Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The 12 Days of Christmas Hoax

Given that in my last post and the newsletter column this week, I wrote about 12 Days of Christmas, I feel the need to make this request: Please do not send me an e-mail that purports to tell the true secret meaning behind the song, the 12 Days of Christmas!

I get this every year and I have bad news for you folks. It's not true! Every year well-meaning people send me e-mails telling how during the persecution of the Catholics by Protestants or the persecution of Protestants by Catholics some time in England the persecuted group developed this song as code for their beliefs that they could sing to one another.

I know, I know, it would make more sense if it were true. Lords-a-Leaping, anyone? But it's not. So please spare me the details.

Don't believe me? Click here.

Grace and Peace,


The 12 Days of Christmas (12.18.07 Dialogue Column)

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.

Have you ever wondered about the 12 Days of Christmas?
Sure, I think we’ve all wondered about who would give someone a partridge in a pear tree, but I’m not talking about the gifts. I’m talking about the 12 days. What is that about?

The 12 days of Christmas are not the twelve days prior to Christmas. If they were, we’d probably have to change it to the 30, 60 or 90 days before Christmas given the fact that the stores seem to pull out their Christmas decorations in September. No, the twelve days of Christmas run from Christmas Day until the Day of Epiphany, January 6. Epiphany and the season that follows celebrate the Wise Men from the East bringing their gifts to Jesus symbolizing the universal nature of God’s love in Jesus Christ being for people of all nations. The twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany are meant for the celebration of the Christ child’s arrival and the abundant love of God symbolized by that birth. Prior to the development of the modern retail juggernaut, Advent was a somber time and the twelve days were the times for feasting and merriment.

It’s good news to me that we get twelve days to celebrate Christmas. Given the line of work I’m in, the season of Advent is a busy time of carrying out special events and trying to finalize administrative matters for the end of the calendar year. I always breathe a sigh of relief every year when the last notes are sung at the Christmas Eve service, because that means (hopefully) that I have no more ministerial duties to perform and can simply be with my family. Even though Advent is a meaningful time for me as a minister, it is not a relaxing or meditative time for me. I could use some time after Christmas to reflect upon what the season is about.

Perhaps you feel the same way. For many people, the weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with busyness that leaves them tired and worn out. You may have breathed your own sigh of relief when it is all over. Christmas cards have to be addressed and mailed. Christmas parties and concerts have to be attended. Presents must be bought, and if you have small children, they must be put together (often the most stressful part of Christmas comes when parents argue over whether or not to consult the assembly instructions). Even doing good deeds of charity can add to the holiday stress. Maybe you too could use the twelve days after Christmas to reflect upon the spiritual meaning of the day as well.

After Christmas when the decorations are coming down and you’ve already hit the after Christmas sales, why not take some time out to find some stillness and quiet? Why not make the twelve days of Christmas a time for you and God together? After the cacophony of Christmas music and commercial marketing, this could be a time for you to refresh your spirit.

Grace and Peace,


The Gospel vs. the Religious Right

Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post has a really good column today where he asks the valid question of whether the values of the religion-draped Republican party match up with the values of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels.

Among other things, he asks, how can Bush doctrine of preemptive war and torture square with the Sermon on the Mount?

He also takes to task the Republican presidential candidates who appear to be in a contest to see who can be the cruelest to illegal immigrants and their children. He writes:

Yet the distinctive cry coming from the Republican base this year isn't simply to control the flow of immigrants across our borders but to punish the undocumented immigrants already here, children and parents alike.

So Romney attacks Huckabee for holding immigrant children blameless when their parents brought them here without papers, and Huckabee defends himself by parading the endorsement of the Minuteman Project's Jim Gilchrist, whose group harasses day laborers far from the border. The demand for a more regulated immigration policy comes from virtually all points on our political spectrum, but the push to persecute the immigrants already among us comes distinctly, though by no means entirely, from the same Republican right that protests its Christian faith at every turn.

It is a fearful and confusing time in America, as with all such times it is easy to score political points through talking tough, promoting vengeance and using violence. Let's hope somebody of one party or another can choose a better way in 2008.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, December 17, 2007

Huckabee Breaks the Needle Off of the God-o-meter

I've been staying away from the presidential campaign lately on this blog, just because...well, when I think about it I can't stop yawning!!!!! I can't decide who thinks I'm more stupid the talking head analysts on TV or the candidates themselves. Yet, I have been stirred from my malaise by the invocation of the divine by the Rev. Mike Huckabee.

If you take a look at the God-o-Meter (see left)--the really cool collection of articles on all the candidates and religion maintained by Time Magazine and Beliefnet--Huckabee just about breaks the needle off the "theocrat" end of the machine.

Once upon a time, I think I may have been first in making the "I Heart Huckabee" joke here on this blog. I believe it was for an interview he did on NPR where he came across as a common-sense sort of guy who actually cared about poor people. He certainly didn't win me over then, but I was interested. I remained wary, however, because before his political career, Huckabee was the president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention--not exactly known for an open-minded celebration of pluralism in a free democracy. Then Huckabee flew into the Bermuda Triangle of media coverage that was any Republican besides Romney or Giuliani, until all the Religious Right voters in Iowa realized they might have to pick between a Mormon and a pro-choice, twice-divorced Catholic. Then, with Huckabee's rise in the polls and marketing of himself as a "true Christian leader" as opposed to say, Romney, suddenly people are paying attention to him again--including me.

I have to say that a kinder, gentler Republican is appealing to me, but I've come to believe that Huckabee is peddling the same type of "Compassionate Conservatism" that W. handed out in 2000. Groups like the Family Research Council are lining up behind him--always scary when religio-fascists count themselves as your supporters. When Huckabee refused to recant his 1992 statement that people with HIV/AIDS should be isolated from the rest of society, he pretty much tipped his hand regarding pandering to the Religious Right with a barely-veiled judgment of homosexuals. (The Washington Post had a really good editorial on this point.) Huckabee stated recently that in 1992 we didn't know much about AIDS is ridiculous. I can recall debating the issue of allowing students with AIDS in schools back in the Ryan White days of the mid-1980's in my middle school debate class. I was 13 and I new more about how AIDs is spread seven years earlier than Huckabee did.

Huckabee came out with the usual type of blasphemy that candidates who hang out with too many Falwell/Dobson/Robertson/Land types always seem to do. He has begun to claim that God wants him to be president. When asked by a Liberty University student for an explanation for his surge in the Iowa polls, he replied, "It is the same power that helped a little boy with two fishes and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people. And that's the only way our campaign could be doing what it is doing." UGH!!!!!

If God is the power behind a candidate, then, if that candidate wins, he or she is both beyond reproach and immune to criticism—because, of course, that person is seen as divinely appointed or anointed. The politician's actions are synonymous with God's will. This opens the door for political silliness (God desires tax cuts) or hubris (God favors our political party)—as well as making God responsible for a host of reprehensible or potentially evil acts in the forms of injustice, oppression, or war.

So, what's the alternative to this kind of thinking? Is God removed from politics? Hardly. Again, Diana Butler-Bass:

It is possible to recognize providence in politics, while leaving room for nuance, humility, and mystery. Instead of seeing God as causing specific actions, it seems preferable to understand providence as the unfolding of God's story through time—a tale of sin, reconciliation, justice, and peace from creation to the end of history, of which God shares with us the narrative trajectories, not the specific twists of plot.

In this story, God does not control human actions as a divine puppet master. Rather, as human beings encounter the story, we change and our actions begin to conform to God's narrative of shalom. In this way, God's intentions unfold as we practice faith in humble gratitude that God has invited us into the story. Providence is not divine Mapquest or supernatural tom-tom. Rather, providence is a pilgrimage of God's people in time as they seek to live in mercy, kindness, and grace—and that is where God's will is made known. Not God's finger, providence is the breath of God, the spirit enlivening human beings to do justice.

I never fully "Hearted" Huckabee anyway, but with this kind of "divine right of kings" claims, the governor and Baptist minister ensures that I never will.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. Andy Borowitz has a great column that reports Huckabee has chosen Jesus as his runningmate in 2008. Here's a taste: The Reverend Pat Robertson, a supporter of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said he was "blindsided" by the news of Huckabee's decision: "I talked to Jesus last night, and He didn't mention anything about it."

Give Rice, Learn Vocab!

It's my day off, and I've spent about an hour and a half today playing an addictive vocabulary game at Granted, I learned about the site on NPR this morning so I'm sure that means that most of the on-line world has been aware of this for some time.

Nonetheless, if you're new to it like me, here's how it works: you play a multiple choice game testing your vocabulary and for every question you get right the site donates 20 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program. So far, the site has given over 9 billion grains of rice away which can feed hundreds of thousands of people.

I made it to level 46! Good to know that my GRE and SAT skills are still intact.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, December 14, 2007

ONE (Dialogue Column 12.11.07)

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.

One love, one blood, one life... One life with each other: sisters, brothers.

One life, but we're not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.

One, one.

I’ve confessed before that U2 is my favorite band and that I find great meaning in their songs. The lyrics quoted above are the chorus from the song “One,” and hearing these words sung in an arena full of 60,000 fans during one of their concerts was a truly spiritual experience for me—one that rivals what I have experienced in church.

The interesting thing about the song “One” is that the lyrics in the verses are very dark. They speak of separation and estrangement. Yet, when the chorus begins and the music rises, the song becomes optimistic to the point of ethereality. It confidently asserts the connections we share with one another as human beings and perhaps even with the divine.

When the lead singer and lyricist of the band, Bono, was interviewed about the popularity of the song, he expressed his surprise that people connected with it considering the rather dark lyrics. He guessed it was because of the chorus. Somehow it spoke to people’s desire for connection and belonging at a very basic and essential level.

I believe he’s right, because that is certainly how I feel about the song. I’ve been to five U2 concerts and sang my guts out when this song came around right along with the strangers on every side of me. In that moment, the connection we shared was electric.

I’m thinking about the song “One” this second week of Advent and what I believe it says about the human condition—and for that matter, what it says about the divine condition. Christians have spoken of God in terms of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit so often and so successfully that we often forget as believers that according to the doctrine of the Trinity, they are all different aspects or persons of the same God. As we celebrate Christmas, we can get lost in the metaphor of “Son of God” and forget the deeper mystery: the child born in Bethlehem was not God’s offspring but God in full. That newborn child was God coming to be ONE with us.

The miracle of Christmas is that God loves us enough to experience everything we experience from birth to death. Surely God could have already conceived of what it would be like to be human, but conception—even by God—is still an abstraction and therefore not the same as reality. God really wanted to be ONE with us. God loves us that much.

We might be able to conceive of what it would be like to live in a developing country where the luxuries we take for granted in America do not exist, but imagining such a thing is far different from actually living it. I’ve known a number of people who have chosen to go live in such places right alongside the people they have come to serve. Living in that kind of “ONE-ness” takes a considerable amount of love. Such cases are perhaps the clearest examples of God’s love I know.

We experience glimpses of this kind of love during worship at church. As we share our joys and concerns with each other, we are known to one another and we experience God through one another. It is a blessing to be known by others who care for you.

This Christmas season, let’s “carry each other” just as God carries us. May Christmas remind us that we are “ONE.”

Grace and Peace,


Peace, Grace and Anne Lamott (Dialogue Column 12.4.07)

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.

I'm behind on posting in general and posting Dialogue columns in particular because of the ice storm. Here's last week's column:

This Sunday, we light the second advent candle, the candle of peace. My sermon is entitled “The Courage to Believe in Peace,” and I will be speaking about Jesus’ instructions to be peacemakers in the world, in our community and in our relationships. Although all people give lip service to the idea of peace in the abstract, far fewer are willing to do the hard work of making the kind of peace that values the God-given worth of all involved. It is much easier to attack than it is to talk to someone else as an equal, both at the interpersonal and national level. Whether we invade another country as a nation or assassinate the character of another person as an individual, pain and violence are the broad and easy path to take. The narrow and difficult path offered by Jesus takes much more effort, and it takes courage to believe such a path is possible at all.

Now that my eyesight has improved to the point that I can read again without too much effort, I’m catching up on books I set aside last January. One of them is Anne Lamott’s latest book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. It provides an example of peacemaking that was meaningful to me. In one essay, she uses the metaphor of a garden to describe her heart. In this garden would be beautiful wildflowers, a compost pile, scattered headstones covered in ivy and moss, and some piles of trash she’s been meaning to clean up. In her emotional trash heap are several friendships that ended badly. As she has matured, gotten therapy and come to know Jesus, she has learned that “a willingness to help clean up the mess we’ve made is a crucial part of adult living.”

So, when she felt the “nudges” of the Holy Spirit to make amends with a couple she had fallen out with years earlier, she resisted. She confesses how she had acted badly towards her friends, because she was jealous of their wealth and success. “Jealousy always has been my cross, the weakness and woundedness in me that has most often caused me to feel ugly and unlovable…I know that when someone gets a big slice of pie, it doesn’t mean there’s less for me. In fact, I know that there isn’t even a pie, that there’s plenty to go around, enough food and love and air. But I don’t believe it for a second. I secretly believe there’s a pie. I will go to my grave brandishing a fork.”

Fork brandishing or not, Lamott eventually did go on to write a letter to her friends apologizing for her part in their breakup, a letter without judgment, recrimination or criticism—only apology. At the time of the book’s printing, she had not received a response. She writes, “Maybe they forgive me, maybe they don’t. But I finally, finally forgive me, sort of-ish…forgiving myself makes it possible to forgive them too. Maybe this is grace, or simply the passage of time. Whatever you want to call this, I’ll take it.”

I believe that this is one of the ways God calls us to make peace. As we light the peace candle on Sunday, I hope you will join me in thinking about the ways each of us can help the miracle of grace to occur.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Romney on Religion

As I'm writing this, Mitt Romney is making a speech designed to reassure evangelical Christian members of the Republican party about his Mormon faith. Although the media likes to frame this speech as a sequel to JFK's speech to Baptist ministers about his Roman Catholic faith, there are really big differences between the two. Kennedy spoke about a separation of church and state to reassure his conservative Christian audience, but Romney will make no such appeal, because he can't--not if he wants to win over the Religious Right. The Religious Right has changed American politics arguing that religion should be intertwined with politics and not just any religion but their particular brand of conservative Christianity. Given the differences between the beliefs of the Latter Day Saints and evangelical/fundamentalist Christians, I don't see how Romney can hope to truly assuage their anxiety over his beliefs.

I was sent a great article on Salon by Andrew O'hehir that makes just this point--only more eloquently and with more background context. It really helps put Romney's dilemma in focus.

I have to say that I feel no sympathy for Romney. He may share similar values with the Religious Right on social issues, but when you seek to make a deal with a particular group that will not allow for any religious views to have power besides their own, you get what you bargain for. Give me a candidate that argues for a common respect for the pluralistic nature of our country when it comes to religion and sees government's job to be protecting and enabling that pluralism rather than limiting its scope or scale.

Grace and Peace,


Science, Faith and the Fundamentalists of the Right and Left

I regularly find myself in the role of contrarian. When I'm with conservative Christians, I'm branded a liberal because of my beliefs about the Bible and social issues. When I'm with more liberal Christians, I'm looked at with dismay and confusion over why a seemingly educated and enlightened person such as myself would still believe in things like the divinity of Christ, the trinity, the resurrection, miracles and anything that smacks of the supernatural.

The first group I've sort of given up on ever being able to explain myself to--rare is the conservative Christian who is willing to actually listen to my thoughts on when, how and in what way the Bible is or is not God's word, the necessity of science and critical thought, etc. I'm getting about to the same point with this second group--there's a certain hardness of positions that comes from the other end of the religious spectrum as well--at times, I'd say that some liberal Christians mirror fundamentalists in their refusal to consider anything beyond what their presuppositions allow them to consider. Neither extreme seems to acknowledge that they even have presuppositions.

Each in their own way require faith to believe what they hold to be true. The fundamentalist believes that God can act in any supernatural way God wants to at any time and with no limitations. Such things as the laws of physics, carbon dating, evolution, etc. all become threats to their presuppositions. On the other end, liberal believers espouse a God that mirrors that of the Deists--little more than a watchmaker--wind up the universe and let it go. Jesus was a wise teacher and prophet but in no way divine. His miracles were ordinary events that were viewed as supernatural So on and so on.

Although the conservative position could be charged with being stuck in a pre-modern universe, the liberal view could in the same way be charged with being stuck with a worldview that mirrors the Enlightenment values centuries ago. This "enlightened" or modern worldview privileges the scientific method and rational inquiry while at the same time looking with disdain upon anything that could be described as non-rational (as opposed to irrational) and cannot be explained by the laws of science.

Yet, all the time, scientists admit what they do not know and the best and most humble admit that some of those things may beyond our ability to ever know. I read a really nice example of this a little over a week ago in the NY Times. The author Paul Davies in his column "Taking Science on Faith," admits that the laws of physics may govern how our universe functions but such questions as "why are these laws the way they are?" and "what established these laws?" and "why these laws and not others?" remain outside of our ability to know. It's a prime example of scientists holding a certain view of the universe without any understanding of why things are the way the are.

In other words, based on their experience (albeit experience tested in laboratories and through mathematics, etc.) they have certain tenets they hold to be true. Based upon my experience, I still believe in a God that can and does act in human events. Can I prove it in a laboratory? No. But much that passes for scientific knowledge cannot be proven in a laboratory either.

None of this means that I am anti-science or threatened by the amazing breakthroughs in knowledge that occur everyday. All that it does mean is that I refuse to say only that which can be scientifically proven is allowed to exist. If that were so, much of what we humans cherish most about existence would be declared as unreal and foolish.

I'm glad to celebrate what we can know and hopefully some day in the future will know, while at the same time rejoicing in what remains unknowable or at least unexplainable.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, December 3, 2007

Bible Verses as Horoscope

One of my daily chuckles is looking on the St. Joseph News-Press editorial page for the Bible verse of the day. Occasionally, the verse is significant--a saying of Jesus or a summary statement of Paul or something by the prophets, etc.--something that can stand alone and have meaning. Usually, however, it's a random verse plucked out of its context and therefore with little or no meaning whatsoever. It's like they have a random verse generator or a really bad verse-a-day calendar that they're working off of.

Today's verse was Exodus 26:30, which reads:

And there were eight boards; and their socket were sixteen sockets of silver, under every board two sockets.

Anybody got an idea what's going on in this verse? No, it was not the Ancient Israelite home improvement guide, but rather the making of the tabernacle in the wilderness. This is not exactly what I use for my spiritual devotions each morning.

When I was a kid, my father and I started reading the Bible together each day. (That's the kind of thing you do when you're a preacher's kid.) We started at Genesis--which is largely action-packed and got into Exodus which starts out with the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and all that. Then we got to the tabernacle and how it was made and we pretty much ended up giving up the whole project of reading the Bible each morning together. It's pretty freaking dull. I don't think I've eve heard a sermon on the frame construction of the tabernacle. It never occurred to me and my father to just skip ahead or start somewhere else in the Bible and read there.

The sort of verse-plucking that we find on our local paper's editorial page amounts to about the same thing as looking at your horoscope. Some days, what it says may apply to your life, other days its general enough that it could apply to any one's life and then other days it makes no sense whatsoever. Somehow, I think we should expect more from our study of the Bible.

I'll keep looking at the verse of the day, however, if for nothing else, so I can chuckle at how absurd some of the choices are.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Right to Bigoted Speech

As is often the case, I was looking through my old e-mails looking for one thing in particular and I found something else that I had meant to make use of but had forgotten about. My inbox is sort of a dead letter office for articles, e-mails, etc. that I find meaningful but don't know what to do with. This time, I came across a column by Bill Tammeus that I had e-mailed myself. This one came out several weeks ago and was his response to the recent verdict against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.

Tammeus' column is worth reading, because he opposes the verdict and expects Phelps and his gang of buffoons will win their appeal. Tammeus has been a target of this group of bigots himself, so I imagine it can't be easy for him to support their right to free speech. I find myself in great sympathy with Tammeus--who expresses his disgust for the group of so-called Christians but supports their right to express their beliefs. I really just want their hatefulness to go away, but only by facing such bigotry out in the open and in the light of day can it be overcome. Besides, as he points out, once society starts down the path of outlawing certain kinds of speech, then it is a that much closer to outlawing the legitimate expression of ideas that may simply be unpopular. Let Phelps, his goons and his brainwashed offspring have their say, so their words can be revealed for what they are: hateful idiocy.

Anyway, check out Tammeus' column. It's well worth reading.

Grace and Peace,