Month: December 2020

Our help comes from the LORD!

Welcome to 2021! I have heard a lot of people say they would be glad when 2020 is over. The turning of a calendar does not mean that anything really changes. What we encounter may be very similar. 

The coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives in unforgettable ways. We have lost precious friends and relatives. People have suffered economically. Our lives have been impacted to the point they may never return to what we call normal. A vaccine and better treatment may help but there will always be the specter of some dreaded disease beyond the horizon.

The political climate in our country is toxic. Irreparable damage to relationships and even ministries has taken place. While what kind of leaders we have matters, our concern as believers must ultimately be about the advancement of the gospel. Being the citizens of two worlds is difficult. Some are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good; others are so earthly minded that they are no heavenly good. Balance is vital.

Racial conflict has reached a fever pitch in our country. I know that some of our brothers and sisters have suffered because of the sin of racism. Even important issues in our society must be viewed through our identity as followers of Christ. Galatians 3:28 tells us we are brothers and sisters in the Lord. Our fellowship is based on him, not the color of our skin or our ethnicity. We are one in Christ.

As most of you know, I am transitioning from my role as executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Our staff has been repositioned to serve the churches better. The SBTC is financially sound. We are looking to the future with great anticipation of God’s favor. Soon my responsibility before the Lord for leading this ministry will be over. The next leader will have challenges I cannot even imagine. With the baggage of today and the uncertainty of tomorrow, what are we to do?

There is only one answer to this question. It is found in Psalm 121. There were many other contributors to the divine song book besides David. Some scholars say that Hezekiah could have written this Psalm. Hezekiah was a good king of Judah, but he often found himself in a difficult place. Isaiah 36 tells of an army threatening to destroy Jerusalem. Hezekiah cast himself on the Lord because he knew he could not win the battle. This Psalm could be Hezekiah’s tribute to God’s presence in time of trouble.

The question in verse one is, “I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?” If Hezekiah wrote this Psalm, he could have been discounting the pagan religious practices often held on high places. Assistance would not come from these. He could have been looking for the armies of Egypt to appear on the horizon to break the siege of the city. In verse two we find the Psalmist’s answer, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  

Our help will not come from creation or creature but the Creator. Help does not come from the mountains but from the One who made them. He is the sovereign God of the universe. Our God is like no other. We look to him regardless of what year it is, or what our circumstances are. As we press on through 2021, let us stay together for Jesus’ sake. Let us look to our Lord who will either deliver us from chaos or through it. 

Let us look up for this could be the year Jesus comes again! Maranatha!  

Is being “pro-life” pro-life enough?

This discussion is not new but the call to make “pro-life” a term that encompasses nearly every compassionate cause has gained ground as a new generation reaches voting age. 

A columnist at Religion News Service recently, the day before the election, called for the pro-life label to be “rescued” from those who believe abortion is the killing of a human person. Jonathan Merritt’s column was the same old stuff about how anti-abortionists are hypocrites who care too little about the already born, and he seemed to be primarily worried that evangelicals might vote differently from him. We’ve faced the accusation of hypocrisy for decades from those who never knew us. Wherever it turns up, the list of things lacking from the convictions of pro-lifers sounds a lot like a party platform, a pro-abortion one.  

But some who are actually against abortion on demand also support broadening the term to include everything from criminal justice reform to immigration reform to fighting climate change. Let me make two arguments against redefining a term its detractors seem to think is no more than brilliant marketing by hypocrites. 

First, those who want to make “pro-life” mean “everything compassionate” do harm to the term without helping anyone. If a term works for the anti-abortion movement, it doesn’t mean that it will improve the priority of everything else you shove under it. It’s like other identities or slogans: it begins with a specific meaning. Making it mean everything will make it mean nothing. In some cases, making it mean nothing is the agenda. 

Here’s an example of how this dissipation of meaning works. “Evangelical” at one point had a specific meaning, intended to distinguish those who believe in salvation by grace and the inerrancy of Scripture from increasingly liberal Protestants. Now, used popularly in the press, it means any Christian who is not a Catholic. Universalists call themselves evangelical in some cases, as do those who doubt the truth of the Bible, as do open theists (who believe God is limited in knowledge and power). There was no reason to coin a term if it would include unorthodox Christians alongside biblical ones. We already had that. The need was to identify one group as different from another. Now, to refer to yourself as “evangelical” requires a lengthy explanation. 

My second argument has to do with message. Pro-lifers have been saying from the start that we believe a nation that legalizes and funds abortion for any reason and at any stage lacks a commitment to life. When we say we are pro-life, we are saying the nation is not. Legal abortion on demand is the most egregious reason we believe this to be true. Our nation is wrong-headed about other things, but this one is most terrible in our generation. You can’t say that about every cause you consider life-affirming; only one thing can be number one.   

Our nation spends billions on health care for the poor and food for the hungry. We corporately decry our racist history. We don’t generally agree about environmentalism, but we also have a truckload of regulations about clean water and air quality. Regarding these issues, you can always make the argument that we don’t do enough, quickly enough, but you can’t argue that we, as a political body or culture, do nothing. These causes have advocates among the powerful and the support of more law than you can lift.  

Abortion is as different from hunger as homicide is from neglect. We should not do anything to muddle that distinction.

So long as we, as taxpayers, fund the nation’s number one abortion provider, abortion is not just another life-related issue. So long as some politicians, for fear of the abortion lobby, deny medical treatment to a child born alive accidentally during an abortion, we are not a pro-life nation, regardless of how generally compassionate we are. This is an evil thing we do and praise rather than a good thing we do inadequately—a sin of commission, not of omission.  

I’d add in closing that the accusation that pro-lifers neglect the already born—orphans and single moms, the poor and the elderly, the hungry, and those suffering from natural disasters—is puzzling. Where this work is done, you can’t turn around without running into a Bible-spouting, pro-life Christian. Maybe we don’t do enough, but saying we care only about the unborn is slander. Pro-lifers work on important issues as well as on the ultimate one. 

Stick with “pro-life” to describe the unique work of those fighting for the helpless ones who have too few friends in Washington. People who are not pro-life do not get to tell us what to call ourselves. 

Churches actively promote adoption and fostering

Editor’s note: Jan. 17 is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday

Southern Baptist churches in Texas are reflecting the gospel by serving kids and families in the areas of foster care and adoption, where the needs are great. 

Even before the pandemic, the nation’s foster system was strained. In January 2019 there were 29,927 children in foster care in Texas, and 3,378 children waiting for adoptive families. According to Adoption, Inc., more than 60 percent of those available for adoption nationwide spend two to five years in the foster care system. 

Lakepointe Church in Rockwall, Fielder Church in Arlington and Houston’s First Baptist Church see the tragedy of children who hurt, and their families—biological or adoptive—as desperately in need of God’s unconditional love.

“We have a heart to love on all sides of what happens in foster care and adoption,” said Kasi Pruitt, director of Lakepointe’s foster care and adoption ministry. “No matter how you enter [the situation] there’s brokenness involved. We want to be a light in the darkness and bring God glory in the midst of some really hard situations.”

At Fielder, Maddie Huang serves as missions associate with specific responsibility for the church’s adoption and foster care ministry. 

“Our over-arching vision statement is to inhale and exhale the gospel and make disciples who do the same,” Huang told the TEXAN. “One way we exhale is pursuing children through adoption and foster care. It’s an outward expression of living out the gospel.” 

Legacy 685, an adoption, foster and orphan care ministry of Houston’s First Baptist Church serves Christian families in the church and in the community, said Toni Steere, the ministry’s director. The ministry focuses on resourcing foster and adoptive families in the church and community.

“Our goal is to come to a place where there are more than enough resources for all these families,” Steere told the TEXAN. “Many families become discouraged when fostering because of a lack of resources and support.” 

LAKEPOINTE

Not everyone is called to adopt or foster, but every person can help in one way or another, said Pruitt. Lakepointe’s adoption/foster care—A/FC—ministry started with a dozen couples, 15 years ago, who wanted to help others like them.

Adoption and foster care is a heartbeat of Lakepointe, Pruitt said. Countless families have jumped in to serve. More and more leadership and staff are becoming adoptive or foster families, and this is flowing outward into the church body as well. The church desires to equip and support these foster and adoptive families.

Lakepointe life groups rally around the person or couple, offering emotional and physical support. The church provides counseling on an as-needed basis for adults and/or children, a monthly support group with childcare, CPR training, gift cards for families when a new child enters their home, and grants for families who are in the adoption process.

A quarterly “respite night” gives the fostering and adopting parents a three-hour break. A community-wide conference held annually since 2006 has grown to  about 700 attendees. 

Lakepointe also partners with local government offices by supporting caseworkers and helping birth families as they work towards reunification. 

“That’s what we’re called to do as believers, to love them and serve them,” Pruitt said. “God calls us to the hard [tasks], to sacrifice and love people. These kiddos are made in God’s image. He loves them and wants them to know him. …

“We love the children and also are trying to love their biological families as well,” Pruitt continued. “You’re able to see healing happen, families restored and see God move in amazing ways. We do that out of love for God and love for people.

“Out of the overflow of what God has done for us, we in turn do that for others,” Pruitt said. “God sacrificed for us; we sacrifice for others. God shows us compassion; we do that for others. God is good to us; we are good to others.”

FIELDER

Jason Paredes, pastor, rolled out a 14-goal, 10-year vision in 2016 at Fielder Church, where pre-COVID about 4,000 people attended worship. One of those goals is that 1,000 children will be fostered or adopted by 2026.

“We pray a lot as church staff and ask the Lord to move in people’s hearts,” Huang said. “Adoption and foster care are a normal part of the culture at Fielder. It’s talked about a lot from the pulpit and is in front of people a lot. We say, ‘Would you put your yes on the table when it comes to bringing a child into your home?’”

To date, 97 fostered and adopted children have become part of Fielder, and 48 families are in the process to either foster or adopt, Huang said. 

Among the church’s multiple ministries for A/FC are a “First Steps Q&A” night that includes presentations by outside experts, a virtual support group, quarterly respite and family fun nights, meals for new placement families, and financial assistance to families adopting.

There’s Adoption Sunday every November, Huang said. “We bring awareness to the need, celebrate families in the A/FC process, and challenge our church body, ‘Would you consider adopting or fostering?’”

At least 40 of Fielder’s community groups make “First Night Bags” for youngsters going to foster families—unfamiliar environments for the children who have nothing but the clothes they’re wearing. The bags include age-appropriate pajamas, toothbrushes, small toys and more. In late fall, Christmas baskets—filled with such items as kid games, restaurant gift cards, gingerbread house kits—are distributed to agencies to give to their clients.

Fielder intentionally normalizes A/FC for the church’s large Hispanic community, where adoption and foster care are culturally less common. 

“We exist to lead, shepherd and equip families to exhale the gospel by relieving children through foster care and adoption,” Huang said. “We do so because we’re compelled by the gospel to care for orphans and other vulnerable children here in our city and around the world.”

HOUSTON’S FIRST

The foster and adoption ministry Legacy 685 at Houston’s First Baptist Church started in 2008 when six families who had fostered or adopted children gathered for mutual encouragement and information sharing. 

The ministry derives its name from Psalm 68:5-6a, “believing firmly that it is God who forms forever families and God who sustains these families,” Steere said. “Legacy 685 speaks to the power of the redemptive and restorative legacy through adoption.”   

The ministry founders saw a need “to provide connection, community and funding to families compelled to move toward the miracle of adoption in compassion for the orphan,” according to the church’s website. 

The initial plan has evolved to connecting families to families as well as financial resources; equipping families with relevant, biblical, trauma-informed resources, and sustaining foster and adoptive families on their healing journey, Steere said.

“In our area there’s very little support for birth moms who are creating an adoption plan for their babies, for the 5,000 or more children across greater Houston entering the foster system who need safe places to land, as well as for the families wanting to adopt internationally,” Steere explained. 

In addition to the church family, which pre-COVID gathered 10,000 or more for worship, “Our mom’s group serves over 50 churches that do not have the ability to resource and support families who foster or adopt,” Steere said. “At Houston’s First Baptist, we provide monthly gatherings where families [from both the church and the metro area] can feel supported, build community and receive needed parenting resources.

“We have found traditional parenting skills often fail for those rearing foster and adopted children,” the director continued. “As a ministry we are committed to providing relevant, biblical tools for families as they seek to walk with their children toward emotional, physical, relational and spiritual health.”

Legacy 685 at Houston’s First is dedicated to connecting families to families, equipping and sustaining them throughout the journey, Steere said. Families gather at the church Sunday evenings to be prepared mentally, emotionally and spiritually before fostering or adopting.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

There is a need for people to take children into their homes, to help them become people who love God, leaders from all three churches said. There also is a need to minister to the parents, who deal daily, even hourly, with impulses of children still reacting to the trauma they experienced before they received a new life.  

“Everybody can do something,” Pruitt, Huang and Steere agreed. 

Money can help provide contents for “First Night” bags, school clothes, mini golf for the family, even a parents’ date night.

Students and adults can become certified babysitters. Students who can read and write can help those behind in their grade level. Those who can cook can provide an evening or Sunday meal for a harried new mom or dad. Everyone can pray. 

Steere said, “There’s no reason the body of Christ cannot provide more than enough resources for children in need and for families giving God their yes.”

Fielder’s Paredes, a father of six including two adopted children, summed up the heart of the ministry in comments to the TEXAN: “Adoption and foster care are such tangible and powerful examples of God’s unconditional love expressed in the gospel. As we pursue a child who hasn’t earned our love and doesn’t always love us back, we show the world the Father’s love for us.” 

Pixar’s “Soul”: a mixed bag for Christian families but with great life messages

Editor’s note: This monthly series, “5 Family-Friendly Things,” spotlights five family-friendly entertainment choices on film, DVDs, streaming or television.

The phrase “family-friendly”—as every parent knows—is subjective. The film your neighbor says is fine for the children might not be so family-friendly in your home.

Such is the case with the new Pixar movie Soul (PG), which tells the story of a super-talented young musician, Joe, who is on the verge of a big career break when he unexpectedly dies. Joe, though, wasn’t ready to die, so when his soul enters the “Great Beyond”—that’s what it’s called in the movie—he runs back down the eternal staircase and ends up in the “Great Before,” the place where souls get their personalities before going to Earth. 

There, in the Great Beyond, Joe is confused for being someone else and is given the job of “mentoring” souls. (Think: Big Brother/Big Sister.) He is paired with a notoriously difficult soul—No. 22—who has the attitude of a moody teenager and who supposedly made her previous mentor, Mother Teresa, cry.

Joe’s job is to help No. 22 find her “spark”—that is, her talents and goals in life. 

The film then takes an even crazier turn during a mishap that places the duo on Earth in the wrong bodies: No. 22 in Joe’s body, and Joe in the body of a cat.

This unfortunate event, though, ends up being a blessing for the duo: No. 22 (Tina Fey) finds her spark and talents, while Joe (Jamie Foxx)—by watching himself interact with others—realizes his life was not meaningless.

The plot, of course, is hogwash from a biblical perspective. 

But as a parable about life, Soul can teach moviegoers a lot. Here’s why: Much of the plot takes place not in the Great Beyond or Great Before, but on our planet.

And although Joe’s job is to mentor No 22, she ends up educating him. She teaches him to slow down and enjoy the simple blessings of life—like enjoying a nice walk or a beautiful, blue sky. (She’s thrilled about both.) She helps him appreciate his mother in a way he never had. She (and others) also help Joe discover an important truth that has a biblical foundation: Everyone is unique and special.

Finally, Joe learns that his life’s goal—to play in a well-known band—doesn’t bring true happiness. (After his first show, he tells someone, “I thought it would feel different.”) His barber, Dez, tells Joe he grew up wanting to be a veterinarian. But Dez tells Joe his life as a barber couldn’t be better: “I’m happy as a clam. … I love this job. I get to meet interesting folks like you, make them happy and make them handsome.” The story urges us to be content—a message straight out of Scripture.  

To be sure, the message in Soul is incomplete, and Christian parents will need to fill in the blanks. Still, it’s a good conversation-starter about God’s purpose for life.

Soul contains no coarse language, sexuality or violence, yet it’s a mixed bag for families because of its mixed bag of worldviews. After all, “family-friendly” can have different meanings.  

Soul launches on Disney Plus Christmas Day.

Also worth watching this month:

The Last Champion (VOD)  A disgraced athlete returns to his small hometown years after he was stripped of his wrestling gold medal due to drugs. There, he meets an old friend—and her pastor-father—who teaches him about redemption and second chances. Cole Hauser (Yellowstone) stars in the lead role. It’s one of the best family films of the year. Due to minor language (OMG, 2; and a–, 2) and a fight scene, this PG-13 film is best for older children and teens. 

Hardy Boys (Hulu)  Brothers Frank and Joe Hardy move to the small town of Bridgeport, Conn., following the surprising death of their mother. There, they discover the truth about their mom’s death and set out to find out who murdered her. The series, based on the books, remains in family-friendly territory, with no sexuality or graphic violence, and only minor language (I caught only a total of two coarse words, h–, after watching multiple episodes.) Due to the plot, this series may be best for older children and teens. Rated TV-PG.  

‘The Croods: A New Age’ (Theaters, VOD)  The Croods family meets another family, the modern-living Bettermans, sparking a clash of cultures. It’s a hilarious film with no coarse language and no sexuality (minus the grandma donning a two-piece warrior outfit). It includes a family-centric, Father of the Bride-type plot. The film’s conclusion begs the question: Does every technological advancement make our lives better? Rated PG for peril, action and rude humor.

Real Right Stuff (Disney Plus)  It’s a 90-minute documentary that spotlights the Mercury 7 astronauts—John Glenn among them—who helped America catch the Russians in the Space Race. The film includes radio broadcasts, interviews, home movies and other never-before-seen material. Rated TV-PG. 

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and entertainment for more than 15 years. He is the husband to Julie and the father of four young children.

Dallas sidewalk artist creates community at Christmas amid COVID

DALLAS  Sidewalk artist Greg Rogers is at it again in his suburban Dallas neighborhood: this time creating chalk art celebrating Christmas even as health authorities warn against gathering for the season.

The businessman—a self-taught artist, writer and avid stage designer—started doing sidewalk art during the initial weeks of last spring’s COVID-19 lockdown, encouraging his neighbors with reminders of the world as it was … culminating in a large version of the Easter story.

Admitting he “had no idea it would mean so much to so many,” Rogers watched in wonder as his transitory masterpieces prompted socially distanced conversation, brought neighbors into contact with neighbors and drew viewers from across the DFW Metroplex. They came in cars and on foot, some making a day trip of it.

At that point, Rogers realized, “COVID and its disruption of all our busy schedules might be doing something positive without our realizing it … getting families to do things together as we looked for a sense of normalcy in strange times.” 

Community, Rogers added, “was actually coming together more during a quarantine than what we’d experienced when we were supposedly free to talk anytime at any distance.” The sidewalk art gave a centralized destination to which people were drawn.

As cold, rainy weather hit in late fall, Rogers did fewer chalk pieces. 

Neighbors, wearied by COVID fatigue and fall surges in the Dallas area, retreated into their own homes. The few people who stopped to chat while Rogers played his guitar outside seemed preoccupied with the ongoing pandemic and spoke of the depression wrought by isolation.

“I decided I needed to get busy again to see if we could regain what we’d stumbled upon because of COVID,” Rogers said. Christmas proved the catalyst and subject. 

It worked.

“We’ve had many people come to see the work,” Rogers said. “As we’ve watched from our dining room window, we’ve begun to see groups talking to each other from socially safe distances, with smiles on their faces and a little bit more energy than before.”

Rogers believes in community. “We were created by God in part to relate to one another,” he said, explaining that if we don’t engage with others, we lose not just community but a part of ourselves.  “If the art can be a magnet and a destination where individuals, families, and neighbors can find a little of that again, then I’ll keep drawing forever.”

And it is the Christmas story of hope that promises reconciliation between humankind and God, a truth Rogers hopes those who view his art will discover or reaffirm.

SBTC consultant Rod Masteller dies after contracting COVID-19

DALLAS (LBM)—Rod Masteller, 75, a retired pastor from Louisiana who served as a consultant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for the past two years, died Dec. 13 in Dallas due to COVID-19 complications.  

Masteller was a pastor for nearly 50 years, leading a number of congregations in Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, and he served in several denominational roles at the state and national levels.

REFLECTIONS

Those who knew him said his leadership and service were shaped by his deep love of God’s Word as well as his passion for pouring himself into the discipleship of others. He also was known for his deep unending love of family.

Rodney Gage, pastor of ReThink Life Church, Orlando, Florida, said that family was near and dear to his father-in-law.

“He loved his daughters, his sons-in-law and his grandchildren,” Gage said. “He had saved for years to fulfill his dream to take his entire family on an all-expense paid trip to Israel. He wanted it to serve as a legacy trip to mark our lives forever by walking where Jesus walked. He fulfilled that dream in November of 2019.  It was truly the trip of a lifetime we will never forget.”

“His life, ministry and love for others were shaped by Philippians 3:10,” he told the Baptist Message. “He wanted others to know Jesus and to grow as His disciples with a deep love for His Word.”

Gage also said Masteller was devoted to disciple-making, mentoring scores of businessmen and young pastors.

One of his protégés, Nathan Lorick, now serves as the executive director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention.

Lorick expressed sadness for the loss of a close mentor, but was equally thankful for Masteller’s ministry and friendship—even during these last few days.

“Rod took a chance on a 17-year-old who had more passion than he did wisdom, and he shepherded me in my walk with Christ and in ministry,” Lorick shared. “He was the greatest encourager. When I would text him at the hospital to find out how he was doing, his messages back to me were about me. Even in his final days he was seeking to mentor and encourage me.

“He was one of the godliest men I have ever known,” Lorick added. “His heart beat for the holiness of God.”

Jimmy Draper, a two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a past president of LifeWay Christian Resources, described Masteller as a close friend and a fellow leader in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“He and I shared many experiences over the years and had a lot of great discussions about our denomination and the churches of the SBC,” Draper said. “He was a people person who poured his life into younger ministers.

“He was a dynamic preacher of the Gospel and has remained busy in preaching even since retiring,” Draper continued. “He has left a remarkable legacy of faithfulness that will long endure beyond his actual lifetime. He served well and finished strong!”

Louisiana Baptist Convention leaders said Masteller made a lasting impact in the state because of his love for evangelism and discipleship.

Heath Peloquin, pastor of Summer Grove Baptist Church, said he met Masteller when they were co-workers with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and that they have remained friends ever since.

“Dr. Rod Masteller was a beloved pastor here at Summer Grove Baptist Church,” Peloquin said. “He was a dear friend, and greatly respected within our church and community. Brother Rod loved people, and he was loved by so many. We will miss him, but we know that he is with the Lord. We are praying for Linda, and their family.”

Steve Horn, LBC executive director, said Masteller will be remembered for his legacy of leadership.

“What a gift Dr. Rod Masteller was to Louisiana Baptists,” Horn said. “Though he was only in our state for about 15 years, he left an unforgettable mark.

“He had a passion to know Christ and make Him known. He had a passion to invest in the next generation of leaders,” Horn explained. “I am grateful to the Lord for Rod’s investment in my life. Every time I spoke to Rod, I wanted to be a better man, husband, dad, son, friend, preacher, leader and disciple. He was such an encourager. I’ve lost a true friend. I will miss him.”

MILESTONES

While Masteller served the Summer Grove congregation (1998-2011), he baptized 1,527 new believers, leading Louisiana Baptists in baptisms (287) in 1999. Three years in a row, 1998-2000, the church baptized more than 10 percent of the of its average worship attendance under his leadership.

He also was elected to two terms as president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, 2010-2011. Later, he served as vice president of external advancement and director of the Joseph Willis Institute for Great Awakening at Louisiana College (2011-2013).

Before coming to Louisiana, he served two terms as president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (1987-88).

He was named chairman of the SBC Credentials Committee (1988) and was appointed to the denomination’s Committee on Committees (2003).

After leaving Louisiana, he and his wife moved to Frisco, Texas, to be closer to family. While there he served the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as a consultant to pastors and other church leaders, 2018-20, and was an interim pastor for multiple congregations in that state.

Masteller earned the Bachelor of Arts from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and the Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Additionally, he was honored with a Doctor of Divinity degree from California Graduate School of Theology located in La Habra, California, and a Doctor of Sacred Theology from Southwest Baptist University.

PERSONAL

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Linda Jines Masteller, their four daughters, Michelle Gage (Rodney), Kim Welch (Ryan), Crystal Gornto (Scott), and Heather Oathout (Brian), as well as 11 grandchildren: Becca Patti, Ashlyn Segur, Luke Gage; Sophia,  Ben, and Beau Welch; Noah and Oakley Gornto; Isabelle, Grace and Carter Oathout; and, a sister, Karen Duncan (Randy).

Gage said the family has set up “The Making of a Legacy Project” to honor his father-in-law’s emphasis on mentoring the next generation. It is based on the life and legacy principles Masteller used to disciple others. He said in lieu of flowers, donations can be made online by accessing https://www.rethinklife.com/legacy, which also shares more about the vision for this memorial initiative.

A private celebration of life service will be streamed Dec. 17, 10 a.m. CST, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/rodmasteller.

—This first appeared on the Louisiana Baptist Message website 

Southern Baptists warn about LGBTQ proposals to Biden

WASHINGTON (BP)  A new agenda proposed to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden by the country’s leading gay and transgender rights organization poses a serious threat to religious freedom, especially that of Christian colleges and universities, Southern Baptist leaders have warned.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) – America’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) civil rights organization – issued Nov. 11 a document of more than 85 policy recommendations, all that can be implemented by the new administration without congressional approval.

HRC’s proposals offer “serious challenges to religious liberty, a biblical understanding of human sexuality, and ultimately the common good of our society,” two writers for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Commission (ERLC) said in a Nov. 25 article.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a Nov. 18 post HRC’s “Blueprint for Positive Change 2020” includes “perhaps some of the most alarming demands that threaten religious liberty.”

Both articles cited as especially menacing a recommendation to the Department of Education regarding accreditation of religious colleges and universities that HRC said “discriminate or that do not meet science-based curricula standards.”

In the proposal, HRC called for the department to issue a rule that makes clear a provision that “requires accreditation agencies to ‘respect the stated mission’ of religious institutions, does not require the accreditation of religious institutions that do not meet neutral accreditation standards including nondiscrimination policies and scientific curriculum requirements.”

Writing at the ERLC’s website, Casey Hough and Josh Wester said the proposed policy for the Department of Education “is nothing but a thinly veiled attack on religious colleges and universities that refuse to bow the knee to the sexual revolution.”

Hough is the lead pastor of Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and Wester is the ERLC’s chair of research in Christian ethics.

The HRC blueprint is a call for a Biden administration to reverse some of the policies implemented since 2017 under President Donald Trump, whose White House acted to roll back various regulations issued by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Mohler called the recommendation regarding school accreditation an “atomic bomb.”

HRC is urging the Biden administration “to deny accreditation – or, at the very least, to [facilitate] the denial of accreditation – to Christian institutions, Christian colleges and universities, and, for that matter, any other religious institution or school that does not meet the demands of the LGBTQ orthodoxy,” he said. “This would mean abandoning biblical standards for teaching, hiring, admissions, housing, and student life. It would mean that Christian schools are no longer Christian.”

Such a policy goes beyond efforts to deprive religious institutions “that will not surrender to the LGBTQ movement” of federal funding and student aid, Mohler said.

Colleges and universities that lose accreditation, he wrote, “would not be permitted to participate in the GI Bill; students would not be allowed to transfer their credits nor would they be allowed to apply for graduate study at other institutions.”

The HRC recommendation “is an undisguised attempt to shut down any semblance of a Christian college or university that would possess the audacity to operate from a Christian worldview,” Mohler said.

HRC’s recommendations to Biden also included:

The consistent implementation throughout all federal agencies of the Supreme Court’s decision in June that found non-discrimination protections in federal workplace law cover “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

The appointment of openly LGBTQ Supreme Court justices, federal judges, ambassadors and other executive branch officials.

The repeal of the prohibition on people who identify as transgender from serving in the military.

The establishment of an inter-agency working group to combat violence against individuals identifying as transgender.

A ban on the provision of conversion therapy, which it describes as a “fraudulent business practice.”

The formation of a multi-agency working group to guard LGBTQ rights internationally.

Writing for the ERLC, Hough and Wester said, “It is difficult to imagine a presentation of gender and sexuality that is more at odds with the biblical understanding of these issues than that within the HRC’s blueprint.  … [I]t is impossible to reconcile a Christian worldview with many of these policy initiatives.”

Christians should be the first to show love to LGBTQ people, but “love for [LGBTQ] people cannot include the affirmation of a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s will for his creation,” they wrote.

“Ultimately, the policies in the HRC document that promote the LGBTQ lifestyle will not result in more flourishing – neither for individuals nor society,” Hough and Wester said. “Instead, they will result in restrictions on religious liberty and the promotion of sexual identities that are both contrary to God’s will and harmful to those who adopt them.

Upon the agenda’s release, HRC President Alphonso David described Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as “pro-equality champions.”

“The Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to not only put our democracy back on track but deliver real positive change for LGBTQ people’s daily lives,” David said in a written statement.

The 24-page, HRC agenda is available at https://hrc-prod-requests.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Blueprint-2020.pdf?mtime=20201110185320&focal=none.

Christmas star was a miracle, not like upcoming planetary alignment, Christian scholars say

NASHVILLE—Saturn and Jupiter will be closer Dec. 21 than they’ve been in 400 years, creating a light so bright that some experts relate it to what happened when a star led the Magi to the baby Jesus.

But the theory holds up to neither science nor Scripture, a Cedarville University physicist and an Answers in Genesis astronomer told Baptist Press. More likely, the biblical star of Bethlehem was a godly miracle, and the historically significant planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter is – well, the planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter.

“A number of people have speculated about the Christmas star – specifically, does it line up with astronomical phenomena,” said Steve Gollmer, a senior physics professor and director of the physics program at Cedarville University, a Baptist-supported school in Cedarville, Ohio.

Gollmer mentioned 17th century astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler, who theorized the Christmas star was a supernova explosion following a “triple conjunction” of planets in 7 B.C.; and more recently the 2009 “Star of Bethlehem” video that theorizes the Magi saw the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in June of 2 BC.

“I’ve looked at that video Star of Bethlehem, and a lot of the claims that the presenter made, I just have some deep concerns about,” Gollmer said. “And in general, when people try to find some significant event, they somewhat use it as a substitute for their confidence in Scripture.

“The Christmas star, it’s kind of interesting that this particular great conjunction is occurring on the first day of winter, of astronomical winter, which is also the shortest day of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere for us,” Gollmer said. “But apart from that, I don’t see a lot of connection with the Christmas star.”

Answers in Genesis astronomer and researcher Danny Faulkner deduced the same.

“As an astronomer, I like this conjunction. It is fairly rare, being this close together in the sky,” Faulkner said. “However, I don’t see any particular significance to it. I think what sparked all the interest is the fact that this is coming four days before Christmas this year.

“And one of the more popular theories that’s been around for a long time,” Faulkner said, “is that the Christmas star was a conjunction of planets.”

Faulkner also referenced Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem video: “These kind of solutions, if you will, for the Christmas star question have been staple … for at least a half century. … But there are problems with that kind of understanding.”

As recorded in Matthew 2:9-10, the wise men were delighted to again see the star they had seen in the East. They followed the star as it went before them “till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (NKJV).

“That sort of description doesn’t really conform to any known astronomical body, particularly a conjunction of planets,” Faulkner said. “I’m of the opinion that God probably created a special light in the sky for the Magi to see at certain times and certain places behave a certain way. And it’s not terribly different than … what God used in the wilderness for the people. There was a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night that led them. And I don’t think we should be looking for naturalistic explanations for that, any more than we should be looking for naturalistic explanations for what that star was that the Magi saw.”

The planetary alignment of Jupiter and Saturn occurs about every 20 years, but the planets will be 0.10 degrees apart this year. They haven’t been that close since 1623 when they were 0.08 degrees apart, and they won’t likely be this close again until 2080, Gollmer explained.

“Rare events are interesting, intriguing. The fact that we can even predict these conjunctions and extrapolate them back 2,000 years is amazing to the regularity of God’s lawful universe. It does testify to that,” Gollmer said. “But to associate it to the Christmas star, I’m hesitant.”

Gollmer also references the Matthew 2:9 account of the star moving to where the child was, and stopping there in the sky.

“Any astronomical phenomena is not going to move over to a certain spot. Especially if the wise men are traveling, your perspective of the stars is going to change as the time goes by. So one hour later, the whole sky moves at an angle of 15 degrees,” Gollmer said. “You’re not going to have, let’s say this conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, resting in one location in the sky and just remaining stationary there for the wise men to follow it.”

Amateur astronomers will want to practice viewing the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn on upcoming days preceding the big event, Gollmer and Faulkner said.

“It’s important that you kind of practice, because the sooner you go out, the sooner you can spot and see where they are,” Faulkner said. “I think a lot of people are going to wait until the day of, and then they don’t know what they’re looking for or where to look. So I think a few test runs will help people who don’t know the sky very well.

“I suggest people figure out when sunset is, and go out no more than a half hour after that. And you need a very good exposure to the southwest, because it is going to be low. If you have any trees or buildings in the way, it could likely block your view. You need to go early. If you wait until the sky’s totally dark, you’ve missed it. They set so quickly.”

Shining in the night

I’ve enjoyed watching the planets meander across the sky over the past weeks. They are startlingly bright and I look forward to seeing the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter on December 21. Some have made the natural connection between the star of Bethlehem and this rare planetary alignment. It makes sense that people would do that, since the event will occur four days before Christmas, but it’s wrong. I completely agree with Steve Gollmer of Cedarville University in his recent comments in Baptist Press, saying that it’s bad astronomy and bad interpretation of Scripture to associate the two celestial events. But I think there’s a more basic misunderstanding going on here. 

We would love it if more people believed what we believe about God. That’s why I’ve heard (and likely taught a few times) that many of the biblical miracles are plausible, based on what science has discovered in recent years. That’s why I have heard stories about men who survived after being in the belly of a whale, and that some fish, groupers I think, grow large enough so that a man could actually fit whole in their bellies. Therefore, Jonah’s testimony is more believable. Have you heard that? It was the kind of thing that we taught college and high school students back in the day. 

Now understand that we did not teach that the water-into-wine miracle was actually just water poured into pots that had not had the wine rinsed out of them, that the multiplying of the loaves and fishes was a miracle of teaching people to share their “hide out” lunches, or that Jesus only appeared to walk on the water; we weren’t liberals who could not believe the biblical miracles. But we were eager to show that our faith is sensible, that we aren’t ignorant fundamentalists. 

Here’s the deal, again crediting Dr. Gollmer: the star of Bethlehem did not act like a normal heavenly body. This star led the wise men to the very house where Jesus and his family were living. A star can lead you generally north but it can’t lead you to particular town or address. At least a normal star cannot do that. If you’ll think about Jonah maybe you remember the last verse of chapter one, which tells us that the LORD prepared, or “appointed,” a big fish to swallow Jonah. It doesn’t bother me at all if someone says, “That is believable because some fish are that big anyway.” But neither does it bother me to find that such a thing is impossible, like a virgin birth is impossible, or a day when the earth stops its rotation for a while is impossible. 

I’ve known well-meaning people who doubt every miracle in the Bible except the Resurrection. That’s a little like the way we used to teach students that Jesus straight up raised Lazarus from the dead but the star in Matthew 2 just might have been a natural phenomenon that God used for his purpose. 

Surely you hear how silly that sounds. I believe that God made me, gave me this breath and raised a man from the dead who would never die again, a king who will return bodily riding a white horse; but I have some trouble believing that God prepared a particular star to behave like no other star ever? 

These are not just extraordinary events, like an alignment of planets. They are signs; they have meaning; they are supposed to make us pause for a minute in wonder. The astrologers from the east who came to Bethlehem seeking a king were not amateurs. Such men knew that sometimes two, or even three, planets align and make a show in the sky. Maybe they had seen such phenomena themselves and maybe they’d heard about it from their teachers. What they saw when Jesus was born was a sign, something that moved them to head west with precious gifts – more than an extraordinary happening, a unique one. God intended it to be unique and impressive as he did with the healing of the blind and the raising of the dead in the Gospels. These signs were like a trumpet that silences a crowd so they can hear a message from the king, exactly like that. 

It’s a great gift that God has given us minds, curiosity and encouragement to know his creation better as the years roll on. I love that we can see billions of miles into the universe through telescopes. I am deeply moved to see a recognizable, unique human face in the womb through a 3-D ultrasound. But I don’t think we’ll ever discover anything that makes the star of Bethlehem mundane. 

Standing before something only God could do, we are all wise men headed west and shepherds gaping at the baby Messiah. How wonderful! 

GuideStone presidential search committee welcomes additional recommendations

DALLAS  GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins asked trustees to begin the process of identifying his successor in September.

No timeline has been set regarding Hawkins’ eventual retirement. He assumed the presidency of GuideStone in 1997 and has seen the ministry grow into the sponsor of the largest faith-based mutual fund family in the U.S. Including the mutual funds, GuideStone has almost $18 billion in assets under management as of September 30, 2020. Among GuideStone’s greatest accomplishments is in seeing Mission:Dignity® raise more than $150 million during his tenure.

Recommendations and resumes can be sent to the committee by forwarding them through January 15, 2021. The deadline to receive recommendations and resumes was extended until January 15, 2021 to accommodate busy schedules during the Holiday Season. Resumes or recommendations can be sent via email to Tim.Head@GuideStone.org, or through the mail to Timothy E. Head, Executive Officer of Denominational and Public Relations, c/o GuideStone, 5005 LBJ Freeway, Ste. 2200, Dallas, TX 75244.

“We know the Lord, in his timing, will draw us to the man he has identified to take GuideStone into its next era of service,” presidential search committee Chairman Steve Dighton said. “We covet the prayers of Southern Baptists throughout this process.

“Already the committee has received many qualified recommendations. We, as a committee have been diligently praying and working together in an incredible spirit of unity as we have begun this process.”

In addition to Dighton (KS-NE), a retired megachurch pastor, committee members include:

  • Randall Blackmon (MD-DE/DC), a long-time pastor who brings the perspective of a small- to medium-church pastor, with a heart for Mission:Dignity
  • David Cox (MI), a successful layman and minister in his church, who has served as treasurer of the Greater Detroit Baptist Association and as secretary of the Michigan African American Fellowship
  • Jim Scrivner (OK), an attorney and layman and a long-serving member of GuideStone’s board
  • David Rainwater (AR), a dentist and the youngest member — a millennial — of the search committee

The committee also includes trustee board Chairperson Renée Trewick of New York and trustee board Vice Chairman Johnny Hoychick of Louisiana as ex officio members.