Easter Week: Monday

This Easter will be different for my family. On March 13 my Mom, Shirley Schenewerk died. She had been in a dementia care facility since last summer and had been fighting a losing battle with dementia for several years. I was travelling to Tucson to see her and my dad when dad called with the news of her passing. I was in Wickenberg, AZ – a place and time I will remember for the rest of my life.

I finished the drive that morning and arrived in Tucson. Later that evening/early the next morning my sister arrived. Wednesday, March 14 began the rush of events I’ve assisted countless families with as a pastor. Visiting the funeral home, seeing my Mom one last time, making arrangements for my wife and my brother to get to Tucson. Phone calls to alert family and friends. Visits to the Social Security office, calls to insurance companies, banks, and so on. Wednesday afternoon Cindy arrived and planning for the Memorial Service began in earnest. Those days flew by – though there were times of disbelief and bewilderment. Could Mom really be gone? I had last seen her in July 2017 and though she did not recognize me I knew that would be the last time I saw her this side of eternity,

Sunday finally came – and on Saturday I developed a post surgical infection from an oral surgery that had been performed in January – and we gathered with friends and family in the clubhouse of the Mobile Home Park where Dad and Mom have lived since 1998. I shared a few facts and memories (I promise to record in writing soon and share them with family). The pastor of their church shared a brief message of hope from the 23rd Psalm. We laughed, cried, and ate! Certainly was a Baptist gathering!

Monday, March 19 Cindy and I drove away from Tucson and arrived home late on March 20. These past few days have been filled with Easter planning and preparation – both at home and at the church I serve.

Much remains the same, but much has changed.

 

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JUST MERCY: A Book Review

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson

New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015

 

“The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”[1]

 

 

Part personal memoir, part the account of one man’s journey from death row to freedom, and part expose on a confused and uncertain justice system this book will likely change how think about the purpose of our justice system. From the author’s definition of poverty as the opposite not of wealth by the opposite of justice (18) I was hooked and could hardly put the book down.

The author’s personal encounter with wrongfully convicted death row inmates leads to a discovery that changed how he viewed the world. He invites his readers to join him on this journey with vivid prose as he tells the story of person after person who experienced the worst our justice system can do. He shares statistics that reveal how confused our justice system has become and how difficult real justice can be to find. Weaving the strands of his own journey, the journey of Walter McMillan, and several juveniles arrested and housed in adult prisons with observations about how the justice system works for some but not all make for compelling reading.

There are two observations after reading. First, I was simply unaware of how grossly unfair our justice system had become under the ‘Jim Crow’ system on the South and how deeply entrenched that system had become. I have spent over 40 years living the Pacific Northwest and was blissfully ignorant of how unjust the system had become to people of color and any group marginalized by systemic abuse, poverty, and injustice.

Second, I was reminded again of the power of one individual with a dream and a passion. Most of us – myself included – may never impact the culture as Bryan Stevenson has, but with a dream and a passion we can make a difference – even if it is for just one person.

[1] https://eji.org/about-eji, accessed on 3/6/18.

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ANTICIPATION

Advent, the season of waiting for God’s intervention, begins! No, that was not a headline in any of the news services I follow. Instead the season of anticipation appears to be focused on when the US Congress will degenerate into total chaos, when the President of the USA will do or say something impeachable, when North Korea will stumble into a nuclear war where everyone loses. Some are anticipating the surrender of Christians any day to the sweeping forces of newly defined sexual categories and to the cultural correctness that forces Bible believing evangelicals to forgo any claim to biblical authority.

In my faith family people are anticipating surgery, funeral and memorial services, and even death. Will God intervene and miraculously heal? Will God intervene and make surgery unnecessary? Will God intervene and wipe away all the hurt and grief that death brings?

Advent begins with a call to remember the prophets whom God sent through history to call His people to Himself. Peter, one of Jesus’ earliest followers wrote these words to believers:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that would come to you searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when He testified in advance to the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you. These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Angels desire to look into these things.” (1 Peter 1:10–12, HCSB)

“These things have now been announced.”

Celebrating Advent, anticipating the intervention of God, challenges us to recover the longing and desire that God will intervene. Inn Luke’s gospel Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist speaks after nine months of silence,

Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times; salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us.” (Luke 1:68–71, HCSB)

Notice the past tense in which he spoke. John Piper reminds us “For the mind of faith, a promised act of God is as good as done. Zechariah has learned to take God at his word and so has a remarkable assurance: “God has visited and redeemed!”[1]

Advent begins! God’s intervention is assured! Celebrate His promises and prepare your heart and mind for all that God is doing in fulfilling His purpose in Jesus Christ.

[1] Piper, John. Good News of Great Joy: Daily Readings for Advent (p. 5). Desiring God. Kindle Edition.

 

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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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