Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Crooked Lines

I work as a Bible study curriculum editor in my day job. One of my responsibilities is to write an every-other-week blog post (my Assistant Editor writes the ones for the intervening weeks, thankfully) offering additional commentary on the lesson for the upcoming Sunday. In one of those coincidences that sometimes happen, last Sunday’s Scripture seemed to offer an opportunity to apply the text’s message to a current event the discussion of which has been using up a lot of newsprint, airtime, and megabytes.

The Scripture is found in Acts 5, where Jesus’ apostles, having been called on the carpet a second time for teaching in the name of Jesus, respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). The current event is the jailing and subsequent release of Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis after she refused to obey a court order that she resume issuing marriage licenses, which she had stopped doing due to her objections to same-sex marriage. Davis said that she refused to issue the licenses “under God’s authority.”

The parallel between the Scripture text and that event seems, at first glance, to be strong. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Since I thought that some cautionary words were in order for the users of our curriculum, I shared them in my blog post. Now I want to share them with you. In so doing, perhaps I can offer some helpful thoughts on the danger of trying to draw a straight line between events in the Bible and events in our time. And it can indeed be dangerous.

Put simply, we should take great care in drawing direct parallels between the apostles’ predicament and Davis’s situation because many differences exist between the two scenarios. I’ll mention three.

For one thing, the apostles were not in violation of a court order, while Davis is.

Most, if not all, of us would likely agree that the apostles did the right thing in speaking in the name of Jesus, even though they had been told by the authorities not to. The difference between their situation and that of Davis is that they were not disobeying the legal authority, while she was. It was the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), not the Roman authorities, that ordered the apostles not to preach. At that point in history, Christians were not in direct conflict with Roman law, which was the true legal authority in first century Israel. Such conflict would come, but that is not the situation in Acts 5. So the apostles were not in violation of the law of the land. They were basically being told by one religious group not to speak of their religious convictions.

Davis, on the other hand, is in violation of federal Judge David Bunning’s order that, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, she issue marriage licenses to gay couples. As Alan Blinder and Tamar Lewin said in the New York Times, “The legal issue — that no one, whether a government or an individual engaged in civil disobedience has standing to flout a court order — is well established” (“Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail Over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage,” nytimes.com, September 3, 2015).

Now, that is not to say that Davis should not “obey God rather than human authority” if that is what she really believes she is doing. It is just to say that the kind of authority to which she refuses to submit is a different kind of authority than that to which the apostles would not give in. The situation in twenty-first century Kentucky is far different than the one in first century Jerusalem. Still, I suspect that most of us would agree that, if a person sees her or his religious convictions as being in conflict with secular law, religious convictions should be given first place by that person.

But—and this is the second difference I want to point out—the apostles, unlike Davis, were not elected officials who had sworn to uphold the law. The fact that Davis is an elected government official in the constitutional republic of the United States of America is important. Here is the oath of office that she took: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of County Clerk according to law . . .” Davis’s oath of office requires her to uphold the Constitution of both the state and the nation, not to uphold her particular religious or social convictions. Because she refuses to follow the law and to obey the court’s order, she is in violation of her oath of office. Davis asserts that, because the oath ends with “so help me God,” her obligation to uphold God’s law or moral law takes precedence over her responsibility to uphold civil law. But as constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman observes,

Whom you swear the oath by is different from what you swear to do. Officials in the U.S. definitively don’t swear to uphold God’s law. They swear to uphold the Constitution, which never mentions God at all. And they swear to uphold laws enacted under the Constitution -- which means laws that are in compliance with the establishment clause that prohibits any established or official religion (“What the Oath of Office Means to a Kentucky Clerk,” bloombergview.com, September 3, 2015).

As Feldman also notes, if Davis believes that her religious convictions prevent her from upholding the duties of her office, she has the option of resigning. He says, “Given Davis’s statement of faith that it would violate her interpretation of God’s will to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, she should quit her position as county clerk. Indeed, she must -- or she’d be living in a position of hypocritical sin.”

So that’s another difference between the two situations: Davis took an oath to uphold the law while the apostles didn’t.

For a third and final thing, the Sanhedrin tried to bar the apostles from bearing witness to their faith, but no one has prohibited Davis from bearing witness to hers outside her role as an elected government official. As a matter of fact, she very publicly proclaimed her faith and preached her message immediately following her release from jail. No authority tried to stop her and no one tried to put her back in her cell for speaking out.

Those are the three differences between the situation in our text and the situation in Rowan County, Kentucky of which I think we need to be aware. There are others of which I have not thought. My point in raising those three is to caution us about drawing a straight line between the apostles in first century Israel and a county clerk in 2015 America. There is a lot of time, a lot of change, and a lot of difference between the apostles’ “We must obey God rather than human authority” and Kim Davis’ “On God’s authority.”

The scenario offers us an excellent opportunity to think about the ways in which we read, understand, and apply the Bible to contemporary situations. The two are connected, but the lines between them are not always straight and easy to follow . . .

[An earlier and longer version of this post appeared at Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources, on September 15, 2015.]

Friday, September 18, 2015

Brothers and Sisters

I’m writing these words on September 8, the date on which, in 1973, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday, the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters claimed the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart. It was the first and only time in their long history that the Brothers had a #1 album. It was also the first Allman Brothers album I owned, so I was a little late to the party. They had already released their eponymous debut (1969), their second album Idlewild South (1970), the now legendary live album At Fillmore East (1971), and the tragic (Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon before the album was completed) Eat a Peach (1972).

I played Brothers and Sisters so much I’m surprised I didn’t wear the grooves out. (Perhaps I should explain for my younger readers that albums once were round, had a hole in the middle, were made of vinyl, and were played on these things called “record players” that somehow extracted the sound from the record by having a needle run through the grooves.) The hit single was Dicky Betts’s song “Ramblin’ Man.” I loved it. How could a boy from Barnesville not love a song that included the line “I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, rollin’ down Highway 41”? I mean, the geography of my life was defined by Highway 41, which took me north and south, and by Highway 36, which took me east and west. From “Wasted Words” to “Pony Boy,” the entire album was outstanding.

The Allman Brothers Band played what they said would be their last show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theatre in New York, bringing to an end a forty-five year run of their unique style of Southern blues rock. Three founding members remained: Gregg Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Over the years, other band members have gone and come. One of the reasons that the band was able to endure was their willingness and ability to bring in new musicians who kept the old traditions alive while putting their own spin on them. Notable in that regard are guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who, while they did not and could not replace the late Duane or the dismissed Betts, gave of their own remarkable talents to help keep the Allman Brothers Band vital and dynamic. The Brothers were never relegated to the oldies circuit because they always kept the music fresh, alive, and evolving.

Strange as it may seem, our churches could learn something important from the Allman Brothers Band: we need to develop the ability and to embrace the opportunity to grow and to change. As with the band, so with the church: some members will die and some members will leave to pursue other projects. And new members will come in who have much to contribute to our ministry. They may put a different spin on our established ways of doing things, but that can be a good thing. The Allman Brothers matured, changed, and adapted. Our churches need to do so as well.

That’s not to say that we won’t still do and say what we’ve always done and said. You would never go to an Allman Brothers’ concert and not hear “Whippin’ Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.” And we’ll (hopefully) never go to church without worshiping God, reading the Bible, and learning more about following Jesus. The old, old story is the old, old story. But, if we’re willing to open our minds and our hearts, we just might hear some of the old words presented in different ways. And we just might hear a very important part of the truth that we’ve never heard before.

That’s not to say it will always be easy. Some of the changes that the Allmans went through were challenging and even traumatic. But they persevered because they were committed to being the Allman Brothers Band, because they believed that the message of their music was important, and, even though only Duane and Gregg were literally siblings, the entire band was made up of, in a very real sense, brothers.

We in the church are, to use the words of that old album title, brothers and sisters. We are in this thing together. The world needs us to be faithful together to our mission of sharing the love, grace, and mercy of Christ in every way we can.

The Allman Brothers Band’s music was based in a commitment to doing Southern blues rock and doing it right. The church’s ministry is based in a commitment to loving the Lord our God with all we are and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

However we do it and however we say it, let’s offer the Lord’s love and grace to the people around us who need it so desperately. That’s the heart of our message; that’s the heart of our music; that’s the heart of our ministry.

If we’ll remember that, we can finish up with the closing line from the first track on Brothers and Sisters, “Wasted Words”: “By the way this song’s for you. Sincerely, me.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Chance

Bobby Ross Phillips died in Adel, Georgia on August 31st. I had the privilege of speaking at his memorial service on September 3rd. Chances are pretty good that neither Bobby nor Adel mean anything to you, but they both mean a lot to me. Chances are also pretty good that you’ve had someone like Bobby and someplace like Adel in your life, by which I mean that you’ve probably had somebody and somewhere that gave you a chance and, in giving you a chance, made a huge difference in your life.

It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my Ph.D. in Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; I had three degrees and no job. Well, I was working for a ministry organization in Louisville, doing some painting and yard work for elderly folks who weren’t able to do it or pay to have it done—it was actually very rewarding work—but I wasn’t working “in my field.”

One evening our telephone rang. The fellow calling identified himself as Bobby Phillips; he said he was the Chairman of the Pastor Search Committee for the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia. He went on to say that they had my resume and wondered if I might be interested in talking with them about possibly becoming their pastor. After we chatted a while, I said, “May I ask a question?” He said I could. “Where is Adel?” I asked.

It turns out that Adel is the county seat of Cook County, way down below the gnat line on I-75 about midway between Tifton and Valdosta. That committee, led by Bobby Phillips, took a chance on me and gave me my start in full-time ministry. I will forever be grateful.

There were others before Bobby and Adel, though.

There was Preacher Bill Coleman and the good folks of my home church, the Midway Baptist Church. Preacher Bill let me preach on several Wednesday nights, the first time when I was thirteen years old. Now, Preacher Bill would let anybody speak on Wednesday night who wanted to do so –he liked to brag that he once went three years without preaching on a Wednesday night—but still, how many pastors would let a young kid speak regularly from his pulpit?

There was Mr. Ralph Pharr, who gave me my first job as a sack boy at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was in the building that now houses the Dollar General Store out on Highway 341. In my three years there, I demonstrated such responsibility that I was eventually put in charge of stocking the dog food aisle. It was the shortest aisle in the store, but it was mine.

There was Rev. William L. Key who, just before I entered Mercer University in 1975, asked me to come see him. As we sat in lawn chairs in his backyard in Milner sipping iced tea, he offered me my first church job. He wanted me to be his Associate Pastor at the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church, located somewhere out between Barnesville, Thomaston, and Meansville in the Jugtown community. Preacher Key, who had retired from the full-time ministry, had been their Interim Pastor for about five years. He talked them into letting me preach once each Sunday—he and I alternated Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. How many seventeen year olds got to preach every Sunday? I cringe when I think about what they had to listen to me say. Bless their hearts.

They’re all gone now—Preacher Key, Mr. Ralph, Preacher Bill, and Bobby. I’m still here. And they and the organizations they represented all played a huge role in my being who I am and doing what I do.

I thank God for them all. I thank God that they gave me a chance.

Who gave you a chance? Have you thanked God for them lately? If they’re still around, maybe you should thank them, too …

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on September 8, 2015)