Friday, March 25, 2016

Resurrection: Opening a Door

Reading:  Acts 10:34-43

“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Christian and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interest, who because we can never again live apart, must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope

A friend had recently seen the film Selma, depicting the civil rights marches in 1965, and asked me, “Where were you when this was going on?  Were you marching?”  No, actually, I was in my final semester at an all-white college in the South, preparing to get married, and about to receive a commission as an officer in the U. S. Army. To be honest, I was more concerned about being sent to Vietnam (which eventually happened) than in the marches led by Dr. King in my native state of Alabama.

To be very clear, I was not hostile to equal rights for all people.  I had been involved in biracial student meetings on a national level and was ready for change to happen, but I was not an activist.  My paradigm had not shifted sufficiently that I was moved to action.  My reality was rather limited.

In some ways, I was like Peter before the Spirit of God led him to share the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile.  Peter was not necessarily hostile to the idea that God’s message was for all people, but he didn’t see it as his problem.  His world had to change as did mine. He had to come to see that “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”  (Acts 10:34-35, NIV)

The words of Dr. King are prophetic as we consider the full implications of the Resurrection story for our world today.  When Christ entered into the world, He came not just as a Jew, a citizen of Palestine, but as a human being.  Thus, the message He proclaimed was not just for Jews or those who lived in Palestine but for all people everywhere for all time. The Book of Acts depicts how that message began to impact other cultures and peoples, sometimes with incendiary results.  Once unleashed, the Resurrection message could not be stifled.

The challenge for us today is to be faithful with the Resurrection message in a way that reaches out to all of the peoples of the earth—many of whom are now our neighbors.  Living out this Resurrection faith in our time and place may well require a fresh infusion of the power of the Spirit of God bringing with it a new paradigm of relationship and hospitality. If you are not both enthused and frightened by this possibility, you fail to grasp the full implications of the Gospel. Perhaps God will give us the vision that Peter received.  I pray it would be so.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Respect for All

A university is our state is involved with a massive lawsuit that alleges the perpetuation of “a hostile environment for women” in its sports program.  The examples cited in the charges include sexual harassment of both female staff and students, sexual assault, covering up sexual assaults, and indifference to complaints.  Even in our supposedly enlightened times, it seems that some of us still need guidelines to explain right from wrong.

When I was in an administrative role with a religious denomination several years ago, I received a call from one of our staff who was assigned as a minister to a particular college campus.  A student had come to him with a complaint that someone on campus was stalking her.  She had made contact with a couple of professors and one administrator, but they did not seem to take her concerns seriously.  She was both scared and angry.  She had approached this minister to seek his help as an outside party.  

I don’t remember the counsel I gave to that staff member or the resolution of the young woman’s  situation, but the incident got my attention.  We had ministers—both male and female—working with college students across our state.  I was concerned about two things:  First,  if a staff member was accused of sexual harassment or impropriety, how would we react?  Would they be treated fairly?  Second, although I trusted our staff, were we articulating a clear message that would protect the students with which they worked and provide recourse for the students if there appeared to be a problem?

When I approached my supervisors about this, I was struck by their lack of interest in addressing these concerns. There was already some type of sexual harassment policy in the personnel manual and their attitude was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  

I was persistent, however, and put together a team of staff members in our department, both men and women, and set them to work on the issue.  Together, we tried to get some clarity from the organization’s legal counsel and insurance carriers but, as you can expect, their response was rather limited.  Lawyers and insurance carriers (at that time anyway) did not want to give answers about hypothetical situations, answers  that might come back to bite them!

We finally came up with some department guidelines, a training program, and other initiatives to help our staff deal with potentially explosive situations.  I encouraged the larger organization to adopt some of these actions, but the interest was not there.

Three decades later, churches and church-related organizations are more proactive on issues related to discrimination and harassment.  More resources are available and insurance carriers, including those that specialize in working with religious organizations, are glad to talk with clients about threat assessment, clear policies and procedures for prevention, and educational programs for staff and members.

This doesn’t mean that the potential for problems has gone away.  Discrimination is still present.  Whenever an organization fails to address parental leave, equal advancement opportunities, and respectful treatment for both women and men, its leaders are failing to assure that all employees receive fair and equal treatment.  Rather than seeking exemption from such enlightened practices, churches and church-related organizations should be positive examples for others.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Why Did You Leave the Ministry?

In a recent interview in Report from the Capital, a publication of the Baptist Joint Committee, the interviewer asked Dr. Molly Marshall, the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, this question:  “You’ve spent more than 30 years dedicated to theological education.  Why did you choose this path rather than a full-time career in ministry and preaching?”

In response, Dr. Marshall said, “Actually, I believe I have chosen the path of full-time ministry!”  She went on to discuss the value to the church of the ministry of theological education and the joy of forming students for ministry.  She had responded to “the unique call of God” for her life.

I spent most of my ministry working with college students and their leaders and was often asked, “When you are going to ‘get’ a church?”   I believe in the church in its many expressions and activities.  Jesus created the church and gave his life for it.  We are called to be part of the church—both local and universal. Even so, like Dr. Marshall, I believe that my ministry outside of the walls of the institutional church was valid and important.

As we consider the future of Christian ministry, we must be open to the breadth and variety of Christian ministry.  In reality, all Christians are called to ministry.  As one person said, “Our baptism is our ordination to ministry.”  The church calls out some individuals to devote their lives to specific ministry and we usually offer ordination “to the Gospel Ministry” or “to Word and Sacrament” (in some traditions) to those individuals.

Even so, ministry is the 21st century has already become more fluid and entrepreneurial.  In many ways, it is more like ministry in the first century when new ways of proclaiming the news of the Messiah were being formulated.  

Keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities and expressions of ministry in the days ahead.  This is the way forward for the church!

How Things Change

In April 1961, I was about to graduate from high school.  Seniors were given a school day to hold a beach party. What I remember most about that day, however, was listening to a portable radio as Cuban paramilitary forces supported (somewhat) by the CIA invaded their island and were repulsed at the Bay of Pigs.

This set the stage for the Cuban missile confrontation with the Soviet Union when some of my friends in the National Guard were mobilized and positioned to Florida and we watched to see how our young President Kennedy would deal with the crisis. Since then, the governments of the United States and Cuba have agreed to disagree and watch each other warily across a narrow stretch of water.

Today, President Obama is in Cuba, attempting to reopen relations with our neighbor.  He was not even born when this division began, so he can bring a fresh perspective to the relationship.  This is a good thing.  To all reports, the Cuban people desire a closer relationship with their US neighbors, and many Americans—especially business people—reciprocate.

Many oppose this initiative, especially those Cuban Americans who fled from the Communist regime.  I understand their concerns, but when we find ourselves working alongside former enemies in Germany, Japan, and even Vietnam on cultural and economic initiatives, we should understand that the only way to overcome division is to enter into meaningful dialogue.

We should not forget that many Christians—including Alliance Baptists and American Baptists—have worked to keep lines of communication open with believers in Cuba during this embargo.  As believers, we certainly want to stand alongside our Cuban brothers and sisters, maintaining dialogue, offering support, and encouraging free exercise of religious faith.

The time has come to open doors further and I appreciate the President’s efforts to do this.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Vision Thing

Last year at this time I was dealing with some severe back problems.  During that period, I devoted most of my efforts to getting over that condition through exercise and physical therapy, so some other activities took a back seat.

I thought about this in recent days as I began preparing for a class where we would discuss vision.  There are many different understandings of what vision is but, at the core, vision is the preferred future for a person, group, or organization.  It provides focus, commitment and a wise use of resources.

Much is made in larger churches of the need to have a well defined vision and this is certainly true if the church is to be effective.  Having a clear vision is even more important in a smaller congregation.

The small congregation is somewhat in the situation I was in last year with my back problem.  I only had limited resources, so I devoted most of them to getting better.  A smaller congregation is usually limited in its resources—people, time and money—so it must use what it has as effectively as possible.  This is not to say that a larger congregation can afford to be wasteful, but it usually has more resources to devote to activities that are “nice to have” but are not essential to mission.

The smaller congregation, on the other hand, must use its limited resources carefully because they may not only be limited but they may not be renewable. 

As a result, a smaller congregation must be willing to put into the time to answer these questions:

       1.  What is our vision?  What do we want to be or become?
       2.  What are the resources available to use?
       3.  Are we using those resources to pursue our vision?
       4.  If we are using those resources for peripheral activities, when will we stop?

      Questions one and four may be the hardest to address.  Once we have made the commitment to follow a certain faith, are we willing to be faithful to that decision?  Failure to do so may put our future at risk.