Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Irreverent Wrongs

In the kindness of God, I've been traveling a little bit over the past 3-4 days. So, I've missed a lot of the brewing scandal regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright's recent comments during the Bill Moyers interview, at the Detroit NAACP meeting, and at the National Press Club. Seems the couple months of silence was spent resting his vocal chords, drinking lots of water, and preparing for a torrent of very public and altogether useless comments.

After puzzling over why Wright would do the Moyers interview when it seemed the story was dying (albeit a slow and agonizing death), after watching some extended sections from the NAACP talk, and after hearing sections of Obama's reaction, it seems apparent that Wright's comments (a) further wounded a sheep in his care--this time personally, and (b) perhaps revealed a level of pride and lacking discernment. The former pastor is obviously wrong, compounding those wrongs, and appears irreverent about it.

It's a cautionary tale for us younger pastors. Here's a man that's served the same congregation over thirty years, who has no doubt learned many things in that time. He's perhaps forgotten more than I know. And yet, when he is supposed to be retired and out of the public light, seems so taken with himself and his view of the world that he'd beat the sheep rather than feed them and risk overturning perhaps the most significant bid for the presidency in American history.

The lessons are legion. Here are five from my perspective:

1. Feed the sheep, feed the sheep, feed the sheep. For the sake of argument, even if Obama was wrong in his Philadelphia comments where Wright was concerned, the appropriate response from the pastor isn't a series of interviews but Galatians 6:1-2, gently pulling the erring brother aside. Insofar as Wright still regarded himself as the stronger brother and Obama's pastor, he was obligated to bear with the weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1-3) and to teach with all patience (2 Tim. 4:2). This, no doubt, is easier said than done when we're feeling personally attacked. But our call to heal and lead the sheep trumps our "right" to self-defense.

2. Be willing to suffer reproach for doing good. Wright sees himself as a servant of the marginalized and oppressed, a role he asserts Jesus assumed. If he really believed that, he should willingly and joyfully suffer for doing good (1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:13-17). To this we are called. While I think Wright's theological and political commitments are wrong-headed, his life illustrates for me the importance of my being willing to suffer for what I think is right--the Lord, the gospel and the sheep.

3. Think carefully about a separation of church and state principle in my own ministry and public comments on public issues. This, I think, is a serious weakness in some quarters of American Christianity, with social gospels on the left and the right. Wright interprets the critical comments in response to his sermons as an attack on the black church. The comments fueling all of this were pretty clearly political comments, not gospel, Christian, or church-related comments. That he doesn't see the distinction is quite alarming. Now he is in the public square assuming that his detractors at the least don't understand the entire black church and at worst are anti-black church. Whenever or if ever I am called to speak on some public issue, I need to do the hard work of knowing where the Bible stops speaking, where my opinion begins, and where either state concerns are over-running more fundamental biblical concerns or vice-versa.

4. Seek counsel before speaking. That hardly needs any elaboration, except to say that on stages as large as this, and on a thousand smaller ones, we either help the cause of Christ by speaking well or hinder it by speaking poorly. "No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8). Surely we should count the costs before waging war, seek counsel before advancing plans. And beyond seeking counsel, heeding it. I can't imagine that any godly persons advised Wright to make these appearances, or they did that Wright kept their counsel. A good rule of thumb I learned in a different context: if you seek someone's counsel and you decide to do something other than what they counsel, at least make yourself accountable to the counselor and the counsel by advising the counselor that (a) you're going to do something different than what was counseled, (b) the reasons why, and (b) before you act.

5. Pray and war against pride. I don't want to judge Wright. I don't know the man's heart or motives in all of this. But it looks like the same kind of pride that lurks in my heart, seeking to control the assessments I make of myself, my own importance and influence, and my reaction to situations and people who don't think more highly of me than they do themselves. It's been said a lot. And most of us have read or heard C.J. and others on the dangers of pride. But is it not ever with us? Does it not always threaten us, our relationships, and even our ministries? Had Wright never said a word in his own defense, many people would have judged his life of ministry on a wider set of factors, some favorable and some not. But now, it seems pride may have ruined a reputation after the public ministry was completed. It can do as much and more damage in all of our lives.

Here's what I pray I would have said if I were forced to do a Press Club event in Wright's situation. I realize I have all the benefits of not being in the situation and the seemingly better sight that comes from Monday morning quarterbacking. And, it's a strange thing to confess another's sins. But Wright's flaws are so nearly my own, or so peculiar to the preaching ministry, that it's worth thinking through as though they had been my comments. So, here goes:

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you with regard to a number of issues drawing national attention, comment, and even anger. I realize that I don't deserve this platform to speak to you, and I don't take for granted the trust I am called to exercise as a minister and preacher of the gospel and a community servant.

"Much could be said in an attempt to explain the comments aired on YouTube and various media outlets. But explanation is not nearly as important as repentance.

"I want to make full and public repentance for my comments, which includes (a) denouncing those comments, (b) offering apology and, where possible, restitution for those comments, and (c) disassociating my sins from innocent and affected parties.

"For thirty years I have warned my congregation and many visitors to TUCC about the dangers of sin, the deceitfulness of sin, and the need for the atoning work of Christ to be applied to each person because of their sin. That atonement is appropriated through repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Son of God, Jesus Christ, who in His crucifixion satisfied God the Father's holy anger against sin. That includes sins of speech, like the words I spoke during those sermons. Those comments were careless, inaccurate, insensitive, divisive... in a word, sinful. Without rationalization or attempts at justification, I do now denounce and disavow these specific comments and phrases....

"I also wish to offer unfeigned apology to all those harmed by my comments. The numbers of such people is too large to list them all, even by demographic groups. But I do wish to apologize specifically to the members of Trinity UCC, fellow Christians around the world whose love for and association with the Savior has been hindered in any way, and citizens of the United States of America. Jesus Christ is meek and lowly in heart. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoking wick. Those are characteristics that should mark His people, especially His ministers. Those characteristics are not found in my comments. For that, I am ashamed and deeply sorry. I wish to apologize to anyone hurt by my remarks.

"Finally, I would like to make it clear that my comments were my comments. They were not the official position of TUCC and they do not represent the opinions and commitments of every individual member of TUCC, including my dear brother, Sen. Barack Obama.

"Attempts have been made to characterize Sen. Obama as basically sympathetic to my comments simply because he is a 20-year member of TUCC. As any pastor can tell you, not every member agrees with every position a pastor holds. And as a pastor with enough humility to admit that his opinions and sermons are not flawless presentations of God's word and truth, I am frankly quite pleased that members of TUCC, including Sen. Obama, have enough discernment and integrity to distance themselves from anything I may say that does not well represent Christ and/or their understanding of the Lord's word. In an effort to serve such members, to affirm and protect their integrity and freedom of conscience, it is important that my comments be viewed as my comments and that individual members of Trinity not be unduly and unfairly associated with views they themselves have never shared.

"I know Sen. Barack Obama to be.... And I pray that the American people would judge him by the content of his character, and not by the content of my sermons.

"Thank you for the opportunity to share these comments. As you know, I entered retirement from the pastorate and public ministry in January of this year. It's my plan to enjoy that retirement and to leave behind these things and to press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. May the Lord bless you and keep you."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Light Blogging

By God's grace and through the generosity of the saints at FBC, my family and I are on vacation this week. We're in the barbecue capital of the world, Lexington, N.C. Best chopped barbecue on the planet.

While we're on vacation, blogging will be light to non-existent. As I meditate on last week at T4G, Covenant Life, and a pastor's retreat, I may put up a reflection or two either here or at Church Matters. But we'll see.

In the meanwhile, a brother in the church sent this link to me on muslim conversions. Thought it would be an interesting read.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why I'm Looking Forward to T4G

In no particular order after item #1:

1. Seeing the Lord of glory in the preaching of the word!

2. Having team time with staff and members of the church who will be attending.

3. Reflecting, as I did this morning with one staff person, on the great privilege the saints at FBC have given us in attending the conference. And praising God before, during and after the conference for their partnership in the gospel. I rejoice that the Lord has placed us as staff at a church that invests in us so generously.

4. Fellowship with the thousands of pastors, elders, deacons and brethren from around the country and various parts of the world.

5. 5,000 people (mostly men) singing Jesus exalting hymns! There's no sound like it this side of heaven!

6. Speaking on the first day, getting out of the way, then sitting down to listen to the word from gifted and extraordinarily used of the Lord brothers. It'll be feasting.

7. Related to the above, I'm thankful for the kindness of the organizers in not scheduling me to follow Mohler, MacArthur, Dever, Mahaney, Sproul, or Piper. Duncan will do an outstanding job before me, but he is such a gentleman he'll graciously leave me something to say.

8. Fellowship with old friends.

9. Time away with my wife and without the children.

10. My wife not having to cook or clean for a week, but relax and enjoy the fellowship in the word.

11. Seasons. I think it's Spring in the States. We only have two seasons... peak and hurricane.

12. Band of bloggers panel discussion before the conference.

13. Meeting new friends.

14. Have I not mentioned the books? Both free and available in the much larger book store area.

15. Two talks I feel a special need for in my own soul: "How the Supremacy of Christ Creates Radical Christian Service" and "Sustaining a Pastor's Soul."

16. I didn't start this way, but I've grown to be excited and thankful about my particular talk. I pray the Lord bears fruit from it.

17. 2006 was easily the most edifying, soul-stirring fun I've ever had at a conference. I'm looking forward to more of the same.
18. I get to see a daughter I haven't seen in about a year.

19. As much fun as it will be, it will be great to come back to the family at FBC and continue together in our pilgrimage to glory and life together in Jesus Christ.

How about you? Looking forward to T4G?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ferguson on the Prayer of Faith

"This, then, is the prayer of faith: to ask God to accomplish what He has promised in His Word. That promise is the only ground for our confidence in asking. Such confidence is not "worked up" from within our emotional life; rather, it is given and supported by what God has said in Scripture.

"Truly 'righteous' men and women of faith know the value of their heavenly Father's promises. They go to Him, as children do to a loving human father. They know that if they can say to an earthly father, 'But, father, you promised...,' they can both persist in asking and be confident that he will keep his word. How much more our heavenly Father, who has given His Son for our salvation! We have no other grounds of confidence that He hears our prayers. We need none.

"Such appeal to God's promises constitutes what John Calvin, following Turtullian, calls 'legitimate prayer.'

"Some Christians find this disappointing. It seems to remove the mystique from the prayer of faith. Are we not tying down our faith to ask only for what God already has promised? But such disappointment reveals a spiritual malaise: would we rather devise our own spirituality (preferably spectacular) than God's (frequently modest)?

"The struggles we sometimes experience in prayer, then, are often part of the process by which God gradually brings us to ask for only what He has promised to give. The struggle is not our wrestling to bring Him to give us what we desire, but our wrestling with His Word until we are illuminated and subdued by it, saying, 'Not my will, but Your will be done.' Then, as Calvin again says, we learn 'not to ask for more than God allows.'

"This is why true prayer can never be divorced from real holiness. The prayer of faith can be made only by the 'righteous' man whose life is being more and more aligned with the covenant grace and purposes of God. In the realm of prayer, too (since it is a microcosm of the whole of the Christian life), faith (prayer to the covenant Lord) without works (obedience to the covenant Lord) is dead."

From Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust), pp. 146-147.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

My Favorite Doctrine

If I had a "favorite" doctrine, a truth from Scripture I love to meditate upon, it would be union with Christ. Our union with the Lord is a sublime reality. I'm taken with it, though I dare not darken counsel with my unlearned words. So, many thanks to Dan for this quote from Calvin which preaches!

Hence it follows, that we can confidenty assure ourselves, that eternal life, of which he himself is the heir, is ours, and that the kingdom of heaven, into which he has entered, can no more be taken from us than from him; on the other hand, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from the guilt of which he absolves us, seeing he has been pleased that these should be imputed to himself as if they were his own. This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God…. Having received our mortality, he has bestowed on us his immortality. Having undertaken our weakness, he has made us strong in his strength. Having submitted to our poverty, he has transferred to us his riches. Having taken upon himself the burden of unrighteousness with which we were oppressed, he has clothed us with his righteousness (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.17.2).

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Carolyn and C.J. on How to Help Your Husband When He Is Criticized

Here is must reading for church leaders with their wives: "How to Help Your Husband When He Is Criticized." I'm guessing every church leader is at some point going to receive criticism. And if he is married, he is likely to share his feelings about the criticism with his wife. How wives respond can either be incredibly hurtful or helpful. Thanks C.J. and Carolyn for this very helpful word of encouragement.

Deacons: Tried and True

In my first job out of college I served as a "job coach" with a little non-profit that helped people with disabilities integrate into the workplace. It was a great opportunity with a great group of people.

My main task, after helping the person find a job, was to provide on-the-job coaching during the probationary employment period. This was generally a "make or break" period. Either the job was a "good fit" or it was quickly evident that things would not work out.

I've had a number of clients either quit or get fired in just a matter of hours or days. It was a time of testing for the employee, the employer and the job coach. Employees could find themselves in situations too complex given their abilities. Employers could be ill-suited for supporting people with disabilities even if they employee was capable otherwise. And the job coach... well, let's just say the job coach has done everything from scoop poop at a kennel (several actually) to wash windows for an airline to data processing at IBM to flipping burgers at your local fast food joint. It was a time of testing for all.

Serving is not only a joy, it is also at times a real test. Serving others tests the depths of our love, the lengths of our patience, the quality of our endurance, and even the permanence of our joy. Serving brings great rewards, and sometimes those rewards are gift-wrapped in trying situations. Those who lovingly serve others often end up feeling like crash dummies designed specifically to discover the heat, force, and pain tolerance of some new product.

It's not surprising then that Paul should instruct Timothy and the church to find table servers, deacons, who "must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons" (1 Tim. 3:10). We call deacons to a number of difficult situations often in response to serious needs and/or serious sins. So, this is no place for a novice. The battle tested are the best applicants.

Deacons are to be examined or put to the test. As one commentator put it, "How this is to be done is not specified. The letter itself makes the requirements public, and 5:22ff indicates that time must be given to appraise a person's life. From this we can conclude that the testing is to be a thoughtful and careful evaluation of a man's life by a congregation aware of these needed qualifications" (Knight, NIGTC on The Pastoral Epistles, p. 170). The testing most likely involves the kinds of spiritual qualifications found throughout 1 Timothy 3.

Some questions to consider:

1. Is the prospective deacon a mature and growing Christian? Time is not always a predictor of maturity, but generally speaking recent converts are not tested and seasoned. There is no magic number of years to reach before one is regarded as a deacon, but churches are to examine a person for spiritual preparedness and capability before making her or him a deacon. Are the fruit of the Spirit evident in their lives? Are they growing into Christlikeness and contributing to the growth of others so that all may grow up into Christ? (Eph. 4)

2. Does the prospective deacon show competence in the area of service? This is not the equivalent of conducting a professional head hunter search for technical competence. But it is wise to look for persons who have already been serving and display some skill in the area they may be asked to lead. Perhaps they have been volunteering in some related capacity. Or, perhaps they have work-related experience and expertise. Phil Ryken puts it this way: "This is a universal principle of Christian ministry: the way to prepare for greater service is to be diligent in some lesser service. Faithful ministry is both rewarded by God and recognized by the church" (1 Timothy, Reformed Expositor's Commentary, p. 128-9).

3. Is there anything that disqualifies the prospective deacon from serving? Whether in character or in competence, does the church's testing reveal serious deficiencies prohibiting a person's service? That's the negative aspect of the testing.

4. Is the congregation supportive of the potential deacon entering the office? This is the positive aspect of the testing. The person who passes the testing labors with the full support and commendation of the church body and leaders. The testing serves to affirm the person's gifting and character and to endorse the person's ministry. It enables confidence in service.

Deacons are indispensable in the Christian church. The Lord has not established the office as an added extra. And the office does not continue to exist as some obsolete appendage. Rather, deacons serve the table of the Lord in such a way as to facilitate the advance of the gospel, the health of the body, and the rejoicing of the saints. With great reason, then, Paul concludes: "Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 3:13). What a noble calling!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Boundless Unplugged

Boundless is one of the ministries I really appreciate and often recommend. They've launched podcasts that folks should check out.

Here's how the folks at Boundless describe the effort:

The Young Adults team at Focus on the Family recently launched “The Boundless Show,” the audio companion to the already popular Boundless webzine (www.boundless.org) and Boundless Line blog for singles and young adults. The first ten episodes are now available online.

“The Boundless Show” is a magazine-format weekly podcast that releases a new episode each Friday afternoon. Its goal is to build a sense of community among young adults that is engaging and fun while simultaneously tackling important issues such as relationships, culture, worldview and faith. Hosted by Focus on the Family’s Lisa Anderson and featuring the unique perspectives of Boundless staffers Steve and Candice Watters, Motte Brown and Ted Slater plus a wide range of guests, “The Boundless Show” brings a much-needed voice to the interests and concerns of today's twenty- and thirtysomethings.

“We're always looking for ways to leverage new media to extend our outreach to young adults,” said Motte Brown, young adults manager and executive producer of “The Boundless Show.” “Online audio just seemed like a natural fit given Focus on Family's history of excellence in broadcasting. And we think we've landed on a format that is meaningful, entertaining and quite frankly ‘different’ from other Focus programming. So far, the feedback to the show has been overwhelmingly positive.”

You can catch the podcast by searching for it in iTunes or by going to www.boundlessline.org/podcast/.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Oprah and Jesus on the Importance of Belief

Oprah Winfrey has started an online "school" for teaching people about the works of Meister Tolle called "A New Earth." Someone on Godtube had put together a short video of some of the online study's content and some commentary of their own.

It's a horrifyingly dark set of teachings. During the video, Oprah includes a word of personal testimony including how the idea of a jealous God repulsed her.

"God... in the essence of all consciousness... isn't someting to believe. God is. God is. And God is a feeling experience, not a believing experience. And, in fact, if your religion is a believing experience... if God for you is still about a belief, then it's not truly God."
--Oprah Winfrey

So much for her earlier comment in this video, where she defended the idea that there is not one true way to God but that all paths lead there. All paths except belief in a personal, sovereign God who reveals himself in the Word of God and calls all men everywhere to repent and believe.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdice: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
--Jesus Christ (John 3:16-21; emphasis in the original)

Obviously, Oprah's online "school" is unhealthy stuff. It's cross-denying and therefore leads only to death and eternal woe. But I don't want to just beat up on Oprah.

One thing I'm thankful for from this video is that Oprah helps us preachers to think a bit more carefully about our audience. There are no doubt many in the pew who would find teaching about a jealous God repulsive, and yet they've not understood how God's jealousy for His own name is utterly unlike fallen human jealousy or how it is absolutely right that God infinte in every perfection be jealous for His name, that God's own zeal for His name is commendable in light of who God is. I'd love for Oprah to sit down with Piper and work though some of this! And I'd love to preach to my own people in a way that doesn't leave them at 20-something staggering away from the Lord because they're projecting themselves onto God.

Oh that the Lord would make me a preacher!