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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Land of the House of Omri--Part 3
Psalm 146
1 Kings 16

How must we lead in the church? We must serve. We have elected our committees and officers recently. We have our deacons and trustees. Our choirs have their directors. Our classes have teachers. What kind of leaders are we going to be?

Most all of us have shared the joys and frustrations of working on committees. Things don’t always go the way we hoped they would. We try to treat one another with respect and as colleagues. But then sometimes when a committee member becomes a committee chair, it seems like a different person has appeared. The one who used to treat you like a colleague now starts telling you what to do. The one who used to listen to ideas of others starts announcing and pronouncing that this is what we are going to do.

Why do we think that chairing a committee makes us a boss? It makes us a servant. It gives us greater responsibility to listen. It requires that we become the channel of good communication. It requires that we seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit to work through each person so that our blindness can be overcome by the Spirit’s light which flows through each one.

Leading is serving, not bossing. The purpose is not to show how great I am as the one in charge, but to see how we can do what God is calling us to do together. We can’t be like the family of James and John and their mother, trying to work the system to get our sons and daughters, our brothers and aunts, named committee chairs and choir directresses or directors. Leading is about service, not status, not titles, but ministry.

How do we lead in teaching? Some people treat teaching as their chance to tell those people what I know. But teaching must be service. What does the class need? What would make their lives grow? If you have not figured it out yet, I’ll let you in on a secret. Just sitting in a room in rows or around a table while someone spouts off what pops into his or her head is not Christian education. To teach is to accept a calling to serve. The service of teaching is building a relationship. We cannot merely recruit teachers to fill slots on a chart to say we have teachers. We need teachers who want to build relationships week after week. We don’t just have a class to fill time on Sunday and Wednesday. We have class to provide the service of helping people learn to know God and follow Jesus in all that they do.

I recently heard a speaker talk about how adults lead youth in churches. He said that he has become very careful about selecting adults to work with youth. He said that there is a kind of entitlement that many adults seem to take on when they talk to young people. It is as if they have been storing up their resentment from all their own years of childhood, waiting for their chance. Then when they become adults they dump all this out on young people because they think it is their turn to boss people around.

There is no service in that kind of leadership. That is the house of Omri. That is the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees. That is the leadership of a tyrant, of someone who thinks that the role gives entitlement to push people around. What do young people learn when we lead in this way? They learn that someday they can get their own chance to boss people around and put them in their place. They do not meet Jesus in that kind of leader.

The speaker went on to say that we are being blind to how we lead youth. We criticize them and boss them and put them in rows and tell them to be quiet. We give them few opportunities to try to lead, to sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Then we wonder why so many young people of this generation are turning away from the church. We are like the Pharisees and Sadducees. The signs of the times are right before our eyes. These beautiful blessings of God’s creation are longing to find the way to live as God’s children. If we can’t see the way to listen and lead with service, to offer grace and mercy, to champion justice, then we will have missed one of the most important opportunities God has given us.

If we go full circle back to Psalm 146, we find the character of leadership that God expects of us, that Jesus lived for us. This Lord executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. This Lord sets the prisoners free . This Lord opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. This Lord loves the righteous. This Lord watches over immigrants, upholds the orphan and the widow. This Lord brings the way of the wicked to ruin. This Lord will reign forever, keep faith forever, for all generations.

Knowing this Lord, do you want to stay in the house of Omri? Will someone someday remember our gatherings as the house of Omri? Have we hardened our hearts so that we can’t see the signs of the times? What would God have Mt. Level do here and now? How do we need to reorganize our lives to do that? How do we need to adjust our structures to make it happen? What will Mt. Level be in days to come? Will we lead with service, or will we shut out the world and hold onto our power as the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will we float along oblivious to what Jesus has been telling us as his disciples did, never realizing the truth of what we should be doing? Will we fixate on titles and offices and neglect service, mercy, and justice? Will we lord over others as tyrants and make ourselves no different from the world?

I want to tell you today that there is a Lord over us who in grace has come to serve. This waiting Lord sees that you are weary and heavy-laden. He stands dressed in work clothes, holding a bowl of water and a towel to wash your feet, to touch your life at the place of your deepest need. If you have not met this servant King, then why wait any longer. Come be embraced by the washing of regeneration. Come to give your life to the one who loves you supremely. Come to follow Jesus today.

Maybe you have been timid to lead. Maybe you fear you would fail to measure up. Maybe you fear you would be overbearing and unliked. Maybe you fear you would have to give up something you treasure. Let me tell you today that to become a servant in the band of Jesus’ followers is a place where grace abounds. If we cannot be a community of grace then we have not met the God of grace, or we have forgotten where he brought us from. God is calling out leaders to take up the role of a servant. If God is prodding you to commit your life to servant leadership, then do not delay. Those who already lead, if you need to reshape your leadership to be modeled after Jesus, then begin that path today. If you are living in the house of Omri and you want your ministry to be known as the house of the servant king, then come today to offer your body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your worship.

Or perhaps you have no church home. You are new in town or you have been here awhile but never submitted yourself to serve in a particular body of gathered followers of Jesus. If Jesus is calling you to be part of this band of followers, to find your place as a servant leader, the doors of the church are open. We welcome you to join us in serving God in this place.


As we answer the call to follow Jesus, may the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us now and always as we walk the road toward the House of the Servant King. Amen
The Land of the House of Omri--Part 2
Psalm 146
1 Kings 16

In times like these, we must listen to Jesus’ warning to “Watch out, beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two most powerful factions of the political life of Palestine in Jesus’ day. They disliked each other and tried to gain advantage over one another. But they also made sure they worked together to see that no one else could challenge their joint hold on power. The third parties, like the Zealots or Herodians, were either has-beens or not-gonna-bes, in their eyes. So when they challenged Jesus as recorded in Matthew 16, they were willing to work together to try to keep him down. It says they came to him asking for a sign. But he knew they represented the house of Omri. So he challenged their power in his response.

He told them he did not need to give them a sign and had no intention of doing so. He told them there were all kinds of obvious signs about what God was doing in the world that they should be looking at and talking about. He reminded them in front of the crowd that they knew how to look at a red sky and depending on the details, predict whether it would be fair weather or stormy weather. They had plenty of skill at interpreting signs. But they had closed their minds and hearts to the signs of the times, the signs of what God was doing right in front of them. They were satisfied with the house of Omri. They were not looking for the paths to greater justice and mercy. As far as Jesus was concerned, if they couldn’t see what is as plain as the back of their own hand, then they must be blinded by their hardheartedness. He says that only an evil and adulterous sort of people ask for more signs than the ones they already have. And he told them to go back and think about the sign of Jonah, then see what happens. And he walked away.

His disciples were confused, and they asked questions that hurt his feelings. He explained his point to them, and they sort of figured out he was talking about what the Pharisees and Sadducees teach. But they seem to have remained somewhat confused. They had not figured out for themselves what God was doing in front of their faces. On the other hand, the Sadducees and Pharisees claimed to be the ones who know all about God, but they refused to see what God is doing.

We in the church can respond to God in both of these ways. On our good days, we can be like the disciples, muddling along, getting confused, thinking we knew what was happening and suddenly realizing we just don’t get it. Church people too often hear people talking church talk and assume that means that they are working for the Kingdom of God. Both of the last two presidents of the United States have been experts at this form of manipulation. Pres. Clinton portrayed himself as a devoted Baptist Christian. Pres. Bush portrays himself as a devoted Methodist Christian. People get caught up in this appearance and this image, and they say, “Isn’t it wonderful to have a devoted Christian in the White House?” The fog of words and images gets in the way of the signs of the times.

Where is the money getting spent? Whose taxes are getting cut and whose tax bills are growing? Where and why are the bombs being dropped? Who is training our young people to commit acts of torture? These are the signs of the times. But we keep getting hung up on whether we like the person in charge or whether the president or congress says nice things to us and makes us feel good. Watch out, and beware the yeast of the Democrats and the Republicans. Beware the yeast of the Baptists and the Methodists. Look at the neighborhoods of this city. What are the signs of the times? Do not put your trust in princes.

The church can also become like the Pharisees and Sadducees. We can get so self-righteous, so sure that we are living just like God wants us to live, that we miss the signs of the times. We can hide the sins of our lives and magnify the sins of people who are not in our churches. We can attack those people who do things we aren’t doing while we ignore our own sins of omission. We can strain at a gnat, and ignore the weightier matters of the law such as justice and mercy. We make our short list of sins that we find easy to avoid, and then we leave off the list the sins of a society, a war-making machine, an economic system of exploitation that is destroying the lives of young people, the poor, the elderly, the sick, the mentally ill, and the prisoners. Where are we Mt. Level folks in this story? Are we the Pharisees and Sadducees? Lord, help us here.

Well clearly the Bible warns us against trusting in worldly rulers, princes and kings, presidents and governors, generals and commissioners. So what kind of leader does the Bible teach us to be? What kind of leader does the world need? What kind of leader do churches need? Jesus continued the tradition of Samuel and Jeremiah when he talked to his disciples about leadership.

The conversation happened when the disciples started getting eager to see a kingdom come about with powerful people bossing the rest of the people. They started wondering who would get the highest ranks. One couple of brothers and their mother came up with a plan to lobby Jesus for favors. They asked if they could be his top assistants, on his right hand and his left. Jesus was appalled. He asked them a challenging question, which they did not understand. He asked if they could be the kind of leader he was. They had not figured out that the way he had been with them was the way he would continue to be with them; they still thought he had been playing the role of the meek and mild Jesus as a way of biding his time until he could rise up and become the head person in charge and throw his weight around. So they said, in all their humility, “Yes, Jesus, we can be like you and do what you do.” They were eager to be in charge.

But Jesus answered them by pointing out that they really did not understand what he was saying, again. He assured them that in due time they would bear the same burden of leadership that he was to bear. But in the meantime, he told them to forget about all this foolishness about who was second in line to be in charge. All the disciples got angry about it. I think some were angry because they did not think of asking Jesus first.

Then he got everyone’s attention to make a point. He said, “The Gentiles have a way of leading that is not the way you should lead. Their rulers act like they have absolute power. They demand absolute loyalty. They treat everyone else as their servant. You are not to be that kind of leader. The way I am is the way you have to be. Leading is by serving. Whoever wants to be great must become great through service. Whoever wants to be first must act like the last and serve everyone else. That is who I am. That is what I have been doing. That is what I will continue to do, even to the point of giving my life for others.”

The gospel of John tells us that he went on to act it out for them soon. At the table of the last supper, he put aside his garments and wrapped himself in the garment of a slave. Then he took a bowl of water and a towel, knelt before them one at a time, and washed their dirty, stinking feet. When he finished, he said that they were to imitate him in this way, serving one another.

So we don’t need leaders who act like tyrants and just expect everyone to do what they say. We don’t need to let politicians treat us that way. We need to teach them to be public servants. We need to move them in the direction of serving those great needs that God is revealing to us as the signs of the times. Shouting condemnation on thieves and drug offenders, throwing them in jail to warehouse them and have them become a low-wage, locked-up labor force is neither justice nor mercy. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? Our leaders must learn to serve. We must hold them accountable. Voting is one way to do that, but just voting will not do the job. We also must help them be accountable to the people throughout their terms of service. The world is not as it should be. Our calling as the church is to discern the movement of God and help the world understand how it needs to be changed.

But how about our own leading? What kinds of leaders must we be? Jesus has told us to be servants. So we can’t let our families become the house of Omri. A family is not a place for people to form factions, manipulate and dominate. Divide and conquer will lead to disaster in the family. God has no role for a tyrant in the family. We do not lead by lording over one another. If we cannot find a way to talk with one another in loving ways, to work together in mutual submission toward fulfilling the calling of God, we have missed out on why God has brought us together.

Leading in the family is service. There is no place for violence. When the guys on the job say you have to hit a woman now and then to let her know who is boss, then say “Get thee behind me Satan.” That is a temptation to sin. It is not the word of God. When the women in the coffee room say, “She must have brought it on herself,” say “Watch out, and beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” If you can’t see that using violence to build love is wrong, you are blind to what Jesus has done. The path to loving relationships is through loving actions. If you want to lead, you must learn to serve. If someone can’t lead without violence, then he or she is no different from the ones who crucified our Lord. It must not be so among you, for to be great you must serve.

To be continued . . .
The Land of the House of Omri--Part 1
Psalm 146
I Kings 16

In the official inscriptions of the ancient kingdom of Assyria, archaeologists have discovered a phrase that names a character from the Old Testament. That phrase refers to a kingdom, and it calls that kingdom “the house of Omri.” Who was Omri—O-M-R-I--Omri? Did Omri have a famous family?

Well, fame is a relative thing. About 3000 years ago in the hills of Samaria, Omri was pretty well known. He was the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel. He moved the capital of the kingdom from Tirzah to a new city he built called Samaria. He reigned for about twelve years and seems to have built some buildings. He was mediocre in his ability to maintain good relationships with neighboring kingdoms. He seems to have solidified one relationship with a strategic marriage for his son. Elsewhere he lost some cities to Syria and took some cities from Moab. And he got his name into the records of Assyria, a kingdom on the rise toward a becoming a great empire. His successors as King of Israel would ultimately have to face a reckoning with Assyria, and it would be their downfall.

But what I’ve just told you is much more than the book of 1 Kings bothers to tell us about Omri. Omri is one more in a series of rulers who are most memorable in the Bible for the way they went wrong. Of course, that is the overall story line of the entire period of kings in Israel and Judah. Some people began to demand a king. Samuel tried to stop them, and he warned them it would not be good for them. Against God’s true purpose for Israel, God let them have a king, and what follows is one sad example after another of why we need to understand what Psalm 146 is saying: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans will perish.”

Let’s think back across that history. God selected Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, as the first king. He had the look of a leader. He showed an inclination toward godliness as was manifested when he joined up with the traveling prophets. He took up the task of leadership with confidence. Pretty soon he was fighting wars. The longer he stayed in office, the more he worried about who might be trying to take over his place as king. This concern seems to have pushed him toward depression and maybe even mental illness. He could not figure out that the best thing he had going for him was a friendship with young David. Instead, he let the waves of public opinion rock him back and forth. It’s a tragic story, but not an isolated incident of failure on the throne.

Saul was replaced by David after his death. Sometimes the Bible makes it seem that under David everything was great. But closer attention to the story shows us it was not. David’s leadership was tied up with his effective use of violence. God did not want him to build the temple because of his violent ways. Moreover, while he seems to have started out with the blessing of the people and of God, David quickly dissipated his political capital and his divine favor. He decided that being king put him above the law. He stole a man’s wife and killed the man. He did not maintain a harmonious household. The household disagreements poured over into political factions, and the land became divided and went into civil war. Although we see David repenting of sin and seeking to reconcile the divisions, even on his deathbed he plotted revenge.

His successor Solomon is praised for his wisdom, but where is the wisdom in having so many wives and concubines? He sounds more like a rich, powerful man out of control. Some of his marriages were for political alliances, and these brought the powerful influences of other kingdoms and other faiths into the land. Although Solomon is revered for building a temple to the God of Israel, he also built temples to the gods of the neighboring kingdoms. And the way he built so many fine buildings was by drafting the people to do forced labor for the kingdom. It was hard to raise your crops and keep your animals if you had to spend months away from home building fancy buildings for the king’s wives to live in or for the priests of foreign gods to practice their religion. People were angry by the time Solomon died.

One of the popular critics of Solomon’s policies, Jereboam, helped to split the kingdom into north and south, and he became king of the northern tribes. He went back to the wilderness precedent of erecting a golden calf as a symbol of the throne of god. He mixed up the gods of the land with the worship of the God of Israel. His was the first of many disastrous kingships in the northern kingdom. His son and successor, Nadab, was murdered on the battlefied by another northerner, Baasha, and then the whole family was rounded up and slaughtered. Baasha did not know how to stay out of fights, and he had plenty of trouble with his neighbors. When he died, his son Elah succeeded him. That’s where 1 Kings chapter 16 picks up.

I would hate to be Elah in the history books. The Bible gives us one fact about his life. While a war was going on somewhere else, he was back at home with half the army in the capital. And he was drinking himself stupid with his buddies. In that state of inebriation, he probably never knew what hit him. The commander of the troops in the capital came to the place where he was drunk and assassinated him. The kingdom went into chaos. Zimri, his assassin, proclaimed himself the new king. Then he did just like Elah’s father had done. He rounded up the whole family of Elah and executed them.

After this assassination and usurping of the throne, the people began to rally around popular leaders. The part of the army that had been off at war chose Omri to be the new king. Omri took the army off the battlefield and marched back to the capital. When Zimri, the assassin who was claiming to be king, saw the troops arrayed against him, he gave up hope. After being king for only seven days, he set fire to the palace and burned it and himself in it. So Omri claimed to be the new king.

But he could not fully claim it yet. Even though the army was backing him, about half the people of the northern kingdom were backing another fellow, Tibni, for king. Putting the dates from 1 Kings 16 together, it seems that for four years, two people claiming to be king were locked in a struggle for power. Finally, Omri’s party overcame Tibni’s party, and Tibni’s death let Omri reign unchallenged for the next eight years until his death. What inheritance did he leave the kingdom of Israel? He left them his successor, his son Ahab, who led the people down many wrong paths.

Omri came to power in the midst of war, in the wake of assassinations, and when the country was divided. I Kings says that half the people backed Omri and the other half backed Tibni. Omri and Tibni battled it out in an intractable struggle for four years. Then Omri got the undisputed title, and Tibni went to the grave.

This does not sound so unfamiliar to me. Half the country was for one leader, the other half for another. The controversy went on for four years, and finally one of them emerged the victor over the other. It sounds like the last six years of U. S. politics. This country’s voting populace is so evenly divided between two parties that every election ends up with a dispute over who won. And with the margin of victory so narrow, who knows what people are willing to do to sway a few votes. Some try to intimidate voters to keep them from going out to vote. Others use mailings or phone calls to lie about where and when the vote is taking place. Some throw out perfectly good ballots that could hurt their party’s cause. Others take election results to court. Many of us wonder whether the coming use of electronic voting machines will bring an end to having our vote count if the machines can be programmed to ignore our decisions and mark ballots for whomever pays the programmers the best price. We face uncertainty, conflict, and division. So did the people who ended up with Omri as their king.

It was that chaotic reign that the Assyrians recorded as their name for the northern kingdom of Israel. Even after Omri’s descendents lost the throne, the Assyrians called this kingdom “the house of Omri.” They did not call it the house of Jereboam. They did not call it the house of Baasha. They did not call it the house of Jehu, even though Jehu was the one who unseated and executed the family of Ahab, son of Omri. So forever in the archives of Assyrian history, the northern kingdom has been known for a king whose reign was built on chaos and civil conflict.

The Psalmist’s words are an important reminder for those of us who find ourselves living in the house of Omri today. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. As Samuel warned, and Jeremiah reminded, depending on armies and violence and putting one person in charge over everyone is a bad plan that is bound to fail. One person is not capable of exercising that much power. Armies and violence produce more armies and violence. Autocratic leaders become self-centered and self-serving. They help their friends while everyone else pays the price. They talk as if they are for the people when behind the scenes they are robbing them of their prosperity and their dignity.

In our day leaders are promoting the use of torture, putting the energy companies in charge of the energy policy, taking away the right of habeus corpus, allowing unlimited imprisonment without charges, imprisonment without the right to communicate with a lawyer, allowing wiretapping of citizens without probable cause or a warrant, spending billions on a war of aggression while leaving hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims to fend for themselves, creating education policies designed to shift billions of dollars to private companies. In these times of chaos and division, leaders can manipulate the system to the great disadvantage of the common people.

This is the world we have been living in. We have been living in the house of Omri. And do not be fooled. It has not changed overnight. One day of voting did not transform a troubled and broken system into the Kingdom of God. When Saul died and David took his place, the problems did not go away. Solomon may have tried to be a uniter and not a divider, but when his son took power, the country split and civil war ensued. One election did not remove the dangers and turn the U. S. into the land of eternal happiness. For generations after Omri’s reign, people still called the northern kingdom of Israel “the house of Omri.” And when they stopped calling it that, it was because the kingdom had been defeated, destroyed, and deported.

To be continued . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Writing a final report on my sabbatical grant project was a challenge and a learning experience. I spent four days hammering away at my keyboard, looking back at notes taken here and there, recently and not so recently. I reviewed comments from other professors. I gained some insights. I hope there will be much more that I can say about it than my formal report. The opening section of my report follows. I hope my colleagues and I can somehow grasp from this research some pieces of an appropriate pedagogical response. That would be one more reason to be thankful to God.

The “Teaching Political Engagement” project has provided excellent opportunities for learning about political engagement on the level of everyday practices of churches and church-related organizations. The fall political season in the United States presents exaggerated images of partisan conflict, overstuffed with fear-mongering and mudslinging, funded by mountains of wealth. But that is only one angle by which to look at political life. In communities all over the United States, neighborhood organizations, civic clubs, ad hoc committees, coalitions, political associations, and churches engage one another in transforming their communities and in affecting the decisions of businesses, large corporations, school boards, city and county governments. Their local work may ultimately reshape state and federal policies.

Of course, this kind of neighborhood-based political engagement is often the exception rather than the rule of life in the United States, as noted by Marcia Riggs, Cornel West, Mark R. Warren, and Robert Putnam,(1) who have examined the breakdown of community and neighborly structures and the possibilities for rebuilding them. Churches are often either oblivious to this loss or helpless and ineffective in their efforts to swim against this stream. The culture of individualism provides few tools for analyzing the structural problems of society, nor does it encourage sympathy for other people’s problems. For churches who do not recognize their calling to be rooted in the inaugural public statement of Jesus’ mission to the world, recorded in Luke 4:16-21, the initial task will be to undergo what James B. Nickoloff calls “conversion to the neighbor” in his comments on Gustavo Gutierrez’s theology of neighbor love: “that love of God is inseparable from [and] . . . unavoidably expressed through love of one’s neighbor.”(2)

There are many churches and church leaders who have a basic theological understanding of their duty to love the neighbor through offering grace in relational and tangible form. Providing food, clothes, and other assistance in times of crisis is not an uncommon practice by churches who may create organizational structures or may respond as cases arise. Sometimes these sorts of actions receive the name “mercy ministries,” a term derived in part from Micah 6:8, which summarizes the prophetic message with a threefold calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Mercy ministries address the immediate crisis needs that people may face, but on their own they do little to confront structures which may be perpetuating the sort of crises that people in the neighborhood keep having. Justice ministries address structural injustices and seek to create structures of justice in the neighborhood, sometimes through the effort of the church and its neighborhood partners and sometimes through addressing governmental and non-governmental systems which affect the situation of injustice.

In my conversations with students about their churches and their responses to drug abuse, gangs, poverty, drop-outs, and crime, they usually tell stories of mercy ministries and efforts to help this family deal with its immediate need. Seldom are they able to articulate strategies or plans for addressing structural or systemic change. If the conversation shifts to systemic change, then often the focus becomes national political issues and elected federal officials. In contrast, Cornel West has insisted it is local grassroots community action, not neglecting state and federal influence, which will be able to bring about transformation.(3)

Many of the student ministers in my theology and ethics classes have an inclination toward grassroots action for community change, but their ecclesial training has seldom prepared them to innovate in ministry, to develop a workable ministry plan, or to use good organizational practices. Thus, a range of needs emerges for “Teaching Political Engagement.”

• A theologically grounded understanding of the relation of churches to their neighborhoods, communities, and other political and social organizations should effectively communicate the calling of the church to embrace the mission Jesus proclaimed as the Reign of God, sometimes contextualized in recent U. S. history as “the beloved community.”(4)

• A critical analysis of structures and systems in relation to the problems and needs of particular people should enable teaching the communal or corporate mission of he church, the church’s ways of using power, and models of social and political engagement with structures and systems.

• Studying and participating in good organizing practices and intentional community-building should support the development of habits that are flexible and foster the building of effective and sustainable organizations that are needed for longer-term personal and community transformation.

• Educational processes must accommodate formation in theological vision, communal identity, analytical insight, organizational tools, and vocational commitment.

(1) Marcia Riggs, Awake, Arise, and Act (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1994) 87, 93ff; Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1994) 29-30; Mark R. Warren, Dry Bones Rattling (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 16-18; Robert Putman, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) 42, 56ff, 73-74.

(2) Gustavo Gutierrez, Essential Writings, ed. by James B. Nickoloff (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996) 149, 154.

(3) West, Ibid.

(4) Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, ed. by James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986) 140; Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community (New York: Basic Books, 2005) 49-50, 207-210.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity" began to circulate roughly a decade ago. It received its greatest attention in the next couple of years among Former Southern Baptists, being published and debated in a news magazine called Baptists Today, and a scholarly journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion called Perspectives in Religious Studies. Discussions were held at academic conferences and with student and faculty groups at several universities and divinity schools. I will now make some rambling remarks that may not in all cases be even-handed.

Pastors and leaders among the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship were divided. Some resisted its criticism of individualism, while others thought the criticism was misguided. Some feared it presented a spectre of authoritarian church polity with official interpretations coming from people holding official positions. Some thought it sounded too Anabaptist for the mainstream. Some thought it accommodated itself too much to Roman Catholicism. Some said it undermined separation of church and state, even at times saying its views would lead to the neo-conservative renegotiation of the disestablishment of the church. A good deal of the controversy had to do with interpretations of key persons and historical periods and themes of Baptists.

Most of the original signers of the document were from among Former Southern Baptists. Some Baptists from the North and West, along with Black Baptists, resisted signing it because it seemed to be about concerns that were not the most central in their communities of Baptists. Still, some of them appreciated aspects of the document and agreed to sign in order to help foster a conversation. The issue of requesting signatures itself became controversial. Some thought that it made the document take on a kind of "creedal" status, which they saw as a serious offense against Baptist tradition. Most who signed it did so in the spirit of John Leland's description of the negotiated confession of the Union of Separate Baptists and Regular Baptists in Virginia--not to indicate complete agreement with every detail by every person.

The document had many weaknesses--for example, an overabundance of academic language, occasional bold use of language which left too many possibilities for diverse interpretations or misinterpretations, the cloud of ideas which was an effect of having been written by committee, and references to specific ideas and historical figures which were received as personal attacks by some scholars and pastors. It was too brief to cover all that might be important to say. But it was too long to be read and discussed in many ecclesial settings. It was written by academics who for the most part come from the context and background of Former Southern Baptists, and therefore it lacked a kind of consciousness of race, class, region, and variant traditions that would make it a more comprehensive statement. Few Canadian Baptists or Puerto Rican Baptists took an interest in it.

It's strengths, on the other hand, included its boldness, its willingness to raise criticisms of sacred cows, its reflection of scholarly work that reassessed officially orthodox interpretations of Baptist history, and its attention to certain reforming movements in contemporary theology and culture. In defense of its limitations, every theological statement reflects a certain history and context. This Manifesto did not attempt to speak for everyone nor to address every context. It especially aimed to address the English-speaking North American context. Even so, it was not a document to summarize the Baptist Moment of the turn of the millennium. Even some participants in the process of writing parted ways over the document. It was one statement, I hope an important one, to address a period of crisis among Baptists and across the culture of the U.S. Surprisingly, groups among English Baptists, Australian Baptists, and New Zealand Baptists found the document invigorating for discussions their churches were dealing with.

Some of the more vocal critics have claimed that the Manifesto attempted to address Baptists in language and categories from academic discourse and not in the language of the tradition. Bruce Prescott, who expressed some sympathy with the statement but had too many disagreements with it to sign it, wrote a briefer, more linguistically familiar alternative statement. Some prominent scholars have responded that the interpretations of Baptist history are incorrect. Another scholar has expressed that the revisions to Baptist identity should take a different trajectory than the directions charted by the Manifesto. Others from various circles have insisted that the genius of the Baptist movement IS the idea of religious individualism.

One writer has spent a good deal of time and ink fighting a surrogate battle from the 1980s. His latest essay calls the authors "Dixieland Postliberals," a caricature or straw enemy which becomes a foil to promote a version of Baptists-Come-Of-Age-To-Be-Power-Brokers-In-The-Real-World. The surrogate battle is between two academic camps identified with two sides of a disagreement between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas.

I am a student of Stanley Hauerwas, and I admire his contributions to Christian theology. My work shows the mark of my teacher. I have admired James Gustafson's work as well, and his writing shaped my earliest studies in theology and ethics. I parted ways with his theological work at the point of his denial of the Trinity, of the divinity of Jesus. If Jesus is not God, then there is a whole different vision of theology and of the church in the world. I'm not hiding that by any means, so I don't need to fight a surrogate battle. I do need to serve God in such a way that the church is faithful to following Jesus.

It is the scandal of Jesus that makes Gustafson cringe about Christian theology. It is an old problem, going back to the battle between the Arians and the Trinitarians. It is at the heart of the Constantinian highjacking of the church. His god who bears up and bears down is available to us more in nature, reason, and culture than in the narrative of God in Israel, Jesus, and the church. Gustafson concludes that the European-style established church described by Troeltsch is the church we've got and the church we are stuck with, so we had better get on board with that kind of Culture Church if we want to have any influence. I don't believe that is our only option for influence. I don't think that is anything like the tradition of Baptist thought.

The disagreements of teacher and student between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas grew over the years after they were both at Yale, and Gustafson sought to explain those differences by clarifying the charge that Hauerwas can be positionized through the label "sectarian." (James Gustafson, "The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 40 (1985): 83-94.) Many articles and books have been written to debate this question ever since. This writer, as a self-appointed surrogate for Gustafson, has treated the Manifesto and its authors as surrogates for Stanley Hauerwas in an effort to convince Baptists that they need to adopt the methodologies and perspectives of James Gustafson. I hope Baptists do not ever choose one theologian from whom they will learn. I also hope we never accept the pejorative label "sectarian" as an accurate description of disestablished, post-european-style churches, calling them dangerous, and ultimately unfaithful to God. If that is what it means to be a come-of-age, responsible Baptist, we had better pack our bags and get evangelized by African indigenous churches. That is probably a good idea anyway.

Fundamentalist Baptists, or Baptists of the Conservative Resurgence, as some prefer to be called, have mostly been uninterested in the Manifesto. Usually it gets classified as another sign of liberalism. Some have seen it as an inadequate critique of liberalism. Recently, I found it on blog that calls it an interesting example of internal critique among moderate Baptists, yet still bearing the taint of moderate theology.

I sometimes thought that the Baptifesto, as it has sometimes been called, would fade away and be forgotten. But periodically it seems to resurface. That is still happening. So to the extent that it can further conversation about what Baptists have been, are, and should be, I say long may it live. That would be enough. The point of writing this is to make note of the ongoing small conversations about this document. Below are a few links. If you know of others, important or trivial, I would appreciate your adding them to the comments.

A Recent Southern Baptist posting

Another recent Southern Baptist posting disinviting the authors of the Manifesto to be Southern Baptists

A recent compliment from Timothy George

Another recent posting

An essay by Walter Shurden

Bruce Prescott's links, first and second

A Southern Baptist essay on Baptist Identity which says the Manifesto departs from recognizable Baptist thought

A recent statement responding to charges that the Manifesto is "unbaptistic"

A recent comment related to the previous post on the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank site

"The Unintended Consequences of Dixieland Postliberalism"

Confessions of a Dixieland Postliberal

A Baptist World Alliance discussion that footnotes the statement

A comment and question from a Presbyterian at a Catholic University

An odd argument that says the Manifesto's criticism of soul competency is unbaptistic and thereby should not be used to undermine the author's contention that Baptists should not teach abstinence toward alcohol

An essay from SBTS assessing E. Y. Mullins and the Manifesto's interpretation of him

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What's wrong with this headline from a Duke press release? "Women's Golf Advances to Finals of Hooters Collegiate Match Play." Many people have worked hard, across decades, to establish the dignity of women in athletic events. How much money does it take for universities to agree to sponsorship by a business named and organized around leering at women? When Duke is trying to polish up its image from student parties with hired strippers, isn't anyone paying attention to the event sponsors? It's not really an issue of PR, but of respecting people for their hard work. These athletes deserve better.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

I don't often keep up with the news on various Baptist groups, but now and then I get connected to some stories and try to follow them. Once again, Mainstream Baptist has brought my attention to a matter that started me thinking. It has to do with a former employer of mine, the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It relates to church starting, which is an important topic for many of my students to learn about.

Let me say first of all that I admire the BGCT as one of the best examples of leadership, organization, and stewardship to which we can turn. I admire its leaders and its programs. As a former employee, I have found the organization to be compassionate, visionary, and accountable. Even so, in every organization, problems can arise. The test is in whether the organization deals honestly with them and learns from them. I have faith that the BGCT will do that.

The math on the supposed 258 church starts raises a red flag itself. I realize that a church can start in a home by word of mouth, and that little in the way of additional cash is required. But an organized effort to plant churches through training and supervision of leaders, with hundreds of starts as a goal in a short time, would clearly take some funds. Maybe there were other sources of funds for this effort from the Piper program, and here I am ignorant.

The BGCT's contribution, according to a little mathematical analysis of the article, was about $5,000 per church start. I wonder how many of the readers' households operate on that amount for even two months.

Like so many church leaders who have high expectations for attendance and growth and make promises of numbers, this looks like a case of wishful thinking. Building relationships takes time. Building organizations and institutions takes people and money. I don't know how many churches could be expected to start on about $5,000. If there were a movement of the Spirit, what Jonathan Edwards called a "surprising work of God," maybe dozens or hundreds would start with very little expenditure. If the process is based on good planning and organizational efforts yet do not coincide with an "irruption of the Spirit," a term from Gustavo Gutierrez, then I think more people, time, and money might be required.

I'm not saying that churches can't be started using tried and true methodologies. Where the gospel is preached and lived, people will be drawn to it. But if what is desired is measurable, structured, lasting institutional existence, then the work of the gospel can't be undergirded by being tempted by a bargain and talking a lot of wishful thinking.

By comparison, I observe academics who get grant funds and promise to have big conferences to change the way people think and reach hundreds of people with their important message, even seminaries trying to attract large numbers of ministers to a conference.

What they so often fail to do is build the relationships and do the hard ground-level work to get the public or the ministers aware of and interested in what their conference is about. So they promise even larger numbers than before, only to struggle to reach the same small number they had at their last conference. Doing the hard work of organizing takes time, effort, and money. It does not amount to a few phone calls, a mailout, a list of speakers, and a printed program.

No amount of money will start a church when the "seed falls on the road." And money may make little difference when the "seed falls among thorns" or "on rocky soil." And when the "seed falls on good soil," little or no money may do the job.

I'm just saying that anyone who claims to be able to start 258 churches in a short time using about $5,000 per church sounds like a "low-ball" bidder. Usually low-ball bidders are cutting corners and using processes that are not according to Hoyle. Sometimes we hide behind "having faith and trusting God" as a way to spend less than it takes to do a good job.

Phil Reed of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, MS, says that one of their key biblical texts is Philippians 1:9,
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (NRSV).
In it he says that they are reminded that the church's calling is both to spread abroad the love of God and to have that love show knowledge and insight to let that love be demonstrated by doing things in the very best way. In common parlance today, that would mean that our love should learn from best practices financially, structurally, and relationally.

I know that is the way that the BGCT tries to carry out its work. The best practices must not close the door to the overflowing of love, and the wisdom of love must ever seek to do its work better.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Peace Pumpkin time--Naomi, Lydia, and I carved pumpkins on Tuesday evening. We had a great time talking, carving, and setting up candles so they would glow. Then we gave out candy to the few kids who came by our house. And we ate candy while we enjoyed the cool air of the evening. Here are a couple of pumpkin pictures. If you can't make out the symbols in the peace pumpkin, it reads, "Heart Stop Gun," which being translated means something like, "Love, not War."
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