Each month, I write a column for Baptist News Global. This August 2016 piece grew out of my frustrations with the malicious political yammering that had been filling my news feeds and from a Bible study my pastor, Dr. Jim McCoy, led at First Baptist Church Weaverville.
“So Aunt Wilma? Who do you want for president?”
It was an election year; I was a sophomore in college and politics had been my primary extracurricular activity. I enjoyed debating the issues, discussing solutions and following political trends. Aunt Wilma, my grandfather’s octogenarian sister, was a retired high school Latin teacher married to a retired Emory University political science professor. Highly intelligent and fiercely opinionated, Aunt Wilma had surely assessed the candidates and made an informed decision about who our next president should be. I wanted to hear her thoughts.
“Young lady!” Her retort was swift and fiery. “That is none of your business! We do not talk about such things.” Ouch! Clearly, my great-aunt did not consider politics an appropriate topic for polite conversation.
I often wonder, since my dear Aunt Wilma found my long-ago inquiry disrespectful, what in the world would she think of the bitter and abusive nature of today’s news and social media? In truth, we exceeded the boundaries of polite conversation long before this election year even began.
In fact, our political discourse these days is just plain nasty and it’s caused me to wonder: can Baptists be both committed to the message of Christ and active in political matters? It certainly hasn’t seemed like it to me. When I read election coverage, I don’t at all feel as if I’m becoming more like Christ. I feel self-righteous, indignant and superior. Then I feel guilty, frustrated and hopeless.
Thankfully, I got some answers just this past week in Wednesday night Bible study. My pastor, Dr. Jim McCoy, drawing on the research of Duke University Divinity School professor Luke Bretherton, pointed to the truth found in Jeremiah, chapter 29.
At this point in the text, Jeremiah is delivering a message to the people of the Babylonian Exile. He tells them that God is calling them to settle in the region. “Go ahead and get married,” Jeremiah says. “Buy a house. Join the PTA, the YMCA, a local church.” Essentially, Jeremiah says, “Be all in. Hold nothing back.”
And then in verse 7, God (through Jeremiah) says this to the people, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Did you get that? God says to those captured by Babylon, “Get to know your captors. Make them your very own family. Then, do what’s best for Babylon; pray for them; for what is best for Babylon, is best for you.” Babylon was the enemy! That’s crazy! Just imagine saying to a marriage equality group, “Join Westboro Baptist Church! Go to Sunday school and Wednesday night fellowship dinners. Seek the welfare of your new church home and do what’s best for them.” Or to a Trump supporter, “Move to the border and build a bridge of fellowship, not a wall of exclusion. Find out what needs undocumented workers have and seek solutions.” It’s counter-intuitive at the very least.
But what if we did follow that direction? What if we did truly seek the welfare of the city? We might just begin to see others with the eyes of Christ. We might seek to understand, to reconcile, to appreciate. We might work for clean water, safe streets, better schools, healthy local businesses. Truly, if we put Jeremiah’s direction into practice consistently, I believe politics could become hopeful and encouraging, instead of hateful and destructive.
And that kind of political discussion wouldn’t be offensive to anyone. Even to Aunt Wilma.
Earlier this year, I preached a sermon called "Shining in the Darkness," from John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:1-7. Today, I was getting so down about all the fussy, contentious election news, that I reread some of that sermon to remind myself that we do, in fact, have hope. I thought I'd pull out a portion of that to share with you.
(I've linked the audio below for my mother, and for anyone else who might want to listen to the whole thing.)
Have you ever experienced dark times? Times when you longed for light? Just a little light, you think. A flashlight. A cellphone. Even a match.
Indeed, darkness abounds in this world. And sometimes we find ourselves crying out to God saying, Look God, these times are dark! I’ve lost my job; my kid’s struggling in school. My house has been on the market for a year and doesn’t show any signs of selling; my parents are growing old and showing the signs of age. I’m estranged from a family member; I’m a single parent. My job makes me miserable but I can’t quit because I need the money; I suffer from chronic pain, crippling depression, heart-breaking loneliness. My marriage is over; my loved one has cancer; my child is terminally ill. This is dark stuff.
And the problem is, even we as the Body of Christ don’t seem to know how to access the Light. I know a teenager charged with a crime he did not commit and a woman who has dealt with difficult, life threatening complications from an intricate and delicate surgery. Both of them have said to me, “I know this is part of God’s plan or it would not have happened.” They say this, shrugging shoulders, weeping, baffled by a God who would plan such things.
And I say, NO!
God put on flesh! God gets it. God is upset right along with you! Now, I do believe God will redeem all things and is always in the process of regeneration, reformation, renewal. But just because something happens doesn’t mean God designed it that way.
Redemption? YES. Intention? NO!
Think about it. God does not always get God’s way. Do you think God planned the Holocaust? Did God plan the attacks in Paris recently? Does God carefully lay out a plan for childhood cancer? I cannot believe these tragedies are God’s intention. What I know, though, is that not even darkness this extreme is beyond God’s redemptive love.
Scripture says in 1 John 1:5, "God is light and in God is no darkness at all." I cannot believe that God ordained the Holocaust. But I stake my life on the assurance that even in the dark, horror-filled days of the Holocaust, God's redemptive love found divine entrance. Almost immediately following the devastation of the Paris attacks, people found hope in unexpected places and encouragement from new friends. In the midst of countless chemotherapy appointments, the mom of a child with cancer comes home to a fresh cooked meal and a lawn freshly mowed. That’s light! That is God.
“Prayer Works!” and its bossier sibling, “Pray. It Works!” are sayings I’ve seen on everything from tote bags to t-shirts, bumper stickers to Bible studies. You can get a “Prayer Works” apron for the saintly cook in your life or a package of “Prayer Works” pencils for those in need of a little Number Two inspiration. And don’t even get me started on books. Seriously there are about a gazillion books with that phrase or a close variation in the title. In just a quick glance, I saw Prayer Works for Teens, Prayer Works for Business People, and even a Prayer Works for Dieters. (Just might buy that last one, cause really: I can use a little supernatural assistance in that department.)
And I get it; I do. Who among us does not need a reminder that the practice of prayer is an important spiritual discipline? I sure do. But is that what we mean when we say that prayer works?
Too often, I’m afraid it means that we got what we wanted from the prayer. We say it after saying “I got a promotion!” or “My child got into her college of choice!” or even, “My beloved has been healed of cancer!” Then of course, like all good Christians, we turn to social media to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook the good news, challenging followers to “Pray! It Works!” I think most of us mean well, bless our hearts. We are so grateful for the blessings we’ve received we want to share the good news. We mean “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” But that’s not what we say. Instead, we tap out pithy theology that just doesn’t hold up to the trials of life.
Think about it. No one ever says “Prayer Works,” when they get laid off, or a child’s dreams are crushed, or a loved one doesn’t make it. Yet prayer works then too. It works to bring peace in the storm. It works to bring hope to the hopeless. It works to draw us closer to God. Of course prayer works. It always works.
Over the years, I’ve seen prayer work whether I got the job I wanted or not. I’ve prayed for career outcomes I just knew were within God’s perfect will for my life, praying with all confidence that I had heard God’s voice correctly, only to be devastated when things turned out differently. Prayer helped me deal with disappointment, sort out solutions, and overcome the sense of loss that frequently accompanies career frustrations.
Prayer works as high school graduates accept admission to the last school on their lists, because despite their excellent high school records, their dream schools have refused them. Prayer helps them ask “Why?” Prayer leads them to sing new songs. Prayer reminds them that they are more, so much more, than admissions decisions and test scores.
Prayer worked in 2008 when a child I knew and loved died of cancer. People prayed without ceasing for that little boy to be cured—really cured, on earth, in the flesh. But he passed from this life to the next at just over three and a half years old. My prayers were not answered in the way I wanted. And when that precious boy died, I felt as if my spirit was shipwrecked. But prayer worked. Prayer washed me onto shore, warmed me, sheltered me.
I think the function of prayer is well stated by twentieth century theologian CS Lewis. He said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God--it changes me.” Wow. Prayer changes humanity? Now that’s some hard work right there. To God be the Glory!
*This piece was first published on June 1, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
I have a lot of millennials in my life: my own children and their friends, nieces and nephews, youth from churches where I’ve served, plus college students I’ve met through ministry. I Snapchat™ and text, Facebook™ and Instagram™. I also visit students on their campuses and I meet them for coffee, lunch, or walks in the park. I’ve had lots of conversations with these folks over the years and since I’m in the business, we talk a lot about church. Despite all the time I’ve spent with them though, there are a number of things I’ve never heard millennials say about church. Here are a few of them.
Nope, I’ve never heard any of those things. But, what I have heard makes me believe that in many ways, millennials are not that different from Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, or even first century believers. They want to break bread with us (particularly if it’s good bread and includes an entrée along with it). They want to follow Jesus and they want to know how to do that. They want to be a part of Kingdom work—not just for the sake of the hereafter but on earth, today--just as it is in heaven.
Oh, and they’d prefer we lose the label. They’d rather us just call them by name.
*This piece was first published on April 6, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
Part 2 of a two part series on "What I Love about Religion. Find Part 1 here!
6. Hymns. I love singing songs that have been sung for decades (if not centuries) by followers of Jesus. I love the sound of all of us singing together—altos and off-tones, tenors and tend-not-to’s, soloists and the so-so-ists. I love it.
7. Tradition. These days, a lot of folks see tradition as the bad guy. I love tradition. I love that since at least the early 1960’s, my family has had country ham biscuits for breakfast on Christmas morning. I love this silly game that I played with my cousins and now my children play with theirs (it’s called “Last Tag” and it was essentially designed to delay our inevitable separation). And I love church traditions. I love that we stand when the Gospel is read or the Hallelujah chorus is sung. I love hearing the choir sing and the handbells play. I love the organ, the piano, the orchestra. I love liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, and saying “Amen.” Maybe it seems empty to others, but to me, tradition is full of the faith of those who have gone before me. It humbles me. It blesses me. I love it.
8. Sacraments. I’m Baptist and we consider Eucharist (which we call the Lord’s Supper or Communion) and Baptism (which we usually do by immersion unless there are health restrictions) to be holy and sacred. These two practices are seriously religious. That is to say, if you are completely unfamiliar with Christianity and you observe these customs, you may think we are cannibalistic and not a little bit murderous. Let’s face it. To people who know nothing of our faith, Eucharist and Baptism are just weird. They are. And I love them. I love these representations of the life of Christ, the life of a follower of Christ. I take the bread and the cup, reminded that God became man and lived among us even until death. I watch a baptism and feel the water wash over my own seven-year-old face, hearing again for the first time, “Aileen, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you.” I rise, again, from those baptismal waters knowing that in Christ there is always renewal, there is always resurrection. And I feel loved.
9. Vacation Bible School. It’s true. I absolutely love Vacation Bible School (VBS). You can’t talk me out of it either, so don’t even try. When I was coming along, we had VBS for two full weeks—my very favorite two weeks of the entire summer. Now, in most Baptist churches that offer it, VBS is held for about a week, either for several hours in the morning or in the evening. Usually, programming is planned for children ages preschool through elementary school. Church members—from youth to senior adults—help plan and carry out the week’s events. I loved VBS as a child; I loved working in VBS when I was in the youth group; I have loved leading VBS as an adult; and I love directing it too. It’s hard for me to say why I love this so much. I guess it’s because all these different people come together for a common goal: to share the love of Jesus with children. We’ve got 70 year olds serving snacks to kindergartners and youth piggy-backing preschoolers. We’ve got adults singing songs, telling stories and playing games as if they themselves were kids too. During Vacation Bible School, the church turns its eyes to the children and says loud and clear, in lots of different ways, over and over again, “Jesus loves you!” I just absolutely love that.
10. Ministry. I don’t know of any other organization that does ministry as well as the church. Hear me: I worked in college administration for years and felt very much like my job was my ministry. But really, I would not have gone to that job every day, 40 hours a week, if I had not gotten a paycheck, no matter how much ministry I got to do. The church—Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal—ministers in a zillion different ways. Sure, we minister to ourselves, that’s true. We do take care of our own. But that’s not all we do. We visit the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. We feed the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless. We build wheelchair ramps, repair roofs, install flooring. And yes, we cry with each other, hug each other and celebrate with each other. You just gotta love that.
My church, my religion, is far from perfect. We miss the mark far more times than we hit the target. Sometimes Christians get out of hand at meetings and even at covered-dish dinners (bless their hearts). There are certainly times when people wander through traditions and sacraments mindlessly, missing the sacred altogether. Way too often, we get so bogged down in minutia we completely forget about ministry. And you won’t believe this, but not everyone loves Vacation Bible School.
We’re imperfect. We’re broken. We are the Body of Christ. We are church. And I really love that.
In response to a poem* that's been flying around the internet on youtube wings, I've been thinking about what I like about religion. My post got a little long, so I'm splitting it. Here are the first five.
1. Saying Grace. I love pausing in the midst of the rush of life and holding hands around the dinner table to say a blessing over our meal. I did this with my parents and siblings and they did it with theirs. We stop. We reach out. We look up. I love that.
2. Covered-Dish Dinners. True, I’ve had covered-dish meals outside of religious settings, but really, they just aren’t as good. Think about it. Office pot-lucks consist mostly of to-go foods or quick fixes. Rarely will you find a deviled egg at such an event and if you do it’s made with light mayonnaise which defeats the whole purpose anyway. At a church covered-dish meal, you get Miss Mary’s 12 layer chocolate cake, and Mr. Jack’s homemade barbeque. You’ll find Mrs. Smith’s homemade biscuits right next to Mrs. Jones’ and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take one of each. There are 12 kinds of macaroni and cheese, all homemade, and that yummy salad that Mr. Johnson always brings. You can’t find this kind of food at the office picnic. Maybe at a family reunion. But that’s cause they all learned what a pot-luck is supposed to look like from going to church suppers.
3. Meetings. I don’t love--or even like--going to these. Not even a little bit. But what I do love is that we have them. We do try to make decisions as a unit. We disagree, sometimes loudly. We compromise, usually not nearly enough. But we work at it. Okay, not everyone works at it; but the intent is that we try to get along. We don’t always get our way. We often don’t get as much accomplished as we had hoped we would. But when it’s over, we hold hands, say Grace, and head out to the covered-dish supper. That’s church. Gotta love it.
4. Weddings. When I was little, I often went with my daddy, a Baptist preacher, to the weddings he officiated. I loved everything about weddings then and now—the signature attire, the music, the sweet (or not so sweet) kiss at the end. But the parts of the wedding I have always loved the most include scripture: the miracle at the wedding in Canaan, First Corinthians 13, and “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These texts are read religiously at Christian weddings. And I just love that.
5. Sunday Morning Bible Study (AKA Sunday School). Okay so I didn’t love Sunday School when I was a teenager. My parents raised us as thinking Baptists and so we believed questions were a part of the journey of faith. Most of our Sunday School teachers disagreed. Either for the teachers’ sakes or ours (or perhaps for the sake of her husband’s career), our mother took over teaching our class. Since then, I’ve loved Sunday Morning Bible Study. I’ve taught most of my adult years (see above) and am so grateful that my class members allow me to continue doing so. I absolutely love it.
For the next five, check out this post.
* I tend to annoy both sides of issues like this. So, prepare yourself. The poem itself, I think, is well presented. I don't agree with everything he says; I like some of it a lot. I think the poem is the product of a zealous guy who loves Jesus and refuses to get caught up in unnecessary restrictions organized religions often put on people who don't fit under their steeples nicely. So, it's fine. Still, I like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John better, and I actually do like a lot about religion. But not everything. So there you go.
My friend Traci is Catholic: Catholic by birth and by choice. She, her husband, and their third-grade daughter Audrey, live out their faith and participate fully in the life of their church. Because Traci and I are friends, and because faith is important to her, I was not surprised when her family accepted the invitation to attend my ordination as a Baptist minister held in the chapel of my home church.
Audrey, dressed in her Sunday best and seated between her parents, looked around at the growing crowd in the chapel. “Whoa. Ms. Aileen surely knows a lot of people.”
Traci is an introvert who somehow wound up friends with me, an unbounded extrovert. She shook her head sadly, as if acknowledging a personality defect folk generally try not to mention. “You have no idea,” she told Audrey, “You have no idea.”
“So,” Audrey asked, making conversation, “Is this about how many people you had at yours?”
“My what?” Traci looked at her daughter, wondering what in the world she could mean.
“When you became a pastor.” Audrey figured, I suppose, that ordination was a rite of passage all moms went through, not unlike her own first communion.
“Audrey, women can’t become pastors in the Catholic church.”
“What?” Audrey appeared astonished. Hear Audrey out though. Her shock had nothing to do with women in ministry. Nothing.
“This,” Wide-eyed Audrey went on, her hand sweeping in a gesture to encompass the whole building, “This isn’t a Catholic Church?”
Audrey, having spent all of her nine years in the same church, had assumed that worship happened in a Catholic community. Never mind the absence of images of the Holy Mother, the Crucifix, the Baptismal font. This was church, so it must be Catholic.
In a way, though, Audrey’s question was a good one, particularly if you replace the capital letters with lowercase ones. The adjective, “catholic,” does not mean “Christian but not Protestant.” It means “comprehensive,” or “universal.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catholic.)
“Isn’t this a catholic church?” That is, “Isn’t this a church for everyone?”
On the day of my ordination, the congregation included Baptists (of course), Audrey and other Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Presbyterians. There were members of the Church of Christ, the Church of God, the Disciples of Christ, and the United Christian Church.
There were people there who believe in infant baptism, believer’s baptism, baptism only in natural running water, baptism only by immersion, or only by sprinkling. There were people there who believe in speaking in tongues and those who would rather not speak at all; those who practice foot washing, and those who find the soaking of naked toes less than sacred. (These folks clearly have never had a pedicure, but I digress.)
Yep. This was definitely a comprehensive group. In fact, this was the the church universal, the holy catholic church, a veritable communion of saints.
“Yes, Audrey. This is the catholic church. And may it always be so.”
“. . . through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:10
In one, I’m late: late and lost. Everyone is expecting me, but I can’t find my way out of a maze of locked doors and dead-end hallways.
In another, it is exam day. The problem? The class never made it to my schedule, so I didn’t even know that I was registered for it. Now I have to take an exam on material I’ve never seen.
In my favorite recurring dream, though, people from all over the world, “children from every nation,” come together in peace. They sing. They laugh. They hold hands. Lifelong friendships form instantly. Differences are dealt with civilly. The world is at peace. It’s a great dream—one that leaves me with a wakeful longing for unity.
But this week, my 16 year old daughter is actually living my dream. She is in Nairobi, Kenya attending PassportKenya. At this camp, kids from the US and Kenyan kids, experience true cultural exchange. (Trellace’s roomie is a Kenya native.) All the kids—American & African—are followers of Jesus Christ. This is not an evangelism trip on which middle class suburbanites go into the wild to save the savage tribesmen. It is not a mission trip in the traditional sense; that is, the Westerners did not rush off to a foreign land to offer aid. This is a mission immersion trip: a time for Christians from this country to develop friendships with Christians from that country. They have worshipped together; they have ministered together; they have sung songs together—some in Swahili, some in English.
And in so many of the pictures I’ve seen, they are holding hands—white hands and brown, black hands and tan. Peace. Right here on earth. It’s like a dream come true.
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.
Originally posted July 19, 2010
You can’t miss it. If you travel that road, you will see it. Looming over the highway for all motorists to see: a billboard-sized picture of a mangled motorcycle with the ominous declaration “Death is forever.” Every time I pass it, I get the message; I never intend to read it, it is just that prominent, that unavoidable. That . . . gripping.
And every time I see that sign three faces rush to my mind: faces that are forever never-changing. Paxten, always 3 years and 7 months old—even after his younger sister turns four and then five. Matthew, staying 12 while his twin rushes into high school. Caleb, forever 11: his younger brothers eventually matriculating to grades he never got to start. And I just wonder: How can you face forever when your boy is gone?
How can you imagine a future without your child, your parents, your beloved? I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t want to face tomorrow without my beagle, much less my people, and I’m not kidding, not even a little bit. Death is forever. And it hurts. It hurts on the big days (the ones you know will be hard): the anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. But it hurts on the little days too: when the family gathers and one is forever absent, when you go to the restaurant that will forever be her restaurant or his, when you go to the ball field, the bookstore, the band concert. Everywhere. Always. Forever.
I hurt so much for loved ones who are bereaved; my heart screams about fairness and longing. Yet if I hurt for them this much what must it be like for the childless mother, the lonely widow, the grieving child. I can’t bear even the thought of it. And that’s because, well, it can’t be borne—not by human hearts anyway.
At that thought, my soul stretches out, finding hope within reach. Because for me, on account of my faith, while I know death is forever, I also know life is eternal. I can rest in that assurance. So, I slip my hand into the nail-scarred hand and fall deep into Christ’s embrace. There, I feel the tears of Jesus mixing with my own. There I am reminded that even when I walk through valleys that are permanently shadowed by death, I do not walk alone. And somehow, because Jesus lives, I really can face tomorrow. Forever.
“Have you chosen a major” I asked my niece. Rachel, her mother, my daughter Trellace, and I were sitting in Starbucks™ having a late night snack. Rachel had graduated from high school a few hours earlier.
“Theater, I think, with a minor in photography.”
I recalled the last five years or more when she and Trellace (her twin cousin) spent hours taking pictures with their new digi-cams. I thought back to her elementary and preschool years when her carefree hours were filled with playing dress-up and gathering audiences for her impromptu shows.
“Perfect!” I told her, “Everyone should major in something they love.” I spent more than a decade in college admissions and career counseling. I can hardly stop myself from offering unsolicited advice.
“The way you find out what that special something is,” I went on, “is to think back to what you did for fun when you were a child. Major in something that parallels that activity. That’s what you’ve done by choosing theater and photography.”
Rachel nodded, understanding. She said she had recently talked to a radio announcer who told of his childhood.
“He used to talk into a cassette recorder, listen to his voice, erase it, and then do it again. He did that over and over again as a kid and now, as an adult, he is in radio.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” I said, “Like my sister, she’s a teacher, and when she was little, she loved playing school.”
Rachel and her mom nodded as I continued.
“Your Uncle Jay loved his microscope, plants, anything that had to do with science, and today he is a scientist. I loved books and played library when I was a little girl. Today, I write and I’m in a field that requires a lot of reading.”
Laughter spurted from Trellace, who had been silent throughout the conversation.
“What?” I asked, “Did I say something funny? Embarrassing?”
“No, it’s nothing,” she managed, still sputtering from her laughter, “I was just remembering that when I was little, Hollyn* and I always played ‘Queen.’”
*Hollyn lived across the street from us from the time she and Trellace were 4 until they were 9.