Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thoughts on the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriagee

I am writing these thoughts the day after the Supreme Court ruled that states are no longer allowed to ban same sex marriage.  Although I am assuming mostly Christians--mostly members of my church, in fact--are reading this, I am sure that many of you--Christian or non-Christian--will disagree with at least some of what I say here.  I admit these are my thoughts alone; simply my way of trying to make sense of current events (and how we as Christians should respond) in light of my interpretation of God's Word.  I welcome your comments.

So with that disclaimer, I offer the three things that are most on my mind today:

First, I rejoice at what hasn't changed:   God's love hasn't changed.  He still loves every person, all of whom are made in His image, Christian and non-Christian, gay or straight, black, white, brown, red or yellow, with a love so profound He was willing to die for them...for us.  The power of Christ's blood hasn't changed.  His sacrifice on the Cross was completely and totally victorious.  He is still able to save anyone, gay or straight, who calls out to Him as a repentant sinner in need of redemption. God's commands regarding sex haven't changed.  He created sex to be a beautiful thing, which binds a man and a woman together so deeply, it presents a picture of God's love for His Church, and creates families, the building block of human society (which He made before either Church or State--Genesis 2).  Like most beautiful things, it can be misused.  Any use of sex outside of God's explicitly stated plan--whether it's a married man having a one-night stand, two teenagers in the back seat of his dad's Chrysler, or two people of the same gender--is using sex in a way God never intended.  It may produce short-term pleasure, but it produces long-term damage, physically, emotionally, relationally, and most of all, spiritually, as it pulls us further away from the God who loves us.  And the truth of God's Word hasn't changed.  For decades now, we've lived in a culture which wholeheartedly believes that sexual expression and fulfillment--however one defines it--is an inalienable right.  The logic of that thinking, if we follow it to its obvious conclusion, is horrific.  But it doesn't change the truth of God's Word.  God gave us His commands not to be restrictive, nor to create a standard for showing who is "good" and who is "bad,"  nor to give us a way to earn God's love, which cannot be earned.  His commands are intended to show us a way of living that, no matter what the world says, produces joy, hope, and peace.  His commands come from His loving desire to see us live fulfilling lives.

Second, I shudder at the anger and fear I see and hear from my fellow Christians in public and on social media.  Christians in America have been largely motivated by anger and fear in our response to the larger culture for my entire life, and frankly, I think that's a significant reason why our culture is where it is today (I'll back that statement up in a moment).  Jesus' brother James said, My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness (James 1:19-20).  You may be thinking, "But I am angry with a righteous indignation, like Jesus and the prophets."  When Jesus got angry, it was at religious leaders, whose judgmental attitudes were driving hungry sinners away from a loving God.  When the prophets got angry, it was at Israel, God's own people, for turning away from the God who had saved them and made them a nation. I can't think of one time when God or His messengers were angry at unbelievers for thinking and acting like unbelievers.

"But I love my country, and I'm afraid we'll experience the judgment of God for turning away from His commands."  In Scripture, we see God judge Israel for breaking the Covenant He established with them when He made them a nation.  We see God judge other nations (Egypt, Edom, Assyria, etc) for mistreating Israel.  But we are now under a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31).  God relates to us as individuals now, not as nations.  Besides, God never made a covenant with America; only with Old Testament Israel.  I think our situation is similar to the Jews who were deported to Babylon.  They found themselves as part of a culture they didn't understand, which mocked their beliefs and flouted their moral convictions.  Yet God's instructions to them were not to be angry and afraid, but to Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper Jer. 29:7).  In other words, love the people you live among now.  Be the best Babylonians there are.  But never forget that your true home is Jerusalem.  We are angry because we feel like America has been taken from us, as we see the cultural influence of Christianity drop precipitously over the past few decades.  In truth, America was never ours in the first place.  We are aliens here, even if for a time we held a substantial influence over our culture.  Our Babylon may be the best Babylon on Earth, but it's still Babylon.  Our true home is the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).

Our anger doesn't even make sense.  What would have happened if the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise?  It wouldn't have changed the fact that millions of Americans disagree with biblical commands about sex. It wouldn't have changed the fact that an increasing number of Americans want nothing to do with Christianity.  Let's remember: Our primary mission is not to create laws that force people to behave like Christians.  Our job isn't to try to control people's behavior.  Our purpose is to represent Christ so compellingly, people of all stripes will be drawn to Him and experience eternal and abundant life. Let's face facts: Unless something extremely unforeseen happens, we will never again live in an America in which the cultural consensus agrees with us on sexuality.  The Supreme Court decision didn't change that fact.  Now that it's happened, rather than be angry or afraid, let's be hopeful: Hopeful that the American Church will finally renounce the idol she has made of politics and public rhetoric, and will return to serving our true God (not that we'll abandon politics and public rhetoric, but that we'll keep them in their proper place in our hearts).  Let's be hopeful that American Christians are finally through fighting against gay people and will start loving them as Jesus does.

Speaking of which, when the modern epidemic of AIDS hit thirty years ago, we didn’t respond like the ancient Christians did (sociologist Rodney Stark has written that ancient Christians stood out by aiding victims of epidemics, even pagan victims, even when their own families had left them to die.  Stark says this is one factor that explains how ancient Christianity outlasted the Roman Empire and its religion).  Most of us were just as afraid as everyone else was.  And a few of us said hateful things about those who were dying, as if their sins were worse than ours, as if they deserved to die--forgetting that if God held us accountable for our sins, we’d all be dead immediately.  They didn't speak for most of us, but none of us publicly rebuked their hateful speech, either.  We were too busy thinking to ourselves "I'm glad this is just a 'gay' disease." That's what I meant earlier when I said that our anger and fear are responsible in large part for the society in which we currently live.  If they had seen courageous compassion from us back then (like the world saw from Christians in the first three centuries), things would likely be very different in our culture today.  We blew a huge opportunity then.  Let's not blow another one now.

Finally, more than ever before, I am motivated to pray.  I pray for my fellow Christians, that we would renounce our fear and anger, and let our confusion push us closer to God.  I pray that we would turn away from things that feed our fear and anger--political talk shows on radio and TV, alarmist social media posts and emails that we're tempted to read and forward and "like."  I pray that, instead, we would study the life-giving truth of God's Word, and pray for our own hearts to be more like His.  I pray that I would take advantage of every opportunity in these crucial days, when people are watching--more than ever before--to see how we respond, and that I would show the world a love and compassion and courage that can only come from a gracious, righteous God in me.  I pray that the American Church would experience, at long last, the revival we've been needing.  I pray for Christians who themselves struggle with same-sex attraction.  They receive no support from the larger culture, which tells them their celibacy in obedience to God is stupidity; yet they often feel they cannot share their struggle with their churches.  These are some of the most courageous people I know. I pray for gay people in this country, many of whom see us as their bitter enemy (because that's how we've treated them), that somehow they might come to know God's saving love in spite of their feelings toward us (it happened with Saul of Tarsus, after all).  I'm praying for God's Kingdom to come, His will to be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. 

These days, there is often a concern to be "on the right side of history."  No matter what our political and judicial leaders say, no matter what media opinion-makers broadcast and publish, no matter how badly we Christians manage to mess up, this simple fact remains: Ultimately, whoever is on the side of Jesus is on the right side of history.  Hallelujah.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Jesus and Other Faiths

I found this picture on the internet; so that means there are at least two gas station Halal taco joints in Houston.

Not long ago, I took a different route to the church than usual, and I passed a gas station that had a hand-written sign out front, saying, “Halal Tacos.”  I thought, “Only in Houston can you get Mexican food made in accordance with Muslim dietary restrictions, advertised in English at a gas station.”  We live in what is now the most racially diverse major city in America.  Some of you live in Ft Bend County, the most racially diverse county in the US.  As Christians, that means the mission field is here now.  If you grew up in our part of Houston, you’ve probably known Jewish people your whole life.  But many of our older members grew up in a society where the only time we saw Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists was in National Geographic or on the slideshows that missionaries on furlough would show in our churches.  Now, most of us have at least one neighbor who is of one of those faiths, or something even further from our understanding, like Wicca or Scientology.  Our kids, by contrast, think there's nothing remarkable at all about this religious diversity; their school classrooms looks like mini-United Nations assemblies.  And of course, we’ve all been visited at our homes by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  

Many Christians feel threatened by this.  Some look at passages in the Old Testament that seem to indicate that other religions are threats that should be actively resisted and wonder if that should be our attitude today.  Based on what I see from Christians on social media, this seems to be the way many feel we should respond: With hostility, challenging an enemy.

Others think that talking about our faith, in such a religiously divided society, is a bad idea.  It’s better, they think, to keep our faith private instead of offending someone.  Some even believe, “We’re all worshiping the same God anyway, so let’s not worry about it.”  

What does Scripture tell us?  This Sunday, we'll look at how Jesus and His apostles, plus the Old Testament prophets, interacted with other religious faiths, and what that teaches us today.  

It's our annual International Day at WBC.  It's our chance to come together with the five ethnic mission churches we sponsor: Iranian, Spanish-speaking, Filipino, Cambodian and Korean.  We'll have fellowship around breakfast at 9:30, and worship at 11:00.  This is a unique experience, and one of my favorite services of the year.  Don't miss it!

Friday, June 19, 2015

What should we do with the South Carolina church shooter?

Yesterday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was asked on the Today show if the 21-year-old white man who shot and killed 9 black men and women in a historically black church in Charleston should be executed by the state.

"Absolutely," she said.

I have a problem with that.

To be clear, I would have answered as Haley did.  If any crime deserves the death penalty, this does.  A man comes to a church prayer meeting, sits for an hour listening to a discussion of the Scriptures, then suddenly pulls out a gun and tells the people who have welcomed him into the house of God, "You've raped our women and you're taking over our country," and "I'm going to kill you all," then opens fire.  He reloaded five times.  It's hard to comprehend such cold-blooded evil.

Here's the problem I have with executing this young man: It's too easy.

These are strange, difficult times we're living in.  Every time we turn on the news, we see yet another violent incident with race involved. For many white folks like me, it's confusing: Shouldn't we be beyond this?  As we watch black crowds demonstrate, we grumble on social media, "Why does everything have to be about race?"  It's disturbingly reminiscent of the mid-nineties, with the LA riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, which culminated in the OJ Simpson verdict. The only difference is that in those days, social media hadn't yet been invented (thank God for that much, at least).  The mid-nineties were only a few decades removed from the Civil Rights struggle of the sixties, with its televised scenes of marches, police dogs, fire hoses, and assassinations.   It's almost as if we can count on a series of events, once a generation, that expose once again the racial divide in our country.

Why do our black neighbors complain about discrimination?  For the same reason that a man with a broken leg has a limp: There's a wound that hasn't yet healed.  White people like me would rather not think of such things.  We like the idea that racial issues were sown up in a neat, tidy package when Dr. King overthrew Bull Connor and his ilk with biblical non-violence, and LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act.  We're comfortable condemning the racism of our grandparents, thinking it has nothing to do with us.  But we must confront the facts: A group of people were captured and brought to this country against their will, enslaved for centuries, then upon their emancipation, were subject to a series of laws that disenfranchised them in ways almost equal to slavery.  A nation cannot inflict such injustice upon a group of people, then criticize them for not getting over it as quickly as we'd like them to.  Of course, very few of us today are directly responsible for the racial divide we live with.  I'm not saying we should live in a constant state of White Guilt.  But we can at least acknowledge the problem.  We can at least listen.

The real problem is that we--all of us, black, white, brown and otherwise--hate to face our own sins. God knows this about us, and He refuses to let us off lightly.   If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, says 1 John 1:8.  We want the evil in our hearts--in our nation--to be easily destroyed.  Just put this sick nut to death, end of story.  That's too easy.  We have to own up to the evil in our own hearts.  We have to admit that, deep down, we're not good.  We're twisted, destructive, irredeemably wicked.


Unless there's a moral force out there righteous enough to incinerate the evil.  Of course, since the evil is bound up in you and me, that's bad news for us.  Sin is destroyed, but so are we.


Unless the One possessing such righteous hatred of sin also loves us with an incomprehensible love.  Thank God, He does.  And so the one who is unimpeachably just is also willing to be our Justifier.  And so the destroyer of sin destroyed Himself in order to rid us of sin.  And so, as 1 John 1:9 goes on to say, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Granted, while that makes us individually right with God (Hallelujah!), it doesn't solve the racial divide in our nation.  I don't know how to do that. I have an inherent skepticism that legislation alone, no matter how well-intentioned--can do the trick.  But I believe the Gospel shows us the way: The healing begins is in us admitting we have a problem, and listening.  We're commanded by Jesus to love our neighbors.  If the demonstrations of this past year tell us anything, it's that a group of our neighbors are hurting deeply.  Instead of telling them their pain is illegitimate or inconsequential, instead of denying responsibility for their pain, the love of Jesus demands that we at least listen to what they are saying.  

So whatever happens to this man in South Carolina, executing him won't solve the problem.  Once this current spasm of racial unrest ends, in a year or two or three, we can count on another one in another twenty years or so.  Only love will heal the wound: the love it takes to listen to people telling us things we don't want to hear.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Worth of a Child

A shot from our VBS worship rally this morning (thanks Kyle Damron for taking this).  Vacation Bible School is a little different than it was in my day.  

We're in the midst of Vacation Bible School week here at WBC.   When I was a kid growing up in Hope Baptist Church, we sang special songs every year at VBS time.  One was “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  Here at WBC, we sing that song every year at Christmastime in conjunction with the world missions offering.  You know how it goes, right?  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  I once had a very good friend named Robert Casarez, who insisted that the song should say, “Red BROWN yellow, black and white…” and honestly, that’s how I sing it to this day.  This Sunday, we’re looking at the story from Scripture that gave birth to that song: Mark 10:13-16.  I’m in a series right now called Relationships in the Real World.  The past two Sundays, we talked about relationships between the genders.  In coming weeks, we’ll talk about relationships with people of other faiths, people of no faith at all, and the people we work with.  But Sunday, I want us to look at how our faith in Christ changes the way we relate to children.  This applies not just to parents, but all Christians.  We should see children through the eyes of God.  So as we get into the text, let’s look at three things: What does this reveal about how God sees children?  How did that change the ancient world?  And how do we as modern-day American Christians need to change the way we relate to children? 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Biblical Womanhood

No, I won't be dressing up as Willy Wonka this Sunday; but I will be preaching on womanhood.  Which is a bigger mistake?  I leave that to you to judge.  

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, you often saw ads in magazines showing old black-and-white photos of dowdy women doing menial chores, juxtaposed with a dazzlingly beautiful, full-color modern woman with a cigarette in her hand.  The tagline said, “You've come a long way, baby.”  It was the golden age of feminism, and Virginia Slims were the cigarette just for women.  “See ladies: Lung cancer and emphysema aren't just for men anymore!”  In many ways, we can say that women have come a long way in my lifetime.  But still, as I look around at our world, it must be hard to be a woman.  You face stresses men like me never even dream of.  These days, you’re held to an impossible standard of beauty.  Essentially, the world expects you to look your entire life like you did when you were sixteen.  No one expects that of a man.  And while you’re supposed to maintain this flawless skin and perfect hair and slim body, you’re also expected these days to be as physically tough and capable as any man.  You have to be successful in your career, but also be a perfect mom, whose children behave perfectly and dress fashionably and win every competition and get into the best schools.  You have to give birth to those children, of course.  The father of those children is no help at that point; his contribution is over as soon as the fun part ends.  And you have to do all of this in four-inch heels.  To make matters worse, now you have some male preacher telling you how to do it. 

Remember these ads?

Seriously, I am utterly unqualified to tell you anything about how to be a woman.  My job this Sunday is to tell you what the God who created you has to say.  What would He say to women today?  Specifically, what would He say to you about how you relate to men?  Let’s start with Genesis 3:16.  Last week, I preached on Biblical Manhood, and I said this verse is often wrongly used to justify male dominance.  But this isn't a command from God; it’s Him telling us the consequences of our sin.  When it says your desire will be for your husband, it doesn't mean that women will always find their husbands physically desirable (guys, don’t you wish that’s what it meant?).  It’s the same word God uses in 4:7, when He says to Cain, Sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.  It means “desire to control.”  So God is saying, “I created you to fit together perfectly, to co-exist beautifully.  But now that there is sin, there will always be trouble between men and women.  Women will try to control men, and men, since they are physically stronger, will oppress women.”  That’s not the way God wants it to be; it’s the way things are when we follow our sinful natures instead of His Spirit.  Last week, we looked at God’s instructions to men that counteract that curse.  Now, what would God say to women?  That's what I'll be talking about Sunday.