Again?

ShootingThere has been another tragic shooting in America. The headlines read: “Gunfire, then Chaos”; “Rampage at Washington Navy Yard”; “Gunman fires from balcony, killing 12, before dying in battle with police”; “Accused assailant, a former Navy reservist, said to have had anger problems.”

I read those headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, but a half-hour earlier I read this brief article in the Christian Century:

Scared of America

Following the killing of an Australian man studying in Oklahoma, Tim Fischer, the former deputy prime minister of Australia, suggested that Australians should avoid traveling to the United States. “Yes, people [who] are thinking of going to the USA on business, vacation, trips, should think carefully about it given the statistical facts you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita per million people,” Fischer said. He had championed gun control reforms in Australia nearly two decades ago. Gun control laws have virtually eliminated firearms crimes in Australia (CNN.com, August 20).

I know that gun control is a political hornet’s nest. I know that mentioning it in a blog post is an invitation to every reader with an opinion to post a comment (and believe me, there is no shortage of opinion on this issue). But if there is such a thing as an objective observer, would that person not ask why? Why is it that firearms crimes in Australia have been virtually eliminated? And why is it that I greet the news of another tragic shooting in America with a single word:

Again?

KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 160

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1850s_jpgOne 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?

Must Death Have the Last Word?

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have not only shaken the world, they’ve shaken a lot of people’s faith.  “How could a good and loving God allow such a thing to happen?” they ask.  It’s the oldest question in the theology book, and if there were an easy answer it would have been answered a long time ago. 

Some people answer it by saying there isn’t a good and loving God, and the devastation in Japan is evidence.  Some say God is good but not very powerful, and therefore not able to prevent such things.  Others say God is powerful but not very good, and therefore not interested in preventing them.  Christian theology, for the most part, has simply acknowledged the tension: God is all-loving; God is all-powerful; terrible things happen.

Maybe it would help to look at that word terrible.  We think it’s terrible that so many people died in this recent tragedy, but the truth is that everything in this world is finite.  Nothing lasts forever, and especially not something as frail and vulnerable as human beings.  So, it’s not a question of whether we are going to die, but only when and how

You could make a long list of all the possible whens and hows, but with the possible exception of dying in your sleep in extreme old age, none of the options is all that attractive.  And yet this is precisely the point at which we start shaking our fists at the sky.  “Why, God!  Why did  this person have to die at [choose one from Column A] from [choose one from Column B] ?”  The when and how often seem irreconcilable with the notion of a good and loving God.

But suppose a good and loving God is spending his time on that other question, not the when  or how but the whether.  And suppose it’s not the question of whether we will die that he is working on, but the question of whether or not death will have the last word.  The answer to that question is the gospel itself, and the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Maybe you could keep that in mind next time you read the obituaries, when you see all those people smiling up at you from the newspaper and read all those stories about when and how they died.  Maybe you could cling to the truth that  this is not the end of their story, nor will death have the last word.

Fear Itself

In recognition of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, I wanted to post an excerpt from the sermon I preached on the Sunday just after.  Reading through it again reminded me what it was like to look out the window of my office at First Baptist, DC, on that day and see smoke rising from the Pentagon on the other side of the river.  It was terrifying.  By the time I wrote the sermon a few days later I was grappling with the deeper issues of what fear does to us as a people and called the sermon “Fear Itself.”

Nine years later I’m distressed by how our lives, policies, and public discourse continue to be shaped by fear, and how a terrorist attack orchestrated by a few Muslim extremists has resulted in something called “Islamophobia,” where we regard the entire Muslim world with suspicion.  Maybe in reading through this excerpt you will be led to reconsider your own relationship to fear, your relationship to God, and the way one can cancel out the other.

—————————————————–

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t speaking on Tuesday morning of last week, when hijacked airliners were bearing down on New York and Washington at full throttle.  He wasn’t one of the 266 passengers or crew aboard those doomed planes, or any of the thousands in the World Trade Center who would soon be praying for their lives.  When he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he didn’t know what we know.  In the past few days we have come to believe that there is plenty to fear, and if the truth be told many of us are still afraid.

You know the facts: 

At about 8:45 a.m. on September 11 an airplane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  We thought it was an accident:  a malfunction in a navigational computer that had resulted in the unthinkable.  But then, twenty minutes later and while many of us were watching it live on television, a second airplane slammed into the South Tower, erupting in a ball of flame.  At that moment we realized it couldn’t be an accident.  We realized that this was a deliberate act of aggression, an attack on the United States.  Thirty-five minutes later we heard that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just across the river, and then the rumors began to fly.  The telephone in my office rang with a report that smoke was pouring out of the Old Executive Office Building.  In the hallway someone said that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department.  One of the teachers in our Child Development Center asked, “Is it true that the Washington Monument is . . . gone?”  It seemed that the whole city, the whole nation, was under violent attack. 

When things got a little quieter we opened the church to those who might want to pray and watched as streams of people headed up 16th Street from downtown.  Traffic was snarled, the Metro was jammed, and so they walked.  Some stopped in to say a brief prayer but most of them hurried by with their heads down, determined to get home to their families and to get away from the threat of danger.  By 3:00 Washington looked like a ghost town.  We closed the doors and started home on empty streets, in eerie silence.

In the days since then we have been trying to assess the damage, both physical and emotional.  We know that the Pentagon has a gaping hole in its side and the World Trade Center is gone forever.  We know that thousands of people have died in this attack, most of them horribly.  And we know that we feel shaky and scared, straining our ears for the sounds of airplanes, jumping at every strange or sudden noise. 

It is an evil thing that has happened, and it is a particular kind of evil.

Theologians speak of the suffering that human beings experience as a result of earthquake, famine, fire, and flood as natural evil.  The other kind, which Daniel Migliore describes as “the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit,” is called moral evil.[i]  The evil we have experienced in this attack on America is of that latter, darker kind.  It has been inflicted upon us.  As much as we might suffer from natural evil this other kind of evil is worse, because it comes not from the violent yet innocent forces of nature, but from the evil intentions of the human heart.

Some people have asked me how God could allow such a thing to happen.  Why did he not divert those planes at the last moment?  It is the same sort of question people ask when a hurricane pounds the coast but the answer is different.  In cases such as those we say that we live in a world where hurricanes happen, and that sometimes populated coastlines get in the way.  It doesn’t mean that the hurricane itself is evil but only that the meeting between high winds and fragile buildings can produce tragic results.  Houses can be flattened.  Lives can be lost.  When people ask why God didn’t divert the hurricane God might well ask why they built their houses in its path. 

But in cases like this one from last Tuesday we have to say that we live in a world where God has given people freedom.  The same freedom that allows us to choose God and serve God allows others to hijack planes and bring down buildings.  The freedom itself is good.  The use some make of that freedom is evil.  So, why didn’t God intervene?  Why didn’t God divert those airplanes and save those lives?  Because freedom itself was at stake, and God cannot take away our freedom to choose evil without also taking away our freedom to choose good.  He would end up with a world of grinning puppets, dancing dumbly at the end of their strings, capable of neither love nor hate.  God doesn’t want children like that any more than you do.  And so—like a mother who sobs as her son is convicted of murder—he watches buildings collapse while his own heart breaks, and wraps his arms around a broken nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but he wasn’t talking about what happened last Tuesday.  He wasn’t talking about what happens when people use their God-given freedom to rain down horror on others.  And yet there is a sense in which he was right.  Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear but it is the most formidable of the weapons that have been turned against us in recent days.  While a terrorist might use an airplane or a bomb to accomplish his purpose, his purpose, ultimately, is to terrify, to bring a nation to its knees by means of fear itself.   And to the extent that we are terrified, he has succeeded.

I don’t know who is behind last Tuesday’s attacks, but I picture him rubbing his hands together, cackling with glee, hoping you and I will become too afraid to function.  He wants us to tremble with fear every time an airplane passes overhead.  He wants us to jump at every strange or sudden noise we hear.  He wants to bring us to that place where we will not go to work in the morning or send our children to school.  That is why I doubt that the attack on America is over.  The nature of terrorism is to keep us off balance, to make us think that death could be waiting for us around the next corner or behind the next tree.  The goal of terrorism is to overthrow a nation by paralyzing its people with fear.  When we reach that point the terrorist has won and I, for one, don’t intend to give him that satisfaction. 

I refuse to be afraid.

The writer of Psalm 23 claims that even as he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil.  Not natural evil.  Not moral evil.  Why?  Because God is with him.  In these familiar, well-worn words we have the antidote to fear.  God’s presence is what will make it possible for us to walk through this shadowy valley without being afraid.  That doesn’t mean we won’t listen for the sound of airplanes passing overhead.  It doesn’t mean we won’t jump when we hear a strange of sudden noise.  It only means that we will hold tight to God’s hand and go on with our lives—that we will refuse to be afraid.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


[i] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 101.

Nothing to Be Afraid of

I thought I had said everything about baptism and membership that could be said, but here’s one more thing: 

I’m realizing the role fear plays in this decision. 

Fear, as in fear of the unknown, as in, “What will happen if we let Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them?  Will we end up with a church full of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians?” 

And this is where I recognize that I have an advantage over so many at First Baptist, because I’ve been a member of a Baptist church with an open membership policy.  In fact, I’ve been a member of five such churches, and all of them had made the decision long before I arrived on the scene.  Before coming to Richmond I had never experienced closed membership, and that’s why it was such a shock to my system (in the same way it has been shocking to some people to suggest that we change our membership policy). 

The fear of the unknown often leads us to imagine the worst.  When this church was trying to decide what to do with two Nigerian students who presented themselves for membership back in 1965 weren’t there some who feared that if we let these two in the church would soon be “overrun with negroes”?  That didn’t happen.  And when we decided to ordain women as deacons and ministers a decade later weren’t there some who feared that soon all our deacons, and all our ministers, would be women?  That didn’t happen either.  As for those who think that if we open our doors to Christians from other denominations “we might as well take the name ‘Baptist’ off the building,” I beg to differ.  I’ve been in churches like that.  In fact, I’m thinking of the first church I served as pastor, the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Kentucky, where: 

  • We had a men’s quartet—the “Gospel Echoes”—led by the rambunctious piano-playing math teacher at the local high school.
  • We had an active Woman’s Missionary Union that kept us up to date on Southern Baptist mission activity and led us to pray for missionaries and support them through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings.
  • We had church business meetings, just after the monthly potluck luncheon, where every committee chairman brought a report.
  • We held an annual revival and the deacons picked the evangelist.
  • We sang hymns like “Power in the Blood” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
  • We taught Sunday School from the Baptist Sunday School Board quarterlies.
  • We had Vacation Bible School, and kids from all the other churches in town came.
  • We sometimes had visits from “real live” missionaries who displayed trinkets from exotic countries, dressed in native dress, spoke the native language, and showed slides from the countries they had served.
  • I attended the monthly meetings of the Henry County Baptist Association.
  • I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • I baptized believers by immersion.

Oh, and there were a few other things:

  • We used the lectionary.
  • We had women deacons.
  • We had an open membership policy.

When I think of that church I cannot imagine how we could have been any more Baptist, and so I’m not afraid that if we change our membership policy here we will suddenly—overnight—turn into Lutherans.  But I realize I have an advantage over most of the members of First Baptist:  I’ve experienced open membership, and I know…

…there’s nothing to be afraid of.