The MLK We Never Knew

If you really want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., don’t just take a day off. Take a day (or days) to read his words.

Our family had the rarest of treats on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

On Friday of that weekend, my daughter and I toured historic civil rights locations in the city of Birmingham. We then met my wife in Atlanta to do the same thing in that city on Saturday. And our tour guide was essentially a living history museum.

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, 2019. Four girls died at the      hands of white men, who bombed the church on  Youth Sunday,                                                               September 15, 1963.                                            It would take almost 40 years to convict the men who murdered these girls.

Dr. Albert Brinson is nine years younger than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up right around the corner from the King family, and was a lifelong friend of both ministers, Senior and Junior.

He met us outside the old Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Jackson St. Northeast. He told us about being ordained in that church, by both of those great men. He shared with us the “insider’s deal” on Dr. King’s work and the knowledge that their lives were in danger at almost every moment.

It was a glorious day, and I am eternally grateful that my 19-year old daughter got to experience such an icon of humanity as Dr. Brinson. But with all that he shared on that day, a stark reality haunts me. It is a reality that few of us acknowledge, even as we “celebrate” on every third Monday of January.

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Dr. Brinson with Abbie at Gardner-Webb University, MLK Day 2015.
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Dr. Brinson with Abbie and Tracy, outside Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.

We do not know Martin Luther King Jr. For most of us, especially white folk, maybe we never did, or never will. And the further we move away from April 4, 1968, the less understanding we have.

Most of the United States commemorates MLK Day. Perhaps we attend a local event, or participate in some activity of service, or post some nice quotes on social media. In reality, it is likely that we enjoy a long weekend.

Even in the best and most noble of these activities, we really do not get to the heart of Dr. King’s message. Our glorious time with Dr. Brinson brought that home to me. He shared a side of MLK Jr. and his family that most people never have a chance to experience, and there is only one solution to this problem.

Read.

Literacy is the only way we can truly understand and appreciate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. We must dig much deeper than the phrase “I have a dream” or our little blurbs on Facebook. The quotes might indeed be excellent. But they are a fraction of what we need to know about the man, his work, his leadership, and his brilliant Christian sacrifice.

Many of us can only have a peripheral understanding of the struggle for Civil Rights and the tremendous personal sacrifice required to undertake that struggle. Reading the Reverend’s words will not put you in his shoes, not by a longshot. But it can get you a lot closer to understanding how those shoes might have felt on his feet.

If you really want to honor and appreciate the teachings and example of this man, then let his words soak into your soul and move your spirit. He is remarkably consistent in his message, and it will not take many readings for that message to become clear.

Be advised that understanding the message does not make the medicine go down any better. White privilege can be a difficult pill to swallow. Active, organized, non-violent resistance is challenging, perhaps life-threatening.  Loving those who hate you is hard. Defeating ideology rather than beating down a person sounds like an impossible ideal.

And finally, King’s message that serving on behalf of justice for others requires “great suffering and sacrifice” is one that we rarely want to hear. Serving through good deeds is nice, but serving sacrificially demands a greater commitment that many of us have never had to make.

We cannot do this simply through nice quotes. It takes more than just collecting canned goods, signing a petition, or filling out a donation pledge. It requires deep commitment and understanding, the kind that Dr. Brinson offered to our family as he provided us a living history of the movement and the King family.

However, that was a rare treat, one that is far too rare in the late days of the lives of those who led the original quest. A time is coming—and is indeed here again—when we will have to decide if we are truly ready to “suffer and sacrifice” for the “dignity of all human personality.” The more we know about how hard it was to fight that battle in 1963, the better prepared we will be to take a stand in 2020.

While I would never discourage anyone from taking a day to serve others above self, understanding how to serve and why we serve is an equally critical and valuable use of your time. Cracking a spine or searching out a PDF of Dr. King’s words and speeches is a vital step in the right direction.

We have plenty of people who enjoy seeing their faces on the news or social media, who will gladly tell us what Dr. King would have said or would have thought if he were here today.

Let’s dispense with the self-serving speculation and guessing, shall we?

Instead, find out what Martin Luther King Jr. actually did, and said, and advocated.

Read.

Learn.

Act.

And do these in the true Spirit that Dr. King advocated as “the only enduring power in the world…”

Agape love.

And if you don’t know what Agape Love means, go back and start at the top of the list.

One final note: Many point out to me that Martin Luther King Jr. sermons and speeches are readily available on YouTube or other outlets, where you can watch and/or hear.

There are few voices in the world that will give a person goosebumps like Dr. King offering a message. However, I strongly recommend reading his speeches and writings! As powerful as his spoken word is, the writings embed his Christian ideals into the heart and mind, while illustrating the brilliant, consistent message of love in Christ that he illuminates.

Suggested Starters

Non-Violence and Racial Justice

Our Struggle

The Power of Non-Violence

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

 

To the Pastor who Preached to Empty Pews on Sunday

Maybe you’re upset about how many people were not there. But those six people in the pews? They mattered, and so do you.

To the pastor who posted this on Twitter, and all others who feel this pain:

“Today was very hard. I know I am supposed to be above it all as the pastor, but when there are only 6 people in the pews it hurts my feelings when 2 of them are whispering to each other during the whole sermon.”

I think I get it. In fact. pretty sure that I totally get it.

You work all week, study your passage, prepare your text, and get ready to go out there and preach on a Sunday morning. You tell yourself, “It doesn’t matter how many people are here–I’m preaching to the ones that are!” And you step out there to do it.

Then you see it–rows of empty seats, empty pews. You realize that only six people are going to hear any of your hard work, thought, faithful writing and careful editing. Not to mention how much time you spent on additional pastoral duties. You see, I know the deal. If you lead a small congregation, you visit hospitals and home bound folks and answer all the phone calls. You might also type the bulletin, lead the music, fix the sound system, and plunge the toilets if it is required. (And occasionally it is).

So there is no doubt that walking in to see empty seats is gut-wrenching and heart-sinking. And yet you preach. You muster all the heart and soul and call on the power of the Spirit. You deliver the Word and Sacrament with all of the Christ-like conviction you can summon. Even as 33% of the congregants are whispering (or drawing, or looking at their phones), you do what you are called to do. You preach.

(By the way, I suspect that AT LEAST 33% or more of every congregation isn’t paying attention in any church on any given Sunday morning. So, as a percentage, you’re doing fine!).

Sure, you don’t know what the “whisperers” were saying, or why they were whispering. You want to be gracious, understanding, non-judgmental or reactionary. But seeing six people in the pews does not flood you with confidence that their whispers are waxing rhapsodically about your preaching or some salient point that you have drawn from their troubled hearts.

In fact, YOU may be struggling with your own fear about whether there will be enough in the offering plate to pay the bills. And you may be asking, “If this keeps up, how are we going to survive?” Not to mention the question of how you will continue to make a living.

After busting your tail over the past week, you can’t imagine what you could do or how you could work harder or how you could give any more of yourself to turn this around. And maybe, just maybe, you’re wondering if it’s even worth it to keep trying.

Here’s the thing. It is. It absolutely is. And you are just the person to do it.

Be affirmed in all of those thoughts and fears and frustrations, no matter how many people tweet back at you to stop whining or not be judgmental or to be more “pastoral.”  God holds you to a high standard, and you hold yourself to a high standard. But neither God nor you expect Wonder Woman or Superman.

Take a step back, catch your breath, and rest assured that your time was well-spent. You did not have the crowd you wanted, probably not the one you should have, and certainly not the one that needed to hear that meaningful message.  But four people heard it, and maybe even six if two of them were gifted multi-taskers.

Dr. Joseph Moore is my dear friend and former university colleague. He also happens to be a former ministry intern for my father, who served as pastor at East Park Baptist Church in Greenville, SC for 24 years. East Park was dying from the time my father took the pulpit in 1976, and he constantly battled to keep the ministry viable.

Joseph worked with the youth, and only had two students present for a Sunday morning Bible study. My dad stopped by to see how things were going, and Joe the Exasperated Intern apologized because he wasn’t getting more youth to show up. My dad replied, “Hey, those two were here. And they’re just as important as anyone who wasn’t here. And what you did for them was just as important. In fact, it may be MORE important.” (That’s a paraphrase from Dr. Moore).

It is so hard to remember, with the tidal wave of emotions flooding your heart and mind as you preach to empty seats. But your preaching matters. Your preparation matters. The 4-6 people who needed your message–and perhaps much more your presence–on Sunday morning matter. And while they do not matter more than those who were not present, they matter just as much.

As we see our church struggling, it is debilitating to feel that your time and effort are only being heard by a very few. It is even harder to remember that those few are vital, as is your ministry. Jesus went from a congregation of 5000+ to under 11 in less than three years, so you’ve got pretty solid company.

Tons of factors go into whether or not a church experiences physical growth. You could follow all the church consultant advice and pull out all the growth guru stops, but it’s no guarantee that your congregation will grow. What you are doing–working diligently, preaching faithfully to those who are present–is all that is required of you. And it is more than enough.

I know this isn’t necessarily going to help a lot. We’re already to Thursday, and you’ve had four days to second-guess yourself while wondering why you even bother to get ready for this week. Please know that you are absolutely not alone. 99% of those who serve in the church have been/are/will be in this very same place at some point. And please, PLEASE continue to be faithful in your calling, in spite of the pain and struggle.

At least six people in this world depend on it, and they are more than reason enough for you to keep going. As is the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in you, as a minister of Word and Sacrament. Blessings and peace to you as you prepare another outstanding and valuable message for this week.

Grace and peace,

The World’s Worst Pastor

P.S. – I do suggest that you try to be better than me and not get yourself…um…”relieved” of your duties!

The Reason(s) I Love Furman

Friends sometimes give me a hard time because of the devotion to my alma mater, particularly the football team. But there are multiple reasons behind my madness.

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Yes, we wear our Furman colors pretty much everywhere.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that I was struggling with my writing. In order to get the brain and the keyboard rolling again, I turn to a subject that I love–Furman football. (Cue “eyeroll” from readers–but bear with me, please!).

On November 23, Allen Edwards strolled to midfield in Paladin Stadium and planted on the Diamond F, fellow Furman captains strolling beside him. They waited for the pregame coin toss, just as he had many times in years past as an All-American player and coach for the purple and white.

Only this stroll is different. This time, Allen “strolled” in a power chair, unable to fully use his right arm and leg. He was always stone silent in pregame, but this silence is different. Allen can no longer speak in full sentences, and forms only a few audible words.

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Allen Edwards remains one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a Furman football field. He won Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a nose guard. Furman wisely brought him back as a defensive line coach for almost 10 years. Following that, he went on to coach at Savannah State with his former teammate/coach, Julius Dixon.

But all of that changed with a massive stroke that hit him in 2013. The quiet and serious, yet fun and jovial, former teammate and coach almost lost his life. He now resides in an assisted living facility, supported only by disability, Medicare, and the generosity of those who love him.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that Allen’s care is largely supported by former teammates, coaches, and colleagues, many of whom donate beyond their means to meet his needs. These efforts are buoyed by the work of the Furman Football Players’ Association (FFPA) that provides ongoing support in many ways.

People often ask, “Why do you love Furman so much?” I admit, my devotion may go a bit beyond the norm for some (but certainly not all) Furman alums. But there are many reasons behind my madness for all things purple and white. My love for Furman football is first on the list, and the response to Allen’s stroke is a primary reason.

I got hooked on this team and this sport on a cold November night in 1977, after a 31-28 loss to VMI at the old Sirrine Stadium downtown.  Walking out of the stadium, I yelled to one of the players, “Hey, you almost beat ‘em!” He stopped and laughed, reaching down like a giant to shake my first-grade hand before heading to the team bus.

And that was it. I was devoted forever.

The last 40+ years of the program are a success story beyond explanation. In spite of stellar academic standards and rigor, Furman football wins. One of the smallest FCS schools in the nation has 14 Southern Conference championships and the first national title ever for a private school. Allen started at nose guard as a freshman in that 1988 national title game, dominating the All-American center from Georgia Southern into six fumbled snaps.

But his play on the field is not the reason that those who played with him or under him offer their support. They offer it because Furman football creates an atmosphere of devotion and unity that is undeniable.

I had a small part of that in 1989-90, as a walk-on to the team. Much to my regret, I never played in a varsity game and had to leave the program after the 1990 season to take care of my own family. It leaves a hole in my heart that I never got to run down the hill and wear that cherished “F” on the side of my helmet.

What makes this a special program is the fact that no other player or coach ever looked down on me for that fact. Allen Edwards was my friend, although far superior to me as a player. We lifted weights together and ran together. He was the person who introduced me to the FFPA and invited me to join. In spite of the fact that he regularly ran me over in practice, he considered me a part of the team. And he invited me to continue to be a part of it.

That’s what makes Furman a special place. My experience was vastly different from the guys that started and played every down. And yet, they welcome me as one of their own, in spite of the fact that I was just a scout team “hero.”

It’s about Clay Hendrix, Furman’s current head coach, who worked with me and taught me and walked through struggles with me, in spite of the fact that I was just a walk-on. When I was tormented about whether or not to continue with football, he sat down and talked to me about staying with the team as if I was a full-time starter.

Not only that, he turned me into a pretty respectable offensive lineman.

It’s about George Quarles, the current offensive coordinator. Coach Q met my parents and me when I was 15 years old. He also took time to have lunch with my parents, less than a year before my father died, a memory that my mother still carries with gratitude in her heart.

It’s about the guys in the FFPA who used to give me autographs when I was a kid. It drove my parents crazy, but I insisted on getting every player to autograph my program after every home game. I now tailgate with those guys as they give me a little grief about my time as a 9-year old groupie.

It’s about Devin Wynn, who sat next to my mother at a scholarship luncheon last October. She was so impressed with him and his attitude towards her that she follows #22 religiously on Saturdays.

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Devin Wynn with his #1 fan, Ann LeGrand!

It’s about all the guys who give anywhere from $20 to $20,000 to make sure that their brother, Allen Edwards, has a place to stay and proper medical care.

Finally, it’s about days like November 23, a miserable and rainy one for a game that Furman dominated from start to finish. Some friends ask me why the Paladins even bothered to schedule that game.

The opponent was Point University, an NAIA school out of northwest Georgia. Their head coach is Julius Dixon, a captain on the 1988 national championship team, former assistant coach, and long-time friend of Allen.

“JD” worked with Furman to make the game happen, in order to give his team experience and the Paladins a much needed extra home game. But it went way beyond a football game. He wanted a chance to see Allen, to honor him and recognize the struggle he faces just to meet the day to day challenges of life. All the things we take for granted require great energy and struggle for Allen.

On Friday night before the game, a host of former teammates came by to see Allen at Windsor House, his current residence. He had a terrific time seeing these brothers, but his face lit up like I have never seen when JD walked in the door, carrying a box full of new gear and outfits with the Point University Skyhawks logo emblazoned on them.

Well beyond winning records and championships, this is what makes Furman football mean so much to me. That handshake in 1977 solidified a relationship with players and coaches and fans that has wrapped around me for most of my life. This is a group that sees and hears and responds to the needs of people who choose to be a part of it, well beyond the wins and losses.

November 23 was a great Saturday. Last Saturday? Well, not so much. As I screamed at the television—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing–my beloved Paladins took a beating in the opening round of the FCS playoffs. It was a demoralizing defeat that will leave a bitter taste.

That is, until September 5, 2020. And it is the reason that I will once again post my game day coffee pictures, ready to live or die just a little with every win or loss. I will be right back at a tailgate, waiting for kickoff of opening day.

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Allen will be with me, once again supported by those who love him. For him, as he struggles to deal with the most basic tasks of life, he understands that this is all much more than just a game.

And Furman’s understanding of that reality is what makes this program a special part of life.

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Picture with Sam Wyche, one for Furman football’s most famous.

 

A History Beyond Comprehension

Schools are trying to teach the story of September 11, 2001. But like all historical events, the knowledge cannot touch the real experience.

I was in a middle school classroom in Birmingham, AL on Wednesday afternoon September 11, 2019, observing a wonderful after school program called SpeakFirst. As a part of this session, a young man read aloud his brief paper about what happened on that same day in 2001.

As he read, a young lady in the group said, “WHY do you want to keep reminding us of such a sad and depressing day in history?” I asked her why she did not want to hear about a historical event that was so important to our country.

“We’ve been learning about it all day. But hearing about things like that just makes me really sad and want to cry,” she shared.

It is certainly encouraging that these students are learning vital history, and I consider it a blessing that such events can still bring a heartfelt reaction from this up-and-coming generation. It is also a stark reminder of how far we are from the actual events of a disastrous day in the life of the United States.

No matter how well we teach it, we can never fully impart the flood of emotions that poured over us that day. And it may be decades before anyone can adequately gauge the impact that 9/11 had on the attitudes and actions of the American people during the years that followed.

I was sitting at my desk at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church that morning when our office manager, Tina Meiggs, received a call from her oldest daughter. Something had happened to the World Trade Center in New York and we rolled an old TV cart with a set of rabbit ears into the office.

We tried to work and listen to find out what was happening. Then the second plane flew into the South Tower. Minutes later, we watched in absolute shock when that tower collapsed. Then the Pentagon, and then Flight 93.

Then we knew.

Camden County, North Carolina might as well be on the other side of the moon from New York City. The tallest building in our little corner is a grain silo. Most of us did not know a soul anywhere close to the twin towers, yet it felt like we watched one of our neighbor’s homes collapse.

Sitting at home that afternoon, my wife turned to me and said, “For the first time, I am genuinely scared for our country and our safety.” That kind of fear can hardly be described in a history lesson. You only understand it when you live it.

As a pastor, my work and my counseling time suddenly took a drastically different direction. I was confronted with church members and dear friends who just had to talk about what happened. So many of these conversations centered around confusion and disillusionment, as we wondered what to do next. Hardest of all, I fielded numerous questions based on the very primal and natural emotion of fear.

More than questioning God in those early days, most of us battled an overwhelming sense of fear. We debated cancelling the youth trip to Busch Gardens. We talked about changing our plans for mission trips. We pondered how to address the issue in worship without letting the fear of the moment grip us and define us.

As it often does, the fear threatened to drift towards anger, hate, and a great deal of misunderstanding. Students in our church youth group asked how we could possibly love people who would do such things. A teacher in school told them that this was all predicted by Nostradamus, and they asked how a man could know more than God! Some eventually asked if it was true that God was punishing America for abortion and homosexuality.

Deep down, they knew the truth, just as we adults did when the waves of anger and rage and revenge crashed over our souls. When fear takes root, however, it leads to all kinds of conclusions that have little or nothing to do with the gracious truth of a living God.

Every generation has at least one “never forget where I was” moment. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster. 9/11 is certainly on that list and may be THE moment for my generation. But 9/11 is hardly history. Even the most faithful and spiritual need to stay aware of the ongoing challenges it presents.

We lost so much on that day, both the tangible and the intangible. What should truly scare us is the absence of forgiveness and trust, and the very real presence of hatred and ongoing fear. While these are understandable, they are not healthy. And they are not Christian.

In the minds of some people, 9/11 justifies their fear and hate of Muslims and other religions. We may feel compelled to look warily at people of color, foreign languages, immigrants, and anything that ventures outside what we deem to be “regular” Americans. These base emotions drive us to act in our own self-interest and cling to what we have and what we know.

Unfortunately, the ideal of following Christ propels us to move beyond our fear, and well beyond our self-interest. We are given a Spirit of love rather than fear (2 Timothy 1:7). We are encouraged to think of others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We are to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves, including those that do not look like/act like/believe like we do (Matthew 22:39-40, Luke 10:27-29).

We know all this. We know these slightly proof-texted verses I cite, probably just a bit less than a Christian knows John 3:16. And we still find this incredibly difficult to follow. I say “we” in the fullest sense of the word here. This is not intended to be some scolding reprimand of others who fear Muslims or immigrants. I battle my bias and fear daily, in the hope that the Spirit of Christ will drive me to overcome those all-to-human reactions.

Next year, the United States is set to lower the number of legal refugees to 18,000, while allegedly allowing cities or states to refuse them. Part of loving our neighbors involves recognizing and empathizing with their struggles. As fearful as 9/11 made us, it pales in comparison to people fleeing the war, violence, religious persecution, disease, or famine that they face in their countries.

If our fear and rage of 18 years ago drives us to clamp down and close our hands to the most vulnerable among us, then the terrorists won with one horrible shot. The answer to terror is not to be terrified. It is to struggle and strive and claw our way towards reacting in faith, against all logical odds.

The hardest lesson to both teach and learn in a post-9/11 world is that we must look intently at our past while acting boldly and faithfully in the future. That young lady in Alabama is correct—the past is sad and hard and brutal, and it can easily cause us to lash out in a rampage of natural human emotion.

But Christ was not defeated by the cross, and certainly not in the rubble of the twin towers. If anything, now is the time to stand more firmly than ever in a Spirit of faith and speak out on behalf of those that Jesus loves, including those who follow other religious traditions.

We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves and tell them that they are not allowed in unless they come to the back door. Christ does not love people from a distance, and we cannot say that we are loving as Jesus first loved us if we push people away.

My hope is that those children who learn about 9/11 will gain the most valuable lesson: that the hard lessons of the past teach us to be better and do better, so that we do not repeat such lessons in the future. I pray that they will always love others, especially those who may not love you back. I pray that they will continue to love and learn to forgive those that do them harm.

May we be the ones who set that example for them. May we all learn to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), particularly in a post-9/11 America.

The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, Part 1: The Cautionary Tale of Joshua Harris

A generation of youth and their ministers bought into the ideals of the “Gospel” of Sexual Abstinence. The hero of that movement has now turned in a completely different direction.

In this age of social media rage and gut-wrenching division, I am thankful for one thing. Because of all the upheaval, I am learning about things that I never knew and certainly never understood.

I now understand the term “Sexual Prosperity Gospel.”

Regrettably, I learned this term due to the unfortunate circumstances of Joshua Harris, the anointed “king” of the abstinence movement in the 1990s. Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This became the key volume to advocate courtship over dating as the ideal method to finding a spouse and creating a lifelong picture-perfecting Christian marriage.

Now, Harris and his wife of 21 years announced their pending divorce, and he has declared that he is no longer a Christian. This makes me incredibly sad for this couple and their family. As the unofficial “World’s Worst Pastor,” I am fully aware of the challenges and pitfalls that the world of ministry can dump on a pastor and her/his family.

At the same time, this massive shift creates a cautionary tale about anointing a person or concept as the absolute authority on what life in Christ is. It is a warning about the dangers of seeking or following carefully crafted formulas in search of a perfect ideal for discipleship in Christ.

First off, what is the “Sexual Prosperity Gospel?”

This term is coined in a retrospective look at the purity culture that has dominated youth ministries across the nation since the early 90s. I offer an oversimplified summary: If you commit to abstinence before marriage and resist the cultural temptations of casual sex, then you are a true follower of Christ and the Lord will bless you with a successful marriage.

The Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of health and wealth and happiness if you are a good and Godly Christian. The Sexual Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of a fabulous honeymoon and marriage and family if you follow all the tenants of purity culture, including complete abstinence from sex before marriage.

Second, we need to look briefly at a problem that permeates Christianity and evangelical culture as well as postmodern American culture. We have a dangerous tendency to become star-struck with anyone that says what we want to hear and espouses the values that we already have. We are particularly vulnerable when someone young and good-looking waxes in passionate and eloquent terms.

Harris wrote his abstinence manifesto when he was 21 years old. Those of us who advocated for abstinence thought that young people would listen more to one of their own, and many bought into his teachings as proof positive for what they already believed. Unfortunately, people forgot how young and inexperienced a 21-year old can be.

Honestly, would you advise anyone you know to take authoritative long-term life advice from the 21-year old you?

In a culture that cherishes youth, it is easy to forget the value of long-term experience and wisdom. Perhaps we unfairly placed Josh on a pedestal that he could not handle. I said a lot of things at 21 that seem foolish now, if not downright stupid. I suspect that many grasped at this book as an answer from someone who lacked the life experience to even understand the questions.

Finally, in our effort to “win” the culture wars against sexual promiscuity, many Christian leaders bought into the concept that the Bible and the church can create a fool-proof formula for sexual purity and marriage success. This fit all the narratives that we hoped were true, and we taught our teens that following the formula would ensure God’s blessings on their future lives.

Let me tell you this:  It didn’t.

This does not mean that abstinence before marriage is impossible or that it is not a worthy ideal. But it rarely happens. And even when it does, it does not provide a guarantee for the future.

I do not rejoice at all in the Harris’ realization about their past teaching and preaching. On the contrary, I grieve for them and what they are having to endure as their private struggle is resulting in public rebuke—some of which is grossly judgmental, and some of which may be justified according to some critics and bloggers.

At the same time, I am glad that they are publicly stating the futility of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel. This may help us recognize that there is no set formula for success in following Jesus Christ through the journey of this very imperfect life.

The problem is that this “gospel” we created fails to factor in the vitality of grace in the face of a life that is always going to be far from perfect.

My wife Tracy and I idealized abstinence as the best path for our relationship as we moved towards marriage. We believed that this was the direction that God wanted us to follow. We did not stick with this ideal, and we suffered some intense struggles because of that.

And yet, we have 29 wonderful years of marriage under our belt. I am more in love with her than I was even at the ripe old age of 18. (I will resist the current evangelical urge to refer to her as my “smokin’ hot wife” in a public forum).

We did not reach this milestone because we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in the Christian playbook. We did it through perseverance and faith and the ultimate grace of God to lead us to where we are. It has not been easy, and plenty of peaks and valleys accompanied our journey.

Our guilt over our failures, along with a large dose of regret, made the early years of our marriage extremely difficult. At times, we questioned whether or not God even wanted us after the mistakes that we made. We did not follow the “Biblical” formula for marriage and family, as prescribed by the purity culture in which we were raised.

Instead, we were blessed to discover the far more powerful and valuable presence of grace that Jesus Christ brings. Faith is not about getting what some Sunday School or youth group lesson promises you as long as you are good boys and girls. It is about finding out how we are blessed to serve God and humanity through the forgiveness, love, and grace that faith in Christ brings.

If only us pastor and youth minister types would allow people to find that faith, instead of peddling the latest “answer” to the issues of life.

It is my hope that we embodied that as the highest ideal of scripture rather than pressing young people to follow the purity “checklist” as a path to love and success (whatever that is) in life and relationships.

If a movement in the church promises reward for right behavior, then it is not a movement of faith. It is legalism. It is works righteousness. IF you do this, THEN God will love you and give you what you want. Faith movements are always more complicated and malleable without any guarantee of reward—because such faith never has an endpoint. It is an ongoing journey of twists and turns that cannot be predicted or clearly defined by any human being, certainly not a 21-year old.

My hope for Josh and Shannon is the discovery of a faith far more empowering than the formulas that they advocated in their early lives. They have clearly discovered the falsehood of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel and the purity movement.

They are already enduring a sea of judgment and painful rebuke for this discovery. Hopefully, they can now discover the comfort and grace that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ brings in the face of such hypocrisy.

Their faith journey does not have to be ultimately defined by the purity culture or its advocates. And neither does yours.

Next week’s post will talk about my own complicity in purity culture, and how my own mistakes—and fear that others might repeat them—pushed me in this direction. I recommend a look at this article by David French in National Review as a good preview.

Looking through a Cracked Rear View

It feels great to come out on the other side of hard times. But a check of the view behind us may reveal some shattered images.

Let’s start with the good news. On Friday evening, I got word that I am now the Regional Director for the Carolinas, with an organization called Impact America.

Some of you are saying, “Yeah…so?” Others are saying, as we did, “Our long national nightmare is over!”

Many of you have followed my unfortunate fall from the “graces” of the church and demise into Worst Pastor mode. Family and friends from all over the country have reached out to us, including those that we have not seen in years. People sent us money, some from churches we left years ago. You have prayed and given so much to us over the last three months, more than we could ever imagine. We want you to know that it is so appreciated as we enter a new phase of life and ministry.

Three months is not an incredibly long time to go without a job, compared to what many people endure. But it feels like three years. Our days since April 22 have been an emotional roller coaster of anger, shock, despair, hope, and encouragement (often from outside sources). Now, it seems we can finally put it all in the rear-view mirror.

We are taking a huge sigh of relief and renewing our hope as we look towards the future. However, this does not eliminate the rear-view mirror or the scattered images that we can still see in it. And while those images will get further and further behind us, the view is always going to be cracked.

People hold a wide range of perspectives on the way that painful events shape our lives. Some hold that all of these are a part of God’s will, and God even directs them to us (or us to them) to teach us lessons. Others think that these events are just a part of life, perhaps part of a terribly flawed, imperfect, and sinful world. We seek faith to fight through these horrible battles and learn from them.

I’ve thought and meditated and preached through this issue for decades. The best that I can do is Forrest Gump philosophy. Maybe it’s both.

10-Forrest-Gump-Quotes-The-Boy-Who-Gave-a-Life-Lesson-2.1-1
Maybe Forrest Gump was on to something here.

**By the way, Forrest Gump as a movie is a brilliant study in practical theology and the nature of humanity. Watch it again through those lenses.

In my 25 years as a minister, educator, and theologian (kind of), I cannot come up with a better answer than this. My tendency is to lean towards the latter argument that our own decisions and free will lead to a great deal of suffering in the world. Likewise, the free will and decisions of others have a tremendous impact on our lives.

Yet, this does not mean such suffering is pointless, and invaluable lessons can accompany it.

Nothing indicates to me that it was “God’s will” for me to leave the ministry or the church. But it happened. Now that the cracks are ever-present, it is definitively God’s will for us to see how to navigate those cracks as we move forward. Looking ahead should become more enjoyable and more challenging than looking in the rear view as we head down this new path.

Yet, we shouldn’t forget what is behind, or the lessons learned. It’s not about eliminating the cracks, but about learning how to see clearly through them.

There is great truth in the old saying that “Hindsight is always 20/20 vision.” Unfortunately, that clarity of vision often pulls us to focus on the mistakes we made, the wrongs that we suffered, and perhaps wish that we made wiser choices in the past.

I am the worst “Shoulda/Coulda/Woulda” guy in the world. I constantly beat myself up for errors in judgment, or mistakes of word or deed. Even if I start off angry at what someone else did, my self-reflection brings me to my own faults. And I get stuck in the circle of regret.

If we are talking about God’s will, we can easily see that this is NOT what God wants from us in life. Whatever the reasons that hardships fall on us, it is always God’s intent for us to find our way forward in life. Learning to see through the cracks can help us do that, as long as we don’t spend all of our time wishing they weren’t there.

The funny thing is that our hindsight is not 20/20 because we have absolute clarity. It’s 20/20 because of the cracks in the rear-view mirror. When we look back, it is clear how we might have navigated or avoided them.

Those cracks empower us to avoid that nostalgic tendency to either glorify the past or dwell on how it could have been better. Better yet, they offer a clarified vision of what is ahead, and how we might at least minimize the damage of cracks and breaks in our lives.

It is a struggle for me to get on board with a vision of a loving God who intentionally puts pitfalls and obstacles in front of us in order to teach us a “lesson.” Life in a flawed and fallen world has all the hardships that we need, and then some. If the Lord is heaping more hot coals on us just to see how we react, I have some serious questions about why we need any more battles than we already have.

But I absolutely believe that every pitfall and obstacle and pile of hot coals is another opportunity to grow into a better person moving forward. This life is filled with plenty of pain, and our view of the cracks in our rear view mirror enable us to see the love and joy that get us through/over/around them.

God does not need to throw any extra stones to teach us about love and grace. Additional pain is not required. Love and grace are required to get us through the pain and looking forward with a clear and hopeful view of the future.

My rear-view mirror is going to have some permanent cracks that we have overcome, with lots of love and guidance and support. I’m neither expecting nor wanting those cracks to disappear. Instead, I’m looking forward to watching the damage get smaller and smaller.

Those cracks that I see behind me are making the road ahead look all the better. And I am genuinely excited and hopeful to see where that road goes, and how love and grace will guide us through/over/around the cracks that we will surely find in the future.

 

Does Your Church Have a Power Problem?

The American church universe and Twitter-verse buzzed loudly this past week over the “dismissal” (i.e., “firing”) of Rev. Amy Butler as pastor of the historic Riverside Baptist in New York City. This happened without a vote of the church, and amid ongoing controversy.

I absolutely grieve for Rev. Amy Butler and the people of her church. But I grieve just as much for ministers who endure equally harsh treatment with much less fanfare and consideration.

Butler’s case is getting intense publicity because of Riverside’s history and her well-known status in Progressive Christianity—which tends to mean that people either love or despise her. But the situation points out a greater problem, particularly for churches that govern themselves.

Many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational churches make their own decisions, without direct oversight from any denomination or organization. This includes decisions on who is hired and fired.

Those of us who minister in these traditions rarely get anything like the five-year contract that Butler originally had, or the severance package she will receive. Many a pastor can get a pink slip without notice, severance, or even the due process that is prescribed in by-laws or other church documents.

And it happens a lot more often than people realize.

Church leaders and behind-the-scenes power brokers push pastors out the door in any number of ways, including (but not limited to) simply making their life and ministry miserable. This often happens in the dark, with parking lot meetings after the meeting or lunch table discussions after church.

Unfortunately, those things done in secret cause tremendous pain when they inevitably find the light of day. These behind-the-scenes battles leave a brutal trail of collateral damage in their wake

People become disillusioned. They lose friends. They may lose their church. And some even lose their faith. Quite often, the initial wounds of these “power plays” leaves lasting scars. From all of the articles I have read so far, it seems that all manner of issues with power and control were at work behind the scenes at Riverside, and the congregation was none the wiser until someone got fired.

At that point, the damage is already done and a church must move to repair and recovery.

My long-time friend Craig Tackett, pastor of Nicholasville Baptist Church in Kentucky, narrows the source of these problems with power and control to the basic sins of greed and pride.

Greed is not a sin that involves only money. We can be greedy for prestige, power, or the ever-present false god of control. Pride causes us to point the finger at others while failing to see our own faults. Once these get into the wiring of the leadership and/or a congregation, you have a power problem.

How do we know when a church has a power problem, and how do we avoid that? This is not a comprehensive list, but these are some steps you can take and signs you can read to determine if a church needs some serious re-wiring.

1. Demand Transparency: Does the church submit regular financial reporting of some kind? Do ministers and/or boards submit information about programs, ministries, ideas, and vision for the future?

The church should not have to vote every time someone has to buy a pack of pens or a roll of toilet paper. But if the leadership cannot (or will not) give you information about the finances or the future of the church, then you may have uncovered a major problem.

2. Know your documents: Do not be afraid to ask for copies of church budgets, by-laws, constitution, etc…and read them! These should be easily accessible and obtainable in a healthy church.

The by-laws and constitution quite often serve as a de facto contract for church boards, ministers, and members. Know them, and fearlessly insist that the church follows these Spirit-driven covenants in making decisions. And if they need to be changed to meet the current situation, bring that up as well.

3. Absolute power corrupts absolutely: If anything suggests that any person or group within the church has complete authority, it should raise serious questions.

If you ask questions about the church and get told that “everything is alright” or “you don’t need to worry about it” or “it’s all good” without any specifics, you need to raise your eyebrows.

If you hear ongoing references to submission, control, authority, or absolute power, then you may want to take a hard look at what’s happening in that church.

Or run in the other direction. Fast.

In Christianity and God’s church, accountability is necessary for all human beings involved. And you cannot have accountability without transparency. If you do not have it for everyone, INCLUDING the pastor, then you have a recipe for trouble.

4. Look for a Culture of Forgiveness: Does the church seek to empower people to be and do better, rather than determining who is and is not “worthy?”Does your church have a track record of resolving conflict and restoring peace; or does it assign blame in an attempt to eliminate conflict? Do leaders acknowledge fault and make amends, and do they seek to help others do the same?

A pastor is only a human being who is called of God to a particular purpose. She or he is fully human, prone to mistakes and needing forgiveness. Church leaders and members need to recall that same principle. If the church has a culture of both accountability AND forgiveness for all people (pastors, leaders, and congregation), the goal should be restoration rather than condemnation.

Make sure that forgiveness is a much stronger ethic than judgement in your congregation. And make sure that no one person or group is the final word on who is or is not worthy of such forgiveness. Or what sins can or cannot be forgiven.

For the record, this does not mean that a minister or leader will never be dismissed. It simply means that the church seeks to challenge people to be better and do better, rather than simply eliminating them.

5. The Church instills “Restorative Discipline”: True CHURCH discipline is intended to HELP those who are out of bounds to recognize a problem, repent, receive forgiveness, and return to the fellowship.

Once again, this includes your ministers and church leaders.

All of us make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes. Why should not both the leadership and the membership receive an opportunity to renew their commitment to the Body of Christ?

As sad as I am for Amy Butler and the controversy at Riverside, the news articles should make us pay closer attention to what happens in our own congregations. It should also make us take note of the way that some pastors are treated by their fellow church leaders.

These other pastors may not make the New York Times, but that doesn’t make it any less painful for them to lose their jobs.

My suggestions will not put an end to the pride and greed and undercover plots (how ridiculous does that sound in reference to the church?) that often wreck the people of God. In fact, my thoughts may make church a little harder, and a bit less enjoyable. They call on us to be attentive, informed, and engaged.

But that extra effort and commitment might spare your church and your pastor the pain of becoming a headline or gossip topic.

If that isn’t worth the extra effort, then why are we in this in the first place?