Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Helping the Church Find a Voice

Baptists always have opinions. We like to say that a group of three Baptists will have at least four opinions on almost any subject. Our commitment to local church autonomy and the priesthood of the believer seems to give us the freedom to express our opinions. I am grateful for our heritage, but sometimes it seems we find it difficult to find our voice. While we love to share our thoughts and viewpoints, seldom do we take a stand on justice issues in our communities. Often there seems to be a disconnect between our faith community and the world around us.

Jesus made it a point to speak on behalf of the poor and the most vulnerable in his world. His calls for justice and compassion sometimes put him at odds with the religious establishment. The economic downturn in the world economy has caused many people and congregations to take note of the needs of those who are losing their homes or their jobs. The truth is thousands of people were struggling to survive in our communities long before the current economic crisis. Maybe the crisis has helped us pause and take note of the needs of those around us.

I believe the church needs to find a fresh voice today. We need to become advocates on behalf of those who seem to have no voice. Estimates indicate 729,000 Missourians have no health insurance. At least 150,000 of these are children. Obviously, the vast majority of these are the lowest income groups in our state. A recent study indicates almost 10 Missourians die each week for want of health care coverage. Church food panties and other social agencies are struggling to find enough food to feed the hungry. Hospitals providing emergency room care for the uninsured are losing millions of dollars every year and driving up costs for everyone. We have a health care and human need crisis.

What would Jesus say and do in response to these needs? I believe he would feed the hungry and care for the sick. I believe he would speak for justice and compassion. I believe he would speak to those in power in both the religious and political arenas. Our state legislature has voted down what would be a very modest allocation to provide health care to the most vulnerable children in our state. With what would be only a token amount in our state budget we could have responded to children in need and taken a step toward providing quality, affordable health care for all Missourians. This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue—it is a moral issue and an issue the church should address.

If the church does not stand up for those in need, who will? If the church does not call for compassion and justice, who will? I have visited with my legislators, and I have written to them encouraging them to find a way to work together to care for those in need. Our state seal says “let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.” The health care needs in our state are just one of many issues the church should speak to today. I hope you will help your church find a voice to speak for justice in your community.

(This article was written for the BGCM e-message. You may sign-up for the e-message here.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

A New Beginning for Baptists

The North American Baptist Fellowship began discussions with former President Jimmy Carter in 2007 regarding a gathering of the Baptist family from across North America. The New Baptist Covenant Celebration last year in Atlanta was the culmination of these discussions as thousands of Baptists from across denominational, racial, national and geographical boundaries came together for worship and dialogue. It was one of the best Baptist meetings I had ever attended. It was out of that experience that several of us began discussions about the possibility of a similar regional gathering for the Baptists of the Midwest. The result of these discussions that began almost a year ago was the Baptist Border Crossing.

I had the privilege of serving as co-chair for this historic gathering with Dr. Wallace S. Hartsfield, II, the pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City. His father, Dr. Wallace S. Hartsfield, Sr., Pastor Emeritus of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, was one of the driving forces behind the Summit. Estimates indicated that somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people participated in the Baptist Border Crossing Summit. The worship, preaching and breakout sessions were a wonderful beginning.

The Baptist Border Crossing was all about “beginnings.” It was about an opportunity for Baptists to begin to get to know each other. It was about individuals, churches, and denominations forging new relationships. It was about overcoming racial and social barriers to explore new partnerships with brothers and sisters in Christ. It was about Baptists discovering opportunities to collaborate for the sake of the Kingdom. One participant wrote me after the event to say, “As one who attended the new Baptist Covenant event in Atlanta, I had no expectation that we could do a Regional event that would match the Atlanta event in spirit and in quality; yet you accomplished it.”

As wonderful as the Summit was, I have much higher hopes for the follow-up on this historic gathering. What if during this year when we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the beginning of Baptist work, the Baptists of the Midwest made a commitment to a “new beginning?” What if we decided to cross all the borders that have historically kept Baptists apart—racial, denominational, geographical, social, economic, and cultural? What if we accepted the fact that everyone who claims our Savior as Lord is our brother and sister? What if we intentionally began building relationships across these borders and boundaries? What if churches made a commitment to partner with other churches to learn from each other and to more effectively impact their communities for Christ? What if we humbled ourselves to acknowledge that we need each other?

One of best parts of being involved in the planning for the Baptist Border Crossing was the opportunity to meet and work with Baptist brothers and sisters I would not otherwise have known. The process of planning the event allowed me to make some new friends and deepen my understanding of God’s Kingdom. It is my hope and prayer that the Baptist Border Crossing will be a new beginning for Baptists across Missouri and the Midwest.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Baptist Border Crossing Photos

Click the link below to check out the photos from the Baptist Border Crossing Summit.

Photos

Reflections on the Last Week

I am so grateful that many Baptists have begun to place more emphasis on Holy Week. There is so much to learn from the last week. The last week in the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ, traditionally begins with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is the celebration of Palm Sunday. When the people heard that Jesus was making his way from Bethany to Jerusalem they went out to meet him. They spread their garments and palm branches in the road. They shouted and cried out, Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:9-10)

Actually, it was not the last week of his life--he is alive today. But, it was the final week prior to his death on the cross and his resurrection. It was certainly the climactic week of his earthly life. So much happened during these brief days. So many important events. So many special moments. So many lessons still to be learned by his followers. Have you ever thought about how important that week was in the lives of the disciples? Some time after the death and resurrection of our Savior. Some time after the emotional highs and lows. Some time after they had had the opportunity to reflect upon everything that had happened. Some time later the gospel writers were led by the Spirit of God to begin to record the events of his life. There was so much to be written.

How do you capture his life on paper? What do you include? How do you decide what to leave out? Everything seemed so important now. Brief encounters that seemed unimportant at the time are so clear and vivid now. Late night meetings between the two of us when he answered my questions. John struggled with this difficulty. He says there were many other things that Jesus did--besides those he wrote about. He felt so over whelmed with the magnitude of the writing task. If everything were included the world would not be able to contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).

I believe that God led them in their writing and in their choosing. I also believe that God led them in a personal way. Each writer reflected from his own perspective as he recorded life changing words. Maybe God led them like he leads us. Maybe they wrote what they remembered most. Maybe they wrote about the things that impacted their lives most. Whatever the method of inspiration they wrote about the last week. Jesus lived approximately thirty-three years. That is more that 1700 weeks. The writers of the four gospels dedicated a great deal of their accounts to only one of those weeks. It was the last one.

By the present chapter and verse divisions the four gospels include 3779 verses comprising 89 chapters. The first thirty years of his life are recorded for us in only 208 verses. The background, announcements, and record of his birth are parts of only five chapters including John's unique approach to the beginning of his gospel. In addition to his birth these verses contain glimpses from his childhood and youth. Undoubtedly, Mary's memories furnished these sketchy outlines. The visits of the shepherds, the magi from the east, his circumcision, and the visit to Jerusalem at age twelve are briefly outlined.

The balance of the gospels is dedicated to the three years of his ministry. This is more than 3500 verses to record the significant events in the life and ministry of the Son of God. Only 3500 verses for more than 150 weeks. The amazing thing is that 1258 of these verses are dedicated to only one week. The last week.

More than one-third of the verses in all four gospels are committed to this week. Thirty-eight per cent of both Matthew's and John's gospels record the events of the last week. What an impact that week made upon their lives. What vivid and penetrating memories they must have had of the events of the last week.

The Christian church for centuries has celebrated the birth of our Savior. Advent celebrations have a significant and rightfully central place in the church calendar. However, there is no doubt that Easter is the crucial holiday in the Christian church. It is the event at the center of human history. It is the moment when sin and death were overwhelmed by redemption and life. When the gospel writers made their notes they wanted us to see Jesus as he approached the climactic events of his life. They wanted us to see him as he dealt with their unbelief, confusion and selfishness. (The gospels writers are so honest in dealing with their own sinful lives.) They wanted us to see how he struggled and found victory. They could not help but tell about this week--the last week--when their lives were transformed and redemption was born. They could not help but write about the events that formed the lessons of life. They learned so much about life and death during the last week. I hope we can, too.

Faith & Family Summit

Wallace S. Hartsfield, Sr. challenged those who attended the Baptist Border Crossing to attend the Faith & Family Summit which will be held at the State Capitol in Jefferson City on April 16th. I have met with the group planning this special event over the past few days. CCO clergy and congregations in Kansas City, led by Rev. Rayfield Burns, were compelled to act on the need to further fund children's health care through the federal and state match for CHIP (child health insurance program) expansion and to support coverage for low income working adults. The group has been working to Cover All Children with health insurance for two years now. At this point while it looks like adults will be covered, children have been cut out. A decision recently by the Senate appropriations committee closed out any new funding for children's health insurance.

As people of faith, we believe that looking out for the most vulnerable among us is a moral imperative. Children and low-income adults, as well as people with disabilities and seniors deserve our protection. As people of faith, we believe that budgets are moral documents that reflect our priorities and best intentions.

On April 16th, faith leaders from across the state are gathering at the state capitol in Jefferson City to address the legislature with our concerns, our experiences and our hope.

This day will consist of three parts. First, upon arrival at the capitol we will convene an Inter-religious Healthcare Roundtable Discussion from 10:30-Noon. Here religious leaders will discuss the future of healthcare for Missourians and how the faith community can be involved in shaping that future. Second, those who have traveled to Jefferson City will meet with legislators from 12:00pm to 1:00pm to share their healthcare concerns, as well as other social determinants of health care that are impacting the members of their community such as predatory lending, lack of health related transportation and keeping families together through stopping preventable foreclosures.

The day will be centered upon the last event of the day, which is the Faith and Families Rally in the 3rd Floor Rotunda beginning at 1pm to 2pm. We will hear reflections of faith and powerful testimonies of those dealing with healthcare situations. We will also provide an opportunity for elected officials to address the religious leaders and families present regarding how they will respond to the pressures affecting our children and low-income families.

I hope you will join me and others at the Faith & Family Summit on April 16th!

Baptist Border Crossing

I have not posted to my blog for several weeks because I was so involved in the final preparations for the Baptist Border Crossing Summit. The Summit was held April 2-4 at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty. The Summit was a grand experiment as we attempted to bring the Baptist family from the Midwest together for worship and dialogue. The impetus for the gathering was the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta last year. The Baptist Border Crossing Task Force has been working for about 10 months in preparation for the gathering. Rev. Dr. Wallace S. Hartsfield, II served with me as co-chair of our task force. His father, Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield, Sr., was a driving force behind the event.

The Baptist Border Crossing event was a wonderful blending of Baptist traditions. We should have been working on this type of event years ago. The process of working with the Border Crossing Task Force provided opportunities for me to build relationships with brothers and sisters I would not have known without this effort. Many of us are not going back to the way things were. I look forward to a new day in Baptist life, when all Baptists stand together on issues of justice and when we work together to share the message of Christ with our world. It was exciting to see American Baptists, General Baptists, National Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, and Southern Baptists coming together with those from the Baptist General Convention of Missouri to worship and to explore ways to extend Christ’s Kingdom. If you were not able to attend you may contact our convention office for a copy of the program (bettiejo@baptistgcm.org or (888) 420-2426 ext. 701). You may also want to watch the archived video of the worship sessions at the website.

I have been receiving e-mails from many people who attended the event. I have included some of their responses below:

I was privileged to attend all of the plenary sessions for the Baptist Border Crossing, and I was impressed with the fine planning, the high caliber speakers and the worship leaders, the smooth flow of the program, and the thoughtful presentation of the key themes of the weekend. As one who attended the New Baptist Covenant event in Atlanta, I had no expectation that we could do a Regional event that would match the Atlanta event in spirit and in quality; yet you accomplished it. Thank you. I commend the work of the planning committee. Job well done!

We...had a wonderful time at the BGCM Meeting, the Banquet and the Baptist Border Crossing. We greatly appreciate all the hard work...

I thought the Baptist Border Crossing event was outstanding. Thanks for all of your hard work making it happen.

GREAT job! It was good to be there and see so many friends.

Thank you for your leadership in making Baptist Border Crossing happen. It was the best meeting I have attended in years. We had 18 from our church in attendance and they all were very excited about they experienced.

I want to express my appreciation to you and all the others who worked so diligently and sacrificially to make the Baptist Border Crossing Summit such a wonderful experience.

I hope you are feeling good about the time and energy you put into the recent Border Crossing event. ...We had 18-20 people attend. Most of them also came to the BGCM meeting before and the banquet, too. ...Many of them were talking last night at church about how great the meeting was. It had a tremendous impact on folks and will lead to increased cross-lines cooperation in Springfield.

I am so grateful for all those who worked to make the Baptist Border Crossing Summit possible. It is my hope and prayer that God will take this beginning and use it to bring the our Baptist family together in a way we have never experienced.