God is Still Speaking

After a wonderful week of camp with some amazing middle schoolers and totally committed camp staffers. . .

After news of tragic violence in El Paso, Dayton and other places. . .

After sharing bread and cup with a faith family that seeks to love others as Christ has loved us. . .

After coming to the realization that while mass shootings still sadden me, they no longer shock or surprise me. . .

After waking up on another Monday wondering what in the world we have become. . .

I open my worship plan to see what biblical text I choose weeks ago to be the focus of our worship this coming Sunday —BAM! — there it is, God is still speaking!

For those who have ears to ear and eyes to see. . .

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

If you are in the neighborhood, join us Sunday as we listen for God.



Rush, Reminder & Revival

Monday was my first Martin Luther King Jr. day in Alabama. There was a march this morning. It ended in front of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church here in Phenix City. Before any marchers could be seen from the church, three police officers on motorcycles came into view. The officers were leading the march with their blue lights flashing. I imagine that the same thing was true for parades and marches all over the country today. There were police officers at the front leading the way. While it may be routine now for law enforcement to lead such parades and make sure that they come off in an orderly fashion, such has not always been the case. Their efforts to do so on this day gave me a rush, a reminder and a revival.

The rush was a feeling like the one I get when I see something good and pleasing. It was like the feeling I get when I see a friend or family member that I have not seen in a long time. It may have even approached that feeling I get when I watch a young daughter or son seeing a parent for the first time after a deployment overseas serving our country. The news we hear so often is not good news. Even when we hear good news, there seem to be detractors who try to convince us that it is not as good as we think it is or not good at all. It is possible for us to start thinking that good acts or good words are no longer possible in today’s world. However, good does still happen. I saw it happen as people marched to celebrate progress made and to advocate for even more. I heard it from choirs singing and from a sixth-grader reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reminder was embodied in the message of the man the day commemorates. Dr. King’s aim in life was not to have a day named after him. His aim was not solely to lead a movement that would achieve civil rights for African-Americans. His focus was larger than that and more profound. Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern was for the human race. Like Jesus, he was particularly concerned for those who were poor. He worked on behalf of people, black and white, who suffered in a social and economic system that kept the American dream just out of their reach.

The revival starts when I am mindful of those folks who still live somewhere beyond both the fruits of the American dream and the embrace of Jesus’ just and merciful kingdom. Not just in our country, but in our world there are those who scrape by with inadequate food, water and health care. Jesus had something to say about them. When we see them and give them food, water and treatment, we see Jesus and give him food, water and treatment.

One time a lawyer ask Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question still serves as an effective way to shape and form our lives in the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus told the lawyer a story about a man who fell among thieves. They beat him and left him to die. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan passed by where he was laying wounded. One of them stopped to help. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to this man?”

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer forces us to rethink our own answer. Jesus’ answer cuts across boundaries. Human labels and categories do not determine who our neighbor is, at least not as Jesus understands neighbor. Jesus’ approach is simpler. Is the person a person? Is the person created in the image of God? Then the person is a neighbor. Answering the “who is my neighbor?” question is easy for Jesus. The question that is more difficult to answer is implied in the conclusion of Jesus’ story. Will you be a neighbor? Will you be a neighbor to someone different from you?

Dr. King marched to make the neighborhood larger for us all and to show us that there is room for each of us in that neighborhood. I believe he learned about being a neighbor from reading the stories that Jesus told. The Kingdom of God comes near when we recognize the hungering, thirsting, needy Christ in the face of our neighbor. We step into the Kingdom, if for just a moment, when choose to be a neighbor to the person in front us who needs the love and mercy of God.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control, part 2

“We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime. We cannot help but think of the words attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoeller, reflecting on the Nazi terror: ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

These words were written by Charles Colson and Timothy George, two Baptists leaders, in response to recent Health and Human Services guidelines that require health insurance companies to provide birth control to women without a co-pay or additional payments. Because some of these women work for religious institutions (hospitals, schools, but not churches) Colson, George and other religious leaders believe these women should be denied this coverage. They believe this so strongly that they grab history’s most heinous example, Hitler’s Germany, and cobbled together one of the most irresponsible paragraph’s that I have ever read.  Since they have already gone there, it is worth pointing out that there are legitimate reminders of Nazi Germany in this current debate.  For the Nazis, the role of women was defined by three words: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche – kids, church and kitchen.

For American churchmen and politicians who still share this Nazi vision of womanhood to cloak their agenda in one of our most treasured freedoms, religious liberty, does an enormous dishonor to people around the world and throughout history who have truly suffered religious persecution not the least of which is Martin Niemoller.

Yesterday there was a congressional hearing regarding this provision to provide birth control to women. Two women were invited to testify. How can you talk about women’s health without inviting at more women or even mostly women to the conversation? Catholic Bishops testified. Southern Baptist Theologians testified. There are certainly no women in either one of those groups as Catholics and Southern Baptist do not trust women to do much leading or thinking.  No women were invited, but two religious groups that have an expressed commitment to discriminating against women were invited.  What is wrong with this picture? Do women not have a voice? Do women not have brains capable of thinking and reasoning?  For them to be excluded from leadership in so many churches is bad enough, but for them to be excluded from the halls of the government elected to represent them is a travesty of justice.

Former Southern Baptist pastor, Mike Huckabee, might have said it best when he said, “We are all Catholic now.”  Who new when Southern Baptists approved a resolution in 1984 pointing out that “. . .the woman was first in the Edenic fall” that their ultimate goal was to reunite with Rome, at least in terms of how women were viewed and treated.  They get together in a room spouting pious phrases in order to decide what women should and should not have and they call it defending religious freedom.

The real violation of religious freedom in this case would come if the regulations were changed to suit the desires these two and other religious groups. If such a turn of events were to occur, the government would in effect become an enforcement arm of the church, enforcing doctrines they themselves have no way of forcing their members to adhere to.

Nothing in the Health and Human Services regulations forces any individual to take birth control, but they are granted access. That access is a good thing according to the Institute of Medicine. It is a good thing according to American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. However, it is a good thing mostly because it puts the decision about birth control where it should be, in the hands of women, not in a room were they were not wanted.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control

Today the White House announced a broader exemption to the Health and Human Service’s rule requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage to their employees. Basically it says that religious institutions who object don’t have to buy it, but the insurance company will have to provide it free of charge.  The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty sees this as a positive move that protects the freedom of religious institutions and provides for the health care needs of their employees.

Hopefully, this compromise will quell the concerns of those who felt the previous rule provided to narrow of an exemption for religious institution.  I do wonder though if it will be sufficient. In part because I am not sure that religious liberty was their primary concern.  The two religious groups that were most vocal in their criticism of the previous rule were the Roman Catholic and the Southern Baptist Convention.  These are two groups who always have the subjugation of women on their unwritten agenda for engaging the world.  Catholics do not allow women to serve as priest nor do Southern Baptist approve of women serving as Senior Pastors.  One wonders if these two groups would have a different theology about birth control if more women were involved in their theological conversations.

Don’t get me wrong, the Catholic Church has provided the world with some brilliant and beautiful thinkers. I try to read something from Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr everyday.  St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day still provide as good of an example of what it means to follow Jesus today as they did when they were alive.  Yet in recent years we have seen that there are problems in the church when it comes to human sexuality.   This is true among Catholics and Baptists as well.  Unfortunately, each group has its share of predators waiting to exploit. Each group has resisted acknowledging the problem and addressing the issue. They have chosen rather to hide behind their theological priorities and ecclesiastical language.  That has left us all a little less comfortable than we might have been when it comes to talking about sex.

A friend pointed out the other day how refreshing it would have been to see the kind of moral outrage from Catholic bishops over children being sexually abused as they demonstrated over the thought of having to provide birth control to their female employees.  In fact, the former Archbishop of New York went in the opposite direction last week by recanting a previous apology he had made on behalf of the church to the victims of sexual abuse and their families. Catholics and Baptists alike seem to prefer telling others what is and is not acceptable rather than having open and honest conversations about sex and why God made us the way God made us.  t.

In a world that is grossly overly-sexualized, the church must find a way to help families and individuals have a calm conversation about what it means that God has made sex apart of our human experience.  To that end, I wish that I could be at A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant this April 19-21.

How do Women Preachers Dress on Easter?

Early in the morning she is on her way to the cemetery, to the place where he was laid to rest. What is going through her mind as she makes her way to his grave?

Maybe she is blaming herself. Reliving the last few days or even years to try to figure what she might have done to cause his death or what she might have done to prevent it.  Painstakingly, she examines her words, her actions trying to find a clue to help her understand why this has happened. What could she have done that would cause things to turn out differently?

Perhaps she is too scared to be thinking of what she might have done or not done, said or not said. Maybe she is concerned for her own safety.  After all, he is dead. Will they stop with him or will they come after those who followed him?  If she is afraid, her fear is not enough to keep from going to where he is buried. Others may be too frightened to venture out, but not her. Fear or no fear, she will go to him.

She may well be numb. Grief does that sometimes, just leaves a person mercifully numb. With the immense tragedy of the loss floating somewhere beyond the reaches of her mind, she puts one foot in front of the other. At least, she is moving. One step at a time, she goes to him. What will she do when she gets there? Cry some more. Who knows? All she can handle right now is putting one foot in front of the other. She will figure the rest out when the time comes.

She does get there. They all have her there on that first Easter morning, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some of the details and characters vary, but each of them place Mary Magdalene at the tomb of her Lord that morning.

Weeping outside the tomb she hears a voice. He calls her name. In that moment the first Easter sermon gets written. Later she will proclaim to the others, “I have seen the Lord!”

Every sermon preached this Sunday will in some way expand on what Mary said that first Easter morning.  No doubt, they will be longer than hers. Filled out with illustrations and a poem or two they will be meaningless without the truth of her first Easter sermon.  If her words are not true, there is no church.  A movement that gave hope, healing and meaning to a good many people merely fades into annals of time.  Without the truth of her words, all that could be said is that a good man died. The same thing could be said of many good men and good women over the last 2000 years. Their names are in history books and they are remembered from time to time.

However, because of the truth of her witness, people don’t just think about Jesus from time to time.  Some people think of him every day. Some gather weekly with others to worship him. A good many more find their way to a sanctuary each year to celebrate Christmas and Easter. All the words in all the years since that resurrection morning spoken in all the places were the name of Jesus has been praised are preceded by Mary’s simple, yet earth changing message, “I have seen the Lord.”

I know that there are those who would say that five words do not make a sermon. Yet, on that first Easter morning those five words are the best preachin’ available. If that is all the preaching that happens on the first Easter, some may wonder why God did not arrange the order of things so that those words come from the mouth of a man rather than Mary’s.  If God did not want women to preach, then why is it that on the most significant day in Christian history the most significant message in Christian history, along with specific instructions to deliver it is given to a woman?

The question arises “How do women preachers dress?” Well, the first one dressed like a grief stricken soul whose deep sadness was turned to great joy.   Cloaked in numbing sorrow, she was wearing resurrection life before she was finished. This is to say that what a woman wears when she is proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not really the point at all.  The point is that she has had an experience with the risen Lord,   an experience so real, so life-changing that she cannot help but tell others.

May the church that bears his name have ears to hear the words of his servants, male and female, as Mary’s sermon gets reused again.

Prayer Request from the Village of Hope

This is a newsletter from the Village of Hope dated April 1, 2010.

Easter Sunday – Village of Hope prayer request

Dear friends,

We know that many of you have been praying for Village of Hope following the deportations of the foreign workers on 8 March 2010, and for the 33 children who have been so painfully separated from the only parents that they have ever known. Thank you so much. We continue to need and value your amazing support.

For Christians, Easter Sunday is a significant day of remembrance for the work of love that Christ did for us in giving his life for his fallen creation, and more specifically, for the victory of his resurrection over death, hell and the grave that morning 2,000 years ago. Given the significance of this special day, and the need for continued, focussed prayer for the VoH situation, we, the Village of Hope family, would like to make a request. We respectfully, humbly ask that you would actively pray on Easter Sunday, for VoH. Maybe in an organised way, or spontaneously. Maybe on your own. Maybe with your immediate family and close friends. Maybe with your fellowship, church, home group, neighbours, social groups…

More specifically, we would especially ask that you would focus on these three areas:

  • For protection and provision for the children.
  • For a channel of communication to be opened up between the parents and the Moroccan authorities.
  • For people within Morocco to be emboldened to call for justice for the children, and for all those who face trials and challenges at this time.

Over the past 10 years and even earlier, people from around the world have supported and encouraged Village of Hope in many ways. Thank you for continuing to do so throughout this incredibly difficult, painful, challenging time. Thank you for your faithfulness, love and support.

On behalf of the parents and staff of Village of Hope,

Yours faithfully,

Chris Broadbent
Human Resources Manager
Village of Hope Ain Leuh Morocco

Insulting John Lewis

Last night John Lewis was leaving his office when protesters shouted racial slurs at him.  Lewis is an African-American. The word hurled at him in insult was the N-word.  I cannot remember who taught me that using that using that word was not acceptable.  However, I do not ever remember thinking of it as helpful or useful word. Neither do I remember thinking of it as word that expresses kindness or consideration. No, in my memory it has always been a hateful and hate-filled word, a “bad” word if you will.

I was glad to read today that House Minority Leader John Boehner and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele both condemned the use of such words.  Their condemnation of such words in no way means that they are in agreement with John Lewis’ politics. It does signify that they recognize that there is a certain minimum level of civility necessary to carry on productive political discourse.

At this late date in history, America should have a more intelligent vocabulary.  We ought to be able to express disagreement, even strong disagreement, with words that express respect and due consideration until we find words that bring us to mutual understanding and cooperation.  Disagreeing and protesting are every Americans prerogative. Doing so in a way that is honorable and thoughtful reflects not only our appreciation for our country, but also on the kind of values that our parents passed onto us.

To those who met Congressman Lewis as he left his office yesterday with racial slurs, protest away. Disagree from daylight to dark, but be nice about it, otherwise you look like the latest incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan rather than a legitimate movement that has a message that needs to be heard.

Village of Hope Updates

Time magazine has an article on the recent expulsion of parents from the Village of Hope in Ain Leuh, Morocco. The BBC has a radio interview with one of the Village of Hope parents. This interview is insightful and informative. If you have not seen it yet, here is a video from the Village of Hope just after the children were told that they would be separated from the adults who had cared for some of them for as long as ten years.

Have you seen the one who denies religion?  It is he who turns away the orphan and does not urge others to feed the poor….

(Surah  107:  Ayah  1-3)

Justice is a Christian Value

Do you remember anything that your grandmother told you?  What about your grandfather?  The wisdom that gets passed on to us from those who have gone before us shapes our understanding of the world and our place in it.  The words spoken, the deeds done, and the times spent together provide for us a lens through which we view the happenings of life and find meaning in it.

Our living takes on a deeper significance when we are able to see ourselves putting the teachings of Jesus into practice.  In this way, our lives become a part of the reign of God as we announce the Good News with our words and with our deeds.   Our efforts to follow Jesus are only possible because of God’s grace.  Grace marks the forgiveness that comes to us when we first encounter God and turn our lives in God’s direction.  Grace also shadows our daily living.  Our attempts to be the presence of Christ in the World are imperfect at best.   By the grace of God, those attempts sometimes become a gift to someone who needs to know that God cares about him or her.

Speaking, doing, and praying are three ways that we can follow Jesus each day.  In prayer, we deepen our relationship with God.  We give ourselves to God in the time that we are praying.   We listen for God to speak into our lives and we share with God the burdens of our hearts.  God listens.  God listens to everything we need to say, and God loves us. God loves to listen to us.  In prayer, we sink the roots of our lives deeper into the soil of God’s kingdom.  We plant ourselves in God.  Prayer helps us to see ourselves belonging to God and partnering with God as God works in the world.

In speaking to others about what God has done in our lives and about what God means to us, we are able to share with others the source of meaning and joy in our lives.  With words, we can share encouragement and hope.  The sound of our voices can be a comforting reminder to someone that she is not alone.   Our words can be used to explain to a troubled soul how he can find mercy, grace, and forgiveness by accepting Christ as his Lord and Savior.   Telling the story of the difference that God has made in our lives reminds us that God has made us a part of a larger story, a story that does not end.

In doing, we put that story into action empowered by the strength and confidence that emerges from our times of prayer.  Following Christ is not just a phrase from the Bible.  It is an everyday opportunity to live as Christ would have us to live.  Living like Jesus means we do the kinds of things that Jesus would do.  We let our lives, our actions, echo his words and deeds.  We seek justice for the poor because that is what Jesus would do.  We give food to the hungry because that is what Jesus would do.  But if we stop there, then we have stopped short.  Jesus did not come into the world to put a band-aid on the world’s problems.  Jesus came to change the world, to announce the reign of God and God’s kingdom.  So we don’t stop at feeding hungry people.  In the name of God, we ask why people are hungry.   In a world that is capable of producing amazing quantities of food, how is it possible for someone to die of hunger or a hunger-related disease every three seconds?  Is it a distribution problem?  Is it a marketing problem?  No, it is a spiritual problem.  Not enough of us understand that following Christ means living lives that call us to confront the world when the world is wrong.

Christ came into the world to make things right.  He came to make things right between us and God, and He came to make things right between us and our neighbors.  One of His most memorable examples of neighborliness is a stranger, who happens to be an ethnic outcast, who shows excessive concern and extravagant commitment to the healthcare of a wounded man.  Jesus tells the story that we call the “Good Samaritan,” not so we could sentimentalize it in sermons and Sunday school lessons, but so that we could have a clear idea of the kind of justice we are to seek on behalf of others if we are going to be faithful followers.

May our prayers deepen our love for God.  May our words tell others of that love.  May our actions give testimony to the truth of our words.

How do Women Preachers Dress?

“I am going to be a preacher,” she told me.  “Wonderful,” I said.  Of course, I knew that she was talking about her role in the upcoming youth Easter drama, but I was excited for her nonetheless.  Then she asked, “Should I dress as a woman or a man?”  I told her that she should dress as a woman and that she was going to be a great preacher.  Yet, I was troubled by her question.

I was troubled because the question on her part represented an uncertainty as to whether or not a woman could be a preacher, so much so that she considered dressing as a man necessary to more accurately portray the role she had been given in the play.  Her church ordains women as Deacons.  There is no leadership position in her church from which women are excluded.  From time to time, women fill the pulpit as guest preachers, though obviously not enough to give her a clear impression that she did not need to dress as a man in order to play a preacher in the Easter drama.

The uncertainty about women in pastoral roles, not just of a teen-aged girl but of the rest of us as well, demonstrates just how effective the cultural in which we live is undermining the teachings of a local church.  The Bible we read gives us countless examples of women working for the Lord and leading young churches.  Our scriptures are bold to say that “. . .in Christ, there is neither male nor female. . .,” and that in the last days God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh so that our “. . .sons and (y)our daughters shall prophesy.”

How then do we find ourselves, at times, uncertain and ambivalent about who God can call to do God’s work?  Consider for a moment that women have been allowed to vote in our country for less than a hundred years.  Generally speaking, the arguments against women voting sounded high-minded and moral.  The Holy Scriptures were often invoked to undergird arguments against women voting.  Of course, voting was not the only thing that women were not allowed to do.  There were any number of professions and careers that were off limits to women simply because they were women.  Preaching was high on the list of occupations unsuitable for women.  Today, the list of careers that women cannot pursue is whittled down to one – preaching — and then only in certain pockets of the Christian faith.  Of all the activities that society once deemed off limits to women, preaching remains.

Those opposed to women preaching unfailingly state their position with passages from the Bible that would seem to suggest that women should not have leadership roles in the church.  I would grant that there are such passages of scripture, but there are also passages of scripture that would suggest just the opposite.  So then, the question becomes not so much what the Bible says, but how do we read what the Bible says.  Will we read it as people who long for the days when women were denied freedom and opportunity, or will we read it as a people who believe that the God who said God’s spirit would be poured out on all flesh is, in fact, doing that very thing even as we speak?

Today the pastor of Pingdu Christian Church in Pingdu, China is a woman.  This church was started in 1885, when a tiny woman from Virginia ventured, on her own, 120 miles inland to share the Gospel in a city that had no Christian witness.  That woman’s name was Lottie Moon.  She was appointed as a missionary to China by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  No, she would not have been allowed to pastor a church in the United States at that time, but it was fine for her to go where no man was willing to and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Today, pastor Wang Xia, leads multiple congregations and meeting points, along with her pastoral associates, telling the same story that was told the residents of her city long ago by Miss Lottie Moon.

Baptists have had women preachers throughout our history.  We have just not always appreciated them as such.  Even today, as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary prepares to reconstruct Miss Moon’s Pingdu house into an on-campus historical display, the living legacy of Miss Moon’s devotion to the cause of Christ is ignored and rejected by Southern Baptists.  They have trademarked her name, but they have shackled her spirit.  They are happy to use their fundamentalized version of Lottie Moon to raise money for their enterprise, even while they ignore and demean the gifts and callings of her spiritual descendants.

We honor the legacy of Lottie Moon, and others like her, when we help our children, our sons and our daughters, listen to whatever God is saying in their lives.  We keep that legacy alive when in faith we, along with our children, say yes to God’s call in our lives.

No doubt Catherine B. Allen says it best in this months Baptists Today, “The stones in Fort Worth will cry out a message the seminary has officially rejected. Ye who have ears, listen to what the Spirit says!”