Friday, September 18, 2009

Singing The Lord's Song

This past week I read a story about Max Fuchs, 87, of New York City. As an Army soldier in WWII, Mr. Fuchs led the first Jewish service on German soil after the rise of Hitler.

On October 9, 1944 in Aachen, Germany, as a 22 year old veteran of the Omaha Beach D-Day landing, Private First Class Fuchs served as the cantor for the open-air worship service. NBC Radio was on hand to broadcast the historic occasion to the entire world.

“I was as much scared as anyone else,” Mr. Fuchs told the New York Times in an interview. “But since I was the only one who could do it, I tried my best.”

Before the war broke out, Mr. Fuchs was studying to become a cantor in his synagogue, the equivalent of Minister of Music in our Baptist churches. But he left his studies and entered the Army when his country called. His family immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1932 when he was a 12 year old boy. Many of his family members were killed when Germany invaded his home country in 1939.

The two hymns he chose for that historic worship celebration rejoiced in the Providential care of Almighty God, and the hope for redemption in the hereafter. As the men sang them that day, there were artillery shells exploding nearby. You can hear this on YouTube:

This story reminds me of the importance of singing the Lord’s Song.

We are privileged to live in a country where we can celebrate our faith in peace, without the threat of oppressive forces seeking to destroy our freedom.

Each Sunday as we gather for worship, we sing songs declaring our God’s great power to save and redeem.

Whether or not we have innate musical talent like Mr. Fuchs, I hope we will sing them every Sunday with the same urgent and passionate faith those soldiers sang them on that Jewish Sabbath day long ago.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Carol Brown Johnson

Carol Brown Johnson, age 84, went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, August 18, 2009, after an extended and courageous struggle with lung disease.

She was born on April 14, 1925 in Repton, Alabama to Clarence and Abigail Brown. After graduating from Repton High School, she moved to Mobile to work as a secretary in the shipyard industry during World War II. She met and married Francis Johnson of Franklin, Alabama in 1950. In addition to her primary vocation of raising four sons, she worked as a bank teller, church secretary for the Gadsden Street United Methodist Church, and an administrative assistant for over twenty years for both the Pensacola Educational Program for resident physicians and the Escambia County Medical Society, retiring in 2001. She cared valiantly for her husband during the last years of his life as they struggled together with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

She was a faithful member of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.

She is preceded in death by her beloved husband, Francis.

She is survived by her four sons, Langdon of Mobile, Alabama and wife Cheri; Francis of Mobile and wife Rose; Charles of Fort Worth, Texas and wife Jana; and Dennis of Louisville, Kentucky and wife Tracy; eight grandchildren, Chad, Cliff, Will, Peter, Chris Anne, Langdon, Nathan, and Anabeth; one great-grandchild, Corley of San Angelo, Texas; brother Cecil of Houston, Texas.

Memorial services will be on Thursday, August 20, 11:00 a.m. in the Pleitz Chapel at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, 500 N. Palafox Street, with the Rev. Dr. Barry Howard and the Rev. Charlie Wilson officiating. Visitation will precede the services at 9:30 a.m. Graveside services will be held later in the day at 3:00 p.m. in the River Ridge Cemetery of Franklin, Alabama.

Memorial gifts may be sent in lieu of flowers to the general ministry fund of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, 500 N. Palafox Street, Pensacola, Florida, 32501.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Hindered Gospel

The youth of the Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas were scheduled to embark this coming Friday, July 3, on a long-scheduled music and mission tour to eastern Kentucky to sing praise to Almighty God and build decent housing for Appalachian poor people—two very basic things biblical faith commands followers of Christ to do.

They had carefully planned to work with Mountain Outreach, a mission associated with the University of the Cumberlands located in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and to stay in dormitories on the university campus.

On Monday of this past week—two days ago— Broadway received a phone call from the university informing us that the youth group was not welcome at University of the Cumberlands. The subsequent facsimile sent to Broadway Minister of Youth Fran Patterson, in its entirety, said this:

“In light of the recent decision at the Southern Baptist Convention regarding your status and affiliation with the convention, we have determined that we must resend (sic) our invitation to participate in our summer program with Mountain Outreach beginning July 5 through the 11th. We regret any inconvenience that the situation has caused especially in such short notice.

“Any inquiries in this matter may be directed to the office of the President of the University of the Cumberlands.”

Presumably, only those affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention are qualified to do the work of the Lord at Cumberland.

Perhaps poor people who live in substandard housing in eastern Kentucky care about the denominational affiliation of those partnering with them in improving their lives. I lived and ministered in that lovely part of the world from 1986-1989 as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Albany, Kentucky, but I simply do not remember any such concern.

What I do remember is that the good people of Kentucky conducted themselves with the highest standards of Christian grace and hospitality.

When I delivered the Franklin P. Owen lectures on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands last September, during my tenure as Interim Pastor of Broadway, I received nothing but a respectful, gracious reception from the fine faculty, staff, and student body there.

Indeed, I discovered that the University of the Cumberlands mission statement, “to offer promising students of all backgrounds a broad based liberal arts program enriched with Christian values,” is put amply into practice.

So, I am puzzled by this impoliteness.

Furthermore, I am fairly certain, even in my limited understanding of the mysterious ways of God, that the work of the Gospel is not helped but hindered by Cumberland’s reactionary decision.

So is this is what it all has come to in Southern Baptist life, a moral absolutism so airtight that is has no room for a bunch of kids who just want to do something good for God?

The decision has left Youth Pastor Fran Patterson scrambling to make other arrangements so that the young teenagers eager to serve their fellow human beings would not be disappointed. I received the following email correspondence from Fran just now:

“Thank you so much for your support and help in this difficult situation. I think I have finally found a place for us to stay and serve in the Nashville area. The whole trip was planned around the mission project in Kentucky, so I needed to find a place that wouldn't upset the rest of the schedule. It is nice to know that there are friends out there who love us and support us in what we do. I am meeting with the youth tonight to explain the happenings of the last few days.”

I wish that youth pastor did not have to make such an explanation to people in such a formative stage of their moral development. Even the wisest moral teacher would have a difficult challenge making sense of this to an adolescent understanding. I have had two days to reflect on it, and my adult mind is still confused.

Perhaps the President of the University of the Cumberlands should give the explanation. He would say that the recent disfellowship of Broadway by the Southern Baptist Convention put him in a difficult position with regard to his trustees and donors. He would say that he couldn’t risk association with a church that receives all persons, regardless of background or condition, into its life and fellowship. He would say that he simply had the best interests of the university in mind.

But when he finished speaking those kids still would be confused. So would the poor folks of Whitley County. So would I.

And, I suspect, so would Jesus.

So, on second thought, save the explanation. Issue an apology instead.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Glad Reunion

Jana and I were honored to be invited back to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of our beloved Trinity Baptist Church of San Antonio this past weekend.

New senior minister Les Hollon graciously extended an invitation to us weeks ago, and we eagerly accepted. I have returned to preach memorial services in the Trinity community on a number of occasions since I left three years ago this very week, but this is the first time I have had the privilege to preach a worship celebration.

It was an absolute delight, full with Trinity’s signature exuberance and warmth.

It was particularly thrilling to join in the dedication of the TriPoint community outreach center at St. Mary’s and Hwy. 281, just several blocks south of Trinity’s main campus at 319 E. Mulberry Street. Six years ago, God gave our congregation the vision to acquire the vacated Albertson’s Supermarket building at that location.

In one of the most notable outpourings of generosity I have ever witnessed from a congregation, Trinity raised almost $4 million in pledges to purchase that building in only two weeks’ time. Through the years, it has been used to house victims from Hurricane Katrina, host young and fledgling congregations at worship, and warehouse the San Antonio Junior League’s Christmas toy program.

But, the project cranked into high gear last year when the San Antonio YMCA agreed to partner with Trinity in moving their downtown facilities to the location. As a result, TriPoint now hosts a state-of-the-art fitness center its north side, and the Grace Coffee CafĂ© on its south side. Folks from all over the city are now gathering for exercise, fellowship, worship, and conversation because of Trinity’s remarkable vision of outreach.

We were met in the parking lot of TriPoint by our good friend, Rene Balderas, the chief architect for the project. Rene and Liz and their three beautiful girls joined Trinity during our ministry there, and it is a great gratification to see his ample creative energies come to fruition in such a facility. My colleague Jaime Puente, who joined our ministry team at Trinity, and who was responsible for much of the concept and program development of TriPoint, gave us the tour. Isaac and Cindy Rodriguez, who also united with Trinity on our pastoral watch, operate the Grace Coffee Cafe.

Simply put, we were stunned. The place is breathtaking. What was a gigantic box a short time ago is now a dazzling recruitment center for the Kingdom of God.

After the dedication, we moved to the main campus for a barbeque supper and worship celebration. We hardly got to take a bite of our brisket because of our many wonderful friends greeting us, welcoming us back home.

Who needs food when there is such nourishing fellowship?

Then we moved down the Musselman Corridor to the sanctuary where we joined together in a rousing celebration of gratitude, remembrance, renewal, and hope. Through numerous testimonies and video presentations, we were reminded of Trinity’s rich 60 year history—and challenged to dedicate ourselves anew to the work of Christ through us far into the future.

The next morning, Pastor Les presented his inspired vision of a coordinated and interfacing ministry of Trinity Baptist Church in three locations—the main campus, the Ruble Community Center, and TriPoint—and gave insightful theological interpretation to this tripartite ministry around the doctrine of the Trinity: God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It was imaginative pulpit work, and we left energized for the journey ahead.

God is good to give us this sweet time of reunion and reaffirmation. We are grateful.

Glad reunion, as my pastor John Claypool would say.

My little Trinity friend told his mother at bedtime Sunday night, as she tucked him in, “Mom, now I get to miss Pastor Charlie all over again.”

True. All reunions end.

But they would not be nearly so glad if they didn’t strike resonance within us for another place, provide us with intimation of another time, and lead us to T.S. Eliot's happy conclusion that we will someday “arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Disfellowship and Dismay

The decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to find Broadway Baptist Church not in friendly cooperation is a missed opportunity for the denomination to reverse its regressive slide and take a small, safe step in the direction of inclusiveness.

For a year now, both Broadway and Southern Baptist leaders have worked diligently to maintain its historic, 127 year relationship. The ties that bind the church and denomination are strong and numerous, particularly given Broadway’s close relationship with Southwestern Seminary. Though archaic today, the Southern Baptist Training Union was launched in Broadway Baptist Church. (Anyone who has ever actually had to endure Training Union classes might conclude Broadway deserves to be ousted for introducing such an uninteresting program to Baptist life.)

Last summer a motion was made by a North Carolina pastor to remove Broadway from the Southern Baptist Convention on the grounds that the church was in violation of Article III of the SBC Constitution which prohibits churches from taking any action “to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.” How he concluded such a thing is a mystery; he has never had any formal communication with the church.

Nevertheless, the motion was referred to the Executive Committee of the Convention which opened up a dialogue that was largely respectful and gracious. A spirit of concord and mutual understanding prevailed in our conversations and correspondence. A number of Southern Baptist leaders were helpful and constructive in behind-the-scenes ways to bring the matter to the positive conclusion of Broadway’s continued friendly cooperation with the SBC.

It became clear early on that the Executive Committee did not wish to disfellowship Broadway. They seemed painfully aware of the negative, intolerant image of the SBC in American public life, and were determined not to do anything more to contribute to that image. Furthermore, the Committee appeared to embody more diversity and complexity than I had imagined.

We explained before the Committee that Broadway has never entertained any formal order of business before the congregational body that constitutes an endorsement of homosexual behavior. We further explained that church membership and congregational service in no way denotes ratification of the behavior of the individual holding that membership and performing that service.

Discussions were candid and thorough. More conservative voices on the Executive Committee wanted Broadway to do something clearly not required by the SBC Constitution: take formal congregational action to condemn homosexual behavior. This extraordinary measure has not been required of any other SBC church. It would be unprecedented and unauthorized. Such requirement repeatedly surfaced in our deliberations, and each time the Executive Committee backed off it.

Our presentations were thoughtfully and hospitably received. A spirit of Christian reconciliation emerged. Several Executive Committee members privately questioned the SBC’s authority to pursue the matter. I felt we had a historic opportunity to move the denomination in a progressive direction. It seemed that the Committee was prepared to receive our direct, good-faith testimony of continued cooperation rather than scurrilous allegations from unnamed sources outside our congregation. (Perhaps when we finish purging our church roles of homosexual persons, we can get to work on weeding out the gossips.)

The breakdown came when those advocating the more rigorous constitutional test won the day. It became clear several weeks ago from the Executive Committee that Broadway would have to implement measures to identify, isolate, and distinguish our gay and lesbian members from the rest of the congregation in order to be found in friendly cooperation. Of course, conscience, congregational autonomy, and common decency prohibit us from doing so.

Now, it appears that the constitutional language as presently stated in Article III is not sufficient. It is not enough for cooperating Southern Baptist churches simply to take no action to affirm homosexual behavior. They must now take formal action explicitly to disapprove such behavior.

Every Southern Baptist church of any size has homosexual members. These friends pray with us, sing with us, give with us, serve with us, and take the Body and Blood of Christ at the table of the Lord with us. Will the test imposed upon Broadway by the denomination now be required of all the churches?

The recommendation to disfellowship Broadway was unanimously passed in the Executive Committee. It was approved by the Convention without discussion. Not even one lone solitary dissenting voice. Such uniformity of thought and silence of conscience means that the SBC remains Baptist in name only.

The moral legalism inherent in the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision indicates the spiritual disease infecting and destroying our Baptist body today. Instead of focusing our energies of love on a lonely and hurting world, we are obsessed with endlessly parsing out arcane legalities designed to assert our own moral purity and superiority.

It is a sound and fury signifying nothing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Corley Elizabeth

Our first grandchild, Corley Elizabeth McCormick, arrived on the planet this afternoon around 2:00. She came in weighing a sturdy 8 lbs., 7 ozs. and sporting thick shocks of black hair. She takes the maiden name of her paternal grandmother.

Proud parents are our son, Chad, and his lovely wife, Mary Beth. Chad manages the 100,000 acre Cargile Ranch near Mertzen, Texas and Mary Beth teaches middle school in San Angelo.

Jana and I are beside ourselves with joy. Universal testimony to grandparenthood said we would be, but such reports were understated. Joy like this cannot be spoken.

Mary Beth is resting now, doing quite well after her good work this day. We are grateful and humbled by this miracle of birth, and mindful that such a miracle is replicated generously and innumerably by God each day. Thank you all for the loving solidarity of prayer and celebration with us on this grand occasion.

The southern poet, James Agee, said: "Every time a child is born the potentiality of the human race is born again."

It is Eden all over in our home tonight.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Don't Progressive Churches Do Evangelism?

One of the oddest ironies of contemporary Christianity in America is the inability-- or unwillingness-- of progressive churches to evangelize.

These are the churches with the most excellent values of inclusiveness and empowerment. It is axiomatic that openness of heart and mind to all people is a principle ingredient to congregational growth.

But, it is precisely these churches that are not only not increasing in membership but are actually in clear decline.

This is puzzling.

The core enterprise of original Christianity was to extend to the world an invitation to gather together in a New Community of Love.

It was the kerygma of that euanggelion around which the first disciples came together: the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. The very nature of news calls for it to be disseminated and announced. The very purpose of this news is to create something “new,” that is, the community of crucified and resurrected persons called the Church of Jesus.

The word we translate “evangelism” was initially used to herald the coming visit of Roman ruler to a far-flung province. The church, subversive movement that it was, co-opted that secular term to convey the arrival of the only true King, and the establishment of the only exhaustive and eternal kingdom. The concept at the point of its inception connoted a town crier, a communal notice, an open announcement, a public address.

There are old arguments for why progressive churches aren't evangelistic:

1.) Evangelism has been done so coercively and inauthentically by the fundamentalists, that progressives want little to do with it.
2.) Progressive churches have a style and methodology-- liturgical worship, scholarly Scripture study, etc.-- that do not appeal to the zeitgeist of of our day.
3.) Faith is an intensely private matter that is not properly addressed in public ways. Evangelism requires a necessary intrusion into this privacy.
4.) Demographic forces have adversely affected the progressive churches of our cities more than the conservative churches of our suburbs. "Red state/blue state" now means "red church/ blue church."

These strike me as tired dichotomies that are increasingly irrelevant. First, we no longer have a "Christ-haunted" culture, as Flannery O'Conner described the South of her day with its slam-bang, hard-boiled religious fervor. Second, it is precisely the historic, rich traditionism and symbolism that is increasingly attractive to emerging generations. Third, the old public/private divide is all but erased in our day of Oprah and reality TV. Fourth, it seems the election of President Obama reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the polarization of our hyper-sorted national community. Furthermore, economic dynamics are bringing families back into the centers of our cities and away from the sprawling suburbs.

So, why can't churches like ours be evangelistic? Is there some other reason?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


We offered this opening prayer in our worship on Sunday at Broadway Baptist Church:

O Lord, we come before you today to celebrate you in spirit and truth. But, just because we want to do that does not mean it will automatically happen. Help us, God. Guide our worship. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight.

We bring prayers before you today especially for our nation. We have sinned. We ask forgiveness for our pride, arrogance, naivete, materialism, idolatry and injustice.

Turn our hearts toward you, O God. We lift our nation up to you love and peace.

Hear our prayer for Mr. Bush and his family as they leave the presidency, and for Mr. Obama and his family as they enter it.

Capture Barack Obama's head with your wisdom. Deepen his heart with your compassion. Strengthen his hand with your courage.

Keep us and all the nations of the world in your protection and peace.

Through Jesus Christ-- King of all kings, Ruler of all rulers, Lord of all lords-- who lives and reigns with you and with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Aerial Desdemona

Yesterday gave me a view of the ranch I haven't yet seen.

My friend James Adyelotte, faithful Broadway member and winsome metereologist for the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, flew me around greater Desdemona in his Cessna Cardinal.

James is a delightful spirit, quick with laughter but engaging in serious matters of faith also. For him, flying has a spiritual dimension, and he took it up several years ago as a step of courage at a difficult juncture in his personal life.

We met at the small airport in Stephenville, 25 miles east of our home, and in no time we were up in the air heading back west toward Desdemona.

Take off and landing got my attention, but the flight itself was smooth and relaxing. It was brilliantly clear weather, perfect for flying.

Jana informed me that she had taken out a million dollar policy on me just in case. Nothing like the reassurance of a devoted wife.

So interesting seeing the ranch from the air. To look at the land panoramically, as a comprehensive whole, undemarcated in vision by road or fence or physical feature, plants a different topographical perspective in the mind. It is an impression of smallness, yet a significant smallness, and the critical need for stewardship of that particular small ground.

It had been some time since I last flew in small private aircraft, and the experience is invigorating. You become a bird.