Monday, June 29, 2009

A Prayer for Health Care Reform

Last week, I was very proud to participate in an interfaith prayer time for health care reform. My thanks to Sally Schwab, head of Spiritual Health Services at Heartland Hospital, for putting it together for our community. (If you missed the article in the News-Press about it, take a look-another good article by Erin Wisdom.) It was held in conjunction with a national interfaith effort including a time of prayer in Washington, D.C. held on the same day and time.

Here's the prayer I offered:

Loving God, we know that you hear the cries of people in need of medical care but who often do not get it due to lack of education, unsympathetic bureaucracy, corporate greed or financial distress. We know that if your eye is on the sparrow then it is also on those who suffer from treatable illnesses and maladies because they do not have access to quality health care. We also know that solutions to these problems facing our country defy easy fixes, partisanship and empty slogans.
We confess the part each of us plays in a system that gives advantages to the wealthy and well-connected and disadvantages the less wealthy and those lacking in clout. We confess our unwillingness to sacrifice our own convenience for the sake of the greater good. We long for medical care for all.

We long for leaders with the courage to make difficult decisions based on the needs of their people rather than the demands of their ideology. We long for a system that allows doctors, hospitals, service providers, insurance companies and others to be paid justly for their work, while at the same time values people above financial bottom lines. We ask you to hear our longings and to raise up people who will work for solutions that bring the greatest good rather than ones that enrich the few or serve the political interests of one party or another.

We recognize that your call to justice as spoken of by the prophets and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves finds their origins in the assertion that each human being is created in your image, has inherent worth and possesses a body deserving of care. Help each of us in our own community, in our own way to work from these foundational understandings of our common humanity.


Royal Family Kids Camp Article in News-Press

I wish to thank Erin Wisdom for another good article in Saturday's St. Joseph News-Press. I'm very grateful to her for not only just for writing in the first place about our church's ministry to abused and neglected children--Royal Family Kids Camp--but also for writing such a terrific article.

The only thing I would add to the article is giving Sandy and Ken Hamlin credit for putting together this awesome camp each year for 17 years running. It really is a year-round effort.

If you didn't see the article, I encourage you to take a look.

Nouwen Quote from Yesterday's Sermon

Several people remarked on the quotation I used in yesterday's sermon by Henri Nouwen. It comes from his great book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.

Nouwen describes visiting the University of Notre Dame where he had previously taught and walking with a colleague who had taught there his whole life. The other man remarks as they walked across campus:

"My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work."

I didn't include Nouwen's further reflections on life's interruptions, but here's a taste:

But what if our interruptions are in fact our opportunities, if they are challenges to an inner response by which growth takes place and through which we come to the fullness of being. What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people. . . What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand point to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment?

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Justice for Reggie Clemons

I was glad to see the news today that Missouri executions are on hold in the near future because of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of death by lethal injection. The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Reggie Clemons, a death-row inmate here in MO. I'm glad Clemons wasn't executed as scheduled last week, but what Clemons really needs--and deserves--is a new trial.

Last Tuesday, June 16, I was privileged to be asked by the Human Rights Office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City and St. Joseph and Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty to lead a prayer service on behalf of Clemons. The date of the service was supposed to be the date Clemons was executed, but this lawsuit prevented--for now--the execution going forward.

The MADP has a page listing what people can do and providing facts about Clemons' case--and it's practically a textbook example of reasons our state's system of capital punishment is deeply flawed. Reasonable doubt is an understatement in Clemons' case. Clemons' family also has a site advocating for a new trial.
Grace and Peace,

Politicians and Adultery

Another week--another politician holding a press conference to admit an affair. I'm not surprised these men in power are having affairs; I'm just surprised they're getting caught and having to admit them.

Let me be clear: every time a man or woman cheats on his/her spouse it's a tragedy. Lives are damaged and will never be the same. Trust is broken. Everyone around that affair is hurt by it; it's even more sad when children and families are torn apart by infidelity. The same is true when the the affair is committed by a politician who holds himself (aren't they usually male?) up as an example of good judgment and good morality. An affair is a tragedy even when it is a politician whose politics I disagree with. Whether it's JFK, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Jim McGreevey, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, John Ensign or today's latest adulterer South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Adultery shows no partiality to one political party or the other. (See this slide show of male politicians and their mistresses.)

The thing about an affair is that it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens when a person fails to face the problems in his/her life and in their marriage. Even when a marriage goes bad--really bad--the marriage vows should lead a person to at least end that marriage and then move on romantically. Of course, how things should be often do not match with how things are. When a person begins an affair, he or she has begun a path of deception that can lead to some really bad judgment and a false sense of reality--witness Mark Sanford's mysterious trip over Father's Day weekend! If he thought such an action was somehow normal or okay, his actions only point to the troubled and warped state of mind he has been in.

The thing that bothers me especially about Sanford, Ensign, Craig, etc. is that these same men have taken political stands against others in the so-called "defense of marriage." As a congressman, Sanford voted repeatedly to deny rights to LGBT individuals on the grounds that their "lifestyle" is immoral, meanwhile we have Sanford ending up with his own marriage in need of defense.

Just as Sanford and his family need sympathy rather than judgment, so also do LGBT people. The difference with LGBT folks is that they just want the same right to succeed or fail in their own marriages that heterosexual politicians have.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New Sermon on the Church Site

After a really long time, I've finally put a new sermon on the church web site. I've always intended to get them in printable form and distribute them in text and electronic form, but I haven't figured out a way to get this done amidst of the other demands of my schedule. People specifically asked for copies of this sermon, so I made an effort to get it out there. I'll keep trying to do so as time permits.

This particular one is titled "A Church Full of Rejects" and as much as any sermon it lays out my own thoughts of what a community of Christians should be and do.

A Few Books Mentioned in Sermons

I just updated my "Books Mentioned in My Sermons" list (see the right side of the blog). I've had several books sitting on my desk for some time reminding me to do this, so I'm not even sure when I used two of them.

First, I do recall that I referenced Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point in my sermon on June 14 about Jesus' parable of the mustard seed. For me, his stories of cultural phenomena gathring steam until a major cultural change occurs seem like a nifty metaphor for the way the way God works in the world--slowly and in seemingly insignificant ways until before you know it something like grace occurs.

Second, some time earlier this year I shared Anne Lamott's story of being ministered to by a member of the ski patrol which can be found in her last spiritual memoir Grace Eventually. Here's a good interview with Lamott about the book at Salon.

Third, at some other time this year, I'm sure when I was preaching on a passage from Mark where Jesus strangely asks people to keep his miracles quiet, I mentioned Brian McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren expresses theologically and accessibly an explanation for Jesus' strange behavior in a way that surpasses more scholastic and academic treatments of the matter, furthermore, he does so in a way that is prophetic and challenges contemporary Christianity.

I've got plenty more to add to the list. I'll stick them up here some time or another.

Showing Grace to Our Parents

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 choose.

Thankfully, for many people who have been blessed with good relationships with their parents, showing love to one’s mother and father is not a difficult task. Unfortunately, such is not the case with all people. Some parents are absent or even unknown, others are abusive physically, sexually and/or emotionally, and still others are just difficult, mean or hard to love. This seems especially true when it comes to fathers in our culture. The rates of absent or neglectful fathers seem to only rise higher and higher. For a person of faith, it can be a struggle to follow the instructions of scripture to “honor your father and mother” while taking care of one’s own emotional health.

This past weekend I had the difficult task of giving the eulogy at the funeral for my wife’s grandfather. On the one hand, he was a genuine hero and a good-hearted person. He was a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor who literally showed bravery under fire. He was a career navy man who was capable of true generosity towards neighbors, co-workers and people in need. On the other hand, he could be ornery, mean-spirited and even at times cruel to his own family. I chose to acknowledge the facts well-known to the large gathering of family members present at his funeral, namely that he was an imperfect man. I also celebrated his good accomplishments, and I noted that funerals were in a sense our last opportunity to show grace towards loved ones. Each one of us receives more love than we deserve if we are honest about it, and each of us can only hope that following our own deaths those left behind will choose to remember more of our good qualities than bad.

The parent-child bond is such a complicated one, because our ideal images of our parents, pieced together from cultural icons, entertainment and even fantasy at a level we are barely conscious of, often conflict with our parents as they actually are. Sometimes children (even adult children) choose the ideal version refusing to acknowledge either their parents’ issues or the way those issues have impacted their own lives. Other times, the children choose only to see the bad in their parents and remain bitter and estranged from their parents, even after their parents have died.

A recent episode of the public radio program This American Life told stories of adult children trying to find out the answers to the questions they had always had about their fathers. One of the people featured is the writer Aric Knuth whose father was a merchant marine and would be gone from the family for six months at a time. For years, he sent his father audio letters on cassette tapes asking for his father to make one for him and send it back, just so he could hear his father’s voice. His father never sent one, despite his son’s years of pleas to do so. Knuth confronted his aged father and asked him about the tapes, and his father confessed that he had blown it. He had missed his opportunity to connect with and show love to a son aching to know his absent father. His father shared that his son’s tapes were difficult for him to listen to, because being gone from the family was painful and often hard on his marriage. Hearing his son’s pleas for attention from an absent father was so painful that it left him immobilized and he never reciprocated the love, even though he wanted to. Knuth admitted later in the program that his conversation with his father did not help the anger he had carried since childhood towards his father; it only confused things. He said that the father he remains angry at doesn’t really exist anymore; instead there is a different, older father who is more vulnerable and sympathetic.
As we age and change, so do our parents. Sometimes the person we may have anger towards may no longer exist, at least not in the same way. Time and mortality may rob those of us with painful parental relationships of the reconciliation or closure we desire.
I believe, however, that God’s grace transcends time and even death. I believe there is always time to find peace inside of ourselves, even if the people who have hurt us no longer inhabit this mortal life. I believe God can relieve us of the burdens of carrying around bitterness, anger and emotional pain. Sometimes it may take prayer; other times it may take counseling and therapy, but I believe we do not have to remain bound by the pain of our pasts, even if that pain comes from a parent. I believe there is a way to show grace towards all parents, in spite of their faults, and to accept them as the imperfect and sometimes flawed human beings they are. As a parent, I hope my children can show that grace towards me.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Keep Looking "UP"

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 choose.

In a sermon a few weeks back, I shared my thoughts about seeing the new Pixar animated film UP. I expected it would be a good film, after all it’s Pixar, the same company that brought us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and others, but I was unprepared for the film’s powerful moral and spiritual message. My 6 year-old son, Julian, enjoyed the talking dogs and the flying house and so did I, but I was blown away by the movie’s themes of loss and renewal. (WARNING: If you haven’t seen the film, spoilers begin in the next paragraph.)

The movie’s plot centers around Carl Fredrickson, voiced by the great Ed Asner, who is an aged widower. When we meet Carl as a child, we witness his idolization of the great adventurer, Charles Muntz, who heads off to South America to prove the existence of an exotic huge bird. The young Carl meets a girl named Ellie who shares his passion for adventure and who also dreams of heading off to South America like their shared hero. The two children grow up, fall in love and life happens. We are privy to a montage of their life and love together over the decades that is poignant and wonderful. When Ellie’s death comes, we share Carl’s grief and his regret over never having travelled to South America as he and his wife always dreamed of doing together.

Life holds little for him, so the elder Carl, a retired balloon salesman, decides to head off for his long-imagined jungle paradise by inflating thousands of balloons and sailing his house to South America. Unbeknownst to him, a young scout named Russell who is looking for a merit badge in helping the elderly is unwittingly swept along for the ride. After a variety of adventures, Carl with his walker and Russell with his camping gadgets find themselves in a wondrous hidden valley in South America. There they meet Charles Muntz, the long-lost adventurer, who is embittered by past humiliations and his own form of grief. In their struggle to save an elusive and endangered jungle bird, Carl sees in the fate of his childhood hero his own potential for ending his life lonely and embittered. He ends up literally letting go of his past to save an exotic bird and his new friend Russell. Upon returning to the States, the elderly Carl devotes himself to caring for the fatherless young Russell and learning to open his heart once again.

My two paragraph summary does not do the film justice. The characters are fully developed and so is Carl’s grief. We share his struggle over choosing to hold on to what remains of his past and shutting out any future heartache versus learning to reach out to others again even though letting go of grief means letting go of a big part of what remains after a loved one has died. As a minister who often interacts with elderly widows and widowers—as well as younger ones as well—I find myself wanting to host a screening of UP for all of the grieving people I know.
What is so amazing about this film is that it does not gloss over the pain. It’s rather remarkable that an animated film could actually plumb the depths and mysteries of grief far better than a live-action film. When Carl chooses to make a new life for himself, we the viewers share his struggle but rejoice at his decision to live again. The end is anything but sappy; instead it is a powerful testimony to the gifts especially seniors have to offer to younger generations even when they feel they have nothing left to offer anyone.

I can’t count the number of times I have had conversations with elderly members of the churches I’ve served where I have struggled in vain to convince them they still matter and have gifts to share with others. I know well the humoring smiles that say, “Just wait until you’re my age and have had a few surgeries and attended a few dozen funerals. You’ll see how hopeless life can be.” There’s no doubt that I have an experience gap and cannot fully understand the grief that comes to so many later in life, but I maintain my belief that apart from the most extremely immobilized of us, we all can be used by God to share love and wisdom with others no matter our age.

If you don’t believe me, I would like to recommend a movie called UP to you.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Do I Preach About the Killing of George Tiller?

This week I've been deeply bothered by the killing of Dr. George Tiller at his church last Sunday morning in Wichita, KS. If the press reports are to be believed, the chief suspect, now in custody, if he did commit the murder, did so in large part due to his own ideological understanding of abortion as murder and that Tiller's actions would bring judgment from God upon our nation. This perspective is informed by a particular understanding of Christianity, one that says violence is acceptable if it accomplishes the will of God--in this case according to its own logic, the will of God would be protecting the innocent lives of unborn babies.

This logic is of course the same logic used by Islamic terrorists and other terrorists who use religion to justify violent acts. The idea that Christianity--the religion that should follow the example of the non-violent Christ--would be twisted to justify violence is abhorrent to me.

I've titled my sermon for this Sunday, "A Rejection of Christian Terrorism" and obviously I'm preaching to the choir, because no one at my church (or at most churches) would claim Tiller's murder was in any way Christian. I debated about not preaching on it, but I decided that sometimes a thing needs to be said even if everyone in the room agrees with it. There should be plenty of sermons this week denouncing this murderous act, but there probably won't be, so I should at least offer mine.

This raises the dilemma, of course, of how to talk about a subject that includes an issue as utterly radioactive like abortion? Given that the current discussion over abortion is dominated by the extremes and practically any statement can instantly provoke an emotional response on the part of the listener that cuts off dialogue, the risks are high for misunderstanding. Because of the emotional nature of the issues surrounding abortion, I have no real interest in wading into it--I'm not sure how one can do that in a 15-20 minute sermon any way and hope to do the issues any kind of justice.

My aim is to reject a mindset that uses Christianity to justify violence--especially what I consider to be terrorism. I believe this rejection must also include language used by both sides that demeans and dismisses the views on opposing sides and the people who hold them. How do I make that point without sounding like I'm crying, "Can't we all just get along?"

My main point is that a Christian approach to any difficult issue must--in order to be truly Christian--involve self-sacrifice, humility, forgiveness, grace and non-violence. How do I make that point about such an emotional event with so many landmines laying about?

So, I put the call out here for any suggestions, thoughts or recommended reading as I prepare for Sunday--oh yeah, prayers are good too.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. I have read a few thoughtful pieces this week--one of which is by one of my church members, Andrew Kar, on his blog at, another is at Religion Dispatches, and finally there is a great op-ed by Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Frances Schaeffer in the Baltimore Sun, where he accepts the blame for his part in the sowing of hate speech by the Religious Right. Other suggestions are welcome.

Flannery and Faith

This past Sunday I preached a sermon on the Holy Spirit in honor of Pentecost entitled "Spirit-Haunted Dreams." I took as a starting off point the quotation of the prophet Joel in Peter's speech in Acts 2 where he explains to the crowd about the manifestations of the Spirit. The passage from Joel mentions that in the last days God would pour out the spirit and all would dream dreams. I made the point that the visions of the Spirit may be difficult for us to receive, because God may reveal to us the parts of our lives and our world that we would rather ignore.

I was inspired to think about such things by an article I read last week in The Atlantic about the new biography of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch. The reviewer, Joseph O'Neil, used Gooch's work as well as other writings by O'Connor to speak about her Gothic tales of the South which were filled with religion. He wrote:

O’Connor was dismissive of any pressure, whether of religious or secular origin, for more “positive” fiction. She saw no contradiction between her faith and her art. Just the opposite:

“Because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” However, she stated,
the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

This assertion, taken together with O’Connor’s assertion that the central mystery is why human existence “has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for,” constitutes the following argument: (1) from the Christian viewpoint, the modern human condition is filled with a peculiar horror; (2) therefore, to fictionally depict humans in their peculiarly horrifying aspect is necessary in order to explore the mysteries of redemption and grace.

I'm no expert on O'Connor. I've just read a number of her short stories but none of her novels or essays. Nonetheless, I found this statement very powerful regarding how our culture accepts distortions of creation as natural and therefore the Christian writer has a duty to expose them as such. For me, this was an apt metaphor for the work of the Spirit.

Also, for the O'Connor fans out there, it should be noted that my sermon title "Spirit-Haunted Dreams" took its inspiration from a work on O'Connor by Ralph Wood called Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

Grace and Peace,


This American Life and My Sermons

I'm a regular listener of This American Life, the off-beat public radio show. The show includes incredible stories each week and I often find inspiration for my sermons in them.

On May 3, I preached a sermon titled "A Church Full of Rejects" about my understanding of the church as a place where people who have been rejected are welcome, because after all Christ, whom we worship, was rejected. One of the illustrations I used came from an episode of TAL called "This I Used to Believe." (The title is a takeoff from another NPR series "This I Believe"--which is also well worth listening to.) The entire episode was about people who used to believe something and what happened to make them change their belief.

The particular story that caught my attention was, of course, about faith. The story had two parts. The first was the story of a football coach at a Christian high school in Texas. Every year, his team played another team from a school for juvenile delinquents, and every year no one would come and cheer for this team. It was made up of kids who had been given up on. So, the coach called upon half of his team's fan base to come to the game and cheer for the opposing team--cheer for those who had no one to cheer for them. (This was the part of the story I used in my sermon--i.e. the church should be the community that cheers for the ones who have no one to cheer for them).

The second part of the story--the part a little too complicated to fit into this particular sermon at least--was about a woman named Trish Sebastian who heard of what the coach had done and wrote him an e-mail thanking him for his compassion and confessing that she used to be a Christian but had given up her faith after the death of a close friend. The coach was moved by her e-mail and contacted her and they began a correspondence that led to phone calls. Each of them felt that perhaps God was using these interactions to help Sebastian regain her faith. In the end, however, their dialogues turned out to be more of a debate about propositional truths--e.g. proofs for God's existence, etc. rather than something that enabled Sebastian to believe again. It was an interesting example of how when believers profess absolute certainty they can turn off those whom they mean to attract. It was especially interesting to hear Ira Glass, the show's host who happens to be raised Jewish but now an atheist, offer more comforting and spiritually encouraging words than the devout Christian.

Similarly, I would highly recommend another recent episode of TAL that has to do with faith. This episode is entitled "Return to the Scene of the Crime" and deals with people returning to places where important events happened in their lives. Dan Savage, a writer who also happens to be an atheist, ex-Catholic and gay, shares about his struggles with faith after the death of his mother, a devout believer. His writing is powerful and his struggles with the faith he was raised in are poignant.
Grace and Peace,