Saturday, February 6, 2016

I'M NOT BEING FED...

Have you ever heard from one of your members, either directly but most probably indirectly, “I’m just not being spiritually fed?”   Well, it is wise to listen to your critics as I have heard it said that they are the first ones to see our faults, and usually before we ourselves see them.  Although I admit how frustrated and angry those kind of comments have made me, it usually meant I wasn’t doing something right in my preaching.

   That kind of statement is often a signal that a person or family is getting ready to leave the congregation.  It doesn’t have to be so, they might have other issues going on in their lives and so they begin to complain about the preaching and once those issues are dealt with they are no longer dissatisfied.  Sometimes there is sin hardening their heart and the content, delivery, and impact of our sermons has nothing to do with their complaints.

    However, sometimes they are speaking the truth and we are not adequately feeding them from the Word.  Yes, if they were really spiritual they would somehow be able to get something out of our sermons.  Then again if we were really spiritual maybe we would be putting something into them worth getting.

    I want to encourage my fellow preachers and pastors to do some self-analysis about their preaching.  I want to encourage all of us to get deeper rather than just smarter.  Let’s talk about study, learning, and knowledge for our preaching first.

    Obviously we need sermons based on truth (true Truth as Schaeffer used to say) which are correct as to the teaching of Scripture.   There are many emotionally moving sermons that come from a totally out of context and misused portion of Scripture.  The uneducated and unstudied pastor might be all fired up, yet his listeners may be intellectually embarrassed about what he is saying, or at least have cause to be.  Many of our listeners might be educated, but even those who haven’t finished high school or college are not stupid.  Folks will know if we misquote the Bible, mix up the main characters in a story which they have heard many times, or even make mistakes in terms of common science, geography, or history.

    My point is that pastors need to “study to show themselves approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)  This of course is the strong emphasis in conservative seminaries and in ordaining bodies so it results in many of our pastors being excellent students, spending many hours in sermon preparation and general study.  It does not automatically follow that they will be good preachers, nor does it mean they will always be “feeding the sheep.”

   Intellectual ability is a great gift, but it doesn’t protect you from being boring.  Being widely read is a great mental asset, but it doesn’t mean you can communicate the great truths you have learned in ways that make an impact.  Being theologically accurate is a necessity for any sermon that dares to call itself Biblical, yet theological accuracy will often miss the target of the heart if it comes off as an academic lecture.

    We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information, we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

   The forming of the heart comes from a response of faith and therefore one of the most disappointing results of a sermon wonderfully prepared and brilliantly organized is for people to leave after listening while saying “so?” in their minds.  This kind of preaching is vacuous, it has no depth, it does not penetrate.  “What does God want me to do, and how can I possibly do it?”  People are asking this question, and the answer of course has to be accurate, but it must also have empowerment.  Is there the stress, in our sermons, on the ability of God to enable us to do the will of God?    

   The preacher sits in his study and he goes through some wonderful moments of insight and connection.  “This sounds like Moses, and he agrees with David, and here it is in Paul, and yes, I can see it in Jesus, and I remember this philosopher said something like it, and that preacher made an allusion to it and this word in the original language gives it such punch.”  What wonderful moments, and the wise preacher doesn’t tell his congregation all that he learned in his study and he knows he can’t possibly include them in all the fun he just had learning more and more about this text.  Yet, the fun will all be self-centered fun if he doesn’t know how to mine out the gold of God’s intent for our faith and obedience, and how he can stimulate us to love and good deeds, and how he should include and move us through story, illustration, and direct challenge of application.  Tell us what to do with what you are teaching us!

    All preachers have egos, they all have insecurities, they all have their own unique styles, but if they are God’s man they speak as an oracle of God according the ability that God gives them.  Some preachers hide behind the intellectual analysis of a text because they never want to make self-disclosure.  They make no confession, they flee from revealing failure or weakness, and thus they divorce themselves from the struggles of their people.  We sometimes are our own best illustration of how a text applies, or how it should be applied, or about how we failed to apply it.

     The greatest preacher in the history of the world told stories, and captured the hearts of men and women.  The greatest theologian, the one that wrote most of the books of the New Testament, did lots of self-disclosure concerning his weaknesses, in fact he boasted about them.  The preacher needs to put himself in the Gospel story, and not expect by distancing himself from it that somehow the people will find by themselves the green pastures in which is their spiritual nourishment.

  The helpful weapons for every preacher are of course fervent prayer, humility, and the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon us when we preach.  Preaching without brokenness and honest emotion about grace and the Gospel leaves congregants wondering if we are sincere, if we are telling the truth about this God we proclaim.  There is joy for all of us in the tears of repentance and forgiveness, and rich food too.

END.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

GOSPEL HERO

THE GOSPEL, JUSTICE, AND MERCY PASTOR! 

 I don’t know if you have ever read a Louis L’amour western, but they often start something like this… “A tall stranger, a few inches over six feet, rides into town.  He rides upon his chestnut gelding with his back straight and his six gun held in his holster by a leather loop. He is broad in the shoulders, has narrow hips, and his green eyes hold both amusement and intensity.”

    The typical western hero and I don’t look anything like that.  While there was an age of glorifying heroes today there sometimes seems a prejudice against heroes, as if we didn’t need them anymore.  It is absolutely true that the only Messiah people need is Jesus, and none of us can or ever try to substitute for Him.  Individuals can get into all kinds of ego and personality trouble when they attempt to take on the mantel of being “The Savior” for the people.  Being a “Moses” can rob the people of the community of the sense that their opinions, desires, and dignity are the engine that is needed for positive change, and it is within the power of their hands and faith that can produce that change.

  At the same time the movement to diminish the importance (of heroes) and a man of faith who enters into, or is raised up in, a community and brings with him passion, calling, learning, skills, ideas and giftedness deprives the neediest of communities with the blessing that such a person can bring.  There is no substitute for leadership and almost no more significant gift to a community than a competent, godly, and committed leader.

     The negative leader is always a disaster; the person who manipulates, who abuses, deceives and exploits those who follow him often leaves emotional, psychological, and community disintegration and wreckage behind him.  We don’t need any more leaders like that.  We don’t need any more cult leaders, or egomaniacs.  But we still need leaders.  Good leaders know how to look for talent, and if they really cared about their communities they wouldn’t think of it as a medieval fief that must be protected from all others.  Some community leaders act as if anyone else entering their territory who offers hope is a foreign invasion and not a coming of reinforcements.

    Pastors can and should be heroes.  I am not envisioning the glory seeker, but rather the multiplier, the one who raises up indigenous leaders, the person who is not building his own kingdom but rather the kingdom of God.  In poor communities, urban or otherwise, this kind of leader can make a world of difference for those locked into a very small world of poverty and limitations.  It seems to me we have to cast a vision for young people that such a ministry is possible, necessary, and rewarding.  It is about as challenging an occupation as one can find, and I am convinced has not been highlighted with the respect and honor that it deserves.

    So, if you want to be a heroic pastor what will it require?  First let me spell out what such a leader must do.  He has to be an EVANGELIST.  He has to tell people about Jesus and call them to faith in Christ in a convincing and compelling way.  God saves people, not us, but God uses people to tell other people about the way to God.  Any pastor going into an inner city must come prepared to share the faith with folks who haven’t yet met Jesus.  He cannot assume he will simply gather a group of resident or relocated believers.  He will also have to assume that a great many people living in a dysfunctional neighborhood are going to be dysfunctional.  This means his pastoring and discipling is going to have to start with the basics and build up.  Good leaders should constantly train those they lead, and discipleship is a continual pouring out from the very beginning of the relationship, with the goal of seeing new leaders formed.

  The pastors we need have to be men of character, and though repenting of their own sins while owning up to their own brokenness and their own need of grace to live the Christian life, they live out what they preach.  If they are honest they themselves might feel they are skating the edge, that they are not worthy of the office, but their transparency will win them love and loyalty.

   There are many people in poor communities who have faith and there is a lot of religion among the poor.  There just aren’t enough dynamic congregations that love their communities and love them in the truth of the Gospel.  There aren’t enough congregations that know how to be holistic in their approach to the human struggle.  This is why pastors need to be CHAMPIONS of JUSTICE. He must know the God of justice, preach Biblical concepts of justice, call others to justice, and be willing to suffer with and be a witness to those who don't get it.

    There are some who stand up for justice while not giving people the hope of a Savior.  Their immersion in social causes substitutes for Gospel ministry.  There are some who give a heavenly hope but are never advocates for those who suffer, their preaching diminishes the physical humanity of people, the very thing Jesus came to be a part of for us.

   There are some who preach and demand justice but show no effective mercy.  We need pastors who know how to lead groups of people (their own church) into how to help people with their economic emergencies and who know how to develop people (and economic opportunity) so those emergencies become fewer and fewer. We need pastors who LOVE MERCY, who preach it, teach how to give it, organize their congregations to deliver it, and practice it.


    The Evangelist, the man who knows how to dispense real physical, financial, and emotional help at the time it is needed, and the man who raises a clarion call against injustice without bitterness or spite but in love and faith, now that is a man to be reckoned with.  Such a man may not have a horse or carry a gun, but once he is engaged in a community people take notice.  At least the Devil does, because such a leader makes a difference, sees lives changed, and a community improved.

Friday, January 15, 2016

WORSHIP:  MUSIC, MUSICIANS, AND MONEY

    I enjoy speaking to young church planters who are struggling to find out how to have an effective music ministry as part of their worship service.  Finding musicians available, skilled, and committed is a very old problem.  Nehemiah found this out when he came back to Jerusalem and realized…”that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.”  Nehemiah 13:10 

   It is a typical conversation in some churches to ask, “should we pay musicians?”  Or, “shouldn’t Christian musicians simply volunteer their service as their act of worship?”  At first take this sounds spiritual, it implies that the people with the faith and obedience problems are the musicians and not the rest of us for failing to have enough faith and commitment to provide money for them to do what we all want them to do.

   The passage in Nehemiah reveals a common sense issue, and that is that people have to make a living, and even if they want to sacrifice they will not be available to a congregation if they have to provide for their families using the skills they have worked years to acquire.  In the temple worship either the community brought in tithes to the storehouse so the Levites who were musicians could survive, or the Levites went back to their fields to provide food for their families.

   I can hear someone saying, “Yes, but when I was in my former church people shared their musical gifts without being paid.”  That of course is the optimum solution, i.e., that a congregation would have skilled musicians who make enough money doing something else, have the time to practice individually and as a group, and freely offer those skills for worship.  However, optimum isn’t usual.

   I encourage pastors to pray and hope and search for the optimal, but since Sunday comes each week and worship has to be organized (if not produced) then a plan has to be made as to who is going to help with the music, even if under less than optimal conditions.  It is possible to worship without music, but the Scriptures (in both the Old and New Testaments) example and encourage singing and instruments in worship.  I suppose one could sing Psalms 149 and 150 acapella without irony, but it would be hard for me.  One reason the Reformation was helped to explode among the masses was due to congregational singing.

   So, I am a supporter of paying musicians.  I know of several churches where non-Christians, unbelievers, were hired as band musicians.  Those churches were careful however to allow only believers to lead the music, the singing, and the choice of music.  The examples I know of made sure such hired musicians attended the full service and came to practice.  I have seen some of these band members begin to bring their families over the years they have participated.  I am not necessarily advocating this, but making an observation here.

    Musical and worship leadership has to be spiritual, or else everything about the worship gets compromised.  Musicians need to be pastored, and sometimes evil needs to be confronted.  This evil can be in the way musicians interact, conduct themselves in the church service or church organization, or live their lives.  They receive this pastoring much more amiably if they are well supported organizationally, emotionally, and financially.

    There are of course variations in musical styles, and musical skills.  Worship ought to be a place where those growing in a skill have opportunity to learn, share, and participate while we are also encouraged by those who are truly gifted and skilled.  Church is a place where the call for an excellent sacrifice is balanced with an honest and sincere one.  It corresponds to how much money one gives which is not based on amount but proportion. Many small and financially struggling congregations are thankful to have a person who can peck notes out on a piano, or simply sing acapella, or use tracks.  One of my earliest memories of church music was in a small house church where the pastor played the flute, his wife the piano, and a young man played a carpenter’s saw with a bow.  I didn’t know much about churches then, or music, so I thought this was normal.

    There have been, and are, “worship wars” and those who hate contemporary music.  There are those who stress that true worship can only be achieved with the refined skill to play and an ear to appreciate such things as the intricacies of Bach.  I actually heard a lecture in a worship service along that line of thinking, and I would have to say such an elitist view of worship is in fact heresy.  It is one thing to praise God for the gifts of Bach, this is indeed excellent music, but it is not always intellectually approachable by the common man.  All people are called to worship but it is Spirit and Truth that qualifies, and not an education in music appreciation or theory.

   Most church planters do what they can to find quality musicians and pursue a musical worship style that is participatory, emotionally meaningful, and theologically sound while led by people of spiritual integrity and musical competence.  That package is not always readily at hand.  Some preachers will care little about music being “emotionally meaningful” while others don’t pay enough attention to “theologically sound.”

     Music is by its very existence emotional, the lyrics and message are always theological.  The message is either true, mostly true, confused, or blatantly false.  The message in a song can be clumsily stated or starkly clear. There are songs that have a penetrating and even beautiful melody while conveying error.  There are many songs that hold great and exact Biblical truth while being stultifyingly boring. Combining musical and artistic settings for truth demands some patience and compromise, such as having drawn out words or filler words like, “oh,” and “ah,” etc.  To say every voiced phrase must have a sound theological message puts a straightjacket on the musical line and most of us intuitively understand that.

    Every pastor has to be a policemen regarding truth when it comes to what is conveyed in a worship service because that is part of his job.  He is not usually a qualified musician and even if he is will be subject to his own culture and tastes.  A wise pastor knows when to separate his culture and tastes from his theological opinions and will hopefully humbly interact with musicians when it comes to their area of expertise.  He needs to support them when they get attacked by a member or attender who “hates that song” or thought things were too loud, or too slow, too fast, etc.  

    Church musicians should be able to trust their pastoral leadership and know they are not going to be thrown under the bus each time a song fails either theologically or musically. If a pastor for church politics reasons says, “I hated it too and I don’t know why he (or she) does that,” will probably not have a lot of loyalty coming from his worship team.

   So, pastors need to fight for the worship and music budget, pray and search for a spiritually and musically qualified person who can really lead your worship team, listen to them about pay scales, equipment needs, and administrative support.  Pastors need to take the responsibility for the finished product.  If you don’t like what you are getting than replace your musician, but don’t hang them out to dry.  If you have someone who can be an intrinsical part of your ministry team then make sure they are honored, compensated, and rested.  Give them a sabbatical of a few months every seven years so they can recover.  Send them to training and conferences so they can keep learning.

    I confess I had definite ideas about culture, styles, and performance quality and shared those with my worship director.  I had such respect for him that I knew he could tell me if I was off base or not, and I would listen.  (I hope he thinks I did.) I was immensely honored when he listened to me. I was blessed; we were blessed as a church, and even when our congregation was very poor we had some outstanding music and worship experiences.  It caught me up to heaven, made me want to go there, sometimes devastated me before God, and helped me to love going to church.

  Not every pastor will have a team like I was given, including a very musical wife.  Not every pastor will have not just a piano player, but a singer, a composer, a teacher and developer of young musicians, a humble learner of different cultures, a man willing to use his gifts for evangelism as well as worship settings, and a friend, but I did.  His name is James Ward, and I would wish that kind of chemistry and camaraderie for all pastors and chief musicians.  Sing a new song to the Lord!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

APOLOGETIC

   Recently someone told me about a church in a certain city where my name had come up in a conversation.  Evidently someone in that church had suggested that I be invited to come and preach or consult with them and “they” (whoever “they” might be) said, “Randy has an agenda, we are just going to preach the Gospel.”   Now, I am not sure how accurate this is, I certainly wasn’t told this to my face, but I did find the whole thing interesting.    I feel like I need to write an apologetic for myself.

    I have been preaching for well over forty years and at times I have felt that some churches and preachers were putting me in a “box,” so to speak.   Maybe they thought if they wanted to have someone speak on mercy, or poverty, or race, or justice, or reconciliation then I might be a person they would consider, but not for other Biblical or spiritual issues.  Of course, some put me in that box because those were things they didn’t ever want to consider and so those particular churches never invited me to come and visit.

    Thankfully I am not writing about this because I suffered from not getting enough speaking engagements.  I am humbled by the fact that I have often been invited to preach, and now even more so.  It has been a joy to go to other cities and churches and preach the Word of God.  I have been blessed to preach to those who were enthusiastic for what I said and even for those who have been skeptical.

    My apologetic has to do with what it is that I preach.  I use the word not in terms of giving an apology, and not as an admittance of failure or guilt.   I give it as a defense of my calling, the Scriptures, and my life.  It is good for me to ask myself as a preacher if I do indeed preach the Gospel.  When I come among other churches and believers, and even unbelievers, have I known something else besides “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” when I proclaim the Word of God?

   It would be interesting of course to ask other preachers in my own denomination if they have had a particular agenda, maybe such as “Reformed Theology?”  Is that what they were known for in their preaching?  Would they consider that wrong?   Would their defense be that they were attempting to preach “the whole counsel of God?”

     I wonder how many preachers of any stripe have preached “hobby horses” (a tendency to always come back to one of their favorite subjects) and maybe in the midst of a moral encouragement, or theological explanation, seemed to have left the cross of Jesus completely out of the sermon?  Maybe a sermon was given on marriage, or how to raise children, or how to manage money, or maybe on social issues like abortion, or homosexuality, and somehow the explanation of salvation was not given, the hope of the empty tomb completely left out?

    Now, I admit there has been a movement to preach “only the Gospel,” and by that I mean a preaching of grace that refuses to make Christianity into a “works” religion by putting obligations for righteousness on God’s people other than believing in Jesus and his accomplished work.  There are those who become nervous with any moral or ethical implication or challenge as it might tend to make people feel guilty.  Maybe the thinking is that those who have believed in the justification they received from Christ, the imputation of his righteousness to them, and his adoption of them as his sons, (as well as sanctification being the work of the Holy Spirit), might be led (actually misled) into thinking that they have to do something besides have faith in Christ in order to be saved.

    This is a delicate subject because I do believe many grace and Gospel preachers have been maligned as antinomian, and some even ridiculously painted as those who are soft on sin.  Now that may be true of some, but those whom I have admired in the strong teaching of grace, and our relationship to God as sons, actually teach a strong message of our fight against sin.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist church where the central preaching of the cross, the substitutionary atonement, and the need for faith was always paramount.  The fundamentalism kept deflating the hope of what we were preaching.  We were saved and forgiven but there were still so many rules and I wasn’t too good at keeping them.  This incipient legalism kept stealing my joy and actually distorted my understanding of the grace that could and would actually help me to live a holy life.

    I have never lost my commitment to preach the atonement, the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the necessity of faith, and the power of God to save and deliver.  God forbid that I should.  In fact I try to weave those central ideas into all my preaching. I have however read the Gospels and the entire New Testament.  I don’t think one can read the teachings of Jesus and escape the ethical implications of what it means to follow him.  This is the very thing that I believe saved me from simply preaching a “cheap grace” message for most of my life.  It is what helped turn me away from preaching a “decisional regeneration” message, where all I did was call people to make a decision and then assure them they were saved, even if they never followed Jesus in discipleship.

    I am sure many of those who would dismiss my preaching, or criticize it for including  strong ethical components of discipleship, love, and justice, would agree that Jesus wants disciples to live out the faith they proclaim that they have.  Maybe their problem with me isn’t that they think I am not preaching the Gospel, but that while I do it I explicitly teach that you can’t honestly claim to have believed the Gospel unless it has changed you.  Maybe it is that I often emphasize that it is doubtful that you are actually a Christian unless you love your brother whom you can see as you claim to love the God we cannot see.  I mean I’m not trying to make stuff up and add anything to the Gospel message.  It is just that when I read the Bible I seem to keep running into things like the idea that loving your neighbor as yourself is important, and Jesus teaching that love is the proof of our actually being his disciples.

    Never have I preached that love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and  unity with the saints are necessary for salvation, only the required evidence of it, and totally possible through the power of the Holy Spirit that works within us.  Much of fundamentalist preaching implied the necessity of moral change to be a Christian, and seemed to confuse what came first.  Obviously we believe that grace comes first, then the moral change, or more specifically the moral combat.  Liberal preachers may have taught that ethical involvement is what makes one a Christian, and sometimes those ethics were set adrift and cut loose from a firm connection to Biblical absolutes and followed the relativistic politics of the day.

    It seems obvious that there might be some disagreement as to how to affect the social justice that the God of justice calls for, or how to heal racial division, or how to provide ministry to the poor.  I would submit that one would have to read the Scriptures selectively to leave out God’s great compassion for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the hungry.  Yet, many do just that, while claiming to preach Christ and his gospel.  I wonder sometimes if some preachers really know and hear the heart of Jesus in the Gospels, or simply see him as a forensic kind of instrument to take care of their own guilt.

     He is my savior from my sin, and I love all that doctrine that the Reformers loved so dearly concerning grace and faith.  I confess and sincerely believe (and here I do apologize) that I have at times failed in my preaching.  Maybe I have been too harsh, too scary and not gentle enough.  Maybe I was too confusing when I should have been more precise.  I am sure there have been times when I should have been more encouraging, or even failed to be understandable, and tragically I may even at times have failed to give due glory to God.  God forgive me if I have ever been legalistic, loading people with guilt or giving anyone the idea that something other than God’s grace could save them.  In good conscience I don’t think that has ever been the case, and certainly not by conscious choice. May God, and the people who heard me, forgive me if I have called on them to do the impossible and not told them to trust in the God for whom all things are possible. 

    But to imply that I don’t preach the Gospel while “they” are, as they consistently dodge and avoid the hard issues of discipleship, (such as how to live out love and justice in this world, how to confront racism and materialism), while they continue to leave off teaching that it is God’s will to do those good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do is, I believe, not only hypocritical but a slander and a lie.  If I wasn’t so busy with all these speaking engagements I might have time for my feelings to be hurt.
END.

    

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

RECONCILIATION OR JUSTICE?

    I would like to discuss several different words or phrases in this article.  Obviously the two words in the title of this piece are good words, things we should be in favor of and want to see happen.  One might often link these two words together and assume that if we have reconciliation, specifically here I am speaking of racial reconciliation, then that will satisfy the quest for justice.  My answer to that would be that true reconciliation should and ought to lead to a pursuit of justice, but that the trappings (or even the feelings) of reconciliation don’t necessarily lead to justice.

    Some people, and it might be correct to say “white people” seem to think that reconciliation is when they recognize their prejudice or bias, repent of it, and try to make peace with black people (or other minorities) they have excluded or feel alienated from.  When those who were former strangers and even enemies make peace and come together and establish a relationship there are some strong feelings of love, forgiveness, and unity.  Those are good, if not great, feelings.   Reconciliation is a good thing, and should be pursued by those who have alienated others or been alienated by others.  However, it doesn’t automatically result in a consequential  removal of disparity.

    That there is bias, and has been bias, there can be little doubt.  Some may be in denial but it is hard to deny the racial and indeed racist history in our American heritage.  That there is disparity across the statistical spectrum of racial demographics is a matter of fact.  Despite the achievements of the black middle class, despite individual success stories, despite the reality of some wonderful black families and black entrepreneurs, black intellectuals, and black entertainers and athletes, nevertheless the statistical disparities in almost every area are dramatic and sometimes horrifying.

    Single parent homes, failing schools, unemployment, renters not owners, low skilled and low income employment, inadequate intellectual formation for school, school suspension and expulsion, drop-out rates, graduation without literacy, juvenile detention, adult arrests, violent encounters with police officers, insufficient legal representation and plea bargaining, convictions, felony convictions and loss of voting rights, incarceration, length of sentencing, rates of violence, rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS, death by homicide, early death, early infant death, obesity and diabetes and other health issues, toxic proximity environmental health issues, failure to achieve loans for farmers and home owners, loans only given at higher rates; these are all categories in which there is statistical disparity.

    Why do bad neighborhoods exist, why do bad schools exist, why is there no work and no men to do the work?   Some still in their oblivious disconnect will make it simply a matter of personal initiative and responsibility; “He’s lazy and I’m not!”  You will notice that some of the disparities above might be true even for middle class or wealthy African Americans.    Test after test for hiring, purchasing homes, admission into schools, and treatment by government officials continuously reveal patterns of bias.  Bias continues to create and reinforce disparity.

    Does bias and disparity relieve anyone of personal responsibility?  Of course not, and the glory for any individual who rises above the obstacles is what Americans love to hear and believe about themselves.  Sometimes this is true, and often it is not.  Do bias and disparity make it harder for people of color to achieve?  Absolutely!  Does it absolve the gang-bangers, dope pushers, and those who commit criminal acts even in the name of feeding their families? Again, of course not!  Did bias and disparity help form the neighborhoods and communities where such things flourish?  Again, absolutely!

    Do bias and disparity help to crush hope?  I ask ridiculous questions here.  Will the end of bias in individuals help to end disparity?  Ah, that is the question I am really trying to get at.   Certainly if someone is racist and full of prejudice and they truly see it in themselves and repent of it, but then they begin to treat people fairly and give everyone the same opportunities they formerly denied to people of color, then justice begins to take shape; at least in their personal sphere.

     However, the systemic and structural aspects of historical bias and disparity still need to be identified, dismantled, reformed, and sometimes whole new systems and structures need to be created.  This is where justice is harder, more expensive, longer, and often more confusing.  This is where issues become economic and thus political.  It is often in the face of such barriers that some people deny the disparity, (which is to deny white privilege) avoid the guilt and shame of it, and disparage the discussion of such things.  It is also where some of those who have suffered from the bias and the disparity don’t want to talk about it because they think it will just continue alienation.

     Friendship is often the beginning of restoring things to justice. Two people walking down the street holding hands, with only one having something to eat, only one having clothes to wear, only one getting respect and greetings as he passes along, only one not attacked by criminals while the other continues to suffer seems to be a strange friendship.  While we may never achieve full equality as human beings surely , if we are friends, we can eliminate some of the disparity.  Surely if I have something good in my right hand I will share it with the one holding my left.  Surely if the one I allow to hold my hand is attacked, his fight will become mine.
END.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

THE MAN WHO SAID, NO!

Recently I was at a committee meeting and it was discovered we needed more people to serve on it.  As we discussed potential candidates to fill up the committee I mentioned someone I will refer to here as “So and So.”   So and So happens to be a good man, and would have made an excellent member of the committee since So and So is capable, a good leader, wise, and easy to work with.  Unfortunately for us So and So said, “no!”
  
    I admire So and So for saying “no.”  He said “no” because he is at the stage of life where he has to care for an elderly family member and cannot risk taking on more commitments.  He has said, “yes” to his family and this forced him to say “no” to us.  His “yes” is enhanced by the times and circumstances in which he chooses to say “no.”  It is not that he was saying “no” to something which was a bad thing, or outside of his field of knowledge, or even outside of his responsibilities.  He is part of a larger group that decided to form the committee and as a member of that group he shares a responsibility to make the larger group successful. 

    Yet, he is one among many (all) of us who have to make choices about our time and how we will spend it.  We all have the same amount of time in any given day and the same amount of days in any given week.  We are different in the amount of days we are given, but while we have them they are all exactly the same size.  Obviously part of living a good life is making choices not to waste our lives in what might hurt us or other people.  In short a righteous life is saying “no!” to things which are wicked or sinful or evil.  Let’s grant that some of those choices are not so easy to make for many of us but it is fairly easy to see doing “bad” things as a bad choice.

   The problem in saying “no” for many of us is learning how to say “no” when it is a choice between what is good and what is best, or what is good and what is actually the right thing for us to be doing at the time.  These choices are not so easy especially if we have a personality that hates to think people might be disappointed in us.  These choices are not so easy when we know we could actually help in the situation; that we have the knowledge, skills, energy, and resources to make a difference.  Yet, we must give it up so that we might do something more responsible.  It is hard to make such choices when the good thing that opposes the right thing is actually more fun to do than the exact right thing we ought to be doing.

    Again, we are not talking about the choice between sin and righteousness here, though it might be a choice between being sinful versus being righteous.  Yes, we can be sinful in doing something good which robs us of the time to be doing what we should.  Sometimes we can get away with the inferior choice because no one sees the best thing left unattended.  No one who sees us doing something ordinarily good has any reason to condemn us.  In fact, they might heap praise upon us for being with them, or helping them, or serving some need. 

    Some of us make incorrect choices in commitments of our time because we are “people pleasers” and some of us make bad time choices because we are driven by guilt or some over- developed sense of being essential.  All the times we say either “no” or “yes” we sacrifice its opposite.  If I say “yes” to you I must being saying “no” to someone or something else because time is also bounded by space.  I cannot be in two places at the same time.

    Choices come with a cost and it obviously takes wisdom, sometimes gained only through hard experience, to be able to count that cost before making a decision and not simply paying the cost afterwards.  Regret, frustration, broken relationships, stress, burnout, and anger are all prices to be born from being over committed.

     On the other hand there are some who make such choices (especially in saying “no”) out of selfishness or laziness or irresponsibility.  That too carries a cost, both personally, in our families, and socially.  That is another kettle of fish as they say.  Primarily I am speaking to those who are usually driven to agree to help, attend, serve, and do but who just hate to say that very blessed and essential word which can help us retain sanity, physical health, and familial connections.  I am saying that “no!” is sometimes a good thing to say.  I wish I was better at it.

END.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

BLACK WOMEN IN MINISTRY

    Recently I had the privilege to sit in a room with several (six to be exact) African American women who were graduates, or soon to be, of three different Reformed seminaries.  These women had been or were in Master of Divinity programs.  Needless to say, but needful for you to know, they are smart, gifted, and love Jesus.  I did not take a poll to see if each was committed to complementarianism, but took it that most of them were.  That they were Feminists, in a less liberal/radical but yet determined fashion with a more respectful and kind demeanor, would I think also be fair.  For a fuller self-disclosure I see a profound philosophical difference in a feminism of Biblically informed justice rather than an imposed feminist ideology upon a non-authoritative Bible, or a complete rejection of the Bible as the Word of God.

    I was delighted to be with them and honored to be part of their conversation.   I am also curious to see what God is going to do with them and how the larger church will treat them.  I earnestly hope that years from now they will sit down somewhere and talk about how God led them, used them, and kept them.  They represent a tremendous resource for the people of God and I certainly hope they will be treated as the treasure they are.

    I have fears for them as well.  I am sure there are more women who are not women of color who have also earned a Master of Divinity degree and have had, or have, their own struggles.  Black women M.Divs are going to have even a harder challenge in a predominantly white Reformed community.  I have fears for them, but I am not afraid of them, as I suspect some might be.

    What do you do with a bold, gifted, and theologically astute black woman?   The short answer is “nothing”, that is not our place, and might be intimidating to try.  It is God’s place and my hope is that the rest of us would open the doors so He can do as He wills, especially in denominations that don’t accept women as pastors and preachers.  This is where the fear of such women might be a problem, to suspect they are attempting to change the rules, that if we let them do anything in the church they will overthrow our view of the Eldership and the standards for ordination.  You can’t be around these women long to realize that some of them have stronger verbal and oratorical skills than many of our preachers. To fear them would be a real failure of trust and faith in God, and a lack of respect for the humility in these women.

    Their education and giftedness are assets for the church but like all the rest of God’s folk are only applicable according to character and servanthood.  Education, intelligence, and giftedness become intimidating for us when we only look at an individual on that basis.  Sometimes we meet people via introduction with all their credentials, sometimes we know of folks according to their Curriculum Vitae.  People known on that level are either wonderfully impressive or scary, and we tend to put them in some kind of box that limits our relationship. The experience and expertise we bring with us does not qualify us for spiritual service.  Spiritual service rests on spirituality and godliness, and then the position is filled according to qualification after that foundation is set, or should be.

     As a former pastor and older leader in the church I am concerned for them, and jealous to see them included and well used for God’s glory.  I hope for godly husbands for them, even though it is not necessarily God’s plan for all of them or none of them to be married.  I do not necessarily think they all need husbands to be happy or well used.  Yet, I assume some of them may want that and I hope men of God will see into their characters and personalities and pursue them as God directs.  Too many Christian men have no courage in pursuing strong women when my experience tells me that what one might see as strength on the outside does not preclude humility and gentleness in relationship and in the home. 

   One of my concerns for all congregations is the lack of imagination we have in religious vocational positions.  We have “offices” that are entered via ordination and thus reserved for men.  We seem a bit schizophrenic in determining what ministry can be done in and through the church.  Sometimes we proclaim all the members should be doing ministry, and then we insist that only “ministers” do ministry, and we get real sticky about titles.  We have had Directors of Christian Education, we have had Church Administrators, we have had Directors of Urban and Mercy ministries, Directors of Music and Worship.  We have had Counselors, we have had Directors of Children’s Ministry, we have had youth workers at various levels.  We have had Directors of Women’s Ministries, ESL, Special Needs, etc.  All of these positions can be filled by ordained pastors, and as far as I know all of them can be and have been held by women who are not ordained. 

   When we send folks to the mission field the possibilities seem even greater.  Works of mercy, medical, development, orphanages, schools, higher education and ministries of all kinds have been done by women who come from denominations that preclude them from the pulpit, but who have given them very powerful, meaningful, and effective areas of ministry.  This is not an embarrassment, nor is it hypocritical, but it is sometimes not celebrated and advertised as it should be.  I would love to see a comprehensive list and description of such religious vocational ministry, and I would love to see women come together to encourage each other in these positions.  I would also like to see more active mentoring of women to pursue these positions rather than leaving it seemingly (I am a Calvinist) to serendipitous chance, or the unavailability of a qualified male.


    This is a call to recruit these women into ministry so that the church will be blessed and they will be fulfilled and will fulfill their calling to serve Jesus.