“Are we leaving the Southern Baptist Convention?”

I won’t lie to you. It’s a rough time to be a Southern Baptist. It started a few years ago when a church member asked me the question in the title. He had heard a radio show that said the SBC was becoming “liberal,” based on some statements made by the President of the SBC, JD Grear, and the head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore. In the coming weeks, I heard similar questions from two other church members (who apparently listened to the same radio show). I answered them all by pointing out that the radio host had taken some quotes out of context and made some assumptions that weren’t true. And, even if these men had said things which were unbiblical–which they hadn’t–the way the SBC is structured means they have no authority over me or our church (more on that later).

This past November, the presidents of the six SBC seminaries released a statement condemning Critical Race Theory (CRT) as “incompatible with the Gospel.” In response, several prominent black pastors announced they were pulling their churches out of the SBC. Interestingly, none of them endorsed CRT, an academic theory that (whatever else you think of it) has dubious origins. Ralph West, pastor of Church Without Walls in Houston, explained his decision this way: “Instead of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters who have lived with the reality of racism in formulating their view, these six men took it upon themselves to dictate how we should think about racism.” West called the decision “Tone deaf.” In the aftermath, plenty of talking heads and blog writers piled on, reminding the world that the SBC started out as a pro-slavery denomination (unfortunately, that part is true), and using these recent events to allege that we had never really left those hateful roots behind. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I felt a bit like a ping-pong ball. My denomination was being called liberal by some and racist by others.

In between those two moments, there was an even more heartbreaking event. In February of 2019, the Houston Chronicle released a series of three articles entitled Abuse of Faith, which detailed 380 cases of sexual abuse in SBC churches over the past 20 years. Many of the instances were tragic cases of churches simply being too trusting, unknowingly allowing predators to volunteer in children or youth ministries because they hadn’t set up adequate screening processes. Other groups that work with children, such as the Boy Scouts, are facing a similar reckoning. But some of the cases in the Chronicle’s series were even darker: Ministers who abused young women or men, then simply moved to another church, escaping any consequences while continuing to serve as spiritual leaders. It was a truly heartbreaking read.

In the past month, we’ve had two more very different bombshells. The first came March 9, when Bible teacher Beth Moore told Religion News Service that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” Moore grew up in an SBC church in Arkansas, rose to prominence at Houston’s First Baptist, and has long supported historic Baptist doctrine and celebrated SBC mission efforts. But, as she explained, “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists. I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.” She hasn’t offered any other details about her decision, so I won’t speculate as to her exact reasons. I just know I’m sad that a woman whose writing and speaking ministry has drawn millions of women (and–I suspect–plenty of men, too) closer to Christ no longer feels welcome in my denomination.

And then two weeks ago came the news that a young man in Atlanta had shot and killed 8 people at three different massage parlors. Not long afterward, we found out that this man was an active member of an SBC Church, whose video testimony was on the church’s website until the shooting. Authorities said the man told them he had been in treatment for sex addiction, and that he shot those women “to eliminate temptation.” This has lead numerous people to blame evangelical “purity culture” for these awful events.

So, back to the question at hand. Are we leaving the SBC? Absolutely not. I say that for a number of reasons. First, because this denomination is bigger than one person. For instance, most people don’t seem to understand that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention is nothing like the Pope, or even bishops in other denominations. The SBC president serves a term of two years, during which time his main functions are to chair meetings, sit for media interviews, and appoint people to the boards of various seminaries, hospitals and missions agencies. He has no authority over me or my church; therefore his public statements are completely his own. If the day comes when an SBC official–the president, or someone whose position is more impactful, such as the leader of a seminary or missions board–says something that amounts to rank heresy, I will speak out against it. But even if that happens, it won’t change the mission, preaching and purpose of First Baptist, Conroe. We are truly autonomous. Our membership in the SBC simply means that we are able to cooperate with other churches in ministry. Together with other congregations, we can do more than we could separately.

Second, because of what that cooperation produces. This denomination is missionaries around the globe doing God’s work in difficult places; it’s schools training up the next generation of leaders; it’s church planters starting new work in cities where there is little Gospel witness; it’s men and women serving people in need in a thousand ways in the name of Jesus, and if I pull out my support of the SBC, I am failing to support them.

Third, because when the Church is struggling, the proper response is NOT to leave. I have plenty of criticisms of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I would rather stay and work for change than try to find greener pastures. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Beth Moore, Ralph West, or anyone else who has left the SBC. I cannot judge them without knowing all the ideas, experiences and emotions that went into their decisions. I just know what I will do. And I will stay. Not only that, I am thrilled to stay and to serve God alongside people who trust in Jesus alone for salvation, who have the Bible as their sole authority, and who believe in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Certainly, we Baptists aren’t the only ones who have those values, but as long as we do, I plan to be a Southern Baptist. Besides, I actually LIKE these people. Despite what you may have heard, the people I am pleased to serve alongside are some of the humblest, most gracious, generous, joyful people on earth.

So, what do I hope Southern Baptists will do in this crucial time? First, I hope we will reject sources of division. I’m not saying we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the problems in our midst (I’ll address that in my next point). But let’s be careful who we’re listening to, which sources we allow to shape our thoughts. This might seem like a tangent, but go with me: Recently, Tucker Carlson, the popular right-wing talk show host, was sued for defamation. The suit was dismissed because Carlson’s lawyer successfully argued that “given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” In other words, “Who cares if he said things that hurt someone’s reputation? No one thinks he’s sharing facts, anyway.” In case you think I’m picking on conservative media. the same thing happened to liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow, and her case came down to a similar argument: “The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news,” a judge wrote. “Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.” So legally speaking, these sorts of shows aren’t even considered factual. They are entertainment, period. Carlson, Maddow and the many others like them realize that they won’t get viewers by telling the whole truth about an issue. Instead, they get viewers (and make money from sponsors) by skewing the truth in order to ramp up our fear and anger. It’s why I think that these sorts of shows, along with political opinion blogs and social media sites, are one of the tools the Devil is using most effectively against the Lord’s people today. He is able to distract us from the centrality of the Gospel by focusing our fear and anger against the very people we should be seeking to reach for Christ. Here’s how all that relates to the SBC: The same tactics are at play with religious bloggers and talk show hosts who accuse the SBC of “turning liberal,” being “captive to racism,” or any number of other issues. There is legitimate criticism that our denomination must face. But most of the rhetoric I am hearing and reading is not meant to hold leaders accountable or produce actual repentance; it’s simply meant to inflame fear and anger, making its authors more famous, and dividing the flock. Reject it, unequivocally.

Second, and more importantly, pray for renewal. Make no mistake, our denomination is failing right now on multiple levels. Over the past several years, the SBC has seen declines in virtually every statistic, including overall membership, weekly attendance, and most importantly, baptisms. In 2020, there was only one baptism per sixty-two Southern Baptists. That’s an unacceptable number that indicates we aren’t reaching our neighbors with the Gospel. We’re failing black leaders and their churches, by making them feel as though we don’t care about their struggles. We certainly failed the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse over the past few decades. And, let’s be clear: We failed that young man in Atlanta, and the people whose lives he took. I was relieved to read this article, written by an Asian former member of the church where this young man was a member, defending the church against allegations of racism or toxic purity culture. But one of two things is true: Either he somehow internalized a demonically warped version of what it takes to be a follower of Christ, or he was profoundly mentally ill, and didn’t get the help he needed. Either way, it’s the job of His fellow Christians to answer that call, and we didn’t. How often is that happening at churches across our country? How many times are we failing to be the Body of Christ, instead of simply a place that puts on a religious show once a week, and competes with other churches for market share? Pray, my friends. Pray with all your hearts, that God would send His Holy Spirit to renew and remake us. We need revival. Nothing less will be sufficient.

Third, we put our hands to the plow and serve the Lord by loving others. Some might be saying, “Our denomination is under attack!” That’s nothing new. When I was in seminary, the larger political machinations of our denomination came home to roost, as our school president was fired by the trustees. The trustee chairman, who was praising and joking with the president in chapel the day before, was the one who led the charge to fire him. That same chairman subsequently had to resign his church a few years later because of sexual misconduct. At the time, I was upset at the hypocrisy I saw. But I didn’t quit the school in protest. I did what I came to do: I finished my education and focused on preparing my mind, heart and soul for a lifetime of ministry. I’ve never regretted that decision. Friends, we have important work to do. You have neighbors, co-workers and friends who are struggling. They don’t care about our inter-denominational controversies; chances are, they haven’t even heard of them. They need to experience the love of a saving God, and that won’t happen until they see it embodied in the life of an ordinary person. Be that person. Answer that call.

On Internet Conspiracies and Doomsday Prophets

THE END IS NEAR - pennlive.com

Last summer, a couple of friends sent me a video made by a pastor in another state. In this viral video, recorded on a smartphone, he talked about a dream he had recently had, in which the nation was in turmoil. He wasn’t specific about details, but made it sound like he was expecting a total breakdown in our society: Unchecked violence, limited resources. He said that he had previously had a dream about the pandemic in 2019, months before any of us had heard about COVID 19. This made him believe that perhaps God was using him to warn us of the coming devastation in our country. According to his dream, all of this was going to happen in November of 2020. He urged us all to make sure we had provisions, weapons, and an escape plan.

Yesterday, another friend sent me another video, made by a completely different pastor, two days ago. This pastor, unlike the previous one, didn’t claim that God had spoken to him through any supernatural means. Instead, he said that he had contacts in the military who had insider knowledge of government workings. These contacts were telling him beyond a doubt that martial law in this country is “imminent.” There would be a complete government takeover of our nation’s transportation, businesses, and communications network that would last for about a month. He didn’t say when this would begin, only that we needed to be ready. By “ready,” he meant we needed to have enough food for at least two weeks, enough medications to last a month, and to make sure our cars were full of fuel.

What are we to make of these things? Although the first preacher’s predictions were clearly wrong, what if this second guy is right? Should we be stocking up for a government siege? Keep in mind, there have always been people eager to shout their predictions of upcoming woes. Some have been preachers; Baptist clergyman William Miller published tracts that predicted the exact date the world would end…in October 1843. When that didn’t happen, he revised his doomsday date to October, 1844. Followers gathered on hilltops and in church buildings, waiting to hear the Lord’s trumpet. When it didn’t happen, many abandoned Christianity entirely. Others continued to follow the teachings of Miller and his successors, despite The Great Disappointment of 1844. In addition to would-be prophets, there have always been conspiracy theories. Remember the theory that spread throughout Israel after Jesus rose from the dead? They said the body had been stolen by His disciples, and the soldiers had been paid to keep quiet. Conspiracy theories are attractive to us because the sense of “insider knowledge” makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel smarter than those other people, those naïve “sheep” who buy into the party line. But there is another, deeper reason: It helps us make sense of an uncertain world. For people who didn’t want to believe the man who they crucified was actually Lord of all, it was comforting to think that there was another explanation, one involving dark, sinister forces and secret corruption. It’s the same reason some still believe that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration; it’s more comforting than accepting the reality that there are evil forces in the world capable of creating mayhem in our nation. It has the added benefit of pointing a finger of accusation at “the other side.”

Today, would-be-prophets and conspiracy theories flourish like never before, thanks to the internet. If the preacher I mentioned in the first paragraph would have had his dream thirty years ago, he would have shared it with his church, and that would have been the extent of it. But thanks to smartphones and social media, thousands of people heard his prediction. Online conspiracy chatter is far from harmless; in December of 2016, a devout Christian and father of two entered a Washington DC pizzeria armed with an AR-15. Edgar Welch believed the restaurant was a haven for child sex slaves being held by operatives from the Democratic party. He fired his weapon three times. Thankfully, no one was injured, but Welch received a four-year jail sentence. The lore behind “Pizzagate,” as it came to be known, eventually became part of the larger Q-anon conspiracy theory. This theory, spread online by an anonymous source who claims to have inside government knowledge, is followed by millions of Americans. Lately, “Q” has co-opted language from prophetic passages in the Bible, hoping to draw more evangelical followers.

Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with sharing these kinds of articles and videos on social media? After all, what if one turns out to be true?” I’ve had friends say to me, “I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think. I’m just passing along information, and letting people make up their own minds.” What you don’t seem to realize is that when we share things on the internet, our endorsement of them is implied. People who see that we posted an article speculating that Senator X is actually a Russian asset assume that is what we actually believe. We all know this, by the way. Otherwise, we would post conspiracy theories and wild accusations against even the politicians and causes we agree with, and “let people make up their own minds.” But we don’t. We don’t want to take the chance that anyone who reads it would think we agree.

This is important because we represent Christ. People look to us to judge what Jesus is all about. Sadly, thanks to our behavior on social media, some in our culture assume that Jesus is about paranoia and hysteria. We’re known as the fools who rush to HEB and buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water because we believe The End is Near. Or worse, we’re the ones who inspire mentally unstable people like Edgar Welch to acts of violence. Yet there’s an even greater danger…yes, greater even than random, senseless acts of violence. Our calling as Jesus-followers is to spread a message known as the Gospel, a word that literally means Good News. Throughout history, this message has been one that is so countercultural, people have a difficult time embracing it at first. “How could it be that a God I don’t even believe in loves me enough to die for me? How could embracing and following a crucified carpenter who lived 2000 years ago be the actual answer to the deepest longings of my soul?” Anyone who is paying attention would agree that it’s never been harder to convince Americans of the truth of that message than it is today. We have to work hard to establish credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, or they will never give the Gospel a chance. However, if our social media feeds feature wild conspiracy theories and hysterical rants along with Scripture passages, why should any unbeliever listen to us?

(By the way, the friends who sent me the videos I mentioned in the first two paragraphs did not post them to their social media feeds. They sent them, asking what I thought. That’s a completely different matter. That’s the Body of Christ coming together to seek discernment, which is a very biblical thing.)

Back to my original question: What do we do with scary viral videos like the ones I mentioned in the first two paragraphs? I would advise you to do three things:

First, Consider the source. I didn’t know either of the preachers in the videos. I had never heard of them. In other words, I had no way of knowing the character of either man. I am not in the habit of criticizing fellow preachers, by the way. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. And in both cases, they seemed sincere. What they were saying wasn’t hateful in any way. If I had to guess, they really believed that what they were saying was true. But I don’t know that. Perhaps they were simply hoping to gain a bigger following. If so, it certainly worked…at least for a time. My point is, if you don’t know the heart of a preacher who is sending out a dire warning, why believe him? Especially when you consider the hundreds of William Millers, preachers who became famous by predicting doom, only to end up wrong.

By the way, it’s very popular today to bash the Mainstream Media. I do it myself, for their tendency to focus on the worst in the world, their rush to judgment in order to be the first to issue “Breaking News,” and for essentially flooding our lives with negativity. But at least professional journalists have a reason to be as accurate as possible. They get stories wrong, of course, and they sometimes let their biases creep into their reporting. But professional journalists know that being caught in an outright lie would end their career. See Brian Williams. See Dan Rather. But your anonymous internet conspiracy monger, your so-called “expert,” or your preacher who has a “revelation,” they have nothing to lose. When they are wrong, they face no consequences at all. And they never apologize. In fact, they find ways to show that, actually, they were right…just not in the way we first interpreted their “predictions.” People go on believing them, in spite of everything, because to admit they were wrong would be to admit we’re wrong. Our pride won’t allow it. Christians, pray for discernment. Be careful who you choose to believe. Just because someone is a pastor, or uses biblical language, or says something that agrees with your own thinking, it doesn’t mean their message is true. And if you don’t KNOW that it’s true, don’t share it with others.

Second, Know the Word. In both of the videos my friends sent me, the advice was the same: Take care of yourself. Get ready for hard times by buying lots of supplies and stocking up on weapons. That’s a huge contrast to what we see in the prophets of Scripture. When they predicted hard times for God’s people, their message was always the same: Repent. They weren’t blaming the pagans for their problems. They were saying, “We as God’s people have wandered away from Him. As a result, we’re going to experience the consequences of life outside of God’s protection and guidance. He’s giving us a chance to get right with Him. Don’t waste it.” Sometimes the people listened, often they did not. IF you hear one of these videos and believe that it’s God’s warning of difficult times, don’t rush to the grocery store. Get down on your knees and allow God’s Spirit to show you how we have failed to represent Him well. Pray for a revival of the love of Christ in our churches.

When we move on to the New Testament, we see another biblical way to confront hard times: By thinking of others first. The Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire against all odds, because those early Christians lived like no one else. They were mostly poor, yet they shared their goods with one another, so that no one went without. They even took care of the pagan poor. When epidemics raged, they stayed in the plague-ridden cities, taking care of the sick. Why should they be afraid of death, after all? What they looked forward to was better than anything this world offered. Why hoard wealth down here, when there was treasure waiting for them in the next life? Again, that’s a long way from what I hear in these internet prophets. I can’t imagine Jesus or any of the apostles saying, “Trouble is coming. Better head to the grocery store!” Instead, they would say, “Now is the time to love your neighbors like never before. They will be seeking for hope, and we have it!” Let me put it to you this way: If the preacher in that second video is right (which I highly doubt), and martial law in our country really is imminent, we’d better respond by loving our neighbor even more fervently than we did before, not by locking ourselves in our homes, safe with our supplies and stockpiles of ammo.

Third, Trust the Lord. As I said earlier, these sorts of articles and videos are so appealing because they help us make sense of a chaotic world. We feel like we know why things went so wrong, what’s going to happen next, and what needs to occur to fix things. Yet as Christians, we already have that information. We don’t need some viral video or written rant to make things plain. The message of Scripture tells us what went wrong: Humanity has rebelled against God. Not “them,” but “us.” All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6) We know what needs to occur to fix things: Reconciliation with God. Jesus took care of that Himself, as that Isaiah passage predicted: But the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. Or as Colossians 1:20 puts it, through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. We don’t know what will happen next, and that’s where faith comes in. We trust that a God who loved us enough to die for us will do what is best. Like kids in the back seat of a car on a long trip, we know that since our Father is at the wheel, the final destination is secure. Even if the trip takes longer than we thought, and there are some unforeseen troubles along the way (and there will be), we know He had a reason for taking us in that direction, and we can trust Him to get us home.

So let’s enjoy the journey, instead of demanding to know the exact road map. Let’s represent Him well, not latch on to the latest social media message that gets our blood up. Let’s love our neighbors, not blame them for our problems. Let’s trust that the Gospel has the answers the world is looking for, not internet scare-mongers. Pray for discernment, my friends…and put it to good use!

My Favorite Books of the Year

I’ll say this for 2020: It sure encouraged me to read more than usual. And I read some really great books in the year that just ended. Here’s my list of favorites…I’ll try and describe them well enough that you’ll know whether you’ll be interested too.

Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin

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For years, my go-to book for anyone who thinks Christianity is intellectually ridiculous–or any Christian who struggles with doubts about our faith–has been The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. I now have a second book for that situation. McLaughlin is a terrific writer, and does not shy away from the core objections people have about biblical Christianity–in other words, she delivers on her title. The fact that she was born in England (a substantially less religious country than our own) combined with her relative youth makes this book a great companion piece to Keller’s masterpiece. Bonus: If you buy the audiobook, McLaughlin narrates herself, and her accent is lovely. The chapter titles reveal the twelve questions at the heart of the book:

Chapter 1: Aren’t we better off without religion?

Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?

Chapter 3: How can you say there is only one true faith?

Chapter 4: Doesn’t religion hinder morality?

Chapter 5: Doesn’t religion cause violence?

Chapter 6: How can you take the Bible literally?

Chapter 7: Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?

Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?

Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity homophobic?

Chapter 10: Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?

Chapter 11: How could a loving God allow so much suffering?

Chapter 12: How could a loving God send people to hell?

The chapter on homophobia is especially insightful, as McLaughlin shares her experiences as a same-sex attracted woman who has chosen to live according to biblical sexual ethics. I would recommend this highly to if you want to think through the intellectual objections to Christianity, or if you’re trying to engage someone who is skeptical of our faith. Follow her at @RebeccaMcLaugh or check her website: https://www.rebeccamclaughlin.org/

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by [Erik Larson]

Imagine being a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your beloved father has just reached his lifelong goal of becoming your nation’s Prime Minister…just as World War II begins. For teenager Mary Churchill, that was reality in 1940. There have been countless books written about the War, and almost as many written about Winston Churchill. But Larson, an author who writes nonfiction that reads like a novel (my favorite Larson books are Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City), stays focused on the personalities of Churchill, his family and close friends, and what life was like for them in that pivotal year. They lived in a city that was bombed every night for months on end. They faced excruciatingly difficult decisions every day. They grieved the deaths of friends and neighbors that seemed to mount with each passing day. They wondered when the United States would join the war effort; and whether their tiny island nation could hold out against the Nazi onslaught until then. But they also had dinner parties and dances, fell in and out of love, dreamed, hoped and prayed. Larson makes us participants in the story. I finished the book feeling immensely grateful to the Churchills and all of the English people for standing up against tyranny alone for as long as they did. This is a gripping read even for people who don’t love history.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World: Burton, Tara Isabella:  9781541762534: Amazon.com: Books

This is not a Christian book (although its author is a fairly new Christian herself). But its subject is of great interest to Christians: We all know the polls say Americans are becoming less religious than ever, but Burton says that’s not necessarily true. They’re simply finding meaning, purpose, community and ritual in new places. Those are the four things Burton says Americans traditionally found in organized faith–and her book does a great job of recounting the religious history of our nation in a way I hadn’t seen it presented before. But today, the “spiritually remixed” (who include “spiritual but not religious” types as well as “nones”) are finding meaning, purpose, community, and ritual in the strangest places: Alternative religions like wicca, non-religious entities like self-care and fitness companies, and especially politics. Toward the end of her book, Burton names the three fastest-growing religious movements in America today, and two of them are political: The Social Justice Movement on the Left, and Atavism on the Right. Sad to say, most churchgoing Christians don’t know many of these people, and they know few of us beyond what they see on cable news or social media. Burton’s book is an interesting read, but more importantly, it helps people like us understand those who are drifting (or, in some cases, galloping) away from our faith.

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christians with the Gospel. Dean Inserra

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel:  Inserra, Dean: 9780802418807: Amazon.com: Books

Strange Rites and The Unsaved Christian made an interesting combo for me. One gave me insight into the minds of thousands of my neighbors who want nothing to do with organized religion. The other was a reminder that thousands more of my neighbors remain “religious,” without any real relationship with Christ. That is especially true in the Southern United States, and Inserra, who pastors a church in Florida, helps us see the different types of “Unsaved Christians.” They range from the CEO (Christmas and Easter only) types, to people who attend churches where the Gospel is not preached, to cultural Christians for whom Christianity is all rolled up in citizenship and patriotism. You will recognize many of your friends, neighbors and relatives in this book. It will make you uncomfortable at times, but it will expand the number of people you begin to pray for. And Inserra has some great conversation starters and other tips to help us reach people who think they don’t need the Gospel.

Peace Like a River and Virgil Wander. Leif Enger

Peace Like a River: A Novel: Enger, Leif: 9780802139252: Amazon.com: Books

I have a new favorite novelist. For several years, I have heard about this book, had intentions to read it, but this year, I finally did it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Enger’s first novel, written in 2002, is narrated by 11 year old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in 1950s Minnesota. When his older brother becomes the focus of a criminal manhunt, Reuben, his father and younger sister strike out on a cross-country journey to try to find him before the authorities can. This is not a “Christian book,” in the sense that it’s not written specifically for a Christian audience. But it is a book about people of profound and authentic Christian faith, and that is something I haven’t seen in any other literary novel since Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. The father, Jeremiah Land, is especially memorable. A man of such powerful faith, he can literally work miracles, he nevertheless lives as a simple high school janitor. Little Reuben adores his dad, but has to wonder sometimes why he can heal a local bully, but not his own son. Of course, God’s people have been asking questions like that about our Heavenly Father since the Garden.

Peace Like a River reads at times like a pulse-pounding thriller, and at other times like a sweet family memoir. It has moments of tenderness, and gritty images of life’s deepest evils. Enger has that rare ability to write beautifully without seeming like he’s showing off. When I finished this book, I was immediately sad that it was over.

Virgil Wander was written just two years ago (Enger has only written three novels; I picked up his middle book, So Brave Young and Handsome, at the library yesterday). It’s quite different from his first book. Whereas Peace Like a River had a central question that drove the plot along (Will the Lands find Davy before the authorities do, and what will happen to him?), Virgil Wander has a plot that is much harder to define. It is also set in the present day, and the faith of its characters isn’t nearly as key to the story as in Peace. Still, I enjoyed it just as much. Virgil Wander is the name of the book’s narrator, a middle-aged movie theater owner in a one-stoplight town in northern Minnesota. The book starts with Virgil surviving a terrible car crash, an event that leaves him with some strange after-effects; he can speak, but can’t remember adjectives. His memory is mostly fine, but some of his friends and surroundings seem strange to him. He refers to his former life as “the previous tenant.” In other words, this is a man who has a second chance at life.

That summary makes the book sound like countless other plots, from A Christmas Carol to the movie Family Man. In reality, the book is more focused on the forsaken town where he lives, a place so known for heartache that their local festival is called “Hard Luck Days.” As Virgil tries to renew his own life, we get to know other people who live there–the widow of the baseball star who mysteriously disappeared, the former banker who got elected sheriff and wishes he hadn’t, the mayor who is obsessed with Bob Dylan, the teenager who starts surfing the icy waters of Lake Superior, the loser who wants to win his wife back, and the little boy determined to catch the huge fish he is convinced killed his dad. There’s also a scandalous local celebrity who has recently come home, and a mysterious kite-flying stranger who seems to draw people like a pied piper. I know “quirky small town” has been done an infinite number of times before, too. But Enger makes each of these characters so real, you find yourself yearning to know what happens to them, and to their community. In the process, you might feel inspired to seek a little renewal of your own.

The Chosen

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Okay, this isn’t a book. I just have to share my experience with this series. Let me start with this: I don’t enjoy most “faith-based” movies. I confess I am a bit of a movie snob. Faith-based movies tend to be made with the best of intentions, but they just aren’t made well. So when I heard about a series about the life of Jesus that is entirely funded by donations, that would only be available on an app on one’s phone, tablet or computer, I figured it wasn’t worth my time. After numerous friends–some of whom are movie snobs too–kept telling me how good it was, I relented and gave it a try. Man, am I glad I did.

Most movies about the Bible fall into one of two categories: 1) The Hollywood approach, that changes the story to fit a particular agenda, or 2) The devout approach, in which the characters only say and do the things mentioned in Scripture. It’s hard to criticize this second category; The Jesus Film is a good example. These films have their purpose, but they don’t really work as movies. The Chosen is different. It presents the people of the Gospels in a realistic way. They speak in contemporary language. This takes some getting used to, but it works because it makes the viewer feel a part of the drama. These aren’t just characters in an old story, they are real people. The series presents things that aren’t mentioned in Scripture, but which are plausible: Simon and Andrew being worried they will lose their fishing boat because of debt; Matthew hiring a man to pull him in a wagon through the marketplace so that the people won’t spit on him; the woman at the well asking her latest husband for a divorce so that she can get remarried. Because these ideas aren’t in the Bible, we don’t know exactly how they will turn out. And since the characters are well-written and exceptionally well-acted (This is the best portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen), we care deeply about their stories. Every episode featured at least one moment that moved me deeply, but there is also genuinely funny humor.

I highly recommend The Chosen. Season Two should be out soon, and I can’t wait. Check out their website here: The Chosen.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane Ortlund

What can I say about Gentle and Lowly? If you only read one book on this list, read this book. If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, or you fear that your life is disappointing to God, read this book. If you know someone who thinks of the God of the Bible as angry and vengeful, read this book…and then share it with them. If you just want to know Jesus better (trust me, you do), read this book.

The title is based on Matthew 11:28-30. Ortlund’s premise is that to really know someone is to discover their heart; Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 reveals that His heart is “gentle and lowly.” The rest of the book shows that this truth is not a fluke; it’s found throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. Over and over again, in simple, memorable prose, he shows us that God doesn’t just tolerate us…His heart is for us. He delights in us. Ortlund is not following the path of some authors who ignore or downplay the passages about God’s wrath and our sin. Instead, He shows how the entire Bible points to a God who is unfailingly on our side. Let me say it again: Read this book. Thank me later.

Beating the Covid Blues

Lockdown impact on employees | Covid blues: Employees losing sleep over  rejoining office

There’s a line in the Christmas carol “O Holy Night” that seems to have been written especially for 2020.  “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.”  Yes, after a Summer of racial division, a Fall dominated by a contentious election, nine months into a worldwide pandemic, this is indeed a weary world.  But are we rejoicing?  As a Christian, I know Jesus desires for me to live a joyful life.  Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  In other words, if God’s Spirit lives in me—as I claim—then I should be joyful.  We can’t immediately change the conditions of our present world; complain though we might, the pandemic will be with us for several more months, along with the restrictions that go with it.  But the Bible makes it clear that the joy He gives us is stronger than our circumstances:

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  John 16:22

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.  Psalm 16:11

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.  Psalm 30:5

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!  Philippians 4:4

Yet, sad to say, joy isn’t one of the first words people associate with Christians these days.  And honestly, I understand.  We often seem just as angry, cranky, bitter or whiney as the rest of the population, if not more.  It’s hard to persuade people that you bear the Good News when you look miserable.  It’s also devastating on a personal level.  As Proverbs 17:22 says, A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.  We all experience times of sadness, stress or grief.  But those should be exceptions.  So what’s keeping us from experiencing the joy that God gives?  I recently spent some time researching the science of happiness.  I found something interesting: The things scientists have discovered which produce long-term, resilient happiness and satisfaction (ie, joy) in people are all things that God commands us to do.  Weird, right?  So I offer this list of ten habits that will enable you to experience more joy in the coming year. 

1. Get more sleep.  The best performance-enhancing substance on earth is free and legal.  It’s getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Adequate sleep leads to improved brain function, job performance, and overall health…including a longer life span.  But it also leads to a better mood.  Psychlogist Norbert Schwarz said, “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”[i]  Scripture takes a balanced approach to the subject of sleep.  Proverbs warns us against sleeping our lives away.  But Psalm 127:2 says, It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.  Sleep is a gift from God.  Stop binge-watching Netflix and get to bed on time.  You’ll thank yourself later.   

2. Monitor your media intake.  Depression and other suicide risk factors have exploded among American teenagers in recent years.  Researchers said the trend started in 2012, the year smartphones first became widely owned.  Jean Twenge says research shows that’s no coincidence.  In fact, a teenager who spends five or more hours per day on a smartphone is 71 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.[ii]  So how much time on one’s phone is safe?  Twenge says an hour or less is the sweet spot; two hours is the point at which the negative effects on one’s brain begin to emerge.  Jesus warned us in Luke 11:33, Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.  We start to resemble whatever we spend the most time looking at.

But this warning isn’t just for teenagers with smartphones.  I know many Christians who are addicted to 24 hour cable news, political websites, and talk radio.  This is toxic to your emotional and spiritual wellbeing, in my opinion.  Be aware that the business model of each of these media platforms is to keep you watching, listening, or clicking on articles.  They do this by stirring up fear and anger.  Too much news consumption leaves you feeling the world is on the verge of collapse.  Too much political opinion content fills us with the sense that those who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re evil.  I read an article a couple years ago written by a Christian whose elderly parents had started watching a cable news network.  Before this, they were calm, sweet-natured people.  But soon, this man realized that every time he visited his parents, the news was on.  And every time he visited, they seemed more paranoid than before.  They were obsessed by all sorts of terrifying conspiracy theories.  They deeply distrusted their neighbors.  It took some convincing, but the man persuaded his parents to turn off the TV.  Soon, they were the happy parents he remembered. They actually thanked him for confronting them.  Of course, I am not saying we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore current events.  But a quick check of headlines in the morning is all the news one usually needs.  As for the political discussion we consume so much of, ask yourself the question: “Does this make me more or less likely to love my neighbor?”  Try fasting from media for a week or two, and see what it does for your mood.        

3. Seek contentment.  These days, it’s popular to compile a bucket list: A checklist of places to go, things to accomplish, stuff to own, experiences to have before we “kick the bucket.”  I believe bucket lists are joy-destroyers.  Research backs me up on that.  Arthur C. Brooks, in an article for The Atlantic, sums it up in this equation: “Satisfaction = What you have divided by what you want.”[iii]  The more things you put on your list of “must haves” the unhappier you will be.  Or as Spanish clergyman Josemaria Escriva put it, “He has most who needs least.  Don’t create needs for yourself.”  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  The more we focus on what we don’t have, the less we will enjoy the blessings we already possess.  Too many of us live like a married man with a wandering eye; even if he never physically cheats on his wife, his idealizing of other women will poison his love for his her. 

So how do we become content with what we have?  In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul wrote I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  To Paul, contentment was a skill that could be learned.  But unlike such skills as mastering a foreign language or learning to hit a sand wedge, we need supernatural help with this one.  Christ can teach us how to be content. The question is, are we willing to let Him?  A great first step is to pray every day, “Lord, I know that if I truly need something, you’ll give it to me.  So teach me to be happy with what I’ve been given.”

4. Practice gratitude.  The Bible is so full of commands to be thankful, one might think that God is insecure and in need of affirmation.  Fortunately, that’s not so.  God desires our gratitude because He knows it’s good for us.  An article from Harvard Medical School cites one study in which people were asked to write a few sentences about their lives each week.  One group was asked to write about things they were thankful for.  Another was told to write about irritating or annoying things that had happened to them.  The third group was given no instruction on what to write.  At the end of 11 weeks, the thankful group showed significantly more optimism and cheerfulness.  They also exercised more and reported fewer visits to the doctor.  In another study, 411 people were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been kind to them in the past.  The participants reported a huge surge in happiness, greater than any of the more standard psychological treatments.  Even three months later, the participants’ brain activity showed that they were mentally healthier than they had been before the experiment.  Other studies show that thankful people have better relationships and do a better job motivating employees.[iv]

Here’s one way to bring more gratitude into your life: Every night, before you fall asleep, think of four things you’re thankful for.  It could be four good things that happened that day, or four things you’re glad are part of your life.  Say a prayer of thanks to God for those four things.  I’ve done this before, and it’s a great way to end a day. 

5. Serve others.  Katherine Nelson-Coffey helped lead a study in which one group was told to do something kind for themselves daily: Get a message, buy something they’ve been wanting, order dessert, spend more time doing things they enjoyed.  A second group was told to practice “random acts of kindness”: Visit an elderly relative, pay for someone’s order at a restaurant. A third group was told to do things that help humanity: Volunteer or donate to a charity.  Researchers called these “prosocial” activities.  At the end of four weeks, the results were striking.  Groups two and three reported drastically increased levels of joy and wellbeing.  Whereas the group that had spent four solid weeks playing “treat yourself” didn’t enjoy life any more than they had before.  This goes against everything we tend to believe.  Nelson-Coffey summed up the study, “This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it, or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behavior and show others kindness through our actions.”[v]

This shouldn’t surprise any follower of Jesus, the one who told us one of the two most important commands was Love your neighbor as yourself.  Contrary to what we may think, Christ didn’t say this because He was trying to separate the good people from the bad, or to arbitrarily make life harder for us.  He said it because He loves us, and He knows that a life of putting others ahead of oneself is actually much happier than a life consumed with fulfilling our own appetites.  Happiness is like a butterfly: The harder you try to catch it, the more it eludes you.  But if you take your eyes off of yourself, you will discover to your surprise that joy has landed on you.  This is one reason why I’m so excited about our church’s vision of creating transforming relationships. Not only will it serve our community; it will produce greater joy in us.  Wake up in the morning and ask God to show you, “Who can I serve today?” 

6. Find the meaning and dignity in your work.  Brooks, in his Atlantic article, gives another enlightening equation: “Habits (that produce happiness) = Faith + Family + Friends + Work.”  We’ll talk about the first three in that equation below.  You may be surprised to see work included.  But it stands to reason: Once we grow up, we spend more time working than we do anything else.  That’s one reason “adulting” seems so hard.  Christians especially need to realize that our work is not a curse, it’s a calling.  That’s true not just of vocational ministry and charity work, but even tasks we find mundane or miserable (for help unpacking that concept, check this out).  I’ve found it helpful to look at my day’s schedule when I first get up, praying over every meeting, assignment and chore on my plate, asking the Lord to help me do these things with wisdom and excellence, knowing He is my true boss. 

7. Spend more time with people who love you.  These days, when we have time off, we tend to retreat into our own solo bubble, which almost always involves staring at a screen in silence.  We tell ourselves this is “me time,” that we’re feeding our souls by getting away from people, with all their messiness and demands.  But research shows our isolation is what’s making us unhappy, while time spent with people feeds our souls.  Here’s just one example: A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics found that an increase in the frequency of social involvements was worth an extra $131,000 in actual happiness.  They also stated that, “Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.”[vi]

If you’re an introvert reading this right now, you might be thinking, “Those statistics don’t apply to me.”  Actually, they do.  Your circle of life-giving people is probably smaller than mine, but you need interaction with them, nonetheless.  So start saying yes to those invitations to Life Group parties.  Play board games or go on a walk with your family instead of turning on the TV.  Go visit your parents more often.  Set a rotating schedule of friends to meet for lunch once a week. 

8. Make relationships right.  One of our biggest sources of stress is conflict in our relationships.  As a pastor, I see so many people who live in a constant state of relationship drama: Betrayal by so-called friends, gossip in the office, toxic employers, longstanding family feuds, custody battles between ex-spouses, friendships collapsing because of one thoughtless word or action.  I’m willing to bet most of you reading this right now have at least one relationship in your life that makes your stomach churn.  In many of those relationships, you know that there is something you could do to make things better between you and that other person; an apology to offer, forgiveness to extend, a gentle conversation to be had.  But everything within you says “Don’t do it!”  Why?  Anger and bitterness are, in a strange way, very satisfying.  You feel validated when you have an enemy.  You tell your friends stories of the awful things she has said or done, and they all shake their heads, agreeing that you are the victim of supreme injustice.  You have imaginary conversations with your enemy, in which you tell him exactly how you feel, and he is left speechless with shame. 

Frederick Buechner puts it memorably: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.”  But he also acknowledges that anger, as fun as it may be, is deadly: “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”  This is why Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Again, He wasn’t trying to make life hard for us.  He loves us, and wants the best for us.  He knows that making things right with our enemies is a way to bring more joy to our lives. 

I believe this world would be a much happier place if more of us would follow Romans 12:18: If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people.  Note the first two words: “If possible.”  Sometimes, no matter what we do, some people will hate us.  But think about your enemies right now: Have you done everything you can?  As far as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone?  For some of you, the number one thing you can do to experience joy in 2021 is to have an important conversation with someone who you’re currently at odds with, or to begin praying for someone you cannot stand.  Neither of those actions is easy.  But the joy that comes when you live at peace is palpable. 

9. Go to church. Nelson-Coffey says “There is a linear relationship between religious service attendance and happiness.”  Note what she says: Simply identifying yourself as a member of a religion doesn’t make you happier.  But attending worship services does.  Pew Research has found the same thing for years: People who regularly attend worship are much happier than those who are irreligious OR those who are religious, but rarely attend church.  This is true in nations around the world.[vii] This is big news to the millions of people who would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or who have given up being part of a local church, although they still believe in the doctrines of the faith.  It turns out that Sunday mornings really do matter.  If you’re a believer who has at some point dropped out of active participation in a church, it is worth your time to find a church home again. 

Of course, COVID complicates matters.  At my church some of our most loyal members feel the wisest course is to avoid in-person church attendance until the pandemic passes, even with all of the safety protocols we’ve put in place.  I respect their decision, and I thank God for the technology that enables us to stay connected with them online.  But—I want to say this carefully—I also want them to know that online worship is not a permanent replacement for being here in the flesh.  It can’t be the “new normal.”  That’s not my opinion, by the way.  Hebrews 10:24-25 commands, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  Notice two things: First, even in the first century, there were people saying, “I don’t need to actually go to worship with other believers.”  The author of Hebrews was correcting this false idea.  Second, notice why we need worship: He doesn’t say, “Go to church so you can hear a good sermon” or “Gather together so that you can sing worship songs.” He says we are to stir up one another to love and good deeds and encourage each other.  Those are things that happen when you are with someone in person. You can listen to preaching on your laptop and sing songs along with us on TV.  But in order to encourage one another—and be encouraged—you need to be here.  If you’ve stopped coming to church for health reasons, pray and consult your doctor about when to return.  We miss you, and look forward to seeing you again when it’s safe.  

10. Focus on deepening your faith.  Follow my logic for a moment: The Bible says we were made by a loving God as the absolute peak of His creation, the only thing in the universe made in His image.  Out of all the billions of living organisms in creation, only we can hear God’s voice, cry out to Him in prayer, and know His presence.  He cared so much for you and me, He became a man and died to rescue us, to make possible a personal relationship between us and Him.  He didn’t die to redeem any other creature, only us.  And God is the source of all joy.  God created beauty and laughter, as well as every other pleasant experience in the world, from eating a perfectly cooked steak to kissing the one you love.  None of these things is necessary for sustaining life, by the way; He could have kept us alive and reproducing without creating fun and enjoyment.  These are gifts from a God of love.  And when this God came to earth in the form of Jesus, people—especially irreligious people—couldn’t get enough of Him.  They walked for miles to stand in the sun all day listening to Him talk.  The religious leaders called Him a drunkard and a glutton because they assumed that a man of such infectious joy must be sinning somehow.   If these things are true, then the most important single thing we could do to experience a joyful life is to grow closer to our Creator and Redeemer.  As St Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  

Have you considered what new habits you will form in 2021 to grow in your relationship with God?  Most of the suggestions on this list would help, of course. But for sheer spiritual growth, I can’t think of any better habit than reading the Bible daily.  It has never been easier to start.  Bible apps are available for free.  My favorite, Youversion, even allows me to listen as someone else reads the Bible for me.  I can have my daily Bible reading while I drive, get ready for work, or exercise.  Daily Bible reading plans are available online for free as well: Just search “Bible reading plan” and you’ll get options that allow you to read the entire Bible in a year (ambitious), in three years (easier), or more theme-based options.  If you prefer some devotional thoughts to help you understand the Scripture you’re reading, there are tons of options there, too (Click here to see the one I wrote one myself).  Or just do this: Open your Bible to Matthew 1, and read that chapter.  Tomorrow, read Matthew 2.  Continue until you reach the end of the New Testament.  Then start with Genesis.  For many people, a chapter a day is the perfect amount.

Whatever you do, do something that produces joy in your life.  You’ll be glad, and so will everyone you know!    


[i] https://www.purewow.com/news/sleep-better-than-raise-says-psychologist

[ii] https://www.npr.org/2017/12/17/571443683/the-call-in-teens-and-depression

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/how-increase-happiness-according-research/609619/

[iv] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier#:~:text=In%20positive%20psychology%20research%2C%20gratitude,express%20gratitude%20in%20multiple%20ways.

[v] https://positivepsychology.com/happiness/

[vi] https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/01/what-are-your-relationships-worth-in-dollars/#ixzz2b33s2ANx

[vii] https://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/31/religions-relationship-to-happiness-civic-engagement-and-health-around-the-world/

A Prayer for the Election

Today, right before lunchtime, I walked out of my office alongside my wife and daughter, strolled a block to the courthouse, and voted. In that one simple act, I did something that the vast majority of humans in the history of this planet could only dream of: I, an ordinary citizen, not a Lord or a wealthy landowner, participated directly in the government of my nation, state and city. I think it’s worth taking just a moment to thank God for how ridiculously privileged we are in this nation.

And yet…most of us still feel a deep sense of anxiety about this election. Over these past several weeks, I have pondered and prayed about what to write to you regarding the events of November 3. At long last, I have decided simply to write a prayer. We Baptists don’t tend to use pre-written prayers, preferring the “from the heart” spontaneous variety. So I am not asking you to pray this prayer word-for-word to the Father, although there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so. At the very least, I hope this motivates you to pray for our nation in fresh ways. I am sure many of you are already praying for your chosen candidate to win. Hopefully, you’re also praying for revival among God’s people and awakening among the lost. But what are some other, specific things to pray for? One week from today, many questions will be answered, and some may still be in doubt. Let’s talk to the One who has all the answers.

O Lord, thank you that you’ve chosen to place us in a nation where we have such lavish freedom. We remember your Word that tells us “to whomever much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). We don’t want to waste this freedom. So we pray:

For the man who wins our Presidential election. You already know who this will be, Lord, although we don’t yet. He will face a heavy burden. We pray for him that you would:

Guide him as he chooses his cabinet and advisers over these next three months. Place around him men and women of wisdom and integrity.

Go to work on his character. He is a sinner like all of us, but in this role we need a man who is better than most of us. Teach him courage to stand up for righteousness and justice, even if doing so angers his political base; wisdom to choose the right path when decisions impact millions of people; and humility enough to receive criticism and advice graciously, while putting others ahead of himself.

Enable him to bring us together. We know that in our political system, there will always be people who disagree with him, but we pray that he would lead in such a way that even his opponents would trust his motivations, and that we would feel once again that we are one nation, under God, indivisible.

Most of all, make yourself known to him personally. If he doesn’t know you yet, we pray that he would come to know you soon. If he does, strengthen his faith in you. Use him to accomplish your will as revealed in your Word:

To protect the right we have to spread the Gospel, worship your name, and live in obedience to your Word.

To stand up for the dignity and rights of all people, including those still in the womb.

To establish justice for those who don’t have the earthly resources to thrive.

To lead us to a place of equality for and harmony among the different races in our nation.

To protect those who are vulnerable, and punish those who are wicked.

And to use our nation’s immense power for good in the world.

Where he fails to do any of these things, we pray that you would raise up righteous men and women to oppose him effectively.

For the man who loses the election, we pray that he would accept the mandate of the people graciously, in a way that does not further divide us, but helps us to heal. We also pray for his soul, that this time of deep personal disappointment would drive him to you.

Most of all, we pray for us, your people, who are called by your name:

Your word tells us not to trust in princes, but to put all of our hope in you (Psalm 146:3-5). Yet we must confess we have put our hopes in political movements and leaders. Please use this election to wean us from this idolatry.

As we return to you with our whole heart, we won’t stop supporting particular leaders. But we pray that we would hold even “our” candidates accountable when they do and say evil things. Forgive us for the times we acted more like the court prophets who praised the Kings of Israel and told them whatever they wanted to hear. Instead, make us more like Isaiah, Daniel, and Nathan, who spoke bold truth to good and evil leaders alike.

As we cast off our political idolatry, help us also to love those who disagree with us. Help us stop treating them like enemies in a culture war and start treating them like people you died for. Remind us to pray for our leaders, including the ones we don’t agree with. And when we express our disagreement, show us how to do that in a way that is more like what we see in you, and less like what we see everywhere else. Help us to act like people who are discipled by you, not by TV talk shows and social media.

Most of all, help us to make you absolute King of our lives in every way, and to spread your Kingdom everywhere we go. Make us the fragrance of the knowledge of you (2 Co. 2:14), that everyone we meet would long to know you.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Covid, Vaccines, and the End of the World

The last time there was a world-wide pandemic, social media didn’t exist.  Think about that.  Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?

I’m joking.  Mostly.  I am grateful for platforms that enable me to stay in touch with friends who, for various reasons, I can’t visit physically. And I am extra thankful that technology like this allows people to worship online until they feel safe returning to church again.  But this same technology is used to spread fear, anger and misinformation faster than previous generations could imagine.  Sometimes, just spending five minutes on Facebook or Twitter feels like stepping in a fire ant mound. Before you know it, you’re swarmed and wondering, “Why did I do this?”

For months, I have read speculation from friends, Christian and non-Christian alike, about what will happen when a COVID vaccine hits the market.  Some think it will be a gift from God, sent to finally end these months of turmoil.  Others think it will be quite the opposite; some say, “There’s no way I’m taking a medication that was rushed into development.”  I’ve even seen articles that say the “vaccine” will actually be a sophisticated way to track every person who takes it.  Some wonder if this is the Mark of the Beast spoken of in biblical prophecy.  Now that it appears very possible that a vaccine could be available in this country in the next few months, I feel compelled to address these issues.  I freely admit that I do not possess the medical knowledge necessary to advise you on whether or not you should take a vaccine.  My advice is that you get your advice from your family doctor.  Not from your favorite political commentator, blog or website.  Not from some person on social media who claims to be a doctor.  Get your guidance from the person who has been treating you up to now. 

I simply want to address this as a pastor.  How should we think biblically about this?  Here is what I know:

1. The COVID 19 pandemic is NOT evidence that the world is about to end.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Jesus is returning, and I look forward to that day.  I hope I’m alive when it happens.  If He comes back before I finish typing this, no one will be happier than me.  But Jesus specifically said He would come back at a time when we do not expect Him (Matthew 24:44).  He also said when we see calamitous world events, we should NOT be alarmed (Matthew 24:5-8).  Somehow, we tend to get that backward.

2. Contrary to what your favorite TV preacher says, the purpose of biblical prophecy is NOT to give us a secret code we can use to interpret world events and predict what will happen next.  Remember, there were dozens of prophecies of Jesus’ first coming.  The people of God knew them by heart.  Yet when He came, it all happened in a way none of them predicted.  I truly believe His Second Coming will be similar in that way.  When it’s all over, we’ll say, “Huh.  That’s not the way I thought it would be.  But I like His version better than what I expected!”  That’s certainly how the first Christians felt. 

So what is the purpose of biblical prophecy?  It’s twofold: First, it’s to warn people that the current state of things isn’t permanent.  The true King of this world is returning, and you’d better be ready.  Second, it’s to encourage people who are trying to be faithful in a world where it seems like evil always wins.  To that, biblical prophecy says, “Hang in there.  The One who loves you is going to be King someday.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study prophecy; we absolutely should. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have opinions about how some things will be fulfilled.  We just need to be much, much more humble than we usually tend to be about such opinions.  And any preacher or author who is absolutely sure their interpretation is right is just trying to sell you something.  Literally.  A lot of money has been made by scaring God’s people about the End Times. 

3. The Mark of the Beast is mentioned one time, and one time only, in Scripture, in Revelation 13:16-18.  Many of us have read books, seen movies, and heard sermons that tell us this refers to an evil ruler or government (The Antichrist) who will force people to be branded with a sign.  Apart from that sign, no one will be able to buy or sell anything.  That sign may or may not be the number 666.  That is certainly what the passage in question seems to say.  And it has given rise to all sorts of speculation about what this mark might be: A tattoo?  An identity card?  A bar code?  A microchip? 

Of course, earlier in the same chapter, the beast is described in great detail.  It looks like a leopard, but with the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion.  Also, it has ten horns on its seven heads, with ten crowns on the ten horns. I’ve never heard anyone say they think that description should be taken literally.  Nor do they think that when Jesus returns to the earth as described in Revelation 19, He will have a literal sword emerging from His mouth, and He’ll use it to slay the armies of the world.  We understand that Revelation was written in an apocalyptic form, in which the things described are symbolic of higher realities.  Why do we interpret the Mark of the Beast literally, when we do not do the same with the descriptions of the Beast or of Jesus?  My guess is that the Mark of the Beast, whatever it represents, isn’t something physical at all.  But that’s just my guess. And I admit that. (See how it’s done?)  Truth is, we interpret it that way because it’s part of a way of looking at Revelation that we were taught.  It was in The Late Great Planet Earth back in the 70s, along with many other bestsellers.  It was in the Left Behind books in the 90s, and those terrible movies they made based on the books (Nick Cage?  Really?)  But that view of Revelation has really only been popular for the past 100 years or so.  For most of Christian history, God’s people interpreted Revelation very differently.

4. But let’s say, for the purpose of argument, that the Mark of the Beast is meant to describe a literal mark. Think about this for a moment: The core truth of the Christian faith is that Jesus loved us enough to come to this world in the form of a man, die an atoning death for our sins, and rise again.  There is literally nothing we can do to earn His love or salvation.  He freely offers it at the ultimate personal cost to Himself.  So if that’s true, and it is, then why are we worried about the Mark of the Beast?  If it’s real, do you think God is so sloppy that He will be caught unawares, and fail to make His people—the people He loved enough to die for—aware of what it is, and that it should be avoided?  Do you really think only the really, really smart, prophecy-savvy Christians will avoid being infected by the Mark?  Trust me, if the mark of the Beast is real, it won’t be something you acquire by accident.  Or by trying to do some good deed, like get immunized to stop the spread of a pandemic.  It will require an act of outright rebellion against God. And even if I am somehow wrong about that, and some of us do get the Mark of the Beast (whatever that might mean) don’t you think His grace will be enough to cover even that sin?  Forget the Mark of the Beast.  Stick close to Jesus, and you cannot go wrong. 

5. Finally, let us think about this another way.  According to Jesus, all the commands in Scripture can be summed up in two: Love the Lord, and love your neighbor as yourself.  I cannot tell you that you should be first in line to take the Covid vaccine when it’s available.  But doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing the first followers of Jesus would have done?  The people who stayed behind in cities with raging epidemics, caring for non-Christians whose families had fled, would not be afraid to take a medication that could stop a modern-day epidemic, save untold lives, and get our economy back on track.  At least that’s what I think.  Here’s what I know: They wouldn’t be the ones acting fearfully right now.  They wouldn’t be shouting about their rights.  They would be finding ways to lay down their lives. 

And if I were the Devil himself, and I knew all of this (which he does), what better way to make the Church look foolish, weak, and self-centered than to spread the rumor among Christians: “Don’t take the vaccine.  In fact, spread the word that it’s the mark of the Beast.” 

I admit that last part is purely my speculation.  But it does make sense, doesn’t it? 

Think biblically, Christian.  Whatever you do, act out of love, not fear. 

What is a “Transforming Relationship”?

Here at First Baptist Conroe, we have a vision I am so excited about.  Over the next ten years, we will engage in 10,000 transforming relationships, working alongside the Spirit of God to bring peace to the chaos in our community, one heart, one family at a time.  It’s going to take all of us to accomplish this.  So we’re spending this entire year talking about it, showing from the Scriptures how God is constantly at work doing exactly this, telling stories of ways it’s already happening in and around us, and preparing all of our hearts to engage in these transforming relationships with our neighbors, friends and co-workers.  But some of you are asking, what is a transforming relationship?

First of all, here’s what it’s not: It’s not being part of a lifegroup, a Bible study, a choir or worship band, or even leading a ministry like that.  It’s not doing a random act of kindness for someone.  It’s not donating school supplies or raising funds or doing charity work.  It’s not even simply praying for someone.  All of those are good things, things that we as Christians should be doing.  But when we say engage in transforming relationships, we mean something different, something more personal.  We created the term transforming relationship to describe a relationship that is intentional and focused on a need.

When I say intentional, here’s what I mean:  When you choose to spend time investing in someone who no one expects you to invest in, that’s intentional.  I’m not talking about your relationships with family or people you are already friends with, as important as that is.  I’m talking about you choosing to invest in someone new, someone you wouldn’t choose to spend time with except for your desire to help them experience the love of Jesus.  So we’re talking about people you work with, your neighbors, the families of your kids’ friends, the lady who cuts your hair, the guy who works on your car.

When I say focused on a need, I mean more than just finding someone with some common interests and hanging out with them.  I mean seeing a need in someone’s life, and choosing to invest in them to see if we can help.  Here are some examples:

–Mentoring a child at a local school

–Visiting an elderly neighbor once a week, because you notice that their family doesn’t seem to pay attention to them.

–You and your spouse meeting regularly with a couple who are newly married or having a hard time staying together, just to pray for them and encourage them.

–Helping guide a co-worker to make a budget and get out of debt.

–A Christian kid choosing to be a friend to the kid everyone else makes fun of.

Here’s another way to look at it.  Most of us can think of someone outside our family who made a difference in our lives, who invested in us when we needed them, who taught us something that made us better or was there for us at a key moment.  That was a relationship that changed your life.  We’re challenging our members to be that person to someone else.  Someday, someone will say, “Because this person chose to invest in me, I am a better person.  I am happier.  I am on the right track.”

Some of these relationships will lead to opportunities for our members to tell people about what Jesus has done for us.  Some of them will be with people who are already Christians.  But all of them will be opportunities to bring peace to the chaos in the lives of people we know.

Over the next ten years, we as a church staff will do what we can to find pathways for these kinds of relationships.  For example, if you want to mentor a child in CISD, you can contact Project Mentor.  That pathway already exists (although right now, volunteers aren’t allowed on local campuses…we know that’s only temporary).  We will find others, and create some of our own.  In the meantime, we’re asking you to pray that God would prepare your heart, and would show you someone He wants you to invest in.  And pray that God would use us to bring peace to the chaos right here in Montgomery County.

Good things are happening

A little over a year ago, we took a vacation to Colorado.  My kids had never been to the mountains, so I carefully planned this thing out.  I found a nice little rent house at a good rate.  I scheduled our departure for the day after my son’s school year ended.  Hiking is virtually the only recreational thing that every member of our family enjoys, so I identified tons of trails in the area for us to hike.  Then I sat back and waited for the weeks to pass, and our trip to begin.

As it turns out, my well-laid plans were for naught.  Weird weather (including a freak snowstorm) and an illness kept us inside for most of the week.  But we learned a new card game, and spent hours around the table together instead of huddled over our separate screens.  We had some great food.  And we had an unexpectedly adventurous fifteen-hour drive home.  We have so many great stories from that week, stories that make us laugh today even harder than we did when they happened.

I am not saying my failed vacation plans are equivalent to the heartbreaking year we’re all struggling through.   By this time, many of us have had COVID 19, and its effects are no joke.  All of us know someone who has had it, and some of us have friends or loved ones who have died from it.  Add in the emotional trauma and economic devastation of a long-term shutdown, and the increased racial and political division in our country, and 2020 seems like the nightmare that won’t end.

Here’s where I’m going with my analogy: That failed vacation was this year in microcosm.  We’re smack in the middle of a reality we did not anticipate and cannot change.  But there are still good things going on all around us.  There are reasons to rejoice.  Here are a few I can see:

–In many families, parents have spent way more time with their kids over the past five months than they intended to.  Yes, I know it’s been difficult.  If you have small kids in your home, you’ve probably been at the end of your emotional rope for months.  But believe it or not, this extra time with them is something they will cherish.  It will benefit them for years to come.

–Some of the most underappreciated people in our society, such as nurses and teachers, now are viewed as heroes.  Who needs celebrities, anyway?

–Churches are starting to remember why they exist. For too long, we’ve seen the Sunday morning worship service as our primary purpose.  But it’s not, and never was meant to be.  Sunday morning worship was designed to equip us for the mission of God in the world.  I had a good friend and faithful church member say to me recently, “Now that we can’t expect lost people to come hear the Gospel in church, we realize we need to take the Gospel to them.” He’s right.  What’s more, that has been true for years…Pastors like me have been trying to tell our church members, “Lost people aren’t going to show up here on a Sunday morning.  You have to share the Gospel with them.”  Now, perhaps, we’ll realize it’s true.

–Speaking of churches, think of the number of congregations who now have video ministries, who never would have tried it in the past.  I read recently that in the United Kingdom, where less than 10% of the population attends church on an average Sunday, over 25% have viewed at least one online worship service during the pandemic.  I got a funny email from a church member a few weeks back; she knew I had trained for broadcasting before I got into the ministry, and wrote: “You’re finally on TV!”  Hallelujah.  We were already streaming our services before the pandemic (and I thank God regularly that Jaymes Brown is on our staff), but we’ve vastly expanded our media presence during this time.  Only God knows how many more people around the world will be exposed to the message of saving grace because so many churches have been forced to share the Word differently.

–Major League Baseball resumed a week ago, and the NBA tips off tomorrow.  But before that, we had months with no televised sports.  If you had told me in February that would be the case, I would have said, “Shoot me now.  Please.”  But frankly, I haven’t missed it all that much.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; I still intend to enjoy watching sports in the future.  But I have had more meaningful conversations with my family, have read more good books, and have gotten more stuff done because I haven’t been compelled to watch the BIG GAME every night.  Could it be that God is using this time to put the idol of sports back in its place?  Could it be He’s using this to wean you of your idols, too?

–And then there’s the stuff only God knows about.  In Genesis, we see a gifted young man named Joseph experience a series of tragedies that derails a promising life.  He’s betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual assault, sent to prison, and forgotten there by a person who had promised to work for his release.  Yet years later, when he is reunited with his treacherous brothers, he forgives them, saying, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to bring about what is now being accomplished, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20) God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to turn on him–the Lord never motivates people to sin–but when they did, He took their evil act and turned it into something good.  Because of Joseph’s many trials, he ended up saving thousands of people from starvation, including his own family.  My point is: If 2020 seems like a terrible year, that’s because it is.  But God is using every single setback and trial to accomplish something amazing.  Like Joseph, it may be years before we see the full story, but make no mistake, God is busy bringing peace to chaos all around us.

What can you add to my list?  What are the beautiful things you can see happening in the midst of this bizarre time?

What we’re doing here is very biblical.  The most joyful book of the Bible, in my opinion, is Philippians.  Paul wrote that book from a prison cell.  A man who never sat still, whose tireless passion was planting churches and winning souls, was forced to stay locked up for months, not knowing if he would be released or beheaded.  Yet in the midst of that time, he wrote some of his most cherished letters.  If not for that time of imprisonment, he might never have slowed down long enough to write some of the most important words ever recorded.  The letter to the Philippians is one example.  In that letter, he commands us, over and over again, to rejoice.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!  

When we were stuck in that rent house in Colorado, we could have moped around, wondering when the snow would thaw, the weather would clear, and we would all get well, so things could be the way we planned.  If we’d done that, we would look back on that week as the worst vacation of our lives, a huge waste of money and time.  But instead, we found reasons to rejoice: We put bread-wrappers on our tennis shoes and trudged through ankle-deep snow, for instance.  How often do we get a chance to do that?

So here’s what I’m saying: Stop waiting for things to get “back to normal.”  I don’t know when we’ll be able to take off our masks, worship shoulder to shoulder, sit in a stadium cheering on our favorite team, or watch the news without hearing about coronavirus.  All I know is that good things are happening all around you.  Find them.  Enjoy them.  Tell others about them.  Fill your social media with stories and pictures of them.  And rejoice in the Lord for them!

Amen.

Christians and politics

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts here by my daughter Kayleigh, in which she and I argued that too much news (TV or internet) is toxic for the soul.  I stand by that.  However, I didn’t mean that we should completely disengage, go “off the grid.”  We have a responsibility to know what is going on in our world, so we can pray about it.  We should also be part of the public debate on the questions our nation is wrestling with.  We should vote in every election, and do so in a prayerfully informed way.  We are part of a distinct minority in world history: People who have the right to select our own leaders, to effectively govern ourselves.  We can’t afford to waste that opportunity!

But how does God want us to engage in public issues?  When I look at political debate in this country today, what I see is greater polarization than ever before.  There’s a win-at-all-costs mentality that says your opponents aren’t just misguided; they’re evil. I hear it when I watch political talk shows and read it when I look at social media: If you believe everything you read and hear, then everyone on one side of the political aisle is an ignorant fascist who rejects science and hates anyone who doesn’t look like them; and everyone on the other side is an amoral Marxist who hates this country and everything that made it great in the first place.  The sad thing is that I see no difference in the way Christians engage in these debates compared to non-Christians, aside from the fact that Christians might tend to use less profanity.  And when I call my Christian friends out on this, some say to me, “These are important issues, life-or-death stuff.  I don’t mind knocking a few heads in defense of what’s right.”  Are they right?  Should we be just as angry, just as manipulative as everyone else on these issues?  Or is there a distinctively Christian way to change culture?  First, let’s look at the history of how God’s people have engaged, and then we’ll extract some biblical principles.

The first Christians were citizens of a pagan empire.  They were a tiny minority, so they didn’t have much cultural influence, and they had no control over who ruled them.  The biblical writers, therefore, never address how a Christian should vote or debate public issues.  But they did give the early Christians a couple of principles that guided how they related to their political leaders.  We see one in Romans 13:1-2, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  It goes on to say that God uses secular governments to punish evil, even governments made up of godless people.  So the principle was that Christians should be known as good, law-abiding citizens who respect those in authority over them.  We see the other in Acts 5:29, during a moment when the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews who had sentenced Jesus to death, commanded Peter and the other disciples to stop preaching in the name of Christ: We must obey God rather than men!  So the second principle was that when we have to choose between obeying the law of the land or the command of God, we choose God, no matter the cost.  Over the next 300 years, Christians had lots of opportunities to put both those principles into practice. For the most part, they lived in peace.  But periodically, Roman emperors would look at this small but growing group of people who didn’t worship Caesar as a god and rejected their traditional Roman religions and wonder if it was the Christian’s fault that the army had lost a battle, or that a plague or famine had taken place.  So persecutions would break out.  Thousands of Christians were killed, but the movement continued to grow.  One early Christian leader said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Then in 313, the unimaginable happened.  Emperor Constantine for the first time made Christianity legal within the empire with the Edict of Milan.  Almost overnight, being a Christian went from being dangerous to being socially advantageous.  In the centuries to come, in most of Europe, most people were baptized into the Church at birth. So in their thinking, being a Christian and being a citizen of the nation were one and the same.  That meant that the Church gained incredible political and cultural power.  The only way to have a career in science, math, philosophy or other academic fields was through the priesthood, since the Church controlled the universities.  Kings were crowned by bishops and popes. There was no difference between the Church and the State, and that meant that ambitious people who wanted power would seek careers in the ministry.  History is full of horrifying stores of awful things done in the name of God during these years.  Starting in the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation brought people back to the idea that Scripture, not a church officer or council, has sole authority in matters of the soul, and everyone is free to study God’s Word on his or her own.  The Enlightenment followed, and people started to realize that Kings and Queens were merely human, and that there must be a better way to govern nations.

Two centuries later, our nation was born.  In the founding document, in the first amendment, our founding fathers included language intended to give true religious freedom: No one could be prevented from practicing their faith, and no church would have the power to compel people to obey.  They were determined to avoid the mistakes of the Church and State in Europe during the Middle Ages, but they didn’t want to banish the Church from the public square, either.  For most of our nation’s history, Christianity was the dominant cultural influence, and honestly, that was a mixed bag.  At times, we embarrassed ourselves by selectively reading Scripture to suit our prejudices (as some Christians supported slavery and segregation) or by overreaching (Prohibition, for example).  Still, when we think about what is best about our country, we hear echoes of Scripture.  The influence of Christianity on this nation’s culture and politics was, on balance, a blessing.

In the 1980s, a new kind of Christian activism arose.  Christians who were concerned about issues like the killing of unborn life through abortion, the removal of symbols of faith from the public square, the flouting of biblical morality in popular culture and the breakdown of the traditional family began to unify around these issues to become a voting bloc.  They talked about a war to take back our culture from the forces of godlessness.  Since that time, we have become one of the most powerful voting blocs in our nation.  But our cultural influence during that time has declined.  Although we’ve managed to sway some elections and influence some legislation, it’s hard to point to any way in which our culture is more biblical today than it was forty years ago, when this “Culture War” first began.

The public perception of Christianity has suffered, too. In 2011, a poll asked voters if they believed that a candidate who acted immorally in his personal life could still be an ethical leader.  Only 30% of evangelical Christians said yes, which was the lowest of any group.  Yet in 2016, on the same question, 72% of evangelicals said yes, which was now the highest of any group.  Many pundits said, “this proves that evangelicals will change their beliefs just to stay in political power.”  In other words, in politics, we’ve become just like everyone else.  It’s little wonder that when researchers talk to young adults who are leaving organized religion, many say it’s because “churches are too political.”  Isn’t it ironic?  Bible-believing Christians have been so focused on winning a war for the heart of American culture, we’ve driven away huge swaths of the next generation of Jesus-followers.

So how can we learn from the mistakes of our past and, more importantly, obey God’s Word in how we engage public issues?  I think we should agree on the following principles:

People who disagree with us are not our enemies.  Believe it or not, Jesus died for people who believe the exact opposite from you or me.  He loves them just as much as He loves us.  This is no abstract concept.  It should make us profoundly different in how we engage our rivals.  It means we should treat them the way we want to be treated, not the way they treat us.  It means we should be more focused on winning people than winning arguments.  After all, you can insult someone or you can persuade them, but you can’t do both.  It means we should pray for them diligently.  I know, some of you are thinking, “But if we don’t fight as dirty as they do, we’ll lose.”  I’m not so sure that’s true.  But even if it is, consider this: Do you think such behavior, if it suddenly became the common practice for all Christians, would change the nature of political discourse in this country?  I do.  More importantly, it would go a long way to restoring the reputation of Christianity here.

It’s a mistake to put too much hope in any candidate or party.  Philippians 3:20 says, But our citizenship is in Heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. I had a friend several years ago who was angry about how a presidential election turned out.  She said, “I don’t understand how God could do this to us.” I pointed out that since we are free to vote in elections, we tend to get the leaders we deserve; so I didn’t see how this was God’s fault.  She was unconvinced by my comments.  I thought about it later, and it occurred to me that she had placed her hopes on the man she wanted to win that election.  When it didn’t happen, she was crushed.  There’s a word for placing your hope in anything other than God: Idolatry.

Too often, I see Christians bend their theology to fit their politics, when it should be the other way around.  Christians should be a prophetic voice in whichever party they inhabit.  Let me be specific: If you are a Christian who tends to vote Democratic, you should be a voice in that party for the sanctity of unborn life, or religious liberty, and for compassionately upholding biblical standards of sexuality and gender.  If you’re a Christian who tends to vote Republican, you should insist that others of your party pay more attention to poverty, racial inequality, and the humanity of immigrants.  We should hold our leaders accountable, not just to their policy decisions, but also their behavior and speech…especially the leaders we voted for.  Christians should never be seen as loyal soldiers to any political movement, a faithful voting bloc their party can count on; instead, Democrats and Republicans alike should see Christians in their ranks as a constant irritant, the way the Kings of Israel often saw the prophets of old.   

We shouldn’t be motivated by fearThe most commonly repeated statement in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s sinful to be afraid; it means fear should not control us, should not steal our joy or keep us from doing God’s will.  Yet when I talk to Christians about politics, what I often hear is fear: “What’s happening to our country?”  “What will happen if they take over?”  The reason God doesn’t want us to fear is because it leads to self-centered decisions, which is the opposite of the way of Jesus.   So Christians should be the first to reject any politician who campaigns by stirring up fear and anger, who brings out the worst in people.  We should insist on leaders who have real ideas, specific proposals.  And we should not let current events steal our joy.  Here’s where yesterday’s blog post and today’s come together: If you find that you are anxious about world events, focused on them instead of God’s mission in the world, turn off the news and pray.  If you find yourself sharing stories on social media that amp up the anxiety of others instead of offering answers, stop it.  Take a social media fast.  You are doing more harm than good, to yourself and the world.

We need to be missionaries, not culture warriors.   For forty years now, we’ve been fighting a war to take back our culture.  I think it’s time to admit it hasn’t worked.  Again, that’s not to say we should stop voting, stop debating important cultural issues. These issues matter to God.  But people matter more.  Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He said, Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations.  Our calling as Christians was never to make America like it was in the 1950s again; it was to make disciples.  Here’s the thing about missionaries: They change the culture they’re in.  Before Christian missionaries came to India, for example, it was still common practice to burn widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.  Christian missionaries brought literacy, modern medicine, poverty relief and a whole host of other improvements with the Gospel.  In fact, according to sociologist Robert Woodberry, “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  Keep in mind, those missionaries were there to spread the Gospel, not to address cultural wrongs.  Yet the Gospel has a way of changing the entire environment for the better, like salt and light.  Wouldn’t it be great if the American Church returned to our real calling–loving people in Jesus’ name–and it changed our culture in ways our “Culture War” never could?

Remember, when we were lost in our sin, God didn’t send an elephant or a donkey; He sent a Lamb.  The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, died in our place so that we could be His.  He didn’t seek power, political or otherwise; instead, He gave up His power–emptied Himself, according to Philippians 2:7–to become our sacrifice.  That’s the extent of His love and grace.  That’s the kind of King He is.  And thank God, long after every election is a distant memory, He will sit on the ultimate throne…forever.

Turn off the news

I haven’t blogged in quite a while, but I was inspired today by something my daughter wrote.

If you are a member of FBC, you may have heard me say in the past that I believe Christians watch too much news.  By “news,” I mean the 24 hour news cycle on television.  I also mean the opinion shows we devour: Hannity, O’Reilly and their buddies on the right, Maddow, Sharpton and their ilk on the left.  And I mean the websites that funnel us stories that we love to read and share on social media (by the way, if you want to see where your favorite news site ranks in terms of bias, here’s an interesting graphic: Media bias chart).  The problems are two-fold: First, that they amp up our anxiety.  We think the world is coming to an end.  Second, and more importantly, they poison our spiritual lives.  Look at it this way: Most Christians I know would quickly turn off a TV show that contained gratuitous nudity, sex, or profanity.  They would say, “I don’t need to put this into my brain, because it won’t produce character qualities that are pleasing to Christ.”  And rightfully so.  But these shows and websites are even more damaging, in my opinion.  They cause us to fear and hate people who are on the opposite side of issues from us.  Jesus said one of the two most important commands was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Rather than help us fulfill that command, these shows and clickbait stories make us see people as enemies to be crushed, not neighbors to be loved.

I’m not saying you’ve sinned against God if you share something from Fox News or MSNBC on Facebook. And I am not saying you should completely unplug from current events.  I’m just asking you to be prayerfully self-aware.

But back to my daughter.  She wrote something this morning about this same subject.  After she showed it to me, I urged her to post it somewhere, anywhere.  It’s just so passionate and well-written, and it says what I was trying to say so much better than I could.  But she has ditched social media (can’t argue with that decision!), so she had nowhere to post it.  She gave me permission to post it here.  So if you won’t heed a middle-aged preacher, consider the words of a young woman in her early twenties:

I have taken a break from the news the past two days, and as suspected, I am all the better for it.  It’s interesting because whenever I do this sort of thing–either voluntarily or due to my circumstances, like the Israel trip–I find myself generally apathetic about the news I’m missing out on.  I justify reading the news with teh importance of “staying in the loop,” but once I stop reading, those concerns disappear.  I think it’s important to realize that the news itself is the biggest promoter of its own importance.  They need you to think that every story is breaking, every discovery is a bombshell, every minor irritant is an outrage.  Because if you didn’t think every day was apocalyptic, you wouldn’t read it so obsessively.  And they’d lose out on your precious ad revenue. 

Far from an original thought this may be, but I’m left wondering about the morality of an industry roooted in maintaining chronic rational anxiety.  A population that loves our neighbors doesn’t make headlines.  So what does?  Fear, fury, division, hatred, and furious anticipation for justice delivered.  Our country is monetizing the exploitation of our worst emotions…and we’re just okay with that.  

Why look for solutions when throwing a tantrum over the problem feels so much more satisfying?  Why take action when a like-minded mob to commiserate with is just a tap of the finger away?  Why hope for those in the wrong to see reason if that means losing an enemy you so desperately love to hate?  We scan the headlines each morning like Jonah surveying Nineveh, hoping deep down we’ll get to watch our brother and sisters burn.  We are so unworthy of mercy.  

Okay, so I know she’s my daughter, and every parent thinks his kid is brilliant.  But I think those three little paragraphs–just hastily written in her journal this morning, in longhand–are some of the most profound, challenging thoughts I have read.  The last two sentences especially are going to stick with me.  I just had to share them.