Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More Walking and Less Talking

"Walk a mile in my shoes." An age-old truism and the title of a great 70's song that reminds us that we best understand the plight of others when we allow ourselves to be exposed to the full force of their life experience up close and personally. For some reason, the talk shows I have found myself listening to over the past few days have all been tackling the issue of race relations in the US. What usually bothers me about such discussions is that they are often based on theoretical and ideological assumptions that have very little foundation in real life cross-cultural experience on the part of the pundits. There is an abundance of sound and fury that yield very few meaningful solutions and tend to add only more hostility and confusion. Even when the discussions are positive, they are often Utopian visions of "togetherness" that leave listeners feeling good, but offer few insights that address the situation in an applicable and practical way.

After days of listening to discussions that seemed to always go to the aforementioned extremes, as I was about to throw my hands up in frustration, I received an e-mail with a commentary from Mark Early, the President of Prison Fellowship ministries. In the e-mail, he addressed the case of the Jenna 6, revolving around six African American young men who faced the possibility of prison time after being involved in a fight with a young Caucasian school mate who needed serious medical attention after the incident. What really encouraged me about the commentary was Mr. Early's avoidance of the highly charged and significant, though secondary issues and his dead-on assessment of the real issue the incident brings to the table - the disproportionate number of African American males incarcerated in the US. In a very straight-forward yet earnest manner, Early cites a few well-known statistics and issues a somber warning:
[Inequitable justice] and the disparities that cause it are issues that should concern every Christian. Not simply because it is unjust that one group of people should be punished in such a disproportionate manner—that's bad enough—but it should also concern us because it undermines confidence in the rule of law. It makes it easier for people to suspect the worst in places like Jena.

How could Early come to such a conclusion? Especially when his identity as "A conservative Evangelical" is considered? Easily! He spends day in and day out ministering to inmates around the US and the world, not only hearing their stories, but getting to know them personally and seeing the impact of inequitable justice on families and communities. Early particularly cites the drug enforcement laws that punish African Americans disproportionately when drug usage by Caucasians is statistically much higher. He doesn't' cite these statistics to advocate drug usage or to go "soft" on crime. He simply points out that while "creative" solutions are offered to some elements of our society who struggle with substance abuse, others are offered only incarceration - a solution that neither eliminates drug usage nor rehabilitates the user. Early has observed that race plays an undeniable role in how justice issues are often handled and that the disparity that sometimes manifests itself poses a threat to the very democratic ideals upon which our nation has been built.

For this reason and others akin to it, discussions of race need to turn a corner. We must progress beyond theoretical talk and distant, sterile statistics. We need to emulate the examples of Mark Early, Prison Fellowship's founder Chuck Colson and other countless and unknown Christian servants to engage ourselves in actively walking by putting our hands on the plow of ministry to see life from the viewpoint of those around us. Our overall well-being is at stake. Good intentions and token efforts are insufficient and unacceptable. It's time for us as Christians, whatever our ethnic, economic or social backgrounds, to see those different than ourselves as more than statistics, but as a part of our human family - folks we must love, serve and help as Jesus commands. This is hard work that takes resources, time and energy, but it must be done by those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ.

So, put down the charts, put away the graphs, turn off the pundits and put on your walking shoes. Go approach that co-worker you've never really gotten to know personally. Invite that neighbor from a far away place to have a cup of coffee. Ask your church leadership how you can become involved in the outreach efforts your church has to offer. It has been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. We may have a long way to go, but we'll never get there if we don't start walking now. Walk a mile in my shoes. I'll walk a mile in yours too. Then we can walk together and light a few candles instead of cursing the darkness.

Until next time...


Monday, September 17, 2007

A Joke That Should Lead Us to Tears and to Change

In the 60's, the Bee Gees recorded one of their early breakthrough hits entitled, "I Started a Joke." The song told the sad story of a man who had "joked" his way through life to the point that he had become a parody of himself, ultimately finding that the joke was on him. I'm afraid that this song could apply to many individuals who share the profession to which I have been called - The profession of vocational Christian Service and Christian Ministry.

The stories abound of pastors who have been caught behaving in unbelievably shameful ways. Just last week, a shocking account came to light of a high profile ministry couple who had gotten into a physical fight that was of such intensity that the minister husband's violence against his well-known minister wife resulted in her hospitalization for several days! After making a press release regarding the incident, the wife filed for divorce a few days later and the husband has made know his plans not to contest it.

If this were not disturbing enough, the husband actually returned to his pulpit the following Sunday, and his congregation gave him a thunderous and sustained ovation before he commenced to deliver his message!! There are other high-profile cases involving Pastoral families exposing heart-breaking troubles out there in Pastor-land. Something is terribly wrong.

Of course, such troubles from "People of the Cloth" make for fertile ground for the cynical and for late night comedians. Ministers are seen less as trustworthy servants, dedicated to help, nurture, protect and comfort and more as under trained crooks who are out to benefit themselves and "stick it" to anyone naive enough to fall for their sleazy tricks. I get a real sense of this disdain for preachers as I rub elbows with folks who aren't "buying" what we as Christians are "selling". They are particularly turned off by the lack of accountability that it seems characterizes many preachers and the lack of adequate professional preparation that accompanies it. I was having lunch with a group of secular employed friends who shared story upon story of self-appointed "ministers" who received their ministry "credentials" in a matter of days, if not minutes, simply by sending money to a less than reputable credential factory over the Internet! There was howling laughter all around. Obviously, i didn't find the matter at all humorous. Nevertheless, we Christians have no one but ourselves to blame.

How can we expect people to respect us and our leaders when we don't take steps to scrutinize our leaders according to instructions laid out by the very Book we say we follow? Biblical standards for spiritual leaders are extremely clear. James warns anyone who desires to pursue the pastorate that they will be judged by harsher standards. In any profession one can name, there is an expectation more is required of leaders. This should be especially true of those who serve as Spiritual leaders. Here are the Biblical requirements for a pastor:

Pastors must possess the desire to serve (1 Tim. 3:1).
Pastors must be sober and temperate (1Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8)
Pastors must be of good behavior (1 Tim. 3:2).
Pastors must not be given to wine (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7).
Pastors are not to be strikers or brawlers, but are to be patient with others (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7).
Pastors should not be investing time in ministry for monetary gain and must not be greedy or covetous (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7).
Pastors must not be new converts (1 Tim. 3:6).
Pastors must be given to hospitality, receptive and open to help others (1 Tm. 3:2; Titus 1:8).
Pastors must be monogamous, not married to more than one woman or trivial in marital commitment (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).
Pastors are to have orderly households that are not prone to chaos and disorder (1 Tim. 3:4).
Pastors must be able to teach and instruct with sound doctrine (1 Tim. 3:2)

It is important for me to note right here and now, lest I open myself up to failure brought on by pride and self-righteousness, that I do not claim perfection nor do I claim I am above the ability to fail in my calling. As a good friend who is also in the pastorate shared with a group of pastors after the fall of a colleague, " I am a man of like passions. Nevertheless, because of the Grace of God, the close fellowship of friends who hold me accountable and the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, I have not acted on them."

His statement provides some important keys to helping those called to ministry succeed in excelling their calling. First, we who are called must realize our vulnerability to failure. Left to ourselves, each of us has within us the ability to fall in such a way that we could bring disgrace on ourselves, our families, our congregations and our faith. Secondly, none of us should serve without accountability. We need close friends with whom we can share our personal hurts, issues and struggles and we need parameters within which we can be held to task for the ministry that we carry out. None of us is above scrutiny and we should be able to give an accounting for what we do and how we do it. Most importantly, we need a genuine faith, and a walk with God. If we don't believe and we're not walking, we shouldn't be serving.

Some final notes to you my friends who are in the "laity". You have responsibilities as well. You should not be following someone who clearly falls short of the pastoral qualifications outlined in Scripture. Note, the word "must" that begins the sentences outlining pastoral leadership. The spiritual growth and health of many people rides on the fulfilment of these qualifications. Also, be certain that individuals who are voicing the conviction that they have a "call" and desire to pursue vocational ministry show evidence of the qualifications in their lives and that others see this evidence as well. I was not comfortable in pursuing my own calling until a virtual chorus of others confirmed my inner convictions and informed me that a failure to pursue using the gifts that were evident in my life would be tantamount to disobeying the Lord. They then exposed and led me to the path of preparation for ministry that took almost five years for me to complete - remember, even Jesus' disciples walked with Him for more than 3 years before being launched into ministry. There is no substitute for preparation.

Moral failure in ministry is no laughing matter. Let's do our best to police our own ranks and to make sure that if someone rejects the Gospel, they reject it as a matter of their own hearts, not because we've reduced the Good News to nothing more than a good joke. Until next time,


Wednesday, September 5, 2007


This past week, I had the privilege to visit my father at his home in Fayetteville, NC. For those of you who are familiar with the US Army, Fayetteville is the town adjacent to Ft. Bragg, NC, the Home of the Airborne. On this particular visit, I found that my father had aged a bit more than I expected. He had grayed a lot since I last saw him. He is facing a couple of significant health issues and his gait is a bit slower. He is very pensive and enjoys watching his grandchildren. Yet, even as he ages, he still remains a man of action who prefers to approach life in a "hands-on" manner. He is still the first person to offer help whenever a need arises and always willing to encourage and support at all times. I was most surprised at how much of him I saw in myself - the way I walk, the sound of my voice and rhythm of my speech -the way I see life - even the influence of the Army's "Airborne" culture.

As a paratrooper, my father has an incredible "can-do" spirit about him and a confidence that shines through, even as his walk slows. He has stepped out of an aircraft in flight with full combat equipment, with nothing but sky underneath him and prevailed as a stronger individual. He has served his country proudly and with distinction and passed on all he has learned and embraced to me. I am an inheritor of a great tradition handed down from generation to generation - a tradition I respect, cherish and attempt to honor everyday of my life.

The importance of passing on the truths and values that are dear to us really hit me as our entire family visited the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville. There I saw my grown daughter and her husband, my teen aged daughter and my toddler daughter interacting with the marvelous exhibits - each taking in their Airborne heritage in their own way as my father beamed. The power of handing down what is precious to us from generation to generation hit me again when I saw the welcoming exhibit. In this exhibit, a life-size mock-up of a WWII paratrooper hangs in the forefront of another mock up of a contemporary airborne warrior. This fantastic display serves as a powerful reminder that what is now can only truly be understood in the context of what has gone before.

Over the past month, I have bid farewell to three church members who have taken that leap into eternity that we all know as "death". I have participated in two funeral services and will have officiated one more by this week's end. During these times of remembrance, the importance of heritage and values passed down through the generations shines through in the most significant way possible. Funerals are the most important reminders of all that each of us stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before and that only arrogance or near sightedness can prevent us from respecting and appreciating all that has been done to make us who we are and to give us all that we have.

My time with my dad this past week was an important reminder for me personally that we all age and must face our own mortality - a reality that should cause us to pause, inspect our lives and reflect on what is valuable to us. At the same time we must savor the life the Lord has given us and spend our time being about our Father's business sharing not only our earthly heritage, but the rich heritage of faith that has been passed down to us from generation to generation that all might enter into a personal relationship with Lord and know that He is God and that he is good. The Apostle Paul stated it this way when he communicated this truth to his understudy in the faith Timothy
But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus.
We must never forget what we have and from whom we have received it. Today, as you go about your daily routine, take time to reflect upon your personal heritage and renew your commitment to never forget the origins and responsibilities of your heritage of faith. Blessings on you - AMEN and AIRBORNE!! Until next time,