Monday, May 23, 2011

Bible Belt

The church building was dimly lit and packed with hundreds of people. There was a picture of Grace Slick projected on a wall and The Eagles were playing over the speakers.

It was the mid 1980s and this was not my fundamentalist church’s attempt at relevance. It was a seminar about the evils of rock and roll. Grace Slick, former member of Jefferson Starship/Starship/Jefferson Airplane/Starships of Jefferson with an Airplane, was plastered on the wall because we were being told the famous rock and roll urban legend about how she named her kid “god”. The woman that sang “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” somehow got lumped in with Aleister Crowley and the Church of Satan.

The Eagles weren’t being played because our pastor was really into Joe Walsh but because of the evils of Hotel California and its hidden messages about the awesomeness of Satanism. Ironically, this is probably one of the best songs ever written against such evils but that kind of talk isn’t what packed out church buildings in 1985. Along with The Eagles, Led Zeppelin and others were played backwards. When you’re ten years old and sitting in a dark church building, nothing scares your more than hearing Robert Plant’s voice played backwards. I was clay in the hands of the evangelist leading the seminar.

Just as fascinating as the backwards music were the stories that went along with these seminars.

“One church held a seminar just like this one and afterwards several of the people brought their rock and roll albums into the parking lot, threw them into a big trash can and lit them on fire. As those albums from AC/DC and Meatloaf (seriously?) burned, a black snake crawled out of the fire.”

I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure that one of the guys that saw that happen went on to marry the girl that woke up lying in a bathtub full of ice in a Panama City hotel room with one of her kidneys missing. I’m sure they’re doing well.

That did it for me. The next day I grabbed Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette (a small plastic device with tape inside of it used for listening to music, preferably in a Camaro with T tops and the phrase Youth Gone Wild written on the top of the front windshield) and smashed it with a rock in my driveway. I never saw a snake but I did purchase that music again later on in life.

Rock and Roll seminars were the norm in the 1980s in what is known as the Bible Belt. As funny as they seem now, they are a perfect fit for this area of mostly southern states with a few Midwestern states and some of Texas thrown in. When you drive down a road in the Bible Belt you will see as many churches as you will Waffle Houses and dead possums. That’s another way of saying that there are a lot of churches in the Bible Belt. Also, everyone who lives in the Bible Belt says the same thing – “I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” That’s another way of saying that my place is more Bible Belt-ier than yours. Unlike most other belt buckles in the south this one probably says something like Turn Or Burn instead of Bocephus.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. As a life long resident of the southern states, I think that the same formula could be applied to the Bible Belt. There’s not a whole lot of Bible and there’s certainly no belt. But there is a lot of that old time religion, good manners and church buildings. None of which ever saved anyone.

In the Bible Belt, people are absolutely in love with Jesus. They wear bracelets reminding them to do what he would do, they spend money on roadside billboards telling commuters that he’s watching them and they even listen to music about him on radio stations with words like fish, joy and love in their names. The Bible Belt Gospel, just like the 1980s Anti Rock and Roll Gospel, focuses only on the externals. They are both false gospels because of their emphasis on morality and performance. Who needs Jesus when you already live in his favorite part of the world and you’ve just burnt your collection of Winger records? Yeah, all two of them.

But even in this gospel of performance, there’s not much room for commitment to the very body for which Jesus died. There are games and recitals and trips and work and sleeping in late that prevent many from showing any kind of devotion to a local church body. As a pastor, I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that the church where I pastor is, “their church” and “where they belong” but have never set foot into our building in the three years that I’ve been here. When I was a kid, one of my heroes in the faith told me, “If your religion isn’t good enough to get you up out of bed, I wouldn’t count on it getting you into heaven.” I’ve thought about that a lot lately.

Burn this, don’t drink that, join this and vote for him may have their place at times but they offer no real eternal hope when they are presented as the meat and potatoes of the gospel. You can burn all the Whitesnake albums you want and you can buy all the old time gospel standards you can afford but if the gospel of Christ never truly penetrates your heart, convicting you of your sin and moving you towards obedience, you will hum a Squire Parsons tune on your way to hell. One possible clue that the gospel of Christ hasn’t truly penetrated your heart is a lack of commitment to his church (see 1 John).

Many refer to the Bible Belt with joy and appreciation and certainly there are plenty of excellent gospel-centered churches in the Bible Belt. But I can’t help but wonder if the title we’ve given to our part of the country is actually an indictment against us. For all of our churches and for all of our good manners and for all of our traditions, is there really a deeper sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in Georgia than there is in Stockton, California or Entebbe, Uganda?

I think that Satan is just fine with the Bible Belt. I think that he has absolutely no problem with blue laws that prevent the sale of alcohol on Sundays. I think that he loves hearing young people say kind words about Jesus and seeing older people cling to that old time religion. He’s fine with all of these things just so long as the gospel isn’t clearly understood and applied and just so long as hearts are ignored in favor of surface level bells and whistles.

So maybe the Bible Belt isn’t really a region in the United States. Maybe the Bible Belt is just some accessory Satan gives to people in the south in order to convince them that they’re okay with God. I’m sure that it has a very big buckle.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Human Shield

It’s been over a week since Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces. In that short time the details surrounding the event have changed quite a bit. Bin Laden did have a weapon. No he didn’t. Secretary of State Clinton was horrified as she watched the whole thing go down. No she wasn’t, she just had a sinus infection. It was the Navy SEALs that pulled off the whole operation with such precision and power. Oh, no sir. It was this man and him alone. No weapons needed.

"He's had enough, Johnny!"

One of the stories about bin Laden’s capture that really stuck with me was the one about how he used his wife as a human shield once he was finally confronted by his long time enemies. For some reason, this shocked us.

“How dare he hide behind a woman like that!”

“Just who does he think he is?”

Did we expect the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, the man who has been the face of global terrorism for two decades to actually be a pretty cool guy once you get to know him? Did we expect to hear reports of SEALs entering the bin Laden kitchen just as they were hearing the man himself say, “No, it’s okay honey. I’ll get the dishes tonight. You go watch The Apprentice with the other wives”?

Regardless of how it actually happened, the story of bin Laden hiding behind his wife, using her has a human shield, disturbed us. It haunts me because I know how easy it is for me and every other man in this country to do the exact same thing. Sure, maybe you would stand up and take a bullet for your wife if some heavily armed group of men were to come into your home. But in the regular day-to-day routine of marriage and family, are you using your wife as a human shield?

You are using your wife as a human shield when you fail to be present at your home.

This can take various forms. For some men, the temptation is to load up the bass boat, hunting gear, trail bike or whatever suits their recreational fancy and take off for the weekend. Sure, one weekend every now and then isn’t a problem and can even be a good thing. But when this becomes habitual it is as if your wife is left competing with a mistress, not in high heels and a skimpy dress but one that is on the other end of a fishing hook or in the scope of a rifle.

For others, such hobbies are useless because they get in the way of work. Sadly, for many of these men, their family also gets in the way of work. Perhaps you wouldn’t dream of going away one weekend a month to hunt bear in Canada while your wife deals with the kids alone. But maybe your abandonment is more secretive. Maybe you tell yourself that leaving home every morning at 5:00 and not coming back until 8:00 six days a week is putting food on the table. What's the harm in that?

Husband, it doesn’t matter if it’s your recreation or your job. If it’s pulling you away from your role as the leader of your home you are leaving your wife and family unprotected from the temptations that come with an absentee father and husband. You are using them as a human shield.

You are using your wife as a human shield when you fail to discipline your children.

This one is dangerous because you can fall prey to it while spending plenty of time at home. You can shun all hobbies that pull you away from your family, be home every night at the same time and still hide behind your wife when it comes to dealing with 4-year-old sinners climbing the walls and peeing on their brother. As husbands, we do well to remember that our day is not over when we leave work and come home. In a very real sense, the most important part of it is just beginning.

This does not mean that you come home with your hand on your belt ready to get medieval on your kids. It does mean that if your wife stays at home she has been putting up with your precious little sinners all day long. What she needs to come through the front door at 5:00 is a rescuer, not another kid to take care of. Husband, if you fail to discipline your kids, you are hiding from their temper tantrums, rolled eyes and violent outbursts behind your wife. When it comes to discipline, are you using your wife as a human shield?

The examples of how we can use our wives as human shields could go on and on. These are just two of many. The remedy is not simply to stop enjoying your hobbies and start knocking your kids around. The real issues are love and leadership. When we read in Ephesians 5:25 that husbands are to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” we should immediately think of the cross. The cross is the greatest demonstration of God’s love for his people (Romans 5:8). The implications here are simple yet profound. Husband, model the love of Christ by being there for your wife. Husband, model the love of Christ by serving your wife. If Jesus demonstrated his love for you by going to the cross in your place and then commands you to have that same love for your wife, you should have no problem taking care of a diaper and a whiney toddler.

Another way that Christ demonstrates his love for the church is by leading it (Colossians 1:18). Husband, have you used the old saying that says “if mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” as an excused absence, releasing yourself from your role as the leader of the home? Christ’s loving leadership isn’t done from a distance (apologies to Bette Midler) and yours shouldn’t be either.

We all fail. None of us leads like we should all the time. No husband has ever always been there and no father has always handled disciplining his kids the right way. My most common prayer as a husband and father is that God would redeem the mistakes I make daily. But we must not use our past failures as fathers and husbands as excuses for more failure (Romans 6:1-2). Instead, let’s rely on the grace of the One who always leads and loves the right way. Let’s rely on the Spirit’s power as we seek to follow the example of a Father who hides behind no one but who is “my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him” (Psalm 28:7).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mother's Day and the Faithfulness of God

The short, feisty woman balled up her hand into a fist, cocked it back and hit my wife as hard as she could right in the stomach.

I couldn’t believe what just happened. Did that just happen? What should I do? What would Bruce Lee have done in this situation?

I didn’t do anything. My wife was still lying there in pain, the short, feisty woman with Joe Frazier’s left hook was still standing there with a look of determination on her face and I was left questioning my manhood.

But it turns out that my decision to do nothing was the right one. The short, feisty woman was a nurse in the maternity ward. My wife was very much pregnant and at that level of pushing and breathing where she was about to no longer be pregnant. At some point just before our firstborn son’s entry into this world, there were complications. When that nurse punched my wife in the stomach, it helped to push our son out quicker and probably saved his life.

The whole thing seemed more like a movie or a dream than real life. In the span of just a few seconds, I saw my wife get punched and deliver a baby. Nobody in the UFC can do that. The whole thing was really weird. The silence in the room after my son was born went beyond weird.

I remember standing at the end of my wife’s bed when I heard someone say that the baby wasn’t breathing. That’s when it registered for me that there was no crying like you see on TV when the doctor whacks the baby on the butt. After a minute, I sunk back, up against a wall and seemed to hover as a few people took care of my wife. As another minute passed I looked over to my son but couldn’t see him. During the delivery our room only had a few nurses in it. Now it seemed like a convention for every nurse in the hospital and they were all gathered around my son.

I realized that I was out of position. I needed to be with my wife. I went to comfort her but, as is usually the case in matters like these, the tables were turned. She had a concerned look on her face. There’s no telling what mine looked like. I’ll never forget what she told me. Out loud. Everyone could hear it.

“If God wants to take our baby, it’s okay. He belongs to God anyway.”

Now I believe in God’s sovereignty. I know that he is the God of the nice sunny day as well as the tornado. I could not agree more with Job’s response at the death of his kids, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Not only do I believe in God’s good and just rule over all things, I teach and preach about it. The life of Joseph, the story of Ruth and Naomi and countless others are all marked up in my Bible, ready to be preached in an instant. But this time, I got the sermon preached to me.

This was not a seminary student trying to impress one of his buddies or professors at the coffee shop. This wasn’t a well-meaning pastor with bad timing. This was my wife. The one who was told much earlier in life that childbirth probably wasn’t an option for her. The one who carried her son for nine months. The one who endured the back pain, morning sickness and a fever that once topped out at 103 degrees. She’s the one who recognized God’s sovereignty and proclaimed it for all the room to hear. Not, “Why me, God!” but “He’s yours anyway, God!” All while her son was on the other end of the room, breathless, with a dozen nurses standing around him.

Finally, after four minutes, God allowed our son to breathe. It came out as a cry. I don’t think parents have ever been so happy to hear their baby cry. The head nurse loaded up the cart and got ready to wheel our crying baby down the hall but the cart wouldn’t cooperate so she picked him up, held on tight and sprinted out of the room and down the hall. Her speed let me know that the boy wasn’t out of the woods yet.

By God’s grace, he did make it out of the woods. And so this is the part where I’m supposed to say that God is faithful. He is. But what if the four minutes without breathing turned into six and left our son severely disabled? What if there never was a first breath? Would God still be faithful?


Just as God’s sovereign power isn’t limited to the things we consider good, his faithfulness isn’t limited to the good times when the money is flowing and the babies are bouncing. Both God’s sovereignty and his faithfulness expand beyond human circumstances. Sure, we can look to the events of our lives to see reminders of God’s faithfulness but we must look to the character of God as revealed through Scripture to see the depth of it.

Early one August morning, Mothers Day became more to me than reminding my mom how much she meant to me. It became a demonstration of God’s sovereign faithfulness. My son’s name, Isaac, is a rich reminder of that faithfulness. It carries with it a story of a Father who called a special people to himself. It tells of a Father who remains faithful when his people are faithless. It tells the story of another Son, a better Son, who lived a perfect life, was murdered and came back from death three days later. It tells of a promise of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

My wife showed me, in the heat of battle, that God is sovereignly faithful. Thank you, Marsha. Happy Mother’s Day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Terror Alert

It only took about 45 minutes to bring Osama bin Laden’s two decade long reign of terror to an end. It won’t take near that long for a new terror to assume authority. In fact, I’m seeing it happen already.

There’s a joke about people in the south who think that the moon landing was staged but that pro wrestling is real. I never got the joke. I was more likely to respond with an “Amen!” than laughter. For most of my childhood and early adulthood I questioned everything. Nothing was as it seemed.

The moon landing never really happened. It was filmed in a Hollywood studio and passed off as the real thing to stir up some extra patriotism and more support for NASA.

Monica Lewinsky was a French spy.

If you don’t keep an eye on your kids during your next trip to Disney World, the workers will snatch them away and keep them in some cellar that sits underneath the park. Where do you think Brittany Spears and Justin Bieber came from?

The Notorious BIG and Tupac both faked their deaths in order to sell more albums and are living it up on some island drinking Courvoisier.

Pro wrestling, on the other hand, is completely legitimate and should be taken at face value.

Many laugh at such ridiculous claims while at the same time falling prey to them. Maybe you’re the type who hated everything about George W. Bush and used tragic events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina as opportunities to chip away at him or perhaps you’re more likely to curse Obama under your breath every time you throw down $80 to fill up your gas tank. If you fall in or around either of those two extremes, take this as a word of warning from someone who is all too familiar with this threat.

1. Politicizing everything will harden your heart.

“Obama never supported Bush when he was president and now that he’s president he gets all the glory for Bush’s work.”

“Nice job reading the teleprompter, Mr. Obama.”

I did not vote for Obama. I haven’t done extensive research on every US president but I’m sure that I would disagree with Obama more strongly than any other man who has led our country. I hate the way he has dealt with abortion, I think his treatment of our budget deficit is very dangerous and I have serious concerns about the immediate future of our country.

But I also think that President Obama handled this situation with bin Laden very well. I thought his speech was appropriate and his decision-making was on point. Simply bombing the compound would have put innocent civilians at risk while leaving too much room for uncertainty in regards to the fate of bin Laden. Obama chose to use a small group of highly trained men to do the job and it worked. Expect a movie starring Vin Diesel in coming months.

Many on the right act as though grading Obama with an A on this event automatically makes them 1985 Volvo station wagon driving hippies that hate America. Constant jabs at the president may work for the pundits but it will kill your heart. I know because mine carries the scars of my foolishness.

2. You’ve got the wrong conspiracy.

“So, why didn’t they save his body? Buried at sea seems a little too convenient for me.”

“The pictures of the compound are clearly staged.”

“And what about that birth certificate?”

It’s amazing how many on the right laughed off conspiratorial claims about George Bush only to make up their own about Obama. Some who would classify themselves as beyond any political classification are up for a good conspiracy theory on anyone or anything. The Super Bowl was fixed! The good news for them is that they are right, there is a massive conspiracy going on. The bad news is that they’ve got the wrong one.

An old farmer told me a story about chicken bandits setting fires in people’s front yards. When the people would go out to take care of the fire in the front yard, the chickens would be stolen from the back yard. This is exactly what our enemy (Satan, not bin Laden) is doing to many of us. If he can get us all worked up about a group of 12 men ruling the world from some basement in Norway perhaps he can make us look past his more dangerous rule and influence in this world (2 Corinthians 4:4).

You wont find the source of the real conspiracy against us by trolling some website at 2 am. The real answer is found in the Genesis 3 story about a garden with a snake and a foolish man and woman. Unlike the conspiracies about black helicopters and torture camps this one is actually coming to an end one day.

Questioning your government is essential to liberty. Allowing this to consume you diverts your attention from the real enemy. Take it from one who’s been fooled many times before. This will steal your joy and destroy your heart.

3. You may be a hypocrite.

If you are a Christian and you are not praying for President Obama, you are rebelling against God. Get mad at Paul, not me (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Many Christians on the right are quick to go out and buy their American flag polo shirts and sing Toby Keith songs in church only to turn into Che Guevara when a non-conservative takes office.

The Bible never said to just pray for the leaders you like but to pray for all of them.

God doesn’t command you to honor George W. Bush but tell you it’s okay to forward e-mails comparing the Obama’s to Fred Sanford and Aunt Esther.

And just on a side note, God Bless the USA is not God’s favorite song.

Tonight, my family will pray for President Obama. I will pray the same prayer I pray for all of my other leaders as well as myself. I will ask God to help him to lead in the light of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Before I pray, my four-year-old son will pray for President Obama too and say the same thing he always says. “Dear Jesus, thanks for President Obama and please help him to do what you want him to do.”

Now that does my heart good.