Thursday, January 29, 2009

Praying to the "tiny infant baby Jesus"

This past Sunday I preached on Jesus' calling his disciples in the Gospel of Mark. I was making the point that this Jesus is not a Jesus that we can control or a Jesus that asks little if anything of us. To illustrate the point I mentioned the hilarious scene from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby where Ricky Bobby (played by Will Ferrel) prays to "baby Jesus" (watch the video) because that's the Jesus he prefers--the cute one from Christmas--and that the rest of his family can pray to whatever Jesus they want to pray to. Like Ricky Bobby, we may prefer the precious baby Jesus laying in a manger to the Jesus that asks us to follow him and make sacrifices if need be to demonstrate God's love to others.

I confessed that I took that illustration from a sermon by Julie-Pennington Russell, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, GA. I guess I was too busy snorting and guffawing when I saw Talledega Nights to think about sermons, but I wish I had, because it's a good one. You can read Pennington-Russell's sermon on-line--it's worth a look.

Also, I mentioned that because First Baptist Decatur called her as its minister it has been kicked out of the Georgia Baptist Convention which opposes female minister. Such sexism is a reminder for me why I left Baptist life, but the church's actions calling the best minister for them regardless of gender is a lesson about the cost that may come when you choose to pursue the justice of Christ that transcends the ignorance and sexism of some Christians.

Grace and Peace,


New Faces at Church

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.

Two hours before I sat down to write these words to you; I sat down over coffee with a young woman interested in First Christian Church. She and I recently met at a seminar at MWSU and it turned out that she works with a church member. In addition to our conversation over at the college, her coworker told her about First Christian and invited her to visit. During the time she was thinking about coming on a Sunday morning, she saw our TV commercial and figured that through all of these encounters with First Christian God was trying to tell her something. She has visited two Sundays in a row, met with me and she plans on continuing to visit on Sundays.

For me, her interest in First Christian is very exciting. I hope it is exciting for you too. First, this means that I am not scaring people off from First Christian when I meet them out in the community—always good to know. Second, it means that First Christian people feel good enough about their church to invite others to visit—people who are looking for an open-minded and welcoming church. Third, thanks to our marketing campaign the level of awareness of FCC is growing in the community—we are becoming more than just one more anonymous church building that people drive by. Fourth, when people visit they feel welcome.

In recent weeks, we have had a lot of new faces on Sunday mornings. So far in 2009, over 30 visitors have been in worship. On January 18th alone, 20 visitors were in worship. Even on the 25th when the weather was bad and many of our own folks did not make it to church, we still had 12 visitors! Some of these folks were not first-timers but have been visiting for a while. Others, however, were visiting our church for the first time. A number of the visitors received one of the postcards we mailed out in December and came to our Christmas Eve service. Apparently they enjoyed that service enough to come back after the holidays. Not all of these folks will end up making First Christian their church home, but the odds are that many will if they feel welcome.

In addition to the Marketing Committee’s efforts, in recent months the Membership Recruitment and Personal Involvement Committee (some folks call it the Pie Committee and lately we’ve just been calling it the Membership Committee) have been working to train greeters and provide events for members and visitors to interact (coffee and donuts anyone?). They are continuing to develop more ways to follow up with visitors and get new members involved. All of this work is important, but even more important is the personal welcome visitors receive when they are sitting in the pews.

The good news is that visitors and new members alike report to me that they appreciate the welcome and greetings they receive from church members. First Christian members, you are apparently doing a great job with this important task of hospitality! I also have noted with pride and joy that First Christian is not afraid to allow new members to not only get involved and share their ideas but even take positions of leadership. I have had the experience of joining a church only to discover that there was an inner circle and not all members were equal—what a disappointment. I’m glad to say that is not the case at First Christian. Long-time members and newcomers alike worship and serve alongside one another.

This week marks two years that I have been at First Christian Church. We have a vibrant and open community of faith to offer St. Joseph and people are beginning to discover it. In my time here, 31 people have become members of First Christian—a great number for a church of our size and more will be coming soon. A few people have offered me the credit for “bringing in” these new members, but that is a compliment I humbly refuse to accept. A church is far more than its minister. In my experience, a church’s minister may be reason enough for a person not to join, but rarely, if ever, do people join a church for the minister. People join a church and commit to it for many reasons, but the biggest reason—even bigger than doctrine, worship style and programs--is they feel welcome and included.

There are people in St. Joseph who are hungry for the kind of faith community that we have here at First Christian Church. I look forward to working with you to share First Christian with them.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New U2 Single!

Saints be praised! There's a new single out by my favorite band in the world! U2! I'm still absorbing it and I need to hear it on something besides my dinky laptop speakers, but it would be hard to imagine a U2 single that I wouldn't like.

Here's a taste of the lyrics:

Here’s where we gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity
If joy is real

Second Thoughts About the Inaugural Prayer Service

Okay, last week I expressed my concerns regarding prayers at presidential inaugurations and religion (specifically Christianity) being used by politicians for political purposes. Then I found out that the General Minister of my own denomination was preaching at the inaugural prayer service at the Nathional Cathedral! I maintain my concerns about church and state mixing and the church keeping enough of its distance to speak prophetically to the nation, but if there has to be a prayer service--this one is better than most.

First off, although it is at the National Cathedral and in essence a Christian service, it does include a broad array of Christian leaders from many denominations, as well as--and this is important--Jewish, Muslim and Christian spiritual leaders. (Take a look at the worship bulletin.) We are not just a nation of Christians but rather a nation of many religions. If people of different faiths cannot find a way to live together in America, where is it possible? That's another reason I object to all these Christian ministers running around at government events--they do not speak for everyone in our nation. If I wish to love my neighbors, then I must also love my non-Christian neighbors and make sure they are included in the important national ceremonies of our nation.

Second, what Sharon Watkins, our Disciples General Minister, says in her sermon is very good. It is appropriately respectful, but it is also challenging. She reminds the president and all of us that we have a choice as to whether we will choose the path of forgiveness, grace, charity and love or the path of violence, revenge, selfishness and hatred.

You can read her sermon on-line or watch the service on-line.

Grace and Peace,


Reflections on the Dream and the Inauguration

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 marched in the MLK Day Peace March this past Sunday and then participated in a panel discussion about King’s dream at Missouri Western a day later, I heard a general consensus from the speakers and participants. The inauguration of the first African-American president is a major milestone in our nation’s history and a cause for celebration in terms of how far we have come as a nation, BUT King’s dream is not yet fulfilled. As long as prejudice and oppression exist, King’s dream remains alive but not yet realized. I share this view, and as I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, I believe this dream of not only a nation but a world where a person is judged not on the color of their skin but their character is not just King’s dream; it is God’s dream. I feel sure King would agree.

The dream may not be fulfilled, but it sure felt closer than ever Tuesday as I watched the inauguration on TV. (By the way, The Dialogue is coming to you a day later this week, so that the church staff and volunteers could watch these historic events.) My father told me that tears were in his eyes many times while watching the day’s events, especially when the camera focused on the youngest members of the new First Family: Malia and Sasha Obama. I wonder how many in his generation stared in wonder at the Obama girls entering the White House as they remembered the angry racist crowds who hurled insults and threats at the Little Rock Nine and 6 year-old Ruby Bridges in New Orleans when they integrated public schools. We have come a long way from those days of hatred.

At the panel discussion on Monday at MWSU, there was excitement about the first African-American president, but there was also a frank appraisal of the needs of the African-American community as well as other minority groups. (Dave Tushaus was also on the panel and represented First Christian very well!) Some speakers shared statistics of the disproportionate number of African Americans in Missouri prisons and on Missouri’s death row. Others spoke about the need for individual responsibility and parental responsibility. Others mentioned discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Others shared about King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” and the lack of progress helping the poorest in our nation. The challenges facing our nation are manifold and complex.

Finding a starting point for individuals and groups to face these challenges is a daunting task. At the panel discussion, however, we were reminded of a tool that can help people who care about the problems of our nation and world but wonder what, if anything, they can do. That tool is a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct” given by Martin Luther King, Jr. These powerful words are applicable to all people and all groups, but they are especially true for the church. As I said on Sunday, we must not forget that the Civil Rights Movement involved many people of many faiths, but it began in the church. King was a minister after all. The church has an essential and vital role to play in realizing the dream King spoke of, a dream echoed at Obama’s inauguration—God’s dream. I know of no better place for us to start than with King’s words from “The Drum Major Instinct.”

“Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great--wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness…It means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Can I Take Back My Last Post?

Oh great! As soon as I post my objections to prayers at the presidential innauguration, I see an article about the General Minister of my own denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Sharon Watkins, preaching at the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral on January 21. Granted it is in a church, but nonetheless is the type of Civil Religion that I was decrying below.

Ugh. . . there goes my future in denominational politics.

What's So Controversial About a Presidential Innauguration Prayer?

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.

A lot of ink and air time has lately been given over to discussion of whether or not Rev. Rick Warren should or should not give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration next week. Supporters of same-sex marriage (who are also supporters of Barack Obama) cite the influential minister’s vocal support for a California ban on such unions as reason enough for him not to be a part of the inauguration of the first African-American president. Celebrating one triumph of civil rights, they argue, by giving air time to a person who opposes giving civil rights to gays and lesbians is hypocrisy. Defenders of Warren giving the prayer (even those who do not agree with his position on same-sex marriage), point out that it is an example of the next president’s promises to build bridges between people that disagree on sensitive political issues. After all, it was Warren who invited Obama to speak at a conference on the AIDS crisis given by his church, even though many conservative Christians condemned the minister for allowing a “pro-choice” politician to participate. Is it right or wrong for Warren to give this prayer at the inauguration?

Before I answer that question, let me offer my own thoughts on Rick Warren in general. On the one hand, I respect Rick Warren greatly for some of his actions. When his book The Purpose-Driven Life became a runaway bestseller, Warren gave away 90% of the money he made from it and then paid back his church every penny they ever paid him in salary and THEN began taking no salary at all. (I don’t believe any other wealthy megachurch pastor has done anything similar to this.) Also, despite his own conservative beliefs about sexuality, Warren has led the way in getting evangelicals to take on the world AIDS crisis, especially in Africa, in the face of criticism by other conservative Christian leaders.

On the other hand, I don’t share Warren’s understanding of scriptural authority and I find his theology shallow in a number of areas. For example, recent press accounts detail how his church’s counseling ministry does not consider physical abuse as grounds for divorce based upon instructions about divorce found in scripture. Such an understanding may be true to the letter of the law, but it misses entirely the lived reality of thousands of women, many of whom face life-and-death situations. The same disregard of grace is evident, I believe, in Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Furthermore, I find suspect Warren’s courting of the press and politicians, such as at the Saddleback Forum where McCain and Obama answered Warren’s questions in a televised debate. It is not the job of the church or its ministers to play kingmaker, and I believe even the best Christian in the world could not help but be seduced by the temptations of fame and power. A minister with that much fame and power seems to lack the humility modeled by the one who took the form of a slave and suffered death on a cross.

All that being said, I don’t really have a problem with Warren saying a prayer at the inauguration; we Americans have to find a way to bridge the culture wars in order to address our culture’s great problems. That means by necessity, people that do not agree must work together. Rick Warren can have a place on the program for all I care, which brings me to what I do have a problem with—I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH PRAYERS AT PRESIDENTIAL INNAUGURATIONS!
Yes, since the founding of our republic, public prayer has been a part of significant public and government events, but the question is: should they be? Scholars of religion call this type of public religiosity “Civil Religion” which means that it serves a public function for the occasion but it has little to do with what I (and I think Rick Warren) would call true religion—namely a person’s relationship with God. In an increasingly pluralistic nation, we as Americans are forced to consider again the wisdom of our founders who having left behind a continent riven for centuries by religious wars and state churches chose not to have a state religion. Granted, in their minds, they were most likely thinking of different branches of Christendom rather than the interaction of world religions, but the principle remains the same: in order to protect the rights of all to worship as they please government should keep its mitts of religion.
As a Christian, a quick glance at today’s headlines as well as a cursory study of world history reveals that whenever the church and the government have colluded for the sake of power, corruption and idolatry have robbed the church of its true mission—to live out the love of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if I, as a Christian, take seriously Christ’s call to love my neighbor, then I should consider how a Muslim or Hindu neighbor might feel when the name of Jesus Christ is invoked at a presidential inauguration. On the one hand it is just a prayer; on the other hand, it is a prayer that does not include them, just as a prayer to Krishna would not include me.
Finally, I believe prayers like the one Warren will offer—and for that matter, like the prayer that will be offered at the end of the inauguration by a hero of mine, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery—are robbed of their power. Can a prayer offered as a part of a political event of this magnitude be both sincere and prophetic? I’m not so sure. I believe all Christians should pray for their leaders regardless of their party just as I believe Christians should be involved in the public process, but I believe we must do so with fear and trembling, lest we become ensnared by the idols of partisan politics and cultural ideology. Above all, our allegiance must remain to Christ first, even before that of our nation.
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another Great Letter to the Editor

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.

When I interviewed for the position of minister here at First Christian a little over two years ago, I was impressed by a comment Colin Cline made to me about the church. He said, “Members of First Christian like to stir up trouble.” As an example, he pointed across the room to where Keith Evans was sitting and then told me Keith had a letter to the editor in the News-Press that day. Over the years, about the only thing that keeps me looking at the letters to the editor every day is the possibility that a First Christian member has written in to express his or her opinion. It has been great to see newer church members like Mike Edwards and Bev Grienke writing powerful letters too. Amidst the apocalyptic declarations that we are living in the last days and the often incoherent rants about one issue or another, the letters of First Christian folks have stood out as articulate and even prophetic.

This week, Keith Evans had another letter published that continues the tradition of FCC members speaking out in the public square. Keith was responding to a letter written a week earlier by a gentleman complaining about the non-sectarian Christmas program at his grandchildren’s elementary school. The original writer complained that the songs were non-religious in nature and part of a “secular takeover” of America. He longed for a Christmas program (and assumedly an America) like his own childhood 70 years ago. Keith reminded the author and us that 70 years ago schools remained segregated and religious minorities were persecuted, despite the singing of Christmas carols at school. Keith also testified to the fact that he, the original writer and all of us remain free to sing our religious carols and observe our religious traditions in our own places of worship. Way to go Keith!

Keith was making the same point that I was trying to make in my sermon a month ago, which was titled “Bill O’Reilly is Wrong About Christmas.” It was a deliberately provocative title, but in the end it was a poor choice on my part, because a couple of folks got stuck on my criticism of O’Reilly and missed my point entirely. My intention was to say that people who get bent out of shape about the place of Christmas in the public square—be they cable talk show hosts or people in the pews—fail to get what Christmas is really about.

Christmas IS about God taking the amazing step of becoming human in order to experience what it is like to know our joys and pain. Christmas IS about God being born as a helpless infant who would die as a helpless adult to enable us to experience the grace of God. Christmas IS NOT about cultural nostalgia for a less pluralistic time. As Keith noted in his letter, what good does it do to sing carols at school when significant portions of the population aren’t even allowed in the room?

I only wish I could find Christians who are as passionate about sharing their experience of Christ as the people (and talk show hosts) who complain about a Wal-Mart clerk saying “Seasons Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It is not the job of the schools, the government or major retailers to promote the meaning of Christmas, but rather it is the job of people who claim to follow Jesus Christ to declare through their loving service to others what Christmas really means.

I’m very grateful to Keith Evans for making this same point on the News-Press editorial page.

Grace and Peace,