I was at a luncheon earlier this week sponsored by a local ministry focused on reaching immigrants for Christ. This ministry (not named here for security reasons) has been used by God in ways that even the founders find amazing. Dozens of African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants have come to know the truth of the gospel through this ministry and have surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ. A good number of our church members serve at this ministry regularly and have experienced these stories first-hand.
It is truly amazing and the stories reveal the supernatural, transformational power of our Lord.
As this ministry is not positioned to expand to many of the largest urban areas in our nation and throughout North America, where immigrant families reside, we are now positioned for what could perhaps be a Great Awakening among the church in the United States, spurred by the growth and rescue of many who were not born in this nation.
Political Ideology vs. Biblical Theology
Following the luncheon I had some time to talk with old friends and reconnect with some I had not seen for years. One gentleman, a brother in Christ and business leader in the city was there. We reconnected and he then revealed that his awareness of this ministry in our city was fairly new. His excitement at what God was doing was evident and it was good for me to see how others react when first realizing how God is reaching the nations in our city.
With our city being one of eleven "sanctuary cities" in the US, many immigrants are finding home here.
My friend, not only a conservative, Bible-believing brother in Christ, but also active in the conservative political community shared his struggle.
His honesty was refreshing.
His statement simply revealed his challenge of asserting a popular political belief regarding immigration among conservative politicians and the reality that God is bringing the nations here and many are coming to saving knowledge in Christ.
To put it simply - he finds himself at odds with an ideology and a theology.
The issue of immigration is a political firebrand and often elicits way too many negative comments on blogs and news stories. Nevertheless, as with most issues in life, there comes a point where personal ideology and biblical theology meet. The wise person will recognize this and seek God's wisdom.
Ultimately, biblical truth trumps personal thoughts of "right and wrong" every time.
It's good to have a crisis of belief every now and then.
This week I interview my friend Al Fernandez. Al serves as Regional Catalyst for the Southeastern part of Florida with the Florida Baptist Convention. His insight into the cultural diversity of Miami and surrounding areas is vital.
In this episode we talk about church planting in Miami and the cultural challenges that exist. We discuss the focus on second and third generations in the church, where Spanish and English collide. I also talk with Al, a second generation Cuban-American, about the recent trip by President Obama and how the Cuban people in Miami are responding.
It seems like a reality show, but that shouldn't be a surprise. Our culture has embraced the reality show and ratings over the past few years prove this to be true. The race for the Presidency features celebrities (regardless how these men and women desire to describe themselves, they are now celebrities) vying to be the last man or woman standing in this version of Survivor.
There are alliances.
There are tribal councils (we call them debates, but as any debate coach would tell you, these really aren't debates) where many candidates seem to be voted off the island following the event. Now, there's no host quenching a torch here, but when poll numbers come in after these events, the number of participants on the stage dwindles. So far, the Republicans have lost the JV and others from their large tribe. The Democrats have lost members as well.
Eventually there will be a tribal merger with only two candidates left - a Republican and a Democrat (and a bunch of independents and smaller party representatives, but as history shows, they really have no chance to win.)
This week a surprise element entered the story. This would be akin to a "very special episode" of a television show.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
The surprise element in this race is Pope Francis. As head of the Catholic church, the Pope was asked his opinion on Donald Trump (the Republican front-runner) as a candidate and his plans if elected President of the United States.
"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel." Pope Francis
That quote set off a firestorm. The Pope apparently declared that Donald Trump is not a Christian. And, surprisingly, this offended people, even The Donald.
The networks are loving it! Because...ratings.
Donald Trump responded with a prepared statement.
"The pope said something to the effect that maybe Donald Trump isn't Christian, okay? And he's questioning my faith, I was very surprised to see it. For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful." - Donald Trump
Now, softer responses are coming out from the Trump camp and even from the Catholic church. But, that doesn't really matter. The story is taking off and the question of "What is a Christian?" is now, once again, making headlines.
The internet and media are exploding with opinions regarding the divide. Republican Catholics who support Trump are frustrated with the Pope. Moderate Catholics who oppose Trump are celebrating the Pope. Evangelicals who do not view the Pope as the leader of the church, much less the voice of Christianity, are cringing that these discussions are happening. Non-believers don't care about the divide, but wonder why others do. Opponents to Christianity just shake their head and state that this is just another story about the idiocy that is Christianity.
Basically, everyone is offended.
And the reality show continues on.
The big difference between this reality show and the ones funded by the networks is that this one really matters. It's not just a game. This is much more serious.
What Is a Christian?
And, bigger and more important than the political fallout is the question that has come to the forefront - "What is a Christian?"
Many followers of Jesus Christ are now being asked this question. Friends, family members, coworkers and even fellow students and acquaintances are asking the question. What's needed is the answer.
This is when the reality show really matters.
This is when it's more than a show, but reality.
Are We Prepared to Respond?
Are we ready to respond?
Are we prepared with a winsome, truthful, honest, and potentially offensive answer? Not offensive for the sake of offending, but offensive because the Gospel is offensive! Offensive because the reality is that not everyone is a Christian. I'm not agreeing with how the Pope defines true Christianity here, so don't misread this. I'm also not agreeing with Donald Trump with how he may define true Christianity, so there.
I am agreeing with Scripture alone.
So understanding this, we must be prepared with the answer that is being sought (and most are not really seeking the true answer, but be diligent.)
But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)
This happens every four years. The presidential election builds steam. Those who announced their candidacy early find themselves struggling in the polls and begin to fall off as debates are scheduled, endorsements lack and reality sets in that they have no real chance of gaining their party's nomination.
The frontrunners are identified and even before the final two (or three if there's a legitimate independent in the race) are crowned and the stress levels increase as Americans worry about what will happen if the "wrong" person is elected President.
The Iowa caucus will occur soon and the the Democrats and Republicans will have their official frontrunners as polling numbers mean less and less.
However, it should be noted that an Iowa win does not mean the nomination is secured. Here are a few of the past winners in Iowa:
2008 - Mike Huckabee (R). Mitt Romney came in second.
1992 - Tom Harkin (D). Bill Clinton came in fourth with 2.8%
1988 - Richard Gephardt (D). Michael Dukakis came in third with 22.2%
1988 - Robert Dole (R). George H.W. Bush came in third, behind Dole and Pat Robertson.
1980 - George H.W. Bush (R). Ronald Reagan came in second.
1976 - Uncommitted (D) won! Eventual nominee Jimmy Carter came in second.
There are times the eventual nominee won, such as in 2008 with Barack Obama, 2004 with John Kerry and 2000 with George W. Bush, but the reality is clear here. A win in Iowa is good, but doesn't guarantee a nomination.
Nevertheless, the field is fighting to gain this starting line win, as they should. It is at this time endorsements begin to come in from various sources such as business leaders, other politicians, celebrities and even religious leaders and pastors.
It is always a slippery slope when a pastor endorses political candidates. To be clear, pastors have the right to do so. Now, the church they serve cannot, but the individual leader may. This has been clearly determined by the courts even though some throw the bogus "separation of church and state" argument at pastors who make such endorsements. There are always the threats of losing tax-exempt status as well. While the tax-exempt status of churches in America will likely be lost in the near future, it won't be for pastoral endorsements. But...that's a topic for another day.
Why all the talk about pastoral endorsements?
It's not a new phenomena. Pastors have been endorsing candidates either overtly or subtly for years. In most cases, these endorsements do not make the news because they are offered to smaller congregations and in many cases center around local elections. To be clear, pastoral endorsements come from all denominations and faith expressions and members of each party benefit (or are harmed) by these.
Recently, a well-known Christian leader has been taken to task on this by many who know him and disagree with his candidate of choice.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, made headlines with his glowing introduction of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a recent chapel convocation. Trump attracts all forms of media regardless where he speaks. He thrives on this and according to polling data, his strategy is working.
The issue is not that Trump spoke at Liberty. It may cause many to question, but in fairness, Liberty also hosted Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as well. Liberty also hosted the launch of Senator Ted Cruz's bid for the presidency.
Well, not much. It is more symbolic than anything. However, it cannot be ignored that when a pastor or ministry leader (or business leader, politician or any other person in a leadership position) endorses a candidate, the presumption is that the organization, institution, church, or business has also endorsed said candidate. This is not true, but perception is reality and this perception causes problems.
Liberty alumni are now speaking out, mostly in winsome tones, against the official endorsement of Trump. Many would rather have their alma mater's president not endorse anyone. Nevertheless, here are some of the voices coming from the LU faithful:
"I love and respect Jerry Falwell, Jr. and consider Jerry and Becki friends, but I strongly disagree with his endorsement of Donald Trump." - Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America
"For a school that focuses on loving God and loving other people, it's odd to endorse someone who only seems to love himself and other people who love him." - Janet Kelly, former Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth
"The goal of Liberty University is not to defeat Democrats. A populist nationalism has become the chief religion of the day at Liberty. This is a tangible example of what it looks like to gain the whole world and lose your soul." - Dean Inserra, Pastor of City Church, Tallahassee
"When Jerry Falwell, Jr. makes a personal endorsement of Donald Trump, there are tens of thousands of us in our workplaces and stations who have to explain the rationale for it. It's not just a decision that impacts one person or one family." - Rep. Jeff Coleman
I am not a graduate of Liberty. I have friends who are and others who are students or have sent their children there as students. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has the right to endorse or not endorse whomever he likes. The trustees of Liberty have the right to manage and lead their institution as they see fit. The question that is being pushed to the front burner here is the viability, wisdom, and need for pastors and religious leaders (Falwell is not a pastor, but a president of an overtly Christian, evangelical university) to endorse politicians.
I have heard arguments for endorsing and engagement as well as for stepping aside and doing nothing. I'm not sure either response is wise.
I have been accused of being too political because I urge members of my church to register, engage, and vote in each election and educated constituents. I have, in the past, put signs for local and national elections in my yard. (I likely will not be doing that in the future.) When I was in college, I would loudly endorse the candidate of my choice. Of course, I was twenty-years-old and had little or no influence on anyone else, so there were no press conferences declaring my endorsements.
I still love the political process and enjoy watching the debates, dissecting them, researching candidates and all that comes with this season.
However, I have also been accused of not being political enough. One angry former church member (he was angry at everything, it seemed) left to join another church in our county and as a parting shot emailed me and made it clear that I was not political enough from the pulpit. He meant it as a jab. I took it as a compliment.
Nevertheless, these are trying times. It seems that it may be "worse than ever" and some declare that they see no candidates worthy of electing into office. It should be noted that those comments have been stated by the voting public for decades, if not centuries.
When you mix politics and religion, you always get politics.
I believe this to be true.
The wise pastor or religious leader must take this to heart. Recently in a blog post on The Gospel Coalition site, Mike Edmondson posted an articled titled "5 Reasons to Keep Politicians Out of Your Pulpit." While not specifically focused on endorsements, the emphasis is the same. To allow a politician to speak from the pulpit during a worship gathering is akin to a public endorsement. Here are Edmondson's points:
The social activism agenda will be presented as equal to the gospel.
The presumed image that the politician agrees with the doctrines of the church.
The public service announcement becomes a pseudo-sermon.
It's been in the news for weeks, and finally it's coming to a head. Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky is now nationally known and has is being jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in her jurisdiction.
Credit Ty Wright/Getty Images
This was inevitable following the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
I actually figured the story would center on a pastor first before hitting a clerk's office. Nevertheless, Kim Davis has become the face of latest battle between law and religious conviction.
Depending where you stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, Davis is either a woman of faith standing upon her convictions or the image of all that is wrong with religion in this country.
Her own stories of marital failures and infidelity are now coming to light and some are using those as proof she is a hypocrite regarding the faith argument. However, even in the NBC News story, it is clear that her religious convictions developed four years ago when she stated she had a "message of grace" from the Lord. That may not make any sense to most who read this, but for those who are followers of Christ, that would best be translated into a "crisis of belief" and a new birth moment. The old is gone and the new is here.
Her quote here makes it clear: "I am not perfect. No one is, but I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God."
To that end, it is clear she feels strongly about honoring God through her work and has been conflicted in this area regarding the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Personally, I applaud her convictions and am praying for her. Though she is likely facing a losing battle in this case, she has sought to stand strong.
I'll leave it to others to dissect the legalities and the threats on religious liberty in this case.
The Story I Predicted
One story that made headlines a week ago and has not been referenced much lately refers to something I shared with other pastors recently. For most of the pastors I know and serve alongside in our denomination, there is a solid agreement that they will refuse to oversee weddings between those of the same gender.
However, the question to my pastor friends was this, "Prior to a wedding, will you seek to discover if the man and woman standing before you were born the gender they now live as?"
I'm usually met with silence.
As acceptance of the LGBT lifestyles continue to grow, transgenderism is one aspect most pastors and ministers have yet to address.
My prediction was that soon a pastor in our nation, who has strongly stated he would not oversee a same-sex wedding, would have a couple share with the media that, in actuality he did, unknowingly.
It already has become news in the case of Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk.
Here's the headline from The Guardian:
"Kentucky Clerk Unknowingly Issued a Marriage License to Trangender Man"
While I will be chastised for not referring to the transgendered man as a man, the fact of the matter is that in this case, a marriage license was issued to a couple who were born the same gender. Full story here.
Camryn Colen and wife Alexis: Kentucky clerk Kim Davis ‘pretty much already violated her conscience by marrying us’. Photograph: Courtesy of Camryn Colen
Some may say that a same-sex marriage is different than this, but I would disagree.
What does this mean for pastors?
It means that as stories will continue to pile up and fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds regarding transgenderism and the other aspects of LGBT life, pastors must understand fully what is at stake for them. The SCOTUS ruling was not an end and now people of faith, who hold convictions against a redefined marriage will come under even more pressure as boundaries are stretched.
Pastors will likely have to add another question in their "Uncomfortable Questions" list for couples seeking marriage. In addition to "Are you both born-again followers of Christ?", "Are you living together?" and "Are you engaging in sexual intercourse?" Pastors will need to ask "Were you born the gender you are now?"
It may be offensive to those being questioned, but it will likely become inevitable.
Will pastors be arrested?
Probably. At least some will be. Some probably should be (oops, did I just write that?)
There are voices in the legal world stating that those with religious convictions regarding weddings and marriages will continue to have their rights and their views protected, the reality is that most of us who hold firmly to what we deem at biblical teachings regarding marriage just don't believe those voices.
To be clear, I am opposed to same-sex marriage based upon my convictions of what Scripture states.
In full disclosure, there are those within the world of American Christianity and religion who state loudly their love for God and differ with me regarding the validity of same-sex marriage. I understand that difference and applaud and will fight for their right to differ, but it is clearly a difference. I respectfully disagree and believe God was clear in his expression of marriage and gender and identity.
So what do we do?
Well, before picking up protest signs and creating another boycott (maybe that should be avoided completely) pastors and all Christians should do that which God has told us to do.
Pray and live as salt and light in a culture that is far from God.
We need to stop fooling ourselves into believing that everyone in our culture has a biblical worldview and begin to live as the missionaries God has called us to be.
Perhaps this needs to be our theme verse in this age:
Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:14 (ESV)
There are two stories that seem to be trending in the media this week. These are unrelated stories, but show an interesting contrast on cultural views of life, ethics and value.
Cecil the Lion
The story of Cecil the Lion is a tragic one. Walter Palmer, a dentist on a "hunt" in Zimbabwe killed a lion that had been collared and was part of an ongoing study at Oxford University. Details of the story continue to come out and the debate in the public continues to rage.
His statement of regret is seemingly falling on deaf ears and many have declared it empty.
"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt [...] Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt. I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have."" - Walter Palmer
Those who advocate for animal "rights" and celebrities have joined the story to share their opinions of Palmer. Mia Farrow tweeted Palmer's home address and thus, protesters arrived.
Others have shared what they think should happen to Palmer.
"Anything loose, they should cut off." - Betty White
"I understand that his patients are lining up to cancel their appointments and well-deserved. If he was my dentist I would never set eyes on him again." - Bob Barker
The story is gaining ground and mainstream media outlets as well as entertainment outlets continue to push it on the front page or as the lead story of the day.
Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts
The other story that is working its way through social media and some mainstream outlets focuses on the leaked, undercover videos by a pro-life organization showing doctors and leaders of Planned Parenthood admitting to and expressing how they sell organs of aborted babies for profit.
Planned Parenthood has existed for decades. This non-profit organization declares itself as the primary provider of reproductive health and women's services in the nation. This is a sanitized, politically correct way of stating that they provide more abortions than any other organization in the United States.
The first video released is embedded below. Be warned, it is not easy to watch.
The latest is even more disturbing. . .
Amazingly, the Planned Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board has issued this statement in response to the video, as part of a well-orchestrated dance attempting to diffuse this story in the national media.
“People who work for Planned Parenthood give care and respect to those in need, doing God's work. For this we are grateful.” - PP Clergy Advocacy Board
At first, I was surprised that Planned Parenthood even had a Clergy Advocacy Board. However, there is a clear version of "Christianity" in America that has forsaken the truths of the Gospel and the truth of His Word. Therefore, statements like these should not surprise us, though they are greatly disturbing.
That some clergy from denominations such as the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, and American Baptist Churches would turn a blind eye to the sale of body parts from children slaughtered in the womb is not surprising. Almost all mainline denominations officially support unrestricted access to abortion.
But these ministerial shills have the audacity to frame their support for America’s largest abortion provider as a defense of women. Their kneejerk support for Planned Parenthood reveals a willful ignorance of one of the most anti-woman organizations in America.
How These Stories Are Connected
The story of Cecil the Lion and Planned Parenthood actually have nothing to do with each other. One is about a hunting trip in Africa that resulted in one animal being wrongly killed.
The other is about the deception of an organization that I believe does evil work and is responsible for the killing of millions of human beings.
What does connect them is the story of life and the message of ethics and truth.
Why It's Easier to Care for a Lion Than Babies
It is easier to jump on the bandwagon that is attacking Dr. Palmer than show offense to what is being done at Planned Parenthood.
It's easier because the crowd is louder that speaks against Dr. Palmer.
It's easier because others will celebrate you if you "stand up for Cecil."
It's easier because the platform is wide and welcoming for those who would show anger and frustration toward Dr. Palmer.
It's easier because other than tweeting and posting opposition (other than the few who are organizing protests and other actions) there really is no personal engagement in the Cecil the Lion story. Just tweet your anger and use the appropriate hashtag and go about your life.
However, when you assert your offense at what organizations like Planned Parenthood do, you are labeled. You are placed in a category that isn't celebrated by the masses. You will be on an opposite side of celebrities and those who are often worshipped by the masses.
The politically incorrect will not be celebrated.
You will be declared a hater of women (the enemy loves pulling out the "hater" tag for those who stand up for truth) rather than a lover of life and an advocate for babies.
You will have to stand on a narrow platform.
You will have to do more than state your opposition to abortion.
Christians who state their opposition to abortion must in the same breath state and show their advocacy for helping pregnant women, providing for single moms, standing in the gap for teens who are pregnant, affirm and support foster care and adoption services.
It is hypocritical to be against abortion and ignore the role of the church in these other areas. There's no way to be unengaged and be holy.
That's why it's easier.
But then, who said living holy and grounded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ was supposed to be easy?
What Must Be Done
I affirm the calls for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. I am not convinced this will ever happen, but at least the conversation has begun again, and more earnestly than in the past. To know that we are all guilty by proxy of the trafficking of human body parts through our taxes is offensive and atrocious. It's time for the federal government to do the right thing here and for the people standing upon that narrow platform to stand unwaveringly and push strongly for this.
Praying By Name
Trevin Wax has written an excellent blog post on how we should pray for those who are the names and faces of Planned Parenthood. The God of life is the only one who can transform a heart. Pray for those who do evil, especially those who unknowingly do so. How can they know evil apart from knowing the truth?
Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has reminded us of our role clearly.
The church of Jesus Christ should recommit ourselves to speaking out for human dignity. What we see in this instance is what has always been true of Planned Parenthood: Mammon worship in collision with the image of God, and the image is sacrificed on the altar of profiteering. This does not go unnoticed to God. He has said, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice, and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:1-2).
The heart of man is dark. Jesus is the light and has stated that we are His Light of the world. Let's shine this light brightly.
I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.
I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.
A "REALITY SHOW"
Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)
Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.
On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.
As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)
While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."
This is true.
Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.
More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage
The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.
The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.
However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.
Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering
These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.
Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly.
James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.
The Two Most Impactful Moments
The Prayer Gathering
Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.
I knew I needed to do so.
The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.)
One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.
I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer.
We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.)
We prayed as we sang.
And we believe.
We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.
We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.
Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning.
The Missionary Commissioning Service
Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!"
I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.
I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must.
They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.
It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport.
At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?
Why Come To These Gatherings?
In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.
This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.
We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.
That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.
It has been a challenging five weeks in Tallahassee for our faith-based orphan care ministries such as our partners in the Florida Baptist Children's Homes. We have asked for prayer and contacts to congressional representatives and senators. Thank you to all who have joined in the task. Rest assured, your prayers are powerful and effective. While the bill in question will not be brought up again this session, we are confident that God remains enthroned, in control and sovereign. Of course, those declarations were never in question.
Last week, my wife, Tracy and I joined Dr. Haag, employees of the FBCH, the Board of Directors, fellow pastors and spouses and the children living on the Jacksonville campus for a celebration dinner highlighting the work of the Children's Homes and ministries under their umbrella (Orphan's Heart, The Porch Light and others.) We are firmly committed to continue supporting this ministry and pray that as we enter this season of funding through the annual Children's Homes Offering (also called "The Mother's Day Offering") we will collectively be able to fund work for the sake of children throughout our state and beyond. As for the convictions of our ministries, I am confident that God will provide resources needed so that our biblical convictions will never be broken and that the hundreds of thousands of children served annually will continue unhindered.
Here's a copy of Dr. Haag's email regarding the Conscience Protection Bill (HB 7111) from May 1, 2015.
Dear Ministry Partner,
I wanted to give you an update on where the conscience protection bill (HB 7111) stands today! We are grateful for each of you standing with us for the past five weeks. Together, our voices were heard for children as the bill passed in the House Health & Human Services Committee, Judiciary Committee and on the House Floor. Through the help of your prayers, phone calls and personal meetings with your legislators, God saw fit to clear the way for the bill to be heard by the Senate Rules committee!
We have learned that the bill will not be brought up again in a Senate Committee meeting this session. The Florida House's session has ended, and they will not be taking any modified bills back from the Senate (which is what needs to happen in this case). We are certainly disappointed, but not dismayed. We know that legislation often takes multiple years to pass. The momentum for this legislation was great, and we know God can make it possible for the same momentum to pass the bill next year to protect our organization as we remain committed to our beliefs while focusing on helping one more child every day.
For now, we are thankful that our entire focus can return to helping children in need as we also begin to strategize for next year's legislative session. As I arrived back on campus in Lakeland this week, I was reminded again why every meeting we had in Tallahassee was worth it. It was worth it because of the little boy living in our emergency shelter right now! He's worth it, and we will remain focused on helping him and every child God places in our path.
I know you have done so much, but if I could ask you to do one more thing: Will you please promote our annual offering this Mother's Day, or even after, to provide critical funds needed for children in care?
Thank you again for your advocacy and prayers!
Together for Children,
Jerry T. Haag, Ph.D., CFP®
FLORIDA BAPTIST CHILDREN'S HOMES
You may give to the Florida Baptist Children's Homes through our church's online giving option here.
This has been an interesting week, to say the least. Ever since the beginning of the year, I have felt convicted to be more adamant in my prayers and to view prayer as a gift. So often prayer is viewed as the passive response to the issues of the day. How many times have you heard someone say something like "I want to help, but all I can do is pray"? It's as if prayer is viewed as the last resort, rather than the first response.
As the world watches, tragedies are unfolding. Some have mode global impact. Others have been regional. Still others are impactful for small communities or individual families. Yet, the pain and uncertainty is just as relevant.
It is no accident that the National Day of Prayer is soon here. The first Thursday of May has been this designated moment for years and while it is vital to pray on this special day, we should view prayer as less of an officially sanctioned public gathering and more of an intimate connection between the individual child of God and the Heavenly Father. Of course, that is what prayer should be. Yet, even the disciples showed that prayer is not always easy. In fact, they walked with Christ for three years and still admitted that they were missing something in their prayer lives.
I guess we're in good company.
Thankfully, Jesus gave us a template to use in our prayers. While reciting the "Lord's Prayer" isn't necessarily bad, remember that it is a template given by the Son of God for us to use when coming to the Father. The template gives us a reminder of His sovereignty and holiness and also gives us permission to plead boldly for the needs and concerns we have.
So, in no particular order, these items have been pushed to the forefront of my prayer list. Join me in seeking God's face and His will in these areas (and others):
Almost a year ago, my wife and I joined hundreds of others at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in the city of Baltimore. We were struck by the beauty of the city and the inner harbor and now, as we turn on the news, we see pandemonium. The rioting and the unnecessary violence is heart-wrenching. The police need our prayers. The citizens living in fear need our prayers. The latest divide among the races shows that we have far to go when it comes to racial reconciliation. We see how the enemy is using this to appear powerful, but there is hope. We know the Lord can heal and He will. Pastors and Christians in the city are uniting in prayer and we join them. Yes, black lives matter. . .and so do white lives, brown lives, yellow lives, etc. Ultimately, all lives matter and the Gospel expresses that message clearly. Pray for people to have ears to hear and that healing may begin.
Supreme Court Judgments
The SCOTUS is hearing oral arguments regarding states' rights to define legal marriage as that being between a man and a woman. In no other point of our history has the culture seemingly shifted so quickly on a values issue such as this. Those making arguments before the justices need our prayers. So, too, do the members of our Supreme Court. Though it is my conviction that the government shouldn't define marriage in that the government didn't invent it, the facts of the matter are that this family and marriage definition impacts not just the government or a handful of states, but every citizen and every church in our nation.
Conscience Bill in Florida
I have blogged numerous times about the Florida Conscience Bill (HB 7111) that moved through the Florida House and is now in the Senate Rules Committee. This bill will allow faith-based groups like our Florida Baptist Children's Homes to continue to function based on convictions regarding child placement in adoptive homes. Apart from the passage of this bill from the Senate and the subsequent signing into law by our Governor, the Children's Homes and other faith-based groups serving children will most likely have to find alternate funding and may have to serve fewer children in the future, leaving many to fend for themselves.
I have preached at twelve funerals this year and attended others from people in our church family. Rarely has a week gone by without a death in our church family or an extended family member. While we all know that death is the "destiny of every man" as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, the truth is the grief that comes in times like these can be overwhelming. The God of Peace is real and our prayers are needed for each other.
There are many other items on the prayer list and at times, "overwhelming" seems to be the descriptive term of the day. Nevertheless, prayer is powerful and God honors the intimate, repentant prayers of His children. May we never be guilty of "just praying" when all else fails, but to respond and even see prayer as a pre-emptive strike against the Enemy's attacks.
Last week the Florida House of Representatives passed HB 7111 with a vote of 75 for passage and 38 against. This bill, as referenced in previous postings is a protective one designed to allow faith-based children's organizations such as the Florida Baptist Children's Homes to stand upon their convictions when determining with whom to place children.
While those opposed to the bill state that it is discriminatory, especially to same-sex couples and those in the LGBT communities, it actually is a statement about the viability of religious liberty and freedom to lead organizations based on personal convictions. The term "discrimination" has been attached to the bill and the debacle surrounding the Indiana religious freedom law has moved those in leadership and power positions to a very narrow place if they choose to stand for religious liberty while still leading and ensuring that personal rights are not forsaken.
As stated in previous postings, I am strongly in favor of the passage of this bill into law here in Florida and elsewhere.
Therefore, I share with you the latest update from the President of the Florida Baptist Children's Homes regarding this issue.
I wanted to give you an update on the conscience protection bill (HB 7111). The bill has been referred to the Florida Senate Rules Committee which will take place during the afternoon of Monday, April 20. We are thankful for another step! This week, we have been personally meeting with senators on the Senate Rules Committee and would ask that you also contact them directly before Monday to ask for their support of this critical legislation for children.
As you contact these senators, here are two points to consider:
Contrary to opposing views expressed by some, Florida's old Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) will not protect us. Without the conscience protection bill, we will face lengthy and costly litigation. We need every resource we have to be focused on the care of children, not legal battles.
The same sex adoption bill (SB320/HB7013) passed in the Senate this week. The conscience protection bill (HB 7111) will allow us to continue to help children without violating our religious beliefs. The bill covers foster care, care for victims of child sex trafficking as well as adoption. FBCH helped 1,026 children in the care of Department of Children and Families (DCF) this past year.
We ask that you pray at 1 p.m. on Monday for the Senate Rules Committee as they take up this bill. I will be testifying before the committee and would appreciate your prayers as I represent the children we serve.
As we pray for our leaders, Proverbs 21:1 comes to mind: The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.