Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our Common Humanity

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, and I preached from Acts 2 about how God's spirit binds all people together and resists dichotomies of us/them making only a "WE."  Specifically, I felt this was relevant for discussions of immigration reform and the dehumanization of people from Mexico and Central America who have come here looking for a better life for their families and loved ones.

Along those same lines, I highly recommend the post on the Sojourners blog from Marcus Hummon that explains a song he wrote about an illegal immigrant forced into the sex trade.  I had the good fortune to hear Hummon speak and sing at a conference I was at last week.  He's written some big hits for the Dixie Chicks, Rascal Flatts and others.  His wife, Becca Stevens, is an Episcopal chaplain who started a ministry to women who are involved in the sex trade, which is how he met the subject of his song.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Was the Point of the TV Show LOST? (Dialogue Column 5.25.10)

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

I’m at a loss for what to do with my extra brain energy—the part of the brain you use in spare moments—because over the last six years I have been thinking about the TV show LOST in my spare moments. Now that the show is over, I guess I will use that part of my brain for other diversions, but I doubt I will find any that are simultaneously as entertaining and inspiring as LOST. I know, I know, there are many of you out there who do not care about things like the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative and Vincent the dog. You, unlike me, have not spent hours watching and re-watching LOST episodes, listening to podcasts which debate the show’s so-called “mythology” and devouring every last detail about this group of survivors of the Oceanic Flight 815 plane crash. Some of you are even annoyed by obsessive fans like me (I’m speaking here of a couple of church staff members). But I beseech you, as a favor to me, to bear with me as I offer some musings about the show and its religious themes. (I will do my best to be spoiler free.)

What’s in a name? The show LOST was about a group of people stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific when their plane crashes. Fairly quickly, the audience learns that no help will be coming for them and the people who know their location are hostile to them. The title would seem to be self-evident: the show’s characters are geographically lost, but we soon also learn that the characters are also lost spiritually. Most are estranged from their families. Some have committed egregious acts they are ashamed of. Others are aimless or have found themselves adrift in life despite their best efforts. In the end, what has been hinted at all along is confirmed: the castaways were brought to the island for a purpose, and as they work together to accomplish that purpose each will find redemption and reconciliation. So, in the characters of LOST we find a metaphor for our own estrangement from God and one another, as well as, our hope that reconciliation and redemption are possible.

Live together or die alone. In one of the early episodes, when the castaways’ unity threatens to break apart, the group’s de facto leader, Jack Shepard, makes an impassioned speech urging the group to hold together against the growing list of difficulties and threats. At the end, he declares, “If we can't live together, we’re going to die alone.” In our age of individualism run amok, where there seems to be no end to the lies that declare the gratification of the self’s desires trump all else, it was refreshing to hear declared on prime-time television that the only way to “life” is through community. The religion professor and pop-culture commentator, Brent Plate, describes LOST as “the antithesis of Lord of the Flies.” Instead of Golding’s descent into barbarism, we find in LOST characters attempting to build relationships, demonstrate loyalty and sacrifice themselves for the sake of others—actions they had not done prior to coming to the island. As Plate points out, on the island, the castaways discover (and so do we) the truth in Donne’s words, “No man is an island. . . “ and in those of Thomas Merton, “We learn to live by living together with others.” One of the show’s creators, Damon Lindelof, declares, “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” Granted, I am a minister, but I take this as a great endorsement of faith communities.

I can’t tell you how often I hear the tired line: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” When it escapes someone’s lips, it is all I can do to not roll my eyes. What I hear unspoken in this cliché is “I like to think about God and have God in my life only when it suits me. If God demands any sacrifice on my part or accountability to others, then I will label it as “religious” and gladly discard it.” Especially in the series finale of LOST, we discover that the only way these characters—so alienated from themselves and the people they care about—can find true existence is through the community they have built together. What a refreshing antidote to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

Connection: Although the spiritual themes of LOST were rarely explicitly Christian, I, as a Christian, found much to appreciate. Through the use of flashbacks, flashforwards and even “flash-sideways” in the show, the audience learns about how the characters’ lives are intertwined in a complex web of relationship; often beyond the awareness of the characters themselves. Similarly, we are taught as believers that we are each but threads in God’s great tapestry of creation and our actions affect others far beyond what we can know.

In the endless internet debates over LOST and the many mysteries presented over the course of its run, my hope is that amidst the questions over time travel, numerology and philosophy (not to mention the ones over minutiae such as whatever became of Kate’s toy plane?), the show will also inspire fans to consider their place in the world, their own need for redemption, and their search for community.

May God bless each of us in our “lost-ness.”

Grace and Peace,


The Language of God

In addition to being a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I also have standing as a minister in the United Church of Christ. The latter's most recent TV ad, "The Language of God," does much to articulate that denomination's inclusive and open-minded understanding of God. The ad came out about a month ago, so I've been remiss in not posting it before now, but better late than never. Enjoy!

Some Sources Mentioned in Recent Sermons

Well, I'm getting back on the blogging horse after a few months of having little to offer here. Between the busyness of a church capital campaign and the addictive instand feedback Facebook offers, it has been hard for me to get motivated to return tothe blog.
That being said, one motivation is for me to offer more information about sources I cite in my sermons. On May 16, our church celebrated the ending of its capital campaign to raise funds to cover building repairs in our historic building. Throughout the campaign, I tried to frame contributions in terms of recommitting to our church's ministry of being an inclusive and open-minded church in our community and recommitting to our location of the last 90+ years in downtown St. Joseph, MO, where we cannot avoid the needs of our community's most desperate citizens.

To illustrate my vision of our church's ministry, I offered a few illustrations--two of which I can link to here:

1. The wonderfully profound public radio program This American Life had a moving show on May 7 entitled "The Bridge." On it, a journalist shared about a four-mile long bridge in Naan-Jing, China where hundreds of people a year commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. One self-appointed man patrols the bridge to save as many of the jumpers as he can. For me, it was an analogy of what the church should be doing for people who choose self-destructive behavior (including suicide) as a response to the meaningless brutalities of life.

2. I have yet to buy a copy of the book, but I have been greatly intrigued by the book The Other Wes Moore. The author Wes Moore is a decorated Afghan War veteran, White House Fellow, Rhodes Scholar and successful financial analyst. He came from inner-city Baltimore and through the determination of his parents, the grace of many other people and his own considerable talents he escaped a life of despair and crime. He discovers, however, another Wes Moore who is a few years older than him who came from the same Baltimore neighborhoods who is spending life in prison for killing a cop. The author Moore seeks to understand what went wrong in the other Moore's life and what went right in his own. For me, this book illustrates the role community can have in preventing lives lost to hopelessness and destruction.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Elevating the Discourse on Illegal Immigration

Yesterday's "Letters to the Editor" in the St. Joseph News Press illustrates a lot about our community and I think about my church's place in it.
One of our members, Keith Evans (who regularly writes thoughtful letters to the paper), has a letter protesting the efforts of our congressman Sam Graves to deny citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants. Not only is his letter straight to the point, well-written and informative regarding why this would be unconstitutional, I believe it also stands up for a community of people being scapegoated this election season--illegal immigrants and their children.

Unfortunately, Keith's letter is sandwiched between one letter condemning illegal immigrants and another one declaring we are in the "end times" and our crime rate is due to "false religions" (alas the latter letter is all too common in our newspaper). The other two letters are illustrative of what passes for political and religious discourse in our community--the comments on the newspaper web site are pretty terrible too. I think Keith raises things to a better level and I think our church tries to do the same.

I realize that issues surrounding immigration are multi-faceted and complex--the same goes for crime rates and general morality in our culture and world--but I long for and indeed work for an exchange of ideas that takes into account the damage done by demonizing others different from the author/speaker and by scapegoating minority groups of any kind.

Grace and Peace,