Thursday, December 22, 2011

Waiting for Christmas*

All of us find that certain Biblical commands are easier to obey than others. Personally, I have never struggled with the "active" commands of Scripture . . . ."GO" "TEACH" "BAPTIZE" "PREACH" are divine calls to which I almost always respond in the right way.

But recently, I have been struggling in my efforts to obey the more "passive" commands of Scripture. God created me with a high-D personality and leadership style hard-wired into my consciousness. As such, commands like "WAIT" "BE QUIET" and "BE STILL" are more difficult for me. But this week, I have found a model for such patience in Luke 2.

The story of Simeon is one of those tales that, if televised, would likely be relegated to the Hallmark Channel and never seen as a "Christmas classic." While most pastors will spend the perfunctory amount of time in the first part of Luke 2 this Christmas, this second part of the chapter is often overlooked. Still, Simeon's ability to wait on God amazes me. Verse 25 states that he was "righteous" and "devout," and that this righteous devotion was manifest in the way that he waited. His life really matched what he professed to believe. God had told him years earlier that he would not die before bearing witness to the Messiah with his own eyes, and with strong faith, Simeon clings to this promise . . . .by waiting!

Within one month of Jesus' birth, Simeon experiences God's fulfilled promise. Joseph and Mary, two blue-collar, lower-middle-class parents, bring their newborn son into the temple in Jerusalem according to the custom of the law. At this point, Simeon has been waiting for decades, and his excitement over being able to finally see the Christ-child is evident to anyone in the temple that day. As he takes the infant in his arms, he exclaims: "Now Master, You can dismiss your slave in peace according to your Word. For my eyes have seen your salvation." (Luke 2:29-20 HCSB)

This was the last thing Simeon was waiting for before his death, and throughout decades of waiting, he never gave up. God loves faith like that . . . .faith that hangs on . . . .faith that is willing to wait.

But we aren't part of a culture that sees value in waiting. We want instant gratification. In a society dominated by drive-thru lanes, microwaves, TiVO, and 24-hour service, waiting isn't a virtue, its a weakness! If you are waiting, its because you weren't assertive enough, or didn't demand enough.

Perhaps this is why it is such a struggle for guys like me to submit to God in this way. But if I am able to wait, I learn that God keeps His promises. Simeon waited for decades. But in truth, Simeon's people had been waiting for several millenia! The promise Simeon saw was made as early as Genesis 3:15, and restated in Genesis 12, Genesis 17, 2 Samuel 7, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 53, Zechariah . . . .you get the picture. God allowed centuries to pass before making good on His promise. But in the end, He always keeps them.

But waiting on the fulfillment of God's promise isn't something we do naturally, which is why Luke emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in Simeon's life no less than three times in this passage. The Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit revealed truth to him. The Holy Spirit guided him. And the Holy Spirit helped him to wait.

Without the Holy Spirit, we can't wait. We will jump the gun. We will try to get ahead of where God is working. And we will fail. The Old Testament is full of accounts of men who would not wait on God's promises and failed. For Abraham, it was the conception of Ishmael by Hagar. For Saul, it was the consulting of a medium. For Moses, it was simply striking a rock in anger. But the result of refusing to wait is always the same: sin, shame, hurt, and devastation.

But there are others who did wait on God: Elisha, Job, Nehemiah, Paul, and others. Elisha was protected by an unseen yet innumerable army (2 Kings 6), but not before being faced with the army of Aram. Job was given back double what was taken from him (Job 42), but not before he lost everything most precious to him. Nehemiah saw the completion of the walls around Jerusalem, but not before facing strong opposition from the Samaritans. Paul was able to witness the spread of the Gospel throughout the entire Roman Empire, but was also forbidden by God from entering Asia.

Life doesn't give us a lot of green lights. More often than not, God doesn't say "you can have it now." Most often, he says "you must wait," and then uses the process of waiting to make us into the kind of people He wants us to be . . . .and this drives me crazy! I'm an active guy. I like to move. I like to work. I like to play. And I like doing all of these things with intensity. Waiting has never been on my list of favorite things to do. But this Christmas, God is working on me by having me wait.

Perhaps this is true for some who are reading as well. If so, know that if you give up, you will never know how truly close you were to seeing the fulfillment of His promises to you. Picture Simeon getting up on the morning of Jesus' dedication, murmuring to himself "I've been waiting on this for 40 years. Is it ever going to happen?" Meanwhile, the Messiah is in town, and his parents are on their way to see Simeon at this very moment.

God's promises and God's answers are closer than you think, because God is closer than you think. If you refuse to wait on Him, you might very well forfeit everything. So this Christmas, be still, be quiet, and wait on the Lord. You won't be sorry!

*This post was originally published December 12, 2006

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sin, Redemption, and the Justice of God: What I Learned from the Death of Kim Jong Il

Being away from the office for the holidays, I'm further behind than normal when it comes to keeping up with the news. So it was yesterday before I discovered that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was dead.

My emotions have been both strong and diverse since that moment.

On the one hand, my faith teaches me that Kim Jong Il was a human being created in the image and likeness of God; a human being who possessed an eternal soul that is most likely, based on his own worldview affirmations and accompanying behavior, being tormented at this very moment in hell. And since the Scriptures teach that this torment will never end, there is a side of me that is sorrowful. In some sense, this reflects the heart of God, who says "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways. . ." (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)

On the other hand, I cannot hide my satisfaction in knowing that an egotistical, dictatorial, mass-murdering maniac will no longer be able to persecute his own people. During his 14 year regime, the so-called "dear leader" of North Korea imprisoned more than 200,000 political dissidents, tortured and murdered thousands of his own people, took a "military first" approach to government infrastructure and allowed his own people to starve during one of the worst localized famines in modern history. He oversaw the massive imprisonment of Christians, as well as government endorsed policies that encouraged the kidnapping of foreign nationals, and the sexual abuse and trafficking of young North Korean girls for the pleasure of North Korean government leaders. If ever there was a tangible expression of Satan-incarnate in our generation, it was Kim Jong Il.

It was with these two warring sets of emotion that I said to my wife last night, "Kim Jong Il has died and gone to hell."

Amy's very quick response was a simple "Wow, I'm not sure what to think about how you just said that." And she was right.

After some time in prayer, I think I know what was happening inside me. In one sense, the satisfaction that someone is likely facing retribution for wrongs done is a just feeling that appeals to the justice of God Himself. The Scriptures tell us that the law of God is inscribed on the heart of men and women to the extent that even those who do not know Christ can recognize injustice when they see it, and they rightly want it rectified. (Romans 2:15) Likewise, our Creator is just, and has promised to leave no sin unpunished. Ultimately, He will right every wrong in His grand mission to reconcille the world to Himself.

I have sometimes counseled victims of violence, rape, theft, or some other injustice, and many times, they have come into my office assuming that a Christian should never get angry at such things when the truth is just the opposite. Jesus got angry enough to crack a whip and turn over tables . . .INSIDE the temple! We read in the Scriptures that God is angry with the wicked (Psalm 7:11), and that the injustice of sinners causes him to hate "all workers of iniquity" (Psalm 5:5). So when we are angry at obvious injustice, we are reflecting the heart of our God who despises when those he has created in His image are abused and taken advantage of. There is no sin in being angry at injustice, and there is no sin in desiring justice for those who deserve it. Therefore, it is not wrong to desire justice for a madman like Kim Jong Il. It is, in fact, righteous, to take satisfaction in the fact that, one way or another, God is, even now, calling the "dear leaders' atrocities to account, and issuing punishment accordingly.

But my sin last night was that in my quick and smug dismissal of a man who the whole world knew was evil, I conveniently forgot that I have the same sin nature in me that has probably sent Kim Jong Il into eternal judgement. My wife was right. What I said was Biblically correct. But I should not have said it with confidence. I should have said it with trembling.

There is obvious evil in the world. The Stalins, Hitlers, Quaddafis and Kims of our time are but a few historical examples of what happens when the worst kind of evil is allowed to influence a people or a government. When we witness the kind of unspeakable atrocities that have been committed by such men, it becomes much easier to believe in hell. But what we forget is that the same sin nature that affected the hearts of these hardened, pagan leaders also resides in the heart of this Baptist preacher.

Paul reminds us in the first three chapters of Romans that no one is exempt from the wrath of God because "all have sinned." (Romans 3:23), and the sin is, ultimately, against God. And since the offense is against an infinite being, it is only right--only just--that the punishment itself be infinite. When God examines the depth of my heart, He sees the same viral sickness that resided in the heart of the recently deceased North Korean dictator. And when sin is observed from this persepective, we come to the conclusion that at heart, there really isn't any difference between Kim Jong Il and the rest of us.

Thankfully, the Gospel doesn't end with "justice for all," but instead with the offer of grace to anyone who will accept it. But this grace isn't cheap. It isn't "sweeping under the rug" the reality of our hearts' condition and the sin and evil that results. For those who place their faith in Jesus, He has become our "propitiation." (Romans 3:25), meaning that He has borne the wrath of God in our place. Because of this, he could "pass over the sins previously committed" and become "just, and justifier of the one who has faith."

Once, there was another ruler of another kingdom. This ruler took another man's wife, impregnated her, and effectively murdered her husband to try and cover up the scandal. Imagine that you are the parent of Uriah, the faithful soldier of Israel. Imagine your discovery that the King of Israel has taken your daughter-in-law from your son, and sent your son to the front lines of battle to ensure his death so that he can cover up his adultery. Would you not want justice? Would you not cry "foul" when Nathan the prophet says to King David, "your sins are forgiven?" How can this happen? Because God's promise in the New Covenant was that he will settle all debts, render all justice, and "balance the books." In David's case, as in the case of every believer, that debt was settled at Calvary, and that is the only thing separating us from people like Kim Jong Il.

If you are tempted to think your sins are not as offensive to God as those of the "dear leader," then its been too long since you have seen and meditated on the bloody mess atop Golgotha's hill.

God is a God of justice. In the end, this means that in the absence of any final hour confession of Christ, Kim Jong Il will be paying for his crimes against God and men for the rest of eternity, and this is right. But it didn't have to be this way, and neither does it have to be this way for anyone else.

The death of Kim Jong Il should remind us of the justice of God. It should also remind us that this justice is indiscriminate, and that for every one of us, a day of reckoning is coming. On that day, either my sins will be paid in full by Jesus, or that payment will be required at my own hands.

Kim Jong Il is in hell. If you can say that, or read it without trembling, your view of justice is way too shallow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sinning with a Smartphone

The cute picture to your right was posted by my wife yesterday. Amy and I have a good time nudging each other about the other's use of smart phone technology, but there is a serious side to this issue that is too often excused, or outright ignored in our current climate.

The fact that I'm writing this article and publishing it via electronic media should be enough to demonstrate that I am not against technology. Through the internet and related communications devices, my office can operate "virtually" without actually having to be "in" the office. All our staff are issued smartphones and laptops so that we can easily stay in touch with each other while in various locations across this vast association, which stretches from College Park to southern Pennsylvania.

Additionally, smartphone technology allows me to stay up to date on the latest national and international news (CNN is so last generation!), converge all my social media in a way that allows me to better communicate with the churches I serve, or stay in touch with an old high school buddy. Last month while in India, I could be reached by any pastor in our network who simply dialed my cell number as if I were in my office in Eldersburg, Maryland, and Skype technology allows me to host virtual "face to face" meetings no matter where I find myself in the world. It also lets me see my wife and kids when I'm away. Everything from important meetings to sermon preparation is expedited because of technology that is right at our fingertips.

But there is another side to this issue. When the need to "stay connected" results in one being disconnected from those closest to him, an addiction has been formed that must, for the glory of God, be broken.

I admit, I have been there. Regrettably, the comical scene you see in the cartoon cell above has been played out in the Rainey household, on more than a few occassions. To this day, it remains a difficult struggle. After all, I get about 200 emails a day. My combined social media connections are in excess of 2000 people, and I serve a network of churches where roughly 12,000 people worship every week. So there is always an update, a message, an alert, or a need. And thanks to the technology at my fingertips, I'm ALWAYS aware of it--for better or for worse.

So here is the bottom line, (and I know more than a few pastors who need to pay heed to this as well). Of all 12,000 people who attend our churches, none should be as important to me as the one I'm married to. Unfortunately many times, by virtue of my never-ending phone-checks, I've communicated just the opposite. Over the years, I've had to re-assess my relationship with all of my electronic gadgets. I would suggest that anyone, in any profession, do the same. Every household is different. Therefore, I would not prescribe exactly the same approach for every family. Nevertheless, I do hope my description of our own approach to this issue below will encourage more families to set appropriate boundaries. For our household in 2012, there are three, non-negotiable rules that are in play where smartphones are concerned:

1. 8 PM is "shut-off" time. At some point, the office has to be closed, even if its "virtual." For me, closing time is never later than 8 PM each night, unless an evening meeting has me out later. If its 8:15 and I'm at home, you will not be able to get in touch with me unless you are the Associational Moderator, the Chair of our Administrative Team, or our Office Manager. Over the years, I've discovered that these three folks know what actually constitutes an "emergency." Most of the other 12,000 people in our network don't. Between 8 and 8:30, we are putting our kids to bed, praying with our kids, reading Bible stories, sharing potty humor, talking about any problems at school (sometimes those problems and potty humor are related, but I digress), and being a family. After 8:30 is time for Amy and I to be together, talk about our day, watch a movie, pray together, and just be husband and wife. Twitter updates and text messages don't enhance that time. They steal from it.

At the end of the day, there is only one person who can ensure that my family gets the time from their husband/dad that they are entitled to and that person is me. To literally say with your actions "12,000 people will just have to wait" requires some hard boundaries.

2. The phone is in another room during dinner, or in the car during a family event. I used to take my phone into my son's band concerts. The result was that I never enjoyed the concert because I was either reading the news or responding to an email. A generation ago, the question was "when is dad getting home from work?" Today, the question is "when is dad going to put his work down and pay attention to me?" I don't want to repeat those early sins, because when I communicate with my smartphone that a news article about the GOP debate is more important than my son's improved trumpet skills, I am sinning against my son.

Family meals are another time when the phone is not a welcome device. Early in our marriage, we set a rule that we would not answer the house phone if it rang during dinner. It is ironic that 17 years later, that rule is still in place, but somehow it became acceptable to bring my DROID to the dining room table and ignore my wife and kids while responding to a Facebook comment. There is absolutely no emergency so great that it cannot wait until after family dinner to receive my attention. (and, just as a reminder, there is no such thing as an emergency "on Facebook.")

3. "Need to use only" is in effect on family vacations. Before we leave on vacation, I record a message on my phone that states when I'll be back, and a number where those who need more immediate attention can call one of my staff. I do NOT leave those who call an option to be called back before I return.

Instead, I turn the phone OFF, and put it in the console of our family's minivan. I only take it out and turn it ON when Amy and I are going to be separated during the day. Again, our Associational leadership have Amy's cell number, and know that in an emergency, they can get to me through her. But I do not answer a phone issued to me for business purposes if I'm not supposed to be conducting business.

On several occassions, I have unknowingly called pastors on vacation, and had more than one of them actually pick up the phone while on the beach with their families! Guys, we really aren't needed that badly! And if we have conditioned our people that we are "always available" and further enabled that attitude by the way we abuse technology, we not only sin against our families, but also against the people we are supposed to be equipping for ministry, because we have trained them instead to be dependent on us.

Technology is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately those of us who use technology have fallen minds and sin-sick hearts that have often turned a wonderful, time-saving invention into an idol. I hope some of the ideas above will be helpful to others, as you seek to strike the balance between staying connected to work and refusing to be disconnected at home. To those who are out of control, from a guy who admits to having once been out of control, stop sinning against your family, and get dominion over your smartphone!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Austerity, or Retrenchment? How Organizations Can Tighten Their Belts with Purpose

If by now you aren't aware of our nation's economic woes and its effect on everything from employment to retail sales, you are probably one who lives in the woods, churns your own butter, and only have access to dialup. You probably don't own the technology to be able to read this blog either.

Yep, its scary out there, and over the past three years, I've watched as the people in the churches I serve have lost their livelihoods, homes, and hope. I've also had a front row seat to the effect of these realities on the churches themselves. And occassionally, I've seen elder boards, finance committees, and pastors hit the panic button when their church started hemmoraging financially. In the economy of the "new normal," everybody is feeling the pinch, and trying to determine how to do more with less.

There is a positive side to this. For years, many churches relied on fat incomes. Now that streams of income have grown fewer and more anemic, churches are learning to depend on the Lord. At the same time, I've seen quite a few knee jerk reactions to a drop in giving. Though these reactions, for the most part, are motivated by a noble desire to "save the church," an over-reactionary approach to what the corporate world calls "austerity measures" can result in a demoralized staff, a culture of panic ministries with no resources to operate, and a church adrift in "survival mode."

With all this in view (and with apparently no end in sight to our economic woes), I'm going to suggest a different approach. In the past year alone I've heard from several pastors who have had their salaries drastically and suddenly cut because of panicking financial administrators. I've seen ministries and mission efforts stopped in their tracks because the "bean-counters" reacted in fear, and I've seen churches unintentionally publicize desparation to the communities they are called to give hope to.

In other words, when you react to bad economic times by simply saying "cut, cut, cut," here is what you are saying to your church, and your community: "We are going to try and keep doing everything we have done before. We just aren't going to do it as well."

To be sure, no organization can continue spending more than it takes in (I'm waiting for the government to learn this lesson--perhaps in vain!) But there is a right way and a wrong way to cut spending. "Austerity measures" without a clear purpose don't communicate that you are responsible. They communicate that you are cheap!

So, how do you "cut with a purpose?"

1. Get ahead of the tsunami! Have good, sharp people on your financial team that can project income/giving trends in a way that allows you to prepare in advance. If you know a storm is coming, you can prepare for it in a way that minimizes the damage. Giving a pastor or staff member 60 days notice that they will have to absorb a huge cut in salary demoralizes staff in a way that can sometimes render them impotent to continue leading. A sudden freeze in spending not only damages effective ministries, but sends shockwaves of panic throughout an organization. People will honestly wonder if their paychecks are the next thing to get frozen!

On the other hand, if projections indicate that austerity measures might be neccesary, communicate the reasons clearly, and communicate the plan as soon as possible. Get ahead of the problem, plan for it before it arrives, and give the people who work for the organization time to plan for it as well!

2. Re-visit your Vision and Mission. This is why I prefer the term "retrenchment" to "austerity." "Austerity" simply communicates that an organization is reducing its spending. "Retrenchment" communicates that an organization is facing tight financial times with its purpose and mission clearly in view.

The first question to ask in tight financial times is not "what do we cut," but instead, "What are we supposed to be doing?" The mission of God's church does not change simply because there isn't as much dough in the offering plate as their used to be. Though cuts must sometimes be made, making those cuts without first reassessing what the organization is called to do can unintentionally sabotage that mission. Every organization can cut spending, but no organization should cut things that will be to the detriment of the mission.

3. Jettison tangential emphases and the expenses needed to maintain them. During more affluent times, churches will often say "yes" to a program or ministry that might not be central to its purpose, but will fund it anway because, well, the money is there.

In leaner times, when a church reassesses expenses in light of its mission and vision, the first things to go should be those things that weigh down the organization rather than help it to accomplish its goals. Most or all of these ministries may be good. But the church as a whole is ALWAYS more important than any of its parts. Don't defund a ministry central to the operation of the church and expect it to continue. Instead, defund ministries not central to the operation of the church, bury them with dignity, and move on!

4. Staff according to the new reality rather than merely reducing staff for the old reality. Too many churches and organizations, when seeking to cut spending in personnel, simply ask "who gets to stay, and who has to go." Both of these are the wrong first questions! Instead, construct a "new normal" in light of the overall purpose of the church, and ask how that "new normal" needs to be staffed. Yes, this may still mean that someone loses their job. But the question of whether someone keeps their job should never be answered only in light of the church's financial situation. Once tangential emphases have been eliminated and the next strategic steps of the church are clear, staffing decisions should be made in light of what it will take for the church to move forward. In one sense, you might call this "zero-based staffing."

Just because you can "afford" to keep someone doesn't mean you should. Conversely, tight financial times, in and of themselves, do not justify demoralizing a solid, faithful, and successful leader.

I believe Jerry Rankin is right: Austerity measures will become the norm in many churches and organizations in the near future. But cutting spending doesn't mean you have to be cheap. Tighten your belt with a purpose!