Harriet: Reflections on a Great Movie

It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a decade.  Finally, after six weeks or so of anticipation, the Thanksgiving break provided an opportunity to visit a movie theater to see Harriet, a biographical film about the life and work of Harriet Tubman.  Though I’m not a movie critic by any stretch of the imagination, when I watch a historical drama such as this, it’s the content, the setting, context and story that captivates my interest.

I’ve read a couple of biographies about Harriet Tubman, so the story line was familiar.  Of course, it’s a movie and the screen writing did indeed take some liberties with the creation of the character and the story, though I didn’t think the intention of doing it was to make the movie “more exciting” as much as it was to simply characterize the whole story by a more intense focus on possible events in order to give an accurate perception of the context within the limits and time constraints of a movie.  From a historical perspective, the movie was impeccably accurate and did an excellent job in its portrayal of the characters, especially Tubman.  As far as portraying the reality of slave life in America at the time, no movie that did an accurate job of that could achieve a PG rating.

Born Araminta Harriet Ross sometime between 1820 and 1825 in Dorchester County in the slave-owning area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she was injured in an accident in which she was hit in the head by a weight thrown by a slave owner intended for someone else.  It affected her for the rest of her life and made her prone to fainting spells.  She connected these semi-conscious episodes to visions from God.  Surprisingly, the movie story line does as well, not altering the perception she had that during the times when she was experiencing one of the episodes related to the injury, God would give her visions.  I did not detect a hint of skepticism in the portrayal of Tubman’s character when it came to her faith in God or her belief that he spoke to her and gave her visions which alerted her to danger or directed her during her expeditions as she helped slaves escape.

Her connection to God is seen early in the movie as she is found by the son of her master in a place in the woods where she had gone to pray for God to take the master’s life because he refused to honor a family agreement made by his mother to set Harriet’s mother and children free at her death.  She is overheard by the master’s son, who mocks her and her prayer, but shortly afterward, the master does indeed drop dead, leaving the farm in the hands of his wife, Eliza Brodess, and their son.  It is his death and the subsequent need of the Brodess family to raise money by selling off some of their slaves that prompts Harriet to plan her escape.  The depth of her faith is seen in her remorse over the words of her previous prayer,  but that whole episode does contribute to the perspective that she has a powerful connection to God.  I was left feeling that her prayer was not wrong and that God executed his judgement on her behalf as well as that of her mother’s family for the master’s failure to honor his agreement.

It would be difficult to argue against the idea that God was with her and that the visions she had when she was having one of her fainting episodes was the way he chose to reveal himself to her.  The connection is clear between her dependence on those visions and the fact that her initial escape was successful, as was every other escape she led. As the character of William Still, the Underground Railroad conductor and chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Committee said, “You are a miracle.”  Even with her disability Tubman, a young, female slave, managed to escape from the farm in Maryland where she was enslaved and made it to freedom in Philadelphia.  She had the help of the “Underground Railroad” network that included freed blacks in Maryland and Delaware, the Quaker community and others committed to helping slaves escape to freedom and she followed their instructions implicitly.  But during the times when she faced danger or was uncertain about which way to go, she relied on visions and directions from God and the movie affirms their accuracy.  Not only was that true of her own escape route, almost 100 miles from Bucktown, Maryland to Philadelphia, but also of every trip she made back to the Eastern Shore to help slaves escape, more than 70 in all.  None of those she led were ever captured while she was “conducting” their escape route, nor was she ever caught.  I believe that is a clear sign that God’s hand was on her.

Within the portrayal of her role in the Underground Railroad and through the characters with whom she interacts, there is plenty of support for the thought that she was called by God to her life work.  What she did was extraordinary and remarkable, requiring intellect, physical strength and emotional stability beyond the normal limits of human existence.  In her case, she also had to endure the discrimination and disrespect that came with being African American in an age when there weren’t very many people even among the white “progressives” who didn’t see that as a disadvantage.  She was also a woman in a time when that, too, presented a major disadvantage.  Yet she accomplished more than most men of her day were able to do.  In spite of all that she did, including her leadership during the Civil War, her fellow abolitionists continuously had to fight to secure a modest pension and benefits from a government she had helped far more than they could measure in dollars.

I don’t believe there’s a Caucasian person in this country who has any idea, when they encounter any part of their history that involves slavery, of how to handle that.  There is no way that any of us who are not African American have any point of reference to understand the depth of feelings that go with being a member of a minority race that was once enslaved because those who enslaved them believed themselves superior to them racially, intellectually and socially.  Even lacking that depth of understanding, there were scenes in this movie that had my blood boiling.  The widowed slave owner and her son calculating the monetary value of each of their remaining slaves and basing their decisions to split families, including children, because they needed money to save their farm, was a particularly nasty scene.  That particular aspect of this film showed a very ugly side of American history.  If that’s the way it was, and more than likely it was far worse, it’s no wonder the country wasn’t prospering.  What in the world was it that prompted Congress to allow this disgusting mess to invade the North under the Fugitive Slave Act?  What a shameful chapter of this country’s history, a stain that won’t go away.

The historical elements of this film are accurate.  There is a little bit of “Hollywood license” in some of the scenes that are not part of the biography, including her jump off the bridge into the river and her encounter with a slave catcher, who happens to be a free black man, and the son of her former master on her return trip to lead her own parents to freedom.  Tubman has a premonition sensing danger, sends the group on the riverboat to safety and stays behind to distract the slave catcher.  There are several intense dialogues between Tubman and the son of her former master which, from my perspective at least, are used to illustrate a “good vs. evil” conflict in a very subtle way.  He represents the whole constituency of slave-owners whose financial stability is completely dependent on the work done by their slaves.  He struggles with the idea of being more merciful and humane but weighs his own benefits against it and always retreats into selfishness.  She is strengthened and motivated by her ability to out-wit him by her repeated success in returning to Maryland and leading slaves off his farm to freedom, directly confronting him with the idea that God is, indeed, on her side and does, indeed listen to her, a fact that he reluctantly acknowledges.  During their confrontation in the woods, the slave catcher is killed, Harriet reloads her pistol and directly confronts her former master’s son, forcing him to drop his rifle.  She shoots him in the hand, forcing him off his horse and down to his knees where she lets him know, in no uncertain terms, exactly how evil she thinks he is.  She finishes the conversation, picks up his rifle, climbs on his horse and leaves him there in the woods.

That particular scene is likely not historical, though it is an accurate representation of what it was like for slaves to escape.  But it is probably the most powerful illustration in the entire movie of the belief that good, and by extension God, was on the side of Harriet Tubman and the idea of abolition of slavery and not on the side of the slave owners.

Slavery was evil.  Engaging in it requires the complete abandonment of God’s order of creation and straight up denial of the truth of his word.  If you still believe that Confederate monuments and the flag are “just part of our history” then you need to watch more movies like this and get familiar with the ugliness and wretchedness of the sin that was slavery and see why the Confederacy had to be defeated.  There was no honor or glory in it.  The Confederacy stood for a society and culture that weighed the value of one race over another and calculated its value in terms of the labor it produced and the value that it added to the bank accounts of the other.  It’s constitution and most of its leaders claimed a belief in the superiority of the white race over African Americans and treated the latter worse than their own cattle or other animals.  It proclaimed this twisted, evil racial philosophy in its constitution and it was preached by its leaders.  It was also preached by many of the ministers who stood in its pulpits.

Rather than commemorating its existence, the things we see should remind us of how warped and twisted it was, leading us to a commitment to be better.  The Confederacy shouldn’t be memorialized, it should be remembered for the evil for which it stood.  And we shouldn’t have monuments to its leaders, but memorials to those who suffered from its evil, along with those who continued to suffer in its long wake.

I believe that people are called by God and equipped for whatever he calls them to do.  Harriet Tubman is an example of that kind of calling.  She was a minister of the gospel in every sense of the word and his presence was with her.  This movie should be part of an entire unit of study in every American history class in this country.







Everything Changes and It’s Time For Change in College Football

Some of my best memories growing up involve spending part of Saturday with my Dad, watching football.  I learned a lot about the game from him.  Back then, you could choose from one or two games each Saturday depending on what the network offered.  Usually they picked one “nationally televised” game, involving ranked teams, and one game from your particular region.  Every now and then, maybe two or three times a season depending on his work schedule, we’d get tickets and go to Arizona Stadium in Tucson to watch the Wildcats.  They were a struggling team for the most part, in the remote Western Athletic Conference, but games were always evenly matched and exciting for the most part.  When I was in sixth grade, the Wildcats earned a berth in the Sun Bowl in El Paso and my Dad and I got tickets and made the four hour drive to the game.  For me, that was like the “big time.”  They played Auburn and lost, but it was a step forward for the program.

The sport really hasn’t advanced much further than it was when the four big New Year’s Day bowl games determined who the mythical national champion was.  To get in that mix, you had to be a big name school, win the games you were supposed to win, pick a couple of non-league opponents with big enough names to help get you there if you beat them and depend on the opinion of coaches and sportswriters who controlled the polls and the executives who decided which teams they would invite to their bowl games.  Most of the big four were “locked” into the champion of one conference.  The biggest game, the Rose Bowl, took what was then the Pac-8 champ and the Big 10 champ.  The Sugar got the SEC champ and an at-large opponent.  The Orange picked what was then the Big 8 champ and an at-large team and the Cotton got the champion of the Southwestern conference, which no longer exists.  After the games, where it was unlikely that the top ranked team would play the second ranked team, the sportswriters and coaches would decide, in separate polls, who was Number 1.

Money has changed the tradition of college football, but it hasn’t yet led to the creation of a playoff system to determine a national champion like other sports do.  The bowls still control the system.  In a year when two independent schools, Miami and Penn State, appeared headed toward the top two spots in the rankings, instead of accepting separate bowl bids, the Fiesta Bowl, up to this point not really a major player, drummed up the resources to offer each team enough to entice them to Tempe, Arizona for a national title game.  They accepted, and things have not been the same since.  The Fiesta was able to do the same thing two years later, in 1989, when West Virginia and Notre Dame, both independents at the time, also agreed to a Fiesta Bowl appearance for a game billed as the “National Championship.”  The competition has led to several evolutions of a national championship scenario, from bowl alliances and the BCS to the current four team playoff.  In spite of the fact that there are now more schools involved, the conferences have shifted and claimed new members and there’s been a lot of innovation and revision, the prestige and prominence of the schools with lots of heavily contributing alumni is still the primary influence in college football and it is still the reason why it is difficult to convince fans of the game that the four team playoff is a real “national championship.”

The attention follows the money.

It’s taken almost all season for the pollsters and pundits to reconcile themselves to the fact that the best college football team on any field in the country is not in the SEC and not even in the South.  It is Ohio State.  Yes, the Buckeyes have distinguished themselves by powerful victories, easy ones when they should have been, merciful when they needed to be, dominant when they had something to prove.  Their non-league schedule did include a couple of patsies, including Florida Atlantic and Miami (Ohio) but it also included a ranked Cincinnati team and wins over conference powers Penn State and Michigan, the latter of which is just a couple weeks away from dismantling a Notre Dame team that almost walked out of Georgia with a win, and a pounding of #10 Wisconsin earlier in the season, whom they will face in the conference championship.

Whether the SEC’s other playoff contenders are in the same ball park as the Buckeyes remains to be seen.  Alabama won’t get a chance to prove it now, though I don’t think the Tide is really top ten material this season.  They lost to Auburn, which is a good team but not top ten material either, and LSU, who, in spite of a spotless record still has to prove themselves because their schedule included the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Utah State, Georgia Southern, Northwestern State (LA) and an unranked Texas team they barely beat which finished fourth in the Big 12.  There is the possibility that if Georgia manages to beat LSU in the SEC title game, something I consider a long-shot but anything can happen, the Tigers might still get picked to be in as a one loss team by the committee.  If that happens, it will destroy the committee’s credibility and whatever image of fairness and neutrality they have.  The Big 12 and Pac-12 can both potentially produce a one-loss team coming off a win in a conference championship that will be a more credible choice than the loser of the SEC title game.

The conference seasons and conference championship games do a good job of sorting out the teams in the Power 5 conferences at the top.  Who’s to say that a 10-1 Utah team, if they beat Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, is not as good as Georgia, LSU or Alabama?  Or that either Baylor or Oklahoma, one of whom will emerge 11-1 from the Big 12, is not that good either?  It’s a matter of opinion until it is proven on the field, head to head.  The football season is an endurance contest.  Teams come together under the pressure or they fall apart.  Injuries create opportunities that can lead to either improvement or disaster.  It is time for a national championship tournament, sixteen teams, to see who has the stuff to last until the end, just like March madness or the College World series.






A Church in Transition

A phone call last night from an old friend delivered news about a church I served more than a decade ago.  Every now and then I see a facebook post or some other social media notification from someone connected to that particular church.  I can’t say I’ve really kept in touch, though I have talked to a few members from there on occasion.  But last night’s conversation was about what was happening in the church.  Unfortunately, the news wasn’t good.

It was a neighborhood church in a large, southern city, like so many other Southern Baptist churches, started in a booming, growing neighborhood following World War 2.  Actually, this church’s roots went back to before the war, which actually interrupted construction of its first permanent building, but it experienced its “heyday” during the post war baby boom.  It grew by the standard methods of church growth in those days:  a strong Sunday School, long-term pastorates, a big choir program, lots of things for children and youth to be involved and a family atmosphere.  It eventually built a sprawling campus that included a gymnasium,  lots of classroom space and a large fellowship hall with a commercial kitchen because fellowship meant families.  Attendance reached a peak average of over 900 in worship in the early 1970’s.

When I was called to serve on staff, back in 2002, the church was in “transition.”  A series of changes had occurred which caused a slow, steady decline in membership and attendance, from 900 down to 130 by the end of the 1980’s, leaving a core group of members mostly past 60 years of age.  There was transition of the surrounding neighborhood, though not in a way you’d think would adversely affect the church.  The area around it saw a major bump in property values starting in the 80’s, and as original homeowners aged, retired, passed away and their heirs sold the property, the deed-restricted, well-kept homes in the area soared in value, as did those in two adjoining historic districts.  But the more affluent population that purchased the property was made up of a diverse ethnic and cultural background not native to the South, nor familiar with its Southern Baptist house church.  Traditional Tuesday night visitation and a twice-yearly series of revival meetings didn’t work well as outreach tools.

There were several events beyond the congregation’s control which contributed to the declining membership and attendance:

  • The tenure of a long-term, well-loved pastor ended with his termination due to an affair with a staff members wife.  The staff member, a long-term and well loved worship leader, also left.
  • Within a five year period, two of the well-established, very traditional downtown Southern Baptist churches purchased pieces of property within a five mile radius of the church and relocated their campuses, along with their wide variety of ministries and programs and the ability to offer multiple worship style options, including contemporary services.  Within a five year period, the record shows more than 350 members left, with over 250 of them moving to the closest of the two megachurches.
  • The decline created internal conflict over ways and means of handling it and attempts to reverse it.  The church fought over everything from the cost of building renovations to the possibility of relocating.  Fights are costly when it comes to relationships and membership.  It became difficult to find qualified pastors and hold on to them.  After a couple of particular difficult pastoral tenures, the church found itself pastorless and having dwindled down to 130 faithful people.

That’s when the transition began.

They decided to take a chance on a younger pastor with three children, the youngest in first grade, who had only one other church experience since seminary and without the formerly required Doctorate-in-something.  He didn’t promise to go back to the glory days but he did promise that if the church would be faithful to God and willing to listen to what he had to say about how to grow a church in a new day and time, they would grow and become what God expected of them again.  They muttered and grumbled, there was some resistance and a few more departures, but ultimately, the leadership decided that it might be worth it to listen than to simply plan for the best way to close the church and dispose of the property.

In spite of the muttering and the grumbling, those who did listen and subsequently implemented the suggestions made by the pastor saw the church begin to grow.  Baptisms, which had sunk to an all time low of zero for almost a four year period, began to pick up, slowly, but people were coming to know the Lord.  Over a 16 year period of time, the church averaged 20 baptisms per year.

Most of the new members came into the church via its home groups ministry.  At one point, as many as seven home groups were meeting actively each week and the groups involved over 100 people, of whom half were connected to the church only through the small group in which they were involved and weren’t seen in worship or at church activities.  Few of the people who began attending, became Christians and joined the church during this period of time came from a traditional “church” background.  What was really taking place was the growth of a new church, using the same facility as an old one.

This church was never going to go back to its “glory days” in terms of the way they did church before the decline and it was also not likely to see the kind of attendance numbers that it once did.  But during the time I spent there as associate pastor, the goal was to continue to reach into the unchurched community and make disciples.  By the time I arrived, 14 years into the pastor’s tenure and at least a full decade into the transition, they had determined that assimilation into the existing congregation was happening on a very limited basis.

The two groups attended separate worship services, the older congregation at an 8:30 service with traditional hymns, piano and organ and choir, the newer group at 11:00 in a more contemporary style worship with a praise band and no coats and ties.  By the time I had arrived, attendance in the 11:00 service had surpassed that of the 8:30 service, and the Bible study groups that met on Sunday morning made up of newer members included as many as 60 children and youth, and over 100 adults, including a thriving singles group.  I’d guess that about 80% of the adults had come into the church through their original connection with a home group and then eventually through the baptistry.

The pastor who had led this transition felt called to a new church plant and after sixteen years, he resigned.  It was unfortunate that, in order to get much of what was done accomplished, he had to use up his reservoir of “good will” with the older remnant of church members who originally called him.  His departure wasn’t an amicable one from the perspective of the group of original members.  There was very little understanding on their part of the way the church was reaching out and doing ministry and evangelism.  They couldn’t understand why we just didn’t have Tuesday visitation and a fall and spring revival.  They didn’t understand why people were comfortable in a home group setting, but wouldn’t come to church on Sunday.  Their pre-school, children’s and youth Sunday school departments had been non-existent when they called the pastor 16 years before, now they were bursting at the seams, and there were four young adult Bible study groups on Sunday that also hadn’t existed.  But that somehow didn’t weight in their perspective or opinion.  They were becoming a 21st century church but that wasn’t a vision they could understand or accept.

There were a few individuals from the “new” group of church members on key committees, including a few Deacons, to prevent the dismantling of the ministries that were facilitating the growth.  The “cost” of the contemporary worship service, mainly a $500 weekly payroll for the praise band, had always been an issue, but the offering in the late service, made up mostly of working professionals, was much larger than that in the early service, made up mostly of social security recipients and pensioners.  Another benefit we enjoyed was securing the services of an interim pastor who was a seminary professor and who saw the value of the way the church was doing evangelism and ministry.  He had a reservoir of respect due to his position and to his success in pastoring the same church for over 35 years.  Between the two of us and our part-time youth and children’s ministers, we succeeded in keeping things in place.

Attendance actually increased during the interim period.  The search committee was inexperienced, not having called a pastor in 16 years, so they took things slow and listened to advice.  We had great preaching and the day to day operations of the church were stable.  So there was no pressure to move quickly.  The 11:00 service continued to increase in attendance.  We started a new “home group” in a cute little neighborhood coffeehouse that had been converted from an old gas station.  It attracted a very diverse group of mostly 20 somethings, mostly what I would call “counter-cultural” people involved in the large fine arts community in the historic district adjacent to the church’s neighborhood.

On a personal note, after almost a year had gone by, I determined that I would depart from the staff once a pastor was called and had time to settle in.  During the 26 months that the church was pastorless, the day to day operations were mostly my responsibility.  The interim pastor did the preaching on Sunday, I led the Wednesday night services and took care of funerals.  We had 54 of them during the interim period.  The church had a large list of “shut-ins,” and I devoted one day a week to visiting nursing homes and rehab centers.  That helped earn some good will to keep things in place at the church.  I also took over teaching the group of oldest adults in Sunday School.  In that venue, I was able to gain support to continue the ministries and outreach that was causing slow but steady growth in the church.

When I left, the church had a pastor in place for about two months.  He was an older, more traditional type preacher but he’d just come from five years of church planting and seemed like a good fit.  There was a competent youth minister in place and a dedicated, committed children’s minister.  We had just hired a licensed, experienced early learning center director.  I felt confident that the church had been left in good hands and that it had a good future.

So last night, I was saddened and grieved by the report that I got, telling me that the church attendance had dropped below 100.  Most of my Sunday school class has passed away, since they were in their eighties and nineties when I left.  But most of the younger people who were there are gone as well.

What happened?

Ministry is hard.  Commitment is hard to come by and expertise and knowledge, which are gifts of God but also require human effort, is not always in abundant supply.  Neither is vision.  Churches no longer grow like they did three or four generations ago.  A majority of the church was made up of people inexperienced in how a traditional church operated.  A group of individuals who did not share the previous pastor’s vision were eventually able to make several attempts to try and re-create the church that had existed when they were younger.

Specifically, the decision to push the church’s vision backward instead of forward was made when the church selected the search committee to find their next pastor.  The nominations and election of each member was arranged to represent a cross section of the church’s generational makeup, but the members elected from the younger generation turned out to be children of the older generation rather than those who had been reached by the church’s ministry in recent years.  They were less progressive and much more traditional in their perspective of church and after a long, two year search, they settled on a traditional pastor in his mid-fifties.  He had tried his hand at a church plant that had failed and wanted to get back into a traditional church setting.

Apparently, it did not take long for the church’s younger members to catch the change in vision.  The contemporary service was the first casualty, replaced with a “blended” service that was really more of a traditional service with hymns, though they kept the projection screens.  The praise band was replaced by a traditional “Minister of Music” approach who led singing with a piano and organ, helped by the choir.  The home groups were the second casualty.  They were left in place, re-named “life groups” but their autonomy was taken away and they became more of a fellowship and promotion group than a group that had functions related to worship, evangelism and outreach and discipleship.  They came under direct supervision of the pastor.

According to our recent conversation, the decline in attendance was relatively quick, taking place over a period of about 18 months.  The relocation of a popular, Gen-X/Millenial church with a very contemporary worship and progressive approach to ministry to a disbanded SBC church facility about two miles away attracted most of the younger families and members who left.  The nearby megachurch that had been a factor in the initial decline picked up a few others.  The remnant, about a hundred members, are mostly past 65, with a big group in their late 70’s and early 80’s.  There are a few families left, mostly children of older church members.  The youth and children’s leadership are now volunteers.  They’ve been pastorless going on two years now.  They are trying an “intentional interim” program to prepare for the transition.

So, in the middle of a booming neighborhood full of 30 and 40 somethings attracted by the proximity to downtown and an easy commute, the high property values of the very attractive cottages and bungalows that form a unique, picturesque neighborhood and affluence capable of sustaining several private schools in the area, a church with a sprawling facility, a gym and high visibility sits mostly empty.  It will be there for a while since a recent sale of property generated enough funds for a maintenance mode to last for quite a while.  It’s status quo in the denomination to which it continues to belong.  There are literally thousands of churches just like it, in cities all across the south.

Ministry is hard.

Explain This!

Beth Moore is a popular author and well known Bible teacher among Evangelical Christians.  She’s connected to Lifeway Christian Publishers in Nashville which is the publishing house owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention and she is a member of a large SBC congregation in Houston.

Her career hasn’t been without some level of controversy in a denomination that took a conservative turn in 1979, particularly with regard to doctrinal positions regarding the role of women in the church.  There were SBC churches that were moving in a more liberal direction with regard to the role of women in the church, including some who had opened deacon ordination to women and a few who were ordaining women to the gospel ministry.  The direction the SBC took in 1979 put an end to most of that movement and made what a church does with a woman in ministry a test of denominational fellowship, removing from status as a “cooperating church” any congregation that called a female to their pulpit and codifying a belief that the role of “senior pastor” was reserved for men only in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the statement of SBC denominational doctrinal fidelity.

The prevailing view is called “complimentarianism.”  It is a way of putting the perspective that most Southern Baptists share about the role of women in the church in a more positive light.  It includes the belief that women cannot hold ordained leadership roles in the church.  In more conservative circles, there is a literal application of passages from the New Testament, primarily Paul, which state that women are to be silent in the church, not asking questions but referring what they want to know to their husbands at home.  That’s the environment in which Moore has done her writing and teaching.  I’d say she’s done pretty well.  Well enough to be asked to preach from a pulpit on Mother’s Day and stir up a storm of controversy about whether or not a woman should preach.

I’ve encountered few Southern Baptist churches that apply this teaching consistently.  In every SBC congregation where I’ve been a member, women are not kept completely silent.  They’ve been able to pray publicly, to participate in business meetings, to use their prophetic gift as the scripture says they have been given and to have an active life and role in the church.  No church were I’ve ever been a member would have continued to exist without the women doing what they were called to do because no church where I’ve ever been a member had enough men willing to lead where they were called to serve.

Moore has taken quite a bit of criticism, to which she has responded admirably, patiently and scripturally.  She’s not a woman with an ambition to serve a church as a pastor but in the strict complimentarian perspective that so many Southern Baptists take, her high profile status is more than they think she should be allowed to have because she is a woman.

And because her name isn’t Paula White and she’s not the current occupant of the White House’s spiritual advisor.

I haven’t seen many complimentarian Southern Baptists say much at all about the fact that the President has chosen a female, who also serves a church in the senior pastor role which is a no-no big enough to get you kicked out of the SBC, but which seems to be absolutely fine because the President, or at least this President, gets a pass on something like this.

On top of the fact that White occupies a pastoral role in a church that Southern Baptists have explicitly stated belongs only to men, she also holds to a theology that most Baptists consider heresy, or at least close enough to virtually disqualify its followers from salvation by grace through faith in Christ.  She is a promoter and preacher of the prosperity gospel, an unbiblical philosophical system that justifies getting rich by whatever means are available because God wants you to be happy, healthy and wealthy.  There’s no Biblical support for her theological perspective at all.  From my perspective, the prosperity gospel is heresy, by definition.  So as far as Southern Baptists, as well as most of the rest of conservative, Evangelical Christianity is concerned, Paula White is out of the will of God on one count and a false preacher and teacher on another.

I can see why she would appeal to this particular President.

But many of those Southern Baptists who were so mean-spirited in their criticism of Beth Moore’s invitation to bring a mother’s day message from a church pulpit openly accept White, not because she is right, not because she is Biblical or anything close to it, but because she’s the President’s spiritual advisor, the President they like.  Paula White preaches every Sunday and many days in-between and they are silent.  That speaks volumes to me about, well, about a whole lot of things.

Many Southern Baptists were among the critics from the religious right who railed against President Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, taking a few sentences from a sermon he preached completely out of context and making such a fuss and an issue that it forced the President to sever his ties to the church.  Wright was pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, affiliated with a denomination that does have a few theological differences with Evangelical Christians though not anywhere as serious as the divide between the Biblical gospel and the prosperity gospel.  The UCC does allow for women to be ordained and to serve as pastors, though there are only a handful out of more than 5,000 in the whole denomination.  The critics were silenced for the most part when the Obamas chose to worship most frequently at a Baptist church in the city of Washington and on occasion, to sit under the preaching of an ordained Southern Baptist chaplain who preached the Protestant services at Navy Chapel.  Paula White is much further out of the ball park than Jeremiah Wright.  Where’s the hollering?

Beth Moore, a Biblically sound and highly regarded Bible teacher isn’t welcome in a Southern Baptist pulpit because she is a woman.  But given the chance, how many Southern Baptist pastors would rush at the chance to have Paula White preach in their pulpit?  And how much criticism have you heard from Southern Baptists about this particular woman preacher or this particular prosperity gospel promoter?

You know exactly how this is being perceived.

Not by Might, nor by Power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of Hosts

Reflections on the “Culture War” and American Evangelicals

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel:  Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the LORD of hosts.:  Zechariah 4:6 ESV

In Genesis, there is an account of God’s promise to Abraham and his offspring.  The problem was that at the time God made that promise, Abraham’s wife, Sarai, hadn’t had any children and was, by reasonable consideration, too old to have any.  Understanding how God worked was still a very new experience to these two Mesopotamians who had only very recently been introduced to the idea of the existence of an all-powerful creator God who loved his creation.  Abraham decided to fulfill God’s promise by resorting to his own wisdom and power.  He and his wife owned a female slave, an Egyptian woman named Hagar.  They decided to use their power over her, as her “owners” to have a child that they thought Sarai could not have on her own.  They used the worldly power of ownership and the sin of adultery for Hagar to conceive and bear a son that they would raise as their own.

God fulfilled his promises to Abraham in spite of this failure to depend on him.  Their perspective certainly changed when Sarai gave birth to Isaac at ninety years of age, in the way that God had promised and which was faithful to his character.  But God had given all of Abraham’s descendants a promise, which he was faithful to honor in spite of Abraham’s turning to his own power and will to accomplish God’s will.  God blessed Abraham’s son Ishmael, the offspring of Hagar, with the same promise he had made intending for it to be for Sarai’s son.  But once Isaac was born, Sarai’s perspective changed considerably, leading to yet another sinful act by ordering Abraham to banish Ishmael and Hagar from their home.  The end result was not the intended outcome.  God went around the acts produced by human reason and wisdom and accomplished his purpose anyway, but not the way Abraham expected.

I don’t think it is a far reach to use that account as a good illustration of the “culture wars” in which many American Evangelical Christians have chosen to participate.  They have aligned themselves with a secular political position in order to accomplish what they see as God’s will for America.  What it amounts to, more than anything, is a desire to return to a time when, because of numbers and influence, Protestant Christians dominated American politics to their own financial and political benefit.  Churches, specifically Protestant churches, were the “more equal” among equals.  In fact, they benefitted from government favor to the detriment and at the expense of Catholics, the non-religious and the adherents of other world religions.

Under the new covenant with Christ, Christians who have engaged in the “culture war” have the cart before the horse.  They are attempting to require behavior that is associated with Christian values and practices by requirement of the law, not out of conviction by the Spirit.  That’s contrary to the Bible’s teaching that such change is produced only by a spiritual transformation, not forced conformity.  Winning elections rather than winning souls has become the focus of many members of the church and the results of years of pushing hard in this direction are being felt as the majority of Evangelical churches have become rapidly aging congregations with rapidly declining membership and attendance.

But there is a bigger side-effect to lining up as an army in the culture war.  In the forceful give-and-take, “what’s in it for me?” world of secular politics, Christians find themselves supporting politicians who do not always share their values or practice their morality.  Christian leaders are distracted from the gospel message while becoming advocates for positions that don’t reflect Biblical standards or ethics or which, in some cases, put them at odds with true Biblical orthodoxy.  In recent years, well known Christian leaders have advocated for economic policy that clearly favor the wealthy and put the poor at a disadvantage.  They have supported cuts in federal funding which provide resources for programs that are lifelines to the economically disadvantaged.  They have supported draconian immigration laws and policies which violate not only Biblical standards but which are anti-American as well.

From a personal perspective, I’m opposed to abortion as anything but a last resort effort to save one life or the other.  I believe marriage is an established family institution involving only one man and one woman.  But I also believe that real science proves the existence of global warming which has been produced by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere caused by rapid industrialization and the advance of the automobile.  I believe that quality health care is a basic human right, is a full extension of the right to life that exists from conception and that we need to reform our system to remove the practice of profiting from pain, illness and the fear we all have of death.  I don’t vote based on a single issue.  I also won’t compromise my character by assassinating that of others who take a different perspective with name calling (libtards and feminazis being two of the most despicable that I’ve heard).  That’s a tactic of the “culture war” and that’s one of the best arguments I can make against getting involved in it.

I believe the United States is seen around the world as a refuge from oppression and as a land of opportunity and that vision needs to continue.  It’s who we are.  I don’t believe in compelling people to conform to specific Christian teachings, or any religious traditions or teaching, by the support of the law.  We live in a religiously pluralistic society where all people have the right to choose and practice their own faith according to their conscience.  But I also believe that Christians have the right to practice their faith just as freely as anyone else.  I think we are commanded, by the Great Commission, to find a place in our culture where we earn the right to be heard and effectively live out the gospel of Jesus in a way that leads to transformed lives by the grace of God through faith in Christ, not through government influence or fiat.

I believe the public officials we elect should be people with trustworthy moral character.  No one is perfect but a politician who can’t commit to a marriage relationship isn’t going to commit to the requirements of public office either.  A candidate who can’t be trusted in a business relationship to be honest and straightforward will lie while in office and seek to serve his own interests, not ours.

As Christians (and not just Evangelicals) have immersed themselves in agenda-driven partisan politics, they have had to take ownership of political positions and actions that fall outside the boundaries of their mission and purpose.  They have endorsed and publicly supported politicians whose lifestyles and moral choices are not anywhere near consistent with the kind of character they claim is necessary to set an example as a leader while being critical of “the other side” for doing the same.  Many of the posts I see on social media sites claiming to be from Christians and Christian sources show that they have bought into the caustic, hostile war that turns political opponents who are fellow American citizens into enemies, justified by no argument except “they do it too.”

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”  says the Apostle Peter.  But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”  I Peter 3:13-17 ESV

Much of the criticism of “Evangelical Christians” when it comes to their political involvement has nothing to do with preaching the gospel and everything to do with their defense of secular political positions.

I’m a pacifist, a conviction and position I arrived at because of Biblical teaching.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Matthew 5:9 “for they shall be called sons of God.”  A “culture war” isn’t fought on terms compatible with Christian values or Biblical principles.  It is not peacemaking, nor is it consistent with the Biblical value of peace.  It is the use of human wisdom to impose a particular interpretation or belief system through worldly power and influence.  The use of the term “war” implies methods not compatible with peace and therefore not compatible with Biblical teaching.  It requires taking positions contrary to the values and principles of Christian faith and being “unequally yoked” with unbelievers whose interest in the support of Christians is based on the number of votes they can deliver, not on the accomplishment of any kind of spiritual objective.  It causes churches to set aside their mission and purpose as the body of Christ, defined in the Bible and take up secular political positions, promoting things that have nothing to do with discipleship, worship, fellowship, ministry or evangelism.  The ground that churches are commanded to gain in scripture can never be conquered through faulty alliances with the world and on false pretenses when it comes to the will of God.

Conversion is the result of genuine transformation which occurs when a person is covered by the sacrifice of Jesus, acknowledging him as savior and Lord.  I John 4:2 says:  By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”  Making that confession leads to the only kind of spiritual transformation that will lead someone to experience conviction of their sin.  The aim of a culture war is cultural, not spiritual transformation.  The only way the culture’s problems will get solved is through spiritual transformation, not by a political war.






Living Life’s Dreams

My 62 birthday is approaching.  I’m still not used to having a 6 at the beginning of the number that marks my age.  That’s a good thing, though, since I don’t really feel sixty, at least not most of the time.  I’m around pre-schoolers, elementary aged children and middle school students five days a week, so every day has a lot of variety that comes with it and a lot of fun.  I love what I do.  I’ve spent almost an entire career working in education, most of that in Christian schools, some of it leading short-term mission projects for teenagers and college students, some of it in either vocational ministry or as a church member volunteering for service.  For me, the sense of inner peace and fulfillment is very high, because I’ve spent most of my lifetime doing something I genuinely enjoy and which I believe has fulfilled the will of God in my life.  Oh, He’s not done yet, and neither am I.

There were a lot of things that I dreamed about doing when I was a kid.  I remember when the “mini-bike” came out.  Small versions of motorcycles capable of hitting speeds of 35 MPH, it was a big desire to have one for a 13 year old who was longing for a driver’s license and it seemed to represent personal independence that a bicycle just didn’t allow.  Everyone at school talked about owning one and when the local Western Auto put one in the display window, I made sure my Dad saw it.  My parents had the wisdom to realize that what I saw as a new level of independence was actually a heightened level of danger.  Minibikes weren’t allowed on the roads, and the backroads and trails in the desert surrounding the community where we lived weren’t exactly a good place to turn kids loose with a motor vehicle.  Though my friend next door and I dreamed up a minibike adventure trip to Disneyland, few of our classmates ever actually owned one.  Neither one of us ever did.  My Dad did let me ride the Yamaha 100 motorcycle he used to ride to work until he got in a carpool, but he never let me ride it to school.

My dreams of travel did materialize, not only in family trips across the country to visit relatives that allowed me to visit 20 different states by the time I graduated from high school.  My interest in short term missions expanded my travel to different places during college and I spent summers in West Virginia and Missouri as a result.  Now, after more than 30 years of short-term summer missions projects or involvement of one kind or another, I’ve been in 32 states and seven foreign countries.  Not all of that involved short term missions, but most of it did.  Those short-term missions experiences have been among the most meaningful spiritual experiences of my entire life.  The presence of God is very real in an atmosphere where there is a need being met and there is a group of people gathered together for the specific purpose of meeting that need.  Spending the day in ministry that is difficult and requires focus and commitment is supported by prayer which leads to experiencing the presence of God through his Holy Spirit.

Growing up in a small town in Arizona was, for the most part, a good experience.  Of course, it had its limits but we were fortunate enough to be close to the larger cities.  Tucson was less than an hour, Phoenix just under three hours driving time.  I went to college in Phoenix which afforded the experience of living in a large city and being exposed to all of the things, good and bad, that life in the city encompasses.  My travels heightened my interest in experiencing life in different places.  That’s been an adventure in and of itself.  We live in a day and age where technology advancement brings experiences to your computer screen, but there’s nothing like the cultural education you get when you get to live in different places.

I’ve been blessed by being able to do work that I love and to which I feel called to do by God and to have been able to live in six different states from the Southwest to the Deep South, the Mid-South, the Northeast and the Midwest, in Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Illinois.  I’ve lived in the desert, where it’s “a dry heat” and where it’s rare to find a stream that runs when it’s not raining and on the gulf coast through three hurricanes and several tropical storms where I’ve seen four inches of rain come down in an hour and as much as twenty inches in a 24 hour day.  I’ve experienced “polar vortexes” when the temperature dropped to minus 24 below zero and summer afternoons when it was 122 in the shade and the airport had to stagger the landing of airplanes because the heat rising from the runway played havoc with the radar.  On two occasions, because of work, I drove through blizzards that put down 30 inches of snow.

There’s nothing like having cool, comfortable evenings night after night during the fall and spring in places like Missouri and Kentucky, where the leaves turning in the fall create some of the most beautiful scenery that exists on earth.  Never having seen that kind of scenery while I was growing up, I would catch my breath almost every day when I would head home from work when we lived in Western Pennsylvania and crested the hill in late October, as the scene of yellows, golds, oranges, reds and purples unfolded in the valleys below.  We’d take a Saturday drive down the Ohio River from Beaver, Pennsylvania to Wheeling, West Virginia just to look at the fall colors on both sides of the river.  I’ve seen a frozen-over Lake Erie in winter and have driven the shoreline in spring as it begins to thaw.

I’ve now lived in the third, fourth and fifth largest cities in the United States.  Chicago, Houston and Phoenix, respectively, as well as within half an hour’s drive of Pittsburgh and an hour’s drive of Nashville.  All of those places afford a rich variety of cultural experiences and for someone who is a history teacher at heart, they are loaded with their own stories.  I’ve lived close enough to Philadelphia and Washington, DC to visit there frequently and my work has afforded opportunities in legislative advocacy on behalf of Christian schools that has allowed me to find myself in hallways of the Capitol Building on both sides where tourists don’t get to visit.  There’s a feeling that you get, as an American, that can’t be explained when you are standing in that room in the National Archives in Washington where both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are kept, and in that room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia where they were written.

I’ve also lived in a large town with a university three blocks down from my house.  That was an interesting experience.  Bowling Green, Kentucky is one of those places that is just the right size to avoid some of the headaches of big city life, like traffic, but also to have the kind of shopping and medical services so that trips to the city were infrequent and mainly for enjoyment.  Having the university meant that there was Division 1 football and basketball and when we lived there, Western Kentucky University had one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country.  We moved there after living five and a half years in a small town in the Missouri Ozarks that was a two hour drive from Springfield, the closest city of any size.   That was a whole different experience, but one that we also enjoyed.  High school football on Friday night as the weather turns crisp, the serene beauty of the fall colors on the mountains, or at least, what passed for mountains in Southern Missouri, and a place where church was community, when you invited “everyone” over after church on Sunday night and thirty people showed up and stayed until 11.

For most of my career, I’ve been able to teach children in a school setting where the learning objectives were connected to Biblical truth because the philosophy of education of the school for which I was working recognized that you can’t separate the truth that God has revealed through his word from any educational experience.  Without an understanding and belief that God exists, that he created us in his image, and that he is the power that created and sustains the entire universe, knowledge is learned in a vacuum that doesn’t provide students with a way to develop wisdom based on objective standards that provide a solid foundation for life.  It’s been a privilege to serve students and families in Christian schools where we teach students to combat ignorance with truth, where hope rests on the understanding that we have a God who loved us enough to provide us with “salvation” that we can’t achieve without his strength so that they can face the world with confidence and be part of the solution to problems instead of creating problems.

Social media has permitted me to keep up with many of my former students and it has been very encouraging to see how most of them have embraced their life by turning to their faith in God and answering his call for their life.  There are no guarantees that any student in a Christian school will grow and mature in their faith experience.  Some students pursue their own goals and interests and don’t give much consideration to faith in Christ, some wander without a sense of purpose or direction.  But most of them find their way to Christian maturity at some point in their lives.  I consider it one of the highest privileges of my life to have, at some point, come into contact with them and served them as a teacher.  I’m well beyond being able to count them.  You don’t always get much of a hint, when they’re in your classroom, about what kind of impact you might be having in your life.  I deeply appreciate those who have found a way to let me know now, that I did indeed have an impact on their life.  More than anything else, that is a dream fulfilled.

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy to all people.  Titus 3:1, ESV



How Far Does the Second Amendment “Right to Bear Arms” Go?

Does it mean that you can arm yourself with military style weapons, load them and head into a Wal-Mart store?


There is a lot of debate and argument going on now over exactly what the second amendment guarantees when it comes to the right to bear arms.  Some insist that the principle comes from the colonial militia, the men who could be summoned to protect communities and homes in the event of an emergency and who became an essential part of the American military during the Revolutionary War.  Others say that there was a distinction made between those who could be called up as militia and those who weren’t.  Only the militia, who were trusted and recruited from among the general male population, were given the right to be armed according to their needs as a defensive military force.

The time I have spent studying American History, fairly extensive since I’ve taught it to high school and college students for several decades and still have an interest in reading and writing about it in order to develop school curriculum that is effective in teaching students what they need to know (which most public school history courses no longer do) leads me to believe that the right to bear arms for personal safety and the right to bear arms as part of local militia are two different and separate things.  One is for the mutual protection of the community, an armed “police” force designed to protect from an outside threat while the other is for protection of personal property.  Hunting is not mentioned or considered, by the way.

The militia could be summoned by those whom the community gave authority to govern and lead and could be used, as some suggest, to fight off a tyrant if the community will called for doing so.  But that decision was not left up to individuals to decide.  So an individual gun owner does not have the right to bring his weapon with him to use for his own protection while he isn’t defending his home or his property.  Such use would mean that his “rights” would supercede the same rights accorded to others and thus, would not be constitutionally protected.  So if a business posts a notice on their door or entrance which states that personal weapons are not permitted on their property, they are within their rights as a property owner to do so and it is not interfering with a gun owners “right to bear arms.”  The rights of the property owner supercede the rights of any individual and they have the right to choose who will protect them and how they will be protected.

The incident that the article refers to was a particularly stupid move.  Coming just days after a similarly armed gunman killed 22 and injured 20 more in  a Wal-Mart store in El Paso, Texas, to walk into a Wal-Mart armed to the teeth to “test” whether Wal-Mart honors the second amendment was an act of sheer stupidity.  And it looks like the punishment will fit the crime.  It is not a violation of anyone’s second amendment right to bear arms for a private business owner to restrict the possession of any form of weapon on their property.  Your rights stop at the boundary where their rights begin.

These active shooters aren’t dummies.  The shooter in Dayton clearly figured that there might be people around with permits to carry out in public where he planned to carry out his act of mass murder so he acquired some body armor and was wearing it.  The argument that if there are other armed individuals present in the immediate area which is, in and of itself a protection against mass shooters doesn’t hold water.  The Dayton shooter killed 12 people and injured many others in 30 seconds before armed police officers could figure out what was going on and shoot him to stop the carnage.  Note that it took professionals, not citizens carrying guns, to neutralize the guy and stop the shooting.  Too late.  In the El Paso Wal-Mart, it’s doubtful any citizen with a gun could have reacted in time to prevent what one guy with an automatic rifle did in a short period of time.  And if someone else had opened fire, whose to say that more people wouldn’t have died in the crossfire?

There’s common sense legislation that has been proposed that probably won’t stop every single mass shooter, but which will stop enough to drop the death toll and help get a handle on the problem.  Delayed purchases and background checks do not violate anyone’s second amendment rights!  The constitution doesn’t say anything about how long it takes to purchase a gun, how soon you can have it nor does it say anything about restricting the sales of military style weapons to non-military personnel.  Nor does it say that a “red flag law,” which would allow temporary removal of weapons from an individual suspected of planning a massacre or with some other notable instability is unconstitutional.  These are both excellent starting places and it looks like we are finally going to get there.  It is taking the clear threat of a massive number of voters planning to vote against members of Congress supported by the NRA to get action.  Well, if that’s what it takes, then it is time for some members of the house and senate to go home.

I work in a school where two thirds of the students are under the age of 12.  The student body is about 70% Latino, mostly Puerto Rican with a mix of Mexicans, Central Americans who are mostly Guatemalan, Honduran or El Salvadoran, about 10% African American and a scattering of Caucasians and Asians.  I’ve been through several training sessions on securing a school building and what to do if an active shooter either enters  your building or is on your property.  I’ve seen videos from the Columbine and Jonesboro shootings and pictures of the aftermath of Sandy Hook.  It absolutely sickened me to hear the screams, the sounds of the automatic weapons going off continuously, the silence that follows.  There is no way you can sit through a training session on ways to secure your building in the event of an active shooter, realize that if it ever happens to you, there is going to be loss of life no matter how well trained you are and then sit there and do nothing because your pet politicians and their party are against it because they need the campaign funds from the NRA.

The drills are very frightening to the children, because they know why we are doing them and the fact that we have to do this tells them that their classroom may not be safe and that someone could walk in and start shooting.  The drills are designed to protect as many students and staff as possible, knowing that if an active shooter ever does come to your campus, not everyone is going to survive.  And yet, that’s not enough to move the Republican members of Congress, the Senate Majority leader who already has several bills in front of him that would at least be an improvement over how things are now, or the President.

If they cared about the children of this country, they’d do something.

More Controversy for Southern Baptists over Women’s Roles, Social Justice


About that Trailer

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. ”  I Corinthians 13:12, RSV

It seems that there are many people within the scope of Evangelical Christianity, and within specific denominations who have appointed themselves as the doctrinal police.  They have assumed the responsibility for correcting errors and putting people on the “right path” as far as God is concerned.  It’s not a new thing.  Claims by groups of Christians in this country to being the only agents of Biblical truth blessed by God based on the doctrine they’ve developed based on their particular interpretation of the Bible are as old as the divisiveness of American denominationalism, and of European sectarianism prior to that.  Europe’s bloodiest and longest wars can be attributed to religious bigotry arising out of a blend of nationalism and religious fervor stirred up by those who believed they were right and that they were “fighting for the truth” with God holding their coattails and cheering them on.

We’re now forty years down the road from the initial movements that launched the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention.  The whole impetus behind the resurgence was to pull the denomination “back” toward its “conservative theological roots” and rescue it from a dangerous “liberal” drift that included the abandonment of belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the original autographs of the 66 books of the accepted Protestant canon.  In so doing, the leaders of the resurgence would restore the teaching of sound Biblical doctrine in the seminaries which would then translate into the churches.  The denomination would then be on the road to revival, not decline like the mainline denominations who, resurgence leaders claimed, had abandoned belief in scriptural authority.

Events that have transpired in the SBC since the initial movement of the Conservative Resurgence, led by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler in 1979 show that the convention didn’t have far to go to get back to its “conservative roots.”  Most of it was already there.  A few tweaks to the doctrinal statement used as a general standard by the agencies and institutions developed into the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000” made the denomination’s perspective of “Biblical Inerrancy” clear.  It also established the doctrine of “complementarianism” regarding the role of women in the church and family by stating that the office of “senior pastor” of a church is reserved exclusively for men.  Over time, the few Southern Baptists who objected to these changes formed the loosely connected “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” made up at its peak of 1,800 churches, a fraction of the 45,000+ that make up the SBC and most of those churches never severed their denominational affiliation and remained Southern Baptist.

It should be expected, among Baptists, that there would be those who did not think the resurgence went far enough and who have continued to agitate for a form of doctrinal conformity that is far narrower, and imposes far more in the way of specific interpretations of scripture into what they believe the SBC should enforce among its churches.  While Calvinism has never been a major influence in the SBC, at least one Calvinist-based group of churches, known as Founders Ministries, let by Florida Pastor Tom Ascol, continues to push the SBC toward a higher level of doctrinal conformity.  They claim that the SBC is, once again, drifting to the theological left and needs a course correction specifically based on their particular interpretation of the scripture.  They think that the walls of “complementarianism” are being broken down, due to an erosion of commitment to inerrancy.  And the bottom line is that because they are reformed, they don’t have a framework for existing within a denomination that doesn’t enforce five-point Calvinism.

The SBC is already beset with problems.  A major scandal involving sexual abuse on a wide scale by church leaders and pastors hit pretty hard, not just that it had been happening, but that up until recently, denominational leaders were complicit in shoving it under the rug and failing to deal with it, shielding themselves from responsibility with “local church autonomy.”  Several of its entities, including the North American Mission Board and Southwestern Seminary, have gone through downsizing and major leadership changes because stacked trustee boards failed to hold leaders accountable until it was too late and the cost became high in terms of wasted funds at NAMB, and major loss of enrollment at Southwestern.  On top of that, the SBC has lost more than a million members in just one decade, something that doesn’t sit well with denominational leaders who expected the doctrinal shift to the right to take care of the problem.

So how much more fine tuning can you do, doctrinally, in a Baptist denomination without losing a large constituency of churches and members?  I’d say, not much.

Southern Baptists can be notoriously arrogant when it comes to doctrine and theology.  Even though the Christian church has come to a fairly wide variety of beliefs on secondary and tertiary doctrine, including some disagreement as to what actually constitutes secondary and tertiary doctrine, among Southern Baptists is the widespread belief that there is just one interpretation closest to the truth of the word, and it is their’s.  The love of Christ is seldom evident in comments, discussions and even sermons by prominent Southern Baptists, who are harshly critical and dismissive of theological perspectives that can be interpreted compatibly with belief in the inerrancy of scripture, abut different than the hard line literalist view of most Evangelicals.

The denomination itself cannot do anything about those churches that have differing perspectives on secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs.  The SBC has excluded a few churches with a “welcoming and affirming” stance on gay, lesbian and transgender inclusion by claiming that their interpretation of scripture requires a departure from the Baptist Faith and Message’s declaration that the Bible is “truth without any mixture of error.”  They have excluded churches which have called and ordained female pastors based on the statement in the BFM that declares the office of senior pastor to be reserved by men.  But they can’t enforce their narrower complementarian view so there is some bullying going on in that churches which give much more open access to women in leadership are said to be part of a new “drift toward liberalism” along with those who give consideration to social justice issues.

So what Ascol and his Founders Ministry group bring to the SBC is controversy.  There’s nothing wrong with standing by your convictions when it comes to the way you interpret the scripture.  What is wrong is thinking that it is the only correct interpretation and feeling compelled to rebuke anyone who disagrees with you by using catch phrases and buzz words.  There are nuances of difference in the way Christians of all kinds use the term and practice “social justice” and some churches get distracted from their Biblically defined function when they get involved in issues.  But escalating controversy will be the result of attempts to force a much narrower view of these issues on churches by the denomination.

The SBC still doesn’t seem to have grasped the seriousness of their clergy sexual abuse scandal.  Some major steps were taken at the Birmingham convention in June which will give the denomination the ability to take action against churches that don’t deal with accusations properly, especially when it comes to reporting abusers and making sure they aren’t passed along to another church, but there is resistance to acknowledge the perspective of many of the female victims who feel the abuse, in many cases, results from the strict complementarian views held by most Southern Baptists and Founders Ministries seems to articulate that resistance.  Their post about the trailer, while somewhat conciliatory and which does express a desire to be truthful in representing the viewpoints of those whose comments they had previously included in the movie, seems to indicate that they were taking a more strident perspective at the outset.

Social justice means different things to different people.  One of the reasons it is so controversial within the SBC is that so many Southern Baptists, like many other Evangelicals, have allowed conservative politics to interfere with and blend with their Christian beliefs and perspectives.  We live in a country, under a constitution that theoretically guarantees equality of opportunity.  How that is achieved is a matter that has created vastly different perspectives including whether or not the churches are obligated to participate and assist in ensuring that equality happens.  There are Christians who think “social justice” is liberalism and apostasy because they believe the founding fathers created a “Christian” nation and that they should be privileged by government, not equally treated along with Muslims, Jews and Atheists.  There are those who do not see advancing social justice as a Biblical function assigned to the church.  And there are those who think that avoiding it runs counter to every principle that is revealed as God’s truth in his inerrant, infallible word.  Southern Baptists hold all of those perspectives, so a group like Founders Ministries, which pushes for the first view, creates controversy when they do.

Even the “essentials” on which Southern Baptists and many other Christians agree upon are interpreted differently and terms do not always have the same meanings when they are used.  When you say you believe in “salvation by grace through faith in Jesus,” that seems pretty clear theoretically.  But within a denomination, or even a local church, you will find numerous explanations and exceptions as to how that is interpreted.  Is repentance required first?  Can someone just come to the conclusion that they are a sinner in need of grace without being convicted by the Holy Spirit and led to the cross?  Does the Holy Spirit convict everyone at one point or another, or only a predestined, select group of people?  You get the point.  In hierarchical churches and groups, the answers to those questions are determined by those who have been given the mantle of leadership, along with the authority to direct the expression of churches when it comes to doctrine and theology.  In the SBC, the authority for faith and practice is each individual congregation, so conformity at the denominational level has to be determined by the messengers from the churches and nothing the convention does is binding on the churches.  Except now, on some points of interpretation, they’ve given authority to remove a church from denominational cooperation.  Attempts to use denominational influence to enforce differences of opinion on doctrine generate unnecessary controversy which disrupts cooperative ministry.

The SBC needs efficient, effective leaders, not a narrower interpretation of its doctrinal position.





This is America

Today, four members of the House of Representatives did exactly what we elect representatives to do.  Singled out and criticized by the President because they don’t share his perspective, he made the mistake of attacking them personally, based on their ethnicity and their religious beliefs.  In a relatively short amount of time, his twitter tirade attacking the four representatives has quickly become a political firestorm.  He inadvertently gave them an open platform to respond and they did, by laying out the issues which got them elected by their constituents and by refuting the falsehoods in his accusations.

In start contrast to Trump’s angry blast, the four Representatives took advantage of the attention focused on the moment to give clear, concise explanations of their perspective on the specific issues they believe are priorities for the people they represent.  Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York were the objects of a Trump tweet and comments that said if they hated America so much, they could go back to their “broken and crime infested countries.”  In a few short minutes, their response refuted every point of Trump’s accusation, including his statement that they are “constantly complaining” and that they “hate America so much.”

Representatives are supposed to “represent” their constituents.  These four freshmen women house members clearly get that, emphasizing their very clear awareness of issues that are important to their constituents and that their position on those issues was exactly why they ran for Congress and why they were elected, overwhelmingly in all four cases, to the House of Representatives from their respective districts.  They are not “angry” at America, or mad about living in America as Trump tweeted and mischaracterized them completely.  And they underlined the fact that the President doesn’t seem to get this. They pointed out, clearly and correctly, that taking a different perspective from that of the President is not hatred of America, it is what makes America great.  It is one of the inherent values of a democratic republic.  It appears, from the reaction they received, that much of America certainly loves “the Squad.”

Only Rep. Ocasio-Cortez referenced the President’s statement regarding “returning to their broken and crime infested countries,” by noting that she is from the Bronx and that she is going back there in order to be able to represent her constituency.  She illustrated her understanding of the American government with a story about a visit to Washington, DC as a child, when her father had her sitting on the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument and told her that everything she was looking at belonged to her, and to all of the people of this country.  Two of the other three in the group are, like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, native born American citizens.

It is interesting to note that the First Lady has not been in the United States as long as the only one of the four, Rep. Omar, has been here.  Omar’s family came when she was a child.  Ocasio-Cortez, of Puerto Rican ancestry, comes from a native-born American family that goes back generations and is of longer tenure than that of Donald Trump.

Rep. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Her father fled the country when she was still a child because he and several other family members had been involved in civil government in Somalia and were under attack by rebels and revolutionary groups when the country fell into anarchy.  They came to the US and were granted refugee status seeking asylum.  Her grandfather became involved in local government and civic organizations and was the primary influence in her decision to become involved in politics by serving as his interpreter when he attended caucus meetings.  She earned a degree in political science and international studies from North Dakota State University, not exactly a radical, wild-eyed liberal place.  She is an advocate for the living wage, affordable housing, student debt relief, immigration reform that includes the humane and decent treatment of children and families and favors abolishing ICE.  She has, along with many other Americans, expressed opposition to Israeli treatment of people living in Gaza and the Occupied Territories.  To accuse her of “hatred” toward America is blatant and inexcusable ignorance.

Rep. Tlaib was born in the United States, in Michigan.  Her family ethnicity is Palestinian Arab and she, like Rep. Omar, is a Muslim.  Politically, she is on the far left side of the Democratic party, in the same general ideological group with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.  She is opposed to US aid to Israel and is an outspoken critic of Israel’s actions and policies regarding the Palestinian state and people.  She is also an advocate for universal health care, particularly Medicare-for-all and has been opposed to the current President’s tax and economic policy which she claims favors only the wealthy at the expense of those who work for a living.  There is little question about her perspective on economics and government, nor over whether her positions are supported by an overwhelming majority of her constituents.  There’s no evidence in anything she has said or done to indicate that she is anything but a patriotic American.

Rep. Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in Chicago.  Her political background includes service as an intern to Rep. Joseph Kennedy III which explains her positions on issues considered to be progressive, including being an advocate of “Medicare-for-all”, addressing violence against women, human trafficking, child abuse and domestic violence.  She falls within the same political spectrum on economic reform as the other three, to the left of most members of the house, including those of her own party.  She, along with Rep. Tlaib, have been outspoken in their support for the impeachment of the President which explains his accusation of “hatred for America” against her.  That doesn’t prove any hatred for America.

When has dissent on issues supported by a sitting President ever constituted “hatred for America”?

This is America.  We are a nation of immigrants and a country that is built on a foundation which recognizes what is stated in our Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.  Whether our family recently arrived or our ancestors have been here for a while does not matter.  The color of our skin and our ethnic background does not matter.  The religious beliefs we hold do not make any difference in the recognition of our equality.

It is a testimony to the veracity of this basic American principle that a child whose parents came here fleeing tyranny and anarchy in Somalia could continue to pursue her interest in public service, something she learned from her family and wind up getting overwhelmingly elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives.  It is a testimony to this principle that a young African American girl could get a quality education at a private school in Chicago with a strong academic program and advance to a position from which she can influence American public policy and get elected to the US Congress.  It is a testimony to this principle that a girl growing up in a low income area of the Bronx, and who supported herself by working at two jobs including as a waitress could aspire to run for Congress because she felt compelled to make a difference.  And it is a testimony to this principle that a girl who was born and raised on the west side of Detroit among a community of refugees escaping persecution and oppression including the loss of their homes and land could win the trust of the entire district in which she lived in order to be overwhelmingly elected to serve in Congress.

This is America.  These views, expressed by these people, are part of who we are just as much as those who press for things conservatives think are important.  These women went through the process of running for office and through all of the steps necessary to win the confidence of the voters in their respective districts.  Now, thanks to the President, we are aware of the fact that they are doing exactly what they were elected to do, which is to represent their constituents in the House of Representatives.  They don’t hate America, on the contrary, their presence in Congress is fulfilling a civic responsibility that is a demonstration of true patriotism and love for America, not hatred.  The positions they have taken on the issues are legitimate, whether you agree with them or not, and they are the reason why their constituents elected them rather than their opponents.

This is America.  There is no religious test for serving in government.  While Christianity has been the dominant religious influence on American culture, there have been people here representing all of the major world religions since colonial days.  The Muslim community in this country is made up mostly of people who were born and raised in the United States and those who weren’t came here legally, by their own choice, not because they hated this country but because they loved it and wanted to invest their lives and families in it.  Muslim history in this country goes back to colonial days, though they have only recently begun to participate in the political process but they have served and sacrificed in our military.  Being Muslim doesn’t mean they are loyal to another country, they live here by choice and the vast majority of them are just as horrified and saddened by terrorist activity as any other Americans.

These four women, freshmen members of the United States House of Representatives are working to make their country better, because this is their country, not someplace else.  Mr. President, they are “back where they came from,” and every one of them has a list of things they want to accomplish, not to boost their own reputation, but on behalf of the constituents who overwhelmingly elected them to office.  They are representatives in the truest sense of the term.

Because this is America.  



Cartoon Goes Viral, Artist Loses Job

The Canadian artist who drew this cartoon lost his job after it went viral on social media.  His employer said it had nothing to do with the cartoon and there is some credibility in that statement.  His publisher is also Canadian, operating publications in New Brunswick.  In Canada, a political cartoon lampooning the President of the United States would probably not be a hot enough topic to cost someone their job.  The current President is not very popular among Canadians these days, so it is likely that the publisher’s statement about the cartoonist’s job is reasonably accurate.

But what about cartoons like this?  Is it in poor taste?

The tragedy that met the family whose photos were flashed all over the news last week is no laughing matter.  People are leaving Central America in large numbers because living conditions in several of the countries there have become unbearable as drug cartels and a generally lawless atmosphere are overwhelming national governments who do not have the resources to control it.  The Trump administration cut significant amounts of aid to Central America which they were using to try and stabilize their countries.  Most of the drugs produced in Central America are exported to the United States so there is an obligation on our part to help put a stop to it.  When our aid stopped, people began packing up and heading for the border.

Why shouldn’t they?  Even though the United States has interfered in Central American politics for almost the entire existence of the countries in the region as a “security” issue, and most of the political turmoil related to revolutions and shifts in power have been caused by American interference, the United States is still seen as a haven from oppression and a land of opportunity by most Central Americans.  So they are willing to trek across Mexico, on foot or however they can get here, to the United States.  The United States has, on other occasions, welcomed much larger groups of refugees and asylum seekers.  Cuba is the best example from Latin America.  We also took in as many Vietnamese as were able to escape when the Communists over-ran the south after we left.  In both cases, far more people were admitted to the United States than we have allowed to cross the border from Central America.

Criminalizing them by claiming they are breaking our laws through illegal entry is a ridiculous claim in light of our refugee and asylum policies.  Claiming that they are increasing the crime rate and are really just a means for terrorists to “sneak in” is the same lousy logic that was used prior to and during WW2 to keep European Jews out of the country.  Yeah, read that little bit of history.  The United States is today a friend of Israel, but from 1932 to 1945 we restricted the entry of Jews fleeing Hitler, deliberately closing doors so that those who could escape after the war would pile up in the neutral European countries instead of coming across the water.  We claimed fear of spies and saboteurs among them but the United States always has had and still does have the resources to make sure those who are granted admission are not spies, saboteurs or terrorists.

I can certainly understand the frustration that produced this cartoon and caused it to “go viral.”  On the other hand, a father and child lost their lives just feet from the freedom and relief they were seeking because it was worth the risk to them to attempt to wade across a river to get to the kind of life that you and I take for granted every day.  Clearly, the policy that is being put in place at the border doesn’t represent the perspective or feelings of the vast majority of Americans, including my own.  But that father and daughter deserve our respect.  As much as that cartoon may make a valid point, we need to find a better way to honor the dead.

Canadian Artist Fired Over Cartoon Of Trump Golfing By Dead Bodies