February 2013

How would you end the Prodigal parable?

February 19 2013 by Larry Doyle, Baptist Press

GREENSBORO – A few weeks ago, one of the TV programs my wife and I enjoy watching did something unusual with the ending. The network invited the TV audience to vote how they wanted the story to end. A number appeared on the screen during a commercial, along with three optional endings. Supposedly, the ending of the story was decided by popular vote.

I was intrigued by the idea of helping to decide how the story would end. It made me think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus gave His listeners an opportunity to write their ending to the story.

The story is about a wealthy man who had two sons. The younger son asked his father to give him the portion of his inheritance he would normally receive after the father’s death. Amazingly, the father obliged his son, and distributed to both children their portion of the family wealth. The younger son then left home and squandered his fortune in a far away land. After losing everything, the younger son realized his desperate situation, decided to return home and ask his father to take him on as a hired servant. When he returned home, the father welcomed him, not as a servant, but as a son. The father threw a party to celebrate his return. When the older brother heard about his brother’s return, and the celebration, he became furious. He refused to go into the house where the festivities were taking place. The father left the party to beg his eldest to come in and join the festivities. At this point, Jesus abruptly ended the parable.

Suppose this was a television drama, and you were invited to choose the ending. How would you finish the story? Would the elder son reconcile with his brother? Would there be any accountability for what the younger son did with the family fortune? Would he be required to pay back what he wasted?

There is a powerful impact to the unfinished story. This is a parable about grace. God’s grace does not make sense from a human point of view. It seems unfair and even outrageous. For some people, this kind of undeserved charity makes them angry. The young man treated his father with contempt, and when he returned home, he did not specifically ask his father for forgiveness. Some scholars believe the grammatical construction of the story suggests the son’s return home was just one more attempt to “play his father.” It is possible the “pigpen conversion” was more about saving his own skin, than about reconciling with his father. Although he knew he had “sinned against heaven,” he never asked for his father’s forgiveness. He never said, “I’m sorry.”

This however, is the amazing thing about God’s grace! The Father forgives us even when we do not deserve it. The scriptures say, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:10). Grace is about God’s heart, not ours. Grace has nothing to do with rules and fairness. Grace has everything to do with unmerited favor and love that “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

Actually, we are the “older brother.” Each of us writes our ending to this parable every day. We do so in the way we choose to respond and relate to the undeserving, unrepentant people in our family, our community and our nation.

How do we respond when it comes to extending grace to others? How gracious will we be to those who have broken our rules and wasted “our” resources? Do we extend grace based on love rather than justice? What is more important – rules or relationships?

Do we enter into God’s celebration, or do we stand on the outside unable to enjoy the celebration of God’s unmerited favor and love? Do we joyfully say, “How awesome to see the Father’s forgiveness and to have my brother home,” or do we self-righteously say, “How outrageous to see what this reprobate is getting away with!”

How do we end the parables in our lives?

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Larry Doyle is director of missions of the Piedmont Baptist Association in North Carolina.)
2/19/2013 3:21:09 PM by Larry Doyle, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

How to pray in a ‘second’ language

February 19 2013 by Art Toalston, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – To speak and pray in a “second” language, you don’t need Rosetta Stone.

Everyone has an opportunity to think, speak and pray in God’s language – scripture, the foundational language of the universe.

Scripture carries God’s revelation and message to mankind, setting forth His forgiveness and grace among those who turn to Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Then, through the Holy Spirit, scripture has the power to extend deeply into our souls, into the parts of our earthly existence from which all language and human behavior arise. All other languages are but conduits for scripture, the heart language of God.

Every word in the Bible, in one way or another, is part of the sustenance that God can supply for an adventurous yet tender faith that can be wondrously wholesome and fulfilling, stretching forward from this point in your life throughout eternity.

Consider, for starters, the following brief passages from scripture as potential prayers. Or select some from your own reading of the Bible. Pick one and patiently begin to memorize it, ponder it, absorb it into your soul. Quote it (as best you can) whenever it comes to mind, especially when you and God come together in prayer. After a couple of weeks or longer, pick another in response to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Then another and another in the weeks and months ahead. Whenever they fade from memory, venture back to them via review and re-memorization, which often leads to a new level of precious rejuvenation.

  • Romans 10:9: “... if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” If, by the Holy Spirit’s stirring, Jesus becomes the heart cry of your soul, move forward by surrendering your life to Him. Usually, “surrender” is a term of defeat but, with God, it is a term of victory over the confines of earth.
  • Galatians 5:22-23: “... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” More than a series of words, this is an important picture of a person who yearns to reflect the qualities that God imparts through the Holy Spirit. Both you and God will take pleasure as these godly traits become increasingly evident in your life – evident to you as well as to others.
  • James 3:17: “... the wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” At first glance, this may seem like a perplexing description of wisdom. And perhaps so, because it originates with God, not human philosophy. So try this: The next time you face a significant decision, repeat this verse to yourself several times. Quite possibly, you will begin to gain insight into ways that your decision can be made with godly wisdom.
  • Matthew 4:4: ... “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the same way that we cannot see the air that we breathe nor the molecules of nourishment in what we eat and drink, the individual words of Scripture are vast in number, yet they form the framework for God’s counsel regarding every facet of life. Regularly examine your heart to make sure you haven’t lost sight of any element of God’s redemption or any nuance in His call to godly, compassionate living amid the emptiness and tumult in our communities and throughout the world.
  • Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.....” While there are many dimensions of knowing God, this verse reflects the fact that God speaks through silence in ways that, beyond our earthly understanding, give greater depth to our efforts to pray, to absorb the riches of scripture, and to live out our faith by word and deed. Amid the chores, challenges and opportunities that tend to occupy to our lives, there are some things we can only know when we are silent with God.
  • Romans 5:10: “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” A twofold truth shines forth in this verse: Christ not only died on the cross to make the ultimate payment for sin, but He rose from the dead in the ultimate supernatural victory of the ages. In His ascension to heaven, He has empowered the Holy Spirit to provide an ongoing infusion of His life into our lives, nurturing an inner transformation by which we are continually growing in His divine nature.
  • Acts 3:19: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord....” Plenty of skeptics take delight in needling Christians about how little “fun” they can have. Yet there is a unique, overarching enjoyment in being rescued from the demoralizing ravages of sin and continually being refreshed and nurtured by God’s grace.
  • 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Just as you wash your hands whenever they become dirty, it is important to cleanse your soul each time it becomes spiritually unclean. We would never be content for germs and grime to accrue on our hands, and we should never be content for sin to accrue in our hearts and minds. First John 1:9 is God’s soap, so to speak, enabling us to return to our daily pursuit of his highest, purest intentions for our lives.
  • Psalm 119:11: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Immorality of various sorts may seem inconsequential, pleasurable, even justifiable – for a season – but sooner or later it exacts a toll, whether in a sudden onslaught or a slowly tightening grip of guilt and regret. Just as multiple temptations arise each day, multiple opportunities to draw closer to the Lord can be nurtured through scriptures that help lift us from our most vulnerable inner weaknesses.
  • Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” A yearning to be pure in our thoughts, our motives and our actions is evidence of an ever-blossoming faith. Yet, this simple sentence spoken by Jesus adds an ultimate, eternal reality: The pure in heart will see God. The purity to have eyes of faith to see God in heaven will flow from His grace of new birth in our earthly lives in tandem with His grace of forgiveness whenever we seek his cleansing from sin.
  • Psalm 119:14: “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.” An initial glance at the first part of this verse might yield a lukewarm, perplexed or incredulous response to the idea of rejoicing over God’s commands. But then comes the second part of the verse about great wealth. It’s odd how, in our humanness, we sometimes have little enthusiasm for obeying God yet great enthusiasm for monetary gain. Yet, without doubt, there is cause for great rejoicing when our souls are invigorated each day by the depth and breadth of God’s wisdom for every moment of life.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. This article is adapted from “When I Meditate,” an ebook by Art Toalston available at eBookIt.com (http://bit.ly/PjrCgz), Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online sites.)
2/19/2013 3:14:06 PM by Art Toalston, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Who determines a Bible verse’s meaning?

February 18 2013 by David Roach, Baptist Press

SHELBYVILLE, Ky. – Any seasoned attendee of Bible studies knows the scene all too well. The group reads a scripture passage. Then the leader asks, “What does this passage mean to you?” only to receive a collection of answers that are varied, whacky, and even contradictory. Finally, the leader brings discussion to a polite conclusion by saying something like, “The Bible is so rich that it can mean something different to each one of us.” But is that true?

Well, it depends. If the leader means simply that a biblical principle (like “love your neighbor as yourself”) has different applications to each person, then yes, it is true. One person in the group might need to love his boss, another his son, and another her husband. The ways we can apply scripture to our lives are myriad. Yet that’s not what many well-intentioned Bible study leaders mean when they say the Bible means different things to different people. They mean that different readers of the same passage are justified in drawing vastly different theological principles from the text. And that’s a problem.

For example, I have been told by theology professors that in John 20:28, the Apostle John was affirming the deity of Jesus by recording Thomas’s exclamation to the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God!” But Jehovah’s Witnesses who once knocked on my door took the verse very differently. They told me it doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ being divine; it’s just an instance of a bewildered Thomas taking the Lord’s name in vain. So who’s right? My theology professors and these visitors to my house cannot both be correct. Who determines what a Bible passage means?

The obvious, but often overlooked, answer is ... the author. Like any other written document, a Bible book means what its author intended and not something that contradicts what its author meant to say. When you write a check for $100, the banker cannot decide that it means he should take $200 out of your account. When you write an email telling someone to meet you at 10 a.m., the recipient should not decide that the email means he should meet you at 4 p.m. In all ordinary writing, we assume that a document means what its author intended to communicate.

Turning to the Bible specifically, that’s how the apostles meant for us to interpret both the Old and New Testaments – according to the human author’s intentions. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter rebukes those who twist Paul’s letters to distort his intended meaning. In Philemon 21, Paul expresses confidence that Philemon will understand what he means in the letter. And in Acts 8:34, an Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to explain what the prophet Isaiah meant when he wrote Isaiah 53:7-8. For the apostles, it wasn’t the reader who determined meaning, but the author.

Of course, there were times when the Holy Spirit inspired a biblical author to write something with implications beyond what he understood – particularly when Old Testament authors prophesied about Christ. But those implications never contradicted the author’s intended meaning. God revealed His Word using human authors who consciously communicated specific principles.

As you can see, this has major implications for the way we study our Bibles. Rather than asking, “What does this verse mean to you?” Christian Bible studies should first ask, “What did this verse mean to its author?” Contrary to what some claim, it is not an unanswerable question. By studying the language, grammar, context and other elements of any passage – by doing the hard work of Bible study – we can answer this question. And by answering it, we’re in a position to let God’s truth transform our lives. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door had answered this question, it might not only have changed their beliefs about Christ’s deity, but their entire lives as well.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article first appeared at Bible Mesh, an online discipleship resource to help people from all backgrounds grow in their knowledge of the Bible and how it applies to all of life. David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky.)
2/18/2013 1:59:14 PM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

A ‘religion for atheists’? Let’s take a look

February 18 2013 by Kelly Boggs, Baptist Press

ALEXANDRIA, La. – For many atheists, a belief in a supreme being is not only foolhardy, but it also is dangerous. According to these disciples of unbelief, the religious doctrines that flow from the idea of God – particularly from the adherents of Christianity – are chiefly responsible for most of the ills on earth.

Alain de Botton does not agree with many of his fellow atheists on the subject of religion. In fact, the Swiss-born, London-dwelling author believes many teachings found in religion hold the keys to a better world.

In his most recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, de Botton, “suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it – because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies,” according to a description on Amazon.com.

In de Botton’s view, religion was “invented to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill....”

The first of the two needs de Botton acknowledges is “the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.”

De Botton believes the second necessity of mankind is “the need to cope with the terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

In grappling with these needs, de Botton attempts to deal with age-old questions for which the belief system known as atheism has no real answers.

“The real issue is not whether or not God exists,” he writes, “but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”

Religion for Atheists is de Botton’s attempt to create a moral construct for a society where God does not exist – amorality that he believes is a necessity based on human need.

“The premise of this book,” writes de Botton, “is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.”

Apart from Religion For Atheists and perhaps because of the book, de Botton has authored a brief “Manifesto for Atheists” where he espouses 10 virtues that would help better society,: Resilience, Empathy, Patience, Sacrifice, Politeness, Humor, Self-Awareness, Forgiveness, Hope and Confidence.

De Botton’s list is far from original. The Bible exhorts us to embrace theses virtues. However, I find one articulated by de Botton particular interesting, especially against the backdrop of atheism. In explaining the reason for hope, de Botton writes, “Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.” Remember, according to de Botton, one of the needs of humans is to cope with the many pains of life, such as the death of a loved one and the realization of one’s own demise.

I commend de Botton’s attempt to be respectful to religion – Christianity in particular. However, it is precisely here that I believe his ideas hit a snag.

When one rejects the existence of God, the reality of a Creator is utter nonsense. Hence, all that is in the earth, including human beings, is the product of matter or energy shaped by chance. There is no other explanation for the atheist.

So, if man is nothing more than a creature that has won the “evolutionary lottery,” why does he need hope? More precisely, how does one convey hope to a being that has come into existence purely by evolutionary chance?

What hope does atheism offer the parents who find their infant lifeless in its crib, a victim of SIDS? What hope does it offer a person dying of cancer?

For hope to have any meaning at all it must be anchored in something. For the Christian, hope is rooted in a God who loves fallen mankind and offers eternal redemption. The visible manifestation of this hope is found in Jesus’ righteous life, sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection.

A creature shaped by chance really has no hope or meaning, other than to live life the way he or she sees fit.

If there is no God, why should I care about someone’s subjective list? Why should I be polite or patient? Why should I forgive? If life is short and it is all I have, then why should I care about anybody but myself? After all, we live in a world that insists truth and virtue are subjective and relativistic. Hence, one man’s virtue can well be seen by another as weakness. So if I can get what I want by being rude, why be polite?

This is not to say there are not good and moral atheists by a society’s standard. There are. This also is not to say there are those who claim belief in God and who do not follow the virtues articulated in the Bible. However, for the followers of Christ, there is a constant standard and accountably.

The ultimate “why” for the follower of Christ for seeking virtue lies in the fact that he or she has been redeemed. The sincere Christian understands that he or she has been transformed by God’s love. Gratitude for this transformation results in a desire to live out the divine virtues articulated in the Bible.

In de Botton’s view, it seems we might well be devolving. By “inventing” God and the virtues so helpful to the individual and society, it would seem our more “primitive” ancestors had a greater insight into human psychology and sociology than do we in sophisticated modern society. Either that, or they knew God.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)
2/18/2013 1:55:37 PM by Kelly Boggs, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Ready, set wait! Trusting God in your waiting season

February 15 2013 by Katie McCoy, Baptist Press

FORT WORTH, Texas – When I was about 8 years old, my family had a bunch of people over for a pool party. I was so excited to jump in with the crowd until my parents told me that since I’d just gotten over being sick, I’d have to sit this party out. 

I was disappointed, to say the least. I had my very fashionable goggles and was ready to go, only to find out that “for my good” I would have to sit on the sidelines, by myself, when everyone else was having a party. To my 8-year-old social life, this was devastating. All the people were there, the pool was right there – all I had to do was jump in! I was supremely bummed.

But later, as I was sulking on the porch, my parents surprised me with the reason for the restriction: In just a few days I’d be getting on a plane and traveling 3,000 miles to see my favorite childhood friends. My little 3rd grade heart was elated. All of sudden I didn’t feel so left out. Another sniffling nose or earache would have made for a rather miserable trip. Then I realized that what seemed like a joy-stealing restriction was actually a preparation. Once I realized what was coming, I didn’t mind temporarily sitting off to the side.

While the days of pool parties may have passed, there are still times when it seems like I’m sitting on the sidelines, waiting for some divine revelation to make sense of all the “whys.” Maybe you’ve been there too, asking God: Where do I go from here? What’s the next step? Is this ever going to change?

Sometimes we feel stuck waiting for the answer. Or, perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that we have the answer, but God doesn’t seem to be on the same page. The solution is seemingly right there – you could just jump in! But, for whatever reason, you’ve been given what seems like a joy-stealing restriction or another closed door and you’re left wondering whether God really is the caring, involved Father that He says He is.

But learning to wait on the Lord seems to be an unavoidable aspect of the Christian walk. Miles Stanford said, “God does not hurry in His development of our Christian life. He is working from and for eternity! So many feel they are not making progress unless they are swiftly and constantly forging ahead” (Principles of Spiritual Growth). If the pace of our lives is in His hands, then even our seasons of silence are for a purpose that goes way beyond our current circumstance. 

In fact, one biblical woman shows us that how we wait for God is just as important as what we’re waiting for Him to do. Hannah had wanted just one thing from the Lord – a son. After enduring years of being reproached in her society, ridiculed by the child-bearing second wife, and perhaps feeling forgotten by God, she pleaded with the Lord: “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11). She prayed, wept and poured out her soul. Then, without any guarantee that the Lord would even fulfill her longing, Hannah got up and “her face was no longer sad” (verse 16). She trusted the heart of God even before she knew His answer. She had surrendered herself to whatever He had in store.

But what’s even more striking about Hannah’s request was her focus. In the deepest cry of her heart, her focus was still not on her own happiness. She had already determined that, should God give her the one blessing she wanted, she wouldn’t hold onto it for herself. Hannah vowed that if the Lord gave her a son – the one thing in this life that she wanted – she would give that son back to the Lord, dedicating him to His service.

Perhaps we can learn something from this woman in waiting. Hannah surrendered to trusting the will and timing of God, even if it meant giving back the very blessing she’d hoped for all these years. God did give Hannah a son (1 Samuel 1:20), and Hannah gave her son back to God (1 Samuel 1:28). It was only when she determined to give God glory in whatever He chose to give her that she was finally blessed with it.

It’s true – we don’t have any guarantee that our specific request will be given. If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to hear Hannah’s story and think “OK, great! All I have to do is want God’s will above all else and then He will have to say yes!” Our hearts could be entirely surrendered and yielded, and in the wisdom of God, our circumstances may stay the same. But perhaps what Hannah’s story would teach us today is that when we pursue God for who He is more than for what He can do, our waiting seasons don’t have to be miserable. When we rest in the truth that the same God who ordered our steps (Psalm 37:23) is our loving Father who wants only our good, and gives only good things to His children (Matthew 7:11), then our seasons of waiting can become times of expectant hope. What may seem like a setback or a delay is actually His perfecting preparation. Like Hannah, when our hearts are more intent on displaying the reality of God than obtaining His blessings – when we let go of those hopes we cling to so tightly and surrender to His perfect will – perhaps then we come to a place where He can act for and through us.

What do you find yourself waiting on today? Will you trust that even in your seasons of silence, God has a refining purpose? Sure, you could jump into the convenient, “quick-fix” solution, tired of feeling restricted and like you’re on the outside looking in. But God has promised that He is good to those who wait for Him (Psalm 27:14) and that if you’re called according to His purpose, He will work all things together for your good (Romans 8:28). 

He has only good in mind for you! Even more, The Lord has already promised that He will fulfill His purpose for you (Psalm 138:8) and that none of those who wait for the Lord will be ashamed (Psalm 25:3). Will you trust His kind intentions for you, even when it feels like you’ve been forgotten? Will you wait for Him to act when it seems like you’ll never see the results?

“For since the world began, no ear has heard, and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” (Isaiah 64:4). Will you wait on the Lord in your waiting season?

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at BiblicalWoman.org, a blog of Southwestern Seminary. Katie McCoy is the editor of BiblicalWoman.com and is pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Southwestern Seminary.)
2/15/2013 1:45:42 PM by Katie McCoy, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Video games & violence

February 15 2013 by Eric Reed, Baptist Press

WHEATON, Ill. – A man described to me a game his teenage son played at church. It’s an electronic version of paintball, where kids wired up in battle gear shoot each other with beams of light. “We’re going to give him all the equipment for Christmas,” the dad said. “It’s kind of expensive, but he’s a good kid. He doesn’t ask for much. I think he deserves it.”

“Really?” I responded. “He deserves to aim a laser gun at other kids and pull a trigger until they are all, um, eliminated? It sounds like you’re teaching your son to kill.”

“Oh, you’re making too much of it. It’s just a game.”

I objected. For more than an hour.

That conversation was two years ago. In light of the mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school in December, I feel even more strongly about my objection to the “game.”

As a denomination, Southern Baptists took up the cause of the unborn not long after abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. By several counts, the number of babies aborted in the U.S. since 1973 is almost 56 million.

Every year, many congregations mark “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday” near the January anniversary of the court ruling. And many Christians participate in pro-life activities, standing outside abortion clinics, placing fields of white crosses on church lawns to demonstrate the numbers of babies lost, and supporting crisis pregnancy ministries to aid pregnant women.

That work is admirable, and must continue until abortion is ended. But what the killings in Newtown tell me is that in our recent discussions of the sanctity of life, we’ve missed the value of the already born.

Our culture has so devalued life that death seems to have little consequence. And we’re teaching that to our children every day. Parents might dismiss this as a predictable preacher’s rant, but I think it’s time to examine carefully the influences we allow into our kids’ lives and the values we uphold before them.

In so many movies and video games, for example, the goal is killing, and killing is rewarded. And for shooters who do the deed electronically, there’s no blood, no corpse, no funeral, no consequence for their actions – other than scoring points.

Perhaps it’s time for a field trip to the cemetery, so children can see that death is real, grief is deep, and life must be valued and protected.

And we need to broaden our discussion of the sanctity of life again, starting rightly with the unborn, but also including the first-grader in the classroom, the teenager on the gang-dominated streets, the despondent contemplating suicide, and the terminally ill. Sanctity of life is about protecting all the living.

Life has value – on earth and ultimately in heaven. But let’s not rush getting there.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared in the Illinois Baptist newspaper, online at http://www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist. Eric Reed is a pastor and journalist
living in Wheaton. He serves as editorial consultant for IBSA media.)

2/15/2013 1:39:49 PM by Eric Reed, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

A new generation of black missionaries

February 14 2013 by Erich Bridges, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. – One half of 1 percent.

That’s the percentage of the 4,900 Southern Baptist international missionaries who are African American. They number 27. Even that tiny total represents progress. Not so long ago, you could count black Southern Baptist missionaries on two hands – and have some fingers left over. 

Times have changed. Attitudes have changed. Demographics have changed. Leaders have changed: Fred Luter, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), made history last year as the first African American elected to lead the nation’s largest Protestant church body.

And SBC churches have changed. More than 10,000 of the convention’s 50,000-plus congregations now identify themselves as non-Anglo. That’s a 66 percent jump since 1998, according to the latest statistics from the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research. The largest increase has come in African American congregations, which grew by a whopping 82.7 percent between 1998 and 2011. Some 1 million African Americans in about 3,400 churches now represent 6.25 percent of total SBC church membership.

So why aren’t there more black Southern Baptists taking the gospel to the nations? The daily challenges on their own doorsteps have something to do with it.

“A lot of our African American churches are in the ‘hood,” says Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans (see story). “[People ask me], ‘Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.’”

Luter, who visited International Mission Board (IMB) offices recently and preached to staff members, pledges to help overcome that mindset by modeling missions commitment, educating churches about global needs – and instilling God’s vision for missions in a new generation of African Americans.

“I want to challenge the pastor to start with our young people,” he says.

Young people like Jonathan Marshall,* 26, who is completing his service in North Africa and the Middle East. Last summer Marshall told about his work during Black Church Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. “My topic is ‘Young Black Men in Missions,’” he told listeners with a grin. “But I’m the only one, so I’m going to talk about myself.” At the time, Marshall was the only single, male African American serving as an IMB worker.

But 1,200 people from predominantly black churches attended the conference, including a contingent of teens and college-age folks, and they heard mission challenges from Marshall and others.

Seeing, hearing and following others who are blazing the trail – those are keys to nurturing a generation of African Americans with a heart for the world, according to Keith Jefferson, IMB’s African American church missional strategist. Jefferson served for 16 years as an IMB missionary in Brazil. But he never seriously considered overseas service until he was personally challenged by David Cornelius, his predecessor as African American strategist, who was a missionary for many years in Africa.

Increasing exposure to the world in a hyper-connected age is another key.

“The world is becoming smaller and smaller,” Jefferson says. “African American professionals are traveling worldwide. Communication is becoming greater and greater. Younger people especially are communicating with people throughout the world, and they are more adventurous. They’re not ‘set.’ They’re open to new things.”

From early childhood through high school and college, young African American Christians need to be “groomed” for missions, Jefferson stresses. He urges pastors, teachers and mentors to tell young people, “You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a nurse, yes, but some of you are going to be missionaries.”

Young people who start out by serving overseas for a few weeks or a summer through programs such as International World Changers are more open to serving for a semester, Jefferson says. Those who give a semester are more likely to give two years through the Journeyman Program or International Service Corps. And many two-year workers go on to become career missionaries.

The opportunities are limitless. The time for delay or rationalization is over.

“God is calling us, because like every other child of God, we have a responsibility,” Jefferson says. “We don’t have any excuses.”

To learn more about how your church can play a key role in reaching the world, contact Keith Jefferson, IMB African-American missional church strategist, at kjefferson@imb.org or (800) 999-3113, ext. 1422. Subscribe to a bimonthly Black Missions Link e-newsletter here.

*Name changed.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is IMB’s global correspondent. Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com.)

Related story

SBC president urges more African Americans to mission field
2/14/2013 2:52:04 PM by Erich Bridges, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

What’s in an Old Testament name?

February 14 2013 by Mark Coppenger, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – It’s fun to study surnames, or last names, as distinguished from Christian names, or first names. Back in history, when things got crowded, they had to add second names to sort out all the people named “John” or “James” or “Mary” or “Ruth.” So they turned to four contextual features – location (as in Lois “Hill”); parentage (as in James “Williamson”); physical characteristic (as in John “Armstrong”); and occupation (as in Mary “Miller”).

The same names occur today in many languages in the West. For instance, “son (or ‘kin’) of John” turns up as Jansen and Jensen in Scandinavia, Johnson and Jenkins in England, Owens and Evans in Wales, Ionescu in Romania, and Ivanovich in Russia. And the occupation of metalworker shows up as Smith in England, Kowalski in Poland, and Ferrara in Italy. (And yes, it’s fortunate the Ferrari was made in Italy, for who wants to drive a car called a Smith?)

Furthermore, names often come in groups. In England, a “leigh” was a clearing or meadow, so when a person was associated with a stony meadow, he became Stoneleigh, which morphed into the more common Stanley. And then you start to notice other “leys” – such as Oakley (meadow with oak trees). Then there are the “cottage” names, whether based on location (Westcott, on the west side of town) or the occupant (Prescott, where the priest lived).

It’s fun to see similar groupings in the Old Testament.

Let’s start with the generic name for God, “El,” which shows up as the ending of Ezekiel (“God is strong”), Nathaniel (“Gift of God”), and Emmanuel (“God with us”). Alternatively, a name may begin with El, as in Elishah (“God is Savior”) or Eliezer (“God is help”).

God, of course, has a proper name, too. It’s “Yahweh,” which is abbreviated as “Yah” or “Jah,” and often shows up as “iah” in Bible names – Jeremiah (“Yah is high”), Nehemiah (“Yah is comfort”), and Jedidiah (“Yah is a friend”).

Consider, too, names built on the Hebrew word for “king” – “melek” or “melech” – such as in Abimelech (“father of the king”) and Ebedmelech (“servant of the king”). Then, by combining words for God and king, we get Elimelech (“God is king”).

Continuing with reference to God, there is the word for Lord, “Adoni,” which appears in Adoni-Zedek (“Lord of righteousness”). Then, combining this word for righteousness, zedek, we get Melchizedek, which begins with a form of the word for king (“my king is righteousness”).

So on and on it goes. And the person who knows even a few Hebrew words can find the Old Testament less mysterious. Even the genealogies become more genial. So when you read 1 Chronicles 2:41, you might notice that when “Jekamiah begat Elishama,” somebody was talking about God. (Indeed, they were, as with “Jah is standing” and “God is hearer.”)

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at the blog of BibleMesh, a website that teaches the Bible as a unified story pointing to Christ. Mark Coppenger is director of the Nashville extension center for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.)
2/14/2013 2:49:56 PM by Mark Coppenger, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Guns & mass shootings

February 13 2013 by Barrett Duke, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – The recent death of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., is truly heartbreaking. And this was just the latest in a stunning list of shooting tragedies. I share the desire to stop this from ever happening again.

Many are focusing on gun control as the solution. There are some good proposals, but some common sense also is needed. For one, background checks should be required for all commercial gun sales, including gun shows and Internet sales. Most states do not require this. But there must be some limits. A father should be able to give a hunting rifle to his son, for example, without the necessity of a background check. We also must recognize that background checks alone will not end these senseless killings. Most of those responsible for the mass shootings in the last 30 years would have passed a background check.

Limiting the availability of certain guns, like so-called assault rifles, also seems reasonable. The Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is not absolute. Already, the average citizen cannot own certain military-style weapons, like tanks and mortars. But we need to remember that the Second Amendment was intended to empower citizens to protect themselves and their property. Someone who believes he needs a gun for protection should be able to buy one that gives him the confidence it will protect him. A single woman may want the assurance her gun fires a lot of bullets as fast as possible so she doesn’t have to worry about being calm enough to take aim as her assailant comes after her.

Reducing the capacity of magazines can be helpful as well. This could at least slow down someone attempting to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But it doesn’t take that much time to change magazines, so I’m not sure this is much of a solution. Once the shooting starts, most people will be running away, not waiting for a few seconds’ break in the shooting in order to tackle the killer. And again, that single woman I mentioned may need more than 10 bullets if she is shaking with fear as she fires. But some reasonable limit makes sense. A hundred bullet magazine hardly seems necessary.

It seems possible that reducing the capacity of magazines has potential in mass shooting incidents if others also have guns, like security guards. If the killer had to change magazines more often, potential victims would have a brief opportunity to raise their heads and fire back. There is the risk that innocent people could be hit by return fire, but still this combination of measures would likely reduce the number of victims.

Ultimately, gun control restrictions will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals. And they will not stop someone intent on shooting people from obtaining guns. They are principally focused on limiting the amount of damage that can be done by someone intent on harming others. That’s worth something, and we should pursue reasonable gun control measures that respect the intent of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms. But the most effective place of focus to prevent future mass shootings is with the person wielding the weapon.

President Obama’s focus on mental health issues in his recent executive actions is the better starting point for dealing with the problem of mass shootings. The mental health issue focuses on the person doing the shooting, not the method. After all, it’s the person pulling the trigger that is actually causing the deaths. These killings are clearly being done by very troubled people, oftentimes very young men.

Once we focus on the person doing the shooting, a number of factors become important. For one, there is the influence of popular culture. Television, movies and video games are becoming increasingly violent. Hollywood’s violence culture bears some responsibility for preconditioning the mentally troubled to act out their emotional distress through violence. The video game industry, as well, bears some responsibility for immersing young impressionable minds in violence-laden role-playing games.

Another factor is parents. There is no guarantee, of course, but parents can have a significant impact on their children’s attitudes about violence. For example, they can limit their children’s exposure to violence in their most formative years. They also can monitor their children’s mental health. If they do turn to doctors, they must not blindly trust medication. Most children with mental health challenges benefit greatly from medication. But some mood-altering drugs have been associated with increased thoughts about violence in some children.

Parents can help expose their children to positive, life-affirming experiences. They can involve them in a place of worship that teaches about human value, love, compassion and accountability. They can involve them in community and school activities that contribute to wholesome attitudes toward others. This kind of training can help children deal more constructively with anger when they become adults, as well.

Family members and friends also may suspect that someone is becoming a danger to himself or others. A kind word of concern and offer to help may be just what someone needs to take a different path. A concerned person may be worried about intruding, but if he speaks compassionately, with genuine care in his voice, an expression of concern likely will be well-received. And, even if the concern is rebuffed, he will at least know he tried to help.

The health care community can also do more. Health professionals must be empowered to intervene when they see signs of trouble in a patient. Currently, it is very difficult to have someone committed to a mental health institution against his or her will before an act of violence has been committed. Caution is understandable, but it appears that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the troubled individual. Insurance companies as well need to step up. Many do not provide the level of help that often is needed. A counselor is no substitute for a psychiatrist at times, yet too many insurance plans do not provide adequate coverage for the level of mental health care that some need.

These suggested solutions, and others, are all worth discussing. I am deeply grieved for the parents, families, and friends who have lost loved ones to these senseless shootings. I am even more deeply grieved for those whose lives of promise were taken from them. We must all dedicate ourselves and call on God for the wisdom and guidance we need to help prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.)
2/13/2013 2:16:02 PM by Barrett Duke, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Praying for collegians

February 13 2013 by Jeff Jones, Baptist Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Evan was involved in a small youth group at his home church until he went away to college. While at college his faith was tested, but eventually strengthened to the point that he felt compelled to return to his home church and share his passion for Christ with his youth group. He shared one night with 17 students who all were transformed as a result of hearing the simple 4-point message:
  1. You must confess any known sin to God, and put right any wrong done to man.
  2. You must put away any doubtful habit out of your life.
  3. You must obey the Spirit’s promptings immediately.
  4. You must confess your faith in Christ publicly.
This simple meeting began a movement of God, which we now know as the Welsh Revival of 1904-05. Evan Roberts was a young college student who saw God’s Spirit work powerfully resulting in a “nation sweeping” movement. In five months, more than 100,000 people were saved. The country was changed so much that courts had no cases to try, police had no crimes to solve, the birth rate for unwed mothers dropped by almost half in two counties, and the churches were filled in every town. All this began with one college student fully surrendered to the Lord.

College students

Most people today associate college students with some very dangerous and destructive behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, sex, parties and irresponsibility. Based on experience and encounters I’ve had with students on the college campus, some of these characterizations can be true. More than any other time in our history, the opportunities for sin and worldliness are available and acceptable in the culture in which we find ourselves. Collegians are surrounded not only by sinfulness, but increasingly they are practically expected to adhere to godlessness, which is advocated on almost every university campus in our nation.

But, if we are praying and believing God for spiritual awakening and revival, then more than anything, based on our understanding of how God has worked in all of history, we should beg God for the hearts and lives of college students. Almost every great movement of God has been sparked by the brokenness and desperation of college-aged individuals who long for God’s Spirit to bring revival. As a matter of fact, many revivals began on secular college campuses after Christian students came face-to-face with God in prayer. One campus would affect another campus, and then it would spread to churches and even to public arenas. The conviction of the Holy Spirit would wash over students, and they would become contagious as they boldly shared the gospel as the basis of their transformed lives.

How can we pray for college students?
  1. Pray that college students would understand the urgency to be submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ every day. Ask God to protect them from a consumer approach to Christianity and the church so that they would see everything else as insignificant in comparison to knowing Christ and being found in Him.
  2. Pray that college students would understand the demand of holiness on their lives that comes from Jesus. Pray that they take seriously the relationship of purity they have with the Father and seek to “be holy because I am holy.” Pray that repentance and forsaking of sin would be a habit that defines their walk with God.
  3. Pray that college students would join together in prayer groups and seek God while calling out the names of students who are lost. Pray that the Spirit of God would open their eyes to the conditions around them, and burden them for their campuses.
  4. Pray that college students would take responsibility and ownership of their faith, investing themselves in the lives of others who will come to Christ, share the gospel and live holy lives as well. Paul’s charge to Timothy was, “No one should despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
  5. Pray that God’s Spirit and His Word would become the standards from which students make life decisions such as whom to date, whom to marry, what occupation they will enter, what friendships they will value. The college years in our culture are when most adults make major decisions that shape the rest of their lives. Pray that they will follow Jesus in these choices.
College students are not the future of our church; they are the church. Take some time today to love, invest in and pray for the college students in your life.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jeff Jones is the Baptist Collegiate Ministry campus minister at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tenn. He and his wife, Jan, have four children, and love seeing college students become passionate about following and sharing Jesus.)
2/13/2013 2:12:59 PM by Jeff Jones, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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