Friday, May 25, 2012

"Can We Talk?" - Reflections on the Recent Sexuality and Covenant Conference

Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

For fifty years, comedienne Joan Rivers has made a living off of the question, “Can We Talk?” Her comedy routines typically involve injecting this question into her monologues on humorous subjects that are sometimes taboo. Of course, she doesn’t really expect an answer to her question. She always talks.

National CBF and the Mercer University Center for Theology and Public Life should be commended for initiating a conversation on a subject that is central to our humanity, and therefore to Christian spirituality and discipleship, but unfortunately, is rarely discussed in the church. The conference planners tried to make clear that the purpose of the conference was not to develop policies or make proclamations. Still, anxiety was on high alert in some quarters of the CBF community prior to the conference, out of fear that the conference was simply a smokescreen for launching a particular agenda. Those fears were unfounded.

Though one of the most controversial subjects of our day, homosexuality, was not the focus of the conference, it was on the minds of most conference participants. Plenary sessions, however, covered a wide range of sexuality-related topics, including: identity; discernment; historical and theological resources; covenant; contemporary sociological realities; human sex trafficking; sexual behavior and challenges among young adults, single adults and senior adults; and yes, homosexuality.

Plenary presentations were bracketed by worship, including singing and silence, encouraging conferees to open themselves to the voice of the Spirit. The tone was that of respectful listening and seeking understanding, not antagonistic debate.

A particularly helpful element of the conference was the establishment of Covenant Community Groups. These groups of around fifteen persons met for five dialogue sessions, where we could process and discuss the presentations we heard in plenary sessions. I was surprised at the depth of sharing and the mature level of Christian community our group was able to develop in a short period of time. The conference design of a rhythm between large plenary presentations and small group discussion should be considered for conferences on other topics, as well.

My reflections on the conference have led me to draw several conclusions:

First, this was a courageous first step in resourcing congregations and the CBF community to engage a critically important topic for our time, one which we have neglected, to our peril, for far too long.

Second, my sense (admittedly very subjective) is that those of us who embrace a more traditional sexual ethic (sexual intercourse is only properly expressed within the covenant of marriage) were a minority at the conference. This was not the fault of the conference planners, but because many “CBF regulars” simply chose not to attend. I hope they will participate in this conversation in the future.

Third, I left the conference wanting more in-depth biblical and theological reflection on the topic of sexuality. North Carolina’s own Guy Sayles (pastor of FBC Asheville) delivered a thoughtful presentation on discerning God’s voice, with a creative treatment of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. As a people bound together by the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures, our efforts to faithfully explore sexuality, even in our contemporary context, must be rooted in the Bible.

During the first dialogue session with my Covenant Community Group, I confessed that as a pastor and a CBF leader (and I think this true for most of us), I have had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regards to not just one aspect of sexuality, but with all things related to sexuality. This conference was a needed first step to change that reality.

“Can we talk?” As faithful followers of Jesus– “the word [which] became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), the high priest who is able to sympathize our weaknesses and invites us to approach God’s throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help with all our needs (Hebrews 4:15-16)–we can and we must.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBFNC. Watch video of the speakers on CBF’s Vimeo Channel. Feel free to utilize them in your own church discussions on sexuality!

Related article:
Why I'm Glad We're Having a Discussion on Sexuality by Laura Barclay, CBFNC Social Ministries Coordinator

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pilgrim Practices - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Pilgrim Practices: Discipleship for a Missional Church by Kristopher Norris is book that posits “discipleship is primarily an identity and is formed and practices in and through the church community” (xvi). The way that one forms that identity is through pilgrimage and practice, ancient ways that can and should be renewed in the current social context. After identifying American hyper-individualism as a paradox to the church as the body of Christ and a communal path of missional discipleship as expressed in the book of James, Norris outlines eight pilgrim practices for discipleship: believing, listening, welcoming, committing, speaking wisely, witnessing, caring, and praying.

I resonated the most with Norris’ chapter on welcoming. Norris identifies hospitality as one of the issues with which the church has struggled the most and longest. Since Christianity became a dominant religion, it has struggled with how to treat the poor, as well as its role in fostering racism, sexism, heterosexism , and other –isms from which the greater culture suffers. I was particularly taken with his interpretation of James 2:1-8, where James states that a congregation should not favor a person “wearing …fine clothes” over dirty ones. Norris exegetes that the rich person is a wealthy politician that can do favorable things for the congregation and the poor person is pushed to the side because he can only bring himself and that is seen as a burden. Norris challenges us to look beyond alliances between church and state and the identities that society places on us and embrace the radical hospitality of Jesus, who insists that the poor are blessed and that the rich are on notice.

Also intriguing was his chapter called "Witnessing: I Pledge Allegiance," where he encourages us to be Christians first and then Americans, Southerners, sports fans, etc. He encourages Christians to step outside politics and be more proactive and hands-on to solve problems as churches. I agree with much of this, as the Church engaged in real world problems coheres to the vision of the kingdom of God. I would caution that churches still need to be vigilant and active in the political realm in a non-partisan way on issues like religious liberty and speak truth to power on issues of justice that can only be overcome by overturning unjust policies. I would venture to say that Norris would agree at least on the church taking prophetic stances, based on his statements in the subsequent "Caring" chapter quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. and urging churches to speak against war.

Kristopher Norris writes with great thoughtfulness and wit (I laughed out loud when he referenced Ben Stiller’s attempt at prayer in Meet the Parents) about reclaiming practices that are absolutely necessary for the church to embrace transformational discipleship. I recommend this to churches that are looking to do a study on discipleship. The questions at the back of the book can help facilitate group discussion. Norris’ writing, while solidly researched, is appealing to both ministers and laity, and his humor, compassion, and pacing makes this a quick and enjoyable read.

You can get more information and order Pilgrim Practices here:

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Revelation Of A Slow Move

by Rev. Len Keever

If we pay attention, God speaks in many things. As we were moving to our new home in Dunn, God showed me some things I’d like to share.

Nine years ago, about this time of year, Cathy and I were moving to Dunn. It was in many ways an easy move. The movers came on one day and boxed up all our “stuff.” They returned the next day to load our “stuff.” We drove to Dunn and on the third day, our “stuff” was unloaded and put away. We were only separated from our “stuff” one night. What made the move easy is that we were uninterrupted, focused on a new place and a new calling. We only had two jobs at the time: say good-bye and say hello.

Compare that to our move across town. It took months to prepare; lots of time to pack. Over weeks we carried over a load at a time. When the official moving day came it was three days long. We would still be moving if we didn’t have so many good friends helping. One day, in the midst of the move, I realized something that touched me: in the past when we moved people who hated to see us leave helped us pack and strangers welcomed us. In this move people who are glad we are here helped us move and friends who already love us helped us unpack. Anyway, we still have boxes to unpack. The move seemed to take forever. We thought we’d never get there. We worked our jobs by day and packed at night. Saturdays were spent planning, deciding what to keep and what to discard, cleaning and fixing. Then finally, after what seemed like months of working slowly, one night we were there. One morning we woke up and realized we were in a different place.

That’s the way it is in our spiritual life. Most of our growth as a Christian takes place over long periods of time. We work on it slowly, between interruptions and outside responsibilities, then one day, having been accompanied by friends who love us, we wake up and we realize we are not in the same place anymore. God has transformed us; faith has indeed changed us.

When is the last time you stopped to think about how God has changed you? When is the last time you slowed down long enough to realize that you are not who you once were and that your spiritual “stuff” isn’t where it once was? It takes time to become the person God wants us to be. It takes long nights and busy weekends to decide what is important and what can be discarded; what habit needs to be thrown away and what old belief needs to be shredded and burned. We don’t make these moves alone. So many of us are looking for quick fixes and overnight changes but that isn’t always the way of God. Change/transformation is more about the journey than an instantaneous event; moving closer to God is often achieved through a long string of choices and a steady discipline of focused attention.

Don’t give up on your prayers. Don’t give up on your desire to know Christ in greater portion. Keep moving . . . one day you will wake up and realize just how far God has already brought you. One day you will realize you were not alone in your journey.

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

Friday, May 4, 2012

What to Do with the Time that Is Given to Us

by Dr. Guy Sayles

At a critical point in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, the Hobbit whose burden it was to carry the Ring toward its destruction—the destruction that would save Middle Earth—has grown weary and disheartened. He’s afraid and uncertain. He says to the wise wizard, Gandalf the Grey, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." Gandalf replies: "So do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

We don’t get to choose the times we live in, and we can’t completely control, no matter how strong and vigilant we are, what happens to us. None of us chose to live in the wake of terror attacks, a foreclosure crisis, and the collapse of real estate values. We didn’t choose an era of high unemployment, growing homelessness, and alarmingly expensive health care. We didn’t choose these times and conditions.

And, some things have happened to us that confuse, frustrate and disappoint us. They feel undeserved and unfair.

Disease intruded or disaster struck and dashed our dreams just as we were starting to live them.

Failure came and took away our confidence.

Or, we gave everything we had to give—our hardest work, highest hopes, and deepest yearnings—to people who did not, would not and, for that reason, could not know and love us.

There are times when we understand Frodo: “I wish this had never come to me. I wish this had never happened.” And we need Gandalf’s wisdom: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Life isn’t so much about what happens to us as it is about what happens in and with us as a result of what happens to us. What happens in us and with us can be hopeful and healing, joyful and renewing, if we make decisions that are consistent with who we are and what matters.

We are children of God, and what matters most is finally and always love. The overarching priority for any follower of Jesus is compassionate, creative and tenacious love for other people and devoted, growing and grateful love for God. The Great Commandment is also a constant invitation: keep learning how to love God with all you are and your neighbor as yourself."

So we ask, over and over again: what responses can I make that will help me to become more empathetic, understanding, open, and giving? More committed to the ways of peace, mercy, justice and joy? How might the circumstances I face stretch my heart, widen my mind, clarify my values, and strengthen my courage? How can the challenges and opportunities I face become my teachers in the ways of love?

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