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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Setting Records

by Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

This column is the first in a series of periodic reflections from CBFNC executive coordinator Larry Hovis, distributed through various CBFNC electronic and social media, on CBFNC’s current ministry focus: “Collaborating with North Carolina Fellowship Baptists to strengthen and develop Christ-centered missional community in these rapidly changing times.”

At 2 pm on July 9, 2011, Derek Jeter, shortstop for the New York Yankees, made history. In a game at Yankee Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays, in the third inning, Jeter hit a home run against David Price of the Rays. It was Jeter’s 233rd home run of his career. But more importantly, it was Jeter’s 3000th career hit. Because baseball is driven by statistics, here are a few related to Jeter’s achievement:

· Jeter is only the 28th player to reach 3000 career hits
· He is the first Yankee to reach that milestone
· He is the sixth youngest player to join the 3K club
· Jeter is the eleventh player to have made 3000 hits with one team
· He is the second person (the other one being Wade Boggs) to have reached 3000 with a home run

As great a feat as this was, another part of the story is even more amazing. What is every baseball fan’s dream? To catch a ball off a major league hitter’s bat, especially a home run, especially a record-setting home run. The lucky Yankee fan, a 23-year-old cell phone salesman who caught Jeter’s record-setting ball, was in the right place at the right time and benefited from the fact that his father couldn’t hold on to it. Experts estimated that the ball would fetch more than a hundred thousand dollars on the auction block. So what did this fan do? This fan with two hundred thousand dollars in college debt? He gave it back to Jeter. He said,

"Mr. Jeter deserved it. I'm not gonna take it away from him. Money's cool and all, but I'm 23 years old, I've got a lot of time to make that. It was never about the money, it was about the milestone."

The young man’s name, appropriately, is Christian Lopez.

What would our world be like of all people­ - no, narrow it down a little bit - if all Christians acted like Christian Lopez. If we truly thought of others’ needs before our own. What would our world be like if churches were communities that corporately modeled this kind of selfless behavior, and formed community members who put personal profit aside for the good of their neighbors? How would if affect our programming, our budgeting, our ministries?

I know nothing of Christian Lopez’ faith commitments, but whether he was conscious of it or not, in returning the baseball to Derek Jeter rather than keeping it for himself and possibly eliminating his debilitating college debt, Christian was following after the example of his namesake, a way of life described by the Apostle Paul in this way:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:1-14).

What would our world be like if Christians and churches really, truly, every day acted like Christian Lopez, who gave generously and selflessly like Jesus? That would set a record to end all records.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Christian Terrorist?

by Rev. Laura Barclay

In the wake of the horrible terrorist attack in Norway, many are left trying to make sense of all the violence, death, and loss. At last count, 68 people were killed at the summer camp site and eight died in the bombing of the Oslo government building. There has been some argument over whether or not to call Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect, a Christian terrorist. Piecing together information, it appears that Breivik thinks of himself as a sort of modern “Knights Templar” who is to crusade against Muslims and Marxists. He states there are others in this group who will carry out similar attacks across Europe, a claim that officials are now investigating.

For the first time, I feel like I have some personal understanding of what my Muslim friends must feel like when they fear public judgment of adherents to Islam based on the stories of extremists who claim their faith. What if the only knowledge some have of Christians are Breivik’s actions? Will Christianity be perceived in Norway similarly to how some Americans view Islam in the wake of 9/11?

Dr. Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister and scholar on comparative religion and Islamic studies, wrote a book shortly after the September 11 attacks called When Religion Becomes Evil. He discusses various signs that religion has been corrupted for evil purposes, including the belief that the end justifies any means and the inciting of holy war. I heard a report on NPR where officials said Breivik stated he was sorry that he had to kill so many, but that it was necessary in order to fight the acceptance of diversity in Norway. Similarly, Kimball discusses how the Church during the Inquisition used torture and burnings to root out “heretics” and force conversions. This violent approach caused 40,000 Jews and many Muslims to flee Spain, with others converting under fear and torture (149).

Breivik also believes this is the first in a line of attacks meant to start a holy war to claim Europe for Christians and drive out Muslims. This concept of holy war was embraced by the church to fight Muslims during the crusades, where slaughter of the enemy was considered a “penitential act” (162). However, the Templar scholar in the CNN article was careful to say that even the Knights Templar wouldn’t slaughter innocent civilians as Breivik did.

The point is that no religion is immune to violence or terrorism. While many Christians are shocked, there are documented cases of Christian terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh who carried out the 1995 attack in Oklahoma city (raised a Catholic and angered by government actions against the Branch Davidians in the 1994 Waco, TX, incident), the Ku Klux Klan, and a group called the Army of God, responsible for abortion bombings in the U.S.(45).

Instead of making the argument that Breivik and others are not Christians, it would probably be more productive to acknowledge his beliefs as a distortion and corruption of Christianity and work that much harder to explain Christ’s teachings of love. Kimball states, “Proximate justice and peaceful coexistence are realistic goals for those who avoid the pitfalls of absolute truth claims and who are committed to working toward a better future using means that are consistent with desired ends. People in various faith traditions must be clear among themselves and with one another: holy war is not an option” (212). Christians and Muslims in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and beyond must hold to this statement if we are to consider ourselves sincere followers of God and embrace one another in the spirit of our loving God.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 (NIV)

“If God had so willed, He would have created you one community, but [He has not done so] that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete with one another in good works. To God you shall all return and He will tell you the truth about that which you have been disputing” (Qur’an 5:48).