THE CAVE

CaveAll of us have been moved the heroism of those involved in rescuing the Thai boys from a cave in the northern Chiang Rai province.  Twelve boys of the now famous Wild Boars youth soccer team and their coach were trapped from June 23rd until recently.  What was meant to be a few hours of exploration, turned into weeks of anticipation.  Would they survive?  What was the coach thinking?  What route might the rescuers take to pull the boys out of danger?  The questions and concerns mounted each passing day.

As you know the boys and the coach were rescued!  Not without sacrifice.  One Navy Seal lost his life helping in the rescue attempt.  (Now, that’s a hero!)  And many others from around the globe gave money, time, energy, etc., to help these helpless young men who found themselves in a predicament they never dreamed of as they entered their expedition.  The boys will return to their homes and schools after their brief recovery time.  Life will never be the same.  Some are expecting a movie out of this sooner than later.  I’m sure it will be inspiring.

I’m reminded of another cave experience in the bible.  One of my favorite stories from the life of David is when he was in the Cave of Adullam with his mighty men.  (You may read its entirety in—2 Samuel 23:8-17) They were in the stronghold—danger—and we find this… “So, the Three broke through the Philistine lines, drew some water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem, and brought it back to David…” (Vs. 16) Did they have to risk their lives?  No.  Did they do it to be rewarded?  No.  They did it naturally due to their love for the King—King David.  And they worked together, in unity, for a great cause.  They loved David and he was so moved that it lead him to Worship the King!

There are people in “caves” all around us.  Someone needs to rescue them from their gradual “death.”  Is it you?  Is it me?  Is it us?  May we have the same courage as these cave dwellers we’re considered today.  And may it be done in the name of love!

This is my command: Love each other.   ~John 15:17

 Until Next Time…

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The trapped soccer team: What freedom really means

By Jim Denison

Twelve boys and their soccer coach went missing in a northern Thailand cave on June 23. The Tham Luang Nang Non cave system is a local tourist attraction but can flood severely during the rainy season. The boys and their coach became stranded in the dark tunnels by a sudden and continuous downpour.

Divers found them alive Monday evening. The video of their discovery made headlines around the world. But their saga is far from over.

The Wild Boar soccer team and its coach are trapped 1.2 miles into the cave, somewhere between eight hundred meters and one kilometer (0.6 miles) below the surface. They were found huddled together on a small incline, surrounded by water in a pitch-black chamber.

Huge pumps are now running to drain the cave complex so the boys can be rescued. However, Thailand is in the midst of its monsoon season. Heavy rains could make it impossible for the team to hike to safety.

Bringing the team out the way their rescuers went in is especially perilous. Cave diving is dangerous even for experienced divers. The safest option could be to leave the boys in place until water levels drop or a new entrance is discovered. However, if water levels rise too high, they could threaten the boys where they are.

Officials stated this morning that they will not attempt to move the boys before Thursday. They are working to set up phone lines inside the cave so the boys can talk to their parents.

Two weeks ago, the boys and their coach may have taken their freedom for granted. I doubt they will ever do so again.

Thomas Jefferson’s last public letter

The year was 1826, and America’s fiftieth Independence Day was approaching.

Roger Chew Weightman, the mayor of Washington, planned a great celebration. He invited the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll of Maryland—as well as former presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

None could attend, due to health issues and advancing age. However, on June 24, 1826, Jefferson wrote the mayor what became his last public letter. (He wrote two personal notes a day later.) In it, he defined what Independence Day is all about (punctuation and capitalization are his):

“may [the Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”

According to Jefferson, “that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred.”

He then offered his Independence Day hope: “let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Freedom is not free

“FREEDOM IS NOT FREE” is engraved on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Those who do not have freedom and those who defend it know that it’s so. The rest of us must “forever refresh our recollection of these rights” that we might embrace “an undiminished devotion to them.”

What will you do today to remember the Founders whose courage and sacrifice birthed our freedom? How will you remember those who fought and died that our nation might live and honor those who risk their lives for us today?

As you celebrate this day with family and friends, take a moment to thank God for our nation and our freedom. And pray for all Americans to experience the true freedom we have found in Christ.

The Bible states: “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Jesus promised: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

True independence requires dependence on God

How can Americans find the freedom only Christ can give?

Noah Webster, a revolutionary soldier later known as the “Schoolmaster to America,” wrote a History of the United States in 1832. In it, he boldly stated: “The religion which has introduced civil liberty, is the religion of Christ and his apostles, which enjoins humility, piety and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of government.”

In other words, true independence requires dependence on God.

Libraries and schools across our country display Jesus’ familiar promise: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But such displays omit his previous words: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (v. 31). Only then can we know the truth and be set free by it.

Will you abide in Jesus’ word today?

My response to President Trump’s executive order on immigrant families

By Jim Denison

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday afternoon stating that families seeking asylum should be detained together when “appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

The order maintains the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for illegal immigrants. It also instructs the Pentagon to make facilities available for the housing and care of immigrant families.

It directs the Attorney General to seek modification of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement to allow alien families to be kept together “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings.” And it requires the Attorney General to “prioritize the adjudication of cases involving detained families.”

In related news, the House will vote today on an immigration bill that would end family separations as part of a larger overhaul. “We can enforce our immigration laws without breaking families apart,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.

God is “Father of the fatherless”

As I noted on Tuesday, illegal immigration is an especially complicated theological issue.

We are charged by Scripture with obeying the government (Romans 13:1), but we are also to care for immigrants (Exodus 22:21; Hebrews 13:2) and children (Mark 10:14). It is difficult to devise a solution that satisfies law enforcement supporters as well as advocates for immigrants and their families.

I want to focus today on those at the center of the storm: the children. More than 2,300 have now been separated from parents seeking asylum or attempting to enter the US illegally.

In addition, 437,500 children were in foster care in the US by the end of fiscal year 2016. Many are in the foster care system because of substance abuse by their parents. And more than 2.5 million children are homeless in the United States. This historic high represents one out of every thirty children in America.

Of all the demographics in society, children are especially cherished in God’s word.

God’s Son could have entered the human race in any way he wished. The fact that the One by whom “all things were created” (Colossians 1:16) chose to enter his creation as a baby tells us what God thinks of children.

To reinforce this priority during his earthly ministry, Jesus took children “in his arms and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). Now he wants us to do the same.

Neglecting or mistreating children is a grave offense to God. Jesus stated, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Scripture proclaims: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5).

We are warned: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

One child can change the world

Any one of the children at the center of the border crisis could change the world. Consider a man whose recently published story I just read but whose impact on the world was immeasurable.

Josiah Henson was born into slavery. After horrific abuse from his owner, he led his family on a harrowing journey to Canada and freedom. Though he could barely read and could not write, Josiah became one of the most powerful orators, ministers, and businessmen of his day.

He founded a community for Africans in Canada that provided homes and livelihoods for thousands. He helped establish a school that educated generations. He made two fund-raising journeys to Great Britain, where he had a personal audience with Queen Victoria and preached in Charles Spurgeon’s church. He met personally with US President Rutherford Hayes as well.

Perhaps most notably, he served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel which unmasked the horrors of slavery in the Old South and played a decisive role in the Civil War.

No one who met Josiah Henson as a child could have imagined the eternal impact he would make on the world.

The hands by which we embrace the future

One child can indeed change the world. How can we pray for the children at the heart of the immigration crisis?

One: Ask God to protect them, provide for their needs, and unite them with their families quickly.

Two: Intercede for those ministering to children and families in the border area. Look for ways you and your church can partner with them to provide support for those in crisis.

Three: Pray urgently for our nation to value children as God does. Abortion is an ongoing tragedy that grieves the heart of God. Ronald Reagan was right: “Abortion is advocated only by persons who have themselves been born.” Child trafficking and child pornography are grievous, heinous sins.

Every crisis contains a call. The immigration conflict of our day is an opportunity to seek and share Jesus’ love for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

As Josiah Henson shows, children are the hands by which we embrace the future.

What’s Up with the Southern Baptist Convention?

I haven’t written about our denomination lately.  It’s not that I am ashamed or think others have absolutely no interest (though I know some don’t).  But I am today…

I am a third generation Southern Baptist Pastor.  My son is the fourth and my daughter married one, too.  I grew up attending the yearly meetings as a child.  I loved it because it also doubled as our vacation.  (No, I did not have to attend many meetings because it was difficult for my dad to keep me focused.  There were no gadgets to speak of back in those days. 🙂 ) I attended at least one convention in Dallas growing up and I’ve attended three as an adult, including the one my wife, Kellie, and I just attended.

What hasn’t changed?

>We still make a great commotion about the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)

>We still are people of the book—THE BIBLE—is our authority

>We still cooperate, especially through the funding of the Cooperative Program

>We still provide a plethora of resources for churches to accomplish their mission

>We still have a few goofy messengers go to the mic during business sessions of the annual meetings and ask goofy questions or make goofy statements.  (Trust me, I’m being nice. Think of some Baptist business meetings you’ve been in before, if ever.  If so, Ok, there, you got it! 🙂 )

What has changed?

~A new direction in leadership  

J.D. Greear, a young dynamic Pastor serving Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C., is our new President.  He was elected with an overwhelming majority vote during the meeting in Dallas.  He will bring needed fresh vision and leadership.  He has a track record in missions and evangelism.  He has authored several books.  He’s the “man” as far as I’m concerned, and I did not go to the convention planning on voting for him.  My decision evolved over time and I’m very excited about the enthusiasm within our convention that has been lacking for some time.  Please pray for him.

~A new direction in diversity

I have never seen so many various ethnicities represented in the convention meetings and hallways.  It was exciting to see how far we’ve come as a denomination.  We were once lily white!  No more, my friends! Hallelujah praise the King! And various trustees that don’t look at all like me were elected to Boards, Leadership positions, and Agencies.  I truly believe we’ve “turned the corner” and there will be no going back!  As some of you know, racial reconciliation is a passion of mine, so, naturally, this personally impacts me in a positive way!

~A new direction for women

Southern Baptist are making an effort to be much more inclusive toward women.  An example would be that Southeastern Seminary has a woman as the Chairman of Trustees.  That’s a first for any of our six seminaries!  And others will follow suit in time.  We also passed at least one resolution concerning absolutely no tolerance for the abuse of women that has been in the news recently.  It’s critical that Southern Baptists go on record that we support the biblical mandate of valuing females.  I think you would have been proud of this reality at the convention during discussions on this subject.  Yes, it’s a new day!  And it’s time.

I believe our best days are ahead—sort of like Fifth Avenue!

WHAT MIGHT BIG HAROLD SAY THIS TIME? 

Hal_4186While attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid 80’s, my parents came to Dallas for the much-anticipated Southern Baptist Convention.  (See picture)  I must admit, I didn’t know the full scope of what the fuss was all about.  I believed the bible was God’s Word and it seemed to me both sides did.  So, what was the deal?  Well, I better understand now.  But then, I just knew my daddy was going to buy my breakfast, lunch, and dinner!  That’s always good for a hungry seminary student! 🙂 I also knew I was going to be able to spend time with him.  He was my hero!

WHY DID I REFER TO HIM AS BIG HAROLD?  Just to be sure, I didn’t call him this until I was older.  He’d smile because he knew that it was a term of endearment.  (Some of my close friends called him this, too—but not to his face.  Well, there was that one time when my buddy Bill Jones from Kosciusko did.  That’s a story for another time. 🙂 )  Listen, the name fit.  Harold means “leader.”  He was a fantastic leader. And he was larger than life—as well as being physically large.  He stood about 6’3” and weighed a lot more than me.  (After graduating from MC, having played and starred in basketball at Clinton High and Mississippi College, he rarely ran again. 🙂 )  I often think of my dad around Father’s Day, especially this year due to the convention being in Dallas and the reality that it, too, is a much-anticipated convention.  Not because of a “battle over the Bible,” but due to other issues.  There is a buzz about the recent vacancies within leadership positions in the SBC and over some doctrinal differences.  Hadn’t heard?  Just google and you’ll find plenty of information.  But be careful what you read and please try to balance the information.  It is it important?  YES!  Is the sky falling?  I don’t think so.

SO, BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION… What might my daddy, affectionately known as Big Harold to some, say to me about this year’s Southern Baptist Convention…

>Those that seem to have all the answers, usually don’t even know the questions.

 You got to know, I was 27 when my dad died.  I didn’t always fully understand his sayings at that point.  But basically, what he was telling me is to don’t presume to know it all and be cautious of those that think they do.  I get sort of tickled at some of what I’ve been reading leading up to this year’s convention.  I just sort of smile and think to myself, daddy was right.  🙂 Some things are better left unsaid.  And it’s almost as if I can hear him say, “buddy, keep your mouth shut!”

>Vote your convictions—that’s Baptist polity 101.

 After graduating from seminary, my dad gave me a reading assignment.  He bought me a book on Baptist Polity by Dr. James Sullivan and encouraged me to read it.  Folks, that was the last thing I wanted to read at that point in my life.  I suffered through it and now understand.  Honestly, at this point in my life, I think we would have voted somewhat differently at the 1985 SBC in Dallas.  But I think we would vote the same in the one coming up in a few weeks.  That’s ok.  It’s part of being a Southern Baptist.  And the personality of those being voted on for President should never be the deciding factor for who to vote for—convictions should be.  Look at the overall responsibilities of the President and remember that cool is cool, but it’s not as important as the other C word—convictions.

>Enjoy your family, friends, and food. 

 Daddy built our family vacations around the Southern Baptist Convention.  It was great!  I swam, went to sleep during the sessions I had to endure, and enjoyed watching my dad laugh with his buddies.  Honestly, I think he enjoyed his time with buds more than anything.  He loved messing with them and they enjoyed messing with him.  🙂  And trust me, he didn’t get the name BIG for eating grains and bark off trees.  He knew how to eat.  Furthermore, the Mississippi College Ice Cream social was not an option for any of us.  Not because his dad taught at MC and was awarded an Alumnus of the Year once.  Not because he graduated from MC and was also voted Alumnus of the Year once. (Only Father/Son to do so.)  No, no, no—because it was the ultimate time to hang out with old friends and EAT ICE CREAM!  (I followed suit until they changed the menu a few years ago. Ain’t nobody got time for dipped strawberries in chocolate without ice cream!  Come on Man! 🙂 )  Take God seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.  Life is way too short.

Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God.  Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.  ~Hebrews 13:7

Happy Southern Baptist Convention and Happy Father’s Day everyone…

 

What I would have added to the royal wedding

By Jim Denison

History was made Saturday in Great Britain. The day after another horrific shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, it was good to watch good news. When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married before a watching world, we witnessed a fascinating mix of tradition and innovation.

There was much in the wedding to celebrate. But I would have added a vital element to the ceremony.

Celebrating inclusiveness

Seated directly opposite Queen Elizabeth II was Meghan Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, a descendant of slaves on plantations in the American South. A black choir sang; a black cellist performed; a black minister preached. African-American women flew from America to join the procession in the streets and participate in history.

Denise Crawford, a court stenographer from Brooklyn, made my favorite observation of the day: “One of the children of slaves is marrying a royal whose forerunners sanctioned slavery; the lion is lying down with the lamb.” She added, “Today is a day that history will never forget.”

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:28). Nor should there be in ours.

Observing tradition

The couple’s decision to wed on a Saturday was unusual, as royal weddings usual occur on weekdays. The Queen was married on a Thursday; William and Kate were married on a Friday.

However, their choice of Windsor Castle was traditional, making them the sixteenth royal couple to celebrate their marriage at the castle since 1863. I have visited the site and can attest to its stunning architecture and remarkable history.

The castle was built in the eleventh century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. It is the now the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

St. George’s Chapel, the site of the wedding service, was established in the fourteenth century and expanded in the following centuries. Henry VIII is buried there; Queen Elizabeth plans to be buried there as well.

The Bible commends the significance of history and tradition. It instructs the Jewish people to remember the Exodus during each year’s Passover (Exodus 12:26–27) and encourages us to learn from past events as an “example” for our faith (1 Corinthians 10:11). It was good to see a wonderful royal tradition continue.

A powerful sermon on love

American Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry delivered an impassioned sermon. He has been criticized for his support for gay marriage and commended for his work with social justice and immigration.

In his powerful message, he stated that “Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history. A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world—and a movement mandating people to live that love, and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.”

Later, he stated that Jesus “gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world . . . for us.”

Everything he said was true. I wouldn’t change a word of his sermon. But I would add a section to it.

Adding the gospel

I would add that the way we experience this life-changing love is by repenting of our sins and making Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. I would add that Jesus alone is the way, and the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). I would add, as Peter testified, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

My statement is not a personal criticism of Bishop Curry. I have attended many weddings over the years where the biblical plan of salvation was not clearly presented. Each time, I have lamented that those in attendance, many of whom do not regularly attend church services, did not learn how they could experience eternal life in Christ.

Queen Elizabeth has been a strong Christian since she was young. In Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen (an excellent biography I highly recommend), we learn that her mother read Bible stories to her and instructed her in the Book of Common Prayer. As a result, she “developed a deeply held Christian faith” and still kneels to pray each night.

However, unlike the Queen, many in our culture see biblical morality as irrelevant if not dangerous. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle lived together for several months before their marriage, as did William and Kate before theirs. Many of the celebrities who attended the wedding have been outspoken in their rejection of biblical sexual morality.

The answer is not to condemn people but to invite them to know and follow Jesus. When people meet him, they become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But only then.

“Redeemed sinners with sinless Redeemer”

The wedding that made history is now history. But we can continue to celebrate inclusiveness and learn from history. And we can make sure those we influence know how to know Jesus personally.

As C. S. Lewis noted, “We are summoned . . . to combine as creatures with our Creator, as mortals with immortal, as redeemed sinners with sinless Redeemer.” Will you honor your Redeemer by sharing your redemption today?

REFLECTING ON FOUR YEARS AS PASTOR…

The Bolts—not the ones in the air—are big here.   I  played baseball once upon a time, so, I knew about the Rays.  And I have become a Rays fan, even though I still pull for the Cardinals, Braves, and the Royals. J  But I had no idea how big the Tampa Bay Lightning (aka Bolts) was down here.  It may be because I was not a hockey fan?  They are vital to our community.  Many fans exist of what I still consider a “northern” sport.  It’s been fun to enjoy their success as a team and observe a winning professional team in our area, unlike some of the other professional teams in our area.  (Sorry, but it’s true, but I still pull for them.)  There are bumper stickers, posters, and rabid fans everywhere.  I like it.  But, I still don’t like hockey.  One of our deacons, his name is John and he welcomes people as they come in the buildings on Sundays, continues to try to make a hockey fan out of me.  You may need to pray for him because it ain’t happening so far. J  BTW—the bolts in the air are big too.  Wow!

My Southern—not to be confused with the country—accent drawls—attention.  (You see what I did there?)  Now, I had served in FL before moving here four years ago, but not South Florida.  Even though I had been chided in the past about my accent, nothing like what has occurred here.  Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me, unless they say country.  (Friend, I can take you to “country” on our upcoming mission trip to my beloved home state, but I can assure you that I ain’t country! J)  So, I try to use it to my advantage.  It’s sort of like me listening to an English accent.  I ask them questions just to hear them talk.  When outsiders ask me where I am from and what I am doing down here… man, I go for it! J  I love the people of St. Pete!

Fifth Avenue is made up of the most eclectic group of folks—which is a good thing—I’ve ever pastored.  When I moved here we had a certain amount of cultural representation.  I have noticed an expansion of various people groups becoming the norm.  There is not much more I could be excited about than this reality.  Why?  Because it better represents the body of Christ as well as our community.  May HIS Tribe increase!

AFTER THIS I SAW A VAST CROWD, TOO GREAT TO COUNT, FROM EVERY NATION AND TRIBE AND PEOPLE AND LANGUAGE, STANDING IN FRONT OF THE THRONE AND BEFORE THE LAMB…  Revelation 7:9