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.

Enter the Story

This Sunday is the third Sunday of our Advent Conspiracy at Ball Camp Baptist Church. This is the Sunday for us to more fully enter the story of Christmas, the story of God coming into the World. This Sunday, as we worship, we will seek to enter this amazing story by giving more; giving more of our time, our gifts and our resources. By more fully entering the story of Christmas, we become participants. More than listening to the story, we want to live it. In living it, we want to join with other followers of Christ sharing the story so that others can hear it and experience the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Chaouki & Maha Boulos share and live the story of Christ’s birth in the country of Lebanon. As we give more this Sunday, we enter the story of Christmas alongside the Bouloses as they tell the story of  grace and mercy in the region of the world where Jesus was born.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

What if Christmas was about Christ?

That night when Jesus was born, how many people new what was happening?  Think about it for a minute — how many people new that God was being born?  Did anyone know that incarnation was happening?  Who knew that God was taking on flesh in order to dwell among us?  Who knew that God was so in love with us that God was coming to be with us?  Was anyone thinking that God was so radically intent on being reconciled with God’s creation?

Mary and Joseph had an idea that something special was happening.  Elizabeth and Zechariah might have known, along with a few other family members, perhaps.  The shepherds, of course, get clued in by a heavenly visitation.  Eventually, there will be visitors from the east.  Herod will be briefed on what they believe has happened.  Beyond a handful of people, most of the world’s population had no idea that anything significant, much less world changing, happened on that first Christmas.

All these years later, some might argue that the birth of Christ has been changed by the world more than it has changed the world.  Christmas seems to be about many things that have little or nothing to do with God coming into the world in order redeem and reconcile human hearts.  Granted there are many opportunities to do good for the less fortunate during the holiday season, but for most people these are sandwiched into a hectic schedule that reduces them to obligation or afterthought, rather than focal point.  The truth of the matter is that Christmas has become an industry, an economic engine, that springs to life earlier and earlier each year, so that it can better serve the purpose to which it has devolved.  The air around Christmas is so polluted by the smog and debris of consumerism run amok that the Christ is hardly visible.

Some have seen a threat to Christmas in the practice of referring to the season as the holiday season, rather than Christmas.  Their aim is to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a laudable goal insofar as it goes.  One would think that a birthday celebration would, at a minimum, include the one for whom the celebration is being given.  But what purpose does it serve if the end result is still the same old hustle and bustle, the same cluttered and obstructed view of God entering our world in order to embrace us with an everlasting love.

We still live in a world that needs to experience the love God expressed so emphatically on that first Christmas.  How can the world ever hope to experience that love unless the body of Christ, the church, intentionally and practically shares that love?  We have been loved with that love and we know that it is not ours to enjoy just for ourselves.  It is ours to share.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough.  What if we did more than just keep Christ in Christmas?  What if we made Christmas about Christ?  What if Christmas was an event that could once again change the world?  This Christmas, at Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are conspiring together (literally, breathing together) to do just that.  By worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all, we are going to be a part of a Christmas that will change lives.  We are not alone in this conspiracy.  Others are breathing with us. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in the United States and around the world are daily striving to be the presence of Christ to those who have yet to fully realize the meaning of that first Christmas in their own lives.  As we seek to make Christmas more about Christ this year, their world and their lives may never be the same.

In the presence of Christ

He came into the office talking, and stopped only to take a quick breath, after which he continued sharing the details of his plight.  All was punctuated by pulling up the front of his shirt and revealing the most painful looking herniated intestine that I have ever seen.

Several attempts to direct the conversation and get some sense of what might help stabilize his financial situation only resulted in more details about his circumstances, and more views of the cantaloupe size knot on his stomach.  I wanted to get some idea of what could be done to help him until his disability check started.  He wanted whatever I was going to do to be done right then.

He may have wanted more, but what he got was $25.00 worth of gas.  Back in the day, we used to give folks like him a fill-up.  That policy changed the last time gas prices rose to over four dollars a gallon.  The new policy works well.  I spend almost no time worrying about whether or not someone requesting help deserves it or really needs it.  I would much rather give some who did not deserve it $25.00, than fail to help someone who really needed it because I perceived them to be unworthy of help.

He seemed happy with $25.00 worth of, not gas, but diesel.  I bought him diesel because that is the kind of fuel that one puts in a Mercedes.  Granted it was an old and beat up Mercedes, but a Mercedes nonetheless.  Truly, there is so much story to tell and just not enough time or paper for all the details.

After a quick trip up the street for fuel, I am back in the office reflecting on what just happened.  Without thinking, I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of Matthew 25.  You recall the passage, don’t you?  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and purchase for you $25.00 worth of gas?”  The King replied, “When you bought fuel for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you bought it for me.”  I felt good because I had just done something for the least of these.  I would not have wanted the goat question stuck in my head.  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and not purchase it for you?”  The King replied, “When you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, is when you did not do it for me.”

So I felt as good as you can feel when you buy $25.00 worth of fuel for someone who needs a lot more than $25.00 worth of fuel.  What I did not feel so good about and, if fact, what was a little disturbing to me, was how desperate this man had been.  The man who had reminded me that to help was to help Christ, had been almost frantic for help, and almost overjoyed with $25.00.  He was desperate and frail, and his desperation and frailty quickly reminded me of Christ in the garden praying for the cup to pass; and Christ on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

We like for our heroes to be big, strong and larger than life. We expect them to be able to face down any challenge and overcome any obstacle. Yet our salvation comes not from Christ’s willingness to be a larger-than-life human being, but from his willingness to be a real life human being.  By his wounds, we are healed.  In his brokenness, we are made whole.  It is not his strength that saves us, but with his frail vulnerability that he invites us into the Kingdom of God.  Whether at the manger in Bethlehem, the cross at Calvary, or the fuel pump at Weigel’s, he invites us to embrace him, to touch him, and meet his needs as we experience the power and the presence of the risen Lord.

Toyota, it is not just me.

A little over a week ago, I did a blog post about a Toyota Highlander commercial that I had seen the week before while watching Monday Night Football. A couple of interesting things have happen since that post. First, I found that there are others who are equally disturbed by the content of Toyota’s “lame parents” commercial. This surprises me in some ways because I have grown accustomed to being disturbed by events, ideas and situations that do not seem to bother anyone else while at the same time favoring thoughts, ideas and viewpoints that do not seem popular with very many people. Several bloggers have said very well what I was trying to express in my initial blog. If you have time, read what Barbara Bell, AutoAdOpolis, Time and The Simple Dollar have written.

The other thing that I have discovered in reading what others have written about the “lame parent” commercial is that Toyota is making hay even in the midst of protest. Almost all of the blogs that have advertising on them generate links to Toyota products. Such is the power of the internet. Even in the midst of expressing displeasure, Toyota’s product is still the focus.

A third thing that gives me pause comes from somewhere long ago within or at least alongside my religious experience. Growing up, I remember hearing about churches and preachers that where taught against watching television.  At the time, such an idea seemed downright cruel. I could not imagine why any religion would deprive its adherents of access to The Wonderful World of Disney, Daniel Boone or Hogan’s Heroes. I was thankful that my branch of the Baptist family tree was growing in a more enlightened direction. Now, I wonder. Perhaps Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, knew what he was talking about when he said in 1961:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The current Toyota advertising campaign adds weight to Minow’s conclusion.

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

Toyota, Recall This Commercial

The first time I saw the commercial I laughed a little.  Well, I did not laugh out loud, but I did chuckle on the inside.  At first glance, the commercial appeared cute.  Frankly, it would be difficult for a commercial featuring an elementary school-aged boy with shaggy blond hair not to be cute.  Where Toyota messed up was in airing the commercial of their Highlander too many times in one ballgame.  Before Monday Night Football was over, I had seen it four times.  By the fourth time, I was no longer chuckling on the inside.

Four times I had heard the cute little elementary school-aged boy explain that in spite of his low tolerance for “dorkiness” his parents insist on transporting him in a vehicle that screams “geek.”  Four times I watched him climb into the neighbor’s Toyota Highlander, after which he pointed out to his audience that just because you are a parent, does not mean that you have to be lame.  You get the picture.  If your parents will or can not buy a Toyota Highlander, then they are lame, dorky, geeks.

I have seen an untold number of commercials in my lifetime.  Why did this hit me the wrong way?  Maybe it was because our church had just completed our Family Promise host week.  This is a ministry that networks local congregations together to provide shelter for homeless families.  We hosted three families, each with their own stories of how difficult it can be to keep a family together.  When I looked at the parents in those three families, I did not see dorky, lame, geeks, but parents who were working and hoping as hard as they knew how that they would be able to take care of their children.  I saw parents who were facing challenges head on and in need of assistance, not a manipulative commercial designed to make them feel worse than they already did.

In fact, when I see parents doing what they have to do to keep their families together, I don’t see lame, dorky, geeks.  I see heroes.  What the cute little boy in the commercial may not be aware of is that not all parents provide for their children.  For the almost half a million children in the United States who live in foster homes, whatever vehicle their parents could provide for the family would be inconsequential compared to the immense satisfaction of  being able to be with parents who are doing their best to be good parents.

What is glaringly absent from this commercial is civility and gratitude.  The elementary school-aged boy walks out of a house, past a minivan, and at least one of his parents, without a hint of gratitude.  He may not have a Toyota Highlander, but neither does he have any appreciation for what he does have.  While we might be surprised to hear words like lame, dorky, and geek from an elementary school-age boy, their use in this commercial takes on a sinister hue when we realize that they were put in his mouth and directed at his parents by the advertising department of a multinational corporation that usually tries to portray itself as responsible.   Responsible adults should not have to resort to such childish language to sell their products.

The bottom line is that cars don’t make families; time spent together does. Lots of time spent together on special days, and on ordinary days, make families.  In cars and out of them, at home and at parks, families become stronger and richer when parents invest themselves in their children.  That may sound lame, geeky or dorky, but that is what it takes to build strong families.

What I don’t understand is why does Toyota need this sort of manipulative and demeaning advertising?  They make great vehicles that last forever and have great resale value. Why isn’t that enough to sell their product?

A Litany of Questions

O God, for every sin and short coming that we have confessed, you have forgiven us.

Are we more forgiving?

Day by day you wait. You wait for us to give ourselves to you. You wait for us to let you be God in our lives.

Are we more patient?

You hear our excuses. You listen to our reasons for wanting to control our own lives and choose our direction.

Are we more understanding?

You are with us every moment of everyday. We do not take a step without your notice or concern.

Are we more caring?

When our steps lead us in the wrong direction, you find us. When we fall you, you pick us up. When we hurt, you hold us close.

Are we more compassionate?

You came to us to show us your love for us. Living, teaching, healing, loving you died that we would know you and your love.

Are we more loving?

Teach us how to love each other

Lift us to your joy divine.

May we grow in love, live in love and give love to you and one another

Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Year End Giving, New Life Living

As the year was coming to a close, his church’s income was running behind what the church needed for it to be. In a letter posted on the church’s website, the pastor underscored the urgency of the situation. Their church, like so many around the country, had members who were experiencing the ill effects of a bad economy. Giving to the church had not kept pace with the expense of doing ministry. The letter asked the members of the church to give a gift to help cover the $900,000 shortfall that the church was facing as 2009 ended.

Nine hundred thousand dollars is a large number. I cannot imagine having a deficit that large.  It is almost twice as much as our annual budget.

At their Sunday services on January 3rd, Pastor Rick Warren announced that members and friends of Saddleback Community Church had given 2.4 million dollars in response to the letter. On any given weekend, over 22,000 people will worship at one of Saddleback’s five locations. Pastor Warren described the response as “radical generosity.”

When I read the story of this amazing gift, I could not help but think of the members and friends of Ball Camp Baptist Church. You may remember that at the end of October, our expenses were running $19,000 ahead of our income. Granted $19,000 is a long way from $900,000; but before you said your final farewell to 2009, you gave with “radical generosity.”  We finished the year $3,000 to the good. On top of that, you gave with that same “radical generosity” to our Christmas Offering for Global Missions, so that we exceeded our offering goal.

The challenges faced by their members and friends are most likely not all that different from the challenges that we as a church family have faced over the last year.  In the midst of difficult situations and hard times, I have been so proud of the way you have been church to each other.  Certainly, not all of your giving has been through the offering plate. Some of your most meaningful gifts have been directly to each other. Neither do I assume that I know about all that you have done for each other and for others outside our church. That is the way it is with “radical generosity.” It does not wait to be told how to act, nor does it look for recognition.

From families and individuals in our church, to hurting people in our community, to those in need in Eastern Kentucky, to those hungry for grace in North Africa, and to the uttermost parts of the world, your “radical generosity” has made a difference for the Kingdom of God and in the lives of people.

A writer for the USA Today newspaper described Pastor Warren’s letter to his church as begging for money.  While I understand how someone who is unacquainted with the gospel and with church life could see his letter in that light, I also think that  those who have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, and the supportive love of a church family, know that there is a different motivation at work. Giving is an opportunity to minister. Giving is an opportunity to share the love of Christ. Giving allows us to become a part of the lives of those we give to in a redemptive and loving way. We give because we have received a gift — that gift is no less than the Son of God.  We give generously because the one who gives us life and hope has given to us with a generosity that we can never match.

Even still, I am amazed when I take note of the ways that you have given your resources, your energy, and your time in this year just ended. Truly, the impact of your giving was felt around the world. Thank you.