Southern Baptists

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

While finishing her book, "On Reading Well," Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature's less celebrated heroines -- Anne Elliot of Jane Austen's final novel, "Persuasion."

The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word "patient," as in someone who is under medical care.

"Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age," wrote Prior. "It's certainly not something I do well. … Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances."

Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.

This wasn't a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis -- now steadied by a large titanium screw.

But the point of "On Reading Well" -- including her meditation on patience and suffering -- is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life's twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are "cardinal" virtues, while faith, hope and love are "theological" virtues. Finally, there are the seven "heavenly" virtues -- charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

"Reading well adds to our life -- not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life," she wrote, but "in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever."

This is why Prior remains convinced that -- in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance -- it's more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books.

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.

What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th Century.

"I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was," said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. "I couldn't understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. … I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3."

Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women's Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board's 2017 goal is $160 million.

Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.

The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: "I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done," and "I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!"

Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives. 

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn't need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church's parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

"It's just a simple little building," said Meeks, who is part of a "Sheepdog Seminars" team, training church leaders how to protect biblical "sheep" from "wolves."

"There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don't have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don't see the danger coming."

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Tensions on the left side of American evangelicalism had been building for years and then Christian ethics professor David Gushee drew a bright red line.

Many religious groups reject gay-rights efforts because of ancient doctrines on marriage and sexuality, he noted in a Religion News Service essay last year. Some have tried to do this quietly.

"It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it," wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including, "Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics."

Gushee warned the orthodox: "Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."

This warning was one moment of clarity that led to the August 25 Nashville Statement from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The manifesto restates many ancient Christian doctrines, such as: "God designed marriage as a covenantal union of only a man and a woman that is the sole context for sexual intercourse."

However, the preamble addresses new challenges, stating: "Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being."

Thus, Article 10 states: "WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree."

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen."

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of "Idolatry!" In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the "Celebrate Freedom Rally."

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: "Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again."

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks during the rally in Washington, D.C.

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not "sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning," he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year's "Freedom Sunday" services in First Baptist, Dallas. A typical response came at the "Ponder Anew" blog in the Patheos public-square forum.

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.

On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.

"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."

In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."

The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.

However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.

The young Jerry Falwell meets the old, high-flying Donald Trump

When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."

Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."

People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.

"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.

"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."

The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.

A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.