Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jesus the African Refugee

Today on Ethics Daily, Elijah Brown had an interesting article about Jesus' early life as an African refugee.  I had the opportunity to meet Elijah in April of this year in Philadelphia at the meeting of the North American Baptist Fellowship.  He's an associate professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, TX and is a very sharp young man and a gifted communicator.

Elijah challenges all of us to consider the plight of the millions in our world who have been forced to abandon their country of origin due to a variety of factors--war, persecution, natural disasters, hunger, etc.  While in our Christmas reflections and celebrations we seldom include mention of the flight of Jesus' family to Egypt to escape the horrific infanticide carried out by Herod in Bethlehem, the fact remains that Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus were refugees.  The good news of Jesus' birth offers hope even for those who've lost everything and have fled to what often seems a strange and foreign setting because Jesus began His own life as an African refugee.  He understands what it means to be without a home, without wealth, or even without a country.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jesus: Meek and Mild?

I always enjoy reading the daily devotionals entitled "A Slice of Infinity" that I receive from the Ravi Zacharias organization.  Google it if you're interested in subscribing to their daily devotionals which can be emailed to your inbox.  Their managing editor, Jill Carattini, had a great piece this morning about our failure to recognize just how unsettling and upsetting was Jesus' entrance into the world.  It's well worth the read.

In the devotional, Carattini quotes the following from Dorothy Sayers' The Whimsical Christian:

"The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore--on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe.  It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium.  We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies."

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Just a Moment

This past Monday in our weekly staff meeting, Karen Sherman, one of our administrative assistants, shared the following excerpt from Max Lucado's book God Came Near.  It is a powerful reminder of how far God stooped to take on humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.

"It all happened in a moment, a most remarkable moment.

As moments go, that one appeared no different than any other.  If you could somehow pick it up off the timeline and examine it, it would look exactly like the ones that have passed while you have read these words.  It came and it went.  It was preceded and succeeded by others just like it.  It was one of the countless moments that have marked time since eternity became measurable.

But in reality, that particular moment was like none other.  For through that segment of time a spectacular thing occurred.  God became a man.  While the creatures of earth walked unaware, Divinity arrived.  Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious one in a human womb.

The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable.  He who had been spirit became pierceable.  He who was larger than the universe became an embryo.  And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl.

God as a fetus.  Holiness sleeping in a womb.  The creator of life being created.

God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen.  He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.

God had come near.

He came, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter.  The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty.

No silk.  No ivory.  No hype.  No party.  No hoopla.

Were it not for the shepherds, there would have been no reception.  And were it not for a group of stargazers, there would have been no gifts.

Joseph watched as Mary changed God's diaper.  The universe watched with wonder as The Almighty learned to walk.  Children played in the street with him.  And had the synagogue leader in Nazareth known was was listening to his sermons ....

Jesus may have had pimples.  He may have been tone-deaf.  Perhaps a girl down the street had a crush on him or vice versa.  It could be that his knees were bony.  One thing's for sure: He was, while completely divine, completely human.

For thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt.  He felt weak.  He grew weary.  He was afraid of failure.  He was susceptible to wooing women.  He got colds, burped, and had body odor.  His feelings got hurt.  His feet got tired.  And his head ached.

To think of Jesus in such a light is--well, it seems almost irreverent, doesn't it?  It's not something we like to do; it's uncomfortable.  It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation.  Clean the manure from around the manger.  Wipe the sweat out of his eyes.  Pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer.

He's easier to stomach that way.  There is something about keeping him divine that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable.

But don't do it.  For heaven's sake, don't.  Let him be as human as he intended to be.  Let him into the mire and muck of our world.  For only if we let him in can he pull us out."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Prisoner of Hope

This morning I was reading a blog post by Tony Cartledge whose writings continually inform and challenge me.  Tony is a contributing editor for Baptists Today and a professor of Old Testament studies and other ministry courses at Campbell University Divinity School.  I had the opportunity of meeting Tony for the first time this year at the annual gathering of the North American Baptist Fellowship in Philadelphia.

Tony's current blog post highlights a message that former President Jimmy Carter shared at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion taking place in San Diego this week.  Whatever one might think of Carter's one-term presidency with the lengthy Iranian hostage crisis that marked it, few ex-presidents have done more in the realm of direct participation in charitable organizations than the 90-year old Carter.  Most are well aware of his active role in the work of Habitat for Humanity.  The Carter Center in Atlanta has taken leadership in controlling and eradicating numerous diseases.  It also has monitored elections around the world to help ensure fair and just political processes.  Carter himself has intervened in numerous international settings in a quest for lasting peace.

Cartledge's blog post highlights an address Carter gave at the meeting of the SBL and AAR focusing on the question of violence against women and seeking to address many of the inequalities they face.  I was particularly struck by a response Carter gave to a question posed to him.  When asked how he manages to remain optimistic in the face of so much bad news, Carter quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu, who once said “I’m not optimistic . . . I am a prisoner of hope.”

Last night's news coverage out of Ferguson, MO following the announcement of the grand jury's decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson certainly didn't provide much reason for optimism.  The calls for non-violent protests in the wake of the decision went largely unheeded--at least by those who chose to engage in burning and looting businesses in the town.

Yet even though we don't find justification for optimism as we peruse the headlines and listen to daily news broadcasts, as Christians we can live in hope, knowing that God still reigns.  As we enter into the advent season, we're reminded of His unfailing love for us--a love so great that He sent His Son into our world to live among us.  Jesus revealed to us the depth of God's love for us and in doing so, offers us genuine hope, even when the news isn't encouraging. 

"And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5 - NASB).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Strategy Planning Retreat

I had the opportunity this past Monday to participate in another very productive congregational listening session with Churchnet, this time at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO.  My friend Forestal Lawton, the church's administrator as well as the vice-president of Churchnet's board, was fearful that there wouldn't be too many show up on a rainy Monday evening with some other activities on the church's schedule.  We were delighted that 19 of the members showed up for the session that I helped facilitate along with the very capable assistance once again of Heather Entrekin, professor of congregational health at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

This weekend, Churchnet's strategy planning team consisting of the staff, officers, and a number of our board members, will be meeting at beautiful Windermere Baptist Assembly at Lake of the Ozarks to wrestle with the information that has been compiled from these listening sessions across the state as well as on-line surveys and face-to-face meetings with some of our institutional partners.  We'll be seeking to analyze lots of data and information to more strategically organize our work around our first priority which is serving churches.

I'm excited to see what the Lord might choose to do through this time of strategic planning.  We really do want to do all that we can to assist churches as they seek to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Congregational Listening Sessions

In my part-time job as Missions Mobilization Team Leader of Churchnet, I've been privileged of late to participate in some congregational leadership listening sessions.  Our organization is embarking upon the elaboration of a new 5-year strategic plan.  In keeping with the overarching goal of our first priority being to serve churches, we're conducting these listening sessions to discover what the major challenges are facing churches across the state of Missouri.  In light of what we're hearing, we'll attempt to strategically respond in terms of how we structure, organize, and fund our ministry to these churches.

It's been a good time of getting to hear how folks were drawn to their congregations, what makes their heart sing in terms of their current ministries, how they're coping with change, and the obstacles in the way of achieving their ministry goals, among several other questions that we're asking.  To date, I've had the opportunity to facilitate sessions at Wyatt Park Baptist in St. Joseph, Chandler Baptist in Liberty, and FBC Independence and then to participate as a leader responding to the questions last night at our own church, FBC, Lee's Summit.

The strategy planning team will be meeting at Windermere on Nov. 7-8 to look at the responses to these sessions as well as responses to an on-line survey as we work on a first draft of a new strategic plan.  These are exciting days for Churchnet as we continue to make our first priority serving churches.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reflections on Cuba

I had the opportunity this past week to spend 8 days in Cuba with 11 fellow travelers.  Our primary purpose in going was to attend the 40th anniversary gathering of COEBAC (the English translation of the Spanish acrostic is the Coordination of Baptist Student Workers of Cuba).  All 4 Baptist entities on the island were invited to attend (Western Baptist Convention, Eastern Baptist Convention, Free Will Baptists, and the Fraternity of Baptists).  Representatives from the Eastern Convention and the Fraternity were present.  It seems that Baptist denominational politics has been extended even to Cuba as purportedly some of the Western Convention folks were coming (predominantly affiliated with Southern Baptists) until they learned who some of the program participants were from the Eastern Convention and the Fraternity, at which time they withdrew.

The theme of the meeting was exploring what it means to be a Baptist, guided by historical Baptist distinctives such as separation of church and state, religious liberty, liberty of conscience, and local church autonomy in the contemporary world.  I was asked to lead a breakout session on liberty of conscience and asked the pastor of the host church if it was okay in a Communist/socialist country to speak freely of those themes.  He assured me that it was and so I did.  There was a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, head of the National Office of Attention to Religious Affairs, who also spoke to the gathering.  She recognized the importance of living by Christian values for the well-being of the country.

One of the key figures from the 1959 revolution mentioned in the meeting and by this official was Frank Pais, the son of a Baptist pastor.  Whereas Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the revolution in the mountains, Frank Pais was the key figure in the urban centers--especially Santiago.  He was killed by police after being surrounded in what was supposedly a safe house, thereafter achieving the status of a revolutionary martyr. His favorite hymn was "Brighten the Corner where You Are" which we sang together.

We also later visited the Western Baptist Convention's seminary in Havana, meeting with its interim president and its rector, who explained the various degree programs and emphases of their theological training.

One of the unexpected sightings on the trip was a funnel cloud as we were returning to Havana from the COEBAC gathering in the city of Ciego de Avila.  We watched it out the left side of the bus for some 30 minutes, catching glimpses of it through the almost constant line of trees that bordered the side of the highway.

Classic car enthusiasts would have a heyday in Cuba.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of 1950s model U.S. cars--Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Chryslers, Cadillacs, etc.  

I got to ride in the blue Caddy with 3 friends for an hour or so tour of the city on the way to dinner one evening.  It was quite the treat.

One of the lasting impressions I took away from the trip was the strong commitment of Cuban Baptists to reach their island nation for Christ with the gospel, while at the same time striving to improve the overall living conditions of their people.  We heard a lot of concern for justice and economic issues as well as a healthy interest in caring for the world that God has given us as good stewards of it.  These same Baptists also expressed a pronounced pride in their country and displayed patriotic fervor.  The worship services we attended contained joyful singing and solid preaching.  All in all, it was a memorable trip.