Learning a Lesson from Lot

Editor’s Note: We are excited to have Dr. David E. Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans (FBNO), as our guest blogger this week. Crosby earned his M.Div. at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. at Baylor University. An accomplished writer, Crosby served as a reporter for The Times-Picayune during his days in seminary. After pastoring churches in Texas, he returned to New Orleans in 1996 to lead FBNO. Under his leadership, the church has increased its efforts to interact with the community, minister to the poor and reach the lost.

By David E. Crosby, Pastor

Cities have always attracted missionaries and pastors. Paul wanted to carry the gospel to Rome. Timothy became pastor in Ephesus, James in Jerusalem. The great cities are moved by our love and our witness, our prophetic word and faithful behavior.

The population of America has moved from majority rural to mostly urban in my lifetime. And world-wide, the majority of people now live in urban areas. Most of the people who need our love and witness now live in cities.

But with opportunity comes risk. We need only look to Abram, later called Abraham, and his nephew Lot for a word of caution regarding life in or near the city.

Abram gave Lot the option: Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right… (Genesis 13:9). Lot chose the more densely populated, fertile plain while Abram stayed in the mountainous region.

Abram surrendered his rights in order to make peace. This displays the character of Abram, including his quiet confidence that God will keep his promises. It is also a model for us in relationships with our neighbors. Those who are near to us may be dear to us, troublesome to us, or both. Often we do good for all parties when we are willing to stop demanding our rights and let the other person make the choice. This is not always a solution, but it is one worthy of contemplation when conflict arises.

Lot is arrogant and greedy. He chooses the fertile Jordan River valley – and it is fertile indeed. In a dry and thirsty land, the banks of the river are precious to all. Lot sees an opportunity to multiply his riches, and he takes advantage of his gracious uncle.

Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom (Genesis 13:12). These cities in the plain of the Jordan River have a well-deserved reputation. They were uncommonly wicked cities full of rape and murder and ruinous sexual activity.

New Orleans is not Sodom. God could not find 10 righteous people in Sodom. The church of Jesus Christ is alive and thriving in New Orleans with tens of thousands of committed believers. And many obvious differences could be added to this very significant distinction between the two cities.

Some cities are plagued with uncommonly high levels of destructive behaviors. We who live in New Orleans wish it were otherwise and are working to change it, but anyone can do the math. Knowing the moral failures of our city, we seek to protect those most vulnerable and at risk, especially the children.

Sometimes well-meaning people who target especially wicked places for their witness and Christian work only to fall prey to the very people they were trying to reach. It is dangerous business pitching your tent near Sodom.

The story of the church of Jesus Christ in and around New Orleans includes worldwide ministries that made terrible blunders. This is not unique to our city, but we ought to note it for what it is. Some of the great churches that have been built in the last half century here have suddenly collapsed. Sometimes financial folly has been the culprit. Sometimes sexual sin has crept into the church of Jesus Christ. Pastors who aimed to live holy lives became victims of the aggressive sin around them. Scandals have arisen and been reported in our media on more than one occasion. And mighty men and women of God have fallen and pulled the church into ruin.

Such temptations come to all Christian leaders. My father taught us about Lot when I was a boy. He said that sometimes it is better to be on the mountain with Abram than to be on the plain with Lot. That is, sometimes discretion and prudence demand that we distance ourselves from evil places and people rather than seeking to be involved in changing them. Christian leaders must find their personal place in the tension between being in the world but not of the world, loving the world and not loving the world.

Lot is not deciding himself to be wicked and cruel as he pitches his tent toward Sodom. In fact he will later be characterized as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7). Just because you live in or near a city does not mean that you endorse or participate in its wickedness. In this age of the Internet, anyone who lives anywhere, whether in a city or in a rural setting, has easy access to pornography and other kinds of depravity. Some people revel in the anonymity which the city affords, that people they know are not always looking over their shoulders. They are maskers without masks, taking forays into sin in the delusion that darkness will forever cover their tracks.

But we can avoid these pitfalls. Relationships of accountability are of utmost importance for those called to work and witness in the great cities. Families and friendships must be counted dear and held close. Personal devotions should be meticulously maintained. Ethical boundaries should be drawn tighter rather than looser when pitfalls abound.

As Paul says in Ephesians 6, put on the full armor of God, take up the sword of the Spirit, and join a team of believers with white-hot passion to reach the cities for Christ.

The Mississippi River: A metaphor for disciples

By Gary D. Myers

As followers of Jesus Christ – disciples – we are meant to “go” into the world to make disciples. Unfortunately, we find it much easier to develop a Christian sub-culture that allows us to live, work and be entertained totally separate from the world. The intentions are good.  We say that we are “preparing for ministry.” Or we fear the taint of the world and spend our time striving for holiness. Sometimes we are merely trying to protect the ones we love.

Oddly enough, I believe that the Mississippi River provides a great metaphor for the way we sometimes live the Christian life.

The great river and the disciple’s life are both meant to be free and untamed. However many attempts have been made to tame the Mighty Mississippi. These attempts have largely failed, but not in the way you would think. The failures have come in the form of unintended consequences. The tamed Christian life comes with unintended consequences as well.

Beginning on March 2, 2007, The Times-Picayune ran a massive, ground-breaking three-day series of articles on coastal erosion. Louisiana’s coast is disappearing and at an alarming pace. One of the conclusions reached in the series is that the levees designed to protect New Orleans and other river towns are actually contributing to the loss of our coast and causing subsidence of land in New Orleans.

The floods we sometimes see along upper Mississippi River in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee bring rich sediment that replenishes the land. The sediment washes out of the river and onto the farm lands that yield some of our nation’s richest crops. The people in those areas suffer brutally during the floods, but the floods are necessary to PRESERVE their way of life.

The Mississippi River never makes it over the massive earthen levee in New Orleans as it rolls toward the Gulf of Mexico. It would seem that the levees are working like a charm. The touristy French Quarter is protected, the Central Business District is protected and residential areas like the Garden District, Uptown and Carrollton aren’t inundated every five or six years. The levees continue down river to Bohemia on the East Bank and Venice on the West Bank.

Protecting against flooding is a good thing, but it comes with unintended consequences. The river doesn’t spill its sediment into the marshes and wetlands that surround New Orleans. The land in these areas is not being replenished or rebuilt. In fact, these areas are sinking, a phenomenon called “subsidence.” And the problem continues all the way down to the coast – a coastline that is inching closer to New Orleans each day.

We as Christians do a similar thing in our lives. Instead of letting our godly passion overflow, we reduce the Christian life to “do’s and don’ts.” We settle for a scholastic, monastic faith focused on right belief rather than right belief matched with right practice.

When we keep our Christian passion inside the levee of our own sub-culture, we tend to blissfully float right by those we are supposed to be reaching. The longer we live this way, the further we sink and settle into our own little parallel universe. As years and years go by, we find it easier to walk right by the hurting as we rush about doing our Christian things (not unlike the religious leaders Jesus mentions in the Parable of the Good Samaritan).

In the end, our pseudo-monastic tendencies only leave us empty. We believe the right things, but our relationship with Christ is stunted. Our river of wild (untamed) godly passion is meant to overflow to a hurting world around us. We are supposed to have a positive influence on our society. We are called to love our neighbors and tell them the gospel of Jesus. There is opposition, pain and struggle outside of our Christian bubble, but that’s where Jesus bids us to go.

I believe that it is in the “go” of the gospel that our love for God and our neighbor come together in a unique way. It is at the intersection of the Great Commandments and the Great Commission that we find our great joy in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our deep devotion to Him keeps us in check and frees us to live forgiven lives. But that same devotion pushes us out into the world around us.

The one who does not love God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength is no disciple at all. But the same can be said of the one who does not take the great Gospel to his neighbor. Let it overflow.

A fond farewell to the Christmas lights

By Frank Michael McCormack

On my list of childhood traumas, taking down Christmas decorations sits near the top.

I’d beg to drag out the decorations as early we could, and I’d fight to leave them up – permanently if possible. And to hear my parents tell it, I never handled it well when the tree would get disassembled, stuffed in its box and stowed in the attic.

“No disassemble.”

Over the years, the pain of the after-Christmas takedown has lessened, but it’s still a sad day when the flashing lights, wreaths, inflatable snowmen, trees and nativities start to disappear.

And so it was with great excitement this year that I finally caught on to one of the traditions associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is January 6. As it turns out, Christmas decorations can remain in place through Twelfth Night, January 5, but must be gone by the next morning.

But that personal epiphany got me to thinking about Epiphany. What is it? Where’d it come from? And what does it mean for me?

DIGGING DEEPER: GETTING FROM CHRISTMAS TO EASTER

A New Orleans style king cake

First, a look at the current calendar of events:

Today, we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25. Christmas season runs through Twelfth Night, January 5. The days between Christmas and Twelfth Night comprise the 12 Days of Christmas.

The next day, January 6, is known as Epiphany or King Day. It signals the official end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival, a time of celebration that runs through Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time of penitence and prayer that ends with Good Friday and the Easter Sunday celebration.

From Christmas to Easter, Christians travel the course of Jesus’ life, from his birth in a manger to his death and resurrection.

And it appears that Christians celebrated Epiphany very early on.

“Epiphany was actually celebrated earlier and more consistently and more widely than Christmas in the early church. The earliest date that we know of for Epiphany was 217,” said Rex Butler, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary who specializes in early church history.

Initially, followers of Jesus celebrated four events on Epiphany: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi (‘kings’ who traveled from the East, following a star, to worship Jesus and give him gifts), the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ first miracle (turning water to wine at a wedding). Each of these events is a way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, hence the word “epiphany.” In Greek, “epiphany” is the verb for “to manifest” or “to reveal” and carries the image of light. Jesus and his gospel continue to be that light to the world.

In time, Christians in the western branch of the church began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 while continuing to recall the other three events on January 6. For more on why Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, check out this article from Biblical Archaeology magazine: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp. In some countries, Christians actually exchange gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas, in honor of the Wise Men’s gifts to Jesus.

Over time, traditions for observing Epiphany developed. In Europe, edible portions of Christmas decorations were taken down on Twelfth Night and eaten during the Epiphany feast. Some would have “burning of the green” celebrations where Christmas decorations were burned in a bonfire, in keeping with the light theme of the season.

Soon, ‘king cakes’ with beans hidden inside would be eaten on Epiphany. Whoever found the bean would be the ‘king’ of the Epiphany feast, regardless of the person’s social standing in the household. This tradition points to many of the ‘upside down’ aspects of the gospel story (the Son of God being born in a stable; ‘kings’ of the East coming to worship an infant born to a common family in a foreign, powerless country; and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 that ‘anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’).

Fast forward to New Orleans in 2011 and Epiphany carries with it a few local innovations. We still have king cakes, but there’s a whole commercial industry surrounding them now. Randazzo’s, Haydel’s, McKenzie’s, and Gambino’s are all bakeries that claim to have the best king cakes.

Instead of beans, New Orleans king cakes usually have small babies inside. If you get the baby, you don’t get to rule the feast but you are responsible for bringing the king cake to the next party. And you’re allowed to eat king cakes only from Epiphany through Fat Tuesday (though I suspect some people secretly eat king cake into Lent).

To mark the start of Carnival in New Orleans, the group “Phunny Phorty Phellows” rides down St. Charles Avenue in a streetcar on Epiphany to officially start the Mardi Gras season. Just watch this video and you’ll see why “Phunny” is a perfect name: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BaVNUPv97g&feature=related.

From Wise Men to the Phunny Phorty Phellows. Only in New Orleans.

GIVING AND RECEIVING: THE TRUE GIFT OF EPIPHANY

Most of the time, it’s the gifts from the Wise Men to Jesus that we focus on. Matthew 2:11 records their gift presentation this way: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

All three gifts were fit for a king, but with Jesus they took on much more than just kingly significance. Gold pointed to Jesus’ kingship, frankincense to his priesthood and myrrh, used in burial preparations, to his future suffering and death.

But it’s Jesus’ gift to the Magi – and to all of humanity – that is the true gift of Epiphany. The baby born in Bethlehem was the Son of God who came to make a way for people to be reconciled to God. And that’s cause for celebration!

So as you enjoy this parade season, remember the true cause for your celebration. And then, during Lent, remember the cost of that celebration.

But that’s a blog for another day.