Archive for category Christian Civility

Wisdom seeks a third way – Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins*

Wisdom seeks a third way: The congregational dimension of Christian citizenship

Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins

October 5, 2020 – The Christian Citizen

Visit a Christian church in the United States today, and you might spot two flags on the chancel: an American flag and a Christian flag. Nothing could better symbolize the reality that as Christians and Americans, we are citizens of two realms.

What does this mean for the faithful women and men who comprise America’s churches?

There is an inherent tension with this dual citizenship. Much of the time, we do not think about it. But when the values of our faith contradict the laws or practices of our government, what then?

It might prove helpful to remember how Jesus navigated his dual citizenship as both an adherent of the Jewish faith and a subject of the Roman government. In the synoptic gospels, we read about the Pharisees (Jewish leaders) and the Herodians (Roman loyalists) joining forces to trick Jesus, asking him if a good Jew should pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says, “No,” he will be at odds with the Roman law. If he says, “Yes,” he upsets his Jewish followers. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus replies to the chagrin of his Jewish companions. It appears that Jesus has aligned with the Herodians. But then he continues, “and to God what is God’s.”[i] The tricksters offer Jesus a binary problem; Jesus responds with a non-binary solution. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ challengers are amazed by his answer; their false dichotomy exposed in the light of his wisdom.

Wisdom seeks a third way.

Whether the rub as Christian citizens is between church and state or between Republican and Democrat, or something else entirely, wise followers of what the earliest believers called “The Way” must continually seek a third way: a higher way that exposes the fallacies of either/or thinking. Trinitarian expressions of faith were born for this.

The United States has a two-party system with either/or thinking built into its DNA. Citizens are pushed, pulled, dragged and cajoled into ascribing loyalty to one party or the other. Party identity often becomes a primary way we see ourselves and one another. When we begin to think of ourselves as “Democrat” or “Republican,” we can be confident that we have fallen prey to either/or thinking.

What does third-way wisdom look like in a congregational setting, especially in 2020 when a global pandemic rages and racial tensions flare in the midst of an election year? What can church leaders do to lift disparate people above the cacophony of partisan dog whistles and political posturing?

Wisdom seeks a third way.

What does third-way wisdom look like in a congregational setting, especially in 2020 when a global pandemic rages and racial tensions flare in the midst of an election year? What can church leaders do to lift disparate people above the cacophony of partisan dog whistles and political posturing?

Name it. For starters, church leaders can name the tension. The election will be on the minds of worshippers in 2020. If church leaders ignore the election, or if we dance too delicately around the discord, we become irrelevant. Our message becomes anemic, sterile, impotent. Jesus was not afraid to name Caesar and God in the same lesson. We must not be afraid to name current reality. Church leaders, as responsible citizens, will ultimately cast votes borne out of a two-party system, but until and beyond that day, leaders must lift, prompt, urge and beckon believers up above the partisan fray. Wisdom seeks a third way.

Reframe it. Keeping the great commandment to love God and neighbor ever central, the job of the church is to constantly point people to a higher way. This calling is especially prescient during these polarizing days. “The left says this, the right says that, how might we look at this through the lens of faith?” As we explore that question together as church communities, we will be on the path to discovering a third way together. Wisdom seeks a third way.

Seeking a higher way, a third way, will be challenging. It will require a willingness of church members and leaders to sit with the tension on the way to third-way wisdom. It will summon us to seek to understand, holding loosely our need to be understood. It will necessitate deep listening; we must be prepared to be transformed by the conversation.

These are precarious days for leaders of “purple churches” (churches comprised of people who identify as both Democrat and Republican). Those who preach must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”[ii] A good rule of thumb for this kind of preaching: pastoral always, prophetic sometimes, partisan never. But preaching can be more than meeting people in the middle. Relevant preaching aims to be not apolitical, but transpolitical—aspiring to lift the collective vision higher, above zero-sum politics. Wisdom seeks a third way.

At our best, our nation and our faith share a common third-way vision: that the United States would be a land of “liberty and justice for all.”[iii] The church gains relevance as it points its communities to this ideal. This is no time for the church to be silent while partisan voices jockey for attention. Now is the time for the church to rise above the binary bickering, showing the world that wisdom seeks a third way.

*Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins is the senior pastor of Chapel by the Sea in Clearwater Beach, Florida and an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. Blevins holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and previously served as the coordinator of CBF Kentucky. She and her husband, Terry, live with their two sons in Palm Harbor, Florida.


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Field of Dreams – Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC

Here are two ways to see life during times of trouble: pain or possibility. Don’t believe me? Then, believe Jesus and Kevin Costner.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who entrusts his three servants with talents (currency) while he is away. He gives five talents to the first servant, who invests it and returns ten talents. Two talents are given to the second servant, who also invests and doubles his money. But the third servant, who receives one talent, is afraid, and he buries the money and returns only what he was given. The landowner shames him for not investing his gift.

Jesus’ lesson from this parable (among many) is that you must share, not bury, your God-given gifts. But there’s another important aspect of this story: There are NO exceptions. As with the third servant who buries his talent, fear is not an excuse. We might be unemployed, mourning the loss of a loved one, sitting in a chemo chair, or facing the prospect of a long, hard winter living through a global pandemic, but we still have the duty of making something of the gifts we’ve been given.

This brings us to our second piece of evidence: Kevin Costner who plays Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams. Kinsella’s Iowa farm is in crisis, and in that place of fear, he has two choices (similar to what we see in the parable): sell the farm back to the bank as is or take what his family has and build it into something more—a baseball diamond in their cornfield, a field of dreams.

Ray chooses the latter—taking what they have and building it into something more—thanks to three lessons whispered to him by a mysterious voice coming out of the cornfield.

The first thing the voice says is “ease his pain,” which for Ray means looking past his own fear to ease the pain of his late father. This lesson sounds counterintuitive, as it’s easy to think that when we are in pain, we should hunker down and focus on our own misery. However, the best way to ease our own pain is take our eyes off ourselves, and use our gifts to ease the pain of others.

A second lesson offered by the voice is “go the distance.” Like Ray and his farm, we, too, are in crisis—our lives turned upside down by COVID-19, our schools and children struggling, wildfires running rampant, and racial tensions at record highs. But even in the worst of circumstances, we must go the distance to live our gifts fully. As Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “We must run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The third and final lesson is a phrase familiar to us all: “If you build it, he will come.” In the movie, that means building a baseball diamond in a cornfield where players of past eras would return, including his father. But what does it mean for us?

Here’s what it meant for a dear friend of mine. Pastor Ned Lenhart is the father of a beautiful, talented teen-aged daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. When she auditioned for her high school choir, she was told that there was no place for her. Ned and his wife Jill then took that pain and made it into their own field of dreams by forming Hearts in Harmony, an adaptive show choir for special needs kids throughout their Wisconsin community.

-What pain are you in right now?

-Who else is suffering like you?

-How can you use your gifts and talents to ease their pain and build something great?

Whatever you are facing right now, know that there is a way to turn your pain into possibility. Go the distance. Ease someone’s pain. Share your talents no matter what the circumstances. Truly, if you build it, they will come.

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How democracy dies: ‘Give us a king’ -Erich Bridges – BaptistNewsGlobal

The fall of ancient Israel began almost before it rose — when the people demanded of Samuel, “Give us a king to lead us.”

You can read the whole, sorry story in 1 Samuel 8. The aging prophet who had guided Israel was heartbroken by the ultimatum. Samuel’s dread was confirmed when the Lord told him, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.”

Samuel warned the people that a king would take the best of their sons and daughters, their herds and flocks, their fields and vineyards, and even make them slaves again. No matter: “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations.”

Samuel gave them Saul. The hesitant young man never really wanted the job in the first place, but later he held onto it with murderous and increasingly insane ferocity. With a few notable exceptions — David, Solomon, Josiah and Hezekiah among them — Israel’s (and Judah’s) monarchies went downhill from there. Too many kings were harsh, greedy and idolatrous, just as the Lord predicted. As always, God brought good out of bad; God was preparing humanity for a kingdom not of this world. But the cautionary lesson remains.

Old Testament Israel versus modern nation states

It’s almost always unwise to compare modern nation states to Old Testament Israel. Only Israel was chosen by God. All other nations that aspire to such a status are pretenders, and their theocratic arrogance usually leads to disaster.

“The Israelites of Samuel’s time didn’t lose their freedom to outside forces; … they gave it up willingly.”

Still, one parallel between ancient Israel and modern democracies is irresistible. The Israelites of Samuel’s time didn’t lose their freedom to outside forces, despite their constant conflict with invaders, other local tribes and each other. They gave it up willingly, even eagerly. They wanted someone visible to rule over them, to tell them what to think and do, to bring order into the chaos of pagan Canaan. A king would solve everything! Following an invisible God required too much faith.

Keeping a democracy functioning in a complex, ever-changing world also requires faith, albeit of a more secular sort: Faith in representative government. Faith in debate and compromise. Faith in elections. Faith that your fellow citizens will abide by a social contract that includes both liberty and law, rights and responsibilities.

It isn’t easy, particularly when millions of individuals and groups struggle over competing interests and aspirations.

No wonder democracy is rare (and fairly recent) in human history. Most people through the ages have lived under tribal and clan chiefs, kings and queens, emperors, despots, dictators and other practitioners of absolute or semi-absolute rule. Some nations have rule from above forced upon them or never have known anything else.

But others, not unlike the Israelites, embrace a king.

Life is hard. Day-to-day survival consumes most of our energy. Affairs of state are bewildering and frustrating. You can’t trust politicians. Why not let someone else make those decisions in return for security and simplistic answers to tough questions? Especially if your chosen leader can fight for you against “them” — whoever “them” may be in your particular society. The suspicious “other.” Those invading immigrants. That different religion. Those other races you can’t trust.

Analyzing Trumpism

Trumpism is an obvious expression of this phenomenon. The Republican Party has essentially traded its political and moral philosophy for a xenophobic, populist cult of personality that promises to “Make America Great Again.” In reality, the cult offers little, even to its core supporters, beyond a sense of superiority over the various “others” they fear and the mirage of a return to the good old days of simpleminded solutions to complex issues.

Meanwhile, the nation sinks into division, decline and political paralysis as the president charged with faithfully administering our democratic institutions systematically undermines them.

A global perspective

But Trumpism is far from the only instance of the populism-run-amok weakening democracies internationally. Here are a few examples, among many:

Turkey, long the model for secular (if militarized) democracy in the Middle East, has become a hyper-nationalist, increasingly Islamist police state under populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has muzzled the press and crushed urban protests as he consolidates his rule. He used a disorganized military coup attempt against his government in 2016 as an opportunity to jail and terrorize thousands of opponents.

Brazil, led by populist President Jair Bolsonaro, has slid into political and economic chaos. Bolsonaro took over in 2019, promising to clean up Brazil after years of misrule under corrupt leftist politicians, but things have gotten worse. He hurls insults at indigenous and non-white ethnic groups in Brazil’s multiethnic society, allows the destruction of the nation’s rainforests and continues to deny the threat of COVID-19, although Bolsonaro himself contracted it in July. Brazil now has the third-most COVID cases in the world, behind only India and the United States.

The Philippines, once a budding Southeast Asian democracy, now staggers under the erratic rule of foul-mouthed President Rodrigo Duterte. He openly cheers death squads that execute alleged criminals without benefit of a trial, as well as the assassinations of “corrupt” journalists. Duterte honed his populist-godfather persona during 22 years as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. He brags that he personally killed three people during his campaign against crime there. The Philippines, a nation of 110 million, has declined economically during his presidency and stands accused of numerous human rights abuses.

Russia enjoyed an all-too-brief blooming of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Economic chaos and nostalgia for the paternalistic security of communism created a popular demand for the return of a “strong hand,” which ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin was happy to provide. Putin has been either president or prime minister since 1999 and appears determined to become president for life. The economic growth he rode to popularity has eroded, but he seems assured of perpetual reelection — as long as he controls the election process. He specializes in threatening and undermining neighboring countries, sowing misinformation and mischief in the West, and reportedly approving the poisoning of political opponents.

India, perhaps most chilling of all, is the world’s largest democracy with nearly 1.4 billion people. Indian secular democracy has endured corruption, multiple wars, emergency rule and massive ethnic and religious violence since independence in 1947. Yet it survives. But its days may be numbered as Prime Minister Narendra Modi trumpets extremist Hindu nationalism to expand his power. Modi denies attempting to oppress and marginalize India’s 200 million Muslims (and other religious minorities, including Christians). Reality tells another story, as Hindutva — Hindu nationalist philosophy — threatens the very existence of modern India. Modi’s economic blunders, meanwhile, have led the nation into a fiscal nosedive. Yet he was reelected in a landslide last year.

What’s the common denominator?

And that brings us to what these nations share in common, besides populist-nationalist demagogues in charge: The demagogues were elected (and sometimes reelected) by the voters. That’s democracy, you say. But for how long? Weary of change, fearful of the “other,” uncertain of the future, millions of citizens in more-or-less democratic nations have chosen “the strong hand,” the loudest voice, the easy way out, the leader who promises to clean house and take care of everything.

We recently observed the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which shook the foundations of the free world — but also became a unifying force. That unity is gone.

“Don’t believe easy (and false) answers, whether they come from politicians or the pulpit.”

“In many ways, 9/11 — and the epochal conflagration that followed — feels distant,” writes Ishaan Tahroor in The Washington Post. “In the West, the past decade opened and closed with traumatic economic shocks and recessions. The prevailing view of globalization as an inexorable, benign force (has) dissolved into a seething cauldron of nationalism and populism” — where hostile tribes fight to the death.

We can’t necessarily change the international mood. But we can refuse to become part of the “seething cauldron of nationalism and populism” sabotaging our own democracy — and our own churches.

Don’t believe easy (and false) answers, whether they come from politicians or the pulpit. Don’t submit to fear and hatred of “them.” Don’t blindly follow the shouters. Love one another. Work together for compassionate solutions to divisive issues.

And learn a lesson from Israel of old: Trust the invisible God, not the visible demagogue.

Eric Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.


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Get Wisdom

Knowledge is not wisdom.

Intelligence is not wisdom.

Intuition is not wisdom.

Belief is not wisdom.

Conviction is not wisdom.

Faith is not wisdom.

Feeling is not wisdom.

Love is not wisdom.

Power is not wisdom.

Experience is not wisdom.

Wisdom comes with age sometimes.

Wisdom comes from failure sometimes.

Wisdom comes from loss sometimes.

Wisdom never appears in noise.

Wisdom often appears in silence.

Wisdom never comes at the expense of the other.

Wisdom often comes in knowing ones’  self.

Wisdom shows when the body, mind and soul are in harmony

Wisdom is being at one with all of creation.

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