Think Before you Talk

From the accounts of his actions in the gospels and the book of Acts to the time he wrote two notable epistles to persecuted Christians, Peter is one of the best New Testament examples of what a maturing Christian looks like.  I once had a high school Bible class do a character analysis of Peter, using all of the descriptive passages they could find, and then see if they could contrast what they found with what they could discern about the character of the man who wrote I and II Peter, based on what he wrote.  From a high point where he declared that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God,” to his impetuous behavior in the garden when he sliced off the ear of the high priest’s servant, to his lowest point when he denied ever having been with Jesus, Peter shows us the remarkable reach of God’s grace and the importance of living a life which testifies to it.

“Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  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

Peter writes these words to encourage a church that was becoming disheartened and broken because they were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  So this apostle, yes, the very same one who grabbed his sword to defend Jesus in the face of his arrest, reminds the church that if they are suffering for righteousness, they will be blessed.  The better response, the one that will set a good example, the one that will be faithful to Jesus, is to defend what they believe gently and respectfully, not with a sword or a sharp tongue.

A long anticipated meeting of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention took place last week.  The nation’s largest Evangelical Protestant denomination is trying to get past a devastating sexual abuse scandal involving pastors and church leaders on a similar scale as that which has plagued the Roman Catholic Church for several decades now.  Once it hit the news cycle, the attempts of the denomination’s leadership to deal with it, including providing comfort and help to the victims in a manner that reflects a commitment to Christian ministry principles, to deal with pending incidents and cases including those occurring within the agencies directly operated by the convention as well as those in churches which are independent and autonomous and only voluntarily affiliated, have drawn more criticism than praise.

The anticipation involved presentation of Vision 2025, a new emphasis and plan laid out by the new executive director of the SBC’s executive committee, Dr. Ronnie Floyd.  The whole meeting was billed as a positive step forward, encouragement and renewal for a denomination that has experienced more than a decade of attendance and membership decline for a variety of other reasons besides being scandalized and embarrassed by the revelation of the sexual abuse taking place.  Unfortunately, secular politics reared its ugly head and cast a dark shadow over what little enthusiasm and excitement the meeting might have generated.  A denomination that claims, in its Baptist Faith and Message statement adopted in 2000, that the Bible has, for its matter, “truth without any mixture of error,” seems to frequently ignore passages like the one I cited above from Peter when it conducts its business.

Even though the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a very efficiently organized office that advocates on behalf of Southern Baptists in Washington, DC, had been one of the brightest spots in the denomination’s attempts to recover from the sexual abuse scandal, its executive director, Dr. Russell Moore, has constantly been under fire because he is not a supporter of the sitting President.  Not that support for a partisan political perspective, or partisan politicians, is part of the ERLC’s mission and purpose–it’s not–but that just doesn’t sit well with some Southern Baptists.  So, there’s a small group of detractors within the denomination who, in an effort to punish Moore for his personal opinion, which has nothing to do with his operation of the ERLC, want to either defund it by removing its budget, or figure out a way to get him fired.

I’m wondering how those efforts fit with the scripture, especially with the one I cited above from 1 Peter.

The ERLC has a very clearly stated purpose.  It was formed when the SBC decided to pull out of the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs (now the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) and took on the SBC’s religious liberty interests directly.  You can read about what they do on their website, but the ERLC gives Southern Baptists one of its best returns on Cooperative Program dollars.  There is nothing in its purpose, or in the work that it does, which remotely suggests it should take partisan sides in arguments, or that its executive director must support a sitting Republican president and oppose a sitting Democratic president.  Southern Baptists don’t need a denominational entity to tell them who to vote for or who to support.  Moore’s lack of support for Trump has no effect on the operation of the ERLC any more than Al Mohler’s has on Southern Seminary.

The Southern Baptist convention has clearly affirmed Moore’s leadership of the ERLC.  Several attempts to head down the road of removing him or defunding the entity have overwhelmingly been turned down by messengers at the convention.  The attempt at this past week’s Executive Committee meeting to force an investigation into the ERLC is first of all dishonest, because it is clear that it is not related to anything the ERLC has done, but is yet another attempt to try and silence him because he is a high profile Evangelical voice in opposition to the sitting President.

In combination with other action, in which the Executive Committee essentially took over the Pastor’s conference leadership because they were getting complaints about the lineup of speakers, it seems like the Executive Committee of the SBC did a great job of covering up the optimism and good news that came from the announcement of Floyd’s initiatives.  The Executive Committee is still operating under the impression that a few powerful and influential individuals can use the power of their positions to get their way, regardless of what the rest of the convention’s constituency does or says, in some cases, in direct opposition to what the constituency does and says.  In that regard, Southern Baptists are not unlike the Roman Catholic church.


And Now For a Deep Theological Discussion

Finally, all of you, be like-minded and show sympathy, love, compassion, and humility to and for each other—  not paying back evil with evil or insult with insult, but repaying the bad with a blessing. It was this you were called to do, so that you might inherit a blessing. 

It is written in the psalms,
If you love life
and want to live a good, long time,
Then be careful what you say.
Don’t tell lies or spread gossip or talk about improper things.

Walk away from the evil things in the world—just leave them behind, and do what is right,
and always seek peace and pursue it.

For the Lord watches over the righteous,
and His ears are attuned to their prayers.
But His face is set against His enemies;
He will punish evildoers.

Why would anyone harm you if you eagerly do good?  Even if you should suffer for doing what is right, you will receive a blessing. Don’t let them frighten you. Don’t be intimidated, but exalt Him as Lord in your heart. Always be ready to offer a defense, humbly and respectfully, when someone asks why you live in hope. Keep your conscience clear so that those who ridicule your good conduct in the Anointed and say bad things about you will be put to shame.

I Peter 3:8-16, The Voice

Peter is writing to a persecuted church.  We don’t really know the intensity of what was happening there, but the daily life of the believers who were part of this particular church to which he was writing was affected  by it.  Clearly there was a lot of verbal attacking because of the things Peter mentions here, such as not paying back insult for insult, not being intimidated and the use of the term ridicule.  There may have been some physical beating or suffering occurring as well.  Peter encourages them to keep their composure and their dignity, not to retaliate, but to respond with gentleness and respect.  By doing this, they would visibly demonstrate real faith to their persecutors, perhaps with the opportunity to win them over at some point.  The reward was being blessed.

Contrary to the cultural theology that has crept into American Christianity, including conservative American Christianity, “blessing” rarely has anything to do with money.  It is a sign of the active presence of God working in someone’s life.  For those to whom Peter is writing, it must have been something very powerful, leading to overcoming the fear of their persecutors and to continuing to bear their testimony of faith in Jesus.  I tend to think that they were seeing people who had initially persecuted them come to saving faith in Christ and join with the church.  Maybe it was a series of things that, in the middle of a bad time, served to boost their morale and provide encouragement.  Peter is pointing out that blessing is a sign that God is with them and that this way of experiencing his presence confirms that they are in his will.

You know what that looks like, right?  You’re in the middle of one of those weeks when nothing is going right, when everyone is on your case and when you feel completely worthless.  And then something happens in the middle of all of that and it stands out because it is the voice of God speaking to you and telling you, “Don’t worry.  I’m here.”  It’s a spiritual breakthrough, or an answer to a prayer that you’d given up on, or just a moment when you see something that tells you God is bigger than your experience.

It’s the work of a sovereign God.  And blessings are not only a sign of his presence, but a sign of the fact that we don’t make the rules, he does.  Nor does he necessarily follow rules in accordance with what might be our interpretation of his rules, but somehow miss the point.  Blessings go with doing the will of God.  Sometimes, the way God provides blessings doesn’t exactly fall in line with our expectations or our particular interpretation of the scripture.  But then, the context is a little different for us.  We are not facing the kind of persecution that Peter’s audience was experiencing and which did affect the way they saw the world.  They didn’t have the luxury of judgment that we do.

Let me put some context in this discussion.

It’s likely that most of those who are reading this would believe that scripture teaches that women can serve in the church, but not in any capacity with “authority,” which would include serving as the pastor or being in a position to teach scripture when men are present.  Personally, given the Biblical concept of servant leadership, I don’t see problems with having a woman teach from the scripture in the presence of men because she is exercising a prophetic gift which the Bible says she most definitely can have and in that capacity is serving the church, not exercising authority over any part of it (see Acts 2:17-18).   There is a fine line between teaching that is the exercise of authority and teaching that emerges from one’s prophetic gift.  Unfortunately, those who see it differently tend to be judgmental and lack mercy in their judgement and enforcement of “the rules.”

But what if a woman preaches in a gathered church service where both men and women are present and someone responds to the message and experiences a spiritual transformation, whether it is repentance related to a specific sin issue they are having, or if it is conviction that leads to full repentance and brings about a transformation resulting in someone’s experiencing salvation?  Wouldn’t that be a blessing, and hence a demonstration of God’s presence and failure?  If someone is saved in a service where I’ve been the preacher or in a group where I’ve been the teacher, I’m blessed.  And that blessing is confirmation of God’s presence and involvement in that moment, in that experience.  Are salvations and spiritual transformations leading to recommitment and personal revival invalid if they happen as a result of a woman preaching a sermon or teaching a Bible lesson?

Remember Beth Moore?  The popular author and teacher who is probably at the very top of Lifeway Christian Publisher’s sales figures?  She stirred some recent controversy within her denomination by preaching the sermon in a church service on Mother’s Day.  Now if there’s a Bible teacher within the Southern Baptist Convention that bears the mark of having been blessed abundantly by God, it’s Beth Moore, and even though what she writes and teaches is aimed at a female audience, there are many men among those who would say her teaching led them to a spiritual encounter with God that changed the direction of their life and moved them closer to Jesus.  In some factions within the SBC, she’s a target of criticism and derision because even though she describes her perspective in a way that is consistent with what the Bible says, it doesn’t line up exactly with her critics and their hard line.  And I find that interesting because if changed lives are a means by which God gives you a blessing, how can you deny that Beth Moore is blessed by God?  Apparently He does not see what her critics claim to see.

I’ll relate another example.  A church in a small Texas city that had blossomed in the 50’s after it was started had fallen on hard times.  A long pastorless period led to a search that produced no result.  One of the recommendations they had received was the name of a woman.  They called her and she accepted.  This church is now one of the rare examples of a turnaround church, especially among Baptists.  It would be very difficult to characterize what happened there as not being of God.  Over a period of several years, the church grew from about a hundred mostly older members to around 400 in attendance each week.  Baptisms increased, not just the children of church members but adults, many of whom came as seekers and responded over time.  This particular female pastor’s ministry resulted in the revival of and strengthening of a church.  Also rare, the church remained strong during the transition from her leadership to the next pastor.

So how can that be?  It’s hard to deny when a real revival occurs in a church.

God is sovereign.  That’s how.

There are times and circumstances in which humans fail to respond to the calling and leading of the Holy Spirit.  There are hundreds of stories from the mission field where God uses the people he has there to complete his work.  People respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit either to be used by God or drawn to someone who will lead them to God.  The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22 is a good example of this principle. An invitation was issued, but the invited guests all had excuses for not attending.  So the host invited different guests because they were willing to come.  Well, here’s a church that needed revival and God sensed their genuine desire for it.  The men who came as prospective pastors looked at it, didn’t see the possibilities because they were deeply hidden and said no.  So a woman with a prophetic gift accepted the call because she was available and open to God using her. That’s really the only answer.

You remember the story of Deborah, the Prophetess God appointed to judge Israel during some very difficult years of oppression.  She was a woman exercising her prophetic gift and God used her leadership to lead Israel to a victory over an oppressive enemy and into 40 years of peace and prosperity.  In the scripture narrative where she appears, there’s no explanation or background except of what was happening to Israel at the hands of a Canaanite by the name of Sisera.  I think it is one of the most interesting narratives in the whole Bible.  Israel had declined into doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.  He sent an oppressor and they cried out for help.  Without prior introduction, Deborah is identified as the prophetess who has been appointed Judge over Israel.  She uses her prophetic gift to summon Barak to go and do battle.  And while he is the military leader, he asked Deborah to accompany him and she does with the “oh, by the way” remark that God will deliver Israel from Sisera by the hand of a woman.  God’s choice in his time.  And I think that’s the explanation for many other situations where our personal perspective is uninformed and misses the point.

When God blesses, don’t you want to experience it?




Real Health Care Reform: A Plan That is “For the People”

We’ve played around with this for long enough.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked for employers for the past 21 years who believed that providing health care coverage was part of their obligation and a means of compensation that would be appreciated, used and remove a lot of the worry that keeps employees from being as productive as they could be.  It is also a benefit to a business or company in that if an employee has access to health care, health needs get taken care of quickly and employees are back to work after recovery.  There is actually research which shows that companies who provide health benefits to employees save millions of dollars every year in sick leave and absentee costs.

We’ve been promised some kind of health care reform ever since the sitting President told us he wanted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.  His M.O. of undoing everything from the previous administration was sidetracked by a senator who cared more about people than about lining up with a political agenda.  Thankfully, millions of Americans have been able to keep their insurance and have access to medical care as a result of John McCain’s courageous decision.  It took a while, but as people gradually realize the ACA actually did slow down the rising cost of insurance premiums, and actually did help keep care costs from soaring, the program’s popularity soared.  Currently, 58% of registered voters want to keep the program and want Congress to do its job by funding it.

I’d say that the increasing popularity of Democratic candidates for President has a lot to do with their position on health care reform.  Only 26% of voters believe Trump has a plan that will benefit them in any way (Gallup, 1-23-2020) while 60% of them trust the Democratic nominee to come up with a plan that will benefit them.  That’s the key here, folks.  Health care needs to benefit us.  It’s not a market driven “industry” with relief of pain and suffering and curing of diseases as the profit motive.  The right to access health care when it is needed is a basic human right that is an integral part of the belief in the sanctity of human life.  If you believe in protecting unborn life, you can’t be inconsistent about this.  And one of the government’s obligations, in our free, democratic republic is the protection of its people.

Those “godless, liberal” Europeans have figured this issue out while Americans have been blinded by dollar signs.  It would not take re-inventing the wheel.  There are a variety of ways of doing this which would all work and which would provide Americans with the quality and quantity of health care they needed with individual cost varying depending on what kind of system they choose.

I’ve read all the objections put out about the objections to doing something like Canada, with medicare for all.  The Canadians I know, including several extended family members, say they would not trade what they have for anything on this side of the border for all the money you could offer them.  Most of what you hear about it from the conservative media in America is just wrong.  There are Canadians in some parts of the country that do come across the border for medical care, but its mostly those who live in remote areas seeking some kind of specialty care that they’d have to drive further to find in their own country.  The waits for some procedures is about the same as it is in the US, less than most places.  The “quantity” limits placed on some care is also not different that the limits American insurers place on such things and as Canadians point out, Americans who are uninsured or underinsured don’t have access to those kinds of things, either.  The “tax” that Canadians pay to support the system is just under half of what an average insurance premium would be for one person in the United States.  Half.  And Canadians get full coverage for that.  Americans don’t.

And at this point, you’re probably not interested in a discussion of the cost of prescriptions in Canada.  There are strict limits placed on the amount and kind of prescription medication that can be brought across the border into the United States.  It has to be a drug that has been approved for use by the FDA and it can’t be more than a three month supply for personal use.  The lines of Americans at pharmacies in Canadian border towns (and Mexican border towns) will tell you where the lower cost can be found.  It’s ridiculous that a drug manufactured in the US is sold here for $600, but in Mexico or Canada you can buy exactly the same drug made by the same manufacturer for $60.

What person who believes in the “sanctity of human life” would propose to exclude people with pre-existing health conditions from insurance coverage?  Putting increased profits ahead of someone’s survival when the means is available to treat their illness and preserve their life is about as evil as you can get.  Insurance costs are already rated up because of pre-existing conditions.  It would, in fact, be flatly impossible for people who’ve had cancer to get any kind of preventative treatment, given the up front cost.  Diabetics couldn’t afford insulin or treatment.  If the biggest objection you have is “Who’s going to pay for it?” then go live in a less compassionate country.  If care was fairly priced, paying half of it in a medicare-style payroll deduction would cover the cost.  No one else would “pay” for it.

But, as I said at the beginning, we’ve played around with this long enough and it is time to stop the politics and start thinking about people and their needs.  All of the conservative ranting about deadbeats looking for a handout can be set aside.  I’m usually not a single issue voter but if a candidate hits the nail on the head with a reasonable health care plan that will help me get through my rapidly coming retirement years, that will be a priority for casting my ballot.  Someone who believes health care is a basic human right and a quality of life issue is expressing a perspective that is consistent with Biblical truth.

What does God love? According to our spiritual experience and what we read in scripture, God loves the poor, the sick, the oppressed. God loves justice, healing, and care for “the least of these.” And, what breaks God’s heart? Hard heartedness, greed, injustice, and exploiting or mistreating the poor..I am reminded of a comment by Gandhi. An American journalist was interviewing him and said, “I know you are a Hindu. How do your beliefs differ from most Christians in the United States?” Gandhi wryly answered, “Well, when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I think he meant it.” The disciple Matthew said much the same thing. In Matthew’s gospel, he quotes Jesus as saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God.”(Chase, Steve, “Taking Action for Healthcare” American Friends Service Committee, July 24, 2017)  

Note that the author here is not citing Gandhi as an authoritative source but is pointing out that as a Hindu, he seems to take a more compassionate view on issues related to humanity than many Christians, influenced by their right wing politics, seem to take.  Many of our denominations, including the Southern Baptists, used to own and operate hospitals everywhere and gave away millions of dollars worth of charitable care.  What happened?  Most of those institutions have been sold to for-profit providers but they paid for the rights to keep the “Baptist” name on the facility.  If we’re not going to provide charitable care, then Americans need to kick the politics out of the way and provide affordable care.




Hope for the Future of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Response to Paige Patterson’s 2012 Letter (Dr. Marshal Ausberry)

When I enrolled as a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1987, it had reached what would be its peak enrollment.  Over 5,000 students were enrolled, including more than 4,000 attending classes on the Ft. Worth campus.  Parking was virtually impossible (I lived three blocks away and walked), chapel was frequently crowded beyond capacity and registration consisted of long, long lines and lots of waiting.  Southwestern was the largest of the six SBC seminaries, all of which had larger student bodies then than they do now, largely because that was the year the baby boomer median hit 30.  It was also the largest theological school in the world and was a jewel among the SBC’s seminaries.

If you want to read about what has happened there over the past decade or so, leaving it in dire financial condition with a declining enrollment, overstaffed, underfunded, spending donor money on elaborate projects instead of supporting the faculty and the pension fund, there are plenty of places to go for information.  I recommend Baptist Blogger as a place to start.  What happened was that someone who was regarded as one of the chief “architects” of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention was given a blank check as compensation for services rendered and rewarded with the Presidency of Southwestern Seminary.  His influence in the SBC allowed him to influence the nominations made to the trustee board and the resulting lack of accountability is why Southwestern is now facing years of recovery.

I’ve been active enough over the past thirty years in various levels of the SBC to know that there is a provincial backwardness in the way denominational affairs are handled.  It’s no surprise that networks of personal friends, seminary buddies and even family members can influence who gets on a particular trustee board and I’ve seen plenty of evidence that individuals who are revered and respected for their role in the conservative resurgence have an outsized influence usually get what they want in terms of a denominational job with a salary and a low level of accountability.  You may disagree with that, and that’s O.K.  But that’s the way I’ve seen it work.

In this case, the damage is visible and shocking.  Southwestern is a shell of what it once was and in spite of a nice jump in new students this fall, is a long way from recovery.  For what it’s worth, it has my support, not only in prayer, but in the resumption of a small contribution I once pledged each year.  The school got a fresh start with a whole new administration at the top.  Support might be easier to gather and more forthcoming if it could get a fresh start with a new group of trustees committed to its recovery.  That’s not to say these trustees aren’t committed, but they apparently did not have the school’s best interests at heart as evidenced by the lack of accountability provided to the previous administration.  I think what would best show support and commitment for the school’s recovery would be for this current board to simply step down and allow the convention to nominate a new trustee board for a fresh start.

Unintended Consequences of Political Alliances: Yes, Character Matters

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

The article cited at the beginning of this one was written by Dr. Adrian Rogers, long time pastor of the Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis suburbs, one of the largest and most influential churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Dr. Rogers served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and is considered one of the main spokespersons and leaders in the movement known as the “Conservative Resurgence” in the denomination, which was a movement to return control of the six seminaries, two mission boards and a scattering of other entities owned by the SBC to those who held a conservative theological perspective.  Noting that Dr. Rogers was addressing the issue of presidential character following revelations that had come about leading to the impeachment of President Clinton, the lengthy, comprehensive article is perhaps one of the best representations of Evangelical Christian thought when the issues at hand involved a Democratic President who, at the time was an active member of one of the larger, more prominent Southern Baptist churches in the state of Arkansas.

You won’t find many Evangelical Christian leaders who would apply these same principles to the sitting President in the same way they did to President Clinton.  Dr  Rogers passed away several years before the last election so we don’t know where he would stand.  There’s no doubt the character of the current President would fall far short of that evaluation.  Prior to his election in 2016, his debauchery and immorality were known publicly, manly because he admitted to it and celebrated it by claiming he was doing nothing wrong, by his own standards.  Divorces, multiple affairs, his investments intended to legitimize debauchery by bringing in sexually oriented businesses and gaming casinos to his hotels for business guests and his general “playboy” image which he promoted via television as entertainment were part of his identity.  His marriage partners weren’t women who promoted family values, they were gold diggers who sought the fame and fortune being married to him brought about.

The accusations of sexual assault, some 24 of them, all ring with plausibility.  All of the accusers have evidence, he’s settled undisclosed amounts with several of them.  He’s been convicted of fraud, the Trump University fiasco being the most notable case among several, his foundation, an institution both he and his children were  deeply involved in, was shut down because of corruption and tax fraud.  His “fixer” attorney is serving time in prison  because of a cover-up involving an affair he had with a porn star. There’s a longer list of his corruption and debauchery you can google if you need more evidence in a character contest between he and Bill Clinton.

Since he’s taken office, there’s no evidence in his lifestyle or conduct that indicates his encounters with Evangelical leaders have led to any kind of repentance.  He continues to operate sexually oriented businesses and hold events where strippers are present to entertain guests.  The evidence laid out in the Mueller Report goes beyond anything Clinton ever did as does the investigation into his attempted bribery of Ukraine in exchange for something he could use against a political opponent.  The immorality and corruption, including attempts to use presidential power to cover up what he’d done, has implications which go far beyond anything that prompted the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Brushing it off or saying it didn’t happen or calling it a partisan witch hunt is willful ignorance.  It happened whether you believe it or not.

But the point is made regardless of what you believe.  The Evangelical Christians who have embraced Donald Trump and who support him because he dangles political favors in front of them are violating their own principles and standards in order to do so.

“Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.  For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?  Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  What agreement does Christ have with Belial?  Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  What agreement has the Temple of God with idols?  For we are the Temple of the living God… ”  2 Corinthians 6:14-17a NRSV

The most important thing an individual Christian has is the testimony of a transformed life.  It’s a testimony to the very power of God through the Holy Spirit, redeeming a sinner by grace alone through faith alone.  United in a body with other believers who have had the same transformational experience, the church is both a universal body of Christ and it is a local body that is visible and present in the world, not isolated or withdrawn or cloistered, but being the presence of Christ in the transformed lives of members whose mission and purpose is to go, make disciples, baptize and teach.  The strength for doing this comes from the Spirit alone.  The church does not need the protection of worldly power nor the strength of worldly influences to accomplish its mission and purpose.

There are several passages in the New Testament that give clear instructions regarding how Christians and the church are to relate to government and political authority.  When the New Testament was written, government was an entirely different entity than it is now.  The concept is put forth that all authority, even that held by secular, pagan government, is subject to God’s authority.  Christians were instructed to respect the governing authorities largely because of their witness and testimony and because they were operating within a whole different kind of Kingdom that was clearly separate from that which ruled the political world.  The church was founded and structured to be an institution that could carry out its mission and purpose under the authority of any government.  As the Roman government engaged in horrible persecution against the church, it was this very testimony, visible in the fact that Christians did not resist the persecution but even through horrible torture and punishment, kept their faith strong that led to the evangelism of thousands upon thousands of people and to the Emperor himself having somewhat of a “conversion” experience, if not necessarily spiritual, at least coming to the realization that there was a spiritual power behind the Christian gospel.

But nowhere in the Bible are Christians instructed to take over and use the secular power of the state to advance their mission and purpose.  It’s clear that all they need for the advancement of the mission and purpose to which they are called is the presence of God with them.  Every time the church has engaged in an alliance with secular government, it becomes corrupted and distracted.  A false gospel narrative emerges that takes on the characteristics of the needs of those who are in power and which justifies their corruption rather than transforming their character.  There are about 1500 years of church history that testify to the corruption of both doctrinal integrity and character of the leadership of the church when it is an institution belonging to the state.

It was very easy for the religious right to step away and have an objective perspective when it came to President Clinton, because many Evangelicals and conservatives did not support him politically.  The current President poses a much tougher proposition for them because of the politics.  If the same standard applies, the politics should make no difference at all.  Religious right critics of Clinton determined that his conduct precluded their having to accept his claim of repentance and forgiveness.  That same standard must be applied to the current President, whose behavior and actions while he has been in office are equally as corrupt and sinful as were his actions prior to becoming President.  So by the previous standard applied to President Clinton, this President is also unrepentant.  He’s said as much himself on more than one occasion, proclaiming openly that he doesn’t need forgiveness because he does nothing wrong.

Here’s what Dr. Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, had to say about supporting Trump.

“When it comes to Donald Trump, evangelicals are going to have to ask the huge question, ‘Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency for anyone who should deserve our vote?’ I think that’s a far bigger question than the 2016 election. This election is a disaster for the American people; it’s an excruciating moment for American evangelicals.”  

“Can we put up with someone and can we offer them our vote and support when we know that person not only sounds like what he presumes and presents as a playboy, but as a sexual predator? This is so far over the line that I think we have to recognize we wouldn’t want this person as our next door neighbor, much less as the inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And long term I’m afraid people are going to remember evangelicals in this election for supporting the unsupportable and defending the absolutely indefensible.”

I think that says it all.






Devastation for the Ancient Syrian Christian Community: What’s Our Responsibility?

Will this be the Last Christmas for Syrian Christians?

There are no simple answers to complex questions.  I read this well-researched post on another blog by a pastor from Tulsa and had a whole range of emotional responses in the few minutes afterward.  I’ve met a few Syrian refugees who happened to be Christians and their stories are horrifying and unthinkable, to say the least.  Our church was helping one family out at Christmas and aside from having to deal with the thought they might not ever be able to return home and worry for relatives they had left behind was the stark reality of what they had encountered along the way.

Here we are, busy with preparations for celebrating Christmas, thinking that we are experiencing the height of persecution because people want to say “happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas and that there is some kind of “war against Christmas” going on because the secular culture in which we live has co-opted the holiday season and has turned it back into an excuse to throw a party.  We’re moaning about that while an entire Christian community with its roots in the Church at Antioch (the largest group of Christians in Syria today is the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the oldest of the Eastern Orthodox patriarchal churches) is being systematically wiped out.

We’re also going to argue over what our responsibility is for doing something in the face of this crisis.  “Our” meaning the collective Christian community in America, whatever that is.  There will be those among us who want to tread carefully because actions which might be taken will most certainly run crossways of some current administration policy regarding immigration or US involvement in Syria and it might look like criticism.  There are those who don’t see that we have a high level of responsibility because the churches there are Eastern Orthodox and various varieties of Catholic and so since we don’t share doctrinal perspectives exactly, well, you can guess the rest.

But that’s painting with a broad brush.  Some American Christians are really great in humanitarian crises, while others note the need to pray, and go about their business.

I’m going to say this first, because what is happening in other places in the world puts it in perspective.  The Christian church in this country does not know persecution as it exists in most other places in the world.  Not even close. I won’t say that it never will, but it is not likely unless there is an invasion and complete occupation by a foreign power.  Christians are still too numerous and the influence of the church still way too far-reaching for any kind of persecution, by any sense of the definition of the term, to ever affect the American Christian Church.  Oh, we’ve had some isolated incidents that we can point to, where a nut case with a grudge got his hands on a weapon and took it out on a church.  I lived in Ft Worth when it happened at the Wedgewood Baptist Church and knew one of the youth interns who was there that night.  Those churches which have been victims of this kind of attack did indeed have a momentary experience which enables them to relate to the Syrian Christians.  But even though life for those churches never went back to “normal”, none of them ever faced the same crisis again.  The Syrian Christians face it every day.  

Oh, we’re ticked off because the special favors and allowances we got because Protestant Christianity was such a dominant cultural force for decades aren’t taken for granted by the culture any more and we think it’s just awful that we can’t pray in school anymore and we get downright angry when someone flips the chip off our shoulder by saying “Happy Holidays.”  But no Christian in this country has to worry about what will happen to them, or their family, if they identify too closely with the Christian community.  And all that whining about not praying in school.  When was the last time someone was arrested and dragged off for praying in school?  Even out loud in front of the class?  Clearly, there’s no persecution whatsoever for celebrating Christmas, either commercially or religiously.  Evidence that this is the case is everywhere.

I only know about some of what is happening to Christians in Syria from what I have heard from a few Syrians whom I’ve encountered over the past four or five years, all here as refugees from persecution.  I can’t imagine what they’ve been through because I have no context from which to relate to it.  It is unimaginable.  It’s a church shooting multiplied by daily incidents of terror.  And the stories I heard involved what was going on during the early stages of the Syrian civil war and then, as the ISIS insurgency captured and controlled territory.  Since last October when the US suddenly decided to withdraw, the terror is sweeping the area once again.

For many of the Christians in that part of Syria, getting out isn’t as easy as it may sound.  How easy would it be for you to leave your home with just a couple of days notice, perhaps never to return?  The civil war has created millions of refugees.  And the United States, which lays claim to being the world’s haven for the oppressed, is one of the more difficult places in which to find asylum.  Even without recent new restrictions on immigration from Muslim countries, pernicious US immigration policy trapped many Syrians who had no other recourse but to try and get to relatives in the United States.

We’re just enjoyed yet another highly commercialized Christmas season.  Most of us, Christians I’m talking about, took for granted the fact that we worshipped together in our churches last Sunday, some of us skipped out because we were too busy with plans for travel to see family, or with other preparations.  Do we go to church on Christmas eve or is that something we take for granted?  If Jesus is the reason for the season, then his house ought to be full for the celebration of his birth.  Many Syrian Christians no longer have a church in which to worship on Christmas eve, and may never be able to do so again.  My own church stopped having Christmas eve services years ago because of low attendance, so we decided to attend the one advertised on the sign outside of a Methodist church we pass frequently.  God, please don’t ever let me take a Christmas Eve worship service, inside a warm, safe church building, uninterrupted by any outside disturbance and without any fear of what might happen to me because I was there, for granted again.

The Christian church in Syria has survived centuries of political upheaval, turmoil and conflict.  It has co-existed in a land dominated by Muslims since the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  Sometimes it has suffered massacre, terror and attempts to wipe it out, while at other times, it has been able to enjoy periods of peace and protection.  In modern times, that peace has largely been due to the balance brought about by the presence of western democracies, mainly Britain and the United States, in Middle Eastern politics.  But that presence has also brought more instability.  The instability has created openings for insurgencies among radicalized elements of the various branches of Islam and as they fight for dominance in a power vacuum, Christians in the region are once again having to bear the brunt of the punishment.

So let’s answer that original question.  Exactly what is our responsibility?  What can we realistically and practically do?

Obviously, prayer is at the top of the list.  They need the power of God now more than ever as they face this crisis and all of the stress, need, depravity, fear, suffering and misery that goes right along with it.  We can’t pray hard enough.

We are in the most prosperous country in the world, so resources should be available to us which can be easily put together and taken to places where Christians from Syria have been relocated.  We might not be able to reach inside areas of Syria where there is political anarchy and where the fighting between Turkey, the Kurds, Syrian rebels and ISIS have made large swaths of the country inaccessible but we can reach places where millions of refugees, including a majority of the Syrian Christian community, are now living.  Jordan, one of the smallest and poorest Middle Eastern countries could use huge amounts of help.  It should not be a problem for Christians in this country to raise that kind of help and get it there.  From what I hear, the effort is half-hearted so far, so maybe we need a 2 Corinthians kick in the pants to get it going again, ya think?

There’s something else American Christians, more specifically Evangelical Christians, ought to be able to accomplish without trouble.  Instead of circling the wagons around the President, maybe they should take a stand with him on behalf of the Syrian Christians and use the influence they have to get something done.  It was his phone call and impulsive decision to suddenly pull out that sent Northern Syria back into turmoil, conflict, massacre and terror.  Instead of moaning about impeachment, these Christian leaders should pressure the President into doing something more than just sending back in a handful of troops to try and put the pieces back together after a bad mistake.  They need to persuade him to open the gates of the land of the free and the home of the brave and welcome as many Syrian Christian refugees as the available transportation can carry across the Atlantic.

The damage has already been done.  It’s really hard to tell how many decades it will be, if ever, before peace returns to Syria.  If we’re not going to protect the Kurds and Christians from slaughter, the least we can do is help them get out of danger’s way.  The best thing the Evangelical leaders who hover around Trump can do is pressure him into letting the immigration door swing wide open and rescue the Syrian Christians.  He’ll do anything they say if he thinks it will get him votes.  Use that power and make it happen.


By What Standard?

The title is that of a documentary produced by a group of individuals within the Southern Baptist Convention known as Founders Ministries.  My familiarity with the group goes back a while, perhaps as many as fifteen years, mainly through reading a blog authored by Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who is the organizer of the group.  At the time, I was serving bi-vocationally on the staff of an SBC church, was somewhat active in denominational “politics” and had become more aware than previously about the influences of Calvinism in the SBC.

I will say, before going further, that I am no longer a member of a cooperating Southern Baptist church.  About a decade ago, I accepted an administrative position in an institution owned by another denomination and moved to a part of the country where the closest SBC congregation was more than an hour away.  Wrapped up in the decision to accept the position was the realization that we would be leaving the SBC and if we (my wife and I) had decided not to leave, more than likely I wouldn’t have accepted the position.

Like most people raised in Southern Baptist churches that had all the programs for mission awareness, church training and denominational emphasis, I am well aware of how the SBC operates.  In addition to that, I went to an SBC state convention-related college and one of the six seminaries.  I’ve been actively involved at the associational level and served for many years as an officer and have been, from time to time, active in more than one state convention including having served on several committees and once, was nominated as an officer.  I was also active at the SBC level for a long time, serving in leadership of a denominational short-term missions ministry for over twenty years.  I’ve kept up.  I have a pretty good idea of the general perspectives are within the SBC and I sure know who the kingmakers and de-facto heirarchy with the pure Southern Baptist pedigree are.

I don’t think the Founders Ministry group reflects the mainstream.  They’re certainly good at lining up the obligatory themes and acknowledgements.  There’s deference to the leadership of the conservative resurgence, in spite of some serious mis-steps made by some of its more prominent leaders.  To get anywhere within the convention structure, you must acknowledge belief in inerrancy, infallibility and Biblical authority and be a little edgy and condescending in your perspective on women serving in the church.  By that I mean that you frequently must invoke the term “biblical standard” when you are referencing a woman’s role by which you mean submissive.  By which you mean, “Don’t draw any attention to your self or stir up controversy.”

Oh, and acknowledging inerrancy, infallibility and Biblical authority always means that if you don’t share our common interpretations of specific passages of scripture then you don’t beleve in inerrancy or infallibility.   The Founders Ministries is Calvinist, through and through.  One of the speakers in the film, Dr. Tom Nettles, a seminary professor at Southern, actually sits in front of the familiar portrait of Calvin while making his presentation.  It’s not hard to gather, from their website and from their presentation, that they think the current Southern Baptist Convention leadership and direction, in spite of the conservative influences and control of the past three decades, is off the rails and they have appointed themselves as its rescuers and as the people most likely to get it back on track.

Aside from the fact that this documentary film is just not interesting to watch, I don’t think it will resonate with most Southern Baptists, precisely because a majority of them are not Calvinist.  I also don’t get the sense that very many Southern Baptists think the convention is headed in the wrong direction.  There’s been some hand-wringing over the membership and attendance decline and there actually are people in influential places in the denominational leadership who have a very realistic perspective about the problems caused by Paige Patterson both at Southwestern Seminary and in the SBC itself and are unapologetic in their push to fix the damage and prevent an awkward legacy from being inappropriately honored.  This documentary appears to be a self-endorsement of the Founders Ministry as the solution to all of the SBC’s problems.  Three of the four points of their mission involve correcting what they see as other people’s errors.  They are a group of Calvinists who appear to be setting out to “reform” the Southern Baptist Convention.  I think they will discover that the SBC isn’t in any kind of mood to be reformed by them.

The SBC seems to be more factional in recent years.  There’s a power vacuum developing as the original leaders of the conservative resurgence are dying off, or are in their eighties, or have done something to fall from grace or at least warrant being hidden in a corner.  Many of the Baptist moderates who were pushed out of the inner leadership circle through the years predicted that the conservatives who were left to run the denomination wouldn’t be able to hold it all together because they were all too narrow in their perspective, wouldn’t get along with each other and any faction that wound up controlling the denomination long enough to impose its perspective would simply alienate everyone else.  This looks like a “faction” that is aiming to figure out how to reform the SBC their way, and push it in their direction, perhaps even take advantage of what they see as another leftward drift and get themselves in a position to, oh do I dare say it, take over?  Groups like this certainly help prove the theory at least partially correct.  There are a lot of Southern Baptists who aren’t nice to any other kind of Christian, and apparently there are many who aren’t nice to each other.

If you want to see a good movie with some genuinely inspirational content that will move you and  make you squirm a little while you’re thinking about it, go see the biographical film about Harriet Tubman, “Harriet.”  Or go see “Dark Waters.  Both are worth the time.  I don’t think “By What Standard” can compete with either the intellectual stimulation or the moral consideration of either of them.


Praying for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Response to Paige Patterson’s 2012 Letter (Dr. Marshal Ausberry)

The first time I ever visited the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, there was some impressive construction going on.  Scarborough Hall, the main classroom and office facility, was undergoing massive renovation, eventually transformed into a facility that a first class university would be proud to own.  The A. Webb Roberts Library had just been completed.  It would be four years after that visit that I would enroll as a student.  Many of those I went to college with who were aiming for a ministry career went to Golden Gate, and I considered it, but after visiting Southwestern, I was convinced that’s where I needed to be.

It was the fall of 1987.  The theological controversy known as the “Conservative Resurgence” had been raging for 8 years, and though it had an effect on life at SWBTS, the trustee board there was still in control of moderate Baptists, though each year brought changes.  I was there for a Christian education degree, but still had to take courses in the theology school.  I’d been warned about seminary, including by the pastor of my home church (who wasn’t seminary trained) how it turned perfectly sensible young Christian men into flaming liberals and ruined their ministry.  How students who believed the Bible was true were mocked in class by professors who taught that it had errors, wasn’t “written by God” and wasn’t reliable.

I never heard any of that at Southwestern.

Never was there any “mocking” of anything that a student said.  Never was there a word spoken to indicate that the Bible was not reliable, not authoritative or that it contained “errors” and was not the “word of God.”  I did have one professor who would, on occasion, tell the class that those who were recording his lecture for the purpose of re-distribution elsewhere needed to make sure they had good batteries so they got the whole lecture and not just select parts of it.

Most of the challenges to think about presuppositions I had regarding my Christian faith in a Baptist context happened when I was in college and minored in Biblical studies.  The only major shift I made in my own doctrinal perspective that differed much from what was preached and taught in my home church was eschatology.  My pastor was a hard-line dispensational pre-milleniallist and just a but too self-assured and forceful about it to convince me he was right.  When I got to college and had various perspectives presented in class without the professor insisting that I accept his, I settled it in my own mind and realized that it’s not a test of fellowship.

During the first chapel of my first year as a student, I had the privilege of being invited to stand as a new student and be pronounced as a “Southwesterner” by Dr. Robert Naylor, who was the President Emeritus.  He was a huge encouragement to the students, even though retired, he spent a lot of his time on the campus.  I was sitting on a couch in the student center one day when he came, sat down beside me, introduced himself and started asking me questions about who I was, where I was from and what I was doing at the school.  Next time I saw him, he remembered my name.  

There was a lot of excitement at Southwestern that fall.  The school had reached its highest enrollment in history, over 5,000 students, with almost 4,000 on the campus at Ft. Worth, which made for some major parking headaches, housing headaches and long lines during registration.  During both the fall and spring semester, I had to change my class schedule because sections of basic requirements were full.  Clearly the seminary was meeting the needs it was expected to meet.

On many days, the chapel services were standing room only.  The most popular speaker was a conservative, intellectual Southwestern graduate known as “Southern Baptists best orator,” Dr. Joel Gregory, who was pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, the largest SBC congregation in the city.  Though the rumors were circulating that the school’s administration had been criticized for choosing only “moderate” chapel speakers, and Gregory at that time was aligned with the conservatives, I never perceived that the speakers were weighted by their identification with an SBC faction.  There were known, notable moderates who spoke, though most of the chapel speakers were professors or local Ft Worth pastors.  A student favorite was Dr. Al Meredith, pastor of the Wedgewood Baptist Church and any chapel led by Dr. Bruce Leafblad, a professor of music and worship who put together some of the most memorable worship experiences in chapel services.  Moderates never had a “lock” on the chapel pulpit.

As my time at Southwestern went by, I often wondered who conservatives would “come after” among the faculty and staff.  As I had more classes, including in the theology school, I had difficulty figuring out who would be a target, or why.  Most were convinced that, while the resurgence did seem to be replacing trustees with more conservative members than before, there was no reason for them to do anything with Southwestern since it was already conservative and it was booming.  There was some speculation that the axe would fall regardless of the school’s success, because the Southwestern Presidency was valued as a prize by some of those involved in the Conservative Resurgence.

I graduated in December of 1989, so I missed all of the drama that occurred when conservatives finally attained a majority on the trustee board.  I recognize only one name from the faculty, Dr. Jack Terry, who was there when I was a student in the 80’s but that would be expected, given the amount of time that has passed and the relative age of most of them when I was a student there.  But I’ve heard and read a lot, from former students, former staff, alumni and in the Baptist news sources I’ve read over the years.  What happened is an excellent illustration of a trustee system breaking down because influenced led to a stacked board which was picked because of its willingness to “be supportive” of one of the Conservative Resurgence’s leaders “because what he did in the SBC was absolutely necessary.”  Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the other hand, is an unnecessary loss.  And in the quirky, backward thinking ways of Southern Baptists, mostly pastors of churches, who get pulled onto the trustee boards of the denomination, there will never be any accountability and all that money will never be recovered.  It’s gone for good.

Hopefully, that will not be the fate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  It’s going to be a close run for a while, but it’s got a chance, and I’m praying for them.



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.