Aren’t you tired of being mean?

IMG_5860August 27, 2017, marked an action of sacred change among the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. I was proud of the church I have recently become a part of, not only because of our adoption of a policy that ensures the full acceptance of LGBTQ parsons, but also because of the thoughtful and intentional process that resulted in the decision for inclusion, acceptance, unity, justice and love.

The church leadership spent a great deal of time and energy in a discerning process that led to this recommendation:

“The Church Council and Board of Deacons of the First Baptist Church of Christ support the full inclusion in the life of the church of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In light of this statement, the Church Council and Board of Deacons recommend thar full inclusion encompasses same-sex marriage in our church facilities.”

The leadership then planned a series of congregational meetings so that every member felt respected and heard. I was present at two of three community meetings that included review of Scripture, open dialogue, listening to one another, respecting diverse views, eating together, singing and praying. Following those meetings, the motion was brought to the church in business conference. The motion passed with 73% of the congregation voting to approve. An amazing phenomenon for a Georgia Baptist church!

I could not help but think that this result was much more than a single vote. It was inclusion and acceptance. It was a proclamation of justice and unity among people of faith. It was a community of God’s people seeking to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another.

This week I read about the creation of a newly penned doctrinal statement in which a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders laid out their beliefs on human sexuality, including opposition to same-sex marriage andย fluid gender identity.

The signers of the Nashville Statement say that it is theirย response to an โ€œincreasingly post-Christian, Western culture that thinks it can change God’s design for humans.โ€ย Since it wasย released Tuesday morning, the Nashville Statement has received praise for its clarity. It has also been denouncedย as very hurtful and harmful to LGBTQ people.

I read the Preamble and pondered each of the fourteen Articles of the statement. With sadness, I looked through the list of hundreds of signers, finding the names of leaders from all of our original Southern Baptist seminaries. I remembered the loss of our seminaries and the painful times that our beloved seminary professors endured. Most of all, I cringed at the statementโ€™s language. I thought about my many LGBTQ friends and recalled their Christian faith. And I was very troubled, frightened by the many ways that hate can flourish in our world.

I then read an article in response to the Nashville Statement by my long time friend, Nancy Hastings Sehested, published in the latest edition of prayer and politiks.org. I can come up with no words that are as fully Christian as Nancyโ€™s thoughts in this insightful article. I print it here in its entirety.

Tired of Being Mean: A Response to the “Nashville Statement”

It was the last night of Vacation Bible School at the Sweet Fellowship Baptist Church. All week our five year olds rehearsed the story of Pharaoh and Moses to dramatize for their parents. All four boys wanted to be mean โ€˜ole Pharaoh.

With the church pews filled with family, the performance commenced. Our wee Pharaoh sat on his throne holding his plastic sword. Then little Moses walked up to him with his shepherdโ€™s crook and said, โ€œPharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go.โ€

Our Pharaoh wielded his sword in the air and said, โ€œNever, never, never!โ€

Moses walked away and then returned with the same words. โ€œPharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go!โ€

Pharaoh said nothing. I thought heโ€™d forgotten his lines. I scooted toward him and whispered, โ€œSay โ€˜Never, Never, Neverโ€™.โ€

Nothing.

Then our little Pharaoh jumped down from his throne, threw down his sword and said, โ€œIโ€™m tired of being mean. I donโ€™t want to be mean anymore!โ€

Imagine meanness in the world ending due to fatigue.

It seems that we are simply not tired enough. But surely we are close to exhaustion sorting out who needs our meanness now. Just flipping through the Bible to find which people to hate is draining. These days itโ€™s hard to find a Midianite to kill. Stoning incorrigible teenagers to death in the town square could leave few maturing into adulthood. Abominating people who are โ€œsowers of discordโ€ or have โ€œhaughty eyesโ€ could unleash a bloodbath in our churches.

Arenโ€™t we worn out yet from using the Bible as a bully stick for meanness?

The “Nashville Statement” is a clear indication that some religious Pharaohs are not tired of wielding their sword of hatred. But the rest of us are tired of one more abusive word against gay, lesbian and transgendered people in the name of religion. Whoโ€™s next? Women ministers? Oh, wait. Thatโ€™s a mean streak that started decades ago.

Signers of the statement, here is a word to you: Donโ€™t you have something better to do? Feed the hungry? Visit the prisoners? Shelter the homeless from the hurricane? Give the thirsty some clean drinking water? Stop mad men from starting a nuclear war? If you are afraid of the world changing too fast or becoming too complex for you, then say, โ€œIโ€™m afraid.โ€ Then be assured that God is with you in this changing world. But donโ€™t use your own selective Bible verses to hurt beloved people of God. Weโ€™re tired of your meanness. God is too.


– Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested

Co-Pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina

August 31, 2017

 

My final words for this dayโ€™s blog post are simple:

Amen.

Thank you, Nancy.

May God bless the extravagant love shown by Maconโ€™s First Baptist Church of Christ.

And may we all grow tired of being mean!

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Pete and Peter

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Impulsive, spunky, fiery, colorful Pete. RIP.

My youngest brother, Pete, was taken from us too early. Cancer ravaged his body, but could never damage his indomitable, spunky spirit. Pete was spirited, colorful and full of life, fiery in one moment, gentle in the next. He was funny. He was fiercely loyal. And he loved lavishly.

I could easily compare Pete to his namesake, the disciple Peter. You know the one, the disciple who kept putting his foot in his mouth, who tried to walk on a lake and began to sink because of a faith too small. He was the disciple who betrayed Jesus three times and in the end, in the very last verse of the 22nd Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verse 62 ends the pain-filled story with these words: โ€œAnd he went out and wept bitterly.โ€

You see, in spite of his mistakes, his denials, his impulsive behavior, Disciple Peter loved Jesus deeply. And my baby brother was a bit like this flawed disciple. Pete was often impulsive, volatile, frequently unreasonable, quick-tempered. Yet, he was full of love that opens its arms to protect with extravagant caring.

So for the 29th of June, St. Peter’s Day, I remember the impulsive disciple who, for all his mistakes, learned how to hold on to his better self, to recover from wrong turns in his life, and to make peace with his wavering self. Jesus called this seemingly undisciplined man โ€œthe rock.โ€ I suspect Jesus chose that name because he saw that Peter knew how to live again, standing strong against his own demons and ultimately learning that any betrayal, every betrayal, can miraculously be restored by love.

My brother Peteโ€™s life, also filled of rough roads and wrong turns, taught him the same lesson: that love restored him to himself, to his estranged family, to the sister that had been lost to him for years. Love did that. And love is what keeps Pete close, even in death.

Poet Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful piece entitled โ€œA Sonnet for Petertide.โ€

Impulsive master of misunderstanding
You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove
That each denial is undone by love.

Thank you for your life, Disciple Peter. You give us hope that we can overcome our imperfect actions, make it through dusty roads covered with the boulders of our mistakes, and find love at the end.

And as for my baby brother, Pete, I will always remember your ornery ways, your explosive temper, your intense loyalty and your lavish love.

Happy Name Day, sweet little brother. I miss you.

The Balm for Our Heartbreak

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We do not anticipate much to happen on Holy Monday. It is a Monday, after all, not a great time for hope and expectation. It’s more a time for heartbreak. For on this Holy Monday, we need a reminder that God’s love is ever-present with us.

Mary has prepared Jesusโ€™ body for burial, for death, and we know all too well where the road to Jerusalem leads. We know thatย the hosannas have fallen silent. We know that the high ranking officials are meeting secretly to plan for the death of Jesus. We know that Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him.

We know that what comes next will break our hearts. But broken hearts are not so bad. At least that’s what Glennon Doyle Melton says.

I have learned that when I run from heartbreak, from pain, I bypass transformation — like a caterpillar constantly jumping out of its cocoon right before it was about to become a butterfly.

Pain knocks on everyone’s door. It we are wise we will greet it and say, “Come in, sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.”

She tells us to ask ourselves what breaks our hearts. And then she explains that the heart, like every other muscle, has to be worked, even ripped apart. That’s how it grows stronger. So instead of shrinking back from our heartbreak and finding ways to disconnect from our suffering, perhaps we should run right into the painful middle of it.

Heartbreak in our lives, like heartbreak on Holy Monday, is very real. That’s why the words of the Psalmist sing so loudly inย our hearts, bringing us hope and love and light.

Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the great mountains;
Your judgments are a great deep;

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.

They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.

For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.

— Psalm 36: 5-9

God’s love is the balm for our heartbreak — today, tomorrow and forever.

Love Rising

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Bishop Steven Charleston uses the wonderful phrase “love rising” and writes that “love is rising all around us” It’s a comforting thought that love can rise around us and in us to push out fear and grief and anger and malice. I have a notion that for that to happen in us, we must allow it. We must be open to letting go of all the negative stuff within us and allow the love to rise.

It’s possible, to be sure. We have heard the profound, but simple, Scripture “perfect love casts out fear.” And it always gives us hope for better days and for a kinder, more loving heart.

I leave you today with the words of Bishop Charleston.

Love is rising all around us, if we open the eyes of the spirit to see, rising all around, from so many who have not given up, from so many who hope and who believe, the witness of quiet hearts, the faithful family from every creed and culture, every tradition and community, rising up, pushing back fear, overcoming suspicion, finding new answers, trying new ideas, turning love into action, letting it rise up from broken cities and troubled towns, letting it rise up for all of us, not for the few, but for all of us, love, rising up all around, rising up in you and in me and in all of us.

May love rise up in you and around you this day.

Love in Action

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A high school teacher battling cancer looked out of his bedroom window and saw 400 students and faculty worshiping outside his window. They surprised their terminally ill teacher by showing up on his street and serenading him with hymns.

Ben Ellis, who taught at the Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville before his illness, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last December. After a devastating medical report last week, he and his family decided to cease treatment.

Mr Ellis said that what the students did was “beautiful and unforgettable. It overwhelmed me that God would fill that many students with that much love. In that moment I felt that I was not alone.”

The lesson for us is about giving ourselves, selflessly and lavishly, to those who need an act of love. May God enliven us to put our love in action.

My Weight in Their Hands

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I worshipped at my home church yesterday. What a blessing it was to be with the people that prayed and nursed me through the most serious days of my illness! In many ways, they played a role in my eventual return to health. And it is such a blessing to know that they will also pray me through my eventual kidney transplant.

They are what Christ’s Community is all about. New Millennium Church became a true faith community for me during my darkest days. They prayed. They brought meals. They stayed in close touch. They believed in my healing. They were as Toni Morrison describes in this passage:

“They encouraged you to put some of your weight in their hands and soon as you felt how light and lovely it was, they studied your scars and tribulations…โ€
โ€• Toni Morrison, Beloved

And so, with my weight in their hands, I began to get myself back, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They were, for me, the reality of miracle. Today, I am healthy enough to be considered a candidate for a kidney transplant. Through that process, I know that New Millennium will pray.

“I give thanks to God upon every remembrance of you.” – Philippians 1:1

Immeasurably More

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My life is immeasurably more than I ever imagined. Yes, I have a serious illness. Yes, retirement income is dismal. Yes, making ends meet is difficult. Yes, waiting on a kidney transplant is challenging. Yet the blessings that I receive from God every day that I live is immeasurably more than I deserve.

I often think of the scripture that talks about Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith. It is part of a beautiful passage in the third chapter of Ephesians. I am constantly amazed that Christ dwells in my heart through faith. It is a miracle of God that enables Christ to dwell in my heart, to be literally inside me, to make all the difference in my life. That profound thought leaves me without words of my own. Instead, I leave you with the rest of the passage in Ephesians:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lordโ€™s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledgeโ€”that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. – Ephesians 3:17-21

Home of My Heart

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I’m on the road today! And I’m celebrating going back home to Little Rock to see friends, church family, and my child and grandchildren. I haven’t seen them in over a year. I have not seen my youngest grandson at all. He turns one today, so if all goes well on the journey, I’ll see him on his birthday.

Home is now far away for me, ten hours by car. My new home is nice enough, and we have made a “sort-of” home here. But Little Rock is the home of my heart, a place that was difficult to leave behind.

I can not help but think of Naomi’s story of leaving home in the first chapter of the book of Ruth.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

It must have been traumatic to leave home for her, and when her husband and sons died, she must have languished terribly. The story goes on to tell us that Naomi survived and built a new home.

That’s what we do. We build home wherever we go. We put our heart into every new place, and eventually the heart makes it home. I will do that in Macon. I have already made some progress. I have a dear and loving family here, and we so enjoy one another. But for today, I am celebrating going back home! To the place of my heart! To the people of my heart!

Love Has the Last Word

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My last blog post spoke of being unable to escape adversity. And it is true that we will not get through this life without adversity, no matter how hard we try. The path we walk is steep and winding, leading us forward through all sorts of dangers, toils and snares. The road can be frightening. It can be challenging.

We navigate in a world that is sometimes filled with terror and hate. But the best news for us comes from Bishop Steven Charleston.

The final word to our lives will not be terror or hate. Even if they seem overwhelming now, they will not define us or control us. Other forces are at work, deep forces that move silently among us, drawing us closer against the storm. Whenever human beings face disaster together, whatever that peril may be, our ancient instinct for compassion rises up to unite us in common cause. We do not shatter beneath the blows. We only grow stronger. No, fear and hate will never have the last word. Love will.

There is no better news than that!

I love the hymn Amazing Love. How Can it Be. The words of the fourth stanza give me new and fresh hope.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and natureโ€™s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?

Love has the last word.

Healed of Sad Memory

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The anniversary of my brother’s death was in late March. I did not allow myself to emotionally mark the actual date, and that was probably a mistake. The loss has hovered over me since the day I chose to largely ignore it. And there is a cloud of sadness over my head. Pete was our baby brother, and he certainly did not leave us in the right order. He was the youngest, so he should have outlived his two older siblings. But that was the thing about Pete. He didn’t follow rules and expected practices.

I survived his death emotionally. My brother and my cousin also survived it. His young wife and his two beautiful daughters did too. But there was a special kind of love that made it possible to survive. Pete loved lavishly and graciously. It is that kind of love that still watches over us and heals us of the sad memory. It is God’s love that carries us beyond the sadness and brings us into the light of hope. The words of Steven Charleston describe it perfectly.

What gracious love is this, that watches over us without ceasing, that allows for our frailty, that lifts us up when we have stumbled, never wavering in hope for us, never despairing at our shortcomings, but believing in us, defending us, calling forth our better nature, until we are healed of sad memory, restored to live in the fullness of our life, set free from the snares of what can harm us, to be who we were made to be, long ago, by this same gracious heart, the one that formed us before the first dawn, and that will carry us safely beyond the golden light.

This blog post is for Pete, and is dedicated to Shelli, Kristen and Kaitlyn.