A few months back I asked the hard question to the church. The question was "If our church ceased to exist, would anyone outside of those on the membership rolls notice?" That's a pretty serious question for any church. Why is it such a big deal? It's the missional test. If the church is content with meeting for meeting's sake, for coming together for personal reasons or just because it's the thing to do, then we have missed a major reason for our existence. When we don't live out our reason for existence, we move from being a church to a club. You know what? God never set apart a club to be his ambassadors to the world. Christ didn't die for a club.
I'll be honest with you, not everyone gets this. Some are really struggling with the reality that the church does not exist for them, but for God. Sometimes, as we dig into the Word of God and the Truth of what it means to be a follower of Christ, we are shaken from what we have been taught all our lives. That makes it hard. We have difficultly admitting that maybe, just maybe, we haven't been seeing church as God would desire us. Our purpose here is not to bring attention to ourselves, glory to our works, or praise for our practices. We exist for one thing - the glory of God.
I think about the church all the time. Some would say I should because it's my job. That's not the reason. I think about the church all the time because I love the church. That may sound strange, but it's true. I think I'm in good company. Jesus loves the church, too. Anyway, because I think about the church, our mission, our role in this world and our relationship with God all the time, I am constantly seeking His will regarding what we are to do, how we are to live, and what our expressions of worship are to look like.
I am so proud of our student ministry, under the leadership of Ryan Rouse. He has been leading the students to answer the question regarding our existence. He has come up with a theme "Worship + Justice = An End to Poverty." I"ll be honest, at first I didn't understand what that meant. Then, over time, I have begun to get it. Our students are getting it and living it out. Larry gets it now, too. Watch the clip below for the full story.
It's sometimes difficult using words that find their way into "buzzword" status. When a phrase becomes a buzzword it seems to often lose effectiveness, if not meaning. The word "missional" is one that we have added to our lexicon over the past few years and believe it is a key element in how we are to be the church throughout our community and the world.
Let's start with a baseline definition of missional. "Missional is a way of living, not an affiliation or activity. To think and live missionally means seeing all life as a way to be engaged with the mission of God in the world." (McNeal, Missional Renaissance, Jossey-Bass, 2009) It's not so much a new way of doing church, but a movement back to the original foundations of how the church expresses itself.
Ed Stetzer and David Putman, in their book Breaking the Missional Code (Broadman & Holman, 2006) state that missional is a shift in thinking for the believer. It is a shift in the following areas:
from programs to processes
from demographics to discernment
from models to missions
from attractional to incarnational
from uniformity to diversity
from professional to passionate
from seating to sending
from decisions to disciples
from additional to exponential
from monuments to movements
I agree with each of these shifts and believe there are more. Sometimes making the shift to a new way of thinking is difficult, especially if you have been taught for decades a certain way of thinking. I bet it was very hard to believe the earth was round for those who had been told their entire lives it was flat. Good thing Columbus and others figured that one out for us.
It is often easier to explain the missional church by identifying what it is NOT.
The missional church is not a dispenser of religious goods and services or a place where people come for their weekly spiritual fix.
The missional church is not a place where mature Christians come to be fed and have their needs met.
The missional church is not a place where "professionals" are hired to do all the work of the church.
The missional church is not a place where the "professionals" teach the children and youth about God to the exclusion of parental responsibility.
The missional church is not a church with a "good missions program." The people are the missions program and this includes going to "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth" with the gospel.
The missional church is not about a new strategy for evangelism.
The missional church is not missional just because it is contemporary, young, hip, postmodern-sensitive, seeker-sensitive or even traditional. In fact, missional is not about style of worship at all.
The missional church is not about big programs and organizations designed to accomplish God's missionary purpose. This does not imply there will be no church programs or organizations. Rather, it reminds us that the programs and organizations exist to support the people on mission instead of driving the mission.
Missional is about life change. It's about the people of God seeing their lives as a mission. Being a missional church is more than being "mission-minded," though that is a good thing. Missional leads to action. It leads away from convenience and comfort to living out our faith. So many in our fellowship are living missionally now. Whether it be in one of our local elementary school ministries, a nursing home, coaching a youth sports team or something they're doing in their own neighborhood for others. We call these missional expressions and we desire to celebrate them.
That phrase "missional expression" is going to be used more and more at First Baptist. Missional expressions are the vehicle by which we as a church live out the vision and mission of God in our community and world.
In the near future our website (www.opfirst.org) will feature our church's missional expressions. The list of options truly is endless. Our desire is to create an environment where the people of God are free to live out these missional expression through their lives. All for the glory of God.
I think it was Dallas Willard that first brought the phrase "gospel of sin management" into the vocabulary, though many Christians have struggled with this for ages. I was faced with this belief again today as I talked with a friend, who happens to be a new believer.
He, like all of us, has a story. Because he came to Christ as an adult, there are many chapters in his "pre-Christian" story. Much of his past, by his own account, is embarrassing, shameful and sinful. I won't get into his particular issues, but I think we can all relate at some level here.
His biggest struggle now is Monday. Let me explain. When he's here at church on Sunday, sitting in the worship center, singing worship songs, praying with others and studying the Word of God with other believers, he feels safe. He feels strong. Then. . . Monday comes.
He shared that he goes back to work each Monday in an area surrounded by people who are living like he used to. The "lostness" of his co-workers is glaring and the temptations to fall back into previous sinful behaviors seems overwhelming at times.
I discovered today as we talked that he was so focused on past sin and potential future sin, that he was missing a key element of the Christian life - you know that joy and abundance and life that Christ offers.
A leading American pastor laments, "Why is today's church so weak? Why are we able to claim many conversions and enroll many church members but have less and less impact on our culture? Why are Christians indistinguishable from the world?"
Should we not at least consider the possibility that this poor result is not in spite of what we teach and how we teach, but precisely because of it? Might that not lead to our discerning why the power of Jesus and his gospel has been cut off from ordinary human existence, leaving it adrift from the flow of his eternal kind of life?
Once we understand the disconnection between the current message and ordinary life, the failures noted at least makes a certain sense. They should be expected. When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins. On the left, it is the removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a "gospel of sin management." Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living.
When you fall into the trap of "sin management" you slide quickly into a legalistic mindset that looks far too much like the New Testament Pharisaical way of life.
Don't get me wrong. Sin is sin. Call it what it is. Don't live your lives unaware or haphazardly. Be discerning and avoid temptation. Run from it. It's just that when all you see is the sin of your past or the potential sin of your future, you end up running blind.
Look at it this way. You're driving a car and a bug splats right in the middle of your front windshield. You can see it. It's right there in front of you. However, if you stop focusing on the road in front of you through the windshield and focus on the bug on the windshield, you will end up wrecking the car. That's how it is in life.
Now, you must recognize sin for what it is, absolutely. Repent of that and let God remove it (or in this case, spray the windshield with cleaner and turn on the wipers to remove the bug innards.) Then, keep your focus and move forward.
In life, that means keeping your focus on God Himself. He really is offering life, abundant and full.
If you focus on the sin, God is relegated to someone you call only when you blow it. When you focus on God and totally surrender to Him, you begin to see Him for who He really is and life is the result.
Has it really been one year? It seems surreal. It was one year ago today that one of the greatest tragedies and crimes in our community took place. I remember my wife getting a phone call from a volunteer at Grove Park Elementary School. My wife is a substitute teacher there. They were trying to get in touch with the Assistant Principal of the school. It seemed that one of the Grove Park students never made it home.
You know the rest of the story. The news crews announced that a little girl who was walking home from school never made it home and foul play was being considered. The Clay County Sheriff's Office and Orange Park Police Department were alerted. The community came out in droves. A group of us from the church met in the front foyer that evening for prayer and then took our flashlights and began combing the area with the hundreds of neighbors.
The following day the search intensified as FBI and other agencies joined the search. Texas Equusearch was called in to assist. Men and women from Naval Air Station - Jacksonville volunteered to add manpower to the search. Hundreds continued to systematically search the wooded areas and homes in the Orange Park area.
We all had one thing in mind - find Somer Renee' Thompson.
Our prayers went up for Somer and her mother Diena, as well as her siblings and other family members. Prayer vigils were organized. The news crews were so good to get information out to the community. The Sheriff's office welcomed tips and searchers. Then, the news came that deflated the hopes of our community. Somer's body had been found.
Why would I bring all this up today? Isn't this hard for Diena and family? Of course it is. Diena has even said that "Mondays are the worst day of the week for her." Yet, we must not forget what happened one year ago. Somer's name has become synonymous with child-safety and protection. Diena has been a strong icon for many and has continually shared how she desires to become an advocate for missing children and a help for family members. Diena's faith has grown and God has given her strength through this journey and will continue to do so.
I was honored to be asked by the family to preach at Somer's funeral service. The opportunity to offer hope at such a difficult time is daunting, and yet Christ is that hope. We continue to pray for the family and that God will bring peace.
The Orange Park community, especially the Grove Park and surrounding neighborhoods, has unified in the past year for the sake of safety and our children. There are Neighborhood Watch signs everywhere. Neighbors know each other now. People look out for each other's children. We all watch our kids a little closer and all of us treasure each day a little more, I think.
While these things will never bring Somer back, my prayer is that a renewed sense of community and family and a heightened awareness will prevent a tragedy, such as this, from every occurring again. That's why Somer's "Stop Sign" stickers and purple ribbons can still be seen throughout the community. That and a desire that justice come for her in the case that is pending trial.
Today, Tuesday - October 19, there will be a gathering of neighbors and friends in our community at Orange Park Junior High School. Bobby Ingram and the guys from Molly Hatchet will be singing their tribute song in memory of Somer - "Fly On Wings of Angels" with help from folks from UNF, OPHS and First Baptist. This memorial vigil will begin at 6pm and then, we will walk together, unified, through the neighborhood to Diena's home for a closing word. Everyone is welcome to attend.
What does it mean to be a real man? We work through the definition in our Men's Church and other meetings. We have a definition of what it means to be real.
R- reject passivity
E - expect the greater reward
A - accept responsibility
L - lead courageously (Thanks to Robert Lewis and Men's Fraternity for the clear definition.)
I was talking to one of our men today in preparation for the junior high boys' mentoring program we're involved in. This Friday we are discussing the issue of temptation. I shared that when dealing with temptation, this is when a real man runs away.
It seems strange to use that phraseology, but it's true. As a man, I often want to take on the challenges of life and run full bore into the battle. However, there are some things that, as a real man, it is best for me to run away.
Do you struggle with any secret sins or consistent temptations? Let me rephrase that "I know you struggle with some sort of secret sin or constant temptation." I believe we all do. We tend to categorize sin. I think that is to make us feel better. We put serious sins in one category and little ones in another. The truth is that in God's eyes, and I know you've heard this, a sin is a sin.
OK, so here's the deal. We all face temptation. By the way, to be tempted is not a sin. How do you respond when temptation comes. I face temptation. There are a few areas, one especially, that I know is a weak spot in my armor. I know when the Enemy will tempt me in this area. I know how he's going to do it. I know the lies that he says. I know all this. But. . .you know what? I still find myself at times falling.
Yep, alert the media - I still blow it!
The frustrating thing is I know I'm blowing it. I know the strategies the Enemy uses, yet I sometimes walk right into his trap. You may be just like me.
So, what's a man to do? RUN!
There are areas in each of our lives where bowing up and jumping in is just not the smart, or right thing to do.
Here's a good example. Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers is an MVP candidate this season. He is one of the major reasons the Rangers are preparing to play in the American League Championship Series. With all the negative things we hear about professional athletes nowadays, Hamilton is a breath of fresh air. Oh, don't get me wrong. Hamilton is far from perfect. He would tell you that. Yet, as a Christian, he is a transformed man. He is a child of God. . .with weaknesses. He story is exciting now, but a few years ago, it was anything but. He was considered a bust as a baseball player. This was not because he didn't have talent. It was because he was continually falling into problems with his drug and alcohol addiction.
He came to know Christ and his life was changed forever. He's married and has children and is playing a game for a living. What could be better? However, he knows where his weaknesses are.
Back in 2009 photos hit the internet showing Hamilton drunk and partying with a couple of ladies in a bar. Neither of the women was his wife. This was another athlete in scandal. He had been very vocal about his faith and his recovery, and yet here were the pictures showing him in very compromising positions. Hamilton didn't deny the photos were of him. In fact, according to reports he had immediately confessed this indiscretion to his wife and to the Rangers organization. It was months later the pictures hit the web. Yet, he still needed to comment. Here's what he said:
"I'm embarrassed about it. For the Rangers, I'm embarrassed about it. For my wife, my kids," Hamilton said. "It's one of those things that just reinforces about alcohol. Unfortunately, it happened. It just reinforces to me that if I'm out there getting ready for a season and taking my focus off the most important thing in my recovery, which is my relationship with Christ, it's amazing how those things creep back in.
"Honestly, I hate that this happened. But it is what it is. You deal with it. I realized that, obviously, I'm not perfect, in this ongoing struggle, battle, that is very real. A lot of people don't understand how real it is.
"As soon as it happened, I called my support system -- my wife, the Rangers, and told them what had happened. I was absolutely open and honest about it.
"I went to get something to eat. Obviously, I eat at restaurants that have bars in them all the time. I wasn't mentally fit to go in there, spiritually fit, and it just crossed my mind, 'Can I have a drink?' Obviously, I can't."
He owned up to it. He wasn't proud of his sin, but there was no excusing it. Repentance and forgiveness are the healing elements. Consequently, there was no story anymore.
So, here we are a year later. The Rangers have clinched the AL West and the celebration is going to begin. How do professional sports teams celebrate these types of victories? With champagne, of course. So, how's Josh going to deal with this?
(From MLBFanhouse.com) Josh Hamilton, whose bouts with alcohol and drug abuse nearly ruined his career, avoided the Texas Rangers' locker room celebration -- and the beer and champagne showers that followed -- as the team celebrated its first Western Division title in more than a decade.
Instead, Hamilton opted to speak at church not far from where the Rangers were playing in Oakland on Saturday.
Some teammates wanted to pour bottles of water on Hamilton and he told the newspaper several days ago that he thought about wearing goggles along with a wetsuit and or raincoat to avoid making contact with the alcohol.
"I'm excited and what happened yesterday as far as the guys celebrating in here, that's part of it,"Hamilton told ESPNDallas.com on Sunday. "It's not for me. I'm not saying that I wouldn't have liked to have been in here with them. I just felt like it was in my best interest if I didn't participate. But it's amazing that it just so happened to work out that we clinched the same day they are having Faith Day and I'm speaking out there."
That is a real man. A man who knows his weaknesses. He knows who he is and who he is not. He decides the only thing he can do is to not put himself in the situation where the temptation will overpower him. As the Bible says, God always provides a way out.
This is true for all of us. Whether your temptation is alcohol or drugs like Hamilton's or maybe the most prevalent temptation among Christian men - pornography, or maybe something else like gluttony, gossip, greed, etc. Joseph is our example from Scripture. When Potiphar's wife was tempting him sexually, he did not go to her and "play with fire" thinking he could handle it. He ran away. He was still accused, but he knew and God knew that he had done nothing wrong.
Integrity - "without wax" - that's what God is calling from men and women today.
Back to Hamilton. Last night the Rangers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. It was time for another celebration. What was Hamilton to do? This actually made Yahoo! News today.
Left out of the party when the club clinched the American League West title in late September, Hamilton on Tuesday night dashed into the visitors’ clubhouse and into a torrent of ginger ale after the Rangers beat theTampa Bay Rays in the AL division series.
“The guys really doused me good,” he said later, having slipped out of the clubhouse when the ginger ale ran dry. “They gave me a lot of hugs and congratulations.”
He smiled and raised a green plastic bottle of soda. He’d pushed a pair of ski goggles to the top of his forehead.
“You know,” he said, “this stuff burns your eyes just like that other stuff does.”
Hamilton’s life and baseball career were nearly ruined by years of drug and alcohol abuse. Still fighting that fight, Hamilton led the Rangers to their first AL West title in 11 years, won the AL batting title and is a leading MVP candidate.
Yet when they laughed and sprayed each other with champagne after clinching the division in Oakland, Hamilton stayed dry and sober in the trainer’s room. His teammates brought him along this time, laying in wait, armed with Canada Dry bottles, and together they carried on for 10 minutes after their 5-1 victory at Tropicana Field.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “It just says a lot about my teammates, them understanding the sensitivity of my situation.”
Not far away, in the hallway outside the clubhouse, Hamilton’s wife, Katie, and various friends, including his pastor from North Carolina, beamed.
“I think that’s precious,” Katie said. “It’s so wonderful that they’re sensitive to him.”
Hamilton wore a broad smile as he passed team president Nolan Ryan.
“Nolan!” he shouted, and held aloft his bottle. “Ginger ale!”
“Hey,” he answered. “Nice going!”
A couple of last thoughts. Run from temptation. It's the only way to win. Also, it's good to have a band of brothers who understand where you're weak so they can watch out for you. That's what the Rangers teammates did for Hamilton with the Ginger Ale.
As many of you know from my Tweets and recent conversations, I've been reading David Platt's book Radical. Platt is the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham. He became pastor of Brooks Hils a few years ago at a very difficult time for the church. The church was struggling with issues related to their previous pastor and like any church without a shepherd, challenges and difficulties arose. When David Platt was named pastor I was surprised. I had never heard of Platt, but that was not what surprised me. There are many great leaders and pastors I have never heard of. What surprised me was his age. He was not yet thirty, I believe, and was called to lead this Deep South megachurch.
Apparently, he was a little surprised as well as he states in the first chapter of his book.
One of our former staff members here at Orange Park was serving on staff at Brook Hills during this time, so I kept up (as much as you can keep up by just checking out the church website every now and then.) I was curious to see how Brook Hills would move forward under Platt's leadership.
It's been a few years and it seems that a new identity for what it means to be the church has landed in Birmingham. I am impressed with Platt's candor and all that he shares in his book. Understand, I have never met Platt, nor have I ever talked with him. My understanding is based solely on his writings and what Brook Hills is promoting via their website and other venues. From this perspective, it seems that Platt is leading Brook Hills and others back to the basics of biblical Christianity. That has been needed for years.
The subtitle of Platt's book is "Taking back your faith from the American Dream." That subject resonated with me when I first read it. I wasn't sure exactly where he would go with this concept, but after reading the majority of the book (I'm reading it slowly - highlighting and thinking deeply about the concepts) it is clear that David is able to say things clearly that have been in my mind for years.
What is being taken to task is "American-made" Christianity. It's not an issue with the faith of our fathers or the Great Awakenings of the past. The sad reality is that most Christians in America today are clueless when it comes to church history and the sacrifices made so that we have the freedoms to worship as we do. Revisionist historians love removing any semblance of Christianity from our nation's history. Yet, even deeper than that are the stories of individual men and women who loved Jesus Christ so deeply to sacrifice everything for Him.
Those stories are powerful, yet. . .often forgotten.
Platt makes his case that the American Dream that we have been sold is totally at odds with the gospel of Christ. This causes a crisis of belief for many American Christians. It's difficult to separate these two.
"The American Dream" first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931 has become a national ethos in which freedom includes a promise of prosperity and success. In a recent Town Hall meeting with President Barack Obama a woman asked him if the way America is today (relating to the economy and the reality that jobs are not as prevalent as in the past) was her "new reality."
Similarly, a 30-year-old law graduate, having trouble paying interest on his student loans and still looking for a job, expressed this, "Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and the message that you brought, and that inspiration is dying away. It feels like the American dream is not attainable to a lot of us. Is the American dream dead for me?" President Obama answered with optimism, but the point I'm making here is not political and has nothing to do with the current state of the economy or your political leanings.
The point is that deeply seeded in the hearts of many Americans is the concept that the "American dream" is a right and must be attainable.
That quote continues to run through my mind.
The problem for Christians is when you try to balance the American Dream with the gospel. Platt says this "We desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is biblical." Platt is not saying, nor am I that being American is a bad thing. Make sure you read this - I am proud to be an American. I am grateful for those who have gone before so that I may experience the freedoms that I do. I would desire to call no other place on this planet home. I have to say those things clearly, once again, because some are reading what I'm saying and immediately think "He's unAmerican." How wrong and totally misguided.
The gospel is not about accumulating more "stuff" for me. It's about total surrender. It's about abandonment. It's not about adding Jesus to my list of interests or just clicking the "Like" button on the Facebook page for God (which, I'm pretty sure God did not create.)
As I have been studying through the book of James and preaching these messages on Sunday mornings, I am finding that I am standing centered in a place of total discomfort. Why? Because I am rediscovering daily that to claim Christ means a total surrender of all that I desire. I don't want to stand before God at the end of my life here on earth and hear him say "You missed the point in so many areas."
A good friend of mine used to share this leadership axiom with me. . ."The narrower the place you stand, the broader your influence." This pastor was not advocating a belief system akin to the Pharisees that Jesus and the early church dealt with, but a lifestyle that showed an understanding of biblical doctrine and what Christianity is truly about.
Our culture is growing increasingly pluralistic. This means that more and more people believe that no one religion or religious experience holds sole and specific truth. Some call this tolerance. That's why many Christians, Baptists and evangelicals especially are called intolerant. What makes us intolerant? The fact that we believe there is only one way available to have a personal relationship with God and that is through Jesus Christ.
A pluralistic worldview accepts every religious experience as valid truth. It doesn't matter if you're Christian, Muslim, Buddist, Hindu or any other religion. It's all good, in this worldview. You may have heard that "All religions lead to the same place. They just take different avenues to get there." Sadly, many believers (i.e. Christians) have bought into this lie.
So, where is this narrow place? The narrow place is upon the Word of God. Yes, I'm an inerrantist. I believe the Bible is completely true, from beginning to end. I believe it is God-breathed and and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16.)
What is happening in our culture is a confusion of all things spiritual. Al Mohler is being lambasted for stating that one who practices Yoga is practicing religion outside of Christianity. The article was presented by the AP and Yahoo! News picked it up, so consequently, all types of responses are coming at Al for this statement. Some are frustrated that it seems another Baptist is just blasting something else in culture as wrong. I believe it goes much deeper than that. It's a study on what Christianity truly is.
Mohler has stated that his email inbox is filling up fast today. Many who are challenging him are claiming to be Christians and even Southern Baptists. Yet, if you read Mohler's response to those addressing him, it becomes pretty clear that he said nothing about participating in stretching exercises, but was focusing on the spiritual aspects of yoga, which are inherently Hindu in nature. I like what Mohler states here. . .
I have heard from a myriad of Christians who insist that their practice of yoga involves absolutely no meditation, no spiritual direction, no inward concentration, and no thought element. Well, if so, you are simply not practicing yoga. You may be twisting yourselves into pretzels or grasshoppers, but if there is no meditation or direction of consciousness, you are not practicing yoga, you are simply performing a physical exercise. Don't call it yoga.Click here for Mohler's full response.
I posted the story on Facebook and received quite a few responses. I knew it would cause some "Likes" and dislikes. Begs the question - what makes something Christian?
Maybe that leads to an even better question, can someTHING be Christian? Or, can only people be Christian?
We live in a very spiritual culture. We are definitely not in an era where spirituality lacks. Just look at the spiritual book section at Barnes & Noble.
What about that narrow place?
Just this week a Mormon teenager in one of my son's classes was asked to share what Mormon's believe on a day when world religions were covered briefly. He stated, "We believe just like Baptists except that we believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three individuals, not one." At least my son recognized that this was not accurate. The teacher didn't allow for debate. That would have been interesting.
This is just one example. It's all over the place. Ever hear this one - "Christians and Muslims worship the same god, they just call him different names?" Really? Not quite.
Buddhists seek for inner peace. Sounds good. I've even heard Christians use this phrase. Not biblical. Why? Because there is no such thing as inner peace. The only peace we are offered comes from without - from Christ. Without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through a relationship with Christ, there is no peace. You've seen the cheesy bumper sticker "No God, No Peace. Know God, Know Peace." Well, that one's true.
So, where are you standing? Upon the truths of the Word of God? That's the only solid footing.
The sad truth is that many Christians have blended modern pop-psychology and a mixture of other religious terminology and "feel-good" religion into their personal belief system. They may call it Christian, but it's anything but.
Standing on a narrow place does not make you a legalist. That's a fear many have. "Well, I don't want to be a legalist." I understand that. Legalism is a killer. Standing on the teachings of the Word of God gives you a narrow platform, but a solid one and therefore allows you a broader influence in this world. Why do you want an broader influence? So that you will be equipped to fulfill the Great Commission and Great Commandment.
You will then see people as Jesus does. You can then love people as Jesus does. Really. It's possible. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. . .and love your neighbor as yourself. Solid footing gives you strength to do this.
Back when I was in high school I met a girl named Jill. Jill was one of our managers for the basketball team and very involved in many school activities and clubs. I shared a couple of classes with her and over time we became good friends. It was never a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, just a true friendship. Like most people, we graduated from high school and went on to college. I think I saw her once or twice in the three or four years since graduation. Then, we lost touch.
With the advent of social networking and Facebook, I reconnected with Jill. I was curious as to what she was doing in life. I knew she was a believer in Christ back in high school, so I felt a kinship to her as Christians always do. I was excited to hear that she was married and had children. Jill and her husband John love the Lord and serve Him in various ministries. I believe John is a chaplain to the Texas Rangers (the baseball team, not the Chuck Norris group.) As I reconnected with Jill, I discovered that God had led her and John to adopt some children.
Here's how she describes herself on her blog: I am the homeschooling wife of John, mom to Alex, 14; Luke, 14; Song, 12; Vera, 11; Anna, 10; Emma, 9; Ella, 5; and Dean, 5. I have children born in the USA, Russia, China, Canada, and Colombia, three born to me, five adopted, and three with Down Syndrome. I love my Lord, my husband, my babies, our families, and Texas. I think homeschooling is fun and scary and worthwhile. I love to read and quilt (or at least, I did at one point when I had time!) and enjoy my husband's landscaping and I still love drinking Diet Coke.
Pretty overwhelming, to say the least. I joked with her that TLC will probably want to do a television show about her group. She declined interest in that.
Earlier this week Jill posted an article titled "The 'r' word - not pulling punches today." I was curious as to what the subject of this posting would be. Many times she shares about her family's journey together and information regarding adoption, especially from overseas. This time the subject was a little different.
Have you ever been at that point where you just can't take it anymore? I think maybe Jill heard the "r" word again and had had her fill. So, what's the "r" word. Let me share what Jill wrote:
What is the "r" word, you ask? I don't know that I even need to define it because you'll know just what I mean if I use it in a quote or two:
"I can't believe I did that! I am such a retard!!"
"You are so retarded! Why do you have to act like such an idiot!"
I grew up knowing exactly what people meant when they used the "r" word: you are acting as badly as a person with mental retardation.
Guess what is the leading cause of mental retardation? Down syndrome.
Using our keen powers of syllogistic logic we can then say that if someone does something really stupid then it's appropriate among most people (even well-educated people I know) to compare them to a person with Down syndrome. If someone does something really stupid, it's appropriate to say that they are acting like Emma. Or Vera. Or Ella. Only a person with Down syndrome would do something that stupid.
I hear this a lot--the quotes above are verbatim. So to those people, and others like them, I have one final comment, adapted from a much harsher statement:
You are not retarded. You are a thoughtless jerk. My daughters are retarded and they would never do that.
Do you get her point? I surely do. You know what? I agree with her. You may be saying that words don't really matter, but they do.
In Scripture there are numerous references to caring for children, orphans, and the needy. Jesus uses the phrase "the least of these" and I know that meant more than just children, but developmentally disabled men and women, I believe fall into this category.
So often society shoves these people aside. I believe in our culture it was worse in the past, but still, there is work to be done.
The question for today is "How does the church deal with (probably not the best term there) the developmentally disabled?"
I have a good friend in ministry, in fact he was a mentor of mine years ago, who is the father of a severely autistic son. This brother who has served as pastor in local churches for years shared his frustration with how the church (as a whole) responds to the developmentally challenged. His quote was "I honestly live in fear that we are all going to get to heaven and Christ is going to say, 'You guys totally blew that local church thing.'" Yet, there is hope. The hope is understanding that the "local church thing" is not up to us. It is about Christ living through us.
If you attend our church you know that every Sunday we have a large group of developmentally disabled young adults in our worship service. They sit in the front few rows to my left facing the congregation. Some are more challenged than others. Some are in wheelchairs and are severely disabled. Others are high functioning. You may have noticed that one gentleman named Michael comes forward at the close of the service each weekend. He is asking for prayer for numerous things. I pray with him every Sunday. Sometimes we pray that the Jaguars will win (apparently, we need to pray harder each week,) sometimes we pray about his friends, his parents, his group home sponsors, he own attitudes, his church, etc. Does Michael understand that we're praying to God for these very special needs. Absolutely. He understands that God cares about him and what he cares about. I love praying with Michael.
There are others in our group. You may know some of them. Jody is a long time member and friend to many. Jody has a vibrant imagination. He loves Elvis and Buddy Holly. Sometimes he comes up and says "Hey, I'm Elvis." I used to play along like many of you do and say "Hello, Elvis." I then talked to his folks about this one day and realized that in therapy they were working to help Jody realize that he was Jody, who just liked to pretend he was Elvis. So, now I say "No, you're Jody and I like Jody, but it's fun to pretend you're Elvis, isn't it?" However, he does tell me that I'm Buddy Holly sometimes. It's fun.
A number of years ago John, Jody's father asked me to come by their house and talk to Jody. Jody wanted to become a Christian. He wanted to be baptized. There was concern that he truly understand the Gospel. John and Linda, Jody's parents, love the Lord deeply and love their son. I was honored to be able to talk to them and him about this. I talked with Jody and at that moment he wasn't pretending to be Elvis, Buddy Holly, Batman, Spider-man or anyone else. He was Jody and wanted to know Jesus. We prayed together that night and Jody surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. It was a proud day when we were able to baptize Jody later that month. Remember, the Bible teaches that we need to come to Christ with a child-like faith. Sometimes, I think we make it harder than it is.
I am so proud that we have a fellowship here that does not view the developmentally disabled as a distraction or a left-over group, but a vibrant, faithful group of men, women and children that have been entrusted to our care. Being the church is about fulfilling the Great Commission and going out to share Christ with everyone in the world. It's also about fulfilling the Great Commandment - loving the Lord fully and our neighbors as ourselves. Oh yeah, we don't get to pick our neighbors. God does that.
One of the catalysts for moving to more ministry with the developmentally disabled has been the ministry of John and Linda Cone and BASCA. This ministry that provides services and programs and wonderfully staffed group homes in our community is incredible. The summer camps are incredible and the required buddy system blesses not only the campers, but the buddies as well. John and Linda founded this ministry years ago and God has truly blessed them and they (the entire ministry) is a blessing to us and others.
Is there more to be done? Sure. There always is and will be. We must make sure that we always see people as people. To see people as God does. That is the calling. This moves the emphasis off of ourselves.
The church must also continue to discover ways to ministry to families of the developmentally disabled. I can't tell you what it's like to raise a child with Down Syndrome or who may cerebral palsy or autism or any other disabling issue. I do know, however, that we have a responsibility, as a church, to these families.
Today's sermon was. . .well. . .a little different. At least it was to me. In reading through James, I am being reminded as well as being confronted with the very real truth that often we (i.e. Christians including me) often say one thing and do the opposite. Today, I shared from the first part of James 2. While there are numerous directions a sermon could go from this passage, God led me down a path that focused on something that has been a problem since the beginning of time. This problem has been defined as racism, prejudice, and classism among other things.
Do you remember the children's song that many were taught in Sunday School years ago called "Jesus Loves the Little Children"? The lyrics are:
Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Nice song. I remember learning this years ago. Then, about 25 years ago I heard an updated version that added the word "brown" right after the word "black." I guess there was a group missing. The point was the same - Jesus loves all the little children of the world, regardless of skin tone.
The thing is, He loves the adults too. I remember Pastor Raleigh Washington speaking years ago at a Promise Keepers rally. Pastor Washington is African-American and he referred to those in attendance who were Caucasian as "brothers of the lighter hue." Nice term. Emphasis was on "brothers."
James is pretty clear in chapter two that any type of segregation or divide within the fellowship of believers is against God's desire and leads to a life of sinfulness. It's a challenging subject to deal with. The "haves and have nots" have always been and always will be a part of society (until Christ returns that is.)
Is racial prejudice still a problem in our nation? Yes. To the degree it was generations ago? I certainly hope not.
One of the biggest black eyes on our history as Americans is slavery. This divisive issue resulted in a war between the states and divisions among Christian brothers and sisters. There is no justifiable reason for Christians to advocate one person owning another (There's no reason for non-believers either, but for Christians especially.) As Southern Baptists, I believe we are best positioned to cooperatively reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, our history has some dark spots on it as well. In 1995 my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to adopt a resolution on racial reconciliation. Some questioned whether this resolution was really necessary. The argument is that the apology for supporting slavery is a thing of the past and those affected and involved in the creation of our denomination have been long dead.
Still others asserted that until, as a group, we publicly stated that our (Southern Baptists as a whole) historical stance and acceptance of the concept of slavery was wrong, we could never move forward in truly seeking to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ with a global mission to reach every person on the planet with the Gospel of Christ.
I was talking to one of our church members today about this. She wanted to share a story with me following this morning's message. It seems that one of her ancestors was a Baptist pastor and his stance was that slavery was biblical. She even found years later in his belongings a booklet printed by Baptists asserting the biblical justifications for holding slaves. I asked her if she still had this booklet, because I want to read it. She said she would look for it. Our discussion was not one supporting this concept, but one of disbelief that Christians could espouse the legitimacy of racial division, especially the practice of slave holding. By the way, I do realize that there were slaves in biblical times and do see how verses could be taken, in my opinion out of context or historical understanding, to justify slavery, but the overarching biblical teaching is the value and worth of an individual, made in the image of God.
Back to the resolution by the SBC. This resolution came at the 150th meeting of the Convention and is listed below:
WHEREAS, Since its founding in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention has been an effective instrument of God in missions, evangelism, and social ministry; and WHEREAS, The Scriptures teach that Eve is the mother of all living (Genesis 3:20), and that God shows no partiality, but in every nation whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by him (Acts 10:34-35), and that God has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth (Acts 17:26); and WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forebears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; and WHEREAS, Racism has led to discrimination, oppression, injustice, and violence, both in the Civil War and throughout the history of our nation; and WHEREAS, Racism has divided the body of Christ and Southern Baptists in particular, and separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters; and WHEREAS, Many of our congregations have intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership; and WHEREAS, Racism profoundly distorts our understanding of Christian morality, leading some Southern Baptists to believe that racial prejudice and discrimination are compatible with the Gospel; and WHEREAS, Jesus performed the ministry of reconciliation to restore sinners to a right relationship with the Heavenly Father, and to establish right relations among all human beings, especially within the family of faith. Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Sesquicentennial meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, assembled in Atlanta, Georgia, June 20-22, 1995, unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we affirm the Bible's teaching that every human life is sacred, and is of equal and immeasurable worth, made in God's image, regardless of race or ethnicity (Genesis 1:27), and that, with respect to salvation through Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for (we) are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and Be it further RESOLVED, That we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake; and Be it further RESOLVED, That we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry; and Be it further RESOLVED, That we commit ourselves to be doers of the Word (James 1:22) by pursuing racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:6), to the end that our light would so shine before others, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16); and Be it finally RESOLVED, That we pledge our commitment to the Great Commission task of making disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19), confessing that in the church God is calling together one people from every tribe and nation (Revelation 5:9), and proclaiming that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is the only certain and sufficient ground upon which redeemed persons will stand together in restored family union as joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
As I shared from James 2 (the audio will be posted Monday) I realize the illustration given in chapter two was not race related. The illustration given that explained the church should never show partiality nor favoritism was economically based. I truly believe, even though there are still racial divides in our nation, that the primary divide we are facing as the American church is the economic divide. There have always been those who have had more than others. I get that. That, in fact, is not the point. The point is when a church, either intentionally or unintentionally, shows partiality to those with deeper pockets than those who either are barely making it financially or may be struggling deeply.
Our church's building is physically located in an area of Orange Park that is very diverse. We have people living in half a million dollar homes and residences where the families would fall under the national poverty line. The vast majority are somewhere between. The racial background is all over the place: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, Caribbean, Hispanic, European, etc. Our community, though as I stated this morning is predominantly comprised of people "of the lighter hue," the reality is that numerous racial and cultural backgrounds exist "in a stone's throw" from where our church members live.
This posting is not meant to be negative or a slam against the church. It is, conversely, meant to remind us and awaken us to the fact that within the Body of Christ there is no excuse nor place for racism, classism, prejudice, partiality or favoritism.
In the words of David Platt "Every saved person this side of heaven owes the gospel to every lost person this side of hell. We owe Christ to the world - to the least person and to the greatest person, to the richest person and to the poorest person, to the best person and to the worst person." (Radical, Multnomah Books 2010)
What does this mean for us? For you? For me?
For many in the church, hearing of people who go overseas to serve as missionaries to people groups with totally different cultures, skin tones and languages seems incredible. It seems like a calling for a special type of person. I understand that. I believe missionaries have an incredibly high calling. However, we must begin to understand that this love for sharing Christ with others is rooted in the understanding that at our core, when you strip away those things that culturally divide us, we are all on level ground. We all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23). We all need a Savior and that salvation is offered freely to everyone.