Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lent: Day 8 - The Lord is my portion

Read Psalm 73

"In Feast or Fallow" by Sandra McCracken

25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
                    - Psalm 73:25-28

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lent: Day 7

Read Mark 8:31-38

At the center of the Christian faith stands the cross of Jesus Christ, which would appall most of us, if we identified the cross with actual crucifixions and not simply as a symbol of faith or a piece of jewelry. Remember, the cross in Jesus’ day didn’t represent faith or hope. It certainly didn't represent love. If it represented anything it represented the end of such aspirations. A cross was the symbol of a lost cause, a dead end, the place where messianic pretenders and common criminals shared a humiliating fate.

We might wonder why the early Christians did not adopt another symbol – there were other symbols to be found – the Chi-Rho, the Icthus, even the peacock, a symbol of resurrection. But the symbol that stuck was the cross. Try as we may, we can never quite escape the truth that at the center of our faith stands a horrific defeat. Paul makes clear that the crucifixion was a centerpiece of early Christian preaching, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The cross is still a stumbling block when we read passages like Mark 8 and hear Jesus speaking not just of his own cross but ours as well. The cross remains palatable so long as it's just Jesus upon it. It becomes less so when the conversation turns towards our own cross bearing. But the scriptures make plain, the cross isn't just the price paid, it is also the path paved.

David Garland explains this dual purpose of the cross with a simple story (that he borrowed from scholar Eduard Schweitzer) about a heavy snowfall that strands a young boy in the home of a friend after school. “He cannot get home, ‘until his father comes, with his strong shoulders, and breaks the way through three feet of snow. The boy ‘follows him’ in his footsteps and yet walks in a totally different way. Father is not merely his teacher or example – or otherwise the boy would have to break his own way, only copying the action of the father – nor is it a vicarious act of the father – otherwise the boy would just remain in the warm room of his friend and think that his father would go home instead of himself.’ The problem is that the way Jesus prepares for us to go home is not the one we want to travel. It is arduous and paved with suffering, but it is one that we must journey to get home.”

Dr. Garland's words ring so true to my own experience, "The problem is that the way Jesus prepares for us to go home is not the one we want to travel" and yet "it is one we must journey to get home."

God, thank you for making a way home for us where there was no way.  Give us the courage to now walk in your steps as we follow you towards the kingdom come.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lent: Day 6

Return of the Prodigal Son
Return of the Prodigal Son
The Church of St. Mary Abott
Kensington, London
Photo by Lawrence OP
Reading for Today: Psalm 32

Christians often have a reputation for sourness. Misunderstandings about the season of Lent can perpetuate this perception. During this season, we often spend even more time than normal focussing upon our sins. We confess, and we repent. If we're not careful, we stop there. Our spirit becomes trapped in perpetual state of sorrow over our sinfulness. While sorrow over one's sin is a part of the Christian life, it is meant to be a fleeting part.

The overwhelming emotion that Christians ought to experience when thinking of their own sins, is joy, not joy over the sin committed, but joy over the sin forgiven.   The Psalmist declares, "Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit" (Psalm 32:1-2). There are no Christian merit badges for wallowing in guilt and shame. God has spoken the ultimate word of forgiveness over our lives in and through the person of  Jesus Christ.

Our appropriate response should be nothing less than joy!

"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death" - 2 Corinthians 7:10.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lent: Day 3

Today's reading: Matthew 4:1-11

When we read the Bible we often jump straight to the application of a passage asking, "What does this text say about me?" While there are plenty of passages in the Bible that have a word to say about us, many passages don't have us as the subject. The primarily word these texts speak is a word about God. The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is one of those stories.

We read this text and often jump straight into a lesson on how to resist temptation, but if you'll notice, we are nowhere to be found in this story. Our representatives in the scripture had already had their shot at resisting temptation and failed. We now follow their well trodden path. This is a story that tells us that Jesus took a different road. When faced with the temptation to be driven by his desires or to take an easier, less painful path to the kingdom come, Jesus remained faithful to God's will and not his own.

During this season of Lent and during every other season, as well, our hope is not found in our ability to resist temptation, but in the fact that Jesus already has. We shall find release from those sins that so easily entangle us not by reinforcing our already broken will power, but by fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart - Hebrews 12:1-3.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lenten Resources

For too many, the focus of Lent is on giving something up. To only focus upon what we give up misses the true focus. Lent is a season of turning our attention evermore towards Christ. We give up something good in order to lay hold of something better. The best approach to Lent may be to say, what shall I take up this season in order to focus on Christ. Then only secondarily, to ask what one could give up to make that pursuit of Christ a reality.

One of the great things to take up would be an additional devotional time each day. Here are some online resources I've found that might be a good place to start.

  • Journey to the Cross - this online devotional is from the folks over at The devotionals are simple and yet stirring. It's worth stopping by for the the Ken Medema music alone.
  • Lent for Everyone - This is a Lenten devotional by one of my favorite writers, N.T. Wright. I can only find this on the YouVersion website / app. I don't think you have to sign-up in order to use it, but you might. It's free, and the YouVersion app is a great way to read the Bible on your phone or tablet. 
  • Lenten Blog by the Huffington Post - As strange as this one is, two days in I've been pleasantly surprised by this Huffington Post Lenten blog. I'll say up front, I have no idea who all the contributors will be and so I don't vouch for any of them. That being said, so far they've had piece from the late Henri Nouwen and from Walter Brueggemann two of my favorite authors.

Lent: Day 2

Today's Reading: Matthew 3:1-12

Political season is in full swing here in the States. That means debates and ads and any number of speeches in which politicians tell us what is wrong with the world and how they aim to fix it. As of yesterday, we also entered into the season of Lent, a season which also invites us to diagnose the world’s ills and move towards a remedy. Some of can’t get enough of the politicians speeches. Others do their best to avoid them altogether. But all of us, could benefit from listening to and meditating upon the words the church associates with the Lenten season.

When reading through the gospels, the first sermon we hear is a Lenten sermon found on the lips of John the Baptist. “Repent,” he shouts, “for the kingdom of heaven is near.” How different are his words than so many of ours. We assure ourselves of our status with God. We’re the good guys we think, because of our denominational affiliation or our nationality or our political affiliations which ever they may be! We can think of plenty of people who need to repent. We just don't think of ourselves as needing to be on that list.

We know the world is a mess, but we didn’t make it. We blame it on the poor or the rich. We blame on the immoral or the religiously uptight. We blame it on the older generation for not knowing what we now know or we blame it on the young for squandering all we provided them. We blame it on those who refuse to take individual responsibility for their shortcomings. We blame it on systems that keep people from reaching their full potential. We blame it on anyone and everyone but ourselves. Above our political debating, John, waist deep in the Jordon keeps shouting from the water to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” – 1 John 1:8

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday (a former post revisited)

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While more and more Baptist churches are learning the benefits of observing the season of Lent, some still wonder if this isn't too Catholic for we Protestants to bother with. "You know, pastor" a concerned church member will say, "I can't find Lent or Ash Wednesday anywhere in the Bible." I always find such objections a little weak. In my tradition we gladly celebrate Mothers Day, the Forth of July, and a number of other secular holidays with out batting an eye or caring that they aren't in the Bible. But we've had objections to observing a holy day that had 1500 years or so of church history behind it. That just doesn't seem right.

Whether we officially observe Ash Wednesday or not, the themes of this day are essential to any person's life of faith. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That exact phrase is not in the Bible, but it is thoroughly biblical. Job, in the midst of his suffering laments, "I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more." We are mortals - though we spend a life time trying to forget that fact. As a preacher, I've attended more funerals than most, and yet, I admit, it takes a conscious effort to remember as I leave a cemetery, "One day they'll lower me down in this ground, too."

Remembering one's mortality is important for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps things in proper perspective. On those rare moments when my mortality sneaks up and slaps me in the face, like after the death of a friend, I find myself taking better stock of life. What matters? What am I after? Who do I love? Do they know I love them? Stuff and stats cease to be as important. Also, facing one's mortality sharpens the realization that one needs a Savior. I can do lots of things. I can't escape death. I've lived long enough to realize, I can't even get ready for death without some major intervention. My sins are too great, my will too weak. I need a Savior. And there it is. That's why I need days like Ash Wednesday. Because too often, I forget that I'm going to die (one thing I am good at is self deception!). When I forget that, I forget almost everthing that matters.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man of dust and doubt and
deceit - of others and myself.
a man of sin in my core
and in my deeds.
a man of limited days.
a man who'll die.
a man who's dying.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man who's been found, forgiven, and
restored - to you and to others.
a man who's been bathed in grace
and raised to life.
life with you, today,
and forevermore.
a man who, yes, will die.
but also a man who will live!
a man who lives!

Lent: What might you give up in order to lay hold of Christ?

Lent & Dying To Self from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Women in Ministry (Part II): It's not about being a liberal or a conservative

Liberal. In my part of the country, that's a bad word. Politically, if you call someone a liberal, you might as well be calling them a communist (Even the Democrats here try to avoid being called liberals!). Theologically the terms mean something different than they do in the political arena, but the term still means something negative to many of my baptist friends. In Baptist circles (and other evangelical traditions, as well), calling someone a theological liberal is the equivalent of questioning their commitment to the Bible and even their commitment to Christ. I'm not saying that I agree with the use of the word liberal as an epithet. I for one don't consider liberals enemies, even if I disagree with them on a number of issues. I'm simply explaining how the word is used in my part of the world.

I make this point for this simple fact: when someone (like myself) begins to advocate for women in ministry, many others will immediately begin accusing them of being a liberal. That's a serious accusation in the circles I operate in and can cost people their jobs and destroy their ministries. The threat of these accusations keeps many people (both lay and clergy) from voicing their support for women in ministry even though their convictions lead them in that direction.  The atrocity of this kind of criticism is not simply that it's often mean-spirited and damaging to the body of Christ. The trouble is that such accusations are often patently untrue. A person can be theologically conservative and a Christian who supports women in ministry. 

Take for instance, the many charismatic churches that have conservative theology and yet allow women to participate in all levels of ministry. The Salvation Army and Nazarene churches, both conservative denominations, also ordain women to the ministry. In the last few decades many evangelical churches have also begun to incorporate women into all aspects of church life. Conservative preachers like Haddon Robinson, former president of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, have made the case for women in ministry. Heroes of Baptist life like Frank Pollard have, as well. Conservative scholars like Gordon Fee, F.F. Bruce, even Millard Erickson (Southern Baptist), have advocated for the ordination of women.

Now, I know that for every name that I throw out there will be someone who says, "Yeah, but that person isn't a real conservative." What those people mean is that these names don't fit their definition of what a conservative is supposed to look like (even though, all of the names listed above would be considered conservatives to many, many people).  This leads me to my bigger frustration with this issue. While I fully believe that you can be conservative theologically and support women in the ministry, I also believe the terms liberal and conservative have limited usefulness in many of our discussions. The reason is simple: nobody agrees on what these terms mean. When you think about it, how could they? Life is not made up of just one issue. It's made up of any number of issues. And there are a large number of ways to arrange one's beliefs. As my professor Roger Olson wrote recently on his blog, "There’s no 'right' or 'left' or 'middle.' There’s just (limited) variety."

There was a time that I would proudly boast of being a conservative. No more. That's not because I consider myself a liberal. I don't (but I do count both self-described liberals and self-described conservatives as my friends). No, the reason I don't worry about touting my conservative credentials is because I find such a term almost useless in describing what I think almost all of us are attempting to do - follow Jesus not liberally or conservatively but faithfully. How each of us works that out will definitely look a little different from one another. That's no reason to go slandering one another as being less than faithful.

For now, we all see through the glass darkly, but one day . . .


If you're interested in a more in-depth look at the uselessness of the left-middle-right spectrum in the field of theology, check out Dr. Roger Olson's blog post "On tossing out the 'right-middle-left' spectrum."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women in Ministry (Part 1): Why I'm happy to support women in ministry

My first genuine encounter with women in ministry happened in college. Week after week, I would listen to faithful women give powerful proclamation of the word of God. At that time, I'd never really given any thought as to whether or not it was permissible for a woman to preach to men or to serve on a church staff. The church I grew up in only had men in the pulpit, but I remember women taking a prominent role in many other aspects of church life. If that church had discussions about the role of gender in church life, they didn't have it with the teenagers. So college was the first time that I encountered women teaching and preaching in any significant way. It was, therefore, the first time I began a serious pursuit of what the Bible had to say about women in ministry. 

The women that first got me thinking about this issue weren't employed by any church. They were my peers at the Baptist Student Ministry at Texas A&M. We would often have students lead small group Bible studies and the larger weekly meetings. Some of the very best teachers/preachers were some of the women students. What is ironic, is that these women, for the most part, believed that it was unscriptural for women to preach. They would explain their own teaching by explaining that it wasn't in a church setting or that it wasn't really preaching. They'd call it testimony or something like that (I think Beth Moore does the same kind of verbal gymnastics). I always found that a little silly. In those days, we Baptist would often talk of having a foot-function, but everyone (including us) knew we were having a dance. The difference between teaching/preaching/offering a testimony is almost negligible.

It's easy to see how someone could come to the conclusion that women shouldn't preach. Passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 restrict a woman's participation in worship. Passages like Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1-6 speak of wives submitting to their husbands. Taken together, I can understand how reasonable, faithful Christians might conclude a woman should not preach in the churches.

Of course, to take that position, one has to either ignore or explain away all of the passage in the New Testament that seem to point in a different direction. Women play a prominent role in Jesus' ministry as well as Paul's (several even host churches in their houses). These women boldly witness of their faith in public among men and women (Acts 9:36; 16:14-15, 40; 18:26; 21:9). 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has had the most impact on me. There Paul writes of women's active role in leading worship through prayer and prophesying (a form of preaching!). He writes matter-of-factly about this, only advising the women to dress modestly when they do so.

An honest reading of the scriptures must admit that both sides of this issue can use the Bible to make their case. I mean, in the book of 1 Corinthians alone we have Paul both permitting and prohibiting women from speaking! Therefore, it's not an issue of whether one believes in the Bible or not, but rather, how one has chosen to interpret the Bible. I've come to my interpretation, mainly, because I believe that when the gospel is most clearly expressed in the New Testament, it communicates the equal participation of men and women in the coming kingdom of God. Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) quotes from the prophet Joel of a time when men and women will be filled with the Spirit and will prophesy of God's work in the world. Paul, likewise, notes, that in Christ Jesus, those old divisions that separate us from one another cease to divide (Galatians 3:28). I realize that others will come to other conclusions, but let be said, I have come to my position based on my study of the scriptures, not despite it (For a fuller treatment of this subject check out this brochure by my friend and former professor, Dr. Todd Still. It will be obvious that I've drawn from his work for this post.).

After college, I went to seminary, purposefully choosing a seminary that supported women and ministry. Even so, I knew that culturally, most of my friends still did not support either my decision to attend that seminary or to support women in ministry. Alyson and I began looking for a church in Waco. We looked and looked. We had heard good things about Calvary Baptist and their pastor Julie Pennington-Russell. But, even though we had come to a place where we were OK with women in ministry, we weren't quite sure we wanted to face all the conversations and criticism our friends and some of our family might direct our way for attending a church with a woman pastor. So we tried some other churches. We tried lots of churches. Nothing seemed to fit. Then we heard Julie speak at a conference for students and we knew that we needed to give Calvary a chance. After just a handful of Sundays we joined Calvary and Julie became our pastor. 

That experience changed my outlook completely from being one of passive to active support for women in ministry. I've been blessed to grow up under some excellent preachers, but Julie was by far the best. Her sermons challenged me to walk more faithfully with God and to fall ever more in love with our Savior Jesus Christ. I learned through that experience that the church that quiets female voices is an impoverished church indeed. How many other Julies sit in the pew each week, gifted by the Spirit, but not allowed or encouraged to speak. I still think those classmates back at A&M were (and probably still are) excellent preachers. I just wish they believed the same.