Friday, November 30, 2007

Happy New Year! (Dialogue Column 11.27.07)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Oftentimes, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.


You may think that I’m rushing things a bit. After all, we just got through with Thanksgiving and are now fully on the road to Christmas, so why am I talking about New Year’s Day? Sure, the calendar on the wall doesn’t flip over until January 1, but the calendar of the church starts anew this Sunday. I’m speaking about the liturgical or worship calendar, of course, and not the fiscal year of the church. The liturgical calendar starts every year on the first Sunday of Advent, which happens to be this coming Sunday.

Centuries of tradition by various churches and denominations have boiled down more or less to a worship calendar that begins with the season of Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas) and runs until Advent begins again the next year. Through the church year, we move through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and the Sundays following Pentecost, often called Ordinary Time. This practice varies by denomination. For example, the Orthodox or Eastern churches use a separate system of dates for their seasons than churches that trace their development to the Western church. Some churches and denominations do not follow these seasons at all. For example, the Baptist churches I grew up in paid little if any attention to these seasons. Yet, among churches like ours, it is common to find each of these seasons marked with different traditions and for the church year to begin anew four Sundays prior to Christmas Day.

Thinking about beginning a new year at a time when our culture is madly intent upon concluding its year can be a difficult task. It is hard not to think of the year ending on December 31st when everything from your vacation schedule to your taxes ends that day too. Yet, I believe that there is wisdom in beginning to think of a new season and a new year prior to Christmas. We can set our spiritual clocks and calendars that guide us internally to a different rhythm than the deadlines that so dominate our lives culturally and economically.

We begin our worship year in Advent, the season of anticipation for what God will do in our lives and our world. We remember the longing for peace and justice in ancient Israel and celebrate how God answered those desires in Jesus Christ that first Christmas. We also look to our future as we await a time when God will conclude God’s work in the world to bring peace and justice today.

Then with Christmas Day, we begin the practice of reflecting upon the life of Jesus when he walked among humanity during his earthly ministry. We wonder anew at the mystery of God becoming human and experiencing our joys and pain. In Epiphany, we celebrate the spiritual light of Christ that came through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and reflect once again upon our God who continues to surprise us and speak to us in new ways. In Lent, we recall Jesus’ steady movement towards suffering and death in order to demonstrate God’s love and to experience the worst the powers of evil had to offer. In Easter, we celebrate God’s ability to triumph over death and to bring hope where all hope is lost. Then at Pentecost, we begin a season where we take notice of how God’s spirit impacts our lives in subtle and dynamic ways, especially as we experience God’s presence in the spiritual community we call the church. After that we start all over again.

Take a moment this week to breathe and reflect upon God’s movement in your life. Seek to attune your spirit to the work of God. Adjust your soul’s calendar to God’s marvelous ability to offer us new life and new opportunities for change as we begin this new year.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

St. Bono in the News

In Sunday's sermon for World AIDS Day, I mentioned that one of my own personal saints is Bono, lead singer of my favorite band, U2. Bono has decided to cash in whatever cache his celebrity status can give him to raise awarness about extreme poverty in developing nations, especially Africa, and the worldwide AIDS epidemic--again, especially in Africa. I quoted from one of the speeches that he's made over the last few years on the subject (if you follow the link you can watch the entire speech on video):

This is not a cause, it’s an emergency…Six and a half thousand people dying a day may be Africa’s crisis, but the fact that it’s not on the nightly news, that we in Europe or you in America are not treating it like an emergency… that’s our crisis…Though Africa is not the front line in the war in terror, it could be soon…Despair breeds violence, we know this. In turbulent times isn’t it cheaper and smarter to make friends out of potential enemies than to defend yourself against them later? ...You see, the scale of the suffering numbs us into a kind of indifference. What on earth can we all do about this? Well, much more than we think. We can’t fix every problem, but the ones we can, I want to argue, we must. And because we can, we must. This is the straight truth, the righteous truth. It is not a theory. The fact is that ours is the first generation that can look disease and extreme poverty in the eye, look across the ocean to Africa and say this and mean it: we do not have to stand for this. A whole continent written off — we do not have to stand for this. History, like God, is watching what we do.

"I think knowing the Scriptures helped," Bono says of his conversations with more conservative legislators. His father was Roman Catholic, and it was his Protestant mother who regularly took him to church before her death when Bono was 14. "I think I could debate with them. I hope they had appreciated that, and they knew I had respect for their beliefs. Even if I wasn't the best example of how to live your life, they treated me with respect. I'm nervous of zealotism, even though I have to admit I'm a zealot for these issues of extreme poverty."

Bono seems to provide for many in official Washington a form of inspiration, reaching into those corners of the soul to find whatever remained of the sense of optimism and altruism that drove them into public service in the first place. What Bono demands in return is the means to save the lives of millions.

"Why are people listening?" Bono says. "Because I actually believe in America and they know it and I'm not sure if they do sometimes. It is a little odd and eerie to have an Irish rock star recite the Declaration of Independence like it's a great poem, but it is a great poem. And that poetry is what's missing from political dialogue right now. And this country is parched, parched from the lack of such political lyrics, and I'm going in saying, 'This is who you are.' "

Who are we as Americans? Who are we as Christians? Who are we as American Christians? It may take an Irish rock star to remind us these questions matter.

Feel like jumping on Bono's bandwagon? Check out the One Campaign and sign the pledge.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Getting Government Out of the Marriage Business

The gay-marriage debate has died down for now, since the Religious Right has been unable to drum up much business using it as a bogeyman lately. The issue may have lost its sexiness for the mainstream media or the interest groups who seek to manipulate it, but the issues raised by that debate remain. What interest does the state really have in deciding who can be married? For that matter, what does marriage really mean? Is there a real difference in the legal world between marriage and civil union or some other term? Is there a difference in the moral or ethical realm? Such questions remain unanswered.

I was in New York when the debate broke out in earnest a few years back, and I had to do some thinking of my own about the issue, especially when two Unitarian ministers went to jail for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony. What would I do if some of the gay couples I knew asked me to perform such a ceremony? If I performed such a wedding as a religious ceremony rather than a civil one--what would that mean for me ethically or for that matter, what would it mean to the state legally? I came to the conclusion, that if I believed in the couple's relationship, I would perform such a ceremony--but in a religious not a civil sense. Since the state didn't recognize such unions, I saw little need to press the point.

Since that time, I've also come to an additional conclusion, namely, that the state doesn't really have any business deciding what marriage is or can be--outside of issues of child custody and inheritance, it's none of the state's business.

As Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, pointed out in a recent op-ed column, the state already recognizes in many respects couples who live together for any length of time as legally married in terms of custody of children, division of assets in separation, etc.

She writes, "Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married...Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments."

She also gives a brief snapshot of marriage through the centuries, and until very recently, it was the church that decided what marriages were recognized in the eyes of God. The state's concern was not in legislating morality but in dealing with issues of inheritance and taxes. Once the state got into the business of deciding who could be married to whom, the door was opened to all sorts of laws about marriages between people of different ethnic groups. In my mind the opposition to same-sex marriage amounts to the same sort of prejudice.

I say let the government get out of the marriage business. It's the word "marriage" that raised so much of the rancor among opponents to same-sex unions/marriages after all. So, let the government call all unions "civil unions" and let religious institutions determine what a "marriage" is. Let the state focus upon what are its concerns--namely taxes, inheritance and child custody, etc. and let religious communities make up their own minds about what is moral, immoral, sacred or profane.
As it stands now, the state legally calls a union a "marriage" as long as its a man and a woman, but I would hardly put the "marriage" of someone like Pamale Anderson on the same level as many couples I know--both straight and gay--who are not married in the eyes of the state. The divorce rate should tell all of us that many unions recognized by the state do not live up to what can really be called a sacred commitment or covenant between two people.

Grace and Peace,


Saturday, November 24, 2007

I'm grateful for the News-Press Article on World AIDS Day

I'm grateful to News-Press reporter Lacey Storer for her story in today's News-Press about tomorrow's worship service where we will observe World AIDS Day.

I've wanted to observe the day in worship ever since I heard about several churches in New York that did so when I worked on Long Island. Around NYC, the gay and lesbian community was more visible than St. Joseph and due to a lot of lobbying and sympathetic press coverage the needs of people with HIV/AIDS are better known. I guess it's newsworthy here--unfortunately. It would be nice if every church was observing the day and marking how Christians through ignorance and intolerance have helped this scourge to spread across the earth.

To be fair, I'm not sure that this is the first time First Christian has observed the day. It certainly is not the first time that the church has faced the issue in a public way. Back in the early 90's, the church started the Interfaith Care Teams with the purpose of caring for the needs of people with HIV/AIDS. That organization is now Faith in Action and the work they were doing in regards to HIV/AIDS has been taken over by other groups and organizations. I'm proud of that history at First Christian and glad to write a new chapter in my time here.

We'll see how tomorrow goes.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lazarus on the Doorstep

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Luke 16:19-21 NRSV

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. I don’t think of myself as rich in economic terms, even though I know I am compared to how most of the people in the world live. Jesus’ parable invites each of us, no matter our income, to see ourselves in the rich man who ignores the beggar on his doorstep. The rich man throws away food that the beggar is literally dying to have.

This story comes to my mind, because there are destitute men, many of them homeless, practically on the doorstep of First Christian Church. I’ve had some recent encounters with one of them. His name is Dan, and you may know him as the guy who has several feathers sticking out of his baseball cap and who pushes a shopping filled with all sorts of odds and ends around downtown St. Joseph. I noticed Dan a few weeks ago digging through a dumpster of a nearby business. He wasn’t searching for food but for scrap metal that he could recycle for a few bucks. It turns out his cart is full of aluminum cans, pieces of steel from old machinery and spools of old wiring. He spends his nights moving between shelters, government-subsidized boarding houses and other places depending on the worth of the scrap metal he’s found that day.

I suspect that some in our church know Dan better than me, including fthe acts about his history, family and mental condition that have lead him to this kind of existence. All I know is that he’s been grateful for my attention and our conversations. In our first meeting, I offered him some cans sitting around the church which he was grateful for. The next few times we simply chatted. At our last meeting, I was on my way to Hardee’s for lunch, so I bought an extra combo meal for him. Dan was excited about the curly fries. We’ll see what happens next time.

This holiday season, I’m thinking a lot about Dan and others like him that pass by our church every day. I’m thinking about Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus too. Our church supports some wonderful ministries, such as the Open Door Food Kitchen and Interserv, that help people like Dan, but I sense that God is asking more from us. If you’re like me, you always mean to help out more during the holiday season, but those good intentions get lost in the rush. What if this year we spent some time being intentional about helping someone in need—time normally spent shopping for presents, heading to parties or decorating the tree?
The Open Door Food Kitchen always needs additional volunteers. Interserv always needs additional donations of food this time of year. In fact, Interserv is seeking financial donations so that its new Cold Weather Shelter can open several weeks earlier than planned to provide shelter to homeless people in the winter. These are just a few of the possibilities that exist for you and me to avoid the fate of the rich man in Jesus’ story.

This season I am trying to listen to what God is saying to me about what more I can do to help First Christian Church minister to some of the neediest people in our city. I hope that you will do the same.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, November 16, 2007

Maybe Happiness is a Warm Puppy After All

I'm catching up on my NY Times articles that I missed while away and came across this one by Eduardo Porter about the pursuit of happiness. He asks the interesting question of how we can increase happiness in people's lives. Our culture, government and economics believe increasing income and wealth is the road to happiness, but as we all know, money can't buy happiness. Porter writes that leisure time and important relationships seem to be the leading things that increase a person's happiness, and then he asks why not work to change culture in these areas--he's of course short on specifics.

I believe there's something in the Bible about making time for important relationships and also enjoying life. I wonder if anybody's ever considered looking there for answers? I know, I know, how conservative of me.

Grace and Peace,


TV or Not TV

I was struck by Alonzo Weston's column in Wednesday's News-Press for many reasons. In it he admits his desire for a brand-new high-tech TV and his quest for the best price and best quality. He admits his willingness to stand in line for a long time to get a good deal.

Then he relates his conversations with other people standing in line--but this line is at the Open Door Food Kitchen. He shares their stories of day-to-day survival. Then he tells about how after hearing their stories, he's given up on his quest for a new TV (at least for a while).

Of course, one reason the column stands out is because our church works at the Open Door Food Kitchen twice a month. I try to be there as often as I can. The experience is always humbling--serving the food our church members have prepared. I usually get the spot of handing out fruit for some reason. The folks there that take the bananas, apples and oranges seem to like it because they can take the fruit with them to eat later--when they may or may not have a meal. It is humbling, because my daily worries are not about survival.

I recently had a discussion with a good friend of mine about just this issue. He wanted to buy a big new plasma screen but was wondering if it was ethical to do so, since he is a Christian and there are after all so many people out there with so little. It is a question that is relative for each person based upon what they have or can afford. I don't think of myself personally as rich by any means, but when I consider the majority of people in the world live on far less than I have, do I really need as much stuff as I have? Could I do with having and acquiring less in order to help someone else have the basic necessities of life? I'm sure the answer to these questions are no and yes respectively.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, November 9, 2007

I'm headed out of town for the next few days, so postings will be more scarce than usual.

While I'm away, here are a few things to consider--

1. Since we are remembering our veterans this weekend, it's worth considering the disturbing article in the NY Times this week that reveals that approximately 25% of the homeless population is made up of veterans. Groups that work with the homeless and ones that work with veterans are preparing for a steep rise in homeless veterans due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article puts an ironic twist on this increase calling it "the other surge." Most of these homeless vets suffer from PTSD or have other problems reintegrating into their civilian lives. This is one more cost to the current war that most people would rather not consider. It is the shame of our country that we expect these men and women to risk their lives for misguided politics and then throw them away when the return home. I suspect that one could easily find vets in the shelters and on the streets of St. Joseph.

2. You may have seen the coverage of televangelist and leader of the Religious Right, Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani for president. The hypocrisy of Robertson is astounding, considering Giuliani's record of being pro-choice and pro-gay rights--two issues that Robertson has made keystones of his agenda. I won't spend too much time expounding on Robertson's hypocrisy here--Jim Wallis of Sojourners does a better job than I could (although Unlike Wallis, I can never bring myself to respect Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission--a laughable name indeed). Ultimately, I'm less concerned with Robertson's views, which have always been inconsistent and about wealth and power, than I am about what such blatant hypocrisy can tell all of us about our own behavior. It is worth asking whether or not we are willing to compromise principles for the sake of party loyalty? As Christians, we must always remember that our devotion to God must come before any political party or agenda--such human institutions will always disappoint and can never fully square with the love, grace and justice of God. (Personally, I like Andy Borowitz satirical take on this event.)

3. The charge is often made that Leaders in Islam do not speak out against terrorism and violence. The charge is inaccurate. Here's a dramatic story that barely made a ripple in the attention of the world recently. 130 of the top Islamic scholars representing Shia, Sunni and Sufi branches of Islam wrote an open letter to Christian leaders around the world calling for peace and dialogue between Muslims and Christians declaring that the very fate of the world may be at stake. Is there hope for our war-torn world?

See you next week.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Reports of the demise of the Religious Right have been greatly exaggerated

In last week's New York Times Magazine, the cover story was about "The Evangelical Crackup"--e.g. the collapse of the Religious Right. I decided to go ahead and read it, although I'm so weary about reading about the Religious Right and who they will or won't pick to support among the Republican candidates or what they did at their most recent "values voters" conference.

The mainstream press rarely, if ever, really understands the religious and cultural dynamics at work in regards to the Religious Right. The title of the article alone "The Evangelical Crackup" reveals an ignorance about the Religious Right which is comprised largely of evangelicals but also flat out fundamentalists. Furthermore, evangelicalism as a movement has always included a broad spectrum of belief on social issues that has never voted entirely as a bloc. How can evangelicals crack up if they were never a monolithic whole to begin with?

The article is interesting--chronicling the deaths and retirement of the movements founders (e.g. Falwell, D. James Kennedy, etc.), the disillusionment with the Iraq war, the rise of new leaders less concerned with politics like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels and the emergent church movement. However, given the amount of money out there in the hands of organizations that are a part of the Religious Right (think Focus on the Family) and the influence the movement has had upon culture (think whether or not you've ever heard of the Religious Left? or of Christians voting for anything other than Republican en masse?), I have to think that the real issues at work here are not the death of the Religious Right but rather a bad war policy and the lack of a viable Republican candidate that isn't either thrice-married or a Mormon. Elect Hilary Clinton and the movement that loves to hate her will be back in business better than before.

A better critique than my own can be found at The Revealer, a site about religious journalism run by Jeff Shartlett. His criticism of last week's NYT Magazine and assessment of the Religious Right's impact on culture seems right on to me.

Grace and Peace,


I made it into "It's Your Call"

Well, I guess I've arrived. I have now been the subject of an "It's Your Call" message in the St. Joseph News-Press. For those of you who aren't lucky enough to live in St. Joe and get the News-Press, "It's Your Call" is a section on page A-2 where they print messages left on their reader response line about articles, letters or other phone messages printed in the paper. It's truly a compilation of some of the most ignorant, hostile and hateful comments uttered around St. Joe and of course, callers don't need to give their names, so they can be nasty in total anonymity. It beats the heck out of me why the News-Press publishes it, but then I don't understand why the newspaper prints Charles Krauthammer either.

I stopped reading "It's Your Call" once I had read it once or twice, but someone informed me this morning at church that there was one about my letter to the editor in regards to the S-CHIP veto. It was anonymous and most of the material was pretty much unworthy of a response, however there was one comment that I feel does deserve a response. It basically said that ministers should keep politics apart from the church. I have to wonder if this anonymous caller would have the same objection if I wrote opposing abortion or gay rights? Also, I will not apologize for advocating accessible and affordable healthcare for every child in America--or the world for that matter. Doing so seems utterly faithful to the best in biblical tradition and caring for children as special in the eyes of God.

Maybe I'll make an anonymous phone call about this subject. Hmmmm.....

Grace and Peace,