And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him . . . And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.' And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him (Luke 4:17-20).
Several months ago I received a phone call from Attorney Dan Malone in El Paso, Texas. Dan requested that I consider meeting with former President Jimmy Carter about the former President's desire for a convocation called 'The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant' to be held January 30-February 1, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Frankly, I did not think much about the phone call at the time, but have since discovered that Dan Malone is a very intelligent and persistent Baptist layman from Texas who wishes all Baptists to live at peace and harmony with one another. He eventually arranged the meeting for yesterday, May 17, 2007, in Atlanta, Georgia at the Carter Center - which is located next door to the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Marty Duren, C.B. Scott, and Ben Cole joined Dan and I in visiting with President Carter.
I learned during the meeting with President Carter several things about the convocation early next year:
(1). The theme of 'The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant' is based on the first sermon Jesus preached (Luke 4:27-30), and there is a very conscientious effort to keep the convocation focused on those things Jesus said He came to accomplish.
(2). All four major United States African-American Baptist Conventions have moved their national meetings to the week of the convocation so their members can stay and participate. With their involvement, this very well might be the largest and most ethnically diverse Baptist convocation in history.
(3). Because a few have alleged that the convocation is nothing more than a 'Democratic' primary disguised as a Baptist gathering, the organizers have intentionally invited, and received acceptances from, key Republican Baptist leaders. These include Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. However, it was reiterated to us time and time again that the meeting was about the gospel - not politics - and Baptists from every political background and ethnicity were being invited.
(4). If it was said once, it was said a half dozen times -- there is no desire by anyone participating in organizing the convocation to begin any new convention, any new denomination or any new Baptist entity. Everyone wishes to maintain autonomy. The goal is simply to convocate, dialogue, build relationships and ultimately encourage one another in the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and to rejoice over what others are accomplishing.
(5). We were asked to assist in informing Southern Baptists that the goal of the convocation is to focus on what we have in common (Luke 4:17-20) rather than that which divides us. In addition, we were asked specifically to contact a couple of Southern Baptists to request them to speak during the plenary sessions.
My Impressions of the Meeting
I was impressed with President Carter's humility, mental acumen at age eighty three, and his gentle manner. He was very sincere in expressing his desire that Baptists unite around the fundamentals of the gospel of Jesus Christ at this convocation and lay aside all political and minor doctrinal differences for the greater purpose of building the kingdom of Christ. Not once was a negative word spoken about anyone. Not once was there expressed critical statements about the SBC or SBC leadership. Rather, there was a repeated desire expressed that everyone in the SBC feel welcome and a fully participating partner at the convocation.
The discussions for an hour were around the world's need of Jesus Christ and the great possibilities if Baptist Christians were to unite to help eradicate some of the major problems in our world including poverty, disease and injustice. President Carter shared that he teaches anywhere between 200 to 600 guests who attend his Sunday School class during the forty weeks out of the year he is at First Baptist Church, Plains, Georgia. He still uses the traditional Southern Baptist literature (he's been teaching Revelation the last four weeks), but makes it a point to share the gospel of Christ every Sunday because there are people who have come to hear him preach that are in need of Christ. Mr. Carter keeps the main thing the main thing on Sunday morning.
The prayer time at our meeting yesterday was truly a prayer time. The Spirit was present, the words were heartfelt, and the yearning for God to send revival among all Baptists very real. I am not sure what the outcome of the meeting may ultimately be, but I can assure you that it was refreshing to be someplace where discussions of denominational or national politics were taboo, discussions of Christ and kingdom ministry encouraged, and the ideas of all parties respected.
What I Anticipate
Driving back from Will Rogers Airport this evening my wife asked me if I was prepared for those who would seek to crucify me for meeting with President Carter. She said that she was already tensing because of the realization that some would attack my character, my theology, my commitment to the SBC, etc . . .
I smiled to myself and told her to relax. I then said this:
"There is no Christian that I have ever met - not one - Southern Baptist or not, who would EVER be offended or disturbed by what was discussed around that conference table at the Carter Center today."
She agreed with me, but she also said that the problem is some Southern Baptists are so entrenched in their views of others that they refuse to even begin talking. I told her that it was my desire to help Southern Baptists see that fellow Baptists are NOT the enemy. We can keep our unique way of doing missions in the SBC; we can keep our distinct structure and autonomy as the SBC; we can keep others out who will not affirm the BFM if we so choose; but we don't have to keep acting as if other Baptist Christians are our competitors or our opponents.
The Difficulty We Must Overcome
At the DFW Airport on my way back from Atlanta I ran into a very well known oil executive from Oklahoma who has been a friend of mine for several years. He is a Southern Baptist and we have served on different boards together within the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. He asked me where I had been and I told him of the meeting with President Carter.
Immediately a cloud came over his face and he said that Carter was a terrible politician. He then mentioned something that Carter had done in Venezuela regarding oil that damaged the USA's oil interests (including the company with whom this man was associated). I am quite sure that my friend knew exactly what he was talking about, and I am even almost certain I would agree with him if I knew all the details of that to which he was referring.
However, what troubled me was the cloud that came over my friend's face at the mention of Carter's name. It seemed to me that his views of Carter's business and political decisions trumped his views of Carter's decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In other words, the man had a hard time getting past politics and business to see a brother in Christ.
My prayer is that we as Southern Baptists can get to the point where our relationship with Christ and each other is more important than our political, philosophical or national ideology. We are part of a kingdom that transcends the natural. It is eternal and spiritual. The head of that kingdom is Christ and He himself said By this shall all men know that you are my disciples; if ye have love one for another.
I shall maintain my conservative values. I have no desire, nor shall I ever have a desire, to recant my conservative beliefs. My love for Scripture and its sufficiency in my life for faith and practice is a bulwark against theological liberalism. I am who I am. However, I refuse to let others define who or who is not my brother in Christ. Nor will I relent to the demands that I not associate with those Baptist brothers who are different than I.
It's time we focused on what unites us with other Baptists instead of what divides us from other Baptists.
In His Grace,