Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas in Newtown: One Year Later

Tomorrow marks one year since the unspeakable horror that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut.  The post below originally appeared two days after those events. 

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 11, 2013

Who's at War With Christmas?

Last week I was asked to be a guest on The Stream, a 30 minute news program on the Al Jazeera America Network.  The show was taped, and will air on Christmas Eve, and then again on Christmas Day.  When I asked the producer what the subject matter was for the show he replied "its about the War on Christmas."

Oh great.

I have past experience as a guest on this show, and know the people involved with putting it together to be great folks, so I said yes.  As always, the hosts were fair, and the conversation was civil, which is quite an accomplishment for any journalist when you have a Baptist preacher and the leader of an Atheist Group on the same program!  During the pre-interview on the phone the day before, the producer asked me a very straightforward question, "Joel, do you believe there is such a thing as a "War on Christmas?"  

For some time, I haven't believed this was a question that could be answered with a simple yes or no.  In one sense yes, there are a few people out there who would like to see Christmas eradicated from the public square--or at least those parts of it that appear to be affiliated with local, state, or federal government.  Apparently, some confuse the establishment of a religion with the simple recognition by a public entity that people of faith exist, and that there are a lot of us!  And, this confusion has somehow translated into animus for any public expression of faith, and the perception that nativity scenes on public property are a danger to America.  Yeah, I think its silly too.

But for the past month I've listened to the conservative "talking heads" warn, as they do now on an annual basis, of the impending destruction of the Christmas season by the secular left.  Organizations from the ACLJ to the American Family Association are adept at keeping us informed concerning the plethora of "liberal plots" to eradicate anything resembling Christ from the public square during the holiday season. AFA recently called for a boycott of Radio Shack by its ever-diminishing group of followers, apparently because Radio Shack doesn't mention Christmas in its holiday ads.  Almost every year now, it seems yet another conservative is writing yet another book about the "War on Christmas."

But the simple reality is that not everyone celebrates Christmas.  So when the cashier at Radio Shack wishes me "Happy Holidays!"  I don't see that as an affront to my faith or offensive to Jesus.  I simply see a young women who works for a company who would like to sell electronics to those who celebrate Christmas, and also to those who don't.  Radio Shack exists to make money.  It isn't their responsibility to talk about Jesus.  That's my job.  If you think the phrase "Happy Holidays" poses a threat to your faith, you have a very weak faith!

And when I think about that fact, I start wondering if the greatest threat to the central message of Christmas isn't the guy I see every morning in the mirror!

Every year we hear stories of ACLU sympathizers trolling schoolhouse and courthouse properties in search of nativity scenes to challenge. But the greater threat may not be the elimination of the nativity on public property, but rather the minimization of its meaning on private property. I think of the past several Christmas seasons, and I am embarrassed when I compare the time spent giving and opening gifts with that spent celebrating the greatest of all gifts. I remember as a child having to take a "time out" as it were, from my new toys to sit for the perfunctory reading of the Christmas story. With a nervous twitch that would not be relieved until I was back at my new electric racetrack set, I tried to fake interest in this story that I had heard so many times. To me, it was a required religious drudgery; a payment of sorts in exchange for two weeks of no school and new toys.

As an adult, I must still admit to giving more attention at times to my children’s presents than to their focus on Jesus as the center and circumference, not only of the season, but of our lives.

Sure, some of the methods used by secularists are ridiculous and silly.  Yet there is something more ridiculous, and more offensive, than removing any mention of Christ from Christmas by those who don’t follow Him, and that is the trivialization of the Christ of Christmas by those who do claim to follow Him. It is the equivocation of God the Son with eight tiny reindeer.

Though we are quick to defend the identity of this season as “Jesus’ birthday,” we often neglect to think that the incarnation was infinitely more that that. Perhaps this is why reflection on the Biblical Christmas story has lost some of its luster. Luke wasn’t just writing history. He was proclaiming that the One who created and foreordained history stepped into history on our behalf! God wrapped Himself in human flesh, and the wonder of that incarnation causes all the lights and decorations in the world combined to pale in comparison. Frankly, my boredom as a child, and passivity as an adult with the Christmas story is not the result of the story itself, but of my failure to truly appreciate how that moment in history affects all of humanity. It fulfilled every promise of God that was made up until that moment, and assures all who believe that this perfect and divine manifestation of the ideal humanity provides the righteousness required for the intimate connection with our Creator for which all of humanity longs.

But the ultimate rejection of the season’s truest meaning sometimes comes, ironically enough, at the times when we think we have the season all figured out and are enjoying it to the fullest. And there is a real chance that this coming Christmas could be like the last one.  We will read the story of the culturally questionable birth of a Jewish baby in a stall to a 14-year-old virgin and her blue-collar fiance. We will remember how He invested His life among those the world did not think worthy of investment, and how He claimed to come for the poor, the sick, and the sinful. We will reflect on this, the most vivid picture of what it means to be “incarnational,” and then forget that Jesus calls us to follow His example while enjoying our “upper-middle class” Christmas. Paul reminded the church at Corinth of Jesus’ words that the most blessed person is the person who chooses giving over receiving. Evidently, I haven’t wanted that blessing very often.

No, Freedom from Religion Foundation and Radio Shack aren’t our biggest issues this season. When it comes to the “War on Christmas,” the real culprits are those of us who should know better! And if I’m right, then we won’t recover the meaning of this season by court decision.  Neither will we recover it by our materialism.  The average American family will require the duration of 2014 to pay off the consumer debt they will incur in November and December of this year!  Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of the ultimate gift--salvation from God in the person of Jesus Christ.  What sense does it make for those who follow Him to celebrate it by going into debt for lesser things?

Instead, we should take ourselves back to that seminal moment in salvific history, hear the cattle in the stalls and smell the sheep dung. Hear the screams of a woman experiencing violent birthpangs who knew nothing of a soft bed, much less an epidural. Watch as the God-man in the body of a pre-pubescent boy learns the skills of a carpenter from his earthly father. Smell the stink of rotting human flesh as He walks among the lepers. Sense the spiritual darkness that has overcome the demoniac among the tombs. Feel the stomach-wrenching sensation of spikes being driven into the wrists. Sense the weight of God’s judgement upon all of humanity as it falls upon He who became sin for us. And feel the earth-shattering concussion that was the bodily resurrection.

There is a reason that the secular left is at war with Christmas. It is because this world is at war with Christ.  Scary thing is, Jesus leaves no room for “fence-riders,” which means that my past passivity is, in His eyes, enmity. My boredom is, in reality, scorn that has creeped back into my life along with other fleshly things; a part of that old life that Paul tells me was crucified with Christ 2000 years ago.

If there is a war on Christmas, I fear that many who claim to follow Christ are, by their indifference to the season, aiding and abetting the enemy. Moreover, I fear that in the past, I have been among that number. But this year, I resolve to be on the offensive! My family and I will spend less time opening gifts, and more time in front of the advent candles. Through Salvation Army, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, Samaritan’s Purse, and our own holistic service, we will serve those to whom Jesus calls us. And though our kids will enjoy a visit from Santa, they will be taught to stand in infinitely greater awe of their God, who eliminates all war and oppression, and who brings a Gospel of peace, all through His entrance into our world.

Not everyone celebrates Christmas.  I want them to, but culture-warring seems to me to be the least effective way of bringing people to the manger.

I'm not sure if there is an all-out "war on Christmas."  But as best as I understand the Scriptures, if there is one, whoever is waging it is going to lose.  So I'd better be sure I'm not an unwitting accomplice to diminishing this holiday.. May God grant us the grace this Christmas season to speak with our lips, and our lives, of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Monday, December 02, 2013

What on Earth are we Afraid Of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three words:  "I was afraid."

People driven by fear are actually pretty easy to spot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What To Think About the Minister's Housing Allowance.

I'm not sure if I've ever used this site to address an issue having to do with the United States Tax Code, so this will, I believe, be a first.  But before you browse on, or think you can use the following to put yourself to sleep, indulge me for just a bit, especially if you are a pastor or a church leader trying to make sense of a recent Federal ruling that could potentially affect the minister's housing allowance.

Last Friday, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb of the western district of Wisconsin, ruled that the housing allowance is unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violates the establishment clause of the 1st amendment.  The lawsuit, brought by the ever-annoying Freedom From Religion Foundation, charged that the U.S. government violated the so-called "separation of church and state" by granting this provision to ministers.

Though enforcement of this ruling has been stayed until all appeals are exhausted, this decision, if kept in place, will have a far-reaching impact on more than 40,000 religious leaders around the country, most of whom could see as much as a 10 percent reduction in their take-home income as a result of new taxes.  Of course, in the midst of this a really good question is on the minds of a lot of people--including many Christians who simply don't understand the rationale behind the housing allowance.  Why should a pastor be allowed to exempt from his taxable income expenses related to housing when very few others in the public are allowed this same benefit?  So, whether you are a pastor, a casual observer, or an involved church leader wondering what all of this could mean, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to explain why this measure was put in place to begin with, the complexity of ministerial income and taxes that make it necessary, and the reason I think Judge Crabb's ruling itself may violate the First Amendment.

First a little history.  Exemption of religious property from taxes has been a long-held standard among civilized nations for many centuries, and American expressions of this in our tax code are in many ways the legacy of these civilizations, which date all the way back to ancient Rome.  Governments have historically seen a great benefit to society that comes from religious practice, and as a result have sought to lessen the financial burden on religious entities.  For the United States, two significant moments serve as examples of this disposition; the first in the 1921 Revenue Act, which exempted church-owned property used to house ministers from income taxes.  However, as the years passed, and fewer churches intentionally got into the housing business, they would instead provide a housing allowance to pastors, which could be used to secure private living space off church grounds.  Recognizing the disparity between pastors who owned their own home who paid taxes on that income, and those living in church-owned housing who paid nothing, Congress amended the tax code in 1954 in a way that would allow ministers to exempt the portion of their income used for housing from federal income taxes.  In short, the housing allowance emerged from the earlier practice of easing the burden of churches, who often struggle to compensate clergy properly.

Over the past 60 years, a few challenges have been brought to this exemption, and they tend to be ignited when a pastor seems to abuse the exemption.  Most recently, Steven Furtick's $1.6 million home caused quite a bit of outrage among Christians as well as non-Christians, and understandably, some asked what justification could be given for allowing that property to remain tax free.  To be sure, the housing allowance can be abused, and when it is, pastors should pay the price for using the title "Reverend" to take advantage of others.  But occasional abuses of a law don't invalidate the law itself.  More than six decades after the tax code was amended, the overwhelming majority of the 40,000 religious leaders in the United States still find themselves in similar economic circumstances.

So why should church leaders, and denominational leaders like me stand up for the minister's housing allowance?

It serves to correct economic disparity.  Nationwide, ministers of the Gospel are compensated at a level that is significantly lower than other professions which require the same level of education and expertise. (Most pastors possess, at a minimum, an undergraduate degree, and a 90-hour [three-year] Master of Divinity degree, or approximately 7 years of higher education)  Certainly there are exceptions to this rule, and unfortunately, TV cameras seem to only catch those who enjoy great wealth.  But on average, pastors are compensated 20% less than the average income of those with similar education and experience in other fields.  I honestly don't know anyone in my network who got into this for the money, but if you do, you should fire them for being stupid.  Generally, there just isn't a lot of money to be made in this line of work.

My own association can serve as an example.  In 2011 our staff conducted a compensation study (which we do every five years) which segregated pay scales by county (my association includes churches located in 7 counties and 2 states).  The highest income levels for pastors were in Howard County Maryland, where I also live, and the mean income (salary and housing) for Senior Pastors in this area in 2011 was $58,463.00.  For some, that sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that these men are working in the area designated in 2012 as having the second highest median income levels in the entire country--just over $108,000!  Additionally, Lifeway's compensation study is nationwide, and reveals an average income significantly less than the figure above.

Additionally, it is not uncommon in an area like ours--where a  modest single-family home can't be purchased for less than $400,000-- for housing allowances to exceed $35,000.  For an area like ours, a $35K housing allowance is really not that high.  But with that allowance, the standard of living for pastors, while still not coming close to that of someone making over $100K, can be brought more in line with the rest of the population.  Otherwise, most churches, because of their own financial constraints, are paying someone as much as 40% less than the average income in a given area.  I'm guessing most people reading this, if they were making 40% less than the average income in their area, wouldn't be able to live in that area--unless some special provision was made for them.

It eases the burden of complex tax regulations regarding ministers. While the housing allowance for ministers is currently free from federal income taxes, it is not exempt from Social Security taxes.  Additionally, ministers are considered "self-employed" for the purposes of Social Security.  So, while your employer is paying half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes, leaving you with only a 7.5% burden, pastors and other religious leaders pay the full 15%.  Once you do the math on this, paying a $60,000 salary to a pastor means he is only taking home $45,000 after federal income taxes and Social Security taxes if the housing allowance is removed.  And we haven't started talking about state and local taxes yet.   I've often heard the "tax break" line, even in churches, and its a myth.  Once you have navigated through all the various regulations on ministers in the tax code, it becomes apparent that they get no significant tax advantages over anyone else.

The U.S. tax code is especially complex when it comes to ministers.  I'd personally love to see it simplified one day, but in the mean time, I don't think pastors should be penalized just because the way their compensation is viewed by the IRS isn't well-understood by most.  Stop looking at the TV preacher and thinking all pastors are in that situation.  99% are not.

It is fairly given to leaders of all faiths.  Judge Crabb's ruling was based on a single rationale--that it violates the establishment clause of the Constitution.  Candidly, such a rationale makes me wonder how Judge Crabb passed 3rd grade reading comprehension, let alone graduated from law school and found her way to the federal bench.  The First Amendment states that Congress is forbidden to pass a law that establishes a state religion.  But when you consider that the ministerial housing allowance applies to Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and any other recognized religious leaders, it becomes apparent that Congress hasn't "established" anything by providing a housing allowance in the tax code.  Additionally, housing allowances are still allotted today for Peace Corps volunteers, members of the military, and those involved in foreign service to the country.  Yes, even Atheist leaders can now be categorized as religious leaders.  And let's be honest, Atheism really is a faith position.  So, where exactly is the establishment of religion to which Judge Crabb objects? Ironically, it may be in the ruling she handed down.  Differences in denominational convictions relative to church and denomination-owned housing could mean that this ruling widens the disparity that existed between various expressions of faith prior to 1954.  Joe Carter of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says it well. "By her decision Judge Crabb has--albeit unintentionally--incorporated a form of denominational favoritism into the tax code.  In her attempt to prevent an imaginary violation of the Establishment Clause she has inadvertently created a real infringement."

99% of the more than 40,000 pastors in our country aren't rich, and never will be.  They work tirelessly and selflessly in the everyday mess of people's lives for significantly less than they could make if they simply chose another line of work.  They do this because they believe it is what they were created for and called by God to do, and the minister's housing allowance isn't an unfair advantage.  For many pastors, its how they can afford to serve their communities, and bring their own standard of living up to everyone else's.

Stand up for your pastor on this issue.

For a more thorough history and rationale of the Housing Allowance, see Joe Carter's post here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talk With the World, Not Just About It: Reflections on the Global Faith Forum

Greetings from 30,000 feet!  I'm writing while on my way back from the Global Faith Forum at Northwood Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I just enjoyed an amazing weekend with many, many world-class leaders.

I'm grateful to Bob Roberts, who has been a friend of several years, but also a great coach to me over the past two years as I have tried to lead our network of churches in engaging the Muslim community in our area.  It all started just over two years ago, when a Maryland state legislator who attends one of our churches called me, and asked if I would be willing to meet with members of the Turkish Muslim community.  At the time, my state and a province in the Republic of Turkey were working on a "sister state" agreement, and this lawmaker asked me to participate in conversations that would alleviate misconceptions that, at that time, Turkish Muslims and evangelical Christians had about each other.  At this point, the sum total of my knowledge about Islam came from two weeks of a 16 week religion course I took in seminary back in the 1990s, which is to say that I knew nothing of substance about Islam--at least nothing beyond the core beliefs of their faith!

This is when I called Bob, and for the past 24 months, God has taken me and a few of our pastors on a roller coaster ride in this new and still-emerging relationship.  I'm still a conservative, evangelical who believes the Bible is the final written revelation of God Himself.  I still believe everything about Jesus, heaven, hell, redemption, atonement, resurrection, and the second coming that I did when I started on this journey.  But if I've learned anything over the past 2 years, it is that the way we engage the world needs to radically change if we want that story to get a hearing, and if we want to make the kind of impact on the world that Jesus expects.  Global Faith Forum is one of a few models for how I think this conversation needs to take place.

Bob has created a healthy environment in which strong convictions can continue to be held and openly shared, but also in which friendships among those of the world's religions are not contingent on whether they become like us.  In this environment, serious conversations that affect  the world can take place with the trust necessary to work together, and move forward toward a better world.  Once you have been honest about your differences regarding eternity, talking through issues related to this present world don't seem so tough.  The first panel discussion compared and contrasted Jewish, Islamic, and Christian views of just warfare.  The second focused on the various understandings of the role of women in each of these faith traditions--and those discussions were led by women on the platform!  Yep, Christians, Jews and Muslims had an open, public, honest conversation about warfare and women, and no one became enemies!  Subsequent issues were equally intriguing and challenging.  Leaders in business, medicine, education, and government were present, and were equipped to better understand the world and how to make a positive impact.

With Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, who teaches Islamic Studies at
Catholic University, Washington, D.C. 
Various professionals in communications, including Christianity Today Editor Mark Gali, spoke on the importance of messaging in today's world, and last night, the topic of reconciliation touched on ways that our various faith communities can play a critical role in helping to alleviate conflict around the world.  Prior to that meeting, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani.  With a short window now open for the United States and Iran to ease the tensions that have existed between our countries for more than 60 years, this Baptist preacher was very interested in what an Iranian-born, Ayatollah who is now an American citizen would want to say to Christians in the U.S.  Be patient, I'll let you know what he said in a subsequent post!

This morning, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion on using faith in community engagement, and it was great to hear Andy Braner, Suhail Khan and others share stories of how they are using their professions to bring reconciliation in their spheres of influence.

So why would a Baptist pastor responsible to mobilize 60 Baltimore-Washington area churches for Christian missionary work travel to Texas with Christians and Muslims from my area to a meeting like this?

1. Incarnation.  Jesus not only told we who claim to be His followers what to do.  He also modeled how to do it, and post-resurrection tells His disciples in John 20 "As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."  A simple glance at the life, message, work, and methods of Jesus reveals the way in which we should engage our world.  Jesus didn't remain on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon.  He incarnated Himself among us, walked in our world with us, broke a number of rules of social propriety in order to reach us, and went to those everyone else was either afraid of, or thought were unworthy of redemption (and they were, but so are we!)  My friends in other faiths will tell you that I'm not shy about sharing Jesus, and expressing my desire that they know Him as I do.  But they don't need me to just preach a sermon.  They need to see the Gospel incarnated.  They need to see me doing what Jesus commands, in the way that He commands it.
2. Trust. Whether it is two diplomats seeking to stave off an international disaster, or a community with various factions that need to understand each other, trust is the first and most important thing you need, and you can't have trust without relationship.  Many of my Turkish Muslim friends are men with whom I would trust my wife, my children, and my bank accounts, and I think they would tell you the same thing about me.  I genuinely love these men, and trust them.  It has taken time to build that trust.  No, you can't build it in two days at a conference in Texas, but you can certainly get started developing the kinds of relationships necessary to watch it grow.
3. Peace.  I'll be honest.  When I watch the way some followers of Jesus so quickly and willingly beat the drums of war, it would make me think Paul had never penned the 12th chapter of Romans.  "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12: 18).  I'm not a pacifist.  I do believe there is evil in the world that at times requires the use of lethal force.  But I'm equally convinced that we in the Christianized west have so twisted just war theory that Augustine would not recognize it if he were alive today.  I don't believe my Muslim friends and I are currently on our way to heaven together.  But God has placed us on the earth together, and commanded that those who claim to follow Jesus do everything within our power to live in peace.  How can we do that if we aren't even willing to know our neighbors?

We need more venues like the Global Faith Forum, and I'm thankful for a guy like Bob who will stick his neck out in the middle of the Bible Belt in order to start these conversations.  Stay tuned, because our churches are working to bring a similar event to the Baltimore-Washington area next fall!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Typhoon Relief, World Hunger, and Other Reasons I'm a Baptist

This week, I'm at the annual state meeting of my denomination, The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.  Last night, I watched from my Delaware hotel room as the first responders began their work in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which has left more than 10,000 dead, and more than 100,000 displaced from their homes in the Philippines.

As these two events--a denominational meeting and an international disaster--intersect, I'm reminded of just a few of the many reasons why I'm a Southern Baptist.

It's been less than 100 hours since Haiyan bore down on the east side of the archipelago, and our partners at Baptist Global Response are already at work bringing relief to those so drastically affected by this storm. They will feed the hungry, rebuild homes, schools, and hospitals, provide medical care, and share the message of Jesus.  And all of this is made possible by the gifts of individuals and churches to our relief work.

There are some great relief organizations out there, and I don't intend by this post to berate them, or enter into a competition with them.  But I am often genuinely puzzled at why so many of our churches--when looking for a way to provide relief and feed the hungry--don't avail themselves of the most effective delivery system in the history of Protestant Christianity.

In particular, churches and groups within churches are often searching for a way to touch real human needs, but in their search often gravitate toward whichever organization developed the fanciest mailer--regardless of how much of their donation has to be used to actually print those mailers.  When you give to BGR, or to the Baptist World Hunger Fund, 100% of every penny is actually used to bring relief.  The Cooperative Program covers all the costs associated with overhead and as such, giving to BGR or World Hunger means no administration, no staffing, and no "off the top" skimming from a fundraising organization.  You give a dollar, and the whole dollar makes it to someone who really needs it.

Second, when you give for world relief through these channels, you are supporting a brand that has garnered national and international respect.  BGR is at work in places around the world where our own diplomats sometimes have difficulty working.  And next time you are on the Gulf Coast, or in Long Island New York, ask those residents if they would rather have FEMA, or SBC Disaster Relief help them out in the event of another Hurricane.  They won't have to think long!

So, if you've been watching the news the past few days, want to help, but are struggling with where to send the money, let me help you with that decision.

Click here to donate to Baptist Global Response.

Click here to donate to the SBC World Hunger Fund.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What's all the Fuss About Furtick?

This morning, someone called my attention to this article from The Christian Post about Charlotte mega-church pastor Steven Furtick. It seems that a fairly large slice of western Christendom is up in arms about a young pastor of a fast-growing church building a $1.7 million home for his family.  Subsequent questions have also surfaced regarding the financial dealings of Furtick and Charlotte's Elevation Church, which now boasts seven campuses throughout the metro-Charlotte area, as well as multiple video venues around the country.

Most of the vitriol, it appears, has been suppressed for some time.  For at least two years now (The "Elephant Room" conferences catapulted Furtick into the national spotlight) Furtick has garnered strong critics because of everything from his methodology to the company he keeps (Most notably, he was criticized for claiming Bishop T.D. Jakes as a ministry and preaching mentor.)

Reading the above-referenced article got me thinking:  What would I do if Elevation Church was linked with the Association I lead?  My history--which briefly intersects Furticks if you go back around 15 years--makes that question uniquely personal.

I first met Steven when he was a junior Christian Studies major at North Greenville University, when I served as an Evangelism professor on that same campus.  At that point in his life, he was an upperclassman who could have invoked the privilege of much nicer accommodations, but instead remained in the dorms affectionately called "the projects" by the freshman and sophomore athletes who were forced to make their beds there.  His decision to remain in such less-than-desirable dorm space was motivated by the relationships he was developing with many of the athletes--a number of whom he introduced to Jesus.  The day we met, he had no money for lunch, because he had spent it all on snacks the week before for his dorm buddies.  Steven was practicing "incarnational ministry" long before Alan Hirsch ever published a book on the topic.  When I think about his ministry today, It would appear that those same values continue to motivate everything he does.

It was a number of years after these events that Elevation Church was planted.  As I've watched the story of that church unfold from a distance, I've seen things that make me shiver, and things that bring me to thank God.  There are things Furtick says that I wouldn't say, and things he does that I wouldn't do.  But as I think about it, those things are probably also true for nearly every church that cooperates in my network.  What troubles me more than the concerns raised by the Post article is the binary way so many within the church today seem to react to mega-churches and those who lead them.  Some are ready to make room for a fourth member of the Trinity, others ready to etch "666" across the foreheads of these pastors.  I haven't encountered Steven Furtick for many years, but I'm betting he's somewhere in between those caricatures, just like all the rest of us. In fact, I think Steven Furtick provides us with a large model of the kind of loving critique we need to give each other.   So with that in view, what would I say to him if we were back in that Travelers Rest South Carolina BBQ joint we met in years ago?

1. I would thank God for his ministry.  Paul communicated to believers at Philippi his awareness of the wrong-headed motives of some preachers, yet thanked God even for them because "whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed."  (1:18, ESV).  I could write a series of blog posts about all the things with which I disagree, but when I look at Elevation Church, one singular, undeniable fact overrides everything else:  more than 10,000 people have given their lives to Jesus since that church was planted.  The same evangelists heart that motivated a young college student to stay in a freshman dorm now resides in a mega-church pastor whose desire to see people meet Jesus has not changed.  Whatever else good or bad may be said about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church, I'm most thankful for this.

2. I would encourage sound ecclesiology that uses exclusively internal leadership.  In the first months of a new church's life, we often encourage planters to form an outside "advisory committee" of pastors of other churches who can act as a sort of de facto "elder board" until the church can raise up its own indigenous leadership from within.  Among the responsibilities of this committee are usually the setting of salaries and the approval of annual budgets.  But over time, these outside advisors are to be replaced by leaders who rise up from within the body of Christ and demonstrate themselves Biblically qualified to serve as elders and deacons.  Those offices are not optional, nor is it suggested anywhere in the New Testament that they can be filled by outsiders, and any local church--regardless of size--still using outside pastors to lead it after 7 years is asking for major dysfunction.  Soteriology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked in Scripture, and sooner or later, dysfunction in one will inevitably cause dysfunction in the other.  As a guy who provides counsel to more than 60 churches, I'd want to look at Steven Furtick and beg him--for the sake of continued evangelistic effectiveness--to revisit what the Lord of the church has to say about how His church is best and most effectively organized to execute its mission.  I praise God for the numbers, but numbers alone are not the sign of a faithful ecclesiology.

3. I would encourage financial transparency.  For one thing, its the law.  Any non-profit entity operating in the United States is required to produce financial statements to anyone who asks--member or non member.  Additionally, any refusal to disclose financial information automatically raises suspicions that you are hiding something unethical.   If people ask for information, give it to them.  And if they want to know your salary and benefit package, then make it public.

Doing this will accomplish two things:  First, it will eliminate any criticism that suggests the church is hiding unethical and/or sinful behavior.  Second, it will hopefully open up an honest conversation about pastoral compensation.  Let me tell you something that might shock you:  I don't think its a sin for a pastor to receive a large salary!  I really don't! (and full disclosure: my base salary is considerably under $100K, and I live in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, so this isn't a statement made in self-defense!).  Elevation is an organization that receives around $20 million annually.  If we heard that the C.E.O. of a $20 million corporation was making $2 or $3 million per year, it would barely illicit a yawn.  So why do we get so upset when we learn that the pastor of a large, successful church is himself financially successful?  When we make surface-level judgments based solely on the size of someone's salary, we have bought into the worldly game of assessing someone's spirituality based on what they possess.  We are just judging in reverse. The story above of the college junior out of money because he spent it on snacks to get his buddies into his dorm to tell them about Jesus demonstrates that Furtick didn't get into this line of work for the money.  Enough with the envy.  Let's have a reasonable conversation about this issue.

But hiding the salary you collect from a non-profit entity only further exacerbates that suspicion.  For your own good, and for the good of your church's reputation, when someone asks how much you make, tell them.

4. I would encourage him to keep it about Jesus.  I'm not usually moved by the "guilt by association" gang.  Furtick and others have often been accused of heresy simply because they keep company with some pastors who hold to questionable theology.  Has Furtick said things I wouldn't say?  Oh yeah.  But if he has ever uttered full-blown heresy, I've not heard it.

I don't judge people merely by the company they keep.  Doing so would force me to name Jesus Himself a heretic, and I think there are a few people out there who need to back off of the "look who he is hanging out with" rhetoric and start judging men by what comes out of their own mouths.

But when it comes to that which comes out of your mouth, I've seen too many men change messages mid-stream.  D. James Kennedy died more political pundit than pastor.  Rod Parsley, who once preached the Gospel with abundant clarity, now preaches the prosperity Gospel of American capitalism that has and will continue to send untold numbers of people to hell.  Other examples can be given, but my point is this:  it is possible to start well; to start faithful; to start in complete commitment to Jesus, and still end miserably.  The only way to prevent that shift is to keep your nose between the pages of Scripture and your eyes more on Jesus than men.

Steven Furtick may not be doing everything right, but best as I can tell, his eyes are still on Jesus, and I believe that will take him, and Elevation Church, to some great places in the end--if he can manage to keep focus.

So to all those who think Furtick is some sort of mortal threat to western Christendom, save your flame-throwing, because I'm not buyin it.  To those who are ready to canonize him, offended that anyone would suggest that there may be a few glitches in his ministry, he's just a kid from lower-state South Carolina whom the Lord is using in a great way.

Let's don't treat people like this as though they are infallible, and let's don't treat them like Satanic enemies either.  Let's treat them like what they are--brothers.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Legacy of Truth: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

Luther's Translation of the Bible into German. 
Tonight, I will gather my kids--who will be dressed as Dr. Who, Captain America, and a Disney Princess respectively--and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides.  But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 496 years ago on this very day.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medeival Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be consider historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Shaffer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly oppressive actdions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actionns flow from our true beliefs.  Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Isn't Your Father's Denominational Meeting!

This weekend, the network of churches I serve will hold their annual meeting in Westminster Maryland.  In recent years, we've heard a lot about the decline of denominations in America.  I understand the sentiment of that conversation, and sympathize with much of the criticisms that have been leveled against denominational entities, including my own.  At the same time, if a denomination can be a vehicle in which churches find strategic opportunities to work together, they can continue to be a force for good in our culture.

At the Mid-Maryland Association, this is precisely what we aspire to be, and this Sunday night, we look forward to celebrating what our churches are doing together.  Yes, there will be "business" discussed.  Our 1.5 hour plenary session will include about 20 minutes in which we will appoint leaders for the next year, admit new member churches, report on significant actions of our Executive Board, and consider our 2014 operating budget.  Those things are necessary in order to keep the ship moving.  The rest of our time, however, will be spent in celebration, learning, networking and equipping.  So, if you live in our area, and would like to join us, I hope to see you there!  You do not need to be a member of a Mid-Maryland Church to join us for this meeting!  Messenger cards have been securely mailed to our churches to separate those who are authorized to vote on business items and those who aren't.  But we don't check those cards at the door.  Mid-Maryland Church or not, Baptist or not, you are welcome!  And if you come, here is what you will experience:

Informative and Useful Breakout Sessions:  Starting at 5 PM, Pastoral staff are invited to a breakout session in which I will lead a panel discussion on "The Future of Pastoral Ministry."  Four months ago, we put together a number of issues, and asked our pastors via social media and surveys to tell us what they would like us to discuss.  As a result, we will talk about 1. The aging of the country, and the impact retiring baby boomers will have on church structure, staffing, budgeting, and mission.  2. LGBT issues and the church.  The far right have treated these people as the enemy, and the far left has used them as a "cause."  How can followers of Jesus treat them as human, and in the process, walk with them in life through the myriad of legal, ethical, and philosophical issues they face each day?  3. Technology and the church.  What is the relationship between effective use of technology and the maintaining of sound ecclesiology?

Additionally, church leaders can attend a breakout called "Preserving a Sacred Trust," led by Tom Rodgerson and Kim Cook.  Kim is the Executive Director of Centerpoint Counseling Services, one of our partner organizations, and Tom leads Pastoral Counseling for this ministry. The western church has seen more than its share of scandal over the last three decades, from sexual misconduct to financial impropriety to the abuse of children.  Together, Kim and Tom will speak to church leaders about boundaries for the protection of pastors and leaders, as well as those they lead.  They will also speak about why the church should respond firmly to pastors who "cross the line," and how to do this, as well as how to separate discipline over actions from condemnation of the whole person..

Food from All Over the World!  Our churches worship in 9 different languages every single Sunday, and this Sunday night, you can sample food from nearly every one of those cultures represented in our network.  Come and enjoy food from places like Costa Rica, India, China, Russia, and other places.  Or if you are feeling particularly "American" we will also have sub sandwiches.  Starting at 6:15 PM and running up until the start of our plenary session at 7, you can walk in, grab a bite, have a seat, and get to know others with whom you are in cooperation over some great food!  Its like a buffet prepared by the United Nations!

Missions Displays and Opportunities to Join or Build Partnerships with Other Churches:  Our display area will not only showcase everywhere we are at work here in our region and around the world.  It will also give you opportunity to meet those who lead those efforts, and sign up for more information on how you and your church can join the effort.  Additionally, if God is breaking your heart over a place or people group that we are yet to touch with Jesus' message, this is the place to make those feelings known.  So come and be exposed to the work of our churches in human dignity (anti-human trafficking, prison ministries, et al), disaster relief (our work this year on the Gulf Coast, as well as Long Island, New York and Moore Oklahoma), and other mission work in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, India, and here in our own region.  Hear also about emerging work in China and Vietnam!  Yes, these countries know we are coming, they know who we are, and its all "above the radar!  Want to explore how you can contribute to this work?  Tour this area and find out!

"Your Kingdom Come" Summit on the Missional Church:  At 7 PM, we gather for an hour and a half of worship, celebration of what God has done and will do through our collective work, and a few items of business.  During this time, you will see a couple of films that contain the stories of five people in our churches, and how God has used them and their skills to advance His Kingdom on earth.  You will also hear from one of our local church planters, who will thank our churches for their support as he works in north Baltimore. And when this time is over, we think the challenges you will hear will drive you back to our display area to answer the call God has placed on your life to serve Him within your own sphere of expertise and influence.

This is going to be a great night, and its only about 55 hours away!  So if you live in this area, I hope to see you there!

Westminster Baptist Church
354 Crest Lane
Westminster, Maryland

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pastoral Authority and the Good of the Church

The man sat in my office, his lip quivering from a mixture of fear, guilt, sorrow and hopelessness.  Tears streamed down his face as he finally mustered the courage to look at me and confess actions he never thought he'd be capable of.

Pastor Joel, I cheated on my wife.

I can share this account, and everything that comes after, and still keep confidentiality because, sadly, this scenario has happened many times in my 20-plus years of ministry.  What is even more sad is the typical scenario that follows.

We pray together, cry together, and I ensure him of God's love for him and desire to see him restored, and my love for him and commitment to walk with him through what comes next.  After about an hour of hearing his story--including all the feelings and events that led to his sin, we begin to talk about where to go from here.  My counsel in this situation is fairly uniform:

You have to tell your wife, and you both need to have that conversation in the context of supportive professional crisis counselors who can help you.  Our church can help arrange that meeting, and I will be there also.  God forgives you, but you will still need to face the consequences that come with the fact that you have broken your marriage covenant.  In doing so, your wife now has the option of deciding whether she wants to help repair what has been broken, or exercise her Biblical right to leave you.  This is her decision, and it is her right to know the truth from you so she can make it.  Regardless of what happens, God loves you, we love you, and want to see you restored, and if your wife agrees, your marriage restored.

With full confession to his pastor complete and the beginnings of a plan in the works, the man leaves my office, thankful for the prayer and support he has received.  Then, usually a day or so later, I get a phone call:

Pastor, I don't think this plan is going to work because [fill in the blank with whatever excuse you want.  Every single one I've ever heard in the last 20 years has been lame].  Plus, as the head of my home, I don't feel my wife is ready to hear this yet.  But can you and I continue to meet? Because I know I still need counseling.

Again, my counsel in response to such nonsense has also been historically uniform.

For one thing, no male who is not man enough to confess this kind of sin to his wife is qualified to be "head" of anything.  If you want your headship back, you have to first reclaim your manhood, which was severely marred when you broke your marriage covenant.  We have offered to help you, and give you and your wife the support you will both need to get through this.  When you last left my office, you and I had an agreement, which you are also now trying to break, so no, I will not see you for counseling, as you have not yet followed my initial counsel.  When you decide you are ready to do the right thing by your wife, as I have instructed, I am ready to give you all the help you need.  But until then, you and I have nothing further to discuss.

And then comes the big one.......

But, but, you are supposed to be my PASTOR!

The Scriptural term "pastor" is adapted from the agrarian function of a shepherd--someone who watches over and cares for his flock, protects them from harm, guides them on the right path, and always acts in their best interests.  In the New Testament, this term (poimen, best translated "shepherd"), is coupled with two other terms:  episcopos (best translated "overseer") and presbeuteros (best translated "elder")  And in order to get an accurate and fully-orbed view of the duties of a pastor, all three terms, and their relationship to each other, must be well-understood.  When linked together in a Scripturally accurate way, the picture that emerges is of a man who possesses the spiritual "age" (elder) to discern spiritual matters accurately among the people God has called him to lead, the spiritual strength (pastor) to serve them in a way that understands their best spiritual interests, and the spiritual authority (overseer) to guide them in truth.

Yet somehow in the modern age, the pastoral office has been reduced to that of a family chaplain who simply pats people on the head and recites spiritual platitudes to make them feel better.  In my own denomination, the job description for many pastors as spelled out by most churches includes the phrase, "he shall watch over and care for the flock."  Ask any average church member what that means, and they will tell you it means he needs to be present in hospitals and nursing homes.  Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the Biblical role of pastoral authority.

The shepherds of the first century didn't just carry a staff.  They also carried a rod.  And some of the most difficult people to pastor are those who are offended when the rod is employed.  But if your pastor is going to stand in front of Jesus and give account for doing what is always in your best interest, then blessing your idols, excusing your sin, and refusing to hold you accountable in the local church context will result in THAT day being a very, very bad day for him.

Those who sit in our churches week after week need to remember that a good pastor wants good for his people, and the path to good doesn't always "feel" good.  Conversely, Pastors who truly have a heart for their people will occasionally break out the rod of correction when there is clear evidence that its needed.  Shepherd-like compassion mixed with Elder-like discernment will sometimes result in Overseer-like authority being exercised, because we'd rather see our people temporarily uncomfortable than permanently harmed--or worse yet--eternally damned.

Which is why phone calls like I've referenced above usually end in this way:  Yes, I am your Pastor and I take that role seriously.  I love you, and I want good for you, which is why I will not stand by while you seek to control a situation to your own short-term benefit.  When you are willing to follow my counsel, I will invest as much time in you as is necessary to get you where God wants you.  Until then, know I'm praying for you--that God would break you as I can't so that you will come back to Him where you belong.

Sometimes its hard, gut-wrenching work, but those I've counseled have one thing right: I'm supposed to be their pastor.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Gotcha Day," Adoption, and the Kingdom of God

Three 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 to physically set my eyes on this beautiful young lady you see to your right.

Adoptive parents call this a celebration of "Gotcha Day."  As I think back on that moment, and every moment since, I am 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 could convince this scruffy, Harley-riding redneck to cuddle up on the couch and watch a children's program involving fairies with 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.

But 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.

Every experience with her since then has taught me more about my own faith.  As followers of Jesus, we believe that the act of adoption is more than a mere act of mercy toward an otherwise homeless child.  The reason James calls this "pure and spotless religion" (James 1:27) is because when we partake in this enterprise, we are reflecting the Kingdom values of a heavenly Father who brings alien children--you and me--into His own family.  Yet every day with Abigail Grace Rainey teaches me another experiential lesson that confirms this reality of the Kingdom of God.

Four days after we met her, I posted the following journal entry online.  Since that time I've added a few thoughts to what is below, but the spirit and intent are the same.  Enjoy!

One of the things our agency, social worker, and other wise people warned us about was the issue of attachment.  Sometimes, the child will not adapt early on to either parent, which creates a high stress situation for parents and their 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 Gracie 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.  If anything, I must be a Yeti.

It stuck.  I'm now "the Yeti."

Currently, Grace occasionally 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 just a 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.  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 along with my wife, I began 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, and all the blessings that come with being 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 safety or 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 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 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 those of us who belong to Jesus to be His own (Ephesians 1:4-11).  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 (John 3:16, Romans 3:25-26) bearing the wrath of God against sin in our place.  Furthermore, He drew us to Himself (John 6:35-44) and quite literally "adopted" us into His family (Ephesians 1:5), 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. (1 Corinthians 2:9)

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, and many times abusive of His gifts. (Romans 3:10-18)

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 as any fallen man is able, the actions of my heavenly Father toward my own daughter.