Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter Sermon

"The Resurrection is Good News to Us All," preached on Sunday, March 23, 2008.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Understanding Dr. Wright

It's tough for some of us to understand and interpret what Dr. Jeremiah Wright is talking about, when it comes to politics and prophecy, especially if we're white and live in a white-dominated society. His words, whether inspirational or alienating (or even strange) are the words he speaks in a different setting. Couple this automatic misunderstanding with our inherent racism against anything that challenges white folk's sense of the status quo, and you get words spoken out of context and almost nearly impossible to understand.

Diana Butler Bass writes a very clear post about understanding Dr. Wright in a way that doesn't diminish him; rather it beckons us to understand the nature and style of African-American preaching that has at its root the oppressive nature of slavery and a reaction to white America's inherent racism.

To me, she explains it far better than I ever could.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Maybe Congregationalists Can Bake Cookies For IRS

Post by Colin McEnroe, as found on the Courant website. h/t to Rev. Sherry Taylor for passing this hilarious post along.

One of the real accomplishments that Barack Obama can now cite is getting Congregationalists in trouble twice in one week.

This is not easy to do. Congregationalists, one of the two major components of the United Church of Christ, are extremely boring and fair and so blandly good-hearted that they rarely get into any interesting fixes.

Let's be honest. If you were starting your life over and you wanted to spend it in a really interesting religion, you'd be a Mormon, which is an extremely colorful and cosmologically fascinating religion with special underwear. It's one of the few religions where, if you're a little bored in church, you can fix that really fast by reading more about your own religion. You're bound to trip over some interesting fact that will perk you right up, such as the idea that Native Americans were actually Jewish.

Your other alternative is Scientology, which is also entertaining but much more expensive. It's like the difference between Harvard and the University of Michigan. They're both great schools, but one is a lot cheaper and has better sports. Is there even one great self-acknowledged Scientologist athlete yet? Chick Corea would be a great name for, say, a pitching coach, but I don't think he is one.

Back to the United Church of Christ, a faith that rests on five essential tenets: 1. Fairness. 2. Outreach. 3. Tolerance. 4. More Fairness. 5. Not Getting Carried Away.

Connecticut was, in fact, founded by the people we would eventual come to think of as Congregationalists, although they were thought of by the now-extinct local tribes as Kehunk-kehunk-kehunkets. (Literally, "people who cough on us.") Some of the early famous Connecticut Congregationalists were Ellsworth Adams, Oliver Huntington, Oliver Ellsworth Adams, Abigail Huntington Oliver and Huntington Ellsworth Adams Oliver-Adams.

Connecticut was — and this is true — the last official American theocracy. Congregationalism was not disestablished as the official state church until 1818. Today's Congregationalists would be horrified to think that they ever had any more power than anyone else and are probably, right now, working on 5,000-word resolutions formally apologizing to Quakers and Anabaptists for the historic injustices they — if they were not so boring — would have perpetrated on those poor religious minorities.

This week, we learned that the IRS is investigating the UCC because of Obama's speech in Hartford last summer. The inquiry began following a complaint by someone whose name has been blacked out in all IRS records, so I guess we'll never know who this "Hxxxxxy Cxxxxxn" is.

Actually, the complaint was most likely filed by the guy who runs "UCC Truths," an organization and website for lapsed UCCers, heretics who dissent from the church's leadership and publish items such as "UCC Hierarchy Uses Neurosurgically Altered Monkeys to Make Cheap Sensible Shoes." Actually, no, they don't. UCC Truths is easily the most fair-minded and polite and boring apostate group in the history of religious dissent. It says on the website: "Any employee of the UCC national office or leaders of any of the UCC Conferences are welcome to submit their own commentary which will be posted, unedited, at the top of the site, at any time." If Martin Luther had been a Congregationalist, he would have nailed the "95 Other Possible Ways of Looking at Things" to the church door in Wittenberg.

I attended Obama's speech last summer, and it does not surprise me to learn, now, that the UCC had studiously read up on the IRS rules about this kind of thing and had instructed the 10,000 people in attendance that they were not allowed to bring buttons or signs or banners with such obviously political sentiments as "We Love You, Barack." The only thing allowed was cookies. You're going to think I'm making this up, but Connecticut UCCers home-baked 14,000 dozen cookies for this convention as part of a diabolical Congregationalist plot they called — again I am not kidding — "Extravagant Welcome." (If the cookies didn't work, they had, I was told, a last-ditch apocalyptic backup plan involving soft cushions.)

The UCC was also carefully monitoring Obama's speech and was prepared, according to a UCC official on my show this week, to cut his sound if he got too political or broke any other rules.

Really, sending the IRS after these people is like having the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms kick down the door of a bunch of nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The other form of trouble involved Minister Louis Farrakhan, who is not, technically, a member of the UCC but is a mildly insane person running the Nation of Islam. In recent years, Farrakhan has helpfully alternated between using phrases like "wicked and false Jews" and calling upon leaders of all religions to "end the cycle of hatred."

Farrakhan claims to like Obama, and Obama belongs to a UCC church where the pastor has occasionally said nice things about Farrakhan. This seems to fall short of a direct connection, but it was very upsetting to two other people on stage at the Democratic debate Tuesday night — Hxxxxxy Cxxxxxn and an oozing, swamp-based life form that had murdered Tim Russert and claimed to be him.

Obama himself has denounced Farrakhan but had neglected to reject him. Or maybe it is the other way around. By the end of the debate Tuesday night, Obama had agreed to renounce, denounce, reject, abjure, disavow and repudiate Farrakhan. Ushers were scouring the premises for a thesaurus to see if there was anything else he could do.

I hope I haven't offended any members of the UCC with this column, but if I have, I know they will write letters to the editor denouncing but not rejecting me. And the letters will be very fair. And point out some of my good qualities, too.

You can hear Colin McEnroe's talk show weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on WTIC-AM 1080 in Hartford.

For daily commentary, read Colin McEnroe's blog at www.courant.com/colin.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Steve Moldt's Guest Post

A few weeks ago I had a great conversation with church member Steve Moldt who agreed to write a guest blog post on our church's blog. Steve is a practicing Buddhist who has found a wonderful way to weave his Christian and Buddhist perspectives of faith. Many of our members have been keenly inspired when, during various adult education classes, they have heard Steve speak about how he interprets life through these dual lenses.

And so Steve will be writing a couple of guest blogging posts (and perhaps more!). This post will feature his first post. You, dear reader, are invited to engage him, respond and prod him. Just click the reply link and enter your response. It'll be posted to the blog (once it's been approved by me, this approval is necessary to eradicate spam repliers).

So without further delay, here is Steve's post:

I have long had an interest in the eastern perspective on religion, enlightenment and what we refer to as the spiritual life. Among many other things this has led me to explore Zen, Yoga, Taoism and Buddhism. I have found many of the precepts and practices potent and compelling. As I return more actively to my Christian roots, I find myself searching for sources of the same practical spirituality in the faith I learned as a child and young adult. As I continue on this path, I seek to find what I believe to be the common foundations in the traditions that shape our beliefs. To that purpose I would like to engage in an on-going conversation about things we believe, why we believe them and how we can open ourselves to the multitude of ways in which each of us can find our paths together.

The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that life means suffering. This truth is viewed as an irrefutable fact, not a negative, but an unchangeable condition of this physical existence. We suffer the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary pains of life, physical, emotional and spiritual. We experience aging from the day we are born, loneliness, fear, sickness, injury, insecurity, desire, etc. In the Buddhist view, acceptance of this Truth is key to the eventual transcendence of suffering and the attainment of true enlightenment and happiness.

For Christians suffering is interpreted in many ways. Some Christians feel that we suffer because we are sinful. That illness, tragedy, pain arise out of our denial of God’s laws and truths. While this may not necessarily be a one to one cause and effect, the general feeling is that the sinful life bears bad fruit. This is similar to the idea of Karma where all deeds have an effect on the rest of ones life(s), past, present and future.

There are many Christians who believe that suffering is not permanent and can be eliminated. This can be accomplished by adherence to God’s laws and the realization of his purpose in our lives and the lives of others. This certainly leads to many good works being done in the world, but does this way of addressing suffering get at its root?

Some other traditions believe that suffering is essential to the Christian experience. That Jesus suffered and died for us and that we must suffer in order to become like him. Transformation and salvation are seen as possible only through such experience. Indeed some feel that if there is no suffering then there is no true Christian experience.

The Buddhist strives to transcend what we perceive as the dual nature of reality; good and evil, beauty and ugliness, suffering and happiness. The goal is the realization of the unity of all things, all experience, all realities. It is with this attitude, this incite, that the Four Noble Truths address the main facet our life experience, suffering, often seen as the opposite of happiness and the thing that keeps us from it.

How does this compare to the Christian experience? Does the Jesus that we know from the Easter story simply accept his suffering or transcend it? Is the life of Jesus a coincidental convergence of political history and a radical rabbi? Or is it a deliberate cultivation of an approach to life as a manifestation of God?

I will follow up this post with a brief explanation of the Four Noble Truths and what I see as the connections my experience of the Christian life.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Perils of Doubting

I posted this article somewhere else and decided to also post it here for the readers of our church (and anyone else really). I have changed the title to something I think is more 'spot on' with what I've written.

I found this interesting story posted on Wayne Besen's blog about an Israeli "researcher"Benny Shanon who thinks Moses was high on drugs when he met God. Or rather, Moses while present before and during the Wilderness Wanderings thought he met God but didn't because he was tripping on drugs. What I find comical about this explanation is this: the researcher doesn't doubt that Moses did the things written about him--he just doubts that he met God in the burning bush or on Mt. Sinai. He sounds more like one of the Israelites in the wandering bunch who hears Moses' claim and doesn't believe it.

You'd think if someone was going to doubt the Moses and Wilderness experience, they'd doubt the whole dang thing! Rather, Shanon wants to keep hold of his Jewish religion to the point where he'll accept its historicity but deny the supernatural in it. It's like having your cake and eating it too.

This is one troubling thing about a deconstructive approach to biblical religion (and one that I contend with in my own doubts): knowing what to keep, what to discard, and what to interpret. The challenge comes in when our "psuedo-intellect" makes us doubt part of a story but our faith is too afraid to 'go all the way'. Charles Spurgeon addresses this conundrum in his analogy of the slippery slope. Once you start down a path of doubt, you may inevitably careen out of control and stopping on a downward slope when you're faith has disengaged the breaks will be impossible to control. Okay, so he didn't say it exactly like that. But Spurgeon is right about one thing--when you start doubting or de-constructing, where do you stop? Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to this. I have found myself disengaging my breaks in a similar way that Shanon appears to be doing.

What I do know is that life is messy--theology is messy--and how we interpret it all is messy too. We want neat and nice corners and explanations where everything makes sense and seldom contradicts itself. In reality, one must often employ even more faith to remain consistent to one's continued ramifications of one's ideology than to the ideology, theology, or concept itself.

Personally, I have begun to engage my faith and theology in a way that I wouldn't have done 10 years ago: I have limits to what I'll deconstruct. Does this sound faithless? Perhaps, but it saves a world of hurt when I choose to disregard a loss of faith because I've careened my faith out of control on a slippery slope from deep faith to deep doubt. Let me give you an example: Here of late, I have set upon myself 'a faith truism' that the Trinity is not to be messed with (too much). While I may doubt how men and women of faith have interpreted this development, I hold to it in my prayer time, my sermons, and my conversation. While I may give permission to deconstruct at will--I'll be the first to defend it too. I do this because there are some things that need to remain constant in my faith and in my psuedo-systematic theology. There are other things I keep near and essential to my faith.. not many things mind you, but a few.

But then, in my self-righteousness I find myself thinking I am more honest that the guy who thinks Moses was stoned while talking to a burning bush. But am I? Perhaps me and Shanon ought to sit down and share what we have in common, before I go trashing what we don't.

The Weekly, CUCC eNewsletter

We have a weekly eNewsletter that contains a devotional by me (the pastor) as well as a list of upcoming events and denominational news and information. If you'd like to subscribe to our free eNewsletter, please send me an email to bo@cresskillucc.org.

Here is this week's issue dated Thursday, March 6, 2008. It is in a .pdf format.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008