Tag Archives: Baptist

An Advent Devotion

A devotion I wrote for FBC Chattanooga’s Advent Devotion book. Many thanks to Jeanie & David Gushee for their compliation of Christian prayers  (Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night), which added so much to this devotion.

Advent Devotion: Worship

John 1:1-5

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is much talk about light and hope during Advent season. We all try desperately to focus not on ourselves, but on the light that Jesus, the Word made Flesh, brought to earth when he was born. But in the midst of millions of tiny colored, sparkling lights, the days get shorter and colder…and darker. This time of year sees the most suicides and depression. This time of year can consume us with loneliness – whether through the loss of a loved one or simply a sense of loneliness when we feel alienated by bustle of the season.

What is so beautiful, I think, about the promise of the Light of the World is when it falls in our calendar – at the darkest time of year (and perhaps the darkest time of life). Holidays may bring loneliness or remind us of a bygone year of pain. We might have gotten divorced, lost a child, parent, or friend. We might have made poor decisions and be filled with regret. We might be spending our first Christmas alone. We might sob during the long, dark nights of December. Light and hope are the last things on our mind.

But this, I think, is when we can most find comfort in Advent worship. We don’t need to start out joyful – we come to the manger as we are: sad, lonely, hurting, depressed. And we find comfort, community, love, and acceptance. Jesus is the Prince of Peace because of the offering of love and community at his table. Christmas worship is as much about being joyful as it is offering the love of Christ to others to create joy in community and love during the darkest days of the year.

May this be our meditation and prayer during Advent’s dark days:

Come, true light. Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery…Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly You create…
Come, for Your name fills our hearts with longing
and is ever on our lips…
Come, for You are Yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my endless delight.

– Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022)

One of the reasons I’m Baptist…and happy about it

In a recent post about the competing op-ed pieces about Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity and whether either can be saved, Rachel Held Evans once again spoke my mind for me in so many ways. Her articulate piece outlines the good and the bad of both Christian “camps” in this nation, and outlines pretty well where I sit – right in between the two. Her truths about what both sides have and lacks were spot on. I  applaud her for seeing good on both sides.

I was raised in some very conservative churches, where I learned a heaping knowledge of scripture, studied my faith diligently, and became a Christian whose faith genuinely mattered to her whole life. But, I was also told women couldn’t be preachers or leaders or even deacons. I was confused about what I might do with my life when I felt called to ministry. I faced a LOT of guilt over the most normal of life’s happenings. I loved science and marveled at how much, and yet how little, we know about the magnificent creation we see – and I knew that the earth had to be more than 6,000 years old. Then, after much turmoil and leaving church for a spell (like, most of college), I found the progressive movement in the Baptist world – the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (and the American Baptists, who I knew existed, but wasn’t familiar enough with; and the Alliance of Baptists, which even in the middle of seminary struck me as very far from my Southern Baptist upbringing). I learned that women were welcome in many pulpits, my calling was fully embraced, and I was allowed to doubt and not be judged. I also learned that progressive Christianity lost much in Bible study to gain in social ministry, and lost much in personal piety to be replaced with philosophical debates and a lot of intellect. I believe in the movement of the Spirit, and sometimes (though luckily not often), this was quashed by the amount of thinking my classmates and I did. And I believe the Bible needs to be taken seriously – all the time. I believe in miracles, the bodily resurrection, the movement of God in personal lives through scripture study…things that are often challenged in the more intellectual “liberal” extreme. (Because, as Evans points out, we are describing the extremes, not the middle ground).

Neither extreme has a good mesh of the holy and the intelligent, of the ritual and the free Spirit. And both have lots to learn from each other and must meet those of us in the middle to do it. Evans’ exact words were “Missing from the whole dialog” [between the and conservative and the angry liberal Christians] “was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-tie low.” She gets it, too, as she has left the church and been unable to consistently attend a church since. While I hope for nothing more than her resolution to the issues she faces in finding a church, I suddenly became aware that I already have that church…and have had that church for some time.

Now, to be fair, no church has it all figured out. The two churches where I have actively attended in the last five years (first church 2007-2011 & second 2011-now) have messed up, done horrible things, and been absolutely wrong on some things (both in the leadership and the lay persons). But, on the whole, at least while I have been a member of these churches, I have seen two groups of faithful Christians who differ widely on topics of theology to politics to the color of the sanctuary carpet, come together in fantastic ways to love and lead in their communities. And also to be clear, one church leans slightly right, the other slightly left. But I feel at home in both – because they hold in utmost importance the message of Jesus and the promise of God’s present and coming kingdom. They think through things, ask questions, and try their best not to assume. They forgive those who’ve really messed up. Neither church actively turns away or shuns the pregnant teenager, the divorced, the cohabitating partners, or the poor. There are a majority of members who would drop everything to come to the aid of anyone in the community. My “home” church is famous for their actions after major storms – they are first-responders who make a mission of helping others when all seems lost. They do the back-breaking labor of love to saw trees and pick up the pieces. My current and new “home” church gives up their space regularly to minister to the downtown homeless. They wrap their arms around the outcast and welcome them with open arms into the service and work of the church.

And in both churches, I see the face of the Living God at work in the middle of humanity’s local affairs. Yes, both churches support overseas missions through their respective denominations. Both churches send missionaries to foreign lands. (And those works are deeply important to both denominations and their members). But most importantly, as Baptists, they plant themselves in the middle of a local area and get to work with both feet on the ground. They brush off differences in order to work among those in need in their immediate midst. They give their all to active love and put theology to the side while they work – this is something to be commended for. Not all Baptists make this work so well.

Baptists are, by nature, a bunch of staunch individualists. We each read and interpret the Bible in our own way. We are holy priests and mediate our own relationship with God. And as churches, we are autonomous units designed to function in a specific locale. And the only way for a Baptist church to stay whole (yes, some do manage to stay whole…at least for a period of time!), we must hold together the dissenting opinions. We must give and take on all decisions. We must be willing to be wrong and humble even when we feel sure we’re right. We talk theology and politics in a way that helps us all to grow and not in ways that divide the house of God. And when we do that, and do it well, the Kingdom grows. God’s people learn, and we all become better disciples.

I pray more of our churches and those caught in between these ongoing left-right debates would find ways to work together to reach that many more people with the message of hope, promise, inclusion, and love that Jesus so freely offered us. My friends to my right and to my left, in my denomination and not, I pray we do this as a team – with humble hearts and forgiving spirits. The church at its best is a humble group of people seeking to live as Christ, continually uplifting one another, and finding ways to make our differences teach one another about the good and bad of our own theology and traditions. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger than our biggest differences, and it deserves our best effort at working together.

Commitment, Covenant, & Community

Notes from our Epiphanies lesson: Wednesday, 5-2-12

What does it mean to be committed – to faith, to relationships, to community? How we are committed in our own faith community today? Or are we?

During a packed 3 days at the [Baptist] Sexuality & Covenant conference a couple of weeks ago, the idea of commitment and covenant formed a basis for thinking about Christianity, Community, and Relationships in ways I hadn’t even imagined before. We are continuing the conversation together in Epiphanies.

If you’re interested in viewing the conference sessions (and I wholeheartedly recommend them), you may find them here: http://www.thefellowship.info/conference

Question 1: What is covenant in scripture? Name a few.

Answers: Biblical covenants: agreements, contracts – or more/deeper, Hebrew berith, mostly God-contracts with God’s people – God kept the covenant, people didn’t always. A vow. A self-giving promise.

Examples: God’s covenant with Noah – rainbow. God’s covenant with Abraham – descendants: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. God’s covenant with Moses – Ten Commandments. The priestly covenants – Aaron. Israel’s covenant to return to Mosaic law. God’s covenant with David – his family will be rightful kings. New covenant in Jesus – between God and all people – Jew and Gentile.

Question 2: How to commitment and covenant relate? Are we commited in our society? How/Why/Why not?

Read: Malachai 2:

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife, ” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”[e] says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

At the conference, Dr. David Gushee gave us some ideas about what covenant is, and should be, as God designed it. We looked at his thoughts:

Covenant should be a moral norm, a standard – not just an ideal.

Here are some thoughts about what interpersonal covenant in the Christian tradition should look like:

  • A voluntarily entered sacred pact between two persons and between those persons and the God to whom both are committed. Freely entered between two persons equal in power and who are under no coercion.
  • Once entered, the freedom of its participants is henceforth constrained. It is a FREE DECISION TO MAKE ONESELF NO LONGER FREE.
  • It is an exchange of promises. These are fully binding.
  • It is a transition in status and responsibility.
  • Promising a certain quality of interpersonal relating to each other: love, cherish, comfort, honor, and care.
  • Promising to offer this even when they don’t feel like it (richer or poorer).
  • Offer such relating only to each other and not to anyone else (forsaking all others). For a lifetime as well.
  • No conditions or time limits (unlike regular contracts).
  • Each person is making a covenant as an individual moral agent.

Coventalism corresponds with our nature and highest potential, as well as taking care of our sinful nature. We need sacred promises or we might not stay together when times are hard. This is a divine provision for sin. It is the best possible arrangement for binding human lives together. Our vows keep us; we don’t keep our vows. Covenants are better for both adults and children.

The main issue is not who is eligible for covenant. The main issue is whether the church is committed to rescuing the concept and practice of covenant in accountable community before it disappears all together – not just in society, but within our own congregations and homes.

THE PROBLEM: We live in a consumer society – no commitments are permanent. We are always trading what we have for something better. We do it in every context of life, including religion. Do we remember church covenants? People stayed in churches for life – “this is my church, I’m committed.”

How do we teach younger generations to make covenants when we’re not committed to much of anything? Churches should be better covenant communities. Not casual, drive-by consumer products. Covenant communities of brothers and sisters in Christ, there in good times and bad. Only such communities are in any position to talk to emerging adults about lifetime covenants.

How do we understand and live this, then? (i.e., How now shall we live?)

“The Lost Art of Commitment: Why we’re Afraid of it, and why we shouldn’t be” (Article in Christianity Today) Notes:

  • “A Christian without commitment is an oxymoron.”
  • “In 1979…a study using extensive interviews was conducted to understand what ‘habits of the heart’ defined average Americans. Many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort. They even seemed to have lost the language to express commitment to anything besides themselves…Since then, we’ve seen an almost uninterrupted march toward self-focus, affecting all of our institutions but especially crippling work, marriage, and family” (and church!).
  • “How can you begin as a Christian without death to self and total commitment to Jesus Christ?”
  • “When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”
  • “By abandoning commitment, our narcissistic culture has lost the one thing it desperately seeks: happiness. Without commitment, our individual lives will be barren and sterile. Without commitment, our lives will lack meaning and purpose. After all, if nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for.”
  • “With commitment comes the flourishing of society – of calling, of marriage, of the church-and of our hearts. It’s the paradox Jesus so often shared when he bid us to come and die that we might truly live.”

From “Preaching the Life of Covenant and Commitment in a Time of Transition” by Rodney J. hunter, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA:

“Commitment understood broadly may be viewed as a social and psychological praxis that gives human life depth, definition, and stability of purpose over time, for both communities and individuals. It is commitment that gives us identity, creates and defines patterns of continuity and connectedness in the flux and conflict of events, and gives our lives whatever trust, security, meaning, and purpose they enjoy. So to whatever extend committing falters or fails, our lives and communities become disordered, insecure, and deprived of meaning and purpose. Theologically, commitment and covenant go to the core of our existence and reflect the very character of God and of God’s covenantal involvement with us and with the entire cosmos.”

Questions to leave you with:

  1. What is an expectation between a church member and a church? Is there a covenant community vow there?
  2. What is the expectation personally in interpersonal covenants?
  3. How does God covenant with us? Who is doing the work?
  4. How do commitment an covenant differ?