Friday, February 29, 2008

More on Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

Getting back to my post on the smear campaign against Obama and what it says about religious prejudice in our country--I saw this article today from Reuters, "Anti-Muslim sentiment surfaces in attacks on Obama." In it, one of the people they interview, author Jack Shaheen, actually asks the question I asked yesterday, "So what if he were a Muslim?" I wonder if he reads my blog...

Grace and Peace,


Sight and Vision are Two Different Things

This post title is the same title as my sermon for Sunday. I'm trying to not make it into a show and tell regarding my eye problems over the last year. While looking for a quotation to put in the bulletin for Sunday, I came across several options. Here's the one I picked:

Many of us have made our world so familiar that we do not see it any more. It is an interesting question to ask yourself at night: what did I really see this day? You could be surprised at what you did not see…The human eye is always selecting what it wants to see and also evading what it does not want to see. The crucial question then is, what criteria do we use to decide what we like to see and to avoid seeing what we do not want to see? Many limited and negative lives issue directly from this narrowness of vision.

--John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

I almost went with a quotation from the U2 song "When I Look at the World," but I opted against it just because it was difficult to cut down the lyrics to a manageable size and because I thought that perhaps this one would be more meaningful to me than to others. After all it is my favorite band and I'm pretty sure the majority of our congregation is either too old or too young to be into U2. Some day I'll have a worship service that's geared towards Gen X'ers and we can all sing songs like this one:

When you look at the world
What is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things
That bring them to their knees
I see an expression
So clear and so true
That it changes the atmosphere
When you walk into the room

So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world

When the night is someone elses
And you're trying to get some sleep
When your thoughts are too expensive
To ever want to keep
When there's all kinds of chaos
And everyone is walking lame
You don't even blink now, do you
Or even look away

So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world

I can't wait any longer
I can't wait till I'm stronger
Can't wait any longer
To see what you see
When I look at the world

I'm in the waiting room
Can't see for the smoke
I think of you and your holy book
While the rest of us choke

Tell me, tell me, what do you see?
Tell me, tell me, what’s wrong with me

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, February 28, 2008

For the billionth time--Obama is a Christian!

Once again, the rumors are flying about Barack Obama being a Muslim "Manchurian Candidate." Jim Wallis of Sojourners who knows Obama well has an articulate defense of Obama against those who wish to spread false rumors about Obama. I urge everyone to read it just to get their facts straight.

The question Wallis does not address is what if Obama really were a Muslim? We supposedly live in a pluralistic society, and supposedly every person is free to practice the religion that he or she chooses. We've come along way from the days when JFK had to defend himself for being Roman Catholic, but we have not come as far as we should have. The brouhaha over Mitt Romney's membership in the Latter Day Saints this year proves it.

Beyond the falsity of the claims of Obama being a Muslim, what bothers me is the xenophobic attitude of so many Americans towards Muslims. Despite the fact that 99%+ of the Muslims in the world want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, the predominant picture of Islam in America is of a terrorist. Perhaps someday we will look back on the charges that Obama was a Muslim in the same way we now look back on the charges that JFK was a puppet of the Vatican. Hopefully that day will come, but I fear that prejudice will always be a part of our national discourse.

Grace and Peace,


Are You Denominationally Promiscuous? (Dialogue Column 2.26.08)

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.


If you were in worship this past Sunday, you would have witnessed an unusual sight—at least as far as our worship goes. The elders of the church laid hands on me and prayed for my ministry. They did so, because Donna Rose-Heim, one of our Northwest Missouri Area Ministers for the Disciples of Christ, presented me with the official certificate which certifies that I have been granted standing in our denomination. When ministers are ordained or welcomed from another denomination, the tradition holds that the elders will lay hands and pray for them just as was done this past Sunday.

I am sure that some of you were a bit confused about why this was happening. After all, wasn’t I already your minister? The answer is yes, of course, but since I came to this church as a minister from another denomination, The United Church of Christ, I still had to be recognized by the denomination of which our church is a part. It’s one of the tricky things about our denomination and ones like it that come from a “free church” tradition. For Disciples, Baptists, the UCC and others, local churches can hire whomever they please, no matter their denominational background, but if that minister wishes to take part in the larger life of the denomination and represent her or his church in that work, she or he needs to be recognized by the denomination. I not only wanted to represent First Christian in our denomination, but I also wanted to be faithful to First Christian’s long and significant relationship with the Disciples. So, I took the necessary steps to receive standing as a Disciples minister.

So, this hopefully concludes my denominational wandering. I now have what is called “Partner Standing” as a minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. My journey of vocational ministry began when I was licensed and later ordained as a Baptist. Eventually, I was granted standing as a minister in the United Church of Christ. And now, here I am as a Disciple. I fear that I have become what a good friend of mine calls “denominationally promiscuous.”

The good news for me is that I am not alone. This week the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published the results of their research on the religious affiliations of Americans. According to Pew, 28% of Americans have changed from the religion they were born into. If the people who have switched between Protestant denominations are included, then the number jumps to 44%. That means almost half of all Americans have made a significant change in their religious identification some time in their lives. There is a lot of denominational promiscuity out there!

This research confirms what I and many of you have known from our own experience. A poll of our own church members would likely reveal that the number of members who are life-long Disciples is pretty close to the number of members who came to our church from a different religious background. The vast majority of people in our church who became Disciples changed from another Protestant denomination, although we do have a good number of former Catholics.

This loosening of denominational bonds is largely a good thing in my mind. First of all, I believe it benefits churches like ours that make room for a diversity of beliefs and appeal to people looking for an open-minded and welcoming community of faith. Second of all, as I learned in my Disciples history and polity course, the whole reason our denomination began was to overcome the divisions of dogma and creed. I believe what people and congregations believe matters, but I also believe that the boundaries that divide us must remain flexible and permeable enough to allow our living God to guide us wherever God needs us to be on our faith journeys. I for one am glad that my faith journey has brought me here to First Christian Church.

Grace and Peace,

Faith is a Journey Not a Guilt Trip (Dialogue Column 2.19.08)

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.


In last week’s Dialogue, I issued for the second year in a row a Lenten Challenge to the membership of First Christian. The challenge asks every church member to be present in worship every Sunday in Lent, provided they were in town and physically able to attend. Ironically, after issuing this challenge, we had to cancel Sunday’s services due to that morning’s snow storm. Given the fact that I got stuck trying to drive up 10th street, I decided that all of us should fall into the “physically unable to attend” category. So you’re off the hook for last Sunday but not for the other Sundays in Lent—not that I’m trying to lay a guilt trip on you or anything like that.

If we had been able to have services on Sunday, you would have heard me preach a sermon entitled, “Faith is a Journey Not a Guilt Trip.” I can’t take credit for that phrase. I found it on a marketing postcard used by a church in New York. I kept that card and had it taped to my office door for a long time to remind myself and others what our lives of faith are supposed to be about. I need reminding, because I grew up in a religious tradition which taught that our relationships with God and indeed our very salvation from eternal damnation were gifts of God’s grace. In practice, however, that tradition stressed informally and formally quite a long list of do’s and don’ts which proved a person’s righteousness. Doctrine said one thing; practice said another. The net result in my case was a whole lot of guilt.

It is just this type of guilt and shame that comes to many people’s minds when they think about organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. Added to this perception of Christianity, I believe, is a secondary suspicion on the part of many that church leaders who peddle guilt and shame are really nothing more than hypocrites themselves. It is tragic that the religion Jesus’ words and actions inspired has so often devolved into just such a cycle of guilt, shame and hypocrisy, because he challenged the religious hypocrites of his day and practiced a shocking hospitality towards people who felt condemned and ostracized by them.

One of the lectionary texts for Sunday was the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. Abraham and his wife Sarah stand as the patriarch and matriarch of three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Their willingness to answer the call of a God they hardly knew and to follow that God to a new and strange land functions as the paradigm of faith for all three religions. The apostle Paul wrote centuries later that Abraham (and Sarah) were considered righteous by God because of his (their) faith rather than because of their obedience to God’s laws. A reading of the stories of Abraham and Sarah reveals the truth of Paul’s words; Abraham and Sarah had many faults that the text refuses to hide, yet through one struggle after another they chose to stick it out with God. The story of this faithful couple reveals that God’s criteria for judging a person’s righteousness is based upon a person’s willingness to answer God’s call and begin the journey of faith rather than on their moral superiority. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from what is preached at many churches on Sundays.

What would it mean if First Christian Church understood God’s desire for us to be a call to a spiritual journey rather than a checklist of morality? One thing it might mean is that people who have experienced Christianity only as a tool of shame and guilt could discover a God who loves them and welcomes then. Another thing it might mean is that we, as a church, could free up the energy now spent on determining what behavior is moral, righteous, proper and/or acceptable and devote our time to asking what steps of faith God would have us take. I’m sure there are other things that might happen as well.

Guilt is a rather cheap way to motivate people, but I understand why many ministers and church leaders make use of it. It is difficult to inspire people to take seriously their faith in God. Making people feel guilty so that they will give their time and money comes easier. Nonetheless, the hope of this minister is that the membership of First Christian Church will be motivated not by guilt but rather by a deep love for God and a sense of excitement about where God will lead them on their journeys of faith.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why I Called My Senators Today

Today I called Senators McCaskell and Bond. I asked them to not allow the CIA to torture detainees or prisoners. It mattered today, because there was a push to force the CIA to operate according to the guidelines in the Army Field Manual during interrogations. The Army guidelines prohibit torture.

It continues to amaze me that we Americans allow torture to be done in our name, while at the same time we denounce such practices when done by other governments and groups. The recent debate over waterboarding and whether or not it amounts to torture is a prime case. It's been considered torture around the world for centuries--we even prosecuted Japanese officers in WWII and our own soldiers in Vietnam for doing it--but when we do it, it's all necessary and justified.

What is especially disturbing to me is that Christians would be okay with our government torturing other human beings. As people who claim to follow Jesus Christ--who was himself tortured--it makes no sense. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and loving them means at the very least not torturing them.

I found out about the debate in the Senate today from an e-mail forwarded to me by a friend. The e-mail was from NRCAT--National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I visited their web site and like what I see--plenty of United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ ministers and laypeople are involved with this group. I'm glad there is a group out there that is giving voice in an organized way to the abhorrence religious people feel about the instances of torture done in our names as Americans.

At their site, I endorsed their basic mission statement, which reads:

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved -- policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now -- without exceptions.

I guess a possible reason as to why more people aren't outraged over torture is because we have somehow grown desensitized to it. Given that most of the horror movies that are out involve the capturing and torturing of victims and that most of the spy shows on TV and espionage thrillers at the movies show good guys committing torture, is it any wonder that torture is now viewed as entertainment rather than as what it is--the dehumanization of a person? Add to this some misguided patriotism and a whole lot of fear and I guess you've got an electorate that really just doesn't care if this kind of thing happens in their name.

I read a quotation today from Maya Angelou that describes well how I feel about torture:

"I would like to think that the mean-spirited were created by another force and under the aegis and direction of something other than my God. But since I believe that God created all things, I am not only constrained to know that the oppressor is a child of God, but also obligated to try to treat him or her as a child of God..."

Grace and Peace,


Return of the Lenten Challenge (Dialogue Column 2.12.08)

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.


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.

I know, I know, I should have issued this challenge last week before Lent actually started, but…well…I forgot.

So, those of you who didn’t show up for one reason or another get a pass for this past Sunday. We did have a very good crowd, however, and a good number of guests—some who have been visiting for a while and others who just showed up this week to check out First Christian. When you’re in the pews this Lenten season, take a look around and see if you need to welcome anyone who is new. It seems more and more new folks are coming in to take a look these days.
Why should you show up during Lent? The reasons for showing up in large part are not very different than the reasons for showing up at church on any other Sunday. Chief among such reasons is that gathering for worship as a community matters. We experience God in one another, as well as through the songs and message we share. The creative imprint of God is in each of us, so we understand God better as we experience God through each other. We are cared for just as we care for others, therefore through God’s grace we get to be the hands and voices of God to one another. God makes God’s self known through a loving community, which is what a church is supposed to be.

Just like on any other Sunday, our times together for worship during Lent allow us the opportunity to share our joys and concerns with each other. We are known by others, just as we know them in return. It seems like an obvious thing, but being known matters. Too many people lead lives of loneliness and despair, because they do not have the joy of others simply caring about their welfare—the good and the bad. When we gather and share our concerns with one another, we are making sure that all who are present who need to be recognized in their joy and
their sorrow get the attention they need.

Yet, although the Sundays in Lent do not differ all that much from the Sundays throughout the rest of the year, they do differ in at least one significant way. Historically, Lent has been about sacrifice—hence the tradition of giving up something for Lent. As we experience an inconvenience, we recall the deprivations that Jesus underwent to demonstrate God’s love to us. In an age and a culture that stresses convenience and self-satisfaction to the extreme, it is a good and necessary thing for us to recall that we are not the center of the universe. Lent calls us back to our senses and reminds us that we are not gods. It gives us the opportunity to return our life to its intended order—with God at the center of our existence.

Making it to church on Sundays in Lent when we are in town and physically able to do so may not be doing any more than we should be doing all year round, but it is something. Given all the demands that are on our lives—some self-imposed and others not—is it really too much to ask that we carve out some time to connect with others and connect with God? I hope for my sake, your sake and all of our sakes that it is not too much to ask.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, February 8, 2008

What I Learned on NPR This Week

Okay, I confess--for those who don't already know--that I'm an NPR junkie. Go ahead, criticize me as hopelessly under the mind control of the voice of the left--but the fact remains that if you drop by my office you will hear me streaming an NPR show over the internet (and occasionally a podcast about the TV show LOST). Say what you will!

The following stories/interviews struck me as interesting or powerful or both:

1. I'm always really amazed at how good the NPR segments are about the Storycorps project. These segments are taken from actual interviews that ordinary people do of someone in their life--usually a family member--at one of the Storycorps booths around the country. (There's one in Union Station in Manhattan that I always meant to make use of, but just never did.) The segments are always deeply touching. This morning on Morning Edition they aired a segment where a father shares about his daughter's murder and how he came to forgive her murderer. In a few short minutes, we, the listeners, are privileged to hear one of the most powerful stories of grace I've ever heard.

2. I know I said that I wouldn't be posting any more about abortion, but I did share my thoughts on the film JUNO and how it's been dragged into the hopeless contemporary American dialogue on the issue, so I feel obligated to put something here about the new film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. I haven't seen the film yet, because it has just opened to limited release in the U.S.--and something tells me that it won't be coming to the art house cinema capital that is St. Joseph, MO--but the plot centers around two college students in Ceausescu's Romania, one of whom finds herself pregnant. The two set off to procure an abortion for her, an act that was illegal in the communist regime. On yesterday's Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed the director and he paints a very frightening picture of what it would be like when a government controls what can and cannot happen to a woman's body.

3. I'm not a big fan of Hillary Clinton. As a former New Yorker, I have to admit she was a good senator. I don't disagree with her politics very much either. My problem with her comes down to her vote on the war, which I believe went against what she knew to be right, but she went with what was most advantageous to her future ambitions. I believe you see this kind of unbridled ambition in the kind of negative campaigning she and her husband have engaged in so far in the primary season. I believe she represents more of the same old partisanship that will continue to ignore the real problems in our country.

YET--I also have to admit that ever since she took the national stage, she has been the target of untold unfair attacks, many of which boil down to outright sexism, even if it is a sexism masked in political language. On Day to Day, there was an interview with feminst author Robin Morgan. She makes a very powerful and convincing argument that the kind of attacks that have been levelled at Clinton this season--mainly by those on the opposite side of the aisle--have been degrading to women in general. She asks what the reaction would have been if a heckler had called out for Barack Obama to shine his shoes, just as a heckler yelled at Clinton to "Go home and iron my shirt!" I agree with her belief that there would have been an outrcry if such a statement was about race--and deservedly so--but sexism remains something our culture refuses to address in any meaningful way, in spite of the advances women have made over the last few decades.

Won't you join me in the ranks of those under the mind control spell of NPR?

Grace and Peace,


What This Past Sunday's Congregational Vote Means (Dialogue Column 2.5.08)

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.


After church this past Sunday, the congregation met and unanimously approved the proposal of the Marketing Committee to withdraw up to $48,000 from the church’s permanent funds to promote marketing in 2008 and 2009. The vote was unanimous, just as the votes to approve this plan by the Permanent Funds Committee and the Administrative Board were unanimous. I believe this was a momentous day in the life of First Christian Church and one that will bear fruit far into the future.

I must admit that I was a bit surprised that there was not more discussion about the vote during the meeting itself. Since this is the first time I have attended such a meeting at First Christian, I have been pondering what the lack of discussion and the unanimous vote means. There are a few possibilities that I hope are not the case. It could be that due to the weather some of those who might have had reservations could not be present, but the meeting was well-attended in spite of the weather, so I’m guessing that real opposition to the plan would have been represented in any respect. It also could be that those with reservations may have not felt comfortable speaking, however this seems to rarely be the case on any other occasion. People at First Christian seem to have few hang-ups when it comes to sharing what they like and don’t like.

On the other hand, the lack of discussion and the unanimous vote could be what it appears to be: we are in agreement as a church that this plan is not only a good plan but a necessary one. My hope is that the hard work of the Marketing Committee was evident in the presentation of the plan, and that it was plain to see that many long hours had been spent considering the costs and benefits of a large variety of ideas. I sense that many were pleased to hear from our Finance Committee that we are in better financial shape now that we had thought we would be just a few months ago due to interest earned from our permanent funds in the fourth quarter of 2007. This means that it may well be possible to pay “out of pocket” for all or part of the marketing plan rather than paying for it out of permanent funds. I also heard from a number of folks that they have been wanting just such an effort by this church for some time.

What I hope for most of all, as your minister, is that the unanimous vote this past Sunday means that we are committed to doing what we can to share the unique identity and mission of First Christian Church with our city. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, I believe that First Christian has a unique understanding of God’s grace to present to St. Joseph. For so many in our community, Christianity offers nothing besides hostile condemnation, ignorance and exclusion. The marketing plan is our church’s attempt to let the community know that First Christian is working to offer an alternative to such views of Christ’s Gospel.

In the early meetings of the Marketing Committee, the group came up with the following purpose statement to guide its work:

"The Marketing Committee at FCC is designed to attract people who are seeking an open-minded community of faith that believes in a gracious God and finds common ground in justice, intellectual honesty and authentic spirituality."

I believe that this would also be a good purpose statement for each of the members of First Christian Church. We must remember that as good and necessary as this marketing plan may be, the best marketing a church can ever have is a membership that is excited about what its church is doing and how God is working through them to shine light in a dark and lonely world.

Grace and Peace,