Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Conspiracy Theories and Media

I hate even bringing up this issue, because doing so might somehow indicate that I believe that the people on this particular bandwagon have a point or that is even the slightest bit legitimate. Reticence noted, here goes.

It seems that the so called "Birther" movement just won't go away. This is a relatively small but unbelievably vocal group of people who insist that, in spite of ironclad evidence to the contrary, President Obama is not a US citizen and thus not eligible to be President.

What really amazes me about this whole issue is not that fringe groups make thinly veiled racist arguments driven more by paranoia, prejudice, and an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories. Living in the South so close to the home base of the KKK, I see that sort of garbage all the time. What really blows my mind is how members of the mainstream media not only give this issue any attention, but some of them are even keeping this story alive.

I'm not just talking about Faux News, either. They just added Glen Beck to their stable of nut jobs, which tells you all you need to know about their priorities. I'm talking about CNN, the network that claims to pride itself on staying above the partisan fray.

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, a well known xenophobe (see his almost nightly attacks on undocumented laborers) is one of the chief proponents of the "birther" conspiracy theory (side note: Jon Stewart, as he often does, superbly illustrates the absurdity of this whole thing). In an interview with Politico, CNN President Jon Klein sidestepped any responsibility for this yellow journalism masquerading as legitimate, impartial journalism, by claiming that what Dobbs says on his radio show, part of a different media company, is of no concern to CNN.

I don't believe that for a second. If Dobbs or any other on-air personality at CNN or any other network got a DUI or was accused of a violent crime, the network would suspend them, if not outright fire them. We need look no further than Don Imus or Charles Barkley for proof of that. Saying "This person did X act outside of our airwaves" would not be acceptable, because networks live and die by the public perception of their on-air talent.

Dobbs draws big ratings, hence CNN can charge more to run ads on his show. The same goes for incendiary talking heads like Glen Beck, Keith Olberman, and Bill O'Reiley. As long as the sponsors are happy, they can go on saying any incendiary thing they want. The more outrageous the better, because it keeps us all tuning in.

The majority of us who are sick of this kind of thing passing for legitimate news do have some recourse, however. We can simply turn off the TV, thus negatively affecting the ratings of these talking heads. If we're so inclined we could even contact these networks or even their advertisers and tell them that we expect better of them if they are going to be our voice.

Taking a few minutes to speak up might do us all a lot of good.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lessons thus far

I've learned a lot of things in the nearly two weeks since the church fire. Among them are the grace and resiliency of the people of Bethlehem UMC- a lesson I learn over and over again as I continue with the honor of being their pastor.

Another thing I've learned is how any comment, no matter how small, can generate a lot of buzz. For example, I tweeted the following thing yesterday (which also becomes my Facebook status): "really getting sick of all these sharks using our church's tragedy as a way to drum up business".

This phrase quickly generated a number of questions from folks who read it. So let me clarify/elaborate.

Over the past two weeks I have received dozens of phone calls and emails from businesses whose products and services may be useful to us as we begin the process of rebuilding. Some of these phone calls and emails have evidenced genuine concern, apologies for seeming opportunistic in contacting me, and offers of some kind of discount in light of our tragedy. These are not the "sharks" to whom I am referring.

The "sharks" in question are, sadly, the majority of these phone calls and emails from businesses who express half-hearted condolences for our loss, and immediately launch into a lengthy sales pitch for their products/services. Particularly unsettling are the individuals who have offered legal consultation in dealing with our insurance company. These are probably the same guys who advertise their services during "The Price Is Right" if you've been injured in an accident and can't work. My friends who've been to law school have a term for these people: ambulance chasers.

Before I sound too negative, however, let me say that most of the communication I've had from folks has been messages of support and prayer, along with offers to help with no expectation of reciprocity. The small minority whose behavior is, at best, ethically gray, does not overshadow the majority of folks who have been nothing but loving and gracious.

As to this small minority, I get that these practices may be "good business", but it's pretty poor manners.

PS- today is Kate's 6 month birthday! Check out our family blog, The Parsonage Family, for a recap of the last half year!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Moving Forward

Bethlehem UMC will be meeting at the Montgomery County Civic Hall for at least the next four weeks. All are welcome to join us for Breakfast at 8:30, Sunday School at 9, and Worship at 10.

The Civic Hall is located in Veterans Plaza on Pageant Ln., just off of Madison Street in Clarksville, TN. Here is a Google Map to the location.

View Larger Map

Monday, July 20, 2009

Media Coverage

There was a lot of media coverage of our service yesterday. Here is what is up on the web so far:

WKRN (channel 2, Nashville's ABC affiliate) did a really nice piece. It was strange to see my voice leading off the 5pm news yesterday!

Here is the link to the video on their site.

Fox 17 (anchored by my fraternity brother, John Dunn) also did a piece. Here is the link.

Our local paper, the Leaf Chronicle, also did a very nice article, along with a great photo gallery.

Thank you to all the members of the press who came out yesterday and treated the event with such respect and reverence. Your care and grace comes through in the pieces you produced.

We have an informational meeting tonight at 7pm at Sango UMC. By then I'm hoping to be able to announce our temporary worship location and some other events for the coming days.

As always, please keep our congregation in your prayers.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Funeral for a Friend

Today we held worship next to where the church building stood. I adapted part of the funeral liturgy from the Book of Worship, as well as part of the liturgy for taking leave of a building. In many ways today was a funeral for our building. The church is the people, but the building was a beloved family member.

Nearly 200 people came to worship with us today, including Dr. Ron Lowrey, our District Superintendent, and Rev. Roger Hobson, executive assistant to our Bishop.

As part of the service, we had taken bricks from one of the chimneys that had collapsed and used it to build a Wailing Wall, like the one in Jerusalem, and during our prayer time we wrote down prayers and put them in the cracks of the wall.

Our historical marker survived the fire, and will be kept as part of a memorial that will be in our new building.

We also celebrated Holy Communion in our worship. Today was a bittersweet yet beautiful time of mourning and celebration. Tomorrow we will begin the long work of rebuilding. Please keep our congregation in your prayers.

photos courtesy of the Leaf Chronicle and Jessica Kelley.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What Once was Lost

There were so many irreplaceable things we lost in the fire that I can't even begin to list them here. One small grace is that I didn't have an office in the church, so I the only things I personally lost were my vestments. They were nice, but were all replaceable. 

All of them, that is, except the pectoral cross Jessica purchased for me in England a few years ago. It was of tremendous sentimental value to me and I was heartbroken that I lost it.

Even though we technically weren't supposed to, some of us started combing through the rubble today, and I went over to the area where the closet with my vestments was. Digging around I discovered a half burned pile of cloths that I realized had been my robes and stoles, and a large hunk of plastic that had been the hangers on which they hung.

And in the middle of that hunk of melted plastic:

It turns out that the plastic formed a protective casing around the cross, so the damage to it was minimal. I will be wearing it tomorrow, stains and all, and I'll take it to a jewelry shop this week to get it cleaned up.

God works small miracles even in the midst of great tragedies. This is only one of many that are yet to come.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The latest info

I spent most of the day, today, at the church. To call it a heartbreaking experience is an understatement. Seeing our beloved church building reduced to ashes and rubble is an experience that defies description. And yet it was a day filled with strange beauty as people came together and laughed, cried, and shared memories of all the wonderful things that happened in this building over the last century.

We will be worshipping at the site at 10am on Sunday. The worship will include Holy Communion. There will also be an informational meeting at Sango UMC at 7pm on Monday evening. Dr. Ron Lowrey, our District Superintendent, and I will be there to share information and answer questions.

Here are some photos I took today:

Please keep our congregation in your prayers.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Tragic Loss

Many of you all have already heard the news that Bethlehem UMC was struck by lightning last night and burned down. Here are the photos that the Leaf Chronicle published.

I was in Costa Rica at the time of the fire. I got on a plane as soon as I heard, and arrived back in Clarksville this evening.

Please pray for our congregation in the difficult days ahead as we figure out the next steps and move forward.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Out until the 19th

I will be in Costa Rica until July 19th.

I'm going as part of a mission team of United Methodists from the Clarksville area to work on making structural improvements to the orphanage run by the United Methodist Church just outside of San Jose. We'll be staying at the seminary in San Jose while we do our work.

I'm very much looking forward to this mission trip, because in the past few years I haven't found mission experiences to be as fulfilling as I used to. I think it's largely because I've been in charge on these trips, and the burdens of leadership have hindered me from experiencing these trips as times of spiritual renewal. I'm merely a participant on this trip, so I'm looking forward to a time of refreshment and renewal (physically, however, I'll be exhausted when I get back).

Please pray for safe travels and blessings for our mission team. I'll share pictures and stories when I return. Until then, blessings to you all on wherever your journey leads you.

Friday, July 10, 2009

How do you do that funeral?

The headlines here in the Nashville area have been dominated in the last week by the death of Steve McNair, the former quarter back of the Tennessee Titans. In the last few days we've learned that he was killed by his mistress, who then killed herself, leaving behind his wife and four children who apparently knew nothing about this woman.

Since he was famous, and since the circumstances of his untimely death were scandalous, questions have been swirling around the mainstream media, blogs, and sports talk radio. What does this do to his legacy? How will we remember him now?

I've heard a slightly different version of this question tossed about by clergy and others in the religion business. They've asked, "how do you do this guy's funeral?" At a funeral we're talk about how good the deceased was, so those who have raised this question are wondering if we're just supposed to ignore the fact that he was cheating on his wife.

I can't help but wonder if raising this question in this way is a sign of the very poor understanding of grace that most of us have. We tend look at someone who was doing something wrong, if we're religious we might even say they were sinning (and make no mistake, cheating on your wife is a sin), and we assume that they didn't just do a bad thing, we assume that they're a bad person.

In other words, we assume that the power of sin is greater than the power of grace. Or at the very least we assume that for God's grace to really be effective we have to have purged our lives of sin, or at least the major ones (however we define what "major" sins are).

The truth is, though, that God's grace can be working powerfully in our lives and we'll still mess up. Grace overcomes the power of Sin, yes, but it's a lifelong process, not an instantaneous cure.

Steve McNair was a loving father, someone devoted to numerous philanthropic causes, and took time time to mentor young men like Vince Young, who grew up without a father in his life. The sin of adultery doesn't negate these good things. He was a good man who did a bad thing. Nothing less, nothing more.

So how does a pastor do this particular funeral? Steve's pastor, Bishop Joseph Walker, a man who clearly believes in "grace greater than our sin", gave a pretty definitive answer. Take a look for yourself:

(This is only part of the sermon. I encourage you to watch the whole thing.)

May we all have the courage to drop our stones of judgment and live like God's grace is greater than any sin.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sacraments in Cyber-Space

I meant to post on this last week, but moderating comments from the post I put up last Monday took up a lot of time!

A very popular liturgy blogger in New Zealand joined in the conversation about if and how sacraments can be done in a virtual environment, specifically Second Life.

Apparently there are churches in Second Life where one's avatar can go and participate in worship, including Holy Communion. This is problematic for Rev. Bosco Peters, who maintains the Liturgy blog, because he is an Anglican, thus his theology of Communion is very high (as in "High Church").

Note to my theologian colleagues out there: please forgive the gross oversimplifications that follow. I'm trying to make this accessible to everyone.

High church traditions (Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian) are very restrictive in terms of who can preside over the sacraments, because it understands God's grace to be tangibly present in them. Thus, only an ordained person can preside at the sacraments so as to ensure that they are administered properly and those who receive them are getting the full benefit.

Low church traditions (Baptist, Disciples of Christ, etc.), on the other hand have a much more relaxed view of the sacraments, viewing them as symbols of God's grace that will not be negated if they're not done "correctly" (however one defines it) or by the "right" person. These traditions believe the effectiveness of God's grace has much more to do with the sincerity of the receiver, not the clergy person presiding.  Thus, low church traditions have been very eager to make use of the internet, as evidenced by the plethora of evangelical sites that walk one step-by-step through the process of "accepting Christ" and being saved.

So we can see how the practice of administering and receiving sacraments in a virtual environment is problematic for those with a high sacramental theology. Can the invocation of the Holy Spirit (the epiclesis) really be effective from the real world to the virtual world? Can the virtual bread and wine effectively mediate the presence of Christ? Can the grace of taking the sacrament in the virtual world be fully transmitted to the receiver in the real world?

Being a Methodist, I'm somewhere between these two theological extremes. We were born in the Church of England, which is decidedly high church, yet Methodism grew and prospered as a frontier revival movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America, where the lack of ordained clergy necessitated some decidedly low church practices. So the joke that Methodists are half Episcopalian and half Baptist is actually pretty accurate.

In our tradition we talk about sacraments as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace", meaning that while we don't believe the bread and wine of communion or the water of baptism are transformed in any way as to become exclusive mediators of God's grace, we do believe in the real presence of God in these elements. It doesn't depend on the character or correct performance of the presider (which is of great relief to me as a pastor), nor is it dependent on the sincerity or knowledge of the receiver (which is of great relief to me as a highly imperfect person), but on God's promise to be with us always. We trust in the mysterious power of God that has been revealed to us in part, and we look forward to when we will  know it fully, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13.

So ultimately, I think it is fine to participate in church and even to take communion in Second Life or any other online environment, but I would also encourage someone not to stop there. God's grace is no less real in the virtual realm, but there is no substitute for having a community where one can grow in their discipleship. Such communities can happen online, but actual human interaction can never be fully recreated, no matter how good the technology.