Friday, December 30, 2011

A Living Prayer

By Rev. Mark Reece

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This week we wrap up our sermon series built from these words of Jesus offered in John 15:7. Jesus offers us the opportunity to ask of God in the spirit of abiding or obedience. Following the path and teachings of Jesus maintains an unselfish, giving and loving presence about us that will control our asking. This is particularly important because asking dominates much of our prayer life. The best preparation for prayer is to abide in Christ, through daily word and deed, in order to prevent us from offering what I’ve referred to as selfish reactionary and impulsive prayers. We are the branches and Christ is the vine. A clean and honest life keeps us connected to the life source.

There is a human asking and a divine giving at work in John 15:7. Gospel of John scholar Susan Hedahl says that it is “through this process of human asking and divine giving that we become disciples.” John 15:8 essentially says that the Father is glorified when we ask with obedience and our prayers are granted. This week I’m focusing on the divine giving. I was with a mentor of mine a few weeks ago for lunch and he pulled out a little book that was full of names. I could see the notes by each name and there were a few check marks. He was keeping notes of how God was in the process of answering his prayers. He had check marks by those prayers that he felt had been answered. I know that God answers prayers. God continues to answer my prayers. However, I’m continually amazed at the ways by which God answers my prayers.

John 15:7 begins with conditional statements “if you abide in me” and “if my words abide in you” and then moves to the declarative. One thing that I’ve discovered in my relationship with God is that the divine giving often comes with expectation. We often pray that God might give us more of something – perhaps patience, generosity or compassion. But what if God answers our prayer by giving us opportunities to exercise more patience? We pray to be more compassionate. Perhaps God gives us opportunities to exercise compassion. This thought process keeps us united in a partnership with God whereby we’re prevented from becoming complacent bystanders; rather, we’re always becoming active participants in our spiritual lives. We move from saying a prayer to living a life of prayer. Pray on and be blessed this week.

Mark Reece is the pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Grove.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jesus, an Immigrant

By Rev. Len Keever

Recently, I was at a meeting where a representative from the North Carolina Council of Churches was presenting some interesting statistics on population changes in our state. He said that for many people in the world immigration is not a problem, it is a solution. I don’t think I’ve really heard it put that way before.

Immigration is hard on a family. The decision to leave home and perhaps never return isn’t made lightly. There are dangers involved. Loved ones are left behind. Why would someone take those risks? Several answers come to mind: freedom, safety, the ability to provide a better life for children through education, health care, and job opportunities. Few of us can imagine what it would be like if we were trying to raise our children in a place where violence, oppression, hunger, and poverty was the norm.

Hours later the speaker’s words were still trying to find a comfortable place to sit in my thinking. They couldn’t be dismissed easily. Then suddenly and without warning they struck a different nerve. A new thought came to mind and I found myself sitting up straighter in my chair. An unexpected ah-ha moment was happening. I heard myself say, “Wow!” There is another example where immigration is the answer to a problem---but this time it isn’t the one who is immigrating who is looking for a solution to his difficulties. The one immigrating came to be the solution to our deepest problem.

God saw that things here were getting desperate. The influence of evil was growing; the impact of faith was more and more hidden. People were hungry for the knowledge of God’s love; thirsty for the hope that things were somehow going to get better. God sent God’s One and Only Son with the promise that whoever believes in him will find eternal life (see John 3:16). The Advent of Jesus is an immigration where God sent “The Word become flesh to dwell among us,” (John 1:14). Jesus came to change our way of seeing where we are now, to help us discover hope, to help us find promise, to show us a love that was once hidden. The immigration of Jesus changes us and changes the world. If we will only follow Jesus, he will lead us to a better life now and a better life-everlasting. We could not cross the border to live with God so God crossed the border to provide a way that we can discover faith and hope for the present and the path to eternal life then.

Philippians 2:6-8 says it best: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being found in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.” The decision to send Jesus to us was not entered into lightly. For God, this was an act of pure love. For us it is the solution to our deepest problem; our fallen state. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” (Romans 10:9). The birth of Heaven’s Immigrant in a Bethlehem stable is the greatest gift ever given. He is not only our neighbor, he is our only hope.

Merry Christmas!

Len Keever is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dunn. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Builder.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Re-reading the Grinch

Artwork for "Forgotten Joy 2011
Advent Guide" by Helms Jarrell
 by Jason Williams

I have always been a bit confused by the Grinch's elaborate lie to little Cindy Lou Who. In my imagination, the Grinch plays the part a little too well. The fact that he was so smooth with his lie suggests that he was thoroughly formed by the trappings of Christmas as much as, if not more than, the child. The Grinch's belief that removing the trimmings would stop Christmas illustrates the extent to which he bought into the materialism of Christmas.

Through his observation of the Whos, down in Who-ville, the Grinch understands only the lie of Christmas told by the material things he sees. His experience begs the question: How do the trappings of Christmas lie to us as we observe and celebrate Christmas?

We know from the end of the story that the Whos represent those whose Christmas joy has not been obscured by materialism and consumerism. Their celebration continues in spite of the Grinch's efforts to stop Christmas. For most of my life I have identified primarily with the Whos. I suspect that I learned this identification from the people and societal practices around me. And I imagine that this is true for most of us.

We read the story of the Grinch in such a way that it reinforces our own perceived virtue. It reminds us that despite the trappings around us, we, like the Whos, are not fooled by them. It is through our true understanding of Christmas that we help change the Grinches around us. We all want to see ourselves this way and I imagine that desire directs us away from a more self-critical analysis of the story.

If we allow the story to reflect our practices and habits back to us as a mirror, I believe a different picture emerges. The Whos do not represent the virtue within us. Rather, they represent the virtue to which we aspire. The Grinch, then, becomes the character with which we most identify. This reading allows us to look deeply into ourselves to discover the ways that our Christmas traditions deceive us.

How might the anxiety, dread and fatigue produced by our material and consumer Christmastime traditions contribute to a spiritual amnesia? Might we, like the Grinch, need to extract the Christmas trappings around us from our vision in order to grow our understanding of the true joy of Christmas?

In the end, a story like the Grinch can serve to underwrite our perceived virtue or it can challenge us to live more faithfully. If we truly desire to follow the life and teachings of the One we seek to celebrate at Christmas, then the latter will guide our Christmas reflection.

Jason Williams is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and a member of Hyaets, an intentional Christian community in the heart of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, NC. A verson of this article is taken from their Advent Guide, Forgotten Joy, which can be found on their website:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jesus, Bible and Missions, Not Politics

By Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

“Aren’t you concerned that critics might accuse CBFNC of being too political?” my friend asked, as we stood in the sanctuary of FBC Sylva following a Monday evening worship service last October. The service was part of a collaborative effort of CBFNC and the Western North Carolina Baptist Fellowship (WNCBF) to conduct a joint Fellowship on the Move and WNCBF fall gathering.

WNCBF leaders had requested that I enlist Rev. Hector Villeneuva to serve as the preacher for the service. The inquirer was a pastor, who had been out of circulation for much of the year and therefore was not aware of the events surrounding Hector’s arrest, attempted deportation, and eventual (Praise God!) release back to his family and congregation.

“Don’t get me wrong,” my colleague continued. “I’m in favor of CBFNC’s involvement in the immigration issue. Hector’s story is amazing. But it does concern me that some folks might see it in a more negative light, and might accuse us of violating the separation of church and state.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” I explained to my friend. “CBFNC still adheres firmly to church-state separation. It’s one of our bedrock principles. We’re not engaging in partisan politics. We didn’t even set out to get involved in the immigration discussion. But we did feel called by God to pursue missions with the growing Hispanic population in our state. And we discovered that when you reach out to people with the love of Jesus, when you truly try to be the presence of Christ with them, their issues become your issues.”

CBFNC is, above all, a missions organization. Our missiology is based on our reading of the Bible. By taking Scripture seriously, we are led to be a missionary people. By taking God’s call to mission seriously, we are led down paths that, on our own, we might not choose to go. But as the old hymn has us sing, “Wherever He leads, I’ll go.” And our Bible-based, Spirit-led, mission-focused life together is taking us down some new paths.

Because Jesus, echoing a repeated Old Testament refrain states, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), as missionary Baptists we are led to welcome the Hispanic immigrants who have come into our state.

Because Paul explains, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), and “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), as missionary Baptists we are led to seek reconciliation with brothers and sisters of other races.

Because repeatedly in the Old Testament God’s people are urged, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7), and Jesus himself described as his personal mission “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), as missionary Baptists we are led to engage in ministries that address issues of wealth and poverty in our state and world.

These are some of the new ministry paths the Spirit is leading us to take. I can’t say for sure where we’ll be called to go next. But I know one thing for sure. We have no interest in pursuing anybody’s political agenda. Our only agenda is to study God’s Word, listen to the Spirit’s call, and faithfully pursue that call consistent with our heritage as missionary Baptists.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBF of North Carolina.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Invite You to Join Me in the Recovery of a Christian Christmas

By Rev. Randy Carter

Please read the title of this article. Yes, a “Christian Christmas.” It seems strange that the Christian church would have to fight to recover a season in the church calendar that has the word “Christ” in it. But, would you disagree that much of what happens in our culture during Christmas has nothing whatsoever to do with the remembrance of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh? Is Christmas even recognizable beyond an exercise in rampant, unbridled consumerism? Ask your children, “What is your favorite thing about Christmas?” Will they answer the family meal, the visit to Grandma and Grandpa, or the special parties and get-togethers with friends and others in the community? No. They will answer with one word: presents.

Presents are good. I give presents during Christmas. In fact, gift-giving during Christmas can be a sign of the divine gift-giving we celebrate at Christmas. If we can remember why we give gifts during the Christmas season, we can utilize the practice to teach the real lesson: God so loved the world that he gave His very best gift, His only Son, that whoever might receive this gift would receive also the gifts of forgiveness of sins, of hope for the present and future, and of eternal life. I am certain that a Mom with a Wal-Mart basket full of toys wishing Wal-Mart would bring back layaway practices so she could buy more than anyone has ever needed so she can be the coolest Mom ever has missed the point of the divine gift-giving.

It is not only the presents problem. It is a waiting problem. You’ve heard this before from me, but here it comes again. Before December 25th, the season of Advent invites us to wait and anticipate. Advent allows us to hope for Christmas to arrive so that when December 25th (and the 11 days that follow 12/25 that comprise the 12 days of the Christmas season) does arrive we feel joy and excitement that Christmas has come – similar to those who waited for the Messiah and felt joy and excitement over the news of the birth of the Savior. Here is what I think happens too often: we start hearing Christmas music in late October, we are inundated with commercials and sales flyers full of red and green by early November, we celebrate Thanksgiving with our eyes more focused on Black Friday than the bountiful feast before us, and then December finally arrives. All that before December even appears on the calendar! December, then, ends up becoming a pressure-packed month of worry and panic knowing that time is running out before the big day. And, when Christmas Day dawns (literally for many of you with young children), people are so sick and tired of all things Christmas they can hardly wait to see it go. That makes me so sad.

What, then, would recovering a Christian Christmas entail? Much more than I can write in this article, but here’s a start. First, wait and experience Advent. Second, reflect long and hard about the point of the presents and how the practice of gift-giving can be a sign of the great divine gift-giving. Third, ask yourself if your children truly understand Christmas and work to be sure they do. Fourth, if there are 12 days of the Christmas season (12/25 – 1/5), is there anything Christmas-related you can do after 12/25 to take reduce the stress before 12/25? Fifth, can your family find or create a way to serve others this Christmas (again, not just on 12/25, but during the 12 day season)?

What are your ideas? I’d love to hear them.

The Lord be with you all, Randy

Randy Carter is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hillsborough, NC. This article first appeared in their church newsletter, The Messenger.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grief and the Holidays

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Right now, when it seems everyone is making plans to purchase a turkey or ham and making lists of Christmas presents to pick up for their friends and family, many in our offices are facing a holiday season without a particular loved one for the first time. Whether it’s a grandmother, brother, aunt, or beloved friend, death has not been a stranger to us lately.

As I talk to my coworkers about their losses and my family about the recent death of my Aunt Shirley, a few thoughts, realizations, and hopes have come to mind for which I will be in prayer the next several weeks. First, this holiday season will feel different, no matter how much we might want to stick to the same schedule or traditions. For instance, my Aunt Shirley was not only known for helping my grandmother generously prepare Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, but she moderated fun post-meal activities like trivia games and our rowdy and hilarious “Everything-Under-$10-White-Elephant-Gift-Swap.” Particularly endearing memories to me are that we always made sure my beloved but oft-teased cousin Stuart got the worst gift. Aunt Shirley would have to cut off the bargaining, maneuvering, and wrestling for weirdly shaped gifts that turned out to be bizarre tools or a strange kitchen utensil. I will treasure these fun memories in my heart as a time of happiness untouched with this sadness and loss. However, I know that even if this tradition continues, we need to give ourselves permission not to strive to do it the same way that my Aunt Shirley did. She is irreplaceable, as is her particular type of humor, and we need to give space for others to adapt, change, or cease traditions that we know in our hearts will be different without her presence.

Second, I hope that families facing grief during the holidays will acknowledge the elephant in the room. We all know it will be hard to eat Christmas dinner with one less seat at the table, and all that represents. It is natural and healthy to cry, to remember, to tell stories, and let others know how we are feeling. Telling stories is how we carry our loved ones with us after they have passed. Stories remind us that Aunt Shirley, Brother Bill, Grandmother Gogo, and Beloved Friend Gloria have joined the Cloud of Witnesses in a long line that have gone before and that we still have lessons to learn from their time with us. With the hope of Christ, we have faith that death is not the last word in their story.

Third, I pray that we make space for one another to grieve differently. Some might want to continue old traditions while others may find it unbearable. It could take multiple holiday seasons to find a normal rhythm again. Ultimately, we need to have a spirit of grace when we encounter one other, realizing that the healthiest way to grieve this loss is to be honest with one another about our feelings and make clear our love for our family and the deceased. This will probably feel like walking a tight rope for the first few holiday seasons, but with grace and love for one another in the spirit of our loving God, I know that we’ll make it together.

May God bless you this Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year while you remember your loved ones, present and departed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power of Half and Teenagers

by Rev. Felicia Fox

One of the reasons I love my job is I get to see youth and children make a real difference in the world. They really do have a way of seeing past all of the surface level issues that seem to distract us adults. Here’s an example I found this week of a teenager who saw a need and came up with a pretty simple answer that transformed her family’s life.

One day a father was driving his fourteen year old daughter, Hannah through the streets of downtown Atlanta. Hannah noticed a homeless man with a sign asking for food. On the other side was a mercedes benz. The girl had a great idea. If the man in the mercedes had a less expensive car the homeless man could use some of that money to have a meal. It was a brilliant and simple idea. Over the next few weeks Hannah kept bringing the idea up with her family. One night her aggravated mother asked if she was suggesting they should sell their house and give away all their nice things. That’s exactly what Hannah wanted. That’s exactly what the family did. They sold their 1.5 million dollar home and brought one half the size. They donated all the things they no longer needed to charity. The money from their home when to fund projects in African villages. There are now villages in Africa that have medical clinics and schools thanks to Hannah and her family. This story was the inspiration for her book, The Power of Half.

Isn’t it just like a teenager to see a need and see a solution that no adult would ever think of? It seems pretty simple. If you have an extra car you don’t need, give it to somebody who needs it. If you have extra food, feed a hunger person. It is so simple but so hard for us adults to do. We have a way of finding reasons to keep all of our stuff. We often hide the motivation behind our real reasons by saying we are just being responsible. We might need those things one day. However, most of those reasons come back to our own selfishness and our lack of faith.

Jesus summed up the idea this way, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19 – 21)

This Sunday I’ll be sharing Hannah’s story with our youth during FLASH. We’ll be taking a hard look at our own lives and thinking about where our treasure really lies. I invite you to do the same. After all, none of us really own anything. It is all suppose to belong to God.

Felicia Fox is the Minister of Youth and Children at First Baptist Church of Mount Olive, NC. This article originally appeared on her blog.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dig Some Wells for Others Along the Way

By Dr. Mark T. White

A Winston-Salem columnist reminded his readers that self-focused living now surrounds us, and we cannot deny the escalation of “meism” in our society today. Delayed gratification is basically non-existent. Replenishing what we have taken is rarely a priority. Oblivious to the biblical principal that future generations suffer from the myopia of their ancestors, people continue to take, take, and take.

Roger Pearman illustrates from his own experience how we can reverse this and find hope. When he was five years old he was spending a long, hot summer at his great-grandparents farmhouse 50 miles past Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County, N.C. Play was hard due to the heat. Every few minutes he had to find a cool spot to rest.

On one particular day, he dipped the bucket into the well and pulled the water up. Once he had the bucket of cool water he poured it over his head and felt a wave of coolness sweep him.

As the cool water calmed his little body, his grandfather walked in and said in his typical terse, clipped way, “Remember boy, we all drink from wells we did not dig.” We share in the bounty of those before us, and it is our responsibility to dig wells for those who follow.

Roger says the importance of this moment did not come to him until years later when he was asked if he was a “self-made man,” to which he replied, “No, I have drunk from so many wells dug by so many people that the question makes no sense to me.”

We have all quenched our spiritual and emotional thirsts from the wells dug by those who have gone before us. I wonder…as you and I glance behind us at the next traveler coming down our same road, do we see them with bucket and dipper in hand drinking from a new well dug by us?

Mark T. White is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Clayton, NC. This article first appeared in their church newsletter, The Outlook.

Monday, November 7, 2011

This Odd and Wondrous Calling – A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers is written by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver, two United Church of Christ ministers. In the preface they note that there are a plethora of books and resources on doing various aspects of books, but little to no writing about the various aspects of lives of ministers. This book is for persons trying to discern a call to ministry, laypersons who want an inside perspective, and seasoned ministers who need hope and a sense of renewed calling. These ministers tell tag-team vignettes about various aspects of their lives—their marriages, ordinations, first pastorates, family deaths, delivering sermons, nurturing budding ministers, hospital visitations, and practicing justice work in the community. These stories are delightfully insightful, while being funny, down-to-earth, and relational in tone.

I found myself nodding and laughing as Daniel talks about delivering sermons and then finding what the congregation heard is not what you thought you’d said. Several stories emphasize that while this can be either amusing or troubling, it can also be miraculous when the Holy Spirit works to give a comforting word to a congregant in a time of need. Daniel’s honest tone as she talks about the blessings and difficulties involved with two married, dedicated people following their callings is refreshing and encouraging to many younger ministers who can’t seem to find enough time in the day for their family. Her struggle to be recognized a minister in spite of her age or gender is also one to which many can relate.

Beyond relating, there are also great examples of how to do ministry. Daniel is involved with community organizing and confronts injustices in her neighborhood along with other ministers. Copenhaver talks about how he found hope when tasked with the difficult job of delivering a benediction at his father’s funeral. Daniel addresses positive and negative models for the working relationship between senior and associate pastors. Copenhaver discusses important lessons he learned while shaking hands after the sermon. These lessons can be remarkably helpful for practicing ministry.

What struck me throughout the book was the playful, yet deeply thoughtful tone. These are two ministers, who, despite facing difficult times in their ministry, have fallen deeply in love with their calling. Daniel and Copenhaver present a hopeful and encouraging view of the church and ministry, while being realistic about the challenges of congregational ministry. Copenhaver reflects thoughtfully on the idea that people find God in nature. He states, “Given the demands of being in community with people, this should not be surprising. It is telling that the settings that we tend to describe as “peaceful” are invariably places with few, if any, people.” He goes on to challenge this notion by saying that the

“wonder is that God can be found inside the church, among quirky, flawed, and broken people who may have little in common and yet are bound to one another…But the Christian God seems to like to surprise us by showing up in the most unpromising of places, like a man from Nazareth and in a motley gathering of people known as the church” (232).

This is a beautiful statement that underscores the necessity of the hard work of reconciliation amongst church members. Only in reconciling in God can we learn to reconcile with our fellow church members and members of the community. Church is where we can learn to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger, and learn to forgive. It is clear that these ministers can clearly see and foster the ongoing work of God at hand in their congregations and community, while also having learned to set boundaries to give them time for rest and reflection. In that balance, ministry can be a truly wondrous thing, where liminal time is loosed and one has the refreshed eyes to see the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in their church and community.

Check out the book on Amazon!

Friday, October 28, 2011

St. John’s Baptist Forms Partnership to House Transitioning Homeless Families

Left to right: Dennis Foust,  Darren Ash, and Larry Hewitt in
the new offices for Charlotte Family Housing.
by Rev. Laura Barclay

In October 2010, St. John’s Baptist Church formed a Space Utilization Committee to assess how to use the second floor of their building, leading to an amazing partnership with Charlotte Family Housing that shelters families above their worship space.

Larry Hewitt, chair of the space committee, related that the church has previously housed a hospitality house for families of patients in the neighboring hospital. The hospital proceeded to build stand-alone facilities, and St. John’s wanted to figure out how to utilize the space in an ongoing partnership with the community and ensure that the building would be serving God beyond Sundays and Wednesdays.

Bert Green, Executive Director of Charlotte’s Habitat for Humanity, put the committee in touch with Darren Ash of Charlotte Family Housing, and they began talks to form only the second shelter in town that houses families. Moving in above the Fellowship Hall with the name “Hawthorne Place,” dorms will house six families at a time, with common areas for a computer lab, laundry room, kitchens and closets.

Ash relates that this move has been a blessing at a time when Charlotte seemed to be pushing homeless populations to the north side of town, making them feel unwelcome downtown. Many of Ash’s clients work at the neighboring hospital and will no longer face a long commute.

Ash shared that the goal is to transition these families out of the dorms and into the comfort of their own apartments, and then offer counseling services to help them cope with past traumas. Charlotte Family Housing has rental vouchers for about 120 apartment units for transitioning families, and the organization shelters and houses around 200 families a year.

Left to right: Ash, Hewitt and Foust in the living area of the
new apartments for homeless families.
In addition to living space, families receive asset-based social work to overcome obstacles to housing, as well as vocational counseling, housing advocacy and subsidies, financial incentives like microloans, ongoing clinical social work, and volunteer engagement with clients.

New pastor Dennis Foust is excited about the investment the church has made in their partnership, and is looking forward to building relationships between his congregants and the new residents through Wednesday night suppers, worship, and volunteer opportunities. Ash noted that the level of faith these families had was astounding and uplifting to the employees, who note their reliance on God during difficult times.

St. John’s partnership is prophetic for our times. Charlotte is ranked #2 in the nation for family homelessness. Charlotte Family Housing formed this year as a merger between three organizations to more efficiently and effectively care for homeless populations.

This partnership exhibits a church actively aware and engaged in their community and committed to what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment—loving God and neighbor.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Three Days and Nights

Noah and Sophie 2 yrs. ago
by Dr. Dennis Atwood

It was Sunday night when we realized one of our cats was missing. For over two years the daily routine has been: pets outside during the day and inside the house at night. We have two cats and a dog—all female—which seems to provide some balance to our three boy universe, ying to our yang. (However, with son number one now in college the dog has defaulted to me.) My younger two sons each have a cat. The cats, and the boys, have a nightly drill. After showers and teeth-brushing is done, just before prayers, the cats assume their nightly position—Sox on Cole’s bed and Sophie on Noah’s bed. But Sunday night Sophie was nowhere to be found. This was the first full night in over two years that the cat had not come inside for the night. Noah, who is ten, was not happy about not having his sleeping buddy. We assured him the cat would show up. Next day, nothing. On Tuesday, I made some “cat missing” fliers and we put them all over the neighborhood. Tuesday night came. Still nothing. I called Animal Control. Nothing. For three days and three nights we scoured the neighborhood calling for a cat that was not there.

Since we live next to a small swamp I began to fear the worst. On Monday I heard a story about a hawk that had recently snatched up a small dog living nearby and dropped it several miles away—near a vet’s office ironically enough. That dog didn’t hunt again. I also heard about a coyote recently seen prowling the golf course behind my house. With each passing day Noah got droopier and droopier. It’s hard for a parent to watch a child suffer loss and not be able to fix it. But I knew there was nothing more we could do.

Then on Wednesday morning, as Noah and Cole were outside about to head off to school, suddenly Cole came running in the house saying, “I found Sophie!” “What? Where?” I asked. “In Miss Beth’s car! It’s still locked!” In a few minutes, after rustling up the next door neighbors, Sophie was free and Noah was a happy boy. Turns out curiosity almost killed the cat. Our good friends had been loading up their GMC Envoy on Sunday afternoon for a trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Apparently, Sophie crawled undetected into their SUV during the loading of golf clubs, beach stuff, and luggage. For three days and nights Sophie hunkered down in the belly of a GMC never making a sound. They never knew she was in there!

So as this cat’s tale turns out, Sophie took a spontaneous vacation to South Carolina for three days with no food or water. She could have jumped out along the way or been run over. But instead she hunkered down for three days and nights entombed in a GMC… and Wednesday morning was like resurrection! After the initial joy, Noah and Cole had to rush off to school. But their joy was palpable. Their beloved cat that was as good as dead, they could now touch and see and speak to. She was alive and present! It was priceless. More than the cat’s return, seeing my son’s joy was the greatest satisfaction of all.

So I’m going to tell them tonight to remember how it felt to experience the surprise and joy of being reunited with someone they thought was gone forever. I want them to remember the sights, the smells, the touches of holding someone they thought they would never see again. Separation and loss is indeed painful and real—even if it involves a family pet.

In a small, tangible way, Sophie’s excursion to Hilton Head reminded me of just how joyful and tangible and real it will be one day to be reunited with those whom we have loved and lost. Our pain here is real, and sometimes we need a signal of the greater reality that awaits people of faith in the Christ who spent three days in a tomb. That final Easter morning is truly going to be glorious. In a strange and funny way, a curious cat and a little boy gave me a grace-filled moment—a foretaste of the gift of eternal life.

Dennis Atwood is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Mount Olive. This article originally appeared on his blog.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Panelists Urge Repair of Broken Immigration System

Interfaith panelists Carlos Arce, Hector Villanueva and Carol Goehring at screening.
 by Steve Devane

A Catholic priest told an ecumenical gathering at the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, N.C., for a screening of the documentary "Gospel Without Borders" that his faith tradition's social teachings call for a good government to welcome the stranger and secure its borders for the common good.

"The first principle in the social teachings is that people have the right to move to other places to protect their life and the life of their family. This is a basic right," said Carlos Arce, vicar for Hispanics in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. "Second, a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. These controls ... must be applied with justice, in human good and compassion."

Arce was one of three panelists who spoke after a screening of the documentary that presents a biblical rationale for welcoming strangers and debunks several misperceptions about immigration.

Other panelists included Carol Goehring, executive director of Connectional Ministries in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Hector Villanueva, pastor of Iglesia Bautista La Roca in Siler City, N.C., who was featured in the documentary.

The Raleigh event was the third documentary screening sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.

Villanueva gave his firsthand account of nearly being deported because of a 15-year-old crime for which he had already served a sentence.

Villanueva came to the United States from Mexico with his parents when he was 3 years old and acquired legal permanent residency due to a 1986 immigration reform law.

In the mid-1990s, however, he became addicted to drugs and was arrested for trying to cash someone else's check. He served 16 months in prison, became a Christian and was later ordained.

He moved to North Carolina with his wife and children to start a church in Chatham County, which has a large Hispanic population.

But in August 2010 he was arrested after applying for U.S. citizenship. The routine background check for citizenship uncovered the crime, and he was threatened with deportation to Mexico.

A judge ruled in Villanueva's favor last month, but the criminal record keeps him from becoming a citizen. He said to gain citizenship he will need a pardon from the governor of California, where the crime was committed.

"I want that right," said Villanueva. "I want to be able to vote."

Villanueva told stories of how police officers in his area hold license checks on the only road going to a neighborhood where immigrants live.

Yet no checks were made at a chicken processing plant where many Hispanics worked before it closed, he said.

"The people in the community don't want immigrants, yet they hire them," he said.

He said that undocumented workers cannot easily get legal status.

Acre said many immigrants want legal status, but don't have an "open window" to obtain it.

"The only way is to work for comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "This broken system is a real business for some people."

"The people you see in the documentary are not far from you," said Arce. "They are behind you. They are among you."

Goehring said churches could host "know your rights" seminars that teach immigrants how to navigate the legal system in the United States. Law students can often teach the workshops, she said.

Robert Parham, co-producer of the documentary and executive editor of, moderated the discussion with an audience of mostly Baptists, Catholics and Methodists.

People of faith should still work for change, even if it's incremental, Parham said. For example, people should use the phrase "undocumented worker," instead of illegal immigrant.

Churches also could show the 31-minute version of the documentary to their congregations and use a longer version over several weeks in Sunday school classes, Parham said.

Parham noted that several churches are located around the North Carolina state capitol, and he suggested a copy of the DVD be given to each state legislator.

Steve Devane is a North Carolina reporter on staff with Baptists Today. This article originally appreared on

Visit to learn more about's new documentary on faith and immigration. All CBFNC partner churches, divinity schools, and colleges will receive this free resource in the mail within the next month. We encourage you to hold a screening, partnering with other congregations and non-profits, or break it up by chapter using the discussion guide at for a Sunday School series. We are excited to be on the journey with you to discover how to help our immigrant neighbors. Visit CBFNC's Immigration page for additional resources.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Almost Christian - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently read Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean, minister and Associate Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. This book is both a dissection and reflection on the findings of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion Survey. Dean outlines several points: most American teens view religion in a positive light but do not think about it often; teens reflect the faith of their parents; most teens do not possess the religious vocabulary to talk about their faith; a small group of teens claim religion is important and they are doing better in a number of areas than most teens; and most teens follow a weak form of faith dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (21). Based on these findings, Dean explains and responds to the data while relating vignettes of certain teens’ stories.

Dean posits that the faith of many American parents, and what is presented in many churches, lacks the depth of a true, lived faith. Instead, churches and parents settle for a weak faith (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) that leads them to be nice in order to advance in society and achieve the American dream. Dean examines Mormon children, one of the exceptions to the rule. They are highly invested in their faith, possess the language to talk about their religious views, and have a high level of investment in their faith community and service on its behalf. While Dean is clear that Mormon views and practices are not ideal for many of us (women are excluded from leadership positions and young adults are encouraged to marry early, among a few views objectionable to moderates and progressives), she tries to determine what we might learn from Mormons that could help mainline traditions.

Dean determines that our churches and parents must have “missional imaginations” that are willing to engage in the mission of God in our communities, not for the churches’ gain, but to further the kingdom of God (89). This involves a justice-filled faith that is active outside the walls of the church. Dean also encourages churches to pair adults with youth going through baptism or confirmation (118). These adults, or catechists, would serve as mentors who walk alongside the youth, share their stories, and show their interest in the youth. This encourages adults to talk about their faith and mature in their walk, as well. Ultimately, we should seek transformation through our teaching in the church (172). Dean illustrates this by showing how one set of lessons paired with a missions project out of middle class suburbia and into a poor Mexican town transformed one teenage girl. The teen was able to give up what was most important to her and obtain a deeper, more authentic faith that allowed her to view the poor through the eyes of Jesus. In this way, certain youth on this trip were able to take the focus off of themselves and onto God and their neighbors, maturing their faith and helping them become better disciples.

Dean’s conclusions are ones in which I can agree: The church is both the problem and the solution (189). When we present a weakened form of our faith that exalts “niceness” over engagement in justice issues, exclude people from our churches who are not like us in the name of Christ, or present the American Dream as Christ’s ideal for us, we fail our youth. Instead, we need to embrace the mission of God and reorient our churches, inspiring our youth to follow Christ out into the world to serve the poor and oppressed. Until we commit to this, we cannot blame our youth for thinking that “being nice” and following the status quo is the same as following Jesus.

Find out more about the book here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall: Midlife and the Season of Harvesting

By Dr. Guy Sayles

Midlife is the autumn, the fall, of the human journey.

Who knows precisely how young or old a middle-aged person is? Chronologically it starts within sight of 40 and ends within range of 70. But, chronology is not the main marker of midlife. The realizations and emotions, the challenges and invitations, of this season come to some people when they are younger and never dawn on others, even though they draw Social Security checks and take annual distributions from their IRAs.

Fall comes when the harvest comes. Whatever our age, midlife begins when we know that we are reaping, as Paul puts it in Galatians, what we have sown: what we have sown, not what our parents or our teachers or our culture planted in us—not merely the inevitable results of the unconscious assumptions and habits we received by inheritance or instruction and not the by-products of patterns we simply breathed-in from the atmosphere in which we lived.

Midlife begins when we taste the fruit, however sweet or bitter, that we planted: choices and decisions we made; results, however good or bad, which we produced by what we did and did not do; and consequences, however pleasant or painful, that we can trace to our own behavior.

There comes a point in life where the statute of limitations runs out on blaming other people for what our lives have become. Mature adults don’t keep protesting against the distant past and drawing up indictments against people who, long ago, failed them, hurt them, or disappointed them in some way. When it becomes clear that we can’t shift blame any more to “them”—to parents or teacher or bosses or spouses or children or God—then we are in midlife.

At midlife, we begin to see, if we haven’t before, that we are more responsible for who we are and for how things are with us than anyone else is. Yes, of course, people sometimes do maddeningly frustrating things: they let us down, betray us, and wound us. But, we choose how we will respond. We decide, even when we do not know we are deciding, whether to stew in the cauldron of resentment or to remove ourselves from their boiling anger. We decide, consciously or unconsciously, to be frozen in loneliness by their insensitivity and self-preoccupation or to seek the warmth of love. We decide, intentionally or unintentionally, to let ourselves be taken for granted or taken advantage of or to put in place the boundaries which protect us from having our lives leached away from us.

In the fall of life, we “get-it” that we are the only actor who is present in all the comedies and tragedies of our lives. If most of the reviews of our varied roles and life-performances say that we are too intense or too serious or too flighty or too passive or too aggressive or have problems with authority or have a tendency to procrastinate, then it might not be that all the reviewers are novices and amateurs who aren’t worth listening to; it might be that are lessons for us to learn and improvements for us to make.

If I keep running into the same kind of brick walls, whether at work or at home or in friendships, then it’s likely that I am the wall-builder, not someone else. If I continue to make the same kinds of mistakes, get the same kinds of feedback, and deal with the same kinds of problems, it’s probably the case that the issue belongs, not so much to “them,” but to me. It’s a midlife realization. We say, as the old spiritual says: “It’s not my mother or my father, not my brother or my sister, not the preacher or the deacon, but it’s me—me— O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”

Midlife—fall-- is the season of harvest, of reaping what we have sown, and of assuming fuller responsibility for the shape and direction of our lives.

Guy Sayles is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, NC. This article was originally posted on his blog, “From the Intersection."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Discipleship, Stewardship and Missions: A Perspective from Haiti

by Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

At the CBFNC General Assembly in March at FBC Asheville, the mission offering we collected was designated for the newly formed Haiti Housing Network (HHN). CBF is one of the principal partners in this network, which has the ambitious goal of building one thousand homes in the Grand Goave community over the next three years. At the assembly, we asked Dr. Steve Bissette, a family physician and member of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, to issue the challenge and prayer for the offering. Dr. Bissette, husband of CBFNC moderator Donna Bissette, had taken a group of college students to Haiti to perform medical and construction work the previous summer. During his appeal, Dr. Bissette told the large group of worshippers that if they contributed enough money to build a house (then estimated to be $3,000, it has since been revised to $4,000), he would “personally guarantee that Larry Hovis would go on the trip and help build the house!” At the end of that service, in the euphoria of the moment, I upped the ante and challenged the assembly to contribute enough funds to build two houses, and publicly promised that I would, indeed, make the trip.

The trip was scheduled for the following August, right before the students were return to school. It was the hottest time of the year to visit one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. Prior to undertaking this journey, my daughter, Lauren, a college student for whom this was her third mission trip of 2011, encouraged me to read, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. I found the book to be extremely thought-provoking and it caused me to question, filter and analyze our mission trip (and all mission work) from a whole new perspective.

Our experience included meeting and worshipping with Haitian Baptists, meeting and learning from CBF global missions field personnel and partners, administering basic medical treatment (Dr. Bissette and a portion of our group for half the week), and working alongside Haitians in building a rubble house. Space limitations don’t permit me to describe the fascinating process of rubble house construction, so I encourage you to visit the following website for more information: I emerged from this week hot, tired, and sore, but also spiritually renewed. After processing this experience, I’ve drawn three conclusions and want to issue a challenge.

CBF is Doing Missions Right

While the situation in Haiti is very discouraging in many ways, including the dysfunctional government and the ineffectiveness of much of the relief effort there, CBF and our primary partner, Conscience International, are functioning with good missiology and a wholistic, sustainable, Christ-centered approach. The field personnel whom we encountered (Mike and Brenda Harwood and Jenny Jenkins) are dedicated, smart individuals who would pass the muster of When Helping Hurts. Our CBF efforts are done with the Haitians, not for them, empowering them ultimately to provide for themselves, rather than perpetuating a culture of dependency.

Benefits of Short-term Mission Engagement

While our team, no doubt, rendered some genuine service to the Haitians we encountered, we were the primary beneficiaries of our trip. As we traveled together, experienced a new culture, prayed together, met and worshipped with Christian brothers and sisters who are materially poor but spiritually rich, and interacted with our CBF missions field personnel who have sacrificed greatly to live and serve in a hard place, our faith was challenged, strengthened and renewed. If we are honest, then we have to admit that in terms of impact, it was more of a discipleship development experience for our group of American Christians than direct ministry to needy Haitians.

Field Personnel More Important, Not Less

It’s been customary, after thirty years of the short-term volunteer missions movement, to pat ourselves on the back for taking a week or two of our lives every year for a mission trip, and call ourselves missionaries. Some Christians and churches have questioned the need for vocational, field-based, full-time missionaries, and their support of such personnel has declined as they devote more and more resources to supporting their members in short-term projects and trips. But I came back from Haiti more convinced than ever of the necessity of “professional” missionaries. Mike, Brenda, Jenny and others built the relationships and prepared the way for us to have a meaningful experience. They remain in place long after we are gone. They get to know the people and the culture and ensure that our brief work is done in a way that helps rather than hurts those we purport to serve. Ironically, the more volunteers we send on short-term mission trips, the more vital our field personnel become.

A Modest (or is it Radical?) Proposal

Because God’s mission to the most neglected and least evangelized people in the world along with the discipleship development of short-term missions volunteers is dependent on the presence, effectiveness and faithfulness of vocational missions field personnel, I propose that CBF Christians and churches make the following pledge: for every dollar we spend to send a team on a short-term mission trip we raise another dollar for the support of the field personnel with whom they work and their colleagues around the globe. For example, I estimate that the Ardmore group spent around $15,000 to send eleven persons to Haiti, not including the $6,000 CBFNC gave to the Haiti Housing Network. This money came from a combination of church funds and the personal funds of team members. Under this proposal, we would raise an additional $15,000 to support our CBF field personnel. If every CBF short-term mission team followed this practice, we would be able to increase the number of our career missionaries and significantly strengthen our mission efforts around the globe.

There was a time in which we outsourced mission engagement to professionals and assumed ordinary Christians had no responsibility for global missions, other than supporting vocational missionaries. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? In our time, have we assumed (by our stewardship, if not our words), that because we can travel all over the world we no longer need vocational missionaries? It’s not either/or, but both/and. Our recent trip to Haiti made that very clear – at least to me.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBF of North Carolina.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Teach the Controversy

by Rev. Jason Blanton

"We just don't talk about that kind of stuff!"

That is a common thought among families trying to "get along" during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. People from far flung reaches of the country, with very different lifestyles and values coming together around the table can be quite challenging, so, in order to make things less challenging, we typically are taught to avoid certain topics.

Politics? Nope, can't talk about that!
How we raise our kids? Off limits.
Religion? Heavens No! (pun intended, wah wah)
How we hang our toilet paper? Forget it!

Unfortunately, that kind of attitude has infiltrated our churches, and so over the years we have avoided really talking about some things that really are quite important to believers, or at least should be. Now, in recent months, a couple of those topics have burst into the public conscience, and many believers have been left asking more questions than non-believers about what it is we actually believe.

It began with Rob Bell's book about Heaven and Hell. You guys remember that little tiff, right? It seems that what we have "always believed" about Hell may not be what WE'VE always believed. Or what we've ALWAYS believed. Or what we've always BELIEVED.

Many Christians were shocked to find that different interpretations of Hell, its nature and/or its existence have been prominent among different walks of faith for centuries - really since the very first theologians began to talk about such things. Yes, there is a general consensus, but it certainly isn't as open and shut as we've been led to believe.

Next came the Rapture - except, well, it didn't come! Evangelical American Christians were thunderstruck to read that a great majority of the world of believers think those "Left Behind" books should have been left behind - on the shelves of book stores.

At this point, the fangs and claws are usually extended, and we begin to divide ourselves up over these issues, not always fully understanding what it is that we think we understand so well.

So what happened?

A few thoughts. First, we've taken the Great Commission, to " as you are going, make disciples, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you..." and we've turned it into "go make converts."

We (I mean Evangelical Christians, because that is my context) have said that the most important thing we can do is get people to "accept Jesus," and we have structured ourselves according to that vision.

Frankly, I think that is all fine and dandy on Sunday Morning. Though I personally don't choose to do things that way, I understand why others do. It would have continued to be fine until we stopped having any other kind of discipleship.

I already hear you saying to your screen, "but Jason, we still have Wednesday services!," or, "we do small groups each week!." Those are great. Sincerely, I mean it, they are great, but they are only great if they are used as they are intended, to allow people to ask and probe and explore the depths of their faith.

If those smaller group times are only about teaching one particular viewpoint, or one particular interpretation, or one particular brand of orthodoxy, then we aren't making disciples at all, we are making robots.

Who do I blame? Me. Well, not just me, but all of my friends and co-workers who pastor churches. You see, we like being liked. And we like being smart. And we like being right.

We don't like when people question us, especially when they do a good job of it!

I distinctly remember going through seminary, and on a daily basis thinking, "why aren't the people in the pews being given any idea that these kinds of debates are happening every day among the people who stand in our pulpits every Sunday?"

I don't know if it is a lack of trust in our congregations, or a lack of trust in God, or a lack of trust in ourselves - but whatever the reason, we haven't done a great job of building theological depth in our modern congregations.

Its time to teach the controversy! Its time to have time set apart, in Sunday School, on Wednesday, or in small groups where people aren't just encouraged to ask questions, but also made to answer questions from believers in other denominations, or from other cultures.

Muscles only strengthen when you work them, and our faith only strengthens when we put it to the test.

I realize most of you reading this aren't preachers, so you may be asking what you can do. Take some initiative. Read more. Read people outside your comfort zone. Ask questions. Work your faith out with fear and trembling, and understand that God is big enough for any questions you may have, and that truth is true no matter how well examined.

Jason Blanton is the pastor of Grace Crossing in Charlotte. This article originally appeared on his blog,

Friday, September 9, 2011

Justice for Hector, but a Long Road Ahead

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Friday, September 2, 2011, was over a year in the making for Hector Villanueva, CBFNC pastor and legal resident who faced deportation after applying for citizenship and was arrested for a 15-year-old crime for which he had already served time—cashing a check that wasn’t his while homeless. CBFNC staff organized ministers and laity to pack the courtroom in support, and Hector gave compelling testimony about his transformation in serving God through his ministry and his commitment to his wife and children, which includes two adopted daughters. The judge, moved by his testimony and our support, said that he was convinced of Hector’s “rehabilitation” and canceled his deportation. The judge carefully reminded him that he could never be a citizen under current U.S. immigration law, though his wife and children all enjoy that privilege.

Relief and joy washed over Hector, his family, and reverberated throughout the CBFNC network. We’ve received countless messages of support for Hector over the last year and in the wake of this positive decision. However, the fact that Hector is barred from citizenship is a reminder to us that our system is flawed and there is little room for grace. States across our union are faced with these realities every day. Denominations are suing the Alabama state government for violating the practice of their faith by passing a law indicating that anyone who aids an undocumented immigrant will be arrested. Arizona requires all immigrants to carry and show their papers. Here in North Carolina, our Hispanic Network of Churches is facing a growing crisis. Police officers camp outside their churches, checking the documents of every driver entering for worship. Many of our Hispanic pastors, who are citizens or legal immigrants, have to drive vanloads of members to church because the police can only check the driver’s ID. Our current system is clearly broken, and our immigration quota system has barred many immigrants from ever obtaining citizenship. This means there is no line for those without documents to get into in order to immigrate legally.

We as Christians are called to respond to our neighbor. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus reminds us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Whatever your opinions on what immigration reform should look like, the gospel is clear in how we should treat the stranger in our midst.

What can you do for your immigrant neighbor? You can begin by getting to know them. Consider a partnership between your church and a Hispanic congregation. Listen to their stories. Learn more about our current immigration system, by non-partisan resources and not from the mouth of a politician trying to get your vote. CBFNC, along with the United Methodist Church and other faith groups, has partnered with the Baptist Center for Ethics to produce a documentary, Gospel Without Borders that can be used in Sunday schools paired with an online discussion guide. Consider attending an upcoming screening. The North Carolina Council of Churches also has an excellent church resource called Becoming the Church Together which includes lessons and a concise time line for learning about the history of immigration.

Throughout Hector’s ordeal, I learned that immigrants have no right to an attorney and no right to benefits other than public education and emergency care. Many states have barred children brought here by their parents from obtaining a college or vocational education. Immigrants are under such hardship they can barely attend church without getting deported. We must ask ourselves what an authentic Christian response looks like in these difficult situations. I, like many of you, am a white, U.S. citizen who has never had to worry about such consequences. Instead of harboring guilt for this privilege, the proactive question remains: How will we use the privilege we were born with to change the system for those who have none? I hope that you will take advantage of one of the above resources and walk with us on the journey.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Love Wins – A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Intrigued by all the controversy about Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, I delved into this book expecting some shocking revelation similar to one of the tabloids in the grocery check-out aisles (i.e. “Christ Really an Alien!”). Alas, this book is not nearly as controversial as all the media coverage made it seem, and many of the detractors didn’t even read the book before condemning it due to rumors of its content before it hit bookstores. What I can say is this: If I had read this book in college after many bad experiences with churches, I wouldn’t have spent several years outside the church.

Rob Bell is writing this book for “all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’(viii)” In other words, he’s talking to those who have left the church because they felt or observed others feeling excluded or judged which was not in keeping with their understanding of a loving God. Bell is careful to cite Scripture and theologians to show that his views are not new, though they may not currently be the loudest narrative on judgment and the afterlife in America.

Bell goes on to address the topics of heaven, hell, end times, and the good news. From my interpretation of his writing, Bell believes that both heaven and hell are present realities that extend beyond death. Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven being near during his ministry and also talked about being with the thief on the cross in paradise after death. Bell says there is life-giving work that Christians can do to create the community and ministry of Christ on earth and after death. Here, the reality of heaven is not fully realized, and after death we are with God, but still have no body. We must work toward the day when the kingdom of heaven will be joined with earth (forget millennialism and the dozens of failed Rapture dates), answering Jesus’ prayer to see things “on earth as it is in heaven.” Only then will we see the kingdom of God fully actualized as described in Revelation—a beautiful city with open gates.

Additionally, Bell believes that hell is also a present reality that extends beyond death. We can freely choose at any point in this life or the next to live into God’s message of love. Hell isn’t permanent, but a state of being one chooses daily. Rejecting love is its own punishment—the isolation of living for one’s self, of embracing greed, and of not loving one’s neighbor. This is a daily misery from which God desperately wants us to turn. Bell works through all the passages in the Bible related to hell and cites many that talk of God’s love, justice, and grace to point toward a more redemptive, cohesive view of God as one of endless love and hope. Bell believes this view of God is more powerful than one that would limit God’s powers’ of salvation to a specific time period while one is living on earth. Bell states, “So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will ‘get into heaven,’ that reduces the good news to a ticket…The good news is better than that” (179). The good news is that God loves us, and we can be in relationship with a God whose arms are always open.

Ultimately, there will always be a wide range of ideas on the afterlife. Many of these can be healthy when Jesus’ message of love is taken seriously and given the utmost importance over that which we cannot know. I do think that many in my generation (Millenials or Generation Y) who are friends with people of all faiths and no faith see more traditional views on salvation as unhelpful in a post-modern reality. Bell’s book can start a discussion among many who have left the church or are considering leaving. According to Robert Putnam, author of American Grace, the fastest growing group of those considered religiously unaffiliated are young people. Until the 90s, about 5-7% of young people were religiously unaffiliated. That number has risen to between 25-30%. Perhaps beginning a conversation with young people that starts with God’s boundless love rather than fire and brimstone is a good starting place!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Prison Letters/Sacred Writings

by Dr. Tim Moore

Recently, I’ve been reading “prison letters.” I find the experience of reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison depressing. It has been a very different experience than reading MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Each of them was a survivor. Bonhoeffer never walked free again. During the first year of his imprisonment, he wrote to his fiancé and to his parents of hope that he would have a trial date and would be released on the trumped up charges the Nazis had created. It is clear by the second year that he is aware that he will probably never be released and his only earthly hope of getting out alive is a quick end of the war.

It is however in the second year of his imprisonment that his writing takes on a much deeper level. In the first year of his imprisonment his writing is focused on his assimilation to prison life, concern for his fiancé and family, hope for a trial date, frustration when trail dates are postponed and, most obviously, a hope for being released from prison. By the second year of his imprisonment such “hope” is gone. It frees him to write philosophically and theologically in a more unattached way. It is almost as if he is already an outside observer to our human existence. In one sense he is already dead. The life he knew before he was arrested, before the plot to assassinate Hitler, before the foundation of the Confessing Church as a protest to the Lutheran Church, which supported Hitler, this life was gone. He was buried alive in prison. He could write to family and friends from the grave, even have short, supervised visits with a few of them once or twice a month. But they were visiting the living dead. Bonhoeffer admits in one letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge that he purposely focuses his attention to thinking and writing to avoid his own personal desires, which would be “simply self-torture.” In this way he lived beyond his life.

Christian mystics describe something like Bonhoeffer’s experience. That in the hours, or days, of meditation and solitude they transcend their own lives – forgetting their desires, detaching from their lives – which opens them to God in new and profound ways. But then, of course, their period of meditation ends, and they return to their lives, return from the dead. It is however different for Bonhoeffer, who knows he is under a death sentence. In that sense his writings are sacred, words shared from one whose life is gone but whose heart still beats. It’s also why reading “prison letters” are unlike any other reading.

Tim Moore is the Pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, Signposts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Solitude

by Rev. Tommy Bratton

As I near the end of my sabbatical, I am spending time in solitude here in Kentucky at Bethany Spring, the retreat house for the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, just down the road from the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived as a monk.

According to the Merton Institute, when living contemplatively, we recognize:

*Our everyday, ordinary life is our spiritual life.

*It is every person’s primary vocation to be fully human, aware of who we are and how we relate to others.

*All relationships are interrelated and we see God in each of them.

*Our spiritual formation cannot take place in isolation. It is grounded in the experience of relationships and community.

*Our personal transformation is the foundation for societal and cultural transformation.

Words like solitude, silence, and contemplation are not words many of us find comforting. We are not used to being alone with ourselves and God. We might even be afraid of solitude. We definitely don’t think we have time or need for it.

But solitude is a time for rest, renewal, refreshment. We all need sacred spaces, “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is thin, where we can simply sleep and eat and pray. We need a space where God speaks to us and humbles us and re-commissions us. Do you have a place like that?

Trevor Hudson, in speaking of the transforming nature of solitude, reminded me, “The God who called you to solitude promises to meet you there.” I believe that to be true.

He also quoted Henry Nouwen who once said, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.”

Here is a poem that I have written while here in the retreat house. While I am not much of a poet, these words reflect my experiences here.

In Solitude

In solitude, I was not alone.

The Spirit that infuses creation spoke loudly
through the chirping of crickets, the fluttering
of birds of all kinds, and the persistent buzzing
of a bee reminding me to respond.

Those whom I love were there in the silence.
I smiled as I recalled (how could I ever forget?) their faces,
their quirks, their hugs, their laughter,
their uniqueness as children of God.

And of course, the shadows were also there -
The need to be loved, the fear of failure,
the competition to be smarter, the temptation
to define others for my own sake.

But in solitude, the shadows are more recognizable and less frightening.

Then, a still small voice in the silence (because I am finally still and small and silent) reminds me . . .
“You are loved.”
“You are accepted.”
“You are not alone.”

In solitude, I can hear the Spirit’s voice.
In solitude, I can see myself more clearly.
In solitude, I am never alone – I am surrounded by love.

Tommy Bratton is the Minister of Christian Formation at First Baptist Church of Asheville. This article originally appeared in his blog, Getting Dressed in the Dark.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gospel Without Borders - A Film Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay
From the start, the gritty images of border crossings, border patrol, police cars, barren deserts, and government buildings place the audience firmly in another world—one with which immigrants are all too familiar. The video begins with the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” as we watch a desolate path that evokes images of the Good Samaritan story.

Gospel Without Borders is a documentary produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics and sponsored by the United Methodist Church, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, and other faith groups that shows vignettes of immigrant stories. Woven in are interviews with attorneys, ministers, immigrants, and government officials. The documentary challenges the audience to look through eyes of faith and step outside hyper-partisan, vitriolic viewpoints.

Eleven miles inside the Arizona border, the Presbyterian ministry “No More Deaths” offers water and food to immigrants near death after they have crossed a dangerous section of the Sonora Desert. In the last decade alone, at least 5,000 have died here because towns have been sealed off by border patrol, forcing immigrants to wander through treacherous paths. The ministers there share that they spend much of their time walking the migrant paths looking for the dead or near dying, who reluctantly cross the border to find jobs to support their family. Recently, they found the body of a 14-year-old girl, identified only by the green shoes in the missing person’s description.

Another vignette tells the story of CBFNC pastor and missions council member, Hector Villanueva, who was taken from his home in front of his children by local sheriff’s deputies. Hector, a legal resident who had applied for citizenship, served 16 months in prison in California almost 15 years ago for cashing a check that was not his. According to immigration law, if you’ve ever committed a felony, even if you’ve served time and paid for your crime, you can still be deported. Hector, who dedicated his life to God in prison, now faced deportation and a possible forced separation from his wife and children, who are all U.S. citizens. Still, he pastors Iglesia Bautista la Roca in Siler City and has faith that his case will be dismissed.

Though these stories are gripping, viewers might ask questions related to policy. Interviews with an immigration attorney and a Mexican consul engage some of the misperceptions created by partisan bickering. Attorney Paul Charton addresses the myth that these immigrants are merely skipping line to get in the country illegally and states, “There is no legal avenue for them.” Andrés Chao, the Mexican Consul in Little Rock, AR, refutes the rumor that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. In fact, they do pay taxes and pay into social security, of which they are not eligible to receive benefits. They also confront the idea that immigrants drain money from social services. The only services they can receive are emergency health care and K-12 public education, which every person in America receives. All told, immigrants pay more into the system than they receive from these few programs.

There are several more compelling stories, and the documentary asks questions for thought and action. There is a review of what the Bible says about fear, justice, and a Christian response to the stranger in the land. Gospel Without Borders ends with suggestions for next steps for your congregation, and images of multicultural Christian worship, calling the audience to a kingdom-centered community.

This documentary has a short and long version and can be split into chapters for Sunday School viewings, study, and discussion. There is a balance between telling immigrants’ stories and confronting the questions that keep many Anglo Christians from engaging in ministry or justice work with immigrants. Perhaps the most poignant quote from the documentary comes from a Baptist minister in Alabama, Ellin Jimmerson, who asked us to remember that Christians should hold U.S. law in regard but recognize that it is not always moral. She states that, like WWII era Japanese interment camps, “Segregation was a system of laws, thoroughly legal and thoroughly immoral.” This quote stands out for me as a white, moderate, Baptist minister, because I will forever be haunted by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that he was more troubled by “the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than justice” than by the KKK. As a white moderate, I am reminded to be constantly vigilant and advocate justice for the oppressed.

The biblical call to welcome the stranger and work for justice is currently at odds with the treatment of immigrants. This documentary challenges us to think about those tensions and act. Now what is your congregation going to do about it?

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina is sponsoring screenings of "Gospel Without Borders" around NC. For more information, please check out CBFNC's Immigration Resource Page.