Saturday, June 28, 2014

I gave Marc Maron one of my sermons

This week I joined all the hipsters over in Lawrence, KS (I felt at a loss, because I wasn't wearing skinny jeans nor an ironic thrift store t-shirt.) to see my favorite comedian and podcaster Marc Maron.  The show was great and he was very gracious with the fans.

Last year on Pentecost Sunday, I used a story from Maron's book Attempting Normal in my sermon.  I brought a CD of that sermon hoping I could give it to him.  During the Q&A, I shared that I was a minister who was a big fan and I had used his stories in sermons.  The crowd thought that was awesome, so I told him I had a copy of one for him.  He seemed genuinely glad to have it and asked if he could play it on his show.  I agreed, of course.

After the show, I began to worry that I came across like I was crazy or trying to convert him, so I tweeted the following:

A little while later, I got this reassuring response to my tweet by none other than Maron himself:

I hope he does listen to it and appreciates it.  Mentioning it on his podcast seems like too much to ask.  Either way, I got to interact with a comedian/podcaster whose work I really enjoy and that interaction was a good one--I'm more than satisfied with that much.

If you want to hear the sermon I gave to Marc Maron, here it is on my church's web site.  Apologies for the crappy audio quality.  Something was up with the audio that day.

Wadi Qelt (a.k.a. "the valley of the shadow of death")

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . ."

I learned the words to the 23rd Psalm when I was a child.  I still prefer the poetry of the King James Version and its Elizabethan English.  Today, I recite it most often at funerals, at which I'm grateful still most people know the words to recite along with me.  I've been known to preach on it, because it is worth living by every day and not just at funerals.  After visiting Israel, I think of it in a whole new way.

The picture above is of a place called Wadi Qelt.  A wadi is a canyon carved by centuries of sporadic heavy rain.  Wadi Qelt is the traditional place David had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.  (It is also said to be the place where the prophet Elijah hid from the forces of Queen Jezebel and was fed by ravens.)  Of course, there is no way to know if this is the place David really had in mind any more than there is a way to know for sure that it was David who wrote Psalm 23, but it was powerful to visit it just the same. 

I had always envisioned the "valley of the shadow of death" as well, more shadowed rather than baked by the sun.  The vegetation you see in the picture exists because an ancient aqueduct still carries water along its steep cliff side and leaks at places.  The aqueduct was built long after David's time, so if he was thinking of Wadi Qelt it wasn't with any greenery.  It's much more bleak than I imagined.  The day we visited the temperature was in the 90's (don't ask me about Celsius) and it felt like we were being baked in an oven.

I had also imagined the "valley of the shadow of death" to have more life to it.  I guess I was taking the phrase literally which says, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."  Now I know the writer of the Psalm, if he or she had Wadi Qelt or a place like it in mind was drawing a contrast between his or her lived reality and what he or she trusted God would provide.  There are no green pastures nor still waters in Wadi Qelt.  The only water comes rarely and dangerously rushing through the canyon.

When we look at the parched landscape with its steep cliff sides that allow only a narrow trail along them, we can realize just how much faith it took for the Psalm writer to trust God would provide "green pastures," "still waters," "a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," and a cup that "runneth over."  This is the substance of faith in God--that in our desperate moments when we are most in need that God remains with us to provide for us.

Wadi Qelt speaks to our lived reality.  In moments of tragedy and grief, pain and loss, it may take more imagination than we can muster to believe existence is more than a parched and desolate place lacking in comfort.  When we have no answers for why the innocent suffer, the young die or relationships are broken, Wadi Qelt awaits. 

The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  There are times when we have no assurances nor convictions.  Yet, Psalm 23 declares that when we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" God is with us.  This is faith--daring to believe God walks with us even when we cannot feel God's presence. 

Wadi Qelt reminds us not to speak of faith in a trite manner nor to speak words to one who grieves merely to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable in their presence.  It reminds us that faith in such circumstances is truly a miraculous event that if it occurs, does so on a different timetable for each person.

Faith is believing that even in such a bleak landscape, God is still present with us.  Faith is trusting that the Psalm's words are true: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."  I hold no guarantees, but I pray you find faith when your life's journey takes you to Wadi Qelt.  May your "shepherd" guide you.
Grace and Peace,

Why was Jesus a Small Town Guy?

(written for my church on June 20)

I'm back from Israel although I'm still jet-lagged.  Although I returned Monday evening, I continue to fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon and wake up in the middle of the night, so in case I miss Sunday worship, that's my excuse.  I am thankful to all who filled in for me during my absence: Mark Pridmore and Karon Harper for preaching and leading in worship, the church staff for doing all their good work to keep our church running, and our lay leaders and volunteers who do so much to make this community of faith a reality.

My trip was wonderful and I'm full of thoughts about it.  In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing more about my experiences.  Suffice to say, I will never read Bible stories in the same way now that I have seen the places they are supposed to have happened.  For now, let me share this reflection with you.

 My trip started out seeing sites along the Mediterranean coast such as Caesarea, a port city constructed by Herod the Great before Jesus' birth that later became the home of Roman governors like Pontius Pilate.  (see above picture)  It was quite the city complete with a grand theater, circus mzximus for chariot races and an arena for gladiatorial combat.  We concluded our trip in Jerusalem, which was in Jesus' day as it is now, a hub of religious, governmental and commercial activity with incredible architecture that towered over its inhabitants.  Between these ancient cities, however, we visited sites around the Sea of Galilee which was an entirely different experience.

First off, the Sea of Galilee (pictured above--photograph by Sterling Severns) is not a sea but rather a freshwater lake--a big one but not a huge one.  After reading about it in the Bible my whole life, I was rather stunned by how small it is.  Don't get me wrong it's beautiful; in fact I would say the Galilee area is probably the most beautiful part of Israel, but it is not large.  We visited the ruins of the ancient villages of Capernaum (see below picture--photograph by Sterling Severns) and Bethsaida where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  These two villages and a third Korazin form what's called the "Gospel Triangle," the area where Jesus did almost all of his preaching, teaching and miracles.  Again, I was shocked by how small the villages were--really just hamlets by the lake shore in the case of Bethsaida and Capernaum.  Furthermore they aren't far off from each other, a few hours walk at most would take you between these villages and through similar ones nearby.  Now I understand why the gospels describe crowds gathering around Jesus; everybody in this very small area probably knew of his teaching and activities.

 Jesus didn't pick a metropolis for his ministry but a small rural area where fishing was the primary industry.  He could have chosen the city which represented the might of the empire or the city considered most holy but instead chose a much less "important" place for his work.  If you happen to believe in the incarnation, as I do, this means that God chose to be present in a unique and incredible manner not in the halls of power but among ordinary people in a small area.  What might that mean?

For me it means that if this God-thing is real, then any place can be a place where God can do amazing things.  Even if that place happens to be out of the way, what God does may start in an out of the way place but it doesn't stay there.  What God does matters so much, shakes the foundations of our human sensibilities and conventional wisdom so greatly, that it echoes in the powers of influence.  Jesus was the ultimate grassroots organizer that ended up changing the world by starting small, but what was small in the eyes of the world was great in its power and influence.

If this God-thing is real, that means what we do as a church among our small congregation matters a great deal.  If we allow God to be active among us, what we do together matters.  Just as what Jesus accomplished in the small villages near the lake shore impacted the world around it, so also what we do together can make a huge difference in our neighborhood, our part of the city, our metropolitan area, the states of Kansas and Missouri, our nation and our world. 

Are my thoughts too grandiose?  Perhaps.  But I walked among the small villages where God worked wonders on the shore of the Galilee, and I've learned that what matters is not the size or influence of a community but rather its willingness to allow God to work through it. 

Grace and Peace,

Friday, May 30, 2014

Give Your Soul a Gift: Listen/Watch Maya Angelou This Week

When I read I know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, I had no idea who Maya Angelou was, but I am so grateful my English teacher exposed me to her powerful story and her soaring poetry.  I encourage you this weekend to not let Angelou's death just float by in the news cycle but rather to take time to read her work and listen to her words and watch her speak.  Your soul will be better for doing so.  Here are a few places to start:

1973 interview with Bill Moyers--the older Angelou is so fixed in my mind that it is fascinating to see her 40 years younger.  She and Moyers discuss issues of racism and sexism, and it is interesting to think about how far we have come and how much remains the same about our culture. 

1986 interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air--hearing her sing the spirituals of her childhood is deeply stirring

And of course you must listen to Angelou read her incredible poem "Still I Rise"

"I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous."
--Maya Angelou

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 5-30-14

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.   Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week:
  • Our church is a part of the Southwest Early College Campus Faith Coalition made up of churches in Brookside.  SWECC, formerly Southwest High School, is of course right across from our church.  At one point in our church's history, our church had a ministry that provided childcare for teenage mothers attending the school, however, in more recent years we have had less interaction with the school.  The coalition provides a variety of support to students and staff, including the upcoming workday on Saturday morning, June 7.  Currently, CCCUCC's Jan Parks represents us on the coalition, but my hope is that more folks from our church would step up to care for this school--especially since it is across the street from our building.  At this week's school board meeting, members of the faith coalition spoke up in support of SWECC students and administrators.   
  • In the latest issue of The AtlanticTa-Nehisi Coates has written a 16,000 word peice entitled "The Case for Reparations."  I haven't made it through this lengthy article yet, but I have heard Coates interviewed and his approach to reparations for African Americans for the institution of slavery, Jim Crow laws and discriminatory economic policies that continued through most of the twentieth century is powerful and well-argued.  When I first saw this article being talked about, I thought, "What's the point reparations will never happen in our political culture?"  Yet, when I heard and read Coates explain how systematic economic oppression continues to impact African Americans even in the Obama Era, I was educated about so many discriminatory policies and programs that continued well after the Civil Rights Era.  The stories he tells are powerful and provocative.   (Watch Coates' interview with Bill Moyers.  Listen to Coates' interview on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show.)
  •  The debate about French economist Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century continues--making it a surprising beach read.  I'm not going to read a 600 page book on economic history, but I am interested in the implications of income inequality for what I believe are Christian principles of justice, so I am trying to stay up on it.  This article was helpful to me, and to my uneducated mind, it seemed a fair analysis.   
  • CCCUCC's own political scientist, Michael Smith, has a great column this week about how Kansas policies towards immigrants and LGBT people are causing millennial members of the "creative class" to leave the state.  (Pssst. . . these are the kind of young people who might be interested in our kind of church.)
  • This week, a church member recommended to me Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by the great religion scholar Randal Balmer.  Since Balmer has a history of writing about American Evangelicals, he knows Carter well.  One of the fascinating parts of the book examines the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970's.  To hear Jerry Falwell tell it, they came together to oppose abortion, but Balmer makes a convincing case that what really drove these fundamentalists to seek political power was protecting segregated religious schools in the South.  Check out the excerpt from Balmer's book at Politico.    
  • Paul Krguman has a column in the NYTimes that argues limits to carbon emissions in order to stop climate change would be far cheaper than opponents argue it would.      
  • I like former emergent church pastor Rob Bell; he is a thinking Evangelical who has used multimedia in wonderful ways.  His book Love Wins which challenged the central tenet of Evangelical Christianity--you are going to Hell if you don't accept Jesus as savior and lord--and some say cost him his church.  Well, Bell is now in California and has a new show on the Oprah Winfrey Network coming out.  Given the fact that I can't think of a single example of Christians on TV that has any integrity, this seems like a bad idea to me.  I hope Bell becomes the exception to the long, sad history of Christians and TV.  

Keep up with things I find worth reading by following me on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Death Penalty Demeans Us All

I have a friend from high school, Doug Ramseur (now interestingly married to a UCC minister), who has made a career of being a Capital Defender.  A Capital Defender is employed by a state to carry out defense work at the sentencing stage of capital crimes.  Since most public defenders are overworked and underpaid and sentencing can involve specialized legal work, Doug comes in when someone has been found guilty of a capital crime and is facing a death sentence in order to give them the best defense the law can allow.  

I can remember when Doug first began this work years ago we were talking about the death penalty.  I offered that the crimes are horrible and listening to the families of the victims is traumatic.  I asked, "How can we help but want the ultimate punishment for such terrible violent acts?"  Doug's response has always stayed with me.  He replied that it was also traumatic to listen to the family members of the offender.  Often, the offender underwent abuse and neglect, suffered from mental illness and/or was himself the victim of violent crime.  Listening to the mother of an offender weep for the misspent life of her son is also haunting. 

Once I reflected on Doug's words, maybe for the first time, I began to think of offenders of horrendous crimes as human.  The acts of violence are so terrible that the normal human response is to recoil in horror and to re-categorize such a person as a monster--the ultimate other that should have no place in this world.  My reluctance  to think of such an offender as human, I realized, had a lot to do with my own desire not to see any similarities between myself and him. 

Over the years since then, once I began to consider the possibility that capital offenders were human too, I have paid attention to the issue of capital punishment.  Study after study continues to demonstrate the inequalities in our justice system.  If you are wealthy enough to hire good criminal defense lawyers it is highly unlikely you will be sentenced or even convicted, whereas a person who only has an overworked and under-trained public defender is almost guaranteed to not only be convicted but face harsher sentences.   Furthermore, the scientific evidence is vast that ethnic minorities receive harsher sentences than Caucasians and are convicted by juries at a higher rate for the same crimes.  Regularly, it seems, various "Innocence Projects" reveal through DNA research or review of evidence that a person on Death Row (usually African-American and male) is innocent.  Debate over the death penalty would be a different matter if our legal system really offered everyone the same treatment.

One of the main arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it serves as a deterrent to crime, but such is not the case in reality.  Crime rates rise and fall regardless of whether or not a state has a death penalty.  Go ahead and google the death penalty.  You will find the sad statistics and studies are readily available to all, but facts are rarely a part of the political discourse.

Kansas City's free weekly newspaper The Pitch recently had an excellent article about Missouri's death penalty by Steve Vockrodt.  Vockrodt effectively and convincingly shows the ridiculous lengths the Missouri Department of Corrections has gone through to shroud its process of lethal injection in secrecy.  The doctor it uses is incompetent, the drugs it uses are untested, and the laws regarding capital punishment are twisted to prevent scrutiny by defense lawyers, medical experts and the public at large.  Vockrodt also wrote an article back in January about Missouri's lethal injection machine, which was designed by Fred A. Leuchter, a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier who was convicted of falsely presenting himself as an engineer.  If this sounds like the plot of a movie, it is, except it's not a work of fiction but a documentary by Errol Morris which details this bizarre story.  Yet, not even those facts can stop Missouri and its executions.  Our legislature and especially our governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, wish to appear tough on crime even if it means using a machine created by a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier.

Of course, one of the main justifications for capital punishment is the oft-quoted "eye for an eye" argument by people--often Christians--who claim the Bible supports it.  Never mind that Jesus explicitly refutes this reading of scripture, Christians, especially "Bible-believing" Evangelicals demonstrate the highest rate of support for the death penalty.  Recently, fundamentalist extraordinaire Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a defense of capital punishment.  Mohler's weak argument was easily dispatched by Evangelical blogger Shaine Clairborne, who notes that Mohler's pro-death penalty piece didn't mention Jesus at all.  I liked Clairborne's piece, but when I shared it on Facebook one of my church members pointed out an obvious omission in it.  Clairborne expertly points out the flaws in the criminal justice system and then wonderfully points out that Jesus demonstrated that no one is fully beyond redemption, yet he fails to mention the most obvious point of all that Jesus Christ himself was an innocent man put to death by the state.

I would argue that the main reason more Christians are not opposed to the death penalty is because of a bad theological understanding of why Jesus died on the cross.  The dominant understanding of the reason for Jesus' death is wrapped in an understanding of atonement theology that says Jesus' death was necessary, because Jesus takes the punishment we sinners deserve.  The logic of this theology says that God's justice requires suffering and violence in order for God's wrath to be assuaged.  Following this line of thinking, violence can be redemptive and when carried out by those who are righteous satisfies the demands of justice.  Never mind the bit about Jesus being innocent or Rome using violence to control its subjects, God needed someone to die and Jesus did.  Even beyond what this theology says about God and violence, the problem remains that our legal system does not dispatch God's justice, because it lacks God's omniscience. 

The God I believe in desires more than vengeful retribution.  Instead God desires restoration.  For me, Jesus' death exposes the inadequacies and injustices of human legal systems and power-hungry politicians.  Jesus' death demonstrates humanity's need for reconciliation not only with God but with one another.  Rather than a justification for violence, Jesus' death is the ultimate statement about the failure of violence to solve humanity's ills.  A society must have a legal system to function, but that system must always be open to reform, scrutiny and when necessary, reformulation.  As it stands, the states of Missouri and Kansas continue to kill people in your and my name through a system that benefits the rich over the poor and the white over the black and brown.  Most of all, this system denies the humanity of the offenders and diminishes the humanity of all of us.  Until it is stopped, all of us are demeaned by it.  

Grace and Peace,

You can read more thoughts from Chase and keep up with what he's reading on his blog: and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 

Recommended Reading 5-27-14 Ediction

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.   Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past two weeks (since I didn't send out any last week:

  • Did you see CCCUCC member Jan Parks' letter to the editor published in the KC Star this week re: the anniversary of  Brown v. Board of Education?  
  • In case you missed it two weeks ago, the United Church of Christ was featured on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC for its lawsuit against the state of North Carolina's ban on clergy performing weddings not licensed by the state.  The overview of the many "firsts" of the UCC was great to see.  
  • Amidst all the good news for LGBT equality in recent weeks, hopefully you saw the news about MU's own Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay NFL player.  Unfortunately, the St. Louis Rams could still fire Sam simply for being gay, because there is no Missouri law that bans such discrimination.     
  • There's a lot of good news about LGBT equality, but let's not relax our efforts.  As retired Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson writes the need still remains for people of faith to fight for LGBT young people.
  • Have you been following the response to French economist Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century?  Piketty argues that we are in a new Gilded Age of income inequality where the global rich control more and more of the world economy.  The growth of the middle class following WWII, according to Piketty is an aberration from the norm not an inevitability for the future.  What does this mean for Christians?  According to church historian Bill Leonard it is time for us to revisit the Christian reformers who wrote during the last Gilded Age a century ago.  We need Walter Rauschenbusch's "Social Gospel" now more than ever.    
  • Guess what?  Everybody lies about how often they go to church.  White mainline Protestants  have the lowest percentage of weekly church attendance (NO SURPRISE THERE--HINT, HINT), but even they (we) lie about how often we go to church!
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