O Lord, How Long?

Heal me, O Lord, for my bones are dismayed.” (Psalm 6:2, NASB95)

Yesterday First Baptist Church, Sutherland, TX was riddled with bullets and almost everyone in attendance was either killed or seriously injured. Nearly 24 hours later there are no answers to the question everyone is asking, ‘Why?’ The gunman, dead either by his own hand or the actions of a neighbor to the church, cannot answer for his actions. As pastor of a similar size congregation (what is truly the ‘normal’ size of churches) my bones ache for the community where this unspeakable tragedy occurred.

My bones ache because of the deep hurt visited on that community. My bones ache because far too recently a gunman opened fire on concert-goers in Las Vegas killing and injuring dozens.

My bones ache because a man drove a truck into a crowded New York City sidewalk just last week killing five and injuring scores more.

My bones ache because no matter how many laws we pass, no matter how many regulations the government issues the sheer power of evil at work will not be tamed by laws and regulations.

“…my soul is greatly dismayed; But You, O Lord—how long?” (Psalm 6:3, NASB95)

Indeed, Lord, how long must we wait for the ultimate confrontation between the presence of God and the forces of evil?

My soul is dismayed for the families in my community who are experiencing the pain and heartbreak connected with the opioid epidemic.

My soul is dismayed for the family whose teenage child died of suicide recently.

My soul is dismayed because the flow of information and the pace of the news cycle makes it difficult for the families impacted by the tragedies of daily life to grieve.

My soul is dismayed because the conversation so quickly turns in ways that appear to minimize the grief and hurt of those who bear the brunt of the pain.

O Lord, how long?

 

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More Questions Than Answers

For some reason as I speed along in what likely is my last decade of full-time ministry there are far more questions than answers. Several questions keep recurring: 1. Why are baptisms the sole measure of evangelistic growth in our churches? 2. Is the purpose of evangelism to …. fill the seats in our churches …? 3. Does being a follower of Jesus mean simply  attending church regularly? 4. How do we measure life transformation…..by adhering to a set of doctrinal statements;  by a set of behaviors: by some other standard? 5. When we pray for revival exactly what are we praying for?A return to some ‘better’ time in our history? A return to a theocracy? A return to full churches and a culture that respected the church?

I am not deliberately being contrarian – I have friends (you know who you are!) who are much more effective at that – but after nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry I continue to bump up against the same questions. I admire men and women who appear to have solid answers to these type of questions and I read them and follow many of them on social media. I’ve read their books (no, I really haven’t adopted listening to podcasts  – prefer to read) and tried to catch the foundations of their thinking. As I preach and teach in a community in which I have lived for over 25 years it occurs to me that some of our evangelistic efforts are interpreted as attempts to reclaim some lost vision of America or to see our buildings filled to capacity.

Two final questions: 1. Is there safe space to ask these questions and not get labeled and categorized? 2. Am I the only one asking these questions?

Steve

 

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July 4 Contemplation

N. T. Wright observes,

We are quite happy to hear about the “God” of Western imagination, less ready to hear about the God of Israel. We are quite happy to hear that “Jesus is God,” in some sense. That, we have assumed, is what the gospels are telling us. We are less ready to hear that the God of Israel had promised to do certain specific things, in particular to establish his sovereign rule over Israel and the world, and that Jesus was embodying this intention.

(Wright, N. T.. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (p. 84). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

As the 4th of July draws near I wonder…how deep have we buried Israel’s God under our  Western secularism and American Exceptionalism? Across the nation this coming Sunday many churches will honor our nation (as our church will do) by reciting the Pledge to the United States Flag. We will sing along with the national anthem and we will sing of God’s might and power on display as God’s truth goes marching on!

How do we recover the identity of Israel’s God? N.T. Wright has written volumes about this challenge. Other authors have offered their own interpretations. Opinion writers regularly challenge evangelical believers about how our patriotism sometimes appears to overwhelm our faith.

As a pastor I am responsible for leading a group of believers in a particular location to evangelize and to disciple ‘all’ nations. In order to fulfill these assignments we need to consider our strategy of ‘evangelizing.’ Are we leading people to follow Jesus as He is revealed in God’s Word or as we interpret Him through our lens of American Exceptionalism and Western secularism? Do we disciple new believers according to biblically accurate  models, or are we trying to create disciples who will mimic us – thinking like middle class Americans?

As we observe the 4th of July – American Independence Day – let us endeavor to use our freedom to carefully read God’s Word, to seek and save the lost – leading them to a life changing relationship with God – the God of the Bible who performs miracles, who guides and directs history to His ultimate purposes – and helping new believer grow into faithful followers of Jesus as He is revealed in God’s Word – being faithful to the models and principles we see in the pages of the New Testament.

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Questions…No Answers?

The demise of Christendom

Christendom: defined by McLeod (in Mark A. Knoll, In the Beginning Was the Word):

A society where there are close ties between leaders of the church and secular elites; where the laws purport to be based on Christian principles; where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, everyone is assumed to be Christian; and where Christianity provides a common language, shared alike by the devout and religiously lukewarm.”

Quoted by Mark A. Noll, In The Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 – 1783 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5-6.

The rise and fall of evangelicalism

Mark Noll, in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitfield and the Wesleys, Volume 1: A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements, and Ideas in the English-Speaking World (Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity Press, 2003, quotes David Bebbington’s ingredients of evangelicalism:

  • conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
  • the Bible, or the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
  • activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and
  • crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (i.e. providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans).(p.19)

After 25 years in the same church, the same house, the same community I don’t see significant signs of change. Attendance has peaked and fallen several times during these years. Right now we are in a trough – we are experiencing a deeper decline than previous years. The community around us – indeed the entire county – is aging. The economy in southern Oregon recovers much more slowly than other regions – such as Portland, Bend, and even Medford. Most of the school districts in our region are seeing declining student numbers. There are a few outlying districts where numbers are increasing, but evidence suggest these smaller districts are simply attracting students from the larger districts. There is an affordable housing crunch – higher priced homes are available, as are homes/apartments that are on the low end of the scale. Service sector jobs are growing – but with mandated minimum wage hikes and significant increases in purchasing medical benefits hours are being cut.

Reading Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals (The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017]), as well as other books mentioned above is challenging me to ask: are our convictions rooted in God’s Word or merely in the traditions we have been taught about God’s Word. The first few chapters of FitzGerald’s work are a brief historical review of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the US and their influence on the rise of what is called the evangelical movement. In those chapters the author raises several important issues:

To what degree do the philosophical underpinnings determine the resulting convictions?

How significant an impact do influential/prolific writers  have on passing on their convictions? As a corollary, to what degree are pastors and the folks in our pews/chairs simply accepting of received tradition?

Finally, reading these authors challenges me to ask- just how much American Exceptionalism has crept into our theological framework? As Noll observes in American God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) the covenantal theology undergirding the Puritans who settled colonial America – and even the Congregationalists – the idea of covenant became entwined with the growth of a nationalist fervor. Seeing America as God’s ‘chosen’ people, inheritors of the blessing of Abraham, led to an American Exceptionalism that continues to be manifest in the prosperity gospel, in confusion between patriotism and biblical Christianity.

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Rural Matters

People are moving to urban centers. I understand that. Urban centers generally have significant cultural, social, and political influence. After more than 25 years in a rural area I really get that.

Yet…. Pastoring a the same rural church in southwestern Oregon for more than 25 years gives me a perspective I want to share. First, our denomination (Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board) has chosen to invest most of its time, energy, and resources into urban church planting. Understanding that people are migrating to urban centers means we should be paying attention to urban centers.

Second, having lived in a southwestern rural Oregon county that is much more conservative politically and socially than the metro areas of Portland, Salem, and Eugene my family and I feel the urban thumb every-time we buy gasoline. Part of the gas tax funds Portland’s metro transit system (which in 30 years of living in Oregon I have never used). Urban areas impact our vote for President and state offices and policy initiatives. Many in our county voted for Trump in the last presidential election knowing that Oregon’s 7 electoral delegates would vote for Hillary Clinton. We voted against legalizing recreational marijuana knowing that the urban areas would likely override our votes – and now recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon.

Third, opinion makers are centered in urban areas. Reaching them with the gospel requires churches in urban areas. New churches being planted in urban areas are certainly impacting cultural centers in those communities. I am elated when church plants are successful.

Now to my challenge: Opinion makers also live in rural areas. Our county commissioners have had significant opportunities to influence legislation supporting the idea that timber is a renewable resource (believe it or not at the federal and state level there have been those who believe that trees are non-renewable). I had a (very) small role a few legislative cycles in shaping policy for the delivery of services to children and families in Oregon. I was privileged to serve as the president of the Northwest Baptist Convention between 2011-2013 (as a rural pastor of a normal sized church). I hope I was able to provide a positive and hopeful model of leadership in that time.

As I see it the challenge is simple: how do we provide a voice for those who serve and live in rural areas? Our denomination has typically been served by those whose pastoral experience may have included a rural pastorate during seminary days, but most of those serving in significant denominational leadership were shaped more by their urban contexts than by their seminary churches. I know younger leaders are being asked for their opinions in a variety of forums and I value their opinions. I believe that those of us God has called to less-celebrated, less populated areas also have opinions and ideas that matter.

Remember, rural does matter!

 

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Deja Vu All Over Again?

One week ago we celebrated Easter. Apparently most of the people who regularly attend our church didn’t get the memo. Attendance was down – significantly. One week later it looks to be the same pattern – again. Attendance declining, offerings sagging, and my attitude sinking.

Karl Vaters, a blogger for Christianity Today, suggests answering these four questions after every event:

  • What went right
  • What went wrong
  • Why it went right or wrong, and
  • What we can do to improve it the next time.[1]

 

Last week if it could go wrong it did. Two key singers on the worship team were mission – one out of town on a family emergency, the other home with an illness. The sound technician misunderstood simple directions. And did I mention that attendance was down – significantly?

So this week, what will go right? As far as I know my audio/video tech person will not be here, so I will attempt to sing and change the slides along the way. As of about 9:30am none of the children who often attend were here, so three frustrated teachers are wondering if they will ever have a class to teach.

Yesterday I attended a memorial service for the last of four people who had tremendous impact on our church and my family. These two families moved into our community and into our churches life with vigor and enthusiasm. Pastoring the same church for over 25 years means lots of transitions.

(The a/v volunteer did attend! Singing was more vigorous than even Easter Sunday! So, that went right!)

It’s now Monday morning. Another week lies ahead – praying that more will go right than wrong, and that I learn from what goes wrong to become more of what God has created me to be!

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2017/april/5-mistakes-more-likely-small-churches.html?paging=off, accessed on 4/23/17.

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DOCTRINE AND RACE: A BOOK REVIEW

Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars

Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews

Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2017

White privilege. I am not a racist. Both are statements I’ve made numerous times in my life. Mary Bet Swetnam Mathews challenges these affirmations as she digs deeply into the roots of the label I wear as a Southern Baptist pastor. Her investigation into the vast differences between white, fundamentalist reaction to modernity and the way African Americans reacted demonstrated clearly and sadly a racist, white-privileged approach from my doctrinal forefathers.

Mathews writes,

“fundamentalism itself was a racialized term. The men who coined the term were whit, and in their worldview, and indeed in the worldview of most white Americans of the era, Christianity was defined by the goals and aspirations of white, middle-class educated Protestants.”

Throughout the book she demonstrates with quotations from white pastors, theologians, and editors of Christian news-journals demonstrating how their own upbringing suggest a superiority to and a patronizing air toward African Americans.

The author reminds us that black Protestants had walked out of white Protestant churches in the South and had formed their own denominations, which were well established by the end of WW I. Instead of dialogue, white Protestants spoke and wrote about the need to preserve the difference between the races and they often positioned themselves as experts of what they mistakenly considered a divinely inspired racial boundaries.

Throughout the thoroughly researched book Mathews illustrates over and again from newspaper articles, sermons, and other methods of communication how white Protestants insisted on their moral and doctrinal superiority when it came to defining what it truly meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ and part of His church. African American Christian leaders held to similar positions to white Protestant fundamentalist on the social ‘ills’ of their time: dancing and drinking. However, African American writers and preachers “were unified in their belief that religion spoke to the racial conditions in the United States.”

Perhaps the most telling quote is from Benjamin Jefferson Davis, editor of the National Baptist Union-Review (the voice of the National Baptist Convention) as he asked

“how the white man’s religion permits him to hate his brother because he is black” when for a black Christian, “religion teaches him to live his white brother not because he is white, yellow, or black, but because Christ has taught him to love his neighbor as he loves himself.”

As a seminary student I was schooled in the ‘fundamentals,’ the focus of a series of essays defending orthodox Christian belief against what we were told was the highly subversive German theological method of ‘higher criticism.’ While I appreciate my education in these issues, I must have missed the lectures and/or class on how my white forefathers refused to acknowledge the accomplishments of African American pastors and theologians as they combated the same tendency toward theological drift while fighting a losing battle against the embedded racism of their culture.

I am saddened by what I read. Mathew’s book is a first step in coming to terms with my past, with my fundamental convictions. As I read her work I wondered, where are the Native American voices in our denominational culture? Where are the Asian American voices in our culture? The Southern Baptist Convention has publicly repented of our own denominational history of racism. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention elected Fred Luter, a noted African American pastor and leader from New Orleans, LA as president in 2012-2014. There is much more to be done in order to clear up our own misunderstandings of our own history. Dr. Mathews has contributed a valuable resource for taking small steps forward in my own understanding of racism.

 

Steve Schenewerk

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