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Not that far away at all…..

As if we needed any reminder of how small our world has become…

BBC

Last night we were sitting at home when the news of the latest terrorist attack began streaming across our TV.  This time it was a suicide bomber who detonated a bomb as people were leaving an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  The video, the commentary, felt all too familiar.

But why?  Manchester England is far far away, across the ocean.  It was not one of the cities I visited when I was a student.  It wasn’t one of the places we went to when our youth group traveled to Glasgow.  It wasn’t on the itinerary when our family sojourned there one summer.  So it wasn’t a place that should have stirred up emotions.

Except

Manchester was where our daughter and son in law spent a summer.  He was working on a project and she spent her days at a coffee shop writing her first book.  It was where they met some lovely friends who traveled to Charleston for their wedding.  But I doubted very seriously if any of them were at a Monday night pop music concert.

Then I remembered our dear friends Andrew and Julie Henton Pusey.  We had met in Prague during one of my sabbaticals.  He is the pastor of Walworth Road Baptist Church in Hitchen, England.  During our visit we spent a few days with them.  Andrew took us to Cambridge where he had been a student.  He took us punting down the Cam.  Those days are some when we remember fondly!  A few years ago their family came to the States for a summer visit and we had the opportunity to repay the hospitality showing them around, going to the beach, just enjoying each other’s company.

Then came the horrific shootings at Mother Emanuel.  The next candles 5 reflectionmorning I received an email from Andrew, and later that week an announcement that our city would be remembered in their prayers as they lit candles that Sunday.  It was the email that broke my heart.

So this morning I wanted to be like Andrew, to reach out to them to let them know that even though Hitchen is not close to Manchester, I was remembering them in my prayers. 

And then came the reply.  Their daughter, Lizzie, is a student in Manchester.  She was not at the concert, but had friends who were.  They have two more young people from their church in Manchester—one whom not yet been in communication. 

Suddenly Manchester was very very close.  There aren’t that many degrees of separation.

As I texted with Julie, I promised her that she can sleep tonight knowing that we will be praying while she slumbers.  But at some point, I will have to sleep as well.  So if you are in Colorado, in California, Bali, in Australia, in China, or if you just stay up really really late at night—you know who you are—I hope that you will remember my friends who are waiting…..

It is just returning the favor.  It is doing what we do for family!

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A Good Friday Reading

The people who heard me preach during Lent know that as a part of my Lenten discipline not only did I give up french fries, but I took on the challenge of participating in the Cooper River Bridge Run.  I am not a runner, nor do I play one on TV!  This was a major endeavor and one that the congregation seemed to enjoy.

There was another part that didn’t get near the publicity.  Each morning I added a reading to my morning routine from the wonderful little book Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter.  It has been a wonderful addition to my day, often giving me something to ponder, something to store away, something that I wish I had said.

breadandwineIn the later category was a wonderful essay by Morton Kelsey entitled The Cross and the Cellar.  I am not preaching on Good Friday, but if I were, I think I might just “borrow” these words.  Something for us all to consider on this Good Friday.

Let us look at some of the people who brought Jesus of Nazareth to crucifixion.  They were not monsters, but ordinary men and women like you and me. 

Pilate was a coward who cared more about his comfortable position than he did about justice.  Whenever you and I are willing to sacrifice someone else for our own benefit, whenever we don’t have the courage to stand up for what we see is right, we step into the same course that Pilate took.

Caiaphas was a devout and sincerely religious man.  But his essential flaw was that he thought he had the whole truth.  He thought he had to protect God from this man.  Those who put their creeds above mercy and kindness and love, walk in his steps even today.

Judas wanted Jesus to call upon heavenly powers, take control of the situation, and throw the Romans out of Palestine.  When he failed to do this, Judas no longer wanted anything to do with him.  Judas’ fault was that he couldn’t wait.  When we can’t wait and want to push things through, when we think we can accomplish a noble end by human means, we are just like Judas.

These were the things that crucified Jesus on Friday in Passover week A.D. 29.  They were not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate, but the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, indifference – vices all of us share, the very vices which crucify human beings today.

This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves.  This confrontation often leads us to the pit.  The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory is possible if we strive on.

I so find myself in each of these individuals, which is why I really need to find myself at the foot of the cross to remember.

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If I Had Preached…

One of the gifts our congregation gives to their ministers is an occasional sabbatical—a time to get away and rest and recover.  That is what I am doing January-February.  It is a wonderful time to just be, to read books that don’t have anything to do with a sermon, to think about things that I don’t have time to think about during “normal” time.

But these are not normal times.  This past week my daughter texted me wondering if I was glad or relieved that I wasn’t preaching this week.  I said, “Yes.” 

I didn’t preach this week.  Instead I worshipped with the congregation of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham and heard a wonderful sermon from my friend Dorisanne Cooper. 

But the events of this past week, especially with the immigration ban, got me thinking about what I would have said if I had been preaching.  It isn’t complete, but here is what I think I would have said.

The fall of 1978 I had the privilege of studying in London.  During our break a group of us traveled around Europe—Cologne, Munich, Interlaken, Rome.  I left the group to visit some friends who were studying in Venice, but then had the task of making my way across Europe, to London, alone.

Now remember that I am an American, which means I speak English.  Only English.  For several days I had the chore of trying to read menus, find restrooms, get directions.  You can only imagine my relief when I finally boarded the ferry in Calais that would take me across the English Channel to England.

In the words of that famous author, Snoopy, “It was a dark and storm night!”  All night long the ferry was being tossed to and fro making sleep impossible.  To ward off the tossing and turning of my stomach I walked the deck.  It was one of those where even the most sober looked drunk!  It was about 45 minutes from arrival when suddenly, the clouds parted and a full moon was shining on the white cliffs of Dover.  Even now I remember the feeling, that feeling of, If I can just get there!  If I can just get there I will be able to read the signs; I will be able to understand; if I can just get there I will be home!

I was just a student trying to get back to a dorm.  But I have thought about that experience in these days, thinking about those families arriving at JFK airport in New York, just a few feet away from being in their new home, in the United States, the land of freedom where the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to be free,”  What would it be like being that close, and being turned away.

That was the case for countless men and women and children last night as a result of the presidential order issued by President Trump Friday.  Basically the order severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely. It has been met with protest around the country because many have received this as being an anti-Muslim ban.  But it also raises questions for us about what it means to be Baptist, about what it means to be Christian.

You see, if we are Baptist, really Baptist, this is rule that we must reject, oppose, protest.  We must because it goes against the very core of who we are!  It goes against our history, our beginning.

Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts colony by the Puritans for his religious beliefs.  He was driven into the “howling winter” and would have died if not for the hospitality of the native Americans.  Later he bought land from them and established the colony of Rhode Island which he was was a colony for those distressed of conscience, a place where everyone was free to worship, or not worship, in the manner they saw fit. 

At our best that is who Baptists have always been.  We have been the defenders of religious liberty, not only for ourselves but for everyone! Even if their beliefs have run opposite from ours.  We have done so because of our deep belief in soul competency, the right and responsibility of ever person to deal with God.  The government has no right to come between, nor to discriminate against any religion or faith!  That has been the hallmark of Baptists.  It has been the shining American light.

On Friday night that light was dimmed.  How will we respond?  Will we just sit back and say nothing?  Will we be more concerned with who wins the Pro Bowl?  Will we see this as just another political dispute that really doesn’t concern us?  Or will we say that our history, our heritage, who we are as Baptists demand that we reject this discriminatory ruling?  This really is a “Who are we” moment.  We can say nothing, but then integrity demands that we remove the name Baptist from our sign!

It is an important question, an urgent question.  But it isn’t the most important.  The most important question is one of our faith.  Are we going to be followers of Christ? 

The Bible is clear!  “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration.  In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone.”  We claim to be “People of the Book.”  So hear some of what the scripture has to say to us, today!

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10)

“You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3)

“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9)

“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5)

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11)

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

So much of the time we live an easy faith.  We live a nice faith.  We live what has been called moral deism—just be good people, nice people, polite people.  And most of the time, in our nice, polite, Southern Christian culture, that really comes close to passing for Christian.

But there are times….Times when we need to decide who we are; time when we have to decide.  I want to suggest that this is one of those times.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Baptist.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Jesus people.  This is one of those times. 

Last fall Anita and I had the opportunity to visit Boston.  Our last afternoon, totally by accident we stumbled upon the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  It is very simple, just some glass panels over a subway grate where heat and steam push upimg_3253.  On the glass panels are images of the concentration camps.  But what struck me was the inscriptions on the ground—quotes from survivors, ministers, rabbis, historians.  One in particular caught my attention and my soul.  It read, “While most people aided the Nazis or looked the other way, there were some courageous individuals in Germany and throughout Europe who risked their life to save the Jews.”

50 years from now when the Muslim Holocaust memorial is built, where will we stand?  With those who aided the oppressors, or looked the other way?  Or will we counted among the courageous, the faithful, the Baptists?

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A New Coffee Maker

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I’m going to have to get a new coffee maker.

When we got married, the only thing that I said I wanted from any of the wedding showers was a coffee maker that I could program so my coffee was ready when I got up in the morning.  34 years ago that was a novel idea!

Over the years I have worn out several.  When the last one died Anita said that she heard that those that grind the coffee are better, and so that is what we got.  Little did we know that when the grinder started up at 6:10 it sounded like a 747 taking flight!  But the coffee was good!  And I liked it!

But then the grinder quit working.  Missing the sound of the jet engines in the kitchen was dealt with by going back to having ground coffee.  I liked my coffee pot!

But recently a new problem has begun.  The coffee will brew as it is programed to do, but then, it cuts off.  Not a problem if you are downstairs at 6:15 because you can just go over and turn it “On.”  But if you sleep late, say to 6:45 you come downstairs to a tepid cup of coffee.

It isn’t cold, not like those nights when the power has gone out and the coffee was brewed at 12:00 and sat there all night long, but not hot.  In fact, it is just past warm.  It is like the coffee that has sat for 30 minutes and is no longer drinkable, but not really throw-outable!

I wonder if that is what has happened to the faith of the dones.  It isn’t that they don’t have any faith.  It isn’t that they have rejected faith.  It isn’t that they don’t really appreciate it.  It is just that it has become so tepid as to become undrinkable. 

Maybe they are feeling the way Jesus felt when he looked at the church at Laodicea.  “Because you are neither hot nor cold, just tepid, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Maybe we just need a new coffee maker!

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Happy Reformation Day

My guess is that today is not that big a deal in your world.  It is the day after Halloween, the day when we all swear that next year we won’t buy the 20-lb bag of candy because we only have 20 Trick or Treaters and we are left with all that candy to eat. (We can’t let it go to waste!  Just think of all those children who don’t have candy to eat!)

Or maybe you are just counting down the days, hoping to survive the last seven days of this election season that will not end!  (Bad news, I predict that it won’t end on November 9.  Sorry!  But that is for another post.)

Or maybe you are one of those people who know that when the witches and goblins disappear it is time for Santa and his elves to show up; to start listening to Christmas music, to get the tree up and decorated!  (Wal Mart has you beat!) But don’t forget about that Thanksgiving season (too late!)

But today is a BIG DEAL.  At least to us in the church.  At least to those of us in the Protestant church.  At least to those of us who wake up way too early on November 1! 

luther-nailing-theses-560x538It is Reformation Day.  OK, actually it was yesterday, but who can compete with characters from Star Wars?    For you who aren’t Church History Nerds, that is the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.  Just a warning, it was 499 years ago, so get ready to hearing a lot about it this time next year!

It was the act that led to the Protestant Reformation.  It fed into a growing nationalism in Europe with which they are still dealing; it led to a rift in the church that continues to grow.  All this because Martin Luther wanted to start a discussion.  A discussion about indulgences, grace, God and faith.

Confession—until this morning I don’t know if I had ever read Luther’s 95 Theses.  (I am sorry Bill Leonard and Glenn Hinson.  I am sure you assigned it, and I may have read it, but it didn’t find a place in the mental rolodex!)  You too can catch up on that unfinished assignment here!  

Now a few random thoughts:

  • Many of these theses are about indulgences—the medieval church’s stewardship campaign.  I have to wonder if this was Luther’s response to receiving another pledge card, or whether he was just paving the way for those who came after.  Could it be that this is why we never read these in church?
  • Luther’s intention was to start a conversation.  How seldom do we do that in church anymore.  We play it so safe.  We will talk about football, but when was the last time you had a conversation/discussion about Hell, purgatory, or heaven.  Do they even exist in our thought anymore?
  • What would happen in our churches if there was a new “Wittenberg Door” a place where people could post ideas around which they would like to have conversation.  Might that be better then our traditional Sunday School?

What would you post?

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Confessions of a Busy Pastor

There are times when the life comes at you so fast that you just want to run away…but I can’t run that fast.  It overtakes me in ways that just….well there really aren’t any words.

As I was coming back to work on Thursday from lunch I noticed again the light flashing on my dashboard.  “Check Brake Light.”  Truth—it has been on for over a week.  I am going to get around to checking my break light, but it takes so much work!  I have to get someone else to see which light it is, go to the auto parts shop and get the light, unload all he ‘stuff’ in my trunk, figure out how to get the old one out and get the other one in.  I will get around to it.  Sometime.

PhilandoCastileI can do that, because to be honest, I am a middle aged, middle class, white haired, white man.  A break light out is not a life threatening situation.

But as I drove out of the neighborhood there were two young African American teenage boys walking down the street carrying their skateboards.  And my heart broke.

We live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world.

I wanted to stop.  I wanted to get out of my car and just say, “Excuse me, can we talk?  I need your help.  I really want to know how you are.  The news is full of stories about black men being shot for things that don’t even appear on my radar.  I mean, who buys CD’s anymore?  A taillight out?  How are you?  Would you just talk to me, tell me your story, help me understand what it is like to live in your world?”

I wanted to stop, but I had to pick something up so I drove on.  I vowed that if they were there when I came back I would stop…..but …..

And that is how we are.  I live in my world, and they live in theirs, and we never stop to talk, to listen.  I live with my prejudices and they live with their fears and we don’t understand.  So we stay in our cars, in our houses, in our cocoons, in our worlds—while the world falls apart around us.

Somehow I continue to miss that little recurring line in the gospels, “As he went….”  Jesus was always being interrupted by life, only he stopped to listen, to be, to heal.  Maybe my prayer needs to be to stop.

I will.  After I get this finished!

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A Response to Robert Parham

I shared this story in a sermon several weeks ago.

One of my former youth had the opportunity to spend a week after Christmas in Calcutta working with the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s convent.  All week they had worked with the poorest of the poor of that city, learning so much.  On the last night they had the privilege of having a conversation with Mother Teresa.

This was at the height of the Cold War when relations between the US and the former Soviet Union were at their height.  Fear was the mood of the world.  So as they were about to conclude, one student asked this great saint, “Mother Teresa, what are you doing to eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation?” 

Her response surprised them all.  “Nothing.  I have been called to care for the sick and dying of Calcutta.  You go and save the world from nuclear destruction.  Perhaps that is your calling.”

I remembered it as I read Robert Parham’s column in the aftermath of the recent General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  For a decade and a half CBF has operated under a discriminatory hiring policy that was created in an atmosphere of fear.  (Bob Setzer tells the story well. ) It was a policy that was created to protect rather than progress; created in fear rather than faith; created for exclusion rather than inclusion.  For 15 years it has hung around our neck, and it is strangling us. 

But this year steps were taken to at least talk about moving forward.  “The Illumination Project” was announced to give us an opportunity to at least recognize that the world has changed, and if we are going to move forward our policies have to as well.

Yet it seems that Robert Parham, the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, does not believe we are capable of having this conversation.  He asked, “Why prioritize the LBGTQ issue given the multitude of issues that need addressing and around which consensus exists?  Why is there the need for such a project now?”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that he believes that this conversation will detract us from some of the other wonderful ministries that we witnessed at the General Assembly—the work of the Baptist Joint Committee, students training for ministry in a network of seminaries and divinity schools, missions in places that we would be hard pressed to find on a map with people and languages that we could not identify.  We heard about work that is being done to eliminate predatory lending that feeds on the weakest among us.  We heard about ministries in hospitals, and with our military.  We heard a call to reach past the color of our skin to do the work of the kingdom.  All of these are important!  All of these are needed!

But so is this conversation!

It may not be one that Robert feels calls to participate in.  But that doesn’t mean that there are not others who have heard that specific call, and to say that their calling is unnecessary, to insinuate that it is less important, that it can wait….

Such a stance is the height of arrogance that say he alone knows what is needed.  It demeans the ability of free and faithful Baptist to do more than one thing well.  It fails the “Mother Teresa Test.”

The Illumination Project may not be your calling, Robert.  But for God’s sake, for the future’s sake, for the sake of all those for whom this is their life’s calling, do not demean it!  This project asks for everyone’s compassion, wisdom, and voice.

Even yours!

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