The Civility of Discourse – Dr. Bill Leonard * Wake Forest Divinity School

“They’ll tell anything on you down in town.”

So the serpent-handling woman says as she sits on her Appalachian front porch, killing flies and defending her church’s approach to the sixteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Whether in cheap novels, academic treatises, or documentary exposes, serpent-handlers have been analyzed, critiqued and caricatured for their belief that the sacraments are alive and can kill you. Nonetheless the Appalachian woman is right: They’ll tell anything on you down in town, on Twitter, or “Morning Joe,” especially in an election year. Most mornings bring new denunciations or scurrilous accusations from candidate and surrogate alike.

It’s the tongue, the Epistle of James insists in chapter three: “We use it to sing the praises of God, and we use it to invoke curses upon our fellow human beings who are made in God’s likeness.” Today, we say too much, or not enough; don’t mean what we say; or we say what we mean but in cruel ways. Sometimes we’re just plain mean, often in “Jesus’ name.” My friend Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., once hosted an interfaith gathering called, “Honoring Sacred Texts,” which included appreciative readings from the Quran. Online vitriol toward the event and Phelps’ character was immediate. One email read: “You are a pathetic excuse for a man. … You are truly a Judas and it would have been better for you to have never been born. I mean that in the most Christian way.”

Thomas Hearn, the late president of Wake Forest University, once articulated three purposes for a university: to educate new generations; to pursue research in a search for truth; and to nurture the “civility of discourse.” I have never forgotten that simple observation. Whatever the outcomes of this year’s elections, the civility of discourse seems mortally wounded in postmodern America.

To hear Jesus tell it, “talking trash” was certainly not unknown in first-century society:

“How can I describe this generation? They are like the children sitting in the marketplace and shouting at each other, ‘We piped for you and you would not dance.’ ‘We wept and wailed, and you would not mourn.’ For John the Baptist came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-collectors, and sinners!’ And yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results” (Matt: 11:19).

John was a teetotaling grasshopper-eater who acted like a holiness prophet should act — harsh, direct, puritanical and distant. Jesus, by contrast, would apparently show up at happy hour — sip a little something with the wrong kind of people, scandalizing the (self) righteous crowd who readily attacked his character.

Remember when tongues wagged at Corinth over Paul’s homiletical limitations. “His letters have a literary flare, but when he appears he has no presence, and as a speaker he is beneath contempt” (2 Cor. 10: 10-11). The words that stung Paul into this response: “I may be no speaker,” he declared, “but knowledge I have; at all times we have made known to you the full truth” (2 Cor. 11: 5-6). We all have stories. A woman in my Massachusetts congregation once gave me the “evil eye” when she didn’t like my sermon. After that I asked the ushers to seat her on the back pews!

We’ve all “dished it out” and “taken it,” maligned and been maligned by the words of others, but unlike our Christian forbears, the Internet has become an extension of our tongues. We push “send” when we should hit “delete,” learning the hard way that emails, tweets and Facebook postings are the repositories of verbiage we shouldn’t have said in private, let alone made public.

Frederick Buechner comments that “to say something is to do something. I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. I am afraid. Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.”

We live, Bill Moyers says, in a “culture of cruelty,” unable/unwilling to stop attacking one another, turning every disagreement into character issues. While such verbal viciousness is nothing new, our words now go global in an instant — never to be retrieved.

But let’s not confuse cruel speech with a troubled conscience. Some injustices must be addressed even when it causes pain to ourselves, to others, and in our culture. Some situations are so hurtful, so broken that we cannot be silent. James is addressing cruelty, not conscience. He’s simply saying, don’t waste your breath on hateful language — struggle with the truth and speak it accordingly.

Perhaps the larger gospel message is this: You can’t find yourself if you don’t confront your words. We may have the liberty to say whatever we wish, but doing so may destroy/damage something, not only in others, but something deep inside ourselves.

As usual, the Psalmist says it well: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O God my strength and my redeemer.” Tweet that, for God’s sake.

*Dr. Bill Leonard spoke at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston. in January 1997. This article is used with his permission.

I Need Help – Kris Wood*

I’ve been thinking a lot about how vulnerable it is to say, “I need help” or “I need you” to another person, especially when I feel overwhelmed or desperate. It’s often much easier to be the one who does the helping, right?

When I open up and share a need for prayer or for tangible help, or seek genuine companionship, I feel needy. But, I have discovered that it’s really an offer of a tremendous gift.

When I ask for input from someone who’s good at something, they are often encouraged and feel affirmed that I asked. Even if they’re not free to help immediately, it’s a chance for another to come alongside me in friendship and let a relationship come to life.  When I have my hands full, literally or figuratively, and someone offers to open a door or lend a hand, I have a choice. When I accept the offer, the seeds of kindness are planted and the sweetest fruit of trust grows.

But, it IS really hard to ask, because sometimes people say no or ignore the request and it hurts to be ignored or blown off. Still, it’s worth it to ask because the benefits to the helper often surpass the benefits to the one being helped.
So, what shall we do next? Let’s continue to look for opportunities to be a help like we often do. And, let’s ask for help, too. In fact, I dare you to try an intentional experiment and ask for help from someone and see what happens. This risk…this vulnerability… may end up being more powerful than we ever dreamed and more needed than we know.  It may just make someone’s day!


*Kris Wood is a noted encourager and loves to write devotionals. Kris resides in Wisconsin with her husband Sam and is a champion of entrepreneurs, dreamers and other creatives.  She invests her days as a retreat coordinator, college internship developer, and distributes hope wherever she goes.  Contact Kris You’ll both be glad you did! Kris coordinated the Christian Writer’s Conference at Green Lake this August.

Religion in an Age of Intolerance – Linda K. Wertheimer – Author, Faith Ed

Q&A for Dr. Mitch Carnell’s blog – from Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press) ;

Hmer 2

  1. How can those of us in different faith traditions effectively communicate with one another?

Answer: “We can learn from some of the techniques teachers use when giving lessons about the world’s religions. In Modesto, Calif., for example, all high school freshmen take a required course in world religions, and the beginning lessons include instruction on how to speak respectfully when talking about an unfamiliar faith.  Don’t start out by saying, “Gee, what your religion does sounds strange. Why would you do that?” Instead, say something like, “That tradition sounds interesting. Could you tell me more about it?”

Show interest and curiosity, not derision. Some people are brought up in a religion that teaches that their faith and religious path is the only way. It’s fine to believe that, but when meeting a person of another faith, realize they may feel the same about their faith. It can be very offensive to a Jew when a Christian says what I heard throughout childhood: “You don’t believe in Jesus? You’re going to hell then.”

I belong to a multi-faith book club of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each month, we read a book, typically related to one of the three faiths, and discuss it. We have an appointed discussion leader and some ground rules. We always speak with respect about all faiths. We avoid being judgmental. We can express our opinions about the book, but we don’t criticize the traditions of another faith. Our goal is to learn about each other.  The more we can look at people of different faiths as an opportunity for learning, the better. The biggest problems come when we look at different religions as the “other.” There should be no “other.”

  1. As a Christian, what is the most important thing I should know about Judaism?

Answer:  Let me first preface my answer with a caveat. Yes, I am Jewish, but I am not a scholar of Judaism. I’m expressing my personal opinion, which may be different than that of other Jews. I can’t pinpoint one important thing, but it would be good for all Christians to truly understand that Christianity in fact sprung out of Judaism. Jesus Christ was a Jew. Christians and Jews have similarities in some of their beliefs. The Jewish holy book, the Torah, is the Old Testament. Genesis is Genesis, the same book of the Bible, for both of us. Where our religions differ is on the place of Jesus in our faiths. To Jews, Jesus was a minor prophet. He is not a part of our teachings. So know that we have much in common, and yes, we have big differences, too. When it comes to basic values, we share a lot, including, of course, the Ten Commandments.

Hmer 1

  1. As you know my passion is for civility in the Christian community; however, my greatest desire is for a much broader approach to include other faith groups. What suggestions do you have for me in this regard?  Think local would be my biggest suggestion. Judaism has three major branches, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. It’s impossible to find one figure for Judaism. I’d reach out to other houses of worship in your community and connect with the religious leaders there. Many communities I visited have interfaith councils made up of different clergy. That’s always a great place to start to make connections. These councils sometimes sponsor public events, such as interfaith Thanksgiving services; talks on what happens when we die and what different religions believe; and community break fasts after Yom Kippur or community iftars at the end of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims. Book clubs, too, are a great way to bring people of different faiths together. To me, whether the rabbi is current or retired doesn’t matter. Find the person ready and willing to form an interfaith partnership.
  2. In the larger Christian landscape membership is on the decline in the United States in favor of an increasing category called “Nones.” Is this a problem in Judaism and if so what can we do?

Yes, Jewish leaders are just as worried about losing Jews to the “nones” group as leaders of other faiths.  Jewish organizations have been reaching out to the younger generation in a variety of ways, including with social activities and long-established trips to Israel for young Jews. For those interested in this topic, I recommend a new, fascinating book by Katherine Ozment, Grace Without God.

  1. Is, Faith Ed being used as a discussion in other faith groups?                                                                                                                                                     Faith Ed has grabbed the attention of many different faiths. Since it came out in August 2015, I have given talks at churches of many denominations; Jewish temples of different branches; and interfaith groups. Adult education groups at churches have invited me to speak, and I have led discussions with them about the experiences of religious minorities in our country. We also have talked about some Americans’ fear of their children learning about Islam or any other faith that is not their own. It has been heartening, though, to see how many people of different faiths care about improving their own religious literacy and their children’s understanding of different religions in our country and world.

Many church groups I’ve spoken with see this topic as a social justice issue. They are distraught about the growing Islamophobia in our country. They also are upset about the anti-Semitic incidents I describe in my book and the incidents that have happened since then. Jewish and Muslim groups naturally already had those concerns. I have more talks this fall with interfaith groups, so I see these conversations only continuing to grow. At the front of my book, I include a quote from Mahatma Gandhi from his book, All Religions Are True. Where do I see these conversations going? I hope people believe what Gandhi did so fervently: “I hold that it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them to respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.”




I AM A REBOUNDER (From grief to joy) by Rev. Paul Stouffer*


David, the Psalmist said: “For my life is spent with sorrow.” Psalm 31:10

Both he and I needed a new Holy Spirit tomorrow.

The dictionary says that to rebound means to spring back from the force of impact.

I am writing my family and friends to inform them that this is not a play-act.

I have great pleasure in announcing on the second anniversary of the passing of my beloved,

I am now a believer, rebounder, and I am rebounding by the goodness of God; all of us awaiting our reunion in Heaven above.

August 16, 2016

Paul Stouffer

*Paul and I met at Mars Hill College as undergraduates. We have been friends for all of these years. He and his wife, Peggy, spent years as missionaries.

Why the Music Matters – Robert F. Darden – Baylor University

Darden Photos 585 (1)In the course of the research for my two-volume book on the importance of black sacred music on the civil rights movement, I learned a lot. I mean, a lot. I learned how essential the spirituals were to African-American slaves yearning to be free.

I learned how essential the freedom songs – which were, for the most part, based on the spirituals – were to African Americans yearning for their full rights as American citizens during the civil rights movement.

And I learned how essential the spirituals and freedom songs are to not just African Americans but all of the world’s citizens in the 21st century.

Perhaps you knew that songs like “We Shall Overcome” were sung during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the short-lived rebellion that culminated in Tiananmen Square. But did you also know they were sung in the Arab Spring, in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution and in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, Charleston, Orlando, Dallas and a dozen more beside?

These songs are still being sung.


Certainly my research and interviews showed that a significant reason for their continued use is that the spirituals and freedom songs were based on words of faith. During the darkest days for African Americans in this country, the one place they could find shelter, solace, inspiration and hope was the black church. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the movement relied on African American churches in every movement city and operation. Without the financial support of the black church, without the volunteers, and without the spiritual foundation of faith, the civil rights movement of the 1960s would have struggled mightily.

These songs – “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Freedom,” “Up Above My Head, I Hear Freedom in the Air,” “We Shall Not be Moved” and a thousand more – were bathed in the blood of martyrs, honed through hard experience, and transformed in the faith of every marcher, every protester, every prisoner of conscience.

But I learned something else about my decade’s long immersion in the spirituals and freedom songs – what I call the protest spirituals. The civil rights movement’s moral power was wedded to the principle of non-violence. Perhaps it is best articulated in this quote from one of King’s sermons in 1967: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.” It was a holy principle grounded in Jesus’ abhorrence of violence as detailed throughout the New Testament.

For that belief to work, then the music that provided the fuel that drove the engine of the movement, as one of my interviewees told, had to be equally potent … and non-violent.

And the protest spirituals were just that. None of the roughly six thousand known spirituals espouses revenge, anger, hatred or recrimination, even during the worst days of slavery. Legendary African American composer John Wesley Work worked extensively with the spirituals. This is a quote from his book Folk Song of the American Negro, published in 1915: “Another characteristic of the Negro song is, as has been stated before, that it has no expression of hatred or revenge. If these songs taught no other truths save this, they would be invaluable. That a race which had suffered and toiled as the Negro had, could find no expression for bitterness and hatred, yes, could positively love, is strong evidence that it possesses a clear comprehension of the great force in life, and that it must have had experience in the fundamentals of Christianity.”

Work then concludes his essay with an extraordinary line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s beautiful Sea Dreams: “One shriek of hate would jar all the hymns of heaven.”

The spirituals and freedom songs, at their best, are songs of love, convicting those who hear them. Angry songs calling for vengeance simply have not worked, nor have they endured. That’s why the protest spirituals, particularly “We Shall Overcome,” are still cherished, still sung today not just by African Americans, but all people striving for freedom and justice the world over.

One final thought: “We Shall Overcome” is the lone freedom song that is always sung with the singers joining hands, arms crossed. You can’t cause much damage with your arms crossed and your hands linked. All you can do is sing and, in your singing, testify to the life-changing power and grace of the risen Christ who disavowed violence. And whose only weapon was love.

Robert F. Darden is a Professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. He is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State University Press, 2014) and Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City (Penn State University Press, September 2016).

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