Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Unexpected Blessing on Christmas Eve

I did not expect to receive a blessing. After all, I had waited until Christmas Eve to shop. No, I was not guilty of procrastination, I simply had not decided that I was going to buy that one, extra "special" gift. Once I decided, it was off to the store....on Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, I do not live in a huge town, so the store was busy, but not packed like they are in some places on Christmas Eve. People moved in and around each other, bumping into each other occasionally, but no one was rude. Everyone, it seemed, had decided to express Christmas cheer.

I stood behind the jewelry counter, waiting for the sales associate to complete my transaction. There was something wrong, she said. She could not quite make out the account number and would need to call it in. So, there I stood....waiting....and watching. People. That is what I do when I am out and about, I am a "people watcher" from way back. Something of an expert at it.

There was the young guy in the camo hat with his buddy looking for something for his girlfriend. His friend asked about her birthstone, but he confessed he had "done that last year." He was experiencing the frustration of an inexperienced suitor. He had a girl, but did not know her well enough to know what she really wanted. He was guessing at what she might like. He was in trouble and he knew it.

Then there was the group of three young women, sisters I suspect, who were looking for a gift for their mother. They were in a great mood and could not wait to see their mothers face when they presented her with their gift. These young women seemed to understand the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive. They were eager to give and they were filled with joy at the prospect of doing so.

Then, I saw him. He was shuffling along behind one of those rolling walkers with a built in seat. The type of walker that serves the dual purpose of assisting people as they walk and providing them a quick place to rest. He was not moving very quickly and I soon saw that he was assisted by a younger woman. Given their relative ages, I guessed she was his daughter. I was right, she was. Then I noticed his hat. It was not the kind of hat that is bought at Lids or a sporting goods store. No, this hat was earned. It read: World War II Veteran.

I watched the man interact with his daughter. And I watched her proudly talk about her dad to the other customers. Not the kind of misplaced pride that is so common in our culture. But, the kind of pride that was earned on the land, sea and air over Europe 70 years ago. She mentioned to a customer that her dad had recently been in the hospital and was now back at the assisted living center. She mentioned that he didn't get out much. After all, she said, he is 90 years old.  but that he had a very special gift to purchase for his great granddaughter. This man who had given so much, wanted to give again.

At that point, my sales associate had solved the mystery of my account and my transaction was complete. But, I was not quite ready to leave. Despite the busyness of the store and the fact I had other errands to run, there was something I needed to do. I walked over to the man and his daughter. They were now surveying the costume jewelry for possible gifts for teenage great granddaughter. "Excuse me," I said, "but can I shake your hand sir?" The gentlemen looked up and me and then to his daughter, uncertain of my intentions. Her daughter looked at me and turned to her father, reassuring him that it was ok. He extended his hand, and I received an unexpected blessing. I shook the hand of a member of the greatest generation.

As we shook hands I said, "Thank you sir. If not for you, my generation would be speaking German right now. Thank you for serving." He got a glisten in his eye and said, "thank you, sir." His daughter shared that her dad had been drafted when he was 18 years old. He had served twenty-two years as a pilot, initially in the Army Air Corps. "That was before there was an Air Force," he said with a smile. He not only had served in World War 2, but had served two tours in Vietnam. I was standing in the presence of a true American hero. And, I was blessed.

It wondered how many Christmases he had missed while putting himself in harm's way for the sake of freedom. How many times had he wished to be in a crowded store buying gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on a battlefield in a foreign land facing enemies who wanted him dead. And, then I thought about our current troops. The men and women who are stationed around the world, doing their duty. And, especially those who are currently assigned to duty in the Middle East. Men and women who were not drafted, but have volunteered to protect and defend the United States. Men and women who would love to be shopping in a busy store on Christmas Eve, but, instead, are ensuring that we can do so in relative peace.

So this year as you gather with family and are giving and exchanging gifts, pause for a moment and thank God for our current, former and retired members of the United States military. They are a gift from God to us. And, if you ever see someone with a World War 2 Veteran hat on, stop, shake their hand and thank them. You just might be the one who receives an unexpected blessing.

Dr. Rob Pochek is the Senior Pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church in WilsonNC.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Fellowship of the Obscure

            As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we will undoubtedly spend time reading the Christmas story in the gospels. If you decide to read the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel, you will encounter a few people who make a brief, but memorable appearance on the world stage. They are part of what I call the fellowship of the obscure. These are individuals about whom we know very little, except for their role in the greatest story ever told. For the vast majority of their lives Zechariah, Elisabeth, Simeon and Anna lived with little to no notoriety or fame. Yet, for one brief moment, these relative unknowns play a critical role in the story of the incarnation.

            And, that makes sense. After all, we are told in 1 Corinthians:
            But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1:27-28)
Read that last part of verse 28 again – he chose the things that are not to nullify they things that are. That is precisely what the fellowship of the obscure refers to – God using those people who are not well known, not famous, not household names, to make tremendous difference for the kingdom.
            Of course, the four members of the fellowship of the obscure that we encounter in the Christmas story were not the first nor were they the last members of that tribe. Indeed, it seems to me that the vast majority of those serving in pastoral ministry today due so as members of the fellowship of the obscure. These individuals experienced a call to ministry, prepared for ministry, and have served in ministry settings with little to no accolades or renown. They have preached sermons, performed weddings and funerals, visited the sick, counseled couples and families, led building projects, developed budgets, managed a staff, and many other tasks without much notoriety or fanfare.

            Consider this, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (www.yearbookofchurches.org) there are over 600,00 clergy serving in the United States. Yet, most of us would be hard pressed to identify one hundred pastors by name. In fact, we may not be able to name one hundred pastors, even if we included television preachers that we do not know personally. Further consider the fact that the median size of a congregation in the United States is 75 (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#sizecong). That means, of the approximately 300,000 congregations in the United States, half of them are smaller than 75 and half are larger. It is clear that the vast majority of those ministering in the United States do so in obscurity.

            Yet, God uses these people to make an eternal difference in the lives of men and women, boys and girls. While our culture prizes fame and notoriety, neither is essential to effectively serving others. What is essential is a willingness to be used by God on His terms. For Zechariah, it was faithfully serving year after year in the shadows of the Temple before his big moment came. And then he faded right back into those shadows. For Simeon and Anna it was faithfully praying – year after year – as they looked forward to the consolation of Israel. When Jesus arrived in the Temple, their prayers and faithful anticipation was made complete. They were integrated into the birth narrative of Jesus and then faded back into the shadows of history.

            I wonder how many others were looking forward to the consolation of Israel whose names we do not know, and will never know. After all, we learn that there were many who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:38). Yet, that is all we know. No names. No other details. And I think the same is true with many in ministry.
            The vast majority of those faithfully serving the church will never write a best selling book. They will never be the featured speaker at a conference. They will never have anyone ask to take a photo with them. No one will ever want them to sign their Bible (a practice I still find quite awkward). They will never preach a sermon on television. They will never be invited to preach on a seminary campus. They will never be known by anyone outside of the circle of people they have been given spiritual responsibility to care for and nurture. And, that is perfectly fine. They are part of the fellowship of the obscure.

Dr. Rob Pochek is the Senior Pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church in WilsonNC.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Three Challenges to Change

Change is inevitable. Equally inevitable is the difficulty that is faced by anyone seeking to effect change. Leading change in the life of a church is no different; it is difficult. The question is why. Why is it so difficult to lead change in a church? After all, if we are all trying to make disciples of those who are far from God, it should follow that we would be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. Even if whatever it takes includes barbequing a few of our most sacred cows. It should, but often it does not.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes once said that a “cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccl 4:12). While it is not likely that the Preacher had leading change in mind, there is an application for leadership that can be made. That application helps us to get a handle on why bringing change in the church can be so challenging. There are three strands that get woven together in the lives of many believers that cause us to be resistant to change in our church world. Those three strands are one’s relationship with Christ, the way in which we worship, and the facility in which we worship. It seems that when these three strands get woven together, they are not easily broken, and they are highly resistant to change.

The first strand is a person’s relationship with Christ. More accurately, it is how one perceives his or her relationship with Christ. Although the Reformation blessed us with the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, for many people, their relationship with Christ is subconsciously tied to something outside of trusting in Christ’s finished work. For example, some people tie their denominational commitment to their relationship with Christ. When I was a teen I recall hearing a pastor’s wife asked, “Are you a Christian first or a Baptist first?” Her response is etched in my memory: “Well, a Baptist, of course.” For her, she had connected something external (her denomination) to her relationship with Christ. If you asked her if she was saved by “faith alone,” she would have said, “yes.” Yet, she could not perceive of being a Christian and not being a Baptist. That is vitally important to remember for those wanting to lead change in churches that have significant denominational loyalty. While each situation will be unique, be alert for the external commitments that are perceived as essential to one’s relationship with Christ.  

The second strand is the way in which a person worships. For years we have heard about the “worship wars” that raged in many churches. The labels could make one’s head spin: traditional worship, modern worship, postmodern worship, emergent worship, contemporary worship, liturgical worship, and on and on it goes. These battles were often reduced to simplistic ideas such as hymns vs. praise songs or, worse, were marked by hurtful generalizations such as “they just don’t understand worship” or “they are trying to destroy our church.” Here again, the issue is that people often tie together the manner in which they worship with their relationship with Christ. Practically that means that when someone (usually a young pastor or worship leader) suggests that we add guitars to the organ and piano, it is heard as an attack on the faith of those who love organ and piano led worship. Of course, this goes both ways. Those who have grown up with more modern worship music can, unfortunately, be quite condescending and dismissive to those who love the old hymns of the faith. If you are leading change in a church, be mindful that making changes to our worship style has implications far beyond the songs that are sung by the congregation.

The third strand is the facility in which a person worships. There are many old jokes about churches that split over the color of carpet or which side of the church the organ should be placed. The sad thing is that they are not jokes. The sentimental connection between our trust in Christ and the physical paraphernalia of worship is often very strong. People can get very protective about the building in which they worship. It really is astounding how often we can connect our faith in Christ to bricks, mortar, sheetrock, and paint. Ooops, I almost forgot the carpet and instruments!

When attempting to lead change in the church, it is vital to keep these three strands in mind. For many people, it is this bundle of three strands that defines their faith. So, when leaders begin to tug at one of these strings, it can feel – to the person being asked to change – that the leader is tugging at the very fabric of their faith. While there are no easy answers or strategies that will fit every situation, it is important for church leaders to be mindful of how these three strands interact. Sometimes simply knowing why people are reacting the way they are helps equip those responding to such criticisms. It is also a good opportunity to reinforce the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and that not of ourselves – or our denomination, or worship style, or facility – but it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9).

Dr. Rob Pochek is the Senior Pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church in Wilson, NC.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christian Civic Engagement

It seems to me that those who claim to be followers of Christ have differing opinions about the right relationship Christ-followers should have toward addressing issues of public concern. Or, to say it more clearly, there is some disagreement among believers about this thing we call politics.
At its heart, politics is the legislative enacting of a worldview. Make no mistake about that. Every political issue, every piece of legislation, every political philosophy is driven by a worldview.Because the political process is about enacting legislation in support of a worldview, Christians must be engaged in the process.

Nearly 40 years ago Francis Schaeffer warned American evangelicals that the winner of the worldview war would determine the kind of government we would submit to. In How Should We Then Live?  (1976) Schaeffer's central premise is that when we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken, that premise provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives and by which we can judge society. He contrasted that Christian worldview with a humanistic worldview. Schaeffer defined humanism as "a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own measure, that man is autonomous, totally independent". Schaeffer argued that when we base society on humanism, all values are relative and we have no way to distinguish right from wrong except for utilitarianism. Essentially, the primary guide for determining right and wrong is determined by that which provides the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.
When a society bases its political and philosophical foundation on humanism, the member of that society disagree on what is best, and that devolves into a value system that is based on Personal Peace (the desire to be personally unaffected by the world's problems) and Affluence (an increasing personal income.) Chillingly, Schaeffer warned that when we live by these values we will be tempted to sacrifice our freedoms in exchange for an authoritarian government who will provide the relative values.

That, my friends, is precisely what we see happening in our culture today. Whether it is euphoria over government sponsored welfare or the systematic limitation of religious liberty through laws that purport to promote civil rights, the only thing that seems to matter in our political culture is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. This is the water in which our culture is swimming. I mention all of this because we need to understand that if we focus on the symptoms, we will lose this battle. If we are going to engage this battle, we have to understand that it is a philosophical and spiritual battle. And, that battle cannot be won apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

 I would like to explore the question: How Should We Then Live when it comes to political and civic engagement? Some say that Christians ought to withdraw from the political process. This view would have us to believe that the church and Christians should have no role in secular government. These believers would say that we should focus our attention on the gospel and not get mixed up in politics. That God will take care of everything and we don’t need to be involved.

 Others cry “separation of church and state” and wish that believers would, in fact, retire to our prayer chambers and leave the work of governing to them. Still others – and these are the saddest of all to me – do not see that our Christian convictions have any bearing on our political views. These are the folks that would like to read and believe the Bible when it speaks of God’s forgiveness and salvation, but are not as comfortable when God defines marriage or calls the sacrificing children on the altar of self murder or calls Israel the people of God and promises blessing to those who will befriend her.

What is the appropriate approach? As I think of the Scripture, the first thing I consider (and the only thing I have time to pursue at the moment) is that Christ followers are aliens and strangers on the earth. That is Peter’s description in 1 Pet 2:11-12; there he says:
            11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Peter does not say, you are aliens and strangers here, so do not engage with the larger culture. No. He says that we can effect change and bring glory to God while living in a culture that has turned its back on God. How? The text says we make a difference by both a negative and a positive exhortation. He says we should:
            1. Abstain from sinful desires.
            2. Live such good lives that our good deeds silence their false accusations.
In doing these things, we bring glory to God.

This advice is not just Peter’s idea, but is a consistent theme of the entire Bible. For example, when the children of Israel were carried into captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to them giving them advice on how to live as captives in a foreign land. He did not incite them to riot or to protest against their captors. He did not suggest they seek to overthrow them by force. No, in Jer 29:4-7 we find this instruction:
                4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

This, I believe, should be the disposition of believers today – make the society you are a part of better because of your presence. Add value to the land of your habitation. Seek the benefit and prosperity of the land in which you are an alien and stranger. And, as the culture is blessed, you too will be blessed.
Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Being marginalized because of our faith is not an option. No, rather, engaging in the process seeking the peace and prosperity of our nation is our only option. As we do, we must recognize that we are in a spiritual and philosophical battle and that, ultimately, victory is not found in ballots or elections, but in the spiritual transformation of a nation through the power of Jesus Christ.