Our hearts continue to be heavy following the horrible shooting that occurred at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. I realize you may have read many articles and blogs on racism over the past several days. Well, this will be one more of those if you choose to read.
I have never considered myself to be a racist. And I have a long list of reasons to justify it:
I could list more. I have patted myself on the back for not being a racist for years. Yet, in light of what occurred in Charleston, all of that seems like a hollow victory, if you will.
It hurts my soul to see so much abject hatred in a 21 year old. I ask myself how in the world could he be so misguided. What kind of environment produces such a monster?
But then I wonder about myself. There is a famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke that haunts me at this moment. That quote goes as follows:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
I think of this quote when I think of the white pastors who took action during the civil rights movement in our country. Some of them paid a price for their actions, losing their jobs and their careers. Yet, they did something. They acted.
And so I leave you with this thought. Is it enough to be nice to all people, to have friends of other races, to show disdain for hate groups, to stay neutral and be a good person? Or is the Christian called to do something? To respond by action? That is certainly a question I am asking myself and my church.
The author of our Bible study lesson this past Sunday, Rev. Abby Thornton Hailey, made a point about her salvation experience that resonated with me. Our lesson focused on the apostle Paul's dramatic experience on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9, 17-20). Rev. Hailey mentioned the first time she was ever asked to give her testimony, having heard those who had already shared their testimonies speak of their dramatic conversion experiences. She wrote:
"Having been raised in a Christian home, I claimed this faith for myself in baptism as an older child and reaffirmed it as a high schooler in a powerful summer camp experience. I had never had to radically change my path or renounce everything I'd previously done or believed."
I could relate with her experience. I became a believer when I was nine years old. At that early age, I believed that God sent Jesus to die on the cross and that I wanted to follow him. Like Rev. Hailey, I also reaffirmed my decision as a teenager. Yet, it was her next statement that really hit home:
"For me, conversion was a gradual process of growing into a sense of God's presence and God's call on my life."
I do believe that I was "saved" when I made a decision as a nine year old. However, I did not have a clue as to much of what I was being saved from or being saved for. It has been in those 40+ years since that decision that I have grown into God's presence and call on my life.
Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and even my seminary experience, so much emphasis seemed to focus on that moment of salvation.
I am afraid that all of these well intentioned methods of getting someone to a point of making a salvation decision might have been detrimental to the ensuing salvation process. I am convinced more than ever that, for some, salvation is more of a gradual process where they seek and experience God's presence through Christ in their lives. It might not happen at a given moment and it may not be dramatic at all. This is not meant to discount that moment for many of us when we "prayed the sinner's prayer." However, it seems to be in the process of salvation that we really become more in tune with God's presence and His ongoing call on our lives.
What about you? If you remember that moment of conversion, can you recount experiences in your Christian life since that moment that have shaped you in a much more dramatic way than that initial experience?
The process of salvation! What a wonderful, dynamic, ever-changing experience for the follower of Christ!
The author of our Bible study lesson this past Sunday, Katie Sciba, gave a personal illustration of the time when she and her siblings were present to be with their mother upon her passing from this life into the next. When speaking of that experience, she wrote:
"I knew in that moment we were in sacred space. The focus was narrow and poignant for all of us. We couldn't read or work or see anything but our Mama making her exit from this life. We didn't want her to go, but we wouldn't miss her departure for anything.
The Spirit of God was with us in the sacred space. We were held, comforted, and guided because of the Companion that God sent. Our mother bore witness to God's grace and presence until she took her last breath."
The phrase "sacred space" caught my attention. And so our class spoke of our own experiences with "sacred space" based on the scripture in John 15 when Jesus says, "When the Companion comes, whom I will send from the Father--the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father--he will testify about me."
What occurred in that few minutes was a "sacred space" all its own as class member after class member gave personal examples of experiences in their lives that can only be attributed to the working of God through the Holy Spirit.
In psychology, Abraham Maslow is best known for his "hierarchy of needs." The final set of needs on the hierarchy is the need for self-actualization--the need for one to live up to one's fullest and unique potential. Maslow writes of "peak experiences" as temporary moments of self-actualization.
Maybe those moments of "sacred space" for the Christian could be described as peak experiences in the Christian life when the presence of the Holy Spirit--the Companion--is unmistakable. If you are a believer, I hope you can reflect upon some moments of "sacred space" in your life.
This Sunday, our church will be observing the ordinance of the Lord's Supper or Communion. How often do we consider our time of worship as sacred space? When we participate in the Lord's Supper in remembrance of the sacrifice made by Jesus, are we in sacred space? I hope so.
Every Wednesday night, our church has prayer meeting. We gather, eat a meal together, and then a "prayer list" is distributed. On that list are friends and family who are experiencing difficult circumstances. We also list other items such as "Heifer International" and "Habitat for Humanity" and military personnel and community leaders.
Every week, we pray for those on the list. Some are on the list for a short time. Others have been on the list for weeks or even months. If we are honest with ourselves, it is likely that we have doubts from time to time about the effectiveness of our prayers. Maybe it seems that, sometimes, our prayers hit the ceiling and bounce back unnoticed by God.
However, we read an interesting scripture this past Sunday where Jesus himself was actually praying to God the Father. And what was he praying about? YOU!! Actually, in the original context, he was praying for his early disciples, knowing that he was about to be leaving them to go to the cross. This is part of what he prays to God the Father:
John 17:15 "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them
from the evil one."
In a previous verse, Jesus acknowledged to God the Father that he had been protecting his followers. But now, since he is leaving, he is asking for God to protect them. Wow! Jesus is praying for protection for his followers. But wait, it gets better...He continues:
John 17:20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in
me through their word..."
And who are "those who will believe in me through their word?" That's right. YOU!! And me. And anyone who has come to believe in Jesus from the time of the early followers until today.
So think about it. Jesus prayed for you and me. Now, don't you think that part of following Jesus is trying to live our lives as He lived? He tells us to follow His commandments. If Jesus thought it was important to pray to God the Father, it would seem that we would take our prayers very seriously.
The next time you pray for someone, why not ponder the realization that you are making a request to God himself on behalf of your friend or family member? Jesus prayed for us and we pray for others. What a privilege we have been given.
This past Sunday, our church planted a dogwood tree to commemorate our 10th anniversary. The question that one might ask is, "How many Baptists does it take to plant a tree?" Well, in our case, several people participated:
Of course, once the tree is planted, now the more delicate work begins...taking care of it.
One of our scripture readings this past Sunday was John 15:1-8 where Jesus talks of being the true vine. Quite frankly, there are portions of this passage that can be kind of scary...when Jesus speaks of a branch being thrown into the fire and burned. Yet, ponder the following slant on this passage from N.T. Wright.
"Someone told me how (to prune roses) when I was young and I’ve never forgotten. In fact, I not only know how to do it, I even know why (well, more or less). A rose bush, left to itself, will get straggly and tangled, and grow in on itself.
It will produce quite a lot of not-so-good roses rather than a smaller number of splendid ones. It will, quite literally, get in its own light. It needs help to grow in the right directions and to the right ends.
So you prune it to stop it wasting its energy and being unproductive. You cut out, particularly, the parts of the plant that are growing inwards and getting tangled up. You encourage the shoots that are growing outwards, toward the light. You prune the rose, in other words, to help it to be its true self."
Wright concludes with these words:
The vine-dresser is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its long-term health and productivity, than when he has the knife in his hand.
What comforting thoughts for believers as we consider God the Father as close to us as He can be when He is in the process of pruning us. He is going about the delicate work of taking care of his own.
I have never written a blog. I may be among the few who have not. Blogs these days are "a dime a dozen." It is as if the general population is saying "I can blog so I will blog." And while the ability to blog is there, to actually write a blog may not be the best thing to do.
The famous psychologist B.F. Skinner began a career in writing but soon decided to change direction in his life because, in his words, "I had nothing important to say." I would guess the proliferation of blogs these days would indicate that many people believe what they say is important.
And so this is an experiment. If I discover that I have nothing important to say, I may join the Skinners of the world. There are, however, two reasons for me to begin this journey.
1. I will be writing this blog as pastor of Olive Branch Fellowship Church. Therefore, those choosing to read it will become more familiar with our church and some of the theological/spiritual conversations we have at the church. I am certainly not the only one at our church who is capable of writing these kinds of things (nor the most eloquent). However, I have been given the privilege for the past 10 years of opening my mouth before the congregation for about 20 minutes every Sunday.
2. I will be writing this blog as a follower of Christ who seeks open discussion and opinion. In our adult Bible Study on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, we have a variety of opinions and lively discussions regarding the Bible and how it applies to our daily lives. Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree but we always leave the building with smiles on our faces.
So there. The best case scenario is that I would like to post to this site at least once per week. The procrastinator in me will challenge that notion. We will wait and see.
If you read, I hope you will enjoy and will enter the discussion.
Chuck Strong, pastor
Olive Branch Fellowship Church