Thursday, November 27, 2014

Advent One: A Season to Wait in a Restless Time

Through the weeks of Advent, I will be sharing a post on Fridays.  This Advent, I will be connecting this season awaiting Christ while pondering what difference Christianity could make in the name of Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace:

The Advent season this year has two challenges.  One is the way that the US holds its Thanksgiving observances on the last Thursday, and more often than not, the average Advent season dates fall with the first Sunday sort of lost in the haze of family travel, vacation leave from work, and sales galore for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

The other is the heartache of many after the grand jury results in Ferguson.  A community long divided around issues of race and racism, economic disparity and a deep distrust of unjust situations being met with mercy, peace or justice.  My FB feed these past few days have been laden with lament, anger and despair, questioning the process of the justice system.  Locally, a Ferguson protest was held in the downtown area as well as in other communities where solidarity was expressed with persons in the greater St. Louis area.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine wrote of the grand jury decision and the unrest accompanying this long season of legal proceedings and community unease:

It is time to right the unacceptable wrong of black lives being worth less than white lives in our criminal justice system. The broken relationships between law enforcement officials and their communities are deeply felt and very real. How law enforcement interacts with communities of color raises fundamental, legitimate issues that must be addressed by the whole nation if we are to move forward. The changes we need in both policies and practices must now be taken up in detail. Our neglect has led to anger and hopelessness in a new generation, but their activism will also help lead us to new places. It is indeed time to turn Ferguson from a moment to a movement, and Michael Brown’s life and death must not be allowed to be in vain. 


Rev. Roy Medley, the ABCUSA General Secretary and currently President of the governing board of the National Council of Churches, was in St. Louis in the days preceding the grand jury result.  He writes in this "Letter from Missouri" available via: 

Earlier this fall, two American Baptist pastors shared their thoughts on the community ministry needs of Ferguson as the grand jury convened.  You can listen to this 20 minute podcast via the American Baptist Home Mission Societies via:  The ABHMS titles this podcast link:  "Where in the world is the church?"  Indeed, these are pressing questions for churches and church leaders near and well beyond Ferguson to address the lingering, systemic issues raised by this most recent incident of race, violence and the justice system stressing a fragile, if not evaporated trust.

Two years ago, I reviewed a book by black liberation theologian and eminent scholar Dr. James H. Cone.  The review itself was published in the "Sharing the Practice" journal published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  In my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2012), I note the longer history of race, belief, Christianity and the brokenness of the American dream surveyed by Cone, whose writings and theological project are confirmed yet again in national discourse.  For a video related to this book, Cone speaks of his theological work while this book being written with PBS commentator (and fellow Baptist) Bill Moyers in 2007:

From my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a few excerpts:

Throughout his career, Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone has been a leading voice in black theology, connecting Christian doctrine with the ongoing history of African Americans. Along the way, Cone’s thought has challenged the dominant narrative of American Christianity, particularly historic and contemporary myopias among mainline and evangelical U.S. Christians alike.

In this book, Cone recalls the horrific period when African American women, men and children were beaten, tortured and lynched, so often with passive bystanders watching the spectacle. In one of many chilling examples cited by Cone, a 1915 lynching in Fayette County, Tennessee, is turned into a public event with school children encouraged to come and view the spectacle. Remembering this history of suffering is “a challenge we must face,” Cone writes. “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society” (p. 1-2).

Cone compares the specter of the lynching tree with the cross at the center of Christian belief. For some, the cross is a symbol of great hope, of a redemptive word to those who suffer as a crucified people. To others, the cross is a symbol of religious belief that nonetheless is subconsciously tamed down into pietistic or philosophical frameworks. Such efforts, even among those who would claim to mean well, create theologies and praxis that stay removed from the tragic irony of the world where the sufferings of the crucifixion resound in the marginalized peoples going unnoticed in the pulpits and academic realms of those too ensconced in dominant culture’s privilege.

The book serves as a guide to theological method, demonstrating the various ways the history and experience of the lynching era was understood. He guides the reader through the spirituals, the blues, and black prose and poetry, all potent sources/outlets for the pain of a people under oppression. Cone enters into the groves of academia, reviewing the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Niebuhr and King chapters, you get the sense of how the mid-20th century reflected “ships passing in the night” as a prominent theological liberal like Niebuhr, without a doubt a leading voice in America at the time, was quite restrained in responding to the racial discrimination. Cone notes a sincere respect for his fellow theologian and ethicist Niebuhr, whom he followed (but did not overlap with) at Union Theological Seminary, nonetheless, Cone persuasively argues that for all Niebuhr’s gifts, insights and legacy in American theological liberalism, the late great master could write about the cross as a theological symbol yet failed to connect such thought to the concrete reality of the lynching tree.

In comparison, Cone reviews the theological development and rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wove together the “dream” of a different sort of America, though Cone has written elsewhere of King’s shortcomings, juxtaposing King with Malcolm X, two men caught somewhere between the 1960s era’s turbulent search for a more just society (cf. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or A Nightmare, Orbis, 1994).


The question of suffering and the appropriate way we speak of the Cross matters greatly. [...] Certainly, Cone gifts the reader with many resources to deal with the oft-hidden history of marginalized peoples often under the heel of those who otherwise cast themselves as part of God’s chosen nation.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Making A Difference This Holiday Season

As Advent approaches, the holy days and the U.S. civic holidays clash yet again!  How does the church learn to "watch and wait" for the Christ child when door buster deals are already being offered to the tune of 24/7 Christmas muzak that started just after Halloween candy went on discount clearance?

In recent years, creative initiatives have been offered to help Christians sort out the "holiday" from the "holy days" by suggesting a veritable conspiracy (Latin for "to breathe together) around Advent, emphasizing neighbor and community/global need above the impulse to buy, buy, buy! Social justice initiatives or sponsoring alternative fair trade gift bazaars are just a few of the ways churches help connect the faithful (and those seeking faith) to the gospel.

One of the ABC New York State congregations is hoping your donations (small or great) will help make a difference in the health needs of persons in Bluefields, Nicaragua.  Dr. Tony Malone, a pediatrician and long-time member of Emmanuel Baptist, Albany, NY, is leading a medical mission trip in February 2015, working alongside International Ministries missionaries Vital and Ketly Pierre.

Dr. Malone writes, "The mission group will be exploring ways of helping the community to improve overall health, provide education for chronic issues such as diabetes, and hypertension, and offer a medical clinic for individuals of all ages. We will be providing needed deworming medication, vitamins and at least 3 months worth of medications for chronic illness such as high blood pressure. We will be treating anemia and malnutrition in young children, helping women with family planning, and helping people with serious health issues find ways to care for themselves. 

Medication supply in Bluefields is a serious problem and often the local health facilities do not have any supply of critical medication. For this reason, supply of needed medications is a critical part of the mission. Fortunately, there is a non profit organization for Nicaragua that will provide us with the medications at very low cost. For example, we can get four time more amoxicillin and blood pressure medication, 10 times more Prilosec and 16 times more antibiotics than even the cheapest way of getting them here in the U.S. Each dollar spent on medications is multiplied then  4-16 times!

Please pray for the trip members and the people of the Bluefields region." 

TO DONATE:   Emmanuel is asking for monetary donations for the pharmacy to provide as much medication as possible. Donations can be sent to Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State Street, Albany NY 12210, with an indication on the check memo line it is for the Nicaragua mission.

In addition, we are still able to take volunteers who are nurses, dietitians, physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants. If you are interested, please contact Dr. Anthony Malone at 518-785-0022.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New and Notable Fall Books

During my years in seminary, I served on the staff of our campus Cokesbury bookstore. We specialized in the seminary and academic market more so than many Christian bookstores, which are geared for a general audience. Thus, to keep relevant to our customer base, we spent a lot of time ensuring that we kept the bookshelves up to date with new titles, often arriving soon after they became available from a given publisher.

One element of the “academic religious” market is the strategy for planning out when books are released. For this unique book market, a lot of attention is paid to the mid to late Fall schedule, capitalizing on getting the most attention possible for new books at the scholarly meetings held annually by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Other academic societies meet in the Fall, though many publishers count on their publicity strategy when the largest number of religion scholars teaching in universities and seminaries are gathered for the big AAR and/or SBL meetings. When gathered together, it is the biggest event for academic religious publishers in North America, and the exhibit floor is a sight to behold.

Even as e-publishing and e-readers are increasing market share, I really cannot imagine a better place to spend an afternoon, surrounded by the new and notable books coming to the market for enhancing biblical, theological and pastoral conversations. My wife and I have attended a couple of AAR/SBL meetings (Denver 2001 and Boston 2009), and we hope to attend again when the meetings are back on this side of the country. Lugging home a suitcase full of books (or my stamping of feet like a small child when my far more wise wife insisted we ship acquisitions home instead) are among some of my favorite SBL/AAR memories.  (And when not dealing with a foot stamping husband, my wife had great SBL/AAR memories as well....)

Looking ahead to the books likely to be on the show floor at the SBL/AAR Meetings, I note some interesting titles with links to read more or purchase the books from their publishers.

 (NOTE: The commentary on each book is drawn from the given publisher's materials about the book. I have not yet reviewed any of these titles, so I cannot comment on anything other than they look like books that will be engaging to read!)

Brueggemann, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Westminster/John Knox Press.

The Psalms express the most elemental human emotions, representing situations in which people are most vulnerable, ecstatic, or driven to the extremities of life and faith. Many people may be familiar with a few Psalms, or sing them as part of worship. Here highly respected author Walter Brueggemann offers readers an additional use for the Psalms: as scripted prayers we perform to help us reveal ourselves to God.

Brueggemann explores the rich historical, literary, theological, and spiritual content of the Psalms while focusing on various themes such as praise, lament, violence, and wisdom. He skillfully describes Israel's expression of faith as sung through the Psalms, situates the Psalmic liturgical tradition in its ancient context, and encourages contemporary readers to continue to perform them as part of their own worship experiences. Brueggemann's masterful take on the Psalms as prayers will help readers to unveil their hopes and fears before God and, in turn, feel God's grace unveiled to them.

Forest, Jim. Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandments. Orbis Books. LINK:

A noted peacemaker reflects on the most difficult of the "hard sayings" of Jesus.

Not everything Jesus taught must be regarded as a commandment. Counsels on voluntary poverty or celibacy, for instance, have been seen as an option for a small minority of Christ's followers. The same cannot be said about the love of enemies. This is basic Christianity--the message Jesus taught through direct instruction, through parables, and by the example of his own life. And yet, as Jim Forest notes, it is undoubtedly the hardest commandment of all, on that runs counter to our natural inclination and call for prayer, discernment, and constant practice.

Drawing on scripture, the lives of the saints, modern history, and personal stories, Forest offers "nine disciplines of active love," including "praying for enemies," "turning the other cheek," "forgiveness," and "recognizing Jesus in others," that make the love of enemies, if not an easier task, then a goal worth striving toward in our daily lives.

Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Baylor University Press. LINK:

Baptists originated as a protest movement within the church but have developed over time into a distinct sect, one committed to preserving its place in the hierarchy of denominations. In today’s postmodern, disestablished context, Baptists are in danger of becoming either a religious affinity group, a collection of individuals who share experiences and commitments to a set of principles, or a countercultural sect that retreats to early Enlightenment propositions for consolation and support.

In Contesting Catholicity, Curtis W. Freeman offers an alternative Baptist identity, an “Other” kind of Baptist, one that stands between the liberal and fundamentalist options. By discerning an elegant analogy among some late modern Baptist preachers, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baptist founders, and early patristic theologians, Freeman narrates the Baptist story as a community that grapples with the convictions of the church catholic.

Deep analogical conversation across the centuries enables Freeman to gain new leverage on all of the supposedly distinctive Baptist theological identifiers. From believer’s baptism, the sacraments, and soul competency, to the Trinity, the priesthood of every believer, and local church autonomy, Freeman’s historical reconstruction demonstrates that Baptists did and should understand themselves as a spiritual movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

A “catholic Baptist” is fully participant in the historic church and at the very same time is fully Baptist. This radical Baptist catholicity is more than a quantitative sense of historical and ecumenical communion with the wider church. This Other Baptist identity envisions a qualitative catholicity that is centered on the confession of faith in Jesus Christ and historic Trinitarian orthodoxy enacted in the worship of the church in and through word and sacrament.

Inman, Daniel. The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford (1833-1945). Fortress Press. LINK:

The Making of Modern English Theology is the first historical account of theology’s modern institutional origins in the United Kingdom. Having avoided the revolutionary upheaval experienced by continental institutions and free from any constitutional separation of church and state, English theologians were granted a relative freedom to develop their discipline in a fashion distinctive from other European and North American institutions.

This book explores how Oxford theology, from the beginnings of the Tractarian movement until the end of the Second World War, both influenced and responded to the reform of the university. Neither becoming unbendingly confessional nor reduced to the secular study of religion, the Oxford faculty instead emerged as an important ecumenical body, rooted in the life and practice of the English churches, whilst still being located in the heart of a globally influential research university as a department of the humanities. This is an institutional history of reaction and radicalism, animosity and imagination, and explores the complex and shifting interactions between church, nation, and academy that have defined theological life in England since the early nineteenth century.

Niebuhr, Gustav. Lincoln's Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors. HarperOne.

Niebuhr's compelling history of Abraham Lincoln's decision in 1862 to spare the lives of 265 condemned Sioux men, and the Episcopal bishop who was his moral compass, helping guide the president's conscience.

More than a century ago, during the formative years of the American nation, Protestant churches carried powerful moral authority, giving voice to values such as mercy and compassion, while boldly standing against injustice and immorality. Gustav Niebuhr travels back to this defining period, to explore Abraham Lincoln's decision to spare the lives of 265 Sioux men sentenced to die by a military tribunal in Minnesota for warfare against white settlers—while allowing the hanging of 38 others, the largest single execution on American soil. Popular opinion favored death or expulsion. Only one state leader championed the cause of the Native Americans, Episcopal bishop, Henry Benjamin Whipple.

Though he'd never met an Indian until he was 37 years old, Whipple befriended them before the massacre and understood their plight at the hands of corrupt government officials and businessmen. After their trial, he pleaded with Lincoln to extend mercy and implement true justice. Bringing to life this little known event and this extraordinary man, Niebuhr pays tribute to the once amazing moral force of mainline Protestant churches and the practitioners who guarded America's conscience.

Williams, Reggie. Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and An Ethic of Resistance. Baylor University Press. LINK:'s_Black_Jesus.html

Dietrich Bonhoeffer publicly confronted Nazism and anti-Semitic racism in Hitler’s Germany. The Reich’s political ideology, when mixed with theology of the German Christian movement, turned Jesus into a divine representation of the ideal, racially pure Aryan and allowed race-hate to become part of Germany’s religious life. Bonhoeffer provided a Christian response to Nazi atrocities.

In this book author Reggie L. Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus argues that the black American narrative led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the truth that obedience to Jesus requires concrete historical action. This ethic of resistance not only indicted the church of the German Volk, but also continues to shape the nature of Christian discipleship today.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pen Pals and Hollow Trees

While on the road, I spend some time listening to various pod casts.  Some pod casts are radio programs packaged for "on demand" listeners.  Others are "online only", reflecting the trend of media shifting away from broadcasters (radio or TV) and creating content more likely to be downloaded through iTunes or other podcast delivery services.  I enjoy listening to pod casts related to current affairs and pop culture, including This American Life, a popular weekly series featuring stories told around a given theme.

This past week, the show produced an episode called "Pen Pals".  The lead story recalled how a ten year old girl from northern Michigan happened to become the pen pal of the rather infamous General Manuel Noriega.  The story unfolds over the course of the show, sketching out a rather politicized time in US/Panamanian relations where the Panama Canal treaty and other political issue made the headlines frequently.  And in the mix was a ten year old corresponding with a deeply controversial political leader from Central America.  

To open the show, host Ira Glass offered a shorter piece about pen pals, looking back at a series of correspondence between two early American settlers:  John Winthrop and Roger Williams.  For a general audience, it may have been a moment of recovered history, a moment brought to light in US history.  Glass interviews a historian about the unique relationship between the two men, often cast as foes, yet history bears witness to a more complex relationship where friendship (even if illusive at times) crept into the tone of the correspondence.  

A transcript of Glass' interview about Roger Williams appears online via:

As it happens, I am working on a sermon where I recall this part of early US Baptist history.  I recall a bit of personal writing, a brief verse penned by Williams in the time between his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settling down in what would become the colony of Rhode Island.

To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness where he spent the cold nights sleeping in an old hollow tree. Recalling this experience, Williams writes:

God makes a Path, provides a Guide,
And feeds in Wilderness!
His glorious name while breath remaines,
O that I may confesse.

Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!
In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:
In him I have found a House, a Bed, A Table, a Company:
No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet.
When God shall Sweet’ning be.

(quoted in Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).