Happy Advent

Bill Nieporte is a friend from my seminary days, and currently the pastor of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This week, he is toying with the idea of creating a “John the Baptist” line of Christmas cards.  So far, here is what he has produced:

Outside card: “From Our House To Yours This Holiday Season…”

Inside: “Merry Christmas you brood of vipers.”

Outside card: “Let’s all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log…”

Inside: …which burns like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity…With Love, John”

Outside card: “Season’s greeting to you from across the miles…”

Inside: “Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This is, of course, straight out of scripture, but not so very Christmas sounding.  John’s words change our focus.  If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.   If Christmas is about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming to us.  If Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and open to the weak and vulnerable among us, is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.  If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, John reminds us that our joining the cosmic and timeless celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses, and seeking healing for our wounds.

Christmas can be a confusing time for many folks for a variety of reasons.  In the midst of difficult economic times, money for presents will be limited for many.  If the focus of Christmas is buying, then, no doubt, there will be some who are feeling like they have not had much of a Christmas. If Christmas is about family, and a family member is ill, away from home, deployed overseas, or has passed away, Christmas will be different at best and impossible at worst.

What John does for us during this advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is on our list of things to do in order to get ready for Christmas.  With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationships with God and the ways those relationships impact how we live our lives.  For, you see, if Christmas is to happen, this time it will not happen in a far-away, long-ago stable.  No, if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of women and men, boys and girls who are ready to invite and embrace the birth of a new experience of the reality of God in their lives.  December 25th will appear on the calendar in just a few more days.  Christmas will come. What John wants to know is whether or not Christmas will happen in you?  Are you getting ready?

Pigs don’t ask questions

I am not sure what it was about hearing that scientists had mapped the genome of a domestic pig that so captured my attention.  Perhaps it was all the other stuff that I would have thought needed to be done before we got around to a genetic map of pig DNA. Once again I was not consulted, go figure.

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Lawrence Schook is a University of Illinois professor of biomedical science and the leader of the research team that mapped the pig genome.  When asked, he said that the biggest surprise that resulted from the project was the similarity in sequence and structure between the pig’s DNA and that of human DNA.  As I look at the clutter on my desk, I am thinking that Dr. Schook should not be surprised.

The truth of the matter is that I already knew there were similarities between humans and pigs, positive similarities.  I had a young man in my first youth group out of seminary who had a heart defect.  The surgeons at Duke went in and replaced his bad valve with — you guessed it — a valve that they took from a pig.  At the time, I had never heard of such a  thing, but it worked out quite well for that young man.  After recovering from his surgery, he led our church youth league basketball team in points, steals and heart.  You probably always thought that the best thing that could come from a pig was bacon; now you know that there is more to a pig than you might have thought.

It may seem obvious, but if we share genetic similarities with pigs, how much more similar are we to other human beings.  Granted there are different kinds of people in the world.  To be honest, some of those differences are more than I can understand or be comfortable with at times.  Yet, I have to believe that a father in China wants what I want for my children — good health, meaningful work and a happy life.

Why are there so many religions in the world?  I believe that there are so many because we as human beings have a desire inside of us to be connected with something larger than ourselves.  A Buddhist in Taiwan, a Muslim in Detroit, and a Presbyterian in Knoxville all seek to find meaning that is greater than their day-to-day experience of life.  What holds it all together?  What gives meaning to life?  Some would suggest that the work of scientists like Dr. Schook lessen the need for these kinds of questions; that somehow the answers to life most pressing question are to be found by looking at a test tube or through a microscope.

While I marvel at the information and knowledge that continues to emerge from laboratories around the world, I do not feel any less of a need to know God and to be known by God.  The pressing questions of life do not reside in a laboratory or a classroom, though there is much good to be learned and discovered in both places.  The questions that each of us must find answers to reside in that thin place between ourselves and the holy.  Who am I?  Who am I to be in this world?  What am I to do?  What should my neighbor expect of me?  What does God expect of me?

I am pretty sure that pigs don’t ask these sorts of questions and so they miss the joy of discovering meaning and joy in living life.  Likewise, when we don’t ask these sorts of questions, we too miss the meaning and joy that God intended to be ours.

The Insightful Beggar

When I came out the back door of the church, I immediately saw him. I stood their watching him for a moment before he noticed me. When he did notice me standing there, he did not acknowledge my presence. Instead, he tried to act as if he had not seen me or I him. But I knew that he had seen me because he picked up the pace of his activity. He hurriedly tossed his last bag of trash into the church’s dumpster, hopped in his car and sped away. In broad daylight, he had just stolen space in our dumpster for his trash.

Why did that guy feel the need to use our dumpster? Maybe he does not have the money to pay to have his garbage picked up curbside. Perhaps he did not have time to go all the way over to Oak Ridge highway to the convenience center where there are dumpsters with ample space provided by Knox County for residence of Knox County.

He was not the first person to toss their garbage into our dumpster and he will not be the last. Every time I see someone doing it, I remember a night long ago in inner-city Louisville, Kentucky. Patti and I were in seminary. We had not been married long, less than year I believe. We lived in a small, two room apartment on the third floor of the Jefferson Street Baptist Chapel. I was taking the trash out to the dumpster and as I stepped out of the back door of the building, I heard something move in the dumpster. The sound frightened me significantly. I went back in the building. The trash could wait until morning. I did watch from a window as a man climbed out the dumpster and made his way into the night.

Which brings us to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar on the side of the road as Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho. The dumpsters make me think of Bartimaeus because he is beggar. He stays alive by collecting what others toss his way, what they can do without. He stays alive with a coin here and scrap there tossed his way. What is the purpose? So that he can do it all over again the next day? What kind of existence is that? It is the kind that is not well thought of by most of us. At best we pity people like Bartimaeus, at worse we have scorn for them and their willingness to live off the efforts of others, not willing to work for their on bread like the rest of us.

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What we almost always fail to see when we see people like Bartimaeus is what they might reveal to us of ourselves. Why the pity? Why the scorn? Why do we find their plight so heart-breaking, so repulsive, so moving or so frightening? We think we are asking questions about the beggar, but if we listen a little deeper, we hear the beggar answers questions, not about himself, but about us.

Amazingly, if we pay attention to Bartimaeus, we discover that he understands something way ahead of the rest of us. Bartimaeus gets it. He cries out to Jesus and calls him the Son of David bestowing on him the Messianic title as Jesus and his disciples leave Jericho and make their way to Jerusalem, the City of David. How is it that a blind beggar sitting on the side of the road can see what no one else can see before anyone else can see it? For all we know Bartimaeus might have climbed out of his own dumpster that morning. How can he possibly know that the King is coming, that Jesus is the one. Have mercy indeed.

There are many like Bartimaeus who in their own way sit beside the roadways of our lives. What would they say to us if we listened? If we responded to them with something other than pity or scorn, what might we learn about ourselves and God’s calling on our lives?

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.

Salt and Peace

When I read Jesus’ words about stumbling, I cringe. For the person who causes a little one to stumble, he states emphatically that drowning would be a more pleasant consequence than whatever it is that will eventually befall such people. Then, with brutal bluntness, he declares that chopped off hands and feet and plucked-out eyes that have caused one to stumble are preferable to hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

His exaggerated language certainly grabs the attention even in a twenty-first century culture desensitized to violence and brutality. Why such graphic language to make his point? Maybe because it is an important point and he wants to make sure that we get it. So he says what he says, and we come away knowing that his overstated word choice is only a literary device to underscore the importance of his point. But still, there is a faint whisper somewhere in our head that wonders if maybe he really meant what he said just the way he said it.

Spiritually speaking, could we ever find ourselves in a situation similar to Aron Ralston? Ralston was the hiker who got his hand and forearm pinned beneath a boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon. After five days of being trapped, he cut off his arm in order to save his life. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, he just did it because he realized that he was going to die if he did not do it.

While I am confident that Jesus does not intend for us to mutilate ourselves, I am just as certain that he does desire for us to handle our spiritual lives with a sense of urgency — to follow Christ as if what we do or do not do matters — knowing that in following him, we are making decisions that are a matter of life and death. We make our way in a world that is fraught with pits and snares eager to take from us the life that Christ has called us to.

After his vivid admonishment to separate ourselves from whatever would cause us to stumble, Jesus speaks of salt, and of being at peace with one another. What does it mean to have the salt in us that Jesus speaks of, and to be at peace with those around us?

I learned this week of the death of Chris Leggett. Chris was murdered on June 23, of this year in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Two days after his death, al-Qaeda issued a statement claiming responsibility for his death. Chris lived and worked there with his wife and four children. His job was to create learning opportunities for the poor in Mauritania’s capital and throughout the country. His work took him to prisons as he helped former inmates re-enter society. The training center where he worked taught people skills that would help them get jobs. The small business loan program that he directed impacted the lives of numerous people.

Chris grew up down the road in Cleveland, Tennessee. He attended First Baptist Church there, and graduated from Cleveland High School. He continued his education at Cleveland State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Chris walked in and around many of the same snares and pits that we have, yet he did not let them keep him from living the life to which Christ had called him. He was full of the salt of which Jesus speaks. He lived and died seeking to be the peace of Christ for those with whom he was sharing his life. May we each so flavor the lives that we touch as well as those that touch ours.

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.

Health Care Reform? How about Manners Reform?

Being old and not from South Carolina until just a few a days ago I knew of neither Joe Wilson nor Kayne West. There names have now been linked together by their mutual lack of good manners. Wilson, a congressman and West, a musician have both behaved so poorly in recent days that rudeness has made the headlines. Wilson interrupted the president’s speech to call him a liar. West interrupted an award presentation to point that someone other than the recipient was more worthy of the award.

Miss Helen, my eighth grade American history teacher would have described such behavior as “rude, crude, impudent and socially unacceptable.” I know this to be to true because on more than one occasion I heard her describe far less ill mannered behavior with just those words. Yes, on one occasion it was my behavior that she was describing, but only once.

As pressing as the need for health care reform is in our country, the need for manners reform seems to be ever greater. Obviously, Kayne and Joe either did not have a teacher like Miss Helen or they failed to heed her words. Our country and our world would be better served if they had learned such lessons. We face serious problems. We are still at war in two countries. The economy is still struggling. Not only are an increasing number of Americans living below the poverty level but there is also an increasing number living without health insurance. Such issues will not be resolved with interruptions and insults. No, what we need are some well-mannered leaders willing to engage in polite and respectful dialogue.

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.

Gratitude for Religious Liberty

Reports from North Korea are a startling reminder of the true gift that religious liberty is for those who enjoy it. In North Korean, citizens are expected to worship the emperor. If they don’t persecution, arrest, imprisonment or execution may follow. The Apostle Paul, who experienced his share of persecution and imprisonment, tells the church at Ephesus to “. . . give thanks to God at all times for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The challenge of these words is to give thanks not just when life is good, but when it is difficult. I can only imagine what they mean when they are read by Christians in North Korea. What is like to give thanks when a fellow believer is arrested for being a believer? How does it feel to hear Paul’s words when a family member is imprisoned for the faith or worse?

Paul’s admonition to give thanks all the time for everything presents its own challenge for Christians in the United States. Is it possible to give thanks when we have lost a loved one? Does Paul really mean for us to give thanks when we are experiencing the loss of a job or the break-up of a family? What we do not have to ask ourselves when we hear these words is whether or not they apply to us when we are being persecuted because of our religious beliefs. This is true because in the United States, we are not persecuted, arrested, imprisoned or executed for practicing religion according to the dictates of our conscience.

What gets called religious persecution in this country does not even appear on the radar screen in countries that do not enjoy the freedom of religion that we do. When the government will not teach our children to pray, we call it persecution. When we are not allowed to pray at a government sponsored event, we call it persecution. When the government will not fund our religious activities, we call it persecution. Oddly many who claim to want government out of everything cry foul when government will not establish and enhance the exercise of their particular religion.

Such stretching of the definition of persecution would seem to indicate a lack of gratitude for the protection that we each have to practice our religion as we feel led of God to do or to practice no religion at all. Any characterization of the American experience as one of religious persecution approaches absurdity. Each day, we experience more religious liberty than many people will experience in a whole lifetime. We have much for which to be thankful.

In this year when Baptists are celebrating our 400th anniversary, one would think that gratitude and thanksgiving would be abounding. Early Baptists experienced real persecution. They were jailed, whipped and forced to pay taxes that supported state sponsored churches. But since the Bill of Rights, religious freedom has flourished to the point that it is taken for granted by many Americans, religious or otherwise. Let us give thanks to God our Father all the time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ especially the obvious, the easily overlooked and the all too often taken for granted.

I Have a Friend Who Knows a Rabbi Who is Talking about Health Care

My friend Michael Usey pastors College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the same city, Rabbi Fred Guttman serves Temple Emanuel. Michael recently called Fred’s post on the health care debate to my attention. The post says some things that need to be heard by everyone who wishes to engage in the debate in a helpful and responsible way.