“Free at Last”

“Early Morning, April 4; Shot rings out in the Memphis sky; Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride.”

–U2 “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Unforgettable Fire, (1984)

Each year, as the Martin Luther King holiday draws near on the third weekend of January, I read one book about MLK, the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, or African American history. Billy Graham was right when he called racism “America’s original sin,” and I think it is impossible to grasp the force of that statement without exploring the impact of Slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in American life.

This year, I found a new biography that looks at MLKs life from a fresh perspective–that of Martin Luther King’s Christian faith and the philosophical and theological impulses that shaped his convictions and his work: Martin Luther King: A Religious Life by Paul Harvey. Harvey, a historian who teaches at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs), has written extensively about African American history and I’ve been privileged to use his excellent book Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity as a text for my graduate course on American Christian history.

Harvey protrays King “as a prophet in the full biblical sense” (3). He was hard to pidgeon-hole, yet he was clear that his mission involved securing the same rights, liberties, and economic opportunities for African Americans that most whites enjoyed. Politically, he was a social democrat (in the European sense) and not a Communist as many of his racist detractors claimed. Throughout his brief adult life, King tried to teach and practice non-violent protest as the best way to call attention to injustice. Before his assassination, he was imprisoned and illegially surveiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a time when that agency routinely broke the law in its in-house opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

Permit me to take a different approach in my words about Harvey’s excellent work. Obviously, “MLK: A Religious Life” deals with how King’s theological and cultural convictions informed his life and work. Yet, I’ve discovered an interesting sub-narrative in its pages; that of MLK as pastor first at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and later as a kind of “pastor-at-large” to over 20 million African Americans living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us who are pastors and church leaders, there are valuable ways that King’s ministry can inform ours. Let me suggest several:

1. King understood his calling. At Dexter Ave. MLK enjoyed a successful first year in a relatively obscure location; a far cry from Atlanta; the center of the American South and of African American Christianity in that region. When a series of events thrust him into leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, the result of Rosa Parks’s unwillingness to give up her bus seat to a white rider, the story hit the newspapaers and MLK started receiving death threats.

A couple of days before a stick of dynamite detonated in front of his home, King experienced a kind of conversion: “Religion had become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee, I will never forget it. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (62-63). MLK “experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him belfore….My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

God’s call to leadership and ministry is a serious matter and to withstand the pressures of ministry, leaders have to be certain of their calling.

2. King understood his mission, even when God changed the mission. At first MLK was called to serve a specific congregation and he hoped that through his congregational ministry he could fuel a local movement for African American freedom and liberty in the midst of the Jim Crow south. When those efforts met success, God gave him a different, larger mission; one that would tax all of his strength. In that larger mission he would wrestle with the demands of celebrity while trying to accomplish what seemed an impossible task–the complete emancipation of African Americans from political and economic Jim Crow. (Personally, I’m relieved that God never called me to this large of a mission.)

MLK knew that the mission was impossible; there was simply too much opposition from the vast majority of American people at the time and from the minions of local, state, and federal government. White supremacy had been firmly entrenched since the 1870s and to confront that directly could easily lead to violent reprisals as had been seen in Wilmington, NC in 1898, Tulsa, OK in 1921, and in other locations throughout the country. But MLK and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) discovered ways to keep their opponents off-guard through non-violent protest. Non-violence became the heart of the movement as countless men, women, and children were taught how to practice it, and in Montgomery, Birhimgham, Selma, and later throughout the American South, their message of freedom and liberty took hold. Through all of this MLK spent lots of time on the road raising money for the next non-violent action and being the up-front leader of the movement.

Obviously, most of us are not called to the same kind of broad-based ministry and leadership. Most of us are called to serve individual congregations, many of those in rather out-of-the-way places in cities, small towns, and rural areas. Hence, we need clarity about the mission to which God has called us and to the kinds of strategies and tools that God asks us to use. We may not use nonviolent protest, but perhaps God calls to a ministry of peace in communities where conflict threatens the health of a congregaton or ministry.

3. While King exercised the kind of top-down leadership found in many American congregations in the 1950s, he still gathered a group of leaders around him and he listened, even to those who disagreed with his approach. In Montgomery, some felt that others were doing all of the work of the bus-boycott and MLK simply came in and took the credit. In the mid-1960s, when student radcalism emerged in both the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, King faced harsh criticism from those who thought non-violence was passe or thought he should join the anti-war movement (something he did later in 1967). Instead of rejecting their criticism, he listened and engaged his critics. He didn’t necessarily think they were right, but he did think he could learn from them.

Yet, MLK did not deviate from his non-violent path. Instead he doubled down with non-violent protests in Chicago and Memphis and laid the groundwork for a poor-people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. His non-violence was grounded in his understanding of human beings and human nature, which solidified during his PhD studies at Boston University in the early 1950s. King was tutored in the Boston personalist school of Edgar Brightman and Harold DeWolf, a school of thought that placed great emphasis on the value and dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. MLK aslo embraced the idea of human depravity articulated by another of his teachers, Reinhold Niebuhr, the most prominent public theologian of the mid-20th century (though King did not share the almost total pessimism about humanity that Niebuhr did).

Those convictions meant that for MLK, ethical ministry was about the value and dignity of the human person and that how we approach ministry must be ethical in practice and in result. I think we can learn alot from King here. Megachurches across the country adopt models of ministry that to put it bluntly are soul-killing; to leaders and to the individual Christians who are part of them.

So far, you might think that I’m offering a portrait of MLK that makes him out to be near perfect. Nothing can be further from the case. The final point that I suggest is something where MLK deeply struggled.

4, King struggled with his own self-care and that led to near implosion of his work and to times of personal moral failure. From the early 1960s on, MLK took little if any time for vacation, rest, and spiritual reflection. He was constantly tired. He needed sleep. He needed time with his wife and children. He did not allow himself time for reading. Why? The cause was too big and too important. There was always a new campaign to organize, a group to meet with, a potential donor whose support was needed to keep things going and pay the team, government officials to meet about policy. It was incessant and unending.

When MLK came to Memphis, on the night before his death, he appeared before nearly a thousand striking garbagemen. (The term “sanitation engineer” had yet to make an appearence.) If you watch the tape closely, you see the fatigue and exhaustion in his eyes. In other words, MLK was running on empty and had been for many months. Perhaps the only thing that gave him energy was the opportunity to speak.

Especially for those who are younger and new to ministry, it is easy to lose yourself in the ministry vocation. After all, the work seems so important; the needs so many; and the expectations so high. How can we not spend almost every waking hour giving ourselves to them? All of a sudden, we collapse. We find ourselves distant from God, from our families, even from our own humanity. MLK is not the only one who burned out; there are hundreds and thousands of folks called by God who did not practice proper self-care and spiritual care. Let me suggest that those are the two most important aspects of life and ministry. The Triume God is not an add-on to our work. He is the essence of it, and if we neglect him we can find ourselves in a very bad place.

For MLK, life came to an end that April day due to an assassian’s bullet. It probably would have even if MLK had tended to his own personal needs and his need to reflect on his realtionship with his Creator. One thing I admired about MLK was his ability to remain resolute in practicing love for all, friend and enemy alike. Harvey suggests that King struggled with anger and at times rage toward his opponents. I think all of us struggle with feelings about our critics. Yet, MLK was able to put those things aside and practice love for others, even the Bull Conner’s and Lester Maddox’s of the world. He knew that their supremacist hatreds harmed themselves far more than they realized. And, he is one of the last great public leaders in America whose work was animated by the Christian faith.


Paul Harvey’s Martin Luther King: A Religious Biography is published by Rowman and Littlefield Press (2021) and in my view represents one of the finest biographies of MLK or of any leader from the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement. The book contains an extensive bibliographic essay that covers works related to MLK and the Civil Rights campaigns in which he engaged. Another outstanding resource is the Martin Luther King Encyclopedia hosted online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia. This comprehensive online reference work is the go-to first source for reseach related to MLK, the Civil Rights movement, and Christian influence in the movement.

Retirement Thoughts

Earlier today, my friends and colleagues at Gordon-Conwell hosted a retirement luncheon in my honor. It is hard to believe that this was the culmination of 15 years as editor of the Advent Christian Witness followed by 24 years as the Library Director at Gordon-Conwell. Below, I want to share my own reflections which I shared with those assembled at the close of the event. I share them in gratefulness to the Triune God for his providence and care for me over these past many years. I’m not done yet. There is more to do. But this represents the transition to the next stage in my journey of faith. Many of you have shared this with me and I am grateful to you.


Thank you for your kindness toward me this afternoon. It is hard to believe that I’m wrapping up almost a quarter century at GCTS-Charlotte. Over the years, I’ve labored with you to build something special in this place—a campus that could contextualize theological education to a rapidly growing city and metropolitan area. While we probably have not accomplished all that we hoped, we’ve still done a lot against all kinds of odds. Gordon-Conwell Charlotte has been in the center of God’s purposes both for the people of God and for this community.

We have kept the gospel central to our mission. We have sought to prepare people for life and service with academically and spiritually strong programs. We’ve encouraged world missions and involvement with the great matters of contemporary life. We have welcomed Christians of all kinds—Black, Latino, Asian, and White; Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, folks from independent congregations and evangelical ministries, even from the Advent Christian churches where I first learned about following Jesus.

We have over a thousand graduates serving around Charlotte and around the world. Most of all, in the time that I have worked here, those of us who have worked here have sought to be a real Christian community in how we value each other and treat each other. We’ve rejoiced with each other and suffered with each other. We’ve seen times when things appeared impossible, and yet God has sustained us.

I remember being the new kid on the block. Wayne Goodwin gave me a look at the library and I thought to myself, “This will be a challenge!” And those of you who were here when I started know what I’m talking about. When I came, I had three goals in mind. 1. Find ways to serve well our students and faculty; 2. Connect the work of the library to the academic mission of the school; and 3. Build a high-quality theological library focused on the degree programs and courses we offer. That third goal took over 20 years to accomplish, but with a library team like Matt, David, Audrey, Nick Valadez, Abby Vinez, and a host of student workers, we accomplished it. As I have always told the library team, if you love students and you love books, what better job in the world is there?

Last month, during his retirement dinner Rodney shared some things that he has learned about life and leadership in his pastoral and academic ministry. If you will permit me, I would like to do something similar. I’m going to steal some from a poster that had graced my office here and earlier when I worked across town. But first, 25 somewhat  original thoughts:

1. Ground your life in the joy of Christ and pay attention to your own journey of faith. That allows your work to become a sharing of that joy with the others you serve.

2. Never stop learning.

3. Lead by example.

4. Always be willing to do any task that you ask others to do.

5. Listen to individuals on your team. They often have great ideas.

6. Remember that we do not live to work, but we work to live.

7. Almost all library mistakes can be fixed because books don’t talk back to you.

8. Listen, then speak.

9. Read more than one book at a time.

10. Don’t think you have to finish every book that you start (unless it is a textbook assigned by Dr. Davis or Dr. Wheaton.

11. Go see a minor-league baseball game every once-in-awhile. It’s good for the soul.

12. Charlotte is a great city with lots to see and do. Engage with the community in which God has called you to live and work.

13. Remember that technology has its limits. People are not machines.

14. Write personal notes and send them by snail mail. (Think of the joy you receive when you get a personal, handwritten letter or note.)

15. Communicate often and generously with others especially when you are introducing new policies or procedures that impact them.

16. When you get an Email or text message that rings your chimes, wait 24 hours before you respond. You need time to cool down and reflect.

17. If you are finishing an assignment for work or school, never submit it immediately. Wait a day and then give it one final proofreading.

18. Never, never, never, never ask a question that you don’t intend an answer or want someone else to answer.

19. If you have the opportunity, take two weeks off and drive west to the Rocky Mountains. There is something about driving through the Great Plains that opens up your soul and offers a sense of connectedness to God’s beautiful creation.

20. Worship is an embodied experience so be part of a congregation where you can worship and serve.

21. Remember that most sin comes down to the abuse of money, sex, and power. Be very wise in how you approach those areas of life.

22. Don’t be afraid to change your mind about something.

23. Keep in mind how little you know. When I graduated from Seminary, I thought I knew a lot. Now I realize that I know far less than I thought I did. But I know Christ, and that is the one important thing.

24. Remember that legitimate concerns make up only two percent of all the things we worry about. (I confess that this is a hard one for me.)

25. Have a favorite passage of Scripture that frames your life, a theme verse or passage if you wish. Mine is a simple phrase found in Colossians 1:27 “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Let me thank you for making GCTS-Charlotte such a good place to work While here, I had opportunity to work with six of the Seminary’s seven presidents, five Vice-presidents for Academic Affairs, six Charlotte academic deans. I have met and worked with so many wonderful Christian people who have studied and worked in this place.

And that is what has made GCTS-Charlotte such a special place. The people who have worked and studied here. In American organizational life since the industrial revolution there has always been a bias that people exist to serve the organization and that the preservation of organizations is paramount. I disagree with that. I think people are primary and that institutions and organizations exist to promote human flourishing and when they stop doing that, then they are propped up by either fear or force.

I think the Apostle Paul would agree as well. When Paul was challenged about his ministry on behalf of Christ, he responded in a rather startling way. He didn’t point to himself. Instead, he put it this way. “Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Cor 2:2). I won’t go into the context of this passage, but when folks ask me about what I’ve done for the past 24 years, my simple answer is “you.” You, all of you who have worked here and you, all of the students who have come through this place, are my lasting legacy. So again, thank you for your friendship, your collegiality, and your love for Christ.


We don’t hear much about heroes today. Perhaps folks are too jaded and cynical to think that there are public figures worthy of our admiration for their character, their accomplishments, and for their contributions to humanity. Heroes are those who step up to challenges. They don’t back down in the face of struggle or difficulty. They inspire others. They do the right thing even when it costs something. They are folks who are not so much “me” centered as “we” centered. They are people who give us something to aspire to; folks whom you want your kids to admire and emulate.

I have four heroes, individuals whom I admire and desire to emulate. Let me tell you about them and why they inspire me. They are not anti-heroes, self-centered rebels, or quintessential lone-rangers. Instead, they are individuals of great accomplishment and character who see their contributions as beneficial for others.

Willie Mays

As a young boy growing up in San Francisco, baseball was my first love and the San Francisco Giants were my team. I remember my first major league game on July 29, 1959 when I got to see my first hero, Willie Mays, warm up right in front of me before the Giants played the St. Louis Cardinals. (Stan Musial was in the twilight of his career and in the starting lineup for the Redbirds that day.) Willie Mays was not only my hero; he was a hero to every boy my age who followed the Giants. I learned to read the newspaper by following his stat line every day in the box score and reading the San Francisco Examiner sports section as they described his play.

What I loved about Willie Mays is that he played baseball with such great joy, the joy that comes when men and women get to play a kids game and make a living doing it. As a child, I loved not only his exploits on the field, but the things he did to make San Francisco a better place to live, especially for children.

Later on as an adult, Willie Mays remained one of my heroes for very different reasons. I became aware that as an African American growing up in segregated Birmingham, AL (the place where Bull Conner turned his dogs loose against children in 1963), Willie Mays was not afforded the opportunities that were given to white children. In fact, if he would have been ten years older, he would never had played in the major leagues no matter how good a player he was. Even in San Francisco, he experienced the sting of racism when he tried to buy a home and a number of whites in the neighborhood objected to his presence. His life was difficult (especially when his second wife contracted early-onset Alzheimer’s and he focused on her care). But he rarely complained and today at age 89, he is still employed as a good-will ambassador for the Giants. Definitely a good selection for my childhood hero.

John Stott

My Christian faith reached a crossroads in college and during my sophomore year, I wondered whether Christianity could stand up to the intellectual challenges I found as I studied philosophy and mathematics. The Jesus Movement was at its peak and I had come through a “Pentecostal” phase that had lasted a couple of years but now seemed intellectually bankrupt. I can’t remember who, but someone handed me a little book by a British guy titled Your Mind Matters which I read between calculus assignments and Plato. It was a series of lectures he had given to a group of college students and as I read, I discovered that he was addressing my questions, my qualms, my concerns.

That British guy was John Stott whom I discovered knew the Bible better than anyone I had ever read or heard. Not only did he know the Bible, he was able to explain the Christian faith in ways that were intellectually credible for college and university students and for people like me who enjoyed asking hard questions. There was never a question that John Stott was afraid to answer.

I started devouring more of Stott’s work and twelve years after I graduated, he published his magnum opus titled The Cross of Christ, an amazing work that captures the essence of the Christian gospel. It wasn’t just his books, but his Christian character and his public ministry. What I saw in John Stott was an integration of mind and heart (of intellect and affections) that refused to reduce Christian faith to a cold intellectual/doctrinal framework, or to the continual seeking after emotional highs where people lived for experiences that were often times walled off from life.

John Stott became my second hero in life. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet him personally in the 1980s and hear him lecture on preaching. I’ve been blessed by the fruit of his ministry and his passion for both evangelism and social concern. Unlike so many “celebrity” Christians, John Stott never desired attention. I think heroes are folks who give us examples to which we can aspire, and John Stott, even though he died several years ago, remains that kind of hero for me, even today.

John Perkins

In 1968, a relatively young man left a good job working at a Ford factory outside of Los Angeles and took his wife and children to a small town south of Jackson, Mississippi with what seemed like a crazy dream–bringing the Christian faith to poor and disenfranchised people who had suffered the brutality of Jim Crow. His message was far more than talk, though proclaiming Christ was certainly at its center. He believed that Christ wanted not only to bring the gospel to Mendenhall, Mississippi but that the Lord wanted to lift its African American citizens out of poverty and help them claim their full rights and privileges as American citizens, especially the right to vote.

Perkins’s activities drew attention, not all of it good. In August 1970, he was stopped and arrested by Brandon county sheriff’s deputies, taken to the county jail, and beaten nearly to death that night. I heard him describe that night years later at a Fuller Seminary chapel. And I asked him about what he had learned that night when I had opportunity to interview him in 1992 for the Advent Christian Witness. (He describes this night in his first book, Let Justice Roll Down.) John Perkins came from a non-religious family with little use for Church. It was not until he had fled Mississippi the first time in the 1950s for a good job in the Los Angeles auto factories that he first heard the gospel at the little Baptist church where his daughter went to Sunday School. I wondered if he ever imagined that in turning his life over to Christ, God would call him back to Mississippi to suffer on behalf of Christ.

After hearing him in that Fuller Seminary chapel service, John Perkins became another one of my heroes; not so much because he suffered as I’ve met many who have suffered for Christ in one way or another. But what set John Perkins apart was how he came to love others, even those who brutalized him in that county jail and even white folks like me who had little clue of the deep harm that so many African American families had suffered because of segregation and Jim Crow. Loving others did not mean excusing their sin, and even today at nearly 90 years old he’s still active in community development and in fostering justice and reconciliation among Christians in society. If John Perkins could love those who harmed him and act to reconcile others to Christ and to each other, that was something to which I wanted to aspire. (And yes, I still have ways to go.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was only a name to me until in one of my first seminary classes, I was assigned his little book Life Together. This short little book described a small theological school that Bonhoeffer established in 1937 in Finkenwald, Germany as the Nazi regime strengthened its grip on the German church and German society. Three years earlier, the Nazi’s had added the so-called “Aryan Paragraph” to German law. The law forbid any person of Jewish ancestry from being a pastor in the German state church and from holding a government position in Germany. A sizable group of pastors and laypeople disagreed and organized the “confessing church,” in opposition to Hitler and the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth were prominent voices among the confessing church. Barth was responsible for the Barmen Declaration and Bonhoeffer was asked to organize a school to train pastors for the confessing church.

Before the rise of Hitler, both Bonhoeffer and Barth had been part of a reaction to the rise of German theological liberalism that dominated German theological schools and had minimized the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Both had studied under Willhelm Herrmann, the most prominent individual in the German theological establishment, and both ultimately rejected his theology and argued for an approach that viewed Holy Scripture as central to the life of the church. Both advocated a “Christocentric” approach seen in Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer also spent 1931 in New York City worshipping and teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist Church, at the time the most prominent African American congregation in the United States. His time there allowed him to grasp what it was like for marginalized people in society, and left little doubt in Bonhoeffer’s mind what he must do when the scourge of anti-Semitic totalitarianism struck his own country.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer abhorred war and violence and considered himself a pacifist. Because of that, he faced one of the great moral challenges of the 20th century when given opportunity to be part of a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. His response was that in a world plagued by what Genesis 3 describes as the fall of humanity, there were times when we face flawed choices and therefore his task as a Christian was to “drive a spoke in the wheel” of the Nazi machine. The plot failed; Bonhoeffer and his allies were arrested, and he was killed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945 three weeks before the Allies liberated the Flossenberg concentration camp. Christ had bid him to “come and die” on His behalf.

So Dietrich Bonhoeffer became my fourth hero because he was willing to say “no” to evil when an entire society said “yes.” He was willing to say “no” when that same society declared Jewish people to be “other” and unleased unspeakable violence against its neighbors. He was willing to say “no” in the name of Christ when so many in the Deutsche Christen chose Hitler over Christ. I think that Bonhoeffer’s example frames my suspicion of anything that smacks of political authoritarianism– worship or veneration of “the leader,” marginalization of people because of their ethnicity or race or religion, and the use of money as a tool of political power. I want to learn more about how to live with Bonhoeffer’s courage.

Heroes are human

My four heroes are far from perfect. When you read about their lives, you discover that they never pretend to be perfect. They’ve all made their share of mistakes and misjudgments and they are comfortable with naming those. They are OK with their humanity. At the same time, they don’t let their mistakes stop them from living with integrity and to paraphrase Rick Warren, they recognize that “it’s not about them.”

Do you have any heroes? Think about that question. Whom do you admire and why? What is it about your heroes that inspires you to live in Christ-like ways? You don’t need too many heroes. In fact, having too many defeats the purpose. Moreover, do your heroes point you to Christ; the One who is our greatest hero, the One who took on human form, lived among us, suffered and died on our behalf, who was raised to life, and who lives today to draw you and me into vital relationship with our Creator.

I would love to read about your heroes. Post a response and let me know about your heroes, public figures whom you admire in church and in society.


There are numerous books written about the four individuals about whom I have written. For Willie Mays, read 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say-Hey Kid by John Shea and Willie Mays (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best biography is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). There are several excellent books written by and about John Perkins. Start with Let Justice Roll Down, his first book republished by Baker Books in 2012. Then read Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (Baker, 2018). John Stott has published many works including the two that I have mentioned above. The best short biography is Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott by Roger Steer (InterVarsity, 2010).

“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.

Covid-19 Vaccine: A Gift from God

Last June, I signed up to be part of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trial. I signed up not only because of my interest in the project, but because I wanted to do at least a small thing that might help others and help stop this dangerous disease. By that time, Covid-19 had ravaged much of the United States especially the New York City area, the death toll was approaching 100,000 people, and most of us had been in lockdown for three months. The scenes from ICUs were heartbreaking, especially the grief that so many people were experiencing in being unable to be with their loved ones when they died. When I received news that my medical group, Tryon Medical Partners, would host the Moderna trials, I knew I wanted to participate despite the risk.

I was one of about 700 people in Charlotte (part of over 30,000 nationwide) who participated in that trial. Half of the participants were given the trial vaccine and the other half were given a placebo; and we had to get two shots spaced a month apart.

I asked a lot of questions on my first visit. I wound up being there most of the afternoon as they had to give me a physical, do the necessary blood work, and give me a Covid-19 test. It is hard to describe the discomfort of that, but my eyes watered for about ten minutes afterward. If you have been tested, you know what I’m talking about.

I had a lengthy conversation with the doctors and nurses about the vaccine, how it was developed, and about what the doctors and immunologists were discovering about the disease and how it spread. The doctor who treated me had been on the front lines in New York City treating patients and watching many succumb to the disease despite her best efforts to treat them. I learned a lot from her and the others managing the trial; about Covid-19 and about what we knew and what we still did not know. I also talked twice with my primary care physician who is also very knowledgeable about diseases and treatments.

Good news, bad news

I learned some good news and some bad news. The good news was that we had learned more about the virus faster than with any other disease like this in history. The bad news was that there was much we still did not know and that it would take months, even years to learn more. Covid-19 affects everyone differently, no matter their age. While those my age (60 and older) were more likely to suffer hospitalization and death, even younger people were not immune from those outcomes. By June, we learned that the disease was primarily airborne and it passed between individuals through close contact, especially in large groups. Social distancing and masks became the order of the day, especially when scientific research demonstrated that if two people are wearing masks the transmission rate is greatly reduced.

That was the first of five trips to Tryon Medical Partners. They managed the Covid-19 trials for Moderna in Charlotte, and I got my first two “shots” in September four weeks apart. Then I had to keep an online diary and log describing my daily activities and any medical reactions that I had; while keeping my normal activities as best as possible given the pandemic and restrictions in place in Charlotte. There were also weekly phone calls from the study. I was careful and Renee and I both stayed Covid free until after the vaccines were approved for use in December.

In January, the staff at Moderna called me back in, indicated that I had received the placebo, and said that I would get my first vaccine shot that day. A month later, I got my second shot. I had no problems with the first shot, and had a few side effects about 24 hours after the second shot (achiness and fatigue). Those passed quickly. Renee then got her first and second shots, and both of us have had no problems. We’re very grateful for the vaccines as we are now getting out more and are able to go to church in person. Our church is very careful about safety and the Lord has blessed us with no Covid cases caused by gathering for worship. We are both grateful for our elders and pastoral staff who understand the seriousness of the disease especially for our older congregants.

God’s mercies

In December, Leighton Ford invited me to participate in a videoconference for a group of Charlotte pastors and business leaders with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ (and Dr. Fauci’s boss at the NIH). Dr. Collins began by sharing his testimony of coming to Christ when he was a medical resident at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1970s, and then discussed with us of the process by which the Covid vaccines were made. He answered the questions the business leaders and pastors had, and I left that meeting thinking about how good God is to place one of his followers at the head of these efforts. I left that conversation knowing that the vaccine was both safe and effective, and that in many ways it is a wonderful gift from God designed to alleviate suffering and even death from a horrible disease.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus? Let me suggest several things. First, we can encourage others that the vaccines are both safe and effective, especially the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Should everybody get one? If you have some kind of pre-existing condition, you should talk with your doctor and get professional advice. But I think for most of us, the answer is “yes.” Covid-19 is a dangerous airborne disease that can spread easily between people, especially with the new B.117 strain from the United Kingdom spreading throughout North America. And more dangerous variants are ravaging Latin American countries like Brazil, where the death toll has crossed 300,000. Getting a Covid-19 shot is a safe, effective way to protect yourself and others you associate with.

Second, is the Covid-19 vaccine perfect? No, it is not. Nothing is perfect and that is to be expected because we live in a world damaged by sin and the fall of humanity. Will some who are vaccinated get Covid-19? Yes. But the vaccine will reduce the seriousness of the disease and has been demonstrated to keep people out of the hospital, so far. As more people are vaccinated and we get to herd immunity, then the pandemic will end and we can enjoy things like eating indoors at restaurants and going to movies, concerts, and sporting events (and I can’t wait).

Third, we can respond effectively to the propaganda that has swirled around the internet and television for the past year. You know the lies. Covid-19 will simply disappear if we ignore it. Masks are a government plot to control the population and take away your freedom. The vaccine will manipulate your DNA in harmful ways. And my favorite: the vaccine has a nanochip secretly loaded into it that will allow the government to track your every movement. (Someone has spent way too much time reading bad science fiction.) We Christians are people of the truth and people of kindness and mercy, and the vaccines offer a wonderful opportunity for us to encourage others.

So I share my experience with you in hope that you will both consider getting the vaccine when you are able to do so. May Christ have mercy–on you and me and on our congregations and our entire country as we navigate this hard and difficult season. Thank him for scientists, especially scientists like Francis Collins who serve Christ while serving us.

Daydreams on a Monday Afternoon

Working from home.

My computer, my books, my kitchen window.

Sunny day.

Roses in the garden.

Squirrels climb the mighty oaks.

Birds feast at the feeder.



Months of distance…even isolation.

The future unseen.

Hope deferred, but not gone.

Living now in Carolina.

Longing for new Jerusalem.

May Christ have mercy.

Bob Mayer, October 5, 2020.

American Prophet?

Below is a review I wrote that was published in a recent issue of Church History, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Church History. Many fascinating individuals shaped American Christianity in the 19th century and this book looks at one such figure who emerged out of Restorationism and who was somewhat out of the mainstream.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Landand Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ix + 365 pp. $34.95 paper.

This book grows out of a 2009 conference of historians and scholars affiliated with the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians held in Ellen Harmon White’s birthplace, Portland, ME. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Adventists in general and Ellen White in particular were seen as inhabiting the margins of protestant Christianity despite their dramatic growth in the United States, Australia, and much of the developing world.

The 44 scholars who gathered to mark the 165th anniversary of the Adventist “great disappointment” included contributors to this volume. Ellen Harmon White wrote over 70,000 pages during her long career, and since her death a voluminous apologetic literature about her has been produced within Seventh-day Adventism. But little historical and theological scholarship has emerged until recently, and this work represents the fruit of the emerging field of Ellen Harmon White studies as a distinctive subset of Seventh-day Adventist and Adventist studies.

The eighteen chapters are framed by historians Grant Wacker and Jonathan Butler. Wacker reminds readers that the nineteenth century in which the major portion of Ellen White’s ministry took place was a time when “Victorian America witnessed a degree of change . . . that progressed from the effervescence of the Second Great Awakening to the stable ordering of the Industrial Revolution,” a transition from “a pre-modern to a modern way of life” (ix).

In that context, Butler emphasizes that Ellen White cannot be understood apart from her roots as a “shouting” Methodist, “whose upbringing had predisposed her to charismatic phenomena” that would shape the essence of her ministry (7). She would become a “prophet” whose charismatic utterances and voluminous writings shaped Adventism “into a domestic religion with her concern for child nurture and education, diet and health, marriage and family” (12).

Early Adventist lecturers were known for their rationalistic explanations of William Miller’s teaching that Christ would return to earth in 1843-1844. Ann Taves describes how Ellen White’s shouting Methodist upbringing framed her response to Millerite prophetic failure and its disastrous impact on Adventist followers.

Theologically, according to Graeme Sharrock, White and her husband James “proposed that [William] Miller was right as to the date, but wrong regarding the event” (54) October 22, 1844 marked not the return of Christ to earth, but “the start of Judgment Day—a complex event centered not on earth but in heaven.” This is a theme that I explore in the first chapter of my book, Adventism Confronts Modernity: An Account of the Advent Christian Controversy Over the Bible’s Inspiration (Wipf and Stock, 2017), and a theme that framed Seventh-day Adventist teaching regarding the “investigative judgment.”

White’s published testimonies read by Adventist individuals and congregations were at the heart of her prophetic identity and “wielded an extraordinary spiritual power among antebellum Adventists” (69). In Ronald Graybill’s words, Ellen White’s “Spirit of Prophecy” allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to “see themselves as the remnant of God’s true church” (79). While Ellen White never held formal denominational office, there is little doubt about her formative role in Seventh-day Adventism both in North America and in Australia, where she lived for nine years from 1891-1900. Her prophetic utterances and writings were supplemented by an extensive speaking schedule. Hence, “most of the medical, education, publishing, and other institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” according to Floyd Greenleaf and Jerry Moon, “are traceable directly or indirectly to counsels of Ellen White” (139).

The chapters at the heart of this volume address Ellen White’s theology. While she was not an academic theologian, three matters were especially important to her. First, according to Fritz Guy, she parted company with most nineteenth-century evangelicals with her claim that biblical inspiration was not verbal but dynamic. “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired,” in White’s words quoted by Guy, “but the men who were inspired” (149). In her interpretation of Scripture, she was traditional, even fundamentalist, in some ways (for example, her literal reading of the King James Bible) and progressive in others.

Second, in Bart Haloviak’s words, Ellen White identified “the Sabbath as the final testing truth that would pit the obedient children of God against those who instead followed the “beast,” interpreted as a prophetic representation of the papacy” (167). This “third angel message” helped form the unique identity of Seventh-day Adventism. Third, Ellen White reinterpreted the Millerite message of the return of Christ into “a non-falsifiable event,” according to Jonathan Butler. Instead of returning to earth, Christ “had stayed in the sanctuary of heaven and as ‘our High Priest’ moved from the ‘holy’ to the ‘most holy’ place” (182).

Several chapters explore Ellen White’s attitudes toward society, culture, gender, war, slavery, and race. Perhaps most important is her understanding of the relationship between science and faith, a subject explored by Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin. Ellen White saw “true” science as harmonious with faith, but viewed the evolutionary work of Charles Darwin and others as “science falsely so-called” (196), and declared that “the Bible is not to be tested by men’s ideas of science” (197). While her “influence on the [young earth] creationist movement was almost entirely posthumous and largely accidental” (217), it is not surprising that later Seventh-day Adventists like George McCready Price pioneered “flood geology,” an idea that became foundational for 1960s young earth creationist writers like Henry Morris.

Numbers and Schoepflin illustrate this vital aspect of Ellen White’s legacy both in Seventh-day Adventism and in the larger world of American Christianity. It is one reason why this is a valuable collection of essays that historians interested in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will want to read and engage. Ellen Harmon White needs to be seen as a restorationist figure in her own right alongside Francis Asbury, William Miller, Barton Stone,  and others who established uniquely American versions of Christianity.

The writers help us see that much of Ellen Harmon White’s work involved reinterpretation of the Adventist message in the aftermath of the October 1844 disappointment. She offered an interpretation that reshaped Adventist eschatology and merged it with Sabbatarianism, a move that gave Seventh-day Adventists a distinct advantage over other Adventist groups who understood Adventism solely in theological terms. This point allows this reviewer to note one substantive error where the writer indicates that the Advent Christian Church was founded in 1845 (38-39). Actually, the Herald (Evangelical) Adventists organized then, while the Crisis Adventists (called that because of the name of their publication, The World’s Crisis) would later form the Advent Christian Church in 1860.

This collection of essays offers fresh thinking about Ellen Harmon White and points toward the need for a scholarly biography of her life and work. It helps us understand Ellen Harmon White in the context of her time and appreciate her significance in American religious history.