Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Goodbye, Nadine (Dialogue Column 11.24.09)

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

Last night Nadine Hatfield passed from this life into the next. So often, I only find out afterwards when someone has died, but in Nadine’s case word got to me yesterday and I spent about five hours at her bedside. By that point, Nadine was already unconscious, but she and I talked about her impending death for months, so there was little that needed to be said. As I looked at Nadine’s face yesterday, I kept thinking that something was missing. Yes, she was dying and a body looks different when life is slipping away, and yes, Nadine never went anywhere without being made up perfectly and no makeup was on yesterday, but neither difference was the one bothering me. I was there for a little while before I realized that I was in Nadine’s presence and she was not smiling. Of course, she could not smile yesterday as her body shut down, but I realized that I had never been with Nadine when a broad smile wasn’t spread across her face. Even during the pains and frustrations of the last two years, Nadine continued to smile and laugh and share her infectious joy with all she was around.

As the nurses, social workers and others did their jobs yesterday, each shared with Nadine’s friends and family about how much they had come to care for Nadine. One shared how she mentioned once to Nadine that her daughter was getting married and how every single time she was with her from then on, Nadine would ask about the latest wedding plans and share in the excitement. Even this morning as I went by Nadine’s empty room, a nurse shared with me how much she loved Nadine. Friends who have known Nadine for decades have shared similar stories with me. Nadine was a joyous person, but in recent days the joy was fading.

A church member recently mentioned to Nadine that I continued to pray for her in worship services, and Nadine responded with a smile, “Well, tell him to quit. I’m ready to go.” When I visited her on Friday, she told me the same. We made a deal that I could pray for her to regain mobility in her broken arm and non-moving legs along with peace of mind and heart, but I wasn’t allowed to pray for her to keep on living. We had many conversations over recent months about why God continued to let her live when she no longer had her independence and mobility. I encouraged her to consider that every moment her family had with her was a blessing to them, and although she accepted the idea, by Friday that was no longer enough for her. I realized that instead of offering Nadine comfort I was trying to comfort myself. As one blessed by a relationship with Nadine, I was loathe to let it end. Nadine, however, was ready for what comes next.

During our visits, I pressed Nadine on whether she had any regrets or things left unsaid, but she assured me that she had none. She felt secure knowing that her sons and granddaughters along with her circle of friends knew of her love for them and she knew of their love for her. She talked with me about how happy she was to have been married to her husband, how happy she had been to raise two good sons and two good granddaughters. She laughed about friends and their times together. She had no doubts about God’s love for her or about what would come after this life. As one of her close friends, Virginia Wissehr, remarked yesterday, “Nadine is graduating from this life.”

Shirley Evans came by yesterday and sang to Nadine as her body slowly shut down. Nadine’s body did not respond, but I believe somewhere Nadine heard the words. As we approach Thanksgiving this week, let us offer thanks for Nadine’s well-lived life and the many other saints we are privileged to know as a part of First Christian Church. May our hearts join in the words Shirley sang to Nadine:

We gather together to ask for God’s blessing,
to turn to a wisdom surpassing our own;
the pow’rs that oppress us now cease to distress us.
O God, be present with us and make your will known.
Beside us to guide us, O God we perceive you
ordaining, maintaining the power of life.
Yes, yours be the glory; let all tell the story.
Our God, be ever with us, in gladness and strife.
Grace and Peace,

Considering the Birds and the Lilies

This past Sunday I preached on Matthew 6:25-33 where Jesus teaches his followers not to worry. I felt the kind of peace that Jesus describes is better approached from the realm of poetry and perhaps Buddhism than a typical Western Christian didactic point of view. For any who are interested, here are the sources I referenced in my sermon:

Wendell Berry--Kentucky farmer, poet, and activist--I read two great poems by Berry: "The Peace of Wild Things" and "The Wild Geese" both are in Collected Poems: 1957-1982.--if you don't know Berry's writings you should.

Henri Nouwen--Catholic priest and spiritualist who taught at Harvard and Yale but then left academic life behind to live at Daybreak, a L'Arche Community in Canada, to be an assistant to a severely disabled man named Adam--I worked from an article called "The Peace that Passes Understanding" by Nouwen which originally appeared in Weavings and I have in The Weavings Reader. Much of the same materials is available on-line in a sermon and interview with Nouwen. As with Berry, if you don't know Nouwen, you need to. (For more information on L'Arche, the international movement for people with developmental disabilities led by people of faith, listen to the excellent program about it on the public radio program Speaking of Faith

hich Nhat Hanh--Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize Winner--I recommend Being Peace as an entry into his thoughts and writings. In my sermon, I related the monk's thoughts on mindfully washing dishes. I heard it as a story related by a visitor to the monk who had offered to wish their dinner dishes., but apparently he also mentions it in the abstract in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, so I do not know if the story was an actual event. (To hear the great Buddhist teacher giving a lecture and hear an interview with him, listen to this episode of the wonderful public radio program Speaking of Faith.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Compassion is Not a Zero Sum Game (Dialogue Column 11.17.09)

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

As many of you know, our Director of Youth Ministries, Andrew, began attending seminary this fall. One of the exciting things about having a staff person in seminary is talking with him or her about what he or she is learning. In my case, it has been interesting for me to see what I missed or picked up in seminary as compared to what Andrew is learning. At times it is reassuring to find out that my own education seems to be holding up, but other times it is exciting to learn a new concept that enables me to look at things in a whole new light.

One of the interesting ideas Andrew and I recently talked about is the economic worldview of first-century Palestine where Jesus did his ministry. In his New Testament introductory course, Andrew has learned that what economists call an “economy of scarcity” was at work in Jesus’ world. It’s hard for us as 21st century Americans to contemplate a limited economy. Most of the goods and services we consume are manufactured en masse and if we pick something up at a big-box retail store, they will just order more of it. Our supply of consumer goods appears unlimited whatever the reality may be. In the ancient world (and in many developing economies today) such was not the case. There was a limited supply of everything. If one person had more of a good like food, clothing, building materials, etc. that necessarily meant that another person had less—after all there was only so much to go around.

What made Jesus and his followers so radical is that they operated according to an “economy of abundance.” When Jesus healed someone, he did not worry that improving the health of one person would diminish the health of another person. When the early Christians shared their possessions, they did so unconcerned about holding on to possessions when failing to do so would seem at least unwise if not insane. Jesus’ teachings about honoring the “least of these” meant that in God’s kingdom the only status that mattered was one’s relationship with God and there was plenty of that to go around! In their understanding of abundance in the Kingdom of God, Jesus and his disciples followed the view of God in the Hebrew scriptures who could always provide more than enough to God’s people.

At this year’s national meeting of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins preached about this idea (her words came back to me after my discussion with Andrew). She talked about the picture presented throughout scripture of God’s “economics of abundance” as opposed to our “economics of scarcity.” It seems to be a human instinct to want to horde all we can for ourselves (perhaps our evolutionary forefathers and foremothers learned it as a means of survival). Yet, the way of Christ, according to Watkins, is to give out of the abundance we have been blessed with by God. We become the means for blessing others who have less.

Watkins spoke in terms of Christians in the developed world considering their brothers and sisters in the developing world. She spoke about how our consumption, pollution and outright greed affect people in other countries which are exploited for their resources and unfairly compensated to keep our prices low. Because of our desires to possess the latest gadgets, others work in conditions we would not tolerate for wages we would never accept. How should Jesus’ “economy of abundance” shape our worldview, our politics, our compassion? We operate as if giving to others will mean we will have less, but we are promised that we will be blessed more in ways that matter when we give to people in need.

Our allegiance to an “economy of scarcity” rather than to God’s “economy of abundance” plays out domestically as well. My conversation with Andrew caused me to perk up when I came across an article by Peter Laaman, a minister in the United Church of Christ and director of Progressive Christians Uniting. He writes about American Christians who operate according to an “economy of scarcity” in regards to the Health Care Reform debate. He criticizes what he calls “Ayn Rand Christians” who are so committed to individualism that they fail to recognize the calls for mutual dependence and connection given in the New Testament. He notes that Paul’s image of the church as “one body” and Jesus’ examples of healing the multitudes do not recognize the idea that “I will have less when others have more.” Instead, Paul declares that when one member of the body is injured by another, then Christ is crucified again. Yet Christians may choose their own self interest in this debate despite the fact that the person sitting next to them in the pew may have less health coverage or no coverage because of it. Laaman argues that a more Christian perspective would be one that seeks solutions that help everyone not just the few.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, perhaps we all should consider the blessings God has provided us and look for ways to give out of that abundance to others.
Grace and Peace,

We're Still "One" after All These Years

I love it that The New York Times have made one of my heroes, Bono, lead singer of the best rock band in the world U2, a monthly contributor to their op-ed page. His piece on Sunday was great for me as a fan to learn a bit more about the genesis of one of their signature songs "One" from the album Achtung Baby. He shares about the song along with reflections upon his experiences in Germany soon after the Berlin Wall fell and about negotiating aid to eliminate poverty in the developing world with reunified Germany's current prime minister Angela Merkel.

I once read an interview with Bono about the song "One." The interviewer asked why the song was so popular considering how dark the lyrics in the verses are. Bono responded that it was the sweeping and hopeful chorus "We're one but we're not the same. We got to carry each other, carry each other. One love. One life. One." In a world filled with darkness, may all of us find a way to sing such a hopeful chorus together!

Grace and Peace,


Friday, November 13, 2009

Quoted about Halloween

I forgot to put a link up here two weeks ago when I was quoted in a St. Joseph News-Press article about how should Christians approach Halloween. (Thanks Erin Wisdom!) I hope I conveyed I'm pro-Halloween and don't buy into the "Satan's holiday" stuff. It was also glad to plug our church's annual Halloween party/carnival for neighborhood kids.

If you're interested in a completely psychotic (as in break from reality not homicidal) approach to Halloween, check out this send-up of a fundamentalist rant about Halloween. The scary thing is that the fundamentalist rant is real not a farcical satirical piece. Warning: the site I'm linking to is a humor site that makes fun of delusional stuff like the one referenced, and therefore their comments, thoughts, language and general snark may be considered objectionable by some readers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Few Revelations (Dialogue Column 11.10.09)

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.

Recently, I sat down with two church members who are better read in philosophy and theology than I am to discuss H. Richard Niebuhr’s small but significant book The Meaning of Revelation. I’m sure I was supposed to have been familiar with this work at some point in my education, but like many significant theological works, I somehow missed them along the way. H. Richard Niebuhr, a theology professor at Yale and brother to the more widely known Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote this book in the early 1940’s and yet, I was struck by how relevant the issues he discusses are almost seventy years later.

In The Meaning of Revelation, Niebuhr is not discussing The Apocalypse According to John in the New Testament (commonly called Revelation), but God’s revealing of God’s self to limited and mortal human beings. How is it that people who are products of particular worldviews, cultures and histories can begin to apprehend the timeless and transcendent God? Won’t our understandings of God be irrevocably distorted by our own biases and prejudices? Given how relative each person’s understanding of God is, how can any of us speak of God with any integrity? Is anyone’s view of God any better or worse than anyone else's? These are some of the questions Niebuhr tries to answer.

In a pluralistic society, Christians must face competing claims of truth and criticisms of their religion. Niebuhr wrote that Christians must guard against the tendency of defensiveness lest they replace a desire to be in relationship with God with a compulsion to be victorious over others. “We not only desire to live in Christian faith but we endeavor to recommend ourselves by means of it and to justify it as superior to all other faiths. Such defense may be innocuous when it is strictly subordinated to the main task of living toward our ends, but put into the first place it becomes more destructive of religion, Christianity and the soul than any foe’s attack can possibly be.” I wish many Christians in our culture today would take a similar attitude.

As Nazi Germany began its march across Europe with the complicity of a German church that subordinated Christianity to fascism, Niebuhr wrote this book where he warned against a self-centered religion. He described an “evil imagination” which interprets every bit of pain and every fleeting joy as an indication of divine pleasure or displeasure, so that God revolves around the believer rather than the believer bending his or her own will to that of the divine. In the grip of an “evil imagination,” all scripture and religious experience puts the believer at the center rather than God. The same thing goes for groups of people. “The group also thinks of itself as the center. So all nations tend to regard themselves as chosen peoples.” It seems like a fair warning to American Christians who regard our country as a “Christian nation” blessed by God in order to remake the world in its image. As Niebuhr writes, “The impoverishment and alienation of the self, as well as the destruction of others, issues from a reasoning of the heart that uses evil imagination.”

The revelation of God, according to Niebuhr, is that event or events in our lives that makes all the other events intelligible. Although many people claim special revelations from God, true experience revealed by God is most often verified only in hindsight. Only when looking backward can we see the work of God in our lives—how small moments of grace nudged us toward a different path and opportunities for love and service to others revealed themselves. In the present without benefit of hindsight, we had best operate with humility.

Although Niebuhr does a better job of warning believers about the misuses of religion than he does explaining exactly what revelation is and how we recognize it, I found his thoughts refreshing and relevant in a world that mainly sees Christianity as a self-centered and arrogant religion.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The American Funeral Today

I haven't done a funeral yet where the "cremains" of a loved one have been shaped into jewelry or a cross or a piece of coral suitable for a fish tank, but I'm sure that day is coming. A peek inside any "showroom" of a funeral home of any size and you will find options for caskets, gravestones, vaults, candles, videos, urns, flowers and doing more things with the cremated remains ("cremains") of a deceased loved one than you can possibly imagine. The mortuary business can be a mission or care for grieving people or a shakedown of the emotionally vulnerable or both depending on the ethics of the mortician.

This is all the more strange in our current culture where we seem to have little to no idea of what to do when a loved one dies--do we have a funeral or a memorial service? a graveside service or at the church or at the funeral home or at a favorite bar or fishing hole? should the tone be somber or a celebration? is it primarily to honor the deceased or is it for the living? etc. etc.

Since I'm in the business of officiating at funerals on a regular basis, I read with interest an op-ed by Thomas Long in Sunday's NY Times. Long teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology in Decatur, GA and is one of the top-tier preaching "experts" in mainline circles. Having heard him preach, I can verify his great skills and the depth of his message. For some time, Long has been working on a book on funerals and it is finally out--this op-ed comes out of that work. For anyone wondering about the purpose of a funeral in our culture--especially professionals involved in one end of things or the other--I highly recommend his thoughts.

Here are a few good quotes from the op-ed:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,”
--William Gladstone

Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.
--Thomas G. Long

“A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”
-- Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich

Grace and Peace,


The Bystander Effect (Dialogue Column 11-3-09)

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.

If you missed worship on Sunday morning (or if you were there and not paying attention), you missed my sermon on Mark 12:28-34, where Jesus speaks about the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In my sermon, I shared that these commands do not leave room for Christians to remain passive bystanders in their world, their communities, their churches or their relationships. I chose the term “bystander,” because of some reading I’ve done recently about why it is that when an act of violence is witnessed by a crowd of people none of the bystanders try to stop it. I think there is an analogy here to the spirituality of many Christians who fail to take the two great commandments seriously.

The phenomenon of bystanders failing to help someone in need is called the “bystander effect.” Social psychologists replicated this effect in laboratory experiments following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was murdered outside her apartment in Queens, NY and although numerous neighbors heard her cries for help, none made any effort to help her. Similar cases appear in the news on a regular basis, perhaps most recently in the case of a 15 year-old who was raped outside a school dance in California a few weeks ago. Numerous people observed the attack over a two hour period, but no one tried to stop it.

Psychologists believe there is a reason for this lack of response. In controlled experiments, it has been repeatedly documented that if there are two people in a room and one of them has a medical emergency, then the other person most likely will offer assistance. For each additional witness to the crisis, however, the likelihood of someone offering help drops by a substantial percentage. In other words, the more people there are the less likely it is that anyone will help.
The psychologists who study the “bystander effect” argue that the reason people are less likely to help another—even in a relatively small group—is because of something called “diffusion of responsibility.” Each individual believes they have less responsibility in a situation, because there are other people around. This response can take the form of callousness at one extreme (“It’s not my job.”) or confusion at the other (“No one else seemed concerned, so I did not want to come across as overreacting to the situation.”).

The “bystander effect” seems like particularly bad news for churches. As Christians, we are called to be in community with one another, but the more of us there are the less likely any of us is to take responsibility for helping others. That’s too bad, because Jesus’ commands to love God and love others as we love ourselves run in direct opposition to our tendency to be passive bystanders of the world around us. Hopefully, few of us will be witnesses to a violent crime, but all of us are witnesses to various kinds of crises in our communities.

In every church I have worked at or belonged to, I have seen this phenomenon at work. Most Christians I have known are basically good people who do care about others, but they tend to do little about those needs. This lack of action is not due to a lack of compassion, I believe, but a lack of any clear understanding that it is their responsibility as a Christian to do something. The reality is that a few people in each church who seem to have hardwired personalities of the “Do-er” sort end up carrying much more than their fair share of the load. Usually, these “do-ers” accomplish a lot of good on their way to being burnt out church members. The rest of the members sit back and let it happen, not because they do not care, but because they do not realize there is something deeply wrong with their self-understanding as a committed member of the church. According to Jesus, Christians are not supposed to be passive bystanders.

Of course, churches like all organizations need leaders and lines of responsibility, but both those in and outside of leadership are required to be actively engaged in the life of the church. There is no room for complaining about how things should be only for action to make things as they ought to be. The good news is that the “bystander effect” can be overcome, but it takes a deliberate effort by each person to do more than stand by as the needs of our community confront us.

Grace and Peace,