Posts Tagged faith

A Visit to Madison Avenue Baptist Church with Rev. Susan Sparks

Sunday January 12, my daughter, Suzanne, and I were fortunate to worship at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. My friend, Susan Sparks is the senior minister. We were greeted warmly by the greeter outside the door on the street. The church is located within the Roger Hotel, but with a separate entrance. Rev. Sparks came through the congregation greeting and welcoming visitors. The sanctuary is beautiful. Susan says that she and the congregation will join in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday on June 7.

We also met a group of women ministers from Ontario, Canada. They also committed to joining in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday.

The service was wonderful. The choir and the soloist were outstanding. The call to worship was, “Surly the Lord Is in This Place.” The sermon by Susan was not what I expected to hear, but was exactly what I needed to hear. Her sermon was based on passages from the Book of   Ecclesiastes. Her sermon in a nutshell, “Life is tough. Get over it and serve God anyway. What other choice do we have other than to go it alone?” Of course Susan had some great stories to bring her point home which she did in a very few minutes. She has the ability to make her point without chasing rabbits. According to the book’s writer, “There is nothing new under the sun. The sun comes up and the sun goes down.” I have had a hard time dealing with my wife, Carol’s, death. Her sermon helped put things in perspective. The closing hymn was one of my favorites, “We Shall Overcome.’

The congregation is up to its ears in social justice ministries, a coat drive currently. Susan writes a weekly excellent blog, “Shiny Side Up.” It was good to have been there. If you are in New York City on a Sunday go there. You are welcome no matter what your tradition or circumstances. Susan is the author of two books: Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines. She is originally from North Carolina.

Tags: , , ,

Hope – Suny Side Up – Rev. Susan Sparls

Here’s the thing that I hate about living in New York City: you can’t see the stars. Oh sure, you can watch movie stars sip their lattes in the hipster restaurants in Brooklyn. You can observe television stars through the glass walls of the talk show studios near Rockefeller Center. And you can see the Broadway stars on . . . well, Broadway.

But I’m talking about real stars. The kind that gleam from the sky. Sadly, those stars are hidden by the lights shining from the city. That’s why every once in a while, I have to leave the Big Apple and head to a place where I can actually see the stars. I need remind myself that they are still there.

Last week, I did just that in Dubois, Wyoming. There, at a spiritual retreat center named Ring Lake Ranch, the night sky exploded with more stars than I could ever have imagined. Pulsing overhead were constellations and shooting stars and the dazzling Milky Way that seemed to leap out of the sky in three dimensions.

There’s something about looking up at a sky full of stars that transports us past our tiny, limited worldview. To see the stars on the darkest night brings a sense of hope. In fact, I think finding hope is just like trying to find the stars in New York City.

Sometimes in life, hope seems so near and clear to us, like the stars in a Wyoming sky. But then, sometimes hope feels more like the night sky in New York City where the celestial light is dimmed. During those dark times, we must have faith that hope still exists, even though we can’t see it or feel it. It’s as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A few years ago, a dear friend of ours, Ed Charles, passed away. Baseball fans may remember Ed as a member of the 1969 World Champion Mets and one of the first black players in the major leagues. Ed used to tell the story of when Jackie Robinson came to Daytona Beach where he grew up. Ed and his friends sat in the segregated section of the park and watched Jackie play, and after the game was over, they followed Jackie to the train station, running down the tracks and listening for the sounds of that train as far as they could. When they couldn’t hear the train any longer, they put their ears to the track so they could feel the vibrations.

That train carrying Jackie Robinson gave Ed hope, and he held on to that hope as long as he could. We, too, must hold on to hope. And when we can’t see the light of hope anymore, then we must listen for it. And when we can’t hear it, then in faith we must hold on to the memory of it through prayer, meditation, or scriptures such as “Do not fear, for I am with you,do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Hope is always in our hearts. It may not seem like it, for the world tries its best to beat hope out of us, but the operative word is “tries.” We might have to dig, excavate, search, and wait for it, but hope is there—and if we have faith, we’ll find it. It’s just like living in New York City where even though you can’t see the stars, you know in your heart they’re still there—watching over us, shining down on us, and lighting our way.

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media.

Tags: , , ,

Whose ‘principles of faith’ are being manifested on Trump’s watch?


White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney declared at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this week that faith drives the Trump administration’s policy proposals, arguing that “the principles of our faith (are) being manifest” under the president’s watch. My shock threshold is high, but I reeled when I read Mulvaney’s remarks. As a Christian and a theologian, I believe the torrent of hateful words, brinkmanship executive orders, racist dog whistles, sexist behavior, malignant deceit and national idolatry are uneasily linked with anything we might call Christian.

Yet President Donald J. Trump’s popularity with evangelical Christians persists, and to their delight, he consistently says things out loud that they think but – with a few notable Baptist pastors among the exceptions – are too self-protective to say.

“When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity.”

Last month, Pew Research Center found that Trump had a 69 percent approval rating among white evangelical Protestants, compared to around 40 percent among all Americans. This is astonishing. Indeed, the willingness of Trump’s base to overlook the absence of a moral compass, much less Christian values and practice, only seems to grow with each passing month. With Trump’s judicial appointments and a flurry of policy changes and legislative proposals, moral traditionalists see their ends-justifies-the-means long game coming into view. For this, they will put up with reckless leadership that cares little for an authentic Christian theological vision for life.

In one sense, I concur with Mulvaney’s statement. The “principles of faith” that drive the Trump administration and its Republican sycophants in Congress are, indeed, manifest. But the principles on my list are different.

One clear principle is xenophobia, fearing and reviling the stranger, which is a stark contradiction of a prominent biblical theme. Welcoming the stranger is a way of remembering God’s providence in the life of an insignificant people; it is also a way of being enriched by holy presence. A corollary principle regularly manifested is racism, as we witnessed when Trump referred to nations where persons of color predominate with an epithet.

Immigration policies reflect both of these principles. Honoring every person as created after God’s likeness, bearing the image of God, is absent from the insulting rhetoric employed and actions taken.

Egregious in its impact, another principle is protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. The Bible’s prophetic literature and the ministry and teachings of Jesus accent justice for the poor and warn of judgment upon the rich who will be “sent away empty.” Current tax law is a windfall for those who least need it. The widows and orphans of our day are ground underfoot in wage disparity, lack of educational privilege and shrinking access to varied health and social services.

“Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual.”

Similarly, the attempts to marginalize sexual minorities are growing. LGBTQ rights are in the cross-hairs, and for the foreseeable future case after case will wind its way through the appellate system on the way to the Supreme Court. A conservative majority will be predisposed to beat back recent gains as this central issue draws untoward attention in the current culture war. Clearly the New Testament makes space in the reign of God for non-traditional expressions of human sexuality, as the story of the Ethiopian eunuch attests.

Incessant saber-rattling and projected military growth ignore the biblical admonition to “be at peace with all, so far as it depends upon you” (Romans 12:18). Threats to bomb nations into oblivion go far beyond national security; these bellicose words are more about presidential swagger. Even the attempts at negotiation with other nations are so full of ego that every encounter is a win-lose drama rather than a genuine pursuit of common ground. Further, the “America first” quest arises from a distorted doctrine of exceptionalism, which includes claiming divine preference for national interests.

Policies that roll back environmental protection also defy God’s directive to humanity to care for this creation as God’s own representatives. Demonstrating an incomprehensible, dismissive attitude toward the consensus of climate scientists worldwide and the dire warnings from the United Nations and other international bodies – namely, that environmental disaster looms unless radical action is taken in the next two decades – this administration is accelerating its support of destructive practices. The unwillingness to curtail pollution of the atmosphere, to participate in global environmental accords or to prevent rampant oil and gas drilling and fracking, are having a deleterious effect. These profligate actions are tantamount to humanizing the eschaton, i.e., bringing about the destruction of the earth.

Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual. While in humility Christ Jesus gave power away, the current president presumes to be the final arbiter on most matters of governance in our system of democracy. With Caesar-like imperiousness, this administration claims a kind of sovereignty that eschews bowing the knee to any higher authority.

When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity. The very heart of authentic faith is knowing the gap between what God’s righteousness calls us to do and what we actually do. Forgiveness is that shattering experience that acknowledges our sinfulness and the grace of God that draws us near.

Mercy, justice and humility are the marks of authentic Christianity. I see none of these in the principles of faith by which the president of the United States operates. Indeed, the only thing worse than the failure or refusal of people of faith to see this reality is to remain silent.

*Rev.Dr. Molly Marshall spoke twice at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston. She is a congregation favorite.



Tags: , , ,

Embracing curiosity: Asking good questions is a crucial index of faith

MOLLY T. MARSHALL  |  SEPTEMBER 18, 2018 BaptistNewsGlobal.com16041

Quite a bit of interest in curiosity suffuses business journals and higher education essays these days. The Harvard Business Review devoted a good chunk of its most recent issue to making the business case for curiosity, contending that it can improve a firm’s adaptability and performance. Key benefits are fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and positive changes, reduced group conflict, and more open communication and better team performance.

As a person who has a complex job leading a seminary, I am heartened to read: “When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress.” The longer we are in a particular role, the more we need to be vigilant about cultivating curiosity as it usually declines as we settle into predictable strategies. This is true for business people, faith leaders, and educators. Curiosity is not only the province of the scientist or researcher.

Over the past several years articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education have probed the question about the role of curiosity in academic success. Intellectual curiosity is a strong predictor of future academic performance. It is as important as conscientiousness and nearly as important as intelligence itself. A “hungry mind” is of great value, and professors need to find ways to construct learning opportunities that open the door to student discovery. Yet the very demands made by the college admissions process often requires only good grades and concrete service projects, not curious dabbling that might awaken one’s true interests.

Curiosity, it seems, has been an undervalued human attribute, too often squelched as troublesome. It is seen as costing time, at the expense of efficiency. Exploration is too open ended for controlling leaders, especially those who have not cultivated their own inquisitiveness over the years.

When asked about his near miraculous landing on the Hudson River, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger described his passion for continuous learning. In the 208 seconds between discovery of his airplane’s problem and bringing it safely down, he sorted through available options in his mind and decided to act bravely and creatively, as Francesca Gino, a Professor at Harvard Business School reflected (HBR, September-October, 2018, p. 55).

“Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer.”

Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer. Famously, when a student asked St. Augustine what God was doing before God created the heavens and the earth, he exasperatedly answered: “God was creating hell for people who asked such questions!”

Asking good questions is a crucial index of faith. When stumped, some teachers have attempted to shush the questioner thereby underscoring that faith is not to be interrogated, or they have offered simplistic answers as a cover for the mystery they could not comprehend. The very nature of faith, however, summons questions, as faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Early in Scripture our human forebears could have profited by asking more questions. When instructed not to eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Adam asked nothing. What was in the mind of the Creator in issuing this prohibition? Do you suppose God had set up a teaching moment, waiting for the curious “why?” Obviously, Adam discussed this with Eve, for when the serpent showed up she was aware of the prohibition. The crafty serpent demonstrates a far more developed curiosity than the fledgling humans. (Irenaeus thought we really expected too much discernment from these recently created beings!)

Rabbinic writing often contrasts Noah with Abraham as each heard the news of impending doom, through a flood and through the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah was incurious and just tended to the exact measurements of the ark, his family, and the animal companions. Abraham, on the other hand, did not follow Noah’s lead in thinking he was the only righteous family remaining. Abraham asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Then he began to bargain with God about how to preserve as many as possible. His questioning of God’s justice, which God does not rebuke, is seen as a model of “contending with God” that other biblical figures will follow.

“The very nature of faith summons questions.”

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday recounts Jesus’ teaching about his upcoming betrayal, death, and resurrection. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). Evidently, they had been arguing about who was the greatest, and they totally missed an opportunity to ask serious questions about how their Teacher was seeking to interpret the future outcome of his ministry.

Curiosity purportedly “killed the cat” — a tired and unlikely adage. Surely life is far more interesting and faithful if we explore how this world works and our spiritual place within it, especially the relationship between divine and human agency.

I think that would make God smile.

Tags: , , ,