Friday, June 29, 2012

An Interfaith Journey in Turkey

House of Mary
by Rev. Laura Barclay

Another stop on our family vacation was Selcuk, Turkey, formerly known as the biblical city of Ephesus. Our tour guide John informed us that the country is 99% Muslim, the government is secular, and the culture is very modern due to the influence of their first president and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Our first stop was the House of Mary, where Vatican historians believe that Mary was brought by the disciple John during the final years of her life and is now an official pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics. Outside the house, there is a plaque with verses from the Koran honoring Mary, stating that she is "chosen...above all women (Chapter 3 verse 42)."

Ryan and me at the Ephesian Theater where Paul preached.
In the heart of Ephesus, John told us the story of Paul preaching to the Ephesians in the 25,000 seat theater, as I watched Muslim archaeologists work with great care around the perimeter of the site. John stated that the Ephesians would have made their living making and selling idols of the Roman gods. Paul's message to worship one God and put away idols caused a riot. Standing on the stage of the theater, I tried to imagine 25,000 people ready to riot and throw me into prison. John's storytelling ability's greatly aided my imagination. At the historic St. John’s Basilica where John the Apostle supposedly started a church and was buried, I heard the call to prayer at the neighboring Jesus (“Isabey”) Mosque in the same valley as the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The people of Turkey were proud of their shared heritage with Christians and eager to protect our religious sites and educate visitors. Everywhere we went, we were offered refreshments and hospitality. They are proud of their democratic, secular, forward thinking government that provides good roads, public education, freedom of religion and universal healthcare. John related that the people are also eager to educate about stereotypes. He is frequently told by Westerners that he doesn’t “look Muslim or Arab enough” because he has blue eyes and lighter gray hair, or that he doesn’t dress like a Muslim because he is wearing a polo shirt and khakis. Turkish people, he stated, as well as other groups in the Middle East have separate and distinct cultures than what is represented on the news about the Middle Eastern world.

I was also surprised to learn that while the governments of Turkey and Greece have their differences, the people are remarkably similar in culture, eating and drinking the same foods and living very similar day to day lives. Turkey has also recently decided against joining the European Union because their economy is doing well and they are afraid that joining the E.U. would devalue their currency, among other things.

The positive nature of interfaith relations in Turkey is a wonderful testament to our shared Abrahamic heritage and the healthy relationship that can come from respectful dialogue, desire to find similar ground, and genuine care for one another’s beliefs. I hope that the rest of the world can learn from this example, especially in light of recent attempts to ban mosques in the United States, where freedom of religion and conscience is a founding tenant of both our country and our Baptist faith.

Friday, June 22, 2012

An Underdog Story in Rome

Arch of Titus depicting sacking of Temple
by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently went on family vacation with my husband’s family on a Mediterranean cruise with stops in Rome, Athens, Crete, Sicily and Turkey. It was the trip of a lifetime with great religious and cultural significance. My favorite stop, Rome, also held some unexpected revelations.

Inside the Colosseum
In the Roman Forum, our guide Leah, had us sit near the base of the Arch of Titus. She asked us if we noticed anything familiar. We noted the depiction of a menorah. Leah related that this arch marked the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D. The treasures of the Temple, as well as Jewish slaves were brought to Rome. The treasures financed the building of the Colosseum and, as further insult, the Jewish slaves were forced to build it. In the 1940’s, Adolf Hitler and Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini walked under the Arch of Titus to symbolize a second conquering of the Jews. After World War II and the creation of the state of Israel, peaceful relations between Italy and Israel were instituted only after Italy agreed to rope off the Arch and never allow anyone to walk underneath again, which would be a symbolic recreation of the destruction of the temple. Everyone who tours the Forum with a guide hears this story, as the Italians are very aware and eager to educate about the disastrous rule of the cruel emperor Titus and the terrible dictator Mussolini.

Altar at St. Peter's Basilica

Later in the day, our tour guide Massimo told us on the way to the Vatican that Christians were not martyred in the Colosseum, but in various arenas called “circuses,” one of which was Circus Vaticanus. According to tradition, Peter the Apostle was crucified upside down in the Circus Vaticanus and buried nearby. As the car pulled to a stop, it hit me that the place where countless Christians were martyred had been transformed into the center of the Christian Religion.

Statue of St. Peter

Peter’s broken body, laid to rest 2,000 years ago on this spot, now served as the spiritual heart of the Church. As I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, sunlight streamed onto the altar while a hauntingly beautiful mass was taking place in a side niche. To the left of the altar, a giant statue of Paul clutched the keys to the Church while giving a sign of blessing to all who looked up on him. The stunning beauty of the place served as a transformational witness to all who entered. Crucifixion is not the last word. Just as Circus Vaticanus was once merely a place for chariot races and martyrdom at the whim of an emperor, it is now a place of hope and wonder, open to all who desire to enter.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Be Afraid

by Rev. Mark Mofield

This morning I went over to the YMCA to get some exercise before I came into the office. I chose to start my routine on the elliptical machine. I love this machine because of the intense workout I get; however, it’s placement meant I was stuck looking at a wall of television sets. Most mornings I don’t mind – I catch up on my Sportscenter while I work out. However, this morning, the TVs were all tuned to the various morning news shows. On one TV, a Republican presidential candidate was telling the interviewer that, if President Obama was reelected, disaster and mayhem was soon to follow. At the same time, on another TV, a Democratic Senator was saying that if the Republicans won the White House, disaster and mayhem would follow.

Gotta love an election year. As for me, I closed my eyes, turned on my iPod, and listened to Steven Curtis Chapman.

The next few months, the voting public will be inundated with doom and gloom messages of what will happen if “the other side” wins. I sometimes feel like we are told less about what and who we are voting for and more about what our vote could prevent from happening. In a day and age when so many are living with daily uncertainty about their jobs, their children’s education, and unrest all over the world, the politics of fear seems to be the tool of choice for motivating voters to get to the polls.

As I listened to Steven Curtis Chapman on my iPod singing about God’s love and grace, it got me to thinking: does God have anything to say to a world that is constantly told, “Be afraid, be very afraid”?

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? – Psalm 27:1

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11

Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you … - 1 Peter 3:14-15

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. – 1 John 4:18-19

Obviously we will all be making choices when we reach the poll booth this year. However, there are even more important choices that we must make each and every day. Will we choose fear, or will choose salvation, joy, hope, and love? God has given us another option to fear, and Christ is the fulfillment of that option.

We have an opportunity as the body of Christ to change the conversation, to change the attitude of society. We can let Christ be our light and salvation, we can bring good news of great joy to all people, we can give an account of our hope in Christ, we can love as Christ loved us. These are the most important choices we will make this year and any year.

Mark Mofield is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Elon, NC. This article originally appeared on his blog,In A Moment."

Friday, June 8, 2012

My Story as Sacred Story

By Rev. Tommy Bratton

Sitting here at the kitchen table, looking through the window to my peaceful, wooded backyard connects me with the earthy, creative, serene, and expansive nature of God in creation. In the next room, I see a different scene – two of my sons, just home from a day a school, eating snacks, watching television, laughing one moment, fighting the next. Soon, I will prepare dinner and continue the ordinary, sacred tasks that make up my day. Each scene in my story- along with others that include church, baseball practice, naps, and work – carries its own sacred meaning and plays a role in the continuing story of God in the world.

I recognize that my story as sacred story connects to a larger story that includes a myriad of people in many places, each searching for meaning in their lives. I am grateful to so many for recording their experiences of insight and passing down their faith to me. Each moment has the potential for meaning if I simply pay attention, if I can see my experience as both unique and part of a unity. As a Christian, I find identity, mystery, challenge, and joy as I read how the characters of scripture play their part in the sacred drama of God’s presence in their lives. For me, it is all about connecting my experiences to the love of God revealed in so many interesting and diverse ways from biblical times to this very moment.

Last week, our church shared the Passover meal together as we remembered the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt. We were invited to identify with their captivity, to recognize how we too are slaves – to fear, injustice, anger, resentment or whatever keeps us from love and trust and forgiveness. And we remembered the times we have been delivered, just as the Israelites were freed. I recognized again how I, as a middle-class white heterosexual Christian male, have not really experienced injustice. I asked forgiveness for ways I have participated knowingly and unknowingly in a system that holds some people who are different from me in poverty and fear. My prayer for their deliverance was echoed in the scripture. How could I be an agent of God, like the reluctant Moses, to help free those who are oppressed?

I was reminded of reading the call of Jesus to the apostles to follow him and hearing my name called to follow Jesus’ way of love and truth when I was young. I have prayed Psalm 51 numerous times in response to my failings – “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” I have been challenged by the faithfulness of Stephen, even at the cost of his life. I have experienced the Paschal Mystery of dying to my selfishness and being raised to new life. My story has had a recurring theme of commitment, confusion, and re-commitment, which seems so similar to the stories of the Israelites, Jesus’ disciples, and the conflicts among the early church. I can relate.

One sacred story of scripture stands out to me as a constant reminder of the paradox (or at least struggle) of ministry and of faith. My longing is to be open to the Spirit of Christ in my life, learning the ways of love and forgiveness. My desire is to live from my identity as God’s beloved child rather than by how much others like me. Yet too often I am caught up in the demands of both reasonable and unrealistic expectations. My story vacillates between the characters of Mary and Martha.

In the scriptural stories of Mary and Martha, Mary is portrayed as the more contemplative, laid-back sister, while Martha is always worried about the work to be done. Martha lives on chronos time; Mary is on kairos time. Mary listens intently to Jesus’ teaching while Martha busies herself with tending to the guests. Martha gets aggravated with Mary’s lack of organization. Mary is content to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen to his stories and teachings. I have both Mary and Martha within me, and I do think they both are necessary for my spiritual growth.

In ministry, there is an expectation that ministers are people of prayer and of service. This balance is good – to care for others and to be still, to care for one’s own soul and to help others to experience the Spirit. Yet more often for me, the expectation of service wins out over contemplation. When I am at work as a minister, I spend most days planning events, evaluating participation, balancing budget, thinking through strategic plans, supervising staff and volunteers, and reading scripture mainly to teach it. Most items on my to-do list are essential to the operating of the church as a center for ministry, and these tasks are important to me. However, the Martha in me believes that my value comes in making these things happen, in creating space for others to experience the Spirit. Truly, that is one part of my calling though it may not be the most life-giving, and has the potential, if not balanced with contemplation, to drain the life out of me. And I have to remember that fulfilling the expectations of others is not where my value lies.

On the other side, I love to read and reflect. I love to talk with others about their spiritual life. I love to spend time in meditation alone and with others. I love to laugh and hear stories. As an introvert, I find energy in being still and reading stimulating ideas, watching movies with deep meaning, and going inward. But I also like talking one-on-one with friends and church members. I love to listen. I love to be Mary.

So, like Martha, I can sometimes become frustrated with Mary because I feel like I am picking up the slack. But in reality, I need Mary to be primary so that my external actions flow from my inner soul.

The scriptures remind me that in all areas of life, love should be the way. To love God through loving others. To spend time alone and in service. To forgive and to accept. To see the best in others, to see them as God sees them. Jesus is the most inclusive, most loving figure I know, so following his way seems to me to be the path to abundant life. This call has led me to spend more time in nature, to participate in fixed-time prayer, to enroll at the Haden Institute to study more about spiritual direction, to occasionally visit the monastery, and to be more present in the moment with whomever I am with.

This is a piece of my sacred story. It is the story of God’s reminder to me that I am called to experience love, not resentment. It is a reminder that I am a spiritual person, a beloved child of God first, and that my roles as minister, as husband, as father and more flow from that knowledge. Scripture reminds me through its stories what Benedict once wrote, “Always, we begin again.” To see my story in the greater story of God’s revelation reminds me to see the Bible as an unfolding of God’s love and grace, one that continues into the present. The failures and betrayals, the aspirations and tales of courage, the longings and the unfaithfulness speak about who we are, what enslaves us, and how we might be delivered into freedom. The stories make up my sacred history and remind me that I am continuing the story of love, grace and forgiveness in my life. I will keep looking for God’s presence in every extraordinary, and ordinary moment.

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, June 1, 2012

Boaz and the 1%

by Rev. Jason Blanton

There is a depth of truth in Ruth, which is made so much richer by the fact that the author never comes out and gives "the moral of the story," he leaves it up to us find God at work in His many different and surprising ways.

The book is called "Ruth," and the story is mostly about Ruth, but as I prepared for yesterday's sermon, I was struck by Boaz, and particularly how he compares with our current caricatures of the wealthy elite in our world. Now, while I readily admit that I'm importing modern terminology into this bit of theology, the questions of God, wealth, power, and how to properly align the three are as old as our walk with God.

Boaz bursts on to the scene in chapter 2, and his first words, spoken to the men and women working in his field, are "the Lord be with you." They respond with a hearty "the Lord bless you!" There is a picture of harmony, painted with so few words, of God, man, and circumstances. You see happy workers, a respectful "boss," and most importantly, an honored God. Sadly, we can't seem to find this kind of harmony in our modern conversation about economics and politics.

Our national conversation about the wealthy goes something like this: "they are all rich fat cats who swindled their way to the top and are beating us 99% folks down!" On the other side of the argument, we hear those who say, "He worked hard to get where he is, and you are just jealous!" "God has made Him wealthy because of his goodness and obedience."

Certainly there is a great deal of truth to the sentiment that there is a wealthy elite in our nation, and in the Western world. They are unquestionably using their money to buy influence which allows them to "game" the system in their favor. I don't question the protest motives of the "Occupy" folks at all. What I do reject is the artificial division of 1% and 99%.

First of all, all wealthy people aren't evil. All of them aren't gaming the system. The unspoken idea that God hates the 1% is just as bad a misrepresentation of God as any other statement that tries to identify a particular group that God supposedly "hates." With due respect to those who are trying to affect change through protest, we need to stop demonizing with broad brushes if our goal is to truly lift up rather than tear down.

Second, the idea that the rest of us can be lumped together into one group, the 99%, is a total absurdity. Ruth's situation as a poor widow was very much different than the plight of the man working the fields in front of here in the same way the plight of a man making 60 thousand dollars a year is very much different from that of a man making 60 dollars a year. I think we have allowed this rather silly narrative to continue because it allows most people to blame "the rich" for abusing "the poor" while ignoring any notion that WE have a responsibility to the poor as well!

And just in case you aren't going to rush off and read the story of Ruth, I have to also point out how determined, industrious, and faithful she is! She isn't waiting around to be helped, she is out doing anything she can. I know that it isn't always a popular thing to say, but some of the 99% could, frankly, use a kick in the hind parts!

Back to Boaz. We see a man who recognizes that he has been blessed by God, and who uses those gifts to be a blessing. We are never told how Boaz came to be wealthy and powerful - the author doesn't seem to think that detail is important. What we are shown is a man who goes beyond his culture's minimum standard of generosity to try and care for poor Rachel and her mother-in-law Naomi.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, "well yeah, we know how this story ends, so of course Boaz was generous to Ruth, he thought she was a certified hottie." While that certainly turns out to be true, the fact is Boaz doesn't have to be kind to Ruth to marry her. Heck, he doesn't even have to marry her! He doesn't have to give her or Naomi anything. Ruth is a widow - not just a widow, but a Moabitess and a widow. If Boaz wanted her, he could have simply taken her. She was powerless and he is the very definition of powerful. Boaz, in the very image of God (painted beautifully in Kierkegaard's "King and the Maiden") realizes that love can't be coerced. It can't be forced. Love can't be imparted from a position of authority. Love, in order to be real, must be allowed to flourish of its own volition. What do love and economics have in common? I would hope everything!

Boaz exists in a culture that, at the very least, honors the poor, the stranger, and the outcast enough to create a system of gleaning. It’s that culture that is part of the very nature of a man like Boaz, who then exceeds those minimum standards of generosity in order to show kindness to Ruth. I think our culture was, once upon a time, imbued with the idea that we all owed a responsibility to one another. Unfortunately, it seems excess and greed have replaced responsibility and generosity in our national DNA. If we want real structural change, we have to find our way back to a national conversation that recognizes none of us makes it on our own. Nobody gets rich on their own. Nobody chooses to be poor. Nobody.

What I hope we can learn from the story of Ruth and Boaz is that the real debate about God, money, and power exists on a realm that is higher than our current discourse. If we want to get serious about creating a more just society, we all need to back away from our placards and political hackery and pick up our copies of Ruth. There we will find that God loves the gifted and the giver, the poor industrious widow and the wealthy landowner.

Maybe, if we look hard enough, we can even find ourselves.

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