Younger Voices | Blog

Selected blogs by writers under 40

Monday
Jan092012

It's not easy bein' free

By Josh Hunt

Some time ago, the members of my preaching group had the opportunity to go on a preaching retreat/workshop. The three-day gathering afforded us plenty of opportunities to chat. 

As the lone Baptist voice at the gathering, I got several questions which are drawn from Baptist stereoypes.
 
By the way, do you want an unconventional way to observe the season of Epiphany? Here’s a fun, epiphanic experiment. Ask someone who comes from a tradition other than your own what they know and think about Baptists. Brace yourself for their response. 

We should all resolve to be involved in more ecumenical and interfaith conversations. Such dialogue helps us sharpen our knowledge about our own tradition and assists us in learning about traditions other than our own, and both of these things are very good.
 
When some of my United Methodist friends were talking about their District Conference business, I took the opportunity to ask them about Methodist polity — how their denomination makes decisions. We discussed districts, charges, Bishops, District Superintendents, Pastor-Parish Relation Committees, etc.
 
"That's a bit different than the way Baptists have traditionally understood our polity," I offered.
 
One of my Methodist friends turned to me with a smirk on his face and said, "Do Baptists even have a polity? Do you guys even have church discipline?"
 
"Yes, we have a polity," I said, "but it isn't always very disciplined.” (Sometimes I’m guilty of understatement.)  “Our polity is freedom."
 
He rolled his eyes.
 
"No, I'm serious. What I mean by freedom is that when the Baptist movement was formed, we were the underdogs, the illegals, the outsiders. (My Methodist colleagues, serving as they do in a county that sometimes feels saturated with Baptist churches — Baptist churches that sometimes aim to scoop even the most die-hard Methodists into their membership — probably cannot imagine such a scenario.)  And we swore to ourselves that if we ever got into power, we'd be all about freedom — for ourselves and freedom for others, even with folks with whom we disagree. You have Bishops and District Superintendents, but we believe in what we call the 'autonomy of the local church,' which has historically meant that no denominational authority outside of my church can tell my church what we must believe or do."
 
This raised more questions. "What about the church in Mt. Airy that called a woman as their pastor and got kicked out of their association for doing so?"
 
It wasn’t the first time someone asked me about Baptist life framed in a question regarding the events at Mt. Airy a few months ago.
 
"Well, there IS that," I replied. "That wasn't necessarily a violation of Flat Rock's autonomy; they were technically able to call a woman as pastor. I'd say it was more the association's violation of historic Baptist principles, but there are many Baptists who would disagree."
 
Could our Baptist ancestors have chosen a more messy polity with which to govern our churches? Freedom? Autonomy? What were they thinking? 

We can cheer the freedom that is an essential part of the Baptist birth story, but we need to own that ours is a messy system, and one of the implications of freedom is that we allow other people the room to disagree with us. It means that we allow other people the opportunity to choose what we consider to be the wrong path. 

Autonomy allows room for churches to disagree with one another— for church members to disagree with one another — to do the wrong thing, to take the wrong position. Early Baptists just plain ol' didn't like the alternative, and they suffered greatly so that what we inherited from them would be better than what they saw as lacking alternative systems of church governance.
 
A polity of freedom is not easy, but it’s what we’ve got. It’s a crucial part of who we are as Baptists.

Wednesday
Jan042012

What It’s Like to Be God’s Favorite

By Josh Hunt

For the last couple of months or so, I’ve been ruminating on something Dr. Alan Culpepper wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Smyth and Helwys, p. 285): “Who we believe Jesus was has a direct bearing on what it means to be his disciple.”

Dr. Culpepper’s context is the application of Mark 8:27-30, when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. Peter’s glowing confession comes eventually, after some prodding from the one who asked the question, but not before a few of Jesus’ friends get it wrong.

Jesus’ friends still get it wrong.

Could the reverse of Dr. Culpepper’s statement be true as well? Does one’s approach to discipleship convey what he or she believes about Jesus? 

What does our discipleship — the ways in which we relate to God and to others — say about who we believe Jesus was?

Let me offer an example. If you don’t believe in total depravity, read the comments on most websites or blogs. It’s a discouraging exercise and I can’t recommend it. 

When I read comments posted on the Associated Baptist Press news site, I wonder if our words communicate our belief that Jesus’ favorite part of the Church is our propensity toward self-congratulations for not being like the parts of the Church with whom we disagree. That’s certainly what we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy doing, especially when a bunch of us get together and we start hatching a plan to fix all that’s wrong with Christendom.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, he told this parable: Two men went to pray, one a Cooperative Baptist missionary (who had given the last five years of his life ministering to the poor in the kinds of locales where missionaries didn’t normally go) and the other a member of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The missionary stood by himself and prayed: “God I thank you that I am not like other people — prosperity Gospel preachers, conservatives, inerrantists, homophobes, and chauvinists — or even like that Southern Baptist official over there, bless his heart.”

But the Southern Baptist stood at a distance and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

You know the rest.

Just as in Jesus’ parable in Luke, my re-telling is not an attempt to glorify or demonize particular characters that appear in it, but rather as a cautionary tale. 

We drink in the sweet nectar of what we determine are the failures and mistakes and wrong thinking of the people with whom we disagree — neighboring congregations and denominations, professors who moved into our offices after we were fired, pastors who are sell-outs, church staff who are corrupt — and we congratulate ourselves for being so open-minded, so informed, so extraordinarily different than they are. 

In our depraved minds, their failures prove that our way of thinking is right. Our hands cease being productive so we can use them to pat ourselves on the back for being sufficiently holy, set apart from the people we know to be God’s little embarrassments. 

If our highest offering to God is how different we are from the other people God loves, we’re to be pitied, and our message of new life and changed hearts reeks of insincerity. 

What’s the alternative to this egotistical, self-righteous, condescending, ultimately close-minded way of thinking?  A little less moral superiority and certitude.  A little more “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Jesus’ friends still get it wrong.

 

-Josh Hunt is pastor of Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C.

Friday
Nov042011

We are all 'Saints'

By Josh Hunt

"Good morning, saints. Good morning, sinners."

So begins the weekly worship at a predominantly African-American church in Knoxville, Tenn., where I had the pleasure to preach several years ago.

The entire congregation responds after each greeting. The welcome conveys the sense in which we all have the capacity for greatness and goodness and we all have the capacity for wrong.

"Sinner" is a term I am very willing to embrace for myself, as it describes all too many of my words, actions and thoughts. I am not so apt to employ the term "saint," as it carries with it more weight and expectation and demand than I am usually willing to live out.

Sinner explains too much of my life; saint doesn't explain enough.

In the Christian tradition, All Saints' Day is when we remember those who have helped us be the people we are, those who have reached out to us when we did not reach back, those who have treated us better than we deserved to be treated, those who gave us some encouragement when we were terribly close to a breaking point, those who loved us when we weren't particularly lovable — those people that were, to us, saints.

We need to make time to celebrate the people who have positively impacted your life.  We need to make time to be those kind of people to someone else. 

-Josh Hunt is pastor of Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C.

Wednesday
Aug312011

A Lesson From the Mountaintop

By Todd Thomason

I wasn’t around in 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. told America about a dream he had had. I don’t remember Woolworth’s lunch counters much less the sit-ins. What I know of Dr. King and Civil Rights I have learned primarily from books, teachers, newsreels, and Irish rock stars. Even still, I feel like he’s been with me most of my life.

Few people have inspired me more–especially since becoming a pastor.  I continue to marvel at his  ministry and his witness.

I have also long hoped to God that another Martin Luther King Jr. would emerge from the shadows that have eclipsed the public face of American Christianity in recent years: someone to reclaim Dr. King’s rich prophetic legacy from the pawn brokers and spin doctors of consumer-driven faith; someone to once again say to America, “Be true to what you said on paper”–all of it, not just hand-picked portions of it; someone to lift our spirits while at the same time calling us to repentance.

It has taken awhile, but on this weekend which marks the forty-eighth anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech and which was supposed to witness the dedication of his memorial on the National Mall,* I have finally realized that my unrequited hope for this second coming is a sure sign that I have failed to grasp one of Dr. King’s most important lessons: that we ourselves have custody of the distortions that exist in our world. We must decide whether to challenge or foster them.

We tend to forget that Dr. King was only 26 years old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in December 1955. He had only just arrived in Montgomery from Boston University with a new wife and a child on the way. “Become conscience of America” was not on his to-do list. He had a congregation to tend, a dissertation to finish, a family to raise and support.

When Ralph Abernathy and E. D. Nixon approached him about organizing a boycott, he easily could have said, “What can I possibly do?” as he ticked off the same list of excuses we all carry in our breast pocket. But he didn’t. That choice is what set him on the path to greatness.

I think we prefer Dr. King to be a haloed saint who descended to Alabama directly from heaven full of power and glory because, as long as we perceive him that way, we can justify our own lethargy in confronting the injustices of our contemporary society. We can sit back and wait for another holier-than-me messiah to make things right. In the meantime, then, we can be content to build gated communities, give our backyards an HGTV make-over, or escape to Starbucks.

As we prepare to enshrine Dr. King in the pantheon of our greatest national heroes in Washington, we would do well to remember that the revolution Dr. King led was just that: a revolution. As exceptional as he was, he did not do it alone. Without thousands of ordinary men and women making the same basic choice he did—the choice to stand up for what is right—all the speeches and all the marches would have amounted to little more than stirring words and ceremonial gestures.

American apartheid wasn’t overturned because African-Americans stopped riding the bus in Montgomery for a day or two to make a point. It was overturned because they stopped riding the bus for as long as it took to change the system.  Week after week after week, those who owned cars gave lifts to their neighbors and formed carpools. Taxi drivers charged reduced fares. Volunteers served as dispatchers to make sure folks had a way to get to work or to school, and everyone agreed to walk if necessary.

The community pulled together and shared the sacrifices.  And when they succeeded in integrating the city buses, they inspired themselves to continue challenging Jim Crow in other areas of local and national life. The Dream that Dr. King cast was literally carried from Montgomery to Selma to Atlanta to Washington to Memphis, and all points in between, arm in arm and hand in hand.

Today the air is once again thick with talk of change and the need for a new direction toward a better future. The mire that surrounds us is of a different consistency than that which Dr. King and the brave men and women of the Civil Rights movement slogged through, but the way forward remains the same: arm in arm and hand in hand. We will be the ones to make change happen…or not.  We will stand up for what is right, and make the sacrifices and form the partnerships…or we won’t.  

And that means that, nearly half a century after Dr. King’s greatest speech, perhaps the greatest threat to the furtherance of his Dream isn’t congressional gridlock, the national debt, a sagging economy, or any of the other usual suspects. Rather, it may very well be our infatuation with convenience and our ever-growing love affair with the double, half-caff, no whip, made-to-order comfort of our own personal prosperity.

* Hurricane Irene postponed the dedication. A new date has yet to be announced.

-Todd Thomason is pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Md. He blogs at Via Ex Machina.

Tuesday
Aug302011

Birds and Airplanes

By Brandon Hudson

The birds are calling from my backyard this morning to their neighbors across the street. The crickets and bullfrogs create a constant chirping hum in the background. I am accustomed to electric and mechanical noises, to computer fans running and cars driving by.

But today, the sound of nature outpaces the sound of humanity.

There is this complex relationship between the sounds of humanity and the sounds of nature. Both noises (at least in the places I have inhabited) coexist at all times, and it is up to our brains to distinguish between the two and choose which one will hold our attention.

This morning I am blessed by the near and urgent calling of the birds. Its volume, cadence, and conversational tone have caught my attention and the opened up my senses to hear the rest of the natural world around me.

But if I allow my ears to lose this focus, I can hear the hum of the cooling units from the bank a half a block away and an airplane overhead.

In the real world, these sounds all coexist and blend together to make up the background noises to our reality. While I'll give no argument against the idea that we have probably far too often paved paradise and put up a parking lot, at the root their is a harmony to these background sounds of the world and no need for us to create a false dichotomy.

The same is true for the human and divine.

Perhaps it is too much drinking from the moonshine of the mystics, but if the incarnation holds meaning, it must show us that God intends no false dichotomies between the human and divine. Those previous boundaries are swallowed up in the person of Christ, the One in Whom Everything Belongs.

In Christ (both in his earthly life and now through His spirit) there is a beautiful harmony present in the world, being sung by the Creator over the creation, with parts written widely for creation to join in.

But so long as we are concerned with whether or not others are singing the right parts, we will miss the primary Voice that holds all things together, creating harmony where there should be cacophany and peace where there should be tension.

For my part, I hope that my ears will be tuned to hear that Voice, whether it be faint or loud, so taht I can join in the song. I think we all have this longing to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

In each moment, I am presented with that opportunity.

Thanks be to God.

 

-Brandon Hudson is pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., and blogs at only1thing.