A Prayer for Our Nation

May 3 is the National Day of Prayer. This is a moment for us to stop and ask for God’s guidance for those who lead our nation. This is not a time to hash out political disagreements; rather, it is an opportunity to unite around the biblical admonition to pray for those in leadership over us. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we read, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”

The theme of this year’s National Day of Prayer is “Unity.” There is no doubt that we live in a nation that is divided. We are divided over politics, race, economics, etc. We often look to our leaders to solve these problems, but they persist. As an encouragement, here are a few ways we can pray for our leaders as they face the challenges of governing this diverse nation.

  1. Pray for their hearts. Most of us probably do not know the spiritual status of our government officials. There are certainly outspoken Christians in office, but there are also those who do not know God. It will do us good to move our focus away from political disagreements and unite in praying for the hearts of our leaders. In Psalm 2:10-11 we read, “Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” We see this warning from the psalmist that kings and judges should worship the Lord. We need to pray that God would draw the hearts of our government officials to himself, and that their lives would be an expression of worship.
  2. Give thanks to God for our government officials. It is often hard to give thanks for people with whom we disagree. As noted above, Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Specifically, he tells us to give thanksgiving for those who rule over us. They have been placed in offices of authority, and God has ordained government authority (Romans 13:1). As we give thanks to God for our leaders, we should also live as good citizens. The result of this combination is that we would be able to lead peaceful lives.
  3. Pray for peace and welfare. There is no doubt that their days in exile were the lowest point for the people of Judah. In the midst of that exile, Jeremiah sent the exiles a letter with an interesting statement from the Lord. He wrote, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). The Lord instructed the exiles to seek the welfare of the land of their exile because it would result in their own welfare. We should also pray for the welfare of our nation under the leadership of our government officials because it will result in our own welfare.

These points of prayer are not a magic formula to bring about unity to a divided nation, but they will refocus our own hearts to recognize the part we can play in bringing unity to the nation in which we live. True unity can only be found in Christ; therefore, it is also imperative for us to proclaim the truth of the gospel to a lost and dying world.

Would you join me in praying for our nation, particularly our government officials, on this National Day of Prayer?

Dear Father, I come to you today, on the National Day of Prayer in my country, to pray for our leaders as you have instructed us. First, I pray for a submissive spirit on my own part to those you have placed in authority. May I be a good citizen of my country who submits to the ordinances of government in keeping with the ordinances of God. May I honor those to whom honor is due. Second, I pray for the hearts of our government officials. I do not know their spiritual condition, but I ask you to draw them to yourself. For those who do not know you personally, I pray for their salvation and that they would worship you in spirit and in truth. Third, I give you thanks for the leaders of our country, states, and cities. You have granted authority to our government, and these are the leaders you have ordained for this time. Finally, may their leadership result in the peace and welfare of our nation so that we may also find welfare and live tranquilly in godliness and dignity. Lord, thank you for hearing my prayer, and help me to bring these leaders before you in prayer regularly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Challenging the Culture of Death: Gerber’s 2018 Spokesbaby

For nearly a decade Gerber has conducted an annual search for their Gerber baby. This fresh face every year complements the iconic Gerber baby logo that adorns their product lines. This past Wednesday on the “Today Show” Gerber announced that Lucas Warren, a 1-year-old boy from Dalton, Georgia is the 2018 Gerber baby, and he has Down syndrome. This is the first time in the contest’s history that a child with Down syndrome was selected to represent the company.

Bill Partyka, President and CEO of Gerber, stated, “Lucas’ winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts this year, and we are all thrilled to name him our 2018 Spokesbaby. Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber’s longstanding heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby, and this year, Lucas is the perfect fit.” As the winner of the contest, Lucas’ family receives $50,000 and he will be front and center on the company’s social media platforms.

What makes this announcement so interesting is the fact that Down syndrome births have been steadily decreasing through the years. This is not due to the fact that medical technology has found a cure for Down syndrome. Instead, a higher percentage of children diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are being aborted. CBS News reports that the estimated abortion rate of Down syndrome children in the United States is 67%. In France the rate is 77%, 98% in Denmark, and Iceland is almost 100%.

The situation in Iceland is particularly disturbing. Even though the population in that country is small compared the United States, they have effectively eliminated the birth of Down syndrome babies through prenatal testing. Kari Stefansson, the founder of the company that has studied the Icelandic population is not comfortable with the results. CBS News further reports:

Geneticist Kari Stefansson is the founder of deCODE Genetics, a company that has studied nearly the entire Icelandic population’s genomes. He has a unique perspective on the advancement of medical technology. “My understanding is that we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society—that there is hardly ever a child with Down syndrome in Iceland anymore,” he said.

Quijano asked Stefansson, “What does the 100 percent termination rate, you think, reflect about Icelandic society?”

“It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling,” he said. “And I don’t think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. . . . You’re having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way.”

Stefansson noted, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to have healthy children, but how far we should go in seeking those goals is a fairly complicated decision.”

The situation in Iceland (and other parts of the world) reflects the reality that society does not value life, especially when that life appears to depart from ordinary expectations. While children with Down syndrome and other genetic abnormalities may face some difficult medical and developmental challenges, they are still people made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” All human beings bear inherent worth before God because they are made in his image; therefore, they also deserve the right to live as image bearers in the world God has created. Aborting a child with Down syndrome denies this inherent value.

Gerber should be commended for naming Lucas as their 2018 spokesbaby. They are pushing back against the culture of death in society. Lucas’ mother, Cortney Warren, states, “This is such a proud moment for us as parents knowing that Lucas has a platform to spread joy, not only to those he interacts with every day, but to people all over the country. We hope this opportunity sheds light on the special needs community and educates people that with acceptance and support, individuals with special needs have the potential to change the world—just like our Lucas!” May we come alongside them and affirm that all humans are valuable, and every child deserves the right to life.

 

To Save or Not to Save?

chicklet-currencyDue to my role as the Eklund Chair of Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, students regularly ask me about financial stewardship. Some of the basic advice I always give relates to budgeting, paying off debt, and saving. I am happy to report that many students take my advice and begin the journey of taking control of their finances. This is not just an economic issue, but I believe it is a spiritual one as well.

Unfortunately, the culture often teaches the opposite of what I try to pass along to my students, particularly at a time when many people believe the economy is surging ahead with no end in sight.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the rate of savings among Americans has dropped to a 12-year low. The article states, “Soaring stock prices and improving job prospects have set Americans off on a spending splurge that is cutting into how much they sock away for retirement and rainy days.” As net worth has risen over the last decade, people are spending more of their lifetime savings. This could mean drawing money out of retirement accounts or tapping into their home equity to make purchases.

The net result is that savings has decreased. The WSJ article continues, “The saving rate was 2.4% of disposable household income in December [2017], the Commerce Department said Monday. That was the lowest rate since September 2005, not long after then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan began warning about froth in housing markets. The saving rate had risen to 6.6% when the recession ended in June 2009.”

In my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class last week, we focused on a number of passages from Proverbs that speak about how a wise person should view money. Proverbs 6:6-11 gives us a lesson from the world of insects related to the topic of saving for the future. These verses read:

Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
“A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest”—
Your poverty will come in like a vagabond
And your need like an armed man.

The ant recognizes the need to save for the future when the present is bountiful. We are in a historic time of increase in the stock market, and for many the economic boom holds great promise for the future. However, we have seen booms before and they are typically followed by busts. The question for us is whether we are storing up like the ant or sleeping away these bountiful days like the sluggard. Notice that the sluggard does not see his poverty coming. It hits him like an armed man seeking to steal all he has.

At the same time, we must be careful not to put our trust in the financial resources we may amass during our lives. Jesus tells a parable about a rich fool who trusted his riches rather than the Lord (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus says:

The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

There is a balance to be struck between preparation and abundance. The sluggard of Proverbs 6 did not prepare for the future, but the rich fool of Luke 12 trusted in the abundance of his riches. We must pursue wisdom in discovering where the balance is between these two examples. Both refusing to save for the future storing up treasures on earth are foolish. I pray we pursue contentment between these two extremes.

_________________________

Harriet Torry, “With Stocks Surging, Americans Are Saving at 12-Year Low,” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2018.

Preparing for a Financial Emergency

chicklet-currencyToday is the first day of classes for the spring semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is my twenty-third convocation and the start of my twelfth year at SWBTS. For the last few years I have taught Family and Church Financial Stewardship each spring semester. This class has quickly become one of my favorites because I get to see the lives of my students impacted almost every week. This is not my typical seminary class. There is no research paper. I use a number of guest speakers. The newspaper is one of my textbooks. However, it is probably the most practical course I teach.

One of the assignments I require for Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a quick review of a couple news articles each week that address financial issues. This requires my students to stay up to date on the news beyond yesterday’s basketball scores or any recent developments at the White House. I want them to be aware of the financial side of the news. We even talk about some of these articles on a regular basis.

In order to practice what I preach, I just came across an article from CNN Money this morning that states most Americans would be unable to cover an emergency expense of $1,000. Kathryn Vasel reports, “Only 39% of Americans say they would be able to pay for a $1,000 unplanned expense, according to new report from Bankrate.”

The article goes on to report how often American households have these emergency expenses. Vasel writes, “Unexpected bills aren’t uncommon. More than one-third of households had a major unplanned expense last year, the survey showed, with half of those costing at least $2,500.” Unfortunately, the typical American household is unprepared for such an expense and places it on the credit card. Such an approach only complicates matters because high interest rates on credit cards mean you pay even more for this unexpected expense.

The article suggests a few practical tips for building your savings in order to cover an emergency expense.

  1. Set aside money to save before you start spending your paycheck.
  2. Start the habit of saving early in life.
  3. Separate your emergency fund from the money you spend in your checking account.
  4. Find a good savings account.

Seminary students are not immune to these same problems.We joke around the seminary that students are as poor as Job’s turkey (I’m not sure how poor Job’s trukey was, but after the events of Job 1-2, it must have been rough). I surmise that the figure is actually worse among seminary students regarding their ability to cover a $1,000 expense in an emergency. And then students begin a cycle of debt that can cripple their future ministries.

My goal in the stewardship class is to give students hope for their financial future and tools to help them be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to them. This is not a class about getting rich. It is a class about serving God with our financial resources. God owns it all anyway, so we are simply managers of his resources.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
Psalm 24:1

Family and Church Financial Stewardship

Stewardship Class PromoEven though I have spent most of my academic career teaching courses on ethics, one of my favorite courses that I teach is actually in the realm of stewardship. STWLD 3603: Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a fun class to teach because I get to see my students implement the concepts they are learning on a weekly basis.

As you can tell by the title, the course covers two major areas of financial stewardship–the family and the church. In the first half of the class, we consider what the Bible says about financial stewardship and how to apply those truths to our lives. We also handle some of the unique components of financial management for ministers including housing allowance and ministerial taxes.

The most practical assignment for this section of the class is the family budget analysis. Students are required to track every expense for two months, categorize those expenses, and then analyze their expenses. This is the first step to building a workable budget. Many of my students have never tracked and analyzed their expenses, so this is the first time they get a clear picture of how they use their money. Students are regularly surprised by what they find and begin making changes immediately.

When we transition to the part of the class on church financial stewardship, the focus is on how to build a church budget and how to protect the church’s money. New seminary graduates often do not have the luxury of going to churches with multiple staff members where someone takes care of the finances. In most cases, the new pastor also has responsibility of managing the budget with the assistance of a volunteer committee. For that reason, it is imperative that they learn how to budget for the church.

In addition, protecting the church’s money is also a crucial element. I once heard a friend of mine who is a church administrator say, “If you serve at a church that collects money, someone is trying to steal it.” The longer I have been around churches, the more I realize he is correct. Whether it is someone taking coins out of the soda machine or a staff member embezzling millions of dollars, the reality is that our churches’ money is vulnerable. Therefore, we need policies in place to help protect money and promote integrity in the handling of money.

As you can see, this class covers a wide range of topics related to financial stewardship. My students are also thankful that they do not have to listen to just me for the semester. This semester’s guests include John Cortines, co-author of God and Money (one of our textbooks), Stephen Osborne, senior relationship manager at Guidestone Financial Resources, and David Hain, executive pastor at Birchman Baptist Church.

I encourage as many students as possible at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to take this class. The class is offered on Tuesday/Thursday at 1:00-2:15 this semester. I also just received approval to offer it in our flexible access format so that students can take it without being on campus. If you are interested in the class, please contact the Registrar’s Office.

Cakes and Conscience

300px-supreme_court_front_dusk*This post originally appeared on the Land Center blog at https://thelandcenter.org/cakes-and-conscience/.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on December 5 in the highest profile case of this term. Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is an important First Amendment case with significant implications for both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Jack Phillips is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in the Denver area. In 2012 Phillips was asked to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins to celebrate their same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips refused to bake the cake, and he was subsequently found in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination statute. Amy Howe reports, “The Colorado agencies responsible for enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws ruled that Phillips’ refusal to provide the custom cake violated those laws and that he had ‘no free speech right’ to turn down Craig and Mullins’ request. They told Phillips that, if he decided to create cakes for opposite-sex weddings, he would also have to create them for same-sex weddings.”[1]

Based on his convictions as a Christian, Phillips believes that only a man and a woman can enter into marriage. Therefore, he refuses to design wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies. Phillips also refuses to design cakes to celebrate Halloween, divorce, or any message he considers to be lewd.

What is at stake in this case? There are a few points of particular interest to free speech and conscience protections involved in this case.

First, can the government compel speech? When we think of free speech, we generally think about the prohibition against government restricting speech. In this case, Jack Phillips wants to restrict his own artistic expression, which he argues is a form of speech, but the state of Colorado is attempting to compel him to make artistic expression that violates his conscience. Compulsion of speech is a direct violation of the First Amendment. The question is whether artistic expression through custom-designed wedding cakes is protected speech.

Second, does religious freedom extend beyond the walls of a place of worship? Phillips argues that he has the right to express his religious convictions through the bakery that he owns. He closes the store on Sundays, and he refuses to bake items celebrating various activities that violate his religious convictions. There has been a trend in recent years to see religious freedom only in the context of formal worship; however, religious freedom has not always been interpreted in such a way. Phillips claims that his religious freedom extends beyond the church and into the public square where he operates his business. The decision in this case has the potential to set a significant precedent for how freedom of religion and freedom of conscience will be applied for generations.

Third, does protection against “dignitary harm” supersede other constitutional rights? In his amicus brief for this case, Sherif Girgis defines dignitary harm as “the harm of being told (even by polite refusals) that decisions central to your identity are wrong.”[2] Andrew Walker notes, “The rise of ‘dignitary harm’ arguments aims to achieve desired legal outcomes on the basis of a perceived slight or personal offense.”[3] In essence, dignitary harm arguments are built on the idea that a person has the right not to be offended. If one is offended he can then sue the person who offended him. The responsibility is then upon the prospective offender not to offend even though there is no way for him to know for certain whether or not what he might do or say could offend someone else. Recent cases, especially related to same-sex marriage, have raised the profile of dignitary harm. The most substantial problem with this line of argumentation is that the opinions of the majority tend to be protected and the minority is most likely to commit dignitary harm. In contrast, most of the rights protected in the First Amendment are designed to protect the minority opinion from discrimination, not the reverse. The Court would be right to see Phillips as the one whose opinions and decisions should be protected.

What can we expect as the outcome of this case? It is difficult to say. Numerous reports suggest that the majority of justices are leaning toward support of Jack Phillips, but Howe warns us that “making predictions based on oral arguments is always dangerous.” In the coming months we should hear a decision from the Court, and it will likely prove to be the most significant religious liberty decision in generations.

[1] Amy Howe, “Argument analysis: Conservative majority leaning toward ruling for Colorado baker (UPDATED),” SCOTUSblog, December 5, 2017.

[2] Sherif Girgis, “Brief of Amicus Curiae Sherif Girgis Supporting Petitioners,” Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2.

[3] Andrew T. Walker, “Into the looking glass: Why the impact of Masterpiece Cakeshop at the Supreme Court matters,” ERLC.com, December 5, 2017.

Five Tips for Thriving after Seminary

rotundaIt’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re a student. Let’s be honest, most students are in survival mode at this point of the semester. There are tests to be taken, papers to be written, and assignments to be submitted. This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be one of the most stressful periods for any student, including seminary students. For students graduating this semester, the pressure can be even greater. They are looking for ministry positions and considering housing options after they move off campus. They may even be praying that a professor or two will overlook a few errors in their final papers.

Beyond the stress of the end of the semester, I have also seen seminary students and graduates struggle with post-seminary survival. Recently I overheard a handful of former students talking about being survivors of seminary and how difficult it was to listen to a sermon, study the Bible, and enjoy fellowship after spending years in the formal academic setting of seminary. I understand what these former students are talking about, but I also want to offer some tips for thriving after seminary that I learned during my ten years as a seminary student (yes, I said ten years) and more than a decade of teaching seminary.

  1. Be humble. I was one of those first year seminary students. You’ve seen them. They are the ones carrying a Greek New Testament to church and pretending to follow along in the text as the pastor preaches. Honestly, I was pretty good at Greek. I could translate from most passages on the fly by the end of my first year of seminary (second year of Greek), but if I got asked to read aloud in Sunday School, it might get ugly. Or if the pastor was preaching from the Old Testament, I was in trouble. Here’s deal… whether it is Greek, Hebrew, theology, or hermeneutics, seminary provides an unmatched opportunity to delve into the formal study of Scripture, but completing a few semesters of a subject does not make you an expert. When I watch some of my faculty colleagues who teach Greek or Hebrew follow along in chapel with a Bible in the original languages, I know that they have years of continued study and training beyond the basic 2-4 semesters of a language. I also know they are spending hours on their own refining their craft of translation. Even in my own field, I am constantly reading books and articles related to ethics just to stay abreast of current thought. The people in your church will be grateful for the time spent in seminary and the education you have received, but that little old lady who has been faithfully studying her Bible for the last 70 years may actually know more than you do. Be humble about your education. You still have a lifetime of learning ahead of you.
  2. Study the Bible for your personal discipleship. It is really easy to allow the formal academic study of Scripture to replace personal study and discipleship. A good friend of mine from college went to a different seminary a couple years before I did. I will never forget when he told me a story about one of his professors. He was overwhelmed with the volume of reading required in his classes so he sought out one of his professors for advice. He wanted to know how to devote time to his own devotional study of the Bible when so much was required of him already. Unfortunately, his professor gave him terrible advice. He said that there will be time for devotional study when you graduate. I think many students who lose their passion for God’s Word while in seminary do so because they forsake the study of Scripture for personal discipleship. Academic study is good and necessary, but it is not the end. Personal holiness and devotion to the Lord are more important than grades. If you are having difficulty maintaining a personal time of devotion, then schedule it just like you do for your classes.
  3. Stop being critical. After a year or so of seminary, it became difficult to listen to sermons. I paid attention in chapel and church, but mainly for the purpose of catching an exegetical fallacy or theological error. Then something very helpful happened to me—I took a preaching class. My professor required us to preach in class and receive feedback from our classmates. Most of my classmates were kind to me and only minimally critical. Then my professor required us to watch videos of our own preaching. Ouch! I was bad. I wanted to be the next Adrian Rogers, my childhood pastor. Instead I was just a cheap imitation in an ill-fitting suit. Watching myself preach was a humbling experience. I still don’t like to do it because I feel that I have so far yet to go. Will the pastors you listen to make errors along the way? Sure. Are your sermons perfect? Not a chance. In fact, those faithful but unknown pastors who put their time and study in faithfully each week will likely have a deeper impact on their people than the celebrity preachers on your podcast list. Stop being critical and start reflecting on how you can faithfully feed your people.
  4. Invest in the ministry of a local church. At least once a semester in seminary I heard Paige Patterson say that he prayed our first church would be filled with the type of members we were while seminary students. There was often an audible silence after that statement. Thankfully, I heeded his advice. I joined the choir, served as a deacon, taught Sunday School, went on mission trips, and even volunteered in the nursery occasionally. None of these roles were paid positions. Even today I volunteer as a deacon, choir member, children’s Sunday School teacher, and other roles. In those roles, I’m not Dr. Lenow. My students on Sunday call me Mr. Evan. In the choir loft, I’m just one of the guys in the bass section. It’s refreshing, and it’s healthy for my spiritual life.
  5. Share the gospel. Sharing the gospel is a key aspect of the Christian life. We don’t do it to get another jewel in our crown, but we do it because we care about the souls of other people. When I share the gospel, I realize a few things. Most people truly interested in hearing the gospel don’t really care about theodicy, eschatology, or hermeneutics. They want to hear the life-changing message of salvation. Sure, those other doctrines may become important later, but right now the most important thing is for them to hear a clear articulation of the gospel in the style of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. If you can’t share the message of the gospel in a clear, straightforward fashion, it’s time to get some practice.

My desire is for this graduating class of seminarians to thrive after they graduate. I don’t want them to look back on these years as some from which they need to recover. These five tips are not a magic solution to some of the difficulties of life after seminary, but they should help ease the transition.