Saturday, December 17, 2005

War on Christmas?!

This is my contribution to the hot air that's being generated by the current controversy over Christmas. It will be published in our local newspaper next week.

Mike and I have a habit of watching some of the cable news shows that are on in the evenings. At 7:00 most nights, we switch back and forth between Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. (We like Keith better, because he tends to treat most of the news with a little humor—and people don’t come on his show to scream at one another and be browbeaten by the host.) Lately one hot topic, particularly on O’Reilly, has been the “War on Christmas” that secular forces in our culture are supposedly waging.

O’Reilly told his TV and radio audiences recently that there were two school districts in the U.S.—one in Texas and one in Michigan—where the students have been barred from wearing red and green because those are Christmas colors. The Texas district, it was reported a few nights later by Keith Olbermann (who, admittedly, has a bit of a feud going with O’Reilly year-round), had to call parents to let them know that it isn’t true! Someone, somewhere, made it up. The superintendent of the Michigan district, sitting (as Olbermann described him) in his office beside his Christmas tree, in his red shirt and Santa Claus tie, has demanded a retraction from O’Reilly. It’ll be interesting whether he gets it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m having a hard time feeling that I’m being persecuted because I’m a Christian and celebrate Christmas, because some individuals and businesses are saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” because some misguided folks are calling it a “holiday tree” rather than a “Christmas tree.” There are other places in the world where people are killed or jailed or tortured because they are Christian—it seems almost insulting to those Christians for us to spend a bunch of time being upset because someone in a store somewhere wished us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Our adult Sunday school class has been studying the Gospel according to John this fall. Last week we arrived at chapter 13, in which Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and then gives them a new commandment: “Love one another.” Then he elaborates a little bit: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Nowhere does Jesus ever say, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you yell at one another about trivial matters and spend the season when you’re supposed to be celebrating my birth walking around with your nose out of joint because somebody didn’t wish you a Merry Christmas.”

The fact of the matter is that even those of us who are Christian celebrate more than just one holiday during this season. The holiday season begins with Thanksgiving, and continues on through Christmas and New Year’s Day. Why can’t we simply assume the person saying “Happy Holidays” is being extravagant and wishing us Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year all at once, instead of getting all exercised because someone didn’t say the word Christmas? How is it that Jesus says people are supposed to recognize his disciples? By the chips on their shoulders, or the love in their actions?

Being a follower of Jesus means that if we’re going to get angry about something, we should be angry about the things that make him angry: ungrace and self-righteousness on the part of religious folks, sickness and death too often caused by poverty and the indifference of far too many people to that poverty and disease, and the continuing tendency even of those who claim to be his followers to place other things before our commitment to him—like greed, materialism and phony controversies about a “war on Christmas.”

Let’s let folks know we are disciples of Jesus Christ for the right reasons during this holiday season!

Monday, November 21, 2005

When Christians Act Like Christians

It could have been terrible. It could have been nasty. People could have come away hurt. It could have damaged our church’s witness in the world. But thanks be to God that it didn’t go that way.

I’m talking about the special regional board meeting we had this past Saturday. For the uninitiated, the region is our middle management—between the local churches and our national organization. Our region is in the midst of some major transition right now. We’re not alone in this; all of our church’s regions are going through similar struggles, as are the “middle judicatories” of just about every church denomination. And it’s a lot more common than we’d like to admit that these struggles often result in criticism being focused on our leaders—in our case, on our regional minister—and often in the less-than-loving removal of those leaders.

This could have happened in our meeting on Saturday. The meeting was called by a board member who wanted us to talk about whether or not the regional minister’s leadership was appropriate for our region’s needs—and between the lines we understood that a decision was desired whether or not we wished his leadership to continue.

When I first learned about this meeting, I mentioned it to my husband, who has not been as deeply immersed in church life as I have been since childhood. His response was, “It amazes me how you church folks can be so un-Christian sometimes.” And he’s right! It could have been this way Saturday. I went to the meeting unsure whether we’d behave like Christians or something else.

But it turns out that the meeting was very constructive, and we all behaved lovingly, not just toward one another but toward our regional minister. Yes, there were criticisms, things that will need to be addressed; but we were able to see that all the blame for our anxiety and uncertainty about the future could not be laid at the regional minister’s feet. When it came time for the regional minister to join us, after we broke for lunch, we determined what would be the best way to communicate with him, so he didn’t feel like he was being ambushed.

What was different in this meeting than in so many other meetings that are called for the same reasons? The only thing I can think of is that this meeting was bathed in prayer. Folks were praying for us and for the meeting itself for weeks beforehand. We began the meeting in prayer and ended with Communion. We had an extended time of prayer after lunch, before the regional minister joined us.

The fact of the matter is that we Christians cannot always behave like Christians on our own. Real and human fears, desires for power and control, and other issues often interfere even with our best intentions to be Christlike. But if we call upon God, and commit ourselves to being led by God, it can happen.

We still have anxious times ahead of us. But we now know that if our conversations and discussions are surrounded and infused with prayer and a desire to do God’s will, we will be all right. Thanks be to God for guiding us and for helping the Christian Church be truly Christian.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

On Really Becoming a Dentist

It happened at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, August 22, 2005. Now, I think I would have preferred it happened at a little different time—like when he was drilling in someone else’s mouth—but it wasn’t my choice.

The dentist here in Sac City is a pretty good one. He’s young (only two years out of dental school), and outgoing. While he’s working, he’s chatting and joking with his assistant, sometimes singing songs, and generally having a good time. (One of the assistants told me once that sometimes she forgets she’s actually working, because they have so much fun there.)

But my dentist really became a dentist yesterday afternoon, while he was giving me a filling. While he was working on the cavity (which turned out to be worse than it had looked on the x-ray), he remarked that one of his professors had told him and his classmates they’d come out of school with the facts, and skills, and concepts they needed to do the work—but they wouldn’t really be dentists until they learned to follow their intuition as they cared for their patients. (His intuition has led him to want to drill another one of my teeth, but that’s a story for another day.)

That’s the way with just about everything we might do, I think. When we first learn to do something, we have all the steps written down, or we follow the recipe or the instructions exactly. But eventually there comes a point when we’re comfortable enough with the basics that we can apply them to new situations, or improvise on them, or know without looking it up what’s needed in a particular time or circumstance.

But for us to get to that point, we have to learn and practice the basics. We have to follow enough recipes to know how things are supposed to taste, what ingredients do what, and so forth. We have to have read enough x-rays to know what we’re supposed to see before we can recognize when something isn’t right. We have to have seen and identified a lot of common, everyday birds at our feeders before we’re able to recognize when an unusual one appears. As I used to tell the students I tutored at the English lab at my college, you have to know the rules of grammar before you know how and when to bend or break them.

It’s the same with our faith. We have to know the Bible stories so we can interpret our own stories in light of God’s action in the world. We have to learn what Jesus did do before we can answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” We have to know the commandments before we can figure out how to apply them to our own lives. Religious education is very important, because it builds the foundation. But the moment we really become Christians is when the habits and the stories and the instructions of our faith have become so ingrained that we don’t even have to think before we act in Christlike ways.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Greatest American

I suppose this isn’t a God sighting per se, but it’s on my mind. The Discovery Channel has been running a series where they are counting down to the “Greatest American,” based mainly on viewers’ voting. Any countdown like this is going to have some suspect folks on the list—not because they’re great, but because they make it into a “greatest” list mostly for the reason that they’re in the news right now. Pat Tillman is one of these. I do not discount the man’s patriotism or his sacrifice, but I don’t think he’s on a par with Dr. King or Thomas Jefferson. John Edwards made the top 100, as did Barack Obama—perhaps in a few years or maybe even decades they might be considered among the greatest Americans, but right now they mainly have potential, rather than actual accomplishments that would make them great.

There are a few I would include in the list that are not on it. Thomas Jefferson made the top 25, and Alexander Hamilton made the top 100, but James Madison did not, in spite of having been the principal author of the Constitution and, with Hamilton and John Jay, one of the chief apologists for the federalist system of government. Because of my own political bent, I would not include Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and I believe history may vindicate my belief about both these presidents.

When I cast my vote for the one person who stands out as the greatest American, it will be Abraham Lincoln. I will not boil it down to one simple phrase, as many do: “He freed the slaves.” Certainly he did do that, and he deserves to be recognized for it, although his own writings and those of others seem to indicate his motives were somewhat more expedient than altruistic. But the reason I believe he deserves the top spot has more to do with his having led this country through its worst crisis, bar none, in the Civil War. He made extremely difficult decisions that were necessary to preserve the United States of America.

What I have read and heard of Lincoln demonstrate that he was truly a man of prayer and a deep faith in God. It was not simply something he said in order to attract certain segments of the public, but something on which he leaned at every point in his life. He did not profess the certainty that God was on any one side in the conflicts of his day—as a matter of fact he didn’t seem entirely certain whether God approved or disapproved of the war. Rather, he suggested the more important issue was not whether God is on our side, but that we do our best to be on God’s side. Lincoln struggled with God’s will, and with humility and much prayer tried to do what was right.

Abraham Lincoln certainly deserves to be honored as the “Greatest American” under the definition this program and list are using. However, there are millions and millions of “greatest Americans” using a very different definition. These are the men and women of every age who have done their best, worked hard, raised their children well, stood up for freedom in large and small ways. They are the ones who built communities, wrote and spoke about the ideals our nation stands for—even, perhaps especially, at times when the leadership of our country failed to live up to those ideals, looked out for one another, and did all of this without even a thought that their names might one day end up on a list of the “greatest Americans.” But that is who they are. We are a country founded and governed as a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” in Mr. Lincoln’s words. While it is important to have heroes that stand above us, like Lincoln, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, we must also remember that in a nation like ours, each one of us has the opportunity to be one of the “greatest Americans” through our actions every single day.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Me and My Shadow

It’s been a hard couple of days at our house. Yesterday morning I found one of our cats dead. I won’t go into the details of how it happened, except to say that it’s one of those times when you dwell on the things that, if you had done them differently, would have changed everything.

Shadow was Mike’s favorite of all our cats. He lived in this neighborhood before we did (Mike liked to tell people that “he came with the house”), but chose to come and live with us. He would come in the house in the winter when it was cold, but very rarely did he stay for more than a few hours. In the summer he didn’t come in at all, and no amount of coaxing would get him to change his mind. But he always would come out and greet us when we came home, even climbing into the car for a welcome-home rub. If he happened to be around in the mornings when I left for work, he would walk partway down the hill with me, every few steps throwing himself to the ground in front of me for a tummy rub.

When I found Shadow yesterday morning, I called Mike, who was in the process of getting ready for work. And I will never forget the sight of my big, barrel-chested, bass-voiced, mustache-wearing husband cradling Shadow, sobbing like a baby, and not caring who saw him doing it. He loves his cat-kids. I heard someone say once that “real men don’t kiss cats.” Don’t you believe it.

It’s much too early to try to draw meaning from what happened to Shadow. I won’t even try. But a few months ago, one of the children in my congregation came to me after church and asked, “Do dogs and cats go to heaven when they die?” And I told him that I trusted God to take care of even the tiniest critters—it says so in the Bible (see the end of the book of Jonah, for example, as well as Matthew 10:29). I firmly believe that, when God makes all things new on the last day, that means all things, including animals. And if there aren’t any cats in heaven, I’m not going.

We’ll get through this. It’s not the first time, after all, that either of us has lost a pet. We know that God is with us, and that Shadow is in the care of the God who can be trusted to watch over all of his creatures. That helps.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Living in Community

This is an offering meditation I wrote for our worship service this Sunday.

If you’ve ever seen pictures of rural areas of the British Isles, you’ll remember the stone walls that divide the fields. Did you know that those are dry stone walls? There is no cement or mortar holding the stones together. They are carefully fitted together so that they will stand strong even without the use of mortar.

Sometimes the one building the wall will find that a stone almost fits in the place where it is to go, but not quite. So the builder will take that stone and simply rub it against the one it will go next to, until their edges match up and they fit together perfectly.

Living in community with other people sometimes is like that—and the church is a community. We are all different, and sometimes those differences create tensions among us. But it is only through being in community that God is able to smooth out the differences that make it hard for us to fit together. Whenever we let our differences divide us, we miss out on the chance to become part of a strong, eternal building called the Body of Christ.

Monday, May 16, 2005

"One Man's Trash..."

(This is the column I wrote for the May-June edition of our church newsletter.)

Something interesting happened in Sac City recently. It happens in the spring of each year--our city-wide clean-up days.

For a week or so before the clean-up days actually happen, folks get ready. We clean out our garages, our basements, wherever we're accumulating things we don't want anymore but that we don't think are really even good enough to donate to Goodwill or put in a garage sale. Or we begin home-improvement projects we've been putting off. And we put all of our accumulated junk--broken furniture, scraps of one thing or another, old carpet, you name it--out by the side of the road for the city garbage people to pick up and take away.

Now, what's interesting about this is what happens between the time we put stuff out and when the garbage trucks actually arrive. Last weekend Mike and I cleaned out our shed and the place on the basement stairs where we'd been collecting stuff we didn't want anymore. We had some scraps of plywood, a bunch of leaky plastic buckets, several lighted beer signs that Mike picked up somewhere for reasons I can't fathom, my old stereo that I bought for $80 in 1987 and which finally wore out last summer, and several other things.

That stuff wasn't out for 12 hours before we started noticing it had been arranged and some things were missing. When people have put their unwanted stuff on the curb, that's when the great junk swap begins.

You find that there's someone out there who wants the stuff you don't want anymore--the stuff you think is downright junk. Last year my neighbor put out a pile of bricks from a fireplace he'd torn out. It just happened that I have a sidewalk that goes only partway from the front walk over to my side porch steps, so I went and retrieved those bricks, and they made a nice little brick walk beside a new flowerbed. Someone came yesterday and took my worn-out stereo. Maybe they can fix it, or it might be good enough as it is to be a radio to keep someone company as they work in the garage. I remember when I interviewed here, and we were at the home of one of the search committee members, and she showed me this old window she had painted up and hung on her back porch. It was a really neat decoration, and she had found it in someone's pile of junk during the spring clean-up.

Paul tells us that what the world thinks of as worthless turns out to be the most valuable thing of all: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). It's a waste of time to try to figure out how to make the Gospel "reasonable" for those who haven't signed on yet. The Gospel, the message about the cross, is not reasonable. It can't be made rational. It's irrational. But somehow, when someone hears it and through the Holy Spirit's work begins to accept it, they discover that the world's "trash" is the most priceless treasure of all.

And you know, this goes both ways. You used to see a poster now and then that said something like, "God don't make no junk." That poster was talking about people. It seems like in every time and place, in every day and age, in every culture and community, there are some people who are considered to be "junk." They could be people of another race, or they could be people who are desperately poor, maybe even homeless, or they could be people who look or act different for some other reason. For some reason human beings seem to need someone to look down on. For some reason, in order to feel like we're okay, there needs to be someone we consider to be not okay.

But this isn't how God thinks. In Jesus Christ, God showed us that he cares especially about those whom the world considers "junk"--lepers, widows, orphans, poor people, people with disabilities, even sinners. In Jesus Christ, God reached out to the "junk" of the world because, like the folks who went through one another's trash piles in Sac City last month, God sees potential in everyone, even the most seemingly hopeless cases. What is that potential? It's called the image of God. Every human being--every human being, without exception--bears that image, and that means that as far as God is concerned, no human being is "junk" to be thrown away.

As people of God, we also are called to love and care for those people whom the world considers "junk"--because we too were once "junk," but God, through Jesus Christ, found us in our trash heaps, lifted us up, and made us into beloved children.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


In this blog I intend to spend time thinking theologically about the various things that I encounter in my life. That may mean commenting on the news, or deconstructing the messages of reality TV shows, or just discussing something I've read. I believe that God is able to speak to us through all of these things and more, but we have to learn to hear what God says to us.

Since there may be one or two people reading this blog who don't know me, a few introductions might be in order...

I am the pastor of the First Christian Church in Sac City, Iowa, a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). (Learn more about the Disciples at Sac City is a small community, about 2,400 people. We worship together each Sunday at 10:15 a.m. (in the summer it's 9:15). Disciples share the Lord's Supper (Communion) together each Sunday, and welcome all to join us. We don't baptize babies, but wait until people are old enough to make the choice for themselves that they want to be Christians.

Politically, I'm pretty liberal; theologically I consider myself evangelical--but evangelical in the classical sense which places more emphasis on changing lives and hearts through actively loving and caring for others. (The Salvation Army is a good example of an evangelical organization in this classical sense; the Religious Right of today is not.) I love the Bible and consider it the Word of God because it is one way we are able to know more about what God is like and draw closer to God.

I believe that God loves us and desires more than anything else to be in a relationship with us--and to that end God's Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to be born of an ordinary woman, grow up in an ordinary family, and live among human beings demonstrating through his words and his actions the incredible, unconditional love that God has for each of us. But as a result of this work many people who feared this great love, or wished to keep it for themselves and withhold it from those they considered "unworthy," succeeded in putting Jesus to death. I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, though, to break the back of the powers of evil and death that sometimes ensnare even good, religious folks.

The trouble, of course, is that there is still evil and death in the world. People (even Christians) still sometimes use religion as a weapon against others. People still try to exclude others because of the things that make us different from one another--things like race, nationality, economics, or sexual orientation--and sometimes carry that to an extreme with officially-sanctioned discrimination or worse. But God is still at work in this world, and one day the victory that was won on Easter Sunday will be complete.

One of the ways God continues to work in this world is through the body of Christ, the Church. The church is made up of human beings who continue to make mistakes, and the church--as so many have said throughout history--is full of hypocrites. Even so, God is still at work in and through the Church, which is made up of people who, for all their faults, are called by the name of Jesus Christ.

I believe that truly being a follower of Christ means confessing that Jesus is Lord above all else--above our country, above our family, above our traditions, above our bank accounts and our political parties. Sometimes this is easy, but most of the time it is not. Often we who claim Jesus as our Lord, who pledge allegiance first and foremost to him, will find ourselves in hot water with other people or forces who would prefer we give our allegiance to them. But if that happens, God is with us in the midst of it all.

I welcome any comments and questions anyone might have about any of my posts.