Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Pledge I'd Like Every Christian Leader to Make

I promise not to endorse any political candidate, platform, or party in the 2008 election cycle. I promise instead to use my influence and my recognized position of leader to pursue the mission of the Church, making disciples for Jesus Christ.

This is a pledge which I make as a Christian leader. It's one which I wish every Christian leader in the United States would make.

In 1979, Jerry Fallwell founded the Moral Majority. Since that time a faction of Christians has gained a certain amount of political influence for their own particular agenda and, owing to their legalistic desire to force it down others' throats, the cause of Christ has been harmed immeasurably.

Another faction, most notably led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, has insisted that their brand of politics is Christian.

While the Christian Church must be committed to advocating justice for the poor, the victims of discrimination, the unborn, and others, our primary mission is to make disciples for Jesus Christ.

When we hold Jesus captive to particular philosophies, parties, or candidates, we're really guilty of a kind of idolatry in which we make Jesus over into our image.

In doing so, we also display a profound distrust toward Jesus, failing to believe that through things like service, witnessing, and worship in Jesus' Name, the Holy Spirit can transform people internally so that in their decision-making, including their political decision-making, they will be persuaded, rather than coerced, to do God's will.

In doing so, we further display an egotism in which we value our own political judgments over those of God.

By all means, Christians should be involved in the political process. We should also pray that God will show us how we should behave and believe politically.

But only in the most exceptional of circumstances does a Christian leader have the right to advocate a particular course of political action.

God isn't a Republican.

God isn't a Democrat.

As a Christian leader, I will not whittle the almighty God of the universe down to the level of political gadfly or a ward heeler. I will honor God as God. I will share the message of Jesus. I will pray that God will guide political leaders and make them open to that guidance. I will be an informed citizen, I will pray, and I will vote. But I will not publicly express a political opinion in 2008.

I have more important work to do.

What other Christian leaders would like to take this pledge with me?

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post. Further thanks to Pastor Jeff of Conblogeration for linking to it. Jeff makes the pledge!]

[THANKS TO: EU-DIGEST for linking to this post.]

Christian and Muslim at the Same Time?

No way!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Should Repentant Senator Be Off the Hook with the Law?

Senator David Vitter says that both God and his wife have forgiven him for apparently consorting with members of an alleged DC-area prostitution ring.

Should that end any responsibility or criminal culpability he may have in the matter? The senator evidently thinks that it should.

Ann Althouse poses some interesting questions about why the alleged prostitute has been charged, while one of her self-admitted customers seems to have a well-founded hope that his public statement of contrition will shield him from criminal charges.

Althouse also suggests that Vitter's seemingly noble gesture actually damns the alleged Washington madam before her lawyers have even been able to put on a defense.

Good points. I commented from a Christian perspective:
The last I checked, paying a prostitute is a criminal act.

The senator may well be forgiven by God and his wife. But I point to the Biblical example of King David who, though forgiven for murder and adultery, nonetheless had to deal with grim consequences for his actions.

More recently, I think of Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II. Some months after he'd recovered from the near-fatal assault, the Pope visited Agca in prison. There, he forgave the apparently repentant gunman. But that didn't mean that the Pope was obliged to secure Agca's release. In fact, Agca finished serving his sentence.

Only cheap versions of the Biblical concept of grace suggest that once forgiven, there shouldn't be punishments for crimes.

It's deeply disturbing that the alleged operator of a prostitution ring has been charged with a crime, while so far anyway, one of her alleged high profile customers thinks he can go scott-free by claiming he's repentant and forgiven.

As a pastor I say, "That's great! Now, let's press charges."
Regular readers of Better Living know that I've discussed forgiveness vs. civil accountability, using the examples of both King David and Mehmet Ali Agca, before. Here are links to previous posts in which one or both have figured:
London Bombings: Forgiveness?
How Can the Amish Forgive?
More on Imus: What About Forgiveness?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Called to Be Faithful

[This message was shared during the morning Mission Festival Worship of Hope Lutheran Church, Hamler, Ohio, on Sunday, July 8, 2007. Pastor Norm Norden, who I mention here, is a former pastor at Hope and now an active member of the congregation.]

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Twenty two years ago, when both Norm Norden and I were a lot younger, we attended a workshop in Toledo. I was then pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona and Pastor Norden was serving here. The worskshop speaker that day was a guy named Ed Makrquart, then and now, senior pastor of a Lutheran congregation near Seattle. Markquart had come to discuss how Lutheran churches could become more intentional about sharing Jesus Christ with the unchurched. If I can use some bad words as I start this sermon: Markquart talked with us about evangelism and witnessing.

I liked what Markquart had to say. But I think I got my back up a little bit during the opening part of his presentation. Referring to data compiled by the Glyn Mawr Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, he asked, “Do you know what percentage of the population in your community is unchurched?” How many people in our communities, in other words, had no connection with Christ's Church?

Because Bethlehem's building stands on the county line road, I thought of Henry and Defiance counties, places where you can’t spit without hitting a Lutheran and where there were other thriving Christian churches, too. I said to myself, “I’ll bet 95% of the people there are affiliated with the church.” I was shocked to learn that while 76% of Henry Countians did belong to a church, 24% didn’t!

I went back to my church with a renewed dedication to doing evangelism, to helping the people of Bethlehem become comfortable about sharing Christ with their neighbors, friends, classmates, and co-workers. I was bound and determined that the devil wouldn’t get his paws on the people we could influence to follow Jesus. Some of the Bethlehemmers here today may remember that was when we started running Friend Days and the Witnesses for Christ classes. I know that in the intervening years, many other churches in this area have undertaken similar witnessing and evangelizing efforts.

Now, I believe that activity had some impact. But the other day, I went online and looked up the latest census data for Henry County: Out of a Year 2000 population of 29,210, a total of 19,906 people, or 68% of the population were affiliated with a church. Thirty two percent were unchurched, increase of eight percentage points in the past twenty years. Defiance County was thirty-four percent unchurched!

Those statistics don't even take into account the numbers of people who occupy space on the rosters of churches, but haven’t darkened the doors of places of worship for years!

Nor does it account for those who may attend church regularly, but are otherwise unengaged in living with Christ at the centers of their lives.

It was a little discouraging.

I bring all of this up for two reasons...

Reason one: Something of the same decline in the numbers of active Christian believers we’ve seen all across America is happening even here in Henry County. I’ll bet every one of you can name friends, family members, and neighbors who go through their daily lives without any real contact with Christ and His Church.

Reason two: This decline isn’t entirely because churches and Christians haven’t been trying to share Christ. Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson today that we Christians move into our daily worlds--even in Henry County--as lambs in the midst of wolves. Sometimes the message of new and everlasting life we bear will be welcomed. And sometimes, it won’t be. Our call, as the saying goes, is not to be successful, but to be keep sharing the Good News of Jesus no matter what.

Today, I want to encourage the people of Hope to keep being faithful as witnesses for Jesus. Based on Jesus’ words for us this morning, I want to suggest four simple ways you can do that.

First: Make yourself available to share Christ with others. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls together a group of seventy disciples. He’s going to send them into villages He’s about to visit as a way of preparing those communities for His arrival.

Just a few verses earler in Luke, several different people come up with excuses for not following Jesus or going where He wanted to send them when He calls. “Let me bury my dad first,” one says. “Let me say goodbye to the old gang,” another tells Jesus. Each in their own way were saying, "We can't do what You call us to do, Jesus."

When I was growing up, my Mom had a saying whenever I thought I was incapable of achieving something. “Mark,” she told me, “can’t never did anything.”

This is as true of our faith life as anything else.

Ask the average group of Christians to invite friends, neighbors, or co-workers to worship and they’ll come up with a thousand different reasons they can’t do it. But joy, the kind of joy the seventy in our Bible lesson had when they returned from their “mission trip,” belongs to those who know what they can do with the help of God.

Bill--not his real name--is a member of the congregation I currently serve as pastor, Friendshp Lutheran Church near Amelia, Ohio. He’s an introvert, the last person in the world you’d expect to say anything publicly about his faith in Christ. But Bill told me recently, “I believe God is calling me out of my comfort zone, Mark. That’s why I’m asking God to help me share my faith with others.” Bill and his family have made it their goal to bring two new families into the membership of our congregation by the end of this year. I don’t yet know what God will do with Bill’s availability. But I do know that if two new households do join Friendship because of his faithfulness, Bill is going to be the happiest person in the church!

So, make yourself available to share Christ with others. Second: Connect with the unchurched. Connect with others generally. Jesus told the seventy to eat what was set before them in whatever town they visited. They were to sit around dinner tables and connect to others with the love of Christ.

One of the things that really surprised my wife and me when we first moved here in 1984, was that when people invited you over for lunch on Sunday, the invitation usually also included lunch and dinner and cards in the evening. Spend time like that with folks and you start to get to know each other pretty well!

There are all sorts of people in our world who feel disconnected and alone, people beyond your current network of friends and acquaintances to whom you could extend your famous Henry County hospitality! These are people who need Christians who care enough to connect with them.

My family and I left Bethlehem in August, 1990, called to start a new church in the Cincinnati area. Shortly after arriving there, I met a wonderful family, lifelong Lutherans, active in their church. But their congregation was some distance from where they lived and they were interested in this new church being born. One evening, I visited with them and talked about how I hoped that the new congregation could be a place where people could connect not only with God, but with others. One of the reasons Jesus created the Church, after all, is to foster a fellowship in which you and I can encourage each other with God’s love in good times and bad. The man responded with unexpected fervor. “That sounds great!” he told me. “When I think about it, I don’t really have any friends. I’d love to find some in the church.” That’s one of the reasons I chose to name the congregation Friendship!

Want to be faithful to Christ’s call to share Him with others? Dare to connect with people. You’ll be connecting them with the love of Christ!

Next: Care about the physical needs of others. Jesus told the seventy to heal the sick. While some people may have the specific gift of healing, all we Christians can do the ministry of healing in some ways.

One of the most fantastic elements of life in the churches of this area is your involvement with the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy, the Lutheran Homes Society, and Lutheran Social Services of Northwest Ohio. When I went to the Cincinnati-area, I decided early on that we would try to imitate you in this. So, Friendship is involved in an organization that helps foster care children; in the Boys and Girls Club in our area; and in Habitat for Humanity.

A few weeks ago, a woman visited us on a Sunday morning. “How did you happen to visit us?” I asked her. “I read about all the things you’re doing in the community,” she told me. Whenever you and I seek to share Christ with others by bringing His healing, the world will take notice and some will be won over to following Christ! Some may even join our churches.

Finally, faithful churches will want to tell others about Christ. We have good news: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The seventy shared that message and people believed in Christ.

You and I are surrounded by people who need to hear that same good news and need Christ today. The question, I suppose, is whether you and I will have the patience to keep being available, to keep connecting to the unchurched, to keep caring for people’s physical needs, and to keep telling others about Christ. Or, will we allow ourselves the self-indulgence of staying discouraged?

I will tell you honestly that the last seventeen years haven’t always been easy for my family and me. Friendship has grown slowly. We’ve had setbacks. But along the way, we see God using our congregation to change lives.

Some of you may remember that when I left this community in 1990, I was in braces. Carly--also not her real name--worked in the orthodontist’s office to which I’d been referred in Cincinnati. She was in charge of billing and always worked to ease our financial burdens, first as I moved out of braces, and then, as our son and finally, our daughter went into and out of braces. (When our Cincinnati orthodontist built a new home, I teased him that I was sure that the Daniels family, with three different members in and out of braces in less than ten years, had paid for at least one of the rooms!)

On several different occasions, Carly asked me to perform weddings for members of her family. But she never came to worship with us, even though she’d often see our church’s sign and think, “I need to go there sometime.” We didn’t see her for years.

Then, about a year ago, Carly showed up for worship. “I love this church,” she told me a few weeks ago. On July 22, Carly will become a member of Friendship.

What would have happened to Carly if we’d given up? I don’t know. But I do know that when she becomes a member on that day, my heart will be pounding with gratitude that God is still in business! I'll be thankful that God still works in those patient enough to stick around awhile and let His love shine through.

For all the Carlys and Bills and Johns and Marys right here in Henry County, I urge you to keep being faithful, to never give up.
  • Be available to Jesus.
  • Connect to the unchurched.
  • Bring Christ’s healing to this community.
  • And, for God’s sake, keep telling others the Good News of the Savior Who died and rose to change our lives forever.
That’s your mission.

That’s your privilege.

That’s your joy!