Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Ordinary Man

I just finished reading An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Rusesabagina is the focus of the movie Hotel Rwanda, the story of how one hotel manager saved over 1200 people during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. During 100 days, over one million people were killed in politically-motivated ethnic violence. Yes, that’s 1,000,000 people. Rusesabagina does not spare any details in describing the brutality and insanity of this genocide.

The book is not only Rusesabagina’s life story, it is a brief history of the country of Rwanda, a discourse on good in the face of evil, and a political critique of those who allowed it to happen—Rwandans, the United Nations, the United States, and various European countries. This is a chilling and ultimately frustrating story, but it is a book that is hard to put down. We are left asking, “How could this have happened?’ We are also left with the message that it could happen again.

An interesting twist is the fact that Rusesabagina started out to become a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. While in seminary, he realized that he did not have the sense of calling that would sustain him in small, rural pastorates and sought a more urban lifestyle as the manager of a European-owned hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Toward the end of the book the author shares a bit of his struggles with faith, but I was left wanting more.

Rusesabagina is well-read, literate, and reflective, and it is clear that some of his biblical and theological training is still part of his thinking. Although he indicates that he has little involvement with formal religion or any church at this point in his life, the book gives great personal insights on seeking a vocation and an affirmation of finding one’s calling. For Rusesabagina, the greatest call in life was to exercise the gift of hospitality through being a hotel manager. In fact, he points out that one of the key lessons he learned was from his training to be a Sabena hotel manager: “They showed me how to respect myself by respecting others.” (p. 164) This sense of calling sustained him during a time of chaos.

Despite his protests, Rusesabagina is nothing less than a hero. Here is a man who used every tool at his disposal to save his fellows from slaughter. In the face of evil, he exercised integrity. While facing personal danger, he showed courage. We may have some moral scruples about some of the people with whom he negotiated and the methods he used, but we cannot dispute that this was a man of integrity who put everything on the line to serve others.

This book is required reading for entering freshmen at Middle Tennessee State University this year (including my granddaughter). Paul Rusesabagina will be the speaker at the university’s convocation in August. I hope to hear him. He has shown us how “an ordinary man” can be a hero.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's In a Name?

I continue to struggle with finding a good adjective to describe what kind of Baptist I am. It would be nice to have a brief, short-hand way to communicate what my commitments are. "Liberal" is not a bad term if one uses the dictionary meaning ("marked by generosity and openhandedness") but it has been used so much in a pejorative sense that I hesitate to embrace it.

Many of us like to call ourselves "moderate" Baptists, but this tends to bring to mind the "lukewarm" church at Laodicea that the narrator wants to "spit out of his mouth"! I like the term "progressive," especially as it is defined by Fisher Humphreys in his book The Way We Were--informed, committed to women in ministry, concerned about the world's needs. Of course, at least one national Baptist convention has made this a part of its name, so the use of the term may be a bit confusing.

Some have drawn the distinction between "conventional" and "convictional" Baptists, but that requires a good bit of explanation. Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics has tried the terms "Golden Rule" Baptists and "goodwill" Baptists; those may catch on if we really act like that!

I occasionally use the term "Fellowship Baptists" to refer to my group and in so doing I am probably acknowledging that CBF is becoming more "denomination-like" all the time. Of course, I still call myself a Tennessee Baptist; I am not willing to give up that term to a particular denominational group.

Maybe at this point I am just a "seeking Baptist" and that might not be a bad term but it may be a bit dangerous. Roger Williams was a Baptist for awhile, but he ended up being a seeker and left the Baptist realm entirely. I am not ready to do that.

So right now when I fill out a survey, I just put "Baptist" and leave the interpretation up to others (and that is probably dangerous, too).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What can you do for me?

Someone once told me., "Planting new churches is not rocket science." Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it is easy. Perhaps church planting is closer to an art, something like planting an ornamental garden! The organization which I serve has blisters, sore muscles, and thorns to prove it.
We have learned a great deal about starting new churches, in large part by making mistakes. We have had more failures than successes. I can tell you a lot of things one ought NOT to do in starting a new church, but I cannot guarantee that if you simply avoid these errors that you will succeed.
We continue to try and to learn in the process. One thing I am learning is that the "high tech/high touch" principle is significant in starting a new church. The idea comes from John Naisbit's book Megatrends. Naisbit explained that in the emerging world people want to utilize technology to do their work and communicate, but they also desire healthy relationships.
How does this apply to new churches? On the one hand, we can use technology--websites, e-mail, blogs, PowerPoint--to communicate, build networks, and get to know people. At the same time, there is no substitute for person-to-person, face-to-face relationships. People need people, not just a computer screen, for strong relationships to develop. Technology can open the door, but personal relationships must grow out of those contacts.
I think CBF and TCBF are in a good position to provide both. We don't have a lot of financial resources available to assist in planting churches, but we are pretty savvy when it comes to technology and we can be good friends! In fact, I have found that many young church planters are more interested in relationships than finances. That's good since we have a lot more of the former than the latter!