Thursday, October 22, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and Peace,


The Secretive Spirituality of Dan Brown (Dialogue Column 10.6.09)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Your Presence is Requested (Dialogue Column 9.29.09)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and Peace,