Friday, March 30, 2012

A Healthy Body

I made a visit to my primary care physician this week for my annual checkup.  Of course, I went in several days earlier for a little blood-letting. Although my doctor encouraged me to consider paying more attention to food and exercise, the indicators were all good—blood pressure, EKG, and all those numbers on the lab report.  The bottom line was that everything was very good (for a person my age).  Not perfect but healthy.

I thought of this visit when I responded to an e-mail from my friend Dr. Heather Entrekin at Central Baptist Theological Seminary with these questions:  “What is congregational health?”  “What does it look like in a church?”  Good questions.  No body--ecclesiastical or human--is perfect, but we do look at certain indicators to see how things are going.  This gives us some idea of the life, viability, and sustainability of the organism.

There are any number of taxonomies for evaluating congregational health.  Natural Church Development has eight:  empowering leadership, gift-based ministry, passionate spirituality, effective structures, inspiring worship service, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships.  A United Methodist friend introduced me to Bishop Robert Schnase’s book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, in which he discusses these indicators:  radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service; extravagant generosity.

Such characteristics can be assessed through surveys, focus groups, and congregational dialogues.  As we do this, we will discover that no congregation is perfect but, even so, it may well be healthy and thriving in its environment.  With a little work, it may even improve, just as my practice of more exercise and better dietary habits will make my life more pleasant.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

Fear is a powerful emotion.  The common reactions that a person adopts when he or she is fearful are  either “fight” or “flight,” but fear can cause individuals to do other things as well.   Fear can cause one to lie and cheat, to see the other as somehow alien and hateful, and to see reality in a horribly distorted way.  Otherwise good people act in bad ways due to fear.

In A HiddenWholeness, Parker Palmer points out that fear feeds an arrogance that provides justification for our unseemly actions.  We fear being powerless, so we adopt a feeling of arrogance.  Of course, arrogance is rooted in insecurity. My arrogance becomes a shield against my insecurity and fear. Palmer, “The more insecure I feel, the more arrogant I tend to become, and the most arrogant people I know are also the most insecure.” It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it?    

So what do we do with this fear?  In 1 John 4:18 we read these words, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  The writer of 1 John points out that where there is love, one can be secure in himself or herself.   There is no need to fear; in fact, fear becomes a barrier to love.  It would seem that love and fear cannot coexist at the same time, doesn’t it?

We can always find something to fear, but believers can always find room for love. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Mythic and Rich Legacy

The life and accomplishments of the saint we call Patrick have certainly been embellished and enhanced by early hagiography and centuries of veneration.  Historians assume that some acts attributed to Patrick were either done by others or are simply good stories that have become part of his legend.  In death, Patrick is undoubtedly a much larger presence that he was in actual life.  This is true with so many religious and historical figures.  They may have been decisive, even heroic, figures but we can no longer separate the person from the legend.

Not only is Patrick an iconic figure, he has also become linked with what we know call Celtic Christianity.  Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization introduced the rich tradition of the Celtic and specifically Irish contributions to a mass audience.  George Hunter drew on similar ideas for The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  Just as we add much on to the lives of honored individuals of the past, we have probably created a picture of the beliefs and practices of ancient Christianity among the Celtic peoples that is richer and more robust than the reality. 

There are certainly some characteristics of the Celtic Christianity concept that are close to the original practice of the faith among Celtic peoples.  First, those believers had a very strong regard for Creation so they readily responded to teachings about the Creator God.  They lived close to the land, the seasons, and animals, so they felt a strong tie to both Creation and Creator.  Their experience of Creation was real and vital as was they connection to the Creator God.

Second, these early believers had a great respect for each other—men and women created in the image and likeness of God.  They saw the goodness of humankind before the fall and grounded their belief in that original state of innocence rather than in the consequences of the Fall and the idea of original sin.  Church history reports that both women and men held places of considerable authority in the church among the Celtic peoples. This ecclesiastical equality reflects the egalitarian treatment of men and women in early Irish law. 

Third, they valued community.  They saw community as a vital part of being human.  Within community—both ecclesiastical and secular—people worked together, held each other accountable, and supported one another in time of need.  They also saw community as the place of redemption.  This is certainly what Christian community should provide as well.

Just as the lives of the saints call us to be better people, the accounts of Celtic Christianity challenge us to reenvision the true essence of the Christian faith.  Both Patrick and Celtic Christianity call us to fresh perspectives on our faith.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is Compromise a Bad Word?

Steve Inskeep interviewed Professor Shankar Vedantam on NPRthis morning on the topic of compromise.  Studies show that Americans have ambivalent feelings about compromise in politics.  They vote for people who say they won’t compromise their values, but they are disappointed when those they elect fail to compromise in order to pass legislation.  If one reads the Constitution of the United States it will become readily apparent that compromise runs throughout the document.  We have survived as a nation by practicing give and take in governance.

No politician runs on a platform of compromise but, once elected, he or she soon finds out that negotiation is necessary in order to make any impact as a legislator.  Perhaps I should say that this has been the name of the game, but both parties seem to have settled into ideological trench warfare on many issues.  As a result, movement is often lacking in the legislative process.

Compromise simply recognizes that where there are two people present, there are at least two different set of needs, expectations and priorities.  If any progress is to be made, there must be some negotiation based on mutual respect and a desire to achieve win-win solutions.  This is not a bad thing but something that people who live in community have learned to do in order to survive.  If you don’t want to survive, don’t compromise.

We see this in the family.  In a healthy family, no one gets everything he or she wants.  The best outcome is that each family member will at least get what he or she needs.  This only happens when love, commitment, communication and sacrifice are practiced.

The same is true of the church.  Each congregation begins with a certain set of principles that everyone more or less holds in common.  After that members either agree to disagree (and perpetuate an unhealthy climate) or they find ways to give and take to stay together and move forward in God’s mission.

Is this easy? Of course not. Why do you think we have so many denominations and many variations within denominations?  Most often churches and denominations argue and split over things that are of little importance or over which they have little control.  Rather than treating one another as children of God, we deny others their God-given identity and value and make them into “non-persons” or objects. 

Theologian Martin Buber emphasized that in order for a person to truly know God, he or she must enter into an intimate “I-Thou” relationship with God. As long as our experience with God is an “I-It” relationship, we will not know God.  The same is true of human relationship.  If we do not encounter the other as person rather than object, we cannot have a loving relationship with that person.

The church is made of “thous” not “its.”  Because of this, we must learn to value and communicate—and compromise—if we are to be a whole and healthy family of God. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Being a Christ Follower

There is an old story that I heard while I was in seminary. Several Baptists are sitting around and one asks, “If you were not a Baptist, what would you be?”  One thought a few minutes and said, “Well, I guess I could be a Methodist.”  Another said, “I could be comfortable as a Disciples of Christ member.”  One did not answer, so he was asked, “What would you be if you were not a Baptist?”  He readily responded, “I’d be ashamed.”

I have learned a lot about Christian groups since then.  I now know that there are a lot of different kinds of Baptists. In their Handbook of Denominations in America (11th ed.), Mead and Hill identify 20 Baptist groups in the United States alone.  Wikipedia lists over sixty. The Baptist World Alliance reports more than 41 million members worldwide in more than 150,000 congregations.  I now understand that Baptists agree on certain principles, but they differ on others such as eschatology, theology (Calvinism versus Arminianism), support from taxation, the gifts of the spirit, how the Bible should be interpreted (hermeneutics), whether or not to send and support missionaries, who should participate in the Lord’s Supper, church governance and authority, the role of women in the church, and gender issues.

I continue to learn about other denominations through conversation, experience, and study. I have had the opportunity to know those who have left other denominations and become Baptists (but still think like Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, etc., about many personal matters).  Some of my friends who were once Baptists are now Methodists, Lutherans, or Episcopalians but still carry some of their “Baptist baggage” with them.   I find very often that I seem to have more in common with some of those in other denominations that I do with those in my own church.

All of this provided two key insights for me. First, identifying myself as a Baptist (even as a progressive Baptist) does not really say who I am.  Labels are convenient, but they don’t truly define the complexity of an individual.  Second, I am part of the body of Christ—a rich, diverse group of individuals—and I want to embrace that identity.

You may note that I have changed the tag line of this blog from “progressive Baptist” to “Christ-follower.”  I am still a Baptist and don’t expect to be otherwise, but many of the things that I comment upon and about which I am concerned apply to Christians from various Christian traditions.  They are common concerns among believers.  This change is a small effort on my part to acknowledge my unity with all who call upon the name of Christ.  To God be the Glory!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

An Unfulfilled Promise

Women graduates of CBTS Tennessee
"When the last days come,
   I will give my Spirit
   to everyone.
   Your sons and daughters
   will prophesy.
   Your young men
   will see visions,
   and your old men
   will have dreams.”

These words from Acts 2:17 seem to have something for everyone, don’t they?  I thought of them today because this is International Women’s Day.  I understand that this is an artificial date on the calendar, but the day does cause me to reassess how far we have failed to come in providing women with the opportunity to use their gifts to build up the body of Christ.

In my coaching practice, I coach several women ministers. Only one is a Baptist.  Two others were but they became weary of being told what they could not do and found a denomination that would let them do what they were gifted to do.  I have good rapport with these ministers and I have to assume that part of it is that I—an old white male—not only listen attentively to them but value them and their work.

Moderate Baptists have talked a lot about giving women more opportunities, but we still have far to go.  We continue to deny gifted women of all ages the places of leadership and service where they can share their gifts.  I am not talking about “affirmative action” or “tokenism” but allowing the most talented persons to serve whether they are male or female.

In a workshop I attended recently, the leader said, “We cannot receive the gifts that God wants to give us unless we open our hands.”  I think this is true of these gifted women.  We will never be blessed by their God-given abilities until we open our hands and our hearts to them.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Brokenness and a Search for Harmony

John Philip Newell has a mission.  He sees the brokenness of humanity, the division between nations, and the destruction of Creation and realizes that something must be done.  Newell’s solution, however, is not something new but something very old.  He calls us back to a time of oneness—a reuniting of the spirit, and the earth and the human soul.  In A New Harmony, Newell is actually presenting the case for an ancient harmony that underlies our world.  He argues that there are certain underlying principles of unity that we have rejected but can learn to embrace in order to overcome our brokenness.

After presenting the case for this ancient harmony, Newell discusses how harmony has been broken and then provides a challenge to rediscover and practice that ancient harmony again.  In his concluding paragraph, he writes:

“The Spirit is doing a new thing.  It is springing forth now in our consciousness, among every people, in every discipline, in every walk of life.  Do we see it?  And shall we serve it?  A new Pentecost is stirring in the human soul.  Will we be open to this moment of grace and be led into relationship of oneness we could never have imagined?”

Newell is an interesting and articulate writer.  He refers to the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, theologians Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox, spiritual mystics Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart   and others to explain and amplify on his ideas.  His personal experiences as Anglican clergyman and campus chaplain, warden of Iona Abbey, pilgrim in India, and now theologian in residence at Casa de Sol in New Mexico are woven into the presentation as well.

Some will find his arguments disconcerting and even heretical, but he fearlessly addresses the need to make right a damaged world.  All of us struggle with brokenness of one type or another.  Newell has faced his own, is attempting to deal with it, and shares what he is learning. 

I read this book while participating in a virtual seminar offered by The Oates Institute. Facilitated by executive director Chris Hammon, the online discussion involved 15 participants from across the country who are involved in various helping ministries.  Information on the Institute, its services, and future offerings can be found at