Saturday, October 8, 2016


In the past three years, I think I have been beginning to gain a foothold on the ambivalence of the apostle Paul about the faith communities with which he corresponded throughout the third quarter of the First Century.

This is not a foothold I wanted or sought.

Aware of my passion for justice and my activist heart, I have been invited repeatedly to take roles of leadership in the interest of bringing peace with justice to different settings - communities and country. I have been in attendance at meetings between clergy and community leaders with the governor of my state, chiefs of police, mayors and other highly placed officials. My mainstream (white, married, male, heterosexual, middle class, parent...) presence has helped to ensure that the variety of minority communities concerned about the implications of the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer are reinforced by equally concerned majority members of society.

We must not forget. We must never forget: Eighteen years old and African American, Michael was unarmed as shots rang out. He was struck multiple times and killed by Officer Darren Wilson with whom he had struggled earlier. Dead and uncovered, Michael's body was left lying in the street for nearly four and a half hours for all to see. Whether intended or not, the Ferguson Police Department by leaving his body so exposed appeared to make Michael an example for others who might dare to defy authority. The scene rang familiar for many who declared that it resembled a Southern-style lynching or a Roman-style crucifixion. Michael's name has been added to a seemingly endless roster of African American men and women prevented from realizing the fullness of promise within them.

My wife and I have lamented his death and the growing amount of blood being spilled and muddying the steep trail towards equality and unity. Coco posted then on Facebook,
"How young is young enough to teach Gwen to be guarded around white folks? Praying for peace in Ferguson."
I confessed in a sermon once that I had wished when Gwen was born that Americans as a people might have finally erased, by the time she was old enough to understand the words of W. E. B. DuBois, the "color line" he so poignantly described at the turn of the 20th Century.

But it hasn't. If anything, its clarity is sharper now than ever. And in an era in which our younger generations clearly will choose to disregard color or sexual orientation when judging a person, it is sickening that there is still enough racism left in us to fill the killing of so many people with souring overtones.

I want to cry out, to call for justice. And repeatedly I have been invited to do just that.

This much, however, weighs in the balance: I am my daughter's father, while at the same time I am also the pastor of a police officer who has been called up for duty, keeping the peace in Ferguson during these wakeful nights there.

I know, at least second hand, the delicate balance of protecting and serving. Law enforcement can be a maddening profession. "The quality of mercy," as Shakespeare referred to the problem of executing the law, may be "not strained," but the administration of justice certainly can be. And here we have one of those strained moments.

And I am the pastor of dear friends of the grandparents of Darren Wilson, that same couple who reared him from his earliest years into the man he became. The grandparents and my parishioners were out to dinner together when Officer Wilson called from an emergency room to say that he had been involved in an encounter which had ended in the death of a young man he had shot.

There is not a fiber of my being that believes any American police officer would presume to join the force encumbered with a racist heart or imagination. With the purest of intentions, they expect to protect and to serve. The blindfolded character of justice is presented in that way to assure the balance of the scales she holds. Every individual in law enforcement I have ever known has entered the field with the personal expectation that she or he will exercise that measure of equanimity.

And we citizens expect no less of them. We want no one citizen afforded greater deference than any other. All ought to be able to expect treatment with respect and dignity.

Then a moment comes to pass like the one that Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, and so many times before and since. Fear or passion or rage or haste escalate as divisions we imagined we individually had overcome prove insuperable, because our society still has a very long way to go toward the defeat of prejudice and fear of one another. Heated words may be exchanged, the situation may come to blows. The gentleness and kindness to which we are called in the Christian tradition do not prevail, and principled people descend into the hell we sometimes make of earth rather than the heaven to which the Almighty beckons us.

Two thousand years since Paul wrote his letters, we still witness how Paul loved the people to whom he wrote, and the ambivalence he felt about them because he loved them.

The opening of nearly every one of his letters includes almost fawning praise for them. But it never took long for him to turn from praise to preaching. In the first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul described groups with different dietary restrictions, and mysterious categories of "weak" and "strong" adherents the precise qualities of which we no longer comprehend. He cursed at the Galatians for confusing the gospel with its messengers. Later letters indicated that there were in some among the Christians who sought to undermine or even overthrow their rulers, perhaps because of the freedom they had come to know in Christ, and Paul would offered warnings about keeping in line with authorities, presumably to keep his own religious minority safe (Romans 13).

For one curious hallmark of Christian communities in ancient Asia Minor and Greece seems to have been their attractiveness to a wide variety of humanity. As Paul would put it in one letter, those churches included not only male and female, but "Greek and Jew, ... barbarian, Scythian, slave and free" (Colossians 3:11). And these would have difficulty getting along, even in the uniting love of the Holy Spirit.

I love my parishioners and never want them to imagine that I somehow disrespect them or trivialize their professions or ignore their struggles. I bear within me the heart of an activist and the concern of a pastor. I find these better selves within me at odds with each other. In the same moment as my conscience insists that I must demand justice, for the sake of my daughter and my brothers and sisters who also are Black; my Christian heart and pastor's role insist I must extend mercy to those charged with keeping the peace in places where injustice seems very visible. I must be compassionate toward both at once.

It is this sort of concern which confuses the heart. And isn't this ambivalence like what Paul must have been feeling when he saw his churches divided over rights and privileges, and then asserted (perhaps fatalistically) that he had to be "all things to all people"!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Gospel According to Thomas White

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-12

I cannot hear the story of the wedding at Cana without being reminded of the critical importance of every human being, and of the riches we discover within ourselves when we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

That may sound like a pretty evangelical thing to come out of my rather progressively theological mouth, but it’s true. Those six jars of water became potent wine because of their encounter with Jesus. And Jesus didn’t really want to have anything to do with them! He just messed with them because his mother basically told him he had to.

So, I don’t think that it should be unexpected that any of us would on occasion do a bit better than we had imagined we ought to be able to — given our background or upbringing or personal failings — because despite those things, we encountered the Christ.

Sometimes, God just messes with us, because somewhere along the line we said that it would be OK.

Now you may say that I’ve just blown my metaphor, because jars of water don’t have the ability to refuse what happens to them whereas people have a choice. Jesus encountered those jars, but they didn’t encounter him the way we do.

But I said before that the jars are metaphorically representing us, and every metaphor breaks down eventually.

Anyway, deal with it. You once were filled with plain old water. But now you’re filled with the best wine anyone could ever imagine, and you ought to do something with it.

To give you a sense of what’s actually possible, I want to tell you a story about a man building a church.

His name was John White.

Or maybe it wasn’t.

You see, his name wasn’t important to anybody but the people around him, back in 1845. No one wrote it down.

The souvenir program from the 100th anniversary celebration of the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church in 1945 says that his name was John. On the other hand, Henrietta Ambrose, the North Webster historian, says that his name was Tom. And indeed, the census of 1880 probably proves her right. (What the Rock Hill historian did is the definition of White Privilege, by the way. You get to rewrite history, whether you intend to or not.)

But however unsurprising it may be that history should be confused about the name of the only man (as far as I’m concerned) worth remembering from Rock Hill in 1845, it is nevertheless a pity that his name should have become mislaid in the interim.

Rock Hill Presbyterian Church as it appeared
not long after completion.
For, as far as I am concerned, this man in bondage — apparently one of as many as perhaps a dozen slaves assigned to the work of building the stone church that once stood at the corner of the Rock Hill and Manchester roads — was one who spoke the only good news regarding the construction of that house of prayer. And it was a gospel of Sabbath-breaking for the sake of human dignity, just the sort of thing Jesus himself used to do.

You know about the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church building. It stood until early 2012 but has since disappeared. A vintner downstate claims that he purchased the stone in order to reconstruct the church on his property as a wedding chapel. But his website shows no evidence of it, in the invitation it makes to couples to stage their weddings there.

My friend Ed Johnson, an alderman for the city of Rock Hill, suspects that the stone never made it to the vineyard. And I think it would not be any surprise to discover that one white man might have miscalculated the power required to move that stone the first time by twelve black men, hewing it and hauling it and laying it.

What you may not know is why Ed thinks that a 167-year-old structure should have mattered... more than because it was a venerable, sacred space.

It’s because it was constructed by slaves.

Its stone was quarried by those same slaves.

And the labor that put a roof on that structure was donated by the team of slaves who also raised up the walls and laid the floor and perfected its interior and exterior.

After the church began to take shape, as the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church historian told it, John (or, rather, Thomas) White the overseer of the crew went to James Marshall, the man who presumed to own him and whose dream it had been to build the church.
[White] said that the colored members wanted to give something for the church. When Mr. Marshall told them they were giving something by building it, John replied: “No, sir, we feel that we are working for you. What we want is to give something ourselves. We thought we could put on the roof on Sundays—on our own time.” The roof was the contribution of the colored people, who felt that thus they had a special part in the building of the church.
Rock Hill Presbyterian Church just before it was razed.
Even for as condescendingly as the teller of that story appears to relate the request of the slave John White — a man who, mind you, was not being paid for the back-breaking work he was consigned to do — if you study it, there is also a measure of reverence underlying the telling.

For this same person who seems to excuse the slave donors by claiming that they “felt that thus they had a special part in the building of the church.” (Am I wrong to infer that there is a suggestion of the phrase, “even though they didn’t” here?)

This is the story of a man unbent, even of a team unbent by the tasks that were being demanded of them.

The outcome of the explanation by the man whom that historian calls John White is remarkable because of the actions James Marshall appears to have taken in response in the years following:
Ed Purnell, son of John Purnell, around 1900
Ed had also been owned by James Marshall.
  1. Not only were the workers allowed to donate their labor on the Lord’s Day, to complete the construction of the building. They were evidently members in all but name. The writer of the history I quoted a little while ago does refer to Mr. White and the others on his team as “members.” 
  2. They would indeed worship under that same roof at the same time on Sunday mornings as the white members. Henrietta Ambrose says that black and white worshiped together at the Rock Hill church, albeit with the bondspersons seated in the back. Nevertheless, they had seats! (And they would have them eventually in the presence of the New England Congregationalists who would come to treat Rock Hill Presbyterian as a layover for themselves until they could build a church of their own.)
  3. James Marshall would set free two of his slaves along with their families in 1864, shortly before his death. These were John Purnell and Caleb Townsend, whom he provided with land and aided in the construction of their homes. Thus, he relinquished all of his human assets, so that none would be passed along when he died.
  4. And, finally, Thomas White is listed as a 77-year-old servant in the home of Ernest Marshall in the census of 1880. Ernest was James Marshall’s son. There remained a clear commitment of family to family.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that James Marshall was a different sort of slaveholder than others. Maybe his exposure to Artemus Bullard was influential. Bullard was the founding minister of the Rock Hill Church and the founder of the Webster College for Boys. He’d been reared in a Congregational household out east and, although he worked for the Presbyterians and was criticized for it by his family — which included siblings who married Beechers who considered him soft on slavery — nevertheless may have had an influence.

Maybe James Marshall, as it is said of Stonewall Jackson, recognized that the practice of owning human beings was evil and simply thought it ought to be handled in a more deliberate manner than sudden emancipation.

What I cannot doubt, however, is that — on a day in late spring at the construction site of the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church — James Collier Marshall was humbled by the brilliance of another Christian insisting on the sanctity of his own dignity, and the efficacy of his spiritual power, of the justice of God and the truth of Christ. Thomas White went to Marshall and made him an offer that bespoke his and his co-laborers’ integrity and courage.

And lately that moment is in my mind when I hear the story of water changed to wine, and remember the variety of spiritual gifts on display when we are together in Christ’s name. Lately, that is what I think of, when I consider the riches we discover within ourselves when we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ... gifts that deserve to be recognized and honored, cultivated and practiced... the blessed and lasting impact of the action of a man building a church.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

For Ash Wednesday - A Children's Sermon for Everbody

I’d like to have a bit of a meeting with the young people present, but I’d like for the rest of you to listen in.
Have any of you ever chosen to stop doing something?  Why was that?
You know, we’re starting a special season in the church year called, Lent.  Lent is a time that lots of grownups use in order to stop doing things for a while.  They won’t eat, or they won’t eat meat, or they won’t eat chocolate, or they’ll stop watching TV or following Facebook or something like that.
Some people take up a new discipline – like reading some portion of the Bible or praying at a certain time, or exercising.
(Have you ever given up something for Lent, or taken on something new?)  Why do you suppose people do that?
Well, what I’ve heard is that people who take on a new discipline want to make themselves better people.  They think that, maybe, if they can do what they’re doing for the forty days of Lent, then they might be able to keep on doing it after Lent is done.
And the people who give something up?
You know something we’ll all be giving up for Lent? “Alleluia!”  That word, and the phrase, “Praise the Lord,” we put away for the season of Lent.  Not because we don’t like God and want to praise God, but to show God how concerned we are about how things are with the world.
The idea is that, whenever someone who gives up something for Lent experiences a craving for what they once did, feeling the craving will be a reminder for them to think about God.  We don’t live just on what we eat and drink, after all.  We live also on the word of God, on what God has spoken to us through Jesus and through the prophets and apostles.  So, it helps if we can be reminded of God.  Being reminded of God, even if the reminder is hunger or thirst or the desire to do something we’re used to but have decided not to do, reminds us of love; because God is love.
You’ve heard of the Sermon on the Mount?
In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the disciples that trumpet blasts and fasting (like the ones on Yom Kippur) and long, loud prayers (like the ones during Gentile penitential seasons) really don’t make very much difference if you’re doing them to show others how pious you are.   You have to do such things for your own benefit... privately.
Sometimes people like to talk about what they’re doing for Lent.  And this can be a problem, because sacrifices and disciplines aren’t supposed to be something other people know about.  In Jewish tradition, which is the tradition in which Jesus grew up, such things are called mitzvot.  The word mitzvah means literally, “commandment,” but there’s a sense in this word which means, “something good you because it affirms your relationship with God.”  Other people might benefit from it, but they’re not necessarily supposed to know about it.  So, if you’re giving up something for Lent, keep quiet about it unless someone asks you.
A sacrifice during Lent is for you and God; it’s a mitzvah.  It makes your relationship with God stronger, fuller, more meaningful.
It’s in this part of the Sermon on the Mount that he dictates a prayer that he says ought to be typical of the prayers they say.  You know the one, “Our Father in heaven...”  The disciples don’t ask Jesus to teach them the Prayer, the way that they do in Luke (“Sir, teach us to pray...”).  No, here he says that this prayer would be a good example of the piety they should express.  Look, you just need a quiet, few words, and these words are enough.
Jesus kept a fast before he began his ministry, for forty days.  Fasts can be helpful for starting things like that. You sacrifice for a time so that you feel ready to go with some big and new project.

It’s important to understand, Jesus never says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t do that penitential stuff.”  He says, “Be careful about it.”
That’s not the way our spiritual forebears heard what he said in Matthew at this point – or at least the UCC contingent.  The earliest Congregational churches had no stained glass.  They thought that the pictures in stained glass could distract people from focusing on God.  The Evangelical and Reformed movements that led to those so-named branches of our denomination wanted to practice piety better in America than the wider churches with the same name had been doing in Germany.
I think we may have blown the piety thing, though.  Between the iconoclasm of the Congregationalists and the pietism of the Evangelical and Reformed, we kind of over-compensated for the practices the Catholics never parted with – especially the practice of personal, devotional sacrifice.  We didn’t revisit the practices but instead abandoned them entirely, as if there is something somehow wrong with penance or fasting.
I tell you, there is something sensibly wonderful about having a pang in your tummy which you put there, remind you of God; or of leaving The Good Wife alone until rerun season; or of setting aside chocolate for forty days and not substituting it with something else.
And there is something spiritually splendid about having a bit of ash rubbed onto your forehead and hearing someone say to you, even in a droning sort of ritual way, “Remember mortal, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Not that we really need to be reminded; God knows, there’s enough death around, we cannot possibly forget.
We have relegated so much of our religion to our heads and our hearts, and that’s good too!  But O the sweet vulnerability of allowing our religion to be imposed upon our bodies..!  Even the most intelligent or the most heart-centered among us have to acknowledge that there is nothing quite so potent as an object lesson.
Kids have hearts and heads, but they’re not as developed as adults’ hearts and heads.  They need ideas to happen literally.  It helps to act things out.
And sometimes, that’s good for adults, too.  Sometimes, it’s good to experience more than just bread and cup once a month and water once in a lifetime.  Sometimes, you need to let your religion make a mess of you... to get the smudge and to feel a gentle pain you’ve imposed upon yourself.
So, to begin forty days, that’s what we’ll do.  We’ll take tonight, and we’ll call it Ash Wednesday, and we’ll get ready for a big day called Easter.  But we won’t say Alleluia (oops! I said it!) after this moment.  And we’ll feel that little twinge every once in a while for forty days, much like Jesus did when he was getting ready to start his ministry.  And the twinge will remind us of God and just how wonderful God is and how good it is to be with God.
Have a good Lent, beginning right now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In case you missed Consecration Sunday...

Stories from Home graphic - church
Our Consecration Sunday, October 19, made for a truly wonderful morning. We concluded our theme of Stories from Home: How First Church Became My Church with a celebration that included the testimonies from eloquent witnesses, and the in-gathering of our commitments.

Many pledges were received. More than half of those renewing their commitment increased their anticipated giving from 2014. If you have not already done so, please consider making your own 2015 commitment of giving.

I am confident that you will find the spirit of our stewardship season and Consecration Sunday contagious. Please, take some time with the statements of four church members about How First Church Became My Church. These are some helpful, and even moving, declarations of what has made First Church a unique, spiritual place in the hearts of its members:
I encourage you as well, to give your attention to the sermon delivered on Sunday by our special guest steward, Pastor Debby Harness of St. John's Evangelical United Church of Christ in Mehlville, who previously was a member of our church.

After listening, please take some time to reflect for yourself on how First Church came to be your church. Then, I encourage you to consider what your own gifts to the church might be for 2015 and complete our online pledge form.

Thank you.
Pastor Dave Denoon

Monday, June 2, 2014

Day of Hugs

Excerpted from the sermon, "The God You Don't Know Yet" (May 25, 2014)

You know, one of the facts about the way I believe is that I keep running into the God I don’t know... or at least the God I least expected.  It’s as if God has this wicked sense of humor, or else just likes to make sure I’m paying attention.  “Hello, I’m over here,” God will say.  And it’s true.

Some of you already know about my Tuesday, this past week. I am coming to term “my day of hugs.” During the span of that day, I was hugged by a half a dozen or so people.

This is unusual for me.  I am a person on whom my very tolerant wife has learned to place low expectations about such things.  Public display of affection is not something with which I have ever been particularly comfortable.

Furthermore, people in my profession of caring are warned nowadays to practice “appropriate boundaries,” which usually provide for a handshake or simple word of encouragement where otherwise a hug might do.

Thus we imagine, neither we nor the person we are greeting get the wrong impression of the gesture. Spiritual intimacy must not lead us down a destructive path.

Nevertheless, there are times when a handshake just isn’t sufficient.  And three of those times were Tuesday.

Early that afternoon, I had gone to spend some time at the bedside of a member as she lay dying and, as I often do with people who are otherwise non-responsive, reached out to hold her hand.  To my surprise, she took my hand in hers, then pulled it up to her chest and wrapped her other arm around mine – the best hug she could manage from a deathbed.  The moment was sublime, sacred.

Not long afterward, that same day, I attended with my wife a program of readings of original poems by my daughter's first grade class at school.  During the congratulations that followed, a familiar boy in the class arrived beside me.  He and my daughter had been part of the group I chaperoned for a recent zoo field trip.

It was nice to be recognized, I must say.  But he said nothing, just looked up and then tried to hold my hand. I gave his hand a squeeze and tried to let go, but he wouldn’t release.  Then my daughter came up, and he let my hand go just long enough for me to kneel down and give her a hug, telling her of my pride and joy at her performance.  Then, before I could stand back up fully, the boy folded in and hugged me too.

It was at this point that I realized neither of his parents was present.  So I told him that I knew his parents were proud of him too and wished that they could be there.  He squeezed tighter.  After that came a little girl, a playmate of my daughter whose parents also had been absent.  I told her as well how I thought she had done very well and how proud her own parents would be.

Now I started to stand up again, but the girl who was coming home with us for her and my daughter's standing Tuesday playdate stepped forward and, shrugging, said, “Well, I guess I’d better give you a hug, too.”  Although her mother had been there, Dad wasn’t able to be, and Mom had returned to work.  So, the process continued with her, and ended with one last hug for my daughter.

Tuesday evening, I attended my first meeting of the board of directors of the Interfaith Partnership.  I was honored to be seated next to the president, a Bosnian Muslim imam who attended my installation, four years ago, and had invited me to join the board, this past winter.  Toward the end of the meeting, we were discussing the recent flooding and landslides in Bosnia following the most severe rains to have happened there in more than 120 years.

There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.  His family was safe, and his hometown has seen little damage. But the destruction and devastation around them are such that they despair for the work ahead.  God will provide, we both said we knew, but it’s a mystery where the help will come from when even the hills are washing away. (compare Psalm 121:1)
I held him for what must have been only seconds but felt like minutes.  The commensurate masculine back-patting and quiet chuckling at the end seemed as ironic to the moment as our smiles to each other for strength, as we stood together, meeting God again.  I think that I was bound to bring him to that place with me, since I’d spent so much time there already, that day.

Monday, March 3, 2014

New Old Ways

A sermon by the Rev. David Denoon, delivered February 16, 2014
For audio, listen here 
For the February 16 order of worship, including links to the scriptures described, click here.

The title of this sermon is “New Old Ways,” and in it I have tried to capture how it was that Jesus would take a commandment and reframe it. “You have heard it said... but now I tell you...” He wasn’t rewriting the Law when he did this, he was trying to help people to look anew at things they might be taking for granted. He was saying that you might follow the letter of the law, while missing entirely its spirit.

You cannot take seriously the warning against murder unless you also take seriously the thoughts of cruelty that reside in you. You cannot possibly be taking the prohibition against adultery seriously if you objectify others and exploit them for your own gratification or gain. If you want people to take your word seriously, then be straightforward. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

The Law doesn’t have to do with you, except in as much as it has to do with how you treat others... and, by the way, how you treat the world around you.
IPL logo

Today is the Sunday of the Interfaith Power & Light Environmental Preach-In. For those of you who aren’t acquainted with Interfaith Power and Light, it is a nationwide organization that has been at work for the past few years, encouraging people of faith toward more conscientious
environmental stewardship.

Now, by my taking part in the Preach-In, it may be expected of me – by them or maybe by you – that I should come out espousing some particular issue of the day in order to promote our world’s natural well-being. In fact, I have little doubt, given the emails that I have been receiving from IPL lately, that they would really like for me to find a way to say that scripture warns us against such a project as the Keystone XL Pipeline. And maybe that is what scripture does, but (as you might have guessed, in consideration of our text today that has Jesus saying there’s more to the Law than simply following the Law) there’s more to environmental stewardship than any single environmental issue. You know?

Ignore the argument over environmental impact.  Consider the perceived need for any such pipeline to exist.

Our culture and our economy demand that we be mobile, and that mobility is dependent upon fossil fuel. What can we do personally to diminish that dependency while still being mobile? Use vehicles that are more fuel efficient.

Is a lighter, smaller car the way to go for fuel efficiency, or should it be a hybrid of gas and electric, or should it be electric altogether? Because if it’s the last of those, the fact is that even though you’re not burning fuel with the car itself, either (a) a power plant is burning fuel to generate the electricity from which the batteries are charged, or (b) a hydroelectric plant is damming a river in order to generate the electricity for the batteries. Either of those impacts the environment.

And then there’s the matter of the batteries and the hazardous waste they will create when someday you have to part with that car and relegate it to a slag heap. Then, not only your third option seems rather unattractive, but your second one as well – the hybrid vehicle. So, now you’re back to the matter of fuel efficiency again and trying to optimize your miles per gallon of gas with a strictly internal combustion engine.

Given the performance of most hybrid vehicles, the question arises whether it’s not better to make a car lighter and more aerodynamic. Except that now we’re back in the realm of talking about whether or not the Keystone XL Pipeline is something to do with or without, just like all those oil rigs proposed for public lands and already pumping and shipping oil through our coastal waters. And God knows we don’t want another Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon.

Furthermore, there is already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; global warming seems mostly to be the result of our consumption of fossil fuels.

Anyway, the sensation often is that we’re certainly damned if we don’t try to change our lives and lifestyles and livelihoods, and that we may be equally as damned if we do nothing about them. How can we choose the life that Moses in Deuteronomy encouraged his people to choose, when it seems as though every choice before us brings death?

It’s time to reframe the question, I think. But I have no idea myself how to do it. I count on scientists to be brilliant and to generate the necessary technology and innovation to make our engagement with the world better.

In the UCC, today is also Science, Faith, and Technology Sunday, so it seems fitting to look at our stewardly predicament from the viewpoint of a couple of scientists.

One scientist considers religion irrelevant to address the problems of the world, anyway, and may challenge therefore my use of his thinking. The other saw the conjunction of faith and science as a beautiful synthesis. But both of them have been possessed of such a respectably visionary pragmatism that I just can’t come up with a better direction to go. The two I am thinking of are George Washington Carver and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Reading an article about Tyson recently, I found myself reminded of Carver.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson grew up in the Bronx, and as a city boy first saw the stars only thanks to a visit to the Hayden Planetarium, of which he is now the executive director. George Washington Carver developed a fascination for fruitful gardening growing up on a farm near Neosho, Missouri. Thus, each knew what he wanted to do, from the time they were boys. And they have done their work, with vision yes but moreover with pragmatism.

Dr. Tyson has consistently endeavored to make hay while the sun has been shining, promoting the sciences – especially his own field of astrophysics – as means by which new discoveries may be made which will have effects for making our lives better.

Along the way, he’s been invited to try and inspire our government to sponsor an expedition to Mars. His reply has been to ask, Why should we go? And the answer has come, of course, We’re a species of explorers; that’s what we do.  We want to find out new things. We go for the sake of science.  But Dr. Tyson knows that this is not the reason why most people would want to go to Mars, not if it’s going to be something more than a stunt.  A mission to Mars has to be a good financial investment. If an expedition to Mars is not a sound investment then the reasons for going probably aren’t so well-advised. Because we’ll stop. We need to have a persistent, vested interest in going, if we are going at all.


Dr. Carver recognized the need to restore the soils of the South which had been depleted through plantation farming – a single crop set in the same soil year after year.  People were exploiting other people and exploiting the earth in ways that were killing both. Seeing that cotton could not continue to be grown as it had been, Dr. Carver promoted yam and peanut farming. He famously came up with a whole host of uses for the peanut, but less famously came up with new means of cultivation and crop rotation for the sake of replenishing the soil. He promoted farms with a variety of crops instead of plantations and one-crop farming.

One author suggests that Carver was promoting principles at the turn of the 20th Century that were developed by another researcher in the 1940s into procedures that would eventually form the basis of organic farming.  And he did all of this with an intensely Christian orientation:
[In speeches he would argue] that the principle of unkindness as injustice and of kindness as trying “to assist you in every way that I can… to do my very best for you” applied “with equal force to the soil. The farmer,” he explained, “whose soil produces less every year, is unkind to it;… a soil robber,… robbing it of some substance it must have.” (The Carver Story: The Agriculturist)

You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not bear false witness.

These commandments instruct us, according to Jesus, not only that doing these things is against what God would have us do. They tell us that they are neither in our nor in the other person’s interest, against whom we commit the sin.

God’s Law provides a warning against being sociopaths, against treating another individual as a means to an end, against practicing powers that ought to belong to God alone. Any one of these things is an abuse of another or an abuse of society’s established order. So, Jesus takes the commandments to their logical extreme, saying effectively, Don’t just abide by the letter of the Law. Seek to comprehend its Spirit. As Moses said far more simply of the Law, Choose life. These are the ways of Life.

As few others have done, in the examples of Drs. Tyson and Carver there is no denying that they have elected to be directed not by the demands of others, not by cultural expectations, but by the paths they have seen which will encourage others to embrace life as fully as possible. Neil DeGrasse Tyson regularly seeks to blow the minds of his audiences, and to help young people to imagine grander possibilities for themselves. He is the only astrophysicist I know who can Moonwalk, and that is a discipline he jokingly insists that other astrophysicists need to learn, to be true to themselves and their calling...

George Washington Carver practically reinvented farming and along the way sought to reorient a religion which had diminished itself into a narrow-minded myth factory – defending its surrounding culture and the hatred inherent to it. For hatred will justify murder and adultery and false witness, unkindness of all kinds.

If we are to be for the world what is needed by the world, if we are to be the stewards that we are called to be, then we know what there is to do: to imagine new ways to practice our stewardship of the world and responsibility to each other, new ways that will have long-term effects and commitments.  We need to choose life for ourselves and to treat one another with respect, indicating that we have reverence for all people, for ourselves, and for the earth.

And all of that may have something to do with pipelines and too much carbon in the atmosphere and acidifying oceans and reducing fossil fuel consumption. But I’ll admit that mostly it has to do with adjusting our focus and inviting others to do so as well. So that old ways may be renewed... and old hearts renewed... and old minds refreshed... and old lives reborn.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Dear Mr. Spencer,

Having read your weblog’s "About" page, I am now acquainted with your clear and admirable opposition to jihad theology, though not to the religion of Islam, itself. Previously, I was unacquainted with your voice or cause. But in the last 48 hours, my church’s office administrator and I have received a series of protest messages from readers of your blog, based on your July 21 post which features a photo of our church signboard with a seasonal greeting in it. We are now, of course, more than well-acquainted with you… and some of your apparent devotees.

Please be assured, Mr. Spencer, that not only I but my friends across the religious landscape agree with you in your opposition to jihad theology. In particular, I venture to say that my Muslim friends agree with you strongly in this regard. They and I have had numerous conversations about the blasphemy practiced by militants who pervert the meaning of jihad, that great spiritual struggle which is so common to our religions. I tell you nothing new when I identify jihad as the wrestling of the faithful person with doubt, despair, and the discipline required to maintain a life of faith. It is never holy war with others but only with oneself.

Christianity, as you know, has many examples of the misapplication of our principles and beliefs which resulted in violence toward innocents and some death as well. My own religious tradition within Christianity offers numerous illustrations of this sinful application of religion as a defense for intolerance and cruelty. So, it is reassuring for me to discover your stated, common purpose with our own, of encouraging dialogue and cooperation.

In keeping with our common purpose, let me assure you, the greeting is not one way, as you presume. Our church’s most recent signboard message was composed, preliminary to the announcement of an iftar we would host with a nearby Muslim faith community. Unfortunately, this traditional breaking of the daily fast could not be scheduled during Ramadan as needed and will be replaced by another time together in the near future. Your “fine” support of our attempt to increase interfaith conversation is much appreciated, even if you do seem a bit doubtful about our potential for success.

For example, although you begin with saying, “This is just fine,” you mitigate your congratulations, with your conclusion:
Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims. Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals.
These are very cautious words on your part. I appreciate your concern. 

Since you do not know us yet, and we are only just becoming acquainted with you, please allow me to say that I do hope that you do not by your conclusion indicate any genuine disrespect for the “common word” between Christians and Muslims which we are attempting to engage.

Surely you know, the purpose of interfaith discussion cannot be to reach an agreement on every point discussed, nor to convert the infidel, but to conduct that “honest and mutually respectful dialogue” you clearly crave.

For if we are to live together, and we must learn to live together, it will be necessary as well for us to find new ground on which to live, the renewing ground of respect and cooperation. Religious absolutism cannot be an option.

Thank you again for your endorsement of our work, albeit an endorsement with qualifiers. Please be assured that we do not approach our interfaith partnerships naively or without appropriate discernment. We are intelligent people and realistic ones, and we respect the intelligence and realism of our partners.

Please receive my encouragement for your efforts with my church’s own toward changing perspectives and affecting lives and hearts of enemy, stranger, neighbor, and friend.

Very sincerely,
Rev. David Denoon, Pastor
First Congregational Church of Webster Groves