Black Holes and the Gravity of Death

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It’s been a week since we saw the first stunning photographic image of a black hole. A network of telescopes dispersed across the globe, called Event Horizon Telescope, zoomed in on the massive monster 55 million light-years from earth in the constellation Virgo. With a mass 6.5 billion times more than that of our sun, and a diameter estimated to be 23.6 billion miles (the diameter of earth is 7917.5 miles), the science which enabled the photo has been over 100 years in the making (Lisa Grossman and Emily Conover in Science News, 4/10/19).

The term “black hole” speaks to the fact that its mass is so great that even light cannot escape its gravitational pull, thus it is black. It is the ultimate trap from which there is no escape, thus it is a “hole” into which we cannot see and from which nothing can emerge.

Science fiction writers have spun terrifying tales about being consumed by a black hole. And though that would be horrific, I’m sure, the black hole that is more fearful, and an ever-present reality for every human being, is the black hole of death.

If succumbing to the gravitational pull of a black hole seems impossibly remote, succumbing to the black hole of death is a certainty we are reminded of almost daily. Beginning with Abel, every person ever born has been consumed by death; Enoch and Elijah are the only exceptions noted in the Scriptures.

The certainty of death, and the fear it evokes, has been recorded by all peoples throughout history. Most civilizations have theorized that there is another life beyond the black hole of death, but this hope of another life was impossibly shrouded in darkness. There was simply no way to know for sure whether the Egyptian Pharaohs would receive the afterlife for which they so extravagantly prepared. The same was true for the ancient Chinese or the Norsemen of Europe. Both ancient and modern religions have theorized what might come after death. But how could one know for sure? Because death was a black hole, no one had ever broken free from its gravitation pull and emerged to describe what the hole of death held.

And then came Jesus. Like all before and after Him, Jesus Christ entered into the black hole of death. He was as dead as any person who has ever died. Totally and completely dead. Unlike all others, however, Jesus plunged into the black hole of death willingly and voluntarily. And, unlike all others, Jesus was liberated from the black hole of death after three days. No one before or since has emerged from death finally and forever, except Jesus. Jesus restored life to Lazarus following his death, but like others in the Bible who were raised to life, Lazarus only emerged from death’s black hole temporarily. He died again on another day.

When Jesus emerged from death’s black hole, He rose triumphantly and victoriously as The One who forever defeated death. Until the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death was a black hole whose gravitational pull was impossible to overcome. Even today, no one but Jesus Christ has emerged from the black hole of death. He remains the sole overcomer of the grave.

However, the Bible contains a promise, multiple promises, actually, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the first of many. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). And, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).

This week Christians will remember the death of Christ on the cross, the day in which He plunged into death’s black hole. By His death He secured the eternal salvation of all who trust in Him. But even as we remember the death of Jesus, we do so knowing that Resurrection Day followed shortly three days hence, forever removing the sting of death’s black hole.

The universe God created is vast and mysterious beyond our feeble ability to see and know. When we get glimpses of it like we did with the black hole photo, we are stunned beyond description. What is more amazing, however, is that the God who created all that is, loves us and knows us, even to the detail of numbering the hairs on our heads. And because of this, we are set free from the fear that death will be a black hole of separation from all those we know and love.

If you haven’t yet given your life to Jesus Christ, do so now. Come to Jesus and experience life now and forever.

Chinese Baptist Church, Seattle, a Missions Success Story

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Recently Paula and I attended Chinese Southern Baptist Church (CSBC) in Seattle where we joined them in celebrating 35 years of ministry. Founded by returning missionaries to China in 1984, Pastor Andrew Ng has led the church for more than 30 years. The church was formed by reaching Cantonese speaking people, most coming from Hong Kong. On this day, they baptized six new believers and also had the blessing of recognizing the very first person baptized when the church was founded 35 years ago.

CSBC represents the best of missions in the Northwest. Not only do they continue to reach people for Christ, this church which was begun through the Cooperative Program (CP) giving of Northwest and SBC churches, is now a leader in CP mission giving themselves. They also participate in the Northwest Baptist Convention partnership with our international missionaries (IMB) in Asia.

Of particular interest is that Chinese Southern Baptist Church now has an English language ministry that is larger than its Cantonese ministry. Of the six baptized the Sunday we were there, four worship with the English language congregation and two with the Cantonese congregation. Pastor Matthew Zwitt has led the English language ministry for eight years. Under the wise leadership of Pastor Ng, the church came to understand that as it ages, and the children grow, English would become the preferred language of second and third generation immigrants. Also, an English language ministry has enabled them to reach people beyond the Chinese community. We met people from Vietnam, Japan, China, Taiwan, Macao and the United States, worshiping together in English. Pastor Zwitt speaks only English, with no Cantonese ability. Still, he has learned that culture is broader than language, and he has learned to thrive in a majority Chinese-culture church.

CSBC is successfully transitioning into an English language majority church, which is what most of our immigrant churches must do to remain vibrant and effective into the future. The experience of CSBC is not unique. The Northwest has Korean, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Romanian, Burmese and Spanish majority churches that have strong English-language ministries. In one Vietnamese church, the pastor preaches in both languages, moving back and forth, seemingly without effort, from one language to the next. Most churches have separate worship services for English. One church worships in English, but has small groups in multiple Asian languages. They are taking various approaches, but in their own way, our immigrant churches are seeking to reach people, including their own children, with the message of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we wonder what our mission efforts accomplish. Missionary work is never easy, but assessment is aided by time, even a lifetime, and by remembering that God has been writing its story all along.

Jesus and your Neighbor, that’s the Test

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Jesus said, “I tell you … there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the most striking characteristics in the ministry and message of Jesus is his attention to the value and importance of a single individual. Much of what we know about Jesus comes from his interaction with one person and his parables that focused on the worth or behavior of a single person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, Pilate, the Rich Young Ruler, the Prodigal Son, and so many others.

The value that Jesus places on a single person is one of the most important and attractive qualities of Jesus. The “end-justifies-the-means” ethic of tyrants and bullies who are willing to sacrifice the individual for some “higher purpose,” or for the “greater number,” is devastatingly refuted by Jesus’ treatment of the most ordinary humans.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to two things. First, some in positions of power and influence are willing to damage an individual, or fail to seek justice for an individual, in order to protect an institution. The institution could be a church, denomination of churches, or a particular “ministry.” In order to “protect the ministry,” an individual person is hurt or allowed to suffer. Second, organizations, including ministries, are tempted to suppress the truth (poor performance numbers, mistreatment of individuals, etc.) when they think the truth will bring a “backlash” from the constituents (the people paying the bills).

When did Jesus ever mistreat an individual in order to protect the religious establishment? When did Jesus ever suppress the truth, fearing people couldn’t handle the truth? The answer to both questions is – NEVER. Jesus never hurt an individual, no matter how unimportant some thought they were, in order to please the religious established or protect the religious institution from others learning the truth.

There are two questions that will help you know how to handle any difficulty or ethical situation you will face in life: What does God say about this? And, how does it affect my neighbor? Other forms of the two questions might be: What does the Bible say? And, how does it affect an individual person?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, mostly because my sleep has been disturbed by leaders suppressing the truth, or hurting an individual, in order to “protect” the ministry. We never protect our ministry by suppressing the truth, even if the truth is ugly … especially when the truth is ugly. God’s people can handle the truth. What they can’t handle is hiding the truth or avoiding the truth.

Equally disturbing is a willingness to let a person suffer, or to actually harm a person, in order to protect or promote the “ministry.” God will not, He will not ever, bless a ministry in which a person is deliberately harmed, or in which harm is not redressed.
The test is really quite simple, Jesus and my neighbor. If I’m good with them, nothing much will go wrong. If I am good with them, I don’t need to worry about my “religious institution” or establishment. And with that said, I can now sleep undisturbed.

Preventing Sexual Abuse in Churches

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On February 3, 2019 the Houston Chronicle newspaper began a 3-part series on sexual abuse issues in Southern Baptist churches. Over a period of 20 years they have identified approximately 220 convicted perpetrators in 47,000 churches — including four from the Northwest — and 700 victims. That number will grow, and has grown, as others have come forward with their stories of abuse.

The damage done to victims of sexual abuse lasts a lifetime, often affecting multiple generations within a family or community, including church communities. Because of this, I want to provide a brief synopsis of the procedures we have in place to assure care for victims and families when it is appropriate, protect our convention, as well as the ways we try to help our churches protect their children and their ministries. This explanation is not exhaustive, but hopefully you will find it helpful.

First, the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) does national criminal background checks on all of our staff. Furthermore, national criminal background checks are performed on all volunteers who work with minors. Every church must do the same. If your church has not done national criminal background checks on every person working with those under age 18, children are placed at risk. Furthermore, the church is at great risk should abuse ever occur. Background checks must be performed on all paid staff and every volunteer who has access to children. You can download from our convention website a document containing links to multiple resources that will help your church become more fully aware and prevent opportunities for abuse to occur. Find it here under the “Safety & Security” heading:

https://www.nwbaptist.org/nwbc-ministries/church-health/children/

Second, the NWBC offers training to our churches multiple times a year on how to protect children and prevent abuse from occurring. Included in this training is a list of resources for conducting criminal background checks, etc. Policy and procedure guidelines are available to all of our churches regarding these matters, upon request. Ashley Seuell, an attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, is available to review a church’s policies and recommend policies and methods that churches can use to protect their children and their church at large.

Third, when moral failure occurs, even if it does not involve criminal behavior, we state publically the reason for termination or resignation (not necessarily the details of the offense, just that it was an issue of moral failure), and we urge that churches do the same. This makes it much more difficult for a sexual offender to move to a new town, or a new state, and resume ministry.

Fourth, we offer to provide Christian counseling to those hurt and injured by sexual immorality and/or abuse.

Fifth, we never suppress or “cover up” information regarding sexual abuse. We have not and will not enter into nondisclosure agreements with any person who separates from the NWBC because of a moral failure (we haven’t entered into nondisclosure agreements for any other reason, either).

I hope you find this information helpful. We live and serve in a broken world populated with broken people. We too have been damaged by sin, most often damaged by our own sin. But those who serve Jesus Christ with integrity of heart make a difference now … and forever. You matter and what you do matters. The church matters. May God help us and protect us as we strive to love Him and love our neighbors.

Ministry Guaranteed to Bless Your City

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A sanitation worker in our town was crushed when he was hit by a car and pinned up against the garbage truck. He was horribly injured and our church prayed for him and his family. Following the prayer, a church deacon asked a simple question that ultimately transformed our ministry. Here’s the question: “I wonder if that man has a church that is ministering to him and his family?” We learned that he did have a church and they were doing well by him. But this led to a second question: What about others in our community, who in time of crisis, have no church family? What of those who have no pastor, no Bible class, no ministry and no living testimony of God’s love and care in their life? What about them?

This tragic situation and the subsequent questions resulted in a profound commitment by our church. We determined that we would pray for, and serve as best we could, every family in town touched by tragedy. House fires, car wrecks, crime victims, accidents of various kinds, horrible medical diagnoses; these happened with some frequency in our ministry area of 25,000 people. And when they did, we sent two or three to the home with the simple message, “We’re from First Baptist. We heard what happened. We’re so sorry. We want to pray for you and see if there is any way we can help.”
Sometimes our involvement ended after the prayer and words of love and concern. Other times clothing or food was provided, biblical counseling was provided, a wheel chair ramp was built, among other things. The results included some coming to faith in Christ, goodwill built with the family and friends, and some actually joined our church so that they could be involved in this ministry of care. Our church was known for several things, one of which became, “They’re the church that serves everybody and anybody in time of crisis.”

So here’s a goal that will bless your city: commit to visiting and praying for every person stricken by tragedy. The tragedy doesn’t have to be physical injury. In our local newspaper I read weekly, if not daily, of hardships in families. A local mayor’s portrait was on the front page because he was accused of soliciting sex for money. A grandmother went to prison because she embezzled from her employer. A family was ripped apart when a grandson murdered his grandmother. The list goes on. But questions that a local church needs to ask are, “Does this family have a church? Do they have a pastor? Let’s visit them and pray for them and see how we might show them God’s love.”

When I surrendered to ministry leadership a pastor told me that if I would minister to hurting people I would never lack for ministry opportunities. He was right. But I also learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to lead our church to organize and to do this in our ministry field.

Often when we discuss ministry goals we talk budgets and baptisms and attendance in public worship and Bible study. These are important matters to consider. But mostly they are the byproduct of other things. Things like leading a church to pray for Kingdom concerns and mobilizing outreach ministries of various kinds. Through ministries like http://www.Pray4EveryHome.org every member of your church can pray for their 100 closest neighbors. Through My316 and God Space you can teach your church how to share the Gospel and minister to people (these are provided to every NWBC church without cost thanks to the generous Cooperative Program missions giving of our churches).

How about this as a goal: We will pray for missionaries, the lost in our community, city and school leaders, and all of the children in town, in every public gathering of our church. That is Kingdom praying –praying for the city, unbelievers, and the missionaries we send and support. If we don’t pray for Kingdom concerns when we gather as church, Kingdom praying won’t happen in the homes of most church members.

Things like this make me excited for the spiritual possibility present in every church. Whether you gather with 20 or 200 on Sunday, these are the kinds of things you can do that will touch heaven and human hearts and will make a difference in your city. God told the people in Jeremiah’s day, living as exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jere. 29:7). That is a good word for us, living in a 21st Century Babylon.

2018 A Year of Kingdom Growth in the Northwest

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Twenty-nine new Northwest Baptist (NWBC) churches and a fifth consecutive annual increase in Cooperative Program (CP) missions giving mark continued growth in the mission of NWBC churches. Additionally, the Northwest Impact Missions Offering recorded the largest annual increase in decades, totaling $136,691, or $39,837 above the 2017 offering of $96,854. Growth in numbers of churches and missions giving doesn’t tell us all we need to know about our spiritual health, but they are indicators that our Kingdom footprint in the Northwest is expanding.

First, consider these facts about the 29 new churches (including new church plants, affiliates and campuses). Thirteen new churches are in Oregon and 16 are in Washington. About half of these churches are in the Portland and Seattle metro areas, and half are in other cities and towns. The size of the communities range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. Two of the 29 churches worship in the Arabic language, one in Russian, one in Zomi, another in Cambodian, five in Spanish, one in Korean, another in Vietnamese, and 17 in English. That’s new churches in eight different languages, all in one year!

How does this happen? The same way it did in the First Century. Some planted, others watered, and God gave the increase. It takes churches, pastors, and missionaries, all working together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to see the Kingdom advance, and especially cross-cultural, multi-linguistic, Kingdom advance. We need the SBC system of seminaries and mission agencies; we need churches, associations and conventions, all working together, each doing their part, to effectively and consistently penetrate lostness in the Northwest.

Great Commission work is never accomplished by “me and Jesus and no other.” It’s always Jesus and me and many others. Paul had Barnabas and Timothy and Silas, but he also had the Church at Antioch, later joined by churches in Philippi and Ephesus and many others.

Second, CP missions giving in 2018 totaled $2,849,089, for an increase of $35,863 over 2017. With CP missions decreasing nationally, it is remarkable that we have experienced five consecutive years of growth in the Northwest. This, together with significant growth in our Northwest Impact Mission Offering, puts us in a strong position as we train leaders, start and strengthen churches, and do missions, including Disaster Relief missions, in 2019.

Speaking of missions, please pray about joining your fellow Northwest Baptists in sending a team of 130 people to Asia in July 2019. We will minister to hundreds of our overseas workers and their children. More information about this mission opportunity is included elsewhere in the Witness. Paula and I will be there, as will others from throughout the Northwest. In 2016 we sent 163 from 32 churches, so I’m confident we can do this by God’s grace and through faith in Him.

This is an opportunity for rejoicing, Northwest Baptists, and for giving God praise and glory for the great things He has done. Together we see God working mightily in our day, this good day He has given to us.

Northwest/Texas Baptist Partnership

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From our earliest days Northwest Baptists have enjoyed the partnership of Texas Baptists. Legendary church-starting pioneer, Leonard Sigle, came from Texas to serve FBC, Klamath Falls as pastor in 1930. When he died 46 years later, he had started 58 churches in the Northwest, California and Nevada. R. E. Milam, the first Executive Director-Treasurer of the NWBC, Lewis Steed, Cecil Sims, Ted Cotton, Harry Bonner, Bill Crews, and many others came to the Northwest from Texas. I like to say that the West begins in Texas and ends in the Pacific Northwest! (Apologies to our friends in Alaska and Hawaii)

In our 2018 Annual Meeting, Northwest Baptists rekindled our partnership with Texas Baptists by signing a three-year partnership agreement (2019-2022), renewable for an additional three years. In this agreement we have the opportunity to both give and receive from our Texas friends. The agreement focuses on four primary emphases:

1. Northwest Church Planting
2. Collegiate Ministry with a focus on Metro-Seattle Collegiate Ministry
3. Mutual Pastoral Training and Renewal
4. Joint Missions Partnership with a focus on the Rio Grande River Ministry

Regarding church planting, the purpose is to form a strong alliance between the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Northwest Baptist Convention to accelerate growth in the number and strength of disciple-making churches in the Northwest. The BGCT will provide funding to some church plants, but mostly the partnership will happen as the 5,300 Texas Baptist churches partner with our church plants. It will also include association-to-associate partnerships. We have come a long way in the Northwest, starting with 15 churches and growing to almost 500 since 1948, but we need 3,000 churches to equal the density of churches in Texas. The Northwest remains one of the least churched and evangelized areas of our nation.

Regarding collegiate ministry, the BGCT will help to provide a viable, sustainable ministry to the vast collegiate and university population in the Seattle/Tacoma Metro area. A strategic component to this vision is identifying the person and developing support for a Metro-Seattle Collegiate Ministry Coordinator. With more than 300,000 students attending the many colleges and universities, there is currently no organized Baptist collegiate ministry effort in the Metro-Seattle area, and there is no local person who has this ministry responsibility.

Regarding pastoral renewal, we will develop cross-cultural training for Texas Baptist pastors, helping them to visit and learn from innovative ministries in the Northwest. This includes a multi-day training in a Northwest location. Many Texas pastors will benefit from the cross-cultural exposure available in the Northwest. The Northwest’s “pre-Christian” cultures make it a good training ground for missional engagement.

Regarding a joint mission partnership, Texas Baptists invite Northwest Baptists to join them in their River Ministry. The purpose is to enable NW Baptist churches to serve in the Rio Grande Valley to impact both sides of the river with Gospel. This includes two venues (1) ongoing mission work with the river ministries, (2) training in the Valley Mission Education Center in Harlingen, TX. The current immigration crisis has opened the door for humanitarian and evangelistic outreach along the border region of Texas.

Specific ways in which you can participate in this partnership will unfold over time. Most importantly, as we celebrate Christmas peace and joy, we can also express gratitude that it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest, and it is a good day to share our blessings with our Texas Baptist friends.