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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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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading the Bible in community is what some, if not all, Baptists claim is a good thing to do. Still some among Baptists prefer the jargon of individual interpretation over any authoritative role for the community. But reading in community is not primarily an issue of giving up authority to a functionary leader; rather, it is an issue of reading in the context of a specific place and time. The context of a specific place and time emerges through the voices of the community.

On Monday night, we attended the Spring Institute held by a group of Baptist churches in New Orleans. The Institute, hosted by Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in Harvey, LA, had been advertised in the churches, and people had signed up in advance to take one of three classes, each to continue through three consecutive evenings. Local pastors had been invited to lead Bible study and training courses. We attended the course on the Prophet Habakkuk, and the topic of the study was dealing with anxiety, based on a book by Warren Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship.

Rev. Aldon Cotton from Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church led the study. Over forty of us crammed into a classroom, getting additional chairs so that everyone could participate. The lesson began with an overview of the book of Habakkuk, explaining the setting, the historical period, and what can be known about the author. Rev. Cotton encouraged the people to read the book of Habakkuk. In fact, he wondered why they had not already read it in preparation for the first meeting, until he found out that the fliers for the Institute had not informed the participants that the class would study Habakkuk.

The prophet Habakkuk's writing starts with a cry to God, what some would call a complaint. He asks how long things will keep going wrong. He asks how long violence will dominate the land, and how long he will have to keep looking at trouble and destruction. How long will the law be impotent and justice absent? Habakkuk has much to be anxious about. The Babylonian army is harsh and powerful. Their ways are cruel and destructive. Yet this unrighteous army will bring judgment on the unrighteous ways of Judah. Habakkuk cannot see much hope that conditions will improve.

The relevance of the passage was not lost on anyone in the room. They find themselves living in a destroyed city. The weak and poor find little mercy or justice. The legal system seems twisted and broken when it comes to them. The death rate from sickness, sorrow, and violence is soaring. And the billions of dollars put into Katrina recovery seem to be disappearing into thin air. Everyone has friends or family who have suffered immensely. Stories of mistreatment, violence, fear, and loss are just below the surface. All it takes is a moment and an opening for conversation.

One woman responds to the scripture by saying, "This crying of violence, that's what we're going through right here in New Orleans." A few others chime in with remarks about the difficult conditions of life, now twenty-one months away from the Hurricane.

A man says, "The laws being slack is a lot like Louisiana and the Federal Government. They keep saying they will make things right for people who suffered, but the help never comes. The money gets used up and disappears before it ever reaches where it should go."

Rev. Cotton discussed the way that we can get our focus on the world and what is going on that is wrong until we get overwhelmed with worry. But when our focus is on God and what God has promised us, we can remember God's righteousness and trust in it. We create our own worries by getting our focus off God. Then we get afraid to talk to God because of the sin that is in our lives.

The people were listening intently. The conversation went deep. The scriptures were alive in the community of readers, and the shared insights moved through the room with the moving of the Spirit. After closing, the participants went home eager to read the Book of Habakkuk and continue the discussions the next day.

Across the Mississippi River in the Uptown neighborhood, Tuesday night meant Bible Study at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Donald Boutté was beginning a study of the Gospel of Mark. His method was first to spend a few weeks doing a fast walk through the entire gospel to help the congregation gain an overall understanding of the plot, characters, and themes. When the overview is completed, they will return to the beginning and undertake a more detailed exegetical study. On this Tuesday night in May, they were looking at parts of chapters 2 and 3.

Much of the discussion on this evening was about the way Jesus challenged the legalism of the Scribes and Pharisees. They kept getting in conflict with him about his seeming carelessness about the law. He associated with people of whom the law might not approve. He healed on the Sabbath. He picked grain to eat on the Sabbath. He did not fast in the same way that some other religious people fasted. Jesus always had an answer for them, and he always made them madder with each answer, with each challenge to their authority.

The discussion opened up in the congregation to answer the pastor's question about why these events and discussions were causing conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. What was the problem with their view of the law? A few people spoke up. One said that the Pharisees did not understand who Jesus was when they criticized him concerning the law. Another said the teachers of the law seemed to be using the law as a tool for their personal benefit and not in a way that benefits the average person.

Rev. Boutté turned the discussion toward the people that the Pharisees rejected, the ones with whom they did not want to associate. He pointed out how Jesus associated with the ones that the Pharisees did not. People who did not fit in with the religious crowd were the ones that got Jesus criticized by the Pharisees. It even led them to go running to the Herodians, whom they also did not like, to make plans about how to get rid of Jesus.

He then introduced the work being done to draw young people back into their congregation. The young people in the community had been a large part of St. John before Katrina. But families with youth and children had not yet returned to New Orleans, and no one knows if they will. Here and there, some young people have returned, and St. Johns has seen the need to find them and draw them in. One way of doing that has been to sponsor a football team for 14-18 year old boys. A church member will coach the team, and the church has purchased the uniforms and equipment. Youth services have been slow to recover in New Orleans. It is no surprise that housing and jobs have received the most attention, but young people still need ways to constructively spend their time that can include fun, learning, and growth.

As these teen-aged boys have begun to attend St. John, they do not have the same background as some people who have been going to church all of their lives. They don't necessarily dress the way that the church people are used to. Rev. Boutté asks the congregation how this situation they are in relates to the situation from the scriptures. One woman tells a story about greeting a boy at the door of the church and asking him to remove his cap. When he resisted, she explained that it was the tradition of their church for men not to wear caps. She said, "That tradition is kind of like the law as we have been reading about it." She said that when he still did not want to take off his cap, "I told him, 'Okay, go ahead and wear it. You are still welcome here.'" The pastor remarked about another woman in the church who is very good at inserting some humor to keep the tension down in that kind of situation.

Then a man asked, "How long is long enough for someone to start learning and following the traditions of our congregation?" Rev. Boutté laughed and explained that he has the same kinds of questions, but he is trying not to rush to conformity in a way that the message of love and acceptance gets overshadowed. Others entered the conversation seeking to articulate the ways that a church can practice its traditions without making them barriers for loving acceptance of the outsider. The conversation went on well after the benediction. A communal process of reading together and listening for the Spirit's guidance was again at work.

The specific context of reading in New Orleans helped to amplify the way that churches read the scriptures in the mutual submission and accountability of community. Much is "up for grabs" in the churches of New Orleans. I don't mean that the saving power of Jesus Christ is in doubt. What is open with possibilities is the way that churches have done and will do their work of ministry. The physical structures are broken down, and the organizational structures are broken down as well. People who have always been present to lead may not be coming back. Classes and committees that used to be standard have not yet been reconstituted. New needs and new people may make it possible to put the wine into new wineskins. The best path to letting a new wind of the Spirit blow is to allow the God-breathed Word, the scriptural witness, to dwell in us richly, that we may together discern its good news in this time and place.

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