The family unit has for centuries been comprised of one husband, one wife and in many cases, children. The changing cultural landscape of the twenty-first century seems to be calling that definition into question. Regardless what is deemed acceptable or normal in the world, the Bible affirms the family unit as described above. In addition to the primary members of what has been termed the “nuclear family,” the Scripture teaches and affirms multi-generational and extended family members serving together, ideally for the glory of God and the propagation of the Gospel. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of parents to pass biblical truth and godly teachings on to their children and subsequent generations. This is God’s desire and yet, there are many families who fall short of that standard. Therefore, throughout the years, the local church has sought to shore up the deficiencies in these areas by creating age-graded ministries and programs. These programs and ministries have been proven helpful and valuable. Yet, over time, a dangerous precedent has been set.
Many individuals and families in our culture have become outsourcers. The age of expertise reigns and while past generations understood the need to be proficient in various skills and tasks, that is not the case today. When simple repair work is needed around one’s home, a contracted carpenter is hired. Many, due to lack of time, desire or skill-set, will outsource yard work to professionals. The same is true for simple automobile maintenance and other tasks that not too long ago were accomplished in-house. While a discussion on the value of outsourcing may be interesting, the danger of such exists when people outsource biblical responsibilities. Simply put, the discipling of one’s children should not be outsourced to “professional Christians” or church program directors. The responsibility for these tasks remains with a child’s parents and while the church plays a major role, it cannot supplant the responsibility of those originally entrusted with such.
Much attention is given to helping children develop physically, intellectually, and even socially and emotionally, but parents are not given a lot of help in knowing how to aid in the moral and spiritual development of their children. Due to the lack of easily identifiable steps and handles upon which to hold, many parents have apparently simply prayed that their children would grow in their faith due to the leadership and ministries offered at their local church.
When surveyed, Christian parents have revealed their understanding and belief that they are to play the primary role in the spiritual development of their children. Nevertheless, the same surveys show that these parents have failed in making discipleship a priority within their home. Parents believed they were fulfilling their responsibility for their children’s spiritual formation and development simply by involving them in the programs of the local church. While it would be easy to blame these parents for dropping the ball in this vital area, the church must own its responsibility for fueling a failed model that distances itself from biblical examples. The model most often implemented needs an overhaul, as Dave Kinnaman has noted in a 2006 Barna Research Group report, not because churches have failed in drawing crowds but because the results have been an unsustainable faith for many students beyond high school.
Churches have systematically created and replicated programs that seemingly work. If a nearby or popular church has a program that draws numerous children and teenagers, others will seek to copy it. The scorecard for success is built on uneven ground and attendance numbers and yet, the biblical mandate is not to “Go and make attenders” or even “Go and make church members,” but to “Go and make disciples.” The problem is that in a consumer-driven society, disciple-making is hard to gauge and nearly impossible to quantify. Yet, this is the mandate for the church and must be strategically sought and implemented.
The Bible consistently shows the value of family and the expectation of inter-generational ministry and teaching. The Scripture teaches of God’s plan for the family to be primary in the faith development journey of His people. While this truth is studied and known to be true by many who claim to be followers of Christ, due to the fall and the inherent sin nature, the simple reality is that even well intentioned people do not naturally do what they ought to do. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God does not affirm the delegating the discipleship of one’s child to religious professionals. The responsibility remains within the home, in the context of family. Where there are single-parent households or orphans, the church fills those gaps as the spiritual family.
With numerous family ministry models available, the truth is that no church program has the power to transform lives and make disciples. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can rescue and transform a life. The church must strategically partner with parents and guide them into this truth. This will change the scorecard.
 Anthony, Michael J., Michelle Anthony and Karen E. Jones. “The Family in Foundational Years.” In A Theology for Family Ministries, 22. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011.
 "Making the Transition to Family-Equipping Ministry." In Training In the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, by Jay Strother, 254. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.
 Renfro, Paul, Brandon Shields, and Jay Strother. "The Task Too Significant To Hire Someone Else To Do." In Perspectives on Family Ministry: 3 Views, edited by Timothy Paul Jones, 23. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009.
 "Bring Them Up In the Discipline and Instruction of the Lord." In Training In the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, by Robert L. Plummer, 47. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.
 Renfro, Paul, Brandon Shields, and Jay Strother, 18.
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.
Last week, our church family gathered to grieve the loss of one of our own. Nick, a member of our family since the mid 1980s along with his wife and children, died suddenly on Memorial Day while in Tennessee spending the holiday weekend with his son, Jon.
I have known Nick and his wife Diana, daughter Shanna and son Jon since my first day serving on staff at First Orange Park over twenty-one years ago. It's funny, but during the interview process prior to my calling here, I was sent a photo directory of the church (dated, as all of them are) and looked through the photos of people I did not yet know, but knew I would soon become my family. For some reason, I stopped at Nick's family photo. I knew, somehow, that this family, and especially their son Jon, who would be in my youth ministry, would become dear friends.
Jon Garrett & Nick Garrett (L-R)
When I met Jon, he was in junior high school. He was a typical junior boy and by his own admission, was a challenge. Yet, there has always been a kinship between him and me. There were times we would play basketball together (he never beat me. . .at least that's how I remember it) and talk deeply about matters of life. There were moments he made me angry and I know there was a season he wasn't too fond of me either. We look back now and see how God used all those moments to deepen a friendship and mentorship that has lasted years.
He's an adult now. I'm a little older, too (a lot grey-er) and hopefully wiser.
When I hear of Nick's passing, I reached out to Jon immediately. I knew he was hurting and while I offered words of comfort and clarity, I knew he just needed to know others cared and that he would get through this. The same is true for his sister Shanna and of course, his mother and Nick's widow, Diana.
Each person grieves differently. Relationships are unique and yet, each is beautiful and vital.
After meeting with the family in planning the memorial service for Nick, Jon shared that he would like the opportunity to address the people in attendance. This is something that occurs often at services like this, but as always, I asked Jon to write it out, for his own sake and to provide a "safety net" in case he found he could not speak. In that case, I could read his words for him.
At the appropriate time, I invited Jon to the stage to share. It is hard to convey the emotion and even the moments of humor in written form, but I provide Jon's tribute to and words about his father here. His vulnerability and honesty are incredible.
We come here today to celebrate the life of Nick Lee Garrett. I want to thank the family, co-workers, friends, and church family for coming today on behalf of my mom and sister. Nick Garrett was a husband, a grandfather, a brother, uncle, colleague, friend, brother-in-Christ, and to my sister and I, he was dad. I want to talk to you a little bit today about my Dad, whom I called "Pop" or "Pops." I want to share some memories with you and talk with you a little bit about who he was for me.
My Dad was born on March 23, 1951 to Elzie & Alice Garrett. He was the second to youngest of five children. I met my Dad almost 36 years ago when I entered the world. Like many little boys, I looked to my dad as a hero figure. I have very few memories of Kentucky, as we moved to Florida when I was five, but I do remember the church we attended. My dad was the sound man and I remember him making me sit in the sound booth with him and during a Sunday night service he let me watch "Empire Strikes Back" on the TV in the sound booth because it kept me quiet. I remember walking around with a smile on my face as people in the church called me "Little Nick" because I was frequently with my dad. A little boy looks up to his father in the role of hero. He is a knight with a shining coat of armor ready to battle the dragons to keep you safe.
We moved to Orange Park when I was five. So much of my childhood is like a blur to me. I have memories of my Dad taking me to work with him on days when I didn’t have school or had a break from school. I remember getting up early in the morning and riding to Lane Avenue and helping my dad load his truck when he delivered uniforms. I don’t know how much help I was, as I usually was found asleep on the rugs that would soon be on the floors of banks, and other businesses around Jacksonville. I remember that these companies would put their old dirty uniforms in a bin and dad and I would go through the pockets of the uniforms before we loaded them up in laundry bags and sometimes he would find money. It’s funny because I can remember sometimes seeing my dad find money and put in back in the pocket and throw it over into my pile. He would yell “Make sure you check those pockets” and then when I would find the money he would make a big stink about it like he should’ve checked it and how he worked hard and I didn’t. I would offer the money to him but he would tell me he didn’t want my money but then he would make me buy lunch.
I could tell you how on one of those work day adventures my dad saved my life. My dad’s truck was very similar to a UPS truck. It only had one seat and no A/C so I used to ride on front on the tire well and hold on to a pole that came down from the ceiling. We rode with the door open to get more air flowing. One day we were driving and a car pulled directly in front of us. My dad slammed on the brakes and I went flying forward. I will never forget it. Everything slowed down. I remember seeing the dashboard coming towards me and I remember seeing my dad's eyes. I hit the dashboard, splitting my head open, and started rolling out of the truck to the asphalt. I remember seeing the road coming towards my face and seeing the front bumper of the car cruising down the right lane and then I felt the strong hand of my Dad pulling me back into the truck. He caught me. If he hadn’t, I imagine I would not be here to tell you this story. He fought the dragon and his armor held strong that day.
He allowed me to play sports like baseball and basketball. He allowed me to know the joys of being a Boy Scout and volunteered to help with my Scout Troop. He raised me in church and made sure that God’s Word was something that I was exposed to from the beginning.
As I moved into my teenage years, rebellion built in me. I began to see that my dad's armor had holes in it. Flaws. His weight became an embarrassment to me. As a teenager you know more than your parent, it seems. I focused on the flaws in my dad's armor and that focus remained for years. Even throughout that time, which looking back had to be painful for him, my dad tried to be there for me. I can remember him sneaking in the back of the youth building to watch me play basketball on Wednesday nights after our service. I remember him making sure I was able to go to summer camps (when I wasn’t in Summer School.) He worked a lot, sometimes working two jobs. In my teenage years it became very apparent that my family didn’t have the money that other kids had. Their name brand gear and cars pointed that out, and I resented that and grew envious of others.
I will never forget the day that I came back to Florida to collect my things as I was moving to Tennessee. My dad decided he would go with me to help me move. We were going to split driving but I slept practically the whole way. We get to Tennessee and arrive at my newly acquired townhouse. I remember my dad helping me move things in and we ordered Papa John's Pizza. I was trying to get my new TV to work and it seemed to be broken. I pressed the power button on the remote…nothing. I made sure it was plugged in. I pressed the power button on the TV…nothing. I was so frustrated. My dad starts laughing and says, “Flip the light switch, genius.” Yeah, it was a powered outlet. He thought that was so funny. Then, because all of my dishes came from a thrift store, he loaded up my dishwasher, and proceeded to flood the bottom floor of my townhouse. I said "Have you ever used a dishwasher, genius?" We had a great laugh together.
Throughout my adult years I only got to see my dad about two or three times a year. He saw me become a father and he was an awesome grandpa. He and my mom gave my daughter her first bedroom suit. He was so excited to surprise her with it. He was an awesome grandpa to her and my nephew James. Always loving and giving. It was during this time for me, as a husband and father that I discovered that my armor was flawed as well. It began a process of discovery that continued until Memorial Day of this year.
See, my Dad tried so hard, especially in the last couple of years, to be there for me. As I went through a very difficult time in my life my dad let me know he loved me, was praying for me, that God loved me, and that he was there if I needed him. He signed up for Facebook just to be able to follow the lives of his children and would often message me. I will never forget the day he called and talked with me at work in April of this year and listened to me vent about a situation I was experiencing. He told me he was proud of me for the way I handled it and he really listened to me. After we get off the phone I messaged him to tell him thank you and he messaged back 3 words that I will always have. “I love you.” That was huge for my dad, but had become more frequent in the last couple of years.
Our last weekend together was great. He was so excited to spend time with me and my daughter. He rented a house in the mountains, my favorite place, that had a movie theater in the basement. He did that just for me and was so excited. His original plan was to keep it secret but my dad was never really good at keeping things a secret when he was excited. It was a great weekend. We watched several movies together down there. He made me breakfast every morning. He was always thinking about how to serve us and give to us. He liked to see us happy. And hugging him, telling him thank you and I appreciate what you did, and I love you was the last time I would talk with him….in this life.
See I have another memory of my dad. A memory as a teenager when my dad and I went for a walk around the block. It was the memory of a question that I asked my dad. “Dad, are you a Christian.” His answer, “Yes. I am.” I remember asking him how he knew and he shared his affirmation that with me.
I spoke about my dad’s armor. I shared with you the path of seeing him as a perfect hero, and then noticing his armor had flaws. It’s in those flaws where we often lose vision. But as I grew older and saw the flaws in my own armor, and as I drove back to the mountains knowing that my Dad had left this earth, God gave me a few things.
My armor has flaws. And if you are a dad, your armor has flaws. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
My dad never gave up the fight. He knew what commitment and covenant was. He was married to my mom for 44 years. He showed me loyalty, commitment, hard work, generosity. He was the type of guy who gave to children and worked on holidays so people with kids wouldn’t have to work. He did the best he could with what he knew and he fought the fight.
I know my dad was proud of me. I know my dad loved me. I know my dad knew I loved him. I am blessed to not have to live with regrets.
When my dad left this earth, he stepped into glory, and he heard “Well done my good and faithful servant” and he finally received his perfect suit of armor.
God bless you.
The father blesses the son. It's his role. This father blessed his son and as is evidenced in this tribute, a legacy of faith, clarity and love has been left.
Jon's words evoked emotion in me and in many others during this service. You see, many in the audience have known Jon for decades. He is greatly loved as part of our family here at First. Yet, as he revealed so honestly in his words, he stepped into rebellion as a young man. Now, still on his journey of faith, it is clear that God has redeemed him and that God used his father, Nick, as a model for him. Jon is blessed and is a blessing. Nick did enter the presence of the Father and I too believe he heard, "Well done."
I'm so proud of Jon, not just for the tribute he shared, but for the man he has become. I know his father, Nick was as well. I believe his Heavenly Father is too.
And this is why Solomon said that it's good to go to funerals every now and then. . .
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. Ecclesiastes 7:2 (ESV)
As a pastor I have the honorable task of walking with families through grief at the times of death. Funerals and memorial services are commonplace in a church with diverse ages in it's congregation. As I meet with family members to plan these services, I am asked often about the biblical view of cremation. This end-of-life option is considered more and more and those who follow Christ are seeking to know if this is a good or even acceptable option.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible gives no specific teaching about cremation. There are a few instances that many often reference when seeking biblical evidence one way or the other regarding this practice. Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines and their bodies mutilated. The people of Israel then decided to cremate their bodies and bury their ashes (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Another story focuses upon Achan and his family who were cremated, but in this case after being executed for sinning against Israel (Joshua 7:25).
Cremation was practiced throughout the known world during biblical times, but not commonly by the Israelites or the New Testament believers. The cultural norm for these people at this time was burial in a cave, tomb or in ground. In many cases, the bodies would decompose and the remains were then placed in an ossuary (bone box) and buried in the tomb. This would have been the case with Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was buried. At the time of Christ's burial, it was a new, unused tomb and therefore no ossuaries in the back area of other family members of Joseph.
Ultimately, there are no scriptural commands against cremation.
Cremation & the Church
For centuries, the majority of Christians have opposed the practice of cremation. There are various reasons given for such opposition. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans practiced cremation in that they believed in the immortality of the soul, but saw no value in the body. Hindus, even today, practice cremation as part of their belief in reincarnation. Of course, not all non-Christian religious groups cremated. The Egyptians went to the other extreme of mummifying the bodies of their dead and constructing elaborate tombs for the rich.
Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote about the practice of cremation for Christianity Today back in 2002 (Read full article here.) He addressed the concerns early Christians had regarding the practice:
Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.
Early martyrs were often burned at the stake, as we know. In the days of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals, burial was an option that separated Christians from the world, at least in theory.
But what about today? George continues. . .
But what about today? The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation. But that has changed dramatically. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2000 it was 25.5 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of "place" in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.
While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Since 1963 the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation while "earnestly recommending" burial as the preferred mode of disposal. Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.
It is clear why many believers struggle in feeling comfortable with cremation. What we know, as stated above, is that any buried body will eventually decompose. Therefore, cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice for Christians. It does speed up the natural process of decomposition through oxidation. We know the children of God, the believers in Christ, will one day be resurrected. A new body will be given to each child of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Throughout history, believers have died in various ways and have been buried in the ground, in caves, at sea and cremated. We know that God will have no problem whatsoever in the creation and redemption of His children's new bodies, so the state of the remains of the dead is unimportant.
In Michael Wittmer's book Becoming Worldly Saints, he speaks of the spiritual bodies and the resurrection. His points are well formed:
Whenever I speak on death and resurrection, someone usually asks whether it is okay to use cremation. I say it depends. We're not making God's job impossibly difficult when we choose cremation, because we know he will resurrect millions of people who have died in fires, been digested by animals, or decomposed all the way to nothing. It depends on our motive. We might choose cremation to honor the person. The proper way to dispose of an old flag is not to throw it in the trash but to burn it. Just so, we might cremate our loved one as the ultimate sign of respect. We might do it to save space (as is common in China) or money (as is common in West Michigan), and this is fine, too.
However, we should never choose cremation because we think the body of our loved one is unimportant. Their dead body is not merely the shell that once housed their true self. This is a Platonic, pagan view that I have argued against in this book. That body in the casket matters to enough to God that he has centered the entire Christian hope upon its resurrection. That body is a vital part of our loved one, and we should handle it as those who plan to see it again.
We should also keep the ashes of our loved one together. When we scatter them across their favorite lake or patch of grass, we are unwisely depicting a pantheistic worldview in which humans are one with nature. We're not. We are uniquely made in the image of God, and we must preserve that honor even in death. When we place their urn in a cemetery or columbarium, we treat our beloved with the dignity that humans deserve. Ant that place becomes resurrection ground.
What We Must Focus Upon
Ultimately, what we as believers must focus upon, even in the midst of grieving the loss of loved ones is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day our new bodies will be fashioned as Christ's resurrected body was. It is an eternal transformation and leads us to a deeper understanding why Solomon said it is good to go to a house of mourning at times (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
It is the day that we are supposed to pause, remember and be thankful. Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day is centered on our nation's collective grief. This is a day where sacrifice is celebrated. We pause to remember those who have served in our nation's military and gave their lives in that service for a cause larger than self. Begun in 1868 following the Civil War and originally called "Decoration Day," this federal holiday is our moment to acknowledge that which we experience daily in this nation cannot be taken for granted.
Freedom Isn't Free
The reality that our freedom as Americans came at a high cost is lost on some. Fortunately, not on all. For the family who watched the arrival of a flag-draped coffin of the loved one who did his/her duty in service to our nation, this reality is clear. For the fellow servicemen/women who are home but live with constant reminders that some of their brothers/sisters-in-arms did not have that privilege, the sacrifice is known. For those who have been by a cemetery and have taken the time to read headstones of young men and women (far too young, by the way) who died in war defending freedom, the truth is known.
I am not like some who get angry when families take the time on this three-day weekend to go to the beach, ball games, theme parks or cook outs. In fact, those opportunities that seem frivolous to some are actually moments that should be cherished and celebrated. Having the freedom to do such things should be a continual reminder that what we have is a great gift. Just don't forget!
Enjoy the day. Spend time with friends and family, but remember and be thankful for those who sacrificed so you can. Let's not take our freedom for granted.
As a Christ-follower, today is a good reminder that the ultimate freedom offered was by God and as is always the case with freedom, it did not come without a sacrifice. Christians have been set free, not by our goodness, our abilities, or our morality, but by a great gift - a sacrifice from the only One who could pay the price. Live fully. Live free and abundantly. Let's not take our freedom for granted.
Last night, my wife and I previewed the new Kendrick Brothers' film "War Room." The Kendricks are the men who brought "Flywheel", "Facing the Giants", "Fireproof" and "Courageous" to theaters and have found great success in placing Gospel-centric stories on film in an engaging and challenging way.
They also have discovered how to make Christ-centered movies that I'm not embarrassed to invite non-Christians to view. The production quality and the acting has increased with each film.
I have been seeing teasers and the trailer for "War Room" for weeks and, to be honest, I was not drawn to this story initially as I was to the previous three films. Maybe it is due to the fact that there were no firetrucks, police cars, guns, or even football games presented in the story. Yes, that's a stereotypical male response, but this is my blog, so I figured I'd be honest.
The "Pastors' Preview" was held in Jacksonville on Tuesday and the theater was full. Each of us received our "gift bag" with promotional items and a survey card for the distributors.
Trailers of two other faith-based films were shown. These look really good as well ("Woodlawn" coming in October 2015 & "Risen" coming in January 2016). Then, the new film then began.
Images of the Vietnam War filled the screen. It appears the partnership with Sony and Tri-Star provides some quality footage for the filmmakers. Narrated by Miss Clara initially (a major character who leads by example as a true "prayer warrior") we see the story of family, joy and heartache revealed. The "War Room" motif is connected to the room where Miss Clara's deceased husband served during the war in planning next steps against a powerful enemy.
Flash forward to present day and Miss Clara is a senior adult seeking to sell her home so that she can move in with her son. Welcome newcomer to film, but not to the Christian audience viewing (especially the women) Priscilla Shirer. Shirer plays the main character in this film. She is a real estate agent in a troubled marriage. However, this is different than the marriage story presented in "Fireproof." Kudos to the Kendricks for touching on a powerful subject, but not just rehashing the same story but with an African-American couple rather than Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea.
The main characters' troubles leave me and every other pastor in the room thinking "Yep, I know a couple just like that." It's not stereotypical type-casting. It is more a revelation of the real world and real battles that our friends, family and church members face.
Don't Worry - No Spoilers Here
I am not going to spoil the movie for those who have yet to see it. However, I do wish to say that as the story unfolded, I was moved. I know it's just a movie, but God works through story and often a story played out on the screen allows for some very hard truths to be revealed in one's heart. This is true for me, at least. In the area of prayer and forgiveness, I was confronted with conviction, not by the Kendricks, but by God. It's amazing how he uses story.
This film is focused on prayer. That is no secret. That's the "War Room" that Miss Clara has in her old home. A closet where she goes to pray and do battle. It's a literal interpretation of the Scripture.
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:6 (ESV)
Miss Clara affirms that a physical closet is not the point, but a quiet, intentional place for prayer is.
The story in the film unfolds. God does amazing things. I'm glad that not all problems are solved, but the sense of the sovereignty of God and the love and grace he bestows upon his children is clear.
The message is obvious - PRAYER WORKS!
Prayer for family members, loved ones, circumstances, situations, relationships, etc. are all valid. I'm reminded of the reality God has shared with me over the past year. . .
Prayer is our active weapon against the enemy. As long as it remains our passive response when we feel all else has failed, we will continue to feel and live defeated. . .and we don't have to.
I left the theater thinking how amazing God is in bringing the message of prayer through this film at a time when I have been discerning His voice regarding the church and our often weak, passive prayer strategies. Also, the personal conviction that my prayers have been less than adequate for a man seeking the face of God and leading others to be "battle ready."
One of my favorite scenes is the one embedded below. . .
As a church, we will likely purchase all the tickets for our local theater during opening weekend again, as we have done with "Courageous" and other films like "October Baby." Yet, this outing is less a night of entertainment and more of a resounding call to pray like we mean it.
Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get Him to do what we desire. Rather, it is our humble admission of His sovereignty over all and our invitation into intimacy with the Father.
Final Words About the Film
Just some closing, random thoughts. . .
Priscilla Shirer is excellent in this role. This was her first film role and she did wonderfully. Very convincing (though now all her friends will be talking about her feet - explained in the movie.)
T.C. Stallings is perfectly cast. The man is strong and it's good to see him reformed from his time as a gangsta in "Courageous." He can act, but man can he Double-Dutch jump rope, too.
The other members of the cast did well. At no time was there a cringe-worthy moment of poor acting.
Beth Moore is in this film, not for long, but she's in this. With her and Priscilla, the Kendricks have just locked in to a target audience of every woman in Southern Baptist churches who have done a LifeWay Bible Study.
When you see the film, check out the digital clock in the bedroom. It's no accident that the time on the screen is 7:14. (Check 2 Chronicles to know what I mean.)
There are a number of Easter Eggs throughout the film that hearken back to the previous four Kendrick films. Actors you recognize reappear. The car dealership from "Flywheel" is once again referenced, subtly. Oh, and check out the name of the Paramedic Company on Michael Jr.'s EMT shirt.
Plan to view this on opening weekend. Don't wait for the DVD or for Netflix to have it.
We'll have tickets available at First Baptist Church of Orange Park, if you live in the Jacksonville area.
Over the past few weeks, the Leadership Team at our church has been praying and mulling over some potential changes in schedule, function and emphasis. As with many other organizations, change is often needed. We can all give illustrations of organizations that refused to change when given the opportunity and are now just examples of being left behind (Blockbuster Video, anyone?)
The added challenge of change when implemented in the local church is that the church is more than a business or community organization. The church is a living, breathing organism given an incredible mission and mandate by God to make disciples and grow His Kingdom. Since we know the "gates of hell will not prevail" against His church, some question the legitimacy of change. While all change is not good, we can all agree (I think) that at times it is needed.
What never changes is the Gospel and God's Word.
That needs to be said numerous times and, like most pastors, I repeat it often. Structures change. Organization charts change. Buildings change. Worship times change. Worship styles change. Even church leadership changes.
What never changes is the Gospel and God's Word.
Recently, Dr. Charles Stone, a minister gifted in leadership skills and nearleadership, especially, wrote an article titled "8 Reasons Why Church Change Is So Difficult." I believe he is accurate in his assessment and I share the main points below:
Brain insight helps us understand hidden processes around which we can design our change initiatives. Awareness of how people’s brains work in response to change can help you craft more lasting changes. Here are eight reasons why change is hard…
People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive.
People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear. The less information and the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear and resistance to change.
We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. Poorly introduced change will always start your change on the wrong footing.
Emotions influence receptivity to change. Although we may prefer it not to be so, most people make decisions based on emotion.
The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly can engage the brain’s fear center and cause people to resist, thus hindering change (Hemp, 2009).
Old habits die hard. The older we get we more easily default to what we know.
Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change. Uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism.
The brain often interprets change as a threat which in turn creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: Minimize threat-maximize reward that results in either resistance or openness. Change seems like a threat which often breeds resistance from others. Change brings uncertainty and the brain doesn’t like uncertainty.
We know that the reality is that change for the sake of change is a waste of energy and capital. Therefore, to make any adjustments in ministry, staffing, organization, small groups, worship times, etc. just on a whim is unwise and asinine.
However, as we begin to better understanding the makeup of the 21st century culture (we've been in this century for 15 years now, so it's about time we analyze it, right?) the truth is that change is happening at breakneck speed all around us. While the message of the Gospel is unchanging, the process of sharing the Gospel and gaining an audience with those who see no need for God or the local church must change.
Without change in processes, we will remain stuck in time, wondering why our strategies that worked in the 1980s seem to fall flat. Rather than adjust strategies or schedules, many churches will collectively shake their heads, blaming the media, government, school systems, community leaders or other likely targets for influencing our children, grandchildren, neighbors and co-workers too much and abandoning Christian values.
And, in about 25-30 years, as 70% of funding toward evangelical churches in America disappears (as reported by John Dickerson in his book The Great Evangelical Recession) the unchanging Gospel will remain strong, but the unchanging local church buildings will be up for sale.
The challenge is clear. Change must happen, but our human nature HATES it. There are at least eight resistors to change hard-wired into our brains. This is not God's cosmic joke, but His divine plan in the creation of our brains and neurology. Resistance does not mean stopped. We can change and we must change, but often it is not enjoyable (at least through the process.)
Yet, even as Christians we celebrate change. That's the message of the "personal testimony" or "story." As a child of God relates his/her story of salvation, the joy is in the change. God takes our hearts of stone and changes them into hearts of flesh.
We are given a new nature when we become a child of God. That's change.
We are given a new heart when we become a child of God. That's change.
We are changed from death to life through Jesus Christ.
While not all change is good (remember New Coke?) we must understand that wise, prayed over, God-led change is needed. No, the gates of hell will never prevail against Christ's Church. That truth is solid. Let's just ensure we have our ears and eyes open so that we can hear and see how God is leading us, His church, into a culture for His glory and as His change agents.
It's a word that everyone knows and says they understand, yet there are over 12 meanings of the word in the dictionary, and that doesn't include the verb usages and idioms. The word is LOVE.
From "All you need is love. . ." to "Love Wins" to the trending #LoveIsLove, the concept of love is something that has gripped humanity since the beginning of time. Even in the Garden of Eden love between Adam and God and then with Eve reveals the amazing power of the word.
Love Is A Choice
I remember talking with a friend a few years back about some things going on in his marriage. He said what so many have said over the years to me when seeking to justify their desire to get out of a relationship. He said, "I'm just not in love with her anymore." To which, in my caring, grace-filled, mercy-laced way I responded, "Bull!"
You see, love is more than a feeling. Even Boston knew that (vague 1970s rock music reference - look it up.) Love is a choice.
A few years ago, Rob Bell authored a book that took on a life of its own in social media and among Christian circles. The book is titled Love Wins and even prior to being published, it was a best-seller in pre-orders. This was primarily due to Bell's controversial book promo online.
Bell is an incredible communicator and his church in Michigan was a popular mega-church. His Nooma videos had been used in churches for years and there was no denying his ability to draw in an audience through his teaching. Yet, something about the message conveyed in Love Wins (which is a title that millenials love) was off-center. In fact, it was clearly unbiblical and now with Bell's most recent statement about the irrelevancy of the "ancient writings" known as God's Word, the Holy Bible, Bell's belief system has been laid bare.
And it's unfortunate.
Yet, what's more unfortunate is that many in our fast-moving culture still wave the banner of "Love Wins" as if it means nothing matters ultimately, but love (but what definition of love?).
Love Is All You Need
The Beatles said that all that is needed in life is love. John Mayer says that this is a lie.
Again, the question is "What definition of love?"
Love Is Love
Now, the trending video on YouTube and on social media is from the Ad Council and features images of skeletons embracing, holding hands and kissing, only to have the people come from behind the screen to "shock" the audience as to who they really are. The message is that love is not defined by race, age, disability or even gender. . . since it's all love, right?
The phrase is meant to diffuse those who would seek to define relationships. While the video features numerous people, the primary message is clearly regarding LBGT relationships and perhaps the acceptance of same-sex marriage. That's why the video is trending. That's why the imagery is moving.
But "love is love" is a phrase that provokes responses while doing what every English teacher in my life told me I could not do - use a word to describe the same word.
God revealed the elements of this type of love in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. . .
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 (ESV)
Love Is Not Possible Apart From God
That sounds very limiting and intolerant, but based on John's word in his third letter, the very nature of God is love - the ultimate, perfect, agape love and apart from knowing Him, true love remains elusive.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:8 (ESV)
I found an old article I wrote for the local paper back in 2002 earlier today. Thought I'd share it again. . .
In October 2001, my grandma, Berna Tarkington, went to be with the Lord. At her passing, a family friend, Stephen Oliver, wrote our family a letter regarding my grandma's wisdom. My grandma used to watch Stephen and his sister when they were children. Stephen wanted to share some things he learned about life from grandma. Upon reading his list, I was reminded about how special and how wise she was.
Be nice to your brother or sister. They may grow up to be just as big as you are one day.
Go to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Not only will you learn about Jesus, but the Kool-Aid is good, too!
Use a black skillet to fry potatoes. It will always taste better.
Always remember to tell the bus driver where your stop is. If you don't, who will.
Mountain Dew is much colder in a glass bottle kept on the back porch in the Frigidaire.
Don't skip a page when reading a book to a child. They usually know the difference and you never know what you'll miss.
At the end of a rough day, it's always a good idea to sit on the front porch in a swing and let someone else help you with your problems.
Watch out for cracks in wooden bridges. If you have little feet, your shoes might get caught in the cracks.
Play with your neighbor, and let her choose what game to play today. You can choose tomorrow.
Quiltins and hog killins always mean good food, lots of neighbors, and tall tales.
I miss my grandma, but wisdom and truth never die. Maybe you can learn from her lessons, too.
When the Canadian Supreme Court ruled last Friday that laws against euthanasia were to be struck down the cultural pendulum continued to swing wide from what was considered right and acceptable just a few years ago. It is no secret that since 1996, culture has shifted greatly in the United States and Canada. This is evidenced in the quickly moving shift regarding same-sex marriages and in this case - the so-called “right to die” movement.
While the Canadian Supreme Court ruling doesn’t actually impact us directly in the United States, the fact that some states have similar laws on the books now (e.g. Oregon, Vermont & Washington) under the title of “Death with Dignity” means that this movement will pick up speed and likely be a federal law in the near future.
These laws, as with the case of the Canadian ruling, are direct reversals of previous acts and mandates. In fact, Canada ruled on this in 1993 and upheld the nation’s laws against physician-assisted suicide.
While “Dr. Death” (Jack Kevorkian) was mocked and demonized just a few decades ago, he now appears to be a pioneer in an area that is picking up steam. This is unfortunate.
As Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently stated, “We’re looking at a massive change in the culture that has affected even the dignity and sanctity of human life. And of course it didn’t begin with euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. It began on other issues, most importantly, the issue of abortion.”
The emotional connection that comes with physician-assisted suicide leads people to discount the broader pro-life issues. Some would say that this has nothing to do with the issue of abortion. However, the full issue is one regarding the sanctity of human life. Whether in the womb or on a nursing home bed, at the starting line or life or closer to the finish line, the fact that “death with dignity” becomes a tagline shows that many in our world are excusing what has become a culture of death.
Under the banner of “rights” the reality that murder (a word that many would seek to avoid) is now celebrated is troubling.
This is a slippery slope and it is growing more slippery. European nations have pioneered this era of death to tragic results. In Belgium, for instance, the aged and ones with severe diseases are candidates for assisted suicide. However, the deeper challenge comes in determining who makes the designation of “old” and the grades the severity of disease. The Hippocratic Oath goes by the wayside as ethics is redefined. Now we see where the Belgian government has ruled that children as young as 12 must constitutionally have access to physician-assisted suicide. This is little more than extending abortion rights through puberty.
The culture of death is here. It’s impacting many and its boundaries are continually being moved. This is a sad day for our friends in Canada and for those in our culture as well.