Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Easter Reflection

by Rev. Laura Barclay

As Easter approaches this year, the topic of consumerism has been on my mind. It wasn’t until a recent Saturday morning when my spouse and I were watching television. A commercial appeared with a cartoon Barbie swimming around in the ocean. The announcer said something about how the story of Barbie achieving her dream of being a human would make a great Easter gift. Really? A cartoon based on a plastic doll that has dangerously unbelievable body proportions and may encourage poor self-esteem in our youth is the perfect Easter gift?

I began to notice some of my divinity school friends on Facebook complaining that they couldn’t find anything Easter-related in stores that didn’t have to do with an bunny or an egg, fertility symbols from a pagan holiday that Christians co-opted many centuries ago (similar to the Christian co-optation of the Roman festival Saturnalia into Christmas). One particular children’s minister was looking for cutouts of figures from the Easter story and was met with a sea of candy, baskets, and plastic grass.

The reality is that we are living in a culture that is becoming more and more secular by the day. Some aspects of this are great—public schools, separation of church and state, freedom of conscience—and some are more challenging—consumerism and competing values. Businesses in a capitalist economy know that cut-outs of the Easter story won’t sell like candy or Barbie, so they bombard us with images that allow us to forget the less palatable story of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

I’m a realist. I know that teaching our children and ourselves the story of Jesus amid the barrage of competing ad campaigns is more difficult than in recent history. However, I think the resulting questions, reflection, and faith is more genuine and more committed than it was when everyone claimed to be a Christian, whether they really wanted to be or not. Not so many decades ago, you had to be a Christian to get elected in most districts, to succeed in most social circles, and to fit in most places. Now, in the post-modern marketplace of ideas, most of us that choose to follow Christ do so because we really feel led, not because of peer pressure. We have the freedom to ask questions and deepen our faith in a way that the rigidity of the all-or-nothing modern world didn’t allow. So, while we are losing the ability to find Christian products in every store, we have gained a new way of thinking about our faith.

As we approach the cross, what ways have we carved out of our life to renew our faith as followers of Jesus? How do we reflect on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday? How does the Easter story relate to us today? What does Jesus ask of us as Christians? What crosses do we see in our community that we should take up? Asking ourselves these questions can help center us and focus us on the path of Christ when so many images threaten to distract us.

I wish you a prayerful and reflective Holy Week.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Theology at Bob Evans

by Rev. Dr. Dennis Hill

Each week I meet with a group of pastors at Bob Evans. Our conversation is much stronger and rich than their good mellow coffee. In fact, we usually drink deeply from the well of our theology and faith. Given the good rapport we share, we do not hesitate to challenge, disagree, and even laugh at one another, as we quote scripture, our teachers and good books. This week someone asked, “Speaking of the evil that causes us to be silent in the presence of evil, who was it that said, ‘when they came for the Jews, and the Communists, I remained silent; because I wasn't a Jew or a Communist. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.’” Several said, “It was Martin Neimoller, the Lutherine pastor during Hitler’s reign.”

The conversation continued, “Why was it that German Christians allowed Hitler to take over?” “The Nazis took over Germany while many Christians were silent, for the same reason that we are sipping coffee here and not out in the world confronting the evil forces of our own day!” “It is unpopular to stand against the majority, and it is often very expensive.” “It doesn’t take much to stir-up a tempest, if you identify commonly accepted ways of thinking as inspired by the devil.

Someone said that it was always easier to talk about the sin of smoking, dancing or drinking than it was to talk about caring for the poor. Another asked how the church can be relevant without addressing the political issues that effect the things that Jesus cared about and died for – the hungry, sick, and powerless.

Another asked if the church should have anything to say about the community campaign to “STOP GOODWILL?” Another asked about providing the same health care for the poor that the Congress receives?

“But a pastor can get fired if he insults someone one who is influential!” “So we pastors are left in the painful position of risking to address the sins of the day, or safely pretending that they are of no concern to the church.” “And that is what happened in Germany in the 1930’s. Did you know that Hitler even addressed the Baptist World Alliance in 1938?” “Why did the Christian church hunker down in Germany and try to go along?” “But every Christian did not become silent! Some were sent to work camps or death for opposing Hitler.” “Hitler was so popular in the ‘30’s. He got the trains running on time.” “And he made a scapegoat of the Jews for all of the financial problems in Germany.” “A lot of Americans supported Hitler and even urged FDR to take over like Hitler was doing.”

“It is our calling as pastors to identify evil when we see it and to help our congregations to not get swept in political propaganda, and not to get snookered by evil that is all decked out in fine clothes, or singing a popular song.” “God help us!” “Could I have some more coffee, please?”

Dr. Dennis Hill is the pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC. This article originally appeared in the March edition of their church newsletter.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Introducing the Missional Church" Book Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Introducing the Missional Church:What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One by Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren is a resource for persons interested in thinking differently about the way in which church operates. The authors talk about how church has been traditionally attractional, meaning that the goal of the ministers and laity was getting persons from the community into their church through different programs and ministries. Roxburgh and Boren present another idea: The Missional Church. A missional church would be engaged in the community outside the church walls for the sake of relationship and community building, not merely for proselytizing. This hospitality embodies the example of Jesus and reorients the church to think about how they can help further the mission of what God is doing in the community. They refuse to give a model for how to transform from attractional to missional, because they say that the institutionalization of a model will actually keep a church from being able to adapt to its situation and community. Instead, they offer markers and a process for holding grassroots discussions in congregations that will help the members think outside the church walls and build relationships in the community.

Roxburgh and Boren stress the importance of the transition to a missional church not being a hierarchical decision; rather, they want to begin with house meetings with suggestions, questions, and concerns from the congregants. Findings from the congregations will be made public in a report, and discussion will ensue around the congregations’ observations within the church community. Some congregants will become interested through this process to venture outside the comfort of the church walls into the neighborhood. Roxburgh and Boren share a story about one congregation that notice a large influx of youth in the community, loitering on the streets because there were no community centers or youth activities. Members of the church built relationships with the youth and realized they wanted a facility to keep them occupied. The church then organized to build them a community center simply to be a good neighbor and better the city.

While the book can be frustrating at times because the authors stress that there is no road map to being missional, the ideas and resources provided allow churches to begin toward a path of looking outward into the world to find and work alongside with God’s mission. To access their Mission-Shaped Field Guide or Mission Shaped 360 assessment tool, visit www.roxburghmissionalnet.com. Also, you can find this book on Amazon.com here: http://www.amazon.com/Introducing-Missional-Church-Matters-Allelon/dp/0801072123.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Liturgy and Human Disability

by Andrew Tatum

In many ways, I think, our understanding of what it means to be human (and by us I mean Westerners) is inherently related to an understanding of the imago dei - even if some people won't claim that relation. When we think of what it means to be human, we often turn to the idea of human capacities.

Hans Reinders, in Receiving the Gift of Friendship, reminds us that this view of humanity as related to human capacity is - unfortunately - directly connected to historical Christian conceptions of the imago dei. In other words, any Christian effort to insist that "people with profound intellectual disabilities are people just like other people" on the basis of the imago dei is bound to disappointed with what it finds.

Reinders notes that in his research on the imago dei, he found that the theological support for a capacity-oriented imago dei was broad and deep within the Christian tradition - and not only the Christian tradition:

"Personally, I have great respect for people who live profoundly disabled lives. But can one even say that? Are the people living such lives the proper object of respect? Any contemporary textbook on ethics will explain to its readers that they owe respect to all human beings, because of their capacity for reason and will. These textbooks do not say this because they are contemporary; readers will find the same view in all major Western thinkers, from Kant back to Aquinas to Augustine to Aristotle, to name a few. One only need substitute "rational soul" for "human being," and one will find the proof of this claim."

Reinders, of course, wants to counter this claim that our humanity or our lives as the imago dei are necessarily related to human capacity. In working through these claims, I am more than willing to go along with Reinders - but in a different direction that he is going. I want to say that our humanity is constituted by our relation to other people and to God and, thus, that none of us are fully human unless we participate in life with others and with God. Of course, this could be a dangerous move because it could lead to the oppression of those who do not understand "right relation to God and others" in the way in which I do. This is something that I'll have to deal with. But the further claim that I am inclined to make is that "right relation with God and others" is forged primarily in the fire of gathered liturgical celebration. Therefore, I have some questions. Implied in each of these is the question of how "historic Christianity" has asked and answered these questions.

Three interrelated questions on Liturgy and Human Disability:
1. In what ways can liturgy shape our understanding of what it means to be human?
2. In what ways can liturgy serve as a means of faith formation?
3. In what ways can the inclusion of disabled persons in the liturgical celebration of Christian communities become mutually edifying and spiritually formative?

Andrew Tatum is the youth minister at Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina and a student at Campbell University Divinity School. This post is taken from his blog, Methobaptist Musings, where he reflects on being a Baptist in a Methodist setting, and writes on matters of theology, culture and church.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Bribing of Converts

by Rev. Laura Barclay

As relief pours into Haiti from a variety of religious groups and the transition to long term aid begins, fundamentalists from a variety of backgrounds are clashing over beliefs. CNN reports some Christians are throwing stones at Vodou (also called Voodoo, a syncretic religion borne out of West African religions and Catholicism) practitioners during their ceremonies and defacing their altars. It’s very disconcerting that followers of Christ would turn to violence and disrespect in the name of God. I recently heard a pastor make the statement that when Paul went to Athens and was discouraged at the presence of local religious practices, he learned Athenian wisdom and culture from the Epicureans and Stoics and then debated the issue in front of the Areopagus, as the locals would (Acts 17). Paul respected the traditions of the Athenians and learned their ways, meeting them on equal terms as a show of deference.

The CNN article alludes to the fact that those throwing stones are Christian Haitians. It would be easy to say that violence and aggression are by-products of poverty and tragedy. But when you peel back the layers of this story, a disturbing trend begins to emerge. One pastor from Miami states:

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refuse to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the gospel.”

This pastor is offering food for conversion, a manipulative prospect. Instead of witnessing the boundless hospitality of Christ, converts from external missions are learning to devalue the culture out of which they came to the point that they are ready to stone their neighbors who have not become Christians. This dangle-the-carrot type of missions is abhorrent, and is leading to conflict in this already ravaged nation.

In a previous post, I highlighted the work of ABC/CBF field personnel Steve and Nancy James for their diligent work as followers of Christ, providing medical attention and needed services. They were in Haiti before this tragedy occurred, and they will be there after, providing physical and spiritual healing without a time limit or a threat to deny aid. That is the example of Jesus—working for justice and exhibiting love and healing in the name of God. Wouldn’t the best way of sharing your experience with God be to love God and your neighbor unconditionally as God loves us?

Interested in continued support for Haiti in this time of great need? Read about the James' work in Haiti, learn about volunteering, or donate.