Archive | March, 2015

Visiting with an Old Friend – Psalm 27

31 Mar

This week leading up to Easter, I am consciously trying to spend less time looking at a screen (either the TV or my iPad) and more time consciously in the Word.  Tonight as I settled in for the evening and began to catch up on my Bible reading plan, I realized that tonight’s reading would reunite me with an old friend – Psalm 27.

It was July 2002 in Waverly, New York.  I was leading a mission team of 35 people, and my heart was heavy. That particular mission trip was a difficult one in that nothing really went according to plan.  Our group didn’t even get an hour from home before a flat tire delayed us! To be quite honest, about halfway through that trip, I wondered if we had done the right thing in coming. In addition, one of my closest friends in the church &  a well-respected deacon there was in the hospital in Birmingham fighting for his life. It looked bleak, and any moment I was expecting to get the call to fly home.  In addition, I was the full-time pastor of a growing church while also pursuing my doctorate degree from seminary.  Literally, I was working both day and night seven days per week. I was physically & spiritually exhausted.  Finally, I had a pregnant wife and a four year old little boy at home that I missed & worried about. Like I said, my heart was heavy – and my tank was empty!

One morning I went outside to have my Bible reading & prayer time. The sun had just come up enough to give light to read by. It was then that these words gripped my heart…

Davidic. The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom should I be afraid? When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. Though an army deploys against me, my heart is not afraid; though a war breaks out against me, still I am confident. I have asked one thing from the Lord; it is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, gazing on the beauty of the Lord and seeking Him in His temple. For He will conceal me in His shelter in the day of adversity; He will hide me under the cover of His tent; He will set me high on a rock. Then my head will be high above my enemies around me; I will offer sacrifices in His tent with shouts of joy. I will sing and make music to the Lord. Lord, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me and answer me. My heart says this about You, “You are to seek My face.” Lord, I will seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not turn Your servant away in anger. You have been my helper; do not leave me or abandon me, God of my salvation. Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me. Because of my adversaries, show me Your way, Lord, and lead me on a level path. Do not give me over to the will of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing violence. I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and courageous. Wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27, HCSB)

It was then the Lord assured me that I would see His goodness even though I couldn’t sense it at that moment. Psalm 27 strengthened me, encouraged me, and convicted me of my lack of faith all at the same time. Since that day almost 13 years ago, I have at key times each year been drawn back to Psalm 27.  It’s like an old friend that visits at just the right time. I am grateful for the visit tonight.

A needed lesson on Baptist polity

20 Mar

This week the Madison Baptist Association in Huntsville has made the news because of the action they took on Tuesday to remove Weatherly Heights Baptist Church from fellowship in the association. This action stemmed from the support of and participation in gay weddings by some ministers from the church.  As I watched & read the media reports of this story, I was reminded again that the news media struggles to understand Southern Baptist polity – that is how our denomination is governed.  In addition, over the years I have found that many Southern Baptists do not understand our polity.  On a number of occasions, I have had church members who had heard about actions taken by another Southern Baptist church and came to my office saying, “Our denomination is going liberal. Someone should have stopped that church from ordaining that person or calling that pastor.”  So, please keep reading for a brief but much needed lesson on Baptist polity. One point before I go further: I am writing here about my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches. There are other “varieties” of Baptists that I am not addressing in this post.

(1)   Every Southern Baptist church is fully independent & autonomous.   Each of 45,000+ Southern Baptist churches owns its own property, calls it own pastors, and makes its own decisions. The national Southern Baptist Convention and the Alabama Baptist State Convention have no authority to tell a local church to do (or not do) anything.  This is much different than how other denominations are governed. For instance, in the United Methodist Church, the denominational leadership appoints the pastors of the local churches, and it is my understanding that the denomination owns the property of each local congregation.

(2)   Southern Baptists have organized to cooperate for missions & ministry on three levels.   Local Baptist associations are groups of churches that cooperate together for ministry in a local geographic area.  In the South, local associations are often organized by county since there tend to be a large number of SBC churches in each county, while associations in other parts of the country might comprise several counties.  State Conventions were also formed to provide avenues for ministry & missions on a statewide level.  Many state conventions have entities that no church or local association could support by themselves, such as colleges, children’s homes, conference centers, etc.  Finally, the national Southern Baptist Convention is where the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, and our six SBC seminaries are governed.  As a result, the church I serve is a cooperating member of the Birmingham Baptist Association, the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and the national Southern Baptist Convention.

(3)  Participation in & contribution to these three levels is determined by each local church. Since every church is autonomous and makes its own decisions, each church decides its level of missions giving. Cooperation is voluntary – never forced. If a church reduces or stops giving its money, they are not sent a “bill” or otherwise pressured to restore the funding. This is why I have heard the Southern Baptist Convention described as “a rope of sand” because there is no top down authority for funding and participation.

(4) Baptist cooperation goes both ways.  Like the situation up in Huntsville shows, Baptist polity also means that local associations, state conventions, and the national SBC have the right to determine who they are cooperating with.  That local association decided that Weatherly Heights Baptist Church no longer was in agreement with the beliefs & practices of the association, so they voted to withdraw fellowship from them.  This action does not violate principle # 1 above because no one is questioning that local church’s right to believe and practice their faith as they see fit.  The autonomy of the local church is still very much alive and well. No one is saying that Weatherly Heights must remove the word “Baptist” from its name, etc. Weatherly Heights still owns its own buildings, calls its own pastors, and makes its own decisions, but so does the Madison Baptist Association.  Cooperation goes both ways.  If the Madison Baptist Association had chosen to do nothing or to endorse the church’s position, then every other church would have autonomously decided if they wished to continue participating in the association.

Finally, there is no perfect model for church or denominational government. There are “pros & cons” to each of the different models. It is not the intent of this post to discuss those, but rather to help us understand in a more clear way how the denomination I am part of operates. The Southern Baptist Convention is not perfect, but it is my home and the home of the church I serve.

 

A Powerful Word in a Changing World

16 Mar

It’s so wonderful when the Word of God speaks to us in a new and fresh way. Over the weekend in my personal Bible reading Psalm 12 jumped off the page for me. As many times as I have read it, it is more meaningful to me today than ever before. First please allow me to share a little background.

To be perfectly honest, every Biblically faithful pastor and every serious Christian in the United States is wrestling with some difficult questions: How do we live as Christians in a culture that is increasingly hostile to what we believe?  How do we have a Biblically faithful church going forward in the cultural realities of today’s world?  How do we reach people for Christ in our culture?  Those are just three examples of many questions that I (and many others) am asking.  While I have not been in despair over them, I am burdened by these questions.  Every single day these questions are on my heart. Now you can understand why Psalm 12 spoke to me in such a profound way. Here it is…

For the choir director: according to Sheminith. A Davidic psalm. Help, Lord, for no faithful one remains; the loyal have disappeared from the human race. They lie to one another; they speak with flattering lips and deceptive hearts. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips and the tongue that speaks boastfully. They say, “Through our tongues we have power; our lips are our own—who can be our master?” “Because of the oppression of the afflicted and the groaning of the poor, I will now rise up,” says the Lord. “I will put the one who longs for it in a safe place.” The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in an earthen furnace, purified seven times. You, Lord, will guard us; You will protect us from this generation forever. The wicked wander everywhere, and what is worthless is exalted by the human race.” (Psalm 12, HCSB)

Verse 1 is clear that David went through a time when he felt as if the faithful had largely disappeared. Then in the verses that follow, David tells us why he felt that way.  Many committed Christians feel this way in our day.  The parallels between our culture and what David describes here are uncanny.  For instance, look at verse 4. We live in a day when politicians, media icons, entertainers, and other influential people use the power of words to shape the culture – in the wrong direction!  Like those described in verse 4, they steadfastly believe they are their own master and determine their own destiny. While there have always been people like this in America, it seems that now they are almost totally in control of every lever of influence in our culture. Yes, times are changing quickly. Like David, we see it. We feel it. It’s easy to begin to feel despair and doubt.

Did you notice where David went when confronted with these realities?  He went back to the pure words of the Lord and His protection. The cultural realities that David faced drove him back to the Lord and the Word.  That is where the answers to his struggle were found.  In the same way, as we wrestle with very real questions today, it is my prayer that we too are driven back to where the answers to our struggle are found.

HE is faithful!

 

The Greatest Generation

6 Mar

This week I visited a church member in the ICU of a local hospital. Even though he had been through a rough time, he was able to talk with me and in our conversation he referred to his time in combat during World War II.  As I talked with him, I was humbled and a little overwhelmed to be the pastor of a man who had given so much for his country.  As I walked to my car, I couldn’t help but think of others in the church I serve who are also World War II veterans.  In the short time I have been pastor here, we have buried several of these veterans.  A number of years back, news anchor Tom Brokaw wrote a book about the World War II generation and he titled it “The Greatest Generation.”   I believe Tom Brokaw had it right; this generation is the greatest generation in American history.  Please allow me to share why I believe this statement is true.

1)  The World War II generation is a generation of deep faith.  Not every member of this generation is a born again Christian, but many are. Some came to faith during the war, while others came to Christ later in life, but the reality is that many of this generation came to a deep and abiding Christian faith. Practically every evangelical church in the post World War II decades has been filled with faithful members from this generation.

2) The World War II generation is a generation of hard work & sacrifice.  Many of them were children during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and grew up in families working hard just to survive. After the war was over, they came home, got married and began their careers and families.  In a very real sense, this generation built the America we know today. They built businesses, communities, churches, etc. Even in their retirement years, the World War II generation has stayed busy. They have worked until they were not physically able to work any more. That is no coincidence. Work is all they have known.

3)  The World War II generation is a generation of a healthy patriotism. I have never met a World War II veteran who thought America was perfect. However, each one loves their country.  Many of them have seen first hand the results of evil and despotism.  They take the phrase “land of the free and the home of the brave” to heart.  They came up in a time when the American flag transcended Democrat or Republican  – it was a symbol of our whole country and what it stands for. Certainly, we do not worship America, but the Greatest Generation shows us how to love America in a healthy way.

According to the National World War II museum, 16 million Americans served in World War II.  Today only about 855,000 remain alive. They are dying at the rate of 492 each day.  In Alabama, there are only 12,700 left alive in the entire state.   Let’s take the time to thank and honor those members of the Greatest Generation that we know. Unfortunately, we do not have very long to do so.