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By Eric Reed

Garden of Gethsemane.Jerusalem

Garden of Gethsemane.Thousand-year olive trees, JerusalemPassing through Gethsemane

A Baptist pastor said in an article I read recently that Maundy Thursday has become his favorite day of the Easter season. That was surprising, he admitted, since he didn’t grow up observing the day before Good Friday as anything special. Nor do many Baptist churches. But as he was called to pastor a church with a unique Thursday night Lord’s supper service prior to Resurrection Sunday, he took on the observance and came to appreciate it deeply.

I understood his experience. A couple of churches I served added Thursday services to their pre-Easter observance. At first, it was a matter of convenience for those who would travel on Good Friday to spend the weekend with grandma. But eventually we found we ourselves needed more time in the garden before we stood at the foot of the Cross, and ultimately at the vacated tomb.

“Maundy” Thursday may sound mournful, but the name itself comes from the Latin for “mandate.” A new commandment I give you, Jesus told his disciples in the upper room on that night, that you love one another. Maundy is a manmade term, as is the “Good” of Friday, but as for the events that happened that night, they are by God’s design.

After donning the servant’s towel and washing his followers’ feet, then giving them his body and blood in the first Lord’s Supper, Jesus led the crew, minus Judas, to the olive press on the other side of the temple grounds. Calling it Gethsemane, we forget that this was a working vineyard, where the crop was grown and at its maturity harvested, then crushed to release its treasure and fulfill its purpose. (Makes you have new respect for that bottle of oil in the cupboard, doesn’t it?) There, kneeling among the gnarled trees and the stone pressing floor, Jesus appears at his most human: suffering, knowing greater suffering was just ahead, wrestling, and yet willing.

And if we left the account there, we would miss several deep truths that make the events of Thursday night crucial to our understanding of Sunday’s victory. We might be tempted to think of Jesus as somehow less than fully human, that his deity abated his agony, if we did not see him wrestling in prayer while even his closest supporters a few yards away abandoned him in favor of sleep. We might miss a point of deep personal connection to Jesus that we need in our own times of crisis.

For Jesus Gethsemane was no rest. It is the place where one last time, his obedience and his surrender to the plans of his Father were tested. It is the place where God’s purpose and his own mission surpassed a momentary desire for relief from the pain of the night. And, blessedly, it is temporary.

In Gethsemane, the Father prepared the Son for the cross before him. Luke, who diagnosed Jesus’ suffering as bloody even in the garden, also tells us that God sent an angel to minister to Jesus.

The agony won’t last forever, but God knows we need help to get through it. And he sends it by his holy messengers. In our own seasons of crushing, we are lifted with the news that God has a purpose for the suffering he allows, and that it is temporary. God knows we hurt; God sends help; God sets a time limit.

In those times, it helps to know that Jesus suffered too. He cried over Lazarus. He cried out on the cross. And he endured in the garden where any remote possibility that he might put his relief ahead of our need was crushed: Not my will, but Yours be done, he said to the Father. We speak of “The Lord’s Prayer” as our model prayer. It, too, says, “Thy will be done.” But in Gethsemane, the prayer is tested and proven, and Jesus comes out the other side fully committed to finish his mission—at all personal cost to himself.

Finally, Gethsemane points to victory. To know the exhilaration of Jesus’ triumph over Satan and hell and sin and death, we must endure with him in his Gethsemane—and ours. In trial, we can be assured that Jesus has been here before. And though it hurts—a lot—we must not rush past Gethsemane, or we miss the magnitude of the victory, when the darkness of Thursday night surrenders to the brilliance of Sunday morning. And that light you see is the Son.

Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media. 

By Adron Robinson

Read: Psalm 25

When facing the dark days of life, to whom can you trust your soul?

We don’t know the exact circumstances of this psalm, but we know that David wrote it at a time when he was being attacked by his enemies. The attacks left him isolated from friends, hated by foes, and discouraged in heart. Yet, in one of the darkest times of his life, David made up his mind to trust in God.

Because God alone is able to deliver him from his enemies, David pleads for the Lord to save him from the shame of defeat (Ps. 25:1-3). David knows that God has a track record of faithfulness, so he puts his soul in the hands of the only one whom he could trust.
Next, David prays that God will direct him (vv. 4-15). He asks God to lead him into his divine will, while releasing him from the snare of his enemies.

David’s prayer is for God to reveal his will so that David can pursue God’s will. David doesn’t want to live outside of God’s will, so he asks God to order his steps. And on our dark days, we should pray the same way. David Livingstone once said, “I’d rather be in the heart of Africa in the will of God than on the throne of England out of the will of God.”

Finally, David prays for God to defend him from his enemies (vv. 16-25). In his darkest days, David asks God to guard his life and rescue him from his enemies. He places his faith in God to be his refuge. Out of gratitude for all God did, David is determined to live with integrity and uprightness.

When dark days come, don’t turn from God, turn to God. He alone is faithful to protect your soul.

Prayer Prompt: God, thank you for being the always faithful presence in our lives. May we turn to you on our darkest days, and may you lead us in the way everlasting.

Adron Robinson pastors Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and is president of IBSA.

By Whitman H. Brisky

red leaves church steeple

What happens to church property when most of its members depart, leaving only an unpopular pastor and a few of his close friends and family to determine its use? Unfortunately, in all too many cases, the congregation essentially shuts down as an active ministry, converts the property to cash, and then pays the remaining funds to (or for the benefit of) the pastor. Frequently the money is paid out as salary for doing very little since the congregation is now defunct. Even worse, in some situations we have seen, the pastor seems to deliberately drive the bulk of the congregation away so that he can sell the property for his own personal benefit without having to account for the money.

We are even aware of an example where a single minister became pastor of three separate congregations and drove the members of all three away leaving him with the property. While this situation would normally not occur in denominations with relatively strong connections because the denomination would step in, it is all too common among independent congregations and in denominations with much looser structures.

Whether the pastor is truly a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, intentionally driving most of his congregation away so that he can profit personally from the sale of the property, or simply a poor pastor, the result is the same: the destruction of a congregation, the sale of church property often for secular use, and the waste of assets which should be used to build the Kingdom.

What can Christian lay people do to avoid this kind of situation in their own congregations? First, build strong, independent lay leadership for the congregation and resist attempts by the pastor to “pack” the board with his own supporters. This will ensure that there is a strong independent board to check the pastor, offer guidance if he seems to be taking a wrong path, and if necessary, initiate the pastor’s removal.

The second way congregations can help prevent this kind of situation is to exercise great care in selecting a pastor. This should include a careful check of his background and prior employment. Frequently these wolves in shepherd’s clothing move from church to church, repeating the process multiple times. A call committee should be very reluctant to hire a candidate who has left his prior church worse off than when he arrived. It would be wise to talk to some people who left the candidate’s prior church to find out why they left.

Third, the church’s bylaws should be reviewed and updated to ensure that a pastor, with or without a compliant board, could not use parliamentary tricks and super majority requirements to prevent the majority of a congregation from supervising or removing an unpopular or incompetent pastor. The bylaws should not allow a pastor to unilaterally remove anyone from membership or limit a member’s voting power.

Fourth, there should be a written contract with each pastor not only detailing the compensation and other benefits he will receive, but also specifying what he is expected to do and the conditions under which he can be terminated. This ensures that a civil court can and will enforce decisions which are consistent with that contract.

And lastly, make sure that the church treasurer, and other people charged with handling the money of the church, are independent of the pastor and that their work is independently reviewed (preferably by a third party accountant) to ensure that financial transactions are properly recorded.

Taking these common sense steps will not only help avoid the wolf in shepherd’s clothing, but also strengthen the church congregation generally—particularly its lay leadership, which can also lead to more effective evangelism and ministry. Even if you already have a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, it might not be too late. You should contact an attorney experienced in handling these matters before you walk away from a congregation.

The firm offers a free newsletter on religious liberty issues at www.mauckbaker.com.

Whitman H. Brisky is a partner with the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck & Baker, which handles cases involving churches and religious liberty. He has practiced law in Illinois since 1975, after graduating from the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. He frequently represents churches and pastors, and is an ally with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). According to his company biography, Brisky was brought to the Lord after wandering into a Presbyterian church where the pastor preached a sermon entitled “Has Anyone Been Saved Here Lately?” At the end of the service Brisky could respond enthusiastically, “Yes, me!”

 

It’s been 10 years since the murder of Maryville First Baptist’s Pastor Fred Winters. Illinois Baptists were shocked when the beloved pastor was gunned down while preaching the Sunday morning message from the pulpit.

Serving on the IBSA staff, I first got to know Pastor Fred when he served two terms as IBSA vice president and then another two as president. He was always easy going and willing to answer questions for articles in the Illinois Baptist. I remember running into him and his wife, Cindy, one year at the Southern Baptist Convention where they were planning to hand out water to gay rights supporters protesting the convention. He talked about how it would be a good way to show Christ’s love.

First Baptist Maryville recently held a memorial service to mark the anniversary of his death. I was among the hundreds who attended the service, looking on as old friends came together to remember the pastor who grew the church from 35 to over 1,200. Illinois pastors have often said how Pastor Fred’s teaching from his experience “breaking the barriers” enabled them to grow stronger churches. Fred was always willing to share of his experience and himself.

In video testimonies, friends, church members, and former staff bore witness to the difference Pastor Fred had made in their lives, how his burden for the lost became their burden for the lost, how his vision became their vision.

The most poignant moment of the evening came when Cindy addressed the assembly. She shared how she and her daughters, with God’s help, journeyed through their grief and continue to do so. Their faith has been made stronger having learned not to give up.

Still, she likened the evening to biting into a chocolate tomato—“sweet at first on the outside and kind of sour and bitter on the inside.” Such a strange comparison and yet, such a truism. Isn’t that how we all feel in some way? Not only about Pastor Fred, but our own lost loved ones remembered? Whether through death, divorce, separation, or other kinds of loss, what a taste remembrance can leave in your mouth.

Winters’s life and legacy of faith was worthy of celebration. At the end of the service, it was easy to imagine Pastor Fred among the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12, cheering Illinois Baptists on as they run the race sharing Christ with their friends and neighbors just like he did.

Divine disobedience

Lisa Misner —  March 21, 2019

By Adron Robinson

Read: Acts 4:13-22

What do you do when obeying the Word of God means disobeying human governments and authorities? That is the question Peter and John faced. When commanded by the Sanhedrin, the religious and cultural leaders of their day, to disobey the Word of God, they responded with divine disobedience. “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20 ESV).

Like Peter and John, the church is called to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, to stand up and speak truth to a culture that seeks to quiet the voice of God and impede the Kingdom of God. We must follow in the countercultural footsteps of Jesus and transform our culture for the glory of God. When the world commands us to keep quiet, we are to stand on the Word of God and be a witness to a watching world.

This divine disobedience is not a 21st- century idea or a first-century idea. It is part of the character and calling of the children of God. When the Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh’s order to abort the Hebrew babies, that was divine disobedience. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol and were tossed into the fiery furnace, that was divine disobedience.

There are recent examples. When Harriet Tubman launched the Underground Railroad to free slaves, that was divine disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, that was divine disobedience.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Throughout history, the people of God have practiced divine disobedience, because we are called to obey the laws of God, even if it means disobeying the laws of man.

Prayer Prompt: Father God, you have called the church to be your witness to the world. Give us holy boldness to stand on your Word, when the world tries to pressure us into disobedience. Help us Father to fight against abortion, racism, injustice, and every evil of this culture by living out the gospel to a dying world that needs the good news of Jesus Christ.

Adron Robinson pastors Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and is president of IBSA.

By Mike Keppler

Open Bible

Growing Christians often make commitments to read the Word of God more faithfully each day. Some of that reading is done by reading the “whole of the Word” through a systematic read-the-Bible-through plan. Another way to read the Bible is in “small bites,” using a devotional booklet or app like Our Daily Bread.

Both reading plans are good and balanced. They give us daily exposure to the inspiration and instruction from God’s holy Word.

May I suggest another, less common way to read the Bible? When was the last time you read God’s Word aloud? We know the Bible itself instructs us to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Worshippers know the value of the public reading of the Bible in responsive readings and liturgies. But the value of using our voices in Bible-reading goes well beyond merely enhancing our participation in corporate worship.

By reading Scripture aloud, I have experienced a deeper blessing personally and corporately for some years now. Privately, I have made a practice of reading my weekly message and Sunday school lessons out loud. At first, I was embarrassed to have anyone hearing me read to myself. I would review the selected text for the week in hushed tones and whispers so as not to invite questions from family members at home or staff members at church.

An ancient practice is changing our Bible study groups for the better.

I soon got over being self-conscious, because I have found a specific benefit to reading the Bible with my voice: I “hear” truths that I miss when I only read a passage silently.

At first, I was surprised by these insights and mistakenly thought that maybe I was just being too careless in hurriedly reviewing the text. However, as I continued this exercise, I saw something deeper in the practice. It was as if God was speaking to me at another level…audibly.

Now, in truth, I have never had God speak to me through his mighty, audible voice, like he must have spoken when the world was created or when he would speak to the prophets of old. But, as I read the Bible to myself, audibly, I hear him “speaking” in new ways. Words that I would have just passed over before come to life with meaning I would not have “heard” in my silent reading. This was both refreshing and insightful as I began to practice reading aloud God’s Word during my private study.

With growing curiosity, I read online about the practice of reading the Bible out loud. There has been considerable research conducted on communal reading. Dr. Brian J. Wright, an author, popular speaker, and blogger who serves as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has written extensively on how the practice of communal reading dates back to the first century. Dr. Wright says that Justin Martyr, an early church leader, instructed believers during that period to engage in the communal reading of the apostle’s memoirs and prophetic writings on the Lord’s Day.

History tells us the Torah was passed down audibly from generation to generation, preserving Jewish traditions and teachings. Even Scripture itself speaks to the power of hearing the Word of God aloud:

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

I started practicing communal reading during my Wednesday night Bible studies at our church a couple of years back. Our regular attenders seemed to readily take to the exercise and enjoyed it. In recent months, I have been leading our auditorium Sunday school class in the same practice. Not everyone chooses to participate, but those that do have sat up straighter and spoken out louder with more authority and respect as they have joined in the reading.

I am now convinced more than ever that this simple engagement through communal reading of the Word is blessing both study groups. It involves us and inspires us to hear the Bible passage read with our own voices.

I encourage you to make a renewed commitment to read the Bible aloud and try to involve your friends in this practice as well. This refreshing approach to the Word will bless your personal worship and study and enrich your disciple-making ministries. I am convinced that as you read the Word aloud you will discover hidden truths and insights you haven’t “heard” before.

Mike Keppler pastored Springfield Southern Baptist Church for 26 years before
retiring in 2018. You can read his blog at mjkministries.com.

By Eric Reed

“It’s just the Wild West out there right now,” a colleague declared of the Twitterverse, as Baptists registered their opinions on new reports of sexual abuse and the failure of Southern Baptists to stop perpetrators’ movement among churches. Then the Internet mostly applauded the recommendations by SBC President J.D. Greear’s study committee to address sexual abuse in our churches. Then when the Executive Committee reported that the actions of only three of ten churches cited by the Houston Chronicle merited further investigation, the blogosphere blew up again. “A free for all!” my colleague said.

That’s to be expected. Emotions are running high, and there has been a lot of use of crisis language. But beyond that, on any ordinary day, Baptists are a people who expect their voices to be heard.

Please hear me say this: Action must be taken to prevent sexual abuse in the future, to deal with those credibly accused, to assure they do not have places of leadership in SBC churches, and to minister to those who have been harmed by abuse or the threat of abuse.

That said, let me also say, we also have to handle faithfully our historic Baptist doctrines.

We may find in the discussion leading to the SBC annual meeting in June that nothing in Southern Baptist life is a done deal until it is accepted and implemented at the grassroots level.

A seminary professor of mine told this story of a convention in a large southern state: The receptionist was instructed to answer the phone, “Baptist Headquarters.”

“Hmmph,” she soon heard, followed by a long pause. “This is Pastor Smith calling from First Baptist Church. This is Baptist headquarters.”

The next time the pastor called, the phone was answered, “Hello. Baptist Building.”

The professor’s point sticks: The local church is Baptist headquarters. That’s what it means to be a Baptist. We are not a hierarchical denomination, and we don’t operate from the top down. We are the un-denomination. Early leaders even refused for the SBC to be called a denomination, thus they chose the term “convention” to describe this voluntary association of local churches. And, thus, the word “autonomy” becomes important.

In the recent reporting, a few writers described autonomy as a shield some leaders hid behind to avoid dealing with the critical issue of prevention. Maybe autonomy was an easy response to difficult situations in the past, as leaders were accustomed to churches making their own decisions on most matters of policy. And, to be sure, autonomy of the local church must not be an excuse for keeping our eyes closed to evil in our midst. But the foundational Baptist doctrine of autonomy cannot be dismissed.

In the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, around 380 people in Southern Baptist churches were credibly accused and about 220 were convicted of sexual abuse or received plea deals. Of those, 35 found new places of service in other Southern Baptist churches. For our denomination to effectively stop offenders from becoming repeat offenders in new settings, local churches will have to do the hard work of policing and training and fingerprinting and screening volunteer workers and ministry candidates. That is first a local action that must be done first in local churches. Without full participation of local churches, we won’t have a solution to the problem, even if we do create national policies and databases.

One reporter described Pope Francis’s call to his own church, in light of their abuse crisis, not to “simple condemnation but to concrete and effective measures.” As we offer and endorse solutions, we should remember that Baptists accomplish more by cooperation than declaration. In Southern Baptist life, it’s not the language of crisis that compels us or draws us, but the invitation to responsible cooperation.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.