Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A few thoughts on finding joy and/or happiness

Alonzo Weston interviewed me for his story published this past Saturday in the St. Joseph News-Press about finding happiness and/or joyfulness in life.  I was honored to be asked.

Take a look--if you haven't already exceeded your 10 on-line story per month limit on the News-Press site.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Christmas Wish List 2012

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

In my almost five years at First Christian Church, I’ve made it a custom in the final Dialogue of the year to make a list of things I’m wishing will come to be by Christmas a year later.  So, here’s what I’m hoping for in the coming year:

A Better Economy—I’ve been wishing for this one for the last three years.  My heart continues to go out to people in our church and community who are unemployed as well as those who depend upon government and private programs to get by—programs facing cuts!

New Energy at FCC—It’s been great to see some new church members come in 2011 with new ideas and the desire to make those ideas happen.  I wish for even more of the same next year—new energy to not only offer new ideas but to actually make them happen.

Authority Figures Who Actually Respond to Sexual Abuse—Whether it is people in high positions at Penn State University or in Protestant and Catholic churches, I’m wishing for authority figures who actually put the welfare of children above the reputation of their institutions. 

Courage at FCC—At the end of 2010, First Christian took the courageous act of becoming Open and Affirming of all people, including LGBT people.  Over the last year, we have faced criticism from outside the church and complaints from some inside the church.  I wish for our church to have the courage to see that it is on the right side of history and the right side of God’s grace, so that it will celebrate the love of God for all people rather than listening to those who refuse to open their hearts.

A Great Quarterback for the Chiefs—I like Matt Cassel.  I like Kyle Orton.  Heck, I even thought Tyler Palko was a nice guy in spite of his interceptions.  I’m wishing, however, for my favorite team to actually get a great quarterback rather than just an average one.

Faithfulness During Transition at FCC—As a church, we continue to welcome new members while at the same time we continue to mourn the deaths of long-time members.  All the while, some of our members who have served faithfully for years must make the difficult choice to step down due to aging and health concerns.  I’ve only been here 5 years, and in many ways the church feels like a whirlwind of change.  I know it feels even greater to those who have been here many more years than me.  Meanwhile, for new folks, everything about FCC is a significant change from what they have known before.  I wish for our church to hold on tightly to God and to each other as we continue to ride this roller-coaster of relationships together.

Quit Messing Up Facebook—I along with every other Facebook user I know makes the same complaint: just when I get used to (and by get used to I mean make peace with) the last overhaul of Facebook, they screw it up by changing it again.  Isn’t it enough, Facebook, to have the majority of the world using your social networking device; must you torment us with your constant changes? 

FCC Embracing Its Role in the Community—In January, I will have served First Christian for five years, so that makes me a newcomer to St. Joseph.  Perhaps that’s why it is easier for me to see the significant role the church plays in St. Joseph.  FCC remains an often lonely voice in our community for a faith that is open-minded, inclusive of all people, and grace-oriented rather than judgment-oriented.  We cannot offer the types of programs offered by larger churches in our community who have more money and members than we do.  But, we can offer a vision of God’s saving work in the world that brings hope to people who have given up on the church as an institution.  I wish for FCC to stop being afraid of its God-given role in St. Joseph and to embrace it as a joyous privilege!

I look forward to hearing your wishes for 2012.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Zombies, Vampires and Meth Dealers, Oh My!

Among the podcasts I listen to regularly is On Being--I preferred it's previous title Speaking of Faith--a program on religion, meaning, faith, etc..  Last week's show was particularly meaningful to me as a consumer of pop culture.  Diane Winston, who writes on pop culture and religion was on the program talking about the prominence of the supernatural on TV right now--from The Walking Dead's zombies to the vampires of The Vampire Diaries to the morality tale of Breaking Bad.  I particularly thought her comparison of the morality tales occurring on TV now to passion plays to be interesting.  I highly recommend this particular program.  I've added Winston's blog to my list of favorite blogs.

Tim Tebow and the Real Religion of December

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

Sure, Christmas music is on the radio, decorations are up around town and culture warriors are blathering on about the supposed “War on Christmas.”  You may be under the impression that religion in December is all about Christmas.  Or if you are more pluralistic in your thinking, you may allow for Hanukah, Kwanza and perhaps even neo-Pagans and Wiccans celebrating the winter solstice.  The more cynical among us might offer that the annual orgy of materialism is the real religion of this time of year.  Yet, I declare to you that the real religion of December is football!

Yes, if we measure religion according to the amount of energy and devotion given communally by a society to a given thing, complete with rituals, financial expenditures and demonization of one’s enemies, then good old American football is the real religion of December.  Weekly, adherents of particular denominations (teams) don their religious garb (assorted team clothing, t-shirts, jerseys, etc.) and encamp themselves in front of their altars (TV sets) and communally feast (hot wings anyone?) while they lose themselves in ecstatic displays of passion often couched in language of good vs. evil.  Whether it’s college games on Saturday or pro games on Sunday, this same ritual is enacted throughout the land—and attendance is far better than at churches and synagogues.  The more devout among us go on pilgrimages to their local shrines (sports bars) or the temples (stadia) themselves, where they dress themselves in costume and engage in ritual meals with one another (tailgating).

I must confess some devotion to this religion as well.  I only listen to sports radio between the beginning of NFL training camp and the Super Bowl, but you should hear the amount of time, passion and energy devoted to the game.  This is especially true when the college bowls announce their picks as they did this past weekend.  Occupy Wall Street has nothing on the outrage expressed at the BCS rankings.  College football fans across the nation rail against the greedy, monopolistic cabal of coaches, universities and conference executives who reap millions off of college football and care nothing for the ordinary people (much less about the athletes they exploit).  When multinational corporations and Wall Street banks operate this way it is only free market capitalism, but when the BCS does so, it is blasphemy!

Perhaps no player this year has embodied this religion more so than Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  His on-field and on-camera moments spent bowing in prayer after a win have even sponsored an on-line phenomena called “Tebow-ing,” defined by the official website as “(vb) to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”  I can’t tell if the people “tebowing” in the pictures on the web while fighting fires, visiting the Grand Canyon, etc. are really into it or merely being sarcastic (both probably). 

Tebow has been outspoken about his faith and declared in a USAToday article making its rounds on Facebook that just as you would want to tell your wife you loved her on national television given the chance, how much more so would you want to tell Jesus Christ you love HIM in as public a place as possible?  Those who have followed Tebow’s impressive career should not be surprised by these public displays of faith, after all this was the same guy who wrote “John 3:16” in eye-black on his cheeks during his college games.  Of course, football players kneeling in the end-zone isn’t new, but Tebow has managed to mix the religion of football with that other December religion (Christianity) in a manner that has grabbed the spotlight.

First of all, let me say that I am predisposed to dislike Tim Tebow because he plays for the Broncos.  As a life-long Chiefs fan, in my book there’s not much good anybody can do who wears a Denver uniform.  As the parent of two boys, I admit, however, that I guess I would rather them see an NFL player kneel in prayer than get caught in a scandal like Brett Favre or Ben Roethlisberger, a point many of Tebow’s defenders have made.  Yet, as a Christian parent (who is also devoted to the religion of football) I am uncomfortable with the mixing of these two religions.  I guess I would have my sons learn that rather than bowing in prayer in front of millions of on-lookers, loving Jesus means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting people in prison as in Matthew 25.

Although I don’t think Jesus would begrudge folks having fun at a game, I feel pretty sure that God has more important things to worry about than who wins a football game.  Then, of course, there are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about praying in public: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  I don’t know if Tebow is a hypocrite—from what I can see, he seems like a pretty darn good guy and his faith is genuine—but his public prayers seem to have brought more attention to him rather than to the God he desires to praise. 

Although I will be participating in the sacred rituals of football just like millions of others this December, I sure hope I give at least as much attention and love to the God of that other December religion as I do to Tim Tebow and his fellow football players.

Grace and Peace,

Sources Used in Sunday's Sermon

I try to have some pastoral integrity and cite my sources in my sermons.  If it's somebody else's idea, I want to give her or him credit.  Yet given the fact that I speak without notes, I inevitably forget from time to time to give credit where credit is due.  I received some very good feedback regarding Sunday's sermon and want to make sure I list my sources for it.

Sunday's sermon was entitled "Spiritual Halitosis" an idea I got from reading about the "breath of God" in Isaiah 40.  The breath of God gives true life and reminds us of our mortality, whereas the air we ingest often is life-taking and idolatrous--hence bad spiritual breath.  On Peace Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, I offered the idea that we must begin to work for peace by moving from an inward peace and then move outward to peace in our closest relationships and then to the world.

I made use in the sermon of the wonderful book by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life.  It is a wonderful collection of thoughts on the spiritual life.  From this book, I got the wonderful story of the woman who went shopping in Jesus' mall store by Megan McKenna.  Also, I got the great thoughts about faithful parenting--Mother Theresa's exhortation to some wealthy matrons to create peace in their families before they worked with the poor and homeless and the words of Polly Berrien Berends who declares that "parenthood is the world's most intensive course in love." and by Gary Snyder that having a "child in the house is like living with a Zen master, it requires attention, patience, and selflessness."  Finally, I took from this book the story by Joseph Campbell about the woman who could not love God, to whom the Hindu sage urged to love her family member and that would be her service and love to God.

I also quoted one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, from his terrific book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.  He writes about compassion:

Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.

Also, I referenced Parker Palmer's wonderful book The Active Life where he quotes a friend who declares, "I have never asked myself if I was being effective, but only if I was being faithful."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hear the words of the prophet Bono on World AIDS Day

On this World AIDS Day, I encourage you to read the words of the prophet Bono in the NY Times today who praises America for how much we have accomplished fighting AIDS and asks us to finish the job--cutting funding would sentence millions to death. He credits the US with leading the fight to stop the epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and saving millions of lives.  Yes, the irony is not lost on me that the president whom I dislike so much--George W. Bush--was instrumental in making this good stuff happen.  Let's hope Obama's announcement of new goals actually results in the "end" of the epidemic.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Child in Weakness Born

I wrote the following  for  The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

BrianWren, probably the greatest living hymn writer (some of his hymns are in The Chalice Hymnal which we use for worship), writes in one of his hymns the following lines:

When pain and terror strike by chance, with causes unexplained,
when God seems absent or asleep, and evil unrestrained,
we crave an all-controlling force ready to rule and warn,
but find, far-shadowed by a cross, a child in weakness born.
I can’t think of any better words to reflect upon as we begin this Advent season together. 

This past Sunday I preached on Mark 13 and pointed out what I felt was most important about these strange apocalyptic verses: Jesus’ exhortation for us to keep awake and stay alert to the presence of God in our midst.  Unlike many interpreters who understand all of this passage to be about the end times, I side with those who view much of this chapter as referring to Jesus’ first coming among humans.  Understood this way and within the context of the Gospel of Mark’s narrative, Jesus is urging his listeners to be awake and alert to God’s activity NOT in some non-specific future but right here and now.  So, I urged those present in worship to “keep awake” and “stay alert” this Advent.

In an effort to foster wakefulness and alertness, I offer a few moments from my week where I have seen God at work in the midst of my own life.   

This week the presence of God came in the form of a puppy—as in, we have a new puppy at the Peeples’ home.  We adopted him this weekend from the animal shelter.  We’ve had a vacancy at our house left by our faithful 16 year-old Jack Russell Terrier Buddy, who died in July.  Buddy’s age meant that he would rather lay on the carpet than chase our boys around, but he was patient with Julian’s and Jameson’s overzealous efforts to love him.  Our other dog, 11 year-old Jack Russell Terrier Katy, was a rescue when we got her years ago and she is not particularly social nor in any way tolerant of boys who wish to play with her.  So, we’ve had two boys with a lot of love to give a pet (and two parents as well) and no one to receive that love.  

 When the boys met the 8 month-old Jack Russel mix Snuggles at the shelter (that’s right, Snuggles, the boys named him—I would have preferred Joe or Flash or Triumph but was outvoted) and he crawled in each of their laps to gratefully receive their attention, something clicked and a hole was filled.  We still get sad thinking about Buddy, but the sadness has been joined by the joy of having Snuggles (I’m still getting used to the name though).

Sure, it is perhaps too easy to see the divine in the love between boys and their new puppy, but I’ve been touched this week in ways that go beyond any kind of “awww. . . ain’t it cute” schmaltzy thing.  I’ve been reminded that each of us was created to receive and give love.  We are not complete with only one and not the other.  As God makes room in our lives for others, we carry out something essentially sacred with one another. 

Snuggles is fragile, in the way of puppies, and it’s been fun to watch the boys take care of him and learn to be careful with something so fragile.  Our boys get less and less fragile day by day—wasn’t it just yesterday I held them as infants and worried I would break these fragile miracles?  Now they are growing and learning to take care of others—a puppy, each other, perhaps one day their parents.  There is joy in the giving and receiving of love—a joy mixed with fear over being vulnerable enough to receive the care of another.

By preparing ourselves for Christmas, we are readying ourselves to contemplate anew the God who came to us in the Christ-child—helpless and in need of human caregivers.  What does it mean that the God of the universe came not as an all-controlling force ready to rule and warn” but rather far-shadowed by a cross, a child in weakness born?”  Perhaps God felt that there was something greater to be gained for us humans trough offering us the chance to give and receive love than through only experiencing domination and control.  Does not the vulnerability of God point us toward the value of being vulnerable with one another?  May you give and receive love this Advent season.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Royal Family Christmas

Saturday night we had a wonderful fundraiser for FCC's  ministry to abused and neglected children, Royal Family Kids Camp.  Over $13,000 was raised!  Here is the article about it in Sunday's News-Press and the story that aired on KQ2

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The “Sacrament” of Sharing the Bread and the Cup

I wrote the following  for  The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

            Yesterday, I visited one of our older members at home and we shared communion together.  Charles Wilcox has not been in Sunday Worship at First Christian in the five years I’ve been here due to painful back problems, but I’m willing to give him a break since he’s 94 years old and has literally been coming to FCC since he was born.  Those who have come to First Christian in recent years may not know Charles, but he was a vital part of the church and its ministries for many decades—teaching youth Sunday School, serving on the Administrative Board and even serving as the church attorney pro bono.
            As we shared the bread and the cup together, Charles shared his memories of the church.  His parents were members when the church moved from its building at 10th and Edmond Streets and built its current building in 1918.  He remembers C.M. Chilton (FCC pastor from 1898-1944) and how the church threw him a birthday party and gave its pastor a new putter.  He has watched children grow up in the church and move away, some never to return and others who eventually settled back in St. Joseph.  His memories of the history of FCC are a treasure and I, as the current minister at FCC, was honored to hear them.  The bread and cup we shared together was only the latest in many hundreds of times Charles has taken communion at FCC.  Through the bread and cup, we were “in communion” with all those who had gone before at First Christian Church of St. Joseph.
            When I returned home from visiting Charles, I had the small wooden communion box with me which contained the grape juice and the leftover communion bread from Sunday.  My sons, Julian (8) and Jameson (5), clambered around it.  They knew what it was and since they were home sick Sunday, they demanded that they take communion then and there.  Even Jameson who has trouble speaking urged me to “say the prayer about the blood.”  So, in my kitchen, I took communion with my sons and as I said the words of institution, Julian joined in to echo my words said each Sunday about Jesus giving us new chances with God.  As we sipped our Welch’s grape juice and pinched off pieces of bread, I experienced a different kind of grace with yet another new generation of FCC members.  Like many parents before me, I shared communion with my children thanks to this church and marveled at the mystery of God’s love that unites us.
            Whether in living rooms of homebound, at a kitchen counter with children or in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, we share a wonderful and mysterious grace with one another and with God.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we commune with those who have gone before us, those who are currently present with us and those who come after us.  This simple act of bread and cup exists somehow beyond the limits of time and space.  It is a wonderful mystery.
            At its most basic definition, a sacrament is a means for humans to experience God’s grace.  Different denominations hold to different definitions of what constitutes a sacrament and different rules regarding whom may partake of them, yet from their beginning Disciples of Christ—who were not very firm on many things when it came to belief and practice—were firmly committed to the idea that ordinary bread and ordinary wine or grape juice had great spiritual significance. 
Although different Disciples churches hold to different standards today regarding just how open their open communion is, I have always insisted when I am at the communion table that our communion is really, really open.  Our denomination was founded in large part as a reaction againstthe restrictions placed upon communion by other churches; keeping to that principle, I firmly believe that the opportunity to experience God’s grace via the bread and the cup is not limited by our beliefs or lack thereof, but rather by the breadth and depth of God’s grace—which is to say, it has no limit.  I often remark at the communion table “Whatever your faith or whatever your doubts, you are welcome at this table, because it is Jesus who has invited you and we will not get between you and Jesus.”  The wonderful mystery of God’s grace that unfolds in the sharing of bread and cup is not limited by place or time.  Likewise it is not limited by the divisions we human beings make between one another.
            We do not believe that the bread, wine and grape juice we share in communion is anything other than the ordinary stuff we buy at a store.  Likewise we do not believe that the life-giving salvation of God is dependent upon how often we take communion on Sundays.  Yet, at the same time, we profess to experience the mystery of God’s grace in these ordinary things however often or rarely we choose to partake of them.  How strange that ordinary bread and juice can capture the imagination of a 94 year-old man at home, two boys in their own kitchen or an entire congregation on Sunday morning!  Thanks be to God!
            Grace and Peace,

The Effects of Fear at Penn State

On November 13, I preached on fear and how living in fear leads to violence.  We fear losing what was never ours to begin with and we will do anything to keep it.

I mentioned the Penn State sexual abuse scandal as an example of people afraid to damage a beloved institution and to lose personal fame and power.  Having read the November 21 Sports Illustrated issue with its coverage of the scandal only reinforces my belief that fear was at the heart of the scandal--fear overrode even a most basic sense of morality--e.g. protecting children.  Also, this week's episode of this American Life does an excellent job explaining the mindset of Penn State's culture and how misguided love for that culture allowed the scandal to happen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

In my November 6 sermon, "Hope in the Midst of Grief" I began my sermon by telling the story from The Life of the Buddha of when the young sheltered prince Siddhartha (later to become the Buddha) first encounters people who have aged, are sick and have died.  My point was that each of us goies on a similar journey in life realizing that suffering and death are realities of life and we must (like the Buddha) find our own answers regarding finding joy and happiness given these realities.

What I failed to mention in my sermon was that I got the idea to tell the story from a sermon by Rev. Lissa Anne Gundlach at Unitarian Church of All Souls in NYC.  Her sermon is excellent and well worth reading.  My apologies for not giving credit where credit is due.

Rethinking My Religious Prejudices

I wrote the following  for  The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

I like to think I’m a pretty open-minded guy when it comes to people who hold religious beliefs different than mine.  I’ve realized lately, however, that I am not immune to religious prejudice.  In my own faith journey, I have moved from a narrow understanding of how God works in the world to a much broader one.  I do my best to avoid generalizations, stereotypes and judging those holding beliefs different from my own.  Sure, I have my close-minded slip-ups, but generally I pride myself on being open to all different kinds of religious people.  Well, as the good book says, “Pride goes before the fall,”  (Proverbs 16:18)  and I’ve been swallowing my pride this year when it comes to my self-perceived open-mindedness.  Yes, I’ve bumped up against the limits of my “open” mind thanks to what many commentators are calling “the Mormon Moment” with two Latter Day Saints running for the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney and John Huntsman.
Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I grew up from birth learning that the only way to heaven and the only way to truly be in a “right” relationship with God was “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.”  As I grew up and my exposure to people of different beliefs than my own also grew, I began slowly to see that God could work in the lives of people who held different beliefs than I did.  First, I learned that God was present in the lives of non-Southern Baptist Christians.  I was shocked to discover that Methodists, Lutherans, Nazarenes and others were actually Christians too.  Later on, I began to drop my suspicions of Catholics, Pentecostals and Charismatics.  When I went to college and seminary, I got the chance to study and even meet adherents of non-Christian religions; what a disconcerting process it was to learn not only was there much I identified with in other religions but I also could sense the love and compassion of the God I knew at work in them. 
I developed a new kind of humility towards my own beliefs, and I slowly but surely came to a place where I learned to unashamedly claim my own religious beliefs while at the same time stop short of concluding that my beliefs necessitated that anyone who did not share them be misguided at best and on the side of evil at worst.  I’ve learned to tell my own religious story and to learn from the stories of others rather than to engage in debates over who possesses the one and only truth.  I have also learned to judge religious beliefs less on the tenets of a particular faith and more on the ethics those tenets result in.  I have discovered that dangerous and unhealthy forms of religion exist everywhere—including in my own little corner of the sacred—just as there are life-giving and healthy forms of religion everywhere. 
All this sounds nice and happy, but old prejudices die hard.  A few weeks ago, when the pastor of FirstBaptist Church of Dallas, TX declared at a religious political event that MittRomney was not a true Christian and a member of a cult, I knew exactly what he meant.  There was a part of me that even agreed with him.  Back in the 1980’s, there was a film called The God Makers going around in conservative church circles which purported to show all the crazy non-Christian beliefs of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons.  I watched this film multiple times and I think I still even have the companion book that goes along with it.  As I heard that Southern Baptist megachurch pastor utter his opinion of Mormons, I found myself sort of agreeing with him—which is frightening in itself, since I doubt seriously I would agree with him about anything else.  My suspicions were aroused that my understanding of a fast-growing American religious movement was based upon some drastically biased secondary information.
So, in recent weeks, I’ve been trying to rethink my prejudices towards Mormons and to do a religious gut check to see what other groups I unfairly judge.  I’ve been reading the writings of JoannaBrooks, a college professor, feminist and self-named “unorthodox Mormon” .  She offers a critical yet loving perspective as a person who grew up Mormon and remains a part of its culture that somehow blurs the line between insider and outsider.  A recent interviewwith her on the public radio show OnBeing helped me to understand and even empathize with Mormons even as it confirmed some—but by no means all—of what I thought I already knew about Mormon beliefs.  Although there’s plenty about LDS or Mormon beliefs I do not share and even some things that are difficult for me to understand, I have discovered God at work in a movement that I had previously regarded as decidedly beyond redemption.  Sure there are plenty of cases of unhealthy and destructive uses of religion in LDS life, but they are hardly alone in that regard—think of the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal, hate speech by Protestant Christians towards LGBT people, etc., etc., etc.
I share my experience of reevaluating Mormonism, because I think all of us need to reassess how we regard and treat people of different religious beliefs and practices.  In the world we live in, religion can literally be the spark that ignites a firestorm of violence.  In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, I expressed my dismay at how the beliefs of Barack Obama’s Chicago church were misrepresented for political gain, in the same way, my hope is that the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney and John Huntsman will not be similarly abused.  If we are truly to love our neighbors as ourselves in the way of Jesus Christ, I believe we must find ways to live in a society that is religiously pluralistic.  We can be faithful in our own beliefs without operating from distorted perceptions of the beliefs held by others.
Grace and Peace, 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Your Homework for Sunday

I wrote the following  for  The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

Three weeks ago, I did something a little bit different during my Sunday morning sermon.  I asked those present to take two of the note cards in the pew racks and to write something on each of them.  On one card I instructed folks to write something they were thankful for, and on the other I told them to write down a resentment, slight or grudge they were holding on to.  Then I asked them to place one of the cards into the offering plate when it came around and noted that although the cards weighed the same in physical terms, in spiritual terms the contents of one of those cards were much more difficult to carry around.  It was up to each person present which card they would let go of and thankfully most people seemed to let go of the card containing a resentment, grudge or slight.  I hope that act also helped them to let go of that bitterness in their lives as well
            The idea of the note cards was not my own.  It came from David Lohse, a preaching professor at Lutheran Seminary in Minneapolis.  I heard Lohse speak at a conference last year and felt that unlike many of the other preachers he actually seemed to possess the virtue of humility—a quality rarely found in preachers, so I’ve kept up with his writings.  Each week he offers thoughts on the seminary web site about how to engage this week’s lectionary scripture passages.  (The lectionary is a list of scriptures for each Sunday over a three year period.  I try to follow it in my preaching schedules most Sundays.)  This week Lohse has another interactive idea I would like to try with you, although it requires some work beforehand.
            Lohse suggests preaching on Psalm 23—you know the psalm you usually only hear at funerals: “The Lord is my shepherd. . . “  With the scripture’s emphasis upon trusting God to provide for you and me—through good times and bad—throughout our lives, we should think about two things: the blessings we already have and the things we want to have.  He argues that even in the midst of more difficult economic times that our “wants” usually pale in comparison to the blessings that really matter.  Although I am sure there are exceptions (aren’t there always exceptions?) I am willing to bet that Lohse is correct.  The following is his idea.
            So, here is your assignment.  Take out two sheets of paper.  On one of them write down a list of blessings in your life—you decide how long the list should be.  On the other write down things you want—again you decide how long the list should be.  Compare the two.  That’s all.
            Once you have made your two lists think about what would happen if the list of blessings were taken away.  Then think about what would happen if you still had your list of blessings but you never acquired any of the things on your list of “wants.”  I wonder what you would discover. 
            I am going to do this exercise myself and I hope you will do it too.  (I guess this will also be an experiment in seeing how many people actually read my column in The Dialogue and if anyone is willing to respond to what I write here.)  I know that plenty of our FCC folks are a lot like me.  When I am challenged to do something like this, I often think I know the point of it ahead of time and don’t bother to take it seriously.  Well, as your minister, I’m asking you to take this seriously.  Take a few minutes out of your busy life and assess your blessings and your wants.  See what you find out.
            I would really like to hear what you find out.  In fact, I would like to have some of you share what you found out on Sunday.  If you don’t feel like sharing it publicly, why not let me share your findings anonymously without mentioning your name or any specifics.  I believe we all would benefit from hearing from one another.  You can tell me Sunday morning or better yet, e-mail me between now and then.  How do your blessings and wants compare?
            Grace and Peace,

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why Have a Worship Service Centered on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme?

This Sunday at First Christian we will do something different.  A jazz quartet will accompany our singing and perform some renditions of the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme.  Why?

One reason is that our gifted accompanist and exceptional jazz pianist Jeremy Gregoire and I wanted to do something a little different in worship.  We decided a jazz service sounded like fun and like a different medium to experience the worship of God.  Then we looked for an approach; jazz is a pretty big ocean to swim in after all.  At what point do you jump in?  Jeremy suggested we consider Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. 

Being a jazz ignoramus, I asked Jeremy to educate me.  He showed me Coltrane’s liner notes, and right there in black and white Coltrane declares this four-song album is “a humble offering to God.”  It’s not a shallow shout out to the divine as musicians do now at awards shows but rather a deep meditation on the “supreme” love of God.  The fourth song is entitled “Psalm” and is a musical accompaniment to a poem of praise to God that Coltrane wrote (also included in the liner notes).  Here are Coltrane’s own words about the album:


Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall
find”. Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal.

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening
which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time,
in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make
others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace.


As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered
into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the
esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and
merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His
OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I

This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU
GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.
May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor. . .

May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm
and after the rain — it is all with God — in all ways and forever.
With love to all, I thank you,

John Coltrane

A “love supreme” indeed!  That sounds like church to me!  See you Sunday!

Grace and Peace,