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How My Faith Can Influence Race Relations – Charleston Post and Courier

The Charleston Post and Courier challenged readers to write a short 100 word or less statement on how faith can change race relations. The newspaper published and posted the responses on November 5. This was my responses which they posted on their web site,

As a child, I sensed that there was a disconnect between what my church taught and what it did. We were urged to bring our offerings to send missionaries to Africa, but the Black children who lived a few blocks away could not come to our church.

That sensitivity guided me as PTA president at my children’s elementary school during the first year of racial integration, as CEO of a not-for-profit agency and as a board member of the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Center. The first scripture I learned was, “God is love.” There are no modifiers.

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All Saints’ Day Devotional – First Baptist Church ENews

by Mitch Carnell (Photo by Merv Gibson)

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  (Revelations 7:9 (RSV)

These decaying and misaligned tombstones give wittiness to the saints who have gone before us. Their souls are at peace. As we celebrate their lives, we reflect on all the good that they accomplished and how their influence continues today.

All Saints’ Day was originated for this purpose by Pope Boniface IV in 609 AD on May 13. Pope Gregory, III changed the date to November 1 during the mid-eighth century. After the reformation Protestants retained the observance to honor those who died in the last year.

We draw courage and strength remembering those whose lives we celebrate. Many demonstrated tremendous faith while enduring great hardships. No one can know the inner struggles of another person’s life, but we can know with certainty that they are triumphant over death. As we light a candle in honor of each of these, we light it in recognition that the light of her or his life will never be extinguished.


Dear Holy Father, as we celebrate the lives of our loved ones who now abide with you, help us to lead our lives in such a way that we will illuminate the path that will lead others to you. Amen.

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The Eclipse of All Things Good – Rev. Susan Sparks


 This blog was featured by Huffington Post  and given as a sermon on August 20, 2017 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

Unless you have been living under a gigantic boulder for the past month, you know that tomorrow there will be a total eclipse of the sun. And, it’s going to be quite a party . . .

The 7–Eleven is selling eclipse glasses. There are solar eclipse t-shirts and solar eclipse apps. My favorite are the numerous articles about how to throw an eclipse party, complete with eclipse arts and crafts and suggested food, like blackout cakecrescent cookies, or dishes with sun-dried ingredients. For us in 2017, the eclipse will be a huge party. For the ancients, however, it meant panic.

In the days before people understood the orbits of the sun and the moon, they had no idea what caused an eclipse. In fact, many cultures had myths about evil characters trying to devour the sun. The Vikings believed wolves ate it, the Chinese thought a dragon ate it, the Vietnamese a frog, and the Romans a demon. Whatever it was, the ancients believed an eclipse was a bad omen, a sign of destruction to come, an eclipse of all things good.

We also see it in the Bible. The prophet Joel, for example, warned that because the people were turning from God, a day of darkness and gloom would come, where “the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10).

However, there’s a slight difference. In this passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an eclipse of the sun not by the moon, but by locusts; locusts that come in huge swarms blackening the skies, destroying and consuming everything in their path – all food sources, all nourishment, all things good (Joel 2:25).

Twenty-five hundred years later, we face yet another eclipse of all things good. Here in 2017 America, the light is being eclipsed by our own plague of locusts — the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the white nationalists we saw in Charlottesville – locusts coming in swarms, blackening the skies, and destroying everything in their path, destroying all things good.

Charlottesville, Virginia is only one example. This plague has been going on for years and is now growing in strength. This weekend alone there were nine different alt-right rallies planned across the country in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Mountain View, CA, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

And here’s the scariest part — these hate-based groups are being led by young people. The pastor, author, and theologian Brian McLaren was in Charlottesville and reported that the white nationalists were young, the majority in their twenties and thirties, carrying torches and chanting phrases, such as: “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

He went on to note how young, white poeple are being radicalized in America today to the point of using the ISIS tactic of killing people with vehicles — like the one that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. He said, “Radicalization isn’t simply something that happens in the Middle East — it is happening today, in Ohio and Kentucky and Florida and Virigina.”

Have no doubt, we are facing an eclipse of epic proportions — one that will devour all the light and steal from us all things good, including our young people and our future.

So what do we do? We, again, take a lesson from our ancient ones. In the era when people thought a wolf was eating the sun, they also believed that the creature could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, or banging pots and pans. The book of Joel starts out with similar language (2:1): “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!”

The only way to fight the evil that is blotting out our light is to blow the trumpet and sound the alarm. To speak out and often.

Let me give you two examples. First, what happens when we don’t speak out. This week, our President, when criticizing the riots in Charlottesville offered a vague, watered-down response, saying the violence “came from many sides.” After a national backlash, he then condemned the white nationalist. Within days, he defended them again, saying “there were some very fine people in their midst.”

 That failure to “sound the trumpet” prompted David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Klan, to tweet this: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”

Let’s be clear: the KKK tweeted a thank you note to the President of the United States.

This is the ultimate eclipse of all things good.

And its’ not just the President. It’s white Christians who have been woefully silent. This week, a headline in the Washington Post read: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” It quoted Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail, “[they] have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Whether pastor or parishioner, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christan, Atheist, or just trying-to-figure-it-out, we cannot remain silent. Dr. King warned us, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Let me now give you an opposite example; an example of someone who is speaking out. Rev. Rob W. Lee, IV is a decedent of General Robert E. Lee who led the Confederacy during the Civil War. Rev. Lee is a minister in North Carolina, an outspoken anti-racist, and a fighter of the white nationalists. In fact, he is fighting for the statue of his relative, General Robert E. Lee, to be taken down.

As a Southerner myself – a Southerner with numerous relatives who fought for the Confederacy – I was deeply moved by his words and actions. And despite death threats and threats to his church, Rev. Lee continues to speak out.

“God has commanded us to speak up to small and big acts of oppression. So that may mean condemning the racist joke or standing up for the woman who needs a raise because they make 70 cents on the dollar compared to men . . . or that black lives matter to God. When you ignore the fact that white matters more than black you are being silent to a population of God’s children . . . Until we get off our thrones and into the streets to proclaim and re-claim what racism has taken away, we’ve missed the point of Christ’s death and resurrection.”

We have to blow the trumpet in Zion. We must sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain. We have to – – if for no other reason than for our children. How can we face them if we don’t? How can we hand them a world eclipsed by hatred and evil? We can’t. We must fight and then tell them of our fight.

Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation (Joel 1:3).

And when we do, God offers us a promise:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,                                            your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:17).

Brothers and sisters, we have to be the dreamers.

We have to be the ones to blow the trumpet and call out the evil.

We have to be the ones to sound the alarm against hatred, racism and judgment.

We have to be the ones to hold on to that dream where all God’s children are treated with respect and dignity and love.

This is a dream that was there before the eclipse of all things good.

And it will be there, shining out, when the shadow moves on.

For then, we will know

“I, the Lord, am your God and no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:27).



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A Bonhoeffer moment – Bill Leonard* –

Bill LeonardIs this “a Bonhoeffer moment” in American political, cultural and spiritual life? A lot of people, across the theological spectrum, seem to think as much, or at least find the question worth pursuing. A cursory Google search reveals varying views and contradictory interpretations linking Bonhoeffer’s courageous dissent against the Nazis with events and ideas fostered by, but not exclusive to, the Trump Kulturkampf.

German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a major force in the Confessing Church that offered resistance to National Socialism; he led in founding an alternative seminary; and worked diligently to protect and rescue Jews. Accused of plotting against Hitler, he was imprisoned in 1943, and executed two years later. In works such as The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, his powerful ideas have impacted generations inside and beyond the church.

Liberals have long claimed Bonhoeffer, particularly his reflections on “religionless Christianity.” Harvard’s Harvey Cox opens the final chapter of his classic work, The Secular City (1965)by citing Bonhoeffer’s prison-essayed assertion that, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all”; and his question: “How do we speak in a secular fashion of God?” Conservatives long interpreted Bonhoeffer’s denunciation of “cheap grace” as a rebuke of liberalism’s accommodation to culture at the expense of orthodoxy. (Not that conservatives haven’t pedaled a little cheap grace here and there.)

Recent references to “a Bonhoeffer moment” appeared with evangelical resistance to government legalization of same-sex marriage. Conservative commentator Larry Tomczak wrote in 2015: “And with what’s happening in America, we must get ready to take risks in standing for truth, especially as it relates to marriage. We are facing a ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Moment.’ You recall that he chose civil disobedience and disobeyed Nazi law that stated that protecting Jewish people was against the law. He was hung for his stand. He also said prior to his death, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”

In response, Rhodes College professor and Bonhoeffer specialist Stephen Haynes cautioned against pressing the Bonhoeffer model too far, implicitly advocating violence in a society where, unlike Hitler’s Germany, “free speech and open debate” remain intact. Haynes noted that while “advocates of traditional marriage” had freedom to express their opposition to the court ruling, their use of “hyperbolic slogans” should not suggest that the U.S. government was comparable to the one Bonhoeffer worked to destroy.

Last year’s presidential campaign and election results revived the question of a Bonhoeffer moment as dramatized in Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010). The bestseller again brought Bonhoeffer into the evangelical sphere, made even more controversial by Metaxas’ strong endorsement of Donald Trump for president. He called the election “A Bonhoeffer Moment” for Americans, and urged defeat of “Hitlery Clinton.”

In a Huffington Post response, Professor Haynes observed that most Bonhoeffer scholars “do not respect Metaxas as an interpreter of Bonhoeffer and view his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Trump as an egregious misappropriation of the theologian’s legacy.” He concluded: “We have to make a careful case that thinking with Bonhoeffer during this fraught time in our political history means embracing our responsibility to those under threat, those who, like the Jewish victims of Nazism Bonhoeffer alluded to in Ethics, are the ‘weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.’”

To speak of a Bonhoeffer moment does not mean that the U.S. is in the midst of a Hitlerian assault on democracy. Nonetheless:

  • when mass murders occur in elementary schools, houses of worship, music festivals, night clubs, shopping malls, and parking lots;
  • when Neo-Nazis surround a church chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”;
  • when courts find that voting law revisions have racist overtones;
  • and Christian leaders respond with contradictory visions of gospel, church and state;

then a Bonhoeffer moment may be at hand.

Bonhoeffer’s insights are worth revisiting when we feel “no ground under our feet,” a situation he describes in an essay written early in his imprisonment, now the first chapter of his Letters and Papers from Prison. In it, Bonhoeffer lists certain noble qualities by which religious people respond to evil, qualities that may become ineffectual when confronting wickedness masquerading as “light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice.”

  • Reasonable people” fail because “in their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved.”
  • Representatives of “moral fanaticism” (intensity) fail because they get “entangled in non-essentials” and fall “into the trap set by cleverer people.”
  • People of “conscience” fail because evil overwhelms them “in so many respectable and seductive disguises” that conscience becomes “nervous and vacillating.” They lie to themselves “in order to avoid despair.”
  • Those who “flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness” become numb or blind “to the injustice” around them.
  • At certain times, even these noble traits must be sacrificed, transcended by those who make their entire lives “an answer to the question and call of God.”

But it is Bonhoeffer’s description of “folly” as “a more dangerous enemy to good than evil” that seems eerily pertinent to our own historical moment. He writes: “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

Before we send that message to the White House, we’d best email a copy to ourselves. It’s too long, and too true, to tweet. Gott segne.

*Both Dr. Bill Leonard and Eric Metaxas were speakers at the John A. Hamrick Lectures in Charleston, SC at First Baptist Church.



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