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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog


Missing in action?

I'm late getting anything posted today because (a) I spent the morning with a dentist whose anaesthetic apparently lost it's punch over the holidays, and (b) I'm currently attending the North American Baptist Fellowship executive retreat, which is being hosted by the Baptist House at Duke University Divinity School.

As interesting things happen (assuming they do), I'll post them, including news about several upcoming regional meetings of the New Baptist Covenant.

The North American Baptist Fellowship is a consortium of Baptist groups in North America who are members of the Baptist World Alliance, and was the official sponsor/organizer of the groundbreaking New Baptist Covenant meeting in January 2008.


You just have to be there

I've had this image in my mind for a while, since first seeing it on the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website: it was taken at dawn near the summit of Nemrut Dag (Mount Nemrut) in southeastern Turkey. An astronomer would be most impressed by the clear image of Orion just above the horizon. I was more interested in the stone images in the foreground (click to enlarge).

King Antiochus I Theos, who ruled the short-lived country of Commagene from 68-36 B.C., built a tomb and sanctuary on the 7,000 foot mountain, with monumental statues of himself and an assortment of Greek, Persian, and Armenian gods. Apparently, he was trying to cover all the bases. An inscription at the site says he wanted to set an "example of the piety that the gods commanded be shown towards the gods and towards ancestors."

By placing his own statue among the gods, King Antiochus was following a long-standing pattern in the ancient world, in which kings would have images of themselves placed inside the sanctuaries of the national gods. This was indicate their humble devotion without the bother of actually having to be present. The photo at right, of King Assurnasirpal I of Assyria, served that purpose in suggesting his devotion to the moon god.

The practice reminds me a bit of folks who seem to think that having their names on the roll book of church members -- or an ancestor's name on a stained-glass window -- is all that piety demands or God expects.

We all know inside, however, that it's not that easy. The first Sunday of the new year often sees an influx of folks who've made resolutions to return their bodies, as well as their names, to a local community of faith. That's because deep inside we all know that to be faithful in both deed and example, you just have to be there.

[The photo from Nemrut Dag is courtesy of Nick Zivanovic of the Calumet Astronomical Society, who kindly granted permission for its use on other websites. The photo of King Assurnasirpal is my own, from the "Art and Empire" exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts].


One prediction

The New Year is here, but I'm not inclined to reflect much on the past annum, which was loaded with big stories, or to prognosticate much about the coming year, which many folks have done, including Johnny Pierce.

Some things take no prophetic ability: lots of Baptist churches in North Carolina will be sending less money to the Baptist State Convention, for instance, and not just the moderate ones who feel like the door was slammed in their face at last year's November convention.

The economy won't recover overnight, and more jobs will be lost before things turn around.

Massive suffering will continue in many parts of the world. Dictators will run roughshod wherever they can, and people will starve or die from disease because corrupt government officials seem intent on proving that "total depravity" is a lifelong condition. That's a sad commentary, but it's not really a prediction: it's the just the way things are.

Here's my one prediction: I do think things will begin to get better this year. The economy can't turn around on a dime, but it can turn around. America's reputation in the world can't be recovered in a day, but we can begin to restore the image of Americans as people of both peace and generosity.

It won't happen overnight (not even the night of Jan. 19), but I believe that when we come to this place in 2010, we have the potential for things to be a whole lot better.

If I'm wrong, then folks who like to criticize can point fingers and crow, which could make them feel better, if nothing else.

It never hurts to hope.


Billy's one bad example

It's hard not to admire Billy Graham. From the time I watched his televised crusades with my great-grandmother back in the early 1960s until now, I have appreciated his earnest faith and evangelistic zeal. When I became old enough to be aware of such things, I applauded his fine example of financial integrity and accountability. I'm sure he's lived well enough in his mountain retreat all these years, but he never exploited his popularity for personal wealth.

I haven't appreciated all of Graham's actions: the way he insinuated himself into Southern Baptist Convention politics, for example, never attending but occasionally sending letters to endorse a fundamentalist candidate or affirm some convention action.

The major thing that bugged me about Graham, however, was that he lived in Montreat, N.C., but maintained his church membership at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. He first joined there in 1953, when firebrand Wally Criswell was still early in his pastorate and Graham was conducting a crusade in the city. This month, Graham finally decided to join a church closer to home -- in Spartanburg, S.C., where his friend and associate Donald Wilton is pastor.

But, Spartanburg is still 60 miles from Montreat, while the 90-year-old Graham is largely infirm and rarely leaves the house. He's close enough to watch services on TV and for the pastor to visit and minister to him occasionally, but in no position to help the church in any way but through his reputation and his tithe.

I was raised with the belief that faithful believers should be actively involved in a local church. In my childhood church and the first I served as pastor, we followed the traditional "Church Covenant" that used to be printed in the back of the Baptist Hymnal. After affirming various aspects of holy living and mutual support, the covenant closed with " When we remove from this place, we engage as soon as possible to unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God's word."

I grew up believing that was important, and when I became a pastor, I believed it even more. Christ followers serve Christ best when they are actively involved in a local community of faith where they can both contribute to and receive from the ministries of the church -- and worship in an environment of accountability. Long distance church membership typically leads to inactive Christ followship.

Maybe Billy Graham could remain an active and devoted Christian while remaining aloof from the churches in his community, but in doing so, he has set a poor example for those who can't.


Bits and bytes from biblical archaeology

While executive editor Johnny Pierce takes a few days off, I'll be posting an extra blog or two. Today I thought I'd point to some important archaeological finds that may not make it into the popular press.

In Israel, where Israel has chosen to pound the Palestinians in Gaza while they can before America inaugurates a president who will dare to challenge them for it, exciting things are happening in the world of archaeology. Recently, there have been several important finds, including a first-century half-shekel coin discovered in debris illegally excavated from beneath the temple mount. It is the first coin known to have been recovered from the temple mount, where the Muslim Waqf committed the archaeological crime of digging out many tons of dirt from beneath the Dome of the Rock in order to build an underground mosque. For the past four years, a rescue effort led by Gabriel Barkay and Yitzhak Zweig has recruited volunteers to sift through the soil. The 14-year-old boy who found the coin is one of more than 40,000 volunteers have participated. (Photo by Ze'ev Radovan, from Ha'

Of more significance, the earliest known Hebrew inscription was found this summer, a tenth-century BC ostracon discovered in the first seasons of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafah, a small but fortified city a few miles west of Jerusalem. The inscription, written in Proto-Canaanite script on a piece of broken pottery, has not been fully translated, but appears to be a letter. The site and the inscription are significant in a number of ways. The walled city dates from the time of David, which is a blow to "low chronology" archaeologists who believe Israel had no centralized authority until more than 100 years later. The inscription demonstrates that the Hebrews were writing in the alphabetic script as early as 1000 B.C., and will serve as an important benchmark for the development of the Proto-Sinaitic script and the development of the Hebrew language. (photo American Schools of Oriental Research).

Finally, of less historical significance but of greater scientific interest, scientists continue to cultivate a date palm tree grown from a nearly-2,000 year old seed found at Masada, a cliffside fortress near the southern end of the Dead Sea that was destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish rebellion in 70 A.D. The seeds were discovered in 1963 and stored away. In 2005, five of the seeds were released to researchers led by Sarah Sallon of Jerusalem's Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center. She had two of the seeds carbon-dated, and gave three others to Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of the Environment. Solowey soaked the seeds in warm water, fertilizer, and growth-inducing hormones, then potted them. One of the seeds sprouted and is now a healthy four-year-old date palm tree. If it turns out to be a female tree, it could possibly be used to restore a previously extinct species. Israel was once home to vast forests of date palms, but now imports dates from elsewhere.(Photo from

Those who care for the tree call it "Methuselah," an appropriate moniker. May both the tree and the people of Israel-Palestine grow in peace.