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!