Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Church Hurts

by Dr. Tony Cartledge

When I saw Barna's recent report that 61 percent of unchurched adults think of themselves as Christians, and that 37 percent of non-church going adults say they have been hurt by an experience or person within the church, my first response was surprise that the number wasn't higher. In 26 years as a pastor, I learned that a significant number of prospective members I visited had stories to tell about having been hurt or disappointed by a former church.

The combination of survey results and personal experience leads to a few quick observations:

1. It's amazing how easily some folks can get their feelings hurt. Church is an interactive social milieu in which many people have a stake in how things turn out, so it's not unexpected that people will often have run at cross purposes with each other, and some turn out to be a lot more cross than you'd expect given the issue. Some folks, in addition, like to wear their hurt feelings on their sleeve, sort of like Bill Deal and the Rondells (from the 60s) singing "I've Been Hurt."

2. It's equally amazing how insensitive some folks can be, even within the church context. Some folks get their feelings hurt for good reasons. In some cases it's a pastor who rails against those who don't share his personal views on politics, creationism, homosexuality, single mothers, or other matters. In other cases it could be a heated exchange during the discussion period in a Sunday School class, or a snippy remark about someone's appearance or children that wasn't intended to be overheard. People go to church wanting to be accepted and appreciated -- feeling excluded and alienated is not what they bargained for.

3. Church leaders have a responsibility to set a personal example of kindness and grace toward others, and seek to cultivate a culture of compassion within the church. Leaders can help other members grow in maturity and learn when they need to offer or ask forgiveness, when they need to intentionally work out differences in respectful ways, and how they can develop relationship skills needed for the task.

One of my favorite texts is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, in which Paul writes to congratulate the members of that church for their "work of faith," their "labor of love," and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul went on to commend them for having followed the example that he, Timothy, and Luke had set for them -- and for becoming models in turn, "so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia" (1 Thess. 1:3, 6-7).

Sending hurt people out the church's back door is more like bad advertising than setting a good example. Is your church a safe harbor that welcomes all people with their various issues, or is it more like a yacht club that caters to a select group? Have you done what you can do to help those at loggerheads to be at peace with one another? Jesus didn't say "blessed are the peaceful," but "blessed are the peacemakers" (Mat. 5:9).

Lord knows, we need them.

Tony Cartledge is the contributing editor for Baptists Today, and also teaches Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School. This post originally appeared on his blog at http://www.tonycartledge.com/.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Perfect Games and Imperfect People

by Dr. Bill Ireland

The event that dominated sports news a few weeks ago was a blown call by an umpire that cost Detroit Tigers’ pitcher, Armando Galarraga, a perfect game. On what would have been the final out, umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly called a base runner for the Cleveland Indians safe while replays showed he was clearly out. Such is the nature of baseball that such calls on the field can’t be reversed (unlike professional football where instant replay can be utilized or referees can pick up a penalty flag and say there was “no call”). To his credit, umpire Jim Joyce took responsibility for his mistake and apologized. As well, Armando Galarraga, kept himself under control and didn’t go off on a tear and berate Joyce. He kept his composure, finished the game, and just showed a ton of class.

This unfortunate incident will result in this game being marked with an asterisk. It was a perfect game in all respects except for an umpire’s blown call. Jim Joyce, by all reports one of the most respected umpires in the game, will be forever remembered as the one who cost a pitcher a perfect game. Sadly, this event will be welded to his name and will likely be featured in his obituary some day.

Scripture offers us numerous examples of people whose lives are often summed up by single events. Judas is forever known as the betrayer, Thomas was the doubter, and Peter was the denier. While these descriptions capture significant moments in their lives, I want to remind you that tag lines such as these never tell the whole story. Yes, Judas betrayed Jesus but we have no real clue as to his motives. And, for three years, he followed Jesus faithfully and endured the same hardships as the other disciples. Thomas had his doubts, but who among us hasn’t? On other occasions, Thomas was clear-eyed about the rigors of following Jesus and was willing to embrace its challenges. Peter failed Jesus when his master most needed a friend. But at times lived up to his billing as the “rock” Jesus said he was. Peter is like most of us—capable of significant insight and achievement but also terribly fallible.

What I’m driving at is this: there’s always more to us than our worst moments. For better or worse, our lives are a tapestry in which the threads of failure and success are tied together. One thread by itself does not a tapestry make. The moments we wish we could forget will always be with us, but they don’t have to define us.

Bill Ireland is the pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Ardmore Announcer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Beloved Community - A Review and Proposal

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Dr. Charles Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia and son of a Southern minister, brings us this scholarly, yet practical analysis of the Civil Rights Movement and the concept of The Beloved Community in bringing about the kingdom of God on earth. Marsh profiles Dr. King’s early ministry and calling into civil rights work in Mobile, AL, with the community involvement that ensued and led King out of his pastorate and into the struggle. He follows Charles Sherrod and the rise of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a religious fellowship that embodied kingdom work, only to abandon its vision to infighting and radicalism. He follows former pastor Clarence Jordan’s work with the interracial, intentional farm of Koinonia Community in Americus, GA. Marsh then tells the story of John Perkins, whose brother’s murder at the hands of local police led him to flee to California and outside the church, only to come back to and through the church toward intentional community in Jackson, MI, and out into the world as one of the most respected faith-based organizers and religious leaders in America.

These men all had their grounding in Christ. They were open and accepting of people of other faiths and no faiths in their organizing, but they always identified their reason for doing the hard work of justice with their organizations as the historical event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection made real in the church. They believed that we could not allow our brothers and sisters to be beaten, killed or excluded because of the witness of the Christ. If Christ is in us, then we cannote be separate from our neighbors. This underlying message of love made the leaders of the religious movement of the civil rights struggle committed to non-violence against even those that cursed them (37). The intentional relationships they made as King listened to the imprisoned African Americans sharing his jail cell, or that Jordan made in the black church in Louisville during his seminary days, or that Charles Sherrod formed during his work with fellow members at SNCC meetings, or that Perkins made working on intentional community in Jackson transformed these men into dynamic disciples for Christ. They listened with their hearts open and reflected the concerns of their harassed and broken neighbors. Their firm belief that all are created in the image of God matched with their seminary training helped them to focus these relationships through the lens of the body of Christ.

Marsh shares these stories to make a point—the church is not necessarily the beloved community, the kingdom of God, though it has been that during certain times in the past. The church can foster and encourage the kingdom, but it can also fail to be on mission in the world. It can submit itself to the concerns of the state and one’s selfish desires—slavery, war, oppression, economic inequality, discrimination, etc. The church can and has in the past forgotten its prophetic voice and the call to nurture the kingdom of God. However, the church is globally an incredibly diverse body that points us toward right ways of being, lifting us out of our single ethnicity congregations into a universal Christ-moment that allows us to be open to the communion of all creation (215). Marsh notes that we must be cognizant of where God is breaking through in the world and to go follow that Spirit. This can and should lead us out of the church doors and into the community to build relationships and participate in the world as Jesus’ disciples, but it should also leave us connected with the church, as King, Sherrod, Perkins, and Jordan were. If we believe God created all in the image of God and that God reigns everywhere, not just behind the walls of church, this should not be a radical proposal (214).

Near the end of the book, Marsh shares examples of intentional religious communities that have organized for better neighborhoods from Jackson to Philly, and encourages readers to join their efforts. He notes that the students coming into our university system today who hear his stories of the beloved communities that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement--the hymns sung at the SNCC meetings and the glory given to God during the marches for the victory in the Montgomery Bus Boycott--become inspired and commit themselves to Habitat builds, organize multiracial prayer groups, advocate and empower single mothers and undocumented immigrants, and many other endeavors. Let us foster their zeal and excitement to help their brothers and sisters, and let the light of God shine in the darkest of places. May those students in the past and present who commit to loving and empowering their neighbor inspire us to let our light shine as well, and show the people of God to be “a light among nations” (Is 60:1-3).

If you are interested in learning more about racial reconciliation, check out upcoming Racial Reconciliation Workshops in Charlotte, NC, (July 13) and Wilmington, NC, (July 29) at the following website: http://www.cbfnc.org/Congregations/UpcomingEvents/RacialReconciliationWorkshops.aspx

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Would Jesus Do About the Gulf Oil Disaster?

by Dr. Don Gordon

On April 20, 2010 a oil rig a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the British Petroleum Company exploded killing 11 men and unleashing an oil gusher that is still uncapped. It is estimated that about 1 million gallons of oil are being released each day. Already this disaster surpasses the Exxon Valdez oil spill which unloaded 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska in 1989. Modern technology and the internet enables anyone to watch a live feed of the gusher, spewing oil out with a counter indicating the rate of expulsion. It makes your stomach churn to watch it for just a few moments. An oil slick has developed over the Gulf of Mexico more than half the size of the state of North Carolina. Oil globs have reached the gulf shore in Louisiana and there is a chance the gulf stream will carry this oil slick around the coast of Florida and up the Eastern seaboard. Historians and scientists are predicting this will be the largest environmental disaster in the history of America.

Many conversations are taking place these days. Who is to blame? How can we stop the flow of oil? What are the fisherman of the Gulf going to do? How will this affect the President’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling? The question that comes to my mind is, “What would Jesus do?” Or, said another way, “What is a Christian response to this environmental disaster?

An easy answer might be that Jesus would simply raise his hand and heal the Gulf, close the gusher, and send everyone home amazed at his power. The story of Jesus calming the waters while on a boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee could be used to support this position. Certainly, Jesus could do that if he wanted. But Jesus has not intervened so directly since he returned to his father almost 2000 years ago. He most often works through people to accomplish his purposes.

Barring such miracle, what would Jesus have us do? We cannot undo history. We can’t go backwards and prevent this disaster from happening. So what could a Christian response be?

I believe it has to start with a reassertion of our responsibility as Christians to be good stewards of the earth. Indeed, not only Christians, but all human beings have been given the responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. The first chapter of Genesis affirms our call as human beings to “rule over…all the earth.”

Now there are good rulers and there are bad rulers. Good rulers rule on behalf of those ruled. Bad rulers rule for the benefit of themselves. If we are going to be good rulers we are going to have to shift our thinking. We are going to have to begin thinking about how our consumption decisions are affecting the fish, the birds, and all the earth, i.e., the ruled. The argument that “people need jobs” being our first priority is ultimately counterproductive and destructive. We are seeing how many people can lose their jobs when we elevate our unlimited appetite for oil above the need to rule over the creation on behalf of the creation. This is the only planet we have. We will continue to make disastrous stewardship decisions if we have the mentality that job production trumps environmental impact.

I contend we have the framed the question backwards for too long. We have tried to create as many jobs and make as much profit as possible while having an environmental impact study to forecast the effects on the earth. We need to start doing the reverse. We need to protect the only environment we have and then have an economic impact study to see what kinds of jobs we can produce and what kind of profits we can make in that context.

In this particular case, it would mean that any oil company that wants to drill on land or sea must have a plan in place to cover any contingency in which the oil spills, oil lines break, or some major disruption takes place. BP had no serious plan and no government required them to have one. Furthermore, there must be a contingency fund created from the oil profits to be deposited into a national disaster fund in preparation for such a disaster. This contingency fund will need to have a stronger “lockbox” than our social security fund which has been raided too easily to meet our consumption desires. This plan will raise the price of oil and gas in our country, no doubt. It will make the cost of doing business more expensive in the short run. Better to plan and ahead and saving for an “oily day” than destroy our environment for the sake of cheaper gas and greater short-term profits.

Can I say, “Thus sayeth the Lord”?

Maybe not, but somebody better speak up soon. This is what I say.

Don Gordon is the pastor of Yates Baptist Church in Durham, NC.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finding the Lost

Luke 15:1-7: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

If you have lived in Winston-Salem for any significant amount of time, you know of Whoopi, a fiercely independent, homeless, 70-year-old African-American woman who pushes all of her belongings on a route that takes her from Wal-Mart on Hanes Mall to downtown by way of Stratford Road and back. Stories and legends of her abound.

Here are just a few of them:
*Whoopi is really a wealthy woman who went crazy when she lost her husband and child.
*Whoopi went insane when her house burned down and now she refuses to sleep indoors because of the horrible memories.
*Whoopi was sexually abused by her adopted or real family, and now refuses to trust people or sleep indoors.

One woman who has become friends with Whoopi is trying to get her story and figure out how to help her. Her name is Yvonne Rorrer, and she’s one of the few people Whoopi allows to help her once in a while. Yvonne created a Facebook Page only a few weeks ago for the purpose of having locals help spot her so that Yvonne can find her, and also to help fundraise for her much needed dental treatments and to buy a used van to give her on her 71st birthday. A van is Whoopi’s dream place to sleep because she doesn’t like to sleep in shelters, apartments, or houses. The Facebook page has grown to over 7,800 people because they share a passion to be in relationship with this proud woman who is determined to live her life without walls and on her own.

Yvonne and the group has been met with harsh criticisms—“you need to convince her to live in a house” or “you need to clean her up and get her a job” or “you need to get her to live by the rules of our culture” are comments and sentiments that have shown up on the Facebook wall. But Yvonne is firm—she only cares about Whoopi’s needs and sharing her story. Because of her, we’ve discovered her real name is Esther Smiles, and she used was adopted after being quote “thrown away” by her birth mother. She was never married and never had a child. Esther never owned a house, but did live in three of them before she began living outside. She was a live-in nurse’s aid that cared for sick children. She loves bluegrass music and cowboy shows.

You might be thinking Esther is the lost sheep in this story, but to me she isn’t. Her very existence caused 7,800 people to join the group, and continually update her location when she’s found. Over 7,800 people are struggling to live up to Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor. Over 7,800 people are in a Greater-Winston-Salem community watch—not to protect their belongings, but to help another human being, made in the image of God. Though Esther almost always refuses help or handouts, she smiled when Yvonne told her that over 7,800 people cared about her and wanted to know she was safe.

I think we were sheep who were found by Esther and Yvonne. A growing number of us in the community are found in the effort to care for another. Those who are critical of Esther and Yvonne are still lost and haven’t yet been found—ones who cling to social norms rather than Jesus’ call to community and helping the poor.

But before I get too excited about being found by Esther, I have to remember that there are other groups, people, and communities to which I’m lost. Who would consider you a lost sheep waiting to be found? Who do you consider lost and what would you do to find them? And let us rejoice that Jesus will never stop looking for us, all the days of our lives.

Check out the Esther Smiles Foundation for more information: http://www.esthersmilesfoundation.org/Mission.html. If they succeed in getting Esther her van, they will continue to help elderly homeless persons in the Winston-Salem area.