Sunday, August 1, 2010

Avery Willis remembered as a man who truly practiced what he preached

An old saying offers some sage wisdom: "He who lives next door to the temple soon loses his fear of the gods."

As a big-city newspaper reporter covering religious leaders of every label and denomination and later as a denominational employee working around some of the heaviest-hitters in the Southern Baptist Convention, I learned to understand clearly that old saying. From a distance, religious leaders can inspire and look terrific, but up close some of them turn out to be great disappointments because of their humanity—translated: at times, their arrogance, selfishness, self-centeredness, petulance, and hypocrisy that's often not seen from the pew or by the TV audience.

I thought about this again today after I read of the passing early Friday morning of Avery Willis, one of the few denominational leaders I knew who truly lived what he preached.

No one, except Jesus, is perfect; Avery would be the first to admit that he had his foibles. But despite some of those, I admired him because his talk and walk were the same. Known as "Mr. MasterLife", Avery was noted for helping individuals learn how to deepen and articulate their faith and then to share it with others. He and my wife, Kay, teamed up to write the "new MasterLife" which debuted in 1996 and continues to impact millions of people around the globe even today. Many times he was in our home to converse with Kay about the project as well as there, along with his wife, Shirley, for social occasions. And we were in the Willises' home many times for the same reasons.

However, the image of Avery that sticks in my mind to this day—some 15 years after it happened—is of a cab ride with Avery through the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He and I both were there to attend an international Baptist meeting. Riding in the back seat of the cab beside him, I listened attentively as Avery did his best to try and explain his faith in Christ to the person driving the cab. The cab driver was just another ordinary person, and Avery had no need to impress Kay and me as we rode the taxi with him back to our hotel. Impromptu, unrehearsed, and spontaneous all are words that describe Avery's actions that night.

At the same time Avery was a brilliant evangelism and missions strategist. He saw the big picture and looked for ways to reach the masses as well as individuals.

His actions were so out of character with many other leaders of all denominations that I encountered. In their big meetings, these leaders plotted and preached "strategy" for motivating others to help "win the world" to Christ; they talked a good game about what others needed to do. Somehow, though, some didn't seem to sense—as Avery did—their own personal responsibility in the effort.

Not only did Avery "witness" to the cab driver in Argentina, Kay and I saw him do the same thing in other countries and even back home in the States.

Remarkably, none of the instances I witnessed of Avery appeared to be done for show or because the person had an audience nearby. His actions seemed to express a heartfelt desire on his part.

After hearing of Avery's passing, Kay commented, "I imagine when he arrived at heaven's gates this morning, he was greeted by a whole host of people who shook his hand and told him they wouldn't be there had it not been for his efforts at witnessing to them."

Because she knew Avery even better than I—and better than most people—and was also good friends with Avery's wife, Shirley, I asked Kay to be a "guest columnist" to share her thoughts about Avery on this blog today. I hope you will enjoy reading her behind-the-scenes, in-depth perspective of a truly great man.

* * * * * * *

By Kay Moore
co-author with Avery Willis of the four-volume MasterLife revision

Avery already has been, and will be for the days and months ahead, eulogized for many exemplary things. But I have yet to see any of those laudatory remarks zero in on a happening that I believe truly captured the man:

At 8:52 p.m. on the night before he died at 5 the next morning, Avery was updating his status on his CaringBridge website. Naturally the words were few; he may have been dictating them to a family member, although I wouldn't put it past him to call for his laptop to be brought to his deathbed.

But unlike many his age (76, though young by today's standards, still was advanced enough to stereotype him into a "geezerhood" category, as far as being tech-savvy was concerned) Avery always understood--and utilized--the most recent technology as a means of advancing the Kingdom. He always remained current on new tech developments; usually he was a few steps ahead of us--his much-younger employees at LifeWay Christian Resources--in staying abreast of what the Internet could do for our programs. He expected us to follow suit.

I use the term "us" because I once was privileged to have Avery as one of my "big bosses" at LifeWay, then known as the Baptist Sunday School Board. At the time I joined the Board, Avery was a head-honcho in the Discipleship Training Department, as it was known then. My job-interview process before signing on landed me in Avery's office for the last of a series of grillings (including many questions about my spiritual life) before I became an editor over church-based support-group curriculum.

Many applicants would have been quaking in their boots to realize that they would have to pass muster before the esteemed Avery Willis--renowned author of MasterLife, legendary missionary to Indonesia, and widely respected speaker, preacher, and revivalist. But before any of those thoughts of trepidation could flit through my head, Avery shook my hand sincerely and with the signature twinkle in his eye (a twinkle that I'm sure never left his countenance even at the end) put me at ease immediately. Approachable always was the word to describe Avery. He wanted to know about the work, sure, but he also always wanted to know about the family and later about the small groups I personally was leading and whether the MasterLife concepts ("I want you not only to write it but live it", he adjured me the day I contracted alongside him to co-author the 1996 revision) were finding a home in my heart.

I'll never forget the day he and I began outlining the revision for what was to become MasterLife Book 3, "The Disciples' Victory." After only a few sentences into spelling out his vision for the project Avery scooted back his chair as we sat at the dining table and looked at me squarely. The twinkle still twinkled, but otherwise he was somber. "You know you'll experience warfare once you take on this topic," he warned. Inwardly (probably a little bit outwardly as well) I scoffed. "Oh, Avery," I said as I mentally rolled my eyes. "Been there; done that. I know how to deal with temptation." Still dead-on serious, he shook his head. "You've never known warfare like you will when you tackle this," he continued. "Just be on guard and stay prayed up." I promised I would.

Wow, how right he was! The devil certainly didn't want Book 3 to ever see the light of day. I'm not talking big, heinous trip-ups that Satan arrayed in front of me, but I did experience many, many times in which the devil certainly showed he wanted to stop me from my goals. Little annoyances, such as wrongful charges on personal credit-card bills, inexplicable computer glitches, and other out-of-the-ordinary troubles were my lot the entire time Avery and I worked on revising Book 3. Of the four MasterLife volumes in the new order (our goal was to reorganize into four six-week, more user-friendly segments than the original 24-month MasterLife that had appeared in the two brown ring binders that many original M'Lifers remember), "The Disciple's Victory" was my personal favorite (most people say Book 2 "The Disciple's Personality" tops their list, but Book 3 was the book of my heart). But it had the most struggle involved in getting it into print.

Despite Satan's attacks that clearly went with that territory, Book 3 gave me the most valuable asset I had when I sent my firstborn away to college across several state lines. Although I often felt helpless to assist my son since I was so far away, one thing I could do for him was to pray the spiritual armor on him every day. As a mom, having that vehicle at my disposal was a daily reminder that God cared even more about my boy's spiritual well-being than I, as his devoted mother, did. My son is grown now but still lives across several state lines from me. Praying the spiritual armor on him still is a daily task of mine, even though he's 34, married, and a father of two; it probably always will be (once a mom, always a mom). I'm so thankful that Avery taught me--and believers around the world--about that handy exercise.

Now that Avery has been promoted to Glory and no longer is working on this earth (although I'm sure he's already working a mile-a-minute in heaven), I can reveal the true secret to working with Avery Willis--a secret that only a few of his co-workers ever discovered but once anyone did, he or she found it absolutely foolproof. I mention this now in no way to be disrespectful but to simply show what an immensely busy man he was and the extreme demands and pressures on his time. That secret?

Before a meeting, get to him last.

Often before a department-wide assembly of the LifeWay discipleship staff, I would think that he and I had an arrangement worked out on a plan he would be presenting for me. But once Avery took the floor and began speaking on the topic of discussion, I would scratch my head in puzzlement. What had happened to my proposal that he had seemed to be so keen on? Meeting after meeting this would occur. Then one day I had something under my contact lens and had to arrive late at a department-wide meeting after I spent a stint at the washbowl to get my contact clean. As Avery also arrived at the meeting late and right in front of me, I saw a couple of DT co-workers, who stood outside the meeting door, divert Avery for a moment and bend his ear. He respectfully listened, courteously nodded, and then walked into the gathering.

When the time arrived for new business to be introduced, guess whose projects were most ardently advanced? The two co-workers who had gotten to him last. The development seemed more than coincidental.

Next time I had a major need that was critical to my area of responsibility, I decided to give this system a try. What could it hurt? Patiently but determinedly I waited by the meeting door until Avery was about to brush by. As I gestured for his attention, he courteously inclined his ear. I briefly refreshed his memory about an earlier discussion we had had and what my section needed to achieve. "Oh, yes, yes," he nodded in agreement. Some 20 minutes later, when Avery had the floor, my project was pushed through without a hitch.

Avery was a busy, busy man with his mind on countless things. I had gotten to him last.

As early Friday morning I learned he had just departed for Glory, part of me wished I had been able to have one last good conversation with him before he stepped through heaven's portals. After pouring out voluminous thank-you's for what he had meant in my life, I would have added one postscript, "Give Jesus a big hug for me. And my mother and daddy, too." I would like to have gotten to him last--just one more time.

I know one thing for sure: Jesus had a big hug for Avery awaiting him when he got there.

I also know that I was one among countless worshipers around the world today who had Avery on their minds as they attended their houses of worship and who were imagining what Glory must be like with him now as part of the heavenly host.

On the eve of his memorial service Tuesday in Arkansas, our church's congregational hymn, "Worship Christ, the Risen King", had some lines that summed up my thoughts about Avery's Promotion and his physical body about to be laid to rest.

See the tomb where death had laid Him,
Empty now, its mouth declares:
"Death and I could not contain Him,
For the throne of life He shares."

These hymn lines, obviously, were written about the resurrected Christ. But when Avery's body--felled too soon by disease and death--is returned to the earth for burial, the tomb will not be able to contain his spirit, which already is safe in the arms of Jesus.

And with Jesus, whom he served, wrote about, and emulated (as Louis described above), Avery today is sharing that Throne of Life. In MasterLife, Avery taught us how to live. As Avery mastered life and triumphed over death--he showed us how to die with The Disciple's Victory.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Going Rogue is not such a bad idea after all

When we travel from Texas to Arizona and back every so often (to visit our children, grandchildren and second home in the beautiful Arizona West Valley), Kay and I like to get a book on tape and listen to it. Usually we try to find something about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, or something that isn't as current as today's newspaper.

This time, however, I chose, after a careful five minutes of study, to purchase a copy of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. I did so partly out of curiosity and partly to get some kind of objective perspective on this very unique political personage.

In all honesty, I leaped for joy when John McCain chose Sarah as his running mate in the last presidential election. I thought he showed creativity, wisdom, and a willingness to depart from the "good ole' party line" when he chose a woman with children of varying ages, from a state without much political clout in elections or in Washington. By November, I voted for the McCain-Palin ticket more for Palin than for McCain, who seemed to run out of steam as if he knew the inevitable reality of President Obama's history-making election was upon him.

After the election, I was puzzled by many of Sarah's actions and the awful news coverage the mainstream media continued to drum up about her. She clearly was no darling of the liberal New York Times, Washington Post, . . . and even Yahoo News, which never missed an opportunity to gut her at every turn in its headlines or placement of questionable stories.

We listened to Sarah read her book to us for nearly 14 hours as our pickup truck made its way over familiar roads through West Texas, into New Mexico, and finally to Arizona's West Valley outside of Phoenix.

Sarah presented a very believable and understandable response to all the ugly headlines and comments made by the liberal Democrats and media—and even some Republicans—about her.

I liked some of what I heard Sarah say, but I didn't like some other things I heard her say. I also was puzzled by some of the things she needed to say but didn't.

She pictured herself as a maverick who was willing to stand up to party bosses and pros who think they and they alone know what is best for the country, including you and me. That part I admire very much. I personally consider myself—and those who have read my newspaper and blog columns over the years would likely agree—as "going rogue" in religious and political beliefs and actions. I don't like bureaucracies or party bosses of any persuasion trying to dictate to me what I should or should not believe.

In her book and in her lifestyle, Sarah displayed guts and independence—values I admire. I especially liked the fact that she truly lived up to the title of her book—Going Rogue. In my lifetime, I don't remember another politician of her stature with as much gumption as she has displayed. And that is very good. Too many in both political parties and too many denominations go along to get along with whatever their party bosses and leadership say or do. We desperately need in the U.S. political system—and the U.S. churches for that matter, too—leaders and people who are willing to think for themselves, speak for themselves, do the right thing, and act for the better good. Sarah seemed to personify all those elements.

What I didn't like were:

1. Her incessant references to Ronald Reagan and the Reagan legacy. She barely gave the Bushes a nod. and acted like she couldn't remember the name of any other Republican president (or for that matter Democratic president other than Barach Obama) who have occupied the White House. (There have been plenty, both good and bad.) Since I don't worship Reagan (or any other political leader) and found Bush The First much more likable and palatable than most people did, you can imagine that her "Reagan, Reagan, Reagan" did not set well with me.

2. I also didn't like some of her conclusions about what needs to be done in Washington. I liked some, but not all of what she said. (What would you expect from two "rogues"?)

What bothered me most, however, was what she did not say.

America's and the world's problems run much deeper than just the U.S. federal government and the ridiculous deficits that are occurring.

My federal tax rate has actually dropped over the past 10 years, thanks to former President George W. Bush's extreme tax cuts. The U.S. government has done nothing to make my life worse, except for Bush the Second's misrepresentation about those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the irresponsible way his administration let the banks and Wall Street get away with the things that led to the Great Recession.

But during the last 10 years my state and local property taxes sure haven't been lessened or held steady. Despite all the baloney about cutting taxes, Texas' Republican governor has overseen a massive (at least in my neighborhood) increase in the tax increase flowing to our local school district, city, and county.

And despite all the screaming and yelling that has gone on about the dangers of the feds administering health care, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, our health-insurance provider, has found a million different ways to triple our private health insurance rates (while forcing me to raise my deductibles) and cut the benefits (Oh, we're sorry but that medicine or drug or treatment isn't covered by your policy because of a loophole or technicality that we have hidden in fine print somewhere in your policy!).

And my local Kroger's, Walmart, and other friendly neighborhood haunts have found lots and lots of ways to raise their prices massively while telling me in their unending marketing campaigns how they are out to cut prices and help the little guy on a fixed income.

I just wish Sarah had mentioned some of these issues, too. The federal government is NOT the only problem. Multinational companies, huge hoggish banks, gigantic manipulative insurance companies and other bureaucracies and entities that Pope John Paul II used to warn us about are just as evil today as in the days when PJP wandered the earth in his popemobiles, jet planes and trains, and warned of the dangers that were developing because of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Neither America's nor the world's problems will be fully fixed in Washington. Instead, they will be fixed by compassionate caring in local neighborhoods; honest and straightforward politicians at all levels of government and not just the national level; ethical standards returning to the business world; and a myriad of other positive steps by honest and diligently working people of all races, nationalities, religions, and economic levels.

The problems we face today are too complex for simple solutions or pat answers.

I like the idea of "going rogue" and breaking with party bosses, traditions, and doing things "as they have always been done." Three cheers for Sarah for doing that.

I just think Sarah needs to take it about five levels up. I hope she will. At least she is saying what most politicians wouldn't dream of saying: that their party is wrong on certain issues and has been wrong at other times, too.

She struck me as neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I especially liked the fact that her husband likes to vote independently and won't toddy to any political party.

Keep your eyes on this "rogue" politician. She just might—I repeat might—keep on growing into the type of political leader this country and the world so desperately need—one with courage, independence, and the guts to do and say that which is right regardless of whose little political toes get stepped on.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. . . including that tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

The great BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may turn out to be the instrument God uses to get Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals out of their opposition and complacency toward environmental issues. And as bad as the mess in the gulf is, that may turn out to be a good thing.

With few exceptions, Southern Baptists have been extremely skeptical about environmental issues. They are, for instance, forever bad-mouthing anyone who dares to support the concept of global warming (including three of their own kinsmen—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore). Their opposition to that issue screams so loudly that it gets in their way of expressing true positive biblical concern for the Earth and all that is in it. Those who haven't been opposed to everything environmentalists say about global warming have often been, to put it mildly, foot draggers on the issue of the environment in general.

I was heartened to read recently in Baptist Press an article by Russell Moore (no relation to me that I know of), dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., that spoke of a grave concern for the environment generated by the oil spill. Like so many Southern Baptists, Russell happens to have deep roots along the Gulf Coast. He had returned home to the Gulf Coast and saw first hand the devastation already pummeling the area because of the slick stuff inching its way onto the beaches and into the lives of millions of people.

Russell has for years been a good forecaster of important issues in the SBC, which makes his opinion on this matter even more interesting.

It's a shame that it takes a cruel rude awakening in one's backyard to prompt concern that should have been there all along about the environment. Christians, particularly Bible-believing conservative Evangelicals, ought to have been in the forefront of the environmental-concerns movement. After all, the biblical book of Genesis makes it abundantly clear that the Earth and all that live on it or around it are God's creation. And Genesis also makes it abundantly clear that we humans are to be stewards (caretakers) of all of God's creation including the Earth itself.

And it doesn't take a believer in the theory of global warming to recognize that we humans are doing a pitiful job of taking care of God's beautiful world. Pollution, trash, misuse, and other ills that beset our Earth should be obvious to even the most casual observer.

Yes, I know upfront and personal that Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has spoken out somewhat in support of environmental issues. Having worked at the ERLC when it was called the Christian Life Commission, I know personally of Richard's interest in the area. I also know that it falls low on his and the agency's priority list. Southern Baptists simply don't get anywhere near as excited about environmental issues as they do the pro-life movement. Everything these days in the SBC seems to revolve around that issue (which by the way I support but not to the exclusion of every other biblical issue).

Instead, like so much else these days, Southern Baptists and many Evangelicals have allowed the Republican Party and its secular political biases to dictate their agenda. And unfortunately opposition to environmental issues is one of those issues the right wing of the Republican Party has lit upon.

Concern for the Earth and all that inhabit it should never be a divisive political issue. It should never be a Republican nor a Democratic issue. It is a biblical issue. It's OK to debate whether global warming is real or not, but it's not OK to fight against the issue of global warming so much that it looks for all the world like total opposition to anything and everything environmentalists have to say.

The tragedy that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico contains frightening elements for all Americans—Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party advocates, and Independents—as well as all citizens of the world. It is difficult to think of anything good resulting from BP's blunder and its continuing display of ineptness at managing the mess. But if it does light a fire under Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals about our need to be better stewards of our Earth and all that is in and on it, then at least that will be good.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Arizona's misstep illustrates the divide between Christian denominations

The last thing economically strapped Arizona needed was a national debacle over its new immigration law, but the action now seems to be the flash point in the long-running debate on the issue.

My wife and I were in Arizona when the new, controversial law was passed. We own a second home there—and pay property taxes—because we have family in Arizona's beautiful West Valley; we like the area very much. We watched the debate up-close and couldn't believe what was happening. Now back in Texas where we live most of the year, we feel embarrassed by Arizona's misguided action.

Sadly, we also have a good idea of the roots of the issue.

The law looks not only vindictive against all Hispanics, but it smacks of revenge being taken out on innocent people over the messed-up financial situation the state has managed to get itself into. Arizona—like California, Florida, Michigan and some other states who led us into the Great Recession—is in dire circumstances. Anger over the financial mess oozes on top of the hot desert sands. Home prices there have plummeted to unbelievable depths. The majority of the mortgage-holders in the state are underwater. The state's unemployment rate is high. The state's legislature is struggling to figure out what to do with all the red ink. Its largest city, Phoenix, in January laid off about 10 percent of its police and fire departments as well as cut even more drastically other city services—merely a benchmark for what other smaller cities and counties in the state are doing.

Economic misery often produces cockeyed behavior—regrettably often directed at innocent bystanders. This new law clearly is in that league.

The amazing thing about Arizona's new immigration law is how it appears to be dividing the religious community. The National Council of Churches and its affiliated mainline denominations have turned out swinging at the law. The NCC has called the law unChristian, immoral, and probably illegal. The Evangelical denominations for the most part so far have remained silent on the Arizona debacle.

Native-born U.S. Hispanics we know are boiling about the new Arizona law. Their anger is not limited to their denominational affiliations. Just because they may look Hispanic, they now will be forced—in Arizona at least—to carry on them proof of their citizenship.

Foot-dragging on this issue by Evangelical and other church leaders could drive a huge wedge between them and the rapidly growing Hispanic population in this country.

The next time I travel to Arizona, I personally plan to carry my Native American documents along with my U.S. citizenship documents. If asked to prove my nationality (which is very unlikely since I have no Hispanic heritage), I will show my Native American papers and then ask the nationality of the interrogator. Unless he or she also is a Native American, I will ask whether his or her ancestors were really, truly legal when they intruded on this land. Many people conveniently forget that except for Native Americans, all other Americans are descendants of people who may not always have had the proper legal papers to enter this country. Many of the first Americans certainly didn't ask permission of the people who already lived here then.

I hope Arizona's leaders not only quickly return to their senses and repeal the law but that the attitude they have displayed toward the whole Hispanic community doesn't turn out to be contagious in the rest of the Great Recession-riddled country. The last thing America needs to do right now is to alienate its Hispanic population, its neighbor to the South, and the rest of us who do not want to see our Hispanic friends mistreated.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

SBC's "Great Commission" task force has stumbled badly

When I first learned about the Great Commission Resurgence movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, I felt extremely optimistic that maybe—just maybe—this might be God's means of bringing the bureaucracy-laden, fervor-cooled, myopic, shrinking denomination back on the right track.

Then when I learned about the official Great Commission Resurgence Task Force that was formed after last year's SBC meeting, my hopes sank dramatically. I wrote at the time:

"After the committee's formation I was tempted to write a blog entitled 'Can the SBC bureaucracy save itself?' (Perhaps in the end this committee will be able to muster the courage, insights and influence necessary to make the required dramatic changes, but I remain skeptical because too many politicians and bureaucrats are now involved. What isn't needed is a simple rearranging of the chairs on the deck of this Titanic!)."

Now that I've read the preliminary report from this establishment-ladened committee, I am truly underwhelmed. Yes, underwhelmed. Overwhelmed I'm not.

This is looking more and more like a simple reshuffling the cards in a card game—a bureaucratic tug-o-war over money, position and power. That's the last thing the faltering denomination needs. The committee's recommendations look more like petty "robbing Peter to pay Paul" antics than the energy needed to expand the tent, bring in more members and more money, and re-ignite the cooling evangelistic fires that once burned so brightly inside the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination.

Presently top denominational bureaucrats are pointing fingers at each other over the committee's silly, Mickey-Mouse pronouncement that the solution lies in taking $2 million from the denomination's Executive Committee and giving it to its International Mission Board, which already receives 50-cents out of every dollar forwarded to the national denomination, and in taking funds away from its smallest state conventions, which are having a truly tough time living on the outskirts of the denomination's Southern base and staying afloat in this Great Recession, to invigorate its long-faltering North American Mission Board.

If this Movement is in reality just a ruse to steal each other's funding and play "pea-under-the- pod" bureaucracy games, then the Great Commission Resurgence is truly not what I—and many others—had hoped for: a way out for the denomination's cooling fervor, declining numbers, and dwindling dollars.

Instead of the Movement stirring up top, aging denominational bureaucrats to squabble over money and fuss about who's more evangelistic, the Great Commission Committee needed to motivate, inspire, and lead the denomination's core and younger lay and clergy members on the local level—not its bloated national bureaucracy—to aspire to new heights.

Time is running out for the task force to forge a creative, innovative, far-reaching, positive plan for the convention's future that truly will inspire the person in the pew.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Baylor President Ken Starr needs to be as clear about his theology as he wanted Bill Clinton to be about his sexual activities

Back in the 1990s, when the flame of Southern Baptist interest in establishing better relations with other Christian denominations was flickering and getting ready to go out, our home was practically ground zero for Southern Baptist ecumenical dialogue.

At that time Southern Baptists had only two official dialogues under way with other Christian groups—Roman Catholics and Churches of Christ. I served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Roman Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue; my wife Kay served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Churches of Christ-Southern Baptist dialogue team. Kay at one time was the only female among the 20 Southern Baptists, 10 Roman Catholics and 10 representatives of the Churches of Christ—40 people all total—serving on the two teams.

To say we had a ringside seat on these discussions would be an understatement. Both dialogue teams each met for dinner and discussion in our home for one of their meetings.

I was invited to be on the RCC-SB dialogue team because of my extensive interest in the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that as religion editor of the Houston Chronicle I had traveled with Pope John Paul II on some of his many trips abroad and had spent about a month working in Rome covering the Vatican.

Kay was invited to be a participant in the Churches of Christ dialogue because of her extensive knowledge of and interest in the Churches of Christ. Her paternal grandfather was a minister in the Churches of Christ and her father was a lifelong member of a Church of Christ congregation. Only the fact that her dad's particular Church of Christ in their hometown in the late 1940s did not have an air-conditioner and the local Baptist church did kept Kay from growing up a member of a Church of Christ. Instead her mother—with Kay's father's blessings—chose to remain a Southern Baptist and to rear Kay in a Southern Baptist church which had a wonderfully cool church nursery for Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday-night services.

Recently we were reminded of how these two strains--Baptist and Churches of Christ--flowed into our own lives when our alma mater, Baptist-born-and-bred Baylor University in Waco, TX, announced that Judge Ken Starr, a born-and-bred member of the Churches of Christ, would be the new (14th) president of the school. While most alumni are fixated on Starr's controversial—and some say divisive—political life, we were intrigued and puzzled by his Churches of Christ heritage and affiliation and the odd statement in the Baylor press release rather deep in the story announcing that Judge Starr plans to join a Baptist church on arrival in Waco.

(News reports say Starr is officially a member of non-denominational mega-church McLean Bible Church in Virginia where Evangelical politicos often have their memberships. Church of Christ sources say, however, he was a "weekly attender" at the University Church of Christ on the Church of Christ-affiliated Pepperdine University campus in California where until February 15 he was the dean of the Pepperdine Law School.)

This brought back memories of some of the most controversial points in the Southern Baptist-Churches of Christ dialogue. Most interesting was the fact that the 10 members of the Churches of Christ team did not fit at all the traditional Southern Baptist stereotypes of members of the Churches of Christ. These were not people who were against just about everything progressive in church life—such as pianos, organs, Sunday School, nurseries, homes for the aged, and so forth. The Churches of Christ team members were erudite, articulate, positive, and surprising in their receptivity to new things and in their presentation of their theology—a far cry from backwoods locales in which Churches of Christ members were stereotyped for the things they were against more than for anything positive.

Southern Baptists on the COC-SB dialogue team also were surprised at the many negative stereotypes the Churches of Christ members had of their denomination, too.

Theologically the biggest sticking point between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ has traditionally been the matter of baptism. Southern Baptists believe salvation occurs through faith in Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior. Southern Baptists believe baptism is a symbolic act after salvation and illustrates what has occurred inwardly in an individual. Members of the Churches of Christ, on the other hand, believe salvation occurs through baptism. COC members believe salvation occurs in the actual act of immersion. Thus, COC members are more in keeping with Roman Catholic theology and mainline Protestant theology which link salvation and baptism together. Though those may sound like technicalities to some people, these are major theological dividing points in Christianity.

During the dialogue, Kay found some of the COC team members hedging on whether salvation is through baptism alone. (Members of the Church of Christ team almost universally confided that the very oldest Churches of Christ members--people in Kay's grandfather's generation--were far less adamant about baptism for salvation than younger members were and documented how that particular controversial tenet increasingly "gathered steam" as the movement progressed). She often returned home from the dialogues reporting that some of the participants sounded more like Baptists than the stereotypical COC members. She was particularly fascinated by COC participants who insisted COC members are more diverse in their theology than most people believe.

And of course we know Southern Baptists who are equally as diverse and who also hedge on whether they think immersion in water is actually necessary for salvation to occur.

From our experiences on these dialogue teams and other life experiences, we both learned that one needs to listen carefully to what a member of a particular denomination says he or she believes before assuming that the person falls in lock-step with whatever the prevailing theological stereotype is of the person's denominational beliefs.

That's why we are eager to learn more about what the new Baylor president actually believes about theology as well as other important issues. We hope in the next weeks and months Judge Ken Starr will articulate as clearly as he wanted President Bill Clinton to articulate in the courtroom and that he (Starr) will state emphatically what he truly believes about baptism and salvation as well as about minor issues such as whether a church ought to have instrumental music in its worship center, whether a church ought to celebrate Easter, and whether he agrees with the traditional Churches of Christ viewpoint on the role of women in public worship.

Baylor University's presidential announcement puzzling

I'm puzzled by the way Baylor University made the announcement of Ken Starr as the next president of Baylor.

I heard about it in an email from a friend who is editor of the national Church of Christ publication. He wrote wanting to know if Starr would be the first non-Baptist president of Baylor.

With no Baylor announcement to Baylor alumni in any of our email inboxes, Kay and I then checked out Starr on Wikipedia, which already listed Starr as the 14th president of Baylor University.

Finally about 30 minutes later the announcement from Baylor arrived in our inboxes. The fact that Starr is Church of Christ was buried deep in the story. The story also noted that Starr promised to join a Baptist church as soon as he arrives in Waco.

Absent in the story was anything that truly connected Starr to Baylor past or present. Now he is the future of our alma mater! He was until a few minutes ago the dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ West Coast school.

So do you get hired as Baylor president by promising to join a Baptist church? Or when you become Baylor president does your theology suddenly shift from C of C to Southern Baptist? Interesting development.

For more on this development watch this blog later tonight.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Time for SBC leaders to step forward to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go"

The news media is riveted to the story about the 10 Idaho Southern Baptists who are engulfed in the legal melodrama in Haiti. And well they should be. The issues involved in this case are fascinating, complex, and illustrative of the difficulties people wanting to do good sometimes encounter in today's world.

Don't think, however, that this is the first time individual Southern Baptists have been caught in messes such as this one. What makes this escapade so unusual is that it's out there for everyone to watch and comment on. The media seldom has gotten hold of other sticky situations like this one involving Southern Baptists. Usually the denomination has managed to skinny by some really troubling scenarios. This time it got caught in the glare of the public's headlights.

Take, for instance, the case about 11 years ago when a team of Southern Baptist volunteers from the Chicago area were detained in North Korea. Yes, North Korea. Unbeknown to most Americans, including rank-and-file Southern Baptists, the SBC has been working—sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely—in that area for at least a decade and a half.

The case to which I refer to involved a volunteer team much like the one from Idaho, with approximately the same number of people. Well-intentioned, these Chicago Southern Baptists went to North Korea full of idealism. Also like the Idahoans, the Chicagoans were apparently naive about the circumstances in which they found themselves.

And blunder they did. Even though they were warned to be discreet in their witnessing, the Chicagoans stood on street corners in Pyongyang and handed out evangelistic tracts—a great big no-no in the world's most reclusive communist-atheist nation. That was like waving a red flag in front of a bunch of already-suspicious bulls. North Korean police hauled off the volunteer group and "detained" the visitors for several days, while Southern Baptist bureaucrats worked feverishly behind the scenes—and out of the public limelight—to obtain the release of the Chicagoans.

Since the U.S. has no official diplomatic ties with North Korea, these Southern Baptist officials had to work through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to get the volunteer team released.
Before the whole mess ended, the situation with the Southern Baptist prisoners was the first—and a highly secret—item on the agenda during one of the Clinton administration's official talks with North Korean representatives.

After days of agony, the Chicago Southern Baptists were freed and quickly dispatched across the North Korean-Chinese border through which they had entered the reclusive country.

My hunch is this is how the Haiti situation may end. Or will it? In the case of the volunteer team in North Korea, members of the media and the public never knew what was happening. They also didn't know even after the situation was over. Because of that, no one was able to raise questions about what that team thought it was doing and why members behaved in such a reckless manner.

The Haiti situation is front-page news around the world, so people of all kinds of religious persuasions, political leanings, and legal backgrounds are now involved. Perhaps this is good, because questions need to be asked about how situations like this happen and how they can be avoided in the future.

I don't believe incidents like this occur in a vacuum, nor do I buy the idea that such happenings always are the work of the devil. Also, these things happen too often to be considered a novelty.

Southern Baptist leaders quickly note that what happened in Haiti was the work of individuals from an autonomous, independent congregation. You can almost hear them throwing in the disclaimer "overzealous". Technically correct, these leaders act shocked and bewildered over the situation. For political as well as legal reasons, they are trying to stay aloof from the embarrassing circumstances while offering compassionate prayers for the 10 people and their families.

Nevertheless, someone needs to ask the central question here—Are denominational leaders truly innocent and non-culpable in this and other situations? The policy of the SBC is for volunteer mission groups from autonomous, independent congregations to go worldwide to witness to any and every people group in the world—and they truly mean to every people group in every country in the world, with no exceptions. This has been the policy of the SBC for at least 15 years. SBC leaders over and over preach the need for presenting the gospel to every people group on the planet.

The natural corollary of that dogma is that people are going. Individual Southern Baptists from autonomous, independent congregations are streaming overseas at ever-increasing numbers. Denominational leaders are not even sure how many are going; they just know large numbers are heeding their pleas. The question is, are Southern Baptist leaders truly preparing these hoards for the inevitable conflicts and difficulties volunteers such as the Idahoans and Chicagoans have encountered?

Back in 1985, as a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went to the former Soviet Union to clandestinely interview Jewish citizens who wanted to flee their homeland for Israel or the United States but were denied exit visas by their communist masters who feared the brain drain such an exodus would create. Given the times and circumstances, this was a tricky and dangerous assignment for me.

I went knowing full well the dangers and possibilities I might face. I also went having been briefed thoroughly by lawyers and other leaders of the American B'nai B'rith Jewish organization, which was working to free the Soviet Jews.

I will never forget one question and answer during that extensive briefing.

"What happens if we get arrested by the Soviets?" one of my traveling companions asked.

The lawyer leading the briefing gave an amazing answer: "Try to get word to me any way you can. I then will fly to where ever you are and use every legal skill I have and every resource I can muster to get you freed."

I found his words reassuring. If we got into trouble, he said emphatically neither he nor B'nai B'rith would leave us dangling at the far end of a long tether. They would be there for us. Fortunately, that adventure went off smoothly without any legal or political incident. I was able to write my series on the Refusniks--a series the Houston Chronicle nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I doubt seriously that any Southern Baptist leader gave either the Chicagoans or the Idahoans such an assurance. SBC leaders often prompt their members to do things they later act like are merely the actions of "independent, autonomous church members".

Now is the time for SBC leaders to step forward and to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go" but not providing the proper training to keep missteps such as the ones in Haiti from happening. Better yet, some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the "go" message, ought to step up to the plate and volunteer to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that country.

With leadership goes responsibility for one's actions. Political as well as church leaders need never forget that fact.

Friday, January 15, 2010

American's bankers need to remember Jesus' parable on debt forgiveness

Every time I read or think about the big U.S. bankers and the Wall Street brokers who seem so indifferent to their gluttonous and ill behavior that brought on the Great Recession and their ravenous appetites for big bonuses, commissions, and salaries today, I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 18.

In this parable Jesus tells about a man who owed his master 10,000 talents (a money unit in that day). The man was not able to pay his huge debt, so the master began proceedings to sell the man, the man's wife, and the man's children into slavery to recover his money.

At that point the debtor pled for his life and the lives of his family members.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,' he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything'."

Jesus then said, "The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go."
What happens next in the parable exposes the character of the man who has just been forgiven.

"But when the servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (another money unit of that day but much smaller than a talent). He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded."

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt."

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'

"In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed."

At the end of the parable Jesus says, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Jesus' parable is incredibly parallel to what America's big bankers and Wall Street brokers have done and continue to do. When their backs were against the wall financially in late 2008, these financiers ran crying to the government for a huge bailout. They got it; the U.S. reprieved them from the mess they had created with their hoggish mortgage schemes.

Now that their fortunes are more secure because of the bailout, these same financiers continue to foreclose wildly on people's homes, jack up bank charges unmercifully, and act tight-fisted with even their best, most credit-worthy customers.

Most Americans have not escaped the ill behavior of these bankers. These individuals have figured out a million ways to dig deeper into everyone's pockets for extra profits to make more money for themselves—and to pay themselves bonuses accordingly.

Now President Obama for good reason is jawboning them for their ruthless behavior and threatening them with new taxes.

And well he should, because he is on solid biblical grounds.

The Bible says more about money than it does on any other single issue, including some of the pet issues of some church leaders.

Interestingly, few Christian leaders—evangelical or mainstream, liberal or conservative—have spoken out forcefully during the current national outrage over the indifferent, hoggish attitudes and behaviors of big U.S. bankers and Wall Street stockbrokers. The silence of most evangelical leaders on this issue screams loudly in our ears.

Even the mainstream and liberal church leaders have not been as outspoken about the bankers and Wall Street brokers as they should be.

I can't help wondering whether this situation is akin to the decades when churches remained silent on the hazards of smoking, while governments and secular groups drove home the point. Churches said nothing all because too many church leaders feared the wrath of—and loss of contributions from—wealthy tobacco growers and firms.

With the public's outrage growing daily and President Obama taking the lead on the issue, silent church leaders need to get out their Bibles and start studying the Scriptures again. Then maybe they will begin to act now before they are left once again choking on the dust from the public's disaffection with them for their failure to address the matter biblically.