Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Hope

“Dis crazy, Miss Harriet,” the young girl gasped as they sprinted down the dimly lit lane. The older lady showed no sign of hearing the complaint. Instead, her attention was on the straggling runners who were falling ever further behind. “We's runnin' right for 'em,” the girl pleaded.

Harriet turned her attention momentarily to the girl. “Hush, Liza, we're doubling back on them. Just keep running -straight for the back of that Church building yonder.” Harriet fell back and urged on the slower runners, hoping that they would make it in time. She hadn't meant to cut it quite this close. The child was right, those dogs were dangerously near. As they neared the Church building, the sounds of singing and praise could be heard from within.

Harriet quickly led her group to the back of the building, where they pulled loose a few boards and crawled underneath. From the inside, Harriet wedged the boards back into place. Obviously she had used this hiding place before. On their bellies, they crawled under the building to a place near the center where a depression was carved out. It was large enough for their group to huddle in without being seen from the outside.

“They gone find us fo' sho' now,” grumbled Liza. “Them nigger dogs knows they work.”

“That's slave talk,” Harriet chided. “The man that owned you may have called you that, but you're a free negro now. If you don't start acting like one you'll be back in chains before we make it North.”

“We ain't makin' it nowhere when them dogs git up under here,” complained one of the older men. “They gone turn 'em loose on us and what don't get chewed off gone get whipped off later. There ain't no foolin them noses, they gone catch us.”

“There's no fooling those dogs, they're too good,” Harriet agreed. “But I ain't fooling the dogs. I'm fooling the hunters.” The sounds of singing and shouting suddenly died down, and the sounds of the dogs could be heard a short distance away. They were closing in on the Church quickly, the shouts of their handlers could already be heard in the distance. The sudden shuffling and stomping of feet on the floor above their heads suddenly drowned out the frightening sound of the slave hunters. The congregation was leaving the building, and the sounds of their laughter and shouting soon surrounded the building.

From the Church steps a gunshot rang out. “Nobody leaves!” a loud voice shouted. “We tracked some escaped slaves here and nobody leaves 'fore we find them.”

A calm voice replied “Those are mighty fine dogs, Sir. They led you right to the biggest gathering of slaves in the county. You may may have noticed that everyone here is a negro except you and me.”

“The preacher's right, Billy,” chimed in a low, deep drawl. “Them slaves give us the slip back up the road and them dogs just kept tracking nigger scent. Lord knows there's enough of it here, but none of these are the ones we're looking for.”

Another voice chimed in “It's Christmas eve, Billy. Let's git on back home, we already got a long ride ahead of us. There ain't no escaped slaves here. I can tell 'em by the look in their eye. They either look scared or proud, and none of these niggers has the look. I got my kids expecting me home tomorrow, escaped slaves or no escaped slaves.”

After a little more bickering, the gang loaded up their dogs on a wagon and headed back south on the road. The Pastor waited for them to get out of sight before calling the congregants back to the steps. “Brothers and Sisters,” he intoned solemnly, “somewhere out there in the cold, dark night there's people in need. They need our prayers tonight. We'll all go home to our family, maybe a fire and some food. They won't have anything but cold, fear, and hunger. Join me now as we pray for them.”

Liza listened quietly as the group prayed for them, seemingly unaware that they were in earshot. The voices seemed solemn -there were men and women, some even sounded like children. Liza wondered if the children were with their families. “I miss my Momma,” she whispered, not even realizing that she had spoken it.

“She'd be proud to know you are free,” whispered Harriet. “I know it must have hurt her to see you sold off South, being as young as you were.”

Liza's head drooped. “I remember that day like it was yesterday. They ripped me outta her arms and throwed me in the wagon. She was cryin' and I was a' bawlin' like a baby. I guess I was a baby. Ever since I felt like I ain't got nuthin in the world. I sho' do wish I could spend a Christmas with her, even if we didn't have nothin' to eat special.”

“I know it hurts, child, but all of it led to something good, you're free.”

Liza chuckled. “Free? I hope dis ain't what free is all about. We is hidin' here under a floor runnin' from dogs. We's cold and hungry. I don't feel free. I can't walk around like the ole' Massuh can. He's free to do what he want.”

Harriet shook her head. “Child, do you think that man is free? He beat you in a inch of your life for readin' the Bible. You know what else he done to you, and you so young. Don't you reckon he's got a price to pay for that? The lawd Jesus say that it would be better for him to have a rock tied round his neck and be throwed in the creek than to hurt you. That man won't never be free. The devil owns his soul and he don't even know it.”

Aware that the others were now listening, Harriet paused to let her point sink home. “Remember, baby child, tomorrow is Christmas. The lawd came down from heaven above to make us free. You think about that little baby layin' in an old barn full of animals. He was just like we is tonight -no home, his momma and daddy even had to run from ole King Herod.” From the darkness, Harriet could hear a few whisper “Amen.” As the prayers continued outside on the Church steps, Harriet took Liza by the hand. “Bein' free, child, is about what is in your heart. Jesus came and died to set you free. If you ain't free inside, you won't never be free outside.”

From the steps nearby, they heard the minister close the prayer. Through the silent, still night his final words rang out.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sucessful Evangelism

Tomorrow (Monday) I'm heading down to Birmingham with Pastor(s) Keith and Kenny to meet with Pastor John Constantine about a joint effort by our Churches to minister to Iraqi refugees. In praying about and planning for this meeting, I've been thinking a lot about what constitutes legitimate and “successful” mission efforts. Over the years I've had the opportunity to attend many meetings about missions and ministry. Among Baptists, for the most part, the success of a mission is measured by how many people were saved. Numbers are often thrown out as proof of success.

Now, don't get me wrong on this, I love seeing people get saved. There's really nothing better than seeing a dead person get a new lease on life. Yet, I can't help thinking that we as Baptists suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of how people get saved. Because of this, we are reaching out in ways that are not producing the sort of kingdom fruit that God desires.

The teaching of the scriptures about what we are to do as Christians does not focus on people being saved. Consider one of the scriptures that is a favorite among those of us who are mission-minded Baptists, the Great Commission:

Therefore, as you go, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.

We are given a single task here, broken into two elements. The single task is to make disciples. We accomplish that by doing two things. We baptize disciples, and we teach them. Nowhere here is there a mention of saving them, or even of leading them to salvation. Yet we understand, of course, that people cannot be baptized and taught as disciples unless they are saved.

Jesus made it clear that he alone offers salvation.

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

We cannot baptize or teach those who do not claim the name of Jesus. No amount of teaching them how to behave in Church will save them. Merely “Christianizing” people is not enough. The most we can accomplish is changing their behavior, which has no bearing on their eternal relationship with the living God.

Jesus made it clear that he alone does the saving:

On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not withstand it.

He will build his Church. He didn't ask us to build it, nor should we. Any Church I build is destined to be as screwed up as its founder, or worse.

We must leave salvation to the work of the Holy Spirit, because we are unworthy to save. It should not be manipulated, coerced, or otherwise “helped”. The very idea that we can arrange matters so that more or fewer people are saved is arrogant, and an attempt on our part to play God.

Charles Finney is to blame for the modern invitation system, and much of the poor theology that goes along with it. In addition to being a Pelagian heretic, he pioneered the use of altar calls, high-pressure preaching, and emotional appeals. The idea of scoring a large number of converts with slick packaging at an event is a recent concept with no roots in historical Christianity. It's a marketing technique rooted in modern thinking, and its legacy drives missionary efforts worldwide. When we do see large numbers of people converted, as happened at Pentecost, it is with a simple preaching of the Word during a move of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of Finney would equip missionaries with the following instructions:

Go out and organize large evangelistic gatherings, draw as many people as you possibly can to the event. Preach an emotionally charged message, and deliver it with great fervor. Use dramas, music, or anything you can to appeal to people's emotions -guilt, anxiety, fear.

If people aren't responding, turn up the volume. Preach harder, sing one more verse of the invitation song and make an especially strong emotional appeal. Plead, cry, beg, threaten -do whatever it takes to get them to come forward and make a decision. Plant a few people in the audience who will pretend to respond, to serve as a catalyst.

When Jesus sent out his first missionary team, he gave them these instructions:

As you go, proclaim, 'The kingdom of heaven is near! Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without payment you have received; without payment you are to give. Don't take any gold, silver, or copper in your moneybags, or a traveling bag for the trip, or an extra shirt, or sandals, or a walking stick. For a worker deserves his food.

Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is receptive, let your blessing of peace come on it. But if it isn't receptive, let your blessing of peace return to you. If no one welcomes you or listens to your words, as you leave that house or town, shake its dust off your feet.

More to the point, Jesus told us:

In the same way, let your light shine before people in such a way that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

If we want to know what missions and ministry should look like, we need look no further than the words of our Lord and Savior:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels are with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled in front of him, and he will separate them from each other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right but the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.'

This is nothing like the one-shot evangelism practiced by so many today. Churches and ministries move in for a short term effort, and look for ways to manipulate people to maximize the results of their work -a work which is not theirs in the first place.

We live in an industrial age, and view everything in the lens of mass production. We look for a more efficient process to produce greater results. Applying this to ministry and evangelism may produce more decisions, but does it produce more disciples? More to the point, does it follow in obedience to God?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Friction Happens

My dear friend Mark Buckley asked me to present the Sunday morning sermon at Haney's Chapel, where I was Pastor several years ago. They are a wonderful group of people and I'm looking forward to the visit. Here is the message I will be delivering to them:

I had a really nice, warm, fuzzy Easter sermon prepared (Thursday) when God convicted me with a thought. "You are going to claim to speak for me, yet you have not asked me what to say. How dare you?" That happens to preachers from time to time when we get too full of ourselves. So, I prayed for a message.

God told me what to say Saturday morning. Do not, please do not, blame Mark Buckley for this. If it bothers you, speak to me. If you do not speak to me, I will know that you completely tuned out the message.

When Mark asked me to speak, he mentioned that you have a new Pastor coming next Sunday. My message to you today is about how to relate to him. I believe Romans 8:28 is true, and that God works in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. God meant for me to be here today. Me, because not another soul on earth can deliver to you today the message that I am bringing.

I'd like for you all to put your palms together like this. Now, rub them together. What happens? They're heating up, aren't they? We call the source of that friction. Now, when nothing is moving or happening, there's no heat, no friction. But as soon as things start moving in the system, and work starts happening, we have friction. It is law of the Universe, created by God himself, that work is resisted by friction. So how can we drive a car? How are all those parts able to move so quickly without a meltdown?

Oil. This is why we're able to drive a car despite all the friction that could happen between the pistons and cylinders. This happens even in the most well-oiled machine, but when we handle it correctly, the machine keeps running.

Right now I'm helping a younger Pastor plant a new Church in Boaz. As his mentor, I'm having to guide him through a lot of conflicts -not only with the community, but most especially with other Christians.  The Church is a body. The parts should be moving. Friction is inevitable in that case. How do you resolve friction with another Church member? With your Pastor?

I submit to you that there are three ways that people normally handle this sort of friction. Any ideas what they might be? If you'll rub your hands together long enough the first one will come to you.

1)Do nothing -check out, quit working, build resentment.


3)Force the other person to leave.

We choose these paths because of self. We choose these paths because they are the easy way. We choose these paths because of the work of sin in our lives. I challenge you today to consider instead the teachings of the Prince of Peace, who was nailed to a cross. He knows friction and conflict. When we treat one another, his children, in the same way he was treated, we nail him once more to the cross.

The first option, do nothing, is by far the most popular. It requires the least work. Since the average tenure of a Pastor these days is two years, people figure they can just wait the joker out, and sooner or later he'll leave.

Yet, Jesus said:

Mat 5:23 So if you are about to place your gift on the altar and remember that someone is angry with you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.

Jesus is laying out the principle here that unresolved conflict hampers our relationship with God. If we wish to have a right and peaceful relationship with God, we must work to have a right and peaceful relationship with our brothers. Which one of you, if your children were fighting and full of resentment to one another, would be able to be at peace with them? You'd want them to work it out and make peace. Then you could also be at peace with them.

The second option, leaving, is a lot like the first. Instead of checking out and leaving our body in a pew, we make the break complete. We move on to another Church, not realizing that we're carrying at least half the problem with us. As we are planning out the new Church plant in Boaz, one thing I want to avoid is encouraging transfers from other Churches. Most people who are disgruntled members in one Church will be just as disgruntled after they've been in the second one a while. They haven't learned to resolve conflict.

Then there's the third path -make the other person leave. This is definitely the most viscerally satisfying, because we get to guard our turf, and enjoy a smug sense of victory. It's the same thrill I get from killing another player in a video game, only we try to hang spiritual trappings on it.

The greatest obstacle to the Gospel in Marshall County Alabama is not atheists, agnostics, scientists, or homosexuals. The greatest obstacle to the Gospel in Marshall County Alabama is not the devil. The greatest obstacle to the Gospel in Marshall County Alabama is not any of the things that preachers like to rant against so hard you can see the veins about to pop out of their necks while they launch spit all the way to the back pews. No, the Greatest obstacle to the Gospel in Marshall County Alabama is Churchgoing people who want to use their claws and fangs to win.

Jesus laid out a different path. If we want to follow Jesus, we must not follow any of the three paths that our flesh commands us to travel. We must lay our bodies at the foot of the cross and follow his path. He laid out three very different steps for us to follow.

Mat 18:15 If one of my followers sins against you, go and point out what was wrong. But do it in private, just between the two of you. If that person listens, you have won back a follower.

But if that one refuses to listen, take along one or two others. The Scriptures teach that every complaint must be proven true by two or more witnesses.

If the follower refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Anyone who refuses to listen to the church must be treated like an unbeliever or a tax collector.

It seems so simple. Go yourself. Go with another. Go to the Church. One, two, three. Why don't we do it? As a Pastor, I've constantly had people asking me to handle their disputes for them, to settle their fights. My question is always “Have you tried yourself?” How can I disobey God in this?

“Well, I just can't speak to that person.” “She wouldn't listen if I did.” “He's already made up his mind.” “They don't care what I have to say.”

Do you think for one minute that Jesus never had to deal with people like that? He lived in a world of people that he knew would hate him, and his followers. He knew they were going to crucify him. Jesus knew all about unreasonable people. We don't get to disobey Jesus just because we think our case is special, that this one is different.

Go to that person yourself. If you're married and that person is of the opposite sex, do it in a public place, even if it's just out in the Church yard. Maybe the two of you can talk it through and save a world of hurt.

If that doesn't work, take someone along to talk to that person again. This doesn't mean take someone who will help you coerce them. Take a fair-minded person that you know will be trusted by both of you.

If that person still won't listen, take it to the Church. That probably doesn't mean standing up in service and complaining about it. Go to the leadership. Let them know that you've tried step 1 and step 2. Let them handle it. Be willing to submit to their decision and consider that you might actually be wrong.

You have a new pastor coming. He's going to bring new ideas and hopefully new energy. Each of you will eventually find something about him, or his ideas, that you don't like. Don't check out. Don't leave. Please don't run him off. Jesus says to go talk to him. Go back with a peacemaker if you must. The future of this Church, and of your relationship with God, depends on it. There are two paths before this Church, one leads to death, and another to life. I call on heaven and earth as witnesses today that I have offered you life or death, blessings or curses. Choose life.