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.