Finding the Good This Good Friday

 

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Photo credit: The Upper Room

There’s a pastor out there stressing the crowd size for Sunday. Some are worried the crowd will be too small. Others will actually be irritated if the crowd is larger than normal, because after all, “Where are all these Christmas-and-Easter people every other Sunday of the year?”

There’s a pastor out there who’s stressing the fact that the church’s new projection system didn’t arrive in time for Easter services.

There’s a southern mom out there who’s stressing that this is the first years her daughters objected to wearing matching dresses.

There’s a grandmother out there who’s stressing the menu, and what time everybody will arrive for lunch, and how she’s going to get everything done in time.

There’s a believer out there who’s stressing that Christians have surrendered to paganism by calling it “Easter” and buying bunnies and eggs.

And none of those things dent the fact that Sunday morning commemorates the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian faith.

If there are five or 500 in your services Sunday, they need to hear about the resurrection, and it’s your job to tell them. All the disciples ran away from Jesus when it came time for Him to go to the cross. So He went alone. You don’t need a big audience, or any audience, to be faithful to God this Sunday. Preach your heart out to anybody who shows, and thank God for the privilege. If ISIS doesn’t kill 49 of your parishioners Sunday, you will have had a better Easter than the Coptic Christians’ Palm Sunday last week in Egypt

Christians victoriously celebrated the resurrection for approximately 1990 years before computerized projection found its way into church. It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.

Through the deprivations of the Dark Ages, the Great Depression, and a thousand other catastrophes great and small, we are reminded that what anybody wears this Sunday is of very little consequence. By all means, wear some clothes to church Sunday, and thank God that you have clothes to wear and a church to attend.

If you buy the wrong ham, if you forget the beans are in the oven, you forget to make that weird salad that has nuts but no lettuce, and your irresponsible nephew is 30 minutes late to lunch, Sunday will go on.

If you’re a believer who’s stressing the incorporation of pagan symbols into the celebration of resurrection Sunday, take heart: the kids aren’t thinking about ancient Babylonian fertility rites (unless you tell them). And if it bothers you, then don’t call it Easter, and don’t hunt Easter eggs. We don’t mind. Easter and Christmas both represent the amazing power of the gospel to overtake darkness and baptize even its symbology to tell its own story… not unlike the cross itself.

Indeed, if the crowd is down 8% from last year, the rolls burn, the dresses don’t match, your sermon introduction is weak, and you can’t find your hideously ugly Easter tie… guess what?

If everything else goes wrong this Sunday, Jesus still rose from the grave.

In our own church, we lost four of our dearest older members over the course of the past year, the latest one just this week. Actually that’s incorrect. We didn’t lose them. We know exactly where they are. They are with Jesus. Their lives are hidden with Christ in God. And when He appears, they will appear with Him in glory.

So I’m in my office on this Good Friday, drinking coffee, typing through tears, and blaring some Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and being thankful that we have a day like Sunday. I’m thankful that every Sunday is a reminder that Jesus rose again, guaranteeing that we will rise again. Stop stressing. Find the good in this Good Friday. If you’re grieving, Jesus crying at the tomb of Lazarus gives you permission to cry at the tomb of your friend too. If you’re my friend and you weren’t planning on going to church Sunday for whatever reason, come to church with me.

Just know this. Sunday’s coming, and there’s nothing that death, deprivation or disaster can do about that.

What matters come Sunday morning is that when Jesus rose from the dead, He gave us the power to shake our fist in the face of darkness and proclaim, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 

To a believer questioning cremation…

[The following is my reply to my friends who asked for insight on cremation as they sit down to pre-plan their funerals soon.]

First, you guys are to be commended for planning your memorial services ahead of time. I’m sure it’s not easy to sit down and go through the process. But I know for a fact that it makes things much easier on your family when the time comes, knowing that you have already taken care of these decisions. Secondly, I commend your seeking a biblical perspective on such an important topic. 

As of 2006, the national average for cremation was about 33%. Arkansas was near the bottom of that list at only 16%, along with the other Bible Belt states of Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and finally Mississippi at only 10%. In other words, the most evangelical states have the lowest rates of cremation. That certainly doesn’t make cremation right or wrong, but I wanted you guys to have some perspective on national numbers.

By 2011, cremations nationally had risen to 42%. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremations were expected to outnumber burials for the first time in 2015. During that same time frame, Mississippi saw a 50% rise in cremations. Culturally, the issue is clear: cremation is increasingly popular.

Biblically, the picture is somewhat less certain. The Catholic church officially prohibited cremation until 1963. While not expressly forbidden in evangelical circles, the above statistics definitely show a historical evangelical slant against cremation. However, evangelical resistance to cremation is softening over time.

To be clear, the Bible does not expressly state a position on cremation. The traditional Jewish practice was burial. Egyptians mummified their bodies, while the Babylonians practiced cremation. Although the Bible strictly prohibited certain pagan practices (human sacrifice, idol worship), cremation is not forbidden in the Old or New Testaments, even though it was practiced in surrounding cultures. 

 There are some relevant texts:

 1) In Genesis 3:19, God told Adam that he was made from dust and would return to dust.

2) In 2 Corinthians 5:1, scripture describes our physical bodies as a tent, a temporary dwelling place.

3) 1 Corinthians 15:48 and 53 describe our physical bodies as “of the dust” and “perishable.” The same chapter depicts the resurrection body as “of heaven” and “imperishable.”

4) Revelation 20:13 speaks of the sea giving up its dead at the resurrection. Human bodies decompose in the sea just as they do in the earth, and yet God will be able to resurrect them. 

In 1 Corinthians 6:19, scripture refers to our bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Based on this scripture, some believers hold that care should be taken to preserve the physical body after death, and therefore cannot choose cremation.

We have no clear biblical mandate here. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t tell us what to do? We make the best decision we can, informed by faith. Romans 14:23 says, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

In the absence of a clear biblical perspective about burial, can a believer opt for cremation in good faith? In my humble opinion, cremation simply speeds up a process that God Himself ordained: that the human body is inherently temporary, and ultimately reverts back to its elemental condition, from which God is supremely able to resurrect believers to eternal life. 

And at the same time, because there is no biblical mandate, believers who opt for a traditional burial should go forward in faith as well.

Compassion in the Clouds

On Monday, February 20, I boarded Alaska Airlines flight 665 from Dallas at 8:20 a.m., accompanied by two ministry friends, traveling to a conference in Seattle. Back in our own small town of De Queen, Arkansas, my wife had scheduled a 9:15 appointment with our friend and family physician Dr. Jason Lofton for our younger daughter Mia Beth.

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Riley Cate (L) & Mia Beth (R)

She is eight, and was diagnosed with severe asthma at age two. Over the past four years, she has been hospitalized five times for respiratory distress. During her kindergarten year, she spent the better part of three weeks in several stays in Arkansas Children’s Hospital. One of those trips was via Angel One, Children’s med flight service.

Since I had an early flight on Monday morning, I had left home on Sunday afternoon to spend Sunday night with friends in Dallas. During the night, Mia Beth’s cold had gone from bad to worse. We were concerned, but it had been two years since her last hospitalization. I decided to go ahead and make my trip to Seattle.

In the doctor’s office back in De Queen, Mia Beth’s pulse ox (percentage of oxygen saturation) had dropped into the low 80’s (normal is over 95%). Dr. Lofton quickly made the decision to transfer Mia Beth to our local hospital via ambulance, and then on to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, about 120 miles away. I was somewhere over Colorado when I saw this image from the emergency room back home.

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In the plane over Colorado, I told my friend Doug what was going on, and then sank back into my seat between two total strangers. Mia Beth’s condition wasn’t life threatening. We had been through this a number of times before. Arkansas Children’s Hospital is a world-class facility. I knew everything would be fine, but Seattle is a long way from Little Rock when your daughter is in the hospital there.

Without my even knowing, Doug had quietly explained my situation to the flight attendants. About 20 minutes later, two of them told me they were sorry that I was having such a rough day, that they had spoken to the captain, and that Alaska was doing everything possible to get me to Little Rock as soon as possible. They asked me to have a seat and they would let me know when they had a plan. Soon after, one of them handed me this slip of paper and said the captain had everything worked out.

change-info

Alaska had arranged for me to be on their first flight back to Dallas. But not only that. They also arranged for me to fly from Dallas to Little Rock (five hours by car). 

But here’s the kicker: Alaska Air doesn’t even fly to Little Rock. American Airlines is a sister airline of Alaska, and the incredible people at Alaska arranged for American to fly me to Little Rock, at no additional cost to me.

Once on the ground in Seattle, the captain introduced me to a very professional representative named Bryan Andrews, who gave me my boarding passes and asked me to walk with him to a waiting area. Bryan escorted me to the Alaska VIP lounge and set me up in a private conference room. He invited me to make myself at home, charge my devices, call anybody anywhere on their phone, and help myself to lunch and drinks upstairs. Bryan gave me his personal cell number in case there was anything else he could do for me. He told me he didn’t want me to have to think about anything except my daughter.

Arriving in Dallas, I had just 14 minutes to make my connection in a different terminal for my American flight to Little Rock. I made my connection, and some great friends met me at the Little Rock airport and drove me on to Children’s where I finally got to see my Mia Beth about 10:00 p.m.

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We spent the next four nights in the hospital, and the staff at Children’s was fantastic as usual.

We were discharged on Friday afternoon. On doctor’s orders, she has to stay home from school all next week, but she is recovering well.

All of that is a good story with a happy ending. But this is what makes it a great story, at least to me. On Monday, we were about 30 minutes from landing in Seattle when one of the flight attendants named Leah came to my seat.

She was the same one who had given me my flight information just a few moments before. She said she knew I was on my way to a ministry conference, and that her own father had been a pastor, and when he passed away, she had been given his visitation book.

visitation-book

She said, “I marked a passage for you that I thought might provide some comfort for you today. I’m praying for you and your daughter.” It was a Gospel passage about Jesus healing a sick child. The foreword of the book reads…

“Because we need God to keep coming to us, we need visitation. Members of the body of Christ need to go to one another and share the Word that opens our narrow hearts to all the blessings that come from the faith, hope and love in Christ Jesus.”

I simply want to convey my sincere thanks to Alaska Airlines for the culture of compassionate professionalism that empowered their people to care for me so well. A special thanks to Bryan Andrews in Seattle for his calming presence and personal hospitality. But most of all, my deepest appreciation to Leah, who spoke comfort to my hurting heart with the words of Christ at 30,000 feet. Your father would be proud.

Comfort is Close

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

When I’m writing or speaking about these opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s almost inevitable that I end up defining what the word blessed means, or explaining the Latin reason why this passage is known as The Beatitudes. There’s a time for those things, but this is not that time.

This is just a simple post, inspired by the undeniable fact that mourning is part of life, because death itself is part of life. The more we love, the more it hurts when we lose those we love.

Let’s just be completely honest; there is nothing blessed about mourning itself. There’s nothing happy about putting a towel over your pillow because you know you’re about to cry yourself to sleep. There’s nothing inherently joyous about hot tears streaming down your face. There’s nothing to be envied about a person who’s too grief-stricken to speak. Nobody looks at that person and wants to trade places with them.

That’s why this very simple statement has an explanation. Jesus knew that in the depths of our sorrows, we wouldn’t be able to see through the storm clouds to consider ourselves to be blessed, happy, joyous, enviable, or anything like it. And so Jesus explained it for us.

The reason why Jesus understands us is because Jesus Himself knew how it felt to lose a friend. Jesus knew what it was like to feel that burning mixture of anger and sorrow that expresses itself in tears better than words.

And so Jesus explained the blessedness of mourning. Those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted. It’s just a simple future tense, the normal way of stating something that will happen. The comfort is coming, arriving at any moment. But it’s also a divine promise, because God Himself said it was going to happen.

Jesus can say with certainty that comfort is coming, because He is the one who will bring it. As the gospels unfolded, Jesus told the disciples that when He left, He would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. That’s the same third of the Trinity that is also called the Spirit of Christ.

When you mourn, you don’t feel blessed. But you are. You are blessed in your mourning because you have a divine promise that you will be comforted. Jesus could promise that you’ll be comforted, because He will be the one to comfort you through His own Spirit. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

If you’re mourning, take heart. Comfort is close by.

If you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t still be a basket baby.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Hebrews 11:23-24, ESV). [For the full background narrative, see Exodus 1:1-2:3.]

The author of Hebrews uses the passive voice in 11:23 (Moses was hidden by his parents). In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. In verse 24 the writer shifts to the active voice (Moses refused). In the active voice, the subject is doing the action. That’s an important linguistic shift. But more than that, it’s an important spiritual shift that each of us must undergo. If we refuse to make that shift, we’re going to stay basket babies for far too long.

There is a time when it’s appropriate to be the baby in the basket, and when you’re there, you need to be thankful that somebody had the faith to put you there. Moses was born into an oppressive slave culture that considered his life to be worthless. Moses was born into a culture of death, but his parents had the rebellious faith to shield him by putting him in a basket to save his life. Moses had no choice in that. He was totally at the mercy of his faithful parents who made the decision about where he would go.

Many of you were raised (passive voice) by believing parents who placed you in a basket of faith before you could know the difference. Your being placed in the basket is evidence of somebody else’s faith on your behalf. Somebody took you to church, or told you when you were making a mistake. Your being a basket baby is the blessing of growing up with a loving, supportive church family. Being a basket baby means that as you grow and mature, you’re surrounded by a biological or church family that loves you and wants you to grow into conformity with Christ. That’s a great thing.

But at some point, you must be identified by what you choose, not by what somebody else chooses for you.

Moses could have chosen to stay in Pharaoh’s house. He could have had the life of ease and royalty, or he could live as a persecuted Hebrew. Either way, he had to make that decision himself. Moses’ parents chose life for him, but Moses would have to choose how he lived that life. Moses could choose to be a prince or a slave. As the song says, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”

Moses was 40 when he finally came to that crossroads and left the basket. If you realize that you were privileged enough to have been a baby in the basket, have you left it yet? Being in the basket isn’t really about your age, but your maturity. It’s how responsible you are for your own spiritual identity and development.

How can you tell if you’re still in the basket? There are a few ways:

If your faith is defined by what other people chose for you, then you are still a baby in the basket. Regardless of your age, if you believe what you believe simply because it’s what your parents believed, then you’ve not taken ownership of your faith. At the end of all things, you alone will answer for what you chose in this life, not what somebody else chose for you.

If you’ve never really struggled with what you believe and why, then you might still a baby in the basket. Kids raised in church should be thankful to God that their parents raised them in an environment of love and faith. But if you’re not a child, then you need to be making your own commitments. That process might be painful. You can imagine the personal crisis of Moses as he wrestled with his identity. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.

If you attend church without a thought for what you can personally contribute, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If that seems harsh, just think about it: Moses was three months old when his parents put him in the basket. A three-month-old knows how to do about three things: eat, sleep and cry. There are more, but you get the idea. A three-month-old doesn’t care what else you have planned at 3 a.m. If the kid is hungry, you’re going to be awake. If the kid needs a diaper, it will not let you rest until it is warm and dry. We don’t expect babies to do anything more at that point because they are not capable of more. A baby in the basket expects everybody else to take care of its needs. Is that how you view your relationship with your church?

If you throw a fit when you don’t get your way, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If you whine when other people don’t meet your needs and expectations, you’re acting like a baby in a basket. Again, that doesn’t have anything to do with age. We’ve probably all known people who acted very much like babies when it came to church life. Everything revolved around them, and if they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it, you could expect a fit.

If everybody in your church were as committed to it as you are, would your church be better off, or would it be in trouble?

Moses was blessed to have protective parents; they rebelled against a culture of death in order to protect a helpless child. The church needs more people to outgrow their baskets, take ownership of their faith, and take on the responsibility of looking out for others, even when it’s difficult.

Be a fully functioning disciple, not a baby in the basket.

You do have time. Do it the Burls way.

The Brandon Burlsworth “Greater” movie opens this weekend. If you’re not familiar with his story, here’s the abbreviated version: an All-State lineman in high school, Brandon turned down scholarships from smaller colleges and chose instead to walk on at the University of Arkansas. By his sophomore year, he had earned a scholarship. By the time he played his final game, he had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was on the academic All-SEC team and was a first team All-American, leading the Razorbacks to two SEC West titles. In the spring of 1999, Brandon was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

Brandon’s senior year was the only year that I ever had season tickets for the Razorbacks. Even from the cheap seats, everybody could see Brandon’s trademark Superman glasses. His was a great life story that ended all too soon. I was living in Little Rock that spring Brandon died in a car accident, just 10 days after he was drafted by the Colts.

 
All over Little Rock, people flew their Razorback window flags that week in April. It looked like gameday in midtown, all in honor of Brandon. I worked in the Prospect Building and lived in Forest Place right next door, a walkable distance to War Memorial, the central Arkansas home for the Razorbacks. Strangers on the elevator talked about how sad it was, how fun Brandon had been to watch, and what might have been.
 
Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was on the Dan Patrick show this morning, talking about Brandon’s work ethic, his life and his legacy. Coach Nutt shared something about Brandon’s final day that I didn’t know. Brandon had called Coach Nutt that Wednesday afternoon to let his coach know that he wouldn’t be at the team meeting that night. The Hogs were receiving their SEC rings for winning the west the previous season. Brandon was going to miss the ring ceremony because he was driving back home to Harrison to take his mom to their church for Wednesday night Bible study.
 
I’m not writing this to advocate for a rigid, legalistic church attendance. The nature of Brandon’s commitment to an All-American level SEC football surely caused him to miss more than a few church services along the way. But something about Brandon’s last day struck me. He told Coach Nutt he could get the ring later, but he really wanted to be at Bible study back home. Maybe it was because Brandon knew he he would be leaving soon for the NFL. He had no way of knowing he wouldn’t make it home that night. None of us do.
 

All these years later, there’s still the sadness that Brandon’s life was too short. But more than that, there’s the admiration of how well Brandon used the life that he had. You have time to do whatever you want to do. And as long as you’re alive, live.

Brandon Burlsworth

Weeping With Orlando

The following is taken from my sermon notes from this morning:

Before I get to my message this morning, I want to speak to a tragedy that will dominate the news this week. In case you haven’t heard, early this morning, a gunman opened fire in a night club in Orlando, Florida. The latest news reports say there are 50 people dead, and at least that many others wounded. The mayor of Orlando has asked the governor of Florida to declare a state of emergency. Local people in Florida are being asked to donate blood. In a nation that is no stranger to mass shootings, today’s goes on record as the worst mass shooting so far.

I read that news before I even got out of bed this morning. My reaction was a mixture of things. I was shocked, but I quickly moved on to be pre-annoyed at the reaction that I knew was coming. If the shooter turns out to be a conservative “Christian” then the left will go crazy. If the shooter turns out to be Muslim, the right will go crazy. People on both sides of the gun control issue will capitalize on the tragedy. The presidential political candidates will issue statements. This is all we’re going to see on the news for weeks. And by the way, it was a LGBT nightclub, which will bring in a whole other angle of the social war to this situation.

I started driving to church, with all that swirling in my mind. And then I heard the voice of a distraught mother being interviewed on the radio. It had been six hours since the shooting, and she still hadn’t heard from her son. You could hear her anguish.

It took me back to December 2012, when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook elementary school and took the lives of 20 children and six staff members. My daughters were the same age as the victims in Sandy Hook. I grieved hard that weekend. If you were here that Sunday morning in 2012, you may recall that I could barely keep it together. I grieved so hard that I could barely speak, because I could see my own children in those children. I could identify with those parents in their loss. And I wept with them.

This morning we Christians were on our way to church as we heard that 50 people died in an LBGT night club last night. There will be many opinions and many reactions… policy, ideology, morality. The social war will rage this week.

For a moment I felt morally superior as I considered that we should grieve for these victims because they are somebody’s children. And then I was reminded of a statement I read this week from Jefferson Bethke in his book “It’s Not What You Think.” He was writing about the female victims of sexual violence and how we sometimes say, “How could somebody do such a thing? She’s somebody’s sister, or somebody’s daughter.”

He notes that when we say that, we mean well. We’re trying to humanize a victim. But unintentionally we are actually devaluing her. Please listen carefully to these words: “We don’t realize that we are subtly tying one human’s value to another human’s value to have weighted value. A person isn’t valuable because she is someone’s daughter or sister; she is valuable and has dignity and worth because she bears the image of God. She is a human.

If every one of the victims from the Orlando shooting had been single, only-child orphans with no children of their own, they would still be human beings, created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our grief.

Heaven forbid that a mass shooting should happen in a Christian church this morning. But if it were to happen, and the news were about 50 Christians who died in church, would you expect LGBT people to say, “Well we really don’t agree with their lifestyle choice to be Christians and to have been in church this morning, but… it’s still sad that they’re dead, because they were somebody’s family member”?

Let us do as the Bible tells us in Romans 12:14-15: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

A Distinctly American Islam?

We need to establish two facts about Jesus at the start: First, Jesus rejected political power for Himself, while urging obedience to the existing authorities (John 6:14-15). After Jesus miraculously fed thousands, they showed up the next day to make Him king by force. His reaction? He walked away to be by Himself. When people offered Jesus political power, He reacted the same way He did when people wanted to throw Him off a cliff.

Second, Jesus allowed His disciples to leave (John 6:53-67). When His teachings became too hard to understand or apply, some of His followers bolted. His reaction? He watched while they walked away.

Islam does not offer many examples of a Christlike rejection of political power and religious oppression. Unfortunately, Christianity often does not either.

In April of last year, the Pew Research Center published an article entitled “Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group.” The opening paragraph sates that “Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2010 and 2050 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”

The most recent estimates peg the current American Muslim population at around 3.3 million, or one percent of the total population. Pew projects that Islam will overtake Judaism as the second most popular American religion by 2050. Worldwide, Islam now thrives in areas that were historically Christian.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is Turkey. Home to the seven churches in the early chapters of Revelation, Turkey was Christian for 1000 years. Today, Turkey is 98% Muslim. Given the ongoing spread of Islam in America, what does the future hold for American Christianity? Should American Christians be scared of Islam?

In order understand the present, we need to understand the past. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The first amendment guarantees Americans liberty of conscience, the freedom to worship – or not worship – as they see fit:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Most third graders can tell you that America was founded when Puritans fled persecution in England and wanted to establish a free place to worship. Funny hats, Native Americans, Thanksgiving and turkeys and all that stuff.

But how many people realize the extent of religious oppression that took place in the American Colonies prior to the Revolutionary War? I’m writing as a Baptist, and I’m proud of the role that Baptists played in the creation of American religious liberty as we know it. For a much deeper look into this subject, I would direct you to Louis Asher’s 1997 biography of John Clarke (1609-1676).

Very early in its establishment, the Massachusetts colony legislated both civil and religious obedience; the secular and ecclesiastical arms became inseparable. The colony of Massachusetts General Court ruled in 1631 that membership in a church of the Bay area was prerequisite to full rights of citizenship” (Asher).

The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England from within. They still considered themselves to be Anglicans, calling it the Mother Church. They were centered in Boston, starting in around 1628. The Pilgrims wanted to reform the church from outside. They left England first for Holland because of persecution by Queen Elizabeth I, and then came to Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Baptists suffered greatly at the hands of the theocratic leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thoroughly Puritan, they were violently oppressive of divergent theologies held by Quakers, Baptists and other dissenters. It is ironic that the same Puritans who had fled religious persecution in England practiced religious persecution of others once they had control in New England.

Dr. John Clarke was a Cambridge-educated physician and Baptist pastor who voluntarily left Massachusetts in about 1637 to help start a new colony where people could be free to worship as they pleased… or not worship at all. That colony became Rhode Island. Dr. John Clarke founded a religiously free colony 154 years before the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

That’s the same amount of time that has passed from the Civil War to today. In Rhode Island, Baptists were instrumental in the establishment of religious liberty long before the Bill of Rights. Baptists were fighting for freedom of conscience 100 years before James Madison (author of the Bill of Rights) was even born.

In Rhode Island, people were free to be Baptists,  Quakers or atheists. They were free to observe the Sabbath by going to church, or ignore it by plowing their fields. Such was not the case in Puritan Massachusetts. Baptists were instrumental in creating and preserving liberty of conscience, even for those who did not agree with them.

On July 16, 1651, Baptist pastors Dr. John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, along with Deacon John Crandall, traveled 80 miles from Newport, Rhode Island to Lynn, Massachusetts. They went to assist one of their elderly church members who had lost his sight. The Baptists stayed over until the next Sunday, and Dr. Clarke preached to a small crowd who gathered at the house.

While Dr. Clarke was preaching, two constables entered the house and arrested the three Baptists. On their way back to Boston, the constables forced them to attend a worship service in a Puritan church. When the constables brought the Baptists in, the Baptists refused to remove their hats. They were charged with conducting a private religious service, wearing hats in a Puritan church service, denying the legitimacy of the Puritan church, and attempting to convert people from Puritan theology to Baptist theology.

They were all found guilty. Dr. Clarke’s sentence was a fine of 20 pounds, or to be publicly whipped and kept in prison until the fine was paid. Rev. Holmes was fined 30 pounds or lashes. The deacon was only fined five pounds. An anonymous donor paid Dr. Clarke’s fine and he was released on August 11th. Someone also offered to pay the fine for Rev. Holmes as well, but he refused and chose to be whipped instead.

Rev. Holmes was marched to Boston Common and received 90 stripes. Two bystanders named approached him and shook his. They were arrested and fined for giving comfort to a lawbreaker. One of them died shortly afterward.

Think about that for a minute. The Puritan government of Boston was so oppressive that it whipped a Baptist preacher for not taking off his hat in a Puritan worship service, and then jailed two bystanders for even shaking his hand.

For you trivia buffs, Henry Dunster privately owned the first printing press in America. He was also the first president of Harvard College, and in Boston Common the day that Obadiah Holmes was flogged for being a Baptist in Massachusetts.

Harvard had been formed in 1636, by the same Puritan court that demanded Puritan church membership in the colony. In fact, Harvard was originally a seminary for Puritan ministers. After watching the flogging of Rev. Holmes, Dunster eventually publicly identified himself as a Baptist. He refused to allow his child to be baptized and was forced to resign his position at Harvard in 1654. He went on to found the First Baptist Church of Boston.

Here’s the deal: If you were Jewish, atheist, Baptist or Muslim in Boston in the 1600s, you were out of luck. That’s why it was such a big deal that our founding fathers codified freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights in the 1700s. Before that, it was not a given that America would be a religiously tolerant place.

America was not founded to be a Christian nation; it was founded to be a free nation, whose citizens have historically been Christian.

European Christians were often jerks who viciously oppressed dissenters and heretics. William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into English. In 1536, the theocracy of England convicted him of heresy and strangled him before burning him at the stake. His crime? Translating the word of God into everyday language that regular people could read.

What does any of this have to do with present or future Islam in America? If you were a religious dissenter in England in the early 17th century, you would have longed for religious liberty. You can’t get much more un-Christian than strangling and burning somebody for translating the Bible into everyday language.

When those dissenters fled to America, they were initially just as intolerant as the theocracy they had fled in England. But over the next century, American Christians figured out how to craft something uniquely American: religious liberty. By the dawn of the 19th century, religious liberty was part of the American way of life.

Theocracies are bad. Christian theocracies were bad in 16th century England and in 17th century New England. They’re bad now in Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia and Shia Islamic Iran. Our founding fathers had their issues, but they understood the dangers of established church-state religions, and they wanted no part of state religion here.

I routinely hear Christians today expressing concern about the growth of Islam in America. Their fear plays into the hands of politicians who exploit those fears for their own personal aggrandizement. But I want to propose something that may lessen those fears.

Looking back on English (and even American) Christianity of the past several hundred years is ugly. Jesus surely looked down in horror at the things that “Christians” did in His name. Jesus said that His followers would suffer, not that they would inflict suffering. Instead, the Christian church prostituted itself with state, and their illegitimate child was a spoiled, intolerant brat.

Love for Christ and love for one another as human beings made in the image of God was overshadowed by deeply corrupt avarice, both political and financial. In more recent history, Southern “Christians” perpetuated a system of slavery (and later segregation) that was antithetical to the heart of the gospel. They oppressed because they could, and they did it under the guise of religion.

Religious liberty eventually won out. The Christianity that ultimately took shape in America was fundamentally different from what England and greater Europe had known. After centuries of oppression and corruption, American Christianity was different; it was free. Once divorced from political power, a purer form of Christianity has thrived for generations in America.

For the most part, majority-Muslim countries today are not religiously diverse or tolerant of dissenting theologies. But what if there is a chance in America for a distinctly American Islam to flourish? If American Christianity could turn the tide of centuries of perverse Colonial American and European quasi-Christianity, then why can’t American Islam do the same?

I have fundamental theological differences with Islam. As a Christian, I affirm that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, that He died for my sins, was buried in a tomb, and was resurrected on the third day, and that He lives and is returning someday. I do not believe Islamic theology concerning Jesus or how all things will eventually come to an end. But I believe that Muslims have a right to immigrate to America and to practice their religion in America. They do not have a right to establish Sharia law to supplant American law.

Just as American Christians founded a uniquely free place, I hope and pray that American Muslims continue to reject the perverse theocratic oppression of their brothers around the world, and that they embrace the American ideal of freedom of conscience.

I don’t understand not living.

I understand dying. As youngsters, my brother and I attended more than our fair share of wakes, funerals and ICU waiting rooms with our father, a pastor. In my own ministry, I’ve eulogized many, sat with family members while their loved ones breathed their final breaths, and said goodbye to loved ones of my own. I navigated my way through college biology, gaining an elementary understanding of how the human body works… and how it inevitably quits working. Both physically and theologically, I understand dying.

In theological terms, death is separation. For the deceased, death severs the temporary component of personhood (the physical body) from the eternal one (the spirit). The body returns to the dust from which it came; the spirit lives forever. 

For the relatives left behind, death severs relationships. We survivors experience the acute pain of separation from our departed loved one, who is no longer here to laugh with us, listen to us, or make their signature banana pudding for us.

From a Christian perspective, the pain of death’s power is mitigated by the promise of eternal life in Christ. As Dr. Martin Luther King said,

“Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.”

I understand death. But I don’t understand not living.

Jesus didn’t die to save your body, or anyone’s body. Not from cancer, congestive heart failure, a car accident or an angry swarm of bees. Someday, you’re going to die. People die every day, and not necessarily because they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We die because ever since Eden, death is part of living. If you’re not subject to death, then you’re not really alive. Rocks do not face death, for they are not alive to begin with. Physical death is part of life. But until you die, resolve to live.

Christ-followers believe that the finished work of Jesus on the cross provides salvation. The word salvation implies deliverance from some undesirable fate or danger. The heart of the gospel is that God took on flesh. Christ gave His own life as a sacrifice to redeem sinners from eternal death. That is the narrative of redemption, but that’s not the whole story. Here’s how Peter said it:

“It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ.” -I Peter 1:18-19

Did you catch that? The blood of Christ not only redeems believers from eternal death. It also redeems from their “empty way of life.” Peter’s word “empty” could have also been translated deceptive, not what it appears to be, vain, or worthless. Half of Peter’s audience had received a cultural religion that was full of rules, traditions, holy days and dietary restrictions, but generally empty of any personal relationship with the Creator. Emptiness.

The other half of Peter’s audience would have received a religion of political power… full of lofty-sounding ideals, but offering no hope of eternal life. For them, the gods were detached and unknowable. Stoic self control was admirable, but since physical death meant the end of existence, the chief aim of existence was to enjoy life while one could. Again, emptiness.

In Walden, Thoreau famously wrote of his fear of reaching death only to discover the he had never truly lived:

“I did not wish to live what was not life… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life.”

I met Thoreau the summer I turned 13. My teacher was Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating, as Dead Poets Society opened my eyes to a world that I’d never known, a world of beauty and poetry. Years later I grieved at the death of Robin Willliams, because I so deeply appreciated the gift that he had given me, opening my eyes to the world of words and beauty.

Sometimes, beauty can be so overwhelming that it’s almost painful. But in those moments, I’m reminded that I’m alive.

And so I pursue beauty, because beauty makes me feel alive. Teaching makes me feel alive. Even though I’m an introvert, I’m energized when standing before a crowd, sharing timeless truths and new insights. Nature makes me feel alive. Adrenaline surges when I’m floating through river rapids, wading through pre-dawn icy water, or standing atop a 2000 foot granite ledge in Yosemite. I need to feel alive.What makes you feel alive?

Part of our being made in the image of God is our capacity to love, forgive, plan, dream, and maybe most of all, to create. We are not merely animals. We are hard-wired to do something besides just eating and paying bills and procreating until we die. If you’re a believer, you’re not just redeemed from eternal separation from God – you’re also redeemed from an empty way of life. So don’t live in emptiness.

Do something. Leave a legacy. Love somebody. Beef up your obituary. Feel scared. See a sunrise. Create. Provide. Paint. Write. Feed your soul. Eat great food you can’t afford.

Someday, you’re going to die. But until then, for God’s sake, live.

 

See kids, math really is useful in real life.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting in Mr. Pinkerton’s classroom in De Queen Middle School. The first Bush was president, and the Internet had not been invented. We’d never heard of iPhones, and Mr. Pinkerton was using white chalk on a green chalkboard to teach us about algebraic equations.

And then it happened. One of my fellow students said the words that should have remained in his head. The student spoke the words to the heavens, not directly to the teacher. He spoke them as a lament: “What are we ever gonna use this stuff for anyway?” Mr. Pinkerton’s face instantly turned stoplight-red. For a few seconds, he said nothing. But it didn’t take him long to frame a response to the student.

We could always judge the severity of Mr. Pinkerton’s displeasure by the intensity of the V-shaped veins on his forehead. This was a biggie, a solid eight on the V-scale.

Math was never my favorite subject. I sailed through the humanities with effortless glee, but math required too much from me. I did learn to appreciate the inherent practical value of math, and even enjoyed using my hard-won geometry skills to help a former boss compute angles on a deck he was building.

But the question remains: “What are we ever gonna use this for anyway?” Well hold on kids, you’re about to learn.

Yesterday I was at the Gillham EZ-Mart. If you’re not familiar with those terms, please allow me to define them briefly. Gillham: A town in rural southwest Arkansas. It is home to about 200 souls, at least that many dogs, and one EZ-Mart. EZ-Mart: A regional chain of convenience stores, with locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

In rural communities without a grocery store (or any other store for that matter), EZ-Mart sells the things that will save you a trip to “town.” Stop in for coffee and some smokes, or treat yourself to something fried on a stick. Or if you’re prone to gambling, you can indulge in a lottery ticket and prepackaged chicken salad sandwich. The recently-constructed location in nearby Lockesburg is a veritable piazza, a monument to small-town commerce, caffeine and community life.

As I was filling my 32 oz. fountain drink, I noticed a shifty guy beside me. He looked like he had just stepped out of casting for Caddyshack. There was a brown leather jacket, stringy mullet, and camouflage pants. Think Rambo, not Realtree.

He grabbed a 16 oz. styro coffee cup and began filling it, but not with coffee. No. That would be too boring, too predictable for EZ-Mart. This gentleman was filling his coffee cup with sugar, repeatedly pressing the sugar button at the coffee station. Each press of the button produced an electronic ejection of sugar, with a sound reminiscent of a science fiction laser gun from the 1970’s. “P-shew… P-shew… P-shew.”

Like most of you, I was taught not to stare. I failed. I gawked sideways as he filled his coffee cup to the rim with sugar, capped it with a lid, gathered his other purchases (a Dr. Pepper and a snack of some sort) and proceeded to the check out. He purchased a cup full of sugar, but paid for it as if it were coffee.

Last night was a bad night at our house. Donald Trump did great in the Super Tuesday voting, and our cat died. I needed a distraction. And so I turned off CNN and started thinking about the guy who bought a coffee cup full of sugar. What was his angle? Unlike the popularity of Donald Trump or Golden Corral, maybe this was a phenomenon I could actually solve. And the answer lies with math. So buckle up, kids. Let’s do a word problem…

Joe Dirt purchased 16 fl. oz. of sugar for .99 at the Gillham EZ-Mart. Question: How much did Joe steal, if any?

We have some knowns (what Joe paid for, and what he actually received) and some unknowns (the value of what Joe actually received). Math is our friend here. And Google.

EZ Mart Sugar

We need to establish the retail value of what Joe received. As pictured, EZ-Mart sells 32 dry ounces of granulated sugar for $2.99. That yields a retail value of .09 per dry ounce ($2.99/32) of sugar. A non-conformist, Joe instead paid .99 for 16 fluid ounces, or .06 per fl. oz. (.99/16). We’re not done, because we’re not yet comparing apples to apples.

In order to solve our problem, we must know how much a fluid ounce of sugar weighs, because EZ-Mart doesn’t sell sugar in the manner in which Joe chose to purchase it yesterday. For this unknown, we must consult Google. We learn that granulated sugar weighs 7.1 dry oz. per U.S. standard measuring cup, which is 8 fl. oz. This one is easy: if 8 fluid ounces of sugar weighs 7.1 dry ounces, then 16 fl. oz. of sugar weighs 14.2 dry oz. (7.1×2).

Using the coffee cup, Joe paid .99 for 14.2 dry ounces of sugar, for a rate of .07 per dry oz. (.99/14.2). The retail value of EZ-Mart sugar is .09 per dry oz. For each dry ounce of sugar that Joe surreptitiously purchased in his coffee cup, he had a net ill-gotten gain of .02 (.09 retail value less the .07 he actually paid).

When we extend that over the entirety of his 14.2 dry oz. sugar purchase, Joe beat the Gillham EZ-Mart out of .28 (14.2x.02) with his treachery.

See kids, math IS useful in everyday life.

And may God forgive Joe Dirt for stealing .28 from the Gillham EZ-Mart.