Ministering at Home AND Abroad

Matthew-25It breaks my heart and—in truth—I become utterly incensed over the willfully and woefully ignorant, defamatory, broad-brushing memes that people—all too often—post on Facebook that are critical of the Church and its ministry in the United States and around the world. I came upon one such meme this morning that questioned why (suggesting that) evangelists and missionaries go to other countries while neglecting those who are in need at home.

Here’s my reply:

We minister at home and abroad because the God we serve commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). In Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus commends those who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, taken the stranger in, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. You suggest, with this meme, that the Church neglects those who are in need near them.

As one pastor serving one church in New Hampshire, I encouraged the congregation to take seriously Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to visit the sick and those who are in prison. The church established a food pantry, thrift shop and clothing distribution center and I served as Welfare Secretary with the Salvation Army overseeing that organization’s ministries in four communities. The church transitioned between two daycare centers during my tenure: the first grew so large that it moved into its own newly-purchased facility and the second continued in place after my departure. A representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program was on site to provide nutrition education, supplemental foods and health care advice. The parsonage was converted into the program offices for a residential troubled teen facility. We ministered through Prison Fellowship and Angel Tree, gathered Bible and devotional materials and other items for prisoners at a nearby county jail. We led Bible studies in the prison and ministered one on one with prisoners. We also ministered in nursing homes and with individuals receiving hospice care. I served in leadership with a great many of the area’s social action ministries that provided food, clothing and housing. We also gave sacrificially to ministries around the world serving the poorest of the poor.

In another church, in another state, the congregation served breakfast each Saturday to more than 80 at risk and homeless individuals. Gene took classes to become a State of Pennsylvania-certified Food Handler so he could direct the work in the kitchen each week while I preached a message to our Saturday congregation. The church cooperated with other churches in providing emergency overnight quarters for homeless women; and helped to establish (with other faith communities in the city) an organization to meet the growing needs of the disadvantaged. The church was counted among the top 40 mission giving churches in the region for our denomination. I led a mission team to Mississippi for post-Katrina clean-up and ministry. We offered VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) preparedness training, and I worked with an area American Heart Association unit to develop and offer First Aid for the Body and Soul, a course in physical (CPR and first aid) and emotional and spiritual emergency aid. I also served on the Executive Board of the Salvation Army for that community.

That’s one pastor in two churches. Multiply that by more than 300,000 churches in the United States and you’ll begin to have an idea of the level of the Church’s ministry with those in need in this country. Now granted, not all would necessarily have the level of outreach to their communities as do these two congregations. No, a great many are doing a great deal more. And what should be brought alongside, as well, are all the parachurch ministries devoted to serving the homeless and at risk. Consider, for a start, Habitat for Humanity which, since its founding in 1976, “has helped more than 9.8 million people meet their affordable housing needs. In fiscal year 2016, Habitat improved the housing conditions of 3 million people through new home construction, rehabilitation, incremental improvements, repairs or increased access to improved shelter through partnerships with the private sector. In addition, nearly 2.1 million people now have the potential to improve their housing conditions as a result of Habitat’s advocacy efforts, which changed policies and systems to allow more access to shelter solutions, and because of our provision of information and training in construction, financial management and other housing-related topics.” [Source: https://www.habitat.org/about/annual-reports-990s]

But, you know, quite honestly, what I’ve just shared doesn’t even begin to touch on all that these two churches and thousands of other churches and parachurch ministries do every day to lift the lives of those who live on the edge in the United States. My question for my friend who got me going with what she threw up on her page: why would you post such a mean-spirited, insulting, judgmental meme?

You want to do something constructive? Spread the word about and support a ministry like Mission Waco: http://www.missionwaco.org/

What do pastors do? They’re part of a global enterprise…with outlets in every part of the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6TGxKvSqH8

A later-in-the-day addendum:

There are about a half dozen individuals to whom I’m connected on Facebook who regularly insult the Church (and—knowingly or unknowingly—me, as a pastor and Christian educator, by extension). Is the Church perfect? No. Should I have admitted that in my post? Perhaps. Why do I get so upset about these memes? Because they’re propaganda, and if they’re allowed to proliferate with no challenge, they will be ingested—as if by osmosis—by the unchurched populace. Propagandizers are repainting the “Church” with the broad brush of hypocrisy, and they’re blaming Christians (and, in particular, Evangelicals) for all of society’s ills. Memes, like the one that raised my hackles earlier today, spread like wildfire, and I see a pattern being replicated—and being more rapidly—a pattern that has been used time and again. A good example of that pattern was the introduction of a brand of feminism that indoctrinated women into believing that, if they chose to stay out of the “workforce” and to instead be homemakers and mothers, they were parasites on the economy. I took that thinking in, believed it, and chastised my mother—a woman who had devoted her life to raising me—chastised that woman for not being “more.” Every brand of feminism should have liberated women—including my mother and me—to be whatever they/we wanted to be. But I took in, by osmosis, the prevailing sentiment. I see the same thing happening today: folks are being emotionalized and propagandized to believe that which is not true about the Church. If we keep going in the current direction, we may well hit the hundredth monkey.


An Apparent Defeat May Result in Victory

The Golden Lampstand Church, pre-demolition.

In today’s entry in Streams in the Desert, I was reminded of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into an enormous fiery furnace when they refused to abandon their allegiance to the living God. Here was an apparent victory for the enemy. It looked as if God’s people were going to suffer a terrible vanquishment, but God saved them in and through the fire. We can imagine what a complete defeat the destruction of the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, China must appear to be to many, but as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego emerged from the fire unsinged, so let us pray this apparent defeat will result in a marvelous victory for Christians.

Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.

When the great oak is straining in the wind, the boughs drink in new beauty, and the trunk sends down a deeper root on the windward side.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.



Praying the Church in China will grow ever stronger as Christians are coming under increasing persecution.

Daniel 3


Chastising Myself

IMG_2251 (1)I have been chastising myself since last night.

I had been in conversation on Facebook with a Jehovah’s Witness who had set up the straw man of John Shelby Spong as an “authority” on the subject of hell. He was using a video-taped interview with the heretical, now retired, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as support for his argument against the concept of eternal punishment. In earlier postings, he had made other pointed attacks against non-JWs. In turn, I had been sharing the manifold errors that I believe are clearly evident in the history and theology of the Witnesses. I had been praying that the man might be released from the deluding influence of the organization. In each encounter, he had responded using copious copied-from-JW sources. When in this most recent exchange, he came back with–what I took as–a compounding personal affront, I impetuously, without consulting the Lord, withdrew from the conversation and unfriended him, shaking the dust off my feet as a testimony against him.

Now I have spent most of my professional life studying world religions and new religious movements; I have engaged with many, many individuals walking innumerable paths. I can’t recall ever being the one to withdraw from a conversation, and I’ve been trying to comprehend why I did this time. I think I’m upset with myself because I fear it may have been the wounding to my person that served as the final straw and not the many affronts to Christ.

I woke this morning to find the following as the day’s devotional entry in Streams in the Desert. The line that leapt out from this was this: “Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one.” It is possible that the Lord might have called me to withdraw from the conversation because other work needed to be done in the man’s life before he would be open to hearing what I had to say. The problem is I didn’t wait to hear from the Lord.

The devotional that follows gives a nod to one of my favorite verses (Isaiah 30:21): “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” I used to keep a copy of this verse on my desk at the seminary and churches I was serving. As I now sit at a crossroads in my life, I am especially grateful for the call to return to these words today. Sometimes doors are closed. Sometimes God directs our steps to the right. Sometimes we are led to go left. Sometimes, we’re told to stay put. And sometimes…

Here’s the devotional, with its admonition to look to the Lord for clear direction:

Having been kept by the Holy Spirit [at that time] from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6).

It is interesting to study the methods of His guidance as it was extended towards these early heralds of the Cross. It consisted largely in prohibitions, when they attempted to take another course than the right. When they would turn to the left, to Asia, He stayed them. When they sought to turn to the right, to Bithynia, again He stayed them. In after years Paul would do some of the greatest work of his life in that very region; but just now the door was closed against him by the Holy Spirit. The time was not yet ripe for the attack on these apparently impregnable bastions of the kingdom of Satan. Apollos must come there for pioneer work. Paul and Barnabas are needed yet more urgently elsewhere, and must receive further training before undertaking this responsible task.

Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one. Say, “Blessed Spirit, I cast on Thee the entire responsibility of closing against my steps any and every course which is not of God. Let me hear Thy voice behind me whenever I turn to the right hand or the left.”

In the meanwhile, continue along the path which you have been already treading. Abide in the calling in which you are called, unless you are clearly told to do something else. The Spirit of Jesus waits to be to you, O pilgrim, what He was to Paul. Only be careful to obey His least prohibition; and where, after believing prayer, there are no apparent hindrances, go forward with enlarged heart. Do not be surprised if the answer comes in closed doors. But when doors are shut right and left, an open road is sure to lead to Troas. There Luke awaits, and visions will point the way, where vast opportunities stand open, and faithful friends are waiting.–Paul, by Meyer


International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

According to the US Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. A report by Open Doors USA identified 2016 as the “worst year yet” (in the 25 years of its monitoring) for Christian persecution. Each month (an average of) 322 Christians die for their faith; 214 Christian churches and properties are destroyed; 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians, including beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests and forced marriages. The most dangerous place for Christians is North Korea followed by Somalia and Afghanistan. Pakistan rose to No. 4 but had the overall highest level of violence. Sudan was fifth, followed by Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea.

Please pray for those who are being persecuted for the faith, not only on these days especially set aside for remembrance, but each day of the year.


Linking to and Reflecting upon a Lament about Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

bible-Sunlight-1I’m linking here to a lament over what is true of all too many churches. It begins with the author’s recollection of a pastor who, in the course of his sermon, said he was discussing things he didn’t understand. Worse, he seemed to have made no attempt to get a grip on the Word and just moved on to something else. This disrespect for the Bible, this disrespect for the Lord, this disrespect for the congregation, infuriates me. I’m sick to death of sitting in church buildings where, on a Sunday morning, no meat and barely any milk is being served from the pulpit. I wince each time I hear a preacher say he or she disagrees with a biblical author on a point of scripture. I don’t want to hear a preacher’s opinion in the sermon; I want to hear what the Bible has to say. I long for content-rich messages that will fill me and keep me full through the week. Why are we settling for this anti-intellectualism? Why aren’t we demanding more from our preachers and more from the seminaries where they are being trained? So many churches are empty or emptying. Too few congregations seem to want genuine servant-leaders who will lead them and who will challenge them from the pulpit. Too many pulpits are being filled with preachers who have little to no training and have received no calling from God.

I was baptized in a church that had a teaching pastor. I looked forward to his sermons each week because I knew I would come away with greater knowledge of the Word and a clear sense of how I was to apply that Word to my life.

I was educated in a seminary that established me in the original biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and taught me to work from those in constructing the sermon. I was taught to define a word of scripture according to the original intent, distinguishing the meaning from how the sense of the word might have changed over the centuries. I was taught to consider syntax, parallels, and connections throughout scripture. I was charged with making certain that I would engage in exegesis (drawing out the meaning from each text in accordance with the context and the discoverable meaning of its author) rather than eisegesis (reading into the text what I might want it to say). I was taught to review the authorship, the date of writing, the initial audience, the context (historical, cultural, geographical, and literary), the customs, the current events… I was introduced to the most reliable Bible dictionaries, commentaries, concordances, and books on history and more. When called to preach, I would spend hours in research and would then cull the cogent and craft a sermon to deliver to the congregation. Now, I have been in plenty of churches where that level of academic rigor was carried into the pulpit and evidenced in each message. But, sundry reports and my own observations would suggest this erudition is on the decline.

I should note here that I didn’t mean to go on for so long. My initial intent was just to share the following link. But, every day, it seems, I come upon article after article lamenting the failure of our educational institutions and the decline of the Church. The Church mirrors Society, and Society mirrors the Church. Today, emotions are emphasized to the detriment of reason; entertainment, to the detriment of scholarship. Let us expect more. Let us be more.