Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Far as the Curse is Found: Celebrating Christmas in a World of Terror

I believe all of the Bible is God's inspired Word, but of all the books it contains, I personally love Isaiah the most!

Its beautiful literary structure is unmatched among his Biblical contemporaries.  His clarity and boldness in a context of people who found his words difficult to believe is refreshing and timely.  And the hope he describes--a hope that transcends his own day and is easily applicable to our own--is the reason I turn so often to this phenomenal piece of Divinely-inspired ancient wisdom.  And this is never more true than at Christmastime.

Our family celebrates Advent in our home every year, and I have purposefully kept us between the pages of Isaiah this year.  A couple of weeks ago, we were focused on the theme of "peace," and my 10-year-old son was given the assignment of reading from Isaiah 16:1-5.  Its a beautiful foretelling of a coming end to oppression.  In its immediate context, the prophet is speaking of the Moabites eventually seeking shelter, peace, and protection among God's people.  But this is a peace that comes as a result of a not-yet-established throne.  It is a throne that will be occupied by a descendant of David.  In other words, the peace that will come to the people of Judah will ultimately come from a Kingdom not yet manifest on earth.

The wider context of this passage (chapters 13-23) supports this by discouraging reliance on any other foreign powers.  Indeed, the main thrust of Isaiah's message to the people of his own day was quite simple:  Trust in the Lord for your security.  Do not trust in foreign alliances.

Something tells me that's a relevant subject for our own day.

We live in a world that is permeated with violence and terror.  Elementary schools get shot up in this world.  Christmas parties get interrupted with bloodshed in this world.  Movie theaters are attacked in this world.  And in the wake of every tragedy, our culture cries out for prevention.  How can we keep this from ever happening again?

Its an understandable question, but one that ultimately has no answer in this temporal world.  To be sure, precautions can be taken, vigilance can be assumed, and laws can even be passed that might help minimize the carnage.  But you can't legislate away the evil hearts which are the origin of these barbarous actions.  And evil hearts aren't confined only in the bodies of a few people who own guns, or a few others who follow radical Islam.  There is one present in each of us.

Yet still, we think the solution is to rely on alliances with certain methodologies and those who subscribe to them.  More recent discussions have revealed this to be an ever-present theme in this upcoming election year.  One party thinks banning guns is the answer.  The other party wants to ban Muslims--keep any more from coming into our country.  (I'm still waiting on someone to suggest banning white guys from movie theaters and public schools, but haven't heard that call just yet.  But I digress.)

And these ideologies teach us that there is a fine line between healthy vigilance and irrational fear.  Vigilance is good and wise.  Fear that moves us to place our ultimate trust in something other than God is useless, and sometimes can motivate us to do things to others that are, candidly, antiChrist.

And why do we behave in such ways?  Because we fall prey to the same sense of false security that was possessed by those in 8th century B.C. Judah.  We may have smart phones and cable news, but where human nature is concerned, it would appear not much has changed in the last 2800 years.

So perhaps when we read a book like Isaiah, we should see our reflection.  To a people that looked to political savy, and the right international relationships to forge security, Isaiah's message was clear for at least ten straight chapters.  Both Babylon and her king would crash like a star from heaven (Chapter 14).  Philistia will be undone from within (Chapter 14).  Moab will be stripped of her resources (Chapter 15).  Damascus will diminish into a heap of ruin (Chapter 17).  Cush will be quickly and suddenly defeated (Chapter 18).  Egypt's power will wane to the point of impotency (Chapter 19.)  Tyre will be reduced to a fishing village surrounded by rubble (Chapter 23).  One by one, as if marking off a regional map, the prophet says to God's people "that nation won't help you.  Those people can't protect you."  And the destruction doesn't stop until Jerusalem herself is consumed.

What is the lesson?  The only real security God's people have is God Himself.  And when we put our ultimate trust in other things--laws, restrictions, national security, alliances with others who promise to keep us safe--God reminds us that eventually, each of these will fail us.

So where does hope come from in an age of terror?

Politics?  "My" candidate will be elected, and he/she will protect me!  Yeah, if you are looking for security from any political leader, you're probably better off just finding a bed to hide under.

The military?  We have the best fighting force in the history of humanity, and I'm very grateful for the men and women who volunteer to defend our nation.  But let's be honest.  They can't protect us from everything.  In fact, if it happens in the homeland, they aren't supposed to!

Geography?  Perhaps there is someone reading this thinking to themselves; "but Joel lives near Washington, D.C.  I don't live there, or in New York, or Los Angeles.  No one even knows I'm here!  My inconspicuousness will be my security!"  Not so fast.  There are only 3000 people living in Bart Township PA, but the nondescript nature of that area did nothing to stop Charles Roberts from opening fire on a school in 2006.  Low population areas are just as prone to violence.

Laws?  "Maybe we should just ban guns."  Most firearms are already banned in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Ask those cities how that's working out for them as they try to curb violence.  Talk to the residents of Paris and ask them whether a gun ban guarantees protection.  I'm not averse to a discussion about how to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but let's not kid ourselves by thinking we can take away any chance of violence by passing a law.  Conversely, while a lot of liberals would like to ban guns, too many conservatives are seriously musing about banning Muslims.  Not only would such an action confirm the narrative ISIS is trying to perpetuate, it fuels the lie that evil is found in any one particular religion.  ALL have sinned.  Evil resides in every heart, including yours and mine, and as long as we live among other people, we will have to contend with the possibility of evil, no matter the religious faith or weapon of choice.  If you don't believe that, try going to Macy's on Black Friday.  Our true nature as fallen human beings is never move obvious than when we are willing to trample another for a 15% discount.

Eschatology?  "We will be raptured out of here before the worst of it starts."  I'm not a "Left Behind" series kind of guy when it comes to the end of the age.  I actually hope my pre-tribulational brothers and sisters are right.  But even if they are, no rapture has yet to deliver us from 9/11, Aurora, Newtown, Paris, Mali, or San Bernadino

If Isaiah were still writing today, I think he might make mention of each of these, and along with Judah's hoped-for foreign alliances, remind us that eventually, they all fail us.  Hope can't be found here.  It can only be found in God.

In other words, genuine hope begins by recognizing and admitting that we are far more vulnerable  than we think we are.

The basis for our hope isn't that we can keep calamity from happening.  Our hope rests in a sovereign God who rules over it, and who 2000 years ago sent His Son into a world that was just as violent as our own.  He didn't seek protection from it.  He lived in it, died at its hand, rose from the dead in triumph over it, and offers His followers that same resurrection power--a power that can only be fully realized in the context of vulnerability.  That kind of hope produces a boldness that Martin Luther described many centuries ago:

Let goods and kindred go
this mortal life also
The body they may kill
God's Truth abideth still
His Kingdom is forever!

People who have placed their ultimate hope in Jesus can live like that.  And people who live like that can celebrate Christmas even in the worst of circumstances.  Because people who live like that know that eventually, the same Christ who incarnated Himself among us will return.  Those temporal things we have trusted to "keep us safe" will vanish, because they won't be needed.  As G.F. Handel wrote so eloquently:

No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.  Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

Followers of Jesus can celebrate Christmas in hope and peace, no matter what transpires around us.  That is the promise of the Gospel for you and me this Christmas.  But its also a promise aimed at the rest of the world--a promise we have been entrusted to deliver through the greatest message in all of human history.  Don't be afraid.  Don't seek factitious peace in temporary assurances of your mortal safety.  Be wise and vigilant, not reactionary and paranoid.  And in the process, follow Jesus as He continues from heaven the mission He began in our history 2000 years ago; to bring blessing and peace.....

...far as the curse is found.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Paris Attacks and American Christianity: A French Brother's Challenge

"Government should be set up so that no man need live in fear of another."  -Montesquieu

The recent terror attacks in Paris ignited a fresh debate among many western nations, including the United States, about how we should relate to one another, and more particularly, how do we balance civil liberties with national security?

For followers of Jesus, our questions must go deeper, and the questions we need to ask are impossible to answer without a comprehensive understanding of what transpired in France.  Some weeks ago, my office was contacted by Gilles Lisimaque, a brother in Christ who attends Upper Seneca Baptist Church in our Network.  

Born and raised just outside of Paris, Gilles has lived in the United States for the past 25 years and has been a US citizen for more than 17 years.   Professionally, Gilles is a security expert, partner with ID Technology, and has been involved for more than 28 years in developing smart cards which are now used in Bank cards and Government Identification Systems. Gilles has been involved in setting technical standards for identification and finance security nationally, and has been one of the world's leading experts in smart card specifications and applications.  Additionally, he has advised multiple US government agencies on matters of national security relative to the country's individual identification systems.

Gilles is a father of two, and grandfather of six, and is the proud patriarch of a multicultural family that now spans three generations.  He maintains close relationships in Paris with his family and contacted our office wanting to offer his perspective to American Christians--feeling that there is much that is misunderstood about what transpired in his home country that is fueling necessary fear in the United States.  Most importantly, he is concerned about the efficacy of Christian witness in America.

In short, Gilles' background involves striking the appropriate balance between security concerns relative to the preservation of liberty, and the Christian mandate to lovingly engage the world Jesus died for.  I was delighted through this interview to get to know a man who believes these concerns are not mutually exclusive, and my hope is that readers will gain a fresh perspective on what transpired in his country that will help Christians here better respond to the world in which we find ourselves.  An edited transcript of our conversation is below:  Please note that the San Bernadino terrorist attack was not mentioned in this interview.  This is because the interview took place just a few days prior to those events. That event and others will be discussed at a subsequent event this coming spring called "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism."  More information on that conference is below. 


JR:  Let's jump right to the point of this conversation.  What is the biggest misconception Americans have about what happened in Paris?

GL: Since you and I spoke first, this has changed, because much more information has come out since then, nevertheless it does seem that the American perception hasn't really changed.  The biggest misconception is that the Paris terrorists were foreigners--that they were not Europeans but instead immigrants, when the facts are that they were French or Belgian citizens.  They were born in Europe, and were citizens by birth..  All these people had probably been helped by the social welfare of the state, but for some reason they did not integrate.  It seems they were raised in what we could call in the US a "ghetto", with people of the same origin and the same poverty level.  As I understand, similar things happen here in black neighborhoods, where there is little work, little help, little hope and a feeling of rejection, where hate and resentment is every day’s feeling, ending up in crime and use of weapons to kill each other.

JR: So you are saying that in that situation, a radical ideology gives them an identity?

GL:  Yes.  When I was young, I had an experience similar to this.  France, as you may know, is mainly a Catholic country.  I was raised in a Protestant family.  Devout Catholics in my neighborhood would not allow their children to play with me.  When that happens, you don't feel like you are integrated, acknowledged, and loved but ostracized.  And that was between Christians!  It’s probably because of that experience that growing up 20 Km from Paris I never felt I truly felt at ease  in such a culture. I must say not all French people are this way, it was more an exception than the rule, and it has changed for the better since I was young, but nevertheless it is an emotional scar you keep as a child.

I've been here in America for 25 years now, and I've never felt that kind of rejection.  But again, I'm Protestant who now live in a predominantly Protestant country.  So I can understand why those of a different faith than me might feel rejected, and as a result be hesitant to integrate into the larger society.  People won't seek to integrate if they feel no one wants them.

JR: So the result is that they created their own community that replicate their culture of origin because they feel as though they don't belong in French community at large?

GL:  Well, they stay together.  But the "ghetto" isn't something they always wanted to create.  Outside people create a wall around them because they don't want to go into it--in much the same way that a wall was built to separate the Jews from the rest of society in Europe decades ago.  People think "these people don't dress like me.  They don't think like me.  So they should stay there and I will stay over here."

JR:  That's surprising to me, because when I think of France as an American, I think of a very tolerant nation that's open to anyone and anything.

GL:  On one hand, that's true.  But on the other hand, we've had lots of immigrants, for example, from North Africa, and these movements created a cultural shock that decades later, we have not completely overcome.  Many (but not the majority yet) French people put up walls between themselves and immigrants to their country, and this fuels the isolation.

JR:  Are there any parallels that you see between what happened in France and what you are experiencing in America now?

GL:  When I came to America, I was very surprised by the racial divide.  The "black/white" divide that has been there since I moved here 25 years ago was very similar to the "French/North African" divide I had experienced in France.  Some had horrible attitudes toward black Americans; "they aren't civilized.  All they do is kill each other."  That sort of thing.  We allowed differences in culture, music, and other things to justify keep us isolated from each other.  The difference of course, between these scenarios, is that Black Americans by majority are Christian, so we share the same faith.  As a consequence, many leaders on both sides were able to appeal to that commonality to diffuse the situation.

JR: You are speaking of Martin Luther King and others?

GL: Precisely.  Christianity was the common faith that called us all together and helped quell the fights between black and white.  So in America it was about race, and in France it is about culture and faith, but this is just a "different difference."  Both are rooted in cultural differences.  And to me, that's the parallel.  When I was fulfilling my French military service, I was a police officer.  At that time, we were seeing numerous immigrants from North Africa, and a number of jokes arose among the police about them.  This was because we would get many complaint calls from residents whose North African neighbors were keeping goats on their balconies, or storing coal for heating in their bathtubs. It was a different way of living.  Not right or wrong, just different cultures, in different places.  But because we never tried to understand or befriend, only isolate and make fun that widened the divide.  This was fifty years ago and would not happen today. By then that stereotype was given to stigmatize the whole community.

And that was what I learned from my experience as a French police officer.  Ghettos are too often created by people on the outside of it that form a wall and inside the wall, it feels safer for those stigmatized as “different.” As I said before, it has created a posture that says "I don't know these people.  They don't look like me.  They don't dress like me.  They should just stay over there."

JR: That's actually a pretty devastating thought; that we "created" the ghetto.

GL: Yes, but I think that's really our problem as Christians.  We are unwilling to listen to differences because it could offend us, make us ask questions.  I don't know who they are, but why don't we listen?  Of course we have different beliefs, languages, and cultures, but we need to try to learn about each other.  When I came here, it was a challenge to learn about American culture and society, and try to figure things out.  I was able to do so because I was not rejected right away for being different. I had to listen a lot in order to do that, and I am still learning.

JR:  I'm sure, and we are a pretty loud bunch.

GL:  (laughter) Yes, that is the case with some, but I've learned that sometimes we make assumptions about how people behave because we simply don't know them.  For example, there is a stereotype I've heard that many Americans have, that says the French are rude.  This isn't as widely accepted an assumption as it was 10 years ago.  Often this opinion is formed because of the experiences Americans they had 20 years ago while traveling to Paris and visiting the various merchants.  This is because they don't understand a fundamental difference in our cultures.  In America, you browse from the inside of a store.  In France, you do it from the outside, and when you enter the store, you enter to buy.  And so if you enter the shop and don't buy anything, especially in a small one, you have taken the time of the retailer for nothing.

When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman, He talked about commonalities, and only after he listened to her he said "one day you will see worship happen everywhere, not just in Jerusalem." Proving an opening, hope, understanding, I think that's the way we should interact with people.

JR:  What are some practical ways to overcome the isolation that you would suggest?

GL:  First, information should always come from multiple sources, and those sources should be compared and contrasted.  We live in a world where we have access to American, British and European, Asian and Middle Eastern news sources.  If you only listen always to what you want to hear you can never form an intelligent, informed opinion.  You just believe to only one voice which may not be as open as they say they are. We need all those sources of information (different point of views) to form a....what is the English word I am looking for?

JR: Perspective?

GL:  No, I am thinking about......when you have two mountains and a valley in between there is a...

JR: Depth?

GL:  Yes, we need to understand the full depth of these issues.

JR:  Our English metaphors can be difficult.

GL:  (laughter) yes.  Well, this depth is important, because if we don't have it we will want to put whole groups of people in a silo, and then anyone identified in that way gets the same kind of treatment.  For example, there are in the US religious groups in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and or Ohio who decided, as a community, to live in with each other in a certain way.  It doesn't violate the law, so this is fine, this is not what I call a ghetto.  Here in Maryland, parts of Montgomery County were "dry" for years, because people there said "we want to live in community in a certain way."  It didn't mean you couldn't drink alcohol, only that you couldn't buy it in that community.  We should respect local communities and their identities, and we can do that if we govern by abiding by the majority.  The majority is what a democracy should be.  My freedom stops where the liberty of the other person starts.  That's not easy, and it’s impossible to do if we don't know each other, if we do not listen to the other person with respect.  Otherwise, we violate the liberty of others without even knowing it.

JR: And in a working democracy, the fleshing out of that is far more difficult than we admit.

GL: Oh it is difficult, because my liberty has to do with what I think I can do, and the other person has another way of thinking about the same right, and so where it starts and stops, has to do with respect, understanding, and knowledge of others become so important if we want to live in a democratic society.

JR: So, should Americans traveling to Paris be afraid?

GL:  Of who?  The French people?

JR: (laughter)  I know it’s a bit of a softball question, but when there is fear, you have to understand people will be asking questions like this.

GL:  Yes I understand, and I would say it’s no more dangerous than here in Washington, D.C.  I mean, come on!  You could be the victim of violence anywhere.  When you get on a plane, it might go down, you drive a car, and you may have an accident.  The probability is low, but it could happen.  We are Christians.  We use wisdom and assess risk, and know that we are ready to go if our time has come

Note:  This spring, we are following up this interview with a conference entitled "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism," in partnership with the Montgomery Baptist Association.  The conference will involve a panel discussion led by churches in that Association, which boasts the second most diverse ZIP code in the United States.  Details are forthcoming.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Why are You Afraid?

My wife will tell you that I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, especially when it comes to quickly picking up on things.  But a trend is afoot in the American church that is so obvious, you'd have to be asleep to miss it.

And the trend is this:  Followers of Jesus in the west are increasingly filled with fear.

Never has this fear been seen more clearly than in the west's reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris--and in particular in our disposition toward refugees seeking safety from that same wicked ideology.  From a political standpoint, followers of Jesus can, in good conscience, disagree regarding the best ways to care for these people, and we can also have differing opinions on how secure the vetting process is for refugees.  Followers of Jesus realize that compassion and wisdom are not mutually exclusive concepts.  But too much of what I've seen among American Christians has been fueled by fear and irrational disdain toward needy people.

But make no mistake: the reactions to Paris are merely the symptoms of a much deeper spiritual issue among too many Christians in the west.  As we witness the various changes taking place in our world, we are witnessing fear from those who once felt most secure in the old world.

This fear is manifest in several ways, but mostly, I see it coming out in a paranoid way through people--and sometimes entire ministries--dedicated to criticizing any attempt to engage culture.  Sure, we can cross the line and compromise Biblical principles, but between the guy who occasionally goes too far and has to repent, and the guy who does nothing because he fears going to far, put that first guy on my team!

Our world is changing, and doing so more rapidly than at any other time in human history.  For a church that was so sure of itself just decades ago because of the relatively prominent place we held in western society, these changes feel threatening, principally because they make us Unsure.  But as frightening as it may be to think of engaging the world in new and fresh ways, there is something we should fear even more.

The more I observe the modern paralysis in the western church, the more I'm reminded of a well-known parable of Jesus.  In Matthew 25, a landowner entrusts three of his servants with varying degrees of oversight--five talents to one, two to another, and one to the last. The first two went to work using the resources that had been given to them, and doubled their investment by their master's return, but the third buried his talent.

So when the master returns, he rewards the first two servants with more opportunity and responsibility, but took particular exception to the third, who told him "I know you.  Your'e a difficult man, reaping where you haven't sown and gathering where you haven't scattered seed.  So I was afraid, and went off and hid your talent in the ground."  (25:24-25, HCSB)

The thing about Mason jars is that while they protect money and keep it from getting dirty, they don't earn anything either.  And, this Master apparently didn't care if his money got a little dirty.  He wanted a return on his investment!

Keep in mind that this is one of three stories linked together to teach us about the Kingdom.  The point?  Our Master expects us to engage, and He expects us to produce.  And what is the one thing that kept the last servant from doing what his Master expected?  

Three words:  "I was afraid."

People driven by fear are actually pretty easy to spot:

1. They dismiss any expectations beyond "faithfulness."  "We aren't responsible for the results.  We are just supposed to be faithful."  Sounds great doesn't it?  Problem is, it just ain't true! Now, if by "results" you mean sheer numbers, then you may have a point.  God doesn't call every pastor to lead a mega-church, we are all gifted in different ways, and sometimes the results of our labors will look very different.  But a casual perusal of any parable about the Kingdom, or just reading the Sermon on the Mount, reveals quickly that Jesus expects results.  Salt can't help but preserve. Light naturally illuminates.  And when we are granted stewardship of the most powerful and effective story in history, you'd better believe Jesus expects us to do something with it that results in transformation.  Dismissing those demands by surface level appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:6 or other similar texts is the mental equivalent of putting the gifts God has given you 6 feet under for safe keeping. There is no "increase" without planting and watering, but the latter ALWAYS leads to the former in some form.

2. They see "compromise" in every attempt to engage.  In 1790, there was virtually no Christian presence that existed in the world that was further than 100 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean.  It was in that environment that a young William Carey realized the need for alternative means to reach people with the message of Jesus, and in spite of his hyper-Calvinist detractors, his efforts launched the modern missions movement.  Over the next century, the world would know of Jesus through rapid evangelism and church planting efforts that would eventually mean a Christian presence in most nations.  

Nearly 300 years later, the modern era has come to an end, and we are witnessing a massive and rapid shift  and collision of cultures like never before.  Where is the next William Carey?  My guess is he will emerge from one of the many being currently flayed by critics too afraid to join him in his efforts to engage the postmodern world.  Historically unprecedented global migration patterns, which came as a result of now inexpensive global travel and rapid technological advance, has "reset" boundaries of every sort and kind in this new world.  The modern world, which was marked by hard national, tribal, linguistic, religious and even ethic and racial lines is gone.  Everyone now lives everywhere, and thus the way we interact with the world has to reflect this new reality.  But those too anxious to hunch and feel their way through this new global arrangement tend to see compromise rather than effective engagement

3. They have little confidence in the efficacy of the Gospel.  Paul put it this way:  The Gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."  I still believe this.  The grand story of God's redemptive mission by sending Jesus into the world has no equal in the universe!  No other vain, empty philosophy even comes close!  So if its really true, and it its really that powerful, why is there such fear among Christ followers just because the world has changed?

The only conclusion I can reach is one of tragic irony:  Too many followers of Jesus are actually afraid of the world He died to save!

Maybe its because we want the "old days" back when we sat in comfort atop the mountain of cultural superiority.  Maybe we long for the days when all the non-Christians were "over there," and even those who were "over here" didn't have that much influence.  

In this present world, when my neighbor is as likely to be a Hindu as a Presbyterian, its harder to be trite, simplistic, and distant from those who don't follow Jesus. "Sunday School" answers to their questions just won't cut it.  I'm actually going to have to use my head, and in the process, build a relationship with someone with a radically different worldview.

Yep, I can understand why we would prefer the old world.  But you and I live right here, right now, and Jesus has given us the world we have.  One day, He is coming back.  On that day, will you have your shovel in one hand, and a dirty Mason Jar in the other?  Or, will you have found ways to invest the Gospel in this brave new world in a way that will cause Him to say "well done, good and faithful servant."?

Jesus is Lord over the whole earth, and every part of it, and His is the most wonderful, and powerful story in all of human history, and He has given it to you.  What on earth are you afraid of?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A New and Exciting Chapter is Beginning: An Announcement from the Raineys

For the past 11 years I have had the privilege to serve Maryland/Delaware Baptists.  When our family moved to central Maryland in January of 2005, it was because an association and a state convention had decided to take a chance on a very young and very untested man.  I will be forever grateful for the confidence, financial support, prayers, and cooperation given me by these wonderful people.

Nevertheless, for about four years now I have been asking the Lord to allow me to be a local church pastor once again.  As best as I understand Scripture compared with the way my denominational tribe is structured, there is no more strategic leadership role in my denomination than the local church pastor.  To be sure, I also place a high value on effective Directors of Missions and those who tirelessly serve our churches at the state convention level--folks who candidly, have not been given a fair assessment by our tribe over the past several years.  And I work with some of the best in the nation!  We just came off of a fantastic annual celebration in Maryland-Delaware, and I am both confident in our Convention leadership, and excited about our collective future.

But for me, that future will involve a different role--one that I am elated to assume.  Just a few days ago, the wonderful people at Covenant Church, Shepherdstown, WV, voted in sync with the unanimous recommendation of the Elders and search team to call me as their next Lead Pastor.  I can't tell you how excited I am to once again have the opportunity to shepherd a group of God's people.

I will begin my duties there in February, so the next two months will be dedicated to enjoying the holidays, tying up loose ends in my current role, and helping our Convention leadership with any other issues needed during the transition.  I am happy that Covenant, which sits geographically in the West Virginia panhandle a stone's throw from the Potomac River and the Maryland state line, is also a part of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network--which means I will still be able to work in cooperation with this network of churches I've grown to love so much over the past decade.

Additionally, my global work will come with me to my new ministry field.  There is still much work to be done around the world as we in the west continue to acclimate to global engagement beyond the "modern missions" era, and the leadership at Covenant have embraced that calling as well, which allows me to continue serving Jesus in this way from what I believe will be a far more potent platform.

I will also continue to serve as an adjunct faculty member at Southeastern Seminary, and look forward to continuing to guide Maryland doctoral students through the process of attaining their Doctor of Ministry degrees--though I will be departing from any other teaching roles for the moment in order to focus more intently on the flock God is giving me.

As I anticipate this transition, things will slow significantly for a while here at the site, so I would ask my readers to be patient with me during some times when I need to turn my attention toward learning the people God has blessed me to serve during this next phase of my life and ministry.  Eventually, I'll be back more often.  Plus, you never know when I might show up with my friends at SBCVoices, or

Our family is very excited to begin this new journey together, and we would greatly appreciate your prayers as we prepare for this next chapter.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Definitions Matter, Especially Theological Ones: What is an Evangelical?

“Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate.”  -Henry Louis Mencken

“To be Evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the Good News of Jesus.”  -An Evangelical Manifesto 

“Truly truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  -Jesus, John 3:3

Last week, the National Association of Evangelicals, in partnership with Lifeway Christian Resources, released a revised and concise definition of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.

This has been an ongoing conversation for many decades.  As a servant to more than 560 churches, I was encouraged to see the core of our faith represented in this revised definition, and I believe the NAE and Lifeway have been successful in simultaneously moving us away from a primarily political understanding of this term, and "tightening the screws" to provide a more clear and robust theological definition that centers around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Often evangelical Christians are pigeon-holed into one particular cultural, political, or societal sector, when the truth is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most globally inclusive message in the worlld!  

At the same time, any movement with a center also has a boundary line.  Over the past few years, a number of prominent writers, pastors, musicians, and others who identify as Christian have struggled with whether they should continue to wear the term "Evangelical," or if they should seek to reform the meaning of the term by re-drawing those aforementioned boundaries.  In short, Evangelicalism in the west has been in an identity crisis.  And given the subject matter we have been discussing that has led us to this point, count me among those who think this is a good thing. .

Sometime ago, I wrote an article aimed at non-Christians outlining a more precise, and ironically, a more global view of Evangelical Christian identity.  The article was picked up by, and an edited  version can be found here.   But my original draft appears below.  My hope is that those seeking more information about Evangelicalism will hear in the following words who we really are, and what our common and central passions are.  Who are Evangelicals?  Keep reading!

For some, no group in North America is easier to hate, or more difficult to understand, than evangelical Christians.  Admittedly, some who wear this label often fit the negative stereotype that has come to be associated with the term, and too often, loud voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals spread a message that is less like Jesus Christ, and more like a political agenda or a cultural crusade.  Reactions to the term “evangelical” can be quite strong.  “Isn’t that the group who hates women and gay people?”  or  “Aren’t these the people who are afraid of science and societal advance?”   These assumptions understandably make some people nervous, and leave many wondering “exactly what do these people believe?”

But at its core, the evangelical message is not captive to any political philosophy or particular social agenda.  The core of the evangelical message, in fact, transcends political party, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and culture, and points ultimately to a God who loves all and desires for all to know Him.

Where did they come from?

Historically, Evangelical movements in the west emerged in the 17th century.  At that time in the United States, the movement was primarily forwarded in churches led by men such as Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts pastor who also served for a brief time as President of Princeton University.  The movement continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and stressed virtue and personal devotion to God.

A great number of our nations hospitals (such as Vanderbilt) and institutions of higher learning (such as Princeton University and Brown University) were started by evangelicals. In fact, every educational institution started in the United States up until 1789—with the single exception of the University of Pennsylvania—was started by a Christian denomination. The men and women who founded these institutions applied the message of Jesus to the enlightenment mindset that was prevalent at the time.  Their goal was to affect society as a whole in a positive way through the tangible expression of their Christian faith.  Literary works of this time period were also produced in this environment.  Today, students come to the United States from all over the world in order to attend western universities.  All of the top ten MBA programs in the world are in the west (8 in the United States, 1 in Canada and 1 in Great Brittain).  This reality is due in large part to the contribution of evangelical Christians who, centuries ago, implemented a vision for the betterment of culture through top quality and accessible education.

Additionally the “scientific revolution” was started in large part by Christians, who introduced an inductive “scientific method” to the world.  Christians believed then, as they do today, that God has revealed Himself in nature, as well as in the human psyche.  The 17th century chemist Robert Boyle stated that nature “is nothing else but God acting according to certain laws he himself fixed.”  Assumptions such as these provided an environment for the study and extension of mathematics and science in the west.  Though there were certainly those within Christian circles who opposed scientific advance, the truth is that these objections never represented the consensus of the Christian community

Evangelical thought has affected virtually every part of modern western society.  It was Christians who gave the world of art such notable painters and sculptors as Botticelli and Raphael.  Western classical music likewise, continues to be informed and inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and Handel’s “Messiah.”  Sociologist Rodney Stark admits that “the modern world arose only in Christian societies…..all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.”

What do they want?

Though evangelicals are often portrayed as being “against” culture, the aim of this group of Christians is to see culture redeemed and restored to God’s original intention.   Complementary evangelical beliefs in original sin and the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ have fueled attempts to create the kind of ideal environments in which this redemption can truly take place. 

Such were the convictions that led England's William Wilberforce to champion the cause of the abolition of slavery, eventually putting it to an end throughout the United Kingdom by the early part of the 19th century. The history of this group of Jesus’ followers demonstrates their strong contribution to uniquely western ideals.  

Freedom of religion is based on the evangelical belief that only personal faith in Jesus saves and therefore, the state should not dictate religious belief to the masses.   Principled pluralism rests on the evangelical conviction that “forced conversion” is in fact no conversion at all.  It is rooted also in the conviction that adherents to all faiths should learn to live peaceably with each other, and that each should be free in mind to pursue the truth. Belief in universal human rights and just warfare are grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s own image and likeness, and that therefore, each is worthy of dignity and respect.  Even the idea of separation of church and state owes its existence to a group of Baptist evangelicals who  were concerned about the encroachment of the state’s power into the life of the church. 

Throughout history, evangelicals have sought to advance civilization through principles that they believed were found within God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture and in nature.  That same spirit permeates the evangelical mindset today.  Evangelicals’ interaction with science, education, sociology, and culture at large is for the purpose of utilizing all those domains to better society, and communicate the Christian message in the process. 

What do they really believe?

These aspirations are motivated by the core beliefs of evangelical Christianity—belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the role of the church in society, and the urgency of global missions and humanitarian work.  Most importantly, evangelical action is based on the conviction that God has fully and finally revealed Himself to all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. 

So to truly understand what it means to be “Evangelical,” one must unplug this term from its occasional ties to American politics and culture wars.  Evangelicals can be found in “red states” as well as “blue states.”  Members in good standing of Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green Parties include devoted followers of Jesus, and all believe that the great unifier is not political affiliation, race, gender, or societal status, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

Historian David Bebbington has identified four primary beliefs which form the "glue" that holds the global Evangelical community together.  These make up what Bebbington calls the "Quadrilateral of Priorities."

1. The need for every person to be "born again" to have eternal life (a personal conversion)
2. The supremacy of Biblical authority.
3. Salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
4. Active sharing of the Gospel through evangelism.

At heart, evangelicals are simply bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, who Himself loved humanity enough to enter our world and do what was necessary to bring healing, understanding, and deliverance from ourselves into a genuine relationship with Him.  Evangelicals don’t always follow Him perfectly, but more than anything, their desire is that the world would see who Jesus is through their words and actions.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pastor and Politics: Some Guidelines in an Election Year

A year from now, we will have a new "President-elect."  But for several months already, pundits, politicians, and the general public have been stewing over what could be one of the most vitriolic and controversial elections so far in the 21st century.

During times like these, people of faith need the guidance of their pastors.  But over the years, I've seen a couple of approaches by a few men of God that just aren't helpful.  On the one hand, there are those who completely ignore the political landscape on the basis that "I don't talk about politics."  While I can understand the desire not get drawn in to debates over a kingdom that all who preach God's Word know is temporary, there is a big difference between refusing to go down the political rabbit hole, and acting as though the coming elections aren't a reality.

On the other end of the spectrum are hyper-partisan pastors who call out those they perceive to be less-than-desirable candidates, and distribute "voter guides" with all the passion of a Jehovah's Witness with the latest edition of the Watchtower.  

In the middle- most of our people want to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the voting booth via thinking critically about all the issues involved, and how their vote is likely to impact those issues.  But to provide them the guidance they need, Pastors need to strike a balance between ignoring an entire year on the political calendar, and looking over the shoulders of our people as they cast their votes.  How do we do this?  Let me suggest some general guidelines:

1. Talk about Issues, not Personalities.  Sure, its easier to take pot-shots at politicians than it is to take apart and examine the issues being debated.  When issues arise, especially in national campaigns, apply the teaching of the Scriptures to those issues.  Trust me, your people are intelligent enough to be able to take the grid you give them and hold it up against the candidates.  You don't have to attack an individual.  That may be how they do it on MSNBC or FOX News, but you are called to a much higher standard.

2. Love all, serve all, and have your picture made with all.  Some weeks ago, a friend sent me this video of a group of pastors praying over Presidential candidate Donald Trump.  When granted those opportunities, I think its a fantastic opportunity to speak to, counsel with, and pray for those who seek public office.  But two questions came to mind as I watched this:  First, why a camera?  If you are truly seeking to bless a political leader by praying for their personal needs, wouldn't you want to keep that--well--personal?

Second, I wondered to myself; "How many of these pastors would have done the same for Hillary Clinton?  And would they have been OK with that event being filmed?"  As ministers of the Gospel, we are sometimes granted great opportunities to be in the presence of political power.  When we are granted that audience, our primary concern should be pastoral.  That means we seek to minister to the soul of the politician (yes, they have them too!), and our doors are open to anyone, meaning the last thing on our minds is "how is this going to look?"  When it comes to the candidates themselves, love them all with the love of Jesus--not to gain access to power or get your business card in their hands, but because you care about their souls.

3. Never, under any circumstances, endorse a candidate.  Yes, I believe the "Johnson amendment" is wrong and unconstitutional.  If a pastor wants to endorse a candidate as a pastor, from the pulpit, I believe that is his right and neither he nor his church should be penalized for it.

But just because I think its legal doesn't mean I don't also think its a really dumb thing to do.

If I endorse a candidate in my capacity as a pastor, I've essentially said "this is God's candidate."  Think about the implications of that for just a moment.  That means everything this person does during their term of office is now associated with the name of Jesus via my pulpit-centered political endorsement.  Its just not a smart thing to do.  So don't do it.

4. Preach the complexity of issues, because the politicians won't!  One prominent example of this principle is the importance that will be given to potential war in the middle east during this election cycle.  Politicians in both parties will seek to reduce their positions to quick and easy solutions that take less than 2 minutes to explain.  In part, this is due to our ridiculous debate structure.

And let's be honest.  Sometimes its because you have a candidate that just isn't very smart.  Such is precisely the time for your people to be reminded of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others who have for the past two millennia given us a rich history of just war theory to be contemplated deeply and taken with a deadly seriousness.  Most candidates for office have 2 minutes.  As a pastor, you have 30 minutes to an hour--every week!  Explore the complexity of the issues being debated, and help your people think critically, deeply, and Biblically.  Human flourishing happens this way.

5. Use elections to make disciples.  Don't use disciples to win elections.  Our end goal as pastors is to grow deeper, more passionate, Biblically informed, world-changing followers of Jesus.  It isn't to mobilize a political voting bloc.  So in the end, make sure you are equipping people to affect this temporary kingdom in a positive way, but doing so with their eyes on the eternal one.

Election seasons are strategic times to preach about important issues.  But at the end of the day, disciples aren't strengthened and God's Kingdom isn't advanced by taking over the power structures of this temporary world.  Keeping those things in balance is important for pastors who want to be found faithful during election season.