Fear Not!

Throughout the Christmas narratives in the Bible, a key phrase rings out time and time again.

Fear Not!

The angel Gabriel uttered these words to Zechariah when informing him that his wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to John.

Fear Not!

Gabriel also offered these words to Mary when telling her she would give birth to the Messiah. 

Fear Not!

An angel spoke these words to Joseph in a dream while reassuring Joseph to marry Mary and raise Jesus. 

Fear Not!

An angel used these words while announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds near Bethlehem. 

Fear Not!

These words ring out throughout scriptures, such as when God spoke to Abram in a vision, when an angel spoke to Hagar, when God spoke to Jacob, when God spoke to Joshua, when God spoke to Gideon, and when God spoke through the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of the passages from the prophets allude to the coming birth of the Messiah.  

Fear Not!

The grown Jesus invoked these words, as did an angel at the empty tomb. The resurrected Jesus used these words in the vision of John in the Bible's last book. 

Fear Not!

Today we hardly heed these words. We fear greatly. We fear terrorists. We even fear refugees. And when we fear, we also ignore another often-repeated biblical admonition: "love your neighbor as yourself." We forget to fear not our enemies so we forget to love them. We forget to fear not the refugees so we forget to love them. As John the disciple wrote in 1 John 4:

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."

As we start this holy season of Advent, may we listen closely to the words of scripture, the words of the angels and the prophets. May we recommit ourselves to following the biblical commands to fear not and to love. May the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season teach us a new way.

Fear Not!

Review: Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia

I recently wrote about a controversy dividing Baptists in the former Soviet-bloc nation of Georgia (see two-part articles here and here). For the articles I talked with three key Georgian Baptist leaders. As I finished my articles, Baylor University Press published a book by one of the three, former Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. So I grabbed a copy of his new book, Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia: The History and Transformation of a Free Church Tradition.

It is an excellent and informative book. Georgian Baptists are quite unique as a more liturgical church that in many ways resembles the Orthodox tradition more than what is typically found in Baptist churches in other nations. Songulashvili explains how this evolution occurred as Georgian Baptists sought to minister in their cultural context. This difference sometimes led to misunderstandings, such as when Soviet authorities researched Baptists during the middle of the 20th Century. The Soviet leaders made critical mistakes as they relied on publications from Russian Baptists to make assessments about Georgian Baptists.

"I realized that we could not be just a mere copy of other Baptist churches in Europe or the United States; we had to be a Georgian Baptist Church fully aligned with Georgian culture, remaining in critical solidarity with that culture but judiciously addressing the political reality in which the church’s mission was set," Songulashvili writes in the book.

The parts of the book I particularly enjoyed emerged as Songulashvili traced the political implications of Baptist worship. He noted the role the first Baptist church played in providing medical assistance during Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878).

"The Tiflis Baptist Church gained the favor of the authorities because of their social engagement," he explains in the book. "This had political implications for them.”

Within a few years, however, the situation for the church shifted as "the number of Orthodox converts started to grow" and "[t]he existence and growth of Tiflis Baptist Church became a political event from the perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire." This led to "years of permanent persecution" with "imprisonment, torture, and exile."

After the rise of the Soviet Union later, the tensions between faith and politics grew.

"In the formative times of the Baptist and Evangelical Christian groups, the dramatic social and political changes in the life of society (revolutions, wars with Armenia, British and German interventions, and Russian occupation) also played an important role," he explains. "People were in search of emotional and spiritual spaces that would provide a safe harbor in tumultuous times. ... what was preached by these two groups of evangelicals directly confronted Communist ideology, and it was dangerous to enter into confrontation with that ruthless force."

"Political hypocrisy and corruption at all levels of society caused enormous despair," he adds. "[T]he overwhelming corruption and hopelessness in society was one of the reasons the ECB succeeded in growing in numbers and strengthened their position in the country."

As Songulashvili notes how the Baptist faith and practices inherently carried political implications, he claims "the Eucharist is always a political act." This sentiment matches nicely with the key argument in my new book, Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action.

Songulashvili writes in his book how leaders from the Baptist World Alliance assisted Georgian Baptists and how an international focus among Georgian Baptists impacted their faith. Additionally, he notes in the book how various relief efforts impacted the Baptist churches and opened doors for growth. This included helping care for wounded during wars, counseling after World War II, and refugee work in more recent years. 

Although he covers lots of history, dates, and names, Songulashvili does a good job keeping the story moving and connecting the spiritual implications. I recommend the book for those interested in church history, Baptist faith and practices, or issues of religion and politics. 

Vote Inconsistent with Holiday Ideal

Thanksgiving naturally leads many of us in the United States to stop and reflect on our blessings. That is, until we then try to kill each other getting to Black Friday sale items the next morning - or now even before we clean the dishes since some stores open on Thursday. I hope that somehow in the busyness and consumerism of this time of year, we can find a way to think about others.

The Jefferson City News-Tribune ran a letter to the editor I wrote contrasting the ideals of Thanksgiving with the anti-refugee legislation my U.S. Representative, Blaine Luetkemeyer, cosponsored last week. In the letter, Vote Inconsistent with Holiday Ideal, I note problems with his legislative effort to prevent assistance to refugees. I also argue we need to remember and pray for refugees. I hope Luetkemeyer and others will listen.

Need to Show Compassion toward Refugees

As I've watched the rhetoric against Syrian refugees, I've been particularly alarmed by how quickly so many politicians in both parties joined the fear-saturated attacks. Despite the fact refugees are already highly vetted and there are many easier and quicker ways for a terrorist to enter the country, demonizing refugees emerged as the new political sport.

A mayor in Virginia suggested using the World War ll-era internment of Japenese-Americans as a positive model program. A lawmaker in Missouri suggested herding refugees into camps. A lawmaker in Tennessee suggested using the National Guard to round up refugees. Have we lost our minds - and our consciences?

Congressional leaders have joined governors in pushing measures to stop refugee resettlement. So I wrote a letter to the editor to respond to a comment by one of my U.S. Senators, Roy Blunt. The St. Lous Post-Dispatch published the letter today.

In the letter, Need to Show Compassion toward Refugees, I urge Blunt to reconsider his position. I also connect the topic to the upcoming holy season of Advent. I hope Blunt and others will listen.