Archive for category Say Something Nice

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! American Christianity’s Shattered Witness

Bill Leonard“Take the Bible: Zechariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zechariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

That’s how the Alabama state auditor defended U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore as some eight middle-aged Alabama women came forward to accuse Moore of sexually harassing or stalking them when he was 30-something and they were teenagers, the youngest and most graphic at age 14.

Welcome to Advent in America, 2017. Advent, those four weeks before Christmas when Christians declare that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” is the church’s witness to Christ’s incarnation, and against our culture’s ceaseless effort to Christianize Black Friday materialism. This Advent, however, the Jesus Story has been sordidly deployed in defense of a political candidate beset by shameful accusations and ineffectual self-righteousness. Note to Alabama Christians: Vote for Roy Moore if you feel you must, but for God’s sake, leave Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of it!

In a Nov. 19 New York Times interview, Brett Pitman, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., sums up the current religio-political dilemma for congregations in Alabama and the nation: “I have people in my church who are strong liberal-leaning Democrats and strong right-leaning Republicans. Politics in a church is a divider.” Pitman’s words portend the future for churches, not only if Moore is elected, but also if the removal of the Johnson Amendment is finally approved in the tax bill now pending in Congress.

The original amendment, attached to the 1954 tax code, forbids (but seldom enforces) nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing particular candidates. It does not prohibit clergy or laity from speaking out against or advocating specific policies and practices of politicians or government agencies. The new law would permit greater candidate specificity and the possibility that churches become tax shelters for direct campaign funding. Approval promises to divide congregations over which candidates are “Christian” or at least supportive of “Christian agendas,” perhaps giving dangerous new meaning to the words of the Advent hymn, “how still we see thee lie.”

Various religious groups have offered opposition to abolishing Johnson, including the witness of our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee for (real) Religious Liberty who warn that weakening the amendment “would divide [faith] communities and distract from their mission.” Yet other Christians demand the right to politicize their congregations to the max, implicitly connecting Democrat or Republican policies and politicians into their confessional identity.

This Advent, the public witness of American Christianity isn’t merely compromised; it is shattered, with Roy Moore’s candidacy and the U.S. Congress among the worst of a great herd of enablers. Odds are that before the last Advent candle is lighted Roy Moore will be elected; and churches can expand their candidate-funding for certified “Christian candidates,” while tightly clinging to state-supported tax exemption and the neo-Constantinian ministerial housing allowance for their state-privileged clergy. “O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.”

Amid this shattered koinonia comes the unforeseen yet poignant witness of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, responding to Moore’s demand that Kimmel visit Alabama, where “we’ll go man to man.” Kimmel agreed to make the trip, but only if the two meet up at a mall food court, “have a little Panda Express” and “talk about Christian values.” Then Kimmel voiced what Alabama Baptists might call his “personal testimony,” telling Moore:

“I don’t know, it doesn’t fit your stereotype — but I happen to be a Christian, too. I made my first Holy Communion; I was confirmed; I pray; I support my church; one of my closest friends is a priest; I baptized my children. Christian is actually my middle name. I know that’s shocking, but it’s true. So if you’re open to it, when we sit down, I will share with you what I learned at my church. At my church, forcing yourself on under-aged girls is a no-no. Some even consider it to be a sin. Not that you did that, of course. Allegedly. But when you commit a sin at our church, at our church we’re encouraged to confess and ask for forgiveness for the sin. Not to call the women you allegedly victimized liars and damage them even more. To confess. But maybe your church is different. I don’t know.”

“Maybe your church is different.” Amid the silence of too many of us “Reverends,” irony of ironies, the church’s witness — its Advent “light in the darkness” — is awakened by a “secular” talk-show host who “happens to be a Christian, too.”

Frankly, Kimmel’s words hit me hard, shaming me and my conscience; hence, this essay. Indeed, his forthright witness chastened me into confessing that while I’ll retire as a professor at Wake Forest University next July, my conscience, by God, won’t file for social or ecclesiastical “security.” I learned that years ago from Roger Williams, on his way to that “shelter for conscience,” Rhode Island, and last week from Jimmy Kimmel, on his way to an Alabama mall.

And in my 71st Advent I heard with new ears the expectant song of Jesus’ own Immah: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This Advent, one can only hope.

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Navigating the church’s engagement with the digital world – Rev. Amy Butler

The times, they are a-changing. This is typically the lament of the elders, a group in which I’m pretty sure I’m now included, and it certainly rings through the halls of every church I’ve ever encountered. Nobody likes change, and especially change to the institutions and experiences that provide structure and stability in a changing world full of upheaval.

One of the ways our society has vastly changed in just the last 15 years has been the creation of an alternative world, a digital world, and we’ve been trying to assess its impact on relationships and institutions ever since we realized it wasn’t going away. The church’s engagement with the digital world is no exception, and per usual we’re falling behind the curve in most cases.

In my world, much discussion has ensued as we try to bring the familiar way we know to be the church into some meaningful engagement with the digital world. Our church has tried to do this in various ways, some more successful than others. One significant way we’ve experimented with has been through livestreaming worship. Though we now have as many or more watching services online as we do sitting in the pews on Sunday, there seems to be a lament about loss of relationship. How do we connect with people who are sitting at home on the couch in their pajamas watching worship through a screen?

Amy and Rose

I’ve found that it’s helpful to approach this strange new world with familiar vocabulary. We all have lived through a time when “evangelism” was the term we used for extending the walls of our churches and inviting people in in new and innovative ways. Using social media, online streaming, and other digital tools to engage an outside world is a new expression of evangelism, plain and simple. By thoughtfully engaging the digital world, the church can and will expand and deepen human connection.

I know this first hand because of an experience I’ve had over the last three years since I came to be senior minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Early on in my tenure as pastor I received an email from a woman named Rose. She wrote to thank me for a sermon she heard online and to offer some reflections of her own. I wasn’t sure when she first wrote whether she was a member of the church whom I hadn’t met yet; in fact, I didn’t know who she was at all. But I answered her email just because I thought it was kind of her to take the time to write.

As it turns out, Rose wasn’t a member of my church after all. I soon gathered that Rose is a very devout Catholic who lives outside the city and somehow stumbled upon Riverside’s services — first on the radio and then via livestream. For three years she has sent me occasional emails — usually once a month or so — offering reflections or words of encouragement, sharing questions and spiritual struggles, always thanking me and the church for including her in our corporate worship experience.

When I asked Rose why she wrote to me at all, this is what she said: “For me it is important to validate the gifts of God that I experience through others. Via livestream I have always felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in you and through you to reach me. As time has passed the connection I feel to you and to Riverside has grown and deepened … which is a great gift from God.”

Last week, Rose and her husband came to church in person for the first time. During the passing of the peace she introduced herself and the hug we shared was hard and full of deep gratitude. In that moment I recognized true relationship, one of the best gifts of being the church together. Our friendship was forged through new and modern digital means, but the bonds were as familiar as a hand clasped at the door or a hug in the narthex or a moment of connection at the communion table. The words of our children singing in worship rang in my head in that moment: “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together!” — even via livestream.

 

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CELEBRATING NOT JUST ANOTHER HOLIDAY – Thomas Crowl

PSALMS 95: 2 …Let us come before His presence with Thanksgiving and make a joyful noise unto Him in song.

I just opened an e-mail from a dear friend calling upon us to commence an oral history of our dear family. This call is extremely timely in an era of disintegrating morality and loss of respect for others. Only when we honor the values given us by our forefathers and mothers do we have a benchmark upon which to anchor our soul. Only when we celebrate the special high points of our common faith can we raise the discourse from the profane to the sacred. God asks us no less and expects a great deal more.

As I bowed my head to lead the family prayer today at the Thanksgiving feast I called on the Lord to grant me the honor that lived in the day, the special meal comprising a long list of great family recipes was prepared with love and forethought and gathered and prepared by our adult daughter. So many great memories of culinary excellence preceded it and each year it grew in perfection. It made it not just another holiday but a sacred event that bound us together and connected us to God’s blessing.

God gives us such a sacred sampler in life, in a week marked by the loss of a dear friend and newspaper editor, and a struggle with healthcare emerged this special moment to connect us again to His great gifts. Yet we often toss these blessings aside and dwell on the worst of times. We linger on mindless tweets that seek to point out the worst in others that seek to separate us from God’s special blessing.

I call today to my many readers to start a special family history pointing out the best in our kin that made us a family, to list the times we have benefited from their skill, love and care and to use at least one example to build a better life that we share with others. In this way we push back the wall of hatred and ignorance that is urged on us by the electronic wizards of our time. Our examples will grow into a sacred text we can share with our family and provide a cushion upon which to build an honorable life. This is David’s special wish and song…a celebration for all time. May God bless and keep you and grant you peace as we honor Him and each other in verse.

 

DAVID CALLS TO US TO HONOR OURSELVES AND GOD IN OUR MOMENTS OF CELEBRATION AND COMMEMORATION…

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In Shooting Aftermath, How Can Faith Infuse Our Daily Lives?

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In Shooting Aftermath, How Can Faith Infuse Our Daily Lives? | Mitch Carnell, Mass Shootings, Gun Control

As a community of faith, our challenge is to change hearts. That means we must be more relevant to today’s world, Carnell says.

I heard the devastating news of the shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, when I returned home from church.

The horror of that incident is almost too much to comprehend. How can a single individual harbor that much hate? I have no idea.

I am the product of a small town and a small village church where everyone knew everyone. I am also the product of a Baptist church where fellowship is next to godliness.

Although my current church, First Baptist of Charleston, South Carolina, is much larger, worship and fellowship walk hand in hand.

We know that it could happen here. In fact, it did happen here only a few blocks away at Mother Emanuel AME Church. That horror is still with us and remains an open raw wound.

We know why Dylann Roof carried out his massacre. We don’t yet know what the Texas shooter’s motives were. Whatever his motive, we know that he was in a mental health facility in 2012.

When I was in graduate school, I had an apartment which was behind an unrented unit. There was an unsecured connecting door.

After a night that included fending off would be intruders, I resolved to purchase a gun. At some point, I realized that the only person that I would injure with a gun would be myself.

I knew that I could be deadly at close range with a wooden baseball bat; therefore, I bought a baseball bat instead. I knew that another gun was a recipe for disaster. There are too many guns now.

I know the arguments for gun rights. I also know that we cannot just do nothing. We can engage in a reasonable dialogue at the very least.

How does our religious faith impact our day-to-day lives? What action steps can we take as a community of faith to bring about greater safety at home and away?

Of course, we must remain vigilant to any threat. When we see something, we must say something. But we can do more.

Where does our faith fit in this struggle? What do we really believe?

I grew up in a culture of guns, but not in a household of guns. My dad had a 12-gauge shotgun that stayed in the corner for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what happened to it. It disappeared at some point.

Two of my teenage friends were playing with an “unloaded” pistol in their home. The pistol fired, and one brother was paralyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Our church employs an off-duty police officer on Sunday mornings. He is usually in the parking lot but parks his patrol car in front of the church.

Our leaders are trying to protect us, and, sadly, it seems to be a necessity these days. But my heart sinks every time I see it. For me, it sends a chilling message.

I am not naïve. We are a downtown church. We must take reasonable steps to protect those who worship with us.

I and three others are greeters. We are not armed nor would I ever want to be. Although we know most of those who enter, we are a historic church with visitors from all over the world.

One of us tries to talk with every visitor, but we know that we miss some. There is a second set of doors that leads to the sanctuary.

These add a little more security, but not much. Our minister is very good about referring troubled members for counseling.

No guns could have prevented the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. After all, the shooter sat and worshipped with his victims for an hour before launching his attack.

As a community of faith, our challenge is to change hearts. That means we must be more relevant to today’s world.

We must defeat hatred and disrespect for others. We must make it a priority to make friends. We must find a way to let our faith infuse our daily lives. We must ask ourselves, “What does it really mean to be people of faith?”

Our local newspaper ran a feature article based on the question, “How Can Your Faith Contribute to Better Race Relations?”

Perhaps it is time to ponder a different question: How can our faith create a more harmonious environment and reduce the violence in our culture?

If every congregation would open a dialogue on that topic, we might begin to make some progress. There are no easy answers, but we must diligently search for those that are consistent with our faith.

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