Sunday, June 29, 2008
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Here's the story.
Monday, June 23, 2008
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
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,
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The Cost of Discipleship
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
Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
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,
Friday, June 6, 2008
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,
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,