NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP, 10/9/07) — Members have voted to keep a prominent pastor accused of misspending money at a Southern Baptist megachurch.
A lawsuit filed last month by about 50 members of Two Rivers Baptist Church accuses Jerry Sutton of failing to abide by church rules and punishing those who question his authority. The suit follows allegations that Sutton spent church money on his daughter's wedding reception.
Members voted 1,101-286 during the church's services Sunday.
Sutton acknowledged Sunday that some church members might choose to leave as a result of the vote.
“If they do go somewhere else, I hope they're happy,'' Sutton said. “I'm convinced that when all this is over, what some intended for evil, God meant for good.''
A group of church members had asked Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman to stop the vote. But she refused, stating that neither law nor public policy would allow the judiciary to get involved in a matter of deciding who gets to be pastor of a church.
“It's public policy that the court should stay away from these religious matters,'' Bonnyman wrote last week.
Sutton, who lost a bid to become president of the national Southern Baptist Convention last year, has served for more than two decades as leader of Two Rivers, which sits just across the highway from the Grand Ole Opry.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also want other church directors removed from office, access to church records and any misappropriated money to be returned.
By Amy Stuart Taylor, DisciplesWorld contributing writer
BLACKSBURG, Va. (8/31/07) — A visitor to Virginia Tech’s campus this summer would have noticed several stone buildings under construction. But Norris Hall, site of the April 16 massacre by student Seung-Hui Cho, is not one of them. The building has been reopened so that faculty and graduate students can access offices and labs. Classrooms remain closed.
Still, the building looks unremarkable from the outside, just one of many stone structures that cover the sprawling campus. There are no signs of the violence that exploded within the chained-shut doors a few months ago.
The town of Blacksburg offers a few more clues. Banners proclaiming “We are Virginia Tech” and “We will prevail” drape local businesses. The mantras come from professor and poet Nikki Giovanni’s Convocation address, delivered on April 17.
Cashiers in local bookstores still speak in that warm, southern Virginia drawl, but their eyes look tired. There is a somber, shell-shocked feel to the little town nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. It will take awhile to get back to normal — or perhaps “normal” will never be quite the same. But beneath the surface, within the campus and community and within each heart, the emotional wounds are beginning to heal.
Local congregations have led the way, offering places for the faithful to gather for support and prayer. They have also been on the front lines of a traumatized town.
Charles L. Taylor is a professor of political science at Virginia Tech. He also worked as parish associate at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church this summer.
Taylor says the academic year feels “a lot like normal” with the exception of the many commemorations. Still, Taylor admits, “There is a kind of fragility within the community. It (the massacre) is always there. It’s part of every conversation, even if it’s not the topic.”
A surprising sense of maturity and spiritual strength has characterized the university’s response to April’s events and the outpouring of sympathy from the world.
“I understand, at the upcoming football game, the plan is to cheer the opposing team,” Taylor said. “There is a good bit of thankfulness towards other schools. The scoreboard will flash messages of thanks to others.”
There is a heightened awareness of student anxiety and increased campus security in the form of new door locks and improved mass communication systems. However, Taylor said, “We’ve simply got to reestablish the academic integrity of the campus, as well. That gives students some identity and direction that, I hope, will help students deal with the emotional issues.”
Grant L. Azdell is dean of religious life and chaplain at Disciples-affiliated Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., located near Blacksburg. Azdell said many students there were directly affected by the shootings and have had a difficult time healing.
“We had students here that went to high school with students who died. Counseling services continues to see students who were directly or indirectly affected by the shootings,” Azdell commented.
Lynchburg, like many other schools, has examined its safety plans and looked at the situation from a prevention standpoint, Azdell said. “The fact is, we can’t plan for every type of crisis, but if our response is planned and practiced, we are as ready as possible to respond to any tragedy or crisis.”
As universities beef up security systems and attempt to reassure anxious parents, some people are questioning the policies that permitted Cho — a student with serious mental health concerns — to purchase guns. The release of a report by a panel appointed by Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine on Aug. 29 will likely refuel the outrage that the warning signs of Cho’s mental health troubles and propensity for violence went unheeded by nearly everyone.
In his church work, Taylor noted an emphasis on helping police and other front-line responders cope with the emotional aftermath of the shootings. But he was not aware of any local organized efforts by religious groups to protest gun violence.
“We’re a gun-toting community,” he explained, describing the hot debate between those who believe the campus community should arm itself and those who do not agree that more guns equal a safer campus.
In northern Virginia, Abby Spangler was so outraged after the events in Blacksburg that she organized a protest. On April 22, Spangler and 31 other women lay down in front of the courthouse in Alexandria. The women wore black outfits and maroon and orange ribbons in memory of the Virginia Tech victims.
Spangler went on to found Protest Easy Guns, a grassroots organization that supports other communities in staging similar “lie-ins” of 32 people to declare their opposition to gun accessibility. The number 32 is significant both because it is the number of innocent victims killed at Virginia Tech on April 16 and because approximately 32 people are killed each day by gun violence in the U.S.
Clergywoman Rachel Smith organized Raleigh-32 in North Carolina on Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington and a day of many rallies protesting gun violence. Smith is the founder of God, not Guns, an interfaith coalition developed to raise awareness of the spiritual issues at the core of the problem and the need for congregations to put their voices and resources towards the prevention of gun violence as a justice issue. In partnership with communities across the nation, the annual Gods not Guns Sabbath will be held Sept. 28-30. Resources, including scripture readings, suggested activities, and orders of service, can be found on the website.
To prevent future tragedies, Azdell said students should try to be more aware of others.
“Churches and Christians can also help…by being more accepting of those who are not like us. The church is supposed to be the most welcoming place in the world and yet we sometimes exclude, overtly or covertly, individuals who are ‘different’ from us. This is a primary set up for people becoming ‘loners’ who may in fact lash out violently later,” he noted.
Instead Christians should “reach out to those who are on the fringes of our society, not exclude them. That is the most simple way I can think of to try to understand each other and perhaps prevent something from this from happening again,” Azdell said.
If any good has come out of horror of April 16, it can be found in the swelling of support around the Virginia Tech campus and the determined efforts to improve community safety and communication. With time and faith, most will find healing – but many will never forget what happened in Blacksburg last spring.
HARLAN, Ky. (AP, 12/11/09) — One of Santa's helpers lives in eastern Kentucky and goes by the name of Mountain Santa.
Mike Howard of Wallins has been helping families in Harlan County for the past 34 years, delivering brightly wrapped gifts to people in Kentucky's mountain region where twisting roads make trucks more appropriate than sleighs.
“I started with one truck,'' Howard said. “It has just kept growing through the years. In 2008, we gave out 115 pickup truck loads of toys and 3,500 treat bags.''
Most of the donations for the Christmas project come from Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.
“I have volunteers that come in to help me wrap the toys,'' Howard said. “They also bring gifts to distribute with them when they come. That really helps me out a lot. This has gotten so big, I just couldn't do it all myself.''
Howard's wife, Barbara, and son, Jordan, also are heavily involved.
“When I can't be there, they take over and do just about everything,'' Howard said. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and call someone in the community and they will come and help me out.''
As a Christmas ambassador, Howard promotes the Mountain Santa project outside the Appalachians, at times visiting churches with congregations larger than the Wallins Creek community where he lives. He once was guest speaker at a Louisville church with 6,800 members.
“I love telling people about the love we have here in Harlan County,'' Howard said. “I go and drive up all these hollows in Harlan County and meet some of the nicest people. I find families that need a little help during the Christmas season. That's what it is all about. I do this because it's good to give from your heart, and that is just what I do.''
In the days leading up to Christmas, Mountain Santa sends out more than a dozen trucks on runs throughout the region. On Christmas Day, he sends out an additional 28 to 30 trucks filled with toys.
Although Howard's schedule gets busy at Christmastime, the Mountain Santa spends the off season visiting nursing homes, hospitals and jails to try to uplift spirits. “There is more than just a toy or treat bag need in Harlan County,'' he said. “Sometimes, all people need is a kind word or to know that someone cares about them. I try to spread the message of love to everyone I visit with.''
Howard is thankful for everyone who contributes to the project, but he said most of the credit goes elsewhere.
“God has always provided what I needed to get things done,'' he said.
By Amy Lignitz Harkin, special to DisciplesWorld
LEXINGTON, Ky. (11/25/09) — Marking a decade of discussion, prayer and fellowship centering on Christian unity, the Stone-Campbell Dialogue agreed at its recent meeting to shift its emphasis to a new phase of cultivating unity through mission and service among the three religious streams that trace their origins back to Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell.
The 21-person dialogue team met Nov. 1-3 in Lexington, Ky., first on the campus of Midway College, and then on the campus of Lexington Theological Seminary. Among topics discussed were: reporting on the Great Communion Celebration events that had taken place on Oct. 4, 2009; the possibility and potential of common mission/service projects as a focus for its next phase of conversation and engagement; a desired involvement by youth and young adults; and, ways that unity might be nurtured at a “grass roots” level.
The Stone-Campbell Dialogue has been meeting at least annually since November 1999 to foster unity among the three churches. The three teams, representing the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and the Churches of Christ, are comprised of seven members each. Discussions of previous years have centered on major themes and issues that contributed to the division of the single Stone Campbell movement into three streams. Those issues include understandings of Biblical authority, missionary agencies, and participation of women in ministry, among others. Team members have also identified and confessed stereotypes that continue to exist and contribute to division.
Six years ago, the dialogue proposed marking the 200th Anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address by encouraging Stone-Campbell churches to hold joint communion services on a common date. In partnership with the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, resources for study and worship were provided on-line, and dozens of churches across the life our nation and around the world participated in the celebration.
To open this year’s meeting, the group attended a Great Communion service at Crestwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with several dialogue members participating.
With the addition of several new members this year, the dialogue devoted a session of its meeting discussing ways to move its work forward:
• At its next meeting on Nov. 7-9, 2010 (at the Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn.), each team will invite an additional seven people to participate. Teams agreed to invite those individuals who they believe would influence the widening of the discussion at a grass-roots level in promoting understanding and enthusiasm for unity.
• The teams agreed to explore the potential of using existing national gatherings and events (such as National Missionary Convention, the Disciples General Assembly, or the Pepperdine Lectures) as opportunities for hospitality, education, and engagement with the other streams.
The three co-moderators of the national dialogue team (Doug Foster, professor at Abilene Christian University; Bob Rea, professor at Lincoln Christian University; and, Robert Welsh, ecumenical officer for the Disciples of Christ) stated, “We are excited about the direction that this new phase of our dialogue has taken. In moving beyond discussing divisive issues to encouraging projects of local mission as a basis for discovering our oneness in Christ, we sense a growing commitment to engaging a new generation of leadership in the Stone-Campbell tradition in claiming again the core value of Christian unity for our life and witness.”
By Heidi Bright Parales, DisciplesWorld contributing writer
WHEELING, W.Va. (4/11/09) — Pastor Maggie Sebastian and six other Disciples are now bald. They volunteered to let others shave off their hair to stand in solidarity with children who have cancer, raising about $21,500.
Three members of First Christian Church, two from Island Christian Church in in Wheeling, W.Va., and one from Bethany Memorial Church in Bethany, W.Va., were among more than 30 individuals who shed their locks on Sunday, March 15, for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
First Christian has participated in the St. Baldrick's events for seven years. They took the lead this year in organizing the community-wide event. Thirty church volunteers pitched in to make the on-site event a success.
Sebastian had another close shave, along with two other women in the congregation, in 2005. The three of them raised more than $1,500 that year.
This year, 12-year-old Jacob Klatt, a member of First Christian, volunteered to go bald and raised more than $1,200. His mother, Shelly, expressed appreciation for the support and donations.
”Jacob decided on his own to have his head shaved, and doesn’t seem to be aware of the sacrifice he is making," she said.
His family supported him wholeheartedly, she said.
The only downside is that when he walks through the halls at school, random hands reach out to rub his head. “He is a little creeped-out by that,” she said.
For Mark William Mayer, congregational moderator of the Wheeling Island Christian Church, the cause strikes a chord because he lost two friends to leukemia while growing up. “Shaving my head is nothing compared to what these children with cancer go through daily,” he said. This, his second shave, brought in $375.
Heidi A. Kossuth and Heather Calvert-Clegg, treasurers for the event, didn’t get their heads shaved, but their husbands did. “We were thrilled to realize that with the help of a local radio campaign we met our $20,000 goal in one Sunday afternoon,” said Kossuth.
This included funds raised by the faith-formation class of kids preparing for baptism at First Christian of Wheeling. The class operated a booth at a local mall and sold trinkets and T-shirts.
During St. Baldrick's Day, volunteers held a cake auction and a silent auction and offered food service. More than $2,000 was raised by St. Marys Correctional Center after Associate Warden Patrick Mirandy promised to have his head shaved if the inmates raised $1,000.
Sgt. Shaun Flanegin of the Wheeling Police Department and former organizer of the event went on the local FOX radio station and raised $8,700 in pledges. He got his head shaved for the sixth time.
“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “Even in a bad financial period, (donors) come through.”
Sebastian and Flanegin are planning to organize the event at First Christian in Wheeling next year. “The goal I have in my head is $50,000,” said Sebastian.
Wheeling has about 29,000 residents. About 160,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation makes grants to research institutions to find new cures and treatments for childhood cancer.
By Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP, 9/27/07) — Six Catholic nuns have been excommunicated for heresy after refusing to give up membership in a Canadian sect whose founder claims to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, the Diocese of Little Rock announced Wednesday.
J. Gaston Hebert, the diocese administrator, said he notified the nuns of the decision Tuesday night after they refused to recant the teachings of the Community of the Lady of All Nations, also known as the Army of Mary.
The Vatican has declared all members of the Army of Mary excommunicated. Hebert said the excommunication was the first in the diocese's 165-year history.
"It is a painfully historic moment for this church," Hebert said.
The six nuns are associated with the Good Shepherd Monastery of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge in Hot Springs. Sister Mary Theresa Dionne, one of the nuns excommunicated, said the nuns will still live at the convent property, which they own.
"We are at peace and we know that for us we are doing the right thing," the 82-year-old nun said. "We pray that the church will open their eyes before it is too late. This is God's work through Mary, the blessed mother, and we're doing what we're asked to do."
At a news conference, Hebert said the nuns "became entranced and deluded with a doctrine that is heretical." He said church officials removed the sacraments from the monastery on Tuesday night.
Hebert said the sect's members believe that its founder, Marie Paule Giguere, is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and that God speaks directly through her.
Excommunication bars the nuns from participating in the church liturgy and receiving communion or other sacraments.
The diocese said the action was taken after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration that the Army of Mary's teachings were heretical and automatically excommunicated any who embraced the doctrine.
Hebert said the diocese had known for years that the nuns were following the sect and said church officials in the past had encouraged them to come back into the fold.
According to the Catholic News Service, the Army of Mary was founded in Quebec in 1971 by Giguere, who said she was receiving visions from God.
Dionne said she does not know if Giguere is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, but said she believes God communicates through the sect's founder.
"She is doing only what God and Mary tells her to do," Dionne said.
Calls made to a spokesman for the Army of Mary in Quebec were answered by a fax machine tone.
By Lisa Barnett, DisciplesWorld contributing writer
ARLINGTON, Texas (10/4/07) — Wondering how Jesus could be fully human and fully divine is “the wrong way to ask the question,” said Eugene Boring, keynote speaker for the second Fred B. Craddock Seminar on the Gospels, held at First Christian Church in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 29.
Boring’s talk challenged participants to explore two different modes of Christology — ways of understanding the theological significance of Jesus — found in the gospel of Mark.
In the four 50-minute sessions, Boring explored the narrative Christology of Mark’s gospel and the ability of its author to hold together the competing views of fully human and fully divine.
“The paradox is in the talk of how we describe Jesus, because you cannot explain the nature of the event,” Boring remarked. “So you do what Jesus did — you tell stories because stories can hold these things together better than explanations can. Jesus told stories not to illustrate a point, but to shake up our way of thinking and present a new world.”
Boring noted that the Markan story line is arranged specifically to incorporate the two modes of Christology that were operating in the early church. The author of Mark's gospel was the first Christian author to hold both these views together in one narrative, the “gospel” form. This author invented a form that allowed for paradox.
The way Mark is put together is a two-part story. The first half, chapters 1-9, is set in Galilee and reflects the gospel as the power of God. In this section of the book, Jesus is understood as a manifestation of God. In Jesus, God has appeared to do things such as forgive, heal, and calm storms. However, Boring points out that this “epiphany Christology” is limited when it comes time to talk about the crucifixion.
He highlights the other dominant thought represented in the second half of Mark, chapters 11-16 — “kenosis Christology” — or, the gospel as the weakness of Jesus. In these chapters, the miracles cease and Jesus is crucified in weakness.
These two perspectives are held together in Mark by the literary theological technique of the “messianic secret.” The author of Mark takes the testimonial stories about Jesus that had been circulating in the community and tells a story where seeing Jesus’ true identity, from a post-Easter perspective, leads to authentic Christian faith.
Boring concluded the seminar by saying, “The Gospel of Mark is a parable about Jesus. God is the main character and Jesus is the agent of God in the world.”
The Craddock Seminar is part of the Stalcup School of Theology for the Laity (SSTL), housed at Brite Divinity School at Disciples-related Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Boring is the J. Wylie and Elizabeth M. Briscoe professor of New Testament, emeritus, at Brite.
According to Eilene Theilig, director of lay and continuing education at Brite, “Dr. Boring’s depth of knowledge and ability to communicate theologically complex ideas in such a manner that they are easily grasped makes him a popular teacher for SSTL and a natural choice to present this seminar.”
Boring and Craddock, the noted Disciples preacher and seminary professor for whom the seminar is named, produced The People’s Commentary on the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2004).
By Hisashi Yukimoto, Ecumenical News International
TOKYO (ENI, 10/23/07) — A Christian narrator in Japanese traditional puppet theatre, an art form known as Bunraku, has performed a special piece called "The Gospel in Bunraku" at a church in Sapporo, on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
"I think that Bunraku has something in common with the teachings of Christianity in its content," explained the narrator, Toyotake Hanabusadayu, who is a member of the Japan Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination.
Bunraku is a sophisticated collaboration of three separate arts of narration. It uses a Japanese traditional stringed musical instrument known as a shamisen, and a form of puppetry believed to have begun in the 1680s in the country's central western area of Kansai.
Born in Osaka in 1947, Toyotake attended Sunday school as a child as a result of his Christian mother's influence. He became a Christian prior to his marriage. After he entered the world of Bunraku in 1967, Japan's National Theatre and the Bunraku Kyokai (association) awarded Toyotake prizes for his performances.
In 1990, he performed the first Bunraku piece based on biblical themes, and since then has performed similar shows in Japan and abroad.
Despite what some may regard as an incompatibility between Westernized Christianity and Bunraku, Toyotake discovered in 2004 that since the time of Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), who was a dramatist of Joruri, the stylized narrative form upon which Bunraku is based, playwrights have developed themes, such as forgiveness and sacrifice, which fit the biblical context.
"Bunraku is something that dramatized the essential part of the human heart. The gospel is a love letter from God that says Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth in order to give people peace and eternal life," Toyotake explains.
Although Toyotake has experienced some opposition for using Jesus as a theme in Bunraku, the narrator says that he has been "especially encouraged" since his non-Christian, respected master, the late Koshijidayu, told him, "This is a good thing. Please keep doing it."
As Japanese traditional performing arts find their origins in communication with gods, Toyotake simply replaced words that are scattered throughout Bunraku melodies, and which inspire people with the Japanese view of religion, and linked them with biblical words.
His 1999 CD entitled, "Father, Forgive Them: Jesus' Cross", contains his Bunraku narration of Christ's life in Japanese, along with an English portion entitled "Behold the Man," based on words from John 3:16.
INDIANAPOLIS (9/19/07) — Winnifred Smith, a China missionary who with her husband was imprisoned in the Philippines by the Japanese during World War II, died Sept. 15 in Blacksburg, Va., after a lengthy illness.
Win Smith was widely known among Disciples of Christ as a speaker at women’s and other events. She is survived by husband Joseph, retired East Asia secretary of the Division of Overseas Ministries.
After the war, the Smiths spoke out on behalf of the commandant of their prison camp when he was accused of war crimes. Twenty-eight years later they were reunited with the commandant in a touching ceremony in Kyoto, Japan.
Joseph Smith drafted overseas strategy eventually adopted by the Disciples General Assembly in 1981, a strategy focusing on ecumenical cooperation, the uniting of social action and mission, and identification with the poor and oppressed, an approach that typified the Smiths as missionaries.
Memorial services were held both in Blacksburg and Indianapolis, where the Smiths lived many years.
SEATTLE (AP, 10/22/07) — The UW College Republicans says their planned Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week is intended to foster awareness of terrorism, but some local Muslims say next week's activities will foster racism instead.
Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week is being launched at about 100 colleges and is drawing criticism from Muslim groups around the country.
The program being launched this year by a recent graduate of Duke University and sponsored by the Los Angeles-based David Horowitz Freedom Center, is intended to “confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat,'' according to its website.
The website includes suggested campus activities such as holding sit-ins outside women's studies departments to protest “the silence of feminists over the oppression of women in Islam'' and holding a memorial service for the “victims of Islamo-Fascist violence around the world.''
The UW program won't include all those elements.
“What we're going to be focusing more on specifically is the terrorist threat,'' said Auggie Eck, vice president of UW College Republicans.
The group will host two public events: a showing of “Suicide Killers,'' a documentary about suicide bombers, at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Smith Hall, and a talk by conservative author and talk-show host Michael Medved at 7 p.m. Thursday in Kane Hall.
Tom Walker, president of UW College Republicans, says they're not saying that all of Islam is dangerous.
“Our main point is raising awareness of what we feel is an extreme brand of Islam that is spreading rapidly around the world and posing a threat to America and the Western world,'' he said.
Amin Odeh, a board member with the local Arab American Community Coalition, said he agrees that “radical anything is dangerous — radical Muslims, radical Christians, radical Jews. Education is needed.''
But Odeh says Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week makes too general a link between extremism and Islam, and that the term “Islamo-fascism'' links fascism with an entire religion.
“Unfortunately, when people hear the term they don't think of only a small group of extremists, but of Islam in general,'' he said.
Hala Dillsi, a member of the UW Muslim Student Association, believes Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week promotes fear and intolerance. She is distributing green armbands and encouraging people to wear green T-shirts that are green on Wednesday in solidarity with local Arabs and Muslims.
The student group also is organizing a forum Oct. 29 during which professors and local Muslims discuss and answer questions about Islam.
Members of the Muslim Student Association, along with other organizations, also plan to hold protests outside Wednesday and Thursday evening's Awareness Week events.
Assistant Chief Ray Wittmier with the UW Police Department said his department is meeting with student organizers on all sides “to make sure everybody stays safe.''
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com