Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Report: Wright Feels Betrayed

After the controversial remarks made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. during the Q & A at Monday's National Press Club meeting, many pundits think Wright is intentionally seeking to bring down Barack Obama's presidential hopes.


An unnamed source tells the New York Post:
"After 20 years of loving Barack like he was a member of his own family, for Jeremiah to see Barack saying over and over that he didn't know about Jeremiah's views during those years, that he wasn't familiar with what Jeremiah had said, that he may have missed church on this day or that and didn't hear what Jeremiah said, this is seen by Jeremiah as nonsense and betrayal," said the source, who has deep roots in Wright's Chicago community and is familiar with his thinking on the matter. "Jeremiah is trying to defend his congregation and the work of his ministry by saying what he is saying now," the source added. "Jeremiah doesn't care if he derails Obama's candidacy or not... He knows what he's doing. Obviously, he's not a dumb man. He knows he's not helping."
Ironically, in Wright's address before the National Press Club-- that is, his speech before the Q & A time, remarks that didn't make the sound clip bites-- Wright spoke eloquently about race and black church history, suggesting:
Maybe this dialogue on race, an honest dialogue that does not engage in denial or superficial platitudes, maybe this dialogue on race can move the people of faith in this country from various stages of alienation and marginalization to the exciting possibility of reconciliation.
I know a good place to start.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama Finally Condemns Rev. Wright

Injuring. Sad. Angry. Disrespect. Shocked. Not grounded in truth. Insult. Contradiction. Objectionable. Inexcusable. Betrayed. He didn't show much concern for me. Offensive. That's enough. Great damage. Won't be the same anymore.

At a press conference this afternoon (transcript here), Presidential democratic candidate Barack Obama used all the above words to condemn and disassociate himself from his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.

"He made a caricature out of himself," Obama said to summarize Rev. Wright's "performance" over the weekend and on Monday at the National Press Club (transcript here).

Obama was somber throughout and was clearly heart broken about his 20 year relationship with Wright publicly going up in flames, and maybe his campaign too.
"It's a fiasco," said Michael A. Genovese, chairman of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"
In parting ways with Wright, Obama's relationship to Chicago Trinity UCC is now strained and his rapport with the United Church of Christ suffers a severe blow, especially since the national office has nary said one critical word of Wright.

What's especially ridiculous about this whole controversy-- as it relates to the United Church of Christ-- is this has little to do with theology and everything to do with left-wing kook politics.

As pundits ask whether Wright deliberately sabotaged Obama's campaign, what will the national office say now? That'll be an interesting press release. "All this underscores the need for a sacred conversation?" "Sometimes we disagree among ourselves in the UCC?"

Wright isn't someone to disagree over. His arrogance and politics need to be firmly rebuked.

Obama finally gets it. Will Cleveland?

Monday, April 28, 2008

How to Warm a Cold Sanctuary

It was a tad chilly in our sanctuary during worship yesterday morning. When I came in early, I found the thermostat set at 70, but the temperature at 60. No one could figure out the problem, so we endured the cold.

But before the service started, someone told me, "Pastor, I know how you can warm up the sanctuary."

I was all ears, so I said, "how?"

He replied, "Just preach some hell, fire, and brimstone!"

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Thomas Hears Pope's Rebuke

UCC President Rev. John Thomas and Ecumenical Officer Lydia Veliko were among an ecumenical contingency of 200 Christian leaders who gathered in New York City to hear Pope Benedict XVI at an evening ecumenical prayer service on April 18.

In a press release leading up to the meeting, Thomas expressed optimism about what the Pope might say:
"As participants in many rounds of theological dialogue between Reformed Christians and Roman Catholics in the United States, we are committed to a vision of unity that can overcome the many differences that still inhibit a fully shared participation in God's mission here and throughout the world. I look forward to hearing a word of ecumenical hope from Pope Benedict that can be lived out between UCC churches and Catholic parishes around the country."
While it's nice that Rev. Thomas offered polite words about going to hear to the Pope, Thomas is no fan of Benedict XVI, an opinion he made quite clear in 2005:
"Today as the conclave announces its decision, the offering of prayers for this new pontificate is the most appropriate response from other Christian leaders," the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, said in a written statement to United Church News. "Nevertheless, I acknowledge that I personally greet Cardinal Ratzinger's selection with profound disappointment. Cardinal Ratzinger's long tenure in the Vatican has been marked by a theological tone that is rigid, conservative and confrontational."
With this in mind, I'm sure that Rev. Thomas didn't enjoy hearing this veiled, but clear rebuke:
"Too often those who are not Christians, as they observe the splintering of Christian communities, are understandably confused about the Gospel message itself. Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called "prophetic actions" that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of "local options". Somewhere in this process the need for diachronic koinonia – communion with the Church in every age – is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel (cf. Rom 1:18-23)."
Translation: That's not an endorsement of the "God Is Still Speaking" campaign.

At least Rev. Thomas went to hear someone he doesn't agree with.

But if he didn't go, what would that have said?

I'll bet the conversation over hors d’oeuvres with colleagues afterwards was interesting.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Obama Worships at UCC Church

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Sunday worshiped at a church that's part of his denomination, St. Mark's UCC in Lebanon, Pennsylvania:
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama paid a surprise visit to Lebanon County when he attended Sunday morning's worship service at St. Mark's United Church of Christ.

About 200 people gathered in the 426 N. Eighth St. church's sanctuary afterward to catch a glimpse of the Democratic presidential hopeful... For almost an hour, Obama shook hands, posed for pictures and signed autographs at the front of the sanctuary for everyone who patiently waited to greet him.
Since everything a politician does is carefully scripted, we'll do our part here as media hacks to over analyze Obama's steps.

A member of the Penn Central conference, St. Mark's is one of six UCC churches in Lebanon. Two UCC churches in Lebanon were "Five for Five" churches in 2006, but St. Mark's wasn't one of them. "Five for Five" churches are those who give to all of the UCC's one time yearly offerings. While the UCC Coalition doesn't list them,'s "Find a Church" reports that St. Mark's is an ONA church, or open and affirming, meaning that the church welcomes into their full life and ministry persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities. As we reported earlier, Pennsylvania is thick with UCC churches, so Obama inevitably had to pass over several possibilities. St. Mark's doesn't have a website, so here's guessing that Obama's campaign sought the advice of Penn Central Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Marja Coons-Torn.

In all likelihood, Obama's appearance was designed to garner some "Obama At Church" photos and headlines to hopefully take the sting out of his "bitter" comment, when he privately told a San Francisco fund raiser audience that rural people cling to guns and religion. Lebanon County has one third class city and is 54% farm land, so Obama decided to go into the bitter heartland.

Pennsylvania's primary vote is Tuesday. Obama and Hillary Clinton are neck and neck in the polls.

Was this the first time that Obama stepped foot inside any church or a UCC church since the Jeremiah Wright controversy broke out?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama Keeps Backing Away from Wright

Speaking to Jewish community leaders yesterday at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama continues to back away from the rhetoric of his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.:
The Illinois senator has been working to reassure Jewish voters nervous about his candidacy after publicity about anti-Israel sentiments expressed by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and criticism from Hillary Rodham Clinton during a February debate that he hadn't immediately rejected an endorsement from black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. Obama responded that he already denounced Farrakhan, but would reject his support as well.

Obama told the group he had not been aware of Wright's more incendiary speeches before launching his presidential campaign last year, even though he had been a member of Wright's congregation for nearly 20 years. Obama said he had spoken to Wright and privately conveyed his concerns about some of the sermons once he learned of their content. But he acknowledged that he had declined to be more public in his criticism until recently, since Wright was preparing to retire from ministry at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

"You make a decision about how are you going to handle it," Obama said. "Do you publicly denounce his comments? Do you privately express concern but recognize you are still part of a broader church community that is going to be transitioning? I chose the latter."
But do Obama's remarks contradict what he said earlier in his well-known race speech on March 18?
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and in some cases pain For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
You decide.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Obama Insults His Own

You know that Presidential candidate Barack Obama is under heavy criticism after uttering the following put down about rural Pennsylvanians:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them... And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
You know too that Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ. But do you know, and ironically, does Obama realize how many of these rural and religious Pennsylvanians he insulted are members of his own denomination?

According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and their report, "Religious Establishments in Rural Pennsylvania":
The religious establishments with the most congregations in Pennsylvania’s rural counties were: the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ. These same congregations were also the top five congregations in urban counties.
Looking at the delegate distribution from the 26th General Synod, nearly 15% of the United Church of Christ's 1.2 million members reside in Pennsylvania. That's 182,779 people. In fact, the UCC is so big in Pennsylvania it has not two, four Conferences in the state-- Penn Central, Pennsylvania Northeast, Pennsylvania Southeast, and Pennsylvania West. With the exception of Penn West, each of these conferences are among the top 10 in delegate ranks at Synod.

Obama's unguarded words, spoken at a closed fund raiser in San Francisco on April 6, likely hit the intended target of dipping into the pockets of some rich elitist Democrats. But the spray of the buckshot has at least one Pennsylvania UCC member fretting.

The UCC Pennsylvanians who are fans of the "God Is Still Speaking" commercials likely won't take offense. They understand Obama is talking about those other churches-- the ones with bouncers and ejector seats. However, it was the UCC that once had on its rolls a historic church in rural Kansas called Beecher Rifle & Bible Church.

Obama knows his words have hurt him politically-- he's still spinning what he meant to say.

He's certainly learned one thing:

The tongue is like a rifle-- you can always reload, but once you pull the trigger, you can never put that shot back into the barrel.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Lesson for the Media

Here's a lesson, given by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and the UCC national office, that the media will understand:

March 21 and 23:
Writing for the The New Yorker magazine, reporter Kelefa Sanneh visits Trinity United Church of Christ for Good Friday and Easter services.

April 3:
Trinity United Church of Christ tells the media "no more" at the "Sacred Conversations" press conference and establishes rules for any reporters inside the sanctuary.

April 7:
Time stamp for Sanneh's The New Yorker story, "Project Trinity: The Perilous Mission of Obama's Church."

April 12: has a link to The New Yorker article prominently featured on its home page.

April 12:
Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in his first public sermon since the firestorm over his remarks began, fiercely criticized the media in a funeral message:
Reflecting on the late [appellate judge R. Eugene] Pincham, Wright said his faith “was not the jingoistic, chauvinistic ‘you’re either with us or against us’ demonizing kind of faith.” Wright said Pincham was friends with “Jews, Muslims, rabbis, imams, fathers in the Catholic church and [Louis] Farrakhan in the Islamic faith.”

Escalating into full-preaching mode, Wright thundered, “Fox News can’t understand that. [Bill] O’Reilly will never get that. Sean Hannity’s stupid fantasy will keep him forever stuck on stupid when it comes to comprehending how you can love a brother who does not believe what you believe. [Pincham’s] faith was a faith in a God who loved the whole world not just one country or one creed.”

At that point, congregants nearly drowned Wright out with a booming standing ovation.

Wright also referred to Fox News as “Fix News.”
So much for encouraging the media to take its spotlight somewhere else.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Let's Talk About Race" Ad

Coming in the Friday, April 11 edition of USA Today is another full page ad from the United Church of Christ.

In an advance mass e-mail, UCC President John Thomas writes:
Our ad invites the nation to enter a sacred conversation on race and asks other communities of faith to join our preach-in scheduled for Trinity Sunday, May 18.

Together, as we ready ourselves for this important preaching opportunity and the intentional dialogues that must follow in the months to come, this ad clearly puts the UCC on public record as a church willing to grapple forthrightly with difficult issues. Ours is a risk-taking church.
This newest one, which comes on the heels of last week's New York Times ad, is entitled, "Let's Talk About Race."

OK. I accept.

Let's talk about how this ad frames the question and sets the agenda.

First, notice how this ad doesn't mention the Barack Obama-Jeremiah Wright flap and more importantly, the UCC's relationship to it. Why is boldness suddenly shy? It's like the parent talking to their child about the birds and the bees, but too embarrassed to admit the part they played in bringing little johnny into the world.

If Obama and Wright were members of another denomination, there's no way the UCC jumps into the fray and places this ad.

So really. Why are we calling for a dialogue on race? And doing so now?

The ad's lack of full disclosure is telling. It suggests that one motive for keeping silent is denominational self-preservation.

Try saying with a straight face that you're Jeremiah Wright's denomination, you won't scold his outrageous statements, nor condemn his award to Louis Farrakhan, all the while insisting on the need to discuss race.

Difficult, huh? The general public won't buy it and I think our leaders realize this. Better then to avoid the connection and instead say this:
Sacred conversations are never easy, especially when honest talk confronts our nation's painful past and speaks directly to the injustices of the present day. Yet sacred conversations can, and often do, honor the value of diverse life experiences, requiring an openness to hear each others' viewpoints.
Instead of acting like the Old Testament prophets-- who told it like it was and willingly took the hit to their reputation-- the ad takes the soft sell route.

Never mind that we're the religious body that's home to this race controversy. Ignore the fact that none of our national leaders have the courage of Obama, who said in his race speech that Wright remarks were distorted and divisive. Forget that.

Instead, simply present yourself as the denomination that calls for a sacred conversation about race. That strategy raises the odds of the denomination looking much better in the public eye. We look spiritual, reasonable, and hip all at the same time.

If the average irreligious USA Today reader doesn't recognize the UCC connection to the Obama-Wright controversy, the strategy of the ad just might work to enhance our reputation.

Image is certainly on the mind of our President:
No single newspaper ad will ever fully capture our denomination's diverse story or our justice legacy, but as the media spotlight continues to focus on the UCC like never before, it is imperative that we be proactive in sharing who we are and what we're about, lest others continue to define us in narrow and distorted ways.
But for those in the general public who do know the UCC connection, who've read or seen Rev. Thomas' defense of Wright, and don't approve of Wright's remarks, the ad won't work.

The effect will come off like this: "A UCC pastor makes outrageous claims about race and then the UCC tells me that I'm the one who needs to have a dialogue about race? I'm the one who needs to be lectured? It's like being the innocent bystander who sees a fight on the school playground, but instead of the bully going to the Principal's office, I get sent."

Despite the flaws and motives of this ad, the truth remains that, "we have an opportunity to make America a better nation." Sometimes, when the family of an alcoholic is asked to sit down for treatment, they protest saying, "But I'm not the one who needs therapy!" And yet, if they choose to sit down and talk, they too can learn something valuable.

The American public may not feel like they have to sit down and talk about race. But if they do, I'm sure they'd learn something good.

Meanwhile, Rev. Thomas should be proactive in taking this risk-- the Friday before Trinity Sunday, May 18, go and talk about race on the O'Reilly Factor or Hannity & Colmes, and state clearly that Wright was wrong.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Words for True Love Waits

The following are words I shared at Wednesday's True Love Waits ceremony. 10 students made first time commitments and 12 students renewed their commitments. The True Love Waits program is one the ecumenical activities of Little River's Congregational, Catholic, and United Methodist churches. Thanks to Holy Trinity Catholic Church for your leadership!

"Dirty," "used," "regretful," "empty," "disgusted," "ashamed," "duped" and "abused."

What do all these words have in common? These are the responses given by college students who reported what it was like to have a one-night stand “hook-up.”

In an article that appeared just this week on the Wall Street Journal online, Donna Freitas conducted a national college study with over 2,500 students about their attitudes and actions about sex.

When it comes to attitudes, 45% of students at Catholic schools and 36% of students at nonreligious private and public schools say that their peers are too casual about sex. Not a single person at these schools said that their peers valued saving sex for marriage.

When it comes to sex, the world says loud and clear, “If it feels right, do it.” But after they do it, 41% of college students reported that are profoundly upset with their hook up behavior. Profoundly upset.

Dear friends, the decisions you make about your body have a profound impact on your heart and mind. It’s for this reason, the Apostle Paul teaches us in 1 Thessalonians 4:

3 It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Now those are strong words. But they are words of life. To you who are recommitting yourselves tonight, here’s what you’re saying, “Lord, I again declare that I trust in you and I will follow you—for you are a God who protects and provides.”

In a world does not view sex as holy and sacred, you need to remind yourself of God’s truth over and over and over.

And when you complete practicing true love waits, when you get married, these are the words you will use:

"Wow." "Wonderful." "Right." "No guilt." "No regrets."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Pope Decries Divorce, Abortion

Over the weekend, the influential Drudge Report carried a link to this syndicated AFP news story:
Divorce and abortion are offences in the sight of God, Pope Benedict XVI charged Saturday, while calling on the Catholic Church to be merciful to those who had experienced such events.

"The ethical judgment of the Church on divorce and abortion is clear and well-known," he told participants in a Catholic congress on marriage and the family.

"They are serious offenses... which violate human dignity, inflict deep injustice on human and social relations and offend God himself, guarantor of conjugal peace and origin of life," he said.

However he added that there were people who had committed such "errors" but "suffered from wounds to the soul" and "sought peace."
This is standard, orthodox Christian ethics. Has been for hundreds of years. Jesus and Paul both called for no divorce. Psalm 139 affirms the dignity of unborn human beings.

So why is this non-story a story?

Is it because whenever the Pope speaks, a story needs to be filed?

Is this Drudge's way of promoting morals, through a third party?

Is it because our culture's moral compass is so skewed that the Pope's claims are looked upon as radical?

I'm grateful for the Pope's clarity.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Tale of Two Salesmen

Recent events in my life have me thinking of this story.

Two salesmen were getting off the plane after landing in Africa.

The first one looked out and said, "Oh no, nobody here wears shoes!"

But second one said, "Wow! Nobody wears shoes. What an opportunity!"

What's your response to the challenges you face?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Baseball Card Photographer

A new season of baseball has started. I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm excited about it. Maybe it's because my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, may finally have a winning record. Or maybe its because our local high school, Little River, has just started its baseball program. And yes, I have to mention this: the high school played the community in a scrimmage game. I walked, stole a base, and scored a run. Sore the next day? Yep, but I proved to myself I can still play.

I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, collecting baseball cards was one of my favorite childhood hobbies.

Whenever I could scrape up a quarter-- either by begging my parents, or find enough empty glass bottles to redeem-- I'd immediately go around the block to the little Mom and Pop grocery store to get a pack of baseball cards.

The cards were always kept on the left side of the check out counter. My strategy to get the best cards was to go to the far right side of the card box and dig down for the last pack of cards at the bottom of that row. That always seemed to yield the most coveted cards-- anyone from the Cincinnati Reds.

One day I implemented my strategy and opened the pack in front of the lady at the check out counter who was always amused by my ritual. I complained, "Golly, all these cards are bad! The bottom right pack is always the best." The lady replied, "Oh, I'm sorry. Since you always have to work so hard to get to the bottom, I dumped all the cards out of the box and put the bottom cards on the top, so you wouldn't have to dig so hard."

Wish she told me that before I bought that bad pack!

I spent hours with those cards. The pictures on the front. The information on the back. I still have a big box of cards safely stashed away from those years in the 70's.

What got me thinking of all this is ESPN has a great piece on the guy who takes those baseball card photographs.

A couple years ago I saw the man who was my childhood pastor at the Lutheran Church, which was not far from that grocery store. I hadn't seen him in years. He said, "Ted, I remember how in Confirmation Class you had trouble memorizing Luther's small catechism, but you had no problem rattling off to me all the statistics from your baseball cards."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Lighter Side of ETS

Over the weekend I attended the Midwest meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Chicago at Moody Bible College. The society, for those who affirm biblical inerrancy and the Trinity, offers the opportunity to get together and discuss the latest theological ideas and trends in the evangelical world.

I presented a paper that was well received: "The Rhetorical Use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:18-25." I also enjoy meeting several new friends.

This year's theme was, "The Church Convergent, Divergent, and Emergent: 21st Century Ecclesiology." Living out in rural America, the emergent church movement hasn't made its way out here, but it was interesting to learn about some of the issues surrounding the movement.

Some of the discussion was a wee bit too philosophical for me and went over my head. So when a few lower shelf comments got made, I took note. Here's a sampling of some things I heard over the weekend:
After lunch, the Bible students said to one another, "Let's make like a Baptist church and split."

"If you find the perfect church, don't join it. You'll ruin it."

Responding to a student's paper, the professor said, "This is both good and original. However, what is good isn't original and what is original isn't good."

"I believe in a theology of loose ends." --John Franke, Biblical Seminary

"Defining the Emergent church is like trying to nail jello to the wall."

"Justice is easier to fight for than to define." --Ron Sider
But the funniest moment I thought was during the award ceremony for the student paper competition. Each year the society awards books to every participant and then gives an extra stack of books to the winning papers. Derek Hostetter of Cedarville College wrote the winning undergraduate paper, entitled, "Essentials of the Emerging Conversation: Understanding the Movement Rather Than the Controversy."

Among the winning stack of books he received?

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck's, "Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be)."