Tuesday, February 28, 2012

JFK on Separation of Church and State: Fighting the same battle a half-century later

A few days ago, a current presidential candidate attacked the speech presented by Senator John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his 1960 campaign against Vice-President Richard Nixon. This candidate said that Kennedy's speech made him want to "throw up." Of course, much of what he accused Kennedy of saying was a total fabrication on his part. The candidate put words in Kennedy's mouth and then attacked JFK for saying things he never said.

In other words, he created a straw man to help him pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible. For example, he falsely quoted Kennedy as saying, "faith is not allowed in the public square." Kennedy never said or implied any such thing.

But what bothers me even more than the fabrication is his total dismissal of the principle that actually was at the core of Senator Kennedy's address: the absolute separation of church and state. Kennedy was only the second Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. His present-day critic, who seeks to become the fourth (after Al Smith in 1928, Kennedy, and John Kerry in 2004), is either ignorant of - or chooses to ignore - the climate and context in which Kennedy spoke to the Houston ministers.

Many Protestants of that day were scared to death of the prospect of a Catholic president. They were afraid that he might take his orders from the Vatican. (for the purposes of this discussion, we'll consider Baptists to be Protestants, though this is not technically accurate) The president, in their eyes, would simply be a marionette, moving this way and that at the whim of the puppetmaster sitting on the papal throne. Protestant ministers, Baptists prominent among them, railed from their pulpits against such a prospect.

Kennedy didn't shrink from his accusers - he faced them head-on by speaking to the Houston ministers and addressing the subject directly.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. . . . 
I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with . . . what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But the current candidate does not, he said, believe - as Kennedy professed to believe over 50 years ago - "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

The candidate longs for the church's "involvement in the operation of the state" out of one side of his mouth while using the other side to complain about a government that will "tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you."

Senator Kennedy rightly cited the actual (not imagined, as in the current candidate's case) persecution of people of faith that had led to the adoption of the two religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He particularly mentioned "Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom."

Most historians also cite strong evidence that it was a deal made with James Madison by one of those "harassed" (a startlingly mild word to use for those who were jailed) Virginia Baptist preachers, John Leland, that resulted in those First Amendment clauses that secured religious freedom for all Americans. (See TBC Baptist Briefs series, "Baptists Fight for Religious Liberty in the New United States.")

John F. Kennedy's Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association stands as one of the truly historic and articulate defenses of religious liberty in American history, presented by one who was being attacked simply for being of the "wrong" faith. For another Catholic candidate for president to come along over 50 years later and attack it is unconscionable. His candidacy would likely have been over last summer if John F. Kennedy hadn't forthrightly and courageously addressed this issue in 1960.  (Click here for the full text of Kennedy's speech.)

Today it's his opponent's Mormon faith that is under attack as Kennedy's Catholic faith was in 1960.

Isn't that always the way it is? When you're among the persecuted, you want the state to leave religion alone. But when you get into a position of power and advantage, then you want church and state locking arms to keep the powerless under your feet.

Unfortunately, some Baptists have joined the "power chorus" in recent years. Some Baptists want the church - the "favored" church, that is - to be part of the power structure, dictating values and policies.

So it was with the people of Jesus' day, looking for a Messiah who would ride in on a white horse and sweep them into power. But Jesus rebuked them.

Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.' (John 18:36, NIV)
Over two thousand years later, we still resist that teaching. Over two hundred years after Baptists led the way to religious freedom in America, we still want to hoard that freedom for ourselves and keep it from others. And over a half century after a candidate for president spoke courageously and eloquently for "an America in which the separation of church and state is absolute," a separation that ensures religious liberty for all people regardless of their faith - or lack of faith - we are still having to fight that battle.

As Baptists, we have a proud heritage of defending freedom - religious freedom, church freedom, soul freedom. From Thomas Helwys and John Smyth to Roger Williams to Isaac Backus and John Leland - and, for the past 75 years, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, today led by Brent Walker - Baptists have stood to defend religious freedom whenever and wherever it is under attack.

May God give us the commitment and courage to continue to do so.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hymns and Our Theology

Siriusly Sinatra. That's the name of my favorite radio station, and now I don't even have to be in my car to listen to it. For an extra $3 a month, I get to listen to Sirius Satellite Radio on my home computer or my iPhone. Nice.

Siriusly Sinatra. No, not quite all Frank all the time, but it's that kind of music, what they call the "old standards," sung by legendary singers like Frank, Ella, Tony, Nat ("King"), Judy, Bing, and Lena; and written by just-as-legendary composers and arrangers like Cole Porter, Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, the Gershwins, Sammy Cahn, Fats Waller, and Jule Styne. (and I could go on)

Last night, I was listening to Siriusly Sinatra while working away here at the computer. Once in awhile, I just had to stop working, close my eyes, and listen. And marvel at the cleverness of the lyricists of those days gone by. (And the genius behind such wonderful partnerships between lyricists and composers, resulting in beautiful marriages of words and music.) As a writer (that's how I made my living for the past 20 years), I find great joy when I come across a well-turned phrase.

And how those lyricists could turn a phrase! They could turn it every which way but loose.

An example: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, after crooning that they're "off on the road to Morocco," then sing "like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound." Get it? Webster's Dictionary was bound in Moroccan leather.

Or how about a sample of the lyrics from one of Tony Bennett's favorites, Cole Porter's At Long Last Love?
I'm so in love, and though it gives me joy intense, I can't decipher if I'm a lifer or if it's just a first offense.
Now back up for a moment, and read that line again - out loud.

Pretty clever, huh?

In this morning's worship service, we sang the great old hymn, To God Be the Glory, and the thought came to me that the marriage of music to lyrics is like unto the marriage of a hymn to theology. One without the other seems incomplete. Music and lyrics should fit, whether we're talking 1940s swing or timeless hymn. And the greatest hymns are those invested with a sound theology. I don't mean that the theology of the hymn is necessarily beyond question, but that it has some real "meat" to it, something to chew on.

For those of us who grew up singing hymns in worship, those hymns served to reinforce the theology behind our faith. In fact, if we're honest, we'd probably have to admit that they often taught us theology.
To God be the glory, great things He hath done, So loved He the world that He gave us His son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the life gate that all may go in.
There, in one simple stanza, is the theology of our faith at its most basic. A simple, straightforward marriage of lyrics by Fanny Crosby, author of over 8,000 hymns, and music by William Doane.

Or how about this one?
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. . . . Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.
That great, unyielding text, of course, was written by Martin Luther and inspired by Psalm 46. (Yes, the greatest hymn writers wind up giving credit to other writers - the inspired authors of the Bible - for their own inspiration.) In this case, the lyricist also wrote the melody, named Ein Feste Burg, which Johann Sebastian Bach later used as the source for his choral cantata, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

Then there's one that some have called the finest English hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
When Isaac Watts' words are put with Lowell Mason's tune, Hamburg, together they make our hearts bow in humility, shame, and unspeakable gratitude for the sacrifice of our Lord.

These three provide but the tiniest sample of the richness found in our hymnals. I pray that we won't just go through the motions on Sunday mornings, but that we'll take a moment to savor the hymns that we sing, and welcome God to speak to our hearts - and our minds - through them as we sing.

Thank God for the miracles He has wrought in bringing lyrics and music together to help shape and strengthen our understanding of Him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Personal attacks leave no room for dialogue

Gratuitous personal attacks are easy. Thoughtful discussion of issues is hard.

A friend and I often discuss political and religious issues. There are times, when he's criticizing the position of some politician or preacher - and, by extension, their followers - he will begin attacking their intelligence, their character, or their motives. Epithets will begin to fly - "that guy's an idiot," he'll proclaim; or "those people are hard-hearted and don't care about the poor"; or "he doesn't really believe that stuff; he's just trying to get votes."

Sometimes maybe he has a point. But the personal attacks make it difficult to have a serious discussion of the issues. I often say something like the following to my friend (and it usually drives him up the wall): "People are more complex than you make them out to be. You don't know all of the factors involved in [so-and-so's] thought process that led to this position, and you don't know the whole of [his or her] life."

I was reminded of that truth again last week. On February 12, I wrote a Texas Baptists Committed blog post about the decision of LifeWay Christian Resources to let Bibles intended for sale to benefit breast cancer victims instead sit in a warehouse, gathering dust, because of differences over certain policy decisions of a partner organization.

In my post, I referred to "an Associated Baptist Press article about criticism leveled by Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources - the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention - at Susan G. Komen for the Cure's announcement that it was reversing its days-old decision to 'disassociate from Planned Parenthood.'"

Thankfully, I was careful not to turn my post into a personal attack on Thom Rainer. You see, I really believe that stuff I tell my friend about considering people as being complex persons rather than being simply the sum of their latest statements or actions. In fact, after my initial reference to Rainer (as quoted above), I never mentioned his name again, instead focusing on the decision and the reasons for my disagreement with that decision. At one point, I even acknowledged that "I respect LifeWay's concerns about abortion." I can't promise I won't slip occasionally and target the person rather than the issue, but - with God's help - I'm trying my best.

We can be respectful - and maybe even find a point or two of common ground - while disagreeing with a particular position, decision, or action.

Last week, I was reading my friend Jim Denison's Cultural Commentary that I receive daily in my email in-box. Jim's commentaries are always heartfelt, but this one was moreso than most, because in it he shared the results of his son Ryan's recent cancer surgery. Jim shared that Ryan's cancer had "spread slightly into the area around the tumor" that had been removed, and that he would be undergoing radiation treatment. Jim went on to write,
We are asking God to give Ryan strength and perseverance. And we are asking him to teach us all we are meant to learn from these hard days, as our Father redeems what he has allowed in our lives. Here's one example: Yesterday I received a remarkable email. A very dear friend who has known Ryan since his birth sent me a prayer for fathers that he found online.
Jim then shared that prayer, which was an adaptation of a prayer written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "throughout which [MacArthur] repeated the phrase, 'give me a son.'" But the author of the adaptation his friend had sent him, Jim wrote, "realized that he needed to become a godly father before he could ask for godly sons. So he rewrote Gen. MacArthur's prayer, substituting 'make me the father' for 'give me a son.'"

The prayer as rewritten is beautiful and powerful in its wisdom, its depth of spirit, and its humility, most of all in its expression of a deep desire to be a father who will truly be the presence of Christ in his children's lives.

The author of that rewritten prayer? Jim writes, "It was written by Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources."

As I wrote last week, I disagree with the decision that Thom Rainer made to withhold those Bibles from Susan G. Komen for the Cure because of Komen's association with Planned Parenthood. But I'm glad I didn't attack him personally, because - as a father who cares for my children, and as a Christian who believes people need Jesus - I'm sure the things we hold in common are much greater than our differences.

Personal attacks divide us. It's true in our national life, as we turn political disagreements into blood feuds. It's been true in our Baptist life, as disagreements over what should be seen as minor theological points - in relation, that is, to the few that are truly fundamental - have caused some to attack others, destroy reputations, and seek power.

As Baptists, we should be united, but we remain terribly divided. We should be seeking common ground, but too often we would rather strafe any ground walked on by those with whom we disagree.

I pray that God will help us to show each other grace. Disagree? Certainly. We're human, and we're going to differ. But we don't have to attack each other. When we attack, we have nowhere left to go. Attack leaves no room for dialogue or for learning or for growth.

In an article entitled "T. B. Maston: On Christian Spirituality," Gary Farley - a student of Dr. T. B. Maston, the late Baptist ethicist, wrote,
Maston was ever the genuine Christian with every person in every situation. His constant instruction was to "deal with the issue, not personalities." While attacking segregation from a Biblical base, he did not condemn the segregationist. And that is how he lived.
We can do better than we're doing.

Monday, February 20, 2012

John Glenn, the Space Race, "Lost Causes," and Impossible Dreams

Fifty years ago today, an American astronaut orbited the earth for the first time.

On February 20, 1962, Col. John Glenn of Ohio became the third American in space. The previous year, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had completed sub-orbital flights, each lasting about 15 minutes. But John Glenn orbited the earth three times. Each orbit took about 90 minutes, so it took almost 5 hours from launch to splashdown.

I was in 5th grade at Spring Valley Elementary School in the Richardson School District. (Less than 5 months later, we moved to Kansas City, and it would be 25 years before I would return to live in the Dallas area.) Later generations cannot imagine what the "space race" meant to us back then. For us at Spring Valley that day, it meant that we basically got a day off from the rigors of school. Conveniently for us, the launch was - if I recall correctly - around mid-morning. The principal set up a TV on the stage in the cafeteria, and the entire school spent those 5 hours sitting in the cafeteria, watching that little black-and-white TV (I don't know how big the screen was, but probably around 17 or 19 inches at the most), and hanging on every word of the commentators. There was no live video feed from the capsule itself, but the commentators followed Glenn's progress with the aid of radio tracking stations, and there was occasional audio communication with Glenn.

And we were fascinated by it! Space travel was new back then, and it stretched the limits of our imagination. Those early space programs, all targeted toward an eventual moon landing, were played out against the background of the Cold War. America and the Soviet Union were locked in a death struggle - America on the side of freedom, the Soviet Union bent on world domination. One of the most threatening shots fired in that conflict came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in space. It signaled that the Soviet Union had its sights set on not only the world but the universe as well, and it put "them" ahead of "us" in the race to conquer space.

I remember Sputnik, too. I was 6 at the time. At times and from various locations, Sputnik was visible to the naked eye as it sped across the sky. Prompted by news reports that it was visible from Dallas, my parents, my sister, and I went out into our front yard in the evening and spotted Sputnik. It was fascinating, yet simultaneously terrifying, because it symbolized the Soviet threat to our American way of life. There were other such symbols - like the occasional "bomb" drills at school, in which we all got under our desks. I don't know what our school administrators thought those desks were made of, that they would protect us from an atomic bomb! But that was the drill. In October 1962, those drills would seem more than just empty exercises, when it was discovered that the Soviets had nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from our shores. For 13 days, the world was on the brink of nuclear war.

But the space race - it captured our attention like nothing else, and I was probably even more fascinated by it than most. I loved to watch the launches and the splashdowns. There were no "landings" in those days; the Mercury (one-man) and Gemini (two-man) capsules had no lander as such; so they splashed down in the ocean, usually the Atlantic. A helicopter would usually pick them up - the images of helicopters lowering their ladders, and an astronaut climbing aboard, are still burned in my mind. Then the helicopter would fly the astronaut(s) to a ship that would safely return them to land, where they would be "debriefed" before meeting with the press and returning to their families.

I recently came across a spiral notebook that I completed for a science class assignment - the dates (1965-1966) of the clippings contained therein indicate that I was probably a freshman in high school at the time. Organized in sections by scientific discipline, it contains current newspaper clippings of archaeology, astronomy, biology, etc. I recently told my kids that I want this notebook kept in the family (not tossed out, as I fear will happen to most of my various file folders, etc.) and passed down from generation to generation, because it provides an interesting "snapshot" view of discoveries, studies, and other signs of progress being made during a time of rigorous - and vigorous - scientific activity.

The Astronomy section alone contains articles headlined, for example:
  • Balloon Flight in 1935 Was First U.S. Space Probe
  • NASA Reveals Space Plan: Vast Launch Schedule Includes Flights, Many Manned, to All the Planets, the Sun, Comets, and Asteroids (the Sun???)
  • Mariner 4 Probe Reveals That Mars Is an Icebox
  • Jupiter May Be 2d Sun - Not Planet
  • From Here to the Moon: the Apollo-Saturn V Launcher
  • The Great Week in Space: the First Rendezvous in Space (the linking of Gemini 6 with Gemini 7)
  • Two Views of Earth from Gemini 7
  • NASA Picks Sites on Moon to Photograph
In May 1961, only weeks after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, President Kennedy had announced an ambitious goal to a joint session of Congress, the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. To many, it must have seemed an impossible dream or a lost cause. The Soviets had leaped ahead with Sputnik and had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space - and into orbit - in April 1961. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev had promised to "bury" us, and that appeared to involve beating us in the space race.

But Americans pulled together, and the remarkable scientists, engineers, astronauts, and the rest of the NASA team put together their own strategy, involving three programs - Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo - that built upon one another in succession and culminated in the first moon landing in July 1969.

Lost cause? Impossible dream? Not if you believe in that cause or that dream.

One of my favorite movies is that 1939 classic, directed by Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jimmy Stewart plays the role of Jefferson Smith, a naive young man who is encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate. He runs, and he wins. Little does he know that he's being played for a fool. The senior senator whom he has admired all his life, who encouraged him to run, turns out to be bought and paid for by moneyed interests, the same interests who want to control Senator Smith as well. When he discovers the truth about his mentor, Smith confronts him: "I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once."

We'll find that most of our dreams, those that are worth anything anyway, will eventually come up against obstacles, obstacles that will at times seem almost insurmountable. But we may find that those are truly the "only causes worth fighting for," because the way we fight for them will reveal what we're really made of.

We won't necessarily "win" in the short-term.

What was special about John Glenn and those astronauts was not their success but their belief in their cause and their commitment to it. As we all know, the story of NASA is not one of unbroken successes. The first three Apollo astronauts died during training when their capsule's cabin caught fire. Not to mention the two shuttle disasters. Then there was Apollo 13, which never made it to the moon and very nearly didn't make it home. But all of those astronauts - including those who died trying - contributed to America's ultimate successes in space. They knew the risk, but their belief in the cause, and their commitment to it, outweighed any fear of failure.

If we're Christians, and we're letting God lead us, then we can put our faith in Him that - if He's truly leading us to commit to a cause - then He will give us the resources to fight for it, and He will bless our efforts if we let Him do His work through us. Such a cause is never truly lost. After all, we're not called to succeed; we're called to be faithful.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thank God for the "giants" in our lives

When my two kids left home for college - the first in 2000, the second in 2004 - I gave each of them the same final word of advice, which was some variation of the following: "Be sensitive to the presence of 'giants' in your life - those people who care enough to invest themselves in you - and welcome their contribution, the difference they can make in your life."

I hope they've taken that advice. From the growth that I've seen in both of them over the years since, I believe they did - intentionally or not.

I gave that advice to them because I'm very much aware that I would not be the person I am today if it were not for the presence of such "giants" - or whatever you want to call them - in my life over the years.

Of course, my family has given to me much more than I could ever give back to them, especially my Dad, to whom I wrote a tribute in this space last year. And I can't imagine my life without my wife, Joanna. The love, encouragement, and companionship she has given me for over 35 years now - what a gift from God! Our wonderful children, Alison and Travis, their spouses Adam and Christy, and our grandchildren. My sister, Patsy, and her husband, Palmer, and their kids and grandkids. God has blessed me beyond measure.

Beyond my family, there have been many, too many to name in the time and space allotted to me here. But, since my advice to my kids was given as they prepared to enter college, I'll just name a few who were instrumental during my college years. After all, my college years were where my journey of faith - on which I'm still traveling today - really began, where the faith that I experience today really took root.

When I was a student at OBU and underwent a severe faith crisis - one which wound up lasting beyond my college years - a friend in the next room, Ron Russey, shared with me that he understood my doubting and questioning, because he had experienced the same thing. Through many late-night "bull sessions" in Brotherhood Dorm, Ron and my roommate, Cary Wood, helped me to begin the process of confronting - and thinking through - my questions and doubts . . . the process of struggling with the great questions of faith and searching for something I could accept as truth.

Ron pointed me to another who became a "giant" in my life, Jerry Barnes. Jerry had been Ron's pastor when Ron was growing up in Hobart, Oklahoma. When I lost my faith, Ron knew where I needed to go. By this time (November 1970, my sophomore year), Jerry was pastoring right across the street from the OBU campus, at University Baptist Church, Shawnee. Ron told me I needed to go see Jerry.

I was very honest with Jerry, telling him that I had completely lost my faith in God or any belief that Jesus was God's son. Jerry asked me to join University Baptist Church. Some pastors . . . probably most pastors . . . even if they had been willing to counsel me, would have surely barred me from joining the church. But Jerry wanted me in church, where I could be challenged to keep digging for the truth, and I'm sure Jerry knew that I would be a lot more likely to be in church regularly if I were a member.

So I joined, and I met with Jerry in his office about once a semester for my remaining years at OBU. I would share with Jerry where I was in my "search" or "struggle," and Jerry would listen patiently and then try to help me take the next steps I needed to take on the journey. And that's not to mention his sermons that challenged me to dig more deeply into Scripture than I had ever dug before.

One of the most gracious things that God does for us is to put "giants" like Jerry Barnes in our path right when we need them . . . and "giants" like Ron Russey in our path to point us to the Jerry Barneses.

I would be remiss if I didn't back up for just a moment and name two "giants" that preceded my college years. Two people who believed in me and invested in me when I had a hard time believing in myself. When I was growing up, music was my great love, and I planned to go into the music ministry before my faith crisis short-circuited that dream. Both my decision to go into the music ministry and my decision to attend OBU were inspired by my respect for my minister of music when I was in Youth Choir at Bethany Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO, in the 1960s.

Joe Dell Rust invested in me, both as my music minister and as my friend. When I was not quite 14, he put me in a boys' quartet he was forming. Even at 14, I was already singing bass. By the time I was 16, Joe had me singing solos in Sunday School classes and even in worship services. The summer before I left for OBU, Joe and I would sit in his backyard on Saturday mornings, where he gave me something of a "preparatory course" in music theory. Music Theory, which so many students found intimidating, wound up being my best subject at OBU. Though I didn't wind up with a career in the music ministry, I spent many years singing in church choirs, and even 9 years directing - and singing in - a mixed choral ensemble. The musical training I received from Joe - and OBU - didn't go to waste.

Joyce Stuermer was the music teacher at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. She learned early on that I could read music and could sing. She encouraged me to try out for A Cappella Choir - the premier vocal group of the school, but I was scared to death to audition in front of that 70- to 80-voice choir. I just didn't have much confidence. During my sophomore and junior years, she began bugging me whenever she saw me in the hallway - "Bill Jones, you'd better come try out, because I'm not giving up on you!" I finally auditioned and became a member of A Cappella Choir at the beginning of my senior year.

In the spring, we began rehearsals for The Music Man. She had given me a one-line solo in the song, Wells Fargo Wagon. But shy Bill was singing it too timidly for her taste. She wanted me to push my way through the crowd and "let 'er rip"; so one night, in the middle of rehearsal, she stopped everything, proclaimed it "Bill Jones Night," and showed me - in front of the entire company (well over 100 students) - exactly how she wanted it done, and demanded that I practice it until I had done it to her satisfaction. In the years to come, at those moments when I struggled to believe in myself, I found myself remembering one person - Joyce Stuermer - who refused to give up on Bill Jones.

But back to post-OBU. There have been many "giants" in my life in the ensuing years . . . too many to name. Just in the past 10 years, as my involvement in denominational life has grown, I've had countless (literally, countless) friends and encouragers - "giants," if you will - who have helped me take the next steps in denominational life, and in my faith journey, just as Jerry Barnes did 40 years ago.

We paid tribute to one of them last August. As I told the crowd gathered for dinner that night, David Currie has been responsible - either directly or indirectly (directly, in most cases) - for every opportunity I've had to serve in Baptist life over the past decade, from the BGCT Executive Board to the Baptist Laity Institute to the TBC Board to the TBMaston Foundation Board to my current position as TBC associate executive director. But then, hundreds of Texas Baptist laypersons could make similar statements about David's contribution to their lives. Truly a "giant" who has invested himself in the lives of many people.

My advice works both ways. Yes, be sensitive to the presence of "giants" in your life, be open to their influence and contribution to your life, and celebrate them with your life. But also be sensitive to the opportunity to invest in the lives of others. Give as you've been given. You can't fully know - and you might never know - the impact you will have in and through their lives. One day, some of them might look back on you as one of the "giants" in their lives.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love, theology, Komen, and LifeWay

One sentence gave me pause.
"LifeWay canceled the project last year amid reports that some Komen affiliates gave money to Planned Parenthood."
It appeared in an Associated Baptist Press article about criticism leveled by Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources - the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention - at Susan G. Komen for the Cure's announcement that it was reversing its days-old decision to "disassociate from Planned Parenthood."

The "project" to which the sentence referred involved "plans to sell copies of the Here's Hope Breast Cancer Awareness Bible with a portion of proceeds benefitting Komen."

Lifeway had originally scuttled the project last year "amid reports that some Komen affiliates gave money to Planned Parenthood." The article went on to explain that "Despite assurance that none of [Komen's grants to Planned Parenthood] were used to fund abortions, LifeWay officials said they did not want to be identified with Planned Parenthood even indirectly."

Let me say right here, upfront, that I respect LifeWay's concerns about abortion.

But what did Jesus say should come first? Our theology . . . or people?

When asked for the "greatest commandment," Jesus gave two, and both had to do with love, not theological purity. The first? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." The second, which Jesus said is part-and-parcel of the first one, is to "love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:37; 39, NIV)

I'm concerned when we express a theological rigidity that refuses even "to be identified with" those with whom we disagree or even those whom we identify as violating the precepts of Scripture.

Most of all, I'm concerned about Bibles gathering dust in a warehouse. LifeWay decided to let those Bibles sit in a warehouse rather than put them in the hands of someone who needs God's good news. That decision was momentarily under review after Komen's initial decision to deny grants to Planned Parenthood. But Bob Allen reports, in the ABP article, that Komen's reversal of that decision means that those Bibles "likely won't be going anywhere soon."

I'll grant you that Komen has had a rough month - first announcing, under pressure from one side, that it would cut funding to Planned Parenthood; then reversing field, by now under pressure from the other side, by restoring a portion (but not all) of that funding. It makes it hard to make a case for either of these decisions being made as a matter of conviction rather than expediency.

But all of this shouldn't obscure the remarkable good that has been done for so many by Susan G. Komen for the Cure over the years. By ministering to those in need of hope or in need of prevention or simply in need of care, it is ministering to Jesus:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . . whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me." (Matthew 25:35-36; 40, NIV)
Can we accept that the Jesus who ate with sinners, who met people where they were and loved them, would want the Good News - which so many desperately need - held hostage to our theology? Whether the printed word, or the word of God's Spirit written on our hearts and clothed in our love, shouldn't it be out there where people need it?

Monday, February 6, 2012

On the nose!

I'm taking a momentary (only momentary, as you'll see) break from writing about things Baptist, because there was a monumental occurrence last night that has prompted me to come clean about a secret known heretofore only to my very closest friends and family members.

Yes, the truth can finally be told, and I'm relieved to get this "burden" out into the open. I . . . am . . . a . . . prognosticator. My descent into this life of prognostication began when I was only 12. At least I've brought it under control in recent years . . . from over 50 times every fall weekend when I started to only 11 times a year for the past few years. As for the On the nose! title of this blog post, just stick with me a little bit, and I'll get to that.

Anyway, I began predicting (prognosticating) football games as a 12-year-old growing up in Kansas City, MO, in the fall of 1963. I had just gotten my first subscription to Sports Illustrated. Back in those days, SI listed every major (and some not so major) college football game scheduled the coming weekend, and I fell in love with predicting the games. So I picked them all . . . no matter how little (or, in most cases, nothing) I knew about the schools or their football teams. I picked them all, from OU-Nebraska to Bucknell-Lehigh. Every Saturday afternoon, I would be sprawled on the bed in my parents' room (that's where the phone was), calling the local radio football scoreboard call-in show, asking for the scores I hadn't yet heard them call out on the air: "How did USC-Oregon come out? How about Slippery Rock versus Susquehanna Tech?"

I picked all of the pro games, too, which meant both the NFL and the AFL (where the Chiefs, my then-favorite team, were playing their first season after moving to KC from Dallas).

I kept meticulous records of all my predictions and my "winning" percentage from week to week. In 1966, I wound up going .650 (65%) on my predictions - can't remember whether that was college or pro, but I was pretty proud of myself. I wrote a letter to the sports editor of The Kansas City Star, Joe McGuff, telling him of my success. He replied, promising me "a plug in the paper" if I could repeat that .650 percentage the following season. So I sent him my predictions weekly the next year, and I wound up at (drum roll, please) .647! No plug in the paper, sonny boy! Nevertheless, Mr. McGuff and I continued corresponding even into and beyond my college years. He always responded with a friendly and encouraging word.

In 1974, I met Bob Morris, who quickly became my best friend. Bob was Best Man in my wedding 2 years later, and we are still best friends after almost 38 years. It wasn't long after we met that I pulled Bob into my life of prognostication. Bob and I have been predicting football games against each other all these years. We've predicted the NFL playoffs against each other for, I guess, just about every year for these 38 years. I have no idea what our overall record is, because those records are probably in scraps of paper scattered in file drawers and closets . . . maybe his are better organized than mine, but I doubt it. But we've had a lot of fun competing all these years.

A few years ago, we began including my family, and this year I brought another friend into the fray. This year was probably the closest "race" we've ever had. As the last minute of the Super Bowl ticked down, three people still had a chance for this year's "championship": my son Travis, my son-in-law Adam, and Bob. Adam wound up on top for the second year in a row, barely edging out Travis by 4 points on a tiebreaker (they both went 8-3 in the 11 playoff games). If the Patriots had won last night, Bob would have won the "title."

But even though I wound up 7-4, in 3rd place (Bob, who came so close to winning it all, wound up 4th), and had already been eliminated before the Super Bowl, I came up with a singular achievement. After having predicted 46 Super Bowls, I finally predicted the final score "on the nose" (there it is) for the first time: Giants 21, Patriots 17. I've come a long way from that first Super Bowl, where I predicted my Chiefs to beat Lombardi's Packers, 20-16. (Some of you may recall that the Packers whipped the Chiefs, 35-10.)

But last night's 21-17 score certainly wasn't arrived at in a traditional manner. When you see 21-17, you figure it's three touchdowns beating two touchdowns and a field goal. The Patriots got to their 17 in the usual way, but the Giants? Instead of three touchdowns and three extra points, it was a safety, a touchdown & extra point, two field goals, followed by a touchdown and a failed two-point conversion attempt.

But it didn't matter to the Giants how they got to 21 (I will keep my Baptist moorings in mind here and avoid any blackjack analogies), and it didn't matter to me, either - just as long as they got there.

Much the same with our Baptist life. (You knew I'd find a way to bring it back to that, didn't you?) Sometimes we're so enamored of our own experience with God that we start trying to make sure that others have the very same experience in the very same way. But, just as the Giants found their own way to 21 and to victory, people need to find God where THEY are, not where WE are. We can be thankful that God looks for us where we are and meets us there. If that's good enough for God, it should be good enough for us. That's why we're Baptist . . . we believe in the freedom that God gives through Christ, and we resist the urge to pour others into our mold.

That's one thing I'll never be able to predict - how God will relate to another person. But I can ask God to love others through me . . . where THEY are. That's a godly relationship that's "on the nose."

Friday, February 3, 2012

What does it mean to be a Baptist?

A few minutes ago, I was writing a post for Weighty Matters, the TBMaston Foundation blog, about the Ethics Lecture that took place earlier this week at Truett Seminary on the Baylor campus. As I wrote about the role of the prophet in challenging Christians to reexamine our beliefs and principles, an old song popped into my head. Funny how that happens! I hadn't thought of it in a long time, but there it was. Those of you who grew up in Southern Baptist youth choirs of the late 1960s, as I did, might recognize it. It's from Purpose, one of several Christian musicals written for Southern Baptist youth choirs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For me, the most memorable song from that musical (which, regrettably, came out only after I had left for college, so I never got to sing in it) is the beautiful arrangement of "Just As I Am." But the song that came to my mind while writing that post was one that appears immediately following "Just As I Am." It's a song that asks the question, "What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it really mean?"

As I wrote about Tuesday's lecturer asking hard questions and challenging our own closely-held beliefs and principles, that question came to me: What does it mean to be a Christian? Well, one thing it means is looking to Jesus and choosing the narrow way. Robert Frost wrote that taking The Road Not Taken had "made all the difference." What does it mean to be a Christian? Taking up our cross daily, following Christ into ways that are unfamiliar and unpopular and uncomfortable. Taking the road not taken.

Then what does it mean to be a Baptist? Same thing! I've said it many times: the reason I'm a Baptist is that I believe that our historic Baptist principles - such as the priesthood of every believer, the competency of every soul before God, the autonomy of every local church, and the separation of church and state - are biblical principles that are faithful to Christ's life and teachings. Being a Baptist means faithfully upholding Baptist principles that help to make our worship and our service to God authentic and faithful.

And it means taking a stand. It means that we shouldn't sit passively by when those Baptist principles are being violated. When a pastor dictates church decisions to his congregation, we Baptists should speak up. When a convention seeks to control a local congregation or a Baptist college faculty and students, we Baptists should speak up.

We would rather pretend everything is okay and look the other way. But that's not what Jesus did, and it's not what Jesus called us to do.

Being Baptist is about showing up and speaking up.