Thursday, January 28, 2010

Remembering Our Baptisms (Dialogue Column 1.26.10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, St. Joseph, MO.

I was proud of First Christian Church of St. Joseph this past Sunday morning. We tried something new in worship and to my knowledge no one freaked out, lightening did not strike from heaven nor did the building cave in. We remembered our baptisms by means of those present coming forward to have water poured on their hands and to hear the words of God: “You are my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” Although this wonderful idea for remembering or re-experiencing our baptisms came from our neighbor down the street, Rev. Krista Kiger at First Presbyterian Church, it seemed to me that we Disciples took to it rather easily. (I found it interesting that some of our oldest church members were the ones that made a point of telling me how meaningful the act was for them.)

I spoke briefly in the service about my own baptism and how my understanding of it developed over time, but for the sake of time, I only briefly covered how we Disciples understand baptism in practice and belief. Since we have so many new members coming from other traditions (and perhaps some long-time Disciples who have never considered it), I thought I would explain a bit more about what baptism means in our church.

As with pretty much everything with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, there is freedom for a variety of understandings about baptism; this may be especially true considering how the powerful act of baptism can provide meaning on different levels. The Disciples of Christ grew out of a movement concerned with, among other issues, two concerns: modeling belief and practice after the early church depicted in the New Testament and eliminating barriers between Christians of various traditions. Our current practice of baptism still reflects these emphases.

On the one hand, in this church, as with most Disciples churches, baptism is offered to individuals old enough to profess faith in Christ (often called Believer’s Baptism”) and the mode of baptism is by immersion (being fully dunked in water). This practice seems to most closely mirror that of the early church described in the New Testament. It is important to note that persons being baptized are not required to adhere to a creed or list of doctrines; they are only asked to profess faith in Jesus Christ. Although candidates for baptism are provided instruction and education about the faith, their particular understandings of faith remain their own when they are baptized and throughout their lives.

On the other hand, Disciples recognize the work of God in the lives of all Christians and respect the baptisms of other traditions, no matter how old the person was when he or she was baptized or the method of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, etc.). So, if you were baptized as an infant in another denomination or if you were sprinkled when you were old enough to profess your faith, when you join our church your baptism is accepted as valid and we do not make people get baptized again. For instance, my wife and I were both baptized by immersion in Baptist churches, but our sons were baptized as infants in a United Church of Christ congregation. All four baptisms were accepted when we joined this church.

For children, this church and most Disciples churches have baby or child dedications, where the child’s family, the church and God enter into a covenant (a sacred agreement) to raise the child in the faith until he or she is old enough to make his or her own faith decisions. Usually around the 5th or 6th grade, a class is offered to help them make just such a decision and be baptized, if they have not been already. This step is similar to confirmation in other traditions except instead of “confirming” baptisms done in their infancy, young people are choosing to be baptized. In my opinion, the differences between infant baptism and dedication as well as believer’s baptism and confirmation have more to do with mechanics than with meaning.

Disciples, like many Protestants, understand baptism as symbolic rather than salvific, meaning it is a symbol of God’s work in a person’s life rather than a necessary step for salvation. The water is not considered magic or “holy water,” but the event of baptism surely is holy, because it externalizes in ritual an inward reality that already has taken place. Just as a wedding ceremony demonstrates a couple’s love in ritual, a baptism demonstrates the love between God and a believer. It embodies the death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the life of the believer, who has chosen to die to a self-centered life and live anew in a God-centered life. Perhaps, most of all, it is a visible reminder of God’s love for each of us, one we can remember as we celebrate each person’s place in the community of God’s children.

Grace and Peace,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hope for Haiti album--highly recommended!

As a U2 fan, I had to buy the Hope for Haiti album on Itunes, since Bono and Edge were apart of the song Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour). It's a great song, but so is the whole album. My favorites are Stevie Wonder singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water," John Legend singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and Justin Timberlake singing leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It gets five stars out of five stars on the Chase Peeples Rating Scale.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dave Tushaus--Drum Major for Justice

Congratulations to David Tushaus for receiving a Drum Major for Justice Award! The award is given to community members who follow MLK's legacy with an "outstanding commitment to the underserved and underprivileged." Dave, I am proud to be your minister; we are so fortunate to have you at First Christian Church!

The name of the award comes from MLK's sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct"where he declares,

"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Update on the Bible Verse Rifle sites

After press coverage, it appears the Bible verses will be removed from US military rifle sites. (see my previous post on the matter)

I'm just waiting for the "First they took God out of the schools. . . " crowd to get upset about this.

Wrath of God Roundup

Here's a roundup of articles I've found interesting and/or meaningful regarding seeking a theological explanation for the Haiti earthquake.

Looking for a cause for the Haiti earthquake? This op-ed by David Ignatius at The Washington Post a good place to start. It contains interesting references to Susan Neiman's book Evil in Modern Thought and the responses to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 by Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau and others.

The best response I've read to Pat Robertson's declaration that the cause of the Haiti earthquake was the nation's "pact with the devil" came in the form of a fictitious letter from Satan to Robertson published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I wish I were this witty, clever and prophetic.

Mark Hulether, University of Tennessee religion professor, has an article about the real reasons Pat Robertson is dangerous. he asks the question of whether getting upset about these periodic outrageous statements does more harm than good. He notes, "Comments by Robertson that are racist, sexist, arrogant, complacent, misleading, and/or embarrassing are like a bus: if you miss one today, there will be another tomorrow." Instead he lists five things that demonstrate how Robertson's politics, business interests and writings are the things we should really be worrying about.

However, the best article I have read is by Paula Cooey, religion professor at Macalester Colege--I'll be looking for her other writings. From a position that values theological struggles, she writes about the tendency by people of faith to blame the victims--e.g. Pat Robertson, let God off the hook--e.g. It's God's will--everything happens for a reason, or alternately to dismiss the concept of a loving God altogether--e.g. Voltaire's Candide. Her discussion of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the responses to it, the Wesley brothers' hymns, Camus' The Plague, and so on becomes an appeal for people of faith to quit their navel-gazing and help the suffering. She declares that we cannot question the justice of God while we sit on the sidelines ignoring the injustices facing humanity.

Way to Go First Lutheran Church of St. Joe!

I want to give a shout out to the youth group from First Lutheran Church of St. Joseph (ELCA) along with their minister Roger Lenander. They spent last Sunday night and Monday morning at Juda House and St. Joseph Haven--who house homeless men. the youth played games, watched movies and talked with the men. They got up the next morning and made them a pancake breakfast.

What a way for the youth to learn that these men are not problems to be solved or ignored but people to be respected and loved.

Read the article about it in Tuesday's News-Press, complete with video of Roger Lenander talking about the meaning of the overnight event.

Prince of Peace, Forgive Us!

I read with horror the story by ABC News about a company in Michigan which makes telescopic rifle scopes for the US military. What is unusual about these particular scopes is that they have imprinted on them right next to the serial numbers, Bible verses that declare Jesus is the light of the world! The company is unapologetic, and I feel sure that many Christians in America will see no problem with the practice.

If the Taliban or Al Qaeda carried rifles with verses from the Qur'an, we would call them religious fanatics, but somehow it is okay for Christians to do so?

This practice does not represent the faith I profess!

Churches Reaching Out by Caring for the Earth

(For those who are my Facebook friends, this post and others today may look familiar, since I posted them there first.)

I read with interest the NY Times article this week about churches in the Northwest who are connecting with their communities over environmental issues. The article mentions a PCUSA church hosting a farmer's market in its parking lot to help its neighbors eat locally grown food. It also tells of a UCC church that underwent an energy audit to find ways to make its building more energy efficient. Of course, it also described how difficult it is to make older church buildings more environment-friendly without breaking the bank--especially for struggling mainline congregations.

An interesting article with some great ideas about how a church can not only be good stewards of creation but also demonstrate to people outside the church that some Christians really do see such efforts as a vital part of their faith.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What's wrong with telling Tiger Woods to become a Christian? (Dialogue column 1-12-10)

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

If you missed worship this past Sunday (and given the continuing bad weather many of you did), I mentioned in my sermon the case of Fox News commentator Brit Hume’s recent remarks that Tiger Woods should become a Christian. I shared that I felt instantly uncomfortable with Hume’s remarks, and that discomfort puzzled me. Am I not in the business of helping people to enter into relationships with Jesus Christ? After thinking about if for some time, I decided that my discomfort was not really about the substance of Hume’s remarks but rather that Hume was the one who made them. Lest I be accused of bashing Fox News or Brit Hume, I want to take some time here to further explain what I mean for both those present and those absent; besides, I believe there are some greater issues at stake than whether or not your minister cares for Fox News.

As I mentioned in my sermon, I’m no fan of Brit Hume, but then I’m at a loss to think of any talking head that appears on a cable “news” show that I do like. I believe these talking head, roundtable discussions produce more heat than light and do little to help educate any of us about the issues that affect our lives. Whether Keith Olbermann, Wolf Blitzer or Brit Hume suggested redemption through Christ to Tiger Woods, I would shake my head and sigh, because in a medium that trivializes and oversimplifies the great issues of our time on a daily basis, even Jesus Christ becomes another simplistic, partisan power play.
Last week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the clip of Hume’s remarks drew dismissive laughter from the audience. As I remarked Sunday, we, as Christians, could dismiss the laughter as coming from an atheistic and secular group of people who are intent upon defaming our God and attacking our faith OR we could acknowledge that such a response is to be expected from a culture which rightly tfakes a cynical eye towards blowhards and pundits. What have they seen of Christianity in the media other than hypocrisy followed by simplistic repentance by public media figures who happen to be Christians like Ted Haggard and other hypocritical ministers, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and other philandering politicians, etc. etc. etc.

In a sound-byte culture awash in a flood of information via the internet age, a comment from a pundit like Brit Hume counseling a celebrity like Tiger Woods to become a Christian can only accomplish two things: 1. trivialize the grace of Jesus Christ and 2. reinforce the smugness of Christians who already assume their superiority to anyone who does not believe as they do. What I would offer instead is that any recommendation of Jesus Christ to anyone—if it is to be meaningful, authentic and helpful—must come out of a relationship built on trust, intimacy and care. If we as Christians wish to be true to the dual commands of Christ to make disciples AND love our neighbors, we can do so only with humility and through the sharing of our own experience of God.

When we speak from a place of arrogance and privilege—which I believe Hume did and does—rather than from a place where we acknowledge our common need for God’s grace, our words do more harm than good. When we approach others who believe differently than us as if we are in a debate and the one with the better argument wins, we have already lost. When we treat our faith as if it is one more plank in a party platform that we will use to beat our opponents in the culture wars over the head, then we are not sharing the love of Christ and we deserve to be laughed at and dismissed.

Did Brit Hume have the right to say what he said on a national news program? Absolutely. Did it help demonstrate the love of Christ who came to serve and to sacrifice? Absolutely not. What Jesus needs are people who will follow his example. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

The only voices tht our culture will listen to regarding the redemption Christ offers are ones who have chosen to follow the path of Christ’s humility and sacrifice. Those voices cannot be found in our screaming and barking media landscape.
Grace and Peace,
P.S. I realize this post doesn't really address Hume's contention that Christianity offers redemption that Buddhism does not. That topic is multi-faceted and deals with issues concerning salvation, inclusion, pluralism, the relationship between different relitions, the nature of forgiveness and the means of it, and even the existence or non-existence of hell. Perhaps I'll write on this as well, but let's just leave it at this point with me stating that I feel quite sure that me speaking about my faith as a Christian does not necessitate me putting down another religion.

Giving to help the people of Haiti

Today I chose to give the $100 my in-laws gave me for Christmas to Haiti earthquake relief. I've been thinking about what to do with it for the last few weeks, but I decided it will do more good there than whatever I would have bought will do me. I share this not to make myself look good but to encourage others to give sacrificially. Together our small gifts can help in this terrible time of need.

I gave to Week of Compassion which is how the Disciples of Christ denomination funnels funds and resources to disasters like the Haiti earthquake. Horrible disasters like this one are why we have the WOC offering every year at our church and Disciples congregations across the United States and Canada. The work with local partners in Haiti with whom they have longstanding relationships. The Week of Compassion web site has detailed and on-going information about how our funds are being used to help the people of Haiti.

We will be having a special offering the next two Sundays at First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO for the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The Ignorance and Bigotry of Pat Robertson

Based on Pat Robertson's statements regarding the Haiti earthquake being the result of the country's "pact with the devil," I feel the need to declare to any who will listen that I am one Christian minister who absolutely denounces the ignorance and bigotry of Pat Robertson. While Haiti suffers, he has the gall to pass judgement. I do not believe that God punishes a nation with an earthquake, a tsunami or a terrorist attack.

For a broader perspective of why Pat Robertson's theology of judgement is so bigoted and destructive, note the following words from Anthea Butler at the University of Pennsylvania:

Using "demons" to explain natural disasters is not anything new. What is new is how the language of the demonic has been used to describe a natural disaster that happens to anyone other than a Christian, and often, a Christian of European extraction. It is on par with the notion of "Slave-holding Christianity" about which Frederick Douglass spoke so eloquently in "What to a slave is the Fourth of July." What's more, this narrative of "curse" is used often to remind any person of color that if you go up against the white man, God is most likely to punish you in perpetuity. A recent example of this narrative of demonic activity was used by John Hagee and others to explain away what happened in Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.
God save us from people like Pat Robertson!

The view from Bethlehem vs. the view from Jerusalem

This past Sunday we celebrated Epiphany and I preached on Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the Magi traveling to visit the child Jesus. For any who are interested, this is the article by Walter Brueggeman that I was working off of in my sermon. He draws a contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as I mentioned Sunday, which I found helpful and powerful.

Miep Gies--a Heroic Life

I found meaningful the story on NPR on Tuesday about the death of Miep Gies--one of the people who hid Anne Frank and her family. She found and preserved Anne's diary. In the story she says that she did not want to be thought of as special or heroic, because she wanted others to know that ordinary people can act heroically helping those in need. According to the New York Times she would say, “I am not a hero. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary.” Her words should remind each of us our capacity for great goodness and self-sacrifice, just as they should not diminish the heroic efforts she undertook to protect Anne Frank and her family.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Men + Religion = Sexism?

Nicholas Kristof is two for two in the New York Times this week--another great column today. He states the all too sad reality that men of every religion more likely than not use that religion to oppress women. It's well worth reading, remembering and holding on to by any man who claims to be religions regardless of his faith.

Reading Kristof's column reminds me of Mary Daly's death this week. Daly the self-titled "radical, feminist, lesbian" pushed the envelope of Christian theology about as far as it could go in terms of feminism. I disagree with Catholic critics and others who dismiss her legacy. I believe she was a revolutionary who was far too radical for many--myself included at times--but who nonetheless made room for other feminist voices who otherwise would never have been heard. Reading Daly was never fun for me as a white male, but then when is reading about your culpability in a universal system of oppression ever fun? I think there is a line between protesting oppression and matching the oppressor's tactics that she crossed at times and also I think feminist writers of color rightly point out that despite her experience of oppression, she still held a position of privilege compared to them--BUT it takes someone radical to bust down the doors and let others in.

(I'm sure that Daly would find my compliments and criticism soaking in misogyny and patriarchy--and they probably are.)

From Kristof's article and Daly's writings, we are all reminded that the world needs more revolutionaries to change the place of women in the world's religions.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Education = More Happiness ?

I recommend reading Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in today's New York Times regarding the seeming relationship between the money a nation spends on education and that nation's happiness level. In addition to happiness, there are also other benefits, such as gender equality and more. Perhaps the United States cannot be Costa Rica (Kristof's prime example), but certainly the disparity between the amount our nation spends on weapons and what it spends on education has much to do with the inequalities (and therefore happiness) of its citizens.

More money for education and less money for weapons--at home and abroad--certainly sounds closer to the biblical understanding of justice than the other way around.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy Epiphany!

Today is Epiphany! After the twelve days of Christmas (yep, those 12 days of Christmas) we enter the liturgical season of Epiphany. Today commemorates the arrival of the Magi to the child Jesus symbolizing the spread of the Good News to the Gentile world. It may be a little confusing to think of the Magi 0r Wise Men apart from the events of the Nativity, but despite how the church traditionally presents the events of the Bethlehem manger (with shepherds and Wise Men arriving nearly simultaneously) they come from separate Gospels and are unrelated stories.

I really like the season, even though I never seem to have enough energy to devote the energy to it that it deserves. Coming after Advent/Christmas and before Lent, it just seems underrated to me.

The theological term "epiphany" means an "appearance" or "manifestation" and in Christian circles it refers to the manifestation of God in the human Jesus. The Greek term epiphany comes from (attention all my former Greek students!) is epiphaneia and it is a compound verb from the preposition epi (in, on, with, etc. depending on the case it is used with) and phanos (torch or lantern). The verb form means literally to "shine a light on" or "to make visible".

Epiphany also has a secular meaning as a new self-understanding or a revelation of a person's or thing's true essence. Obviously these two meanings are related, and depending on your definition or delineation of sacred vs. secular you could argue the latter has non-theological uses. I would argue that any new self-understanding that is true or for that matter any new and real understanding of the world around one's self is inherently theological. (I realize of course that philosophers will always continue to debate the validity and meanings of "true" and "real".)

Interestingly, on today's Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor (broadcast daily on public radio), there is an excellent explanation of both uses of the term epiphany and a concise explanation of how James Joyce used the literary device of epiphany in The Dubliners.

While I was in New York, I became acquainted with the celebration of Three Kings Day in the Hispanic community which is essentially Epiphany but far more elaborate than anything I had known previous. Of course, the account in Matthew makes no mention of the Magi as Kings--for that matter it doesn't even say they were "wise men". However, from the perspective of Matthew, they were obedient and open to the signs of God breaking into our world.

Happy Epiphany!


Share Your Story in 2010 (dialogue Column 1.5.10)

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

Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I experienced many things that now seem almost inconceivable. We had to go to church not just once on Sundays but twice; we had both a morning worship service and an evening one. As far as I can tell, no one liked going to church on Sunday evening, but for unknown reasons they went ahead and did it anyway. That meant there was a lot of “air time” to fill on Sunday nights. It’s one thing to expect a minister to have something good to say in a sermon once a week, but to expect two quality sermons was just pushing it. Thus, there were Sunday nights when the homiletical well was dry and we had the equivalent of “open mike night:” it was known as “testimony time.”

Lay people would amble up to the pulpit, adjust the microphone and give their testimonies. For those of you unsure of what exactly a “testimony” is, I will explain it simply: a person tells about what God has done in her or his life. In the Baptist world I inhabited, all the narratives usually took the same arc—1. I was a really lousy piece of no good dog vomit, 2. I did a lot of really bad things—here let me tell you about them, 3. Until Jesus came into my life through the form of either a near-death experience, the death of my sainted mother or a disembodied voice that woke me from a drunken stupor, 4. And I’ve been perfect ever since (at least until 5. I blew it all over again and then 6. Jesus gave me another chance).

On the one hand, “testimony time” was not so great, because the same people tended to hog the microphone and tell the same stories over and over again, not to mention that it promoted a kind of theology that implied you had to be a really bad sinner in order to experience the grace of God. On the other hand, “testimony time” had its uses, namely lay people became used to articulating their own faith experience. Telling one’s story by necessity involves reflection and introspection—two good practices for anyone’s spiritual health.

I don’t miss Sunday night services nor do I miss “testimony time”—at least the way I experienced it growing up, but I do miss hearing the stories of my fellow church members’ experiences of God. In the mainline church world I now live in, faith is more private and more humble. We are wary of claiming special dispensations from God and fearful of replicating the excesses of our brothers and sisters in other churches. Yet, in our desire to avoid maudlin displays of emotion and manipulation of the divine for our own ends, we have lost something—sharing our stories with one another. Sharing one’s journey in faith is left to the clergy alone; meanwhile the whole church is poorer for missing out on the many different ways God moves in the lives or all kinds of people.

As your minister, many of you have shared your stories with me, and I am deeply honored and grateful to receive those gifts. Yet, I often wish that others in the church could know your stories, because there are many who need to hear what you have to share. So this year, I wish to offer a proposal, I am going to give up this space in the weekly newsletter to any who would be willing to share their story with their church. You don’t have to get up and speak, just write about 500-600 words about your experience of God. I’m not necessarily looking for the dramatic “Road to Damascus” conversion stories—although those are good to share too. Instead, I would like for your church to hear your story about God—trust me, you may think it is ordinary or even dull, but those who love you in this church will find it meaningful and even magical.

A column of this size is not big enough for a full autobiography. Instead, you may want to share one or more of the following:

· How did you come to First Christian Church and why have you stayed?
· Which Bible verses or passages are particularly meaningful for you?
· When did you feel closest to God? When did you feel farthest away from God?
· What did you think about God when you were young? How has that changed, or has it changed at all?
· Have there been things taught to you at this church or other churches that you chose not to believe? What were they and why didn’t you accept them?
· Who are the people that have shaped your spiritual journey?

I’m going to be asking some church members to share their story over the coming year, but this is an open call for stories. If I don’t make it to you individually, consider this column to be your invitation and go ahead and get your story to me. We will all grow together by learning how God has worked in the lives of the people who call themselves First Christian Church of St. Joseph.

Grace and Peace,


Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year and New Life

What a great story on the front page of the St. Joseph News-Press today about the celebration of the New Year by local Sudanese immigrants. I've known some of these folks for almost three years now and they continue to teach me new things about life. I was unaware that many of the "Lost Boys" and others from southern Sudan here in America did not know their birth dates and were given January 1 as their birth date when they came here. After the suffering they have seen, New Year's Day is surely a celebration of new opportunities for life and joy. First Lutheran Church of St. Joseph and its pastor Roger Lenander deserve praise for welcoming the Sudanese so well.