Saturday, January 10, 2015

Another step in my journey with God

I've felt something's missing. As many discussions as I enter into in Sunday School and elsewhere about Jesus . . . as faithfully as I pray to the Father throughout the day in Jesus' name . . . as much as I try to - as best I can - follow his teachings and emulate his life . . . I feel where I most fall short is in knowing Jesus.

What a concept . . . knowing Jesus. We say we're in relationship with him, yet knowing someone who lived and died 2,000 years ago . . . who lives now as spirit but not in the flesh . . . well, let's just say it's not easy. We say he lives within us, but what does that mean? If he lives within me, isn't it important that I know him as deeply as possible? In the Sunday School class of which my wife and I have been members for over 10 years, we often discuss Jesus . . . the nature of this divine/human person . . . his relationship with the Father. Yet I never get a strong sense in these discussions that any of us feels we know Jesus very well. We seem to have a lot more questions than answers, and even our answers feel pretty tentative.

Praying to the Father - as Jesus taught his disciples to do - I feel much more in relationship with the Father than the Son, yet Jesus told us that to know the Son is to know the Father.

Well, that states my dilemma, as far as I can express it.

That leads me to the purpose of this blog post - and the series of posts that will follow it.

I've decided that one key focus of 2015 for me will be seeking to know Jesus better. I started quite a journey a little over 44 years ago, in the fall of 1970, when - as a sophomore at Oklahoma Baptist University - I lost the "faith" with which I had grown up.

Thank God! And I mean that literally, because I am convinced beyond doubt that it was God who caused me to shed that shallow understanding of "faith" that I brought with me to OBU. The day I lost my "faith" (those quotes are intentional, because what I called faith wasn't really faith at all) was the day God started dealing with me, leading me on a journey that has lasted until now and will, I trust, last the rest of my life.

It has been a remarkable journey, and I can see God's hand leading me in so many ways over those 4+ decades. But, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, something's missing. I just don't feel I know Jesus as well as I should know him. Don't get me wrong - I'm not questioning my salvation, I'm not questioning the existence of my relationship with him. I'm simply recognizing that this relationship needs to go much deeper. Truth be told, we could probably all say that about a number of relationships in our lives, whether divine or human.

So this is another step - actually, more like another path or another trail - on that journey with God. My intention in writing this series is not to preach or teach or even inspire. My main purpose in writing all of this down is to discipline myself to keep moving on this journey and to ultimately know Jesus better than I do now. Inviting you to "eavesdrop" on my thoughts and discoveries along the way will help keep me on track. If you happen to find some of these things helpful in your own journey, so much the better.

I'll be focusing in, of course, on scripture, especially the Gospels; I'll also be looking at other sources - books, articles, etc. - that might help add context to my understanding. But, truth be told, this series is a work-in-progress and will probably remain so as long as it continues. In other words, I'll figure it out as I go along. It won't be a smooth, straightforward path; more likely, there will be a lot of zigs and zags along the way. (If you were to see my study, you would understand - neat and organized is not my way!) It should almost go without saying that prayer, too, will play an important part, and I'll try to share that part of the journey as best I can.

How long will this series continue? I don't know; could be a few weeks, could be a year; could be two posts, could be a hundred; it all depends on where God leads me.

Before proceeding to part 2 of this series (in the next week or so, I hope), I need to make one thing very clear. I am not a theologian or anything close to it. I am not a preacher. I am a layperson whom God has blessed with opportunities for serving him - nothing more, nothing less. I have never been to seminary, never had any formal theological training beyond basic Old and New Testament survey courses in college. My dad had a Th.D.; I'm not my dad, though I certainly aspire to the example he set, for I never knew anyone of greater faithfulness and grace than my own parents.

So why is it important that I seek to know Jesus better? Because it is my deepest conviction that it is in Jesus Christ that God fully reveals himself and that he wants us to know him - not just know about him but know him. Though the direction of my prayers may cause me to feel more in relationship with the Father than the Son, my knowledge of the Father is limited - according to Jesus - to the extent of my knowledge of the Son. God created us for relationship with him. Simply, I want to know Jesus better to draw nearer to God in all aspects of his triune personhood.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Celebrating the birth of Jesus, redeemer of "lost causes"

In this Advent season, I've been reflecting on this Jesus whose birth we celebrate. What is He really about?

Earlier this week, I was talking with a friend and colleague about a ministry effort in which we're both involved that, when it began, seemed so daunting as to be considered a "lost cause."

Now, after much prayer and hard work (especially on the part of my friend), we have begun to see some light in the distance, leading my friend to exclaim, after a week of extensive travel on behalf of this "lost cause," "We can turn this around - I'm sensing it!"

This isn't the first "lost cause" for either of us; both of us are accustomed to swimming against the tide - and have probably come pretty close to being pulled under for the third time on a few occasions.

One of my favorite all-time actors is Jimmy Stewart, and one of my all-time favorite movies is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There's one scene that has particularly stuck with me through the years, as much as any scene from any movie. It comes after Stewart's character, freshman Senator Jefferson Smith, has discovered that the friend and mentor he had practically worshipped all these years - Senator Paine - is crooked. Paine, who is controlled by a corrupt political machine, is involved in an effort to discredit Smith and a bill he had introduced, because Smith's bill stands in the way of an appropriations bill, framed by the machine, that includes a dam-building graft scheme.

On the floor of the Senate, in the heat of his filibuster aimed at postponing the appropriations bill, Smith approaches the desk of Senator Paine, and says,
I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor. In this world full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr. Paine. I loved you for it, just as my father did. You know that you fight harder for the lost causes. You even die for them.
Jesus is all about lost causes. What must the task of redeeming the world have looked like to Jesus when he started? For that matter, it's still a pretty daunting task today. Did you notice that "one simple rule" that Senator Smith referenced? Yes, it's what Jesus called the second greatest commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39b, NIV) That "rule," in combination with what Jesus called the greatest commandment - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37) - are the reasons Jesus took on that task of redeeming the world.

And that task is the charge he left with his disciples, just before he ascended to the Father.

Redeeming the world! That takes in a lot of territory - not only in terms of geography but in terms of the task itself. Remember, Christ didn't just say to his disciples, "tell them about me." He told them to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) And what did he command his disciples? Love God and love people.

Some people may seem unlikable to us, but no one is unlovable, no one is beyond the love of God, and we are not to withhold our love from anyone. Jesus doesn't.

Redeem the world? That's going to mean different things to different people, because God calls each one of us uniquely. My call will be different from your call. But the mission to which God calls us, as His people, is the same - to take part in redeeming the world.

Redemption is about following Jesus, who ministered to the whole person. He saw our immediate needs as intertwined with our eternal needs.

Redemptive tasks will often start out seeming like a lost cause. I can't imagine what our Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery volunteers must think when they arrive at a site that has been devastated by a tornado, a flood, a fertilizer plant explosion. It must look impossible, but they pray and they work, and God redeems that "lost cause."

That's just one example. There are all kinds of "lost causes" of different types and of different scales. For example, a long-brewing conflict that has torn a family apart. How to minister to that family and restore those broken relationships? It can seem like a "lost cause," but God is not overwhelmed by it. He's calling some person or persons to invest themselves in that family. Through prayer and the God-blessed effort of His people, He can redeem that "lost cause" until it is no longer lost.

I've seen it over and over again - in my own life and various ministry efforts, and in those of others. All God asks is our obedience and faithfulness.

Oh yes, one more example. I lost my faith during my college years and spent several years of searching before I returned to faith in Christ. I'm sure I seemed like a "lost cause," but my parents trusted God and kept loving me and praying for me, and so did others whom God called to invest themselves in my life during that time. Thank God for Jesus, who redeems "lost causes" like me, and thank God for people who answer His call to take part in that redeeming ministry..

Jesus calls us to take part in His work of redeeming lost causes. To what "lost cause" is He calling you?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thank you, Jacob Lupfer and Save OBU

This past Tuesday, on his Save OBU blog, Jacob Lupfer announced 'the end of Save OBU' or - at the very least - the end of his involvement in it.

I couldn't let this announcement pass without saying a public word of thanks to Jacob for the significant contribution he's made to the cause of academic freedom and integrity in Baptist circles.

Jacob reached out to me right at the beginning of this movement in December 2011. He had run across some of my TBC 'Baptist Briefs' videos on YouTube and thought I might be interested in the stand he was taking and the movement he was starting. Little did he know!

For one thing, he had no idea that I am a fellow OBU alum. I care deeply about my alma mater. It was at OBU that I learned to think for myself and seek out a faith I could call my own. Some of the great influences in that faith journey were part of the OBU community: Cary Wood, my roommate; Ron Russey, who lived in the adjoining room of our suite at the end of D section, 2nd floor, in Brotherhood Dorm; Jerry Barnes, pastor of University Baptist Church; Dr. Bill Mitchell, whose remark one morning, while teaching 'Dante's Inferno' in Western Civ, started me on the journey of my life - and FOR my life - which continues today; and others.

There is an unexplainable peace that I feel whenever I'm on Bison Hill, a peace that I feel nowhere else on earth. Although I had grown up in Baptist churches, the son of a preacher, had made my profession of faith at age 10, had grown up in youth choirs and as a leader among my youth group, it was at OBU that I first began to truly understand what faith is. When I 'visit' Bison Hill, I am truly home, and my heart is full.

Maybe that's why it's so important to me that OBU remain a place where students can freely ask questions; no, a place where they are ENCOURAGED and PROMPTED to ask questions . . . to speak their doubts . . . to search like I did. That it remain a place where guys in Brotherhood Dorm (though it no longer goes by that name, it will always be Brotherhood to many of us) - can challenge each other in late-night bull sessions; oh, those bull sessions were where I truly learned to think for myself, to ask questions, and to either defend what I was thinking or rethink it!

Until Jacob Lupfer came along, I had figured OBU - being under control of the Fundamentalist-led Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma - was a lost cause. But Jacob and Save OBU gave me - and many of our fellow OBU alums - hope that OBU could truly be 'saved.'

In his final blog post, Jacob has expressed regrets and made some apologies. Those are between him and God, and between him and those he believes he has wronged. For my part, though, I can do nothing but affirm his handling of Save OBU from beginning to end.

What has especially impressed me has been the depth with which Jacob has researched and interviewed to develop a wealth of information about the situation at not only OBU but other Baptist schools as well. He never wrote careless accusations; he documented what he wrote. Many of us in Baptist life, but especially OBU grads, owe him a great debt.

Where does Save OBU go from here? I'm not as sanguine about OBU's present and future as Jacob is. Experience with Fundamentalist Baptist leaders here in Texas - as well as nationally - has taught me that they are relentless. It is not their nature to co-exist - to 'live and let live'; no, it is their nature to control. They are not cooperative Baptists; they are controlling Baptists (an oxymoron if ever there was one).

Jacob writes, 'By the middle of 2012, however, I began to doubt that my efforts were helping.'

I respectfully disagree. It seems to me the beginning of the Save OBU watchdog movement was followed - in short order - by definite changes in administration activities. Jacob writes that things have calmed down since December 2011. I see a strong correlation, and I worry about what will happen with the end of Save OBU's watchdog activity. I hope someone will take up the movement that Jacob started.

The battle here in Texas has changed; the fight moved from the highly visible convention battles to subtle, stealthy attempts to sway local churches. By going somewhat 'underground,' Fundamentalists have convinced many that 'the battle is over' and there is no more need for a watchdog like TBC. But the Southern Baptists of Texas are more active than ever - they've got their own convention now, so it's churches that they're out to control.

By the same token, I suspect that the 'calm' at OBU is only on the surface. The BGCO is run by people who don't like ambiguity, people who discourage the asking of uncomfortable questions, people who ultimately want their theology taught as incontrovertible truth. Again, I hope that someone will take up this cause.

In November 2012, I drove up to Shawnee - following Homecoming - to meet with Jacob and a group of Save OBU supporters and inquirers on campus. I've tried to give Save OBU as much support as possible, because I believe this movement is a natural 'fit' for Texas Baptists Committed - and because I care so deeply about OBU. However, like Jacob, I have my own regrets. I wish I could have done more. I promised Jacob, early on, that I would write a post for his blog, and I failed to keep that promise, for which I have apologized to him. Actually, last spring I began writing what I planned to be a series of posts relating my experience at OBU to the importance of preserving academic freedom - and a robust liberal arts education - on Bison Hill. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to complete that series. I still plan to do so, however, and will ultimately post them either on the Save OBU blog - if it's still available - or here on the TBC blog.

Well, I've said more than I had planned, because I felt that I needed to put some context around my comments. The bottom line, though, is that all real Baptists owe Jacob Lupfer a debt of gratitude for his commitment to academic freedom and an authentic liberal arts education at OBU and other Baptist schools; for his dedication to keeping OBU truly Baptist.

Jacob, you've accomplished more than you know. Thank you for your dedication, your hard work, your integrity, and your friendship.

God bless OBU.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

George Mason, 25 years . . . Thanks be to God

This weekend, at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, we have been celebrating the ministry of George Mason, on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as senior pastor at Wilshire.

George's contribution - to Wilshire, to the immediate community surrounding it, to the Dallas area as a whole, and to the larger Baptist and Christian communities - is being celebrated this weekend.

But I'm writing a very personal post today in celebration of what George - and Wilshire - have meant to Joanna and me. You see, this is a significant anniversary for us - 10 years as members of the Wilshire community of faith. After we walked the aisle on August 29, 2004, and were greeted as new members, we then sat and watched with the rest of the congregation as presentations were made to George in celebration of his 15th anniversary at Wilshire.

In truth, this post is about what a pastor can mean in the faith journey of one person. Multiply that a few thousand times, and you will begin to have a tiny idea of the influence of a George Mason.

One of the presentations that morning was made by our dear friend, the late Phil Strickland, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC). Phil had been the key person most responsible for our arrival at Wilshire as members. In May 2004, I had attended the annual CLC conference held at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio. George Mason was one of the three speakers Phil had lined up for that meeting. It was the first time I had heard George Mason speak.

As he spoke during the first session of that conference, I remember leaning over to my good friend Dan Williams and whispering, "Is he always this good?" Dan nodded. During a break in the meeting, as David Currie and I were talking, George came over and introduced himself to me. Later that day, I approached him and told him that my wife and I lived in Plano and would soon be looking for a new church home. George said, "Well, we're just down the road from you."

For almost 17 years, Joanna and I had been members of a church in Plano. Our kids had grown up there, and we had formed many friendships there over the years. But we had grown increasingly restless as the church's mindset had lurched toward Fundamentalism. Since 2000, I had been challenging the pastor directly; predictably, he didn't take it well. When I had gone to him in 2002, wanting to teach the Baptist Laity Institute's Baptist Distinctives course, he told me that he wouldn't permit me to teach the session dealing with the Fundamentalist Takeover.

A few of my other concerns: the huge floor-to-ceiling American flag that was unfurled on patriotic holidays to completely cover the stained-glass window - with Jesus at its center - above and behind the chancel; the pastor's use of the pulpit to go on a tirade against the critics of George W. Bush at the beginning of the Iraq War; and the pastor's edict in the fall of 2003 - again issued from the pulpit - that women would no longer be permitted to teach men in Sunday School, accompanied by his declaration that God would 'prune' from the church anyone who dared disagree with this decision.

To more fully understand what George and Wilshire have meant in our lives, back up for a moment to the early 1970s. As I said, this post is a very personal reflection.

As a student at Oklahoma Baptist University, I went through a wrenching faith struggle. I had publicly professed my faith at 10 and grown up very active in Baptist churches and with parents who were the two most faithful Christians I have known. But my understanding of faith was built on pretty shaky ground and, early in my sophomore year at OBU, the bottom fell out of it. As I then set out to search for a belief system (not sure I was looking for faith at that point) I could call my own, a friend in the dorm, Ron Russey, suggested I go see the pastor of University Baptist Church across the street, Jerry Barnes.

It was the very best thing I could have done. Jerry Barnes became not only a friend and counselor to me along my journey, my 'search,' but his preaching made me dig deeper for understanding than I had ever dug before.

Fast-forward back to that day in May 2004. That evening, I called Joanna - back home in Plano - and told her, "For almost 30 years, I've been looking for another Jerry Barnes. Today I may have found him." What I meant was a pastor who would make me dig deep for biblical truth and understanding - as Jerry had many years before. Though I had come a long way on the journey of faith since those days at OBU, I felt I had - in many ways - stagnated for a long period, sitting in Sunday School classes where the only questions asked were those with pat answers, listening to a pastor who had become a dictator imposing his own theology on the congregation. I had been looking - longing - for another Jerry Barnes, someone who didn't profess to have all the answers, someone who could occasionally utter the phrase, "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."

Jerry and George are two very distinct personalities, but they share those qualities of grace, honesty, intellectual curiosity, and a faith of great depth and conviction.

On July 4, 2004, Joanna and I drove to Wilshire to visit for the first time. On our way there, Joanna said, "I'm not sure I want to drive a half-hour to church every week." Then, after hearing George preach, we hadn't even reached the parking lot when Joanna said, "I want to come back here."

George had preached a sermon entitled "The Cross and the Flag." It was an innovative sermon, in which he interrupted himself three times for us to sing three great old hymns - hymns that had often been viewed as patriotic and militaristic, but for which he now gave us new understandings, interpreting them in terms of our relationship with God. He also provided a completely different understanding of the relationship between patriotism and our Christian faith than we had observed at our church in Plano.

It was - and I mean this in a sense that could almost be felt physically and viscerally - a breath of fresh air overcoming the stagnant air of our past. That summer, Wilshire had a series of Sunday evening events in Fellowship Hall. In one, George treated the then-popular Left Behind books and movie; in fact, he discussed that whole "Left Behind" theology with an understanding that, to my mind, was much more consistent with the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ than the understanding we had heard at our church. On another Sunday evening, George sat on a stool for an hour-and-a-half, fielding any question that people wanted answered. What impressed me the most was that, when George would be asked some question dealing with theology, he displayed an honesty and humility I found rare in a pastor in that he occasionally answered, "I don't know" or "I'm not sure." That was different than the environment we had encountered over the previous decade-and-a-half.

Looking back, I'm not sure why it took us until August 29 to join, except that we had rushed into our previous choice of a church home in 1987; this time, we wanted to make sure. All I know is that, once we made the decision to join Wilshire, we've been thankful ever since.

In the months to come, we would hear women preach, baptize, and both administer and serve the Lord's Supper. Women preachers and women deacons! When George would speak in his sermons about women's roles in the home and the church - as being the same and equal roles that men have - I would find myself in tears and would reach over and squeeze Joanna's hand; after 10 years, that still happens, for - as much as I try - I still haven't shed the baggage I carried into Wilshire in 2004.

That fall, we visited a Sunday School class called Epiphany. Almost 10 years later, we're still there - it's a class that knows no pat answers. It's a class that asks questions - of the Bible, of the teachers, of each other. We challenge each other, but we also love each other. What a blessing that class has been in our lives! We usually walk out of there with more questions than answers - and that's a good thing. It means we're no longer stagnant; instead, we have things to think about during the coming week. Driving to lunch after church, Joanna and I often find ourselves discussing some of the questions raised in class that morning. That's a very good thing!

So this isn't just about George, it's about Wilshire. But it all comes back to George, because he has encouraged a community where it's safe to ask questions and it's safe to say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure"; a community that is committed to Christ's Lordship rather than to one man's theology.

George has become a great friend to me, and he was a friend to Texas Baptists Committed long before I came along. I'm thankful that his commitment to TBC continues. He has been very supportive of this work and my role in it. He and Kim give generously to TBC, and he has led Wilshire to do the same. I'm very appreciative of that.

George and Wilshire are also good friends to the T. B. Maston Foundation for Christian Ethics, which I chair. In fact, the Foundation has held its last several biennial Awards Dinners in Wilshire's beautiful Community Hall; it has been the perfect place for these dinners, and we appreciate the gracious welcome that George and Wilshire have extended to us.

Much more has been said about George in celebrations this weekend - particularly his contribution as a leading pastor in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and chairing the search committee that chose Suzii Paynter as executive coordinator; and even moreso his contribution to Baptist life in pioneering the Pathways to Ministry program at Wilshire - since spread to other churches - in which Wilshire serves as a teaching congregation, mentoring young ministers in a two-year residency, giving them opportunities to learn and perform pastoral responsibilities. This program has been a great blessing not only to these young residents but to us as a church as well.

Beyond all of this, however, what our family will always appreciate most about George is the morning of April 2 of last year, when he showed up at Medical Center of McKinney at 6 AM to pray with us. Our son, Travis, lay in critical condition after suffering a stroke the night before. In less than 2 hours, Travis would undergo surgery that would save his life. We needed the pastoring George gave us that day and will always be grateful for his care and concern.

Thank you, George, for your friendship and encouragement, and congratulations on 25 years as Wilshire's senior pastor. Thanks be to God for George Mason.