Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Decent "Pro-Life" Review of Juno

In my last post, I mentioned that a number of anti-abortion folks were praising the wonderful film Juno for being a "pro-life" film. As I mentioned, I felt the film actually seemed more "pro-choice" to me--Juno's choice was not to get an abortion. Well, I'd just assume leave the culture warriors to their fun categorizing the entire world according to the only two options they can understand (right vs. wrong, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc.), but then I actually read a decent review of the movie that yes, took the movie as "pro-life" but besides getting stuck on that managed to write an insightful review. It's by Gareth Higgins at the "God's Politics Blog."

Alright, this is the last post about Juno and the abortion debate. I'm finding my enjoyment of the wonderful film Juno diminished by my own posts about people making political hay about it. Ugh!

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

JUNO, Abortion and Adoption

Recently, my wife and I saw Juno, the terrific film about a teenager who finds herself pregnant after her first sexual encounter and ends up carrying the baby to term and making an adoption plan. Since my wife and I adopted our two sons from birthmothers who chose not to get abortions and to place their sons in another family, the movie was more than a bit touching for us. (I cried twice in it--which is saying something, since the movie is hilarious).

While seeing the movie, I didn't give the issue of abortion too much thought. I guess that's because I don't give the issue much thought in general. It is such a polarizing issue that discussion about it is almost impossible. (I'm having second thoughts about writing this post as I'm typing these words just because of this fact.) Very little sensible is said about the issue, so I try to stay away from it.

I feel more than a bit conflicted about it. On the one hand, I'm a card-carrying liberal with a lot of white male guilt, so the last thing I want to do is tell a woman what to do with her body. On the other hand, I'm a father, because two women felt very strongly that abortion was wrong for them and made an adoption plan instead. On the other hand, that was their choice and who am I to say what is the right choice for someone else when it comes to such a personal and painful issue? On the other hand, even if I remain unconvinced that life begins at conception or even the first trimester or even beyond that--I'm not sure when it begins, I still believe the potential for life is there. I've counseled couples who grieved over a miscarriage and that grief was real--we did not have a funeral but we did grieve together. On the other hand, so many anti-abortion people are just so arrogant and mean and ridiculous--you want to stop abortion but you're against sex education and birth control! What's up with that? I could go on.

Back to Juno...the scene where Juno actually goes to an abortion clinic but thanks to a fellow high-schooler protesting alone outside who tells her that fetuses have fingernails, she changes her mind. It was a hilarious scene and brilliant--not because it was at all about politics, but because of the great acting and directing. In the movie, the story is so good and the acting so good and the production so good that there is no time to waste getting hung up on the abortion issue. The story is about this wonderfully strong-willed young girl who makes up her mind what is right for her and lets nothing step in her way. If there is anything to say about the movie in terms of its relationship to abortion the issue, it is that Juno makes the choice that is right for her, and she would not have judged someone else for making a different one.

Recently, anti-abortion folks have been making a fuss about Juno being a "pro-life" film. It seems more "pro-choice" to me, but then, I felt like the movie transcended this hellish debate which only allows you two options in terms of what to think and believe. As I said, when I saw the movie, abortion wasn't on my mind. The movie was just so good that I had no emotion to waste on an unending debate. As an adoptive father, I was just glad to see adoption portrayed in such a positive light.

I recommend the movie, just as long as you can leave your abortion politics at the theatre door.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. While I'm on the topic of abortion, which I hope not to be on again any time soon...I heard Randall Balmer interviewed on NPR about his new book God in the White House. Balmer teaches at Barnard and has written s ton of great stuff about evangelical Christianity. He described in fascinating detail how abortion became a political issue at the close of the 1970's. I was shocked to learn that no less than the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions in favor of legalizing abortion prior to Roe v. Wade. That must have been in some parallel universe.

Discovering Lent (Dialogue Column 1.29.08)

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.

Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I knew very little about the season of Lent. I had heard vague mentions of people giving things up for Lent, and I knew people who knew people who wore ashes on their foreheads all day one Wednesday a year. It all sounded very cult-like to me at the time. Actually, it sounded like some exotic ritual that I might read about in National Geographic. Sure, it might be good enough for the Bushmen of Borneo, but it had little to do with religion as I understood it.

I guess it wasn’t until seminary that I began to think about Lent. I recall overly somber chapel services carried out by Baptists who were experimenting with the “high church” practices of the Presbyterian seminary across the street. It was as if we liberal Baptists were not only trying to leave behind the theology of our youth but also the stripped down worship services we grew up with. Although we were perhaps overzealous when it came to the traditions of Lent (even liberal Baptists like guilt), our attempts to have a season of repentance and preparation for Easter opened up a new world for me. Thanks to Lent, Easter became more than just a Sunday to hunt eggs.

In the years since I discovered Lent in seminary, I have come to look forward to it. Lent runs throughout the forty days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). During those days, we are asked to go on a journey with Jesus that ends up at the cross and then to take a few steps beyond it to the empty tomb. Along the way, we are confronted y with just what it means to follow this man Jesus. We are asked to take new things on and give old things up. Each decision is taxing and each step forward an effort. After a season of reflection and change, it is a relief to finally move past the suffering of the cross, that reminds us of all the pain in the world and our part in it, to the empty tomb, which reveals that God’s grace is great enough to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Lent seems like the perfect antidote to our twenty-first century life. Everything in our culture seems to value a person based upon what they earn, own and spend. Every bit of advertising that flows over us stresses yet one more way to find self-fulfillment. Yet, the season of Lent calls us to do just the opposite. During these forty days, we are called to look beyond ourselves to the world around us and beyond it to the one who created it. During Lent, we are called to contemplate what we should give up, give away, leave behind and let go. When all is said and done, Lent exists to prepare our hearts and souls to receive what we cannot earn for ourselves: the love of the one who knows us best.

Now that Lent is a part of my year, I wonder what I ever did without it. Growing up, Easter would just sort of sneak up on me, a day that was supposed to mean something but was there and gone too quickly. Now I look forward to its coming and I feel relief that another season of soul-searching is over. It’s not the kind of relief one feels when pain ends, but rather it is the relief one feels when something important has been accomplished.

This season of Lent I am going to be trying some different kinds of prayers, some writing and some authors that I’ve been putting off reading. It’s the kind of stuff I always mean to do but never seem to get around to doing. Lent begins on February 6, Ash Wednesday. I hope to see you along the way.

Last year, as your fresh new minister, I issued a challenge to First Christian Church. I challenged every church member to be present in worship every Sunday in Lent, provided they were in town and physically able to attend. I was shocked last year to see so many of you taking my challenge seriously and showing up. Perhaps you were just trying to humor your new minister. Now that I’ve been here a year, we’ll see whether or not my challenge to you carries any weight. I am issuing the same challenge this year, so I hope to see you in worship during Lent.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sarah Vowell on the MLK Holiday

Sarah Vowell is one of my favorite authors. I first grew to love her work on the public radio program This American Life. Her quirky sense of humor and unabashed love for the history of this country of ours combined with her strangely compelling voice (she was the voice of Violet Incredible in the film The Incredibles) has always made me smile, laugh, cry and love my country--often at the same time.

If you haven't read any of her collections of essays, I recommend Take the Cannoli along with Assassination Vacation.

She describes herself as a "culturally Christian atheist" in the same way her non-practicing Jewish friends are "culturally Jewish atheists." Yet, as is often the case, her understanding of the heart of the Gospel of Christ exceeds that of so many who claim to follow Christ. Her essay in Monday's NY Times proves that unlike many Christians she actually has read the Sermon on the Mount and does her best to live by it.

In the essay, she speaks about the MLK holiday and what MLK meant and still means for our country. If nothing else, Vowell provides a service to us by getting people to read King's words from a 1957 sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama:

“So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Are You Anxious About My Sermon This Sunday? (Dialogue Column 1.22.08)

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.

This Sunday, I will preach a sermon entitled “What Should Christians Learn From the Iraq War?” I have already picked up on a few members’ anxiety over the fact that I will be preaching about the war. Therefore, I think that I should confess that I am anxious about it too.

This is such an emotional topic that touches nearly every part of our culture—political, social, religious, etc.—that no matter what is said, someone is bound to be bothered or even offended by it. Such is the nature of discourse in our country at this time in our history. I believe, however, that we Christians are not called to shy away from controversial topics just because they are controversial. Since we claim to be followers of Jesus who showed no hesitation confronting difficult issues, we do not have the luxury of avoiding the same.

Moreover, I believe that we are a community of believers that is well-suited to discussing and even acting upon the complex problems of today. As a Disciples congregation, we are a free church where there is no expectation or demand that all members of a church should be of the same mind about troubling issues. First Christian in particular is a church that celebrates diversity of belief and opinion. We pride ourselves on being able to sit around the same table with others, without the demand that we all sign off on a checklist of political or doctrinal statements. If a church like ours cannot discuss the deep religious and ethical concerns raised by the war in Iraq, then I wonder what church could.

Nonetheless, I do not approach this Sunday’s sermon in a cavalier fashion. I would prefer to give a sermon that everyone can agree about and no one would be bothered by. I know, however, that sermons that make no one uncomfortable are most likely sermons that fail to wrestle adequately with the demands of the Gospel. I also know that there is a difference between presenting a message with humility, even though it may trouble some, and abusing my authority as minister by claiming that my belief must be shared by my congregation. The good news on that front is that even were I to demand that everyone agree with me, the reality is that the good people of First Christian would never stand for it. That is as it should be.

As we approach this Sunday, let me state a few things up front that may ease both your anxiety and mine:

1. You are free to disagree with me, not only this Sunday but any and every Sunday I preach. I am ready and willing to hear any criticism or counterargument to any point I make, provided it is offered in the spirit of open dialogue and Christian love.

2. I do not approach this issue lightly but personally. Just like many of you, I have both friends and family who either are serving or have served in Iraq. So far, I have not had to attend a funeral for someone whom I love who has died in Iraq, but the possibility remains a real one for me.

3. I am doing my best not to approach the Iraq War and the issues raised by it from a partisan position. The bumper sticker on our family van reads: “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.” That is something I believe wholeheartedly. I have my own political beliefs and preferences which are probably obvious, but I do my best to make up my own mind instead of allowing my mind to be made for me.

4. Perhaps most importantly, you should know that I feel this sermon is a necessary one. I have prayed about and thought long and hard about whether or not I should preach a sermon about the war. I have decided that the issues raised by this war are so profound and the ethical demands of Christ’s teaching so relevant to this conflict that I simply must speak what I believe to be true. Whether you realize it or not, that is part of what you obligated me to when you called me as your minister. I understood that obligation when I accepted your call.

This week, I would appreciate your thoughts and prayers as I prepare this sermon. I also hope that you will come this Sunday with an open mind and the confidence that we as a church can not only discuss difficult issues but grow in our faith through the exchange of different points of view.

Grace and Peace,


Quotations from MLK I Used in My Sunday Sermon

I'm a day late to honor MLK's holiday, at least in terms of putting this post up, but I am glad that I preached about MLK on Sunday. Some folks asked about certain quotations I used, so I thought I'd share them here, especially since most of them are available on-line.

When I spoke about MLK's words concerning American arrogance towards the rest of the world and concerning war, I read from "Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break Silence." This is the speech he gave at Riverside Church in 1967. His opposition to the war resulted in criticism from many in the civil rights movement who felt like he was moving the focus away from race. As King explains, however, his opposition to the war was only the logical next step in his philosoph/theology of non-violence. This speech is available at American Rhetoric, where you can not only read the speech but listen to the audio of it.

When I spoke about the cynicism in today's culture which says one person cannot make a difference, I read from MLK's sermon "The Drum Major Instinct"--a truly powerful and awesome sermon. It is also more than a bit haunting to hear him talk about what kind of funeral he wants--one that is short and simply says he knew how to love. You can find this sermon at the site of MLK Papers Project of Stanford University. The page gives the full text and audio excerpts.

When I spoke about racism, I read from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968). When I spoke about the rampant consumerism of our culture, I read from “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” in The Measure of a Man (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988). I'm not sure if either of these is on-line.
The picture above is what I showed the kids during the children's sermon. So often, we think of the serious and intense King. We forget that he smiled too.
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Thoughts on the Candidates

A lot has happened in the political realm since I was posting regularly before Christmas. I've been paying close attention to the candidates and there have been a whole lot of instances where my eyebrows were raised. As a person of faith who believes one of the most Christian things politicians can do is support a healthy and respectful pluralistic democracy, it's hard to remain optimistic when this election--as with all elections in recent memory--is filled with plenty of instances of religious pandering and reliance upon dirty tricks in terms of race, class and gender.

I have to admit that since I am the father of two sons who are bi-racial (African-American and Caucasian) Obama's candidacy and win in Iowa are really exciting. I would love it if they grew up never having really known a time when an ethnic minority (including a bi-racial one) was president. Of course, if I had two daughters, I might be feeling something similar about Clinton's candidacy.

Besides those very personal observations, here are a number of articles that I've read over the last month which stood out in my mind as offering powerful critiques of the candidates:

In regards to Mike Huckabee's candidacy, there is quite a bit to be concerned about if you're a Christian who actually uses his/her brain. Do we really want to elect someone for president who doesn't believe in evolution? Do we really want to elect someone for president who believed HIV/AIDS patients should be medically quarantined as late as the early 1990's? But more than anything, I'm bothered by his campaigning in Iowa as a "true Christian leader." The editorial board of The Washington Post offered a biting and I believe dead on critique of Huckabee on this count: Telling voters -- in a political commercial -- that "what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ" may speak to the evangelical Christians Mr. Huckabee is counting on in Iowa; it sends a different and exclusionary message to non-Christian Americans.

In 1998, Mr. Huckabee spoke of the need to "take this nation back for Christ," though he told Tim Russert this year, "I'd probably phrase it a little differently today." Would he? An earlier Huckabee ad in Iowa opened with the words "Christian leader" emblazoned on the screen. It's disappointing that Mr. Huckabee has responded so dismissively to the criticism the ad has generated. "I mean, it's just beyond ridiculous," he told NBC's "Today" on Wednesday. "You can't even say 'Merry Christmas' without people getting all sensitive about it." And, "I totally am amazed that people are so sensitive these days."

It's Mr. Huckabee's choice how he wants to run for president. But if he wants to convey a desire to be president of all Americans, he's going about it the wrong way.
There were many explanations offered and hypotheses floated as to why the polling on the Democratic primary in New Hampshire was so different from how things ended up, but the best explanation I read was that of Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, who believes that it has to do with race and class. Low-income people tend to avoid answering polls and Clinton got the low-income Democratic vote in NH. Kohut goes further to claim that lower-income and less-educated whites also tend to have more negative views of African Americans: Why didn’t this problem come up in Iowa? My guess is that Mr. Obama may have posed less of a threat to white voters in Iowa because he wasn’t yet the front-runner. Caucuses are also plainly different from primaries.

In New Hampshire, the ballots are still warm, so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause for the primary poll flop. But given the dearth of obvious explanations, serious consideration has to be given to the difficulties that race and class present to survey methodology.

Kohut's comment about the differences between caucuses and primaries has to do with the fact that primaries offer secret ballot while caucuses require people to state publicly whom they will vote for--in other words, when whites can vote anonymously they are probably more negative towards candidates of color. DEPRESSING!

So, race and class are players in this election in a very disheartening sense, lest negative views of women be left out, here's a good op-ed from today's NY Times by Bob Herbert. He notes that if anybody thinks gender is a new issue for presidential races hasn't been paying attention. The exploitation of women exists at every level of society, and no matter the gender of the candidate, it's time our nation starts to work on improving the quality of life of women in America: We’ve become so used to the disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous and even violent treatment of women that we hardly notice it. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed against women and girls every day. Fashionable ads in mainstream publications play off of that violence, exploiting themes of death and dismemberment, female submissiveness and child pornography.

If we’ve opened the door to the issue of sexism in the presidential campaign, then let’s have at it. It’s a big and important issue that deserves much more than lip service.

Another op-ed in the NY Times from a few days ago took a different tack on gender in the election. Lorrie Moore--writing from a third wave feminist perspective, I guess (is there a fourth wave yet?)--argues that there are plenty of female role models in politics and those who really need a role model now are young males of color: Perfect historical timing has always been something of a magic trick — finite and swift. The train moves out of the station. The time to capture the imagination of middle-class white girls, the group Hillary Clinton represents, was long ago. Such girls have now managed on their own (given that in this economy only the rich are doing well). They have their teachers and many other professionals to admire, as well as a fierce 67-year-old babe as speaker of the House, several governors and a Supreme Court justice. The landscape is not bare.

Boys are faring worse — and the time for symbols and leaders they can connect with beneficially should be now and should be theirs. Hillary Clinton’s gender does not rescue society from that — instead she serves as a kind of nostalgia for a time when it might have. Only her policies are what matter now...

Race, class, gender and religious tolerance. How come the candidates aren't talking about the real problems we're facing?

Grace and peace,


Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter to America (Dialogue Column 1.15.08)

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.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to America

This Sunday I am preaching a sermon entitled “What Would MLK Say to Us Today?” It is fitting that the MLK holiday occurs in January during the church season of Epiphany, because during this season when we seek new understandings of ourselves, our beliefs and our God, the words of this American prophet are a rich source of inspiration and enlightenment. There is no way of knowing, of course, what exactly King would say to us today; people change just as society changes. Nonetheless, I believe that it is safe to assume that many of King’s principles and perspectives would not change, because the problems Americans face as a nation, along with those faced specifically by American Christians, remain depressingly similar to the problems faced during King’s time.

In a sermon King preached entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” the Civil Rights leader reads an imaginary letter from the first century apostle written to twentieth century American believers. Much of what King wrote under the guise of Paul remains just as relevant today as it was then. Segregation is no longer the same issue today, in terms of government enforcement of it, that it was then, but cultural segregation between different ethnicities remains a potent force in our society. Similarly, I would argue that issues of poverty, class and the use of our nation’s military power have seen remarkably little progress since King wrote his words in Paul’s name.

As we look towards Sunday, here’s a taste of what King had to say in that sermon where he spoke in the name of Paul the Apostle:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, though our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to see you…News has come to me regarding the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm…But, America, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress…Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but you have failed to employ your moral and spiritual genius to make of it a brotherhood…I must say to you what I wrote to the Roman Christians years ago: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” You have a duel citizenry…Your highest loyalty is to God, and not to the mores or the folkways, the state or the nation, or any man-made institution.

I understand that you have an economic system in America known as capitalism, through which you have accomplished wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built the greatest system of production that history has ever known...But, Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your capitalism. ..I am afraid that many among you are more concerned in making money than in accumulating spiritual treasures. The misuse of capitalism may also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. I am told that one tenth of 1 percent of the population controls more than 40 percent of the wealth. America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses and given luxuries to the classes…You must use your powerful economic resources to eliminate poverty from the earth. God never intended one people to live in superfluous and inordinate wealth, while others know only devastating poverty...

A thing that disturbs me about the American church is that you have a white church and a Negro church. How can segregation exist in the true Body of Christ? I am told that there is more integration within the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling this is...I hope the churches of America will play a significant role in conquering segregation. It has always been the responsibility of the church to broaden horizons and challenge the status quo. The church must move out into the arena of social action. First, you must see that the church removes the yoke of segregation from its own body. Then you must seek to make the church increasingly active in social action outside its doors. It must seek to keep channels of communications open between the races. It must take an active stand against the injustices which Negroes confront in housing, education, police protection, and in city and state courts. It must exert its influence in the area of economic justice. As guardian of the moral and spiritual life of the community the church cannot look with indifference upon these glaring evils. If you as Christians will accept the challenge with devotion and valor, you will lead the misguided men of your nation from the darkness of falsehood and fear to the light of truth and love.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in Strength to Love (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1981), 137-145.

Grace and Peace,


Does God Laugh? (Dialogue Column 1.8.08)

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.


Although the Gospels do not speak of Jesus laughing, I believe that he must have laughed often as he celebrated the joys of human life, just as the Gospels report that he wept in grief at life’s pains. Since Jesus is the incarnation of God, I believe rather than being an “unmoved mover” who remains emotionally detached from creation in a Vulcan-like manner, Jesus’ example reveals that God laughs and weeps with us. I believe God laughed this past Sunday during the baptism of one of our youth named Rachel.

Following worship on Sunday, I had the privilege of baptizing Rachel, and it was a wonderful experience! Rachel is a friend of several our youth, and she came to our church, because she was ready to officially become a Christian but did not have a church to join. She had been ready to make such a commitment but had recently moved to Cameron and did not have a church there. Her friends encouraged her to come to First Christian, where they assured her she would be welcome.

The Sunday before Christmas, Rachel, her best friend Wendy, Wendy’s mother Sharon, Matthew Gregg our Youth Director, and I gathered in my office. At that time, Rachel made a prayer of commitment to Christ, acknowledging the relationship she already had with God and her desire to follow Jesus. What an honor it was to be present in that moment! This past Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, when appropriately I preached on the baptism of Jesus, Rachel followed through with her commitment and was baptized to express through ritual her commitment to Christ and for the church to likewise express its welcome to her.

If you meet Rachel, you will find her to be a sweet, funny and bubbly young woman. She is quick to laugh at something she finds funny, and like many teenagers, when all eyes are on her, she laughs out of self-consciousness. As I prepared to lower Rachel into the baptismal waters, the immensity of the moment hit her along with the fact that she would soon be drenched in front of her friends, so she laughed. It was a beautiful sound. I laughed too, and so did her friends. We were not laughing at Rachel, rather we were laughing with Rachel. We laughed because of our own self-consciousness of how significant this moment was, and we laughed because in what could have been a somber moment, laughter rang from the baptistry. We also laughed out of love for Rachel.

As we stepped out of the baptistry, Rachel turned to me and said, “I’m sorry for laughing during the baptism.” I replied, “No apology is necessary, Rachel. It was great. When you laughed, God was laughing too.”

Grace and Peace,


2007: A Look Back (Dialogue Column 1.2.08)

I'll begin trying to catch up on blogging by putting up some of the columns I've written for my church's newsletter. Here's one with more to come!

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.

2007: A Look Back

I just finished reading a list of the top ten religious news stories of 2007 as voted by the Religious Newswriters Association, and it's pretty depressing, although it's not surprising. This list included the role of the Religious Right in the 2008 presidential election, the split of the Episcopal Church over homosexuality, disputes over global warming and immigration, and the high-dollar settlements in clergy sexual abuse cases. The only story that painted religious people in a good light was about the Buddhist monks in Myanmar who put their lives on the line to promote democracy in that totalitarian nation. It's not surprising that the stories with the most controversy make the biggest impact, but it is also depressing to consider the fact that followers of Jesus Christ could fail to capture the attention of the world at large in a positive way.

The failure of Christ's church to do anything significant enough to merit mention on an end of the year list—other than to bring disgrace on Christ-- has many causes. The American media, suited as it is towards entertainment and talking head yell-fests, is rarely capable of understanding the nuances of something as multi-faceted as religion. Even so, I believe that if American Christians really were interested in following Jesus' teachings about materialism, violence and serving others, their efforts would make a tremendous impact upon not only our culture but our world. It is also true that the Kingdom of Heaven often does not move in large dramatic ways but rather in small yet unstoppable steps. That's why Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven as like a mustard seed; it's easy to overlook. The selfless actions of millions of believers on an individual basis don't register in and of themselves in a big way. Even so, I believe that the problems that face our own culture and the world beyond it are of such a systemic nature (war, disease, poverty, etc.) that the church needs to respond in a big way. Our times call for big dreams and big risks; yet it's rare to find Christians who will do either. The biggest reason of all, I believe, for Christians failing to make any ripples in the world beyond controversy and scandal is that the average Christian has bought into a culture that believes self-gratification is the ultimate ideal and violence is acceptable just as long as it happens to someone else.

It's easy to cast aspersions on Christianity as a whole, but looking at yourself and your own church with a critical eye is a different story. As we consider the life of First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO, we should ask if we did anything that registers in the mind of our community? On the one hand, we did some wonderful things that made some eternal differences, such as another great Royal Family Kids Camp and another exciting mission trip to Jamaica, not to mention our on-going work with the Open Door Food Kitchen. We even got noticed in our local media for co-sponsoring a screening of the documentary The Lost Boys of Sudan to make St. Joseph aware of the Sudanese refugees now living here, as well as for having a World AIDS Day service in November. These events and more like them are reasons for us to feel proud as a church. On the other hand, however, the fact remains that a huge number of people in St. Joseph don't even know First Christian exists, much less consider First Christian to be a community of believers seeking to bring positive change in our community.

If someone compiled a list of the top ten religion stories in St. Joseph in 2007, what would that list contain and would First Christian be on it for reasons that authentically represent the compassion of Jesus Christ? I'm not sure we would. We need to do some more dreaming, take some big risks and search our souls for ways we can more fully follow Christ's humble love if we wish to be known in 2008 for transforming our community into a more loving and compassionate place.

Grace and Peace,

Blogging is not one of my New Year's Resolutions

Okay, okay, so blogging is not one of my resolutions for the New Year. I'll do better for the next 350 Days.