Wednesday, July 30, 2008

New/Old Sermon Now on the Church Site

When I came to First Christian as minister, I had the goal of having my sermons printed and distributed each week, along with having it up on the church web site. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The never ending crunch of my schedule and the fact that many times I do not write my sermon out in full beforehand has left the dream of having it to share in print form in the dust.

In recent days, I've been going back through my sermons and trying to get some in shape to share. I just put one up on the church site from last September that actually remains very relevant for our church, even though almost a year has passed. It's titled "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" after the song by Fleetwood Mac, and the point of the sermon is for our church to learn from the past--successes and failures--as we move forward into the future.

Also, I quote in the sermon one of my predecessors, C. M. Chilton (that's his picture on the left)--who was the minister here at First Christian, St. Joseph when the church was largest in membership and arguably had its greatest influence upon its community. Chilton was active at the denominational level and successfully pushed for the denomination to take a stance of "open membership" which means a church would accept as a full and equal member without making them jump through a bunch of hoops regardless of their previous denominational affiliation or the mode of their baptism. The quotation from him I use comes from an address made to the denomination in 1909 at the celebration of its 100th anniversary. It's a part of a web site of important historical documents from our denomination's history and other denominations that were a part of the "Restoration Movement".

Hope for the Homeless

The NY Times has an article today about the drop in "chronically" homeless people in the United States. The drop is due to a change in strategy by the federal government which focuses funding and energy on "finding stable housing for homeless people suffering from drug addiction, mental illness or physical disabilities, long deemed the hardest to help in the homeless population."

This is especially relevant for St. Joseph and its faith communities. Community Missions Corporation, which was founded by InterServ, which in turn was founded and supported in part by faith communities, runs Juda House--a shelter for chronically homeless men, the Cold Weather Shelter for homeless men and has begun construction on Safe Haven, a second shelter for chronically homeless men which will open in early 2009. I spoke up in support of Safe Haven at a city council meeting and wrote letters to the city council members. There was some limited opposition to building a second shelter, largely based on fears that we would attract homeless people from places far and wide if word got out St. Joseph cared for such people. The flaws in such thinking are obvious.

As the article shows, getting chronically homeless individuals in a stable setting that provides help with issues like addiction, mental illness and health issues actually works to help these people break the cycle of homelessness.

The article also shows that while the numbers of chronically homeless people may be going down, the number of homeless people overall is increasing due in large part to the downturn in the economy. More will need to be done at every level to address the need for safe and affordable housing. That need exists in St. Joseph, just as it does everywhere else.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Here are the quotations I put on the bulletin cover for the last two Sundays.

On July 27, I preached on Jesus' images and parables about the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. My sermon was about the calling God makes to each of us regarding our place in God's work in the world, so I went with this quotation by Mary Clare from her book Encountering the Depths. (Full disclosure--I haven't read the book. I just got the quote from somewhere and hung on to it.)

"The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring the ability to listen. Listening is no passive affair. Listening is a conscious, willed action, requiring alertness and vigilance. Listening is in this sense difficult. It is decisive because it is the entry into a personal and unique relationship with God, in which we hear the call of our own special responsibilities for which God has intended us. Listening is the aspect of silence in which we receive the commission of God."

On July 20th, I preached on the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. One of the themes of the parable is of waiting for the final harvest and the full in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, so I went with this quotation by Margaret Guenther:

"Waiting for the inbreaking of the kingdom is like no other kind of waiting. It is not the routine, humdrum marking of time in our daily lives, or the terror and dread of devastation. It is waiting in hope for something that is not seen, yet yearning for it with a longing that is beyond words. The yearning for the coming of the kingdom is yearning for God."

Faith in Action (Dialogue Column 7.29.08)

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.

Faith in Action is an organization not just a good idea. You may have seen the article in the News-Press this past Saturday about Faith in Action Volunteer Caregivers. First Christian’s own Jo Wade was quoted in the article. (I was too, but Jo’s remarks and stories were far better than mine.)

Faith in Action (FIA) began in the early 1990’s when our church joined with several others in our community to care for people with HIV/AIDS. At that time, there were limited resources from government agencies and a whole lot of fear and prejudice towards people who suffer from this disease. Over time, more resources became available from government, social services, the health department, etc. for people with HIV/AIDS, so FIA evolved into a ministry that helped anyone who had medical problems with things like companionship, transportation, help with chores or errands and so on. At this stage, FIA was funded by Heartland Medical Center. As the years passed, both Heartland and the volunteers involved felt that this really should be a ministry of the churches rather than an office at Heartland, so FIA was reorganized.

Given our church’s history with FIA, I was asked to be on its governing board, and I have been well-pleased to work alongside members of area churches to redesign the ministry. Now, FIA is funded entirely by churches, although the Heartland Foundation is helping out by giving us help such as free office space. The new and improved FIA will work to help anyone in St. Joseph who has a need that cannot be met elsewhere. Each church that is a part of FIA will supply volunteers to help out in whatever area they are interested in. For example, First Christian will be providing transportation for people who need to get to medical appointments but cannot get transportation elsewhere for any number of reasons. Other churches may help with yard work or basic home repair and maintenance.

St. Joseph is blessed with a number of social service agencies and ministries that work diligently to help people in need, but there is far more need that there are resources to meet it. FIA is an effort to meet the needs of some of the people who fall through the cracks and are unable or ineligible to receive help elsewhere. The needs are great in our community, but this is a great way for people of faith to respond to them, just as we are commanded by God to do.

If you are interested in volunteering to help provide transportation for those in need, contact Jo Wade. She will serve as the volunteer coordinator for First Christian. I am grateful to Jo, not only for representing our church so well and leading in this manner, but for the many selfless hours spent and miles driven over the years to care for people in need. Just ask her about some of her experiences. Some of them are funny, but many of them will touch you deeply as you hear about people who felt the love of God thanks to the time and effort of Jo and her husband Ron.

Grace and Peace,


Knoxville Church Shooting

I went to college about 40 minutes northwest of Knoxville, TN. Since Knoxville was the nearest city, I spent a lot of time there and regularly passed the Tennessee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church. I don't have any other connection to it besides knowing where it's located on Kingston Pike. Nonetheless, I do feel a real sense of sadness about the violence that occurred there on Sunday.
The man who fatally shot two people and wounded a number of others targeted the church because of its liberal stances--specifically the inclusion of gays and lesbians--and apparently because his ex-wife once attended there. A note left in his car described how he was frustrated over being unable to find a job, his food stamps being cut back and liberal politicians. Thankfully, when he stopped shooting to reload his three-round shotgun he was wrestled to the ground by church members. I'm thankful he didn't have an assault rifle, because surely more people would have died.

Obviously, the shooter was a deranged man looking to strike out at someone. I don't look at this man's actions as indicative of some greater movement against liberal churches. I think that deranged people can strike out at anything or anyone. Another similar example is the shooting that took place at New Life Church in Colorado after it received so much attention after its then pastor Ted Haggard, an opponent of gay rights, was exposed as having had sexual relations with a male prostitute. That church was at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Sexuality, religion, politics combined together can attract all kinds of mentally disturbed people.

The lessons we should learn from this instance should be about poor funding for programs that help the mentally ill, reasonable gun restrictions that keep weapons out of the hands of people intent upon violence--on the one hand, I haven't seen anything about the shooter having a prior criminal record to prevent him from owning a gun--on the other hand, I'm grateful he only had a three-round shotgun rather than an assault rifle, even though I doubt Tennessee has anything like strict gun laws--and lessons about political discourse that demonizes others, whether the targets of such derision come from the left or the right. There's a nice column regarding religious discourse in America today and this church shooting at the Washington Post. If you want to see how bad such discussions can be, take a look at the postings by readers of the Knoxville News-Sentinel's articles about this shooting. Many of them have been removed by the newspaper staff.

I don't mean to be melodramatic or egocentric, but I also have to admit a bit of concern has crossed my mind as I've thought about this story. The pastor of this congregation had been public in his support of gay and lesbian couples, even writing a column to that effect in the Knoxville paper. The public stance of the minister and his church is part of what drew the attention of the disturbed shooter. As a minister who has been public about my own support for sexual minorities, I do wonder about drawing the attention of similarly disturbed people who are looking for a target for their violent intentions. A safer route would be to keep my head down and for our church to avoid such issues altogether. Doing so, however, runs greater risks to a person's soul. Standing up against injustice involves risk--although, thankfully the risk of violence, I think, is rather small. I just hope and pray that my church will never have to deal with a similar day of horrible violence.

Grace and Peace,


Ed Gentry Rest in Peace

On Sunday evening July 20, First Christian hosted the memorial service for Ed Gentry. I was proud to officiate at the service which included live blues music, some wonderful speakers and clips from Ed's many documentaries. Ed was a published fantasy author, local historian and preservationist, documentary filmmaker, avid Democratic political activist and much, much more.

I got to know Ed only briefly before his death. After I wrote a letter to the editor protesting the imagery used in one of Sam Graves' political ads, I received a phone call the day of its publication--early on a Saturday morning from Ed, heretofore unknown to me. Ed thanked me for the letter and seemed generally amazed that a minister would have written it. Although the purpose of my letter was less about attacking Sam Graves or promoting Kay Barnes and much more about standing up against imagery that defames minorities--Ed seemed just grateful to know there was a minister out there who was sympathetic to his side of the political spectrum. A few days later, I received a thick packet of information from Ed containing copies of other letters he had written to various newspapers and political information. Interestingly, he also enclosed a small donation to the church.

Ed and I never met face to face. I didn't know he was struggling with a heart condition, and I didn't realize he was in the hospital for it until I was out of town. By the time I returned, Ed had died. A member of the church knew Ed and his wife Debbie, so the church along with my services were quickly volunteered to help with the memorial service. I was honored to take part in celebrating Ed's terrific and unique life.

I'd encourage you to check out the web site of Ed's great passion--the Interurban Railway that ran between Kansas City and St. Joseph in the early part of the 20th century. (I would love it if such a line ran now.)

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, July 27, 2008

FCC in the news today

The First Christian Church of St. Joseph was all over the News-Press today--er, yesterday, it's late Saturday night and I haven't gone to bed yet. On the front page, there was a picture of Keith Evans attending an information meeting about the proposed new tax to help seniors in Buchanan County (I'm in support of it by the way.) Then in the weekly religion article in the "Diem" section yours truly was quoted talking about Faith in Action. It's a great ministry that our church helped start back in the day. I'm serving on the governing board, so I got a call from the reporter. Both articles are worth reading because they deal with different ends of helping low-income people in our area--public and private/government and non-profit agency--especially low-income seniors.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

James Dobson and the Bible

I realize it's old news now, but a number of weeks ago, quite a few church members e-mailed me articles about James Dobson's criticism of Barack Obama over what Obama had to say about the use of the Bible in public and political discourse. At the time, I for whatever reason didn't blog about it--maybe because I find Dobson so utterly tiring, but I've come across some recent responses to Dobson that are worth sharing.

I rarely find much to agree with Dobson about, especially his interpretation of the Bible which is selective and usually slanted towards his own political agenda. My basic response is what I said in a sermon back in January--you can read it on the church web site. The sermon is titled "Is the Bible Really the Word of God?"

Before you look at Dobson's remarks or the responses to it, I would encourage you to read the particular speech in question that Dobson criticizes. It was a speech given back in 2006 at an event called Call to Renewal set up by Sojourners. I believe it is one of the most remarkable speeches given regarding the relationship between faith and politics ever given by an American political leader.

Perhaps the best response comes from Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, who gives Dobson a nice drubbing.

Here's a good response to Dobson's claims about Obama's use of the Bible and regarding the Bible in general by Anthony Pin at Religion Dispatches. Pin makes a good point--the same one I make in my sermon--regarding each person offering his or her own interpretation whenever he or she reads scripture. The only problem with Pin's essay is that he makes the claim that there is no way to alleviate the tension that exists between different readings of scripture, so we should recognize the tension, acknowledge the ways scripture can be misused and make sure we read scripture with "a fundamental interest in healthy life options for all." I agree with him, but reading with "healthy life options for all" in mind is a particular form of interpretation--however admirable. The fact is that many, many people would argue that only some people deserve to have their interests taken into consideration. Muslims, heretics, people of a different political persuasion or just people that don't agree with the particular interpreter in question are often considered unworthy of basic rights or even life. My belief is that we have to do more than just acknowledge the many ways the Bible is interpreted; we must work in peaceful yet forceful ways against readings of scripture that demean others and justify violence against them.

An interesting site has been set up called "James Dobson Doesn't Speak for Me." I chose to sign on to the statement of the site--in an individual capacity, of course.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

3 Reasons Why a Church Community Matters (Dialogue Column 7.15.08)

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 Paul's letters he refers to koinonia, what is often translated as “fellowship,” but we have domesticated the word “fellowship” in American Christianity, so the translation doesn't really do the term justice. A better translation would be something like “the spiritual bonds that exist between people in a church and that remind them of their God-given worth.” Granted my definition doesn't roll off the tongue, but it at least doesn't reduce koinonia to something like polite conversation.

This past week, I had three encounters that reminded me why the koinonia of a church can truly make a difference in a person's life:

1. A w hile back, I wrote a letter to the editor regarding imagery used in a political ad, and after it was published, I got a phone call from a stranger who was amazed that there was a minister in town who would take that kind of stand. He was grateful for it and even sent a small donation to the church. He died this week, and unbeknowst to me, he was friends with a member of First Christian. Since he and his family did not have a church and were not religious, the member suggested to his widow that I officiate the funeral here at First Christian. The widow was grateful to have the church's help but still suspicious that I might try to “convert” her and her family at the funeral. Once I reassurred her that I only wanted to help her and honor her husband, she relaxed and felt safe enough to simpy feel grateful for the care of a church in a time of grief.

2. A member of our church who had not been active for some time called last week, because her mother was dying. Her mother was a life-long member of a Disciples church, so her daughter thought she would like communion one last time. I was out of town, but one of our elders brought them communion and demonstrated the grace of God through her presence. When I returned to town and went to pray with the family by their loved one's death bed, they expressed appreciation for the church's care. Their loved one died the morning after my visit.

3. On Sunday morning at the close of the service, one of our members, Rick Ezzell, shared with the congregation his gratitude for their care for him and his family following the death of his wife Karen several months ago. With tears in his eyes, Rick thanked them for their prayers and visits. He testified to how a faith community can offer support to those who walk through the most difficult circumstances in life.

Each of these cases exhibits the power of relationships which remind people that they matter. Whether our church cares for its own active members, folks who have become no longer active in the church or people who have no church connection at all, we exhibit the koinonia of God and lives are changed.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oh yeah, here was the quotation from the front of our worship bulletin today (see my next post for more on its source):

“Perhaps my most important breakthrough with regard to belief came when I learned to be as consciously skeptical and questioning of my disbelief and my doubts as I was of my burgeoning faith.”

--Kathleen Norris
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

The Wisdom of Kathleen Norris

This morning, I also made use of some thoughts by Kathleen Norris, specifically a chapter on faith in her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. It was from this chapter entitled "Belief, Doubt and Sacred Ambiguity" that I took my sermon title (I'm not sure if I mentioned that, so I cite my source here.)

In this book and A Cloister Walk, she details her conversion from skeptic to believer in terms that I feed deeply appealing. In the chapter I made use of today, she speaks about belief being misunderstood as referring only to what we think, when istead it should be what we think, do, feel, etc. She writes that belief is not merely intellectual rather it is incarnational--it involves all of our selves. She offers some very stirring examples of how being a part of community enabled her to overcome some of her doubts and live with others.

For me, Norris offers us the wisdom that God can transform us when we choose to be a part of a community of faith that nurtures, accepts and welcomes all. We have two copies of Norris' Amazing Grace in the church library and it's available cheap online, so pick up a copy and have a read.

Grace and Peace,


Seeds of Faith and Seeds of Doubt

This morning I preached on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the parable of the sower. I have to admit that when I saw that this passage was the Gospel text for this week in the lectionary, I almost skipped it. I have heard this parable preached on so often that I thought I understood all there was to know about it and there was nothing new to say. Then I stumbled onto an article about this passage by one of my professors in graduate school--Luke Timothy Johnson. Luke is a very good man and a top-notch scholar, so I am always eager to hear his thoughts, because there are always fresh and provocative in all the right ways. In his commentary on this passage, he expressed his own doubts about God transforming the world in the face of war, greed, famine, genocide, etc. In his view, this text challenges our cynical understanding of the world and ourselves, because it asks us to believe that God really is in the process of bringing forth a bumper crop of justice, grace and compassion.

In his article, Johnson also wrote about Romans 8:18-25 where Paul speaks about the whole of creation groaning in anticipation of God's transformative power--the power to set right all that has gone wrong in the world. I decided to have that read this morning, but I did not get to it in my sermon. Johnson's article is worth a read, because he articulates the difficulty of believing in God's work of grace, while at the same time presents well the hope these texts present.

Grace and Peace,


Help Promote Spinal Cord Research

One of our members, Barb Edwards, shared in worship this morning that her daughter, Kate, is running in the Chicago marathon. She's running to raise support for the Reeve Foundation--as in Christopher Reeve--which raises money for spinal cord research. Kate's brother (and Barb and Mike's son), Alex, was paralyzed in a car accident a number of years ago, but he has gone on to an amazing career and life in spite of his injuries. If you'd like to support Kate, Alex and the many people who would benefit from this kind of research, click here.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, July 7, 2008

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Here are some of the quotations that have made the front of the Sunday bulletin over the last few weeks:

"Two things are constantly happening in this struggle between our allegiance to God and to Caesar: first, our temptation is frequently to render to Caesar a great many things that should be rendered only to God; and second, Caesar’s temptation is always to want to be God and thereby claim our total allegiance."

--Robert McAfee Brown,
Saying Yes and Saying No:
On Rendering to God and Caesar

"Inner Strength is what is required when in the midst of turmoil we do not know what to do with our outward power and our outward might."

--Peter Gomes,
Strength for the Journey

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”

Books I referenced in Sunday's sermon

I mentioned two books in my sermon yesterday that helped me think about Sunday's message:

1. The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence by Forrest Church--it increased my already considerable appreciation for this document

2. Jesus and the Victory of God by N. T. Wright--one of the better Historical Jesus books written by a first-rate scholar and a person of faith--his perspective on "render unto Caesar. . . render unto God" is what I worked from in terms of everything is God's, especially our allegiance--see Psalm 96

How Should Christians Celebrate July 4th?

I'm not sure how my sermon--"How Should Christians Celebrate the Fourth of July?"--came across yesterday. It's a difficult thing to try to communicate the tension that exists when the claims upon us made by country and the Kingdom of God do not line up. Being thankful for the freedoms--especially the freedoms to assemble, protest and worship as we wish--is different, I believe, from endorsing and agreeing with everything our country has or will do. I'd welcome any feedback by those who heard it (as I do with any sermon).

In my sermon, I talked about an article by Ted Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, by the same title--yes, I blatantly ripped of my sermon title from his article--where he described the different ways he has thought about the holiday at different times in his life. His article is well worth the read and I feel sure I did not do it justice. Ted and I were in grad school together, and although I haven't communicated with him since I left the program, I feel sure he is the same prodoundly decent person I knew then.

Also, I ended my sermon talking about the Alabama tax reform efforts in 2003 that were kicked off by a lawyer and seminary student who wrote an article about the state tax laws based on a biblical perspective. She found the laws to be regressive and punitive towards the poorest in the state and rewarding of the richest property interests in the state. The conservative Republican governor was persuaded by the argument and launched a campaign targeting faith groups to help get the reform passed. Unfortunately, the reform effort failed due in large part to the fierce opposition of wealthy property owners and--wait for it, wait for it--the Christian Coalition of Alabama. If you'd like to read more about this startling example of Christians selling out the poor, click here and here.

Grace and Peace,


Reflections on Royal Family Kids Camp 2008 (Dialogue Column 7.1.08)

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.

This marks only my second year being a part of our church’s Royal Family Kids Camp. I say “only” because for a number of FCC folks this marks their fifth, tenth or sixteenth year of being involved in this important ministry. RFKC was one of the things that attracted me to First Christian, and I continue to be deeply impacted by this ministry to abused and neglected children.

My experiences with the children of the camp are what seem to be sticking with me. These kids who have been through trauma that no one should have to experience had the opportunity at RFKC to simply be kids again. It was amazing to see the facades they presented on the first day of camp quickly fade as the week went on. Soon after arriving at camp the smiles and laughter appeared. The genius of RFKC is that a “special friend” (a caring adult) is assigned two children. That special friend remains with those children all week long giving them immediate attention and encouragement—something all of them desperately need. With this kind of care, there were many moments when the beauty inside of these children shined for all to see, just as there were moments that would break even the most jaded cynic’s heart.

Here are a few of my memories from RFKC this year:
the 12 year-old girl encouraging younger girls during game time who has bounced from one foster home to another and who should be shut off from everyone,
the 11 year-old girl who just found out that she was up for adoption, because her neglectful parents finally decided they did not want her,
the 19 year-old boy who appeared to want nothing to do with camp singing beautifully in the talent show on the last night,
the 8 year-old boy who was greeted in the church parking lot at the end of the week by a foster parent’s harsh criticism rather than a warm hug,
the two 11 year-old boys who refused to participate most of the week shedding tears as they said goodbye to the camp staff at the end of the week,
the 7 year-old boy who told me that he knew God loved him and that “we are all a part of one big family.”

I have many other memories as well, such as Bernard McMillen and Marion Kearnes as “Grandpa” and “Grandma” handing out hugs, Marilyn McMillen tending to scraped knees and stomach aches, Nancy Nichols, Dave and Lynn Tushaus, Bill Byous and Dale Slifer serving meals, Mike Edwards and Keith Evans leading crafts, as well as Ken and Sandy Hamlin keeping the whole show running. The young adults who served as special friends were amazing. In addition to all of the other credit Sandy deserves, her recrutiment of these folks every year is a substantial feat. These young adults, many of them college students, give up a week of work or leisure to spend an exhausting time with children who desperately need them. I am proud to report that our own Wil Tushaus was one of them, and he served in an admirable fashion.

We may never know what will bloom from the seeds planted at this year’s RFKC. We will have to trust God to nurture and care for whatever we were able to give these children. No matter what happens to each of them, at the very least they experienced a week where they were the center of attention in all the right ways. First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO can be very proud of this vital ministry.

Grace and Peace,