Thursday, July 30, 2009

Books, Etc...

One of the good things about retirement is that you have more time to read and reflect. I just finished reading Robert Caro’s, Master of the Senate. This is the writer's third volume on Lyndon Johnson. This thousand page book won Caro a Pulitzer Prize. After reading it I can see why. The author focuses on Lyndon Johnson and his lust for power. He tells about Johnson’s dark side and I came away feeling Johnson was not a pleasant person to know. But I learned a great deal about how the Senate works and does not work and how God really does “write straight lines with crooked sticks.” Brilliant and ruthless, Johnson was responsible in passing the first Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. The book covers one of the most remarkable periods in American history: 1949-1960. I sometimes wondered if I would ever get through this long, long book. It was a good, good read.

For Devotional reading I have been reading This I Believe II. This I Believe began on NPR when people from all walks of life would tell briefly what meant the most to them and kept them going. I had read the first volume and was excited when Volume II came out. Many of these short essays lifted my spirits. Famous folk like Yo Yo Ma, Elie Wiesel to ordinary people like a diner waitress, an Iraq war veteran and a multitude of others. People tell about forgiveness, personal integrity and being open to change. In this time when some days it really does seem like the sky is falling I find books like this to be supremely helpful.

I keep coming back to a poet I discovered just a few years ago. Alden Nowlan’s Selected Poems does the same kind of lifting my spirits as the This I Believe series. Nowlan was one of Canada’s finest poets. Hew was born in Nova Scotia. He died in 1983 but left behind poems that continue to move and help. Amazingly he only had five years of official schooling. He left school when he was twelve years old to work as a pulp cutter and millhand in the forests of the Maritimes. His poem, “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded” tells of visiting a school for the mentally handicapped. A female resident came and sat down beside him and put her arms around him. Not knowing what to do he responded by holding her in his arms. The end of that poem is moving:

“It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.”

Even though I read his poems some time ago, I keep coming back to him. He touches my heart—maybe his poems hug me when I need it.

Like Documentaries? I recommend Food, Inc. I saw the movie recently and I think it is taken from a book by that same title. The movie jolted me awake to some of the problems that greed has brought to the food industry. Thinking about it, it looks like every institution has been infected seriously with greed. Health care, education, politics, of course. This constant demand for entertainment has forced television news and newspapers to mute their most important function. Walter Cronkite’s death made many of us come to terms to how much we have lost. Money seems to run everything. And so we come back to food. I learned that corn is in just about every product we eat. Montesano controls 90% of the corn supply in this country. Farmers who do not bow to their wishes are simply squeezed out of business. Agri-business has just about killed off the farmers anyway. This is a disturbing film. If you are interested at all in one of the real problems we all face this movie would be worth seeing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Imagine No Religion

Driving down the highway the other day I saw this huge billboard smack dab in the middle of the Alabama Bible Belt. “Imagine no religion.” Hmm. No religion? I thought as I drove. Without religion I don’t know if I would have made it. Growing up in a family with a lot conflict barely underneath the surface, I found solace in a little mill church up the street. They befriended me and loved me. Later they would take up nickels, dimes and dollars and send me off to church camps and much later to a Baptist college in Birmingham. There I found myself stretched in ways that still boggle my mind. Doors and windows that I did not even know existed opened little by little to a larger world. No wonder I found myself as a Minister years later.

I began my internship in as predictable as any little white clap-board church on side road could be—outhouse and all. On Sundays some members would show up bringing the resentments of their hard lives. A few took their pain out on me. I have bumped into that judgmental mean-spirited in every church I know. But these have always been in the minority. I remember in that first church the folk that joined together to put up a farmer’s hay when he was in the hospital. They brought casseroles and sent little sympathy cards when people there lost loved ones. They hugged the kids and knew their names and even sent one off to college, to Seminary and then to Africa as a missionary. There is a genuine goodness and love that still makes me a believer after all these years. The Apostle Paul said that we have the treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. I have been the earthiness of those all-too-human vessels but I have also witnessed a wonderful transcendence in this very human place called church.

The good side of church and religion can be seen in almost every good cause that we have. Without healthy religion there would be no hospitals, no orphan’s homes, and no charity work that spans the globe. There would be no Salvation Army or Red Cross. All our major universities began as religious institutions. And every year believers, flawed and human, board planes and travel to far away places to help hurting people around the world. Yet we cannot ignore the dark side of religion. Sunday worship might just be still be the most segregated hour of the week—not only for blacks but for gays and immigrants and those who don’t have the right kind of clothes .And yet this same church has a wondrous side. From our earthy ranks have come Martin King and Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa and a multitude of others. All these have helped change the world.

As I drove along I tried to imagine a country without religion. How poverty-stricken we would be without the great music and art and breathtaking architecture that has come from this all-too-human institution. .

It looks like atheism is gaining some ground in our time. In a recent poll the number people that say they are Christians has fallen by 11%. There are a number of best sellers that tell us that religion has had its day. Many of them judge the institutions of faith by the mean-spirited that have blocked almost every step of progress along the way. If this was all there was to faith I would agree with our critics. But we cannot judge any institution by its shabbiest examples. When we are fair our yardsticks measure by the best models. So we judge our doctors by those that still see their work as a profession. We judge our nurses by those that have made an incredible difference when we were sick. We judge our Coaches by those that have helped produce character that lasts a lifetime. We do not judge business folk by Bernie Madoff but rather those who really do care for the common good. The church should be judged by these same standards.

It would be unfair to judge religion by Rev. Phelps in Kansas who waves “God hates fags and Jews” signs everywhere and pickets cemeteries when our fallen in Iraq are being buried. Neither should we judge Islam by fanatical fundamentalists. Every faith group has a group of destroyers.

No, I cannot imagine a world without the contribution that faith has made in my own life. One of the Latin roots for the word, religion means to bind. That binding does not mean to tie down or to restrict. Poor faith does that. This binding, I think, is something like a rope--a strong cable has tied me to other people and a wide and wonderful world of hope and possibility. Without that kind of religion the world would be poorer indeed.

The above article appeared first in the Sunday Birmingham News, Op Ed section, July 19, 2009.

(The above stained glass window can be found in the village of Iffley outside Oxford, England in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church was built in 1170 and is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Red White and Blue Bible

The headline caught my attention: “Conservatives can seek relief in new ‘Bible’". It sounded interesting. A Baptist Pastor in Georgia has published “The Patriot’s Bible.” Surely, as I read this must be a spoof. Reading further I saw this was no joke. A new Bible, two years in the making smothers the Scripture with 300 articles which are not commentaries on the Biblical text but are comments on various political themes, some as much as four pages. Greg Boyd writing on Christianity Today’s blog, Out of Ur says the text of this new Bible is to further the patriotic agenda of the commentators. This edition elevates America to chosen people status which belonged to Israel in the Old Testament. America is glorified at every point. Boyd points out that the problem is that The Patriot’s Bible “excludes from consideration almost every aspect of American history that could blemish the image of America or its heroes.” There is no mention of what this country did to Native Americans, African-Americans, or to the Japanese during the Second World War. Certainly no mention of My Lai massacre from the Vietnam days to the Abu Ghraib of our own time.

The danger of such a book is equating America as God’s chosen people and that everything from gun control to giving approval to the wars that America has fought. There is no judgment on the 47 million without health care and no articles on repentance for past sins. Boyd also points out that one contributor quoted John Quincy Adams as saying that “the Fourth of July is the most joyous and most venerated holiday after Christmas,” and claims they are indissolubly linked. Whatever happened to Easter, not to speak of Pentecost or the Lenten season?

I am reminded of how Hitler used the Church and the Bible to push his own agenda. And Churches all over Germany knuckled under to his poison. If the churches had refused the story might well have been different. The Bible is not a book to promote any country’s agenda. It is dangerous when Bible’s pages are filled with quotes from American heroes and articles about the glory of America. Some people including children will not be able to separate text from the pictures and the propaganda.

This whole sad effort reminds me of another attempt to use the Bible for another’s purposes. Thomas Jefferson, newly elected President in 1803 took scissors and paste and clipped out all the passages of the Bible he did not like. When he completed his new Bible in 1819 he called it: "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He took selected verses from all four gospels and pieced them together into a single narrative. He began with Jesus’ birth but there were no mention of angels, genealogy, or prophecy. The miracles were deleted and no reference to the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus or the Resurrection. This Bible was never published until 1904.

But I put The Patriot’s Bible and the Jefferson Bible side by side. One adds much to the text. The other Bible takes away much from the text. I do believe there is an admonition in the book of Revelation that warns: “I warn everyone who hers the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city…”(Rev. 22.18-19a) The bottom line is that none of us have any business tampering with the words of the Bible. We ought to open the Book and let God’s spirit speak to us. The Kingdom of God and America are not the same. To try to link the two is not only wrong but dangerous heresy.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Someone is in this dark with me

We came from all over: Virginia, Texas and Alabama. Some of us brought wives and husbands. We were a cross-section of the church: Baptists, Unity, and Episcopal.. What drew us to Samford University last week was a commonality. We brought with us great pain. Some of us brought fear and anxiety. Some of us came with shame and embarrassment. All of us came with hope.

We had all been beaten up, abused, hurt and wounded by some church somewhere. Some of it was our own doing—but that did not lessen the pain. We started on a Monday afternoon and parted, reluctantly, on Friday after lunch. And in between that beginning and parting a great deal happened. We shared stories, we listened to one another. We reached out, across whatever divided us from others and helped and prayed and cried. We opened our hearts up to the power of the Scriptures. We took long walks and talked and talked. We sat under tall trees and whispered prayers. We had help from a licensed therapist, a seasoned Pastor who had come through his difficulties to the far side. We talked about health and nutrition and networking and learned much about anger and forgiveness and moving on. We even talked about legal matters.

By the week’s end we left exhausted and hopeful. Somebody cared. Somebody reached out. Somebody understood. Someone gave us valuable suggestions. We promised to email and phone and keep up. We knew, thanks to this organization, Ministry to Ministers there was a place to call and we would be heard.

Since its inception MTM has conducted 85 Wellness retreats in more than 8 states for almost 800 people. Ministers from 34 denominations have come through our program. These Wellness Retreats are open to those that need to come. There is no charge for the week because those ministers and staff people under fire have few resources. Colleges and other institutions have generously provided rooms and food for the whole week. Jessica Powers wrote somewhere that: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge—Someone is hidden in this dark with me.” MTM makes that promise come true in the lives of a multitude of wounded men and women.

As a leader in a score of these retreats I always come away feeling like this is a life-saving effort for ministers and for their families and for churches, too.

(Interested in this program or want to refer someone? Try website: The photograph shown above is a picture of a sculptured piece entitled, "Compassion" which was made by a fifteen year old girl.