Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gotta Serve Somebody

I'll let this video by Bob Dylan speak for itself -- a little spiritual music!

I'll give a hat tip to David Markham, a Unitarian Universalist Pastor who has a series of posts entitled: "My Kind of Church Music" I tend to agree!

Peaceful Iraqi Elections and Hopes for the Future

The War in Iraq started back in 2003, I believe. I was still pastoring the Santa Barbara church back then - which means a lot of water has run under the bridge since then. Barack Obama came into office pledging to bring American combat troops home in 16 months. That process is beginning, as I understand things.

The good news today is that the Iraqi's held provincial elections, with 14000 candidates vying for 440 regional council seats. They did this with a minimum of violence, and with security provided not by American troops, but by Iraqi troops and police.

So, whatever one's view of the war and its conduct, this is good news and portends the possibility of a fairly seamless draw down. Perhaps if things go well, we can bring the troops home even quicker.

The Iraqi's seem to want sovereignty. They don't want to be an occupied territory. All of which means, it's time for us to leave.

Leaving Iraq, of course, means that we don't control its destiny. It is led now by a Shiite dominate government that has relatively close ties to Iran. I don't think that this eventuality was what Bush and Cheney had in mind when they decided to invade, but given freedom to form governments, it's not surprising that the majority Shia population has chosen to go this route.

Funny thing, democracy!

Let us hope that the counting goes well and without incident!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Time for Real Middle East Solutions!

The Sojourners' God's Politics blog has put up an excellent piece by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center. In an essay entitled "Beyond Gaza: An Abrahamic Peace," Waskow offers suggestions as to how we might work to bring change in the Middle East. Everyone has a part to play in making some sense of things, now that the horrors of the Gaza Conflict have simmered down.

He suggests that the Palestinians give concerted effort at non-violent resistance, resistance that would garner European, American, and even Israeli support. From that, there are possible options pro-peace Israeli's can take to push their country to a position of seriously considering ending the occupation of the West Bank.

But the key is America.

He suggests the calling of a Middle East Peace Conference, one where all the interested parties are present -- including both Hamas and a Netanyahu led Israeli government. That Saudi sponsored peace plan, which neither the US nor Israel has to this point taken seriously could be starting point.

So the necessary counterweight for this domestic paralysis will have to come from outside -– that is, the United States. Appointing George Mitchell, the weaver of the Irish peace settlement, as peace envoy to the Middle East is an excellent start. But it will mean little unless the U.S. adopts a whole new policy toward the region.

The alternative policy for the U.S. government would be to use the disaster of Gaza to insist on a regional Middle East peace conference; to insist that even a Netanyahu government of Israel and even a Hamas leadership of Gaza or Palestine take part and accept a decent peace; to connect the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq with serious diplomacy with Iran and a political settlement of the Afghan agony; and to move swiftly off the fossil fuel addiction that drives a planetary disaster and drives American policy into corruption or conquest in the Middle Eastern oil pools.

Only the biggest response can meet the need. Half-measures, the normal response of governments facing complex conflict, will not work.

But we have our role -- Christians joining with pro-peace Muslims and Jews to put pressure on the government. Personally I think that Barack Obama wants to do all of this, but he'll need support to get through the usual roadblocks.

The promise is in a Grand Abrahamic Alliance:

The building blocks for such a coalition now exist. Can they be mortared together? A roused Muslim-American community, not yet well organized for political action but speedily getting more so; the beginnings of an independent base in the Jewish community (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, The Shalom Center, the Israel Policy Forum, Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace) that could draw strength from the majority of real live American Jews – who support such a result but whose politics are unvoiced by the big American Jewish organizations; mainstream Protestant groups that are raring to go and will be effective if they can focus on changing U.S. policy instead of parading their own personal purity as in the divestment campaigns, and if they have Jewish allies so as not to be accused (or accuse themselves) of anti-Semitism; a vague Roman Catholic support for the same result, which might be stimulated into action; black community support, pro-peace and ready to affirm Palestinian self-determination, but so far not focused on this issue because there are other urgencies and they feel the need for Jewish allies to address those urgencies; and non-religiously or ethnically identified progressives, if they can get over their habit of treating the word “Zionist” as a curse word and start clearly condemning terrorist attacks on civilians by the underdogs, as well as military attacks, occupation, and blockade by the uber-dogs.

It is time for us to move beyond the usual responses and engage in concerted action that will bring peace and justice to this fractured land.

The Thrill is Back!

It is my day off, and so I have the opportunity to indulge my other areas of interest, at least for a moment!

First the News, and then the reflection. The News is that the San Francisco Giants are bringing back Will Clark as a special assistant. He'll have two roles, one is promotional and the other is working with the younger players -- hoping I would suppose to instill some of that intensity that he was known for as a player, especially during his Giant playing days. Smart move, Giants. I've always been a Will Clark fan. Would have named my kid after him, had my wife let me!

I am a life long San Francisco Giants fan. I grew up listening to and watching Giants games, both in Mt. Shasta and Klamath Falls. Willie Mays was nearing the end of his career, so I focused more on Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, and Bobby Bonds. Then there was a down period, where the Giants played as bad as it looked in those orange polyester pullover outfits.

Then came April 1986. The Giants brought up two young rookie infielders, who would be fixtures on the left side of the infield for the next half dozen years. Robby Thompson and Will Clark made an immediate impression and the Giants began an upward trend that didn't end until 4 years ago.

I remember that first at bat. The Giants were playing Houston and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan was on the mound. Clark sent Ryan's fastball up into the seats. First at bat, first career home run, and the announcers were starting to talk Hall of Fame. For the next 6 years, Clark displayed Hall of Fame credentials, but injuries limited his playing time and changed his approach. He never developed into the great Home Run threat that Barry Bonds would become, but he continued to hit and to field, and his intensity -- that mug of his, well what can you say?

Clark led the Giants to their first World Series in nearly 30 years in 1989, winning the NLCS MVP, with a valiant series, the included an amazing battle with Greg Maddux, off of whom he hit a Grand Slam, who will himself end up in the Hall of Fame. The Giants would end up losing in 4 games to an overpowering Oakland A's team in the World Series, a series that was disrupted by the famous earthquake. I got to go to the replayed 3rd game -- watched my hero, despite the loss!

So, welcome back Will. We missed you!!

Evolution Weekend -- a Press Release

-- Press Release --

The Clergy Letter Project Announces Evolution Weekend

13-15 February 2009

Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy will join with

More than 790 Congregations Worldwide and Discuss the Compatibility of Religion and Science

Local Contact: Dr. Robert Cornwall

Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

3955 W. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI 48084


National Contact: Dr. Michael Zimmerman, Founder

Clergy Letter Project


Web address:

Central Woodward Christian Church will be one of more than 790 congregations from across the country and around the world to participate in Evolution Weekend, Feb. 8-10, a period designed to recognize that religion and science, two fields of critical importance to humans, should be seen as complementary rather than confrontational.

Nine countries on five continents as well as all 50 states will be represented. A list of participants can be found at Scientists on six continents, representing 29 countries, have signed on as consultants.

During Evolution Weekend, Central Woodward Christian Church, in its 10:30 A.M. worship service, will honor the profound relationship of science and faith. Believing that all truth is God’s truth, we will lift up God’s creative presence in hymns, prayers, and sermon, while all recognizing that science has offered a compelling description of this process – which also must be honored. Charles Darwin may have presented a challenge to faith, but Charles Darwin, who turns 200 on February 12th, is not an enemy of faith.

Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Weekend and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, praised the participants.

“In the current climate, when Chris Comer, the longtime director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after circulating information about a presentation critical of intelligent design, clergy are showing real courage by participating in Evolution Weekend,” said Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Weekend and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University. “Make no mistake about it – courage is needed. Indeed, Rev. Ron Francey was fired from his parish in Michigan after he participated in last year’s activities.”

Hundreds of clergy are demonstrating exactly that sort of courage because they believe deeply in the importance of what they are doing, Zimmerman said. And recent actions suggest that they have created a movement that will permanently transform the nature of the evolution-creation debate.

Evolution Weekend is an offshoot of the Clergy Letter Project, which Zimmerman started in 2004 after the Grantsburg, Wis., school board passed a series of anti-evolution policies. The letter, written in 2004, has been signed by more than 11,100 Christian clergypersons who agree that “religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.”

The letter urges school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. It asks “that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”

“With clergy members and scientists banding together to proclaim that their two fields have much to teach us about the world and the people in it, with the two groups demonstrating that they can work collaboratively, there is now hope that we can put the divisiveness that has been the hallmark of this struggle behind us,” said Zimmerman, a biologist by training. “We can look to a future in which it is no longer controversial to teach our children the best science has to offer. We can create a future in which experts in different fields respect one another and the ideas each has to offer.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Borderland Churches -- A Review

BORDERLAND CHURCHES: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living. By Gary V. Nelson. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008. x + 166 pp.

We live and work and have our being in a very different world than that of our parents or grand parents. You can make that claim whether you are 18, 35, 50, or maybe even 60. The fact is that the world has changed and the place of Christianity and the church has diminished. We hear a lot about theocratic pretensions, but by and large those voices, while loud, are rather small in number. Gary Nelson writes from a Canadian context, where secularization is much further along than in the United States. There, more than here, religion is private. The number of those claiming no religion, while growing in the US, hasn’t reached a national number of 16% as in Canada. But what is happening there is quickly moving south. With this growing marginalization of the church, old paradigms of church life and church growth must change.

The title of the book is key. It is about missional living, about the church engaging the culture that surrounds it. The image of the borderland helps give life to this new understanding of church. Borderlands tend to be wild and untamed. Borderland areas are often inconvenient and uncomfortable. For the church to live out its mission in the borderlands, and that is where most of our churches now sit, we will have to understand that the mission field isn’t over there, it’s in our back yard. Borderland ministries, to be successful, must move from a “come to” understanding, that is, a “build it and they’ll come,” to a “go to” one. The challenge is that while missionary work my sound romantic, for us to engage in it requires a great deal of willingness to embrace radical change.

“Missionary life is full of inconvenience and discomfort. It will require that we work outside ourselves. It will require that we substitute ‘that which is comfortable to us’ for ‘that which will be comfortable for you’” (p. 5).

If we are to become a missional church, which many churches are talking about, we must risk ourselves in embracing the community around us. We must engage it and impact it. And the leaders of such churches must thrive in borderland situations. That is, they must be willing to go out where the people are present, rather than stay inside the safety of the faith community.

Churches are often hindered in their efforts because they tend to look backward. While our heritage and our traditions are important help define the message, too often we look back at the way things were, at when we had a place of importance, when people simply came, and we look back with bitterness and anger. When we do this, Nelson suggests, we can’t embrace the future. Now, churches understand that change is necessary, but they want it quick and easy, and when we live and work on the borderlands, change is often long term and difficult. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is the lack of urgency that many of our churches express.

“People only act in a transformational way when they feel urgency. Unfortunately, complacency is a deeply rooted attitude. We ignore the realities around us, take counsel only from ourselves, and listen to only what we want to hear. We wring our hands with anxiety, but continue to ignore signs pointing in the new direction. The song needs to be sung in a new way, but we naively hold on to the way it was” (p. 18).

But to those of us who preach change, he warns this call to change is not mere tinkering. True change, he points out moves beyond the superficial, beyond simply changing the style of music, to changing attitudes and presuppositions. He also points out that those most willing to embrace change are the ones who have some control over it.

So, living as we do in this ever changing environment, with the church becoming more and more set on the margins, with diversity becoming a constant opportunity and challenge, how might the church move forward? With the borderland theme preeminent, Nelson invites us to cross the border and begin living in the borderlands. This is an invitation to incarnational living. And once we cross over, there is no going back. That’s why they’re so difficult and challenging. Indeed, he notes that the most difficult moment is that moment in which we must actually jump, at the point of actual decision.

“Crossover times imply moments of decision, but they are not always decisions we control. They are more often decisions of response. Choices also take place when we are simply pushed off the edge. In those times, we have to decide whether or not we will fight against the experience” (pp. 29-30).

But once we cross the border, the journey isn’t over. Once we’ve crossed, the journey continues. It’s not just that we can fix the problems and then live in perfect peace. Border crossing becomes a continual adventure.

Churches are exploring the missional model understand that it requires of them an outward focus. They understand that being missionary is a nonnegotiable part of being church – we have been sent out! That means we must recognize that our lives must be shaped by the gospel itself. And how will we know when we have crossed the border and begun living incarnationally? It will be reflected in Nelson says, in “mood and atmosphere long before they move to programs” (p. 39). It will be expressed in attitudes such as openness and creativity. It will be expressed in beginning to exist for others. It will begin happening when find ourselves present in our communities. Nelson writes:

“Borderland churches know their neighbors, their politicians, and their neighboring businesses. They share in the community activities and are recognized by the agencies that work there. They are a presence not just through their buildings but through their social networks” (p. 39).

This journey to the borderlands requires that we connect with our roots. Nelson points back to the church at Ephesus. Whether or not we accept Pauline authorship of Ephesians or the pastorals, it is helpful to recognize that this church was incorporated for mission, but as he notes, in Revelation is criticized for having lost its purpose. As we take this journey, we must recover our passion. That requires that we let go of the safety of our institutionalized religion and embrace the world around us. This will require that we recover a theology of the church that centers in community that understands its purpose as being redemptive and transformative.

This involves three things: That we understand that the church is “called together,” that it is “called for” (to be a community of disciples), and that it is “called to” (service in the community) is essential to our movement forward in transformative ministries.

For clergy and other church leaders, this is a difficult transition. Clergy have for centuries been respected leaders in the community – even if never well paid. Now, they (we) are essentially irrelevant or at best our position in society is ambiguous. This requires that we develop a new tool kit, one that Nelson describes under the headings of apprentice, pastor, missionary, and theologian. It is that last calling that may surprise some, but it is essential that the leaders of churches be able to think theologically about the issues of the day. Note that the image of manager is missing.

“Pragmatic business models helpful in implementation do not necessarily produce deep churches and are wholly inadequate for the complexities of the times that we are in. Leaders cannot simply ‘have’ a theology, they must learn to ‘do’ theology, thoughtfully engaging in the task of cultural and relational interpretation through the lens of biblical reflection.” (P. 84).

Not only do leaders need new skill sets, but they also need to understand that leading churches into the borderland is a bit like “herding cats.” Therefore, as leaders they will need to learn to cultivate people so that they are able and willing to follow Jesus into the borderlands. This requires building trust and developing a sense of commitment, context, and constructs. The commitment should be self-explanatory, context is a sense of the environment – the neighborhood. Constructs have to do with congregational cultures – their history, structure, and values. To move forward many of these constructs must change and evolve. The way we talk and act with each other and in the community may need to change, and that will require that we begin questioning the assumptions by which we live and move and have our being!

As the church begins to question its assumptions and begins to rebuild for a new day, it must begin looking outward. In a most helpful chapter, entitled “Missioning the Church,” Nelson talks about our propensity to so focus on building the church that we forget that ministry happens out there. We commission Sunday school teachers and choir members, but not public school teachers, attorneys, nurses, etc. In doing this we forget that God is calling us to engage in incarnational ministry. In part this happens because the structures need servicing, so we want to honor our leaders and volunteers. But that need not preclude recognizing and “missioning” our people as they go out into the world. He writes:

“The church becomes both an instrument and sign of what God wants to do in this kingdom that Jesus brought to earth. The purpose of the church and its mission is to incarnationally point to what it might look like when a community of people becomes alive under God’s reign. By ‘missioning’, the church is making visible to each member, to the church community, and to the world that God’s people are at work” (p. 113).

Having been “missioned” we go out into the world, but do we go as tourists or travelers? Tourists go the convenient way and are unchanged by their encounters, but the traveler will encounter difficulty and discomfort, as Paul experienced it perhaps, and be changed by the encounters along the way. As we travel, we will experience, what he calls the “four E’s” – experience, embedding, engagement, and embodiment. To bring the words of life, the church must first gain a hearing, and thus it must go into the world and share life there.

The book closes with a series of case studies, of churches that have embraced the call to cross the borders. These stories suggest that while difficult there are real possibilities. But the churches are as transformed as the communities in which they live. That’s the point of all of this. We will be changed ourselves. We will, if we choose this route, abandon the old “attractional” or “come to” model that worked so well for generations. Then you just built a building and hung out a sign and waited for them to come. That day is over. Now is the time to embrace a new, “go to,” model. With this model, we will invest ourselves in our communities, in our neighborhoods. And just so that we understand what that means, Nelson points out that there are two kinds of neighborhoods to be entered. There is the neighborhood that surrounds the church, where the building is present. Missional life requires that we enter that community in a way that is transformative. But that’s not the only neighborhood. There is the neighborhood where we live, and the neighborhood where we work. In these communities, we are called to incarnational living. The good news is that we don’t cross the border alone – for God is with us. Oh, and a series of appendices provides help for congregations to explore and consider their neighborhoods.

This is a most important book, one that comes out of “The Columbia Partnership Leadership Series.” It is well written, thoughtful and challenging. While, it is another exploration of missional church theory and practice, it’s not just another book of theory. It offers important insight into how churches intent on becoming missional can take the next step and cross over into a new way of living in the world. Just the one little chapter about “missioning” the people is worth the price of the book. It will, I think help revolutionize the way church not only understands itself, but enters the neighborhood in a way that will transform both church and neighborhood. In closing, let me say: this is a must read book for all who wish to be not only missional, but to be a church that is present in a transformative way in the world.

A Difficult Mission

George Mitchell is in the Middle East. He's talking to Ohlmert, Abbas, Mubarak, etc. He's calling for a broadening and strengthening of the cease-fire, but all around him rockets and missiles are flying. Almost as soon as the last hostilities ended, we began again the tit for tat, that makes progress almost impossible. It's really hard to know who is responsible, because their all connected, and extremists do what they do to disrupt things. But ultimately someone has to start talking directly to Hamas. They're in control of Gaza and have survived a major onslaught from the Israelis, to continue to pretend that they're not in charge, is a bit like US ignoring Castro and Cuba.

So, I say to Senator Mitchell. Keep at it and know that this is going to be a long and arduous trip! And maybe some change in policy is in order.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Science's Rightful Place

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama said something that many might have missed or skipped over. He said that his administration would restore science to its rightful place. The point, of course, is that after an eight year period where science was put under a partisan microscope, he was going to set scientists free to do their work. This is especially true of foci such as climate change and energy and maybe stem cell research. But it has broader implications, because science education is part of the equation. The ID and Creationist movements have done much to damage the credibility of science education and the scientific method.

Dennis Overbye has written a most interesting essay for the New York Times. It's entitled: "Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy." He challenges the ideas that science has no intrinsic values or that it teaches no values to society. Indeed, science and democracy go hand in hand. China has tried to embrace science without democracy, but that the lack of democracy has crimped its science. America's attempts in recent years to clip the wings of science, may have crimped our democracy.

What I thought was interesting was his discussion of the values that emerge from science:

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

I am of the belief that all truth is God's truth, and that we should seek truth -- always knowing that we don't have a complete handle on the truth and that our understandings of truth can and will be challenged every day. These values, that Overbye lists, do have a great attraction for me -- as a Christian!

But Names Can Never Hurt Me?

Growing up I remember being called names -- we've all experienced it. Though, in recent years there has been more of an effort in the schools to deal with this directly. When I was Project Coordinator for the No Place for Hate campaign in Santa Barbara we offered schools resources that helped students understand the issues at hand. And we weren't the only group offering such support services.

What I find interesting is the vehemence with which groups like Focus on the Family oppose anti-bullying education and hate crimes laws. I understand that they oppose homosexuality -- it's quite clear -- but why oppose efforts to reduce the level of hate crimes and bring civility to our communities. Why oppose "No Name Calling Week" in our schools? Surely they're not for children calling others names. Yeah, I know, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." Well, the truth is that names do hurt. They oppose it because they see beneath it a pro-gay agenda. Well, so what? Why do you need to have the right to call someone a fag? Does it empower you? Do you think you are being prophetic?
I simply don't get it!

Candace Chellew-Hodge: gets it:

For this event to focus especially on the words that are most often hurled like weapons at gays and lesbians is the final insult. They'd support this kind of week if they could still call a "fag" a "fag." To them, that's not an insult—it's a tool to shame a miserable sinner into conversion and they won't have it being yanked from their "Black and Decker Save-a-Queer-for-Christ" tool kit.

But these names dig deep and rip at self-esteem. Chellew-Hedge continues:

Believe me, there are plenty of scarred gay and lesbian people walking this earth—and groups like FoF want to keep it that way. Apparently people with low self-esteem are more susceptible to being sucked into a brand of religion that offers easy answers to life's hard questions.

Certainly, Jesus wasn't above name-calling. The Pharisees came in for his wrath and he called them "vipers" and "hypocrites." But, Jesus' name-calling was reserved for the religiously powerful who constantly bullied the least of these.

Yes, Jesus did call certain people names, but they generally were powerful folk, the kind that need to be pulled down a rung. But other children, that's just not cool! Remember Jesus also said:

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22 NRSV)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Respect and the Muslim World

In his interview yesterday with Al Arabiya TV, Barack Obama set forth an important line of communication. In choosing to address the Muslim and the Arab worlds with his first televised interview he offered a very different face. Rather than the "you're for me or against" me kind of rhetoric that marked the previous administration, Obama spoke from his own experience. He has Muslim relatives and lived in a Muslim country -- Indonesia.

With that in mind he speaks of the need to listen and to live together with mutual respect.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith – and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers – regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.

And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.

But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world - but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well.

And he makes it clear that actions will speak louder than words. And we on this side of the divide will be watching as well. But this is a good sign, one to be commended. Only the most jaded, anti-Muslim folk can dismiss this effort (and of course there are plenty of them in the nation, but hopefully they are only a minority).

Barack Obama has extended the hand of friendship, distinguishes between terrorist groups and the Muslim people, and offers a way forward.

Here is part 2 of the interview in which this is most clearly expressed:

Getting Ready for Evolution Weekend

We are closing in on the 4th Anniversary of the first Evolution Sunday, which is morphing into Evolution Weekend so as to include other faith traditions. It will be my fourth time doing this -- the first three times as Pastor of First Christian Church of Lompoc. Now, I'm readying my current congregation for a similar observance. Yes, we will observe the birthday of Charles Darwin, who incidentally turns 200 on February 12, the same day that Abraham Lincoln also turns 200.

Laurie Lebo writes a most informative background article on this observance, focusing on Michael Zimmerman's efforts to support the teaching of evolution in our schools. I learned something in this essay (not that Indianapolis' Butler University is in Wisconsin -- a minor mistake). I didn't know that Zimmerman was himself an atheist. But unlike Richard Dawkins, he doesn't believe that using evolution as a platform for espousing atheism does science any good. What he discovered in his own efforts was that many religious people, including clergy believed that evolution and faith were compatible. That led him to conclude that maybe it's religious folk that need to take the lead. Though, I must say that Michael works tireously on this effort, and he has treated me as a religious leader with utmost respect. I don't feel like he's using me to further an end, rather he has invited me to participate in an important effort that vital implications. I've been only too eager to help!

Lebo closes with an extended quote from St. Augustine, who cautioned fellow Christians against posing their faith against the science of the day.

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and the other elements of this world, about the motions of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics…. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintain his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

So, won't you join me in celebrating Charles Darwin's birthday on the weekend of February 13-15?

Obama Talks to the Muslim World

The recent pattern for American Presidents is to start work on Middle East Peace with 6 months left in your term. I guess they hope they can make the big breakthrough that will give cover to the rest of their term in office. Last night Barack Obama gave his first full interview not to CNN or Fox, but to Saudi station Al Arabiya. He made it his first focus to say to the Muslim world, we're not your enemy. We're ready to engage. Yes, Israel is our ally and will continue to be our ally, but that doesn't mean we can't talk. Indeed, this time around will listen first, before dictating terms.

This interview, part of which I watched last night on CNN, is amazing and reassuring. It demonstrates his commitment to get engaged right from the beginning. Sending George Mitchell into the region is also a good sign.

Now, the road ahead is difficult, and full of land mines. There are those on every side that want to undermine progress.

I don't know if a 2 state solution is going to work, but if it is, now is the time to get started on it. Obama stated regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue:

“Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”

He told Iran that we're willing to talk -- but stop meddling at the same time.

Now we watch for reaction! But my reaction is: this is good!!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Inaugural Jesus -- Sightings

The inauguration of President Barack Obama is nearly a week in the past. He's will into his term, well a week into it, but questions and comments still swirl.

Martin Marty speaks to the "scandal of Jesus" in the inauguration, that is the scandal of the "in the name of Jesus." The question here is what is the scandal and how should we respond. As always, Marty offers cogent interpretation and challenges.


Sightings 1/26/09

Inaugural Jesus

-- Martin E. Marty

The apostle Paul claimed that Jesus, in the form of "Christ crucified," was "a stumbling block [skandalon=scandal=offence] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (I Corinthians 1:23) Jews+Gentiles=pretty much everybody. You may ask, "What is Jesus doing in Sightings," given this column's assignment to deal with religion in public life? Try this: Saturday my internet search engine turned up 484,000 references to "Jesus" or "Christ" linked with "inauguration," and yours will find even more by today. That's "public."

So Jesus is my topic, as we leave the inaugural events behind but still have controversies ahead. Many citizens are at ease with prayers in pluralistic America when they are generic, civil, God-ly. Invoke Jesus, however, and not a few are scandalized by the reference, while others are scandalized by the scandalized. I propose a thesis; correct me if I have it wrong, lest I keep spreading wrongness. Thesis: Jesus is not the scandal. The use of Jesus in public at "we the people of the United States" occasions is usually the offence. Jesus gets from one- to four-star ratings in the following publics:

First the company of non-believers, secular humanists, atheists, deists, et cetera, who often admire teachings of Jesus. Their American patriarch Thomas Jefferson even published his annotated anthology of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jews have suffered at the hands of millions of followers of Jesus, but some very fine books on Jesus as rabbi get published – by rabbis – without scandalizing. My wife and I attend the "Music of the Baroque" series with many Jews in the audience and some in the chorus and orchestra, as they perform music with Jesus-words, some of them not kind toward Jews. "No problem." Yet many are uneasy with the invocation of Jesus in general-public and often official events.

Muslims revere Jesus the prophet. Of course, with the other groups just mentioned, they do not accept his divinity, but he is in the Qur'an, and they are respectful, except, again, in certain public settings. Jesus is not in Hindu scriptures, but most Hindus say "no problem" about many of his teachings and about him – in context.

No matter what is said in public, what do the inhabitants of the previous three paragraphs hear? First, they hear: "We belong, and you don't." They hear assertions of majority privilege in the religious realm, where such privilege often has taken form in power against others. Second, they hear: "We have things figured out, and you don't," and find such claims insulting, since issues of truth based in scriptural revelations cannot be settled in civil discourse and civic debate.

Christians are taught to pray in the name of Jesus, and I join the two billion Christians around the world in doing so. It is theologically correct, liturgically appropriate, and personally, as in matters of piety, clarifying and warm. But such beliefs and practices do not license privilege, assertions of power, or exclusivity in public settings. Because of our confusion on this, we Americans spend more energy debating inaugural and other prayers than praying them, to the point that their point is obscured.

We should devise some signal by which those who pray particular prayers (as I believe all are) let everyone know that while praying in their own integral style and form, they are aware and will at least implicitly assure their audiences that they are not speaking for everyone. They can then encourage others to translate what is being said into contexts they find congenial, and still share a communal experience.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

"By wanting to talk about what normally falls under the category of religion in terms of play it may seem like I want to solve this problem by taking none of this aspect of life seriously. This is just because there is such a close association between play and frivolity in contemporary discourse. But if play is non-instrumental activity framed to evoke ambiguity, then it is not at all necessarily unserious." Approaching play as "a sophisticated form of metacommunication," a "non-instrumental activity framed to evoke ambiguity," Divinity School PhD candidate Jeffrey Israel finds wide-ranging ramifications for society. In "The Capability of Play," January's Religion and Culture Web Forum essay, Israel makes forays into animal behavior, religious identity, and Lenny Bruce, building a case for play as an essential component of human existence which should be recognized as a basic right.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The Eucharist and the World

We Disciples place great emphasis on the Lord's Table. We gather each week to break the bread of life and share in the cup of salvation. Although a pastor likely will preside at the table, clergy are not required. It has been that way, I think from the beginnings of our movement. But what does the Lord's Supper have to say to us? What purpose does it serve?

I appreciated Rob Bell's lengthy and challenging meditation on the Eucharist in his new book: Jesus Wants to Save Christians, (Zondervan, 2008). Bell points out the implications of our Eucharistic celebrations. He writes (and this is but a taste):

The Eucharist is ultimately about what we do out there, in the flow of every day life.

When the goal of a church is to get people into church services and then teach them how to invite people to come to church services, so that they in turn will bring others to more church services --

that's attendance at church services.

And church is not ultimately about attending large gatherings.

Church is people.

People who live a certain way in the world.

People who have authority in the world, but authority that comes from breaking themselves open and pouring themselves out so that the world will be healed.

Bell points to the roots of the Eucharist in the Passover, which means, he says, that the Eucharist particularizes the "exodus in time and space. Exodus is the ultimate picture of salvation." (pp. 160-161) It is therefore, a call to liberation of the oppressed.

He continues:

The Eucharist is the firstborn, the church leading the way in exodus. Every time we take part in the Eucharist, we're reminded that we were each slaves and God rescued us. The church must cling to her memory of exodus, because if that memory is forgotten,

the church may forget the poor,

and if the power are forgotten,

the church may forget what it was like to be enslaved,

and that would be forgetting the grace of God.

And that wold be forgetting who we are. (pp. 162-163).

What does it mean to share in the Eucharist? Does it not mean that we share in the life of the world that God is seeking to reconcile and heal?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Two State Two Step

I like Tom Friedman. I think he's a great writer and generally quite perceptive. In some ways he's a hawk, but he understands the realities of the world. He's critical of Israel, at times, but supportive at others. He has been an advocate of a two-state solution, but he's realizing that this might be a solution that is nearing its usefulness.

In an essay today in the NY Times, entitled "This Is Not a Test" Friedman suggests that the possibility of a two state solution is nearing its end point. The reasons are two fold -- Hamas and the Jewish Settlements on the West Bank. He's hoping that Israel will elect a centrist government in the February 10th elections that will rein in/close the settlements, but puts the onus for the recent invasion on Hamas, though there's considerable evidence to suggest that Israel was looking for a reason to invade.

My concern is with Friedman's hope that Israel will elect a government that will say no to the settlements. Who will that be? Even under Labor Governments no real effort has been made to stem the tide of the settlers. And the most likely scenario is that Likud will take over, and Likud has from the very beginning been keen on expanding the settlements, not pull them down. Sharon pulled the settlements out of Gaza and then essentially sealed the borders. When Hamas won democratically held elections both Israel and the US refused to acknowledge their legitimacy, leading in my mind to much of the problems that are present now. You can't say -- hold elections and then when people hold them say, we don't like the results.

So, where will all of this lead? At this point a "two-state" solution is the only solution on the table, but time is running out. Demographics is one issue -- both inside and outside Israel proper. And, there is no sign that the settlements are coming down any time soon. So, what do you make of the 1967 borders?

Friedman seems to be recognizing what a lot of others are recognizing -- we need to start working on a new solution.

George Mitchell has a lot on his hands!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians -- Review

JESUS WANTS TO SAVE CHRISTIANS: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. By Rob Bell and Don Golden. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 218 pp.

The title is intriguing: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. It’s intriguing because one would assume that Christians are already saved. After all, aren’t Christians followers of Jesus? And isn’t Jesus the one who saves us? The problem, as Rob Bell and Don Golden suggest, is that we have gone and lost our way.

As with Velvet Elvis, an earlier book by Bell, this book is written in a fast paced and compelling manner. The paragraphs are brief. Often the wording is laid out one sentence or one phrase at a time. The book is packaged so that the reader continues to move forward into the book. While the style and the formatting aids in the reading of the material, the material itself is compelling, challenging, and transformative.

As with any coauthored book one doesn’t know exactly who wrote what, but I’m assuming that Bell is the lead writer in this effort. Bell is a pastor of a large evangelical church on the western side of Michigan, but if one were to rely on stereotypes then what one finds in this book might be surprising. But then again, the title says a lot about what to expect.

The premise of this book is that God is a God who listens to the oppressed and the enslaved, and then reaches out to liberate the oppressed from slavery and from poverty. The biblical story is about a God who is not necessarily fair, that is, this God focuses on those in need not on those who are self-sufficient. It’s that old idea of God’s preferential option for the poor, thought the authors don’t use that phrase. More to the point, is the message of the Cain and Abel story. Beginning in Genesis, we find Cain and Abel, two brothers from a dysfunctional family. The writers of Genesis, they suggest “insist that something has gone terribly wrong with humanity, and that from the very beginning humans are moving in the wrong direction” (p. 13). From the very beginning we have forgotten our calling to be the keeper of our brothers and sisters. That theme carries through the book. God is concerned about the other, and God is listening for their voice.

First in Egypt, God hears the cries of the oppressed. Egypt, the authors tell us, is an “anti-kingdom.” That is, it is symbolic of those forces that stand opposed to God’s kingdom, which is concerned for peace. Egypt, they write, “is what happens when sin becomes structured and embedded in society.” Exodus, on the other hand, “is about a people, a tribe, a nation being rescued from slavery” (p. 27). At Sinai God breaks the silence and begins to speak – for the first time in the Scriptures that God talks to a group since Eden. And by speaking in the wilderness, no one can take ownership of God’s speech. It belongs to everyone, and the message is that of rescue and liberation.

As God first listens and then speaks to the people, we discover that God is in search of a body. That’s why, Bell and Golden say, that the third commandment bans idols and images. These former slaves, whom God has liberated, they are the ones who will carry God’s image. And the Commandments themselves, are the way in which they are to be human, “new way to live and move in the world, in covenant with the God who hears the cry of the oppressed and liberates them” (p. 34). From Sinai we move to Jerusalem, and the story of Solomon.

We’re used to hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, but Bell and Golden remind us of the dark side of his personality. “God,” they note, had been looking for “a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like.” The Queen of Sheba had come to Jerusalem, seeking understanding and returns believing that he has been made king because he had maintained “justice and righteousness.” She’s impressed with Solomon’s God because God is concerned about oppressed. And yet, in the end, Solomon walks away from that God. Instead of maintaining “justice and righteousness,” he builds temples and palaces on the backs of slave laborers. How ironic that Solomon is building a temple for the God who freed slaves with slave labor (pp. 35-39). But not only that, but Solomon was busy building military bases – like Megiddo. He’s doing this, because he needs to protect his “massive resources and wealth” (p. 40).

By now you should be getting the picture that any stereotypes about evangelical commitments need to be reconsidered. This is a book about a God who listens to the cries of the oppressed, liberates the slaves, and doesn’t take kindly to kings who oppress and enslaves in his name. With Solomon, Israel becomes the new Egypt.

What’s next? Why Babylon and exile. “Exile is when you fail to convert your blessings into blessings for others. Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (p. 45). God had been warning the people about such matter through prophets like Amos, who declared that God didn’t care much for their evil assemblies, since they were given to oppression. With the exile and the return, one witness a new exodus – where one hopes that things would be different. The concern expressed by the prophets was that things would return to normal. Jerusalem would be rebuilt with armies, palaces, slaves, and a temple as before.

Upon returning home, they discover that things are what they were. They may not be in Babylon, but this is no return to glory. In time they’ll build a new Temple, but occupation and oppression will be their lot as well. The hope is for a new Son of David. Here Jesus enters the story. Jesus is the one hears the cries of the oppressed. The question is put before him – are you listening or are you like Solomon?

Bell and Golden mix in a number of stories, from Exodus to Solomon to Emmaus. Throughout all of this, we discover new ways of understanding reality – and we learn that violence and oppression are not part of God’s ways. Jesus, they write, ends violence by absorbing it. In resisting violence Jesus becomes the suffering servant of Isaiah. In defining the cross we don’t see any sign of a sacrificial victim placating an angry God. There is a bit of the substitutionary atonement, but it’s not prominent.

The story moves on into the book of Acts, where we meet Philip and the eunuch. I think that the authors mix up the Philips in the biblical story. The one in Acts isn’t the same one as in the gospels. That being said, Philip is portrayed as a conservative Jew who likely would not have welcomed a eunuch, and yet there he is sharing the good news with him, and doing so the good news extends beyond Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. Indeed, if the message of liberation is for all humanity, it can’t stay in Jerusalem.

The message is filtering through the book. Everything in the biblical story is interconnected, Eden, Exodus, Sinai, Jerusalem, Babylon, the Son of David, and Pentecost. God is in search of a body to make his presence known. Finally there is the church, “a body of people putting flesh and blood on the divine” (p. 99). And, then there’s baptism, which takes us back to the Exodus – indeed it’s all related. The point of which, is the freeing of the message of God from “its cultural and religious trappings” so it might be a universal message.

That brings us forward into the present – to an American form of Christianity. The story of the church in America is the story of living in empire. With Iraq in the background, America is what Rome was.

“Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It’s a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire” (p. 121).

Most perceptively, they write that this book can be difficult to understand when read by citizens of the world’s most powerful empire – “Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may eve be possible to miss central themes of the Scriptures” (p. 121). American Christians, most of whom embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, and affirm the idea that God is blessing America, may find this section of the book discomforting.

Revelation is one of those biblical books that causes problems for interpreters. Bell and Golden recognize this and point out its message – one directed at empire. It is a call to resistance to the corrosive nature of empire that has the “power to oppress people.” It is, they write, “a bold, courageous, political attack” on empire. It presents a choice – Jesus or Caesar – who is Lord? (P. 133). Whose way, they ask, is the way? Violence or peace? Indeed, this does press close to home.

But that’s not the only discomforting thought. He presses even closer to home – what about church structures and institutions – like youth groups that seem unable to catch the drift of Jesus’ message. But in our abundance, how do we hear this message?

How do kids who are surrounded by more abundance than in any other generation in the history of humanity take seriously a Messiah who said, “I have been anointed to preach good news to the poor?” (p. 138).

Indeed, “how do they fathom that half the world is too poor to feed its kids when their church just spent two years raising money to build an addition to their building?” (P. 138).

These are difficult questions to wrestle with. It is hard for us to comprehend the full message of Scripture. We don’t understand fully the meaning of the Exodus, of the lamb of God who is slain. From Passover to Eucharist, we hear the call to remember, to not forget the lamb that was slain for the first born. In both reconciliation takes place, but in the Eucharist all things are reconciled. In death, life is produced. “A Christian,” they write, “is a living Eucharist, allowing her body to be broken and her blood to be poured out for the healing of the world” (p. 150). In the Eucharist, in the broken body and shed blood, peace is made, walls fall down, things are reconciled, and a new humanity emerges. Black and white turn to color. In the Eucharist, the church ceases to be monochromatic.

This is a manifesto to an American church that has become comfortable living in the midst of abundance and empire. It is a call to become the body of Christ, so that it might listen to the cries of the oppressed – as God hears those cries. It is a call for the church to give up pretenses to power – not that it withdraws from the world, but it lives in the world differently, redemptively.

The good news is that God hears us, in our own sinfulness, in our own darkness and slavery. And the word that comes to us is one of rescue, redemption, grace. But, “God doesn’t just want to save us; God is looking for a body, a people to incarnate the divine” (p. 173). That’s the point of the book. God is calling the church to incarnate God’s presence in a way that is redemptive and gracious, so that the oppressed might be liberated – whatever the nature of that oppression. As this happens, then we’ll discover that the good news isn’t about another world, it’s about this one. It is a call to make this world a better place.

This is a compelling book. I don’t know the hearts of the authors. I don’t know everything about their theology. I’m sure there are areas where would disagree. But it is good to be reminded that even the church needs saving, that the church living in empire needs to see things differently. It won’t take long to read through this book, but taking the time to walk with these two authors will be a worthwhile trek – no matter our theology. To read this book is to hear the biblical story in a way that will challenge one’s understanding of God, of Jesus, of the church, of one’s own self. It might not be the message one wishes to hear, especially at a time of great distress, but’s still a message we need to hear.