Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And the Nominees are. . . (Dialogue Column 8-26-08)

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.

No, I am not talking about an awards show or even about the political conventions currently going on. I am talking about nominations for positions of church leadership here at First Christian. It is almost that time of year again when the nominating committee will soon meet to put together our list of committee chairs and vice-chairs who will serve on the administrative board and lead our church in 2009 and beyond. Some terms will be ending, others will begin and still others will continue. It is crucial that all who take positions of leadership be ready to commit or re-commit themselves to the task of discerning where God is leading our church and what new ministries God is asking us to undertake. With that in mind, I would like to offer the following suggestions to our membership.

  1. God has called you to be a part of this church. This is the community of faith that should be connecting you with the Kingdom of God as it is being revealed in our world. This is the place for you to make an eternal difference. If your work in this church is just one more commitment in a stack of commitments that leave you drained and overwhelmed, then something needs to change.

  2. This is God’s church, and it is your church. On the one hand, this is God’s church, so it is not the place for petty fiefdoms where people are allowed to exercise control because they need to feel important. On the other hand, it is your church and therefore you are important because God has called you to step up and take responsibility for it.
    Church is supposed to be exciting. God is at work through us—that is exciting. This is your chance to respond to where God is leading you and to help make First Christian into the kind of church that reflects your understanding of God; a strength of our church is that you have the freedom to do just that.

  3. You may need to let something go. Perhaps you cannot commit to a position of leadership in the church, because of other commitments outside of the church. Some of them are necessary and essential but some of them may not be. Be aware of God’s nudges as to what you should do.

  4. You may need a break. One member who is not serving in leadership this year recently said to me that she thinks everyone should take a year off from taking a leadership role, because sometimes you just need to go to church and not be busy. In a church our size, it is easy for people to get stuck in the same positions for long periods of time. Usually this is justified by the mistaken belief that says, “If I don’t do it, no one else will.” If the task is necessary, someone else will take it up. If no one else does, could it be that the task is not essential?

  5. It is okay to say no. There are always times in a person’s life when the demands of family, work and self-care leave no time for further commitments. Serving in your church is supposed to bring you joy and to give you spiritual energy that fills the rest of your life with joy. It is not supposed to be one more burden on top of other burdens. I believe it is better for a person to say “no” than to agree to serve and do so resentfully or fail to do the work needed by the church.

I hope you will keep these points in mind as you prayerfully consider the way God would have you connect with the sacred and important work of First Christian Church. .

Grace and Peace,


Monday, August 25, 2008

Purpose-Driven Politics

In my sermon yesterday, I spoke about how it may be easier for churches who value uniformity of belief and orthodoxy probably have an easier time of stating their beliefs concisely and clearly than do churches that value diversity of belief and allow for mystery. I place my own church squarely in the latter category, so the point I was trying to make is that a weakness we should watch out for is that avoiding being pinned down on doctrine can also be a way of avoiding the responsibilities necessitated by one's beliefs.

I almost led off the sermon with an illustration from the Saddleback forum hosted by megachurch pastor and popular author Rick Warren on August 16. By most accounts, John McCain came across looking a lot better than Barack Obama. I certainly felt that was the case. I'm no fan of McCain, but I felt that he came across much more decisively and straightforward than Obama did that night. I chose to not go with this illustration, because I didn't want to get lost in the liberal/conservative dualism so common in our culture. Although many people would call our church liberal, I would reject the label because of how limiting it is and all of the negative connotations associated with it.

Nonetheless, as I stated in my sermon, those who prefer simple and straightforward religious claims (usually labelled as conservatives) reject more ambiguous positions as watering down the faith, being wishy-washy or even committing heresy. Those on the opposite end view opposing views as simplistic, naive or even prone to political manipulation. I would hope, however, that there can be room for both mystery and humility along with sure statements of belief.

Speaking of Rick Warren and the Saddleback forum, I've heard a couple of good things on NPR about both that are worth passing on:

1. Fresh Air with Terry Gross has an interview today with Dan Gilgoff who writes for Beliefnet and runs the God-o-meter blog. He makes the interesting point that despite all the talk of new issues for evangelicals like HIV/AIDS and Darfur, Warren still stuck to traditionally divisive social issues like abortion. He also points out a McCain ad "The One" makes use of traditional "antichrist" imagery to disparage Obama in the eyes of evangelicals. I guess I'm a long way from the Left Behind set, because I didn't really even think of that.

2. The great show Speaking of Faith had an interview aired this weekend with Rick Warren and his wife Kay. Despite the good things Warren has done such as giving away his fortune and focusing upon HIV/AIDS in Africa, I was still very uncomfortable with the way he described himself as prophet to the leaders of the world. I think I would get along much better with Kay.

Also, The Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece on Warren. In it Warren is quoted as saying there is no real evangelical left and dismisses Jim Wallis and those like him as spokespeople for the Democrats. He even says the only real difference between him and James Dobson is one of "tone" rather than theology. I found this discouraging to read for many reasons, not the least of which is that once again one of the most important ministers in the country is one that espouses a narrow and exclusive form of Christianity.

Grace and Peace,


Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Here are quotations I had on the front cover of the last two Sunday worship bulletins at First Christian Church.

On August 17, I preached on what I consider to be one of the most difficult passages of scripture in the Bible: Matthew 15:21-28, where a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter but Jesus first ignores her then calls her a dog. I remain conflicted about Jesus' response--it certainly does not seem like the Jesus I have experienced. I do believe however there is a message in the passage about faith coming from people whom we do not expect it to be present in and about the ability of strangers to confront us with new understandings of God's work in the world. So, I used the following quotation:

Our role in life is not to convert others. It’s not even to influence them. It certainly is not to impress them. Our goal in life is to convert ourselves from the pernicious agenda that is the self to an awareness of God’s goodness present in the other. It is no idle prayer. The beauty of the open soul is not easy to come by in a world where the other—the alien, the foreigner, the stranger—threatens my sense of security and the pyramids of social control.

--Joan Chittister,
Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light

On Sunday, August 24, I preached on Matthew 16:13-20. In this passage where Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God, I chose to talk about the connection between the identity of Jesus and our own identities as his disciples. It comes from the great William Sloane Coffin. I found the quotation on-line, so I don't know where it was written or said. It is, however, classic Coffin.

“God's love doesn't seek value; it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value. So you don't have to prove yourself -- ever. That's taken care of.”

--William Sloane Coffin

Also for this past Sunday's sermon, I had a quotation ready to use in the sermon, but it slipped my mind as I was giving the sermon. Look for it in the print copy. Here it is:

"There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming."

--Søren Kierkegaard

I don't know the source of this one. I took it off a blog that the Christian Century runs on each week's lectionary texts.

Church members in an Obama commercial

Okay, first a member of my church who is a Democrat has a letter in the News-Press this week and now some Democratic church members are in an Obama TV ad. I think the Republicans in my church need to work on their media exposure--c'mon Republican members of First Christian you can do it!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Lonely Death of the World's Tallest Woman

There's a fascinating and touching op-ed in the NY Times today about Sandy Allen, who died last week. She was the tallest woman in the world, standing at 7 feet, 7 and 1/4 inches tall. The author tells how she died alone in a convalescent home. Because of her size--brought on by gigantism, which caused her death--she could not work a normal job and never had a family of her own. In a former era, she could have made a living as a carnival attraction, but in our time she was the recipient of ridicule in tabloids and even Howard Stern. In spite of it all, she by all accounts remained friendly, positive and generous towards others no matter how rude they were. She was known for visiting school children and teaching them about how difference was good and then letting them try on her shoes.

I've saved the account to use as a future sermon illustration to demonstrate the power of grace towards others and the blessedness of the image of God in all the varieties of humanity.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, August 21, 2008

church member's letter to the News-Press today

One of my church members has a letter in the St. Joseph News-Press today.

Playing the Fear Card

As the campaign ads air and offer disparate views over which candidate you should fear the most, I'll offer up an interesting article on fear from Newsweek published last December. I used this in my sermon on August 10 when I spoke about how fear functions physiologically in our brains and how unnecessary fear can be overcome. I was especially speaking about fear of people different from oneself.

The article provided me with not only an understanding of how fear works in positive ways to save us from danger, but also insights into why politicians trade in fear, especially when it comes to scapegoating or demonizing groups of people. Apparently, there are a number of scientists who are studying the psychology of politics and why fear mongering seems to work so well, even with people who assume they know better.

What the article does not really discuss is how we can overcome such unhealthy fears. I believe we can retrain our brains--relearn how to think about things and people that are unfamiliar to us--faith is one way to do so. I believe it is perhaps the best way to overcome fear.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Last Sunday's sermon on the web

My sermon from last Sunday, "The Politics of Fear," is now up on the church web site. I will be trying to get back to having my sermons available for distribution in print and on the web. Doing so has only occurred in fits and starts up till now. I also had hoped to be blogging more often than I do, so we'll see if I can keep this up.

What is there to Say about John Edwards?

I really don't know what to say about the news of John Edwards' affair and possible love child. However, Beth Newman, the Christian Ethics professor at my seminary alma mater has a nice column about how ill-equipped our nation and culture is to negotiate the public and private lives of politicians and other people in the spotlight. Christianity does, according to Newman, script for dealing with both our public and private selves.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Here are the quotations I had on the front cover of First Christian's worship bulletins for the last two Sundays:

On Sunday, August 3, I preached a sermon entitled "Take Off Your Blinders" based on Matthew 14:13-21. It may be obvious from the title, but the sermon was on the ways we have limited vision to see what God is doing in our lives and in our world. The quotation is from John O'Donohue's book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, a book I keep finding useful quotations and blessings in.

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.

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon entitled "The Politics of Fear" based on Matthew 14:22-33. The sermon was about how faith can help us to overcome fear, especially fear of people different from ourselves. This quotation comes from John Macmurray's book The Philosophy of Jesus. I have to confess not having read this one. The quotation was passed on to me. There is a very interesting web site on Macmurray that talks about his writings of philosophy and religion.

It is important, I believe, to recognize that for Jesus it is fear itself that must be cured, and not the occasions for fear. Perhaps all religion seeks to guarantee, to its devotees, that ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’. So often, however, this merely means that the sincere observance of one’s religious duties will guarantee that what we are afraid of will not happen to us. Jesus is not subject to such idealistic illusions. He warned his disciples of the persecution that awaited those who followed him. Their lot would be unusually hard. But this was nothing to be afraid of.

Grace and Peace,


Michael Gerson right on the Prosperity Gospel worng on a lot of other things

Last week, Michael Gerson had an interesting editorial in the Washington Post about the Prosperity Gospel movement in American protestant Christianity. Gerson's piece is rather moving and I pretty much agree with everything he says. It's rather remarkable that an eloquent critique of mega-ministers like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen could find its way to the editorial page of a major American newspaper. Usually religion is ignored completely on such pages, and if there is anything said on the subject it is only in regards to how religion intersects with politics.

I recommend Gerson's column, but it left me wondering about him. Gerson is an avowed evangelical Christian who worked in the George W. Bush administration as a speech writer. On the one hand, in this column he offers a powerful critique of an understanding of Christianity that stresses personal gain over sacrificial love. He praises suffering on behalf of helping others and notes that "Christianity has always dealt in hard truths." On the other hand, Gerson helped script some of the Bush administrations justification for preemptive war and participated in giving Bush imagery from Christian scripture and hymns in order to describe American power in terms that originally referred to God's power. I'm just not sure how Gerson can now quote Henri Nouwen and Grahm Greene on the one hand and when on the other hand he wrjote speeches that describe America in idolatrous terms. (Of course, how much of what Bush said was actually written by Gerson is up for debate.)

A fair critique of evangelical Christianity in America is that it emphasizes individual moral actions at the cost of ignoring societal sins such as poverty, war, prejudice, etc. I don't know enough about Gerson to say if this is the case for him or not.

The column is worth reading, but how this fits in with Gerson's career as a political speech writer, I can't say.

Grace and Peace,


What Should You Do With Your Life?

I forgot to list here on my blog the book I mentioned in my July 27 sermon "Are You Keeping God on Hold" based on Matthew 13:31-33 and 13:44-52. I was preaching on how God may call us to new ways of living or even new vocations, and I shared a story from Po Bronson's book What Should I Do With My Life?

I picked up the book in an airport book store a few years ago when I new it was time for something different than what I was doing in New York and I was struggling with what kind of ministry was next for me. The book was very helpful for me to think through what makes for real fulfillment in life and how often what will bring us the greatest joy is right in front of us. It is not a book about Christianity or really a religious book at all, but it does touch on many themes and ideas with religious overtones--fulfillment, meaning, purpose, joy, etc.

Bronson is perhaps best known for his 1999 book, The Nudist on the Late Shift, about the dot-com bubble in Silicon Valley, but he has a number of books and articles about a variety of topics. His web site is well worth visiting. The section on What Should I do With My Life? has excerpts from the book and further information about its themes.

To get a shorter synopsis of what the book says, you can read an article he wrote about the findings of his book at Fast Company or listen to him talk about it on NPR.

Grace and Peace,