Friday, March 28, 2014

What Does the KC Streetcar Teach Us About Church?

The following is from my weekly e-mail to the members of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ where I serve as minister: 
If you live in Brookside or Waldo, as many folks in our church do, you have probably been paying attention to the debate about the proposed light rail streetcar line.  This week, it was announced that the proposed north-south line will stop near UMKC and will not come down into Brookside and Waldo.  Press reports indicate that resistance to the plan in Brookside is why the line will stop at UMKC.

I am probably stepping way out on a limb  here, but I think how these events developed can provide an analogy for how unhealthy churches operate.    Bear with me a bit.

I should tell you up front that I'm disappointed there won't be a streetcar running in front of our church.  I think it's a great idea.  Granted, I don't live anywhere near the proposed line, so my property taxes wouldn't have gone up to pay for it.  Also, I don't even live in Brookside or Waldo, so if the line did go in and was a disaster, I wouldn't have had to live next to it.  Nonetheless, I think the streetcar--if done right--could have been a real benefit to our church and the community it is a part of.

I also realize that there are most likely members of our church who were opposed to the streetcar.  We are a church of diverse opinions and beliefs after all, and nowhere does it say a church member has to agree with his or her minister.  A while back, our church was asked if it had a position on the streetcar line, and our response was no.  The only way our church can have a position on anything is to hold a congregational vote, and there were not and still are not any plans to hold one on the streetcar.  So, read the rest of my thoughts--as you should every week--knowing that they are my thoughts alone.

Our church building sits in the Armour Hills neighborhood, and the neighborhood association meets in our building.  I knew that there was a public meeting planned with representatives from the city about the proposed streetcar happening at our church building, and I became aware that other meetings in the area had included some ugly behavior.  Some of the opponents to the streetcar had been disruptive of those meetings.  So, I asked, since the meeting was taking place in our church building, if I could come and welcome those assembled.  I did so and asked them to behave as good neighbors.  I noted that we were a congregation that believed people could disagree with one another without being uncivil and without demeaning one another.  For the part of the meeting I was present at people generally behaved themselves, although I was informed that later on as the crowd thinned things did get ugly again--in large part due to the actions of opponents of the streetcar.   

A week later at the monthly association board meeting--held next door to my office--the room was packed.  Usually it is sparsely attended, but this time the room was overflowing into the hallway.  When I asked what was on the agenda, I was told  people were there to express their opposition to the streetcar again.  The opponents turned out.  They had the loudest voices.  A week later it was announced there would be no streetcar line in Brookside.  The voices that declared "Not in my backyard" won out. 

I freely acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to question the idea of a streetcar.  For retirees on fixed incomes, an increase in property taxes of $300-$500 is a burden.  It seems unfair that only people who live within 1/3 mile of the rail line have their property taxes increased and people who would not have property tax increases get to vote on approving them.  Plus, there are many examples of public transportation boondoggles.  There are probably other concerns I haven't thought of.

On the other hand, everyone knows that as a culture, we need to drive our cars less for the sake of the environment.  Dynamic cities tend to have functioning public transportation systems--systems that have more than buses which middle class people generally refuse to ride.  If you lived in Brookside and worked downtown, the line would save you money on gas and parking.  Most of all--and this seems key to me--if people living in Brookside want to sell their homes in 15-20 years the generation 
they would sell to (Millennials) want to live near public transportation (again not buses).  Thus far, Millennials want to drive in far fewer numbers than previous generations--that's money which  could be spent on cell phones and internet access!--and they desire to live in urban areas that allow for this lifestyle.  It seems to me that if you want to sell your home in the future, your home value would only go up if you lived near a streetcar--bad news for people like me who live in Johnson County and now bad news for Brookside and Waldo.

What do these events have to do with church?

On the one hand, these events could be an example of democracy in action--people rejecting something they don't like, but on the other hand--and this is how I interpret events--they illustrate how a small group of people can block any change in the status quo and any actions that demand present sacrifice for future reward.  I've heard it expressed as the 10-80-10 principle.  10% of people in any group want to push for change.  10% are generally opposed to any change to the status quo (too expensive!,  too risky!, what's wrong with the way we've always done it?, we've never done it that way before!).  The remaining 80% of people will generally fall in line behind whichever 10% shouts the loudest.  Given that being against something is easier and generates more emotion, more often then not organizations--and I think especially churches--follow the 10% that prefers never changing and never risking anything new.

The future for American Christianity--especially for churches like ours--is pretty bleak.  The Millennial generation is abandoning organized religion in greater numbers than ever before.  Significant changes need to happen immediately for most churches to avoid becoming relics of the past.  Yet, any such changes naturally involve sacrifice, energy and a whole lot of risk.  In the face of such challenges, it is natural for people to choose the "devil" they know and continue to do church in a way that works for them. This means, of course, that the members of a church opt for the comfort of the individual rather than the health of the community.  Unfortunately, it looks like choosing not to change means most churches will become irrelevant.  By choosing not to sacrifice in the present, a church ensures it will fail in the future.

For a healthy church to exist--and a healthy community for that matter--the 10% who push for change and for what is best for the whole have to work twice as hard.  It also means that the 80% who give in to whatever group has the loudest voice (usually the 10% against ever changing) have to step up and get engaged.  Most of all, the church--and the community--have to think about the future; decisions made today are not just about the present but also about future generations.

It remains to be seen whether Brookside and Waldo have missed out on a good thing for the future.  There's always the chance the streetcar line will be revisited.  Also, the neighborhoods could be strong enough to still remain desirable 15-20 years from now even without a streetcar.  We shall see.

I feel the American church has far worse odds, however.  Only those churches willing to dream big and take risks for the future will have one.

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 3.28.30 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:

Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week: 
  •  As a minister and a father of two boys, I really want my kids to grow up seeing a side of Christianity that is willing to take risks for the sake of others in need.  So, I could really identify with this column by Timothy Tutt, a friend of mine from seminary who happens to be the pastor of the UCC church Linda Kroencke belonged to in Maryland.  I think the title says it all: "I Broke the Law With My Son (for Jesus)."    
  • Have you noticed that the business leaders, ministers, politicians and Supreme Court Justices most upset about the Affordable Care Act making insurers pay for female contraceptives tend to be men?   There's a reason for that, as this article demonstrates.  
  • More thoughts about the hateful legacy of Fred Phelps: "Fred Phelps May Be Dead But His Fundamentalist God Still Lives" and  "This Man is the Future of Westboro Baptist Church
  • Have you been watching the new reboot of the TV show Cosmos?  It's a cool show, but it perpetuates the simplistic version of history that says the Enlightenment was all about overcoming the superstitions of the western Church.  In reality, then as now there are plenty of people of faith who embrace science and critical thinking.  The idea that all religion equals ignorance gets pretty tiresome. 
  • Sometimes it takes an atheist to point out the inadequacy of much of Christianity's views of heaven and hell.  (Alright, what this author says has actually been said before by Christians, but I do like the way she tackles the bad theology of the after life espoused by many Christians.)
  • Desmond Tutu on forgiveness.  Enough said. 
  • What is success?  What if we defined it in terms other than money and celebrity?  Alain De Botton redefines success in this TED Talk. 

  • If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What Would I Say if I Gave Fred Phelps' Eulogy?

I was asked this week if I would do Fred Phelps' eulogy if I were asked.  Apparently Phelps' family isn't having a funeral for him, but even if they were, I would be one of the last people asked to speak at it.  Still, it's an interesting question.

The short answer is "yes."  I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to try and offer comfort to grieving people, and I believe every person--even a person who squandered his considerable intellect and caused so much harm like Fred Phelps--deserves to be dignified at his or her death as a child of God.  Phelps may have vehemently denied the worth of others in God's eyes, but his gross mistakes when it came to understanding God's love can no more undermine God's love for him than his denunciation of others could take away God's love for them.  God even loves a person who was as hurtful and hateful as Fred Phelps.

If I were to give Phelps' eulogy, it would be difficult to find admirable deeds to appreciate.  This is the man, after all, who created a religious organization (I won't dignify it by calling it a church) that went around the country waving signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags" at the funerals of people who died of AIDS and soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It's hard to say that Phelps loved his family when he brought his young grandchildren and great-grandchildren to his macabre protests to hold his offensive signs--I would label such decisions religious abuse of children.  Perhaps in his early law career when he filed suits on behalf of African Americans who were discriminated against there may be nuggets of laudable behavior, but I have to wonder if even those acts were done less out of a sense of racial justice and more out of Phelp's joy in ticking off the establishment. 

I would definitely resist any temptation to celebrate Phelps' death and would do all I could to stop others from doing so.  Just because Phelps had a distorted understanding of what it means to be Christian doesn't excuse other Christians from forsaking Jesus' commands to love and forgive all--especially our enemies.  It's tempting to want to give back at Phelps' funeral (were there to be one) some of the horror he gave at the funerals of others, but in my eulogy I would make sure to recite the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

I doubt Phelps' family would find it comforting, but I would point out that in some ways Phelps hate-filled antics helped those he condemned the most.  Phelps' declarations that America's acceptance of LGBT people caused God to punish America actually caused more people to reconsider their homophobia than it did to convince people his view was right.  By spewing hate in its ugliest form, Phelps forced people to confront the ugliness of the way religion is used as a club to wound people.  Of course, there are plenty of preachers who are quick to declare they aren't like Phelps and that they "love the sinner but hate the sin," but I believe Phelps' actions and words were so ugly that few can condemn LGBT people today without at least some small concern that they are on the same team as him.

In the end, I would come back to the reason I would agree to do Phelps' eulogy in the first place--God loves Fred Phelps in spite of the things he did that were hateful and immoral.  After all, that's what we hang our hats on as Christians.  I think there is a qualitative difference between the lives most people lead and the life of Fred Phelps, but whoever we are God loves us in spite of what we do to hurt others. 

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God."  He goes on at great length about how God's love is greater than all other powers that exist.  God's love is far, far greater than the hatred of Fred Phelps or the hatred that any of us carry in our hearts.  I would stand at Fred Phelps' graveside and I would declare that good news, because it is good news for all of us.
Grace and Peace,

P.S.--here are some other reflections on the death of Fred Phelps I found meaningful:

Recommended Reading 3.21.14 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
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Friday, March 14, 2014

When Wounded Strangers Come Knocking

"I feel like the church needs to be exposed for the role it has played in tearing these families apart." 

These words were in an e-mail from a member of one of my previous churches who has a gay son.  Thankfully this particular Christian father loves and supports his gay son, but this particular father was also grieving for all the LGBTQ young people out there who have been rejected by their families--a rejection often justified by Christianity.  I share his grief.

It is ironic and tragic that a religion originating with a first century rabbi who taught it was better to die than to use violence could be used throughout the centuries to commit so much violence.  From the killing of "heretics" and Jews to the verbal assassination of feminists and LGBTQ people, Christianity as a religion has much to atone for.  How very human of us it is to spend more time using religion to reinforce our own prejudices than allowing religion to challenge them.

Even though legal protections for LGBTQ people thankfully continue to expand, Christianity as a whole seems hell bent on doubling down its attacks upon this group of people.  Attacks on LGBTQ people, however, should not be seen in isolation.  They are just the latest manifestation of the ugly side of Christianity that has condemned people who hold beliefs different from "orthodox" ones, women who refuse to be submissive to men, immigrants, divorced people, supporters of civil rights for all ethnicities, free thinkers, doubters, advocates for the poor, and pacifists.  Most Christians are aware of the sins of their spiritual ancestors, but they refuse to consider that they may commit similar sins in their denunciations of people who disagree with them. 

My former church member who wrote to me via e-mail may wish to "expose" to the Church all of the lives it has torn apart, but one doesn't need to look very far to be exposed to the pain Christianity's misuse has caused.  Our culture is awash in people wounded by Christians who believe they are doing God's will.  Jesus said, "Those who have eyes to see, let them see."  Yet, most Christians do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear people hurt by the Church. 

Within the last few weeks, I have met with two young people deeply wounded by the Church.  One was a lesbian and the other was a transgender woman.  Although these two people fall into the category of the Church's current target for violence: LGBTQ people, they just as easily could have been people wounded by the Church for a different reason.

The first young woman visited our church one Sunday.  As is the case with every visitor who leaves contact information, I wrote to her welcoming her to our church and let her know I would gladly meet with her to talk more about it.  She immediately replied and we met together.  She shared with me her story of coming out as a lesbian, that she and her girlfriend were looking for a church and that she knew that God accepted them as they were despite claims to the contrary by each of their families. 

I said to her, "It sounds like you already know this, but I need to tell you this anyway, because you deserve to have a representative of the Church say this to you.  God loves you as you are.  God made you as you are.  God accepts you as you are.  You are welcome at our church just as you are."

She burst into tears, because it meant so much to her to hear a minister say those words.

The second young woman called our church sounding upset and asked if our church was LGBT friendly.  I assured her it was, and sounding upset she asked if she could come to the church and talk to someone.  I told her to come and I would meet with her.  She turned out to be a male-to-female transgender person who is being kicked out by her parents who believe God condemns who she is. 

We talked for about an hour and during the conversation when the time was right, I shared the words, "God loves you as you are.  God made you as you are.  God accepts you as you are.  You are welcome at our church as you are."

Again, tears flowed, because it meant so much for her to hear these words from a minister.

My sadness over the pain caused by the narrow-mindedness of so many Christians is tempered by how grateful I am to serve a church that welcomes all people.  I have no idea if these two wounded strangers will return to our church, but I am glad that when they did come knocking I could say without crossing my fingers that they really were welcome at our church just as they are.

Maybe we can't make up for all of the sins of Christian history, but we can do our part as a congregation to welcome wounded strangers as they come our way.  These two wounded strangers came our way, because we have gone public with our love for for LGBTQ people.  How many more people like them are there out there who need to hear the words, "God loves you just as you are."  The multitudes of people hurt by the Church are not only LGBTQ people but all kinds of others who have been condemned in Jesus' name.  How might we "go public" with our love for all these other people too?  How many more wounded strangers might come knocking if they only knew there was a church who would really love them as they are?
Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading: 3-14-16 Edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
  •  I have minister friends whom I respect greatly who offer ashes on Ash Wednesday to passersby outside their churches, but I have always felt that doing stuff like that wasn't for me--until now.  The act of offering ashes on Ash Wednesday outside of worship seemed like a stunt to me and not particularly meaningful apart from the blessings one receives in a community of faith.  I think my resistance is crumbling however, now that I read this column by Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  She also thought the idea a bad one until she had a conversation with author Sara Miles who has done it in the Mission District of San Francisco.  Here's Miles talking about why the church needs to step outside its walls.  
  • This week we mourn the death of CCCUCC member Linda Kroencke.  I just found out that the church Linda belonged to when she lived in Maryland is Westmoreland United Church of Christ where a friend of mine from seminary (another former Baptist) is pastor.  His name is Timothy Tutt and he had a great piece this week in The Washington Post's OnFaith: "3 Free Tools for Church Growth."  Like me, Tim thinks most church growth books and seminars just make more busywork for people who are already too busy.  The three "tools" he mentions are essential, however.  Take a look and see how our church is doing on the three areas he lays out. 
  • A few weeks ago I wrote about my own personal "Woody Allen Moment" when I found out that a theologian whose work had influenced me, pacifist John Howard Yoder, had been a sexual predator.  I still struggle with whether or not it is possible to separate the writings or art of a person from how that person lived his or her life.  I read two more stories this week about famous thinkers who led less than reputable lives.  I learned a long time ago that Martin Heidegger had been a Nazi sympathizer, but it turns out he was a worse Nazi than we had previously thought.  I'm not really familiar with philosopher Paul de Man, although I have read deconstructionist Jaques Derrida who built upon de Man's work.  It turns out de Man was a Nazi as well.  These articles make me wonder if most of the philosophical underpinnings of 21st century thought were written by Nazis?
  • Speaking of Derrida and deconstructionism--which is foundational for what is more commonly called postmodernism--what does the idea that the meaning of everything is contingent and there is no fixed truth  have to do with Christianity?  This dialogue with Christian theologian John Caputo tries to answer that question.  
  • Speaking of deep philosophical conversations, did you watch the HBO series True Detective?  Unfortunately, I did not, because I don't have HBO, but I'm eager to watch it.  Apparently it is the most gripping treatment in TV history of subjects like the nature of evil, the meaning of existence and the existence of God.  Here's one scholar's take on the series presentation of evil.
  •  MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity) took volunteers to Jefferson City on Wednesday to lobby MO lawmakers regarding education reform.  CCCUCC's own Jan Parks went along and was quoted by Education Week. 
  • Most people think their job as a church member is to receive what the church offers--they are wrong.  Actually, their role--if they are following Jesus--is to serve.  Here's a good piece about this misconception by UCC minister Mike Piazza.  
  • When people die, loved ones who grieve the death often have to endure lots of well-meaning but still just plain awful cliches by those around them.  Such empty platitudes do more harm than good, and they reveal a lot about the speaker's discomfort with death.  The satirical newspaper The Onion reveals the shallow nature of such cliches with its "news" story "Report: Leading Cause of Death in U.S. is God Needing Another Angel."  (WARNING: the Onion story is satire and should not be viewed by anyone without a sense of humor when it comes to religion.)
 If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dealing With Our Shadows During Lent

I sent the following out in my weekly e-mail to members and regular attendees at the church where I serve as minister:

A book that changed my life for the better is Parker Palmer's  Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation.  It is a small book, but the sort of reading that is so provocative one must stop every few pages in order to reflect on the significance of the words in it.  I have loaned my copy out to a good number of church members here and at my previous churches.  I know of no better resource to give someone who is struggling to discover who God is calling her or him to be in terms of profession, vocation or identity.

I have worked from Palmer's small but rich book in sermons and took from him when I gave my Ash Wednesday homily.  As we begin the Lenten season together as a faith community, I think it is worth sharing more of what Palmer has to say.  What follows comes from chapter five of Let Your LIfe Speak.  You can read an excerpt of the book on-line here.

Palmer notes that because we are meant to exist within community, each of us is at some time or other a leader, whether we think of ourselves as one or not.  By simply doing what we are meant to do in life, we inevitably lead in one way or another.  Modesty and cynicism, Palmer writes, cause us to dismiss our leadership abilities, but each of us is a leader sometime.

(Sounds like a Congregational Church to me!)

Yet, often we use our influence over others in negative and unhealthy ways.  We lead others directly and indirectly--often without even realizing we are doing it--into situations that rob whatever community we are in of vitality and life.  Palmer (borrowing from Jung, I think) labels these as our "shadows."  A true spiritual journey doesn't avoid the shadows inside of us.  Instead it faces them in order to move beyond them.  Palmer lists five shadows that block us from using our influence--our leadership--to spread light and life to others.  

The first shadow is insecurity about our identity.  Palmer writes, "When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own."  This happens in families, workplaces, churches and in politics.  Putting down someone else is an easy and cheap way to make ourselves feel better about who we are.  Of course, that feeling is short-lived and this shadow must continually be fed by demeaning others.

The second shadow according to Palmer is "the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests."  He notes how often our businesses use militaristic metaphors ("do or die," etc.) that spread the idea that in order for us to succeed someone else must lose.  This shadow views the world as a limited economy where there is never enough for everyone and if you wish to live you must take what you need from others.  The truth of the Gospel, however, is that this endless cycle of taking is fruitless and that God's universe was made with more than enough for all to have what they need--if we learn to resist this shadow.

The third of the shadows Palmer lists is "'functional atheism,' the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen-a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God."  This shadow is what drives us to control others in an attempt to control everything around us.  It tells us not to trust that others also have roles to play in the community.  It is the voice that whispers in our ears that nobody else can do it as well as we can.  When we are under the power of this shadow, we give lip-service to trusting God, but really we trust no one and nothing.  This shadow drives us to burnout and depression, because ultimately it is all not up to one person--no matter what "it" is. 

The fourth shadow is "fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life."  When driven by this shadow we try to regulate and control everything leaving no time for randomness, coincidence, serendipity or the Spirit of God.  "In families and churches and corporations, this shadow is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering."  Genesis teaches that God creates out of chaos.  When we allow for the messiness of life, out of that messiness can come new ideas, innovations and improvements.

The final one of Palmer's shadows is "the denial of death itself."  Everything has its time and will end in due course, but we often refuse to acknowledge this fact of life..  "Leaders who participate in this denial often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive. Projects and programs that should have been unplugged long ago are kept on life-support to accommodate the insecurities of a leader who does not want anything to die on his or her watch." 

Churches are especially prone to existing in this final shadow.  Despite our claims to believe in God's power of resurrection, we refuse to let go of programs and activities that have long outlasted their usefulness or purpose.  It is only when we allow things to die that need to end, we can devote our energy to where God is leading us next.  This is not a mere love of novelty or chasing the latest fad but rather a trust that God is leading us forward to new life.

It is no different in our personal lives.  We remain in ruts that provide comfort because of their familiarity but ultimately leave us trapped by our fear of the unknown.  We remain in relationships that are unhealthy and even abusive, because we are afraid of what comes next.  Not only is each of us going to die some day, but in order to experience life now, we must acknowledge that change is an inevitable part of our existence.  We cannot be open to the joy of new beginnings without allowing ourselves to experience endings.  Some endings bring grief, but others can bring us joy, provided that we have the courage to make room in our lives for them.

The word "Lent" originally meant "Springtime."  So, in this season where we experience the wonder of new life occurring in the natural world around us, may we together experience new life as a community of faith. 

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 3.7.14 Edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
  • You may have seen Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech for the best actor Oscar at the Academy Awards this week.  He gave thanks to God and then said, "[God] has shown me that it's a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates."  Of course, people of faith know this to be true, but so do people of science.  It apparently not only a religious "fact," but also a scientific one that gratitude underlies our relationships. 
  •  Did you read this week about the Roman Catholic Attorney General of Kentucky who opted not to defend the commonwealth's ban on same gender marriage?  It's nice when a politician's faith actually leads him to make principled decisions that defend oppressed people rather than politicians who use their religion to oppress people.
  • The Millennial generation is abandoning organized religion--here's a thoughtful piece by an atheist on why that's happening.
  • Why do we idolize sports figures?  Here's a great essay by a friend of mine (also an avid football fan) on why we do it and what it says about us.  
  • I like Pope Francis, and I think his views on poverty and the global economy are spot on.  I'm also grateful for his less judgmental approach to LGBT people--it's not the acceptance I would like, but it's better than his predecessors.  When it comes to his views on women, however, he is just as bad as the last two popes.  I'm thankful that the feminist Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, is still out there making the case that God loves women and wants them to flourish.  She continues to write and teach God does not wish women to be subordinate to men. Here's a great article about her. Her book She Who Is remains as one of the most important theological works--feminist or otherwise.  
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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Transfiguration was Snowed Out

I sent the following out in my weekly e-mail to members and regular attendees at the church where I serve as minister:

It's too bad that worship this morning was cancelled due to snow and ice.  Don't get me wrong, it's not the end of the world if Sunday services get cancelled.  I feel pretty confident God would rather us stay home and safe than risk life and limb trying to get to church on Kansas City, MO roads which most likely have yet to be plowed.   
I think it was a shame though, that we had to miss this particular Sunday--Transfiguration Sunday.
I grew up in a faith tradition that didn't pay attention to the seasons of the church year.  Things like Lent, Epiphany, Pentecost and yes, Transfiguration Sunday were terms I really didn't know anything about until I went to seminary and experienced communities of faith that practiced a "high church" form of worship.  I remember when my father, a Southern Baptist minister, introduced an Advent wreath at our church.  No one protested and it became an annual tradition, but I don't think those Southern Baptists ever were really comfortable with such a "Catholic" ritual going on in our church.
Transfiguration Sunday was definitely not something I was familiar with until I was introduced to preaching the lectionary--the list of scriptures arranged according to the church season over a three year cycle.  Each of the three years has different scriptures for each Sunday and focuses on a particular one of the Gospels (Year A = Matthew, Year B = Mark, Year C = Luke with John sprinkled in here and there, especially around Holy Week).  Churches that pay attention to the seasons of the church year (also called liturgical seasons) often follow the lectionary.  I find in my preaching that when I pick one of the lectionary passages to preach on then I avoid the trap of repeatedly picking one of the handful of my own personal favorite passages.  Also, I'm forced to think about and interpret a passage that is more difficult and which I might rather avoid.
For many years, the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark and Luke was one of those passages I would have rather avoided.  What is there to say about this bizarre story?  Jesus takes his three closest disciples--Peter, James and John--up to the top of a mountain.  There the big names from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) appear with Jesus.  A voice from heaven speaks, "This is My Son.  Listen to him."  (A repeat of what some Gospels say was heard at Jesus' baptism.)  Then Jesus is "transfigured" and he "glows like the sun."  (Sort of like the vampires in Twilight; okay maybe not).  Peter wants to stay and hang out with Moses and Elijah, but when all is said and done, Jesus tells him and his buddies not to tell anyone about this.  Then they head back down the mountain. 
It's not exactly a straightforward narrative to preach on or plan a worship service around.  I used to wonder, "Must we really have a Transfiguration Sunday every year?"
I changed my mind, however, when I began to understand where this weird story takes place in the stories that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell.  This moment of transfiguration--literally in the Greek "metamorphosis"--is the last thing Jesus does before he heads towards Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.  From this moment forward, Jesus has made a choice to face the suffering of the world head on. 
The Transfiguration or "metamorphosis" is the moment where we, the readers of the Gospel stories, get to see who Jesus really is--the divine "Son of God."  His secret identity as the peasant rabbi from Nazareth finally falls off like Clark Kent's glasses.  Yet this "Son of God" doesn't don a superhero costume and fly off to vanquish evil; instead he heads back down the mountain to face scorn, rejection, betrayal, torture and execution.  This heroic figure does not stand (or fly) above the suffering of our world, rather he enters fully into it.
Within our church, you can find all sorts of different beliefs about who Jesus' secret identity is--from those who believe he is the full second person of the Trinity--"Son of God" and God incarnate to those who believe he was a Buddha-like enlightened one to those who believe he had no secret identity and was a human first-century rabbi.  No matter which way you slice it, I think you in the end come out with pretty much the same answer: Jesus chose to go toward the pain of the world to do something about it rather than to run away from it.
So, if we had been at church together this morning, I would have urged you to consider what following Jesus means?  Like Jesus, when God reveals to you your true identity as a child of God, you cannot run away from the pain in this world.  Instead, you must go towards it and do your part to do something about the causes of that suffering.
Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before the Season of Lent begins.  On Wednesday, we will have ashes "imposed" upon us and we will hear the words "from dust you came and to dust you shall return."  We will remember our mortality and set aside the illusions that say there is always more time to start living as God would have us live.  If we have been transfigured--undergone metamorphosis--experienced transformation--then we will go towards the hurting places in our world and not away from them.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.  The common misconception about the season of Lent is that it is a time to test one's own willpower by giving up a bad habit.  How typical of us to think that it's all about us!  The season of Lent is supposed to be about God and how we often choose to live in ways that do not reflect our true identity as God's children.  Lent is a time for us to remember that we have been transfigured and we have been called to a different purpose--helping God heal a world scarred by human selfishness and greed.
Perhaps on this snowy Sunday, even though we did not worship together, you and I can take some time to remember what Transfiguration Sunday is for.             

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 3-2-14 Edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
  • There was a lot out there this week about the terrible bills introduced in various states to legalize discrimination against LGBT people--I recommend you read the thoughts about the Arizona bill by UCC feminist theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite.    
  • In a similar vein, there is the lawsuit involving the crafts store chain Hobby Lobby which doesn't want to provide health insurance to its thousands of employees, because such insurance might pay for contraception.  Here is a thoughtful piece about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act--a law cited by Hobby Lobby--cited incorrectly that is.
  • You've probably read about the growing numbers of Millennials (born from the early 80's-00's) who identify "none" as their religious affiliation.  Some people might be alarmed that younger people don't believe the right theology, but interfaith leader Eboo Patel asks what I consider to be a more important question--what will the impact be of fewer people being involved in religious communities?  Who will do the works of charity and justice that these groups carry out when no one belongs to them anymore?  
  • I must confess that I like the TV show Hannibal, even though I can't really recommend it to anyone, because of its graphic violence.  Hannibal is based on the characters created by the novelist Thomas Harris (you know: The Silence of the Lambs).  I can't exactly say it is fun to watch it, but it is a powerful story.  This piece on the depiction of evil in the show perhaps helps explain what I appreciate about it.  Again, I can't recommend the show to you, but. . .  
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Protesting Discrimination of LGBT People

I was so proud to stand with CCCUCC members Jerry Cundiff, Paul Osgood and Ron Reusner and represent our church this week at the rally in Topeka against Kansas HB2453 and continuing efforts by some legislators to legalize discrimination against LGBT people.  Paul and Jerry were quoted in the Topeka paper and their picture and a quote were in the Wichita Eagle and KC Star--I was quoted in the latter article but they didn't seem to want my picture!  Some guys get all the attention!  (Thanks to CCCUCC member Rev. John Ellington for letting me borrow his awesome rainbow stole!)  At the protest there were a good number of people of faith, including folks from UCC churches in Topeka and Lawrence.  (At the rally two weeks ago, Rev. Aaron Roberts from Colonial UCC in Prairie Village represented the UCC.)

Speaking of CCCUCC members standing up against LGBT discrimination, our own Donna Ross, pastor of Zion UCC in St. Joseph was interviewed by the St. Joe Fox affiliate about a bill introduced in MO that would legalize discrimination against LGBT people.  Way to go Donna!