God and Graduation, Part 2

church state

In my last post, I asked you to weigh in, to think about, to express your thoughts on a Public School Superintendent’s religious references and appeals in his High School commencement address.

I get both sides of the issue.  Here’s why.

Fall, 1978, my first semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas, at that time, the world’s largest seminary.    The Moral Majority would start in 1979.  The Southern Baptist Convention was embroiled in a battle between fundamentalist and moderates.

It was a raucous time.  The battle lines were drawn.  The banners were waving. In my hand was the Fundamentalist’s banner.  I had sided with the Moral Majority.  I had celebrated the marriage between the Religious Right and the Republican Party and was all about “Putting God back in our public schools!”

Then, I took an ethics course at Seminary, taught by Dr. Tillman. The topic on this day was all things church and state, the wall of separation, “Christian America,” etc.   Dr. Tillman presented a view that was new to me.  His view challenged me. Unsettled me.  Dr. Tillman invited debate.  I debated.

At the end of the class, he made this appeal, “Phillip, someday, I hope you will actually become a Baptist.”  I couldn’t miss that message!

There was no anger in his voice.

No judgment.

There was just a kind of sadness.

The message was that, somehow, I, a Southern Baptist seminary student,

-born and raised in a Southern Baptist family;

-immersed in Southern Baptist Sunday School, Training Union, Sunbeams, Youth Group,

-a 4th generation Southern Baptist pastor-in-training;

-a recipient of an undergraduate degree from a Southern Baptist college…

Yes, I was, by holding this view on this issue, not a Baptist.

What?  Not a  Baptist?

His statement stuck.  “If I’m not a Baptist, what am I? What is he, besides a liberal!! What is a Baptist?” Time to research.  Here’s what I found:

Religious Liberty is really a big deal to Baptists.

John Locke (1632 -1704), a major influence on our Founding Fathers,  once wrote, “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.”

Seventeenth century England was a theocracy led by James 1 (Yep, the King James Bible guy).

James was all about forced uniformity. “Church and state together forever!”  He was horrified by the thought of liberty of conscience.  He couldn’t imagine a society built on the freedom to choose one’s faith.

It was during the reign of James that a little group led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, pioneers of the Baptist movement, left England to find religious freedom in Holland. John Smyth was the first Baptist on the planet to insist on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, with these words, “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion or doctrine, …”

Helwys came back to England, and I guess, couldn’t avoid a good fight, because he wrote these words concerning the Roman Catholics, “…our lord the King hath no more power over their consciences than ours, and that is none at all…For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it; neither may the King be judge between God and man.  Let them be heretics, Turks (Muslims), Jews or whatsoever…”

Helwys was sent to prison for his views and there he died.

It was during the reign of James’ successor, Charles, that those looking for religious freedom swarmed to New England. But in the ultimate irony, the Puritans who came to the shores of America to escape religious persecution, turned around and persecuted those who didn’t share their religion.

“Religious liberty for me but not for thee!” could have been their motto.

Then came Roger Williams, whom biographer, John M. Barry calls, “America’s first rebel.”   Williams arrived in Massachusetts to pastor the church in Salem. The Governor of Massachusetts was John Winthrop.  Winthrop, in a sermon, had used the phrase, “city upon a hill”, which has been quoted ever since.

Winthrop’s vision for America was for it to be a Christian nation.

William’s vision for America was for it be a place of freedom -“soul liberty” he called it.

Those two philosophies go together like nuts and gum.

The Puritans, led by folks like Winthrop, believed there was only one true religion – theirs.

Their religion was the only “pure” religion – hence the name: Puritans.  They moved further, insisting that it was the duty of the government and civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary.

People of other religions, dissenters, nonconformists would be punished, even executed.

The “persecuted” became the “persecutors.”

One of the dissenters they persecuted was Roger Williams.  Welcomed to Massachusetts, at first with open arms, it wasn’t long until those open arms turned to closed fists, pushing Williams out of the church, the city, the state.

Williams said things like:

“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

“All religious sects have the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates have no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship and religious belief.? 

That kind of talk could get you fired, banished, or killed.  When Williams was banished, he didn’t just start a new church, he started a new town in a new state – Providence, Rhode Island.  The church he started?  The First Baptist Church, of Providence.

First Baptist was not just a name –  It was actually the first Baptist church, and not just in Providence, but in all of the colonies.

According to author John M. Barry, Roger Williams created the first government in world history in which there was a clear separation of church and state: Providence.

Now, this blew me away:  The founding documents for every other colony in the Americas, whether Spanish, French, Portuguese or English, all said the purpose of this colony was to advance the Christian religion.

But not Roger Williams.  In his first draft, he asked for God’s blessing.  Then he decided he would not even do that!  He wrote plenty of letters and books in which spoke freely of God and Scripture, so for him to not even include a request for God’s blessing is an incredible statement of his view that government should be entirely secular.

Roger Williams, the first Baptist pastor of the first Baptist church in the colonies of the New World.

Oh, you know that “wall of separation” phrase?

Revered by some and despised by others.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson, made it famous.

But, it originated with that Baptist pastor, dissident, “Amerca’s first rebel,”  Roger Williams.

Thank you Dr. Tillman for opening my eyes.  My mind.

…for your kindness.

…for your challenge.

I wonder how Baptists, myself included, drifted so far from these roots.

I wonder what Roger Williams would say about the Graduation Ceremony?

God and Graduation



This is graduation season.  A time of…




Controversy.  Yes controversy.

Graduates of Willard High School, Willard, Missouri, and their families and friends,  gathered at JQH Arena in nearby Springfield for the graduation ceremony.  The celebration moved into controversy when Superintendent Kent Medlin chose to, in the words of one student, “talk about religion instead of graduation.”  Students told the Springfield News-Leader, that Dr. Medlin started with the “usual words of encouragement” typical of commencement speeches, but then the talk “got more religious.”  Some of these students asked Dr. Medlin for an apology.

Dr. Medlin used the acronym GUTS and the first three letters stood for grit, understanding and teamwork (That’s clever).   He brought it home with “S” – someone or something to guide them to the finish line.  Dr. Medlin acknowledged that he told the audience, “For me, that S stands for my Savior.”

According to the “News-Leader’s” report, other religious talk included

*quoting the Bible numerous times.

*asking the graduates and attendees to stand with him for a prayer.

*inviting students to his office for coffee and to discuss “the Lord.”

Claudette Riley, the “News-Leader” reporter who wrote the story, reminded her readers, “the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that prayers at public school-sectioned events, including graduation, violate the Establishment Clause – which protects against, among other things, the promotion of one religion over another – and forces an individual to choose between attending a school event or avoiding prayer.”

People feel strongly about the issue, as seen in the comments on the News-Leader’s Facebook page:

“Good for him!  If we had more Christians stand up and go against the flow and not worry about being politically correct we would have a much better world.”

“We as Christian must stand for Christ or our country and world will fail!!!” 

“The best graduation I have ever been to.”

Almost all of the 277 (at last count) comments were of the same flavor as those above.  There were a few exceptions:

“I’m proud of those graduates for speaking up.  To have a superintendent violate the constitution at their commencement ceremony is disgraceful.” 

“Organized prayer aimed towards one religion at a PUBLIC school’s graduation ceremony is not ok.  Not all of those former students are Christian.  They shouldn’t be subjected to sit through a prayer that caters to any religion.”  

What do you think?

On which side of the line are you?

What is the relationship between church and state?

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”

Would supporters of the Superintendent’s religious expressions feel differently

-had he prayed to Allah,

-had he invited students for coffee and a discussion of Buddha,

-had he testified that the “S” that takes him to the finish line was not the Savior Jesus,       but Shachi, a Hindu goddess?

What is the best way for a Christian to express his/her commitment to Christ in these situations?

In the next post, let’s think about this in the context of our history – American and Christian.

Spoon Your Way to Health

Spoon your way to health

Good News, Bad News jokes.  Some of them are corny, but I still like them: .

“The bad news is time flies.  The good news is you’re the pilot.”

“The bad news: nothing lasts forever.  The good news: nothing lasts forever.”

“The good news is that you will win the election because your opponent has had a scandalous affair.  The bad news is that the affair is with your wife.”

See?  Corny.  But kind of meaningful too.

Then there is this one from the classic comedian, Bob Hope: “The good news is the Jesus is coming back.  The bad news is that he’s really pissed off.”

Mr. Hope sets up the table for thinking about the Second Coming but I’m not hungry for that today.

Two days ago, Monday, May 8, two statements were made to me that fit the “good news, bad news” literary device.

The first comment was made by a 2nd grade girl at a local elementary school.  I’m a Big Brother Lunch Buddy.  That means once a week, I eat lunch with a kid at his school. He’s in the second grade.  We’ve been buddies since kindergarten.

My lunch time with him moves into recess on the playground.  On this day, I was leading the kids in a classic game of “drop the hanky.”  One girl asked if she could be “it” first.  “Sure!” I said.  But a girl standing beside me grabbed my hand and with a disappointed look on her face and tone in  her voice, she said, “But I asked first.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I responded.  “I didn’t you hear you.”

Here’s the bad news:  “That’s because,” she explained, “you’re a grandpa.”

“Ouch,” I said to myself.  I’m not a grandpa but I’m old enough to be, and my looks obviously qualify me to be.

Well, I proved the kids I still had it in me.  When the flag was dropped behind me, I caught and tagged the kid who dropped it before he got back to my place in the circle.

I felt pretty good for a guy who looks like a grandpa.

That was the bad news.  It’s still hard to believe I’m as old as I am.

The good news came that night, on a date with Denise.  Monday nights are typically and usually “date night” for Denise and me – it’s been that way for 37 years of marriage.  This week, we went to one of our favorite local restaurants.

We really had fun.

Good food. Good wine.

Lots of laughs.

A little flirting  – with each other.

Good conversation (We usually talk more when we go out than when we stay in).

And there was church talk.  There always is.  And interior design talk (that’s her line of work).

She rocked her outfit.  I tried with mine.

We weren’t new to the restaurant but we were new to the server and he to us. When he stopped by at the close of our dinner, he asked, “Will this be on one check?”I don’t know if I looked as surprised as I felt.

“Pardon, me?” I asked.  Did I hear that right?  I am old enough to be a grandpa, you know.  It had already been established that my hearing is not that great. He repeated himself, “Will that be on one or two checks?”

I had heard correctly.

Denise looked at me, smiled, and asked, “What do you think?”
“Oh, I’ll take it tonight,” I told the server.

He left.  We laughed.  And we wondered, “Why?”

Why, after 37 years of marriage, 37 years of putting it on one check, were we asked something different?  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s what servers are taught to ask, unless they know you?

I’d like to think it was because we didn’t act like an old married couple. You know the line, “You bicker (argue, fight) just like an old married couple.”  Maybe we didn’t look like an old married couple.  Maybe we weren’t suffering form “Old married couple syndrome.”

Remember this line from Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy” when she was doing a TV ad for a health drink – Vitameatavegamin?

Lucy vitametavegamin




“Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you poop out at parties?  Are you unpoopular?”  




Are you bored, stuck in a routine, thoughtless, can’t think of anything to talk about, completely out of shape and you don’t give a rip?   Well, you might have old married couple syndrome.

No, I don’t know why the server asked what he did about the check.  But it did make me want to stock up on some Vitameatavegamin for my marriage.  Keep it young.  Keep it healthy. Never take it for granted.  Always be dating, the same girl.

“Spoon your way to health.”

Good advice.