The End of Community?

I ran into a fellow pastor the other day at Starbucks, hard at work.  I figured he was working on his sermon for next week, but instead he was working on his Facebook page.  To be more specific he was working on his list of friends.

blank-facebook-page-layout_699492“I am sorting them into lists, making sure that no one in my congregation sees anything political,” he said.  “Apparently we have some long time members who have decided to leave our church, not because of anything I have said in a sermon, but because of what I have posted on Facebook.  So I am sorting my lists, making sure no one in my church knows who I really am.”

It was a story that I am sure resonates with so many pastors. 

A friend in another city recently told me that she really didn’t want to know what her pastor thought.  “I really don’t want to know how my pastor feels about anything political.  I just want to come to church and hear the gospel.”

This isn’t a new problem.  The lectionary passage this Sunday is from I Corinthians 3, where Paul is bemoaning the fact that the early church had chosen up sides.  Now it just seems that it has gotten worse.  As technology has made it easier for us to form community, it is also dividing us into segments. 

So what does this mean for church, for community? So how is any pastor to preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?” 

As I walked out, I thought about the irony of my pastor friend.  This one who is called to form community is being forced to shut himself off from community in order to preserve community.  Is it even real? Is that what we want to incarnate in the church?  Is that what we have come to?

I wonder if I need to segregate my “friend list?”

 

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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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Wait! Someone was listening?

I will admit it.  Most of the time I wonder if anyone is paying any attention to my sermon.  And I understand why.  Week after week, blah blah blah blah Jesus, blah blah blah God. Amen.  We have heard it all before.  No one is paying any attention. 

But then one morning you are reading your paper and suddenly you see your idea, your thought show up in the national news!  Someone that wasn’t even in worship that morning has obviously caught wind of your idea and now wants to make it national policy!

It happened today!  Well, the sermon was this summer, a sermon about Zacchaeus.  (I will pause for a moment while you sing the song.  Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he….)

Anyway, as a way of explaining who he was, and how he had earned his wealth, I gave this explanation.

And in this place, in this place Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  No, not A tax collector, but the chief tax collector!  It was a job that was the envy of all.  Sure, it meant that he had to conspire with the Romans; it meant that he bore the scorn of all his fellow Jews—but when you are living in one of the nicest homes in the winter capitol you can put up with a lot of scorn!

And it wasn’t like he had done anything wrong.  He had just worked the system the way it was set up!  The Romans had fashioned a system to collect taxes from their far-flung empire.  They appointed a chief tax collector who had the responsibility of sending Rome a certain amount of money each year.  If the revenue got to Rome all was well.  If it didn’t, it was the chief tax collector’s head that was on the line—or chopping block—literally!  All they wanted was the money!  How that was collected was not their concern! 

Imagine for a moment that you had that job, and Columbia said that you needed to send $100,000 this month to the coffers.  How would you do it?  Tax income—you can.  But what if you decided instead to tax every car that crossed a river?  Imagine how much money you would bring in if there was a toll booth before every bridge in Charleston—and it cost just $1.00 to cross—every bridge!  I mean, it’s only a dollar.  Not that much, but after a while, it would start to add up, because remember the fee goes each way!  Every car, every truck, every vehicle crossing a bridge pays $1.00.  How much revenue would that bring in?  This week Brian Hicks reported that there are 55,000 cars that use the Ashley River bridge every day!  Can you do the math?

And remember, you only have to send Columbia $100,000!  And if you can tax a car on the bridges, why not on the roads without bridges?  And why not the boats that come up the rivers?  Do you see the profit in this!

That is how Zacchaeus had gotten rich.  He had added another tax to the people’s burden in order to pad his pocket.  He hadn’t done anything wrong.  He had played by the system; he had worked his way up the ladder; he had succeeded!  He was rich!

12chao-master768Now obviously this wasn’t meant to be government policy!  At least, I didn’t think it was.  So imagine my surprise when I read that yesterday in her nomination hearing to become Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY, suggested that we might want to explore more public-private partnerships as a way of improving our nation’s sagging infrastructure.

Now on it’s face, that looks like a great idea!  Why raise gas taxes when we can drive on the Vulcan Materials Motorway.  (Ms Chao is on the board of Vulcan Materials)  And who could be against the Halliburton Highway?  It is their money that is funding it, right?

Remember that when you pay the toll on the road!

But wait!  It was my idea shared at Providence Baptist!  Maybe we should just but the Providence Baptist Wando Bridge on I-526!  It is the way people from Mt. Pleasant get to church!  We could charge $1.00 for everyone to cross it.  We will give a pass to church members who have made a pledge!  The funds will be used for missions, and good stuff!  It will be a definite membership enhancement!  You don’t have to join to use our bridge.  Just pay $1.00—each way.  Of course, you can always take another route.  And we aren’t doing anything wrong!  It is just the way the rules work.

Maybe I should listen to my sermon!

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A New Coffee Maker

img_5069

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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Haunted by a Paper

It continues to surprise me how a comment in a class, an assignment long ago turned in, can continue to influence—even haunt your thinking. 

img_9930I really should have known better.  I was a second semester senior at Wake Forest.   I was working a horrible job loading freezer trucks just to make ends meet.  I just needed a class—any class—to graduate.  I could have even taken it pass/fail.

But did I do that?  NOO!

Instead I signed up to take Charles Talbert in his specialty class—Luke!  There were only about 8 of us who were that foolish!  We sat around one of those conference tables where you couldn’t hide, even when you were so exhausted that you fell asleep during the lecture.  (Again, I apologize, Dr. Talbert!)

Early in the semester we were given our choice of topics on which to do our major paper.  For a reason that still escapes me, I chose to do “The Kingdom of God in the Writings of Joachim Jeremias.” 

Let’s be honest.  It was a horrible paper!  Horrible!  I apologized when I turned it in—and do so again today!  It was a horrible paper……but it still affects me.  Jeremias basically said that the Kingdom of God is the dominant theme in the preaching of Jesus. 

But what does that mean?

What do we mean when we talk about the Kingdom of God?

I grew up knowing that the Kingdom of God was that realm beyond the Jordan, where we stroll down streets of gold strumming hymns on our harps as we got ready for Celestial Choir Rehearsal.  Entrée into the kingdom came if and when and only if you walked down the aisle at church and prayed the sinners prayer and asked Jesus into your heart.  What happened after that didn’t matter.  Your ticket was stamped and you were in!  the purpose, the calling of the church was to sell as many tickets as possible. 

But Jeremias seemed to be suggesting that perhaps Jesus meant something a bit different from that Celestial Kingdom.  Maybe, he suggested, Jesus was calling us not only to convert individuals but to convert the world.  that is a different way of reading the gospel!  It means that maybe the kingdom isn’t way “off there” but a reality right here among us. 

The old way of thinking about the kingdom is a lot easier.  The responsibility, the burden lies on the preacher, the church, the individual.  They are supposed to preach the gospel of salvation, to hold services that will move a sinner to tears and confession.  It is an individual response whether or not they want to go to heaven or burn for eternity.  The rest of us can rest—after our ticket is punched.

But if the kingdom is something more, if it has as much to do with what is happening now in our world—then that causes a lot more questions. 

Do I believe that I am living in the Kingdom of God?  There are many of us who would say no. (Duh, that is in heaven!) But this life is pretty sweet!  I’m not rich, but I have it pretty good.  Why rock the boat?

Do I really want the Kingdom to come?  Sure, I pray, “thy kingdom come, they will be done..” but do I really want that?  Do I really want, do I really believe that God wants everyone to have enough nourishing food?  Adequate housing?  Healthcare?  Safety?  Or do I really believe that life really is up to individuals and if they don’t have those things it is because they have made bad decisions.  That really isn’t far from Job’s friends—“these things have happened to you because you have sinned.”

Am I willing to be converted to a different way of seeing, of believing?  Am I willing to risk what is for this dream that Jesus seems to be talking about?  It is one thing to trust

The more I listen to the news, the more I see the divisions in our country, in churches, in us, the more I think that horrible paper may just be the issue we are facing.  How do we see the Kingdom of God, and how does it shape who we are, how we live, what we do?  It’s one thing to sing, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” but another thing to really seek it!

I am still haunted by that paper!  Nearly 40 years later I am still struggling with it!

I really should have taken Introduction to Film!

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“Once Upon a Time”… or “It Shall Come to Pass”


IMG_2588This used to be a church.  
This time last year people gathered here on Sundays and Wednesdays to study the Bible, sing hymns, hear a sermon, be church.  But today it is being transformed into a parking lot.  In a couple of years it will be filled with student cars as they make their way into the new East Cooper High School. 

There is so much that could be said about this!  We could sing along with Joni Mitchell about paving paradise and putting up parking lots!  IMG_2592

It would be appropriate!  There was a time when paradise happened in this church—or should we say in these churches.  It has been the site of several.  One moved to a larger facility, but the others…  Well they just morphed from one to another until mismanagement, a congregation hanging on to the past, finances finally caught up.  Now paradise will become a parking lot!

Or we could see this as another sign of what Robert P. Jones talks about in his new book, The End of White Christian America.  We are living in a age of transition.  The old majorities, the old ways of relating, of doing things, of doing church are changing.  The result is a great deal of confusion, anger, grief.  One result is the demise of many once thriving religious communities.  It is estimated that 4,000 churches will close this year.  And where will these people go?  Well, some will migrate to one of the other churches within 2 miles of this site, but other will just become a part of the ever growing “unaffiliated.”  Faith will be seen as something we “used to do.”

Or we could see this as the Spirit of God moving in strange ways.  I am reminded of the old Fred Craddock story of serving as pastor of a church that refused to allow anyone who didn’t own property in that country from becoming a member.  There were many new families moving into apartments nearby, tons of children.  But the church refused to reach out.  Years later he wanted to show that church to his wife, and as he drove up was surprised to see the parking lot full, lots of people milling around.  Then he saw the sign.  It said, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” It was a restaurant! Fred and his wife went inside and the place was packed with all kinds of people—white and black and Hispanic. Rich and poor. Southerners and northerners. Craddock said to his wife, “It’s a good thing this isn’t a church anymore. If it were, these people would not be allowed in.”

It is hard to see it now, as you walk among the bricks and gravel, as you see the signs of what used to be.  But maybe, maybe God is making room for people that the church won’t let in.  Maybe God is going to do church in a different way. 

Even in us.  If we are willing.  IMG_2590

Or not.

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