Goulash, Potpourri, and Other Medleys

My husband and I met in February of 1992 at a Michael Bolton concert.  Yes, that’s right, Michael Bolton brought us together.  But that’s another story.  

Randy (my husband - I have no idea about Michael) kept a very tidy apartment and acquired note-worthy cooking skills.  After we got married, he introduced me to one of his specialties that we still talk about today.  We don’t eat it, just talk about it.  I call it goulash.  I don’t think he had a better name for it.  At the time, as newlyweds living in a small apartment saving money for a house, it was an economical meal that we had fairly often.  I know there are countless versions of it.  Simply toss together any combination of edible ingredients is all you need to personalize your own goulash recipe.  And for the sake of sustenance and nutrition - enjoy! 

I didn’t grow up eating goulash.  We were picky eaters at my house.  I did grow up surrounded by many varieties of potpourri.  An aromatic assortment of dried flowers, herbs, nuts, berries, and wood chips steeped in essential oils.  It is an attractive substance for both the eyes and nose.  Sometimes my mom would just open the top of the bag and set it behind the couch.  You really didn’t know where the scent was coming from.  Other times she’d empty the bag into a crystal rose bowl or wicker basket and set it out on a side table.  It often looked so delicious that you wanted to grab a handful and pop it in your mouth.  The array and combination of scents range from “Sweet Smell of Christmas” to “Funny Smell of Great-grandma’s House”.  And for the sake of stimulating your senses – enjoy!

Other medleys to ponder:

Swimming medley – every muscle in my body begins to feel like jello just thinking back to the summer Olympics watching athletes execute with grace and stamina the freestyle, breast, back, and butterfly strokes.   We should really consider coming up with a competitive medley more folks could participate in – the floating dog paddle tread medley should be submitted to the IOC.

Musical medley – this is my favorite kind of medley.  When our congregation sings “How Great is Our God with How Great Thou Art”, angels in the highest Heaven sing.  However, an over-ambitious Christmas carol medley such as, “Jingle Bells with Jingle Bell Rockin Around the/O Christmas Tree” is a little too much ding-a-linging evergreen for me and most angels.

Spiritual transformation is another medley.  The combination of listening to the voice of your soul, examining the condition of your soul and considering an alternate way of exercising your soul, brings one to genuine transformation.  The process of transformation is often found in ways and places we don’t spend a lot of time investigating.  We seek quick convenience and commonplace.  Only when we find ourselves in a sloppy heap of desperation and confusion do we finally give in to a condensed prayer of appeals and requests. 

People wanted to kill Elijah.  So he ran to the wilderness to escape. After many days of traveling, he found a cave to rest.  God spoke to him there.  He told Elijah to go out to stand on the mountain for he was about to pass by. 

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle. 1 Kings 19:11-13

What in the world does “sheer silence” sound like?  I think when you hear it – really hear it – your soul knows.  In order for Elijah to hear the sheer silence he had to remove himself from the chaos and death that were after him.   Now, you may be thinking I’m about to launch into a list of reasons and ways to have a better quiet time.  But this goes deeper than quiet time.  It’s a level of listening, examining, and considering that we don’t often practice.  We don’t know how.   In her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, Ruth Haley Barton says, “Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself.  Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine”.  We live in a culture that neither encourages nor supports our abstinence of productivity – even in minuscule amounts.  The notion of entering into solitude and silence challenges everything around us – our culture, relationships and our lofty ideas of who we think we are.  The sheer silence of the soul is a risky place to explore.  You don’t know what you’ll find. And when you do, then what?  And for what purpose? 

All are invited down this path of transformation.  Accept the invitation to solitude and silence and yield to it. Don’t rush it. There, God will soothe your tiredness, quiet your fretfulness, and curb your aimlessness.  Dwell in his presence and you will find the sheer silence to be deafening.  Be easy and be gathered.  Why?  For the sake of others.  In our yielded easiness God’s love saturates our soul.  And much like saturated flowers in a bag of potpourri, we are a pleasing essence to others.  A different kind of productivity. 

As a child I learned that JOY comes when we put Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.  I still believe that.  But I also believe that consistent soul keeping brings JOY – among other things.  The Bible is full of medleys:

Clothe yourselves in tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Col. 3:12

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Gal. 5:22-23

God blesses those who mourn, are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, are merciful, are pure, who work for peace, and who are persecuted for doing right.  Matt. 5:3-10

May we seek unconventional and difficult paths to transformation.  May we draw near to God while he draws near to us.  May we enter into solitude and silence for the sake of our souls and for the sake of others.  

Suzanne Cain

Giving Thanks for Religious Liberty...For ALL

This past July I had the privilege of traveling to Colonial Williamsburg to participate in the Baptist Joint Committee's Fellows ProgramThe Fellows Program is for young professionals interested in deepening their legal, historical and theological understanding of religious liberty.

For each class, 10 Baptist Joint Committee Fellows (“BJC Fellows”) are selected from diverse educational, professional and religious backgrounds. As a Fellow, I commit to being an advocate for religious liberty in my house of worship and community. 

During the 2016 BJC Fellows Seminar I learned about the significance of our founding framers choosing to write early documents in a way that was inclusive rather than exclusive in order to institute religious liberty for all. Reading professor Michael Meyerson’s book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, prior to my arrival to Colonial Williamsburg helped prepare me for the seminars and times of discussion focused on the history of religious freedom in our country. Professor Meyerson shared with us that the founding framers did not intend to cleanse all religion from public life.

True freedom embraces the Mahomitan [Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.
— Richard Henry Lee

Instead, our founding framers wanted to include those of different faiths, not divide those of different faiths. I was struck by the point Meyerson made during one of our sessions that if the framers wanted to exclude those of faith communities other than Protestant Christians from freedom of religious expression, religious practice, or the lack thereof, they could have done so explicitly in our founding documents. But our founding framers chose not to be exclusive, instead choosing to pen documents that granted freedom of religious expression, religious practice, or the lack thereof to those of all faiths or no faith at all. Professor Meyerson shared with us during one of his sessions that our founding framers “wanted to separate church and state, not God and state.” This statement stuck out to me in that it is the essence of religious liberty I truly appreciate and want to advocate for today.

A tour guide shares with BJC Fellows about Bruton Parish Church. Like our group photographed here, parishioners sat in boxed pews, their walls providing privacy and protection from the elements.

A tour guide shares with BJC Fellows about Bruton Parish Church. Like our group photographed here, parishioners sat in boxed pews, their walls providing privacy and protection from the elements.

Another meaningful part of my week in Colonial Williamsburg with the Baptist Joint Committee was the opportunity to experience history firsthand from the historical interpreters. I love experiential learning experiences and really enjoyed hearing from interpreters of John Leland, Gowan Pamphlet, and Thomas Jefferson. In an incredible setting like Colonial Williamsburg, the stories of these men came alive when they shared about the experiences of these men advocating to preserve religious liberty in such a tumultuous time. Hearing from interpreters of Leland, Pamphlet, and Jefferson made their stories even more relevant to the conversations we, BJC Fellows, had during our time in Colonial Williamsburg.

I was particularly struck by the historical interpretation of Gowan Pamphlet. Mr. Pamphlet took his last name from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense. Pamphlet was educated at a school for enslaved persons where he learned to read. Upon receiving and reading Paine’s pamphlet he was struck by Paine’s exhortation to the colonies that America must rid itself of all forms of oppression. Pamphlet encountered Rev. Jeremiah Walker, a pastor, evangelist, and advocate for religious liberty who was put into jail for preaching publicly. Later, Pamphlet was baptized by Rev. Walker in the James River. Pamphlet felt a calling to ministry and was the first enslaved person to be ordained in the colonies in 1772. In 1776, Pamphlet started First Baptist Church at Green Spring plantation. It is said that “Gowan Pamphlet paved a pathway of recognition for his Christian ministry centered on a gospel of equality.”* Rev. Pamphlet was emancipated from slavery on September 25, 1793.

I am grateful to have had this experience to learn, in-person as a BJC Fellow, so much more about the history of religious liberty, the incredible work of the BJC, and how I can better be a part of advocating for religious liberty through education. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for our founding framers who wrote inclusive founding documents to celebrate God-given religious liberty for ALL. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for the many, like Rev. Gowan Pamphlet, who fought oppression and adversity to promote equality for ALL.

Megan J. Pike

Learn more about my 2016 BJC Fellows experience:

*Ywone D. Edwards-Ingram, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2016), 14.

Francis, Forrest, and Race

I grew up in the Arkansas Delta, in St. Francis county, just outside of Forrest City.  Of course, St. Francis County is thought to be named after the great 13th century saint- St. Francis of Assisi- who sought to embody the way of Christ in every aspect of life. 

He established an order within the Catholic church that demanded a vow of poverty, and he saw in every creature a reflection of God’s image.  He was known to preach to the birds and spoke of “brother sun” and “sister moon.”  Essentially, he emphasized the sacred nature of all things because all of life shares a common source.

Forrest City is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a celebrated Confederate general who became an almost mythical figure in the waning days of the war.  He was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and, to one extent or another, was a sympathizer with their white supremacist agenda.

For centuries, our forebears saw no dissonance between the idea that God created all people in God’s image and the idea of white supremacy.  Both of these threads of history composed the fabric of the South.  White supremacy and Christianity drank coffee at the same diners and slept in the same bed.  Most often, they were both at home in the same pew and the same soul.  The South pretended as if the way of Francis and the way of Forrest were completely congruent with each other.  There was a church on every street corner.  People who couldn’t care less about Jesus knew a thing or two about the Bible.  “Folk Christianity” was a way of life.  On the other hand, the same people who read their Bibles, claimed Jesus as their Lord, and went to church Sunday after Sunday saw no conflict with the pervasive, strategic, and systemic enslavement of an entire race of people.  Those who worshipped God on Sunday dehumanized the very ones who bore his image.  The very ones who preached Christ crucified failed to see that they were on the wrong side of the cross.  The very ones who worshipped a God who does not show favoritism shaped a society that that was built on sinful inequity.  Those who heard sermons on the God who liberated the slaves from Egypt had no problem enslaving people on their own.

To be sure, this racism existed in the souls of people all over the South.  However, it also crept into the systems which formed their society.  Economic, judicial, educational, and political structures all buttressed this racialized society.  People created the systems, but in turn, the systems created the people. 

After a century of reflection, we find the dissonance between these two ways of life staggering, but for much of our history, people were quite comfortable with both of them.  Even after the days of slavery ended, the criminalization of black folks and segregation continued in the Jim Crow South.  Again, white Christianity was largely complicit in and supportive of these injustices, oftentimes serving as their greatest ally.

Today, when many people think of racism, they imagine the bad attitudes of bad people.  Racism is something that dwells in the minds of vile sinners, something evil people consciously perpetuate.  However, many people have yet to consider all the ways racism still exists in our systems.  Centuries of societal injustice do not vanish simply because individual people change their attitudes.  The systems must change as well.  Again, people create their systems but systems also create their people.

Consider these inarguable and verifiable realities of our day:

-1 in 3 black males will go to prison compared to 1 in 17 white males.  Of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, 1 million are African Americans, though they are only roughly 12% of the population.  African Americans are incarcerated at a higher rate per capita than blacks who lived in South African apartheid!  By the way, there are more African American male prisoners in the US than all the inmates of India, Argentina, Lebanon, Canada, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel, and England combined. 

-While blacks and whites use marijuana at very similar rates, blacks are 10 times more likely to be arrested for doing so.  African Americans serve roughly as much time for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites serve for a violent offense (61.7 months). 

-In 2014, the median income for white families in the US was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for blacks.  This disparity doesn’t change as education increases.  For college educated whites, the median income was $106,600 while it was $82,300 for college educated blacks.  Of course, inequalities in income carry with them all sorts of ramifications, including health care discrepancies. 

-More than 2 million people of color attend schools in which minority students compose 90% of the student body, indicating that our schools are still segregated.  The vast majority of these schools are poor.  16% of blacks drop out of school compared to 8% of white students.

This list of factors is only the tip of the iceberg.  What this data reveals are the ways in which disparities in educational opportunities, economic prosperity, and the justice system (from the first contact with police to the final clank of the prison door) create vicious cycles of oppression for people of color.   

To be sure, many whites place the blame on the black community, forgetting the sinister history that preceded us and continues to shape our society.  We do not all begin at the same starting line.  One of the ways we prevent having to repent of our sins is to develop the sort of amnesia that can’t remember them.  You can’t repent of what you refuse to remember.  You can’t denounce that which you deny exists. 

Some whites continue to pretend as if racism is a thing of the past.  After all, we don’t usually see evil people explicitly treating racial minorities in disparaging ways.  However, this fails to address the systemic racism that continues to plague us.  When the deck is stacked against you, the attitude of the dealer doesn’t matter much.  The systems of our day have been shaped by centuries of shameful oppression, violence, and neglect.  Our racism is not so much personal, as it is systemic.  When your systems are racially unjust, your racism need not be overt.  All we need to do…is nothing at all.  All we need to say…is nothing at all.  We can be polite.  We can be friendly.  We can be kind.  But if we refuse to live with some just intentionality, our systems will continue to do our racism for us.

And part of our privilege as white people is the freedom to speak up…or not…because remaining silent has no tangible impact upon our lives.  Doing nothing is a choice we have because we sit in a culturally privileged position. The question for us is what we will do with that position.  Will we listen to people of color- who know much more about racism than white folks because they live with its effects constantly- for potential solutions?  Will we turn a blind eye towards the realities that confront us?  Will we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color?   Will we live into the full implications of the faith we proclaim?

The good news, amidst all the bad, is that while racism is both personal and systemic, so is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At one and the same time, it addresses the depths of our souls and the breadth of our systems.  It is what liberates those who are weighed down by oppression and those who are constrained by their guilt.  It is what sets all people on equal footing.  It is what invites us to live into God’s grand future.

From my vantage point, Jesus is our only hope in disentangling the ways of Francis from the ways of Forrest.  He is the very one- and the only one- who can save us.

Preston Clegg

Any Questions?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” 
― Voltaire

 “Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no fibs.” 
― Oliver Goldsmith

I have a question for you. Do you like questions? I question how much I like questions.  Sure, for someone like me who likes to have a good discussion/debate, questions are a powerful tool. They can innocently be used to obtain new information or they can be a used coyly to try and trap someone in a logical corner.  In a classroom setting they are a true asset – a question makes the student think, ponder, and reevaluate previously held ideas.

Have you ever had a question you felt like you couldn’t ask?  Ever had a question you wanted to ask but didn't? It can be a painful thing. I had a professor who would call for questions at the end of a lecture and if no one had any he would remind us to "not suffer from the pain of undelivered speech." Holding it in can hurt.

Growing up in church I didn't ask many questions and I didn't like to be called on for answers, but I paid attention as well as anyone. And I can remember that feeling in youth group when the poor Bible study leader – who, God bless ‘em, had had a long week and spent their last twenty minutes Saturday night studying the lesson -- was forced to teach Revelation and field all our adolescent interrogations about horsemen (uh, not too bad) and dragons (err... starting to sweat now) and, yep, the Whore of Babylon (aaah!). Interestingly enough it suddenly became time to start taking prayer requests and get to worship.

And while I can now feel sympathy for them I still left the room bothered by avoided questions – not just about Revelation but anything that pushed us out of comfort zone. Are there major holes in our faith that need to stay hidden? Do we need to avoid the questions in order to maintain the illusion of confidence and security in what we believe? Is the church nothing more than the Wizard imploring Dorothy and friends to "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" while totally exposed to oncoming inquiries?

It's out of those beliefs that early on in my youth ministry career I created The Question Box.  The concept is rather simple: it's a box. And you put questions in it.

See we don't always have time in Bible study for all the questions that get asked.  So we have times for the youth to write down questions and put them in the box – no subjects are off limits -- and then we’ll spend an entire Bible study or small group time pulling questions out of the box and doing our best to answer them.  I’ll give any insight I might have or point to Scripture passages that seem relevant, and also open it up for the group to give their thoughts.

My primary objective is not so much to give answers to the questions (though I do my best and feel free to say “I don’t know” when necessary); my concern is to demonstrate that there’s no reason to fear the pursuit of truth.  God gave us brains, and even if they’re too small to understand every great truth in the universe we can put them to use by asking good questions and thinking deeply about where they lead us. 

So are you willing to ask questions – of yourself, of your beliefs, your faith, of God? Is your church a place where questions are allowed and encouraged?  Our neighborhoods and surrounding communities are filled with questioners, inside and outside the church. As Elizabeth Elliot said, “Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them.”  We may not have all the answers; even moreso if we never begin asking.

Logan Carpenter

What the Wind and Fire Say

This past Sunday, 2BCLR joined Christians all over the world in thinking about the first Pentecost, when a fledgling group of Jesus’ disciples received a wild wind from heaven and tongues of fire. 

Since it was a major holiday, faithful Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem.  The geographical roll call of all the nations present that day is quite impressive (Acts 2.9-11).  In a way, it seems like the entire world was there in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

I can’t help but think about what that crowd looked like.  Surely there was a large man who had his 5-year-old son sitting on his shoulders so he could see.  Surely there was a young woman in that crowd who showed up for reasons she couldn’t begin to explain.  Surely, there was an old man walking on a cane who believed this to be the very last pilgrimage of his life, before he began the longest pilgrimage of all.  I can’t help but imagine all the diversity present in the crowd that day.  Young and old.  Rich and poor.  Liberal and conservative.  I can’t help but wonder how it must have sounded with all the various languages present. 

Suddenly, the heavens loosed a wild wind which filled the house.  Then, resting upon each person in the house were flaming tongues.  The Spirit gave each person gifts of utterance.  The crowds stood in amazement as each person in that diverse gathering heard the gospel in their heart language.  To be sure, this was no less an act of God than when God breathed (same word as “spirit”) in the dirt and created Adam and Eve or when the Spirit came upon Mary who became pregnant with Jesus.  Like those stories, this one was wondrously inexplicable.

Each Sunday, I look out over a congregation of people who are quite diverse.  We are different racially, economically, and ideologically.  We have senior adults who walk in behind walkers, and we have young children who are running down the aisles.  We have Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.  We have folks who were raised at 2BC and have never known anything else.  We have folks who have been Cathlo-Anglo-Charismatic-Baptists.  We have folks who aren’t sure what they believe at any given time.

The word “diversity” often evokes a flutter in the heart and a warming of the soul.  But I must confess, diversity is hard work!  There are days when a more uniform and homogenous body feels more appealing to me.  There are days when I wish we could bring up a topic about which everyone agreed.  There are days when I long for no one to challenge my viewpoint.

There are also days when I worry about the unity of such a diverse body.  What is it that binds us together?  What is it that creates a singularity out of our multiplicity?  What is it that creates a harmonious unity without an enforced uniformity? 

Sunday, however, I looked out at all the saints in the pews, and I thought about how much they enriched my life.  I thought about how much their distinctive voices were caught up in God’s symphony of truth and beauty.  I was reminded of how much I have learned from them.  Their perspectives have informed mine, reminding me that my personal viewpoint is just that- a view from a point.  I thought about how the older folks’ mere presence reminds me that God was busy long before I arrived, and the children laughing remind me that God will be working long after I’m gone.  I thought about how the gospel is so much more than an ideology, because it reaches into the depths of our being, far deeper than the brain.  As each person came forward for communion, that word sunk into my soul.  Communion.  Christians don’t just think about communion, we eat it and drink it until it metabolizes into our own bodies.  The mere fact that these diverse people gather together every Sunday is wondrously inexplicable, and it’s a sign that they have become one with the bread and the wine.  

As I said my prayers Sunday night, I asked God, “What binds us together?  What REALLY binds us together?”

But I knew the answer before I asked it…especially on Pentecost.

Sometimes I wish it was something more predictable and controllable than wind and fire.  Sometimes I wish it was something more overt and observable.  Sometimes I wish it was something more tactile.  But the church isn’t my doing; and it’s not yours.  The church’s birth was something of a virgin birth too.

The next time I wonder what binds the church together, I’ll listen to the wind and the fire.  Their answer will be my answer.

I guess if wind and fire are good enough for God, they’re good enough for me.  Happy Pentecost!

Preston Clegg

Churches Need Community, Too

 

Our church is a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Someone asked me, “Why does CBF matter to you?”  Here was my answer:

Our church is a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Someone asked me, “Why does CBF matter to you?”  Here was my answer:

Hear these words from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

“Ubuntu” is a word from South Africa that has many meanings.  The one that most resonates with me is “I am because you are.”  It’s a recognition that none of us exists in a vacuum.  John Donne, the English poet, put it this way, “No man is an island.” 

If you are among those who hang around with me at Second Baptist Church, you’ve heard me riff about community.  My job is to try to enhance our community here, to help people engage community, to let folks know not only that community is important but that we are a community available to be the presence of Christ to each other.

You’ve probably also heard me say things like, as humans we’re hardwired biologically to be community to each other.  Science tells us that we’re actually built to need each other, that God has created us to need each other.

“Ubuntu.”  Not only do we need each other, but our very identity is caught up in our interactions with others.

I’ve said all my adult life, ever since I was an undergrad at Baylor in the 70’s:  It’s all about relationships.  And what’s good for us as individuals in community is also right and good for us as churches gathering as communities of churches.  We need each other.  There are synergies that happen when we gather as communities of churches, things we can accomplish together that we never could by ourselves.

But that’s not news to you, is it?  Everybody knows that, don’t they?

When Cindy and I were emerging from college there were tremors in the community of churches of which we were a part.  This continued through the 80’s until it became clear that what once was one way of being Baptist was going to become at least two ways of being Baptist.  Choices were going to have to be made.  Cindy and I believed strongly in the historical values of the priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church, and the separation of church and state.  Therefore, our choice was not difficult.  We were going to be Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists.

Our commitment to CBF has been a part of our financial stewardship from its beginning.  When our church in Texas didn’t support CBF, we sent our checks directly to the national office.  We’ve supported CBF on the state level and the global level.  When it was time for me to go to seminary, we chose a CBF partner seminary.  Cindy has served as Recorder for the CBF Arkansas Coordinating Council.  I’ve been privileged to serve CBF on the Arkansas Coordinating Council and I now serve on the CBF Global Governing Board. 

CBF matters to the Fullers because CBF matters to the Kingdom of God.

But how does CBF matter to the Kingdom of God?  If you’re in Arkansas, you may know the stories about the incredible things that God does through Together for Hope in Helena, through Disaster Relief, through CBF Scholarships for developing young ministers.  You know about the work that our CBF Arkansas leaders have done and are doing to bring Jesus to Arkansas and serve our like-minded churches.

And you likely know a lot of the stories about how CBF has served churches and the Kingdom literally around the world.  CBF has an incredible 25-year history.  God raised up a movement from the ashes of controversy.  But I want to tell you a little different story.  Not a story about the past, but a story about the future.

We live in an age where “top-down,” hierarchical structures are simply not diverse enough or fluid enough to adapt to the constant rate of change we see in the world today.  CBF was formed by innovative, “out-of-the-box-thinking” people trying to create a new thing, not working to try to preserve an established bureaucracy.  God, in his wisdom, was doing something beyond what we knew a quarter of a century ago.  It turns out that he was creating exactly the kind of agile and flexible organization that would be uniquely poised to address the way the world works today.  The days of top-down institutions are numbered.  CBF is already functioning as a “bottom-up”, grass roots organization.

Diana Butler Bass is a scholar of American Christianity.  Recently I heard her lecture on trends in American Christianity and explaining what she perceived to be the theological underpinnings of those trends.  And she made a really interesting statement to this group of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline folks.  She talked about how our culture is leaving behind vertical structures of all kinds, even theological ones. 

Many of us Baptist folks grew up in a world where everything came down from on high, from the holy city of Nashville.  We sang the same hymns, we used the same Bible study literature, we carried out the same programs, we heard the same kinds of sermons, and we even had basically the same order of worship.  While our churches claimed independence and autonomy, we all fell into line doing the same thing that everyone else was doing:  what came from the powers that be.  It was exclusively “top-down” thinking.

Toward the end of her lecture, Diana Butler Bass said that there was a 500-year old theological concept that churches were going to have to learn to embrace, a concept that would be a powerful way forward in our current culture:  the priesthood of the believer.

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Hey!  I’m a Baptist! I can teach you how that works.” 

There is a democratization going on in Christian life in America.  Our culture is no longer interested in “top down” structures and institutions.  Baptist theology has been mostly disinterested in those structures for 400 years. Could that help make us uniquely positioned at this juncture of American Christian history to be a means of bringing Jesus to a new and ever-changing culture?  Could it be that Cooperative Baptists, because we were born 25 years ago questioning hierarchical thinking and structures, are particularly positioned to be that very means?  I think the answer is, “yes.”

When I worked as a volunteer oncology chaplain a few years ago at Baptist Health Medical Center, I was sometimes asked about whether I had led anyone to have a deathbed confession.  One of my chaplain friends had a great answer for that question that I’ve never forgotten.  He said that he had witnessed several deathbed confessions.  But while he didn’t feel called to elicit them, he did feel called to be the presence of Christ and to be available to receive them when they came.

I think the same thing about my ministry and the ministry of CBF.  CBF is all about helping churches to be available to a hurting world that is changing constantly.  And CBF is particularly positioned to be the presence of Christ for a nation that is seeing God in a whole new way. 

That’s why CBF matters to me.

Charlie Fuller

Crisis? Bring it!

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless; prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.   ~ Lauren Winner

In her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis”, Lauren Winner talks about the rituals she holds dear from her Jewish heritage and tries to navigate a new and difficult season of doubt as she goes through a divorce.  She is, at times, confused at God’s seeming elusiveness. 

We are pretty good at keeping ourselves busy with kingdom work while simply trying to keep our heads above water.  We’re overwhelmed and underpaid; overworked and underappreciated; overconfident and underwhelmed.  You might call it a crisis!

Crisis:  A stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events – for better or worse, is determined; a turning point. 

When I think “mid-life crisis”, I picture a man in his mid-50’s trading his gray Buick LeSabre in for a cherry red Ford Mustang.  Or a mom accompanying her 16-year-old daughter to a Justin Bieber concert donning a Van Halen tank top (circa 1989), Daisy Dukes, and 4-inch heels.  We try to hang on to our youth or a time and place we are familiar with.  A time when we had much less responsibility, when life (now in hindsight) was uncomplicated and the only thing we really had to do was make curfew.

Not everyone goes through a mid-life crisis.  Or at least not a public one.  Crisis comes when something is lost.  Because we are often identified by whom we live with, where we work, how and where we spend our time, when we lose a loved one, a marriage, a job, control – our identities become unstable.  At least for a season.  At some point we get through the worst of it and can breathe again.

When I picked up Lauren Winner’s book about a mid-faith crisis and started reading about some of the conflicts that arose between her Jewish heritage and her Christian faith and then the trauma of her divorce, I thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to her story.  But as I’ve continued to read, I’ve discovered my own mid-faith crisis.  Actually I’d like to call it a mid-faith juncture.

Juncture: a point of time made critical or important by a concurrence of circumstances.

My husband and I are about to find ourselves in a season of living with all teenagers and embarking on college visits (x3).  With the exception of losing my parents when I was 28 and 31, my seasons thus far have been fairly painless and uncomplicated.  God has provided for my family and has given me the sweet gift of a job that I couldn’t have imagined would be mine, that I love and treasure daily.   Even on the days when I’m fed up and bummed out for no logical reason, he reminds me of his presence and his hand on my life.  But there is always work to do.  If we feel we are truly in his will and doing our best to live out our callings, he will call us deeper.  Sometimes I don’t know what to do first.  Do I continue with what I’m doing and tweak it along the way?  Should I do something completely different?  Something I may not be comfortable doing? 

Shopping in department stores overwhelms me. Searching for special music to use in worship and for the choir is equally daunting.   As great as the number of stars in the heavens, so are the varieties of thread counts in a sheet set and SATB arrangements of Amazing Grace.  I freeze at the multitude of things to choose from.  The mountain of possibilities.  How do I make the right choice?  I don’t make quick decisions about much of anything.  I like to weigh scenarios and prepare myself for the worst outcome, to hopefully be delightfully surprised by success.  I also feel this way when I think about my purpose and life before me.  I want to be faithful to my calling.  I want to be a good wife.  I want to be a nurturing mom.  Sometimes I want to be the cool mom.  I want to leave a legacy of faith.  But man, there’s so much work that needs to be done.  I need to read more scripture, pray more, meditate more, hold my tongue more, change the way I think and react more.   Love more.  The list goes on.  And again, overwhelming.  A virtual skyscraper of department stores.  And I find myself at a juncture. 

But I’ve decided I want this juncture.  I like this juncture.  I need this juncture.  I need God to keep moving me through these seasons.  I want him to keep moving me.  Moving me closer to him and into a deeper and higher calling.  There’s a stirring deep within. 

Sometimes we can see a change coming.  We see it over the horizon, feel it in our bones, hear it in our hearts.  Some say “if you’re not changing, you’re not growing”.  That may be true.  Perhaps we should be diligently faithful in our pursuit of God and run to the next juncture ready to do the work, instead of waiting for it to creep up on us. 

Isaiah 26:7-9 (The Message and NRSV combined)

The way of the righteous is level; The Leveler, The Just One, evens the road for the righteous.  We’re in no hurry, God.  We’re content to linger in the path sign-posted with your decisions. O Lord, we wait for you.  Who you are and what you’ve done are all we’ll ever want. Your name and your renown are the soul’s desire.  Through the night my soul longs for you, deep from within me my spirit reaches out to you.  Earnestly, I seek you.

Suzanne Cain

The Wild

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."   - John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912.

 

Ishmael was born there. Moses fled there. God sustained the Israelites there.  Joseph was thrown there. David left his sheep there. God often shows up in unique ways there. The Psalmist writes of Israel’s struggle there. Isaiah writes of God’s provision there. John lived, preached and baptized there. Many times Jesus fled there. The biblical text mentions it over 150 times. The early church fathers and mothers escaped there.

Where is there?

In case you haven’t figured it out, the there is wilderness. It’s an important place that runs through our entire scripture, from Genesis to Revelation but yet it’s no place in particular. Go ahead and check your maps for wilderness. You won’t find it listed between the cities of Wichita, USA or Wiesbaden, Germany. Often you’ll find it far from those cities and out of the reaches of empire, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Survival there isn’t nearly as simple as running to the local grocery store or turning up the thermostat. It’s a place whose magnitude often overwhelms you, leaving you feeling insignificant and insecure.

Sadly, it’s a place many don’t go and we suffer because of it.

In Richard Louv’s book,  “Last Child in the Woods” he coins the term nature-deficit disorder to describe the problems connected to children spending so little time outdoors and whose only entertainment is the kind that has to be plugged into a wall. Looking at various studies, he chronicles how kids who aren’t connected to wilderness suffer with, among other things, higher rates of ADHD, depression, stress and obesity. Adults with that same disorder aren’t much better off either.

Wilderness is vital to who we are as people and who we are as Christians.  It shouldn’t be surprising that Christ escaped there to pray, to be alone and even to be tested. We need to get away to the wilderness to remind ourselves that we aren’t the jobs we have and that we don’t define ourselves by our successes or failures.  It should remind us that as much as we like control and try to organize our entire lives so that we’ll have it, control is only an illusion. It should remind us of God’s command that we’re supposed to be caretakers of this Genesis garden, not to mention that garden has been and will be around much longer than us. And maybe most importantly in a society as narcissistic as ours, it tells us that we aren’t God and that we are in fact frail creatures of dust and that one day we’ll return to that dust in the wilderness. It might be just as appropriate to say, “from wilderness you came and from wilderness you will return.”

So, when was the last time you turned off your cell phone, unplugged your television, turned off your music and went to the wilderness? When’s the last time you packed a lunch to sit out and marvel at the beauty of Lake Nixon or Pinnacle Mountain? Or floated the Buffalo River taking in the beauty of the cliffs, birds, and rolling water. When’s the last time you listened to creation sing praises to God? If it’s been a while, or even if it hasn’t, head there and stand alongside the followers of God who have trodden the wilderness path before you. 

Chris Ellis

Welcome to the Slow Club

Drop by my house sometime on a morning when we’re trying to get all five members of our family out the door.  A sampling of some of the phrases you might hear:

“Let’s go!” “Hurry up!” “I already told you to put your shoes on!” “We’re out the door in three minutes!” “We’re gonna be late!” “I don’t care, move faster!” “How do you not have your shoes on already??”

On second thought, please don’t drop by -- that could be embarrassing. In the days of constant activity and never-ending obligations, our family knows how to hurry, or at least we’re trying our best to learn. Yours might be as well, and I’ve seen this in the teenagers I work with. Merely reflections of the culture around them, they’ve gotten good at staying busy. Homework, sports and other extracurriculars are every day occurrences. Those activities plus the pressures to stay connected to peers through social media are making for weary and over-committed teens. These are ‘good kids’ – involved in our church, well-grounded, not afraid to stand up for what is true and right. But they’re learning how to run the rat race that most of us have already become accustomed to.

So a while back we created something new on Sunday nights – Slow Club (name taken from a talk by one of my favorite authors). The only rule of Slow Club is you do not talk about Slow Club you cannot be in a hurry. Oh, and no phones. We gather to eat, share life and pray in creative ways. In a world where Faster reigns supreme, we go slow. Like really slow. We sit quietly in silence, we listen to music, we pray for each other and those around us, we go on hikes, we color, we collage, we watch movies and discuss them. We’ve tried energetic games-with-a-spiritual-point before on Sunday nights, but the crowd usually fizzled out by the end of the year. Not Slow Club though – it’s almost as if those growing up in our culture are starved for something they didn’t even know was missing.

You couldn’t call it productive. We don’t really get anything done. But then again, maybe we do. It’s a formative time that informs the rest of the week. It’s not about checking off the “had some quiet time with God” box on our checklist; it’s about learning to be still in the midst of a hurried world. It’s about peace within so that no matter what happens around us we remain grounded in our true identity in Christ.

Chances are you’ve noticed it’s now the Christmas season. Squished in with hope and joy and peace are parties, shopping, obligations, family gatherings, kids’ programs, packing lists and more. And I know just what you need: you are hereby invited to join the Slow Club. Nah, you don’t need to add a Sunday night meeting to your schedule. But if you desire the peace God offers, you might not want to speed right past his outstretched hands.

Martin Luther once commented, 'I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.’ It’s ok to be busy during this season of life, but don’t let it overcome you. Realize that life will go on whether you run yourself ragged or not. To very-loosely paraphrase Jesus (am I allowed to do that?), What good is it to complete every item on your holiday task list and yet forfeit your own soul? This Christmas season, see if you can slow down instead of speeding up. Come join the Slow Club – you’ll be glad you did.

Logan Carpenter

Do Not Fear

Be afraid…be veeeeeerrrrrrry afraid….. 

In my opinion, this is the motto of our age, especially if you read it in some quivering, harrowing voice like in horror films.  Fear is in the air.  We breathe it in, and it travels up and down our bloodstream, from our heart to our head and back again.  Fear becomes part and parcel to our very being.  It cultivates paranoia that has no rootedness in reality.  It needs no evidence because it creates its own, even if the evidence is solely imaginary.  It prefers ignorant distance over vulnerable intimacy.  It prefers simplistic sound bites over well-reasoned arguments.  In this regard, most forms of social media are perfect conduits of fear, contributing to its pervasiveness.   

Perhaps the most insidious characteristic of fear is how quickly it draws us into vicious cycles.  Fear causes us to see the worst in others, and therefore, it brings out the worst in us.  The violent man makes everyone else nervous, and in so doing brings out the violence in them.  We fear the man with the gun, which is why we carry guns.  We fear the refugee; therefore, we cannot open our doors (or borders) to them.  We fear the Muslim; therefore, we paint them with the broadest and darkest strokes.  We fear the other race; therefore we judge them by their worst actions but our own race by its grandest achievements. 

Fear causes us to act out of our instincts, like animals.  Predator or prey.  Fight or flight.  Attack or be attacked.  People who are motivated by fear are perpetually reflexive.  They cannot act proactively, living out of their deepest virtues. They need an enemy in order to know who they are, because they do not have an identity of their own.  They spend more time placing blame than seeking solutions.  They are more fascinated with walls than doors.  They often talk about protection and security, and rarely about inclusion and reconciliation.   They always see the need for war, but are blind for the need for peace. They cannot cross the aisle because they spend their lives enforcing the need for one.

Into this context, Scripture challenges us at every turn.  Bible statisticians tell us that the phrase “Don’t be afraid,” is one of the most prevalent in Scripture.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” (Matthew 8.26)  1 John says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18).  Honestly, I expect the verse to say, “Perfect love casts out hatred,” but that’s not what it says.  In the Bible, it’s fear, not hatred, that is the opposite of love.  Have you ever thought about the fact that it’s nearly impossible to love someone you fear or to fear someone you love?   We cannot love our neighbor so long as we refuse to live in close enough proximity to even know them as neighbors, simply because we are afraid of them.

Isn’t it time for the church to bear witness to the reality of God’s love which casts out fear?  Isn’t it time for the church to get to know real Muslims, rather than judge their faith by the very ones that distort it?  Isn’t it time for the church to open doors to refugees (the Bible speaks about refugees a time or two doesn’t it?) rather than triple locking them?  Isn’t it time for the church to challenge unfounded fears rather than pass them on?  Isn’t it time for the church to speak truthfully about others?  Isn’t it time for the church to act out of the best of our gospel rather than the worst of our world?  Isn’t it time for the church to oppose the evil in the world without mirroring it?  Isn’t it time for the church to pro-act because we have been shaped by the profound love of God rather than re-act because our fear of the other has a grip on us?

Were we to dig down to the most foundational basis for the evil in our world, were we to identify its most demonic source, were we to locate its primal origin, what we would discover is fear.  Fear is the fuel on which evil thrives.  If we are to make a difference in this world in any substantial way, we must do the opposite of fear.  Call it love.  Call it courage.  Call it faith.  But whatever you call it, do that!

The times call for a people with strength enough to love.  Our day demands that we see the truth in the other rather than the threat in them.  Our world is crying out for someone who will reach across the aisle because they care more about losing their lives than winning a manufactured culture war. 

Church…this is our time.  These are our days.  Here is our chance.

So do not fear, for I am with you.  Isaiah 41.10

Preston Clegg

The I AM When I Am Not

I have been reading Parker Palmer’s book “Let Your Life Speak.” Repeatedly as I read the book I thought of Moses and realized how when reading through Moses’ story we see this working of meaning and purpose as he searches to find himself.

 

My favorite theatrical telling of the story of Moses is the animated feature Prince of Egypt. The music is spectacular. The story is powerful and action packed from start to finish, but the scene that always gives me chills and brings me to tears, no matter how many times I have seen it, is when Moses stumbles upon the burning bush and God speaks to him.

“Moses, Moses, Moses,” God states. Moses asks, “Who are you?”God replies, “I am that I am. I am the God of your ancestors. ”Moses responds,  “What do you want of me?”

And isn’t that where we all are? We want to know what we’re supposed to do. And we go, the best we discern. Those burning bush moments become mere memories. With the way we mortals work in the struggle of life, doubts, fears, anxieties, and stress creep in and we realize I Am Not.

You say I Am Not when self-doubt and insecurities set in, but the I Am says just that. I Am. Moses said the same thing to God. You’ve got the wrong guy God. I am a pitiful public speaker. God responds (and in the movie in a booming way) “Who made man’s mouth? Who made the deaf to hear, mute to speak, and blind to see? Did not I? Now go and I will help you.”Go. Your identity comes from the fact that you are my child - made in the image of the Almighty Creator, valued just because you are.

You say I Am Not when life feels like a battle and you are afraid you are on the losing team, but the I Am says just that. I Am.

Life often feels like a competition and success is a driving factor. We want to win. But that race is tiring. When we realize there is an ebb and flow to the nature of life, and we let go of the rat-race, we can live in the constancy of God’s love. If we move with the currents and not kick and fight in the waters of life, we are transformed by remaining in his presence. There is a play of powers at work where we can collaborate but not always have ultimate control. Life is not out to overrun us. Let go. Rest in my presence. I am here.

You say I Am Not when you are burned out, but the I Am says just that. I Am. We live as if anything good or important is going to happen only when we are the ones who make it happen. We are quick to forget we are not the only force at work. Remember that the Israelites were saved at Jericho with help from Rahab - an Amorite prostitute - technically not one of God’s chosen people. Though she seems to be chosen after her actions proved her faith. He can and will use all kinds of people and forces to bring about His will. Because His will be done, His kingdom come.There is no need to carry it all on your shoulders. Take my yoke.

You say I Am Not when you are not in control, but the I Am says just that. I Am. We build our lives around systems and schedules to control the messiness and chaos of life. The fear of what we cannot control is often at the root, and letting go of the tight grip of those reins allows us to trust that the Creator who made life from chaos will organize and hold our lives in his hands. You do not have to hold it all together until your knuckles are white. Relax. Breathe. I am holding it for you.

You say I Am Not when you are afraid of failing, but the I Am says just that. I Am. Failure is essentially the death of an idea or action. For many of the previous reasons listed above, we are a society afraid of death in a physical as well as metaphorical sense - to the degree that we avoid even the words death, dying, and died. But through death we are allowing life. Think of compost or the word Humus - it is ground or rotting matter that feeds other plants. This is the base root of the word humility. When we accept failure, in that point humility happens and growth occurs.Give yourself the permission to fail because through death I will grow something new.  I am the way, the truth and life.

Like Moses, we head back out to the pastures where we work. We do life. And that moment of holy glory seems far removed. We need reminders because the realization that I Am Not echoes so loud. But in all reality these are the points where God is revealed in our lives. It happens at burning bush moments, but more often it is in the doubt, fear, and failure of working in pastures where transformation appears. Do not live from these places of anxiety but release and submerge in the I Am. Because I Am Not.

Deanna Atkinson

The Ministry of Showing Up

People still ask me why I became a minister after a long career as a university teacher and administrator. 

Some of them graciously acknowledge that I was doing ministry even when my job title was “professor” or “dean.”  I’m sure many people assume that I became a minister because our family’s experience with the death and destruction of a plane crash.  That would make perfect sense.  But it’s mostly not true.  Here’s the story of why I became a “different” kind of minister.

The year was 1979.  I had just graduated from Baylor and I was hanging around Waco preparing for graduate school.  I was also starting my first “real” music minister position.  I had been an “associate” or “assistant” church music minister, but I’d never had the entire responsibility for the music program of a church.  That summer I took a new church music position and I was responsible for doing all the things a music minister was supposed to do.  I planned service music.  I worked with the adult choir, the youth choir, and the children’s choir.  I went to staff meetings.  I led music in three worship services each week.  There were two of us that summer on staff:  The pastor and me.

And I was also responsible to visit people in the hospital.

Guess what?  We hadn’t talked about hospital visitation during my classes in the School of Music.  I’d been in hospitals.  I wasn’t afraid of hospitals.  But I had no clue about what ministers did when they visited people in the hospital.

My second week on staff the pastor went on vacation.  Before he left he handed me a list.  It was the hospital list.  It was mine and mine alone.  He was headed out the door and out of town on vacation.  I was in charge of hospital visitation.  While the blood didn’t leave my extremities and I didn’t faint from shock, I was, at the very least, apprehensive.  What do I do?  What do I say?  How do I behave?

On the list was an older gentleman who was going to have open-heart surgery, even a bigger deal back then than it is today – and it’s still a big deal!  I went to the hospital and sat with his wife in the surgery waiting room.  I didn’t know what to do or what to say.  So I carefully said very little and just sat there with her.  My strong fear of failure set in and in order to avoid saying the wrong thing, I said almost nothing.  After a while, I left her my phone number, prayed with her and went on my way, not having a clue if I had done anything helpful for her or not.  I left with a sense of gratitude for the privilege of being with this dear lady during her time of need, but not having a clue as to whether I had been truly faithful to my call as a minister.

Fast forward 36 years and some seminary training later and here’s what I can tell you.  Ministry did indeed occur in that waiting room back in 1979.  I believe Christ was present when I showed up, when I didn’t try to tell her that everything would be all right, when I didn’t try to spout some platitudes about her situation, when I didn’t try to “fix” her and her situation.  You see when we show up as Christians, we bring the presence of Christ with us.  But bringing the presence of Christ is not the same as trying to BE Christ.  We don’t get to do that.  Christ comes with us when we show up in ministry, but he does his work in his way and in his time.  We’re only conduits for his presence.  When we try to give pat answers and make glib statements to make everything “all right,” we get in the way of the powerful and gracious presence of Christ.  Even the very best of our intentions is nothing compared to the genuine presence of Christ, speaking himself into someone’s pain, anxiety, fear, and confusion.

To carry the presence of Christ with us is the most precious gift we have for each other as believers.  And all we really have to do is show up.  Show up thoughtfully.  Show up listening more than talking.  Show up humbly.  Show up honestly acknowledging that Christ has the answers, not us.  When we try to do more than that, we get in the way.  May God lead all of us to powerfully show up and the grace to stay out of his way when we do so.

Grateful to serve at your side!

Charlie Fuller

The earth without art is just "eh"

One of God’s greatest gifts to us is our ability to express ourselves.  Each of us are unique with gifts exclusive to us.  We’re wired differently and use our brains in particular ways. We are constantly discovering individual avenues to express our thoughts, feelings, and stirrings.  Things that make us joyful – love, family, friends.  As well as things that disturb us – injustice, hate, death. 

Art has many forms.  From Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 to DaVinci’s painting, The Last Supper, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to National Geographic’s photography in sub-Saharan Africa, and from the aimless scribbles of a four year old to the intricately designed precision of the Egyptian pyramids. All gifts from our Creator.  How can our faith and art (whether we are creating it or simply admiring it) come together?  Anytime something brings us closer to the Father, we are exercising our faith.  Certainly this is true of art.  Art has a way of provoking things deep inside us.  Something the soul says is significant and needs to be shared.  When deep calls out to deep, art is created and his glory is revealed.

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.  Aristotle

Impressionistic art has always been meaningful to me, especially the work of Claude Monet.  His collection of water lilies are my favorite.  Not being a painter, it is so fascinating to me how colors create not only images and forms but also shadows and light.  One color melts into the next as if searching to find its place.  Only to be stilled and resolved.  Content.  That’s what I see.  Several of Monet’s collections depict the same scene yet in different light and from a different perspective.  Something I have found to be true of my faith.  How many times does it take for me go through the same motions or emotions when I continue to make the same mistakes?  Continue to think the same shallow selfish thoughts.  When I allow the Lord to show me a different perspective or I simply look up to see that the lights are in fact on and brighter than I remembered, I arrive at a place of resolve and contentment.  A place that is closer to him.  All I ever want or need.

Art tells a story and makes us think.  Sometimes the story is very much like our own story.  We recognize something familiar and we feel we are known.  It helps us to be aware of the world we live in and circumstances we might not have an opportunity to know otherwise.  It challenges and inspires, excites and disheartens – with and without words.  All open to our own interpretation – the way we see it – the way it speaks to us. 

Christ is all and in all.  Where do you see him?  Feel him?  Hear him?  Know him?  Whether you are creating or admiring, look, feel, and listen.  His glory will be revealed.


 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17

Suzanne Cain

Friendliness

Some of the most wonderful experiences in my life have occurred when I have given to and received friendly greetings  from others.

Early in my life I was extremely shy. I had a wrong estimate of myself and others. I have learned that being friendly leads us to include people into our lives. Being friendly is a low cost, high reward experience. However, when I was  younger I thought it was the opposite. Being friendly means that we recognize the value , the  importance of another.

When I see  people on the nearby walking trail, most people respond to a hello, because they want to be greeted.  Yet, some don’t, so I just shrug and move on. I have learned that being friendly is not as big a risk as I had thought. My not speaking to someone would have a greater cost than speaking to  someone and being rejected.

I have been blessed with tons of friends, simply by venturing out with an act of friendliness. I have learned that friendliness is fun!

Jesus had a mutually rich experience with the little tax collector, Zachaeus, when he acknowledged him up in the tree. What rich truths have emerged from this “by the way” connection.

Notice people ; give attention to them. It’s fun and has a high reward.

James Thomason

Fixer-Upper

Cindy and I don’t watch a lot of television anymore.  But we record and watch a program called “Fixer Upper” all the time. 

On this program they buy tired old homes and fix them up.  Thus the name.  In the space of an hour you can see them take an old, sometimes abandoned house that hasn’t been occupied for years and make it into a Taj Mahal.   It takes place in Waco, a town I know very well, and the hosts are crazy, corny funny.  It’s a fun show for all those reasons.

But I think I've discovered the real reason I like this program so much.  My favorite stories on the show are when they take a truly old home, maybe 100 years old, and transform it.  They take a home that has been left for dead, for all practical purposes abandoned, and make it like new.  Some of these homes are falling apart, haven’t seen new paint in decades, have rotten floors and leaky roofs.... and they find a way to make them not only livable, but also incredible!

We have a word for that in the church.  We call it redemption.

Admit it.  You like a good redemption story, too.  Hollywood movie producers know we like redemption stories.  Think of how many wonderful movies have a redemption theme:  The Shawshank Redemption, Cinderella Man, Les Miserables, A Beautiful Mind, Gran Torino, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Or even:  How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Dickens’ Christmas Carol (I love the Muppet version myself.)  Then there’s Good Will Hunting, Rain Man, Groundhog Day, Hoosiers, The Natural, The Verdict.  And there’s even the Star Wars movies and Darth Vader....

We all love these stories.  We even sing them:

I once was lost,
but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

It’s a common theme at any church.  We talk about how Jesus takes our old lives and makes them new again.  We talk about how Jesus saves us from our sins, how his blood cleanses us and makes us new.  We talk about how Jesus’ redemption brings us salvation.  And those are all true words.  Jesus does indeed do all of that for us.  Thanks be to God!

But how does redemption work in your life?  Certainly Jesus has redeemed us for eternity.  Yet, how do we let Jesus redeem our todays?  A treasured mentor of mine talks about how we have to be redeemed each and every day.  You can consider that in one of two ways.  You can be discouraged that Jesus’ redemption has to be “renewed,” if you will, all the time.  Many of us would want to go ahead and get that redemption thing done and finished.  Or you can be encouraged that Jesus’ redemption is always available to us if we look for it.  It’s always available and will never run out.  Jesus stands ready each and every minute of each and every day to redeem us and join us on the journey toward his promised future.  One day at a time.  One step at a time.

There’s lots of evidence for this in Scripture, but I especially love the individual Psalms that address this issue.  Here’s my favorite:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,    
and all that is within me,    
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,    
and do not forget all his benefits— 
who forgives all your iniquity,    
who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the Pit,    
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy
Psalm 103:1-4

If Jesus’ mission to his creation is to bring redemption, then what does it mean to join him on the journey?  What if following Jesus means accepting his invitation to partner in the process of redemption?  Not just for us, but for others?  What would that look like?

Have you ever thought about how Jesus might use you to be his agent of redemption?  While we are certainly not agents of Jesus’ eternal redemption, doesn’t Jesus partner with us to bring redemption to his world each day?  Isn’t there someone whose path will cross yours today who needs to engage Jesus in some way?  Isn’t there someone who needs a warm smile, an encouraging word, or just a hug?  Isn’t there a relationship that needs you to deliver redemption?  Isn’t there a person along your way who needs to feel the transforming presence that Jesus only has you to bring?

How will you help someone replace the leaky roof of their life today?  Lay new tile on the kitchen floor of their soul?  Hang new sheetrock on the boundaries of their sense of identity?  Or just love them as you help them replace the foundation of their being?

May God give us the wisdom, the energy, the faithfulness, and the discernment to be his partners in “fixing up” his world.  Isn’t that what partnering with God to bring the Kingdom of God to Little Rock is really all about?

Charlie Fuller

That's What Friends Are For

The year: 1986.

The place: freshman dorm on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University.

The song: “Friends”

You know the words, “And friends are friends forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them . . . though it’s hard to let you go, in the Father’s hands we know, that a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends”.   There was a group of us that sang that in the stairwell to get the full effect of our rock star harmonies.  Needless to say when our freshman year came to an end, there were lots of tears as we said goodbye for the summer.  But we’d back together soon, because as the song says (see above)…  It’s too sappy to actually type again.  My best memories of college are living in the dorms with girls who quickly became sisters.  We sang, studied, counseled, laughed, cried, gossiped, and consoled.  We shared life in an authentic and intimate way.  Some of those girls are still near and dear friends in my life. 

When I became a new mother I was fortunate in that I found friendships with other new mothers.  Although our friendships hadn’t begun in our own childhoods, it felt as if it had. 

While our children played and we talked about motherhood milestones and lamented on our lack of sleep and the way childbearing plays evil tricks on your body.  Let’s be honest, at the ripe old age of 28-32 we were mere minutes away from haggardly!  Back then none of us had jobs outside of our homes.  We had been blessed with incredible husbands who provided and supported our desires to stay at home those early years.   We took trips to the zoo, strawberry patch, pumpkin patch, and swimming pools, sharing information about preschools and diapers, affirming discipline techniques and reasons for doctor visits.  We always knew that at least 8 or 10 extra eyeballs were fixed on every kid within 50 feet.   Again, sharing life in an authentic and nurturing way. 

We have since added more children to our broods and our conversations have more substance than what the laws of gravity are up to – or down to, if you know what I mean.  With more children come more activities.   The older the children get the greater the commitment to these activities.  In the next few years we will send off to college some of these creatures who got the whole motherhood party started.  Sweet Jesus keep our heads up.

And although I know our friendships are still authentic they don’t feel as intimate as they once did.  It’s easy to share good news and celebrate accomplishments.   But I feel that we are not as open to sharing the not-so-good news.  Every day struggles that come when life hands us a little crazy.  Like any noble and worthwhile thing, deep abiding friendships take practice and time.  Authenticity and transparency.  And a little more practice.  The truth is we’re busy with meaningful character-building things – jobs, school activities, volunteering, sports.  But what would it look like to achieve a balance that can be even more life-giving than the fulfillment we acquire while putting into practice our God-given abilities?  No doubt it’s hard to choose.  As in, “Do you want what’s behind curtain number one or curtain number two?” hard.

Jesus shared faithfully and intimately with his disciples.  They traveled together, ate together, spent time with one another’s families and engaged in life altering conversations and experiences.  We were created to thrive in a community and have an innate desire to connect with others.  We are called to hold each other accountable, build each other up in love and truth and inspire one another to be better versions of ourselves. 

Hebrews chapter 10 says, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping one another out – do not give up being together”.

Our priorities shift a little with each changing season.  From coordinating schedules of getting multiple children to multiple activities to Randy and I figuring out how to live together in a quiet house.  I pray that along the way, I have practiced being an abiding friend.  Not only looking for but also choosing opportunities to spend quality time with the people God has placed in my life to enrich and nurture me.  Both during times of celebration and struggle, conflict and calm.  Counting it all joy. 

So let’s have dinner together and tackle the monumental task of making it a priority.  Nothing extravagant – chips and salsa are all that’s needed.  Let’s not give up being together and keep the connection alive that was so important at one time.  It will open the avenue of divine balance or at the very least introduce you to a new anti-aging skin care line you didn’t know about.  That’s what friends are for.  

Suzanne Cain

The New Jim Crow

Over the past six months or so, I’ve decided that I need to do a better job of listening to my African American brothers and sisters. Not the kind of listening where you’re trying to think of a response, but the kind of listening that affects your heart, mind and soul. The kind that you take in, mull over and let gnaw on you and change you.

 I’ve been doing this ‘listening’ by following important African American voices on Twitter and FB as well as reading books by African American authors.

 I’ve been listening and digesting one such book for over a month now, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. When it comes to justice issues, I’m a big fan of statistics. They sometimes tell the story of injustice or at least point towards where injustice lives. This book doesn’t just use statistics to point towards injustice - it circles it, highlights it and tells you exactly where it lives.  

In her book, Alexander tells a story about race that isn’t often heard, even by whites that care about race issues. Are you ready for it? Here it is: even though whites use and deal drugs at the same rate as blacks, black men have “Been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006 compared with 1 in 106 white men.” She spends the majority of the book looking at the historical issues that gave rise to that disparity which began in the 1980’s, as well as for other non-racial explanations for those percentages (violent crime rates, etc.).  She then chronicles what happens once those black men enter the legal system through to when they are released after they have allegedly ‘paid their debt’ to society.

I’ll be honest, that ‘thirteen times higher’ hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to argue with it and figure out a way to minimize it. But instead of that, I’m sitting on it, mulling it over, and letting it make me uncomfortable – probably in much the same way as the Apostle Paul felt while spending a few days blind after his first experience with the risen Christ and the realization that he was an oppressor. Its colored the way I’ve seen the events in Baltimore, the Justice System and even how we should engage those labeled with the life-long scarlet F (felon). It’s also made me think of Jesus who got up in the temple, read from the Isaiah scroll and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

 What does it look like to proclaim that message of Jesus in today’s society, given the fact that blacks and whites are treated vastly different (13 times higher– despite the same drug use rates) in our Justice System? How do we ‘release the captive’ and ‘set free the ‘oppressed?’ To be honest, I don’t really know, but I’m trying to listen and understand the plight of my black brothers and sisters. I hope that’s at least the first step. 

Hi I'm Logan...

Sometime in the fall of 2010 one of my former youth named McKenna, 19 at the time, approached me after a game of ultimate frisbee and said “Hey, I’ve been thinking I need to get into a program or something.” 

At that point we had never discussed his drug and alcohol use but it wasn’t exactly a secret.  I didn’t know much but told him I’d look into it. I looked up the Alcoholics Anonymous website and found out about the weekly Barely Legal meeting at a church in midtown Little Rock.  He didn’t drive at the time and I wanted to be supportive so later that week I picked him up and we attended together.

In a room of about 60 people we sat in the back and at 28 I quickly realized I was one of the oldest people in the room. And yet that night I heard more honesty and wisdom from people 10 years my junior whose lives were a mess than I’d heard in a while.  Since that night I’ve gotten regular updates from McKenna on his progress in the program, and I often think about what we as the church can learn from A.A.

Transparency  I was in a room full of strangers but heard their deepest pains and toughest struggles.  They knew there was no use in hiding it because they were seeking healing, and healing comes from being honest with yourself.  How could the church be transformed if we stop trying to hide our scars but instead put them out there, letting others know they don’t have to hide theirs either?

Humility  “Hi I’m Jim and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi Jim.” Tagging along with transparency, it’s hard to be phony when you start a comment by naming your brokenness. Yet all who do are accepted by the group with a simple return greeting.  Call me crazy, but I think worship, business meetings and the like would feel different, and maybe a little more holy, if we spoke this way. “Hi I’m Phil and I’m greedy/prideful/power-hungry.” Hi Phil. “Hi I’m Marie and I’m image-obsessed/unkind/envious.” Hi Marie. You’re both still welcome here.

Accountability  It was a rough go for McKenna at first.  On the wagon, then off, then back on for 6 weeks then off for 2 months.  I was still talking to him regularly but it just wasn’t the same as having someone who had been there before and was available day or night. McKenna got a sponsor who told him to call him daily for the first 30 days, in addition to any other time he was needed.  He was serious about the 12 steps and spent long hours going through each one of them with McKenna. He assigned reading and watched over him diligently.  In addition he had (and still has) sponsee brothers, a Grand Sponsor (sponsor’s sponsor) and others.  It’s a whole family on mission of love and support for each  other. Could the church benefit from structures like this? How much are we really willing to be involved in each other’s lives?

Introspection  If you get a chance check out steps 4-10 from AA’s website. Whoa.  If we’re being honest (see Item 1) this sounds like the least fun thing that has ever existed: “fearless moral inventory”, “removing all these defects of character”, “make direct amends.”  Seriously, I’d much rather binge watch my favorite Netflix series for tonight and then worry about those things tomorrow, or never.  But as Christians it’s our call to be more like Jesus and allow God to renew our minds and transform our hearts.  I hope we can be open to that.

Giving Back  For those able to make it to step 12, it’s now their duty to help others along the way. You don’t find healing and keep it to yourself, but instead it’s now your obligation to give others the same support and encouragement provided to you. McKenna learned how to sponsor others well from his sponsor.  Same for us: we’re fed to feed, and we’re led to lead.

Songwriter Ross King puts it this way:

Everybody medicates
Unless the church becomes a place
Where we are safe and free to say
That we’re not ok.

As the church, before we look outside and criticize anyone else let’s take a good hard look at ourselves (see Item 4) and see what needs to change.  I know we’re afraid that our transparency, honesty and accountability might be too much and could drive people away from us, but in a world filled with the fake and phony, it might just do the opposite.   I’ve seen it work in one life, and he’s four years sober today. Praise God.

Logan Carpenter

The Week After Easter

What do you do the day after everything changes?

This Monday, I walked into our sanctuary and sat for a while.  The sanctuary felt much different than the day before.  Sunday’s glorious music had given way to a powerful silence that seemed to carry echoes of Easter grandeur.  There were far fewer lilies flowering the altar, and there were no trumpets announcing cosmic victory.  There was no crowd, and the sacred buzz of Easter Sunday was long gone.  No little boys were pulling their ties away from their collars, and no little girls were twirling in their dresses.  All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the traffic passing by on the street just on the other side of a large stained glass window.

I began to wonder.  What do you do the day after everything changes?  What do you do the day after you give birth to your firstborn child?  What do you do the day after your phone rings at 2:37 a.m., and the officer on the other end delivers crushing news?  What do you do the day after the boss enters your office to announce the promotion you’ve wanted for years?  What did the world do on September 12, 2001 or December 8, 1941 or the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated?

One of my favorite resurrection stories is the one described in John 21.  Peter and the other disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus had risen from the dead.  They had seen him with their own eyes. Still they went back to the one thing they knew:  fishing!  They were trying to recreate some normalcy in the midst of all the chaos.  They were yearning for what they knew in the midst of the glorious wonder that defied comprehension.  Perhaps we can only handle so much of the inexplicably miraculous until we begin to hunger for something more base and mundane.

OK, I’ll confess:  one of the reasons I walked into the sanctuary on Monday was to relive Sunday’s glory.  I mean, Easter Sunday is the Super Bowl for a minister, and our worship was gloriously moving.  However, I could not recreate Sunday’s magic.

The risen Jesus is never captured in a room, an event, or even a worship service.  He is constantly and ceaselessly slipping through the human grasp, defying the categories, and avoiding his capture.  He is always on the move, refusing to be tied down by our constraining expectations.  If death, hell, and the grave couldn’t hold him, what makes us think we can?  If the worst of our humanity cannot contain him, neither can the best of it.  Our belief in resurrection does not allow us to sit in our pews and pay homage to a historic figure or recreate some past event.  Resurrection demands that we step into the very newness we celebrate.  It calls us to move to the rhythms of impossible life, to announce good news to all people, and to give our lives to a God for whom nothing is impossible.  The mystery of resurrection doesn’t just call us backwards in remembrance; it summons us forward in faith, hope, and love.  If Jesus’ resurrection was a sign of the inbreaking of God’s tomorrow, we will not fully experience it by reminiscing about the past.

On the way out of the sanctuary on Monday, I noticed the stained glass window in the back of the sanctuary, which portrays Jesus, with arms outstretched, summoning any and all to come and follow him.  I was reminded that we do not and will not find Jesus in rehashing Sunday’s wonder; we will only discover him as we follow him.  While I have days in which I’d rather just bask in a pew, Jesus is out there on the streets loving, healing, and speaking.  I guess we all had better join him on the other side of the stained glass windows…and take our news with us.

In this way, Easter isn’t so much a day, as it is a way.  And as it turns out, the last invitation is the first invitation all over again.  Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, said to those fishermen,  “Follow me.”  

That's what we do on the day after everything changes.

Preston Clegg

Every Need

Psalm 34:19 (NLT) stresses that “The  righteous face many troubles , but the Lord rescues them from each and every one.”

People have all kinds of problems. Mostly, we are reminded to pray for those who have critical physical needs. Along with that, we know many with family issues, and employment concerns. We could make an extremely long list of prayer needs, and could look in the mirror and see ourselves, as needy persons.

So, what does a verse like v. 19 really say to us in our multiple life issues and problems? Some of the thoughts which have come to me are centered on God’s love and power. A verse like this testifies to the great love that God has for us. He is concerned about EVERY need we have. His love is limitless. Incredibly, He is immeasurably  concerned about us, and all our problem-plagued friends and family. While we know He is ultimately concerned about us, we sometimes wonder about the capacity of His problem solving abilities. Our minds tell us He can do the job; our hearts may not be totally confident in His actual helping capability.

We can come to some helpful conclusions. God is able to accomplish every good thing in our lives. Yet, when prayers seem to go unanswered, we wonder why. Some of our biggest problems relate to watching the suffering of good people, for example, beloved older persons, and innocent little children. Not only do good  people live with seemingly unresolved problems, but, often people die without our knowing answers. We all want relief from pain. Many  times we get relief, even in pronounced, miraculous ways. But, it is the other times that puzzles, even disillusions us. In the concluding words of 2 Timothy 4:20 (NLT) , Paul briefly states “…I left Trophimus sick at Miletus.” I have wondered, with the gifts of healing, why Paul did not take a minute, or so, and pray for his friend to be healed (Do not tell the TV evangelists about this! They will be disillusioned! LOL!) Oftentimes, we do not know why God answers, or does not answer certain prayers.

Since God is able to do every good thing, that must mean that His delivering us from all our afflictions may have broader implications than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. A highly respected minister, in his later years, developed cancer in his bones. He was known to have said that this was God’s last opportunity to do good in his life. Sometimes the most painful results point us to higher and more blessed experiences. Maybe only the most mature Christians are able to see the larger picture of God’s deliverance from troubles. I  am still working on it.

James Thomason