Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas from Whoville!! (Dialogue Column 12.16.08)

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.

This December, I introduced my oldest son Julian to the wonder that is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He has seen the cartoon adaptation of the book that airs every year along with the Jim Carrey feature film, but the book with its monochromatic illustrations seems to capture his attention the most. Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel was his real name) has a way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter when it comes to human relationships. Sure his characters may look strange, but in books like The Lorax, The Sneetches, Horton Hears a Who, The Butter Battle Book and yes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he speaks powerfully about how selfishness leads to broken relationships and even the breakdown of society. I’ve been reflecting on The Grinch during Advent this year.

You may recall that the Grinch decides to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville, the Whos. The narrator offers several possible explanations for the Grinch’s behavior; the most likely being his heart is two sizes too small. The Grinch hates the noise of Who children opening presents, Who families eating dinner together and most of all the Who sing-a-long when the whole community gathers on Christmas day to sing together. So, he steals everything Christmas-related; from stockings to Christmas trees to the “roast beast” in the freezers, but just before he throws it all off of a cliff, he hears the Whos singing together. Even though all the “stuff” of Christmas was stolen, the Whos still get together and sing. Instead of the wailing and grief he expected, the Grinch hears joyous singing. It’s as if for the Whos, the singing together as a community is the most important thing about Christmas and all the presents and feasting is secondary. What an amazing idea! It’s enough to melt even the Grinch’s cold heart.

Dr. Seuss does not mention the Christ child or the manger of Bethlehem, but he declares the Gospel nonetheless. We do not know what carols the Whos sing (although in the Broadway musical version it was a sort of generic ode to the holiday), but their joy seems reminiscent of our familiar Christmas carols that announce Jesus’ birth. The Whos do not explicitly mention Jesus, but in their joy of being with one another as a community, they certainly act like they know the Savior has come.

As we prepare for the celebration of Christmas next week, I hope that you will take a lesson from the Whos of Whoville. Our culture has masked the joy of Christmas with commercial gluttony. This year, due to the poor economy, the temptation to tie one’s joy to what one possesses (or does not possess) is even greater than normal. Yet, what brings joy is being in relationship with family, friends and God. I hope you will join us as we sing together in worship this Sunday morning and on Christmas Eve.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, December 15, 2008

The Love Caboose

Yesterday, I preached a sermon entitled "The Love Caboose." I got the idea for the title partly from thinking about the O'Jays' song "Love Train" and partly from a column I read this week about Bob Jones University's apology for its racist past. The author of the column asks why evangelical Christianity has so often been at the caboose of Christianity rather than the engine driving cultural change for inclusion and equality. He focuses upon the issue of women in ministry but the same question could be asked of the church's response to homosexuals and a host of other issues. For the cause of God's justice, prophetic foresight is always better than repentant hindsight.

Grace and Peace,


Public Radio and Religion

I've said it in posts before and I'll say it again, I'm an NPR junkie. There's just not a match anywhere else in the media landscape for their detailed coverage of world events and culture. No, it's not perfect and fully capable of being as flawed as the rest of our shallow media, but in general it is far less shallow and often quite deep.

One of the areas of NPR's coverage is its its reporting on religion. NPR's insightful interviews when it comes to politics or culture are not matched when it comes to religion. Typically the hosts doing the interviews or the reporters narrating the stories reveal their lack of religious knowledge and experience in embarrassing ways. I often cringe when I hear them generalize about about one religious group or another, and it's clear that when it comes to religion they often can only understand it in political terms--i.e. one group's conflict with another.
Lately, I've heard some interviews and produced stories that have been far better than the usual NPR stuff on religion. Here are a few that are worth listening to:

Usually, Terry Gross of Fresh Air with Terry Gross is a serial offender when it comes to interviewing religious people. She's unmatched when it comes to music, film, authors, politics, etc., but when it comes to religion--Gross is admittedly non-religious herself--she's out of her league. Usually, she has somebody like a Karen Armstrong on--somebody who understands religion from an academic sense and has rejected the problematic personal aspects of religious experience. All that being said--Gross has has two really good interviews lately that show she's improving her game.

The first is with Frank Schaeffer, son of evangelical icon Francis Schaeffer, who earlier in his life was instrumental in focusing the religious-right's attention upon abortion through some significant films. Later in life, he ended up rejected the religio-political views of his youth and converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. He has a very interesting book out and a blog well worth reading. His interview with Gross is revealing in its depiction of the beginning s of the political power of the Religious Right and in its depiction of the way pride and power can corrupt.
The second is with Richard Cizik, the lead lobbyist for the National Association for Evangelicals--or I should say the former lead lobbyist for the NAE. Cizik has led the lobbying for this huge conglomeration of conservative evangelical churches and para-church organizations. He gained notoriety in recent years outside of evangelical circles for his efforts to organize evangelicals to fight global warming--efforts which amazed those on the left and enraged many on the right. It was this interview on Fresh Air that actually raised enough ire to force Cizik to resign from his position. Apparently, the fact that Cizik didn't come out in condemnation of homosexuals angered many of his constituents.
In a different vein altogether, one of my favorite shows is This American Life--this quirky and wonderful show is really like nothing else on radio, TV or in print. (Actually, it's worth noting that This American Life comes from Chicago Public Radio but is aired on many public radio stations that also carry NPR programs.)

The first show told the story of a pentecostal minister at a large church who decided that he no longer believed in hell. What happened next was a sad case of a church splitting and the minister being branded a heretic. This episode is really an interesting one. It was pointed out to me by a couple who attend my church who do not believe in hell and who have challenged my own thoughts on the matter. Currently, I'm an agnostic about hell, but deep down I suspect that when it comes down to it I trust more on God's love and grace than I do in the historical doctrine of hell.

The second story came on TIL's annual "Poultry Slam" episode which airs the week of Thanksgiving every year. This particular story told the tale of an Episcopal minister in North Carolina who got involved in an effort to unionize a poultry plant. It's a fascinating case of when a minister's convictions are in conflict with the business interests of his parishioners.

Also, while I'm at it--TIL recently aired an old episode from the 1990's that has three of my favorite authors reading excerpts from their books--David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott reads from her first memoir on faith, Traveling Mercies. All three-but especially Lamott--are hilarious and poignant.

All I can say to NPR is keep it up--this is good stuff.

Grace and Peace,


First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) St. Joseph, MO TV Commercial

Our church's first TV commercial has been airing for a week now on our local cable system. Take a look at it here on the web and let me know what you think.

Thoughts About the Death of My Grandmother (Dialogue Column 12.9.08)

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.

As I write these words, I have only been back in St. Joseph for a few hours from attending my grandmother’s burial in Sugar Grove, Arkansas. Although I’m still a bit winded from my trip, I’ve been thinking about the significance of the death of my last living grandparent. Family is a mysterious thing sometimes and there is blessedness in the mystery.

Don’t look for Sugar Grove on the map; I don’t think you’ll find it. It’s little more than a crossroads now with a church, a cemetery and a boarded up store tucked in a valley in the Boston Mountains. It was one of those small communities that served the people in the surrounding countryside but has faded in the age of strip malls and the internet. Up a dirt road near Sugar Grove, at the top of a small mountain, you’ll find the land where my grandmother was born and eventually my mother and her siblings. The land passed out of my family a long time ago but the cemetery there is filled with her family members. I come from that place even though I had never seen it before my grandmother’s funeral.

I grew up only seeing my grandparents a couple of times a year at most. My memories of my grandmother are largely a child’s memories, because after we moved from Missouri when I was in high school, I saw her less and less. Later, the demands of adult life left me with little time to travel to Arkansas. By the time, I moved back to the Midwest Alzheimer’s disease had claimed my grandmother’s mind and so I arrived too late to know her in her nineties. She remains in my mind a smiling presence with a firm hug often found in the kitchen or the garden. She was matter of fact, practical and smarter than she gave herself credit for. She had an eighth grade education from a one room schoolhouse, but she figured out a lot about life on her own. She had grown up attending small Pentecostal churches and listening to preachers on the radio, but later on in life through her own reading of scripture, she came to question some of what she had been taught. She ended up claiming her own faith in God rather than accepting what was given to her. I can’t recall talking with her about God.

At the graveside, my mother and her siblings shared memories of my grandmother. My mother described her singing hymns as she milked the family cow and sneezing so loud that the neighbors on the next farm would wonder at the noise. I can only wonder at what my grandmother saw in her 94 years. My mother showed me a picture of my grandmother as a teenager. She was squinting because of sunlight and she was not smiling (a fact which surprised me, because I always remember her smiling at me). She wore a plain dress and wore her hair down almost to her waist. I wonder what dreams that teenager held.

My sister and I drove down together and talked about our memories of grandmother. My sister described loving her but not feeling especially close to her, at least not in the way our parents are close with their grandchildren.. I pondered why I felt close to her even though we had not spent very much time together and only occasionally saw each other after I became an adult. Perhaps the person whom I loved was more of my idea of who grandmother was than who she was in reality, I can’t say. As I child, I accepted that grandparents were important people in my life, because they were family. I was taught to love them and so I did without reservation. I felt loved by my grandmother in return. Somewhere between my experience of my grandmother and her experience of me, love existed, no matter how much or little we really knew of each other. That love remains a mystery and somehow it exists by grace.

My grandmother requested that Psalm 116:15 be read at her graveside. It reads:

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

In this great mystery of love, I believe God held my grandmother to be precious throughout her life and her death and beyond. Now she is with God and I await the day when she and I will know each other better.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Give Us This Day Our Daily HDTV (Dialogue Column 12.2.08)

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.

Black Friday was truly black this year at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY where a store employee was trampled to death by a crowd of shoppers seeking bargains. Yes, that’s right--“trampled to death.” No, it’s not a scene in some ironic dark comedy; it’s all too real. Most Americans shook their head at the news and kept on shopping, but when shopping becomes a life-or-death prospect, we should all stop and reflect upon the state of our society.

It long ago became passé to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. Charlie Brown did so in the sixties. I’m sure people made the same complaint before him. Some bishop in the time of Constantine probably complained about the commercialization of the holiday when Christians first started celebrating the birth of Jesus on the same day as a pagan festival. Yet, there is something different about the time we live in. Our nation’s economy depends upon consumer spending. No longer are we a nation that produces goods in order to sell them around the world. Now we are a nation that makes its money importing goods made elsewhere. When the demand for those goods dries up due to an economic downturn, people begin losing their jobs and retailers begin filing for bankruptcy. In other words, our own economic well-being depends upon us buying things whether we need them or not. I’m not saying that the mob outside the Wal-Mart on Long Island was motivated by their concerns over globalization, but our frenzied spending this time of year is driven by a culture that depends in large part upon motivating crowds of people to literally BUY into a mob mentality of consumption.

It is worth asking whether or not this type of consumption is an appropriate way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ? I do not think that simply not buying anything for anyone is really a viable option for most people. Besides, giving gifts at Christmas is a fine tradition and an opportunity to show love and appreciation for others, as long as it is given responsibly in regards to one’s income and debts and lovingly rather than as an effort to impress or manipulate. Furthermore, many people around the world depend upon money spent at Christmastime for their livelihoods—from the store clerks to the delivery truck drivers to the factory workers around the world. It is not inherently wrong for any of these people to make money from purchases made in the right spirit, but what is the right spirit of buying at Christmastime???

An aid to us finding the right spirit of purchasing and giving at Christmas can be found, I believe, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray each Sunday. “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a prayer for what we need rather than what lust for or covet, and it is a reminder that many people in our community and world cannot take for granted things like having enough to eat each day. Remembering this simple line of prayer can help us keep things in perspective and can help us ask the right questions before we buy.

Perhaps just as we offer a prayer of thanks before meals, we should also offer a prayer before shopping. Rachel Hope Anderson, a community activist in Boston, offers a prayer to help us shop in a way that is both just and grateful during this Christmas season:

May the food we eat feed those who farmed it. May the things we buy support those who fashioned and shipped and sold them. For everything we enjoy from your good earth, God, thank you.

I pray that what you and I purchase this Christmas will be bought from within our means and with a desire to care for others. I pray that what you and I purchase will provide a better life for the people who actually have a hand it getting it from the place of production to the store where we buy it. I pray that what and how much you consume this season would honor Christ more than yourself.

Grace and Peace,


Brett Dennen-Make You Crazy Video (official version)

Some time over the Thanksgiving holiday, I camped out on the sofa with a purely entertaining novel--as far as I can tell, it contained no fodder for a sermon or a blog post or anything deep and meaningful. I clicked over to the cable channels that play only music--I like the one labeled "Adult Alternative" although I have no idea what that label means. I just know they play a mixture of folk and rock that I don't find very often. Anyway, I heard a song by Bret Dennen called "Make You Crazy" which not only had a great beat, great vocals, great everything but a social message to go along with it. In the song he lists some of the things wrong with the world--including child soldiers--and laments it's enough to "make you crazy." Then he ends by singing "I'd be crazy not to care." It's a very hopeful tune for a world in need of hope. That's what I'm grooving to this week. I guess I'm not the first to discover him since it says on his web site that he was on Good Morning America last week. It's pretty sad with GMA hears new music before I do. I'm so old.

Until the End of the World

This past Sunday I preached on Mark 13:24-37 and tried to express the difficulty of preaching on a scripture passage on the second coming of Christ during a season dedicated to remembering the first coming of Christ. Such is the nature of Advent, the season when we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas and simultaneously look forward to Christ's return in whatever form that may take. I tried to navigate between the extremes of obsessing over the vagaries of apocalyptic language (e.g. the Left Behind series) on the one hand and dismissing it altogether (e.g. John Spong).

I do believe humanity and all of creation await some type of culmination of what God began at Creation. No matter how much progress we make as humans, we still cannot free ourselves of the chains of greed and violence. For every technological advance that brings healing or prolongs our lives, we find a corollary new way of killing one another. At the same time, Jesus does not give us the choice to go bunker down awaiting the end of the world but rather invites us to be a part of God's work healing the world and making it whole.

I thought about including another conversation I've had recently with my 5 year-old son which occurred on the way to school while listening to his and my favorite band, U2. I chose not to include it, however, because I recently included another such discussion with my son about a U2 song in a recent sermon (see my post about "Where the Streets Have No Name" from a week or two back). It says something about my life these days that the best theological discussions I'm having now occur with my 5 year-old.

This particular conversation started when we were listening to "Until the End of the World" a song from U2's 1991 masterpiece Achtung Baby. The song is told from the perspective of Judas as he speaks to Jesus, and it ends hopefully, yes, even for Judas. Julian asked me what "the end of the world" meant, and I replied that it could happen any time but probably wouldn't happen for a long time. It is the time when God will stop everything in the world and finally there will be no more sadness or pain and everyone will learn to be nice to one another. I told him that some people think Jesus will come back and be mad at a lot of people and he will punish them, but I don't think Jesus would be like that. I told him that I think the end of the world will be a good thing whenever if finally comes.

Julian seemed to accept that (for now). It's about the best I can do explaining the second coming to a five year-old or to an eighty year-old.

Grace and Peace,