jasonbwatson

February 15, 2017

Why I Am Not Standing

Last Wednesday World Relief ran an ad in The Washington Post–a full-page ad, I believe–calling President Trump and Vice President Pence to support refugees. The ad featured a five paragraph letter over the names of Tim Breene, World Relief CEO, and Scott Arbeiter, World Relief President, and is being called the Still We Stand Petition. The ad also included the names of “top evangelical leaders from all fifty states” expressing their support for the need to reconsider Trump’s executive order limiting individuals from several majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The ad did include the names of several well-known evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller, Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, Ed Stetzer, Ann Voskamp, Leith Anderson and Stuart Briscoe. There were dozens of others whose names I did not recognize. (And with all due respect to Voskamp, she is Canadian, and lives in Canada, so the inclusion of her name on the letter was a bit illogical). The ad also featured, prominently, a web address where anyone who wants to do so can add their name to the letter. As of early afternoon on February 15, one week after the ad ran, the site was boasting just over 6,000 signatories. I am not one of them, nor will I be. Here is why.

Trump’s executive order suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. Furthermore, the order states that during the suspension,

[T]he Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.

This is not a reckless or inappropriate action on the part of the President. I say this not as a Trump supporter–I would definitely not be comfortable classifying myself as such–but as a supporter of the Constitution and a Christian. The very purpose of the United States Constitution is, in large part, “to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (see Preamble to the Constitution). Furthermore, the presidential oath of office includes stating that he “will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Therefore, calling a four-month timeout on refugee resettlement to the U.S. in order to make sure that the admission of refugees “does not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States” is both constitutional and appropriate (regardless of what a court said).

The World Relief letter states that Christians are taught to love their neighbor and that Jesus said that neighbor “includes the stranger and anyone fleeing persecution and violence, regardless of their faith or country.” The letter goes on to express support for the government’s need to set guidelines for the admission of refugees, but says that “compassion and security can coexist.” I agree with that–and I suspect Trump, Pence and others does as well. The very point of the timeout is to ensure that that can indeed happen.

The letter goes on to state, “Since the inception of the refugee resettlement program, thousands of local churches throughout the country have played a role in welcoming refugees of all religious backgrounds. Ministries to newly arrived refugees are ready, and desire to receive many thousands more people than would be allowed under the new executive order.” That is surely true. Churches and para-church ministries have indeed played a vital role in helping to provide for refugees and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. At the same time, it is not the responsibility of the United States government to accommodate the desire of churches to receive refugees. It is the responsibility of the United States to provide for the defense and security of the country.

The further reality is that churches, para-church organizations even individual Christians can still be involved in supporting and helping refugees even if those refugees cannot enter the United States. There are plenty of organizations providing much-needed assistance to refugees around the world and they would no doubt welcome the help the thousands of people signing this letter seem poised to offer.

Mindy Belz of WORLD is one of the most articulate and outspoken voices on the refugee crisis in the Middle East I think, certainly among Christians, and she has written that she does not think that Trump’s executive order will help Christians. It may not. Again, however, helping Christians in the Middle East is not the foremost priority for Donald Trump or any U.S. president. Nor should it be.

By the way, I am not staking unique ground in supporting the order. WORLD magazine has reported that “evangelist Franklin Graham, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., Southern Baptist pastor Ronnie Floyd, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins are just a few of the evangelical leaders defending Trump’s order.”

Ironically, The Washington Post featured an article on February 10 taking Franklin Graham to task about what the Bible says. (Just ponder that statement for a minute, by the way…). The article, written by Joel Baden, who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, says that Graham “could not be more wrong” when he said that immigration is not a biblical issue. But Baden fails to make his point. He provides ample examples of refugees and exiles being treated kindly and respectfully throughout Scripture. He writes, “Across the books of both testaments, in narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and parable, the Bible consistently spells out that it is the responsibility of the citizen to ensure that the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, is respected, welcomed and cared for.” Further, Baden cites both the Old Testament–“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34)–and the New Testament–“Love your neighbor as yourself” (which Baden calls the Golden Rule, but it isn’t)–to support his conclusion.

Mathew Schmalz, an Associate Professor of Religion at College of the Holy Cross, made the same arguments in Newsweek. Raymond Chang, a pastor, does as well for The Huffington Post.  He focuses on the biblical instruction to treat sojourners as those who are native born and Jesus’s statement that we will be judged according to how we treat “the least of these.” The problem is, none of these passages–or any other passages–instruct any country to throw open its doors to immigrants, refugees or exiles. All of these passages instruct that once strangers are in the land, the people who live there are to treat them with fairness, respect and compassion. I agree with that and I suspect Trump, Pence and others do too. None of them tell a country or a people to welcome absolutely anyone into their borders or to exercise no discretion in protecting their own borders. And again, it is entirely possible–especially in the day and age in which we live–to love and care for refugees even without letting them into our country.

Back in 2014 Wes Walker wrote on ClashDaily.com, “To suggest…that Israel would ever have willingly thrown open the borders to a swarm of culturally hostile foreigners, grant them asylum, and become financially responsible for their care is ridiculous. That would have been seen as an invasion force, and would have been treated as such.” The articles above, and others, that attempt to use the Bible as justification for letting any and all refugees into the United States, or for promoting refugee settlement here at the possible expense of national security, are missing the mark–and the intent of Scripture.

By the way, I am sure I am not the only one who sees the irony in The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Huffington Post attempting to use the Bible to support certain policy positions and government actions. I would love to see them make an effort to support a biblical position on things like abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender issues among many others. That would be something I would take a stand for!

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

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