Sunday, December 31, 2006

What is a Christian? Where do you fit?

Here on the last day of the year, I've just seen a good portion of a CNN special hosted by Anderson Cooper on "What is a Christian? and Where do you fit?"

It was a surprisingly thoughtful effort to examine in some depth the mutually irreconcilable presentations of Christianity that exist in the United States today; ranging from the prosperity gospels of Joel Osteen (noted pastor and author in Houston) and Crespo Dollar (pastor of a Black mega-church outside Atlanta) to John Hagee's bizarre end-times gospel celebrating an impending Rapture and the centrality of the Jewish State in the apocalyptic battle between good and evil in his interpretation of Revelation. Alongside these movements, other spokespersons were heard as well; a young couple from a Unitarian Church in Washington D.C., Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Church fame, and James Forbes from the Riverside Church in New York. Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Independents were all featured in this CNN special broadcast about Christianity in America today. It was a lively discussion and debate.

I listened to the profiles of these wildly divergent spiritualities and answers to the question, "What is a Christian?", and I thought; there is an epic struggle for the soul of faith taking place. And yet for those who make the effort to study the history of the church and faith there is a certain deja vu. We've seen epic struggles for the soul of faith in previous centuries as well. The books of the Bible were selected for the canon after intense battles over what should be included and what excluded by the rule of faith. Throughout the history of Chistianity, the core values of faith have been tested in controversy and in life and death circumstances. In Nazi Germany, the soul of faith was tested by Hitler and the corrupting forces of Aryan theology. The Confessing Church theology of prominent Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the heroic example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are a part of that struggle. Here in America, the beloved community of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. adds additional perspective to the contested meaning of faith and Christianity.

In each era of history; churches, reform leaders, theologians and common believers are all engaged in the question Jesus asked his first disciples (and Peter particulary in Mark 8) "Who do people say that I am" and "Who do you say that I am?"
(Mark 8: 27, 29) Not surprisingly, the answers have diverged and a spirited struggle for the essence of faith has ensued.

Personally, I find the crass materialism of the prosperity gospel and the end-times Rapture theology of proponents such as John Hagee and Pat Robertson especially troubling. Both are major distortions of the essence of Christian faith as defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the show, Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourner's Community and editor of Sojourner's Magazine, Rev. Richard Land, a key Southern Baptist leader and Rev. Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago Divinity School summed up their reactions to a variety of brief segments profiling the wild diversity of responses to how Americans in particular are seeking the meaning of their faith.

Jim Wallis commented that prosperity isn't a bad thing, as long as we're generous in sharing what we have with those in need. Especially in a world where billions of people live on less than $2 a day, there is a moral imperative to share. As Wallis noted, the prophetic faith of the Bible stands against such selfish materialism. Jesus taught much about wealth and poverty in the gospels, and he advocated generosity as a mark of the Kingdom of God. Richard Land called the prosperity gospel a heresy, and I think he's right. Equally heretical, I believe, is the violent scenario of the End-times theology of Hagee and Robertson. To listen to these preachers and their theology is to sense that the Cross and Resurrection are peripheral to the book of Revelation in the New Testament. Hagee and others are advocating a violent action by God for the redemption of the world. What separates this view from the violent approach of Islamic fundamentalists? It's an abhorrent theology, and ultimately selfish, in picturing so-called "true believers" who are Raptured to some idyllic heaven while leaving everyone else behind. As a friend of mine says about those who drive fancy cars with bumper stickers that say "In Case of Rapture this vehicle will be empty", please go ahead and give me the keys now!

In the coming weeks and months, I plan to revisit the question posed by Anderson Cooper on CNN: What is a Christian? Where do any of us fit in? This question is controversial; it calls Christians and churches to step forward and state their faith; it's a question that demands an answer with how we live our lives. 2007 can be a good year to wrestle with such a question.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A water buffalo, a chocolate cake and a Christmas gift

What do a water buffalo, a chocolate cake and the most important gift catalogue in the world have in common? We discovered the answer to that question at the church I serve over the course of the last few weeks. The answer came fully alive on the third Sunday of Advent, appropriately known as Joy Sunday in the Season of Advent.

The short answer to the above question is the Heifer Project. For more than 60 years, Heifer International and its friends and supporters have been proving that there's no better way to help a family escape poverty and hunger than by providing them with sustainable means of supporting themselves. Since 1944 Heifer has helped more than 7 million families in more than 125 countries improve their quality of life and move toward greater self-reliance. Heifer started with heifers: pregnant cows, that upon arrival are not only ready to give birth- making it possible to quickly pass on the gift of offspring- but will also provide life-giving milk almost immediately.

That's where the chocolate cake and the water buffalo come into the story. We began promoting Heifer as an alternative for Christmas giving at our church. At one of our minutes for mission during worship, a church elder commented that pledging money for Heifer animals could be a wonderful way to give a gift on behalf of a loved one. Instead of giving someone another sweater they don't need, or a gizmo toy that would soon fade in interest, why not give a gift card pledge on behalf of someone at Christmas.

That's where the chocolate cake comes in. In one of those intuitive moments that sometimes strike me, I said, "Let's hold a pie, cake, and bread auction during our Christmas pot-luck on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. I'll even bake a chocolate cake myself to auction."

That's where things got out of control! A woman sitting in the church piped up and said, "It had better be a cake baked from scratch, Pastor Hart. And the chocolate icing should be from scratch. And I think it should have some of those shaved chocolate swirly pieces on top." Wow!!!! What had I gotten myself into?

And that's where the water buffalo comes in. Another member commented to me, "Wouldn't it be great for us to raise enough money to buy a water buffalo for $250?"

Joy Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent arrived. In the fellowship hall, I saw pies and cakes and home made bread collecting on several tables. And our church has unusually good cooks. I figured we'd easily raise $250. Little did I count on the generosity of people. The church treasurer announced before the auction even started that three people had already pledged to buy 3 water buffalo.

Our auctioneer started the bidding, which I had first suggested range from $5-10.
Another elder in the church said that was too limiting. She had told her husband to offer some challenging bids. And so the fun began. I bought a shoe-fly pie for $9.
Then the bidding started going higher. Back and forth people bid, with pies and cakes going for $15, 20, 25 and $30. I bought a lemon meringue pie, myself, for $26. It was the best pie I ever tasted! One family really got into the spirit of things and bought a table full of chocolate pies and cakes. And yes, my chocolate cake brought some spirited bidding, after I explained it was a sanctified chocolate cake! Guaranteed to improve one's spiritual life with each bite!

By the time our auction ended, our treasurer announced that we had raised almost $1,000 from the auction alone. We had raised enough pledges for a small herd of 7 water buffalo, assorted goats, sheep and chickens. I saw happy, joyful faces all over the room that day.

And now more about the water buffalo. Because water buffalo can provide a family with protein-rich milk, organic fertilizer, and pulling power, they are among the most sought-after livestock in many parts of the world. So mild-mannered in fact, that children often become fast friends with their water-buffalo and take an active role in its care. With the pulling power of a water buffalo, a one acre field that takes two weeks to sow with a hoe can be plowed and planted in just two days. That's why many small farming families are able to plant Four Times more with a water buffalo than by hand.

Water buffalo, pie and cake, and the best gift catalogue in the world all came together for a delightful Advent family church dinner on Joy Sunday. Check out this giving option at While you're at it, read more about Heifer Project online at

Friday, December 08, 2006

Don't forget who you are!

At the men's lunch-time study group this week, our conversation turned from the book, "The Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey, to an interesting theological question. What's the meaning of baptism? Do Christians really need baptism for their faith and salvation?, was how one member in our group phrased it.

This lively theological question got kicked into high gear in the thick of a busy restaurant, with one of our group asking me, "What would you do Hart, if someone wanted their grandchild baptized, without the parents' involvement or practice of faith?" That's no longer a theoretical question in today's world. In fact, more than once I've been asked to baptize children without the active participation of
parents in the life of the church. The most challenging request for baptism comes when at least one of the parents has no interest in their child's baptism, or even actively opposes it.

What's the role of baptism? I'm convinced that one reason we have so much confusion about the meaning of baptism lies in the "thinness" of baptismal practice and imagery in our worship services. Ask yourself this question. Do you know where your church's baptismal font is located? More than once I've ventured into churches where you would be hard pressed to know where the baptismal font can be found. It just might be pushed over into some corner of the sanctuary gathering dust. The absence of the baptismal font or its lack of prominent visual placement in the worship space actually speaks volumes about the lack of a baptismal theology and practice in the life of the worshiping body. When that happens, we shouldn't be surprised that the sacrament of baptism is held in such low esteem.

For several years now, my new church development experience has taught me the crucial value of the sacraments, both baptism and Lord's Supper. Usually, our worship experience has begun with a sacramental focus for the people of God. Briefly stated, this has meant we call attention to the centrality of baptism by placing the baptismal font or a large earthen bowl in the center of the gathering. Then someone comes forward with a large earthen pitcher to pour water into the bowl or font with these words: "This is the font of your identity" while the water is lavishly and visibly poured. If you sit close enough, you might even get wet!

There are many prayers that can be used for this as well, such as:
"Eternal God, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan
you proclaimed him your beloved Son,
and anointed him with the Holy Spirit.
Grant that all who are baptized into his name
may keep the covenant they have made,
and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior..." (Book of Common Worship, PCUSA)

We are "baptized into his name". What powerful words! Baptism means we take our identity from Jesus.

William Willimon, noted United Methodist preacher and prolific author and former Chaplain at Duke University, told this story in a book he once wrote about baptism.
Willimon tells about being a young teenager going out on a date one night and hearing these words from his mother as he headed out the door. "Don't forget who you are!" Those were a mother's words of wisdom to remember what kind of son she was raising. Likewise, Willimon remarked, in baptism God claims us for purposes grander than our own.

One of my favorite books on the sacraments is by James F. White, titled "Sacraments as God's Self Giving" (Abingdon Press, 1988) White remarks that "God's self giving is the basis of the Christian sacraments...The Incarnation is the story of God's self giving through becoming one of us. (And) God's self giving, just like that of human beings, has to take visible or audible form so others may recognize it."

White then offers a challenging thought about the state of our celebration of the sacraments in worship: "When we underplay a sacrament, it is the same as mumbling a sermon. In either case, the people are not fed,"

Sacraments not only signify God's love for us, they also cause grace, White goes on to say.

I think back on a time in our new church development ministry, where a young couple requested baptism. For many years they had been on the margins of faith and church until they were drawn to our new church community. Through relationships with our young church, this couple discovered a greater depth of God's love for them. And so we happily baptized them, generously pouring water over each of them in turn. Not long afterward, another adult woman requested baptism. I'm convinced that our regular and lavish use of sacramental practice and imagery in worship contributed to these exeriences. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that the sacraments are a "converting grace". He believed that people are drawn to God through the joyous celebration of Baptism and the Lords' Supper.

I share that belief. What is the practice of baptism and lord's supper like in your worship experience? Are they underplayed? Do you sense a deep celebration of these sacraments in your worship life? I believe James White's comment calls us to a deeper celebration: "When we speak of sacraments, we are speaking of actions through which God relates to us here and now in establishing or renewing personal relationships. God once acted definitively in the underlying sacrament, Christ, who came into the world to make the Father known." God still practices self-giving in the sacraments we share with each other and the world.