“Should I Be Baptized Again?”

I received Jesus as Lord and Savior and was baptized at the ripe young age of 5. I’d like to be able to say that in three decades of Christian living, I’ve experienced nothing but a steady, grace-filled growth in faith that hasn’t wavered or retreated. I’d like to say that, but it would be a complete lie.

My faith story is like many others. MBaptismy days have been full of grace, yes, but I have known my share of spiritually dry seasons, as well as seasons of outright spiritual rebellion. Most of us can relate to the experience of knowing extended times when our faith felt distant and we barely fought against (or openly embraced) sin. As Andrew Peterson writes it:

“Through the years, I barely fell
I mostly dove right in
I drank so deep, from the shallow well
Only to thirst again.”
(“The Good Confession,” 2008)

So what are we to do when, after a season of coldness in our faith, God begins to draw us near to him again? When grace strikes fresh and beckons us out of our own pit and warms our hearts again? Growing up, the traditional invitation in Baptist churches was to “re-dedicate” our lives to Jesus. I personally rededicated myself to Christ twice during my teenage years.

But recently, adults who are turning in a fresh way to faith in Christ have been asking a different question. I received an email a few weeks ago from a pastor friend asking several of us how to respond to people asking to be baptized again. It’s an interesting question. I have heard the same thing asked several times over the past ten years. In some cases, after talking and praying with an individual, we ended up deciding that it was right to baptize the individual “again.” In other cases, we did not. Below is a brief, biblical answer to the question:

“Should we baptize people a second time?”

In short, there are no New Testament passages to support (either prescriptively or descriptively) the idea of being baptized a second time. Romans 6 teaches that at the time of our baptism we are united with Christ in his death and that “we will never die again” (verse 9). Likewise, Galatians 3:27 teaches that in baptism we “put on Christ.” Therefore, in order to be baptized again, we must admit that at some point we have un-died to our death in Christ and become unclothed. (If you’re picturing undressed zombie Christians at this point, you understand what a repulsive idea this is.) This is equivalent to declaring that we have lost our salvation, and we are all familiar with the significant biblical arguments against that possibility. (If you are not familiar, see: John 10:28-29; Romans 8:35-39; 1 John 5:13; or this helpful short article from John Piper.)

In my conversations, I have tried to help people consider their initial baptism experience to determine one of two things. One possibility is that their prior baptism should really be considered invalid. This could be because they were baptized as an infant (not believer’s baptism), because they were baptized in a non-Christian church (perhaps a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness assembly), or because the person was never genuinely saved in the first place (this is more common among people who were baptized as young children and later confess that they never truly understood or believed at that time). In any of these cases, a person should come to understand that they have never been truly baptized according to Scripture and seek believer’s baptism in their church for the first time.

The second possibility is that the person was genuinely converted previously and their baptism should be viewed as fully valid. In that case, the conversation turns to an explanation of a good old-fashioned biblical term: “repentance.” Depending on the nature and duration of a person’s sin, repentance may need to be more than a private prayer with the pastor. But I would discourage someone like this from pursuing a second baptism as an act of personal devotion or reprentance. The Bible doesn’t seem to have a category for a “second baptism” in this manner. Instead, individual repentance and restoration to fellowship with the church seem to be the appropriate actions.

 

 

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With Gratitude

 

Last Friday I officially graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY with a Doctor of Education (EdD) diploma. Pursuing this degree over the past three years while continuing to pastor a vibrant church and remain fully engaged with my wife and son at home has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Because so many people contributed to this journey in different ways, I’m committing this blog post (the first in months, sorry for the gap) to recognizing and thanking the many people who have blessed me. So, with no further ado, and not necessarily listed in exact order of priority, here are my notes of thanks to all of you.

First and foremost, I am thankful to my Lord for the opportunity and ability to pursue theological education at one of the finest institutions on the planet. Jesus once stated that the greatest command is, “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). My hope is that this training has allowed me to be faithful in loving the Lord more fully, including with my mind.

grad-family

After graduation with Kim, Ethan, and my parents.

Second, to my beautiful and encouraging wife, Kim, thank you for standing beside me through this entire journey. When I first mentioned that I wanted to look into doctoral programs a few years ago, I expected a bemused laugh and a dismissiv
e comment. Instead, you asked questions and encouraged me to explore options further. When I struggled with doubting whether I was up to the task at various points along the way, you never wavered in assuring me that I could and would finish well (or else!!). In short, you see potential in me and believe in me long before I ever do. For that, and a million other reasons, I thank you and I love you.

To my son, Ethan, I am thankful for your patience and your inexhaustible joy in all you do. Ethan was only two years old when we began this journey, and he (along with Kim) sacrificed many evenings and weekends with daddy holed up in his office studying, weeks at a time being gone for classes and research, and a Dad who, even when I was around, was too often not fully

ethan-grad

Ethan was proud to stand and be recognized.

present as I was preoccupied with school or ministry or some other distraction. Still, watching my son grow in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man, has been an unmatched joy to me. At the end of the graduation ceremony Friday, Dr. Mohler asked children of graduates to stand and be recognized, and Ethan stood beaming with pride. He has every right to be proud. Yes, I am biased, but I rejoice to see him growing as a boy who loves the Lord, loves people, and loves learning of all the world God has created.

To my parents – Dave and Nancy Gunter – thank you for loving me and creating a home that allowed me to grow and launch out into this world. I have never for a moment in my life doubted your love for one another or your love for me, and that has provided the stability for me to pursue God’s calling with confidence through my life. You never asked for perfection, but you refused to accept less than my best in any endeavor. For myself – and I’ll add this for the rest of the Gunter siblings – we will be forever grateful for the home you gave us, and we hope that our lives, our families, and our work are a testament to your faithful labor.

To my church family at Lansing First Southern – thank you for your grace, generosity, and encouragement to me all along this path. So many of you have gone out of your way to spur me on toward this goal from the first day I mentioned my interest in pursuing doctoral studies. Your grace and generosity in allowing me the time and space to spend weeks away studying and a full sabbatical to do research on another continent have humbled me. Thank you for supporting and encouraging me. And thank you for loving my family so well. We are incredibly blessed to serve this congregation, and I pray that I will be a more faithful shepherd to all of you as a result of this work.

To the EdD faculty at Southern Seminary – Drs. Shane Parker, Michael Wilder, Timothy

grad-pic

After graduation with Dr. Shane Parker (my advisor), Kim, me, Dr. Michael Wilder (my 2nd reader), and Dr. Kevin McGaughey (research podmate).

Paul Jones, John David Trentham, and Anthony Foster – thank you for the multitude of hours you have invested in me and my peers in Cohort 2014. This EdD program has been as challenging, engaging, encouraging, frustrating, exhilarating, enriching, and ultimately satisfying as I could have hoped. I trust that I am a better scholar, pastor, and man than I was when I began. Each of you have contributed significantly to the refining work God has wrought in me through this program. I hope that my contributions have justified my inclusion in this program and will continue to be a credit to SBTS in the future.

To my friends in the 2014 EdD Cohort, you all have blessed me immeasurably. Thank you for walking this path together with me! You all have enriched my life in a thousand ways. You have challenged me, amused me, encouraged me, enlightened me, and counseled me, and I thank God for each one of you. May God bless you richly in the coming years as you serve him faithfully!

cohort-2014

The 2014 EdD Cohort with Dr. Timothy Paul Jones.

To those who made my research venture a success through your counsel and cooperation, a huge thank you! Dr. Tim Boyd of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists has been an invaluable mentor thoughout this journey. To Dr. Steve McCord, Dr. Randy Arnett, Jack Yates, and Dr. Jimmie Bledsoe of the IMB, thank you for the time, counsel, and encouragement you gave so generously. I hope this research will benefit the ongoing work of the IMB in Kenya and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. To Caleb Davison and Benson Mutisya of Leadership International, Inc., thank you for inviting me into your work and ministry. Benson, I will not soon forget our extended conversations in gridlocked Nairobi traffic, and I thank God for our friendship. To George Mixon of SERGE, thank you for sharing your ministry and insights with me. I rejoice in the work God is doing through you to bless the pastors and churches in Kenya.

Finally, to the dozens and dozens of friends and family who at various points have encouraged me along this journey, thank you for loving me well. When I sent out a request for assistance to fund my research trip to Kenya, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was blown away when so many of you eagerly chipped in with help and encouraging words (some of you I hadn’t seen in years). Thank you all for your grace and support. I am truly humbled.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Ephesians 3:20-21

4 Conversation Tools to Boost Your Engage Experience

Engage Logo

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last month, you should be well aware that this weekend is our Engage outreach. We have been praying, planning, and preparing for this weekend since, well, since we wrapped up our last Engage weekend in April. Dozens of you have signed up and are planning to get out this weekend, rock your bright blue Engage shirt, and serve in one of our various Engage projects. If that’s you and your family, THANK YOU! Engage has had an incredible impact on the life of our church family, and I know the Lord will use our work this weekend to glorify himself and encourage us even more.

Many of you are excited (hopefully) about the opportunity to serve and connect with families and neighbors who don’t know the Lord yet. And as you are thinking about how you will serve – whether you will be singing and painting nails, reading to children, washing windshields, grilling brats, serving slushes, or washing cars – many of you also have had a question pop up in your mind the bugs you… what if I have to talk to somebody?

This is a common question, and sometimes a real fear, for many Christians as we go out to serve others. We’re comfortable using our hands. Many of you are experts at welcoming people warmly, serving enthusiastically, and working tirelessly to bless others. But when we begin to think about actually talking about Jesus with folks we don’t know well, it’s easy to get a little anxious.

If that’s you, I hope this post can help. Below are four simple conversational tools or strategies to help you navigate your Engage conversations and feel more comfortable inviting others to consider Jesus:

Tool #1 – The Simple Invitation

This is the easiest response. If you get the opportunity to explain to somebody why we do Engage, and perhaps you’re unsure about tangling your words, here is a short and sweet answer. “We are doing this to show that we are for our city and we are for your family. Our pastor is actually going to talk about all of this Sunday morning. Would you like to come with me to check out our church Sunday morning?” That’s it. If you’re feeling a little bolder, ask them if you can take them out to lunch after to church to talk about any questions they might have.

Tool #2 – Remember your FIRM Foundation

FIRM is a conversational strategy to help you direct a regular conversation to a chance to talk about your faith in Jesus. Darrel Robinson published this in the book People Sharing Jesus, and it’s become one of my favorites because it’s so easy to remember. This four-part plan gives you a road map to talk about faith with anyone. It goes like this:

  • F – Family. Everyone loves to talk about themselves or their family, so this is a great icebreaker. Are you from around here? Hold old are your kids? What schools do your children go to? This is simple small talk just to get a friendly conversation going.
  • I – Interest. Look for something that you might have in common. Do you all spend a lot of time swimming? We love it, too. Have you caught any Pokemon around here this week? Again, you’re building a new relationship. Even if the person you are talking to isn’t interested in your faith today, you might just meet some fascinating people and build a great friendship. All you have to do is ask. [Alternative: O – Occupation. For men, it may be more natural to simply ask, What do you do?]
  • R – Religion. Here is where you start to turn the corner. Start with a generic, non-intrusive religious question. So do you have a church family here town? Did you grow up around church? How the person responds to these might give you a great clue to whether he or she is open to talking about matters of faith. If they close themselves off, just let it go. It’s ok. However, if they are open to talking about their faith or experiences, it opens the door for the last step.
  • M – Message. After listening (really listening) to understand where your new friend has been and what beliefs she holds, simply ask permission to share your perspective. Would you mind if I shared with you what we believe about Jesus/God’s plan/faith/etc.? You know, my experience was kind of like yours up to a point. May I share how God changed my view on that? One question leads into an explanation of the gospel. The other leads into a chance to share your own journey toward faith in Jesus. Speaking of which…

Tool #3 – Your Story

The instructions on this one are really simple. When you get the chance, just share with someone the short(!) version of how you came to believe in Jesus. Talk about how you lived and what you believed before you were saved. Tell about what person, experience, Bible verse, or conversation helped open your eyes to the truth of the gospel. Then share how you are different since you started following Jesus. Keep the whole thing under 2-3 minutes. The beautiful part of this is that no one can argue, because it’s your own story.

Tool #4 – The Gospel in 3 Circles

As the Lord presents opportunities, we want to be sure we are prepared to speak clearly about the Gospel message. Can you explain clearly and briefly what we believe about the Bible and how God saves us? If you’d like some help, we have a tool to make things easier on you. Family Church (an SBC church) in West Palm Beach, Florida has created a great tool called 3 Circles. It is an easy-to-remember and easy-to-share method for explaining the essence of the gospel. We will have 3 Circles conversation guides available at each of our projects to help you share the gospel when you get the chance. Just ask your project leader if you need. To see an introduction and explanation of the 3 Circles, check out this helpful video from Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNEmlE33AqY

3 Circles

Hopefully one or more of these tools will be a practical help to you in Engaging your neighbors this weekend and in days to come. I’m looking forward to serving alongside all of you!

Thank you for being ready to Engage.

The River Is Dry

“But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This week’s news cycle has been gut-wrenching. In the wake of the 240th birthday of what has been one of the greatest nation’s this world has seen – a nation which has championed freedom globally and fought against forces which are truly evil and tyrannical to defend some of the most vulnerable peoples on earth – we are now walking through some very dark days. Two men were killed, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota, who would have been far less likely to die if their skin had been a different color. Five police officers have been murdered in Dallas by hate-fueled, self-appointed vengeance-seekers. The director of the FBI outlined in painstaking detail a litany of blatant offenses and “careless” mishandling of our nation’s most sensitive data by the former Secretary of State, then informed us that he would recommend no charges against her. All the while, more than 14,500 unborn children’s lives have been taken in this country this week.

All of this wrong. All of this is evil. None of this is just.

But this post is not intended to be a political statement. My aim is more pastoral than political, and I pray we will recognize that how we as followers of Jesus respond in today’s moment of stark injustice may determine whether our friends, neighbors, and communities will hear anything we want to share about Christ and his salvation later.

What you and I say as Christians in an un-Christian culture matters. What you and I DO as Christians in a culture of rampant injustice matters even more. It is not enough for any one of us to assume that because we as individuals have not harbored hate, abused our neighbors, or cheered the oppression of others, that we are excused from responding. It is not enough to watch out for you and your family and let others fend for themselves. In some of Israel’s darkest days, the Lord condemned the nation for trampling the poor and denying justice to the vulnerable among them.  This is what the Lord declared to the entire nation through the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

 

Now America is not Israel. We should not hold onto any notions that our nation is in any way God’s chosen people to do his work on earth. But we as Christians in this nation (or any nation) recognize the unchanging heart of God and his passion for the poor and the weak. We are responsible to speak and to act in the name of righteousness and justice. In the case of Amos’s prophecy above, it’s safe to assume that only a small percentage of Israelites were in a position to actively oppress the poor. Yet the entire nation, including religious folks who likely thought they were just minding their own business, were chastised. God rejected their feasts, their sacrifices, and their songs because they turned a blind eye toward the injustice surrounding them.

We cannot afford to remain silent.

As you are processing the continuing onslaught of news and opinions in the coming days, here are a few suggestions for responding to our cultural crisis as an ambassador for the Kingdom of God.

We need more priests and fewer prophets. I was taught in Sunday school the basic difference between the role of the prophet and the priest. Prophets spoke to the people for God. Priests went to God for the people. We have plenty of people (or far too many) presuming to declare the words of the Almighty in the aftermath of these crises. (And have you noticed how it seems that in most cases God agrees with the political preferences of the speaker?) Instead of thundering God’s judgment on those with whom we disagree, let’s embrace the role of the priest. Go to God and pray for our people. Pray for our nation, for our leaders, and for our neighbors. Pray for your own heart, your family, and your church. Perhaps we will find a shorter path to mercy and justice by pleading our case to our Father in Heaven than to our neighbor on Facebook.

Lay down your weapons. Now is not the time for political agendas or defending your rights. Yes, our president infamously said we should never waste a crisis. That view is politically shrewd and morally despicable. We cannot and should not ever use someone else’s pain or loss as a springboard for our own political preferences. Right now we do not need to hear about your Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Constitutional, pro-gun, anti-gun, black life, blue life, or any other political conviction. Right now we need to hear and see that you are a redeemed child of God who sees and weeps over raw injustice.

Mourn with those who mourn. Following closely on the previous point, this is the principle that guides us in our interactions with others in these days. For those of us who cannot personally identify with the experiences of our black neighbors or those who serve in law enforcement, this can be difficult. But all of us have experienced grief and all of us know the fear of the unknown. There is nothing inappropriate with a simple statement that acknowledges your limitations to your neighbor: “I’m not sure if I completely understand what you’re experiencing, but I’m heartbroken over these tragedies, and I hate that we are sharing a world that is so broken.” In a day of national mourning, let us bring comfort by sharing in mourning and acknowledging the reality that this world and this country is not a just place for far too many.

  • Let us mourn for the children who woke up fatherless today and don’t understand why Daddy is gone.
  • Let us mourn for the young widow whose bed will be half-empty tonight.
  • Let us mourn for the parents who fear for their children’s lives whenever they leave the home because of the color of their skin.
  • Let us mourn for the families who are waiting anxiously each day to see whether their loved one in law enforcement returns home safely from their next shift of work.
  • Let us mourn for our nation that has rejected God’s authority even while presuming on his favor, and now struggles to comprehend the destruction we have brought upon ourselves.
  • Let us mourn for leaders who have routinely used tragedy to deepen division among our people rather than speaking and pointing toward unity.
  • Let us mourn for ourselves when we are tempted to believe that we can be silent or unaffected because these tragedies were not in our own backyard.
  • Let us mourn because the waters of justice have run dry.

 

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Sunday morning, I worshiped with International Christian Fellowship here in Nairobi. Overall, it was an encouraging and relaxing time with a group of people who clearly love the Lord and are eager to worship him. But it wasn’t hard. It was not at all unfamiliar the way you might expect church in Africa to be. It wasn’t difficult in any way (other than the sense of adventure with that being my first foray out in this foreign city by myself, but that’s another story). We sang a combination of hymns and contemporary songs so familiar and comfortable that I felt as though I might have selected that entire song set myself if given the opportunity. The sermon from Jonah 2 was exegetically sound and magnified the power and beauty of the gospel. We even had the standard awkward 30 second greeting where each of us was obligated to shake hands and offer a forced greeting to at least four people we had never met before. For someone like me – a believer who has been in the church since nine months before I was born – this kind of church feels like home away from home.

At the end of the service, we took the Lord’s Supper together, and the whole morning changed. It wasn’t anything about the way we celebrated this ordinance that gripped me. In fact, it was nearly identical to our style in Lansing, filing forward to tear off a chunk of bread and grab a plastic micro shot glass of delicious grape juice. [Note: In case Jake Wood is reading this, I considered making a grab to tear my bite size piece off the back of the loaf, but the elder’s strategically placed hand blocked my access.] Up to this point, absolutely everything I had seen and done on this particular morning was exactly the same as I might have expected to encounter at any contemporary-ish church in the US.

Then I sat down and began to look around.

Rosslyn Academy 1

A collection of international flags flying at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, meeting place of International Christian Fellowship.

The American pastor in the center was serving an African family in traditional formal dress. On my side of the auditorium, a Korean elder (the same one who had stealthily anticipated my reach for the rear of the bread) was serving the giggly British high school students who had been sitting behind me. On the other side of the auditorium, I watched the tall German man I had recently learned was the children’s ministry director approach the Lord’s table just ahead of a family I’m guessing was Latin American. Across the room there may have been dozens of different nationalities present to worship together.

Only one thing could be strong enough to bind together a gathering this diverse.

“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Ephesians 4:4-6

The only thing big enough to hold together an international body like this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the history-making and eternity-changing message that there is forgiveness of sins and peace with God made possible through faith in the death and resurrection of his perfect Son.

Americans, Canadians, Brits, Germans, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Ugandans, South Africans, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, and who knows who else was present Sunday morning. Not only that, we were Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Methodists, Anglicans, Christian church, and “non-denominationals” (read: Baptists who are too cool for the name tag). We could have divided ourselves by nationality, race, heart language, age, doctrinal nuances, worship style preferences, or any number of other factors. But we didn’t. On this day, we worshiped as one.

And we did it because every one of us ingested the bread and the cup. Two potent elements that remind each one of us that we are united by our hope in a crucified and resurrected Savior. And that is enough.

Before I conclude, let me link this back to our experience in Lansing, America. The application is quite simple.

The only thing that could ever unite a congregation as diverse as the one I joined Sunday morning is the only thing that can ever truly unite any church,
including ours.

We may be tempted to find comfort in our church family because of our temporal or superficial similarities. We can easily surround ourselves with others who share much in common with us, from age to children to lifestyle to hobbies. These things are great, and they can often help us feel understood and comfortable with our church family. But please remember this. Our Lord has brought us together to worship him, to serve him, and to love him first. We are together, yes. And I pray that each of us loves being together as a church family. But we are together for a reason. We are together for Christ.

The bread and the cup. His body and his blood. This alone is our hope and joy in this world.

My prayer for Lansing First Southern this week:

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Romans 16:25-27

An Idea So Crazy It Just Might Work

Java HouseMy time here in Kenya got off to a fast start. I left the airport a little past 8pm after just over 24 hours traveling (and not sleeping). After a refresher on the insanity of Nairobi traffic during the ride to the house, I rested for few hours before getting up and getting started. Four days later I had logged in about 40 hours of observation and conversation with missionaries and Kenyans who are either leading or learning in two different pastor training programs. I had nine formal interviews, six hours of traffic time (in one day) getting to know my new Kenyan best friend, and plenty of chai tea. That first week was a bit of blur.

Then I had a lunch on Sunday that helped begin to crystallize some of what I have observed so far. We ate at Java House, home of the finest Mexican food to be found at an American style coffee house in all of Kenya. The food was great, but this post isn’t about the food. Some missionary friends of my family joined us for lunch. One of these friends told me he was a consultant with their mission agency and was only in town for a little while. I asked him what exactly he does as a consultant, and he answered, “I pretty much walk around and ask questions.”

Turns out this guy is really good at his job.

After asking about the nature of my research and what I was hoping would come out of it, he landed on a single question that has stuck with me for the past two days…

“What can the American church learn from the Kenyan church?”

Huge question. Huge answer. (Someone should probably write a whole thesis to explore the intricacies of how Kenyans are being shaped according to God’s Word.) Western missionaries first landed on the coast of Kenya back in 1844. That was more than 170 years ago. In those years some incredible, God-blessed work has taken place. In the same 170 years, some awful acts have been carried out in Jesus’ name by both colonizers and missionaries. After all of that Kenya stands today as one of the most Christian nations on the planet. Some estimates place the number of Kenyan Christians at more than 80 percent of the national population. The gospel of Jesus Christ has found fertile soil here in east Africa.

So how would I answer that question? I have several thoughts at this point, but one in particular stands out far above the others.

Our Kenyan brothers and sisters are hungry to hear exactly what God has spoken, and then to obey it.

At first glance that idea may not sound so revolutionary, but let me ask you a question. When was the last time you studied the Bible ready and eager to change just because you knew God had spoken?

This is the one theme that has emerged in every single interview I have had with pastoral students here so far. When I ask what topic they have studied that has most changed their theology and ministry, the runaway winner is biblical interpretation. Each student has a slightly different version of the same story. It goes something like this:

“Before I began my training I didn’t know how to preach or teach the Bible. I woke up on Sunday morning, picked out a Bible verse, and then tried to think about what I would like to say about that. Biblical interpretation has taught me how to understand what God is actually saying in the Bible so that I can teach my church God’s truth. It has changed everything for us.”
(Not an actual quote.)

Kenyan faith is both simple and profound. It is simple in the sense there is an innocent trust in many believers here which says, in essence, “If God has said, I will obey it.”

It is profound for exactly the same reason. Many of us (myself included) stand in a long and sinfully proud line that has an uncanny ability to justify or rationalize away straightforward commands that we are not yet prepared to obey. This kind of reluctance to obedience existed in Jesus’ day as well. Mark’s gospel tells us about rich young man who approached Jesus to ask what he must do to receive eternal life. After being assured that the man had obeyed the Law since his youth, Mark writes:

“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possession.”
Mark 10:21-22

So what are we to do when we find within ourselves a heart that is unwilling to yield to the God who speaks through the pages of the Bible? How do you respond when you discover that you don’t want to forgive? You don’t want care about your neighbor’s suffering? You don’t want to sacrifice you time, money, or energy for a church that has hurt you (and will probably do it again)? What do you do when you hear those old, comforting lies in your heart again: “Did God really say you have to do that? God understands. God knows your heart. He knows you’re not quite ready yet. God just wants you to be happy.” Sound familiar?

Here are three brief thoughts to remember the next time you are tempted to explain why you don’t need to obey a simple command in God’s Word.

  • God has spoken. That Bible you hold in your hand in the true and authoritative word of the Living God. In its pages he has revealed everything about himself, yourself, and this world that you need to live a godly life and receive his salvation (2 Peter 1:3). He promises that the Holy Spirit within us will reveal the fullness of his truth and that this very Word is his chosen instrument to make you more like Christ (John 14:26; 17:17).
  • Remember the Gospel. You are not saved by how well you obey. If you were, we would all be in trouble. The Good News is that God loved us despite our sin and sent his Son to save us, not to condemn us (John 3:16-17). Your eternal life is a gift based on the sheer goodness and kindness of the God who made you. God sent Jesus to take upon himself the full cost of your sin – past, present, and future. If you are in Christ, your momentary struggle with disobedience cannot undo the perfect righteousness of Christ that is yours through faith (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • To love is to obey. So how do we show our love to a God who loves us and saves us in spite of our weakness and disbelief? We choose to obey. We choose to gladly take each part of our lives, one day at a time, and give them back to him for his service. Jesus said simply, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

God has given us a gift in the Bible. We are not left to wonder who he is or what he would have us to do. It’s all right there. The question that remains is, do we really want to hear what God has to say? Our Kenyan brothers and sisters have encouraged me to hear the Word again with fresh ears and a new joy. I hope their enthusiasm spurs you on to reconsider what God would do in you.

 

Reflections from the Beginning of Sabbatical

This week has been unlike any other I’ve experienced in my years of pastoral ministry. It has been different, not necessarily because I am in Kenya (although that is an important difference), but because of the way being here has impacted my thinking and prayers.

Most of you who read this are aware of my situation, but for the few who are not, here is the biggest difference: my church family at Lansing First Southern Baptist Church has graciously afforded me the opportunity to take an eight-week sabbatical from work in the local church. Eight weeks away from my normal responsibilities to travel to Kenya to complete research for my doctoral thesis, to finish writing that thesis, to reconnect with my wife and son in an undSeat Beltistracted manner, to pursue spiritual refreshment, and to seek wisdom from pastoral mentors and peers. In short, these eight weeks will be radically different from anything I have yet experienced as a pastor.

Now that I have been in country long enough to shake off the effects of jet lag, I feel as if I can finally organize my thoughts enough to share with some of my thoughts and experiences to this point.

Air travel is the ultimate picture of living by faith. Starting off on a lighter note, may I remind you of how insane the concept of flying in an airplane really is? I paid hundreds of dollars to sit in an enormous metal tube powered by turbines that produce enough thrust to hurtle hundreds of souls through the air tens of thousands of feet above a frigid ocean, all the while trusting in the integrity and the skill of a couple of men I have never met and cannot see to deliver us safely to another continent. I have a brother who hates flying, claiming that he knows too much about physics to relax as he flies. After my flight from Washington DC to Zurich, Switzerland, I’m not sure a deep knowledge of physics is necessary to doubt the wisdom of international flight. Strapped loosely into the seat of our enormous Boeing 767, the beginning of our flight was mostly uneventful. However, as soon as we left the perceived security of the Canadian coastline and ventured out over north Atlantic waters, the fun began. I’m not one to enjoy roller coasters anyway, but I would wager good money that our experience rivaled the best of man-made thrill rides. We rocked, we rolled. We dipped and bumped. I’m pretty sure we pulled off a barrel roll at one point. Strong men wept and old women prayed. Atheists abandoned their convictions and cried out for mercy to a God they do not acknowledge. Four times the captain barked over the intercom for flight attendants to strap into their jump seats. I’m pretty sure I heard a co-pilot crying in the background on the last announcement. Finally, after about three hours, the turbulence subsided and we flew more comfortably for the last part of the journey.

Why share all this? Because I credit the extension of my life to your faithful prayers for safe travels. So whoever you are mighty prayer warriors, from the depths of my heart, I thank you.

[Editorial insert: Certain portions of the preceding description of the flight have been altered to make my journey sound more interesting than it really was. I will leave you to sort through which details are true and which can be attributed to overly indulging my creative writing flair.]

We are a blessed church family. I know I am supposed to say that, but I may be more keenly aware of that in the beginning of this absence than I normally am. I have said multiple times before, and I will continue to repeat to anyone who will listen, that I am continually humbled when I consider the people and the families that our Father has gathered together in our church. We have leaders, thinkers, prayers, singers, servants, planners, lovers, encouragers, givers, listeners, bringers, and go-ers. Many in our church do many of these things with grace, energy, and excellence. It’s a humbling thing to step away for a moment and see all the ways that the Holy Spirit carries out His work among our church. Let me illustrate how impressive our church is through this list of all the things I did NOT do this week:

  • I did not return any phone calls.
  • I barely checked me emails.
  • I haven’t followed up on any visitors from Sunday morning.
  • I haven’t met with any ministry leaders.
  • I haven’t done any exegesis for a sermon.
  • Haven’t searched for any sermon illustrations either.
  • I didn’t spend any time with my Life Group.
  • Definitely didn’t plan a study for that group.
  • I didn’t even think about what needed to be included in our worship for tomorrow.
  • I didn’t do a power point.
  • I didn’t give any input to the bulletin or the weekly email.

For the sake of space, I’ll cut off the list there. But here’s what you might notice, someone else in our church handled every one of those tasks, plus many more. If you are one of the many who are stepping up to cover these responsibilities and others, THANK YOU for your faithful, sacrificial service to the Lord’s church. If you know someone who is stepping up to cover gaps during this sabbatical, please thank them. We are a blessed bunch in Lansing, Let’s keep ourselves reminded of that.

You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the pastor. Lastly, I’ve joyfully disregarded the instructions I received from some. A couple of leaders who have blessed me in making this time away possible instructed me to do everything possible to completely disconnect from all ministry responsibilities while I am away. The problem is, I can’t do that. I’ll share more about my experience here in Kenya in my next post, but I’ve discovered something even in my first few days here. This church has gotten stuck in my head, and in my heart. Each new situation and conversation seems to bring you all to my mind in prayer. I find myself thinking, “Harland would get a kick out of this;” “This guy reminds me of Andy;” “Joe would love to see this;” “This would definitely make Sandy cry.” And each of these thoughts turns into a prayer of gratitude for our church. So if any of you have a few days free in the next couple weeks, grab a ticket to Nairobi. I’d love to introduce you around.

KBTC8

Baraka Hall at Kenya Baptist Theological College. This is where I spent most of my first week here in Kenya.

Prayer for Lansing First Southern today:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Philippians 1:9-11