Friday, April 24, 2009

Stuff From Last Sunday's Sermon

Lzst Sunday, I preached on John 20:19-31 about Thomas' encounter with the resurrected Christ and Paul's word on the Spirit hearing our souls' deepest groans and "sighs too deep for words" in Romans 8. My sermon was entitled "A Cynic's Prayer" and I was trying to talk about the value of prayer--even intercessory prayer--even for those who might be cynical towards it.

First, I mentioned a new book called How God Changes Your Brain which is about recent studies regarding the neurological effects prayer and meditation have on a person's brain. I admit not having read the book--my scientific knowledge extends to about second grade--but really beint interested in reviews and articles about the book and interviews with the authors. Speaking of--check out this interview with the authors who talk about their findings.

I also made use of a book by one of my seminary professors, Glenn Hinson, entitled A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle. His chapter on prayer is very insightful and his explanation of how God works and doesn't work through intercessory prayer has deeply influenced my own beliefs.

I also told the story of Dorotheus of Gaza's understanding of prayer. Dorotheus was a 6th Century Christian monk and his thoughts are a part of a collection called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers--a classic in western spirituality and deeply moving. I referred to this book in a sermon earlier this year and when I read though this book, I'm always reminded of collected sayings by the early rabbis and even by Zen masters.

Happy reading!


Good letter in the News-Press today

There's a good letter in the News-Press today by FCC former minister Tom Russell thanking the school district for their efforts to pass the recnet levy and bond. I share Tom's sentiments.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More on the "Decline of Christian America"

On Easter Sunday, I mentioned the Newsweek cover story entitled "The Rise and Decline of Christian America" and then posted more about it last week. I mentioned how many reputable people are pointing out the data from recent polling regarding religious affiliation in America is more difficult to interpret than it may first seem.

Michael Gerson--who rarely has anything to say that I want to read--actually had an interesting column in The Washington Post last week regarding the Newsweek story and the recent polls. In it he offers some of these same objections to conventional wisdom regarding the rising number of "religiously unafiliated" people.

Bono writes about Easter and the Soul

One of my heroes, Bono, had a guest column in the NY Times this weekend. In it, he reflects upon Carnival, Lent and Easter, as well as, what makes for a truly spiritual soul inside of a person. A few of his insights:

"Of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith — pushing you past reverence for creation, through bewilderment at the idea of a virgin birth, and into the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. The cross as crossroads. Whatever your religious or nonreligious views, the chance to begin again is a compelling idea."


"Carnival is over. Commerce has been overheating markets and climates ... the sooty skies of the industrial revolution have changed scale and location, but now melt ice caps and make the seas boil in the time of technological revolution. Capitalism is on trial; globalization is, once again, in the dock. We used to say that all we wanted for the rest of the world was what we had for ourselves. Then we found out that if every living soul on the planet had a fridge and a house and an S.U.V., we would choke on our own exhaust.

Lent is upon us whether we asked for it or not. And with it, we hope, comes a chance at redemption. But redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief. This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us."

Also, I read with interest a posting on the blog Religious Dispatches from Emory religion professor Gary Laderman, who commented on Bono's article. Laderman found it interesting that Bono reflected on how when he left church on Easter morning his mind wandered to people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Nelson Mandela who are making big positive changes in Africa but are not religious people. He writes:

"And then the zinger, the last sentence: “Not all soul music comes from the church.” Can I just add “hallelujah!”? Bono chose not to glory in the saving powers of Christ, proselytize his faith, or condemn others for their lack thereof. Instead, this man of faith turns to others who hold different religious views (perhaps even non-monotheists!) and praises their virtues, their moral commitments, in a way that allows for the possibility of religious sensibilities in their socially engaged actions. “Soul music” is Bono’s way to capture, metaphorically, a sacred stance and engagement in the world emanating not from the usual, institutional sites, but from prison cells and investment firms."

Here. Here.

Grace and Peace,


Prayer, Chess and Whoville (Dialogue Column 4.21.09)

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.

At the end of my sermon on Sunday, I broached the subject of intercessory prayer (prayers for the needs of others) and whether or not they worked. I was only able to touch on this really difficult subject, but such a discussion is important as we continue in our “Season of Prayer” as a church. As we spend this month praying for First Christian Church and its future, it matters how we conceptualize prayer and what it accomplishes.

There are a number of ideas about prayer that are simply inadequate. One is the idea of an unchangeable or immutable God, who remains unaffected by our prayers. Sometimes this is expressed as God having everything predestined or preordained; other times it is expressed as a God who only answers prayers that align with what God was going to do anyway. No matter how it is expressed, such a view of God borders on the fatalistic and seems contrary to the God of our scriptures who responds and is affected by interaction with humanity.

Another inadequate understanding of prayer treats God like a vending machine. If we pray hard enough and in the correct manner, then God will grant our wishes. According to this view, God is little more than a machine or perhaps a genie existing only to give us what we want. A side effect of this kind of thinking is a message to hurting and grieving people that somehow they are at fault for not praying correctly when a love one suffers or dies. Certainly, prayers are not answered or at least are not answered in the way we want, but to lay all responsibility on the one praying ignores the power of God’s Spirit who hears even our “sighs to deep for words.” We don’t have to say magic words, because God is not a magic trick or a machine. According to scripture, God is involved in our reality and interacting with us—both we and God play a part in prayer.

A better understanding of prayer, I believe, comes from a healthier understanding of God. Such an understanding allows for the free will of humans, the natural order of the universe and the supernatural activity of God. Theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann speak of the “self-limitation” of God, which means that God gives creation—including humanity—freedom to exist according to certain rules or laws of nature (gravity, mortality, etc.). Furthermore, humans are given free will—freedom to choose, to love, to hate, etc. In this free creation, a certain amount of randomness and even tragedy exists, assumedly because to eliminate it would also limit the freedom given to creation and to humanity. There is, however, some wiggle room here. Although, God does not control everything, God is at work within the natural order of things—to the extent that God can do so without taking away humanity’s free will. It is in that space where God works to change things for the better without controlling them that prayer for others comes in.

The analogy I used Sunday was a game of chess. I’ve recently begun playing chess with my six year-old son (who soon will be looking for someone better at the game than me). Each move made by a player in chess affects what moves are possible and desirable to his or her fellow player. In an analogous way (realizing of course that all analogies about God break down), God can be thought of as a chess master who is responding to the moves of creation and humanity. On this immense playing space known as our reality, God’s moves are influenced in part by our moves. If our moves are at odds with God’s, perhaps God can do less; on the other hand, if our moves are in sync with God’s then perhaps God’s aims can be accomplished more easily. God’s moves remain influenced by many variables (free will, the laws of physics, etc.), but our prayers could be just the extra nudge to make room for an act of God’s grace.

One of my seminary professors, Glenn Hinson, liked to use the analogy of the chess master to help explain the possible effects of prayer. In his book, A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, he concludes his discussion of prayer by referencing a Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who. In the story, Horton, an elephant, heard a “Who” speaking to him from a clover blossom—the entire society of Whos lived on a single blossom. None of Horton’s friends believed his tale of hearing from a microscopic person and threaten to destroy the blossom, so the elephant convinces all the Whos to make all the noise they can. The Whos cannot be heard by Horton’s friends until one last little Who girl adds her voice to the cacophony. Her little “Yopp” added just enough volume for the Whos to prove they were real, ultimately saving their city from destruction.

Perhaps your prayer or mine may be just enough to make a space for God to work wonders in the community of believers that is First Christian Church.

Grace and Peace,


AIDS Quilt in St. Joseph

Friday night, I was privileged to give the invocation at the opening ceremony for the Names Project Memorial AIDS Quilt's second appearance in St. Joseph. In my prayer, I asked God not only to bless the weekend appearance of the quilt so that it would provide healing and hope for those in need of them, but I also offered words of repentance for my own faith tradition--Christianity--and its judgmental and/or indifferent response to people with HIV/AIDS.

I was very proud that one of the teams present to unfold the quilt panels came from First Christian Church. One of our youth who was present as a part of the team, Theo Tushaus, was quoted in the News-Press article about the quilt.
I spoke with some of the folks involved with bringing the quilt to St. Joseph back in the 90's who shared about how the community's response to people with HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically. Just a little over ten years ago, housing for people with HIV/AIDS was a difficulty and thee was real resistance from many directions. Today, we have people in the county health department dedicated to the care of people with HIV/AIDS and much more community support as well. That's not to say things are where they should be or that people in St. Joe with HIV/AIDS don't face some prejudice--just that things are better than they were.

I was struck by the number of sections with not only Missouri and Kansas connections, but also the ones with St. Joseph connections. It was also meaningful to see sections devoted to the likes of Freddy Mercury, Ryan White and Arther Ashe. Even ones made for the people unknown to me were quite moving to see--each is a reminder of our common humanity regardless or our gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion or sexual orientation. Each one of us is a child of God and no one deserves to die alone.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why Spend a Month Praying? (Dialogue Column 4.14.09)

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.

We’ve begun something called “A Season of Prayer” here at First Christian Church, where every church member is asked to pray for the church daily over the next month. We will also have special opportunities for prayer for First Christian during worship and small groups. As we begin this time together as a congregation, it is worth discussing why we are spending a month praying for our church.
Perhaps at most churches there would be little discussion about praying for the church. There would be a near universal agreement on what prayer actually is, how it works and why it is beneficial. Such is not the case at First Christian. As with most things at First Christian, prayer takes different forms and means different things to our members. Although, we pray corporately in worship in very traditional ways—sharing joys and concerns, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., in private, church members may pray in ways that resemble an evangelical “quiet time” or Buddhist meditation. They may take walks in nature, attend Reiki meetings or sit in silence. Furthermore, theologically members might offer different views on how and in what ways God answers prayers—does God intervene in human events such as healing or does God work in less tangible ways? Does prayer “change” the way God will acts or is it just to change ourselves?

The good news for the membership of First Christian is that no one is declaring how one must practice prayer or what prayer even is—beyond connecting with God in some way. All you are asked to do is pray for First Christian in whatever way is your way. A little background on how this “Season of Prayer” came about may shed some light on what will hopefully take place over the next few weeks.

In March, a number of administrative board members and I attended the G.P.S. church transformation conference offered by our denomination. During the conference, our group began to have some exciting discussions about future directions for our church. From my perspective, I experienced the kind of moment I had dreamed about in seminary—a moment when church members are really thinking hard and deep about what a church should be doing in the name of Jesus Christ.

As we were talking about ideas, we received a striking suggestion. Donna Rose-Heim, one of the ministers for the Northwest Missouri Disciples churches, suggested to us that we begin any new efforts of ministry and church transformation with a deliberate period of time dedicated to prayer. At first, we were all taken back a bit. In my own experience, I’ve often seen church people offering to pray about something, because they really didn’t want to do anything. A lame effort of prayer can be an excuse for doing nothing rather than a means for accomplishing God’s work. Our group agreed that our church does a better job of discussing our faith and its implications in an intellectual sense than we do in practicing our faith in an emotional or spiritual sense. Some churches act without reflection, but if First Christian errs it may be by spending more time on reflection than on actually acting upon where our intellectual efforts lead us.
We decided that if we actually believe that God is involved in our lives and in the life of our church, then we should at least try to discern what God may be leading us as a church to do and to be. We decided that we should recommend to the church that we spend time in prayer as a congregation. Our group of conference-going board members came back to the whole board and made our proposal. As is the norm, there was some discussion of what do we mean by prayer and will church members be able to pray each in their own way. Once people felt assured and understood that the diversity within our church would be respected, the administrative board unanimously approved that we spend this time in prayer together.

What will come of the next four weeks of prayer? I don’t know. When we open ourselves up to God, we are giving up control and letting God have God’s way, so who knows what ideas for the future may come out of this time. It could be that nothing will come of it, because not enough church members will take it seriously. I hope that is not the case and I doubt it will be. Instead, what I expect will happen is that a number of dedicated church members will spend time directing their energy towards God. From that time spent in prayer, some members will have a new sense of dedication to our community of faith and a new sense of God leading them and the church to reach out to people who need what we have to offer. My prayer is that the people of First Christian Church will open themselves to God and will be inspired regarding who we need to share God’s love with in our community and world.
Grace and Peace,


Good Riddance to "Christian America"

In my sermon Easter Sunday, I mentioned a recent Newsweek cover story "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" by John Meacham. I'm not sure if I buy all Meacham's statistical analysis--surveys results on religion are never as easy to interpret as they seem--but if the by Christian America, Meacham means Christianity as espoused by Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY who Meacham quotes in the first paragraphs of his article--then consider me glad of its decline and fall. My stomach turns at people like Mohler who equate the Gospel of Christ with white, middle class, militaristic, American values.

As I mentioned in my sermon, if Christians lose their claim to cultural dominance in our country, then maybe it will lead to a church that is less smug, arrogant, condescending and greedy for control over others. Jim Wallis of Sojourners had a response piece that says much the same thing. I agree with Wallis, that Christianity was always meant to be counter-cultural rather than a movement wedded with a particular political philosophy. Give me a Christianity that treats all people as equally loved by God, humbly admits it does not possess all knowledge and truth and sacrifices its own riches on behalf of the world's suffering poor.

Just thought I'd pass on the article I mentioned Sunday.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, April 13, 2009

First Christian Easter Sunday on KQ2

We had a great Easter Sunday at First Christian and a reporter from KQ2 was there to capture the excitement of the day. In hindsight, I should have mentioned in the service that a reporter was there with his camera--folks were probably wondering what was going on. Anyway, take a look and see if you made the cut on last night's newscast.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What’s the Big Deal About Easter? (Dialogue Column 4.7.09)

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.

Every year, I am surprised by the people who show up at church for Easter Sunday whom I have never met before. (The same thing happens on Christmas Eve.) Usually, they are people who want to be in church on Easter and they wandered into the one I happen to be serving at. Sometimes, they introduce themselves to me as lapsed church members who used to come regularly, and we begin the awkward dance of me trying to welcome them without making them feel guilty. I often wonder what has brought these pilgrims and prodigals to church on this particular day. On the surface of things, it really is no different than any other Sunday, but something inside of them compels them to come. They come because Easter Sunday is special, even if they do not know why it is special or what makes it so. I reckon there are many regular churchgoers who feel the same way but do not admit it. We all just sort of assume that everyone knows why Easter is special, but if we were forced to articulate the “why” and the “what” of Easter’s special nature, words might now come easily to us.

Beyond the egg hunts and new clothes, most Christians-whether they are practicing or not—could probably come up with an explanation that goes something like “we are celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.” If asked “what is so special about the resurrection?” I wonder what most believers would say. For many, they would speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as somehow enabling believers to go to heaven, but that is the work of Good
Friday; we don’t make as big of a deal about that day. Instead, we celebrate the empty tomb on Sunday. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, even if we are not sure what good it does any of us.

This Sunday, I will try to offer words that explain and describe what the big deal is about Christ’s resurrection. Why is it celebrated on one of two biggest days of the church year? Why is it that people will show up on Easter, even if they fail to darken a church door the rest of the year? Here are a few of the thoughts that may make it into Sunday’s sermon based upon the reading I’m doing this year:

1. This year I’ve been moved by Gail O’Day’s writings on John’s Gospel. She writes that John understands Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension as one event, an event that transforms the world. In Christ, God takes the worst the world has to offer in terms of violence, hatred and division and transforms it into a life-giving, unifying and loving force that draws everyone to God.

2. The feminist scholar Elizabeth Johnson offers the idea that in the life, death and resurrection of Christ we see a new creation. The same life-giving spirit of God that created the universe raises Jesus from death, so in Christ we witness the God who not only gives life to things that are dead but creates life from nothing. This same God seeks to give life to us here and now.

3. Luke Timothy Johnson writes that Jesus is either alive or dead. If he is dead, then we may learn “about” him or even “seek to be like” him but we certainly cannot learn “from” him. If, on the other hand, he is alive—having been raised from the dead—then he remains available to us—we can learn “from” the one who “has broken every rule of ordinary human existence.” If Jesus is alive and present to us now—not just a noble figure of history, then we have access right now to the amazing and wonderful life he offers to us.

These are a few of the ideas I am thinking about this week as I prepare to celebrate Easter. Whether these thoughts ring true to why Easter is special to you or not, I look forward to seeing you Sunday as we experience this special day together.

Grace and Peace,


The Great Reenactment (Dialogue Column 3.31.09)

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.

Flip around on TV and you are likely to come across a dramatic reenactment that illustrates a famous court case or significant historical event. The best of these reenactments give the viewer a better understanding of what happened; while the worst end up blowing the illusion that one is viewing real events and leave the viewer laughing at the poorly paid actors trying to look like confederate soldiers or O. J. Simpson. Reenactments are used however, because our imagination is limited. We need actors to bring life to words and ideas. This is also the reason we have Holy Week.

Each year we reenact the events of Jesus’ last days. We begin with the waving palm leaves of the procession on Palm Sunday. Then we revisit the events of Jesus’ fateful last night: the Last Supper, the prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal and the trial. In many churches, Good Friday is the time to reflect upon Jesus’ last words on the cross. Finally, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. We carry out these traditions each year to bring life to the words we profess about Jesus Christ and the theology we live out as Christians.

This year at First Christian Church, we have a number of opportunities for members and non-members alike to reenact the last week of Jesus’ earthly life and the beginning of his resurrected power.

Children’s Craft Workshop--This Saturday morning children and their families are invited to make Easter crafts together.

Palm Sunday—This coming Sunday all are invited to come see the choir and children process into worship recalling Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae Service—On the Thursday evening of Holy Week all are invited to be a part of one of the most moving services provided by our church all year long. Church members will read by candle light the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ final hours as the lights of the church are extinguished to create the experience of darkness surrounding Jesus’ death.

Easter Sunday—The congregation will gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. We will enjoy a delicious Easter breakfast before worship and the children will have an Easter egg hunt in the park

The Labyrinth—This year FCC offers a new way to experience the power of Holy Week. A labyrinth or Prayer Walk will be set up in the Social Room. Labyrinths date back to the medieval Cathedrals and in recent years have become a way for Protestant and Catholic Christians to experience a time of contemplation and meditation. At different times during Holy Week, individuals can follow the path laid out to interactive stations that will offer activities for reflection and prayer. If you have never walked a labyrinth before, make sure you take this unique opportunity for spiritual growth.

Unlike reenactments on TV when poor production can spoil the effect, we have the grace of God to help us in our reenactments during Holy Week. The waving of a palm branch by a child, the lowering of lights in a church sanctuary or the reading of scripture given by an ordinary church member each have the power to evoke in us a new experience of the divine and a new appreciation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Eloquent Thoughts on Iowa's Gay Marriage Ruling

I don't keep up with the Supreme Court of Iowa--maybe I should start doing so. I was shocked to learn of Friday's unanimous ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage in Iowa. Iowa! You mean Iowa is leading the way on equal rights for LGBT people and not California? All I can say is I have new found respect for our neighbors to the north! Way to go Iowa!

There's a lot of rhetoric being thrown around on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue, especially in light of Iowa's new status, but perhaps the most eloquent words I have heard are from Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. Simon's thoughts are always thoughtful, but they are especially so in this case.

Grace and Peace,


An Unexpected Apology

This morning I preached on Mark's account of Palm Sunday and how it runs counter to our expectations of a God who will act on our terms and immediately when we ask. As an example, I shared the story of Elwin Wilson, a life-long racist who beat up freedom riders during the Civil Rights era--most notably Congressman John Lewis who was then a 21 year-old seminary student. Wilson never changed from his racist ways until recently as he approached the end of his life and had a spiritual conversion and experienced the forgiveness of God. Now very ill, he is devoting the final years of his life to making amends for his past mistakes. Even his son never dreamed his racist father would change his ways, but God worked in his life. Granted it would have been nice if Wilson's heart had changed decades ago, but God's timing is not our timing. It is a powerful story and hearing it in his own words is far better than hearing my recounting of it.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My letter to the Editor

If you're interested in my two cents on the April 7 school funding election, you can check out my letter to the Editor in today's News-Press. One of First Christian's members, Jane Frick, also has a nice letter in support of the bond/levy for funding public schools. Way to go Jane! Also, former FCC minister Tom Russell had a nice one published last week.