“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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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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Don’t Rock the Boat

That is the title for my sermon this week.  And amazingly it is already finished!  You really don’t know HOW rare that is, to be done this early in the week.

It was one of those weeks where reading the text really did change everything!  We know the text as Peter Walking on the Water.  You probably know the story–the disciples are out in the boat when a storm comes up and they are afraid they are going to die, but then Jesus comes walking up.  At least that is how I remembered the story, and that was where the sermon was heading, and that was the “stuff” I was looking for.

BUT….

That isn’t what the story says.  So the sermon went a different direction.  Don’t you hate it when you have a good sermon and then you read the text!  And what am I to do with this wonderful story?

You put it on your Didn’t Make the Sermon Blog!

There is a wonderful Texas story about two little boys whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the henhouse. They looked everywhere for that snake, but couldn’t find it. The more they looked, the more afraid they got. Finally, they stood up on their tiptoes to look on the top nesting shelf and came nose to nose with the snake.

They fell all over themselves and one another running out of the chicken house. “Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mamma asked. “Yes, ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.”

Think about American society. The more fearful we become, the more likely we are to hurt ourselves in the process of protecting ourselves. Trust, civility, freedom are usually among the first casualties of fear. And what about our whole souls?  Fear marks so many human hearts.

Fear does mark so many hearts, doesn’t it?  Even though the most frequent phrase in the Bible is “Fear not!”  we are afraid.  We are afraid…and it limits us.

I know.  I woke up early early early this morning, before the sun had even thought about coming up.  Part of it was physical, but once awake the fear struck.  So I got up and went downstairs to discover this.safe_image

So my prayer today is that I will live my hopes, and not let my fears cause me to hurt myself or others!

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Wisdom from today? No! But For Today!

As the title says, there are some items that I come across that just don’t make the sermon.  They are goo0d, but they just don’t fit.  But they still need to be shared!

Here is one of those I came across last week.  They are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and seem so appropriate for this political season.

15584“Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil.  One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force.  Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes pool, at the least, uncomfortable.  Against folly we have no defense.  Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved—indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. 

So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not make much to make him aggressive.  A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Letters and Papers from Prison.

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My Afternoon at the Mosque

DSCN8308This past week our city, the Holy City, made international news again as a presidential candidate proposed that our nation bar all Muslims from entering for a time.  This in a city that from the very beginning was an open and welcoming place for all faiths—Catholics, Huguenots, Baptists, Jews, and yes even Muslims were all welcomed to Charleston!  It is that freedom that has allowed a vibrant religious conversation to take root.

And yet…

Too often we stay within our little ghettos.  The Catholics play with the Catholics; the Protestants sometime play with he Protestants; the Baptist play with the Baptist that are like them.  Every now and then, when there is a tragedy like the one we experienced when Mother Emanuel was attacked, we might play together.  But normally…

The result is a level of suspicion and fear is allowed to take root.  Because we don’t know each other we can fall victim to the rumors and untruths that swirl around.  “You know Catholics pray to Mary.”  “You know Baptists don’t dance or drink, and handle snakes!”  “You know Muslims are all terrorists!”

IMG_0755

Mayor Elect John Tecklenberg addressed the audience

Add that to our Charlestonian desire to be mannerly, to do things correctly, to not offend, to never make a cultural faux pas—then it is easy to understand why we stay on our side of the rivers, within our faith, within our church, within our own kind.  The result is that we never really know.  We are guided by our fears.  We stay estranged and divided from each other.

IMG_0751

In the aftermath of this week, the Central Mosque of Charleston had a open house on Saturday, inviting the community to come and meet and learn.  It was a courageous move on their part.  they didn’t know how the community would react.  They didn’t know how many would come.

I went with my own set of fears.  I had never been to a mosque before.  How am I suppose to dress? What do I do?  What is I am the only one there?  (I now understand the courage it takes someone to come to our church every week!)  Plus, to be honest, it is not in the greatest location.  It is located at 1082 King Street, far from the where Second Sundy on King will take place!  But because I am Baptists and believe deeply in freedom of religion, I went.  What I discovered was wonderful!

IMG_0745We were greeted warmly by members of the mosque—who cover 29 different countries!  Clear instructions and assistance was given.  The only problem was that there weren’t enough chairs!  What a wonderful problem to have!  Many just sat on the floor as Iman Issa led us through a wonderful introduction to Islam, dispelling many of the rumors that we often hear.

IMG_0750Now I know that there are many who will choose to believe what they hear in the media, from friends and neighbors who know absolutely nothing about Islam, or who have had one bad experience.  I am hoping that I am not judged by what people assume or have experienced of a Baptist minister! 

IMG_0762I am not converting to Islam.  I am a Christian by choice and it is through that lens that I see the world and choose to interpret the world.  But that doesn’t mean that I cannot learn from my Muslim cousins.  (Someone raised a question about that.  Abraham had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac.  Jews and Christians trace our lineage back through Isaac; Muslims trace their lineage back through Ishmael.  Both go back to Father Abraham.  That makes us religious cousins!)

That doesn’t mean that we cannot work together, to minister together, to build community together.  We do that across denominational lines.  We do it across faith lines.  Perhaps it is time to do it across family lines as well.

I encourage you go visit the Central Mosque of Charleston.  I am sure you will receive a warm welcome.  The members are doctors and professors and teachers and children—just like us!  They are a part of our community.  They want to join us in making this truly a Holy City!  I hope we can do that—together!IMG_0753

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A Cause for Celebration and Work

In our microwave-Twitter world it is easy to forget how far we have come.  This morning I was looking through a old notebook and came across some staggering numbers. 

In 1993 there were 11,271 pregnancies to females in SC 15-19.

11,271.

That is nearly 1 out of every 10 female teens 15-19. 

15-17 Year Old Decline.jpgThis week the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy announced that last year there were 4,759 births to females 15-19. 

11,271-4,759=6,512 fewer births to females 15-19.  Since 1992 there have been 48,037 fewer teen births!

Since 1992 SC has witnessed a 54% reduction in the teen birth rate.

The progress SC has made has saved SC taxpayers an estimated $172 million in 2010 alone compared to the costs that would have incurred had the rates not fallen.

But there is still work to do!  There were still 4,759 teen births last year—4,759 too many.  That is why we cannot let up on the progress we have made.  Yet much of it is at risk as Congress seeks to make devastating cuts to programs that have led to much of this success.  Those cuts would eliminate $5 Million dollars that come to SC annually.  Citizens who care about our children, citizens who care about fiscal responsibility need to add their voices to say that we need these programs to continue. 

So we need to take time out of our celebrating to contact our representatives to say that we are only half way there!  We want to continue the progress that we are making in SC and around the country.  For the sake of the budget. For the sake of the children.  For the sake of our nation!

For more information, see the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the National Campaign to Reduce Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies

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