Archive for category Christian Civility

A fresh take on Lent from Jewish New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine

March 7, 2019 by Emily McFarlan Miller

(RNS) — Amy-Jill Levine has described herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist” and said that although she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, she is “often quite unorthodox.”
For one, Levine teaches both Jewish studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
And the professor has written a new Lenten study titled “Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” published by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.
“If I’m not a believer in Jesus, and I think these are fabulous stories, how much more so should somebody who’s a Christian find extraordinary meaning in them?” Levine said.
And as a Jewish historian, she said, she “can point out meaning that perhaps Christians were not aware of.”
In her new book, Levine walks through several stories Christians typically read during Holy Week, or Passion Week, marking the final days before Jesus was crucified, according to New Testament accounts.
That week also marks the final days of Lent, the penitential season many Christians observe leading up to Easter, when they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Catholics and many Protestants, Lent began this week.

Author Amy-Jill Levine
Levine spoke to Religion News Service about Lent and risk and reading the New Testament from Rome, where she recently spent a morning talking to American priests on retreat about “why I think Jesus is wonderful.” In the coming weeks, she plans to present Pope Francis with a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament she co-edited.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your new study, you draw a comparison between Lent in Christianity and the Days of Awe in Judaism. Can you talk about that?
Lent reminds me of what are called the Days of Awe — the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish liturgical calendar. We think about what we’ve done in the past and what we should be doing in the future. We take time to repent. We take time to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing in the world and how we can do it better.
The month that’s the run-up to Rosh Hashanah is also a time of introspection. You make amends — because you can’t put yourself in a right relationship with God if you’re not in a right relationship with people in your life.
It’s kind of like a theological do-over. And I find that remarkably healthy.
Both in Lent on the Christian calendar and in parts of the Jewish calendar, the community does this together. So you’re not alone in the difficulties of assessing what you’ve done. You’re not alone in trying to figure out how to do life better.
How does delving into the history and literature of Holy Week make the texts more meaningful?
Anybody can read the Bible. You can just pick the text up and say, “What does this text mean to me?” And you make a profound response.
But I do think the more history we know, the more profound the reading experience becomes. In the same way, if you fall in love with somebody, you want to know that person’s background.
If somebody claims to appreciate the stories of the Bible, it seems to me they ought to try to know something about the context in which the Bible was written. If we talk about Jesus teaching in the Temple, which is part of Lenten readings, then it helps to know what the Temple was like. It helps to know that there are Roman soldiers who are in the area. It helps to know that there were pilgrims from all parts of the empire — many of them don’t speak the same language — rejoicing and celebrating this Feast of Freedom, and those are the folks who are listening to these teachings. If we think about Passion Week coming at the same time as Passover, it helps to know what Passover is and how Passover is celebrated. If we read Scripture and Jesus quotes a passage from the shared Scripture — what the church would call the Old Testament and the synagogue would call the Tanakh — it really helps to know what that Scripture is and what comes before and what comes after and how people read that text in the first century.
Is there a particular story in these texts that stands out to you?
I like them all, but I’m very much drawn to the story where, at the beginning of these events, Jesus is at dinner — he eats a lot — and a woman comes in and anoints his head with very expensive ointment, like Chanel. People complain, and they say, “Wait a minute, this is expensive perfume. You could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.”
And Jesus says, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” And then we stop because that’s a quote directly out of Deuteronomy, and you know the next line is, “And therefore extend your hand to the poor and the needy.” You always have the chance to do this, but, as Jesus goes on to say, “You will not always have me here, and what she has done is anoint me for my burial.”
And he goes on to say, “This story will be told in memory of her.”
The story is supposed to be told in memory of her, so how do we tell that story? And when we tell it, do we tell it about her? What was she thinking? And later on in the Gospel of Mark, when three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, did it not occur to them that this woman had already done that — that she got it right, that she understood what was going on?
Why don’t we have, on the Christian liturgical calendar, a dinner celebrating her? I think that’s the new feast that needs to be invented: We have a special dinner at the beginning of Holy Week and we tell stories about all the women who made this mission possible. How cool would that be?
This study is all about risk. How do you see that theme in the stories of Holy Week?
Jesus knows he’s going to die. You don’t have to be supernaturally prophetic to know that if you go into Jerusalem and you’re a popular leader, that’s going to come to the attention of the powers that be and your life is going to be at stake. So let’s talk about the risk-taking in which he engages, and let’s see how Lent can help us take the risks that we need to take in order to live more complete lives.
We’re happy with the status quo. We know that certain things are wrong, but if we have to risk our reputation or our economic status or our political connections or even our own communities because we’re in favor of something that the community is not, when do we finally make that step and take that risk?
Jesus talks about taking up your cross, which is an extraordinary image. It doesn’t mean, “Oh, I have to take up my cross. I have to pick up the dry cleaning today.” It means, “I’m going to do something where I’m going to risk my reputation, my life, but this is exactly the right thing to do.”
I think Lent helps us with that. We can ask not only what should we have done, but what did we fail to do? When were we too afraid? When were we too self-interested to take the steps that need to be taken in order to do what Jews would call “tikkun olam” — to engage in the reparation of the world?
Some people see the New Testament, and in particular, some of the stories of Holy Week, as anti-Jewish. You also co-edited a Jewish Annotated New Testament. Do you see this in the text, or is that in how these stories have been interpreted?
I think one, as a scholar or as a reader, could pick up parts of the New Testament, like much of the Gospel of John, for example, and say, “This is an anti-Jewish text.” I think that’s a fair reading, but it is not the only reading.
Whenever we read, we interpret, and what’s anti-Jewish to one person is not anti-Jewish to another. I just find it more helpful to say it is certainly the case that over time that many of these texts have been interpreted in an anti-Jewish manner. Therefore, it is our responsibility as moral readers to make sure that we do not inculcate or reinforce anti-Jewish views to people who hear what we have to preach or read what we have to write.
Because reading is often a moral act, what choices do we make when we interpret a text in one way rather than in another way? Do we read benevolently or do we read malevolently? And that’s a choice. I don’t think if you read the New Testament, you are going to come out as an anti-Semite. It’s not a necessary reading, but it’s a possible one.
What do you hope people will take from your study?
Part of my goal is to get people to appreciate how each Gospel has a different story to tell. Rejoice in those distinctions. Rejoice in the separate stories. Because these stories are so wonderful that there’s no single way of telling them any more than there’s a single way of telling the creation story in the Book of Genesis. To be Israel means to wrestle with God.

“Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” by Amy-Jill Levine
Think about Judas Iscariot and what were his motives, because they vary from Gospel to Gospel. Think about how the apostles felt, because, at best, they’re confused. Look at all those minor characters like the woman who anoints Jesus or later the centurion at the cross — what did they think and how were they functioning? Listen to Jesus’ teaching: What does he say about paying taxes? What does he say about the greatest commandment and why?
Each story opens up to so many possibilities — profound, inspirational, often challenging. And I want people to take that challenge, which is in fact to take that risk, to let the stories challenge us and sometimes to indict us.

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Clergy, Laity Partnership is Essential for Church Health

Mitch Carnell – February 8, 2019 – ethicsdaily.com

I have a renewed interest in the concept of the priesthood of the believer as embodied by lay leadership in the local church.
This unexpected perspective emerged from a focus on Baptist beliefs and distinctives in the Sunday school class I attended for Baptist History and Heritage Month last October.
Unless those of us in Baptist churches – and other traditions where the laity are important – step up to the plate, the laity is in great danger of forfeiting its partnership with the professional clergy.
This is crystal clear in a resolution that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio in 1988, “Resolution on The Priesthood of The Believer,” which states that “elders, or pastors, are called of God to lead the local church.”
The laity have been equal partners with the clergy in Baptist congregations since our founding in 1608/9. In fact, Thomas Helwys, a layman, founded the first Baptist church on English soil in 1611.
With the arrival of the megachurch and the CEO-pastor model, the influence of the laity has been in steady decline. This has happened as two streams emerged.
The first is the gradual voluntary relinquishing of responsibility by the laity. I count myself in this category.
The second stream is the eager accepting of more responsibility by the professional clergy. This pattern has accelerated among Baptists in the southern U.S. since the passage of the 1988 resolution.
Over this same period, we have seen the rise of clergy abuses.
While there are exceptions, the general trend has been for the power of the professional clergy to continue to increase, while the size of laity-led boards and committees has declined in relation to congregational size.
This gives more and more control to smaller and smaller groups. In many cases, a small group of elders, along with the pastor, exercise control over the affairs of the congregation.
Committees have become less and less active until many of them have disappeared.
As members have become less involved in the affairs of the congregation, membership and attendance have also declined.
The clergy make vital decisions once made by church members. There are fewer opportunities to develop and nourish new leadership.
How will young adults – both women and men – in our congregations develop the skills necessary to develop into effective leaders if they aren’t given the chance? Where are the training opportunities?
I contrast this situation with the days when I was a young Christian. My church could not wait to move its young people into places of leadership development. Their encouragement and support undergirded everything I did.
My undergraduate years were filled with wonderful opportunities to develop my skills in both urban and rural churches as a volunteer.
Years later, when I arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a graduate student and a stranger in my newly found church home, I was quickly tapped to fill a place of service.
When I arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in my local church, I joined the most active group of young professionals I had ever encountered.
The church simply hummed with their involvement. In no time, my wife and I were put to work.
Our church has a long history of women in leadership positions. Due to hard times after the Civil War and the shift in the population, the trustees boarded up the church and were ready to assign it to history or turn it into a museum.
However, a small group of women pried the boards from the windows, climbed through and continued services.
From my youngest days, my life has been blessed by men and women of the clergy from a host of denominations. They are my friends and mentors.
I honor and respect them, listen to and socialize with them and often question them.
I would describe them as servant leaders because they recognize the essential role of the laity as partners in the pursuit of building God’s kingdom on earth.
As one of my former ministers said to a group of us while visiting me at college, “Everyone is either a missionary or a mission field.”
At the time, I thought that he was playing for laughs; however, over time I have come to appreciate the wisdom of his statement. There is a vital role for every Christian.
The role of the clergy is essential; however, we make a grave mistake when we enhance that role to the extent that the importance of the work of the laity is compromised.

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Jimmy Allen, visionary denominational leader, dies*

BOB ALLEN | JANUARY 8, 2019 – BaptistNewsGlobal

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Jimmy Allen

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

A pioneer in religious broadcasting, he led the Southern Baptist Convention’s Radio and Television Commission from 1980 to 1990, hosting a national cable talk show called “Life Today.” In 1988 he won an Emmy as producer of a show produced for ABC television filmed in the People’s Republic of China titled “China: Walls and Bridges.”

Always interested in ethical concerns, Allen led the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1960 to 1968. In 1962 he helped plan the first state workshop on Christianity and race relations in Southern Baptist history. During the Johnson administration he helped plan the first White House Conference on Civil Rights.

From 1968 until 1980 Allen served as pastor of First Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas – at the time the sixth largest church in the SBC – leading the urban congregation to establish new social ministries while at the same time expanding its evangelism and nurturing ministry base.

As SBC president he launched Mission Service Corps, a pathway for adults to serve as missionaries, and was chief promoter of Bold Mission Thrust, a plan to take the gospel to every person on earth by the year 2000.

In 1993 Allen joined Los Angeles Times journalist John Dart in a prize-winning report on the relationship between news media and religion called Bridging the Gap.

He once served as a non-governmental observer at the United Nations and led a fact-finding mission to Iran during the hostage crisis at the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979-1980.

In later years he served as chaplain of Big Canoe Chapel, a multi-denominational chapel in the north Georgia mountains, before moving to St. Simons Island in retirement. Lankford, who began serving at First Baptist Church in St. Simons Island in 2015, called it “an honor to get to know him.”

“He blazed a trail of ministry in such a way that younger men and women could follow,” Lankford said. “Many people, including me, are grateful for the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Jimmy Allen.”

Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said she has “known, loved and respected Jimmy Allen” her entire life.

Paynter called Allen “a visionary Baptist leader who believed in the power to convene good people for the surprising work of God.”

Paynter said Allen “engaged in honest dialogue and true cooperative ministry” and “brought a strong voice of encouragement and expectation to any endeavor.”

“I am so grateful for this pilgrim of faith,” Paynter said.

Hannah McMahan, executive director of the New Baptist Covenant, described Allen as “a man of vision and compassion” who will be “sorely missed.”

“He dedicated his life to the steadfast work of the gospel and was a shining example of a life well-lived,” she said. “Under his leadership, the inaugural meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in 2008 reminded our entire Baptist family what we are capable of when we lean into the best of who we are.”

*I first met this wonderful man in 1986 when I went to be interviewed on the Acts Network in Ft. Worth. Years later he graciously agreed to write a chapter in my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I was blessed to attend the first meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta. His vision and leadership will be missed.

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Laughter – The Shiny Side Up – Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi Y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger!

Recently, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two immunotherapy researchers for their work on unleashing the body’s immune system to attack cancer.

As a breast cancer survivor, I say “Amen!” Thanks to advances like this, including innovative treatments, and early detection, I am a twelve-year survivor.

Well . . . innovative treatments, early detection, and, of course, laughter.

Laughter?

Yes. As a comedian, minister and cancer survivor, I believe that laughter is one of the most powerful tools we have for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. And in this month of Breast Cancer Awareness, it is something we should celebrate.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of humor. For example, we know that the extra intake of air from laughing can lower our blood pressure, boost the immune system, enhance heart and lung function and increase endorphins. It can even bump up our calorie burn. In fact, laughing for fifteen minutes can burn 80 calories. That’s enough to justify a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup!

Humor is now being used in hospitals and treatment centers as a healing tool for cancer, Alzheimer’s, autism, and mental health issues. The Big Apple Clown Care Unit, for example, sponsors programs across the country in which clowns help children cope with the intimidating atmosphere of a hospital.

Another program, Standup for Mental Health, uses stand-up comedy training to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. As its founder, David Granirer, explains, “The idea is that laughing at our setbacks raises us above them. It makes people go from despair to hope, and hope is crucial to anyone struggling with adversity.”

Humor and laughter can also bring psychological healing. During my cancer struggle, I realized I had three choices: be mad, be sad, or laugh. I soon learned that the most powerful approach was to laugh. One day, a new patient walked into the radiation center with a T-shirt that read: “Yes, they are fake; my old ones tried to kill me.” The entire waiting room burst out laughing, and that moment of laughter reminded us that cancer was not who we were; it was only something we were experiencing.

Laughter changes our perspective and invites us to see things in a fresh new way. The ability to step back and laugh at ourselves also reminds us that we are only human and that we should be more forgiving of ourselves.

It’s like the serenity prayer teaches: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Of course, I like the senility prayer better: “God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.” Either way, laughter helps us see ourselves in a more forgiving light.

Spiritual healing may be where laughter is most powerful. As Proverbs teaches us, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones…”

The Hebrew word “ruach” means both “spirit” and “air.” Therefore, it can be said that when we laugh, we are inhaling and exhaling the spirit. Or, as author Anne Lamott describes it, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

And why not? God has a sense of humor. Consider 1 Samuel 5:9 where God strikes the entire male population of Philistines with hemorrhoids (harsh, but funny), or the fact that we are made in the image of the divine. Humans laugh and feel joy, so a part of the divine must also laugh.

The willingness to laugh with God also allows us to express anger with God. Sometimes we blame or get mad at God for what we are going through. But in order to work through that anger, we have to share it. In order to be healed, we must bring God all our pieces: anger, sadness, fear, and laughter. It’s all holy.

So, here’s to the immunotherapy researchers; to the doctors, nurses, and technicians and to everyone whose life is dedicated to caring for and healing us. God bless them. And most of all, God bless the gift of laughter—the one thing that may save us all.

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