Friday, February 28, 2014

Lenten Reading: A review of Phil Needham's When God Becomes Small

A book review of Phil Needham. When God Becomes Small.  (Abingdon Press, 2014).

In his new book When God Becomes Small, author Phil Needham invites us along the way of the God who makes the divine Self known especially in the less likely places and moments of life.  He invites us to reflect upon our habit of rushing off in pursuit of headlines and highlights rather than these “smaller” places where spotlights rarely shine. Needham realizes how well accomplished we are with seeking glory in all the wrong places.  He reminds us to step away from the lesser gods of our own passions and distractions for a more truthful and intimate encounter with God.  Particularly pointed is his critique of social media where “the ever-externalized feedback and the resulting self-image-crafting” of tweets and FB posts rarely fosters “true attentiveness” (p. 107). 
Needham returns our gaze to the places and spaces where God is more likely to be awaiting us: nature, the mundane and the places where we find a more balanced, authentic spiritual life awaiting us.   Embracing the more quotidian, Needham observes, “Our lives are lived in small moments.  More often than we recognize, those moments are open windows” (p. 67).  Needham wisely counsels us to seek “what will give us the only real satisfaction in the end: the enduring treasures of intimate relationships, love expressed, mercy given, encouragement offered [and] gifts shared” (p. 18).  Along the way, he asks us to downsize our vanity, and he calls us to ‘right size’ our understanding of God, humanity and our own hearts and minds. 
Throughout the book, Needham weaves scriptural texts and the writings of fellow wise Christians.  Exploring the kenotic (humbled, self-emptying) servant ways of Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:5-11), Needham draws us back to a vulnerable, companionable Jesus, ready to walk alongside us in the bread line or other times of challenge.   One is drawn into a generous image of God, almighty yet divinely determined to be in the midst of the world on a level we can better comprehend and engage. 
The book arrives appropriately at this year’s season of Lent. Readers who follow the rhythm of the Lenten season would do well to take and read this book as part of their forty days’ journey.   The themes of Lent are woven throughout this book: self-examination, humility, contemplation and a gradual turning away from self and to Christ alone.  A pastor would be well advised to consider quoting Needham this season.  One line in particular would serve in part as a particularly splendid “assurance of pardon” for the Lenten pilgrim: “The God of generosity and grace awaits patiently and lovingly for those who are willing to take a fresh look and begin again” (p. 134).  Reading this book, I am reminded of Iraneaus’ oft-quoted line “the glory of God is humanity fully alive!” 
Needham served many years with the Salvation Army, retiring from active ministry as the Territorial Commander of the Southern United States Territory.  His book serves as a good reminder of what should be the end result of a long time in ministry or Christian service.  With no trace of sanctimony, Needham reveals the fruits of his lifelong devotion to Christ, pointing not to himself or to the world, but to God made known in Christ Jesus.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Baptist Identity in a Time of Diffusion: Reflections and Resources

Part of the challenge of religious education today is talking with a variety of learners who have varying levels of acquaintance with core sources of Christianity.  Biblical literacy is the most talked about challenge, however, religious identity within a particular tradition of Christianity can be just as "new" an experience for some learners to explore.

This weekend, I will be speaking at an Adult Forum for a congregation that reflects the diversity of today's religious education participants.  Some are "life long" Baptists.  Others are newer to this tradition, with some Christian background or formation in other religious traditions.  More pressing is the challenge of forming disciples among those who come to church without any religious background. The approaches to engage such audiences are many.  What fits will be an experiment in churches exploring bold new methods and how well a church has adapted to the sensitivities needed to speak of faith these days.

The topic at hand for this Sunday is "Baptist identity".  I'll tell a story from my ministry work about being Baptist in the midst of an interfaith conversation about a perplexing issue often in the headlines.  Then I'll ask our gathered learners to reflect on how Baptist identity, steeped in the freedom of conscience, makes us different than other religions appealing to a body of church teachings, magisterial authority or other sources of "top-down" religious authority.  Baptists do not think exactly alike, and our tradition bears witness to four centuries' worth of faithful witnesses, church tussles, differences over Scriptural interpretation, creative global mission and more than a few potlucks.    

For the readers among the group, I will offer a brief handout with some helpful texts written by Baptist scholars about our history, traditions and practices.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, just a foretaste of the good reading out there for persons interested in the Free Church adventures of a global people.

Historical Overviews:
Goodwin, Everett C.  Down by the Riverside:  A Brief History of Baptist Faith.  (Judson, 2002).
Johnson, Robert E.  A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches.  (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).
Leonard, Bill.  Baptist Ways: A History. (Judson Press, 2003).
Leonard, Bill.  Baptist Questions, Baptist Answers:  Exploring the Christian Faith.  (Westminster/John Knox, 2009).
McBeth, H. Leon.  The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness.  (Broadman & Holman, 1987).
Randall, Ian.  Communities of Conviction:  Baptist Beginnings in Europe.  (Neufeld Verlag, 2009).

Readers in Baptist historical documents:
Brackney, William H.  Baptist Life and Thought:  A Sourcebook.  (Judson Press, 1998).
Da Silva, Rosalee Velloso, James Wm McClendon and Curtis W. Freeman.  Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People.  (Judson Press, 1999).
Lumpkin, William L., revised by Bill J. Leonard.  Baptist Confessions of Faith, 2nd ed. (Judson Press, 2011).

Other Baptist interest titles:
Ellis, Christopher.  Gathering: A Spirituality and Theology of Worship in the Free Church Tradition.  (SCM Press, 2004).
Music, David W. and Paul Akers Richardson.  I Will Sing the Wondrous Story: A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America.  (Mercer University Press, 2011).
Shurden, Walter B.  The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.  (Smyth & Helwys, 1993).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Improving the Preacher's Bookshelf: New and forthcoming titles for honing the homiletical

An eight year stretch on the staff of a Cokesbury Bookstore helped me develop some research habits that I still gleefully enjoy putting to good use.  Recently a colleague contacted me about the prognosis of what looks interesting and cool in the field of preaching (aka, homiletics).  Based on my looksee through catalogs for a number of trusty mainline Protestant publishers, I refer these titles to you, some new and some still yet forthcoming.  May the preacher’s bookshelf always be refreshed with good resources!

Allen, Jr., O. Wesley.  Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. (Fortress, 2013).
Blount, Brian K.  Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection.  (W/JKP, 2014).
Bond, Adam L. The Imposing Preacher: Samuel DeWitt Proctor and the Black Public Faith.  (Fortress, 2013).
Brown, William P.  Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature.  (Eerdmans, 2014).
Brueggemann, Walter.  Reality, Grief, Hope:  Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  (Eerdmans, 2014).
Carrell, Lori J.  Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons.  (Alban/Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
Durran, Nicole Wilkinson and Grimshaw, James P, eds. Matthew: Texts @ Contexts.  (Fortress, 2013).
Hauerwas, Stanley.  Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life.  (Eerdmans, 2013).
Long, Thomas G. What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith.  (Eerdmans, 2014).
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch.  Social Science Commentary on the Deutero-Pauline Letters.  (Fortress, 2013).
McNeil, Genna Rae, Houston Bryan Roberson, and Quinton Hosford Dixie.  Witness:  Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York.  (Eerdmans, 2013).
Moss, III, Otis.  The Gospel According to the Wiz:  And Other Sermons from Cinema.  (Pilgrim, 2014).
Plantinga, Jr., Cornelius.  Reading for Preaching.  (Eerdmans, 2013).
Stroud, Dean G.  Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.  (Eerdmans, 2013).
Thomas, Frank A.  They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching, Revised and updated ed. (Pilgrim, 2013).
Thorne, Leo S., ed.  The Riverside Preachers.  (Pilgrim, 2013). 
Wiseman, Karyn L.  I refuse to preaching a boring sermon.  (Pilgrim, 2013).

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Odd behavior: Nonviolence, Loving Enemies and the Sermon on the Mount

The Revised Common Lectionary is visiting parts of "The Sermon on the Mount" as it guides worshippers through this year.  Here's a thought on one section of this major teaching in Matthew's gospel:

The teaching of “do not resist with violence” is a different way of living in the world, which is well versed in the “an eye for an eye” ways.  Yet Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that cheeks should be turned, tunics should be given over and soldiers should realize you aren't going to be anything other than cheerful when bullied.  Acting non-violently is just that: eschewing violence for the sake of Christ, who also said "love your enemies".

As a person who enjoys a good laugh, I note with interest that nonviolence can be a great resource for humor, laughing at the futility of those who use violence to achieve their means.  Listen to the stories of Desmond Tutu as he recounts the struggle to dismantle apartheid.  I have yet to hear a speech or interview with Tutu where he is not inevitably given over to fits of laughter as he makes a point.  The stories of apartheid era South Africa are fraught with harrowing stories of inhumane treatment, yet as Tutu recounts how apartheid was dismantled after years of effort, mainly in increments measured in terms of little by little, his laughter reminds that dispiriting circumstances can be defeated by quiet courage and the capacity to laugh in the face of your victimizers.

It is no surprise that Jesus links the reframing of resistance as non-violent with the call to love one’s enemies.  Jesus is well remembered in religious and non-religious circles for his teaching on the love of enemies, as it goes against the grain of the human story.  Jesus asks his followers to decide how they live out their relationships with other people.  

Do not resist with violence those who do evil.  Do not withhold a basic courtesy towards those who have angered or wronged you that they are ultimately beyond the chance for reconciliation with you.  

I do note that this teaching can be used to minimize the hurt or angst received.  Forgiveness, reconciliation and accountability are difficult processes to work through, however, the civil treatment even of those who are uncivil is a difficult yet just as necessary step toward a future that does not remain mired in the pain of the present.  Nobody is beyond redemption (even though we may act to the contrary).  Loving enemies is part of that brave hope for a different sort of world, or at least within your abilities to live in such a manner.

A few years ago, a British Baptist wrote a book about the type of church he believed Baptists ought to aspire to be.  He traces some fruitful practices and beliefs from Baptist history as well as the Anabaptist roots.  When the early Baptists were developing into what would become the Baptist tradition in the early 1600s, they had some friendly relationships and influences from the Mennonites, one of the groups of the Anabaptist tradition. 

One story that the Anabaptists carry in their history is the witness of Dirk Willems, a Dutch Protestant who was persecuted for his religious views in the 1560s.  Willems escaped imprisonment during the winter of 1569.  A guard chased after him for some distance.  Willems crossed over a frozen river, however, his pursuer fell through.  While Willems had every chance to keep running, he could not leave the guard to drown in the river.  He turned back and helped the man out of the freezing waters. 

Unfortunately, this act of compassion resulted in Willems being brought back to the prison.  The guard wanted Willems released, however, another official overruled the request.  A few weeks later, after further imprisonment, Willems was charged as a heretic and then burned at the stake.

This is the word of our Lord.  Thanks be to God.