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April 2005

Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago about this moment (as I'm typing this paragraph the anniversary will occur) we were getting ready for chapel on the campus of OBU. It was our annual Hyde Park Day chapel when candidates for positions in the student government speak and otherwise the students recognize folk for their service. I was running for SGA Vice President and so was very busy that morning. Chapel begins at 10. As folk were coming in, my good friend Matt Miles came up on the platform and told us there had been an explosion in downtown OKC, but he didn't know any details. We went on with our service. At some point, I guess someone passed a note to Pancho Romero who was the Jazz Band conductor and who was leading music that day. At the very end of chapel he walked up to the microphone and read a message that the federal building had been bombed. The entire room sat in stunned silence.

After chapel there is annually a lunch for the SGA leadership, candidates, and Student Development staff. As we sat at lunch, my table suddenly realized that we'd have to make changes in the Spring Affair show that was already in rehearsal and would be that Saturday night. That show had a Superheros theme and the entire plot of the show centered around a bomb threat. We begin even in that lunch to make changes to the script.

My dear friend Ann Miller and I left the lunch and went over to the upstairs tv lounge, which was oddly empty (the downstairs one was packed), and got our first glimpses of the devastation. I went back to the apartment and skipped class that day, watching the hours and hours and hours of broadcast until we were all so numb. It was hard to think or to feel at first because it was impossible to comprehend. And we were all afraid. What if there was more? We sat near I-40 and were a pretty prominent spot. Most of us had never known that sort of fear before.

I still think the OKC bombing has a horror not contained in other disasters. We expect our foreign enemies to conspire to attack us. And I think we somewhat realize they'll go after major cities and prominent targets. But this was one of our own people. In the heartland of the country. In Oklahoma City for goodness sake. Bombing a building that though it had some law enforcement was most full of secretaries and functionaries and children. What horror.


Acts 2:42-47
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Royal Lane Baptist Church
15 April 2005

Jordan Simmons told me some time ago that he made it through his teenage years because of this church and its youth group. We’ve talked many times about it, and it is a story that always inspires me. This week I called and spoke with him once again about his story. He told me that Junior High was a rough time. It was rough because he was in a different school and many of his friends did not go to the same Junior High that he did. He found it hard being in a new place where people were often bringing him down.
But church was different, in many ways. Here he was loved and accepted for just who he was. Here he was around other people, especially older youth, who had gone through similar experiences. The people he knew in this church also gave him something to strive for. Finally, this was a place where he felt at home.
Jordan remembers older youth calling to invite him personally to attend some event. He talks about Joey taking him to do things. He recalls Tim’s ministry.
Through the ministry of the church he became comfortable with his self and didn’t feel pressured to please other people because here was a group of people that accepted him. By the time Jordan was entering high school he was taking an active role in the youth group. He wanted to be involved in everything that he could.
John Westerhoff, writing in his important book Will Our Children Have Faith? says,

Wherever living faith exists, there is a community endeavoring to know, understand, live, and witness to that faith.

I asked Jordan how the church had passed on the faith or helped him to grow in his spirituality. He said that sure there were programs and events like camps and mission trips that really helped him to deepen his faith, but what really mattered was being surrounded by other Christians who lived their faith in their everyday life. This taught him that his faith should be a part of his everyday life and encouraged him to grow in his discipleship every year.
Westerhoff’s book emphasizes the many ways that the church teaches the faith not in the Sunday school classroom but in the ways in which we order and live our lives. How we are community together is the most significant mechanism for how we pass along our faith to others. This isn’t just Christian education theory, it is the testimony of one of ours, Jordan Simmons who made it through his teenage years and learned how to live as a disciple of Christ in his everyday life because of the people he encountered at Royal Lane Baptist Church.

In today’s text Luke brings us a description of the young church. It is a description of how they ordered their lives, what practices they engaged in, and how they were community to one another. Verse 42 gives us insight into four fundamental practices of this community: teaching and learning, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
We read that they have devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Only a few moments before the text has told us the incredible story of the day of Pentecost with its signs and wonders. The Spirit has come upon the gathered disciples with power. The wind has blown; there have been tongues of fire; and they have spoken in foreign tongues. Peter has proclaimed the good news of Jesus and God’s kingdom. There has been a great revival and 3,000 have been added to the church. Yet, the text leads immediately from revival enthusiasm to study. Will Willimon believes that immediate transition is significant. He writes,

The church is not to drift from one momentary emotional outburst to the next, to resuscitate Pentecost on a weekly basis; rather the church moves immediately to the task of teaching, keeping itself straight about what it is and what it is to be about.

He writes that we must learn the “implications and applications” of this gospel. Here is a gathered community that needs to figure out what it means to be the church. If they are going to figure that out, then their first task is to study. So they gather around the apostles, those gifted by the Spirit to teach what they have learned from Jesus. And they begin to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
So, too, we gather to study. We gather for Sunday school classes and Bible studies where we explore scripture and read books and discuss with one another. We have such a variety of adult classes here. I enjoy going in Joe Haag’s classroom and seeing what is written on the board. They do a seminary-level seminar each Sunday morning and the evidence is on the white board where there are lists of important theologians and their thoughts or timelines of significant events. You can walk past the Vita Fidelis class and hear their singing. The Questers are usually loud and laughing as their interesting and multi-generational mix of folk bounce from reading Marcus Borg to sharing the goings-on in their lives. Go by the New Wineskins class and see their focus on spirituality. The Middle Place class are there for one another. They come faithfully and talk about their lives and share stories and experiences that help each other. The Canterbury class can get rambunctious as they take on issues like fundamentalism in American religion, the role of women in the early church, or the practices of Christian nonviolence. The Logos class study serious books and magazine articles and can spend months on these. What other class has recently spent two months studying baptism? The New Testament Too class has a reputation for the care its members provide to one another and the spiritual growth they’ve experienced as a group since their inception.
Add to that all our retreats and workshops, plus all the youth and children’s events and you get a group of folk who is devoted to study. But we must think even more broadly, because we are engaged in education in our worship and our fellowship and our service. In our study we focus on what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ as part of this community of faith. Our study empowers us to live out the Gospel. It is inseparable from our mission, for it teaches us how to embody that mission. As Jordan said, he learned how to live as a Christian in his everyday life by learning from others how to do that. That is the essence of Christian education. And it is the primary task of the church.

The second mark of the church listed by the author of Acts is fellowship. Yes, this is a group that spent time together much like we do. But there was much more to their fellowship. The text tells us

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

I’m sure you’ve been puzzled in the past by this sentence. What is its meaning? Is it a characteristic of the church of the time or something that should be embodied at all times? I’m ultimately not sure what I think about that question and don’t want to divert too much attention to that issue this morning. Instead let us ask this question. What are we being told about what it means to be the church? What can this tell us about our discipleship within the community?
Willimon writes, “. . . the commonality of goods is set forth as concrete testimony that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these people.” I think the basic point is that the community of the early church is so substantially different from the way the world normally does community that it gives evidence to the resurrection and the truth of this good news. The point to us, then is to have a community of faith that is so radically different from the way the world normally does community in our time that we give evidence to the resurrection.

After study and fellowship, we are told that the early church devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

This doesn’t seem to be the Lord’s Supper as it later becomes developed in Christian worship, but most definitely seems to be a precursor to that liturgical meal. Even if Acts 2 is not talking about our service of the Lord’s Supper, it is still talking about communion. It is still talking about the real and symbolic importance of the table to Christian community. Willimon writes:

Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down.

Have you ever noticed how important meals are to the story of Jesus? Well, there’s the feeding of the five thousand. And the feeding of the four thousand. And dinner at Zaccheus’ house. And the Last Supper. And the meal on the seashore after the resurrection. And the supper with the two disciples in Emmaus. And the wedding feast in Cana. Etc, etc.
It is not just that meals figure importantly in the stories of Jesus, but they are important in his theology as well. Meals are intimate things, especially when you invite someone into your home, to your table. Just think what goes into that. Before someone comes over to eat, you first have to take time to invite them. Then you usually clean the house (though I have plenty of college-aged friends who don’t take this step). And then you have to work to prepare the meal, which includes shopping and cooking and setting the table. And then there is clean-up. Not to mention the conversation and entertainment during the meal. If you are the host, you end up spending a great deal of time just to show a kindness to this person or persons.
Where Jesus is radical is that he invites EVERYONE to the table. Just think about going out of your way to have someone you didn’t like, didn’t trust, loathed, were disgusted by, who had hurt you, over for dinner. John Dominic Crossan in his book The Historical Jesus often returns to the important theme of Jesus and meals. Crossan interprets Jesus’ invitation of all people to the table as coming from a desire to create a world where all are equal. Crossan attributes this to Jesus’ peasant up-bringing. Because Jesus ate with everyone, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and non-Jews, he lived out his radical message of acceptance. Not only are we to say we love and care for all people, but we are to show them hospitality, to invite them to the intimacy of the dinner table. To share our lives with them.
It has long been a joke about how much we Baptists like to eat and that there is always food at one of our gatherings. The funny thing is that we probably inadvertently actually got something right. The meal is an essential part of our community because it is us enacting an essential part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the simplest and safest step we offer in beginning to live a radical life.
By breaking bread with one another we acknowledge each other’s worth and bless each other. Whether it is at table in the Fellowship Hall on Wednesday nights or here at the communion table in the context of Sunday morning worship. To share bread together is to enact the Gospel by blessing one another.

The final mark of the church listed in Acts 2 is that the early disciples devoted themselves to prayer. The text indicates that they continued to go to the Temple daily, so it seems that they have continued to carry out the daily offices of prayer that were common in the Judaism of the period.
I asked Jordan how he learned to pray. He said it wasn’t so much that anyone ever taught him in a lesson how to pray. Instead, he learned by watching other people pray. They prayed about the things that mattered in their lives, and he saw how prayer mattered to them. From these examples he too learned that prayer was important and could affect his daily life.
We do a pretty good job of praying. We have our intercessory prayer group that meets on Sundays. On Wednesday nights we pray for the needs of our congregation and the world. In Sunday morning worship we pray throughout our service – invoking God’s presence, offering our gifts, confessing our sins, expressing thanksgiving, and requesting help. Our Lenten focus was around our labyrinth, a device to aide prayer and meditation. So I think we are doing a pretty good job of being a people that prays.

What we have here in Acts 2 is a description of the sort of community that the church should be. Here is a description of the mission of the church. It is a community that will study and learn from its exemplars. It embodies genuine fellowship that reveals to the world that something radically different is going on here. The church also makes the intimate act of communion central to its life and message. And finally it is a group that prays.

Now what do these marks of the church have to do with blessing the transition from middle school into high school? According to Paul Marshall, to bless something is to “set it aside for a holy use, to perceive it to be grace-bearing, to expect God to use it.” He goes on, “Hence to pronounce God’s blessing is to say a creative and sanctifying word that something or someone is or is to function for the good, regardless of appearances.”
I want you to do something for me. Recall your own adolescence. Think about what it was like to be 13 or 14. Remember seventh grade. Eighth grade. Ninth grade. I would venture a guess that if I asked each of you to name the best period of your early life that hardly anyone would mention this time period. We might fondly recall childhood. We might even celebrate the glory days of high school or college. But few of us remember these years as our favourite.
Remember how awkward the early teenage years were? Our bodies are developing, our voices are changing, we get clumsy and stinky. Social situations change. There is a new politics at school. There is a pecking order based on things we can’t control. It seems that suddenly everything starts changing. Jordan’s testimony was that junior high was a rough time, and all of the youth workers from that period would testify to the effect of that rough time on Jordan.
Two years ago when this very group was going through the transition into the youth group, I leaned over to one of their parents and said, “What we can’t tell them is that they are about to go through one of the roughest periods of their lives.” At that time we talked about what would lie ahead. Their parents shared stories of what their teenage years were like. The youth and their parents also exchanged gifts as a symbol of blessing the transition from childhood to youth.
Blair, Brooke, and Peter, we have watched you as children and now in your early teenage years. We realize that you are about to enter a new phase of your life. In high school you will be learning new things and facing new challenges. You will start to drive and will probably start to date. You might start working. You will start looking at colleges and making plans for your future. In these next few years our culture expects you to go from being a child to making decisions that will affect the rest of your life.
I want to say to you that we know it is a lot to expect. And we will be here with you. This is where the Acts passage comes back into play. How do we commit to help these youth? We commit to teaching them and learning together what it means to be a disciple. We also invite them to participate more fully in our fellowship. We will continue to be community to them as we have been before, but we will also call for them to become more active participants in that community themselves. We as a church need their gifts and their insights. Furthermore, we will break bread with them. We acknowledge their worth and their value. You are important to us; we love you. Finally, we will pray for them and with them and ask them to pray for us and with us.
When we bless you, you are not merely recipients. By being blessed you are called on to be something. We are calling you forth into new roles. As you grow and mature and learn more, then you also have more to give, more service that you can perform. God has a purpose for you. God wants to use you to bless others. So this Rite of Passage is also a challenge. It is a challenge to you to come walk with us and work with us in ways that you haven’t before because we need you.

So blessing these adolescents is just one way we carry out the mission of the church. It encapsulates what we mean by education, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. Jordan said that church was different because here he was loved and accepted for just who he was. Here he was around others who could help him because they had gone through similar experiences . Church gave him something to strive for. It was a place where he felt at home.
I hope that that is the testimony of all of our youth, all of our children, and all of our adults.

On the Brister Petition

There is an on-line petition calling for the resignation of OBU President Mark Brister. The Shawnee News-Star had an article about it today, I understand. The link was sent to me a few days ago, and I signed the petition. Someone told me I had signed it "flippantly." On the contrary. Here is why I signed the petition, with a little background.

I am a Pharisee of the Pharisees
I attended OBU from 1992-1996 graduating with a double major in Religion and Philosophy summa cum laude. I am a John Wesley Raley Scholar. I was Vice President of the Student Government Association, twice Parliamentarian of the Senate, twice Vice President of my class. I served on three important University committees: Planning and Analysis Committee, the Student Life Council, and the Religious Life Council. I was a four year member of the Campus Activities Board, directed Biggie, and stage managed half the shows during my time in CAB. I was a three year Welcome Week Worker. For three years I was the Intro to Philosophy tutor and wrote the new student study guide for the course. For three years I worked in the School of Christian Service. President Bob Agee began recruiting me to come to OBU when I was ten years old. I don't speak "flippantly" about my alma mater.

My Early Questions About Brister
When the search committee announced Mark Brister I was puzzled. I knew a little bit about him and did a little research asking around. The more I found out the more puzzled I was by the choice. A good family friend and member of the church I grew up in was a member of the Board of Regents, so I wrote him asking about the choice of Brister. I raised three concerns. 1) His lack of experience in academia, especially never having served in university administration. 2) The fact that he had chaired the SBC restructuring committee. That had been a VERY controversial committee. Two reasons that chairmanship bothered me. First, the committee had done away with the SBC Education Commission. I wasn't sure that someone who eliminated the Education Commission was the best person to be in charge of an institution of higher education. Second, the committee had eliminated the Historical Commission. The person who had let the fight to save the Historical Commission, its last chair, was Slayden Yarbrough who was the church history professor at OBU. He had confronted Dr. Brister from the floor of the SBC a couple of years before. Once the Historical Commission had been disbanded, all of its archives needed to go somewhere. OBU had put in a bid to take them and had won the right to. So, now the man partially responsible for getting rid of the Historical Commission was going to be President of the institution housing the remnants of the commission? Puzzling. Of course Dr. Yarbrough and the archives left OBU in short order after Mark Brister arrived. How sad that OBU lost the right to hold the historical archives of the Southern Baptist Convention. Bob Agee had been so proud that we had acquired those. 3) A friend of mine with some knowledge of Dr. Brister's church informed me that he was very opposed to the ordination of women. I didn't expect OBU to higher someone in favor of it, but I was told he was very opposed. Why was this troubling? Because there were many prominent churches in the area who ordained women and a sizeable number of administration, faculty, staff, and students attended those churches. Bob Agee attended one of the those churches. At the time Vice President Weaver's wife was the chair of deacons at FBC Norman. I was afraid that Dr. Brister would cause conflict within the OBU family that the OBU family had successfully avoided throughout the years of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.

The Board member I wrote to, a good family friend, sent me a curt and incomplete response that really surprised me. I still don't understand his defensiveness about it.

My Letter to Brister Seven Years Ago
I will say that when Dr. Brister came to town and I met him, I thought he was a nice person. We had a few good conversations when he visited FBC, on move-in day, etc.

However, early in his tenure the problems became apparent. Fearful of trouble from the new president, the Director of Theatre censored two student plays that were in production and had previously been approved. The students in question were friends of mine and many other students involved in the productions had been friends of mine. They came to me with their complaints. At that time I had been out of school two years. I wrote to Dr. Brister complaining of the censorship and informed others about what had happened. The entire episode is very complicated. I was told some un-truths at first and, unfortunately passed those along, but effusively apologized for that when I discovered it. Dean Hammond, who was a fellow deacon with me at FBC treated me the worst I've ever been treated by someone. He called me, an alumnus and donor, into his office where he berated and threatened me. I was stunned. Dr. Brister did send a nice letter in response. He said that there wasn't any censorship. Yet there was, because the students had to change what they were doing mid-production. An OBU faculty member who knew of the entire episode (plenty of people did) came up to me at church the next week and said she was proud of what I had done and that the episode had revealed how unprepared for the presidency Brister was.

All That Aside
So, clearly, I've done nothing "flippant."

But I think all of that can be put aside. Even if you have been a Brister supporter. Even if you agree with him on all issues of theology, biblical interpretation, even university policy, I think it is time to realize that the university is in trouble and the buck stops at his desk. Enrollment has consistently declined throughout his tenure. The university is financially in trouble, which has led to massive lay-offs and eliminations of positions and programs. Follow that with the firing practices that first became apparent with the way they fired Michael Cappo a few years ago and then these most recent firings of the journalism professor and the staff member who wrote a letter to the editor of the Shawnee NewsStar about a local church (not a university) issue, each of those over issues of freedom. We used to laugh about Bob Agee's repeated use of the phrase "a vision for excellence at OBU." The thing is, Agee was able to articulate and motivate a vision. I have never been clear that Mark Brister has any vision for the university. If he does, it is not clear and he is certainly unable to motivate it.

For all these reasons I signed the petition calling for his resignation.

Bible Stories

Ben Randell sent me this link for a site that tells the story of the Bible using Legos. It tells it pretty accurately, which makes it funny. Various stories are rated for content: sex, violence, nudity, and cussing.

Resurrection People

Here is the sermon I preached at Cathedral of Hope -- Oklahoma City on April 3. Greg requested that I go ahead and post it. Since I'll be preaching pretty much every Sunday, I'll have too many sermons to post on this site. I don't know if they'll be posted on the church's website. If they aren't, then I'm going to create a separate site for my sermons and link it from my blog.

Resurrection People
John 20:19-31
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope, Oklahoma City
3 April 2005

“Doubting Thomas,” we call him. He wants to see, to touch. Unless he can do those things he will not believe. The witness of the other disciples is not sufficient for him. Can’t you picture the scene when Jesus returns to visit the disciples? “Peace be with you,” he says. Then he turns immediately to Thomas. I imagine Thomas standing there full of amazement, awe, and wonder. Jesus then invites him to touch his wounds, to see his hands, to believe. The story does not indicate that Thomas touched Jesus, rather it tells us that he cried out in worship “My Lord and my God!” Thomas the doubter now proclaims words of praise.

Alongside this familiar story, let us lay the poem by Czeslaw Milosz. He is a Nobel prize-winning Polish poet who died just last year. I think Milosz is one of the great poets of the twentieth century and of all centuries really. Being Polish he experienced firsthand so many of the horrors of the century – the Nazis, the war, the Holocaust, Soviet communism, and the Cold War. His poetry speaks to us out of this horror, trying to give voice to the human being.

And so we read this “Lecture V” of the “Six Lectures in Verse.” He begins with our triumphant Easter Sunday litany “Christ has risen.” But instead of following it with the familiar “Christ has risen indeed!”, Milosz says “Whoever believes that/Should not behave as we do.” He reflects upon the impotence of Christianity that “muddles on” going through the routines of the year, singing the hymns, “echoing the word,” giving thanks, but doing little. Milosz charges that we are unsure of the ancient “unhygenic” stories. We respond to the big issues with silence and lack courage. After this indictment he concludes:

And so, after the great wars, undecided,
With almost good will but not quite,
We plod on with hope. And now let everyone
Confess to himself. “Has he risen?” “I don’t know.”

Two texts. The familiar doubts of Thomas who needs to see and to touch. And this judgement from our own time. From one who has seen and been touched by much. Can Christ be risen if the world is like this? Can Christ be risen if the church is like this?

The Resurrection has taken on increased importance for me in recent years. It initially arose out of pastoral tasks. Three years ago I had to preach my first Easter sermon, when I realized that I wasn’t sure what I thought about the resurrection. After years of philosophical education, I’m trained to be critical of texts, to ask lots of questions. We philosophers are schooled at being doubting Thomases. At the time I was a minister in Fayetteville, Arkansas at Rolling Hills Baptist Church. When I’m thinking hard about something, I usually get up and pace around. So, I had done that and was pacing around the church building and ended up going outside. Our building there sat in the middle of a broad area of green space. When I went outside I was looking out over the lawns and trees. That’s when I heard a bird singing. Suddenly, for some reason, I felt God speaking to me in that moment in the song of that bird.

You see, a bird lives a relatively short life and throughout that life it struggles to survive, find food, avoid predators. Yet, birds find the time to sing. They prove that existence is not merely bare necessity, that there is time in life for beauty and for joy. I concluded that that’s part of what the resurrection tells us. Life is not simply birth, growth, decay, and death. There is time to sing, time for beauty and joy.

Two days after pondering the resurrection I had to do the funeral for my great-aunt Dorothy. Dorothy had lived and died an old maid, but she was remembered fondly by her siblings, nieces, and nephews. She was remembered as a woman who laughed and who cared for others. She and my great-uncle Dillard had this garden in the backyard. Generations of my family remember that garden fondly. All of us as kids pictured it the same way – it was a huge yard with a gigantic garden with so many flowers and a great stone pathway that reminded us of a castle. We could all play for hours in this magical space. But, as adults we all realized that the yard was small, that the stone pathway was only a few feet in length.

I still think that there is something to that backyard. For decades kids experienced it exactly the same way. And we all love to share our stories of the magic of that garden. When I preached that funeral sermon three years ago I connected Aunt Dorothy’s garden to our sense of resurrection. There in her garden we played. There we felt safe, secure, loved, and free.

In the years since having to write that Easter Sunday sermon and preach my Aunt’s funeral, my reflections on resurrection have stemmed from the theologians I read who have influenced me. Baptist theologian James McClendon taught me to view the resurrection as central to our Christian story and way of life. But it was the writing of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that really affected me the most deeply.

Last summer I was down emotionally, close to the lowest I’ve ever been, not quite, but close. At the end of June I went to Birmingham, Alabama for the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One thing I do there every year is buy a big bunch of books and then go back to the hotel room and peruse them, reading introductions, skimming contents, etc. One book I bought was Jurgen Moltmann’s In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I had not read any Moltmann before, so I was anticipating that this little book would give me a good introduction to his thought. Sitting on my hotel bed I began reading the introduction, and I pretty much didn’t put the book down until I had finished it two days later. I didn’t attend any workshops or breakout sessions during the conference; I spent almost the entire time reading that book. It’s message about resurrection was what I needed in that moment.

The theme of the book is that the central tenet of the Christian faith is that with every end there is a new beginning. Ours is a faith of hope, a faith that looks to the future. Moltmann claims that this hope, this faith, that new beginnings rest upon the resurrection. Part of the introduction that captured my attention was this paragraph:

No one is perfect, and few people succeed in achieving an unbroken continuity in their lives. Again and again we come up against limits, and experience the failure of our plans for life, the fragmentary nature of our good beginnings and, not least, the guilt which makes life impossible for us. The essential thing in experiences of life like this is the new beginning. If a child falls over it is no bad thing, because it then learns to get up again. Christian faith is faith in the resurrection, and the resurrection is literally just that: rising up again. It gives us the strength to get up, and the creative freedom to begin something once more in the midst of our on-going history, something fresh. 'Incipit vita nova' -- a new life begins. That is the truly revolutionary power of hope. It is revolutionary because it is innovative. . . . 'Christians are the eternal beginners', wrote Franz Rosenzweig. And that is the best thing that can ever be said about believers, lovers and the hopeful.

What is Thomas doubting?

Is he unable to imagine this new beginning? If Jesus is raised, then something radically different and new has occurred. It is not, then, true as Ecclesiastes says that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Instead then it must be true that
life defeats death
that beauty overcomes ugliness
grief is turned to joy
oppression gives way freedom
community surrounds loneliness
that those who struggle to get by find time to play, to sing, and to dance
and, hope does triumph over despair.

This new beginning really is too much for Thomas to imagine. He is called to believe something so contrary to the way-the-world-is, so contrary to common sense that he can’t do it only on the testimony of these others. He must see for himself.

Maybe this is what Milosz is also getting at. The church he criticizes knows the old stories, but isn’t sure what it thinks about them. And is even less sure about what to do about them. After the wars and atrocities they’ve seen, maybe they just can’t bring themselves really to believe it. And MUCH more importantly, they can’t bring themselves to live it. They lack the courage to live differently. They lack the courage to live for beauty, joy, peace, community, etc., etc. And so when asked if Jesus is risen, if they are honest, then they must answer “I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you people look more resurrected?” Bishop Will Willimon asks. He writes:

The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.

So often the church does give us cause to doubt. How many times have you heard someone say they left the church because “folk don’t practice what they preach?” Or how often have those outside the church looked at Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and wondered what Christianity is really about? How often do you wonder why Christians don’t live with the courage of their convictions? Or how many times have we been hurt and broken by those who claim the same faith we do? The actions of those who claim Christ often give us pause.

So Thomas has his doubts. And Milosz asks his questions. I’m sure they are doubts and questions that most of us have entertained on occasion and maybe revisit now and then. We get in those places of suffering or grief or despair and just can’t see the newness. Yet, it also seems to be true that those who have suffered have some special insight into resurrection. You hear it in the music. Think of African-American spirituals or the old gospel hymns of poor whites. The songs are filled with images of resurrection, of the coming kingdom, of new life when all is set right:

I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun.
Do Lord, O Do Lord, O do remember me.
Way beyond the blue.

Some glad morning, when this life is o’er
I’ll fly away.
To that home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

One of these mornings,
One of these mornings
I’m gonna lay down my cross
And get my crown.

There is a land that is fairer than day,
and by faith we can see it afar.
In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

I am bound for the promised land.
I’m bound for the promised land.
Oh who will come and go with me?

This little light of mine,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.
Everywhere I go,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.
Let it shine till Jesus comes,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.

Those Christians who have suffered at the hands of systemic evil – slavery, racism, and poverty – have left us a music filled with hope for a better day. So many of them only had fleeting glimpses of resurrection while they were in this life. Maybe as they gathered with sisters and brothers on a Sunday morning and sang these songs with power, they received a glimpse. I received the following in an e-mail this week:

The slaves could sing because they knew the world could do no worse than to make them slaves. That is the witness of all the oppressed. The world can do no worse to us . . . and God still loves us. We will still reach the other side.

All who have gone through suffering can give insight into resurrection. But I think we have something special to say. We who are gay and lesbian have gone through an experience that our heterosexual sisters and brothers haven’t gone through. We have an extra rite of passage, an extra step in life’s journey. You see we have experienced our Good Fridays’. Some of us have lain in the tomb for decades. But, at some point we have grabbed hold of a new life. We have claimed a new hope.

And what a journey it was. Despite anxiety. Despite fear. Despite a path that seemed fraught with danger on every side. Despite a world full of many that would rob us of our dignity and break us. We came out. Despite all don’t you also remember the excitement, the joy, the new sense of self-awareness, the new confidence. The timid early steps give way to pride. And suddenly we find ourselves at the dawn of a new day, entering new life.

You who are family and friends. You too had your days of doubt. You too were filled with anxiety, fear, and grief. You had to make sense of this new thing. But you grasped that it was new life. You witnessed these journeys and blessed them and celebrated them. So I say to you that this too is your story.

These stories, our stories, are stories of resurrection.

Willimon said that the best witness to the doubting Thomas’ is “a group of people.” “A group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.”

It takes a group of people with courage. A group of people that unlike those criticized by Czeslaw Milosz don’t respond in silence and inactivity. It is a group who knows that we have nothing to fear from crucifixion. And crucifixion will come. If you live for peace, freedom, love, and hope in this world you will encounter the same forces that Jesus encountered. What is needed is a group that doesn’t have to fear at all because it has glimpsed the power of resurrection.

Dare I say that we can be that group of people? Dare I say that we already are that group of people? I think we are because we begin with one simple claim – that absolutely everyone is welcome at this table. I think we begin where Jesus began. The multitudes will not be sent home hungry. No, they will experience extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.

When someone asks, “Has he risen?” may the life we live together be the answer that says “Yes!”

Title IX

A NY Times editorial reports that the administration is trying to change Title IX requirements.

Last month, a memo went up on an Education Department Web site that was billed as a "clarification" of Title IX regulations. But the memo amounted to a major weakening of the criteria used to determine compliance with the rule that all schools receiving public funds provide equal sports opportunities for men and women. Under the new guidelines, on campuses where the proportion of female athletes falls notably below the proportion of women in the student body, and sports programs for women are not expanding, a college will still be able to show it is "fully and effectively" obeying the law by doing an online survey that shows women have no unmet sports interests. The department says that if the rate of response is low - as it is with most such surveys - that will be interpreted as a lack of interest.
Currently, such surveys are just one factor used on the college level to gauge interest in women's sports, along with more accurate measures, like participation rates in "feeder" high schools or recreational leagues, and the opinions of coaches and administrators. There is no similar burden on male athletes to register their interest, and surveys are a poor predictor of behavior if sports opportunities are afforded equally. The president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Myles Brand, worries that this loophole "will likely stymie the growth of women's athletics and could reverse the progress made over the last three decades."

The Letter

Garland Hamic asked that I post the actual letter:

10 April 2005

Dear Royal Lane,

Today I offer my resignation as Associate Pastor for Youth and Education effective April 30.

Close to three years ago my conversations about this job began, and it has been a great joy to serve here since February 2003. I came to Royal Lane for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons was to learn from Ray Vickrey and Harry Wooten. I count it one of the great privileges of my life to have served with such amazingly gifted colleagues. The lessons I have learned from them will be with me and my ministry forever.

Once I got to Royal Lane I also realized the privileges of working with Scott Ayers, Doug and Shelly Watts, Phyllis Carlin, Garey Wisdom, Debbie Williams, Mike Hurder, Susan Lee, Lonnie Harris, and Maria Olguin. You should be very proud of your staff.

You have the most amazing group of teenagers. They are gifted, intelligent, insightful, and creative. They understand the gospel – in belief, in personal practice, and in action. I look forward to being their friend for the rest of our lives.

I want you to know that I was not looking for another ministry job. In early February an opening was mentioned to me in casual conversation that intrigued and interested me. I have accepted the call to become pastor of the Oklahoma City Cathedral of Hope to begin May 1. It is with great enthusiasm and joy that move home and that I accept a pastorate, particularly the pastorate of a young congregation still growing and developing its identity, vision, and ministries.

Thank you for the very significant role you as a congregation have played in my life. May you see the ministry I perform in the years ahead as an extension of the ministry of Royal Lane Baptist Church.

Peace and Hope,

My New Calling

Yes, it is true that I have been called to a new ministry. It only became official as of last Wednesday and only today have I had the chance to read my letter of resignation here at Royal Lane. Hopefully people could understand what I was saying, since I cried all the way through reading it. Folks said lots of nice things to me after the service.

Beginning May 1 I will be the pastor of the Cathedral of Hope -- Oklahoma City.

Back at the beginning of February I heard of the job in a casual conversation with Scott Pankey, the youth minister of the Cathedral of Hope -- Dallas. I ended up throwing my name in the hat and went through the process. The weekend of my birthday, when I was in OKC, I interviewed with the committee from the church. What I found was a group of people energetic and enthusiastic with a vision and a commitment. I left feeling that it would be an honour to be their pastor. Last weekend I preached there "in view of a call" and received the formal offer on Wednesday.

I'm moving not because I was unhappy at Royal Lane but because I feel that this is an amazing opportunity for ministry -- a chance that doesn't come along often. It was with pain that I began telling my youth goodbye today. But it is with great excitement that I move on to the task and adventure that lies ahead.

(One further thing. I'm reading the Martin Luther King book in order to become better at the task ahead. He writes that we shouldn't hesitate from confronting evil and calling it that. But we should also never say or do anything to humiliate those in disagreement with us but attack the structures that they are a part of and not the persons. I wanted the last post to be strong, but not hurtful. I provided the links because I had not done that before.)

And Furthermore . . .

Once I've posted on something, I try to let the commentary that ensues go by mostly without my own comments. I don't want to dominate even at my own blog. But when people I really like starting spouting ignorant trash, then I feel compelled to say more.

Re-read my post entitled "It's 2005, Time to Be on the Side of Right." Oddly this didn't get as much commentary as the latest post on the wonderful changes going on throughout the world. As I wrote there:

Folks, it is 2005. Everything that needs to be said about homosexuality has been said. Everything that needs to be written has been written. If a person hasn't taken the time to educate herself, then her ignorance is now moral culpability.

So, want a few resource ideas? Try Bruce Lowe's excellent white paper and the resources he sites. Or check out this paper on the subject. OBU Pride's website has a great list of Resource Books, just click on that link for the list to appear.

A quick easy read is the chapter on homosexuality in Peter Gomes The Good Book. Gray Temple's book Gay Unions has a good summary of how to read scripture and tradition on this topic.

However, I think the issue must go deeper. As long as folk are still stuck in fundamentalist readings of scripture, then they won't see the forest for the trees. Well before I became a "liberal" on homosexuality, I had been taught by my OBU religion profs how to read and interpret scripture. Some of you need to start there.

Part of what I find strange is that so many of you seem to need scholarly argument to be convinced. It didn't take that with me. What it took was watching, for the first time, a gay friend be persecuted by the powers that be. That was 1993. I remember standing there in my dorm room, mulling it over. Would I support my friend or not. When I realized that I had to. In order to be a person of integrity, I knew what was right -- I had a brain and a heart.

And most of the teenagers I work with at church get it. In fact, they are more puzzled about people for whom it is an "issue." They see it is as people, not an "issue." And they are particularly bothered by "Christians" who don't get it. I had a conversation along these very lines with one of my eighth graders not a month ago. He is very troubled, not by homosexuality, but by bigots.

So if scholarship and education are what you need, get it. Otherwise just use the brain and the heart God gave you.

Some Beautiful Language

Recently I finished Jean Genet's Miracle of the Rose. I thought I'd share some of my favourite beautiful passages:

Certain acts dazzle us and light up blurred surfaces if our eyes are keen enough to see them in a flash, for the beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. To pursue it during its changes leads us inevitably to the moment when it ceases, for it cannot last a lifetime. And to analyze it, that is, to pursue it in time with the sight and the imagination, is to view it in its decline, for after the thrilling moment in which it reveals itself it diminishes in intensity.
They could not break away from each other, for happiness never produces a movement of withdrawl. The happier they were, the more deeply they entered each other.
Love made me ascribe infinite importance to every gesture, even those to which I would rather not have done so.
As erotic language, such as we use in dalliance, is a kind of secretion, a concentrated juice that flows from the lips only in moments of the most intense emotion, of plaint, as this language is, in other words, the essential expression of passion, each pair of lovers has its own peculiar language, a language which has a perfume, an odour sui generis which belongs only to that couple.