|Thursday, March 10, 2016 6:22 am
When writer Rick Bragg was young and struggling to find his way in journalism, he won a prestigious fellowship to Harvard University.
While there, he felt out of place. He hadn’t finished college, and he was in classes with people who were pursuing graduate degrees.
He was surrounded by urbane Easterners; he saw himself, and was sure others saw him, as a solitary redneck from Alabama.
Legendary newspaperman Bill Kovach befriended Rick, encouraged him and told him that he was gifted.
Bragg told Kovach about a newspaper editor who once sneeringly asked him who taught him how to write. Bragg hadn’t known what to say.
Kovach told him, “The next time somebody asks you that, you tell ’em that it was God.”
Words like Kovach’s, which affirmed Bragg’s gifts and bolstered his confidence, are all too rare these days.
There are more words in the communications-marketplace now than at any time in history: 24/7 television news; streams of information from blogs and newsfeeds; floods of email, tweets, Facebook posts and text messages; stacks of newspapers and magazines; and books of every kind: e-books, audio books, books serialized on the web; and still (thank goodness!) traditional books.
If words were merely commodities, and we valued them on the basis of supply and demand, they would sell at rock-bottom prices these days. Too few of those words flow from compassion.
Historians of American presidential campaigns caution me not to assume that there have never been debates (mud-wrestling matches) between candidates that are as coarse and mean-spirited as the ones we are hearing between Trump and everyone else.
Doubtless, those historians are right. I remember Lee Atwater, after all. If you aren’t aware of Atwater, it’s enough to know that he was a brilliant and cynical political strategist who built lower roads when the existing low ones weren’t low enough.
With the warnings of historians in mind, surely it’s still the case that the bruising personal attacks of this campaign rank among the worst examples of verbal violence. Tearing down, wearing down and, finally, taking down are the goals.
Apparently, many Americans are so angry at myriad things that the politicians’ heated rhetoric has become a means to vent their own simmering frustrations.
Despite the current climate of extreme harshness, I think we hunger for words that, like Kovach’s to Bragg, inspire hope, hearten the discouraged and empower the tentative.
An ancient Hebrew prophet whom we know as Isaiah describes a teacher who “knows how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:9).
Paul, whose own words could sometimes scald those with whom he disagreed, nonetheless wisely urged people to say “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29-30).
We need to hear sustaining, life-building and grace-giving words.
Perhaps, even more, we need to speak them and, thereby, contribute to a growing chorus and resounding echo of words tuned by love.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.
|Tuesday, March 8, 2016 4:27 am
Never in my lifetime have I experienced the kind of harsh rhetoric being thrown around between and among equally devout Christians over political differences of opinion.
Much of it happens on Facebook. Christians there (and elsewhere) are using ridicule, for example, not only to promote their own political preferences but also to demean and insult those who disagree with them.
This is happening increasingly from both “sides” of the political spectrum.
Seemingly it isn’t enough to express and defend one’s political beliefs; now many educated, normally civil and respectful Christians are going out of their way to offend even friends who disagree with them.
I have no objection to anyone, including Christians, having strong political opinions. But traditionally there has been a line we respect and do not cross.
We hold, express and defend our opinions but stop short of ridiculing those who disagree with us.
And we stop short of declaring their Christian faith as defective or even at stake if they disagree with us.
There can come a time when a Christian must say something like, “In my considered opinion, based on my understanding of the way of Jesus Christ, that candidate is not Christian.”
But that does not say everyone who happens to support him or her is not a Christian. That is a line we should not cross.
I have seen Christians whom I respect and like use Facebook not only to express support for or opposition to a candidate and public policies but also to ridicule and demean everyone who disagrees with them. Christian friendships are being broken and crushed in this way.
The overall lack of civility in politics is seeping into Christian communities and friendships.
I hear some of my students saying, “I can’t even talk with my family or some friends about politics because it leads directly to rants and even insults.”
I tried to watch a political “debate” between leading candidates for a political party’s nomination for candidacy for the office of president of the United States.
These should be men (they all happened to be men) who embody civility and reasonable disagreement.
Instead, as I watched and listened, they fell into loud arguing and accusing, shouting over each other and totally ignoring the format of the debate and the moderators.
Then I attempted to watch a national news network program in which two anchors queried representatives of the candidates’ campaigns.
Both the anchors and the guests fell into interrupting each other so often that it was impossible to follow the conversation.
It devolved from a conversation into a shouting match with the news anchors participating and interrupting each other.
What really disturbs me is that people of genuine, heartfelt faith in Jesus Christ are joining the fray.
I remember the 1960 campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Many conservative Protestants were more than worried about the “specter” of a Catholic president: Would he be subservient to the pope?
One family member said many times, “If Kennedy is elected president, we’ll never have any but Catholic presidents after him.”
But she stopped short of accusing fellow Christians, friends and fellow church members who supported Kennedy of being ignorant, stupid, duped, unspiritual or secretly Catholic. So did the vast majority of Christian Nixon supporters.
There was strong Protestant opposition to Kennedy, but not the kind of venom Christians are now displaying toward fellow Christians just because of their differences of opinion about the candidates and parties.
About a year ago, I visited a large, thriving, evangelical church for its Sunday morning worship service. I had visited before but not since the new pastor arrived.
The pastor was preaching from the story of Deborah and Barak but said that he would not pronounce the name of the warrior because it is the same name as a “controversial politician.”
A ripple of laughter ran through the large congregation. I walked out because I do not believe a sermon is the place to ridicule a president or anyone, for that matter.
Growing up in the heartland of America among evangelical Christians, we believed that we should respect whoever was president of the United States even if we strongly disagreed with his policies.
My family opposed many of Kennedy’s policies and voted for Nixon in that 1960s election.
I can even remember going door to door when I was only 8 or 9 years old handing out leaflets supporting Nixon.
But when Kennedy was assassinated, we mourned just like (almost) everyone else.
He was our president even if we vehemently disagreed with some of his political views and policies.
Something has changed in America’s social climate – especially with regard to politics and government.
The atmosphere is one that encourages disrespect and even hostility – not only toward candidates and politicians but also toward friends who support the “wrong ones.”
This culture of disrespect and even hostility has filtered into our churches and among Christians and we need to call each other out about it.
Christians should hold our political opinions more lightly than we do our fellowship with friends and fellow Christians.
We should not cross the line from expressing our opinions to ridiculing or demeaning people who happen to disagree.
It seems self-evident. Yet, I suspect many will disagree and go right on using Facebook and other outlets to express not only their views but also their hostility and low opinion of those who disagree.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
When I started writing Our Father: Discovering Family, the working title was, Our Father: From Certainty to Faith. I had two questions in mind stemming from an amazing, eye-opening, soul-stretching experience I had at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. How did my spiritual development bring me to this point from where I started life in a small provincial town in South Carolina during the days of racial segregation? The second question was equally daunting. What am I to do with the remaining years of my life?
I discovered that God had a much bigger plan. God wanted to expand my vision as to who is in God’s family. God always has a bigger plan than we have. I am reluctant to put words in God’s mouth, but it is as if he were saying, Mitch, you can’t understand me until you know who is in my family.
In 1998 my new wife and I were in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At 11:00 a.m. the priest for the day announced, “At this time every day we stop and say together the Our Father Prayer.” An amazing thing happened. People from all over the world: white, black, brown, male, female, tall, short, handicapped, able-bodied gay, straight were all praying the Our Father Prayer. For the first time in my life the true meaning of what “Our” means swept over me. I knew at that moment that my life had changed forever and that my faith had taken a quantum leap forward.
The process of prayer, reflection, research and writing lead me to two conclusions. First, I needed to drastically expand my understanding of who composes God’s family and second God had been preparing me all of my life to be a voice for fostering better understanding and communication between Christians and between Christians and the rest of the world. We need a more Christ-like dialogue. Striving to improve Christian communication became my mission for both writing and speaking.
The book is best described as a spiritual autobiography. I grew up in the segregated South where learning about the brotherhood of man wasn’t easy. As a child I could not understand how a church that preached God’s love could turn black people away from its doors. Much later, I struggled through the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and a church split. My late wife, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, challenged all of my provincial ideas in a loving but forceful way. Her death coming just days before Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston and my beloved church was an unimaginable tragedy. One from which I was not sure I could recover, but God provided abundant expressions of love and reassurance.
In 2006 my wife asked me to volunteer to teach creative writing to her students in an inner-city minority middle school. The atmosphere reeked with negativity from both faculty and students. That experience lead me to write a little booklet, Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter. Then I founded the Say Something Nice Day observance now listed in the Chase Calendar of Event. In 2007 because of the rising tide of animosity between Christian groups, I spearheaded the Say Something Nice Sunday Movement celebrated on the first Sunday in June… This movement has gained support from Baptists, Catholics, Disciples, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The book I edited and contributed a chapter to in 2009, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, which brought together leaders from various denominations grew out of these events.
God brought great Christian thinkers into my life through my visits at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State and the many speakers at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptists Church of Charleston: Bill Leonard, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson, Martin Marty, Thomas McKibbens, Arthur Caliandro, Timothy George, John Claypool, Paul Raushenbush and Joan Brown Campbell to name a few. I owe a great debt to my childhood pastor, Rev. Roy R. Gowan. One day he said to me, “Mitchell, God made all of you and that includes your brain. He does not expect you to park it at the door when you come to church.” It took me years to fully grasp what this wonderful man had said to me.
As I researched and wrote, Our Father; Discovering Family, all these isolated events – a career in communication disorders, Sunday school teacher, life-long church and civic volunteer, deacon, writer and speaker, consultant – began to fit together. They revealed to me that God has been leading me step by step to discover meaning and mission in my life. There are no coincidences. God’s Word says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV) It also lead me to understand that the God I had been worshiping all of my life far exceeded anything that I could imagine or comprehend. Insights keep coming. It is an amazing journey.
An Excerpt from Our Father: Discovering Family
London and St. Paul’s Cathedral are light years away from Woodruff, South Carolina and Northside Baptist Church but each is an essential mile marker on a journey – a journey to discover a fuller understanding of who God really is and how I can be more like him. In the process God revealed a much broader plan for me. He wanted to open my eyes and mind to see who his children are. It is as if he is saying,” Mitch, you can’t understand me without knowing and loving my children, your sisters and brothers. I am the Father of all.” He is constantly reminding me that I am one of his children and that I belong to a family that is much larger, much more diverse, much more inclusive than I imagined at the start of my journey.
There are no shutouts in God’s family or as Dr. John Hamrick says, “People are not throw-aways.” We all belong. Just as my aunt tried to do 50 years ago, someone or some group is always trying to exclude some other group from God’s family for reasons of their own. It never works. You and I are members of the family. We are loved, but we are not the head of the family. That is the basis of all sin – wanting to take the place of God. God is the head of the family. He alone decides who is in and who is out. His greatest desire is that everyone should be a member of his family. My role as a member of the family is to invite others to join by living a life that is truly reflective of what being a child of God is all about. It is about inclusion, not exclusion. It is about love not hate. It is about accepting the invitation, “Come and learn of Me.”
March 1, 2016 is World Compliment Day. I am not certain how it happened to occur on the same day as Pig Day. Now I am an admirer of pigs. They are intelligent, clean and very tasty. Pigs are also very cute when they are young. There are wonderful books about pigs: The Three Little Pigs and my favorite, The Pig of Happiness. There is also, The True Story of Three Little Pigs as Told by the Wolf. I used this in my graduate classes to illustrate the concept of perception. My great niece sent me a good luck pig for Christmas. Perhaps the real significance of the two events being celebrated on the same day is this. If you can say nice things about pigs then it should not be too difficult to say nice things to or about other people. Keep this in mind. Remarks about physical attributes are off limits.
In fact, I have written two little books to help with this business of paying compliments: Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter and Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter at Work. They are both available as eBooks on Amazon.com.
While the Democratic and Republicans candidates for president were in South Carolina we were inundated with examples of the lack of civility. We had a gusher of poor examples. Only Governor Kasich and Senator Bernie Sanders stayed positive. Kasich stood head and shoulders above the rest in his refusal to add to the poisoned atmosphere.
World compliment day is a good day to say nice things to people. Perhaps compliment the servers at the deli where you go to get that wonderful ham sandwich.
EDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2016COLUMNS
Them and us?
This election year we seem obsessed with us against them; we just can’t agree on who “they” are or which “us” is us.
By Bill Leonard
Sometimes I think I’d love a good mystical vision, when God told me exactly what is right and wrong; how to believe and behave. Surely then I could sort out all the theological and ethical dilemmas of human existence. Yet I’m not sure I could handle such divine encounters like those experienced by Moses, Ezekiel and Daniel, or Sts. Paul, John, or Teresa of Avila. Having a vision is one thing; discerning its meaning quite another. Today, one person’s vision is another’s hallucination. Visions are scary; they can bring new insights or make us crazy.
These days I keep returning to the story of Simon Peter’s grand vision described in Acts chapter 11; when the fledgling church was trying to discern what it was and what it wasn’t. Maybe you need a good vision when you’re starting something new; or when you don’t know who you are; or when you can’t decide who is out and who is in.
Such a vision couldn’t hurt American Christianity, what with so much public “othering” of Muslims and Mexicans, gays and strays, socialists and tea-partiers, evangelical-fundamentalists and secular-humanists. This election year we seem obsessed with us against them; we just can’t agree on who “they” are or which “us” is us.
The earliest Christians were similarly afflicted. Acts 11:1 says: “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.” Apparently the genuine “believers” hadn’t counted on the possibility that the “Good News” would work on “those people.” Race, belief and biology were inseparable and controversial from the beginning.
So Simon Peter arrived in Jerusalem, and “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” The church of Jesus Christ is about 15 minutes old and the “believers” are fighting about race and ethnicity; orthodoxy and theology; sexuality and food. (Just try to tell me they weren’t Baptists!) Some unexpected people “accepted the word of God” and the “apostles and the [real] believers” aren’t sure they should let them into their new tribe, you know, the “body of Christ.” The earliest Christians had a vision of a new community but already they wanted to limit its boundaries.
So, Acts tells us, Simon Peter has to “explain it to them, step by step.” Some people see visions; the rest of us need step by step explanations. “I had this vision,” Peter says, “in a trance.” Already we academic-rationalist-types are dubious. We’re not big on trances.
A large sheet descends, with an irregular menagerie of “four-footed animals (remember the “cloven-hoof” animals?), beasts of prey (lions and tigers and bears?), reptiles (my serpent-handling friends love this vision!), and birds of the air (probably pigeons, they show up everywhere).
Suddenly the “Prince of Apostles” is told: “Get up Peter, kill and eat; satisfy your hunger with God’ gifts.” But Peter demurs: “By no means, Lord.” Dietary practices die hard, especially when linked to spirituality. (I’ve known vegans who would have said the same thing.) Then comes the lesson: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It took “three times” before “everything was pulled up again to heaven.” Peter finally caught on.
Immediately three men from Caesarea show up asking for help and Peter’s response seems more Pentecostal than Papal. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” At the intersection of grace and gospel, THERE IS NO THEM. “They” and “we” have become US!
This revelation, this vision, does not mean that there aren’t differences between human beings of multiple “tribes,” contexts, gender or race; it means there are no distinctions when it comes to grace.
Perhaps Peter’s realization that there is no “distinction between them and us” marks the real beginning of the Church. It doesn’t mean that we do not disagree; or that all our consciences meld into one. Nor does it require us to parrot the same liturgies, eating practices, dogmas, or social imperatives. It does not abolish differences of culture and context, gender and race. Rather, it means that we can’t let those things keep “us” or “them” from grace.
We’ve tried it before, remember? “If we evangelize the slaves, they may think they are as free as we are.” “If we abolish Jim Crow laws, they’ll want to marry OUR people.” “If women get ordained, we’ll all lose our place in the Divine scheme of things.” “If we eat with them, we might have to be friends,” thus Simon Peter opened the door to Gentile inclusion in the church. Paul, in turn, kicked it down, with that radical, yet unrealized assertion: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; slave or free, male or female.” In Christ all those “thems” became “us.”
Peter summed it up, “If God gave THEM the same gift God gave us — Jesus Christ — who was I to hinder God?” But Jesus said it better: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That’s a lot to ask of you and me; of them and us. But it’s who we ALL are, really, by grace.
Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University. He lectured at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina