O Little Town of Bethlehem

In 1865, the tall young rector of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was in Jerusalem for the Christmas season.   On Christmas Eve, he rode to Bethlehem on horseback, where he attended a worship service at The Church of the Nativity that lasted five hours (from 10 PM to 3 AM).  Three Christmases later, that same preacher was inspired to write a special carol for the children in his church’s Sunday School.  Thinking back to that Christmas Eve in Israel, he composed the words we know so well:

O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

the silent stars go by.

Phillips Brooks would later move to a church in Boston, where he became known as America’s preeminent preacher.  But he is still primarily known today for his carol.  That Christmas of 1868, Brooks had given the words to his church’s organist, asking him to produce a tune to match.  The organist struggled at first, but later claimed he heard the perfect tune in a dream.  He scribbled it down as soon as he woke, and managed to teach it to the children in time for Christmas services that year.  The song, written for children, was first published in a hymnal three years later, and quickly became a classic.

Enjoy this version from one of the best singers of all time.

In 2014, I visited Bethlehem.  Even though it was March, I couldn’t help but think about Brooks’ song.  Bethlehem is still a small town, and not very prosperous.  It’s in Palestinian territory on the West Bank of Jerusalem, and most of the signs were in Arabic.  It’s also a tourist town.  When we got off our bus, a man in his forties approached us on the street, holding up a beautiful carved nativity scene that was a little larger than his hand.  “Small size Nativity sets, ten dollars” he said.  For one teenaged girl in our group, this seemed like a deal that was too good to pass up.  She asked her grandfather, who had brought her on the trip, for ten bucks, and paid for her prize.  The man took the money, then reached into his pocket and pulled out something the size of his thumb.  If you looked closely, you could see the Holy Family carved crudely into the tiny piece of wood.  The girl said, “What about the one in your hand?”  The man answered, “I said ‘small size Nativity set.’  This is large size Nativity set, and it’s twenty five.”  The girl’s grandfather smiled grimly and said, “Okay, you got us.  Now move along.”

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee to-night.

After our lesson in street capitalism and a lunch of schwarma at the most American-looking restaurant we saw in Israel, we walked to the Church of the Nativity.  In 327 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine and his devout mother Helena commissioned the basilica to be built over a small grotto where many believed Mary had given birth to Jesus.  It’s a dark, cavernous place, filled with ancient icons and the smell of burning incense, and a striking 14-pointed star with a Latin inscription over the site of the sacred grotto.

For an American evangelical like me, the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy seem alien.  But as I walked through a door into the adjoining building, I found myself in the Catholic Church of St Catherine.  It’s brightly lit and, although ornate, seems much more like a church we would see in America.  Every Christmas Eve, their Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world.  That day, it was nearly deserted and very quiet.  One of the members of our group accidentally knocked one of the kneeling benches down, and the sound of the wooden kneeler hitting the marble floor seemed as loud as a rifle shot.

How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His Heaven.

But the most significant moment for me happened after we left the two churches and took a bus to the top of a hill outside the city. There we toured the ruins of Herod’s palace at Herodium, which once loomed over Bethlehem.  It was not his primary residence, but it was a magnificent place in its day, with extravagant living quarters in its four seven-story towers, a Roman-style bathhouse and a large theater.  It’s where Herod was buried, in an elaborately decorated stone tomb.  I could picture Herod and his well-heeled guests watching the latest Greek play (with Herod and his favorite wife sitting in the luxury box—yes the theater had one), dining, drinking, and laughing, oblivious to the humble citizens of Bethlehem just down the hill from them.

No ear may hear His coming,
    But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
    The dear Christ enters in.

We could see an Israeli settlement from Herod’s Palace. It was a beautiful suburban neighborhood, with red-roofed homes, well-paved streets, and a gate manned by armed guards.  It looked much nicer than anything else we saw in Bethlehem.  Our guide, an American Christian, told us that these settlements are subsidized by the Israeli government…essentially, they want to make it as tempting as possible for their citizens to live in Palestinian territory.  Of course, the Palestinians resent this intrusion.  I took a picture of the view with my phone; the Israeli settlement is in the foreground, with the rest of Bethlehem further down the hill.

Bethlehem from Herod's Palace

I thought back to our trip from Jerusalem that morning.  We had to cross through a security checkpoint to get there.  We walked through it on foot before re-boarding our bus.  As we did, we walked past hundreds of  Palestinian men lined up, waiting to be cleared by security so that buses could take them to their jobs in Jerusalem.  The barrier was first built in 2000, during the Second Intifada, a time of suicide bombings and riots by Palestinians and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military (an estimated 4000 people were killed between the two sides).  To Israelis, this wall is vital to their security; to Palestinians, it is a version of racial apartheid.  The men in that long line didn’t look like they were thinking about politics, however.  The expressions on their faces reminded me of the way Houstonians look when stuck in traffic; only their commute involves a stop of an hour or more each day before riding the short trip to work in Jerusalem, the only place in the region with employment opportunities.  The world hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years.  I never felt unsafe in Israel, but at moments like this, I saw that (as Longellow once wrote in another famous carol) “there is no peace on earth…for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” 

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.

As I pondered these things, a member of my group nudged me and pointed to the hillside between the palace and Bethlehem.  There were shepherds out there, Bedouins in dark, hooded garments tending what looked from our lofty perch like little white balls of cotton.  I wondered if that was where the shepherds in Luke 2 had been when the angel appeared to them that night, igniting the sky in a terrifying holocaust of holy light.  I thought about Mary and Joseph, somewhere further down the hill in that little village.  I wondered if they had glanced nervously at Herod’s palace on top of that hill; That same King who lived in Romanesque luxury would soon unleash horrific violence on the small town of Bethlehem, killing infants in a sociopathic attempt to eliminate the Messiah.  Human politics and ambition will always seem to be more powerful and relevant than grace; but two millennia later, Herod’s tomb is a ruin, and Jesus’ tomb is empty.  The child in the manger grew up to change the world like no other human who has ever lived; whereas the King in the Palace is only remembered because of his part in that child’s story.  Grace is intrepid.  Tyranny and violence of all kinds are no match for God’s saving power.

We hear the Christmas angels,
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel!



Where Christmas Came From

What are your fondest Christmas memories?  I think of Christmas pageants when I was a kid; walking with my family one Christmas Eve, while my Grandpa whistled Christmas carols; the year my Dad convinced a friend of his to dress as Santa Claus and surprise us at my Grandparents’ house; watching the delight and excitement in my children’s eyes each year when they saw the bounty under the tree on Christmas morning; walking out of Christmas Eve service in 2004 to find it snowing, followed by our one and only Houston White Christmas the next day.  For me, Christmas is music, lights, family, watching old movies, eating good food, and candlelight worship.

It’s easy to believe these are universal traditions, as ancient and widespread as the Christian faith itself.  But that is hardly the case.  I’m reading Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, by Gerry Bowler, and it’s teaching me some new things about my favorite Christmas traditions.

There’s no indication the earliest Christians celebrated Christmas at all.  Christ’s birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and not at all in the writings of Paul.  They were much more focused on His atoning death, resurrection, and His Second Coming.  But by the year 200, Christians began to speculate on the exact date their Lord had been born.  Contrary to what most people today believe, December 25 doesn’t seem to have been chosen to take the place of a pagan celebration on that date (Saturnalia).  At least, that’s not what any Christian writers of that time thought.  Instead, they used criteria that might seem strange to us: For instance, some assumed that Jesus would have been conceived in the Spring, the time of new life, and therefore was born between December 25 and January 6.  At any rate, by the mid-fourth century, December 25 was the accepted date for the feast of Christ’s nativity.

In those early days of Christmas, the emphasis was on charity for the poor and self-examination.  As time wore on, Christmas became more of a party.  By the Middle Ages, yuletide was a time for wild social inversion: During the Twelve Days of Christmas (between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6) slaves would rule over their masters, priests would elect boy bishops to run things in their churches, and poor people could ask their lords for anything they wanted.  In an agricultural world, there’s not much to do at that time of year, so singing, drinking and feasting made sense.  Church leaders of those days used to preach against the drunkenness of the poor, and against rich folks who fled their estates and spent Christmastime in the cities so they wouldn’t have to give alms to their poorer neighbors.

These days, we often talk about a War on Christmas, but the first real War on Christmas came from within the church, not from secular culture.  The Puritans especially hated the holiday, for two main reasons: First, because it wasn’t commanded in Scripture.  Second, because it smacked of Roman Catholicism.  The drunken revelries and anarchy just proved their point: Christmas was a “Popish invention” that disgraced the name of Christ, and His true followers would not observe it.  For fifteen years in England, Christmas was outlawed.  Here in America, Christmas Day was an ordinary workday in many cities until the mid-1800s.

How did our ideas about Christmas change?  Bowler credits Santa Claus, especially after “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823.  The real St Nicholas was a Turkish bishop, born in 270, and had been celebrated by Christians for centuries on December 6 with gift-giving.  Over the years, many legendary gift-givers had joined St Nick in the minds of children at Christmas.  But Moore’s poem brought us a jolly, fat, bearded man in a white-fur-trimmed coat and hat, who rode in a reindeer-driven sleigh and entered our homes through chimneys.  The image of Santa Claus did two things in popular culture: First, it made Christmas a family holiday, not a time for rowdiness.  Santa gave parents an opportunity to indulge their children, while at the same time blackmailing them into good behavior.  For the kids themselves, Santa was a great improvement over more terrifying Christmas visitors such as Perchta the Disembowler, who children in the Austrian Alps believed would cut a hole in the stomachs of disobedient children, removing their guts and replacing them with straw.

Second, Santa made Christmas a much more commercially-driven holiday.  There had been Christmas markets in European villages dating back to the Middle Ages, but now parents felt compelled to make sure their children had a good Christmas.  Merchants jumped on the bandwagon quickly, and Santa Claus became the spokesman for department stores, toy shops and candy emporiums.  In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reaffirmed Christmas as a time to spend with family and to think about those less fortunate.

Bowler’s book has lots of great little nuggets:

–During World War II, American Christmas cards sometimes featured Santa Claus waving the red, white, and blue, or kicking a cartoon Hitler in the keister; while Nazi publications encouraged parents to buy military toys for their kids (One toy catalog said, “What joy! What fun!  A lovely Gatling gun!”) and described Christmas as a time when dead German soldiers came home.

–Many Europeans resent Santa Claus as an American intruder, and there are movements in these countries to teach children about their native gift-bringers.  The book shows a print by a Polish artist of a policeman with Santa in handcuffs, waving a cheery hello to Saint Nicholas.

–While plenty of people have opposed Christmas, no one stands out for me quite like Katsuhiro Furasawa, a Japanese man who was dumped by his girlfriend and founded The Revolutionary Alliance of Men Who Women Find Unattractive.  One of the organization’s goals is to “crush Christmas,” since in Japan, it is considered a time to get away with one’s sweetheart.

None of this takes away from my enjoyment of Christmas.  But it helps remind me that the traditions I love so much aren’t the point.  If you took it all away, we’d still have the Incarnation of the Son of God, an event worth celebrating.  Merry Christmas to you.



True Thanksgiving

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  –GK Chesterton

It is good to give thanks to the Lord and sing praises to your name…to declare your lovingkindness in the morning and your faithfulness at night.  Psalm 92:1-2

I love Thanksgiving.  I love the time with my family, good food, and lots of football.  On my side, we celebrate the day before with a bonfire and weiner roast in the pasture.  My dad works hard putting all of that together; we have good old market weiners (not frankfurters, but more like thin smoked sausages) by Maeker’s in Shiner, and tons of great food to go with it.  The next day, we all head to our separate families to do the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner.  This year, it will be at our house.  My brother-in-law Don will make the turkey, Carrie’s mom will bring her impeccable dressing, and Carrie will make her sweet potato casserole.  I’m looking forward to watching my favorite quarterback, Case Keenum, lead the Minnesota Vikings against Detroit at 11:30. He’s having a great year, and it should be a terrific game.  I’m looking forward to having my daughter home for several days.  I’m excited about the start of another holiday season, and being able to listen to Christmas songs unashamed.

But in the midst of all that fun and food, I want to make sure I give God thanks.  Not just a cursory, “We thank thee, O God, for thy blessings…” but really spelling out how good He has been to me.  I suggest you do the same.  So here we go:

I am thankful that I married so well.  Carrie is wise, gentle, dignified, principled, and committed to Christ.  She is exactly what I need in a wife.  I’m thankful she has stuck with me, and inspired me to be more than I could otherwise be.  She still does.  I’m thankful that we laugh together…a lot.  I’m thankful for our Friday breakfast dates.  I’m thankful she’s such a great mom to our kids.  I’m thankful for her physical beauty; I know it’s not the most important thing, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it.

I’m thankful for Kayleigh and Will.  They are both hilarious and fun and way smarter than I was at their age.  I am grateful that God has shaped them for great things, thankful that I got to baptize them both into His family, and that they still enjoy hanging out with their mom and me.

I’m thankful for my parents, Homer and Betty Berger.   They taught me about Jesus, put me above themselves, and showed me at all times I was loved.  I’m grateful for all four grandparents, and that I was able to grow up near them. My Grandma Berger just celebrated her 99th birthday, so that’s something to be thankful for all by itself.  I’m thankful for my brother, Billy, proud of all he’s accomplished and how great a husband and dad he is.  I’m thankful for the family I married into, as well.  Good in-laws are a treasure.

I’m thankful for great teachers in my childhood, like Mae Thigpen (who taught me K-2nd grades in our little country school, just as she had taught my mom and her dad before), Janie Rudolph, Nan Bland and Wendell Moseley.  I’m thankful for the pastors of our little country church when I was growing up, and the people who taught me Sunday School, Esther Jacobs and Bob Harbers.  I’m thankful that when Carrie and I were in seminary and were living paycheck to paycheck, Bob sent us money every month to help out.

I’m thankful for the Baptist Student Union at UH, where I met my future wife, and where for the first time I was around people my own age who were passionate about Christ.  Both of those events changed my life for the better.  I’m thankful for the education I received, at UH and in seminary.  I’m probably done going to school, but I’ll never stop learning.

I’m thankful for my own physical health.  It’s good to live in a time when modern nutrition and medicine enable us to live longer and be active beyond anything our great-grandparents could have envisioned.  I’m glad Ferdinand Berger chose to come to America in the 1870s from Austria; thanks to his decision, I get to live in the most free, most prosperous nation in the history of the world.  I’m thankful for the people who lead this nation, even the ones I often disagree with, and the people who lead our city and county, thankless jobs that we take for granted.  I’m thankful for the police who keep us safe, the men and women of our armed forces who stand on the front lines for us daily, and other first responders who take care of us in life’s most traumatic moments.   I’m thankful for the Greatest Generation, who won a war over Fascism and made this country great.

I’m grateful for life’s little pleasures: Cold watermelon and burgers on the grill in the summertime and beef stew and hot cocoa in the winter; a steak cooked medium-rare with a baked sweet potato; fresh seafood any time of the year; the pancakes at 105 Café and the ribs at McKenzies and the biscuits at Flourish and the hash brown casserole at the Toasted Yolk and the Mignon Roll at Wild Ginger and the steak sandwich at the Wiches on Wheels food truck and Sunday Gospel Bruch at Red Brick Tavern.  I’m thankful for coconut cream pie, homemade dewberry cobbler, Blue Bell Ice Cream (especially mint chocolate chip), carrot cake, cinnamon rolls and anything chocolate…plus real Czech kolaches when I happen to stop in at Prasek’s Smokehouse.  My grandparents lived through a Depression; I eat like a King.

And other (non-edible) pleasures: Shelves full of good books and a public library that offers me access to many more; history documentaries that take me to another time and place; Fall Saturdays full of college football (I’m also grateful that I grew up in a small enough school that a little guy like me could play high school football once upon a time); Super Bowl parties in late January and March Madness in the Spring; a good workout or run; a story that makes us all laugh until we can barely breathe; a hike down a secluded trail; taking my family to the movies; going home to see my parents.  And of course the 2017 World Series.

I’m thankful that, when I was 21 and newly married, God called me to a complete change of my plans.  I can’t imagine doing anything other than ministry now.  I’m thankful for the gift of preaching, for the privilege of comforting people when they are struggling, and for the joy of watching the Spirit change people’s lives.  I’m thankful for the friends I have made in the churches I pastored through the years.  I cherish those memories, even as I miss all the time we spent together.  I’m thankful for First Baptist Conroe, for the way this great church embraced me and my family right from the start, and for the great things God is doing in our church now.  I am grateful for the wonderful men and women I serve with on the church staff.  We have a good thing, and I am enjoying it thoroughly.

I’m thankful for God’s Word.  I’m so glad it’s freely available, that it challenges, corrects, comforts and inspires me every day.  I’m glad that when we preach or teach it, it changes lives.  I’m grateful that we can count on its truth; it holds me accountable at all times.  I’m thankful for the Church, and how God weaves diverse people together to make Himself known to the world.  I’m thankful for hymns and praise songs that put God’s Word into my heart and mind; for the freedom we have to worship together, and for a great facility in which to worship.

I’m thankful mostly for Jesus.  When I was lost and without hope, He lived the life I should have lived, and died the death I should have died.   That death paid the price for all my sins and brought me peace with my Heavenly Father.  Three days later, He rose from the grave, victorious!  His Holy Spirit sought me out, through the prayers and witness of my parents, and I accepted Christ as my Savior when I was only nine.  That same Spirit has brought me so far in my walk with Him: more peace, joy and purpose than I ever could have dreamed of on my own.  And the journey isn’t over; I am thankful for the ways I will grow in the future.    I am grateful that right now, I know to be absent from the body is to be present with Him, so my friends and loved ones who have passed away are in paradise today.  And Best of all, He is coming back someday.  I am thankful for the New Earth I’ll someday live on, a resurrected body I will someday walk in, and the King I will know face to face, serving and loving Him forever.

So that’s my 100.  How about you?  What does your list look like?

2018 at First Baptist Church

                These are great days at First Baptist, Conroe.  We continue to have new people join our family nearly every week, and there is a great sense of excitement and unity every time we gather.  If you’re a member of FBC, you may be wondering what’s next for us.  Of course, only God knows the future.  But I wanted to show you what we feel He’s leading us to focus on in the year ahead.  Pray and dream along with me…

You’re in high school.  Everyone who knows you, including your parents, sees a happy young woman with a sharp mind, a quirky sense of humor, a ready smile and lots of friends.  But you hate what you see in the mirror, you agonize over every test, and sometimes you pretend to be sick so you won’t have to face the girls at school who make your life a living hell.  You go to church and pretend everything is great.  But inside, you wonder: If Jesus is my Lord, why doesn’t He make all the anxiety and self-doubt go away?

You’re the father of two young kids.  Between your work schedule, your son’s select baseball team and your daughter’s out of town soccer tournaments, quiet weekends at home are rare.  Sundays in church are rarer still.  You feel trapped: You want both kids to be able to compete with their peers later in life.  But when are they supposed to just enjoy being kids?  What am I really teaching them about the importance of God in their lives?  And do my wife and I have anything in common anymore besides a passionate desire to see our kids succeed?

You’re a man in his middle years.  Your wife and kids have long since learned to function apart from you.  You’ve accepted this, because you’ve been able to focus fully on your work.  There, at least, you have value.  There, at least, you know why you exist.  But the company was recently sold, and cutbacks are starting.  People of your age, and with your salary, will be the first to go.  “Lord,” you think to yourself, “If I lose my job, what will I have left?”

These are supposed to be your golden years.  But as you and your husband watch the news each day, you find yourself alternating between fear and anger.  You often hear yourself saying, “I never thought I’d live to see this.”  With all the new people moving into your neighborhood, you increasingly feel like strangers in a place that once felt like home.  Now your son is being transferred overseas, and is taking your grandchildren with him.  It feels like everything you care about is being stripped away.

In Psalm 139, David writes of a God who knows everything about us: When we sleep and when we wake; all our thoughts, intentions, fears and hopes.  He is writing under severe stress; as King of a nation, he has many critics (vv. 19-22).  No doubt, their harsh words sometimes make David doubt himself.  And yet he knows that God has a purpose for his life.  Verses 13-16  beautifully describe God forming David while in his mother’s womb, custom-designing him for all the things He wants David to accomplish in his years on the earth.  He closes his prayer by asking the Lord to test his heart and mind and get rid of any unrighteous motivations, and to lead him in the way that is everlasting.  God answered those prayers.  In Acts 13:36, Paul was able to say (hundreds of years after David died) that he “served the purpose of God in his own generation.”  God created David to positively impact people on the world during his own lifetime, and through God’s power, David did that.

What about you?  Are you serving God’s purpose in your generation?  God cares about the things that worry you and break your heart.  He cares about your self-image, your relationships, your economic status, your physical health, and your emotional stability.  But He also cares about the next door neighbor who is trying to raise three kids without a husband.  He cares about the kid at school who is contemplating suicide.   He cares about your boss and his semi-secret alcohol problem.  He cares about the thousands of people moving into our city this year, many of whom don’t know Him; many of whom are on a track to spend their lives—and their eternity—separated from His love.

God is on mission to redeem human lives.  That is His fulltime occupation.  He created us to join Him on that mission.  I believe with every fiber of my being that when we fulfill God’s purpose in our generation, we finally experience life as it was meant to be lived.  On the other hand, when we focus our time, dreams and prayers on getting into the right college and being popular at school; or teaching our son a wicked curveball and getting our daughter a soccer scholarship; or making a good salary and getting to the top of our company; or having the marriage of our dreams; or wishing the culture around us would start changing for good, we fall short of what God has planned for us.  We miss what God made us for.  None of those things are bad, mind you.  But we were made more for than that.   In fact, I believe that when we focus our lives on fulfilling God’s purpose, decisions about our future, marriage, parenting, friendships, our finances and our place in society start to become much more clear.

This year at First Baptist, Conroe, we are focusing our energies on equipping people for their purpose in God’s mission.  We want to help every member of our church family, from the kids in our children’s ministry to our venerable saints in their nineties, to know why God made them and to find joy in fulfilling that purpose.  In 2018, I will be preaching about finding and fulfilling God’s purpose for your life in this generation.  We will also be hosting a series of special events called The Missional Pathway, which will help you find your purpose in God’s mission, and help our church change our community for good.

What can you do?

Pray.  In the days ahead, we will be focusing on prayer much more intently than we have in the past.  We will have focused prayer times in Sunday worship.  Please join us in those.  My weekly article in the At First worship guide will continue to feature a different prayer emphasis each week. Take those home as a reminder to pray along with the rest of the congregation.  At times, we will have special prayer meetings, printed prayer guides, and other ways to focus our hearts toward God in the same direction.

Participate.  Block off the following dates to be a part of our Missional Pathway events: February 16-17, April 7, October 6, and November 3.  I know your schedules are packed and weekends are precious, but these are potentially life-changing events.  Make sure you’re there.

Prioritize.  Each Sunday that you are able, make it a priority to be here for worship and Life Group, as we focus on equipping you for the incredible things God has planned for you.

Our vision remains for First Baptist remains the same.  We are calling on God to renovate our hearts, so that we become a church that transforms ordinary people into world-changing disciplemakers.  I am praying that in 2018, we will make huge progress toward that vision.   Imagine what would happen if all of us began to fulfill God’s purpose in our generation.  How many lives would be changed?  Only God knows.

Talking TO each other

This past weekend, nearly 200 NFL players protested in some way during the pregame national anthem.  Reading social media before, during and after the weekend showed me once again how profoundly divided we are as a nation.  But what if we talked to (instead of shouting about) each other?  I like to think it would go something like this:

Bob is headed to his car after a long day at work.  He sees his co-worker, Jamaal, in the parking lot.

Jamaal: Hey, did you see that game yesterday?  The Texans almost pulled it out.

Bob: Man, I am done with the NFL. I’ve got better things to do than watch a bunch of spoiled millionaires who don’t respect the flag.

Jamaal: Oh, so you’re one of those people, huh?  Tell me, how exactly does it harm you that some football players are kneeling during the national anthem?

Bob: Listen.  My dad fought in Vietnam.  I had a great uncle who I never met because he died in Korea.  I have a nephew who’s in Afghanistan right now, so I don’t appreciate the attitude.

Jamaal: Okay.  But I don’t see how what we’re talking about relates to that.

Bob: People died for that flag, okay?  If you’ve ever seen a flag-draped coffin or seen someone hand a folded flag to a widow, you wouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions.

Jamaal: Well, my parents went to an all-black school in a raggedy old building that had no air conditioning, while the white kids had a beautiful school across town.  When they finally integrated, none of the white kids even talked to my parents.  It’s like they were lepers.  Daddy’s family used to talk about a cousin who got lynched in Mississippi. Oh, and then there’s the fact that the whole bunch of us were slaves once upon a time.

Bob: I don’t see what that has to do with this…

Jamaal: I know.  There’s no way you’ll ever understand.  You’ve never had someone cross the street when they saw you walking their way.  I’ll bet you never had your girlfriend’s parents make her break up with you because of your color.  You’ve never lost a job because you “weren’t what they were looking for.”  You’ve never been pulled over when you were doing the speed limit, just because you’re a black dude driving a late model car.  You haven’t grown up in a neighborhood with liquor stores and payday loan joints where supermarkets and restaurants should be, and streets that haven’t been fixed in years,  and all because some white politicians redrew the voting maps so you couldn’t have a black city councilman to stand up for you.  You don’t know what it’s like to be defined by your race everywhere you go, constantly reminded that you’re different, that you don’t fit in.

Bob: Oh, I see.  All us white folks are racist, I guess.  And that’s why life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to.

Jamaal: Don’t put words in my mouth, man.  I’m just saying there’s some injustice in this country, and it’s about time some prominent black men spoke up about it.  If kneeling during the national anthem gets us all talking about it, then it’s worth it.

Bob: Has it ever occurred to you that these athletes are disrespecting a country where they are so “oppressed” they make millions of bucks playing a game you and me used to play for free?  I’d love to be the victim of that kind of injustice!  And if this country is so messed up, how come so many people are trying immigrate here?

Jamaal: I don’t see disrespect.  I see people using their First Amendment rights.  Last time I checked, that’s the most patriotic thing you can do.

Bob: Whatever. These guys aren’t exactly moral paragons.  I want to say, “Hey thug, stop beating up girls and having kids out of wedlock before you try to lecture us about social issues.”  You still haven’t answered my question: What’s so wrong about a country where everyone in the world wants to live?

Jamaal: Well for starters, someone needs to speak out for all the unarmed young black men who are being shot by cops in this country.  I mean, why are you more concerned about a piece of fabric than you are about those lives?

Bob: There’s thousands more black men being shot by other black men in Chicago.  Where’s the outrage over that?

Jamaal: Stop changing the subject.  I’m talking about cops here, the people who are supposed to protect us.

Bob: You think they don’t protect you?  They put their lives on the line every day keeping you safe. To hear you talk, every cop is corrupt.  This isn’t Birmingham in the sixties, you know.  Stop rehearsing the past, get over this victim mentality and get on with life.  And while we’re on the subject, how on earth does it hurt you to see a statue of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson?  Why is everyone out to erase history?

Jamaal: Erase history?  There’s this thing called books, my friend.  That’s where history is.  And speaking of history, you realize the South lost, right?

Bob: Of course I do.  I’m not a moron.  But what’s wrong with us remembering some heroes who defended our country?

Jamaal: Our country?  Last time I checked, they were fighting against the United States of America, against that flag you claim to love so much.

Bob: Stop twisting things.  They were fighting for state’s rights.

Jamaal: Yeah, they were fighting for a state’s right to keep slavery legal.

Bob: I have relatives who fought in that war.  None of them owned slaves.  They went to war because they loved their state and didn’t want Yankees pushing them around.

Jamaal: Spin it any way you want to, Bob.  You can’t deny that if it hadn’t been for slavery, there wouldn’t have been a Confederacy.  If the South hadn’t been so intent on keeping their slaves, there never would have been a war.

Bob: And if those liberals in Charlottesville would have let those Nazis have their parade, it all would have passed without incident.  But no, they had to go stir up a fight.  And then they act surprised when violence breaks out.

Jamaal: I sure hope you’re not blaming the violence on people who were standing up against racism.  And you should realize that most of those statues were put up during the Civil Rights era. That wasn’t a way of remembering heroes.  That was a way of saying, “We white folks are in charge here, and you black folks will always be second class, no matter what the federal government says.”

Bob: Again, you’re just assuming you know how those people thought. You don’t know that for sure.  And you still haven’t answered my question: How does a statue hurt you?

Jamaal: How does a protest during the national anthem hurt you?

Bob: Look, if everyone would just mind their own business and do their jobs, this country would be just fine.   It’s identity politics that’s tearing a perfectly good country apart.  And you’re buying into it, hook, line and sinker.

Jamaal (raising his voice): You know Bob, I can’t help thinking that talking to you is just like listening to Fox News!  Have you ever had an original thought?

Bob (shouting): And I can’t help thinking we’d all be better off if you people would stop listening to Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter!

Paula (who happens to be passing by): Hey!  You guys okay?  Do I need to call the cops?

Jamaal: No, Paula, we’re okay.

Bob: Yeah, just a couple guys having a discussion.

Paula (walking away): Alright.  Just settle down, okay?

Bob (quieter): I’m sorry, man. That was out of line.

Jamaal: Did you actually say “you people”?

Bob: (silence)

Jamaal: Well?

Bob: Yeah, that didn’t come out the way I meant it.

Jamaal: If you say so.

Bob: Truth is, I’m a Christian, and this is something I know I need to work on.  My pastor has been talking to us about it, and I didn’t really want to hear it, but I think he has a point.

Jamaal: I was out of line, too.  Sorry about that.  But hey, I didn’t know you went to church.  We go to Mount Moriah AME.

Bob: We’re at Trinity Bible.  Sunday, the sermon was about the Good Samaritan, and how following Jesus means caring when your neighbor is hurting.  He said if we hear…you know…African Americans or whatever talking about injustice we should care about it, just like the Samaritan cared about the Jew who was attacked.  We should go out of our way to bind up the wounds.  I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know I need to change.

Jamaal: I gotta say, that’s a really beautiful thought.  It makes a lot of sense, you know.  And honestly, I was about to walk away from you just a minute ago.  I was thinking, “People like Bob never change their minds about anything.  Why waste my breath talking to him?”

Bob: That’s the problem, isn’t it?  We just stay in our little camps, talking to the people who already think the way we do.  We’ll never get anywhere that way.

Jamaal: Yeah, I guess that’s true too.

Bob: So…can I ask you something?  These football players who are protesting…Are any of them doing anything to make life better?   I mean, do they donate to charities in the inner city or volunteer at schools, or are they just interested in stirring things up?

Jamaal: I’m sure some of them do.  But I don’t know, honestly.  Can I ask you a question?

Bob: Sure.

Jamaal: If a bunch of football players refused to stand for the national anthem because they were upset about all the unborn children who are aborted in America, would you feel the same way?

Bob: I don’t know, honestly.  I need to give that some thought.

Jamaal: Just out of curiosity, are there any black folks in your church?

Bob: I think I’ve seen a couple.  Any white folks in yours?

Jamaal: Not many.

Bob: Well, maybe I’ll drop by sometime.

Jamaal: That’d be great.  But you better be ready for the long haul.  By lunch time, our preacher’s just getting cranked up!  And I don’t know if you people can handle our music.

Bob: Did you just say “you people”?


The Answer to Racial Strife

I don’t know about you, but when I saw the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I couldn’t believe this was actually happening in America.  I’m not just talking about the horrific video of a lone terrorist ramming his car into a crowd of people; I’m talking about what happened before, with groups of white people (mostly young men) carrying Nazi flags and chanting hateful slogans.  I wondered what “The Greatest Generation” would think of this, if more of them were still alive to see it.  I’m also talking about the street battles between those white nationalists and counter protesters.

We are in a time of increasing racial strife in our country, and have been for quite a while.  I looked it up this morning: It was August 9, 2014, almost precisely three years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri exploded.  Things haven’t gotten better or more peaceful in the three years since. As a white guy, it’s easy for me to think racial equality is a reality in our nation, and that serious racism died in the late sixties.  Then the past three years show us how differently two groups of people view the same events, and we realize with a shock how divided we still are. The temptation is to point the finger of blame at someone else.  I want to dictate how I wish others would behave: “Don’t lump thousands of good, courageous cops in with a few bad apples.”  “Don’t dignify people like those fools in Charlottesville with a response; counter-protesting just feeds their attention-seeking agenda.”  But then I remember the words of Jesus, who tells me I must get the plank out of my own eye before I can help my brother remove the speck from his.

I say that on behalf of all Christians, of all races.  Instead of assigning blame or doling out advice, we should be fulfilling our calling as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).  The world should see us leading the way in bringing about peace.  But we have a plank in our eye, historically speaking.  Our nation has a history of racial strife.  Every so often, it bubbles violently to the surface.  And the church’s record in those moments is distinctly and disturbingly mixed.  In the days before the Civil War, many Christians worked to abolish slavery, but sadly, many others perverted God’s Word to justify this evil practice. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was started because Baptists in the South asserted their right to own slaves.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, pastors and other Christians led most of the marches, and the strategy of non-violent resistance was taken directly from the teachings of Jesus.  But many Christians in the South, including my own ancestors, were content with the way things were.  Once again, we missed our opportunity to lead the way in a righteous cause.  I wonder how different our nation’s spiritual condition would be today if we had not squandered our moral authority then.  But we have a new opportunity now.

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul writes to Gentile believers in Jesus, reminding them that they were once considered to be outside the family of faith.  The “old” Paul would have sooner cut the throat of a Gentile than to worship alongside him.  But Jesus had changed Paul’s  heart, and now the passion of his life was making all people one in Christ.  In v. 14, he writes For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility.   He goes on to tell them God’s plan to address racial division (vv. 17-22): As He brings people into His family, He is building a new kind of house, with people of different races being the building blocks and Christ Himself as the cornerstone.  As the world sees God’s house, they see His people loving one another across racial boundaries, Jew and Gentile, black, white brown and yellow, and they can’t help but say, “There must be a God.  No one else could do that.”

Please understand: The leaders of our nation have a great responsibility here.  I have my opinions about what they should do and say, but that’s all they are: opinions.  What I know is that God wants His churches to be models of racial reconciliation and harmony.  So when we look into our church buildings and see the pews full of people who look just like us, we should be asking why this is.  We should be praying for God to change us, to show us how to be a church that reaches all kinds of people.  At First Baptist Conroe, that’s our vision for the future of our congregation.  As a downtown congregation, we want to be a church for anyone in our city who needs Jesus.  We want to make disciples of all, just as our Lord commanded.  I have some past experience in a multi-ethnic church, and I know it’s not as simple as just declaring you want to reach people.  There are strategic decisions we will need to make.  But the real work will be done by individual church members.  We are in America’s fastest-growing city.  Many of those who will move in over the next ten years will not look like us.   Many of our neighbors already are different from us. We will pray for God to change our hearts.  We will love those neighbors in His name.  We will listen to them, and find out what life is like from a different perspective.  We will live out the Gospel before them, and God will break those barriers.  That’s what the Gospel does.

I’m not saying that all of America’s racial problems will be solved when churches like mine become multi-ethnic.  But I am saying that ultimately, the only cure for racial strife is Jesus.  And people will only see that if we behave differently than the rest of the world. The good news is this: Racial strife will end.  The apostle John got a glimpse of the future, which he recorded in Revelation 7:9-10,

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”


For a racist, Heaven sounds more like Hell.  But for those who watch the news and wonder “What is wrong with us?” it sounds wonderful.  Amen, come Lord Jesus.


Recipe for a Happy Minister

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  

So reads Hebrews 13:17 (NIV).  Based on context, we know he is talking about spiritual leaders (some translations say, “they keep watch over your souls”).  Let’s be clear about this: We shouldn’t see earthly ministers as infallible or God-like.  Jesus told His disciples multiple times that greatness is found in humility.  Peter and Paul, James and John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of our Lord were all petty, insecure, fallen humans just like you and me.  For that matter, so is the pastor of your church (especially if you attend First Baptist, Conroe).  Therefore, we do not accept their every utterance as the WORD OF GOD.  We check their teaching, instead, against the actual Word.  We hold them accountable when they fail to live up to their callings.  We worship one God, and Him alone.

On the other hand, here and elsewhere in Scripture, we are commanded to treat our spiritual leaders with respect.  I love the way the author of Hebrews puts it in the verse above: “Make sure they enjoy leading you; If you make them miserable, it won’t make your life any better.”  (my paraphrase)  By the way, in case you think the Word of God needs some empirical backing, here’s a relevant quote from an expert on church health: “The length of a pastor’s tenure…was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served there between five and 20 years.”  Would you like to attend a healthy church?  If so, keeping your ministerial staff at your church as long as possible is a good way to make that happen.  And ministers who love what they do tend to stay a long time and do a better a job of serving God’s people.  So what can a church do to “make their work a joy”?

First, this DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not some passive-aggressive cry for help on my part.  In all the categories I will list below, I feel absolutely blessed by my church.  However, when I taught on Hebrews 13 recently, I mentioned some ways a church could encourage their ministry staff.  I had people ask me to put this in writing so they could remember it and share it with others.  So that’s what I’m doing, in hopes it will bless some minister who isn’t as fortunate as me…

Pray for them.  Years ago, a good friend called me nearly in tears.  Her new pastor was terrible, she said.  “He is an awful preacher and doesn’t seem to love us at all.  I have a hard time even talking myself into going to church on Sundays.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, either.  I’m afraid if he sticks around for long, our church is going to die.”  She asked me what to do.  I said, “I assume you’re already praying for him, right?”  There was a pause.  Then, sheepishly, she said, “No, I haven’t been.  I guess I’d better start, huh?”  It made me wonder: If my friend, one of the more devout people I knew, wasn’t praying for her pastor (who clearly needed it), how many other Christians fail to do this?  Friends, pray for your ministers.  I could write another blog post about why ministry is so difficult, emotionally draining and spiritually demanding, but take my word for it: Your ministers need daily prayer for wisdom, spiritual power, guidance, joy in their work, and other things specific to their own situations.

Encourage them.  Aside from politicians and football coaches, I doubt there is anyone who hears more criticism and complaining about their job performance than ministers.  It comes in loud pronouncements in church gatherings; quick, biting comments just before worship begins; gossip that finds its way to their ears (“Pastor, people are saying…”); and the dreaded anonymous notes.  No matter how secure your ministers are in themselves and the Lord, that stuff can take the joy out of ministry, fast.  They need people to build them up.  Try to catch them doing a good job, and point it out to them.  Even better: Praise them in front of other people.  Best of all: Send them a note of encouragement.  Believe me, they will keep that note, and pull it out someday when they feel like quitting.

Love their family. Someday, I’ll write another blog post about why being a minister’s spouse or child is at least as hard as being a minister.  But for now, trust me when I say the minister’s wife is often the loneliest woman in the entire church.  And the minister’s kids feel a pressure no child should have to deal with.  So go out of your way to show love to them.  In fact, if you have only enough time and emotional bandwidth to focus on either the minister or his family, choose his family.  They need friends, so make sure to include them.  They need to feel that the church is their spiritual home, not just the place where mom or dad works.  They need to know it’s okay to be themselves.  Pray for them as often as you pray for the minister.  Take time to do something considerate for them: A note, a gift card, an invitation to a play date, an offer for lunch, free babysitting so Mom can get away.  Don’t put unreasonable expectations on them: The minister’s spouse may not want to be involved in your favorite ministry event, and that’s okay.  The minister’s little girl may have a screaming fit in the preschool hall on the same Sunday his teenaged son shows up with a purple mohawk; treat them the way you would any other kid who’s far from being emotionally mature.  Don’t be offended that the minister’s family has issues, just like yours does.  Pray that they would all be thankful God brought them to this church.  If they feel loved, it will bless your minister, and he will not want to leave.

Pay them well. It’s not about the money.  Really.  I don’t know anyone who went into ministry to get rich.  And most ministers I know have the skills to make a lot more doing something else.  But if the minister and his family are struggling financially while most church members are doing well, it can be discouraging.  If it’s been a while since she’s seen a raise, even though the church’s finances are strong, it’s hard not to be resentful.

Get along with each other.  Psalm 133 begins with the words, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  God loves it when we get along; so do His ministers.  On the other hand, if you want to burn out your ministry staff, force them to constantly grapple with petty conflicts among church members.  If you are at odds with someone right now, make things right.  Do it because it will please the Lord.  It will make your own life less stressful, and it will make your minister’s job easier, too.

Choose your gripes wisely.  Earlier, I said ministers hear a lot of criticisms and complaints.  I didn’t mean to imply that they should only hear positive comments.  After all, a church is a hospital for recovering sinners, and that’s going to be messy at times.  What’s  more, ministers make bad decisions, miss critical details, or just need to be made aware of certain unstated realities.  When I was younger and still fairly new in the ministry, I heard that a woman in my church was in the hospital.  I called her on the phone and asked if I could come visit. She said not to worry about it; she was just fine.  A few hours later, a man in the church called me.  He said, “Pastor, I am telling you this for your own good.  No matter what she says, you’d better go visit her.  If you don’t, she’ll feel like you don’t care.”  I made the visit, and after that, we had a great relationship.  I appreciate that man making me aware of what I had no way of knowing otherwise.  Consider, before you say something negative out loud, “Is this really necessary?  Will this help anyone?  Does this address an issue that’s really important?”  If the answer isn’t a resounding “YES!” keep it to yourself.

Confront the bullies.  Every minister has a bully or two at some point in his ministry.  Some have more than one or two.  A bully is someone who does everything in his/her power to make the minister’s life miserable: Treating her rudely, criticizing him before others, starting unfounded rumors, complaining about any new idea he attempts, even scheming to get her fired.  Why does this happen?  Maybe the minister followed someone the bully was loyal to; maybe the minister offended the bully in some deep, personal way; maybe the bully is just emotionally damaged and is taking it out on someone.  Often, good people in the church are aware of his actions, but do nothing.  Church people tend to be nice; they don’t want to get involved in the affairs of others uninvited.  They certainly don’t want to offend a longtime church member by telling him he is out of line.  But that’s exactly what they should do.  Confronting a bully is an act of love and mercy; love for your minister, who will owe you a debt of gratitude he’ll never be able to repay…but also love for the bully, who needs to read the book of Exodus and remember what happens to people who mistreat a servant of God.

Most of all, love the Lord and His Kingdom.  Sadly, I have met dozens of people who once were in vocational ministry, but aren’t anymore.  A large percentage of them aren’t even involved in church today.  They still believe in Jesus; they just don’t associate with His people anymore.  They didn’t leave because of the money, or because they got fired, or because they had some moral failure that disqualified them.  By and large, they left because of disillusionment with the Church.  They went into ministry with a sense of excitement and idealism; they felt a call from God to change the world.  Then they got their first church job, and quickly found that their biggest obstacle wasn’t the village atheist, the cult around the corner or the Devil Himself; it was the people in the pews.  They found that otherwise good Christians weren’t really interested in changing the world.  At least, not if it meant changing their routine.  What they wanted from their minister (“What we pay you for…”) was to be a personal chaplain to themselves and their families, and to efficiently run the church programs they enjoy.  I am not trying to denigrate either chaplaincy or church programs.  But when a pastor gets criticized by his church because he is spending too much time winning souls in the local prison…when a youth minister who is reaching unchurched teenagers hears more complaints about their clothing than hallelujahs about their salvation…when a music minister is told he cannot start a second worship service designed to appeal to younger people, then is criticized because the church is getting older…when a children’s minister can’t convince long-time church members to volunteer for Vacation Bible School, but she’s still expected to reach young families….they start to wonder why they are in the ministry in the first place (Those aren’t hypothetical examples, by the way.  They are all based on ministers I know.).  Sadly, many of the best, most passionate and brilliant people who feel called to ministry today start their own churches instead of taking a position at an established church because they don’t want to fight the battle of “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Am I saying that you have to agree with every idea your minister proposes?  Of course not.  Even if you think his idea is all wrong, recognize what he’s trying to get done.  If it has anything to do with loving people, especially people outside the church, help him brainstorm how to do it well, and jump on board the train.  Even if the idea fails, thank God that you have a minister who hasn’t lost sight of his calling, who still believes God’s primary work is changing lives.  The more you allow–I should say encourage–your ministers to focus on reaching people for Christ, the happier they will be.