Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Century Ago Today

One hundred years ago today, on November 28, 1910, a baby was born in Nashville, Georgia to a family named Giddens; the parents assigned the little boy the name Howard Peterson.

It was around thirty-five years ago that I first met the man that the baby grew up to be when I walked into his office at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. I was a sixteen year old prospective student; he was, and had been for about ten years at that point, a professor of Christianity at Mercer, a post he had assumed at his alma mater after many years serving as pastor of Georgia Baptist churches, most recently and most notably the First Baptist Church of Athens.

Dr. Giddens became my academic advisor at Mercer and I pretty much majored in him, taking five of the eight courses required for my Christianity major from him. Debra and I were only two of hundreds and hundreds of students on whom his warm, gracious, caring, and simultaneously down-to-earth and sophisticated style had a tremendous influence.

Over the years—and I think that Dr. Giddens, because of the early deaths of my parents, prompted and guided such growth in our relationship—he became like a father to me. Indeed, when he died on June 16, 2008 at the age of 97, I lost a father for the second time. Many other people also regarded him as a father figure; we all share a common love and appreciation for the genuinely great and greatly genuine man that Howard Giddens was.

Dr. Giddens left us a legacy of love, grace, and commitment that we will never get over and of which enough rubbed off on us, I hope, that others can catch it from us.

In a recent gathering of Mercer Baptist Student Alumni from the late 1970s, someone said that, with all due respect to and appreciation for the current generation of Mercer professors, we were particularly blessed to come along at the time when we could fall under the influence of Christianity faculty members like Howard Giddens, Robert Otto, Harold McManus, Edwin Johnston, and Ray Brewster. He is right about that.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Howard Peterson Giddens, who was a vital part of many people’s lives and who for over thirty years was an integral part of mine.

At three crucial points in my life the good Lord put people in it without whose love I might have made it anyway, I guess, but I can’t imagine how.

Two of them, Sara Abbott and Champ Lee Ruffin, birthed me.

One of them, Debra Kay Johnson, married me.

Another one, Howard Peterson Giddens, carried me.

I now have to live without three of the four.

But not really. Not really.

To God be the glory.

What Was…What Is…What Will Be…The Coming of the Savior

(A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent based on Romans 13:11-14 & Matthew 24:36-44)

This is the time of year when lots of house cleaning goes on because we know that people are coming. Family members are coming for the family gatherings, co-workers and friends and neighbors are coming for the parties—we expect them and so we’re getting ready for them. Everything will be just so…because we expect company.

But what about September 13th around 5:30 in the evening when someone—say your mother-in-law—shows up at your house unexpectedly? Things won’t likely be in the same kind of order because (a) there is nothing special about September 13th (unless it happens to be your birthday) and (b) you didn’t expect guests.

So why don’t we keep our houses clean and in order all the time? There can be many reasons. Perhaps we are quite busy, for example. Or perhaps we are quite lazy. Or perhaps having the house in good shape for our own sake doesn’t seem as important as having it in shape for the sake of someone else’s approval.

Life might be a little easier, though, if we worked all along at keeping the place in order rather than having to work ourselves into a tizzy this afternoon because we know that somebody is coming over tonight. Still, though, how much incentive to keep things straight could we keep mustered up if we expected someone to come but they didn’t show up for days, for weeks—even for years?

Are you keeping your house—your life—ready for the Savior to come? Are you taking seriously the claim that Jesus has on your life? Are you praying at set times and all the time? Are you reading your Bible at are set times and allowing it to form you in the ways you think and feel and talk and act all the time? Are you developing an awareness of the presence of the Spirit of God in your life by listening to the Spirit at set times of contemplation as well as practicing listening to the Spirit as you go about your daily life? [Cf. Martha A. Dimmers, “Pastoral Implications: Matthew 24:36-44,” Lectionary Homiletics(October/November 2010), p. 72]

“It would help,” you might say, “if we knew exactly when Jesus was going to come back. I mean, if we knew exactly when he was coming we’d certainly get ready”—by which we mean, of course, that we’d get ready at the last minute and do whatever we want in the meantime. It’s kind of like saying “I wish I knew exactly when I was going to die so I’d be sure to get my life in order just in the nick of time.”

Well, with all due respect—good luck with that.

On the one hand, Paul said to the Christians in Rome, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:11-12b). While Paul, at least at that point in his life, seemed to expect a rather soon return of Jesus, all he really said was that it’s later than it’s ever been and given that fact it behooved the Roman Christians to wake up and get about the business of being real disciples of Jesus. Of course, some folks, whether meaning well or just meaning to sell lots of books and movies, are all too willing to be more precise than Paul or even than Jesus when it comes to predicting the return of the Lord. Let’s never forget that, on the other hand, Jesus Christ himself, the One whose return it is, after all, that we anticipate, said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).

You have to wonder about people who claim to know more than Jesus knows and about those who are gullible enough to listen to them.

Hear these facts that we need to keep in our minds and in our hearts and in our lives:

1. What was=the Savior did come to the manger of Bethlehem all those years ago and did live a life of perfect obedience to his Father and he did die on the cross for our sins and he did rise from the tomb on the third day.

2. What will be=the Savior will come again to bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God and when he comes there will be, by God’s perfect grace and love and justice, a sorting and a sifting of people.

3. What is=the Savior expects his followers to be living their lives in ways that exhibit faithfulness to him and a commitment to live our lives in ways that bear effective and accurate witness to him.

It is in the “what is” that we are living; that’s where our responsibility lies; that’s where our faithfulness is lived out. We certainly celebrate and live our lives in light of the great “what was” of Jesus’ first coming through his birth and we certainly anticipate and live our lives in light of the great “what will be” of Jesus’ second coming at some unknown point in the future. But we live and work and play—and either follow or don’t follow Jesus and either worship or don’t worship God and either love and serve or don’t love and serve people—in the great “what is,” in the here and now.

Besides, another aspect of “what is” is that Jesus still comes to us, usually in small and quiet ways, here and now. It is not enough—in fact, it may be an avoidance of the hard and real and meaningful living of the Christian life—if we just look back to the “big event” of the birth of Jesus and then look ahead to the “big event” of the return of Jesus. I’m reminded of the preacher who, on Easter Sunday morning, said “I’d like to wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to all of you that we won’t see again until then.”

Maybe we see modern-day symptoms of the spiritual ailment that sees good only in the big when folks seem to live from one event—one conference or revival or spiritual high (even one in a regular Sunday morning worship service)—to the next [Cf. what Eugene Peterson says about the “tourist mindset” in modern religion in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 16]. Such things are good when God gives them to us—the first and second comings of Jesus Christ are certainly to be celebrated and anticipated, respectively, and a “big event” experience that is helpful is certainly to be celebrated—but again, Jesus still comes. He comes to us right now. He comes to us right here. He comes to us in the day-to-day experiences of life.

He comes to us at 9:32 on a random Thursday morning just as surely as he came in his humble birth and as he will come in his glorious return.

You just have to look for him.

Where do we look? We get at least one good answer—an answer from Jesus himself—in the very next chapter of Matthew, in words that are part of this same long discourse of Jesus [I was pointed in this direction by David L. Bartlett, “Matthew 24:36-44: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 24]. In that next chapter Jesus talks about the judgment that will take place when he does come back and he tells the “righteous” that they can enter into eternal life because they saw Jesus hungry and fed him, they saw Jesus thirsty and gave him something to drink, they saw Jesus a stranger and welcomed him, they saw Jesus naked and clothed him, they saw Jesus sick and took care of him, and they saw Jesus in prison and visited him. The righteous wanted to know when they had seen him and when they had done such things for him. He replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The opposite was true of the unrighteous and they are sent into eternal punishment.

Listen very carefully again to what Jesus said: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

So how do we, as Paul told us to do, “Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12b) and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14)? How do we, as Jesus told us to do, “keep awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be ready” (Matthew 24:44)? Well, we do the hard and necessary and non-exotic and ordinary and routine day to day living of the Christian life that looks for Jesus in prayer, in Scripture, in the Spirit…and in other people, particularly those in need.

Jesus has come.

Jesus will come.

Jesus comes right here and right now.

Look around you. Do you see him? And what will you do with him?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Response of Druid Hills Baptist Church to the Georgia Baptist Convention's Action

Here is the text of the response offered by Druid Hills Baptist Church to the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Committee's recommendation to disfellowship the church. It was delivered today by Carey Charles at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention in Albany, Georgia.

My name is Carey Charles; I am a Deacon from Druid Hills Baptist Church and I am the 4th generation of my family who have faithfully served at DHBC. I am here to represent first the membership of this congregation currently at the corner of Ponce and Highland in Atlanta.

I am grateful to the Georgia Baptist Convention for providing this opportunity for me to voice our Church’s opposition to the breaking of fellowship with the Druid Hills Baptist Church although we are fully aware that the body gathered here today will most likely , but not necessarily follow the recommendation of the Executive Committee’s Report.

We are aware that the GBC has historically argued for the autonomy of the local church to call whomever the church agrees upon as pastor and that the GBC has recognized both Dr. Graham Walker and the Reverend Mimi Walker serving as Pastors in the GBC for many years as evidenced in the Annual books of Records.

We are also aware that the GBC may choose to associate with any church in accordance with its stated policy.

Given this, please recognized our goal at DHBC is missional first and foremost. When Baptist churches are closing their doors inside the I-285 Perimeter today at an historically rapid pace, and the once 166 Baptist churches are now down to a mere 39, we at DHBC choose to stay and bear testimony as stated in our core values: We Love God, Share Christ, Serve Others and Grow in Faith.

In staying, we recognize that we must ask tough questions, missional questions, not simply how unified our local church is, but also how unified is "our church" in our neighborhood, city and world immediately surrounding us.

Therefore, we chose the Walkers, both of whom have been equally recognized as partners in mission by the International Mission Board of the SBC for twelve years of service in the Philippines, to equally share our pastorate in what is now a growing mission field Inside Atlanta.

We at DHBC understand the intent of the Baptist Faith and Message in its past, present and future forms to be a document that seeks to unite the Southern Baptist community in advancing the mission and ministry of Christ in a world that knows him not.

We believe it is a privilege to show the world inside the Perimeter of Atlanta, that the family of God recognizes equality of leadership in mutual servant-hood to each other, not in subordination of one gender to another. In the eyes of God, in the body of Christ, there is neither Male nor Female.

For these stated reasons we oppose the Executive Committee report recommending the Druid Hills Baptist Church a non-cooperating church and ask this body to join with our community of faith to bring Christ back inside the perimeter of Atlanta, co-laboring together—women and men.

Thank you.

My Remarks on the Expulsion of Druid Hills Baptist Church from the Georgia Baptist Convention

As reported in this Associated Baptist Press article, messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) today voted to to accept an Executive Committee recommendation to declare that the Druid Hills Baptist Church of Atlanta is "not in cooperation" with the GBC because they have a woman serving as co-pastor of the church. That woman is Mimi Walker; the other co-pastor is her husband Graham Walker.

As the article also notes, I spoke against the recommendation. It quotes me accurately, but I thought it might be helpful if I provided the text of my full remarks. (I ran out of time--they only allow you three minutes and as my good church knows, I can't say "Good morning" in three minutes--so my third point was summarized in my spoken remarks.)

Here's the text of my remarks:

My name is Michael Ruffin; I am the pastor of and a messenger from the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald.

I am grateful to the GBC for providing this opportunity for me to voice my opposition to the breaking of fellowship with the Druid Hills Baptist Church. In voicing that opposition I am aware of certain things.

I am aware that most of us agree that Druid Hills or any other church has the right to call anyone they wish to call as pastor.

I am aware that we all agree that the GBC has the right to associate or not to associate with any church.

I am aware that the GBC leadership and perhaps the majority of messengers at this convention believe that they are doing the right thing in deeming Druid Hills or any other church that calls a woman as pastor to be a non-cooperating church.

I am aware that people of good conscience and Christian character can disagree over whether women should serve as pastors; while I am convinced that the tenor and trajectory of Scripture points toward a “yes” answer to that question, I am aware that I am likely in a minority among Georgia Baptists in that conviction.

I am aware that nothing I can say here today is likely to change the action that the convention is about to take against Druid Hills.

Given all of which I am aware, you might reasonably ask why I bother to stand to voice my opposition to this action.

First, I voice my opposition because I have known Graham and Mimi Walker since we were students together at Southern Seminary some 30 years ago; I choose to stand here with my friends.

Second, I voice my opposition because I am saddened and burdened by the very selective creedal application of the Baptist Faith & Message Statement that is being exercised by the GBC. I believe that it needs to be pointed out and pondered very carefully by GBC leadership and by GBC churches that we are applying, so far as I can tell, no other provision of or line in the BFM in the way that the line about the office of pastor being reserved for men is being applied. If an autonomous Georgia Baptist church calls a woman as pastor or co-pastor, they will now automatically, as soon as a vote can be taken, be deemed a non-cooperating church. There are many, many, many more provisions in the BFM. While I do not want the GBC to become even more creedal in its application of the BFM than it has on this one score, we really should consider the arbitrariness of such application. Let’s also consider the probability that if we get as serious about holding every GBC church accountable to every line in the BFM, we will very soon have no churches left.

Third and finally, I voice my opposition because I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous gifts that women are bringing to bear in pastoral roles in non-Southern Baptist churches throughout our land; while I cannot tell the future, I anticipate a time not too many decades hence when the pastoral glass ceiling will be broken in Georgia Baptist life and, when that time comes, I regret that we—or at least the members of future generations—will have to look back and regret all the years that we denied ourselves the free and open and gracious exercise of such gifts.

For those reasons I oppose the portion of the Executive Committee report deeming the Druid Hills Baptist Church a non-cooperating church and excluding them from GBC life.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Children of the Resurrection

(A sermon based on Luke 20:27-38 for Sunday, November 7, 2010)

A Simon & Garfunkel song observed that there were “nothing but the dead and dying in my little town.”

There are lots of dead and dying people in our little town, too. And there are lots of dead and dying people in our text.

There are two groups of dead and dying people in this passage.

First there are the Sadducees. The Sadducees were among the elites of their day; they were the wealthy and powerful people who controlled the leadership of the temple. They were also the “conservatives” of their day being strict scripturalists with a narrowly defined Scripture; since their Bible consisted only of the five books of Moses anything that was not in those books was not in their belief system, which explains why they did not believe in resurrection from the dead, since they did not find it directly taught there.

The Sadducees were on the endangered list and, as a matter of fact, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple some forty years after the time of Jesus, they quickly passed from the scene.

The reason that I describe them as “dead and dying,” though, has little to do with the narrowness of their theology or the imminent demise of their influence, though, and everything to do with their attitude toward Jesus and what it showed about their attitude toward God and toward life. They didn’t really care what Jesus thought about the possibility of resurrection; they didn’t care about what Jesus had to say about matters of life and death or about the possible embodiment of grace in him. They cared instead about being right and about putting the upstart rabbi in his place. Jesus had the words of life but they wanted to play games with words. Just think: right in front of them was the one who was the resurrection and the life but instead of being open to that resurrection and that life they got all cute about proving how smart they were.

The Sadducees were dead and dying.

Moving to the story that the Sadducees told we find a second group of dead and dying people: the seven brothers. It is a ludicrous story that the Sadducees told, albeit a ludicrous story based on a real tradition called levirate marriage; because having a male heir was so important in ancient Israelite culture, a law developed that held that if a man died without leaving one his nearest male kinsman was to marry his widow with any children being born to that subsequent union to be considered the children of the deceased man for inheritance and namesake purposes. Like I said, it’s a ludicrous story; but on the other hand, if seven brothers are born, seven brothers are going to die. I continually encounter individuals who are the last living child of multiple sibling families. In a way, the seven brothers in the Sadducees’ story can represent all of us: everyone who lives dies.

The seven brothers were dead and dying.

So there are two groups of dead and dying people.

There are also two dead and dying individuals in our text.

First there is the woman in the Sadducees’ story. While it is not emphasized in the text, how can a feeling, caring, living, breathing human being hear this story and not have your heart break for this woman? She was passed along from one brother to another, from one man to another, all because she was seen as a means—as a tool—through which her first husband’s name and legacy and property could be kept intact. One can’t help but wonder if any of the men ever viewed her as anything but a means to an end, if any of them ever viewed her as anything but a piece of property to be used.

Now, I know and you know that the story the Sadducees told is just that—a story—and probably does not describe something that actually happened. But you know and I know also that there is truth in fiction and there is certainly truth in this piece of fiction and that truth is this: too many people spend too much of their lives in relationships with people in which they are devalued and underappreciated and misused. A couple of popular songs of a few years ago have lines in them, both sung from the perspective of women, that break my heart every time I hear them. One says, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been really loved by a hand that’s touched me” (“Push” by Matchbox 20) and the other says, “Maybe I’m not your perfect kind; maybe I’m not what you had in mind; maybe we’re just killing time” (“You Don’t Bring Me Anything But Down” by Sheryl Crow). How many women—and men, for that matter—are caught in relationships in which they are not regarded and treated as the valuable and wonderful human beings that they are?

How must the woman in that horrible story have died a little bit more every time she was passed along to another man and how she must have died a little bit more every time she was used for a purpose that was never even fulfilled!

The woman in the story was among the dead and dying.

The other dead and dying individual in our text is Jesus himself. It won’t be long now in the narrative until Jesus faces his crucifixion; he was already carrying the marks of death—the misunderstanding, the hostility, the rejection—in his life as he moved toward his execution. The subject of resurrection was for him, then, something that hit very close to home. He knew, though, what we think we know and what we hope is true—he knew truths and facts and realities about life and death and life after death—and he shared them with those Sadducees and with us.

The truth is that even with the information that Jesus shares here—and even when we combine that information with all the other information we can glean from our Bibles—we still don’t know all that much about what our life after resurrection will be like. There are some truths we can gain from Jesus’ words to the Sadducees, though.

First, our state of being and our relationships in the resurrection are of a different and higher order. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Second, our life in the resurrection is everlasting life. “They cannot die anymore.”

Third, those who die in God are alive in God. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living for to him all of them are alive.”

I want us to think about something else that is found in Jesus’ words. He said, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” When you stop and think about it, those who trust in and follow Christ belong in a sense to this age—we live here and now, after all—and to that age—we will live in and through the resurrection, after all. Jesus goes on to point out that in the burning bush story Moses called God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then comments, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

When you put all of that together, one thing you can conclude is that those who will be resurrected are in a sense already living as resurrected people. We are already “children of the resurrection” because we are already “children of God.” We’re not “like angels” yet—some of us are less like them than others!—but still, in Christ the new age has already begun to dawn and the effects of the resurrection are already being experienced.

We who belong to Christ, therefore, should be experiencing the overcoming of death more and more and the experiencing of life more and more!

So for us…life is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about nitpicking over fine points of theology or about promoting our positions on issues.

So for is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about being beaten down and unappreciated and being misused or about beating down and not appreciating and misusing others.

So for us…life is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about just existing until we can get around to dying.

We will be children of the resurrection! We are children of the resurrection! We are all about life! How can we grab hold of the life that is already ours? Are we grabbing hold of the life that is already ours?