Thursday, May 21, 2015

Recent Church Chats

Over the last couple of months, I've had the opportunity to speak to a few church groups. I led a Wednesday night Bible study time at Union Mound Baptist Church (near Elkland, Missouri). I pastored the church for a couple of years long ago, but they invited me back to talk about my recent travels to Turkey, Cuba, and Guatemala. The missions-minded folks at the church loved the photos and stories, and asked lots of questions. The last time I spoke at the church was at the 50th anniversary celebration several years ago (although I'd visited a couple times since then), and it was great to be back to see the wonderful people at the church.

I've also taught recently in two different Sunday School classes at First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. I spent four Sundays with the youth group talking about historic Baptist principles. We covered baptism, priesthood of the believer, religious liberty/separation of church and state, importance of the Bible (and interpretative perspectives), and autonomy of the local church. I also talked about how some Baptists have strayed from these historic principles. The sessions brought some good questions as the youth chewed on some of these ideas for the first time.

On Sunday, I taught a different class at First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. They asked me to share about my trip to Cuba and lessons I learned there as they considered how Pope Francis is helping shift U.S.-Cuban relations. I enjoyed again sharing photos and stories from the island, as well as offering some thoughts about Francis.

I enjoy leading discussions like these and appreciate the opportunities to share.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dirty End to Legislative Session

The 2015 regular legislative session for the Missouri General Assembly ends today at 6 p.m. Yet, with about 175 legislative items still up for a vote, neither the state House or state Senate met longer than an hour yesterday. Both houses found themselves in a state of self-inflicted dysfunction. It makes for a pathetic end to a fairly lousy session.

The House found itself upended on Wednesday as the Kansas City Star broke news that the Speaker of the House, Republican Representative John Diehl, had been sexting with a college freshman interning at the state Capitol. The married defender of "family values" (who the state Southern Baptist newspaper, The Pathwaypraised for "political courage" and "leadership" in fighting same-sex marriage) admitted to the sexting. He initially attempted to ride out the scandal, but after various closed-door meetings yesterday he announced he would resign as Speaker and as a member. 

So the House started its business this morning by electing a new Speaker to preside over the last day of the session. This limping toward the finish line sadly serves as a fitting metaphor for the legislation passed this week. 

A Kansas City Star editorial noted the scandal added to the legislature's "most disgraceful week." The editorial pointed to the Senate basically shutting down this week after Republican leaders used a rare procedural move to stop a filibuster by Democrats and some Republicans and therefore force a vote on anti-union "right to work" legislation (that's destined to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon). The editorial also pointed to the refusal of legislators to listen to "faith leaders, medical workers and ordinary people" urging expansion of Medicaid eligibility. 

"In a show of arrogance, House leaders ordered the doors to the chamber's side galleries locked for a time on Wednesday, apparently concerned that Medicaid supporters in the hallway would disrupt the legislative process," the editorial concluded. "Unfortunately, their own speaker had already managed to do that. Lawmakers are listening to the wrong people, and the Republican House leader has been texting with the wrong person." 

In addition to the problematic anti-union legislation and the refusal to act (for yet another year) on Medicaid expansion, the House also voted this week to drastically cut unemployment benefits. Missouri already ranks behind the national standard so legislators decided to act ... by making it worse. Rather than 20 weeks of assistance, Missourian may now only get 13 weeks (while the national standard is 26 weeks). Nixon earlier vetoed the bill, but the House overrode it on Tuesday. The Senate's virtual shutdown this week (as Democrats stall and filibuster everything to protest the parliamentary maneuver used to pass "right to work") means that body may not vote on overriding until a special session (likely in September). Hopefully they will fail in that effort.

All of this legislation adds up to what a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial condemned by writing, "Legislature carves up middle class, serves it on platter to the rich." Too many state legislators seem unconcerned about the working poor and others struggling to make it. The Old Testament prophets had a lot of things to say about rulers who make laws that hurt the poor and downtrodden - and none of it was very nice.

At the start of this legislative session in January, a new effort started to bring together faith leaders, union leaders, and state legislators (from both parties) for a monthly time of dialogue and reports (and good breakfast). I made it to three of the five gatherings. Called the "Faith Labor Alliance," it's an informal group coming together to talk about important issues. Along with a few dozen others, I heard reflections on faith and politics, as well as information about current legislative proposals and debates. 

Those I heard presentations from at the breakfast gatherings included: Democratic State Representative Bob Burns, Democratic State Senator Gina Walsh, Republican State Representative (and Southern Baptist pastor) John McCaherty, as well as economic faith reflections by those in Catholic, United Church of Christ, and Baptist congregations. I enjoyed hearing the various perspectives and learning about critical issues. Above all, I appreciated the fact that people from various backgrounds are coming together to get to know each other and to dialogue. Although the group will break for the summer, I look forward to future gatherings. 

Faith leaders must show up at the table and listen to union leaders, legislators, and others. And faith leaders must offer their voices on critical issues impacting the "least of these" in our communities.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Cellist of Baghdad

In the midst of violence and hatred, the world needs more beauty and love. Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, understands this well. After a bomb ripped through part of Baghdad near his home, he grabbed his cello and a chair and went to the site. He sat down and started playing music.

It's a haunting but beautiful moment as he plays that majestic instrument while surrounding by blackened debris.

The following week, he did it again at another new bomb site. He playlist included the Iraqi National Anthem and one of his own compositions: "Baghdad Mourning Melancholy."

Bringing beauty to sites of destruction, he offers hope to people who desperately need it. He recognizes the need for people to not just survive deadly blasts, but to actually live life. Music helps us with that, especially music from a cello (I'm partial to cellos as that's one of two instruments I learned).


"It was an action to try to equalise things, to reach the equilibrium between ugliness, insanity and grotesque, indecent acts of terror - to equalise it, or to overcome it, by acts of beauty, creativity and refinement," Wasfi told Al Jazeera. "At this stage, [music and culture] is needed as much as food, as much as oxygen, as much as water."

When considering what he might do if people aren't willing to accept his high-culture music (though that doesn't appear to be the case as he's gone viral), he added, "if this is not accepted, if it's demonised, and their ears can only recognise the bombastic, loud noise of bombs, then I can imitate the noise of bombs with my cello, or through the orchestra, without killing anyone. They can listen to that."

Wasfi embodies what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls "prophetic imagination." Brueggemann calls the prophets poets and artists trying to shake up the people by saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, imagining the unimaginable. Such imaginative prophets publicly grieve as they challenge the dominant system, but they also offer the people hope and an alternative vision of the world. Wasfi does all that with his prophetic music, just as the cellist of Sarajevo did more than two decades ago by playing in the midst of war in Bosnia.

"I'm worried that people are losing hope and surrender to the situation,” Wasfi told the Telegraph. "The message was that this was a new day - a day not for death, but for hope."

"I play to show life is worth living," he added. "I can't beat the bombs with my cello, but I can bring respect for the dead."

He might be too modest. Perhaps his cello can defeat terror one block, one ear, one heart at a time. We need more prophets like the cellist of Baghdad.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Death Penalty

I wrote the cover package for this week's issue of Word&Way (a Baptist newspaper in the Midwest). The cover package includes two themed articles, which are highlighted with the cover graphic. The theme for this issue was "Death Penalty."

The first article, Jesus' Death Inspires Concerns over Death Penalty Use, explored how the fact that Jesus died from capital punishment impacts how some Christians view the death penalty. In the article I quote University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Mark Osler, Reverend Justin Thornburgh (pastor of Emerson Avenue Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Ind.), and some public statements and resolutions.

The second article, Racial Bias Seen as a Key Reason to Eliminate the Death Penalty, focuses on racial issues related to capital punishment in the United States. In the article I quote Churchnet Executive Director Jim Hill, Reverend William "Jimi" Gwynn (pastor of Hope of Glory Christian Assembly in St. Louis), and Reverend Elston McCowan (pastor of Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis). I also work in a reference to a John Grisham novel.

There seems to be some shifting in U.S. opinion away from supporting the death penalty. However, white evangelicals remain the most supportive. I hope the two articles will help people think more carefully about the death penalty.