Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Time to Kill

I have been spending an unusual amount of time recently with a female Episcopal priest. Of course, she spends a lot of time with the local police chief. There is no problem, however, since both are fictional and the leading characters in a series of mystery novels by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Clare Fergusson is the thirty-something priest of St. Alban’s church in Millers Kill, New York, a small town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. A Virginian by birth and former Army helicopter pilot, Clare is in her first charge out of seminary. Chief Russ Van Alstyne is 15 years older. A Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Van Alstyne has returned to this home town upon retirement to head up the local police department, accompanied by the wife who helped pull him out of alcoholism. As one might imagine, events conspire to bring Clare and Russ together on several levels.

Neither our protagonists nor the people of Millers Kill are saints; they are people who wrestle with the issues of life and often stumble along the way. In All Mortal Flesh, Van Atlsyne tells Clare, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty-five years of law enforcement, it’s that anyone is capable of anything if pushed hard enough.” Clare’s experiences as a priest don’t contradict this observation. In fact, her challenge is to be the mediator of God’s grace to such people—and often to herself.

Those residents of Millers Kill who cross the line are often people like us—a parent concerned about his child’s future, a low-wage worker who has lost his job, a woman whose family has fallen on hard times, a doctor trying to cover up his transgressions. They don’t intend to do evil, but their burdens become untenable. Of course, there is the occasional sociopath as well.

Although Clare and Russ are the heroes of the series, they have their flaws as well. They take care of others but they often find themselves lonely and with no real friends. Thus, the friendship that turns into something more and heightens the tension of the relationship. The emotions they experience are real and often wrenching. Clare’s struggles to listen to God while ministering to those around her and attending to her own needs will resonate with clergy.

Spencer-Fleming is an effective writer who tries to avoid formula. The events in one novel take place over the course of a single day. Another goes back and forth in time from the Prohibition days of the 1920’s to the present day with other stops along the way to unravel several mysteries. One is written almost entirely from the perspective of a new member of the police force. The author allows us to get close to the two primary characters, but she also introduces other three-dimensional characters in each novel and weaves them into her plots. No one’s life is static and characters evolve from one story to another, so the reader will want to read the series sequentially.

Each novel unfolds at a pace that pulls the reader along easily. As you might expect, there is often a climatic event that both surprises and exhilarates, putting one or both of the leads in peril.

There are six novels in the series with a seventh due in April 2011. I am looking forward to the next episode in the lives of these interesting characters. If you start now, you can read all six and be ready for the new title, One Was a Soldier.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Essential Thinking about Mission

Few books can be considered truly seminal works in their field. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission by David J. Bosch is one of them. Although Bosch, head of the department of missiology at the University of South Africa, died in an automobile accident in 1992, his work stands as a classic in its field. In a recent issue of Christianity Century, one theologian selected it as one the five books of the last 25 years that he describes as “essential.”

As we worked through part of Bosch’s book in our Christian Witness class this past Saturday, I was once again impressed by the scope of his work. Professor Bosch drew on history, theology, sociology, and economics to paint a picture of a gospel that has been continually in dialogue with the culture in which it finds itself. He saw the gospel as dynamic rather than static in relation to its culture.

The thesis of Bosch in this book is that “what has unfolded in theological and missionary circles during the last decades is the result of a fundamental paradigm shift, not only in mission or theology, but in the experience and thinking of the whole world.” He notes, of course, that this is not the first such shift that the world or the church have experienced, but we have the opportunity to be conscious of this change and take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

Bosch is not light reading. Students often note (if not outright complain) about his tendency to examine every implication of an event or movement ad infinitum. With a longer view of things that he was not permitted to have, we can see some false conclusions, such as the waning influence of fundamentalism in religion. This does not detract from his innate ability to observe, analyze, and suggest the implications of major movements in the Christian faith.

Anyone who wishes to understand how we arrived at our present situation in regard to Christian mission will find Bosch invaluable.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Anticipating a Future of Service

When I was campus minister at a denominational college in east Tennessee, I often attended five or six associational meetings in October. Adding these to already busy schedule was not easy, but there were three good things about the assignment. First, I saw some beautiful fall foliage as I traveled the highways and roads of east Tennessee. Second, I got to meet some nice people and tell them about the students at their denominational school. Third, I heard some good preaching! The person (it was always a man, of course) doing the annual sermon always pulled out his best and delivered it with conviction. Those were good days in many ways.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the district judicatory that we call the Baptist association faces tough times today. If associations are going to survive, they must adopt a new paradigm that more effectively addresses the reality of the churches they serve.

The association will become more effective when it becomes a regional rather than a county organization. At least in Tennessee, churches cannot support all of the associations that presently exist. Several county associations could combine into one association that would be more effective and efficient.

The association must move away from the program delivery model to a people development model. The director of missions must become a coach to both clergy and laity. This means individualized attention to help church leadership address the unique needs of their congregations. The director can also facilitate peer groups of pastors, Christian educators, and lay leaders so that they can help and support each other.

The association can serve as a clearing house for ministry opportunities in the local area. This does not mean that the association will staff and fund these ministries. On the contrary, the association can identify established programs that embrace the values of local Baptist churches and then link the churches with these ministries. The organizations served do not even have to be Baptist!

The best thing about this approach is that it requires no buildings and little overhead. The association can be housed in a supporting church and utilize its meeting facilities when needed or go to other supporting churches.

These changes are not radical, but they could assure the future ministry of the judicatory.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Celebrating a Legacy of Service

On Monday evening, I had the opportunity to attend the 200th anniversary meeting of Concord Baptist Association in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I will readily admit that this is the first associational meeting that I have attended in 12 years. I regularly attended such meetings as a Baptist Student Union director, campus minister, state convention employee, and denominational college campus minister.

This association has a sentimental attachment for me since I served as BSU director at Middle Tennessee State University from 1970 to 1976. I preached in practically every church in the association and knew all of the pastors and many of the lay leaders by name. We worked to form a partnership among the churches, the association, and the state convention that eventually resulted in the construction of a new Baptist Student Center that was tagged the Centennial Baptist Student Center because it was dedicated the year (1974) that the state convention observed its formation 100 years earlier in Murfreesboro. I still have fond memories of those days and those relationships.

Concord association was organized in 1810 and linked churches throughout middle Tennessee. When the association was formed this area was the frontier. West Tennessee had not even been settled at that time. As David Pittman, director of missions, pointed out in his presentation, when the association was formed the United States of America was only 34 years old and Tennessee had been a state for only 14 years. This association is older than both the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

My friend, Dr. Fred Rolater, wrote a rather comprehensive history of the association for the occasion. The first section recounts the reasons for the founding of the association in 1810. The association provided fellowship, encouragement, and a doctrinal framework for young, struggling congregations and believers. Of course, the mission of the association evolved over the years. In the twentieth century, the Baptist association became the delivery system of denominational programs, a promoter of the Cooperative Program of Missions, and very often provided the impetus for new church starts or the means of bringing church splits into the denominational fold. This association, like many others, provided valuable assistance to local churches of all sizes.

Judicatories like Concord Baptist are an endangered species. Larger churches tend to be rather self-sufficient when it comes to training leaders and aligning with mission partners. Resources are readily available online. Denominational conflict has not been particularly helpful either. Judicatories such as the Baptist association can survive, but this will require a paradigm shift. I will address that subject in a subsequent blog post.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Who Sets the Standard?

Anyone who knows me well would never mistake me for an athlete. A brisk walk and a leisurely swim are about as athletic as I get. I do watch sports, however, and my children and grandchildren are (or have been) involved in various athletic endeavors. I am around these activities and watch enough sports on TV to have an ongoing concern about priorities in athletics.

Two recent things come to mind. As I watch children play sports, I am impressed by their attitudes toward the game. Some really hustle. They love the game and get into it. Others are less enthusiastic and may be living out parental dreams and expectations. In fact, some of the most negative experiences come from overly aggressive coaches and parents who forget (especially for children) that being in the game is the important thing; winning is secondary at that stage of life. Both the kids and adults should be having fun.

Another recent event was the televised image of a Titans football coach making an obscene gesture either to the officials or the other team in a Sunday afternoon game. He was fined but not as much as the owner of the team was last year for making a similar gesture. The attitude expressed is both unnecessary and unprofessional. Certainly, pro athletes are light years away from kids on the playing field, but I still like to see adults act responsibly and enjoy the game even when they are competing for the Lombardi trophy.

Who bears the responsibility for good sportsmanship? I would like to think that it is something that is modeled all along the way, but this is not true. Spectators (including parents) need to see it in practice because they often forget what is important in the heat of the moment. They need to see good sportsmanship in the players, but the players will not practice it unless their leaders—the coaches—do it. The coach sets the tone.

There are a number of coaches that I admire—Tony Dungy, for example, and Mike Singletary. I admire them not because they may be winners but because they are shaping those they coach. They model good behavior and expect their players to do so as well. Coaches who model and mold deserve our respect and our support.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Upside of Tension

One of the best presentations at the Global Leadership Summit in August was by Andy Stanley. He talked about the “upside” of tension. Most of us see every challenge as a problem to be solved. Stanley suggested that some challenges are problems to be solved, while others are tensions to be managed. We must learn to recognize the difference. There will always be decisions to be made about ministries, use of time and use of resources. When we “resolve” some of these tensions, we often create a new tension.

Occasionally, I will come across something that I wrote when I was a young minister with a young family. An ongoing concern during that time was having a healthy balance between time for ministry and time with family. Did I every resolve that tension? Of course not. I deal with it even to this day. This was not a problem to be solved but an ongoing choice to be made.

There are some tensions we learn to live with.

Although Stanley did not refer to scripture in his presentation, we can find biblical examples of this. Jesus himself experienced this type of tension. We see it in Mark 1:29-39:

As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come." So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (NIV)

Jesus healing; Jesus praying. Time with humanity; time with God. These are really two sides of one coin that made him who he was. This was the tension that drove his ministry. Tension can be a motivator rather than a demotivator if we recognize its constructive dimension.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ordination: A Level Playing Field

Rev. Dr. Eillen Campbell-Reed
 and Rev. Mary Beth Duke
On Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to be part of a service at Providence Baptist Church in Cookeville, Tennessee, ordaining Mary Beth Dunbar Duke to the Christian ministry. Mary Beth is a graduate of Central Seminary in Murfreesboro and is currently pursuing a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at Vanderbilt Hospital.

I reminded those present that although most Christian churches ordain ministers of the gospel, there are differing ordination practices and that they would not be surprised to learn that even among Baptists there are varying practices!

This was the first ordination service conducted by the church and the building was filled with church members, friends and family of the candidate, and former classmates at the Central Seminary site. It was day of celebration as well as commitment.

I am not a member of Providence Baptist Church, but we share an understanding of the meaning of ordination. There is only one ordination to the gospel ministry. There is not one for males and one for females; there is not one for blacks and another for whites, Hispanics, or Asians. There is not one ordination for pastors, another for ministers of Christian formation, and yet another for chaplains. The ordination bestowed by this congregation on Beth was for her to be a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in any and every setting.

I celebrate not only the ordination of my friend, Mary Beth Duke, but the witness of Providence Baptist Church to a gospel that treats each of us equally. To mix metaphors, there is a level playing field at the foot of the Cross.