#PrayingforBoston

Did you find yourself praying for Boston this week? While you were praying for Boston, did you think of Newtown?  As you were thinking of Newtown, did you remember Virginia Tech?  When you were remembering Virginia Tech, did Aurora, Columbine or 9/11 come to mind?

If you found yourself praying, you were not alone. When the news comes that another death-filled event has occurred, instinctively we grieve and we pray for those who have been impacted by the tragic violence. When our prayers are finished and our tears have all been shed, the questions start. Why did this happen?  The explanations, many and varied as they are, are never enough to make what has happened make sense. Somehow someone became hateful enough, angry enough, or mentally deranged enough to think that violence was a good idea. Yes, we can all see that now, but why? As elusive as an answer to the why question is, the answer to the question of whether or not something like this will happen again is painfully obvious. Yes, it will happen.

Our question becomes more pressing once we acknowledge that it could happen again. Our question then becomes: “Could it happen to us? Could it happen to people we know and love?”  Of course, it can happen again and it can happen to us.

Can anything be done to prevent such violence? We would like to think so. We would like to think that law enforcement agencies could be more effective in their task. We would like to think that the people who work in the fields of security and intelligence could make us more secure and better identify potential threats. We would like to think that ordinary citizens would be more diligent in noticing out-of-place strangers doing the unexpected in places where they would not ordinarily be. We would like to think that our political leaders would make reasonable and good laws that would enhance our safety and security. We would like to think all these things and yet we know that a determined person meaning to do evil is not easy to stop.

In light of such sobering reality, what do we expect of people of faith? What do we expect of followers of Jesus Christ? What can we do in the face of evil? We can do what Christ has called us to do, we can love. When violence becomes more and more senseless, we love. When evil seems to surround us like the darkness of the darkest night, we love. When tragedy after tragedy pushes us toward despair, we love. We love because it is what Christ has called us to do.  We love not because it makes sense in a logical, pragmatic way. It does not. We love not because love works in a mechanical or formulaic way. It does not always consistently produce a desired outcome and at times it can seem to produce no results at all.

However, love does work. It works on us. When we love instead of hate we resist becoming the evil that so frightens us. When we forgive instead of letting retribution and revenge take root in our souls we resist becoming the despair and bitterness that nurtures so much of the violence we see in the world. When we show mercy instead of demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we resist becoming blind to the possibility of new day, a new heaven, and new earth.

We know that we are not living in the world God meant to create. The God who has saved us is the same God who is still reclaiming, reconciling, recreating and redeeming God’s creation. When we love, we join our lives with God who is making all things new.  The agony of the Jesus’ prayer in the garden the night before his crucifixion makes clear the difficulty of choosing to love. The empty tomb on Easter morning makes clear that love is our only hope.

Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Mission Team Report from LaPlace, Louisiana

On August 29, 2012, the home of Valerie and her husband, Wilson, sustained a lot of wind and flood damage as a result of Hurricane Isaac.  In their Saint John the Baptist parish, hundreds of other homes also received flood damage.  Valerie and Wilson moved into their northern LaPlace, LA home about 12 years ago.  During that 12-year period, they never experienced any flooding.

The Mississippi River lies about 2 miles south of Valerie’s home.  Lake Pontchartrain lies about 2 miles to the east, and The Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area lies less than 2 miles north.  Valerie’s home did not flood during Hurricane Katrina 7 years ago, but when Hurricane Isaac churned inland on August 29, it rained for several days over southern Louisiana.  Mass flooding occurred across several river parishes including Saint John the Baptist Parish where LaPlace is located.  In Saint John’s parish more than 3,500 residents were rescued or evacuated, and unprecedented flooding occurred in more than a dozen subdivisions.  Shifting winds whipped up 8-10-foot tidal surges from Lake Pontchartrain.  This surge sent rushing waters into the streets and homes of thousands of residents, many of whom had never experienced flooding before.

New Wine Christian Fellowship Church in LaPlace turned into a staging area where many responders brought residents who were being taken out of Saint John’s parish.  Valerie’s home took on a lot of water which damaged most of her furniture and flooring.  She also needed a new roof.  Water stood for days, and damage was assessed to be in the thousands.

During the week of November 5-9, working under the umbrella of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Ball Camp Baptist Church, Knoxville, TN, worked in LaPlace to help with disaster relief.  Americorps in partnership with New Wine Christian Fellowship, sent our team to Valerie’s home.  Much work was done while we were there, but much remains to be done.  Valerie and her family have been under a lot of stress in past months as she has not been in good health.  She has survived two brain surgeries, and another is soon needed according to her neurosurgeon.  Please don’t forget Valerie and others like her.  In each flood-damaged  home in these river parishes a family resides.  A family undergoing their own unique stresses.  Some have received help.  Some have not.  Volunteers are still needed to work in these areas.  To receive a real blessing, please pray about becoming Christ’s hands and feet in southern Louisiana.

In Christ’s Love,

Ken and Connie Miller

Disaster Relief Coordinators

Ball Camp Baptist Church

Knoxville, Tennessee

I believe, help my unbelief!

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about a boy who was tormented by a spirit that left him unable to speak, causing him to fall down, grind his teeth, and foam at the mouth.  The boy’s father had asked Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit, but they were not able to.  We don’t know how old the boy is or how long he has been troubled by this spirit. What we do know is that his father is seeking help for him.  We can only guess how many times and how many ways he has sought relief for his son.  This encounter with Jesus’ disciples is most likely not the first time he has sought relief for his child.

In fact, one can easily imagine that every day since his boy was first afflicted has been spent, at least in part, worrying about his son and wondering how he might find relief for him.  He does what any father would do who has a child who is suffering and in pain.  He prays, he hopes, and he tries whatever remedy comes along that seems to offer any chance of relief.  Every day he wakes up with one thought on his mind, and every night he goes to bed without having found a cure for his child.  He has been offered many remedies and he has seen them all fail, most recently the effort offered by Jesus’ disciples.

Now he is face to face with Jesus, and Jesus seems a little upset.  His comments reveal his frustration with a faithless generation.  He tells the father that all things can be done for one who believes. The father’s response to Jesus comes from all of his days of searching for a cure, and all of his nights filled with despair for not having found one.  Feeling his son’s pain and desperate for something better, he says, “I believe; help my unbelief!”   Hearing this father speak with such honesty is like stepping out into an autumn morning and feeling that crisp, invigorating chill in the air after a long arid summer of stifling religiosity.

Yes, Jesus helps his unbelief.  Yes, Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, but Jesus does not do it because the boy’s father pretends to believe more than he does, or because he claims a faith that is more than he actually possesses.  The father is completely honest in this moment of great need and great opportunity.  He has believed every day that there might be some hope for his child, and everyday those hopes have been dashed.  He has no time for mouthing correct theological formulas.  Is he uncertain about what is about to happen? Sure he is.  Is he afraid that this effort might end like all the others? Sure he is.  All of his energy is spent caring for his boy and searching for some remedy so that there is none left for religious pretense or façade.  “I believe; help my unbelief,” is the best he can offer.  Jesus does not punish his honesty, his fear or his uncertainty.  His boy is made whole.  Just as Jesus freed the son from the unclean spirit, we might also be set free by the father’s honest declaration of uncertain faith.

Every day we hope for our world to be a place where Jesus’ notion of neighborliness is pervasive.  We long for a world where men and women created in the image of God live together in peace with sufficient means to shelter, feed and educate their families.  We believe.  We believe that God is at work in the world, and we believe that God has called us into the world to do the kinds of things God wants to see done, and to be the kind of people that God would have us to be.  We believe.  We hope, and we hope again, with each new day.

Yet, at the end of a day where embassies are stormed and violence triumphs over civility, ignorance over dialogue and hate over love, we may need help with our unbelief.  At the end of a day when we have learned another friend is newly out of work and looking for a job, we may need help with our unbelief.  At the end of a day when we hear the disheartening news of another family breaking apart, we may need help with our unbelief.  At the end of a day when we see parents facing the sometimes rocky and always demanding challenges of nurturing children into adolescents and ultimately into young adults, we may need help with our unbelief.   At the end of a day when the doctor has given us a diagnosis that has left us speechless, we may need help with our unbelief.

If we do need help with our unbelief, that is O.K.  The story of this father’s honesty demonstrates for us that Jesus can handle our unbelief.  He will not turn us away or turn us out.  In fact, he is the very one that we need to turn to when life gets to be more than we can believe.

Christian Rights?

In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common.  In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian.  They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.

Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament.  In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges.  Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus.  He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.

Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself.  Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light.  Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority.  In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account.  He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him.  Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life.  The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ.  The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God.  Paul says he is a slave of Christ.  Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.

Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.

The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God.  Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.

The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance.  Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them.  However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches.  The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?

People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion.  Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ.  There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity.  Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so.  We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear.  Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.

For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us.  We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:

A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.

A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.

An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.

An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.

A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.

Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish.  If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship.  An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all.    “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.

Seeing Others As We See Ourselves

There are times when fact can appear to be stranger than fiction.  The facts about a recent revelation regarding the ancestry of Csanad Szegedi are strange indeed.  Szegedi represents Hungary in the European Parliament and is a member of his country’s far right wing Jobbik Party.  To fuel his rapid rise to the upper echelon of his party, he has blamed the Jews for problems facing his country.  He has claimed that they were “buying up” the country, desecrating national symbols and having undue influence on the affairs of state.  Evidently blaming a small group of people or singling out a segment of the population for special derision pays political dividends in countries all over the world.

What is not clear is whether or not Szegedi really believed what he was saying about the Jews. In his heart, did he really hate them or was he just saying what he was saying because he knew that it would play well with the voters he was trying to reach? Politicians do that sort of thing from time to time. Whatever the case may be, the antisemitism of Szegedi and his party is no small matter.  This is especially true given the treatment of the Jewish People in Hungary and Eastern Europe in the last century.  Nonetheless, Szegedi, who is only 30 years old, has built his young career on such vile and hateful rhetoric.

That is, until the facts got to be stranger than the fiction. Rumors began to surface about Szegedi’s ancestry. Then there was a tape recorded conversation of Szegedi being confronted with the evidence that his grandmother was a Jew and him offering to pay money to suppress that information. Then he gets in trouble not only for being Jewish, but also for trying to bribe someone to keep that knowledge out of the public eye. When he realized that he would not be able to keep the information from the public, he did what any good politician would do. He shared the information with the public.

Can you image what that would be like? In the twinkling of an eye, you are that which you have blamed for all your problems. Just like that, you are that which you have always seen as being the source of your ills. Without any warning, thought or preparation, you are what you, just moments ago, could not tolerate, abide or stomach.

Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century British minister and writer, said, “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” As Szegedi was coming to terms with the new information about his family origins, he had a conversation with his grandmother. A conversation the likes of which they had never had. She told him about what it was like to be deported. She described for him being imprisoned at Dachau and Auschwitz.  As he learned about the brutal treatment and the deplorable conditions, he began to understand why it was that his grandmother was the only member of her generation of the family that had survived the atrocities of the concentration camps.  He was not only Jewish, but he was descended from a Jew who had endured and survived the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

Now he is changing. He has apologized for anything he said that was offensive to the Jewish People, he has promised to visit Auschwitz to pay his respect and he has visited with a rabbi to discuss his own need to understand what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is hopeful even while he acknowledges the difficulty and stress of processing such a revelation.

How we see each other makes all the difference.  Csanad Szegedi can no longer look at another Jew and see someone who is all that different from himself.  When we can look at another person and see someone who is something completely other than what we are, that is the starting point for treating them in less than human ways. If we can look at a race of people as being completely other than what we are, then we can justify their enslavement and their status as second-class citizens. If we can look at a group of people and see nothing that we have in common with them, then we can more easily turn an indifferent eye to the treatment they receive from others and the rights and privileges that they are denied.

We miss out as well when we see another human being as someone completely different from ourselves and not as someone who bears the same image of God in which we have been created.  When we look at another and see a human being created and loved by God, then that person can be, just by being a human being, a wonderful gift to us.  In sharing life together with those who are not exactly like us, we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving the unique giftedness possessed by everyone created in the image of God.  We impoverish ourselves when we fail or refuse to see one another as a person made by God’s hands and dear to God’s heart.

Going to the Well

In a book full of stories that shape and form our understanding of God, the story of the woman at the well is one that seems to always have something more to say about the nature of God.  The Scriptures and the way they have been lived out and are lived out in our own faith community shape our view of God, our image of God.  They create a picture in our minds of the one we turn to in times of trouble, the one we celebrate with in times of joy, and the one who continually invites us to a deeper love relationship.  What images of God come to mind as you read this story?  What does God look like in this story?  What does God act like in this story?

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’  Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’  The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’  Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’  The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ).  ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’  They left the city and were on their way to him (John 4:5-30).

What did this women think when she saw Jesus at the well?  What was going through her mind as he spoke to her?  Curiosity?  Concern?  Fear?  Excitement?  Will this man ridicule me as so many others have done and still do?  Will he ask something of me that I cannot do or do not want to do?

These sorts of questions and others like them are somewhat instinctive when encountering a new person or situation.  We have a natural tendency to assess the impact of something new on ourselves from our own point of view.  What does this mean to me?  How does this fit into my world, my life?

We may ask those sorts of questions as we read the story and as we imagine what the woman was thinking as Jesus spoke to her, but we need to think about the other character in this story.  What is God doing in this story?  Given what God is doing in the story, what does this say about God?  What would it mean for us to encounter such a God as this?

In a way, we all sit by our own well in the heat of the day.  We go there when we know no one else is around because it is a hard place for us to be.  Our wells do not provide water so much as they hold our tears, tears that we have cried over failures and disappointments, tragedies and heartaches.  We are startled to see someone at our well; we would rather be alone.  But this one knows every tear we have shed.  In fact, he knows everything there is to know about us.

He does not turn away from us or ridicule us.  He offers us water, living water, from a well that never will run dry.