Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Preaching and the Lilly Endowment

[third in a series]

The Lilly Endowment is one of the largest, wealthiest private foundations in the United States. Last year, they awarded $333 million in grants.

The endowment supports community projects—but only in the state of Indiana; they support education—but only in the state of Indiana; and they support religion—all over the country.

Which is how and why I found myself engaged with the Endowment while on the faculty of Georgetown College. There I administered a $2 million grant as part of their “theological exploration of vocation” initiative. Georgetown was one of 88 schools in this grant program.

But when I grew restless at Georgetown and sought a new direction for my ministry, it was the Endowment that opened a way forward. In an unplanned and unprepared way, I described for them an idea that had been running around in the back of my head for two years—a national network of young people who aspire to be preachers of the gospel.

I called it The Academy of Preachers.

“What can we do to make this happen?” one of their staff asked and I did not have my wits about me even to speak the most basic form of request. When I stumbled he said, “Why don’t we give you a grant and let you do it?”

So I spent a good part of my summer writing a grant proposal. I turned it in on September 1st and on November 13th I received a call from the Endowment to inform me the proposal had been approved and on December 1, 2008, I could formally and officially begin my work with the Academy.

Of course, I could not wait, and had not waited. Throughout the fall, I have been traveling around the region targeted for the 18-month pilot project: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evansville, and Nashville, and all the territory within a 150-mile radius of Louisville. There are 60 private, mostly church-related institutions of higher learning: bible colleges, liberal arts colleges, universities, seminaries—such as Simons Bible College in Louisville, Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Butler University in Indianapolis, and St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

I am recruiting 15-18 young people, students in high school, college, university, or seminary who will serve on a Young Preachers Leadership Team. To day, 11 have signed on, from eleven different schools in three of the four target states. The first week of December I am heading back to Ohio and Indiana to continue the task. We will gather for a retreat in January, convene for a week-long Preaching Camp in June, and host the first Festival of Young Preachers, in Louisville, in January of 2010.

My partner is this is the St. Matthews Baptist Church of Louisville. The Endowment does not give to individuals but to institutions, mostly. So we have collaborated on this vision and what a vision it is: inspiring young people in their call to gospel preaching.

I will keep you posted on how things develop.

China and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Our local paper carried a story over the weekend describing how China enforces its strict family-planning policies. Hundreds of mothers heavy with child are forced into hospitals for late-term abortions. Chinese authorities frame their justification for such brutality in terms of the wider social good—an effort to control population growth; population size, they contend, impacts basic quality of life, including availability of food, shelter and work.

But the matter once again brings attention to China as a major violator of basic human rights. Jane Deren, Senior Advisor to the Roman Catholic Center for Concern in Washington, D.C., listed twenty areas in which China fails to measure up to basic human rights.

On December 10, the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the most important document of the twentieth century: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 brief articles, this 1772-word document sets forth the moral consensus of the post-war community of nations. Increasingly, the document functions to establish a behavioral norm by which governmental action is judged.

The Declaration was frequently quoted before, during, and after the games of the 29th Olympiad held in Beijing. Human rights activists widely protested the 2001 decision to allow China to host the games. But, as is often the case, money trumps morality; China is the fastest growing economy in the world, an important trade partner with all industrialized countries. An estimated $42 billion dollars was spent on the 2008 Olympics

Working conditions are high on the list human rights concerns in China. The Declaration sets forth the ideal in article 32, which says, in part: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment… to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity… the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The Declaration also declares that everyone, including the citizens of China, “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to change his religion or belief, and …to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Christians, especially, have been denied this right and there is widespread repression of both political and religious freedoms common in most places in the world.

While the Olympics brought increased media attention to these abuses, so also will the thousands of students who are flocking to China. Of the 241,791 Americans who studied abroad in 2006-7, more than 11,000 were in China, a one thousand percent increase from one decade ago. Many of these students will stumble upon occasions of human rights abuses; some will become grass-roots reporters in the campaign to hold China responsible for its manifold indifference to basic rights.

None of these will be more tragic, more traumatic that forcing mothers to abort their children. Decisions about marriage and family are fundamental to human rights, as the Declaration states: “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and to found a family….The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

China has a long way to go—economically, politically, and morally—before it is able to celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Homosexuality: Voters versus Judges

On November 4, voters in California approved a measure that limits marriage to heterosexuals. This trumped a ruling of their state Supreme Court which granted homosexuals the right to marry. This sets up a confrontation between the voting booth and the judicial chamber. Who has the right to decide?

As I think about this situation I meditate on the 1963 decision by the United States Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the reading of the Bible and the saying of prayers in public schools. This decision was, in my judgment, the correct one. Even though Christians are the majority in this country, we live in a religion-neutral state, one that is commissioned to defend the rights of the minorities—especially religious minorities—when they are overwhelmed by the preferences of the majorities.

Baptists especially have been sensitive to this. For most of our 400 year history we have existed on the margins of the Christian world; for most places in the world this is still true. This experience has made us strong advocates of religious freedom and minority rights.

Only in the American South have Baptists risen to cultural power and social prominence. In that sense, the Baptist experience in the American South has been a test of our convictions. Are we still defending the rights of the minority? Or are we demanding our privileges as the majority?

Had the matter of prayer in public schools been put to a ballot vote in the United States in 1963 no one can doubt that the people would have rejected the Supreme Court and reaffirmed the role of prayer in the classroom. Certainly this would have been true for the South, among Baptists especially.

The same could be asserted for the year 1954 concerning the integration of public schools and also for the year 1973 when the issue was abortion. Other examples could be cited but these suffice to make my point: a popular vote is not the best interpreter of the constitution, not the best gauge of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and not the best indicator of what is best for our nation. In fact, we elect representatives and install judges to think through these things rationally, morally, and legally, and do so in a way free of mass hysteria and popular prejudice.

Twenty years ago a popular vote would no doubt have barred homosexuals from equal access to housing and employment. There are many examples of this prejudice against demographic groups, including those with disabilities. Judges and legislators pulled us into a more just and open society, and most of us recognize the righteousness of these difficult transitions.

A ballot vote by the majority is never the safest way to guard the rights of the minority; that is true for religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. We are seeing this played out again on the issue of homosexuality in California. I for one will not be surprised if the Supreme Court in California—dominated by Republicans—takes a stand against the popular vote and reasserts what they see as a matter of equal treatment before the law.

Red Church, Blue Church

For many years Sunday morning has been the most segregated hour in America: blacks in one church and whites in another. While the gospel vision of humanity devalues such division of God’s people into this color or that, there is a redemptive element in this fallen situation: namely, that the black church has sustained it distinctive culture and practices and has done so in a way to bless the entire human community.

But in recent years a political segregation has made its way into the church of Jesus Christ. On one corner is the Blue Church, full of people who are voting a straight Democratic ticket; on the other corner is the Red Church, crowded with people who punch the Republican bottom. People in blue churches cannot understand how Christians can vote red; likewise those in red churches swear that Jesus himself would vote only a red ballot.

The division of the country into blue and red has made its way into the church.

This ought not to be. The entire vision of the church of Jesus Christ is set fore square against such barriers—“neither Jew nor Gentile, free nor slave, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Paul the Apostle were writing that text today rather than 2000 years ago would he include political divisions in his list of categories that are trumped by the gospel? Would he not add: “neither Democrat nor Republican, neither Protestant nor Catholic, neither capitalist nor socialist, neither northerner nor southerner”?

If this is true of God’s kingdom and Christ’s church, should it not also be true of our congregation?

Of course, some will protest: Democrats support civil rights and protest war—isn’t this the rule of the kingdom? Other will insist: Republicans fight abortion and judge the lawless—isn’t this the way of Jesus? It is so easy to equate the gospel message with a party platform; from there it is a short step to rejecting fellowship with those who vote the other way.

But human community depends upon civility, respect, conversation, hospitality, and hearing the heart and mind of the other person. What better place for such things to happen than in the circles of a believing congregation. A house of worship can take the lead in transcending the bitter divisions that have plagued church and community and country for thirty years.

Burn your red banners, all you Republican congregations; discard your blue flags, all you Democratic congregations. There is something bigger, grander, more glorious, more significant, more eternal than party affiliation and national elections. John the Prophet gets very close to this when he writes in Revelation, that “… from every tribe and language and people and nation you have made us to be a kingdom and ministers to serve God…”

I will be glad with all the red and blue politics is over and we can get back to being the church of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Another Listen to Limbaugh

My column yesterday—“Now a Word from Rush Limbaugh” (right)—drew more response than anything I have written on this blog site. Some of the responses are printed in the “Comments” section attached to the column and I encourage you to read them.

But there is more; and I here post a number of these other messages, some pro and some con. I appreciate them all; I honor the free exchange of ideas and opinions that is both a fundamental freedom of our society and a wonderful part of the World Wide Web.

First, one friend wrote from out-of-state: “Your pattern and patois are perfect.” I had to look up the word “patois”—it means “any pleasant or provincial form of speech” and is pronounced pa-twa (French, of course). I couldn’t tell: was this a compliment?

Another friend wrote from in-state: “Preacher, I do believe you are for Obama. I am a McCain man, so therefore I would listen to some of those guys, but you are still my friend.” I wrote him back: “You are my friend for life. Keep a place at the table set for me. I am coming down there soon.” And he replied: “You got it!”

Second, a regular reader sent this message: “I read all of your blogs on the first page there, and in my opinion you are the most dogmatic writer I have ever read. Your mind is made up, and you are not going to let in one scrap of goodness or truth about any of those people you are criticizing. Some of those people are born-again Christians….Because of you, I am spending more time on my knees.”

Third, one friend wrote this response: “I’ve voted Republican every presidential election since Nixon….I’ll probably vote Republican again in the future, but not this year. Why? One big reason is the appalling, disgusting content of right wing radio jocks…. Once I discerned the deception they were spinning, and saw their goals of instilling partisan fear and hatred that will endure well beyond the election, I knew a closer look at Obama, unfiltered or interpreted by them, was merited. I really like what I discovered. Obama all the way! He’s got my vote.”

But after he wrote this “Comment” and before I had approved it—according to the standard blogging protocol—he got cold feet; he called to say: “Don’t post my response on your blog site.” Of course, I didn’t.

But my friend’s on-and-off comment addressed the issue of public rhetoric, though, and that brought to mind the article written by Evangelical leader James Dobson of “Focus on the Family.” His web site posted an article entitled “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.” It is a fictional letter describing social conditions that some think might develop if Obama is President.

Fear is the primary emotion flowing into and out of this letter, something pointed out by numerous responders, including Jim Wallis, on his Sojourner’s web site. Both the Dobson piece and the Wallis response are worth reading; they provide a wonderful window into opposite ends of the Evangelical world.

Finally, one friend who supports McCain and can not understand why I will vote for Obama sent a link to this article. It is an African American man explaining why he cannot vote for Obama. He reasoning revolves around two predicable issues: abortion and homosexuality—in my judgment, a very narrow moral spectrum.

This same McCain friend also thinks the large media networks are all biased in favor of Obama so she sent this cartoon. I smiled when I saw it and so can you.

Pied Piper from Chicago

Pied Piper from Chicago