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.


Bono Speaks

Bono sings some great songs, but does he ask the right questions?

The Nobel Peace Prize is the rest of the world saying, “Don’t blow it.”

But that’s not just directed at Mr. Obama. It’s directed at all of us. What the president promised was a “global plan,” not an American plan. The same is true on all the other issues that the Nobel committee cited, from nuclear disarmament to climate change — none of these things will yield to unilateral approaches. They’ll take international cooperation and American leadership.

Does the rest of the world have a right to expect leadership from the United States?

Hating Others is not a Teaching of Jesus

Someone had done or said something and I said “I hate” whoever it was that had done or said something. Now I have no memory who it was that said or did something that caused me to say “I hate.” What I cannot forget is my baptist grandmother bending down to say to me, “Eddie, we don’t hate anyone. We may not like what they do or say, but we do not hate anyone.”

In Saturday’s News-Sentinel, Thomas H. Kevil used a rather broad brush to ask a rather troubling question of Baptists. The question he asked: “Do Baptists condone this type of hatred being preached from the pulpit?” The “hatred” he referred to came from the pulpits of two Baptist churches, one in Arizona and one in California. The pastors in both of those churches have expressed their dislike for the sitting president of the United States to the extreme of praying for his death.

What Mr. Kevil obviously does not understand is that there is a great deal of diversity among Baptists. Furthermore, he seems to be unaware of the fact that not all Baptists are connected in a formal organization. While there are groups of Baptist churches — for instance the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — some Baptist churches are independent, belonging to no group at all. Even if a Baptist church belongs to a convention, it still maintains its autonomy, which is to say that there is no outside authority or hierarchy that can tell a congregation of Baptists what to do. The truth of the matter is that anyone with a place to meet, a sheet of plywood, a couple of signposts, a bucket of paint, and a handful of people can start his or her own Baptist church. There are neither forms to fill out nor any central office from which to seek permission.

The peculiarities of Baptist doings are often lost on the uninitiated. Mr. Kevil is not to be faulted for being uninformed with regard to the different ways that Baptists think about and practice their faith. That being said, his question is a fair question, given the behavior of some who wear the label. Do Baptists condone hatred? While feeling the need to answer such a question borders on the surreal, let me boldly and confidently say that most,if not all, Baptists do not condone hatred. The great irony of the question is that the first Baptists were the hated ones. They were persecuted for being different. Their lives were threatened because they did not conform to accepted norms regarding the practice of religion. In England and in colonial America, early Baptists were jailed, flogged, and scorned because they sought to practice their faith according to the dictates of their consciences, rather than by the creeds of majority opinion and legislated religion. They did not seek to impose their beliefs on others, only asking for the freedom to worship God as they were led by the Holy Spirit and their understanding of scripture. Modern day haters who unscrupulously lay claim to the Baptist name bear a much greater resemblance to those who bullied and harassed early Baptists rather than the men and women who refused to conform to the religious expectations of their neighbors. The very name Baptist was a term of derision used to express the scorn that those in the religious establishment felt for early Baptists.

The answer to the question is no, Baptists do not condone hatred. That the question even needs to be asked is a travesty and a shame. That someone could assume the name of Baptist and behave in such a way that the question is even prompted, dishonors the lives and sacrifices of those first Baptists. To be a Baptist is to be a follower of Christ, the One who took on flesh, that the world might know the depth of God’s love.

An experience with that love leads most Christians and Baptists to condone love and not hate, life and not death. While we all possess a soul competent to relate to God and to learn the ways of God, we do not all arrive at the same conclusions nor convictions. My understandings may be similar to those of others, yet not identical. The degree to which my understanding of God impacts the choices I make in my day-to-day living varies from those others. So I do not presume to speak for other Baptists when I say Baptists do not condone hatred. Other Baptists are fully capable of answering for themselves. In the same way, I do not presume to speak for others when I say that I do condone both the love and the life that God invites us to share with one another.

I pray for health and well-being of our president, and that God would grant him wisdom for the task before him. I am convinced that my Papaw Ledford, deacon and charter member of Ozone Missionary Baptist Church and a man who voted for Nixon twice, would not have it any other way. It is the Christian thing to do and it is the Baptist thing to do. Hating other people is not a teaching of Jesus.

Why Say No to Universal Health Care? Part 3

The reasons just keep piling up. I can hardly keep track.

1. Because Cigna needs the 13.6% premium increase it will take to keep my policy in place in 2010 more than the uninsured people in our country.
2. Increased premiums and higher co-payments for the same level of coverage are preferable to being a part of system that provides equal access to all of our citizens.
3. I have no desire to live in the two additional houses that I could afford to pay for if for some reason I did not have to pay health insurance premiums.
4. The health insurance bureaucracy employees a good number of people. Think of all the claim deniers and coverage terminators that would be out of work if real reform were enacted. Better that they should have jobs than for us to pay lower premiums.
5. Likewise, doctors have to employ people to argue with the claim deniers in an effort to get them to pay for services that the policy is supposed to cover. These people earn their money. I would not want to reform the system in such a way that the important work they do was no longer needed.
6. In a similar vein, think of all the lobbyists that get paid with dollars generated by the payment of health insurance premiums to make sure that no laws get passed that would interrupt the continuous flow of those premium dollars. These folks have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. I would not want my desire for more reasonable premiums to negatively impact their chosen way of making a living.
7. Without sky high premiums, how could health insurance companies afford to make lucrative contributions to the campaign funds of members of congress? I am sure that there are no strings attached to such contributions. The health insurance companies probably realize that with the high cost of television advertising, those guys need all the money they can get when it is reelection time.
8. When I consider the number of career paths that are funded with the proceeds of health insurance premiums, I am proud to be making such a contribution to our robust economy. It would be heartless and unpatriotic to even consider reforming such a system. Frankly, I wonder if a 13.6% increase is enough to keep it going.
9. Emergency rooms have adapted to serving as a point of primary care for people without health insurance. Imagine how bored the people who staff emergency rooms would be if we had a health care system that provided primary care in less costly more efficient way to all of our citizens.
10. Finally, people who want reform often mention the poor, the working poor or the uninsured as their motivation for supporting health care reform. What about all the social service agencies that work to provide services to these people? What about the ministries, the community clinics and that sort of thing? What about the United Way? The point is there are already all sorts of resources out there for people who don’t have insurance. Most of the people who provide those resources find a great deal of satisfaction in helping people who are less fortunate. What would all those human service workers do if all of sudden their clients had access to health care? Think of the many rewarding experiences that might be denied this caring group of professionals if health care reform actually came to pass.

You may already be opposed to universal health care. If that is the case, then hopefully these points will only strengthen your resolve to resist changing the effective, efficient health care system that most all of us enjoy. However, if you are not convinced that universal health care is a bad idea, then move to Canada, Great Britain or Sweden. There you can have your universal health care and for some reason you will be statistically more likely to live longer. Go figure.

East Tennessee and the Health Care Debate.

As a region, East Tennessee has a definite leaning toward less government involvement in the lives of citizens. I always find this sentiment rather humorous given the regions indebtedness to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most East Tennesseans can say they dislike the government being overly involved in the lives of people with a straight face. I wonder if they realize that East Tennessee would be just another isolated patch of Appalachia had the government not invested in the region.

Interestingly, two writers with East Tennessee connections recently shared their perspective on the Health Care conversation. Yesterday, Wendall Potter told of his experience working in public relations for an insurance company. Today, David Hunter wrote a helpful piece on the need for precision in language. Both articles add a little East Tennessee flavor to the national debate.

Lent as Parent: Watching Over the State of our Union with God.

Did you watch President Obama’s address to Congress this week? In listening to the president address Congress and the nation, I heard a challenge that stood out from the rest of his speech. It struck me as a notion that, if implemented on a broad scale, would have more impact on our nation and our world than any other idea or program that President Obama put forth in his speech. The essence of the idea was simply for parents to parent. President Obama expressed it this way:

In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.

The idea that education begins at home is beyond dispute. What often gets lost in our world to day is that the responsibility for education begins at home as well. The President’s five suggestions to parents were remarkably simple. Parents should attend parent/teacher conferences, help with homework, turn off the TV, put away video games and read to their children. How radical is that?

There I was watching a political speech thinking I was going to hear about ideas and initiatives for how our government was going to move our country forward, but right in the middle of the speech I was taken to a different place. Instead of thinking about current issues and evaluating proposals for dealing with them, I was thinking about being a parent and my effectiveness at nurturing and encouraging my children. The responsibility shifted from Washington to Etheld Reda Drive, from the government to the Sunday-Winters family, from someone else to me.

Like a paragraph in a speech that shifts our focus from one perspective to another, the Christian Calendar moves us to look again at ourselves and our relationship with God. The season of Lent would parent us if we would allow it to do so. It tells us with urgency and resolve what we should be doing in some measure all along. It invites us and urges us to examine our spiritual condition.

As parents, when go to open house at our child’s schools, we a get a picture of what is happening that notes from the teacher and updates told by our children cannot give us. When we sit down for a conference with our child’s teachers, we are face to face with the one doing the teaching. Lent says to us that we need to be present for a different kind of parent teacher conference, one that involves ourselves and the triune God. Gathered in the loving presence of our heavenly Parent, our teacher, the Holy Spirit, describes the ways in which we have learned to live out the sacrifice of our savior, Jesus Christ. Such a conference also reveals for us the ways where we still need to learn and grow and the ways we neglect the lessons of our saviors sacrifice.

Lent tells us that there is homework to be done. The TV needs to be turned off and the video games put away. In short, whatever so fills up our days that we have no time left to be in the loving, teaching, listening presence of God needs to be turned off and put away. Turned off and put away so that we can hear ancient stories of Gods amazing love read to us again by the Holy Spirit who abides with us always.

The Christian Calendar is a gift given to us from the saints who have preceded us in the faith. They are our mothers and fathers in the faith and the calendar is in a sense their way of being spiritual parents to us. The calendar that has taken shape through all these years of church history, tells us it is time to sit down, be still and listen.

As believers in Christ and followers of Jesus, we are always inclined to help one another. Being available to each other is one the important ways that we live out the call of God in our lives. However, in this reflective season of Lent there is a question that each of us has to answer for our own selves. We listen to each other share the wisdom of our shared journey. We worship, study and learn together. But after we have been to church, when Sunday School class is over and our fellowship has finished up for the night, the question remains, how do things stand with you and God?

That is the question that no one else can answer for us. That is the question that the season of Lent asks us. How are things with you and God? Not, how are things with God and the world? Not, how are things with God and your country? Not even, how are things with God and your church? How are things with God and you?

Those that Wait

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31

1619 A Dutch ship captain arrives at Jamestown, Virginia in late summer. He exchanges 20 Africans for food to replenish his ships stores and then sets sail.

1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, a decision by the United States Supreme Court that ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants—whether or not they were slaves—could never be citizens of the United States.

1865 The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark United States Supreme Court decision, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of “separate but equal“.

1948 President Harry Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

1954 The Supreme Court rules on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., unanimously agreeing that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The decision overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that sanctioned “separate but equal” segregation of the races, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of the “colored section” of a bus to a white passenger, defying a southern custom of the time. In response to her arrest the Montgomery black community launches a bus boycott, which will last for more than a year, until the buses are desegregated Dec. 21, 1956. As newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., is instrumental in leading the boycott.

1963 About 200,000 people join the March on Washington. Congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, participants listen as Martin Luther King delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Later that year, four young girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins) attending Sunday school are killed when a bomb explodes at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

1964 President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

1968 Martin Luther King, at age 39, is shot as he stands on the balcony outside his hotel room.

2005 Rosa Parks dies at age 92.

2006 Coretta Scott King dies of a stroke at age 78.

January 20, 2009 A person of African heritage is inaugurated the 44th president of the United States.

When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. From an address by Martin Luther King made to the Tenth Anniversary Convention of the S.C.L.C. in Atlanta on August 16, 1967.

Crying Over Spilled Soda

From time to time, people will say to me that I drink too much Diet coke. These well meaning folks are concerned about the detrimental effects that my excessive Diet Coke consumption might have on my health. I generally try to act like I appreciate their concerns, even if I cannot bring myself to believe that Diet Coke is a bad thing.

Well, I am a believer now. There is no teacher quite as effective as experience. When is Diet Coke a bad thing and how did life teach me this lesson? Tuesday of this past week, Election Day, I am sitting at the computer reading, thinking, talking on the phone and drinking a Diet Coke. Placing my Diet Coke in the center of my workspace, right in front of my keyboard, I turn to get something off my desk. Normally, I do not set my Diet coke in the center of my workspace, directly in front of my keyboard. So when I turn back from my desk to my computer, I do not expect for there to be a Diet Coke can in the space where I am putting my notepad. It is too late. The damage is done. The notepad bumps into the Diet Coke. The diet coke wobbles helplessly before falling headlong onto my keyboard. The keyboard quickly drinks down this wet and tasty, though accidental, refreshment.

When is Diet Coke a bad thing? Diet Coke is a bad thing when it spills onto and into your computer keyboard. Listening to folks talk in the days leading up to the election and knowing how some people feel about politics and government, I imagine that there are those who feel like a Diet Coke has just been spilled on their keyboard. Whether it is concerns about his experience, his religion, or his policy ideas, they see the results of the Tuesday election as a messed up keyboard. It is not like spilling something on the floor. No — when you spill something on the floor, cleaning up is not so hard. Floors are made to be cleaned, but keyboards, not so much. Spill something on a keyboard and you are faced not just with cleaning up a mess, but also with whether or not the keyboard will work once you have cleaned up the mess.

Strangely enough, there are other people who are having a different experience. They do not feel like a mess has been made. No, their experience is more akin to tasting a cold, tingly Diet Coke for the very first time. These people turned Chicago’s Grant Park, site of rioting during the 1968 Democratic Convention, into a sea of joyous celebration. These people marveled as the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state that provided the Confederate States with their capitol and their greatest general, favored the Democratic candidate for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. They filled the streets of our nation’s capitol and the sanctuary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church to share with others the wonder of it all.

Oddly enough, both of these reactions to the election of Barak Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America are in response to the same event. All across the country in workplaces and neighborhoods, some people see a mess, while others see history being made. The election for some is a tragic mistake; for others it is a transformative moment.

Reactions aside, President Obama needs our prayers as he seeks to lead our country through some very difficult days. His wife and daughters need our prayers as they adjust to life in the White House.

Surprisingly my keyboard is not in need of prayer. After spilling my Diet coke into it, I flipped it over to let it drain. Then I went to the work room to grab some paper towels. I took a paper towel and slipped the edge of it into the spaces between the keys while holding the keyboard upside down. After repeating this process several times, I put the keyboard in the upright position and gave it a test drive. Amazingly, there were no signs of damage. I thought it was a mess. Worse, I thought it was ruined. But it worked like it was new. Go figure.