Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is It Really Christmas, or Just Winter? What Narnia Teaches Us About the Awe of Christmas

,Thanks to my friend Adam Feldman for publishing this post Monday on his blog

Our family keeps a rather large collection of Christmas movies in the house,  all of which come out at this time of year.  From classics like Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas to my personal favorite A Christmas Story, even our Christmas tree reflects the season better when next to one of these flicks projected on the flat screen TV that hangs on the wall next to it.

A favorite Christmas movie in the Rainey house is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at the request of our children, we have already seen this one three times this season.  Mom and Dad are happy to oblige this request, and not just because of the family entertainment value.  By God’s grace, we have already seen our oldest son meet Jesus, and we do all we can to constantly expose our two younger children to the Gospel.  Narnia is yet another way we can introduce spiritual themes into our children’s lives.

In fact, each time I think about the true meaning behind the metaphor, I find myself quite emotional. Yet this Christmas season, one line taken from the book struck me as particularly profound. And as I continue to ponder the true focal point of this season, I understand the tragedy of living a life reflected by the setting described by the faun Mr. Tumnus, in which it is "always winter, but never Christmas."

Of course, the tale is fictional, but C.S. Lewis intended his allegory to be exactly that from the start. In fact, his goal was to be able to read the entire story to a child, and simply say to the child at the end "Aslan is Christ," resulting in the child understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness. Consequently, the story rightly centers around the coming of the great Lion and the fulfillment of the prophetic freeing of Narnia.

As much as we enjoyed the film, movie screens can never depict with the same depth and precision what the human imagination can conceive with a book in hand. For example, when Mr. Beaver tells of the coming of Aslan, there was no possible way for movie makers to portray the following reaction by the children:

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

In this part of his masterpiece, Lewis rightly captures the juxtaposed whole of what should permeate the heart of a Christ-follower--delight and adventure, excitement and horror--such are the appropriate extreme emotions in the presence of the King of Kings!

Yet as believers approach the coming Christmas season, I fear that our emotions might in fact be the opposite of that expressed by young Lucy. Rather than feeling the holidays have begun because of the name of Christ, we feel the obligatory pull to somehow recognize Christ because of the holidays. This not only puts the "cart before the horse," it dishonors Him who is to be adored above all things, and that at all times, not just at Christmas.

The lack of awe that many professing Christians have for the sovereign Christ is a year-round phenomenon, but is amplified at this time of year, as so many seem more impressed with the lights at Rockefeller Center than with the Light of the World--more fearful of the prospect of stolen gifts than of the reality of the Incarnate Word. Now is certainly the time of year to remember the warning of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Responding to Lucy's question of whether this Lion is "safe," Mr. Beaver asserts "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else,  just silly.”

Both book and movie also make clear that Christmas is inaugurated by the coming of Aslan, and until his coming, the White Witch has cast a spell over all of Narnia, so that it is "always winter, but never Christmas."  Sounds like a familiar context.

When Santa Claus gets more attention than our Sovereign God, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

When families merely tip their hats toward the Bethlehem manger on their way to open gifts and commit gluttony, never again to pick up a Bible and reflect deeply on how God Incarnate fulfills every redemptive promise that assures me of an eternity in His presence, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

Christmas is because Jesus is! In Narnia, Father Christmas makes his appearance in this fantasyland only after it is announced by the Beavers that "Aslan is on the move." Without the coming Son of God, there is nothing to celebrate. Conversely, because He has come, there is much to celebrate!

Stand at the manger. Meditate, as did Simeon, on the identity of this child. Tremble with fear at the One who is infinitely more than a baby. Remember with trepidation the words of Mr. Tumnus that "he isn't a tame lion." Moreover, remember that He isn't a baby anymore, but that Christmas, in remembering His first coming, be reminded of His promise to come again.

And in doing this, let your heart feel brave and adventurous. Let your soul delight in the sweetness of His presence that Scripture tells us is the fullness of a joy that cannot be duplicated by even the most tight-knit family. Most of all, let your excitement over the coming holiday be fueled by the salvific miracle of the incarnation. And know that the holidays have truly begun, not because of parties, gifts, or even the presence of family . . . .

. . . .but because "Aslan is on the move!"

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas in Newtown, and in Your Town. Where is the Hope?

Like most parents, I've taken stock the past two days of the time I spend with each of my children.  And like  most, I'm unsatisfied.  In the wake of Friday's tragic shooting in Connecticut, many parents admit that they don't spend the time with their kids that they would prefer.  Still, there are a few dates that have become traditions to block out on my calendar.

Friday morning was just such a date.  Though it was my last day in the office for the year, I took an hour from that day to travel to my 7-year-old's elementary school for "Gingerbread House Day."  I make it a point to be part of this event, and build and decorate a great (and tasty!) gingerbread house with my son.  All of our kids have their own unique areas in which they excel, but when it comes to creativity, my Seth tops us all, and one of many evidences of this is the elaborate way in which he decorates a gingerbread house.  We had a great time, along with other parents, teachers, and administration.  The result was that by 10:30 AM the classroom was filled with gingerbread homes that made it look like a fantasy, winter wonderland.

After this event, I arrived back at the office shocked to find constant CNN news alerts and log-jammed social media, all reporting the unspeakable events that unfolded in Newtown, CT.  It was some time later before I reconstructed the timeline in my head and realized that 20 first-graders were losing their lives in the same time-frame that my first-grader was building a gingerbread house with his dad.  At that moment, the line between fantasy and reality was never drawn more clearly for me.  Even now as I think about it, my heart breaks for those families.

As a parent, I experienced--and am still experiencing--all the emotions that go with bearing witness to an unspeakable massacre like this; sadness at the loss of life, shock at youth taken from us too soon, anger at the pure evil it took to commit such atrocity, and anxiety about protecting my own children from such an event.  And of course, all of this happened in the middle of the "season of hope," but the more I've thought deeply about the events of this weekend, the more I realize that the "Christmas" most of our culture celebrates offers no hope at all.

On a subconscious level, many residents of Newtown know this too, as was evidenced by several families who are taking down their Christmas decorations in response to the shooting. In a sense, we should not only understand this way of processing grief, we should see a sense of appropriateness in it.  For most of us, the Christmas we celebrate isn't real.  Its a fantasy world in which we pretend to live each December.  Whether its pretending we have money we don't that results in consumer debt, seeking joy and happiness in lights and festivities that wain over just a few weeks, or feigning belief in a mythical fat man who will bring us presents, this "Christmas" is a dream that does nothing to bring us hope, especially in tragedy.

When you have lost a child at this time of year, there is nothing hopeful about a beautifully wrapped gift that will never be opened.  And in the wake of tragedy, the facade of tinsel, lights, and eight tiny reindeer fades quickly, and reveals our western, European-imported, American-materialized "holiday" for what it really is; a temporary month-long escape from the real world that provides zero hope.

If you want hope, you have to look to the real Christmas! Trouble is, the real Christmas doesn't cover up our sin with shiny gift wrap.  It exposes it and crucifies it.   My friend Russ Moore wrote a profound piece yesterday reminding us that the context of the first Christmas actually looked more like the scene in Newtown on Friday than the fantasy world we live in every December. King Herrod's murderous rage resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem, and while Jesus escaped death at this early moment in his life, the world into which He came was not safe.  The hope of the real Christmas is that Jesus willfully entered human history to personally experience the very fallen world from which we try to escape, and to redeem us from the real cause of it all: ourselves!

Such is another reason we are so turned-off by the real Christmas.  Rather than dress us up in red and green, it reveals our true nature, and our deepest need.  During moments like this, its much easier to stare down gun manufacturers and mental health professionals than it is to look in the mirror.  But blaming guns for this tragedy is as  ridiculous as the tendency of some fundamentalist preachers to blame Budweiser for every drunk driving accident.  Similarly, assuming every act of evil is a mental health problem is to deny the reality of demonic influence.  It is understandable why so many in our modern world would reject the existence of these spiritual realities, but followers of Jesus have no excuse, and if you can witness events like those that transpired this weekend and still not believe in demon possession, something is seriously wrong with you.  The problem is spiritual, and located precisely in the human heart; Adam Lanza's, yours, and mine.

Jesus' coming reminds us of how deeply we all stand in need of redemption.  The fake Christmas fairy tale our culture has invented covers up that nature.  But the Gospel presented in the real Christmas story reveals that each of us, apart from the grace of God, is capable of the very kind of atrocity that was committed this past Friday.  Its easier to believe in hell when you see something like this.  Its harder to fathom that you and I deserve it as well; that the same sin-sickness that motivated the perpetrator of this massacre resides in each of our hearts.  Societal sin is easy to believe in.  Corporate sin makes a good target for our rage.  But the truth of the Gospel is that you, personally, suck just as badly, and that's a hard pill to swallow.

The real Christmas doesn't make things look prettier than they really are for a month.  Instead, it redeems the ugly, the repulsive, and the sinful, and makes it truly beautiful for eternity.  Jesus came into a world of violence, walked among the worst of our sin for 33 years, and then willfully gave His life, bearing the wrath of God in our place, and giving us the hope of being fully restored to the people God created us to be.

Christmas is the incarnation of the God-man, and is thus the inauguration of the eventual elimination of the very evil that brings us the kind of facade-destroying sorrow that has been experienced in Connecticut this weekend.  Justice will be served, wrong will be righted, and people from every nation, tribe and tongue redeemed because of the real Christmas  The best thing followers of Jesus can do is ditch the fairy tale, and embrace the reality of Jesus.

So let's have a conversation about the state of mental health in this country.  Let's talk openly about how to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally unstable people.  Those are not illegitimate subjects of discussion.  But let's not pretend that treatment of the symptoms will cure the disease.  And as followers of Jesus, let's refuse to play the worldly game of wrapping our sin up in shiny paper every December and pretending that it doesn't exist.

The deaths of these precious children, their teachers, and principal have destroyed "Christmas" as we know it--the "Christmas" most of us have invented and celebrate each year is gone, along with the false hope it provides.  Now, its time to turn to the real thing and offer Him to the world.

In memory of those slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School:

Charlotte Bacon, age 6

Daniel Barden, age 7

Rachel Davino,  age 29

Olivia Engel, age 6

Josephine Gay, age 7

Ana Marquez-Greene, age 6

Dylan Hockley, age 6

Dawn Hochsprung,  age 47

Madeleine F. Hsu, age 6

Catherine V. Hubbard, age 6

Chase Kowalski, age 7

Jesse Lewis, age 6

James Mattioli, age 6

Grace McDonnell, age 7

Anne Marie Murphy,  age 52

Emilie Parker, age 6

Jack Pinto, age 6

Noah Pozner, age 6

Caroline Previdi, age 6

Jessica Rekos, age 6

Avielle Richman, age 6

Lauren Rousseau,  age 30

Mary Sherlach, age 56

Victoria Soto, age 27

Benjamin Wheeler, age 6

Allison Wyatt, age 6

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Building Relationships Like Jesus: a Review of "Bold as Love"

 Over the past five years or so, two men have influenced my understanding of missions and cultural engagement.  One of those men is long-dead, the other still alive and kicking, and living what he preaches in a big time way!

The dead guy of which I speak is Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a 19th and early 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian and pastor, but was also a politician, journalist and statesman who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905.  His influence even after his death was long felt among the Dutch, and his ideas about "sphere sovereignty" forwarded the notion that education, business, the press, the arts, and science are areas created by God with their own unique purpose of bringing glory to Him, and thus has its own created integrity.  

Practically applied, "sphere sovereignty" means that every sector of society, like the human beings which make up those sectors, is created in the image and likeness of God, and simultaneously fallen in sin.  Thus, Jesus is determined, not only to bring individuals to salvation, but to redeem and proclaim His Lordship over every area and domain of society.  Reading and grasping these concepts over the past five years has revolutionized the way I view missions and how the Great Commission mandate is to be accomplished.  In particular, it was Kuyper's book "Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art" that turned my world upside down!

One guy who is living out this vision is my friend Bob Roberts, and Bob has just written a new book entitled "Bold As Love."  The book recounts many of Bob's own experiences in seeking to engage the world, and in particular, those in the world who adhere to faiths other than Christianity.  I've spoken much recently to my own efforts at engaging, in particular, Muslim peoples, who have in turn invited me into their lives, and Bob has been a great teacher and encourager during this period.

The primary thesis of the book is, quite simply, that Jesus meant what He said when He called us to love our neighbor.  If Christians are to faithfully engage the world, such action will also mean engagement with the faiths of the world, and the people who adhere to them--people that we believe Jesus died to save.  Apologetics are important, as is the accurate and faithful proclamation of our message.  But these mean very little unless we are willing to do what Jesus did--incarnate ourselves among people and live with them in friendship.  Bob's book teaches the reader how to do this using the best educational approach I know--example!

This isn't a book that encourages abandonment of faith.  It is about living your faith in a way that vindicates the truth of its promise to redeem.  Its a book about building relationships in the face of fear.  Its a book about listening to the hearts of those who believer differently so we can understand and walk in friendship. 

The evangelical church in the west is--on this issue--at a very critical crossroad.  The United States is more diverse than it has ever been in our history, and we are surrounded by people from nearly every walk of life, and by adherents to nearly every religion that exists in the world.  In short, God has brought the nations to our front door, and we can only react in one of two ways: in fear, or in faith.  Bob illustrates this contrast in vivid detail as he recounts how people at his own church reacted to their attempts at building bridges with the Muslim community:

When we began to have Muslims come to our church, many of our members were fearful that we would be blown up.  Some left, most stayed, and all received according to what they sowed.  Those who sowed fear still live in fear and want others to live in fear.  Those who sowed bold love have built friendships and serve as bridges for others to cross over.

I believe in the message of the Bible and thus, don't believe God has given us a spirit of fear. (2 Timothy 1:7)  So be brave in your engagement.  Be bold in your love.  Honor Jesus in the way that you honor and befriend those He created in His image, and whom He died to save.  And if you are looking for greater encouragement to do so, or some practical examples of what this looks like, pick up my friend Bob's new book, Bold as Love.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Truth in Dialogue: A Model for Evangelical Conversation with Other Faiths

My new friend Emre Celik,, President of the Rumi Forum in Washington, D.C.

Last night, I was given the honor of addressing the 5th annual Dialogue Dinner sponsored by the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants.  This annual event is attended by people from a multiplicity of faiths and background in Maryland, so the room was filled with business leaders, academics, politicians, and others who have worked closely with this organization over the years.  My relationship with these dear people began a little over a year ago, as an attempt by both sides for Christians and Muslims in central Maryland to understand more about each other.

Since our initial meeting, a group of pastors from our network of churches was invited to their country, and we toured the Republic of Turkey together for nine days.  I've written more about that trip here, and was asked last night to speak to a diverse audience about our experiences there.

So there I was, a follower of Jesus, an evangelical preacher of the Gospel, and a regional leader of local and global missions, standing in front of a room full of mainline Protestants, Muslims, secularists, state political leaders, and other public servants.   What on earth do you say in a context like that?

I didn't have all the answers, and I still don't.  However, I'm happy that the evening went very, very well.  I was afforded the opportunity in this environment to share my faith, as well as talk about how adherents to various faiths and no faith can live together in the same nation.  This is the essence of religious freedom, and the perfect environment to ensure that conversion, if it happens, is genuine and no coerced.  I was delighted afterwards at the positive reaction of our Muslim friends, but even more so, I was encouraged by fellow pastors who confirmed my  accurate representation what our churches believe.

I continue to learn much through this continuing conversation, and I'm grateful to my Muslim friends for giving me the opportunity to stretch myself.  I'm still an evangelical follower of Jesus who would like nothing more than to see the whole world recognize Him as God very God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  But even as I share my faith, I do it realizing that these folks are not my "projects."  They are, and are still becoming very dear friends.  

As we continue to walk together, three dominant principles have emerged that I think have helped our conversation.

1. Don't compromise your faith.  For one thing, if we all did that, the whole "peace through understanding and dialogue" movement would be a moot point.  The fact is that we have some very, very deep differences; differences in which eternity hangs in the balance.  But what I've found in this experience is that our Muslim friends have much more respect for you if you are simply honest about what you believe.  Just be sure when that truth comes out that it is accompanied by the "gentleness and respect" 1 Peter 3:15 demands.

2. Seek to understand the real distinctions.  Don't argue over the fake ones.  I spoke last night toward our national propensity to see Islam as an inherently violent faith, and how that propensity creates a dangerous myopia that can actually stoke more violence.  Let there be no mistake; our differences center around the person and identity of Jesus, not terrorism. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that genuine love assumes the best (see verse 7), which means that when we begin a conversation automatically assuming our Muslim friend is exactly what FOX News says he/she is, we never really get to know that person.  When it comes to people of other faiths, spend time with them.  Live life with them.  Assume you don't understand where they are coming from, ask them questions, and LISTEN.

3. Commit to a friendship that is unconditional.  I love the way my friend Bob Roberts expresses this sentiment when he says "don't serve to covert, but serve because you have been converted."  I have family members who do not know Jesus, yet I continue to take their phone calls, visit them at the holidays, and love them because of who they are.  Likewise, those who follow other faiths are very much a part of our larger human "family."  No, they are not "brothers and sisters in Christ," but we are nonetheless tied together by our common humanity.  They are created in God's own image and likeness, and we should love them unconditionally.  That kind of love and acceptance is the ideal atmosphere in which genuine friendships can be developed, and our faith can be shared.

I'm still far from having all the answers on this issue, as the speech transcript below will no doubt reveal.  But my hope is that the wider body of Christ can produce more models for reaching out to our neighbors in other faiths, and that in the process we can learn to honor Jesus, and each other.

Speech to the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants
“Peace through Education and Dialogue”
Thursday, November 29, 2012, Pikesville Hilton Hotel, Baltimore
Joel O. Rainey, Ph.D.

            It is truly a pleasure to be standing in front of you tonight, and to share some recent experiences that our group of pastors had in the Republic of Turkey with our new friends.  And tonight, I think it is very important that I be clear how much I mean that.

            An interfaith dinner is a strange place to find an Evangelical Christian.  For anyone in the room who follows professional football, it’s a little like finding a Pittsburgh Steelers fan at M&T Bank Stadium wearing purple, but I am brave enough to stand in this room tonight and admit to you, both that I am, and I have. So I am very accustomed to being in places you wouldn’t expect me to be.  I trust that this admission won't result in my being tarred and feathered after this event.  After all, your team has already done enough damage to mine this season.

            But I do stand here as an evangelical Christian, who leads a network of more than 60 evangelical churches, and typically, we just aren’t the sort to be found at events like this.  And I think my presence speaks well of our Turkish friends, and their high capacity for developing unlikely relationships. They have modeled for me what it means for two people of very different faiths to walk together, and I am very grateful to them for their example, and for their friendship.

            It was through our new friends that I first heard the name Fetullah Gulen.  The trip I and our pastors took two months ago was largely for the purpose of seeing with our own eyes how Mr. Gulen’s influence is shaping not only Turkey, but the wider Muslim world for the better, and so my curiosity was raised even more about this man.  Who is he?  And why would he want those who follow his example to reach out to people like me?   

            I spent a good deal of time reading Gulen’s writings, and I was particularly interested in his theology.  After all, I am a pastor and those tend to be the circles in which I walk.  And what I discovered is that from the perspective of belief, Fetullah Gulen is very much an “old school” Sunni Muslim preacher.  Many of his writings aggressively defend the Koran as the written Word of God.  I discovered a man who is serious about his own faith, and who believes deeply and profoundly in the following words from the Koran; “Say he is Allah, the one and only.  Allah, the eternal, absolute.  He begets not, nor is He begotten.” [Surah 112]  And initially, I found it strange that a man who believes such things would want to reach out to me.  I serve a network of churches that believes God not only had a Son, but that the ultimate way in which He has demonstrated His love for the world—including everyone in this room--is by giving that Son to die and bear the wrath of God as our substitute so that we can be redeemed.  But as I continued to research Mr. Gulen, I discovered a man who is anxious to reach out to people of other faiths, regardless of significant differences, and I have gained a profound respect for his ability to balance strong conviction with a desire to promote peace among all people.

            I love this quote from his book Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, “With the blessings and beneficence of God, we are going to do our best to help this breeze of tolerance and dialogue to continue blowing.” Among those who have answered Gulen’s call to this vision are those who host us tonight, and they are people who I am honored to call friends. 

These friends recently hosted a group of our pastors for a nine day visit to Turkey, and because of their hospitality, we were able to witness first-hand the good that is being done by our friends in this part of the world.  We saw things transpiring in that part of the world that I honestly have never read about in the Baltimore Sun, or seen on CNN.  I understand that it takes bad news to sell papers and increase Nielsen ratings, but the good things we witnessed there stand in great contrast to how most Americans perceive the so-called “Muslim world.” 

Among the great things we saw were Gulen-inspired institutions of higher learning.  In Konya, home of the 13th century philosopher Rumi, we visited Mevlana University, where students from all over the world come to study education, law, medicine, engineering and business.   In Sanliurfa, less than 30 miles from the violence that has recently occurred across the Syrian border, our pastors and I spent the day in a place where Turkish, Arabs, Kurdish, Jews and Christians have lived in peace for 1000 years.  One young pharmacist who lives there and is part of this movement told me “I want to take what we have done in this city, and spread peace across the border and throughout this part of the world.  I want my city to be the starting gate for peace!”  I love his heart, and I’m hopeful for a world where that heart is shared by all of us.

It was Istanbul where our pastors were introduced to an organization called Kimse Yok Mu, a non-profit disaster relief organization that since its inception in 2002 has brought help and relief to more than 60 countries.  We were also introduced to the good people at the Journalists and Writers Foundation, an organization that provides six very distinct platforms for dialogue and the promotion of peace among adherents to the world’s religions.

One of the most impressive things we learned about was their food.  I’m more than just an evangelical Christian, I’m also a Baptist, and we Baptists place a high value on food!  And theirs was amazing!  I have never tasted better lamb, and ever since returning to the states I’ve been on a seemingly hopeless search for mirash, which is a form of ice cream that has left me completely dissatisfied with what my local grocery store offers.  And of course, there is the baklava, which makes me believe our Turkish friends have stumbled onto the recipe for the manna that God provided Moses and his followers in the Egyptian wilderness.  It was exquisite!

Of course, the real benefit of a meal is the opportunity to get to know those with whom you are dining.  My primary role in my work is to be  a mobilizer of churches for intercultural work here in the Baltimore-Washington region, and around the world.  This means that I’ve had the opportunity to be in the company of people from almost every nation and tribe.  But I can tell you that when it comes to hospitality and graciousness, my Turkish friends cannot be matched!  By hosting us in their home country, they have given us an incredible gift, and an experience that I think has changed all of us for the better.  As I reflect on what we have learned from each other thus far, there are some lessons that my friends taught me on this trip that I want to share with you tonight.

The first lesson is this; the movement we witnessed in Turkey, while appearing on the surface to be a “young man’s movement,” actually embodies the power of cross-generational effort.  Many young people have responded to Fetullah Gulen’s call to service, but while in Turkey we also observed older generations responding to that young passion for world-change with financial support, and other resources necessary to accomplish their goals.  It was not uncommon for us to see this kind of cooperation carried out by three or four generations of Turkish people, all of whom were committed to these goals of peace and prosperity for their nation.

Second, these are people who speak quickly, boldly, and loudly to the violent elements of their faith, and in doing so, they teach all of us to speak against the violent tendencies within our own spheres of influence.  Our group landed in Istanbul less than a week after the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, and our friends were quick to condemn the violence.  And as we have discussed this and other issues, I have discovered that our friends genuinely abhor violence committed in the name of their faith.  It is their strong opposition to these elements that has challenged this Christian to examine my own responses to violence that is sometimes committed in the name of Jesus.

When most of what we see of Islam in the media consists of images like masked men shooting a young girl for no more than simply wanting an education, the temptation is to see such violence as inherent in Islam itself.  But when we look at a picture like that and simply conclude “That is Islam,” we are too quickly forgetting that extremists of every sort and kind often appeal to their faith of origin as a source of authority.  I am a native southerner, and have examples of such violence in my own family tree: individuals who also intimidated minorities and the weak, and did so while hiding behind a white mask, and with a burning cross in the background.  As a follower of Jesus, I’m thankful that no one pointed at that picture and said “There is Christianity!”  And I’m grateful to be in agreement with Muslim friends who believe with me that neither of our religions should be defined by the cowards among us who would commit such atrocity, nor should we tolerate those within our own ranks who seek to do harm to others created in God’s own image and likeness.

Third, the dialogue they advocate is the very kind of “public square” discourse that makes for a healthy society.  As Americans, we rightly resist what Evangelical social critic Os Guinness calls a “sacred square,” wherein our social standards and body of law are based on one specific religion.  In a pluralistic and democratic society, the sacred square is impossible to maintain peacefully.  But while we are wise to resist “theocracy” as more progressive pundits have called it, neither can we have what Guinness calls a “naked square.”  Somehow, many of us in the U.S. have developed the idea that religious conviction isn’t just personal, but private, and therefore should not be an appropriate subject of national discussion.  The problem with that assumption is that faith touches the deepest and most meaningful part of who we are as human beings.  From a personal perspective, my relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t limited to what I do on Sunday.  It defines the totality of who I am, so if I can’t talk to you about my faith, you can’t really get to know me. Similarly, if a person sincere in any faith isn’t allowed to share that faith because of perceived cultural taboo, we never get to truly know and understand each other. 

While abroad, I experienced people who are quick to speak of their faith in God, who are willing to hear about our faith, and wrestle with us through the implications of our differences in a way that is respectful of each other.  This is the kind of atmosphere that illustrates well what Christian social observers call a “civil public square,” and in an ironic way, I was delighted to find its full expression in a nation whose predominant religious affiliation is Islam.  If done with respect for the image of God stamped on all of us, talking about our differences, and even urging each other to consider the truth of our respective faiths out of concern for each other can build a strong, healthy relationship of the sort we need so badly in our own country. After our visit, I’m convinced that our Turkish friends are highly qualified by their own experience to teach us how to have precisely this kind of conversation. 

Our group learned much while abroad with our new friends, and we look forward to learning even more as we continue to walk together.  We look forward to engaging with them in matters of common interest, and to building the sort of genuine friendship that demonstrates our common humanity in powerful ways.  If invited by these precious people to visit their country with them, I urge you to accept the invitation.  Clear your calendar and go!   And when you do, be prepared for the world to open to you in ways you may not have thought possible.  I’d like to thank my friends at MARTI for allowing me to share our experiences, and thanks to all of you for being here tonight.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

At Least One Good Thing to Buy This Weekend!

To my pastor-friends, and other serious students of Scripture, my good friends at Lifeway recently sent me a new copy of the HCSB Study Bible for review.  I like it, and wanted to share a way that you can get it cheap this weekend!

Just this morning, I used it in preparation for a message I'll be preaching in late December.  The hardback edition comes with all the standard "bells and whistles" one would expect from a comprehensive study Bible (study notes, bullet points, cross-referencing tools, maps, book introductions and timelines) but also includes a fairly comprehensive word study tool.  Its a great edition to the library of any serious student of Scripture, and also a great resource for pastors.

You can click here and buy it on Amazon.  Or, if you are willing to brave Christmas shopping traffic (or if you already planned on being one of the crazies out in it anyway!) you can pick it up at any Lifeway store this Friday or Saturday for $10.00!

The HCSB is not my preferred translation (I use ESV when I preach), but it is certainly a solid and accurate reflection of both the Greek and Hebrew texts that I often consult when comparing translation approaches.  Plus, the exegetical tools that come included with this study Bible make it well worth much more than the $10  you can get it for this weekend!

Have a great Thanksgiving holiday, and be careful out there on Friday!   :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How a Repentant Racist Became the Father of a Multi-Ethnic Family

I love the above video for several reasons.  Though I grew up two decades after "separate but equal," insipid racism was still very present in my childhood hometown of Greer, South Carolina.

Which meant that for me, racism was normal.  My attitudes toward African Americans as a child growing up in the south didn't seem wrong to me, because I never knew any other way to relate to those whose skin tone was different from my own.  Thankfully, I grew up in a Christian home where I was taught that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore equal, and this teaching, like a thorn in my side for years, continued to convict me when these issues would arise.  Unfortunately, my culture of origin was still struggling with the idea of actually applying said Biblical teaching to race relations.

One of the last vestiges of this mentality was my belief that interracial relationships were sinful.  In fact, South Carolina law until around 1990 made it illegal in the state for two people of different races to wed, and I believed this was justified on the basis of some horrible exegesis of very select Scriptural texts.  It was only in college while studying for the ministry that a godly Professor challenged my thinking and did so on the basis of the inerrancy of the Bible.  "If you really believe the Bible is completely authoritative," he said, "then you had better re-examine your opposition to interracial relationships based on what Scripture alone teaches!"

Funny thing about Biblical inerrancy: it often challenges some very entrenched, very traditional, very conservative beliefs!  By God's grace, I was a changed man.

Two years ago, with the adoption of our daughter into our family, we became a multi-ethnic family.  Just recently I was asked by someone from my hometown how I would handle the "dating years," given that our little girl is Asian and we are white.  "What are your expectations on who she goes out with?"  My answer was quick and clear.  "If she honors her father, then my expectations will be met when she dates and/or marries a Christian man who loves Jesus with all his heart.  The color of his skin does not matter to me.  The condition of his soul means everything."

How can someone who just two decades ago rejected interracial relationships as sin say something like that?  The simple answer is, the Gospel!

The video above is about a year old now, and the outstanding book it promotes can be purchased here. I love and appreciate men like John Piper who came before me, and who challenged the cultural thinking of 1960s south.  Likewise, this story in many ways echoes my own journey.   I encourage you to watch, and worship God for how He has used, and continues to use the Gospel to bring together every nation, tribe and tongue.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

A Prayer for our President

Father, thank you for the humble confidence you have given me to come directly to your throne through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!  I come to you at this early hour, and in the wake of last nights election results, to ask your richest blessings on President Barack Obama, his family, his staff, his cabinet, and others who advise him.

I thank you for living in a nation where, even in the current environment of hostility, the transfer of power comes at the ballot box and not at the end of a gun barrel.  And I thank you that last night in your infinite wisdom, you directed events and ultimately anointed this man to lead our country for another four years.  I bring him to you because we who are your followers are commanded to do so, but I thank you for the grateful heart you have given me to obey that command.

I pray, first of all, for the President personally.  I ask that you continue to bless him with good health, and with the wisdom and knowledge necessary to lead this great country.  I pray for his continued abilities as a husband and father.  I thank you that, with whatever disagreements I may have with him, I can point my two sons toward the White House and our President and say to them "this is how a real husband and father treats his family."  I can direct my daughter's gaze toward our President as an example of the kind of caring, family-centered man for whom she needs to wait.  Thank you for his example, and I pray that you would multiply that example throughout our nation in a way that heals the family brokenness that permeates our land.

I pray for his wife Michelle, and for their two daughters, who must live in a house of glass, and who must hear their husband/father criticized and ripped apart on a daily basis.  Give them strength to endure, and to be a blessing to him.  I pray that you would protect this entire family from harm, from sickness, and from hostility.  May they grow in love toward each other over these next four years in a way that will prove your presence in their lives.

I pray for wisdom as he begins a second term in the midst of a troubled country. I ask you to grant a spirit of cooperation between the President and our Congress, and that you would give them the collective wisdom to solve our economic problems.  In the midst of this, I pray for the courage to, when necessary, even look at the country that elected him and to speak prophetically about our greed--individual, corporate, and government--which has brought about much of the misery that we now experience.  I thank you for a President that wants to serve his country, not worship it, and ask that this same boldness would be directed at us in a way that challenges us to be a better people

I pray that you grant him wisdom as he seeks to relate to other nations.  Give him strength and resolve as he deals with the enemies of human rights and freedom around the world, and grant him prudence as he leads a nation that, too often, has sought to bring "peace" by flexing the muscles of our military.  I ask these things with the recognition that I am not in the "situation room" and therefore am largely ignorant of the complexities of what transpires in that room.  But I do realize that your own wisdom is needed in so many of these situations, and I ask you to grant that wisdom to President Obama.

I also ask that you give him moral courage that would cause him to sometimes be found in opposition to his own party.  Where abortion is concerned, I thank you for the way he has focused the attention of many "pro-life" people on the plight in which so many women find themselves, and I ask you to give us the collective wisdom to minister effectively in the midst of such moral complexity.  At the same time, more than 1.5 million human beings created in your image and likeness are murdered every year with the blessing of this President's administration.  Over the next four years, this issue will play a major role in everything from foreign aid to Executive orders to the abortifacient mandate to the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  In those moments, I ask you to change his heart by shattering it as his eyes are opened to the carnage caused by our current culture of death.  Likewise, his earnest and sincere desire for "fairness" and "equality" have clouded a clear and God-honoring view of marriage and the family.  I ask that you give him changed convictions, and accompanying moral courage to stand rightly on these issues.  Make him a prophet to his own party and to our entire nation on these issues.

Finally, I pray that over these next four years, you would draw President Obama closer to you.  I ask that in the midst of long hours and unspeakable stress that you would give him rest.  I also ask that you would burden your people to pray for him daily.  When we are tempted to criticize, help us to pray instead.  When we are tempted to show disrespect and withhold honor from this man to whom you have commanded we show honor, bring us to repentance.  When he makes a decision that we believe honors you, may we publicly applaud him regardless of party affiliation.

I bring all of this to you, knowing that it is you who make entire Kingdoms to rise and fall.  It is you who holds the hearts of kings in your hand and give them direction.  It is you who directs the affairs of men and nations.  And it is in you and you alone that all of us, including our President, find our ultimate hope.  Such hope is undeserved by people such as we, and so I thank you for giving it in your grace, and pray that you would give more in the months to come.  I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, before whom all of us, including our President, will one day stand, Amen.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Country Music and a Broad View of the World: Having a Healthy, God-honoring View of Culture.

I'm from the south, where the tea is sweet, the people are hospitable, the kudzu spreads like a wildfire in California, and where pickup trucks are considered essential for survival.  Even after living in the northeast for nearly a decade, my accent still quickly reveals my geographic roots.

One other important hallmark of my culture of origin is our love for country music--something that most people in the churches I serve are willing to tolerate in their Director of Missions.  Working with 9 different ethno-linguistic people groups who are in turn trying to reach the 51 additional people groups in our area will force you to appreciate cultural diversity, and I do.  But at heart, I'm still a redneck from South Carolina who often finds himself missing his home, but simultaneously loving the people God has surrounded me with here in Maryland.  And thankfully, a recent single in the country music world has hit airwaves and ipods everywhere that expresses this sentiment well, and also reflects a healthy understanding of our cultural roots juxtaposed against the cultural diversity that exists in this world our God has created.

The song of which I speak is "Southern Comfort Zone," written and performed by Brad Paisley.  Though I'm a big fan of his, this is the first time I've mentioned him on the blog.  For one thing, after 16 straight #1 hits and several handfuls of awards, Brad hardly needs a guy like me to promote his art.  But this particular song is spot-on in its description of how a broader view of the world is developed without abandoning or rejecting outright one's culture of origin.  And for anyone who is called to missions, this balance is critically essential.

Another colleague who oversees church planting in the northeast region and I were talking about three weeks ago, and anecdotally comparing profiles of the best--and worst--church planters we have worked with over the years.  And when we compared these guys solely against the broadness of their worldview, we came up with the following generalized taxonomy:

Best Church Planter:  Someone who is from the area where he wants to start a church, but has lived at least a part of his life in another part of the world.
Good Church Planter:  Someone who is from an area outside of where he intends to start a church, but has lived in at least one other part of the world besides his culture of origin.
Fair Church Planter:  Someone from an area outside of where he intends to start a church who has never lived anywhere else.
Worst Church Planter:  Someone from the area where he wants to start a church who has never lived outside that area.

Now, it should be stressed again that this taxonomy ONLY takes into account the issue of cultural exposure, and there are many more factors that combine with this to determine the propensity for success or failure.  I should also state that I've seen guys who belong in the "worst" category above who have done a fabulous job of reaching people with the Gospel and congregating them into churches in their own context.  But generally speaking, this is what we have observed.

And notice the difference between categories three and four.  Generally speaking, in my area I'd  have someone from the south who has never lived outside the south plant a church in Maryland before I'd have someone from Maryland who has only lived in Maryland.  And the reason for this is simple. The first guy will be forced by his new surroundings to become more culturally aware, while the second guy will more easily remain in his "comfort zone" and as a result, never effectively penetrate areas of lostness, even if those areas are located in surroundings that are very familiar to him.

In other words, exposure to areas and people outside one's culture of origin broadens your view of the world, and the broader the view, the more potent one's cross-cultural skills can become, and the more healthy, balanced, and God-honoring one's view of culture is likely to be.  Conversely, an unbalanced view of culture can easily lead to one of two extremes.  

On the one hand, there is the tendency towards cultural syncretism; a view of culture that assumes no ultimate standard by which all people and cultures should be judged and thus, which thoughtlessly accomodates even the unhealthy values and mores of a culture.  On the other hand, many evangelical Christians are more prone to cultural isolationism.  To a large extent, this is because of a confusion between "culture" and what the Bible describes as "worldliness."  "Worldliness" is simply a description for attitudes and actions that are opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God.  Greed, selfishness, sexual immorality, and other things which betray a disregard for God and His laws are, by Scriptural definition, "worldly."  But not everything that is cultural is worldly by that standard and, in fact, most things aren't!  As my friend Ed Stetzer has often stated, indiscriminately screaming at culture is like screaming at someone's house.  Its just where they live.

A balanced and God-honoring view of culture, by contrast, understands that cultures, like the people who create and maintain them, contain values, mores, assumptions, and practices that reflect the image and likeness of God, and also contain things that reflect the fall.

I have little doubt, for example, that the strong Protestant work-ethic, stress on keeping one's word, chivalrous views of how women should be respected, hospitality, and sense of community promoted by my culture of origin all reflect the image of God.  I'm equally convinced that our racist history, stubbornness, and tendency to feel culturally superior(among other things)  are a reflection of the fact that rednecks are fallen in sin too!  That awareness will bring an appropriate balance when seeking to bring the Gospel to bear on that culture.  

It will also keep us from a sense of cultural superiority.  I love my culture of origin, but it is no better than any other human culture on the planet.  On a micro-level, this means that while I personally appreciate biscuits and gravy more than kim-chee, I have no cause to feel superior to my Korean brothers and sisters in Christ.  On a macro-level, it means I will bristle at a phrase like "American Exceptionalism" when I know its being used to forward the idea of this nation as inherently superior to all other sovereign nation-states on the planet.  As a Christian, I believe in an eternal Kingdom that will one day supplant all earthly ones, including the United States of America.  So I don't have time for games of cultural and national one-upmanship.  The King is coming, and He expects me to have higher aspirations than this.

But that same King has also, through the Gospel, declared an ultimate standard by which all peoples and cultures will be judged.  Therefore, sin must be confronted wherever it is found, and in whatever culture it is found.  Striking this balance is not easy, but it is the essential work of those who presume to be active in God's mission of bringing the whole world back to Himself.

All of this brings me back to Paisley's newest single.  What I appreciate about the song is the way in which it aspires to the very kind of balance I've described above.  It is not only possible to be connected to your roots while simultaneously seeing the beauty of the whole world, it is healthy.  And when all of these observations are viewed through the lens of the Gospel, that balance leads to genuine worship.  I've personally had the privilege of engaging in missionary work on five continents, and our Association is involved in missions on every inhabited continent on the globe.  Through this exposure to the myriad of cultures that exist, I've seen the beauty of God's own image shine like a multi-faceted diamond.  Conversely, I've witnessed and experienced the ugliness of sin in a way that brings physical nausea, and I've become more convinced than ever of the truth of the  Christian Gospel.  Outside the Bible itself, nothing will give you a passion for God and His mission any more than being exposed to the world He created and is in the process of bringing back to Himself.

I love the culture of my roots.  Like everyone else, much of who I am is the direct result of my culture of origin, and those life experiences make that part of the world, and the people who live there very precious to me.  But many years ago God moved my family and me outside that "southern comfort zone" to experience people and places that have broadened our view of what He is doing in that world.  Revelation 7 declares that in the end, every nation, tribe and tongue will worship Jesus.

He loves them all, and so should we!  So take a moment and enjoy a taste of music from my culture of origin!  And in the process, internalize the lyrics you hear in a way that allows you a broader view of the world Jesus died to save.

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.