from purgatory, found its way to Wittenburg in 1517 by way of the charismatic Johann Tetzel. Commissioned by the Pope himself to finance the building of St. Peter’s Bascillica in Rome, Tetzel stood in the square of the city and with confidence offered his hearers the opportunity to free themselves and their relatives from purgatory, from damnation . . .from anfechtung. His words, while eloquent, stirred anger in Luther:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!

At the end of that same month, October 31, 1517, Luther responded to Tetzel’s message with his 95 theses, and the course was set for an ecclesiastical tidal wave that would eventually be called the Protestant Reformation. Lasting more than three generations, this ecclesiological shift has given us the Scriptures in the language of the people, a theologically informed laity, freedom of religion, and most importantly, the recovery of the Biblical Gospel. Though it was not his original intent to separate from Rome, Luther’s subsequent studies brought him to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism proclaimed a false Gospel.

Likewise, Protestants today rightly deny the existence of a priestly class. We rightfully challenge the legitimacy of a papal office, and contend that the existence of the papacy itself only illustrates the confusion that is propogated when church councils and tradition are seen to carry authority equal to the Scriptures themselves. We rightfully declare that salvation comes not by the imposed sacramental “works” of the church, but instead by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!

Modern Protestantism owes its affirmation of sola Scriptura, sola Christo, sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Deo Gloria to the legacy left us by Martin Luther. But such theological axioms by themselves aren’t much of a legacy, unless they demonstrate efficacy in removing the anfechtung from which Luther so desperately wanted deliverance.

The dread Luther felt prior to his conversion was legitimate, warranted, and deserved. Human beings are born separated from God, become actual transgressors from the moment we are volitionally able to choose, and are as a result the enemies of our Creator. Being the enemy of the One who just gave you the last breath you took is certainly a position in which one should rightfully feel dread. But as Luther discovered, through the substitutionary death of Christ, God has become “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21)

While the masses may spend October 31 taking in the “Saw” trilogy, or watching old “Nightmare on Elm Street” flicks on DVD, followers of Christ should recognize that for the church, October 31 represents much more than fear. To the contrary, this day represents the beginning of a young Monk’s discovery that God, by himself, without human effort, takes away sin, and the appropriate fear of God’s judgment that accompanies such sin.

Halloween is known by our culture as a time to be filled with fear, with dread . . .with anfechtung. But the legacy left us by men like Luther and those who followed serve to remind us every October 31 that God has not given us a spirit of fear! Let's spend this October 31 thanking God for the recovery of the Gospel that made our conversion, and the removal of our fears, possible.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Biblical Values," The Presidency, and the Soul of Evangelicalism

Lots of political conservatives are saying that this may be the most important Presidential election in the history of the country.  I totally agree with them, but for reasons very different than theirs.

Apparently, many evangelical organizations also believe this; to the extent that they seem to be willing to allow the proclamation of the Gospel to take a backseat to politics, if only for a season.  Some of these organizations don't surprise me at all with their posture, as this is a tactic they have used before.  But last week I was personally devastated to see an organization I've loved, respected, supported, and worked with for years bow to the political spirit of the age.  That organization was none other than the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

I don't like focusing on bad news.  Furthermore, I've looked up to Billy Graham since childhood.  He was, and is, one of my heros, and his consistent faithfulness to the Gospel over the years, and his laser-sharp focus on Jesus has been an example I've tried to follow throughout my own comparatively short 20 years in ministry.  But as a guy who serves 12,000 Southern Baptists in 60+ churches, many of whom also work with and support BGEA, I felt I had to point out the error for the benefit of those I serve.

News outlets ran a story last week covering the visit of Presidential Candidate and former MA Governor Mitt Romney to the home of the famed evangelist.  The articles went on to describe a tacit endorsement of the Republican nominee by the Graham organization.  So far, no problem!  If one does a simple comparison of the two primary candidates on issues, there is no doubt that the Governor holds positions on the sanctity of life and a traditional understanding of marriage that are much more consistent with what evangelicals believe.  In light of this, it doesn't surprise or offend me that Billy Graham would speak highly of the Governor, and encourage followers and supporters to cast a vote for President that is consistent with their values.

But then came a sudden shot to the gut, as the media went on to report that the BGEA had, simultaneous with the Governor's visit, removed Mormonism from its list of "cults" on its website.  When asked to explain the move, Ken Barun, spokesman for BGEA said "We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign."  In other words, we have no time to speak about the truthfulness of the Gospel compared to the damnable heresy of Mormonism.  We have an election to win!  It was in reaction to this shocking news that I sent out the following message on my social media feed:

Brokenhearted today as I publicly do something I never thought I'd have to do: Stand against the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

As you can imagine, that post created a swarm of responses and follow-up comments, some of which understood what I was saying, and why I was saying it, while others objected on the grounds that I was simultaneously ruining the good name of a good candidate and rebuking a reputable organization built by the best known and most faithful Gospel preacher in the modern age.

So why did I do it?  For one, this wasn't exclusively about BGEA, as they are not the only evangelical organization that appears to have its Kingdom priorities way out of order this election season.  Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr, responding to questions about the invitation of LU to Governor Romney to address 2012 graduates, simply said "there are bigger issues now, and we can argue about  theology later after we save the country."  Pressed further on this issue by CNN, Falwell Jr went on to say "Liberty has no official position on Mormonism.  Our doctrinal statement does not define Mormonism as a cult.  There are hundreds of professors here.  I'm sure you can find some, like the professor here who authored that course, I'm sure there are some who believe it is a cult.  That's not part of our doctrinal positions."

I'd have several questions for Falwell Jr. in regard to these statements, chief among them being this one:  What could possibly be a "bigger issue" to an evangelical institution than accuracy when it comes to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  How many people are we willing to send to hell in order to "clear the path" for a Mormon to become President of the United States?

So in light of all this, I agree with conservative pundits that this may be the most important election in American history, because it may be the election in which the Evangelical church loses its very soul!

To clarify, I'm not saying that its wrong to vote for a Mormon for President.  I've addressed that issue here, and addressed it over and over, ad nauseum to those who have objected to my public statements on the matter.  I agree with Martin Luther and "would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."  But those who follow Jesus must always remember that in that context, a Turk is still a Turk.  And in the present context, a Mormon is NOT a Christian!

In retrospect, this is what concerns me most about the recent Romney endorsement by the Graham organization.  Billy Graham was, and is, one of my ministry heros.  But I'm sincerely puzzled at his use of phrases like "Biblical values" and "remaining one nation under God," and alligning such phrases with a candidate whose faith confesses the reality of so many "gods" it makes Hinduism look like an Abrahamic faith!

So to be clear, I don't think its wrong for anyone to vote for Mitt Romney, and in fact, I don't think Romney is the problem here.  The problem is evangelical Christians who appear to be in pursuit of the very kind of political power and influence that was sought after by Judas, and are so enraptured by such power that they are willing to hide and minimize soul-damning false teaching in order to attain it.

I want people in the churches I serve to vote in accordance with Biblical values.  But I also want them to recognize that God's Kingdom doesn't advance by political power.  I also want them to believe that absolutely nothing--not even the fate of an entire country--is as important as the accurate proclamation of the Gospel

What will it profit the Evangelical church to gain the whole country, and lose its soul?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Very Special Day

Two years ago today, Amy and I were sitting in a hotel room in Lanzhou, China waiting for a knock at the door that would bring to a conclusion an 18 month journey toward having a new member of the Rainey family.  I was the first one to open the door, and the first one of us to physically set my eyes on this beautiful young lady you see to your left.  :)

Adoptive parents call this a celebration of "gotcha day."  And as I think back on that moment, and every moment that has come afterward, I am so grateful to God, not only for this little girl, but for everything He has taught me through her.  We were already the parents of two boys, but a daughter is different, and this one definitely owns her Daddy's heart!  No one else on earth would be able to convince this scruffy, Harley-riding redneck to cuddle up on the couch and watch a children's program involving fairies who have a British accent.  But I don't mind singing along if it means watching her dance, and seeing her face light up with a smile!

That said, our relationship hasn't always been this way.  In fact, the first time she saw me, she was frightened of me.  Since she had spent the first 18 months of her life in an orphanage, she had probably never seen a man.  She most certainly had never seen a big, hairy white one!  So in many ways, our relationship had to develop very differently.  Four days after we met her, I posted the following journal entry online:

One of the things our agency and other wise people warned us about was the issue of attachment. Sometimes, the child will not adapt well early on to either parent, which creates a high-stress situation for parents and adoptive children that can last for several weeks. The most common scenario however, is that the child attaches to one parent (usually Mom, since many of these children have not had much exposure at all to men in the orphanage) while keeping their distance from the other.

Where our Grace is concerned, it looks like dear ol' Dad drew the short straw. :) She has quickly attached herself to Mom, but continues to be highly suspicious of me.
A couple of days ago Amy jokingly said to Grace "he looks like the abominable, snowman, I know." I quickly corrected my wife, reminding her that we are, in fact, on the Asian continent and therefore I cannot be the abominable snow monster. I must be a Yeti.

It stuck.

Now I'm "the Yeti."

Currently, she occassionally lets me play with her; "play" of course being tightly defined as her throwing toys on the floor and me picking them up to hand back to her. Come to think of it maybe I'm not a Yeti after all. Maybe I'm the golden retriever!

For the past several days its been "two steps forward, one step back" where my new relationship with this little girl is concerned. I'm totally OK with it, and thankful that I was warned in advance of this possibility. Plus, it makes the "connective" moments with her all the more rewarding. But I sense that the best reward through this process is what I'm learning from this little one; a highly spiritual lesson she doesn't even realize she is teaching!

Think about it this way. 18 months ago I began, with my wife, planning to adopt this little one whom I had never met, and who had never met me, into my family. Enormous sums of time and money have been invested in this effort. Now that she is legally ours, she bears my name, my provision, my protection (brief warning to emerging young men, I WILL kill for her!), and all the blessings that come with being a part of a nuclear family. God willing, she will never again know what it means to be hungry. She will never legitimately fear for her future. She will never lack anything she needs, and all of this will be due to her father's provision.

Yet as an adopted child, she doesn't yet fully understand all of this, and so her response to me is one of high suspicion and fear. To her, I'm just a strange, scary-looking Yeti who simply doesn't belong in this new picture she has now become a part of.

At the same time, she doesn't mind sleeping in this lush hotel room I'm providing, nor does she object to all the wonderful new food she has at her disposal because of her new Daddy. Additionally, she also doesn't mind using the Yeti if it suits her purposes. This morning at the breakfast table Mom told her "no," to which she responded by looking up at me, hoping she could "divide the house" and get her way. It would seem that Daddy isn't so scary after all if he can be used to accomplish her agenda.

In short, she now enjoys the full range of blessing that is available to her as an adopted child. But currently, she has no real desire to develop a relationship with the one who has provided these blessings to her.

In other words, she is very much like all the rest of us.

Scripture tells us that before the world was created, God chose us to be His own. Before we were even born He developed a master plan that included us belonging in His family. At the right time, He sent Jesus Christ into time and space to die as our substitute, bearing the wrath of God against sin in our place. Furthermore, He drew us to Himself, and literally "adopted" us into His family, making us co-heirs with His only begotten, blessing us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies, and providing for us what Paul says is an inheritance so great that our natural eyes, ears and brains can't even fathom what is in store for us.

And how do we respond to such great news? From birth, we seek our own way. We treat the Father with disdain. We don't mind enjoying His blessings, its just the relationship with Him that we aren't that interested in. We are sometimes afraid of Him, sometimes using Him, sometimes caustic toward Him, many times abusive of His gifts.

And what does the Father do in response? He continues to love and pursue until we are truly His. He doesn't give up, and He ALWAYS succeeds!

Yep, this darling little girl is teaching me more than she knows. It is truly an honor to be her Daddy, and such a joy to emulate, as much fallen man is able, the actions of my heavenly Father toward my own daughter.

Two years later, this little girl still teaches me much, as do her two older brothers.  Being their father is an undeserved gift from God, and I don't thank Him for these people nearly as often as I should.  Happy "Gotcha Day" Abigail Grace Rainey!  I'm so thankful for all you bring to our family, and without you, our lives would all be infinitely less.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

What Turkish Muslims Taught Me About our Changing World

My job sometimes requires pretty extensive travel, and through my service to our churches, I've had the opportunity to, literally, see the world.  But I've just returned from a trip that I think has had a greater impact on me than any other trip I've taken.

From September 21-30, six area pastors and myself traveled throughout the Republic of Turkey with members of the Muslim community.  This journey actually started more than a year ago with a call from one of our state legislators who is a member of one of our churches.  The Governor of Maryland had included her in a trip to Turkey as part of an eventual "sister-state" agreement that was signed between my state and a province in that country, but once the leader of the Turkish organization discovered that this representative was an evangelical Christian, he expressed hesitation, because, as he put it, "I always thought evangelical Christians hated Muslims."

Seeking to put this false rumor to rest, I reached out to the members of this community, and got a warm embrace in response that has lasted more than a year.  I've been in the company of people from nearly every tribe and tongue, but when it comes to hospitality, no one does it better than the Turkish people!  They are some of the finest and most gracious people I've ever met!  Eventually, this new relationship resulted in their invitation for us to join them in their home country last week.

Let me say that again.  Muslims openly invited more than a half dozen Baptist preachers to the middle east, and even covered a significant portion of the cost of the trip!

During our time abroad with our new friends, I have never experienced such hospitality!  We toured sites together that were important to both Christians and Muslims.  We visited schools, newspapers, and hospitals built by this group in the hopes of improving the lives of others in their home country.  We visited the homes of influential Turkish business leaders and learned of their own involvement in trying to improve conditions, not only in Turkey, but throughout the middle east.  One young pharmacist we met near the border with Syria told me "I want to take what we have done in this city, and spread that peace across the border and throughout this part of the world.  I want my city to be the starting gate for peace."  I love that guy's heart!

It is unfortunate that nearly everything about this part of the world that is broadcast on American news media focuses on extremist elements.  To be sure, those elements are very present (as was demonstrated after our departure with the Syrian violence crossing the border into Turkey), but the so-called "Muslim world" is full of good people who are trying to make a positive difference, and its working!

All of this probably sounds very strange coming from the mouth of an evangelical Christian, and to be sure, my convictions have not changed.  I still believe the Bible is the Word of God.  I still believe Jesus is God, that He was crucified as a substitute for sinners, that he rose bodily from the dead, and that nothing short of repentance and total faith in His death and resurrection will save.  But these convictions don't hold me back from the relationship I now have with my Muslim friends.  On the contrary, they propel me more deeply into relationship with these precious people!

This experience is but one example of how the way we engage the world as followers of Jesus needs to change, and I've addressed that issue in more depth here.  But as we explore further ways to walk together with the Muslim community here, I'm taking several things away from our recent trip that will continue to inform our ongoing relationship.

1. The sincerety of their faith is motivating them to change the world, starting with the region where they live.  Our Turkish-American guide for this trip told me that years ago he asked the question, "why is it that when it comes to science and technology, education, and health care, that the Muslim world seems to lag behind everyone else?"  According to his own testimony, he found mentors within his own faith who believed that Islam should actively engage all these areas, and contribute to the global community.  In short, he and others like him who live in Turkey have found meaning and purpose that they believe is anchored in their faith.

2. The Movement we witnessed in Turkey is cross-generational.  While many young people are "out in front" seeming to make positive waves, older generations are seeing their passion and responding with financial support and other things necessary to accomplish their goals.  Inspired by Imams of centuries past who encouraged Muslims to invite "outsiders" in, they have taken one step further and are taking the initiative to introduce themselves to the non-Muslim world.  They are disheartened by the way the media have focused almost exclusively on the radical elements of their faith, are weary of being automatically identified with those radical elements, and are eager to share the good that is happening throughout the middle east and among Muslims worldwide which is so under-reported.  It was not uncommon for us to visit a home where three or four generations of Turkish Muslims spoke of their commitment to these goals.

3. They speak boldly and loudly to the violent elements in their faith, and so should we!  Though the media pay them little attention (honest appraisal of the positive elements of a movement or religion rarely sells a lot of newspapers or increases viewer ratings), they are quick to condemn violence committed in the name of Islam.  We had barely landed when our guests openly and forcefully condemned the recent attack on our embassy in Libya in response to the "Innocence of Muslims" film made in the U.S., and apologized to us for the way their faith was represented in that violence.  (We responded by condemning the film itself.  The language and sexual content alone should make that film as offensive to Christians as it is to Muslims.  We also acknowledged that idiots are entitled to their 1st amendment rights also!)

Call it propaganda if you want, but the truth is that Muslim critics of violence abound, we just don't listen for their voices. (Harris Zafar is but one example in our own country.)  Instead, we tend to suppress our awareness of the violent tendencies present in ourselves.  Sure, we Christians don't have anyone flying airplanes into skyscrapers.  But when was the last time you heard a Christian openly condemning a violent attack on an abortion clinic, or the bullying of a homosexual?  Our tendency is to see a masked gunman shooting a defenseless young lady who simply wants an education, and blame it on  the inherent violence of Islam.  But I have a few folks in my family tree who, decades ago, also put on masks and intimidated the weak with a burning cross in the background.  That doesn't make Christianity a violent faith, it makes those who appeal to it while committing atrocity cowards!  Our new Muslim friends agree with us that ALL people are created in God's image and likeness, and when violence is done to any of them, the reason doesn't matter.  Such violence should be condemned.

4. This new relationship is a new platform for the very kind of "public square" evangelism in which Paul participated.  You could spend years as a "traditional" missionary in a Muslim country and never achieve the level of access we achieved in a single week!  From the beginning, we have been up front with our Muslim friends regarding what we believe, and told them our greatest desire is for them to come to know Jesus as we know Him.  But we have also stressed that our continued friendship is not contingent on whether they become Christian.  After all, "forced conversion," is not conversion.  It is conquest, and both Christians and Muslims have already given each other too much of that in our history together.

At the same time, I can't help but think that if Paul were alive today, this is precisely the platform he would leverage in order to spread the Gospel.  On several occasions, our group had this opportunity, and we seized it with the blessing of our hosts, most of whom were and are curious about Jesus.  In general, Muslims have great respect for Jesus.  They just don't know much about him, and recognize that Christians spend much more time focusing on Him.  So when they encounter Christians, they are often anxious to hear a story about him.  Though most seminary textbooks on the subject claim that Muslims reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the truth is that many Muslims have never even been offered the opportunity to consider the concept.  In one of my conversations this past week, one man asked "tell me again what you mean by 'Jesus paid the price.'  I've never heard that before!"

5. In our current North American context, walking in close relationship with Muslims is the epitome of being "counter-cultural."  Let's face it.  Most Americans, even Christians, are afraid of Muslims.  We are conditioned by our media, and even most of our political leadership to keep our distance.  So what could possibly be more counter-cultural than our willingness to to walk together with these precious people, and do it publicly?

6. If the Gospel is truly "the power of God unto salvation," then what on earth are we afraid of?  I still believe Romans 1:16-17 is true.  And because I believe this, I want to walk closely with those who have yet to accept its claim.  Our new friends are anxious to talk about faith, and there is much that we hold in common!  But in the midst of discussing those commonalities, I have, and will continue to challenge them concerning the basis for forgiveness, and a sure hope of eternal life.  And I'll do it because they are my friends.

Our group learned much while traveling with our friends, and we look forward to learning more, to engaging them in matters of common interest, and to consistently present the Gospel of Jesus to them at every opportunity.  God is at work in places we too quickly brush off as "lost."  I saw it for myself, and I look forward to experiencing all that He has in store in the future for us, and for our new friends.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Preview of our time in Turkey

I've just returned from a great trip to the Republic of Turkey, along with six Maryland pastors.  We were hosted in that country for the past nine days by our friends in the Muslim community, and enjoyed a wonderful time of getting to know each other better, and where we had opportunity, sharing what we believe about Jesus.

I plan to post much more information in the coming days.  Currently, I'm at home seeking to recover from a pretty significant sinus condition I acquired overseas.  But below is a quick snapshot into one of the areas where we traveled together.

More details on this trip will be revealed at the annual meeting of our Association THIS SUNDAY!  I hope you can join us for this annual celebration of our collective mission work.  Currently, our churches are cooperating together in 16 different areas here in central Maryland and all around the globe, and the video below is just a small sample of the great stories you will hear this Sunday night.

Again, information on that meeting is here: