Public Mission

THE DANGLING CONVERSATION AND COUNTERFEIT DISCOURSE

 A Pastoral Message For Our Churches During These Extraordinary Days

As a Simon and Garfunkel fan, one of my all-time favorites is “The Dangling Conversation”, written by the gifted composer Paul Simon in 1966. The theme of the beautiful lyrics is about failed communication between two lovers. The first verse is descriptively powerful:

It’s a still life water color,
of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
and the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.

The message of the song is clear - indifference leads to failed communication, and renders it as mere “superficial sighs.” Sincere civic debate and constructive conversation around the common good in our political life is hardly possible now in our day and time, and indifference is not the only cause. There is a malignant toxicity that has infected our public discourse.

We now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts (e.g., that the sun always rises in the east) no longer determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse is zero-sum: which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is - and must be - lost by the other.

This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. As an avid student of politics and a curious social observer, I find myself in these days making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this centrifugal counterfeit discourse that steals life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity.

As a regional pastor, that concern extends much deeper and broader than my own individual commitment to stay grounded and centered. My concern extends to the churches and pastors in our regional family who I am privileged to serve. And because we must yet live out our faith in the public sphere, I am profoundly concerned with the state of the testimony of the church in public life. I am concerned for our faith community because the infectiousness of this hyper-partisan and politically polarized environment has also permeated the discourse of the church. And herein lies the danger. The church is the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of God on earth. It is from this theological bedrock profession that my abiding concern for the faithful voice of our churches emanates - that its voice might remain grounded and centered in the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ during these extraordinary days.

So how do we as churches remain centered in the cruciform Christ who has ushered in the reign of God’s kingdom of love?

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

A foundational scriptural basis for the practice and ethic of the follower of Jesus during this extraordinarily toxic season of public life is found in Matthew 22: 15-21, where the Pharisees and the Herodians (who were religious collaborators of the empire) tried to trap Jesus into revealing his loyalty to the Emperor (Caesar) by luring him to disclose his “political” affiliation. Instead, Jesus used the encounter to expose their ultimate allegiance and the fallacy of their religiosity. The rebuke to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s; and to God the things that are God’s”, was to say that all earthly kingdoms no longer hold absolute sway in our hearts and souls, and that our ultimate allegiance is no longer adjudicated by which ideology wins the contest for power. God’s kingdom is now in our midst, embodied in the life of Jesus, and all forms of earthly power now live under the scrutiny of God’s reign of love in the world. Yes, as followers of Jesus we must have a sound and healthy Christian political theology that is grounded in the cruciform Christ, and not - even never - conflated with any other earthly ideology.

Politics always seeks to reproduce its own preferred social relations that favor its hold on power. In that pursuit, politics also cannot help but conceal its contradictions. These concealed contradictions disclose themselves in the course of a contested and partisan competition for power. For example, politicians like to advertise themselves as the most non-political candidate but, alas, are campaigning for such a political position; they compete for the most compelling argument of how they dislike politics but, alas, a position which they now covet; they claim to speak "for the people", but in actuality espouse only the interests of a their own supporters; they so readily conflate their faith with their politics to burnish their “moral” credentials, but be the first to tell religion to stay out of politics when religion becomes critical of it; a candidate seeks a moral equivalence with the wrongs of an opponent’s past in order to justify one’s wrongs being committed in the present - and the list of contradictions go on and on. Many church leaders and pastors have even gone on to lend their support of this or that candidate as a mandate of their faith, conveniently ignoring some of their own strongly held beliefs that they otherwise would have used to judge others, in order to justify the moral and ethical shortcomings of their partisan choice. But what is ultimately concealed is what lies at the core of this sociopolitical contest - the will to power.

As one who instinctively views circumstances through theological eyes, I am especially discerning and vigilant during a season of ideological warfare, that I don’t get pulled into the vortex of the centrifugal force that fuels counterfeit discourse. Jesus spoke of “truth” many times. In John’s gospel in particular, chapter 8: 31-32 - understanding that Greek was the language in which the New Testament was written - Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “...and you will know the truth, and the truth will will make you free.” (NRSV)

Open Sea

Open Sea

In the Greek, the word from whence “truth” is translated is “aletheia” - literally, the “absence of walls.” So what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place - where walls are absent and “unconcealed” - look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place? Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what "knowing the truth" entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples...” The truth that Jesus speaks about is not knowledge in general but redemptive, saving truth rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions. In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and, in that and through that, we are made free. And wherever God is present, truth, “aletheia” inhabits and indwells. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

As followers of Jesus we know to what end God uses power. We know to what end Jesus used his authority. Our tasks as citizens is to discern how earthly politics use their power. To what end? Do they use it only to perpetuate their hold on power and dominion? Do they use their power for the common good? As followers of Jesus, our path is clear, it is not ambiguous. Our path is led not by the gods of Herodians, but by the cruciform Christ. As followers of Jesus, the moral voice we hear has an unmistakable timbre. It is not garbled.

The gospel proclamation is not neutral. Its proclamation is grounded in a God whose very nature is love. And that love issues forth in an indefatigable holy desire to protect the poor, the suffering and the oppressed. And so Jesus’ social vision is unequivocally articulated in concrete political terms at the beginning of his ministry in Luke chapter 4. And while the realization of that vision is ultimately eschatological, it lays out the political agenda of Jesus and the kingdom. God is a God of liberation, who chose to disclose the divine intention in history through liberating a slave people and calling them to be a “light unto the nations”, and through an only Son who revealed God’s presence in the radical and extravagant exercise of agape. To the degree that human institutions participate in this agenda, they enter the astonishing possibility of being in the presence God’s very reign on earth and participate in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of love in the world.

The church’s voice cannot be indifferent; and if the way it communicates in society makes its voice disappear and become indistinguishable in the morass of our toxic political climate, then its voice has utterly failed. It is in the obedient practice of the teachings of Jesus that we are set free, and it is in that practice that God’s presence is disclosed. We need to center our discourse and our conversation in God’s reign as disclosed in the life and teachings of Jesus. When the church and the followers of Jesus discipline themselves to stay centered in God, their proclamation always lead others to enter God’s presence that is already at work in our midst. Any other voice that infuses these days with more disconnective energy, and draws our ultimate allegiances into its contradictions, is just dangling conversation and counterfeit discourse.

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!
— John 16: 33 (NRSV)

Fair Schedules, Disaster Care and the Upcoming Elections

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The church needs to rediscover its voice and respond to the pressing needs of our world! In support of that mandate, the ABCNJ Public Mission Committee is asking the region's pastors and churches to consider three important issues that affect the lives of the people in our congregations and the community at large.

Fair Schedules NJ

Do you have church members, friends or family that hold jobs that feature inconsistent schedules? Several ABCNJ pastors (James deBoer, Marsha Butler, Kathleen Roney, Osvaldo Jimenez and others) have invested energy in this issue and are wondering if other ABCNJ churches and pastors might wish to join in their efforts. Attached is a flyer in Spanish and English that explains the issues, and an email you can write to if you would like to become more involved or share your own experiences.

Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Providers

ABCNJ pastor Willard Ashley has been a nationally recognized leader in providing spiritual care in response to natural and humanity-caused disasters. The Red Cross is offering classes for clrgy who are interested in becoming Red Cross certified Disaster Spiritual care Providers. See the attached flyer for course information.

Responding Spiritually to the National Elections

The committee also had a lively conversation on the state of American politics and how the church needs to respond. The Committee is encouraging our churches to foster reconciliation, healing and unity in two ways.

First, we ask every church to include prayers for our country's unity and reconciliation during their Communion services on Sunday, November 6 - two days before the election.

Second, we are inviting the ABCNJ family to join in a region-wide time of prayer by group telephone on Monday evening, November 7 at 7:00 PM, hosted by Rev. Dr. Gloria and Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Newark.

Participant Instructions:

  1. Call the Dial-In Number – (515) 739-1285
  2. Enter your Access Code – 733193.

The ABCNJ Public Mission Committee seeks to foster dialogue and action as our region grows in spiritual health and mission faithfulness. Examples of issues covered in the past are immigration and the death penalty, missions supported in the past include ESL, Sacred Safe Spaces and Anti-Poverty. At its December 1 meeting, the Committee will focus on adoption.

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Central Baptist Hosts Police in Woodbury

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Please note: First Baptist Church in South Orange hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" evening earlier this year. Inspired by this, Central Baptist Church in Woodbury hosted a similar event.  Here is Rev. Carla A. Romarate-Knipel's (Senior Pastor) report:

Our Meet and Greet with the Woodbury Police went very well on Wednesday evening, July 8. We thank God!  About 40 % of the police force came. All together about 50 people attended. It was supposed to take place between 7-8 pm, but the police and folks who came stayed around until 8:30 pm.  Everyone had a great time and I was happy that we got off to a good start.

It was a pretty diverse group: young people from Boys & Girls club (that CBC Woodbury hosts); neighborhood kids; church members; folks in the neighborhood; business owners, city council members; the pastor of one of our local African-American Baptist churches (non-ABCNJ) and his wife; and the former mayor of Woodbury (who is also a church leader in Central Baptist).  All our refreshments were donated by church members and one young man who has a water ice business gave it to our church for free, and served the water ice himself!

I talked to the incoming chief of police and he said he's open to doing it again in Fall.  God willing we hope to do this at least once or twice  a year.

woodbury police

by Rev. Dr. Carla A. Romarate-Knipel Senior Pastor Central Baptist Church of Woodbury 37 South Jackson Street Woodbury, NJ 08096

A Message from Dr. Spitzer on Charleston

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Please Note: This letter is being mailed to each of our ABCNJ Churches.  

Responding to the Tragic Attack in

Charleston, South Carolina

A Pastoral Letter for the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey - June 18, 2015

 

Dear Members and Friends of the ABCNJ Family,

Once again, our nation faces a horrific human tragedy – the attack upon the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This venerable and historic congregation has long been at the heart and soul of the African-American journey toward civil equality and freedom. All people of goodwill stand together in mourning the loss of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s Pastor, and the eight other people who died in the shooting.

In response to this tragedy, I am encouraging all of our ABCNJ congregations to devote time during this Sunday’s worship services to stand in solidarity with Emanuel AME Church by offering prayers of intercession. In addition, perhaps you might invite your Sunday School classes to compose letters of condolence and send them to the church, or you might join with others in your community for prayer meetings or social times to express racial understanding and friendship. Whatever you and your church choose to do, please share your response with the region, so that we might help each other model what it means to be a spiritual community of reconciliation and love. Post your activity on our ABCNJ Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/abcnj) or email me directly (lspitzer@abcnj.net).

From the Bible, my thoughts today have centered on Paul’s words in Romans 12:9-18, 21:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Yours in Christ,

 

Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer

Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor

Meeting the Governor

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An inclusive interfaith coalition of New Jersey's religious leaders had an opportunity to meet with Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday, December 3, 2013.  ABCNJ's Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor, Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer, participated in the discussion. A number of very important issues were addressed by Governor Christie: gun control, education, health care, and the challenges surrounding hosting the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl?  Yes, because it will be held on February 2, 2014 at MetLife Stadium.  The interfaith coalition is concerned that major sporting events such as the Super Bowl attract large numbers of sex workers, many of whom are victims of the scandalous international sex slave trade.

2013-12-03 Christie Meeting 3The Governor recounted his experiences in prosecuting sex slave ring leaders when he served as United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, before becoming Governor (2002-2008).  He noted that when trafficked women are rescued by law authorities, they manifest many symptoms of severe psychological abuse that makes it difficult for them to trust even their rescuers.  Governor Christie called upon the religious community to minister to these victims, because the love and care we show comes without any demands upon them.

I would like to remind all of our churches that our ABCNJ Council approved a resolution in January 2013 calling for our churches to join the global anti-trafficking movement.

We also launched the "Sacred Safe Spaces" covenant movement so that each of our churches could commit themselves to providing a safe spiritual environment for people who have suffered abuse.  About 25 churches have already signed the Covenant.

If you would like copies of the Anti-Trafficking Resolution or Sacred Safe Spaces Covenant, contact the region office.  Rev. Tamara Davis serves as the region's Sacred Safe Spaces Consultant, and she would be happy to visit your church and share.  Her dramatic presentation at the 2013 Annual Session was one of the most moving parts of our gathering.

 

 

GreenFaith Solar Program for Homeowners Webinar on April 30

GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental coalition based here in New Jersey, has a new residential solar program through which NJ homeowners can have a solar array installed on their home at no cost and purchase the electricity at a discount to the utility price.  GreenFaith is organizing Solar Screening Events at churches statewide, where homeowners can have their homes screened via satellite photo to begin assessing if they qualify for the program.  GreenFaith makes a $200 donation to the church for every household that goes solar thanks to the Screening Event. Learn more on GreenFaith’s webinar on Monday, April 30 from 7:30-8:30 pm.  Register now.

Read about this exciting program on GreenFaith’s website, where you can register on-line to have your home evaluated.

To schedule a Solar Screening Event at your church, contact solar@greenfaith.org.

Environmental Change and the Poor: A New Resource

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Dr. Spitzer would like to commend to you the attached report, "Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment" by Dr. Dorothy Boorse, of Gordon College. Published by the National Association of Evangelicals, this report is an excellent balance of theology, sound science and practical concern.

The report has four parts:

  1. A straightforward Biblical affirmation of the need to address environmental change and to express compassion for the poor,
  2. A user-friendly overview of scientific considerations related to environmental changes our planet is facing,
  3. A strong affirmation of how climate change disproportionately impacts the poor and their quality of life, and
  4. Balanced and practical suggestions on how the church and its members can address such issues.

This report would serve well as a congregational resource.

Click here to read the article on the Associated Baptist Press.

Report File