Thursday, January 16, 2014

PHIL STRICKLAND (2005): Where have all the prophets gone?

(NOTE: The late Phil Strickland, who served as director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission for over 25 years, prepared this address for presentation to the 2005 Texas Baptists Committed Breakfast at the BGCT in Austin. Because Phil's illness prevented him from attending, his friend and pastor George Mason delivered the address.)

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various tongues.…” (1 Cor. 12:27-29)

Prophets! I thought we got rid of them a long time ago. Actually, I haven’t seen many around lately. Where have all the prophets gone?

You may remember the Pete Seeger song made popular by Peter, Paul and MaryWhere Have All the Flowers Gone. Well, I think we need new words to that tune. On any given Sunday morning in a Baptist church there are plenty of flowers in front of the pulpit, but not a prophet to be found behind it.

Where have all the prophets gone?

Lord knows we need them. Consider:
—One half the world is living on $2 a day. But that’s the other half, right? They are used to that;

—25% of our Texas children living in poverty. But that’s other people’s children, right? Figure that’s the way God thinks of them?

—Religious liberty is being lost without our seeming to notice. It’s oozing away through our fingers like a fist full of sand until we open it all too late to discover there is not much of it left in our grasp;

—And then there’s the dramatic and continuing shift of the world’s wealth away from the poor and the middle class to the largest corporations and the wealthiest people. But not to worry, we can trust them to do the right thing with all that money, right? After all, the marketplace evens everything out in the end. Isn’t that where we can depend upon the “invisible hand” of God to work? Or was that just Adam Smith’s hand?

—Environmental regulations are disappearing every day. But we are given by God the right to have dominion over all the earth, aren’t we? Well, something like that;

—And what about another tax cut of $70 billion that will be funded by $50 billion of cuts to children? That proposal will probably be passed by the House this week and is supported by the administration. 300,000 people will lose food stamps and another 300,000 will lose access to daycare. The bill cuts Medicaid by $45 billion when we already have 45 million people who have no health insurance. Something tells me that’s not what Jesus meant by “Suffer the little children ….”

Where have all the prophets gone?
Have they all disappeared? Or is it possible that some of them are around but aren’t doing their job? Is it possible that God is still appointing them, but not many of us want the job? I mean, we know what happened to Jonah, and the belly of a whale doesn’t sound like fun, does it?

Walter Brueggemann is one of our best Old Testament scholars. In books like his wonderful work, The Prophetic Imagination (and Finally Comes the Poet), he doesn’t let us relegate prophecy to biblical times. Prophets are not obsolete, although they seem rather rare these days, despite the great need for them in our churches and in our world.

I want to suggest that pretty much all of us are called to have an element of the prophet in us. Yes, I understand that is not the primary role for many of us, but I’m thinking that being overcrowded with prophets is not our problem right now.

I’m suggesting that for pastors, for example, as we call them to the role of pastor/ preacher, we might also want to add the word prophet —pastor/ preacher/ prophet. Such pastors will value our values and will fight for them. The title of prophet might even apply to laymen, or, God forbid, to a denomination! These groups, with a little prophetic imagination, could become the cutting edge of the prophetic in our society, rather than the six to eight “prophets” we hear on TV whose prophetic imagination is limited to Armageddon. These genuine prophets would be ready and willing to confront the principalities and powers, whether they be school boards, city councils, the legislature, Congress, or even our own Baptist institutions.

But seldom do I go to churches and hear prophetic, or even strong ethical preaching. And the brave pastors that want me to preach for them often say a word to me before I go. It goes something like this: “Now, Phil, our church is not really in a place where it can deal with anything controversial.” Which tells me that they don’t want to do anything that involves risk. Which tells me that no prophecy is happening there since prophecy always contains an element of risk!

Back to our $70 billion tax cut being currently being considered, funded partially, as I said, with $50 billion being cut from programs that are used for poor children. If the pastor as prophet wanted to point out the injustice of that, how would that go over with some of the members of the church?

Well, I think I can answer that for Phil. They would cry “Politics!” They would suddenly become strict church-state separationists. Of course, what they really are saying is that they don’t want God and government to go together if it’s not their brand of politics. I’ll also tell you that there’s a widespread feeling in many church pews that has to be challenged. People think government is by nature always bad and needs constraining. They think government is lousy at caring for the poor and that that’s really the church’s business. But I can tell you that I have never once seen a line of those folks forming at my door begging for ways to give the church more money to care for the poor or eager to start new ministries that would do it better than the government.

So what is happening to prophetic voices? What is the juggler that trumps the pastoral voice? Is it lack of courage? Or ambition? Courage and ambition seldom hang out together. Or is it just the desire not to rock any boats?

When John F. Kennedy was in Berlin in 1963 for the birth of the German Peace Corps, he cited a passage from Dante’s Inferno in his speech.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintained their neutrality.”

It was actually a liberal paraphrase. What Dante actually singled out were “those disembodied wretches who were loth when living, to be either blamed or praised.” He said that Heaven cast them out for fear of losing its beauty; and Hell didn’t want them either, lest the wicked should glory over them. (Canto 3)

Prophecy requires the capacity to grieve about injustice, to quit pretending that things are all right, to imagine that things could be different, and courageously to say so to the people, risking the consequences. It requires confronting the principalities and powers.

For compassion to move to action requires an alliance of love, power, and justice. As Paul Tillich said: “In both interpersonal and political relationships, love, power and justice are inseparable. Without love, power becomes tyrannical and justice is only a name for the rule of strong. Without power, love is reduced to sentimentality and justice to an impotent ideal. Without justice, love is a perverse dance of domination and submission.”

Always, the prophet must be imaginative. One does not prophesy about what is but about what ought to be. Which usually makes prophecy sound absurd to the common ear.

Let me give you an example. A pastor mentioned to me that he did not like the beginning of our CLC flyer, that it could cause controversy in his church. Here are the words, aptly authored by Joe Haag, so I’ll brag about his work:

“To follow Christ means that we allow his life to gain leverage against our lives. Against our lust for power, he endures the cross. Against our pride and arrogance, he washes the disciples’ feet. Against our upward mobility, he preaches good news to the poor. Against our self absorption, he has compassion on the multitudes. Against our tight circles of family and friends, he reaches out to strangers. Against our safe noninvolvement, he confronts the powers. Against our violence and hatred, he demands that we love our enemies. Against our self righteousness, he welcomes sinners. Against our bigotry, he tells us about a Good Samaritan. Against our frenzy, he invites us to trust God. Against all the lies which enslave us, he tells the truth which sets us free. How can we be transformed into the image of Christ? One answer is that as we surrender our lives to God’s purposes, God changes us.”
That pastor did not like the words “our pride and arrogance” or “against our self absorption.” He said, “I’m not going to say either one of those about America.” Which means, what, that he accepts the Lordship of America? Who will be left to speak a word for the Lordship of Christ?

I was amazed yesterday to meet one of our church’s first time messengers in hallway outside the meeting. She was running to and fro trying to find a way to resolve her anger. She is Iranian by birth and has been in this country only seven years. She is a Christian convert from Islam and is now in seminary.

She asked me breathlessly, “Did you see it? Did you see that flag processional? Can you believe they brought the American flag in ahead of the Christian flag and all the other flags of nations after that? And the American flag was higher than the Christian flag. That is idolatry!”

She is right, and I am embarrassed that it took someone so new to the faith and to our country and to us Baptists to even notice. She didn’t know whether she needed to bring a resolution or a motion, but since a motion calls for action, I hope we move that that never happen again in a Baptist meeting.

We need more laypeople like that. Mercy, is there any possibility that this prophecy notion might even apply to them? What’s happened to those laity with a prophetic word? What is trumping the laity’s ability to discern the differences in the present culture and the Kingdom of God? Could it be that we are so consumed by consumerism that we have little power to believe or to act. Do we live in this cultural imagination rather than a Kingdom imagination?

Consumerism, the thing that tells us to go shopping to solve all our problems, must be addressed in our churches. The barnacles of consumerism grow on us day after day until our hope of hearing Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” is slim indeed.

Now here I need to start with confession time. The boat is used and the motorcycle is several years old, but I do not lack for toys. This applies to all of us.

And we need to remember that for many of our Baptist brothers and sisters, consumerism is not the issue. It’s survival. Like the fellow we met outside the Dixie House where we had just had dinner with our friends Bob and Judy Coleman. He was asking in his wheelchair how to find the nearest homeless shelter. People like these are often invisible to us. We have to intentionally put ourselves in places where we can see them. Prophets have that kind of vision. They see things and people we otherwise do not see, and they tell us about them.

We desperately need a “theology of enough.” We are stewards, not owners, of what we have, at least in Christian teaching. So do we have any walls around what we will spend on ourselves? Do we have any sense of enough for ourselves? That’s where the prophets will emerge.

Ah, but what about one more—denominations. Should they take risk and speak prophetically or declare that the only real role of the denomination is meeting the need of the churches who are a member of the BGCT? To me the answer is easy. Meeting the will of churches, vital as it is, comes in behind one other: listening for and meeting the will of God.

What trumps the prophetic role in denominations is fear of financial loss, and the lack of understanding what crosses they are willing to die on, if any. What is so compelling that a denomination will stand there and ignore the consequences? Do we know the answer to that question? The question must be asked of laypeople and pastors and churches.

A half century ago in this very city some of the brightest lights of Baptists shone in church pulpits. One of the brightest was Blake Smith, pastor of the University Baptist Church. One Sunday morning he stood tall in that pulpit and declared that it was past time that the University of Texas open its doors to all Texas citizens. The time for integration had come. What’s more, he said to his all-white church, the time had come for University Baptist Church to open its doors to all for whom Christ died.

Well, right after the benediction the predictable took place. An emergency deacons meeting was called for that afternoon. For hours those men grumbled on about what the preacher had said that morning, about whether he had the right to say those things, about the autonomy of the local church to decide who would and who would not be its members, about whether Blake Smith ought to be their pastor at all. After a long while, the moderator looked to the back of the room where an old respected judge was sitting quietly. The man said, “Judge, we haven’t heard from you on this matter. What do you think?” The judge rose to his feet and said solemnly, “Well, boys, you know I don’t like what our pastor said this morning any more than any of the rest of you. But I think Jesus liked it a lot.” Motion to adjourn.

Where have all the prophets gone?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013 . . . A little different for our family

Christmas has taken on a different feel for our family this year. Every year, we are reminded that Christmas is not a joyous time for those whose despair and despondency are magnified when all around them are celebrating, singing carols, partying, shopping . . .

This year, our family has struggled as we almost lost Travis in April. It was only through the grace of God that Travis's life was saved, but - as he rehabs and slowly recovers the ability to do things that we all tend to take for granted - we are reminded daily of those frightening moments earlier this year.

We've also dealt with the news that Joanna's kidney disease has progressed, the prospect that she will likely need to begin dialysis in 2014, yet have hope in the possibility that she will soon be added to a kidney transplant list.

It's been a year of downs and ups, followed by more downs, then ups, and so on - a rollercoaster if you will.

I don't know what Christmas means to other people and families experiencing pain at this time of year - whether illness, injury, hunger, loneliness . . . because everyone's circumstances are different and, even within the circumstances, everyone experiences them differently.

So I can speak only of what Christmas means to me this year, as I've worried about the health of my son and my wife, as we've made the difficult adjustments involved in bringing Travis and his family into our home while he recovers, and even as we were introduced - in November - to our fourth grandchild, the third child for Alison and her husband Adam.

Because of Travis and Christy's travel plans, our family gathered Sunday afternoon to celebrate Christmas and open presents. Before we opened presents, I read a passage from Luke's Gospel, as usual, then gave a brief (after all, there were four squirming grandchildren in the room) testimony of what Christmas means to me this year.

In a nutshell, this is what I told them . . . the only way I've made it through this year without despairing has been God's presence. One of the first things I did, after arriving at the hospital that night and getting Travis's prognosis from the doctor, was to begin texting friends & family to tell them about Travis and ask for prayer. This is because I've learned through many experiences in past years that God wants to hear our concerns and wants us to ask Him to share in those concerns.

I don't know how I would have made it if I hadn't had the constant assurance that our gracious and loving God is with us, caring about all that we are experiencing, even experiencing it with us, holding us close, carrying us through it.

Through the years, I have learned that I can trust God for what I need - and that I DO need Him all the time. As I write this, I'm reminded of the words of a beautiful song that we sang 50 years ago in Joe Dell Rust's Youth Choir at Bethany Baptist Church in Kansas City . . .
I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder, and felt it in the rain; My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time. When the thunder shakes the mighty hills and trembles ev’ry tree, Then I know a God so great and strong can surely harbor me.
Another song comes to mind as well, my dear friend George Gagliardi's In the Shelter of My Father's Loving Arms, which says all of this much more eloquently and beautifully than I can.

I've experienced that safe harbor - that shelter - of the Father's loving arms over and over again. This presence of God isn't something that's theoretical or even theological; it's real. Not just in the frightening moments of life but in the joyous ones as well.

God was just as surely with me in that hospital room in November when I held my new grandson as he was with me in another hospital room in April when I looked at my son, fearing for his life. God is with me every day as I build and nurture relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and others. The challenges of my work - both for TBC and the Maston Foundation - are, honestly, beyond anything I can do on my own, so I confess that to God daily and ask Him to do His work through me; if it's my work, it fails; if it's God's work, it's glory.

That's what Christmas is really all about. It's about God coming into the world to live with us and care for us. It's about God's presence in our lives today, consoling . . . moving . . . motivating . . . instructing . . .  counselling . . . equipping . . . caring . . . loving.

Christmas . . . God's presence in us through Christ . . . so that we can be Christ's presence to others. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

CHARLES FOSTER JOHNSON: Pastors for Texas Children: People of faith supporting public schools

(NOTE: The author is pastor of Bread Fellowship of Fort Worth, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, and a member of the Texas Baptists Committed Board of Directors.)

Pastors for Texas Children (PTC) is a new organization that mobilizes local churches to provide both wrap-around care for local schools and advocacy for adequate funding to support those schools.

Launched in October 2012 by the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, we already have over 500 community faith leaders from all denominations recruited, with dozens more signing up each week. We now have a statewide organization with PTC directors in all 20 education service regions. Many county directors in those regions are already positioned. We have conducted meetings in dozens of local communities already, and intend to have a PTC chapter in every Texas county. Our web address is
The close partnerships that we forge between local congregations and local schools will help provide both the resources that our children need to receive quality public education and the support that our teachers deserve. We are asking pastors to make an appointment with their local school principal and/or superintendent to offer prayer and encouragement, as well as to host a teacher appreciation event in their congregation, recognizing the dedicated teachers, coaches, and staff who shape our children's lives. Furthermore, we are challenging churches to provide tangible support for those schools and children in the form of after-school mentoring, school supplies, food security, etc.
After this partnership is formed, we ask pastors to contact their legislator and inform him or her about the needs of their schools and to join together in arranging a meeting with that legislator in their own community to discuss the imperative for adequate funding for their community and neighborhood schools. Lastly, we ask that our pastors and faith leaders be willing to make at least one trip to Austin during the legislative session to advocate face-to-face for public education.
The local church and the local school are two significant institutions in every community and neighborhood advocating for the public good. Our goal, quite simply, is to help cultivate a strong bond between those two institutions and to bring that partnership to bear on education policy in Texas government.

Charles Foster Johnson, Pastor
Bread Fellowship of Fort Worth

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering November 22, 1963 . . . and the beginning of “the Sixties”

Shortly after lunch on November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Common Learnings class at Northgate Junior High School in Kansas City, Missouri, when we were told that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. I was in 7th grade. I don't remember whether our teacher, Mrs. Elliott, told us, or the principal told us over the loudspeaker.

My family and I had been gone from Dallas just a little over a year. We had moved from Dallas to Kansas City, Missouri, in July 1962, so I was in my second school year in the North Kansas City School District, and everyone knew that I had come from Dallas. I remember being needled constantly – especially on the school bus going home every afternoon – for the rest of the school year, and probably the next as well, about being from “the city that killed Kennedy.” Some of it was probably good-natured kidding, but some of it got pretty ugly, too.

Even as a 12-year-old kid, I had strong memories of the triple underpass that led to – at that time – R. L. Thornton and Stemmons Freeways, because during our 5 years there (1957-1962), my Dad had often taken me with him to his office at the Dallas Baptist Association in downtown Dallas during the summer, and we would take that route through the triple underpass when leaving downtown.

President Kennedy was inaugurated less than a couple of months before I turned 10. JFK was the first president to make effective use of the still-young medium of television. He held frequent press conferences in the State Department auditorium, and they were televised, usually late in the afternoon after I got home from school. I was mesmerized by his “performances” at these press conferences. Not that I had any understanding at all, as a 10, 11-, 12-year-old boy, of geopolitical or economic affairs; I simply enjoyed the quick and eloquent wit employed by JFK as he played cat-and-mouse with the reporters at his press conferences.

After the president died, Longines produced a three-record set of his speeches and press conferences. Mother and Daddy bought it for me. I listened to that album over and over and over. Today I can quote long passages of his inaugural address, as well as other speeches, simply because I listened to those records so much that his speeches are seared into my brain forever.

That weekend, we saw television grow up. From shortly after news of the assassination was first broadcast Friday afternoon until after his funeral on Monday, the three TV networks devoted 24 hours a day (and keep in mind, back in those days TV stations typically “signed off” around midnight or 1 a.m.) to coverage of the assassination and the events that followed (arrival of the presidential party, and the body of the fallen president, back in Washington; the arrest of the suspected assassin; the vigil around the casket in the East Room of the White House; the greeting of the world’s statesmen and other dignitaries by President Johnson; the murder of the assassin by Jack Ruby; etc.).

I recall that this coverage also included film of President Kennedy speaking to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that morning, as well as film of his and Jackie's arrival at Love Field in Dallas.

However, I’ve read where some people have said they remember seeing film of the assassination played and replayed over that weekend. This is not accurate. The only film of the assassination itself was shot and owned by a Dallas dressmaker, Abraham Zapruder, who sold exclusive rights to LIFE Magazine, which published the pertinent frames in its next issue. Neither the TV networks nor any local TV stations had access to this film – the ONLY film of the assassination – at that time. Also, I suspect that, even if they had, they wouldn’t have shown such gruesome footage that weekend, when nerves and emotions were already so very raw.

It was certainly a weekend that was a shared experience for our nation. Probably the only thing that came close in those days would have been the live televising of launches of our space missions, particularly John Glenn’s flight in February 1962, which was the first orbital flight by an American (two sub-orbital missions, by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, had taken place in 1961). Those were also communal events shared by people across the country in, as we would say today, “real time.”

Perhaps the most poignant and heart-wrenching moments of that weekend were first, the visit of Jackie and the kids on Sunday to the president’s casket, lying in state in the East Room. Holding her children by the hand, Jackie walked over to the casket, knelt down, lifted the flag that covered it, and kissed the casket. The second such moment came during the funeral procession on Monday, when John, Jr. (or “John-John,” as he was affectionately known) saluted his father as the casket passed by.

It’s significant that what we today think of as “the Sixties” really began with the JFK assassination. Yes, our nation had challenges before that event – the Cold War was in full swing, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 bringing it into full focus; the Civil Rights Movement, too, with the March on Washington less than three months earlier. But there was a national confidence and optimism that was shattered once and for all on November 22, 1963. Dissent, chaos, and distrust took over and dominated the rest of that decade.

That doesn’t mean that good things didn’t happen. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were enacted into law. Despite significant setbacks, including the deaths of three astronauts in a fire during a training exercise, America achieved President Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon before the decade was out.

But the overall mood of the country following the assassination and throughout the rest of the decade was one of contention, dissent, chaos, and distrust (the “Credibility Gap”). I must say, though, that it was a fascinating time in which to grow up. In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy spoke of that generation’s role in “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger” and said, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

I feel the same way about growing up in the Sixties. There was a lot going on – from Vietnam to Civil Rights to the Beatles to Hippies & “Flower Power” to a seeming epidemic of political assassinations and coups. Prime-time TV saw everything from The Twilight Zone to Dick Van Dyke to Green Acres to Laugh-In to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to Mission Impossible, and that’s just a tiny sampling of shows that are now considered classics.

And all of that dissent, chaos, and distrust that I mentioned earlier created a unique level of idealism – at once ironic and sincere – in young people that I don’t believe has been experienced by any succeeding generation. The true troubadours of that generation were the folksingers – Pete Seeger . . . Joan Baez . . . Bob Dylan . . . Peter, Paul, & Mary, among others. More than troubadours, they were prophets calling us to care about the plight of those around us, calling us to care about the consequences of our government’s actions, calling us to move beyond our own self-interest to seek the greater good.

This evening, I’ll visit the assassination site, which I’ve done at least every 5th anniversary since my wife and kids and I moved to the Dallas area in 1987. From 1988 (the 25th anniversary) on, I’ve visited the site at least every 5 years, just to be a part of remembering . . . remembering not so much the assassination itself as a presidency and the era that followed . . . that will always be very special to those of us who experienced it.