Two new articles are available on the Practical Helps page. Both “Notes on the Revitalization of Rural Churches” and “Understanding the Dynamics of a Smaller Church” can be read online or downloaded (in pdf format) and printed out for offline study.
If you are like me, you have questions when “bad things happen to good people”. Certainly, this was the case for me in the ashes of the fire that destroyed the “holiday house” of our daughter Amelia and her husband Ed on the second day of 2012. The house in Rivermont is no longer.
We had all eaten the required black-eyed peas on the previous day. Amelia and Ed were preparing to leave in a couple of days to go to the Merchandise Mart in Atlanta to display their line of Lighthouse Christian Products. About 20 years ago Ed and his brother George fell in love with the Bible. They made a commitment to make and distribute gift products which always contained Scriptures—cups, frames, crosses, plaques, sculptures and books were designed and produced. Seven years ago Amelia left her position as chief gift buyer at Lifeway in Nashville to marry Ed and become a creative force at Lighthouse, thinking up new, helpful products,.
God has blessed their business. Prizes that been given to them for the beauty and the appropriateness of their products. Letters and emails have come praising their work. Things were good. Then tragedy came.
The following Sunday I attended a concert by the Tally Family at Carrollton Baptist Church. One of the songs they sang, My Hope is with the Lord, retold the story of Job. It touched me deeply. Since then I have been reflecting upon the message of Job and its application to the loss in our family. Let me share the lessons that had come to my mind. Not the whole of the truth of Job, but some insights which came to my mind as I processed the scripture and the event.
You will recall that the book begins with Satan accusing Job of serving God so that he might be blessed. God knows that he has blessed Job, but he also knows that Job’s relationship to God is much deeper, richer, and authentic. Apparently, in an effort to show Satan that there is more to Job, and real believers through the ages, than egoistic selfishness he allows Satan to take from Job his “stuff”. (Today’s “prosperity gospel” still hawks the idea that “It pays to serve Jesus.”)
The response of Mrs. Job was to get angry at God and invite God to go the final step and kill him. Of course the Jobs do not know what we know about the conference between God and Satan.
Soon some friends of Job show up. They know the orthodox idea that blessings come as a reward from God, and painful events come as a punishment from God. Consequently, they conclude that Job must have done something very bad since he was being punished so severely. Job and Mrs. Job also knew the orthodox explanation. And centuries later the orthodox view continued to be standard as revealed in several stories from the life of Jesus. (And, unfortunately, it still is.) Certainly, there is truth in the orthodox explanation of pain and suffering, but not always. Some of it is just plan mysterious for us with our limited understanding within space and time. Thus, as is often the case, the traditional understanding of things, while often correct, is not the total understanding.
Job responds (16:5) that if the roles were reverse he would be seeking to comfort, not condemn. Further, he declares that he has an advocate in heaven (16:20) and that one day this advocate/redeemer will come to earth and set things right. We know, of course, that he is referring to Jesus. In his pain Job comes to understand God’s grand design for history—redemption of mankind and of creation.
Job continues as noted in 28:28 with the same conclusion about the meaning of life that Solomon expressed in Eccles. 12: 13-14. Life is about obeying God and keeping his commandments. So, Job can bravely declare that he will serve God, even if God should slay him. Job 13:15.
In time a fourth, younger friend arrives. He is focused on defending God as he knew him. He stresses that God is almighty, wholly other than humankind. True. But without breaking out of the traditional view of life and history, it is not a satisfactory explanation. Job’s condition remains a mystery.
We learn early in our churches that God is Great; that God is Good, that God is Love and that God is Free. Whether or not we understand an event in terms of our worldview is not the criteria of truth. The greatness, goodness, love, and freedom of God are the foundational truths of life. The failure of Job, or his friends, or me, or you to understand the meaning of events in life cannot negate these truths.
In chapter 38 God responds to Job. He speaks of the transcendent power, wisdom, and awareness. He reminds Job of his limited power, wisdom and awareness.
God points out that it is not our place to define justice and to tell God how to do his job.
A climax is reached in 42:1-6. Job repents. Then God responds by asking Job to pray for and make sacrifice for his friends who just did not get it but needed to. And finally, God blessed Job even more than he had done before.
So, while I do not like what happened to the holiday home of Amelia and Ed, nor the next week what happened to Woodrow and Maxine Barton, I trust in the only true God. The God who is great, good, loving and free. The fact that I do not understand these events is not crucial. There is a line from a gospel song which has helped me through such times again and again, “Farther along you’ll understand why”. It may be this will happen during my life time. It may be in eternity, Meanwhile my trust is in God.
The Rechurching of Rural America was written in conjunction with the 1998 to 2001 restudy of about 500 rural and small town churches in 99 townships in Missouri. This is the third restudy of these churches. The foundational study was done in 1952. Lilly Foundation funded the study. It was conducted by the rural sociology department of the University of Missouri and by the Missouri School of Religion. The complete text is now available online for free.
This passage describes the condition of a unregenerate heart–it does it’s own thing. Here Moses is devising a method by which the Hebrews could be reminded of the commandments of God. Throughout the Bible there is a strong and continuing demand that we know and do what God commands.
At that time few of the Hebrews were literate. So, the fringe on the garments were to be a devise to help the citizens remember what God demanded of them. Further, they were about to journey into an area where the natives did not know the commandments of God. They would not be living by these commandments. Apparently, elements of their culture would be found to be attractive to the Hebrews.
We are literate. But we live in a world that still does not follow the teachings of God. We are constantly tempted. We are constantly given opportunities to rebel, coast along, simply ignore what God demands of us. Do we not also need some help in complying with the teachings and demands of God? Probably?
It seems to me that there is a broad “disconnect” between the teachings of God and the life of many church members. This is very disappointing. While salvation is not achieved by doing good works, good works and obedience to God should be the product of salvation.
For the next few months I will focus on passages for my Bible study blogs that use the word heart in them. My motivations include the fact that I recently had a pacemaker installed, the many passages that use this word, and my sense that the teachings related to the heart are very important to our understanding of the purpose of life. . My electronic concordance found nearly 1,000 usages of heart by the NKJV translators. I hope to identify many of the basic truths about the heart found in these passages as I prepare these blogs.
I am beginning with one of the most familiar and significant of the heart passages, one found in the Psalm attributed to David as a response to the prophet Nathan\’s challenge to him regarding his adultery with Bathsheba.
The Hebrews identified the heart, not only as the pump for blood circulating through the body, but also as the seat of emotions. David realized that he had allowed his emotions to lead him into violating a basic law of God. He senses both his filth and his guilt. He also realizes that God is the one who can do the cleaning of his heart. To my mind this is the proper way of dealing with sin. Often we try to explain away or justify our sin. We declare that in our situation, or our case, this was the lesser evil, or this was what needed to be done. Other times, we will boldly, and foolishly, deny the authority or the existence of God. And on still other occasions we may try to bribe God and offer him some payment for his forgiveness of our sins. History is littered with examples of these three erroneous efforts at dealing with guilt. David simply asks for God\’s forgiveness. So, should we whenever we sin.
The ground of his request for forgiveness is identified as a “contrite” heart. I take this to mean that he is honestly acknowledging his sinfulness. No effort to excuse it; no offer to pay for it; no argument that God has no authority in such matters. He just requests that God forgive him. Again, history is full of other sinners who have tried one of the other three responses. They fail.
In both verses David links his concern about his heart with a reference to the human spirit. Fifty years ago in my college days and early days as a teacher, it was common for intellectuals to either deny or ignore that spiritual side of life. While the spirit is back in vogue, it is often misunderstood. God is lord of the spiritual dimension of life as surely as he is the creator of the material side. God is spirit, we are told. His Holy Spirit takes up residence in the hearts of those who acknowledge his son Jesus as Savior and as Lord. I believe that the “right” spirit is one of submission to the authority of God over me. And over you. And over everything.
With this blog I will be concluding the series on the Sermon on the Mount as part of a series on Matthew’s Gospel. I will be generating a series of blogs related to the heart as discussed throughout the Bible. My motivation is that I have been enjoying a pacemaker for nearly two years. So, the health of the heart is a concern of mine. I found that there are hundreds of references to the heart in the Bible. I have read them and marked many for further study and reflection.
But let me focus on the last lines of the Sermon on the Mount today. In thinking about the concluding comments of the Sermon where Jesus contrast wise and foolish builders, I got to reflecting about the years that Jesus spent in the carpenter\’s shop in Nazareth.
If his shop was like the small town craftsmen shops that I am familiar with, on rainy days, the workers would have gathered at the shop to wait for the weather to clear. A variety of topics would have been discussed. Among them from time to time would have been accounts of disasters similar to the one in the story about the foolish and the wise builders.
My thought is that there was an historical event, or events, behind this story, as there was behind many of the other stories that Jesus told to illustrate great spiritual truths. Here, Jesus is saying that if one wants to have a solid life, then one should build his life upon the solid rock of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.
- The blessed life is one that begins with the realization that it needs God. The positive consequence is a life that is sensitive to the needs of others and ministers to them. The negative consequence is persecution.
- Those who build their lives on this will find that they function as salt and light for the world.
- The law of God functions for these people as a wake-up call. They realize that they are sinful and in need of forgiveness. They see that God expects total obedience, not technical compliance. Perfection is the expectation. This is both humbling and a continuing goal which does not allow for easy satisfaction with one\’s achievements.
- The spiritual disciplines of alms giving, prayer, and fasting are expected activities. The Kingdom of God is to be the focus and the goal of everyday life and of the future.
- We are not to condemn others.
- We are depend upon God.
- We are to be alert to evil.
- We are to live fruitful lives.
- Everything is built upon this rock as a foundation.
Thank you Jesus for the Sermon on the Mount. Help me to live according to its teachings. Thank you for saving me in spite of my failures.
Over the next several weeks the chapters of an unpublished report of the most recent restudy of rural churches in Missouri will be posted on this site. This study was done back around 2000, but for several reasons was never fully completed and edited. However, I feel that there is much of value in the study and believe that I must move forward and share the findings with others who are interested in the churches of rural America. It is unique in that it reports finding from a constant set of townships and their churches over a nearly 50 year period. This is the most scientific study of rural churches that has been done which a longitudinal component.
On February 16, 2008, I will be addressing some of the material in a conference for the General Baptists in Malden, Missouri. It is at their First Baptist Church there. Our focus there will be on sustainability. I will present my thoughts related to the Divine-Human nature of the local church. This is that it has both a sociological and and a spiritual side. Neither can be neglected.\
I hope that as the chapters are put on this site, that they will generate questions and comments. Note that there is a page on this site with some of the studies that supported the larger study posted. These provide some valuable background for looking at the study. Ultimately the dozen or so chapters of the study will all be located there.
Along the way, I will continue the current set of blogs which are dealing with the Sermon on the Mount.
The concept here is that in addition to making a journey down the right, the narrow path, we need to be productive. Jesus returns to this theme in several of his parables. He draws upon it in his teaching to the disciples found in John 15. And Paul uses it in his letter to the Galatians where he teaches about fruit bearing. Further, the first Psalm draws upon this same image.
The product is not uniform in these teachings–virtues, good works, and new believers–may be the referent from place to place. It seems to me that the common theme is that being a Christian is far more than escaping Hell.
Again, all too often we run into church members who declare that they “believe in Jesus” which they may do in an intellectual, or mental way. But there is precious little evidence of fruit production in any of the three ways mentioned above.
Productivity is pictured as the result of being saved, not a means for salvation. I am to do good works because I am a follower of the Christ who went about doing good. I am to witness to others because I love them and want them to have the joy which I have. I am to be a loving virtuous person because the Holy Spirit has produced these virtues in me.
Again, this is to be understood in light of the work of the cross. Jesus provided for our forgiveness, our salvation. Our joy and and gratitude motivates us to be productive in loving folk, in being good persons, and in sharing with others how one can have peace with God.
The Sermon on the Mount concludes with a set of examples regarding the activities of persons who are followers of Jesus–a trip, a productive tree, and a house builder. These capture three of the dimensions of the Christian life. The first two are repeated in other settings.
Jesus declares that the requirements for being a Christian are very specific. A few lines later (Matt. 7:21-23) Jesus continues that a good many people will think that they are fine with God, but are not. This error continues to be common, I fear. Often, we hear folks declare that they are pretty good and that they do not think God would send them to Hell. From the perspective of an evangelical Christian reading of the Bible, this is a tragic error.
If one looks back over the Sermon on the Mount, it is obvious that indeed the demands for the Christian life are rigorous. It is pictured as a hard way, a way that most will not want to travel. The Christian classic, PILGRIM\’S PROGRESS, builds off of and illustrates this statement.
Unfortunately, the term “narrow” has been misused and has come to be associated with narrow mindedness. This is a perversion of the Christian stance. We are to love sinners. We are to desire that they come to Jesus and accept him as their savior. We are to seek their salvation.
The story of the first sin focuses upon the rebellious desire of our first parents to define right and wrong for themselves. We continue to repeat this sin. We want a wide way and a wide gate for our trip to heaven. Something that we construct, or define, according to our liking. We want to be in charge. But if this be the case, then we are gods, not God.
Jesus’s way is different. Note how he raises the bar by internalizing the commandments of God. Right conduct is not enough if it is not accompanied by right motives. We need to come to see this narrowness as in our best interests both in this world and in the world to come, eternity.
Ultimately, reflecting upon this teaching will drive us to our knees. We realize that we cannot made the trip on the narrow way by ourselves. We are driven to the cross. We realize that we cannot secure our own salvation, but rather we much trust what Jesus did on the cross to atone for our sins. Salvation is in Jesus, not in us.
I spent Februrary 16 with about 125 members of churches in the MoArk Association of General Baptists in Malden Missouri. The topic was the up-to-date rural church. I had a great time. I encouraged them to make use of the materials under Practical Helps to study what their churches are currently doing and to consider changes. I also called their attention to the fact that the first four chapters of the report of the most recent Missouri Rural Church Study are now posted on the site. I hope that we can add a chapter each week until all 12 are up.
General Baptists are a Baptist “sub-denomination” with churches in the midwest, mostly. Their national offices are in Popular Bluff, Missouri.
On Sunday, February 24th, the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee, Alabama will be dedicating their new building. It replaces the one that was burned by arsonists just over two years ago. It should be a blessed event. We will be taking about 1,000 children’s book which have come to us to pass along to this church. In planning their new building the ministry of a library of the children of the community was identified.