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Archive for February, 2010

I’ve been preaching at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this week, a different sermon every day, and I find that between that and my regular duties blogging has fallen off the to-do list.  Let me share a paragraph from my St. Paul’s preaching, just so you can get a feel for what I’ve been up to:

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Yesterday I told the story of the time my daughter and I built a sandcastle too close to the ocean, and how we were surprised when the first wave lapped up against the walls.  That story was a metaphor of the way the rising tide of a changing culture is threatening the institutional church.  And in the same way my daughter said, “Daddy, do something!” churches seem to want their leaders to do something to save the institution, to reverse the flow of culture, to make it 1955 again.  My daughter and I did what we could to save our sandcastle: we built a huge floodwall and dug a moat.  We joined hands, faced the water, and said, “Go away waves!”  But there was a whole ocean out there, and the tide was coming in.  In the end our beautiful castle crumbled and the waves washed it away.  My daughter looked up at me and said, “Now what?” and I said, “Let’s go swimming.”  That’s what I want to talk about today, about how to stop building floodwalls and digging moats around our churches, about how to stop joining hands and telling the rising tide of culture to “go away.” I want to talk about how to wade out into the world God loves and learn how to swim.

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More later.  Thanks for your patience.

Jim

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I appreciated Wade Burleson’s comments on the recent appoinment of Ken Starr as the new president of Baylor University.  Even though he is a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, some people don’t think Starr is “Baptist enough” for the appointment.  It brought to mind our ongoing conversation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church about receiving members from other denominations who have not been baptized as believers by immersion.  Are they Baptist enough to be members?  Is Ken Starr Baptist enough to be president of Baylor?  I’ve attached Wade’s thoughts on the subject below.  I hope you will appreciate them as much as I did.

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It seems that the Ken Starr is a down to earth, conservative evangelical Christian with a brilliant mind and some pretty powerful connections throughout the United States. Unlike the media’s portrayal of Ken Starr during the Clinton era, Ken is no conservative ideologue. He has a legal mind second to none. He has demonstrated an ability to raise enormous amounts of money at Pepperdine, and the students and faculty love him. [My friend Brooks Douglass, a Southern Baptist "missionary kid" and former Oklahoma Senator] told me that two current United States Supreme Court justices had clerked for Starr, and if it had not been for the Lewinsky debacle, Ken Starr would be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court today. Brooks said Ken Starr’s Christian values, established connections, and track record of superb leadership makes Ken Starr a five star hire by Baylor University. I was pleased to hear such a strong recommendation from a man I respect.

Then I begin to read the blogs of Southern Baptist religious ideologues about Ken Starr’s hiring at Baylor. Most of them are not happy. Why?

Ken Starr is not Baptist enough. Though Ken and his wife are devoted followers of Jesus Christ, that is not enough. Though he and Alice were longtime members of McLean Bible Church, a conservative evangelical church in Washington, D.C.– that still isn’t enough. The fact that he has been baptized upon his profession of faith in Jesus Christ isn’t enough, for he hasn’t been “baptized in a Baptist church.” The fact that he will be “joining” a Baptist church upon arrival in Waco doesn’t quite cut the mustard either. That’s just a “farce,” according to Bart Barber, a trustee and employee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ken Starr is not a true, blue-blood Baptist. He shouldn’t be President of Baylor University because being a Baptist is more important than being a Christian. {Edit: Bart Barber says that I have misunderstood the point of his blog. He writes in his post: “If you will no longer require that your presiding officers (at Baylor) actually BE Baptists, please stop coercing them into joining Baptist churches.” I freely admit not always comprehending things correctly, and apologize to Bart if I have misunderstood he was inferring Ken Starr wasn’t Baptist enough to be an approprate choice for the office of President of Baylor University.}

Listen to this quote from a Southern Baptist pastor named David Worley:

“Sooooooo, I wonder what (Baptist) Church might receive Starr and his wife without requiring them to be baptised first? Or, will they both willingly get baptised (sic) in this Baptist Church? Interesting, huh?”

That kind of thinking reminds me of the trustees at the IMB who said they would rather pay thousands of dollars to fly a Southern Baptist pastor from the United States to China to baptize a convert than to allow a SBC missionary who was not “properly credentialed” to perform it.

I think that we Southern Baptists, unfortunately, are becoming more and more known for being Southern Baptists than devoted followers of Jesus Christ. When we are more concerned about the President of Baylor University being baptized in baptist waters than we are the spiritual condition and maturity of the man who takes the office, then we have sacrificed our “Christian” heritage on the alter of religious ideology. Soon, there will be little difference between the ritualism of us Southern Baptists and that of Mormons who must baptize in special places, wearing special underwear, at the hands of a special under… er, well, you get the idea.

Take it from a person with the same last name as the first President of Baylor University in Waco, Texas–Ken Starr is a great hire.

In His Grace,

Wade Burleson

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Click HERE to read Wade’s post in context on his blog.

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Here’s an essay by Wallace Adams-Riley (Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and my regular running buddy) published in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.  In it Wallace provides some valuable insight into the seasons of the Christian year, and especially the traditions of Ash Wednesday, which was  observed yesterday by churches around the world.

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Late last fall, my family and I moved to Richmond from Florida and, at my wife’s suggestion, I bought an overcoat for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but she, a Vermonter, told me I would. Only a couple of months later, I was glad I had listened to my wise wife.

We had lived in Florida for only five years, and yet I was amazed at how much I had lost touch, in that short time, with what it was like to live somewhere with actual seasons; first the colors of autumn’s leaves; then the wind chill and snow (or snows) of midwinter; and then, mercifully, the tantalizing first hints of spring, with the delicate green beginnings of budding and leafing, the steady and unmistakable uptick in the bird population and, as noticeably as anything, the exponential increase in birdsong.

I’ll always remember walking through the Fan last spring, with my mouth practi cally agape at how the robins, finches, and sparrows filled the trees and all the air around with their ever expansive, ebullient song.

To be conscious of the seasons is elemental, one of those things most essential to being alive. Therefore, it should be no surprise that since time immemorial, and long before the major world religions were born, human beings have looked to the seasons as primary metaphors for the human experience — and, in particular, the human experience of the Divine.

When, in time, Christianity emerged, it was only natural for Christians to follow that same essential pattern as well. Over the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christians worked out a year-round calendar of feast days and fast days to commemorate the life and teachings of Jesus; and they arranged the architecture of the church year to maximize the metaphorical potential of the annual seasons.

For example, the Church situated the annual celebration of Christ’s birth in the very depths of winter, when the days are shortest and the world is darkest, thereby co-opting the entire natural world into the symbolism of the “light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And so it is with Lent and the approach to Easter, that moment in the Church’s calendar we now enter. The natural, seasonal dynamics of death and rebirth, winter turning to spring, become a grand metaphor for the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. As with Christ’s birth in midwinter, so with his rebirth in the spring, the natural world joins in the annual remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection.

Indeed, the word “Lent” itself comes from the Old English lencten, used to describe the lengthening of days that marks the coming of spring. And, in the Church’s calendar, by dependable calculation (the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox), Easter always falls in spring. In fact, the word “Easter” was originally the name of a pre-Christian spring goddess.

That the Church takes such care to draw the whole natural world into the act of remembrance and the experience of worship is nothing less than sacramental. The sky, and the trees, and the birds, and the day and the night, like water and bread and wine, all become, as we say of sacraments, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” signs of what God would do and is doing in our lives and in our world. For a faith which holds that, in the name of love, God took on the earthly stuff of flesh and blood, this correspondence is only natural.

Today, as the sign of the Cross is made on countless foreheads, with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that, as divine as any faith may aspire to be, it is where that faith meets the lived experience of humanity that true colors are shown. Ash Wednesday is a day when we are especially aware of our creatureliness and mortality; and it begins a season of reflection and prayer, of rethinking and re-examining; a season to prepare for a change, a transformation, even a rebirth.

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When I was in my early teens my family and I stayed overnight with a couple in Huntington, West Virginia, who had four daughters, roughly the ages of the Somerville boys.  I developed a huge crush on one of them, Mary Scott, and when I woke up the next morning in an upstairs room I breathed on the window and traced our initials on the glass with one finger: “J.S. + M.S.K.”  That was as close as I came to professing my love for her.

But a few years later she arrived on the campus of the same college I was attending.  I was a sophomore, she was a freshman, and if anything she was even more beautiful than I remembered.  I knocked on her door one evening and told her the story of how I had written our initials on the window of that upstairs room, hoping that she would say, “Really?  I had a crush on you, too!”  But she didn’t.  She didn’t seem to remember that visit, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t remember me.  She started dating the goalie on the soccer team and I swallowed my disappointment and moved on.

Eventually we got to be friends, so that when I got a letter from her mother last year (who lives near Richmond, heard one of my sermons, and wrote asking if I still remembered her family), I was able to say, “Please tell Mary Scott hello.”  She did, and Mary Scott said “hello” right back. 

Her mother and I have corresponded a couple of times since then, and so I wasn’t surprised to get an envelope yesterday with her return address in the upper left hand corner.  What surprised me was the news inside: Mary Scott had died in a snowboarding accident in Colorado. 

It’s not the first time one of my peers has died, but it’s the first time it’s happened to someone I once had a crush on.  It feels different, somehow.  I think back to those initials on the glass and wonder, “Is that how it is?  Do people’s lives evaporate like those letters did?  Is that the end of Mary Scott?”  But then I remember those lines from Isaiah 49, where God says to his people: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:15-16a).  I picture those initials—”M.S.K.”—written on God’s palm forever, and I breathe a sigh of relief.  Because I know that Mary Scott was also one of God’s people.

And I know that she’s going to be OK.

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I just read this column on the Associated Baptist Press website and wanted to pass it along to my readers.  It’s by Carra Hughes Greer, Minister to families with youth at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, GA.  She titled her column: “Why 20- and 30-year-olds are leaving the Baptist church.”

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(ABP) — Many 20- and 30-year-olds share a distaste toward Baptist churches. As a young minister, I believe my peers need the community and nurturing of a church. I hope the church will hear the cries of these young Christ-followers and see the value, the vision and the deep compassion they possess.  

Young adults decide not to attend church for a number of reasons, but there is a particular trend among 20- and 30-year-olds that pertains to local Baptist churches.

The split of the Southern Baptist Convention caused many young Christ-followers to be very disillusioned with the church at an early age, but that isn’t solely to blame. There are more compelling reasons keeping 20- and 30-year-olds at an arm’s distance from the church.

There are two types of Baptist churches which young Christ-followers are familiar with — and disinterested in — the “harsh church” and the “watered-down church.”

The harsh church isolates itself from other denominations. Its voice is brash, critical and cold to the changing culture. This church has leaders who speak with loud voices, not just in decibels, but to the media and government in protest against issues regarding school curriculum, the health-care system, marriage or churches with female pastors.

Young Christ-followers hesitate to be associated with a group of Baptists labeled as “crazy” by society for making outrageous statements such as declaring that the cause of Haiti’s earthquake was the result of a pact they made with the devil or that the Sept. 11 attacks were brought on by feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. Why would anyone want to join a community of “believers” that seems hateful and compassionless?

In contrast, the watered-down church is unappealing because of its prophetic muteness. More concerned with institutional preservation, this church avoids stepping on theological or ideological toes.

Young Christ-followers want to hear the church discuss and dialogue about homosexuality, social justice issues, women in ministry, poverty, environmental concerns, human rights issues, health-care issues, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, orphans in China, monks in Burma, etc. They are eager to have open, honest, almost jaw-dropping, conversations balancing current issues with their faith.

Instead of church politics, they want churches to become missional. They understand the institutional church but desire the simplicity of the early church. They grow weary of time and money spent maintaining the large church grounds, renovating empty Sunday school rooms, installing the latest technology and managing growing numbers of committees. When the church becomes too distracted to be a church on mission, young Christ-followers focus on serving through a para-church or nonprofit organization that is directly meeting the needs of others.

So, what can our churches do to reach out to young Christ-followers?

First, churches have to be willing to open their doors to a new generation of Christ-followers and understand they do things differently. This new generation thinks, communicates, tithes and serves differently. It is guarded when it comes to trusting authority, so it is crucial that leadership within the church be transparent with them. This group is searching for authentic faith, authentic leadership and authentic ministry.

Churches must also practice what we preach. If we tell these 20- and 30-year-olds we are open to dialogue about social issues, the environment, etc., then we must actually talk about these issues in our Sunday school classes, Bible studies and sermons. Watering down the gospel or avoiding issues altogether only causes bigger rifts in the relationship between the church and young Christ-followers.

Third, our churches must begin to reflect our changing communities. The ministerial staff must diversify to include people of all ages, races and genders as leaders. With a diverse staff, the church will begin to experience things through others’ eyes and more voices will be represented from the pulpit. Young Christ-followers will feel accepted as part of the congregation if they see faces just like their own doing things like preaching, teaching, leading, reading and serving.

Finally, all preconceived notions of these young Christ-followers must be thrown out. Not all of them expect loud, Christian rock music, want to wear torn jeans and a T-shirt to church, seek a coffee bar in the worship space or the biggest and brightest LCD screens. Many of the stereotypes our churches have concocted of young Christ-followers are false or at least skewed. 

There is a lot at stake. For older generations, it can be painful to recognize that the institution they worked so hard to establish, buildings they worked diligently and gave sacrificially to pay for, and familiar traditions are of waning importance to young Christ-followers. Instead, the mission and service of the church ranks as highest priority.

For younger generations, what’s at stake is our ability to find ways to relate, engage and work side-by-side with older generations finding common ground on issues of social justice, faith development, worship experiences, etc.

Contrary to what some Baptist churches believe, young Christ-followers are not pagans running from God into the arms of another religion. They simply desire to be heard and understood for who they really are and for their vision of the future of Baptist churches.

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