Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Wish-List for 2010

(In the interest of full-disclosure, I wrote something like this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. I've changed it a bit for the blog, but I figured I'd mention its origin to explain all the church references.)

I’m already thinking about next year, and it’s not too early to hope for what the new year will bring. Here’s what I’m hoping for . . .

  • I hope that next year I will enjoy the benefits of devoting at least as much energy to my spiritual life as I do to checking e-mail and updating my Facebook status.

  • I wish every American could have as good of health insurance as their Congressperson or Senator. (Hey, I didn’t say all or any of my wishes had to be realistic.)

  • I hope that next year First Christian Church of St. Joseph will have had a successful capital campaign to pay for the expensive but necessary building repairs made this year.

  • I wish for a year without seeing the faces of Jon and Kate Gosselin every time I turn on TV—no matter what channel it’s on.

  • I wish the St. Joseph News-Press would spend more time reporting on the real problems facing our community and possible solutions rather than merely publishing the complaints of those who shout the loudest.

  • I hope that next year First Christian Church of St. Joseph will have even more new members like the ones who have joined in the last three years. We are so fortunate to have so many new faces.

  • I wish for new jobs for church members who lost their jobs in 2009.

  • I wish for some stinking answers on the final season of ABC’s LOST.

  • I hope that next year First Christian Church of St. Joseph will be experiencing the joy that comes when a church opens itself up to God’s new opportunities for ministry in its community.

  • I wish for a government (Democrat or Republican) that will invest as much money and effort in economic justice and peacemaking as it does in the development of new weapons and the waging of war.

  • I hope that next year both First Christian Church and I its minister will have the courage to give up our own comfort and convenience for the sake of others in need.

  • I wish for a year where no homeless men or women die alone on the streets of St. Joseph.

  • I wish for the Kansas City Chiefs to have a winning season. (I don’t need a a trip to the Super Bowl. I just would like them not to lose to the Browns!)

  • I hope that next year First Christian Church of St. Joseph will have discovered new ways to carry out the difficult task of welcoming all people in Christ’s name regardless of a person’s economic status, skin color, nationality, gender, political affiliation or sexual orientation.

  • I wish for companies who would put the long-term best interest of our planet, their employees and their customers ahead of their short-term profit margins.

  • I hope that next year I am still here doing a job that I love, serving a community of faithful and wonderful people here at First Christian Church of St. Joseph.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Looking for Some Joy This Christmas? (Dialogue Column 12.15.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO.

Christmas is next week! Do you feel frantic with last-minute shopping for gifts? Do you feel stressed when you think about guests coming to town? Do you feel happy with carols on the radio and in the stores? Do you feel sad as you approach the holiday without someone you love? More important than any of these questions, do you feel joy this Christmas season?

Joy is one of those words we throw around at Christmastime, but it is certainly hard to define. People can be sad, grieving and in the midst of difficult circumstances and still have joy. Joy is distinct from happiness; Frederick Buechner writes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeathes it.” Joy is given by the Divine, and it is not self-generated. As near as I can determine, joy is that sense of rightness and meaning and empowerment which comes to us in moments that transcend our circumstances. In such moments of joy, we are aware of our connection to our Creator and our fellow creatures.

Although I know from experience that we cannot manufacture or manipulate joy, I do know that there are places where joy is more likely to be found than others. Usually you can find it in places where you are giving of yourselves to others in deepest need: I can’t guarantee that you will find joy in one of the following suggestions, but I believe if you want joy this Christmas, odds are you might find it in one of these possibilities.

Share some food. Serve a meal. Talk around the table. If you saw the front page of The St. Joseph News Press this morning, you know the cold temperatures and bad economy have filled our homeless shelters. At the St. Joseph Haven, in addition to the men living there on a transitional basis in apartments, there are men sleeping on cots in the common room on a temporary night-to-night basis. The extra mouths to feed are stretching Haven’s already tight budget. In your holiday cooking, how about preparing an extra meal and delivering it to them on a night they could use it? Better yet, why not come down and serve it yourself and take some time to meet the men who will benefit from the food? Their gratitude will put your holiday stress in perspective. For that matter, if you bring some holiday cookies down to Juda House or St. Joseph Haven, you will find some men who are struggling to turn their lives around and beat the cycle of homelessness. They love cookies, but they love even more knowing that somebody actually cares about them and is willing to talk with them as a person of dignity. Call 816-390-8884 to find out what these men need and when they could use it most.

Give a smile and some time. This past Sunday, some First Christian folks took Christmas cookies out to church members who are homebound or in assisted living facilities. Some of them are far from family and could use additional visits. These saints of our church have supported our ministries for decades in many cases and they deserve to be remembered this season. Give the church office a call and Cheryl can give you the name of someone who could use your presence, even if it is for a short time. Brief visits by children with homemade crafts or cards brighten the lives of people who often no longer have the joy of seeing children around. Even if you do not know one of these folks, everyone deserves to be remembered during the holidays.

Provide a ride. Deliver some food. Help in unexpected ways. The needs of people living on the edge and falling through our community’s social safety net do not stop during Christmastime. Our church partners with Faith in Action which matches church volunteers with the needs of people who lack the means and support to care for themselves. Usually they are low-income seniors or people with medical conditions who are without family to care for them. Sometimes they need a ride to a doctor’s appointment or someone to drop off a delivery of food from a food pantry. Other times it is an odd job like helping organize a kitchen cupboard or shoveling a snowy sidewalk. Contact Stacey Park or me for more information.

There are more options, of course, for finding joy through helping others. I’ll post these and more on my blog in the next few days.

Grace and Peace,

Welcome Rev. Heather Walchar

I'm four days late in mentioning the terrific article in Saturday's News Press regarding Rev. Heather Walchar, the new minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church here in St. Joseph. I appreciate religion reporter Erin Wisdom writing another great story and recognizing how fortunate the community is to have a talented new minister in town. Welcome Heather!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

HIV/AIDS in St. Joseph

Say what you will about our local governments--and I've said as much as anyone--we do have a nurse on staff at the health department dedicated to caring for people with HIV/AIDS and educating the public about the disease. Thankfully, that nurse is Kelly Kibirige, a member of First Christian Church. You can read Kelly's article in the St. Joseph City Weekly on-line newsletter where she shares her reflections. Thanks for all you do Kelly!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Colbert Discusses the Dangers of an Extraterrestrial Christ

With two small children, I barely can stay up to watch The Colbert Report, but for some reason last night I remained awake. I was thrilled to catch his discussion of the Vatican's recent conference on the theological ramifications of extraterrestrial life. As it always is whenever Colbert discussses religion, this is hilarious!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold, Frankincense and Mars - Guy Consolmagno
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Glee and Overzealous Youth Ministers

I've been subscribing to Time in recent months--it's the only weekly newsmagazine that doesn't bore me to death (are you listening Newsweek, U.S. News ???). It's still full of fluff as likely as not and like everything else these days it is quite obvious that they have cut back on their reporting budget. Nonetheless, it's decent and I can't sit in front of a computer monitor all the time when I feel like reading.

One of the essayists is Nancy Gibbs. I know nothing about her. She could be a xenophobic neo-Nazi who likes to strangle kittens for all I know, but I have found a number of her essays to be meaningful. This week's essay was especially so.

She wrote about an overzealous youth minister criticizing the TV show Glee because of its "anti-Christian" message. I always appreciate it when someone points out the ridiculous overreaching of youth ministers who feel the need to condemn what all of their kids are into. Gibbs does a nice job of pointing out the less obvious moral messages mixed in with the more obvious sensational plot lines. She even throws in a nice "Remember when everybody was condemning Harry Potter. . . ?" Yes, those were the good old days when self-righteous church leaders only had to contend with the evils of Hogwarts School of Wizardry instead of stuff like Glee's teen pregnancies, homosexuality, drug use, etc. For that matter, does anybody remember the uproar over Bart Simpson?

Despite Gibbs' protests to the contrary, I suspect that there will always be plenty of fodder for overzealous youth ministers.

Wendell Berry Interview on NPR

The Sunday before last, I read two poems by Wendell Berry--poet, farmer, activist mystic. For those wishing to hear Berry read his own poetry and speak eloquently and humbly about the relationship between our relationship between the land we live on, the food we eat and our souls, check out an episode of The Diane Rehm Show aired this week where she interviews Berry.

The callers gush quite a bit over getting to talk to Berry, but having read some of his poetry, I have to admit I would gush too if I had the same opportunity.

Great letter to the editor

I'm a few days late in acknowledging the great letter to the editor in Monday's News-Press written by First Christian's former pastor Tom Russell. Thanks Tom for standing up for the right of every person to have access to affordable health care. I'm amazed that the debate has turned to whether or not we can afford to reform health care rather than where it should be--can we afford not to reform health care?

Kelly's on the front page!

It was nice to open the paper this morning and see First Christian's own Kelly Kibirige in a picture of the World AIDS Day march yesterday. We're proud of yo9u Kelly! Thanks for all you do for people suffering from HIV/AIDS in our county.

Invite a Friend (not just any friend) to First Christian (Dialogue Column 12.1.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post my newsletter columns here.

There are two times of year when people who do not normally attend church think about doing so: Christmas and Easter. Rather than being critical of such thinking, we regular churchgoers should be thankful that Christmas and Easter still have enough of a religious cache in our culture to provoke people to consider darkening a church door. The thought of going to church by people who have either stopped attending or who never have attended may be something that has been in the back of a person’s mind for months or may be something that pops in their head when they hear a familiar Christmas carol. Either way, from the perspective of faith, we should consider these moments to be the promptings of the Holy Spirit and an opportunity for God to bring a person into a community of faithfulness and care.

The window for people to actually take action to try out a church is relatively short during Easter; maybe you’ve got Palm Sunday and Holy Week, but the window shuts quickly. At Christmastime, however, the window stays open for about a month after the busyness of Thanksgiving passes and people turn their minds to gift-giving, holiday parties and maybe even things of a spiritual dimension. This month is the time you need to invite a friend to church.

Pay close attention because I am not talking about just any friend; I mean the friend of yours who may actually be interested in a church like First Christian. This friend is the one you have actually talked with now and then about spiritual matters, the friend who grew up in church but quit coming as an adult because he or she couldn’t find a place in his or her life for a religion that was close-minded, exclusive or judgmental. This may be the friend who doesn’t quite believe you when you say, “My church doesn’t believe that.” Or, “My church would not have judged that kind of person.” You need to invite that friend who would be pleasantly surprised that an open-minded and welcoming church like First Christian actually exists.

I am not asking you to invite a friend who already attends another church; there is no need for stealing sheep from another pasture. I am not asking you to invite a friend in order to convert them or sell them anything. No, I am asking you to invite your friend who can use a church like First Christian, a community of faith that will care for them and walk with them on their journey. If you will think hard about what First Christian means to you, I believe you will quickly think about someone who could use the same. (By the way, those of you who claim all your friends already go to church, feel free to let me know, because I have some suggestions of who you could invite.) The Christmastime window is only open for a short time, so invite your friend before it closes.

Grace and Peace,

World AIDS Day--a day late

Yesterday was World AIDS Day. I didn't get around to posting anything yesterday--of course, ever day someone suffers from and/or dies from AIDS is World AIDS Day, but did put the following in The Dialogue, my church newsletter:

Today is World AIDS Day, a day to remember the men, women and children who have died from AIDS, to renew efforts to care for people living with HIV/AIDS, to increase education and awareness about HIV/AIDS and to honor those who battle this disease. For Christians, this day serves not only as an opportunity to address these goals but also a time to repent of past and on-going church-sponsored prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. To commemorate this day (in addition to any other events you take part in), I invite you to say the following prayer with me. It is provided by Wes Jamison, a leader in the GLAD (Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples) Alliance.

God of Compassion,

you are with us here

and with all who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.

You beckon us to be with the lonely,

to touch and heal those who suffer.

Stay with us and strengthen us

so we may learn to live with passion and compassion

through Jesus Christ, the One who offers healing to all

in the power of your Spirit, who tears down all walls that divide.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Goodbye, Nadine (Dialogue Column 11.24.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post my newsletter columns here.

Last night Nadine Hatfield passed from this life into the next. So often, I only find out afterwards when someone has died, but in Nadine’s case word got to me yesterday and I spent about five hours at her bedside. By that point, Nadine was already unconscious, but she and I talked about her impending death for months, so there was little that needed to be said. As I looked at Nadine’s face yesterday, I kept thinking that something was missing. Yes, she was dying and a body looks different when life is slipping away, and yes, Nadine never went anywhere without being made up perfectly and no makeup was on yesterday, but neither difference was the one bothering me. I was there for a little while before I realized that I was in Nadine’s presence and she was not smiling. Of course, she could not smile yesterday as her body shut down, but I realized that I had never been with Nadine when a broad smile wasn’t spread across her face. Even during the pains and frustrations of the last two years, Nadine continued to smile and laugh and share her infectious joy with all she was around.

As the nurses, social workers and others did their jobs yesterday, each shared with Nadine’s friends and family about how much they had come to care for Nadine. One shared how she mentioned once to Nadine that her daughter was getting married and how every single time she was with her from then on, Nadine would ask about the latest wedding plans and share in the excitement. Even this morning as I went by Nadine’s empty room, a nurse shared with me how much she loved Nadine. Friends who have known Nadine for decades have shared similar stories with me. Nadine was a joyous person, but in recent days the joy was fading.

A church member recently mentioned to Nadine that I continued to pray for her in worship services, and Nadine responded with a smile, “Well, tell him to quit. I’m ready to go.” When I visited her on Friday, she told me the same. We made a deal that I could pray for her to regain mobility in her broken arm and non-moving legs along with peace of mind and heart, but I wasn’t allowed to pray for her to keep on living. We had many conversations over recent months about why God continued to let her live when she no longer had her independence and mobility. I encouraged her to consider that every moment her family had with her was a blessing to them, and although she accepted the idea, by Friday that was no longer enough for her. I realized that instead of offering Nadine comfort I was trying to comfort myself. As one blessed by a relationship with Nadine, I was loathe to let it end. Nadine, however, was ready for what comes next.

During our visits, I pressed Nadine on whether she had any regrets or things left unsaid, but she assured me that she had none. She felt secure knowing that her sons and granddaughters along with her circle of friends knew of her love for them and she knew of their love for her. She talked with me about how happy she was to have been married to her husband, how happy she had been to raise two good sons and two good granddaughters. She laughed about friends and their times together. She had no doubts about God’s love for her or about what would come after this life. As one of her close friends, Virginia Wissehr, remarked yesterday, “Nadine is graduating from this life.”

Shirley Evans came by yesterday and sang to Nadine as her body slowly shut down. Nadine’s body did not respond, but I believe somewhere Nadine heard the words. As we approach Thanksgiving this week, let us offer thanks for Nadine’s well-lived life and the many other saints we are privileged to know as a part of First Christian Church. May our hearts join in the words Shirley sang to Nadine:

We gather together to ask for God’s blessing,
to turn to a wisdom surpassing our own;
the pow’rs that oppress us now cease to distress us.
O God, be present with us and make your will known.
Beside us to guide us, O God we perceive you
ordaining, maintaining the power of life.
Yes, yours be the glory; let all tell the story.
Our God, be ever with us, in gladness and strife.
Grace and Peace,

Considering the Birds and the Lilies

This past Sunday I preached on Matthew 6:25-33 where Jesus teaches his followers not to worry. I felt the kind of peace that Jesus describes is better approached from the realm of poetry and perhaps Buddhism than a typical Western Christian didactic point of view. For any who are interested, here are the sources I referenced in my sermon:

Wendell Berry--Kentucky farmer, poet, and activist--I read two great poems by Berry: "The Peace of Wild Things" and "The Wild Geese" both are in Collected Poems: 1957-1982.--if you don't know Berry's writings you should.

Henri Nouwen--Catholic priest and spiritualist who taught at Harvard and Yale but then left academic life behind to live at Daybreak, a L'Arche Community in Canada, to be an assistant to a severely disabled man named Adam--I worked from an article called "The Peace that Passes Understanding" by Nouwen which originally appeared in Weavings and I have in The Weavings Reader. Much of the same materials is available on-line in a sermon and interview with Nouwen. As with Berry, if you don't know Nouwen, you need to. (For more information on L'Arche, the international movement for people with developmental disabilities led by people of faith, listen to the excellent program about it on the public radio program Speaking of Faith

hich Nhat Hanh--Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize Winner--I recommend Being Peace as an entry into his thoughts and writings. In my sermon, I related the monk's thoughts on mindfully washing dishes. I heard it as a story related by a visitor to the monk who had offered to wish their dinner dishes., but apparently he also mentions it in the abstract in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, so I do not know if the story was an actual event. (To hear the great Buddhist teacher giving a lecture and hear an interview with him, listen to this episode of the wonderful public radio program Speaking of Faith.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Compassion is Not a Zero Sum Game (Dialogue Column 11.17.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post my newsletter columns here.

As many of you know, our Director of Youth Ministries, Andrew, began attending seminary this fall. One of the exciting things about having a staff person in seminary is talking with him or her about what he or she is learning. In my case, it has been interesting for me to see what I missed or picked up in seminary as compared to what Andrew is learning. At times it is reassuring to find out that my own education seems to be holding up, but other times it is exciting to learn a new concept that enables me to look at things in a whole new light.

One of the interesting ideas Andrew and I recently talked about is the economic worldview of first-century Palestine where Jesus did his ministry. In his New Testament introductory course, Andrew has learned that what economists call an “economy of scarcity” was at work in Jesus’ world. It’s hard for us as 21st century Americans to contemplate a limited economy. Most of the goods and services we consume are manufactured en masse and if we pick something up at a big-box retail store, they will just order more of it. Our supply of consumer goods appears unlimited whatever the reality may be. In the ancient world (and in many developing economies today) such was not the case. There was a limited supply of everything. If one person had more of a good like food, clothing, building materials, etc. that necessarily meant that another person had less—after all there was only so much to go around.

What made Jesus and his followers so radical is that they operated according to an “economy of abundance.” When Jesus healed someone, he did not worry that improving the health of one person would diminish the health of another person. When the early Christians shared their possessions, they did so unconcerned about holding on to possessions when failing to do so would seem at least unwise if not insane. Jesus’ teachings about honoring the “least of these” meant that in God’s kingdom the only status that mattered was one’s relationship with God and there was plenty of that to go around! In their understanding of abundance in the Kingdom of God, Jesus and his disciples followed the view of God in the Hebrew scriptures who could always provide more than enough to God’s people.

At this year’s national meeting of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins preached about this idea (her words came back to me after my discussion with Andrew). She talked about the picture presented throughout scripture of God’s “economics of abundance” as opposed to our “economics of scarcity.” It seems to be a human instinct to want to horde all we can for ourselves (perhaps our evolutionary forefathers and foremothers learned it as a means of survival). Yet, the way of Christ, according to Watkins, is to give out of the abundance we have been blessed with by God. We become the means for blessing others who have less.

Watkins spoke in terms of Christians in the developed world considering their brothers and sisters in the developing world. She spoke about how our consumption, pollution and outright greed affect people in other countries which are exploited for their resources and unfairly compensated to keep our prices low. Because of our desires to possess the latest gadgets, others work in conditions we would not tolerate for wages we would never accept. How should Jesus’ “economy of abundance” shape our worldview, our politics, our compassion? We operate as if giving to others will mean we will have less, but we are promised that we will be blessed more in ways that matter when we give to people in need.

Our allegiance to an “economy of scarcity” rather than to God’s “economy of abundance” plays out domestically as well. My conversation with Andrew caused me to perk up when I came across an article by Peter Laaman, a minister in the United Church of Christ and director of Progressive Christians Uniting. He writes about American Christians who operate according to an “economy of scarcity” in regards to the Health Care Reform debate. He criticizes what he calls “Ayn Rand Christians” who are so committed to individualism that they fail to recognize the calls for mutual dependence and connection given in the New Testament. He notes that Paul’s image of the church as “one body” and Jesus’ examples of healing the multitudes do not recognize the idea that “I will have less when others have more.” Instead, Paul declares that when one member of the body is injured by another, then Christ is crucified again. Yet Christians may choose their own self interest in this debate despite the fact that the person sitting next to them in the pew may have less health coverage or no coverage because of it. Laaman argues that a more Christian perspective would be one that seeks solutions that help everyone not just the few.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, perhaps we all should consider the blessings God has provided us and look for ways to give out of that abundance to others.
Grace and Peace,

We're Still "One" after All These Years

I love it that The New York Times have made one of my heroes, Bono, lead singer of the best rock band in the world U2, a monthly contributor to their op-ed page. His piece on Sunday was great for me as a fan to learn a bit more about the genesis of one of their signature songs "One" from the album Achtung Baby. He shares about the song along with reflections upon his experiences in Germany soon after the Berlin Wall fell and about negotiating aid to eliminate poverty in the developing world with reunified Germany's current prime minister Angela Merkel.

I once read an interview with Bono about the song "One." The interviewer asked why the song was so popular considering how dark the lyrics in the verses are. Bono responded that it was the sweeping and hopeful chorus "We're one but we're not the same. We got to carry each other, carry each other. One love. One life. One." In a world filled with darkness, may all of us find a way to sing such a hopeful chorus together!

Grace and Peace,


Friday, November 13, 2009

Quoted about Halloween

I forgot to put a link up here two weeks ago when I was quoted in a St. Joseph News-Press article about how should Christians approach Halloween. (Thanks Erin Wisdom!) I hope I conveyed I'm pro-Halloween and don't buy into the "Satan's holiday" stuff. It was also glad to plug our church's annual Halloween party/carnival for neighborhood kids.

If you're interested in a completely psychotic (as in break from reality not homicidal) approach to Halloween, check out this send-up of a fundamentalist rant about Halloween. The scary thing is that the fundamentalist rant is real not a farcical satirical piece. Warning: the site I'm linking to is a humor site that makes fun of delusional stuff like the one referenced, and therefore their comments, thoughts, language and general snark may be considered objectionable by some readers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Few Revelations (Dialogue Column 11.10.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

Recently, I sat down with two church members who are better read in philosophy and theology than I am to discuss H. Richard Niebuhr’s small but significant book The Meaning of Revelation. I’m sure I was supposed to have been familiar with this work at some point in my education, but like many significant theological works, I somehow missed them along the way. H. Richard Niebuhr, a theology professor at Yale and brother to the more widely known Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote this book in the early 1940’s and yet, I was struck by how relevant the issues he discusses are almost seventy years later.

In The Meaning of Revelation, Niebuhr is not discussing The Apocalypse According to John in the New Testament (commonly called Revelation), but God’s revealing of God’s self to limited and mortal human beings. How is it that people who are products of particular worldviews, cultures and histories can begin to apprehend the timeless and transcendent God? Won’t our understandings of God be irrevocably distorted by our own biases and prejudices? Given how relative each person’s understanding of God is, how can any of us speak of God with any integrity? Is anyone’s view of God any better or worse than anyone else's? These are some of the questions Niebuhr tries to answer.

In a pluralistic society, Christians must face competing claims of truth and criticisms of their religion. Niebuhr wrote that Christians must guard against the tendency of defensiveness lest they replace a desire to be in relationship with God with a compulsion to be victorious over others. “We not only desire to live in Christian faith but we endeavor to recommend ourselves by means of it and to justify it as superior to all other faiths. Such defense may be innocuous when it is strictly subordinated to the main task of living toward our ends, but put into the first place it becomes more destructive of religion, Christianity and the soul than any foe’s attack can possibly be.” I wish many Christians in our culture today would take a similar attitude.

As Nazi Germany began its march across Europe with the complicity of a German church that subordinated Christianity to fascism, Niebuhr wrote this book where he warned against a self-centered religion. He described an “evil imagination” which interprets every bit of pain and every fleeting joy as an indication of divine pleasure or displeasure, so that God revolves around the believer rather than the believer bending his or her own will to that of the divine. In the grip of an “evil imagination,” all scripture and religious experience puts the believer at the center rather than God. The same thing goes for groups of people. “The group also thinks of itself as the center. So all nations tend to regard themselves as chosen peoples.” It seems like a fair warning to American Christians who regard our country as a “Christian nation” blessed by God in order to remake the world in its image. As Niebuhr writes, “The impoverishment and alienation of the self, as well as the destruction of others, issues from a reasoning of the heart that uses evil imagination.”

The revelation of God, according to Niebuhr, is that event or events in our lives that makes all the other events intelligible. Although many people claim special revelations from God, true experience revealed by God is most often verified only in hindsight. Only when looking backward can we see the work of God in our lives—how small moments of grace nudged us toward a different path and opportunities for love and service to others revealed themselves. In the present without benefit of hindsight, we had best operate with humility.

Although Niebuhr does a better job of warning believers about the misuses of religion than he does explaining exactly what revelation is and how we recognize it, I found his thoughts refreshing and relevant in a world that mainly sees Christianity as a self-centered and arrogant religion.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The American Funeral Today

I haven't done a funeral yet where the "cremains" of a loved one have been shaped into jewelry or a cross or a piece of coral suitable for a fish tank, but I'm sure that day is coming. A peek inside any "showroom" of a funeral home of any size and you will find options for caskets, gravestones, vaults, candles, videos, urns, flowers and doing more things with the cremated remains ("cremains") of a deceased loved one than you can possibly imagine. The mortuary business can be a mission or care for grieving people or a shakedown of the emotionally vulnerable or both depending on the ethics of the mortician.

This is all the more strange in our current culture where we seem to have little to no idea of what to do when a loved one dies--do we have a funeral or a memorial service? a graveside service or at the church or at the funeral home or at a favorite bar or fishing hole? should the tone be somber or a celebration? is it primarily to honor the deceased or is it for the living? etc. etc.

Since I'm in the business of officiating at funerals on a regular basis, I read with interest an op-ed by Thomas Long in Sunday's NY Times. Long teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology in Decatur, GA and is one of the top-tier preaching "experts" in mainline circles. Having heard him preach, I can verify his great skills and the depth of his message. For some time, Long has been working on a book on funerals and it is finally out--this op-ed comes out of that work. For anyone wondering about the purpose of a funeral in our culture--especially professionals involved in one end of things or the other--I highly recommend his thoughts.

Here are a few good quotes from the op-ed:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,”
--William Gladstone

Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.
--Thomas G. Long

“A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”
-- Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich

Grace and Peace,


The Bystander Effect (Dialogue Column 11-3-09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

If you missed worship on Sunday morning (or if you were there and not paying attention), you missed my sermon on Mark 12:28-34, where Jesus speaks about the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In my sermon, I shared that these commands do not leave room for Christians to remain passive bystanders in their world, their communities, their churches or their relationships. I chose the term “bystander,” because of some reading I’ve done recently about why it is that when an act of violence is witnessed by a crowd of people none of the bystanders try to stop it. I think there is an analogy here to the spirituality of many Christians who fail to take the two great commandments seriously.

The phenomenon of bystanders failing to help someone in need is called the “bystander effect.” Social psychologists replicated this effect in laboratory experiments following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was murdered outside her apartment in Queens, NY and although numerous neighbors heard her cries for help, none made any effort to help her. Similar cases appear in the news on a regular basis, perhaps most recently in the case of a 15 year-old who was raped outside a school dance in California a few weeks ago. Numerous people observed the attack over a two hour period, but no one tried to stop it.

Psychologists believe there is a reason for this lack of response. In controlled experiments, it has been repeatedly documented that if there are two people in a room and one of them has a medical emergency, then the other person most likely will offer assistance. For each additional witness to the crisis, however, the likelihood of someone offering help drops by a substantial percentage. In other words, the more people there are the less likely it is that anyone will help.
The psychologists who study the “bystander effect” argue that the reason people are less likely to help another—even in a relatively small group—is because of something called “diffusion of responsibility.” Each individual believes they have less responsibility in a situation, because there are other people around. This response can take the form of callousness at one extreme (“It’s not my job.”) or confusion at the other (“No one else seemed concerned, so I did not want to come across as overreacting to the situation.”).

The “bystander effect” seems like particularly bad news for churches. As Christians, we are called to be in community with one another, but the more of us there are the less likely any of us is to take responsibility for helping others. That’s too bad, because Jesus’ commands to love God and love others as we love ourselves run in direct opposition to our tendency to be passive bystanders of the world around us. Hopefully, few of us will be witnesses to a violent crime, but all of us are witnesses to various kinds of crises in our communities.

In every church I have worked at or belonged to, I have seen this phenomenon at work. Most Christians I have known are basically good people who do care about others, but they tend to do little about those needs. This lack of action is not due to a lack of compassion, I believe, but a lack of any clear understanding that it is their responsibility as a Christian to do something. The reality is that a few people in each church who seem to have hardwired personalities of the “Do-er” sort end up carrying much more than their fair share of the load. Usually, these “do-ers” accomplish a lot of good on their way to being burnt out church members. The rest of the members sit back and let it happen, not because they do not care, but because they do not realize there is something deeply wrong with their self-understanding as a committed member of the church. According to Jesus, Christians are not supposed to be passive bystanders.

Of course, churches like all organizations need leaders and lines of responsibility, but both those in and outside of leadership are required to be actively engaged in the life of the church. There is no room for complaining about how things should be only for action to make things as they ought to be. The good news is that the “bystander effect” can be overcome, but it takes a deliberate effort by each person to do more than stand by as the needs of our community confront us.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, October 22, 2009

If God Calls, Who Can Answer? (Dialogue Column 10.20.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

Recently I participated in a job fair for high school sophomores from all over northwest Missouri sponsored by the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. The idea behind the event is a noble one: expose high schoolers to a large variety of careers so that they can know what possibilities may await them if they stay in school, graduate, and then attend college or vocational training. Someone had the idea of having a clergy booth with area ministers at it to talk with youth considering a career in ministry. I agreed to do it, but I was doubtful about 15 and 16 year-olds talking with somebody like me. I’m glad to say that I was flat out wrong. Over the course of two days there was a steady stream of teenagers asking about what a career in ministry might be like.

Along with me, clergy from the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches talked with the teenagers about career possibilities in ministry, such as an ordained minister, educator, social worker, ministry with children and youth, camp director, missionary and others roles. Reactions to our presentations ranged from mild interest to some of the teens seriously talking about whether God might be calling them to work in a ministry setting.

I once read an op-ed by a Christian writer and former minister who stated that if he could go back to his early career as a minister, one of the things he would do differently would be to challenge every youth he met to at least consider vocational ministry as one of her or his career choices. He admitted that it is God who does the calling of the men and women who choose to become ministers, but looking at the dearth of quality ministers in so many denominations, it appears that either God is calling fewer people or more likely, many people who are called don’t answer.

There are many reasons for the shortage of clergy. In mainline denominations like ours, it is a valid question why anyone would want to throw in their lot with an institution becoming less and less relevant by the day. The suspicion of institutions in general and religious ones in particular has also had an effect. Also, the steady stream of clergy scandals, especially ones involving child molestation, has degraded the profession’s worth in the public eye. Many people with familiarity with churches know that the ministry can be a difficult career path; churches and religious institutions can and often do mask abuse of their employees (ordained and otherwise) in a religious guise that is perverse and difficult to guard against. Finally, there is the matter of money; with some notable exceptions, you will not get rich in ministry. Although I believe the profession is still respected in general terms, gone are the days when the local ministers were automatically granted moral influence in their communities.

Yet, there I was talking with teen after teen about what options are out there for those who wish to work for a church or religious organization. Given the religious landscape of our area, many of the youth came from conservative churches, where I suppose ministers are still held up (appropriately or not) as role models. Inevitably the discussion turned to eligibility issues. I had to level with a lot of young women that their particular denominations placed limits upon what kind of ministry women could perform. Given their religious background, most of the young women accepted this fact as the norm, although I was glad to see some of them bristled at the restrictions. I made a point of telling every one of the young women I spoke with something like this: “I’m not trying to turn you against your church’s practices, but you should know that there are plenty of denominations that have no restrictions upon women serving as ministers. In these churches, women serve as pastors and not just the children’s pastor or the wife of the minister. If you feel God leading you in the direction of becoming a minister, you should know there are options for you out there. My personal advice would be that you listen to God and go wherever God leads.”

Similarly, I had one young man ask if gay people could be ordained. I let him know that most churches consider homosexual behavior to be a sin, but there are some who do not. I shared with him my own belief that being a homosexual is not sinful and shared about some of the denominations that allow for gay clergy (United Church of Christ, ELCA, MCC, UUA, etc.), along with some but certainly not all of the churches in the Disciples of Christ. He seemed surprised and pleased, but when I asked him if he was gay and thinking about the ministry, he started and mumbled that although he was not gay he had friends who were and who might be interested.

I walked away from the job fair with mixed feelings. I was pleased with the number of youth who were interested in ministry, but I was also struck anew about the church’s restrictions upon who could answer God’s calling and who could not. For my part, I will continue to put professional ministry out there as a worthwhile vocation, just as I will continue to fight for the right of all who are called to have the chance to serve.

Grace and Peace,


The Secretive Spirituality of Dan Brown (Dialogue Column 10.6.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

When Dan Brown’s novel, The Lost Symbol, hit bookstores, I was quick to pick up a copy. I had read and enjoyed two of his previous books: The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, although I was more than a bit skeptical about his research concerning the history of Christianity. I had high hopes. Brown is not a writer of great literature; his work is meant for a mass audience, but he does have a knack for ending chapters in such a way as to leave the reader unable to resist plunging on ahead to the next one. Also, after the hullabaloo about The Da Vinci Code’s depiction of a secret and alternative history of Christianity, there were a ton of opportunities to get people who would not normally talk about such things thinking about the Bible and how we got it, the reasons some early Christian writings did not make it into the canon, Christianity’s role in the oppression of women and so on. I was hopeful that Brown’s new book would not only be a fun read but also a tool to provoke thought about religious belief.
I was disappointed on both counts.

Dan Brown’s new book is so boring that I could barely finish it. It felt like a poorly written college term paper where the student had done a lot of research and couldn’t help but stick it all in, even if it wasn’t relevant. Even after the climax of the book when the bad guy is vanquished there is still something like 60 pages to go filled with mind-numbing speculation about the universal consciousness of humanity, the merging of science and religion, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Ugh!

The plot of this novel centers around the Freemasons and their influence upon American history. Although there were some interesting tidbits about architecture in Washington, D.C. (did you know Darth Vader is carved in bas-relief on the exterior of the Washington Cathedral?), I liked the story the first two times I saw it in the movie National Treasure I and its sequel. At least when Nicholas Cage was running around D.C. solving mysteries left by the founding fathers there were car chases and explosions to keep me awake. I don’t know much about Masonic rituals (from what I’ve read Brown keeps things more or less accurate), but where Brown goes off the deep end is in his seemingly endless ruminations upon humanity’s ability to gain god-like wisdom.

Whether it’s Brown’s lead character, the Harvard professor Robert Langdon, or the tattoo-covered sadomasochistic bad guy or some other character in the book, each of them spends a lot of time speaking or thinking about the “ancient mysteries,” which are secret knowledge possessed by one or all of the great ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Greece, etc.) but hidden through the ages until the present time. This secret knowledge is spoken of in the sacred texts of all religions and has been carefully guarded by secret societies until humanity was ready to embrace it.

If this sounds familiar, it is probably because it is the same idea peddled in hundreds—probably thousands—of books generally labeled “New Age” or “Metaphyisical” found in your local book store. It seems that Brown read most of them as “research” for his latest novel. Each claims to possess the secret knowledge that will unleash the human potential hidden in our brains and/or souls and bring about a new age of universal harmony and peace, and of course this knowledge is available to you if you will only buy the book, series of audio recordings or lectures on DVD. In Brown’s novel, it is the Freemasons who have the secret knowledge and they are waiting for the right moment to spring it on the world.

At least in The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s abuse of historical information and basic Biblical knowledge could spark discussion about why men have used religion to control women and other worthwhile topics; his misuse of scripture served a higher purpose. In The Lost Symbol, his prooftexting of Hebrew and Christian scriptures (and I assume Hindu, Islamic and the texts of other religions) could spark no worthwhile discussion at all. The worldview of his characters closely resembles that of early pseudo-Christian movements generally labeled as Gnostics. Centuries ago, they too argued that the Bible was just a set of symbols that only the enlightened could decipher and only they could shed the limitations of their earthly bodies. Such a view denies the very obvious commands of Jesus to love God and neighbor which are offered as the keys to spiritual fulfillment. The ancient Gnostics, Brown’s characters and perhaps even the browsers of the New Age section at book stores alike seek a spiritual knowledge available to only the elite. I’d rather have the love of a God who makes it available freely to all of humanity.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Your Presence is Requested (Dialogue Column 9.29.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

The Buddhist master and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Thich Nhat Hanh, once stated, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” As Christians, we tend to intellectualize our faith, understanding it as a set of beliefs we somehow hold or possess. Or perhaps we view it as a membership that we claim as in a club or an organization. Leave it to a Buddhist to remind us Christians that our faith should be about “presence.”

More often than I would like to admit, my wife Jennifer catches me staring off into space and asks me, “Where are you right now?” She does so, because in such moments I am not present mentally with her and our sons at dinner or around the house. Instead, I have to admit to her and to myself that my mind is still focused on something that happened that day at work or something soon to happen at church. I am chagrinned to admit that I am not fully present with the ones I love most.

Similarly, because we are not fully present or mindful in important relationships, we are likewise not present for God. Since we understand our faith as something other than a relationship with God, we give little thought to being present to God or allowing God’s presence to make a difference in our lives. Our prayers are one-sided and given hurriedly in desperate moments rather than as chances to connect with the divine. With no time for reflection upon or reconnection with God, it is little wonder that our days can feel lacking in purpose and meaning.

When we fail to understand the difference our presence makes, our attention turns inward in an unhealthy manner. In the Christian life, community matters; it matters that we are present for others. It matters that we gather together as believers to worship God, to care for one another, to grow in our faith and to serve people in need. When the gift of presence is neglected something results far worse than empty pews; the individual, the community and even the world are robbed of opportunities for God’s grace to flow, simply through the gift of presence. If there is any truth to the idea that God’s Spirit dwells within each of us, then a person’s absence from a faith community denies others the chance to experience God in a particular and wonderful way.

This fall we are in the midst of a stewardship campaign that is unlike past ones here at First Christian Church of St. Joseph. The Stewardship Committee has worked hard to make the point in a variety of ways that being a steward or trustee of what God has given us is about more than money. There are financial realities that cannot be ignored, but being a part of a church is about being present to other members of the community. Simply by showing up for worship, your presence whether you realize it or not makes a difference to those around you and to the feeling in the room. By sharing of your time and energy for one of the ministries of the church, you are giving the best thing you have to give. In worship and in The Dialogue we are taking extra time and space to make sure new and long-time members alike know what the different groups in our church are doing, so that each member can know how he or she can join in with others who share the same passions.

First Christian Church of St. Joseph is unlike most churches I’ve known in many wonderful and positive ways, but in other ways it is just like every other church I’ve experienced. There are certain people who step up and do the bulk of what needs to be done. Whether by temperament, humility or obligation, certain souls will do more than their fair share of things at church and most other folks will gladly let them do it for any number of reasons. Such a way of operating robs everyone involved of the joy of being present in one another’s lives and the joy of being an instrument of God’s presence.

As your minister, I encourage you as a member of First Christian to think about the gift of your presence. Whether it is serving on a committee, ministering to a person in need, teaching children or youth about the faith or helping set up for a special event, your presence makes a spiritual difference beyond the actual tasks accomplished, because you are doing it as a part of a community of believers. This is not a call to add one more thing to your “To Do” list, rather it is a call for you to be intentional with the greatest gift you have to offer: your presence.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FCC St. Joe is Excellent in Evangelism! (sort of) (Dialogue Column 9.29.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

Last week I received an envelope from our denomination’s Office of Evangelism which contained a very attractive certificate declaring our church is a recipient of an “Excellence in Evangelism Award.” “Huh,” I thought, “Who would have thunk it?” After reading the fine print, I discovered that the award declares that out of churches of our size (101-250 participating members) for the year 2008 we were in the top 10% for number of additions of new members.

I next checked our records and found we had 23 new members last year—20 of them transferred their membership from another church and 3 of them made first time professions of faith. I guess that qualifies as “Excellence in Evangelism” in our denomination (among churches of our size, in the year 2008, etc. etc.). A cynic might scoff at what passes for “Excellence in Evangelism” in a shrinking denomination like ours, but I’m not cynical. Although it is nice to be recognized—for as much as such recognition is worth, each of these 23 additions last year—along with the 18 we’ve had so far in 2009—is meaningful to me because he or she represents a commitment to follow Jesus as a part of the community of faith that is First Christian Church of St. Joseph.

The letter accompanying the certificate made a point of qualifying what the word “Evangelism” means in such an award. It clarified that awards for additions were not necessarily awards for evangelism, at least not strictly speaking. The paragraph-long explanation is a little wordy and vague, but I took from it that evangelism is really about people making first time professions of faith (new Christians) rather than people transferring their membership from another church. So, I guess we really have an “Excellence in Adding New Members who are Already Christians but Whom were Either Inactive or Dissatisfied in their Previous Churches” award.

Based on what I know about the backgrounds of those who joined last year, here’s what I can tell you statistically:

· 3 made first-time professions of faith;
· 5 moved to St. Joseph and were looking for a church;
· 7 lived in St. Joseph, had belonged to a church in the past but had not been active in some time;
· 8 were active members of another church in town and for various reasons were looking for a new church.

So maybe we deserve an “Excellence in Adding New Members who Made a Profession of Faith, Moved to Our Town, or Felt a Desire to Find a New Church” award. A cynic might dismiss some of these new additions as examples of “sheep stealing” or “church shopping,” but I’m not cynical. For me, each of these people who have chosen to join First Christian Church is a person who was looking to deepen their commitment to Jesus Christ and was led by the Spirit to our church. There are many reasons why a person might go looking for a new church and many reasons why he or she would end up at a particular congregation. I choose to believe that those who have joined our church over the last few years have done so, because our members have made a concerted effort to allow God to work through them in some exciting ways.

Some folks have credited my coming to First Christian as the reason our church is adding new members; I tend to think that is an extreme overstatement. I believe that over the last few years we have done a better job than in previous years of letting people in our community know about the kind of faith community we are. Based on who has joined over the last two years, it is about evenly split between those who visited the church due to our marketing campaign and those who visited because of a direct invitation of a church member. Whether it was through a TV commercial, a postcard in the mail or from a personal invite, people have gotten the idea that we are a special kind of church that welcomes all people and values people of various beliefs coming together to serve God and others. Once they got in the door, another special thing happened—they felt welcome and cared about. Many of the new members have shared with me about their first interactions with church members on a Sunday morning. They felt they were greeted not merely out of politeness but with an eagerness to show hospitality and concern. They felt like this was a church that cared about them and then came to feel that through this community of believers they might be able show care to others in Christ’s name.

So, maybe we should have received an award for “Excellence in Welcoming Strangers and Helping Them to Connect with a Community of Faith.” I think I like that title best of all.

Grace and Peace,

Church. . . It's Complicated (Dialogue Column 9.15.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

Each week Jen and I watch The Soup, a TV show dedicated to making fun of trashy reality TV shows, snarky talk show hosts and poorly acted cable series. Their tagline is “We watch it all for you, so that you don’t have to!” The show is often hilarious and it allows us to keep a toe in the scum-covered waters of pop-culture without actually having to watch all this stuff (although sometimes even a half an hour of The Soup makes me despair for humanity).

One of the reality shows made fun of on The Soup is called Denise Richards . . . It’s Complicated. Richards, who once played a girlfriend for James Bond and was also once married to actor Charlie Sheen, is not what you would call the sharpest tool in the shed. From what I can gather from the clips of her show I’ve seen, the only thing “complicated” about her life is how she ever got her own show in the first place. Yet, this reality show that Jen and I have never really watched has given Jen and I our own inside joke. Now whenever anything is difficult, we like to add to it “. . . It’s Complicated.” Such as, “Parenting. . . It’s Complicated.” “Long Division. . . It’s Complicated.” “Programming the Remote Control. . . It’s Complicated.”

I want to share this inside joke with you, our church, as we begin our stewardship campaign this year. I haven’t run this by the Stewardship Committee yet, but I’ve thought about hanging up a banner that says, “Church. . . It’s Complicated.” (Of course, then I’d have to explain the joke to all the people that don’t read my newsletter column, so perhaps, I’ll just skip the banner.) As much as I the minister or other leaders of the church might want to make being a part of a community of faith convenient and easy, the fact is that being a part of a church is. . . well. . . “complicated.” It demands commitment, time, effort and sacrifice—that is, if it really is going to resemble anything like following Jesus.

Recently, I read a sermon by Peter Marty, well-known Lutheran minister and writer, that makes my point well. In it, Marty uses two Quakers as examples of how the call of Christ actually complicates rather than eases the life of a believer:

The late Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood understood this complicating nature of the Christian way. "In many areas," he wrote, "the gospel, instead of taking away peoples' burdens, actually adds to them." On a number of occasions, Trueblood told the story of John Woolman, a successful Quaker merchant in the 18th century who lived a wonderfully nice life until God convicted him one day of the offense of holding slaves. After that, John Woolman gave up his prosperous business; he used his money to try and free slaves and even started wearing undyed suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. Says Elton Trueblood, "Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of problems."

What a powerful way to think about how complicated it can be to follow Christ in our culture!

As each of us at First Christian consider our own finances, talents, time and energy, we cannot escape from the fact that we must give of all of these things in service to God and people in need—at least not if we want to be faithful to Christ. In the midst of a busy schedule, how can I make time to volunteer to help others? With medical limitations, how can I give of myself to others? Out of the things that I want to buy in the coming year, what would I be willing to give up or forego to support my church and its ministries? Are there things in my life I don’t really need (an extra latte, a more expensive cell phone, one more purchase on Ebay, etc.) that I could let go of in order to use that same money to supply the basic needs of someone in my community (Open Door Food Kitchen, Juda House, Royal Family Kids Camp, etc.)? These are the tough questions that stewardship time should force us to think about?

Jesus never promised that following him would be easy or even fun, although he does promise that doing so will be fulfilling and joyous. How can that be? Well. . . “It’s Complicated.”

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

100,000 for Health Care Reform

The United Church of Christ--a partner denomination with the Disciples of Christ and a denomination I have ministerial standing in--is gathering 100,000 "signatures" in support of health care reform. I signed it, so that means only 99,999 to go.

Be Careful What You Pray For: A Parable about Prayer (Dialogue Column 9.8.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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.

A good friend of mine named Sterling Severns is the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. Sterling and I went to college and seminary together and he is a dynamic person and minister. His church has changed dramatically over the last year in some amazing and entirely unexpected ways. I thought I would share the story of those changes with you as an example of how I believe God wishes to surprise all of us with opportunities to serve people on the margins.

Tabernacle Baptist Church looks the part of a stately, white, urban congregation in the “Capitol of the Confederacy”. In its heyday, Tabernacle was a thriving city church with a sanctuary offering seats for thousands each Sunday. With the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention only a few short blocks away, Tabernacle was the site for missionary commissioning services that connected it with the entire world. Times changed and so did the neighborhood around the church. Families moved to the suburbs and the rowhouses around Tabernacle were often subdivided into apartments. They filled up with yuppies, hippies and college students, few of whom were interested in a traditional Southern Baptist Church. The church membership dwindled to a small group of older members and those who remained were heard to joke, “The last one who dies needs to turn out the lights.” They prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

Five years ago, my friend Sterling was called as their pastor. His two children doubled the size of the Sunday School. As the Southern Baptist Convention became more and more conservative, the church chose to affiliate with moderate to liberal Baptist groups which helped it be more open to the community around it. Sterling’s considerable gifts also helped to draw in new members. Things began to seem less desperate and more hopeful. Still they prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

One day, an associate minister of the church received a call from an acquaintance who worked with refugees. She was asked if there were any Baptist churches in Richmond that would work with a growing population of Burmese Karen refugees that were being settled there in increasing numbers. Of course she mentioned Tabernacle. The church looked at the Karens as a mission opportunity and considered options of how to help these strangers in a strange land. At the beginning, the Karens were one group in need among many in Richmond. Meanwhile, Tabernacle members prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

The Karen Burmese are a minority in the country of Burma (renamed Myanmar by its oppressive military government). They have experienced ethnic cleansing at the hands of the brutal government forces, who often ethnically cleanse villages and rape any women they find. The Karen in America came here legally as a part of international refugee resettlement programs. The problem is the groups put in charge of helping them find new lives are often underfunded or incompetent; such is the case in Richmond. Most refugees arrive speaking little or no English, with very little money or job skills and no knowledge of how to navigate the currents of American society. Interestingly, many of the Karen are Baptist thanks to the work of early missionaries in the 18th century, so their American brothers and sisters in Christ at Tabernacle found themselves gravitating toward these strangers who sang traditional Baptist hymns in their own dialects. Slowly but surely, the church members found themselves helping get children signed up for school and driving whole families to doctor appointments. Then they started an ESL class to teach the Karen English. Relationships quickly formed and the Karen began showing up on Sunday mornings at Tabernacle.

The members of Tabernacle Baptist Church began to realize that the families and children they had been praying for had arrived. But instead of the Caucasian middle class families of previous generations, God had provided families and children from Southeast Asia with a long list of needs. I’m happy to report that the members of Tabernacle opened their arms wide to the families God brought to them. If you visit on a Sunday morning, you will find around 175 people (around half Caucasian and half Karen) attending a service offered in three languages: English and two Karen dialects. Rather than looking in a bulletin or on an overhead screen, the members sing old Baptist hymns in their separate languages; the melodies have offered a common experience. Their Sunday School and youth group contain Caucasian and Karen children. Their meals and times of fellowship allow for adults to cross boundaries of language, nationality, and class. Together they are striving hard to be one church.
Grace comes in many forms, so be careful what you pray for.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another good article featuring First Christian Church

In Saturday's issue of the St. Joseph News-Press, there was another good article by Erin Wisdom that featured our church along with others in downtown St. Joseph. (Erin always does a great job.) I'm grateful to Andrew Kar, our youth director, for representing us so well with his great quote, just as I'm grateful to Roger Lenander from First Lutheran and Missy Schafer from First Presbyterian for helping our three churches work together to share God's love with teens.

Faith and Conversion (Dialogue Column 9.1.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, 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 watched the news coverage following the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy with interest over the past week. It seemed to me that the assessments of Kennedy’s life pronounced by pundits, politicians and historians fell into one of two camps: 1. those who described Kennedy as the “Lion of the Senate,” a master legislator who helped craft most of the culture-improving bills of his generation, and a crusader for the underdog; and 2. those who described Kennedy as a spoiled dilettante whose political fortunes were handed to him by his rich family, a cad and womanizer who drove drunk resulting in the death of a young woman, and a proponent of big-government excess. How do we reconcile these two images of the same person?

As I heard the praise and criticism of Kennedy, I thought of the many parallels between him and George W. Bush. Even though there are significant differences between the two men—especially when it comes to their political ideologies and the fact that Bush is still alive—there are some similarities that I believe are worth pondering. Both men grew up as younger sons in rich politically-connected families, and neither man was expected to carry his family’s standard but both did to the highest levels of political power. Both were accused of being callow drunks who had their political positions handed to them on the basis of wealth and family rather than talent. Both are reviled by those on the other end of the political divide, but both of them were known for reaching across the aisle to accomplish their agendas. AND both credit Christianity with the significant changes made in their lives: Bush made a profession of faith with an evangelical minister and Kennedy found a renewed commitment to his Catholic upbringing. (Also--read Jim Wallis' accounts of his interaction with Kennedy.)

Those who despise Kennedy and view him as liberal destroyer of family values will bristle at the comparison with Bush; likewise, those who view Bush as a theocratic warmonger would reject the comparison with Kennedy. Yet, I feel there is a spiritual truth somewhere in-between that deserves to be examined. All but the most zealous of Kennedy’s detractors could at least applaud his work to expand America’s immigration policies beyond Western European Caucasians, his opposition to human rights abuses of regimes like August Pinochet and the U.S.S.R., and his support of people with disabilities. Similarly, all but the most virulent of critics could at least applaud Bush’s large increases in foreign aid to fight the AIDS crisis in Africa and the prescription drug program for low-income seniors. Except for the most partisan, I believe most everyone could give some credit to both Kennedy and Bush when pressed. What does it mean then, from a faith perspective, that each person could accomplish great things for the benefit of others despite obvious personal failings?
One thing I hope the legacies of Kennedy and Bush reveal is that the work of God to care for humanity is not limited by partisan politics. Despite those who would claim that God is on one side of the aisle or the other, if one understands every act of benevolence and healing as an outgrowth of God’s saving and healing activity, then it stands to reason that God can work through either a Democrat or a Republican. Another thing I hope the legacies of these two men reveal is that God can work through people even if they have made big, even tragic, mistakes. This is good news for those of us who have made some of our own. Finally, I hope their legacies point to the idea that God can help people to change for the better. We are not bound by the low expectations of others or even ourselves. With God’s help, we can turn away from destructive behavior that enslaves us and wounds those around us. The grace of God ignores the boundaries we erect.
Most of us will not rise to political prominence. We will lead ordinary lives far from the spotlight of fame and fortune. Yet, the grace of God can overcome the differences between us—political and otherwise—as we work to share love with humanity. The grace of God can work through anyone, even broken people, because God offers us on-going chances to change for the better. All these things are available to us, even if we do not come from a dynasty of wealth and power.

Grace and Peace,