Friday, October 27, 2006

Road Trip and Witness

Last week I took an interesting trip with my mother and younger son, who was on fall break from college. My mother has been a caregiver for my stepfather for quite a while, and she needed a break.

We drove from Memphis to Little Rock last Thursday and met some of her former classmates from Ouachita Baptist University for lunch at the Peabody Hotel. Later we toured the Clinton Presidential Library (which is really a museum).

On Friday we drove to Fort Smith to visit one of her friends that she had not seen in a long time, and then we went to Fayetteville to see the University of Arkansas campus. I’ve been a Razorback fan for a while, but I had never visited the campus. Mother taught Ken Hatfield at Helena Central High School in the early 60s, so she was excited when he became head coach for the Razorbacks. When I was a pastor in Kentucky, Houston Nutt was head coach at Murray State University, and he spent some time with my older son teaching him the quarterback position at a clinic. I was really impressed with Coach Nutt, so I was excited for him when he became head coach for the Razorbacks.

Later on Friday we drove to Eureka Springs—a beautiful, quaint, picturesque place in the Ozarks. I had not been there since I was a boy. We visited some of the shops on Saturday morning, watched the Razorbacks beat Ole Miss on TV in the afternoon, and attended the outdoor Passion Play Saturday night. A cold front had come through during the afternoon, but fortunately we had plenty of warm clothes and blankets.

On Sunday we drove back to Memphis. I arrived back in time to go to church visitation on Sunday afternoon, and I had two good visits. The second visit was interesting. The man had been a caregiver for a long time, and I admired his perseverance. Before I shared the gospel with him, he said that he was basing his salvation on good works. If God asked him why He should let him into His heaven, he said that he would say that he had been a “really good” person. I then explained the gospel. I clearly told him that we are not saved by good works, quoting Ephesians 2:8-9. After I explained the plan of salvation, he said, “I’ve already done that.”

Since arriving back from South Korea about a year ago, I have been able to lead many more African-Americans than Caucasians to Christ. I shared the gospel with an African-American woman a couple of weeks ago at the University of Memphis, and it was quite easy to lead her to Christ. The African-Americans in Memphis seem to be much more responsive to the gospel at the present time than are Caucasians. I’m not sure what the reasons for that are. The Southern Baptist churches here have been suffering loss for the past couple of decades. The average Sunday School attendance for churches in the local association was about 33,000 in 1980. The latest stats I could find (2003) showed that the average attendance had declined to 27,000. I don’t think there is any easy, simple solution to this problem of decline.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Characteristics of Mature and Immature Christians

During the years when our two sons were physically growing up, we occasionally asked them to stand next to a wall, and we put a mark on the wall to indicate their height. As they grew older, we could see the change in their height quite easily. It is important to see progress in spiritual growth as well as physical growth.

New Christians, no matter what their chronological age, are spiritual children. Tragically, some remain in this stage for much too long a time. The Bible describes some characteristics of spiritual children.

First, according to Ephesians 4:14-15, spiritual children are easily deceived by false teachers and are in need of spiritual growth:

"As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ." (NASB)

Second, according to 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, spiritual children sometimes behave like non-Christians and have relationship problems with other people:

"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?"

Third, according to Hebrews 5:12-13, spiritual children are not skilled in the “word of righteousness”:

"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe."

The Bible also describes some characteristics of mature Christians.

First, mature Christians should be teachers (Hebrews 5:12): We have already seen in the verse above that mature Christians should be teachers by a certain time. Mature Christians may not have an official teaching position, but they should at least be unofficial teachers (mentors) who help less mature Christians grow spiritually.

Second, mature Christians are also skilled in the word of righteousness and can discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:13-14): “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” The word “mature” in the verse is a translation of the Greek word téleios. The Greek word can also be translated as “complete” or “perfect.”

It is quite obvious that God wants all Christians to grow spiritually. Jesus gave the command to be perfect (téleios in Greek) as the “heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He was not referring to sinless perfection when He used the word “perfect.” Christians cannot reach the state of sinless perfection while they are physically alive on earth. Rather, Jesus was commanding them to be complete and mature in moral character. The apostle Paul used the same word in Colossians 1:28 when he said, “And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.” James also used this word when he said that endurance produced by the testing of a Christian’s faith produces a “perfect” (mature) Christian (James 1:4). Obviously, such testing of one’s faith takes time, but some Christians grow much faster than do other Christians over the same period of time. The Christians who grow fastest are those who take full advantage of the God-given means of spiritual growth.

Friday, October 13, 2006

My Interview With the Semi-Goths

A few days ago my wife and I made a trip to a mall near us. That is hardly newsworthy, but I had not been to a mall for several months, and I was surprised to see so many teenagers wearing black clothing (including black gloves). Having been a youth minister in the 80s, I quickly realized that I had fallen behind in my understanding of youth culture. My interest was piqued, and I decided yesterday to go back to the mall with a tape recorder to do an interview with any teenagers I found dressed in Gothic clothing. I quickly found five in the food court, and they graciously accepted my request for an interview. I will share some interesting excerpts with you. One of them, a high school senior, was the main spokesman for the group. He said that he was not a full-fledged Goth, and he seemed to like the term I coined (Semi-Goth), so I will refer to him as SG1. I was pleased with SG1’s answer to my questions about Christianity, and I believe he is a Christian. Another person in the group (SG2) also made some comments, and from his comments I assume that he is not a Christian. The other three teenagers were largely silent onlookers, so I will not refer to them except to one comment from SG3. Some excerpts follow:

BT: What does Goth culture mean to you?

SG1: It’s a style of clothes and music to me. . . . I’m not Goth. It’s very rarely that you’ll actually see a Gothic person, like especially around in a mall. They typically keep to themselves.

BT: Some people dress kind of Gothic, but they’re not really Gothic?

SG1: The stereotype that is placed on Goths, like the chains and things like that—typically it’s a generalization of other things that are actually far from Goth.

BT: There have been a lot of stereotypes like Columbine violence and that kind of stuff.

SG1: I wouldn’t necessarily link the Columbine stuff to Gothic behavior, though there are a lot of similarities.

BT: Would you say that most Goths who are really Goths are non-violent people?

SG1: That just depends on the person’s individual nature. . . .

BT: Can you make a generalization about how Goths deal with depression, pain, and anger? Do they do it differently than other people? If any of the rest of you have insights, you can share those too.

SG1: Again I would have to say that it depends on the person. . . . The sound of music gives us an impression.

BT: Are there certain groups that are preferred?

SG1: Again it depends on the tastes. . . . Personally, I’m into just about everything. I’ll listen to anything from Cradle of Filth to Red Hot Chili Peppers. . . .

BT: Would you say that among real Gothic people there’s a fascination with death, or is that just a stereotype?

SG2: That’s just a stereotype. . . .

BT: I’ve seen a little bit of the movie “The Crow.” Is that a favorite movie among Gothic people?

SG1: That’s one of my favorites. I guess that would be fair to say.

BT: Do a lot of Gothic people or semi-Gothic people like to do chat rooms that are related to Goth like “,” something like that?

SG1: Everyone sort of grips their individual culture. I guess the preps hang out with their friends, and everyone’s got their clique to deal with.

BT: Like “”—a lot of different kinds of people use that.

SG1: That’s a very general web site. I think that “myspace” is not a bad thing. I think that too much of really anything can be bad. It’s like too much medicine can do the body harm.

BT: You get obsessed.

SG1: Exactly. That’s where the real problem lies—obsession.

BT: My impression so far is that in terms of religion with Gothic people and people that are kind of semi-Gothic there’s no real preference. I mean some Goths are Christian; some are other things. Is that your impression?

SG2: Some just don’t care. It’s just something that they don’t have to worry about because no religion is doing anything for them because they have no proof of anything, so they just follow their life and have fun with it while they’ve got it.

SG1: That’s something that I would actually disagree with. . . . I guess a lot of them would be traditionalists. Some people have a traditionalist mindset, and some of the Gothic style . . . would be more back into past times. You see people wearing frock coats—things like that. . . . Like a Renaissance coat, that style—that’s what I mean when I say traditionalist. . . .

BT: You said earlier there’s no real obsession with death or anything like that. I guess most Goth people are younger. Do they have traditional outlooks on the afterlife, like, if I were to ask, have you come to the point in your life where you know for certain that if you died you’d go to heaven, what do you think most Goth people would say to that? Would they have the same concept of heaven, a traditional concept, or would it be kind of a different afterlife concept?

SG2: It’s according to how the person grew up. . . .

SG1: I think it’s necessary for everyone to draw their own beliefs. . . . Personally, I believe that there is a heaven and a hell, and I’m certain that I will go to heaven. I’m a non-denominational Christian myself. . . . There is a stereotype that I’ve heard—that a lot of Gothics are Satanists.

BT: That’s a stereotype because of the black color and stuff like that.

SG1: Satanism isn’t actually a worship of Satan. It’s basically be a good person and carnal pleasures. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Satanism is.

BT: So, like if you grew up in a traditional setting, and you said a lot of Goths do that and they believe they’re going to heaven. What do they base that belief that they’re going to heaven on? Is it because they’re good people, or because they’ve gone to church, or what do they base that on?

SG2: It’s according to the person.

BT: So, if they grew up as Buddhists, to enter Nirvana they’d say it was basically by good works. If they’re a Christian, they’d say it’s not by works. You can’t earn it or deserve it. It’s a free gift because Jesus died on the cross for them and rose from the dead and paid for their sins and they receive that through faith, through surrendering their lives to Him. Are most Goths kind of one or another, Buddhist or Christian or something else or nothing at all?

SG1: It comes in perspective. It’s like any other stereotype you can see.

BT: Have all five of you kind of made up your minds about your own religion or are you kind of still making up your mind about what you believe?

SG1: I’d say in the past few years I’ve sort of hopped around different religions and denominations and the Christian church and things, mostly to look at things and decide for myself what I believe, and I think that I’ve decided. There’s not much more to develop.

BT: In the Christian direction?

SG1: That’s definitely to me the most logical thing—the Christian faith.

BT: Not all people who go to church agree on the way of salvation, so if you died, and you were standing before God, and He said, why should I let you into heaven, what would you say?

SG1: I would say that I’m not actually worthy of being let into heaven. What I actually believe is that no one is actually worthy of being let into heaven, and you’re actually let in by the mercy of God.

BT: Okay. How do you receive that mercy, some people instead of others?

SG1: I think it’s through faith. That’s what I believe.

BT: Do the rest of you agree with that, or do you have a different way of looking at it?

SG3: It just depends on the people living in your life.

BT: Okay. When you say faith, do you mean like just intellectual assent—just saying, yes, I agree with that, or do you mean like there’s a surrender and a trust?

SG1: It’s hard to explain. I don’t want to sound like a Bible thumper, but I’ve tried to witness to people, and now that I look at it, I don’t really go around and try to share the Word of God as much anymore because I believe that it’s something that you should find out for yourself.

BT: Usually it has to work through relationships, doesn’t it? I mean it’s hard for a stranger, if you’re a stranger to somebody else, it’s hard to kind of broach that subject. It’s kind of touchy. Do the rest of you feel pretty sure? Do you agree with him? Do you feel that you’d like to receive Christ and you just don’t know how? How do the rest of you feel?

SG2: I believe in all religions. None of them have been proven wrong. None of them have been proven right. . . .

BT: Okay. Do you feel like you’d like to receive Christianity rather than one of the others, or do you just kind of want them all at once?

SG2: I don’t know. I’ve gone through agnostic. I’ve studied the Bible for Satanism. I don’t like for people to think it’s a worship of Satan. Like he said earlier, that’s not what it is. I’ve tried the Pagan Wiccan thing and the Christian thing. For all we know it could be real; for all we know it couldn’t.

BT: Are you looking for proof?

SG2: Well, there is no real proof that we can really say, we’ve got the Bible and it says the word, and that’s what it is; it’s faith. You have to believe in it. And some things are just more of a self-believing thing. . . . I’ve dipped and dabbed into all kinds of religions. I’ve gone this way, that way. I’ve done things I shouldn’t. That’s one thing a higher power did—He gave us a choice of right and wrong.

BT: Right. Free will.

SG2: There’s one thing I don’t like about people who say they’re Christians. They believe in Jesus and God, but they sit there and they say Satan’s not real when in the Bible it says that he is real, and they deny his reality.

BT: How can they say they believe in the Bible if they don’t agree with that? That’s pretty basic. I agree.

SG1: One of the things I’ve asked myself in the past is what would it be like if Lucifer actually won the battle.

BT: But if the Bible’s correct, he won’t win.

SG1: Correct.

BT: If somebody showed you some historical evidence that showed that non-Christian historians talked about Jesus dying on the cross and that His disciples saw that and that they were willing to die for what they believed was true, would that help you believe in the Christian way of thinking?

SG2: Well, what I’ve heard is that Jesus is a real man and He really did die on the cross, and whether He was the Son of God or not, He had a strange type of power. I agree with the fact that He was a real man—the same as that scientists have proven that the world was at one point completely flooded. They’ve had that proven too. . . .

BT: I enjoyed talking to yall, and you’ve helped me get some information.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ice Cream and Videotapes

When my two sons were very young, my wife and I introduced them to chocolate ice cream. I suspected that they would like it the first time they tasted it, but I did not know for sure because I could not see into the future. My boys immediately liked it, and now they prefer it to every other flavor. Fortunately, chocolate ice cream was plentiful in South Korea during our years as missionaries there. (The boys are both university students in America these days.)

I have learned from my experience that when choosing ice cream at the grocery store, I should buy only chocolate ice cream. It is the one flavor that everyone in the family likes. I have also learned that under the right circumstances my two sons will always choose to eat chocolate ice cream when it is offered to them. They trust me to give them food that is not poisoned. If I wait until they are hungry, and if they are not sick, they will eat chocolate ice cream if I present it to them in clean bowls or in the form of a milk shake in a clean glass.

When I put the milk shakes or bowls of ice cream in front of my sons in those circumstances, I have in a sense predestined them to eat that ice cream, but I have not violated their free choice by doing so. They exercise their free choice, and they could choose to reject the ice cream and eat something else; but I know with great probability (but not absolute certainty) that they will choose to eat the ice cream because it has been their favorite food since they first tasted it.

There is only one way the average parent can watch his or her child make a free choice and know in advance with absolute certainty what that choice will be. If the parent has already videotaped the choice being made, then the parent can watch the choice being made again on videotape while already knowing the outcome. That is the only way for humans to have perfect “foreknowledge” of an event—the event must be in the past, and the person with knowledge of the past event is watching a replay of the event. You may wish that you could see videocassettes showing all future events before they actually occur, but only God has complete foreknowledge.

My imperfect but accurate assessment of what my sons will do with the ice cream is based on past experience. When the boys first tasted chocolate ice cream I assumed they would like it, but there was a possibility that they would not. They could have spit it out after tasting it for the first time.

There is only one way I could have known in advance that my sons would like the chocolate ice cream the first time they tasted it. God could have miraculously sent me a videocassette showing the actual event before it happened. With such foreknowledge I would truly be predestining them to swallow the ice cream when I set it in front of them for the first time, but I would not be forcing it on them. They would still be making a type of free choice.

If God, utilizing His counterfactual knowledge, had sent me a videocassette of an imagined, non-actual future event that showed my sons spitting out the ice cream when they tasted it for the first time under imagined circumstances, then I might not want to waste the money, time, and effort involved in giving them that first opportunity to taste chocolate ice cream under those particular circumstances. I might not want to force or manipulate them to taste it if I knew they would not like it. Another option, however, would be to ask God if there were any circumstances under which my sons would like the ice cream.

Suppose, for instance, that He sent me another videocassette that showed my sons not liking the ice cream at first but eventually liking it after it had been in their mouth for a while. In that case I would want to go to the trouble to prepare the ice cream and keep my hand over their mouth so they could not spit it out immediately.

Earlier in my life, I had acquired a taste for good coffee, but I must admit that I was not excited about it the first time I tried it. During our family’s first furlough in America I decided that our two sons were old enough to try it for the first time. So I took them to an expensive coffee shop inside a bookstore. I probably made a mistake by not putting sugar and cream in their first cups as neither of them liked the first sip. My younger son was willing to continue trying coffee and gradually developed a taste for it, but my older son has not yet developed a taste for it.

The analogy should be clear. Some elect people are ready to commit their lives to Jesus without experiencing many preparation events. An example of this type of person would be a teenager with loving Christian parents who have nurtured him in an environment largely devoid of hypocrisy. Other elect people, however, have issues that must be dealt with over a longer period of time. Many preparation events may be necessary before they are ready to taste Jesus, and while they taste Him they may procrastinate before they commit their lives to Him by swallowing Him. God knows exactly how much time and how many preparation events will be necessary for those elect tasters who will decide to swallow the living bread (John 6:51). He also knows that non-elect people will refuse to swallow Jesus under any circumstances. God is a loving God, and He will provide an opportunity for conversion to all those that He knows would indeed surrender their lives to Christ in repentance and faith.