My friend John Ballenger put me on to this YouTube video about us and our smartphones that makes me think it may be time for a phone fast.
The two-minute video, which has been viewed more than 15 million times, begins with a couple in bed. The woman, played by the comedian and actress Charlene deGuzman, stares silently while her boyfriend pays no mind and checks his smartphone.
The subsequent scenes follow Ms. deGuzman through a day that is downright dystopian: people ignore her as they stare at their phones during lunch, at a concert, while bowling and at a birthday party. (Even the birthday boy is recording the party on his phone.) The clip ends with Ms. deGuzman back in bed with her boyfriend at the end of the day; he is still using his phone.
Ms. deGuzman’s video makes for some discomfiting viewing. It’s a direct hit on our smartphone-obsessed culture, needling us about our addiction to that little screen and suggesting that maybe life is just better led when it is lived rather than viewed (New York Times, September 1, 2013).
So, that’s what I’m planning to do tomorrow. It’s my day off, and I’m going to switch off the little screen, get out there, and live some life. I’m going on a phone fast.
I may tell you how it went afterward, but there won’t be a YouTube video.
After lunch today I’m getting in my car to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
I remember my first meeting.
It was in 1991, shortly after I had been called as pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina. For the ten years I had been a Baptist—and for all the years I was in seminary—the Southern Baptist Convention had been engaged in a bitter conflict between the “moderates” and the “conservatives” where all we seemed to do at our annual meetings was fight over things like the authority of Scripture, the role of women in ministry, and the question of who would control the world’s largest protestant denomination. Long before 1991 I was ready to be done with the fighting. So when I heard that a group of Baptists were meeting in Atlanta to give up the fight and get on with the mission, I was eager to learn more. I drove from Wingate to Atlanta and was there at the Omni with 6,000 other Baptists when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed. On the cover of the program were those words from Isaiah 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” I was ready for a new thing, and when I drove home from Atlanta I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that at last I could quit fighting denominational battles and get on with the work Jesus had called me to do.
22 years later I’ve gotten on with my work, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has gotten on with its work, and the Southern Baptist Convention has gotten on with its work. And, praise be to God, I believe we are all doing good work. Richmond’s First Baptist Church has not aligned itself with either the SBC or the CBF, but it does support missionaries through both entities. From time to time we get to hear some of those missionaries speak and tell us about the work they’re doing around the world. And when I hear them speak I can tell where their hearts are.
To a person, their hearts are in the right place.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is trying to be the presence of Christ in the world; the Southern Baptist Convention is trying reach the world for Christ; Richmond’s First Baptist Church is trying to bring heaven to earth, and part of the way we do it is by supporting SBC and CBF missionaries. The other way we do it, of course, is to roll up our sleeves and go to work right here where we are—as missionaries.
I’m going to leave that job up to you for a few days while I go to Greensboro. I won’t be blogging on Thursday or Friday. But if you’d like to know what’s going on at the General Assembly you can click HERE, and even if you don’t you can say a prayer for the work of all kinds of Baptists all around the world. Pray that it would be the kind of work that would make Jesus proud.
And thank God that the fight—at least, that fight—is over.
It’s Memorial Day, and it looks like a beauty. I just stepped out on the front porch to unfurl my flag and everything was so peaceful and sun-drenched—newspapers still on the front porches, absolute quiet on the street. Even now, as I take the first sips of my morning coffee, all I can hear is the birds singing in the back yard.
Yesterday I witnessed a Memorial Day moment that really was heaven on earth. Henry Kellam III (a member of First Baptist Church) invited me to his home where his father, a WW II veteran, was about to be reunited with an Army buddy he hadn’t seen since the war. Here’s an excerpt from the story that appeared in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.
BY TED STRONG Richmond Times-Dispatch
Two old friends saw one another for the first time in 67 years Sunday.
In late May 1946, as seasoned veterans of the Burma front in World War II, they said goodbye at a New York train station. The pair had met at Army basic training in 1943 and been together, more or less, throughout the war, working on a road through the Asian jungle.
They planned to meet back up, but never did. Over the years, Henry H. Kellam Jr., 88, of Raleigh, N.C., and Preston Van Dyke, 89, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., were in and out of touch.
Kellam moved around before settling in Raleigh, where he worked at a Westinghouse plant for 35 years. Van Dyke became a New Jersey mailman.
The men’s reunion Sunday was arranged by their families, who recently got in touch with each other.
“You should have seen them crying when they first got together,” said Kellam’s son, Henry Kellam III.
Van Dyke was already headed to Staunton to meet a 4-month-old grandson, so the Kellams arranged for Henry Kellam Jr. to travel up from Raleigh, and the two men met at the home of Kellam’s son in Richmond’s Fan District.
“I just thought it would be a nice thing to do for him,” said Trudi Van Dyke-Simms, Van Dyke’s daughter.
The two veterans sat on a porch, had their photos taken, met each other’s families, swapped stories and looked through Kellam’s old scrapbook.
Serving with an engineering unit, the two had been shipped across the U.S. and then across the Pacific. Van Dyke was also with Kellam at the U.S.O. function where Kellam met Thelma Hilbig, his future wife.
In Asia, they worked on the Ledo Road, which led from India across Burma to China, a U.S. ally in the fight against Japan. The road was intended to reduce the need for air supply across the Himalayas to Chinese forces.
Kellam, who ended his service as a technician fifth grade, is quick to say that he was never in combat. He did maintenance on machinery that was building the road and is modest about his contribution.
He recalled volunteering for duty guarding the stockade, because it meant he could get to Calcutta more. He was told to shoot the prisoners if they tried to escape.
“I told them I’d shoot them in the leg, maybe,” he recalled.
It was truly moving to see these old friends together again for the first time in all these years. When I told them I needed to go Henry III asked if I would say a prayer. I did, and as I recall I said something about how reunions like these rarely occur this side of heaven.
But yesterday, this one did.
Pray for the people of Oklahoma today, friends. The headline of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reads: “Massive Tornado Pummels Oklahoma.” The sub-heads carry the grim news that at least 51 people are dead and more than 140 injured; that a school was devastated and children, some dead, were pulled from the debris; that it was a powerful storm—a half-mile wide—packing 200 mph winds.
It’s that image of children being pulled from the debris of a school that gets me. There’s something about their innocence and vulnerability that makes that scene especially tragic. And even though I don’t believe this tornado was God’s judgment on the people of Oklahoma I still want to know why:
Why do children have to suffer?
I was asking that question on Sunday afternoon as I watched a documentary about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Often it is children, some of them very young, who are the victims of traders and traffickers. Little boys forced to work in rock quarries or make bricks day after day in India. Little girls prostituted in brothels in Cambodia and hotel rooms in Richmond. It’s their faces that break your heart.
There is no joy there.
On the table in front of me on Sunday was the face of a boy from Africa. He was up for “adoption” through Compassion International. And even though I might never meet this boy face to face Compassion International assures me that for a little more than a dollar a day he can receive food, clothing, shelter, and education. In other words, he can be rescued from a life of suffering.
I already sponsor a child through Compassion (Yosselin, from Mexico, in the picture above), but on Sunday I thought about sponsoring at least one more. I like what Tony Campolo says, that “every Christian should have a kid’s picture on their refrigerator.” If we did that—all two billion of us around the globe who call ourselves Christians—it would make a difference. And beyond that we could support the work of the International Justice Mission abroad and the Richmond Justice Initiative here at home, both organizations working to set children free from slavery and the sex trade.
There’s not much we can do about tornadoes, but we can do something about this. We can do our best to bring people to justice who trade and traffic in human flesh, and we can give children a chance to live a different kind of life. Our efforts may not make a difference to all the children in the world, but as I look at Yosselin’s picture, above, I’m hoping they will make a difference to her.
Not long ago I had coffee with a church member who put it bluntly: “What do you think about homosexuality?” We had been talking about the recent decision of Ginter Park Baptist Church to ordain an openly gay man and she wanted to know where I stood on the issue.
I was caught a little off guard, so I asked, “What do you think about it?” She said, “I think it’s a sin.”
And that got the conversation started.
I can’t remember everything I said in just the way I said it, but I’ll try to capture the gist of the conversation below, and maybe even add a few thoughts. I said:
“I don’t think it’s a sin to be homosexual, but the Bible is pretty clear about homosexual behavior. It condemns it. But it also condemns a lot of heterosexual behavior, including adultery and fornication.”
I said, “Some people believe that homosexuality is a choice—that people choose to be gay. I suppose that’s possible. We humans are born sinners. We’re capable of almost anything. But in my conversations with gays and lesbians I haven’t talked to anyone who said they chose to be that way. They sometimes ask me, ‘When did you choose to be heterosexual?’
“The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. I didn’t choose to be this way; I discovered it, and, frankly, when I did I was mortified. I couldn’t believe the thoughts I was having about girls. I had always thought of myself as a ‘good Christian boy,’ but the thoughts I was having didn’t seem good or Christian. They seemed sinful, shameful. In those days I underlined long passages from Romans 7 in my big, green Living Bible, including this one: ‘I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway’ (vss. 18-19).
“That described me perfectly.
“I wept over my sin in those days. I prayed over it. I asked God to forgive me. Now imagine if my sinful, shameful thoughts had not been about girls, but about boys? What would I have done then?
“I don’t think homosexuality is a choice; I think it is a discovery. The question, then, is this: if you discover you are homosexual, what do you do with your homosexuality? It’s not that much different than asking, ‘If you discover you are heterosexual, what do you do with your heterosexuality?’ For me it was the biggest challenge to my Christianity, or maybe just the most obvious one. When the preacher talked about sin I would swallow hard and look away. I knew what he was talking about. But at least I had this promise in front of me: that someday I could get married and express my sexuality in a God-honoring way. The church (and the Bible) would bless that union. The minister would tell me I could kiss my bride. My friends and family would throw rice—a symbol of fertility—a subtle way of telling me to ‘get on with it!’
“But again, what if my thoughts back in those teenage years had been about boys and not girls? There would be no promise of future happiness, no hope of expressing my sexuality in a God-honoring way. I would have to do what I did then—suppress my thoughts and feelings as best I could and tearfully beg for God’s forgiveness when I couldn’t—for the rest of my life.
“That doesn’t seem fair, but my commitment to the authority of Scripture won’t allow me to dismiss the Bible’s teaching on homosexual behavior any more than I can dismiss its teaching on heterosexual behavior. The same Bible that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” says, “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
“I have to deal with that.
“But I also have to deal with this: the young man who grew up at First Baptist Church, who went to Sunday school here, who learned to sing, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’—this young man who sits in my study and looks up at me with tears in his eyes, asking, in a trembling voice, ‘Am I an abomination?’
“What do I say to him?”
One of the things that keeps the Kingdom of heaven from coming to Richmond, Virginia, is the old animosity between the races. White people used to buy and sell black people on the auction block in this town. That’s not something you get over right away.
It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but you can sometimes still feel the old guilt and fear and hurt that hangs in the air between the races. If the Kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, we’ve got to clear the air. We’ve got to recognize that we are children of the same Father, and start treating each other like members of the same family.
To that end let me share a story about my father.
I’m planning to drive to West Virginia to see him today because my brother Scott, who lives nearby, thinks he may be down to his last few days. I’m at peace about that, and my dad isn’t in any pain, but because of that he’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I woke up this morning thinking about this story. I think I’ve shared it with you before, but let me share it again in honor of my dad and in the hope of someday achieving true and lasting reconciliation between the races.
I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama. My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.
He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent. The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you? You know what it’s like.” And it’s true. My father had grown up in South Carolina. He probably knew exactly what it was like. But he came anyway. He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizen’s Council. “What is the White Citizen’s Council for, exactly?” my father asked. “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?” And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!”
Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizen’s Council was for. According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies. With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South. Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities. If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that. But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community. He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two. “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”
It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination. According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people. The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it. And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought. He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful. But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ. And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.” And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”
Soon word began to get around in Lowndes County that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher. Church attendance began to fall off. Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store. And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again. One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?” “Didn’t you know?” said the woman. “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”
Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed. He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass. My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?” And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.” But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there. So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.
Things were happier there, and friendlier, too. But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since. How about you? Who shaped your views on this issue?