Well Hidden

The Psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (119:11 TNIV)  In recent days, I have found much comfort in words of scripture that have come to mind.  Bible verses memorized long ago, as well as ones recently brought to my attention by friends, have strengthened and encouraged me as I live through some challenging days. Those words have kept me connected to God, mindful of God’s presence, and aware of God’s promise to always be with me.

How do words get hidden in the heart?  The most apparent answer is that they are memorized.  A verse written on an index card, continually read and reread, will eventually plant itself in the mind. Repeating the verse from memory enough times will secure it there.

Yet, the heart language of the Psalmist seems to indicate something more than mental activity. The words are not hidden in the mind, but in the heart. The heart, in the Psalmist’s anatomy of prayer, is located deeper in the interior of a person. Hidden words capable of keeping a person connected to God, and not separated from God, find their place by something more than speaking and repeating, writing and rewriting.

To sin against God is to be separated from God —  out of fellowship with God. The word that finally brings us into fellowship with God, and removes our separation from God, is the Word made flesh. It is not so much the word we hide in our hearts, but the Word we hide ourselves in, that connects us to God and keeps us connected to God.

Together the words of God that we hide in our hearts, and the Word of God in which we hide ourselves, move us beyond talking to God and thinking about God, to being with God.  The heart does not think about the function it performs. It does what it does without thinking. Breathing is not a decision we make; we just do it. Neither does the heart decide to pump blood through our bodies; it just does it.

I wonder if the Psalmist had such a thought in mind when he designated the heart as the hiding place for God’s word.  Was he thinking of situations and circumstances that would be so taxing that the mind would be too stressed to provide comfort, consolation and strength?   The mind gets busy at times like that, searching for solutions, solving problems, and mapping out alternatives. Trying to figure out why something happened can at times be such a frustratingly large question that the mind has little energy for anything more. Yet, the heart continues to beat, bringing oxygen and supplying blood; so words hidden there do not depend on our ability to recall them. They come to us like our next breath, and they sustain us without our even being aware of the life they give to us.

In those moments, we are freed from the illusion that we are in control of our lives, and that our connection with God is the result of our mental effort, intellectual activity, or even thoughtful reflection. Rather, we find ourselves sustained by a merciful God, and there we truly find rest.

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How do Women Preachers Dress?

“I am going to be a preacher,” she told me.  “Wonderful,” I said.  Of course, I knew that she was talking about her role in the upcoming youth Easter drama, but I was excited for her nonetheless.  Then she asked, “Should I dress as a woman or a man?”  I told her that she should dress as a woman and that she was going to be a great preacher.  Yet, I was troubled by her question.

I was troubled because the question on her part represented an uncertainty as to whether or not a woman could be a preacher, so much so that she considered dressing as a man necessary to more accurately portray the role she had been given in the play.  Her church ordains women as Deacons.  There is no leadership position in her church from which women are excluded.  From time to time, women fill the pulpit as guest preachers, though obviously not enough to give her a clear impression that she did not need to dress as a man in order to play a preacher in the Easter drama.

The uncertainty about women in pastoral roles, not just of a teen-aged girl but of the rest of us as well, demonstrates just how effective the cultural in which we live is undermining the teachings of a local church.  The Bible we read gives us countless examples of women working for the Lord and leading young churches.  Our scriptures are bold to say that “. . .in Christ, there is neither male nor female. . .,” and that in the last days God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh so that our “. . .sons and (y)our daughters shall prophesy.”

How then do we find ourselves, at times, uncertain and ambivalent about who God can call to do God’s work?  Consider for a moment that women have been allowed to vote in our country for less than a hundred years.  Generally speaking, the arguments against women voting sounded high-minded and moral.  The Holy Scriptures were often invoked to undergird arguments against women voting.  Of course, voting was not the only thing that women were not allowed to do.  There were any number of professions and careers that were off limits to women simply because they were women.  Preaching was high on the list of occupations unsuitable for women.  Today, the list of careers that women cannot pursue is whittled down to one – preaching — and then only in certain pockets of the Christian faith.  Of all the activities that society once deemed off limits to women, preaching remains.

Those opposed to women preaching unfailingly state their position with passages from the Bible that would seem to suggest that women should not have leadership roles in the church.  I would grant that there are such passages of scripture, but there are also passages of scripture that would suggest just the opposite.  So then, the question becomes not so much what the Bible says, but how do we read what the Bible says.  Will we read it as people who long for the days when women were denied freedom and opportunity, or will we read it as a people who believe that the God who said God’s spirit would be poured out on all flesh is, in fact, doing that very thing even as we speak?

Today the pastor of Pingdu Christian Church in Pingdu, China is a woman.  This church was started in 1885, when a tiny woman from Virginia ventured, on her own, 120 miles inland to share the Gospel in a city that had no Christian witness.  That woman’s name was Lottie Moon.  She was appointed as a missionary to China by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  No, she would not have been allowed to pastor a church in the United States at that time, but it was fine for her to go where no man was willing to and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Today, pastor Wang Xia, leads multiple congregations and meeting points, along with her pastoral associates, telling the same story that was told the residents of her city long ago by Miss Lottie Moon.

Baptists have had women preachers throughout our history.  We have just not always appreciated them as such.  Even today, as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary prepares to reconstruct Miss Moon’s Pingdu house into an on-campus historical display, the living legacy of Miss Moon’s devotion to the cause of Christ is ignored and rejected by Southern Baptists.  They have trademarked her name, but they have shackled her spirit.  They are happy to use their fundamentalized version of Lottie Moon to raise money for their enterprise, even while they ignore and demean the gifts and callings of her spiritual descendants.

We honor the legacy of Lottie Moon, and others like her, when we help our children, our sons and our daughters, listen to whatever God is saying in their lives.  We keep that legacy alive when in faith we, along with our children, say yes to God’s call in our lives.

No doubt Catherine B. Allen says it best in this months Baptists Today, “The stones in Fort Worth will cry out a message the seminary has officially rejected. Ye who have ears, listen to what the Spirit says!”

Casting out Demons in Haiti

People are giving in all kinds of ways to relieve the suffering in Haiti.  Many are giving through their cell phones. Some are giving with credit cards through the websites of various relief organizations. Others are putting dollars into the offering plate at their places of worship.

The sad reality is that when all the millions of dollars are given and used to relieve the suffering in Haiti, Haiti will still be under crushing debt.  Centuries of exploitation and oppression have left Haiti an impoverished and indebted country.

Contributions to relief organizations are needed to help Haiti recover from this devastating earthquake.  Debt cancellation is what is needed to set Haiti free from the demons of greed and abuse that have haunted her for centuries. You can add your voice to those seeking justice for the poor and suffering of Haiti by signing this petition urging the cancellation of Haiti’s indebtedness.

You can be a part of casting out the demons that have tormented the least of these in Haiti.

Year End Giving, New Life Living

As the year was coming to a close, his church’s income was running behind what the church needed for it to be. In a letter posted on the church’s website, the pastor underscored the urgency of the situation. Their church, like so many around the country, had members who were experiencing the ill effects of a bad economy. Giving to the church had not kept pace with the expense of doing ministry. The letter asked the members of the church to give a gift to help cover the $900,000 shortfall that the church was facing as 2009 ended.

Nine hundred thousand dollars is a large number. I cannot imagine having a deficit that large.  It is almost twice as much as our annual budget.

At their Sunday services on January 3rd, Pastor Rick Warren announced that members and friends of Saddleback Community Church had given 2.4 million dollars in response to the letter. On any given weekend, over 22,000 people will worship at one of Saddleback’s five locations. Pastor Warren described the response as “radical generosity.”

When I read the story of this amazing gift, I could not help but think of the members and friends of Ball Camp Baptist Church. You may remember that at the end of October, our expenses were running $19,000 ahead of our income. Granted $19,000 is a long way from $900,000; but before you said your final farewell to 2009, you gave with “radical generosity.”  We finished the year $3,000 to the good. On top of that, you gave with that same “radical generosity” to our Christmas Offering for Global Missions, so that we exceeded our offering goal.

The challenges faced by their members and friends are most likely not all that different from the challenges that we as a church family have faced over the last year.  In the midst of difficult situations and hard times, I have been so proud of the way you have been church to each other.  Certainly, not all of your giving has been through the offering plate. Some of your most meaningful gifts have been directly to each other. Neither do I assume that I know about all that you have done for each other and for others outside our church. That is the way it is with “radical generosity.” It does not wait to be told how to act, nor does it look for recognition.

From families and individuals in our church, to hurting people in our community, to those in need in Eastern Kentucky, to those hungry for grace in North Africa, and to the uttermost parts of the world, your “radical generosity” has made a difference for the Kingdom of God and in the lives of people.

A writer for the USA Today newspaper described Pastor Warren’s letter to his church as begging for money.  While I understand how someone who is unacquainted with the gospel and with church life could see his letter in that light, I also think that  those who have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, and the supportive love of a church family, know that there is a different motivation at work. Giving is an opportunity to minister. Giving is an opportunity to share the love of Christ. Giving allows us to become a part of the lives of those we give to in a redemptive and loving way. We give because we have received a gift — that gift is no less than the Son of God.  We give generously because the one who gives us life and hope has given to us with a generosity that we can never match.

Even still, I am amazed when I take note of the ways that you have given your resources, your energy, and your time in this year just ended. Truly, the impact of your giving was felt around the world. Thank you.

Merry Incarnation!

The whole idea that God took on flesh, came to us and lived among us, has challenged the human ability to understand and comprehend since that first Christmas.  There are all kinds of questions and few, if any, answers.  Answers that give us a thorough explanation of the details of how the creator of human beings becomes a human are not forthcoming. Mystery is the word that the church has often used through the centuries to explain that which is beyond explanation.  That is what we say when we don’t know anything else to say.  Granted, it is no small thing to be able to look into the pages of scripture, the annals of history, or the faces of the living, and utter a single word in response to the unbelievable, the incredible or even, the unthinkable.

Faith is the gift that enables us to believe what we would not otherwise believe or consider.  It gently nudges us beyond the questions of how to look at why God did what God did.  John’s gospel tells us that it is love that moved God to come into our world with flesh and bone.  God loves us enough to come to where we live and experience life as we experience it.  Faith gives us the ability to know that we are loved and accepted by God.

What we should not allow faith to do is to distort the reality in which we still live.  God takes on flesh and comes to us at Christmas time.  God does not come and get us to remove us from where we are now — not yet anyway.   Faith is not an escape hatch from the world in which we live.  It is, however, refusing to believe that the world in which we live is the sum of our living.

Because Christ has been born, when we hear of a tragic death of a neighbor, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Bethlehem has happened, when we see that someone has had to spend the night in a car in our parking lot we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the one who would be our Savior was wrapped in swaddling clothes when we continue to see the poor and needy at our door, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the Prince of Peace slept in a manger when distant wars are brought near by the deployment of a friend or family member, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Mary and Joseph did not turn away from God’s call, when we experience the stress, the strain and sometimes the brokenness of human relationships, we can say even still, Christ is coming.

We can and do say it, not as sugar coating or denial, but as a truth born from the gift of faith. Christ comes to the place of pain and suffering, misery and malaise, and of betrayal and disappointment.  He comes to us.  In coming, he calls us to himself.   The call is such that somehow we become a part of the mystery of his incarnation.  We become his hands, his feet, his body.  Led by his Spirit, we find our greatest joy in following his path to the places where there is hurting and want, injustice and wrong.  Far from taking us away from the trial of earth-bound living, his coming to us points our lives in the direction of those who are broken by sin and sinned against, those who are left out, and left alone.

Christ is coming!

What was Prevaiz Masih Thinking?

His name was Prevaiz Masih.  He was the janitor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan until October 20, 2oo9.  On that day two suicide bombers attacked, one on the women’s side and the other on the men’s side of the campus.

An attacker dressed as a woman shot the school security guard then approached the women’s cafeteria where Masih was working.   Masih intercepted him at the door and told him that he could not enter because there were women inside.  The two argued and the attacker detonated his bomb outside the cafeteria killing Masih.  Three women were also killed, but many more would have died had Masih not met the attacker at the door.

Prevaiz Masih was a Christian.  Standing in the cafeteria doorway, he was protecting the lives of between 300 and 400 young Muslim women.  “Despite being Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls,” said professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, rector of the university.  I cannot help but wonder if maybe it was because he was Christian that Masih acted to protect those women.  What if he did what he did not in spite of his Christian faith, but because of his Christian faith?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable:

As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.  So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.  He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’  But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us’’  When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.  The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’  He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave!  Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’  Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’  He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’  Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound.  I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’  He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!  You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?  Why then did you not put my money into the bank?  Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’  He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’  (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds’’)  ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

From time to time someone will say to me preacher, we need to run the church like a business.  I am inclined to agree with those folks, especially when I read this parable.  The slaves in the story are given money.  The nobleman who gave them the money expected them to do something with it.  The expectation was real.  The message was clear; take this money and do something with it.  I believe Jesus told this story, at least in part, to teach us that we have been given something and we are expected to do something with it. If I remember correctly, Clarence Jordan suggested that money is not the currency of the Kingdom of God.  Ideas, convictions and principles are.  Jesus says to us take this idea of grace out into the world and trade with it.  Take this notion of mercy out into the marketplace and do business with it.  Set up shop and stock the shelves with justice, compassion, love, understanding, acceptance, peace and forgiveness.  Do business with these ideas.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Prevaiz Masih had been given these same ideas.  He possessed the currency of the Kingdom.  I do not know if he was thinking about his faith when the attacker showed up. Was he asking himself the question, what would Jesus do?  I do not know.

He had just started the janitor’s job making barely $60.00 a month.  He lived with seven other family members in a crowded, one-room apartment.  By our standards, he did not have much. Yet, he had compassion.  With compassion for those who would be harmed, even killed, he acted to protect them.  Many are alive today who would have been dead if Masih had not done what he did.

Thankfully, we will rarely, if ever, have the need to practice our faith in such a dangerous environment.  But we should not let the relative safety and security that we enjoy keep us from offering what we have been given to those who have need of it.  We, who have been given grace and forgiveness, might seek out those who are hungry for it. We, who have experienced compassion and mercy, might seek to give that experience to others.  We, who have found acceptance and hope, might point the way for others who are still searching.

Not many people in Pakistan expected a Christian to act on behalf of the safety of a room full of Muslims. Masih’s action surprised a number of people in his country.  What unexpected act can you do that might cause someone to look at Jesus in a new light?

A Hungry Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The memories of long ago gatherings of family, food, and football at my grandparents’ house are some of my fondest.  These days we go to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to give to our children their own memories. This year, we are breaking our tradition of frying the turkey.  My brother-in-law wants to try to smoke it.  I feel a new memory in the making.

Recalling fond memories and making new ones is not all that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  In fact, memories take second place to the reminder that Thanksgiving gives to us to be, well, thankful.  While every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks, this holiday gives us a chance to slow down and take a whole day to reflect and be grateful.  Nurturing gratitude in our lives moves us toward a more mature walk with the Lord.  Gratitude in the face of adversity often indicates a life that is resting in God’s grace.

Some of you may remember me telling the story that my Uncle John told of my grandmother making biscuits and gravy with water and flour for supper when he was a boy.  She did that because that was all that she had to put on the table.  He will always remember that time, and I will always remember his telling of it.  For me, it is a story, not a memory.  I have no memory of times being that hard.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I recall that story.  Rather, it comes to me, not as if I have to exert any effort to think of it.  When I think of things I am thankful for, I cannot help but be grateful that the biscuits I ate at grandmother’s table were always made with milk — buttermilk if she had it — and she often did.   Even more so, I am grateful that my children do not have such memories.

Not all children are so fortunate.  A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that a record number of families had difficulty obtaining sufficient food at some time last year.  The number of people living in U.S. households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million people in 2008.  That is 13 million more than in 2007.

On a global scale, the number of hungry people is staggering. The United Nations reports that more than a billion people face starvation.  That number represents an increase of about 100 million people over last year.

In the face of such need, I am grateful not just for the basic blessing of food and shelter, but also for the many people and organizations who work every day to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger and hunger-related illnesses.  Many of those people and organizations are motivated by their commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings.  Some of those people are missionaries that we support in this country and around the world.  They do what they do as an expression of their faith in and dedication to the life and teachings of the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto to me.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember and to be grateful.  It is also a perfect time for followers of Christ to recommit themselves to living, giving, and following so that the least of these might also have reason to be thankful.