Sunday, June 29, 2008

No Guns in Church Please

Thursday's ruling by the Supreme Court regarding Washington D.C.'s strict gun laws, reminded me of a picture I had yet to download from my digital camera. In May, I was at a preaching conference in Minneapolis and I was struck by the signs that were posted at the entrances to the churches we were meeting in. The signs stated that handguns were not permitted on church property, which I thought was strange since I would assume that people would not bring guns to church.

Well it turns out that after a quick Google search I discovered the reason these churches did so is because changes in Minnesota gun laws in recent years allowed anyone with a permit to carry a gun in a public place. Several churches sued arguing that for the state to declare that it was alright for someone to carry a gun to church conflicted with their religious rights--imagine that--a church actually understanding Christianity to mean that a person shouldn't carry around a firearm??? The result of the lawsuit was that churches could forbid guns from their properties and could post signs saying so.

I don't know what the result of this week's case will be for gun laws or gun violence in America, but I would like to urge all visitors to First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO to please leave their guns at home.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Great article about RFKC in the News-Press

I'm really grateful to Alonzo Weston--St. Joseph News-Press columnist and reporter--for coming out to First Christian's Royal Family Kids Camp this year and writing a terrific story about this ministry to abused and neglected children. It was a pleasure to talk with him, and I really appreciate the time he took and his sensitivity to the story. He's a class act.

Here's the story.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Why We Have Royal Family Kids Camp (Dialogue Column 6.24.08)

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.

For sixteen years, First Christian Church has held a Royal Family Kids Camp for children in northwest Missouri. This residential camp for abused and neglected children seeks to share God’s love with these kids. Our camp is one of 165 RFKC camps across the United States and other countries. Here at First Christian, we have become familiar with this camp—so familiar, that we may at times forget the stakes involved in this ministry offered by our church. Here are a few reminders (click here for the sources of the statistics I cite):

  • An estimated 906,000 children are victims of abuse & neglect every year. The rate of victimization is 12.3 children per 1,000 children. That means among the approximately 24,000 children in Buchanan County, 295 children are abused.

  • 1500 children die every year from child abuse and neglect. That is just over 4 fatalities every day. 79% of these children are under the age of 4.

  • 80% of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least 1 psychiatric disorder at the age of 21.

  • Abused children are 25% more likely to experience teen pregnancy.

  • Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.

  • 14.4% of all men in prison in the United States were abused as children and 36.7% of all women in prison were abused as children

  • Children who have been sexually abused are 2.5 times more likely develop alcohol abuse.

  • Children who have been sexually abused are 3.8 times more likely develop drug addictions.

  • Nearly 2/3’s of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused as children.

These statistics are staggering. On Monday morning, the 26 children going to our RFKC camp gathered in our fellowship hall. For the most part, they acted like any other children—nervous about the camp, rambunctious and impatient for things to begin, eager for attention and full of life and potential. There is a disconnect in my mind between the beautiful children going to our camp and the terrible circumstances that resulted in them needing to be a part of it. I don’t really have an adequate way to articulate my experience of these children in light of the overwhelming statistics of child abuse in this country. Also, I don’t really have adequate theological language to explain how human beings can do such horrible things to children or to explain why God would allow such acts to occur. Words like “sin” and “the problem of evil” are unable to speak to the reality of child abuse.

What keeps me going in light of my confusion and offers me hope in light of the grim reality of abuse is what our church is doing to make a difference in the lives of children year after year. The knowledge that people care to do this year after year, not only at our church but at camps like it across the country, along with the many other agencies and ministries that also seek to heal lives broken by abuse, helps me to continue to hope and believe even in the face of evil I cannot understand. I hope the same hope and light is evident to you. As a church, we can feel proud of what we are doing to help these children avoid the statistics listed above, even as we grieve about the greater problems facing children in our culture.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Theological Significance of Battlestar Galactica

Alright, I admit it. I'm a sci-fi geek--sort of. I really like science fiction TV shows, but I don't qualify as a fanboy. I can't tell you the names of specific Star Trek episodes; nor can I tell you the differences between the X-Men movies and the comic books; for that matter, I can't even tell you the name of any of the other monsters from the Godzilla movies (other than Baby Godzilla--who could forget him?). But I do like a good sci-fi TV show--complete with cheesy sets, bad costumes and technology that has little or no relationship to what we know of quantum physics.

One of my favorite shows is soon to end. It's the SciFi Channel's version of Battlestar Galactica--as opposed to the original series that aired around 1980 starring Lorne Greene, Dirk Benedict and others. I was a fan of the original--talk about cheesy!--but I really, really like the new version. So do many TV critics.

As with the original, there's a whole lot of theological gobbledy-gook involving gods with the same names as the Greek and Roman pantheons, but the new version has taken it to a new level. The battle between humans and the evil robotic race the Cylons also has religious elements. The monotheistic Cylons are convinced that their God has commanded them to wipe out the polytheistic humans. It's a lot of fun, although it remains to be seen whether or not the series can resolve its tangled plot lines (theological and otherwise) before it ends this year.

Even though I'm a minister, I haven't spent too much time obsessing over Battlestar's theology, but I did come across an article that does. It's on a great site called Religion Dispatches--put together by some good religion scholars and journalists of religion--that I like to check out regularly. So, if you, like me, find laser blasting space ships enjoyable, you might take a look at the article.

Grace and Peace,


Women in America 2008 (Dialogue Column 6.17.08)

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.

It’s the week after Father’s Day, but I find myself thinking about the role of women in our society. This line of thought began yesterday when I received an e-mail from a friend in New York. She forwarded me an article from a conservative publication that lauded the attributes of Cindy McCain while simultaneously trashing Michelle Obama. I wrote my friend back and asked her not to send me stuff like this anymore. I have no desire to spend the next five months wading through e-mails trashing either of the presidential candidates’ wives. Such mudslinging shows me what I already knew—that when it comes to acquiring power (political or otherwise) sexism is not off-limits.

Both Mrs. McCain and Mrs. Obama are educated and successful women, but both are being carefully packaged so as not to challenge or threaten traditional gender roles. A story on NPR this morning explained how both women have forecast their roles as First Lady as being related to advocacy for women and children. This is a not so subtle way of saying they will stay out of the way of the men.

Of course, many supporters of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president claim that her loss was largely due to their candidate daring to challenge such traditional gender roles. I believe Clinton’s loss is due to many factors and sexism is only one of them, but I do emphatically agree that Clinton faced a significant barrage of sexist comments, questions and opposition while on the campaign trail. From the spectator that yelled “Iron my shirt!” to comments by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about her qualifications to obscene Hillary Clinton novelty toys, the overt sexism displayed during her campaign reveals an ugly and disturbing side of our culture.

Despite the advances made in our society by and for women, the effects of past and present sexism still have startling results. The statistics generally show steady improvement for women over the last 20 years or so, but the current status of women in America is still not good enough. On average, women still make only ¾ of what men make for their annual income. Women are overwhelmingly the caregivers for children, and an increasing number of them are doing so as single parents while juggling the demands of work and childcare. One in four women in America will be the victim of domestic violence. Unfortunately, sexist attitudes play a part in all of these statistics.

I would think that the reason I bring up sexism in a church newsletter would be obvious, but I’m sure it will not be for some. The mere fact that I refuse to listen to criticisms of one or the other presidential candidate’s wife will be taken by some as a partisan stance, just because I refuse to attack someone who stands on the opposite side of the political spectrum from them. The church cannot, however, refuse to take a stand against sexism, racism, and prejudice against sexual minorities or any other kind of prejudice just because some people can only filter such comments in terms of the politics of the right or left.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves and continually rejected forms of religion that demonized others. Paul taught that all are equal in Jesus Christ, even if all are not equal in society. The church has an obligation to be at the forefront of speaking out against politics, policies and attitudes that reduce a child of God to a second-class person, but as is often the case, the church usually allows itself to be a tool of people who wish to reinforce prejudice.

In the case of women, the church has played a huge part in helping legitimize the oppression of women, even though most churches now and in the past would close their doors were it not for the contributions of women. Theologies that preach the submission of women to men based upon a first century household code or a creation story about Adam’s rib, all speak out of the prejudices of their age rather than from the gracious God of the universe. Just because the problem is bigger than our church, does not excuse our church from working to change the circumstances of women here in our own context. Let us declare the good news God created each woman with an intrinsic worth equal to that of a man, even if she is a presidential candidate, a presidential candidate’s wife, a corporate executive or a single mother cashing in food stamps at her local grocery store.

Grace and Peace,


Worship Bulletin Quotation

Keeping with my intention expressed in my last post, here's the quotation from this past Sunday's worship bulletin. This one was in honor of Father's Day:

“It has become so commonplace to speak of God as “our Father” that we forget what an extraordinary metaphor it once was.”

--Frederick Buechner
Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized

I almost went with the following quotation:

"My father left my home when I was young, so when I was introduced to the concept of God as Father I imagined Him as a stiff, oily man who wanted to move into our house and share a bed with my mother. I can only remember this as a frightful and threatening idea. . . Today I wonder why it is God refers to Himself as "Father" at all. This, to me, in light of the earthly representation of the role seems a marketing mistake. Why would God want to call Himself Father when so many fathers abandon their children?"
--Donald Miller
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

This year I've been putting a quotation on the front cover of the bulletin each Sunday. I spend a bit of time each week looking for one that goes along with the message of the sermon and hopefully the theme of the service. My intention is that the quotation will spur some thought as people enter the service and may even be something folks might want to keep if it speaks to them.

For the sake of those who may miss a service, I'm going to start posting the quotation from each Sunday here on the blog. When I've known the source of the quotation, I've included it, but sometimes the quotations are ones I've saved from various e-newsletters and the like. Below you'll find most of the ones I've used this year--at leat the ones I could find:


If we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer thia question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end, but we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Cost of Discipleship

One can believe in God with a very complete set of arguments, yet not have any faith that makes a difference in living.
--Georgia Harkness

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: "We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. . ."

As men have forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his time the sacred impress not of Caesar, but of God.

--Julia Ward Howe,
1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation

A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another. . . We believe that the designations of the church as a colony and Christians as resident aliens are not too strong for the modern American church—indeed, we believe it is the nature of the church, at any time and in any situation to be a colony.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony

“Heaven will be inherited by every man who has heaven in his soul.”

--Henry Ward Beecher

We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear, but as a pastor I’ve seen that most people react to fear by running like crazy. It doesn’t matter where they run or what they try next. They just have to keep moving. The late psychologist Rollo May has written, "Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way." This is how we get into real trouble – by running when we are lost. It is then that we make the worst mistakes with relationships, family and work. Not convinced that the Lord is leading us to green pastures, we veer off course, try a short cut or run like terrified sheep.

--Craig Barnes

On Sunday morning in contemporary America, modern disciples come straggling through the church door weighed down by cynicism, stress, pretense, power. They are sophisticated lawyers and skeptical scientists and shell-shocked journalists -- skilled practitioners in the seductions of the world, but nervous novices in the realm of the Spirit. They, like the first disciples, yearn for the living presence of God. But they are too preoccupied, suspicious, too busy to actually recognize God. In their objective world of fact and truth and matter and money, the church's world of mystery and meaning and risk and relationship seems silly. And so they are eager to discuss and debate the idea of God, but unprepared to experience or recognize the presence of God.

--Susan Andrews

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Frederick Buechner,
Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

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

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

One of the greatest ironies available to people who take the Bible seriously is that they may be tempted to take it, and themselves, so seriously that God and the truths of God to which the Bible points may be obscured, perverted, or lost entirely.

--Peter Gomes,
The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Your Backside and the Church (Dialogue Column 6.10.08)

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.

In case you did not see the church ad in Saturday’s paper or the church sign, my sermon title for this past Sunday was “Get Off Your Butt and Come to Church.” I’ll admit that it does not win any awards for subtlety, and it definitely lacks a certain amount of decorum. I don’t let my five year-old say “butt” (I know it is inevitable, but I’ve got to keep the innocence going as long as I can.), so I feel a little bit embarrassed to have done so in a sermon title. My sense is that most who read it either didn’t think twice about it or kept their “tsk tsk” to themselves. Despite some misgivings however, I really don’t apologize for the sentiment, and if telling folks to get off their butts has any affect whatsoever on folks who may take Sunday worship for granted, then I won’t apologize for that either. (We did have decent attendance Sunday, for summertime at least, but I’m pretty sure my sermon title had little to do with it.)

I preached Sunday on several scenes from Matthew 9 where Jesus calls others to community. He calls Matthew, a tax collector--essentially a traitor in the eyes of his countrymen, and then sits down to eat with “tax collectors and sinners” despite the protests of the self-righteous religious types of his day. Then he heals a woman who has been bleeding for a dozen years, just before he raises a girl from death. Jesus calls those who are on the outside of community with God and with people to enter into relationship with one another and with God. Whether the person in question was “unclean” due to their profession, their misdeeds, their medical condition or even their mortality, Jesus called them to community. The job of the church is to likewise call people to be a part of a community that cares and serves.

I suspect that being a part of worship on Sunday matters more than people realize. First of all, it really is the only time we are all together as a church, but we are only “all together” to the extent of who is actually present. Second, it is the only time for most people that they will worship God in a given week. Put another way, it may be the only time that many people will acknowledge their proper place in the universe as a person created by God meant for service and love to others. Our busy schedules and self-interest rarely allow for such reflection. Third, it is an opportunity to be known and to know others. As we share joys and concerns, greet one another, and even sing and listen together, we participate in the sacred activity of reminding one another that each one of us matters and is a part of something greater than him- or herself. In a world of amazing technology that invariably pulls us farther and farther away from one another, despite our efforts to connect with one another in new ways, souls are crying out for such intimacy. Furthermore, in a society that seems to be discarding traditional forms of people gathering together in person, it is all too easy for people to fall through the cracks and to end up leading lives of quiet loneliness. A community of people that care about one another is something all too rare in our culture, and such communities can heal a hurting soul.

When your backside—or mine for that matter—is not present when we gather for worship, you (and I) miss out on helping to create a community of healing and care. I’ve known churches that asked their members to commit to being present in worship every Sunday they are in town, and although I’ve challenged something similar during Lent, I am reluctant to ask for such a commitment in any formal manner. I grew up as the son of a minister, so I know a thing or two about being present in church every time the door is open. Like anything else, attending church services can become a chore and a burden, especially when they are only understood as a requirement rather than as an opportunity to heal the world. I know that there are some Sunday mornings when people need to rest, to take care of themselves, to prepare for an important event or whatever. What I wish for the members of the church where I serve is not for people to feel guilt or shame about missing church—there are plenty of other churches that will provide such negative understandings of community—but rather a deep sense of longing to be with people who care about them and to care for others in return—a sense that an opportunity to experience God in an authentic way was missed.

In a nutshell, my hope is that people would want to come to our worship service for positive reasons rather than negative ones. My hope is that people would come expecting to encounter God and others in a way that welcomes the stranger, includes those who have been excluded and heals those who have felt wounded by people who have taken the name Christian. I hope you will hear Jesus’ call to “get off your butt and come to church.”

Grace and Peace,


St. Joseph: Polarized and/or Indifferent?

It's been a week and a half since my letter to the editor was published in the St. Joseph News-Press. The letter is essentially what I wrote a few weeks earlier in my church's newsletter and posted here on my blog--a criticism of the imagery used in Sam Graves' first attack ad against Kay Barnes. I consider the imagery to be racist and homophobic. Although I believe Graves had a right to attack Barnes on whatever issues he deems appropriate, I do not believe imagery that demeans minorities is ever appropriate.

What I continue to ponder is the reaction or lack thereof I received to the letter. I got a couple phone calls from people who totally agreed with my point, but mainly seemed to be glad I was critical of Graves--even though I tried to limit my critique to the imagery in the ad rather than making a general critique of Graves.

I received one nasty bit of mail from someone who objected to me daring to say anything nasty against Graves, especially when Kay Barnes is so obviously a spawn of Hell--okay, the writer didn't say "spawn of hell" but came pretty close. I thought that I kept my focus upon Graves' ad and really didn't say much about Barnes at all, but I guess if you're not pro-Graves you must be pro-Barnes.

The responses I received that really mattered to me came from folks I know who have children who are gay or lesbian. Their responses were ones of gratitude born out of pain--pain from watching their children painted with a broad and terrible brush, just like the ones used in that ad. I was trying to speak for people who are GLBT and for people who love them, so I guess it is this third category of response that matters to me most.

There was one more response--indifference. I'm not sure if most people don't seem to be bothered by the imagery in the political ad, because they believe it doesn't affect them or if they simply ignore the awful partisan rhetoric strewn by both sides of the spectrum (Democrat and Republican) or if they really don't have a problem with it. I don't know what to make of the indifference to it--perhaps it had something to do with the ad's really lousy production values.

Nonetheless, the ad demeans people that already feel misunderstood and judged. Trading on imagery that is racist and anti-gay has all too real consequences for the minorities in question. So, I will set aside the responses from the partisans of the left and right, and I will hope that what I wrote in whatever small degree actually speaks not for one party or another, but for people who ignored by those in power--powerful people of the right and the left.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, June 6, 2008

Set Down the Load You are Carrying (Dialogue Column 6-3-08)

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.

What kind of load are you carrying? Is it time for you to let some of it go?

The past two Sundays I have preached from what is called “The Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. On May 25, I preached from Matthew 6:24-34 where Jesus speaks about worrying and asks us to “consider the lilies of the field” and “the birds of the air.” On June 1, I preached from Matthew 7:21-29 where Jesus compares the wise and foolish builders. In both passages, Jesus contrasts our reliance upon ourselves verses our reliance upon God.

If you’re like me, you never spend enough time thinking about what exactly it means to trust God in your daily life. It seems that only when I am faced with a situation clearly outside of my control do I really bother to ask for God’s help. I remain far too busy with cares, concerns, meetings and activities to take time to see what life would be like if I relied on God more. I wonder sometimes if I really trust God enough to let go of my anxious efforts to do it all or if reliance upon God is just a nice idea I talk about now and then.

Our talented accompanist, Jeremy Gregoire, offered us a gift Sunday when he played the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Its words have been echoing in my mind since yesterday’s service: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” My familiarity with this hymn tricks me into trivializing the truth of its words.

In my preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I was reading some of the context preceding the passage I was going to preach on. Earlier in chapter 7, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Growing up, I heard these verses preached only in terms of conversion and salvation. There always seemed to be an undercurrent of elitism in such teachings—“Few know the truth that we know; pity the ignorant masses.” I’ve come to view it differently in the years since.

In the old city of Jerusalem, as in many ancient cities, there were large gates used by crowds and by farmers and merchants, just as there were narrow gates used by individuals. By its size, the narrow gate did not allow you to carry in baggage or a load of crops or merchandise; for that, you needed the wide gate. If you wanted to go through the narrow gate, you had to let go of the load you were carrying or go another way. (I have the suspicion that I got this particular idea from William Barclay, but I'm not sure.)

I have come to believe that the “life” Jesus was speaking about in these verses was not only eternal life but a fulfilling life here and now. We rob ourselves of it through our loads of care and worry and through our endless quest for more stuff to acquire and own. None of these things feeds our soul, gives us peace of mind or gives us fulfillment. In order to find it, we must let it go and walk through the narrow gate. The reason few find it is not out of ignorance but out of fear; fear over just what will happen if we truly rely on God’s grace and care. What would happen if you laid your load down?

Grace and Peace,


Race, Politics and the Pulpit

After my last post about Obama leaving his Chicago church Trinity U.C.C., I came across a really good editorial in The Huntsville Times by Kay Campbell that comes very close to expressing what I feel about the controvery surrounding Jeremiah Wright, Trinity and Barack Obama. Here's a taste of it:

In this day of ideological litmus tests, we have lost sight of what Aristotle pointed to as one mark of the educated person: To be able to consider another viewpoint without accepting it and without construing mere listening as approval. If we talk only to people we agree with, we're missing at least half of the story.

Could it be that this scrutiny of Obama's influences springs from the anxiety white people have that black people will remember how awful we've been to them and start treating us the way we've treated them? Both McCain and Clinton have been linked to ministers and ministries as outrageous as Wright and Pfleger. Why are Obama's links being obsessed over and theirs barely mentioned?

It seems that the fear coursing behind reaction to Rev. Wright has not much to do with politics, or even theology, and everything to do with the living pain still surrounding race in our land.
We too often forget: Christians are required to forgive even heinous acts. Black Christians, for all the anger and pain left, as Bishop Desmond Tutu said recently, "in the tummy," are, for the most part, a heroic example of forgiveness in action. Most of them leave judgment to God.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama, Wright, Trinity and Me

If you read back over my blog posts, you will find me defending Jeremiah Wright when the short clips from a few of his sermons first started making waves on cable news. I really felt that given his track record of working for the poor in Chicago and the way his comments were taken out of context he had not been given a fair shake.

Then I saw his performance at the National Press Club, and everything changed. I know some time has passed since those events, but I've barely had time to blog since then, and I've also been struggling as to what to say about him. What do you say about a man who had a moment in the national spotlight to actually educate people outside of his community and to advance the dialogue on race in America but instead uses that moment for grandstanding and setting back the national conversation on such an important topic?

The best statement I've read--that actually understands the religious dynamics at work and does not summarily dismiss Wright's many accomplishments was an editorial in The Christian Century. It's well worth a read.

In other related news, I am excited for our country that it finally has a presidential candidate from one of the two major parties that is African-American--I think Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post expresses well the historical significance of the event. I must say, however, that there was a line in Obama's speech Tuesday night that disturbed me. He described America as "the last, best hope on earth." The context was in terms of spreading freedom and democracy, but nonetheless the language is something I would expect from the regular peddlers of patriotic idolatry on the far right. I would hope that it was just hyperbole from a speech writer, because I know Obama is a Christian, and as any Christian should know--only God is the "last, best hope on earth". Here's hoping that he will be more careful and more reverent in the future.

Finally, there's the issue of Obama resigning his church membership due to the continuing flow of controversial statements out of Trinity U.C.C. in Chicago. Some will dismiss it as political opportunism--David Brooks approvingly called it "political ruthlessness"--I call it just plain sad. I choose to believe--and maybe I am naive about this--that the Obamas genuinelyloved their church as most Christians do and that the community of faith where Barack came to know Jesus Christ had special meaning for him. I also choose to believe that he is sincere when he says that it is not only out of concern for his campaign but also concern for Trinity that he resigns. After all, Trinity should not have to bear the burden of wondering what comment made within its walls will set off another chain reaction of media overkill.

Yet, I am disturbed that this is where we are in America today--that a person running for national office must seek out a church that stays quiet and non-confrontational in order to run for office. I am concerned that more churches are not causing controversy in their efforts to fight for the poor and oppressed. I am bothered that the national media cannot draw a distinction between what a minister says and what a church member believes.
Beth Newman, ethics professor at the seminary I attended, was critical of Obama for leaving Trinity, but I don't believe I have enough information to make that judgment. Instead, I just remain bothered by the whole thing.

Grace and Peace,