Thursday, January 31, 2008

John Grisham Speaking to His Fellow Baptists

Although all of the speakers today have been excellent, the most anticipated Baptist speaker tonight - and yet another layman - is now at the podium. John Grisham, famous author of legal novels, is a longtime Baptist laymen who is very active in church and mission activities, is offering his own observations about the place and need for diversity in Baptist life. He has a rapt audience.

Other quick observations: Kyle Matthews, a wonderful musician who performed special music earlier tonight, is a wonderful songwriter, singer and storyteller. Earlier in this service, Jimmy Carter asked participants to share their personal thoughts about "where do we go next" (by dropping suggestions in the offering plates). Now that is a very Baptist thing to do!

16,000 Registered for New Baptist Covenant, More Expected

According to Mercer University president Bill Underwood, registration for the New Baptist Covenant Celebration reached 16,000 this morning. Hundreds, if not thousands more, were expected to register throughout the day Thursday. Many from Atlanta area churches are expected to arrive in time to participate in this evening's plenary session.

"We Need a Civil Rights Movement": Caring for the Sick

I am sitting in the special interest session devoted to "Reaching Out to the Sick." Panelist Fleda Mask Jackson a few minutes ago put things in perspective: "We need a civil rights movement for the health of everyone," she declared. Jackson, the Rollins School of Public Health’s Women and Children’s Center at Emory University, is emphatic that Christians have a responsibility to minister to the basic needs of humanity that today go unmet in our society.

Al Cadenhead,pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, shared his church's initiative in founding a free medical clinic. Discussions by participants explored the depth of the health care crisis and offered resource suggetions.

The Earth is the Lord's: Al Gore and the Climate Crisis

Have you heard the story of the two planets? Both are about the same size and both contain roughly the same total concentration of carbon dioxide. One has an average daily temperature of 833 degrees Fahrenheit, while the other averages 59 degrees. And humans can live only on one of these two planets: Earth. Venus, on the other hand, is inhospitable because most of the carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere. And incidentally, Mercury is much closer to the sun than Venus, yet has average temperatures in the 300 degree range - thanks to lower levels of carbon dioxide.

"The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," former Vice-President Al Gore quoted from Psalm 24:1 as he gave a special, scripture-saturated presentation of his well known slideshow-turned-movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

The 2500 Baptists attending the Gore luncheon during the New Baptist Covenant Celebration witnessed a solid biblical argument for why Christians must be concerned about God's creation.

Overwhelming scientific evidence has revealed that humans are severely damaging God's creation, and now the discussion is whether or not humans will destroy both God's earth as well as the whole of humanity. Thankfully, most evangelicals today now understand that God's creation is teetering on the brink of disaster. In our corner is Baptist layman Al Gore, whose tireless and highly visible advocacy on behalf of God's creation is motivating people worldwide. He is passionate, has a great sense of humor, and believes that "the earth is the Lord's" and that humans have a responsibility to be good stewards of that which is Gods. And 2500 Baptists just gave him a standing ovation.

Tonight Venus will be visible in the night sky. Take a hard look at it. Atmospheric carbon dioxide makes it a death star. And that could be the future of the earth, unless we as Christians take the Bible seriously enough to invest ourselves in the care of God's creation.

Grimacing and Grinning

"We all talk about believing the words of Jesus," Tony Campolo declared just a few moments ago. But talk is cheap for Christians, he continued. "To be a follower of Jesus is to question every expenditure of your life."

Citing Bono as the "only good songwriter" these days, the well-known Baptist sociologist is challenging thousands of Baptists in the audience to a radical life lived for Christ. Consumerism and materialism have no place in Christianity, he preaches. Campolo is known for evoking grimaces and grins at the same time. I can't see the faces of the thousands sitting and listening to him right now, but I suspect there are a few pursed lips and furrowed brows as Campolo calls upon the followers of Jesus to ditch personal luxury purchases and instead use our resources to save the lives of children in Sudan.

We Baptists are usually more polite among ourselves than to seriously discuss the uncomfortable commands of Jesus to forsake our own comforts for the sake of the needy. Yet much of this New Baptist Covenant meeting is devoted to facing these uncomfortable demands.

"The same spirit that is in Christ Jesus can be in your mortal bodies," Campolo quotes from the Bible. "Rise up you suckers and go out and do the work of Jesus!" (not a quote from the Bible) he almost shouts as the camera pans to former U.S. President Carter, a Baptist layman who has devoted much of his life to helping the needy.

It's a hard message. Yet if Baptists can't come together in unity around the words of Jesus ... where is unity to be found?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Synergy and Connectivity in Atlanta

What religious event in Atlanta could possibly bring together journalists from throughout the United States, including the Boston Globe and New York Times, and a representative from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

A meeting devoted to Baptist unity.

That's right, unity - as opposed to the divisiveness and exclusiveness that usually characterizes Baptist meetings covered by secular newspapers.

"Together, we all sit down together at the table of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood," Mercer University President Bill Underwood just declared in the opening session of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration.

Declaring his desire that this meeting will create "more synergy and connectivity" among Baptists, David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship, earlier expressed the hopes of thousands of diverse Baptists now gathered in worship and prayer in the World Congress Center.

Jimmy Carter this afternoon shared his belief that this meeting is an "element of God's will" for Baptists.

Could it be that God yet has plans for a people known more for divisions than unity? The Boston Globe and New York Times are perhaps wondering the same thing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From 1814 to 2008

Nearly two centuries ago (1814 to be precise), white Baptists in America, embracing a new movement - "missions" - came together in unity in the form of what became known as the Triennial Convention (it met every three years). Of course, the unity was limited to whites, and even then it did not last long; three decades after forming, Baptists in the South separated from their northern counterparts over the issue of slavery.

One could well argue that this week signals the first substantial attempt at Baptist unity in America since 1814 - and this time the unity is truly inclusive. In fact, this time African American and other non-white Baptists are at the forefront of the movement toward unity.

In this modern era, no new conventions or structures will come of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration. However, look for unprecedented partnerships in the wake of this meeting, efforts that move beyond long-standing superficial barriers in working together to take the love of Christ to those who most need it.

In short, look for a new era in Baptist life.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Today in Atlanta

Today in Atlanta four major African-American Baptist conventions are convening: the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America. Collectively, these four groups represent some 10 million Baptists, and roughly 10,000 of that total are expected in Atlanta today. The four groups will meet separately for business sessions, but will join together to discuss cooperation in common ministries such as disaster relief, evangelism and social issues.

While Southern Baptist troubles (and statistical declines) of recent decades have received the bulk of news coverage, African-American Baptists continue to grow numerically and in terms of missions and ministry. Last month a single African-American Baptist congregation, Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, N.J., reached a goal of raising $1,000,0000 for Hurricane Katrina relief. Collectively, African-American Baptists have pledged $1,000,0000,0000 for Katrina relief. No other group of Baptists in America can come close to touching that figure.

For the next three days in Atlanta, African-American Baptists will discuss ways they can better meet human needs around the nation and world, in the name of Jesus. Afterwards, thousands of other Baptists from throughout the nation will sit down with thousands of African-America Baptists for the New Baptist Covenant Celebration and talk about ways North American Baptists at large can work together to fulfill the commands of Jesus in ministering to the poor, sick and marginalized.

If you want to see the beginnings of a 21st-century Gospel revival, drop by the World Congress Center in Atlanta this week.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tim LaHaye's Credibility Problem

Tim LaHaye (the Reconstructionist-friendly author of the Left Behind fiction series; he is also a Baptist) wrote a ludicrous letter to the editor of USA Today, published in the Monday, January 21 print edition. He basically said he had never supported the Republican Party or encouraged anyone else to do so, and that Liberty University represents mainstream evangelical thought in America. His claims were so far outside the bounds of credibility that I penned a response to him. "Educating Tim LaHaye" is online at EthicsDaily.Com.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The God-Forsaken American Health Care System

Last night, upon the insistence of my hospital pharmacist brother, I watched Michael Moore's most recent film, Sicko. The film truthfully depicts the American health care system (hospitals, insurance providers and pharmaceuticals) and that of other countries, my brother had assured me.

So I (finally) watched the film.

And it made me very, very angry.

The film received good reviews across the ideological spectrum, from Fox News to the New York Times. AlterNet credits the film with pushing Universal Health Care to the forefront of American politics during the presidential campaign season.

And did I mention that the film makes me very, very angry?

Canadian acquaintances have long told me they love their health care system, and wonder why citizens of the United States, which has one of worst-ranked health care system in the Western world and the worst ranking (among industrialized nations) in terms of preventable deaths, don't insist upon a humane system.

Sicko really brought the disparities to the forefront, and highlighted the lies that American politicians and the health care industry spread concerning socialized medicine. Moore allowed health care insiders, politicians and patients to speak for themselves. And speak they did.

How can it be that countries like Canada, Britain, France and even Cuba value human life enough to treat their citizens as human beings when it comes to health care ... while the American government in collusion with the health care industry is only interested in persons as a source of financial revenue?

How can anyone calling himself or herself "pro-life" oppose a health care system that treats human beings as persons with intrinsic value? How can anyone who values human life insist that poor people don't deserve adequate medical treatment, or support a system that routinely denies coverage for needed (even life-saving) drugs and medical treatment for citizens who do have insurance?

If there is an unethical and immoral medical system in the world today, it is that of the United States, a system based on greed rather than humanity.

As someone who pays (a lot!) for my own health insurance, I was forced to sign a waiver with my insurance company exempting them from paying for any future claims for a certain condition that my wife has, a condition which the insurance company feared they might (one day) have to fork over too much money for drugs or medical procedures. My family is treated like a cash machine from which the insurance corporation is determined to extract as much profit as possible, to line the pockets of rich executives and big shareholders.

And this morning I read the story of a CNN news anchor's awful experience in a hospital's emergency room.

In Canada, former Baptist pastor Tommy Douglas, named the greatest Canadian ever, led Canadians to an understanding that human life is more important than corporate profits.

In Canada, Britain and France, citizens pay taxes to support police departments, fire departments, libraries, parks, education, road improvements ... and health care. We as Americans pay taxes to support most all of the same social services ... except for health care.

It is time we Americans stop believing the lies of politicians and the health care industry concerning socialized medicine.

The truth is that our health care system is an immoral industry that values greed over human life (that there are many good, honest, ethical individuals and organizations within the industry I do not dispute; the industry, however, is not pro-life).

The truth is that socialized medicine as practiced in countries like Canada, Britain and France, while not perfect, is vastly superior to the current American health care industry.

Why? Because socialized medicine respects human life over and above material wealth.

Isn't it time that America stands up to be counted as a nation that values human life?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Excellent Resources From a Local Church Website

I recently discovered the website of Central Baptist Church of Lowesville, VA, which is co-pastored by seminary friends, and former international missionaries, Chris and Karen Harbin. I recommend to any local Baptist church the excellent resources that the Harbins have assembled on their church's website.

The words below are found on the site's homepage, and are a marvelous statement about the transformational journey upon which faith thrusts us:

Like this site, faith is more than a static goal for which we yearn. Faith is a journey in which we experience God and seek to surrender our lives to God's will. Join with us on this journey of faith. We will attempt to dialogue about issues that make faith more than a static recitation of facts. We will question how the gospel impacts our lives, sharing that journey of grappling with the issues of faith.

We hope to raise questions, struggle with issues, and seek relevance in our experiential journey of faith. Bear with us as we structure this site, even as God continues to mold our lives.

Faith, after all, concerns things like character, dependence, and interdependence. It is so much more than a goal we might reach. It is more like the very journey itself—the experience of letting go of self in order for God to live through our lives.

We invite you to journey with us. We hope it will challenge you. We hope it will encourage you. We hope it will stretch you. The path we will take will not be without its bumps, twists, and turns. It will not all be easy going. If it were so, it would make no difference in our lives. As we journey together in this venture called faith, we should all be transformed.

Are you up to the challenge of living life on the edge of eternity? Real faith is not for the faint of heart. We will not know where the journey will take us. We are committed to the trek. Will you join us?
—Christopher B. Harbin, pastor

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Update on the New Baptist Covenant

The upcoming New Baptist Covenant Celebration is receiving more publicity than any Baptist event in recent times. The attention given to the January 30 - February 1 event event is deserved, as it will be the most diverse gathering of North American Baptists since the days of the Triennial Convention in the early 19th century. African-American Baptists, a fast growing segment of Baptist life in America, may well outnumber all others. Baptist layman Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, John Grisham, Chuck Grassley and Lindsay Graham will speak alongside well-known ministers such as Tony Campolo, William Shaw, Julie-Pennington Russell and Joel Gregory in a show of Gospel unity.

The theme of the event is the Gospel itself: Bringing Good News to the Poor, Respecting Diversity, Seeking Peace with Justice, Welcoming the Stranger and Setting the Captive Free. Baptists are unfortunately known more for their disagreements than commonalities, but in this instance, all Baptists should be able to agree on the central tenets of Jesus' teachings in the Gospels.

Grisham is the latest speaker to be announced. The novelist rarely gives speeches these days, but his Baptist convictions led him to accept the invitation.

If Baptists took Jesus' own words to heart, what would it look like? Come to Atlanta on January 30 to find out!