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Monday, May 23, 2011

Rustler Article for 5.26.11

How do you measure growth? Most things in life can be measured numerically, such as the height of a child, the profit of an investment, or the membership of a church. But how do you measure spiritual growth? Is there a yardstick or scale that can really show how a church family has “grown?”

This week I spoke with a trusted friend about the way his former church looked for a new pastor. Instead of taking resumes and considering things like education and experience, the litmus test for a candidate was to be only the rate at which he had baptized new believers. While this statistic is indeed easily measured, it hardly gives a report of a minister’s success or a church’s growth.

Take, for instance, the work of our Children’s Minister, Lesley. Over the last five years we’ve baptized several of the children who have been under her care and leadership, but even this handful of baptisms is small compared to the numbers of children who attend our programs during the week. Should we call such a ministry a failure? Should we have demanded more baptisms from among so many children?

Certainly not. It is foolish to think that the work of any minister can be measured by the number of baptisms she performs. Such an evaluation ignores the growth of understanding and formation that the children of our community have undergone through Lesley’s faithful leadership. Our children have learned the Scriptures, they’ve learned the vocabulary of faith, and most importantly they’ve learned that they, too, can know and serve God.

The foundation that has been laid through Lesley’s service is going to make other ministers look really good one day. These children will grow in faith and knowledge until the day that Jesus Christ calls them in an unmistakable way and they are baptized in ours or some other church. They will be counted among the statistics of ministers who measure and are measured by the quantity of those who profess faith in Christ and are baptized. Heaven will rejoice.

But somewhere miles away there will be a woman quietly serving her Lord, teaching the Word and loving the children of her church with the love of Jesus. She’ll have no tally of immersions in her mind; only the peaceful knowledge that she knows what real growth looks like.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rustler Article for 5.19.11

Baptists often get picked on because of our business meetings, and, quite frankly, we pick on ourselves for them too. At first glance it looks like we “lose” a Sunday night of Bible study every month to talk about the finances and complain about things not getting done in the church. It’s true; some churches have regrettable shouting matches at their monthly business meetings that can split the hearts of the church, if not the church itself. We need not dig too deep to find evidence that such contentious arguments have happened in each church’s history in our community.
But from a Pastor’s perspective the business meetings we labor through look like something else entirely. For me, business meetings have become something of an opportunity for response among the members of the church. It is here that ideas are kicked around, that the leanings of the heart are vocalized, that action is taken and ownership of the ministry of the church is claimed. You see, ours is a church full of ministers. Some get paid to preach or lead children or youth, but all of the members of our congregation are expected to be ministers in the fullest sense of the word.
The last few business meetings have made me want to burst with joy and pride. People are volunteering to take on difficult tasks in our community and congregation, risking their hearts to achieve what God has called us to in Riesel. Others are coming up with new ideas for ministry to address the needs of our town and church, making the Gospel more accessible to those who hear it sparingly.
I’m increasingly proud to know these people, young and old, who are earnestly struggling to do God’s will and work in his Kingdom. It’s time for you to be a part of this group of servant leaders. Come worship with us and share in the Lordship of Christ that drives them to lay down life and property to serve.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rustler Article for 5.6.11

Monday night we were informed that the United States military had successfully eliminated the threat to the world that was Osama bin Laden. Moments after the announcement crowds gathered at the former site of the World Trade Center in New York and the White House in Washington, all celebrating and chanting “USA!”
Shortly thereafter there began a national discussion on whether or not we should “celebrate” the killing of a man, even one as vile as bin Laden. In the conversation that has followed these last few days, many Christians are divided over their beliefs and their patriotism. Is it “Christian” to be happy someone, let alone a Muslim, has been killed? Should we condemn those who, even under orders, killed another human being? What about the poor woman used as a human shield that died in the firefight?
Please understand that whatever position you take in this argument you are making a theological statement about your faith. If you proudly cheer with the patriots that America has won a victory by killing bin Laden, then you testify that some killing is justified, that sometimes Christians have to hold their noses and kill. If, however, you side with those who object to the cheers of joy and celebration you testify that killing is never justified and that Christians should denounce killing in all its forms.
I am not going to definitively take a side in this argument, because I’m not settled on one. On the one hand, I want to feel “ok” with an enemy of my people being stopped once and for all. On the other hand I mourn the killing of even a murderer like Osama. Jesus’ words are clear: don’t kill. So I’m convicted, satisfied, guilty, and proud all at once. All I can do is breathe a prayer with my friend Roger and say “God have mercy.”
Remember: you cannot comment on an event like the killing of bin Laden without commenting on what you believe. As one of my friends said this week, whenever we cheer or condemn this and other moral actions “our theology is showing.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rustler Article for 4.21.11

This weekend we celebrate the central event of Christian history in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’ve been thinking about our usual description of the Easter story – we move so quickly from the horrors of Friday afternoon to the glory of Sunday morning.
It is the Cross that is the central event of the Gospel story, more so even than the Resurrection. Now before anyone has a heart attack and calls me a heretic, hear me out.
The Resurrection is the ratification of the identity and work of Jesus. It is the proof of his righteousness, innocence, and divinity. The Cross is that moment of condemnation, of justification, of atonement for sinners. It is the Cross that bears our sufferings and punishment; it is the Cross that models faithfulness; it is the Cross that satisfies God’s justice. While the Resurrection is the home of glory and honor for the ones covered by the Lord’s blood, it is the Cross itself that offers hope.
We cannot, as with Paul, hope in the Resurrection without participating in the Cross. But as comfortable Christians we are more accustomed to claiming the relief and glory of Easter Sunday rather than the gore and tragedy of Friday afternoon. This week may we dwell just a moment longer with Jesus at the Cross; perhaps then we will understand just a little more what we have been saved from.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Rustler Article for 4.7.11

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about older brothers and younger brothers lately, mostly in relation to a sermon I recently preached on the story of the Two Brothers (also known as the parable of the prodigal son).
It should be clear that the parable is not entirely about the younger brother, who goes off and squanders his inheritance. We must see that Jesus leaves the parable open-ended with the older brother, arms crossed and red from anger, standing in the shadows outside the party of redemption.
It is the self-righteous among the family of God who are left standing in the evening air complaining about how good they’ve been to God who will ultimately be left out of his celebration of grace.
One thought on this that I think is pertinent to our discipleship: whether we are older brothers or younger brothers, we all fall into the trap of looking for God’s salvation through our works. For the younger brother it was the penitent act of asking forgiveness for his sinful acts, which he planned to “work off” by being one of his father’s hired men. For the older son it was the constant, faithful obedience to God’s laws and morality through which he hoped to be included.
Neither licentious behavior nor slavish morality will convince God to save us; rather it is God’s grace extended to all of us that gives us what Paul calls “the hope of the resurrection.” I pray we’re wise enough to know that salvation is by grace through faith whether we’re the good sons and daughters or the rebels looking for a way to come back home.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rustler Article for 3.31.11

I’ve become interested in Biblical literacy lately as a part of my dissertation, and have been thinking about just how much Bible the people in our churches know. There has been an assumption, at least since World War Two, that people today don’t need to be taught the stories of the Bible; they have been so saturated by those narratives at home and in culture that to preach or teach on the basics of Scripture would be boring and redundant.
Thanks to some brave and helpful friends I’ve lately learned that we can assume no such thing about the people in our churches. Biblical literacy, something that I consider a necessity for a disciple of Jesus Christ, has fallen on such hard times that many can’t even identify the four Gospels in the New Testament! Add to this the plethora of books and broadcasts that present themselves as “biblical” and we wind up with a gaggle of would-be disciples who know less than their parents did about the very basics of our faith!
We must address Biblical literacy in our homes, and if not there, in our churches. It is the lack of Biblical knowledge in our congregations that has convinced me of the importance of Sunday night and Wednesday night Bible studies when many churches have let such events fall from their weekly schedules. It is important that we know the Word of God so that we may hear and obey what he says. Shame on us if we rant and rave about the godlessness of our culture or un-Christian principles of a person or organization without knowing the Bible first.

Rustler Article for 3.24.11

I think Paul was something of an amateur athlete. I know, there is little evidence to speak of Paul’s personal life other than his Jewish upbringing and education, but there certainly is a lot of athletic language in his letters to the churches. Maybe Paul was a runner or a swimmer; perhaps after a long day of persecuting the Church or preaching the Gospel he did some first-century Zumba to blow off steam.
In Philippians 3 Paul uses an athletic metaphor in the midst of an autobiographical section of the letter. He laments that he has not yet arrived at the goal of faith and considers the things in his past as rubbish compared to the glory of Jesus Christ to which he has been called to proclaim.
Let’s consider this by way of a modern-day athletics story. Diane Van Deren, an active, athletic woman now in her 50’s, understands more than most what it means to “forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead,” as Paul says. As a result of epilepsy, Diane has had a portion of brain removed. The consequence of the surgery is that she no longer has an awareness of time. She can be running for hours and hours and think only a few minutes have passed by. She has won many super marathon races because of this unique condition, and is in the best shape of her life.
I wonder – just how much would we really strive toward God’s calling on our lives in Christ Jesus if we were better at forgetting? If only we had the spiritual discipline to give our lives, yes, even our pasts to God and train our souls to the race that he has set us on!

Rustler Article for 3.10.11

I’ve seen a lot of famous people (mostly athletes) with the words “only God can judge me” tattooed on their bodies in various places. Though this sentiment at least partially based on Scripture, it is more indicative of an attitude our culture has developed regarding one another’s sins.
There is an attitude among us that has been “baptized” by Christians suggesting that we cannot render any moral judgment on anyone’s behavior, thus rendering morality to the purely personal level. Certainly we know the maxim “if it feels good, do it!” Our society doesn’t want moral judgments from anyone so that we can get away with anything.
Most often we hear passages cited against “judging” one another from the Gospels (Matthew 7, Luke 6) and from the letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 4, Romans 14). We cower behind the idea that judgment means condemnation of someone’s actions, and so we let all sorts of evil go unchecked in our homes, churches, and communities.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Paul was not a judgmental fellow (Romans 1); the same could be said about Jesus (Mark 7, Matthew 18). The point of the “judgment” language has more to do with rendering a final verdict on the worth (or eternal destination) of a person, not with their specific moral behavior.
The point is this: Christians must be able to judge moral action against the standards of God’s expectations for humanity. We must be able to name sin as sin. However, we must at the same time not fall into the temptation of “deciding” who is saved and who is eternally damned based upon their behavior. Let God be God and decide the fate of a person; however we must not abdicate our responsibility to “build one another up,” to “correct, rebuke” and to preach repentance with our lives, deeds, and words.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Rustler Article for 3.3.11

I’m occasionally intimidated by people who are really knowledgeable in art and artists. I’m no rube when it comes to things a little more “cultured,” but recently it seems that I’ve been running into several people who make me feel as unaware of fine art as a bird is of the life aquatic.
The good news is that I don’t have to be an art history degree-holder to appreciate good art when I see it. I can stare at a masterful painting or an impossibly detailed marble sculpture and appreciate it for what it is: a thing of beauty. We know good art when we see or hear it, much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said when he tried to describe obscenity in 1964: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… But I know it [obscenity] when I see it.”
I hope you take time to enjoy art in all its forms and mediums. For 2000 years Christians have had a near-monopoly on artistic expression, and most of that art is done in what I would call a worshipful posture. In Baptist life we’re surrounded and inundated with words both spoken and printed. I think it would be healthy and helpful for us to branch out and develop an appreciation for fine art even if we will never be the “artsy” people that intimidate us from time to time.

Rustler Article for 2.23.11

Part of the talk about fiscal responsibility swirling around Austin, Washington, and many dining room tables is the idea of making certain tax-deductions no longer deductible. For instance, one idea to increase tax revenue is to no longer allow people to claim their mortgage interest as a deduction when they itemize their tax returns. Included in this is language about disallowing such an exemption for charitable donations to organizations like churches.
To put this in common terms, it could come about that charitable donations to your local church could no longer be tax deductible.
Let me first say that such legislation is HIGHLY unlikely to be passed: there are too many institutions (besides churches) that depend on charitable donations to survive, whether they are educational institutions or simply tax shelters for the rich.
However, the possibility did get me thinking. If such legislation were to be passed, I wonder if people would be faithful in their giving if there was absolutely no financial benefit to them at all. Would we be givers if there were no tax shelters or giving records to be had?
We’re in need of motivated givers. Not those motivated by the benefits of giving, even if those benefits are ‘godly.’ No, we need men and women who see part of worship the sharing of their treasures with the rest of the Christian community. We need givers who would be faithful in their contributions to the Kingdom even if our own little American kingdom didn’t give them a bonus for it.
Let’s not fear legislation; let’s fear the human spirit within us that automatically hordes and acts in greed and selfishness in the name of prosperity and security. Let’s allow the Church to truly be the Church.

Rustler Article for 2.17.11

What is the church’s role in the community? Certainly it’s to be a house of worship where a group of like-believing members of a community can gather for song, prayer, and sacrament. Further, the church is a central participant in the activities for the community. The church has ministries that feed the hungry and clothe the poor. It has gatherings for worship, work, and fellowship. Above all, though, the church exists in a secular community to be a light to that community in the name of Jesus Christ.
The mission of God through the ages has been to proclaim His righteousness in the face of human sin and to announce his forgiveness and atonement first through the Law and then through Jesus’ blood shed on Calvary’s cross. The book of Acts opens with the statement that Luke “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Luke 1:1-2, NIV). The church is the continuation of what Jesus began so long ago in his earthly ministry. Whatever we do as a church in the community or in the walls of our buildings we are to be about the business of announcing the present and yet-to-come Kingdom of God inaugurated in the life of Jesus Christ.
Yes, we do Zumba (Tuesdays and Thursdays; you should come!) and yes we do camps and fellowships and fundraisers But let not the church forget its reason for being: the Body of believers must announce the Kingdom of God and that such a Kingdom stands over and against the way of life of the world. If we lose sight of our witness of God’s work in the world then we have lost our identity as the church and might as well be any other social club.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Rustler Article for 2.3.11

What does the church look like to you? Is it the collection of people around the world that constitute the Body of Christ? Is it a memory of a brick-and-mortar sanctuary that was indeed a holy place for you? Is it an organ or piano? Is it the candies that dear old deacon handed out at the door every morning?
The church is so much to so many. Sometimes we under-emphasize the importance of the church being a place as opposed to a congregation. We’ve convinced a generation or two that the place of our worship is inconsequential and that the “church” is nothing more than the sum of the believers that make up a particular group. This is certainly true: it is the faith in Jesus Christ as risen and exalted savior that joins us to one another. But we are foolish to believe that the location of our regular worship is as inconsequential as the meeting place of any other service or club.
Baptists have a long history of rejecting anything that seems to earthly or even tangible: we’ve historically rejected creeds, formal education, and even association with Christians who differ on the finer points of theology. The consequence of our latent “separatism” has been that we have lost any moorings to a faith in “holy ground.” We feel the same sentimentality in our sanctuary as we do in those places from our pasts that have meant so much to us, which has the effect of making everywhere a “place of worship.” If every place has the same spiritual emphasis in our hearts than no place is special; no place is sacred.
I’m not advocating that we return to an ancient belief in God’s special presence in one place over another – after all, ours is the God over all the Earth from whom no one can hide their face or their sin. What I am encouraging is that we find something sacred in the place we worship because of the God whom we worship there. The church sanctuary is where the community of faith responds to God’s call week after week. It is the regular and sacred space where God’s Word is presented and the people, as one Body, receive and dwell in it for their souls’ increase.
Let’s invest in worship. Not in the P.A. equipment, not in the paint, not in the carpet. Let’s invest in worship. Let’s make just one sacred space in our lives so temporary and transient. Let us worship, together, and reclaim just a glimpse of what it means to put everything away and be present with the Lord as a community.
Come worship with us this Sunday at 11:00am. Let’s find a sacred moment in the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ in Riesel.

Rustler Article for 1.27.11

Lesley and I have a big rule of fashion: if you are wearing a strapless dress on national television, do not “hitch it up.” It’s more of a silly faux-pas than a moral dilemma, but it is a handy reminder that the Christian has a responsibility to live modestly.
This is the point where most readers assume I’m about to launch into a lecture on how our women should dress modestly – quite the contrary. Although fashion in our culture could stand a modesty revolution, ladies’ fashion is not the point this week; rather its male modesty that I’m worried about just now.
Gentlemen, can we please, please heed the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians that “the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are un-presentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment” in the locker room? I understand that there is this understood code among men that may allow us to throw modesty out the window when there are no ladies present, but my earnest desire is that we would consider the meaning of Christian modesty even when we’re among our fellow men.
There is so much more to the Christian life than t-shirts and bumper stickers; being a Christian means behaving in a way that is strange and even foolish when compared to the prevailing culture around us. I dare say that the presence of Christ in our lives influences our behavior, especially our modesty, even when it’s “just us guys” or “just the girls.”
Come and worship the Lord who transforms us in ways the world could never grasp. You are welcome in our Sunday School classes at 10:00am on Sundays and worship at 11:00am. We also host Bible Studies on Sunday and Wednesday nights, weekly children’s and youth activities, and even have Zumba on Tuesday nights! It’s a great time to get involved and learn to worship and work in the Kingdom of God.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rustler Article for 1.20.11

The week of the County Show is a very busy one for our community and for our church as well. We have teachers trying to get children and animals organized; parents find time to shear sheep and prepare the other critters for the show. Overall I think that the show’s value far outweighs the work that goes into its production, but if you ask a frazzled parent about it this week, you might get punched.
God’s word likens the people of God’s family to the sheep of the field. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah compare the wandering nature of humanity to the blind wandering of livestock. God’s people are called dumb, irresponsible, and especially stiff-necked. I wonder if working with the livestock over these last months in preparation for the show this week endeared such language to our people. It turns out that being called a sheep of God’s field might not be the highest compliment we could be paid.
It is by God’s grace that we are included in his flock, that he tolerates our wandering and our rebellion from his way as the Shepherd. Even now we have a tendency to think too highly of ourselves in our civilization, our education, or our finances. Let’s remember that in God’s eyes we are the wandering, oblivious critters of his field included in his Kingdom through the blood of Jesus Christ that even in our sheep-ness we might have redemption and life.
We’ve launched a new website this year at You can find out a lot about our church there; take a moment to look around the site and get acquainted with our ministires!
You should join us this Sunday for Sunday School at 10:00am. We’ve got classes for every age and interest where you and your family can share in the gentle grazing of God’s flock on his Word. After that, stay and worship with us at 11:00am when we come together, young and old, to sing praises to our Lord and hear his Word proclaimed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rustler Article for 1.13.11

Last Sunday we had one of the most memorable worship services in the last 6 years. In the midst of the rain and generally nasty weather we had last weekend, the power went out just as we were releasing Sunday School classes to go to worship, so we had worship in the dark! I’m not sure that the sermon was anything life changing, but I bet people will remember singing hymns by only the sunlight that was peeking through our sanctuary windows and the relative silence of worship without the hum of a heater or florescent bulbs.
Not lost in the uniqueness of that service was a celebration of Christ’s baptism. We remembered the power of Jesus’ dip into the Jordan and the ratification of his identity and ministry by the Father’s voice and the Spirit’s presence. This week we will remember the Lord’s Supper in a similar way. There is powerful communion to be had in the sharing of the bread and cup together as a church family in remembrance of our Lord.
I think it’s important to cut away the build-up of church life every so often and return to the bedrock commitments that we make as believers to the Lord. We are baptized into his name, family, and body through confession of our sin and faith in his atonement; we are brought into acute fellowship with our Lord through taking the bread and cup. These two acts are reference points and reminders in our journey of faith. Baptism is both the culmination of a life seeking God and the beginning of a new life having found him. The Supper is a special communion with our Lord in his Spirit and with one another who have professed him. We need to share in these events and worship God through them in our obedience to his commands.
Join us this Sunday for Sunday School at 10:00am and worship at 11:00am. We’d love to see you and worship alongside you in this new year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Rustler Article for 1.6.11

So how are your resolutions going? I hope you’re committed and doing well, but I’d remind everyone about the New Year’s Resolution I encouraged you to make: you need a church home. In our society’s current state I can think of no more important commitment than to locate your family securely in a church where you can hear Truth proclaimed and find an opportunity to cut through the noise of life to find some clarity.
This semester we have several new offerings for our community. On Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 7:30 we’ll be hosting Heart of Texas Zumba in our fellowship hall. Lesley Ratcliff will be teaching a new Sunday School class called “Parenting in the Pew,” a study on introducing your children to worship and faith. Our children’s and youth activities will resume next Wednesday night at 7:00, and we’ll resume our family meals that night, as well. You’re always welcome at our worship services (Sundays, 11:00am), our Sunday School classes (Sundays, 10:00am), and our Bible studies (Sunday evenings at 6:00 and Wednesday evenings at 7:00)!
I pray you’ll commit to the worship and service of the Lord this year. Our time, families, and community is too precious to place anything higher than faithfulness to the Lord. We’ll see you Sunday.

Rustler Article for 12.30.10

We’ve come to that wonderful time of year when people make promises to themselves that usually lead to frustration and disappointment in February. Whatever your resolutions this year, let me be clear about one for all of us.

You and your family need a church home.

We’ll spend outrageous amounts of money on gym memberships, treadmills and diet plans this year in the hopes that this will be the year that we reach that weight goal, or stop smoking, or get our lives on track. We’ll start with a bang and many of us (if you’re like me) will fizzle by Easter. What I thing we need to understand is that our satisfaction with our bodies, our doctor’s satisfaction with our blood pressure, and our general well-being are results rather than goals.
Paul lists among the Fruit of the Spirit joy, peace, faithfulness, and self-control. They are the results of the Spirit’s presence in the believer. Our trouble is that we work and work for satisfaction with ourselves and better discipline in our hearts when we should seek first the leadership and fruit of the Holy Spirit. If we as a community will get our hearts right and make faithfulness to God’s leadership our first resolution, then the results of our work will be lasting and truly transformative.
The first step in this proper resolution is to plant your family firmly within a body of believers for worship, study, and service. Make that your first commitment this year. Let’s make Christ our first resolution and watch how the real Fruit of our labors come in time.

Rustler Article for 12.23.10

I was held hostage in a waiting room this week while waiting for my car to be serviced. To help pass the time I picked up a copy of the Waco Tribune Herald and found a most curious and comical mistake in it: the front page of the sports section contained a story about how the Baylor men’s basketball team had “demolished” their opponent. This wasn’t particularly curious or comical. What caused the waiting-room chuckle was that the article was written in Latin.
It is clear that someone in the editorial process had neglected to proof that article. While I do not envy the grief that the editor will no doubt receive, the presence of such a glaring editorial error is exactly appropriate for the Christmas weekend.
The Incarnation of our Savior is a lot like the presence of a Latin article in an American newspaper. We can read and read and read for years, our eyes growing accustomed to the words on the page and our fingers used to the newsprint and black smudges. But then something unexpected happens; the words are in a different language, the sentences, while grammatically correct, are illegible in our minds. Suddenly the article is special, a mystery, an unknown thing in a sea of what we’ve grown accustomed to.
Such is the Christmas story. In the midst of our monotony and common humanity, something special and unexpected comes that makes us sit up and take notice. The Incarnation is a mystery right in front of our eyes. We know there is great meaning to the birth of Christ, but we cannot for the life of us figure out how God can be made flesh and dwell among us. There he lies: majesty and glory in the body of a little boy. How can we do anything but gawk at the stare?
The difference between Christ as curiosity and Christ is Savior is whether or not we are willing to move past the curiosity that is his birth and develop a relationship with him. This crucial choice determines whether or not we see the birth of Jesus Christ as a curiosity in the mundane passing of human history, or whether we accept him as the Savior who makes the rest of life come alive.