Monday, September 27, 2010

Answering the Door

by Rev. Laura Barclay

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Power of Persistence,” which I cut from a sermon I delivered recently. The whole point of the entry was for Christians to encourage themselves to live out an active prayer, answering the door when our neighbors knocked and were in need. Somehow, I’ve always found that my sermons have a way of challenging me either when I’m writing them or in the weeks after, but I’ve never faced a more direct challenge that I did a few weeks ago.

It was a late Saturday night, and my husband and I were exasperated with some home projects that including putting up a very complicated ceiling fan and light fixture. It was now 11:45pm, and we’d been at it for a few hours. Parts of all shapes and sizes were strewn about our dining room table with confusing directions to piece it all together. All of a sudden, the doorbell rang. We hesitated for a second, wondering if we should answer the door. It was late, the streets were deserted, and we were tired. After a few more seconds, Ryan and I went down the steps and opened the door to a man who looked both tired and upset. “Do you have a problem with black people?” he asked. My husband, a community organizer, answered no and said, “What do you need?” He continued by talking about his experiences with some local non-profits that had treated him very poorly and refused him services. Before long, he was sitting on our step, pouring his heart out about how badly people treat him on a daily basis. He had asked for a little bus money somewhere in the conversation, which we gave him (we don’t usually do this—we’d rather direct people to services or give food), but he still stayed, telling his story.

Pastoral listening ensued and my tiredness and fear of answering the door at night abated. As children, we are taught to fear strangers and not answer the door, which is healthy and appropriate to some degree. For some reason, that fearing of the stranger seems to be hard to let go in our adult life, and can keep us from embracing fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

After about a half hour of discussion, we encouraged him to visit a local church that had a good homeless ministry. He nodded approvingly, and said he wanted to be around people that would treat him as an equal and not look down upon him because of racial or economic prejudice. He walked off toward the bus station, but his impact stayed with me. I turned to Ryan and said, “We both wondered whether or not to answer the door, and I just preached on this a few Sundays ago!” Ryan responded that my sermon was the first thing he had thought of when the door rang, and that’s why he’d answered it.

I don’t say this to pat myself on the back. On the contrary, I am humbled and alarmed at how close any of us are to turning our backs on others simply because we are tired. At any point in our lives, we can find ourselves playing the various roles portrayed in Jesus’ parables. Though we might try to be that Good Samaritan, we might find ourselves playing the role of the priest passing by the wounded man on the road. This was a helpful lesson in humility to me to practice what I preach!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Facing Life's Challenges: Thoughts from Inside the MRI Machine

by Rev. Jayne Davis

All I could think about as I entered the tube of the stark white MRI machine was Toy Story 3 - Woody, Buzz Light Year, the Potato Heads – all grasping for metal objects so they would be sucked up by the powerful magnet and avoid the fiery furnace at the city dump. I was certain the myriad of fillings in my mouth would be ripped right from my teeth by the pull of the “strong magnetic field” that the ‘Caution’ poster in the dressing room warned me about. My morning had been frustrating enough already. I really didn’t need this kind of stress.

The MRI was for my shoulder – nothing life threatening. Just some eye watering pain when I reach too far into the refrigerator. I’ve put all of the high fat foods way in the back in a Pavlovian effort to train myself not to want them. It’s amazing how much pain a person can bear.

I didn’t want to be in the doctor’s office or dealing with my shoulder. Life’s challenges are always an interruption to the way we’d like things to be. Sometimes they’re an annoyance. Sometimes they shake the very foundation of our world. However serious, however sudden, however uncertain… some thoughts from inside the MRI machine may help you as you face the challenges in your life.

1. Don’t let the chaos drown out the music.

The technician gave me a pair of headphones and my choice of music stations – [80’s] - to drown out the loud noise of the machine. Between the screeching of what sounded like dental drills and the pounding of my heart in my chest, I had to strain at times to hear Twisted Sister on the radio.

In the midst of it all, there is music still playing in your world. Listen for it.

2. Open your eyes along the way – even when it’s scary.

Life is fascinating. There’s always something interesting to be seen, maybe even something inspiring. When I finally got up the courage to open my eyes during the MRI, I was amazed by … nothing. There’s nothing visible going on inside the tube. Smooth white walls. No zig-zaggy neon radio waves flashing across my body. Just like God at work in my life, so much was happening that I couldn’t see, but had to trust to be so.

This season of struggle is not an intermission until your real life begins again. This is the journey. Open your eyes. Live it.

3. Don’t over think it.

If I’d known ahead of time they were spinning the protons on my hydrogen molecules, I’d have been itchy the whole time. And dizzy, as they altered my magnetic field. If you have a renegade imagination, don’t allow it to dwell on the fact that the MRI machine looks like a giant blood pressure cuff that you’re precariously smack in the middle of.

We cannot control what thoughts come in to our minds, but God does give us the power to choose which ones we allow to take up residence there. Choose wisely.

4. Be grateful for the small things.

Sometimes God’s grace takes the form of a pillow under your knees, the kindness of a technician, the chance to close your eyes and rest in the middle of a Monday.
Notice these small graces and you recognize what abundant life feels like.

5. Take the blanket.

It’s cold in there. You’ll need it, even if you think you don’t need anything.

People want to help. Let them.

6. Focus on the important things.

Nothing culls down a prayer list like being strapped to a table to keep you from moving. God’s peace and presence. Family. Trust. The essentials.

Now is not the time to be carrying unnecessary baggage. Give it to God. He’ll dispose of it for you. If it’s really important, he’ll give it back to you when you’re ready.

7. Wiggle your toes every now and then.

Sometimes life’s challenges can keep you stuck in one position for a long time.

Wiggle your toes and remind yourself that you’re still there. Whatever helps you to feel alive… and keep your legs from going numb. You'll smile... and probably catch the technician off guard.

8. Sometimes you have to be still until it’s over.

We can’t fix everything. We can’t control everything. Sometimes we have to ride it out and trust that Jesus will guide us safely to shore.

“Be still and know that I am God."

Jayne Davis is the Minister of Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church of Wilmington, and this article originally appeared in her blog.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"This Is What a Preacher Looks Like" - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

This is What a Preacher Looks Like: Sermons by Baptist Women in Ministry is a wonderful compilation of sermons from amazing female ministers. The book, published by Smyth and Helwys and edited by Pamela R. Durso, is divided into two sections. The first section, entitled “Sermons by Baptist Women at Historic Moments in Baptist Life” has homilies by noted women who gave courageous sermons during crucial moments in our Baptist history. Nancy Hastings Sehested’s sermon, “We Have This Treasure,” was delivered in 1983 at the first meeting of Baptist Women in Ministry. She likens the path of women in that moment to the Israelites being freed from Egypt, and needing the faith, fortitude, and courage to keep moving forward.

The most compelling sermon in the first section, however, is a sermon that was never given. F. Sue Fitzgerald was an alternate to give a sermon at the 1996 Baptist State Convention, entitled “The Kingdom of God Is Among You.” The elected male preacher, while having many personal difficulties, attended the convention and gave his sermon instead, leaving this inspiring homily to remain unpreached. Fitzgerald implores us to hear that the Kingdom of God is among us, rather than inside us, which encourages hard communal work over the individualism of personal spirituality so indicative of American culture. She attempts to heal the wounds of the time by encouraging listeners to acknowledge their pain and choose the love and power of God over “the power rooted in our desire to make something happen a certain way” (23). Her healing way with words, charming personal anecdotes, and deep rooted wisdom leave the reader sad that sermon was not preached.

The second section, entitled, “Sermons by Women from Beginning to End” contain sermons preached by women from texts throughout the Bible. Humorous, powerful, and challenging, these sermons demand the reader’s attention. Amber Inascore Essick’s text from Genesis 18 calls us to make time for strangers and make room for hospitality, despite our fears and of vulnerability. Essick states, “To open ourselves to the other is scary and risky. But it just might hold redemption and life for us” (37). Amy Butler delivers her Exodus 14-15 sermon as Moses’ sister, making the message of God’s eternal presence all the more realistic and meaningful. Isabel N. Docampo connects the Luke passage of the hemorrhaging women, oppressed by societal views on cleanliness, to her chronic illness and the treatment of minority women in society in “Women: Beloved, Brave, Bridge Builder.” She encourages listeners to tell their faith story, which will build bridges to peace and progress. Molly Marshall pushes us to proclaim truth, faith, and freedom from fear in a post-9/11, MTV generation world in “Living in Our Own Time…Wisely,” as she weaves together texts from Chronicles and Matthew. Lisa Thompson encourages us to participate in God’s redemptive story in, “Yes, God,” grounded in Isaiah 6:1-13. Bonnie Oliver Brandon shares the good news of “A Homeless Jesus," preaching from Matthew 8. The good news keeps on coming with sermons from Pamela R. Durso, Andrea Dellinger Jones, Suzii Paynter, Julie Merritt Lee, Joy Yee, and others.

From beginning to end, this book brought me on a journey through the faith and strength of these ministers. My only wish was that this work was published years ago before I ever went to seminary (I’d never heard a women preach before my years at Wake Forest University School of Divinity), so that I could be more confident in my path. I hope that many of you will get to enjoy this fine book, and that our notions of what a preacher looks like are continually expanded. In my lifetime, I have found that God has no limits for who God can use to bring a message of salvation, renewal, and announcement of the kingdom of God, if we are willing to have faith and listen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Reflection on Immigration

by Rev. Laura Barclay

A few weeks ago, a heated political issue took on a very real human face for my co-workers and me when one of the pastors in the CBFNC Hispanic Network of churches was arrested. Rev. Hector Villanueva was arrested at his home on the morning of Thursday, August 19, simply because he applied to become a citizen. Though he has had a green card and a social security number for decades, he once served time for trying to cash a bad check when he was homeless in California 15 years ago. Because of an inane law in US immigration policy, anyone who isn’t a US citizen can be deported if they have been convicted of a felony, regardless of whether or not they have paid for their crime.

Shortly after his arrest in California, Hector became a Christian and worked hard to share his love and ministry with others. He moved to North Carolina, married a US citizen, had four children, and is currently in the process of adopting two more. Hector started churches with the help of Rev. Javier Benitez, CBFNC’s Hispanic Leader Coach, and exhibited love for his neighbors. My co-workers and I have written character reference letters to encourage the judge to grant a petition for bond, which he did last week. Hector will now await his trial at home with his family, but I think we all still feel relatively helpless against such a confusing, overwhelming immigration system. Hector’s wife, Martha, has remained a rock to her children throughout these weeks, and I’m always amazed by her strength and composure when we speak.

One night after speaking with Martha, it occurred to me the level of privilege I have. In high school and college, I had friends get arrested for possession of drugs, driving drunk, failing subsequent drug tests and still not serve any time. Moreover, they had it expunged from their records. We see “stars” like Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson and others get slaps on the wrist for repeated crimes and misdemeanors. I find it difficult to understand why there is a law stating that any non-citizen who serves time for a crime, even though they have paid their dues, can be deported years later when they have clearly been bettering society for years through their actions.

Perhaps it is time for lawmakers to stop worrying about poll numbers, reelection, and belittling their opponents and come together to work for truly important policy like immigration reform. I think the only reason immigration reform is a divisive issue is that politicians have chosen to make it a wedge issue. There are many aspects of immigration policy that both sides agree are bad, but politicians are so busy spinning the truth that they won’t sit down to address actual problems.

Let’s ask our politicians to come to the table and do what we elected them to do—solve problems. I would much rather see Republicans and Democrats sitting down to discuss the issue, having respectful agreements and disagreements, than waste Americans’ time hurling insults at one another. Frankly, we have a lot of work to do to see the Kingdom of God flourish, and I’m tired of excuses--especially when one of our ministers recently sat in jail and still faces deportation because of our government’s unwillingness to cooperate in a bi-partisan manner.

So, I would ask you to get to know Hispanics in your area and exhibit the love of Christ to those who are treated like the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Learn more about how police and immigration officials operate in your area. What is your church doing to reach out to Hispanics? What are the concerns of Hispanics in your area, and what can you do to help? May our hearts and minds always remain open to fulfill Jesus’ summation of the law that we should love God and love our neighbors.

Further resources:

Bible study curriculum on immigration by Interfaith Worker Justice and compiled by the NC Council of Churches:

Article on the browning of America by Tom Ehrich, Episcopal minister: