Friday, January 25, 2013

Churches Are Called to Lead the Way in Accessibility

By Dr. Dennis Herman

The Epistle of James leaves little wiggle room: “…If a person comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘you sit over here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor person, ‘You stand over there or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?”

As a missionary, I have lived in three different countries of the world and have visited numerous others. In some situations, I have felt treated as a visiting dignitary, with honored seats in special places. In other situations, I have felt like the poor person crashing the party, the uninvited guest or, at best, the reluctantly tolerated guest. I did not feel comfortable in either role, but admittedly I was less comfortable when I felt like a party crasher. How do people feel when entering our church building? How does it feel to be poor and off the street, trying to find a message of home in our assemblies? How about those with special needs? Do the physically handicapped find it difficult to get in and around, to find a seat where they can blend in and not stick out on the front row or feel hidden on the back? How about those of other races and nationalities—are they met with warmth and welcome? What about nursing mothers who want to their baby with them for an hour of worship? What about anyone whose worship culture is different from the one we have known?

In the first church I pastored after returning to the States from South America, I challenged the congregation to shorten some of its unused pews to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs so that there would be seating options other than the front pew or the back of the sanctuary. It was a struggle for the church, but some of those who opposed it later were glad they could park their wheelchairs and not “stick out” in the aisle. In the last church I pastored, we designed and constructed an accessible sanctuary where not only wheelchairs and walkers could fit in at various places, but the back “row” consisted of glider rockers where nursing moms could bring their babies into the worship service. (I guess it helps when the pastor’s wife is a professional lactation consultant!)

There are many ways we can say “welcome” to our worship and church building. Likewise, there are many ways we can say “stay away,” or worse yet, “don’t come back.” I realize we cannot be everything to everyone, but as the Church who tries to follow seriously the exhortation of James 2:2-4 and the inclusive love of Jesus, let’s ask what ways we can open our hearts, our ministries, and our building to all who seek God’s love.

Dennis Herman is the interim pastor of Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Forecaster.

Friday, January 18, 2013

James and the Rumor Mill

By Rev. Mark Reece

Everyone has played a variation of the childhood exercise designed to teach us the damaging power of the “rumor mill.” Whether you have five people sitting in a circle or twenty-five people sitting in a circle, by the time a whispered secret makes it all of the way around the circle the original statement has been twisted, reconstructed and often changed altogether. We humans have a tendency to repeat everything that we hear. Not only that, we have a tendency to speak the words that come to our mind. When we were children, our parents often told us that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” Such stern advice made us all stronger children as we made our debut in the real world of kindergarten. However, it didn’t take most of long to realize that words can hurt. Words do hurt. As a matter of fact, words usually hurt. All of us are trapped in this cycle of unhealthy communication that plagues our world, communities, churches and families. James offers us some very beautiful images that are intended to help us with controlling our tongue.

James 3:3-6 says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” I’m really grateful to live in a nation where freedom of speech is guaranteed. It’s nice to be able to sit around the coffee or barber shop and talk about everything under the sun. At times, I hear folks talking about ever person under the sun too and not always in the most positive ways. Indeed, we’re free to do so. Yet, I’m reminded of Saint Paul’s words in Galatians 5:13:14: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” In our most recent lesson from James, James reminded us that this command from Jesus is the “royal law.”

Reflecting upon whether or not our patterns of speech express love of God and neighbor is a good starting place for working at speech control. Looking in the mirror, something else James highly recommends, quickly reveals shortcomings in our conversation patterns. The good news from James is we can use our voices to curse or bless God and others. Whatever decision we make, James reminds us that it’s going to have a significant impact on every aspect of our life. Like an unbridled horse, the unbridled tongue will inevitably send us in directions we don’t want to go. If the tongue is our rudder, then we have to consider all of the variables that might influence our proper speech. The political and social currents are pulling and pushing us at all times. We have cargo on our ships that might need to be thrown overboard. And then some of us have a few negative mates on our ship that need to be redirected and some exchanged for positive examples of speech. When the fires of unhealthy speech are allowed to escape our lips, they’re destined to burn others and eventually we too will be consumed by their flames.

It’s a bold proclamation from the book of James this week and it challenges us beyond spoken words. You can post a comment on someone’s Facebook page and within a millisecond it’s being read by thousands of people you may not even know. You can be trending on twitter before you put your smartphone back in your pocket. And before anyone claiming they’re old school and anti-technology decides this doesn’t apply to them, allow me to remind you that the landline telephone hasn’t been around forever. The arrival of the landline phone was probably when “rumor mills” got their steam. We’re living in a world where a careless, senseless and ignorant video can be uploaded to the internet and within hours another part of the world will be in an uproar and an American diplomat killed. Then of course the media airs more conversations that breed conflict than those that build bridges of peace. Words not only have the power to hurt us but words have the power to destroy us and our world. It’s an old piece of wisdom that James offers, but as we witness the fires burning around the world we’re reminded that they all started as a small flame. While we can’t fix the problems of our world overnight, we can control the flame on the tip of our tongue and be the change we desire to see in our world. This week we reflect on one of those most challenging yet practical passages in all of the Biblical record. I know that James is writing to me. He’s writing to you. He’s writing to us all. Be challenged today and be blessed in the week to come.

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, January 11, 2013


Dr. Dennis Atwood

So how’s that “new year’s resolution” thing working out for you? I’ve never been a big fan of this once-a-year ritual. I guess it’s the whole “turning over a new leaf” syndrome that bugs me most. People resolve to do things better or differently all the while knowing that it lasts about as long as those after Christmas sales. So why go through the motions of kidding yourself once a year? If you’re really serious about change or a deeper commitment toward something or someone then why not follow-through when no one is looking or paying attention? This has been my basic approach when it comes to New Year’s resolutions… until this year.

December 14, 2012, changed something in me—as it did many people across our country. Twenty-six innocent victims in Newtown, Connecticut. Children. Teachers. Why on earth? How could this evil happen? In the days that followed people plastered Facebook, Twitter, and the “letter to the editor” department with anger, sharp words, extremism, shock, horror, dumb ideas, and some genuine human compassion. You’ve heard it said: “The problem is guns! No, the problem is people! No, the problem is government! The real problem is culture! God has been kicked out of our schools! There are already too many laws!”

Actually, the problem… is me. Amidst all the pontificating and scrambling for easy solutions to large complex issues, the one thing I have some measure of control over is… me. Aside from the terrible sadness for those grieving families and the feelings of anger at the evil that took away precious lives, what later hit me like a ton of bricks is the stark realization that I don’t love enough and I worry too much. It’s not that I don’t love people (after all it is in my job description) or that I sit around worrying about stuff all the time (just some of the time). It’s more about being fully present in each moment doing what God put me here to do—to love not worry.

One of the outcomes of that tragic day in December is the sobering reality that life is too fragile and sacred to waste on hate, apathy, indifference and worry. There will be many fairly intelligent people debating and wrangling over what to do in order to make public spaces safer in the coming weeks and months. We should pray that tangible steps can be agreed upon in a sensible manner that will help make our schools and communities safer places in which to learn and live. We should all be willing to support steps for the common good even if I don’t personally agree with every detail. But let’s not kid ourselves. No amount of extreme legislation or extreme freedom will solve all our societal ills. It is ultimately and personally a matter of the heart.

Therefore, I have resolved… to love more and worry less. It will be hard to measure whether I’m actually being successful at it or not. There will be old tendencies to break when life gets too busy, when things go wrong, and when unplanned expenses arise. But by the grace of God I will choose to embrace each new day spending more time loving my family and less time worrying about things over which I have no control.

Perhaps the stickiest part will come when I venture out to love those beyond my immediate circle. God’s love does that. Christ calls us to love those whom we hold close and those whom we hold at arm’s length. Scripture says that love is patient and kind; it’s not flashy or arrogant, rude or selfish. It’s even greater than faith and hope. (1 Corinthians 13)

God’s love is ultimately the most powerful and potent force in the universe and it’s available to everyone. My task is to let it begin in me. That’s how we bring God’s kingdom on earth… one person at a time. So if your “new year’s resolution” isn’t working out so well may I suggest an alternative? Love more… worry less. This will be my daily mantra in 2013.

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

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Demise of Tito the Snowman

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Every year, it seems, my niece teaches me a little something about the Christmas season by reminding me what it’s like to see the world through a child’s eyes. This year, perhaps one of the most comical and poignant moments came the day after Téa had built her first snowman, reaching a noble 1 and ½ feet tall, and declared proudly to us all that his name was Tito.
The next day brought the bright morning sun which reduced Tito to a pile of mush. I came down the steps and found Téa sitting by herself with huge tears falling silently down her face, clutching something close to her chest, and looking out the window at Tito’s remains.

“What’s wrong?” I asked

“It’s Tito. He went away.” She looked up at me with big, sad eyes.

“Well, he will come and play with you the next time it snows. But it’s okay to be sad. It’s sad when something we care about goes away. What do you have in your hand?”

She showed me a picture of her on a "pirate" ship with her Mommy, Daddy, Nana and Pa. 

“Does remembering a really great moment help when you are sad?”

“Yes. I had fun because I was with family and we sang pirate songs!” She looked momentarily upbeat before remembering Tito’s demise.

“It’s ok to be sad. And we need to really enjoy when we are happy and take a picture with our minds so that we can think of it again when we are sad to bring us comfort. Also, building a snowman is one of the best things about winter. Being at the beach on a pirate ship with family is one of the best things about summer. The great thing is that we know those times will come again, and we have the opportunity to create new happy memories.”

Téa nodded, gave me a hug, and said she needed to think about it for a while and wanted to be alone. Ten minutes later, she had processed it and was ready to create a new memory, bounding into the kitchen to help Mommy cook breakfast. 

This moment stuck out in the holiday season as a primer to a young one about grief and loss, which so many of us deal with during the holidays. I thought of it as a trial run and a way to dissect my own feelings about loss on an elementary level. I realized that in teaching a child, you always learn something yourself. In going back to the basics, we can get to the heart of human processes and thoughts on the most visceral level and reexamine our own lives through the wonder of a child’s eyes.