What I learned from a recent trip to the buffet

When you have seven kids, a simple trip to a restaurant for dinner is not only a major logistical operation, it’s a huge financial undertaking. Hence, it doesn’t happen very often.

This past Sunday being Fathers’ Day, however, we decided to go to an all-u-can-eat buffet in Waco, Tex. The kids could serve themselves, thus making logistics easier. The cost of the meal would top $100, but given that there was all-you-can-eat steak and shrimp on the buffet, the benefits outweighed the costs. And so we went.

This particular establishment was packed. Yet, despite the crowded conditions, everyone got along great. People helped kids load their plates, patrons courteously allowed other patrons ahead of them in the catfish line, and everyone was having a good time.

What made the harmony among the people so amazing was that, not only was this restaurant overcrowded, but the crowd consisted of a diverse group of people. There were multiple ethnic groups represented, ranging from Caucasian, to African American, to Hispanic, to Middle Eastern, to Asian. There were also people of different lifestyles, ranging from Christians arriving for a Fathers’ Day meal after Sunday worship, to LGBTQ, tattooed and non-tattoo’ed.

Everyone got along. There was harmony. There was friendliness. One African-American lady even complimented me on my looks. (That never happens to me, by the way.)

I should not have been surprised by the harmony and congenial atmosphere experienced that day. The same thing happened at another all-you-can-eat franchise in Washington, DC, during a visit I made there two years ago. But, given the political climate of the day, I expected more cold shoulders, and less comments about my beautiful red hair.

When you read articles on social media, you are treated to a barrage of racial incidents, and commentary which tells us that racial-tensions are at an all-time high, and race-relations are at an all-time low. Turn on the news, and you see BLM protesters blocking freeways in cities where police shootings have claimed the lives of African-American citizens. These are tragic circumstances and are not to be minimized.

But if those instances are indicative of the culture at large, the deep racial divisions in our country were not manifested in my recent trip to the buffet line. Here’s what I think is really happening.

Tragedies are happening. A police officer shoots an unarmed African-American motorist. The news media sensationalizes the story, because in the 21st Century media economy, page views and impressions are everything. Sensational headlines generate traffic, which generates ad revenue, so the story is sensationalized.

Activists groups then use the tragedy as a publicity and fundraising tool, and protesters take to the streets furthering the story, which goes viral on social media as those who have been victims of racism want to show solidarity, and those who have not wish for the problem to go away.

Then, CNN does a story about race relations being at an all-time low, which generates web traffic and TV viewership, the nation debates the issue, and the drama continues online.

Meanwhile, at a buffet in Texas, African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Asians are gathered together at the table of brotherhood which is adorned by an endless supply of steak, shrimp, fried chicken, fried fish, and all the fixin’s.

I could draw the conclusion that people are people, regardless of race, who just want to live their lives, enjoy good things, and get along with everybody. At my core, I believe that to be true.

On the other hand, perhaps we all got along because we were drawn together by a common cause: steak and shrimp. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. Perhaps the leaders and voices of our nation could draw people together by reminding us of the things that we hold dear, that we ALL hold dear, while offering comfort in the aftermath of tragedy.

Perhaps the leaders of our country could unify the country by reminding us of how great our country is, in spite of the tragedies that happen.

But that will never happen. The key to winning elections today is to divide and conquer. Convince one group that others are out to get them, and that you are the only one who can offer protection, and you have that group’s vote. Plus, calling someone a racist gets more page views than posts about unity. Our leaders and media sources will take the easy way out every time, to the detriment of our society.

So, it’s up to us. It’s up to us to see the humanity of each other. To see that the man across the table who has a different skin color, a different world view, and possibly a different religion is still a man. He has a life, responsibilities, worries and a family just like we do. He is, after all, a man.

In that humanity, we have a common bond. Once we recognize that, true healing and unity can take place in our nation, if it hasn’t started already.

I fear blogging about racial issues. I fear that my words will come off as calloused, uninformed, or even offensive.

But know this, regardless of who you are, I will pray for you, I will pray with you, and I want the best for you. And if your freedom is threatened, I will go to bat for you.

May God bless you, my friend.

 

‘I miss Him’

Anselmo was a benevolent, peaceful man, raised in the church, and thrust into the perils of the Spanish Civil War. Having seen the atrocities of the war, Anselmo’s faith wavered.

Struggling to harmonize the sufferings of the war with the existence of God, he told Robert Jordan, “If there were God, never would he have permitted what I have seen with my eyes.

“Clearly I miss him, but a man must be responsible to himself.”

While Anselmo is nothing more than an imagination of the late Ernest Hemingway immortalized on the pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls, his unbelief and reasoning are typical of the modern mind, which struggles to understand how a loving, righteous God can allow evil to flourish in this lost and dying world.

Clearly the evil of this world cannot be overstated. Texas Child Protective Services are overwhelmed by caseloads as thousands of kids are abandoned, neglected, abused, harmed, and prostituted by their biological families. Human trafficking has become the modern day slavery, a dark underbelly of an otherwise prosperous and advanced culture.

Law enforcement is overwhelmed by the increased prevalence of illegal drug abuse to the point that law enforcement officials, politicians and correctional facilities are even beginning to wonder, “why bother?”

Contemporary Christians preach against judgmentalism and absolute truth while abusive husbands maim their wives. Yet, adding a coffee bar to the church foyer will somehow save the world.

Murder rates skyrocket and hope plummets in the inner cities, and students on college campuses have become incapable of debate without riots.

These are all first-world problems. Overseas, people sleep in fear of being captured and executed for no other reason than being born into the wrong tribe. The atrocities happening around the world are unprintable, but we’ll gladly pretend they aren’t happening if we can build a factory producing cheap electronics, or if we can buy cheap bananas from the despot in charge.

Modern man living in western culture has been blessed with technological and medical advancements that allow him to solve almost any problem that arises in his life. We have become comfortable with modern living.

Therefore, when faced with the suffering that man faces in the third world, and that man has faced throughout history, our perception of blessings versus suffering is challenged, and often, western man comes to the conclusion that suffering negates God’s presence, and with so much suffering in the world, God must not be present at all. Therefore, He does not exist.

This conclusion ignores the facts of God’s character as revealed in the Bible.

First, God did not create suffering, man did. In Genesis 1, God created a perfect world. In Genesis 2, God placed man in paradise. In Genesis 3, man tried to overthrow God, and was thus banished from paradise. In doing so, sin and disease entered in, as did ambition, avarice, lust and evil. The result, man suffers for his sin, and all too often inflicts suffering on others. God didn’t create this chaos, but He is working to correct it.

Since the fall of man, suffering is a natural part of life. Whether it is Adam eating bread in the sweat of his brow, or the Christians in Romans 8:35-39 who are killed all the day long, suffering is a common part of the human existence. In modern times, it manifests itself in political turmoil and physical illness. In other times and places, it manifested itself in conquests, persecutions, and famines.

God is present throughout the suffering. While modern man equates suffering with the absence of God, scripture actually teaches that God is present through the suffering. Romans 8:38-39 says:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Suffering is not the result of God withdrawing His presence. It is the result of sin and evil. Meanwhile, God remains present, working through the suffering to transform His children into the people He intends on them being, building our endurance, building testimonies for Him, and lining up the global geopolitical situation to bring about the return of Jesus Christ.

God Himself suffered. Or, as Romans 8:32-34 says:

He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? 33 Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. 34 Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.

God suffered in that He gave His only begotten Son, who suffered at the hands of sinners during the crucifixion which resulted in the payment for the sins of all mankind.

Hebrews 4:15 says, He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Jesus Christ lived the human experience in a country that was occupied by a tyrannical empire, working to survive in a meager economy, before launching his earthly ministry which saw Him live on nothing, sleep outside, and suffer the persecution and rejection of His own people.

God is not some mystic being who sits in comfort in the clouds completely oblivious to the plight of those who suffer. Bette Midler is full of baloney. He is one who has experienced our suffering, weeps when we weep, and takes our pain personally.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anselmo made the false conclusion that the sufferings of the war negated the existence of God. As a result, Anselmo’s life lacked direction, meaning and comfort. Thus he said, “I miss Him.”

For us, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Recently, I was counselling with a young mother who wanted to get her kids involved in a youth program. She discussed how simple and good life was when she went to church as a girl. There were youth car washes where they raised funds for church camp. There was church camp, retreats, lock-ins, and Sunday night pizza.

“Those were good days,” she said. Truth be told, she was missing the peace and comfort that come from living by faith in the company of other believers. The fact is, this young mother can return to that lifestyle any time she chooses.

So, if you have wandered from the faith, and are finding your life empty and hopeless, address the root cause of your emotional strife. You miss God. But you don’t have to. You can return to His presence at any time. Turn from your sins, place your faith in Him, and then gather with other believers at a true church that teaches His word, and that fellowships together.

Do this, and God will not only give you the grace to endure, but you’ll understand the “why,” and then receive the peace that surpasses all understanding.

God of the Valley

In times following global tragedies like the terror attack in Manchester, England, or when we experience personal trauma, it can seem like God is distant. He isn’t present. He isn’t paying attention. He doesn’t care.

Bette Midler summed this up perfectly in her epic hit, “From a Distance,” which proclaimed that, from a distance, the world was blue and clear, beautiful and harmonious, while on the ground we were all at war. While her song sounds beautiful enough to sing as a special music presentation at church, it paints a picture of a God who likes the view from above, and does not engage with the struggles of man.

The reality is that God is not only aware of world affairs, our personal struggles and the pain of the real world, but He is also working through these events to bring in a better world where we will no longer suffer.

Daily Wire podcaster Andrew Klavan discovered this first hand. In his book, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, he related an experience where he was listening to a New York Mets baseball game on the radio while contemplating suicide. The Mets had won in the last inning, thanks to the heroic effort of a Christian baseball player, who in the post game interview, said, “Sometimes, you just have to play through the pain.”

During the above-posted interview on my radio show, Klavan said that when he heard those words, it was as if the Lord told him, “You have to play through the pain. You are needed.”

That moment was one of the key moments that led to his conversion to Christianity. Reflecting upon that moment, and the moments of his life that led him to Christ, Klavan noted that people live in the real world. There is violence, problems, death, suffering, and fear. In order to reach people, we have to start by meeting them where they are. That involves an acknowledgement of the reality of their situations, but also showing them that God is present during times of pain and suffering, and that he is using that pain and suffering to bring them into a place of glory.

That’s why, even after his conversion, he continued writing suspense-thrillers. That is also the approach he takes with his daily podcast on the Daily Wire.

In times of tragedy, catch-phrases like “give it all to God” don’t carry much weight. What does carry weight is ministering to people during times of tragedy. That involves being there, listening to them, and reminding them that they are not alone.

Woody Allen once said that 85 percent of life is showing up. Let’s show up. Let’s be there for our families, friends and neighbors. Let’s minister to them during times of distress.

And when we find ourselves in distress, let’s remember that God is always present, and always active. He is God when we stand victorious on the mountaintop. He is also God when we struggle through the darkness of the valley. He is the God of the mountain, and He is God of the valley. Trust Him, and know that it will all work out.

Mourning for Manchester

It’s every mother’s nightmare. Her teenage daughter goes out and never returns. Following news of the suicide attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, Charlotte Campbell immediately began to call her daughter, Olivia, who attended the concert. No answer. And such has been the case since the attack happened.

Monday’s terror attack on the concert claimed the lives of 22 people, and injured many others. Some concert attendees are still missing. Campbell hasn’t given up hope. She tells British television that she has been calling her daughter’s cell phone, but it goes straight to voicemail. She fears that her daughter is one of the many who are in critical condition in a hospital, or worse.

This scene has become all too common in today’s world. Terrorists attack a concert venue in England, or Paris, drive a truck into a crowd at a parade, attack a train, or violently attack a cartoon newspaper. The world responds with Facebook filters and hashtags. Yesterday, we were all Paris. Today, we are all Manchester. Once upon a time, we were all Charlie Hebdo.

The frequency of these attacks coupled with the ease of showing concern on social media has almost dehumanized these events, but the reality of this attack has struck Campbell directly in the heart. She longs for her daughter. She wishes she were home.

In the days ahead, we’ll learn more about this attack. We’ll learn of the attacker’s background, his allegiances, and whether this attack was connected to a terrorist organization.

We’ll also hear those who call for a strong military response, as well as those who tell us violence is not the answer. We’ll be told not to judge. We’ll be told to pull our heads out of the sand. We’ll find ourselves in a heightened state of security, and the politicians will blame the other party.

None of this will undo the attack. None of it will bring healing to Ms. Campbell. So for once, let’s respond the right way.

Let’s start by praying for the victims of the Manchester attack. Pray for the healing of those wounded, and comfort for the families affected.

Let’s continue by praying for our leaders, as the Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”

If our desire is to live a quiet, peaceable life, in all Godliness and honesty, our leaders are going to have to find a solution to combat global terror at its core. There are many complexities to this issue, and no decision will be simple. Pray God gives our leaders wisdom and foresight.

Then, let’s recognize this attack for what it truly is, evil. This attack was not caused by a lax security system, nor was it caused by ineffectual government. It was caused by evil men. Recognizing that will remind us that evil is in the world, and will remind us that our real enemy is not those who differ from us, but rather those who want to kill and oppress us.

Recognizing this evil means recognizing the Spiritual component of this evil. Seeing that this evil was ultimately birthed by our true enemy, Satan, we then recognize that only God can win this battle. Thus, the battle is the Lord’s, and we trust Him fully.

And finally, let’s remember that nothing is guaranteed. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today isn’t guaranteed. We don’t know how much time we have left, nor do we know how much time our neighbors have left.

Seeing that time is short, and we don’t know how much is left, let’s redeem the time by solidifying our relationships with the Lord, and by doing His work.

And make the most of the time you have with your loved ones.

May God bless you and comfort you in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Gov. Abbott signs SB 24, church/state controversy reignited

Governor Greg AbbottFormer Houston Mayor Annise Parker drew national outrage in 2014 when attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed sermon notes and audio from pastors who had organized a petition to force the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) to a public referendum. Pastors who organized the petition said the HERO ordinance violated religious freedoms.

The pastors had collected the signatures needed, but several thousand were rejected when it was discovered that one of the pastors who collected the signatures was not a registered voter. With the signatures disqualified, the petition failed, and HERO was set to be enacted.

That’s when the pastors sued, and during the discovery phase of the suit, lawyers representing the city subpoenaed the pastors’ sermon notes to see if those pastors had violated the law by discussing, promoting, or giving instructions regarding the petition during worship services.

The resulting fallout had pastors, pundits and politicos criticizing the city of Houston to the point that Mayor Parker ordered the city’s attorneys to withdraw the subpoena. The pastors scored a victory, which led to a legal victory, which led to an electoral victory when Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected HERO.

Sunday, at Grace Community Church in The Woodlands, Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a victory lap as the governor held a bill signing ceremony for SB 24 during worship services. SB 24, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), prohibits local and state government entities from subpoenaing sermon notes, audio or video from pastors, and further prohibits those pastors from being forced to testify about their sermons.

The bill, seen as a response to Houston’s 2014 subpoena, went into effect immediately, however, the way the governor signed the bill reignited the debate over the separation of church and state.

Current law prohibits churches from influencing political elections, or the passing of legislation. While churches can weigh in on issues (such as abortion or same-sex marriage), they cannot lobby in favor of legislation on those issues, nor can they endorse candidates who support their views on the issues.

While President Donald J. Trump’s recent executive order instructing the IRS to stop enforcing the law that bans church involvement in the political process, critics note that the executive order can just as easily be reversed in the next Presidential administration, exposing politically active churches to prosecution, or loss of their tax-exempt status.

The separation of church and state is one of the pillars that upholds the freedom of the American republic. Historically, whenever the church takes control of the government, persecution against non-adherents follows. Whenever the government takes control of the church, blasphemy and heresy follow. Both situations become ripe with corruption.

That’s why Rev. John Leland, a Baptist pastor who preached in Virginia and Massachusetts, strongly advocated for the separation of church and state, supported James Madison, and was instrumental in promoting the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In promoting the separation of church and state, Leland wrote:

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

That was the goal of the separation of church and state. Churches would not run the government. Government would not run the churches. Man would be free to serve God in a way that satisfied his conscience.

Churches should participate in the market place of ideas. When government seeks to regulate religious speech, it seeks to take control over the church. However, if churches become “dark money” organizations for political parties, they have not only violated the separation of church and state, they have also deviated from their God-given mission.

Furthermore, any law that forces a man to violate his religious conscience is a law that violates the very essence of man, and the three founding principles of our nation. So, with SB 24 in place, and Gov. Abbott’s and Lt. Gov. Patrick’s victory lap behind us, let us press onward to a world where man is free to believe, churches are free to preach, and where government governs well, and as little as possible.

Charly’s attempt to engage culture

Over the past two decades, Christians and churches have sought to engage popular culture through music, movies and even through news media sites like The Stream.

Following the observation that movies bear more influence on American culture than the pulpit, the Kendrick Brothers and Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., produced a series of movies that gave us box office hits like “Fireproof” and “Courageous.” The movies, flanked by correlating Bible study curriculum for churches and small-groups, were tools in reaching many.

These efforts have led to the conversion and discipleship of many nominal church goers and fence riders, however, cracking the shell of the culture at large presents a challenge. While individuals are being reached through these efforts, the public at large is not.

My proof? In 1986, Top Gun was a box office smash. Americans lined up around the corner to see Maverick pursue his quest of graduating at the top of his Top Gun class. The movie, which featured many action scenes featuring the F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles, wooed many young men into joining the Navy under the auspices of becoming fighter pilots.

Recruiters, seeing the opportunity, set up recruiting booths outside movie theaters, signing young men who were excited about the opportunity to fly the F-15 into hostile air to intercept Russian Migs. A cultural phenomenon was born.

Historically, the only time a Christian movie has generated a large-scale response was following the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” A heart-felt and detailed depiction of the Gospel is bound to elicit a reaction. No doubt about that. However, aside from the anecdotal stories of the criminal who confessed to a crime for which someone else was convicted, there was no shift in American culture. A large number of professed conversions came from that movie, but America’s culture still trended toward unGodliness.

If the purpose of Christian movies is to create conversions, or to call marginal Christians back to faith, then those movies are accomplishing the goal. However, if Christian movies are designed to sway the culture at large, we are missing the mark. And, until this week, I’ve wondered why.

Sunday night, my wife and I enjoyed some “date time,” where we sit down and watch a movie via Amazon Prime or Hulu. We found a romance movie called “Charly,” about a New York woman who visits family in Salt Lake City and meets a young Mormon, and the two fall in love. Charly convinces Sam, the young Mormon, to be more spontaneous. Sam leads Charly to convert to Mormonism.

The plot was good, the acting was good. The depictions of family and the importance thereof were good. What turned me off to the movie was when the film would unabashedly preach Mormonism. There’d be a Sunday School scene non-germane to the plot. The main character would try to preach it to his love interest. Those scenes disrupted the plot, and raised my antenna. I spent the rest of the movie looking for the Mormon innuendos.

Now, I mean no disrespect to my Mormon friends, but as a Baptist pastor, I have several, deep, theological differences with the Mormon religion. Having those differences brought to the forefront of my mind, I began to wonder if non-believers had the same reaction to Christian films as I was having to “Charly.”

Are Christian filmmakers hindering their influence on the culture by inserting outright Christian preaching into Christian movies? I don’t know, and I have no complaints.

However, as we produce Christian movies, let’s set our purpose before writing our script. Are we looking to influence society to adopt our values? Or are we looking for mass conversions. If mass conversions are the goal, then by all means, insert explicit Bible teachings. Do a movie about the Gospel, like “The Passion of the Christ.”

However, if the goal is to influence societal values, maybe embedding Christian values into the plot is a better way to go.