It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace II – Rev. Susan Sparks

This is part two of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.
In my last column, I wrote about my opportunity to visit two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. It was there that a local resident shared why hot sauce makes fried chicken so fabulous. Sporting a mischievous twinkle, she explained, “It takes heat to bring the grace.”

Ain’t that true—for chicken and for life. Sometimes the hardships we face (the heat) come bearing divine blessings (the grace).

Which brings me to the second holy shrine I had the honor of visiting: the Civil Rights Trail. My trail walk included Kelly Ingram Park, the site of some of the most vicious confrontations over civil rights in Birmingham. Truly, a place where heat cracked open the door for grace.

The park is encircled by sculptures memorializing the violence, including fire hoses pointed at the crowds of protestors and cement walls you walk between that have three-dimensional police dogs lunging out on all sides.

Of all the powerful installations, perhaps the most visceral is “The Four Spirits.” It depicts four little girls around a park bench preparing for worship at the 16thStreet Baptist Church. On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the KKK exploded under the front steps of the church, killing those four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The deaths of those tiny civil rights warriors spurred an international outrage that marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and fueled support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, the tombstone for Addie Mae Collins reads: “She died so freedom might live.”

I walked to the church located across the street from the park, and there I discovered a huge stained-glass window on the back wall near where the bomb exploded. It glimmered in the sun, a black crucified Christ in its center.

A member of the church pointed out to me that the right hand of the Christ is flexed to represent the pushing away of hatred and injustice, while the left hand is outstretched, palm open, offering forgiveness. Under the image are the words “You do it to me,” based on Matthew 25:40: “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

She then explained the window’s remarkable history. As the news of the bombing spread worldwide, John Petts, an artist in a tiny coastal village in Wales, heard about the tragedy and offered to create a window to replace the destroyed back wall of the church.

Rather than have a few wealthy individuals fund the project, donations were capped at half a crown (around 15 cents in current value) so that the window would be a gift from the people. All over Wales, people lined up to give. School children brought pocket money to donate. That tiny nation, more than six times smaller than Alabama, pulled together and created that window to help rebuild the church.

Sometimes it takes heat to bring the grace.

I walked home at the end of the afternoon, moved yet utterly disheartened. Here we are, fifty years of heat later, and the grace of true civil rights still hasn’t come. Violence is still aimed at our brothers and sisters of color. Racist hearts are still hardened against them. Equality is still held far from their reach.

I returned to Eugene’s for dinner, hoping for solace and grace from the heat of the chicken. But before I ate, I paused to pray for a larger grace, a grace for which Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley made the ultimate sacrifice. A grace that was and is the legacy of the crucified Christ. A grace that will come only if all of us—side by side, hand in hand—face the heat together. For it is then that we the people will bring the ultimate grace of freedom.

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Theological conversations are not just for theologians – Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall

Theological conversations are not just for theologians, ministers and seminary students – baptistnewsglobal.com

 

Molly Marshall

People are talking theology all the time without really knowing that is what they are doing. Every time they reflect on human identity, a particular view of God, the world, or Richard Foster’s un-Quakeresque trilogy – money, sex and power – there is an implicit theological perspective in play.

It is not only seminary students wrestling with questions into the night who are “talking theology.”

Recently I got to do one of my favorite things – convene a theological conversation in a congregational setting. In this case, it was with adult Sunday school participants at Smoke Rise Baptist, a vibrant church in the suburbs of Atlanta. There’s something wonderful about demystifying some of the “verities” alongside thoughtful students of the Bible who are eager learners about how what we believe shapes our lives. We talked about how our embedded theology must give way to deliberative theology as our beliefs collide with new experiential realities. When an issue begins to wear a face, unexamined assumptions shift.

“I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God.”

Colin Harris, retired professor of religious studies at Mercer University, opened his Sunday school class so that the two of us might have a freewheeling conversation about things of importance. He then invited class members into a larger engagement of ideas and practices that puzzle and challenge us. It was a lively time, and we had to end much too soon.

He and I began by reflecting on what we wish we had taught students more of in our early years of teaching. I suggested that I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God, especially as many came to seminary battered by the judgmentalism of their churches or the dysfunction of some of their homes. Most of us carry shaming ideas that we “are not enough” and that God is there to remind us of that.

I also suggested that human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us. This grants significant dignity to our sense of vocation.

Dr. Harris wisely suggested that if we think of human participation in this way, it reconfigures our understanding of God. I agreed, observing that the “omni-attributes” which accord all power, knowledge and presence to the divine have to be qualified by God’s choice to be in relationship with us, even as God dwells in the eternal flow of trinitarian relations. To be in relationship means that God does not hold all the power, determine all the knowledge, or even coerce how we experience divine presence. God invites our participation, indeed, that of the whole community.

One of the interesting exchanges with a member of the class had to do with the kind of hierarchy he perceived between ordained and non-ordained. The questioner wondered why one has to be an ordained deacon to serve communion and why only ordained ministers could baptize.

I responded that there is no theological reason for this, only traditional Baptist conventions in discrete churches. Actually, a church may authorize whom it chooses to perform these ministry functions, giving demonstrable reality to the statement that “every member is a minister.”

So why do we ordain?

“Human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us.”

The tradition of ordaining deacons and ministers arises out of the conviction that “setting apart” leaders for particular functions strengthens a congregation. A deacon demonstrates what mature discipleship looks like, and the ministry she or he provides multiplies the church’s impact.

Ordaining ministers is a recognition not only of gifts for pastoral leadership, but also acknowledging that formal theological education equips them to be reliable guides as they proclaim, administer the sacraments and shepherd their flocks. Ordination does not require hierarchy; rather, it places the ordained in the posture of servant, which is thoroughly Christological.

Another question had to do with what really distinguishes Christian theology from humanism. In the desire not to be tethered to dogma, have we let go of essential concepts?

Christian theology would be unrecognizable without the earliest kerygma that proclaimed: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Actually, dogma or doctrine does not have to be a deadly, cerebral concept that demands compliance; rather, it is what the church must teach now in order to be the church, in the words of Baptist theologian James McLendon Jr.

Another fruitful aspect of our conversation was our thinking about how a church enacts the Body of Christ as it mobilizes spiritual gifts in service to a larger vision of justice. Smoke Rise, for example, cares about interfaith relations, significant investment in mission pursuits and refugee work. That is incarnational theology at its best.

The clinker question came from an impudent class member who asked Dr. Harris, “How did you manage to keep a job so long and our friend, Dr. Marshall, has a rather checkered career?” It was a one word answer: “Gender.”

Baptists continue to have this theological conversation, also, for which I am grateful.

 

 

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Cultivate Kindness and Humility to Honor Jesus, Rev. Susan Sparks Says

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   – The Chautauqua Daily

With all of the people on our holiday gift list, there is one person missing,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumenical Service. “That name is the first six letters of Christmas — Christ.”

Sparks’ sermon title was “What Are You Going to Get the Baby Jesus for Christmas?” and her Scripture text was Micah 6:6-8. The Advent theme was love.

There was an 80-year-old woman in Sparks’ congregation who came to her with a terrible sin. The woman told Sparks she had been using “LOL” in cards, thinking it meant “lots of love.” She had just found it meant “laughing out loud.”

“I did not see what the problem was,” Sparks said. “Then she told me she had been putting it on condolence cards.”

This was the third sermon in her Advent series, representing the third Sunday in Advent.

“This is close to Christmas, and we begin to think about things like, ‘Are the cards out?’ ‘Is the tree up?’ ‘Have I bought all the gifts?’ ” Sparks said. 

She continued, “In a comedy club, the acts are scheduled tightly together so at the end of 9 minutes and 30 seconds, a red light goes on in the back of the club. It starts flashing at 9 minutes and 45 seconds, and they pull you off the stage at 10 minutes precisely. The third Sunday of Advent is like that — that light is flashing.”

She called it a time of intense consumerism and commercialism.

“It is ironic that the baby Jesus gets ignored on our holiday list because it is a celebration of his birth,” Sparks said. “What are we going to give? I noticed in the Bible, he got frankincense and myrrh, and I went online and found a lotion at Walgreens with frankincense and myrrh in it. I think we can do better for the baby Jesus than a lotion. He wants us to act from our hearts, to give of what we have at the moment.”

Sparks recalled preaching at a convention at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

“Think of it, Baptists in Vegas,” she said. “When the offering came forward, there were poker chips in the plate.”

The best gift guide for baby Jesus is found in Micah 6:6-8.

“‘What should I give?’ the prophet asked; the answer came back pure and clear and simple,” Sparks said. “Say it with me — do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. These are the things Jesus loves more than lotion.”

Kindness is harder to act on than we think, she told the congregation.

“A consumer survey said that one of the top 10 stresses of the holiday season is ‘having to be nice,’ ” she said. “What would kindness look like? Like Diana Ross said, ‘Reach out and touch someone.’ ”

A Santa in a store learned sign language to be able to communicate with children from a school for the deaf. Speak to people, Sparks said, “like bus drivers, store clerks, waiters and waitresses and wait for an answer.”

Reach out to the lonely, drop by a senior care center and just visit someone for half an hour. Some people are even donating Alexas to nursing home residents.

“You can drop a card to someone who is lonely,” Sparks said. “It is a gift that could change someone’s life. It doesn’t take a lot to do kindness.”

Humility, she told the congregation, “is not thinking poorly of ourselves, but empowering ourselves for service.”

“Lao Tzu said that true power comes from lowering ourselves in service,” Sparks said. “He said that rivers and seas lead 100 streams because they are skillful at staying low. They lie in low land so the water willingly flows to them.”

Leaders and people in general, Sparks said, need to be more like a conductor who listens to everyone. John C. Maxwell in Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, wrote that most leaders are stuck in the soloist mode, where everyone serves them.

Sparks recalled that Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the Lady Volunteers basketball team at the University of Tennessee, did not go into the locker room at half time and talk at her team. The team would get out a white board and talk about what went right, what went wrong and what needed to change.

“Once the team had talked it out, then Summitt would speak,” Sparks said.

Sparks and her husband, Toby, took a bucket trip on Thanksgiving — a train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

“It was as romantic and adventurous and fun as we thought it would be — on the first day,” she said. “By the third day, it was getting cramped.”

While her husband went out for coffee, she decided to fix her hair and put on some makeup.

He returned to their roomette, looked at her and said, “Why are you so angry?” Sparks looked in the mirror and saw what she had done.

“Never draw your eyebrows on a moving train,” she said.

She continued, “God forbid we should show vulnerability. People’s faces tell us a lot, and we need to listen.”

The third present for baby Jesus is to do justice, not just imagine justice, like a John Lennon song.

“Don’t sing about justice, don’t think about justice — do it now,” Sparks said. “The world is in pain, broken and burning. I think about the children and brothers of color taken by gun violence, the way people look at our Muslim brothers and sisters with suspicion, the hunger, poverty and homelessness all around us.”

One step taken by one person can move everything toward change. Rosa Parks said she was just trying to get home from work when she stayed in her bus seat.

Sparks said one Sunday, her deacon board gave everyone in the congregation a $5 bill.

“They could not use it on brunch, or go to a movie or buy a Powerball ticket,” she said. “They were to pay it forward, use it to lift someone up.”

One person bought wings for a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “I’m hungry.” Another bought mittens for a family that was struggling. Another gave money to a street vendor who suffered a loss when fruit was stolen from his cart. An artist in a train station, a homeless man who needed an umbrella, a woman in Afghanistan who needed a micro loan to learn tailoring, all benefited from these gifts.

“It’s like blowing dandelion seeds into the wind,” Sparks said. “This is the power of kindness, humility and justice to change the world. It is the truth. As Margaret Mead said, ‘a few caring people can change the world.’ ”

Sparks closed her sermon by telling congregants to “reach within yourself.”

“Find what you have to give, cultivate kindness, humility and justice and put the baby Jesus first on your list,” she said. “As the Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet said, ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.’ And the people of God said, Amen.”

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BWA supports “equal space” for women in church leadership – Bob Allen

 

During a recent meeting in The Bahamas, the General Council of the Baptist World Alliance issued a strongly worded resolution calling on global Baptists to repent of teachings, language and practices that are harmful to women.

The representative body that conducts business between the Baptist World Congress held every five years reaffirmed a 1988 resolution calling on Baptists to “celebrate the multiple gifts and sensitivities women bring to the service of Jesus Christ and the work of the Baptist family around the world” and to “commend biblical and careful attention by our member bodies to the enabling of women and their gifts.”

On the heels of a July 5-7 conference on women in the church, the resolution passed July 11 calls further for Baptists around the world to “repent from the teachings and practices through which we have prevented women from flourishing as human beings created in the image of God and full members of the body of Christ.”

It urges Baptists to “open ourselves to the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, inspire discussion, and provoke transformation in individual lives and communities, affirming the God-given call of women for service in the church, so that their stories may take rightful place in the wider story of Christ’s body in the world.”

It encourages Baptists around the globe to learn and use “language that is affirming to both women and men in worship, communications, and publications, including Bible translations” and “work intentionally to create equal space for women in all leadership roles” in churches, conventions and unions and within the 239 member-body BWA, representing 47 million Baptists in 125 countries and territories.

The Southern Baptist Convention, once the largest and most generous financial contributor to the BWA, withdrew in 2004 from the worldwide organization it helped organize in 1905. Grievances cited by a new generation of SBC leadership — significantly more conservative than the moderates in power before them — included “promoting women as preachers and pastors” among issues making “it impossible to endorse the BWA as a genuinely representative organization of world Baptists.”

The 1988 BWA resolution on women came just four years after a famous SBC resolution discouraged the service of women in “pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

In 2000 Southern Baptists amended the Baptist Faith & Message, the convention’s official doctrinal statement, to decree “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

In the last year a number of SBC leaders have endorsed the Nashville Statement, a 2017 manifesto affirming traditional gender roles and rejecting designations such as LGBTQ Christian that was translated from English into four additional languages and shared with evangelicals around the world.

The past year also included media reports of widespread failures in preventing and addressing sexual abuse and domestic violence in Southern Baptist life, raising questions about what role, if any, the denomination’s teaching on male headship and women’s subordination might play.

During the July 7-12 annual gathering in Nassau, the BWA also passed a resolution voicing “deep concern” about religiously motivated violence that has occurred since last year’s meeting, including attacks on synagogues in the United States, mosques in New Zealand and Easter morning bombings targeting Christians in Sri Lanka.

“These events remind us that various forms of religious intolerance — both from individuals and as a result of government action or inaction — continue to pose a significant threat to individuals and to societies across the globe,” the resolution says.

 

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