Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jesus and Chloe

We are holding Vacation Bible School (VBS) this week and last night there was a very special moment near the conclusion of the session. There was a skit that featured a song in which the most prominent line is the refrain "Come to Jesus." As the song began Jesus came walking down the center aisle of the sanctuary.

Okay, it wasn't really Jesus. It was a man named Rick portraying Jesus. He has long hair and he let his beard grow out for the skit so he looked much like popular portraits of Jesus. Rick also wore a costume like Jesus might have worn. He really looked the part.

The skit was included in our VBS material and it featured "Jesus" hugging and helping various people who were previously selected to come forward as recorded singers continued singing "Come to Jesus." That's the way it was supposed to happen, but things didn't quite work out as planned.

As "Jesus" came down the aisle many of the children could be heard whispering loudly. "It's Jesus!" When people began coming forward and getting hugs from "Jesus" several children who were not part of the script also went to receive hugs from him. Rick handled this very well, staying in character he hugged all comers.

When the program was over Rick was still in costume and he and I were talking at the back of the sanctuary away from the children. But a crowd of kids came and huddled around him asking many questions. They wanted to know if Rick was really Jesus. Again Rick handled the situation with Spirit-led ease. He explained the he was not Jesus but that Jesus was with them all the time. The children wanted to know if his long hair was real and Rick let them tug on it.

Perhaps the highlight of the experience was an energetic little girl named Chloe who is three years old. When her father arrived to pick her up, Chloe just about dragged him into the sanctuary repeating over and over, "Daddy you've got to come and see!" The confused father went with her.

While her father stood near one side of the sanctuary, Chloe ran toward "Jesus" who was now front and center of the sanctuary chatting with some folks. "Jesus" looked at Chloe as she rushed toward him and she motioned toward her father and said, "This is my Daddy!"

Rick smiled and said, "What's your Daddy's name?"

"Daddy." Chloe responded and we all chuckled. Then, still looking at Jesus, Chloe said, "Give him a hug."

Rick said, "Sure." Then he walked toward the man with his arms spread and the two met in an embrace at the front of the sanctuary. Chloe looked very pleased and there were numerous damp eyes around.

Later Rick said that he is going to have to be extra careful about his behavior whenever he is out and about because some of those kids might be around looking at him like he is Jesus.

Tonight VBS workers were still abuzz about the skit and the response of the children, especially Chloe. I started thinking what it would be like if Jesus really did show up like that and I got a chance to hug him and be hugged by him. Joy and thankfulness began to well up inside me and I realized that I really do love Jesus. Sure I have loved Jesus for a long time and I have tried to encourage others to love him too. But Rick and Chloe and some other children who spontaneously rushed to "Jesus" helped me to grasp my own love for Jesus just a little more deeply and for that I am very grateful.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Video images in worship

We hold three Sunday morning worship services at Brunswick Islands Baptists Church, two traditional services in our sanctuary and a contemporary service in our fellowship hall. We added the contemporary service more than 2 1/2 years ago and from the beginning we utilized a big screen TV screen to display announcements, words to songs, and a presentation that goes along with the sermon. Last month we upgraded the screen in the fellowship hall to a large flat screen HDTV and we also added two such screens to our sanctuary.

Typically, as worshippers arrive, the screens are displaying a slide show that does four things: (1) welcomes them to the church, (2) welcomes guests in particular and informs them of the location of guest slips and guest packets, (3) announces upcoming events, and (4) displays some Bible verses supporting the worship theme for the day. These opening slides play in a continuous loop for 20-30 minutes until the service begins. During the service slides announce various worship elements, display scripture readings, show song or hymn words, and present slides supporting the sermon. The slides displayed during the service are changed manually either by a sound technician (or is it now a sound/video technician?) or by the worship leader.

The screens are an invaluable aid in our worship services for numerous reasons, not the least of which are retention and attention. Long years ago when I was studying to become a school teacher I was taught that repetition and the involvement of more senses helped learners to better retain information. With the screens worshippers now hear and see some information that they formerly only heard. I provide a "listener guide" with my sermons, a sheet listing key sermon statements with key words left blank. As the sermon progresses, these statements are flashed on the screen with the blanks filled in allowing worshippers to hear it, see it and write it down. All of this provides repetition of the material and involves more senses which should in turn improve retention. Furthermore the words on the screen are often accompanied by pictures which give the memory another peg on which to hang the material further enhancing retention.

The screens also improve the attention of worshippers. Members of the congregation can shift their focus between the worship leader and the accompanying information on the screen and thus hopefully avoid being "hypnotized" by looking only at the worship leader. Some years back I remember reading that postmoderns tend to need three simultaneous stimuli to keep their attention. At least during the sermon they have me speaking, the images on the screen and the listener guide that help to fill that need.

Besides weekly worship services we are using the screens in other ways. Our Vacation Bible School material included computer discs designed to put the song words and other information on the screens for the children. It was also set up such that we take particular digital photos of the children during a session and insert those photos into a ready-made slide template that is shown to the group at the end of the evening to reinforce the theme for the day. In addition to the Vacation Bible School application, the Music Minister here tells me that most cantata publishers now offer a disc with a slide presentation to accompany the music.

Worshippers in both the traditional and contemporary services love the screens. I was concerned that older members may have been reluctant to embrace the concept but surprisingly these members were among the most enthusiastic promoters of the idea before we got the screens and they have been the most complimentary of the screens since we added them. Seasoned members particularly voice approval for reading hymn words on the screen so that they no longer have to struggle to read them in the hymnal.

The screens do not detract from the aesthetics of our sanctuary, which was constructed in 1993. In at least one old and historic sanctuary in this area screens were installed behind doors that hide them from view when not in use. Others use projection systems with retractable screens that are easily hidden. We did go that route in part because it is more expensive, but even more important for us was the lighting factor. The images on HDTV screens can be viewed easily in the daytime with all the lights on, something that would not be possible in our sanctuary using a projection system.

For me the biggest downside to video in worship is that it adds to preparation time, whether it is the time of paid staffers or volunteers. In my opinion the dividends of adding the screens more than offset the time investment, but the time required to develop good slide shows is significant.

I'm waiting for someone to ask me why the screens have not made my sermons shorter. After all if a picture really is worth a thousand words then three quick slides should more than cover a sermon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reading in the water part two (REVISED)

Two years ago I wrote a blog entry entitled "Reading in the water." I would link to that entry, but it either no longer exists or the web page is having problems right now. Anyway I explained in the previous post that, when I go to relax at some body of water, I prefer to spend time actually in the water, weather permitting. I also enjoy reading and, several years ago I developed a process through which I read while floating in a lake. This week, while enjoying a few days at White Lake, NC, I enjoyed a new, improved method of reading in the water.

My old method involved carefully positioned foam "swim noodles" that allowed all of my body except my head and shoulders to be beneath the surface of the water as I read. It did not look very distinguished, I suppose, but it beat those floats that would perch my body above the water rather than in the water. Floating on "swim noodles" was also better than placing a beach chair in the water which takes away the weightlessness of floating.

Last year I discovered a webbing of sorts designed to convert those "swim noodles" into a floating chair (see bottom photo above). This works great. In the top photo above you can see me using the seat to read in the water. You may notice that I add one extra "swim noodle" to rest my arms and the book upon. My new floating seat allows me to read in the water without my previous complicated positioning of noodles.
The "swim noodles" were purchased years ago when my children were small, so I don't remember exactly what I paid for them, but they were inexpensive. The webbing that converts the noodles into a floating chair I picked up at a CVS Pharmacy near Myrtle Beach, SC, as I recall, $5.99. So the equipment needed for this method of reading in the water is pretty cheap.

As I explained previously, reading in the water is not recommended for expensive books that you prefer not to receive a few drops of water from nearby splashing kids. Furthermore there is the possibility that one could drop the book into the lake (something that I have not yet done in many hours of water reading). While at White Lake I read a novel recommended by my brother that I managed to find in a thrift store for a quarter. If I had dropped it, oh well. I noticed that the thrift store had a second copy.
I never have understood the attraction of sitting on the beach in hot weather when there is a refreshing body of water only a few feet away. If I wanted to sit in the sun I could do that at home. Sure, I wouldn't have the lake view at home. But as long as I am at the lake I can get a fine view of the lake from in the lake, so why bake in the sun when the water is right there? By the way, I am a stickler for coating myself with heavy doses of the strongest sunblock before going into the water and I re-apply regularly.

I spent a large portion of the early part of this week sitting in White Lake and reading. It was wonderful.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Two unsung American heroes

Pictured above: James Madison (1751-1836) on the left and John Leland (1754-1842) on the right.

My guess is that 90+ percent of those who regularly attend evangelical churches in general and Baptist churches in particular have heard of the old movie entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. Most can probably relay the basic storyline and many can probably recite numerous lines after watching the film over and over annually for years.

That’s all fine. What bothers me is that there is a true story about one of the most important events in the history of this country that involves evangelicals, Baptists in particular, that most evangelicals, including most Baptists, don’t know. It is the story of the difficult birth of the most prized and most basic freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America. Baptists played a pivotal role in the birth of our foundational freedoms but sadly most Americans and, even worse, most Baptists don’t even know the story.

Evangelicals, Baptists in particular, should know this story backwards and forward. If it takes hearing it every year around the Fourth of July like many revisit the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas time every year so be it. Let us begin right here and now in Independence Day season 2008.

This is the story of two unsung American heroes who I hope you will help me to make famous and give them the credit they are due. The first of these heroes is one that you may be surprised to hear me label as “unsung” and that is James Madison. Besides being the fourth president of the United States he is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

As the “Father of the Constitution” Madison was the main proponent of the Bill of Rights which should make him a huge American hero. The freedoms that more than anything else define this nation as a free country are fixed in our Constitution because of the efforts of James Madison. That fact alone should earn him a monument in Washington as big as Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, but there is more to the story that I did not know until recently.

We almost did not get the Bill of Rights.

In the last few months I read two books that have given me a new respect for James Madison. One of those books is James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski. I had no idea before reading this book how very difficult Madison’s work was in this regard. At nearly every turn the whole effort came close to unraveling. Seriously, the whole thing hung by a frayed thread so many times. Madison’s crusade to pass the Bill of Rights was somewhere between masterful and miraculous.

Ironically, as important as he is to our nation’s heritage, Madison would never be elected to federal office today. He was a small man, physically at five feet, six inches tall. Some of his friends said that he was never bigger than half a bar of soap. He was sickly, constantly struggling with various health issues. He was very soft-spoken. His fellow lawmakers often complained that they could not hear him when he made his speeches. We just do not normally elect puny, sickly, soft-spoken, nerdy type men to congress or to the presidency anymore. But, were it not for Madison’s amazing work on the Bill of Rights in the early days of this country, one wonders where we would be.

Labunski wrote of James Madison, “It is fair to say that no other person in this nation’s history did so much for which he is appreciated so little.” Specifically in the area of religious freedom, Steven Waldman points out in his fine new book entitled Founding Faith that the founders of this nation “tried a radical new approach—and it worked.” While Waldman acknowledges that many played a role in that process “it is James Madison who deserves the greatest thanks.”

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to a puny, sickly, nerdy man named James Madison for the nation defining freedoms that he labored hard and with tremendous sacrifice to secure, but I and many others do not think he gets the credit that he deserves. For our purposes now I am going to focus on one crucial influence on Madison that is connected to the spiritual ancestors of many Baptists in this nation.

About 17 years before Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, he returned home to Orange County, Virginia from college to witness something that appalled him. The horror of what Madison saw would, in the words of Steven Waldman, “shape the course of the struggle for religious freedom.” Madison, in a letter to a friend written in early 1774 called what he witnessed “diabolical” and “hell conceived.” What Madison saw that so moved him was Baptists in Virginia being fiercely persecuted by the government sponsored church in Virginia at that time which was the Anglican Church.

I am reading right now a book by Keith Durso entitled No Armor for the Back, Baptist Prison Writings, 1600’s-1700’s. It is a great book. I’ll tell you just one story that Durso relays that may give you a flavor of the period that impacted Madison. In 1769, a Baptist preacher in Virginia named James Ireland was slated to preach in a church in Culpeper County, Virginia which was only about 20 miles from Madison’s home. On the day before the engagement Ireland received word that, if he preached, the authorities would throw him in jail. He preached anyway and he was thrown in jail.

The jailor, who also owned a tavern, told those arrested for drunkenness that they could stay in jail for free if they promised to beat up Ireland while there, to which the prisoners readily agreed. Ireland preached through the bars in his cell window to multi-racial crowds outside. But persecutors would ride their horses through the crowd, trampling members of the congregation. They would threaten them or actually hit them with clubs. On at least one occasion someone set up some sort of stand and got high enough to urinate in Ireland’s face while he preached through the jail window.

That was in this land. We commonly fail to acknowledge that, for about 150 years on the soil that would become the United States, in many cases, those who left England to escape religious persecution became persecutors themselves.

That story about James Ireland is just one story of many of the persecution of Baptists in Virginia in the 1700’s. According to Waldman, in the period between 1760 to 1778, there were at least 153 serious instances of persecution involving 78 Baptists, including 56 jailings of 45 different Baptist preachers. At least 14 instances occurred in Orange County where Madison lived, another 25 in Culpeper County about 20 miles away and seven in Spotsylvania County about 30 miles away. Most of the worst persecution of Baptists was clustered near Madison’s home place. Madison was not a Baptist, but the way Baptists were treated had a profound effect on him.

Waldman reports that there is some evidence that, as a young man, Madison represented Baptists in court. Ending their ill-treatment at the hands of the Anglican aristocracy was a long-term passion of his. He wrote in that 1774 letter, “I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about [Baptist persecution], to so little purpose.” When he began his career as a Virginia legislator one of the first issues that he focused on was religious liberty. Also in that letter of 1774 Madison wrote, “I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.”

Waldman says that while much has been written about what enlightenment philosophers influenced Madison, his dedication to religious liberty was most likely influenced the most by the persecution of Baptists in Virginia. This leads us to the other unsung American hero: John Leland.

In a spot pretty much in the middle of nowhere in Orange County, Virginia, between Nasons and Grassland on State Route 20 there is a seldom visited historical marker. It marks the spot and
tells the story of an important conversation in the history of this country—a conversation between two unsung heroes, one a Baptist minister and the other a politician. One was named John Leland and the other James Madison. But we will come back to that conversation.

According to H. Leon McBeth in his outstanding Baptist history text, during his 15 years in Virginia, John Leland preached 3,009 sermons and he baptized 1,278 converts. He had no formal education but he possessed a very keen mind. As you can imagine, with all the persecution they suffered at the hands of government established religion, Baptists in Virginia were aggressive proponents of religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state. Leland became the leader of that movement among Baptists in Virginia.

When the federal Constitution first appeared in 1787, prior to the state-by-state adoption process, Baptists in Virginia came out very quickly against it because it contained no guarante
e of religious liberty. So strong was Virginia Baptist opposition to the Constitution as originally proposed, that they decided to mount an organized campaign against its ratification in Virginia.

John Leland had written a list of ten objections to the Constitution all centering on the absence of a bill of rights and specifically the absence of a guarantee of religious liberty. According to some accounts there was even talk of running John Leland as a candidate for the Virginia Ratification Convention from the area that included Orange County. Well, guess who the other candidate for the Ratification Convention representing Orange County was? James Madison.

Madison heard that his old allies, the Baptists, opposed the proposed Constitution and they were planning to oppose him as a candidate to the ratification convention. So he requested a copy of Leland’s objections to the Constitution and soon requested a meeting with John Leland.

In March of 1788, the Baptist minister and the politician met under an oak tree on Leland’s farm near that marker that I mentioned earlier. They talked for several hours. Leland must have been persuasive with Madison. You see, Madison was originally against a bill of rights. That might surprise you. One of the reasons, not the only one, but one of the reasons he did not support a bill of rights was that he was afraid of what they would get when it came to religious liberty.

Waldman reports that, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, Madison expressed the concern that, if he tried to work for a bill of rights, including complete liberty of conscience, the country might easily end up with just the opposite. He pointed out that some in New England were opposing the Constitution because it did not require religious tests before Jews, Muslims and atheists could participate in government. Madison thought they were better off not saying anything about religion in the Constitution than to end up with religious restrictions instead of religious freedom. This was one of the reasons that he was reluctant to at first to propose a bill of rights including a guarantee of religious liberty.

John Leland must have been persuasive in that long meeting with Madison, because he walked away with a deal that represented a stark change in position for Madison. Besides Madison could probably not have won the election without Baptist support anyway. So Madison promised that, if Leland would withdraw his objections to the Constitution and throw his support to him, Madison would introduce amendments guaranteeing religious liberty after the ratification of the Constitution. Leland agreed to the deal.

Only four days after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Madison who was then a member of the House of Representatives announced his intent to introduce amendments citing “constituents who are dissatisfied with [the Constitution].” Historians generally agree that Baptists were among those constituents of whom Madison spoke. He did that year propose the Bill of Rights which, in its final form, included these words in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

McBeth points out that Joseph Dawson, while outlining the emergence of religious freedom in this nation, wrote, “If the researchers of the world were to be asked who was most responsible for the American guarantee for religious liberty, their prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’” But Dawson went on to say, “If James Madison might answer, he would as quickly reply, ‘John Leland and the Baptists.’”

Frankly I think that statement goes a bit overboard. After reading the details of all Madison did to get the Bill of Rights passed with its guarantee of religious liberty, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit. But John Leland and a group of Baptists played a huge role in that process that is commonly ignored. The persecution of Baptists in Virginia more than any other single factor convinced Madison to advocate “liberty of conscience to all.” John Leland had a lot to do with Madison changing his mind on the need for a bill of rights. Madison probably would not have been elected first to the Ratification Convention in Virginia and then to congress without the support of Baptists. And when Madison attempted the daunting task of getting the Bill of Rights passed, my guess is that he had a bunch of Baptists back in Virginia actively praying for him.

I would not go so far as to say that Baptists were most responsible for the Bill of Rights with its guarantee of religious liberty, but I would go so far as to say that it is highly doubtful that we would have had our current Bill of Rights were it not for John Leland and his fellow Baptists in Virginia.

Baptists at least should know this story of these unsung American heroes backwards and forward. It is not only part of the American story, it is part of the story of our spiritual ancestry. Our Baptist forebears in this country fought and suffered for religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state because they considered it a biblical, God-given right. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote in Gal. 5:1. They got involved in their society to defend and spread a biblical notion of freedom. We must treasure this story and follow that example of involvement. Furthermore we do well to specifically honor their legacy of defending religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state.