Becoming “all things to all people” sometimes means putting your rights aside for the sake of others

bill-of-rightsA few weeks ago when Dzhokhar Tsarev, the youngest brother of two suspects, was captured for bombing the Boston Marathon, a public debate erupted about the type of rights he was afforded.  For days, authorities hesitated to read him his Miranda Rights and debated whether to treat him as an enemy combatant.

When I taught history, constitutional law was one of my favorite subjects to teach.  That’s one thing about us Americans: We are passionate about our rights and even more passionate about defending them.  We debate what they mean for ourselves and others.

An intriguing question arises, however, when we ask whether some of the rights we are most passionate about might hinder the Gospel and the spread of God’s kingdom agenda on earth?  What if our very rights–and the self-autonomy upon which those rights are founded–keep us from moving ever closer to the heart of God and, in turn, to the needs of others?

In the early church, a question of rights arose as a hotbed issue when it came to community.  Back then, new Christians came together and wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian, and it seems that they fought over how to wield honor, privilege and prestige (their very rights) in this new family of faith.

Conflict erupted and divisions spread.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronted these issues and reminded the churches–and the factions therein–that Christians belong first and foremost to the one Body of Christ.

Paul argued that if anyone had a right to engender allegiance and get his way, it was him.  Paul was their founder, teacher, leader, and, above all, last of the apostles who actually saw Jesus.  Yet, Paul approached them from a different perspective: He did not throw his hat in the ring for power, but turned power on its head and gave up his rights to claim their allegiance.

“If others have a rightful claim on you,” he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:12, “do not we still more?  Nevertheless, we have not made us of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

In other words, Paul led by example and put aside his rights in order to minister to the Corinthians on their terms.  He saw the value in meeting their needs right where they were.

Like Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve, Paul made himself “a slave to all” (v. 19) and became “all things to all people so that I might save some; I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (9:22-23).

Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians doesn’t mean that they–or we–give up fighting for  rights in the public sphere or let injustice prevail.  Rather, Paul was trying to subvert the self-autonomy that stirs a self-serving undercurrent in which our rights exist.

Like Baptist hero, Lottie Moon, who gave up her “rights” to live among western “civilized” women in her time in order to dress like the Chinese to whom she ministered, thus saving thousands of souls in China around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Or like Walter Rauschenbusch, who could have easily written a check to missions or served the poor in New York on the weekends.  Instead, he gave up his “right” to live the American Dream and moved to the roughest neighborhood in New York–Hell’s Kitchen–to live and serve people whom society neglected.

I can’t help but think of the nurses, teachers and caregivers in our community who give up their rights to serve others.  Many of them neglect a comfortable and convenient life in order to do jobs that many do not want to do.  Some, especially caregivers, put entire goals and dreams aside to serve loved ones.

So next time you debate a friend about your rights and fragile freedoms, keep in mind that at the end of the day, God expects you to take your place, fulfill your ministry, and live out His calling even if it means putting aside those rights in order to be “all things to all people.”  You too might just save some.

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Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has the power to engage God’s future with unfettered forgiveness

Last Friday in Tampa, tucked away in one of the small meeting rooms of the Marriott Waterside hotel, twenty Baptists gathered to worship with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  This was one of the many breakout meetings of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, which attracted over 1600 registrants over a four-day period.

Our group shared a meal, sang hymns, and heard a devotional from the Reverend Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, all of which revolved around the biblical principle of forgiveness.  Ours was a prayer of confession penned by John van de Laar: “Forgive us our wrongs, God, forgive us as we do not deserve; forgive us against the demands of justice; and forgive our obsession that justice be done to those who have wronged us.”

Forgiveness.  A word that, in my own faith formation last week, seemed to change the tone of the Cooperative Baptist General Assembly as a whole. In every Assembly I’ve attended, I get fired up about missions and ministry.  I become passionate about what God is doing all across the globe.  I am proud to be the type of Baptist that cherishes liberty and champions diversity amongst the leadership.

Forgiveness is an important life-lesson for our young people, many of whom will offer the Bread of Life to so many diverse people groups!

The topic of forgiveness did not diminish my fire, quench my passion, or squish my pride; rather, forgiveness reminded me of the interior space from which this zeal originates.  The liturgy brought me back home to myself, to the root of my faith.  It invoked a simple conviction from a Jesus who encourages us day after day to “forgive seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22).

I once had a conversation with a friend in which we theorized how human history might be different if President George W. Bush forgave the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.  It’s not that our nation could not forgive; in fact, with an annual military budget nearly twice the size of the budgets of the next two most powerful countries in the world combined, ours is a nation that can afford to forgive with incredible resolve.

Then it hit me.  After twenty wonderful years of ministry, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has matured to be an effective presence in the world.  Our partnerships and parishes have become meat-and-potato Baptists; we have outgrown the spiritual milk of our youth.  We have built up spiritual capital and garnered some serious ministerial and prophetic assets.  We stand on two feet, and we give powerful voice to an alternative, inclusive Baptist narrative that looks a lot different than that of our Southern Baptist counterparts.

And, despite a budget shortfall, we can afford to spend that spiritual capital with joy.  Consider, for instance, that our Fellowship has wrestled with its identity and future over the past few years.  Only organizations with enough spiritual capital can afford to wrestle like that.   This kind of struggle is something with which I am familiar–the little Baptist church I pastor has been discussing its own identity in recent years.  We do this because we know that God is not finished with us yet even though we have a small attendance; it communicates to the world that we can afford to move forward in the face of a high unemployment rate and a fragile socio-religious atmosphere.

If the Fellowship can afford to talk about identity, then it can afford to forgive.  After our breakfast, I asked several Fellowship Baptists if any CBF assemblies broached the subject of grief and forgiveness.  Since this year’s assembly was only the second one I’ve attended, I certainly did not want to jump to conclusions.  I explained that the CBF’s missions emphasis is ahead of its time, but our humorous barbs and jovial approach to Baptist life throughout the sermons and skits during the assembly appeared to point to an unresolved grief.

I cannot speak to previous assemblies no more than I have the authority or audacity to speak to grief in our fellowship.  As a person of mixed denominational upbringing, I did not experience the terminations, divorces, or odious conflicts that plagued Baptist life over the past three centuries.  Any good pastoral care practitioner would advise an outsider to avoid saying to this grieving family, “I know what your going through.”

Yet, I too make up a small patch in the larger quilt of Fellowship Baptist life despite my newbie status; and, assuming clergy positions will be plentiful in the near future, I have my whole ministry ahead of me.  Baptist life is where I intend to spend most, if not all, of that ministry.  It only makes sense to chart a future for me and so many ministers like me who want to walk mercy-paved bridges of grace and unbounded love, even if the other side of that bridge is hostile territory.

Using our spiritual capital as a Fellowship in order to forgive those who have hurt us and excommunicated us, then, seems reasonable and necessary if we want to build an identity that is proactive in charting this type of future.  To put it another way, if we want to be a Fellowship known for its unique ministry instead of its existence as a marginalized fringe community, then we need to cash in on the type of forgiveness and public confession that might shape a clear path of freedom from the shackles of conflicts of yesteryear.

My prayer for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is not that we Baptists will sing jolly hymns that help us forget our past and the struggles that so many brothers and sisters have fought in building this wonderful family.  My prayer is that we can include forgiveness in our spiritual repertoire and reflect the grief process in a way that envelopes our past in the very mercy and grace with which our Lord envelopes us.  How might we shape Baptist history differently if we were to forgive all those other Baptists who have attacked us, and to forgive boldly all in the name of Christ?

The legacy of the empty tomb

Jesus rose from the dead and is free from the tomb. Let's leave Him that way.

It has been a week since we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, and I am still wondering whether we have moved on to live out the Easter story beyond the graveyard.  Jesus overcame death and ascended to His Father, but in many ways we continue to keep him entombed by our very lives.

Although each of the four Gospels tell the resurrection story slightly different, they have some elements in common.  One commonality includes certain questions that the angels asked Jesus’ disciples when they came to the tomb on Easter morning.

According to Luke, an angel asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  In John’s gospel, Jesus asked, “Why do you weep?  Whom are you looking for?”

The disciples should have expected an empty tomb.  Jesus already told them that God was going to raise him on the third day.  Besides, Jesus was always on the move in his earthly ministry–“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”–so they should have known that He was going to be on the move after his resurrection.

Jesus is still on the move.  He is not in the tomb. Nor is he some archaic historical figure that we can keep locked in a textbook.   Yet, that’s precisely how we think of Jesus sometimes.  Jesus lives and gives us abundant life, but we do not reflect that reality.  Often, our actions, words, and thoughts communicate that Jesus does not exist whatsoever.

Easter has passed, but we still find ourselves back at the tomb as if Jesus will be there.  We go back to the tomb of architecture–expecting Jesus to be encapsulated in our church structures, without any ability to move beyond those heavy, stone walls.

We entomb Jesus in our ideologies and our opinions, as if Jesus remains in the stagnate thoughts of humanity’s limited understanding of God.  We treat him like some file-folder we can pull out whenever we need Him.  Jesus makes a convenient appearance now and then when we are fighting a culture war or debate.

We entomb Jesus in our worship preferences, assuming that He is only pleased with one style of worship or another.  We assume that we find Jesus only when we sing certain hymns or sing praise-and-worship or preach the lectionary or have Mass.

We entomb Jesus in our foreign policy, always arguing that Jesus is on the side of just war and liberty.  That tomb is very important because as long as He remains there, we can ignore the myriad of verses in which Jesus talks about forgiving our enemies.

Don’t forget our tomb of domestic policies as well.  When we return to this tomb, we realize that Jesus looks like the rest of us and cares about the things that we care about:  the American Dream, a Cadillac, and an air-conditioned home filled with trinkets and appliances made in China.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?  Perhaps its because we forget that Jesus is living in the first place.  “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

This Lord is not someone whom we can hold or control, pin down or predict.  Jesus is always on the move and breaking out of the tombs that we often establish; Jesus works in places, people, and ideas where we least expect it.

In at least two Gospels, the angels tell the women that Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee.  Jesus was not at the tomb because he was alive, and he went to Ground Zero–the beginning–where all things began.

May our hearts and minds also be where Jesus is, at the source of God’s very divine purpose for humanity rather than at the tombs that we construct from our limited perspectives.