Friday, May 31, 2013

Show Abandonment and the Church

Dr. Dennis Atwood
On my way to the church office this morning I listened to a report on NPR by Neda Ulaby entitled:  “Show Abandonment: When Viewers Drop Popular TV Programs.” The tag line was: “What happens when fans stop talking about a show that used to be their favorite?” Take American Idol, for example. Last week's finale was down 8 million viewers from last year. Such are the problems of the first-world.
The NPR report focused on the fickle nature of television viewers and how American’s loyalty to a favorite show is weakening more and more. For example, at its peak over 8 million people tuned in to The Office each week during its nine-year run. Over the past few seasons, however, viewers have peeled away resulting in the show’s final season and series finale just last week.
 “Show abandonment” apparently comes in stages. First, there is “denial.” The DVR episodes begin to pile up and you don’t have time to catch up on the ones you’ve missed. Next comes “delete.” You begin to delete the lost episodes because you just don’t care enough anymore to catch up. Then, there is “acceptance.” Finally you simply abandon the show altogether. You admit that your loyalty is gone and you move on to the next thing that catches your eye—until it doesn’t.
There is also another class of viewers besides these “abandoners.” They are known as “bitter-enders.” These folks stick with a show till the bitter end even as others are abandoning ship. I have to admit that I am one of those “bitter-enders” when it comes to The Office. Sure, the show may have weakened a bit over the past couple of years, but I’m glad to report the series finale was actually a perfect ending to a great run. I’m glad I stuck around—till the bitter end.
Wow. Where to begin when it comes to stretching this analogy of “show abandonment” into the realm of “church abandonment”? I don’t have enough time and space to make all the connections, and I don’t even think it’s even necessary. 
We all know the story. Church attendance is down everywhere. People are busy. People are fickle. People are losing interest. Churches are in panic mode. Just look around and you’ll see churches bringing in a flashy program, new worship style, or exciting preacher. “We’ve got to get things back to where they once were!”  But things are never going to “get back to where they once were.” New Wine requires new wineskins, said Jesus. We can’t capture time or new wine. The gospel keeps flowing and expanding. If containers become hard and brittle then… well, you end up with wine all over the floor.
In one sense, we Christians should be “bitter-enders” in that we don’t abandon ship and move on to another congregation just because we begin to lose interest in our existing one. The virtues of faithfulness and commitment to make things better are far more admirable than abandonment. On the other hand, there are churches that stubbornly refuse to consider the idea of any change whatsoever, and as a result they hasten their own bitter end—even though there doesn’t have to be a “bitter” end.
So draw your own conclusions about faithfulness and abandonment. The Church will be here until Jesus says it’s done, but that promise doesn’t give churches a green light to bury their heads in the sand. Healthy churches are able to distinguish between containers—which are useful, and New Wine—which is essential. Healthy churches have their collective eyes open and are always paying attention to the new winds of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said he would never leave or abandon us. Are we abandoning him?

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

Daily Garbage Pickup

by Rev. Rich Goodier

A few of us got together the other morning to clean up our adopted highway, Old NC 10, in time for Easter Sunday. One might ask why a church would care so much about keeping our roads clean or recycling or being careful what we buy. The simple answer is that we want to be a people who love this Creation as much as our God loves this Creation. We can be a witness to a world that cares little of Creation or Creator. As they see our character, they see the character of God.

But you know what? Sometimes, it is hard to clean up garbage! It is much easier to make a mess than to clean one up. God gave humanity a garden, and we quickly create garbage dumps. What are we to do as a people? Cleaning up Old NC 10 can be overwhelming some days. And I have to confess that sometimes I even get mad, picking up bottle after bottle with seemingly no end to the garbage my faceless neighbor is willing to dump. "If I ever catch someone littering..."

And then my God reminds me of someone who left heaven, the quintessence of purity, to live among us, a people of filth. He did not just live among us, but he took our filth and made it his so that we may once again experience purity (Isaiah 1:18, 53:5-6). Why would Jesus do such a thing? Why would he take on our sins, though the fair thing would have been to let us clean ourselves of sin, an impossible task at that? Because he loves us.

We discover through Christ's love, we learn to love him and others (1 John 4:19). Some of us may even decide to follow Christ as our Master. Our Master commands us to "love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)." Love like Jesus loved? Does he mean to take on the filth, the garbage, the sin, of others upon our shoulders? Jesus once said,

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

Perhaps to this list we can add, "If someone dirties your road, clean up his garbage." This is the spirit of servanthood (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus calls us to be the servant of all.

In other words, we Christians are the garbage men of the world, taking their garbage upon us as Christ did. Some people may see our witness, turn from their ways, and follow our Master. Others will never turn away but will receive the faithful witness of Christ's disciples. "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35)."

Rich Goodier is the pastor of Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Durham. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Civil Rights Tour of the South

by Monique Swaby

Over nine days and five cities, from Friday, March 8th – 16th, thirty three people from various racial identities headed on one of Wake’s Alternative Spring Break trips, to the heart of the South. The goal: to explore the deep history, past and present, of our segregated nation. By exploring the era of Jim Crow the trip hoped to foster change makers. We toured all the major sites and places that commemorated the movement such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Voting Rights Museum, Dexter Ave. Church and Parsonage of MLK Jr., University of Mississippi, Kelly Ingram Park, and the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, AL where four little black girls were bombed on a Sunday morning. During our daily drive, we watched films such as Soundtrack for a Revolution, Ghosts of Mississippi, 4 Little Girls, and Mississippi Burning.

I remember the following during our visit in Reverend King’s home. As we stood at the edge of the door frame in the King’s kitchen, all the students circled inside, my colleague and I could not help but turn away as we listened to the recording of Dr. King’s words explaining his call from God in this very place, to stand for justice. I turned my eyes to the ceiling in hopes of containing the tears burning in my heart.

The days to follow would be no easier, yet it empowered us all to hope and re-imagine our world as we  crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Bloody Sunday occurred, or engaged in a slave trade simulation. We ended the tour at the Lorraine Motel and Museum where MLK Jr. was assassinated. This site was haunting and powerful, yet what was uplifting was the “Freedom’s Sisters” site, a traveling company from the Cincinnati Museum Center and Smithsonian Institution. This showcased some women who participated, propelled, or sustained the movement who we rarely discuss. Women such as Ella Jo Baker, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sonia Sanchez, Dorothy Irene Height, Septima Poinsette Clark, Kathleen Cleaver, and so many more. Many of us have heard the popular names, such as Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Medger Evers, James Meredith, Loretta Scott King, but on this trip we also learned the silent names and faces of everyday people called Freedom’s Foot Soldiers. Those who risked their lives; children, women, men, black, white, Jewish, LGBT, rich, poor, people from all walks of life because they saw and heard the outcry of a people. They understood truly that their freedom was wrapped in the freedom of all people.

Did you live through this era? If not, what would you have done? For many black communities and some white, the institution of Church was a centerpiece for empowerment, community, hope, love, and change. For others, it was a place of oppression, against speaking out, a point of guilt, shame, or ignorance, as their pastors and other church going folks donned themselves at night in KKK dress or silently participated in American apartheid, becoming a torment and terrorist. The church was a major player in the battle for civil rights during Jim Crow, but it was not always cut and dry as to what side you were on. I recall a conversation my supervisor and I had where she proclaimed, “If it was not for the Church’s role during the Civil Rights Movement, I would have left the Church a long time ago.” I believe she was only referring to the church that hoped for a new and better world, not one that demanded its rights remain the same, separate and not-so-equal for all. There is much re-education to be done, from the people of courage, to the visible signs that remain from our tortured past. We as the next generation must advance the struggle for equity to ALL people. Do our part by becoming aware of the issues and taking a step to action. If we do not, who will? Yes, some change has come, yet there is still work left undone because “the Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” God is calling us to listen and act in love. Will we, the next generation presently, only two people removed from the Civil Rights Era, take up the baton of practicing and manifesting true racial reconciliation? Let us do our part, together.

Monique Swaby is a first year student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. This post originally appeared on Wake Div's blog, Unfolding.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why I Went to Jail

Dr. Rodney Sadler

This Monday I went to Raleigh with Rev. Nantambu, Dr. Wherry, and Rev. Herring to bear witness at the N.C. General Assembly that the policies that are being discussed in our state legislature are harmful to the poor, minorities, immigrants, the elderly, our children, and even our environment.  The single party control of our state legislature and governor’s house mean that policies that would normally be thwarted by the presence of other voices in debate are able sail through with minimal opposition.  It is for this reason that I went to lend voice to the concerns of those who are often voiceless, those who stand the risk of losing not only their access to unemployment benefits, to Medicaid, and to welfare if they need it, but who also may well be impeded from voting by voter ID laws and other requirements that would hamper voter participation.  In essence, those most vulnerable in our state might both lose access to the support system that could sustain them and the opportunity to vote to regain those rights.  

I was compelled to go by more than just the notion of justice, however.  I was also compelled to go because the policies of our legislature, some of which are well on their way to enactment, are an offense to God.  They are an offense because they violate the principles of ancient Hebrew Scriptures that posited the king (read government) was responsible to ensure that the rights of the poor, husbandless women, fatherless children, landless immigrants, the infirmed, and other socially vulnerable groups would be protected from the abuses of the powerful.  When the king (read government) failed to address these concerns, worse, when the king (read government) actively abused these groups, God called forth the prophets to bear witness to the will of the Lord and to remind the king of his (its) responsibility.  It was for this reason that I felt led to go; to go and lend my voice to the voice of Amos and Micah and Isaiah and Jeremiah…and Jesus.

We are at a point in time where our leaders have forgotten that their duty to lead is circumscribed by more than the dictates of party allegiance and party politics.  Good will and an eye toward protecting the interests of the socially vulnerable has been thrust aside by a seemingly predatory attitude that has placed the needs of many North Carolinians at risk.  This is particularly troubling when the vast majority of our legislators claim to be people of faith, beholden to the same obligations to those on the margins as were the kings of old.  They are reading the same sacred Scriptures that we read, yet they seem to have forgotten the call of the Lord on their lives.  It is to these sisters and brothers that I went to bear witness to the word of God, hoping to remind them that as people of faith, it is wrong to enact policies that hurt the “least of these” who are also children of God created in God’s image.  I went in Love to remind them of God’s concern for all people, hoping that maybe, just maybe they would alter their policies and remember their responsibility to civility.  My hope that this change in their hearts can happen remains!

It is in this regard that I write to you today, calling on you to go to Raleigh and bear witness at the State House next Monday, May 13th.  Your witness can come in the form of bearing a sign, speaking to an elected official, praying with a group of similarly concerned citizens, taking a parcel of letters to your representatives, singing a song; mine on Monday came in the form of getting arrested for civil disobedience.

This was a difficult choice for me to make for many reasons.  In part, it was difficult because I had never been arrested before.  I am a nearly 46 year old African American man who had never been handcuffed, fingerprinted, frisked, booked, mug-shotted, or locked behind bars (except by choice as a visitor to a prison).  I have worn this as a badge of honor and intended to maintain this streak for the rest of my life.  This avoidance of the criminal justice system really meant a great deal to me given the statistics related to black men and incarceration.  Further, I have an extreme aversion to being penned in in any way, so the thought of being forcibly locked behind bars was particularly repellant to me.  But Monday, I chose to allow myself to be arrested, anyhow.

I chose to be arrested because the issues at stake are too great to ignore.  I chose to be arrested because the impact of this legislation if allowed to pass could mean that our state would return to a state of affairs in our racial politics akin to the status quo of the 1950’s.  I chose to be arrested because those people most affected by these policies need willing advocates to speak up for them, with them.  I chose to be arrested because the world that the legislature is threatening to create is not the one I want to leave to my daughter…

So I am calling on you to go to Raleigh next Monday, May 13th and to find a way to bear witness.  Your witness may take the form of any of those forms of protest I suggested or may take another form.  Your witness may even be to join with me and the 50 or so others who have thus far been arrested.  If you choose this form of witness, I would encourage you to do so fully cognizant of what it could mean.  I would not want you to be unaware that it might require you to return to Raleigh, to perform community service, to stay away from the GA for a period, to sit in a holding area for a time, to endure the suffocating feeling of incarceration for a moment, to surrender your control of your own life for a few hours in the interest of serving God and others.  But if you choose this form of witness, I think it can be a worthwhile means of adding your voice to the growing chorus of those who are also bearing witness for God.
I was arrested with a group of wonderful and committed individuals from a range of different backgrounds.  Three were nationally renowned historians from Duke and UNC concerned about how pending legislation might impact the future of our state, one was a prominent UNC medical doctor concerned with the impact of legislation on healthcare for the poor, another was a lawyer concerned with the implications to taking away citizens’ rights, three were grannies concerned with the direction of our state on future generations, two were local presidents of NAACP chapters concerned with the impact of these proposed policies on minority communities, one was a veteran interested in protecting our state from enemies foreign and domestic, several were clergy who proclaimed that the proposed legislation violates the will of the Lord, some were just concern citizens with no titles or roles who needed to say a word, and one was even a student a week away from graduating from college concerned about his own future.  We were white and black and Asian and well-to-do and not-so-well-off and married and single and parents and grandparents and children.  While in the holding area we talked about history and theology and strategy and unity and even spent time networking and forging alliances across issues.  The experience was not a lonely one; instead it was from the moment of arrest to the moment of release a time spent in the fellowship of friends.
And when we went in, we were not alone; not only did we enter jail knowing that God went with us, we were also surrounded by a cloud of witnesses including lawyers, legal observers, news teams, film and audio documentarians, and a host of affiliated supporters who ensured that the legal proceedings took place without a hitch, that bail was available if necessary, that support was felt throughout our brief incarceration, and that a meal and car ride was ready for us when we were released.   All and all it was a well organized occasion that was choreographed to bring maximum attention to our efforts to bear witness while ensuring that we were safe and assured that we were not alone.
We were not alone.  I know this most of all because throughout that evening I could feel God’s hand upon me, calming me, encouraging me, comforting me, and empowering me to act with Love.  During that time I also heard God speaking to me as the words of Matthew 25:34-40 resounded in my ears:
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (Mat 25:34-40 NRS)
These words reminded me that the way we treat “the least of these,” those who are hungry and thirsty (impoverished and unemployed), stranger (immigrant regardless of status), naked (most socially vulnerable), sick (in need of healthcare), and imprisoned (under the supervision of the criminal justice system) is the way that we would treat God if God were standing before us.  They also reminded me that our care for those members of our community in need is wholly consequential.  In the passage, the offer of eternal life was determined based upon whether one cared for the God in need incarnate in those people in need before us.  Whether or not we believe that such a weighty decision can rest on our actions, it is impossible not to look at such a passage and realize that what we do for or to the most socially vulnerable matters not only to them, not only to us; it matters to God! So I leave you with these words as I offer you the challenge to join us in Raleigh next Monday, May 13th to bear witness however you feel is right; “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Rodney Sadler is the Associate Professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary and a consultant to the Racial Reconciliation Ministry Team of CBFNC.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Care about Boston; Care about the World

by Dr. David Stratton

Certainly everyone reading this knows about the horrific bombing in Boston that, as of this writing, left three dead and injured more than 100 others. This attack rightfully captures our attention and inspires our prayers and our concern. And there are some other things that happened in recent days that perhaps also broke our hearts.

Did you hear about the 16,000 children that died unnecessarily yesterday? They died of hunger related causes even though there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone.  

A bombing of a bus in Pakistan killed 8 people. A suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia killed 29 people in a court complex. Nine children were among the 15 killed in a bombing of Aleppo, Syria. Ten people have been killed in recent days in clashes between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. A boat carrying Afghan refugees sank killing 5, but 53 others are missing and feared dead. 

Don't get me wrong; we should pay close attention to what happened in Boston. Our hearts should ache for the dead, for the injured,  and for the hatred or sickness or whatever that led to this act of violence. We should pray for those who are grieving and those who are injured in the wake of this bombing.

I understand completely why an act of terror close to home grips us more than violence and tragedy elsewhere. My question is do we really care at all about killings and catastrophes in other places? Do we make any real effort to pay attention to the daily news of the senseless killing and regular tragedies in other countries? Does God's compassion stop with the borders of this country? Should ours? 

Dave Stratton is the Pastor of Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex, NC. This article originally appeared on Dave’s blog, David’s Deliberations.