Thursday, April 27, 2006

God's Politics Means Hope

Last night Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner's Magazine and community as well as author of "God's Politics", spoke here in Omaha and announced that the "monologue about religion and politics" has ended. By that, Wallis confidently announced that the Right wing fundamentalist agenda to narrowly define the values and meaning of Jesus and Christian faith has been engaged by an alternative vision. This is good news!

Wallis addressed two audiences in Omaha this Wednesday, the first was a college group at Creigton University in the afternoon and then an audience of over 600 people of all ages at Countryside Community Church in the evening. I know that's true because my 16 year old son Daniel sat beside me. In his opening remarks, Jim Wallis observed that there is great "confusion and disillusionment" about religion in the United States at this time. In a humorous aside, he commented that
"I'm spiritual, but not religious is the fastest growing denomination in America today!" Some conclude that abandoning the church and religion is maybe the best choice one can make. Wallis disagrees.

Good religion pulls out our best stuff, in the American religious tradition. Bad religion pulls out our worst stuff. Reviewing some of the best stuff in our American religious history, Wallis asked, "Where would we be as a nation without the religious vision of abolitionists who worked to bring about the end of slavery?
Where would we be without the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who worked to end segregation and injustice for blacks? Where would we be without a long list of Americans who had a profound vision for God's concern for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed?" Wallis contends that every major social reform movement in American life has been fueled by faith.

"I believe in the separation of church and state," said Wallis, "but not segregation of faith values from public life."

Religion is about the big issues of life. "The big stuff is so big, only religion is big enough to face the challenges." In his book "The Call to Conversion", Wallis sums this up well in his statement that "faith is always personal but never private."
The biblical faith includes the prophets who advocated for the widow, the orphans, the homeless, the hungry and destitute. The prophets spoke truth to power and challenged the kings and rulers to fulfill their call to compassion for the weak.
In our day, it sometimes feels like the powerful feel a deeper compassion for the rich than for the weak. As Wallis puts it in his book, "God's Politics", since when did Jesus become pro-rich? pro-war? and only pro-American?

Yet, Wallis realistically argues that "America isn't hungry for a religious left, but for a moral center" to our problems and divisions." Americans increasingly aren't just red or blue state in their loyalties and values. There's more purple than we've been led to believe. Sitting beside a good Christian friend last night who is more conservative than I am on many issues, I agreed with Wallis' contention that "religion has been used as a wedge to divide us, rather than a bridge to connect us." My friend and I disagree on some issues, but we mutually acknowledge the sincerity of each other's faith. And we often agree on what end results should look like in society, while disagreeing some times on the proper means to achieve them. Even more importantly, we see in each other the presence of Christ who is transforming us both.

Wallis spoke to the issue of values in religion and American life last night.
Speaking about the fundamentalist right, he said they often seem to believe there are only two moral values that are critical: abortion and gay marriage.
That's too narrow an agenda from a biblical perspective argued Wallis. It's reductionist. Biblical faith and values includes a concern for the poor, a sense of our responsibilty for stewardship of the creation, an urgent concern for the war in Iraq, and a commitment to healthy families.

A pro-family agenda means more than being anti-gay marriage, argues Wallis. Family break-down is a crisis in our nation he acknowledges. In his urban Washington, D.C. neighborhood, Wallis reported that 80% of families are single-parent families. Kids fall through the cracks. There is a challenge to raising children in our society, and parenting and marriage do not receive much social support or public policy assistance.

"Parenting is a counter-cultural practice in society," today argues Wallis. And neither political party has a pro-family agenda.

In one of his lecture tours across the country, Wallis recounted the conversation he had with a young student who had her grasp of key moral issues challenged and deepened during the "God's Politics" lecture. She told Wallis that he had alerted her to the "silent Tsunami" that kills 30,000 children daily around the world from hungry, disease, and warfare.

The latter part of Wallis comments last night addressed the moral development of children and youth, and the role they will play in leading our nation and churches in the future. Following a lecture in the Northwest, Wallis mentioned a conversation with an 11 year old girl. "What did you get out of this talk tonight?" he asked her. Imagine that 11 year old girl speaking to Wallis, a man who has been on the front lines of religious leadership and social change for over 30 years. Confidently, she responded to Wallis, "We're just going to have to change the world." Do we adults have enough idealism and faith to measure up to that young girls idealistic vision?

The big choice today is between cynicism and hope Wallis shared with us in the concluding remarks of last night's address. Cynics are against the bad stuff in our world, but don't believe or hope that things can be different. Cynicism is a buffer against commitment said Wallis. The only real alternative is Hope. Hope isn't a feeling; it's a choice because of our faith. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and waiting to see the evidence change.

At the conclusion of the evening, I stood in line for a book signing with Wallis for his book "God's Politics". My son Daniel was with me. He said to me, "Dad I want to read this book." Jim Wallis signed my son's book and asked him what his plans were for college and life. Daniel was a little shy at first, but then shared his interest in writing. With genuine interest, Wallis encouraged Daniel's ambition and challenged him to write a little each day. I could tell Wallis cares about young people. We owe it to them, as adults, to be people of Hope.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

God's Politics

Omaha is set to welcome Jim Wallis, author of "God's Politics" with the subtitle
"Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." Wallis will be in town this Wednesday, speaking at Creighton University and later in the evening at Countryside Community Church. Missouri River Valley Presbytery, Creighton University and Countryside Church are the sponsors for this whirlwind tour and speaking engagement. Since last November I've been leading coffee shop discussions of "God's Politics". It's been a great learning experience for me.

Last Friday, I shared a cup of coffee with my friend Doug, a college professor and therapist here in town. Doug isn't a church goer; in fact, he has a lot of struggles with organized religion. Don't worry about that with us Presbyterians I said to Doug, "We're far from being organized!" For a long time now, Doug and I have had this running series of coffee shop discussions about faith, doubt, current politics, and where the church I'm part of looks at all this. Although Doug is far from conventional in his views of religion and church, he shares with me and many others a belief that current presentations of right-wing Christianity are distortions of Jesus' teachings.

Jim Wallis puts it well in his book "God's Politcs". Since when did Jesus become pro-war, pro-rich, and only a selective moralist whose primary concern is our sexual behavior?

It's an interesting question to reflect on how evangelism and social justice or concerns for doing acts of mercy and justice in the world are related. For some time now, we mainline Christians have been conflicted about both evangelism and social concerns. We've made an artificial separation of the these two vital elements of faith, just as arbitrarily as our more conservative church counterparts.
It's really hard to see Jesus separating the two. Wallis makes this point quite clearly in "God's Politcs." As Wallis points out, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that show God's concern for the poor. And Jesus came preaching "good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, and the favorable year of our Lord (the Jubilee year of redistribution of wealth so that power and wealth were'nt forever concentrated in the hands of a few) Luke 4

For some time now in our nation, we've been engaged in a debate about the importance of values in national life and in cultural debates. But as Jim Wallis asks, "Which values and whose values are we talking about?" How narrowly or widely will the discussion be? Will the moral values debate cut both ways in politics, challenging both the political Left and Right, Democrat and Republican?

God is not a Republican or a Democrat! That has been the message Jim Wallis and the Sojourners Community he founded has been proclaiming for some time now.

Wallis identifies issues and values that Christians should care about:
*poverty is a religious issue
*the environment, God's creation, is a religious concern and increasingly evangelicals and mainliners are coming to agreement on this
*the war in Iraq is a continuing moral issue that touches on the issue of just war in relation to the controversy over preemptive war, not to mention the sad spectacle of our soldiers involved in prisoner abuse
*our muli-racial society and the growing debate over immigration calls for our faith communities to lead the way in the vision and practice of reconciliation
*personal and social responsbility are both at the heart of religion
*defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair.

Just this week, I've been helping my son Daniel write a paper on the conflicts in the Middle East and how religion plays a key role in these disputes and conflicts.
The three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are each a party to these conflicts. If we believe that moral values and religious faith are crucial to our identity and values, then leaders from these great religions must be a party to peaceful resolutions of conflict. Government can't do that alone. Government doesn't really comprehend, fully, the meaning and power of religion.
Usually, government seeks to coopt religion for its own power manipulations. That's often what we're witnessing in contemporary politics.

And with the above should come a genuine humility. As Jim Wallis observes, "Religious people do not have an exclusive hold on the issues of morality."

Some might argue that religion is too volatile a force to take into the public sphere of values and politics. My friend Doug raised this very question with me. And it's a good question. As Wallis notes, "Conventional wisdom suggests that the antitdote to religious fundamentalism is more secularism. But that is a very big mistake. Bad theology and bad religion need to be corrected by a better theology and a better religion."

The three great monotheistice traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are all religions of the "book". The key question is how do we interpret the book?
Better interpretations of the book are a much better, more effective response to fundamentalism than throwing the book away. I think this is a vital insight. This past week-end, I saw a CNN special featuring the writer and influential interpreter of world religions, Karen Armstrong. She argues that at their core, the major world religions do share in common a basic compassion for human persons and a belief that God, however understood, does call human beings to mercy. Those of us who follow the life and teachings of Jesus do believe that God calls us to do justice, to live kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6: 6-8) Jesus incarnated this way of life.

Near the end of his book, "God's Politics", Jim Wallis makes this statement:
"Prophetic faith does not see the primary battle as the struggle between belief and secularism. It understands that the real battle, the big struggle of our times,
is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope." I find that comment both encouraging and challenging to my faith. How about you?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

How do we grow SMART Leadership?

This morning I joined in an Eagle Scout project at church for Bradley, one of our fine youth members. The sun was shining brightly on this gorgeous spring day when I pulled into the parking lot, to be greeted by about 25 scouts and at least 10 parents gathered for the day's work: planting a large number of trees around the perimeter of our new parking lot. Shovels were lined up against a wall for the project, trees were waiting to be planted, and young scouts had their gloves on for the work ahead. I told the leaders present, "We've got enough energy and work readiness here to plant 5 acres of corn by hand!" How did we get to this project? What were the steps involved that led to a successful service project to benefit the church? And what does this have to do with life and faith and ministry?

Let me share the meaning of the SMART acronym:
S..........Strategic/Specific objectives and goals
M..........Measurable goals, avoiding fuzzy thinking about the specific objective
A..........Attainable goals that stretch you to achieve, but are realizable
R..........Relevant results that contribute something of real value or significance
T..........Timely process of accomplishment

Several months ago, Bradley approached me at church one day about his desire to plan an Eagle Scout service project that would benefit the church. As a former Scoutmaster and father of two Eagle Scouts, Bradley knew I cared about scouting and that I had some experience in helping plan Eagle projects. I was also honored to be asked to help Bradley. So, we began the service project in a collaborative way and I helped Bradley through several steps of his goal, always bearing in mind the Scout focus on developing "boy leadership", not taking away the opportunity or challenge for a Scout to learn leadership priniciples. Scouts are expected to carry out their Eagle project as an independent leadership project, with the objective of involving adults and other scouts in a team process along the way. The benefits involve preparation for leadership in life.

S......Strategic/Specific I coached Bradley to approach the Building and Grounds
Committee at church to gather ideas about service projects of worth and
benefit to the church. A number of ideas were considered. One involved
ripping out the old carpet in the fellowship hall, where a remodeling effort
was underway. Bradley briefly considered this project, but decided it
involved skills that were not aligned with Scout experience or abilities.
Finally, after a few other ideas were considered, it was determined that the
new parking lot would benefit from landscaping, especially the planting of
several ornamental trees. A plan for raising money followed. With some
brainstorming, Bradley decided to offer church members a chance to pledge
money for the trees. Since most of the trees were over $100, we decided that
was a little costly for some members. And so I suggested breaking the request
down into $20 shares, with an opportunity to designate memorial gifts for
a plaque to be displayed. This idea was a huge success with our membership!

M......Measureable: Bradley worked with the Building and Grounds Committee to
determine the number of trees that were needed for the new parking lot.
He also researched the cost per tree, and he did some research on the most
desireable tree varieties. He had a complete assessment of needs and costs.

A......Attainable: Clearly, the landscaping plan met a need of the church. After
doing some brainstorming about a reasonable pledge for a share, Bradley was
confident that $20 shares were easily within reach of member giving. Added to
the appeal of the project, was a plaque in memory or honor of members. For a
few weeks ahead of the project, Bradley made announcements to the church
regarding his project, and he was enthusiastically supported.

R......Relevant results: Bradley's Eagle Scout project focused on the needs of
his church. He discarded some ideas as either unrealistic or unattainable,
given the skill level of scouts or financial costs. He settled on a very
appealing project.

T.......Timely planning and accomplishment: Spring time is the ideal time for
planting new trees. The weather is good and the trees do not suffer from
extreme heat. Several months of planning and coordinating scout and adult
leaders resulted in a well designed and executed project.

"Find yourself so that others may follow," is a principle in leadership development in the scouting movement. If we seek to lead others, then we must first learn how to lead ourselves. Bradley accomplished this with his Eagle Scout project, and he should be able to continue applying these leadership principles.

In church life, we too could benefit from SMART leadership. There's the proverb that says, "Without vision the people perish." That sense of "perishing" has the sense of being confused, directionless, aimless, and wandering. Too often our churches drift into that visionless wandering when we do not practice effective leadership skills and apply wise understandings of leadership. The SMART process of goal setting offers one reliable, easily grasped, and tested approach to shared and personal leadership. More and more, I am applying it in my own life and ministry.

What do you feel are benefits to this SMART model? Are there any limitations?

Monday, April 17, 2006


On a recent flight to Nashville, Tennessee just before Easter to visit my wife's family, I had an interesting encounter in the Dallas Airport waiting for our plane connection. I was sitting reading a copy of the Kansas City Star, the entertainment section it so happened. A young black man walked by and stopped right in front of me and said, "Can I have your paper?" "That picture there is me." I looked at the picture and then looked at him and said, "You're right. It is you!"

It turns out that this confident, edgy, energetic man was the great gospel recording artist Kirk Franklin, who lives in Dallas. (Franklin's known for a variety of great recordings such as "The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin.") He was on his way, like me, to Nashville, where he was set to co-host the Gospel Music Awards. I gave Mr. Franklin the paper and then asked if I could have his autograph. Sure he said. We chatted for a few minutes and I met a few others in his group. "Bless you man," he said to me, tapping his chest, and we shook hands. "I like your name, Hart" Reminds me of that old t.v. show "Hart to Hart".

Franklin's new cd is titled "Hero", and it's a power-house collection of 20 songs lasting over an hour. Joining him on this fusion of soul, classic Gospel, contemporary urban hip-hop, and soaring gospel choruses are the likes of Marvin L. Winans, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and the great Stevie Wonder. It's an awesome, sometimes overpowering expression of faith and struggle.

One reviewer says of Franklin's new CD, that "Hero is full of admissions of struggle and challenges, but Franklin always weaves a message of hope and encouragement to take the focus off the negative."

That's right! Take the first track, "Looking for you."
Verse 1 "I've been down so long/I've been hurt for so long/ There were times I thought I'd never see the break of day/ It was hard for me to see Your plan for me/ And I tried to believe struggling won't last always/ See night after night I prayed Lord/ Don't take Your joy from me/ And then late one night/ I read in Your love letter that it's gonna get better"

Listening to that track several times, I've thought the Black Church in America gets the raw honesty of struggle in life, clearly voiced in the psalms, while we in the White Church often gloss over these realities. A seminary class-mate put it this way once in a discussion. "We've taken the Apostle Paul's trinity of faith, hope, and love and reduced them to faith, hope and good taste."

In the duet titled "Why" with Stevie Wonder, Franklin makes the tough statement,
"We're building churches/But are we building people?" That song asks the painful question, "Why Oh Why, Lord tell me when our change is gon' come/ There are no fathers and (the system's holding me down)/ Sisters are dying of AIDS Why Oh Why can't our soldiers comes back home?/It seems like innocence is gone

The answer to the struggles, the pain, the discouragement and the doubts is the "Hero" who is Jesus, in the title song.

"We needed a Hero to come and save the day/Famine and hunger,disease in the land/The hatred, the killing/ Taking lives from your hand/ Creation waits. through darkness we pray./Tell me where is the hero to come and save the day/ Through the nails, through the thorns/From the hill to the grave/ Was a hero in the distance/ To the homeless, the widow, the fatherless son/ To the sick and the broken, alone with no one/Lift up your head, your hope is on the way."

In that Kansas City Star paper, the interviewer asked Kirk Franklin an interesting question. "You were raised in the church, yet this record, "Hero", is loaded with great music: the old-school sounds of Motown and classic soul, some '80s funk and some contemporary R&B and hip-hop. How did all that music inspire a guy who grew up in church?

Kirk Franklin responded: "I was raised in the church, but church music didn't inspire me. The music that has always inspired me is urban music, what I heard on the street corner. When I was 15, I trusted Christ with my heart, but that didn't change my swagger. If you grew up liking seafood, God isn't going to change that after you turn to him....I wanted the theme of this album to be, like "Christ in the Culture," you know, like "Jesus in the workplace, on the corner." That was my approach."

From where I'm listening as a paleface Presbyterian, I feel Franklin succeeded!
Like Mr. Franklin put it, "Although we live in a world of wars and desolation, Jesus is the ultimate Hero." Amen brother! Franklin's opening line in this great CD is to offer some "pain medicine for your soul." You'll find that and courage for the struggle! Let's share it...