Thursday, May 29, 2008

An Inspirational Life

I read this morning on the CNN website about the death of 61-year old Dianne Odell, a woman who had lived practically her entire life in an iron lung after contracting polio as a 3-year old child. An emergency power generator, set to start automatically in the event of a power outage, failed to start and could not be manually activated when the home lost electrical power. Efforts to use a hand pump attached to the iron lung also failed to save Dianne’s life.

Though confined to the seven-foot metal tube for almost 60 years, Dianne didn’t allow her conditions to destroy her spirit. She obtained a high school diploma, took college courses, and wrote a children’s book. On her 60th birthday in February 2007, family and friends held a party for her at a downtown Jackson, TN hotel with more than 200 guests attending. She had a 9-foot birthday cake and received cards and letters from people across the U.S.

In 1994, she was quoted as saying, “I’ve had a very good life, filled with love and family and faith. You can make life good, or you can make it bad.” It’s hard to imagine more difficult and challenging circumstances in which to live, yet Dianne Odell maintained a positive spirit and attitude to the end. I think the key to how she was able to do so is found in the three things she identifies as filling her life—love, family, and faith. Refusing to let life’s adversities conquer her spirit, Dianne Odell made the most of the life she had been given. I’m challenged by her example and pray that her story will inspire all of us to live focused on what matters most—-love, family, and faith.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Life Lessons from Baseball

On May 26, 1959, pitcher Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates made baseball history by becoming the first pitcher to throw more than 9 perfect innings in a game. The Pirates were playing the Milwaukee Braves, who featured the powerful Hank Aaron in their line-up. Haddix’s control was phenomenal, as he retired the first 27 batters he faced in the regulation 9 innings and then went on to retire 6 more in innings 10 and 11. In the 12th inning, the leadoff hitter reached on an error and the perfect game was over, but the no-hitter was still possible. The second batter sacrificed the runner to second and then Haddix issued an intentional walk to Aaron. The next hitter, Joe Adcock, hit a pitch out of the park and Haddix lost not only the no-hitter but the game as well. In their excitement over Adcock’s hit, the Braves’ baserunners became confused and Adcock actually passed Aaron on the base path between 2nd and 3rd base. After several minutes of consultation, the home plate umpire changed Adcock’s three-run homer to a two-run double, still sufficient to give the Braves the victory and ruin Haddix’s masterful pitching performance.

The opposing pitcher, Lew Burdette, had also pitched 12 scoreless innings, giving up 12 hits and 2 walks, but the Pirates had failed to take advantage of 14 men on base and lost the game. There are a couple of pretty obvious lessons to be learned from Haddix’s experience. He had pitched an incredible game, but failed to finish it well and he lost. The Bible speaks about running the race that is set before us with endurance so that we might finish the course well. The more apparent problem Haddix suffered was a lack of run support by his own teammates. They squandered many scoring opportunities that should have resulted in a win for their teammate who pitched a perfect game for 11 innings. There is a clear lesson for us here as well about the importance of mutual encouragement and the help that we can offer our brothers and sisters in Christ. All Christians, be they mature disciples or recent converts, need the strength that comes from fellow believers as we prayerfully support and encourage one another in our walk with Christ. Be on the lookout this week for the chance to help a fellow Christian with words that edify and encourage.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Post-denominationalism - Part 3

I had fully intended to do a follow-up post on post-denominationalism a bit sooner than this, but life and ministry caught up with me these past few days. Our youngest son has had several end-of-the-year school activities he's been involved in that have required my attendance and energies. In addition, I made a hasty trip down to Dallas and back on Tuesday for a meeting of the WorldconneX board of trustees. Yesterday was a funeral for the father of one of our church members and tomorrow I'm headed to Columbia for a meeting of the BGCM First Priority Team.

I wanted to address the issue of post-denominationalism a bit further in this post by mentioning a new paradigm or approach to state convention life that has characterized the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. If you've read my profile on this blog, you've discovered that I work on a part-time basis for the BGCM as their Missions Mobilization Team Leader. The truth of the matter is that the BGCM has only one full-time employee who serves as our office administrator and handles our finances. The rest of us are all bi-vocational and this is by design.

Even if we were a larger state convention with greater financial resources like some of the older established bodies, our commitment would be to continue to grow by adding staff who are practitioners rather than traditional full-time denominational staff. To borrow an old phrase, there's a method to our madness in this regard. Our motto and theme song as a convention is that we exist to serve churches. We express it most simply in the phrase, "Our first priority is serving churches." That mindset influences all that we do in terms of decisions and strategic planning. I firmly believe that the majority of denominational bodies--whether national or state conventions--are in decline today at least to some degree because they have forgotten their "razón de ser" in Spanish--their reason for existing.

It's easy for an organization to become self-serving and self-centered over time. It happens at every level of religious life--from the local church through the association and state convention all the way to the national convention. The tendency to fall into this trap is greater as a group grows in size because more and more resources are needed (or so it is thought) to maintain the structure and machinery of the group. Bureaucracies generate tasks and create positions to accomplish these jobs that frequently have little to do with the original purpose of the group.

The BGCM is attempting to stay on task with the primary responsibility and goal of serving churches. We are doing so through maximizing our resources by utilizing team leaders in the areas of our 4 Great Commission Initiatives--Church Health, Leadership Development, Church Planting, and Missions Mobilization--who have experience and a certain level of expertise in these areas. Brian Kaylor, of "For God's Sake Shut Up" blogger fame, does a very capable job of handling our communications. Our executive secretary, Jim Hill, does an outstanding job of leading us in strategic planning to ensure that this focus isn't lost or blurred.

I'm convinced that for denominational bodies to survive in a post-denominational world, they have to radically re-think and restructure themselves to offer something tangible to the churches which they presumably exist to serve. If the message that these bodies communicate to their constituents, consciously or unconsciously, is that the churches exist to sustain the denominational structures and bureaucracies, their fate will be sealed and their demise will be hastened. A compelling vision is the only thing that will cause churches to "buy in" and continue to support denominational bodies. The challenge is to clearly define and communicate that vision in such a way that folks get on board and adopt it as their own.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Living in a Post-denominational Era - Part 2

I wanted to follow up on the previous post with some further thoughts about the implications of a post-denominational mindset for the future of denominations, state conventions, and even individual churches. The recent Lifeway statistical reports about a decline in total membership of the SBC have been amply discussed and critiqued on other blogs, so I won’t pursue that topic here.

The first serious mention that I had heard of the term post-denominationalism was back in the early 90s from the lips of a seminary colleague at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires. This individual was a well-educated Argentine national who did Ph.D. work at Southwestern Seminary and was a distinguished church historian. I had some philosophical and ideological differences with him—mostly related to certain aspects of a charismatic renewal movement that was sweeping through Baptist churches in Argentina at that time—and those differences prompted me I suppose to dismiss this reading of history and the signs he was detecting of the decline in denominational allegiance and viability. In hindsight, his perceptions of the post-denominational trend were better than mine I believe.

I had studied under some of the great Baptist historians at Southwestern (Baker, McBeth, and Estep) and was teaching Baptist history (among other subjects) at the seminary in Buenos Aires. I simply couldn’t conceive of the denomination that I had been raised in my entire life and which served as a vehicle for me to fulfill a missionary calling as somehow being destined for either complete disappearance or at the least, significant loss of relevance and impact. That just didn’t compute in my internal processing unit. The more I observe current trends and read books like Kimball’s They Like Jesus but not the Church and Kinnaman’s Unchristian, the more convinced I’m becoming of the accuracy of the assessment of my former colleague and these contemporary writers.

There is a serious disconnect taking place today in terms of “brand-name loyalty” that once existed among Baptists (and other denominations as well). While the older generations still maintain and defend (in some cases fiercely so) their ties to the denomination of their childhood and youth, young adults in their 20s and 30s and those who are younger still in their teens do not feel that same sense of indebtedness and commitment to a denomination just because it is labeled Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyerian, Episcopalian, Disciples, Assembly of God, etc.). This is clearly seen if one attends the annual meetings of the national and/or state conventions of these denominational bodies. Unless there is a controversial vote to be taken on a potentially divisive issue (and perhaps even if such is taking place), the large majority of the messengers or delegates to these gatherings will be senior adults—or at least those in their 50s and up. I’ve witnessed this not only at meetings of conservative groups but at gatherings of moderates as well. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to one theological persuasion or another, but is pervasively true of groups across the spectrum of religious beliefs.

What impact will this trend have upon national, state, and local bodies, especially in Baptist life? Stay tuned for further reflections ….

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Living in a Post-denominational World

Marty Duren is writing an interesting series on his blog about post-denominationalism. Marty was the original founder of the SBC Outpost blog, one of the first voices to be raised in blogdom that questioned the health of the SBC hierarchy and its direction. He graciously bowed out of denominational discussions for a good while, preferring instead to write about missional themes. His writings are always insightful and I’d recommend that you pay a visit to his blog.

Having said that, I’d like to weigh in a bit as well about the demise of denominationalism—especially as it relates to the Southern Baptist Convention. I think it is an unquestionable fact that denominational loyalty is fading—especially among the younger set. There clearly is a more willing disposition to seek new avenues of cooperation through networking with other like-minded Christians (be they Southern Baptist or not) than there is to sustain a bureaucracy that in many respects has lost touch with current culture. Appeals to time-honored traditions simply don’t persuade “20-somethings” and even those a bit older than that of the propriety of continuing to blindly and uncritically support denominational institutions and entities.

There probably is more of a willingness to make an exception when it comes to the work of the IMB, as that part of our heritage as Southern Baptists can still motivate churches and individuals to give sacrificially so that the missionary task isn’t abandoned. Nevertheless, the “glue” that has united our convention historically is losing its adhesive pull as ongoing revelations are disclosed about the backroom, closed-door, political maneuverings of the IMB’s Board of Trustees. The disclosure by Wade Burleson of Rodney Hammer’s recent resignation as Regional Leader for Central and Eastern Europe, prompted by the new restrictive policies (guidelines) of the IMB’s BoT, is just the latest in a series of black eyes that this group has suffered. Perhaps a better image than a black eye would be a self-inflicted wound.

In the interest of full disclosure, I cannot claim absolute objectivity in this matter. As readers of my blog or my comments on other blogs may well recall, my family and I chose to resign from the IMB in 2002 rather than sign the BF&M 2000. It’s safe to say that I feel a certain degree of resentment and distrust toward the same fundamentalist/legalist types who now control the IMB’s BoT who at that time coerced Dr. Rankin into rescinding his earlier promise that missionaries already under appointment would not be required to sign the document but would be “grandfathered in” as it were, recognizing that we had written our own responses to the 1963 version of the BF&M that the BoT at the time of our appointment had considered doctrinally sound.

My heart goes out to former colleagues who still labor with the IMB and I respect, pray for, and support their ministries. I wonder how long they can continue to serve in good faith and conscience with an organization that is growing increasingly restrictive and whose Board of Trustees seems far more concerned about sustaining and extending Southern Baptist identity than the Kingdom of God. It seems that many of them can no longer distinguish between the two.

This post has already far exceeded the length of my usual posts, so I will wrap it up at this point. I do intend to follow up in subsequent posts with some specific thoughts about the post-denominational mindset and how I see that impacting future efforts in missions and the challenges it poses for existing denominations, state conventions, associations, and local churches.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thoughts on Aging

I shared the following thoughts in our monthly newsletter for our Senior Adults.

Little Johnny asked his grandmother how old she was. “Thirty-nine and holding,” was her response. Johnny thought about her answer for a bit and then asked anew, “And how old would you be if you let go?” Jack Benny, the stand-up comedian, was famous for always giving his age as 39. Benny had this to say about growing old, “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” There is some profound wisdom in Benny’s words. We’ve all heard the expression, “You’re only as old as you feel.” Some would jokingly respond to that statement by saying, “I feel a lot older than I am.” There are folks whose physical appearance suggests that they are much younger than their biological age, while others show the wear and tear of the years they’ve lived a bit more. The latter group’s refrain might be, “It’s not the age; it’s the mileage.”

I’m inspired and challenged by biblical characters that accomplished great things and were up to major challenges, even when they were long past the age of qualifying for a Social Security check. I admire Caleb’s grit when, at the age of 85, he tells Joshua, “I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me (to spy out the land 40 years earlier). Now then, give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke on that day” (Josh. 14:11-12). Caleb wanted to claim his inheritance in the Promised Land, even though the inhabitants lived in heavily fortified cities in the hills. What mountaintops are you attempting to scale today with the Lord’s strength? Whatever your age might be, the promise of God’s Word is true: “Those who wait upon the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired; they will walk and not become weary” (Isa. 40:31).

Finally Finished Mark

Well, I've finally managed to conclude our Wednesday evening prayer meeting/Bible study time's focus on the gospel of Mark. I was checking back in my records and I started this series on Oct. 25, 2006. By my calculations, we've been studying Mark for a year and a half. It's been a very rewarding study personally for me, and I trust it has been so for those who attend faithfully on Wednesday nights as well. I've done a number of different series since I started leading the Wednesday night prayer meeting/Bible study time when I joined the staff here almost 5 years ago. My preference has always been to engage in the study of an individual book of the Bible, doing a verse-by-verse exposition of the text, but on rare occasions I've done a brief topical series, such as one I did on the benedictions that are found in the Scriptures.

I'm not sure where I'm going to head next on Wednesday evenings, but have been praying about it. I'm considering doing some shorter series or topical studies this summer before launching into another book study in the fall. I noticed on Micah Fries blog that he's starting a sermon series on the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation and I had also been thinking along those same lines for a series on Wednesday evenings. That might be a good possibility for a series this summer.