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,