Friday, March 25, 2016

Jesus - Peacemaker or "loser"? Ask Pentaquod.

From the 1st chapter - "Voyage One: 1583" - of James Michener's 1978 novel, Chesapeake:
Reluctantly, he was coming to the conclusion that he must leave this tribe which had done everything but outlaw him publicly. As a child he had watched what happened to men declared outcasts, and he had no desire to experience what they had suffered: the isolation, the scorn, the bitter loneliness. . . . The trouble had started that day when he voiced his apprehension over a raid proposed by the high chief. . . . the Susquehannocks of the middle section had never in Pentaquod's life been easy in times of peace; they felt intuitively that they should be on the warpath, proving their manhood.
To me, this seems to aptly describe Americans today. And we Christians seem to be leading the way. Instead of seeking peace, we beat the drums for war and the bushes for enemies. We seek conflict to prove our "greatness." We make war to stake our claim to the political power that is our obsession. We hurl epithets - such as "weak" and "losers" - at those who seek first to negotiate and to compromise. We make outcasts of those who Jesus called the least of these, those who he told us to serve in order to serve him.
Who gets lost in all of this? The one whose death and resurrection we acclaim this week. He lived, died, and rose to give us victory, but we still act as those whose hope is in ourselves rather than in Him. We act as those who are defeated rather than victors.
Jesus' teachings and commandments still make us uncomfortable, so we find a way to explain them away and wriggle out of doing them. But these words were not simply a hollow sound bite or applause line; they ring throughout Jesus' life, every action, every teaching:
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
- Jesus the Christ in his sermon on the mount

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Appeal for UNITY amidst the Christian and gay divide
by Brenda McWilliams

Long before the recent Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all of our United States, the debate regarding the religious or moral “rightness” of same-sex intimacy was at fever pitch. The Court ruling, far from settling the issue and “putting it to bed” (pardon the pun) has, in many ways, added fuel to the fire, and the temperature continues to rise.

First, let me be straight regarding who I am. I am an out, gay, Christian woman in a fourteen-year covenant relationship with another Christian woman. We worshiped together for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tyler, TX. I believe First Baptist would be considered a fairly conservative Baptist church affiliated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I will not go into the details of my years of struggle coming to accept my sexual orientation and the journey, with God’s grace, toward reconciliation of who I am and my Baptist faith and beliefs. When asked how I reconcile being Christian and gay, the short answer is that I am a child of God through the saving grace of Jesus Christ and a woman who happens to have a same-sex orientation. However, my story and struggle is not the point of my writing today.

I write today because I am saddened and heartbroken, and to pose a question: What are we doing? What are we doing to our Christian brothers and sisters, to our churches, and, perhaps most importantly, to our witness to the world of the all-inclusive love and grace of Jesus Christ? Perhaps that is a question we should ask ourselves daily and not just in regard to current issues of sexual orientation and our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks.

Here’s the source of my heartache and sorrow. More and more regarding the gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm, I see battle lines being drawn, troops being mustered, and “war” strategies taking shape. I see the flourishing of a “them vs. us” mentality and thinking. I recall reading the call to arms by Matthew Vines, founder of the Reformation Project, to “eradicate homophobia through the preaching and teaching of the Bible.” (ABPNews, 9/13/2013) That was almost two years ago! Now, eradication of homophobia would be a good thing, a very good thing; however, I don’t know that it will happen through the preaching and teaching of the Bible. After all, did decades, perhaps centuries, of Bible teaching and preaching eradicate homosexuality? Go figure on that one!

Then there is the NALT – Not All Like That – Christians Project, launched in 2013 “to give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of proclaiming to the world—and especially to young gay people—their belief and conviction that there is nothing anti-biblical or at all inherently sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender” ( I am in agreement that it would be a good thing for LGBT-affirming Christians to be more vocal, to speak up and share their convictions in their congregations, Bible study groups, at work, at school, wherever they might be, in any circumstance and, particularly, in response to something hurtful or derogatory that has been said or done. Both The Reformation Project and the NALT Project are great, and they have done and continue to do good work. Yet, the fire still rages and the temperature still rises.

If we want to truly talk about and strive toward “reformation,” let’s talk about relationships. Let’s sit with one another and share our stories, our faith journeys, our soul yearnings, and see and come to know the Christ within – within ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is how true soul formation and reformation occurs.

What hinders us from sharing our stories? Could it be the “other?” How do we perceive, approach, behave toward, and relate to people whom we believe to be different from who we perceive ourselves to be? How do we get to know the "other?" Do we want to know others, to seek to understand, and to strive to live with respect and acceptance of those we perceive as different? If we answer "Yes" to these latter questions – and I hope we do – I would propose that we start sharing our stories, our heartfelt convictions, and listening to one another as opposed to entering battle heralding our proclamations and unfurling our regimental flags.

I sometimes wonder in this gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm, if both “armies” are more focused on attempting to change, convert, and convince the “other” side than on loving one another and fostering unity in the body. Again, I would ask a question: With regard to this issue, what is our desire? Is our desire to be “right,” or is our desire to be in relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to be a witness to the abounding love of God through Christ?

I am reminded here of Paul’s urgings to the Ephesians “. . . to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:1-6; emphasis is mine)

I see the division among Christians on the gay issue, and I am saddened. I see and hear the “gay-bashing” from many Christian groups, and I am saddened. I am equally saddened by the “church and/or Christian-bashing” coming from various factions of the LGBT community, even at times from the Christian LGBT community. Where is the humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, and eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? This breaks my heart.

As Christians, regardless of our beliefs on the gay/same-sex marriage issue or any other aspect of our present-day culture, we are bound together in Christ. I want for us, the church, the body of Christ, to be inclusive and affirming of one another, bound by Christ’s love for us, our love of Christ, and our desire to share His love with others. I want for us, the church, through and because of our bond in Christ, to be able to sit with one another in covenant community and engage in civil and respectful dialogue about all sorts of issues and questions – even, especially, the hard ones.

Yes, we may disagree on some things, and – since Christ binds us – we can agree to disagree, be respectful of one another’s “soul competency,” and carry on with the mission to share the love of God through Christ. As Christian brothers and sisters, gay and straight, I want for us, the church, to live in unity and the peace of Christ, knowing that unity does not require uniformity in thought or action, nor does the peace of Christ mean there is no disagreement. I want for us, the church, to be the Presence of Christ in and to the world. Somehow, I don’t think we are being that, the Presence of Christ, in our responses to the gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm. I am saddened and heartbroken. Again, I pose the question: What are we doing?

More and more, I am being called back to Matthew 10:27, a verse I claimed many years ago: What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear proclaim from the roofs. (NIV) I also like The Message translation: Don’t hesitate to go public now. Well, I have gone public!

Friday, July 10, 2015

James Dunn's greatest legacy
by Dick Maples

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Dick Maples is a former chair of the T. B. Maston Foundation.)

When the news came last Sunday of James Dunn’s passing, I spent an hour or so lying in the hammock on the back porch, reminiscing and thanking God for a friendship that began sixty years ago when we served as youth directors of neighboring churches in Weatherford, Texas. Many will write about his accomplishments as director of the BGCT Christian Life Commission and later as director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, but there may be little mention of the powerful impact that he had upon the lives of students and young adults.

My son, Drake, is one of the many who have been positively influenced by the life and ministry of James Dunn. Upon learning of James’s death this past week, he wrote his young adult children the following email, which I quote by permission:
“James Dunn was a friend of mine as a child and as a young adult. He was, and has been, a strong and solid friend of our family for sixty years. He is one of the truly great men whom I have known in my life, and one who has truly influenced American policy and lawmakers for the past 30 years. Strangely, I think you will find that he is not one of those typical ‘churchy’ people that you might expect in Baptist life. In fact, James blustered in the face of the traditional Baptist church . . . and chose to represent individual freedom of religious thinking over any and all church doctrines and church dogmas. He was in fact a true maverick. . . . And one whom I loved and respected very much. 
“HE . . . is one of the reasons that I have never fully tolerated or accepted the traditional trappings of the ordinary church. And I am hopeful that he would be proud of that. He always challenged me to think as well as act. He always demanded that people think and ask questions rather than simply accept the answers of a preacher or a church. He believed that every man has a ‘right’ to speak to his God as he sees and relates to him . . . And that no Government or individual had the right to dictate or interfere in this right. 
“Regrettably, I think that there are very few James Dunns left in the world today . . . And I don’t know if any of you will be as fortunate as I have been to know this one.”
I believe there are legions of people like Drake who would express similar words of appreciation for their friendship with James Dunn and for the rich contribution he made to their lives. How fitting that, upon his retirement from the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, he returned to the role in which he began his ministry, that of teaching students. Wherever he has served, from Weatherford to West Texas A&M, from the Christian Life Commission in Dallas to the BJCPA in Washington, and most recently at the Divinity School at Wake Forest, James Dunn has positively impacted the lives of students and young adults and motivated them to become more devoted followers of Christ, and this may be his greatest legacy.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

From Fear to Joy - to Love - and to Covenant

(Originally posted by Judge Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Baptist Church, Little Rock, AR, to his Facebook timeline on May 14, 2014; published here with his permission. The T. B. Maston Foundation encourages candid and thoughtful dialogue on ethical issues.)

I want to express special appreciation to Jack P. Rogers for his fine book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. I am indebted to Jack P. Rogers, who did the research on the eight passages addressed in my post. - WENDELL GRIFFEN 

Thanks to family, friends, and everyone else who has posted concerning Judge Chris Piazza's historic decision last Friday which declared Arkansas laws unconstitutional that prohibit marriage licenses from being issued to same sex couples. Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane and the dedicated public servants who work to receive and process applications for marriage licenses also deserve tremendous praise for their professionalism, hard work, and friendliness to the many people who've sought and received marriage licenses since Monday morning. And anyone who has observed the courteous way the security personnel have treated people has to be very impressed. As someone who works in the Pulaski County Courthouse every day, I can affirm that this is the way all these people approach their work each day.

Some of my friends strongly disagree with my decision to officiate marriage ceremonies involving same sex couples. While I cannot and will not disrespect anyone for disagreeing, I hope everyone will take a few minutes to ponder comments I delivered two years ago at a Baptist Conversation on Sexuality and Covenant my wife and I attended in Decatur, Georgia that was co-sponsored by Mercer University, McAfee School of Theology, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

©Wendell Griffen, 2012
Like many other pastors I know and countless more I don't know, I've learned to be available, responsive, and alert to calls for help in unexpected times and circumstances. But nothing in my ministry formation prepared me on how to respond to the reality of human sexuality, congregational unity, pastoral care, and the various challenges and opportunities to experience and enlarge what we mean by "covenant" when it comes to human sexuality. Human sexuality is as real as anything else one encounters in pastoral ministry. But I wasn't educated about it in church, college, or as part of my seminary studies.

My parents talked with me about sex. But I don't recall any conversations with my parents or youth leaders about human sexuality during my youth. I don't recall any church conferences about human sexuality. I don't think my experience is very different from other congregational leaders.

If my experience is typical, then it's probably safe to say that many—if not a majority—of the people who lead congregations reached adulthood like I did: with a very limited understanding about human sexuality. Perhaps we had conversations with our parents or other elders about sex and sensuality. Youth leaders occasionally and delicately talked about the topic of sex and dating. But I have yet to meet any Baptist pastor who grew up in a family or congregation where human sexuality was mentioned.

It's not unfair or inaccurate to say that when it comes to the issue of human sexuality, religious people in the United States have avoided serious thinking, honest conversation, and open-minded dialogue. I trace our aversion to engage the issue of sexuality by serious thought, honest discourse, and open-minded conversation to one thing. We have a phobia about human sexuality. We're afraid to admit that we're afraid about sexuality. We're uncomfortable thinking about it. We're uneasy. As individuals, families, congregations, communities, clergypersons, and members of a society where free expression of opinions is supposedly valued, we've been afraid to think, speak, and work to lovingly understand sexuality, one of the basic aspects of our humanity.

Sexuality has historically been left off the list of subjects we recruit educators to teach in high school. Sexuality has traditionally not been included among the issues seminary faculty and students analyze. In the minority of seminaries that include courses on human sexuality in the curricula the courses aren't required.

So no one should be surprised that our congregations aren't comfortable dealing with sexuality. This Conference has been needed for a very long time. I hope it will mark the start of a new era of candor for Baptists and other faithful people.

I haven't been immune or exempt from the fearful aversion to addressing sexuality. But I'm convinced that the aversion has done great harm to individuals, families, faith communities, and our desire to be agents of God's love and truth in the world. I've seen firsthand the pain and fear of families faced with the prospect that some aspect of a loved one's sexuality will become known. I've witnessed the anxiety of parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives.

And I've witnessed firsthand the way fear and misunderstanding can work cruel results. I have known and hurt for people who were afraid to come to worship because they expected to be shunned or blamed on account of their sexuality. I've tried to protect and comfort family members who were afraid to ask their congregation to pray for a loved one who was diagnosed with AIDS. I've known the special anxiety young people feel when they are afraid to talk with parents, other relatives, and church leaders about sexuality. I've seen and heard pastors and other clergy demonize vulnerable children, teenagers, and adults simply because those people are different because of sexuality. And I've seen preachers and other church people mount and support political efforts that portray people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender as threats to family cohesion and societal order based on solely on their sexuality.

So when New Millennium Church was organized in 2009 I prayed that we would be different. I prayed that we would be people who are not bound by a fear of difference but who are inspired by God's love to be "inclusive, welcoming, and progressive followers of Jesus Christ." But how would we live out that challenge surrounding the issue of sexuality? I will share what we've done and how it has affected us.

We affirm oneness and welcome all persons in God's love during every Sunday worship service. Our congregation recites the following "Affirmation of Oneness and Purpose" each Sunday morning.

"We praise and worship God together. We petition God, together. We proclaim God, together. We welcome all persons in God's love together. We live for God, in every breath and heartbeat, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus Christ, together."
This affirmation is made immediately following what we call the "Greet and Fellowship Moment" following the invocation when everyone is invited to greet and be welcomed by everyone else as we "welcome all persons in God's love together."

Why is this important? Almost every person in our congregation has lived through times of legalized segregation and religiously inspired discrimination against people who are different because of race, gender, and sexuality. But we have come to know God's love as expressed and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have come to understand God's love for and acceptance of all persons. In Christ, we have come to realize that humanity involves a wonderful and God-ordained diversity. In Christ, we have experienced the meaning of being one with God and others by the unifying work of grace and the Holy Spirit. Somehow, our congregation was inspired to affirm our commitment to oneness and to "welcome all persons in God's love" because we sincerely trust that this is what it means to be one with God in Christ.

Pastors have a prophetic duty to proclaim God's love in ways that welcome all people. Congregational life isn't defined by the personality of a pastor, but a Baptist pastor has a profound potential on that life by the way we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm struck, however, by how often pastors seem unwilling or unable to grasp and present God's love for all persons.

I'm no model preacher by any means. But I was led to preach about the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well for the inaugural worship service of New Millennium Church (May 31, 2009). I tried to present what that encounter meant to her and means for us in a sermon titled "Give Me This Water!" Please forgive me for quoting myself.

"By his deliberate encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed to her and to us that we can never be truly refreshed and rejuvenated by a well and bucket approach to life and faith. We need 'living water' that is invigorating, soothing, and cooling as we experience the challenges, conflicts, defeats, insults, and tragedies of our journeys. We need a source of strength and vitality that is bigger and deeper than domestic status, work, culture, and religious ritual. Until we are connected with 'living water,' we will keep coming up dry and empty, no matter what is in our family, cultural, or religious water pots and buckets.

"God's love is the 'living water' that Jesus spoke about to the Samaritan woman. We are designed to be nourished, invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the constantly flowing stream of God's love. We need the push of God's unstoppable love in the face of our setbacks. We need the comfort of God's healing love for our hurts and injuries. We need the assurance of God's always flowing love as we deal with obstacles, disappointments, sorrows, and anxieties. You and I, like the Samaritan woman, need to be invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the flowing stream of God's love.

"Here is the good news. God's love comes to us! Despite whatever situations, setbacks, disappointments, insults, conflicts, or frustrations life may present, God's love comes to us! The meaning of Jesus showing up in Samaria at Jacob's Well is that God's love shows up! Her marital history could not keep God's love from showing up in Jesus. The bigotry imposed on her people could not keep God's love from showing up in Jesus. The religious turf fight between preachers in her region and other preachers elsewhere about where people should worship could not prevent God's love from showing up in Jesus. God's love flows to wherever we are to call us, claim us, soothe us, invigorate us, renew us, and redirect us. We do not need to go to Jerusalem or elsewhere to experience God's love. Jesus at Jacob's Well talking with a Samaritan woman tells us that God's love comes to us, wherever we are, however we are, to fill our dry emptiness.

"By the love that God has given us through Jesus, we are able to confront injustice. By that love, we draw strength to overcome adversity. By that love, we are called as instruments of peace in the face of conflict. Through that love, you and I are agents of hope to people in despair. As God has given us the living water of divine love in Jesus, God has made us part of that love with Jesus. Like a stream flows to fill dry places, God's love flows in Jesus to fill us and flows in those who are filled by that love to renew, reinvigorate, redirect, and soothe others. This is what happened to the woman of Samaria. God's love came to her. Eventually, she became part of that love to others in her community."
If pastors believe that God loves people in whatever aspect of life they present themselves, then we must proclaim that love from our pulpits. And our sermonic efforts should call and challenge people to trust God's love in their relationships with others without regard to ancestral, cultural, ritual, or other bases for treating people differently because of their sexuality.

New Millennium intentionally confronted our phobia and prejudice about sexuality by prayerful study. Rather than use Sunday School quarterly materials and lessons, New Millennium follows a book study approach. I try to prayerfully select books that will stretch us. We studied writings by Howard Thurman (Jesus and the Disinherited), Dan Southerland (Transitioning: Leading Your Church through Change), Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith), Daniel Vestal (It's Time… a Journey Toward Missional Faithfulness), and Samuel Proctor (My Moral Odyssey) between our formation in May 2009 and the fall of 2010. And during the fall of 2010 and the winter months of 2011 we studied a book that challenged us to prayerfully ponder the ethical implications of being Jesus-followers concerning the issue of human sexuality when we studied a book written by Jack P. Rogers (Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality).

Like it or not, people act out their beliefs and our fears. The phobia about human sexuality has driven how many people think and act about sexuality—both for themselves and for other persons. But the Bible declares that "God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness." One of the most frequent commands found in our Scripture is "Don't fear."

So our congregation prayerfully engaged in months of serious study and honest conversation about sexuality by following a study guide included with Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. We watched videos that addressed how persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are perceived and treated by religious people and the efforts of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to find acceptance and affirmation as they try to live out their faith in God's grace and truth (For the Bible Tells Me So and A Fish Out of Water). Instead of adopting the usual fearful approach to human sexuality we deliberately, prayerfully, and congregationally chose to study, listen, share, and trust the Holy Spirit.

I didn't introduce the sexuality study to make a political statement for the congregation or myself. As pastor, I introduced that study for the same reasons that guided whatever we study. Human sexuality is a reality religious people, including followers of Jesus, cannot deny or avoid. Humans are sexual beings by design. But sexuality isn't a subject religious thinkers have been comfortable engaging. Augustine, considered by some to have been the father-figure of Christian theology, never seemed to be comfortable with the human body. More than a few people have expressed concern, if not regret, "that for many centuries the teaching of the Church on human sexuality has suffered from its adherence to Augustine's distorted emphasis."

I led New Millennium to intentionally study and confront the religious phobia about human sexuality knowing the study would challenge us. It did. One of our charter leaders eventually left the congregation because she didn't want to participate in it. She left with a clear conscience and remains in contact with us. Although others openly expressed anxieties, they committed themselves to the study because it marked the first time they were part of a congregation where human sexuality was being openly pondered, discussed, and embraced.

At the beginning of the New Millennium study of human sexuality, we agreed that our effort would be guided by some fundamental thoughts.

• Every person's opinion counts.
• Respect each other.
• Be open-minded and non-judgmental.
• Have compassion.
• Maintain and protect confidentiality.
• Listen to each other respectfully.
• Disagree agreeably.
• Don't be afraid to grow.

New Millennium Church is a new church start. Most of our members are middle- aged and senior citizens. Most of us have been Baptists for decades. But regardless of our ages, varying levels of education, vocational diversity, racial diversity, and other factors, none of us had ever engaged in a serious study of human sexuality and Christian theology. Our study marked the first time we were able to openly discuss sexuality and faith. The study allowed us to follow the Holy Spirit as we listened to each other, as we read and pondered the assigned reading material, and as we intentionally met a same-sex Christian couple whose relationship has endured for more than forty years. We were able to confront the truth that the Bible has often been misused to justify slavery, segregation, and subjugation of women. We studied principles of Biblical interpretation. We prayed for each other.

Our study didn't weaken us. It gave us a new courage. We came to understand the importance of testing how Scripture is read and understood according to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Thanks to prayerful study, we were able to have honest conversations about sexuality and faith. We learned to celebrate the gift of sexuality with each other. We moved from fear to joy.

Our experience also allowed us to rethink and re-envision what covenant means. Covenant involves much more than a ceremony. Covenant is about commitment and relationship. Our study showed that heterosexuals enjoy economic, social, and legal benefits that are denied other people. In our conversation with the same-sex couple who has been together for over forty years—longer than my wife and I have been married—we learned that one member of the couple was denied the opportunity to be in the other's hospital room overnight following a surgical procedure. Arkansas does not recognize their relationship, despite all its evidence of commitment, as legitimate. They cannot marry. They cannot file a joint tax return. They cannot claim each other as dependents for health care benefits. For a brief time they were legally banned from being adoptive or foster parents. No matter how committed they are to each other, their relationship is not considered legitimate. Meanwhile, people who are heterosexual are permitted to marry—and receive all the social, economic, and legal privileges associated with marital status—whether they are committed to each other or not.

As we became better informed about these and other aspects of heterosexual privilege we remembered our personal and collective experiences with injustice. We recalled that during slavery marriage ceremonies did not protect slaves from being sold away from each other and that Baptists misused the Bible to justify human trafficking, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow segregation. We recalled that black people and women were denied citizenship and social equality. We remembered the hurtful impact of those injustices.

Above all, we remembered the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In Christ, those who were once considered spiritual outsiders—and outlaws—have been brought into a covenant relationship with God and each other. The relationship and commitment associated with it creates and defines the covenant. And at the heart of what that relationship with God in Christ means are the great commandments. We are called to love God with all our being (including our sexuality) and love other persons as we hope to be loved. The essence of covenant is love and justice, not legality.

Months of prayerful study about faith and sexuality made us more aware about heterosexual privilege. We heard about and witnessed its consequences on people who have been branded moral and social misfits on account of their sexuality. We remembered Jesus, the embodiment of God's wonderful love, who embraced people who were considered moral and social misfits.

Through prayerful study, prophetic preaching, and worship that intentionally welcomes all persons in God's love, New Millennium Church no longer lives in fearful silence about sexuality. We rejoice in the diversity God has created, including the diversity of human sexuality. We rejoice that covenant is about relationship and commitment, not ceremony. And we affirm that the love of God we've come to know in Jesus calls us to be agents of love, truth, and justice. We aren't afraid of sexuality. We rejoice in it. We're inspired to be agents of God's love, truth, and justice concerning it in the true sense of covenant.

"We praise and worship God together. We petition God, together. We proclaim God, together. We welcome all persons in God's love together. We live for God, in every breath and heartbeat, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus Christ, together." Amen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

FOY VALENTINE (1987): Crying in the wilderness: Streaking in Jerusalem: The prophethood of all believers

(NOTE: The late Foy Valentine, who served as director of the Christian Life Commissions of both Texas Baptists and Southern Baptists, presented this address upon receiving the first T. B. Maston Christian Ethics Award, November 6, 1987.)

Mark 1:3 says that John the Baptist was “a voice crying in the the wilderness”; and of this prophet who Jesus called “more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26) our Lord said, “Among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).

Isaiah 20:1-6 (RSV) says,
“In the year that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it — at that time the Lord had spoken by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take off your shoes from your feet,’ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot — the Lord said, ‘As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians captives and the Ethiopians exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. Then they shall be ashamed and confounded because of Ethiopia their hope and of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, “Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?”’”

Numbers 11:27-29 (RSV) says, “And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, forbid them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!’”

Joel 2:28 has the prophet Joel speaking for God and Acts 1:17-21 has the Apostle Peter, quoting Joel, to say, “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.... And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Activating Our Christian Prophethood
The concept of the the prophethood of all believers is quite old, traceable at least to Moses (see Numbers 11:29). The term itself has been around for at least a hundred years; but I am personally indebted to James Luther Adams, whom I knew, for having jogged me into hot-eyed excitement about the idea through a piece that he wrote in 1947 and which George Beach both included and, at Adams' suggestion, used as the title for a volume of compiled addresses and articles by Adams, published by Beacon Press in 1986.

According to the papers, a leading Methodist bishop, former president of the Methodist Council of Bishops, and former tall­steeple church pastor, who after fifty years of intense homosexual activity recently died of AIDS, built his stunningly successful professional career on a ruthlessly pursued program of rigid “conservatism” and aggressive initiatives for full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedoes “evangelism and church growth.” Prophethood was not his cup of tea.

When I was enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, it was the rule rather than the exception for the teachers to fail to get to the latter sections of Paul’s epistles, to perambulate around the prophetic, to denigrate the prophetic demands of the Christian calling, and, like a yo-yo stalled on hesitation at the bottom of the swing until its energy is spent, left ethics till the last and then left it out. Prophethood was not their priority.

We do well to remember that Henry IV, who had called his ally, the French soldier of fortune, Louis Crillon“The bravest of the brave,” said to the tardy Crillon after victory had been won in 1587 against a particularly aggressive show of force by the Leaguers in northern France, “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques and you were not there.” (cf. James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, p. 103.)

The prophetic dimension of revealed religion has everlastingly fallen onto hard times. It has never been the most coveted of callings. There are some obvious reasons for this. Even the Lord’s anointed are subject to temptations related to “soft clothing,” pleasure, materialism, economic determinism, and love of comfort. When the winnowing and harrowing of Fundamentalism started among Southern Baptists, Baptists were not lean and mean, ready for the war, but soft and satisfied, flabby and floppy.

The craving for adulation has also had its effects. Earl Guinn has spoken of this malady when he said that the churches, instead of hearing God’s prophets in the pulpits sounding the trumpet in thrilling, clarion tones, have heard instead “... inoffensive little men tooting piccolos and then running to the door to grin like Cheshire cats at those whose compliments are demanded by their itching ears” (“The Prophetic Ministry,”Southern Baptist Preaching, ed. H.C. Brown, Jr.; Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959, p. 91).

Perhaps the most chilling reason of all for our resistance to prophethood has been idolatry. For decades now, we Baptists have been bragging that our programs, our missions, our evangelism have made us great, that our institutions, our brick buildings, our budgets have made our God (or god) look good to the heathen. When the death of Northern, essentially German, Fundamentalist rationalism was slipped into the pot of Baptist life, we said that these wonderful things, which we made with our own hands, have always saved us, and that they would surely save us now. It has been an idolatry that a jealous God could never have been expected to cotton to with any real enthusiasm. And it is turning out to be as “one in a certain place has said” (Hebrews 2:6) - that it is “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

An exceptionally successful, much lionized Southern Baptist pastor told a young protégé (whom I know) when he was just starting out in the ministry, “Just preach salvation; and don’t make waves.” Prophethood has never been his bag.

A very safe, scrupulously middle-of-the-road, extremely well-paid and highly successful pastor of a big city church recently sought to placate an agitated rich member deeply concerned about the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by Fundamentalist extremists by counseling, “Just be patient; don’t rock the boat; don’t talk this around; don’t designate your money; this thing is going to turn around; the pendulum will swing.” Prophethood is not for him.

Some time ago, a pastor of a large Southern Baptist church recounted this chilling tale:
A Southern Baptist megachurch pastor had been invited to his city to hold a city-wide evangelistic crusade. The megachurch visiting evangelist looked up this pastor of the biggest church in the city and said, “Look, I’m in desperate circumstances: I’ve got to have a good love offering.”
The pastor said, “You’re greedy.”
“No, I’ve got these huge payments to make on my house.”
“No. You’re unconscionably greedy. You’re several times a millionaire.”
“How did you know?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Nevertheless, the “evangelist” pressed his case with other preachers in the city until he was able to walk away with his $25,000. He had his reward. Prophethood is not his vocation.

At the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, there were 36,270 seats in all three auditoriums; there were 45,049 messengers registered; and there were 44,248 ballots allegedly cast (with 98.2% of the registered messengers allegedly present and allegedly voting) in the presidential race between Charles Stanley and Winfred Moore; the denominational news services and the editors of state Baptist papers chose not to report those curious statistics. Let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, tell-it-like-it-is prophethood did not ring their journalistic bells.

Most of the Southern Baptist Convention’s real bishops, during most of the last decade-and-a-half of unprecedented crisis, while the Fundamentalists have gone for the Southern Baptist Convention’s jugular with precinct political organization and bused-into-the-Tuesday-afternoon-Presidential-election votes, have been tongue-tied in words and hamstrung in deeds, waiting for the storm to blow over, hoping for others to rise up and fight the Philistines, watching for that pendulum to swing, straddling the fence from underneath, hunkered down in paralyzed ambiguity, reeds “shaken with the wind” of Fundamentalism, men “clothed in soft raiment” (Matthew 11:7, 8); Gamalielized. Prophethood has not been their long suit.

Prophecy has to do with visions and with visionaries, with seeing and with seers, with justice and with judgment, with righteousness and with retribution, and with sometimes striking an uncouth note in the world of possibility thinking. Our world needs few things more now than prophetic words and prophetic deeds. The churches now need few things more than the prophethood of crying in the wilderness like brave John the Baptist, streaking in Jerusalem like courageous Isaiah. By these words and deeds, the demands of God are understood to be not obscure or ambiguous, but understandable and doable, practical and specific, clear and concrete, relevant and redemptive.

Definitions Related to the PropheticProphet is the English transliteration of prophetes, a Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word Nabi, probably meaning “one who utters a God-given message.” The word originally meant forthteller but came early to encompass the idea of foretelling; and both ideas, forthtelling and foretelling, are properly associated with the term prophet. The great prophets of biblical times were driven by an irresistible constraint to declare the word of the Lord, to obey the word of the Lord, and to act in response to the word of the Lord. The prophet is the priest who is taking the longer look, listening to a different drummer, and feeling the fire in his baptism as it burns to become fire in his belly.

Prophecy is the work of a prophet, the vocation of a prophet, the utterance of a prophet. It may be a courageous, communicative, cathartic prophetic act. It may be a prediction. It may be a discernment and interpretation of “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3).

Prophetic is an adjective which refers to things pertaining to the character or function of a prophet or of prophets, including both forthtelling, or the proclamatory, and foretelling, or the predictive. The prophetic word in the gospel presses toward the ideal, champions the moral imperative, stands, stands for right.

Prophesy is a verb meaning to speak by divine inspiration, to announce, or to predict. Amos said, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” (3:8)

Prophethood has to do with the word or position or office of the prophet. As we speak of the priesthood of all believers, we may also rightly speak of the prophethood of all believers. There is nothing that would do more to revive authentic Christianity in our time than for us to find the ways and devise the means to press successfully for the prophethood of all believers.

Biblical Roots of Prophethood
The first mention of a prophet in the Bible is the reference in Genesis 20:7 in which God said to Abimelech, king of Gerar, concerning Abraham, “he is a prophet.” Moses was a prophet in a truly classic sense. As men and women of heroic deeds, the Judges of Israel performed prophetic functions representing God and pointing to God. The kings of Israel were frequently compelled to fall in line with the visions and calls of the Lord’s divinely inspired prophets. The great prophets like Elijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, Jonah and John the Baptist, and many, many more were people of mighty words; and they were men and women of mighty deeds. Prophetesses like Miriam and Deborah and Huldah and Anna and the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:9) prove that God is no respecter of persons at the point of sex, that prophethood has no direct connection to gonads or ovaries, to sex or sexuality. The call of these prophets and prophetesses was a call to ethical monotheism, justice, righteousness, goodness, mercy, kindness, forbearance, truth, love, rectitude, and responsibility. They everlastingly highlighted the worth of the individual.

The Lord Jesus Christ was himself a prophet “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Matthew 21:11; Luke 24:19; John 4:19; John 7:40); and his most profoundly prophetic witness to the world was his incarnation. The scandal of the cross and his awful nakedness there was preceded by his pitifully provincial nakedness as a newborn human baby sucking at the breast of Mary his mother and then wetting his diapers in the barn of Bethlehem. That incarnational witness of God in Christ puts the streaking of Isaiah in Jerusalem into perspective. Isaiah’s witness was but a pale portent, a mere shadow, of the power of prophecy when presented by the Prophet of prophets, Jesus Christ.

The prophetic tradition in church history has not had a brilliant record; and for this, the church is infinitely poorer; for this, the Kingdom of God is sadly diminished. In the early church, of course, prophets are sometimes mentioned as ranking next to the Apostles (Acts 11:27; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28). The Apostles themselves discharged prophetic responsibilities. Paul was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Peter learned in his vision on the housetop of Joppa that what God had cleansed we may not call common or unclean. Authentic prophecy stumbled on many stones, including the stone of incipient pentecostalism which fostered excesses of emotionalism, dispensationalism, escapism, and moral nihilism.

The Need for the Prophethood of All BelieversFew biblical insights, concepts, doctrines, or teachings are more neglected, more generally ignored, or more shamelessly rejected than those pertaining to prophets, prophethood, and the prophetic aspect of the Lord’s high calling.

In the Reformation, Christians took a giant step toward recovering the priesthood of the believer. Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg was a prophetic act. The formulation of those 95 theses was a prophetic utterance or statement communicating a divinely inspired insight. The Anabaptists and the whole radical left wing of the Reformation subsequently took some halting steps toward the prophethood of all believers; but the plane has not ever sustained its flight for very long. Institutionalism keeps metastasizing. The priestly keeps squeezing the life out of the prophetic. Comfort keeps conquering courage.

The need now is not just for a prophet, an Abraham, a Moses, a Rahab, an Amos, an Isaiah to take his clothes off and go barefoot for three years as a sign, or a John the Baptist with his lone voice crying in the wilderness. The need is for an extension of the Reformation, a commitment to the basic agenda of Baptists in the free church tradition, general acceptance of the prophethood of all believers. With this prophethood in place, we can dream dreams and see visions. We can run and not be weary; we can walk and not faint. We can lay hold of the frequent vision (I Samuel 3:1, RSV). We can be salt for the earth and light for the world and leaven for the lump.

The prophethood of believers can smash idols. And we can grind them to smithereens and mix them in the water, and bring the world to drink them. This was a sure sign to the Israelites that their false gods had been irretrievably disintegrated, ingloriously ingested, and ignobly excreted. Gentleness and facile optimism sometimes need to be balanced by justice and hard reality.

The prophethood of believers can foster repentance; and repentance, it is to be remembered, is the keynote of the New Testament message. That is, we can encourage the world, which God loves and which He came in Christ to save, to change its mind about its sin. We can foster repentance by first getting the world’s attention. Voices crying seize interest; and prophets streaking, naked and barefoot for three years at a time, demand attention. Prophethood, having got the world’s attention, then points people to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then with repentance effected, purification is brought about, renewal is achieved, integrity is apprehended, salvation is realized, and church takes on meaning.

Oh, there is one other little matter. With the prophethood of all believers recovered and then taken seriously, failure is assured. As surely as sparks fly upward, rejection, loneliness, scandal, stoning, banishment, scorn, hatred, and crucifixion go with prophethood. The prophet’s mantle is made of tow sacks and old cowhides. The prophet’s food may be grasshoppers and wild honey. The prophet’s house may be a cave. The prophet’s servants may be crows. The prophet’s pay may be spit in the face.

But the prophet’s reward is God’s “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.... Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matthew 25:21).

As we believe in and practice the priesthood of all believers, so let us believe in and practice the prophethood of all believers.

The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

PATRICK ANDERSON: Foy Valentine remembered . . . A friend for the ages

(NOTE: The author, Patrick Anderson, is editor of Christian Ethics Today journal. He also recently served as executive coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the interim between Daniel Vestal and Suzii Paynter.)

Eight years ago January 7, one of our great Baptist leaders, Foy Valentine, passed on. We remember him fondly, and miss him a great deal.

The first time I met Foy Valentine was on the telephone. I was in my faculty office at Louisiana State University late one afternoon when the call came. He identified himself, and I recognized the name, remembering his valiant leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission during the turbulent Civil Rights Movement era. I could not imagine why he had called me, and I could not imagine how he got my name and number. I was not at all involved in Baptist life at that time, but I was honored and intrigued to receive a call from someone so important.

He told me that my pastor, Doug Cheatham, had spoken to him about me as a member of his church and a professor of Criminology at LSU. He suggested to Foy that, if the CLC ever needed a criminologist, he give me a call. So the call came and, after some pleasantries, I asked, “What do you need a criminologist for?”

He replied, “Do you know anything about gambling?”

I said, “Well, I know the difference between a full house and a flush. What do you want to know?”

We both enjoyed the moment, and I believe from that first conversation we became friends.

He asked me to study the impact of legalized gambling on crime and other social problems. I used the scientific data and a surprisingly large body of literature to make the case against the expansion of legalized gambling in America and became a strong opponent of the gambling industry. I testified in several state legislative hearings against legalized gambling, and Foy Valentine’s Christian Life Commission led the fight against the gambling industry’s intrusion into our society, a hard-fought fight largely lost. He used to laugh and say, “Doc, you never lost a debate but you never won an election!”

Foy was ahead of the curve, ahead of his time. He saw, years before the first legalized lottery in America, the terrible potential for harm that legalized gambling posed. I caught up with his intuitive antipathy for gambling after my study, and agreed with his prescient knowledge that gambling, especially state-sponsored gambling, was bad, it was wrong, it was the antithesis of moral behavior, the opposite of what the government should encourage.

Our friendship lived beyond the gambling fights and his retirement from Southern Baptist life, a retirement that marked a terrible transition in Southern Baptist life. He had led the Christian Life Commission to assist Southern Baptists in espousing the very best in moral and ethical behavior. His leadership was marked by addressing the pressing issues of birth control, abortion rights, sex education, racial justice, equal rights for women, strict environmental regulations, poverty, war, gambling. He understood Baptist principles, especially the Separation of Church and State

When he retired or, more accurately, was pushed out of the way, Southern Baptists’ new leaders changed the CLC into a partisan, political member of the Religious Rightwing Movement, an apologist for war after September 11, 2001, and blatant public supporter of Republican politics and politicians. An early casualty of the changes in the CLC was aggressive opposition to gambling; since Foy’s departure, we have seen state lotteries, televised poker, casinos, and sports betting spread like wildfire.

The change was tragic for Foy, and for his friends. We talked about it often at various board meetings or CBF gatherings, and on the telephone. I loved to talk with him on the phone. His soft East Texas twang and rich humor made every conversation a pure delight. He often spoke of his wife, Mary Louise, and his three grown daughters, Jean, Carol, and Susan with great pride and affection. He loved his mountain get-away and vintage jeep.

Many of us enjoyed his essays in the journal he founded during his retirement, Christian Ethics Today. When he collected those essays in a published book, Whatsoever Things Are Lovely, he was as pleased as punch. If you do not have a copy of that book, ask for one through I’ll be happy to send a copy.

I really miss Foy Valentine, his infectious laughter, solid Biblical good sense, and candor. If you knew him, I am sure you share that sentiment. Many were blessed to have known him much better and for a longer time than I.

I wish I had called him more often, talked longer, laughed with him more. He was one great man, one great Baptist, a friend for the ages.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

PATRICK ANDERSON: My Mandela Pilgrimage

(NOTE: The author, Patrick Anderson, is editor of Christian Ethics Today journal. He also recently served as executive coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the interim between Daniel Vestal and Suzii Paynter.)

Several years ago, I traveled to South Africa. In preparation for my trip, I picked up a few books to read, including Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which I read on the long plane ride from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Of course, Mandela was not a total stranger to my brain, but while reading that remarkable book I became a Mandela disciple and, during that trip and since, I have read much of his writings and a great deal about the man himself.

Since I had a couple of days layover on my Africa trip and I was alone, I spent a night near the Soweto Township in Johannesburg and hired a driver to take me on a tour. I visited Mandela’s home. I stood in the front doorway and looked into the tiny living room where a wall had been built the length of the house just inside to block the snipers’ bullets which sometimes were fired into the front window. I walked through the small house and got a sense of how he and Winnie lived there. I saw mementoes given to him through the years, including the World Championship Boxing Belt from Sugar Ray Leonard and letters from school children and dignitaries from around the world. He was loved by many in his life, and inspired some remarkable people.

I walked down the street and around the corner to where his friend, Desmond Tutu, lived, surprised by the close proximity. I tried to imagine life in that small tight-knit community, and remembered the stormy, violent history of that place during Apartheid. My driver-guide tolerated my mulling and questioning. I did not want to leave the place.

Later, I took a plane to Cape Town, and then rode the ferry across to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27 long years in prison under a life sentence. I stood outside the cell he lived in and tried to put myself into that stark setting, sleeping on the thin mat, feeling the cold air, imagining the sounds of that despairing place. I sat on the ground in the courtyard where he and the other prisoners spent many hours each day in silent, tedious work, where they somehow managed to smuggle messages to each other and to people on the outside from that place. I walked in the lime quarry where he and the other prisoners toiled in the hot sun, in a pit so blindingly bright that some were actually blinded.

I thought of how, during all the years he spent in that terrible place, I had lived in comfort and oblivious peace in America, enjoying the benefits of freedom, food, education, good health. Somehow, I felt ashamed of myself, wishing that somehow my life had been more focused and meaningful while Mandela had exhibited such strength and fortitude in his discomforts.

On the ferry back to the mainland, I thought about how Mandela, just like Paul and Silas long before, refused a secret, private release from prison, demanding instead to be released as publicly as he had been incarcerated. His election as President of South Africa, his appointment of his jailer to his cabinet, and his insistence for a full disclosure kind of reconciliation . . . all of those actions he took without any rancor, with no hatred or retaliatory impulse . . . humbled me, and made me both melancholy and thrilled at the display of the human spirit at its best.

Since that pilgrimage, I have thought much about Nelson Mandela, finding in him an inspiration and role model for my own life. Now that he “belongs to the ages,” as President Obama stated, take some time to stop and reflect on Mandela’s life, seeing it as a Christ-like example to us all, far from perfect, very human and full of struggle and hardship. His spirit lives on, and in my own heart I make a new commitment to justice, compassion, and strong living.