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.

Soto Voce, Revisited

Photo by Maria Krisanova on Unsplash

Two years ago, I wrote that I was ready to write about religion again. But I don’t think I was ready yet because I didn’t write as much. I had also wrote less about politics for a long time.

I tend to be someone that is hypoemotional, meaning I don’t always feel emotions, even though my body is emotional, if that makes sense. I’ve gone through traumatic experiences and yet appear calm and in control. Over a few years, I went through a number of traumatic experiences that really left me afraid to express what I was thinking. It even affected my writing of sermons, leaving it really hard to write a sermon. I just lost the joy of writing and looking back, it felt as though someone had stole that joy and in some ways that is exactly what happened.

But something has happened as of late. Turning 50 last October made me start thinking about making changes. I feel more like writing about everything. I’m still not totally back to form like I was six or seven years ago, but I feel like I’m moving towards some emotional healing. I’ve been able to do some writing beyond blogging, doing some freelance writing. I even want to do a podcast on politics or religion or even both.

I’m not going to say everything is back to normal, because it isn’t. There is still some fear about writing. There is still emotional pain. But I think healing is happening, letter by letter and word by word.

All Is Forgiven

I’ve been preparing for the sermon for this coming Sunday and I’ve been reading and thinking about the text: Mark 2:1-22. The very first story is the story of the four men who went up to the roof and lowered their friend down to where Jesus was healing. Everyone always focuses on the extreme faith and love on the part of those four friends. But what made no sense, is when Jesus sees the man being lowered, he doesn’t immediately make this man walk. I mean it was as plain as the nose on one’s faith. Why Jesus feel the need to say this man’s sins are forgiven?

Maybe it was because the man himself wondered if his predicament was because of the result of sin. Does it mean that he sinned and became a paralytic as a result? Probably not. But think about this man’s situation for moment. We don’t know if this has been his condition since birth or it happened later, but you can wonder why you are in this predicament. In John 9, Jesus meets a blind man and his disciples wonder if he sinned or did the man’s parents sin to make this man blind. Jesus says neither. But when you are in this condition, you might be more aware of your sin than other times in one’s life.

What matters is that Jesus saw this man, saw the awesome faith of his friends and told the man what he needed to hear: that he was forgiven, that the burden that he carried was no longer his.

There are lots of people in our midst who are weighed down with guilt, sin and sadness. The question for us today is not that we can forgive their sins, but can we bring them to Jesus in the same way that this man’s friend did? They were willing to help their friend even if it meant tearing up a roof to get their friend to be healed by Jesus.

As Christians we are called to share the love of God with our friends and neighbors. A friend recently said that in many cases, the people that we meet are longing for forgiveness. Bring them to Jesus can help them realize a sense of grace in a world that is graceless.

Now, that might sound odd to some because especially in mainline Protestantism, there has been a move away from forgiveness towards justice. There is a need to focus on justice issues, but there is also a spiritual side of life where people just want to feel a sense of grace, to know they are forgiven. Sometimes that is even more important to people than a physical healing.

So as we prepare for Sunday and we meet our friends, know they are carrying burdens. How can we bring them to have an encounter with Christ? How can they experience forgiveness from Jesus?

Sometimes forgiveness feels more important than healing.

The Most Hopeful Time of the Year

Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate the Christmas song, “The most wonderful time of the year.” It just seems to be a song that is so sickly sweet in a way that just isn’t real. I also don’t understand the part of the song that talks about “scary ghost stories.” Why would you have ghost stories during the holiday season? Don’t we do that on Halloween?

But the main reason I don’t like the song is that it seems to want us to be happy even though at times people are not happy- especially during the most wonderful time of the year.

We are in the closing days of Advent. It is a time of waiting, waiting for the Christ child. But Advent is more than that. It is a reminder that the world is not right. Something has gone wrong in our world. In churches, we read scripture from Isaiah that tend to focus on people looking for relief. “Comfort, comfort you my people,” says the writer of Isaiah in the 40th chapter.

As I write this, my brother-in-law is mourning the death of his mother a day ago from cancer. A year ago, a friend of mine died also after a battle with cancer. Advent reminds us that things in this world are not what God intended. There is death. There are people losing jobs. We are a nation that has become divided and federal government is frozen because of partisan anger. There are other things that tells us that this is a world where sin reigns.

But Advent isn’t only about darkness. It is also about hope. It is about a hope that things will be better. It is a future hope that we may not see, but we have strong faith that it will happen. It can be found in the first chapter of Luke where Mary breaks out in song saying that one day tyrants will be pulled down from their thrones and the poor will be treated with kindness.

We see that hope in Jesus Christ. Jesus came into this world as a tiny baby and turned the world upside down. We know that this hope in Christ is changing the world and we know that all the bad things of this world will not reign over us forever.

It isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. But it is the most hopeful time of the year and we hold on to that.

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Autism and Reading Comprehension

I remember about a year ago, listening to a report on National Public Radio on dyslexia. It is not that the words are necessarily backwards, but it becomes hard to read the words in front of you. You can get so far and then you start to struggle.

I’ve long wondered if there is a connection to something I’ve experienced in college and seminary and up to the present day. I can remember in seminary having to read books by theologians Jurgen Moltmann and Frederich Schliermacher. I would start reading the book and all of the sudden, the I can understand the words, but they lack meaning. I will sit trying to read this book that I really want to read and I can’t wrap my head around what is being said. This is not the problem with every book that I read. Books that are more literal and less abstract I can understand. When the book is more abstract , I can’t comprehend anything.

I wondered: was there a link between autism and reading? Did I really have dyslexia? In doing some researching, I’ve learned that there is a link. Most of the information is geared towards children, but it applies to adults with autism as well. Here is what one article says:

Children with Asperger’s find it difficult to understand books and stories about things that are not tangible. Thus they are not able to comprehend and enjoy fantasy stories. Provide stories and books about practical experiences and about things that the children have felt and experiences. Children will also enjoy nonfiction books about things that they are interested in. This child looks for the same direction in his books as he needs in his life.

The article goes on to add that to enjoy reading, a person with autism needs to be able to apply images or pictures to reading:

When a child is learning to read, they may enjoy reading more if they have stories with pictures that illustrate the sentence. The pictures must exactly illustrate the sentence and not be abstract. This will help the children understand the meaning of the words, and follow the story.

The interesting thing that I’ve found out is how little you hear about this from other writers with aspergers/autism. There is a lot of talk about it when it comes to children, but no information about adults who deal with this. This video helps me understand the issue, but it assumes that only children with aspergers/autism deal with this and not adults.

I’d like to find out how to better comprehend reading because as a pastor, I need and desire to read books on theology and it is frustrating to try to read a book someone says is really good and sit there and not understand a damn thing. Not every book can be a graphic novel, so what do I do?

Yesterday Once More

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Storage near the Buick City Plant in Flint, circa 1971.

A few years ago when I was back home in Flint, a memory came back to me as I went down a certain road.  The memory was seeing those auto carrier trucks lumber down the road.  The trucking company had it’s main garage on the eastside of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points.  That memory came back, because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road.  It was a reminder that things had changed.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them.  Today, there are around 8,000.  

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One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well.  Once well-kept houses were now trashed.  Stores closed and people moved away.  The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship.  Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born.  Today it is around 99,000.  The city that I grew up in was prosperous.  It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great.  That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

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Demolition of Building 44 of the Buick City Complex, 2002.

Last week, I talked about how the Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Baylonians around 585BC.  It was Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place.  So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a far away land.  During the exile, Babylon fell.  In its place, a new empire took over: Persia.  It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live.  Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home.  So, a number of folk decide to make the journey back.  

They come back to a Jerusalem that was in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed.  It was time to rebuild.   It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed.  This is where something interesting happened.  The younger folks who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple were excited.  They had no memory of what life once was in Judah.  They now were home and had a place to worship God.  

Older Israelites were sad.  They remembered what the old temple looked like and this wasn’t it.  This temple was a bit smaller than the old one.  It also wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple.  For these folk, what they felt was a profound sense of loss.  The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back.  They had to live in this new reality, which paled in comparison to the what they remembered. 

Change happens.  But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand)  it was hard to face reality.  Nostalgia can be a tricky thing.  These days people cling to the past in the attempt to hold on to something in a changing world.  And there has been a lot of change.  Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one thought same sex couples could ever marry legally, but now here we are.  We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  Changes in immigration laws have brought people from around the world to become Americans.  Many come from places people know little about and in some cases they worship religions we aren’t very familar with. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were.  It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

This time of year is always an odd one.  There is a festive atmosphere that can put most anybody in a good mood.  But while there is joy, there is also sadness.   Some people are dealing the loss of a loved one or dealing with being newly divorced.  In the midst of this joy there is also sadness.

Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, our salvation.  But it also reminds us why we wait.  We wait for someone will join us in our sorrow and give us strength to move into a new future, a future that is better than we can ever imagine.

I’ve wondered what the people in this congregation were thinking when they sold their old building near downtown St. Paul to move here.  I was never in that building, but in hearing from some of you, it was a sight to behold.  But I also know it was getting harder and harder to pay for the upkeep of this large sanctuary.  I wonder what it was like to worship there for the last time.  I wonder what it was like to get used to moving here and if some people thought this place wasn’t as grand as their old home.  Moving a church is never easy.  And it probably wasn’t for you all.  

Then your pastor of 20 years left.  A number of people stopped coming and the ones that remained wondered if they could continue.  It felt hard being so few, but you came together and worked to keep the doors open and to be open to new adventures.

So many churches hang on for dear life, clinging to buildings that have outlived their usefulness long ago. They remember how things were and wish it could be like that again.  But they stay put, afraid to face an unknown future.  That could have been your experience.  But it wasn’t.

In each of those experiences, God was with you.  God never left.  When we mourn what we have lost, a lost past, a lost building, a lost loved one, we know that God understands.  We can make those changes, we can face the future because we have a God that is always with us as we step out in faith to do mission in the world.

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Flint Farmers Market, September 2018.

I miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway.  I miss what it represents. But that is not the only story about Flint.  There is another story that is growing up right alongside this sad story.  If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag in town in downtown, you will see some change taking place.  For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do.  But as I walked, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available.  The area seemed to be buzzing with activity.  We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown.  Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world.  Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area.  This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. It’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground.  There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like my hometown will have a future, just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to.

During this holiday season, there are people who are missing something or someone.  But I also know that our God is with us in the changes in our lives.  We know that hope is on the way.  

Advent In the Hole

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Chevy Commons, fomerly Chevy in the Hole, in 2018. Photo by Michael Barera.

I’ve talked about the downfall of my hometown of Flint, Michigan before.  I’ve told you about what Flint was like growing up in the 1970s and 80s and how it is so different now. Sometimes when I think about Flit, I think about ruins. If you were to drive around the city, it’s not too long before you find wide swaths of land that is devoid of anything except a giant concrete slab that stretches for acres and miles.  Travel pass the large Buick complex where my Dad worked. This was a huge complex, Donald Trump huge. The Buick complex was miles long. It would start just north of downtown and go almost to the city limits.  That’s all gone now and what is left is…basically nothing. 

When you read Isaiah 61 this what comes to my mind.  The glory days are gone and all that is left is, a whole lot of nothing.

There is one former auto factory in Flint that I find interesting.  It was a Chevy plant located just west of downtown Flint. Because it was set at the bottom of a hill, it had a nickname: “Chevy in the Hole.”  Like most of the auto plants I knew as a kid, it has been torn down and there was a giant slab left. But that’s not how it was left. I will get back to that in a moment.

In Isaiah 61, we find a people that are at a loss for words. This passage was written during a time when the people of Israel who had been in exile for decades were allowed to return.  When they were taken into exile, they were going to live in the Babylonian empire. Over time, the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians.  It was common practice among the Persians to allow people of conquered territories to return and set up their lands as provinces of Persia. A number of Israelites made the journey back to the Promised Land.  They carried with them dreams; dreams that the elderly have about the good old days and dreams that the young who never had been there, but had heard stories of a grand place. Maybe they’d need to do a little dusting off, but things would be wonderful, things would be normal.

But it wasn’t.

This when reality hits. Jerusalem was destroyed.  The temple was ruined.   All in all this wasn’t what people were hoping for.

Into this sadness, comes this prophet who tells the people that God’s Spirit is on them to preach good news to the poor (maybe the people who didn’t leave), binding up the brokenhearted (those who returned) and preaching liberty to the captives, those who are still in Persia.  He fashions a world using the practice of the Year of Jubilee, where things are set to right. The desolated cities will become gleaming new metropolises teaming with human life. Things are bleak now, but the prophet says better things are around the corner.

The people hearing this message had to trust and hope that things woud be better. They would never live to see the full restoration. At the end of the day all they could do is hope.

Here’s the thing: hope doesn’t depend on us.  It doesn’t happen our time schedule. We must have hope that things won’t always stay the same even though that hope is a ways off. Think about all of the people who worked for civil rights and never got to see the passage of laws that made my life easier.  Maybe Martin Luther King’s best speech was his final sermon the day before he died and talked about never seeing the Promised Land of Civil Rights.  But he had a vision of what was coming and that gave him hope. Hope comes, it may not come in the time we want or in the way we expect, but it does come.

Advent is a time of waiting and expectation.  Our theme, On the Verge of a Miracle, tells us that hope will happen and we must take part in that hope.  We wait for a Savior to heal us and make us whole. But we wait for this arrival even when it seems the world is falling down around us.  We are all waiting and hoping for something. Maybe we have an illness and we are waiting to be healed. Maybe we are in need of employment and have to wait, because that is the job process. There are those who have no home or no food and are waiting for food or for money.  There are those who depress and wait to have the sun shine again and life their depression. We are waiting and we cry to God asking why we have to wait. The only thing we know is that we have to wait, but what this passage tells us is that we aren’t forgotten. God is with us and hope is on the way.

As Christians, we are called to be bearers of hope.  This is what today’s gospel reading is all about. Jesus uses this passage from Isaiah to announce his mission in the world and this is the mission we are called to do.  We do that in our acts of kindness and justice, from giving food to the hungry to befriending the lonely. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.

So I was going to tell you about Chevy in the Hole.  Like I said earlier this had been a Chevy plant for decades and in its last few years was the Westside plant for AC Spark Plug.  But as the auto industry contracted, excess plants like Chevy in the Hole weren’t needed, so the plant closed.

The big question back home is what you do with these massive spaces.  In many cases, they are considered brownfields because of the decades of industrial use.  With Chevy in the Hole, the site was cleaned up and something happened, something hopeful in a city that has been short on hope.  The old plant was on both sides of the Flint River and the idea started to germinate to make some of this area a park. Some 50,000 pounds of topsoil was brought in to cover up the concrete slab. Over time, trees and grass will grow over what was just a concrete slab.  In a city that has had to deal with the loss of its principal industry and most recently water you couldn’t drink, trees will sprout up, a sign of new life where there was once death. What was Chevy in the Hole becomes Chevy Commons, the new name for this new park.

This is what hope is like.  This is what Advent is like.  We all find ourselves in holes that are barren and there seems to be no likelihood things will change.  And yet, where there was emptiness, hope starts to grow.

In these fearful times, we don’t know what the future holds. We see things that makes us doubt hope can be found. But know this: hope is coming.  Just will arrive. Maybe not how you expect, but it is on the way. There can be Advent even in the Hole.