Is It Time to Jettison the Bible?

 

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I ask that question with great fear and trembling.  I grew up with the Bible.  To paraphrase the Apostle Paul“If anyone has reason to be confident I have more.  A member of the Cradle Roll before my birth; raised in Sunbeams, and RA’s; state winner in Memory Verses and Sword Drill; soloist in our Youth Choir and Preacher for Youth Sunday; BSU member and Weekend Retreat Leader; Summer Youth Worker; BA in Religion from Wake Forest and a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological seminary (when it was a seminary) and a Doctor of Ministry in Ethics from Candler School of Theology; ordained minister; Minister of Youth; Pastor; Mission Trip leader and participant.”   I am about as Baptist as they come!

Yet I find myself asking this difficult question. Is it time to jettison the Bible? 

It has served as the “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” throughout my life.  It continues to be the story that I return to again and again, seeing my life reflected in the stories of faith that I find within its pages.  I am a minister who stands in a pulpit week after week reading words of scripture from the Biblical text and proclaiming “This is the Word of God!” 

But this week I wonder if it is time to let it go?

This isn’t a personal crisis of faith, but a reflection about the way in which the Bible, the very foundation of my life has been misused this week.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech entitled “Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders” chastised those protesting against the treatment of those seeking refuge in the US.  He said “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Using his hermeneutic (a theological word meaning how we interpret scripture.  I told you I went to seminary!), anything the government says should be obeyed. 

Let that sink in.

He is using the Bible to say that we have to obey the government because God says so.  That is the same scripture cited when churches were urged to obey the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, the same scripture that was used to defend slavery. 

Is that what you believe?

The same week the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the world, meeting in Dallas, TX used scripture to continue a decades-long subjugation of women. Even in the face of leaders losing jobs over sexual harassment and impropriety; when the #MeToo Movement came to church, they chose to again quote scripture reminding over half the world’s population that they are commanded by God to take lower roles, especially in matters of faith. 

The same week, in the same town, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship also met.  This is the group that has been my denominational home.  Formed after “losing a battle for the Bible,” they met hoping to move beyond the topic of same sex relationship—a topic raised perhaps 7 times in all of scripture.  Every denomination it seems is struggling to avoid a break-up over the topic. Every time the issue is discussed groups on both sides begin using scripture like a cudgel to bash their opponents.

And it isn’t just this week.  Every week I find myself feeling the need to apologize for some preacher who is using scripture to milk congregants for funds to buy a jet, another house, a larger tabernacle.  In recent weeks we have seen the Bible used in foreign policy to justify the location of an embassy.  We choose our international friends with a selective reading of who God says land is given to.  It is easy for a official to pull a verse from the Bible that commands obedience to the government, but when was the last time you heard doctrine against interest?  We use the parts we like, the parts that correspond to our lifestyle and our own prejudice. 

And we all do it!  I will be honest. I am not going to preach a sermon based on I Timothy 6:1.  While I used I Corinthians 13 as a text last Sunday, I am not going to preach a sermon on I Corinthians 14:34, ever!  (“Women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.”) Has anyone ever done a sermon on Deuteronomy 23:1

We all jettison parts of the Bible.

We always have.  We rarely hear about the history of the Bible.  We see it on the coffee table or on the pulpit, all together in the black leather cover, and we think that is how it was written.  Even if we understand that it was written at different times, we think of it like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  The sense is that it came down from heaven complete—with references and footnotes.  (That is how Islam sees the Quran.)  All of it has equal value.

There are so many problems with that!  First, that isn’t how the Bible came to be. It was written over centuries by individuals telling their story of their experience with God. It was written by humans with all their histories, prejudices, cultures, and contextual understanding of science and the world.  All of those are reflected in their writing.

The Bible we have is not the only “scripture.” There are other books that didn’t make the Bible. The Jewish rabbis put what we know as the Old Testament together during a meeting in Jamnia around 90 AD.  There were books that were hotly debated. Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes barely made it in.  And did you know that God is never mentioned in Esther? 

The New Testament was not made “official” until the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD.  There were many books that didn’t make the cut.  Some are found in what we know as the Apocrypha (ever heard a reading from Bel and the Dragon?)  Others were not considered.  (Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas for a different vision of Jesus!)

(For more on this topic, see T.C. Smith’s wonderful and very readable book How We Got Our Bible.)

There were many criteria used to decide what was “In” and what was rejected, but one of the main criteria was what was used in the life of the church.  What were congregations using in worship?

Which brings me back to my question. Is it time to jettison the Bible? 

My answer is No! 

But we must change our understanding. We can take the Bible seriously but not literally. We can admit that there are parts of the Bible that must be examined in light of their cultural context. To take the Bible seriously, we must study it with the full understanding of how it was put together and alongside the history of those ancient writers and storytellers.

This will not be easy. 

It will mean that congregations and individuals will have to be honest enough to say that this passage does not resonate with their own experience of God.  

It will mean that there will be times when we have have to say that there are parts of the Bible that really aren’t “Bible,” that don’t reflect the God we worship.

It will mean we will have to do the hard work of reflecting on our experience of the holy. 

It will mean being honest about what we believe God calls us to do and be, and what is just cultural and outdated. 

It will mean grieving the loss of an idol we have built and worshiped.

It will mean being prepared for the cries of heresy, the rejection of those who still hold on to the old ways.

It will mean declaring to the world that we hear a different story than the one the world, and too often the church, has been selling.

It will mean having the courage to declare, “This I believe, God help me.  I can do no other!”

But it is past time to be honest about it, and about our faith.   It may be the only way to save the Bible.

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Who Will Teach the Songs?

As I sat at the table this morning reading the paper I saw the headline, “Dorothy Cotton, civil rights leader and confidante to Martin Luther King Jr., dies at 88”

Immediately I was transported back in time.

For many years I had heard of the Samuel Proctor Institute sponsored every summer by the Children’s Defense Fund, but as a youth minister it always conflicted with my schedule.  When I moved to Charleston I was looking for a continuing education experience and sign up.

It was more than I ever could have expected.  I found myself sitting with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, hearing their stories.  In the bookstore one afternoon I stood beside Dr. Otis Moss Jr who was flipping through a book, looking at the pictures.

I commented to him, “I look at that book like history, but you look at it like a family album.”  “Yes,” he said, “Sometime with a smile on my face and at other times with a tear on my cheek.”

It was that kind of week!Dorothy Cotton 2

Dr. Dorothy Cotton was leading the music that week.

One day I found myself sitting next to her at lunch.  True confession—I had never heard of Dorothy Cotton.  I did not know who she was, but had gathered that she had been involved in “The Movement” as the veterans called it.

“Dr. Cotton,” I asked between bites of my salad, “What did you do during the Civil Rights Movement?”

Her answer is burned into my memory.

Dorothy Cotton 1“Well, Martin, sent Andy and me to Birmingham.”

(Internal scream!  You are talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Andrew Young, UN Ambassador, Mayor of Atlanta! I was so proud that I kept all that inside and didn’t choke on the lettuce!)

“Well, Martin, sent Andy and me to Birmingham.  Andy’s job was to organize the students.  My job was to teach them the songs.”

My job was to teach them the songs—the songs:

“We Shall Not be Moved,” 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,”

“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,”

“Oh Freedom,”

“Woke Up This Morning with My Mind,”

“We Shall Overcome.”

“My job was to teach them the songs.”

Those songs changed the world!  The story is told that in the dark days of the movement the National Council of Churches sent someone down to see what was going on and how they might respond.  He came back and gave his report.

“It looks bad.  The police are against them.  The state is against the.  Public opinion is against them.  It looks bad!”
“So you think they are going to lose?”
“No, I think they are going to win!”
“What?  You just said that he police are against them, the state is against the, and that public opinion is against them!”
“Yes, but they have a song!”

It was the songs that nourished their souls when their bodies were beaten.  It was the songs that kept the spark of freedom alive when they were in jail.  It was the song that lit the way of hope in the dark dark days.

We need a song today!

In a time where we see children torn away from their parents; when deaths from opioids are the modern day plague; when bullying, misogyny, discrimination seem to be the way to success, we need a song.

We need a song to remind us what is good, of who we are, of who we might be.

We need a song that we all can sing.

But we also need someone to teach us.

Dorothy Cotton did that.

Who will teach us the songs now?

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Memorial Day Rememberance

Monday is my day off, a morning in which I allow myself to read more papers than normal.  On this Memorial Day I found myself captured and moved by an article in the Washington Post by Gus Biggio, “What Happens When a Soldier Dies.”

It seemed a fitting article to read on Memorial Day.

What I did not expect was to be flooded with so many recollections of people in my life.  With each step of the way I have known these people.

When Saving Private Ryan came out in the theaters I asked a member of our church to go with me.  This Marine colonel had known combat in Vietnam, had served in the Pentagon.  I wanted to see it with him so we could discuss it.

When the film began he sat there stoically through those scenes that we all remember—the explosions, the carnage, the death as the troops landed on Normandy.  All that he took in.  But when the scene came, with the car driving through the cornfield to tell Mrs Ryan about the death of her sons, he left the theater. 

For 2 years during Vietnam he had been stationed at Camp Lejeune where he had had the responsibility of informing families.  The fighting scenes, which he described as the closest you can come to war, he could take, but remembering the families….

I know a pilot of C-17’s who had the responsibility of taking equipment to warzones.  She flew into Baghdad, to Falujah, to places we can’t find on a map.  She did it regularly, with great skill and bravery.  She did it so often that the missions are a blur in her memory.

Except one.

coffinsThat was the time she was diverted to Germany to pick up the body of a soldier who had been killed.  She was to deliver his body to Dover.

Another chaplain friend served there, making sure that the bodies were received and treated with respect, that they were clothed correctly, to comfort the families.

I never served in the military.  I was too young for the Vietnam draft.  While I received a nomination for an appointment to the Naval Academy, God and life had other plans.  I do not know what it is like.

CaissonBut I do know that one of the highest honors in my life was the privilege of conducting a funeral at Arlington Memorial Cemetery.  I remember walking behind the caisson, accompanying the soldiers as they carried the casket to the grave; standing there in the sweltering August heat as we paid respect to one who had served our country, hearing Taps, the gun salute.

I am writing this from Canada, where today is Monday.  Just Monday.  Across the US it is the beginning of summer.  People are sleeping late, going to the lake, the beach; maybe recovering from a Sunday of racing!  There are those who don’t know what this day is even about.

It’s Memorial Day.

Maybe we need to remember.

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Post Pentecost Preaching Ponderings

One of the best things that can happen to a preacher is to have someone come up on a Tuesday and say, “I’ve been thinking about your sermon Sunday.”

But does the preacher ever think about it?  I know that rarely happens to me.  I have had the experience of someone asking me on Monday about my sermon and responding, “What did I preach about?”  As soon as Sunday is over I am starting to look seven days ahead—to the next sermon.

Which made this morning interesting.

For some reason a couple lines from my sermon came to mind.  It was Pentecost Sunday and I was talking about how the people gathered in Jerusalem heard the disciples in their own language.  I raised the question:

“Now the question is, were these Galileans suddenly gifted with the ability to speak multiple languages, speaking in tongues so to speak?  Or were those listening suddenly hearing the Galilean spoken in a language they understood?  On one level it really doesn’t matter—everyone understood what was being said—but on another matter it has incredible implications.   Is it the speaker or the hearer that needs to be touched by the spirit?  Who needs the spirit—the preacher?  Or the listener?”

What sparked this sermon was review was the memory of another conversation.  Port Williams United Baptist Church recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the arrival of a family from Syria.  This little congregation sponsored this family, helping them move from the ravages of war to a peaceful Canadian community.

(Just a note.  Last year the US resettled 11 Syrians.  This church resettled 5.  For what it’s worth.)

I would love to say that it was the spirit-filled preaching that I had done.  But I wasn’t here!  I asked a couple of people who were instrumental in bringing this family here a rather simple question, “Why?”  Why did they do this?

Their response: “Why not?”
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One told me that she saw that now horribly iconic picture of the little boy lying on the beach.  She said when she saw it she just knew that something had to be done.  She raised the question to a group at church and discovered that others felt the same way. 

Flash forward a year—the  Al Maziads are here!
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It was not the speaker who was touched by the spirit, but those who saw the images, and heard a call for help.  They responded to the  leading of the spirit with lots of work and prayers and money and compassion.

In a day in which we hear about so many churches struggling, where pastor are feeling the pressure to “do something” perhaps we need to focus just as much on what members are hearing and seeing—not on Sunday morning. 

What does the world need that we can do?

Why shouldn’t we do something?

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Being Friends with Jesus

 

Image result for friends with Jesus

I am working on a sermon for tomorrow on John 15:9-17 where Jesus tells his disciple,

“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

That idea of being friends with Jesus is interesting, because it really turns the way we normally see our relationship with God upside down.  As Frederich Buechner put it,

The love of God. The mercy of God. The judgment of God. You take the shoes off your feet and stand as you would before a mountain or at the edge of the sea. But the friendship of God?

What does it mean to be friends with Jesus?  To give up the vengeful, judgmental Jesus for one who might actually be on our side, hoping for the best in us.  It won’t make the sermon tomorrow, but I am still grappling with Caroline Simon’s idea:

A friend is someone who is on your side, someone who is willing to see the world from your point of view—but not the point of view of your prodigal self, the point of view of your best and truest self.

If Jesus can see us from the point of view of our best and truest self, what might happen if we did that for each other?

Just something I’m pondering as I get ready for worship tomorrow.

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Farewell Remarks to the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

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Yesterday I attended my last “in person” board meeting with the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  I have had the honor of working with this group from the very beginning.  I am now an ’emeritus board member’–meaning the old guy who won’t go away!

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But with our impending move to Nova Scotia I will no longer be able to attend the meetings in person.  Through technology I will be able to occasionally share tidbits of wisdom!  They honored me by having a reception after the board meeting.  During that time, I had a few things I wanted to share.  Here are my remarks.

 

 

SCCTPTP Farewell
Nov 16, 2017

My mentor Hardy Clemons, once told me as I was about to leave Greenville that when you leave there are some things you need to say to people. This is one of those times.  You are some of those people!

I want to thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this wild adventure.  As I began my ministerial career, I had several girls to become pregnant or thought they were.  That was what got me started in learning about the issue of teen pregnancy.  I went to a meeting and next think I know I am the chair of the Caldwell County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council.  Barbara Huberman took pity on this young minister and helped me along the way.

When I went to Greenville I really thought I was through with this issue.  What Baptist minister ever thinks that teen pregnancy is a career advancing issue? But I was invited to another meeting and before I knew what was happening I was the chair of the Greenville Council.

I am rotating off when I am sitting in my office one morning when I get a phone call from a Joy Campbell inviting me to a meeting.  It seemed that the March of Dimes wanted to get everyone concerned about teen pregnancy around the table to see what we could do.

I went.  I think there were 6 of us!

The only person I remember other than Joy was Anne Bageley.  She sat across the table from me, and at one point looked at me and said, “How can you call yourself a Christian, yet alone a minister, and be with them?”  That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship!  That continues to this day!

In my opinion, the meeting was an abject failure.  I went back home saying “Well, that was fun.”  But a few weeks later this Joy Campbell woman called again.  She said, “we are putting together a statewide coalition to address teen pregnancy and I have 2 questions.  1  Will you serve on our board?”  I agreed.  Then she said, the second is would you be the first chair?

That had to go to my boss and the personnel committee.  Both agreed, and then said they would share this with the Reasons.  (In Greenville that was 84 people!) It was presented as information.  But then, from the back of the room someone objected.  It was then Senator Sarah Manly.  A Democrat senator from the upstate.  They had those back then! 

I couldn’t believe that Sarah, of all people, was objecting.  But then she said, “We should not give our permission for Don to do this.  Rather we should endorse it as a part of his ministry because his work with this group will help individuals that will never come into this church.  He will be doing mission work!”

And the deacons unanimously approved.

And that has been the way I have approached my time on the board.  It has been ministry.  And so thank you for allowing me to live out this calling.

It has been an incredible journey, hasn’t it?  As I was cleaning out my office I came across the DHEC statistics from 1993.  That year there were 11,704 estimated pregnancies to teens.  11,704!  Can you think of the lives that have been altered with the annual reduction of 8,000 teen pregnancies?  We need, you need to be really proud of that!

There were 6 of us around that table that day.  Last summer we had over 300 people at the Summer Institute.

Our first office was a closet at the old Carolina Inn, now look at this place!

I could go on and on about the organization, and all we have accomplished.  But what I think I am most appreciative of are the incredible people I have gotten the opportunity to know.  I remember sitting in those early meetings with Cassie Barber, Joanne Emerson, Francis Rushton—and just learning by osmosis.  And what can I say about Murray Vincent?  

To sit in board meetings with so many of you, trying to behave.  I think we passed a motion that Martha Scott Smith and I couldn’t sit beside each other anymore! 

Those individuals who have so ably led this group—Grant, Sue, Melissa, Lica, Judy Davis.  I have learned so much from you. Your gifts, your passion make me hopeful for the future.

And to you the incredible staff.  I know that many times we board members just rush in from time to time, but I want you to know how much we, how much I appreciate your work.  You are the ones who give motion to our movement.  And you follow in the path of so many who have gone before.  Our first intern was Molly Talbot, now Molly Talbot Metz, former board chair, executive with the Mary Black Foundation.  You never know where this experience will lead.  And I want you to know how much I have learned from you, your expertise.  Whether it is watching the way Kim and her cohorts put together the best teen pregnancy conference year after year; wandering down the hall to the Math department asking you to tell me something I don’t know.

I will never forget Shannon Flynn and how she completely upended my thinking in a meeting.

And to the those who have led this organization.  Joy, I don’t know if I can every forgive you, or thank you enough for inviting me on this journey. Susan Boyd sent Gwen and Carol down to Charleston to see if I would be willing to come back on the board.  Wha a risk!

And Forrest—we grew up together. 

And Beth.  You do not know how much this means to me. 

One of my preacher friends called the other week and asked, rather nonchalantly, “How are you with leaving the campaign?”  He knows how much you mean.  But I nonchalantly brushed him off.  Until Kay called and asked about this. 

I just lost it!

There is a passage in the book of Hosea (you get this with a Baptist preacher) where as a rebuke to Israel, he names one of Lo-ammi.  Not my people.  My dearest friends know that you are Ammi.  My people.

Melissa Holmes wrote me a note saying that she couldn’t be here and then ended with, “Canada doesn’t have a problem with teen pregnancy or gun violence. What will you do to get in trouble?”

I am sure I can find something, but if not, I am still an emeritus board member, so I can always get in trouble here.

Thank you. Thank you!  Thank you for all you have meant, and will continue to mean!  I really am looking forward to the adventure ahead for all of us!

The South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is the foremost state organization in the country focused on teen pregnancy prevention.  Over the past 26 years we have seen a 67% reduction in our teen birth rate!  It has been a joy and a privilege to be a part of this group.  I encourage you to be a part–with your financial gifts, with your support of comprehensive age appropriate sex education.  It works!  It makes a difference for all of us!

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Been to the Mountain Top

This Sunday our text is the final scene of Moses life.  Moses and God are atop Pigah where God allows Moses to look into the promised land, the land he has been traveling towards for 40 years.  This is the land he has been leading his people to.  But in one of the most unfair statements in the Bible God tells Moses “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there!”

Been to the Mountaintop!  Those words echo in our minds because they were part of the final sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr, the night before he was killed.  I have been reading that sermon, and am going to use some of it, the part we know on Sunday.  (I hope you will come and hear it! Shameless plug!)

But I was stuck with a part I have never read before.  These are words that speak to us today just as poignantly as they did in April, 1968.

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

I wonder when the church will show as much concern for the street where we live as the street flowing with milk and honey.

Just wondering.

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