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Posts from November 2019

When Jesus Said "No, You Cannot Come With Me."

This morning I met with our students at the local junior high to lead our weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting. We have a great group of seventh and eighth graders. Some are athletes, others are not. It's an FCA meeting, but students do not have to be athletes to attend. Truthfully, they don't have to be Christians either. In fact, they don't even have to want to fellowship. Nevertheless, we meet. After our welcome, and the weekly stuffing of our faces with Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts, we enter into our weekly study.

Today, I shared a story that has been a "go to" one for these meetings at different times over the years. It's intriguing, but familiar to most who have been in church. For those who have never been to church, it's a bit shocking - often resulting with "That's in the Bible?" questions.

The Naked Man in the Cemetery

The story is one found in three of the gospel accounts. In some places, it's referenced as one demon-possessed man found living in the cemetery. In another, it's two men. It's not contradictory. Read why here.

Graves-tombstone-grave-cemetery-headstones-death

The story gets the attention of the students...well...because it's about a naked man who lives in a cemetery. That's crazy! Right? That's what the people in the nearby town thought. 

The passage I read this morning was from Luke's gospel - Luke 8:26-39. Click here for the verses.

A Summary

We don't have a long time together on Thursday mornings before school starts, so I shared the story quickly. These students always listen and interact well, but this time they were really drawn in to the strange story. Here is a brief summary:

  • Jesus and his disciples get on a boat on the west side of the Sea of Galilee
  • They begin their journey to the east side of the Sea.
  • A storm comes up. Jesus calms it.
  • They arrive on the west shore. 
  • The disciples stay in the boat. Jesus gets out.
  • There's a naked man in the cemetery on that shore.
  • The naked man comes to Jesus, because the demons inside him know him. 
  • The demons speak, questioning why Jesus was there. They were afraid.
  • They ask if he would just send them into the herd of pigs nearby, rather than cast them into the abyss (apparently, they know how the Bible ends.)
  • Jesus obliges and they enter the pigs.
  • The pigs then run off the cliff and die.
  • The herdsmen aren't happy. They're scared.
  • They run into town and tell the townspeople.
  • The townspeople come to the cemetery and see Jesus sitting with the formerly naked man (now clothed) and everything ... seems ... normal. This is shocking!
  • The townspeople (Gentiles, by the way) are afraid and ask Jesus to leave.
  • Apparently, the disciples are still in the boat.
  • The healed, formerly naked demon-possessed man comes to Jesus and asks to go with Jesus.
  • Jesus says, "No."

The man is instructed to go back to his people and tell them what Jesus had done. 

Shocking Moments

I asked the students what shocked them the most about the story. 

Of course, as is the case every single time I tell this, they were upset that the pigs had to die. 

Yep. Every time.

They thought it was unfair because the pig herders had lost their pigs. Seemed like a harsh thing. They asked "Why did Jesus kill the pigs?"

Interesting, because Jesus didn't kill the pigs, but just as many of us do, when things happen that seem unfair, we often blame God for the hardship.

Then, there's the naked man. That part was weird. How did Jesus know he was there? Why would a good Jewish rabbi go to an unclean land of the Gentiles, be near unclean animals (pigs) and hang out in an unclean cemetery? There's much here. 

Notice, that as far as we can tell, the good Jewish disciples didn't even get out of the boat. They weren't ready for this, but Jesus was preparing them. I wonder if Peter thought of this moment when he had the vision prior to meeting with Cornelius?

We talked about how this crazy, naked, demon-possessed man was not liked by the townspeople. He scared them. Likely, he angered them as well. Why? Because if he's in the cemetery, no one can come and pay respects to their dearly departed. There's no leaving flowers or spending time there to honor the dead. It was too risky.

But now everything has changed. 

Jesus shows up. Heals the man. Transforms him. He's a brand new man!

Rejection?

This is what shocked us most. This man, likely not wanted by his people, desired to go with Jesus. He asked. He was ready to get into the boat and become one of the inner crowd. 

Then, Jesus says "No."

What? This is the total opposite of every invitation at youth camp, revivals, and church services I have gone to most of my life. The pastor or evangelist always says "Jesus loves you. Come to him. He will never leave you. Come on down that aisle and make a decision to abandon everything for the sake of Christ." The message has been "Come see. Walk with Christ. Stay with him. He won't reject you." Then, there's this story.

It seems so out of place, out of character, and just wrong.

Jesus said "No!"

Of course, he gave him more instructions. He said: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."

In other words, Jesus said "No, you can't come with me. You cannot get in the boat with the disciples. You need to go into the town. Go home to the people who have been afraid and embarrassed of you for years. Go back to those who made fun of you, avoided you, warned their children to stay away from you. Go back to a people who are from your own culture...but, don't really like you. Oh, and when you do, be sure to tell them all that I, a Jewish rabbi, Son of God, from the other side of the sea has done for you." (That's my paraphrase and definitely can be corrected.)

Oh. Okay.

Then Jesus got in his boat with the disciples and made their way back across the water, never to come to this place again, as far as we know.

It's a strange story, to say the least.

A mission movement in this Gentile region began, to come to fruition when Paul arrived years later. An unnamed man who formerly was possessed with a legion of demons was healed, transformed, and rescued. His seminary training lasted just the time it took for the herdsmen to get out of the region, go into town and bring all the residents back with them. He's then commissioned, ordained, and sent out as a missionary. 

And Jesus said "No." 

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Photo credit: duncan on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

What's the Point?

There is much to learn here. Some things I have thought of after reading this over and over, and by sharing it once more with a group of teenagers. These are just some of the points I believe are transferable to our lives...

  • Not all followers of Jesus are at a point of accepting all other followers of Jesus, but eventually will be the longer they walk with him (I'm thinking of the disciples who apparently never exited the boat.)
  • Sometimes we can miss the point by being distracted by other things going on around the main focus (i.e. worried about the dead pigs rather than focusing on the demon-possessed man.)
  • Fear can trump faith. The townspeople were so frightened, they just asked Jesus to leave, rather than celebrate that their friend/relative/fellow townsperson was healed.
  • Following Christ fully mat not look like what we desire (the man wanted to get in the boat, not be left in the cemetery.)
  • Our personal testimonies, or stories of rescue by Christ are not about us, but ultimately about him. This is why we don't know the name of the one who seems by many to be the main character (the man in the cemetery.) Why? Because he's not the main character. Jesus is. He is in our stories as well.
  • A "no" may hurt, but when God says "no" there is always a bigger "yes" behind it. Jesus saying "no" to the man was not a rejection, but an invitation. The "yes" was that many would come to Christ, or at least be open to hearing about Christ. The man, just like you and me, was not privy to all that would occur. Thankfully, he was obedient and remained. Oh, and as an aside, I don't think the disciples were quite ready to take this Gentile into their boat yet.

I love this story. I have heard it so many times throughout my life, but the more I look into it, the more I see. Students love talking about it. It's strange. It has so many odd elements in it - pigs, Jesus, naked man, cemetery, demons, angry business owners, a boat, etc.

We also talked about how so many of us can relate to the rescued man...and maybe sometimes to the disciples in the boat who just aren't ready to like others who are different...yet. 

It was a great morning.

I am, however, very cognizant that some of our junior high students may have gone home today and told their parents "Hey, we talked about a naked man at FCA today," and not explain any more than that. I'm waiting for the phone calls and emails. 


Hey Christian - Your Faith Is Showing (Expressing the Fruit of the Spirit Online)

Social media and a networked online presence for people is here to stay. This new instant media world has impacted much. Conversations are often conducted with misspelled and abbreviated words through texts, political statements and movements are no longer relegated to door-to-door "evangelistic" programs or even whisper campaigns in elevators. Verification of news authenticity is suffering due to the fact that information is shared immediately. When wrong information is shared, it's often not retracted. If retracted, it's rarely noticed. 

For the Christian, social media and an online presence can be a wonderful way to proclaim the gospel. However, it can also be a trap easily ensnaring the believer with deeply held convictions, leaving them searching for online echo chambers where community complaints can be affirmed.

For all the great potential (and no doubt, great and godly things have occurred through online conversations and communication) of an online presence for the glory of God, so too is the great opportunity to do harm.

Even those seeking to do right sometimes find that a tweet or post needs to be deleted (I'm guilty of that.) 

As I read through the Gospel of Matthew, I pause at this statement by Jesus...

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. - Matthew 12:33 (ESV)

Well...amen! Right? I know this is true. You know this is true. I'm no tree-ologist, but I know that if a tree is good is should produce good fruit. Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit comes from bad trees.

Bowl-with-variation-of-healthy-fruit

When it comes to good fruit, I'm drawn to what the Holy Spirit led Paul to write regarding the fruit of the Spirit (obviously good fruit.)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

Social Media and the Fruit of the Spirit

One thing that social media has done is allow Christians (pastors, too) to have connections with church members and fellow believers. This is good, sometimes. At other times, it is grievous. Why? Because we see Christians posting, sharing, and opining on things in such a way that is little more than cringe-worthy (not to mention ungodly and harmful.)

Shocker! 

This has been true for all time, but especially in our current culture. Whether it's political divides, anger over chicken restaurants, promoted boycotts, generational divides, or even sports rivalries, it seems that some have revealed what we always have known to be true (but would rather not see confirmed.) Some see their Christianity reserved for the hour on Sunday morning, revealing little of the transformed, redeemed, authentic life of a Christ follower during the rest of the week, either in person or online.

What if we actually believed what Christ stated?

What if our actions were to reveal our faith?

It's not a works theology, but a faith that leads to godliness.

Before you tweet, post, share, or comment, consider the following:

LOVE - Is what you're about to post reveal the agape, unconditional, grace-filled, love of God? This is not a culturally defined love that affirms sin, but a biblical love that begins with the "Come and see..." rather than an attack or declaration of how much you dislike someone or something.

JOY - Is what you share something the can bring joy, even a smile to the face of one who reads it? Yes, it can be funny. It can be a meme. It's not a sin to laugh. Of course, it should not be laughter at the expense of others. Can the reading of your post be used to bring a sense of contentment in others?

PEACE - Are you posting things that divide or unite? Demean or lift up? "Blessed are the peacemakers" is what Jesus said. That's online, too.

PATIENCE - Be slow to speak, slow to tweet, slow to post, slow to comment. 

KINDNESS - Is your post mean? Do you use demeaning terms to describe an image-bearer of God who happens to disagree with you, represent the "other" political party, live a lifestyle you cannot affirm? You don't have to agree with everyone to be kind to and about them.

GOODNESS - Do your words encourage others to live like Christ? He is good. Our words should be too.

FAITHFULNESS - Are your words simply religious clichés? Seriously, just leave the "Let go and let God" phrases go and post things that are true, right, and revealing of your faithfulness in Christ. The clichés may not be wrong, but they're still clichés. So, are your postings designed to point people to Christ or to you?

GENTLENESS - Comment threads are not the place to declare one's frustration with everyone else. I'm a member of a few community pages on Facebook and rarely are there things shared there that are gentle and edifying. However, if I wish to read how some people cannot stand others who dare drive worse they they do, don't put their trash cans up on the correct day, or even dare to move into their neighborhood, I have plenty to read. Rare is the gentle word. Perhaps there is an issue to confront, but likely it's not best to do so online. 

SELF-CONTROL - And this is perhaps the biggest one. Before you post, tweet, respond, or comment ask yourself this question "Should I actually say this?" Based on the other fruit of the Spirit, does this need to be stated here, now, and in this way? Or...is it better to pray first, seek God's lead and maybe...just maybe...the wise thing to do is leave that post left unposted.

Hey Christian, Your Faith Is Showing

Your likes, posts, tweets, and comments reveal who you are. As followers of Christ, this means our online persona as well as our face-to-face interactions. This is not easy. It never has been. It's just that with the online realities of the day, our walk with the Lord has a bigger audience than ever.

You may not grow the kingdom of God online, but you certainly can hinder its growth. Be wise. Be fruitful. Produce good fruit.


Striving to Care Well in Our Church (And Not Allow the Emphasis to Be Another Program)

It seems that every day another Christian leader, church leader, former pastor, and Christian entertainer has succumbed to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo focus. While some just wish we could talk about something else, those who have been victimized sexually in the past by spiritual leaders are thankful that we are finally talking about it. Hopefully, we are doing more than talk.

Southern Baptists naively though the sex abuse issues in the church were primarily "Catholic issues" in the past. The sexual deviancy by some Catholic priests that became news fodder a number of years ago was thought to be a result from poor theology (from an evangelical perspective) and the requirement of singleness and celibacy among the priesthood. 

Then, when reporters Sarah Smith (now with the Houston Chronicle) and Nichole Manna produced the poignant articles under the title "Spirit of Fear" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram focusing on sexual abuse stories primarily in Independent Baptist churches (including one in my county) many Southern Baptists just shook their collective heads declaring it was due to lack of accountability and legalism that permeates in many independent churches.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

The old saying about chickens coming home to roost refers to the fact that unconfessed and unrepentant sins committed in the past will come back to haunt oneself. The truth will be laid bare and will no longer be avoidable. 

That's what has happened in some of the churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. What could not happen here, has happened here. Thanks (and I do mean thanks) to an exposé titled "Abuse of Faith" by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco of the Houston Chronicle published in February 2019, the heretofore not talked about, or even acknowledged, has become a leading topic among pastors, church members, and denominational entities.

Caring well
David Tarkington is seated next to Debbie Vasquez (abused & impregnated by her pastor as a teen) at the Caring Well Conference in Dallas. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina, met with denominational leaders and other pastors while declaring that steps must be taken to acknowledge the sin, hold churches and pastors accountable, and primarily offer help and healing to victims and survivors, while seeking justice for perpetrators. 

From the outside looking in, the concept seems simple, but in reality the functionality of such a move has proven very difficult. This is primarily due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches and the lack of power denominational leaders have. Yet, with that being said, the truth is being revealed that their are right steps to be taken that do work, are working, and offer help and hope in this area. As has been stated by many, we hold to our churches having autonomy, but cannot hide behind that when it comes to doctrinal, legal, and moral issues such as clergy abuse and church compliance.

Caring Well

In just a short amount of time, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and LifeWay produced curriculum, video training, and even held a national conference (the annual ERLC Conference in Dallas shifted its focus to the abuse issue this year) to ensure this issue of response and healing was a front-burner issue for SBC churches. 

Much good has been done, but nonetheless for some, it will not be enough.

While I do not have impact on large-scale denominational policies or practices (other than voting as a messenger at the annual meetings and serving on our state's Board of Missions) I do have impact on the church God has called me to pastor. Like many SBC churches, we have an overabundance of curriculum and program options. We have a closet at the church where we store dozens of video series, workbooks, and other resources. To be honest, I'm just about done with the latest "fix in a box" that's available for purchase. That's why at first, I was a bit skeptical of the Caring Well curriculum and training videos. Yet, I knew we must not ignore this reality and if nothing else, this material may be used to push us forward to be a church that will not ignore abuse issues, nor pretend that our own church's sad history could not happen again (READ MORE HERE).

I shared with our church membership that we would be forming a Caring Well team. This team would include some of the pastors on staff, some age-group leaders, members of the church with counseling backgrounds, some with law enforcement experience, those who have served victims of abuse, and others who may choose to serve. In just a few meetings, we found ourselves with a team much larger than I anticipated. Nevertheless, we have the team God has put together not to protect the brand of our local church, but to ensure we glorify Him and provide hope and healing for those in our church and community who have suffered from abuse by spiritual leaders and those of power. 

Some even felt free to share their own stories of suffering. For at least one, it was the first time her story of survival had been shared publicly. Suddenly, we knew that the statistics do not lie. There are women and men in our church family who have been carrying a burden for years. They don't relish their experience, but being survivors of sexual abuse and discovering they are not alone, or to blame, has moved them to a place where we believe God will bring full healing. This is no formulaic process. It's not cookie-cutter, easy-to-do stuff. As each week goes by, I hear more. I'm heartbroken. I'm grieved. And with each new revelation on social media or the news of another church leader's sin being exposed, I see more who are triggered and brought back to their own moments of trauma.

Our Caring Well team is new. We're still working to figure out what to do. We have some plans in place, but more to be done. We see the primary mission of the church to be proclamation of the gospel. We desire the lost to be saved. We want to see the broken healed. We want to ensure that the Enemy no longer has a foothold in Christ's church, using those with titles, callings, and positions of power to inflict (sometimes eternal) damage on those in the flock. 

Therefore, our Caring Well emphasis must never become another curriculum in the closet. It will not be all we do, but it must be a part of who we are. Our church, every church campus and sister church in our network, must not only declare to care well, but actually care well. That is our our calling.

I asked some of our Caring Well team members to share why they're serving. I am encouraged by these responses (just a sampling, not all responses received):

When you explained what Caring Well Ministry entails, I immediately felt a pull or drawing toward this ministry.  While serving on church staff as the Preschool Director and in another church as Children’s Director, neither church “cared well” for the ones hurting. Situations were quickly swept away and quietly dealt with leaving the innocent feeling betrayed. So my short and brief statement is; I want to care well!  I want hurting individuals to feel safe and know they WILL BE CARED FOR.

 

Victims of abuse deserve to be heard, have their allegations investigated in an objective manner and see the perpetrators brought to justice.  I want to serve to help make sure we minimize the opportunities for abuse to occur, make sure we protect and minister to those who are the victims of abuse and see that they get the justice they deserve. 

 

The best way to care well is to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A child who is abused anywhere, but especially at church, may be so harmed spiritually that they never come to know Christ. We have to do everything in our power to protect them, so they have that opportunity.

 

I have always had a heart for children whether my own, coaching kids sports, working with 4th through 6th graders at church or my grandchildren. Children are undeniably God's gift to us. As I study our Caring Well Handbook and watch the videos and pray, I think this is beyond me and I won't be able to help much, but I know I can do something.

 

I fought hard for many years for victims and survivors of child abuse and assault, and even though it has been quite some time since I have been active in the system, I have never lost my desire to help or my empathy for the individuals whose lives most certainly have been hugely impacted by their experiences.  When the Caring Well information was mentioned I knew immediately that if possible I wanted to be a part to minister in whatever way God leads to provide understanding, empathy, compassion, friendship and a listening heart and ear. 

 

I am a survivor.  By God's grace, as a child I had the protective factors available to help me cope even though I didn't disclose my abuse to my parents.  I was fortunate in ways that so many others are not, and with that comes a sense of duty to help ensure that anyone suffering from abuse will have access to whatever resources are needed to cope, survive, and thrive.  

More News Stories = More Victims

Sadly, stories of sexual sin revelations continue. Whether it's the potential calling of a pastor who almost twenty years ago victimized young girls in his youth group, a spiritual leader who downplayed a victims accusation to protect an image, or a Christian entertainer whose private sexual escapades and propositions with young single and married women shocked the fans who just wanted some clean entertainment, the truth is clear.

It is not the fault of unbiblical ecclesiology, poor interpretations of theology, suggestive clothing worn by naive (or not so naive) teenagers, or loneliness due to marital stress. 

The fool blames those things for his/her sinful actions. The enemy says "It's their fault. You deserve this. You're a leader. You have needs." and more. 

To the victim, we seek to care well and pray for your healing.

To the victimizer, we seek justice upon you and pray for your healing as well. 

It remains a gospel issue, and therefore something we must do as the local body. The gates of hell will not prevail against God's church. That is so true and we must remember that. However, we must also remember that does not mean local bodies, led poorly, that abandon the fullness of the gospel will continue to exist. Some shouldn't.

 

File this under "Things they didn't teach me at seminary."