Archive for January, 2008

Love knows no bounds…or does it?

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Following is my most recent column in Disciples World Magazine:

Love knows no bounds…or does it?

According to a report from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, by the year 2025, five out of six current clergy leaders will have retired. Meanwhile, the average tenure of a clergy person is at least a decade less than in other “first career” professions. Aside from these age and attrition issues, there is also the matter of representation within church leadership.

Although most churches are experiencing the greatest growth in membership within non-Anglo ethnicities, a significant majority of our church leadership is still white. Although a majority of those who attend church are female, most clergy are male. Gender, age, and ethnicity gaps help to further reinforce the sense that our churches are decreasingly relevant with respect to real-world issues. Meanwhile, we face a looming vacuum in the pulpit.

Some within the church believe that broadening the scope of seminaries, and those they attract and train for ministry, has a positive effect on the institution of church and society as a whole. Others believe that it is the very historical restrictiveness of the church that has created the divisions, animosity, mistrust, and abuse that we now seek to reconcile.

In an August 1994 letter to members of the Episcopal House of Bishops, John Shelby Spong, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, wrote, “Some members of our church no longer feel included, where those living in non-traditional relationships might no longer expect to find a place or a welcome in the Body of Christ and where gay and lesbian clergy might question whether or not their gifts are still wanted by the church they love.”

Spong went on to note that as much as a third of the populations in major urban settings identify themselves as gay or lesbian. He claimed that, by allowing ministers to live as openly gay or lesbian persons, and by encouraging them to model committed, loving relationships with their partners, these church leaders could bring “both the hope and love of Christ to communities of people long oppressed, long denigrated, and long judged by various religious authorities as inadequate human beings in whom the image of God is somehow flawed.”

In a post-denominational world, maintaining traditional standards upon which the historical church was built risks greater alienation, a lingering sense of oppressiveness, and further cultural disconnectedness. If we press forward toward a vision of church within which gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are not criteria for ministry, we risk any number of divisions that could further weaken our ailing religious institutions.

There are those who believe it is religion’s responsibility to draw the boundaries of propriety within which the rest of society should operate. Others feel it is their spiritual calling to step across some of these same lines, drawing cries of heresy from the ones making the rules.

This moral tension changes form over time, but it never goes away. The price of addressing such issues is seldom insignificant. However, a church that does not face these kinds of social issues head on does not earn the right to claim the gospel as its heritage.

In their book Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality (Abingdon, 1994), Sally Geis and Donald Messner suggested, “We need to perceive (scripture) not childishly but with a childlike faith.” Unfortunately, we often take strong positions on this and other issues before we even have a proper vocabulary we can employ to develop constructive dialogue.

Christians often think of homosexuality as a single, monolithic issue, but when we achieve an arm’s length degree of objectivity, we quickly begin to see how such issues cannot be distilled down to an either/or debate that can be so easily categorized.

The most important factor for either side is the continuation of dialogue. If, indeed, we agree that the church is to reflect the “re-membered” body of Christ, then our interdependence and common mission should trump the desire to draw lines and dig in our heels.

The future of the church depends on it.

Culture “war” lies just beneath the surface

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Culture “war” lies just beneath the surface

In general, most of us would like to think that the church is finding ways to coexist with the contemporary culture. It’s a common sentiment to believe that the church can be in the world, yet not of it, and that we can serve an imperfect world, insomuch as we are an imperfect church made up of imperfect people.

Unfortunately, there are those who see the church’s role as one of waging war on a secular culture, positioned to swallow whole the kingdom of God on Earth.

“It is impossible to deny that we are in a culture war in our nation, as well as the rest of the world” says Becca Anderson of ASSIST news service, a right-wing purveyor of manifestos disguised as news, “What we believe as Christians is diametrically opposed to what we see around us daily.”

She goes on to argue that the church’s indifference to the impingement of the rest of the world on “God’s territory” is comparable to surrender on the battlefield. Tim Ewing, founder of Rare Jewel Magazine, a publication “designed to inform, equip and inspire those who desire to see America’s Christian foundation restored,” sees the conflict in starkly black-and-white terms.

“We tend to talk about a Left/Right dichotomy,” Ewing says. “In such an argument, a middle position is deemed as ‘best’. But compromise is bad.”

Ewing goes on to contend that theological and political moderates are the biggest part of the problem. He explains that imagining liberal-conservative ideology along a linear sort of spectrum is not only inaccurate, but also damaging to the values of organized religion. He argues that one should imagine instead moral and social views more like a circle, with what is true and right on the inside, and then everything else beyond the perimeter.

“There is no middle position when you think of it that way,” says Ewing.

So the evangelical position in framing the so-called culture war is clear; but what are they planning to do about it? Send Christians to boot camp, of course, to arm themselves for the coming war.

The focus of quasi-military trainers for the Lord such as Ewing and his partner, Rick Marschall, is first and foremost on writers. Their goal is to engender in Christian writers a “mature sense of outrage,” and to train them in how to counteract what they perceive as an overwhelming wave of secularism infecting “the church.”

From “The Da Vinci Code” to atheist polemicist Richard Dawkins, their army of Christian writers sets out to refute anything in mainstream media that they see as counter to biblical teaching. Further, they are intent on equipping congregations at the local level to do battle with their fellow citizens, teaching them talking points and strategies for winning debates about key moral issues.

“Even if you’re not a writer,” says Anderson, “Ewing and Marschall’s ‘America at the Crossroads’ (training) could be a turning point in your life. Who knows? It could cause you to pick up your pen and charge into the fray.”

At least their crusade is bloodless so far. While a respectful, passionate exchange of words and ideas is at the cornerstone of our democratic heritage, the militaristic context within which the debate is being framed raises violent ghosts from the not-too-distant past. Christianity, after all, has been known to replace the pen with a shield and sword when it is perceived that the stakes are high enough.

Both the most empowering and the most potentially dangerous element of faith is the phenomenon of embracing ideas for which you are prepared to either kill or be killed. This sort of fundamentalism already pervades a radical branch of Islam, the results of which we have seen in palpable terms.

The prospect of taking up a similar bloodthirsty battle cry is as much a distortion of Christian values as has been achieved by jihadists in co-opting the otherwise peaceful Muslim religion.

Let’s pray we don’t repeat history.

Fear is fine, but just walk with some common sense

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Fear is fine, but just walk with some common sense

On a clear day in 1953, a bookkeeper from New Zealand and his small team of adventurers embarked on the final stage of a historic climb.

Without the benefit of oxygen or many modern tools available to climbers today, Edmund Hillary and his crew reached the south peak of Mount Everest. Exhausted and short of breath in the thin mountain air, most of Hillary’s group could not continue to the summit, but he and Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay pressed ahead.

Hillary, a modest, self-effacing man, had no visions of fame about his adventure. He simply saw Everest as a challenge to be taken on with respectful persistence. He also had no illusions about the risks he took in making such a historic attempt.

“If you set out on an adventure,” said Hillary, “certain from the outset that you will succeed, then why bother beginning in the first place?”

Hillary died recently in Auckland, New Zealand, at age 88. He is remembered not only for his bravery, but also for his humility and concern for others. He always put the well-being of his fellow climbers before his own aspirations, and he was careful not to place his fears too far out of sight. To ignore one’s fears, said Hillary, was to take unnecessary risk.

To allow those same fears, however, to paralyze us and keep us from trying to achieve the improbable, is equally ill-advised. Fear often alerts us to real risks that lie ahead. But, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, we should welcome our fears, embrace them and push forward, fully aware of the potential dangers.

This is part of what is so incredible about Jesus’ ministry. He knew well the dangers that faced him in a hostile, occupied territory. From the day of his birth, he was identified as a potential threat to the existing powers, and as one who should be “dealt with” accordingly.

Though Jesus never ran away into hiding, he also didn’t put his energy into futile tasks. If he found one place too unreceptive, he shook the dust from his sandals and moved on. Instead of beating his head repeatedly against an immovable wall, he sought out those who were open to his message.

There were times, however, when Jesus took a position, even knowing the potential consequences. For some, the famous painting of the “laughing Jesus,” supposedly laughing all the way to the cross, is an encouraging symbol of triumph. But I simply can’t get past the image of Jesus in the Garden on Gethsemane, weeping bitterly until blood oozed from his pores.

He knew what was coming. He didn’t want it to happen. But he didn’t let his fear dictate his choices.

Life isn’t about avoiding risk any more than it is about wandering blindly into harm’s way. If Edmund Hillary taught us anything with his legacy as the first to conquer Everest, it is that our fears often are the greatest mountains we will climb in our lives. However, with the proper tools and preparation, fear never should hold us back from achieving the greatest things that await us at the next summit, just beyond our reach.

There is such a thing as reasonable risk. What that constitutes is up to each individual, but it’s impossible to make wise decisions about life’s risks without dealing with the fear that accompanies. It might seem more appealing to hole up and do nothing, or to stampede blindly into the fray, hoping to avoid danger without knowing exactly what it is we’re trying to avoid.

Faith, though, is not ignorant. Simply throwing up our hands and saying, “whatever happens, God will take care of it” isn’t enough. We were each given a brain, a conscience and a discerning sense of judgment for a reason. They’re gifts from a generous, loving, yet liberating God.

Like any true gift, the terms about how we use them are up to us.

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning.” For more information, visit

Media affect preachers and politicians alike

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Media affect preachers and politicians alike

When I pulled up the news online Tuesday evening and saw blurbs about Hillary Clinton getting choked up during a community meeting, I let out a resigned sigh.

“Just watch,” I said to my wife, Amy. “Tomorrow morning’s headline will be about her emotions.” Sure enough, the first sentence of the top story talked about her choking back tears as she spoke.

My first reaction is annoyance, assuming that this sort of publicity is desired by those folks who want to portray a woman as emotionally incapable of handling the presidency. Who, after all, wants a leader who gets misty with their finger on the button, or in front of high-powered international diplomats, right?

Then I started thinking back to her husband, Bill, and his now-infamous “I feel your pain,” speech. The president – then a candidate – responded to ACT UP member Bob Rafsky who claimed that “We’re not dying of AIDS as much as we are dying of 11 years of government neglect.” Clinton’s emotional response has been parodied regularly for 15 years since.

We say we want leaders with whom we can relate, but we deride them for showing real feelings. We claim to seek “real people” for government offices, but then discredit them as weak if they demonstrate the capacity for normal emotions.

Candidates these days submit to a 24-hour-a-day microscope for as much as two years, followed by another four if they actually win. There is little safe harbor from the public spotlight anymore. While some claim this is an inherent part of modern politics, it hasn’t always been this way.

Ever since John F. Kennedy used television to help launch him beyond Nixon into the White House, the criteria for effective politics have changed. Charisma, physical appearance and public speaking ability have become increasingly valuable traits, while positions on issues are reduced to sound bytes.

The emergence of the tele-evangelism phenomenon has done much the same to religion.

Everyone can call to mind the stereotypical televangelist: perfect, immovable hair, sparkling white teeth, an oversized, beatific smile and lilting drawl that practically harkens the angels straight from heaven.

Are these people for real? Well, no, they’re not. Much like the contemporary politician, they are brands, commodities pedaled by way of a powerful media tool. Those attributes highlighted by video are emphasized to the point of exaggeration, while other characteristics are muted or invisible. While a significant contingency of skeptics looks on in wonder, trying to figure out how anyone takes these characters seriously, the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of faithful come pouring in.

It’s no wonder, then, when a person who is desperately trying to live a contrived, superficial image such as that presented on television cracks under pressure, mascara streaking down their cheeks or blubbering in emotional ruin about their unexpected transgressions. How could they? We held them up on a pedestal, made them larger than life, and this is the thanks we get?


While we don’t practice physical crucifixion these days, we do our share of character assassination, gleefully picking off those whom we once employed as vehicles for fantasy. It’s enough to suggest we haven’t learned much from our mistakes 2,000 years ago.

Jesus would likely have a hard go of it these days without a cadre of image consultants. Would caps on his teeth help him spread the Gospel? Would he embark on a global preaching tour, sponsored by Old Navy? Probably not. But how in the world would he get our attention otherwise?

Any promise of peace is stained with blood

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

Any promise of peace is stained with blood

The new year reminds us that human beings have an unimaginable capacity for evil, particularly against one another.

The recent elections in Kenya stirred controversy about the results that spiraled into violence, ethnic strife and greater potential for civil war. Crying foul, hordes of dissenters crowded around a church where hundreds of others were taking refuge. With torches and machetes in hand, they proceeded to butcher men, women and children, leaving the sanctuary in ruin.

From time to time, there are those who hang on to such tragedies as evidence of our further fall from divine grace. From the floods in Louisiana to genocide in Sudan, it’s convenient to attribute both natural and human-borne crises to a slippery slope hastening our approach to Armageddon.

In fact, when we look back into Scripture, we find much of the same kinds of tragedy and violence, even alongside our most precious stories.

Anyone who has attended a Christian church in recent weeks likely has enjoyed, once again, the birth stories of Jesus recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We smile at the sight of our children, dressed in shepherds’ robes, angel wings and makeshift crowns as they act out the pastoral scene. We sing heartwarming songs and light candles to represent the in-breaking of divine light into the world.

It’s relatively easy to walk away from Christmas with good feelings and fond memories. However, even within those Gospel accounts, we tend to gloss over a rather dark and macabre backdrop upon which the birth story is laid.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, King Herod got word that a new leader among the Jews was coming into the world as a fragile, defenseless infant. His response: Initiate a campaign of mass infanticide to wipe out any potential threat among the Jewish community.

For me, the manger scene takes on a new context when we consider that scores of babies are being slaughtered down the street. It doesn’t exactly make for a touching Christmas carol or bedtime story, but it’s part of the bloody legacy of Christmas.

Looking further back in time, a similar scenario surrounds the birth of Moses, another heralded leader of the Jewish people. Having some well-founded concerns for threats to his power, Pharaoh orders a similar genocidal campaign against newborns when Moses arrives in the world. The irony of him being stowed away and subsequently raised by an Egyptian family does not negate the point that thousands of innocents likely died because of what this single child represented.

More familiar is the morbid setting around the cross at Calvary. Jesus, the one we Christians celebrate as God with skin on, came with open hands, bearing peace and a radical message of unconditional love. He received in response a brutal death, punctuated by public humiliation, torture and abandonment by those who claimed to follow him.

It seems that we humans have a natural tendency to run in the opposite direction when good news comes knocking. We say we want peace, yet when it stands before us, we mock it, turn our backs on it or kill it. If something so radical and transformative as the Gospel reminds us that it will take dramatic change to achieve the vision of peace we claim, we shrug off the implication such a challenge has on our daily comforts.

If we are to claim peace and love, we must also recognize their close companionship with violence and bloodshed. Some will suggest it’s too high of a price for such good news. Others may shrug their shoulders, dismissing the cost of such change as inevitable collateral damage.

It’s tempting to skip over the front-page stories on Kenya’s violence. It would be easier to pretend that the faith we claim here has no connection to the chaos and loss of life an ocean away. But if we truly believe that for which Jesus himself was willing to die, we must find ourselves on both sides of the gun, or else risk perhaps committing the greatest sin of all: indifference.