Posts Tagged church

Civility or incivility, an alternative for the Church: ‘communionism’

As culture demands civility or incivility, an alternative for the Church: ‘communionism’

ERIC MINTON  |  JULY 20, 2018 BaptistNewsGlobal

The partisan bloodbath currently passing as our national political discourse has led to renewed discussion over the act of discussion – how we should go about dealing with our ever-widening differences. Some of us advocate for a new civility, one that seeks to dig out one another’s humanity from underneath the mountains of memes we now use to punctuate our preferred political positions. Which, in this post-apocalyptic-Ridley-Scott-directed-Presidency, comes across a bit like Lord Grantham clucking his tongue at a hastily re-arranged coterie of deck chairs on the Titanic. It seems glib, condescending and aloofly privileged in a world where there are children sleeping in cages near the border.

Others of us clamor for all-out-war on the “enemy,” with whom we live daily or see at holidays or worship alongside weekly. According to this thinking, blood has already been spilled by someone else, and when the Visigoths are at the city walls all appeals for decorum and proper protocols are sacrificed on the altar of our hemorrhaging and smoking democracy. In my experience I’ve found it difficult to ferret out the “truth” or the “facts” once the dopamine kicks in following my release of a string of self-righteous, ad-hominem sentence fragments.

I’m saying this too seems glib, condescending and aloofly privileged in a world where there are children sleeping in cages near the border.

Now that we’ve exhausted ourselves by either endlessly tone-policing or cathartically releasing our animosity into the ether of our broken national conversation, perhaps we might finally be ready for the world’s worst question most often posed by the world’s worst “therapist,” Dr. Phil: “Well, how’s that workin’ for ya?”

“Our raging incivility – or cool civility – isn’t very effective in keeping children out of cages, families out of poverty or your aunt from refusing to come home for Christmas because of your grandfather’s preferred news outlet.”

From where I sit, our raging incivility – or cool civility – isn’t very effective in keeping children out of cages, families out of poverty or your aunt from refusing to come home for Christmas because of your grandfather’s preferred news outlet. Which begs the question, is there a third option between civility and incivility that we’re too emotionally dis-regulated or cynically withdrawn to recognize?

In his initial correspondence to the early Christian community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul famously invoked “Communion” as a way of bringing this disjointed first-century community together. Here he is, blogging from the nearby city of Ephesus: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” . . . 

Paul ends the paragraph rather ominously: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

The Gospel of Luke’s account of that same meal echoes Paul’s (chronologically) earlier treatment: “. . . And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

 Again, the closing line, this time from Jesus, is telling: “‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.’”

For most of my life, whenever folks attempted to prove Jesus’ divinity, they typically led with the miraculously sacrificial nature of his death on the cross and his tomb-clearing follow-up album, “The Resurrection (Part 1).” But then I read about how Jesus ate a whole meal with people who had known him for years and still misunderstood what he was trying to do, why he was trying to do it and what it meant for them and everyone else. One of them was so desperately misguided and politically motivated that he even sold Jesus out for money.

Yet, there our Lord was, supping with them all the same.

As I’ve gotten older and survived more than a few contentious Thanksgivings, I’ve come to realize that the Last Supper isn’t some boring intro we survive once a quarter in order to remember some othermiraculous part of Jesus’ life. Communion is the miraculous part.

The fact that a God (which is what we believe Jesus to be in the flesh) could stand to be misunderstood to the point of death by 12 people who would then be responsible to carry on his work after he was goneis beyond comprehension. A few towns over, in Babylon, they believed their God literally created the earth by ripping another monster in two (it’s an awesome story).

In America we believe our God has all the words – especially the best ones.

And in that rented room 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, before the dry ice and laser lights of Easter, we find out that the Christian God is totally okay with people missing the point about who he is and what he’s here to do. It seems like he even sort-of expects it.

Perhaps, then, Jesus’ invitation to “do this” over bread and wine wasn’t to hermetically seal his words and actions behind a veil of professionalism, theology and traditionalism. What if, instead, the “do this” is for the whole of humanity to look one another in the eyes over good bread and better wine as a way of bringing all of us concretely back to the realization that there is something elemental – sacramental, even – about the fact that we all live on bread and wine, even if we give up or give in or misunderstand the way of Jesus. Or if we have different political ideas that cause us to sell him out again and again.

We all hunger and thirst, and Jesus just keeps breaking himself open and pouring himself out again and again.

As a way of bringing proper acknowledgment to the extremely radical (and unpopular) nature of just this kind of dinner, we might be better served by changing its rather tepid title from the Lord’s Supper to something almost blasphemous: communionism.”

“Communionism” is a practice demanding that followers of a misunderstood God engage in concrete solidarity across tradition, political identity, geography, theology, socio-economic status, ethnicity and what Paul later called “the dividing wall of hostility” in order to bring a whole new world into being – together. A world that begins with bread, wine and a shared commitment to surviving difference together, not by ignoring it or sacrificing it, but by looking it in the eye and washing its feet and passing the plate.

Honestly, what sounds more like Jesus to you: only participating in religious rituals with people who have the appropriate credentials? Or breaking bread and pouring wine with people who sold you out and abandoned you and constantly misunderstand you and your motives?

These days it seems as if our polarized and violent civilization could use more followers of Jesus radically committed to bravely eating with difference, even if the difference is almost impossible to bear. To commune together, even when there’s good reason for withdrawn civility and hostile incivility, seems a miraculously unlikely experience – one that requires profound faith.

Which is probably why the Church has spent the majority of its life protecting the metaphor instead of practicing its meaning.

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They believed in complementarian theology- Peggy Wehmeyer –

Baptistnewsglobal.com

First came sexual harassment scandals in powerful evangelical pulpits. Then the movement’s best-known female Bible teacher, Beth Moore, charged church leaders across the country with widespread misogyny. And now the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth has been fired for religious chauvinism that pressed abused women to stay with their husbands and a rape victim to forgive and drop charges against her perpetrator.

“The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance,” warned one powerful church leader, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler. He added that the story’s not over.

I should have seen it coming. I’m one of millions of American women who converted to evangelical Christianity because of its life-changing promise of hope and healing. The problem is that some of the men in leadership have used the Bible to mask a patriarchal misogyny. That’s what’s driving today’s #MeToo church movement. A whole host of leaders, like fired seminary president Paige Patterson, have silenced and marginalized the voices of women for decades. And that leaves my faith family morally compromised.

I had wanted to dedicate my life to full-time ministry since becoming a Christian in college. The Jesus I met at the University of Texas was a revolutionary who inspired his followers to usher in the kingdom of God, fight for justice and give up your life to save it — whether or not you were a woman.

I thought I could learn how to do that at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). The people closest to me didn’t understand. The dean of my journalism school shook his head in bewilderment, my sorority sisters whispered, “She’s joining a convent,” and my parents, who unsuccessfully hired a psychiatrist to have me “deprogrammed,” cut me off financially.

I reached Dallas in my tattered Toyota station wagon, broke, alone but unafraid. Each morning when I woke up in this new place, I knelt in the dark, closed my eyes and cranked up Handel’s Messiah, singing along, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

At 21, all I knew about DTS was that it produced great Bible teachers and had a job opening for a writer. I grabbed it. Too broke to enroll, I slipped into any class I could audit, attended chapel whenever I could, and begged for audiences with theologians whose teaching I devoured.

When at last I earned enough money  to enroll as a student, I discovered something troubling: The master of theology program, the one that prepared students for leadership in the church, was off-limits to women. That came home to me one day after a New Testament class. A few men approached me outside the room.

“You don’t plan to preach to a mixed audience, do you?” they asked.

My answer: “I just want to study the Bible,” I said. “I don’t know how I’ll use it yet.”

I learned at seminary that many biblical texts could only be understood in the context of ancient Hebrew culture, and that made sense to me. What confused me was that the harsh passages prohibiting women from leadership — in church and at home — were the ones taken literally.

The limitations of my future in a church led by men should have become apparent early on. My female hero of the faith, Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, had been invited to campus. When she rose to the chapel pulpit to speak to the students, almost all male, a group of them walked out in protest. Preaching to men presumably gave her authority over them, and that was forbidden.

Did I challenge the system? Hardly. As a young Christian, I accepted the teachings of seasoned theologians. I agreed that the Bible was inspired by God and that its truths transcend culture. What I struggled to understand was which Bible passages were to be taken literally. After all, no one was suggesting we should have slaves and make them obey their masters, a command listed in the same place where women are told to submit to their husbands. What if the seminary leaders had it wrong? What if Jesus and his apostles actually elevatedwomen who were treated deplorably in their day?

When I asked about the heroic women of the Bible, like the prophet Deborah, who led her people into battle, or Queen Esther, who stood up to a king and saved the Jews, I was told that God used women to lead only when men failed to step up to the plate. We were God’s backup plan for weak-willed men. And to quote Paige Patterson, our role in church and at home was “to be submissive in every way.”

Almost all of the seminary students and professors treated me with respect and kindness, so I didn’t resent the limits placed on my role as a woman. I trusted the intentions of church leaders. They believed in complementarian theology, which gave men primary leadership in the church and home.

That affected the shape of my life. By my fourth year at DTS, I was doubting my own instincts about what career path to take. My only brush with leadership in the church came when two outlying professors offered to train me, on the condition that our meetings stayed under wraps. After hours, I slipped into their offices to learn how to interpret Scripture, outline a sermon, and deliver it with flair. Larry Moyers and Mike Cocoris were traveling evangelists. When they took me on a preaching circuit to East Texas, only they could teach in the sanctuaries. My sermons were restricted to women who met on the peripheries of the church.

At seminary, I felt like a racehorse lunging at the starting gate, waiting for the bell to sound, with no track ahead of me. And then I stumbled into wide open space: a job opening at a local TV station, where career restrictions had everything to do with skill and nothing to do with gender.

Before I could take the job and clear my seminary desk, a prominent professor called me to his office. I remember standing with him outside the pastoral ministries department when he asked me the ultimate question for a follower of Jesus: “What is God’s will for your life?”

By now I knew the answer he wanted. “To get married and have children,” I said. “But God hasn’t led me to marry yet. Until he does, I’m going to go out and make a difference in the world.”

What he said next felt like a curse, and it would haunt me for years. “Peggy, if you leave Christian work for a career in the secular media, two things will happen: You’ll lose your faith, and it’s unlikely any Christian man will want to marry you.”

I was speechless. To lose my faith was to lose my life compass. To miss marriage and children would be to miss God’s highest calling for a woman.

I took the risk and I left seminary to be a copywriter for WFAA-TV in Dallas. Within a year I was named the first television religion reporter in the nation. I covered the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco and the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. We tracked the rise of the Mormon church in Texas and reported on all the major Southern Baptist Conventions, including the ones where the embattled Patterson led the conservative takeover of the denomination. I interviewed Patterson countless times in the ’80s and ’90s.

Like many women my age, I managed all of it while married and raising two children, but it wasn’t my church that supported me in the herculean task of juggling family and work.

For support later in my career, I pulled together my own small community of women from both coasts. We met each week for a decade by speakerphone, talking and praying about everything from how to integrate our faith at work, to raising our children, to discerning the will of God.

Rarely did I seek out my pastor for counsel, but once, during a rough patch in my marriage, I did. He urged me to follow the Bible verse that tells women to be “like Sarah, who obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him her lord.”

So why did I remain an evangelical? This community had introduced me to Jesus and helped me build a relationship with a personal, loving God whom I could trust.

I held onto my faith and my evangelical family even as my secular career ramped up. When the call came from New York, my 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, was click-clacking her Big-Wheel across our kitchen’s hardwood floors. The voice on the other end sounded uncannily like that of my broadcasting hero.

“Hello, Ms. Wehmeyer? This is Peter Jennings at ABC News, and I have two questions for you,” he said. “Is it true that you cover religion? And are you willing to make a major life change?”

“Yes. And maybe,” I answered.

Months later, Jennings and ABC received a rush of publicity for hiring me as the first religion correspondent in the history of network news.

Soon Christian leaders wanted me on the covers of their magazines and speaking in their college chapels. But I was careful about when and where I spoke personally about my own faith. For me, the highest calling of a journalist was to separate my personal bias from the stories I covered. It was because of my faith, not in spite of it, that I could distance my personal beliefs from my reporting.

But Christian colleges were having a serious problem. More than half their student bodies were made up of women, and this generation of evangelical women wanted futures that included robust professional careers. Who would mentor and lead them? Wheaton College, the “Harvard of Christian colleges,” pressed me to be that person. The school chaplain called to tell me the president of the college was proud of my work and struggling to find female role models for their students. Wouldn’t I please reconsider their request to speak in chapel?

“Who’s your president?” I asked.

It was the same theologian, who 20 years earlier, as a professor at DTS, had told me to throttle back and find a husband.

I agreed to speak in the Wheaton chapel, only after I was no longer reporting on religion. I stepped into the pulpit where Billy Graham and countless high-profile male ministers had preached and looked out at a sea of young female faces. I purposely singled out the Wheaton women:

Young women: Hear me now.

Trust your own deepest convictions and let no one else overwhelm the quiet pull of God on your life. You’re the one who will come home every day to your choices.

And do not limit what God wants to do with your life. Why would you narrow his plan to include only marriage and family? These are high callings, but for both men and women.

The student body responded with a standing ovation, but the president promptly accused me of fueling a feminist fire. The discussion it roused on campus led one Wheaton student to call me several years later.

Like me, this young woman had committed her life to following Jesus. It had led her to the South Side of Chicago, to four years in some of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods with Teach for America. Now she was frustrated because her time in the classroom had taught her that education held only part of the answer for children and families whose lives were riddled with poverty, violence and drugs. She wanted to tackle spiritual poverty too.

“The church is the best place to address both the economic and spiritual vacuum in people’s lives,” she told me. “I want to study theology and become a minister so I’m better equipped to help people who struggle.”

If this had been just any young evangelical woman, I might have counseled her, “Go for it, but it’s going to be tough.”

But the words came from my own daughter, Hannah, the one who was in kindergarten the day Peter Jennings called. The one whose crib I had knelt at in the dark, asking God to give her strength for whatever challenges she would face as a woman.

“Hannah!” I said, “What are you thinking? Women can’t be leaders in the church. You’ll be beating your head against the wall.”

Painful memories — many stories I had never told Hannah — rushed to the surface. I tried every way I could to shut down my daughter’s dream, but she wouldn’t have it.

“You got to be a pioneer in television, Mom. Why can’t I be one in the church?” she argued. “You’re the only one discouraging me from taking this path. My own mother!”

I’ve heard it said that dreams and visions blocked in one generation can surface in the next. I had spoken harsh words to spare my daughter from the pain I knew by heart. What I failed to account for were the changes she already was a part of.

In recent years, a few evangelical seminaries have reconsidered their interpretation of Scripture on women. Now some of them allow for women’s ordination. A groundswell of leading evangelical churches, where women now serve as pastors and elders, reflect that shift. The theology on women’s roles at places like DTS hasn’t changed, but more than four times the number of women are enrolled there than when I was a student.

Last year, I was worshipping at the church I now attend in Dallas, where former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, are members. As worshippers walked to the altar to receive communion, I watched the Bushes kneel at the rail. A young minister in robes approached the table with a chalice of wine and bread in her hand.

The same world leader I’d once peppered with tough questions about faith was now being led in his faith by my daughter, Hannah.

This fall, the story comes full circle. Hannah will begin seminary, one that prepares women for every facet of ministry. She’ll learn, as I did, that Jesus was a revolutionary, not just in the ways he taught us to love but in the ways he liberated and dignified women in a culture that treated them like second-class citizens. While Hannah works and studies, I’ll help care for her 1-year-old daughter, Eliza, a name that translated from the Hebrew means “God is faithful.”

Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer in Dallas and a former news correspondent for WFAA and ABC News. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. 

 

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If character is ‘irrelevant’ in politics, eventually the Church will be, too

Russ DeanI do not even know where to begin.

Life has always been confusing, and there have never been easy answers, but we live in a very bewildering time. Is it my imagination, or has it gotten worse? The confusion seems just recently to have magnified pretty dramatically.

No one trusts facts anymore. And what is truth?

The conservative Christian influences of my younger years used to disdain the danger of “liberal relativism.” But what “truth” could be more relativistic than what we are now hearing from some evangelical pulpits?

As reported by Baptist News Global, Robert Jeffress from the First Baptist Church of Dallas, recently pronounced that having an affair with a porn star is “completely irrelevant” to evangelicals. Jeffress believes forgiveness is between the sinner and God, “for anyone who asks.” The sinner in question, of course, has publicly and proudly admitted to never in his life having asked God’s forgiveness, for anything. But maybe that’s irrelevant, too.

I trust the reporter, I know the source, and I’ve never appreciated the accusations of “fake news,” but when I read this I thought, “This has got to be fake news. It just cannot be.”

For my entire adult life evangelicals have unwaveringly inveighed against the personal immorality of political candidates (not wrongly, though maybe a bit too piously at times). Character has always mattered, significantly. Today, suddenly, it is “completely irrelevant.”

According to Jeffress, apparently personal morality and integrity are no longer the measure of Christian character. Personal morality is now irrelevant as long as you toe the party line regarding national policy on abortion rights and as long as you threaten to rain down all-consuming “fire and fury” on our enemies.

You know, just like Jesus said.

In this age of bitter polarization and angry divisiveness, maybe critical words, words that challenge someone else’s point of view only fuel the unhealthy animosity so many of us are experiencing. I worry about being the one to offer those words. I sincerely do not want to be part of the problem.

But can the Church really afford to allow such breathless hypocrisy to define Christian ethics and spirituality? Can we tolerate such an example to be the model of “Christianity” for the wider culture? Or could it be that people are running from the Church today in droves because we have allowed exactly this?

To be sure, navigating our political system will always present a challenge, especially for voters of faith. There’s the law, and there’s the “higher law” — and then there’s that thorny concept of the separation of church and state. Making voting decisions difficult for all is the fact that there is no perfect candidate (and no perfect voter either!). No candidate will perfectly mirror a voter’s views, issue by issue, point by point, and given the complexity of our democracy, based largely on the “either/or” of a two-party system, voters — maybe especially religious voters — will sometimes have to settle. Choosing a candidate might come down to choosing an issue or issues, being willing to compromise on other concerns …

… but never compromising our own, core values in the process.

The primary job of a leader is to lead — and no one leads without first setting the example. In leading by example, character and integrity are essential. Jesus said you will know a tree by the fruit it produces. Conservatives used to say this was Truth.

I believe it still is.

In a recent sermon about gun violence I told my congregation that I am not “anti-gun.” I said this because … I am not anti-gun! I am, however, anti-foolish — and I believe what we are doing, and all that we are not doing proves our utter foolishness with every tragic, often preventable, killing. Likewise, I am neither anti-conservative nor anti-evangelical. I am, however, anti-… well, anti-whatever-this-is. I just have no idea what to call it.

I have never seen anything like it. I do not even know where to begin. Character doesn’t matter. How do we even talk about truth?

It is a confusing time, but one thing is crystal clear to me: if committing an adulterous affair with a porn star, if that kind of morality and that kind of character is “completely irrelevant” to a Church that has always said exactly the opposite, there is another thing that will be “completely irrelevant” to today’s culture — and that is, sadly, the Church.

*Russ Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. A native of Clinton, S.C., and a graduate of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he earned a D.Min. degree from Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been in church ministry for 30 years, and they have served as co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. He is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue, and when he isn’t writing sermons or posts for Baptist News Global you’ll find Russ in his shed doing wood working, playing jazz music, slalom or barefoot water skiing, hiking and camping, or watching his two teenage boys on the baseball field.

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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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