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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Painful Work of Prayer

The Painful Work of Prayer
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The 23rd Sunday of Pentecost

There is a class at Mississippi College that students in the Christian Studies department regard with fear and respect: the Teachings of Jesus. It is rumored that this class is so difficult that not even Jesus could make an A. What becomes so tough for the students is the formal, in-depth examination of the parables found in the Gospels. How do we interpret them? What type of literature are they? How literally do we take the settings, characters, and events in Jesus’ parables?

Already this Fall we have encountered such troublesome parables as that of the Unjust Steward and the Unjust Judge, both of which are cumbersome yet compelling, and awfully difficult to preach from. The faithful preacher, like those thousands and thousands who have done so before, preaches a message of Kingdom hope in Jesus Christ and hopes no one in the congregation notices how tough the exposition really was. These parables and those like them press our Baptist belief in “Soul Competency” about as far as it can go.

The nature of parables is that they often defy the neat, well-organized logic of the gospel narratives and leave themselves open to many interpretations. We sometimes characterize parables as simple stories that point to a complex truth, but even this category does not capture the totality of what Jesus accomplishes in his parables about the Kingdom.

There are at least four major categories into which the passages of Scripture identified as parables can be located.[1] The first group are maxims: short, wisdom-style sayings that resemble properly-spelled Tweets. “Doctor, cure yourself!” or “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment” are biblical examples of such parables. They have no characters or plot; they simply exist as proverbs.

The second type of parable is the similitude. These sayings are slightly longer than maxim parables, and they include language that compares two things. For example, “the Kingdom of God is like…” often introduces these parables.

The third category of parables in the Gospels is allegory. These are longer parables in which Jesus likens elements, characters, or actions in a generic situation to a different reality. A great example is the Parable of the Sower: Jesus tells us a parable is coming, tells the parable, and then gives an explicit interpretation of each element of the parable.

Finally, most of the parables in Luke are the fourth type, that is, the short story. In these long parables we have narrative explanation of a hypothetical situation, some character development and plot, and open-ended interpretation. It is this final category that drives us crazy in Luke’s Gospel: what is the Good Samaritan about? What is the point of the Parable of the Two Sons? These longer narrative parables are so thick and rich that they could be interpreted many ways, all of which may be faithful and accurate.

Our temptation as modern readers is to find the point and to make connections between the elements of these longer parables and some aspect of our lives. We usually, though, insert ourselves into the most favorable, heroic character in the parables as we interpret them. For instance, when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we bravely imagine ourselves as the holy outsider bathing the wounds of a stranger in oil and God’s love after others have passed him by. We are challenged to remember the weak and the wounded and to give of our time, talent, and treasure to help those in need. I wonder, though, how many sermons on that parable encourage good Americans to see themselves as the one bloodied in the ditch, or, worse yet, the ones who pass by the dying in the name of ritual purity?

It is certainly the case that Luke’s long parables communicate a theme of reversals, which is a theme of Luke’s entire literary Gospel project. God comes to the poor Mary to bear Jesus; poor shepherds are the first to hear of Christ’s birth; those who are rich are frustrated by Jesus’ teachings; the poor are welcomed into the in-breaking Kingdom; the insiders become the outsiders; and death turns out not to have the last word.

Yet here is a troubling parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. We are told up front that this parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Great: we know that this is a parable and that it is, somehow, about self-righteousness. Before Jesus even has an opportunity to speak in Luke’s narrative we already know what side we’re on - the side of whoever in this parable is not self-righteous. We already know the winning team; all Jesus has to do is name the victor and the fool and we’ll be done with this thing.

Sure enough, Jesus paints a pretty poor picture of a Pharisee by putting the most arrogant, self-righteous prayer imaginable on his lips. Shortly thereafter we meet the humble, convicted, humble tax collector beating his breast in shame over his sins. We cheer. “That’s us!” we say. Jesus declares that the tax collector is the winner by saying he is justified by God, and the narrative briskly moves on toward another topic.

In the words of that great theologian Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Luke’s parables are hardly as simple as winners versus losers. In many of this Gospel’s longer parables we are presented with extreme people or extreme situations. We hear about the first and the last, the prideful and the humble, the poor and the rich, the outsider and the insider, the one near by and the one far away, the one lost and the one found. We are presented in this parable by hyperbole, that is, with extreme characterizations of people and opinions.[2]

This parable presents two such extremes: the impossibly prideful Pharisee and the super-humble and contrite tax collector. Neither is to be understood as normal, everyday people. They are caricatures of two ways in which people respond to God. Their prayers represent two positions, both spiritual and physical locations that relate people to God and God’s Kingdom. I contend that neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector represent the true way to live in God’s Kingdom. To demonstrate this notion, let us examine the two characters a little more closely.

First, the Pharisee. The words of this religious expert are insulting to our ears. He is self-centered, listing the things that he does that he is sure will earn him favor in God’s eyes: “I fast…I give…I…” The Pharisee is arrogant, prideful, and boasting. He is certainly not exemplifying the type of life that Luke’s Jesus calls for. He is not practicing the virtues of “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” He is not living under the role-reversal of God’s coming kingdom where the rich are sent away empty and the poor are elevated and satisfied. He is very much the clanging gong and crashing symbol that Paul criticizes in his Corinthian correspondence.

The Pharisee is certainly a caricature of what the real Pharisees were like: over-confident in their interpretations of Torah, over-zealous in their application of periphery rules that excluded outsiders in the name of religious purity. We boo the Pharisees because they are the antagonists at almost every turn in the Gospels. This man must be the bad example of prayer and Kingdom life in this parable!

Let us make one final observation about the Pharisee in this parable. Jesus introduces this scene to us by saying that “two men went up to the temple to pray.” Let us not be too hasty in imagining them entering a gothic cathedral on their own to offer prayers on their lunch breaks in an empty sanctuary. From what we know of ancient Temple worship practices, the opportune time for individuals to pray aloud in or near the Temple was the afternoon Tamid service.[3] This was a regular, popular, and well-attended service of prayers frequented by all types of Jewish men. While an organized Temple service is not exclusively mandatory to understand this parable, it is helpful to break through our own post-Reformation assumptions about the scene Jesus is painting for us.

Consider the Pharisee standing apart from a congregation of people meeting for regular prayers. He offers this arrogant, self-righteous prayer not alone but intentionally separated from people he considers less righteous than he. He is there, looking judgmentally at the assembly, pointing to himself as an example of righteousness. This image of the Pharisee certainly makes his prayer even more deplorable to our souls. I liked this “bad guy” more when I could imagine him complete alone praying arrogantly before God. Now I see him belting out his non-prayer in front of God, and everybody.

In this same scene we meet the tax collector. By that title we already understand him to be hated in his community as a sellout to the Roman occupation. He takes his own peoples’ monies and “renders them to Caesar.” He is an outcast by his occupation much as Matthew would have been when Jesus called him from behind his booth.

Now we see this outcast as standing far away. Far away from what? If we can accept as plausible the Tamid service described above, then this tax collector was standing away from the congregation by himself. He was apart, outside, on the edge, and certainly not in the middle of the congregation as he prayed. Even the arrogant Pharisee calls him out as an outsider, as undesirable, as lost.

Both men are standing apart from the congregation, one in judgmental self-righteousness, the other in crippling humility and spiritual segregation. Both stand apart, both represent extremes. The holier-than-all Pharisee, is about to be brought low by the judgment of God!

Oh, what a sweet reversal! The tax collector, the despised outsider, beats his chest and refuses to look toward heaven because of his guilt for sin. He has committed wrong and has been convicted by God of that sin. He stands apart from everyone because he has to and because he cannot bear to stand “boldly before the throne of grace” in his despair. Jesus declares him to be justified over and against the sinfully arrogant Pharisee! Whoo-Hoo! Victory!

Declared justified? Yes. Example to follow? Not Exactly. Both men are caricatures of two approaches to righteousness, neither of which are ultimately appropriate for God’s people.

It is easy to pick on the Pharisee because of his arrogance. It is easy to preach about Christians who are “holier-than-thou” and think that they have a corner on righteousness. These folks have usually selected some social evil that they have sworn off of or picketed against and have thus found for themselves some sort of moral high ground above and apart from the less righteous churches and people. The caricature of the hyper-arrogant Pharisee sounds like a lot of Baptists I know, and certainly a lot of religious folks. The sermon about the evils of arrogance and prideful prayer almost writes itself.

It is similarly easy to lift up the humble, repentant tax collector as a paradigm of Christian prayer and piety. Here is a man too broken to look to heaven as he prays. He, like the Pharisee, stands apart, not wanting to be near the congregation in shame and conviction. He begs God for forgiveness and mercy, terrified that he has sinned more than God can forgive. He is the perfect foil to the arrogant Pharisee - he is as humble and contrite as the Pharisee is arrogant and boastful.

I say be neither. The Pharisee is obviously not what we want in our Christian discipleship. He represents all of the arrogant, wall-building tee-totaling ignorance of Christians who find their justification in their deeds or non-deeds rather than in God’s righteousness. Certainly we should look to the example of the tax collector for our inspiration to repent. Yes, he is certainly a better example righteousness before God and a perfect image of the unforgivable outcast receiving justification.

But both men are standing apart from the community of God. Both men are extremes in their positions; both are outsiders with no intention of moving into the writing, messy middle of Christian congregation. The Pharisee remains apart in the name of Purity; he has earned his righteousness by his deeds of segregation and self-elevation. The tax collector stands apart in all-consuming guilt and brokenness. He beats his chest and begs forgiveness, but never moves into the community of people who have received it.

Both men need to move. They are both in places where they feel safe: the one in his piety and the other in his pain. Both need to grow through participation in the community through which God’s Spirit speaks to each of them. The Pharisee needs to hear the community live out Christ’s call to humbly walk with God though the way of the Cross rather than in judgments that only serve to condemn and exclude. The tax collector needs to hear the testimonies of those who have been broken by their guilt for sin and who have been restored to wholeness through the Spirit of God. He needs to hear the words of those who go “boldly before the throne of Grace.” These men are caricatures in Luke’s parable because they need each other to be real - they cannot possibly stand in the real world as they are.

The parable is about our places of comfort before God, the spiritual nests we have constructed and from which we pray. It is a call to leave those places of comfort and move into the messy middle of Christian discipleship. Our self-righteousness can become a wall against inclusion or participation in the broader work of the Kingdom of God. We can win battles of theology or culture and lose sight of the real nature of the Gospel in the process. Similarly, we can carry our good-old Baptist guild so far that we never move beyond the call to conviction and repentance toward the more difficult work of conforming to the image of Christ.

To those who are far off in their habits or holiness: come to the congregation of people who haven’t yet figured it all out. Teach us. Mentor us. Help the congregation of those praying to God live lives of godly practice in things like tithing and spiritual practices like fasting. Move from the comfortable place of condemnation to the painful place of praying for the forgiveness of sins and the humility that comes with it.

To all those who are buried under guilt for their sins: come in to the congregation of people who have been pricked by God’s holiness too. Come in to the fellowship of the sinful and the not-yet-perfected. Come and rest in the seats of those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and that the Lord is more than guilt and conviction. Move from the comfortable cycle of sin-conviction-guilt-repentance toward a discipleship that makes real transformation possible as we learn to conform to the image of Christ together.

These are the people in our congregation and in every congregation. They may not be standing on the edges of the community in self-righteous condemnation or constant guild for sin, but they are away from the hard, beautiful, painful work of prayer that comes with knowing that our hope for righteousness comes from God alone, but thanks be to God so does our forgiveness and newness of life.

This is the community where the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. It is the community that finds life in the places that were barren. It is the place where all can feast at the table of God’s mercy whether they found temporary comfort in their self-righteous rule-making or their constant need for confession. The day that Joel envisioned is the day when the community can bring in the outsiders that are already inside the community and draw then into the real, warm, filling feast that is the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] See West, Audrey, “Preparing to Preach the Parables in Luke,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36 no 6, 405-13.
[2] See Holmgren, Fredrick C., “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” Interpretation 48 no 3, 252-261.
[3] See Hamm, Dennis, “The Tamid Service in Luke-Acts: The Cultic Background Behind Luke’s Theology of Worship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25 no 3, 223-224.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On the Baptist Church Committee System

I enjoy college football very much. I will watch any college football game on any day and often lose entire Saturdays to random games with inconsequential outcomes.[1] As all college football fans are aware, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system that is currently used to “determine” the national champion is being replaced with a 4-team playoff. The selection of these four teams will be up to a 13-member committee.

One storyline coming out of the transition from the BCS to the playoff system has been the inclusion of Dr. Condoleezza Rice as one of the committee members. Some sports commentators have criticized Rice’s inclusion on such an important committee, claiming that Dr. Rice has no experience in the game of football and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments about which four teams are the best.[2] Rice responded to the criticism by saying that she is a “student of the game.”[3]

This committee is important to me as a college football fan. Rice’s inclusion will certainly influence the outcome of the college football season. Should a non-player be included? Should a woman be included? Many of the opinions on this issue have revealed sexist perspectives or, at the very least, the notion that a person cannot make informed decisions about something like college football without having actually played college football.

 The discussion of Rice’s inclusion in the committee got me thinking about the importance of committees in Baptist congregations and the decisions we make regarding who should serve on certain committees in our fellowships. We annually place people on committees that manage ministries and the administration of the church, but what are we requiring of the people who serve on those committees?

I am fortunate to be involved in two congregations that have excellent committee structures. Northminster Baptist Church is a committee-led congregation in the strongest sense of the word; the ministerial staff is beholden to the committees of the church and the committees take their responsibilities seriously. Madison Chapel has a strong tradition of whole-church decision-making (because of its small size). The ability to come together as an entire congregation to prayerfully decide congregational action is impractical in larger churches, but for our small fellowship it is a wonder to behold.

I have worked with churches that had relatively impotent committees, non-meeting committees, and too many committees. In one case the congregation decided to make a rule that a person could only serve on one committee per year, which necessitated the reduction of the number of committees by half!

The committee structure of Baptist churches is often at odds with other powers in the congregation, especially the deacon body or the pastor. There are certainly faithful Baptist churches that are led by strong elder or deacon groups that function as a board of directors. Similarly there are Baptist churches that function well with authoritarian CEO-style pastors who determine many of the church’s decisions.[4] There is certainly Biblical precedent for many types of church organization, so let us not be too hasty to either condemn or condone one form over another.

For Baptists, church organization and polity is based upon the principle of the Priesthood of the Believer.[5] Since we assume that the gift of salvation is offered to all and that the Spirit of God is pored out on all people who believe on Jesus Christ for salvation, the Church must be the collection of those people gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ to do the work of God’s Kingdom in a specific place and time. The Church is, therefore, an exercise in democracy: with Christ as the head of the congregation and the members rendered equal by the outpouring of the Spirit we gather to make decisions as peers.

Direct democracy is cumbersome and slow, though, and often impractical. Baptists have adopted the practice of forming committees to deal with certain aspects of congregational life, ranging from bereavement and ministerial visitation to figuring out who should mow the lawn. These committees are formed out of the congregation and are beholden (usually) to that congregation rather than to the pastor or the deacons.

So who serves on our committees? In a perfect church I suppose the committees would be made up of the wisest, most mature, most committed members of the congregation. What I have found, though, is that in many cases the committees are filled with the first people who agreed to serve. Further, in smaller churches people are required to serve on multiple committees because of a simple lack of numbers.

A fellow pastor told me a story over lunch recently about one experience he had with a committee in his church.[6] A group in his congregation had been tasked with the formulation of a statement of faith that was more appropriate and relevant to the congregation than the one presently in the church’s Constitution. After weeks of non-discussion and no action to revise or create that statement, the pastor commented to the committee that they “just don’t care.” He was right. Even on an issue as fundamental as the development of a statement of faith so little enthusiasm was mustered that the issue died on the committee floor.

Our committee structure is a good thing. As Baptists emphasize the Priesthood of the Believer we quickly emphasize congregational church governance. The two go hand-in-hand. What is also necessary to emphasize, though, is the essential nature of Christian discipleship in the Priesthood of the Believer and therefore in our Baptist church polity.

A Baptist church committee can only function in so far as its members have set themselves to the difficult process of maturation in Christian faith and life. There is a direct correlation between the effectiveness (I dare say relevance) of a committee and its members’ relative spiritual maturity. Yes, we could make the church finance committee be nothing but expert accountants and financial managers. But unless these individuals have committed themselves to following the Lord in ever-increasing knowledge and development, they will miss the true nature of a church’s mission and therefore miss the point entirely of serving on a congregational committee.

If a congregation’s committees are weak or ineffective, perhaps we should emphasize discipleship and the clear call to progressive maturity in faith demonstrated in the Scriptures.[7] Only through the spiritual maturity of the constituent members of a committee can that body truly serve the good of Christ’s church.

Further, let us take seriously the selection of committee members in our congregations. If these committees are important, then the selection of their membership should be important.[8] Not everyone who has balanced a checkbook is spiritually prepared to serve on the finance committee, and likewise a person should not be excluded if they don’t have a degree in finance. Our spiritual maturity as disciples should be the guiding principle in our selection committee members rather than our ability to find volunteers.

Cooler heads have prevailed in the case of Dr. Rice serving on the college football selection committee. Although she has defended her inclusion based upon her knowledge of the game, such excuses are irrelevant. Dr. Rice should be included in the decision making process because she has proven her maturity in making important, difficult decisions. She has demonstrated an ability to evaluate the facts and to make informed choices without being distracted by the passion that I would certainly have were I on that committee.[9]

We must seek maturity in our committee members because it is those who have been discipled by the church the most who are best equipped to make decisions on behalf of that church.

[1] However, Sic ‘Em Bears!
[3] See also
[4] The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) has been interpreted in ways that contribute to the Pastor-as-CEO model of church governance. There is no language in that document concerning a committee structure in a congregation; such language and direction is usually present in a congregation’s Constitution and By-Laws.
[5] See Leonard, Bill J., Baptist Ways. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2003.
[6] It was at McAllister’s, and was very tasty.
[7] For more on this progression of discipleship, see me recently posted work on Catechesis as Discipleship.
[8] An argument can be made that serving on a committee is an act of discipleship whereby less mature members can be compelled to grow through their service. This is certainly true, but for growth to occur there needs to be a critical mass of relatively mature members on the committee to disciple the less mature members throughout the year.
[9] Again, Sic ‘Em Bears!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Common Core in Mississippi: A Response to the Baptist Record

The Common Core Standards that are being rolled out in the states over the next year are receiving a lot of attention these days. The New York State Superintendent cancelled a series of town hall-style forums after the strongly antagonistic response he received at the first meeting.[1] Other states have experienced popular protest against the implementation of the Common Core standards, too:  North Carolina, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, Michigan, and more have “Stop Common Core” organizations that are making noise in their respective state legislatures.

I have tended to avoid issues of education policy because of my strange position as both a public school teacher and a Baptist pastor. I am privileged to teach in the second-highest-rated district in the state of Mississippi. There are inherent conflicts of interest (and obvious risks) in speaking out about policies and legislation that affect public schools. However, The Baptist Record, the official newspaper of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, has published an article that has driven me over the edge.

Mr. Rob Chambers wrote a major piece for the Record on September 26th.[2] Mr. Chambers is cited as a “consultant for the Mississippi Baptist Christian Action Commission.” Mr. Chambers is not a public school teacher or administrator, but his M.Div. from Southern Seminary gives him some clout on the ethics of the Common Core Standards.

I object, though, to Mr. Chambers’ analysis, conclusions, and rhetoric.

First, a note about the Common Core Standards. Common Core is not a plot by the Obama administration to take over state public education. Yes, Common Core is a product of a hybrid public/private initiative that had as its goal the elevation of our performance in education across the nation. However, this partnership is not a sinister cabal bent on taking away local freedom or authority when it comes to curriculum or instruction. The Common Core Standards are an attempt to set specific, meaningful goals for states (and therefore for districts) in mathematics and English skills. THERE ARE NO SPECIFIC CURRICULA INCLUDED IN THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS. What IS included is a list of objectives that look very similar to what we’re already teaching. However, Common Core has at its heart a motivation to make relevant connections between academic disciplines and to relate those disciplines to real-world experiences that will propel our students toward success in college and career.

The Common Core Standards do not tell teachers what to teach, nor do they provide some nation-wide standardized test for students to take (you know, like the ACT or SAT that we already use as the be-all and end-all nationwide standardized tests). Further, even though I agree with Mr. Chambers’ objection to Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye being “recommended” by the Common Core English Standards, it must be pointed out that NO ONE is mandating the teaching of that or any other specific work in your child’s classroom. What is covered in a specific classroom is still up to the teacher, their department, their school, their district, and their state department of education. We must keep in mind that even with Common Core Standards being implemented perfectly and wholly, it’s still up to teachers to chose, execute, evaluate, and revise lessons.

Secondly, Mr. Chambers is emphasizing scientific language in an inappropriate way in making judgments about the Common Core Standards. In reference to a statement by Dr. Lynn House of the Mississippi Department of Education Mr. Chambers says, “This statement is a “statement of hypothesis.” Notice the phrase, “will do” and “will ensure.” Since these standards have never been tested, a casual reading of this would lead one to believe this statement is a tested, proven and factual statement. It is not.”[3] What Mr. Chambers is objecting to is the language of certainty in Dr. House’s description of Mississippi’s Common Core standards: “That’s exactly what Common Core State Standards Will do…They will ensure that Mississippi’s children are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive…”[4] Dr. House is not declaring that she or anyone else has discovered the formula to make great students or citizens. Instead, Dr. House is stating what is perfectly in line with natural reason: if we achieve certain universal goals through our educational practice then we will have formed students into people ready for the next step, whether that is college or career.

Mr. Chambers seems to rely on the “scientific method” too much in his analysis. He says, “The primary problem is that the standards actually represent a hypothesis only. This means these standards have not been tested, there is no empirical data, and the outcome of the standards is at best an educated guess. Furthermore, in keeping with the “scientific method” that requires the testing of the hypothesis, there have been none in any US public school. Therefore, the standards is not a scientific theory, and there is no valid basis for any claim that these standards will work. Pure reason dictates otherwise. Neither are the standards scientifically valid because the standards have not been proven to be just as effective in one state as they are in another. The one shoe fits all approach will not work.”[5]

He is exactly right in saying that the Standards are not a scientific theory that is testable in a lab. Education policy is in a different category than scientific theory and testability. We cannot treat the goals of education as hypotheses to be tested. Instead, education policymakers examine the culture around them, assess the needs of students, compare those needs with the philosophical goals of education, and finally act in accordance with that complicated mixture of information.

The Common Core Standards are attempting to break the “assembly line” mentality that Mr. Chambers himself reflects in his analysis. Common Core aims to unify knowledge and demonstrate that the things we teach are not isolated, context-less units of useless knowledge. Rather, what we teach is essential for the pedagogical goal of helping shape young people into full-realized adults who are knowledgeable and (more importantly) capable in society. Mr. Chambers sounds like so many on the periphery of education that do not understand the complicated work of reacting to the needs of students as well as the demands of society.[6] Dr. House probably complicated the issue by using a metaphor (raising the bar on a high jump) to illustrate the intended outcomes of the Common Core Standards. Mr. Chambers needs to move beyond the metaphor and actually show what Common Core is: a set of un-scientific yet highly relevant guidelines to begin moving our schools toward excellence.

Further complicating the issue is the Christian perspective to education, specifically, that education should be about humanizing the students as much as it is about helping them understand God’s creation and their role in it. The Common Core Standards are certainly not designed with a specifically Christian perspective, but they do encourage outcomes that a Christian educator should be able to support, that is, that the idea that there is a universality to truth, and that all things “fit together.”

I wish that Mr. Chambers had used his article to demonstrate a Christian analysis of the Common Core Standards; it was an article in The Baptist Record, after all.  There is certainly a Christian perspective on the issue, and there is even more specifically a Baptist perspective on the Standards’ implementation. Instead, Mr. Chambers laments the secular political process and resorts to scare tactics intended to stir up the “parents and grandparents” of the children who will be affected by the new Common Core Standards.

Finally, to Mississippi.  Common Core is not the great savior of public education in our state, but it is also not the great doom of our schools either. As one recently retired Mississippi teacher told me, “there will be something new in five years, just watch.” I am neither excited that Common Core is being implemented in Mississippi, nor am I frightened that it’s coming. I will be required to learn a new way to show that I am teaching up to the standards that Mississippi requires, and I will teach every student the mathematics they need to understand the world as I have done every year.

Mississippi has an awful record when it comes to public education when compared to the rest of the nation. We are 48th in major metrics (the ones that are scientifically demonstrable).[7] There is no plausible spin on the rankings that makes our public education system look good as a state.  The Common Core Standards are an attempt to address our poor performance. Common Core is not a set of lessons plans dropped out of the sky; it is an attempt to bring Mississippi education into the better-performing landscape of American Public Education.

Race is certainly an issue in Mississippi public education, but Mr. Chambers is suggesting that the MDE’s plan to help lower-performing race-based subgroups reach the level of the highest subgroup is cause to throw out Common Core Standards. Again, at no point will the Common Core Standards, let alone the MDE Annual Measurement Objective determine what is in a teacher’s lesson plan. The MDE tries to make statistical measurements to predict testing outcomes for reasons far beyond the actual teaching events in classrooms across the state. Students of every race are taught the same lessons plans and given the same assessments. If racially motivated instruction or grading is occurring, then the school or district should correct it. Do not blame Common Core for the something completely unrelated to it.

To conclude, Mr. Chambers achieved little more than to frighten the readership of The Baptist Record. He concludes by suggesting that the Mississippi legislature delay implementation of the Common Core Standards and that the Standards represent a violation of the 10th Amendment. This is pure folly. The States have entered into an agreement with the Federal Government who, in turn, had entered into an agreement with private organizations and businesses to develop the Common Core Standards. Besides, we weren’t doing all that well on our own. He also comments that, “A starting point could be that government officials work together in delaying further implementation of the standards and related components. Then, work together in full disclosure with the citizens and develop a solution that is just, fair and equitable.”[8] The development of the Common Core Standards have not been a hidden, secretive thing; they have been in process for years and only now that they’re about to be implemented are people being encouraged to participate in the political process of their development and launch.

Mr. Chambers means well, I’m sure, but his article produces more heat than light, I fear. Stirring up Mississippi Baptists over issues they shouldn’t be afraid of is shameful. There is no sinister plot to take over Mississippi education. What should concern Baptists in Mississippi is that it takes quality teachers (that is, men and women who seek the humanization of their students based on the fact that their students are made in the image of God) to make quality schools. No standards or curricula can make up for what faithful men and women can do in the classrooms. That is what should concern Mr. Chambers: the ethics of being a teacher in a poorly educated state.

Let’s not get too excited about Common Core in Mississippi. The good news is that our test scores from the 2012-2013 school year will be frozen for three years while the Common Core Framework is set up, tested, and revised. We don’t have to begin a grassroots political campaign to repeal Obamacare Common Core. We don’t need to take an absolutist position; we need to understand that the power to teach is still in the hands of the teachers and that Common Core Standards put into words and goals those things that we, as teachers, have wanted all along - student success.

[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, non-cited comment by Dr. Lynn House in Chambers’ article.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Tony Johnson comments of some education departments at the university level, “Educational philosophers and the field of educational philosophy has suffered for failing to embrace this [improving educational practice at all levels and in all places] role. By considering themselves engaged in the premier educational discipline, educational philosophers stand above and apart from others investigating educational practice. In attempting to become as academic as possible, educational philosophers alienated their natural colleagues and never gained full acceptance by academic or “real” philosophers. In hitching their wagon to the academic, professionalized vision of philosophy, educational philosophers not only denied their reason to be, but ensured for themselves a lonely, inconsequential professional or academic life.” This professionalization has trickled down to the level of policy-makers and certainly to political pseudo-experts. They want machines that drive the industry of education when no such machination exists. See Johnson, Tony, Discipleship or Pilgrimage? The Educator’s Quest for Philosophy. New York: SUNY Press, 1995, 75.
[8] Chambers, “Common Core Education in Mississippi.”