What Do You Allow to Define You?

Cheryl and I had the privilege last night of attending the Red Carpet premier of the Kendrick Brothers’ newest film, Overcomer. I am not exactly sure how we ended up on this list of invitations other than when War Room was debuting we received an email inviting pastors and I responded. After our previous experience, I was excited for another opportunity. Our friends kept our eleven month old entertained (I think the opposite was true) while we went and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, candy, popcorn, soda, the presence of brothers and sisters in Christ and celebrated the opening of this film – all at the expense of someone who we do not know and we are thankful! Overcomer opens in theaters next Friday August 23rd.

Here are a few reasons why you should go and take others with you:

Synopsis: The student body of a Christian school in a small town is devastated by the closing of a plant as families immediately begin moving away. The athletic department is particularly affected bringing together a coach and one runner, a young lady, who has had a difficult childhood. The film is anchored on the question: “What do you allow to define you?” and addresses the hurt and healing involved with difficult relationships, especially the most important Relationship.

A COMPELLING STORY

The Kendrick brothers have matured in a powerful way with each film they’ve produced as they have found their niche in telling stories that bring others in contact with the greatest Story. Somehow, even though there is a clear “main character” – this movie does not necessarily have a “star” – and that is hard to do. With their characteristic wit and dry family humor, predictable tearjerker moments, and a story that pierces the heart as one is forced to examine him or herself in light of truth, this film is a must see.

In a day when most “entertainment” is mingled with idolatry and sensuality and in many cases is outright displeasing to the Lord, it is wonderful to have an opportunity to go to a film one will enjoy but can also take his or her family and friends without embarrassment or regret.

THE GOSPEL

In the midst of the film in the narrative of one character, there is a discussion precipitated by difficult questions that leads to one coming to faith in Christ. The Gospel presentation is shared by the brilliant Pricilla Shirer’s character. As a pastor, I was even more impressed with the discipleship elements that were seen as an immediate follow up to this moment resulting in the character’s study of Ephesians and clear, articulate, and beautiful public profession of faith. The Kendrick brothers are not systematic theologians seeking precision to write text books, or expositors preaching verse by verse, they are film makers who are powerfully presenting eternal truths in the medium of entertainment.

RELATIONSHIPS

I must observe this is my first Kendrick brothers film on this side of being a dad, and that certainly played a role in my response to the film and need for junior mints and tissues. I am reserving many of my thoughts so as not give “spoilers” but I can assure you, if you have broken relationships and disappointments with others – you will want to see this film.

APPRECIATION

It is clear from hearing from the brothers themselves and others involved in the making of these movies of the years that there is a clear calling upon their lives to this task. The saturation of these projects with prayer, the identification of these films as belonging to the Lord, and the pride in the craftsmanship of storytelling and truth giving are admirable. Thank you Kendrick Brothers!

FIVE THOUGHTS ON BEING PROACTIVELY PRO-LIFE

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The congregation I pastor is currently collecting change in baby bottles for a local center that serves and ministers to women and families that find themselves in the midst of the challenges created by unexpected pregnancies or have suddenly become responsible for a baby. In thinking through this collection, I had a few thoughts regarding the necessity of these centers and why it is a crucial time to support them in every way possible. I am writing as a pastor and encourager and supporter of these types of ministries, and not as someone who is actively involved or knows the ends and outs from the ground level. Therefore, I ask your forgiveness ahead of time for anything I may overlook. I welcome feedback, particularly from those actively involved day in and day out in these irreplaceable ministries and centers. I have a concern that in the midst of a wave of pro-life legislation there are some who may think the problem is waning, or may even ask, “why do we still need these kind of ministries/centers?” My goal is for us to realize now is the time to step up more support than ever before, and be mindful this is a both/and and not and either/or kind of thing. For a historical example, there is no 13th amendment without the Underground Railroad and there is no Underground Railroad without the 13th amendment. Perhaps you know of the “Freedman’s Bureau” that was founded for the purpose of caring for recently emancipated slaves and provided education, goods, and services for years to come (though woefully imperfectly). As a further reflection on this historical comparison, it is worth noting that caring for our neighbor is never primarily the burden or responsibility of government agencies (state or federal) but it is the job of the loving people who make up churches partnering with non profits. In the midst of this critical time, here are a few reminders to bear in mind:

  • Legislation alone is not enough.

Many of us have been encouraged and pleasantly surprised by the avalanche of legislation in various states such as the varying versions of the “heart beat bill”. Presumably, these bills are poised to directly oppose the Roe v. Wade ruling and are designed to be taken up by the Supreme Court. There is an important caution here: the passage of these bills is in no way a signal to rest easy. The challenge will inevitably take place and the outcome is yet to be seen. Even if there were a ruling that gave states the leverage to maintain such legislation, that does not guarantee a waning of those who are seeking abortions or prevent the possibility of a pendulum swing in states. This is why our number one task cannot be lost: love of neighbor, and specifically love of neighbors in crisis (see Luke 10). Laws do not provide for people’s greatest and most basic needs, only love of neighbor does that.

  • There are no crisis pregnancies, only people and families in crisis.

This is an important distinctive. Though many of these centers have (and may still be) been named something like “Crisis Pregnancy Center” there has been in the last several years recognition that this can be a misleading misnomer. We do not think the pregnancy itself is a crisis; the pregnancy is a person, a he or a she. The situation is critical to be sure, and those who find themselves to be carrying a human being or families that all of the sudden find themselves responsible for an infant may have moments of crisis, but the child is not a crisis.

  • Many clients who come, come bewildered, confused, and unsure of what to think or what step to take.

Helping women who are overwhelmed is what these centers primarily exist for. Volunteers and paid workers and counselors are present to receive mostly ladies who have been abandoned in one way or another, young ladies that are unsure of how to talk to their families, and those in various levels of economic difficulty.  Many of these women call or come to these centers with broken and bewildered hearts, not proud and defiant hearts. A large number of abortions take place in situations where it is perceive the child cannot be financially cared for. One of the most important roles these centers play is in informing women of all of their options, most particularly options for loving adoption. These needs will not go away regardless of any legislation. Even the overturning of Roe v. Wade in some form by the Supreme Court will not stem the tide of abortions perpetually.

  • What many of these centers need is not simply funding (though that’s extremely important), they need volunteers, and they need good (new) and practical baby care items.

One can tote a picket sign, or vote a certain way and go home feeling as if he or she has done something, but if that is the extent of one’s “pro-life” involvement, we have failed. Our primary objective is to love our neighbor. Making donations to these centers is a crucial aspect of involvement, but what these centers really need are caring individuals to step in and do something. This can look like lending a listening ear, or scrubbing a toilet. In addition to funds, a lot of these centers have systems in which they distribute needed items to families in need for the infants in their care. However, don’t just take your old baby stuff. Get a physical list or go online and find out what the greatest needs are and give generously and freely.

  • Many, if not most of these centers, have a much more holistic mission and ministry than simply “preventing abortion.”

Our local center provides parenting and family care classes in addition to optional Bible studies and counseling. In many cases these centers will have clients they work with for months or years. It is good to be aware of exactly what the center nearest to you actually does and recognize why their existence in your community is so crucial and how it extends well beyond a simple conversation with women who don’t know what they are going to do.

Finally, in the encouraging wave of pro-life sentiment in our country, let us not grow weary in doing good. This is not a time to slow down, but a time to step up and march for life like never before, to be those who love our neighbors in real and tangible ways. Support your local center in every way possible, and pray for the day this grievous evil itself is aborted.

 

Cathedrals, Temples, and the Church

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Buildings made by human hands will not last forever regardless of how iconic or permanent of a fixture in a skyline they seem. As Notre Dame burns, this reality is slowly sinking in for millions at this very moment. I was visiting with someone the other day about their recent journey to New York City and told them it had been eighteen years since I had visited. After some quick math the individual asked me, “what month were you there?” I answered that it had been in March. I remarked how my having been there and having seen the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center from almost every conceivable angle made the crashing of the world in September of 2001 horrifically real for a teenager from rural Mississippi. In much smaller (by comparison) tragedies both the coastal summer camp where I worked, and the college I attended would be forever diminished or altered by Hurricane Katrina and a devastating tornado (respectively). It seems no building is safe from the sands of time regardless of what kind of foundation it is built upon.

By way of full disclosure, in some ways, as a Reformed Protestant semi-iconoclast, I recoil at the thought of cathedrals and the use of the well-meaning tithes, promised indulgences, or forced taxes utilized to construct them. As a historian, I cannot help but be in awe of their gothic elegance and architecture. A few years ago while visiting a cathedral in Germany I took note of a couple of positives of cathedrals. The first was the way they were constructed to strike awe in the heart of the visitor and force them to look up, within and without. The second was the astounding reality that those who planned the initial construction knew the projects would not be finished in their lifetimes. Both of those truths remind us that our vapor of a life is quickly passing away while there is a much more permanent truth towering over us. Still, with every good intention of cathedrals (intentional or coincidental), there is no stone built that will not one day come down.

Imagine how shocked and dismayed Jesus’ disciples were the week he was to be crucified as they walked from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives and one of them said, “what beautiful buildings these are!” (referring to the buildings of the Jewish Temple) to which Jesus responded, “I tell you, not one stone will be left on top of another” (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21).  The destruction of the Temple was not a new thing to the Judean memory (586 BC), but at this point it was distant enough it was out of living memory. Jesus made here an accurate and prophetic prediction that would come to pass in AD 70, in the lifetime of a few of his disciples.  Imagine hearing, “the White House will be destroyed by terrorists,” “The church you grew up in be destroyed by a tornado,”  “The Taj Mahal will be swallowed by a sinkhole,” (up until today) “Notre Dame Cathedral will burn,” and on and on it goes. We are a generation (such as the World War II generation) that is familiar with the destruction of the iconic.

So, if what seems as if it would never change, fade, burn, be destroyed, or falter does, where do we turn, what do we know, how do we sustain, where is our hope, “when the earth gives way” (Psalm 46)?

The answer is in Jesus being raised from the tomb. Jesus’ prophecy uttered to his devoted disciples in private had been spoken in public to demurring Pharisees. At the time it was not understood by anyone:

The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:20-22

The resurrection of Jesus’ body is the promise of the resurrection of all of our bodies, and it is with hope and expectation that we look forward to that day:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. – 2 Corinthians 5:1 – 5  (cf. 1 Corinthians 15)

In hope and expectation of the day of Resurrection, we must also take note of the Spiritual construction project going on all around us as God builds His church:

. . . you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

The church built by God was laid upon the foundation of the Spirit-wrought confession of Peter (not Peter himself as the religion which built most cathedrals believes), and the confession is that, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16).  It is upon that solid rock of a foundational confession, that God is building a church which even the fires of Hell cannot destroy.

The temple which God is building out of his church, and the permanent structures we will one day inhabit constructed out of our currently wasting away temples, should give us hope as we see the temporary give way to eternity. May we all who are saved by faith alone in Jesus the Son of God emulate the faith of our father Abraham: For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)

Our National Lament

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our national lament

[My Thoughts on the 46th Anniversary of the Roe V. Wade Decision (excerpted from this past Sunday’s sermon, “Our National Lament” – you can hear the whole thing here: http://meansvillebaptistchurch.com/our_national_lament )]

I will never forget that February morning nearly a year ago when I heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. For 9 months, every few and every couple of weeks, I would listen for this heartbeat.

There are many such heartbeats being stilled every day in our country. That is to our shame, it is our sin, and we must make the end of it our supplication.

The number one reason people get abortions is economic on some level.It has been proven that when there are active mercy ministries and there is economic relief and stimulus to impoverished regions and neighborhoods, abortion rates go down. It is hard work, hard love, and tediously done – but those who cannot speak for themselves are worth it.

I read a few months ago about a couple that stood outside a particular clinic with signs. But these were not signs saying “Abortion kills babies” or something like that. They simply had signs saying that God loved them and their baby and they would adopt their baby. After four months of this practice this couple had the opportunity to adopt a baby. What if we did more of that?

It’s not simply enough to be pro-life, we must also be pro – active in engaging those around us who are crying out, in compassion and love – meeting needs, as we go on our knees before our almighty God crying out in prayer.
In the climate of our country today – indeed in the midst of a shutdown that has gone nearly a month – we have never seen this kind of fight over life in the womb, or to cut out the over 538 million dollars Planned Parenthood receives from the budget. And one party had control of the government for two years. To be fair, this was also true for the most part from 1995 – 2007 and the president was of the same party for most of that time. So voting for people or a party simply because they say they are pro-life is not working.

I am not saying do not vote or do not vote your values but I do want to point out this reality because it matters. Those who campaign with the promise of promoting “Pro-Life” legislation simply don’t always follow through. It oftentimes is a talking point to simply garner votes. The informed voter must look beyond this talk as much as he or she is able to the character of the candidate. A good rule of thumb is this: if the candidate says he or she will defend the image of God on one level – life in the womb but disparages the image of God on another – that is other human beings, then more than likely that candidate does not actually care.

As Christians, if we do not understand that voting is not our first priority then we have misunderstood where our true citizenship is. For the Christian it is never America first, it is always the Kingdom of Christ first.

So, if voting is not our strategy. . . what is our strategy?

It is perhaps helpful to vote, it is good to march, it is necessary to be compassionately engaged, but it is imperative to Pray. Many of our churches are more concerned about voter guides than prayer guides, and this must change. Our most important duty is not at the ballot box but in the prayer closet.

My outlook and our outlook as followers of Jesus Christ is not pessimistic and negative but hopeful and optimistic – always. Jesus is the perfect mediator and in Him we all have Hope. His death, burial and resurrection is effective for anyone and His forgiveness is extended to all who trust in Him. If you are this is you and you have participated in abortion in anyway (paid for, encouraged, or had) – God loves you and will forgive you.

We are not only optimistic and hopeful in that way – we also know there will be an end to abortion in America, and everywhere else. I just pray it is not too late for America.
I love how Dr. Russell Moore puts it – that he prays for the day that a Sanctity of Human Life Sunday is no longer necessary: “We’ll always need Christmas. We’ll always need Easter. But I hope, please Lord, someday soon, that Sanctity of Human Life Day is unnecessary.”

Let’s continue to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1) until every heart beat of the Imago Dei lives to see the light of day.

The Least Segregated Hour of the Weak

GradyHosp“I will show you, come with me. . . ” said a smiling Middle-Eastern immigrant woman in a hijab as she led me down a fluorescent-lit hallway through a secure door pressing the button of an air phone for admittance to a secure area. She was friendly, I was responded in kind, and was frankly excited for the opportunity to interact with someone whose culture sets up many barriers to interact with someone like me and my culture builds walls preventing congenial interaction with people like her. The setting was a hospital. I was visiting a church member in a trauma ICU and she was the receptionist at the desk. In the room, my eyes awoke from prayer to see an African American nurse who was expecting a child. My wife and I are also expecting. The nurse and I began to share with each other our joys and fears about the expectation of a new birth and the gift of life, as we also shared our faith and joy in the New Birth we have in Christ. When I exited the room, my eyes roamed up and down the hallway. I saw prim and proper city dwellers and laid back ball capped and camouflaged country folk.  My ears listened to conversations. In English I heard country twang and mid-western plain.  I also detected Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Mandarin. I boarded an elevator full of people who did not look like me, and we smiled and shared jokes and encouragement.

I was filled with joy and awe at the experience of so many different people interacting on so many levels and was subsequently prompted to ponder: So many of us through our social media avenues, neighborhoods, shopping choices, and social gatherings voluntarily choose to isolate ourselves from others not like us. In a hospital we do not have such a choice. We have to interact. We need each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated an oft repeated observation, “Eleven o’ clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week.”[1] Fifty years after his untimely death, this unfortunately remains predominately unchanged. We need to ask ourselves why this is. At a time when many minorities are exiting predominately white evangelical churches it is time to take our pulse.[2] What is the medicine we are offering? What is the care we are providing? What is the encouragement we have?  When those who call themselves followers of Christ find any major identity in any other source than the Source of Life (Acts 3:15) we are violating the dictum to “do no harm.”[3] We are certainly not good Samaritans, and we have not put others’ interests above our own (Phil. 2:4). Instead of honoring a spiritual “Hippocratic Oath” like good doctors, we are instead committing malpractice as hypocrites. One reason we have this problem is because too many of us think we are too healthy for our own good.  Jesus reminded us it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick (Mark 2:17). Essentially, once we have forgotten we are all sick (Jer. 17:9), we have decided we no longer need Jesus, and if we don’t need Jesus then we don’t need the body of Jesus – we don’t need each other. The reality however is this: There is none healthy, no not one.

If our churches were more like hospitals and Christians interacted more like the soul-sick people we are then we would begin to make unprecedented progress. Grady Hospital, where I was visiting, was officially integrated in 1966. The scene I experienced would have been unheard of in 1965 Atlanta.  As one of the picketer’s signs proclaimed, “Disease and death know no race.” For Christians, let us continue to strive for, long for, and pray for the day that “health” and life in the church will also know no race.

[1] King’s original wording was “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/us/blacks-evangelical-churches.html Campbell Robertson, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” in the New York Times, March 9, 2018.

[3] See the Hippocratic oath.

 

A Light Shone, The Legacy of Billy Graham

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.  – Matthew 5:16 KJV

Five years ago I was part of a group of local pastors asked to reflect on the life of Billy Graham in what was thought to be his final days. Those final days extended to another half decade as he went home to be with the Lord early this morning. An aspect of his ministry that is too often forgotten is his contribution to racial reconciliation. Let us hear the Rev. Graham himself:

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“Though the race question has important social implications, it is fundamentally a moral and spiritual issue. Only moral and spiritual approaches can provide a solution.” (Reader’s Digest. 1960)

He also stated in a broadcast in 1963: “Only the supernatural love of God through changed men can solve this burning question. Christ was not so much a reformer as He was a transformer. This does not mean the race problem is not to be preached and taught, but it is not to be our Gospel. … The racial problem in America will not be settled in the streets, but it could be settled in the hearts of men in a spiritual dimension.”

Here were my comments at the time that I now offer a hearty “Amen!” to this morning:

I look to Dr. Graham as a personal hero in way of race relations.  Billy Graham led in this fight in incalculable ways. He caused a stir when he invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at his New York City crusade in 1957. He personally removed ropes intended to segregate crowds in Chattanooga, TN in 1953. Other times he boldly insisted on the integration of crowds or said he would not come to cities from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Jackson, Mississippi to Johannesburg, South Africa.  His actions speak louder than words. These are real gospel moments when the man of God insisted on bringing together the people of God. I pray this part of his legacy will not soon be forgotten.Billymen

Today I add this video of Dr. Graham, George Beverly Shea, and Cliff Barrows singing, “This Little Light of Mine.” It makes me smile. I am thankful these men let their lights shine. I hope they do an encore real soon.

 

Dear Mr. Potter

baileypotterAmongst the citizens of Bedford Falls dwells a man by the name of Potter. He waits for disaster to strike then manipulates everyone and everything to revolve around him and to regard him as some sort of a savior. This is a subplot of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, but it is also the reality of many traditional and rural churches. In those churches Mr. Potter may be a man, a woman, or a group of men and women, but very few Bedford Falls do not have at least one Potter deigning to transform Bedford Falls “Church” in to Pottersville “Church”. In the film, the disaster is the Great Depression. In your church the disaster could be a financial, theological, or personnel crisis. The results are the same. Mr. Potter is waiting to pounce.

Enter George Bailey. George is an upright and honest young man. He’s energetic if not somewhat brash and in need of growing in life and wisdom. He does not intend to stay in a town like Bedford Falls his whole life. No. His eyes are on the globe and he is hopeful about his education, prospects, and adventures. Disaster strikes: death, sadness. George stays, but it’s okay, there will be another way out. He is a loyal and caring young man. This is the recurring story of George Bailey and of many pastors set upon the mission of revitalizing small town and rural traditional churches: stuck, barely making ends meet, not earning many dollars, but making many friends.

In many ways, George Bailey and Mr. Potter live parallel lives. They go to the same bank, live in the same town, and each grows rich in his own way. Both are blind to the value of true riches. When disaster strikes, both keep their heads. One is thinking of others, the other is thinking of himself.

At a key point in the film when George has an epiphany he gives Mr. Potter an incredible and scathing speech. He points out that he is “nothing but a warped frustrated old man” who “spins his webs.” He further determines to continue operating his father’s “penny-ante building and loan” just so the people in the town have a “one horse institution where people can go without crawling to Potter.”

With that in mind, let me take a moment to address all the Mr. Potters out there:

Dear Mr. Potter,

Stop being a warped frustrated old man. Stop spinning your webs, figure out what is gnawing you and repent. You are not the Savior, and neither is George. You are not George’s enemy and he is not yours. You both have the same Enemy, and the same Savior.

Sincerely,

George Bailey

Finally, due to the mistake of someone else, under the responsibility of George, comes a situation that cannot be ignored and Mr. Potter sees a way to twist the situation to his benefit, do George in, and win. (Again, a recurring plot in many of these traditional rural churches in need of revitalization). However, due to life investments and grace, George Bailey will survive.

What John Brown wrote to a younger protégé minister may well be said to many real life George Baileys who venture out bright-eyed and ready to conquer the world:

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

The truth of the matter is, all situations will not work out the way it does in a Frank Capra film, but what we have is more sure. We have a faithful Shepherd Who rewards His shepherds with a crown (1 Peter 5). So from one George Bailey to another, in the words of Alistair Begg, “Stay steady!” After all, Bedford Falls, and especially Mr. Potter, needs Jesus. It truly is a wonderful life.