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Daily Blog for the CBFMS FC.

Becoming human despite our fear

Ric Stewart

By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, Field Coordinator, CBFMS; reprinted from Baptist News Global 

In the past month we have seen one set of fears replaced by another, which has made the deep division within American society even more visceral. President-elect Donald Trump recognized the fear in many Americans and leveraged that fear for his advantage in the presidential election just a couple of weeks ago. There was a deep-seated fear of immigration and immigrants from a large portion of President-elect Trump’s supporters. His rally cry of “build the wall” spoke to these supporters — spoke to their fear of the other. This is why those who opposed President-elect Trump’s rhetoric called him and his campaign xenophobic — the word literally means fear of the other or fear of the foreign(er). Immigration was also conflated into terrorism, which only stoked the fire of fear.

Another layer of fear that the Trump campaigned capitalized on was economic fear. It is true that economic inequality is higher now than it has been since the Great Depression. The middle class is shrinking and even the upper-middle class is feeling the squeeze, while the poor continue to suffer. The Rust Belt is an example of the anxiety that comes with this kind of fear. Jobs have been outsourced and globalization has taken a toll on Middle America — both economic and geographic Middle America. Many wealthy people in America — especially those in the top 10 percent of the tax bracket — certainly voted for their best interests with the hope that they would not have to pay higher taxes.

Others in this palimpsest of fear worried about the moral fabric of our country. The “Make America Great Again” slogan spoke to these supporters about bygone days before Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage, and all the other modern moral issues that conservatives truly disagree with. While President-elect Trump has never in his life exemplified anything remotely close to an evangelical Christian lifestyle, he won the support of evangelicals in overwhelming numbers because he took a conservative platform on these issues. It is truly hard to imagine the vast majority of evangelical Christians in America voting for a person who has made millions (if not billions) off of casinos and strip clubs — not to mention his multiple extra-marital affairs — but that’s the power of fear.

The other layer of fear comes not so much from President-elect Trump but from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Beyond the Trump campaign, there are millions of Americans who were, and are, afraid of Clinton. Whether justified or not, many Americans did not vote for Donald Trump as much as they voted against Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton’s political life has been plagued by one scandal after another, and if it hasn’t been her scandals, it has been her husband’s. In all of these scandals, she has never been convicted of a crime. She has never been found guilty of breaking the law. This can only mean that she is smarter than her opponents, innocent or both. In any case, these scandals have created a sincere fear in many, many Americans.

When you are afraid, you want change! That may be a universal truth. I’ve never met anyone who likes to be afraid. And everyone who I’ve met who lives in fear wants something better. This is probably why fear is such an incredible motivating factor. Many people who voted for Donald Trump were afraid before he ever ran for president. His campaign capitalized on those fears, pushed those fears to an extreme, and it paid off.

Now there’s a trade-off in fear. All those who were afraid, and who the Trump campaign took advantage of, have been appeased. Much of their fear has been turned into courage, which has created a spike in crimes against minorities — specifically Muslims, Latinos/as and African Americans. The fear from the supporters of President-elect Trump has turned into fear for those who opposed his campaign. There is real fear among those who are on the losing side of this election. This fear, whether real or imagined, has been terrorizing and debilitating many Americans.

I met a same-sex married couple who were truly terrified that their marriage would be annulled under President-elect Trump’s administration. This was, in fact, a part of his platform. For millions of couples across America, this is a real threat to their married life. Whether one agrees or disagrees with gay marriage, the fear gay and lesbian couples have is real. The life they have built together is in jeopardy, and this is a real fear for the LGBTQ community. It at least equals the fear that more conservative people in America have about the moral fabric of this country.

Just last week I was in San Antonio, Texas, and met a Latina woman who is scared for her 8-year-old son and her extended family. Her father is an undocumented resident, but she was born in the United States as was her son. Her son has been crying every night since the election, worried that his grandfather and even his mother will be deported. She tried to comfort him every night, but she knows that her father is still undocumented and could be sent back to his country of origin. This cry and prayer of a little boy in Texas comes from real fear. The fear from those who supported “a wall” has been transferred to this little boy.

The problem that this election season has brought to the fore is that we have been dealing with issues rather than humans. There are too many lines in the sand that have been drawn to demarcate our own personal fears. We have built coalitions of fear that are blinded to the humanity of others — on both sides of the political aisle. We shout xenophobes, racists, misogynists and Islamophobes in one direction and anti-American, unpatriotic and bleeding-heart liberal in the other direction. All the while, we do this at our own peril. I cannot be fully human when I dehumanize any other human being. I dehumanize myself when I dehumanize another. By recognizing the fear and anxiety in others and responding with love and justice, I become more human and more humane.

Whether this move toward becoming human is reciprocated or not, it is the move that movement makers have always made. May we all have the courage to make it.


High (tech) Priest

Ric Stewart

By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, originally penned for the Baptist News Global publication

Baptists are well known for our belief in the priesthood of all believers. This is a deep seated conviction that individuals do not need another person to intervene between the human and divine. Every human has the capacity and responsibility to connect to God directly and is free to do so (or not). Priests, therefore, are not essential for the individual or to the community because we all have full access to God through Jesus Christ. There is no human intermediary between other humans and God.

Soul freedom is a cornerstone to Baptist life. I say this with fear and trembling since I’m not a Baptist history scholar like Bill Leonard or Curtis Freeman, but I remind my Baptist sisters and brothers of the cornerstone of soul freedom to point out an interesting modern dilemma.

Technology, primarily mobile devices, has become our high tech priests. Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not your standard old curmudgeon. (I don’t think.) I use my mobile device like most other human beings living in the modern world. Honestly, I don’t really know how to function without my phone. I made the mistake of taking my oldest kid to his soccer game one time and forgot to get my phone — I know this sounds crazy just to say that I forgot my phone — and I had to watch his entire game without interruption and I even started to talk to some of the other parents beside me on the sidelines. It was halftime before the uneasiness of not having my phone subsided. While our mobile devices connect us in unprecedented ways to the rest of the world, they also have a knack for disconnecting us from our immediate context.

Do you ever make fun of close friends or family for playing on their mobile devices too much? My wife and I shame each other over mobile devices all the time — it’s the way we love each other. If I see her on her phone when our family is together, I’ll text her and ask how she is doing — even if I’m standing right beside her. She always looks up and rolls her eyes. When I’m doing the same thing, that is, not paying attention to my family who is right in front of me, she may ask, “How’s all your ‘real” friends, Jason? How’s your ‘community?’” These are ways we poke fun at each other, but they are also reminders that there are actual people in front of us who deserve our attention and presence.

In this way, technology becomes an intermediary between us and other human beings. The analogy is loose, but it has become a way for me to think about my mobile device. It certainly doesn’t mediate my relationship with God in the way priests function, but I certainly have my Bible and devotional apps on my mobile. It’s not the mediating factor between the human and divine that makes phones like high priests, it’s the mediating factor between human beings that turn phones into “priests.” I’m not so sure it’s good. In fact, I think it’s one part of the overall loss of civil discourse in our country.

When we post things to digital media, we may be responding to others, but these others are not human beings that are standing in front of us. We tend to be responding to pictures and memes and political posts rather than real people who are on the other side of our phone. We engage through the intermediary that is our mobile device, our personal high tech priest. We are one step away from our interlocutors and in this way they are somewhat less human. They are just sound bites on our phones.

In this way we are doubly removed. We are removed from our immediate context because we are so raptured by our mobile devices that put us in conversations with others who are not in front of us, and simultaneously we are physically removed from the people with whom we are engaging on our mobile device — people who are represented by “posts.” So we are disengaged with the real human beings who are in front of us and not truly engaged with our online interlocutors because they are not really in front of us. Our high tech priest, in the end, doesn’t connect us to anything but our mobile devices.

But mobile phones are not our problem! Mobile phones are in the same category as alcohol. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a mobile phone, and there is nothing wrong with using a mobile phone (unless you are driving). Technology is a fact of the world in which we live and to refuse to use it is to refuse to engage in our culture. The question continues to be, what are the rules of engagement with our gadgets? Better yet, how do we seriously think about technology and the potential dehumanizing effects it has on our own psyche and our culture? How do we use technology in ways that give life rather than take life away?

As divided as our country is right now during this election season, it may be good for all of us to unplug for a moment or two and reevaluate our relationship with our high tech priest. Does this technological intermediary prevent us from getting to know real people? If technology reduces others to sound bites, might we be missing something — something like the complexity that exists in all of us? In other words, there may be more to a person than their unrestrained rant against Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, and we may miss all these other really good characteristics if we reduce them to these sound bites. It takes real discipline and focus to wade through our technological connections and find the person on the other side while remembering the people who are right in front of your face.

Post-apocalyptic Downton Abbey

Ric Stewart

By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker originally penned for the Baptist News Global

“Downton Abbey” is a six-season drama based on one aristocratic family in England who navigates the treacherous period before and after World War I. As the 1920s come rushing in, the English aristocracy faces a cultural shift that will bring an end to their way of life. Women are entering the work force, the rigid class system is being dismantled as laborers seek employment beyond family ties to estates, easier travel is making the world a smaller place, technologies such as the motorized vehicle and the telephone make communication more instantaneous.

What is clear by the final season of “Downton Abbey” is that the aristocracy’s power is diminished and there is no going back. One episode has two pertinent scenes that capture this transition most acutely. The Crawley family, the protagonists in the entire saga, attend the auction of another aristocratic family which has lost everything. They knew this family well and want to purchase some of their belongings to keep them within the wealthy landowning families who are left. It is a dramatic scene where the Earl of Grantham, Mr. Crawley, and his daughter, Lady Mary, come to terms with this great cultural shift. They wonder if their estate, Downton Abbey, will be next.

The other scene is even more important because it isn’t nostalgic and anxious about the past. The same Lady Mary is at the local fair showing off the pigs that she has managed on their farm. The fact that she is a woman doing the managing is avant garde, but the fact that she is an aristocratic lady of an estate and she’s knee high in pig “stuff” is quite remarkable. It shows the family’s capacity to ready themselves for the future. They are willing to change with the times and keep their estate relevant for the cultural shift that has already happened.

“Downton Abbey” certainly captured the imagination of a large audience and probably surprised the Masterpiece Classic producers, but what it captured at a deep level is the sense of change that permeates our own modern culture. We are living in a moment where a massive cultural shift (or shifts) has already happened, but many of us have not even realized it. While the world always changes, the past 20 years have seen dramatic change that is irreversible. Like the aristocracy of the British Empire after World War I, the way of life that we have taken for granted is now over. This is most true for long-term institutions like the Church. The Christianity in America that we have taken for granted our entire lives is over, and it will never be the same again. We are like the Crawley family stuck between the two scenes I mentioned earlier. We are somewhere between selling off our estate and standing knee high in pig “stuff” recognizing that this will be a new way forward.

For those who lament this cultural shift as a loss, they will most certainly be selling their artifacts. Just recently I was at a meeting with other ministers and lay people, and one pastor of a large downtown church asked for suggestions about what to do with all the space they had because they simply could not use all of it anymore. She wasn’t lamenting the loss; she was looking for creative ways to use the space.

There are thousands of churches just like hers who have over 100,000 square feet of empty classrooms in prime downtown locations because the heyday of Christianity in America is over. I’ve started calling this empty space ‘Heyday Space’. Heyday Space is a profound and prophetic voice that tells all of us that the way we’ve always done church is over. The cultural shift has already happened and the heyday is passé, it is irreversible, and we must come to terms with it.

Sell the estate or reinvent it: Those are at least two options that existed for the English aristocracy after World War I, and they are still two options for how we exist as faithful Christians in America. What is undeniable at this point is that we cannot mostly keep doing what we are doing. We, like every brand of Christianity since Jesus came out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan, must determine the absolute essentials of our movement and find ways of living into and out of these essentials today. What makes our heart beat? What constitutes our Christian identity? How can we reframe these constitutive aspects of our faith life in ways that make sense in our modern world?

“Downton Abbey” is a dramatic series that is set in the apocalypse. In that way, it can be rolled into all the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic entertainment that permeates our society. Both aristocrats and zombies are ways that our entertainment speaks back to us and tells us that the shift has already happened. We live in a new day, a new time that demands something different from us. There are already materials that function as a guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse, and some of this material is helpful for us. All the anxiety from the upcoming election to terrorism (in all its forms — international, domestic, ecological) are part of the flux created during major cultural shifts.

It is never easy when old structures begin to crumble and new structures take their place. In this apocalypse, and in this post-apocalyptic period, I still believe Christianity has an important place. In fact, I think Christianity along with our other religious sisters and brothers, have a high capacity to help individuals and society as a whole as we walk through this apocalypse. If we pay close attention to our long histories and the particularities of this mini-apocalypse, we may just find exactly what we all need to make it safely through. Holding so tight to traditions that are already so dead will only leave us in the rubble of change. The faith and charity that have proven to be helpful through all the eschaton of our long history, however, may just prove to be helpful now that we standing in pig “stuff.” We may only need to reframe this faith for our new age.


In a Divided Society, maybe we should shut up and listen

Ric Stewart

By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker as written for the Baptist News Global


Years ago my oldest child, who was in kindergarten or first grade at the time, came home from school and told me that he heard one of his classmates use the “S” word. I was like, “Ah, ‘S’ word! Not this soon!” Then I asked him what the “S” word was and ensured him that he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying it to me in this context. With a little trepidation, he said, “You know, daddy: ‘shut up’!” Shut up was the “S” word. I exhaled and shook my head, gave him a big hug, and said, “Yep, that’s a bad word. It’s never nice to say that to someone, is it?” I’m not sure if we ever told him that this phrase was a bad word or whether he realized at an early age that it was used in a harsh manner. Either from parental advice or childhood intuition, he knew that it was the “S” word — something he shouldn’t say to someone else.

Many of us teach our kids what words and actions are appropriate and inappropriate for society, but at what age is it appropriate to use inappropriate words? I’m no saint in my language, but our society has forgotten how to talk to each other. Civil discourse seems to be a concept in a bygone society. It is certainly easier and more comfortable in our current cultural environment to tell someone with whom you disagree to shut up than it is to actually listen to them and take what they say seriously. We have this behavior modeled for us with presidential candidates who are competing to be the ruler of the free world. Everyone is feeling the sting of this rhetoric and so many feel like they are being ostracized rather than heard.

What if we listened? What if we refused to say the “S” word and listened? What if we listened to our political, theological, cultural, etc. opponents and actually paid attention to what they were saying? And maybe we should do some of the harder work and not just listen to what they are saying but try to truly understand why they are saying it. And I don’t mean that we should listen closely so that we can exercise our self-righteousness and exert our “correct” opinion when it is our turn to talk. That’s how we debate; that’s not how we care for each other.

When I was the pastor at Wilton Baptist Church we had an intern from Yale Divinity School, who taught me a lot about listening. The Rev. Jenny Clamon is one of the most active listeners I have ever known. Her capacity to listen is that great intersection between raw personality and really good theological education. She came into my office one day and I sat down behind my desk to talk with her. She laughed at me and told me that she learned in her pastoral care classes that pastors weren’t supposed to sit behind their desk when meeting with people! Obviously she had better teachers than I did in seminary. It was a great lesson for me to learn, and one of the best reasons to have an internship program — I learned so much from all those students! The desk creates a barrier and hierarchy that isn’t conducive to making people feel esteemed and important. Not long after that I rearranged my office so that my desk faced the wall and it opened my office up to everyone. I felt closer to the people who would come into my office because there wasn’t this big barrier between us. It was easier for me to listen to them, and it was easier for them to hear me.

Removing obstacles from our lives that make it more difficult for us to listen is a good exercise, but some of those obstacles are completely invisible to us — like a big honking executive desk in the middle of the room. Once these things are out of the way and we can truly hear our interlocutor, then we engage humanely. We give them the value that they deserve by virtue of the fact that they are human beings just like us when we listen. They know when we are really listening. We know when someone is really listening to us. Listening creates a space for us to have empathy for the other even when we disagree with them.

And listening is not about winning and losing. Listening as a strategy or tactic to win an argument is not listening. It is simply being quiet long enough for the other to talk — which would still be an improvement to our current political discourse. I think this is a root problem to many of the issues we are having in our country right now. People do not feel as if they are being heard, and therefore, they do not feel valued, which makes them angry. That anger, then, is poured out on everyone.

With social media being so omnipresent in our culture, there is an interesting paradox. Individuals have unprecedented capacity to communicate publicly to a global audience. If a post goes viral, it’s because millions of people around the world are accessing it. In spite of this unprecedented capacity for voice, many people feel as if they are not being heard.

So, how do we listen? One way may be to not return insult for insult or evil for evil. The good old “two wrongs don’t make a right” applies and is still true. As things stand in our country, we should probably expect for people to disagree with us — and sometimes disagree in big ways. I have been writing this column for a while now and there have been some really nice responses, but there has been some venom, too. I wonder what is behind the anonymous anger. How can we peel back the layers of vitriol in order to find the real thing that’s hurting? Being conscious of the other human being as a human being no matter how much they may be shouting at us could also go a long way to restore our capacity to listen to each other. May be we should just shut up and listen.

Life - and Church - in a box

Ric Stewart

By Jason Coker originally for the Baptist News Global

My life is in boxes right now. As I prepared to move from Connecticut to Mississippi, I packed over 40 boxes of books in my office. We have gone through each room, and while there is still a lot to do, we have boxed up our kids rooms, our room, the basement — finished and unfinished — our living room, dining room, TV room, and office. Even the garage hasn’t made it out of the reach of the mighty boxes. Boxes, boxes everywhere and not a place to go!

I have spent hundreds of dollars on boxes the past couple of weeks. I’ve made at least three trips to the store to buy boxes. I have book boxes, small boxes, 16 inch cubed, 20 inch cubed, wine boxes — not boxed wine — beer boxes, shoe boxes, boxes for everything. I have enough boxes to contain all the belongings of my life. All the art, all the clothes, all the pottery, all the dishes, all the hats and gloves and scarves and shoes, all the ties and pockets silks and cuff links, all the appliances, all the tools, all the towels, all the dishes, all the tables and chairs and couches and TVs and rugs — everything has a box. My whole life is in boxes right now — except for a few things.

Boxes are incredible. Simple cardboard boxes folded just right and with enough packing tape can hold a tremendous amount of life. Those four vertical walls intersected by a top and bottom can contain all the material of one’s life and work. The files and files of sermons and blogs and speeches and Bible studies all wrapped up comfortably in the boundaries of a box. If you need a little more strength, get the plastic container boxes. Boxes are powerful — and they make for a powerful metaphor and illustration, especially for religion. I’ve thought a lot about boxes lately and our church and my life. My life in a box.

Church is a box — it has vertical walls with a top and a bottom and it contains the contents of our religious life. This is where our babies are dedicated. Most Baptist churches have that iconic piece of Baptist heritage — a baptistery. This is where we participate in one of our most sacred religious rituals. Close by is the sacred table around which we gather on select Sundays to memorialize Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. In this space we have laid to rest our best friends, our husbands and fathers, our mothers, and even our children. Here we have sent them on their journey to God and eternity with our best and most hopeful prayers. On that table and in every pew rests our sacred scriptures that guide our lives and help us understand how God worked and works in the world. Preachers proclaim the Word of God behind that sacred desk called a pulpit. In pews there are hymnals that hold all our most historic and sacred music. Most importantly, this box contains you — most every Sunday and every sacred holiday. You are the most precious cargo this box holds. And our greatest prayer is that this box delivers you directly to the throne room of God every Sunday. Our whole religious life is in this box, except for a few things.

The hope, the belief, even the conviction is that this box is the intersection between this life and the next — an intersection between humanity and God. Our hope is that when we gather in this box it will be a little like the fellowship we will experience one day when we stand before God in that heavenly home. We hope that somehow in this box we can experience the goodness and love and mutual compassion that makes us feel human, that it will be a place where we can extend that to each other and make each other feel human. This is exactly what Paul means when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)

The church as a box — it contains all of our religious life (except a few things), all our important things. While our entire material life is getting packed into boxes for delivery to Mississippi, there are some things that cannot be contained in mere boxes. Some things can’t be put into boxes and shipped away. For one thing, my love for the church I’m leaving cannot fit into any box. No matter how much tape, no matter how thick the cardboard or even the strong plastic container boxes, none are big enough and strong enough to contain my love for it. Boxes have their limits, but love does not — love never ends. I am not leaving Wilton Baptist Church because it is facing hard times, I am not leaving because I’m tired of it or the town, I am not leaving because I don’t love it anymore. I’m leaving because I feel that God has called me to go to Mississippi and do another work. I am not leaving; I am going, and I do so with a heavy heart because I love the church still. Boxes cannot contain that.

This box — this beloved church — cannot contain everything either. Within its walls are housed so many of our religious symbols and so many of our sacred memories. And every Sunday, this is where we go to experience God and come as close as we can to the God we love and adore. But God — if God is really God — cannot be contained in these walls, no matter how beautiful and strong they are. God is bigger than our gray stones, God is bigger than our red doors, God is bigger than our steeple, God is bigger than our box. This place cannot contain the greatness of God, this place cannot contain the glory of God, God is bigger — always bigger. And that can be challenging. You see, we do our very best to put God into this box. We try to hem God in behind, before, beside, above and below. We fit God into our way of baptizing, our way of believing, our way of understanding the world. This is how we box God up and make God understandable and palatable. But God is bigger. God is incomprehensible. God is above all things, below all things, beyond all things — even our minds and even our boxes.

This is what the entire Letter to the Galatians is about. Paul said God was bigger than their religious rituals. God is bigger than baptism. God is bigger than Christmas and Easter. God is holier than Maundy Thursday. God is better than the way we think about the afterlife. God has no limits; therefore, God has no box. This is not easy to accept. We have certain beliefs about God and the Bible and the world and ourselves, but those beliefs are just our boxes to frame our lives — they are not God’s boxes for God’s life. We should never confuse our box for God; otherwise we are just worshiping a box. It’s hard news to accept, but Good News indeed. And why is this still Good News — and specifically, why is this Good News for us? Because we haven’t even glimpsed yet what God has in store for us. With a limitless God, there are limitless possibilities. That’s Good News.

Eventually, we will land in Mississippi and begin to unpack our life from boxes. We will move into our new home. We will take all those boxes and hopefully give them to somebody else who needs them. And honestly, I can’t wait because life is not meant to be lived in a box. Life is meant to be lived surrounded by the people you love and inspired by the God you serve. There is no box that big.