Thursday, September 25, 2008

Life on an island....

I’ve struggled for some years now through the issue of what “church” is supposed to be all about. Now I understand that, as a general rule, the church service(s) is typically a time for edifying, equipping, encouraging, and educating the members of that particular assembly. What I’m speaking of in this blog entry however, is the actual mission of the local church.

I’ve spent most of my life sitting in churches that are, more or less, islands unto themselves. The problem with this is that, although the view is great, the only interaction tends to be with the few people that already live on your little island. Even the churches I’ve been part of that have a bus ministry and visitation program tend to be the same types of islands. If somebody actually joins the church, they will typically look like the rest of the people who are there, and they will typically be part of the same basic income class as that of the general membership of that particular assembly. I don’t mean any of this as a criticism; this is merely my subjective evaluation and an opinion based on 30 years or so of observation. But I find myself asking, with increasing regularity, some version of the same nagging question: “what are we doing?”

The ministry of the typical local church (IFB) tends to be primarily geared towards the membership of that particular local church. Now, I’m not speaking of the regular weekly services here…..obviously, those should be geared towards the membership. However, if we take a look at the standard church and analyze the various ministries of that church, I think we will find that, even in her ministries, the local church is not typically attempting to fill any real need within the community. In my church for instance, we have activities for young adults, married adults, teenagers, and seniors. In the summer months we have camp, VBS, and teen VBS. While all of these are good things and often centered on a time looking at the Scriptures, they are not really geared towards meeting any needs within the community. Lest you think that I am criticizing these ministries, let me say that I appreciate these types of ministries and I view them as vital for the local church. The sense of community as well as the fellowship offered in these informal times is extremely valuable.

What I’m driving at is this: Why aren’t we getting involved in the community? Why is there not a concerted effort at reaching those who need reached most and attempting to fill a need by meeting the people where they are? How many churches have you seen that are involved in addictions recovery programs and teen pregnancy crisis centers? How many are reaching out to the outcasts and hurting in the community? You know, the people who nobody really wants. How many are involved in hard-core prison ministries – not just preaching once a month, but working with the inmates to get them ready for society? We tend to get so focused on making everything look so perfect within our own house that we miss the fact that the surrounding neighborhood looks like a war zone with all the consequential devastation, poverty, and ugliness that accompanies it!

Outreach is more than leaving a tract on the restaurant table with your tip. To tell you the truth, I dislike the term “outreach” because of the images that immediately pop up in our minds. Instead, I prefer the term “true ministry”. True ministry involves reaching out to the hurting, helpless, and hopeless. It involves getting dirty. It might involve getting out of your comfort zone a bit. It’s easy to sit in our church pew and “amen” the notion that the world has gone to hell and we need to avoid all the damnable trappings that come with it. It’s quite another to get out into the world and do something that makes a difference for Christ.

We pray for our leaders and we pray for our communities, but we make no relationships with them. As a matter of fact, most of the churches with whom I’ve been identified for most of my life have earned a solid reputation of not being involved in the community. The pathetic part of it is the fact that we take some sort of twisted pride in that reputation. The fact that the surrounding community knows us by what we don’t do rather than what we do is something we wear as a badge of honor. We’ve taken a principle of being separated from worldliness and twisted it to mean that we need to be completely uninvolved with the world. I’ve known of precious few local churches in my life that have made true inroads and made legitimate impacts in their communities…at least within IFB-dom. Instead, we tend to sit on our butts and criticize the churches who are trying to make a difference in the community as being liberal, compromising, false teachers who have no concept of holiness.

I guess this article is meant to be more of a challenge than anything. What am I doing to impact my community for Christ? What is my church doing to impact this community for Christ? These are good and convicting questions for each of us to ask. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that in many more cases than not, the answers to those questions is “nothing”. I’ve gotten some very “righteous sounding” answers to these questions before….answers about being “salt and light”. However, being salt and light in a community involves much more than good, clean, moral, ethical living…..that’s not all that difficult. As a matter of fact, I run into good, moral – yet unregenerate – people all the time. Being salt and light involves taking the extra step in order to effect major change in the lives of those around you. It involves people seeing the Lord Jesus reflected in your every action. How can we attempt imitate Him without a concentrated effort of reaching out to the dredges of society? The picture we see of Christ in the Gospels involves Him reaching out to some of the saddest, most desperate characters out there…..the “least of these”, so to speak.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

My Take on the Republican National Convention...

The Republican National Convention (RNC) was the news topic of the last week. Although the Convention was shortened and modified as a result of Hurricane Gustav, it was, overall, a solid Convention. My review will be similar to my last article on the DNC. The GOP didn't put up nearly as many "non-primetime" speakers as the Dem's did. Most of the lesser known speakers were much more difficult to listen to than were the Democrat's choices. That was due in large part to the placement of the teleprompters I think. They were spread so far apart that the speakers had to turn their entire bodies to be able to see each teleprompter on queue.

I will make one other observation here. This is kind of humorous, yet maybe not so much. The Convention had the "look" of your typical fundy church: a whole bunch of well-dressed white people. The men had their hair parted perfectly, the two main families had 12 children between them, and nobody had any a matter of fact, when music with a beat started, everybody looked a bit uncomfortable trying to figure out how to respond! So with that:


Monday night was given to fund-raising efforts for Hurricane relief as well as some of the obligatory formalities to mark the Conventions official start. I didn't catch the speeches, but First Lady Laura Bush as well as potential First Lady Cindy McCain both spoke. Nothing political though. The entire evening was given to Hurricane relief and concern for other Americans. This really served to set the tone for the entire Convention as the organizers set out to present this Republican Party as the truly American Party.


Tuesday was highlighted by two speakers: Senator Joe Lieberman and former Senator Fred Thompson. Thompson spoke first and delivered a solid speech on the life and service of John McCain. Before he got to that, though, he spoke briefly of Governor Sarah Palin. One of his statements, "Let's be clear ... the selection of Governor Palin has the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic. She is a courageous, successful, reformer, who is not afraid to take on the establishment", began a theme that would resonate through most of the Convention.....the negative treatment of the GOP in general, and Palin specifically, by the media. More on that later.

Thompson went on to spell out in great detail some of the specifics of John McCain's imprisonment in Vietnam. The story was moving and shocking in its detail. Thompson summed it up with these words: "Now, being a POW certainly doesn't qualify anyone to be President. But it does reveal character. This is the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of history have sought in their leaders. Strength. Courage. Humility. Wisdom. Duty. Honor. It's pretty clear there are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves, 'Who is this man?' and 'Can we trust this man with the Presidency?'" Thompson's speech wasn't especially dynamic, but it was effectively done. He laid out the groundwork for several themes that would be present in the coming days. He presented McCain as, not just a "maverick" but as a man of character, bravery, dignity, strength, and courage. His speech was convincing and solid.

Next up on Tuesday night was Senator Joe Lieberman. Now this was one of the most intriguing speeches of either Convention and certainly one for the history books. Lieberman, a registered Democrat who caucuses with the Dem's in the Senate, was the Democratic nominee for Vice-President 8 short years ago. During his speech he even managed to get the delegation to applaud (ever so politely) former President Bill Clinton! But aside from the remarkable nature of his even speaking at the RNC was the nature of his speech. Word got out from McCain's people that Senator Lieberman's speech would be like nothing you've ever seen at a Convention before, and they were right. Lieberman, who was expected to give a plea for unity between the two parties, actually went further than that. He addressed Independent and Democratic voters specifically and said he understood their unease with Obama and then he explained - quite well - why he thinks they should vote for McCain. In one brief sentence he put an argument that the Democrats spent their entire week trying to make, square on its ear: "My Democratic friends know all about John’s record of independence and accomplishment. Maybe that’s why some of them are spending so much time and so much money trying to convince voters that John McCain is someone else. I’m here, as a Democrat myself, to tell you: Don’t be fooled." The entire week of the DNC, speech after speech tried to paint McCain as being nothing more than an older version of President George W. Bush, yet Lieberman - a Democrat himself - states that it's just not so. He concluded with an appeal to his fellow Democrats who, he claims, are very uneasy about Obama: "I ask you whether you are an Independent, a Reagan Democrat or a Clinton Democrat, or just a Democrat: This year, when you vote for President, vote for the person you believe is best for the country, not for the party you happen to belong to." In all, Lieberman's speech was powerful. Time will tell just how effective it was, but I was certainly blown away as I watched this man (who reminds me of the dad from that old television show "Alf") deliver a speech that might have effectively ended his political career.


Four key speakers were given the platform on Wednesday night - three of them the key competition that McCain had throughout the Republican primaries; Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani. The fourth - and most intriguing - speaker was Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. I'll mention briefly Giuliani's speech and then Palin's.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani struck me as more of a "roastmaster" than he did a Convention key-note speaker, but he made some very good points drew a stark contrast between McCain and Obama. Calling this a race of "substance versus style" and "experience versus inexperience". In speaking of Obama's lack of leadership experience, Giuliani concluded that "...This is not a personal attack ... .it's a statement of fact - Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada." In speaking of Obam's decision making ability, Giuliani said, "Obama was going to take public financing for his campaign, until he didn't. Obama was against wiretapping before he voted for it. When speaking to a pro-Israel group, Obama favored an undivided Jerusalem. Until the very next day when he changed his mind. I hope for his sake, Joe Biden got that VP thing in writing." Clever! I think the best statement of his speech had to do with the Russia / Georgia crisis of a few weeks ago. "When Russia rolled over Georgia, John McCain knew exactly how to respond. Having been to that part of the world many times and having developed a clear worldview over many years, John knew where he stood. Within hours, he established a very strong, informed position that let the world know exactly how he'll respond as President. At exactly the right time, John McCain said, "We're all Georgians." Obama's first instinct was to create a moral equivalency - that "both sides" should "show restraint." The same moral equivalency that he has displayed in discussing the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel. Later, after discussing it with his 300 foreign policy advisers, he changed his position and suggested that the "the UN Security Council," could find a solution. Apparently, none of his 300 advisers told him that Russia has a veto on any UN action. Finally Obama put out a statement that looked ... well, it looked a lot like John McCain's. Here's some free advice: Sen. Obama, next time just call John McCain." Good stuff....Giuliani concluded and had given what I expected to be the best, most exciting, rousing speech of the RNC. I was wrong.

After Giuliani spoke, America was to get her first view of Governor Sarah Palin on the national stage. She absolutely delivered. The Vice-Presidential nominee is generally used at the Party Conventions as a an "attack dog" for the other parties Presidential nominee. Senator Biden was extremely successful in this role at the DNC, but Sarah Palin was certainly not going to be outdone. Most of us were hoping she would just get through the speech without falling on her face...well, I guess you could say that she managed to stay upright!

Palin gave a very brief biography of herself and then moved in for the attack. Her best soundbites were spoken early in the speech and were absolutely terrific. In the now famous paragraph, which began her litany of statements ripping on Obama, she said, "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening. We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco." This was absolutely priceless in that she, not only made her perceived lack of experience to appear as being greater than Obama's, but she also made one of Obama's top selling points look ridiculous and then she brought back to our minds one of the more foolish statements that any Presidential candidate has ever made. After this, Palin really got wound up, "We've all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers. "And there is much to like and admire about our opponent. "But listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform - not even in the state senate. "This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign. But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed ... when the roar of the crowd fades away ... when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot - what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger ... take more of your money ... give you more orders from Washington ... and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy ... our opponent is against producing it. "Victory in Iraq is finally in sight ... he wants to forfeit. "Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay ... he wants to meet them without preconditions. "Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights? Government is too big ... he wants to grow it. "Congress spends too much ... he promises more. "Taxes are too high ... he wants to raise them."

In all, Palin gave the most dynamic speech of the RNC. As a matter of fact, I think that her speech was more dynamic than any given at the DNC. The most significant part of the speech to me was the fact that, without really saying the words, Palin essentially told the media that they weren't going to get to her. I would say that she shocked the political world and definitely set herself up as a chief player in the political scene for years to come. I've always assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman President of the United States.....I'm not so sure anymore.


This was John McCain's big night. His wife introduced him and he appeared in grand fashion. Senator McCain delivered a speech that was largely - and predictably - boring. About 20 minutes into the speech, however, he began to tell his story. I've heard bits and pieces of McCain's POW experience over the years, but I've never heard it from him. As he told of the beatings and of them breaking him and his shame and pain....well, it was one of the most moving moments of either Convention.

Before he told of his Vietnam experience, Senator McCain spelled out some of the differences between him and Senator Obama and, indeed, between the Republicans and the Democrats: "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it. My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them. My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance. His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor." Throughout this first portion of the speech, McCain never used the word "socialist" when referring to Obama, but it was pretty easy to catch the drift! His comparison of his education plan to that of Obama was powerful and brilliant.

Some of the more brilliant lines of McCain's speech were lines that showed his humanity. Statements such as, "I've been an imperfect servant of my country....", and "I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's", and the very powerful statement, "I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God." McCain successfully, in my opinion, did away with the notion that he would be "more of the same" by acknowledging that the Republican party has let the American people down. He didn't openly criticize the Bush Administration, but he certainly hinted at it strongly.

Senator McCain ended his speech with a rousing chorus that got the "troops" all worked up. It was an extremely powerful, dynamic, and moving scene as he spoke the following words above an increasingly loudly cheering delegation:

"I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me. "Fight for what’s right for our country. "Fight for the ideals and character of a free people. "Fight for our children’s future. "Fight for justice and opportunity for all. "Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. "Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America. "Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history. "Thank you, and God Bless you."

It was a moving a scene and a great end to the Convention. I don't think that the RNC was nearly as exciting and fluid as the DNC, but it certainly had it's moments. The "one-two punch" of Giuliani and Palin on Wednesday was better than any combination that the Democrats put together. Palin's speech was more exciting than any of the speeches from the DNC and McCain's speech was the richest speech that either Convention offered. I think the next 60 days will certainly be exciting and, for the first time in a while, I'm thinking that the GOP might just pull this one out!