Tuesday, September 30, 2008

NPR Roundup--stuff that I liked on public radio

As I have confessed before on this blog, I am a public radio junkie. I listen to podcasts on my Ipod, stream it on my computer while at work and listen to it on the radio all the time. You may charge me with selectively filling my brain with a particular political point of view--a charge that is as true for any of us as it is for me--but I maintain that the programs on NPR, PRI and those produced by local stations across the country remains one of the last bastions of thoughtful analysis of our culture.

Anyway, agree with me or not, here are a few stories/commentaries that have moved me lately:

NPR is running a series called "This I Believe" where people from all walks of life offer--as the name suggests--what they believe. When I hear the intro music for this segment which airs on various programs, I usually have a gut reaction of distaste, because sometimes the content seems sappy to me. About half the time, however, I am more than pleasantly surprised and end up being deeply moved by what is said. That's what happened this past Sunday morning while I was getting ready for church. This particular "This I Believe" segment was offered by a Michigan prisoner and convicted murderer who tells what he learned from a stray cat that wandered into the prison yard. It was so good that I thought about including it in Sunday's sermon, but feared that since it involved a cute little kitten I would be the one coming off as sappy.

One of my favorite shows of all is This American Life. On September 5, a show aired called "The Devil in Me" and the last segment was particularly moving for me. Its title was "The Devil Wore Birkenstocks" by a commentator called Dave Dickerson. He grew up in a conservative evangelical home but began to challenge the beliefs of his upbringing when he took a college course on paranormal psychology. One class the professor brought in a medium who claimed to channel the spirits of the dead, so Dickerson thought it was his opportunity to face down an honest to goodness demon. What ensued left him questioning not only the validity of the medium but also his own beliefs. For me, it was an excellent reflection upon the meaning of faith.

I've got more--but that's all I feel like posting at the moment.

Grace and Peace,


In God We Trust??? (Dialogue Column 9.30.08)

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.

According to U.S. Treasury records, the motto “In God We Trust” has been on United States currency in one form or another since 1864. In 1908, Congress made mandatory the appearance of the motto on most U.S. coins. The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote “to put such a motto on coins . . . is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.” Teddy was and remains in the minority of American opinion, however, an overwhelming percentage of American approves of the motto on currency. Roosevelt’s opinion was proven correct, however, decades later when the motto was challenged in the courts by plaintiffs who argued it privileges one religious view over others. The Supreme Court declared the motto could remain on currency because it has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." The Court also said in another case that “so-called acts of ceremonial deism” do no harm because they lack any real meaning or context.

Over the past few weeks, we have learned just how true the words of the Supreme Court were. The motto “In God We Trust” may make people feel good, but it has not helped solve the financial crisis currently afflicting our economy. I imagine that given its druthers Wall Street would prefer to trust in the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary than in “ceremonial deism.” I agree with Mary Nelson, a Chicago-based Christian social activist, who writes on the God’s Politics Blog, It strikes me as sheer nonsense that our money has ‘In God We Trust’ clearly printed on it. It is more appropriate to say, ‘In Money We Trust.’”

For people of faith, the current financial crisis is a stark challenge in regards to where our ultimate security lies. The scholar Diana Butler Bass writes (also on the God’s Politics Blog), “the community of grace, is ultimately strengthened by worldly hardship because it reminds us that our spiritual investment is in a realm not seen. Our community is one marked by holy insecurity—the sure knowledge that our wisdom is not an economic strategy; our power is not financial; and our trust is not in princes.” It remains to be seen how the crisis on Wall Street effects those of us on Main Street—or on Faraon and Tenth Streets, but no matter how much this economy hurts each of us, we must grapple with whether we trust in God or in money.

This week, members of First Christian will receive letters from our Finance Committee regarding making pledges for the 2009 church budget. I have heard in numerous meetings that given the current economic insecurity, it is a terrible time for a stewardship campaign. Maybe so. Maybe not. God does not give us the option of being stewards of the blessings we have been given only when times are good. We are called to be stewards of our talents and finances during every time—good and bad. As your pastor, I would put it to you this way: if during the times when stocks were up by double digit percentages you gave more to the church, then by all means give less now. If, however, you did not give out of your abundance, then I hope you will not give less during a time when you have less. If your giving to the church amounted to an afterthought during good times, then I encourage you to not make it the first place you cut back during the bad times.

More than anything, I encourage each member of our church to think about what this church means to you. Is First Christian the community of grace that you feel God has called you to be a part of? If so, then it is worth supporting financially, because for you, this is where God has chosen to involve you in divine work. If not, then you and the church have bigger problems to discuss.

Giving money, time and talents to your church is not supposed to be the same thing as what is given to any other charity or club. It is supposed to be an act of faith and a demonstration of a person’s priorities who is a part of the Kingdom of God. That can amount to different things to different people based upon a person or family’s particular situation, but to all of us who call ourselves Christians, our giving should demonstrate that our trust is found in God not in money.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Do We Sing When the World Changes Around Us? (Dialogue Column 9.23.08)

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.

First Christian Church is changing. Change can be a frightening thing, especially when it occurs in something that means so much to us like our church. Although we know change is inevitable, we can choose to resist and deny it or we can faithfully embrace the positive aspects of change, even though that may involve loss.

In the last ten days, we have seen evidence of dramatic change in our congregation. On the one hand, Merle Gardner, a long-time member of First Christian, died last week. Those who have come to First Christian in recent years may not have known Merle. He and his wife Virginia moved to Michigan a few years ago to be closer to family as their health declined, yet for decades Merle was a faithful presence on Sundays and in most aspects of church life. On the other hand, we have had three new members join over the last few Sundays: Jason and Stacey Park along with their children and Nancy Ingram. The three of them have family connections at First Christian, but they have been involved in other churches as adults. As life circumstances changed for them, they were each looking for a new church and fortunately for us, they found First Christian.

In the foreseeable future at First Christian, we will continue to experience similar changes. We will continue to feel the grief that comes when long-time faithful church members must step back from volunteer positions and leadership roles due to health concerns and when other long-time members journey from this life into the next one. We will continue to welcome new members and seek to help them be involved and connected in the life of our church. Some of the new faces will be known to us as family and friends of current members. Other new faces will be strangers who find our church through our marketing campaign or by the movement of the Spirit. Change can be disorienting in a church our size.

If you are like me, when you contemplate the changes happening in your life, you can’t help but hum a few bars to a song. For some in our church who grew up singing “Que Sera, Sera” with Doris Day, decades of experience have taught them that although “the future is not ours to see” you can still do your best to prepare faithfully for it. Others grew up singing along with Sam Cooke “A Change is Gonna Come” or Dylan “Times They are a’Changin’” and have seen dramatic changes in their lifetime even as they wonder why some things have remained the same. Some heard David Bowie and Yes each sing about “Changes” and have accepted the ebb and flow of life. People of my generation gave in to the cynicism of U2’s words “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day” but still wonder if they can believe Rage Against the Machine’s declaration that “Everything can change on a New Year’s Day.” Those who are younger have heard Garth Brooks’ song “The Change” sung by the crooners on American Idol and seem to believe that although they may not change the world, they still can make a difference. Each of us sings our own song in response to the changes in ourselves, our world and yes, our church.

One of the reasons we gather as a community each week, however, is to sing the words of the Doxology which declares that all creation offers praise to God. This praise is due, among many other reasons, to our shared belief that God’s love remains constant in the midst of this changing world—and yes, even when our church changes. Our praises to God are offered as a commitment to do our best to faithfully serve this loving God, just as members of First Christian have done during the changes of the last 160+ years.

This commitment offered in song each week means that our church needs its older members to offer their wisdom, support and blessing as we seek to walk into the uncertain future. It means that we need our members of middle age to step up and take on the responsibilities of stewardship and leadership that have been passed on to them. It means that new members must jump in with both feet to share their gifts and talents, because unlike at a larger church, there is no reserve of members waiting in the wings to help out.

Changes are all around us and within us, but our song of praise each Sunday declares that God is with us in the midst of it. Together we must raise our voices as a community of faith as we face the joys and griefs of change at First Christian. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. Too many people stand confused and overwhelmed by the changes in their lives. They need what God has to offer them through First Christian. We must not keep our song to ourselves.

Grace and Peace,


Good coverage of the homeless in the News-Press

I've been meaning to post this for several days. In case you missed it, there was a great story in the St. Joseph News-Press regarding the homeless population in St. Joseph last Friday. As I have come to expect and am extremely grateful for, this story and all other really great stories about people in St. Joseph who are in extreme need was written by Alonzo Weston. He is a real asset to this community. Way to go Alonzo!

Also, today's paper had a nice editorial in response to this article. I'm glad for any positive coverage of the homeless and low-income people on the editorial page given the syndicated columnists carried on the same page that regularly disparage the same population on a national level (e.g. Charles Krauthammer, etc.).

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sam Phillips--Still in Need of God Not the Political Church

Once upon a time back in the day when I only listened to Contemporary Christian Music--all things secular were of the devil--I enjoyed music by Leslie Phillips. As my musical and theological tastes opened up a bit, I discovered that Leslie Phillips had become Sam Phillips and was not putting out secular music. Her new albums were secular in the sense that they were not on a "Christian" record label, although her lyrics were still infused with faith and God. The music was a lot better too--thanks in large part to the fact that she married T Bone Burnett, one of the best record producers around--and a great musician in his own right. My favorite album by Phillips (Sam) is Martinis and Bikinis. It was probably the album that garnered her the most commercial success, although she has continued to put out great music. She blends folk and rock in some great ways and has a unique voice that is a beautiful instrument in itself.

She has a new album out--this time not produced by T Bone--and has been playing clubs lately. NPR had a live broadcast of one of her shows in the D.C. area on recently. It's well worth a listen to hear Phillips' current sound which is more spare than previous efforts. Nonetheless, her lyrics offer a mix of soulful longing, wry social critique and hope born of a deep and subtle faith.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Re-Framing the Debate (Dialogue Column 9.16.08)

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.

On September 7, I preached a sermon entitled “Can Republicans and Democrats Worship Together?” After two weeks of political conventions, it would seem that our country is hopelessly divided into red and blue. Each side maintains that the other is leading this nation to hell and that those who espouse such views are either idiots or evil or both. Yet, as Christians, we are called to find ways to be together as a community of faith in spite of our political differences. As I mentioned in my sermon, I believe this is done not by ignoring the pressing political concerns of our day but by open and honest dialogue about them. The church should be the place for just such a dialogue—after all; we do espouse the belief that we should love one another.

A first step towards such dialogue is humility. I’ve been learning recently the hard truth of my own reactionary and limited political beliefs. I wouldn’t say that I’ve changed my mind on particular issues or candidates, but I have learned that more often than I would like to admit, my reasons for holding certain views or backing certain candidates has to do with emotion rather than reason. These emotions stem in part from the ways I view the world—ways I am not always conscious of—therefore, I am capable of reacting emotionally and even harshly to viewpoints other than my own. Such an admission is hard for me to make, since I consider myself to be a reasonable person, but I think admissions of our own limitations and strong feelings are the necessary first steps towards open discussion of important issues. In order to love our neighbors with different political beliefs than our own, we must digest a big dose of humility.

A writer that has helped me in the humility area is George Lakoff. He is a liberal linguistics professor at Berkeley. I mentioned some of his ideas in the Sept. 7 sermon but lacked the time to go very deep. Lakoff is a linguistics scholar who studies the words and concepts used in political discourse. His scholarly work on the subject is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, but the more accessible (and far shorter) version is Don’t Think of an Elephant! As I mentioned, Lakoff is a liberal and he wrote the latter title as a sort of field manual for liberals to understand why conservatives are so much better at setting the terms of political debates.

I am less interested in Lakoff’s political strategy (there are conservative writers who do the same kind of work) than I am his larger point which is each of us—conservative, liberal, independent, etc.—has a “frame” that helps us to make sense of the world around us. For example, he writes that as Americans we use the “frame” of family to speak about ourselves: we have founding fathers; we send our sons into battle; etc. He argues that a chief difference between conservatives and liberals is their different frames which chiefly use the language of parenting. Conservatives order the world around the idea of a strict father figure who offers discipline and punishment, demands obedience from children and helps children to become moral adults, because morality leads to prosperity. Liberals order the world around the idea of a nurturing parent who empathizes with and guide his/her children to find fulfillment and become nurturers of others. From these understandings of the smallest units of society, Lakoff argues, each side extrapolates their understanding of government.

Whether you buy Lakoff’s specific arguments or not, I think the larger argument by him and other scholars regarding the conceptual frames that guide us has merit. What I would offer is, that as Christians, our frames should center on Jesus Christ whose self-sacrificial love points us towards true morality, fulfillment and spiritual prosperity. We must work to understand our own preconceptions that lead us to judge, exclude and react harshly towards people who do not share them. We must replace these inadequate frames with the frame of a loving savior who chose to serve rather than to rule and to love rather than to dominate. Here’s hoping that we as a church can love each other enough to listen to one another this election year.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Peace of Wild Things on September 11

I started today--September 11, 2009--with full intentions of listening to my Ipod all day and ignoring the media coverage of commemoration, victims' families, retrospectives, etc. Then I got a phone call from a friend from NY letting me know one of the kids in my youth group there was reading the names of those who died at the World Trade Center. One of the names he read was his father's. I am very proud of him for doing so, but it was surreal to watch him stand at the podium via streaming video over the Internet.

It continues to be very strange for me to be here in Missouri instead of Long Island when September 11 rolls around. As I write this,they are preparing for yet another memorial service in the town park as they have done there each year since the terrorist attacks.

Without thinking, I flipped on the car radio this morning and heard a bit of coverage before turning it off again. That was enough to make me despair yet again for the state of our nation and world. Not only is there the great tragedy of what happened eight years ago to consider, but there is also the great tragedy of all that has gone on since then to think about. Instead of sacrifice, we were asked to shop. Instead of re-thinking our nation's policies that support despots and dictators we carried out a preemptive war. Instead of working for justice and reconciliation in the world we sought revenge. It is enough to make this liberal Christian believe in the fallen state of humanity and our world along with a God that has run out of patience with our pursuit of self-destruction.

On this day, I think about the cross. I've never been a big fan of atonement in its traditional depictions--i.e. Christ bearing the punishment due a sinful humanity in order to appease an angry God. But today, I've been thinking about the cross somehow being about all of the self-centered, revenge-oriented violence that we humans are capable of--perhaps on the cross all of our futile and violent scrabbling for control was shown for the pointless waste it really is. The empty tomb demonstrates that the worst this world can do is not enough to stop the grace of God. I guess I will fall back on faith, but today my faith feels in short supply.

I did receive some hope today watching the broadcast of the commemoration at Ground Zero in Manhattan. From all places, it came from Mayer Michael Bloomburg. Strangely, gracefully he read from Wendell Berry from his poem "The Peace of Wild Things". I leave it for you in hope that it can inspire you as it inspires me:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Matthew Gregg (Dialogue Column 9.9.08)

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 past Sunday at the beginning of worship, Matthew Gregg announced that he is stepping down from the position of Director of Children and Youth Ministries here at First Christian Church. After two and a half years in this position, Matthew has decided that the time is right for him to leave it. He has shared with me that the decision is based upon his belief that the program is ready for a new level of ministry and his realization that this new direction would require time and energy from him that he needs to spend on his family and his new job at Missouri Western. Matthew’s last day at work will be September 30. Between now and then, the leadership of the church will be working on appropriate ways to celebrate the ways God has used Matthew at First Christian.

Matthew volunteered to work at First Christian after our last youth director left. What started out as a short-term commitment meant to last until the church found someone else developed into a long-term ministry to our youth and children. During his time here, Matthew has used his considerable relational skills to create a welcoming atmosphere for children and youth. Currently, we have 10-15 teenagers who show up on Wednesday nights for youth group meetings. Many of them are not church kids—ours or any other church’s; they are friends of youth who grew up in our church. I believe it says a lot that the youth who have family connections to First Christian feel comfortable inviting their friends, especially friends who have no faith background or church connection. Similarly, parents report to me how much their young children love coming to church on Sundays to attend Children’s Church. I believe this too is due to Matthew’s ability to welcome kids.

As we celebrate Matthew’s work at First Christian, it is also time to celebrate the growth of our children and youth programs. Even in the short time I have been at First Christian, we have seen a growth in the numbers of kids attending and the vitality of our ministries. We stand on the cusp of some really exciting times for our youth and children as new young families find their way to First Christian.

Given Matthew’s great work over the last two and a half years and the bright future ahead of us, it is time for First Christian to recommit ourselves to our ministry to children and youth. In the coming weeks and months, I will be asking for input about where we should go from here in our children and youth ministries and about what kind of person or persons we would like to see lead this work. I will be seeking the counsel of the Administrative Board, the Christian Education Committee, the Personnel Committee, parents of youth and children, and the youth themselves. I believe it is time to consider all of our options as we look forward to what will come next for our young people.

This process of discernment will not be done before Matthew steps down. We will be moving forward deliberately but carefully in our efforts to find the right person or persons for the future staff position(s). While this is going on, we will be in real need for church members to step up and fill in the gaps left by the end of Matthew’s time on staff. I am especially counting on the parents of youth and children to lead Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings beginning in October.

First Christian has much to thank Matthew for and much to be excited about in days to come.

Grace and Peace,


First Christian Members Hit the Nascar Circuit!

Two of our church members, Boyd and Nancy Alldredge, won a great sweepstakes from Best Western where they were allowed to drive an official Nascar pace car from Michigan to North Carolina stopping at Nascar races along the way. All expenses were paid and they got pit row access to the racing teams. You can check out their youtube video diary here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A soft and fuzzy look at Palin's church

For a portrayal of Sarah Palin's church that seems to offer a very different view of Sarah Palin's church in Alaska, see this story in Friday's New York Times.

Double Standard on Candidates' Church Membership?

Everyone recalls--I assume--the drama and controversy surrounding Barack Obama's membership in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. There were non-stop loops of out of context sound bites by its pastor Jeremiah Wright played over and over on cable news shows. Wright did not help himself or his church member running for president when at the National Press Club he got up and acted exacted like the arrogant extremist he was accused of being. The end result was Obama denouncing his former pastor and leaving his church. (For one of the only responsible treatments of Trinity U.C.C. and the Black Liberation Theology of its founder Jeremiah Wright see these NPR interviews.) Although the mainstream media has let go of this bone, the overall controversy continues unabated fed by talk radio, unsubstantiated e-mails and other far-right rumor and innuendo mills.

Given all that, it is foxhunting to me that no one in the mainstream press has looked into the religious background of Sarah Palin--the new V.P. candidate for the Republican Party. It turns out that the Assembly of God church in her home town in Alaska that she and her family belong to espouses all kinds of extreme and scary beliefs about spiritual warfare in America, the war in Iraq, the antichrist, the whore of Babylon, etc. There's apparently plenty of video of Palin and her family at events where such views are espoused by her minister and other church leaders.

Talk to Action is a website that chronicles the practices of the Religious Right. Their coverage of Palin's church and its connections is extensive and for the uninitiated--myself included--kind of an effort to read. Nonetheless, what I could follow is plenty scary to me.

Her church is apparently closely connected with other groups, such as the one depicted in the documentary Jesus Camp. If you've ever seen that film, it's enough to make you want to let your kid go near a church again. I felt that way and I'm a minister!

It will be interesting to see if anyone bites on this story. It took the media a long time to look at Trinity U.C.C. and Jeremiah Wright--and what they ended up showing was haphazard and shallow and sensationalized. Unfortunately, we do not have such a long time before the November election to see if anyone picks up on Palin's religious background.

Another factor against most people hearing about Palin's church is that her church happens to be white and conservative. Trinity happens to be black and liberal. There are a lot more white conservative bloggers, writers, televangelists and talk show hosts out there to attack a church like Trinity than there are anybody else who would care about digging around in Palin's fundamentalist baggage.

I respect McCain's religious background--however vague it may be. He and his wife attend a North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona that is conservative but honorable. I may not agree with everything taught at his church, but I can respect it for doing its ministry with integrity. I met North Phoenix's pastor, Dan Yeary, when he spoke at my college when I was an undergrad. I haven't followed his career, but at least then he was a relative moderate in the fundamentalist controlled Southern Baptist Convention. Palin's church on the other hand seems like one I think we all should be concerned about. I fear McCain--who strikes me as a conservative Christian but generally moderate--has picked as his V.P. someone with extremely frightening religious beliefs.

I have little hope that the media will cover Palin's religious beliefs in any depth at all, and if they do, it will probably be in the same sensationalized manner that they covered Obama's.

Now more than ever we need an elevated level of discourse on the place of religion in our pluralistic nation.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, September 5, 2008

Church Member in the News

There was a nice article in yesterday's St. Joseph News-Press regarding Ron Wade, one of the members of my church. He flies for Angel Flight, an organization that helps families who cannot afford long-diatance transportation for medical care.

Community Organizing

On Wednesday night, the woman who got all the buzz this week Sarah Palin--GOP Vice Presidential candidate and Tina Fey look-a-like--criticized Democratic Presidential candidate's experience as a community organizer. Her words: "a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." There was much to groan about in this speech, but for me, this was the line that was over the line. I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of good people on all sides of the political spectrum who are community organizers--especially people of faith. Their work to get ordinary Americans to get together and make their communities better is our society at its best--think preservation groups, neighborhood watch groups, soup kitchens, mentoring programs, PTA's, and so on and so on. I'm also pretty sure we got things like the abolition of slavery, the right to vote for women, civil rights for African Americans, etc. thanks to community organizing.

Jim Wallis has a great defense of community organizing on the God's Politics blog--much better than my few thoughts.

Grace and Peace,