When a Celebrity Dies

This year has been...different, it seems. While there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9) this year has been chock-full of strange, somewhat surprising, and shocking news stories.

The advent and immediacy of social media pushes news (real news and fake news) to the forefront quickly. No longer do world events take place without the world knowing in real time, it seems.

Famous Deaths

There have likely been no more deaths this past year of celebrities and famous people than in the past, but with the aging Gen X population plus the advent of social media, it seems that more have passed. Just this past week, George Michael and Carrie Fisher died. These shocking announcements affect many, but especially those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when these young entertainers burst onto the public stage.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA

Many of those who died played characters in movies or television that became "friends" of young fans throughout the years. Musicians, artists, political figures, and sports figures died as well. The list is long. The impact of these individuals upon pop culture has been immense, and in some cases will remain.

In many funerals that I preach, I reference Solomon's wise words regarding funerals and death. At first, it may seem harsh, but for Christians, it brings comfort. For non-Christians, it brings clarity.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecc 7:2 (ESV)

Simply put, God reminds us through this word that there are times it is actually better to attend a funeral rather than a party. Why? Because death is our destiny. It is part of life. The wise will realize this and live with the end in mind. 

There is comfort in grief for Christians knowing that this life on earth is not the end. That's why funerals for Christians can actually be celebratory.

Funerals for non-Christians...well, those are more difficult due to the life-long rejection of Christ finding finality.

I Never Knew You

The strange reality is that many who mourn today do so for people they never knew. In some cases, the mourning seems to be less for the death of the individual, and more for the loss of a character or role played by that individual in the past. 

Yet, the grief is real, isn't it?

A couple of years ago, Kenneth Morefield wrote a poignant article for Christianity Today titled "Not Another Celebrity Death Post." The article was written following the death of actor Robin Williams. In his article, he describes mourning in the social media world and what we must remember.

He reminds us...

First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.

Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
 
Wise words.
 
So, should you grieve the loss of those you have never met? Certainly. The loss of any life is cause for grieving. Yet, I believe we should look back to Solomon's words of wisdom regarding death. Remember, death is the destiny of all and the living should take it to heart. As followers of Christ, this reminder is to not waste our days and to live with the end in mind. With that, we are challenged to tell others of this great reality which is the gospel. There is good news. Death does not have to be the end.

Cops, Coffee, and Community Relations

Much has been reported over the past few years regarding police officers, race, violence, justice, and injustice. To discount the issues facing our nation and especially those in the black community would be not only a disservice to a significant demographic group, but to all people. Yet, as we all know, negative news spreads quickly while good news stories sit on the back burner on some back page of Facebook and social media and often goes ignored.

Our town of Orange Park covers just over three square miles. While the community is much larger than the town limits, Orange Park is fairly small. Within the borders of our county, the Clay County Sheriff's Office serves well. In our municipality we have the Orange Park Police Department. 

Though only a three-square-mile area, there are many people who live in the town limits and thousands who travel through daily. To put it plainly, this bedroom community of Jacksonville, Florida is busy. 

Cops and the Community

Over the past year or so, our Police Chief, Gary Goble, has led the department to host "Coffee with a Cop" encounters at local coffee shops and restaurants. I was talking to him earlier in the year (I serve as the volunteer chaplain for the OPPD and OPFD) about these events. These are organized gatherings where members of our community have the opportunity, in a relaxed atmosphere, to get to know the men and women behind the badge. The event is promoted with this description - "No agenda or speeches, just a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in your neighborhood!"

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Today, we hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" gathering in the community near Grove Park Elementary School. The pastor and membership of New Hope Pentecostal Church were gracious enough to be our hosts as we set up a table with free coffee and doughnuts (okay - here's the cop and doughnut joke, but seriously...who doesn't love doughnuts?)

We had the tables set up outdoors underneath the church's overhang.

As would be the case, after weeks of no rain in our area, today we experienced a rain storm. It was torrential for a few hours. Yes, during the scheduled coffee time, but we pressed on regardless.

Despite the rain, people from the community arrived. The community where we hosted this has a predominantly African-American population. As we drank coffee, told jokes, and shared stories of Orange Park, we soon moved into the church's worship center where members of the community were given opportunity to ask questions of the officers.

The honesty was refreshing.

When People Fear the Police

Men and women in the community shared that many fear the police and that much of that fear is based on what has been seen on the news and viewed on social media. Whether fear is founded or not does not remove the reality that it exists.

One man asked "If our children are pulled over by an officer, what should they do? They're scared and with the stories flying around out there, we want to give them wise instructions. But, there are so many stories. What do we say?"

That was a great question.

Moms and dads and younger people in the room nodded their heads in agreement and sought insight from the officers.

The officers present gave practical, step-by-step instructions that would be protocol for anyone pulled over. The fact of the matter is when the blue lights flash in our rear window, stress levels increase and fear is often common. Since I am a 48-year-old white man, I will not even pretend to understand what a young black man would be experiencing in today's culture. It would be insulting to do so. Yet, the officers answered honestly and well.

I will offer this from today's meeting - that one question led to others and the conversation was rich and valuable.

Relationships Are the Key

As the conversation continued, the overall feelings expressed were those of appreciation from the community to the officers for offering the opportunity to talk and be honest. That appreciation went both ways as the officers were deeply grateful for the attendance of those (even in the rain) to come and talk.

This won't be the last "Coffee with a Cop" and I echo what one man stated today as we closed. He said, "Trust is built on relationships. We know you as people, not just as police officers. You know us as people. That's the key. The law is the law and we know that and appreciate that. We just have to keep building relationships."

What a powerful and correct statement!

Is this a perfect community? Of course not. There are citizens seeking to live well and do right. Then, as one lady mentioned today, "There are criminals around here, too" and that is true. It's true in every community. That speaks of the depraved hearts of humanity.

I'm thankful for a police department that is committed to the law they have vowed to uphold, but who also love this community enough to "serve and protect."

Many communities have such gatherings following a tragedy. As I talked to one of our neighbors at the event today, we discussed how we pray that no tragedy hits our community, but that we will have these gatherings now and continually. We'll be better off, safer, and stronger. 

And...who doesn't want a free cup of coffee and a doughnut?


"If My People..." 2 Chronicles 7:14 - That Verse May Not Mean What You Think It Means

It's the most popular Bible verse for American Christians during election year. The verse is found in the Old Testament and centered on God's people and the building of his temple by Solomon. While the context is clearly for the people of Israel and related to Solomon's faithfulness, the holiness of worship in the temple, and the fidelity required of those who claim to follow God, the underlying truth revealed in the passage is timeless.

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

Believing fully in the inerrancy of God's Word, this verse is not unlike others. It is powerful, true, and valuable (2 Timothy 3:16)

As stated earlier, this verse seems to be dusted off and pulled out of storage when Christians (American ones especially) find themselves at a point of despair. This most often occurs when the political machine is in full swing during election year. While it is clear that some Christians do struggle with idol worship when it comes to nationalism, the vast majority, in my opinion, truly are seeking insight and healing from the Lord.

The church must be clear when using this verse as a sermon theme, prayer gathering banner or in an attempt to garner oneness regarding the nature of our nation.

Some things to consider, based on the wording of the English translation of this verse...

"If my people who are called by my name"

While directed at God's chosen people (Israel) in the Old Testament, all believers are now included in this "my people" phrase due to the message of the gospel and the inclusion of grafted branches. Therefore, this is a message for the church, not Washington DC, Tallahasee, or the center of government where you reside. Of course there are believers who live and serve in these offices of government, and to them (as members of the "my people" group) the message is declarative. Yet, the unregenerate will not get this, nor should Christians continue to expect non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. Tweet: Christians must stop expecting non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. @davidtark http://bit.ly/2fAS0Sn

This matters because it is so easy to see the sin in others, but so difficult to see it in ourselves. Maybe this is a bit of the "speck and log" story Christ shared?

"Humble themselves"

This may be the most forgotten section of the verse. Humility is rare and in an election cycle where major candidates garner news coverage, trending stories, and news coverage by being crass, self-centric, and loud, the simple idea of humility seems like a lost art.

While it should be expected to see arrogance as the theme of the day in the world, when it enters into the church and becomes a celebrated characteristic, it is time to wake up and repent.

The humble heart is sought by God.

Here's what we know, self-centric celebrity Christians and arrogant pastors and spiritual leaders, while honored by many, embarrass and break the heart of God.

This passage reminds us that God is seeking for his people to be humble. 

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

Oh, and being humble is not something you can brag about. Once you do that...well, you're not humble.

"And pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways"

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

There is an action step required from his pcople (the church). This action step is not sought from the government leaders who are not believers. This is not sought from the community organizers, petitioners, talk show hosts, pundits, or spin masters. This action step is sought by God from his children - his people - his church.

I think of the parent of the small child who is chastising the child for disobeying. The child says "But my friends are doing this. They don't get in trouble." To this the parent responds "I don't care about the other children. You're my child. You know better. This is not acceptable."

That's our loving Father chastising and disciplining us, his children and then providing steps for reconciliation.

"The I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

For the Israelites, it meant that the rains would come, the crops would grow, peace would reign and worship would be as it should be. For us today, it means that God will hear our prayer (just as he says) and will forgive us (conditionally, not unconditionally) and heal our land. How big is this "land" he will heal? Maybe just yours and my small spheres of influence? Maybe collectively the land we call home?

Maybe we're too concerned with God healing our land and then telling God where our surveyed boundaries lay? 

Maybe the healing begins where it must to make the biggest impact. Guess what? That may not be the swampland that was drained so that Washington DC could be built, but is the land of our hearts. In this Old Testament passage, the land of God centered where his temple was built. Since our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, perhaps this is the land that must be healed?

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

I'm seeing postings on the web and am actually getting postcards and mailings from churches promoting church and community-wide prayer gatherings. Most of these are tagged with "Pray for the USA" or "Pray for Our Nation" and are focused on gathering the church to pray together prior to Election Day on November 8.

Those gatherings are good, so I'm not throwing shade upon the churches or organizers. However, to gather solely for politically-flavored prayer may reveal more than is sought.

We, too have scheduled a time of corporate prayer for this coming Sunday night. Yet, I must share some convictions about our gathering and some things we are NOT doing.

Solemn Assembly

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We are seeking to have a solemn assembly Sunday evening as a church family. Sadly, I have felt led to schedule this prior, but have not, so now it appears to be just another "Pray for the Election" gathering. 

Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

It's a biblical principle to gather as the people of God for prayer.

Claude V. King shares this about solemn, or sacred assemblies:

Sacred assemblies were occasions for God's people collectively to worship Him, to repent of personal and corporate sin, to remember His special blessings on them, and to anticipate future blessings. 

In a true sense, God may utilize the gathering of his church to ignite revival among his people.

For clarification -  revival is an awakening and therefore, not the typical evangelistic meetings that have been termed "revivals" in American churches for decades. There's no special "pack a pew" night, or youth night with pizza, or a special guest bringing a word needed. While there may be a place for those types of gatherings, to call them revival is a misnomer.

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

That's what the church in our culture needs. That's what every true New Testament church needs - an awakening.

More Than Politics

If you're praying only because you're candidate of choice (if you even have one) may not win in November, you likely need to revisit your focus in prayer.

God has convicted me as a pastor that if we pray only as a "last resort" and slap 2 Chronicles 7:14 on everything we can  just because the candidate of choice may not be elected, we are playing games.

However, we will gather and we will pray for our elected officials and potential leaders. To be clear, we should have been doing that all along. Yet, we will be praying for so much more.

We will pray that God will guide our people and that His will be done. This is how we should be praying continually. 

We will pray for forgiveness, recognizing that forgiveness is not automatic. 

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

So, this Sunday evening at 7pm, we will gather, confess our sins to the Lord as his church, repent of overt and covert sins, and seek his forgiveness and guidance. To God be the glory.

We will rest in the assurance that regardless what happens on November 8 and beyond, God remains on his throne and sovereign over all. 

Then, we will gather again as we must. May we never be the church that only prays every four years prior to an election.

 

 


Pastors, Politics, and Pot - What Should a Pastor Say Regarding Current Issues?

We once again find ourselves just weeks before election day. As with every other election day in our communities, lines of division are drawn regarding candidates, political parties, platforms, and potential laws.

With the first presidential debate now in our rear-view mirror, the collective sense is not one of relief but just the opposite. According to trending social media statements and spin, many are hoping that Doc Brown is near with his flux capacitor so we can all go back and re-boot the primaries. Nevertheless, the option is not viable, so we're left with what we have. I wrote of this previously here.

Pastors and Politics

The presidential debate reached a record crowd, but the debate that matters more to me is one I find myself in by nature of my role as pastor. I have peers in ministry with varying beliefs regarding the role of pastors and churches in politics. Some are strictly laissez-faire in their philosophy and often state that "the pulpit is not the forum for political discussions." 

Others respond with the belief that as citizens we are "obligated to share with our congregations from the pulpit" regarding political stances and policies.

For fear of appearing to be a fence-sitter, both responses are valid. 

Ultimately, the calling of a pastor is to shepherd God's flock with wisdom and love, modeling that shepherd viewed most clearly in Psalm 23. Understanding that to be true, when preaching the Word of God to the congregation, it is vital to remember the holiness and responsibility of such a calling. Therefore, those who view the pulpit as not being the forum for politics are right in the sense that the gospel is the message. To dilute the gospel of Christ by "Americanizing" or attempting to create patriotic church attenders (BTW - there's nothing wrong with being patriotic) rather than fully-devoted disciples of Christ misses the mark.

However...

Since we do not live in a bubble and to have a hands-off approach to the civic responsibility of participating in our democratic republic also seems to miss the mark. There is, in my opinion, a biblical calling for disciples to love God first and serve him well. We are also to love our neighbors as ourselves and while some would struggle to see how the Great Commandment equates to being politically active, I do not. 

I view it loving to give those God has entrusted under my leadership (as His under-shepherd) the very best, biblical insight on current affairs, trends, and cultural shifts. This insight includes insight into political issues. 

I have had the opportunity to meet many candidates during election years. In many cases these men and women are "visiting" our church. While some of my brothers serving in other churches will point out the visiting candidates from the pulpit or even bring them to the stage for a time of prayer or blessing, I do not. I just have not come to grips with using time allotted for the preaching of God's Word and worship for such pauses. 

Speaking on Policies

I will not endorse an individual candidate, but I have and will continue to speak and write on policies (especially platform statements) that either affirm or disavow biblical truths. Cultural shifts such as the those regarding abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, transgender restroom laws, and the legalization of marijuana are just examples of issues that should be addressed.

I believe that each of these issues (and these are just the trending ones now) speak to the value of God's design for life, sexuality, marriage, identity, and wholeness. 

Of the issues listed above, many evangelical conservatives stand together. However, there is that one outlier that causes greater debate. 

The Pot Issue

The legalization of "medical" marijuana has taken the American culture by storm. In my state (Florida) another amendment option is being placed before the citizens this November in an attempt to legalize marijuana. The amendment failed the last time it was presented, but this being Florida and with just a tweak or two of some wording, the amendment is back. If it fails this time, it will be back again, especially as the big money behind the move continues to work for this.

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Photo credit: fsecart via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

The Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, Dr. Tommy Green, recently posted an open letter to all Florida Baptists encouraging us to vote NO on the proposed amendment. This encouragement was endorsed by the State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I serve on this team.)

We all know that a few states, with Colorado being the most recent and prominent, have shifted their marijuana laws. While it may still be too soon to view the long-term results of legalized marijuana, that which we are seeing as results do not bode well for this. I would encourage listening to Dr. Albert Mohler's recent podcasts where he touches on some of the results. The ones tagged "legalization of marijuana" can be found here.

The debate over whether the use of medical marijuana continues, with the danger for those opposed being labeled as uncaring. The issue at hand is not whether you believe it should be legal or not (though I have strong opinions on this issue personally,) but whether you believe your pastor (or you, if you are a pastor) should speak on these issues from the pulpit. By the way, when I say "pulpit" I realize that many churches do not have traditional pieces of furniture with crosses on them for the pastor to stand behind. In fact, I have a table. So, I'm speaking of the time the pastor stands before the congregation to preach.

My post here will likely not sway most of you, but from my perspective, the pulpit should be used for the preaching of the gospel. Since we do not live in a vacuum, and are working out our salvation regularly we are continually praying to the Father for wisdom regarding how to engage well a culture far from God. We are also seeking wisdom and guidance into how to live holy lives and allow God's Word to give us direction. The living Word is not just history, but through the Spirit's guidance gives us answers and insight. Therefore, when it comes to speaking on issues such as those mentioned above, even the marijuana issue, the Bible speaks. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum and Christians are not called to live in one either. Therefore, wisdom on such issues from a biblical perspective, should be shared with congregants from the one called by God to speak truth and guide. It is what a good shepherd does. 

Oh, and just in case it wasn't clear - I'm voting NO this fall.


Why There Is No Good Option In This Year's Election

I just received another stack of glossy "Me-Monster" political ads in the mail for upcoming elections. It doesn't upset me. It is pretty much a waste of paper, it seems. However, it's part of the game. I get it.

I have enjoyed (I know, it's kind of sick) the election cycles in our nation. Politics has always intrigued me. I read presidential biographies, even when it's clear they are slanted. I will vote in the upcoming election. Like many of you, I feel it is my right and duty. However, this year's options, especially for the highest office, are about as appealing as going to a restaurant for lunch and having only two choices on the menu - boiled sheep eyeball soup and braised gnu intestines. 

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Photo credit: trespotatoes via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Thanks to social media, political posturing and negative bashing hit all time highs over the last eight years. I heard one sociologist claim that he believes Christians have done more harm for the Kingdom through their hateful postings than they realize. I fear he is correct, based especially on the generational divides and shifts in political ideology.

Nevertheless, the vitriol online has seemingly shrunk this year. Oh, it's not good, but compared to the past national elections, it appears to be better. Now, it seems most people on both sides of the party aisle are saying "Your candidate is terrible and so is ours."

We all hear the "lesser of two evils" argument and the "not to vote is to vote for the other party" but those arguments tend to fade away when it comes to personal conviction and actually putting the X in a candidate's box.

One party's platform is now the most pro-abortion one in our nation's history. The other party's leaders are struggling to find ways to shut down their candidate's Twitter feed. Neither option is very palatable for the evangelical, convictional Christian.

I continue to be asked by friends and church members, "Who can we vote for?" I answer "You shouldn't end a sentence in a preposition," but that doesn't seem to help.

Maybe This Is It...

It hit me this week.

Perhaps God has allowed the election options to be what they are this year simply to move those who claim to be children of God from putting their faith in men/women, policies, politics, and governmental agencies to focus on Him as sovereign?

Just a thought.

Now, go vote. Seek the Lord's guidance. Trust Him and stop ending sentences in prepositions.


What the Dallas Shootings Reveal

This past week has been horrific. Stories flooding social media and airwaves first from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then Minnesota, and finally from Dallas, Texas.

 

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A Dallas police sergeant wears a mourning band on his badge during a prayer vigil in a park following the multiple police shooting in Dallas. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Regarding the Dallas story, Twitter and Facebook erupted with first-person accounts. Some were authentic. Some were likely fabricated. Some were posted too soon (remember the gentleman with the rifle who was peacefully protesting and immediately became the suspect due to an improperly posted image?) It happens all the time. In the midst of the reports (and we now live in a world where "official" reports from reputable news agencies are often too quickly posted just as uninformed tweets and FB postings.) Evil seems to be winning. Maybe evil is winning, but remember, the game is not over and, as in sports, it doesn't matter who's in the lead at half-time.

Everything Is Political

The politicization of every tragedy seems to be the norm now. Maybe this was always the case, but with immediate, as-it-happens news updates, it now seems no public statement can be made without a politically-based leaning. Words are parsed. Spin is set. And the populace continues to shake their collective heads as if to say "Really? Wow! That's all you have?" knowing that tepid statements from leaders and influencers mean little.

Our nation has been divided since...oh, about 1776...along political and relational lines. Even our forefathers weren't exactly best friends (just read about the John Adams and Thomas Jefferson relationship.) The blackest time in our nation's history centers around division where brothers took up arms agains each other. Division has developed over religious, political, racial and even generational differences. The "United" States of America has always struggled to live up to that name. Yet, to be clear, I still believe the great experiment known as the USA is valuable, honorable, and the best option available among a world that has strived since the beginning for meaning, hope, and purpose. While I admit that not every founding father was a Christian, I believe God ordained the founding of this nation and did so for His glory.

Politics Will Not Solve Our Issues

Every generation has likely stated that "It's never been this bad, though," and that could be true. There have been moments of national unity, but often they're fleeting and prefaced by a tragedy (The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, etc.) At times of crisis, the populace looks for a word of hope, of encouragement, of direction. At these times, those with an audience, those with influence, must speak and speak well.

In our nation, the President has been the one that most look to for words of hope and strength during times of war, fear, sadness and crisis. This has been the case throughout our limited history.

It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life. - Abraham Lincoln

We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage—of our resolve—of our wisdom—our essential democracy. If we meet that test—successfully and honorably—we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. - Harry S. Truman

I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace… He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction. - John F. Kennedy

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! - Ronald Reagan

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." - Ronald Reagan

I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. - George W. Bush

I believe that I speak for every single American when I say that we are horrified over these events, and that we stand united with the people and the police department in Dallas. - Barack Obama

Yet, even with these words of strength, clarity, and comfort...fear remains.

More Than a Race Problem

Is there a race problem in America? Absolutely. While we have come far, we are continually reminded that we have far to go. There is still a race problem. This became evident to me last week as I was driving through a small town in northern Arkansas and saw a billboard advertising "White Pride Radio." Now, in case you haven't checked...I'm white. Lily white. I've always been white. I identify as white. I don't even tan well. Yet, when I saw the billboard, I was angered. Cloaked in "racial pride" and featuring an image of a young girl holding a puppy along with the word "Love" plastered on the sign, I was angered at the deception. This wasn't love. It was hate disguised as love. I went to the website and immediately it changed to a KKK online radio station. Yeah, I deleted my browser history.

Now, I realize that one billboard does not define an entire town. There are people in every community who are "color blind." There are true Christians of all races and in every neighborhood who value life because we are God's image-bearers.

 

I cannot speak as a black man, brown man, tan man, red man, yellow man, or any other shade of melanin man because, as I stated before, I'm a white man. It's a bit disingenuous to speak on behalf of a person or people group that one does not belong. Yet, here's what I do know to be true - hatred is not reserved for any one race. Well, I take that back. Hatred is something that develops within a particular race all too well - the human race

This is why political statements and posturing will never completely solve the problem. Division is the nature of man. Pride is the default setting. Anger is natural. Evil and depravity need not be taught. 

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 ESV

It's our nature. It's why we have crime. It's why we need laws. It's why we need police officers.

So, as the stories unfold and sadly, another tragedy will hit the news soon, I fear (not because I know any specifics, but because I know the heart of man) we can rest assured that within the storms, within the crises, in the midst of the fear and the anger and the danger known in this world, evil only appears to be winning. Ultimately, love does win. Not the watered down hashtag of #LoveWins that has been used the past few years, but the agape, grace-centered, gospel-founded love that is Jesus Christ! 

In the meantime, we pray. 

Yes - Pray!

Yet, let's be more preemptive in our prayers. Don't wait for the tragedy to create the latest #PrayFor_____ trend (which I've used and will, so I'm not knocking that) but let's pray now for those grieving and mourning, for those seeking to get through today and the next, for those who are sworn to protect us, for the black lives, for the brown lives, for the red lives, for the yellow lives, for the white lives (I just had a flashback to the "Jesus Loves the Little Children" song I learned as a child) and for the mixed races (which at this point in our history includes just about everyone on the planet) and the blue lives (which include all the previous ones listed but whom wear badges and run to danger.)

 

Let's pray for strength, protection, and security, but let's amp it up a bit. Let's pray for salvation and the rescue of the depraved and desperate hearts that Jeremiah mentioned are within us all. Let's pray for those who do not know the rescuer, the ransomer of hearts, the redeemer of souls, the way, truth and life to know and surrender all to him. And let's not just pray for them, but be obedient to tell them of this great salvation.

For you see, apart from Christ...there is no hope.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 ESV

But with Christ, we have true hope. A hope that gives assurance that in all the craziness we experience, God remains sovereign.

 


Why We Plant Churches & New Campuses

Back in 2011 I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix with one of my good friends. It was during this conference we began to pray about the journey of planting churches. The North American Mission Board was unveiling the "Send City" strategy and the impact of reaching people in strategic areas around the US and Canada. Our church had already partnered with a church planter—Chase Delperdang of Tucson, Arizona. The partnership was our first foray into this updated strategy of community engagement.

Over the years, we have partnered with planters in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. We fund as a sending church a family in Toronto and and another in Washington, DC.

Even as we have continued these relationships and seek to discover ways to support more fully, God continues to call us and challenge us to engage in our own community even more. 

We are an active support and assessing church for our local network and have recently created our own mini-network for the purpose of reaching more people in our community and surrounding towns. We know this is what we must do and yet, some, even within our church wonder why.

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Why Invest in Church Planting?

Some argue that planting churches is nothing more than a trendy movement. I have even heard some declare it to be unbiblical. Even when pointed to the unfolding of the church's expansion in the book of Acts, there are some who protest and do not see these as synonymous. Yet, I deem a church planting movement as not a new idea, but an outgrowth of cultural engagement and affirming, if not fulfilling, the words of Acts 1:8.

Granted, the term "church planting" is not in the Bible. However, disciple-making is and while some scoff that church planting is little more than institutional promotion, the reality is that healthy church plants (i.e. new expressions of local church bodies, grounded upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ) lead to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. God is honored and loved. People are loved. Disciples are made.

That being said, the varied church plants we sponsor are led by men called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is about Kingdom-growth, plain and simple. When church planting fails in this area, it fails fully.

A few years ago, Ed Stetzer, then of LifeWay Research and himself a church planter wrote an article focused on why established churches should plant new works. Here is an abbreviated list of his reasons (full article may be found here.)

  • Church planting reaches lost people. Now retired Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, John Sullivan stated in a denominational meeting that new churches reach lost people at a better rate than established churches. He stated that we don't know exactly why this is, but the results prove it to be true.
  • Church planting follows a biblical pattern. Church planter, John Worcester gives a good overview of church planting as a function of the New Testament church in the video embedded below. His site is churchplanting.net 
  • Church planting is essential for survival. For any movement to thrive, it must multiply. 
  • Church planting benefits the planting church. When life change occurs within the ministries and plants sponsored by a church, the Lord energizes the "dry bones" for His glory.
  • Church planting is necessary to reach North America. This is the foundation of the Send strategy.
  • There's never a good time to plant - do it anyway.

In addition to planting and supporting new church plants, we are expanding into other regions of our community with satellite campuses. Churches have done this for years and we hosted a couple of campuses in years past. We did much well, but also learned from some 20/20 hindsight as to how to map and strategize better. There are numerous options when it comes to satellite campuses. Our model is to plant these in community schools, focused on reaching families, while serving the community. Each campus will have an on-campus minister and messages will be live, not video presentations. At this time, our new campuses will meet on off-days and times from the traditional Sunday morning. Go to creek.church and island.church to see a brief preview of where we will launch.

Why Put a Campus Where There Are So Many Other Churches?

One question that continues to be raised by friends about these campuses focuses on location and "why?" In each case, there are numerous other churches (of varying flavors) around. Yet, there are some demographic realities that have become clear as we have studied the areas. The truth is that the majority of those in the communities, even with numerous other churches around, do not attend any church of any type.

Some would say, "But if they wanted to attend, there are enough options. Why plant another?"

The simple answer is because we believe God is calling us to do so.

I was talking ton one friend about the Fleming Island area where we hope to plant Island Church next spring. There are numerous churches in this highly populated area. In addition to a young, large Baptist Church there are Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and even a new, fast-growing ARC church. Each is unique and yet, many are not engaged. The lostness in the community is overwhelming, as is the case in most every area in our nation.

In Fleming Island, at the corner of the two major roads are six pharmacies. It seems odd, but at Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, Publix, CVS, and Walgreens, residents can get their prescriptions filled as well as purchase other desired and needed items. Six pharmacies! Isn't that too many? Wouldn't one be enough? Well, apparently no. Each one seems to be doing well and apparently there are many, many people in our community purchasing legal drugs. The rumors are that the illegal ones are pretty rampant as well, but because it's a nice community they seem to be mostly designer drugs...but, I digress (too many cop friends, I guess.)

It's not exactly a fair comparison, but if there's a need for six pharmacies for physical ailments, surely there's a need for as many "spiritual pharmacies" that God desires to address the spiritual ailments of the people. 

So, we are planting a new campus, in Fleming Island and near Orange Park South. While these two areas are close, the demographics are vastly different. The barriers (bridges, waterways, divided highways, subdivisions, etc.) clearly create separate communities where the church is needed.

We Plant for the Sake of God's Kingdom

Tim Keller put it well in his article "Why Plant Churches"...

WE PLANT CHURCHES AS AN EXERCISE IN KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS.

All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.

A New Metric

As we move forward in our planting and campus launching, we seek to do what every church says they want to do, but few succeed. We seek to reach lost, unchurched people for Christ. While most churches affirm this, many of our traditionally "successful" church starts (and I'm talking about in my denomination and community) reach fewer lost people and more saved, disenfranchised church members from other congregations. 

Just to be clear - moving Christians from "Church A" to "New Church B" is not Kingdom-growth. It may eventually lead to such, but unless Church A is celebrating the renewed heart of these transferred members and these people are fully engaged in big picture engagement (i.e. they're not just marketing their new brand of church, but are actually living their faith and sharing Christ) this is a facade of church growth.

I feel for the pastors and campus ministers who end up with a room full of former members of Church A. What do you do? Tell them to leave? Maybe, but that becomes a distraction as well.

J.D. Payne threw this option out on the Verge website...

We don’t need more flavors

What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.

What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?

Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.

Try this.  The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”

So, we echo the stated intention of every church planter and established church pastor I know when we say "We want to reach lost people!" Pray that we do and that we avoid the easy trap of using an old model that creates a perceived successful church, but no disciples. Pray that we live out our faith in ways that the lost are loved, even if they never come to Christ. Pray that we don't lose focus.

More to come as we continue on this journey. Please pray that much would be made of Jesus and that God alone would be glorified. 


When Chick-fil-A Opened on Sunday

Full disclosure: I'm a Chick-fil-A apologist.

I worked at Chick-fil-A when I was in high school. Those were the days when the restaurants were pretty much exclusively in malls and the menu included such things as deep-fried apple pies (they need to bring this back,) the Chick-N-Q and meals were served in cardboard boxes that looked like barns.

My children both worked for Chick-fil-A during high school and college.

We still eat at Chick-fil-A regularly. I even recommend students in our church to work for our local restaurants. I keep hoping for a kick-back in free nuggets for that.

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2016-06-14/9d15d9b35faf4919b6d6c1966e5de262.png
Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

There are many people who love Chick-fil-A.

There are also many people who hate the restaurant. Most of those who declare their hatred for Mr. Cathy's restaurant online and in the news state that it is the "intolerant" beliefs of ownership and the anti-LGBT policies of the business. This stems from CEO Dan Cathy's statements regarding his personal convictions that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. You may remember that firestorm that hit the airwaves a number of years ago. I wrote about that here in a post from 2012. I remember squeezing into our local Chick-fil-A for a "Stand with CFA" grassroots event that drew more customers than in the history of the restaurant. Nevertheless, the cultural barrage continues to this day.

Some cities declared Chick-fil-A was not welcome to open restaurants within their municipalities. The news goes on and on and on. And Chick-fil-A continues to grow and while labeled as hateful for those who disagree with the owners religious and personal convictions, the local restaurants continue to illustrate their openness to hire qualified employees with no regard to race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sundays at Chick-fil-A

One of the most widely known characteristics of the Cathy's restaurants is that they are not open on Sundays. This was founder Truett Cathy's conviction as a Christian and active member of his local church. Though money is to be made by being open seven days a week, he refused to allow this. There are stories of individual operators who lost their restaurants when it was discovered by corporate that they were opening on Sundays. Even the powerful malls of the 1970s and 1980s could not sway Chick-fil-A to open. This is still true today. I remember a few years back as I was leading a mission team back to the US from a two-week project in Europe. We were to land in Philadelphia. We were pretty excited because we knew there was a Chick-fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yes! In Philadelphia there is sweet tea! It did not take long for our excitement of having our first American meal in two weeks of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, waffle fries and sweet iced tea wane due to the realization that we landed in Philly on a Sunday. 

Nevertheless, the "closed on Sundays" rule has remained. Apparently, it hasn't hurt Chick-fil-A as a business. They continue to grow and increase influence through leadership training, Winshape Camps and other ventures.

The Story Most Aren't Hearing

There are stories that hit the news and there are some that never make it on television at 6pm. Here's a good news story in the midst of a tragic event that illustrates that loving our neighbor is still the best policy.

Apparently, last Sunday in Orlando, the local Chick-fil-A opened. However, this operator is not likely to be in trouble. In fact, it seems that Chick-fil-A approved of this special Sunday opening. The opening was unique and in response to the terror attack at The Pulse nightclub.

Here's the story by Lairs Johnston:

Chick-fil-A is famous for two things…chicken sandwiches and controversy.

Like last month when the New York City Mayor urged people to boycott the restaurant because he felt they portrayed a hateful message towards the LGBT community. Well, this past Sunday, a day they’re infamously closed, they decided to do something out of character to help the victims.

Upon hearing the news of the Orlando shooting the restaurant opened its doors and fired up the grill, cooking hundreds of chicken burgers and orders of fries. The only thing is, they didn’t sell any. Instead, they donated everything to the local blood drive where people were gathered to donate and help out the victims of the massacre.

According to the DC Gazette, hundreds of people were fed and even posted about it on social media this past Sunday.

The owners of the popular Christian company have shown Christ in a time of tragedy. They didn’t compromise their beliefs, just showed them by extending love, opening their doors on a day they’re known for staying closed.

“They will know we are Christians by our love”–not for our best friends, not for our families or other Christians, but by how we love those who hurt us and disagree with us.

The Orlando shooting was an attack on the LGBT community. Let us not allow it to turn into more attacks – on the LGBT community, on the Muslim community, on each other.

Does This Really Matter?

Well, truthfully, it's just a local restaurant giving away chicken sandwiches. In the larger scheme of things, maybe it is really not that big a deal. Yet, here's why I believe this is significant. Johnston states it well when he says "They didn't compromise their beliefs, just showed them..."

Not every employee at Chick-fil-A is a Christian. Not everyone who works for the company agrees with the CEOs personal convictions. These are facts that are likely true in every corporation. Chick-fil-A is not really a "Christian company" because only people can be Christians. No restaurant goes to heaven when it finally closes. Yet, the people who work at this local restaurant (and I'm sure there were other restaurants and organizations that provided free meals and drinks as well to those in Orlando) did what Christ modeled. They actually did what the church should.

If you're in Orlando or following the reports focusing on the community, you will notice that many churches and followers of Christ have and are serving those who are hurting. Pray for those who wear the name of Jesus as they seek to love those the culture says they hate. Pray for our churches as they seek to minister and reach those who are hurting and scared and need to know that there is a Way to Life and He is Truth.

Love wins. And that's more than a watered-down hashtag.

 


How Christians Must Respond to the Orlando Tragedy

We awakened Sunday morning to the tragic news coming out of Orlando, Florida. A man with apparent self-proclaimed allegiances to ISIS opened fire in a gay nightclub early in the morning, killing at least 50 people and injuring over 50 more.

This is now categorized as the worst mass shooting in American history. Men and women lost their lives. Parents lost children. Brothers and sisters lost their siblings. And a nation mourns.

I confess I did not read the full story until late on Sunday afternoon and therefore, unfortunately, did not mention this tragedy as our church gathered together for worship yesterday morning. When I read the story and subsequently watched some of the video coming from Orlando, emotions swirled within me.

Once again we offer a hashtag "#PrayFor" notification on social media. This time it's not Lahore or Paris or Brussels, but is for the people of a city less than three hours from my home. Maybe "#PrayForOrlando" needs to be replaced with "#ImPrayingForOrlando" to ensure that the hashtag is less a command and more a declaration of action. Yes, prayer is active, not passive.

The terrorist connection is frightening for those in our nation, our state and especially for those in Orlando. Every time a terror connection is revealed, those who can remember are thrust back to September 11, 2001 when Islamic extremist terrorism became a reality to all of us.

Pray for Orlando

 

How We Must Respond

Let's be honest, the church (and I am referring to the conservative, evangelical, Baptist flavor of which I am part) has great potential for really messing up here with response. This is clearly due to the reality that the Islamic terrorist is, well...a Muslim, and those who were killed and injured are most likely lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Oh, and they were in a nightclub.

While posting a "#PrayForParis" or other such statement on social media just seems like the right thing to do, some Christians may initially struggle with offering a "#PrayForOrlando" statement for fear that they will be viewed as affirming things they feel strongly against (in this case, the LGBT lifestyle.)

These are just my thoughts on how Christians and the church should respond.

STOP - Seriously, just stop what you're doing for a moment. Take a pause. As news continues to pour out from Orlando and in news conferences in front of the Pulse Nightclub, stop what you're doing. Stop scrolling through trending stories on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. What has become more common as we move into a more inter-connected, technology-driven world, we find ourselves searching online to see what others are saying. I'm guilty of this and also of what many others find easy to do - vent online. Don't. Guard your hearts and stop for just a moment and think about the reality of what has happened.

PRAY 

Yes, really pray! In my life, I've discovered the intentional pause leads to deeper prayer. People are angry. People are afraid. People are hurting. Pray for the city of Orlando, but more for the people of Orlando and especially those directly touched by the tragedy. You do not have to agree nor affirm a person's lifestyle to grieve over them. Pray for the family members, friends and yes, even lovers of those killed. 

GRIEVE

Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) Names are now being released of those who were killed. These are not generic "extras" in a film or digital creations in a video game. These are real people. They were killed in a nightclub marketed to the LGBT community. These people are image-bearers of God who had their lives erased in a moment of hatred and terror. 

I read this morning the transcript of text messages sent from a young man to his mother as he and others were hiding in a restroom. The messages are haunting as he stated "He's coming. I'm going to die!" He has been confirmed as one of the victims and his mother is left, as are many others, grieving and questioning and now wondering "What could I have done?" As a parent, my heart goes out to the many who are being notified this morning, grieving the loss of a son or daughter and now thrust into the public spotlight as they mourn and ultimately have to plan a funeral soon.

BE SILENT, BUT SPEAK HOPE AND LOVE WHEN YOU MUST

Okay, this seems contradictory, but hear me out. At times the very best counsel and help a Christian can offer others is the ministry of presence. Just be there. You don't have to go to Orlando to do this. Believe me, as this story unfolds, there are many in your community and church, and even your family, who are shaken by this. Some because of the connection to the LGBT community or their own self-identity as LGBT. Others because of the affinity of age with those murdered. Some because they have friends or coworkers who may be more like the terrorist than they wanted to admit and now political correctness seems way too overrated.

Grief and fear are often bedfellows. So, as one who has hope, just BE THERE. And, when you do speak, go to Scripture, but not as the Pharisaical legalists do. In fact, I'd recommend you live out the Scripture. At this point the #LoveWins hashtag needs to not be about gay marriage, but about Christ-centered, Gospel-focused love for those who need it (and we all need it.) Questions such as "Why?" will come, and simple, man-centered answers never suffice. 

Following the mall shooting in Omaha in 2007, Erik Raymond wrote these words...

First and foremost an event like this is a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastatingly painful and absolutely brutal result of sin. The basic answer to the question as to why the trigger was pulled once, never mind 40 to 50 times, is a rebellion from and a hatred of God. At its must fundamental sense this tragedy is rooted in a rebellion from God. The fact that people had to die today in this mall is a testimony to the vicious recourse of sin. The Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). Death is the sword of sin, it cuts deep and far, and spares none.

How Christians respond to this tragedy should be no different than how we respond to other depraved events where it seems evil is triumphant.

It is at these moments, Christ's love must shine through. We remember clearly that we are His ambassadors. This is a heavy calling. Respond well.