Jesus of Suburbia:An Update

This is an update of a sermon I wrote in 2014 on suburban ministry.

Mahtomedi Water Tower at Sunset. Photo by Tony Webster.

It’s been over six years since I started at First Christian of St. Paul which is in the suburb of Mahtomedi, MN.  One of the things that was kind of hammered home to me in seminary is to learn to do ministry in a certain context.  And with this call, context matters, at least to me.

I’ve shared before that I’m a city kid that grew up with an antipathy towards the ‘burbs.  So as my mentor Bob Brite has said, “the Holy Spirit, the practical joker that she is” has me preaching at a church in the suburbs.

And I don’t think I’m prepared for it.

I’ve noticed over the year that our seminaries prepare students for one kind of context: cities.  The urban context has long been what our seminary education has been based on.  I can understand the need to focus on cities; it is where the majority of Americans live.  But most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt.  In a blog post last year, I shared what an evangelical blogger wrote about the suburbs and it wasn’t a love letter.  A fellow Disciples pastor has said that the only message we seem to have for suburbanites is how they are bad people for abandoning the city.  Surprisingly, people tend to not be crazy to being called sinful because of where they decided to live.


Most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. 


A lot of the Christian antipathy towards suburbia mirrors the larger culture’s view of suburbia.  Hollywood has long depticted the ‘burbs as a place of conformity and blandness.  Growing up in 1970s Michigan, I was told that the nearby Detroit suburbs were made up of former white Detroiters who wanted to get away from African Americans. But the thing is, as I said in a 2013 post, suburban America is far more diverse than we think:

Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs.  They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs.  Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis.  I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit.  I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay.  I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world.  What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.

But many Christian leaders seem to choose not to care about what is happening there.  Instead, they brand suburban living as unChristian.  This is what someone said on the Fare Foreward blog in 2013:

Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

And this was my response after I picked up my jaw from the floor:

Notice what’s being said here.  It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living.  No, suburban living is unChristian (empahsis mine), it goes against what it means to be a Christian.  I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding.  What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.


Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs. There are people who need God in their lives.


First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996.  I’m pretty sure we aren’t planning on moving back.  So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs.  There are people who need God in their lives. Our church is involved in a coalition of suburban churches that staff a homeless shelter for families in the suburban counties east of St. Paul.  A large Lutheran church down the road tries to help some of these same people get back on their feet.  Suburbanites don’t have to go into the big city to do mission, it’s here at our doorstep.

But there is still more to be done. How we are sharing our faith with others in the neighborhood? How are we showing that this church is an active presence in our community? What does our witness as a diverse congregation speak to the wider majority white community?


The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.


I feel that seminary left me unprepared for how to do ministry in this context.  It’s not urban ministry and it sure isn’t rural ministry.  But how do learn to do church in this context?  How can we preach the good news in words and in deeds in these places far from the urban core?

This is a little tip for seminaries: start thinking about what it means to do mission in the ‘burbs.  Because an ever larger share of American society is choosing to live there.  We have to find ways to help suburbanites join in the mission of God and not feel guilty because they happen to be in the wrong zip code to some urban-centric, snobby Christians.

The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.

Not My Problem

This morning, a visitor showed up for worship. During the passing of the peace, I came over and introduced myself. By the time the sermon began, the visitor was gone. I realized how he talked about church made me think he was planning to worship with the church that rents out space with us, which is a bit more conservative.

But I still felt bothered that this man left. It reminded me of the visitors that have come to the church and then never decides to become a part of our congregation. In both cases, I blame myself. I start to wonder if I wasn’t nice enough or not friendly enough. I even wonder if I am bad luck for the congregation since we have not had visitors that want to stay and be a part of our community. I try to write letters to let them know I enjoyed visiting them and that I truly care.

But I’m starting to think this really isn’t on me after all.

I know my aspergers can make me come accross as uncaring at times, but I’ve worked hard to be caring and respectful. I’ve done what I can to welcome people. At the end of the day, I can’t be responsible for how they respond. I can trust that God will work with them, but I can’t change their mind unless they are willing to change things.

I tend to make myself responsible for everything and everybody. But I can’t change people-unless they want to be changed. I’ve been trying to meet with a friend who says they want to get together to chat. I’ve contacted the person with dates to meet more than once and I never heard back from this person. This has happened to me with other people again and again. People seem to “ghost” me a lot. I do get upset about that. At the end of the day, however, they have to make the decision to contact me; it is up to them. If they want to meet with me, great. But, they have to have to the balls to contact me. That’s what grownups do.

For a long time, I’ve blamed myself for visitors not staying at church or letting friend take advantage of me. I can’t allow that to happen anymore.

What Are We Being Inclusive For? (Revisited)

 

Note: Most of following post was written exactly five years ago, when First Christian became an official open and affirming congregation.  I’ve added a few additional thoughts.

There has been something that has been bothering me for a while.  Usually when people start talking about gay ordination or same-sex marriage, someone on the pro side will say something to the effect: “Jesus was inclusive,” or “Jesus welcomed everybody.”

Now, I’m all for welcoming people into our churches in the way that Jesus did.  I’ve been fighting for LGBT inclusion in the church for years.  But when someone says something like the sentences above, I get a weird feeling, like something isn’t right.

Recently, after reading a blog post, I finally understood what was bothering me.  In the contemporary liberal church, the highest goal, the highest good is to be “inclusive.”  As I’ve said, being inclusive matters to me.  But should our faith be only about inclusion?  What are we including and why?  Why are we being inclusive? What are we being inclusive for?

Rod Dreher linked to an article from Slate on the controversy brewing among Catholics in San Francisco.  The bishop wants to make sure that teachers working in Catholic schools don’t say anything that contradicts church teaching on issues such as homosexuality.  Needless to say, this has bothered a lot of people.  But the problem is less the bishop’s policy, but the response to the bishop.  The protestors want the church to be nonjudgemental- something that Will Saletan from Slate believes is impossible:

The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop’s behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn’t forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can’t explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It’s clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society’s mistakes—and their own.

Saletan isn’t a conservative, he agrees that the bishop is wrong.  But he thinks that many of the liberal Catholics don’t understand their own faith, ignoring church teaching and thinking the highest goals in Catholicism are inclusiveness and tolerance. He argues:

The dictionary says churches are supposed to teach doctrines. But the campaign against Cordileone says they shouldn’t. Students at one Catholic school “are very upset” by the new policy, says a teacher. “They’re afraid it’ll lead to indoctrination.” A statement signed by more than 200 opponents of the policy says Catholic leaders should follow their flocks: “Most U.S. Catholics believe very little of what is in the Archdiocesan document and actively reject much of it. The role of the bishop is to articulate the faith of the people.”

In place of morality or doctrine, the archbishop’s critics preach acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity. An online petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, says his proposed rules violate “Catholic values of inclusion and diversity.” “By forcing morality clauses, you’re taking away all inclusivity and diversity in these schools,” adds a supporter on Twitter. Haider-Winnett says students need “affirming environments.” The campaign’s hashtag is “#teachacceptance.”

Of course people can argue against church teaching.  And teachings change over time.  But it’s one thing to argue that teachings must change, it’s another to say that things like doctrine have no place in the life of faith.

Which gets me back to why we need to be inclusive.  What is the theological reason for this?  I think we should, but why does it matter that churches have to be inclusive and diverse?

I tend to think that in many liberal churches (the tribe that I hang with) gay and lesbian inclusion and indeed, all inclusion is based on moral therapeutic deism (MTD), the defacto civil religion in the United States.  Writer Damon Linker explains what MTD is all about:

1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”

2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”

3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

I think this is what drives inclusion these days.  Now there are some outliers, liberal Lutherans have enough classical Christianity that they still talk about sin, cross and grace.  But this what my side of the debate on LGBT issues tends to believe in, which I think is pretty thin gruel.

The church should be open to people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.  Church should be tolerant of differences. But if we want to include them into the life of the church, there has to be some there there.  We can’t just talk about being inclusive, because Christians are supposed to be nice. Inclusion should then lead people to discipleship, to learning about who Jesus is and allowing Jesus to change us.

Churches can and have become places where all that matters is to be nice and tolerant, but I wonder.  Is this what we fought for?  I think people sacrificed a lot for us to join a church that simply teaches one to be nice.

The thing is, inclusive churches don’t have to give up orthodox belief in order to be inclusive.  In this blog post from 2014, an Episcopalian priest named Matt Marino noted that he is getting a number of calls from gay Millennials that are looking for a place where they can talk about Jesus, resurrection, evangelism and the like.  They were in churches where such talk was not cool and longed for community that talked about a faith worth having.  Here’s what one such gay Christian said to the priest:

“Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.

Marino continues wondering why such “inclusive” places are not so inclusive to those who they don’t agree with:

Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality.  In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.

My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?

I can understand back in the day that one might want to tone down on the sin talk since many gays were coming from places where they were considered sinful, if not damned to hell.  I can understand the need to talk up the love of God more than God as Judge.

But I’m beginning to think that many LGBT folk are yearning for a more robust faith, something that asks of them.  Yes, they know God loves them for who they are and they want to share that love with others.

Last fall, Lutherans were abuzz with an article entitled “Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?” The article explained what was going on within the ELCA and other denominations like our Disciples.  What can stop the slide in among mainline Protestants?  It’s basically about getting back to the basics:

Too many churches are cluttered with all sorts of programs and activities that aren’t really designed to form Christian identity and practice. Many of these are holdovers from previous eras. They may be meaningful to legacy members but not transferable to newer generations or diverse neighbors. We need to rediscover and reclaim the simple practices that Christians have always done–prayer, scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, hospitality, etc.–and make these the center of congregational life. Such disciplines must be expressed in forms ordinary members can practice in daily life throughout the week as they discern and join God’s leading in their neighborhoods and spheres of influence.

They add that churches have to move to a more participatory spirituality:

Faith cannot be primarily something performed by clergy or staff for people to watch or consume; it must be something that everyone is equipped to practice in daily life. This means creating pathways for simple, accessible spiritual habits and disciplines that can be adopted by everyone. 

For LGBT folk and their allies, it is time to move beyond MTD to something stronger.  Jesus didn’t call us to simply be tolerant, we are called to be disciples.  Inclusivity is a very important first step, but it is not the only step. Inclusivity is about welcoming LGBT folk to become disciples of Christ or at least it should.

That’s why we should be inclusive.  That is what being inclusive is for.

Photo by Matt Meltchley.

 

Faith, Love and Politics

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-CA) attends the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. – President Donald Trump said Thursday that he suffered a “terrible ordeal” during his impeachment. In his first public comments since being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of office, he said he had been “put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people.” “They have done everything possible to destroy us and by so doing very badly hurt our nation,” he said at a televised prayer breakfast with a Who’s Who of Washington power brokers. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post that stated that First Christian Church was not a progressive congregation. At the post’s heart is how Christians try to deal with faith and politics. Both are important in our society, but when and where do they connect? Or do they never connect?

Some Christians think faith and politics should never be together and try to stay above it all, never mentioning political issues. Coming from the black church tradition, I’ve always found that impossible. You can’t make the church a politics-free zone, because life is about politics. Issues like the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were issues that could not be separated from faith.

The flip side is people who tend to merge their ideological viewpoint with faith until what you end up with is an ideology with a patina of faith to make it sound religious.

This week there were two examples of what faith in the public square should look like and they happen to be bipartisan.

The first comes from Utah Senator Mitt Romney. As most of you know, Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict President Trump during the impeachment trial. In an interview with the Atlantic Magazine, Romney explained that it was his Mormon faith that guided him in his decision making:

Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described to me the power of taking an oath before God: “It’s something which I take very seriously.” Throughout the trial, he said, he was guided by his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. “I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process,” he told me. “But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.”

He made a decision based on his faith, even though that went against the rest of his party. In a speech to the Senate explaining his vote, he said he wanted to go with the team, but he had to follow what his faith and his oath called on him to do:

In the last several weeks, I have received numerous calls and texts. Many demand that, in their words, “I stand with the team.” I can assure you that that thought has been very much on my mind. I support a great deal of what the President has done. I have voted with him 80% of the time. But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.

The true character of how faith interacts with politics is when your faith calls you to do something that will conflict with your politics. Romney is a loyal Republican, but in this case, he felt his call as a person of faith called him to do something that went against his politics.

Another example of this comes from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic representative has said that she prays for the President. In December, she responded to a reporters question about praying for the President:

“I don’t hate the president,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I pray for the president all the time.”

Pelosi was responding to a reporter’s question after she had announced that she was asking the House of Representatives to impeach the president. She was asked if she hates the president by a reporter who cited Rep. Doug Collins’ statement that the Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they hate him. Collins, a Republican from Georgia, has been a staunch defender of President Donald Trump during the impeachment hearings.

Pelosi strongly rejected the question, which she saw as an insult to her faith and her upbringing.

“I don’t hate anybody,” responded Pelosi. “I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world. Don’t accuse me of hate.”

Being accused of hatred was, in Pelosi’s mind, the same as accusing her of being a bad Catholic.

A devout Catholic, Pelosi believes in praying for President Trump, even though she strongly disagrees with him and has gone toe-to-toe with him. Praying for an opponent might upset some on the left, but it is her faith that sends her to her knees to offer prayers for Trump. Prayers for a political opponent, even one you don’t like is allowing faith to dictate politics and not the other way around.

Both of these politicians are doing something that is not easy, but their faith calls them to seek a path beyond the partisan fighting.

An example of how some put politics above faith comes from the President himself. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast the day after being acquitted in the Senate, President Trump to say something that wasn’t very prayerful. Arthur Brooks, the former head of the American Enterprise Institute and a Catholic spoke to the audience about loving our political enemies. The President followed Brooks and said the following:

“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you, and I don’t know if Arthur’s gonna like what I’ve got to say,” he began, promptly demonstrating the very contempt Brooks battled with reflections on his impeachment trial and his enemies therein. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.” His apparent targetsSen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), both of whom have cited their faith (Mormon and Catholic, respectively) as an influence on their politics.

The President can’t understand that someone would do something propelled by their faith. Instead, he seems to think politics should dictate one’s faith, not the other way around. It is a pathetic reminder of how some in our culture worship politics over their faith, who see hate as more effective than love.

First Corinthians 13 states that we could do some of the greatest things in the world, but if we don’t have love, it isn’t worth squat. Love is what can move us to pray for someone we don’t like or to do something that might not be popular. Faith and love are important for people of faith and vital to a free society.

As this very political year continues, I hope we will see other examples of politicians that are act out of their faith to do what is difficult, instead of those who act out of their politics to do what is so very easy.

(In)Visible

Last week, social media was ablaze with talk of a church in southern Washington County. Grove United Methodist Church has two campuses, one in Woodbury and the other in Cottage Grove. The Cottage Grove Church began as Peaceful Grove United Methodist when it was founded 30 years ago. A few years ago, it merged with Grove and became a campus congregation.

But the congregation hasn’t grown. The church leaders and the Minnesota Annual Conference came up with an idea that might help attract more people to the congregation. Long story short, the story got misinterpreted and what was supposed to be about helping a struggling congregation stay as a vital part of the community, became a story of the old people being told to leave in order for more younger people to show up.

But this post is not about Grove UMC. I use the story because churches are trying to find ways to connect to the wider community, to be a visible presence where we are rooted.

Which leads me to this question. How are we visible?

Do people know we are here? Do they know who we are? How are we involved in the life of this community (Mahtomedi and White Bear Lake)?

For a long time, this church has been somewhat invisible. People know that there is a “little church on the hill,” but don’t know much more.

So the question for First Christian Church St. Paul is how are we going to be a visible presence in our community?

Magnolia United Methodist is a small church just like First Christian. A retired pastor came in as their pastor. Questions surfaced wondering if the church would survive. What she said is key:

When she arrived, members seemed to have one big question on their minds: Are we going to be able to survive?

Manning told them, “Yes, you can. God’s not going to leave you alone in this process. We just need to be patient and faithful.”

She immediately looked for opportunities for the church to turn outward and partner with its community. Members began working with their local food pantry and other social service organizations, and they connected with a home for troubled youth. Manning assured them that their mission was much bigger than keeping their doors open and urged them to discern what it was God was calling them to do.

The pastor then worked to reorient the church outward. Congregants now participate in food pantries and homeless shelters.

So, you might think I’m going to say we need to what Magnolia did and bing bang, we will have people visiting. It would be a good thing to do this, but before you do anything you have to focus on two things: 1) Be patient and faithful and 2) realize our mission is much more than butts in the seats and find out what God is calling us to do.

So, what is God calling us to do? We are doing some things like participate at the family shelter. What else can we do? Can we have patience that God will work and be faithful to God in our day to day lives? Can we trust that even though we are small that God is with us and we have everything we need? Can we open our God-given minds to creative ways of doing mission with our community?

In keeping with our Epiphany worship theme , my prayer is that we are able to trust God and go into the world revealing Christ to others in our words and in our deeds. May it be so.

Why Our Church Isn’t Progressive

As I was scanning Facebook the other day, I noticed a church Facebook page that claimed they are a progressive church. More mainline Protestant congregations are declaring themselves as a progressive congregation, meaning a congregation that focuses on LGBTQ rights, the environment, race, abortion and other issue that would be issues from the political left.

Branding yourself as a progressive church can make the church attract more people. People want more and more to be with people they agree with on various issues.

But is First Christian progressive? I would say no.

Now, before you start thinking that I am a wild conservative, let me explain. First Christian is not a progressive church and it is not a conservative church . Our congregation does do things that might make us appear to be Progressive Christians, such as support of LGBT rights and concern for the marginalized. We want to really study the biblical texts. We do talk about politics in this church. It is not a sin to have strong opinions on things. But churches have to be careful in how we engage political issues.

What I would say is this: we are a political congregation because Jesus was political in his care for the outcasts and critique of the powerful. What this church, or any church, should not be is partisan. We should not be the Democratic Party at prayer (or the GOP at prayer). That

As Christianity Today said in its powerful editorial in December it is never good for the church to get involved with partisanship. Many Evangelicals have decided to support the GOP and the President full force, even if it means abandoning principles they long held. As that Christianity Today editorial notes:

Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.

Now, progressive Christians have not gone as far as evangelicals have under Trump, but what we see happening should make us shy away from using political terms to define ourselves. Bowing down to the gods of partisan politics ends up pulling us away from God and serving an idol.

Every Sunday, we gather around a communion table. That table is a powerful symbol in Disciples theology. It is a place where God calls everyone, not matter their ideology, their race or their ethnicity. The table call us all and that is important in these days when we are so fractured and so tempted to create place where everyone believes the same things.

First Christian is a place where the the Whole Gospel is preached. That means being like the church found in the book of Acts where the apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus calling people to repentance and becoming a place where people served God and neighbor.

So no, First Christian is not a progressive congregation. We are not a conservative congregation. We are a political congregation that sees Jesus as Lord and seeks to live like Jesus, preaching the good news of the Gospel, caring for the poor, welcoming the outcast and trying to be community.

Roll the Bones

One of my most memorable experiences in seminary was taking a class on the book of Job. That book has always fascinated me in the fact that Job loses so much in what seems like a short period. He loses his fortune and more tragically, he loses his children and his health. His friends came by and they all have a debate on why all of this was happening. Did he do something wrong? Where was God in all of this? Why did this happen?

There was a tragic sense of irony in that the professor who taught us had to deal with the death of his wife after a long illness during the class. As we were learning about Job’s questioning, the professor had to face his own tragedy as well.

I’ve been thinking about the “hows and whys” we all deal with in our lives. Why did he get cancer? Why did she die? Why did they lose their baby? We can’t help but ask why tragedies happen and no matter what, we wonder why bad things happen to you and the people close to you.

Suffering is a part of the human experience, but that doesn’t mean we never ask why suffering exists. I think the question is also part of the human experience.

I’ve been thinking about this in light ofthe recent news of the death of Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group Rush. Known as one of the best drummers ever, his death from brain cancer was especially tragic because he had already suffered such profound loss in his life. Within the space of a year, Peart lost his daughter in car accident in 1997 and then lost his wife to cancer months later. He retired from drumming in 2015 only to discover his diagnosis of brain cancer months later.

Peart was known for incredibly profound lyrics, which was a welcome oddity in the rock world. One of those profound lyrics is the 1991 single “Roll the Bones” from the album of the same name. The point of the song is that bad things happen, they just do. Life is random. We never know when our luck will run out so Roll the Bones, take a chance at living. “We go out in the world and take our chances, fate is just a weight of circumstances, that’s the way that lady luck dances, roll the bones.”

When I was younger, I would have been bothered by that line of thinking believing it was godless. But age has made me think life is far more random than we want to believe. I think God is present and moves in our lives, but God is not a master puppeteer making sure everything works out. Because life is random and circumstantial, we might not want to take risks. Why should we try to live in this very scary world where your plane can get hit by a rocket?

But we are called to live our lives. As people of faith we know that we are profoundly loved by God, no matter what happens in our lives.

Which reminds me of the obituary of one Ken Fuson. Fuson was a journalist who worked for many media including the Des Moines Register. He died on January 3 at the age of 63 from cirrohsis of the liver. He wrote his own obituary which included a ton of wry humor. But midway through the obituary, he talks about his gambling addiction and his faith in a world where he dealt with pain and illness. But instead of railing against the unfairness, he expressed the presence of the love of God:

For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. Miracles abound. Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but it was faith in Jesus Christ that transformed his life. That was the one thing he never regretted. It changed everything. For many years Ken was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Indianola and sang in the choir, which was a neat trick considering he couldn’t read a note of music. The choir members will never know how much they helped him. He then joined Lutheran Church of Hope. If you want to know what God’s love feels like, just walk in those doors. Seriously, right now. We’ll wait. Ken’s not going anywhere.

Despite all the sadness in his life, he had a sense of joy that seemed to withstand what life threw at him. It was unfair to get a liver disease even when he didn’t abuse alcohol. But instead, he witnessed the incredible of love and grace of God. He rolled the bones and let life happen, good and bad, knowing that God was with him and loved him.

Job never got answer from God about his suffering. But he knew God was present. So we should the life God gave us with boldness and be willing to take chances, knowing that whatever happens, we are loved by God.

Why does it happen? Because it happens. Roll the bones.