Underdogs & Mission

As Christians, we side with the underdogs because we most clearly identify with the persecuted margins (this is who Jesus was). Through Jesus’ life and death, we have the capacity to more readily see the systems–the “powers, and principalities”–that damage and destroy life. And by following Jesus’ footsteps, we have the impetus–the mission–the challenge to expose and undermine the forces that harm those outside the “normative pattern of life.”

Speaking from the Heart

Every now and again, someone urges me to preach more from the heart. I get what they want. I do. I can be too academic. I can get too complicated. I don’t always seem as passionate. Some weeks, I seem more rooted in my manuscript than others.

What they often want is to see me speak passionately, decisively, and usually without notes. And even though the passionate sermons they describe me preaching were usually preached from a full manuscript, I do take these comments very seriously. They help me to assess my preaching, to recognize places of further needed teaching and ministry, and to reflect on my own levels of self care and energies. They do affect what and how I preach, in ever differing ways.

But I don’t want to speak from my heart. I want to speak from the heart of God. That’s an important distinction, and it is something that requires time, prayerful reflection, and intent consideration. I do want my heart to be God’s heart, but I know that is a work-in-progress that will not be completed in this lifetime. And that means I have a lot of me to filter out in order to zero in on God’s heart.

So forgive me, but I won’t be preaching without notes anytime soon. I think what I do is too significant to be left to my own imperfect heart. I’ll keep testing the spirits, practicing discernment, reading and studying as much as I’m able–and then I’ll try to share God’s heart as purely and honestly as I can. It’s really all I can do. Really.

An Open Letter to the Westboro Baptist Church

Thank you for your recent visit to Atchison, Kansas. I hope you took a few moments during your visit to discover what a pleasant and charming place our small town is.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your visit because I found it quite timely. See, I’m pretty new to town, and you provided a fantastic opportunity to show solidarity with the other local clergy. In fact, it has proved to be an opportunity for clergy and other Christians in and around Atchison to come together as one and affirm the core of our Gospel faith: God is love and sent God’s Son Jesus to pave the way for God’s love to invade this world of hurt and hate.

Rarely in our schismatic world do Christians have such an opportunity to show the world that we are all children of God and members of the one universal church of Christ, that “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Where the media and fringe groups paint Christianity as a scattered, contradictory, and contrary bunch, you gave us the opportunity to disprove that stereotype, to rally together and speak with one voice. For that, I give you—and God—thanks.

I suppose that is part of the mystery of the redemptive power of God. Maybe it is like what is demonstrated in the story of Joseph: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Or maybe it has to do with that Great Reversal of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). I don’t understand how God does it, but I believe your visit to Atchison has strengthened the Christian community here. It just shows you how God can use us even when we are not aware of it.

I know you don’t think God gives a flying flip for this world or anyone in it, and you make it quite clear on your website that anyone who disagrees with you is going to hell; but I do believe God loves you and I pray that one day you will discover that love too. The Jesus of the Bible—who is the cornerstone of my faith—instructed his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Whatever I or others may feel about your actions in Atchison and other places, I believe you are human beings made in the image of God. May we all be transformed into God’s likeness as well.

Next time you come to our town, stay for a service. Or join me for a cup of coffee in one of our fine cafes. I don’t believe I can change your mind, but I do believe in the infinite persistence and transforming ability of God’s love.

 

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

 

Pastor Michael L. Strickland
First Baptist Church of Atchison

On Loaves, Fish, and Chicken Sandwiches

I know people are going to misunderstand this blog. I just do, and when it happens it will be for the same reasons I am trying to highlight here. I wish it weren’t so, but there will be those that push my analogy too far

As Rachel Held Evans has pointed out, the world will survive without another Chick-fil-A post. But I have had all this rattling around my head with last Sunday’s gospel passage (John 6:1-21), and maybe I just need to get this out.

To me, one of the most dramatic and overlooked elements of this episode and the rest of John 6 is the manipulation and rapid intention to remove Jesus’ personal freedom. At the very moment this miracle becomes apparent (when the left-overs are collected), Jesus starts picking up some bad vibrations from the crowd. They want to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15, ESV). So Jesus runs away.

As soon as they discover the miracle that has been done, they are not driven to follow Jesus, ask him questions, or discover more about him at all. Instead they want to possess him and the power he wields. They move, against Jesus’ will, to guaranteed that he is aligned with their will, their intentions, their agenda. They don’t care what Jesus wants. They don’t care who he is. They don’t care to discover his purpose. Jesus is not a person to them, he is merely a tool to accomplish their agenda, willing or not, come hell or high water.

Here’s where I’m going to get into trouble.

I was reading this article by John Pierce on Baptists Today. His point (at least as I read Pierce’s blog), is not so much to choose sides as to reflect on the outcry through the historically Baptist lens of freedom. Pierce deserves particular commendation for his willingness to consider all this through the eyes of Dan Cathy.

As Pierce gambles to guess, I don’t believe Cathy intended to engage in a battle over gay rights. The original report seems to be the product of the Baptist Press spinmeisters, who chose to highlight a small portion of an otherwise typical interview, captioning the title in a manner so as to suggest Cathy is aligned with their greater agenda. In the uproar that followed, Cathy sought to clarify his position (which I read as “softer” than the SBC agenda  he was depicted as espousing), but the spinmeisters kept pushing. As Pierce states:

In other words, the Southern Baptist news and public relations arm is not helping Cathy (whom they claim as one of their own) in clarifying his company’s perspective and eagerness to exit the culture battlefield. They have a war to fight and they want Chick-Fil-A in their corner — willing or not.

And there it is again. “Willing or not.”

My “biblical ear” hears echoes of the John 6 text in the experience of Chick-fil-A executive Dan Cathy. Both Cathy & Jesus are seen as potentially powerful allies in a battle that neither one wants to fight. There are those that seek to manipulate what they both say and do, in order to accomplish what neither intends. Each finds himself facing an unexpected enemy–those close who work to take away their freedom and personhood, reducing them each to a weapon to be wielded or a showpiece to display.

You have the freedom to patronize Chick-fil-A, or to buy food elsewhere. You have the freedom to have your own motivations and convictions. You have the freedom to write or say what you will.

But you do not have the right to take away anyone else’s freedom. And you certainly do not have the right to suggest Jesus is on your side. Because here, in John 6, Jesus runs the other way when he sees these freedom-takers coming toward him.

 

The funny thing is that I really do believe these “issues” would be nonexistent if we would simply choose to value people over issues. Discussion over “issues” becomes so violently enraged because it ignores the human quotient; indeed, it dehumanizes those our “issues” affect.

I am intentionally naive enough to believe that if we could all sit down, break bread, maybe even eat a chicken sandwich–if we were willing & able to spend some time & engage one another with our hearts tuned toward freedom, I think we would find a lot less to fight about. And that would be a beautiful day. I think even Jesus would join us.