In Praise of Southern Baptists, Part One (Bet Some of You Never Thought I’d Use THAT Headline)

Cemetery and Church

Photo by Keichwa, Creative Commons

I grew up Southern Baptist, and am currently an active member in good standing of a Southern Baptist Church. And I criticize the denomination from time to time. But today I want to praise them for something they do well:

Funerals

I bet I know what you’re thinking:

  1. This is a morbid topic for the day after Christmas
  2. Aren’t Baptists the ones who always feel the need to have an invitation and altar call at funerals?
  3. Don’t liturgical denominations have more meaningful, beautiful rituals?

Maybe it is a little morbid, but it’s what I’m writing about today. 🙂

As for the altar calls, as crass as it seems sometimes, it makes sense given the strong belief in the need for a conversion experience. On the one hand, it can be offensive, but on the other hand many people grieve without hope, and may find hope and life transformation in an encounter with God.

It’s hard to fault a preacher for trying to provide an avenue to such an encounter. The methods are sometimes heavy-handed, and that’s worthy of criticism, but the motive and the action itself is good.

As for the service itself, I’m not sure. I haven’t been to that many liturgical funerals. But I’m really not talking about the “official funeral” where the preacher or other officiant says a few words and someone sings a song or two. I’m talking about the time before and after.

Baptists live by one maxim, if no other: nobody should have to cook and grieve at the same time.

Food pours in: casseroles, chicken, roasts, salads, vegetables, desserts, enough to last at least a week. And it keeps coming, so that when the first batch is eaten or gone stale, a second wave arrives.

The entire extended family is brought into the church and fed by the church members either before or after the funeral.  This gives them a collective time to grieve and visit.

Too often in our globalized, far-flung society, funerals are the only times we get the whole family together. That time needs to be spent together, not making arrangements for food.

This sounds trivial. But as someone who’s been on both sides of it, I can tell you it is not. It is a powerful part of the healing process, and one that I’ve taken for granted for a long time.

I used to think it was universal, but it has recently come to my attention that it is not. And that blew my mind. You mean other groups, other churches don’t do this? It seems so basic.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re certainly not the only ones that do this. The Jewish tradition of Shiva is similar, though perhaps less informal. Lots of other churches and groups do the same, with varying degrees of formality.

But not everyone. Not every church member in every church in the world or even America gets this kind of treatment. Not every church community pulls together and spends not only its money but its time to aid the grieving process.

And so I want to praise the denomination that takes care of its grieving so well and so consistently that I assumed everyone did it.

Dies Irae (Compassion and the Wrath of God)

I’ve always had a problem conceptualizing God’s anger. I always sort of saw it as in conflict with His love and compassion. The “Dies Irae” and “Kyrie Eleison” never seemed to match that well.

Similarly, I always had trouble with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. It always seemed like an artificial differentiation between Jesus and God the Father, with Jesus saving us from God.

But this morning in church, some things I’d been reading and something the preacher said sort of clicked.

I’d been picturing God’s wrath all wrong, because I’d been thinking of it like mortal anger. Let me explain.

Humans get mean, careless, and stupid when we get angry. We break things, we hurt people (physically or emotionally), we say things we can’t take back. We lash out.

But God isn’t mortal. He isn’t fallen, flawed, or stupid. He isn’t a slave to his upbringing, His adrenaline, His sin.

His wrath isn’t like our anger. When we get angry, we lash out. But what happened when sin kindled God’s wrath and created a separation between us and God? What was God’s plan? What was God’s reaction?

He came to earth, to walk among us, to suffer and die for us.

What is the outcome of God’s wrath?

Compassion.

Incarnation.

Salvation.

Christmas.

Suddenly, “Kyrie Eleison” seems like a perfectly companion for “Dies Irae.”

When sin kindled God’s wrath and created a separation between Him and His beloved creations, He found a way back. He made a way back for us.

Even though it cost Him pain, sadness, death, and – worst of all – even though He had to experience our sin first hand. Of all the tortures Jesus suffered, enduring the flood of evil done by humanity throughout history must have been the worst.

Even with all that, God made a way.

That’s love, and compassion, and wrath, all working to bring His loved ones home.

That’s God.

Merry Christmas.

The End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)

 

This is it: the day the Mayan Calendar “runs out,” and the “age ends.” Some people say it’s the end of the world. Of course, some people said the world was going to end last year (link). Others said [Late Great Planet Earth’s prediction]. Of course, a lot of people thought the wheels would come off one New Year’s Day, 2000, including Prince:

Some survivalists have been holding onto the belief that TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) is “just around the corner” since the Carter Administration. I know, I actually have a couple of late 70’s survivalist manuals. They’re entertaining reading, if dated and a little bit creepy.

Okay, a lot creepy.

But the real question is why? Why are we so quick to jump on every apocalyptic bandwagon? Why did we love Mad Max, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Waterworld, and Left Behind so much? Okay, “love” may be a little strong for the last two, but still. Why are we so fascinated by the end of it all?

Why do we spend so much time poring over The Revelation to the Apostle John, mostly ignoring the pertinent letters to the seven churches and instead trying to suss out every scrap of meaning about horned dragons, the mark of the beast, and who might be the antichrist (pretty sure it’s not Barrack Obama. He’s just a garden-variety militaristic corporate puppet, though admittedly one with a penchant for bombing civilians).

I’ve read a lot of “prepper” materials, and a common thread I detected was a deep dissatisfaction with the current world, and a desperate hope that a rebuild world might turn out better. If that sounds paranoid or even insane, just think about what goes on every day.

The poor of the world still struggle with starvation, disease, and water so contaminated it can kill. Predator Drones still sweep the sky in Pakistan and Yemen, killing men women and children in our name. Children die by the thousands, too far away for us to care.

Here in the first world, an entire generation struggles with massive college debt, delaying marriage, home ownership, and starting their adult lives.

The Internet brings easy access to knowledge and far-flung friends, but also puts sexual predators and hardcore pornography within easy reach of our children and ourselves.

Factory farming exhausts the soil and treats living animals with cruelty and contempt.

The rich get richer.

The middle class sees no real gains from increased productivity.

Life is hard.

 

We should all want something better. It is a godly part of us that calls out for something better. And I believe that, in time, Jesus will return and bring a new Earth, a new creation where evil has no place. But I don’t pretend I can know the day or the time. And I can’t cover my eyes and wait for it to come.

So push aside this talk of Armageddon. Hug your family. Call your friends. Give your time and money to someone in need. Extend the hand of friendship to someone who’s lonely. You’ll be glad you did, whether the world ends tonight or not.

And just in case it does, I’ll leave you with one last thing. It may be my last chance to do this.

Coming up on Christmas…

So much sadness, so much to do.

Building a nursery, welcoming a new life into this world

Saying goodbye to so many children I never knew

So much sadness, so many questions

Why?

Why did they have to die?

Why do I mourn them so?

Why do I mourn them so much more

Than the ones who die everyday,

Killed in my name by Predator Drones,

Weakened by hunger, claimed by disease,

Poisoned by foul water and dysentery?

Why?

And how do I move on, knowing it could be my daughter someday?

How do I wrap presents and decorate the tree?

How do I cook and eat and feast?

How do I put it all behind me and laugh and love and share?

Should I even want to?

Sometimes I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

Things I DON’T Repent Of

Communion Wine

I’ve been doing a lot of repenting lately, for my own past sins and the corporate sins I was a part of. And I make no apologies for giving those apologies. But I want to be clear on a few things I am not sorry for:

I don’t repent of believing in Jesus as the living, crucified, resurrected Word of God, begotten not made, who is with God and is God, through whom all things are made.

I don’t repent of believing that the Bible is the divinely inspired written word of God. Breathed by God, written by humans, profitable for study and meditation and growth.

I don’t repent of believing in prayer. I don’t know how or even if our prayers change God’s mind, but I know that praying changes me. That’s all I need to know.

I don’t repent in believing in the priesthood of the believer, believer’s baptism, sin, redemption, the Apostle’s Creed, and a God who is both just and merciful.

I don’t repent of my libertarian belief in civil rights and individual freedom. I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me (right around the time when it embraced torture and indefinite detention without trial).

I don’t repent of my generally conservative/libertarian-ish political ideals. I’m no longer convinced of even the potential adequacy of private charity to replace governmental welfare programs, so I’m not really a true libertarian anymore. And I tend to think that our problem may be less the size of our government and more the corruption and cronyism within it. But I still generally believe that a lean, well-run government is better.

I don’t repent of criticizing President Obama for his indiscriminate use of drone strikes in nations we are not at war with. Predator drone strike he authorized have killed over 1,500 civilians, over 170 children.

And I don’t plan to stop challenging the narrative that he is some kind of compassionate, righteous leader who “cares” about children and strives for peace. He has as much or more blood on his hands than President Bush, and I do not intend to let that go unspoken.

I don’t repent of sharing community with people whose beliefs don’t line up perfectly with mine, either politically or spiritually. If I stopped, how would I ever learn?

I don’t repent of the churches I’ve been a part of, where I’ve had friendships (we call them “church family”) with both the very young and the very old, and everyone in between.

(One dear lady in our church remembers teaching elementary school in 1934. She told me a story from then: when Bonnie and Clyde were killed, the police brought the wreck of their car around so the children could see it. Something that seemed like ancient history to me was an adult memory to her. Where else would I find that?).

I don’t repent of criticizing evangelicalism from the inside. That’s where I am. I’m not an ex-evangelical, a former evangelical, or a recovering evangelical. I am an evangelical Christian with deep concerns that weigh heavily on my conscience and my heart. And I will speak them from within.

Taking a Social Media Break

I’m going to take a few days away from blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. I may post here, but I won’t be getting into too many conversations.

There’s just too much that makes me hurt and angry, too much that drives me insane and makes me want to scream.

Too many self-righteous rants. Too many Jesus Jukes. Too many people scoring rhetorical points for their side without ANY respect for facts, actual crime figures, or giving the families time to grieve.

Far too many people gushing over President Obama’s show of emotion over these children and ignoring the 170+ children he’s killed via drone strikes. One rant described George W. Bush as a serial killer of children, but said nothing but good things about Obama. Really?

Far, far too many people spewing vengeful, bloodthirsty theological explanations ranging from prayer in schools to the ever-popular John Piper explanation, God is perfectly justified to kill anyone he wants at any time and if we object it’s just because we’re too depraved to understand God’s holiness (which happens to look just like sadism, but that’s only because we’re too evil to understand the difference).

And time after time I struggle to stay out of it. And time after time I fail. I’ve had it. I’m stepping back from this puke-storm until the bile settles down.

I think I’ll leave with something funny, if slightly gross.

Second Sin: Worshiping My Own Efforts (Repenting in Sackcloth and Ashes, Part 2)

Lazarus and the Rich Man by Bonifacio de Pitati, c. 1504s

Lazarus and the Rich Man by Bonifacio de Pitati, c. 1504s

Lord, I come before you now to repent of the sins I have participated in, specifically the corporate sins of American Evangelicalism. Forgive us, for we have desecrated your name in the eyes of the world. Forgive us, for we have made a mockery of your salvation.

Those outside our faith say we are immoral, and, Lord forgive us, they are often right.

I come before you again to repent of my sins. Today, I repent of worshiping the works of my own hands. Not idols of gold and silver, but my own efforts, my own achievements.

I repent of every stereotypical word I’ve said about the poor, of complaining about people who aren’t disabled, but who don’t work, live on welfare, etc., etc.

Like almost everyone else who says those things, I was raised in a very solid family, went to decent schools, and was instilled with a work ethic and a sense of hope from a young age.

I was not raised in a tenement, with extended family shoved into a small house or apartment, with “father figures” coming and going.

I was not raised by people with no job skills, no understanding of how credit or money worked, and no understanding of the basic etiquette and work ethic required to succeed in any job.

I was not raised in a crime zone, where murders, drug raids, and beatings were a regular part of life.

I was not schooled in a failing, de facto segregated school with a culture that lionized teen pregnancy and demonized academic achievement.

The American dream worked for me, and I thought, cruelly and stupidly, that it worked for everyone else who wasn’t lazy or crooked.

I repent that I ever said or even thought to complain about my taxes going to these “leeches.”

I repent of every time I offered up private charity as an option, and then failed to give sacrificially to actually help the poor.  As a symbol of my penitence, I’m giving $500 of my personal spending money to World Vision (and trying to raise some additional money by matching donations).

I repent of tithing to churches that put 95% of their offerings toward administrative expenses, new high-tech buildings, or worse,  investments, so they can trust their savings accounts instead of trusting God to provide.

I doubly repent of tithing to those churches and then thinking I’d done enough.

I repent of ever thinking I was worth more than any life on this planet.

I repent of ever thinking I own any of my accomplishments. Had I been born in Biafra or Cambodia in 1975, would I be here now? Had I been born in Ethiopia or Somalia in 1975, would I be here now? Had I been born to a fourteen year old single mother, whose own mother had not yet turned thirty, just down the road from where I was born in Mississippi, would I be here now?

God forbid I ever boast. God forbid any of us ever boast.