Sunday, September 24, 2006

God Bless America -- in Lompoc?

I hope that the debate will soon be over, but the dispute over the God Bless America poster continues unabated. So, this morning I published in the Lompoc Record my take on this issue. Remember, people are watching us! To see the column, click on the title and it will take you to the archived copy.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Posters in Lompoc

On Sunday I'll have published, in the Lompoc Record, a response to the recent furor in Lompoc, CA (where I pastor) over the decision to remove a poster. The poster was a non-authorized (by the Postal Service) poster that had a flag and the words God Bless America. A local advocate of church-state separation requested its removal, first from the supervisor and then from the post master. It appears that the post master justified its removal on the basis that any poster in the P.O. must be authorized by the Postal Service, and this wasn't. Well it has caused a nation-wide uproar, with Christian activists and conservative ones as well, calling for it to be restored.

What is interesting about this whole affair is that it has such long legs. Daily letters to the editor write overwhelmingly against the person who started this thing. What is scary about this is the venomous nature of many of the letters. I plan to throw some Jesus at them, but I'm not sure it'll take. Jesus has become our savior, but not our guide. So what that Jesus didn't "stand up for his rights."

I was reading a sermon by the late Scottish preacher James S. Stewart in a recently re-published collection of sermons. He reminds us that the world is watching the church, and too often the way the church has acted has not provided a good witness. He tells stories of how Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi were treated by churches/church members -- one because his parents were of Jewish ancestry and the other because he was Asian. What would the world look like if they had been treated differently? This is a good question to ponder.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

God and Riches

Two recent articles, one in Time and one in the Los Angeles Times raise interesting questions. The Time article has already received much attention because it raises the question of God's provisions for humanity. Prosperity teachers are nothing new. Reverend Ike was an early purveyor of such ideas. Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Fred Price, and others have been preaching a "name it and claim it" doctrine for years. It has been a popular though at times controversial component of some forms of Pentecostalism that affirms God's provisions of healing and blessing. The Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson put healing front and center.

So, does God want us to be rich? Or perhaps better put, does God want us to be prosperous and happy, which is the message of the most recent purveyor of prosperity doctrines, Joel Osteen. Osteen is the son of John Osteen, a Baptist turned Pentecostal, who has transformed a former basketball arena into a mega church. His message is pretty clear, God wants us to be happy and prosperous. So, is this what God wants for us?

Well, it depends on how you parse some words here. I believe that God wants good things for us. I don't believe that God is an angry God looking for ways to pounce on us and destroy us. The problem with prosperity doctrine isn't with the promise of blessing, its with the way in which it is distributed. There is a dark side to the call to faith. Yes, I do believe that a positive outlook on life is beneficial. With hard work, a few breaks a long the way, and a good attitude, a person can do a lot. The problem is with the flip side. What about the poor and the marginalized of society? Do they deserve their situation. Do they not have enough faith, or have the breaks not gone their way. Is every poor person lazy? The book of Proverbs offers sage advice -- do the right thing and things should go well for you. Not bad advice, but as Job found out things don't always work out the way we planned. Job was a righteous and truly blessed man, and then everything fell apart. His friends came to visit and console him, but they were bothered by his adament refusal to confess his sins. Surely he'd done something bad, surely he didn't have enough faith, or else he wouldn't be in this state.

Where the LA Times article comes in concerns a recent study of American views of God (,1,2867764.story). According to the story, a recent Baylor University study discovered that while over 80% of Americans believe in God, we have very different attitudes about God. The biggest group of believers (31.4%) envision an "authoritarian God." This God is engaged in our lives, but is judgmental and capable of punishing us. This is the God of the South (43.5%) and the Midwest (32.5). The Critical God, a distant but possibly judgmental God, is popular in the American East (but only 16% of us affirm this theology). Out here in the West we prefer the Distant God (24.4% of Americans), a God who is neither engaged in our lives nor judgmental. Finally comes the God who would seem to be affirmed by the Prosperity teachers, though I'm not completely sure of this. This is the benevolent God, the God who is engaged but generally not judgmental (23%) of us take this view.

When yiou break things down along denominational/religious lines. Things get more interesting. 68% of Black Protestants and 52.3% of Evangelicals believe in an authoritarian God, but only 22.6% of Catholics and 23.7% of Mainliners take this view. Mainliners are pretty much equally divided along all 4 camps, with a distant and a benevolent God leading the pack. Interestingly among Jews, the Distant God comes in at 41% while this deity garners 35.7% of the unaffiliated. Catholics prefer either an engaged benevlent deity or a Distant one.

So, who are these prosperity teachers? Where do they fall on the map. They're not Catholic or Mainliners. Many are African American and black churches go in for the authoritarian God overwhelmingly and hardly embrace the benevolent God at all. This is all very intriguing to me.

I will confess now that I've laid all this data out for you, that I embrace a benevolent deity. I believe God is engaged in our lives. I do believe that God can get cross with us at times and that God calls us to care for the poor and the sick, the imprisoned and the marginalized. When we do, we serve Jesus. There's something to the sheep and goats parable that needs to be remembered. So, check out the stories, and consider your theology!

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th, a Memory

In September 2001 I was pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara and served as president of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association. In that capacity I wrote an op-ed piece for the Santa Barbara News Press commenting on the event and inviting the community to come together in prayer. We had a very well attended and powerful vigil on the night of September 16, 2001. We had a Rabbi, an Imam, and a a Protestant clergywoman as speakers. I must say it was one of the most moving events I've every been involved with. I grieve that in the years since that day we as a nation have become increasingly polarized along ideological lines. I offer this column as a memorial. In addition, if you click the title of today's post you will find the column I published a year ago in the Lompoc Record.

An Editorial
Tuesday's tragic events have shaken the foundations of our lives. We feel pangs of grief and anger. For those in our community who had co-workers, friends, or relatives on the planes or in the stricken buildings, this is especially true. As a nation, and as a community, we cry out to God, asking why has this happened? The answer to that question is a complex one, a question that requires considerable thought and prayer to answer.

The words of the Psalmist state well our feelings at this time:

"My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen
upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, `O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest'."
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV).

We feel unsafe and insecure. We feel angry and aggrieved. Like the psalmist, we find ourselves overwhelmed by many different feelings, including guilt, and we find it difficult to sort them out. We want to flee from the cause of our terror, and so we seek to hide in our homes, afraid to venture out and risk our lives; and yet we also hear from our own lips, calls for revenge and retaliation. Some of us have already begun to point fingers and seek out scapegoats, blaming the entire Islamic community for the deeds of some militants, who do not act in accord with their own teachings, and this is both unfortunate and unwarranted. As our government sorts out the details, it is important that we as American people support and console each other, and not let a thirst for revenge taint our sorrow. Although the religious community does not speak with one voice, as our theologies and values often differ, we are joined in a common concern for the loss of life and a collective loss of security and safety that is the aftermath of Tuesday morning.

We find our vulnerability unsettling, and consequently, we have been and will continue to come together in our various houses of worship to pray for the victims and their families. From our pulpits and in our study groups, we will consider the causes and the solutions. Therefore, we must come together and support each other, whether Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, Hindu or Humanist; at a time like this, our differences matter less. It is for this reason that the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association, an interfaith organization of area clergy, whose members cross the spectrum of the community's religious groups, is offering this Sunday evening, at 6:00 p.m., a Service of Remembrance and Prayer, that will allow the community as a whole to pray and reflect, grieve and find comfort. The service will be held at First United Methodist Church (Anapamu at Garden).

In our prayers we reach out to those who have lost loved ones and we release their memories into God's care. We also pray for peace in our world, for it is the lack of peace that gives rise to such events. What we experienced writ large Tuesday morning, happens daily around the world. Our grief must also include a search for reconciliation and the proclamation of peace among all peoples of the world.
The Rev. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
President, Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Church in Danger!!

Back in the 18th century conservative Anglicans flew the bloody flag and cried out that the church was in danger. Dangerous liberals like Gilbert Burnet and John Tillotson, both bishops within the Anglican church, threatened the church from the inside with dangerous ideas -- such as the king didn't rule by divine right. But that's another story.

Recently I started reading about a new crisis. The National Association of Evangelicals and others have begun to warn that hedonistic American culture is threatening to destroy the church (evangelical church that is). Using culture war lingo, they warn that whereras 34% of adult Americans are Evangelical, the coming generation will likely be 4% evangelical. Now such predictions are notoriously unreliable, but the "problem" is interesting. It has been said that the reason why evangelical churches, unlike the graying mainline, has grown is that they have kept their youth. Well it seems that they are likely to loose their youth. The question is, where will they go? Will they end up as secularists or join up with that amorphous group of religious but not spiritual. Or, could they find their way to the Mainline -- much as I did. Mainline Protestantism recognizes and affirms women, allows for ambiguity in theology and reading of scripture. It's concerned about the environment and seeks peace in the world -- oh there is a progressive evangelical subgroup -- but in many ways they are closer to the mainline than conservative evangelicalism. It will be interesting to see where things go.

I will admit that these are difficult times, but I find it disingenuous that a movement that has the ears of the president and congress should feel so threatened. But threatened they are. With an organization with the name of Battle Cry and a web site --, they announce that "the enemy has launched an attack and an army is rising to respond. Yes, this is a movement full of militaristic images and ideas. Evangelicals are called upon to raise the battle cry, make their battle plans, and fight back. They can join together in Battle Cry Leadership Summits and hear the great generals rally the troops of faith -- so that they can rescue the coming generation.

As for me, I think I'll take the road laid out by Jesus. He didn't lead an army of Christian soldiers into battle against the cultural enemies. Instead, he suffered and died and empowered generations of Christians to be the church in the world.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Father, Son and Holy Rift

This morning's LA Times features a fascinating front page essay on the rift between the well known founder of Calvary Chapel, Chuck Smith, and his son, Chuck Smith, Jr. The father is best known for being the father figure of the Jesus Movement that erupted in the late 1960s. His church was the model for the contemporary worship and music movements. From the church emerged a major music industry -- Maranatha Music. Praise music has its origins in his church. Music groups like Love Song, The Way, Mustard Seed Faith, and many more were sent forth across the country spreading the word that Jesus is coming back soon.

The Chuck Smith featured in the article is that, but he's also a classic Fundamentalist, who rails against the sin of homosexuality, preaches hell fire and brimstone sermons and is sure that Jesus is coming back soon. This is a preacher who has no doubts and sees no ambiguities in life.

The son is very different. Until recently a pastor in his father's network of churches, he has broken free of the Calvary Chapel movement -- more like he was forced out. As pastor of a large church (but not as large as his Dad's) he offers a gentler and kinder message of welcome and ambiguity. He's not so sure about homosexuality and welcomes gays and lesbians into the fold. He's also not sure about the hell fire message either. In fact, he's not sure about the rapture theology that has been a hallmark of his father's theology. His relationship with his father on a personal level is strong, but they have agreed to part ways. Some of Dad's followers though think he's a heretic and if not for being the founder's son, would have been purged long ago.

Chuck, Jr.'s journey is influenced by his own experience. He has long suffered from depression -- something his father doesn't think is a reality -- has been divorced and struggled with his identity as the son of a famous father. He won't be the successor to Dad's empire, nor does he wish to have the mantle. Though in many ways Chuck Jr. sees himself as continuing the original work of his father -- that of reaching out to the young and spiritually disenfranchised. Remember the earliest members of Dad's movement were hippies. The son dresses in shorts and flip flops and welcomes all who'll come.

I take this whole thing as a hopeful sign. Assuming we survive the perilous times at hand, the church -- the evangelical church -- is in for much change. In many ways the message of Chuck Smith Jr is similar to that of Brian McClaren. This is an emergent trend -- interest in icons, meditation, breathing exercises, learning from Catholic and Orthodox mystics. It's a message of openness rather than certainty. If he's the leader of a trend, then good things may be ahead!

Note, to find the article hit the title of the post and it will take you to the story. You may have to register, but its free and will be worth it!