Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Making Peace with Peacemaking (Dialogue Column 2.22.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)
As I write these words, the people of Libya are rising up against their dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. Following the example of the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Libyans seek to oust their oppressors by peaceful demonstrations that mobilize the majority of the populace. Similar demonstrations have already occurred with varying levels of success in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Morocco. Commentators have described the sweeping change racing across the Arab world as similar to 1989 when Eastern European countries overthrew their communist dictators. I wonder if a more apt comparison might be the peaceful revolutions in places like The Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, where American-backed despots bowed to the inevitable will of their people for freedom.

Although it remains unclear whether dreams of freedom will be realized in North Africa and the Middle East, I don’t think it is premature for us to think about what these cries for freedom mean for our nation. Over nine years ago, the United States invaded Afghanistan and almost eight years ago, we invaded Iraq. Although I believe a stronger case can be made for the necessity of invading Afghanistan than Iraq, both wars have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths (according to the Pentagon: 5,800+ dead American service members, 32,000+ American service members wounded in action, and an unknown number of civilian dead and wounded—the AP puts civilian deaths in Iraq alone at 110,000+) and neither has resulted in a stable government that provides peace and security to its people. Despite assurances from so-called “Neo-conservatives” who believe the United States can and should use its military to overthrow dictators hostile to the interests of the U.S. (dictators who support us are just fine, thank you very much) and establish a free and democratic government, both Iraq and Afghanistan refute the idea that in this day and age peace can be made with war.

It is still too early to know for sure, but at least at this point, it seems possible that popular uprisings and peaceful demonstrations may bring about more democracy in the Middle East than the billions and billions of dollars spent by the United States military and the thousands of people killed.  One method of revolution arises from the grass roots and bubbles up from within a society for the sake of freedom, while the other is imposed from the outside for the sake of strategic military interests and control of natural resources with a veneer of concern offered by American politicians of both parties for the freedom of ordinary people.
(Standing in contrast to the cynical words of politicians stands the work of so many ordinary American soldiers building relationships with and protecting ordinary civilians in spite of the untenable positions they have been placed in by their leaders.) Could it be that the will of ordinary people motivated by a desire for freedom, a will that refuses to sink to the level of violence used by their oppressors might be stronger than the greatest military forces in the world?

Anyone who reads the Gospels should not be surprised by the possibility that forces of violence are weaker than forces of peace and grace—after all, that’s what the resurrection is all about after all. The story of God conquering the powers of oppression through non-violence and peacemaking is either ignored by most realists or spiritualized and individualized so it has no real relevance in our violent world. Yet, the Gospels invite us to believe works of peace and grace do transform the world!

Political theory ancient and modern argues that history is shaped by the imposition of power from above, yet the Gospels offer the subversive idea of transformative power rising up from below. Within the last century, we need look no further than Gandhi’s movement in India, the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crowe South and the work of Mandela and Tutu in South Africa to see examples of movements that achieved lasting and stable change through peaceful means. At the same time, we have seen coups, wars and violent revolutions result in generations of violence around the world.

Meanwhile, back here in St. Joseph, we are a long way from the streets of Cairo and Tripoli and a long way from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., but we feel the effects of the philosophy of violence nonetheless. Everyone in a community like ours knows someone who is serving in the military and is or has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a shame that the bumper sticker slogan “Support Our Troops” has been equated with support for war. Wouldn’t a better way to support our men and women in military be to not ask them to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for a misguided ideology of violence?

Perhaps, we cannot shift the levers of power in the national capitals of the world, but we can make peace with peacemaking where God provides opportunities in our lives. We can resist the temptation to create enemies in order to define ourselves and by refusing to demonize the “other” whoever he or she may be—whether it is someone of a different ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or even the person who shares our background that we just don’t like. The way of violence (emotional or physical) always seems easier and more direct, yet it inevitably bogs us down in a quagmire of retribution and dehumanization.  We may wonder what difference our small works of peace make in the face of recent world events, but the deeds of ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East—not to mention the Gospels—demonstrate to us the truth that peaceful acts by many ordinary people bubbling up from below can change the world.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Great article about FCC St. Joe in today's News-Press

Once again, my thanks goes out to Erin Wisdom for writing a great article about First Christian Church St. Joseph.  Today's article is about our church's help with Zion United Church of Christ's recent baptism of nine folks through their ministry to LGBT people (see a few posts back when I wrote about it).  I'm proud of my church, just as I'm proud of Zion.

Friday, February 18, 2011

William Murry: Reason and Reverence

In my sermon last Sunday, I referenced William Murry (see last post).  I can't claim to have read his book Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century--I've used secondary sources to get at his ideas, but I did find this nice excerpt from his book on-line that gets at his main point.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's Okay to Evolve--last Sunday's sermon

This past Sunday, I preached on my belief that it is not only possible to reconcile faith with science but essential.  I chose the topic, because it was Evolution Sunday--a day when clergy around the country who believe the same spoke on science and faith.  I shared my firm belief that when Jesus declared the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind--he really meant the mind part just as much as the heart and soul, but unfortunately for many Christians in America there is a divorce between what their heart and soul experience at church and what their mind experiences elsewhere.

In my sermon, I made use of several sources.  First, I found it helpful to share about how Darwin's own experience of his daughter's death shaped his personal beliefs about how God seems to work in the world--namely that God has given not only humanity freedom but also the forces of nature.  Darwin's scientific and theological work is a gift to us, because if we heed it, then we can spare others who are suffering the insult of declaring their dead children are dead because a supposedly loving God could have intervened but just didn't feel like doing so.  I gained my own insight into Darwin's experience of his daughter's death thanks to a sermon by a good friend of mine, Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Houston.  In another sermon on the subject, Jeremy made use of a taxonomy by William Murry from his book, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century.  Murry lists three responses of religious people to science: opposition, parallelism and a scientifically informed religious perspective. 

I also drew from an essay by Paul Wallace, an astronomy and physics professor who is now attending seminary, who described the difference between churchgoers who seek answers and those who seek mystery.

I did not get to it in the sermon, but in my preparation, I was spurred to some great thinking by an interview with British theologian and physics scholar, John Polkinghorne, on the public radio show Being (formerly Speaking of Faith).  Polkinghorne has written widely on the intersection of science and faith.  I especially liked his point about the weaknesses of a "God in the Gap" argument for navigating a relationship between faith and science.  My simplified explanation of it is if one wishes to argue that God is still a necessary belief on the grounds that there are so many things that science cannot explain about the universe, then you end up with a very small place for God in the universe as science explains more and more about how the universe works.  Each new advancement in our understanding of the universe leaves less room for God or even less need for God if you insist that God can be found only in what we don't know.  (If that didn't make sense, listen to the interview.)

A Night to Remember

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

Last Wednesday night, February 9, I was proud to stand with other members of First Christian Church in support of 10 Christians who were baptized into Zion United Church of Christ, our neighboring congregation.  It was a wonderful and memorable night for many reasons; here are some of them:

1.     Ten baptisms!  Nine professions of faith and one recommitment of faith!  How often does that happen at any church in St. Joseph, much less at one of our downtown churches?
2.     I’m not sure how often it happens, but I have to think it is rare for a single baptism service to take place at two different churches.  Most of the people baptized last week chose to be baptized by means of sprinkling water from a font, which is typical of most, but not all, baptisms in the UCC.  Yet, three out of the ten came from traditions where people are baptized by immersion (being dunked under water), so the folks at Zion asked if they could use our baptistry.  We, of course, were glad to share our facility.  So, after the first seven people were baptized in Zion’s sanctuary, we processed out of that church, up Faraon Street, into Chilton Chapel at FCC and baptized three more.  (The United Church of Christ does not insist upon one mode of baptism, but people are usually sprinkled; just as our denomination, The Disciples of Christ also does not insist upon one mode of baptism but we usually immerse people.)
3.     It was obviously an ecumenical service.  Although the ten people baptized became members of Zion, both I and the board members of FCC who were present celebrated as well.  We recognized that these brothers and sisters in Christ were welcomed into the universal church that transcends denominational boundaries.  Furthermore, representatives from our two denominations were present to join in the celebration.  (It is worth noting that the two denominations represented, The United Church of Christ and The Disciples of Christ, are in a covenant relationship and share a common history.  The two bodies share a mission board and recognize each other’s clergy—for example, I hold standing as a minister in both denominations and have served churches in both.  The UCC and the DOC are leaders in the ecumenical movement.)
4.     The baptisms were motivation to do some long-needed work on Chilton Chapel.  Rick Ezzell, Nick Harding, Boyd Alldredge and other church members worked hard to repaint and plaster the baptistry and the chapel walls, repair drafty windows and move all of the chapel furniture so the carpets could be cleaned.  The room was beautiful for the special occasion.
5.     Last, but certainly not least, the night was memorable, because of how these ten baptisms came about.  Over a year ago, Marvin Baker and Paul Trittin began renting Zion’s parsonage.  They are a gay couple and both of them have ministry experience in the denominations they grew up in.  They very quickly joined Zion and began helping fix up the church building.  One day, they were working on the church steps and two women walked by.  They began talking and one of the women mentioned that she doubted she would be welcome in the church, because she is a lesbian.  The two men laughed and shared they were gay and church members.  The young woman asked if they had a Bible study, and Paul responded, “If you want to study the Bible, name the time and I’ll be there.”  A Wednesday night Bible study began.

Most of the people who ended up attending (as many as 21 have come) were either gay and lesbian or heterosexual friends of gay and lesbian people, so they called the group St. Joseph Gay Christian Fellowship.  Very soon, God began to work, and people began making faith commitments, and then they wanted to be baptized.  All ten of the people baptized shared never having felt welcome in a church before, and all of them live within a half mile of Zion and First Christian.  It was nice to tell the new Zion church members that they were unconditionally welcome at First Christian too.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Faith in Action Annual Meeting in the news

In my last post, I mentioned the annual meeting of Faith in Action.  Thanks to the St. Joseph News-Press and KQ2 for covering it! 

Here's the News-Press article.

Here's the KQ2 story.

What is Faith in Action? (Dialogue Column 2.1.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

During worship services, you may have heard me mention Faith in Action, one of the ministries of our church.  First Christian helped start FIA back in the early 1990’s to organize volunteer caregivers for people with HIV/AIDS in our community.  Over time, the county health department took over that role (FCC’s own Kelly Kibirige is the HIV/AIDS nurse for Buchanan County and would be glad to talk with you about volunteering).  Faith in Action evolved into an organization that helped people with a variety of medical conditions through volunteers coordinated by Heartland Hospital.  Eventually, Heartland and area churches decided that needs could be better met if the churches made this ministry their own.
About two and a half years ago, I was a part of the reorganization of Faith in Action and today I serve as chairperson of its governing board.  Although FIA still receives some support from the Heartland Foundation (free office space at Hope House, etc.) and some logistical support from Heartland Hospital (IT support, etc.), the organization is governed and financially supported by St. Joseph churches.  First Christian is one of them.  Rather than being a non-profit organization, FIA is a coalition of 29 churches and organizations that provide volunteers to help low-income people (often seniors and disabled people without family support) in a variety of ways.  If St. Joseph churches choose not to make FIA happen, it simply disappears.
A great thing about FIA is its diversity.  Member churches include Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant ones.  FIA churches come from downtown, southside, northside and the east side of town.  At FIA’s annual meeting this past Sunday, we met in a Roman Catholic church, heard an African American gospel choir sing and a white Baptist minister preach, while clergy and laypeople from Disciples, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Nazarene, Catholic and other churches spoke and shared about their ministries to people in need.  Each church provides volunteers who provide ministry to people through transportation to doctor visits, building wheelchair ramps, minor home repair, phone calls to seniors living alone and many other ways.  Here are some highlights from the wonderful work done by FIA over the last year:
·       One year ago FIA had 184 clients; today it has 249.
·       One year ago FIA had 60 volunteers; today it has 104.
·       Two lawn-moving companies volunteered to help low-income seniors by moving 15 lawns each week for free!
·       FIA volunteers built 9 ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps for disabled people.
·       FIA volunteers provided 375 rides for 193 people to medical appointments and other places, most of the clients were low-income seniors.
·       During 2010 volunteers gave over 1300 hours of their time and drove over 7000 miles!

During these difficult economic times, FIA helps people who would otherwise not be helped.  The clients helped are often referred by social service agencies that for one reason or another cannot provide what is needed.  These folks would fall through the cracks without the volunteers from St. Joe churches.  An important by-product of the work of FIA volunteers is that low-income seniors who do not have support from family are able to live independently in their own homes rather than facing the choice of moving into a care center or possibly becoming homeless.
Although FCC has several volunteers working through Faith in Action, for over a year we have not had a “team leader” to get our church involved in this exciting work.  A team leader’s responsibilities are simply to communicate with FIA and share that information with the church, as well as helping anyone interested in volunteering get involved.  I believe our church could join others in our community who are out in the community building ramps, doing yard work and more for elderly and disabled people in our town.  We just need someone to take the lead. 
Do you feel like God may be leading you to get involved with Faith in Action?  If so, I’ll be glad to talk with you about it.
Grace and Peace,