Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SAYING GOODBYE, SAYING HELLO: First Christian in 2008 (Dialogue Column 5.27.08)

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.

Just a few hours after I write these words, I will be performing the funeral service for Faye Schaff, our sister in Christ and a long-time member of First Christian Church. Although Faye’s health was already in decline when I arrived here in January 2007, I still marveled at her level of activity and laughed at her wry sense of humor. I will miss Faye greatly, as I know so many people in our church and community will also—most of whom have known Faye much longer than me.

In a church our size, a member’s death is acutely felt. Not only is there grief over that member’s accustomed place in the sanctuary now sitting empty, but there is also an absence in the life and ministry of the church—especially when the member who has died was as vocal and active as Faye. Chances are, given the number of members in their 80’s and 90’s, First Christian will experience more moments of grief and absence in the months and years to come. Although the numbers of deaths may not be any greater than in years past, for those who have been at First Christian for a long time, the number may seem larger, because our overall church membership is smaller than it was 20, 40 and 60 years ago.

I will be speaking to the individual grief of Faye’s family members and friends this afternoon, but in this column, I wish to speak of the grief and fears of First Christian. First Christian as a community of faith has grieved the death of hundreds of members over its 160+ years in existence. In more recent years, particular deaths have been felt by our church in a very visceral way. Names such as Maxine Clinkenbeard, Ruth Springstead, Virginia Magner, Warren Neudorff and other longtime faithful members who have died still resound in our hallways and meetings. Each death has meant that the church must grieve its loss and adjust to that person’s absence in terms of who will take up the responsibilities held by that person in life.

In mainline churches such as First Christian which saw their largest memberships in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the decline in membership since that time can result in a lot of grief. Long-time members can and often do grieve for a past “greatness” that is now gone, and as people from that era die, the grief for each individual is matched by a grief for the church that used to be. This “compound grief” is accompanied by fear—fear that the church will never regain its former glory, a fear that the church may close or die and a fear that the sacrifices of the past may be forgotten. All of these fears are to a certain extent valid: we can’t turn back time; churches do close (and sometimes they hang on by their fingernails long past the time when they should have closed) and all humans tend to forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before them. However, none of these fears seems particularly valid to me, at least in terms of the future of First Christian Church, St. Joseph, MO.

When I interviewed for the position of minister at First Christian, the first question at every meeting went something like this: “Our church is in decline, what will you do to grow the church?” My response then and now is “I don’t know. I don’t believe in trendy church growth programs, but I do believe in church members being faithful to God and serving their communities in real and tangible ways. Such faith and service results in the only growth that matters: spiritual growth.” After all, it is you the members under the leadership of our loving God, rather than me your minister, who will grow First Christian. This certainly has been the case since my arrival here.

Since coming to First Christian 14 months ago, I have sensed that the fear has subsided even though the grief has remained. My hope is that both will be replaced by an optimism and vision for our church’s future. In just the past 14 months, our average Sunday attendance is up, the number of children in our children’s ministry has increased, the number of youth in our youth group has increased, 17 new members have joined the church (9 of them in 2008 so far), adult children of older members have begun to return and new ministries have been started. Most importantly, the membership of First Christian have been faithful to its calling to be an open-minded and welcoming church, just as it always has been. The numbers are just evidence of the faithfulness of God and the membership of First Christian, and all of the good accomplished in the last 14 months is just a foretaste of what is to come.

We may grieve each death here at First Christian—after all, we care about people here and it is appropriate for us to grieve for them—but we need not be afraid of what will come of us who are left behind. Some of us may grieve for how things used to be, but we need not fear the exciting things God has in store for our church in the future. We may worry that the sacrifices of those who have gone before us may be forgotten—and that our own sacrifices made for First Christian may be forgotten too—but in my opinion, this church does a very good job of remembering its past, so I do not believe we need to fear forgetting as we face what is to come. We may have to say “goodbye” to those whom we love, but we are promised by our resurrected Lord that such “goodbyes” will only last until we soon have the chance to say “hello” again. In the meantime, we here at First Christian will say “hello” to more new members and more new visitors who stop by as they continue their faith journeys. To each and every one of them, we will offer gracious hospitality, opportunities to minister and words of witness to a faithful and loving God—just like we have done for over 160 years.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Who's that Author I Keep Quoting in My Sermons?

I've had a number of people ask me over the last few months about the author I seem to regularly be quoting in my sermons--I can't help it; she tells really good stories that make great sermon illustrations!

Her name is Anne Lamott. She's got a number of novels out there, a book or two on writing, a fabulous book about her first year as a mother that all new parents should read and three must-read collections of spiritual memoirs. It is this latter category of writing that I seem to pull from regularly when I am reaching for a story that will make my point for me and will stick with the listener much longer than if I had presented a lecture on it.

I find Lamott insightful, poignant, hilarious, revelatory and occasionally annoying in her memoirs. The annoying comes only in her reflections on her own body--if I were a middle-aged woman, I'm sure I would identify more--and in her utter hate of Republicans, especially our current president. Granted, she's working on loving Bush and all people that disagree with her politics--and her essays on her struggles in this regard are worthwhile--but I find it annoying not because of what she believes necessarily (I have plenty of my own moments that are not very pretty dealing with my feelings about people that disagree with me.), but I just get annoyed that I can't pass on her books to friends and acquaintances who happen to be on the opposite side of her politically. They'll be offended by her words, tune her out, stop reading and then miss out on all the other really great stuff she has to say about God, parenting, our own self-deceptions and pettiness, nature, children, death, conversion, forgiveness, peace. . .

what I love about Lamott, is that she really, really loves Jesus. There aren't that many recovering addicts that profess flaming liberal political beliefs and still love Jesus passionately out there. Her eclectic mix of background and ideas offer the reader surprise after surprise which helps the reader to see the world, God, themselves, etc. in a new and wonderful light.

I recommend her highly. Here are the memoirs I mentioned:

Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith (It's from this one I took the story of Lamott's mother not having any band-aids.)

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (It's from this one I took the story of The Ham of God)

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

I also recommend Operating Instructions, which is her journal from her first year as a mother.

You can also read many of the essays that ended up in these memoirs on Salon.com, as well as some others that have only been published on-line.

Happy reading. You'll want to own these books, not only to read them, but so you can loan them out to friends when you finish. I'm currently missing my copy of Plan B, because I loaned it to someone in New York and never got it back--oh well, grace begets grace (eventually).

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dehumanization During an Election Year (Dialogue Column 5.13.08)

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.

Political advertizing is usually the bottom-dweller of discourse in America, but I saw a TV ad last night that hit a new level of crudeness and dehumanization. Rep. Sam Graves has a new ad [to see it click here] running against his presumptive Democratic opponent, Kay Barnes that depicts African-Americans and homosexuals in a manner that is clearly intended to play upon prejudice and intolerance. [FULL DISCLOSURE: Kay’s mother Helen is a member of First Christian, but even were that not the case, this ad would still be offensive.] Now, before anyone gets bent out of shape about me talking about a political ad in the church newsletter, let me make a few clear disclaimers:

1. Neither the church, the pulpit, nor a church newsletter is a proper place for the endorsement of political candidates and you certainly won’t be hearing one from me.

2. My concern as a minister is not with particular candidates or parties, rather it is with the language and rhetoric used by both and whether or not they reinforce stereotypes and prejudice. Neither one of our political parties is above using the nastiest of tactics, and when they do, they should be called to account.

3. I am essentially unconcerned with personal attacks by one candidate upon another, as well as slanted attacks against a candidate’s positions or statements. As distasteful as all such rhetoric may be, it is a part of American political life, and there are already too many pundits and talking heads discussing the particulars of such things.

4. Occasionally (one might say regularly), political attacks make use of language and images that purposely invoke stereotypes and prejudice. Such attacks demean and scapegoat people in one minority or another in order to advance a particular agenda. By playing to fears and prejudice, such attacks do harm to all of us and bring out the worst in our great country.

5. As Christians, I believe loving God and loving neighbor involves standing up against prejudice and dehumanizing rhetoric whenever it occurs. Writing off such tactics as just election year politics is a copout. Such rhetoric extends across party lines and should be denounced no matter whether it comes from a Democrat or Republican.

Enough disclaimers, let’s get back to the ad in question. In Graves’ ad, Barnes is depicted as attending a fundraiser with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (which is true). The ad goes on to accuse Barnes of having “San Francisco Values”. Let me state clearly that for all I care Graves can criticize Pelosi and Barnes for associating with her. For that matter, he can criticize San Francisco all he wants, although what that city has personally done to him is a little unclear to me. It’s what happens next that is so disturbing.

The ad goes on to depict what exactly “San Francisco Values” are. Up flashes a picture of three people dancing and drinking—what appears to be an African-American female, an African-American male, and a Caucasian female—in what I guess is supposed to be stereotypical gay attire (although my gay friends rarely seem to wear mesh tank-top and cowboy hat combinations). While this image plays, the announcer mentions that “San Francisco Values” include support for gay marriage and other stances. It seems fair to me for Graves to attack Barnes for her positions—whatever they may or may not be—but what I object to is the imagery.

Nothing that gets into political commercials is by accident, especially when it comes to people of minority ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. One needs only to think of the Willie Horton ad (watch the ad ) in 1988 or the ads run against Harold Ford, Jr. in 2006 (watch an NBC story about the ad) to realize that images of African-Americans in political ads are routinely used to arouse prejudice in white voters. The list of negative portrayals of gay and lesbian people in political ads is an even longer one. Graves’ ad falls right in line with this tradition of dehumanizing and stereotyping a minority to appeal to voters’ worst fears and biases.

I think it is fair to ask why the ad depicted not one but two African-Americans in a manner that implies a hedonistic lifestyle? Why not an African-American, a Hispanic-American and a Caucasian-American? Why not three Caucasians? The inclusion of two African-Americans seems intended to provoke a certain kind of reaction in a majority white district. Furthermore, the evocation of the gay bogeyman also seems intended to incite prejudice in a district where most homosexuals by necessity keep their orientations below the radar. It’s not a new tactic but an old one: play to the majority’s fears about the minority. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of that kind of tactic not only helping win political races but also reinforcing systemic prejudice.

I hope that Graves will stop running the ad and choose to run an honorable campaign. I hope Barnes’ response will take the high road. I hope that all candidates this year will avoid dehumanizing people in order to advance their own political fortunes. I hope for a lot of things, but if past history is any guide, I have plenty of reasons to be cynical.

The best that can we can do as Christians this election year is to make sure that we avoid being so attached to one party or another--one candidate or another--that we lose our ability to offer a prophetic response to any and all attempts to use prejudice as a political tool. Whether such tactics come from the right or from the left, they all deserve to be denounced and rejected by people who choose to love their neighbors as themselves.

Grace and Peace,


One Down and One to Go With St. Joseph City Council (5.6.08 Dialogue Column)

Note: The content of this post was sent out in First Christian Church's newsletter last week. I've been remiss in posting it here.

Last week, the St. Joseph City Council voted unanimously to release federal Community Development Block Grant funds for the construction of the Safe Haven homeless shelter. Thanks be to God! Despite the opposition of several anonymous downtown business owners and the fears and prejudices of some on the council itself, the money was approved and construction can begin on the shelter. I am extremely proud of and grateful for the members of First Christian who supported the shelter by attending last night’s meeting and the one on April 19, as well as those who wrote letters to the paper and o the council members themselves.

The council members deserve credit and appreciation for approving the funding for the shelter. I remain concerned, however, about the language used at both meetings by the council members regarding the homeless men in St. Joseph. From my perspective, most of the council see these people as a problem to be eliminated rather than as people deserving care and respect. My hope is that the council has learned through this process that the staff of Juda House, Interserv and other agencies are worthy partners for making St. Joseph a better place. It is worth noting, however, that what dialogue has occurred did not originate with the council and did not come about easily. The points raised by council members throughout this process seemed more like an echo of words spoken by a narrowly-defined group of downtown property owners rather than the perspective of political leaders charged with representing all people in St. Joe equally regardless of their status.

Given the council’s lack of understanding or apparent concern for low-income people in downtown St. Joseph, I now have concerns about another ministry that our church supports, The Open Door Food Kitchen. Council members have raised pointed questions regarding the Open Door in the last two meetings I have attended. First Christian has been instrumental in the founding and support of the Open Door since its founding. Our members have in the past and continue to serve as board members. Volunteers from our church prepare meals two days a month at the Open Door and routinely feed over 150 people a day. The director of Open Door, Judy Fleisher, told me last night that during the last week of April they served over 200 meals a day. Since our economy is not getting better, I fear the larger number will become the new norm.

The city council has concerns—raised by business interests—about the location of he food kitchen on Edmond Street. Some believe the presence of a food kitchen for low-income people in such a prominent place sends the wrong message about downtown St. Joseph. I am sure there are valid issues to be discussed in this regard, but the Open Door has its present location thanks to years of work, planning and fundraising—all of which has been done publicly and legally. There is a worthwhile debate that needs to happen regarding whether we will be a community that values the care for all of its citizens or a community that seeks to hide its low-income residents and their needs.

My anxiety over the council’s approach to the Open Door is based in large part over how little the council members seem to know about it. In the two meetings I have attended, council members seemed confused about who runs the Open Door. It is its own entity and is not run by Interserv or Community Mission as assumed by the council. They also seemed to be under the false assumption that the kitchen primarily serves homeless people. It primarily serves the working poor—people who have a permanent place to live and employment but who must make hard choices between things like food and medical care or transportation. Homeless people do eat there, but most of the people you meet there are coming off shift work, on their lunch hour or are disabled and/or unemployed. If the council does not even know these basic facts, how can they make fair judgments regarding the Open Door and its place in St. Joseph?

Stay tuned. I will share with you what I know as I know it. Let’s all work, hope and pray for a day when our political leaders, social service providers, communities of faith and our low-income neighbors can all work together for the care of all of God’s children in St. Joseph.
Grace and Peace,