Will the Real Evangelicals Please Stand Up?

What it means to be an “evangelical” has certainly morphed over the past few years. When I was young, to be an evangelical was a good thing with a good identity throughout the world.  There was no baggage, no partisan politic, no bullying, and no anger.  To be an evangelical was to embraced the Christ of the New Testament in both word & deed and attempt to make Him known.  Evangelicals were not mean-spirited, nor were they hate-mongers, nor were they judgmental.  They shared a love of Jesus and had a passion to tell His story to the world.  In fact, go to Merriam-Webster and look at how the word is defined.  “Evangelical: of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.”

What, in fact, is the good news of the four Gospels? What is the image of Christ portrayed in the pages?  What is His ethic, His passion, His priority?  Once, the disciples of John came to Jesus and asked Him if, He was in fact, the Promised Messiah.  This was His response: “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Luke 7:22). Look closely and you will see Jesus doing things like lifting up the oppressed, welcoming the marginalized, giving access to the outsiders, loving His enemies, forgiving sinners, and inviting the lonely, the poor, the desperate, and the lowly to follow Him. He was inclusive, loving, giving, sharing, and welcoming.  That’s the Jesus I grew up longing to serve.  That was the Jesus of the evangelical community.  That was the Jesus whose story we wanted to share with a loving truth and not a judgmental, elitist attitude. There was something about the story we told that was contagious, life-giving, and destiny altering. The story filled churches, inspired leaders, and changed lives… because it really was good news.

So what happened?  Did the Gospel message suddenly change?  Did the story get re-written?  Did the priorities of Jesus shift?  Maybe the Gospel didn’t change… maybe we did.  Maybe our story of Jesus’ love got co-opted.  Maybe we lost sight of what it means to love Jesus so much that we compassionately love the world He died to redeem.  Doesn’t it make sense that if evangelicals are “in agreement with the Christian Gospel” that we should at least, in some way, reflect it?  If we are His ambassadors then shouldn’t we represent that which is important to Him and not chase after our own narrow-minded social agendas?  In the eyes of the world, evangelicals are now defined in a very different way than they once were.  Now evangelicals have to vote a certain party line.  They have to crusade for the unborn but end programs that support those same children when they come into the world.  They have to hate Muslims and love guns.  They worry about transgendered persons using the wrong bathroom but keep silent about child molesters who serve in public office.  They declare that Jesus matters, but black lives don’t.  They want the right justices, but care little for real justice.  They pray in church but post the most un-Christian rhetoric on-line as though the two can somehow be reconciled.

Let’s be honest when we talk about being an evangelical. If your passion and your priorities are not fully surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus, then please don’t use the name.  You’re just confusing a world that is already skeptical of the “Christian” message. Jesus said that His true followers would be known by their love for one another, not by how abusive they would be towards anyone that doesn’t accept every misguided and twisted point of their theology.  It’s time for “real evangelicals” to offer a better witness to the world.

-Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive Director

Podcast: Leadership Interview with Dr. David Gregory

This podcast, sponsored by Belmont University’s Institute for Innovative Faith-Based Leadership, features a leadership interview with Dr. David Gregory, Dean of Belmont’s School of Pharmacy.  In this episode, David discusses leadership from a faith perspective and what it takes to create a culture of ethics, authenticity, and professionalism.

The Long Arc of Racism

Let’s be honest, racism is alive and well in our nation.  And I’m not sure that recent events, political decisions, hate speeches, and angry tirades have made it any more so, they have just helped us all see the problem with fresh eyes.  I have to admit that it is not always easy seeing the world through the perspective of someone else’s experience.  What may have seemed like an issue with progressive thought and some semblance of resolve to some, is still a very real and raw and dangerous issue for others.  Those in the majority, with privilege, wealth and access, may have quickly dismissed or even forgotten the plight of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the under-represented.  Ignorance of another’s plight is no excuse.  Neither is turning a blind eye and deaf ear an option.

I grew up in the deep south… in the 60’s… in times that were racially divisive.  And yet, much of the tension and inequality of that day were shielded from me by virtue of a privileged status that back then I’m not sure I fully appreciated nor understood.  My parents were people of authentic faith who taught me to love everyone and to treat others as equals.  The Jesus ethic of loving your neighbor was reinforced by both action and teaching.  I never heard my parents use the “N” word, nor even express a prejudicial attitude and they certainly would not have tolerated it, if such things were found in the heart and mind of my brother and me.  I truly believe that people are taught and conditioned to hate, and by the grace of God I grew up in a household where such teaching was never offered.  That doesn’t make me better nor morally superior to those who grew up differently… it just makes me grateful and maybe even more determined to be intentional about the world we pass on to the next generation.

It was as I grew older that I learned more about hatred and ugly, racial division.  My hometown of Rome, Georgia went through the racial tensions that many southern towns experienced in the mid to late 60’s.  There were some riots, some threats, some broken windows, and some arrests.  It was all a little crazy to me at the time.  I went to a public elementary school that was integrated.  African-American boys and girls in my grade were among my friends.  I still remember Reginald, Alvin, and Sarah nearly half a century later.  It seemed odd that friends with whom I learned to read and write, friends who shared the playground, friends who listened to the same teachers, and ate at the same table with me, were people that according to the racial ethic of the day were people I should avoid.

I went to a private high-school that was mostly white.  Unlike some private schools of that era that were established to avoid “the coloreds,” my school, created in 1903, was focused on academics and Christian values and was open to any who could afford to attend.  And though the cost of admission afforded me a great college-preparatory education, it certainly excluded others.  It robbed me in some ways of the rich experience that diversity offers.  Please don’t misunderstand… I am very grateful for all the sacrifices through both high school and college that provided me with a good education.  All I am saying is that in some ways I was shielded from the pain of racial inequality that plagued many of my generation.  It has taken years, (and the process in my life is not complete), to understand the complexities of racial inequality, injustice, issues of access, and discrimination.  But I have learned the value of intentionality.  Issues that plague our culture are not changed without intentional effort.  Issues that plague our cities are not resolved without dialogue and understanding.  Issues that plague our hearts are not settled until we make conscious choices to both acknowledge the issues and take positive and practical steps to engage them.

I work at a University that takes on diversity as a priority.  Boundaries of race, ethnicity, and gender are being constantly assaulted with each hiring decision and admission acceptance.  It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but at least we, here at Belmont, are moving in the right direction.  No, we can’t change the heart and mind of everyone around us, but at least we are striving to raise the important issues and conduct our actions accordingly.

But let me remind you that our society is only as good as we make it become.  We cannot afford the luxury of time, thinking that in some miraculous way, racism will automatically be erased as the years role by.  No.  Big issues take courageous people to solve them.  It is by our fidelity to the vision of a better, brighter world, that change will come.  Be intentional about the issue of race.  If you are not a striving to be a part of the solution, you may well be part of the lingering problem.

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Executive Director

The Elusive Christmas Spirit

Most of us struggle to find it, to feel it, to know, to experience it… that special feeling of Christmas when there is a sense of joy in the air, peace in the heart, and benevolence in the wallet.  The Christmas Spirit is elusive in the midst of the hectic pace of modern life.  It’s sometimes hard to capture, even harder to hold for more than just a moment in time.  It seems to me that it was easier to lay hold of as a child.  There were school plays and gift exchanges and constant reminders of the season with each carefully-crayoned winter landscape or every hand-made construction paper ornament.  The excitement built through the month of December until the glorious release of Christmas break when the schedule altered and the focused turned to the presents collecting under the tree.  Ask any kid how many days till Christmas and they will answer with exacting measurement.

But it’s different for adults.  It’s hard to escape the stress of the season long enough to capture a moment or two of its glory.  Maybe it’s because the “success” of the season rests more on our shoulders than it once did as children.  We have to consider things like budgets, travel, meals to prepare, houses to clean, and presents to wrap.  It’s easy to let the Spirit seep away without ever holding it for very long.  When I was a pastor, the Christmas season was intense.  There were sermons to write, services to plan, hospitals to visit, and articles to author.  In fact, I often found myself settling into my recliner late on Christmas Eve, after the final Service of the season was put to rest, before I actually relaxed and let the Spirit wash over me.  Sometimes the Christmas Spirit would find its way into my life in the midst of the craziness of the season.  Somewhere in the writing of words, or structuring of a service, or the listening to the music of season I would find it.  But not always.

It is interesting to me how most of us strive to capture the season in our hearts.  We listen non-stop to Christmas music.  We decorate the house to excess.  We shop until both our bodies and purses are exhausted.  We bake.  We wrap.  We eat.  But still, so often we find ourselves a day or so after Christmas morning wondering how another year passed us by without our ever really getting into the spirit of things.  Charlie Brown once mused to Linus about the “commercialization” of Christmas… and that was decades ago when the 30-minute cartoon presentation first came on the air.  Even now when I watch those old reruns, I get a little nostalgic for the simpler days and the slower pace.

My wife and I do a few things to put ourselves in the Christmas mood.  She bakes a lot of really good pumpkin bread and it brings her joy to give it away to family and friends.  This year she made Christmas cookies with our oldest granddaughter, Hannah Rae.  It brought both of them a lot of gladness.  One of the things I enjoy doing is taping all of the Christmas cards we receive to the wall outside our kitchen.  It’s nice to be reminded of family and friends.  I also like to set out the Christmas china on the dining room table.  Can’t explain why that brings me some joy… maybe a reminder of the way my mom always set the grandest table at Christmas.

I’m not sure there is any one “set-in-stone” answer for capturing the Christmas Spirit.  But the most fool-proof answer that I can offer is bound up in the idea of giving yourself away.  Perhaps we are most like our Father each Christmas when we value the satisfaction and pleasure it brings us to give something important to someone in need.  It may be that you give your spouse a special, well-thought out gift that is much appreciated but unexpected.  Maybe it’s the check you write to a non-profit that is making a difference in your community.  Maybe it’s in the time you offer as a volunteer this season to brighten someone’s day.  All I know is this… until you offer the gift of your heart, your life, your energy, and your resources to bring hope, encouragement, or peace to a troubled life or situation, you will never fully capture the Spirit of the season.  So, think outside of yourself… think outside of the box… think outside of your comfort zone, and see if the joy of the season doesn’t sneak up on you in some special and mysterious way.

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director

Podcast: A Story for Christmas – 2017

This podcast features an original Christmas story written by Dr. Jon Roebuck, entitled, “First Responders.”  The story, set in modern day Kentucky, attempts to remind listeners of the unique events surrounding the birth of Jesus, celebrated each Christmas.  Additional stories of Christmas can be found in Dr. Roebuck’s collection of Christmas stories, Christmas Then & Now… Stories of the Season.  (Available on-line at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com and is also found in local Lifeway stores here in Middle Tennessee.)

It’s the Guns, Stupid.

If you think that after the tragic shooting in Texas this past Sunday that gun laws are going to change in America, think again.  They won’t.  Collectively we thought that after New Town, things would change.  They didn’t.  After the Pulse shooting in Orlando, people called for change.  Nothing happened.  After hundreds were gunned down at a country music concert, the nation mourned, but that’s all that happened.  And after Texans were slain while in the most sacred of spaces, nothing will happen yet again.  And why?  Because somewhere along the line we have accepted the premise that 2nd Amendment Rights should trump the promise of the Declaration of Independence which states that ALL of the citizens of this noble republic can cling to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The simple, selfish truth is that the right to bear arms has a greater place in the hearts of our nation than the desire to offer people a nation where the well-being and safety of every citizen matters.

When will we admit, that not everyone should have the right to own or possess a firearm?  There are many who should have forfeited that right out of violence, criminal history, domestic disputes, or mental instability.  We cannot allow ourselves to continue to advocate for gun rights over human rights.  Consider the actions of the Southern Baptist Convention just this week.  In a spirit of compassion, they have offered to pay for all of the funeral services for the victims of the Sutherland Springs massacre.  While having the generosity to respond to a need, they lack the courage to act politically.  They are unwilling to decry gun violence or enter the political debate to enact stricter gun laws.  Doesn’t it make better sense to encourage change at the ballot box than it does to wipe up the blood of those slain because of inaction?

All of us can recite the rhetoric of the gun proponents.  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” or, “If you take away all the guns, then only the criminals will have guns.”  The truth of the matter is that guns do kill people whenever they are placed in the hands of the misguided, the angry, the disturbed, or the revenge-seeker.  And no one can deny the enormity of the problem.   There are currently an estimated 283 million guns in civilian hands here in the U.S.  An additional 4.5 million are sold each year.  When that many people have guns, the potential for someone to become victimized grows exponentially.  Each year on average, 111,779 people are shot in America by a firearm.  32,964 of them will die.  Of those committing suicide each year, 20,511 do so with a firearm.  It’s easy to do the math.  In the past 10 years, over a million Americans have been shot and nearly 350,000 Americans have died as a result.  And yet politicians lack the courage to even remotely consider better legislation.  Who are they pretending to protect?

Why is it so unrealistic to legislate stricter gun control laws?  Why is it so hard to take a commonsense approach to the sale of military-style assault rifles?  Why is it not the law of the land that certain criminal infractions should force the immediate surrender of firearms and the prevention of future firearm sales to those individuals?  Why is it not considered child neglect when guns and rifles are not stored safely and securely in each home?  No, I’m not coming to take away your guns.  I’m not suggesting that the government needs to do so either.  But I am saying that until we are willing to legislate better gun laws and enforce greater compliance concerning those who have forfeited the right to own a gun, that mass shootings, be they in churches, schools, movie theatres, or night clubs, will continue to be the norm and not the exception.  May God grant us the wisdom to think rationally, act wisely, and live respectfully.

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Exec. Director

Living in the Space Where You Don’t Belong

I did some things in college that I probably should not have done.  Not really bad stuff, just a few things that were a little adventurous.  You know, the kind of things that if you got caught doing them would have gotten you into a lot of trouble.  Like the time a frat brother and I spent the night putting up a bunch of posters we had made in all of the academic buildings across campus.  We followed the security guard on his rounds and each time he unlocked the building long enough to make his nightly checks, we would slip in and hide until he left.  Or like the time when my college roommate and I decided that the campus security car, operated by the Pinkerton Security Company should actually be painted pink.  Or like the time we “borrowed” a couch from the lobby of the girls’ dorm and kept it in our dorm room for an entire semester.  (I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on all this stuff.)

But by far, our biggest adventure involved Legion Field, the legendary stadium in Birmingham where the University of Alabama played all of its home games for many seasons.  My roommate John, and I were huge fans of the Crimson Tide and we were always scrounging for a ticket.  Some days, when we didn’t have tickets, we would drive down to Legion Field and try to buy a cheap ticket outside the stadium just before game time.  We were nearly always successful.  But the day came when we had no tickets, but needed a way to get into the stadium.  We noticed an elevator on the side of the stadium that reached from the ground floor to the press box.  Those with press credentials stepped in and rode to the top.  We didn’t have any press credentials, but we had spunk.  We waited for a group to form in front of the elevator and when the doors opened we stepped inside as though we belonged.  When the doors opened at the press box level we noticed a security guard a few feet down the hallway to the right… so we made our way to the left.  It worked!  We made it inside.  In those days, we ran into all kinds of press people from the local stations as well as legends like Keith Jackson from ABC.

We even discovered a stairway that led to the roof of the press box.  We learned that only a few cameramen were positioned there who could care less if we were there or not.  So, we spent a lot of Saturdays watching the Tide from high above the field from our 50-yard line “no ticket” vantage point.  Once we learned the routine, we even figured out how to blend in the press crew when the barbeque buffet line opened up.  We consumed a lot of free barbeque and sweet tea in those days.  Like someone once told me, “Never diet on another man’s dime.”  It’s all a little crazy looking back on those days.  It’s hard to believe that we actually bluffed our way in on many occasions.  The hard part was getting in.  Once inside, the living got easy.

The truth of the matter is that all of us as believers in Christ, are living in a space where we don’t belong.  But because we have been joined to Him through faith, we are now a part of the eternal Kingdom of God.  And it only gets better.  Not only does His Spirit inhabit our lives, giving us wisdom, counsel, correction, and grace in this life, but the promise is that we will also “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  No, we don’t have any credentials that say we belong.  There is a not a “press-pass” that allows us access to the Father.  But oddly enough, we have been invited to inhabit that space.  As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:21, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”  The hard part of salvation is getting in.  But it’s not us who bear the price of admission.  It is Christ who grants our acceptance, our welcome, and our belonging, based on His sacrifice.  So, welcome to the space where you now belong, but certainly don’t deserve to be.  I invite you to feast on the banquet meal where both sinner and saint sit together, robed in the righteousness of Christ.  You are welcomed here.  You belong here.  So, dig in.  Why diet on another man’s dime?

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Exec. Director

50 Yards – The Distance Between Life & Death

For the past two weeks, the news cycles have been dominated by the stories of the hurricanes.  Harvey and Irma have certainly left enough destruction in their wakes to alter life in the affected areas for decades to come.  There have been stories of great heroics and stories of great tragedy.  There have been images of rescues and images of destruction.  The contrasts in the story lines have been jarring… hope & despair, loving & looting, preparedness & surprize, relief & tension.  By the time both storms blew their way through middle Tennessee, they were only a fraction of the “sound and fury” that once hammered Texas and Florida.  And yet, all of us have been affected by the storms, if nothing else than by the images on the screen and the words of the reporters.

There is one story that I can’t seem to shake.  It’s the story of that nursing home down in Hollywood, Florida where 8 residents died because of the extreme heat.  You’ve heard the story and captured most of the details.  When the power grid went down, the nursing home lost important life-sustaining systems.  The air-conditioning failed along with the elevators from the second floor and so many residents were trapped in the extreme heat.  By the time the cries for help were heard, several had lost their lives.  Some of those who were transported to the nearest hospital had body temperatures above 105 degrees.  Gratefully, most of the residents survived the ordeal, but for 8 senior adults, it was a horrible end-of-life experience.

Here’s the one detail about that story that haunts me.  The closest hospital… the one that took in the most critically ill… the one that had the means to save lives… was only 50 yards away from the front door of the nursing home facility.  50 yards.  The hospital and nursing home share a parking lot.  There are so many unanswered questions and many are pointing blame in various directions.  City officials and the court systems will have to sort through all of that.  I am certainly not in any position to point blame or offer explanations.  I don’t know who, ultimately, was at fault, but I do know it’s a tragedy and many families are grieving.  It seems to me that the distance between life and death was only 50 yards.

Maybe the distance between those who die a little each day, and those with the ability to give life is just 50 yards, or maybe it’s 50 feet, or maybe it’s 50 bucks, or maybe it’s 50 minutes.  Let me explain.  All of us live in communities, neighborhoods, and cul-de-sacs.  And sure, we can never know all that takes place within the walls of someone’s home and within the relationships between those who live there, but you can bet the mortgage that there are people who live 50 yards away from you who are hurting, grieving, despairing, and maybe even dying a little on the inside.  What would it take for you to save that life?  It’s called practicing the art of neighboring and maybe you need to step down the street, start a conversation, and restore someone to life again with your words of friendship, grace, and understanding.

Or maybe the distance is just 50 feet.  Consider your co-workers for a moment.  Or the classmate.  Or the commuter who rides the same train you do.  Someone within that distance is feeling the intense heat of a broken relationship, or a failed marriage, or a financial hardship, or a life-robbing despair.  If you are willing to travel just 50 steps and become the authentic embodiment of the person of Jesus Christ, you can revive a life that is on life-support.  Or maybe the ability to sustain life is found in your wallet or purse.  Maybe someone needs a meal, a pair of shoes, or just a small amount to get them to the next payday.  There are more people living on the financial edge that you and I can possibly imagine.  Why are you blessed, if not to offer help to those in need?  Remember the stories of those Romanian orphans who had trouble sleeping even after they had been rescued from their terrible plight?  When health workers gave the children a piece of bread to hold while they drifted off to sleep, they discovered the children slept better with the tangible hope that there would be food in the morning, because they held it in their hands.  I’m not saying that $50 will solve anyone’s financial hardship, but it might be enough to get them through another day and may help to put a little food on the table of a struggling family.

Maybe what you need to offer is 50 minutes of your time.  A lot of life-sustaining ministry can occur by simply listening to someone’s plight.  A conversation gives hope, gives relationship, and maybe even gives wisdom.  Someone you know needs you to listen… today.  It might be your spouse, your child, or a neighbor.

It’s crazy, right?  Those who had the ability to save the lives of those nursing home folks were only 50 yards away.  How far do you need to travel today to save a life?

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director