What Good is Burning a Qur’an?

September 11, 2001 is one of those dates that will always be with us. The events of that day were such that many people remember where they were when they heard or saw the news.  More to the point, they remember what they felt when they saw the news. In the shock and horror of it all, feelings of fear, vulnerability, and grief mingled with anger and a desire to strike back at those who wrought such devastation and terror on our country.

Nine years later, the feelings are still mixed and mingled.  The means of coping with the tragedy and trying to live beyond it are varied. Susan Retik lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, she turned her attention toward Afghanistan. Her thinking was that there were widows there like her and that there would likely be more. Looking for ways to improve their lives, she and Patti Quigley, who was also widowed by the 9/11 attacks, founded Beyond the 11th. Both of these women had given birth shortly after the attacks to children who would never know their fathers. Remarkably, they also brought into being an organization that exists to empower widows in Afghanistan who have been afflicted by war, terrorism, and oppression. It supports programs that enable widows to support themselves and their families without begging in the street or standing in a breadline. They turned their grief toward the very country where the attacks on their husbands were conceived, and sought to do something good for others.

This weekend Ms. Retik, a Jewish woman, will continue her efforts on behalf of Afghan widows by speaking at a mosque in Boston. She will invite that Muslim community to join her in bringing hope and stability to lives of women who have lost their husbands.

If a Jewish woman and a Muslim community are coming together to act in such Christ-like ways, how then are the Christians acting?  You have probably already heard about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. These folks will mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by hosting “International Burn a Koran Day.”  This event, rather than moving beyond the pain and fear of 9/11, is designed to renew the pain and inflict it on others. This so-called pastor and those that follow him are anathema to Muslims, an embarrassment to Americans, and a shame to the cause of Christ.  Beyond the Jones’ proverbial “15 minutes of fame,” nothing good can come of this event, and much that is bad very well could result.

The good news is that most Christians and Americans understand that this act is a contradiction of the best values of the Christian faith and our American heritage. To underscore this point, persons of all faiths in Gainesville have been invited to Trinity United Methodist Church for a “Gathering of Peace, Understanding and Hope.”  Dan Johnson, Trinity’s Senior Pastor writes:

We call upon the news media to give this as much attention (or more) than the attention they have given to the disturbing actions planned by the Dove World Outreach Center, so that around the globe, all people will know that the Gainesville community, made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and more, can be both deeply committed to their respective faiths and at the same time, live in harmony and peace with one another.  We dare to believe and hope that this disturbing action by a very small and misguided group might become the catalyst for one community, Gainesville, to model a way of living in harmony, mutual respect and peace.  The God I know is in the habit of taking “what was intended for evil and turning it into good (Genesis 50:20), and I believe God will do it again.

If people of different faiths can come together in Gainesville to foster understanding and peace and hope, perhaps we could do it in Knoxville as well. Perhaps good can prevail over evil and love over hate.

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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.

Reunion

Walking into a new surgery waiting room at U.T. Medical Center, I was just a little perplexed.  If health care is in such a crisis in our country, why is it that every hospital in our community has been remodeled or expanded in the last ten years?  Why have two new hospitals been built?  No, health care — at least the hospital side of it — seems to be thriving if new and expanded facilities are any indication.

Sitting in that new waiting room in a newly expanded wing of the hospital, I noticed a woman.  In my mind, I said, “That woman looks just like Imogene Hutson.”  Imogene is the wife of Jim.  He was called to be pastor of First Baptist Church of Rockwood while I was a student at Carson-Newman.  While the woman I was looking at in the waiting room looked very much like his wife, I was not convinced that it was her; at least, not convinced enough to approach her and speak to her.  She, however, was convinced that I was me and she waved me over to where she was sitting.

We got started catching up.  Jim was in surgery.  Their daughter, Susan, was doing well. Their son, Steve, was serving a church in Murfreesboro.  Then I gave her an update on my mother, my sister, my wife and my boys.  We had a reunion of sorts.  It was unplanned and unexpected; but in just a few minutes of visiting together, I was reminded of some pleasant days, good memories, and wonderful relationships.

From time to time, it is good, even necessary, for us to be reminded of where we have come from and to whom we are indebted for nurturing us along our journey.  The Hutsons are just two of a great number of people who have given encouragement and direction to my life.  We do well to remember those who have given themselves to us along the way.

Every person who touches our lives is not necessarily someone that we have known or with whom we have had a personal relationship.  Our church covenant represents a way that our lives are touched by a number of people, many of whom we have not known personally.  For generations, men and women have sought to live out the commitments they have made to God and to each other as members of Ball Camp Baptist Church.  The fruit of their daily effort to keep those promises is seen today in our vibrant community of faith.

Consider these words from our church covenant:

We engage therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines, to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expense of the church, and the relief of the poor and those in need, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.

We are here today worshipping and serving God in no small part because those who have gone before us took seriously their promise to walk together, to sustain worship, and to spread the gospel to all nations.  Most of the time when we think about what we are doing to impact our community and our world for Christ, we think about what we can do right now to make a difference.  Yet, our efforts to keep the promise we have made to God and to each other will not merely impact the times in which we live.  No, the fruits of our efforts will be realized for generations to come.

Room in our Lives

I spent a couple of days with my Uncle John before the start of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Houston. He lives just up the road in Brookshire, Texas. He has lived other places in his adult life, but he has always seemed to end up back in Houston. Houston just did something for him.

When I was a little boy, Houston was where he came from when he would visit Mammaw and Pappaw in East Tennessee. I realize now that his coming home at the holidays or in the summer made the world a larger place for me. At the time, my mom’s youngest sister still lived at home in Ozone with my grandparents, my mom’s older sister lived in Crossville, her younger brother lived in Rockwood and my dad’s sister lived in Rockwood. My earliest world existed in the distance between Rockwood and Crossville. Knoxville and Chattanooga were places that I had heard of, but rarely if ever visited. Everyone I knew lived somewhere between Rockwood and Crossville. That is except for Uncle John. He lived in Houston which seemed impossibly far away to me as a little boy. Somehow by his living there he made the world a bigger place for me.

Now, when I think about the places I have been and the people that I have met I cannot help but think that I have been to those places and met those people at least in part because of Uncle John. Funny the things we learn when we don’t know that we are learning from those around us who have no idea that they are teaching us.

The world is much smaller now made so by the perspective of time and the innovations of technology. That is a good thing for us as followers of Christ because we are a going people. We are called each day to continue the journey of faith that Christ has called us to. Sometimes that journey takes us across the street to our next door neighbor and sometimes it means we wait at home while those we love travel to a neighboring country as we have for the past two weeks with our young people in Canada. Geography is part of the faith journey, but not just in MapQuest, GPS sort of way. Spiritually, when we open our lives to God and let God do with us as God will, we find ourselves in situations with people that we would never have met otherwise. These encounters cause to think about our preconceived ideas of different kinds of people and the fears we have been taught to associate with them.

After enough such encounters, we realize that it not just our perspective of the size of the world that has changed, but our perspective about people in the world and in our own lives. Just as there is always room for one more at the table of the Lord, so to there is room for another alongside us as we continue our journey of faith. Just as the world is much more than the distance between Rockwood and Crossville, so to are the opportunities God has for us to connect with people, offer grace and share Christ’s love.

Doing Theology in an Economic Downturn

The economy is in the tank or at least that is what we have heard most every day for the last several months. However, the reality of economic hard times is not something we need the newspaper or television to tell us. We know that the economy is bad because we know people who have lost their jobs and we have seen people lose their homes.

The stress and anxiety produced by financial hardships impacts every phase of our lives. We cannot help but worry when our ability to take care of our families and ourselves is impaired by lack of work or rising costs. While economists and commentators discuss the situation in large national and global terms, we experience it in cutting back on what we spend and how often we spend. That is if we are fortunate, for some the situation requires far more than just cutting back and spending less. For them, job hunting, relying on friends and relatives and possibly relocating to a new city in order to find a job are all a part of managing tough economic times.

Why is this happening? The answers that the experts provide for us are not really the answers that we are looking for when we find ourselves facing such difficulties. That is true because our question is usually more pointed. What we really want to know is why this is happening to me? Why this is happening to us? The answers to such questions vary. We may be able to look at some of our decisions and readily see why current economic conditions have had an especially adverse effect on our lives. Our spending practices may not have as wise as they should have been. Our job is in an industry hardest hit by the poor economy. Therefore, it naturally follows that our share of the pain would be greater than those who work in other fields less impacted by economic conditions.

Even those kinds of answers do not get at what we really want to know. Because what we really want to know is not so much why it happened, but why it happened to us? For some, after all the rational and reasonable explanations have been given, the answers can become more personal and painful. This would not have happened to me if I were smarter, if I were a better worker or if I were more likable. These sorts of answers can spiral out of control and result in quiet a beating to ones sense of self worth. There are times when our lives are impacted by events that are far beyond the scope of skills, abilities and choices.

Along the way, it would not be surprising to hear someone say why is God doing this to me? In the midst of difficult times that would not be an unusual question. God, where are you and what are you doing? This sort of question indicates an understanding of God that is magical and mechanistic. That is to say that God operates all the levers of our lives as well as the lives of others and magically bestows good outcomes on those of us who are good while those of us who are bad receive not so good outcomes. The problem with this approach to God is that we all know good people who have received not so good outcomes and we all know not so good people who seem to be doing just fine.

So what is the answer to the question? The answer, at least in part, is that God is incarnational. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It marks for us the beginning of Lent and our journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. We make that journey with Jesus, God incarnate. God, confronted with a broken and rebellious creation, took on flesh and dwelt among us. God, facing God’s greatest dilemma, came to us as one of us. The testimony of scripture tells us that there is no desire in the heart of God greater than God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God, in order to make that kind of relationship possible for each one of us, took on flesh and came to us. As we look forward to Holy week, we are reminded that this action on God’s part is no idle endeavor. The humiliation will be real, the pain real, the nails real and the cross rugged. God with us, Immanuel, endures it for us.

What is this God who takes on flesh doing in these challenging economic times? I think it makes sense to assume that God is doing the same thing now as God did at Calvary. God is being with us and still doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. At the same time, God is calling us to be the Body of Christ. To be the presence of Christ in the lives of people who have been knocked to their knees by economic hard times.

If someone is asking where God is or what God is doing as result of the impact of our nations current economic situation on their lives, that person ought to be able to look to the church and see what God is doing. That person ought to see a church praying for those whose lives have been turned upside down by job loss. That person ought to hear more than just words of encouragement from church members, but also see actions that help that person move from despair to hope, from unemployment to work, from being hungry to being fed and from worrying about family to providing for family.

Whoa! That is a tall order. How can a church be expected to do something like that? Well a church can’t do something like that, except that we embrace the ongoing reality of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. We are the Body of Christ; as such we are called to be the presence of Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves. God calls us and entrusts us with an awesome and enormous task. Namely, that we live our lives in such a way that our very lives answer any questions about where God is or what God is doing.

Broken Windows,

Rocks are thrown. Windows are broken. A senseless act of vandalism is committed. Most likely it happened in the night so that darkness would cover the misdeed. Maybe that is all it is, a senseless act of Vandalism.

Yet when I hear the news I immediately think of another night, a night long ago when other windows were broken. I think of the long ago night not because I was there or even because I was alive. I think of that long ago night because on that night, just like the recent night in our community, the windows that were broken belonged to Jews.

Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was a night of terror. So many windows were broken out of Jewish synagogues, community centers, homes and businesses that the streets of Germany were filled broken glass. On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis staged riots that resulted in the destruction, burning, vandalizing or looting of 267 synagogues and 7,500 businesses. Jewish cemeteries, hospital, schools and homes were also damaged. 91 Jews were killed. Kristallnacht is one night among many when the Nazis terrorized Jews from 1933 to 1945. It is the night of broken glass.

Why do I think of that long ago night when I read of windows being smashed at a synagogue in the city where I live in 2009? Is there connection between the two?

Where they motivated by similar hatreds, similar prejudices? I hope not, but regardless of the motivation of the vandals who broke windows at Temple Beth El, I wish they had not done what they did. I wish houses of worship, all houses of worship, were safe from such senseless acts. In the 21st century, we should be living in a country were neither people nor property are attacked because of the religions that they represent.

As troubling as I find religiously motivated violence, I am deeply encouraged by cooperation, especially when that cooperation takes place among persons of diverse religious beliefs. Just such an event took place in our city last Sunday. Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church to pray for peace. The Sanctuary was packed full of people. People who in many ways where as different from each other as night is from day. Yet, we were praying together. While the room was full of diverse opinions about the nature and activity of God, by gathering together those assembled said with their presence that prayer was an appropriate action on the part of those who desired peace and justice. To me, it is a hopeful sign when people of such varied religious backgrounds can gather in the same room and lift prayers together in the belief that those prayers are heard and that they may well make a difference in the lives of people living in the midst of war and violence.

What seems odd to me is that both of the events that I have just described took place within two weeks of each other in Knoxville. What a stark reminder that even at this late date in history we are still daily faced with a choice. Do we reach out or retaliate? Do we seek reconciliation or revenge? Do we act in ways that give hope to those with whom we share this planet or do we act in ways that strike fear in their hearts? Not acting is acting. The world has grown much too small for any of us to think that injustice in some remote corner of world is too far away to be of concern to us. Let us pray always for the peace of Jerusalem—of Gaza —and of Knoxville.