#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.

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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.

Using God to Bully

Did you know that in the State of Tennessee there is a law against bullying in schools?  It allows local school districts to develop policies to ensure that students are protected from physical harm, threats of physical harm, and actions that would create a hostile educational environment.

Current attempts to change this law are concerned about the rights of students to express religious opinions.  In other words, some people want to change this law so that it will be permissible for students to express their religious opinions even if expressing those religious opinions creates a hostile educational environment for the student to whom they are being expressed.  For example, Muslim students, who pray five times daily, would be free to criticize Christian students about their lack of devotion to God because they do not pray with as much frequency.  Unitarian students could constantly pester Trinitarian students about their inability to adequately explain the Trinity.  Mormon students could demean Protestant students for their unwillingness to be baptized for their dead ancestors. In short, as long as what a student says to or about another student would be permitted as long as it was based on the speaker’s religious beliefs.

Of course, those seeking to amend the law are not primarily, if at all, concerned about the rights of Muslim, Unitarian or Mormon students.  What they are really concerned about is that no law would prohibit a good Christian student from telling and informing a student that is homosexual or perceived to be homosexual of his or her eternal destination or how God really feels about him or her.

The fact that the effort to change this law to allow students to use their religious beliefs to bully others is being led by a group, the Family Action Council of Tennessee that purports to hold up biblical values, makes the endeavor even more ironic.  If a group of Christians were going to get something from the Bible written into the laws of a state, why not something like, “…do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” or “…love one another as I have loved you?”  Why not something that reflects the core of Jesus’ teachings?

This effort to use religion to justify bullying is an example of a group trying to use their religion to maintain their perceived notion of society rather than allowing their religion to inform and shape how they impact their culture.  There is quite enough hatred and intolerance in our world.  Seeing adults trying to pass that hatred on to our children is a sad sight, no matter how sophisticated and sanitized their effort might be.

I am reminded of the Anne Lamont quote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  The God of the New Testament is not one of hate, not one that desires to be used to bully students into feeling left out, isolated, and alone.  The God of the New Testament is one who took on flesh and came to dwell among us so that we would know that we are loved. That same God promised to never leave us alone, but to always be with us.  That God calls us into the world to love with the same radical love with which we ourselves have been loved.

When we find ourselves loving someone we never thought we could, then we may find ourselves approaching the love that Christ has for us.  When we discover ourselves loving someone we never had any reasons to notice, then we may be getting close to the love Christ has for us.  Christ’s love for us is unconditional, unwarranted, unearned, yet freely given.  We are called not just to receive it, but to share it.

Thoughts and a Prayer

Here is some interesting reading this morning and a prayer that always draws me closer to God.

Joe Phelps asks the question “if politics makes a lousy religion, what makes a lovely religion?” He finds his answer in the psalms,

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals, in whom there is no help…

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

Jim Evans Reminds us that Jesus blessed the poor. He not did give his blessing to the poverty and injustice that the poor endure.

Merton’s Prayer

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

from Thoughts in Solitude

Remembering Mary Martin

In Hebrews 12:1-3 we read:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

That great cloud of witnesses is richer and fuller tonight because Ms. Mary Martin has taken her place among them. Tonight, her love for Christ and His church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her passion for telling the story of God’s work in the world through Ball Camp Baptist Church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her love for children and her dedication to teaching them the story of our faith has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her adventurous heart and her determined spirit have joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

Monday morning of this week, Mary’s life on this earth came to an end. She was blessed with a long and full life, and we were blessed by the way she lived it.  For most of the last decade, Mary moved with grace and dignity through the halls of Arbor Terrace Assisted Living Facility.  She carried herself with a style and confidence that made you think that she was in charge of the whole place; and that is exactly what she wanted you to think.  Rarely, during those days did it occur to me to think of Mary as a person approaching 100 years of age. She was full of life.  Mary’s condition changed in the last couple of weeks. Those changes in Mary’s condition made me thankful that she had been able to be as active as she was during the last decade of her life.

We can be thankful that Mary lived such a long and full life that contributed so much to so many people. We can also be thankful her life was active and full for so long. Yet, even with good reason to be grateful in the face of Mary’s passing, we also grieve. Death always takes those we love sooner than we are ready to let them go.

Mary is at rest now. Her labor here on this earth is finished. She has left a legacy of commitment and service to God and God’s people. If we have ears to hear, her life and her example will continue to speak to us.  We would do well to listen carefully as the testimony of Mary’s witness echoes through our fellowship.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the importance of our children and our responsibility to teach them.  For 50 years, Mary taught children in Sunday School in this church. Long before a book was written telling us that it takes a whole village to raise a child, Mary was investing her life into the children of the Ball Camp Baptist Church and community. Were children important to Mary? Fifty years. How important were children to Mary? Fifty years. Did it matter to Mary that generations of children learned the lessons of faith and of God’s great love for each of them? Fifty years. With her life, she proclaimed clearly the value of our children and the vital necessity of teaching them, loving them, and leading them to a personal understanding of the love and grace of God.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the significance of our history.  Mary loved our church in many ways.  She had a particular passion for the history of our church. In 1970, her History of Ball Camp Baptist Church was awarded third place in a nationwide competition sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. (If you would like a copy of Mary’s book, there are two copies in very good condition available at Amazon.com.)

Mary did not just write history, she lived it. She lived it as a Baptist woman with a deep faith in the grace and mercy of God. Her faith was personal, and her soul was competent. She knew that she was a part of a royal priesthood, and she did not hesitate to use the gifts and talents that God had given to her to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

When Mary left her home and moved to Arbor Terrace, she took with her scrapbooks of clippings and photos of the life and ministry of our church. She would not let go of that which was so dear to her.  If we listen carefully to Mary’s life, we will hear her saying that our past is important and that our heritage matters.  As Baptists, that means we each have both the freedom and responsibility to read our Bibles with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and to listen for what God would say to us, trusting in the word of God rather than man-made creeds and confessions. It means that church for us is a gathering of people for whom Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. It means that together we discern God’s direction for our common life without interference from ecclesiastical or governmental interference.

The history and heritage of her faith mattered to Mary. How much? Well, she wrote a book about it.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us that our own lives are gifts from God to be celebrated and to be shared.   I never met Mary’s husband. When she would tell me stories of their life together, she referred to him as Martin.  One of her favorite stories involved a night of dancing in a hotel ballroom in downtown Knoxville. After that night, Martin was smitten. Their destiny was to be together. In those days, as Mary would tell the story, the Baptists did not take kindly to those of their membership who frequented dance halls and such. “Such scandalous behavior,” Mary would say as she told me the story with a twinkle in her eye.

Together, they were faithful servants of the Lord at Ball Camp Baptist Church. When our present sanctuary was being built, the church met for worship in the Martin’s store. They gave themselves to God and their community in every way they could.

Whatever we have said tonight, as we remember Mary, will fade with time.  Yet, if we listen carefully, her life will continue to speak to us of what it means to live a rich life that brings glory and honor to God.

Finally, from Mary’s History of Ball Camp Baptist Church, the invitation that she accepted and offered each day of her life and that is offered to each one of us tonight:

To all who are weary and need rest, to all who are lonely and want friendship, to all who morn and need comfort, to all who pray and to all who do not, to all who sin and need a Savior, and to all whosoever will, this Church opens wide its doors and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ says, “Welcome!”

Mary has been welcomed home. She is at rest with the Lord. Amen.

Merry Incarnation!

The whole idea that God took on flesh, came to us and lived among us, has challenged the human ability to understand and comprehend since that first Christmas.  There are all kinds of questions and few, if any, answers.  Answers that give us a thorough explanation of the details of how the creator of human beings becomes a human are not forthcoming. Mystery is the word that the church has often used through the centuries to explain that which is beyond explanation.  That is what we say when we don’t know anything else to say.  Granted, it is no small thing to be able to look into the pages of scripture, the annals of history, or the faces of the living, and utter a single word in response to the unbelievable, the incredible or even, the unthinkable.

Faith is the gift that enables us to believe what we would not otherwise believe or consider.  It gently nudges us beyond the questions of how to look at why God did what God did.  John’s gospel tells us that it is love that moved God to come into our world with flesh and bone.  God loves us enough to come to where we live and experience life as we experience it.  Faith gives us the ability to know that we are loved and accepted by God.

What we should not allow faith to do is to distort the reality in which we still live.  God takes on flesh and comes to us at Christmas time.  God does not come and get us to remove us from where we are now — not yet anyway.   Faith is not an escape hatch from the world in which we live.  It is, however, refusing to believe that the world in which we live is the sum of our living.

Because Christ has been born, when we hear of a tragic death of a neighbor, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Bethlehem has happened, when we see that someone has had to spend the night in a car in our parking lot we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the one who would be our Savior was wrapped in swaddling clothes when we continue to see the poor and needy at our door, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the Prince of Peace slept in a manger when distant wars are brought near by the deployment of a friend or family member, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Mary and Joseph did not turn away from God’s call, when we experience the stress, the strain and sometimes the brokenness of human relationships, we can say even still, Christ is coming.

We can and do say it, not as sugar coating or denial, but as a truth born from the gift of faith. Christ comes to the place of pain and suffering, misery and malaise, and of betrayal and disappointment.  He comes to us.  In coming, he calls us to himself.   The call is such that somehow we become a part of the mystery of his incarnation.  We become his hands, his feet, his body.  Led by his Spirit, we find our greatest joy in following his path to the places where there is hurting and want, injustice and wrong.  Far from taking us away from the trial of earth-bound living, his coming to us points our lives in the direction of those who are broken by sin and sinned against, those who are left out, and left alone.

Christ is coming!

Wishing for a Windy Christmas

Sometime during my elementary school years, my mom collected enough proof-of-purchase seals to send away for a Jolly Green Giant kite.  Next to my Sprite race car, the Green Giant kite was the most amazing toy I remember getting from collecting box tops and such. Actually, now that I think about it the kite probably exceeds the Sprite car. The car never really ran consistently though it looked really sharp. The kite on the other hand needed only the slightest of breezes to take off into the sky. Before the Green Giant, I had never had much success with kites or found them to be much fun, but I still remember the thrill of that Green Giant kite soaring 150 to 200 feet into the sky.

I thought about that long ago Green Giant kite this week as I listened to Saul Griffith talk about the history of kites and their future.  He believes that kites have the potential to be used in production of electricity. He and others have learned that the tallest windmills (300 feet) still do not reach high enough to harvest the best winds. A kite, Griffith believes, could be used to convert the energy in higher altitude winds into electricity. Get enough kites into the air and our need for electricity is satisfied. Granted, Griffith is not talking about kites the size of my old Green Giant kite. He envisions kites the size of 747’s or bigger. Here I thought a kite was just a kite, but he thinks it could be a way getting access to something most of us had not thought about or, if we had, thought it impractical or impossible.

While Griffith’s ideas about wind and energy exceed my ability to comprehend or imagine, I do find it fascinating to think about all that wind up there at higher altitudes that I did not know of before I heard Griffith’s talk.  It makes me think of Christmas. There is so much for us in the Christmas event, more than most of us ever realize or think possible. Or if have thought about it and we do realize what God offers to us, we cannot wrap our minds around the idea of how to get our lives situated so that we are able to receive what God is giving to us.

The good news is that we do not have to ascend to heights exceeding 300 feet and maintain that altitude in order to find what God is giving to us. No, God is coming to us, to where we are. How do we receive the gift? How do we take hold of what God is giving us in a way that transforms our lives, converts us again into followers of Christ?

Would that receiving God’s gift to us were as simple as tying a string to kite and taking it outside on a windy day.  Our lives are full of tasks that we must get done and all the more during the holiday season. Making time for God is difficult when other tasks press in upon us. Yet, God does not wish to be another chore on our list of things to do. God is coming to us, giving Godself to us so that we can know that we are loved and accepted by the one in whose image we are made.

How do we receive this gift? We receive it in many ways. It comes to us in stillness and silence. It arrives unexpectedly in an act of mercy. Through the discipline and preparation of a piece of music or a Christmas play it emerges. We find in the kinds words and gentle hugs of friends and family or rather it finds us. In worship, prayer, singing and host of other ways the gift of Christmas comes to us.

Is there more though that God would give us? More what? More peace, more joy, more love or more hope?  Is their more of God that we can experience this Christmas? What would it mean for our lives to catch a new wind of God’s Spirit in our sails as we soar to never imagined heights?