Welcome to the BCOC Blog

We intend for this blog to be a space for sharing our wonderings, thoughts, and inspirations with you. Who is the “you”? Well, I guess any of you who are reading this post. We write because we wish to share. Because there is something deep within us that groans for expression, and we just can’t keep it in any longer. Yet sharing is more than my writing, and you reading. As a child, the joy of sharing is having others to share with. Sharing is a dialogue, not a monologue. For us, we hope that some morsel of our sharing may spark something in you, something you desire to share. So thank you for your time in reading what we have to share. And please, feel free to share with us. You make this work more than our ruminations. Because of you, we can share.

Side note: we are working on the format. So please excuse some of the redundancy below.

  • The Question of Meaning and Christian Calling (8/8/2019) - By: Taylor Bell This blog post is an introduction to Life is Calling Team, a Lilly Endowment funded project led by Samford’s Center for Congregational Resources (CCR) researching how churches can more deeply help people discern and embody their God-given callings. As one of 16 CCR partnering congregations, a BCOC Life is Calling Team has […]
  • What Happened To Summer? (8/1/2019) - By Rodney Franklin What happened to summer? What happened to pool parties, summer camps and hanging out with friends and family at the beach? What happened to summer? What happened to summer cookouts with endless days of lawns and gardens hoping for rain? What happened to summer? [...]
  • Casting Lots (5/22/2019) - 21 We need to choose someone to take his place… 23 So they suggested the names of two men. One was Joseph, who was called Barsabbas. He was also called Justus. The other man was Matthias. 24 Then the believers prayed. They said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you […]
  • Why I Need Good Friday (4/15/2019) - By: Taylor Bell This week, majority of the Christian Church journeys through its most significant week: Holy Week. While most Christians look forward to its culmination on of Easter Sunday, I am always most anticipating Good Friday. For those who are unfamiliar, Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday, and is the day Christians […]
  • An In-depth review of “Beating Guns” by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin (2/28/2019) - Beating Guns is a Christian moral reflection on the gravity of American gun violence. The book explores through historical inquiry, empirical studies, and political analysis our contemporary epidemic of gun violence. Claiborne and Martin develop the recognition that American gun violence is unnecessarily deadly and unique. As Christians, their ethical response is rooted in their […]

The Question of Meaning and Christian Calling

By: Taylor Bell

This blog post is an introduction to Life is Calling Team, a Lilly Endowment funded project led by Samford’s Center for Congregational Resources (CCR) researching how churches can more deeply help people discern and embody their God-given callings. As one of 16 CCR partnering congregations, a BCOC Life is Calling Team has been working since January to discern, design, and eventually propose a congregational initiative on calling. Because of Lilly’s involvement, the CCR is providing up to $30,000 for each church’s proposed initiative. Essential (meaning required), for our proposal and receiving funds is the congregation’s participation in this research, primarily through (1) The Life is Calling Survey, and (2) The Birkman Assessment. The deadline to take both survey and the Birkman is Wednesday, Sept 4th. The BCOC Life is Calling Team is inviting each adult member of the congregation to take both the survey and assessment, as they will also be instrumental for guiding us in designing an initiative that is both resonate and meaningful for Covenant. Instruction are posted below. The blog post itself is largely an introduction to the Life is Calling’s theological, historical, and programmatic foundation that informs this work—both for the CCR and the BCOC Life is Calling Team. If you are uninterested by in the theological thought and context behind our work, then feel free to skip the blog and just take the survey and assessment. However, if you would like to know more about Life is Calling then I invite you to keep reading.

  • Life is Calling Survey: use the link provided. The survey takes 5-10 mins (I timed myself)
    1. https://samford.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bxW2jgBC4gNfDDv
  • Birkman Assessment: in an email to Taylor Bell (tbell@bcoc.net) indicate your willingness to take the survey. Taylor will provide your email to The Center for Congregational Resources at Samford who will send you a link to take the assessment free of charge.

Okay, onto the actual blog post

The question “How do I live a meaningful and purposeful life?” is a universal and fundamental human question. We all ask it whether consciously or unconsciously. Meaning is the existential understanding that I matter, that my life is significant, that my life causes some amount of ripple in the vast ocean of the universe. Purpose is the opportunity or capability to embody and express one’s meaningfulness. It is knowing that my life’s actions matter because I matter. Meaning and purpose are existentially vital for they are at the root of our struggles for happiness, fulfillment, and hope. For without meaning and purpose happiness is empty, fulfillment is evasive, and hope is unsustainable because none of these realities hold any real meaning or purpose for our lives. Without meaning life has no significance, and without purpose life is empty.

Recognizing this, it is no surprise that throughout human history we have cultivated a myriad of ways to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Religion has been a central means, and we Christians epitomize this. We believe that meaning and purpose are not so much cultivated as received through faith. Faith as the faithful relationship between humanity and God. It is through this faithful relationship that we integrate the meaningfulness that we are each lovingly and intentionally created in God’s image, and therefore we are each called to live out the purpose of sharing this divine love with the world. Within Christian history, we have used various yet related vocabularies such as Christian discipleship, living a life of faith, following Jesus, responding to God’s will, and listening to God’s calling to define and live out this purposeful life. No matter the terminology it is all rooted in the existential need each of us was created for: to be meaningful and live purposefully.

Because meaning and purpose are so essential to living, there may be no greater task for the Christian church than helping people discern and embody their God-given meaning and purpose. Without these two existentialities the human psyche goes haywire. We become despairing and violent. When one does not know their own meaning and purpose life inherently lacks value and worth, and it becomes easier to destroy life—both others’ lives and one’s own life (this is also the case when one’s meaning and purpose is easily threatened, but this is a conversation for another time). In our contemporary society where the traditional vessels for instilling us with meaning and purpose are being uprooted, changed, and reformed—especially the Church—we Christians must critically inquire and discern anew how the Christian community can help people realize and live out meaningful and purposeful existence. Such a task means exploring again Christian history, tradition, theology, ethics, and ecclesiology. It means expanding our dialogue partners to learn from non-Christians. And it means faithfully trusting and listening to God, taking risks as we discern and embrace God’s calling us into the church’s future. To evade this task is to shirk the very reason for the Church’s existence: to be the community of God on earth; to be a community of deep and enduring meaning and purpose.

The Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation that provides millions of dollars for theological education annually, has embraced this task to such an extent that they have dedicated over $10 million into an initiative termed “Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose.” For Lilly, living a life of meaning and purpose is defined as living out God’s calling for one’s life. Lilly’s convictions for this project are twofold: that when we embody our calling (1) life is deepened and enriched, and (2) the church’s vitality is strengthened. For Lilly, calling is not just an individual concern. There is a communal dynamic as well. A faithful belief that God weaves together individual callings to strengthen and revitalize the fabric of community. Thus, it is not just the individual that is at stake in explorations of calling. The community is at stake as well. The church needs people to live out their callings if it is to survive and thrive.

Samford’s Center for Congregational Resources (CCR) was selected by Lilly as one of the 13 sites. The CCR shares in Lilly’s twofold conviction, and have anchored their research in the question: “What would our churches look like if everyone was living out their God-given calling?” To explore and respond to this question, the CCR has selectively partnered with 16 Alabama churches for 4 years, inviting them to discern, design, and implement a congregational initiative that will help the church members and the congregation discern and live out their God-given callings. To help make these initiatives a reality, CCR is providing up to $30,000 for each church. These creative, contextualized, and well-funded initiatives will provide the CCR with the essential information to answer their anchoring question and providing the Lilly Endowment with potentially groundbreaking research.

BCOC was selected by the CCR as one of the 16 partnering churches, and our BCOC Life is Calling Team is made up by Caroline Jansen, Ann Carol Mann, Mike Martin, Drexel Rayford, and myself (Taylor). We are incredibly excited to be partnering with the CCR and their research.  Both because this research is important for the North American Church and this project provides us with a unique and exciting opportunity. We have the opportunity to design an initiative on discerning calling that BCOC can carry with it into the future. We are eager because this initiative, while it may be helpful for us in this season of transition, it is intended to be impactful beyond just this season. The team is currently unsure what the proposed initiative will be. But we do know that whatever it is needs to be something that BCOC and its members can return to again and again. The question “How do I live a meaningful and purposeful life?” is a question asked anew as we enter new stages of life. With each next stage, we need space and resources, a supporting community, and faith in God to discern this question anew each time.

Since January 2019 the BCOC Life is Calling Team has been deliberately researching and learning about Christian calling. We have engaged research, learned from Fisher Humphreys on Baptist history, and held three focus groups with BCOC members. All of these efforts to help us discern and propose an initiative that is significantly resonate, meaningful, and impactful for Covenant. In other words, it would be a travesty and waste of time to propose a $30,000 initiative for our church only to have designed something disconnected and insignificant. And because of this intent and concern, we need (and it’s required for our participation) the whole congregations’ help (yes that includes you!). We are now expanding our research from small groups to the entire congregation. The CCR has provided us two opportunities to engage all of BCOC, which I previewed at the top of this post. (1) is the Life is Calling Survey, which takes 5-10 mins and will provide data on how BCOC widely understands Christian calling. (2) is the Birkman Assessment. A widely used “behavioral and occupational assessment” that helps spur reflection on the connection between gifts and areas of service. Furthermore, on Wednesdays Sept 11th, 18th, and 25th we will be using the Birkman Assessment to facilitate reflection and dialogue on Covenant’s gifts and connecting them to both the church and wider community. You’ll need to take the Birkman to get the most out of these evenings! Instructions for taking both of these are below. The deadline for both the survey and assessment are Wednesday, Sept 4th. Your responses to these resources will be integral to shaping the BCOC Life is Calling Team’s discernment and work. We invite you to take them and invite other members to do the same.

  • Life is Calling Survey: use the link provided. The survey takes 5-10 mins (I timed myself)
    1. https://samford.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bxW2jgBC4gNfDDv
  • Birkman Assessment: in an email to Taylor Bell (tbell@bcoc.net) indicate your willingness to take the survey. Taylor will provide your email to The Center for Congregational Resources at Samford who will send you a link to take the assessment free of charge.

Email Taylor Bell (tbell@bcoc.net) for any questions regarding Life is Calling and BCOC’s involvement in the program.

What Happened To Summer?

By Rodney Franklin

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
– Jeremiah 43:19

What happened to summer? What happened to pool parties, summer camps and hanging out with friends and family at the beach? What happened to summer? What happened to summer cookouts with endless days of lawns and gardens hoping for rain? What happened to summer? The watermelon is still sweet, the Chilton county peaches are juicy and the muscadines are on their way to be enjoyed, but what happened to summer? Trust me I still feel the heat when I get into my car but the calendar says the August days are upon us which means it is time for a new rhythm of church life.

Kalbarri N.P. - Natures WindowI believe Jeremiah is reminding us about the call to this new rhythm of church life. It is rhythm that reminds us that we are not by ourselves but God continues to accompany us along this journey. It is a rhythm that summons our souls as we rejoice in what God has done and will do in the future. This new rhythm is our call on the eve of a new season of church life where we pray, play, eat, and serve.

We have been making our way through the wilderness of transition in pastoral leadership. We praise God for continuing to lead us because we know that God is faithful and just. We also believe that during this time of transition God will continue to guide our steps as we move forward. So as we continue to move and be led by God, the Week Day Fellowship on Wednesday evenings begins on August 14, 2019. We have almost made it through the hot summer – our Birmingham wilderness experience. So please plan to come out on August 14 and bring a church buddy or even someone who is not connected to a church as we participate and see what new things God will be doing at Baptist Church of the Covenant.

Casting Lots

21 We need to choose someone to take his place…
23 So they suggested the names of two men. One was Joseph, who was called Barsabbas. He was also called Justus. The other man was Matthias. 24 Then the believers prayed. They said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen. 25 Show us who should take the place of Judas as an apostle…” 26 Then they cast lots. Matthias was chosen. So he was added to the 11 apostles.                                                                                                    –Acts 1: 21, 23-26

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

A motley crew of weathered apostles circle up to roll the dice. Luke is careful to use this term, apostle, rather than disciple.  An apostle is one who was an eye-witness to Jesus ministry, death and resurrection. A disciple is a believer who has heard the stories of Jesus – like you and me. Luke thought it important to replace an apostle with another eye witness. After the death of Judas, Acts claims that Peter called the group to seek a replacement. Much like our process this evening. They nominated two reasonable candidates who fit the description of an apostle. They prayed, “Lord you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen.”

The practice of casting lots is mentioned in the Old Testament and New Testament. Nothing is known about the actual lots themselves. They could have been sticks of various lengths, flat stones like coins, or some kind of dice; but their exact nature is unknown. The closest modern practice to casting lots is likely flipping a coin.[1]

So, the apostles cast lots. They rolled the dice. They flipped a coin. And the lot fell to…

Tonight, we will hear nominations from the floor of business meeting and select through ballot voting seven from among us who will be charged with finding our next pastor. Like the apostles, we want to nominate a group of folks who have been eyewitnesses to the stories of Baptist Church of the Covenant, apostles – active in the life of this body and devoted to building up this faithful community. There are likely other sought after qualities as well: persons devoted to prayer and tending one’s own personal spiritual growth for example.

We will vote for seven of those to represent the greater congregation. Each person gets to vote for up to seven people out of those nominated. Our votes will be tallied to find the top seven out of all the votes cast. It feels like casting lots to me. I know some might argue with that. Be my guest.

Truly, it’s not the casting votes that is the most important act this evening. If we want to follow the example of the apostles, we must also say our prayers. Let us be praying as we go about our day, or on our knees, or in complete solitude. Let us be intentional about prayer for this crossroads in BCOC’s story. Pray for our  discernment; wisdom; clearness of mind and eye. Pray for the ability to trust the outcome. Pray that when we say, “Lord you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these you have chosen” that we can trust those who ARE chosen to represent the greater body that is Baptist Church of the Covenant. Once they are selected, there will be so much more for which to pray, but let’s save that for tomorrow.

Tonight, we will see to whom the lots fall.

[1] https://www.gotquestions.org/casting-lots.html

Why I Need Good Friday

By: Taylor Bell

This week, majority of the Christian Church journeys through its most significant week: Holy Week. While most Christians look forward to its culmination on of Easter Sunday, I am always most anticipating Good Friday. For those who are unfamiliar, Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday, and is the day Christians remember the story of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. It is utterly the darkest moment of the Christian story. Jesus’ death personifies the complete loss of hope, redemption, and salvation. Yet oddly enough, I find Good Friday anchors my faith more than Easter Sunday.

My reverence for Good Friday was cultivated throughout my childhood. I grew up in a Baptist church known for its high liturgy, which influenced our Tenebrae Good Friday service. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness,” and is a service held sometime between DementorConceptArtMaundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) and Good Friday. The service moves through the progressive extinguishing of candles accompanied by a darkening of the sanctuary. The intention of Tenebrae is to help the congregation experience the darkness of Jesus’ final despairing hours and death. Our church even had someone dress up as Death, reminding me of a Dementor from Harry Potter to emphasize death’s dark power and who would slowly extinguish the candles. Creepy!

It was a dark, eerie, and frightening service for my ten-year-old self. Yet it was incredibly captivating, and with each passing year I came to look forward to Good Friday. There was a despairing realness about the service I resonated with but could not consciously recognize nor explain. Throughout the church year, the majority of our themes were bright and positive: Christ’s redeeming love, the importance of hope in a broken world, and how everyone is loved by God no matter what. However, on Good Friday, the tenor and theme were anything but. It was dark, despairing, and hopeless. And yet, it felt deeply real, honest, and true.

Though I couldn’t name it then, I realize now my reverence for Good Friday is how its darkness resonates with my own. Since childhood, I have dealt with the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Today, divorce has become somewhat commonplace and its usualness may hide the reality of how particularly traumatic it is for everyone involved, especially the children. For children, divorce means the violent ripping apart a quintessential bond that provides safety, orderliness, and meaning. For me, the divorce inflicted a mortal wound, razing any belief the world was or could be trustworthy, dependable, and purposeful. Though I grew up with all my physical necessities, emotionally it was about survival. It was about learning to survive the painfully habitual oscillations between my parents. Home, security, joy, and love were divorced, violently split between two houses. And the void in between was terrifying. My life lacked unity, harmony, and coherence. I was powerless to change my world, powerless to refuse its terror and pain, so all I could do was learn to survive its chaos.

I still navigate this trauma today. That is the power of trauma. It collapses any realistic sense of time and place so that though the person may not truly be in the traumatic situation, they still experience its terrifying reality nonetheless. Such fear is experienced consciously and unconsciously, and it powerfully returns the person’s thoughts, behaviors, and existence into survival mode. The darkness of trauma is that it feels ultimate; feels as though there is no life beyond its totalizing grasp.

It would seem then Good Friday and trauma don’t mix well. Why journey to the cross at Golgotha when we can look straight to the empty tomb? Why revisit darkness and despair when we can celebrate the joy and happiness of resurrection? For me, answering these questions is about integrity. I cannot have a faith which ignores or cannot understand my trauma, because of how drastically it has impacted my life. To ignore the cross by looking only at the empty tomb is to deny the reality of the cross, and thus to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and brokenness. And for me to claim such a faith requires me to deny my own pain, suffering, and brokenness. It requires me to live a lie. And I am in too much pain to find solace in a lie.

Such faith that celebrates Easter resurrection without journeying through Good Friday crucifixion is what the German theologian and freedom-fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer infamously termed cheap grace. Cheap grace is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[1]  Cheap grace is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane allowing his Father’s cup pass by him. Cheap grace emerges from an optimistic faith that denies the Good Friday cross because it is afraid of darkness and death. Optimism is the act of avoiding the truth of pain and suffering by focusing exclusively on what is pleasurable. Optimistic faith is a dangerous fantasy it finds hope and solace in the denial of pain, not embracing of it. It is dangerous because it destructively collapses when the reality of darkness becomes unavoidable. Optimistic faith believes in cheap grace so that it doesn’t have to feel and experience life’s painfulness. Addicts use drugs to avoid their pain, Christians use cheap grace to avoid theirs.

I don’t need a faith that promises redemption and healing but cannot face the depths of my own woundedness. Out of integrity and live for my own soul, I cannot accept a faith that prompts me to ignore my trauma. This tactic only inflicts more pain and suffering. I need a faith that knows what real suffering is. As a child, I needed a faith that journeys into the darkness, despair, and suffering of life because I needed to know that God would find me, hold me, and love me. I needed to know that amidst the impenetrable darkness of my own trauma that I was not alone. And then I needed a faith that would guide me out of this darkness and into the light; to guide me into new life beyond my trauma. I still need such a faith today.

Optimistic faith and cheap grace are worthless because they deny the Christian truth that healing, resurrection, and new life are found by journeying through pain, suffering, and trauma.[2] For there to be resurrection there must first be crucifixion. This is the paradoxical truth of the Christian faith: that our hope, redemption, and healing are found by journeying with Christ to the cross, not by avoiding it. Such faith discovers what Bonhoeffers terms costly grace. It is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life … it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.”[3] Costly grace emerges from a realistic faith which acknowledges the truth of pain, suffering, and death within life. It can acknowledge, because realistic faith follows Christ to the cross and into the tomb to mysteriously yet profoundly discover resurrection. It knows that grace is costly because it is experienced only by directly journeying through one’s darkness. And it is graceful because amidst one’s own darkness we discover Christ right with us, guiding us through to new life.

Realistic faith and costly grace are what I rediscover every year at Good Friday. Which is why I now recognize why Good Friday is so important for my faith. Good Friday is what makes my faith real. By real I mean that Good Friday anchors my faith so that it has a real guiding and healing impact on my life. I need Good Friday because it is an essential step in my faith journey that Christ calls me to walk for healing and redemption. Good Friday reminds me why I need Easter. The faithfulness of Good Friday brings me face-to-face with the realness of my own despair, hopelessness, violence, trauma, darkness, and brokenness. And the real grace is through my faithful journey I have mysteriously again and again found Jesus guiding my path, not abandoning me, lovingly embracing me when I become tired and afraid, imbuing my steps with courage and hope, and miraculously nurturing meaningfulness where there was once meaninglessness. Because of my journey through Good Friday, I have begun to experience the resurrection of Easter Sunday.

As a pastor, I believe we all seek, desire, and need such realistic faith. On some level of our being, we desire a spiritual grounding and guidance that provides real healing and a flourishing life. For me, this spiritual grounding is my Christian faith and it must again and again journey through Holy Week, especially Good Friday. Bonhoeffer claims “costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again,”[4] which is why Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter are practiced every year. I am human and have a broken tendency to forget the salvific truth of my Christian faith: that Christ is gracefully redeeming me everyday if only I will follow him into the darkness to rediscover resurrection. When I forget Good Friday, I forget the realness of my faith and I lose my way. My forgetfulness is why I need Good Friday this year, next year, and all the years to come. Because Good Friday makes my faith real. And I know it is real because through this faith I am discovering God’s graceful love, healing, and redemption. This is the real Gospel: that there is new life beyond death. If you are not already, I invite you this year to join me in journeying again through the darkness of Good Friday. I cannot guarantee, I can only faithfully claim that Christ will meet and lead us through the darkness into new light.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. P. 45

[2] Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

[3] Bonhoeffer, p. 45, original emphasis.

[4] Bonhoeffer, p. 45.

An In-depth review of “Beating Guns” by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin

Beating Guns is a Christian moral reflection on the gravity of American gun violence. The book explores through historical inquiry, empirical studies, and political analysis our contemporary epidemic of gun violence. Claiborne and Martin develop the recognition that American gun violence is unnecessarily deadly and unique. As Christians, their ethical response is rooted in their theology of nonviolence that claims God calls Christians to co-create with God a world where guns are beaten into plowshares (i.e. Isaiah 2:4). A world that knows peace because it has forgotten violence. Their theological ethics establish the claim that Christians have a moral responsibility to end gun violence. And their political analysis reveals that reducing gun violence is democratically possible.

The book begins with an exegesis of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (NRSV). Though the authors explore other Scripture passages, particularly Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, it is the prophet’s words which are the inspiration for the book’s title and form the authors’ central theological and ethical claims about gun violence. They interpret these passages to mean that God intends for God’s people to be of peace not violence, and thus they are called to transform their weapons into gardening tools. Claiborne and Martin, in connecting these passages for engaging present day gun violence, interpret its moral claim both theologically and literally. Theologically, it means Christians are called be a people of peace which means confessing and repenting of our addiction to violence. Literally, it means Christians are called to take their weapons and transform them into garden tools. Thus, the ethical response to gun violence is not more guns, but rather transforming our instruments of death into instruments of agriculture and life. This literalness is embodied within Martin’s work with RAWtools where blacksmiths convert guns into garden tools. Martin’s work provides their exegesis of Isaiah and Micah a real-life grounding through stories about the healing and transformation gun owners, those who’ve attempted suicide, and victims of gun violence have experienced through the ritual of beating guns into garden tools. Their theological conviction therefore is not some pie-in-sky idealism, but is evidenced as tangible, realistic, and a faithful alternative to our country’s current responses to gun violence.

The book transitions from a Christian theological engagement to a establishing a “thick description” of American gun violence through an historical, political, empirical, and social analysis. They conclude that U.S. gun violence is unique to our country and that we can democratically reduce its deadliness. Each lens of their analysis is intended to reveal that gun violence is not some amorphous problem lacking any definitive cause and thus any definitive solution. Historically, they point out how the U.S. domestic gun market was created by entrepreneurs who were concerned solely for profit, with no concern for safety and morality. Politically, they argue that the National Rifle Association’s (NRA), through the garnering of immense political power, has irresponsibly misinterpreted the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment to mean that one’s right to own a weapon is practically limitless. The NRA’s power and lobbying has enabled the gun industry to have the least regulation of any industry in the country (indeed, I was surprised to learn a Nerf Gun has more regulation than an AR-15, p. 94). The authors employ various studies and statistics to empirically establish and support their claim that U.S. gun violence is unique and largely preventable. Furthermore, they use these studies to reveal that the vast majority of Americans support “commonsense” gun laws, pragmatically pointing out that gun violence has an easily democratic solution (p. 109). Socially, they examine gun violence through the lenses of race, gender, and sexual violence to relate how our country’s proliferation of weapons is especially endangering to minorities and women—especially when considering America’s track record of legally protecting white men from punishment for their violence. Their thick description leads Claiborne and Martin to resolutely assert that American gun violence is an epidemic that is uniquely American and yet can be democratically solved. We have a gun problem, and more guns are not the answer.

Yet the authors do not stop with their socio-historical analysis. Rather, it prompts them to a deeper delve into the “heart” of the gun violence issue. They analysis invites them to reflect not just onto the issue of guns, but also on a society that teaches and cultivates such grave gun violence. The authors, in a step of personal honesty and conviction acknowledge that violence’s roots are not found in our weapons. Rather, violence emerges from the human heart, and therefore violence is something all humans wrestle with. This painful acknowledgement leads Claiborne and Martin to assert that we don’t just have a gun problem. We as a country have a heart problem as well. Accordingly, we all are responsible for gun violence; we all have a role to play in transforming our communities for peace.

The importance of the claim that America has a gun and heart problem cannot be understated. Especially in considering the authors’ goal of elevating the contemporary gun debate above its partisan political absolutism that dominates our legislation and impedes any tangible progress for reducing gun violence. For this contemporary debate is characterized by scapegoating and blaming the other side of the aisle, damming up any possibility for communal and holistic change. Yet if we take Claiborne’s and Martin’s claim seriously, then we cannot demonize the “other” through identifying them as “the problem.” Not only does such shaming inhibit moral responsiveness, it breaks down the ability for the public square to hold true dialogue. Dialogue where people can authentically share their stories and hear another’s. America is a democracy, and if we are to democratically solve the epidemic of gun violence we must stop dividing ourselves by projecting our own responsibility onto others. It is this misstep that Claiborne and Martin are explicit and intentional not to repeat. Not only do they recognize the violence’s universality by recognizing its cultural and social roots, they also repeatedly claim that gun owners are not the problem. They habitually cite statistics that the vast majority of gun owners support commonsense gun laws and are not represented by the NRA (the NRA represents only 5% of American gun owners).

I deeply appreciate their claim that gun violence is a gun and heart problem, because quite frankly, if the present-day debate was going to reduce gun violence it would have accomplished this already. Yet, I also appreciate their claim because it informs renewed ways of dialogically engaging one another as a means of “changing the dynamic of the gun debate” (p. 243). For in universalizing the responsibility for violence, Claiborne and Martin lay the framework to having a transformational and pragmatic engagement on gun violence. They assert that we change the gun debate by sitting together and listening to each other; by becoming a community of story-tellers and story-listeners. Though simple, it is profound. How much of the present gun debate is characterized by genuine sitting with and listening to one another? To hear and bear witness to another’s story, be it the tragedy of victimization or family bonding over an afternoon of skeet shooting? And truly, it is consistently people’s personal stories bear the greatest power to transform our understandings, not an overindulgence in facts and statistics. This is why we rely on testimonies within any struggle to change the world. This appears to be Claiborne’s and Martin’s deepest hope in writing Beating Guns: to elevate the conversation on gun violence towards becoming more communal, creative, and transformative so that gun violence is ended. And by claiming that American gun violence is a gun and heart problem, I believe they effectively lay the groundwork to elevate and transform our current debate.

However, my main critique with their book is they fail to go into any depth on the nature of such a transformed dialogue. Through exegesis, they provide the theological foundation to their moral claim that Christians must help end gun violence. Through an in-depth socio-historical analysis they reveal that U.S. gun violence is a gun problem which has observable causes and thus concrete solutions. Finally, through personal reflection they honestly acknowledge that gun violence is also a heart problem prompting the claim that all Americans have a responsibility to ending gun violence. Yet, they do not provide much resources for moving such theology, analysis, and reflection into pragmatic engagement with one’s community. They discuss Jesus’ “third way” in their exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount and provide countless testimonies of how people creatively respond to gun violence. But they do not provide any tangible resources for pragmatic ways one may begin a truly helpful and productive conversation on gun violence. I raise this critique because if you’ve ever attempted to hold such an emotionally-charged dialogue, especially with the goal of developing consensus around a problem, you know it much more complexed and nuanced than bringing people together. I believe they hit on it with an emphasis on story-telling and listening. Still, I feel their lack of any further engagement is a missed opportunity for strengthening the pragmatic usefulness of this book.

Overall though, I am overwhelmingly thankful for this book. Once I finished I found myself wanting to jump up and get to work! My passionate response feels like the deep hope of Claiborne and Martin: that after reading their book, people will be compelled to act for change. I must admit, I came into this book already sympathetic to their arguments. Furthermore, I am not a gun owner. I enjoy shooting guns, but I am not a gun enthusiast. I state this, because I am unsure if someone who is resolutely opposed to any notion of gun laws would be convinced by Claiborne and Martin. Yet, this book’s strength is not in convincing people, but in cultivating a faithful and creative lens that understands gun violence is a problem that can be solved. Such a lens is hopeful, and perhaps hope is what we so desperately need right now. Because without hope, there isn’t much of an imperative to do the hard work that ending gun violence demands. After reading Beating Guns, and hopeful. And I am convinced my hope is not some pie-in-sky idealism but is real and true. Because now to see it any other way just seems too unrealistic. So in conclusion, if you are someone who is at the very least concerned with gun violence in America, I highly recommend you read Claiborne’s and Martin’s book. If you are someone searching for hope amidst America’s epidemic of gun violence, sit down with Claiborne and Martin and listen to them. I imagine you’ll be thankful you did.

Where does the title “Beating Guns” come from?

By: Taylor Bell

bookcoverOn the evening of Sunday, March 17th, Baptist Church of the Covenant will host Shane Claiborne and Mike Martin for the tour of their new book Beating Guns (for more info, visit here: https://www.beatingguns.com./). We believe this tour is an opportunity for Covenant to join others in faithfully exploring new ways to address gun violence today. We believe it is time for a new and more hopeful conversation. Because the current conversation isn’t working; if it was then we’d be seeing solutions. Before we can begin the conversation, we need to address just what Claiborne and Martin mean by “Beating Guns.” But, if you’re like me, you found their book’s title a bit … jarring. Because it is provocative, we feel it important to explore what Claiborne and Martin mean by “Beating Guns.”

Beating Guns is a reference to Isaiah 2:4. In this passage, the prophet proclaims: “they [nations] shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4, NRSV).[1] It is important to note this verse sits within a larger vision proclaimed by Isaiah. And to understand the “beating swords into plowshares” line, it is important to know the whole of the vision:

 “2 In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all nations shall steam to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk,
in the light of the LORD!” (Isaiah 2:2-5, NRSV)

What Isaiah sees in this vision is his country Judah redeemed and living out God’s will. Here Judah is understood as Zion, and therefore is the country where people can meet God. Prophetically speaking, if Judah was to be such a country it would mean the leaders had repented of their idolatrous and oppressive ways, their rule being a faithful reflection of God’s will. Instead of idolatry, they would faithfully worship God. Instead of oppression, they would actively seek the people’s welfare—especially the orphans’, the widows’, and the immigrants’ welfare. Judah would become a country known for its peace, justice, and compassion. Now, other world leaders travel to Judah to learn from God how to forget war and learn peace. As such, swords and spears are no longer understood as weapons, but as raw materials for agricultural tools. Here, faithfully living out God’s will means transforming instruments that bring death to tools that cultivate life.

Yet, if you read the surrounding passages, Isaiah 1:1-31 and 2:6-22, it is apparent this vision stands in stark contrast to Judah’s reality. It is so jarring a contradiction that some scholars wonder if 2:2-5 are Isaiah’s original words! What we find in the bordering Scripture is a country deemed sinful, idolatrous, committers of evil, and ignorers of justice and compassion. It is the complete opposite of Isaiah’s vison! Judah’s grave and root sin is having “forsaken the LORD” (1:4) causing Isaiah to be so incensed he cries out to God, “do not forgive them!” (2:9).

So, what on earth is this idyllic vision doing amidst such despairing indictments? The gap between ideal and reality is so wide you’d think Isaiah is irrational and crazy. But Isaiah isn’t irrational or crazy, he is speaking for God. There must be, then, an intentional reason this vision is placed here. Contradiction, especially jarring contradiction, is used to grab our attention, waking us up from our apathy and inattentiveness. You could say Judah was asleep to its own sin. Where Judah saw prosperity and righteousness, Isaiah witnessed idolatry and oppression. As a prophet, Isaiah was responsible for waking Judah to their sin. Perhaps then, Isaiah employs such jarring contradiction to wake Judah to the reality that God has called them to be so much more. That despite their violence, idolatry, and oppression, God is working to redeem them.

And yet, we must acknowledge that so much of Isaiah’s vision is not up to God. Yes, God has a pretty important role, namely providing divine instruction (2:3). But, this vision is also dependent on humans to trust and follow God’s instructions. This is evident in the call-and-response dynamic that characterizes the vision. God provides divine instruction, and humans faithfully respond. For instance, swords are not beaten into plowshares until after the people have gone to Zion to learn God’s instruction. Thus, Isaiah’s vision is not created solely by God. It is really a co-creation between God and humanity. Without humanity’s faithful response, God’s vision remains only a vision. Thus, Judah beats their swords into plowshares not because the world is suddenly safe and it is politically astute, but because they are faithfully responding to God. Because they have accepted God’s invitation to co-create a peaceful world.

I have yet to read the book, and I can’t read minds, but it seems Claiborne’s and Martin’s intention is to restart the conversation on gun violence for Christians. To step away from political ideologies to explore the issue through our shared faith. Yet, in specifically emphasizing Isaiah 2:4, where nations “beat their swords into plowshares,” it also seems Claiborne and Martin are claiming we as Christians have a divine mandate to end gun violence. If Isaiah 2:4 was defining for Judah, then it is also defining for us Christians. Like Judah, we are called to beat our guns into plowshares. Because, like Judah, we are called to join God in co-creating a peaceful world. What our role as co-creators looks like today, that is up for conversation.

Which is why, as Christians, it is time for a new conversation on gun violence. If we are going to answer God’s call to end gun violence, then we cannot keep having the same conversation. We cannot keep blaming the “other side” nor avoiding it altogether because it makes people upset. We must garner the courage and hospitality to talk with each other. And we must also have the faith to stop having this conversation alone. We need to involve God in this conversation, because God is a co-creator with us. This is why, as a Christian pastor, I believe a conversation rooted in Scripture has the potential to transcend our political limitations. Not because Scripture provides all the answers, but because Scripture opens us up to God. We must have the courage, hospitality, and faith to begin such a conversation because there is too much violence in the world not to. Perhaps even, such a conversation is the first step towards co-creating with God a divinely peaceful world. This is the conversation we hope Shane and Mike will help to start, and it is the conversation we plan to continue. Come join us. All are welcome.

[1] The same exact verse is in Micah 4:3. For purposes of conciseness I have focused solely on Isaiah 2:4.

The Gifts of Kids

Summer Camp Blog Post ImageSummer camps characterized a large part of my summer. I assisted with Arts Camp at Southtown, Seed Camp in Marion, AL, and Passport in Greenville, SC. I experienced summer camp in a variety of settings and with a diversity of people. And as the August back-to-school rhythm begins, I cannot help but reflect on what this summer meant to me and what the many children and youth taught me.

Most importantly, I was reminded of this simple, profound, and yet forgotten truth: we are all gifted. By gifted I mean you were created by God with unique and important skills, abilities, and insights. Our gifts are innate, authentic, and part of who we are. Our giftedness is a divine truth. Recall Genesis 1:26-28 where humankind was made in God’s image (termed imago Dei), or 1 Corinthians 12:4-31 where Paul elaborates that the Spirit distributes gifts for God’s Kingdom and the common good. Paul’s proclamation here is exclamatory: we were created with gifts to share and make the world a better place! God’s grace is evidenced in our giftedness. That despite the world’s darkness and suffering, God created us with gifts to help heal the world’s pain and suffering. Perhaps God’s grace is witnessed when we share our gifts with the world.

Yet, how often do we look outside ourselves for the things we need? How often do we believe the lie that we are not enough for the world, for our communities, or even for ourselves? How often do we deny the truth of our giftedness because our world says otherwise? How often do we deny God’s grace because we believe the lie we are not gifted?

If you ever doubt how gifted you are, spend time with a child. Though he was only 5, his gifts brightened the room like New York City lights. Though seemingly small tasks, his intuitive painting, quick grasp of engineering, and endless facts and statistics about the Pittsburgh Steelers revealed his giftedness. As I leaned in closer I witnessed creativity, ingenuity, and passion. Without knowing it, this boy was sharing himself with me, and asking me to do the same. As though the light of his gifts were shining into my own soul to reveal my gifts. And what a blessing, because I have spent much of my life hiding my gifts believing my gifts are inadequate, shameful, and irrelevant. But to this child my gifts were the beginning of a relationship. Sharing my gifts was my response to his invitation to truly be with each other. Here, sharing our gifts was the beginning of a real relationship, of true community. And aren’t real relationships and true community what we are so desperately after?

Though she was only 17, her gifts danced like light from a priceless diamond. I saw incredible compassion for her friends, patience and leadership for her community, and joy as she had fun. As the week progressed, I began to recognize her gifts of evident here. Akin to the boy two weeks prior, this young woman without knowing it was sharing her true self. And she fostered a community where it became safe for others to share their true selves. Again, the creation of a community expressed in authenticity, truth, and realness. To foster such a community also requires the gift of courage—to be oneself despite the world. Just imagine if we shared these gifts with the world. Imagine all the pain and suffering that would begin to find healing if there was more compassion, joy, creativity, ingenuity, passion, and courage. And there are many other gifts I failed to mention!

And it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here with our youth are the gifts necessary for a good and beautiful world. Throughout these camps I witnessed grace! Grace that there is enough in the world. Grace that I am gifted, grace the you are gifted, and grace that we are all gifted. We already have all that we need, gifted to us by God in our creation. But we must share our gifts! It is God’s call for us to share our gifts that these children and youth reminded me of. That miracles happen when we share our gifts. One miracle is the birth of community from relationships that are real, authentic, and healing. Isn’t this the type of community our souls thirst for today? And isn’t this the type of community we describe when we talk about the Church? Perhaps the Church is the Church, and shares God’s grace, when each person is called to share their gifts?

Imagine how beautiful our world would be if we lived each day by sharing our gifts? Imagine how beautiful our own lives would be if we lived each day by sharing our gifts? Yet, such grace and beauty don’t just happen. Because of love, God exists in relationship with humankind. A loving relationship requires that we share. Here love demands we share our divine giftedness with the world. I end with this reflection: it is never selfish to claim your divine gifts, only selfish to ignore them; It is never selfish to share your gifts, only selfish to hide them. What are your gifts? What is God calling you to share with the world?