Learning about Jesus and Baptists (I was happy to help)

A bunch of people recently learned a little bit about Baptists and Jesus. I was happy to help.

I write a column for Baptist News Global every 4 weeks. On April 14, 2015, they published my article entitled, "What 'religious freedom' used to mean." In my mind, there was nothing ground-shattering about it. I'm one of many Baptists who know our heritage when it comes to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. My article compared the original context of the fight for religious freedom to the current day climate of Christians using "religious freedom" as a way of securing extra trump cards.

A few days after the column ran, I was scrolling through Facebook and happened to see that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had posted my column to their Facebook page. It must have struck a chord.

Although it's never a good idea to scroll through internet comments, the ones under my article were actually largely positive and non-trollish. What was most striking to me was the number of people who expressed disbelief that a Baptist minister would write such an article. A few examples:

I knew Baptists had a PR problem, but I suppose this was one of my few opportunities to see it all in one place. The above comments are only a small sample.

It is unfortunate that so many people don't know about the historic Baptist commitment to the separation of church and state (including, of course, many Baptists). One of my sources for the article was William M. Pinson, Jr.'s book Baptists and Religious Liberty. There are many such sources on this subject, but Pinson's book is one of the more digestible ones. 

I suppose if I were a Southern Baptist I would represent the tiny minority that people suppose, but especially within my denomination, American Baptist Churches - USA, there is a widespread commitment to what Walter B. Shurden calls the "four fragile freedoms": soul freedom, church freedom, Bible freedom, and religious freedom.

But it has also been a reminder that there are so many people out there who have only encountered the type of Christian who lives with great fear and resentment instead of trying to exemplify the grace-filled life that Jesus lived. The current "religious freedom" debate has revealed how many Christians walk through life blinded by a false narrative of persecution and who show no interest in how to serve and love their neighbor. Jesus did not command us to love our neighbor only when things are as we want them to be. In fact, he preached radical, impossible-seeming commands like "love your enemies" and told his followers to go the extra mile when forced by Roman soldiers to carry their equipment. 

Hyper-individualism, in which people use all means necessary to put up protective fences, has sadly infiltrated a faith that is supposed to be about joining "prostitutes and tax collectors" at the banquet table.

Gandhi's famous quote looms large: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."


"I Thirst"

On April 3, 2015, I was invited to be one of several guest preachers at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Good Friday service. Each guest preacher was asked to speak briefly on one of Jesus' seven "sayings from the cross." I was assigned the phrase, "I Thirst." This is the text of my meditation.


John 19:28 - “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’”

Grand Canyon by Helicopter from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Tony Kent, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
On August 1, 1975, a nurse named Linda Forney was vacationing at the Grand Canyon. She decided to go on a hike by herself—a long and sun-exposed hike that she started at high noon even though rangers strongly urge visitors to start it before dawn. Under the intense Arizona sun, she became disoriented, and took a wrong turn off the trail. Hours turned into days, and she was not able to find her way back to the trail. She had a few snacks with her and one canteen of water. She was sweltering hot during the day, and shivering cold at night.

When she ran out of food and water, it became a desperate attempt at survival. The human body can go for several weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Linda finally found a crevice in a rock that provided shade from the sun and had a slight trickle of water. She placed her canteen under the trickle but it took most of a day to get enough to drink. She had no food. A few times she thought she heard the sounds of people and aircraft, but she could never attract anyone’s attention. 

20 days after she had gone missing, she was found...sun-burned, barely conscious, and out of water. She was quickly taken to a hospital, where she recovered.

When you’re thirsty, you can’t think about anything else. When you’re thirsty, you are going to preoccupied with getting to that which can quench your thirst.

Thirst is a painful wanting. An eager longing-for.

In the original New Testament Greek of this quote from Jesus, it’s just one word. “Dipso.” “I thirst.” The word appears 15 other times in the New Testament, mostly in the gospels. Here are a few of the other occurrences:

Matthew 5:6 - “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Matthew 25:35 - “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”

John 4:13-14 - “‘Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.’ ‘Please sir,’ the woman said, ‘Please give me this water.’”

And here’s what’s interesting about this word from the cross in the Gospel of John. Listen to what else the verse says: “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’” Jesus had just about wrapped up his job. Jesus had done what he came to do. Yet, even before he died and was resurrected, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Because even though Jesus had finished his work on earth, the world was not healed. After all, it was the sinfulness of the world that put him there in the first place. From that very moment, Jesus was thirsty for a healed and redeemed world. 

But...we ourselves also come...thirsty.

Thirst is a painful wanting, an eager longing-for. When you’re thirsty, everything else gets blocked out. Your need is desperate. But it's as if Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, ‘When it comes to righteousness, I want you to be like Linda Forney in the blazing sun of the Grand Canyon.’ Jesus says that we should want righteousness so badly hat it consumes our life...every decision we make, every word we speak, every dollar we spend...consumed with our thirst for righteousness. What would that look like?

In the face of our violent world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for peace. In the face of our politically and racially divided world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for reconciliation. In the face of vast corporate greed and corruption and special interests, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for justice. In the face of individualism, lone rangers, and every man for himself, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for community. In the face of sin, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for righteousness.  

By the way, I told you that Linda Forney survived getting lost in the Grand Canyon. I told you she was eventually found. But I didn’t tell you who found her. She was finally found by a Native American tribe who lived in the area. She was finally found by people who knew their way around the canyon. She was not found by rangers who looked and called from a safe distance. She was not found by search teams flying high overhead. She was found by those who know what it’s like to live in the canyon.

And you and I, brothers and sisters, can only bring the living water of Christ to those who hunger and thirst when we ourselves bear their burdens and meet them where they are.


[Simmering sermon] I once was blind, but now I'm blinded

In some of the old hymnals, there's a song called "Stepping in the Light" (I've always found the title humorous and have joked, "Well, if I'm going to step in something I'd rather step in light"). My congregation's most senior members love to sing it at our weekly potluck luncheon. Here's the chorus:

How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Led in paths of light.

It has a very light and peppy feel, and I visualize skipping or dancing, something like what Dorothy and friends did as they sang "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

It's interesting: there are lots of songs and hymns that have as their context a "before and after" picture of finding faith in Christ. Hank Williams' song "I Saw the Light" proclaims, "Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight; praise the Lord, I saw the light." Of course, there is the most well-known of all, "Amazing Grace." "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." 

The interesting thing about this is that whenever the biblical narrative describes human encounters with God—i.e., seeing the light—it actually often results not in happiness or tranquility but in "fear and trembling." Moses' encounter with God found him being asked to do something he didn't want to do (Exodus 4:13). Isaiah's encounter left him crying out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isaiah 6:5). The tax collector in Jesus' parable beat his breast and pleaded for mercy when he found his way to prayer (Luke 18:13). Paul's encounter made him totally lose his appetite and left him blinded for a time (Acts 9:9). I thought blindness was the "before" condition?

What happens when we come into God's light, find God's salvation, and open ourselves to God's Spirit? Spiritually speaking, what if it's not so much going from blindness to sight but from unknown blindness to known blindness?

The New Testament lectionary texts for this week include some familiar passages: "For it is by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:8), and, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). As is usually the case, the most well-known passages are often the most misinterpreted.

For example, the Ephesians passage says that grace is the prerequisite of salvation, and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching gets that backwards.

John 3:16, too, is far too often preached without reference to context. It should be at least notable that the most oft-used verse today for preaching to those outside religious circles was originally spoken to someone very much IN religious circles (Nicodemus). But besides that, the encounter has many other fascinating yet unexplored themes. The lectionary designates 3:14-21, which includes a mention of John's characteristic theme of light. 
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)
Behind Each Hope, Lies a Doubt from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Cristian V., Flickr | CC-BY-ND
Here, light is credited with doing what light does best: helping us see. It shows us what we may not see without it. In cases where there are undesirable things present, it "exposes." I'm reminded of a meme I once saw circulating around Facebook: "Those who turn on the light can't be blamed for the mess it exposes."

This is particularly powerful when paired with the imagery of rebirth earlier in the John 3 conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). I don't think we take this metaphor seriously enough. Think about the condition of a newborn or very young child. Helpless. Unlearned. Trying to move without help. Experimenting with many unfamiliar things. Fascinated with the new.

Yet, some of the most self-assured, authoritative, I-know-the-answers people I have known are those who have adopted the identity of a born-again Christian.

All the imagery in John—birth and light—is describing quite a different experience. Finding God is an experience of being "exposed," of having to lay bare all that which we would prefer to keep hidden. We are "seen plainly" in God's light, and none of us measure up. Coming to faith in Christ is supposed to be an experience of learning to see the world as God sees it—in God's light—and it looks so different from that viewpoint that it's as if we're having to learn how to walk and talk all over again. With our own prejudices and expectations stripped away, we fumble at best. The problem is that, too often, Christianity is presented as merely a confessional belief system instead of a beautiful yet traumatic reordering of our life. As it did with Nicodemus, it should leave us saying, "How can this be?" (John 3:9)

As I considered in a post several years ago, we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see.1 We don't know God; God allows us to know.

Later in John's gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. When he is questioned about Jesus, he famously says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Able to see he was, but imagine the journey he had ahead of him. He had been born blind. So everything he had ever heard of—every object, every person, every place—had looked a certain way in his mind's eye, but upon "seeing the light," he would have begun the long, arduous journey of having to recontextualize everything.

A journey that surely requires much patience, humility, and stumbling around. 

1 I'll give credit to Peter Rollins for this quote. I first heard it from him, but I don't think it's original to him.