Younger Voices | Blog

Selected blogs by writers under 40

Wednesday
Aug172011

True Blood: Mennonites in Georgia

By D. Christian Nix

As I closed the laptop on the conference room table, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings. Mazes of machinery and the ambient scream of industry were commonplace, but this table was all wrong.

It was a long, country-style family dining table, but the paint job was too slick – no brush strokes. No one was around, so I took a look underneath…I hit my head when I came back up, exclaiming to myself, "IKEA?" Then I saw the Keurig – it had made my third cup of coffee only a few minutes before.

I quickly developed my first hypothesis about the Mennonites I was examining that day – scrawling on the back of my work notes, I wrote, "Mennonites were once Amish, but their inability to make handcrafted furniture drove them to evolve, adapt technology, and move to more forward thinking environs…like Middle Georgia." Self-amusement is vital for those who travel to these parts routinely….there is so little to laugh about here.

It was the most interesting day I'd had in some time. One of the great perks of my job is getting a behind the scenes look at all manner of industries. I get to see 'how the sausage is made' (well, I haven't actually seen sausage made, but I have seen how hot dogs and chicken nuggets come to be…it's not pretty).

After a while, though, it all starts to become a bit rote. Yet, my visit to a new agribusiness near Montezuma was eye-opening. The business concept was progressive, green and, frankly, stupid simple (the best ideas often are). But, I was most impressed by the Mennonite men and women who operate the company and live in the community.

Based on the owner, let's call him Jakob, they are a smart, well-spoken and humble people. Ingenious enough to create a capital machine, but empathetic enough to use their gains to support their community. It was a stark contrast to the innumerable small town businesses I have visited – where the owner drives a new Benz and the employees, earning non-living wages, just hope they can afford the gas to get to work.

Here I saw a team of equals who treated each other with respect and spoke with an uncommon kindness. This was clearly a community ethos as well.

While "enjoying" a plate of sauerkraut and sausage at Yoder's Dietsch Haus (when in Rome, right?) I was taken aback by the cordiality of the locals. Well beyond pleasantries, they were all amazingly aware of each other's lives – sharing good news and offering words of support. The service was good too – my glass of tea 'runneth over.'

The day before I arrived, a community disaster had occurred. A local farmer's corn silo had collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt, but the farmer's livelihood was at stake. On the way back to the facility, we drove by to take a look. At least a dozen local men with their loaders and tractors were there diligently cleaning up the mess, salvaging the corn, and restoring their neighbor, even while their own farms and businesses demanded their attention.

I imagine they all knew something we jaded, metro, post-Christian modern intellectuals have forgotten (or never knew)…they KNEW their neighbor would do the same for them.

Back at the plant I engaged Jakob in conversation. I complimented him on his business and suggested it would be very profitable. A conflicted look crossed his face – the look of one who is simultaneously both happy and wary. His response was equally conflicted – "I guess that's what we're supposed to do."

There are no self-made people…I think Jakob knew this. He knew he was the product of a family, a community and a vital part of its fabric. This business wasn't his pathway to riches; it was a source of community empowerment. The entire business was locally focused – its success and sustainability would mean the same for local farmers and families.

I don't want to over idealize the Mennonite community. Their social construct is limited – women have strained liberties, formal education is not valued, and their tight-knit community has the potential to create an insider/outsider paradigm. Their theology ranges from uber-conservative to less-uber-conservative. But, there is much we can learn from them – they take Jesus' 'neighbor love' thing seriously, they respect creation in sincere and redemptive ways, and they are peaceable, friendly and honest.

In the poorest county in Georgia, they are rich in many ways.

-Damon Christian Nix is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Mercer's McAfee School of Theology, both in Atlanta.

Monday
Jun272011

Saying stupid things outloud 

I'm not sure when it began, but I've developed a habit of saying stupid things out loud. Some have been more regrettable than others. In high school I recall being slapped after noting to a young lady that she was "like an elephant, she remembered everything."

The filter between the squeaky wheels in my brain and my mouth is highly unreliable at times – ask my wife.

A brief contemporary history may suffice to prove my point. In a recent meeting with colleagues at work, while negotiating the most mundane project details, my mouth struck again. I said something to the effect of, "let me extend a fig leaf here and propose…"

After I finished the sentence, a voice from across the table said, "Damon, if you could keep your fig leaf in place we'd appreciate it…but, I'll take an olive branch if that's what you mean."

Not long after, while discussing a business regulation with a client in south Georgia, I described the issue as a "show me yours and I'll show you mine kind of situation" – based on his discomforted body language, I believe he thought I was attempting to proposition him.

My most memorable gaffe occurred during a New Testament course at seminary. After breaking into small groups to work on an assignment, I noticed a fellow student had an edition of the Bible exactly like mine – except smaller and in paperback.

Without thinking – as is my custom – I thumped my copy of the sacred scriptures on the table, looked him in the eyes and said, "Mine's bigger than yours!" I think we both blushed a bit – I still laugh hysterically every time I think about it (providing further explanation for my absence from ministerial service).

Certainly, I don't constantly walk around saying dumb things. But in situations where I'm comfortable with my surroundings I have a tendency to let me be me. This doesn't always result in a story I have to live down. On occasion (albeit rare) I've been able to share something that was helpful to another, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

There are those who never say anything seemingly ignorant or crass or untoward – guarding every single word with great care. But, I wonder if the risk of never saying any stupid is never having the opportunity to say anything truly meaningful either?

Jesus said a lot of things that must have sounded insane to those around him. He was constantly going around saying things like, 'Your sins are forgiven,' 'You are healed,' and 'The kingdom is near' – things that often seemed to displease people for one reason or another.

He told all these crazy parables that no one seemed to quite understand – then or now. And he even had the audacity to say that we should 'love our enemies.' Yet it is precisely the counter-cultural and unorthodox sayings of Jesus that have made his message so significant for two millennia (no matter how much we Christians have mangled it).

Jesus took the risk of saying things that made him a bit unpopular – his death by crucifixion attests to that. But it is precisely those words, spoken by the one John called The Word (1:1), that have meant so much to so many for so long.

Surely there is no analogy between my blabbering and Jesus' timeless message. But, I'm hopeful that by being open enough to say the ridiculous at times, I'll one day be able to risk sharing even a hard truth when it matters most.

-D. Christian Nix lives in Gainesville, Ga., and is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology. He blogs at A Gospel for the Disillusioned.

Monday
Jun272011

A Passion for (re)Planting

By Jason Blanton

My wife and I have taken up gardening. My sister gave us a variety of plants from her greenhouse, and we planted them in our little table-top garden patch, high above the reach of prowling rabbits, and the dogs who chase prowling rabbits!

At first, we thought we might have totally bombed, since our little plants limped along for several weeks, showing very little life.  Then, as if over night, whoosh!  Up they went!  We are now looking forward to all the goodies we're going to be making with our homegrown tomatoes, squash, peppers, herbs, lettuce, blueberries, raspberries, etc.

We didn't plant the plants, we REplanted them, and we're now about to reap the rewards.

I read an article recently that the Southern Baptist Convention is setting aside $15,000,000 for church planting funds. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (our little home in the Baptist world) has church planting teams and conferences. All over, it seems like "new" is the driving force for missionaries across North America and beyond. 

The idea is one that we learned quite well in my religious education degree at Gardner-Webb University. New units, whether they be Sunday School classes or entire churches, create excitement and growth.  From a missional perspective, the idea is that by planting a church rather than doing social missions, you create a lasting influence in a community (and hopefully that lasting entity will then turn around and perform the kinds of social ministries that help spread the Gospel).

Can I tell you my honest response? My first thought was, "Why aren't they setting aside money for REplanting older churches?

First, lets not confuse the issue. I wholeheartedly believe in planting new churches.  I think that some of them even need to be focused on particular age groups. This isn't an either/or statement I'm trying to make.

It just seems to me that in our drive to create new, exciting, fast-growing congregations with slick multimedia worship services and "cool" music, we have forgotten the generations that are watching in horror as their own churches stagnate, and sometimes decline into nothing. Generations that have carried on the faith, and even funded and created the very structures that are now neglecting them!

I can hear some of you getting ready to clack out a response on your keyboards that goes something like this, "OH YEAH, WELL IF THEY WEREN'T SUCH OLD FUDDY-DUDDIES THEN THEY WOULDN'T BE IN THIS POSITION!!!!." Frankly, there is a mixture of truth and error in that statement. Yes, there has been a good deal of stubbornness on the part of traditional congregations, and yes some of the wounds have been self-inflicted. So what?

Why is it that we can bend over backwards to create churches for people who have never been a part of our churches, but we can't forgive a basic human failing like "stubbornness" in those who have been believers for decades, faithfully giving money and service to our churches?

Are we only graceful to those who haven't yet received God's Grace?

In case you haven't noticed, this is my passion. I was told by my pastor (Larry Fleming) long ago that I should become a church planter.  Frankly, the idea really appealed to me, because I love modern worship, and I love youth and 20- and 30-somethings, and the way they worship and stress relationships over structures.

What God had in store for me was something I never saw coming. He called me to a little town called Belhaven, N.C., and a little church called First Baptist Smithton to basically "replant" a church. The strangest part? I absolutely loved it!

I love the challenge of getting generations of believers into the same room, because we have much to learn from one another.

I love seeing the cornerstones of faith within a community filled with pride as their congregation sees new life and new purpose.

I love seeing just how willing those "fuddy-duddies" really are to go the extra mile to meet the younger generations where they are.

It’s the reason I'm here now, at Grace Crossing, undertaking the very same challenges on a larger scale. Would it have been easier to take some of the other jobs offered during the search?  Yes, probably for me and for Grace Crossing, but we do church the hard way because we believe it has value.

We are pushing hard toward a truly "blended" service because all generations deserve a voice in worship.

We are congregational rather than led by leadership teams, because we believe that all the members of the church deserve a voice.

We open our doors to all people because we believe that God is bigger than our differences, and Grace covers all sins.

So I guess my question is: Where is our help? We certainly aren't the only church in need of a replant, so why aren't associations and conventions setting aside funding for churches like ours?

Where are the funds for hiring young worship leaders to help revive music? Where are the funds for training in media, or hiring media specialists? Where are the funds for consultants to identify community values and demographics?

I don't ask this for us, we have already undertaken most of these things (although if you know of a good worship guitarist, we'd certainly love to have a little help there!) but there are hundreds of churches like ours, some that don't even realize they need to change, that could be replanted all over this country.

They already have facilities, families, workers and name recognition.  All they need is a little help from the very structures they built and maintained locally, statewide and nation-wide for decades.  On a practical scale, it seems like the idea is a no-brainer!

Just like moving plants from the greenhouse to the garden, there is a little pain and a little risk involved, but the reward is so great. The fellowship of multiple generations (re)filling our churches, energizing them, creating new life out of old. The witness to the community at-large that says God can redeem and reclaim all things, even old fuddy-duddy churches!

-Jason Blanton is pastor of Grace Crossing, a metro Charlotte, N.C., congregation, and blogs at jasonblanton.blogspot.com.

Wednesday
May182011

Commuters do it five times a week: Why there are no Christians on I-85

By D. Christian Nix

As a veteran of the northern exurb to downtown Atlanta commute I have had ample opportunity to embrace the deepest darkest places of my soul. There's nothing like a good traffic jam to elicit white-knuckled rage from the calmest, quietest soul.
If you are a celebrant of Festivus (obscure Seinfeld reference), commuting in metro Atlanta will provide you with a voluminous list of grievances – inexplicable traffic jams, that guy who 'cuts you off,' the GA 400 commuters (usually driving a Lexus, Porsche or Mini – jealous much?) who believe it is their god-given right to immediately merge left across six lanes once they enter I-85, erratic out-of-towners staring at 'them tall shiny things,' and those degenerates who do the speed limit in the left lane.

I am a card-carrying introvert (INFJ/P), but I have 'enjoyed' the splendid cathartic powers of commuting to explore my shadow sides. I have found myself shouting and banging my steering wheel – "WHY AREN'T WE MOVING – AAAAHHHH!!" I have said things to other people (who couldn't hear me), including little old ladies, that you wouldn't say to your worst enemy.

I have invented new expletives, combining the best of four-letter favorites into novel compound nouns. There is no telling what kind of maniacal fool I have looked like, faced pressed against the glass, slobbering and cursing at the sky or my nearest fellow commuter.

I'm certain there are two probable explanations for such inane behavior. Possibly, commuting is the apocalyptic machinery devolving humanity into a sub-species of zombies who will soon inhabit all major metropolitan areas. OR, slightly more likely, sometimes we just aren't very nice people, and acute stressors have the ability to bring out "Mr. Nasty" (obscure You've Got Mail reference).

The infamous theologian Calvin got one thing right, we're all depraved – some more than others. There's a nasty side to all of us – it's a reality of the human condition. Not even Jesus was immune from an occasional bout with "Mr. Nasty."

In Mark 7:24ff we find Jesus seeking a place of respite near Tyre – "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it." Apparently Jesus needed a little 'downtime' – his ministry was intense, and I imagine there were plenty of times that the last thing he wanted to do was give another piece of himself away…even to the 'least of these.' Alas, his peace was interrupted by the "Syrophoenician woman" of Sunday School fame. In short, she needed help and Jesus blew her off – even insinuating that 'her kind' were 'dogs.'

After a bit of reproof from this awesome lady, he consents, but with what seems a half-hearted effort (something like, "yeah, yeah, you're daughter is healed, whatever…go away now"). Few passages have received more over-apologetic interpretative tactics to release Jesus from any impropriety. But, these are the kind of narrative moments that endear me to the Jesus of Nazareth – he's real, he's able to instruct his disciples about defilement coming from the heart in one breath, exhale that defiled state in the next, and then move on, committed to growing from that moment for the better (see the before and after in Mark 7). I'll pause to recognize that my Jesus may be less orthodox than yours…

Recently, while alerting a colleague that I would be late for a meeting due to traffic (it took me 3.5 hours to achieve what should have been a 1.5 hour drive), she said something to the effect of, "no problem, at least you aren't the poor person in the accident." In the midst of the 'jam' my response was lukewarm and cynical, expressing little concern for those with real problems.

She was exactly right and I was dead wrong. But, I'm glad she said what she did – it hasn't left my mind as I've continued my daily grind. My "Mr. Nasty" moments are an opportunity for growth – reminding me to operate with grace, even while operating my car. So, next time you cut me off on I-85, I'll try to wave…with all five fingers. Happy commuting!

–D. Christian Nix is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Mercer's McAfee School of Theology who blogs at disillusionedgospel.blogspot.com.

"As the Scriptures say, 'No one is righteous—not even one.'" – Romans 3:10 (NLT)

"So what if you can see the darkest side of me…Help me believe it's not the real me…Somebody help me tame this animal I have become…" – Animal I Have Become, Three Days Grace.

 

Sunday
May082011

Dan Quayle: A Mother’s Day Love Story

By Josh Hunt

Some months ago Fox News host/presidential candidate?/Baptist minister Mike Huckabee made public comments about single motherhood, specifically single mother Natalie Portman.

Everything old is new again. The whole situation took me back a couple of decades to a time when my ten-year-old mind knew two things about the Vice President of the United States.

One: he misspelled potato at a spelling bee (and earned the universal derision of a nation known the world over for its spelling prowess?  Yeah, we were blatantly hypocritical back then.  Thank goodness we outgrew that.) 

Two: he had a public scuffle with a television journalist named Murphy Brown.  (What’s that you say?  The journalist was a made-up character on a television sit-com?  Small potatos, dear reader.  Small potatos.)

And here’s the thing about Dan Quayle and me: I still see him through 10-year-old eyes. He was Vice President when I was 10, and then he wasn’t Vice President anymore. And then I didn’t see him and I didn’t think about him anymore. 

The potato thing and the Murphy Brown thing? Those are 20-year-old pieces of information that are stuck in my brain.  I’ve never even looked them up on the Internet to process them as an adult. They’re just there.

We watched Murphy Brown at my house. I understand now that the show made cultural statements about progressivism and feminism, but in my house, I think we watched it because it was funny. The truth, though, is that we had something in common with Murphy Brown. And while I couldn’t care less about the correct spelling of potatoes, Dan Quayle’s statements about a single parent raising a child resonated with me.

No one from the government contacted my family to discern our thoughts on single parents raising children.  No one asked my mother if she was prepared to do this. It just happened. My dad was killed in a car accident the day before my eighth birthday. 

So while my 30-year-old self  now knows that Dan Quayle wasn’t referring to single-parent households in which one of the parents had died, what he said felt to my 10-year-old self like a blanket condemnation of single-parent families, and it hurt.

We became feminists in my house.  Ditch your preconceived notions about what that means. Think Rosie the Riveter kind of feminists.  “By God, I can do this” kind of feminists. My mother was going to do it.  It was up to her. We didn’t have the luxury to make grandiose comments to the press about children raised in single-parent households. 

We didn’t consult sociological studies to understand the feasibility of successfully raising (whatever that means) a child in a single-parent home. Leave all that to the “experts.” We didn't have time for such trivial things.  My mother had a son to raise by herself, so she did.  We were just living, making it. I’ve got no small amount of pride in my mother proving the experts, the commentators, Dan Quayle, and Mike Huckabee wrong.

I write this Mother’s Day because I truly believe I owe whatever good I do and whoever good I turn out to be to two very basic things that continue to be at work in my life: 1) my mother didn’t allow me to use the death of my father (an admittedly unenviable situation) as an excuse to be less than I can be and 2) I had good people in my life who were willing to be surrogate parents to me.  And they did this not because they were part of a program where godly people mentored sons whose fathers had died, but because they made individual decisions to love and care for me. 

It takes a village to raise a child, and I need to say that I have one hell of a village. By the way, there are single parents and children of single parents who desperately need such a village right now. I defy you to find a better village than the Church.  They don’t need our critiques, our judgment, our second-guessing; they just need us.

I’m now cherishing and celebrating my wife's new role as a mother and my new role as a father. We're soaking up the opportunity to love, raise, encourage, and support our son. I wish all parents had the same opportunity to show love. I wish all children had the same opportunity to receive love. That would be—and I think Dan and Mike would back me up on this—ideal.  Truth is, we live (and preach, and teach, and comment, and parent) in a world of reality, not of ideals.

For that reason and so many more, I honor on this day Sandy Hunt and all women and men who parent in a world of reality, who parent in what is all too often a society of naysayers. I honor on this day people who are parents not of blood, but of choice—neighbors, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, school teachers, grandparents, youth ministers. 

I honor on this day anyone who decides to support people who are loving “the least of these” with all their hearts in a world of harsh and difficult realities, the kind of world where true love is most needed.  Happy Mother's Day.

-Josh Hunt is pastor of Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C. A Virginia native, he is a graduate of Carson-Newman College and the divinity school at Gardner-Webb University.