Back in the 70's and 80's, religious tracts were printed by the truckload for eager evangelists--many of them Baptists--itching to bring the masses to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Back then, we followed a sort of scare-them-out-of-hell methodology that led to high numbers of front porch conversions, if not long-term transformation.
In time, many practitioners realized that this eternal damnation avoidance strategy wasn't exactly life-giving. This understanding led to an opposite mentality: best not to mention Jesus at all than to scare people into false faith. (All or nothing thinking. It's caused its share of problems.)
Here the good news: there is a middle ground. Think about it: we
aren't scared of sharing good news in general. For example, I think everyone
should try the restaurant Nine Mile. I don't try to find out if they like
Caribbean food before I recommend it either. It's a fantastic restaurant in my
opinion, and I want everyone to enjoy it as much as I have. I feel that way
about the Biltmore Estate too. And also Disney World. And the movie Finding
Nemo. I realize that some of these things are quite pricey and will
require some sacrifice for people to enjoy them, but that doesn't keep me from
encouraging people to try experiences that have given me joy.
Even so, I don't go through the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, and asking people if they've ever been to Nine Mile. I don't stop people in Aldi and suggest they make a plan now to get to Biltmore Estate during this lifetime. And I don't foist free copies of Finding Nemo on perfect strangers, promising them that this movie will make their lives better (it would of course, but still . . . ). However, if I'm in a relationship with you, I'm eventually going to mention my favorite restaurants, vacation spots, and movies. And if we are really close, I'll do my best to see that you get to enjoy those things at some point, preferably with me.
To me, evangelism is like that. Because I love church, I want everyone to experience it. Because I love Bible study, I want others to study with me. And because I have found meaning, truth, hope, and joy through my faith in the triune God--Creator, Son, Holy Spirit--I want people I know and love to join me on this faith journey: not because they are scared they will burn in hell, but because they are drawn into the sacred Love of God.
On March 28, I joined other leaders in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) as we listened to Dr. Tod Bolsinger share wisdom he presented in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books, 2015).
Bolsinger’s book had been recommended to me by many when I began my ministry with Ecclesia Baptist in August 2018. I downloaded the audio version and listened to it right away, finding it both insightful and compelling. In Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the metaphor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (in search of a northwest water route in the 19th century) to explore church leadership in the 21st century.*
For today’s church, our “canoes” are practices that have brought us success in the past; our “mountains” are the conditions that were not present at all in earlier seasons of the church. The current frustration of attracting young people to church serves as a great example. Back in the 1970’s, for many of us, church was THE only activity; in 2019, the buffet of extracurriculars is endless. When I was a teen, a church could get a new ping-pong table and attract a crowd of students instantly; today, churches are giving freebies to kids and youth to entice them to go on a free trip to an indoor trampoline park—and even these tactics fail to impact weekly attendance.
So how do we change this? That’s exactly what Dr. Bolsinger discussed at last week’s meeting. First, he noted what does not bring about change.
Bolsinger then talked about what does bring about change.
Bolsinger reminded us that change typically does not come about quickly. That is, it is more akin to the slow-cooker simmer than to the microwave zip and zap. In that same vein, he said that effective church leadership grows from a mindset that causes us to “Stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”
Bolsinger’s presentation—and his book—contained much more insight than the bits I’ve highlighted here. And, I think all leaders facing unfamiliar circumstances (whether in the church or elsewhere) will find helpful guidance here. Check it out and let me know what you think.
*Lewis and Clark sought a water route through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and were therefore equipped with canoes and the necessary tools for a water journey; instead, they encountered the Rocky Mountains and had to form new plans in order to progress.
I grew up Southern Baptist, so if it weren't for my Lutheran best friend giving up sweets every year around this time, I'd probably not have thought too much about the Lenten Season. I mean, I'm sure my Dad mentioned something about it in his sermons along the way, and he even held Maundy Thursday services way back in the seventies (radical for the time). Still, I didn't really practice Lent until about a decade ago when we joined a Baptist church that had reached back to its early Christian roots and resurrected the practice of Lent.
There are lots of different reasons that observance of Lent is important to all who follow Christ. One reason I've heard is that Lent can be a sort of New Year's Resolutions re-boot, a time to get back on track with the life goals you set for yourself a couple of months ago. While I definitely agree that Lent is a time to reflect on our own brokeness, I don't actually think we should use this ancient practice as a self-improvement exercise. Not that Lent doesn't actually have that outcome, because naturally we do become more fully alive when we are more focused on God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But, in my opinion, self-improvement should not be the ultimate objective.
According to the liturgical (church) calendar, Lent marks the weeks leading up to the church's observance of Easter. Thus, it is a time of contemplation, a time to renew the commitment to follow Christ into the difficult spaces where darkness reigns and light is rare. Thus, for my Lenten discipline, I try to select something to add or eliminate that will remind me frequently of Christ's deep love for all of creation and my responsibility to reflect that love in my daily life. Want some examples? Here you go.
Whatever you choose for your Lenten discipline, my prayer is that you will remember daily that you are beloved beyond measure.
What about you? What Lenten commitments have you made?
When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.
None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.
But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes; Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.
Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.
And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously. These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.
But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.
And the line began to fade.
They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.
“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”
And they did. Without hesitation.
May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?
You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?
Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.
“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
True? Hard to say.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!
So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
After learning my father's oldest sister had passed away, I received a call from my mother, asking if I would write the obituary.
That's not what happened. Mother said, "We need you to write Aunt Edna's obituary. And they need it ASAP. They want to have the service on Saturday. Here's your cousin's contact information. Call her. She'll tell you where to send it." (There wasn't any "asking" about it.)
My Mother knows me. She knew this direction would be a gift. I needed something to do with my brain. See, until yesterday, all my dad's siblings--he has six--were still living. I kind of thought they'd live forever. So, maybe you shouldn't be shocked by the passing of a 90 year old woman who was in poor health. But, as my daddy always says, "Should never could do anything."
After talking with one of my cousins, messaging another, and doing a little research for details, I sorted through some of my own memories of Aunt Edna. I remembered her making round pineapple and mayo sandwiches on white bread. I remembered her magical sewing room that frequently morphed into an assembly room full of cloth body parts. And I remembered her soft voice, her sweet smile, and the way she'd laugh with her mouth shaped in a small oval, her eyes crinkled, her head tilted back just slightly. What a dear woman. I loved her so.
Edna Ruth Mitchell Jackson, 90, born in Bainbridge, Georgia on June 6, 1928, passed away at home on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. She was the second child of James Powell, Sr. and Naomi (nee Carter) Mitchell who preceded her in death. She was also preceded in death by her husband Robert Carroll Jackson, Sr., daughter Patricia Jackson Banks, sister Annie Mitchell, niece Sherry Mitchell, brother-in-law George Storey, and sisters-in-law Dollie Mitchell and Fran Mitchell.
She is survived by countless loved ones including brothers James and wife Nell, Edward and wife Anne, Harold and wife Gloria, Joseph, and Earl and wife Jennie; and her sister Edith Storey. She is also survived by her children Robert Carroll Jackson, Jr, Linda Jackson Johnson, Anne Jackson Griffin and husband Clarence, Jane Jackson Stephens and husband Bertrom, Debbie Jackson, David Jackson, and her son-in-law Steve Banks; her grandchildren Emily, Maggie, William, Marilyn, Michael, Timothy, Jeff, Teelah, Kelly, Mark, Jason, Melody, Randy, Christopher, Jennifer, Mary Catrina, Robert, and Bradley; 19 great-grandchildren; and 15 nieces and nephews.
At six years old, Edna suddenly became her parent’s oldest child when Annie passed away from appendicitis. Since that time, Edna has been the consummate oldest sibling to her younger sister and her six younger brothers, setting an example for them of quiet faith, gentle strength, and everlasting love. Her love for them formed the prequel to her life role as the mother for her own seven children for whom she modeled the same godly qualities she exhibited in her childhood home.
In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, Edna was a sharp business woman who turned her fondness for sewing into an impressive cottage business. From hand-sewn garments and custom alterations to beautiful dolls and whimsical toys, Edna could transform fabric into magic. Her sewing room, full of teddy bears and ragdolls, spilled over with Christmas fabrics selected for her favorite projects: holiday arts and crafts. Eventually, she began selling her wares at craft shows across the state of Georgia at which she nearly always sold out of her inventory, no matter how much she had made for the event. Counting the ones she sold, the many she made as gifts for grandchildren and other loved ones, plus all the ones she gave away for the pure joy of it, Edna created thousands and thousands of dolls and toys that are loved to this day.
Edna was an ardent learner. When her children were still young, she was taking classes at the local junior college in pursuit of a liberal arts degree. When a technical school opened in Albany, Edna switched her focus to arts and craft classes, honing her innate artistic talent to the professional level. She truly was a lifelong student, never missing an opportunity to learn something new.
Edna was also a faithful teacher. Her love of God that sustained her throughout life, gave her the longing to share the gospel with others through Sunday school classes. She taught both children and adult classes over the years, sharing lessons she gleaned from Holy Scripture.
Her godly influence spread far beyond the church walls, beginning in her own home. She never missed a chance to tell her children that she loved them, that God loved them, and that she was praying for them. Her family knew they were loved. And she defined “her family” more broadly than most. It didn’t matter how distant—or questionable—the relationship, to Edna, you were family. The highlight of her year was planning the annual family reunion. She had a way of making every single person in attendance feel as if she had planned the whole event just so she could see them. Her sweet smile welcomed each newcomer as she called them by name, inviting everyone to the table.
Edna Jackson, a treasure of a woman, is best described by the words of Proverbs 31:25-30: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Funeral arrangements to be determined. For more information, see Kimbrell-Stern Funeral Directors, Albany, Georgia. https://www.kimbrellstern.com/
An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord." Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
Anna Kate & family 2018
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV
Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.
Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.
In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)
Lately, I can hardly scroll through the headlines without feeling a sense of despair. It so often seems that we are moving away from the holy day described in Micah 4:6-13. We witness the lame and afflicted overwhelmed by the waters of hurricane-borne floods and the flames of rogue forest fires. We see them shut out by institutional systems that deny their worth. We listen as wealthy power-brokers amplify their own significance while diminishing those Micah promises will be redeemed.
It’s into this cacophony that John the Revelator calls God’s people to turn away from luxury and influence and look to the authority of heaven. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that John has been doing a bit too much stargazing. According to my newsfeed, the winning team is the one with money and power, not the one with poverty and disenfranchisement.
Reading these texts in the context of modern injustices, I listen as Micah speaks of labor pains and John speaks of destruction; I wonder: what will be born of this destruction? What redemption lies on the other side of all this misery and injustice?
Oft quoted American minister and reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, . . . [but] it bends towards justice.” That’s a lovely sentiment, indeed one of my favorite quotes. But first, does that arc have to be so ridiculously long and second, what of the arc of pain? Where is it headed?
On December 5, 2016, Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, the former Charleston, SC police officer accused of murdering 50-year-old Walter Scott. Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, surely stood on the arc of pain when she received the news of the verdict. Yet she strode forward and declared,
Today I'm not sad. And I want you to know why I'm not sad. Because Jesus is on the inside and I know that justice will be served because the God that I serve, he is able. . .. God is my strength and I know without a doubt that he is a just God and injustice will not prevail. . .. I’m just waiting on the Lord. I'm just gonna rest in the Lord. I'm gonna rest in the Lord ‘cause you see, . . . there's something about Jesus, when he's on the inside I fear not. . ..
And as she spoke, the arc of pain bent towards hope, towards righteousness.
Here at the beginning of the Advent season, as we await the coming of King Jesus, hear the good news: labor has begun and Hope will be born. “’Cause you see, . . . there’s something about Jesus.”
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Romans 12:9-12
 According to his Wikipedia bio, Parker lent words to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and most certainly to Martin Luther King Jr’s “Where Do we Go from Here” speech when King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Sources for update:/justice/2016/12/05/walter-scott-family-reaction-slager-mistrial-sot.cnn
UPDATE: On May 2, 2017, Michael Slager plead guilty to federal civil rights charges, accepting responsibility for the shooting death of Walter Scott. On December 7, 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years for the second degree murder. According to abcnews.com, "At one point during the sentencing Scott's mother looked the former officer in the eye and told him she forgave him. Families on both sides of the court burst into tears." (See "Ex-cop Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years . . . " below.) Slager is serving his sentence in a low-security prison in Colorado.
Sources for update:
Original (sans update and other minor edits) written for and published in Gardner-Webb University's 2017 Advent Devotional.