Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas from Whoville!! (Dialogue Column 12.16.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

This December, I introduced my oldest son Julian to the wonder that is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He has seen the cartoon adaptation of the book that airs every year along with the Jim Carrey feature film, but the book with its monochromatic illustrations seems to capture his attention the most. Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel was his real name) has a way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter when it comes to human relationships. Sure his characters may look strange, but in books like The Lorax, The Sneetches, Horton Hears a Who, The Butter Battle Book and yes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he speaks powerfully about how selfishness leads to broken relationships and even the breakdown of society. I’ve been reflecting on The Grinch during Advent this year.

You may recall that the Grinch decides to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville, the Whos. The narrator offers several possible explanations for the Grinch’s behavior; the most likely being his heart is two sizes too small. The Grinch hates the noise of Who children opening presents, Who families eating dinner together and most of all the Who sing-a-long when the whole community gathers on Christmas day to sing together. So, he steals everything Christmas-related; from stockings to Christmas trees to the “roast beast” in the freezers, but just before he throws it all off of a cliff, he hears the Whos singing together. Even though all the “stuff” of Christmas was stolen, the Whos still get together and sing. Instead of the wailing and grief he expected, the Grinch hears joyous singing. It’s as if for the Whos, the singing together as a community is the most important thing about Christmas and all the presents and feasting is secondary. What an amazing idea! It’s enough to melt even the Grinch’s cold heart.

Dr. Seuss does not mention the Christ child or the manger of Bethlehem, but he declares the Gospel nonetheless. We do not know what carols the Whos sing (although in the Broadway musical version it was a sort of generic ode to the holiday), but their joy seems reminiscent of our familiar Christmas carols that announce Jesus’ birth. The Whos do not explicitly mention Jesus, but in their joy of being with one another as a community, they certainly act like they know the Savior has come.

As we prepare for the celebration of Christmas next week, I hope that you will take a lesson from the Whos of Whoville. Our culture has masked the joy of Christmas with commercial gluttony. This year, due to the poor economy, the temptation to tie one’s joy to what one possesses (or does not possess) is even greater than normal. Yet, what brings joy is being in relationship with family, friends and God. I hope you will join us as we sing together in worship this Sunday morning and on Christmas Eve.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, December 15, 2008

The Love Caboose

Yesterday, I preached a sermon entitled "The Love Caboose." I got the idea for the title partly from thinking about the O'Jays' song "Love Train" and partly from a column I read this week about Bob Jones University's apology for its racist past. The author of the column asks why evangelical Christianity has so often been at the caboose of Christianity rather than the engine driving cultural change for inclusion and equality. He focuses upon the issue of women in ministry but the same question could be asked of the church's response to homosexuals and a host of other issues. For the cause of God's justice, prophetic foresight is always better than repentant hindsight.

Grace and Peace,


Public Radio and Religion

I've said it in posts before and I'll say it again, I'm an NPR junkie. There's just not a match anywhere else in the media landscape for their detailed coverage of world events and culture. No, it's not perfect and fully capable of being as flawed as the rest of our shallow media, but in general it is far less shallow and often quite deep.

One of the areas of NPR's coverage is its its reporting on religion. NPR's insightful interviews when it comes to politics or culture are not matched when it comes to religion. Typically the hosts doing the interviews or the reporters narrating the stories reveal their lack of religious knowledge and experience in embarrassing ways. I often cringe when I hear them generalize about about one religious group or another, and it's clear that when it comes to religion they often can only understand it in political terms--i.e. one group's conflict with another.
Lately, I've heard some interviews and produced stories that have been far better than the usual NPR stuff on religion. Here are a few that are worth listening to:

Usually, Terry Gross of Fresh Air with Terry Gross is a serial offender when it comes to interviewing religious people. She's unmatched when it comes to music, film, authors, politics, etc., but when it comes to religion--Gross is admittedly non-religious herself--she's out of her league. Usually, she has somebody like a Karen Armstrong on--somebody who understands religion from an academic sense and has rejected the problematic personal aspects of religious experience. All that being said--Gross has has two really good interviews lately that show she's improving her game.

The first is with Frank Schaeffer, son of evangelical icon Francis Schaeffer, who earlier in his life was instrumental in focusing the religious-right's attention upon abortion through some significant films. Later in life, he ended up rejected the religio-political views of his youth and converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. He has a very interesting book out and a blog well worth reading. His interview with Gross is revealing in its depiction of the beginning s of the political power of the Religious Right and in its depiction of the way pride and power can corrupt.
The second is with Richard Cizik, the lead lobbyist for the National Association for Evangelicals--or I should say the former lead lobbyist for the NAE. Cizik has led the lobbying for this huge conglomeration of conservative evangelical churches and para-church organizations. He gained notoriety in recent years outside of evangelical circles for his efforts to organize evangelicals to fight global warming--efforts which amazed those on the left and enraged many on the right. It was this interview on Fresh Air that actually raised enough ire to force Cizik to resign from his position. Apparently, the fact that Cizik didn't come out in condemnation of homosexuals angered many of his constituents.
In a different vein altogether, one of my favorite shows is This American Life--this quirky and wonderful show is really like nothing else on radio, TV or in print. (Actually, it's worth noting that This American Life comes from Chicago Public Radio but is aired on many public radio stations that also carry NPR programs.)

The first show told the story of a pentecostal minister at a large church who decided that he no longer believed in hell. What happened next was a sad case of a church splitting and the minister being branded a heretic. This episode is really an interesting one. It was pointed out to me by a couple who attend my church who do not believe in hell and who have challenged my own thoughts on the matter. Currently, I'm an agnostic about hell, but deep down I suspect that when it comes down to it I trust more on God's love and grace than I do in the historical doctrine of hell.

The second story came on TIL's annual "Poultry Slam" episode which airs the week of Thanksgiving every year. This particular story told the tale of an Episcopal minister in North Carolina who got involved in an effort to unionize a poultry plant. It's a fascinating case of when a minister's convictions are in conflict with the business interests of his parishioners.

Also, while I'm at it--TIL recently aired an old episode from the 1990's that has three of my favorite authors reading excerpts from their books--David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott reads from her first memoir on faith, Traveling Mercies. All three-but especially Lamott--are hilarious and poignant.

All I can say to NPR is keep it up--this is good stuff.

Grace and Peace,


First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) St. Joseph, MO TV Commercial

Our church's first TV commercial has been airing for a week now on our local cable system. Take a look at it here on the web and let me know what you think.

Thoughts About the Death of My Grandmother (Dialogue Column 12.9.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

As I write these words, I have only been back in St. Joseph for a few hours from attending my grandmother’s burial in Sugar Grove, Arkansas. Although I’m still a bit winded from my trip, I’ve been thinking about the significance of the death of my last living grandparent. Family is a mysterious thing sometimes and there is blessedness in the mystery.

Don’t look for Sugar Grove on the map; I don’t think you’ll find it. It’s little more than a crossroads now with a church, a cemetery and a boarded up store tucked in a valley in the Boston Mountains. It was one of those small communities that served the people in the surrounding countryside but has faded in the age of strip malls and the internet. Up a dirt road near Sugar Grove, at the top of a small mountain, you’ll find the land where my grandmother was born and eventually my mother and her siblings. The land passed out of my family a long time ago but the cemetery there is filled with her family members. I come from that place even though I had never seen it before my grandmother’s funeral.

I grew up only seeing my grandparents a couple of times a year at most. My memories of my grandmother are largely a child’s memories, because after we moved from Missouri when I was in high school, I saw her less and less. Later, the demands of adult life left me with little time to travel to Arkansas. By the time, I moved back to the Midwest Alzheimer’s disease had claimed my grandmother’s mind and so I arrived too late to know her in her nineties. She remains in my mind a smiling presence with a firm hug often found in the kitchen or the garden. She was matter of fact, practical and smarter than she gave herself credit for. She had an eighth grade education from a one room schoolhouse, but she figured out a lot about life on her own. She had grown up attending small Pentecostal churches and listening to preachers on the radio, but later on in life through her own reading of scripture, she came to question some of what she had been taught. She ended up claiming her own faith in God rather than accepting what was given to her. I can’t recall talking with her about God.

At the graveside, my mother and her siblings shared memories of my grandmother. My mother described her singing hymns as she milked the family cow and sneezing so loud that the neighbors on the next farm would wonder at the noise. I can only wonder at what my grandmother saw in her 94 years. My mother showed me a picture of my grandmother as a teenager. She was squinting because of sunlight and she was not smiling (a fact which surprised me, because I always remember her smiling at me). She wore a plain dress and wore her hair down almost to her waist. I wonder what dreams that teenager held.

My sister and I drove down together and talked about our memories of grandmother. My sister described loving her but not feeling especially close to her, at least not in the way our parents are close with their grandchildren.. I pondered why I felt close to her even though we had not spent very much time together and only occasionally saw each other after I became an adult. Perhaps the person whom I loved was more of my idea of who grandmother was than who she was in reality, I can’t say. As I child, I accepted that grandparents were important people in my life, because they were family. I was taught to love them and so I did without reservation. I felt loved by my grandmother in return. Somewhere between my experience of my grandmother and her experience of me, love existed, no matter how much or little we really knew of each other. That love remains a mystery and somehow it exists by grace.

My grandmother requested that Psalm 116:15 be read at her graveside. It reads:

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

In this great mystery of love, I believe God held my grandmother to be precious throughout her life and her death and beyond. Now she is with God and I await the day when she and I will know each other better.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Give Us This Day Our Daily HDTV (Dialogue Column 12.2.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

Black Friday was truly black this year at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY where a store employee was trampled to death by a crowd of shoppers seeking bargains. Yes, that’s right--“trampled to death.” No, it’s not a scene in some ironic dark comedy; it’s all too real. Most Americans shook their head at the news and kept on shopping, but when shopping becomes a life-or-death prospect, we should all stop and reflect upon the state of our society.

It long ago became passé to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. Charlie Brown did so in the sixties. I’m sure people made the same complaint before him. Some bishop in the time of Constantine probably complained about the commercialization of the holiday when Christians first started celebrating the birth of Jesus on the same day as a pagan festival. Yet, there is something different about the time we live in. Our nation’s economy depends upon consumer spending. No longer are we a nation that produces goods in order to sell them around the world. Now we are a nation that makes its money importing goods made elsewhere. When the demand for those goods dries up due to an economic downturn, people begin losing their jobs and retailers begin filing for bankruptcy. In other words, our own economic well-being depends upon us buying things whether we need them or not. I’m not saying that the mob outside the Wal-Mart on Long Island was motivated by their concerns over globalization, but our frenzied spending this time of year is driven by a culture that depends in large part upon motivating crowds of people to literally BUY into a mob mentality of consumption.

It is worth asking whether or not this type of consumption is an appropriate way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ? I do not think that simply not buying anything for anyone is really a viable option for most people. Besides, giving gifts at Christmas is a fine tradition and an opportunity to show love and appreciation for others, as long as it is given responsibly in regards to one’s income and debts and lovingly rather than as an effort to impress or manipulate. Furthermore, many people around the world depend upon money spent at Christmastime for their livelihoods—from the store clerks to the delivery truck drivers to the factory workers around the world. It is not inherently wrong for any of these people to make money from purchases made in the right spirit, but what is the right spirit of buying at Christmastime???

An aid to us finding the right spirit of purchasing and giving at Christmas can be found, I believe, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray each Sunday. “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a prayer for what we need rather than what lust for or covet, and it is a reminder that many people in our community and world cannot take for granted things like having enough to eat each day. Remembering this simple line of prayer can help us keep things in perspective and can help us ask the right questions before we buy.

Perhaps just as we offer a prayer of thanks before meals, we should also offer a prayer before shopping. Rachel Hope Anderson, a community activist in Boston, offers a prayer to help us shop in a way that is both just and grateful during this Christmas season:

May the food we eat feed those who farmed it. May the things we buy support those who fashioned and shipped and sold them. For everything we enjoy from your good earth, God, thank you.

I pray that what you and I purchase this Christmas will be bought from within our means and with a desire to care for others. I pray that what you and I purchase will provide a better life for the people who actually have a hand it getting it from the place of production to the store where we buy it. I pray that what and how much you consume this season would honor Christ more than yourself.

Grace and Peace,


Brett Dennen-Make You Crazy Video (official version)

Some time over the Thanksgiving holiday, I camped out on the sofa with a purely entertaining novel--as far as I can tell, it contained no fodder for a sermon or a blog post or anything deep and meaningful. I clicked over to the cable channels that play only music--I like the one labeled "Adult Alternative" although I have no idea what that label means. I just know they play a mixture of folk and rock that I don't find very often. Anyway, I heard a song by Bret Dennen called "Make You Crazy" which not only had a great beat, great vocals, great everything but a social message to go along with it. In the song he lists some of the things wrong with the world--including child soldiers--and laments it's enough to "make you crazy." Then he ends by singing "I'd be crazy not to care." It's a very hopeful tune for a world in need of hope. That's what I'm grooving to this week. I guess I'm not the first to discover him since it says on his web site that he was on Good Morning America last week. It's pretty sad with GMA hears new music before I do. I'm so old.

Until the End of the World

This past Sunday I preached on Mark 13:24-37 and tried to express the difficulty of preaching on a scripture passage on the second coming of Christ during a season dedicated to remembering the first coming of Christ. Such is the nature of Advent, the season when we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas and simultaneously look forward to Christ's return in whatever form that may take. I tried to navigate between the extremes of obsessing over the vagaries of apocalyptic language (e.g. the Left Behind series) on the one hand and dismissing it altogether (e.g. John Spong).

I do believe humanity and all of creation await some type of culmination of what God began at Creation. No matter how much progress we make as humans, we still cannot free ourselves of the chains of greed and violence. For every technological advance that brings healing or prolongs our lives, we find a corollary new way of killing one another. At the same time, Jesus does not give us the choice to go bunker down awaiting the end of the world but rather invites us to be a part of God's work healing the world and making it whole.

I thought about including another conversation I've had recently with my 5 year-old son which occurred on the way to school while listening to his and my favorite band, U2. I chose not to include it, however, because I recently included another such discussion with my son about a U2 song in a recent sermon (see my post about "Where the Streets Have No Name" from a week or two back). It says something about my life these days that the best theological discussions I'm having now occur with my 5 year-old.

This particular conversation started when we were listening to "Until the End of the World" a song from U2's 1991 masterpiece Achtung Baby. The song is told from the perspective of Judas as he speaks to Jesus, and it ends hopefully, yes, even for Judas. Julian asked me what "the end of the world" meant, and I replied that it could happen any time but probably wouldn't happen for a long time. It is the time when God will stop everything in the world and finally there will be no more sadness or pain and everyone will learn to be nice to one another. I told him that some people think Jesus will come back and be mad at a lot of people and he will punish them, but I don't think Jesus would be like that. I told him that I think the end of the world will be a good thing whenever if finally comes.

Julian seemed to accept that (for now). It's about the best I can do explaining the second coming to a five year-old or to an eighty year-old.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stuff from Recent Sermons

On Sunday, November 16, I preached on Matthew 25:14-30 often called the Parable of the Talents. This parable is at once familiar and troubling in its violence at the end.

I found an article by the scholar Barbara Reid helpful. It's titled "Matthew's Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables," and in it she lays out several different options for interpreting the violent treatment of many of the characters in Jesus' parables--usually at the hands of or command of the character interpreted as God or as Jesus. The article available for free on-line is a version of a more scholarly and somewhat less accessible article she published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. The violence is not troubling, of course, if you believe in a literal final judgment that involves Jesus sending some people to hell and others to heaven, but if you have any doubts about such a theological reality--especially the way this judgment has been carried out by Christians throughout the ages in a very non--end-of-the-world sense--then the violence is bothersome.

Also, I've been turned on to the scholar Robert Farrar Capon's books on the parables. (Thanks to Andrew Kar!) In his book Parables of Judgment, Capon finds the key verse in this parable to be the foolish slave's understanding of his master: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ His interpretation of this and other parables states that the ones who find themselves kicked out of the Kingdom are those who remove themselves. Those who believe God is a great bookkeeper who keeps score and stands ready to punish those who don't measure up to impossible odds alienate themselves.

Also in this sermon I shared Frederick Buechner's interpretation of this parable. Buechner is one of my favorite authors and he tells about growing up in fear of his father who was an alcoholic in his trilogy of memoirs: Telling Secrets, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, and The Sacred Journey. I found a sermon on-line of Buechner's where he relates telling some of his experiences growing up with an alcoholic father when he was the speaker at a conference. One of those present remarked, "You are a good steward of your pain." What he took away from that comment was that instead of bottling up his pain and shutting himself off from the world, he had used it to help others and had shared what he had learned from it. This understanding of stewardship of our lives seemed to go hand in hand with Capon's understanding of the third slave shutting himself off from God.

Grace and Peace,


Can Thanksgiving Be More Like Babette’s Feast?

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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 was reminded today of one of my favorite films, Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. This wonderful movie tells the story of two sisters living in a small village on the Danish coast in the 19th century. Their father was a protestant minister who established the community with strict ascetic values. The sisters refused suitors in their youth and now are middle-aged and approaching spinsterhood. One day, Babette comes to them, a political refugee from Paris, and becomes their housekeeper and cook. For fourteen years, Babette serves them their austere diet of fish and porridge until she suddenly wins the lottery. Before returning to France, she decides to make the sisters and the other members of their aging dwindling community a lavish feast of French gourmet food the likes of which they have never seen. The entire last half of the film is spent lingering over the preparation and partaking of this meal in luxurious detail. Each ingredient used by Babette is included with love for those who took her in and each bite taken is savored by her guests.

This morning I heard New York Times film critic A. O. Scott’s thoughts on the film and couldn’t help but think of Thanksgiving. He says, “The brilliant thing about this movie and why it is so moving and so satisfying and so fulfilling is that it shows that this religious asceticism and the sensuality are really expressions of the same impulse, which is an impulse of love, generosity and spiritual fulfillment.” That sounds to me like what our day of Thanksgiving should be.

The film works on many levels, because it reveals the deep love the characters have for one another in the small everyday things they do for one another. In our culture that seems hell-bent on convincing us that to show someone you love them you must simply buy them a more expensive present, it has become radical to give the gift of your presence to those you care about—by presence I mean not only physical presence but attentiveness to them and what makes them special. In a culture that offers us an overload of sensation, ironically our senses become dulled to the miracles of love and relationship around us. With our senses dulled in this way, could we even enjoy a feast like Babette’s if it was put before us?

This Thanksgiving I pray that you will be open to God’s spiritual state of being that allows you to savor your Thanksgiving dinner—be it a traditional spread or something more humble—and to savor the loving relationships in your life.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Me in the News Press Giving Out Advice

I forgot to post a link here a few days ago, but I was in Saturday's St. Joseph News-Press in an article about how to pick a church.

Anyway, if you're reading this blog and you don't have a church in St. Joe, you're always welcome at First Christian.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weaving Your Faith Story With That of Others

I was on the terrific web site of the wonderful public radio show Speaking of Faith and discovered a video interview with one of my professors at Emory University, Laurie Patton. In addition to having the most intelligent discussions about faith with top-notch writers and thinkers, the show has begun to have quite an offering of good stuff on their web site apart from the show. I had Patton for one class and she is delightful. She chairs Emory's department of East and South Asian Religions and her specialty is Hindu texts. I didn't know Patton well and I doubt she would remember me. I was actually under the impression that she was Buddhist, so I was surprised to find out in this clip that she was raised as Unitarian and then converted to Judaism. It's this religious mixture that fuels the discussion.

She speaks of her own experience as a Jew who studies Hinduism to describe how each of us needs the stories of others to help keep our own stories honest and truthful. This seems to me to be a key issue for our world and our times. Listening to other peoples stories--especially stories of faith--enables us to do a double-check about our own claims to truth.

It certainly has been the case that when I have shared my faith with people of other religions and let them share their own with me that my own faith has been strengthened, but it has also become more humble and less judgmental of others who don't share it. By learning from people whose faith is different from mine, I learn more about just how big God is and why I have chosen to believe what I do about God.

It's a good interview and worth the short amount of time it takes to watch.

Grace and Peace,


The Business of Bogus Holy Relics

Do you ever watch those documentaries on the Discovery and History channels about the "real" secrets of the Da Vinci Code or about the latest archaeological finds in the Holy Land? You know the ones I'm talking about--"scholars" looking wise and proffering eclectic knowledge about what "really" happened to the body of Jesus or so on. You may wonder how much of this stuff you should take seriously--and it turns out you should wonder.

A few years back, an ossuary was "discovered" with an inscription on it claiming it was the final resting place of "James the brother of Jesus son of Joseph." There was great excitement about the little bone box, the so-called "James ossuary" and it made headlines around the world. Even reputable scholars wrote books about it--now you can find them in the bargain bin at your local mega-bookstore. It turns out the ossuary was a fake and the antiquities dealer who went public with it is now on trial for fraud in Israel. This is only one example--of many--where supposed artifacts have turned out to be bogus. It turns out there is a big market for this stuff--and not just for gullible tourists. There's an appetite--particularly by American fundamentalists--for archaeological evidence of the stories in the Bible.

This raises the question of course of what difference would it really make if some relic were really authentic proof of Jesus' existence. Even that does not prove his resurrection or make the case for faith. Faith remains something that must be believed in the absence of evidence. Faith that requires proof is not faith. At best any such evidence can help make the case that faith is rational but it cannot prove it is true. It's ironic that some of the people holding the most conservative views regarding the literal interpretation of scripture--people who argue that much about life should be taken on faith--are the same ones who are the most interested in gathering evidence to validate their views.

There's a good interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation today with the author of a new book on the James ossuary and the burgeoning trade in "proving" faith claims through archaeology. Her name is Nina Burleigh and the book is Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

Grace and Peace,


Is Faith Net Positive or Negative for the World?

In my Nov. 9 sermon on faith, I shared some about the person who commented on my Oct. 16 post. That post was about the critique of faith offered by Bill Maher's new film and the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc.). The critique of religion offered by the person commenting on my blog and one of the charges levelled by Maher and the rest is that faith is not only delusional but it is harmful for the world.

I came across a really nice (and brief) response to the latter charge on-line at Sightings, a selection of articles and columns offered by the University of Chicago Divinity School's Martin Marty Center. The column in question is by David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, MI. He apparently also has a book responding to the New Atheists called A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil.

Here's a taste:

Maher and the new atheist authors' present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

Also, here's a good interview with him that includes an excerpt from his book at the cool site Explore Faith.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stuff from Sunday's Sermon

This past Sunday, I preached on Jesus' parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or the Ten Virgins if you're reading from a translation besides the NRSV--virgin is the better translation) which can be found in Matthew 25:1-13. My interpretation of the parable came from a sermon by Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. I've heard Flrence preach several times at preaching conferences and always gained much from her ability to take a familiar passage of scripture and offer a new angle on it that breathed new life into it and me. In her sermon, "Filling Stations" she does the same for Matthew 25:1-13. As I shared in my sermon, I found her interpretation of the oil cared by the bridesmaids/virgins as something that could not be shared but rather something one could only posses for oneself to be enlightening. Also, her comparison of this parable with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to be insightful, because I had the same questions myself--for instance, why are the bridesmaids considered wise when they do not share? Aren't we Christians supposed to share with others? Forence's sermon is well worth reading.

Also, Florence's sermon is on the excellent website of Day 1 which offers some of the best sermons by mainline folks out there.

Although in my sermon Sunday, I was trying to move away from an interpretation of this parable that is interested solely in future events--heaven, the second coming, the end of the world, etc.--I did end it by saying that such a concern still matters to me. Certainly, every time I stand at the graveside of a church member--as I will do once again this week--I have to choose all over again to believe in heaven. It's a difficult thing to do when you are faced with the reality of death.

To illustrate my concern with the future release from our flawed world, I mentioned the conversations my 5 year-old and I have been having about U2 songs. I have succeeded in brainwashing him to like my favorite band! Now I need to work on kid number 2. One recent discussion was about the U2 song "Where the Streets have No Name." I'll let Bono's explanation of it from the band's web site give you a glimpse of why this song strikes a hopeful chord in me and so many other fans of the band:

‘Where the Streets Have No Name is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch - I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don’t hold you down.

‘An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making - literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. You can almost tell what the people are earning by the name of the street they live on and what side of that street they live on. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name....’

Grace and Peace,


Incarnation (Dialogue Column 11.11.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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’ve been thinking a lot about incarnation over the last week. Incarnation is one of those theological words that tries to describe what essentially remains a mystery. In the history of the church, the term “incarnation” refers to the second person of the Trinity—Christ or the Son of God—taking a human body and becoming fully human and fully divine as the man Jesus. In a more general sense, the word “incarnation” means a person or thing that embodies a quality or concept. This second usage can have theological or non-theological meaning, for example, someone who is merciful might be called an incarnation of grace or someone who is heroic might be an incarnation of courage.

I’ve been thinking about incarnation over the past week due to the election of Barack Obama. (Don’t worry. I don’t think Obama is the Messiah or anything like that. Just relax.) Repeatedly in various forms of media, I heard African-Americans repeat the refrain that now; finally, they can tell their children that it really is true that an African-American can grow up to be anything he or she wants to be. The ideal of opportunity being available to all became, for African Americans, embodied or incarnate in Barack Obama. Whatever Barack Obama may or may not accomplish, whatever racism remains in our society, America changed last Tuesday. What was only a possibility became a reality. Something became real—or more real—that was not as real prior to Tuesday.

In my own way, I share the exultation of African-American parents. Unlike them, I do not know what it means to experience racism myself, since I am a Caucasian. Like them, however, I do know what it is to look into the beautiful brown faces of my bi-racial sons and worry about what racism they will experience. Although the bi-racial identity of Barack Obama was not played up as much as his African American identity during the campaign—largely because Obama self-identifies as African American—the fact that he is the product of two ethnicities and that he was raised by a white family had a big impact on me. When Obama won the Iowa Caucus, I turned to my wife and said in amazement, “Do you realize that it could actually happen that our sons might grow up never remembering a time when there had not been a bi-racial president?” I had never realized before adopting my sons at their births that I took for granted that the most powerful leader in our nation and maybe the world had features that resembled my own. Until Obama, my sons could not have experienced that barely conscious awareness that there was someone so powerful who looked like them.

I have pondered the importance of this kind of incarnation over the last year. Through my own hopes for my children, I think I can empathize with the women who wanted Hilary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and even the presidency for the sake of their daughters, along with the women who wanted Sarah Palin to become Vice President for the same reason. For that matter, I can perhaps imagine the longings of parents of Latino/Hispanic American, Asian American and Native American parents who still wait for someone to embody or incarnate the possibilities for greatness they see in their children.

As awesome as the human imagination is, we humans seem to need our ideals and beliefs to take on flesh and become a lived reality. We need role models and examples to help us live out our own best selves. Similarly, we need people of faith and communities of faith to live out what they say they believe about grace, love and peace, so that the world can know such abstract concepts can be more than just words. For the same reasons, I believe that God knew we needed the incarnation of Jesus Christ so that we could see the God that exceeds our understanding walk around, talk, love, laugh and even die just like us. May you be the incarnation of God’s love to someone who needs it this week.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama--a Rebuke to Fundamentalism of All Stripes

In all of the commentary I've read today on the historical and momentous election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there is one piece that really struck me as unique, because of its religious dimensions. Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer--literally one of the founding fathers of the modern evangelical movement known as the Religious Right, argues that Obama's election is a rebuke to religious fundamentalists and the so-called "New Atheists" like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and even Bill Maher, etc. Here's a taste:

Okay, so a lot of religious people are nuts, or worse, intolerant. That still doesn't address the baby swirling down the Maher/New Atheist anti-religion drain along with the right wing bathwater they're flushing.

President-elect Obama brings another perspective to faith . It goes something like this:

How do cultures define themselves if not through ritual? In the "big moments" of life; birth, marriage, sickness, death "who" -- in the inimitable words of Ghost Busters -- "you gonna call?" As President elect Obama has said, and I paraphrase: Strip the human race of our spiritual language and what do we tell each other about hope?

As President elect Obama has pointed out, a world of all math but no poetry is not fit for human habitation. If everything feels flat and dull, stripped of mystery and meaning who will bother to do the science? Why bother, if all we're doing is serving those selfish genes for another round of meaningless propagation?

So does this faith always make "sense?" No. Because our perspective is from the inside, something like paint contemplating the painting of which it's a part. We're all in the same boat, all stuck on the same "canvas."

So let's admit we all share the problem that was best articulated by Darwin in his dairy: "Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?"

As our new president recognizes, self-awareness and mortality are already such a mutually exclusive (and terrifying) contradiction that accepting a few more contradictions is par for the course! And President elect Obama has a generous enough spirit and a large enough intellect so that he can do with his spiritual life, what the Religious Right and the New Atheists have not done: understand that there is no shame in embracing paradox.

The younger Schaeffer has a book called CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back where he describes his own journey from extremely conservative evangelical to his current status as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Sounds like interesting reading to me.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

I haven't posted the quotations used in our worship bulletins since last August, so here are the ones used in recent weeks and ones from not so recent weeks.

This past Sunday, I preached on Matthew 22:34-46 where Jesus states the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. So, I used the following quote from Tolstoy. I don't know the source. I usually find quotes for worship from my own reading or I pick them up from one of the e-mail lists I subscribe to, so if I don't know the source that's because I picked it up from one of the e-mail newsletters that feeds such things to me.

“Everything that I understand, I understand only because I love."

—Leo Tolstoy

On October 19, the Sunday before church members made their pledges for the 2009 church budget, I preached on stewardship and used Luke 17:11-19 as my test. It tells the story of Jesus healing ten men afflicted with leprosy. Only one of them returns to thank Jesus, a Samaritan, truly a surprise to Jewish readers of the day who would have considered Samaritans to be half-breeds and inherently less ritually pure and devout. I found the following quote about gratitude by Melody Beattie, although again I don't know the source.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."

--Melody Beattie

On October 12, I preached on the subject of Christianity and politics. My text was Matthew 5:13-16 (from which our Puritan ancestors took the image of "a city on a hill" later appropriated by Reagan) and my sermon title was "God Doesn’t Endorse Political Candidates." I was pretty much preaching to the choir at First Christian, but I felt like it still needed to be said. The following quote by Felix Adler worked for the occasion, but I really can't remember where I found it. sorry about that.

"No religion can long continue to maintain its purity when the church becomes the subservient vassal of the state."

--Felix Adler

October 5 was World Communion Sunday and I chose John 17 20-23 as the text, because of Jesus' prayer that all Christians would be one. I didn't preach that Sunday, because we had members of the local Sudanese community dance and sing in our worship--far better than any sermon I could preach and it was wonderful to share the bread and cup with our brothers and sisters from Sudan. The following quote comes from James Whites book on sacraments. White has a number of general books on worship that were textbooks in my seminary studies.

'We can never forget the evil of church division as long as communion cannot be shared together by all Christians."

--James F. White,
Sacraments as God's Self Giving

On September 28, I preached on Exodus 17:1-7 where once again, despite the miracles of God they have already experienced, the Israelites question God. My sermon title was "Live as if God Exists." I like the following quote by Barclay a lot--sorry don't know the source, found it on-line--because it recognizes the difficulty of belief even as it acknowledges the power of hope.

'I believe there comes a time when we have to believe where we cannot prove and accept where we cannot understand. If, in the darkest hour, we believe that somehow there is a purpose in life and that that purpose is love, even the unbearable becomes bearable and even in the darkness there is a glimmer of light.”
—William Barclay

On September 21, I preached on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the generous landowner who pays a full day's wage to his workers even if they only came at the end of the day. In the sermon, I addressed the question of God's grace which seems unfair according to our own way of judging others but thankfully is available to all--even those of us who judge others. The following quote comes from one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking is a great book. He writes a short bit about various theological ideas--a paragraph here, a page or two there--but his words are so provocative, a little goes a long way. I've found myself meditating for a long time over Buechner's words.

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.
There is nothing you have to do.
There is nothing you have to do.
There is nothing you have to do.”

--Frederick Buechner
Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

On September 14, I preached on forgiveness and used Matthew 18:21-35 as my text. This sermon probably got the best reaction out of all of the sermons I have preached at First Christian. It's title is "Forgive but Don’t Forget." The following quote came from an e-mail list I'm on. I'm sorry I don't know the source. It is powerful precisely because of what Corrie Ten Boom experienced of Nazi persecution, when she and her family hid Jews and other fugitives from the Nazis.

"Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness."

- Corrie Ten Boom

On September 7, I preached on Matthew 18:15-20 and my sermon title was "Can Republicans and Democrats Worship Together?" Obviously, I was preaching on faith and politics. After watching the two political conventions in the previous weeks, it just seemed to me that according to the speakers we should be hating people who belong to the opposite party of our own. To hear them tell it, the other party (whether Democrat or Republican) wants to bar-b-que puppies wrapped in American flags. It just seemed important to me to remind folks--and I guess myself--that as Christians we have a higher allegiance--to God--than to our political ideologies. The following quote came from a commentary article on the passage by Pauline scholar Beverly Gaventa. It's well worth a read. I almost always find her stuff insightful. Here's a good interview of her.

“The church of Jesus Christ is not a therapeutic community, although healing can and does happen within it. The church of Jesus Christ is not a social club, although it sustains profound social relations. The church of Jesus Christ gathers in his name and with his presence. For that reason, conflicts, hurts, pains must be examined, discussed and addressed and healing prayed for. Not because the church is ours, but because it is his.”

--Beverly R. Gaventa

Finally, on August 24, I preached on Matthew 16:13-20 where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. My sermon was titled "Do You Know Who You are?" and in it I offered the idea that we find our true identities when we experience God's love for us in Christ. This quote comes from the late great William Sloane Coffin, a chaplain at Yale during the Vietnam era and later the pastor at The Riverside Church. Coffin's stuff is always great. I'm sure this came from a sermon. I don't know which one.

“God's love doesn't seek value; it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value. So you don't have to prove yourself -- ever. That's taken care of.”

--William Sloane Coffin

Hope these are fruitful for you and your journey.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Forrest Church on NPR's Fresh Air

On yesterday's episode of Fresh Air, Unitarian minister and author Forrest Church was the guest. I've always enjoyed his writings and when I've heard him interviewed. I had a friend in NY who was on staff at his congregation where he is beloved. His new memoir tells of his battle with inoperable cancer and reveals his long-time struggle with alcohol addiction--the latter I'm sure came as a surprise to a lot of people. The interview is good, but unfortunately Terry Gross (whom I really normally enjoy) is really inept when it comes to talking about religious topics. So, when Church starts talking about faith, Gross keeps things at a shallow level. That really is my complaint about Gross. She does so well on so many topics, but when anything religious comes up she is really out of her depth--but I digress. In any event, the interview is worth listening to. I'm holding out hope, however, that Church will appear on the truly great NPR show on religion Speaking of Faith.

Grace and Peace,


So What if He Was a Muslim? (Dialogue Column 10.28.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

On Meet the Press a week ago, Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president. His comments were interesting from a political perspective—a Republican military leader endorsing a Democratic presidential candidate--but far more interesting to me were Powell’s comments on religion. He addressed the persistent accusations and rumors that Barack Obama is a Muslim by saying,

“It is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

CNN’s Campbell Brown asked a similar question in an on-air commentary,

“So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? So what if John McCain was Arab or Muslim? Would it matter? When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in our country? When did Arab and Muslim become dirty words? The equivalent of dishonorable or radical? Whenever this gets raised, the implication is that there is something wrong with being an Arab-American or a Muslim. And the media is complicit here, too. We've all been too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur. I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but apparently it needs to be said: There is a difference between radical Muslims who support jihad against America and Muslims who want to practice their religion freely and have normal lives like anyone else."

I agree with Powell and Brown. There is a larger issue at stake here than whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim or not. That issue is what kind of society do we wish to live in? It hurts us all when members of both parties demonize the adherents of a particular religion. It may seem strange that a Christian minister would be writing about prejudice against Muslims during an election season, but from my perspective it feels like a very Christian thing to do. As we read in worship this past Sunday, Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We revere this commandment as “the Golden Rule,” but I believe that we have heard it so often that we trivialize it and give little thought to its implications. One of them should be that since we do not like to be on the receiving end of unfair stereotypes or generalizations, we should not make them about others. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists and only want to live in peace. I would oppose a Muslim fundamentalist imposing his will through government, just as I oppose Christian fundamentalists doing the same. Although I hold different religious beliefs than Muslims, I can and have found common ground with Muslims to help our society as a whole.
Furthermore, just as we Christians hope that others would work and speak out to make sure that we are not the victims of prejudice based on our religion, we who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves should speak out and work on behalf of others who face prejudice because of their religion. It is the Christian thing to do to stand up for the rights of people to practice their religion free of prejudice, even if that religion is not our religion.

Despite the misplaced and misguided declarations of America being a Christian nation, I believe that only people can be Christians not nations. I believe one of the great strengths of our nation is that it creates a level playing field for all religions to freely coexist together. I don’t need my government to defend my God. My God can do that without the government’s help, thank you very much. I believe Christianity is credible enough to stand on its own no matter the religious views of political leaders. So, I believe that a Muslim has as much right as a Christian or a Hindu or an atheist to be president or participate in any other way in our society. Guaranteeing the freedom of all to practice their faith is the only way to guarantee my freedom to practice mine.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Response to Bill Maher

Here's the thing about Bill Maher: I think he's hilarious! As a commentator on politics and culture, he's brutally funny. BUT the thing I've never understood about him is that he thinks every person on earth who is religious is an idiot. He doesn't allow for the idea that they could be on to something; in his mind, they are not just deluded--they are stupid! I've never understood how someone who spends so much time puncturing the arrogance of politicians and other famous people could be so arrogant when it comes to religion. I don't expect him to believe anything in particular--just allow for the possibility not all people of faith are crackpots, terrorists and war criminals.

He's got a new film out now--Religulous--that purports to be a documentary where he takes the part of an agnostic who just asks religious people questions, but based on the trailer, interviews and what I already knew about Bill Maher's thoughts on religion, I knew from the beginning this would just be a chance to show the worst religion has to offer without any indication that there could be some thinking, rational, moral and decent people of faith somewhere out there in the world.

I do have to admit that I haven't seen it yet. I live in St. Joseph, MO where nothing besides action movies ever shows up at our theatres. When I make the drive to KC, I'll make sure to catch it. So, since I can't honestly offer a critique of the film I haven't seen--here's a good one by Gareth Higgins at the God's Politics Blog. It's probably better than what I would write anyway.

I also have to admit my disappointment when I realized that Larry Charles was Maher's director and sidekick on this film. I find Charles--writer for Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and other favorite shows of mine--to be truly a comic genius. To hear him join Maher in offering such ignorant and utterly one-sided generalizations of all people of faith was disheartening.

Don't get me wrong; I can take a joke. There is much that is done in the name of religion that deserves to be made fun of mercilessly. I also think, however, that there is much offered by all world religions that is worthy of respect, admiration and even awe. I can still laugh at the comedy Maher and Charles write, but I feel frustrated to be both a fan of both men and one person among many whom they despise.

Grace and Peace,


Can We Still Be Generous During an Economic Meltdown? (Dialogue Column 10.14.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

$700 billion! I can’t really conceive of what that means. I saw a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that stated $700 billion could provide 2000 McDonald’s apple pies to each American. That’s a lot of pies! Of course, apple pies don’t really help me understand things any better either. All I know is that the stock market is on a roller coaster ride, banks are closing and experts are saying that a bad economic recession (is there a good kind?) has either already begun or is soon to arrive. From the histrionics on TV, it seems like the best course of action is for all of us to curl up into the fetal position until things get better.

Personally speaking, I’m a long way from retirement, my kids are a long way from college and I’m not planning on borrowing any money in the near future, so I’m not in panic mode. On the other hand, my paycheck comes from a church that depends upon people’s contributions, many of whom are retired and on fixed incomes, are paying for their kids’ college educations or are in jobs that depend upon a good economy. So, I guess you could say that my finances are only one degree separated from the crisis, and speaking in less self-interested terms, I happen to care about an awful lot of people who are affected directly by this economic crisis. Furthermore, given my line of work, I’ve sort of bought into this whole “Christians can make a difference in the world” thing, so I also wonder about what this financial squeeze will mean not only for the ministries of our church but of many other churches as well. After all, the fetal position is looking very attractive right about now.

I had a moment of clarity (or at least less haziness) when I read a quote from one of my heroes, Bono, lead singer of my favorite band, U2, and social activist on behalf of the world’s poorest people. He offered these words at a recent conference on global poverty:

“It is extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day of preventable treatable disease and hunger. That’s mad, that is mad. . . Bankruptcy is a serious business and we all know people who have lost their jobs. But this is moral bankruptcy.”

Here’s a little background on the quote: the G8 (the world’s 8 wealthiest nations) vowed in 2005 to raise annual aid levels to the world’s poorest people to $50 billion by 2010. $25 billion of those funds would go to Africa. Current estimates say the G8 will fall short of their goal by $40 billion. Despite the common assumption that the United States and other wealthy nations give tremendous amounts of money in foreign aid, the reality is that excluding military funding, money to the world’s poorest nations amounts to less than 1% of their annual budgets.

Back to my moment of less haziness, it is easy to criticize the priorities of our government and of the powerful around the world. Nations can curl up into the fetal position during tough times too. For that matter, they can lose themselves in self-centered gluttony during good times. What I realized, however, is that the same can be said of churches and the individuals that make them up. During good times, we can get lost in ourselves; oblivious to the ways what we possess and do not need could change the lives of others. During bad times, we curl up into a ball and shut out the world. Yet, during good and bad times, the spiritual and physical needs of the world around us do not stop. During good and bad times, Jesus’ call for us to care for “the least of these” does not stop either. As we flow in and out of good and bad economic times, the specific amount we give may by necessity change, but the amount we sacrifice on behalf of a needy world should remain constant. In times of economic bankruptcy, can we as people of faith avoid moral bankruptcy? This is the question our times have thrust upon us.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Blessed Sunday (Dialogue Column 10.7.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

This past Sunday was a blessed one in the life of First Christian Church. We celebrated World Communion Sunday, enjoyed the music and dancing of our Sudanese brothers and sisters, and welcomed two new members. We have much to be thankful for.

It‘s not out of the ordinary for us to celebrate communion; we do so every service. Communion represents the inclusive and welcoming nature of Christ’s love, and our weekly ritual reminds us that we are to welcome all who come in our doors as Christ welcomed all people to his table. This act of communion is not only central to our identity as a church, but it is also central to the identity of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. It originated out of a desire to set aside all barriers—doctrinal and otherwise—between an individual and Christ’s community as embodied in the sharing of bread and cup.

Even though it is not unusual for our church to celebrate communion, for many churches of various traditions, communion happens only once a month, once a quarter or less. For instance, I grew up having “the Lord’s Supper,” as Baptists call it, only four times a year. Although there was an emphasis upon community, “the Lord’s Supper,” as I experienced it, had more to do with concerns about salvation and Jesus’ atoning death for our sins.

Even though Communion may occur at different times, have greater or lesser significance and reflect various theological viewpoints, it nonetheless remains a potent symbol of what all Christians share in terms of a common experience of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ. World Communion Sunday is as an attempt to help Christians of all traditions and geographic locations live out their common faith, and on this date every year, Christians around the world celebrate communion with this purpose in mind. I’m proud to say that the Disciples of Christ played a significant role in establishing this effort of Christian unity. It was great Sunday to reflect upon our connection with Christians around the world.

That spiritual connection between all Christians was lived out Sunday when members of the Sudanese worshipping community here in St. Joseph joined us for worship. Their dancing, singing, drumming and shouts of praise filled our sanctuary. I was proud once again to tell the story of the young Sudanese men who were present with us. The ones with us Sunday and all of the other young men from South Sudan who are in St. Joseph and throughout the United States are refugees of that nation’s long and brutal civil war.

They were called “Lost Boys,” because their families were wiped out by government troops in a program of ethnic cleansing. The younger boys in the villages of Southern Sudan are assigned the job of tending flocks in the countryside, so they escaped the fate of their families back in their villages. Thus began the amazing journey or thousands of young boys who fled hundreds of miles to refugee camps in other countries where they were raised without families. Many of them came to the United States under a special refugee status where they work at places like Triumph Foods, Sara Lee, etc. to support not only themselves but also other surviving family members who remain in camps in Kenya and Uganda. As a church, we were blessed by their presence and their stories. It was a living reminder of what we who do not know such tragedy have to be thankful for and how our love for our neighbors needs to extend around the world.
Just when I thought Sunday’s service could not get any better, at its conclusion, two people came forward to become new members. One found First Christian, because she moved here to be close to her sister, a long-time member. The second found First Christian by looking around on the internet for a church that suited her own beliefs and experience of God. Each of them found us in their own way, but together they represent an encouraging word to us as a congregation. We must be doing something right, if people like these two are choosing to join our church.

Let us continue to celebrate God’s blessings here at First Christian Church!

Grace and Peace,


Letter From a Church Member in News-Press

In today's St. Joseph News-Press, there is a letter from one of our church members, Mike Edwards. He points out that a letter printed in yesterday's edition about Barack Obama was copied from an e-mail full of unsubstantiated information. Not only did Mike catch a bogus letter, he actually got an apology out of the News-Press. Wow!

Given the amount of bogus stuff being e-mailed this election season--from both sides of the political spectrum--I would like to think that I would be a big enough person and concerned enough with the truth that I would object to the publication of any false accusations. Whether or not I would actually be that fair, I don't know. That's worth pondering--after all, the truth really does matter, no matter how it affects one's own candidate of choice. I believe that the problem today with our political system is that there are too many people willing to win at any cost, no matter what the truth may or may not be. I hope that I'm not one of them.

Church and State in an Election Year

On September 28, a number of ministers in conservative churches endorsed John McCain for President from their pulpit during worship services. The event was called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" and is organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a religiously and politically conservative legal group founded by key members of the Religious Right (e.g. James Dobson, James Kennedy, etc.) to support conservative causes like opposition to same-sex marriage, prayer in schools, etc. (Read Source Watch's description of the organization.) The event was planned and executed as a direct challenge to the IRS regulation that says in order for a church to maintain its non-profit status, it cannot engage in partisan political activities--namely working on behalf of a particular candidate.

I first heard about the event a while back and paid little attention to it, because it's such an obvious political stunt that is derives from a distorted understanding of the role of religion in a pluralistic democracy. I began paying a little more attention when I heard one of the ministers involved interviewed on NPR. (Yes, I know. All my posts have to do with public radio lately--I've admitted I have a problem.) In addition to the minister who had endorsed McCain, Welton Gaddy was also on as an opponent to ministers endorsing political candidates. Gaddy is a pastor in Louisiana and the president of The Interfaith Alliance, a group of different religious faiths that works to protect religious liberty. I like Gaddy a lot. He's a liberal Baptist--yes there are some, I was one--of the variety that actually remembers that Baptists were once a persecuted minority in colonial America and therefore ought not to impose their beliefs on others. I know, I know, it's hard to believe that there are Baptists who believe such things, given how most Southern Baptists act. Gaddy did an okay job stating his case, but spent more time arguing the broader principles of religious freedom than explaining why ministers should not endorse politicians from the pulpit.

The argument made by the ADF and the ministers in question is that the federal government, specifically the IRS, is limiting their freedom of speech by saying they will lose their tax-exempt status if they endorse a candidate. What they do not say is that ministers can endorse candidates, work for political campaigns and even run for political office without their churches losing their tax-exempt status. It is only when ministers endorse a candidate from the pulpit during the worship of the church or by some other means make use of the church to support particular campaigns that their church can lose its tax-exempt status.

Tax-exemption is a privilege given by government that benefits the church--its property, money, etc. cannot be taxed--and its members--donations to the church become individual tax deductions. The idea behind this status is that houses of worship benefit society as a whole and therefore should be free from taxation. This point is debatable, of course, I have a good friend who argues that churches benefit society no more than many other institutions that are taxed. Another idea behind tax-exemption for houses of worship is that the government should keep its hands off of religious bodies including taxes. This point is also debatable, of course.

Houses of worship, including worship, have spoken out--and indeed must speak out--on important political issues--think Civil Rights, Abolition, Peace/War, etc., but they do not need to become a part of the partisan machine that so dominates our media and culture. I would argue that in order for the church or any other house of worship to have any credibility, it must avoid at all costs endorsing particular candidates. Once a church becomes just another partisan voice in the cacophony of such voices, it loses its ability to speak prophetically to all people in power regardless of their political affiliation.

Furthermore, churches have, as a part of their inherent nature, a duty to work against idolatry--that is, anything that seeks an absolute claim upon a person's identity. No party or person is infallible, and therefore none of them deserve our absolute devotion and none of them are worthy of uncritical support. In order to maintain our devotion to God and hold God as the highest priority of our lives, we must hold fast to the belief that all other entities--including politicians, parties and even the church--are flawed human institutions.

Finally, as Christians we are called to love our neighbors. I believe that part of loving neighbors means allowing them to disagree with us. This happens when we admit to ourselves and others that we do not have all the answers and all truth. When a claim is made that God would have us support one candidate over another, we deny the right of others to disagree with us, because they are not just disagreeing with us but also God and therefore are an enemy of God. By declaring God has chosen one candidate over another, we cut off love towards people who choose a different candidate than us.

I have not hid my own choice for president in this election. Indeed, you only need to check out my car bumper or for that matter just ask me to find out. I've made my choice, however, based on what issues are important to me, which policies I think are best for the country and my own limited and imperfect understanding of what God's mercy and justice look like in the political arena. I don't believe God endorses candidates, and when I hear of ministers who do, I feel sure they have mistaken their own beliefs for the thoughts of God.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. Randall Balmer, Barnard professor and Episcopal priest, has a nice column about the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event that is worth reading.
P.P.S. The Kansas City Star also had a nice editorial regarding this issue on Saturday.

Sarah Vowell and Our Puritan Ancestors

I've written here in the past about how much I love the work of Sarah Vowell. Like many of her fans, I got to know her from public radio's This American Life, and then I picked up one of her books and there was no turning back. She's got a new book out, The Wordy Shipmates, which is about the original Puritans who came to what would become Massachusetts and their continuing influence on American identity and culture.

Not only did the Puritans give us the idea that America could be "a city on a hill" chosen by God to demonstrate to the world what godliness looks like, they also gave us, through their policy of regularly sending all dissenters into exile, the idea of separation of church and state thanks to Roger Williams. Puritans also helped embed in the American psyche the idea that God intends for some to be rich and others to be poor, therefore there is no need to worry about the poor very much.

These concepts and many others are incredibly pertinent to our culture. I haven't picked up a copy yet, but I soon will. I guarantee that Vowell will cover this part of our shared history in her trademark hilariously wry yet reverent manner.

Vowell was on NPR's Talk of the Nation today sharing some of her insights--well worth a listen.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New Sermon on Church Web Site

This fall I've been trying to do a better job of having my sermons available, but I'm about a month behind. Last week, I put on the church web site my September 7 sermon on forgiveness: Forgive but Don't Forget. The sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35, which includes Jesus' saying about forgiving "seventy times seven" or "seven times seven" depending on your choice of translation. It also includes the so-called parable of "the unmerciful servant." In the sermon, I relate a story told by Sister Helen Prejean in her book Dead Man Walking about the father whose son was murdered by a death row inmate the nun worked with. As I say in my footnote, I haven't read Prejean's book. (I did see the movie which differs from the book for the sake of adapting it into a movie.) I got the story from a commentary on this scripture passage in The Christian Century. You can read that article on-line.