Posts Tagged grace

Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges Elected Pres. of Baptist Seminary of Richmond

I met Dr. Bridges at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State in the summer of 1991. She was the Chaplain of the Week. She is one of the many reasons I fell in love with the place. Her sermon, “Grace upon Grace,” describes my life and has stayed with me to this day. She grew up in the area above Greer, South Carolina. Her father was a well-known mountain preacher. At the time Joan Lipscomb Solomon, a classmate at Furman with me, was writing the Daily Religion Column for the Chautauqua Daily. Joan and I met Linda for lunch one day and had a great time exploring our South Carolina connections. I have continued to follow Linda’s career and her outstanding Christian service.

“On Tuesday morning (March 21), trustees voted unanimously to welcome Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges as the third president of BTSR. Dr. Bridges was selected after a comprehensive nationwide search led by a BTSR committee consisting of trustees, faculty and staff, with assistance from AGB Search. She will serve as the third president of BTSR, and comes to the seminary at the culmination of BTSR’s 25th anniversary.

In her comments, Dr. Bridges vowed to, “listen first, revere the symbols of the past, all the while ruthlessly renewing and revisioning theological education for the future.” Rev. Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges will transition to her new role as President-Elect in May 2017, and will officially begin as president of BTSR on July 1, 2017.

The trustees at BTSR have chosen wisely. I am thrilled with the choice. She joins Dr. Molly Marshall, President of Central Baptist Seminary, as a second woman president of a Baptist Theological Seminary. “The mills of the Gods grind exceedingly slowly but exceedingly fine.”

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A Holy Disruption: No Lamb Chops Tonight: Rev. Julia Rusling*

Isaiah 65:17-25 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – November 13, 2016

julia_ruslingThe journey had been long. Forcibly removed from their homeland of Jerusalem, driven to live in exile in Babylon for nearly seventy years, the people of Judah are now, at long last, beginning their return home. They have such hope. Surely all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.  And yet, in the years following their return, God’s beloved people find all is not well. They are bone-weary exhausted from their exile, an exile whose losses and fears permeate their every breath, an exile that literally overturns the very ground of their being–family, land, temple, culture, life.

In their release from exile, in their return to Jerusalem, to the very place for which they had yearned for generations, the exhaustion and the confusion of God’s beloved people somehow does not begin to dissipate, but rather deepens. Why is this so? Why is it that rather than freedom, they find oppression? Rather than joy, they find broken heartedness? Rather than peace they find injustice? Rather than flourishing they find their lives stunted in every way–body, mind, spirit, family, community?

Why is there fear so deep they feel it in the very marrow of their bones day and night?

Was this not the holy land of God? Was not this place, Jerusalem, filled with the presence of God? And if so, why do God’s beloved people continue to experience chaos and fear so deep that even to imagine or to hope for something else seemed beyond even the most desperate of grasping hands and hearts. Shouldn’t they be flourishing? Building and planting, inhabiting and celebrating? Living? Isn’t God here in their midst? And shouldn’t that change everything?

Chaos and fear, oppression and injustice–they are disturbing, disruptive environments in which to live, are they not? They consume us. They pull the very breath from our lungs. And we become desperate to find a way out, desperate to become free of their crushing weight. Perhaps this experience resonates in your own life or in the life of your community?

And so we commit ourselves–we commit ourselves in our churches and in our homes, in our schools and in our workplaces to the creative work of God. It’s the same work Jesus proclaims at the start of his ministry, when he comes to the synagogue in Nazareth, opens up the scroll of Isaiah and reads in proclamation:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We commit ourselves to this work. We deeply believe in it, we proclaim its gospel promise and truth. And we remind ourselves, over and over, that God is in our very midst, and so all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

And yet, in the midst of fear, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of anxiety and doubt, injustice and oppression, we find ourselves, perhaps more often than we would like to admit, responding to one another and to ourselves, in ways that rather than freeing one another up, in fact perpetuate the very fear, injustice and oppression from which we are seeking and hoping and striving to be free.

Perhaps it can help us to see this piece of truth. The truth, my Beloved, that, for the most part, we are a people who are patterned in our responses. We are patterned in the way we live and move and have our being. And it can be so very hard to break free.

It’s a truth contained in the biblical narrative itself. Think of the flow of the biblical witness we hear over and over! The people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through an unwilling prophet of sorts, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere, usually just a stone’s throw down the road…the people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through another unwilling prophet of another sort, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere not too far down the road…. You get the point, yes? And if we’re honest, I imagine we find ourselves, at least to some degree, in this same kind of pattern. Just sayin’.

The truth is that we are patterned powerfully by past experiences—both the gifts and the wounds. So that more often than not the way we respond to one another, particularly when we are in chaos, deep distress, or anxiety, is more reaction than response. And we often don’t even know why. We may catch ourselves a moment or two later, or perhaps weeks or years later, and wonder–why did I ever respond in that way? Oh, my God–why did I respond in this way? And why over and over and over???

Call them ruts. Call them grooves. Call them patterns. Call them whatever you will. But I imagine we all know this experience deeply in our lives, yes? And we know this experience both as the giver as well as the receiver. And sometimes, just sometimes, we are lucky enough that it gives us pause to notice and to reflect and to wonder. Why do I lash out that way? Why do I not notice how I am stomping this other person down or perhaps even stomping down myself? And even if I do notice, why can I not stop? Why does my fear consume me so much I cannot truly see and respond to the need of my neighbor? And why do I respond in these ways over and over and over? Where is the grace of God?

These, my Beloved brothers and sisters, are deeply holy wonderings. Because through these holy wonderings we begin to notice that perhaps the rememberings, the patterns once needed for survival, the patterns that have become incarnate in our very beings, have in truth become the very tools of the destruction of one another and of ourselves, perpetuating fear and chaos, strengthening injustice and oppression.

It is here, beloved, in this very place, that God speaks to her people–“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

It is the voice, the presence of God, offering good news. Offering release to the captive. Recovery of sight to the blind. A chance, a breath, a real hope to let the oppressed go free. It is an invitation, an opening to nurture the full growth and blossoming and peace and joy of all God’s beloved people, and of all God’s beloved creation. And it begins with release from the binding and blinding remembrance of the former ways of being. Not to forget what brought about their emergence, but to let go of the dominance of their pattern over us. This is grace. This is grace in its fullness. And we sure do need a lot of it. Amen?

Recent scientific studies back up this holy noticing, as they reveal to us the reality of the patterned thinking of humans. What has emerged in these studies is that approximately 93% of our thoughts are repetitive and useless. Shocking, isn’t it? But it gets even better! Of this 93%, nearly 80% of our thoughts are negative. Fear and anger and anxiety truly are all around. It makes sense of the overall flow of the biblical narrative, doesn’t it? It makes sense, perhaps too, of our own narratives, both individually and collectively.

So what do we do with this? What is God’s holy, healing, living invitation in this place?

We begin with noticing, and the gift of a holy breath to catch ourselves in the middle of a patterned response. And perhaps we commit ourselves to seeking to practice another way of being. I say practice, because that is what it takes to learn a new behavior. I say practice too because it is a deep truth that in practice, in the intentional seeking and striving to live in a new way to which God is calling us, grace does abound as an ever flowing stream.

But this is hard work! Just ask the lamb and the wolf! Did you catch that little image in our reading? The one where Isaiah proclaims, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox….” It is an image that, while so deeply loved, has in many ways become domesticated in its commonness, to the point that it perhaps no longer catches our breath with its powerful proclamation of transformation.

For transformation, and that is what we are talking about, while deeply filled with grace, can be disorienting to our very core. This image of the wolf and the lamb thus points powerfully to the disruptive power of God’s grace to change, to transform, even the most ingrained ways, the strongest patterns, in which we habitually live and move and have our being.

So let’s explore this just a little bit more. And let’s start with the wolf, because this is a major game changer!!! Can you even begin to imagine the wolf’s confusion at that first inkling of an urge to have table fellowship with that lamb upwind from him, without the lamb being the main course??? What would the wolf’s mother think? And what would they possibly eat for dinner that night?

And what about the lamb? Taught by her elders from day one to stay far away from that mean old hungry wolf and to run like the wind with that first whiff of his presence! What would her flock say if it ever knew of that strange desire that bubbled up in her to invite the wolf over to play, to romp in the grass?!?

It’s disruptive, is it not? And yet the image holds within its offering the proclamation of the truth and the good news of God’s power and grace to transform even our most ingrained ways of being.

This is not to say that it happens right away. Transformation just doesn’t seem to be instantaneous, at least 99.999% of the time. Transformation rather seems to emerge and to blossom over time–one noticing, one wondering, one opening to new possibility, one trusting of the realness of God’s presence and grace with us, at a time, and often just enough to have the courage to choose something new in that moment. It is truly a journey that unfolds one grace infused breath at a time.

And yet as we are on this journey, we notice that the world begins to open up to us. We notice that the fear that ate at the very marrow of our bones begins to lose its grip. We notice that the very places and circumstances where we never thought we could choose differently, begin to blossom with possibility infused with the goodness of God–we begin to notice the possibility of a real opportunity to choose to respond in love and presence, to find and work for ways to lift up the brokenhearted, to join with God and one another to do the work that will let the oppressed go free, to move into a new way in which we live and move and have our being so that our every act, or at least a good sized chunk of them, are the embodiment of proclaiming the presence and the blessing of God in this very place.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is how we join with God in creating God’s holy mountain in every place we stand. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being free of fear, free of injustice, free of oppression. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being in fullness of life and joy and vitality and delight. A place where all can flourish–where all can enjoy the work of their hands, where all can dwell in the homes they have built, and where all can delight in the fruits of the vineyards they have planted. Where all can live together in peace and wholeness.

This takes works, brothers and sisters, co-creating with God this holy place. But it is exciting, is it not? It’s wonderful, is it not? And it is the most real ground of our being, of our life with God and one another, and so we rejoice as we let these words from God forever reverberate in our hearts:

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

We rejoice because we are active participants with God in this great ongoing act of creation, creation that is filled with joy and delight, that is filled with justice and love and fruitfulness as it comes into being one sacred breath, one sacred noticing and grace-filled choice at a time, this creation, this holy ground, in which all are invited to live and move and have their being in the fullness and goodness of God. Amen.

*Rev. Julia Rusling is a Priest Associate at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody, GA. This post is used with her permission.

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving in Lincolnton: A Family Story

163001_10150109229056614_7707360Dwayne and Donna_nMy sister, Jean, and brother-in-law, John,John Wallace and Jean celebrate Thanksgiving on the Sunday before the official day because their sons and their families have other obligations on the big day. Jan drove Carol and me to Lincolnton, North Carolina for the annual event.

The food was wonderful and over-flowing, but the presence of family and friends provided the real joy. The three of us from Charleston and one friend, Vegas, from Charlotte were lost in a sea of Donald Trump disciples all wearing his trademark shirts. We took our beatings with humility. Most of this was for the torture of Liz, Wesley’s girlfriend, who works for Green Peace and is a staunch Democrat. She could not be present for the beat down or so she claimed. Wesley is my Republican grandnephew who is working his way up through the Deneise and Wesleynew Trump Swamp in Washington. I am rooting for him to become the most  important, “Deplorable.”

There was real joy around Allison, my grandniece, and her boyfriend, Jimmy, buying their first house. Allison is a history teacher in Hickory, and Jimmy is a police officer in Charlotte. Justin, grandnephew, has just finished trimming his house with stone. He did most of the work himself. Everyone gazed with pride at the pictures.

This is the real America. Megan, a young vibrant Methodists Youth Minister, led in grace as we all formed a circle and held hands. Megan, better known as Pest, is also my grandniece. Later there were Corn-hole games in the front yard.

The obvious devotion that Darrel and Dwayne and their families show to my sister and brother-in-law speaks volumes about the love that glues this family together. Before we left everyone was treated to a hug and an, “I love you.” Jean and Bunky have established a loving, kind oasis in a world of Chaos. We are privileged to be a part of it. Thank you. The first picture is Dwayne and Donna. The second picture is Jean and John. The third is Denise and Wesley.

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THE TOP TEN WORDS – A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
October 5, 2014

Who would have thought that a primitive document that is 3,000 years old, born in a culture that was in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, a culture that the educated, influential, literate world hardly noticed, would end up being a football kicked around in the culture battles of the most advanced technological society on the face of the earth!I

Yet a battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or in public school classrooms has raged or simmered off and on for at least a decade. One Kentucky lawyer, trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Ten Commandments were mainly secular, argued that references to God in the Ten Commandments were minimal. This prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he had actually read the first four, the first of which begins, I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the display of public monuments of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, the nine justices produced at least ten opinions. Sounds like a Baptist church!
On the extreme right wing of the debate are organizations such as The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, whose purpose includes doing away with the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and replacing it with the Ten Commandments. And while they are at it, they promote the death penalty for all murder, adultery, and homosexuality, a position that does seem to contradict the sixth commandment, but let’s not be picky!

Thomas Cahill, who has written a wonderful book entitled The Gifts of the Jews, makes the remarkable comment that there is no document in all of the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. He goes on to explain that other cultures do offer similar ethical guidelines, but here is the difference: they are always offered in a legal framework (i.e. if you do such and such, then this will be the consequence). That is not the case with the Ten Commandments.

Neither are they what we might call a Martha Stewart list of ten ways to make life happier and healthier. You know, the Ten Commandments are not a case of God looking at humanity and saying something like, I do wish you would get your act together! Why aren’t you eating silky braised chicken with pearl onions and mushrooms for lunch? Where is your collection of hand-painted Venetian glass? And while you’re at it, where did you pick up those extra pounds?

II

So let us pause for a few minutes to consider what is so special about these Ten Commandments. What has made them remain alive and well through all the centuries?

Here in this document, for the first time in history, human beings were offered a code without justification and without elaboration. In fact, biblical scholars think that they were originally just ten Hebrew words that could easily be memorized by illiterate people in the desert. Ten Words that still speak in the 21st century!

They are not propositions for debate; they are not suggestions for happier living; they are not even challenges. They are just what they seem to be, and they have been received by three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, Islam also considers them as Holy Scripture! And they have been accepted by billions more non-religious folk as reasonable and necessary and even unalterable because they come, as Cahill poetically phrased it, from the deep silence that each of us carries within.

But what do they mean? How can they bend and flex for every age and every culture? Take the prohibition on killing, for example. Those who howl the loudest about public displays of the Ten Commandments are frequently the very ones who call the loudest for capital punishment or for carpet bombing of an enemy. So how do we bend and shape the commandment about not killing to justify what obviously is killing? Commandment #6 is a challenge!
These and other obvious questions are not easily answered. Yet…we know deep down that there is something fundamentally right about the commandment! We just don’t know how to apply it! And what about the slow, unnoticed destruction of human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves? If poverty kills, as we know it does, then are we breaking the 6th commandment when we fail to support jobs programs? Are drug companies guilty of breaking the 6th commandment when they choose not to produce a life-saving drug because it will not turn a profit?

There is more than one way to kill, as we all recognize. If the divine principle behind this commandment is that all human life is precious, then we live out this commandment by supporting laws and public policy that enhance and protect the most human life and support the highest quality of life for the most people. This is always a very complex issue that is not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.

III

Now let’s slow down and take a deep breath! We are wading into some deep water here! But one thing is not so deep: through all the centuries since Jesus, the Ten Commandments have been most often used to instruct new Christians at the time of their baptism. In fact, some of the oldest baptismal liturgies ever found have the believer being baptized at sunrise, coming up out of the water of baptism and facing East, the direction of the rising sun, and reciting none other than the Ten Commandments! Think of that! At the dawn of a new day in the life of a believer, the first words spoken are the words of the Decalogue! Why? Because like the children of Israel coming through the waters of the Red Sea and receiving the commandments, the new Christian comes through the waters of baptism and pledges allegiance to a vision of reality that is rooted in God’s radical policy and deeply at odds with our dominant culture.

When a new Christian is baptized, she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve this act of God’s grace. She is raised to new life because of something God has done, not something she has done! And when we take communion, we are being gifted with new life, not because of anything we have done, but because of something Christ has done!

This is precisely what struck John Newton, the slave ship captain who was converted and wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was only too aware of what he had done, and there was nothing he could do to undo the misery he had caused as the captain of a slave ship. The pain and death caused by the infamous Middle Passage had been part of the economic system, you could say, but he knew he had cooperated in an evil system. No amount of saying he was sorry or just doing his job could atone for it.

Then he experienced the “amazing grace” of God. We might cringe at the 18th century language that describes himself as a “wretch,” but how would you feel if you had been the captain of a slave ship? “Wretch” might be too tame a word! And yet few of us would fail to identify with his classic line: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The church has always agreed with our Jewish friends that the Ten Commandments are sheer grace, a gift from God to a world in desperate need of those Ten Words. Those ten words, along with the presence of Christ, can lead us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and they can lead us home.

IV

And what is home? Ah, you know what home is! Home is any place that lives out the grace of God and accepts you just the way you are. Home is the place where you can make mistakes and still be loved. Home is the place where you can break every commandment in the book and still be forgiven. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost famously said, “they have to take you in.”

I want to remind you that this church is just such a place. To paraphrase a familiar line, “we reserve the right to be a spiritual home to anyone looking for a home.” Whatever dangers, toils, and snares may lie before you, you know that here is a place where you can face them with a church family that will support you, pray for you, and love you.

This week I received an email from an good friend named Mitch Carnell, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. That church, like this one, has a long history. It was the first Baptist church established in the south. Here is what Mitch wrote to me and to several others: “October 6, 2014, is my 50th anniversary as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston…Although these fifty years have not been without heartbreak and pain, my family and I found a home. This is a loving, supportive church family. I have nothing but gratitude for the people at First Baptist and thanksgiving for the spiritual nourishment I have found here.”

Many of you can say the same about this church. Families gather; they laugh and cry together; they tell stories; and they eat. Oh, how families eat! So let’s be family, wherever you are from today. It is dinner time…time to eat…time to be thankful…time to remember.

 

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