Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day

(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.)

There’s nothing wrong with grilling out or heading to the lake on Memorial Day Weekend, but come Monday we are asked as a society to honor those who have died and been wounded in service to our country.  I confess that I didn’t do much memorializing yesterday; I spent it trying to get over a miserable head cold.  If you—like me—missed your opportunity to honor those who have served (hopefully you were having more fun), maybe these thoughts will help offer some perspective.
I heard the great documentarian Ken Burns’ interviewed yesterday and it turns out his next work is on Vietnam.  He mentioned that he was of age to be drafted but drew a high draft number and did not have to go.  I thought once again about the differences between generations, and how I, having grown up barely remembering Vietnam, never had to know the fear of being drafted.  Although I cannot know for sure, I feel that the war in Iraq and the length of the war in Afghanistan would have faced more opposition had a greater percentage of our nation borne the pain of war.  If most Americans were truly worried about having a son or daughter killed or about a child having his or her limbs blown off, would we really be so blasé about war and its effects?  As it is, a minority of our citizens knows this pain and makes such sacrifices, so we spend billions to continue these wars and think nothing about preventing future ones.
A few days ago, I received the following forwarded e-mail from a member of my church in New York who asked me to share it with my church here and pray for the family mentioned.  The wounded young soldier described is the brother of one of her students.  The e-mail is written by soldier’s mother.

Dear Friends,

Last Sunday we received word that our son Liam had been seriously wounded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Liam has sustained numerous injuries to his upper and lower extremities: his left leg has been amputated above the knee & his right leg is broken in two places. Surgery has been done on both his arms and we are told he may lose his right arm. Liam has a collapsed lung and is not breathing on his own. Liam is stable enough to be transported & will be arriving at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland this evening. We were able to speak with a nurse who is at Liam's side and she tells us that he is "a fighter"...As we get ready for this upcoming Memorial Day Holiday, I am asking all of you dear friends to keep Liam and our family in your thoughts and prayers as we wait for the unexpected. Please also pray for all those men and women who everyday are putting their lives at risk and pray for their safe return! Thank you with love, Marci

            It does not need to be Memorial Day for us to remember Liam and his family in prayer as he seeks to recover from his wounds.  May we remember in prayer him and all those who suffer from similar wounds, along with their families.  May we remember in prayer the families grieving loved ones who have died in these wars.  May we remember those who are serving in harm’s way.  That seems like the least we can do as Americans.  But as we pray for them, I believe the very least we can do as Christians is to not only pray for our soldiers and their families but also for our nation’s enemies and their families.  Jesus, after all, taught us to do so.  Perhaps if we begin with prayer for our soldiers as well as for our enemies, then we will not be content to allow the few to bear the sacrifices for the many nor for alternatives to war to be left untried.
            Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Rapture Didn’t Happen, So What are You Going to Do with the Rest of Your Life?

(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.)

The Rapture didn’t happen on Saturday, as predicted by the self-taught Bible prophecy interpreter and fundamentalist Christian media mogul Harold Camping.  Millions of true believers were not immediately beamed to heaven, and the other six billion heathen were not left to undergo a time of tribulation as they waited for the final destruction of the world in a few months.  Life pretty much went on as it had already been going on.  Given that the end of the world didn’t happen, perhaps now is as good a time as any to do some reflecting upon what exactly you will do with your life now that you get to finish living it.  Here are my suggestions of what we could do now that we have been given an apocalyptic reprieve. 
1.      Let’s pay less attention to old white male fundamentalists!  Emory University

Religionprofessor Gary Laderman sums things up well in a piece written after thenon-rapture.  He writes, “Even as American society grows more religiously diverse . . . all it takes is one older white fundamentalist Christian proclaiming some message of violence or hatred to a create a media frenzy and get the world talking about theology on the fringes (which can, in the right political circumstances, take the fringe to the heart of the mainstream).  Terry Jones is one recent example with his attack on Islam but the list is long and includes such figures as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell.”  Here, here!  Wouldn’t our lives be better spent doing something else besides rewarding the bad behavior of these folks with the attention they crave?
2.      Let’s advocate our own religious views with humility.  Okay, sure, maybe you—
like me—watched Camping and his followers on TV with a mixture of pity and amusement, but pretty much every religious person holds beliefs that a non-believer would find ridiculous.  Non-Christians find most Christian beliefs to be unacceptable if not laughable—e.g. the virgin birth, the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, etc.  The same can be said about any other religion from the perspective of one who does not adhere to it—e.g. reincarnation, God giving Moses the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Muhammed receiving the Qu’ran from the Angel Gabriel, etc.  Although religious people may have very good reasons for believing what they do—as Laderman notes. “Like DNA, religious motivations, commitments, investments, desires, etc. are built into and elemental to human life.”—a healthy religious person has to allow for the possibility that he or she may be wrong. 
Although we may scoff at the single-minded belief of those expecting the rapture to come on Saturday, shouldn’t we also do a quick gut check regarding our own blindness to possibilities we don’t want to consider.  In a culture where those on the extremes get the most attention, isn’t it intellectually honest, if not existentially essential, that we admit the possibility that we might be wrong?  Our culture’s competitive, status-seeking and sometimes violent religious landscape could benefit from religious people who showed some humility.
3.      Let’s accept the likelihood that the earth is going to be around for a while.  Most
of the New Testament urges Christians to be ready for an immanent return of Jesus Christ along with the end of the world as we know it, but unless I’ve missed something, it hasn’t happened yet.  As I stated in my sermon Sunday, I still believe in a return of Jesus Christ—just not a violent or destructive one, so I’m not giving up on Christian eschatology (beliefs about the end times).  Yet, I do think that since almost 2000 years have gone by without the end coming, we should act, plan and conserve as if the earth is going to be around for a long while.  What kind of world do you want your children and grandchildren to inherit?  What about their children and grandchildren?  Instead of living like the world will end tomorrow, why not get busy doing what you can to make the world better now and do it in such a way that it is sustainable for the future?
4.      Let’s spend time thinking about our own individual ends.  Okay, so maybe the
world didn’t end this past weekend, but guess what?  You’re still going to die.  Assuming the world will survive after you, what do you want your life to accomplish?  I’m not talking about a bucket list where you go sky diving per se, but rather how do you wish to be remembered?  What legacy would you want to leave behind?  What difference do you need to make in your life, in the lives of others or in the world?  Has God been whispering in your ear prompting you to do something for God’s sake that you’ve been putting off?  What makes you think that you will have time later to get that thing (or things) done?  The rapture didn’t happen last Saturday, but as much as we may not want to consider it, your end or mine could have happened then or any other day in one of a thousand unexpected ways.  A long life to do everything God calls us to do is not guaranteed, so what are you waiting for?
            Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chase's Mailbag: I'm Going to Hell--Again!

(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.)

Well, it looks like I’m going to hell again.  I say “again,” because I’ve gotten used to being condemned to hell by folks who think my theology is liberal or blasphemous.  Over the years, I’ve been condemned to hell most often for not believing the Bible is “the inerrant word of God,” but also for my refusal to consider being homosexual a sin, my support of equal rights for women—especially the right of women to be ministers, and for not voting Republican—just to name a few.  I’ve come to believe that I must be doing something right if I have upset the sort of people who feel they have the right to decide whom God will show grace to and whom God will condemn to everlasting punishment.
This time around I was condemned to hell because of my views on the Bible.  I received an e-mail yesterday from a gentleman who wrote, “You don’t know me -  but I am aware of you and your classes in Bible.”  Now, I’m not sure which “classes in Bible” this fellow was referring to, but I’m guessing it was the class I taught this spring at Missouri Western: Introduction to Biblical Studies, an academic and secular overview of the Bible from the perspective of critical scholarship.  I can only assume he heard about the class from one of the students, and since the perspective of the class was not the same as his perspective on scripture, he felt the need to inform me of my erring ways.
Even though the author felt sure I would take offense at his message—which included an attached article by a conservative minister detailing the nature of a “true Bible Christian”— he felt the “greatest thing he could do out of Christian love” was to share the Gospel with me.  He was right; I am offended by his e-mail, but I can cut the guy some slack.  Once upon a time, I too believed that it was worth the risk of offending someone if it might mean saving them from an eternity of torture and pain.  When your worldview is starkly dualistic and the dividing line between the “saved” and the “damned” comes down to who has the right doctrine or beliefs, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that just about anything is justified if it results in saving someone from the fires of hell.   Such a worldview makes its own particular kind of sense, even if those outside of it consider it nonsense.
I moved outside of such a worldview when the God I experienced failed to conform to its rigid ways.  I began to ask some questions:  Just who is doing the saving?  What do the “unsaved” need to be saved from?  Etc.  Etc.  I realized that it was not I but God who saved people from their own destructive behaviors and failures.  Oh sure, I was taught that God saved people through Jesus Christ, but it was up to us, the true Christians, to spread the word and if we failed then the eternal status of our unsaved friends and loved ones was on our heads. When I realized God was the one doing the saving—or in other words, it is God who shows grace to God’s creation, then I also realized that the grace of God did not operate in such a mechanical fashion. 
Rather like a vending machine in which you insert the correct amount of money and receive your chosen product, I believed that God would automatically dispense salvation if I believed the right combination of doctrines or had the proper emotional state when I prayed, etc. etc.  I came to understand that the grace of God is not mechanical but organic.  It flows and grows and spreads in ways that far exceed the limitations we place upon it.  Our efforts to reduce the working of God’s Spirit to a transaction or mechanism reveal more about our need to control God than God’s love for us.
I am sure the writer of the e-mail felt he was doing what was right; indeed he probably felt he is being a true Christian.  Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I choose to believe he is unaware of just how arrogant he really is.  Sending an e-mail to a stranger that professes Christian love yet informs that stranger of his errors and then goes on to describe the consequences of those errors as eternal damnation pretty much defines arrogance.  Yet, this author has actually done me a service, just not the kind of service he intended. 
He has reminded me once again about my own tendency towards arrogance regarding people I disagree with and how easy it is to reduce them to a caricature rather than viewing them as living breathing human beings.  He has reminded me that my conversations about what I believe should flow from my own experience of Jesus Christ and the resulting humility I feel at being loved by God even though I am so often unworthy of that love, rather than out of an arrogant need to control or correct others who hold different beliefs than I do.  He has reminded me that such conversations need to take place within relationships where I can demonstrate my love for the other person and learn from them as an equal rather than taking place in a one-sided exchange where I inform them how I am right and he or she is wrong.
Most of all, the author of this e-mail reminded me that I am fortunate to serve a church where our goal is not to enforce doctrinal beliefs but to experience the love of God with and through one another.  Our energy is better spent experiencing God through listening to one another and learning from one another rather than policing the border of hell out of fear that God’s grace might not be up to the job.
Grace and Peace,

Saturday, May 14, 2011

FCC is Now a Little More Open and a Little More Affirming

(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.)

At our church’s annual meeting last November, the members of First Christian Church adopted the following language into the church by-laws:
“First Christian Church of St. Joseph is open to and affirming of all people whatever their gender, race, age, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, economic circumstance, family configuration, or difference in ability. All who seek to follow Christ are welcome into our community to share fully in its life and ministry.”

For short, we called this becoming “Open and Affirming,” which is a title used by churches in our denomination, Disciples of Christ, and our sister denomination United Church of Christ, who have taken deliberate steps to be both “open to” and “affirming of” all people.
            As is the case with most churches who take this bold step, most of the light and heat in our process of becoming Open and Affirming centered on questions of sexuality.  This is understandable given the debates in our culture over the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people (LGBT) and given the many misconceptions about issues such as sexual orientation and what the Bible says and doesn’t say about homosexuality.  Although being open to and affirming of all people no matter their sexual orientation involved a of our attention, we should not forget the rest of our commitment to welcoming other groups of people.
            I recall vividly the first board meeting when we discussed the Open and Affirming process.  Of course, the discussion began with our church’s welcome of LGBT people, but very quickly some on the board recognized the commitment we were making to other groups of people as well.  Members of the Property Committee made known that if we took this step as a congregation, then we would have to rethink our facilities to make them more accessible to people with physical disabilities.  All were in support of that kind of accessibility, but following through on good ideas takes hard work.
            I’m proud to say that the 2011 Board and the property committee in particular have followed through with a major step of being “open to” and “affirming of” people with physical disabilities by renovating our downstairs restrooms.  The previous condition of the restrooms made them barely fit for people without disabilities, because few wanted to enter rooms so dark, uninviting and antiquated.  Now thanks to the hard work of Rick Ezzell and his fellow laborers, the restrooms are now well-lit and inviting with new fixtures.  The most exciting part of the renovation is that a store room was remodeled into an ADA-compliant restroom!  Furthermore, although we are still waiting on the wall-mounted changing table to arrive, this restroom will also serve as an unisex family restroom. 
            Obviously, everyone involved would have preferred an accessible restroom on the main level which gets the most use, but structural issues in our 93 year-old building made such an improvement cost prohibitive, assuming such changes would even have been possible at all.  Even though a person must use the elevator to go downstairs to use it, this accessible restroom does allow for someone with physical disabilities complete access to a restroom, something our church has not had in its 166 years of existence.  The logistics and costs in this renovation/remodeling were significant and if our church leadership had desired to make excuses for not going through with this project, plenty were available, but I’m proud to say they remained true to our church’s commitment to be “open to” and “affirming of” all people.
            Prior to our November vote, a number of church members with adult children who are LGBT expressed a desire for our church to be intentionally welcoming of people who are LGBT in hopes that if their children and grandchildren ever desired to belong to a church we could be that church for them.  Shortly after our vote, FCC was rewarded for its decision with a same-sex couple with children joining the church.  Their proud parents/grandparents who were already members beamed proudly that Sunday.
            Similarly, FCC members who are parents of an adult son who was paralyzed in a car accident have long expressed their feelings that if their son ever came to FCC he would not even be able to use the restroom here.  Now, should he attend, our building and our community will be more hospitable than we were previously.  There are other families with members who are disabled, and although our old building remains inaccessible in many ways, at least we have taken this important step forward to welcome them.
            I’ve mentioned sexual orientation and physical disabilities.  Why not take another look at the above statement and consider the other groups of people we committed to being “open to” and “affirming of?”  Each of them represents children of families in our church and community, so what more must we do to demonstrate our openness and affirmation of them?
            Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How Would Jesus Have Us Respond to the Death of Osama bin Laden?

(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.)

          I’m not sorry he’s dead.  I believe every life is precious in the sight of God, and I believe every human being is a child of God, but I’m not sorry Osama bin Laden is dead.  I feel a sense of relief that my sons will grow up in a world where they will barely remember a time when Osama bin Laden was alive, because I do not wish for them to see his smug snarling face on TV nor to hear his messages of hate and insane justifications for his followers’ violence.  Yet, I also know that my sons will face in their lifetime future bin Ladens who will find new ways to spread hatred and terror around the world.  The odds are likely they will experience another 9-11 in their lifetime, and bin Laden’s death will most likely not change those odds.
Oddly, the same day I write this column I responded to an e-mail sent to me last week by one of the 9-11 widows in the congregation where I served in New York.  She had sent it last week, before the news broke of bin Laden’s death, but due to my recent move I didn’t check that account until today.  As I thought of her and her children, whom I taught in confirmation class, as well as other families who had lost husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, children, and lovers on September 11, 2001 due to bin Laden’s plans, I could muster no sympathy for bin Laden.
 I started work at my Long Island church two weeks after the original 9-11 and arrived to find a community in shock, national guardsmen with assault rifles at the train stations and flyers of missing loved ones—by then presumed dead--plastered across New York City and the surrounding towns.  The televisions never stopped replaying the images of the planes crashing into the towers.  In the months to come, I worked with an interfaith group responding to the terrorist attacks and learned about how the trauma of that day impacted the lives of everyone, from the stock traders killed in the tower to the first responders to the taxi drivers dependent upon fares in lower Manhattan.   No, I do not feel anything close to sadness that bin Laden is dead, but I do feel sadness for our world and the cycles of violence we are caught up in.
Now that I’m in St. Joseph, MO, it feels like I’m a world away from 9-11 and its aftermath.  Yet, I don’t have to look hard around northwest Missouri to find young women and men in fatigues headed to war, most of whom were children ten years ago when the towers fell.  The decisions made after 9-11 to invade Afghanistan and Iraq whether made from a need for retribution, misguided neoconservative ideology, or even sincere patriotism have led to still more deaths and mini-9-11’s for the families of thousands of American service members.  Although the advocates for our wars can point (rightly or wrongly) to the fact that there has not been a major successful terrorist attack on American soil in the last ten years as justification for our military efforts, the tens of thousands of civilians killed in both countries beg the question of whether other alternatives should have been considered.  Does God hear the cries of a mother whose child has become “collateral damage” in a US missile strike any differently than the cries of a mother whose child has been killed in a terrorist attack?  The violence may spring from different motives, but in the end both mothers grieve.
For a time, it was fashionable for American Christians to ask, “What would Jesus do?”  I happen to agree with Peter Gomes who remarked that this is the wrong question.  The proper question is “What would Jesus have us do?”  Asking how Jesus would respond to bin Laden’s death allows us to distance ourselves from the radical call to discipleship that Jesus places upon us, because we can simply shrug and say, “Jesus may love bin Laden, but I’m not Jesus.”  No, none of us is Jesus, but those of us who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with Jesus’ words to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  I don’t believe Jesus’ command to love our enemies means we have to like them or feel anything but revulsion for the violent hatred someone like bin Landen spews, but I do believe Jesus’ command of love does call us to try and see the God-given humanity in our enemies, even ones who have become inhuman in their hatred.  Jesus’ command of love is there for our own protection, so that we do not succumb to temptation and respond in kind to the ones who hate us.  We risk losing our own God-given humanity when we seek joyous revenge upon those who have wronged us.
This week I will not feel sadness for the death of bin Laden.  I will save my sadness for the victims of his crimes.  Yet, I will also, for the sake of Jesus Christ who forgave his executioners and calls us to love our enemies, renew my determination to work and pray for a world where our loving God helps us humans escape from our never-ending cycles of violence and revenge.
Grace and Peace,