Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lee Porter, Wayne Ward, and a generation of Baptists caught up in the "Controversy"

This month has seen the death of two faithful Baptist leaders.

On May 17, Lee Porter, a retired editor at LifeWay Christian Resources who served as recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention for 25 years, died at 83.

On May 23, Wayne Ward, theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville for over 40 years, died at 90 after suffering a stroke.

There's an intriguing thread that runs through Bob Allen's articles for Associated Baptist Press on the lives and careers of these two men.

Allen writes that Porter, as SBC recording secretary in 1979,
"launched an investigation into voter irregularities after conservative standard bearer Adrian Rogers' stunning first-ballot victory over five other candidates to win 51.36 percent of the vote. His investigation found unprecedented political activity but no major voter fraud, yet discovered double registration, churches that exceeded their allowed number and messengers who registered but were not elected by their churches."
As a result of Porter's findings, Allen continues, "Convention leaders took measures to reform the election process including requiring a registration card or written confirmation for messengers to register and closer scrutiny of how many messengers that churches were entitled to send."

Allen writes of Ward that he "spoke at the funerals of many colleagues with whom he served in the decades leading up to the controversy beginning in the 1970s, commonly known as the 'conservative resurgence.'"

The "thread" between the stories of these two men is a thin one, but a significant one.

They are members of a generation of Baptist leaders who were in their prime during the years of the SBC Controversy, referred to as the "conservative resurgence" by one side and the "Fundamentalist takeover" by the other. Members of that generation had friends on both sides of the Controversy. They were called upon to take a stand. Some who disagreed with the takeover architects ultimately broke with them completely, either by choice or by force. (See Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War, edited by Carl L. Kell.) Some stayed and tried to work with them. I found Porter's story especially compelling, because he continued to work with the leadership but - through his position as recording secretary - held their feet to the ethical fire.

Recently, I read a well-meaning op-ed column written by a young seminary student who wrote of her dismay at the continuing split among Baptists. She lamented that Baptists separated "over theological differences."

I appreciate her lament, but I have to say that her understanding is inaccurate. The split was never over theological differences. There were many who were - and are today - willing and ready to worship, serve, and work with other Baptists with whom we have "theological differences." Some call us "moderates." But, more accurately, we are Cooperative Baptists and, for the past 20 years, many of us have worked together as part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which meets this year in Fort Worth from June 20-23. Yes, even we differ among ourselves over some theological issues and scriptural interpretations, but we continue to cooperate on those matters that unify us.

No, Fundamentalists and Moderates didn't separate over theological differences. We separated because those who sought and gained power in the SBC refused to fellowship with, or share leadership with, those who differed with them on a few specified points - some theological and some semantical. This resulted in broken fellowship within churches, among friends, and throughout the community of Baptists.

And it was unnecessary. Baptists have ALWAYS had theological differences. That's part of what makes us Baptist! You know, things like soul competency, priesthood of the believer, religious liberty for all people - treasured Baptist principles, all of which are tied up in the concept of freedom, the freedom that Christ embodied. He promised to send us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is perfect, but we're not, so we understand inspiration differently, we interpret scripture differently, and we think differently. But we should be able to work together to further the cause of Christ.

The deaths - and lives - of Lee Porter and Wayne Ward should remind us of what unifies us - our faith in the risen Christ. Christ never asked his disciples to agree on everything, but he did say that his disciples would be known by our love for one another (John 13:35). We seem to have the same problem that occasionally plagued the original twelve while Jesus was speaking to them - we fall asleep when we should be listening!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Traveling through Israel for 10 unforgettable days

My wife has two birthdays. In the Gregorian calendar as commonly observed, her birthday is February 12. However, Joanna is Chinese and was born and raised in Hong Kong. Her Chinese birthday, according to the Chinese calendar, always falls on the day before the Chinese New Year - in other words, Chinese New Year's Eve.

When we were in Israel a few weeks ago, we learned that the state of Israel observes two birthdays as well. The existence of the state of Israel was officially declared on May 14, 1948 - according to the Gregorian calendar. However, in the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of Israel's statehood fell on April 26 this year, so we had the opportunity to observe - and participate in - Israel's Independence Day celebration.

A few days later, we sat in the very room, in Tel Aviv, in which David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, officially declared the existence of the new state. In fact, as our group - consisting of Jews and Baptists alongside each other - sat there, facing the table on which the documents were signed, we listened to a recording of the brief, simple ceremony that had taken place in that room 64 years earlier. Ben-Gurion's nameplate still rests on the table, as future Prime Minister Golda Meir's nameplate rests on the chair in which she sat that day.

Joanna and I traveled to Israel with a group from our church, Wilshire Baptist, and a Jewish congregation, Temple Emanu-El, both from Dallas. Pastor George Mason and Rabbi David Stern provided context, throughout our journey, for the places we visited. We also had two tour guides, Shari and Doron, who wove their encylopedic knowledge of the area, its history, its people, and its culture with an equally remarkable understanding of the biblical context everywhere we traveled. They narrated not only the places we stopped, but also the hills and countryside through which our buses passed.

We cut a wide swath through Israel. Beginning in the 3000-year-old city of Jerusalem, we stood on a sidewalk at 8 p.m., on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day, as sirens sounded and traffic came to a momentary halt, and - together with the people of Israel, and our friends from Temple Emanu-El - observed a moment of silence in memory of Israel's fallen. Later that week, we watched as Israelis celebrated their independence. We also went to the Western Wall - popularly known as "the wailing wall" - where we saw people having their own private moments of prayer and mourning. As did many in our group, I walked over to the Wall to have my own private moment. I heard people sobbing, and I saw others going over to comfort them.

These were reminders - both solemn and joyous - that, despite the differences between the peoples of the world, there are experiences and feelings that are common to all of us.

On the other hand, there are a few experiences that are unique. We walked through Yad Vashem, the Jewish National Memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This is an atrocity that was unique in its scale and horror. It is a reminder that we must never stand silently by while the powerful misuse their authority to exploit, abuse, marginalize, and even murder the powerless.

Our trip was a journey through time - not only in terms of going back in time, but in that the historical significance of the places we visited covered thousands of years. We worshipped together in a tent up in the hills where Abraham once tended his sheep. Fast-forward to Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation, commemorating the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would bear God's son. And to Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, and the Church of the Nativity.

We sang a song of blessing on the Mount of Beatitudes, traditional site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was amazing to visualize the crowd of people gathered there to hear Jesus that day! We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus - as his disciples slept - agonized over the terrible sacrifice that awaited him yet reaffirmed his desire to do the will of the Father. We also visited Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, possible sites of Jesus' crucifixion, and the Garden Tomb, where some traditions have it that Jesus' body was laid.

One morning, some of us rode in jeeps across the Golan Heights as guides pointed out bunkers occupied by Israeli soldiers during the Six-Day War of 1967. Near the top, we got out of the jeeps and looked around at some remarkable scenery as a guide pointed in one direction, then another, saying, "over there is Syria, over there is Lebanon."

On our final morning in Israel, we picked potatoes! Leket Israel is a food bank, "rescuing" fruit and vegetables that would otherwise rot and go to waste, and redistributing it to needy people. At the end of about an hour of filling several large bins with "rescued" potatoes from a field on a farm, we were told that (and I'm relying on memory here) our efforts had made it possible for 800 families to have enough potatoes for a week's worth of meals.

I can't begin to do this trip justice in a mere blog post. Neither can I adequately describe for you the relationship between Temple Emanu-El and Wilshire Baptist Church, which only grew stronger during this trip. This was just another step in a friendship that has evolved over the past 20 years and began with the friendship of the two congregational leaders, David Stern and George Mason. For several years, the people of Temple Emanu-El have invited the people of Wilshire for an interfaith shabbat service and dinner at the Temple. Wilshire has reciprocated by inviting the members of the Temple for worship at our place. We have watched David and George, as well as other leaders of our two congregations, engage in candid and constructive dialogue. We have worshipped together, and now many of us have traveled together, eaten together, and gotten to know each other.

For me personally, this trip had a special meaning rooted in my heritage. My dad, A. Jase Jones, led and participated in many Jewish-Baptist dialogues back in the 1960s and 1970s when he was with the SBC Home Mission Board, and he and Mother spent 6 months in Israel during a sabbatical trip in 1973. Both of them have been gone several years now, but I know they would have loved this trip.

Joanna and I got to know several new friends from the Temple, and I think this was a common experience of all who went. Personally, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with several and even share our faith journeys with each other, and I was amazed at the similarities in our journeys, in spite of differences in where we've “landed.” We've all struggled with how to understand scripture, how to know God, and how our understanding of God and scripture meshes with our own faith traditions.

Perhaps this struggle was pictured best at Zippori, where David Stern demonstrated - by using ultimately about half of our group as actors in an impromptu drama (with a little comedy thrown in) - the layers that Jews must navigate to study scriptural texts, with the Torah at the center. As I reflected on this drama, I realized that we Christians - especially we Baptists - have similar layers of interpretation and tradition to navigate.

Well, in trying to describe our trip to Israel, I've barely touched the hem of the garment (a biblical metaphor seemed called for). There was way too much information - provided by our tour guides and our congregational leaders - to adequately process; it mainly whetted my appetite to come back home and study to help me better understand what I saw over there.

But, above and beyond all the very meaningful places we visited, what I'll remember most are the people . . . the new friendships we made . . . the friendships that grew even stronger . . . and the discussions we shared.

In a world where the norm these days seems to be shouting at each other through the faceless, impersonal world of social media, it’s nice to be reminded of the value of personal face-to-face discussion and dialogue. Discussing our differences with genuine respect and appreciation, and finding common ground even in the midst of our differences . . . it’s still possible if we’ll make the effort, and it’s refreshing to one’s soul. At least it was to mine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Common sense lacking in Vanderbilt's new "all-comers" policy

I'm the last one to cry that Christians are being treated unfairly or that we are the victims of a "culture war" being waged against the Christian community. On the whole, Christians in America do not suffer persecution for their faith. Disagreement is not persecution!

So, regardless of this week's news out of Nashville (no, for once, we're not talking about the SBC), I'm not about to start crying "persecution." However, I AM going to call for a little common sense!

From Nashville comes the report that Baptist Collegiate Ministry has declined Vanderbilt University's offer of status as a recognized student organization on the Vanderbilt campus. In an article in the Tennessee Baptist Convention's Baptist and Reflector newsjournal, editor Lonnie Wilkey reports,
"The issue surrounds the decision announced by Vanderbilt earlier this year that the university intends to enforce its non-discrimination policy and a new all-comers policy. The all-comer policy means that any student at Vanderbilt is entitled to become a member and to seek a leadership position in any registered student organization on campus. In a nutshell, if a non-Christian wanted to seek leadership in the BCM at Vanderbilt, he or she could do so under the university policy."

This kind of knuckleheaded thinking jeopardizes the serious efforts on behalf of equal rights and nondiscrimination to which many - including yours truly - are committed. Nondiscrimination is generally a worthy goal, but not all discrimination is unfair and unjust. And not all nondiscrimination is equal!

Yes, technically speaking, it is discrimination to bar an atheist - or even a Methodist - from leadership in a Baptist organization. But such discrimination is not unfair or unjust. It's just common sense. Any organization should have the right to limit its leadership to those who understand, and are committed to promoting and advancing, the purposes and goals of the organization.

Our Baptist heritage and principles are unique, and it's important that Baptist organizations teach them and promote them. In the hands of those who don't hold to them, they will be ignored and discarded. We can't afford that.

Baptist Collegiate Ministry had no choice; it made the only logical choice open to it. Vanderbilt University, on the other hand, needs to rethink its policy. Maybe Vanderbilt needs to be a little more discriminating in choosing its own leadership - requiring some common sense would be a nice start.