Friday, December 28, 2012

How Will the Church Respond to 2012?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

This is the week when members of the media take a vacation, so the airwaves are full of canned retrospectives on the year.  These looks back are helpful, however, to a faith community like ours.  As a church that chooses to remain in a vibrant part of a large city, CCCUCC is affected, like it or not, by what happens locally, nationally and even internationally.  If we desire to be a vital part of our community and to follow Jesus' teaching that we love our neighbors, how we respond to the news of our time matters.  When events impact the lives of those in contact with our church, we can respond in one of three ways:

1.      as many churches do, we can be silent, thereby demonstrating we are irrelevant to the lives of people around us;
2.      as some churches do, we can offer arrogant judgment and scapegoating thereby demonstrating we are opposed to many around us;
3.      or as very few churches do, we can offer words of hope and we can stand alongside those who suffer.

Just think about the news stories of 2012: a presidential election in which low-income people were often vilified; the shooting of Trayvon Martin when we as a nation were confronted with our prejudice towards African-American males; mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and an elementary school in Connecticut; the devastation of hurricane Sandy; the declarations by male politicians-including Missouri's own Todd Akin-that dismissed rape and violence against women; the on-going battle for the rights of same-sex couples-including the declaration by a local Johnson County, KS politician that one could not be a Christian and support LGBT rights; the continuing financial scandals in which those most responsible face little or no punishment-I think you get the idea. 
A Church that wishes to follow in the way of Jesus can neither be silent nor stand with the few who benefit from the suffering of the many.  So how do we as a community of faith enter 2013 and respond to 2012?

There are four responses that immediately come to my mind regarding how CCCUCC can respond to the issues facing our community, nation and world.

1.      We can remain faithful to one another as a faith community.  Each member and regular attendee can commit herself or himself to strengthening our church.  As we gather together for worship and service, our faith community itself is a response to the needs of our day.  We can demonstrate that people of faith who are gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, black, brown and white, can find common cause and care for one another.  A church can be a place where such cultural divisions are overcome.
2.      We can offer a more loving form of Christianity.  When it comes to doctrine or positions on social issues, if we are to err, then we err on the side of grace and love.  Rather than offering a God who condemns or stands aloof from the suffering in our world, we can offer our belief in a God who chooses love over church doctrine and comfort over hurtful simplistic answers.  Given that the dominant voices of Christianity are shrill and hateful, we can speak up with a voice of welcoming love.
3.      We can engage with our city.  We may not be able to directly care for the people of Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO or Oak Creek, WI, but we can offer ourselves to the people of Kansas City who are affected by gun violence.  I am hopeful that the new initiative responding to community violence beginning in 2013 by MORE2, may be a way for us as a congregation to help change the violent dynamics of Kansas City.
4.      We can dream new dreams.  In 2012, I made a big change in my life and the life of my family; I came to CCCUCC.  One of the things that attracted me to this church is that its very DNA contains a history of creative responses to the needs around it: ministry to people with HIV/AIDS, childcare and tutoring for low-income students, helping to provide shelter space for homeless people, etc. etc. etc.  Each of these past actions began with someone risking themselves to dream and to step forward in leadership for a cause they were passionate about.  It is time for the members of CCCUCC to open themselves again to new dreams.

I am eager to face 2013 with you, as we together find ways to respond to the needs of those just outside our church doors and across the globe.
        Grace and Peace,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Idolatry of Violence

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

    A church member noted this week that I seemed particularly affected by the shootings in Newtown, CT. She was right. The news of 20 children and 6 teachers and staff gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School is terrible enough to affect anyone. I felt the pain of the news on many levels: as a fellow human being, as a Christian, as a father of two boys near to the ages of most of the child victims, as a UCC minister in the same denomination as many who were killed, and so on. I think, however, that I felt most viscerally connected to the shootings in Connecticut, because I know firsthand what life will be like for that community.
        When I heard horrific news of the massacre in Newtown, it brought back memories of life on Long Island after 9-11. The two events have many differences-most notably that on 9-11 the killers were terrorists and the dead did not include any children. Yet, there are many similarities: sudden violent deaths on a large scale on an ordinary day where the victims felt safe, first responders helpless before those already dead, the world watching a community mourn, small towns where everyone knows the victims.
        I arrived at work at my UCC church on the North Shore of Long Island (just across Long Island Sound) from Newtown two weeks after 9-11. I did not know any of those who died, but I got to know their spouses and children. Two men in our church died in the World Trade Center and at least 25 more from our church's town (a Wall Street bedroom community) also died along with many more in neighboring towns. Although I was just the associate minister charged with keeping the church program going while my senior minister did much of the heavy lifting of grief work, there was plenty of grief and trauma to go around.
        Early on, the UCC helped Church World Service bring in a social worker who had experienced the Oklahoma City bombing, and she explained that grief from a community-wide mass killing would unfold over years. She charted out how at one year, two years, three years. . . rates of suicide, bankruptcy, divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and more occurred in Oklahoma City. Her words were prophetic, because things unfolded just as she said they would. I guess that's why the pain of Newtown hit me so hard, because I know that their nightmare will not end when the TV cameras and reporters leave town; then it is only just beginning.
        I also fear for our culture. The grief of 9-11 did not lead our culture to self-reflection. We gave little or no thought to the inadequacy of responding to violence with violence. We chose to deal with our fear by making others more afraid. Two wars and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded later, we still give little thought to a better way to respond when we are attacked. The grief of 9-11 led to the grief of thousands of families of military service members and thousands of more families around the world.
      Newtown is a different event than 9-11, but we have evolved with an instinct to protect our young when they are threatened. I think everyone who loves children saw in the faces of the Newtown children a connection to children they love. At some level we all felt attacked, so how will we respond to this attack and to this fear?
           Searching for theological perspective on the Newtown shootings, I read a review of America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose by Jim Atwood. The review was by a Lutheran minister who was a first responder at Columbine named Rick Barger. As someone who experienced the trauma of mass violence, Barger knows that how we frame a violent event matters. He praises Atwood's book and writes, "Atwood reminds us that when President Bush addressed the community at Virginia Tech, he said that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Actually, they were in the right place at the correct time. They were doing what college students do-going to class. The students were shot because of the "Empire" and the "principalities and powers" (cf. Ephesians 6:12) created by America's love affair with violence, guns, and power. This obsession has created in our minds enemies we have to fear, cemented a God-given calling to arm ourselves, and raised weapons that kill to idolatrous levels. The result is a culture in which guns-even weapons that have no purpose other than to kill-are readily available to anyone."
        America's love of violence permeates our culture and language, and it has replaced our religion, so that Christianity (as it has done throughout its history) becomes a justification of violence rather than a protest against it. Barger writes, "So religious is our faith in power defined by weapons and the ability to use them that we coined the term, 'redemptive violence.' Redemptive violence is a way of justifying the use of force if we believe that we are threatened. The creed of the gun religion is 'Guns do not kill. People do.' This creed has resulted in a constant escalation of weaponry and guns and laws that protect gun owners and manufacturers more than the public. This reality is built upon the lie that the more people are armed the less likely there is to be violence."   
        So how do we respond to Newtown? It seems to me that the worst thing we can do is shrug and turn away shaking our heads only to forget about the children killed once the media spotlight is off of them. What does it mean for our church? A few miles away from our building a 4 year-old was killed by bullets fired into the car he was sitting in. A few blocks away from our building residents are protesting a pawn shop which sells guns, including an assault rifle recently stolen from the store that is now somewhere on our streets. What should a "Peace with Justice" church like ours do? Do we really believe in a religion that declares self-protection is not the greatest good or do we in truth cling to an idolatry of violence that declares anything is justifiable as long as you label it "self defense?"
        I have no easy answers to such questions, but as your minister I invite you to search for answers along with me. There will be more events like Newtown and how we respond matters.
Grace and Peace,

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Joy Vs. Happiness

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

           This Sunday I will not be preaching a sermon.  Instead, you will hear a sermon expressed in song by our wonderful choir under the direction of our Minister of Music Jerry Cundiff and our accompanist Jerry Pope.  I am blessed each week in worship by the beautiful music of our choir and Jerry Pope's thoughtful and masterful preludes.  I am also blessed to work alongside both Jerrys as we seek to design meaningful worship experiences.  So, I eagerly look forward to the choir's performance of Vivaldi's Gloria and although I love preaching, it will be nice to experience this great music without trying to keep the details of my sermon straight in my head at the same time.
            This Sunday is the third one in Advent and on it we will light the candle of joy.  Although the Advent wreath is a modern effort to enhance the meaning of Advent and wasn't a part of early Christian practice, the experience of hope, peace, joy and love was an essential part of Christianity from its beginning.  Were I to preach this week, I would preach on joy and I would try to differentiate the concept of joy from the concept of happiness.
            Happiness comes from good feelings that in turn come from our circumstances.  It increases or decreases according to our level of comfort and the positive conditions we experience.  Joy, however, is a sense of wonder, awe and delight that is not dependent upon our possessions or our situation but rather upon the activity of God in our lives.  In Luke's Gospel, which I will be regularly preaching from throughout the coming year, joy is a regular experience for the characters caught up in God's unfolding activity in the world.  This is especially true of Luke's stories that we read this time of year.  The angels declare "tidings of great joy" and Mary sings the Magnificat for joy over what God is doing in her life and in the world.  Joy is present when God is present in the lives of God's people.
            Yet Luke's story is not all a happy story.  The baby lying in a manger grows up to suffer and die.  Jesus' mother Mary who is pictured pondering the presence of angels and shepherds at her baby's birth will years later watch her son suffer.  Joy remains, however, even when happiness fades.
        Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room."  In the early church, Paul writes that even in the midst of suffering joy is possible, because God is with us in every circumstance.  Is joy possible for us in the midst of our lives as it was for the early Christians?
        Our culture does not celebrate Advent; instead November and December are considered the "holiday season" or the "Christmas season."  Diana Butler Bass recently wrote on the Huffington Post that all the concern about the so-called "War on Christmas" really amounts to a war on Advent, because there is no priority given to preparing our hearts for what Christmas represents.  I've often felt that our consumer-driven economy is more of an attack on the spiritual meaning of Christmas than any debate over a town having a Christmas tree or a sales clerk saying "happy holidays" rather than "merry Christmas" could ever be. 
        Our materialism (and I include myself here too) and the false controversies of cable news leaves no room for joy-and it is debatable if either can deliver happiness.  Also, the holidays are not happy but sad for those experiencing grief and those who struggle with addiction.  Yet, if we allow time for Advent-to prepare ourselves for the spiritual meaning of Christmas-then we perhaps can become aware of God's presence in our lives.  When we realize God is present in the midst of good times and bad, we experience joy.
        This Sunday let us worship God and experience God's joy together.  As our choir and musicians bless us with Vivaldi's Gloria, may we offer glory to God for giving us joy, whether we find ourselves in a season filled with or lacking happiness.

        Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Monologue or Dialogue?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            If you were present in worship on Sunday, December 9, you heard my view that the Bible offers more than one way to understand the end of the world as we know it.  Rather than a single narrative about how God will destroy the earth and its inhabitants, the different voices of the Bible offer a variety of perspectives that do not necessarily fit together like the pieces of a single puzzle.  Some images are all gloom and destruction for everyone; others portend punishment only for those opposed to the work of God.  Some images of the end in scripture make sharp distinctions between those whom their author(s) consider good and evil; while others depict a time when “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” or all nations shall share a giant banquet together. 
            It’s not just the end which scripture views through multiple perspectives but also the beginning and everywhere in between.  At the beginning of Genesis, we get not one but two different creation stories—and other stories of creation pop up now and then elsewhere in scripture.  If we ever bother to read through the Bible, we find more than one version of the Exodus stories, the Ten Commandments, the Israelites’ return to the Promised Land, the reigns of King David and King Solomon and so on.  The further we read in the Bible the less we are surprised by multiple versions of a story and the more we are surprised when there is only one.
            This multiform view of God’s activity in the world comes into stark relief at Christmas time.  Although our Christmas pageants and services often mash up the shepherds gathered around the Bethlehem manger and the Wise Men from the East and all the other elements of Jesus’ birth together into one narrative, they actually come from different stories with different details.  Matthew contains the Wise Men and tells about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective.  Luke tells about the shepherds and the manger and offers Mary’s perspective.  John gives us nothing about the baby Jesus and instead describes the Word made flesh.  Mark just fast forwards to Jesus as an adult with no concern at all for where Jesus came from. 
            Libraries of books have been written to reconcile the different narratives and theologies within scripture.  When it comes to the Gospels, church leaders in the first few centuries of the church wrestled with whether to keep more than one Gospel in the Bible or to somehow combine them all into one story about Jesus.  Ultimately they chose to go with four (they could have gone with more!), because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were each already too popular in different parts of the church.  I’m thankful they chose to live with multiple stories rather than forcing the issue.   
           When it comes to scripture (or theology for that matter), we are only troubled by multiple points of view when we expect to find only one.  If we approach the Bible as a single story written by a single author rather than a collection of writings written by different authors in different times, cultures and languages, then we are troubled and must insist on conformity where none exists.  Yet, if we can live with the ambiguity of multiple points of view existing side by side in dialogue with one another, a whole world of depth and meaning are possible.
            In church as well, we can enforce conformity or live with diversity.  We can insist that our views of God and the world fit within the confines of a particular tradition or follow the proscriptions of a particular pastor or other church authority, or we can allow for different points of view to be in dialogue with one another.  When it comes to scripture or theology, we can opt for monologue or dialogue.  I much prefer the latter.  It can be scary sometimes to live with the tension that comes from a lack of certainty, but the abuses which come from those who claim to possess absolute certainty are more frightening still.
            This Christmas season, as visitors encounter our church community and come for reasons that may not even be clear to them, we can offer then an invitation to dialogue rather than a chance to listen to a monologue.  We can welcome them to join their voices with our voices as we seek to grow in our relationship with God together.  Not everyone is looking for such a dialogue; some come looking for a kind of uniformity we cannot provide, but I believe many more come wondering if a church exists that will accept them along with their particular beliefs and doubts.  This Christmas let’s learn from our Bibles and celebrate our various stories of what God has done in our lives.  Rather than viewing different stories as a threat, we can experience the many ways God comes to us as a blessing.
            Grace and Peace,

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Something Weird This Way Comes

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

This weekend our church is getting ready for Kristkindlmarkt (“Christ Child Market"), when we transform our building into a German village complete with beer hall and oompah band to celebrate the coming of Christmas.  On top of that, the busyness of the holiday season is in full swing.  People are busy this time of year, so why not just throw another commitment log on the ole holiday social calendar fire?  On Sunday, December 9, I am being installed as minister at CCCUCC and I hope you can be a part of it.  Be warned, however, it’s sort of weird.
            A minister’s installation in our denomination is just weird.  I keep telling people to think of it like when you buy a new appliance and have it delivered and installed; I’m the clergy equivalent of a new dishwasher!  Installation is carried over from denominations that control where their clergy go and when—it’s not official until the hierarchy makes it official.  We don’t have a hierarchy in our denomination, but the larger church does play a role.  Our local association (the UCC churches in western MO) is the body that makes sure I am in good standing as a UCC minister and it represents the broader church, so part of the reason we have an installation service is for the church beyond the local congregation to offer its blessing.
            All this is also a bit weird, because technically a local congregation can hire whomever it wants as a minister without the approval of the denomination.  There is no bishop to check with.  When a local church does so, however, it forgoes any kind of accountability—on the part of the minister or the local church.  When all things operate as they should, the process of a church searching for and calling a minister should include the denomination offering support in discernment and a means of ensuring candidates are qualified and healthy enough to be a minister.  I spent the last five and a half years in our sister denomination the Disciples of Christ.  I was shocked to learn that none other than Jim Jones of The Peoples Temple was a DOCminister.  Back then they had no mechanism to remove his standing as a minister.  Perhaps there’s no way to ensure every minister is a healthy one, but accountability still matters in a healthy church system.
            The installation of a UCC minister is still weirder because of the times we live in.  Organized religion has far less relevance today than even a generation ago, and Christian denominations are dying.  Everywhere you look there are church bureaucracies downsizing, cutting staff and selling property.  (A friend of mine recently compared them toTwinkies—everybody knows them but not too many people eat them any more; which is why Hostess is going out of business.)  Local churches have plenty of other options for education, training and missions besides their denominations.  Furthermore, many church officials still don’t seem to get the hard truth that denominations were created to serve the local congregations and not the other way around.  Many self-important religious officials are reaping what they have sown from having understood their roles as corporation presidents instead of servants.  Finally, given the fact that people no longer look for a local church by denomination but instead according to whether it suits their particular tastes and needs, a question worth asking is do we even need denominations any more?
            I would answer that we don’t need many denominations that exist, but we do need the United Church of Christ.  Perhaps we don’t need everything in the UCC’s structure, especially parts designed for the Mad Men era, but we need a national church voice that will stand up for social justice, inclusion of LGBT people and freedom of belief in our increasingly pluralistic world.  I gave my heart away to the Baptist denomination in which I was raised and ended up with a broken heart.  I learned to give my heart only to God and not to an institution.  That being said, however, the UCC accepted me when I was looking for a form of Christianity that would allow me to be the kind of minister I felt called to be.  I am grateful for that.  I am likewise grateful to serve a church like CCCUCC which has accepted so many who were unwelcome in other churches.  That inclusion and that voice for justice are what we will celebrate at my installation.  This event will not be a mere bureaucratic hoop or quaint tradition.  Instead, we will celebrate a relationship between our local church and the wider church that declares, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
            Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Can Money Buy Happiness After All?

In my sermon on Sunday, I shared about this presentation by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.  In it he presents research that shows money can buy us happiness WHEN we spend it on others rather than ourselves.  It's an exciting thought.

One of my church members raised the question, however, if this was true for people living in poverty.  If you had the financial means to move out of extreme poverty or from lack of health care to quality health care or from lack of shelter to decent housing, wouldn't that produce happiness?  He had a good point!  All I have to work on is this brief presentation by Norton and I haven't read more detailed work from him.  From this presentation, it seems to me that his research seems to be true for middle class and above people--or at least people who have their basic needs covered.

What do you think?

A Church Full of Heretics

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.
        I’m not sure when I was first condemned to hell for what I believed or didn’t believe, but it had at least happened by my college years.  Despite the conservative religious world I grew up in, my parents taught me things like there was more than one way to interpret the Bible, women were equal to men and grace was more important than dogma.  In my college years, I was still pretty conservative socially and religiously, but I had begun asking questions that others frowned upon.  Pretty soon I began to enjoy the role of upsetting the sensibilities of others who claimed to have all the answers.  It would take years for me to understand that my own religious views could be just as arrogant as those I disagreed with.  Eventually, I grew to no longer care who thought I was a heretic or why; I learned that there were too many hurting people in the world who needed love to bother wasting my time on people who judged me.
            At this point in my life I’ve found myself often in the role of being too liberal for conservative Christians and too conservative for liberal Christians.  I’m considered too liberal by Christians who don’t like my universalistic views on salvation, my refusal to believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, my support of and acceptance of LGBT people and so on.  Yet, liberal Christians tend to wonder why I still believe in the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity and the supernatural intervention of God in the natural realm.  I guess I just can’t please everybody—and maybe I can’t completely please anybody.
            During our recent new member orientation, I shared about the United Church of Christ and that the common joke is that UCC really stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.  (Although I’m learning that in Kansas City it could just as easily be called Unity members Considering Christ.).  Here at CCCUCC, I’m finding that nickname to be true for plenty of folks, just as I’ve found it true at other churches where I have served.  So, as one heretic to another, let me reassure all you folks who doubt Jesus was God or who hold some other non-traditional belief, that I your minister am neither worried nor threatened by your beliefs.  I don’t understand my role to be the doctrinal enforcer, rather I see my job as helping our community of heretics to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.  Exactly what form that love takes in terms of specific religious beliefs is open for negotiation as far as I’m concerned.
            In worship on Sunday mornings, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ and I often use language that equally interchanges God, Jesus and Spirit.  I will pray in language that speaks of God somehow making a difference in our lives and bringing healing to our minds and bodies.  BUT I will do all these things without the expectation that everyone in the sanctuary speak, think, sing and pray in the same way I do.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as my beliefs have changed over my life thus far they will change during the rest of my life.  Since there are beliefs I hold today that I may not hold in the future, I have to admit that I cannot be certain what I believe about God is true or that it even makes complete sense.  My beliefs are the best I have been able to cobble together thus far on my journey.  I view everyone else’s beliefs the same way.
            A good example of the mixture of religious belief I cling to comes when I try to describe what I think about Jesus.  I’m fully aware the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a strictly rational perspective, but I have stubbornly clung to a belief in the divinity of Jesus—not because an external authority like scripture or tradition tells me to do so, but because I take comfort in the thought that God has experienced what it means to be human.  When I look at the amount of suffering in our world, at least I can find solace in the thought that God has personally experienced that suffering too.  It seems to help when I fail to find a good answer for why God allows such suffering to exist.  So, if I’m honest, I’m forced to admit that what I believe about Jesus probably has more to do with my own personal existential struggles than any kind of objective proof.  If I’m willing to admit that my beliefs come in large part out of my own experience, I have to allow for others to do the same.
            Take heart all you heretics in the pews!  When you hear me using religious language that resembles that of others who may judge you, please remember that all I’m doing is proclaiming my own faith perspective and I don’t expect or want you to agree with everything I believe.  I suspect that you will challenge and shape my faith at least as much as I as your minister will shape yours.  Even though it might be easier if we all believed the same thing and could live our life together without anyone changing, such a relationship sounds awfully boring.  I’d rather have the exciting and at times difficult journey where we challenge each other to transform and grow.  I hope you want that too.
            Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I'm everywhere on the web! (sort of)

The church where I serve is the polling place for Brookside, a neighborhood in Kansas City.  Since I"ve only recently come to the church this was my first time experiencing an election.  The place was hopping!  Apparently, it has one of the best voter turnouts in KC.  A local news station was here interviewing people, candidates were outside greeting voters and a photographer for one of the wire services was here.  She got a picture of my voter sticker.  The picture only shows part of my shirt, my hand and the sticker--she wisely chose not to include my face--I think she'll sell more pictures that way!  I googled myself and apparently all kinds of sites post pictures from the service.  The upper left portion of my chest is famous!

The Real Story from the 2012 Election

 The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            Yesterday was exciting around the CCCUCC building.  Long lines snaked out the building and down the sidewalk as Brookside voters waited in line to vote in our social hall.  This morning we are cleaning up election signs left behind and other Election Day detritus.  As our nation cleans up after the whirlwind of the election, I’m wondering what there is to learn from it and more specifically what it means for our church. 
            As I think about the votes cast yesterday and more importantly who cast them, I will leave the declarations about America’s moral depravity to the fundamentalists.  Instead, I’m interested in what the demographics of the voters showed about diversity.  According to ABC News, the 2012 electorate is less white and less male than ever before.  Non-white voters made up 21% of the electorate; in 1996 that number was 10%.  CNN reports that since 1964, female voters have outnumbered male voters in every presidential election; last night was no exception.  Indeed, in yesterday’s election white male voters made up 34% of voters; back in 1976 they were at 46%.  In large part, President Obama won the election, because he targeted his campaign to female and non-white voters.
            Setting aside partisan politics, I wish to cheer on these demographic changes.  You may wonder why I, as a white male, would be in support of a culture where white men have less say.  A very important reason for my feelings is that I have two bi-racial sons; both were adopted from African-American birthfathers and Caucasian birthmothers.  I am excited that they will grow up in a culture that looks more like they do, and where people of various skin tones and cultural backgrounds share the power. 
            Another reason that I am glad that white males will have less say in political power is my theology.  By the time I came through seminary, it was standard practice to read the writings of feminist, African-American and Latino theologians.  Their views of God challenged centuries of theology written by and for white men.  When I came to understand that God was not a white male, I came to understand the Church should be a community where all voices are heard, especially those who do not hold power.  Rather than feeling threatened by my own loss of privilege, I was excited by the wonder of diversity.  In political terms—both inside and outside of the Church—I am all for people who have historically not had power and privilege (for example women and non-whites) having their say in what the world should be like.
            These demographic shifts say something to our particular church.  The exit poll data from yesterday reveal religious voters who were white and male largely voted for the losing presidential candidate.  Regardless of how one feels about who won or lost, what this means for the American Church is that if it chooses to remain largely a bastion of white male privilege then it will lose its ability to be a player in society.  Positions against women’s reproductive rights and immigrants for example may be short-term winners, but they are long-term losers.  Churches that fail to take into account the views of women and non-whites will find themselves less relevant than they already are.  Indeed, recent polling data on finds that younger people are leaving Christianity in droves.  It is no coincidence that this is happening among the generations who are more gender inclusive and culturally cosmopolitan than ever before.
            These changes are huge, but I believe CCCUCC is well-positioned to not only survive but thrive as the culture changes around us.  This congregation’s members fought for the rights of African-Americans during the Civil Rights era and stood up for women’s rights in the years that followed.  CCCUCC chose to become Open and Affirming to LGBT people long before most other churches in Kansas City.  This church has chosen to partner with other congregations of different economic and ethnic backgrounds in groups like MORE2.  Yes, we have a lot of work to do in order to truly reflect the diversity of God’s reign, but I am optimistic on that score, because this church has already chosen repeatedly to view diversity not as a threat but as a blessing.
            Our culture is changing, and the battles over those changes will at times be vicious as those with power are forced to share it.  As a local church, however, we can model a different kind of community where power is voluntarily given up for the benefit of those who lack it.  We can make choices to open our doors to the world in all its diversity rather than huddle behind them in fear of cultural changes.  I believe the future of CCCUCC is bright as long as we remain open to a culture that is less homogenous and more blessedly diverse.
            Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thinking Theologically About Hurrican Sandy

How do we think theologically about hurricane Sandy?

            I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they are out there—declarations by self-appointed prophets of God declaring that hurricane Sandy was God’s judgment upon the people devastated by the storm.  Every time a natural disaster occurs, Pat Robertson or some other preacher declares God sent the storm to punish homosexuals, feminists, Democrats or anybody else he disagrees with.  Rather than ceding the floor to such idiotic thoughts, I’m wondering is there a way to think theologically about a disaster like this with more care?  It seems to me that there are at least a few ways to think about God’s role or lack of role in a natural disaster.
            Determinism—Everything is God’s will and God is the cause of everything, so a natural disaster must have been caused by God.  Setting aside the enormous issue of free will, this view has some other real problems—biggest of all is the character of God.  What kind of God sends such destruction on all kinds of innocent people?  Listening to the survivors on TV causes compassion to stir from me and every other human being who is at least mildly empathetic, so I choose to believe a compassionate God would also care for these people.  A God who indiscriminately kills people and destroys the lives of thousands is not a loving God.
            Deism—Another way to approach such disasters is to say that God created the natural order and within that order there are disasters.  Although this view removes the problem of a non-loving God wreaking havoc on helpless humanity, it raises other problems.  It moves God outside the realm of the natural.  God is not present in the acts of nature; not even in the noble acts of human rescuers and aid workers.  Also, do we really have enough information to say unequivocally that there were no acts of providence in the midst of the chaos?  A view that separates God completely from the natural order resolves things a little too neatly; there is no room left for mystery or wonder.
            Mystery—If we choose not to understand God’s relationship to natural disasters in terms of either one extreme or the other, what middle ground is available to us?  One way people of faith have understood God to be present in the face of disaster is in the heroic acts of rescuers or in the way strangers come together to offer aid to one another.  When the best of humanity appears is there not something divine also present?  Theologians and religious thinkers have also understood God’s activity in the midst of disaster in terms of glimpses of grace amid the chaos.  According to this view, God works in certain circumstances within the natural order only when certain conditions or variables are right.  The factors which “allow” God to act are known to God but unknown to us.  A problem with this point of view is how to determine whether an event is an act of God’s care or just the result of random chance.  This view allows for the freedom of God and for mystery, but it is subjective and uncertain--neither quality is particularly comforting in the face of suffering.
            When it comes to God, if I am going to be wrong, I would rather err on the side of mystery.  I would rather allow for the possibility of God’s actions in the midst of what I cannot explain and trust that God is somehow present in the relief of suffering than believe God is the cause of everything or nothing.  This mushy middle ground is often unsatisfying and sometimes offers little comfort, but I would rather live with the ambiguity than live believing in a God who caused mass destruction or left us to our own devices in the midst of it. 
            So, in the aftermath of disasters like hurricane Sandy, I pray, I give and if possible I lend a hand.  I pray for wise decisions by leaders, for the courage of first responders, for the safety of friends and the generosity of strangers.  I give out of my blessings to church disaster responses through our denomination and Church World Service and to agencies like the Red Cross.  If possible, I volunteer to offer whatever assistance I can offer.  I trust that God is at work in my efforts and the efforts of thousands of others.  I hope and believe that God is also at work in the lives of each person touched by such a disaster in ways that are spiritual and may not be visible to our limited perceptions.  Most of all, I am silent when I need to be, and I guard my tongue so that I don’t make the suffering of others worse by spouting bad theology.
            Grace and Peace,

P.S.--A minister friend of mind, Jeremy Rutledge at Circular Congregational Church,  United Church of Christ in Charleston, SC, who is more thoughtful and well-read than I am, has an excellent theological response to natural disaster on his blog.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Dangers of Mixing Religion and Politics 2012

There's a great guest editorial today in the KC Star by Aimee Patton today about the perils of mixing religion and politics.  She manages in one piece to take on the political polarization of Facebook, anti-LGBT politician in Kansas, and the Duggar family's endorsement of Todd Akin.  Well worth the read.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Zombies and Theology

Here's a great article that connects our culture's obsession with zombies with theology.  I clicked on this because I love both zombies and God (not equally) and was prepared for it to be dumb. HOWEVER, I found the piece thoughtful and provocative in all the best ways. Now when I'm watching the Walking Dead I will be looking for sermon material. :)
Also, here's another take on zombies and theology from Derek Hamby, with whom I went to seminary.   I appreciate Derek's connection between our fascination with the destruction of society and apocalyptic literature in biblical texts.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Can Public Christianity Be Humble?

Christianity in America is not known for its humility, which is ironic considering Christians claim to follow Jesus who preached and practiced humility.  It's election season, so the claims of religious people in the political arena seem particularly arrogant and judgmental.  The KC Star has run several recent stories about local Kansas politicians who have reacted in hateful ways towards LGBT people.  At least two Christian Senate hopefuls have made shocking claims about rape in their arguments against abortion rights.  And, of course, there's the usual hateful stuff about Muslims, feminism, sexuality, contraception, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.  Jesus could be harsh in his attacks on opponents, but he saved his harshness for religious people who were self-righteous and condemning towards others.  It's hard for me to connect the grace of Jesus Christ with the mean-spiritedness of many American Christians who are in the public sphere.
     Considering that the name of Jesus is used often in the context of vitriolic political arguments, is it any wonder that so many people are turning away from organized religion in general and Christianity in particular?  Although I would love to lay the blame entirely at the feet of those who practice a form of Christianity that is contrary to my own, I have to admit that I bear part of the responsibility for this current religious climate.  Christians who have a more grace-centered, less legalistic and less partisan view of their faith have in many ways ceded the public face of Christianity to the negative extremes.  If we truly believe in a God who welcomes rather than excludes, loves rather than condemns and values believers being humble in their truth claims rather than judgmental, then we must step forward and represent that type of God not only in our churches but in our communities.

            Going public with your faith is not easy in our present context.  The only model most of us know of Christians who make their faith a public rather than private matter is one of proselytizing and partisanship.  I'm a Christian minister and even I bristle when I meet a stranger who wants to talk with me about Jesus.  I wonder what he or she will want to talk about.  Is this person expecting me to go along with a viewpoint I find xenophobic or legalistic?  I have to believe there is another way to go when it comes to public Christianity. 

            The only way I can see for Christians to be gracious when they make their faith a public rather than private matter is for Christians to make sure they speak with humility.  In my own faith journey, I have learned (at least on my better days) to remember that I have come to what I believe largely based upon my own experience and there is a world of other people who have different experiences.  I don't claim to possess the only truth there is, but rather I simply confess what my own experiences of God and life have been.  When I can operate from a place of humility, it becomes much easier for me to consider an alternative point of view without dismissing that person out of hand or judging him or her.  On days when I cannot practice humility, I tend to be reactionary and closed to others.

            This past Sunday at our new member orientation we talked about the United Church of Christ's approach to the authority of the Bible and the creeds and confessions of the church.  The UCC "embraces a theological heritage that affirms the Bible as the authoritative witness to the Word of God, the creeds of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of the Reformation."  This means that the Bible, creeds and confessions of Christian history are considered "testimonies, but not tests of faith."  We believe "God is still speaking" today.  There is a big difference between understanding a particular interpretation of scripture, a creed or a confession as indisputable truth and understanding such a document as a testimony of faith from a particular person or community at a particular time.  Many Christians would argue that such a position amounts to relativism; I think it's an honest understanding of how limited the perspective is of every human and community of humans is when it comes to God.  In other words, it's humble.

            Humility when it comes to faith doesn't mean we are to be shrinking violets-certainly Jesus was confrontational when he needed to be-but it does mean that we operate from a place where we admit we do not have all the answers.  When we can admit what we do not know, it becomes easier for us to create opportunities for different people to seek answers together.  Wouldn't it be nice if the public face of Christianity was one of people welcoming diversity of belief rather than viewing it as a threat? 

Grace and Peace,