Tuesday, September 30, 2008
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
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
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
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
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
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,
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.