Tuesday, August 28, 2007

See You Next Week

The family and I are off to visit Jen's family in Atlanta. Also, Jen and I will be getting together with a group of college friends up in the Smoky Mountains. I will return next week and so will the blog posts. Until then, please know that whatever happens, I'm still proud of you.

Grace and Peace,


What I meant to say in this week's sermon

Okay, the title of my sermon this past Sunday was "Do Over: What I Meant to Say Last Sunday" so you would think that I said everything I meant to say this time around. Well, that was not the case. Although, I feel much better about this past Sunday's sermon than I do about the week before, I did leave out a bit that was at least meaningful to me.

I've been reading Cornel West lately, and I have found a critique he wrote of American religion nearly twenty years ago to be even more relevant for today's religious landscape. In the preface to his 1988 book Prophetic Fragments he writes the following words:

To put it bluntly, American religious life is losing its prophetic fervor. There is an undeniable decline in the clarity of vision, complexity of understanding and quality of moral action among religious Americans.

West writes that this decline in prophetic fervor spans the gamut of religions "from Christianity to Buddhism, from reform Judaism to Islam." This trend results in the "widespread accommodation of American religion to the political and cultural status-quo."

"This accommodation is, at bottom, idolatrous--it worships the gods created by American society and kneels before the altars created by American culture."

He goes on to say, "American religious life--despite its weekly rituals and everyday practices--is shot through with existential emptiness. This emptiness--or lack of spiritual depth--results from the excessive preoccupation with isolated personal interests and atomistic individual concerns in American religious life. These interests and concerns unduly accommodate the status-quo by mirroring the privatism and careerism rampant in American society."

This accommodation "yields momentary stimulation rather than spiritual sustenance, sentimental self-flagellation rather than sacrificial denial." Therefore, "religion becomes but one more stimulant in a culture addicted to stimulation--a stimulation that fuels consumption and breeds existential emptiness."

The result of this type of religion is "social amnesia" that fails to understand the broader cultural, economic and philosophical reasons for human suffering, because all sense of "collective struggle" has been lost. . Instead, "personalistic and individualistic explanations" are found for complex problems like poverty, hunger and social catastrophe.

In other words, the great problems of our culture are the result of the flawed decisions or morals of the individuals suffering from them. They failed to try hard enough or failed to remain moral enough to achieve the American Dream. Gone is any sense that our culture as a whole or even particular religious communities must unite together to change our culture for the better.

When I preached Sunday about why Jesus came to bring division rather than peace, I tried to explain that the status-quo must be overturned. A status-quo that is based upon the oppression of others is one that cannot stand before the coming of the Kingdom of God. Whenever the status-quo is overturned, conflict results. As Americans, our over-stimulated culture is a means of blocking out the cries of those who suffer around the world and even next door. To respond to those cries means giving up comfort and people--even faithful people--will fight to hold onto their own comfort, even if it means others must subsist on far less.

Raising a prophetic voice in a culture that does not wish to be bothered will by necessity bring conflict--disagreement, division and even at times violence (think of MLK). Yet, that should not surprise us given that we follow a savior who ended up dying on a cross.

Grace and peace,


Thursday, August 23, 2007

I like his blog because he likes mine...

I was listening to Thomas Friedman the other day on NPR talk about how technology is "flattening" out the world--anybody else getting bored with Friedman's metaphor?--when one of his comments about employers Googling job candidates as a matter of course these days, and I thought, "Hmmm... I haven't Googled myself lately. I wonder what sort of stuff has surfaced about me."

So, I Googled myself and it was the usual stuff where my name has remained on church and denominational web sites--you can track my career from doctoral work to church work in NY to the same in MO--, some distant relative's inclusion of me on their family tree, etc. (All I have to say, is thank God they didn't have digital cameras, My Space, Facebook, etc. when I was in college. Some things don't need to live forever on the Internet. My pictures in my college yearbook are bad enough--ugh.)

However, I did find a new link to my name. Rev. Chuck Currie, pastor at Parkrose Community U.C.C. church in Portland, OR, has a blog as well and posted a link to mine. So, I figured I'd return the favor and link to his. He's got some good thoughts on social concerns and how the Gospel fits into our culture along with some links to some other interesting blogs by liberal-type ministers.

Thanks Chuck. Happy blogging!

Grace and Peace,


Oliver Twist Had Better Not Get Sick

Harold Meyerson, columnist at The Washington Post, has a good column about the Bush administration's efforts to limit the coverage government can provide to children. (To be fair, the Democratic-led Congress was too interested in leaving for the summer break last week to bother too much with this issue either.) Meyerson asks whether Lynne Cheney's love for the classics and Bill Bennett's urging to read the great moral tales have actually rubbed off in a negative way upon the Bush administration. He notes the example of Oliver Twist asking for more porridge at the orphanage and being punished for the audacity of wanting more gruel just because he was hungry. According to Meyerson, the administration's policy towards children's healthcare amounts to the same thing--a Dickensonian orphanage that cares not for its children.

Guidelines pushed for by the Bush administration came clearly out of the pocket of the health insurance lobby. Essentially, they block the working poor from receiving government help, even in the case of dramatic health costs for emergency measures. If you live below the poverty line (a household income of about $20K) you can get government assistance from health care without too much trouble--above that and you better pray for a miracle. As any social worker or social service provider or church leader that actually works with low-income people can tell you, one of the leading factors--if not the largest factor--in working poor families declaring bankruptcy, defaulting on mortgages, etc. is because of medical costs that they cannot pay. Millions of families in our country are one serious medical problem away from complete financial ruin.

For those interested in specifics, here's one onerous one that Meyerson cites:

The administration fears that parents in the designated income groups will forgo enrolling their children in private plans. States that wish to provide insurance for children in families with income at 250 percent of the poverty level, Smith told the New York Times' Robert Pear, "must establish a minimum of a one-year period of uninsurance for individuals" before children become eligible. They also must show that the number of children insured by private employers has not dropped by more than two percentage points over the preceding five years.

In other words, if a state wants to insure a chronically ill 2-year-old whose parents' employer has dropped his health coverage, it has to wait until he's a chronically ill 3-year-old.

If you make less than $50k a year and your employer doesn't provide health insurance, you had better hope your child doesn't get sick, because the federal government will not help you and has taken steps to make sure that state governments will not help you either.
With this type of immoral disregard for children in our country (not to mention their parents), are we really that far from portrait Dickens painted 150 years ago? For those of us who follow a savior that claim to follow a savior that loved children, these moves against health care for children are unacceptable.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What I Meant to Say Last Sunday--Dialogue Column: 8.21.07

I’ve been reflecting on my sermon from this past Sunday, and I am unhappy with it. Don’t worry, I’m not beating myself up about it nor is this a veiled plea for people to salve my insecurities. Long ago, I accepted the fact that not every sermon would be a home run. A minister has his or her better and worse days in the pulpit just like any other day of the week. Instead, what I’m doing—and I’m inviting you to come along for the conversation—is thinking about what I wanted to say and why it was so difficult to say it. I’m thankful that as your minister I get to preach again next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that and so on. This conversation continues between us—minister and church—as we all journey together.

On Sunday, I preached out of Luke 12: 49-56, where Jesus says that he did not come to bring peace but division, even division between family members. These are startling words from the Prince of Peace, and on the surface, they are frightening words, especially to those of us who work to strengthen families, including church families. I shared my belief that the context of these verses in Luke’s Gospel help to make these verses more understandable, if no less threatening. Luke tells us that Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, but he has come to upset the status quo. He came to lift up the lowly and oppressed and to humble the proud and powerful. He preached about hidden things being revealed, laying up treasure in heaven and the hypocrisy of doing the right thing religiously but the wrong thing morally. In short, the peace of Christ means anything but an affirmation of the status quo. (I’m pretty sure that my sermon on Sunday did not express this idea so clearly or succinctly.)

This is a difficult message to convey, because I long for unity and lack of conflict in every aspect of my life, including my vocational life. As a minister, I desire for people to get along and agree so that we can be a unified community of faith. Yet, I also know that almost always before true unity (peace) can be achieved the hard work of dealing with difficult issues and questions must be performed. That often involves conflict and change, because the status quo is most often the lowest common moral and spiritual denominator. If the hard work of conflict and change is not performed, a false unity is created that comes into existence because some people shouted the loudest and other people acquiesced and everyone chose the road of least conflict rather than the narrow way of faithfulness.

Jesus’ words in Luke 12 are also hard to talk about, because division is rampant in our society and our world, especially in regards to religion. Part of the reason I am a minister is because I feel called to help others experience the grace of God and to see Christianity and the church as healing forces in our world rather than divisive and judgmental institutions. Many ministers, churches and Christians seem to revel in dividing people from one another—sacred vs. secular, Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, etc. Demonizing others is an easy way to build support, because it involves no inspection of the self only criticism of the “other.” I believe the division Jesus says will happen because of him is not something we should treat with arrogant glee but humble grief. Conflict and change may be necessary, but they can also be painful. Furthermore, the self-sacrificial love of Christ is our example of how we are to care for people—even those we disagree with. This is especially true within a church.

These are difficult concepts. I will continue to express my thoughts about how we can be a faithful community of faith even as we face the necessary conflict of growing and changing to meet the demands of our present and future. I hope you will do the same.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Lost Boys" in the NY Times

There's a nice article in this past Sunday's NY Times about former "Lost Boys" from Sudan who have become clergy in America. The article focuses upon one young man who has become an Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, but it mentions that the same thing has occurred with many of the Sudanese refugees in a number of denominations. It draws some interesting parallels between the churches established by other immigrant groups in our nation's past (Irish, Scandinavian, German, etc.) and the Sudanese worshipping communities that have been organized wherever there are groups of Sudanese refugees. The Sudanese community here in St. Joseph has been meeting at First Lutheran Church, and Daniel Mapur who leads the service is pursuing ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He was trained as an Anglican lay minister in the refugee camp in which he lived, but since coming to America the doors have opened for him among Lutherans. No matter the denomination these folks choose, I continue to be amazed at their amazing and inspiring journey of faith. Also, I am thankful that I get to serve in a community where there is such a wonderful and growing Sudanese community.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Difficult questions of Prophetic Christianity

In the adult Sunday School class I teach, I talked yesterday about social justice and the difficult questions thinking prophetically about our faith may ask of us who claim to follow Christ. One of those issues, is the environment and the responsibility each of us has to the wider human community both now and in the future. Everyone agrees that we should care for the earth, but when it comes to how far each of us is willing to go in our individual lives, the discussion gets difficult.

I heard a good example of this on NPR this weekend. Randy Cohen, the ethicist for the NY Times Magazine comes on from time to time to tackle thorny issues. This one was about whether it was ethical to drive a gas guzzler--for Coehn, the answer was simple: "NO." The more difficult answer to provide was what do you do with the gas guzzler? In this case it was a early 1970's muscle car. Sell it to somebody else and the pollution continues. Junk it and lose the money you've put into it. So what do you do? Listen and find out.

Closer to home, here in St. Joseph, it's worth asking how much inconvenience are we willing to under go in order to care for the environment? As people who care about the earth and the condition of it we leave for our children and grandchildren, just what would be willing to do to have a curbside recycling program? What would we do to discard toxic chemicals in a safe way? What about the manufacturing and farming businesses in our area that our economy depends upon? Just what kinds of standards are we willing to enforce and what happens if those standards impact the jobs of families who live in our neighborhoods? These are the difficult questions.

As I wrestle with these questions as a person of faith and a person who cares about the earth--two things that should go hand in hand but often don't--I was encouraged by Nicholas Kristof's column in the NY Times today. He writes about VP Cheney's comment several years ago that conservation worked as a personal virtue but not as an energy policy:

Mr. Cheney’s image seems to be of a dour stoic shivering in a cardigan in a frigid home, squinting under a dim light bulb, showering under a tiny trickle of (barely) solar-heated water, and then bicycling to work in the rain. If that’s the alternative, then many of us might be willing to see the oceans rise, whatever happens to Florida.

But new research has shown that improvements in energy efficiency often pay for themselves, actually leaving us better off.

“This is not a sacrifice deal,” Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says of conservation. “This is a technology deal. After all, we’re twice as energy efficient now as we were in the 1970s, and at the same time our economy has more than doubled.”

Perhaps the advancement of technology will help our culture to make strides where personal conviction and religious belief and political courage continue to disappoint.

In regards to political leaders who continue to deny climate change is a real problem, Kristof concludes with this zinger:

Climate skeptics say that we don’t know how serious climate change will be, and they’re right. But isn’t it prudent to address threats even when we’re unsure of them? We don’t expect to be caught in a fire, but we still believe in fire escapes and fire departments.

Suppose we had political leaders who snorted that fires are nothing new, that the science of firefighting is unclear, and that we can’t impose a burden on business by establishing fire departments — while brightly adding that citizens can extinguish fires on their own out of “personal virtue.”

Why, we would think those leaders were nuts.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter in Sunday School?

I know, I know, last week I asked why can't we all just read Harry Potter and have fun rather than condemning it as a gateway into the occult for children or using it as an evangelism tool. (By the way, I finally am reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but you still are not allowed to spill any secrets to me until I finish.) However, what about discussing Harry Potter with kids and even adults who are fans of the books at church? I think I'm for that, just as I'm for engaging popular culture in general at church.

I haven't been able to gauge the interest in Harry Potter among folks here in St. Joe, but back in NY, every kid at church knew Harry Potter better than they knew the Bible. You'd discover this fact when teaching them Bible stories and they would naturally draw comparisons to events that happened in the book series--which sort of speaks to the Christian influences that Rowling naturally seems to stick into her narrative. I had no choice but to engage Harry Potter in order to communicate with kids, just as I engaged rap and hip-hop with the youth group in order to speak to them. I know a lot more about Harry Potter than I do about rap--as the kids in the youth group would constantly point out to me.

Apparently, the Church of England has a study guide and resources for using Harry Potter at church. That works for me, since I'm a big fan of the book series, and just as I enjoy book clubs, movie watching, etc. with church folks, I'd also enjoy discussing Harry Potter.

Terry Mattingly has another column on Harry Potter and its reception among church folks. I found interesting the comparisons between Rowling and C. S. Lewis' Narnia series. Although I loved Narnia, I have to say that the Potter books are a lot more fun--Lewis' allegory grew a bit weighty for me even as a kid.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. If your up for an irreverent pardy of the Religious Right's reaction to Harry Potter, check out the fzux Potter protests at the make believe Landover Baptist Church web site.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Passing on a Vital and Honest Faith--Dialogue Column 8.7.07

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon entitled, “Prayer is a Wrestling Match,” which described our encounters with God as struggles, especially when we are in pain and/or grief. I talked about the rich tradition of prayers of lament found in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and even on the lips of Jesus, and how that tradition has been lost to many Christians. In many churches, it is blasphemy to question God and a sign of weak faith to express doubts and questions. The laments of the Bible that ask, “Why, God? Why?” offer us proof that such questions are not only appropriate but perhaps necessary.

As I stated on Sunday, one of my motives for speaking about the struggle of holding on to God during difficult times was to point out how failing to talk about struggle, doubt and questions can result in young people growing up and leaving the church. I often hear the stories of parents and grandparents about children who grow up, have a difficult experience and then turn away from the faith they were raised in. They do so, because their religious upbringing did not prepare them for facing the difficult times that naturally come in life. Since no one ever taught them or modeled for them that faith can be a struggle and that there is merit to hanging on to God in the midst of the worst times, their religion does not match their experience. When that dissonance occurs, faith is left by the wayside.

If we wish to pass on to current and future generations a faith that is vital and real, I believe that our church should consider living out the following principles:

1. Sometimes there are no easy answers. It is understandably mystifying to many reasonable people why some died on that bridge in Minneapolis last week and others did not. False platitudes like “It was God’s will.” or “God wanted to call home those people who died.” are hollow and insulting. It is better to share with a young person that you simply don’t know or to offer your best guess as just that, a guess, than to speak as if you truly understand the mysteries of providence.

2. Faith is a choice a person makes rather than a feeling of certitude. Some time in the past, a false bill of goods was sold that says a Christian should believe with 100% certainty. If you are unable to do so, then you have a problem. In contrast to this, honesty demands that we model for our young people that often we choose to believe in spite of our doubts and questions rather than because we are certain of anything.

3. A believer can change his or her mind. Out of our own insecurities and mistaken understandings, adults can model for young people the idea that just like high school or college, faith is something you achieve and then possess from then on. Seen in this way, a spiritual life is static and there is no room to adapt or adjust to new life experience. This road leads to dogmatism and even fundamentalism. We worship a God who is alive and kicking in our world, so there are always new ways for us to experience and understand God that challenge our assumptions and biases. We must be willing to change, to grow and to adapt. By demonstrating to young people that it is a good thing for faith to be dynamic and ever-changing, we free them from living with the suspicion that their faith is outdated or no longer relevant.

I want our children and youth to know—including my own two sons—that here at First Christian Church it is okay to ask questions, think deeply and to experience God in a manner that may be different than the way the person sitting next to them does. How about you?

Grace and Peace,


Can't we just enjoy Harry Potter because it's fun?

Unless you've been under a rock for the past month, you are well aware that the last Harry Potter book is out.

(Actually I'm about two weeks behind the news cycle. The national media have already moved on to other topics since the hoopla over the book coming. I am a big fan of the series, and no, I haven't read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet, so do not tell me what happens!)

A new Harry Potter book means more of the tired debate amont conservative Christians over whether or not it is a tool of Satan. Even the fundamentalists who charge the books with luring children into the occult seem a little tired of the fuss at this point. Terry Mattingly has a column that offers a sort of round up of criticism from fundamentalists--the charges are worthy of a good laugh. He also relates something I did not know, which is that J. K. Rowling, the author of the books, is a member of the Church of Scotlant and her religious upbringing informs her writing. On the other side of the debate are evangelicals who like the struggle between good and evil present in the book and who even use it as a means of evangelism.

From my perspective, the whole hubbub makes me yawn. I enjoy the series, because they are well-written, witty, suprising and because the characters is rich and deep. The story is unfailingly moral, as is Harry Potter himself, but considering the genre, that's just fine. The books are entertaining and a good escape--in and of themselves good qualities that make a book worth reading. In my mind, the books are just plain fun. I'm not interested in dilluting that fun in order to get into a debate with folks who seem like they know little to nothing about having fun in the first place.

I say, enjoy Harry Potter and skip the drama.

Grace and Peace,