Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Preaching to the Atheists

While seriving a church on Long Island, I had the privilege of getting to know Tom Goodhue, the Executive Director of the Long Island Council of Churches. Tom and the council do a really incredible job of working on social issues like fair housing regulations, poverty, hunger, immigration and fostering some incredible dialogue and community--not only between Christians of various denominations, but also between Christians, Jews, Muslims and members of other religious traditions.

Even though I'm now in Missouri, I still enjoy getting the LICC's newsletter and reading Tom's thought's each month. This month Tom had a really interesting column about his experience speaking at a conference of the Ethical Culture Society in NYC--almost all of his audience were avowed atheists. Tom has written for a wide variety of publications and has authored several books about female paleontologists who carried out research that influenced Charles Darwin's work, so he knows about that which he speaks. I so enjoyed Tom's recounting of this experience of expanding dialogue on the relationship between science and religion that I wrote and asked him if I could reprint it here. He eagerly agreed, so here it is:


Yours truly recently had one of the stranger experiences in his checkered career. I was invited to speak at a celebration in Manhattan, hosted by the Ethical Culture Society, of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, one of many Evolution Weekend observances in churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship around the world. Having preached in half a dozen Unitarian Universalist congregations and thinking that the ECS was not all that different from UUs, I expected a diverse crowd of progressive, broad-minded, tolerant, well-educated folks. Having written two books about the pioneer paleontologist Mary Anning, I offered to talk about Anning, some of Darwin’s other precursors, and how their faith furthered their scientific discoveries.

Just before the celebration began, I asked someone from the ECS how they differed from the UUs and was told that nearly everyone in the ECS looked down upon UUs as way too religious. As the program began, and the crowd was asked to identify which Society they represented, it soon became apparent that, with the exception of a few UUs I knew and a Catholc from Long Island (whose presence I appreciated), this was pretty much a sanctuary full of atheists. Talk about playng to a tough house.!

Next, the emcee congratulated the ECS for holding “the only celebration of Darwin’s birthday this weekend in a sanctuary.” Then a philosophy professor from one of our finer Long Island institutions of higher learning insisted, astonishingly and without offering a shred of evidence, that Christians had rejected Darwinism because it refuted Genesis and undermined their system of ethics. And then someone did a satiric monologue, affecting a Southern accent to portray Christians who believe in Intelligent Design as idiots. The crowd roared with laughter. I seethed.

Chucking the first page of my talk and winging it, I asked for a show of hands to see what they already knew about Darwin’s precursors. Few knew any one of them, and fewer still had heard of the pioneer paleontologists Mary Anning, Mary Lyell, Mary Buckland, or Charlotte Murchison. Finally I asked who knew where Charles Darwin was buried. Only a few hands went up, disproportionately among the UUs from Long Island.

Taking issue with our emcee, I pointed out that in recent years Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend have been celebrated by many churches, synagogues, Unitarian Universalist fellowships and other houses of worship across the nation and around the world. and that more than 12,000 clergy, including more than 10,000 Christian leaders, have signed a declaration that, “The timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.”

Next I pointed out that for more than half a century, Christians had few objections to Darwin’s evolutionary theory itself. What offended Christians was its illegitimate offspring, Social Darwinism, which claimed the rich were more intelligent and more fit to reproduce than the poor. In its most pernicious and racist form, the Eugenics movement led by Charles Darwin’s cousin, it advocated sterilizing supposedly “inferior” races and classes. When American evangelicals and fundamentalists finally got around to rejecting evolution, it was not because they were bigoted ignoramuses, but rather because, like William Jennings Bryant, they were more progressive and populist than those who preached Social Darwinism. Christians did not reject Darwin because it undermined morals: they saw Social Darwinism as immoral junk science—and they were right.

Opposition to Darwin’s theory continues to flourish today, I suggested, because some atheists keep claiming that evolution is incompatible with belief in God. Scientists and science buffs often cross the line that separates science from scientism: science requires “methodological agnosticism,” seeking natural explanations for natural phenomenon, but claiming that there is no supernatural being because science does detect one is a theological leap that leaves science behind. Too few agnostics and atheists—and too few believers--know that genetic research pioneer Gregor Mendel was a monk or that Charles Darwin was ordained as a priest in the Church of England (as were William Daniel Conybeare and William Buckland) and is buried in Westminster Abbey, where Buckland was the Dean.

Having gently pointed out their religious bigotry and their ignorance of women’s history, which doesn’t happen too often to West Side Lefties, I proceeded to tell them about the profound, paradoxical contribution that their faith made to the work of Mary Anning, William Daniel Conybeare, William and Mary Buckland, and Darwin’s other precursors. Far from hindering their pursuit of scientific truth, their faith helped them to do difficult dangerous geological work on crumbling cliffs and to discover evidence of adaptation to environment in prehistoric life, even as they undermined some non-Biblical notions of their fellow believers, such as the claim that the universe was created in 4004 B.C., a date found nowhere in Holy Writ.

I was right, at least, about these Ethical Culture folks being broad-minded and tolerant: they tolerated me and most seemed to appreciate what I had to say. Not one of them challenged me to a duel at dawn, though we did have a few polite but pointed exchanges over cake and coffee. Here are some things I learned that may help you when talking with unbelievers, whether during your coffee break or in your Easter sermon to visiting skeptical visitors:
*Atheists often think that science disproves religion but don’t necessarily know all that much about science or religion.
*They usually know even less about the history of science and the history of religion.
*They probably think of your religion as a set of abstract beliefs rather than a way of life. The will be confounded—and perhaps intrigued—if you explain that your faith is about your relationship with your Creator and your fellow human beings.
*You probably don’t believe in the dogma and god that they don’t believe in, either.
*They need to hear clearly what you believe, why you believe it, and what difference it makes in your life.



Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beware of Bible Scholars Selling Books (Dialogue Column 3.24.09)

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

I recently started subscribing to The Atlantic Monthly, and I’ve enjoyed the articles, commentary and reviews—largely on topics I know only a little about. In this month’s issue, however, there is an article on a subject I know quite a bit about—early Christianity. The article is by Robert Wright, a fellow at a Washington, D.C. think tank who writes about a lot of subjects, including religion. He argues that early Christianity, especially the kind practiced by Paul represented a nascent form of globalization, complete with franchises (the churches Paul established).

Setting aside the anachronistic idea of reading today’s globalization into the first century Roman Empire, Wright presents some decent material about Paul’s work. Unfortunately, he does so as a part of his larger thesis which includes questionable interpretations of the Gospels and what amounts to a lame dismissal of the Hebrew Scriptures. Wright represents a problem all too common in our religious illiterate media culture—namely, people that like to read scholarship about the Bible rather than actually reading the Bible itself. Just as bad as the “experts” you find in the so-called “Christian media” who opine about the scriptures without ever having read any decent scholarship of it are the “experts” on the Bible you find appearing in “secular media” going on about the latest in Biblical scholarship who have never read the Bible.

Wright—and many other writers before him—find in Paul, a cosmopolitan thinker who moved Christianity beyond the nationalist confines of Jesus and the Jews. He ignores the concerns of Jesus for Gentiles as depicted in the Gospels and God’s concern for all nations as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. He considers Mark’s Gospel to be the most historical, because it is the earliest—a questionable position since just because something was written first doesn’t mean it is more historically reliable. He also ignores the rich themes of God’s love for all nations as found throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. Any reasonable rabbi today would reject the idea that the God of what we call the Old Testament is only a wrathful, angry deity, yet Wright—and so many others, do just that and therefore dismiss the majority of what Christians consider to be scripture.

I’ve grown used to flawed pieces of “scholarship” like Wright’s (did I mention he has a book to sell on this subject?), although once I loved these revisionist perspectives. As a religion major in college and as a seminary student, I was taught to love and even revere biblical scholarship. I came out of a tradition that disregarded the role of the mind in the life of faith and that had a deep-seated suspicion of all things intellectual, so discovering what’s called the “Historical-Critical Method” was a wonderful release. I became great at reading commentaries, articles and monographs, but it wasn’t until I went to do doctoral work in the New Testament that I had professors who taught me to question the presuppositions and arguments of scholars. Again and again, they forced me to actually read the Biblical text. This was by no means some sort of fundamentalist literalism, but rather just plain learning to read primary rather than secondary sources. Before you read what scholars say about the Bible, you might want to actually read the Bible yourself.

I began to learn that just like fundamentalists; scholars could be completely unaware of their own philosophical presuppositions about modernity, history, religion and ethics. More often than not, scholars end up where they started out from. Like the rest of us, they find a God, a Jesus or a Paul that matches what they wanted to find in the first place. All of us suffer from this same dilemma, but not all of us are selling books claiming to be the authoritative word on what Christianity REALLY was and should be. A walk through Borders will reveal a table near the religion section containing all sorts of books by leading “experts” who claim to know what Jesus really did or said. These are the same “experts” that make it onto NPR and other showcases for peddling a literary product. It might make for interesting cocktail party discussions, but just because a publisher promotes a book well doesn’t mean a given writer’s argument is worthwhile or even well-considered.

I still love to read good scholarship about the Bible, but I make sure that I actually have read enough of the biblical text to have my own opinion first. I’m willing to change my mind on a particular passage of scripture, but how can that happen, if I never have my own thoughts in the first place. The next time you hear a religious scholar on the radio or see an article by one in a magazine talking about what REALLY happened in the beginnings of Christianity, take a look for yourself about the scriptures they discuss. You may discover that the so-called scholar has never even read for himself the texts he claims to know so much about.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's a Dark World With No Apologies

I preached this morning on John 3:14-21 and offered the idea that the passage is really more about life now rather than a future heaven. The love of god extended to us in Christ presents us with a moment of decision will we choose to live or perish--not after this life is over but right now. Will we remain in darkness or choose to walk into God's light?

An example I gave is how our culture has lost its ability to apologize--to take responsibility for our actions and seek to make amends when we hurt others. I was working off of an essay by Karen Gibbs in this week's Time where she notes that from AIG to A Rod to the Pope--no one seems to be able to simply admit a mistake and apologize for it. Instead we get scripted phrases like "I"m sorry if you were offended by what I did/said." In other words, "I'm sorry you were such a thin-skinned weakling to actually be bothered by my actions."

If we are to move out of darkness into light, from death into life--not in some life after this one but right now, one way is to begin with apologizing for what we should apologize for. The good news is that the forgiveness of God is just a heartbeat away.

Grace and Peace,


Saturday, March 21, 2009

First Christian in the News-Press Again

Two Saturdays in a row First Christian Church has been in the News-Press. This week the article was about our vote last Sunday to support a moratorium on executions in Missouri. (See my previous posts about the process leading up to this vote and more information about the moratorium.)

My thanks go out to Erin Wisdom who wrote a good story about us and got the facts straight. I'm less grateful towards the editors who gave the article a misleading headline. According to the headline we voted to oppose the death penalty when in reality we voted to support a moratorium. As a congregation we are not in agreement over the morality of the death penalty. there is a large agreement, however, that the current system is not just--more poor and black defendants go to death row than the other way around--not to mention the many innocents who have been exonerated.

Personally, I remain opposed to the death penalty, because I worship Jesus Christ who was put to death even though he was innocent of any crime. My love for Jesus compells me to consider thae evils inherent in any system of execution by an imperfect government. Also, I believe it is entirely possible that life in prison is worse than death. Finally, I believe each human life is valuable, because each life is created by God--each life, both the victims and the perpetrators.

My prayer is that our vote as a church speaks out about an issue of injustice and plays a part in seeking a legal system that is fair for all involved.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THE SERMON OF THE NURSERY (a.k.a What I didn’t get to say Sunday) Dialogue Column 3.17.09

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

My sermon wasn’t really a sermon on Sunday or even a homily; it was too short for either. I kept things short, because we spent time in worship Sunday doing the important work of rededicating our church nursery and thanking the many church members who have given their time, talents and money to make it into a warm and beautiful place for our children. The real sermon Sunday was the “sermon of the nursery.” There is a valuable lesson for us all in how our church came together to accomplish this project. When the idea of redecorating our nursery came up, as a parent of a toddler, I knew firsthand that the work was long overdue, but I fully expected the idea to be batted around for a long time before any actual work got done. Boy was I wrong! Thanks to the leadership of Julia Black, the cooperation of the Property Committee and the hard work of a lot of members, we have new carpet, new plaster, new paint, new toys, new furniture and a beautiful new mural—all in record time

The effort put into our new nursery is especially blessed, because it was not prepared as showpiece; it is meant to be used by young children, so that their earliest memories of church will be ones of fun and welcome. First Christian Church needs to absorb this lesson. Recently, the Administrative Board approved going forward with a new boiler system—both of our aged boilers departed to heating system heaven this winter. It is a project that comes with a hefty price tag. Soon the Property Committee will bring to the board proposals on our tile roof and masonry work around the church. These overdue projects also cost some serious money. We are presented with the choices of making these necessary and costly repairs; letting the building fall down around us or moving to another place. The second choice is a non-option. The third choice was decided decades ago when the church chose to remain downtown rather than move out east. That leaves choice number one. If we are to make this investment in our building, then I ask the church to remember the lesson of the nursery—our building is meant to be used for ministry not preserved as a museum piece.
My sermon text for Sunday was John’s account of Jesus driving the vendors and moneychangers out of the Jerusalem temple. Much ink has been spilt debating Jesus’ motive for doing so. Many scholars point the finger at the merchants who were making a business out of worship and may have even cheated the faithful, but there is much evidence that they may have been doing nothing more than enabling the worship of God to happen. Money needed to be changed from coins with graven images on them to ones that didn’t break one of the Ten Commandments. Animals were needed for sacrifice and pilgrims couldn’t be expected to bring livestock on long distances. So why did Jesus run them out? I prefer to think that Jesus confronted the system of worship practiced in his day, because the pious religious folks failed to notice that God was doing a new thing through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ actions in the temple were a wake up call to religious people who had taken their focus off of the God they were supposed to be worshipping and put their focus on the busyness of worship itself.

The lesson from Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple resonates to all people of faith in our time and every time. You can get so busy about the business of church that you forget what the church is for. One of the easiest ways this can happen is when a church comes to believe it is a church just because it has a building called a church. A church is a community of people not a building! Here at First Christian, we can do the right thing of investing in our building for the wrong reasons. If our investment in the building is not matched by a determination to intentionally use this building for the worship of God and ministry to people in need, then it becomes like a nursery built for show rather than for children to play in.
Again and again, I have seen churches fight over building repairs and remodeling while they have given little, if any, passion and energy (much less money) towards ministering to the community around them. I have known churches who spent vast sums of money on a building that sits empty 90% of the time, when the space inside it could be offered to community groups or used to help others in need. In such cases, the church building itself becomes an idol—an object of worship—rather than what it should be: not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end—a means of worshipping God and serving others. If you don’t believe me, just drive around St. Joseph and notice all the closed church buildings. They are gravestones for communities that failed to understand they were more than a building. As we go forward together as a church, let us continue to do for our entire building what we have just done for our nursery.
Grace and Peace,

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yours Truly in the News-Press

Yours truly (along with other area clergy) was quoted in an article in the News-Press yesterday on how churches are faring during the recession.

Great Concert by the HeartAches of the Heartland Men's Chorus

First Christian Church was fortunate to play host last night to the HeartAches, an ensemble that is a part of the Heartland Men's Chorus. The concert was a fundraiser for the effort to bring the AIDS Quilt back to St. Joseph this April. What a wonderful concert! The group sang beautifully and wonderfully.

One of the men in the ensemble sang a solo that I had never heard before, but I found it very moving. I'm sure folks who are more in the know than I am have heard of the late AIDS activist and songwriter Michael Callen and his music before, but it was a first for me. The song was "Love Don't Need a Reason" and was it powerful.

Hats off to the HeartAches and to all the folks in St. Joe who are working so hard to bring the AIDS quilt back to town.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Each week I put a quotation on the cover of the worship bulletin to help get folks thinking about the theme of my sermon and the service. It's been a while since I've put any here on my blog, so for those who like quotations, here you go.

On March 8, I preached on Mark 8:31-38 where Jesus declares that his followers must "deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him." So I asked the question, "Does Jesus want us to Suffer?" I've known of cases and read of many more where ministers and priests told women married to abusive men that since Jesus suffered on the cross, they could suffer the blows of their husbands. Obviously, this is the wrong lesson to take away from Jesus' suffering. So, I found helpful Douglas John Hall's book God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross. He writes:

“One can suffer for the wrong reasons. . . One can also take s special interest in suffering as an end in itself—and then it must be called what it really is, masochism. The only suffering in which the “church of the cross” can find a reason to rejoice is his suffering, the suffering of the One whose cross signifies identification with a suffering God and a suffering world.”

On Sunday, March 1, the First Sunday in Lent, I preached on Mark 1:9-15 which gives Mark's account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. I spoke of Lent as a time for self-reflection and cleansing in preparation for Easter. I used a quotation by Edna Hong which I found in a nice little book of reflections for Lent called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. This volume which contains essays from a variety of good authors including Bonhoeffer, Merton, Nouwen, Augustine, Updike, Tolstoy and others took its excerpt from Hong's book The Downward Ascent. She writes:

“Few of us have looked long enough into ourselves to see what seems to us and to others as normally attractive is actually as graceless as a scarecrow and even repulsive. It is an easy matter for the physical eye to spot physical deformity and blemishes in others and in oneself. It is not so easy for the eye of the spirit to spot deformities, although it is easier to see them in others than in oneself. This X-ray look at others is called “naked truth,” “unvarnished truth.” But to spot it in one’s self is not only difficult but painful, and no one wants to take the descending path to that naked, unvarnished truth. . . Yet it is to this path that Lent invites us.”

Looking back on it, the quotation I used on February 22 doesn't excite me much, so on to Feb. 15 when I preached on Mark 1:40-45. Here we are confronted with one of the mysteries of Mark's gospel--what is called "The Messianic Secret." Why was it that Mark's Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet about what he is up to and who he is? I've read quite a few articles and subjects on this subject, but it finally made sense to me when I read Brian McLaren's The Secred Message of Jesus. McLaren writes:

“What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form—as a kingdom “not of this world”—is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms—so they, having been exposed can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?"

On February 8, I preached on Mark 1:29-39, which tells the story of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law. Many writers describe her as the first deacon of the church, because as soon as she is healed she goes to work serving Jesus and the disciples. So, the theme of my sermon was the idea of Jesus enabling each of us to serve. I chose to venture outside the Christian realm when I used a quotation by the Dalai Lama, because although expressed by a Tibetan Buddhist the idea is certainly Christ-like:

"In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being."

On Feb. 1, I preached on Mark 1:21-28, where a man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus in the middle of a synagogue service. I took as my starting point the idea that if such an occurrence happened today we would think the person was mentally ill and then went on to talk about how all of us have to be a little crazy to be followers of Jesus. I took the following quotation from John Austin Baker's The Foolishness of God.

“All our thoughts about God are conjectures. . . The change brought about by the first Easter is still not a proof in the ordinary sense. . . It carries conviction only to those who are willing to be the fools of love, who feel in their heart of hearts that, however far their own performance may fall short, sacrificial love is the highest of all values. . . If I cannot accept this, then the whole affair remains an irrelevant enigma.”

On Jan. 25, I preached on Mark 1:14-20 where Jesus calls his disciples. I titled the sermon "The Undiscovered Country" after the famous "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1. In it Hamlet contemplates suicide but rejects the idea out of fear of what happens after death--"the undiscovered country." I offered in my sermon that thanks to Jesus we know what happens after deat and therefore what remains undiscovered is what kind of life will we lead on this plane of existence?

But that the dread of something after death,
That undiscover'd country from whose bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolutionIs sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

On Jan. 18, I preached a sermon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I, as a white minister, asked an essentially white church, "Are We Afraid to Embrace MLK's Dream?" Doing so, after all, would involve giving up quite a lot of white privilege. My text was Mark 6:1-6 where Jesus declares “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” So, I took the following quotation from the collection of King's sermons entitled Strength to Love in a sermon called "Antidotes to Fear."

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.”

On January 11, I preached on the baptism of Jesus which is the custom on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Mark's version of the event occurs in 1:4-11. My sermon title was "God is in the Broken Places" referring to the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus' baptism that mirrors the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death. My point was that God is present in the places where the barriers that separate people from one another and from God are being broken down. I used a quotation from Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It comes from her sermon "Torn Apart Forever."

The torn place is where God comes through, the place that never again closes as neatly as before. From the day he saw the heavens torn apart, Jesus began tearing apart the pictures of whom Messiah was supposed to be-- Tearing apart the social fabric that separated rich from poor. Breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion. Breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine. Tearing apart the notions of what it means to be God's Beloved Son. Nothing would ever be the same, for the heavens would never again close so tightly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Matters of Life and Death (Dialogue Column 3.10.09)

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. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

This Sunday at First Christian Church we will eat corned beef and cabbage (at least some of us will), dedicate a redecorated nursery and talk about matters of life and death. While we eat food in honor of St. Patrick’s Day following worship, we will also discuss and vote upon a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. I have been pleased by how the discussion at our church has gone thus far in regards to this issue, and I am very hopeful we can have another good dialogue as a church whatever we decide in our special church business meeting. In an effort to foster healthy dialogue on Sunday—when I don’t plan on saying much, if anything, I’d like to offer a few observations here.

1. I think most of us at First Christian have misgivings about how some churches approach political and social issues. We bristle at suggestions that ALL Christians should move in lock-step with one another, but let me assure you such is not the case in regards to Sunday’s vote regarding the death penalty moratorium. The process for having this discussion did not begin with a minister or other church leader declaring by fiat that we all should believe the same thing. Instead, it began as it should in churches like ours with one layperson who felt a strong sense of conviction not only about a particular issue but also about our church’s ability to do something about that issue.

Dave Tushaus, who happens not only to be the chair of the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Department at Missouri Western but also our church moderator this year, became aware of the moratorium on the death penalty making its way through the state capital and that religious and civic groups around the state were offering their support of it. He brought the issue to the Outreach Committee which discussed the matter and voted to take it to the Administrative Board. The Board then discussed it and voted to take it to the congregation. At each step, church members gave the matter careful consideration and now the entire church membership is asked to do the same.

2. The bill going through the state legislature is a bi-partisan effort and is supported by both by supporters and opponents of the death penalty. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Deeken of Jefferson City who happens to be a Republican and in favor of capital punishment. He, as well as members of both political parties, supporters and opponents of the death penalty, University of Missouri Law School, the American Bar Association and other groups, has noted that although Missouri is the fourth highest state in numbers of executions, it has a flawed system when it comes to handing down death penalty sentences. There are a number of credible claims of innocence among those on death row including three exonerations of death row inmates, as well as a disproportionate number of low-income and/or African-American death row inmates.

3. A vote in favor of or against a moratorium by a church in St. Joseph could influence the debate at the state capital. Resolutions in support of a moratorium have been passed by religious and community groups across the state, but with the exception of several groups who are a part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, no group has done so in St. Joseph. Our community’s voice matters, because currently our own Charlie Shields is president of the State Senate and will have considerable influence upon the bill. Religious groups in support of the bill include Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Community of Christ, Unitarian-Universalists, Jews, Buddhists, and non-denominational Christians, but other than the Catholic diocese, no group in St. Joseph has weighed in on the issue.

4. Each church member is expected to vote his or her own conscience under our way of doing things as a church. Each member also has the option of skipping the vote if he or she chooses. Capital punishment is a difficult issue that can raise emotions. Indeed, several church members have been affected directly by violent crime, so this is also a personal issue. Given these factors, along with the fact that we are truly discussing matters of life and death, it is important that we remember that we are Christians and it is the grace of God that gives us the ability to agree and/or disagree while still treating one another as beloved children of God.
On this last count—loving one another—I expect we will do just fine on Sunday.

Grace and Peace,


The Whole World is a Ghetto

As I mentioned in my last post, Sunday morning I found music very meaningful and spiritual--that could be because the rest of my family was out of town and my house was quiet as I prepared for church, but of course the sound of little voices and feet is also spiritual in its own way too.

Not only was my trip to church a spiritual experience thanks to U2 playing on my iPod, but thanks to NPR I also felt quite moved while getting ready to head out the door. NPR aired an interview with India Arie, whom I've liked for some time but never gotten around to buying one of her albums. Her words, thoughts and ultimately her voice and song were more than powerful. Her mission statement for her music and life is "to spread love, healing and peace through the power of words and music." (That'll preach!) She sang one of the tracks off her new album, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love and Politics, titled "Ghetto" and it is amazing.

To be hungry in L.A.
Is just like starving in Bombay.
Homeless in Morocco,
Is a shelter in Chicago.
Right around the corner, Just down the road.
Right before your eyes,
Right under your nose.

Hey, the ghetto-o-o-o
Might as well be another country
Might as well be another country.
When you look around,
You live in another country too (too).

Now the dictionary says,
That the ghetto is a place
Of minority, and poverty, and over population.
We live on this earth together, ain't no separation.
When you're looking down,
From outer space.
We’re just a human race and the world is a

Listen every place and every country.
it's in every place and every country.
When you look around,
Do you see your brother when you
Look around?
it's a small world after all.
Look around,
You live in another country too

I was very pleased to find her new album on sale via digital download for a mere $5 at Amazon and quickly downloaded it to my iPod. Now I'm grooving to her smooth R&B and Reggae vibe and enjoying her songs about romantic love and social justice. This one is a keeper.

Grace and Peace,


My iPod and My Own Private Worship

I haven't blogged yet about what I consider to be the most significant album of the year--U2's No Line on the Horizon, because I'm still taking it in. Critics always like to debate the relevance and future of any new U2 album--maybe that's to be expected since the band has been together for 30 years--but let me assure you the band is alive, well and as relevant as ever. Of course, I'm biased--they are my favorite band--but I think this is a great album.

Upon first listen--which for me was through the band graciously streaming it on-line before the release date--the album didn't immediately grab me. I think that was partly due to listening to it on my little bitty laptop speakers rather than really good headphones, but also it was because it is in some ways represents a new direction for the band. The songs are far-less radio-friendly than their recent albums, but that may be a good thing, because they are quite deep and rich. Multiple listens are necessary before an opinion should be formed--which is why I view with suspicion early reviews of any album--especially this one.

This past Sunday on the way to church I hit play on my iPod set on the second track "Magnificent" and listened to the lyrics maybe for the first time in a concentrated manner. I found myself thinking about God and realized this may be one of the most powerful songs of praise I have ever heard.
I was born
I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar
Justified till we die, you and I will magnify

The Magnificent

For long time fans of U2, I'd offer that as a praise to God, it reminds me of "Gloria" off of the band's much-maligned second album, October.

Since I'm the one leading worship on Sunday mornings, I'm usually too focused upon my own role as minister to do much worshipping on my own. It was very nice to start off a Sunday hearing Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam singing about the magnificent love of God.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Sermon about Suffering

Anybody interested in where I'm headed with this week's sermon can take a look at this article by Joanna Dewey, one of the early biblical interpreters who applied feminist thought to scripture. In it she gives a nice overview of feminist biblical scholarship over the last 30-40 years, and then she talks about the ways Mark 8:34 has been interpreted. This famous verse where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.," has long been used to reinforce an idea about suffering for its own sake completely foreign to the context of Mark's Gospel. Writings by women, ethnic minorities and citizens of the developing world all challenge the Western male understanding that it is the lot of some (many?) to suffer--after all Jesus suffered, so why can't you? It's an easy attitude to adopt when you wre the one in power and in comfort and others are asked to do the suffering.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How Political Should the Church Be? (Dialogue Column 3.3.09)

We value diversity at First Christian Church of St. Joseph. The fact that church members can believe different things and hold different opinions on social, political and theological issues while still being Christ-like to one another is one of the things that attracted me to this church and keeps me excited to be its minister. Church members are not expected to march in lock-step with one another on particular issues or even on particular doctrines, but members are expected to allow others to hold beliefs different than their own.

This attitude and practice is consistent with the history and practice of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a movement started with the intention of moving beyond the particularism of the denominations of the day towards churches united by a shared experience of Jesus Christ rather than a shared set of beliefs. Our denomination and our church is thoroughly Protestant in the sense that it hold to the idea of the “Priesthood of All Believers”—the idea that each believer has his or her own relationship with God and does not need a mediator or church hierarchy to determine what constitutes faith for that individual. The same is true for matters of conscience. Throughout its history, First Christian Church has lived out these values even pushing the national body to be less restrictive in terms of membership, baptism, etc.

Given our church’s understanding of individual freedom of belief, what happens if the demands of justice ask us to take a stand on a particular issue? For instance, on matters of race, many churches in our denomination, both in the days of slavery and segregation, did not take a stand on the equality of African-Americans citing individual freedom as justification. When there was clear injustice to be found, many (but not all) Disciples of Christ churches chose not to speak out. On the other hand, all of us can think of churches both inside and outside our denomination where particular partisan loyalties are understood to be the “proper Christian point of view.” Many of our members have come to First Christian leaving behind such narrow partisan understandings of the intersection of faith and politics. There must be a middle way between a church that is so laissez faire it is irrelevant to its society and one that is so partisan it has equated being Christian with being a member of a particular political party.

From the prophets of Israel to the word of Jesus, the message of scripture is clear: people of faith must work against injustice. It is worth noting that the biblical concept of justice is different from the way we speak of justice in our legal system and our pop culture. Biblical justice does not necessarily mean punishment and it certainly does not mean revenge; instead, the justice demanded by God, as scripture presents it, is one where those without power are given a seat at the table, those without basic necessities are provided for, those with more than they need learn to share, those who oppress others are called to account and all have an equal stake in the health of a particular community and the entire world. Biblical justice values the inherent worth of each individual as a child of God. God makes very clear that if believers neglect this understanding of justice then God has little or no use for their religious observances. Justice is essential.

Given the demands of God’s justice, how do we proceed as mortal and flawed people? Refusing to do so means casting off the requirements of God. Doing so rashly and without humility puts us in the place of judge—a place only God should occupy. The only way forward, it seems to me, is to approach the issues of our day and time with fear and trembling, but face them we must, otherwise, we risk irrelevance and judgment. We will never get everything completely right, but doing nothing is a non-option. Only with humility and grace can we apply our faith to questions of justice in our community and world.

In this issue of The Dialogue, you will find information about an upcoming congregational meeting that has been called by the Administrative Board to discuss and vote upon a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. There will be an opportunity for discussion and education about the issue this coming Sunday at 9:30 AM in the social room. Both events are chances for us as a church to approach an issue of justice with fear and trembling, grace and humility. This is not a new thing for our church; in the past, First Christian has opposed the nuclear arms race and supported the work of Amnesty International, but it is the first time in some years that we have come together as a church to discuss an issue of justice--our church looks very different than it did twenty years ago. I am looking forward to this attempt at church-wide conversation, because I believe we are up to it. I believe First Christian, in its current form, can be a church that walks between the extremes of irrelevance and partisanship.
Grace and Peace,


Lent: What's the Point? (Dialogue Column 2.24.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

This week we begin with ashes and walk together with Jesus towards Jerusalem where we will find the cross and the empty tomb. I have to confess that this spiritual journey still seems new to me. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I knew very little about Lent. I think I heard mention of people giving up chocolate or some other thing for Lent, but I really did not know what in the world all that talk was about. Lent seemed as foreign as something villagers in Papa New Guinea might do. It wasn’t until I went to seminary and discovered the liturgical calendar that I learned the seasons historically celebrated by the church around the world. I find Lent to be wonderful, mysterious, sad and even at times depressing, but the journey is always worth the effort.

I have observed any number of different ways to commemorate Lent from a shame-filled guilt trip to a marathon of self-help. Like so many things we humans do, our Lenten spirituality can become focused upon ourselves rather than upon what really matters: Jesus. The point of Lent is for us to follow Jesus on his journey; even to places his disciples feared to go—places like the cross and beyond. On the way, we learn from Jesus about the cruel nature of our world, the loving nature of our God and all of the things that blind us to seeing the reality of both. We miss the point when we make Lent about us.

Oh sure, there is a certain amount of self-concern that is necessary in Lent, but only insofar as we need to examine our lives for things that keep us from following Jesus on towards Easter. Marcus Borg writes that Lent is a journey into and out of “the land of the dead.” He says that each of us must die to some things if we are to be born again on Easter:

Some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives (you can die to deadness.) It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey of Lent is about being born again--about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.

This, after all, is what Jesus was talking about when he said those who wish to gain their life must lose it.

The grace of God revealed in Lent is that by journeying with Jesus we can be transformed just as Jesus was transformed on that first Easter. Although we will not have resurrected bodies on Easter as Jesus did—at least not until our time in this life is over—we can become less distracted, less empty, more faithful and more fulfilled people. We can become new people, if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and don’t get distracted along the way.

It seems to me that now is the perfect time for us to shift our focus away from ourselves and to Jesus’ humility, service and sacrifice. Recent months have demonstrated to us in graphic and painful terms what rampant self-interest and greed can destroy and corrupt. As we reflect upon the damage done to our culture by the greed of a few, we must also admit the damage our own selfishness causes in the everyday worlds we live in. The only way out from such a distorted self-perception is to turn ourselves towards Jesus and follow him onward.

Don’t miss the point of Lent.

Grace and Peace,