Friday, March 29, 2013

Beggars for Mercy

by Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles

“We are beggars.  This is true.”  Martin Luther scratched- out those words on a scrap of paper just before his death on February 18, 1546.  “We are beggars.  This is true.”

Most of us aren’t like the beggars, the panhandlers, we will meet on the streets of downtown.  We aren’t, as far as anyone can tell, as far down or as far out, as they are; we not on the bottom and the margin.  In fact, when compared to them, we’re way up and way in.  It has been a long time, if ever, since most of us were hungry and couldn’t figure-out where the next meal was coming from.  We have, not just the clothes on our backs, but closets bulging with clothes we never wear.  We’re connected, not marginalized; we have family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and classmates.  We’re either taking care of ourselves or someone else is responsibly and reliably taking care of us.  On the surface, most of us don’t seem like beggars.

Beneath the surface, though, in those places in our minds and hearts hidden from others and sometimes from ourselves, we’re beggars, too.  Maybe we are, as Carlyle Marney once called us, “beggars in velvet,” but beggars nonetheless.  We’re beggars especially for mercy.  The characteristic prayer of Lent is our constant prayer: “Jesus, have mercy on me.  Jesus, have mercy.”

We’re all amalgams of brokenness and wholeness, tragedy and triumph, despair and delight, grief and gladness.  You know what causes you to cry bitter, hurting tears when no one is around.  You know what inspires you to give thanks and to shout for joy.  You know what drives you relentlessly through your days and nights, and what allows you to slow down, be still and know that God is God and you are not.

Your life may be full and rich and good, but there is in you something that makes you anxious or afraid or guilty or ashamed. It’s part of being human.  Everyone struggles or suffers or worries over something, which means everyone needs mercy.

Jesus is God’s mercy in flesh and blood, muscle and bone, word and deed.  Jesus is mercy made clear and brought near.  As you know, the New Testament is written in Greek, but Aramaic was the language Jesus and his first followers spoke.  In Aramaic, the word for mercy or compassion, comes from the same family of words as does the word womb.  God’s mercy, Jesus says and shows, in womblike; it is mother-like.  Mercy makes room in herself for the vulnerable, and us and shelters and protects them until they are strong enough to survive.  Mercy bleeds and labors to give life and energy.  Mercy cries aloud in pain and joy for the wonder of the children we always are and for the people we are always becoming.  God’s mercy connect God to us as a mother is tied to her children: God feels along with us, weeps and laughs with us, crawls, walks, runs and dances along with us.

We live with two unconscious but always pressing questions: (1) Does anyone see me, hear me, and know me for who I am?  (2) if someone sees me, hears me, and knows me, can he or she still love me?

Does anybody know me?  Does the person who really knows me love me?

The mercy of God in Jesus answers those crucial questions with “yes.”  In Jesus, God says: “I know you, completely.  I love you without condition or reservation.”

It’s mercy we need, and mercy for which we beg.  And mercy, sweet saving mercy, is what Jesus gives.

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

Friday, March 22, 2013

What Can I Do?

Rev. Randy Outland

Over the past several years God has been dealing with me regarding world poverty.  I have learned that the average North American enjoys a standard of living that has been unimaginable for most of human history.  As North American Christians, we are the wealthiest Christians in the history of the Church.  Our society’s vast wealth presents us with an enormous responsibility, for throughout the Scriptures God’s people are commanded to show compassion to the poor.  In fact, doing do is simply part of our job description as followers of Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46).

Thinking about such important issues as these have led me to read and study many books, attend seminars, talk to people, and lead our church in new areas.  The Hole in Our Gospel book was one such book that has influenced me greatly.  Now Karen and I, and others in our church, are sponsoring children in Uganda, east Africa, through World Vision.

God continues to work on my heart and mind.  What about generational poverty here in the US, specifically here in my town of Kinston?  What can I, what can we do about it, if anything?  What is our calling as followers of Jesus Christ in this matter?  I have no easy answers, just lots of questions.

Like world poverty, we can’t do everything; but we can do one thing.  What can we do to help alleviate generational poverty here in our country?  A number of us in the Spilman faith family and in our Kinston community have been reading the book Toxic Charity – How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).  Our conversations about the book have been stimulating.

Pray with me and talk with me about what one thing we can do.  I have many thoughts.  What are your thoughts?  Let the conversation continue.  God is at work here in our community.  God wants to use you and me to further the Kingdom in North Carolina and around the world.

Randy Outland is the pastor of Spilman Baptist Church in Kinston, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Tie.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Clothed with Meekness

by Rev. Mark Reece

As we continue the sermon series at Piney Grove Baptist Church called “As God’s Chosen Ones,” we turn our attention to the fourth virtue offered in Colossians 3:12.  In the King James Version, that virtue is referred to as meekness and in the more contemporary translations the word gentleness is used.  When we think of being gentle, we think of exercising little force and aggression.

The best definition that I’ve found for meekness is “strength or power under control.”  I believe this gets closer to the Biblical definition of the word in question.  This definition invites us to reflect on so many levels.  We are very powerful individuals.  I think of the strengths that each of us have.  I think of the massive amount of power that we all possess.  We are the wealthiest people people in the world.  Some are able to control their pocket books while others are not.  If one can read, he or she possesses a gift that many around the world do not.  Some use their education to serve others while others use their higher learning to serve themselves.  According to James 3:1-6, the tongue is a great power that we have and must be tamed.  There are few things that are more destructive and powerful than an untamed tongue.

Meekness rhymes with weakness, and sometimes when we think of those who are meek we think of those who are weak.  However, meek people are anything but weak.  They’re powerful yet able to keep their power under control.  There have been many figures who have been given power and it went to their head.  Power has caused educators, politicians, preachers and CEO’s to put aside eternal and divine law.  But, let’s not be quick to pass off the responsibility of self-assessment.  We’ve all be given power at some level.  In our families, husbands and wives have power over one another and their children.  In the workplace, consider your role and you’ll discover that you likely have power over someone else in some way.  In the church, nearly every person has been given a role with some power.  When that power is untamed, we become people that God didn’t call us to be.

This week I ask you to consider the power that you have - from your wallet to your tongue - and consider how tamed your power is. How are you using your power?

In that great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  That’s counter-cultural.  But that’s good news.  Let us reflect on what it means to clothe ourselves with meekness.  I pray God’s blessing on each of you 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, March 8, 2013

The Ladder

by Dr. Guy Sayles

Unless you’re a painter, roofer, or fire-fighter, you’re probably not on a ladder very often.  From time to time, you use a step stool to reach the top shelf of a tall cabinet or a step-ladder to change a light bulb. A couple of times of year, you get out the extension ladder and clean out the gutters; but, most of the time, the ladder stays in the garage and you keep your feet on the ground.

But, when it comes to ladders of ambition and achievement, many of us are climbing all the time.  There are always more rungs above us.  Who can count the steps between mail room clerk and CEO, graduate assistant and Distinguished Professor in an Endowed Chair, second lieutenant and general officer, between apprentice, journeyman and master?  I know it doesn’t have to be this way, but for a lot of us it is: our dreams are of moving up: from the windowless office on the first floor to the sunlit corner office on the top floor.  Success for most of us means going higher, moving to the top.  So there’s always more climbing to do and always people just behind and beneath us, climbing faster and faster, threatening to pass us up or knock us off the rung we’re on.

Some of us become so obsessed with climbing the ladder that we lose track of other things which actually matter more than the ladder: things like love, authenticity, and integrity; like health, happiness, and compassion; like family, friends, and God, for instance.  We can get into a frame of heart and mind which convinces us that the ladder is what matters—and no room on it anything other than our own ambitions.  But, because we want to think of ourselves as good people, we tell ourselves that we haven’t left those other thing and other people behind permanently.  We make a kind of bargain with our conscience: “Leave me alone for now, and I’ll get back to you later.  The ladder now; the soft stuff, the heart stuff, after we have more time, more money, and more security.”

Then, something happens.  Someone close to us gets sick or has an accident.  Our spouse walks out.  One of our kids gets in trouble, real trouble, the kind of trouble we can’t fix by writing a check or hiring an outside helper.

Or, to get ahead, we cut corners, bend rules, and subtly stab coworkers in the back; then, one day, for some reason, we catch our own eyes in the mirror and don’t like the person looking back at us.

Or, depression sets in, or we start feeling a tightness in our chest, or we can’t sleep.

Something happens.  And the awareness crashes in on us that we’ve been climbing a ladder not worth climbing.  Remember the truism offered by business guru Stephen R. Covey: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

We discover what William Butler Yeats described in his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”:

. . . Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Maybe you know what it’s like for the ladder of your dreams to go away and, then, to lie down, depleted and defeated, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.  A time like that can be a gift if we view it as invitation to clarify what truly matters, to integrate faith and ambition in a way that faith is in charge, and to renew our awareness that success without love isn’t success at all.

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

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chicken 'n' Waffles

by Justin Thomas

Growing up in the southern city of Atlanta, it is not uncommon for me to hear, “I am in the mood for some chicken n’ waffles”. There are many restaurants within the city of Atlanta and throughout the United States where one can go eat an amazing chicken n’ waffle meal. Well a little of over a week ago when I was in Granada, Nicaragua, a few of my classmates and I, along with our professor and colleagues from Wake Forest Law School, decided to go to a locally infamous waffle restaurant for lunch. This restaurant had all types of waffles. From chocolate waffles to pecan waffles, the menu provided a variety of options from which one could happily choose. I was so excited to see the choices, when suddenly the desire for chicken ‘n’ waffles slapped me right in the face.  I looked the menu up and down to see if they just happened to have it on their menu. To my disappointment this delicious staple item that I could easily find in the States was nowhere to found.

Then, like the Saturday morning cartoons, a light bulb went off. I looked on the menu and I saw they offered a chicken sandwich and they offered waffles. With the help from the law professor that accompanied us, I was able to tell the server to use the chicken breast for the sandwich and put it on top of the waffle.
It took the staff a minute to comprehend what I was trying to do, but they were able to comply.  About 15 minutes later the server comes out with chicken n’ waffles just for me.

Something as simple as being able to order chicken n’ waffles represents the little things I take for granted in my own culture. The crazy thing is, I was able to introduce a staple dish from my culture to another just because I had a taste for it at that time. But there are other simple things I take for granted--like
free public transportation for students to go to high school so they can further their education. It was sad to find out that Nicaraguans who live in remote villages had no way of getting to high school unless their families could afford the same transportation that comes through the village to pick up the men and take them to the sugar plantations early in the morning.  I had the privilege of meeting a couple of young women who desperately wanted to come to the States to attend a university.  How could that desire ever become a reality if they cannot even afford a bus ride to school?   A simple desire for chicken n’ waffles was granted in minutes, and as I reflect on the enjoyment of that one desire, I realized the simple desire for those young women to attend high school and a university here in the States is not one that can be met in like fashion. We take for granted so many little things because we are worried about “bigger” things, while at the same time there are people who simply wish they could get a seat on a school bus.

We may have problems in our lives but if we started focusing on the little things we have, no matter what we are going through, we will recognize we are truly blessed.  So the next time you put your child on a school bus, or make a special request from a restaurant’s menu (whether it is fast food or five star) take a moment to give thanks for the little things, and pray for those people across this world who would give anything to have some of your same, simple opportunities.

Justin Thomas is an intern for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina and a third-year student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He wrote this blog after completing a Nicaragua Immersion course in January 2013. This post originally appeared on the blog for the course,