Monday, December 17, 2018

Sexual abuse in independent fundamentalist Baptist churches

            This past week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on a disturbing pattern of sexual abuse and cover-ups in independent fundamentalist Baptist churches across the United States. I feel the need to address a few things about this problem.

            First, the church I serve as pastor, First Baptist Church of Fargo, North Dakota is not an independent fundamentalist Baptist church. We are affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of the Dakotas (ABC-D) and the American Baptist Churches-USA (ABC-USA). This affiliation certainly does not guarantee that abuse cannot happen (as no oversight or affiliation can prevent all abuse), however it gives the people of our congregation additional outlets to remedy instances of abuse should they occur. If one has been victimized and the local church chooses to ignore it, they would have the ability to go to another level for assistance. Though it is a standard Baptist belief that each church functions autonomously, there is still organization outside of our local church that can address concerns. Independent fundamentalist Baptist churches exist in a near vacuum. What happens at that church, stays at that church; aside from law enforcement involvement (which tends to be discouraged at these churches), there is no option for remediation outside of that local church. First Baptist Church of Fargo does not subscribe to this philosophy. No one, not a council member, not a deacon, not a pastor, no one, is immune from the legal and moral consequences of abhorrent behavior such as sexual abuse.

            As a pastor, as a Christian, and as a civilized human being, I cannot condemn this behavior more strongly. To abuse someone is to take the humanity away from them. It turns them into an object instead of the unique human being God created. And when a church, an organization that exists for the sole purpose of spreading the love of God to a fallen world, blames the victim, it further diminishes who they are.

I don’t believe anyone in their right mind believes sexual assault is an acceptable thing. Yet, powerful organizations and powerful people sweep these problems under the rug frequently. How many Roman Catholic priests have been reassigned after credible allegations? Now we are hearing of many independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors quietly leaving their church after years of abuse to simply be hired by another church in another town, perhaps to victimize many more people.

            (Some will bring up the issue of false allegations, which can be considered. But the vast majority of the people that come forward saying they are being abused are truthful. We cannot dismiss allegations because someone else may have lied at some other time. Investigation must take place. The problem we are seeing is not regarding the minute number false accusations, it is regarding the cover-up of known instances of sexual assault.)

            As Christ-followers, we must stand against this dehumanizing act of sexual abuse. God has created each of us as a human being in His own image as a unique person. To sexually assault someone is to turn them from human to object, from someone that has a unique contribution to give humanity into a tool to be used and then tossed aside. There is nothing Christian in this behavior. Christ does not condone abuse or its cover-up. God does not make us sin. Society today has difficulty separating the mistakes of humans from the actions of God. The Church, His Church, Christ’s Church, does not commit these horrendous acts. People, human-led churches, a fallen world, is what commits these atrocities.

            My prayer is this: that we would live up to Christ’s command to show our faithfulness to Him by loving one another. (cf. Luke 13:35) In doing so, that we remember the humanity of the women and men, girls and boys, that have been victims of sexual abuse and have been re-victimized by the people that have dismissed or covered-up these acts. I pray for comfort of the victims, that they would be able to feel the love of God once again.

            Finally, I want to say that I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. I can condemn these acts all I want, but in the end, my condemnation doesn’t change the fact that countless victims of sexual abuse are still suffering. Honestly, I don’t know what else I can do other than believe if and when someone comes to me telling me they have been assaulted. And promise to you today that, as your pastor, I will not ignore you, I will not allow you to be re-victimized by covering-up the abuse, and, I pray, be able to show you the love of Christ shining through me back to you.

Pastor Michael Lehmann

Monday, November 19, 2018

May 4, 2000. April 15, 2001. September 8, 2013.

            April 15, 2001. This date seems like forever ago. It was Easter Sunday that year. I don’t recall much about the day, and frankly the date itself is really just another day on my calendar. Yesterday, one of our church members brought me in a stack of old Communicators (our church newsletter for First Baptist, Fargo) along with several old bulletins (thank you, Louella!). One of those bulletins was from April 15, 2001. The order of service begins as usual with a musical prelude. Then the “Call to Worship,” likely a scripture reading or greeting from Pastor Bob. We all then rose to sing the hymn, “Christ Arose,” number 256 in the hymnal we had at the time. After the hymn was a baptism. My baptism. I remember that Pastor Bob asked my dad to help with the baptism since I’m a rather big dude (and always have been) and Bob was suffering from lasting effects from a car accident he had. Pastor Bob talked about how great a day Easter is to hold a baptism as it symbolizes the death of our old self and the rebirth of a new self in Christ, just as Christ was resurrected on that first Easter morning. This connection was not lost on me earlier this year as I had the joy of performing my first baptism for someone on Easter.
            I was baptized less than a year after coming to accept Christ as my savior. It was May 4th, 2000 at Luis Palau’s Crusade 2000! that I went forward to give my life over to Jesus Christ. It took some time, however, for me to truly start living for Christ even after becoming a Christ-follower and a baptized member of my church. It took more than a decade, actually.
            September 8, 2013. I walked back into First Baptist Church of Fargo that day for the first time in many years. It was months or maybe a year or more before that I was feeling the need to go back to church. God was speaking. I heard loud and clear a voice that was saying, “Mike, you’re in your 30s, you claim to be a Christian, but you don’t go to church. There is something wrong here.” Long story short, God brought me back to church, to my home church, on September 8, 2013. The following year I attended 2 men’s camps, one at Camp Bentley in North Dakota, one at Camp Judson in South Dakota. At both of those camps we had the same presenter. In one session, he presented what he called the “Godly Life Priorities List.” Number 1 on that list? God, naturally. It was after those camps that for the first time, I truly put God first in my life. Shortly after that, I started feeling called into ministry, and by the fall of 2015, I was enrolled in Sioux Falls Seminary. In July of 2017, I was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Fargo.
            I look back on that lost decade (plus three years) and wonder what would have happened if I had made the decision not to simply accept Christ as my savior (not to minimize that saving act), but to truly put Him first in my life from the very start. Then I remember not to dwell on things like this. I am where God needs me now. Looking back and dwelling on “lost time” is unhealthy and doesn’t allow us to focus on the amazing grace offered to us by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And looking at today, looking at now, is where God wants us to focus. (“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34 NIV) Part of the point of salvation, of being “born again,” is to put to rest the things of the past and look to the present, to our current state as Christ-followers, and understanding how God is at work around us today.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Impact of Music

                In a religious or secular way, music speaks to us. I was a low brass, mostly tuba, player through college. I really miss playing. There are a couple of times I remember playing at North Dakota State that were those truly magical, musical moments. One happened during a concert, the other during a rehearsal. The first was during a performance of a song called Trauermusik by Richard Wagner. The other was during a pre-concert rehearsal of Darius Mihaud’s Suite Fran├žaise, specifically near the end of the fourth movement, Alsace-Lorraine. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that touched me about these moments, perhaps it was simply how everything blended together just right at that right moment that made it special. When you consider those were both over a decade ago and I still remember them, it should tell you a little bit about how significant the experiences were.
                Today, music speaks to me in a slightly different way. Pretty much the only new music I listen to is contemporary Christian. There are many songs that have come out recently that have impacted my life at a specific time. I Wanna Go Back by David Dunn was one of them. The idea of simplifying things, simplifying life spoke to me at the time it came out. Breathe by Jonny Diaz is another.  The need to step back and take a deep breath when things seem overwhelming is a lesson we all must remember. Reckless Love by Cory Asbury strikes you when you truly listen to the lyrics. Those three may not have the same impact now as they did when I first heard them, but they were what I needed to hear at the time, and they do still speak to me when I listen. God gave me, gave us, His message through them. Matt Maher’s All the People Said Amen is another song that holds a special place in my heart. Aside from being a wonderful, upbeat song, I have another reason for loving it so much. But that’s another story for another day. Today, there are two songs that, when I hear them, pause my life and make me consider God. One is So Will I (100 Billion X) by Hillsong United. The other, also by Hillsong United, it called Who You Say I Am.
                So Will I talks about the power of God and our need to worship Him. “If the stars were made to worship so will I. If the mountains bow in reverence so will I.” How can we not worship this powerful God? How can we not lift our voices to Him in praise? This is the God that created everything, that breathed life into Adam, that breathed life into us. I was listening to this song in the car yesterday, but the lyrics for Who You Say I Am were stuck in my head. It was an interesting combination…. Who You Say I Am starts out with a question, “Who am I that the highest King would welcome me?” and it ends with the answer, “In my Father’s house, There’s a place for me. I’m a child of God, Yes I am.” That last line gets me every time I hear it. To think of the love God has for us, that He has a place prepared for me in heaven, for me, strikes me in a powerful way.
                In six months, those last two songs may not have the same impact on me as they do today. But I pray I will always remember that last line of Who You Say I Am and the truth spoken through it:

In my Father’s house
There’s a place for me
I’m a child of God
Yes I am

Monday, October 29, 2018

Stolen Grief

Yesterday, October 28th, was the 8th anniversary of my mom’s passing. Mom was just 54 years old when she, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. It is always a tough day but has become more normal over the last eight years. Normal, but not easy. I can see today how God was working in my life even during that most difficult time. Had mom never gotten cancer and eventually died from it, I don’t know if I’d be where I am right now. God laid the path, starting then, for me to go into ministry. But that’s another story.
                After mom’s funeral, I was a wreck. I remember being in the lobby of the funeral home, crying, when someone came up to me. She asked, “Mike, why are you crying?” How does one answer this question? Isn’t it obvious? “My mom just died,” I replied. Exactly what she said after my response, I do not recall, but it was along the lines of, “Don’t be sad, your mom is in Heaven! You should be happy!” (Mom was a strong Christian woman, I know she was in heaven as soon as she breathed her last. But that doesn’t remove the pain I felt when she left her earthly body.) Just at that moment, one of my oldest friends, Dave, came up to me and I turned and started talking to him. I was so angry at that insensitive comment that if Dave hadn’t come up at that point, things could have gotten ugly.
                My pain was stolen from me. Was I wrong for being sad? Was my grief selfish now that mom was in a far better place? Can anyone that professes Christ mourn the death of someone they love? These were questions I wrestled with for many years. “Mike, why are you crying?”
                I got back into church and drew closer and closer to Christ starting a few years ago. I noticed something in the Gospel of John, chapter 11. It was the story of the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus and good friends of Jesus, that Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits a few days before heading to Bethany and in that time, Lazarus dies. When Jesus arrives, he is greeted by Martha who is distraught over her brother’s death. Eventually Mary also comes out and is grieved just as much as Martha. Both of them said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21, 32)
                As Jesus looks around, he sees how much pain everyone is feeling at the death of Lazarus. And Jesus, the fully-human and fully-divine Jesus, also feels this pain. It was then that “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35 NIV) Jesus weeps just moments before he raises Lazarus from the dead! He knows He is about to see His friend again in just a few minutes, yet He feels the natural human pain of loss, of death. When Jesus wept at the death of someone He loves, He gave us permission to weep as well.
                Since being asked, “Mike, why are you crying?”, I have been given the opportunity to speak at two prayer services or funerals. I have told the story of the death of Lazarus at both occasions, telling everyone that it is okay to cry. Jesus knew He was about to see Lazarus again in just a few moments; yet, Jesus wept. For us, the death of a Christian brother or sister can certainly be a celebration of a life well lived, and an eternity to be spent with our Savior. But we still feel the terrible pain of death. Jesus wept, you may weep too.

(From 1987, me, mom, and my sister Melissa)

Monday Evening Check-In