Friday, February 29, 2008

Something Else Hopeful in Baptist Life

In January 2007 I posted an article entitled "Something Hopeful in Baptist Life." In that post I wrote about the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant that was then a year away. Now that Celebration has come and gone and I am hopeful that it will lead to a new era of cooperation in evangelism, missions and ministry between diverse Baptist groups.

Now comes word about another meeting that seems to me to offer some positive potential for Baptists. Next Monday and Tuesday, March 3-4, a meeting will be held in Arlington, Texas of pastors and laypersons who, according to Wade Burleson, will "gather for fellowship and discussion about forming a network of churches for the purpose of fellowship, partnership and encouragment in the expansion of Christ's kingdom." The effort is toward forming the "Antioch Network of Churches." You can read Wade's remarks about the meeting and his proposed "Doctrinal Confession and Statement of Cooperation" at his blog Grace and Truth to You: An Antioch Network Statement of Cooperation.

I mean to draw no comparison between the two movements. But I do sense that a fresh wind may be blowing. Perhaps enough Baptists will come to understand and believe that we can be united in common cause around the Lordship of Jesus Christ and missions and ministries that proclaim his name and do his work despite our differences on non-essential issues. I certainly hope and pray that it is so.

"When the Well Runs Dry" by Barbara Brown Taylor

(Note: This article appeared in the latest edition of Christian Century and is worthy of consideration by all readers of On the Jericho Road because of this theme: "scarcity evokes community.")

There were 15 people in my house when the well ran dry. It was Thanksgiving, and everyone knew that they did not have to flush every time. Those who were spending the night had learned how to take navy showers: turn the water on long enough to get wet, turn it off, soap yourself, turn the water on long enough to rinse, and turn it off again. If the water ever gets really nice and hot, then you know that you have left it on too long.

Everyone knew this, but we still ran out of water. When I turned the kitchen tap to fill the coffee pot after Thanksgiving dinner, all that came out was a long airy gasp. "We're out of water!" I yelled. People looked at me uncomprehendingly. Surely that one little secret flush had not made the difference. Surely that one extra minute under the showerhead had not caused everyone to go without water for the rest of the afternoon. But it had.

Someone went to the grocery store for plastic jugs of water. Someone else helped Ed fetch water from the creek to flush the toilets and water the animals. By evening, those still in residence had learned how to brush their teeth with four tablespoons of water. When our guest Kathleen got ready to leave the next morning, she said, "I have never been so grateful for running water before. I never knew I could get by on so little. Why do I let it run and run at home?"

When my husband Ed and I chose a bored well 12 years ago, we knew we were choosing to live on less water than people who drilled wells instead. Drilled wells go deep, often by necessity. One neighbor had to go 700 feet to hit water, and even then she could only draw half a gallon a minute. My well is 27 feet deep, which means that I practically drink surface water. When the rain does not come for months on end, I am in big trouble.

But drought is not the only problem. A lot of people have moved to my area in the past several years, so that there are more of us tapping into a limited supply. When you run out of water, you can do at least two things: drill a deeper well or learn to live on what you have. When the man from Davidson Well Drilling came out after Thanksgiving to help us wrest the concrete lid off our well, he told us that we had 60 inches of water. For purposes of comparison, I am 70 inches tall. We decided to live on what we had.

This means that I have begun making weekly trips to the Laundromat in town. The first time I went, I took three loads of laundry and 15 quarters with me, remembering such trips from my college days. After I had crammed all of my whites into the Maxi-Load washer, I looked at the red number 18 by the coin slot. What could it mean? Did the wash cycle take 18 minutes? Was this the 18th washer in the establishment? Gradually it occurred to me that the water was not going to start flowing until I put 18 quarters in the slot.

Now I show up with pockets full of heavy metal. I can do three loads of laundry in just under an hour. While I am waiting, I can also watch children playing under the folding tables while their mothers catch up on news. I can joke with the guy who does not know the first thing about how to fold a fitted sheet. I can flirt with the little Latina girl who holds the door for me when I take my clothes back to my car, although our eye contact is the only common language we have.

When I first started showing up, some of the regulars could not figure out what someone like me was doing there. The woman who looks after the place started fishing by asking me where I lived. I told her, and she said she had seen a lot of new people since the drought. I could recognize most of them myself. One woman stuck around just long enough for the wash cycle, telling her pretty daughter to sit still and not touch anything. Then she took her wet clothes back to her car to dry in her dryer at home.

Some of my friends feel sorry for me because I have to go to the Laundromat, but I tell them not to. Not having enough water at home has brought me into contact with people who do not have enough of other things at home, and I am enjoying their company. I never really thought about it before, but scarcity evokes community. Every week now, I leave my place of private plenty to go to the common watering hole in town, where I get to watch my clothes go around and around while I think about things I might never have thought about otherwise, such as: How are we going to learn to live on what we have? How are we going to learn to share our limited supply?

This is a theological essay. I will leave you to figure out why.

(Copyright 2008 CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Reproduced by permission from the February 26, 2008 issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Good Advice from a Skeptic

There is a place for apologetics. A person needs to be able to explain what he or she believes and why. We Christians should be able and willing to talk with non-believers and non-believers should be able and willing to talk with Christians. Christians of one persuasion (fundamentalist, moderate, liberal and their various shadings) should be willing and able to talk with Christians of another persuasion. Many of us are able but too few of us are willing.

I want to advocate for greater willingness to have such discussions. I likely have more of my life behind me than before me now and I am coming to the realization that I have spent too much time and energy defining myself by what I am against or what I am not. I would like to spend the rest of my days talking with all kinds of people, building bridges where I can, respectfully disagreeing when I must, and never, never dismissing or devaluing someone whose stance toward life is different than mine.

I want to advocate for civil discourse in a civil society. I have in mind first the society of the United States of America. Here we value our freedom to assemble, to speak, and to worship how we feel led or to worship not at all. We tend to assemble with like-minded people, to speak with like-minded people, and to worship with like-minded people. We need to assemble, to speak, and to worship sometimes with folks who do not think like we do. And we need to be civil about it—we need to treat each other with respect and to speak to each other with respect.

I have in mind second the society of the Church. We Christians tend to assemble, to speak, and to worship with like-minded Christians. Fundamentalists don’t often meet with or speak to moderates, moderates with fundamentalists, liberals with conservatives, and on and on. But we need to do so. We need to talk with one another, to share with one another, to pray with one another, and, where we can, to work with one another in the cause of Christ. We need to be civil about it—we need to treat each other and to speak to each other with respect—and with love.

We get some good advice on how to do this from an unlikely source—Dr. Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine. In a column in the September 2007 issue of Scientific American entitled “Rational Atheism: An Open Letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens,” Shermer talks about the need for scientists to exercise appropriate civility in their responses to religious believers. He says, “Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of religious liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance.”

He then offers five reasons that this is so. I suggest that we Christians would do well to keep the same things in mind as we get more involved in discussions with non-Christians and with Christians of differing mindsets.

(I should note that Shermer’s article addresses some popular virulent pro-science and reason and anti-religion authors. He thus writes in terms of how he thinks scientists should behave and speak in their conflicts with religious people. I do not believe that scientists and people of faith either should be or must be in conflict with one another. Many scientists are people of faith. Many people of faith do not fear science. Atheistic scientists are, however, one group of people with whom Christians should be in civil dialogue.)

First, Shermer says, “Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.” “Atheists,” he goes on to say, “cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe.” The same is true for Christians. Too often we are known only for what we are against largely because that is the way that we define ourselves. It is not enough to talk about what we are against. It is also not the best place to start a conversation. The best place is to start is not even what we believe or what we’re for. The best place to start is by talking about Who we know.

Second, Shermer says, “Positive assertions are necessary.” “Champion science and reason,” he advises. His point is that rather than attacking religion, scientists would be well served to speak positively about science and reason. Similarly, we Christians will gain much more by speaking positively about Who we know and what we have experienced than we will by attacking folks with whom we disagree.

Shermer next asserts, “Rational is as rational does.” He continues, “It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind.” Christians should be rational and reasonable in their conversations with non-believers and with other Christians as well. In addition, our attitudes and speech should be fueled by love and tempered by compassion. In all things, we should keep our cool.

Fourth, Shermer says, “The golden rule is symmetrical.” In other words, Shermer says, “If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.” We Christians should also think of and treat others as we would have them think of and treat us. How ironic would it be if non-Christians and even anti-Christians treated us with more kindness and respect than we treat them? What kind of witness do we offer the world when Christians prejudge each other negatively and treat each other based on such negative prejudgments?

Shermer’s final piece of advice is “Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.” He says, “A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedoms of others.” As a Christian, I affirm that the highest principle of all is salvation by grace through faith. But I would put freedom right under it. I would also affirm that for American society, freedom is the highest principle. The truth is the truth and in the end the truth will be known. In the meantime, we all—conservative Christians, liberal Christians, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Buddhists, and the rest---need to affirm and celebrate the freedoms in which we all share. We Christians are free to believe but that freedom means something only if others are free to believe differently or not to believe.

I am advocating for civil discourse between Christians and non-Christians and between Christians of differing perspectives. I am grateful to the skeptic Dr. Shermer for reminding us of some solid principles that can undergird such discourse.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Celebrate Jesus

I am not a coffee snob. At home we drink the brand of coffee that my wife finds on sale. It’s usually Folgers. We do dabble in some of the various Gevalia flavors because a friend gives them to us. I am particularly fond of the German Chocolate Cake flavored one. That’s also my favorite cake, if anyone is wondering what to send me for St. Patrick’s Day.

But I say again, I am not a coffee snob. My favorite cappuccino comes from those self-serve machines at the Pilot or RaceTrac auto centers.

Which brings me to Starbucks. Starbucks has good coffee. I will occasionally splurge and have a cup. But I am not a coffee snob. I don’t get some fancy-schmancy latte with a shot of this and a dollop of that. I just walk up to the counter and say, “I’d like a grande coffee and leave some room for cream.” I think that I always detect a little sniff from the server as he or she says, “Certainly, sir,” which translated means, “Uncultured Neanderthal.”

I’ll say this for Starbucks, though: they’re ubiquitous. They’re also everywhere.

We have two Target stores here in the greater Augusta metropolitan area. There is a Starbucks inside each store. There is also a Starbucks just outside each store. In one case, it’s in the parking lot of the store and in the other it’s right across the street.

The funniest scene in Shrek 2 is the one in which a giant gingerbread man destroys a Starbucks store and the panicked patrons run across the street to another Starbucks.

Shoot, it’s getting to where there’s a Starbucks on every corner. Before you know it they’ll be as ubiquitous (I think that’s a great word) as churches are here in the Bible belt.

We’re everywhere. We’re a part of the landscape. We’re a part of the culture. And therein lies the problem. Everybody is so accustomed to us that they really don’t give us much thought. Worse, we’re so accustomed to us that we really don’t give us much thought. Even worse, maybe we’re so accustomed to Jesus that we really don’t give him much thought—at least the open-minded, open-hearted thought that he should get.

What got me to thinking about all of this was a story I heard on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program this morning. Willie Geist reported that all of the company-owned Starbucks stores in the United States were going to be closed for three hours today for some espresso training. Mika Brzezinski said, as she sipped from her Dunkin’ Donuts cup, that she really didn’t care.

Curious, I went to the Starbucks website and found a memo from CEO Howard Schultz about today’s educational closing.

We will close all of our U.S. company-operated stores to teach, educate and share our love of coffee, and the art of espresso. And in doing so, we will begin to elevate the Starbucks Experience for our customers. We are passionate about our coffee. And we will revisit our standards of quality that are the foundation for the trust that our customers have in our coffee and in all of us.

But, as I think about it, there is another perhaps equally important reason why we have scheduled this training. It’s to celebrate who we are.

We are Starbucks. We should be incredibly proud of what we have built. We are the worldwide leader of specialty coffee. And, believe me when I tell you, we are just getting started. We will overcome the difficult and humbling challenges we face, and will be stronger for it. You have my word on that.

There may be something here that we in the Church need to think about.

Maybe we need to be more intentional about taking time to remind ourselves about the basics of being Church. Maybe we need to be more intentional about celebrating who we are. Maybe we need to be more intentional about celebrating Jesus.

I’m a Jesus snob. I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is the full and complete revelation of God to sinful humanity. I believe with all my heart that everyone should come to know God in Jesus. So I believe that we who follow him need to know him, to be with him, and to celebrate him.

So let’s be sure to celebrate who we are. Even more importantly, let’s be sure to celebrate whose we are.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Trying to Get to 20/20

(A sermon for the third Sunday in Lent based on Exodus 17:1-7 & Romans 5:1-11)

[The image is Moses Striking Water from the Rock by Jacob Jordaens]

Sometimes we get in the habit of seeing things the wrong way. Sometimes we see things in a false way for so long that we become unable to see things in a true way. And, sometimes we talk so much about our skewed way of experiencing and seeing life that when we do gain some clarity neither we nor anyone listening to us quite believe it.

Two movies I watched in recent days illustrate what I mean.

One is The Hoax (2006) which is a fictionalized account of the true story of the attempt by author Clifford Irving in 1971 to publish a fake autobiography of the very wealthy, very powerful, and very reclusive Howard Hughes. Irving spent months living a lie—actually, he was living several lies at once. As he produced the fake autobiography, he spent so much time imagining that he was inside Howard Hughes’ head that he began to think that there was some real connection between them. As he was being unfaithful to his wife, he was able to tell her that it wasn’t true and even to believe himself that it wasn’t. He began to see things in such an untrue way that the untruth became reality for him.

The other movie is The Window (1949) which is a retelling of the story of the boy who cried wolf. Nine-year-old Tommy has a penchant for telling tall tales. It’s a way of life for him. His family is going to move from their New York City apartment to his father’s ranch as soon as they can kill all the Indians. He saw a truck strike and kill a large group of people. But such things are going on only in his head. His tall tales are quite tall. One night, though, he sees a neighbor couple kill a man. He really does see it. But, because of all the tales he has previously told, no one will believe him. Tommy has lived in lies for so long that no one will believe him when he tells the truth.

The first film teaches us that if we persist in living a lie we will come to believe the lie. The second film teaches us that if we persist in telling lies no one will believe us when we try to tell the truth.

It is a sad and unfortunate truth that all too often the people of God live a lie that keeps us from being who we are supposed to be and that keeps us from bearing witness to what we are supposed to bear witness to. We choose to see life with flawed vision with the result that we don’t grow in our faith and in our witness.

Consider the lie that the Hebrews insisted on living. God brought them out of Egypt. When they found themselves trapped between the sea and the armies of Egypt, they cried out in panic to Moses, saying that it would have been better had they stayed in bondage in Egypt. What did God do? He parted the sea so they could cross. Then they found themselves in need of food. They complained again, saying that they would have been better off back in Egypt. What did God do? He sent them bread from heaven. Then, as our text tells us, they found themselves in need of water. They complained yet again, saying that they would have been better off back in Egypt. What did God do? He gave them water from a rock.

Now, let’s be fair. It’s perfectly understandable that anyone, including God’s people, would express concern when trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, when hungry with no source of food, and when thirsty with no supply of water. Let’s not pretend that any of us would not express some concern in those situations, too. You would think, though, that by the time the water crisis arose the Hebrews would have begun to understand the way things work when God is in your midst. Of course, you would also think that by the time your latest crisis or my latest crisis arose we would have also learned a lot about the way things work when God is with us.

The real problem with the Hebrews’ attitude is revealed in this question that they posed: “Is the LORD among us or not?” The Lord had already shown them many times that he was in fact among them. The Lord has already shown us many times that he is in fact among us. The truth is that he was and is. The Hebrews needed to rehearse, practice, believe, and live that truth. We need to rehearse, practice, believe, and live that truth, too. To do otherwise is to believe and live the lie that God is not with us.

They needed and we need to learn the truth that the times of testing and trial that come to us are opportunities for us to grow toward our ultimate salvation in Christ. That is the truth in which we need to live.

It seems like I’ve been getting my vision checked and adjusted for all my life. Given that I got my first pair of glasses when I was seven years old, that’s not far from the truth. Most of you know how the process works. You sit in that chair and put your chin in that little depression. The doctor swings that great big contraption in front of your face and clicks a lens down in front of each eye and asks you to read what always look to me like ridiculously small letters. Then the doctor starts clicking lenses of differing strengths down before you eyes. “Which one is clearer?” he asks. “Is it this one? Or this one? Is it A? Or is it B?” The doctor is trying to get your vision as close to 20/20 as possible. Finally, satisfied that it is as clear as it is going to get, he leans back and says, “There, read it now.” And he will write your new prescription based on that information.

But what if you lie about what you see? What if, although you can see clearly through those final lenses that the sixth line from the top says “A Z 3 P S” you choose to say that it says “4 X 8 R B”? You will have chosen to claim that what you see is not what you see. And the doctor will end up writing you a prescription that will cause you to see your daily world in a warped way.

We all have trials and tribulations. We all have problems and struggles. We all have pain and suffering. Some of us have very severe situations with which we deal and I would not for anything minimize that. I will not say something trite like “You just need to have faith and it’ll be all right.” The fact is that some of us have struggles that are ongoing and that may well endure until the day we die.

What I am saying, though, is that all the experiences of our lives work like the lenses on the doohickey in the eye doctor’s office. They can bring the truth into greater and greater clarity. Here is a test—God sees us through. Here is a death—God sees us through. Here is a rebellious teenager—God sees us through. Here is a serious illness—God sees us through. Here is a marital crisis—God sees us through. Here is a vocational struggle—God sees us through. And each crisis can and should cause us to be more and more aware and more and more convinced of the truth that God is indeed among us and that God is indeed with us. We live that truth, we practice that truth, we believe that truth, and we tell that truth.

How different the Hebrews’ experience would have been had they said, when trapped at the sea, “Well, this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and he will get us through this.” How different their lives would have been had they said, when in need of food, “Well this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and across the sea and he will get us through this.” How different their lives would have been had they said, when in need of water, “Well this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and across the sea and he gave us food and he will get us through this.”

I’m not saying that they should have looked at their world through rose-colored glasses. But they surely should not have looked at it through the blinders of fear and disbelief and mistrust. They should have let their progressive experiences with God as he brought them through trial after trial lead them closer and closer to 20/20 vision, to a way of looking at the world in the way that God intended.

That’s what needs to be happening in our lives. When that is happening, we can say with Paul,

We…boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

In other words, our sufferings and trials move us closer and closer to God’s 20/20 vision, because our experience with them moves us closer and closer to living in hope.

Notice, though, that this perspective on our sufferings is based in a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul began this section of Romans by saying, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (vv. 1-2a). And Paul also said that we can live this way in our sufferings “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It is because we are in Christ, in other words, that we can grow in seeing life in the true way and we can bear witness in life in the true way.

So Martin Luther, commenting on Paul’s words, said,

Whatever (virtues) tribulation finds in us, it develops more fully. If anyone is carnal, weak, blind, wicked, irascible, haughty, and so forth, tribulation will make him more carnal, weak, blind, wicked and irritable. On the other hand, if one is spiritual, strong, wise, pious, gentle and humble, he will become more spiritual, powerful, wise, pious, gentle and humble…. [Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), pp. 74-75]

We can only possess those characteristics if we are in Christ.

Being in Christ, then, we grow in seeing and experiencing life, and especially the struggles of life, in the right way. Being in Christ, we grow in telling ourselves the truth about what is happening in our lives and especially about the fact that God is with us to deliver us. And as we grow in seeing the truth and in telling ourselves the truth we grow in our ability to bear witness to others about the truth.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oyster Stew, A Smile, and a Frown

My son Joshua and I like oyster stew.

It's a simple dish. You put some milk, some butter, and a can of oysters in a pot and let it simmer for a while. Add a little salt and you're ready to go. I put some hot sauce in mine, too, just for a little kick.

We had some last night for Joshua's birthday dinner. It was a cool and rainy day here in Augusta and the hot stew brought a smile to our faces. Oyster stew is indeed one of life's simple blessings.

I remember another night when oyster stew was served. That memory brings a frown to my face rather than a smile.

The context is a little fuzzy to me. I know that I was a teenager and no one was home but Daddy and me. That means that it was one of the many times that my mother was in the hospital or it was shortly after she died. Daddy was preparing supper. Now, Daddy could cook. On this night, though, he was going for simplicity.

So I walked in to find that he had a nice pot of oyster stew ready for us.

At this point you need to understand something about me. These days I will eat just about anything that is placed before me and I will do so with gratitude. When I was a child, though, I thought like a child and spoke like a child and I approached eating in a very childish way.

I had never eaten oyster stew before and I was not about to try it that night.

To this day I don't know what the look on my father's face meant. I don't think he was angry. He may have been a little bit hurt. After all, he had given me a good gift and I had thrown it back in his face. It was certainly not the first time that I did that. I think, though, that the look reflected weariness and anxiety more than anything else. Whether Mama was in the hospital or had just died, we were at end of a very long and hard process--her dying--that was also the beginning of what I'm sure he thought was going to be another very long and hard process--his having to finish raising me by himself.

I think that the oyster stew moment raised questions in his mind that I saw flash across his face. Could he do it? How hard was I going to make it? Today it was oyster stew that didn't work and that came between us. What was it going to be tomorrow?

I remember the oyster stew that Daddy prepared for me and I frown.

I remember the oyster stew that I share with my son and I smile.

Like the oysters, the milk, and the butter all have to go together to make the stew, I guess that the hard times and the good times and the secure times and the scary times and the smiling times and the frowning times all have to go together to make a life.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Where Credit Is Due

While I am responsible for the contents of yesterday's post (The Awful Truth), I want to give credit to my friend and colleague Philip Meade, whose post on Tom Schreiner and Tony Campolo set me to thinking in that direction and added fuel to a fire that was already burning.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Awful Truth

Sometime back in the early or mid-1980s, I was perusing some of the major theological journals in my field that could be found in the library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, and Sports Illustrated.

You know, come to think of it, in the seven years that I spent at Southern I never once saw the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. What kind of self-respecting liberal (that’s what they said back then) seminary would practice such censorship?

JBL and JSOT and ZAW didn’t have a swimsuit issue. God is good.

Anyway, as I was perusing the journals I came across the Criswell Theological Review, the theological journal published by Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. Glancing at the table of contents of the most recent issue, I noticed that it contained a review of an Old Testament commentary in which I thought I might be interested. The reviewer did what book reviewers do. He summarized the contents of the book, dialogued with those contents a bit, and offered some positive and critical comments. Overall, I thought he did a nice job.

Then I came upon the last sentence of the review. You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering verbatim that sentence that I read one time over twenty years ago, but I never forgot the essence of it. The reviewer said something like this: “Unfortunately, because of the author’s use of the methods of higher criticism, readers of this journal will not be able to use this book.”

I was outraged! I was mortified! I was pretty unhappy.

“How ridiculous,” I thought. “How close-minded and narrow and silly and anti-intellectual and unscholarly can someone be?” I mean, just because the reviewer disagreed with the presuppositions and the methodologies employed by the author, he advised his readers to avoid the book altogether. No doubt there were insights in the book that could have proved helpful to some readers. They didn’t have to agree with the whole book in order to partner with it in arriving at some helpful understandings.

I was, I thought, so far beyond such thinking. I had, I thought, evolved way past the need to avoid engagement with folks with whom I had disagreements, as if somehow their faulty (to my way of thinking) presuppositions should lead me to conclude that their every observation and conclusion must somehow be contaminated.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I want to announce to you today that I am no different than and no better than that book reviewer whom I judged to be so narrow and shallow and ridiculous.

Allow me to illustrate.

I love the Broadman Bible Commentary (BBC). The BBC was produced by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the late 1960s-early 1970s. It is a very nice blend of scholarship and expository helps which offers good practical guidance for preachers and other Bible students. Some of the commentaries in the twelve-volume set were written by teachers of mine at Southern, including Clyde Francisco, J. J. Owens, John D. W. Watts, Marvin Tate, and Page Kelley. But, some elements in the SBC were unhappy with some of the material presented in the commentaries and the volumes provided considerable ammunition for the instigators of the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1980s in their attacks on seminary professors. I’m sure some folks wouldn’t use them because of what they perceived to be “liberalism” in those pages.

Later, after the Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) came under the control of the fundamentalist branch of the SBC, a new commentary series was undertaken. It’s called the New American Commentary (NAC). The volumes are written from the standpoint of biblical inerrancy; the editors’ preface states, “All NAC authors affirm the divine inspiration, inerrancy, complete truthfulness, and full authority of the Bible.” I have four or five of the volumes on my shelves. One or two were gifts; the others came to me as review copies while I was teaching at Belmont University.

I never use them. I never open them. I never read them. I never consult them. Why? Is it because there is no good information in them? Is it because there is no material in them that would be helpful to me as I preach and teach? Of course not. At least, I don’t think so, given that I’ve never looked at them. I do know that some of the volumes were produced by very good conservative scholars.

I don’t use those books because of the presuppositions on which they are based. And it’s not even that I have a big problem with the writers espousing biblical inerrancy so long as that is their legitimate conviction. My real problem is that I associate the entire NAC project with the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC and somewhere down in my gut I feel that I would be disloyal to those who taught me and who were vilified and hounded during the “resurgence” if I even crack one of those volumes.

And therein lies one example of the awful truth.

What is the awful truth? The awful truth is that most fundamentalist Baptists really don’t want anything to do with moderate Baptists and that most moderate Baptists really don’t want anything to do with fundamentalist Baptists. We have written each other off. Each group really wishes that the other group would just go away or at least if we want the other group to hang around it’s so we can use our disagreements with them as fuel for our particular fires. Each group knows that it is right and that the other group is wrong.

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist talks about evangelism most moderate Baptists hear them saying “It’s all about numbers.” The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist talks about feeding the hungry and helping the poor most fundamentalist Baptists hear them saying “Let’s deemphasize personal evangelism and do social gospel stuff.”

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist talks about taking steps to affect public policy in matters such as abortion and gay marriage most moderate Baptists hear them saying “Let's legislate morality.” The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist talks about taking steps to affect public policy in matters of war and peace or global warming most fundamentalist Baptists hear them saying “Let’s get behind a liberal social agenda.”

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist preacher preaches most moderate Baptists don’t want to listen to him even though somewhere in that sermon the Word of God is likely being proclaimed. The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist preacher preaches most fundamentalist Baptists don’t want to listen to him or her even though somewhere in that sermon the Word of God is likely being proclaimed.

The awful truth is that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist would rather partner in missions and ministry with other evangelical Protestant Christians than with other Baptists with whom they have disagreements, such as CBF Baptists or ABCUSA Baptists. The awful truth is that a moderate Baptist would rather partner in missions and ministry with folks from more mainline denominations than with Southern Baptists or other fundamentalist Baptists with whom they have disagreements.

The awful truth is that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist figures that if it comes out of the Baptist Seminary at Richmond or the McAfee School of Theology or Smyth & Helwys Publishing or Mercer University Press or Associated Baptist Press or Baptists Today or the Baptist Center for Ethics, it must be wrong or dangerous. The awful truth is that a moderate Baptist figures that if it comes out of Lifeway, Baptist Press, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or one of the SBC seminaries, it must be wrong or dangerous.

The awful truth is that most of us have lost all perspective on what really matters.

The awful truth is that too many moderates are more concerned about being moderate than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptist fundamentalists are more concerned about being fundamentalist than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptists are more concerned about being Baptist than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptists care more about being right than they care about being conduits of the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The awful truth is that there is no way on earth, barring some direct miraculous intervention by God Almighty, that fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists are ever going to get together again in any way that has any significance at all.

Now, don’t hear me saying something I’m not saying. I don’t even think that such disparate Baptist bodies as the SBC on the one hand and the CBF or ABCUSA on the other hand ought even to think about getting back together in any kind of formal or institutional sense.

But I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the world is going to hell in a hurry and that the world is not going to be saved by our affirmation of a correct doctrine of biblical inspiration nor by a proper emphasis on the priesthood of believers but rather by the faithful proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that people all around us are suffering and dying and that they are not going to be fed, clothed, healed, our housed by the purity of our doctrine or by our allegiance to Baptist heritage.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the world is suffering from a lack of the knowledge of God’s love and that they won’t be led to a loving by God by Christians who slam other Christians or by Christians who value being correct or pure over reveling in the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the days of blind allegiance to any denominational headquarters or hierarchy or program are passing away but that we can wake up to a new day in which we say, like adults, “OK—you’ve gone your way and I’ve gone mine, but let’s get together to preach the gospel and feed the hungry and love the lost and welcome the stranger—because that’s what Jesus would have us do and because they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But it will take a miracle. And I don’t know if one is coming. I know that I don’t think so.

The awful truth is that we have cut ourselves off from one another to the extreme point that we will not even listen to one another, must less find ways to do missions and ministry together.

The awful truth is that we have learned how to be moderates or fundamentalists or conservatives or progressives—but we have forgotten how to be the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

May God forgive us all.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Struggle to Believe

(A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent based on John 3:1-17)

In the story of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus we have an adventure in missing the point. That is, Nicodemus consistently misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Does Nicodemus struggle to believe? I think so. Does he struggle to understand? I know so. Does his struggle to understand get in the way of his need to believe? I suspect so.

We miss the point, too, when we won’t pay attention or don’t pay attention or can’t pay attention to what Jesus really says and to what God is really up to. Somehow we need to grab hold of the truth that God is after us.

Nicodemus is on to something when he asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” What he is saying is that Jesus has stated an impossibility. “This cannot literally, physically be done,” he said. In one way, Nicodemus’ thinking was wrong. Nicodemus was bound by the limitations of his own mind and experience; he could think only of the physical. In another way, though, Nicodemus’ thinking was right. What has to take place for a person to come into God’s kind of life—eternal life—is not physically possible; you can do nothing to accomplish it for yourself. It is from beyond us.

The imagery of being born guides us in that direction. You will have noticed the translation from which I read (NRSV) has Jesus say, “You must be born from above.” We are accustomed to hearing Jesus say, “You must be born again.” The truth is that the Greek word can mean either thing. It seems best to me to read it this way: Jesus meant “born from above” and Nicodemus heard “born again.” I say that because Jesus’ subsequent comments on the matter emphasize how such birth must come from God. Still, there is probably something of both meanings in the word as John reports Jesus using it.

The image of being born guards us against two misunderstandings. One is the notion that we somehow do something to bring about our own salvation. As Anna Carter Florence has pointed out, “born” is the past tense of “to bear” [Lectionary Homiletics,(February/March 2008), p. 26]. One cannot bear oneself. That is true of our physical birth. We could not give birth to ourselves; someone else had to give birth to us. Sometimes we hear Jesus’ words “You must be born from above/again and we think of in terms of something that we must do. But being born is not something that we do; it is something that happens to us. Jesus said that we must be born from above, from God, from heaven, from the Spirit. We don’t do it; God does it.

The other misunderstanding against which the image of being born guards us is the one that says that being “born from above/again” must be an instantaneous experience. Now, it is true that a moment came when you and I made our appearance in the world. It is also true that a moment came or, if it has not come for you yet, will come, when we were born into new life. But an awful lot had to happen before you arrived on the scene. Somebody married somebody and had a child; that child married somebody and they had a child; that child married somebody and they had a child; and so on and so on. If any one of those events had not happened—if someone had married someone else or if someone had not had a child or if that child had died before producing a child—then you would not be here, would you? As I said, an awful lot had to happen.

Similarly, a lot has to happen before you can be “born from above/again.” A lot has to happen in your life. And all of those events that happened and all of the people you have come to know and all of the thoughts you have thought and all of the sins you have committed and all of the love you have shared and all of the hurt you have inflicted and all of the achievements you had had and all of the failures you have suffered—all of that goes into your experience of rebirth.

When we come toward Jesus we certainly come with our limitations. Nicodemus brought whoever and whatever he was with him. He was a Pharisee. That was a noble thing in its own way but it had its drawbacks, chief among them being the frustration of trying to keep the law to an extent that one could feel righteous. Nicodemus brought his smarts, his standing, his reputation. He also brought that hole in his soul that he just couldn’t reason away. We know that because he came to Jesus. He came to Jesus because it seemed to him that Jesus just might have something, something that he needed. The Spirit spoke into his emptiness to cause him to move toward Jesus. So he did. And they talked.

What do you bring as you come out of the darkness? You certainly bring your sin. You certainly bring your background, all of the experiences that have made you into you. You bring all the steps and missteps, all the successes and failures, and all the joys and sorrows. Perhaps you bring your pedigree, your security blankets, your opinions, your reputation, and your value system. But something is nagging at you. You’ve never quite been able to believe in Jesus, but something is nagging at you. Or maybe you’ve been professing belief in Jesus for a long time, but something is nagging at you.

Something may be drawing you toward Jesus. If so, that’s a good thing. Only the Spirit of God can do that.

Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit of God is what’s nagging at you. Maybe—just maybe—you’re being pursued. Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit is driving you toward Jesus. Maybe—just maybe—the Spirit is trying to get you to throw your life open to the miracle that he is trying to do in you.

But Nicodemus just couldn’t get it. Don’t you see, though—that’s the point. You don’t get it—it gets you! You don’t get God—God gets you!

A story told by Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz might help you to see what I mean. His friend Laura was depressed. Don asked her what was wrong with her. It wasn’t a boy. It wasn’t her college classes. So Don asked her, “Is it God?” She said, “I feel like he is after me.” When Don asked who was after her, Laura answered, “God.” Don told her that he thought that was a beautiful thing. She answered, “I can’t do this.” When he asked her was it was she couldn’t do, Laura replied, “Be a Christian.”

She said, “My family believes…. I feel as though I need to believe. Like I’m going to die if I don’t believe. But it is all so stupid. So completely stupid.”

They talked a while, Don encouraging her to confess, which was something she had said she felt a need to do. Then she said, “I can’t Don. It isn’t a decision. It isn’t something you decide.” When he asked her what she meant, Laura replied, “I can’t get there. I can’t just say it without meaning it. I can’t do it. It would be like, say, trying to fall in love with somebody, or trying to convince yourself that your favorite food is pancakes. You don’t decide those things, they just happen to you. If God is real, He needs to happen to me.”

That’s what Jesus was saying when he said, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The wind is mysterious; so is the Spirit. The wind goes where it will and blows on whom it will; so does the Spirit. That’s what God does—he happens to you, and it’s wondrous and mysterious and fantastic and unbelievable.

You have to believe, it’s true. But you can only believe because God has first come to you. You can only follow because God summons.

Some of you, like Nicodemus, are struggling to believe. You are struggling because you think you have to understand or because you can’t break out of your box or because it all sounds so outlandish. Well, let me tell you—you won’t understand and you do have to break out of your box and, quite frankly, it is all outlandish.

But what happened to Don’s friend Laura can happen to you.

One morning he had an email from her. It said,

Dearest friend Don,

I read through the Gospel of Matthew this evening. I was up all night. I couldn’t stop reading so I read through Mark. This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God. Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized He was the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian. I feel much better now. Come to campus tonight and let’s get coffee.

Much love,


Amen. And so may it be for all of us.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is God’s only begotten Son and whosoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. Is he pursuing you? Is his grace clawing at you? Is the Spirit prompting and poking you? Is his love making the stakes feel rather desperate to you? Be glad. Be very glad. And stop struggling.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

'Tis a Gift to Be Simple

The first piece of jewelry that I ever gave to Debra was a necklace; it may have been the first gift I ever gave her. I picked it out all by myself. It was an antique-looking piece with a very small opal in the center. The opal was held by prongs that extended out a little bit from the main part of the pendant.

As we were making our wedding plans, it became necessary to journey from the Mercer campus to downtown Macon, Georgia so we could pick out tuxedos and wedding invitations. We did so and went back to campus. When we got there, Debra realized that the pendant was gone. We looked in the car; it wasn't there. So, we drove back downtown and went into the store to see if anyone had found the pendant. No one had. We weren't surprised; it was quite small. Burdened by the kind of sadness that you get from such a loss, we headed back out to the car. And there, on the sidewalk, I spotted the pendant. It was lying there, opal-side down. Had someone stepped on it it would have been crushed.

I don't know about Debra, but I took that as a sign that we were meant to be together!

That simple little opal pendant, which Debra still sometimes wears, thus acquired great meaning.

Like most people who are in seminary or any other kind of graduate school, we didn't have much money while I was going about acquiring my theological education. I did pastor a weekend church and so brought in a little income. Debra and I held and hold all things in common, so I had to let her know that I was up to something if I needed to lay regular claim to some of our money. So I told her that most of one year I was going to need to keep a little bit of my paycheck for myself.

I had put a small diamond pendant on layaway at a Louisville jewelry store. Every week I would go by the store and give them ten or fifteen dollars. Finally, a few weeks before Christmas, I was able to claim the necklace and put it under the tree. I don't know which was more meaningful to me, giving Debra the necklace or making that weekly payment that reminded me, each time I did it, of how much I loved her.

OK, that was schmaltzy, but it really did make me feel good to do it.

For her birthday this year, Debra said that she would like to have a small, simple cross pendant. I found one. It is a small, simple, silver cross. I gave it to her on Friday, which, coincidentally, was her birthday, and she still has it on. She says that she will probably wear it most of the time. Lots of crosses, I found, come with some kind of ornamentation. I like the simple one, too. It reminds me of simple faith and heart-felt devotion. Plus, maybe the cross shouldn't be dressed up too much. A friend of mine once told me that we had turned the cross of Jesus into something much too pretty. I guess he's right.

Debra's pendants speak of the kind of life she lives: she chooses to keep things simple.

It's a gift for which I'm grateful.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dear Debra, Happy Birthday to You!

One of the most important events of my life happened 18 months before I even came to be when Debra Kay Johnson was born on February 15, 1957 in Colquitt, Georgia.

Those of you who know Debra will know what I mean when I say that she is love, joy, peace, and grace.

I am grateful to God that I have been allowed to celebrate 31 of her birthdays with her.

Happy Birthday, dear Debra!

One more thing: those of you who know her also know that she's every bit as cute now as she was when that baby picture was taken!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

On the Jericho Road and the CCBlogs Network

On the Jericho Road is now a part of the Christian Century Blogs network. This is a network of blogs hosted by the Christian Century, an outstanding Christian periodical with a progressive slant. CCBlogs is administered by Gordon Atkinson of Real Live Preacher. You can link to the network by clicking on the icon at the top right of this page. The blogs on that site will get your theological juices flowing.

Love, 2008 Style

It’s Valentine’s Day and the thoughts of a red-blooded American baby-boomer male naturally turn to…television.

When I was fighting my way through puberty, one of my regular Friday night activities was to watch the show Love, American Style. OK, so I wasn’t exactly fighting my way through; the whole boy-girl thing was for the most part a spectator sport for me.

The plot lines of the sketches on Love, American Style were usually pretty far-fetched and sometimes downright unbelievable. I remember one in which a man who had a nice head of hair decided to test his fiancée’s love for him. He donned a skin wig and then put a regular wig on over that. Then, he told his fiancée that he had something he had to tell her—and he removed the top wig to reveal the bare head underneath. She was just fine with his baldness. So, at the end of the episode, we saw the fellow gazing into a mirror and saying that he realized he had done a dumb thing and so he would now have to do another dumb thing every day for the rest of his life—as he shaved his head.

I remember another one in which a man and woman had what was implied to be a passionate relationship. They were, shall we say, affectionate. But the woman had one rule—she would not take her gloves off. No one was going to see her hands except her future husband, whoever that turned out to be. The situation was driving the man crazy. Even though the woman made the rest of herself available to him, he spent all of his time lusting after her hands, which she would not let him see! I’m not sure that I remember the ending, but I have a vague recollection of the fellow giving her an engagement ring so she’d have to take her glove off to don the ring.

I wonder what a show called Love, 2008 Style would look like.

Episode One: Love and the Rebate Check

In this episode, our couple is sitting at a table, piles of credit card bills before them. They are discussing what they can do. They talk about negotiating with the credit card companies, consulting a credit counseling agency, asking their parents for a loan, taking out another credit card with a lower interest rate and transferring their balances to that card, or declaring bankruptcy.

He gets up to check the mail. He returns waving their $1200 IRS rebate check just as a news story comes on talking about how important the role of the consumer is in pulling the nation out of recession. They look at each other, their eyes ablaze. “It’s a sign from heaven,” he says, and they rush out the door to spend their check on more stuff they don’t need.

The laugh track kicks in.

Episode Two: Love Below the Belt

This episode is set in a university biology lab where cutting-edge research is being done on the biological basis of human emotions. The beautiful research professor, who looks amazingly like Raquel Welch in her prime, looks up from her notes at her research assistant, who is ten years her junior and looks amazingly like any number of young male soap opera actors.

“This can’t be right,” she murmurs (seductively, it goes without saying).

“What?” he replies, somewhere between awkwardly and dreamily.

“Well, as you know,” she answers, “the ancient Hebrews thought that the emotions were centered in the gut.”

He nods, cleverly masking the fact that he has no idea what she is talking about.

“But, as you also know, medical science has long believed that our emotions are actually centered in our brains.”

He nods more fervently, because he has read about that somewhere, and daringly speaks what is on his mind: “So?”

“So,” Dr. Raquel replies, “our research reveals something much different from that.”

“Do tell,” he says, winking—or twitching; it’s hard to tell.

“Our research,” she says, standing up, proves that while almost all of the emotions are centered in the brain, one—and only one—is centered somewhere else.”

“What—I mean which—I mean where—oh, you know what I mean” he almost asks.

“Love,” she says. “Love is centered neither in the gut nor in the brain—it is found only in the genitals!” as she flings herself upon him.

Beakers and test tubes and probably very dangerous chemicals fly everywhere as they crash onto the very cold-looking metal table while Dr. Raquel screams, “Research! Must do more research!”

The laugh track kicks in.

Episode Three: Love at Dawn, at Noon, and at Midnight

They meet in college or high school or kindergarten or on a blind date or at work or at church. They fall in love.

Probably and hopefully there is some lust involved but it is not the predominant power in what draws them together. They feel a common cause, a common calling, a common desire to give to and nurture the other.

They are alike and they are different. They complement each other and vex each other. They pledge to do the best they can and to do it with God’s help. Together, they try to make a living and to make a difference. They struggle. They succeed. They fail. They try again.

They make love with passion, with kindness, with tenderness, and with the deep and awe-inspiring sense that in so doing they are joining much more than their bodies.

In all things and in every way, they are faithful.

They have children or they don’t have children. If they have children, they raise them the best way they can. They hold them close and let them go. If they don’t have children of their own, they are kind and helpful to other people’s children.

They are healthy and they are sick. They have fun and they have worries. Sometimes they feel closer to one another than at other times, but all the time they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are there for one another.

They pray. They worship. They believe and they doubt.

Sometimes they hold on with a firm grip and sometimes they hold on by their fingernails, but always they hold on to God and to each other.

One day one of them dies. The other one cries for a very long time and then gets up to live out of necessity— and out of respect for the life they lived together.

Then one day the other one dies.

There is no laugh track.

But all along there is laughter—and there are tears. All along there is love that places the highest value where it belongs—not on possessions, although they try hard to make their own way and to enjoy some of the pleasures of life, and not on sex, although they nurture that part of their relationship and celebrate it for the good gift it is—but on loving God, loving each other, and loving others. They honor God, they honor each other, and they honor their commitments. They live in love and they die in love.

Such love is still possible and still available, under God, even in 2008.

It might make for boring television, but it makes for a wonderful life.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Josh Ruffin on The Two Man Gentlemen Band

Our boy Josh has an entertaining piece on an entertaining band in this week's Metro Spirit. Do yourself a favor and give it a read.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What’s Ruling Your Life?

(A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11)

Life is a gift. That’s what we need to get hold of—it’s all a gift. Our role is to accept the gift and to celebrate the gift and to live the gift. That’s all.

Hear now a joke:

An old Native chief sat in his hut on the reservation, smoking a ceremonial pipe and eyeing two U.S. government officials sent to interview him. "Chief Two Eagles," asked one official, "you have observed the white man for 90 years. You've seen his wars and his technological advances. You've seen his progress, and the damage he has done." The chief nodded in agreement. The official continued, "Considering all these events that you have witnessed, where did the white man go wrong?"
The chief stared at the officials for over a minute and then calmly replied: "When the white man came to this land, Indians were running it. No taxes! No debt! Plenty of buffalo. Plenty of beaver. Women did all the work. Medicine Man was free. Native men spent all day hunting and fishing."
Then the chief leaned back and smiled..... "Only the white man is dumb enough to think he could improve a system like that."

The land of the Native Americans was not the Garden of Eden. But our universal representatives Adam and Eve surely lived in peace. See them now at home in the Garden. They have work to do but it is good and productive and uncomplicated work. They have each other in every significant sense; they belong together and they are drawn together and they share together, all unencumbered by anxiety and fear and shame. They live, we can safely say, in the love and grace of God and so they live in the love and grace of each other. They even have the guidance of God’s Word to protect them from harm and shame. God said, “You can eat of all the trees in the Garden except this one,” which they should have heard with celebration, as in “What a marvelous and gracious God we have who lets us eat of every tree but one because he wants us to be safe!” but which they instead of course heard with resentment, as in “What a stingy and limiting God we have who won’t let us eat of that tree because he doesn’t want us to be wise!”

At least that’s what they started thinking as soon as the serpent put the idea into their heads. When tempted, they ate. Oh, Eve put up a little bit of a tussle while Adam put up no resistance at all, but they ate and seem to have eaten pretty quickly. What was the temptation? “When you eat, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” I don’t know exactly what it means to have your eyes opened and be like God. I do know that when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they realized that they were naked and they tried to cover themselves up. I believe that what that was all about was their realization of the other possibilities—the possibility that there could be guilt instead of grace, of conflict instead of peace, of brokenness instead of wholeness. And I believe that they knew that once they had crossed that Rubicon there was no going back. I believe that they knew that, henceforth and forevermore, they and all those who came after them, when left to their own devices and their own choice would choose as they had.

God already knew of that possibility. They didn’t have to know but they chose to know.

All of humanity has fallen prey to that temptation. We were prone to do so because we are human and because that’s what humans do. But we also chose to do so when we got the opportunity; most of us chose to do so the first opportunity we got.

How differently Jesus acted in the face of temptation. Think of the contrasts.

Adam and Eve approached their temptation well-fed; they were fat and happy. Yet, when confronted with the fruit, which they did not need, they ate. Jesus approached his temptation famished after a forty-day fast. Yet, when confronted with the temptation to turn the stones into bread that he did need, which he could have done, he refused.

Adam and Eve participated with the serpent in questioning the Word of God. The serpent asked, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” Eve entered into dialogue with the serpent about that and thereby entered into questioning God’s motivation behind his injunction. God’s injunction was born out of love but Eve let the serpent turn it into an unjust stricture. So they questioned God’s Word. Jesus, on the other hand, when confronted with temptation, relied on and took refuge in the Word of God. He trusted in that Word and quoted it at the devil as a part of his strategy of resistance.

Because he resisted and stayed true to who he was under God until his obedience finally landed him on the cross, we can be saved. And because of Jesus, things can be different for us.

Consider, then, another contrast.

Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden out of the grace and love of God. They were God’s children and they had his care and protection. When confronted by the serpent, they chose to believe that there was something better for them than being the beloved children of God. Maybe they got some of what they wanted, but along with it they found shame and anxiety and despair.

Jesus, on the other hand, had just heard the voice of God at his baptism affirm, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately came the tempter who said, “If you are the Son of God…” [I was led to this connection by Anna Florence Carter in Lectionary Homiletics (February/March 2008), p. 19]. The devil tried to raise doubts in Jesus’ mind as to whether or not he was really the Son of God. Maybe, the devil wanted Jesus to consider, he needed something more than being the beloved Son of God if he was going to make it in this old world. The road ahead for him, the one required of him by his Father, would be a hard one, and maybe he needed to choose a way other than the Father’s way. But Jesus would have none of it. He chose rather to rest in the fact that he was God’s beloved Son. He needed nothing more than that. He would try to seize no more than that. He would live in that.

We have a choice as to how we will live. We have all made Adam and Eve’s choice. We have all tried to make our own way and to be our own god. We have all known the shame and guilt that come from sin. We have all chosen to believe that we are less than God’s beloved children and that we thus need to seize something more for ourselves. Even we Christians can choose to keep living as the children of Adam and Eve rather than as the beloved children of God. We can choose to live in guilt and shame and despair. But we don’t have to do so.

Understand this: in Jesus Christ we have been set free. He has made new life and real life and abundant life and eternal life a reality for us. We really can live in that life. Why would we not choose…

… grace over guilt?
…assurance over doubt?
…life over death?
…joy over fear?
…belonging over longing?
…peace over anxiety?

Why would we not choose those ways? But we all too often do not.

Understand this, too: the serpent and Adam and Eve were wrong. Life is not expanded by going a way other than God’s way. Life is limited and truncated and drained by going a way other than God’s way.

We can make a very good case for saying that the testing that comes to us is a part of God’s plan. The forbidden tree and the serpent were both put in the Garden by God; they did not come from outside God’s creation. It was the Holy Spirit that compelled Jesus to go out into the wilderness where he was confronted by Satan. Perhaps Jesus had learned from experience, and hard experience at that, that we need to pray “lead us not into temptation.”

It may that we can’t grow up, that we can’t mature, that we can’t become fully what we are supposed to be, without such testing. What I want to guard us against, though, is the notion that somehow we need to make our own way apart from God if we are going to be who we are supposed to be. And there’s a lot of that kind of thinking out there.

Some of you will have heard of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first book in the series, The Golden Compass, was recently made into a movie. Some Christians have been alarmed by the books, which are aimed at adolescents, and by the movie because Pullman is an atheist who is an advocate for his position. Indeed, in the series, a “God” whom you would not recognize as the God we worship is killed and his “Church” is an institution that the heroes want to destroy. The reason that the destruction of the Church is the goal is that the Church stands in the way of real advance, of real inquiry, of real curiosity, and of real life. In ways that are way too complicated to get into here, Pullman’s “Church” keeps people from having the life they are meant to have. Real life, it seems, can only be found by going your own way and living this life for all it is worth through study and kindness and love.

Sometimes the Church—the real Church in our real world, now—does stand in the way. Sometimes we inappropriately try to limit inquiry and to inhibit science and—and this is much worse—the Church sometimes stands in the way of people reaching their full potential. How? By fostering the very things that Adam and Eve chose and that God does not want us to be encumbered by: guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety. Sometimes the Church causes us to grab hold of such things and look to them for life.

Such should not be. The witness of the Bible is that God wants us to have life and have it more abundantly. The witness of the Spirit is that God does not want our lives to be ruled by guilt; he wants them to be ruled by grace. God does not want our lives to be ruled by the limits of our own wisdom; he wants them to be ruled by his Word that is given for his glory and for our good.

Real life is not found when we live in fear and guilt and anxiety, which are the ways of death. Real life is found when we rest in God’s grace, when we rest in the fact that we are his beloved children. Real life is not found when we try to be our own god and try to go our own way apart from God. Real life is found when we rest in God’s Word, when we rest in the fact that he is always there for us, showing us the way.

What’s ruling your life? Is it death or is it life?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Good Old Gospel Singing

I grew up on Southern Gospel music.

Every Sunday morning as we were getting ready to go to church, my parents watched two shows on one of the Atlanta television stations. One was the Singing Lefevres’(pictured) program The Gospel Singing Caravan (I remember that it was sponsored by Boomershine Pontiac) and the other was the Gospel Singing Jubilee “with your hosts, the Florida Boys.” The latter show featured such well-known groups as the Inspirations, the Hinsons, the Happy Goodman Family and the Dixie Echoes. It also featured a young fellow that they billed as “Little Stevie Sanders” who would grow up to replace William Golden in the Oak Ridge Boys for a while. He later took his own life. Very sad.

The church in which I grew up, The Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road (although I thought during my childhood that the road was named “County Maintained” because that was what the only sign on it said) four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia had a Gospel Singing one Saturday night each month. Midway also held Homecoming on the second Sunday in June (I think they still do) and that day included all-day singing and dinner on the grounds (that means we set the serving tables up outside, if any of you are city folk or otherwise among the uninitiated). The gospel groups that were invited to sing at Homecoming had usually been screened at the Saturday night singings.

I remember a few of the groups quite well. One was the Crossroads Quartet. They were pretty good but they earned an infamous place in Midway history when they recommended a prospective pastor to us who proved to be very controversial. When the vote on calling him as pastor deteriorated into an election between him and our former pastor, the beloved Preacher Bill, and he lost, half of the church left to go start another church. I think he preached for them for a little while.

The piano player for the Crossroads Quartet, who was a young fellow, left them to start another group made up of men who were young like himself. He called the group Ronnie Calhoun and the Psalmist. They were the most professional sounding group we ever had at Midway. I must say, though, that the teenage girls of our church embarrassed themselves whenever the Psalmist came around. You’d have thought we were having a visitation by the Beatles or at least Herman’s Hermits. So far as I know, no one ever threw any undergarments at the lads.

One Saturday night the Psalmist and a family group whose name escapes me were the featured acts. Ronnie and his group played first and did their usual smooth job. Then the other group took the stage. They were something of a bluegrass group. I don’t think they were very good, but I was really in no position to judge such music. Following the Psalmist, though, they didn’t come off very well. Lots of people walked outside while they were singing. I was one of them. I’m not proud of that. But I was probably fifteen years old; lots of the folks who walked out should have been grown enough to know better.

Another group that I remember was the Melody Makers. They, like the Crossroads Quartet, had both male and female members in the group. The member that I remember was the pianist and lead singer. He was a large man with a small head who thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing. I even remember one of their songs. It was called Termites in the Temple. Midway was one of those churches that was filled with instigators and agitators and the song surely fit us. Of course, the protagonists in whatever conflicts were going on assumed that the lyrics fit the folks on the other side. The song talked about troublemakers in the church. The chorus said,

Termites! Exterminate them!
Ever more the church must stand!
Praise God there’ll be no termites in the temple
Over in the Promised Land!

And all the people said, “Amen.”

When my father was the song leader at Midway (he was qualified, I guess, by the facts that he did not read music, could not play an instrument, didn’t sing particularly well, but didn’t mind getting up and calling out hymn numbers and waving his arm a little bit), he invited a group called the Canadians to sing. I remember him saying, “When they get up there you’re going to wonder what they’re going to do but after they start singing you’ll know.” They did sing right well. There were three of them. I think that two of them actually were from Canada. They were lumberjacks. One of them was killed by a falling tree. Very sad.

What got me to thinking about that good old gospel music was a trip taken by our church’s senior adults a couple of weeks ago in which Debra and I participated. We went to the Abbeville Opera House in Abbeville, South Carolina to see the show Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. It had a lot of gospel songs in it. While the play had some serious aspects to it, they played a lot of it for fun. Some of our folks wondered if they were making fun.

I didn’t think so. It is what it is. Some of it is hokey; some of it is outlandish; some of it is bad theology. But somehow, I know and believe, Christ is proclaimed. And that’s really all that matters.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Longing for Home

I have for a long time now recognized that one reality that characterizes my life is rootlessness.

I am an only child both of whose parents had died by the time I was twenty. My home church split while I was in seminary and, since most of the people who I associated with that church left it, my home church doesn’t feel like home anymore. I haven’t set foot in it in over twenty years. The seminary at which I spent seven years of my life fell in the onslaught of the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and changed so dramatically and so suddenly that I do not think of it as the same school. In my mind I hold two degrees from a seminary that no longer exists.

That same fundamentalist movement changed the nature, direction, and focus of the SBC in ways that radically departed from its history and heritage just as I was falling in love with that history and heritage. It was hard to take when pharaohs arose who knew not Joseph, by which biblical metaphor I mean to say that the SBC fell under the control of leaders who regarded as unimportant and maybe even incorrect such cherished Baptist ideas as the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of all believers, and the separation of church and state. It seemed to me that they were willing to take freedom and ball it up and toss it in the garbage can as casually as if it were yesterday’s newspaper.

Part of me just says “Oh well.” After all, so it is and so it ever shall be.

Such an attitude, though, does not address my sense of rootlessness. I still long for home.

I served two tours as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Adel, Georgia. After serving there for seven years, I became a professor in the Belmont University School of Religion. Following six years at Belmont, I returned to Adel as pastor. I did feel called to do so but there were times when I couldn’t quite understand all of the dynamics that went into that decision.

One day I found myself at a seminar led by Parker Palmer. He had put us into groups in which we were to share some of our personal story. As I described my inability to understand exactly why I had returned to Adel, a counselor friend in our group said, “Oh, it’s clear to me why you went back.” “Pray tell,” I said. He replied, “You went back because you were looking for home.”

I think he was right. During my first stint in Adel I had found a foundation and a community that I had not had in a long time. I was looking to reclaim it. But, of course, things were different; the folks there were different and I was different. You can go home again, I found, but you can only stay about half as long as you did the first time.

God has been good. He has given me a wonderful family. I hope that I have been half the blessing to them that my wife and children have been to me. I crave being home with them. In that sense, God has truly comforted me and given me roots.

But I still find myself longing for a Church home; by capitalizing the word I mean to signify a fellowship beyond the local church that I serve and attend. I long for a place where I belong and am accepted, which is to me the basic definition of “home.”

Perhaps that is part of what I was looking for when I attended the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant (NBC) last week. I wanted to see if there I would be among Baptist Christians who valued what I value. Would they value sharing the gospel in all of its implications and applications? Would they demonstrate a commitment to the salvation of souls and to the healing of broken lives? Would they be interested in evangelism and in the environment?

Would they understand that God’s justice applies to both individuals and to systems? Would they value missions and ministry more than theological uniformity? Would they proclaim what they were for more than what they were against? Would the congregation look more like heaven is going to look in terms of diversity than most of our congregations look on Sunday morning? Would they demonstrate a willingness to partner with all Baptists—including those Southern Baptists who were quite critical of the gathering—in doing the work of the Lord?

I must say that my questions were answered in the affirmative. I must say that I felt at home.

Now, that feeling does not really give me a home, because the NBC is neither a denomination nor a convention. It is not that kind of organization. What I hope it will be is a pan-Baptist alliance or fellowship that will try to marshal the considerable resources of North American Baptists in the doing of missions and ministry. I hope that it will provide a public witness that Baptists of many colors (literally) and stripes (theologically and socially) can provide a healthy and balanced witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. I hope that it will continue to demonstrate that issues that have to do with the health and welfare of all people and which necessarily get us into the realm of politics, such as the environment, poverty, criminal justice, and human rights, can be discussed and treated in ways that are not partisan.

It’s a huge task that we have taken upon ourselves. But I hope that, to use Jimmy Allen’s words, it becomes a “movement” rather than a moment. I need a home that builds upon the positive aspects of Baptist history and moves beyond the negative aspects. I need a home that transcends petty differences and debates over theological minutiae. I need a home where Jesus is Lord, where freedom is cherished, where people are accepted, and where the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ is the paramount concern.

In his book The Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “The word longing comes from the same root as the word long in the sense of length in either time or space and also the word belong, so that in its full richness to long suggests to yearn for a long time for something that is a long way off and something that we feel we belong to and that belongs to us” (pp. 18-19). I have longed for a long time for something in my Church life that seemed to exist only a long time ago or maybe a long time in the future. Perhaps in the efforts to emerge from the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant I will find some of my longing satisfied.

Reprints and Citations

My article about the role that religion is playing in the presidential election that first appeared at On the Jericho Road and that was published on the editorial page of the Augusta Chronicle has since appeared elsewhere. It has been reprinted in the print editions of the Adel (GA) News Tribune (I served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Adel for 10 years) and the Valdosta Daily Times. It has also drawn a mention in an article in the Metro Spirit, the alternative weekly paper published here in Augusta.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Arnold & Maria, Mama & Daddy, and Debra & Me

It’s a long time until November and I am afraid that Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, and Ken Rudin (the Political Junkie on NPR) are going to explode from over-excitement long before then. I don’t get that worked up about elections, but they do energize me. After all, we get to go the polls and elect our leaders. It sounds simple but it’s a great blessing.

When it comes to voting, I remember what my father used to tell me: “If we don’t exercise the right to vote we’ll lose it one day.” So, if you don’t vote—shame on you!

Despite my father’s conviction about voting, politics weren’t discussed much in my growing up home. I wonder how politics affect those families where political allegiances are a big deal.

I go to thinking about that when, over the last few days, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Sen. John McCain and his wife, Maria Shriver, endorsed Sen. Barack Obama. Now, it is no big surprise that the two people who compose California’s first family endorsed candidates from opposing parties. The governor is after all a Republican and his wife is a member of the Kennedy clan who is therefore genetically predisposed and environmentally conditioned to be a Democrat. Still, it must make for some interesting dinner conversations. I guess that they just have to accept the situation for what it is and press on. Love conquers all. (For proof, see James Carville and Mary Matlin.)

The situation with my parents was different. My mother, I suspect largely at the urging of my father, did vote. But I can still hear her asking my father for whom she should vote. I guess that she just didn’t keep up with the issues or the candidates. While I’m not saying that she should not have followed my father’s advice, I do know that the following candidates got their two votes: 1960—Richard Nixon, 1964—Barry Goldwater, 1968—George Wallace, and 1972—Richard Nixon.

Debra and I talk politics a little bit. I think—and you would expect me to say this—that we handle such things about as well as they can be handled. We talk respectfully about issues and about candidates. We think for ourselves. We pray about it. And then we each go vote our convictions. I suspect that we usually vote for the same candidates but there are times when we don’t. Tomorrow’s primary here in Georgia may be one of those times when we don’t vote for the same candidate. We may or may not find out; sometimes we don’t even ask each other for whom we voted.

This may be one situation (and there are others) in which being a Baptist minister is a good thing. I do not believe that I should publicly endorse any candidate. So, we do not believe that we should post stickers on our bumpers or signs in our yard that advocate for any candidate. That self-imposed restriction may spare us some disagreements.

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, the day on which over twenty states will hold primaries and on which a huge number of delegates will be awarded. If you live in one of those states and haven’t voted early, by all means get out and vote.

Maybe your family is like that of Arnold and Maria; maybe it’s like that of my mother and father; maybe it’s like ours. Maybe you prefer Democrats; maybe you prefer Republicans. Maybe you’re liberal; maybe you’re conservative. I have my convictions, too. But on Election Day, we’re all in this together. In a sense, we’re all one big family doing our best to make decisions that will be best for our family.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Tale of Two Gatherings

Debra and I spent most of the week out of town. We spent time in two cities attending two very different gatherings. Both were worth the trip.

On Monday we were at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, where we participated in the inauguration of the Frederick Buechner Institute. Buechner, who is now 82 years old, has for over fifty years been one of America's best writers. For most of those fifty years he has done his writing as a Christian and as an ordained Presbyterian minister. His fiction, his sermons, his essays, and especially his memoirs speak truth to me. What I like about Buechner's writing is the way that he views life as filled with grace even as he presents life in all of its facets, including its harshness and ugliness.

I did not conduct a poll of the attendees, but the crowd attending the inaugural celebration was quite diverse. There were old folks, middle-aged folks, and young folks. There were ministers and laypeople; I think the laity had us clergy outnumbered. There were folks from many different Christian traditions. I knew only one person there besides Debra--a former colleague from my years at Belmont University--but I felt like I was with people to whom I belonged and who belonged to me. Why? Because we were united in our love for good writing, in our love for Christ, in our love for life, and in our love for Buechner. We had many differences and were I to spend much time with those people with whom I spent only a day, I'm sure that we would find much about which we disagree. But that didn't matter. What bound us was our common love.

From Wednesday to Friday we were in Atlanta attending the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant (NBC). I have previously written of my hopes and my fears regarding the meeting. I will have much more to say in days to come about my impressions of the event. For now, I just want to say a little bit about the crowd.

The only time I ever attended a Baptist meeting whose attendees reflected greater diversity thant his crowd was when I went to the Baptist World Alliance Centennial Congress in Birmingham, England in 2005. Baptists came from all over the world to attend that celebration. Those attending the NBC were from North America with the vast majority coming from the United States. Many Baptist conventions were represented. Folks were there from all over the United States and Canada.

But the real beauty of the thing was in this simple fact: white Baptists and black Baptists were joyfully, enthusiastically, and happily worshipping and learning together. And I believe that in days and years to come, we will be partnering more and more in missions and ministry.

It pains me to say that such a thing seemed so remarkable in 2008. It pains me to say that Baptist churches are, like the churches of most denominations, still pretty much segregated on Sunday morning. It pains me greatly to say that not all the Baptists I know will regard the racial diversity of the NBC as a good thing.

I want to say very clearly that I believe it to be a very good thing.

Not everyone at the meeting agreed on every point of doctrine or on worship style or on politics. If we spend much time together we will find much that would threaten to keep us apart.

What bound us together for those three days, though, was our common love: our love for Jesus Christ, our love for the Church, our love for Baptist ways, and our love for the world. I believe that our common love will cause us to persevere and to push forward into new ways of partnering in worship, in ministry, and in missions.

Why? Because before we are black and white, we are Christian. Before we are more conservative or less conservative, we are Christian. Before we are Democrat or Republican, we are Christian. Before we are Northern or Southern, we are Christian. Before we are wealthy or poor, we are Christian.

We are bound by our common love for Christ and his Kingdom. May we grow in that love!