Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Spreading the Wealth"?

This year's Presidential election (which has lasted the better part of two years and is, blessedly, almost over) has had its fare share of sound-bytes and applause lines from all sides. Most of these are distortions of facts, half truths, and outright lies. As a Christian who strives to know the truth it bugs me whenever any candidate resorts to these tactics, even though my candidate for whom I voted has used them to great effect.

One of these sound-bytes that has emerged as a theme in the last few weeks has been the phrase "spread the wealth". The phrase was used in Barak Obama's now infamous exchange with "Joe the Plumber" regarding Sen. Obama's tax proposals. The Republican establishment, particularly Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, have picked up on this phrase and used it as evidence that Sen. Obama is a socialist. (According to the Socialist Party USA, Sen. Obama is not a socialist, but that is beside the point)

There's nothing wrong with being against socialism. Redistribution of wealth through tax policies is a complex and controversial issue that deserves a fairer treatment that can be given here. The bald hypocrisy of this sound-byte lies not in the opposition to socialism as a political and economic philosophy, but in the fact that this line has become a favorite of the Religious Right.

James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family, recently published a letter entitled "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America", in which he uses the "spread the wealth" line (the bulk of the letter is devoted to hate speech against persons of non-heterosexual orientations). 

Mr. Dobson is a hypocrite for using this line of attack. He opposes "spreading the wealth", and yet he frequently argues for returning to "biblical values", particularly advocating that the church return to the ecclesiological model laid out in Acts 2. But Acts 2 describes the earliest Christians sharing their wealth with one another. In fact, there are many people who describe Acts 2 as the basis for what they call "Christian Socialism"!

In Acts 2:44-45, the author describes how the Jerusalem Church shared their wealth from the beginning: 

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

If Mr. Dobson is, as he frequently claims, committed to a "biblical model" and an "Acts 2 Church", then why does he use the phrase "spread the wealth" as a negative attack against a presidential candidate?

The answer is simple. He uses certain Bible verses as a means to an end to support his conservative philosophy. His loyalty is to these conservative principles, and particularly to the Republican Party, first and foremost. Christianity is a means to an end for him, not the end unto itself.

James Dobson is grammatically correct when he calls himself a "Conservative Christian". "Conservative" is the adjective, dictating how the noun "Christian" behaves. 

He is lying, however, when he claims that he is a biblical literalist, because if he truly was, he would not be so opposed to "spreading the wealth".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some new writings

A couple new things I've written have just been published. I'm including links below. Peruse them at your leisure and comment if you're so inclined.

Sermon Starters for the last six weeks of ordinary time in Circuit Rider (requires Adobe Acrobat to access)

An article on Worship Connection regarding how impending fatherhood has changed my perspective on Advent. The article includes a sermon, too. I'm really proud of this one!

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Muddy Water" exclusive premiere!

OK, not really. It premiered on CMT a few days ago, but that's beside the point. This is the country music video that was shot at my congregation in Clarksville about a month ago. Everything is on location at and around Bethlehem, including the creek where we've baptized a number of people. We're really proud of how it turned out. Thanks again to Trace Adkins and everyone involved in the production!

Here are some photos from the day of the shoot. I would have posted them earlier, but I had to promise the producers we'd wait until the video was done.

Shooting Trace performing the song by the creek.

Stephen Baldwin heading into the creek for the baptism scene amidst a congregation of extras (and the boom guy).

Stephen and the actor playing the pastor doing the baptism scene. I spent the better part of an hour coaching them on how to do a realistic looking immersion baptism, so that's my handiwork in the video!

Trace, me, and Stephen at the end of a very long day on set. 5am to 11:30pm!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Messy Communion

When I began serving my current congregation, one of the first changes I made was to begin serving communion by intinction. Intinction is also known as "rip n' dip", where the communion server tears a piece of bread off of the loaf and hands it to you, which you then dip into the cup of grape juice and consume it together.

Needless to say, as with any change in a church, no matter how minute, there were people who were unhappy. Some folks prefer to tear off their own piece of bread. Some miss the little shot glasses of grape juice out of the tray. Some people are so averse to germs that they want individual wafers (I call them "cardboard Jesus"). Others don't like doing communion by intinction because crumbs and juice drops tend to get everywhere. You would think, though, that if anyone had cause to complain about flying juice drops it would be me. I'm wearing the white robe, after all!

It's true: communion by intinction is messy. There are cleaner, easier, faster, and more efficient ways to do it. But the life of following Jesus is rarely clean, easy, or efficient. Being a follower of Jesus means getting dirt under your fingernails and stains on your shirt because you're never too busy or too important to help out another one of God's children. Being a follower of Jesus is messy, so should we be surprised that sharing Jesus' Holy Meal is messy?

Too often in the church we've scrubbed and sanitized everything because we've co-opted the cultural metanarrative of modernity that says that we can and should tie up all the loose ends, smooth over all the rough edges, and that those who don't (or, more accurately, can't) are somehow deficient. It's easier to pretend that the universe is this seamless, harmonious singularity instead of a messy jumble of parts that God is somehow weaving together over the course of eternity.

We're going to keep taking communion by intinction because we need to be inconvenienced.We need to be made uncomfortable. We need to be constantly reminded that we're called to step out of our nice, tidy comfort zones and find Jesus amongst the mixed up, messy beauty all around us.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Last Best Hope?

As we enter the home stretch in this year’s election season (which is a strange phrase because “seasons” don’t often describe a period of eighteen months or more!), cable news junkies like me start to grow tired of lots of things. The negative ads are getting boring, as are the talking points. The vast majority of people have all more or less settled on a candidate, so our eyes start to glaze over when we hear the candidates’ standard lines, kind of like when your grandfather starts telling the same story you’ve heard a million times.

One of these standard lines that we hear from all sides is becoming more and more distressing to me. The latest person to use it has been Sarah Palin, although she’s certainly not the first and won’t be the last. It’s a line that comes from people of all parties, but perhaps it sounds so unsettling coming from her because she wears her faith on her sleeve.

The line goes something like this: “America is the last best hope for good in the world”. It’s a line that generates tons of applause because it recalls eighteenth century rhetoric about America being the “new Israel” or the “modern promised land”. It makes the voters feel good because it lets us believe that we are somehow fundamentally better people than all those other countries out there, and because of that superiority we will be able to fix the world’s problems through the exercise of our natural righteousness. This line particularly resonates with those who feel America is somehow a “Christian nation”.

As a follower of Jesus I take great exception to the idea that America, or any other human kingdom, for that matter, can ever be “the last best hope for good in the world”. Human kingdoms, no matter how much good they may do (and I believe that America has and continues to do many great things around the world) can never be the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ himself is the hope of the world.

Jesus is the one who promises us the possibility of a world where injustice, violence, exploitation, and even death itself are no more. Jesus is the one who helps us to believe in a kingdom where no one is superior to another simply by accident of birth, but where all work together for the betterment of the whole world, even for those to whom they owe nothing.

The greatest changes in the world for the better have never come from the grand initiatives of human kingdoms, which ultimately seek only their own glory. The greatest changes in the world for the better have always come from those people who follow in the way of Jesus, perhaps not confessionally but in actual practice. It comes from those who aspire towards the flourishing of all of God’s children: people like Mohammed Unis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Ghandi, to name a few. These are people who have dedicated themselves to making a better life for the poorest and weakest amongst us, and in so doing have inspired the fundamental goodness and decency that resides in each of God’s children. This fundamental goodness comes from the fingerprints of our creator, and it cannot be taken away, even by the stain of Sin.

There is a “last best hope for good in the world”, but it is not the United States of America. It is not any candidate or the platform of any political party, nor is it any church or religious group. The last best hope for good in the world are those people that listen to God’s still, small voice whispering to their hearts, calling them to live in such a way that proclaims that there is more to this life than accumulation and consumption.

The last best hope for good in the world is the Spirit of God working through normal people, maybe even you and I, if we’re only willing to listen to the call and act upon it.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Banned Magazines at Lifeway

I heard a story recently about an issue of a magazine called “Gospel Today” being pulled from the shelves at Lifeway Christian stores because the cover featured five female pastors. The Southern Baptist Convention, with which Lifeway is affiliated, is officially opposed to women in ministry, so avoid offending the SBC, Lifeway agreed to take the magazine off the shelves, although they would still sell it in their stores.

Being the curious person I am, I did something I rarely ever do. I darkened the door of my local Lifeway store. For those that don’t know me personally, I have this rather sarcastic and rebellious streak, so I get a cheap thrill out of going into a Christian book store and asking for a magazine that has generated controversy. So that’s what I did.

I walked up to the counter, and in a voice that was probably louder than necessary if I was just talking to the clerk, I asked for the copy of “Gospel Today”. The clerk’s eyes grew noticeably, and she replied, “Sure.. I’ll be right back.” I expected the issue to be under the counter like the porn magazines in the book store I worked at in college, but she had to go to the back room to get it. Scandalous, indeed!

When she returned she was carrying the magazine almost at arms length from her body, lest the heretical material suddenly catch fire and burn her with God’s righteous anger. I asked (again, in a voice that may have been too loud for a one-on-one interaction), “Gee, why are you guys hiding it back there like it’s a porn magazine?” “Umm,” she replied sheepishly, “I think it goes against Baptist doctrine.” She clearly thought this was silly, too.

While she was in the back room I had noticed a biography of Sarah Palin on the new arrival shelf. So after inquiring why “Gospel Today” was hidden like porn, I figured I’d ask about the book, too, since I was already being a nuisance. Why, I wondered aloud, weren’t there books about Joe Biden, Barack Obama, or even John McCain? “Because she’s the only one of the bunch that’s actually a Christian!” said a nearby customer, who was clearly irritated with me. “Oh... I see...” I said with no small twinge of sarcasm. Figuring I had done enough for one day, I paid for my magazine and left.

At home I opened my copy of “Gospel Today” and found noting remotely objectionable. The article even acknowledged that not everyone approves of women in ministry, demonstrating the kind of objectivity one rarely finds in Christian media.

What really amazed me is that “Gospel Today” is aimed largely at urban, African-American, charismatic/Pentecostal audiences. I’m clearly not their target demographic! So by pulling the magazine from the shelves and attempting to avoid controversy, Lifeway actually succeeded in getting people like me (the smug, elitist theological “liberals” they so detest) to go in their store and buy the magazine. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the circulation of “Gospel Today” actually increased because it was pulled from the shelves.

So congratulations, Lifeway. Congratulations, Southern Baptist Convention. All you’ve accomplished is giving more motivation to people like me who support the full inclusion of all people in all phases of life in the church, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor they didn’t choose. You’ve given extra inspiration for people to speak up and work for justice.

Let me encourage everyone out there who cares about these issues to drop by your local Lifeway store and ask for a copy of “Gospel Today”. You don’t have to make a scene, but by shelling out a few bucks for the magazine you will be actively making a statement in support of everybody being able to live out their calling from God, no matter what some people interpret a couple of Bible verses to say.

Go buy an issue and take a stand for equality.