Persecution is not our Problem

I am tired of hearing that Christians are persecuted. At least when it comes to the United States.

I’m preaching through the seven churches of Revelation, and each of them had to hear the painful words of Jesus “but I have this against you.” However, Smryna wasn’t one of them.

We’ve had a number of people join our church recently; it’s a wonderful thing to see Christians connect with the local church. Especially when you’re the pastor. I’ve spoken to most if not all of them about their faith experience in Christ, and what it was that brought them to our church. I talk to them about a variety of opportunities to get involved, show their financial support, engage the community through our ministries, and of course be part of worship on a regular basis.

I don’t tell them that they could lose their life if they become members of our church. It’s not something that comes up in natural conversation, mainly because of our cherished yet often taken for granted religious freedom.

Yet, death for being associated as a Christ follower was a very real possibility in the first century church, especially in the city of Smyrna. Christians were a small but persecuted bunch by not only the government but also by the Jewish community.

The historian Tacitus has documented the trials and tribulations of those first century Christians; Nero was behind a great deal of the suffering and pain inflicted upon those Christ followers. They were faced with the very real question of whether or not to offer sacrifice to the emperor once a year and say “Ceasar is Lord.” Not doing so could mean the end of your life.

Christians in our culture today don’t live in this kind of danger. We are blessed with religious freedom. Sometimes our greatest question might be “where did I leave my Bible?” or “what do I wear to church today?” It’s not even worth a comparison.

Baptists know what it’s like to be persecuted, at least those who lived several centuries ago. Our ancestors came out of the “Radical Reformation” and valued the right to worship as one would see fit. We can thank them for important distinctives like “the separation of church and state” and “a free church in a free state.”

Baptists have fought for freedom not only for themselves, but also for other religious groups. Baptists have known what it’s like to be in the minority, and now that we have grown numerically, it’s vital that retain and revisit our history.

The Christmas season will be upon us soon. And, I will also be watching for the annual “war on Christmas” that emerges when Christians go down to Target and don’t hear “Merry Christmas” from their employees. Don’t get me started on Starbucks (don’t mess with my coffee).

As I reflect upon the church of Smyrna, I am embarrassed for how soft and easily offended the American church has become. Inconvenience is not the same as persecution–ask Christians living and serving in Middle Eastern countries. It’s not up to the government or businesses to proclaim the message of Christ. It has been and remains the important work of the church.

We’re not guaranteed an easy go of things in this life. We are promised that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us, and that faithful followers will “not be hurt by the second death.”

I’ve been thinking about what those Christians at Smryna would say to us. The Lord didn’t have anything against them. I can’t help thinking that our Lord has something against us.

Walking in the Steps of the Clinton 12

It was only 4/10 of a mile, but this walk’s impact will stay with me for a long time.

The Clinton 12 Commemorative Walk brought together people of different races, ages, backgrounds, and political persuasions. This brief walk down the hill to Clinton Middle School (then High School) was an occasion to honor the first students to integrate a high school in the South.

Today’s walk was a far cry from what happened in 1956; angry protesters, racially charged signs, and death threats greeted those students as they walked down the hill to enter Clinton High School. I doubt if they realized at the time that they were walking into history, and that 60 years later they would be making this walk once again. Only this time, it would be to the cheering and standing ovations.

First Baptist Church has an historic place in this community. In 1956, Rev. Paul Turner, Pastor of FBC, walked with six black students to ensure they would get into the school safely. As he left the building, Turner was surrounded by angry protesters who beat him severely. He took a stand and it proved costly for him, all because he wanted to lead the church to “do the right thing.”

In my sermon last Sunday, I told the church I’d be taking a walk similar to what Rev. Turner and those students did. However, the only thing that might be the same is the physical distance from the Green McAdoo school and the Clinton Middle School (High School in 1956). For me, the only concern I might have had was whether or not it would rain, and how hot it would be, and what clothing to wear to remain comfortable. It didn’t take a particular degree of courage to lead the remaining members of the Clinton 12 down the hill into the school where they would be recognized and honored.

Walking with them now isn’t the same as walking with them then, very few of us know what it’s been like to walk in their shoes since that moment in 1956.

It was a humbling yet joyous experience to have walked down the hill with my wife Lori on my right side, Bobby Cain on the other, and some words of Rev. Turner in my coat pocket. Cain was the first black student to graduate from a high school in the South. Turner’s words were from the sermon manuscript that he preached on the Sunday after he was beaten for walking six black students down that same hill into the high school.

I found his words, uttered more than 60 years ago, eerily applicable and relevant for our nation today:

Now we see clearly again it is Christ or Chaos! Necessity is upon us. Either we assert ourselves in the spirit of the Christian ideal, or life, and government, and business, and economics, and peace, and community integrity, and joy, and Christian usefulness are all on the toboggan sliding backward! Let life be anchored to faith, hope, and love. Let God make us better people, and immediately our community and nation will see better days.

It was a honor to meet Bobby Cain those other students who walked down a hill and into history. Today’s ceremony is a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther there is to go for the causes of justice, equality, and compassion.

Many Parts, One Body

How do you feel about your body? Many of us hate the way we look. This sentiment makes us anxious and developing an unhealthy distortion of how we think and feel about ourselves. Women and young girls are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thinking, and as a father of two daughters, I am especially mindful of the importance of their being secure in who they are and their appearance.

I still remember 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson and her comments about her own appearance. She was an amazing athlete, but struggled with self-esteem and being compared to other female athletes. I was surprised (but grateful) to hear her talk about her own insecurities: “It was always frustrating to me, because in my career, I didn’t have the stereotypical gymnast body. I was always compared to Nastia Lukin who was six inches taller, long, lean, and flexible. The media called me “bulky, stocky, powerful, too big, too short, too fat.”

Unfortunately, this kind of body shaming happens all the time. A prominent example was offered by President Trump at a recent campaign rally. He commented on someone’s appearance as he was escorted out of the building: “That guy has a serious weight problem. Go home, start exercising.”

While some people struggle with their external appearance, others deal with some very real internal problems. I’ve only lived in Clinton about a month, but have already learned of several individuals who struggle with life threatening illnesses relating to what’s going on with the inside of their bodies. You wouldn’t know it by simply looking at them.

I’ve been working through Paul’s letter to I Corinthians, and have been revisiting once again the litany of problems this church had. They were eating food sacrificed to idols, taking each other to court, practicing sexual immortality, and wrestled with the issue of spiritual gifts. This resulted in the seed of pride taking root and causing resentment in the fellowship, because some people felt like they were more important than others. At the same time, there were those who felt insecure in their identity when compared to others around them.

In a way, I find great encouragement from this church especially when I compare it to the 21st century church in America.

The American Bible Society has identified “Bible minded cities” in America–this relates to how many read their Bible at least once a week and also accept the authority of the Bible. Of the top five “Bible minded cities” , two of them are in Tennesseee: Chattanooga (#1!) and at #5 the tri-cities area.

You would think people would have an easy time finding a church with this kind of recognition for the Volunteer state. However, as in other places, there are many Christians who have difficulty getting connected to a family of faith. I think some of this has to do with a fear of being judged, not being accepted, and/or simply choosing apathy as an option for spiritual formation.

While we might not deal with the specific problems that Corinth had, we deal with our set of issues that get in the way of genuine fellowship. It was difficult to celebrate diversity Paul called for with the social and gender divisions between slave and free, male and female, not to mention rich and poor. In a similar fashion, many churches in our culture elevate the importance of unanimity when it comes to how we view politics and societal concerns.

The Apostle Paul penned these words, “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor 12.3).

It’s hard to overstate the danger those first century Christians experienced, especially those who said “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This was viewed as a political statement and by implication one that could be interpreted as an affront to the expected “Ceasar is Lord.’

What Paul was telling his church (and our church today) is that the only litmus test for membership in the body of Christ was an affirmation of Christ as Lord; every other consideration paled in comparison.

Life in the church is not always easy. Sometimes the people around us disappoint us with their opinions, but it doesn’t mean we should stop loving them or sharing life with them.

Margaret Mead offered these words, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Churches in America are experiencing a lot of cultural and societal shifts, and the temptation to simply mimic the voices of hate can be real. But, it would be a terrible waste of resources and diminish any spiritual influence we might have. The church should model the kind of community we would hope to have in our country. We should be leading on this effort, offering another way of relating to one another.

I realize pastors aren’t as highly respected in our culture as they used to be, and sometimes with good reason. Still, we must call our people to civility in a nation that seems to be coming apart at the seams. Let’s be passionate about what we believe, but not hateful toward others who disagree with us–some of them might be sitting in the pews around us.

So, let’s leave room for each other and especially for the Holy Spirit to speak to us. Our task is to love one another, and trust the Lord to change hearts and minds through our word and witness. The Lord still calls us to his table, to “do this in remembrance of me.” May our focus be on that first, enduring creed “Jesus Christ is Lord” as we share life together as the people of God.

Another Mass shooting: here we are again

I’m sitting here watching a rerun of Seinfeld and it occurred to me that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while; not that I would expect that many folks to miss that but I miss the practice of expressing my thoughts on the printed page. But, this isn’t my usual blog spot, primarily because I couldn’t remember my sign in and password–I’m using a new laptop which doesn’t automatically sign me in!

That sounds pretty lazy, but in a way it’s time to start something different. After all, I’m in a new place dealing with different people and learning to serve the Lord in a new church. It’s been a dizzying pace thus far but thanks to the graciousness and generosity of our new church home, things are gradually slowing down around here.

Despite the newness of things around here, there are (sadly) some familiarity with life as it relates to our nation–we’ve gone through another mass shooting. Two of them to be precise. A week removed from these experiences, the towns of Dayton and El Paso continue to grieve along with the rest of weary and shocked nation.

As a pastor, I’m supposed to have some words for my congregation. And, the Sunday after these shootings, I was asked my thoughts about it. I came up with two primary reactions, neither one is all that original but best described my feelings.

First, we’ve been here before. Our behavior around these events is becoming very predictable. We lament the loss of life, get angry about, and start demanding real change in our politics to address this needless violence. This lasts for a while, but ultimately this sentiment results in a 360 turn rather than a 180. We’ll get the rhetoric from the politicians, and especially so now that we’re in an election cycle. But, as I said, we’ve been here before and sadly, we’ll find our way back here later on. We haven’t found a way to break the cycle.

The other thought that comes to mind is that we’re better than this. We are a nation with a myriad of faith communities, non-profit organizations, and one of the richest nations in the world. Yet, we have a tendency to pay more attention to the loudest voices rather than the voices of reason and civility. We shouldn’t have to turn on the news to hear another round of blaming someone or something for societal ills.

Sometimes I feel like our nation is losing its mind.

Just the other day, someone walked into a Springfield, MO Wal-Mart with a bullet proof vest and armed with semi-automatic weapons. This happened right after the violence in El Paso and Dayton–what’s going on with us?

The best thing I’ve seen in a long time related to the #greenshirtguy; a viral sensation depicting Alex Kack laughing hysterically at a protester at a Tucson, Arizona city council meeting. I haven’t found anything this funny and spot on in terms of its critique on our social situation in a long time. Kack was interviewed after the meeting and offered a sobering depiction of what’s wrong in our country. Kack talked about the fact that we are in a dark time in this nation, and quite often the loudest voices are the most ridiculous.

I think that’s about right, and I’d encourage you to locate the video on youtube or twitter and watch it for yourself.

I’ve been working through Richard Mouw’s “Uncommon Decency, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World” and even though it was written about 20 years ago, I find Mouw’s critique as timely then as it is today: “As Martin Marty observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong conviction and the people who have strong convictions often lack civility.”

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to the church at Colossae is especially poignant in this area: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned as it were with salt, so that you may know how to respond to each person” (Col. 4.2-6)

I wonder what kind of nation we would have if the church simply acted and spoke like the church. We are confusing “outsiders” as Paul would say, by how we treat them. The problem isn’t that outsiders are acting as outsiders, but it’s that the church isn’t acting in a way that is consistent with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We are allowing our politics to hold greater sway on us than the red letter words that are found in the gospels.

I think we are going to be held accountable by how we treat “outsiders” regardless of how we choose to define the term. The church needs to show greater wisdom and be more selective in our words in how we engage our culture. I challenge my fellow pastors to make our own words and actions be more in line with those of the One whom we preach and teach on Sundays.

About Me

I graduated from Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, LA with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. From there, I went to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and earned the Master of Divinity (’91) and Doctor of Philosophy (’96) degrees with an emphasis in Systematic Theology. I’ve served as Pastor of churches in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri. As of July 2019, I’m back in the Volunteer State serving as Pastor of First Baptist Church Clinton.

I consider myself a free and faithful Baptist with an ecumenical spirit who embraces the grace of God through Jesus Christ in my life and desires to extend that same grace to others.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.