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Using the term Pastor

Whether or not one can clarify a sub-point or two of a widespread debate without getting caught up in the whirlwind of the major issue itself is questionable. Still, I am going to try. My goal is only to call attention to some historical information that may be worth considering as the current dispute about women being ordained to various pastoral roles goes forward.

By now it seems common knowledge that on Mother’s Day, Saddleback Church in California ordained three women as pastors of specific ministries in that congregation. One of the women works with children and now carries the title Next Generation Ministries Pastor. Another leads the church’s pastoral care ministry and will be called Pastor of Pastoral Care. The third works with students. She has been referred to as Student Ministries Pastor in recent news stories.

Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church and is probably the best known Southern Baptist pastor in the world through his immensely popular and influential series of Purpose Driven books. Saddleback is also the second largest church in the SBC with more than 28,000 average attendance each week at its various campuses.

What Saddleback Church and Rick Warren do are important because of the influence and example their ministry has across the United States and around the world. Also, the timing of the ordination of three of their long-time women staff members as pastors comes on the heels of Beth Moore’s departure from Southern Baptist life because of the way women are treated in SBC life. Moore was our denomination’s best known woman author, speaker and conference leader.

Reaction to Saddleback’s decision has been swift and, for the most part, negative from their fellow Southern Baptists. And it is here I want to remind of what was said in 2000 when Southern Baptists voted to add the phrase “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by the Scripture” to their statement of faith.

Albert Mohler, one of the nine members of the committee that helped draft the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement of Faith (BF&M), responded to Saddleback’s action by saying, “You will also find no reference to a ‘senior’ pastor (in the BF&M). A pastor is a pastor and ‘the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’”

In 2000 other members of the drafting committee offered a different understanding of the phrase. For example, Steve Gaines, former SBC president, was pastor of First Baptist Church, Gardendale, Alabama, at the time and a member of the drafting committee. In an interview with The Alabama Baptist published May 25, 2000, Gains explained the pivotal reference “the office of pastor is limited to men” to refer only to the senior pastor position.

“Other staff positions and ordinations are all individual church matters,” he said. He went on to explain that he had women serving as ministry leaders in his own church and this proposed addition to the BF&M would do nothing to jeopardize their positions of service leadership.

In the same article Hunter Street Baptist Church pastor Buddy Gray, then president of the Alabama State Baptist Convention, supported Gaines’ understanding. He agreed that men should serve as senior pastors, adding “the good thing (about the statement) is that more women than ever are involved in full-time ministry.”

He added the proposed statement “opens all the other roles for them” as ministers.

Do not be confused by the term minister. Baptists have interchanged that term and pastor forever. The point is that in Alabama and elsewhere the proposed edition to the BF&M was explained as referring to senior pastor. That is the only person who carries the title pastor without any limiting adjective to clarify the title.

In that same interview, Gaines explained that “the document (the proposed BF&M) will not be used as a standard to deny churches association with the SBC.” Gaines said it was “merely a consensus of the majority of Southern Baptists on theological issues.”

“We are not a religious hierarchy,” he said. “We can’t tell anyone what to do.”

Again, Mohler sees it differently today. In the same article reacting to Saddleback, he wrote, “The BF&M is the summary of Baptist beliefs that define what it means to be a cooperating Southern Baptist and a church ‘in friendly cooperation with’ the Convention.”

In other words, Mohler argues one must believe and practice in accordance with the 2000 BF&M in order to be a Southern Baptist. One can only wonder how he could have called himself a Southern Baptist during his years of denominational service prior to 2000 when he disagreed with many parts of the 1963 BF&M.

One final point. In his reaction article, Mohler stated, “We (Baptists) have no theology of an ordained ministry. We have no theological basis for making ordination the determinative issue in anything. You will find no evidence of an ordination theology in any historic Baptist confession of faith.”

I believe he is exactly right at that point. History teaches that when Baptists have done ordination, it was done in a variety of ways across the centuries. Ordination has been for a particular ministry in a particular local church. Today ordination follows the ordained from place to place and position to position. Early in America, Baptist ordination was reserved for the association, the only organized Baptist body of that day. At other times ordination has been done by the local church.

In days past Baptists did not ordain music directors or religious education directors or church administrators. Now we call them worship pastors, discipleship pastors, executive pastors and other similar titles.

Function and office have always gone together, and they still do. There is a difference between being pastor of the church and being the church’s children’s pastor. The titles do not confuse the functions.

Time changes both understandings and perspectives. Perhaps that has happened with the words of this debate. Still, being reminded of what was said when this addition to the BF&M was written may be helpful as the arguments about titles applied to various offices in the church continues to roil.

We are not the first to believe untruth

For those puzzling over some of the rumors, accusations and untruths behind the January events related to the election of President Joe Biden, it might be comforting to remember that ours is not the first generation to believe things about our government and its leaders that are absolutely weird.

Others have experienced similar problems. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was widely accused of being guided by spirits of the dead.

Spiritualism, or communicating with the dead, was popular in Lincoln’s day. And Lincoln acknowledged that after the death of his son Eddie in 1851 he and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln consulted “three good women who are in touch with the spirit world and can straighten us out,” according to historian Mark A. Lause.  Mrs. Lincoln evidently continued this relationship.

One Lincoln scholar who studied the President’s relationship to spiritualism said his attitude wavered between “amused interest and genial skepticism.” But truth did not keep some from Lincoln’s day of enlarging the connection.

An Iowa newspaper wrote, “Has it come to this! A great country governed by ghosts, spirits, hobgoblins, table-turnings, rappings, etc.”

In 1863 David Quinn published a pamphlet in which he called Lincoln a despot directed by spirits of the dead. He wrote of private knowledge confirming a secret place in the White House where Lincoln communed with the dead and received regular instructions for the war from Caesar, Washington, Jefferson, Napoleon, Andrew Jackson and others. The pamphlet proved popular among those opposed to the war in both the North and South.

It is true, historians attest, that Lincoln regularly received letters from a noted spiritualist of that day claiming the advice offered in them came from various departed souls.

When Lincoln was asked about this advice he reportedly joked that it was all about as confusing as the advice he received from his cabinet officers.

For the record, no secret place with a rapping table for communication with the dead was ever found in the White House. But the kernel of truth about Lincoln’s exposure to spiritualism only fired the imagination toward some weird and untrue conclusions. And the untruths rallied opposition to Lincoln’s policies because people believed the bad things written about him.

Today Lincoln is revered as one of America’s greatest Presidents because of his firm efforts to save the union of the United States of America and to move the nation toward the principle of its founding declaration that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln would not be turned aside by rumors, accusations and lies thrown at him. Most were left hanging in space without retort while he pursued the goal of victory.

Our time has been filled with rumors, accusations and outright lies, too. Some may have had a kernel of truth. Most did not. Some people acted on false information just like some of Lincoln’s opponents acted on rumors about Lincoln being directed by the spirits of the dead.

But now January is past. A new president has been elected and inaugurated. History will judge events of our fateful January and the players in those events just as it judges people from Lincoln’s day. And history will judge President Biden and his government just as it judges Lincoln and his.

Why people believe rumors, accusations and untruths about one another we may never know. The tendency goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lies about God.

Believing untruth is costly. It got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden. It was costly to humanity as it changed our nature forever. Believing untruth was costly to Lincoln’s war effort. And, in January, it was costly to the United States of America.

Isn’t it time we acknowledge that our experiences affirm the truth of the Bible? It is truth that sets us free (John 8:32), not some imaginative, even fanciful story no matter how appealing or how much we want it to be true.

Some may remember the name Madalyn Murray O’Hare, the plaintive in the Supreme Court case that eliminated public school students reciting a government written prayer at the beginning of each school day. More than a decade after O’Hare died rumors still persisted that she was petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to ban religious content from radio and TV. Tens of thousands of Christians and others were hoodwinked by that misinformation and invested time, energy and resources to defeat the nonexistent petition.

We can do better than that. We can seek truth. We can communicate truth. We can act on truth.

“Going to the Right House”

Political cartoons are often biting with their sarcasm and witticism. This particular one certainly is. Political cartoons can also be timeless as they point to the foibles of humankind that transcend any particular moment in history.

With some minor changes the 1860 political cartoon “Going to the Right House” by lithographer Louis Maurer could be as pertinent today as it was when Abraham Lincoln first sought the presidency of the United States.

Historian David S. Reynolds in his recent book “Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” points out that Democrats, Southerners and conservatives believed the new Republican Party of 1860 threatened the ruin of the nation. Republicans, they charged, were associated with every subversive “ism” eating away at the structure of America.

Maurer captured that view in his political cartoon published just before Lincoln’s electoral victory. He pictured the would-be President startling a fence rail (a Lincoln campaign logo) and being carried into a white house titled Lunatic Asylum. Leading the way is renowned newspaper editor Horace Greeley, an anti-slavery champion and one of Lincoln’s major campaigners.

In the cartoon, Lincoln looks back at the crowd of reformers following him and declares, “I’m almost in and the millennium is going to begin, so ask what you will and it shall be granted.”

From the crowd comes a series of demands. A couple asks for a change is sexual ethics. In this case it is “free-love” and the banishment of marriage. Another follower advocates economic change and calls for the redistribution of property. A suffragette implores increased rights for women and foresees a time when women’s right will equal men’s.

A poor man, a tramp in the cartoon, asks for a free hotel room. A “street tough” – today we might call him a gang member – demands all policemen be fired. An African American announces, “The white man has no rights that Black persons have to respect,” but the sentence is in stereotypical dialect.

Religion, immigration and more had their advocates among Republican followers. Democrats of that day consider all the ideas worth of the lunatic asylum.

There is one more thing. In 1860, the United States of America was fractured and polarized. The Democrats stood for the status quo. Republicans pushed for change with their anti-slavery stance. But voters of many persuasions rallied to the Republican banner making Republican identity fuzzy at best. Still, when Republicans won, a civil war followed.

Some contend that current Democratic President Joe Biden won the 2020 election because of who he was not (Donald Trump), more than because of who he was or what his party advocated. The victory, they say, was “fuzzy.” Still, the United States is fragmented and polarized as reflected in the attempted insurrection of January 6.

Republicans and Democrats have switched labels over the years. Republicans of 1860 were the progressives. Today they are the conservatives fighting to hold on to the status quo. Democrats abandoned the conservative label and are today’s progressives.

But have the issues changed? Some of the details may be different, but at the core, the issues remain the same.

Sexual ethics and the status of marriage still dominate the public square. Same-sex marriage, homosexual rights, domestic contracts replacing marriages, polygamy – these are just some of the sexual ethics issues over which people argue today.

Tensions rise as economic inequities between the have and have-nots grow. A June 25, 2019 Brookings Institute report found that only the top 20 percent of American households had recovered from the Great Recession a decade later. The current pandemic only exacerbated the differences as the gap increases between the middle class and the economic elites. Distribution of property remains a hot button topic.

Women achieved many of the legal rights envisioned by the suffragette of 1860. Now the struggle is more about the role of women. Different expectations continue to divide society as bitterly as did the demand for the vote.

How to help hungry and hurting people, the sick and the poor; that was an issue in 1860 and it is today.

Perhaps like me you thought firing the police was a new idea when it was voiced following recent incidents of police brutality and abuse. To see the demand in Maurer’s 1860 cartoon was a surprise. But the issue remains unsolved. How does society ensure public safety and protect itself from crime and lawlessness while safeguarding the rights of all of its citizens?

Tension over race relations was not surprising in 1860. Democrats sought to protect slavery. Republicans sought to eliminate it. Slavery may have officially ended with the Civil War but America still pursues its ideal that “all men are created equal.” Sometimes that pursuit becomes a struggle.

Immigration in Maurer’s political cartoon showed fear that “the American way of life” was about to be overrun by a prominent religious group from Europe. Today that fear is focused on people crossing the nation’s southern border.

And don’t forget about Mr. Greeley. Democrats charged that mass media – northern newspapers – were unfairly carrying Lincoln to victory. Mass media is still that culprit for pundits across the political spectrum. Now social media is coupled with it.

Lincoln’s comment about the millennium about to begin illustrates another outlook that has not changed. Supporters of a winning candidate expect the spoils of victory – their goals to be championed. Losers are afraid their worst fears will be realized.

“Going to the Right House” is one of those rare creations that speaks pointedly to its own time and continues to speak through the years. The cartoon illustrates how little the political process has changed, how similar the issues are and the persistent qualities of human nature.

The cartoon illustrates one other point. Americans have struggled with these issues for a long time and we still have “miles to go before we sleep,” to quote poet Robert Frost. Hopefully, we will continue struggling as one people seeking to embrace our collective best. Hopefully, we will not degenerate into a people at war with themselves.

When Truth is Compromised

“I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it.”

That plea sounds like a quote from today’s newspapers as participants in the January 6 storming of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. are inexorably rounded up and charged for their crimes. Many explain they never knew it would come to that – political insurrection.

But this quote comes from a 1961 film titled “Judgement at Nuremberg” starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. The film is based on real events and tells the story of four German judges who were tried for crimes against humanity at the end of World War II.

German Judge Ernest Janning (Burt Lancaster’s character) was an internationally respected legal scholar. Yet, in the course of his trial he confessed his guilt. He condemned an older Jewish man to death knowing there was no evidence to support the crime. From there the condemnations grew to the point that Janning cried, “Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that.”

Janning explained that well-meaning people like himself went along with Adolph Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist policies out of a sense of patriotism. Even though they knew it was wrong, they supported their national leader. Some even blamed the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  Many Germans believed the treaty was a miscarriage of justice against the German people. Evidently, because they felt mistreated, some concluded they were justified in mistreating others.

The film is set against the Berlin Blockade, a Russian attempt to drive Allied forces out of Berlin by refusing to allow land convoys across parts of Germany under Russian control. The blockade threatened Berlin with mass starvation. Only a massive airlift of food over several months prevented another human catastrophe.

Political pressure of the day caused some Allied leaders to counsel giving the judges only a “slap on the wrist” in order to gain the support of the German people. Just move on, they said.

How uncanny the number of parallels between the film and today’s reality.

After being convicted and sentenced to life in prison, along with the other three judges, Janning asked Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy’s character), the chief judge of the three-judge Allied panel of jurists, to visit him in his cell. When Haywood arrived Janning implored Haywood. “By all that is right in this world your verdict was a just one,” he said before begging Haywood to believe that concerning the mass murder of millions of innocent people “I never knew it would come to that.”

Haywood’s reply is iconic. “Herr Janning,” he said, “it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

Janning cooperated with a lie and that helped enable the Nazi reign of terror. Truth took second place to patriotism. Today truth sometimes finishes behind politics, political party, power, pride, personal preferences and prejudices, just to name a few. When truth is compromised it can lead to crimes against humanity like the Holocaust or to unintended consequences like insurrection.

For some Germans, everything Hitler said was true. Everything he did was justified. They believed, acted and defended his lies. For people like Janning, truth became expendable in order to accomplish other goals. Is either excused for their actions? Is either more culpable that the other?

And what about the source of the lies? What responsibility lies there? What accountabilities?

During my seminary days a psychology of religion professor cautioned about church members who carry rumors in the congregation. People who carry rumors, he said, show what they are willing to believe and what they are willing to do in similar circumstances.

I thought about that as I listened to people spreading rumors about a stolen election despite a lack of evidence. They were unwilling to believe in people, in public officials, in established processes and procedures, even in the courts of our nation. What does that say about them and what they might be willing to do given the opportunity?

And I thought of Janning and the scene with Haywood as I watched nationally prominent politicians who had railed about election fraud for weeks finally admit that Biden really did win the election for President of the United States. Unfortunately, their comments came only after what was supposed to be a political exercise turned into something dark, ugly and deadly.

That is what can happen when truth is compromised.

When Jesus stood at trial before Pilate, the Roman governor was not interested in truth. “What is truth?” he asked in a dismissive way (John 18:38). Of more concern to him was how he could manipulate events to his own benefit and the benefit of Rome. Some people still view the world that way.

Jesus offered a different worldview. In John 10:32, Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus is the ultimate truth who can set us free from sin and death. But truth is more than spiritual truth. Truth controls the directions of a Christian believer’s life, the steps of a believer’s actions.

No matter how difficult the truth or how attractive the falsehood, Christians are called to walk in truth (3 John 1:4). To do anything less leads away from God and can result in unspeakable consequences. And like Janning, the day will come when we are called to accountability when we compromise the truth.

‘Reputation Is Everything’

The girl was only 4 years old. She was lured from her parents by a man in his mid-20s and raped. The damage to her tiny body was terrible but not as terrible as what happened next. When the child’s parents found their daughter they did not call for medical help. Instead they abandoned her. Others in the community also turned a blind eye to the child, and the girl slowly bled to death lying alone at the site of the tragedy.

The reason for such brazenness? According to James Emery, author of a research article titled “Reputation is Everything,” the family and community felt the child’s misfortune would sully the family’s honor. Leaving the child alone to bleed to death was deemed an honor killing.

Honor killings are generally defined as murders of women by relatives who claim the victims brought shame to the family.

Afaf Younes was 17. Allegedly there was a pattern of sexual abuse by her father. Afaf ran away from home to get away from him. She was caught and returned to her father who then shot her in the name of honor. No one protested.

A 16-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged the older brother to kill her to remove the blemish (an out of wedlock pregnancy) from their honor. Both brothers — the rapist and the murderer — were exonerated. The girl was blamed.

An 18-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister 40 times just because of a rumor she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death.

Emery concluded “several thousand women a year are victims of honor killings.” Women are treated as commodities in these places. They are responsible for maintaining their moral and sexual purity. If they fail, for whatever reason, their “shame” is extended to the entire family and can be eliminated only by their death.

Honor killings usually occur in communities where reputation is everything, experts say. Frequently families will spend their entire lives in the same community. Mention a family name and people can tell you its complete history. Reputation and honor are the most important possessions one has whether one is wealthy or poor.

Most honor killings involve Muslims although the practice, Emery says, predates the founding of the religion and the Quran does not teach honor killings. “Some Jewish communities from the ancient fortress of Masada to conservative Hasidic sects of today have similar views of traditions and ritual law,” he writes.

When Emery writes, “Women are executed in their homes, in open fields and occasionally in public, sometimes before crowds of cheering onlookers,” one can easily draw parallels with John 8:1–11, where the Pharisees wanted to publicly stone a woman taken in adultery. Had the stoning taken place, it would have been an “honor killing” before a crowd of cheering onlookers.

Deuteronomy 22:20 demands the killing of a girl whose virginity cannot be proven. In verse 21, a girl who engaged in premarital sex was to be stoned to death by the men of the town. The purpose of the killings, one reads over and over again, is to “purge the evil” from the community.

It is important to remember that like many people groups in that part of the world, Israel had its own forms of honor killings deeply embedded in its history, traditions and practices. That reality causes one to read the Christmas story with a new sense of appreciation.

In Luke 1:26–38, the angel Gabriel appeared to a teenage Mary in the town of Nazareth. He was a stranger. Whether the angel appeared in her room in the middle of the night or at the well where she went to draw water, it was dangerous for her to be alone with Gabriel. No wonder she was troubled by his greeting.

After hearing that she would bear a son, one can hear the shock in her words, “How can this be?” One can almost hear the fear as she adds, “I am a virgin.” To hear the exchange between Gabriel and Mary as only an intellectual explanation of what is about to happen misses the human drama and fails to grasp the depth of dedication demonstrated by Mary.

While Nazareth was a small, out-of-the-way village resting atop a hillside, Sephora was a large regional Roman city in the valley about an hour’s walk away. It was a regional military post, one of the Decapolis cities complete with all of Rome’s vices.

Mary knew what happened to other girls who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage. She may have known about honor killings in her own community. She may have even witnessed them. So when the angel told her of the coming child, it is no wonder she protested that the foretelling could not be true. If what Gabriel said were true, it could cost her her life. She might join the list of honor killing victims stoned by the men of the town.

Against the fears of physical death, Gabriel told of the greatest longing of a Jewish heart becoming a reality. The Messiah would be born and Mary would be the human instrument of the child’s coming.

That day in Nazareth, hope defeated fear. In faith, Mary resolved, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary invited the shame and disgrace that would come when villagers learned she was pregnant. She made her family subject to humiliation because of the conclusions people would reach about her actions. She risked being stoned to death in an honor killing all because of the promise shared by the angel — “so the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”

In the years that followed many people would suffer physical death because of their faith in Mary’s Child. People still die today because of Him. But these have the promise that “as God raised Jesus from the dead, so shall you also be raised.” Mary faced the possibility of death before Jesus was born. Her promise was about what was yet to be.

“May it be to me as you have said” — what a remarkable reputation that statement makes. What a wonderful faith it shows. It is a faith to be remembered and a faith to be celebrated as we prepare to commemorate Christ’s birth this Christmas season.

Finding Faithfulness

Have you ever found yourself wondering what in the world Jesus was doing? Have you ever found yourself confused, perhaps disappointed, with the way things worked out for you in the Lord’s service? Have you ever found yourself expecting Jesus to do more than He seemed to be doing?

All of us have. But we are not alone. So did his closest disciples.

For reasons lost in history, Peter, James and his brother John seemed to make up the core leadership of the 12 disciples who followed Jesus during His three-year public ministry. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, these three are chosen by Jesus to witness special events, providing insights into who Jesus was and what He was about.

Mark 5:21 tells the story of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was “a ruler of the synagogue.” The Bible does not tell where the synagogue was, only that Jesus arrived “at the other side of the lake” (the Sea of Galilee) after casting out demons from a man in Gadara on the eastern shore.

Jairus forced himself through the large crowd gathered to greet Jesus and pled with him to hurry to Jairus’ home where his 12-year-old daughter was near death. “Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live,” he begged.

Mark says “Jesus went with him” but before they reached the home servants met them with the sad news of the young girl’s death (v. 35). Jesus dismissed what the servants reported, urging Jairus not to be afraid but to believe.

If you were Jairus, or Peter, James or John for that matter, you faced a dilemma. The servants knew when people died ‑- when their heart stopped and they quit breathing. That is what happened to the child. But Jesus insisted she was only sleeping.

The crowd laughed at Jesus’ words. But what would her father do? What would the disciples do?

Jesus did not allow anyone into the room where Jairus’ daughter lay except Peter, James and John. With them as witnesses, He touched her hand and said, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” And miracle of miracles, she did.

Peter, James and John, along with others, had seen Jesus command the forces of nature when He calmed a storm the night before (Mark 4). They had seen Him triumph over demons in Gadara and heal a woman of a disease that plagued her for 12 years. Now the three stood alone with Jesus and saw His power command death itself.

In Mark 9, Peter, James and John are again chosen by Jesus for a special experience. They accompanied him up a “high mountain” for what is called the “transfiguration.” The three leaders of the disciples saw persons they instinctively recognized as Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ side. On one side stood Moses, representing the Jewish law. On the other side stood prophecy in the form of Elijah. In between was the grace of God in the person of Jesus.

Jesus began to glow with dazzling white light that the disciples could not understand or explain. It was as if the glory of God were visible in the person of Jesus. Mark’s gospel says law and prophecy slipped away. Only the love of God remained — Jesus.

Peter, James and John glimpsed the glory of God in Jesus, even if they did not fully understand what they saw.

About a week earlier there had been another incident. Jesus asked who people said He was. Peter answered for them all: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). But when Jesus tried to explain that being the Christ meant He would suffer and die, Peter argued. The two had a strong disagreement. James and John, along with the other disciples, missed the message, too. Instead of understanding what Jesus was saying, the disciples soon argued about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34).

Not long afterwards, James and John approach Jesus, privately asking that when He set up His kingdom, they wanted to sit at His right and left sides. Imagine the reactions that caused when the other disciples heard what they had done. Mark 10:41 says the other 10 became “indignant.”

On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He went to Gethsemane, a place He frequented for prayer. His “hour” was near and He needed time alone with the Heavenly Father. Still, He longed for human companionship as death approached.

Jesus asked all the disciples to watch while He prayed. But He took Peter, James and John a little farther into the olive grove and, in a rare moment, shared His sorrow. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” He confessed (Mark 14:34). He asked His closest earthly friends — these core leaders — to watch and pray with Him.

Instead, Peter, James and John fell asleep. Even a second request by Jesus could not keep them awake. As Jesus endured His worst moments of human agony, as He learned “obedience even unto death,” His closest friends could not watch and pray as He asked. Instead they snoozed.

Peter, James and John. They saw the power of Jesus over disease and death and somehow did not understand it. They saw the glory of Jesus in the transfiguration but missed its implications. They heard the mission of Jesus from His own mouth but were more concerned about who would be the greatest. They were invited to support Jesus in His agony but slept.

And when Jesus was arrested, Mark says, “Everyone deserted him and fled,” even Peter, James and John (Mark 14:50). Talk about confusion, disappointment and broken dreams.

Thankfully, that was not the final word. In time, confusion gave way to insight. Disappointment turned to amazement. New visions replaced broken dreams. And those who once fled in fear became pillars of the Christian church honored through the ages for the faithfulness.

The reason for the change? There are many but one is that Peter, James and John did not choose isolation or separation amidst their confusion, doubt, disappointment or failures. They held on to Jesus and to one another. And Jesus held on to them, providing new revelations and understanding that transformed their lives.

How strange that when the three disciples thought their journey with Jesus was ending, it was only just beginning.

Being like Peter, James and John as recorded in Christian history may be “a bridge too far” for most of us. But if we stay with Jesus and stay with His Church we will at least travel the same road they did. We will not be lost in confusion, doubt, disappointment and failure. We will find faithfulness and all that it brings.

When You Pray Together

It was supposed to be another Zoom meeting, a virtual orientation for people serving through the Baptist World Alliance. About 100 people signed up for this hour and a half session. The meeting started at 7 a.m. Central time but it was 10:00 p.m. for participants in Australia.

For part of the time, it was another meeting in front of a computer screen. But when we broke into small prayer groups all of that changed. The session was transformed into a time of thanksgiving and a vivid reminder that Baptists belong to one another.

Martin Accad joined from an internet café in Beirut. Martin is dean of the Arab Baptist Seminary there. Several years ago The Alabama Baptist and Samford University co-sponsored a seminar held at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where Martin helped participants understand what it is like to live and minister in a majority Muslim nation. Now his nation seems to be falling apart and not for the first time. But Martin still helps prepare God-called men and women to share the gospel in Muslim lands.

Otniel Bunacie, a Baptist leader from Romania, was part of the prayer group. I first met Otniel in 2005 when he led a Bible study group during the centennial celebration of BWA in Birmingham, England. He is a professor at the Baptist Seminary in Bucharest and also holds appointment at the University of Bucharest. Otniel is part of a historic Baptist family acquainted with communist persecution. He has been president of Romanian Baptists and for more than 40 years served as pastor of a church founded and led by his father for decades before him.

Melanie Maxwell was in the prayer group, too. I knew Melanie when she worked for national Woman’s Missionary Union in Birmingham, Ala. Now she teaches in a Canadian Baptist seminary associated with Arcadia University located in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Ravi Algama is a lawyer in Sri Lanka. He also leads the Baptist convention in that country. Sri Lanka has been plagued by ethnic and religious violence and Baptists have not escaped that trouble.

The General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain was a part of the prayer group. So was a theology professor from a Baptist seminary in Mexico whom I had not previously known.

There was an African-American pastor friend from the Bronx in New York City and a denominational leader of American Baptists who works in Washington, D.C. There was a leader of a missions organization which defends religious freedom around the world and other Baptist leaders.

We prayed for those suffering from the COVID-19 epidemic, those who are physically ill, those suffering economically, those thrown back into hunger and those who are lonely and confused. We prayed for those without Christ and for the Body of Christ — that Christian believers would seize this opportunity to share God’s love in word and deed.

It was an important time of prayer. But the overriding impression for me was one of privilege. For a few moments I was able to pray for people around the world and I was privileged to pray with Baptists from around the world.

Beirut, Bucharest, the Bronx, Birmingham. Different nationalities. Different cultures. Different languages. Different races. Yet all one family because of the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary’s cross. After praying together, you can’t forget that truth.

Failure Doesn’t Stop God’s Caring

One of the best known “gotcha” moments in the Bible is when the rooster crowed the morning Jesus was crucified.  All four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — tell about Peter’s bragging the night before. When Jesus told the disciples they would be “scattered like sheep” (Mark 14:27), Peter swore he would follow Jesus even if it cost him his life.

But before the sun rose the next morning Peter’s courage failed. Around a fire to keep the night chill away, Peter was accused of being a follower of the one on trial for his lifeless than a stone’s throw from where he stood. Peter’s response? “I never knew him,” even swearing that he did not know Jesus.

That is when the rooster’s cry pierced the night and pierced Peter’s soul as well. In various ways, each of the gospels describes Peter’s reactions when he realized what he had done — that he broke down and cried bitterly.

Luke’s gospel relates to another part of the story. Luke reports that when the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter. Most of us read those words as a “gotcha” moment, an “I told you so” moment, a condemnation for Peter’s failure.

But does our concentration on Peter’s denial before a hostile crowd cause us to miss part of the story, perhaps an important part?

Luke expands the conversation between Jesus and Peter in which Peter pledges his undying loyalty. The exchange begins with Jesus sharing that Satan asked to “sift Peter.” The Bible never defines what “sift” means but from this side of the story, we know that Peter was tested like no other follower of Jesus that night.

Jesus did more than share the bad news of what Peter faced. Luke tells us Jesus added, “I have prayed for you.” Think of that. Knowing that Peter faced trials, knowing that Peter would deny him, Jesus prayed for Peter. His concern was not anticipating an “I told you so” exchange. Jesus’ concern was for Peter and his service in the kingdom.

Jesus added, “When you turn back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Denial did not mean that Peter’s faith failed. If his faith had failed perhaps Peter’s sorrow would have caused him to join Judas at the hanging tree. After all, both denied Jesus that night.

But Jesus said, “I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” Then he gave him a task. When you have overcome your failure (when you have turned back) strengthen your brothers, Jesus said.

Because we live in a world that relishes “gotcha” movements, we see that message in the locked eyes of Jesus and Peter across the courtyard. “I told you so.” That is how we would react.

But what if there were more in the message of that moment. What if Jesus’ eyes were filled with compassion? What if his eyes conveyed encouragement, even hope in the midst of such obvious failure? What if Jesus’ eyes reminded Peter, “I have prayed for you so don’t give up”? What if they said, “Turn back and strengthen your brothers”?

What if we have been wrong all this time and it wasn’t a “gotcha” moment at all? Peter still would have wept bitterly at his failure but the bitterness would be tinted by the unfailing love of God. Jesus had prayed for him. Jesus still wanted him, still had a task for him.

Wouldn’t that message make us cry if we heard it in the midst of our failures?

Mark hints at Jesus’ concern for Peter. When the women find an angel at the empty tomb on resurrection morning, the angel instructs them to “Go tell the disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). John’s gospel recounts that the first to hear the report of the women were Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Peter had been sifted by Satan. Peter had failed. But God had not given up on Peter. God still cared for Peter and had work for him in the kingdom.

John’s gospel closes with another conversation between Jesus and Peter. This time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter affirms that he loves Jesus with heart and soul and mind and strength.

Each time Jesus responds with a command, “Feed my sheep.” The command is like a sledgehammer pounding a spike. It is clear, certain, and unmistakable. It was like what Jesus said that night in the upper room. “Peter, I have prayed for you. When you turn back, strengthen your brothers.”

Peter failed but God did not stop caring about him, did not stop using him in His kingdom. You and I fail, too, but God does not give up on us either. Failure doesn’t stop God’s caring. He calls us to “turn back” to Him in confession and repentance and then get involved in what God is doing in the world.

mask pandemic

Pro-Life and the Pandemic

I am pro-life. That is why I wear a mask during this Covid-19 pandemic. The Bible teaches that life is God’s first gift to us. He calls us to accept it, to protect it, to nurture it. That understanding guided my teaching, preaching and writing about life for nearly five decades. It caused me to be involved in efforts to pass state and federal legislation protecting and nurturing life.

When Jesus said He came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), I believe it. That is why I worked to end hunger, to increase access to health care and to safeguard the elderly. That is why I championed public schools, served as a volunteer in correction and worked for Pre-K education as well as prison reform.

Yes, I concentrated on spiritual life, sharing “there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved” than Jesus (Acts 4:12).  The Bible calls Christians to be concerned about spiritual life as well as every part of physical life.

Being pro-life has always been more than being pro-birth.

That understanding makes some reactions to the current pandemic confusing. Early on, a few political voices seemed to advocate older people risking their lives in order to restart the economy and keep it going. It was as if these voices believed lives of older people had less value than the lives of others.

Some do believe that. In fact, it seems that belief is moving from theoretical discussions in journals and books and making its way into social policy discussions. Basically, the argument is that older people (or disabled people) should not be allowed to consume precious resources so more can be available for younger, healthier ones. Economic wellbeing tops life, they conclude.

That is not a pro-life position. Life is a gift from God. It is not to be worshipped as an idol. But that does not devalue God’s first gift to the point that society can sacrifice life on the altar of economic wellbeing. The life of each person, young or old, is precious in God’s sight. For the believer, life is more important than the economy, not the other way around.

The economic argument brings another worry. What will those of us who believe life of the unborn is precious in God’s sight say to the young woman who contemplates ending her pregnancy because she cannot afford to have the baby? If society values economics more than life, if society is willing to sacrifice the health, even the lives, of some for economic wellbeing of others, can the young woman make a similar decision? Is she not free to choose economic stability over life?

Mask wearing produces a similar conundrum. People from many walks of life protest mandates to wear facial coverings even though authorities say masks slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. You see them in pictures of crowded beaches, pool parties and bars. You even see them in churches where they ignore masks and social distancing guidelines.

Frequently you hear their voices loudly touting their personal freedom, their right to control what they wear and what happens to their bodies. Sadly you sometimes see videos where people obsessed with their personal rights violently attack people who ask them to obey store policies or government mandates about wearing masks.

Evidently some people believe the pandemic is a hoax, some kind of political ploy. I don’t. Two of my family members contracted the virus. Thankfully, both recovered. Many who were infected with Covid-19 were not as fortunate. The U.S. death toll from this new virus is more than 180,000 and climbing. Worldwide the number is north of 825,000. No matter where it came from or whatever its supposed purpose, this pandemic is real.

If our reaction is about personal rights and freedom, how does that evidence a concern to protect life and nurture it? How does it demonstrate value for life, one’s own life and the lives of those whose paths we cross?

Treating health and life recklessly, carelessly, evidences a “me and mine” attitude valued above God’s gift of life to us and others.

And, again, what does one with such values say to the individual contemplating an abortion? Can the woman not argue the abortion decision is hers? It is her body and her decision. Can she not repeat the same arguments said emphatically in declaring one’s right not to wear a mask during this pandemic? If she does, she will only be reflecting the “me and mine” attitude so strongly voiced by those who refuse to wear masks during today’s health crisis.

Should Christian believers not be consistent in their support and actions for life whether it is for the unborn or those whose wellbeing we impact through daily contact?

Consistent? Some people dismiss that as the product of small minds. I prefer to think of it as faithfulness to God’s word — to accept, defend and nurture His first gift of life. So because I believe in pro-life I hope to continue working for life abundantly for the unborn all the way through old age. And because I believe in pro-life I will continue wearing my face mask during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Will you join me in accepting, defending and nurturing God’s gift of life?

Worship Is a Verb

Those arguing about the necessity of churches gathering together for public worship during the coronavirus pandemic would do well to remember that worship is a verb and not a noun. Worship is something one does, not a destination to which one goes.

In John 4:24, Jesus said worship of the Father is done in “spirit and in truth.” Worship is not connected to a holy place. Worship is the Holy Spirit’s inspired confession that “Thou art my God,” to use the language of H. Richard Niebuhr.

The Hebrew word most used for worship is sarah meaning “to bow down.” The word reflects the idea of God’s presence in the act or place of worship. For the Jewish Patriarchs worship could take place wherever they encountered God. As a response to meeting God, they often built altars, made sacrifices and prayed. They worshiped.

Later Israel cherished its physical aids to worship — the tabernacle, synagogues, even the Temple. But physical presence in a special place was never equated with worship. Worship was found in the giving of tithes, offerings, sacrifices, and prayers.

In Greek, the most used word for worship is proskynea meaning to “kneel before.” Other words for worship mean “to serve” or “to revere.” All are verbs showing action. Again, worship is something one does. It is not tied to place.

Those few times one finds worship as a noun in the New Testament, it is usually tied to “reverential service,” scholars say.

The Apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the Ephesians and, again, in his letter to the Colossians. In the first letter, he reminds to “make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5: 19–20).

The Colossian letter teaches that Christian believers encourage one another in order that they might have “gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Both teach that even when others are present, worship is a personal experience of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, confession, and obedience to God.

To be sure, both letters stress the importance of corporate worship. How else could they encourage, teach and admonish one another? The Christian church has always been a worshiping community. Believers need one another. The current shelter-in-place orders remind us of that fact.

My Sunday School class now meets via Zoom. So do countless others. My church live streams its worship service. Neither is the same as being together in person but we still learn. We still are encouraged and admonished. And we still worship.

For those without these technological wonders, one can always do what Christians have done for centuries. By one’s self or as a family, people can gather around an open Bible and be encouraged through readings, teachings, hymns, and prayers.

Anywhere, anytime Christian believers can worship God in spirit and in truth because worship is a verb. It is something we do. It is not a place we go.

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