Monday, July 31, 2006

Another one bites the dust

Well, it happened again this weekend. A pastor here in Nashville was immediately and unbiblically removed from his ministry. David Foster, who started Bellevue Community Church in 1989, was fired on the spot by the elders of his church. Before this Sunday arrived, Foster's e-mail was shut down, his name was off the internet staff directory, his key card to the building was disabled, and Metro police officers contacted Foster on Saturday to let him know he would not be allowed in the church building.

What was the elders' explanation to the congregation on Sunday morning? It was all put under the banner of "personal, relationship, and leadership issues." No details given, no explanation given. Just this vague phrase. To be honest, I don't know what the problem was...maybe he was an intolerable tyrant of a leader, maybe he was having an affair with the secretary, maybe he was looking at pornography on his computer in the office. What if he was just a charismatic preacher with an introvert personality, that closed himself off during the week? What if he could have unknowingly hurt a couple of elders and never apologized? What if he was going through a mid-life crisis and it affected his ministry? Weirder things have happened! The point is...the church will never know. I'm not part of the church, so I wouldn't expect to know.

However, what we have here is another classic case of the avoidance of Matthew 18 being carried all the way through. I was part of a church that made a similar vague announcement because of the actions of our pastor, and it ended up very ugly. The pastor had been confronted one on one, a group had gone to him, and instead of bringing it to the church for their discipline, it was simply announced that he was leaving because of "moral failure." No explanation given. I was on staff at that church, and with my 20/20 hindsight, I can see that it was handled wrong...not intentionally, but still wrong. None of my brothers on staff were trying to avoid doing what was biblical, but in the heat of the moment and the confusion of all the information we were getting, that's what happened. I pray God's grace on my ministry that I would never have to be part of dismissing another brother from ministry like that again. However, if I do, I know that my hindsight will help me.

Another one bites the dust here in made the front page of today's paper because it was a mega-church. Now, as thousands of unbelievers and backslidden believers are reading that column, what are they thinking about the church? "Who needs it? They're all just a bunch of hypocrites and power-hungry people who want their way. I'll just watch church on TV this weekend...all I need is the preaching."

The good news is that in all of this, God still works together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. God's grace can still heal this situation, if the pride of both the pastor and his elders can be put aside long enough to pick up a Bible, hear what God says, and be doers of the Word.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Thoughts on Prayer from a Dutch Priest

This week has been amazingly stressful and full of personal, spiritual warfare for me. So, for those who will, please pray. In fact, it is prayer that drives this blog. This won't be an original. Most of what is written here will come from Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who died in 1996. It's from his former years, they were known as books and were published on paper...very late-20th century.

Anyway, I'm not all that familiar with everything he wrote, but I know that, for the most part, it's pretty mystical. So, if you choose to follow this with some more reading of Nouwen's material, know that I am not giving a blanket endorsement by publishing this post. I find these words of his somewhat helpful, though, when it comes to being vulnerable in our prayer lives. As the children's song says, "Our God is a great big God," and He can take as much venting and unloading as we can give. My problem is that, typically, I don't cast my cares upon Him as I should...I want to work them out on my own. This kind of spiritual pride leads me So, I picked up Nouwen today to use some of his With Open Hands book as an illustration in tonight's Bible study. It is so convicting that I have to share it. Here it goes, and I'm going to replace some vague references with some clarity:

"Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow [the Lord] to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched...The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. [A clenched fist] shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which [portrays] fear. A story about an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. But who wants to do that?...[Prayer], therefore, is often...painful...because you discover you don't want to let go. You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren't proud of it...

When you pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? Certainly not by violence. Nor by a forced decision. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: "Don't be afraid." Don't be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don't be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway. Don't be afraid to offer your hate, bitterness, and disappointment to the One who is love... Even if you know you have little to show, don't be afraid to let it be seen.

Often you will catch yourself wanting to receive your loving God by putting on a semblance of beauty, by holding back everything dirty and spoiled, by clearing just a little path that looks proper. But that is a fearful response - forced and artificial. Such a response exhausts you and turns your prayer into torment.

Each time you dare to let go and surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving...It is a long spiritual journey of trust, for behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless...

Maybe someone will say to you, 'You have to forgive yourself.' But that isn't possible. What is possible is to open your hands without fear, so that the One who loves you can blow your sins away...Then you feel a bit of new freedom, and praying becomes a joy, a spontaneous reaction to the world and the people around you. Praying then becomes effortless, inspired and lively, or peaceful and quiet. When you recognize the festive and the still moments as moments of prayer, then you gradually realize that to pray is to live."

That's all from the introduction...I don't remember much after that. You can see the mysticism come through, but the truth that letting go of all our cares and casting them on the Lord is a freeing experience is a strong one. Our hands were not meant to carry all that we attempt to carry in a given week, day, or hour. It's not so much that "God won't give you more than you can handle." It's that God intentionally gives us more than we can handle, so that we will look to him in faith, casting our cares on Him because He cares for us.

In your next time of prayer, try praying with your hands intentionally open in front of is a vulnerable position. Be vulnerable with the Lord...our God is a great big God...He made the heavens and the earth by His great power...nothing is too difficult for Him!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

John Hagee and Two-Covenant Theology

One of the things that bothers me most when I talk about preachers with today's Christians is the inability to distinguish between preachers that are orthodox and those that are not. A few years ago, a lady in the church I was serving told me that she enjoyed watching preachers on television. When I asked who she liked the most, she told me David Jeremiah, Charles Stanley, John Hagee, and Joel Osteen. If you know anything about these four men, you know the wide theological scope we just covered. Before I go any further, let me just say this...if you can't tell the difference between the preaching of David Jeremiah and John Hagee, then you need to start studying the Bible again...get back in Sunday not pass go, do not collect $200.

Anyway, John Hagee seems to be a favorite of many older people in the congregations I have served. I guess his style of communication reminds them more of what one man called "real preaching." You know, it's the huffing, puffing, blow-your-house-down style of preaching. Very big bad wolf. Moving on...because of the inability to distinguish between one theology and another, it seems necessary to point certain, major errors.

Today's error of choice is commonly called two covenant theology, or dual covenant theology. This view holds that it is unnecessary, and even wrong, to seek to evangelize Jewish people because they have their own covenant with God and do not need Christ. Hagee has said, "The Jewish people have a relationship to God through the law of God as given through Moses...I believe that every Gentile person can only come to God through the cross of Christ. I believe that every Jewish person who lives in the light of the Torah, which is the word of God, has a relationship with God and will come to redemption. The law of Moses is sufficient enough to bring a person into the knowledge of God until God gives him a greater revelation. And God has not..."

Re-read that last part...about the law of Moses being sufficient. I agree that the Old Testament is God's Word, but it is incomplete without Christ because the greatest revelation of God came in Christ Himself. Anyway, here's some more Hagee. "There are right now Jewish people on this earth who have a powerful and special relationship with God," declares Hagee in one of his books. "They have been chosen by the 'election of grace' in which God does what he does without asking man to approve or understand it. Let us put an end to the Christian chatter that all the Jews are lost and can't be in the will of God until they convert to Christianity! . . . there are a certain number of Jews in relationship with God right now through divine election."

The truth is that this inclusive view of Hagee's finds no foundation in the revelation of Scripture. In John 14:6, Jesus declared, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Hagee might answer, "That's only for the Gentiles." The problem is that Jesus' audience was Jewish...He was speaking to His disciples. Plus, he clearly states that "no one" can come to the Father apart from Him. Though the disproving of two covenant theology could be quite lengthy, let's look at just two strong texts to help us as we speak to friends who may listen to and read Hagee.

First, Hebrews 11:39-40, speaking of the faithful ones of the Old Testament, says, "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." The Old Testament believers did not receive what they were promised because the Messiah had not yet come. It is in the coming of Christ, His substitutionary death on the cross, and in His resurrection that the "better" came and the promise was fulfilled. These saints looked forward to the coming of God's Messiah. Now, together with those who believe, they are made perfect. Salvation did not come through their observance of the law of came through Jesus Christ. Why? Because there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved...not even for the Jews of any era.

The second, and clearer, text is Romans 3:20-24: "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we became conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Could it be any clearer than that?

I know more could be listed here, and you may want to share some in response. However, the point here is that we have people in our churches who are watching John Hagee, taking notes, and loving every minute of it...believing themselves to be growing deep in their faith. They are being led away from the Gospel, so let us weep for them, pray for them, and call them out from under this false teacher's ministry.

Special Days and Worship

Ok...I have a confession to make. I am a Southern Baptist. Now, that is no surprise to those who read this blog because you all know me. However, for the millions of blog readers out there who will never come across this page, it may come as quite a shock. Enough of that...on with the blog.

There are times when I am proud to be a Southern Baptist, like when I see Cooperative Program dollars sending and supporting missionaries all across the world. On the other hand, there truly are times when I cover the "Southern Baptist" portion of my name tag, like when we get into stupid arguments over secondary issues...a trend that has kicked up more recently and may get a blog here one day.

What I want to write about today, however, is the idea of so many special days that are recommended for the church to celebrate or observe. Now, there are several that I believe merit a church's attention, and issues on which I wish we spent more time. For example, the sanctity of life has its own day. Good for us in wanting to defend the rights of the unborn, but shame on us for having to mark off a day on the calendar to do it. Racial reconciliation has a special day. Same "good for us, shame on us" scenario. I agree that we need to spend more time praying for and giving to international and domestic missionaries, which is why I love the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong missions offerings. Then, there are the "normal" calendar celebrations that are typically observed...Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, July 4 (or the Sunday closest to it), etc. None of these are necessarily bad, but you have to admit, there are a lot of "special days" out there.

This morning, though, I picked up the Baptist and Reflector, which is the Tennessee Baptist newspaper. It's mission, according to the subtitle on front, is "telling the story of Tennessee Baptists." Do I think this is a good idea? helps remind me that the kingdom for which I work is bigger than the corner of Gallatin and Alta Loma Road in Madison, TN. I get to read about what the Lord is doing in other parts of the state. Unfortunately, I also read stories which seem to be for churches who wish to blow their own trumpet for how many people did this or did that. Now, I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water here. I think, overall, papers like this are good things. I could live without it, but I genuinely enjoy a larger perspective than the walls of my office provide.

Where am I going with this? Oh yes...I picked up the B & R this morning to read that on August 20 of this year, churches are being encouraged to use another Sunday of the year in a unique way. Do you know what it is? Is it to speak to some important, pressing issue like same-sex marriage? Is it "Defend the Inerrancy of Scripture Day"? Is it presidential prayer Sunday? No to all of the is "Baptist and Reflector Day". The Tennessee Baptist Convention's paper is actually encouraging pastors to order free copies of the paper for their entire congregation and hand them out on that Sunday. This is their attempt to boost their number of subscribers. After all, the article says, "subscriptions are only $11 per year and discounts are offered for various church plans."

Are they kidding? I have a big enough struggle recognizing mothers and fathers in such a way that doesn't profane our time of worship. We don't come together to recognize moms and dads; we come together to worship the one, true and living God. I almost did nothing on these two days, but instead, we just had moms and dads stand so that families could lay hands on them and thank God for them. We'll have to see if we even do that next year. The only time we even make announcements is after our corporate worship is complete and we're about to walk out the door. Does the TBC really expect pastors to take corporate worship time to push the state paper? This is one church pastor that won't be recognizing "Baptist and Reflector Day." I still enjoy reading it, but it won't be making it into the order of worship on August 20...or any Sunday, for that matter.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Assuming motives leads to war

Thoughts after reading 1 Chronicles 19.

Motives are difficult things to read...reading the question "What are you doing?" gives us no indication of motive. However, if you begin to emphasize different words, you can begin to feel different motives. "What are you doing?" is the question of a parent, whose motive is to find out why her three-year-old son is eating soap (true story). "What are you doing?" is the question of a person who has just been asked what they were doing in an accusing manner. After giving what they believed was a good answer, they throw the same question back in their accuser's face. "What are you doing?" is the question of an inquisitive boss, whose motive is to try to find some reason not to fire a seemingly lazy employee that he/she otherwise likes.

Motives are funny things, and when you begin to assume someone's motive, it can get dangerous. Have you ever assumed that someone was questioning your character when they just had a question? Have you ever assumed someone to be selfish or proud when reality proved otherwise...that they were simply acting in ignorance? My seventh grade band teacher told us all one day that assuming makes something of "u" and "me". (If you don't know, it's okay.)

King Hanun assumed something in 1 Chronicles 19. He assumed that David had sent a delegation to spy on him and find a way to overthrow his country, when David was actually sending a delegation to express sympathy over the loss of Hanun's father, Nahash. Hanun was paranoid and assumed David's motive was antagonistic toward him, so he had the delegation captured, shaved, and stripped. This was not good...the Ammonites became "a stench in David's nostrils" (verse 6). What happened next? You guessed it...battle lines were drawn, and eventually the Ammonites ran away from the fight. The integrity of the king had been questioned by Hanun...assumptions were wrongly made about his motive. Nobody would dishonor God's anointed king, and so war broke out.

Where did it all start? Hanun was so paranoid about being attacked that even an act of kindness by David seemed threatening to him. He didn't even give the delegation time to explain why they were coming; he simply assumed the worst and jumped on the defensive. Does that sound familiar at all? Don't we too often assume that people are out to get us? Someone that we have had conflict with in the past may genuinely try to encourage us...what goes through our minds? "I wonder what her angle is." "I wonder what he really meant by that." "Was that sarcastic?" What would happen if we didn't assume these kinds of things? What would it be like to actually give someone the benefit of the doubt?

This is not to dismiss the importance of defending integrity when it is attacked. However, I think we too often jump to the conclusion that everything is an attack on our integrity. Well, I know I jump to that conclusion too often. Let's listen carefully to Paul's words in Romans 12, with some parenthetical comments by me:

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody (even the ones you assume are against you). If it is possible (and it is more possible than we usually think it is), as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-19, 21)

Assuming wrong motives in those around you can lead to war. It did in the Old Testament, it can in your family and friends, and it can in the New Testament church.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The firing of a pastor

My last blog was about Star Jones and the whole deal with her leaving ABC's The View. At the end of that blog, I promised a word about pastors receiving the same kind of treatment...the silent fire. Let me begin by saying that I pray these kinds of situations are extremely rare, but unfortunately, I hear about more every day.

A personal story...about five years ago, I was working in a large Southern Baptist church in suburban Orlando as a Middle School Minister. Things were going quite well for me...we had seen many students come to Christ, and beyond that, they were actually growing up in their faith. For the most part, they weren't just following the crowd. Anyway, when we arrived there in December of 1999, there were about 50 middle school students and a world of possibilities. Little did I know what would happen to me and my family.

As I said, things were going well. In August of 2001, we had just come off an incredible summer...having forty-something middle school students doing door-to-door evangelism on a mission trip with great fruitfulness. My pastor at that church was and still is numbers-driven, meaning that the only way he measured success was in numbers. Though I saw more than just the numbers of it, I was even successful in his eyes. We had consistent numeric growth over the two years I had been there.

One Tuesday, I had to be late for a staff meeting because of a cardiologist appointment. When I walked in, the pastor jokingly asked if I had overslept, and the room filled with laughter. When I tried to reply with equal wit, the room fell silent. I was asked to stay after staff meeting, and I was ripped open verbally...I was told that I had not earned the right to speak to anyone like that, but because he was the pastor, he could speak to me any way he wanted to. He said I was failing at my job, and something was going to have to change. A meeting was scheduled for two days later with his senior associate pastor and our minister of education.

Though I was very angry about how I was treated that day, I had come to the conclusion that I was supposed to be there, so I went to the meeting with a notebook and a pen...ready to make a list of things to change. Know what the change was? They said I was to be out of my office in three months. Now, if that was all they had said, it would have been bad enough. I could not tell anyone I was being fired, or I would be fired immediately. If I went to the pastor and talked to him about this, I would be fired immediately. I was given 3 month severance and medical insurance for my wife (who would be seven months pregnant when we were scheduled to leave). If I breathed a word to anyone about the truth about my leaving, the severance and the medical insurance would disappear.

I couldn't believe it...this is what was supposed to happen in corporate America...not in the church. My greatest source of anger was that the pastor wasn't even there to give me this news himself...he sent ministerial hitmen to do the job. The week I announced my resignation, he called me into his office. He told me that bad things happen to everyone, and this was happening to me. I could either be bitter about it, or learn from it. Then he said that, as my pastor, he wanted to make sure I was okay before I left. He said he understood I would be angry, but he hoped that one day, we could shake hands at the convention and get past this.

I spent the next 10 months trying to figure out if I should even continue in ministry. I went back to seminary, threw newspapers, and worked at Chick-fil-A. I honestly didn't know what I was going to do. I thought something had to truly be wrong with me if I could be treated like this. Then, I got a phone call. Three other pastors on staff had been given the same treatment...the same ultimatums...and one of them was a seasoned pastor of thirty-something years. I took a position in central Indiana that ended up being a great source of healing for wasn't a perfect church with a perfect pastor, by any stretch. However, the Lord used that time to heal me, help me forgive my former pastor, and prepare me for the next part of God's call on my life...the pulpit.

All told, I know of at least 7 or 8 guys that have received this kind of treatment from their pastor or from their church. None of them followed any kind of discipline required by Matthew 18. In most of the cases I know about, the guy just wasn't liked, so the pastor, deacons, leaders, etc., just decided it was time to go. Since their was no real reason to let him go, the secrecy, manipulation, and threats come out. With these cases becoming more common, it's a sad church world in which we live.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Star Jones and Christian Suffering

What a title...what a subject on which to blog. I must admit...I never watch ABC's The View, but I did know who Star Jones was before she quit, then was fired, and then the media feud began. So, why blog about it? Well, today I had to take care of a couple of tasks that kept me in my car for over an hour. On commercials breaks during "The Dave Ramsey Show," my mind wandered back to the portion of Jones' interview on Larry King Live that I caught while channel surfing.

I have known for a long time that Star Jones claimed to be a Christian. She has apparently made that known on the show and in interviews. However, here's what I don't get...what's up with the way that she left the show? She had agreed to share her news about leaving on last Thursday's episode, but because she was overwhelmed by the tabloid coverage outside her home, she blabbed two days early. ABC was going to let her go with dignity and honor her for the work she had done in her 9 years. She decided that was unacceptable, so she went down in a blaze of glory.

Here is why I think this news story is relevant as we think about our responsibility as believers. First of all, Star said that on the day she surprised producers with the early announcement, she had called her pastor, prayed and sought counsel from him, and then decided to blab. What exactly did the Lord give her peace about doing? Deceiving her friends, co-workers, and employers? Sacrificing her integrity and dignity because "the tabloids are coming, the tabloids are coming"? Broadcasting the message to the world that as long as you have prayed, you can do whatever you want and God will surely uphold your case?

What would happen if Star had simply taken unfounded tabloid criticism, turned the other cheek, done her work as unto the Lord, and been let go on July 13 (the scheduled last day)? What could her testimony be after that? Maybe she was suffering for her conservative view of certain issues. Maybe she was just suffering because it's a sinful, money-driven industry that she works in, and these kinds of decisions happen all the time. Maybe she was just going to have to suffer for no real reason except that suffering happens to all of us in this life.

If she had just simply taken whatever the network was giving out, maybe then she could talk about the sustaining work of God in her life. If she had walked through this with dignity, the interview with Larry King wouldn't have been so much "Defense (clap clap), defense (clap, clap)". I cannot speak for Star Jones' views or theology or lifestyle other than this last, public move, but I can say that we can all take a lesson from this.

There will be suffering in our lives...Jesus promised it (John 16:33). Whether we are fired unjustly, purposefully persecuted for our faith, or any number of other situations I could mention, suffering will happen. I think there are at least two lessons we can learn from this entertainment news flash. First of all, when injustice, persecution, and suffering come, it is not appropriate or right to compromise our walk with the Lord. We have to walk through suffering with holiness and integrity, choosing to obey the Lord rather than cater to our fleshly desire to react. This means that there is a way to be fired that is Christian and a way that is not Christian. Unfortunately, the wrong road is chosen too often.

Second, there will be justice for all of us, but it will not be immediate. Those of us that trust in the Lord and do not rely on our own understanding know this: a day of judgment will come. It will be a time when the Lord punishes evil and rewards faith. This kind of hope and knowledge motivates us in holiness as we walk through suffering.

Now, I know that's a lot coming from a TV host that got fired, and maybe I just wasted 20 minutes of my life typing this. A TV host leaving a show isn't big news to me, but the moment that person claims to be a believer and implies that God influenced how he/she acted in a situation, I listen more carefully. The unfortunate parallel to me is this...the kind of "silent firing" originally intended for Star Jones happens in a lot of churches to a lot of godly men, but that's for another blog...maybe the next one.