Archive for February, 2013

I have spent a little over sixty-two years serving as the pastor of Southern Baptist churches. It is what I believe God called me to do. It has not always been easy, but it has been both rewarding and enjoyable. Any pastor who does his job well has to deal with many responsibilities – preaching, teaching, counseling, administration, planning, serving, and dealing with conflict. The litmus test of spirituality is not the absence of conflict, for conflict will not disappear until we die. The litmus test is how we handle it. Conflict is inevitable. Resentment is optional.

We tend to idealize the first-century church and believe it was a conflict-free environment – but it is not so! Apostle Paul often had to deal with problems in the churches. For example, in the church at Philippi there were two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, who were locked in a difficult conflict. We don’t know what the argument was about, but Paul knew it had the potential to create real chaos within the Philippian church. He pleaded with them to “agree with each other,” to be of one mind. Through twenty centuries human nature hasn’t changed very much, has it?

The reason a pastor has to deal with conflict resolution is that church members are human beings. They are all still in the process of growing spiritually. They aren’t perfect, even though I’ve met some (including preachers) who thought they were approaching that lofty ideal. Church members don’t always agree with what their church has done, is doing, or should be doing. Strong disagreement within a church has the potential to detour it from the completion of its mission. That is why I have often referred to my efforts at solving church problems as “putting out brush fires.”

The churches I have had the privilege to serve have all been largely free of the kind of problems that cause major disruption. For this I am grateful. But I have observed other Baptist churches in the cities where I have served experience major problems. Baptist churches are not the only ones to have brush fires that need to be extinguished. It is just that I know more about Baptist churches than I do about others.

Jesus prayed that His disciples “may be one” (John 17:11), but they are often far from it. It is the height of irony that few organizations have fought more often or split more bitterly than churches have. In our country there are more than a hundred varieties of Baptists churches alone. This includes Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, General Baptists, many different kinds of Independent Baptists, Particular Baptists, Seventh-day Baptists, Hard Shell Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Duck River and Kindred Association Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestination Baptists. In 1957 when I was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gibson, North Carolina I met a man who was pastor of what was called a Fire-baptized Holiness Baptist Church. I did not even know such a denomination existed.

Several years ago a group calling itself the Church of God had a split. Those that left called themselves the True Church of God, and a group split off from that church calling itself The Only True Church of God.

Research reveals that there are more than 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. And every one of them was a split. Almost all of them were born out of anger and hostility and withdrawal between people who claimed to follow the teachings of Christ.

I recently read the story of a man who was rescued from a deserted island where he had survived alone for fifteen years. Before leaving, he gave his rescuers a little tour of the buildings he had constructed over the years in what amounted to his one-man-town. “That was my house,” he said. “And that was my store. This building was a kind of cabana, and over here is where I attend church each Sunday.”

“What is the building next to it?” he was asked.

“Oh, that is where I used to go to church.”

The story didn’t say whether or not it was a Baptist church, but it probably was. What makes this seem logical to me is that any time two Baptists get together, there will always be at least three opinions expressed.


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Can You Keep a Secret?

One person, after sharing some gossip with a friend, ended by saying: “I won’t bore you with the details. In fact, I’ve already told you more than I heard.”

“I would never say anything about her unless it was good – and boy, this is really good!”

“I was told not to repeat this, so I’m only going to say it once.”

These are the kind of statements people make when they have some juicy gossip about another person and can’t wait to share it with you. We should remember that gossip is like an egg – when it is hatched it has wings. Once it takes flight it is difficult, if not impossible, to either estimate or stop the damage it can cause.

Every Christian should learn two things about his tongue – how to use it and when to hold it! People who hold their tongue rarely have difficulty holding onto their friends. Those who don’t know when to hold their tongue usually have lots of difficulty holding onto their friends.

The human tongue, when it is used in proper and positive ways, has the ability to sow seeds of unity and joy. It has the power to provide encouragement to those who are discouraged. It can help to point those who have lost their way in the right direction. However, on the other end of the spectrum, a tongue only four inches long, when used improperly, has the power to slay a man more than six feet tall.

It’s been said that a dog is smarter than people. Why is this true? It wags its tail and not its tongue.

An uncontrolled tongue has sown more discord, hurt more feelings, blackened more reputations, embittered more friendships, ended more marriages, divided more organizations and communities, and split more churches than any other single thing. This is why the Bible has so much to say about human speech.

Chapter 3 of the Epistle of James cites illustrations to show the ways a person’s tongue can do irreparable damage to the body of Christ. In verse 5 the tongue is called a “fire.” It only takes a spark to set the whole forest ablaze, and hot, burning words may start a conflagration in a person’s life or in an entire community. Who among us has not seen it happen many times?

Verse 7 speaks of the tongue as a “beast.” Verse 8 describes the tongue as “poison.” The speech organ need not make long discourses to cause disruption, any more than poison needs to be administered in large doses. To a victim, gossip can be as fatal as airplane poison – one drop and you are dead!

Nearly all members of the animal kingdom may be brought under the control of mankind, “but no man can control the tongue” (verse 8). A backbiting, scandal-mongering tongue can disrupt a work that the Holy Spirit has taken years to build. A grumbling and complaining spirit is also a serious misuse of the tongue. Such expressions are deadly because they bring a dark, gloomy atmosphere to persons around us.

Words harshly spoken and with a negative spirit betray an attitude of unbelief and rebellion against God. When Christians constantly complain, it shows that God is not in control of their lives. But words, when spoken wisely and with compassion, demonstrate that God is in control.

One of the ways medical doctors measure a person’s physical health is by how the tongue looks. One of the ways the Great Physician measures a person’s spiritual health is by how the tongue acts.

During his last year as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill attended an official ceremony. Two or three rows behind him a couple of men began whispering to each other. “That’s Winston Churchill,” one of them said, “They say he is getting senile.” The second man replied, “I’ve heard several people say he should step aside and leave the running of the nation to more dynamic and capable men.” When the ceremony was over, Churchill turned to the men and said, “Gentlemen, they also say he is deaf.”

Gossip is always hurtful to those who are the objects of it, but it can also backfire on those who engage in it. The next time someone has some juicy gossip to share with you and begins by saying, “Can you keep a secret?” you should reply by saying, “Yes I can, and so should you!”

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Overcoming Rejection

Joe Webster was one of the finest and most unusual men I ever knew. He was the church custodian for the Sanford First Baptist Church when I became the pastor in 1981. Joe lived in a small room in the church just off the hallway immediately behind the sanctuary.  He was totally dedicated to Jesus Christ, to First Baptist Church, to his brother and family who lived in Sanford, and to his many friends.

One night just after midnight Joe heard someone walking in the hallway outside his room. He realized that it had to be a burglar, for the church was dark and the outside doors were locked. From inside his dark room Joe shouted, “Who is out there?” Not knowing someone lived in the church, the burglar may have thought the church was haunted. He ran quickly and took a swan dive through the window he had jimmied in order to gain entrance into the church.

As Paul Harvey used to say: “And now the rest of the story.”  The girl Joe loved and left behind when he was drafted into the army during World War II was not waiting for him when the war was over. She had said she would wait for Joe, but while he was serving our country she married someone else. Most men who are rejected by the girl they love, with the passage of time, would meet and fall in love with someone else. Joe never married, for the only girl he would ever love got married to another man. She definitely lost a jewel when she didn’t keep her promise to wait for Joe.

Rejection is never easy to take, is it? So what did Joe do? He accepted the job as custodian of the Sanford First Baptist Church. He also became a member. Since he lived alone, he didn’t need an entire house. The church made a small room available in the church, and this is where he lived until he was old enough to retire. Though he had been rejected by the only girl he would ever love, he didn’t waste his time wallowing in misery saying, “Woe is Joe!” Instead, he spent his life serving the Lord and the people of our church. I’ve known many people through the years who were movers and shakers in the cities where I have lived – in business, industry, education, politics, etc.  But none of them rank any higher in my eyes than Joe Webster. He overcame rejection by serving others. That takes a lot of strength.

Rejection in one form or another is an almost universal experience. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, came as a missionary from England to the young Georgia colony in America in 1736. At age 33 he fell in love with eighteen-year-old Sophy Hopkey. Even though Wesley was very devoted to his work for the Lord, he was somewhat bashful and shy in romance. He took Sophy for a boat ride intending to propose to her, but a storm arose, drenching them both, and discouraging his intentions to pop the big question. Because Wesley dallied, Sophy married another man. When Wesley heard about it, he was outraged. He accused the former sweetheart of backsliding, and refused her participation in the Lord’s Supper. He overcame his disappointment, of course, and literally revolutionized the spiritual landscape in our country. If a spiritual giant like Wesley could be hurt that badly by being rejected, any human can.

Some of the unhappiest people in the world are those who, for one reason or another, have experienced rejection – by their parents when they were children, by someone they hoped to marry, or by close personal friends. Eartha Kitt, the well-known singer and entertainer, tells in her autobiography, Thursday’s Child, that she felt rejected by her own father. She was also deserted by her mother. Charles Shultz, the founder of the Peanuts comic strip, carried the memory that the yearbook staff at his high school rejected his every cartoon. For twenty years Robert Frost, month after month, received only rejection slips for his writing. Even Jesus Christ was rejected by His own people, and was crucified.

A popular song a few years ago said, “If tears were pennies; and heartaches were gold, I’d have all the money my pockets would hold.” We have all been there in one way or another, but there is another song in many Christian hymnals with a different message. The third verse says: “Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, Feelings lie buried that grace can restore: Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.”

If you have someone who loves you, sing the Doxology every day. Know this also: “Though you may be rejected by the whole world, God loves you. Jesus died for you. If you will accept His love, you will never know rejection.

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Troublemakers! We have all met them. They are like a fly in your milk, a stump in the field you are plowing, a barricade in the road you are traveling, a first-class aggravation and a genuine pain. If you examine their lives closely you will discover that they have been shortchanged somewhere along the line – either in their home life, or in their education, or on the job. And they make noise – lots of it! They create havoc whenever and wherever they can – usually in public for all to see, but sometimes behind the scenes as well.

Troublemakers are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to change things, when most of us do not want either to change things ourselves, or to see change take place in our environment. Troublemakers are bad news! Nobody really likes them, and for good reason. They disturb the peace. They rock the boat.

But, lo and behold, when I read the account of the trial of Jesus in the twenty-third chapter of the gospel of Luke, I discover that one of the charges made against Him was that he was a TROUBLEMAKER. His own people constantly hounded Him and wanted to get rid of Him. Finally, He was carried before the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Jerusalem, to be tried. Their charge?  He dares to call Himself “the Son of God.” The Sanhedrin considered this to be blasphemy.

Jesus was then carried before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, who alone had the power to crucify anyone. Since Pilate was not Jewish, he was not troubled by the charge of blasphemy. Thus, the charge was changed: “He calls Himself a king,” they said.  Pilate considered this charge to be sedition, for his primary aim was to please Caesar. Even this charge didn’t impress Pilate all that much, so they brought their trump charge: “HE STIRS UP THE PEOPLE!” In other words,” He is a troublemaker! He dares to challenge the status quo! He wants us to change!”

Words we normally use to describe Jesus are: “Son of God, Messiah, Redeemer, and Lord.” I would never have thought of calling Him a troublemaker. Yet it is an accurate description. In the sense that He stirred people up and challenged the status quo, He was guilty. He is still guilty of stirring people up. And He will stir you up!

There are people who stir things up in ways that are not constructive. For example, there are those who want to return to live in the past. They constantly think of how wonderful things were in “the good old days.” They hate progress, and they make all kinds of noise to try to stop it. The tragedy that people experience when they over-glorify their yesterdays is that they become unplugged to today’s opportunities and totally oblivious to the challenges of the future.

Then there are people who thrive on negative issues. All of us have encountered them. They are much better known for what they are AGAINST than for what they are FOR. They were born in the objective case, and live in a combative mood. I am a firm believer in the fact that any church can do what Christ commissioned it to do if it has vision and commitment, and if pessimists do not work overtime in an effort to block it.

Satan is seldom more pleased than when he can convince a Christian to be a pessimist. Pessimists tend to burn bridges even before they get to them. They absorb sunshine and radiate gloom. No church should allow the status quo servants in its midst to cause it to fear being stirred up in the right direction.

Why do we human beings dislike being stirred up? First of all, it asks us to change. To grow or to change can cause pain – for a city, for a church, or for an individual Christian. Maintaining the status quo is a more peaceful lifestyle than challenging the things that need to be changed. Challenging old patterns and ingrained prejudices in order to practice Christian truth can lead to opposition and conflict, and often does. This is precisely why Jesus was crucified. He dared to challenge the status quo. He challenged people to change. In other words, He stirred people up. He still does.

If you are a Christian, ask yourself this question: “Do I need to be stirred up by the Divine Troublemaker?” It is very easy to sink into habits of complacency, isn’t it? When we do this, we forget the importance of worship, of witnessing to others, and of being good stewards. A damper is placed on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

If you have become lax in your spiritual growth, Jesus, the Divine Troublemaker, wants to stir you up.

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