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,