Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Not So With You: A Post-Election Debrief

“Not so with you.” Those four words occur in the New Testament as a rejoinder to the people of God that we are not supposed to think, speak, or act in ways routinely accepted by our culture, but offensive to God. We are to stand up for Christ and stand out as followers of Christ’s ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.

Unfortunately, the campaign season and election we just endured brought out the worst in too many Christians. Sidewalk conversations, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts were peppered with ways of thinking and speaking that are acceptable in our culture but not to God. Co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family members divided up turf, drew lines in the sand, and acted as if God’s very "Godness" was dependent on the outcome of the election. Others conveyed the mistaken notion (and poor theological position) that America is God’s chosen, the new Israel, and that our country can only be great if led by a person who agrees with every jot and tittle of a particular (and often narrow) doctrinal system. Much of that, to the shame of all Christians, emanated from pulpits around this country. Not so with you!

We are, without doubt, living in a red and blue nation. Some are elated with the outcome while others are forlorn. Our state, county, town, neighborhoods, and in some cases even our families are also red and blue. But God’s rule cannot be defined by red or blue. God still wears a cloak of royal purple. God’s blessing or withholding of blessing from a people does not depend on which political party is in charge. God, throughout history, has raised up and destroyed rulers and nations according to his good pleasure and sovereign design. Yet, some Christians have spoken and acted in ways that indicate God can only get good work done through one ideological worldview or the other. Not so with you.

I understand and respect that we have real, well reasoned, and philosophically divergent opinions about what policies are best for our future. But there is a vast difference between standing pat for values and defaming another person’s character because she disagrees with us. We see and hear that happening nearly every day in our society. We expect ugly, partisan rants from left or right leaning talking heads, but “not so with you.”

Governor Romney gave a gentlemanly, sincere, diplomatic, and gracious concession speech. Yet, many people are continuing to write and speak in ways intended to rub loss or reproach in the face of fellow citizens. It is a very ego centric and careless way of acting. The not so subtle racism and ethnic elitism that underlies many of the comments is especially disheartening. Not so with you.

We need to acknowledge that all of us love our nation and all of us are passionate about maintaining her greatness. We all want a better world for our children and grandchildren. Nonetheless, conservatives and liberals each accuse the other of hating and destroying our nation. Really? Not so with you!

Again, I appreciated Romney’s tone, and particularly these lines:

We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counselors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built: honesty, charity, integrity and family.

I aim to answer the call. Further, I intend to respect and conscientiously pray for our President and other elected leaders (even when I differ with their ideas). I plan to build better relations and dialogue with people who think differently than I do. I purpose to treat all my neighbors in this country with respect and charity. I will earnestly attempt to convey God’s kind of grace to those who will not return respect or charity. I hope it will be SO with YOU all.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Graceless Gospel

The moment started innocently enough.  I was walking with my wife through an exhibition hall at the Oklahoma State Fair. We were on a date just enjoying our time together. Then a stranger raised his voice from his rather sad display and confronted me. “Are you going to heaven or hell? Without Jesus it will be hell for you!”  I hardly knew how to respond.  This man did not know me.  He had never met me. He had no idea that I was a pastor and that my walk with Christ is at the very heart of who I am.  There was a part of me that wanted to pivot and talk to the man, but a quick glance at his face told me that he would not be open to a real conversation. The anger flowing on his face showed that he had his confrontational gospel pitch and that was enough for him. He was not looking for a conversation or to begin a relationship, he was looking for instant conversions that he could count and celebrate. He was a “soul winner.”

I grieve this encounter.  No, it did not make me question my salvation or ponder the meaning of heaven and hell.  I grieve it because I realize that I was just one of many that he ambushed with his graceless gospel.  His call was not a call to life with Christ.  It was not about learning what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.  His gospel was a fire insurance faith filled with smoke and sulfur. I watched as others jump back when he confronted them.  He thought he was calling people to salvation but instead it appeared he was repulsing people from hearing him – and I feared that in the process was also repulsing people from being open to hearing an authentic word on the way of God. 

The latest Pew Forum report tells us that the fastest growing segment of religious life in the United States is the “none.”  Almost one in five people in our nation identify their religious affiliation as “none.” The growing perception is that the Church’s message and methods remnants of another era.  The power of a transformation gospel seems to get lost in the midst of television preachers that are more focused on drawing a crowd than drawing people to Jesus.  It gets lost when those on the right view people as “targets” for conversation rather than individuals who need to find forgiveness, hope, and love at the feet of Jesus.  They continue to call people to fear God rather than to fall in love with God. It is a graceless gospel. It gets lost when those on the left want to do good but fail to bring a vocal witness of the way to Jesus. They demonstrate goodness but in their silence offer a graceless gospel. We are not called to be good, but to belong to God as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ.   If we seek to be relevant in this era we must learn to build authentic relationships where we can live out and speak out our story of faith.  We live in a land where more and more people live apart from Jesus.  They are weary of the institutional church because we they have watched us fuss and fight and trip over moral failure after moral failure.  We are so busy trying to define and enforce a pure theology that we fail to be the people of God in their midst. We are so consumed by wringing our hands and worrying about our institutional survival and our political influence in the culture that we have failed to be about the task we were assigned on a hillside in Galilee.  If we are to be relevant we must live out and pronounce a grace-filled gospel.  Nothing less will do. 

Grace and Peace, Tom Ogburn

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Life in the trenches

The other night my wife and I watched War Horse, the recent award winning movie set in the context of the First World War. As you would expect, the movie takes us into the heart of trench warfare, with British soldiers on one side and German soldiers on the other.  I could not help but be struck with the image of troops on both sides, hunkered down in their trenches, waiting for the next whistle that would call for them to crawl out of their trench and attack the other side. They race through mortar shells bursting around them and machine gun fire raining down on them.  The attacks all fail and they retreat back to their miserable, rat infested trenches wounded and battered, grieving for those that did not make it back.  In the no-man's land between the trenches, everything living or life-giving is lost.  Only the sounds and smells of death and destruction remain. 

It seems that we have claimed the way of trench warfare in our national religious and political dialogue. It seems we have those on the right, hunkered down in their positions with no thought of doing anything else.  It seems we have those on the left, hunkered down in their positions with no thought of doing anything else.  The result is that at moment here and a moment there, a whistle blows or an issue pops up and one side or the other leads a futile attack on the other.  Nothing is accomplished except that news headline flash and otherwise good folks are mowed down in the exchange.  It seems that we are more content to lob bombastic bombs filled with hatred rather than to listen to one another.  We seem more content to shoot at each other at a distance with words of judgement rather than to draw close enough to each other to listen to one another and to call each other by name.   Our current path only leads us toward becoming a church more and more disconnected from the very people whom we hope to reach with the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  Our current political path only leads us toward becoming a nation further divided from one another.  Neither path is healthy.  Neither path seems to be consistent with the teaching of Jesus.  It is time for some voices to raise from the center and call us to more - to call us to be better - to call us to more Christlike. 

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches: If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

Let us go and do likewise.  

Grace and Peace, Tom Ogburn

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Do This?

Writing anything exposes one to misunderstanding or criticism from someone. Writing anything about standing in the center of politics, theological debates, or ethical issues exposes one to misunderstanding and criticism from nearly everyone in our highly polarized society.  Writing from or about what we believe to be the center of Baptist life is even more risky, because there are so many kinds of Baptists and so little agreement on what constitutes, either historically or Biblically, the “Baptist center.”
So why on earth would one even try? First, I am simply weary of the divisiveness and incivility that has been bred into our society. The harsh rants of the Rush Limbaughs and Bill Mahers have caused tone deafness in us.  I believe many Baptists, wittingly or unwittingly, have borrowed the tone and tenor of such rhetoric in our theological debates. There is a vacuum of moderating voices in this culture of screeching and screaming.  
Yes, we Baptists have historically been a stubborn and feisty bunch of people.  My seminary reading of Walter Shurden’s Not a Silent People was formative in helping me understand that. Who can forget chapter headings like, “Here Come the Battling Baptists”? Controversy and disagreement have played a pivotal role in the shaping of the Baptist landscape.
Further, on a personal level, I remember a time when a Pastor he loved like a brother ruled my grandfather out of order in a church business meeting. Further, to my own shame and discredit, I confess to moments when I have been less than charitable. Still, I cannot recall a time when our differences of opinion have resulted in the sort of mean spirited and highly partisan bickering that has characterized us for the last several years. There is hardly any contrast in tone between debates within the theological and political realms in American culture.  
Secondly, I am just na├»ve enough to believe that there are many silent voices in the middle, yearning for someone to speak up and say, “Enough already!” Some of us do not believe that everything must be black or white, red or blue, right or left, legalistic or libertine, absolute or relative, acute or obtuse, liberal or fundamentalist.  I believe that the loud, sometimes obnoxious, and usually strident voices from either fringe in Baptist circles need to know that they are shouting over the heads of many of us who are anxious to get along and restore a modicum of civility to public discourse. It is past time for the center to speak.  Have we been a silent people?
In the third place, I believe most of us, even those on the fringes, agree on much more of the gospel than we disagree over.  Certainly, there are nuances of understanding, interpretation, and application of gospel truths. Nevertheless, I dare to believe that most of us still believe in the authority of the Scriptures, the mystery of the Trinity, the truth of sin, the power of the resurrection, and the need for redemption that come only through trust in Jesus who is the Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Finally, I am convinced that this is precisely where Jesus would have me, and I even dare say “We,” to stand. Do you remember the occasion in the gospel narrative when the disciples encountered others who were not of their tribe casting out demons in Jesus’ name?  Jesus rebuked his disciples for their zealous and eager desire to use their newfound power to call down fire and brimstone on those heathens. “Whoever,” said, Jesus, “is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40, NRSV) Not only this, but we must not ignore the enjoinder of I John 3:11 that we should love one another, or that such love is the proof that we actually know God  and abide in Him (I John 4:6-16).
So, I am electing to expose myself to potential detractors from both sides of a great divide in contemporary Baptist life in America.  I do so with the great hope that the sleeping voices of a silent majority will awake and that at least within this sphere of Christian life known as the Baptist family we might turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  I trust that if yours has been one of the silent voices of the mighty middle, that you might consider joining this conversation and help us show the world that the third way between extremes is an honorable place.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Baptist's Perspective

I have been a Baptist all my life.

My paternal grandfather, who went to be with the Lord in 1980, was a bi-vocational Baptist minister. Though he never had the opportunity for formal education, he was a dedicated Baptist who studied diligently on his own, knew Baptist polity well and was committed to the support of missions through the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention.

My parents had me in church as soon as they could. I grew up learning about Jesus from a distinct Baptist perspective. I made a profession of faith at a young age and was baptized. I was nurtured into the kingdom, so that this was the logical next step in a faith journey that had begun much earlier. I likewise heard God’s call to the ministry early on. I met my wonderful wife in the little church that my grandfather had established.  We were married in that same church a little over three years later.  I was ordained to the ministry there as well.

I served three different small Baptist congregations as pastor while I was a college student at Campbell University and a seminary student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s. As I examined the faith I had been taught as I grew up Baptist, it became my own faith. While my faith grew and expanded in ways far beyond what I learned in my childhood and youth, it was not a denial of an earlier faith but rather a maturation of it. In college, seminary, and subsequent graduate studies, I imbibed in early church history and patristic teaching, which gave me appreciation for the ancient theological reflection that led to what we know as classical orthodox Christianity. 

So my Baptist pedigree not only includes my Baptist nurture in childhood and youth; I have earned degrees from a Baptist university undergraduate religion program, a Baptist Seminary, the graduate school of a formerly Baptist University (Wake Forest), and the divinity school of still another Baptist university (Gardner-Webb). And if that isn’t enough, I have worked in church relations at still another Baptist university (Wingate)!

I say all that to establish where I am coming from as I contribute to the conversations on this Reflections from the Baptist Center blog. When I am asked about my theological stance, I have come to express it like this. My understanding of the historic Christian faith is consistent with those ancient confessions of faith commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. My Baptist understanding is consistent with the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. Thus I am neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal, but a centrist committed to classical orthodox Christian teaching from a historic Baptist perspective.

These days, it seems that the center in Baptist life has fallen on hard times.

Last year I heard Len Sweet say in a lecture at Campbell University that in the "Gutenberg" world (people born before the invention of the cell phone in 1973), the poles were small and the center was large—a bell curve. But in the "Google" world (people born since the invention of the cell phone), things have become increasingly polarized. And as the center has shrunk, the bell curve has become the "well curve." While I agree that things have become increasingly polarized, I think there is still a large, though very quiet center. Those who are on the polar opposites tend to be very loud and persistent. 

Those of us in the centerwhether the issue is theological, ethical, practical, or political—tend to get attacked from both sides if we venture to express an opinion. If we do not toe the line of the extreme right, we are labeled as liberals. If we do not toe the line of the extreme left, we are branded as Pharisaical fundamentalists. Those on the left and right are so vocal and their demonization of the centrists so vehement that many in the center feel they have to identify with one or the other. After all, these seem to be the only two options, and they want to identify with what they consider the lesser of two evils. But as a wise professor once told me, "It doesn't matter whether you run off the right side of the road or the left—on either side, you're in the ditch!" I heard another wise professor say often that liberals and fundamentalists are twins, they just don't know it. Their assumptions and outcomes are different, but their methods and rationalistic approaches are nearly identical.

I'm not sure what the answer is at this point, but somehow those of us in the center must stand up and let our voices be heard, regardless of the attacks.

There is a better and more balanced way. The question is whether we will stand up in the center and passionately walk in that way—true to historic classical Christian faith and ethics and loving in our approach. Or as once I heard it described, "theologically committed, psychologically open."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A place for conversation for those in the Baptist theological center

Several months ago I posted a blog whose response surprised me.  The blog was entitled "The Forgotten Baptist Center" and expressed some of my sense of isolation and frustration as a Baptist coming from the theological center.  After I posted the blog, I began to hear from other Baptist pastors from a wide diversity of locations across the country. It seemed that some of more dramatic/controversial statements from Baptist leaders posted by the Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press would spur another flurry of emails and Facebook messages. It became clear that there was a need for a forum where those in the Baptist center could connect and communicate. I am inviting several other pastors to join me as blog authors from the start. We will also be open to others joining us in sharing their thoughts and perspectives.  We will also keep the comments section open so you can offer your response to what others might post.

Please hear that the intention of this new blog site is not to be a dissent voice or to stir controversy.  Our intention is that it serve as a means where pastors and other Baptist can connect with others that share their theological hearts' and communicate with others that share their place in the Baptist family.  As a part of the introduction to this blog site I am reposting the blog that seemed to spark some of the initial conversation.  It is offered below.  I look forward to hearing from you. 

There are times I feel alone. I did not use to feel this way. I used to feel a part of a family with a wide tent, big enough to hold a wide diversity of folks who all called themselves Baptist. It seems that Baptist have followed our national political trend of polarization. Those on the right seem to keep drifting further right. There seems to be little room in their world for anyone that might disagree with anything they think. Their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on the left are equally entrenched. It seems that it is not enough to be given the freedom to believe as they will – to practice their faith as they will. But, they are so sure that they are right that their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on both sides will not be satisfied until everyone embraces their way of thinking – their way of interpreting Scripture – their way of dealing with the politics of nation – their way of living life. Those on the right were so demanding that they drove many of us out of the tent seeking a new home. Now those on the left are so insistent that their agenda is highlighted and featured in conferences that the tent that I moved to now seems progressively less comfortable, progressively less like “home.”

There is a part of me that yearns for the absolute certainty of those who live on my left and right. It is easier to live in the absolutes. You do not have to think as hard or work as hard because everything is clear cut. My problem is that I that I live at the center/center-right of the Baptist spectrum. I claim the strong faith statements of traditional Baptist theology. I also claim the reality that Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 13, For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I want to live in the balance of a ministry of Word and deed. I am a faithful follower of Jesus that with equal passion taught and healed, preached and feed. I want to serve as a witness of a gospel that speaks both of law and grace, of justice and mercy. I want to be a Jesus person; both where that blesses and where that offends. It can be difficult to live in the theological center because it demands that I give great care to working through what the whole of the Bible says about an issue, and that I take the interpretation of the Bible seriously. I cannot allow my culture to so shape, from either perspective, what I read that I misread the Word of God. It means that my task is not driven by a poll of what one generation thinks about homosexuality, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, immigration, or a hundred other political and social hot buttons of the day; but rather what God has said to His people across the generations and across cultures. It means that when I come to preach and teach I come with the certainty of a God who was from the beginning and shall be forever; that God that is unshakable and is my refuge and strength. I teach and preach about a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I teach and preach from a Bible that is the divinely inspired Word of God, not in part but in whole. But, I also bring the frailty and the fallibility of my own perspective – worldview – and faith walk.

As I talk to other pastors and church leaders from across the nation they tell me that I am not alone. They tell me that they too are theological centrists in Baptist life. They tell me that they have also felt alone and forgotten in the emerging Baptist landscape. They tell me that they felt out of place in one tent, and progressive equally out of place in another. They tell me that their answer has been to dive in and focus solely and wholly on their local church’s mission and ministry. They are at home in the local church context and disconnected from the institutions and organizations that shape the Baptist landscape. They are old and young; graduates of the six historic Baptist seminaries and from the newer ones that have emerged over the last twenty years. They are ministers and they are laity. They long to feel connected. They long to work side-by-side others. They long to find community that is not drawn left or right by the latest poll, the quest for financial survival or the latest political wave. They are weary of seminars that are agenda laden and publications that seem to echo single points of view. They are the forgotten center in Baptist life. I wonder where and how they might fit together and work together in the days ahead? Any thoughts?

Grace and Peace, Tom