When the President Asks You to Pray…

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect any policy or position of any other institution, affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

When the President Asks You to Pray

I consider myself to be a pretty blessed human being. Beyond countless personal blessings (family, children, career, etc.), I’ve had the privilege to see and experience a lot of things.

I attended the college of my dreams. I own a conference football championship ring from that college. I saw the Sid Bream Slide in game 7 of the NLCS in 1992. I once had lunch with theologian Jurgen Moltmann. I met Jack Ham and John Smoltz. I hosted a sports talk show on ESPN radio. I ran the bases at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in the same summer. I stood on a mountain in Maine, where we were the first people in America to see the sun rise.

(My apologies for the sports “tint” in my life moments—perhaps a lesson in priorities is warranted?).

But few things will match the events of May 7, 2017.

Back in May, we decided to take a spontaneous trip to Plains, GA to see our former President and First Lady, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Mr. Carter teaches a Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. It is open to the public, if you arrive in time (which means at least by 7 am).

We got to the church about 7:15 on the morning of May 7, thinking that we could not be that late. As it turns out, the parking attendant gave us #71, which designated our place in line. As we lined up to go into the church, our place was a long, loooong way from the door. We worried that 15 minutes might actually cost us a chance to be in the room with the President.

The organizer of these pregame festivities at Maranatha is Miss Jan. She makes it absolutely clear that she is in charge, making sure everyone is single file and behaving themselves with appropriate fourth-grade courtesy and etiquette.

This makes perfect sense—after all, she was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher.

Miss Jan’s role is absolutely essential, as the church tries to fit 350 people into the sanctuary each Sunday. On the Sunday before we attended, Maranatha had 28 members present and 235 visitors. Secret Service agents and bomb dogs are now a part of their pre-worship preparations. And they embrace this as their mission, as they willingly and cheerfully extend hospitality to all those who want to enter and hear. That, in and of itself, is a powerful testimony to the hospitality of Christ.

(Unless you cannot behave—in which case you will answer to Miss Jan).

As we reached the door, the church looked awfully crowded and we felt sure we were headed for the small overflow room to watch on a screen. But Miss Jan’s husband (who also serves as parking lot attendant, door monitor, and usher) said, “How about sitting in the choir loft?”

We were thrilled—a seat right behind Jimmy Carter!

Promptly at 10, we looked to our left to see that former President Jimmy Carter was in the room.

I have never even been in the room with a former or current President, much less met one. It was overwhelming to see Jimmy Carter, standing about 10 feet away from us. After all, how many Presidents (or any other politician) would invite you into the room when it does not involve a $1000 a plate dinner or some golden opportunity for positive publicity?

But it all of that was nothing compared to what happened next.

Mr. Carter’s first move was to scan the sections and ask people where they were from. It was amazing to hear people from as far away as China or Ghana, some of whom came to hear Mr. Carter’s lesson.

He followed this by asking if there were any pastors or missionaries, current or former, in the crowd. I raised my hand along with about 12 others. He then asked where we had served and our denomination.

Just as Miss Jan told us he would, Mr. Carter proceeded to seek out a pastor to lead the Morning Prayer. His first comment was, “I normally like to ask one of our women pastors to pray, but I don’t think we have any here this morning.” I was totally impressed with the former President’s first thought (as was my wife and feminist-leaning teenage daughter).

What happened next was absolutely unforgettable. Mr. Carter looked at me, in the choir loft, and said, “How about you? Would you lead our prayer this morning?”

I doubt that anyone will know the awe that filled me at that moment, other than the unfortunate person who had to dry-clean the khakis I was wearing.

It’s hard to describe my emotions when a former President looks at you and says, “How about you, son? You got something for the class today?”

I have performed this ritual a thousand times. But no prayer request ever left me tongue-tied and knot-kneed like this one. When the former President calls on you, it definitely gets your attention more than your run-of-the-mill blessing prior to the family Thanksgiving meal.

My knees almost buckled and my internal organs felt like they were shaking as I stood up. This was going to be a truly Spirit-led prayer because I had absolutely no words. It took me a good five seconds to gather myself and produce something audible–like, you know, “Let us pray.”

Lots of people kindly told me that I did a good job (although I regularly wonder what it means to do a “good job” with a prayer). I’m glad I did–because to this day, I do not remember a word I said!

This was not just because it was a former President making the request. It was awesome because it was this former President making the request.

My father is fond of saying that Jimmy Carter is the only man to use the Presidency of the United States as a stepping-stone to greatness. It is indeed this greatness that he displays after his term in the White House that made it such an honor to lead a prayer at his request.

I am as in awe of the former President’s spirituality, humility, empathy, and fight for justice, much more than his political career.Mr. Carter’s greatness is not found in his legacy as a former leader of the free world. It is found in his ongoing work as a servant leader in the current world.

Rather than using his post-political status to seek fame or fortune or million-dollar speaking fees, Jimmy Carter returned to the family farm in tiny Plains. He left the White House to start building houses–with Habitat for Humanity.

The same man who managed to get Israel and Egypt—Israel and Egypt—to sit down and negotiate a peace treaty, continues to negotiate for peace and freedom around the world. He invites others to join in this quest through the work of The Carter Center and other initiatives.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter continue as world-wide crusaders for peace, for anti-human trafficking initiatives, for fair housing, for mental health, and for equitable treatment of all human beings. I say “crusaders” because they back up their advocacy with direct action–and they call on others to join them in those efforts.

And still, on the vast majority of Sundays, they are at their tiny country church that is nestled in a grove of pecan trees, where the former President welcome a full house for Sunday School. They even take the time to snap a picture with every family or group that attends—provided that you stay for worship, of course.

(He did indicate that the hour-long post-worship photo sessions may not be their favorite thing to do these days!).

Oh, and he continues to do all of this, even as a 92 year old cancer survivor.

Mr. Carter’s unassuming, down-to-earth presence and My daughter Abbie’s assessment of the Carters was as simple and sincere as they are: “We could all learn a lot from them about humility.”

Thank God that Jimmy Carter chooses not to dwell on how history will judge his presidency, but on how he can work for a better future for all of humanity.

May we all recognize that our greatness is not found in how history judges us when the world is watching, but in what we do when no one is looking.

May we all learn to serve with gracious humility and empathy, thinking of others more highly than ourselves.

And wouldn’t it be nice if more of our leaders–on every level–would do the same? Better yet, perhaps we could all learn to lead in the way that the Carters do, with a little less talk and a lot more action.

The Closing of a Food Pantry

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

My parents raised my sister and me with some pretty clear and definitive values.

You don’t drink. You don’t use tobacco. You use manners. Maintain a well-defined list of what is and is not appropriate for public conversation.

You treat people with dignity and respect, regardless of race or creed or socioeconomic status–and even if people around you do not treat others in this manner.

You go to church on Sunday morning. And Wednesday night. And Sunday night (and no matter how hard I fought to stay home and finish the late afternoon NFL game, we went anyway). And you go EVERY night on revival weeks or any other special church occasion.

But of all the things that my parents passed along to us that really “stuck”, the value of serving others is at the top of the list. It was engrained into us, most significantly in my father’s work with the Eastside Baptist Center in Greenville, SC.

This value first took root in 1976-77, when Rev. T. Spencer LeGrand Sr. took over as pastor of East Park Baptist Church. Along with some supporting church members, he began to distribute food to the needy in the downtown community.

Pretty soon after these humble beginnings, the trickle of textile mill closings became a flood. By 1987, the needs had become far too much for one pastor and one church. Edwards Road Baptist and the Greenville Baptist Association stepped up to create a coalition, headed by my father, which now forms the Eastside Baptist Center.

The work of the Center is truly an ecumenical enterprise, involving Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches of all types and stripes, as well as interested individuals who just want to serve. That’s no small feat in this region of the South, where we are not always known for our spirit of ecumenical cooperation. It has continued to make its home at East Park—until now.

On May 31, the Center will close its doors for the final time. As East Park moves to merge with a sister congregation, Eastside Center is losing its home. My father, at 81 years old, does not have the desire to move to a new location (although I think he still has the energy).

Many people are stunned when I tell them that my father at “that age” still leads such a ministry. Many also say, “How sad!” when I tell them that this portion of his ministry is coming to a close. I will certainly miss hearing him say over the phone, “Well, I need to get to bed so I can get and go get food in the morning!”

There is much despair these days about the end of ministries, or churches, or church buildings. The inevitable, initial reaction by Christians when one of these institutions comes to an end is, “How sad!”

But I do not see this as sad. In the words of a 90s pop song, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” While my father’s work in this realm ends, his legacy of serving is still at the beginning.

It is a flawed assumption that statistical data is the primary measure of the success of a religious organization. The assumption goes like this: “Bad” ministries or churches die and fade away. The good ones last longer. They grow larger. They produce big numbers to show for their efforts—either in money, facilities, branches, well-known ministers, people, etc.

To many, the “Numbers Game” is the only one in town; and no matter how often we say it isn’t that important, we act as if it is ALL-important. That’s why we mistakenly assume that the ending of a ministry is “Sad”.

While numbers should be ONE measure of a church’s work, they cannot be THE measure.

In a day and age when most churches are actually closing at a somewhat alarming rate, I put forth that we assess the legacy of a ministry rather than its numerical “success”. This is a very relevant time for us to understand that a powerful legacy can long outlive an institution, in both years and in effectiveness.

No one is cheering the closing of churches or the ending of ministries. But the fact is that things change. Communities change. Culture changes. People change. Sometimes the need once met by that church or ministry changes, and its purpose draws to a close.

We also have to be faithful enough to believe that the end of one ministry can lead to the beginning of something new. If ministries understand the vitality of legacy, then there will be workers prepared to pour themselves into something else that is equally vital.

I doubt that those involved at Eastside Center will suddenly stop doing ministry because it is closed. My dad certainly won’t stop. He’ll keep working at his church, Pelham Road Baptist (one of the major supporters of the Center). Or he’ll add to his Meals on Wheels route. Or maybe work in some other food ministry. Maybe he’ll even share his experience with others who share his passion to feed the hungry.

When he started the food ministry at East Park, there were fewer opportunities to follow that passion. Not many food pantries existed in the Greenville area. Of all the things about my father that make me proud, the fact that the city has plenty of ministries to meet emergency needs ranks near the top. These pantries work with organizations that provide many other services to the community.

I believe my father and East Park were both major sparks for the ministries of compassionate service that exist in the city. This compassion is growing well beyond food pantries, towards more in-depth ministries that strive to address the deeper issues of poverty.

And if I may add a personal note: His example is what led me to do what I do, in helping students understand the meaning of service and the essential battle for social justice. All of his children and grandchildren are involved in some type of service to others. This is not to mention the hundreds of volunteers and donors and fellow churches and ordained ministers that benefit from his example.

There are the thousands upon thousands of people who had enough to eat because of the Center’s work. But it was never about that. It was about answering a powerful call to be the hands and feet of Christ to those who were taking the hardest hits that life could dish out. It was about doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, on a path that God had opened for him.

Honestly, I don’t think that my father ever had the choice to not do this. The call on his heart is just too powerful. He serves because this is who he is—and he imparts that into the people that he encounters. This is what it means to leave a legacy.

Yeah, sure, I’m expressing some personal pride here in what my father has done. Yet, I believe that the principles still apply. It is not about striving to make sure that a ministry or a church or a religious institution continues to exist. It is about passing on the compassion and purpose and desire to serve that brought such organizations into existence in the first place.

Yes, I am extremely proud of my father has done to this point in his life. But I am much more excited to see what good can come from those who choose to learn from his legacy of serving, a legacy that he continues to build.

That’s not something that goes away when a building falls or an organization dissolves. That is a legacy for eternity.

As we consider what good we are doing for Christ and one another, let us consider the legacy that we are instilling into the lives of others. Facilitating and spreading the spiritual call of a ministry is a much more critical focus than simply trying to maintain its physical existence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charleston: A Painful Call to Change the Conversation

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

It’s time for a conversation. Not more talk, but a conversation.

There is a massive gap between these two related items. “Talk” is plentiful and abundant. It is the stuff of comment sections and social media and message boards. It is about convincing others of how right I am and how wrong they are. It often deteriorates into bitterness and rage.

While talk is something we do at each other, conversation is something we engage with each other. Listening is critical to a conversation, perhaps more so than talking. It allows us to get to know the other, to engage and gather more information about the other’s point of view rather than just trumpeting our own.

It’s well beyond time that we have this conversation around the issue of race. And it is time for the church to take a leading role in it. When I use the term “church” here, I am talking about the individuals who make up the Body of Christ as well as the institution.

Several issues keep us from even getting to the starting line for this conversation. Even churches and pastors who desire to engage the difficult topic of racism are crippled because they do not know where to begin. Then there is the issue of creating space for a balanced conversation. Church is still a largely segregated entity, so how do we create a starting point that includes a variety of perspectives?

As a minister and a teacher, I have to confess my own sin here. I have avoided numerous opportunities to have, lead, or create these essential conversations. This sometimes came from fear of offending others, or losing friends, or even losing my job. But more often than not, I just could not find the starting line, and was unsure of how to create one.

In reflecting on the events in Charleston over the last week, I am still not sure where to start. But it is clear that we are well past the time of need for it, and we have to find the starting line as soon as possible.

This is a chance to shift the narrative, and to engage issues that we have long avoided. The shooting at Emanuel AME Church, and certainly the church’s response to it, can provide us with a starting point for a new conversation.

While the magnificent show of solidarity on the Ravenel Bridge also helps to create the starting line, much more preparation needs to begin before we truly begin to move in a deeper and more meaningful direction. It is a long race, and we can do several things to help us get off to a good start.

We can begin this preparation by dropping the “We vs. They” language. In regard to race issues, I too often hear people refer to “they” and “those people” and “their kind.” Worst of all is this sentence: “Well I don’t have any problem with black people, but those are just n——.”

And yes, the actual term is used.

The problem is that the call to discipleship is the call to look at what I/we need to do, not what you/they need to do. How can I, as a white person, speak to what any black person should think or feel or do when I have rarely had any meaningful conversation on the issue of race with a black person?

Christ calls us to fellowship and unity that allows us to know Him—and ourselves—much better by understanding others. The conversation cannot start by saying what “those people” should be doing. Why not begin by creating space to better understand and empathize with “those people,” because they are first and foremost God’s people?

At the same time, we would do well to drop our “What about them?” mentality when we get to the starting line. Have you ever tried to walk or run or drive a car while looking sideways? You usually do not get very far with that technique.

We cannot begin this journey by looking sideways. Pointing out the flaws of others is accusation, not conversation. This is a long and difficult path that requires us to look directly at ourselves. We cannot relieve our own responsibility by trying to point out the racism that we see in someone else.

Finally, we must begin this journey with a posture of confession. Racism is real, racism exists, and that includes churches and Christians. I have personally witnessed it. We cannot be a prophetic voice on the issue by denying it.

I have also witnessed many Christians and churches that are willing to take on this issue. This began when people started a listening conversation that led to dialogue, and dialogue that led to thoughtful and well-designed action.

It is easy for us to sit back and say that this is “not the time” to have a discussion about race or flags or social justice. I fear that is the same attitude that will keep us away from the starting line of a meaningful conversation. This is the perfect time to have those conversations, as a path to better understanding those who live a far different experience than I have ever endured.

The Christian world cannot avoid these hard conversations in the name of peace and unity among believers. What kind of “unity” have we achieved if it comes at the expense of taking on the challenges of our society? Can we claim any type of prophetic voice in the world if we avoid the hard conversations for the sake of ourselves?

If peace must come at the expense of sober judgment that can create change in our own collective life together, then we lose the ability to be a voice for goodness and justice anywhere else.

Let us begin a conversation that forces us to look more deeply at the root of the problem—and lead us to confess and repent when we find those roots growing around our own hearts.

With that in mind, I welcome your responses: Comments, emails, phone calls etc. But I ask you to keep in mind the parameters that I suggest as we engage.

 

 

Poverty, the Church, and the Posture of Self-righteous Defensiveness

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

The Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty seems to have ruffled a few feathers in, of all places, Southern Baptist life. The response to the Summit and its subject matter are not getting nearly enough attention.

First, a Baptist professor took issue with speakers, including President Barack Obama, using the term “the least of these” from Matthew 25. (Please note:  This is evidence that knowing the technicalities does not mean you understand the full application of a passage in the Bible).

Following that, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Director Dr. Frank Page fired off a response to the President’s remarks regarding churches and poverty. In a somewhat painful experience, I went to the podcast of Tony Perkins (Family Research Council) in order to hear his interview with Dr. Page about the President’s remarks. One word came to mind as I listened:  Defensive. I would even make the case that it was extremely defensive.

This may be an overview and perhaps an overstatement, but churches and denominations lately are taking an aggressive, near-angry defensive posture in regard to criticism. Perhaps this is justified, and even understandable. The talk of church decline and Pew Reports and the glut of “open letters” from Millenials is bound to cause churches to get the gloves up and counterpunch.

Unfortunately, this approach is also dangerous, pushing the limits of our discipleship in Christ. It lends credibility to the criticism. A defensive posture also leads to notoriously bad interpretations of scripture. Worse yet, it can lead us to enclose ourselves in forts of self-righteous, self-satisfied indignation.

And we cannot afford to do that. Especially when it comes to the issue of poverty.

In his interview, Page states that, “We have 46,000 (Southern Baptist) churches…I’m sure there are some churches that are not involved, but I would guess to say that at least 40,000 of our churches all have some community based ministry to help hurting people.”

Although he is “guess-timating” rather than citing hard data, I have little doubt that his assessment is accurate. The vast majority of churches are giving money, food and/or volunteer hours to relieve physical suffering. Most churches are doing something to help.

The truth is that churches really do make a difference in reducing poverty in a wide variety of ways. This includes Baptist ministries such as Disaster Relief/Baptist Men, World Hunger Offerings, etc. It should also be noted that Dr. Page’s last pastorate was at a church with significant community-based ministries.

But the flip side of that truth is that we still spend 96% of our budgets on buildings, staff, programming, etc. Let’s look at that percentage with our eyes wide open:  The majority of this is probably not directed towards poverty in any way. And we need to own the reality of what we are choosing not to do as ardently as we own the good things we do.

Here’s the thing:  A posture of defense trumpets that we are doing something, while preventing us from asking whether or not we are doing something well. A band aid and a kiss from mom are great when you skin your knee, but don’t help much with a broken leg. I fear that our church “solutions” to poverty amount to little more than the band aid and a kiss.

For too many churches, benevolence is a part of the church budget and maybe even the programming. But is it an overwhelming factor in who we are and what we do? Is the response to community poverty and needs a key component in our planning, practice, education, and discipleship?

Dig a little into the mentality of some (many?) churches, and you are sure to find some people who do not think the poor should be a priority at all. Why? Because they are all a bunch of “freeloaders” who are just looking to get by without doing anything!

Here’s the scary part:  These members may be right, at least in part. Churches often encounter these so-called “freeloaders.” What the members do not comprehend is why.

This segment of poverty will target churches. They know what time to come in order to catch people and pastors off-guard. They know that members will give them food or money if they arrive right before or after services. They know what story to tell, and they know how to tell it.

Why? Because they know that churches are compassionate, but not prepared. They have not invested in the training, staffing, and ministries required to know how to effectively serve “the least of these” in our population—and yes, I am unapologetic in my belief that this is a Biblical use of that term.

Compassion is an absolutely necessary mandate from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. But how much more effective is compassion combined with preparation? Commitment? Investment?

What if churches would…

Invest in social workers and mental health counselors as staff? 

…Partner with local schools (private or PUBLIC) to improve education opportunities for poor children? 

Empower the poor by putting them into meaningful relationship with well-prepared members?

…Pursue policies to encourage welcoming poor or homeless people into worship?

…Design discipleship and Bible study around acts of serving others?

 …Repurpose little-used space in church buildings for the needs of the poor and homeless?

 …Engage with organizations or individuals who are trained to deal with the problems of addiction?

…Bond with community partners and other churches (and even other denominations) to expand resources and opportunities to serve?

Yeah, I would say that there are a few more things we could do.

It is not to say that any of this would be easy. Addressing a problem as broad as poverty takes a huge culture change and commitment on the part of the church that will stretch hearts, minds and resources. But if we are serious about moving from alleviation to eradication of poverty, then we need some honest assessment and reflection on what we are doing.

Expending our energy on angry, defensive rebukes for our critics and waving our pom-poms will not help us move forward in addressing poverty. Whether or not the President has the right to offer it, you can bet that his critique reflects a certain degree of both perception and reality. A posture of self-righteous defensiveness will not help us to overcome either one.

Instead, we would be wise to look ourselves with a helpful dose of “sober judgment.” At least we will be sincerely searching for a cure, rather than continuing to offer band aids for broken legs.

Let’s keep doing the good that we have been doing, while not being afraid to acknowledge that we can–and should–strive to do better. Quite simply, that is the journey of discipleship.

The Selective Defense of “Cast the First Stone”

Views here are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent any views, official or otherwise, of my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. If you don’t like what is said, contact me, not anyone else!

I have watched “19 Kids and Counting” exactly one time. And then, it was still “18 Kids and Counting.” I never in my life thought that I would stop a blog about the finale of Mad Men to write about the Duggar family.

I cannot speak intelligently about them, outside of what I have read/seen/heard. But it does not take much information to be disturbed by the recent events related to Josh Duggar.

Josh stepped down from his position at the Family Research Council due to a confession that he sexually abused young girls during his teenage years. This prompted a wide-spread reaction, with some racing to their laptops to point out the Duggars’ indiscretions.

Then, out came the evangelical bloggers and politicians to offer a defense. And a certain segment of evangelical Christianity proved once again that it will defend its superstars at all costs and cover the trail of damages they leave behind.

First, several rushed to point out that Duggar’s offense was no worse than Lena Dunham’s confession. There is some significant debate on what Dunham’s words and actions actually mean, but there is a much greater issue at hand. Lena Dunham does not hold herself up as a paragon of ultra-conservative Christian virtue and values. Josh Duggar and his family do. Attention-getting, shock-seeking Dunham and the professed values of the Duggars and the Family Research Council are neither comparable nor compatible. It should come as no surprise that reactions to them are distinct.

Equally ridiculous is the notion from one commentator that teenage sexual activity is comparable to criminal sexual conduct or molestation. Again, this is an apple-to-oranges comparison that has nothing to do with Duggar or his family’s management of the allegations. Worse yet, this naively absurd notion gives credence to accusations that Christians just don’t “get it” when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Then, these bloggers tried to use the Gold Standard of Christian Defenses:  The media is out to get these good people because of their faith.

Sorry, not interested. The family has used the media to its advantage for years to promote itself and its values, and benefitted by earning millions of dollars on their television show. You can’t revel in the attention one minute, then whine and cry about it when it goes against you. In fairness, the Duggars are not doing the whining—Matt Walsh is.

Finally, the bloggers went to the old “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mantra for their primary line of defense. Certainly this is a valid passage here, and in many other situations. Christians use it all the time—when it’s convenient for them.

It would be comical, were it not so sad, that we pull that verse out of a holster to fire back in defense of one of “our kind.” But when it’s one of “those people,” we keep it buttoned up, maybe even pretending the verse doesn’t exist. And it’s very conveniently ignored, along with many other verses, if we have a chance to derail our enemies.

Walsh proves to be a master at this in his blog on the Duggars. He comes hard with the Cast the First Stone Defense, all while he is loading up his slingshot. Therein lies the problem.

We cannot selectively apply John 8:7 to Josh Duggar if we are not going to follow through with such grace towards others. We cannot scream for equity in judgment against one who is being stoned by hurling rocks at another whom we deem more worthy of blame. Changing the target does not make a stoning any more Christ-like.

If we are going to draw on this one verse, we also have to look at the entirety of the passage, John 8:2-11. We see that Jesus does not attack anyone or light into a fiery sermon about the evils of any of the parties involved. Nor does He berate a woman who has clearly broken a commandment, one that He upholds in several instances. He simply asks some questions that cause everyone to look deep inside their own heart and determine how they need to be better. We could all stand a good dose of this medicine.

Let us also recognize that Jesus did not offer grace and forgiveness because this woman is appropriately remorseful. While we can infer that she is, it is not clearly stated. Jesus calls on us to love and forgive even those who do not ask in what we deem to be the “right way,” including those counted as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is not to excuse the actions of Josh Duggar and the Duggar family for the myriad of problematic ways that they handled this situation. If the timeline is accurate, then I would estimate that they badly mishandled this, and glossing over that as Matt Walsh does, along with others, is disingenuous.

(In fact, changing that might have rendered this entire issue moot. I hope that we can all draw lessons on how to approach abuse situations in the future, based on these mistakes).

It also does not mean that we brush aside the issues that contributed to cause this uproar:  Handling abuse “in house” by churches and families, shunning psychology and therapy, defending evangelical heros at all costs, and focusing on the accused more than on victims. (Elizabeth Esther offers a much more candid treatment of these issues here).

These things must change if we are truly going to follow Jesus’ teachings in John 8. He is teaching us to look honestly at ourselves, examine our own sins, and seek ways to go and sin no more. This starts when stop seeking out other targets for our rocks and look intently to the Christ who cleanses our own hearts.

I actually agree wholeheartedly with some of Walsh’s points on this issue. We do need the unimaginable grace of Jesus Christ, all of us. We are all sinners, far from perfect, and in need of the power of the Cross to overcome even our most hidden sins.

But we do that by dealing directly with our own sins, rather than attempting to justify ourselves by shouting “He started it!” and turning the stones on someone else. We start this process by claiming our baggage and carrying our own rocks rather than tossing them at others. And by the grace of Christ, we can leave it all at the foot of the Cross.

I hope that those demanding an end to the stoning of Josh Duggar will remember John 8:7 when referring to others. I hope they will remember it when considering the thousands of other teenage offenders who are in prison for offense that are no more egregious than this. I hope they will recall this when thinking of all those who are poor, sick, in prison or standing outside of the walls of Christianity.

I hope they will offer the same graciousness they request on behalf of the Duggars to those who are not “their kind” of people. May we all do likewise. And may we learn to stop defending the indefensible and instead confront it with the grace of Christ, both in others and certainly in ourselves.

LEFT BEHIND: That moment when you realize most people just aren’t that into you…

I have 1,177 friends on Facebook. Well, at least I did the last time that I checked.

It’s an absurd number. The notion that anyone could truly keep track or maintain close contact with 1177 people, even in the era of modern social media, borders on the ridiculous.

Many of those people are mere acquaintances, from high school or former churches or other places where our lives brushed for a few minutes. But many others had a memorable impact in my life, and I really wish that I could maintain those relationships better than I do.

Then there are relationships that seemed to be meaningful, important friendships, and sometimes even deep relationships. Some of those have not merely faded, but severed with harsh words or accusations or passive aggressive commentary, or even the drastic step of the “un-friend” button.

It is indeed a heart-wrenching moment when you discover that someone, once counted as a dear friend, is actually glad or relieved when you part from their company. Or perhaps you discover that you really were not as “dear” as you thought.

It’s hard to know how to react when you discover that people think less of you, and you have no idea why that is. After all, maybe you are reading a lot more into their words or actions than they ever intended. Or, maybe they just weren’t that into you in the first place.

In this uber-connected postmodern society, relationships are often as fluid and fleeting as the latest phone app. Maybe they always were, and we just notice it more now because of all the opportunities we have to stay connected. That may also create more opportunities for us to feel hurt or disappointment when we discover that relationships were not what we thought they were.

Reality is that many (most?) of our relationships will not be long-term, and we have to learn to place the right value on those relationships when they exist. Our best bet is to make the most of the relationships that we have when we are in the moment, and appreciate them for what they are in a special time and place.

This is particularly true for people in the ministry.

When someone accepts the call of the Holy Spirit on his or her life, it is an acknowledgement that everything in life may well be temporary. The average tenure of a pastor in America is between 3 and 4 years. For a youth minister or other church staff, it is 3.6-3.9 years.

Accepting a call from God to ministry is to acknowledge a belief that God can place a life-change in front of us at any given moment. That means ever-changing relationships. It also means that we are to do all that we can to add meaning and value to our relationships in the present, because there is no guarantee that they will remain into the distant future.

I am learning the hard way (as usual) that the value of relationships with people is not always found in how long they last, but in how much we pour into those relationships while we have them.

People—particularly in the church—tend to idealize the past or the present to unrealistic levels. Either they long for the “Good Ole Days” and wish to return to them; or they lament that past and long to enjoy how much better things are in the now. As a minister, I’ve lived on just about every location of that spectrum.

People are not always going to love you or pine for your presence. Even if they do, it may only last until something else comes along. In reality, if you have a healthy perspective on your life’s calling, that is how it should be. The task is not to be eternally beloved, but to provide what is needed in order for people to love others.

While they might not be as pronounced as it is for ministers, I think this holds true for most relationships. That leaves us with the option to do our best and be our best for the people around us, no matter the context, circumstances or longevity of the relationship.

Our calling is to do our best to invest in people when we have the chance, to hopefully leave them better and richer for having met us. Even if they do not recognize it, the Christ-centered heart that we put into our relationships can add life to others long after our relationship is past.

The point of relationships is not to leave people thinking about how awesome you are. Instead, we should strive to leave people and their situations a little better off because we are/were a part of them. We often do not get to see the fruit of that investment. Instead, we hold on to the hope that we help those that we love to move forward to a better place in their life and their relationships with others—even if it comes at the expense of their relationship with us.

For those that have left behind our relationship, I hope that it is not because of some hurt that I have caused. I make lots of mistakes, and have no doubt that I have unintentionally hurt a lot of people. I offer a lot of apologies in life, and I probably owe a good many that I do not even realize.

My prayer is that, in spite of my faults, I have offered something positive to most of you that know me. Even as I struggle to learn to be better, I hope that I offered the best that I could do in the circumstances surrounding all of my relationships. And it is my sincere request that people will graciously accept that, no matter what they think of me now or in the future.

Thankfully, our best is more than enough for the ever-gracious and forgiving God, and I ask that it be enough for the people and friendships that I continue to value. At the least, it has to be sufficient for us as individuals to know that we offered our best, no matter how people feel about us in the future.

May we strive to offer the best that we have to others while we have the chance, no matter where our relationships might go in the future.

SCBC vs. NewSpring Is No Reason to Cheer

Last month, South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) President Tommy Kelly decided to offer his opinion on recent happenings at NewSpring Church (http://baptistcourier.com/2015/01/kellystatementnewspring/). Rev. Kelly took issue with a number of things regarding the church and Pastor Perry Noble, and all but stated that the state convention was breaking ties with NewSpring.

As it turns out, this is probably going to take very little shine out of the NewSpring star, as the church has limited connections at best to the SCBC. In terms of their relationship, the denomination and the church are acquaintances. That status may change following Kelly’s fairly direct (and perhaps unprecedented?) reprimand, which bordered on opening the door and telling Noble and NewSpring not to let it hit them on the way out.

Some are cheering Kelly’s action as a commitment to sound Biblical and theological principles. But SCBC churches need to be careful how loud they cheer. In fact, they might do better to lower their heads a little about all of this while asking a simple question:  What if Dr. Kelly had done this to your church or your pastor?

Will your congregation be the subject of a letter or statement, because of some belief, position or action that you/your pastor has taken?

In case readers may have missed this from previous posts, I am no apologist for NewSpring. I have serious issues with Perry Noble and the approach of the church on many issues that I will not discuss here. If anyone would like to discuss it, I will be more than happy to talk, message or email with you about it.

Dr. Kelly’s statements and opinions are not the problem, but his approach in offering them is. Unless there is much to this story that is not readily available, Dr. Kelly may be setting a dangerous precedent. At best, it is un-Baptist, and at worst, it is less than Christ-like.

Dr. Marcus Buckley has on his blog shared similar concerns, and expressed that he directly contacted Dr. Kelly on the matter. Let me confess–perhaps in error–that I have had no direct contact with Dr. Kelly, as Marcus Buckley has. I am neither a pastor nor a messenger in the SCBC, although my membership resides at a cooperating church. This is offered as a matter of observation from a distance, with no “inside” knowledge. Please take that grain of salt with this piece.

Baptists are people who claim that Holy Scripture is their only authority for faith and practice. We have always disagreed–usually loudly, often angrily, and occasionally with dangerous volatility. We certainly do not mince words when calling out those with whom we disagree. Until the last 30 years or so, we managed to do that without figuratively cutting one another’s throats or denying churches the freedom to follow a different interpretation or path.

What business is it of the South Carolina Baptist Convention or Dr. Kelly to encourage churches to break fellowship from NewSpring because of their Biblical interpretation? In addition, is this a course of action that will become common practice for other churches with different interpretations?

Baptists practice action by community, which means study and recommendations and votes on issues, particularly one as grave as calling for the dis-fellowship of a church from other Baptists.

While all that talking and shouting and voting has its own pitfalls, it is who we are; and I believe it is who we need to be. We are not a church of decrees, but a church seeking input in the prayerful hope of common ground. We do not always find it, but we should seek it.

Furthermore, such an approach has to allow for the fact that we (I) might be wrong. As strongly as I disagree with the church growth movement and mega-church mentality, I am in no position to declare it ultimately heretical or worthy of being shunned. While they may not grant me a seat at their table, what makes us worthy of denying them a seat at ours?

The perception is that Dr. Kelly’s statements represent an official position of South Carolina Baptists. I have several questions regarding that:

1. What body within the South Carolina Baptist Convention authorized this statement from Dr. Kelly?

2. Did the members and messengers of the Convention authorize this in any way?

-Would not a statement that appears and is being received as official require action      by authorized messengers?

3. In recent years, local associations have denied churches fellowship for many things, including the ordination of women as deacons or to the ministry. Is the SCBC now stepping into the role of making these decisions about which churches are worthy of fellowship?

-It is also important to note that local Baptist associations vote on such issues.

4. Was NewSpring or Perry Noble offered a chance to respond to the critique in any kind of open forum, committee, or Convention gathering? (Perhaps they were–if so, it would help for Dr. Kelly to share that).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

5. Did the leaders of the convention follow the Biblical standard of Matthew 18? Again, if they did, it would be valuable to know that.

When confronted with what we believe to be un-Biblical actions, it is critical that Christians elaborate with an uber-Biblical response. If Perry Noble and NewSpring are out of line, then church/convention leaders should approach them. If they are rebuffed, approach again, with witnesses. If there is no resolution, then take the matter before the entire body–in this case, the messengers of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Some might argue that Noble and the church are notorious for ignoring criticism and such an approach would do no good. Perhaps this is true. But my concern is not what NewSpring does. It is that I/we, as Baptists and Christians, do what God commands of us, in all humility, before distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to make every effort at peace, until all possibilities for reconciliation are exhausted. When that has happened, then we discuss what that means for our fellowship.

As Baptists, this means action of the entire Body of Christ, not just a few or even one. No matter our feelings on Perry Noble or NewSpring, we need a stronger, more prayerful effort to coexist even through disagreements, with greater charity towards freedom in Christ and greater unity in the areas where we can agree. And above all, we should act out our efforts with love.

Do we want to be judged, as Baptists and Christians, for treating others in the same way that we feel they have treated us? Perhaps the more Biblical approach is to treat them in the same way that we want to be treated, no matter how strongly we disagree.

And it is our calling to do so, no matter how we feel about the actions of the other towards us.