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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Public Theology 50 Years After "I Have a Dream"

Today President Obama delivered a rousing speech to the nation and the world on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This speech and the event surrounding it served as the culmination of a summer-long remembrance of the civil rights movement of the 1960s by just about every news and governmental agency in America.

Mr. Obama’s speech could not have had the nation-shaking impact of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that was the highlight of the original March, nor was it supposed to. What was unavoidable in Mr. Obama’s speech, though, was to channel the distinctly Biblical message of the March. Here are some excerpts from the President’s speech today[1]:

And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.
 ...people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning

Mr. Obama’s speech quickly departed from anything resembling Dr. King’s Scripture-infused sermon of justice and God-given dignity, moving into language about political issues and goals of his administration. This is not Mr. Obama’s fault or an error in any way; the nature of the event and the fabric of our nation demanded that he do so. In fact, Mr. Obama’s speech demonstrated the new nature of public theology in America.

“Public Theology” refers to a quintessentially American exercise in which the Church (historically represented by Protestants, but not always) speaks and acts within American society. Nelson explains two essential attributes of public theology: 
Public theology must be publicly persuasive. To be in any sense effective, its argumentation cannot be based on claims to possess specially revealed truths, nor can it be founded on scriptural proof in any sort of propositional sense or on appeals to any tradition that is exclusively Christian… Public theology remains theology, that is to say, it is founded on and advocates values derived from our religious tradition. However, it seeks to coordinate that tradition with values that an outside audience or public already shares with us, or at least are potentially acceptable to them. The church speaks out of its own tradition and theology, but seeks shared ground around shared core values. The public theologian seeks persuasively to offer a Christian world-view in the market place of options as a reasonable, possible choice, as a genuine option for the public to consider.[2]

The modern version of this theology can generally be traced to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th century, however since the 1950s (and especially since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s) public theology has become less about specific theologians in academic settings and more about populist movements stirred up by preachers and local church organizers.[3]

It is the Civil Rights movement that represents the changing of the guard in terms of public theology. Before the era of King and Falwell the voices academic theologians like Tillich, Niebuhr, and Rauschenbusch were the most influential in America when it came to the public presence of the Church. Niebuhr even graced the cover of TIME magazine for its 25th anniversary issue.[4]

What caused the shift? Noll and Dean point to a disconnect between the rapidly-changing culture of 1960s America and the inability of academic theologians to keep up.[5] The preachers in the pulpits were the front-line thinkers and actors in the social issues of the era regardless of which side they took on a particular issue. This intimacy with the very real human needs of the day transferred authority from those with the best academic credentials to a more populist “grass roots” form of public theology.

Dr. King’s speech in 1963 was a perfect example of how public theology functioned at the time. His use of biblical imagery, a vocabulary much more in the public’s mind then than it is today, helped him bridge the specifically Christian vision of America that he held dear and a civil message appropriate for American democracy. He did not call for the mass conversion of all Americans to Christianity; he called on America to live into the high moral obligation to which it had set itself in generations past. His message was also connected to the people hearing him. This was no academic discourse on Christian ethics; rather it was a sermon to people who shared a vocabulary of faith and a hunger for justice. Noll comments that King’s genius was that he “not only spoke of God's will for the poor (especially blacks in the North and the South), he actually succeeded in connecting with the poor.”[6]

Today America is not as it was in the era of Dr. King, nor is it the same as it was in the heyday of Falwell and Robertson. The act of public theology has developed into something new, partly as a negative response to these leaders and to the inability of academic theologians to regain the public’s attention as in generations now long past.

Public theology today is most easily associated with issues - abortion, LBGTQ rights, and immigration come to mind. When the Church speaks today it is as one voice among many in a polarizing debate that often comes down to a Supreme Court ruling. The new media and the postmodern skepticism of our culture make doing anything else nearly impossible. It is as though every congregation and every individual is a “movement” in themselves.

What is left is a micro version of the public theology carried out in the 20th century. Megachurches and church networks represent little denominations of their own, taking up causes and issues important to each one and publicly speaking on their position. Many of these are wonderful and effective in meeting social needs, but even at their best they are a far cry from the massive movements led by public theologians just a few decades ago.

We are left with preaching. Not preaching a political issue or preaching a cause but preaching. We are left with the sacred burden of prophecy, a burden that President Obama referred to today. Mr. Obama lamented that Dr. King’s words possessed “a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”[7] He is right, but only because preachers have stopped speaking them.

We are left with preaching, and it is enough. The great movements of the 20th century were born in churches and given life in their pulpits. They were invigorated by godly men and women who did not crumble under the “heavy hand” of God’s call.[8] We are left with the honorable burden of seeking God so ravenously that we cannot help but speak up.

Russell Moore has written a wonderful article on the relationship between Dr. King’s speech and our preaching.[9] He describes the role of preaching in public theology by demonstrating that King’s words “intentionally were resonant with the cadence of the King James Bible, because he was speaking a word of judgment to a Bible Belt who knew that Bible. He wanted to confront consciences with what they said they believed…He preached to Americans Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln, and he preached to Christians Amos and Isaiah and Jesus. And when the regenerate conscience is confronted with Jesus, remember what the Shepherd of Galilee said, “My sheep hear my voice…””[10]

Our public theology must do no less than this, even if our only outlet for public theology is our preaching to small congregations across this land. Our preaching is our avenue to the public because now, more than ever, the public is everywhere in our congregations. We are now so connected and our words so quickly available that we must take great care in speaking about God and God’s ways in our world.

I am not Fosdick, Tillich, Niebuhr, Madison, Lincoln, or King. Neither are you. What we are, though, are people of God who are given an opportunity to be the presence of Christ for our communities and to help our congregations do the same. We are beyond the days of the March on Washington, but never before has the great gift of preaching been so important for our public theology.

We are left with preaching; that’s enough.

[2] Nelson, Richard D., “The Old Testament and Public Theology.” Currents in Theology and Mission 36 no 2 (April 2009), 85-94.
[3] Mark Noll suggests that the role of public theology shifted from the spheres of academia (with Niebuhr and Tillich) toward those who had the charisma to stir up great crowds. He writes, “This more recent public theology has arisen "from below," first in the civil rights movement and then in right-wing Christian politics. It developed in the South, Midwest, and West. For the civil rights movement, formal academic attention came late; the New Christian Right has never had much to do with elite academic institutions, and vice versa.” From Noll, Mark, “Forum.” Religion and American Culture 10 no 1 (Winter 2000), 1-27.
[5] Noll et al, “Forum.”
[6] Noll, “Forum.”
[8] Jeremiah 20:9.
[10] Ibid.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Evangelism and Evangelical: An Answer to George Bullard

George Bullard, a blogger for Associated Baptist Press, has written a post addressing the use of the words “evangelical” and “evangelism” among what he calls “moderate to progressive” congregations. He concludes his article with these questions:

“Is it [the dropping of “evangelical” and “evangelism”] a type of cultural and religious prejudice or myopia on the part of moderates to progressives? Are they no longer evangelicals themselves–people of the Good News of Jesus the Christ? What do you think is going on here?”

Since Mr. Bullard asked, I’ll answer.

I am involved with two of Mr. Bullard’s “moderate or progressive” churches in central Mississippi. These congregations do indeed seem to be outposts of a particular version of Baptist life among a sea of Southern Baptist churches in the area. They both support women in ministry, progressive social programs, and have a very high regard for orderly, well-done worship based upon the liturgical tradition of Charleston Baptists.

Mr. Bullard claims that such churches have all but eliminated the word “evangelism” and are on the way to eliminating “Evangelical” from their identities.[1] The churches he is imagining have been “turned off by the aggressive models of conservatives who engage in what a friend of [his] calls “confrontational evangelism.” The position taken is we do not want to be like them.” In this regard, Bullard is exactly right. “Evangelism” stirs in my mind images of street-corner condemnations and proclamations of Jesus’ love and salvation to people who are just on their way to class. It reminds me of the various strategies and methods employed by congregations to spread the Gospel: “Here’s Hope: Jesus Cares for You,” “Celebrate Jesus 2000,” “What Now?,” “Who Cares?,” “GPS,” FAITH, Friendship Evangelism, etc.[2]

Mr. Bullard says, “To engage in “evangelism” is to proactively express the Good News. That’s an extremely warm and faithful activity for those who call themselves Christians or followers of Jesus the Christ. It is not something that ought to be diminished, marginalized, or eliminated.” Unfortunately for many Baptists in Mississippi, evangelism means something more than this warm activity of proclaiming the gospel - it smacks of manipulation, bad salesmanship, and the marketing of the Gospel.[3] What is going on here is that so many of the aforementioned approaches to sharing the Gospel have been modernistic and industrial in nature that they did nothing to make true disciples, only shallow converts. What is happening here is that the word “evangelization” has become as baggage-laden as “Evangelical;” both represent the confusion of our calling to be and make disciples with social influence, political relevance, and the ideas of market competition.

I don’t need “evangelism.” I don’t need “Evangelical.” I am convinced that the making of disciples is more complicated than sharing the Gospel via the Roman Road or handing out tracts or flyers. I am convicted in my soul that broad generalizations about churches miss the point that we’re dealing with people, not customers, not clients, not students. We are not “in the business” of making converts. We are called to be the Body of Christ in our city, to be known by our love for one another and the world, and to be witnesses of what Jesus Christ has done for us to all we meet.

At the heart of all of this is the way in which we use words. “Evangelical” has all but lost its usefulness already by becoming too amorphous to describe any church or individual with specificity. So, too, has “evangelism” become cumbersome thanks to its use as something to be done. One does not “do” friendship evangelism; we make friends and meet people because it is good that we do so. Our sharing of the gospel is made real in the way we carry on our lives within that friendship.

What is going on here is that the “good old days” of the evangelical movement have long passed away. What has replaced it is a less-defined atmosphere of Protestant Christianity that still evangelizes, still preaches the Gospel, and still shows the love and grace of God to the entire world. What is missing is the objectification of that Gospel. My little congregation tries to live the Gospel without explicitly training anyone in a certain method of evangelism or starting anything resembling a crusade.

This is not the cultural or religious prejudice or myopia of which Mr. Bullard speaks. It is an attempt to live the Gospel rather than to sell it. It is an intentional decision not to contribute to the confusion over the term “Evangelical.” Being a Baptist is confusing enough.

[1] I cannot go on without accusing Mr. Bullard of using inappropriate generalizations in his article. “Some” and “many” are indicators of speculation and assumption and shouldn’t be used to describe movements, traditions, or people without evidence.
[2] These are all strategies and evangelism plans I’ve lived through at various SBC churches.
[3] See Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler, “Jesus Is Not a Brand.” Christianity Today, 53 no 1 (January 2009), 20-26.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alcohol in Brandon, Mississippi: A Case Study in Baptist Life

On August 20, 2013, the citizens of Brandon, Mississippi voted on the issue of alcohol in their city.[1] The ballot measure empowers the Board of Aldermen of the city to regulate the sale, transportation, and storage of alcoholic beverages within Brandon.

Brandon is a holdout in the alcohol debate in its county. Neighboring cities Pearl and Flowood have recently passed similar referenda and have experienced economic growth through restaurants and bars. Brandon is something of a peculiarity in the county in this respect, though; the city has a much more church-centered society and has resisted “progress” in the name of a moral high ground.

I blame the Baptists.

A cursory survey of the churches in the Brandon area found 39 that self-identify as Baptist.[2] Many of these are affiliated with the Mississippi Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The strong Baptist presence in the city has made the issue a bright line of moral position - you’re either for drunkenness or you’re “againit.”

In the lead-up to the vote several pastors in Brandon spoke out against the issue. The most-quoted voices were those of Baptist pastors.[3] One Southern Baptist Church[4] even displayed signs against the measure encouraging citizens to vote against DUIs. Such is how the issue has been framed in the city: the pro position cites economic development and the revenue that would come from the sale of alcohol; the con side warns of drunk drivers and the dangers of social drinking.

This is the latest verse in a very, very old Baptist song.

Bill Leonard has traced the relationship between Baptists and alcohol through the centuries and notes, “the debate over the use of alcohol is a fascinating configuration of issues related to Baptist biblicism, hermeneutics, spirituality, classism and moral imperatives.”[5] Baptists, according to Leonard, have historically been in favor of the consumption of alcohol, some going so far as to make their own. He writes, “the early Baptists in England and America followed prevailing Protestant sentiments that permitted the use of "spirits" in moderation and in keeping with the common cultural practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”[6] During the Second Great Awakening (1795-1837) many Baptists in the United States took up the cause of the prohibition movement to combat what was perceived to be a creeping “barbarism” among citizens of the western frontier.[7]

Baptists went on to champion the cause of prohibition through the revivals they hosted across the country. Again, Leonard comments:
Nineteenth-century revivals and temperance crusades represented an early "ecumenical movement" that brought together a variety of Protestant groups in cooperative efforts to evangelize and "Christianize" individuals and society alike. Revivals called persons to a direct and transforming experience of God's grace through Jesus Christ. Temperance crusades called the converted to live out their faith by rejecting the physical and spiritual pollution of the body, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical revivalists made abstinence a sign of true conversion, insisting that alcohol inhibited the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Since alcohol was proven to be a dangerous drug and since the effects of its usage varied with individuals, abstinence was the best response. For many Baptists and other Christians, abstinence became a requirement for Christian discipleship.[8]
Abstinence became a plank in the Baptist platform of social and ecclesial life. Many Baptist churches that had formerly prohibited public drunkenness in their congregational by-laws edited those documents to reflect the more strenuous requirement of total alcohol abstinence.[9]

The Southern Baptist Convention was birthed shortly after the era of the Second Great Awakening and soon adopted statements that echoed the prevailing Baptist prohibitionist sentiment of the day. SBC resolutions related to alcohol included language like “do most solemnly protest against its [alcohol] manufacture and sale, and pledge our influence in the exercise of our rights as citizens of this free country, socially, morally, religiously and in all other proper ways, to work for its speedy overthrow, and to this end we invoke the aid and blessing of Almighty God” (1886); “we are unalterably opposed to the sale of intoxicating liquor, as a beverage, either under high or low license” (1890); “reaffirm our truceless (sic) opposition to the liquor traffic in any and all forms and our sympathy with every righteous measure looking to its annihilation” (1898); “The greatest enemy of the cause of Christ which we as a Convention in part represent is the legalized liquor traffic…” (1907); ask a pledge of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors during their [politicians’] official life on the part of all candidates whose oath of office calls for their support of the constitution of the United States” (1923).[10]

Richard Land, formerly of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, summarized the Convention’s position saying, “Southern Baptists' understanding of the issue has been exceedingly unambiguous…Southern Baptists meeting in session have called their brothers and sisters to live "an exemplary Christian lifestyle of abstinence from beverage alcohol and all other harmful drugs" (1984); to recognize alcohol as "America's number one drug problem" (1982); to "reaffirm our historic position as opposing alcohol as a beverage" (1978); to view "personal abstinence" as the "Christian way" (1957); to express their "unceasing opposition to the manufacture, sale and use of alcoholic beverages" (1955); to realize alcohol is a "habit-forming and destructive poison" (1940) and the "chief source of vice, crime, poverty and degradation" (1936); and to "reassert our truceless and uncompromising hostility to the manufacture, sale, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages" (1896).”[11]

Both Land and Leonard mention that although there is a strong historical trend among Southern Baptists against the consumption of alcohol, a growing minority of church members do consume liquor, wine, or beer either in public or in private.[12] Younger adult Baptists, even Southern Baptists, are moving in a liberalizing direction on the issue. These young adults (and older adults, for sure) are living into the complicated relationship that our theology, polity, and hermeneutics have with one another as Baptists.

It would be easy to settle the issue if the Bible spoke unambiguously about the consumption of alcohol.[13] Those who advocate total abstinence do so with support of various interpretations of the “Spirit-filled” life and passages concerning drunkenness. Those who support moderation or even ignore the issue altogether certainly have the majority of Christian history and tradition on their side, as well as an equal number of Biblical citations concerning the consumption of alcohol presented in a positive context.

The issues involved in the Baptists versus alcohol debate were writ large in the Brandon election. Baptists in the city staked out their predictable territory and lobbied for the defeat of the measure.

It seems that the vote came down to “progress” on the one side and something like Christian faithfulness on the other. The issue was presented in such a way by pastors that it seemed one could not be a Christian (at least a Baptist) and vote yes.[14]

By wrapping the issue up in terms of DUIs, alcohol addiction, and other social ills the Baptists of Brandon revealed their own implicit support of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel.[15] Because the argument has been moved for so long from theological and ecclesial language Baptists have not noticed that by even taking a position on the issue they are taking a position on the government’s ability to regulate morality. I hold no misconception that the Baptists in Brandon would endorse the social programs that were developed from Rauschenbusch’s work. I do think, though, that an examination of the historical tradition of Baptists’ fight against alcohol just might nudge some believers from their staunch conservatism.

In the end, the measure passed by a margin of almost 3:1. That’s a landslide in political terms. Was the momentum of progress that compelling to voters? Were the Baptist pastors of the city lacking in their persuasive speeches? No. The vote in Brandon demonstrated what has been true about Baptists all along: we are not a settled people on social issues like the consumption of alcohol regardless of the number of resolutions ratified at an annual gathering. Leonard concludes his article, “as Baptists experience the larger Christian culture, nationally and globally, through ecclesial, corporate or familial contacts, they may realize that the moderate use of alcohol is practiced by many conservative believers without being a litmus test of personal morality or orthodox theology.”[16]

There is room in our Baptist life to truly be the Priests we say we are and to demonstrate spiritual maturity on issues like alcohol and economic development. Few things in the life of the Christian disciple are as black-and-white as political campaigns make them out to be, especially when we are disciples in a tradition with no ecclesial authority to tell us which way to vote.

The teetotalers have a point, and they have sound biblical, historical, and cultural support for their position.[17] The “social progressives” who passed the issue have a point, too. They are worried about the morality of keeping people out of poverty and developing their community for the good of all. Certainly some will exploit the issue and abuse the sale and consumption of alcohol. This is exactly why the issue isn’t settled in Baptist life - we cannot reduce issues of such social import to binary choices between righteousness and apostasy.

[2] This number comes from a search for “Baptist Churches” on
[4] Crossview Baptist Church
[5] Leonard, Bill, “”They Have No Wine:” Wet/Dry Baptists and the Alcohol Issues.” Creswell Theological Review 5 no 2 (Spring 2008), 3.
[6] Ibid, 5.
[7] Ibid, 9.
[8] Ibid, 10.
[9] William Brackney notes, “So pervasive was the temperance movement among Baptists of the period [late 19th and early 20th century] that literally hundreds of documents could be chosen to illustrate its character and flavor.” Brackney, William, Baptist in Life and Thought: 1600-1980. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1983, 3, 49, cited in Leonard.
[10] All of these resolutions and many more are easily accessed at I could have listed many, many more; this sample serves to demonstrate how early and how strong the SBC’s position on alcohol was established.
[11] Land, Richard, “The Christian and Alcohol.” Criswell Theological Review, 5 no. 2 (Spring 2008), 20.
[12] Leonard, quoting Robert C. Fuller, says, “Writing in 1996, he [Fuller] reported that a recent study "showed that 48 percent of Southern Baptists drink alcoholic beverages despite strong pressure from the pulpit and denominational authorities."” Leonard, 10. Also Land: “Over the last two decades, attitudes toward alcohol use among some Southern Baptists have moderated, however. The greatest evidence of the recent shift in attitudes occurred at the 2006 annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. At that meeting, the Resolutions Committee brought a resolution that called on churches to reaffirm their historical attitude toward alcohol consumption…That resolution produced more discussion and dissent than any other resolution presented at the meeting. Some messengers were so convinced of their freedom to consume alcoholic beverages that they took to the floor of the convention and urged the body not to adopt the resolution. In the end, according to press reports more than four-fifths approved the resolution, but a small, vocal group voted against it.” Land, 20.
[13] Land believes that the Scriptures do just that. Interestingly enough, his Biblical literalism on other issues falls second to his interpretive and eisegetical intentions for the meaning of the text. See Land, “The Christian and Alcohol.”
[15] Leonard, 11-12.
[16] Leonard, 17.
[17] Leonard suggests that there may be movement away from prohibition among Baptists. He writes, “Third, the abstinence emphasis is so strong and so deep in certain Baptist traditions, often because of personal or family problems with excessive alcohol, that many will never entertain another option. Yet the fact that the issue has even arisen (and that this journal requested this article) illustrates that there is renewed dialogue on the matter, and that even some conservative Baptists are reassessing temperance arguments, often in light of biblical exegesis. Whether this represents a new justification of an old historical taboo or a recovery of older biblical hermeneutics remains to be seen.” Leonard, 17. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Resurrection Stone

The Resurrection Stone
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost

            I had the opportunity to travel to Greece in 2007 for a course on Paul and his Grecian churches. Much of the religious culture that we encountered there was Greek Orthodox, a branch of Christianity that seems to be a throwback to ancient times with its Greek liturgy and fascinating architecture.
            What has stuck with me from the tours we took of various churches in Athens, Corinth, and Thessaloniki, is the sense of historical participation that is build into the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and worship. In many of the churches we toured the sanctuary is painted from five feet off of the floor to the very ceiling with images of people praising Jesus Christ. At the highest point in the room, usually a domed ceiling in the center of the space, Jesus Christ sits surrounded by angels. Surrounding this image are circles of worshippers: the Old Testament heroes, the Apostles, the Fathers, then the saints of the Orthodox faith whose feet are painted just below eye level on the walls of the room. The effect of all this painting is that as you stand anywhere in that room you are drawn into a sense of participation in the eternal worship of Jesus Christ. You are the next generation, the next circle of the faithful looking upward and singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” along with all of those who have gone on before. One gets a sense of the immense scope of tradition and history that is celebrated in the liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy just by standing in the room where worship happens. My voice, my eyes, my spirit was added to those of the great cloud of witnesses painted on the walls. Standing in those cathedrals you can hear the voices of long-dead saints hanging both in the air and before the Throne.

We don’t do saints well in Baptist life. We have heroes, it is true, but our heroes generally represent our own pet causes more than our devotion to godly faithfulness. We unofficially canonize preachers who preach our brand of theology or those who champion the social causes that we support. We are wary of saints as we are of creeds - in our denial of either we belie our de facto devotion to both.
            I have been so moved by the painting of the Greek churches because I crave membership in a great tradition, one that has icons and saints, smells and bells, demands and devotion that is deeper than the individualistic, consumer-based model of spirituality that I have come to embody. Baptists have such a poor sense of history that we often ignore or even mock those we call “traditionalists” for their dusty and inflexible devotion to irrelevant forms of Christianity. We are a people who rely on the conversion experience as a moment more important that any moment which has come before. We set the date of our baptism as a watershed event and measure everything as being before or after we “met Jesus.”
            But I want tradition. I want spirituality. I want, no, I thirst for something deeper and bigger and dustier than the flashy, polished, needs-meeting ministry of my culture. I want to be able to look and saints and heroes of the faith in the way that the author of Hebrews does - as imperfect examples of how to live a godly life in the world that is being redeemed by the Spirit of God.
            Perhaps we can learn something from our Catholic and Orthodox cousins. Be appropriating a Baptist version of sainthood we can avoid our Baptist navel-gazing and re-conceptualize spirituality by providing ourselves with a stronger sense of spiritual lineage, that is, a sense of purposeful connectedness with the past and the future. Our commitment to scripture as the primary authority for Christian faith and practice will enable us to avoid treating these spiritual heroes as icons in stained glass; rather, we will tend to conceptualize the lives of such saints as windows through which to gain a fresh perspective on scripture and on the life and teaching of Jesus himself. So long as we see the Saints and spiritual heroes as examples, as windows to the true Godly life made real in Jesus we will avoid the perils of misguided honor and worship.
            We would do well to examine the lives of the saints and those spiritual heroes who have journeyed this way before us. Through such reading and prayerful examination we may learn what being a member of this Baptist priesthood is all about. We will surely find a connectedness across the broken years of history to the people and traditions of our Faith from which we have been separated because of our peculiar Baptist experiences here. We will find that the examination of the lives of the faithful is useful, beneficial, and even desirable. More than this, though, is the sense of participation that will fill us.
            We should not engage the writings of and about Christian saints and heroes out of historical curiosity; rather we should examine them to help us understand our own lives as examples to those who come after us. Morgan comments that, “The long Christian tradition of sanctity views exemplary Christians as bridges between earlier lives of righteousness, even the life of Jesus Christ himself, and future righteousness.”[1] We Baptists are much more familiar and comfortable with this idea. We speak of “witness” and “testimony.” We are to be living examples of the transforming and redeeming power of Jesus Christ for others to see. Surely it is not so strange to think of ourselves as participating in someone else’s “great cloud” one day, though I confess it seems arrogant to do so. Perhaps by examining the lives of those spiritual heroes we will see ourselves, at least in part, as real participants in what God is and has been doing in the world.

Being a real participant in the real work that God is doing in our world can be a little intimidating. My tradition of Baptist life has formed me to think of the Gospel as evangelization with little afterward. The idea, then, of being ushered into a Kingdom where people do real work that does real good for a very real God seems more than I can bear. It is in those moments when the work of God lands me in the middle of very real and very powerful situations with families and communities that I need the cloud of witnesses to be real.
            The people mentioned in the Hebrews list are far from perfect. They are not holy; they are not canonized. They are real. They are prostitutes, adulterers, doubters, deserters, murderers, and thieves. They are like that rowdy lot in Tiger Stadium or Cameron Indoor, pressing in on both home and away players, cheering and chanting and pleading in their imperfection for us to taste and see that the Lord is good. They are pleading for one more foot to land in front of the other. They are cheering us on and worshipping the Lord in the same breath. They cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” as though it was an invitation hymn.

In the final book of the Harry Potter series the main characters are introduced to a magical object called the resurrection stone. This curious little rock has been imbued with the power to call forth the dead at the pleasure of the living.
            When Harry comes to the end of his own journey, in a moment when he faces the embodiment of evil, he uses the resurrection stone to call forth courage. What the stone reveals to him are the spirits of his long-dead parents and his recently killed friends. He does not call them forth from the beyond to deny them peace or rest; he calls on them in his moment of need.
            “He closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times.
            He knew it had happened, because he heard slight movements around him that suggested frail bodies shifting their footing on the earth, twig-strewn ground that marked the outer edge of the forest. He opened his eyes and looked around.
            They were neither ghostly nor truly flesh, he could see that. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face there was the same loving smile…
            Lily’s smile was widest of all. She pushed her long hair back as she drew close to him, and her green eyes, so like his, searched his face hungrily, as though she would never be able to look at him enough.
            “You’ve been so brave.”
            He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
            “You’re nearly there,” said his father. “Very close. We are…so proud of you.”
            “Does it hurt?” The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
            “Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”
            “I didn’t want you to die, “ Harry said. These words came without his volition. “Any of you. I’m sorry…”
            A chilly breeze that seemed to emanate from the heart of the forest lifted the fair at Harry’s brow. He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.
            “You’ll stay with me?”
            “Until the very end,” said his father.
            Harry looked at his mother.
            “Stay close to me,” he said quietly. And he set off.”[2]
This tender scene is how the “great cloud of witnesses” functions for me. It is easy to think of Abraham and David and Joshua and Paul and Matthew as holy characters who seem too different from me to be a part of my own spirituality. I need people a little closer to home. I need some holy heroes that point the way along this Way because they have been that way themselves. I need heroes, witnesses, saints not made in my own image but in the image of those seeking the image of Jesus Christ.
            That is the essence of our Christian discipleship - the imitation of Christ. Such imitation is in the practices of Jesus himself, but it can also be found in observing the lives of those saints who were closer to that image than I am. It is in mentoring the believers who follow behind us on the journey of faith. It is in showing the way even as we stumble along and look ahead for guidance. It is to stand at the base of that great basilica and see ourselves as the next generation of believers in a very real God who does very real things and sing our part in that Holy, Holy, Holy that never stops.

            In our troubles and in our struggles we are not alone. In our successes and failures we are not the only ones. We belong to a community that extends from God’s first words to Abram through the call we each have heard to run that good race. This extended community includes those whose faithfulness has actually ended in success.[3] It includes those saints who have found the solid footholds and who have, through their writings, come back to guide us along the way.
            We are not alone. The journey is too much for any of us to do alone, but it is enough to have a cloud of witnesses to guide and to cheer us on. Together, standing with one another and in the midst of this host, we will walk the Way and do the work of God in this place. Is not God a God who is nearby? Is not this great cloud of witnesses with us?
Take heart, then, my dear friends. Let us do that holy work of moving forward in our faith and help others find their way. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, our feet on the path, and our ears tuned to the sounds of that great crowd saying, “you’re almost there.” Dear God, “stay close” to us. Amen.

[1] From Morgan, Ron, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses: Evangelical Christians and the Lives of the Saints.” Fides et Historia, 35 no 2, 19-27.
[2] Adapted from Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007, p. 698-700.
[3] Renwick, David A., “Hebrews 11:29-12:2.” Interpretation, 57 no. 3, 300-302.