Monday, December 28, 2009

I don't want to be an agent of the state in weddings anymore

For a long time I have been uncomfortable being an agent of the state in performing marriage ceremonies. That discomfort was heightened recently as I have been completing a project on the struggle for religious liberty in Virginia in the late 1700's. Back then, those who were not part of the state-sponsored church, including Baptists, had a hard-fought battle getting their marriages recognized by the state.

As I studied the efforts of Virginia Baptists to be free from state shackles in performing marriages, I remembered what I had to do years ago in order to officiate at a wedding ceremony in the Old Dominion. A member of my old home church in Appomattox County wanted me to do her marriage ceremony and I agreed. Having lived in Texas or North Carolina for my entire ministerial career, I didn't realize that I couldn't just show up in Virginia and solemnize a wedding--I had to go to the courthouse first.

Note these lines from the Domestic Relations section of the Code of Virginia:

When a minister of any religious denomination shall produce before the circuit
court of any county or city in this Commonwealth, or before the judge of such
court or before the clerk of such court at any time, proof of his ordination and
of his being in regular communion with the religious society of which he is a
reputed member, or proof that he holds a local minister's license and is serving
as a regularly appointed pastor in his denomination, such court, or the judge
thereof, or the clerk of such court at any time, may make an order authorizing
such minister to celebrate the rites of matrimony in this Commonwealth.

At the time I jumped through that hoop rather hurriedly so I could do the ceremony and I did not reflect upon it much. Now it bugs me. I am giving serious consideration to contacting the courthouse in Appomattox to see if it is possible for me to rescind whatever approval I received. The idea of a government official making "an order authorizing" me "to celebrate the rites of matrimony" just galls me. The state has no business in giving me any sort of stamp of approval to perform a religious rite.

Here in North Carolina I didn't have to go to the courthouse with my ordination certificate. They will take my word for it that I am a minister. But I still have to work for the state by filling out certain paper work after a marriage ceremony and if I don't do things right I am subject to a fine. That bugs me too. As a minister of the gospel I don't like working for the government in performing wedding ceremonies.

How about this ... When a couple shows up at the courthouse to get their marriage license, let that process instead be the actual marriage in the eyes of the state. Then, for those who choose to do so, let them be joined in matrimony in the presence of God and before their family and friends with a minister officiating in a religious ceremony that has no government ties whatsoever. Take ministers out of the loop of the state requirements for marriage. We don't belong there.

Friday, December 25, 2009

An excellent screen adaptation of a great story

When I read Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, I was very impressed. So when I first heard that the book was being made into a movie, I was excited. But, after further reflection, I became concerned. I wasn't sure this story would translate well as a movie. Well, tonight I got to see the movie version of The Road and I am happy to report that I was wrong.

The Road is a parable of faith and generosity. It is set several years after a some sort of cataclysm has left the earth a very inhospitable place. At the center of the tale is an unnamed father and an unnamed son trying to survive in a very dangerous world in which people literally kill for food. The father seeks to protect the son and to teach him to stay alive. But in his desperate attempt to train the boy to get by in a cruel world, the father loses something very important.

On several occasions the father and son encounter persons in a weaker position they could help. The son always wants to assist those in need. The father resists. He is always afraid the can of food they share today might be all that stands between them and starvation in a few days. He has the best of intentions, but the father doesn't see that the little chances to share, as risky as they may be, are precious opportunities to experience some light in a very dark world.

I'll stop there in describing the story. All of the performances in the film version are outstanding. Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of the father is compelling. Kobi Smit-McPhee is convincing as the son. The visuals are bleak as they should be but they are also stunning.

I haven't told you much about the movie or the novel, but maybe what I have said is enough to entice you. I am concerned that the film version of The Road will be lost in the holiday movie season. If so, that would be a shame. This is a parable that needs to be experienced today.

I should point out that The Road is rated R--this is definitely not a family movie. But its darkness has the potential to help us see how we might better let our light shine. This story strips away everything in an attempt to expose the emptiness faithless lives.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas movie worth watching

If you have never seen it, rent and watch the movie Joyeux Noel in this Christmas season. Even though it was nominated for an Academy Award ("Best Foreign Film") and a Golden Globe I had never heard of this flick. A movie store in Shallotte went out of business a few weeks ago and I saw a sign out front that their remaining DVD's were 99 cents each. I went in and picked up several that sounded good and I am glad Joyeux Noel was among them.

The movie is based on the true story of a spontaneous Christmas Eve truce declared by French, German and Scottish soldiers mired in trench warfare in World War I (1914). It started when the Germans began singing "Silent Night" and the opposing soldiers across the way joined in. I'll stop there, but the result of one night of peace was amazing and costly. I think it would be a great film even if it were purely a work of fiction. But it is astounding that this is a screen adaptation of an a event that really happened.

A tag line is, "How can there be a war if there is no enemy?" There are subtitles, but many scenes, including the ones involving the night of peace, are in English. Christianity Today did an article on the movie that you can find here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus' real face

Maybe I'm the only one who missed this news two years ago. It appears that a British scientist, using modern forensic techniques based on ancient relics, developed an image of the face of St. Nicholas. As you will note if you read the article and look at the photos at the link above, the scientific reconstruction based on actual skull measurements matches up pretty well with some ancient portraits of the saint.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So much happiness

I love Charles Dickens' 1843 Christmas tale, "A Christmas Carol." There have been many film adaptations of the story but my favorite remains the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge (I haven't seen the just-released Disney version starring Jim Carrey). This 58 year-old presentation seems to capture Dickens' tale better than the other versions I have seen. Notably it leaves intact numerous blatantly Christian references found in the original story that many film versions cut.

For some years in our Wednesday worship services during December I have presented popular Christmas stories that I have used to make application to the biblical Christmas story. I have done this with O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning." I have always wanted to present "A Christmas Carol" but it is just too long. A couple of years ago I tried to put together sort of a Reader's Digest condensed version for use in a worship service but very quickly I could see that it just wasn't going to work.

So this week in our mid-week worship service I showed a clip from the final few minutes of the 1951 movie version of "A Christmas Carol." Those of you familiar with the story know that the one overpowering emotion in the final act is joy--great joy. The previously mean and miserly Scrooge was absolutely giddy that he had another chance to use his fortune to help people in need.

In Dickens' telling of the story, Scrooge takes a Christmas day walk in which he sees a man who had come to his office the day before making a collection for the poor. On Christmas Eve Scrooge had angrily sent the man away indicating that he would prefer that needy people just die and decrease the surplus population. But, on Christmas day, after the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future had showed him how his greed had consumed him, Scrooge had a change of heart.

He quickened his pace and caught up with the man and made a commitment to a donation so large that the gentleman collecting for the poor was shocked. Scrooge said the gift included "a great many back-payments." Right after this sacrifice to help the needy, Dickens tells us that Scrooge "never dreamed that any walk could give him so much happiness."

The great joy that Scrooge experienced as he helped those in need reminded me of an important part of the biblical Christmas story. On the first Christmas the angels said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

God sent messengers to make the Christmas day proclamation of "good news of great joy" in the context of a sacrificial gift. In the Incarnation God gave on behalf of those in need to the point that, in the language of Paul, "he became poor" (2 Cor. 8:9, TNIV). And God was so excited about giving to the point of becoming poor that the joy would not be contained. Angels were sent to declare it.

God and Scrooge were giddy as they made sacrifices to help those in need. In Scrooge's case he needed to be shown in a vivid way the value of sacrificial giving before he experienced the joy of Christmas. What will it take for us?

On Sunday we will light the candle of joy in the Advent wreath. As we do so we should remember that lasting joy is not about receiving and it is not about giving stuff to people who don't really need it. The example of God shows us that true joy is experienced as we realize the wonder of sacrificial giving for those in need.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Extremely alarming"

As I write this an army of volunteers from numerous local churches are preparing to distribute food from the Loaves and Fishes Community Food Pantry which is housed here. For more than a decade laypeople committed to hunger relief have been helping households facing food insecurity in this area through Loaves and Fishes. In the last couple of years we have seen the number of people seeking assistance rise drastically, which is not surprising in light of a report released just a few days ago.

According to
figures just released from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of Americans having trouble getting enough food to eat reached an all time high since such records have been kept. In 2008 14.6% of American households (more than one in seven) faced food insecurity. This represents a 3.5 percentage point increase over 2007, the largest percentage increase since the USDA began publishing this data. This latest survey reveals that nearly one child in four (22.5%) in this country is food insecure.

Paula Thornton Greear who works with the hunger-relief charity Feeding America
called the USDA numbers "extremely alarming" since they reflect the situation in 2008. With unemployment figures worsening in 2009, she thinks the number of people facing food insecurity this year "may be even higher."

Obviously Christians cannot ignore such news. The Bible tells us that we must feed the hungry. Here at Brunswick Islands Baptist Church, besides our involvement with the Loaves and Fishes Community Food Pantry, we will receive our World Hunger Offering at our Thanksgiving Eve service next Wednesday evening. This offering will support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina Hunger Fund (75%) and the global hunger relief efforts of Baptist World Aid (25%). If you can bring some nonperishable food items for Loaves and Fishes, all the better.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Trying to walk again

I have not been walking like I used to. Balancing family, church and DMin responsibilities has been a challenge and getting in some exercise ... Well, it just hasn't been happening. But I am going to try to do better.

Right now I am typing this entry while walking on a treadmill and watching the Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina football game. I'm not breaking any speed records. There are about 12 minutes remaining in the 1st half and I have walked 2.7 miles and burned 323 calories according to the meter on this treadmill. I have also answered a few emails and checked some twitter feeds and "facebooked" a little while walking.

It feels good. I hope I remember that the next time that I am impressed with the need to drag myself to the treadmill.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I can make you sick

It is my practice to get a flu shot because I have the potential to make people sick, including some people who may be particularly vulnerable. As a pastor I spend a lot of time in areas where sick people are--particularly hospitals. Then I go to nursing homes and congregational gatherings where people are not sick.

Because of my age and health I am not in a priority group for receiving a flu shot when there is a shortage of them but I wonder if I should be. I do not think I would be in great danger of being hospitalized or worse if I contracted the H1N1 virus, for example. But I am concerned that I have the potential to spread it to some who are vulnerable to adverse reactions maybe even before I know that I am sick.

According to this report of a few weeks ago Centers for Disease Control has recommended that priority be given to these groups when the H1N1 vaccine first becomes available: pregnant women; people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age; healthcare and emergency medical services personnel; children and young people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old; and people ages 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems. Actually the report says that the priority list includes the groups above. If there is an expanded priority list that also includes members of the clergy I haven't seen it.

Anyway, since members of the clergy move back and forth between large groups of sick people and large groups of people who are not sick, does it make since to include us on the priority list?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy "Blasphemy Day"

I apologize, I am a day late, so a belated happy "Blasphemy Day" to you. According to a CNN report, the first ever blasphemy observance was held yesterday. The event was sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, headed by Ronald Lindsay. He was a devout Roman Catholic who once considered entering the priesthood but now he calls himself a non-believer and he defends the right to "ridicule, criticize--even lambaste God."

The date for Blasphemy Day was chosen to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the publication in a Danish newspaper of a controversial cartoon depicting Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban. The drawing was protested by many Muslims as blasphemy. Wednesday's observance included a contest for the best blasphemous slogan. The winning phrase was memorialized on a t-shirt.

While I condemn blasphemy, I join with Lindsay in affirming the right of people to speak against God if they so choose. Rightfully the 100,000 supporters of the Center for Inquiry are outraged that some nations seek to execute blasphemers. Furthermore this CNN report made me aware that six states in this country (Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming) have laws against blasphemy on the books. This is disturbing.

According to Massachusetts law:

Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or
contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars ...

Some of the language of the anti-blasphemy laws of the other five states can be found here.

Baptists in the early days of this country affirmed the right of citizens to speak freely, including those who do not believe in God. John Leland, a Baptist leader, wrote in 1791, “Let every man speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing …”

Leland aggressively proclaimed the gospel, baptizing more the 1,500 people in the course of his ministerial career. But he and his fellow Baptists of 200 years ago were equally aggressive in defending complete religious liberty and the separation of church and state. They were utterly against blasphemy, but they were also against blasphemy laws. They were convinced that the Lord would accomplish his purposes just fine without any coercive laws of the state.

They were right too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Baptist hippies

In Virginia, Baptists were the hippies of the 1760’s through the 1780’s. They did not take LSD or listen to psychedelic music but, like the hippies of the 1960’s, Virginia Baptists of the latter portion of the eighteenth century opposed much of the political and social orthodoxy of the day. As Rhys Isaac explains in is Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, Virginia Baptists were “countercultural.” However, unlike the libertine cultural dissent that characterized the hippie movement, Baptists offered an austere reaction to the dominant culture’s typical indulgences. Furthermore the emotional expression encouraged in Baptist gatherings of this period was considered ridiculous to the reserved worship practices of the aristocratic establishment.

At first the Baptist subculture of Virginia was easy for the dominant societal structure to ignore. Robert Baylor Semple, the earliest Virginia Baptist Historian, stated, “When the Baptists first appeared in … Virginia they were viewed by men in power as beneath their notice; none, said they, but the weak and wicked join them; let them alone, they will soon fall out among themselves and come to nothing.” The “men in power” were wrong; the countercultural Baptists grew rapidly. While there is clear evidence of the presence of Baptists in Virginia as early as 1699 their growth accelerated greatly after Daniel Marshall, who hailed from the historic Sandy Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina, began to preach in neighboring Virginia in the late 1750’s. By 1770 there were 18 or 19 Baptist churches with approximately 850 members and by 1774 there were 72 Baptist churches with over 5,000 members. By 1790 there were 210 Baptist churches with 20,861 members.

According to Isaac, Virginia Baptists aggressively pressed “a revolt against the traditional system” in the state. A gentleman from Loudoun County reported that the Baptists were “growing very numerous … and quite destroying pleasure in the Country; for they encourage ardent Pray’r; strong & constant faith, and an intire Banishment of Gaming, Dancing and Sabbath Day Diversions.” The solemn sobriety of Baptists seriously questioned the appropriateness of societal features that were considered crucial to the methods of association of the establishment. Not surprisingly, then, the Virginia power structure became alarmed by Baptist growth.

It may seem strange that a solemn movement that opposed dancing, drinking, games and other forms of merrymaking would become so popular. Isaac attributes the growth of the comparatively stern and sober Baptists to a need that they filled primarily among the poorer and less educated members of society. Isaac reports that the dominant Baptist message offered an escape from many harsh realities of the life of small farmers through a “supportive, and orderly community” that Baptist leader John Leland called “a congregation of faithful persons, called out of the world by divine grace, who mutually agree to live together, and execute gospel discipline among them.”

In Isaac’s view a vitally appealing feature of the supportive fellowship offered in Baptist churches was the comparative equality within the congregations. Baptists “conducted their affairs on a footing of equality so different from the explicit preoccupation with rank and precedence that characterized the world from which they had been called.” To Isaac the fact that numerous Baptist preachers rose from obscurity to assume important leadership roles in the movement is evidence of the equality fostered by the group. Persons of such low position would never have been given opportunities for leadership in the traditional order.

Semple cites a spiritual dimension as the reason for the popularity of the stern and sober Baptists rather than sociological factors only. He reports a revival—a miraculous spiritual awakening—that began in 1760 with a church formed from Daniel Marshall’s missionary efforts from North Carolina. The revival continued until the beginning of the Revolutionary War when a period of serious spiritual decline commenced. Shortly after the war, in 1785, another period of revival began and continued through 1791 or 1792 during which time “[t]housands were converted and baptized.” Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth reports that the latter period of spiritual awakening produced as much as an elevenfold increase in Virginia Baptist numbers.

Whether the growth of Baptists in Virginia in the last half of the eighteenth century should be attributed to sociological factors or spiritual awakening or some combination of the two, there can be no doubt this growing movement that aggressively opposed the customary bonding methods of the establishment and cast aside traditional notions of rank and privilege posed a great threat to those in power. Baptist success in converting slaves also inspired a good deal of hostility from the Virginia aristocracy. According to Semple, among the earliest converts apparently resulting from Daniel Marshall’s missionary work in Virginia “were several white members besides a large number of blacks, belonging chiefly to the large estate of Colonel Byrd.” As these slaves, many of whom “became bright and shining Christians,” scattered from Byrd’s estate, many persons in other areas were “brought to the knowledge of the truth.” The success of Baptists among slaves “was spectacular” according to Isaac and aroused great enmity from the establishment.

Therefore, as Isaac notes, it was because this new religious movement in Virginia was “a rejection of the style of life for which the gentry set the pattern” that Baptists began to be persecuted greatly. In a letter from Urbanna Prison dated August 12, 1771, Baptist minister John Waller relayed his account of the scene when an enraged county magistrate, the pastor from the local parish of the official state church and several others broke up a Saturday gathering of Baptists. Waller and five others were taken into custody. Two of the Baptist prisoners were scourged by one persecutor and then other persecutors, presumably squeamish over the violence, put a stop to the whipping. The Baptist who was most severely scourged before the beatings were halted was released and commanded to leave the county by noon the following day or he would be imprisoned. One Baptist was set free for unknown reasons. The rest were handed over to the sheriff to be placed in jail with the order that they were not to “walk in the air” until their court date which was two weeks later. According to Waller, the offensive gathering of Baptists was listening to a sermon based on James 2:18 when the meeting was broken up by the authorities. The prisoners were held on the charge of “mutiny against the authority of the land.”

This particular incident of persecution was cited because it so explicitly shows how Baptists were the hippies of Virginia for a while in the latter part of the eighteenth century—their worship gatherings were considered “mutiny against the authority of the land.” They were countercultural, struggling mightily against cultural norms. It should be noted that there were many other incidents of persecution of Virginia Baptists in this period, some of them far more severe than the one described above. During this period more than half the Baptist preachers in the state were jailed.

Largely because of their firsthand experience with religious persecution, Baptists became a countercultural force pressing for religious liberty expressed through the complete separation of church and state. Their efforts were effective not only in Virginia but in the nation as Baptists became crucial players in a chain of events that gave us the Bill of Rights. So we can be thankful for the “Baptist hippies” of the late 1700’s.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do Baptists of today still believe in a believer's church?

I am reading Rhys Isaac's Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790. Baptists were new to Virginia in the period outlined by Isaac's and I was impressed by these lines describing the fast-growing Baptist movement:

Conversion could ultimately be validated among [Baptist] church members only by
a radical reform of conduct. The Baptist church books reveal close concern for
the disciplinary supervision of such changes. Censure, ritual excommunication,
and moving expressions of penitence were invoked as means to deal with
persistent problems like drunkenness. Quarreling, slandering, and disputes over
property were other endemic transgressions that the churches patiently and
endlessly sought to control within their own communities. (p. 169)

Underlying intense Baptist efforts to "patiently and endlessly ... control" sin within their congregations was the insistence on a believer's church. Foundational to Baptist identity was the conviction that local churches were to be made up of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. If church members were known to engage in certain sins or if they failed to attend services faithfully such behavior was confronted. If sinful members failed to repent then they were publicly voted out of the church. In this way Baptists sought to make sure their church rolls were made up of believers only.

Of course, few Baptist churches operate this way anymore. I wonder if any Baptists of our culture really want a full return to our previous method of safeguarding the ideal of a believer's church. Which sins would be worthy of calling a member before the church? Drunkenness? Fornication? How about gluttony or greed?

The old Baptist method of nurturing a believer's church has fallen from favor today but what has replaced it? Do we still take seriously the doctrine of a believer's church? Are we deliberate about holding members accountable to commitment to the Lord and to his body, the church?

Symptomatic of our lack of commitment to a believer's church are the membership rolls of most Baptist congregations. In my old home church in Virginia, founded in the mid-1800's, it used to be that any member missing four weekly business meetings in a row was removed from the roll which, I am told, was a typical practice of Baptist churches some years back. Now the rolls of most Baptist churches are filled with many names of individuals that have not been seen in any church gathering in years. Does it appear that Baptists are truly committed to the principle of a believer's church when they have high numbers of inactive and non-resident members?

We cannot abandon the doctrine of a believer's church because it is ultimately about commitment to Christ. While out methods may vary from generation to generation the followers of Christ must unashamedly demand commitment to Christ among the followers of Christ. And Jesus stated his plan to build his church (Mat. 16:18). He loved the church and gave himself up for the church (Eph. 5:25).

I just don't see how we can stop insisting that our church members be truly committed Christ by being committed to his body, the church.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections on the death penalty at lethal injection number 1,000

Marvallous Keene and three accomplices went on a three-day murder and robbery rampage in Dayton, Ohio that began on Christmas Eve 1992 and left six people dead. His victims included an 18-year old mother gunned down in a phone booth. He was executed on Tuesday and he became the 1,000th person to be put to death by lethal injection in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Keene's crime was horrible and the state was right to take his life but it should have done so through life imprisonment rather than execution.

You might respond that the Bible supports the death penalty. If the scriptures support the death penalty, it certainly cannot be argued that they support a mandatory death penalty. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Moses would have been executed for murdering the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then David would have been executed for murdering Bathsheba’s husband. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Cain would have been executed for killing Abel.

Cain’s case is particularly interesting. Moses and David went on to become biblical heroes even though they were also murderers. But Cain, according to the Bible, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In the New Testament, 1 John 3:12, we are told that Cain “belonged to the evil one.” Yet, even though Cain is said to belong to the devil himself, God spared this murderer and warned that anyone who dared to take matters in to their own hands by killing Cain would suffer a harsh punishment. So God punished Cain, the first murderer, but he would not execute him and he took steps to see that no one else executed him either. That’s God’s direct pattern to us for punishing murderers based on his own punishment of the first murderer.

So if you say the Bible supports the death penalty you cannot say it supports a mandatory death penalty. However, if you wish to strictly follow the biblical guidelines for capital punishment, then you need to push for some new laws. You need to press for legislation that makes provision for the execution of rebellious children. The Bible allows this (Deut. 21:18-21). I know some parents who may from time to time wish this were the law of the land, but are you ready to start state executions of rebellious kids?

If you want to do the death penalty strictly as the Bible allows then you need to push for legislation providing for the execution of adulterers. The Bible allows this too (Lev. 20:10). I know some spouses who may wish this were the law of the land, but do you think we should have state sponsored killing of unfaithful spouses?

We as a society have never practiced the death penalty exactly as the biblical law allows.

Our culture outlawed slavery over 140 years ago even though the Bible allows slavery. The Bible regulated slavery in a society in which it was strictly the norm as it regulated the death penalty in a society in which capital punishment was strictly the norm. While it could be argued that the Bible allows slavery, historians say principles of the New Testament ended the practice here and in other Western societies. In like manner it is time that the principles of the New Testament end the death penalty as well.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from murderers short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

Evangelical Christians tend to have a serious inconsistency in their thought process on this point and this inconsistency has shown itself several times down through the years, perhaps most pointedly in one particular case. Back in 1998 Karla Faye Tucker was to be executed in Texas for murdering two people with a pickax. But Tucker had also undergone a jailhouse conversion. You may remember the TV news footage showing her worshipping and reading her Bible. By all accounts she underwent a genuine salvation experience. Because of her profession of faith, many evangelical Christians, including the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, began to plea for Karla Faye Tucker to be spared the death penalty.

If she had been unconverted, hardened criminal headed for hell, many evangelical Christians would have said, “Yeah! Serves her right! Let her have it!” But since she had been converted and headed for heaven many fought to keep her alive in her prison cell. Didn’t these evangelicals have this backwards?

I mean, if we care about keeping people out of hell, shouldn’t we be begging for a little more time to witness to those on death row who are headed for hell? Why fight for the lives of inmates going to heaven while pushing for the deaths of inmates going to hell? It does not seem to make good biblical sense.

Do you see the inconsistency here? We believe the gospel is the power of God that can transform anyone, even murderers. We believe that Jesus wants for us to use the gospel, the power of God, to keep people out of hell. But then many evangelicals want to hurry up and execute inmates headed for hell while they try to save inmates headed for heaven.

There is a serious problem in that thinking, and do you know what the problem is? Hate. We love inmates like Karla Faye Tucker that are headed for heaven, but hate the other inmates that we think are going to hell. Did Jesus call us to hate?

"Life for life" is the principle given in Deuteronomy 19:21 and several other passages. I agree with that principle. I am in full agreement that the state should take the lives of murderers like Keene. But this should be done through life imprisonment. Either way they die in state custody where they are no threat to society and with life imprisonment we uphold the biblical principle of "life for life" while also upholding the crucial scriptural principle of the sanctity of human life.

Being true to the biblical principles related to the punishment of murderers does not require us to execute murderers. We can take their lives behind bars where they are no longer a threat to society and where the gospel, the power of God, can still transform them. Study after study has shown that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. Moral questions should not be decided based on money, but if we were to factor in dollars and cents, the death penalty costs a lot more than life imprisonment. Furthermore the Bible does not require the death penalty for murderers even in the Old Testament and it could be argued that principles of the New Testament are against the death penalty.

Would that we could end the death penalty in this country before we get to lethal injection number 1,001. But, since Ohio has another execution scheduled for next month, this seems unlikely.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hat's off to Albert Mohler

In case you missed it, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in April that "President Obama's statement [on April 6 in Turkey] that America is not a Christian country is ... both accurate and helpful, though he is being criticized by many conservative Christians for making the claim." Mohler's support of President Obama's comment is in line with another Baptist writing 218 years ago. As noted below, Baptist minister and leader John Leland wrote in 1790, during the ratification process of the Bill of Rights, "The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever."

Dr. Mohler is correct that many conservative Christian leaders (including James Dobson) have attacked Obama's contention that the United States is not a Christian nation. Hat's off to him for breaking ranks and affirming both the veracity of the president's statement and his own Baptist heritage. Making Christianity the official religion of the government would not be a Christian thing to do.

Baptists in Virginia in the days of John Leland knew what it was to be severely persecuted by a "Christian" government establishment. This experience along with the teachings of Christ inspired them to be advocates for the complete separation of church and state. That effort was wise at the founding of this country and it remains wise today.

" ... marriage between church and state ... "

Consider this opinion concerning the union of church and state:

Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny—the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the [proclamations] of marriage between church and state; their embraces,therefore, must be unlawful.
Who said it? It was Baptist minister and leader John Leland writing on July 5, 1802. His view was typical of Baptists at the founding of the United States. Baptists of today who decry the separation of church and state are at odds with their heritage and the teachings of Jesus who rejected the use of government to achieve his mission.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Which church has the whole truth?

In 1791 Baptist minister and leader John Leland said, "It is not supposable that any established creed contains the whole truth and nothing but truth; but supposing it did, which established church has got it?" He was underscoring one of the many problems in uniting church and state. If Christian principles are to be promoted by the government, whose version of Christianity is to be advanced? Catholic or Protestant? (Think Northern Ireland here.) If we pick a denomination, which one should we choose? What will we do about the doctrinal differences within the ranks of that denomination?

Would we try to develop a governmental form of Christianity that resolves all the differing views within Christendom? Does anyone think that would ever work? Does anyone like the idea of a government approved gospel?

Better to let the church advance the cause of Christ and leave government out of the effort. After all, when Satan offered Jesus the governments of the world, the Lord turned him down.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Baptist leader said it too

In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's political enemies labelled him an infidel largely over this line penned in 1782: "[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." One newspaper declared the choice between John Adams and Jefferson to be a choice between "allegiance to GOD--AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!"

You might think that Baptists were on the front lines opposing Jefferson who was branded a heretic by many, but such was not the case. Indeed, prominent Baptist minister and leader John Leland borrowed the "twenty gods or no God" phrase from Jefferson on at least two occasions. Commenting on the notion of religious tests for public office, Leland wrote in 1790, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors ... let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God -- be Jew, Turk, Pagan, or infidel, he is eligible to any office ..." In 1791 this Baptist leader wrote, “Let every man speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing …”

These words were not written by guy who did not believe in evangelism. Leland preached nearly 8,000 sermons and baptized over 1,500 converts. He was passionate about the gospel and because he was passionate about the gospel he and his fellow Baptists were also advocates of religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. It was his zeal for religious freedom that led Leland to write his own version of the "twenty gods or no god" line.

It was dedication to liberty of conscience that also led Baptists to actively campaign for Jefferson in the 1800 election even though he was widely maligned as "an enemy to pure morals and religion" as one newspaper proclaimed. When Jefferson won the election, Leland celebrated saying that his "hero" was victorious. He was glad that Jefferson, "the defender of the rights of man and the rights of conscience", was in the White House.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Baptists preferred a "Godless" constitution

Today many evangelicals, Baptists in particular, would love to see explicit references to God in the Constitution of the United States. This desire is completely at odds with that of Baptists of the early days of this country. When the Constitution was proposed in 1787, Baptists opposed it because it contained no explicit guarantee of religious liberty. The document contained no reference to God at all, but that did not bother Baptists. Indeed, they preferred it that way.

Baptist minister and leader John Leland led the Baptist charge for the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, including the guarantee of religious liberty for all. But Leland and his fellow Baptists wished the Constitution to remain "Godless." Later Leland pressed a revision to the Massachusetts state Constitution. One item in that document that Leland and his fellow Baptist opposed was the assertion that "it is the right and duty of all men publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being." Leland wrote in 1794 that he agreed with the statement but he and his fellow Baptists maintained that it "would read much better in a catechism than in a state constitution."

Baptists of earlier days preferred "Godless" government Constitutions because they were firm advocates of the complete separation of church and state. Virginia Baptists suffered severe persecution at the hands of fellow Christians in the government sponsored Anglican Church from about 1760-1780. This ugly example of the mingling of church and state taught Baptists that the two should be kept separate.

And so "Godless" government Constitutions were just fine with Baptists of the late 1700's and early 1800's. Would that this were still true today.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"The notion of a Christian commonwealth ..."

" ... should be exploded forever ..."

That's how the rest of the quote above goes. Here is the whole thing in its fuller context:
No national church, can ... be the Gospel Church. A national church takes in the
whole nation, and no more; whereas, the Gospel Church, takes in no nation, but
those who fear God, and work righteousness in every nation. The notion of a
Christian commonwealth, should be exploded forever, without there was a
commonwealth of real Christians. Not only so, but if all souls in a government,
were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that
society could not be a gospel church, but a creature of the state.

Those words were written in 1790 during the ratification process of the Bill of Rights. Who wrote them? Some deistic politician or Unitarian minister? No, it was Baptist minister and leader John Leland and his sentiments were typical of Baptists in that day.

These days many Baptist ministers argue fiercely that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and thus it should be today. But Baptists of the early days of this nation believed that efforts to establish a "Christian nation" were efforts to set up something that would not really be Christian at all.

It seems to me that Leland and his fellow Baptists had it right on this point. As I recall Jesus rejected the offer of government power to accomplish his ends--rejected it as a temptation of the devil.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What James Madison believed the religious clause accomplished

When James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights in 1789, his wording of the religious clasuse went like this: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretext infringed.” In course of the debate in both the House and the Senate, this wording was modified several times until the final phrasing of the religious clause of the First Amendment was settled upon: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

As Donald L. Drakeman points out, “it is possible to debate interminably over the linguistic difference between Madison’s original proposal and the final version of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.” Whatever may be said about Madison’s view concerning the final wording of the religion clause, Madison biographer Irving Brant maintains that “there is no need to guess” about what Madison believed the phrasing accomplished. One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, Madison explained why he excluded an enumeration of those in professional occupations from an amendment to the census bill. He did not think it proper to list religious professionals because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel” (emphasis mine) As Brant says, this represented “the broadest conceivable definition of the constitutional guarantee, made publicly … to the same group of men who had approved it … [and] [n]obody challenged his statement.”

In his first inaugural address, Madison promised “to avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience, or the functions of religion so wisely exempt from the civil jurisdiction” (emphasis mine). While Madison was president, the plight of a Baptist church in the Mississippi Territory came before congress in 1811. The congregation had accidentally built its meeting place on federal land due to “an error in surveying.” Congress addressed the problem by passing a bill granting what was considered a “trivial” piece of land to the church, but Madison vetoed the bill. He explained in his veto message that “reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of [a] Baptist church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’”

In retirement Madison wrote in his “Detached Memoranda” that “the appointment of Chaplains to the Houses of Congress” is unconstitutional because “[t]he constitution of the U.S. forbids anything like an establishment of national religion.” Paying ministers with tax dollars to serve as chaplains involved the principle of a “national establishment.” Furthermore, the appointment of chaplains was “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because the beliefs of the chaplains selected “shut the door of worship [against] the members whose creeds [and] consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.”

Repeatedly Madison interpreted the language of the First Amendment to provide for the separation of church and state in the strictest terms. This was certainly pleasing to his Baptist allies in the struggle for religious liberty. John Leland, an influential Baptist minister of that day, believed, with his fellow Baptists, that “the religious opinions of men [should not be] the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beyond toleration

On April 25, 1776, two delegates were chosen from Orange County, Virginia to participate in the general convention where the state would formally declare its independence from Britain and draft a new frame of government. One of those delegates was 25 year old James Madison whose “Baptist neighbors may have helped him to win election,” according to historian Lance Banning. Madison was not a Baptist, but he actively protested the persecution of Baptists at the hands of the state Anglican establishment. Indeed, numerous historians claim that Madison, the father of the United State Constitution, got into politics to protest the persecution of Baptists.

The young legislator arrived in Williamsburg for the convention on May 6, 1776, “a stranger to most Virginia leaders,” according to Irving Brant. Yet this newcomer to state politics was nonetheless responsible for a great leap forward in thinking on religious liberty.

George Mason was late arriving as a delegate to the convention and he was immediately placed in charge of drafting a Declaration of Rights. Mason was widely respected in the state for his opinions on government and Ralph Ketcham says, “Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson always deferred to him as their mentor in matters of political theory.” However, Madison was not content with Mason’s wording on religious freedom in the Declaration of Rights which included a clause saying “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...” Madison prepared a change which he convinced Patrick Henry to present, but the body rejected the amendment because it was feared that the replacement language would disestablish the Anglican Church. Madison prepared a substitute amendment, this time asking Edmund Pendleton to bring the motion. The new wording passed, replacing Mason’s language on toleration with the radical new thinking that “all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...”

According to Banning, Madison’s “final phrasing ... erected an ideal that no society had ever written into law.” Madison thus went a step further than John Locke’s advocacy of toleration and he was ahead of Thomas Paine who later called toleration a type of despotism. According to Ketcham, Madison’s “experience at Princeton and his struggle against persecution of Baptists in Virginia convinced him that ‘toleration’ was an invidious concept.” Ketcham also maintains that Madison’s success in replacing toleration with equality and free exercise in matters of religion “made possible complete liberty of belief or unbelief, and utter separation of church and state.”

And so James Madison, who got into politics to protest the persecution of Virginia Baptists, took his first step in a lifelong crusade for religious liberty.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Church building lost to presidential veto

So a Baptist congregation built a meeting house in the Mississippi Territory sometime in the early 1800's. At some point it was realized that, due to a surveying error, the church building had accidentally been constructed on federal property. The church apparently petitioned Congress for relief and a bill was passed granting the congregation what was considered an inconsequential five acre parcel.

President James Madison vetoed the bill on February 28, 1811.

Why would Madison, a lifelong friend of Baptists, be so mean to a Baptist church? Because he saw this bill that gave federal land to a church as a violation of the First Amendment. In his veto message to Congress, Madison wrote that this legislative act comprised "a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

While Madison's action might seem pretty unkind, the principle that he defended is crucial to religious freedom. I don't know what happened to the meeting place of that Baptist congregation after Madison's veto. It must have been tough time for the church. I wonder if the members of the congregation took any comfort in the fact that they lost their meeting house for a good cause?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Angry Anna

Anna Jarvis was the driving force in establishing Mother’s Day in the U.S. In 1914, after years of hard work, Jarvis saw President Woodrow Wilson sign a joint congressional resolution establishing Mother’s Day as a national observance. It was the realization of a dream for Jarvis but she became disillusioned by what Mother’s Day quickly became.

Jarvis’ mother, Anna Maria Jarvis, dedicated her life to numerous social causes as a way of expressing her Christian faith. Her “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” were designed to improve health and sanitary conditions and to raise money for those who could not afford needed medicine. Her organization assisted families where the mother of the house was stricken with tuberculosis. Anna Maria Jarvis and her fellow mothers organized an inspection process for milk and other foods. During the Civil War the Mother’s Day Clubs declared neutrality and cared for wounded soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy. At the conclusion of the war, Jarvis the elder, through her clubs, deliberately worked to reconcile neighbors that had been at war. Besides all this, she was a Sunday School teacher in her Methodist church for 25 years.

In 1905 the younger Jarvis swore at her mother’s graveside that she would dedicate her life to her mother’s work and establish a Mother’s Day. After Mother’s Day became a national reality Jarvis was horrified that it was soon transformed into what she saw as a day of profit for the flower industry and greeting card companies. Gone was the emphasis on social change led by her mother.

Jarvis was very vocal in her complaints about Mother’s Day. She was once arrested for disrupting the meeting of a mother’s organization that she claimed had turned Mother’s Day into nothing but a day of profit. She began circulating petitions trying to have Mother’s Day rescinded as a national observance and spent the bulk of her inheritance attempting to undo what she saw as the damage of Mother’s Day. She was finally committed to a sanitarium where she died penniless and bitter.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with recognizing the positive contributions that mothers have made to our lives, I wonder if there is any hope of restoring any of Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis' emphasis on Christian social activism to the day. Is Mother's Day destined to remain only a "Hallmark moment" or can it also become, as it once was, an opportunity for obeying Jesus' command to reach out to the least of these?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Satan, the Holy Spirit and Christian education

Marv Knox, editor of The Baptist Standard, recently reported on the disturbing results of a new Barna survey. According to the study, nearly six out of ten self-described Christians in America believe in neither Satan nor the Holy Spirit. That's right, it appears that nearly 60% of U.S. Christians either strongly agree or somewhat agree that the devil and the Holy Spirit are symbols rather than living beings.

Knox outlines nicely the troubling dimensions of the results of this survey from a biblical and practical perspective and he makes an appropriate application of it to the tendency of Baptists to "avoid the Spirit." Check it out at the link above--good stuff. But I am wondering if this survey underscores the sorry state of Christian instruction in our churches. When nearly six out of ten Christians believe in neither the devil nor the Spirit then something is not working well in our Christian education.

In Baptist life we used to have much more instruction relative to worship services. Now, in most churches, we have fewer opportunities for Christian instruction and these tend to be more sparsely attended than in years past. With the death or near death of Training Union/Discipleship in many Baptist churches, systematic doctrinal instruction is nearly nonexistent.

Acts 2:42 tells us that believers in the early church devoted themselves to teaching. I don't think we do so today and I cite this recent Barna survey as evidence.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Taking H and H Road

According to Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (TNIV).

We naturally take the wide roads, not the narrow ones. Jesus invites us to take the narrow road.

If I am taking a long trip south, I check the route on an Internet mapping program or on a GPS device. Every such program that I have used instructs me to take H and H Road, but I never do. H and H Road is almost directly across from my subdivision and it is definitely the shortest way to go if I am headed to points south. The problem is that the road is little more than a dirt path with ruts and holes and some pretty big puddles when it rains. Furthermore, H and H Road only trims maybe 1 or 2 tenths of a mile off the trip. So I take the nice, wide, hard surface Mount Pisgah Road instead taking H and H Road despite what the mapping programs and the GPS devices say.

I don’t know of anyone in my subdivision who routinely takes H and H Road. No sensible person would take that narrow road when there is a nice, easily accessible, wide road.

Jesus invites us to take H and H Road. The Lord invites us to travel the path that seems a strange choice to the prevailing notions of our culture.

Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). He told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He said that, if someone strikes you on one cheek, don’t hit them back, just offer them the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). He told us to prize the lowly people of society rather that the prestigious people (Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25:31-46). He said to give your shirt to the one who takes your coat (Matthew 5:39). He said to give to the one who asks you (Matthew 5:42), and to lend without expecting repayment (Luke 6:43). He said blessed are you who are poor, but woe to you who are rich (Luke 6:20; 24). He said blessed are you who are hungry, but woe to you who are well fed (Luke 6:21; 25). He said blessed are you when people hate you but woe to you when everyone speaks well of you (Luke 6:22; 26). He said blessed are you who weep now, but woe to you who laugh now (Luke 6:21; 25). He followed the path of the cross and he told his followers to take up their own crosses.

Do you see that following Jesus means taking H and H Road? He turns many of our values upside down. His teaching runs counter to the conventional wisdom of our society. Following him means being weird and most of us don’t want to be weird.

I guess that’s why we keep wandering over to the wide road.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The soul's disease and mere church attendance

In Untamed Hospitality by Elizabeth Newman, she describes the "inward/outward journey ... rooted in accountability and community disciplines" in The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. which is led by Gordon and Mary Cosby. The church requires that each member be involved in one of its "communal missions." Gordon Cosby said, "We try to make it as difficult for a person to merely attend our church as possible, because we feel this can be detrimental and contribute to the soul's disease rather than the soul's health."

When I read that line, I thought to myself, "In most Baptist churches we would love to get the members on our rolls merely attending."

How far most Baptist congregations stray from the fellowship ideal depicted in the New Testament. Acts 2:42 tells us that believers in the early church devoted themselves to mere attendance? No, "to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (TNIV). Furthermore, in the early church, "no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had" (Acts 3:32, TNIV). Surprisingly by today's standards, "there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need" (Acts 3:34-35, TNIV).

Yes, that does sound like a commitment far exceeding mere attendance. Yet many Baptist churches have members on roll that they haven't seen in some cases for years. We are more interested in stats than the New Testament notion of fellowship. Ironically, if we would just dedicate ourselves to the New Testament ideal of church involvement the stats would probably improve. But no matter what happens to the numbers we really must recover the New Testament ideal of fellowship.

Do we, in our neglect of genuine koinonia, contribute to the soul's disease rather to the soul's health?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Govenment choosing of preferred religions

Did you hear about the Supreme Court decision this week related to placing religious monuments on government property? There is a park owned by the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah in which stands a donated monument listing the Ten Commandments. Another small religious group called Summum sought to give the city a monument depicting some of its basic precepts called the "Seven Aphorisms of Summum." The city refused the gift from Summum and the sect sued saying their free speech rights had been violated. On Wednesday the high court ruled that Pleasant Grove does not have to accept the gift from Summam.

The Supreme Court concluded that a lower court went too far when it forced a government entity to effectively endorse the views of a private group on public property. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the court's decision, wrote, “The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech." In this perhaps narrow sense the ruling makes sense. It seems to me that the lower court ruling could force the government to accept and display monuments from white supremacist religious groups such as the Christian Identity Church or those of Satan worshipping groups.

However, all of this begs the question of whether the city should have accepted the monument to the Ten Commandments in the first place. Now a government entity is placed in the position of deciding which religious teachings should and should not be displayed on public property which opens a different can of worms. It did not escape the notice of the Supreme Court that, while a lower court may have improperly applied the Free Speech Clause, the situation in Pleasant Grove, Utah may run afoul with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In an opinion that concurred with the decision of the court but not with its reasoning, Justice David Souter wrote, "If the monument has some religious character, the specter of violating the Establishment Clause will behoove it to take care to avoid the appearance of a flat-out establishment of religion."

In a statement, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), said “the government should not be able to pick and choose the favored religion and then erect a monument endorsing the religion’s scriptural precepts.” The BJC had filed a friend of the court brief asking that the Establishment Clause dimension of the case be considered, but the high court did not take up that question. However it probably will in the near future. The attorney for Summam has announced his intention to amend the lawsuit to include church-state separation claims.

It is worth noting that Baptists who were around at the founding of this nation would not have agreed with the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property and they surely would not have quietly accepted the notion of the government picking and choosing what religious teachings it will display. They were strict adherents to the principle of the separation of church and state. John Leland, perhaps the most prominent U.S. Baptist leader of the late 1700's, opposed the closing of Post Offices on Sunday because he said it amounted to government favoritism toward Christian teaching. Leland and the Baptists of his time were firm in their conviction that government should show preference for no religion.

Sadly many Baptists of today reject the view of their spiritual ancestors in this country. Based on the teachings of Christ and their experience as a persecuted minority, Baptists of the late 1700's in this land said what was later affirmed in all three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000): "Church and state should be separate." For the good of the church and for the good of the spread of the gospel, Baptists at the founding of this nation were among the strongest proponents of a strict church-state separation. Tragically, in more recent times, some prominent Baptist leaders have called the separation of church and state "a modern fabrication" and "the figment of some infidel's imagination."

Would that all Baptists of today would again embrace authentic religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus to use the power of government to accomplish his mission, the Lord turned him down.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I wish Eric Holder was right

Attorney General Eric Holder
I wish Eric Holder was right because I think he gives most Americans more credit than we deserve when he calls us "cowards" on racial matters. Attorney General Holder, in a much-discussed speech delivered on February 18, indicated that we do not talk to each other enough about race because "it is an issue we have never been at ease with ..." Many have criticized the Attorney General as harsh in applying the term "cowards" to American efforts in the realm of race relations. Unfortunately it is probably more accurate to say that Holder was overly kind to us in his assessment.

The Attorney General believes that we do not have many if any serious conversations with each other about race because we find the subject too difficult to broach. To some extent he is right and where we Americans avoid the subject of race due to the level of difficulty involved we are being cowards. says that a coward is "a person who lacks courage in facing ... difficulty." So, to the degree that we fail to discuss race because of the difficulty in doing so, we are in fact being cowards.

But around here, the main impediment in having serious conversations about racial matters is more sinister than cowardice. We do not avoid the subject of race because we are cowards; we avoid it because we are apathetic. Most of our neighborhoods lack racial diversity and don't care. Most of our churches lack racial diversity and we don't care. Most of our social gatherings lack racial diversity and we don't care. We don't care because, truth be told, most of us like it that way.

Eric Holder suggests that we want to improve race relations and to move ahead but we are just scared to have the necessary conversations. I wish he were correct because it would mean that addressing the ongoing racial divide in this country is simply a matter of overcoming our fear of discussing the problem. But I am afraid that it is more accurate to say that, for the most part, we do not move forward in improving race relations because we do not care about moving forward and we do care about moving forward because we do not want to move forward.

Having said that Holder gives us more credit than we deserve in calling us cowards when it comes to race, it is too bad that one of the suggestions in his speech has been overlooked in the tempest over his perceived inflammatory language. The Attorney General challenged you to "use the opportunity of [Black History] month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters." Holder believes that "in this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America." I am all for any opportunity to have that sort of conversation. Maybe if we talk more about racial matters then we will begin to care more about doing the right thing in race relations.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shocking entrance requirements

In a biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham quotes the entrance requirements of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1769. Among other things, incoming freshmen had to be able to "render Virgil and Tully's orations into English and to turn English into true and grammatical Latin, and to be so well acquainted with the Greek, as to render any part of the Four Evangelists [Gospels] in that language into Latin or English ..." Again, these were among the entrance requirements for undergraduate work.

I find this incredible. I did not begin to learn Greek until I entered a Masters program in theology and even then I didn't learn it well enough to render any part of the gospels into English without the aid of a Greek dictionary. And translating any part of the gospels from Greek into Latin? I could not begin to do that after graduating from a Masters program in theology. Yet such skill was the expected general base of knowledge for 17 or 18 year-olds entering college in the latter half of the 1700's.

I watched too much TV growing up.

I really did. Now, on top of TVs, we have video games, MP3 players and cell phones to help turn our brains into mush. Most of us need to study more and entertain ourselves with mindless garbage less. Maybe we need to entertain ourselves more with truly enlightening knowledge.

We have become accustomed to junk food for the brain as we have become accustomed to junk food for our bodies. There is a lot of talk about the "obesity epidemic" in America. I think our brains are as out of shape as our bodies.

"Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge" (Proverbs 23:12, TNIV).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Do whatever we can to combat it"

I almost didn't make it.

I attend a monthly meeting of Baptist pastors and a few weeks ago a member of the group noticed that our regular meeting day in January was also inauguration day. He suggested that we watch the inauguration and that we discuss the church’s role in the issues facing our communities and country and devote a good amount of time to prayer for our governmental leaders. The rest of the group thought it was a good plan and we decided to meet in Wilmington (35 miles away for me) in a church facility that has a wonderful television room. For the purposes of this entry I should point out that all of the members of this group of Baptist pastors are white.

In mid-afternoon on the day before our meeting I learned that an Inaugural Watch Service would beheld at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church which is a predominantly African-American church just a few miles from my home. I wondered if similar services were being held in Wilmington that our group could attend but I knew that it was too late to explore that possibility and to get the word out to everyone.

On inauguration day I set out for Wilmington to watch the inauguration with some white Baptist ministers. By the time I got maybe 10 miles up Highway 17, what had been rain turned into heavy snow. But the roads remained clear, so I continued my journey. When I arrived I discovered that, besides two ministers from the church that was hosting the gathering, I was the only group member present. Everyone else decided not to brave the snowy driving conditions.

The ministers of the host church, at my request, looked up inaugural watch gatherings in Wilmington. But, after checking my watch, I decided that I should be able to just make the service at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church as the official inaugural ceremonies began. Fortunately the roads were still clear and I arrived at Cedar Grove just after 11:30 a.m. and found the congregation gathered around a large, flat screen TV in the sanctuary. There was one reporter there who was white. I was the only other white person in the place.

I was welcomed and guided to the best seat left in the place—up on the second row on the aisle. The congregation was in a festive mood and it cheered with crowd on TV. After Obama’s inauguration speech, we sang “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” Following this song the pastor, Dr. Gause, made a few brief remarks and we sang another song, the name of which I do not know. Then the congregation retired to the fellowship hall to eat and I started to make my way out.

As I was leaving I was stopped numerous times by folks that I know and a bunch of other folks who I don’t know. They all greeted me very warmly and expressed their appreciation for my attendance. The only other white guy in the room, Steve Jones, a reporter for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, caught me in the vestibule and asked me a few questions. He wrote an article on the event that was published the next day.

Among the things I told Jones was that Christians should be leading the way in racial healing. Yet, too often, especially among many evangelicals, we have brought up the rear instead. The Lord created all people of every race in God's image. In Acts 17:26 we read that from one person God made every person--everyone of every race ultimately has the same ancestor. In Galatians 3:28 we see that the gospel tears down gender barriers, socio-economic barriers and racial barriers--we are all one in Christ Jesus. Billy Graham wrote, "Racism is a sin, and God doesn't want us to ignore it or refuse to do whatever we can to combat it."

I have not done enough to promote racial healing. I really am going to try to do better in this area. However, it was my privilege to stand with my brothers and sisters in Christ at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church on inauguration day as we celebrated a milestone together. Many communities in this country, including this one, still have a ways to go in improving race relations. But at least a few of us left a sanctuary here in Brunswick County, North Carolina feeling a little more hopeful.