3 Things We All Need to Understand About Suicide

Last month, coming up on Christmas, I was carefully planning out 2018 with the intention of making this blog a source of information and a starting point, if needed, for other pastors for discussion and research.

While working on this, I received a call from a friend, which lead to a funeral and has consumed by thoughts. The funeral was for his daughter, who was only a few years older than me. She took her own life.

There are 3 reasons this woman’s suicide has consumed my thoughts.

One, I have never once had a suicidal thought. Some trouble in life, but has driven me to anything like a suicidal thought. Likewise, I do not have any mental health issues and I have never used drugs or anything addictive that would cause suicidal thoughts or actions.

Second, from the military, through life, and in ministry, I have been pulled into, trained, and compelled to help anyone with mental health issues. Specifically, suicide seems to be the center of all this.

Third, as I sat with my friend, grieving over the loss of his daughter, I was struck with the incredible pain that many parents experience when they outlive their own children. When it is death by suicide, the pain and loss is magnified by a factor in which I can not place a number.

So, with my first blog post of 2018, I am reposting from August 2016. In this, I hope it is clear that in our efforts to help people and prevent suicide, we must also remember, love, and take care of the families and friends of suicide victims.

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August 27,2016

This is a blog post I wanted to write more than 7 years ago. Every time I began to pull my thoughts together, I could not. It became too long and was filled with pain, anger, arrogance, and frustration. Whenever the topic of suicide came up, it seemed that any conversation I might have with someone became to unbearable. If the other person stated an opinion based on misconceptions or stereotypes, my emotional response was immediately more than I can bear.

This week, a school principal in my county was found dead of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. When I heard the news, my heart sank. Yesterday, I was a substitute teacher in his school. Throughout the day, it was obvious that his death was a shock to everyone he knew. One mother I spoke with after school told me her son came home crying most of the week. The school, community, and students were amazing in their response as they reached out to and love the family and provide support wherever they could. Today, they will gather for a funeral and memorial service.

As I put my thoughts together about this, I think there are 3 things I think that help whenever anyone is directly impacted by the suicide of a friend of family member. The first is a theological point. The second and third are practical knowledge.

1. Most popular religious thoughts on suicide have no basis in the Bible.

Specifically, the religious thought here is the idea that suicide is somehow a mortal and unforgivable sin. This is an old and pervasive belief that exists in western culture. In some cases, depending on what Christian denomination a suicide victim and family belong to, a religious funeral may be denied for a person who commits suicide.

This has always been a troubling trend in Christian thought to me. In the last 10 years, I have counseled a few families and individual broken by the suicide of loved one. In my opinion, there is nothing more damaging than the idea of suicide being an unforgivable sin. In Christian thought, an unforgivable sin separates a person from God and heaven for all eternity.

The short answer I personally give to families is this. There is no mention at all in any of the 66 books that make up the Bible calling suicide a mortal or unforgivable sin. The nature of salvation is that it is 100% in God’s hands. Of the people I have known that committed suicide, some were confirmed believers in Jesus with an expressed and living faith. Out of all the people I have known, I do not truly know or understand what was going on inside their minds. But, there is nothing at all in the Bible that calls suicide “unforgivable.”

As a pastor, I will never deny a funeral request for any reason.

2. Sometimes, there are suicidal signs and symptoms, but intervention does not always work.

This is a troubling thing in the aftermath of a suicide. I know this from personal experience. It is one of the reasons I lose sleep. In some cases I have learned from families who lost a loved one, the signs and symptoms were obvious. The families I met did everything they could. They sought outside help. They asked the right questions of their loved one. Sometimes progress was made and a life was saved. In other cases, everything was done and that family member or friend still took his or her own life.

When someone is suicidal, sometimes intervention works. In fact, most of what I have been able to learn in training and from the current studies available is intervention has saved thousands of lives. But, when intervention does not work, there is nothing more devastating than this except for point number 3.

3. Sometimes, a person takes his or her own life without warning, without sign or symptom, and there is no explanation, no reason, ever.

I remember the day a friend told me about the pain she and her family endured from her husband’s suicide. There was no warning. There was no sign or symptom. There were no expressions of suicidal thoughts. There was no known depression or any history of mental illness. Unfortunately, most of the literature available says there are usually signs and symptoms without any mention of cases like this.

Since then, I have learned of a few other similar cases and found only one study involving 153 men and women who survived their own impulsive and completely unplanned suicide attempts. There may be more research on this, but I just haven not found much. All I could learn is that impulsive suicides do happen. Hopefully, some sociological with additional psychological research will help us learn more.

I want to be very careful with this subject. I am only a pastor who has had some crisis counseling training. With this, I and others like me have been able to intervene and prevent a suicide attempt and sometimes be there to help someone who failed in an attempt.

I also can not be more thankful for the experts in medicine and psychology who have taken the time to do the research and provide the information and training we needed. From what I observed this week, intervention and dealing with the aftermath of suicide is much better today than it was in 1991 when I started high school.

When considering these things about suicide, I think it is equally important to be a loving support to families and friends dealing with the loss that suicide brings. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the United States. As such, very few people are left who do not know someone who has committed suicide. While there is no formula and each person will grieve in different ways, I think the best way to be a loving person and help during the aftermath is to grieve with them.

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3 Reasons Why Children are Often Confused About the Gospel

Last Sunday, my youngest daughter Savannah (age 7) was baptized in our church in Corcoran. As the pastor of the church, I had the priviledge to baptize her. In the previous weeks, talking with Savannah about her decision to be baptized and confirming her faith in Jesus Christ, I had constant flashbacks to my own experience at her age and the conversations my wife and I had with my older daughters, Elise and Annalie.

To be clear. Savannah fully understands the gospel. She has put her faith in Jesus Christ. In her own words, “Jesus died on the cross for my sin and he rose again to prove it.” When I asked her to explain why she said “to prove it,” She said, “Anyone could die on a cross. Only Jesus came back from the dead.”

The best advice I can give to parents trying to raise their children up in church and in a Christian home is never ask your child if he or she wants to be baptized. In our Baptist and Evangelical tradition, we do not do infant baptism because the New Testament ties baptism to confession of faith in Jesus Christ. We call it “believer’s baptism.” As such, my wife and I did not ask our children if they wanted to be baptized. We waited for each child to ask. Each of my 3 daughters began to ask about baptism by around age 5 or 6. By age 7, they each asked if they could get baptized.

The amazing thing was that each of my three daughters had a clear understanding of the gospel and had placed their faith in Jesus Christ. We found it only necessary to calrify the significance of baptism once we confirmed their faith.

With each of my daughters’ baptism, there were conversations with other adults, especially parents. Some questioned whether children could even understand the gospel. Some adamantly opposed baptizing children because they do not think children have the mental capacity to make a faith decision. A couple of other parents thought my children were so exceptional, that it made sense they would understand the gospel at such a young age. The truth is that my children, while smart, are really not that different from any other child. We simply taught them the gospel in our home as well as at church in much the same way we would present it to adults.

With that in mind, I think it is important to adress the erroneous belief that some adults have that children are not capable of making faith decisions. Also, there are many children who grow up in church and are still confused about the gospel when they reach age 18. The confusion leads many to the conclusion that they have to in some way work their way to heaven. This may be a trust in their own good works, a belief that going to church saves them, or a belief that a balancing of the scales where is you do more good in life, it cancels out the bad. Some of my most devout religious friends will tell you that they are going to heaven when they die because they have not committed a mortal sin.

Whatever the case, there are many people who have grown up in faithful Bible teaching churches, yet, they remain confused about the gospel so much that they are completely unaware that the Bible makes it clear that salvation is obtained by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Here are 3 reasons why this happens.

1. Adults “dumb down” the gospel message so much they end up not teaching the gospel at all.

The beginning and the end of this is simple. Many adults who have no experience working with children think they are incapable of abstract thought. Someone once told them that children are concrete thinkers inacabable of abstract thought, analogy, or inuendo. So, their solution is this. Since they think children can not understand the concept of faith and trust, they must tell children to ask Jesus into their hearts in order to be saved.

Anyone reading this with a critical mind should see the irony in this. People who think children only think in concrete terms often use phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart,” which is by it’s very nature the least concrete thing you can tell a child. Telling someone to ask Jesus into his or her heart is the exact opposite of using concrete terms and terminolgy.

In addition to this, telling someone that the way to be saved is by asking Jesus into their heart is a false gospel. The writers of the New Testament books of the Bible made it clear. From John 1:12 on, that writer tells us 99 times to believe in Jesus. Paul, the writer of most of the New Tesatment penned these words, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” in Ephesians 2:8. He would also answer the question of his prision guard in Acts 16:31 with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

First of all, the idea that children are conrete thinkers incabable of abstract thought is a myth. In fact, I have tutored a couple of high functioning autistic students who can not grasp analogy or sarcasm, but have no trouble with abstract concepts and theological thought. Children, in general, are abstract thinkers. They live in the real world and constantly play in the world of make believe, fairy tales, and cartoons. So, when it comes to understanding the historical fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and the only response for salvation being faith alone in Jesus Christ, children have no trouble understanding this at all. With this, children also have no trouble understanding which stories they hear are history and which ones are fairy tales. Children also know that people are capable of great things and will not hesitate to ask if a story is real history, exaggerated, or “just a story.” 

Likewise, children understand concepts of sin, forgiveness, fair play, and everything else that goes into the gospel story. Anytime a child is confused about the gospel message, you can be sure the confusion was caused by an adult who believes in the “children are only concrete thinkers” myth.

2. Children are often taught a self help theology instead of the gospel.

This is directly contected to the the first reason children are confused. Since many adults think children are not capable of understadning the gospel, they end up teaching them a self help theology.

The best example I can give happened about 15 years ago. I watched as a friend of mine was trying to to teach the gospel to a group of chilren at his church’s Vacation Bible School. I watched as he stumbled over his words as he stood in front of about 40 children. When he finally got the words out, he told them that in order to be saved, you have to believe that Jesus wants them to succeed in life and that if they believe that he can change their lives, they can be saved. Over lunch that day, I asked him why he did not tell the kids that Jesus died for their sins and invite them follow John 3:16, which says, “whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

His answer was, “they are children and they would not understand that.” Sadly, what he told them instead was a self help message where if you just believe Jesus wants you to succeed and believe he can change your life, then you are saved.

3. Adults often talk at children rather that talk with them.

This final point comes up often in ministry from pre-school through high school where adults see themselves as nothing more than teachers. Sometimes, I see this with parents as well. In this, there is only formal teaching in a class room. Sometimes, it is nothing more than an adult or parent telling children what they are supposed to believe. In this, children are not asked to think for themselves. They are only asked to recite and repeat back the correct answers. Ultimately, the result is always the same. When the child is old enough, usually teenage years, it will be clear that any perceived faith form childhood will be proven to have never existed. Some do come to their own faith decision during teen and young adult years because of a good mentor or friend, but most walk away from anything spritual.

When we teach children, it is necessary to engage them in conversation. When we tell them a story, ask them what they think of the story. Sometimes it starts with asking a child to repeat a story or concept, but it should never end with that.

Children are capable, at a very young age, of forming their own opinions and beliefs. This begins whenever a child looks up at mom or dad and says for the first time, “no.” Most parents know about the terrible 2s, which is a magical age when your precious little baby becomes your live in little terrorist. It is at this moment in a child’s development they begin to assert themselves, demand their own choices, and suffer consequences for disobedience and defiance. Of course, some children are worse than others. As children grow, it is important to remember that it is not just behavior that children choose. They are forming their own perspectives, opionions, and choices about what they believe. While each child is unique in how they process and learn, each one does form these throughout childhood.

So, rather than simply tell children what they are supposed to believe, it is necesary to guide them. The task for Sunday school teachers and parents is to sit down with them as you teach them. Do not ever assume a child is not capable of learning something abstract, spritiual, or theological in nature. Ask them what they think about the stories they have learned. Ask them what they think about the meaning and moral of the story.

One thing to remember above all others. Be understanding if a child express doubts about Bible stories and theological concepts. Whether you are a parent, Sunday school teacher, or some other type of mentor in a child or teen’s life, your role is to teach the child how to think for him or herself so that they can make their own decisions about what they belive.

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If I Were the Devil, A Pastor’s Take on Paul Harvey’s Great Rant

About 15 years ago, I began working on something I called Reflections of a Church Kid. At different times, I considered writing a book with this title, but I later thought it best to keep it as a blog. Reflections was inspired by a book at the time that told stories of some of the most ridiculous things churches and church people put up with and are often guilty of perpetrating. These include bad leadership, bad doctrine, bad philosophies, and in general, the many things that cause churches to stop reaching people for Christ.

Over the last 15 years, I drafted and deleted many rants, thoughts, and so-called “reflections.” I started a WordPress blog that over several years only saw a few entries while many bloggers and writers became famous writing about many of the issues I once hoped to address. Only in the last few months, did I realize why many times, I simply deleted these entries rather than joining the growing trend of bloggers who love to tell us about the “10 Things” wrong with the church.

The truth is that there are issues that need to be addressed in many of our local church ministries here in the United States. So, today, I have come to this point where I would like to close Reflections of a Church Kid with a retelling and rewording of Paul Harvey’s If I Were the Devil. From there, I hope it encourages conversations and puts an stop to the endless nonsensical ramblings of every Christian blogger trying to go viral.

When Paul Harvey wrote and delivered his If I Were the Devil speech on radio, the year was 1964. While I call it a “rant,” it is better described as a form of social criticism. In it, Paul Harvey stated, “If I were the Prince of Darkness I would want to engulf the whole earth in darkness.” From there, he went on to say that he would set about to take over the United States.

In my retelling of this great rant, I will disagree with Harvey. I do not think the devil needed to take over the United States.

If I were the devil, the Prince of Darkness,  I too would try to engulf the whole world in darkness. But, rather than go after any country, I would go after the church. Just to be clear. When I say “church,” I don’t mean the church of Rome or the largest denomination in the United States. When I say church, I mean the only church that a man or woman in your community knows, your local congregation.

First, I would convince each congregation’s members that “church” is in fact a building and a piece of real estate. I’d use common language meanings to convince them a church is meeting place even though the original languages of scripture define it as a gathering of people.

With that, I’d convince church members that they worshiped in sanctuaries where hats must be removed and nothing can be done except what they consider to be sacred. They will tell their children not to run in the “House of God” and forbid even the drinking of coffee telling visitors that they are on some type of holy ground when the truth is coffee stains the carpet and the no running rule for children applies to every home and building for safety reasons.

Then, next, I would set out to diminish the work of every local congregation in their communities.

First, I would develop the idea that church and everything in it is for members only. In this way, churches will offer discounts on building and property usage for weddings and funerals for church members, sometimes making it free, but charge fees and rental to everyone else.

Next, I would convince church leadership that any funds collected to help the poor, first belongs in a benevolence fund that is only available to church members in need.

As a local congregation shrinks, I will wait for the speculation to start and then do everything to keep the church members from discovering the truth, that they have no idea what they are doing.

They will blame their congregation’s decline on the changing American culture, blame it on the changing times, and even blame their previous pastor.

I will convince unfriendly congregations that they have always been friendly, but encourage gossip, division, racism, and opposition to anything that might cause normal wear and tear on the building and property.

To the young, I would whisper, “the elders don’t care about you.” I would convince them that they can do church better than their parents and grandparents.

To the ears of the older generation, I would whisper, “you are the tithers and look how much of your money is being spent on children and youth.”

Then, I would get organized. I would push a Christian subculture that further separated any last remaining Christian from being able to help his or her fellow man.

I’d start with making sure frauds and fakes present false information as sociological data and no one will question it since it comes from reputable ministries, pastors, and polling groups.

I’d also educate well known pastors on how to publish dozens of books with their names as the author even though they failed to write a single word while paying ghost writers to write for them. For bloggers, I will keep them single issue focused in areas beyond their actual knowledge and expertise so they can tell people how messed up the church is without actually serving in their local communities or making a positive difference in any life.

Finally, I’d take the focus of the average church goer off of the greater problems of the culture telling them the problem is immigrants, liberals, and whatever bogey man politician I can prop up in office.

In this, I’ll peddle narcotics in the form of FDA approved prescription drugs and get mind altering street drugs legalized by a vote of the people. As this happens, I will turn the anger of the church man and woman to the fact that they now have to pay 10 cents per plastic bag at the grocery store.

You see, if I were the devil, I do not need to take over the United States. There are already many congregations and whole church denominations that have abandoned the gospel, proper doctrine, and scriptural ethics and morality. I need to do nothing more with those groups. If they die off, no loss. If they thrive, they only draw people into their nonsensical doctrines and away from God.

It’s the congregations that are faithful to scripture that I will target. There is no need to change their doctrine, their high view of scripture, or their faithful church attendance. I only need to get church people to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, make them think being American is the same as being Christian, and help them fall back into being the selfish people they were born to be.

 

So, where do we go from here?

In closing finally the negative nature of Reflections of a Church Kid, I would ask anyone reading this to remember that every point in this rant is based on personal observations of churches I have attended and served. Not all of these points reflect the leadership of each church. Sometimes, though, a couple of the points in this rant were expressed by supposedly respected members of a church.

But the real question is, where do we go from here?

The truth is that while each of the points of this rant are personal observations, they do not represent and did not come from the most loving and kind people I have known in my life. The most loving and kind people I have known, I also met while visiting, attending, and sometimes serving in their church.

The sad thing is that many of us church kids have been burned by churches by being pushed aside, overlooked, and in some cases erroneously kicked aside. Some have actually been victimized by churches and church people.

But, when I take an objective look at the nearly 40 years of my life, I find that the number of loving and caring people I have met along the way far outnumber the bad. Some of these people are responsible for who I am today. They showed me what it means to love another person unconditionally.

So, each time I began writing a “reflection,” I found at each negative entry I would instead remember names and faces like Nap Clark, Millie Horton, Caye Cook, Keith and Sheila Jeffries, Curt and Mindy Shirey, Butch Simmons, Wesley Hannah, Richard Grubbs, Bob and Katie Swanson, Daryl and Carol Feil, and many other people that overwhelmingly drowned out the negative. The amazing thing is the names I just listed are those who showed me love and kindness long before my 18th birthday. If I were to list those of my adult life from 1995 to today, I think my list would take up a sermon length blog entry.

In thinking about these, one scripture reference comes to mind.

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart…

Philippians 1:3–7 (NASB95)

The second half of verse 7 makes it clear that the author, Paul, is writing from prison at a time of persecution against Christians in the Roman empire.

The reason this passage comes to mind is there were times when the Apostle Paul, during those earliest years of Christianity, was frustrated. He not only suffered persecution at times, but many times church people of his day hurt him by their disregard for scripture and sometimes their disregard for him and anything good.

But, at his most trying time, Paul stated “I thank my God in my remembrance of you.”

So with that, I close the idea of and my original intent of “Reflections of a Church Kid.”

I hope my take on If I Were the Devil encourages conversations between church people. I hope it at least helps church leadership begin to realize that the only reason a local congregation fails to thrive is the local congregation pushes people away.

But, most importantly, I hope this will bring “church kids” together in a way that we celebrate the people in our lives that made a positive difference and pushed us to be more like Jesus.

 

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Preparing to Preach: My Resources

Being bi-vocational, I have in the last 3 years had a few conversations with friends and mentors alike about sermon prep and how to manage my time. What I found interesting about these conversations is my mentors and I spoke mostly about time management and the importance of making time to prepare to preach a priority. With other people, the question about resources I might use to study and write sermons came up more often.

With that, I think the best way to organize my thoughts and opinions was to present this in a Q and A format.

What do you think is the most important part of sermon preparation?

To me, the most important part of sermon preparation is scheduling time each week for it. With that said, I have to clarify the role of prayer in the life of a preacher.  Many religiously minded people will insist that prayer is the most important part of sermon preparation. The truth is that prayer should be an integral part of the daily life of anyone who has a relationship with God. After all, it is how we communicate with Him.

While there is always room for growth and more time that we can and should give to prayer, the biggest stress factor that we pastors state as an obstacle  in sermon preparation is lack of time needed to prepare to preach. But, the truth is there is not a lack of time, only a lack of discipline on the part of a pastor to schedule time for study.

For me, the only way to overcome this is to schedule time for study and preparation and stick to it. Being bi-vocational for now means that my sermon prep time might be from 9:00pm to midnight on a few nights during the week, but thankfully, I can catch up on sleep on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

What resources do you use?

I preach using the New American Standard Bible (1995 Update) which is what I use as my primary study Bible. I also use several exegetical commentaries to give me a better understanding of the linguistic and cultural context the passage I am preaching from.

The best resource I have is something I had to purchase for seminary.  It is a software program called Logos. When I purchased it, I picked up the premium package, which expanded my library to over 1000 books. For sermon preparation, Logos provided several exegetical commentary series to choose from as well as language resources that allow me to look up any passage of scripture in the Hebrew Old Testament or Koine Greek New Testament. This has proven very valuable to me in that my vocabulary in both languages is very small. I know just enough of each language to look up a verse or passage and recognize certain grammar rules, but my vocabulary recall is very limited. With Logos, I can move back and forth from the text and a lexicon pretty quickly to do what I call a “rookie’s translation” to get a better understanding of how a verse or passage was rendered in the original language. Of course, I also check my “rookie’s translation” against how experts have translated a passage.

Also, using logos, I can line up several English translations like my NASB along side of the original language text and other translations like ESV, NIV, and the NET. In this way I can do a “parallel” examination of any passage without exhausting all my study time in any week.

I’ve heard other pastors say any good bible study requires looking at several translations.  Why is that?

The reason for this is the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. When translators render a word a phrase the way they do in any translation, the translator or team are going with the best choices with their knowledge of both English and the original languages. In some cases, a word has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Sometimes a phrase is actually an idiom that if translated word for word, would make no sense in any English culture. So, translators for one English translation may choose to render a verse in one way, but another translation renders it a different way because there may be a better English word or phrase to communicate the original meaning of the text.

Why not just stick with the KJV Bible? Isn’t that the most accurate English translation?

The answer to this is simply no. The KJV was never the most accurate English Bible. It is like the NIV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and NET translations in that it is a reliable translation.

Are there any books or commentaries that you would not use?

I think there are some very important books in certain subjects. My second major in college was History, so my knowledge of other disciplines like psychology and medicine is very limited and generally only historical in nature. For example, I am confident in my knowledge of Louis Pasteur, the history of antibiotics, and the history of vaccines in the United States and Europe. But, any technical information in this as well as in the field of psychology,  I have to rely on sound and qualified experts to inform me even if all I do with the information is use it to illustrate a point in a sermon.

With that, I do not trust the Christian publishing industry at all when it comes to my field of study. Anytime I find out that a particular historian is popular among fellow pastors, I wait until the reviews from scholars come out before I read it. Most often, I find that historians who write for the “Christian Market” are not historians at all. On the other hand, there are a few scholars and writers that are popular among pastors like Victor Davis Hansen that have a long and proven track record as historians.

Unfortunately, there is also an anti-psychology and alternative medicine market in Christian publishing. Some are written by pastors and others written by people claiming to be experts. Sadly, I have to admit that some of these were on my bookshelf about 10-15 years ago. I believed them and formed my opinions at the time on some very unscientific and wrong information. I am just thankful I discovered how horribly wrong they were before I ever gave advice or council to someone based on them.

I read an article in Christianity Today about a group called Docent Research group. This group provides research assistance for pastors. Considering everything that a pastor has to do in ministry, would you hire a research assistant or use services like Docent’s?

I will never use the services of Docent or any group like it. When a pastor uses Docent services or a research assistant, they are paying someone else to do what is fundamentally the job of a pastor. 20-30 years ago, if your church found out that you were paying someone else to study and write your sermons for you, you were removed from pastoral ministry.

You really have that low of an opinion of Docent and the pastors that use their services?

Yes, I do. When a friend asked me to check out the Docent site last year, I looked through all the testimonials. Each pastor, especially in the video testimonials, made it clear that Docent does not  do their study or “write their sermons for them.” But, when you look at Docent’s website, it says their services include what it calls research briefs, theological insights, and exegetical analysis of the passage. This is doing your study for you.

What is the most difficult thing about sermon prep and preaching?

The most difficult thing that comes up is how to apply some parts of scripture to the modern world. There are some parts of the Bible that are commandments from God that should be taken literally. There are also moral values that the Bible makes very clear. Those commandments and moral values are the easy ones to teach. But there are many things found in both the Old and New Testament that simply outline principles that we are supposed to follow. The difficulty here is when I have had sharp disagreements when church people insist we can only take a literal interpretation of scripture. I actually had a conversation with one guy who held to this literal interpretation point so much that he thought slavery was OK because there is no direct commandment against it in the Bible.

I guess what I am saying is the most difficult thing about studying and preaching from the Bible is many church people listening may already have opinions about the Bible, God, and about people in general that go against where the text actually leads us. If having the right illustration on any given point of doctrine or life application were all that was needed to overcome this, then preaching would be easy.

What is the most rewarding part of sermon preparation and preaching?

The most rewarding part of sermon prep and preaching is the fact that most people in church want to seek the truth, correctly interpret scripture, and learn to apply it to their lives. This, I think is most evident in what happens when anyone approaches me after a church service and says, “Great sermon, but I don’t think I agreed with you on this point.” When this happens, the followup conversations are the most exciting, especially when the person who brought it up makes a good point or shows me where I made a mistake.

I know it sounds strange to say that I like it when someone disagrees with me. Sometimes, it’s an illustration that made sense to me even in the sermon, but turned out to be terrible and inaccurate. Other times, though, the disagreement is over a direct interpretation of a key verse or the whole passage.

When this happens, it becomes an opportunity to sit with a friend over coffee and have an “aha”moment. If I was correct, this “aha” moment is pretty cool as I watch the look of understanding take place in a friend. But, when I am proven to be mistaken, incorrect, or just wrong, the “aha” moment is mine.

It’s not that I do not want to prove my interpretation is correct. I do hope I do not make a mistake, but when a friend corrects something I missed, that “aha” moment is something like when your ears pop after a drive through the mountains. It also leaves me a little dizzy, but thrilled.

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Do They Really Hate Us?

This blog post has been a long time in coming and it is likely to be one of the few that I do not offer a quote from the Bible. Of course, any statement made about sin, lust, the human soul, or anything else does reflect a Biblical world view from my point of view. However, this blog entry is an organized form of the jumbled thoughts I have whenever terrorist attacks are reported in the news.-–J.

On Tuesday this week, Jihadist terrorists carried out an attack on Brussels. Later, ISIS would claim responsibility. Shortly after that, the Internet was flooded with Tweets and blog posts asking questions and making statements. It seems that everyone is an expert on the Qu’ran and everyone seems convinced that they know the motivations behind the terrorists.

The question that comes up the most is, “Why do they hate us?”

Yesterday, Franklin Graham repeated the same thing he has been saying for several years. He tweeted at 6:22 am “Why does Islam hate so much? It’s because the Quran reaches it’s followers to hate.”

One thing I find disturbing about this is the fact that most Americans, especially Franklin Graham are completely unaware of the 8 other terrorist attacks carried in other regions of the world. I found out from a friend living in Turkey about 2 of them, one carried out one March 13 in Ankara and the other on March 20 in Istanbul.

What I find disturbing about all the rhetoric is Franklin Graham’s insistence that hatred of Christians and Jews is the motivator and teaching of the Qu’ran behind Jihadist terrorism. When I looked at the other 8 terrorist attacks in March, I found that those committed or claimed by Jihadists were actually carried out against Muslims. When I look back over just the last 2 years of terrorist attacks carried out by Jihadists, I find that various groups have carried most of their attacks out in Muslim majority countries against Muslims and Mosques.

So, I ask several questions of anyone who thinks like Franklin Graham. What explains this? Where in the Qu’ran does it tell Muslims to kill other Muslims? If hatred is the motivator, why do Jihadists seem to hate Muslims more than they hate Jews and Christians?

Even though my questions are not entirely rhetorical, I ask them to make a point. I do not think hatred has anything to do with Jihadism. I do not think any religion or any religious text causes people to become terrorists. When I look through history from Nero and Caligula to Constantine, from Mohammed to the Crusades, from the Spanish Inquisition to the bloody French Revolution, and from Hitler’s Holocaust to Lenin and Stalin’s athiest motivated murders of millions, I find no consistent causal factor for the evil committed. Among the evil leaders from ancient times to present day were psychos, the disturbed, the politically motivated, the religious justifications, and the hatred of religion. Evil action and the murder of other humans can be found among every ethinc and religious people.

The evil comes from the human mind and soul. The evil comes from within, not from an outside source. People are attracted to Jihadism because it is already in their heart. In the same way, Christians who end up following for example mysogenistic people like Bill Gothard or Mark Driscoll did not become mysogenists from their teachings. They were already that way and followed pastors who justified their attitudes and beliefs.

So, with that, I do not think terrorists hate us at all.

Here is my line of thinking. If someone breaks into your home, when a person is murdered, when gang members shoot at each other, and any criminal commits a violent act, do you ever ask, “why do they hate so much?” The answer is no. With every criminal act, we look for the motivations and intent of the individual.

We know the motivation is not hatred, but often it is lust. It’s a lust for power and possessions. It starts with covetousness in the heart and when that is given full strength, a criminal will carry it his or her selfish desires. We can see it even in the violent acts where one gang member attacks another within his own gang because the attacker thinks he was disrespected.

I think the same is true for terrorists, especially terrorist leaders. They lust for power and significance. Their followers lust for the same. The same can be seen in the tribalism at the heart of American street gangs where leaders keep their hands clean and order their followers to deal and distribute drugs, carry out thefts and burglaries, and carry out any violent crime including murder. It may be packaged by Jihadists and ISIS as some sort of Muslim eschatology, but ultimately, if Islam as a religion did not exist, these terrorists would still exist.

So, I ask the question, “Do they really hate us?” becasue I am more convinced each day that hatred has nothing to do with their motivations. But the reason behind the question is it is easier to believe terrorists are a nameless faceless enemy that we might call “Crout,” “Charlie,” or “Hodgie.”

The danger is civilians like Franklin Graham can continue to view Jihadists and ISIS as a nameless faceless enemy without direct consequence to their own psychological health. Instead, civilians will call for troop deployment to fight the nameless and faceless enemy. It will be the Marine, Salior, Airman, and the Soldier that will carry the guilt, deal with PTSD, and the knowledge that the “Hodgies” killed are human.

In the end, I think most civilians calling for action will only offer a “thank you for your service” when the action is finished.

 

P.S. I realized at the closing of this post that there are many fellow Christians who may take offense at my disagreement with Franklin Graham. Please, show me some grace in this any future conversation. It is difficult for a veteran like me to listen to opinions of pastors who call for troops on the ground when they themselves never enlisted. It is even more difficult when fellow pastors say things that go against the work of our own missionaries and missions organizations overseas.

To all who have said to me and others, “Thank you for your service,” I say thank you to most of you for your willingness to carry the conversation further. Thank you for taking your “thank you” and putting it into action by helping veterans directly and being willing to help refugees as well.

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The worship of a Sinner?

Last week as I prepared to preach on Jesus’ first parable, I was struck by few things I saw in the text found in Luke 7:36-50.  In this passage, while Jesus was having a meal in the home of a Pharisee, a woman described as a “sinner” did something unusual.

I think it is safe to say that with the culture of the time and based on Simon the Pharisee’s comment about what kind of woman she was, that the woman was in fact a prostitute.  Yet, from this passage, we see a much different response to Jesus.  Simon failed to even provide someone to wash Jesus’ feet when he entered the home, but the prostitute went out of her way, risking being forcibly removed and shamed, and did what can only be considered an act of worship by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with expensive perfume that cost the equivalent of 300 days of wages.  This passage leaves me with questions.

What did Jesus do to elicit this act of worship from this woman?  Was it his teaching?  Did he answer a question she asked?  Did he tell one of the disciples to give her bread?  Did he make eye-contact, ask her name on the street, say God be with you, or did she see him treat Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and his own mother with the respect and care that no other Rabbi in their culture had?

Sadly, all we see in the text is the irony of Simon’s response.  Washing a house guest’s feet was generally a job given to a household servant.  It was a job given to the lowest servant and was generally considered something demeaning for a free person, family member, or a student of a rabbi.  If there was no servant low enough to provide washing of feet, a person would wash their own feet because you would not allow a fellow Jew do such a demeaning task.

But, Simon showed us how low they considered this woman.  He did not question whether it was demeaning to allow this prostitute to do the work of the lowest gentile household servant or slave.  Simon found it offensive that this woman, this prostitute, would perform this act of worship and that Jesus would allow it.  By his words, Simon reveals that he would not have thought it inappropriate for a woman to be so moved emotionally, as this woman was, by Jesus teachings and ministry.  If the woman was not as the text called her, a sinner, the conversation might have been about what he had done to elicit such as powerful emotional response.

The greater irony is knowing that in both the Old and New Testament, worship is inseparable from humility and repentance from sin.  For Simon, it should have been obvious that this “sinner’s” action was exactly what a religious leader wanted to see happen.  Rather than continuing in sin, she went out of her way and facing more shame to perform this act of worship on who is most likely the only man who did not look on her with disgust.

What’s more incredible is that Simon missed the fact that this prostitute approached Jesus in an act of worship instead of an offer of sex in exchange for money.  Her behavior towards Jesus may be described as unusual or surprising, but there was nothing inappropriate in the way she showed her affection and worship towards Jesus.

So, why did Simon, a religious leader, not understand that this woman’s actions were a perfect opportunity to help her leave her chosen profession and begin living a life honoring to God?  Even better, it was an opportunity to rescue a person from a life and profession that any decent father sacrifice his own life to protect his daughter from.

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