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.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

From the TBC archives: by DAVID R. CURRIE (2008) -
The Danger of Politics in the Pulpit

Texas Baptists Committed has hundreds of articles archived on our Web site (www.txbc.org), mostly from the TBC (print) Newsletter (1993-2009); David R. Currie's A Rancher's Rumblings (2007-2009); and Baptist Reflections (2008-2009). Much of this material, though originally presented years ago, is still relevant to our lives and circumstances today. TBC will be presenting archived articles from time to time on our blog.

The following article appeared in the October 2008 issue of the TBC Newsletter.
With the presidential election only about 5 weeks away – and early voting right around the corner in many areas, I urge all of you to make the effort to vote and to vote your principles and values. Every voter should be a “values voter.”

And pastors should preach what the Bible has to say about values. And churches should seek to carry out Biblical values, as they understand them, in all of the work that they do. However, pastors and churches should not be in the business of advising you how to cast your vote.

This past weekend, something happened that was unconscionable. Encouraged by an organization called the Alliance Defense Fund, 33 pastors endorsed a presidential candidate from the pulpit in violation of federal law. Organizations that receive tax-exempt status are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics. That is the law, and it is a good law – both for the political process and for the church.

No, this does not restrict a preacher from speaking from the pulpit about what he or she believes the Bible says about issues and values. I have preached many sermons addressing what I believe to be biblical teachings on ethical issues. That is my right – my legal right – just as it is the right of every preacher in this country, and we should fight any attempt to restrict what a preacher can say from the pulpit regarding biblical teachings, even when they deal with issues that have political overtones.

But endorsing a political candidate from the pulpit is something I believe is horribly wrong and destructive, not just from a church-state perspective, but from a Kingdom–local church perspective.

It is said that, if you get two Baptists together in one room, you get three opinions. So it is the rare – perhaps even nonexistent – church whose members all support one political party or one candidate. That’s a good thing. A healthy church is a church of unified mission but diverse opinions. I have friends in my home church who I know plan to vote differently than I do, and none of us would stand for it if our pastor were to endorse either candidate from the pulpit. Thank God we have a pastor who would never do such a thing.

Not all of San Angelo is so fortunate. One of our local San Angelo pastors was one of the 33 who followed the Alliance Defense Fund’s strategy last Sunday.

But hear me again on this. Preaching on biblical ethical issues is appropriate. Good, prophetic preaching challenges Christians to think about what the Bible says and what it means in their day-to-day lives. That is good Baptist theology, encouraging persons to think for themselves and interpret the Scriptures for themselves.

But engaging in partisan politics, especially to the point of endorsing a political candidate, is wrong and destructive to God’s Kingdom.

What is the next step? Will we rename our churches the First Democratic Baptist Church of Paint Rock or the Grace Republican Baptist Church of Dallas? That would be unthinkable – but no more unthinkable than what those 33 pastors did last Sunday.

This kind of partisan political preaching spreads from the pulpit to the pew and poisons relationships in the church body.

A person’s decision to vote for either McCain or Obama is not the test of whether that person is a committed Christian who believes the Bible and loves Jesus. Strong Christians will and do vote differently, and that is normal and healthy.

No matter if you and your best friend disagree, it does not make either of you right or more spiritual than the other.

Whoever wins, all of us – as Christian citizens of this country – should pray for him as our president, realizing that either can accomplish much good – or much harm.

The Kingdom of God is bigger than America, American politics, and any political party or organization or individual. Yes, government policies and activities can help to carry out values that are biblical, both in America and around the world, but keep two things in mind – one, those policies and activities should represent all Americans, not just Christians; and two, God is not limited by government activity.

Practicing Christian citizenship is important and biblical, but we must always be humble, gracious, and respectful in sharing our human opinions. Always remember that none of us knows the mind of God perfectly. “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

I serve on the Board of The Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C. I love this organization and what it stands for and works for in protecting religious liberty.

Its Web site, www.interfaithalliance.org, has posted a pledge that it is asking members of the clergy to sign. It is a pledge that is based on principles that are faithful to the Bible, our Baptist heritage, and the U. S. Constitution. It includes a promise to refrain from endorsing political candidates “in or on behalf of our house of worship.” I encourage all ministers to read this pledge and sign it. To sign the pledge, go to http://interfaithalliance.org/clergypledge. Here is the pledge, as it appears on the Web site of The Interfaith Alliance:
I Pledge...
  • To educate members of our congregation about how our faith relates to issues of the day.
  • To refrain from endorsing any candidate, either explicitly or implicitly, in or on behalf of our house of worship.
  • To prevent partisan speech from candidates or their surrogates, as well as the distribution of partisan materials, in our house of worship.
  • To resist using or soliciting the resources of our house of worship for the exclusive benefit of any candidate or party.
  • To respect candidates whose religious beliefs are different from my own, and stand against the use of religion to divide our communities.
  • To encourage members of our congregation to take an active role in civic life, including casting informed votes.
Click here to sign this pledge.

The Interfaith Alliance does work that is essential not only to protecting religious liberty but to encouraging dialogue among those of different faiths. Times of financial crisis are hard times for all, including nonprofit organizations such as TBC and The Interfaith Alliance. Please give what you can to support both TBC and The Interfaith Alliance. These groups are working on your behalf. We need your support.

Please vote November 4 as you feel led, and respect those who disagree with you. Just remember – the Kingdom of God is much, much bigger than a political election.