Monday, August 31, 2009

Musings on the Kennedy Funeral

One of the many things that struck me about the Ted Kennedy funeral was how moving that service was for me and, I think, for so many others. Funny: there was no Praise Band, no overhead screen that flashed the songs for all to read. There was no electric keyboard and there was no Praise group standing up front, patting their legs and singing. I didn’t see any Reeboks or Blue jeans, though there may have been a few. What I did hear was a hymn that has moved congregants through the ages. There was a whole cadre of priests (maybe too many) in their vestments. There was a Cross and stained glass windows and the old Catholic basilica—I think they called it--where Kennedy and his family had worshipped for years and years. That Church smack-dab in the middle of a very poor community has stayed and it looks like is flourishing. There were the old words like: “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God…” and “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these…” They broke the Bread and passed the Cup. There were prayers and classical music so beautiful that it brought tears to the eyes. And there was the old Liturgy of the Roman Church which was comforting even to this Baptist.

I know, I know that we have to meet people where they are. I’ve done a whole lot of that myself. I would even concede that there is a place (maybe) for Praise bands and maybe even a Praise chorus. (My jury is still out on those overhead screens.) But I also hope that we in the church never forget what the old man in Fiddler on the Roof said. Someone asked him how, in the midst of so much change in their world, his Jewish folk survived. And he answered back: “Tradition! Tradition! Without tradition we would be a like a fiddler trying to play on a roof.”

Like so many others,I went to church last Saturday as we watched the Kennedy funeral. There was something about many of those old traditions that they fell back on in their time of grief that, I think will keep that family and so many others of us going.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Still thinking about my first school...

My last blog was about my first grade teacher. While I was on vacation in Oregon I read a wonderful little piece in the Eugene, Oregon paper. The writer, Ted Kooser was U.S. poet laureate from 2004-2006. He quoted a poem by Ron Koertge of California. The words, I hope will stir the kind of memories in you that the poem did in me.

First Grade

“Until then, every forest
had wolves in it, we
it would be fun to wear
all the time, and we could
talk to water.

So why is this woman with
The gray
breath calling out names
and pointing
to the little desks we will
for the rest of our lives?”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

First Grade Teacher

School begins this week. All over the country kids are buying shoes and shirts and pants, dresses and backpacks. It’s a New Year and it calls for new duds. Teachers are hauling supplies, bookcases and books into schoolrooms everywhere. We say that January first is the beginning of a New Year. No. For children, parents and teachers, the year really begins at the end of the summer when the school doors open. But like January 1, there is something wonderful and scary about the opening of a new door and walking into the unknown.

I still remember going to school that first scary day. We lived two blocks from the schoolhouse. My school was a great big two-story redbrick building. From a six-year olds viewpoint it looked like the biggest building in the world. Across the street from the school was a long white building we called “The Teacher’s Cottage.” Single women who taught lived in what could easily have been called a Protestant Convent. I don’t know how many teachers lived there. I do know the Mother Superior in that boarding house for teachers was a tall stately woman named Miss Eva. She seemed to be as old as God and twice as scary. She was the Principal and ruled the school and the cottage filled with unmarried teachers, with an iron hand. After I entered school that first week, I learned the most frightening thing that could happen to a student would be to be summoned to that Principal’s office. Up the long stairs, down the dark hall at the end of the second floor was her office. It was whispered that behind those forbidding doors there was a whipping machine. We were also warned that few who entered those doors ever came out again. Six-year-olds are believers and seven or eight-year-olds would talk about the whipping machine and other unimagined horrors at the top of those stairs.

That first school morning, my mother stayed home from work, put on her best dress and waited for the big bell across the street at the mill to ring. The ringing of that bell was a signal that it was time for us to go to school. The bell would ring thirty minutes before school started. The second bell would proclaim that school had started. We all knew that we had better be in our classes when that second bell rang or unimaginably terrible things would be in store for us.

After my Mother left me at the door, alone and afraid, I found my room and my teacher. It has been more than sixty-five years ago and yet I can see that first grade teacher still. She stood in the doorway to my class that morning. Dishwater blonde hair, small-frame, freckled and light complexioned. She wore wire-rimmed glasses that glittered when the sun hit them. She wore a starched printed dress and was gentle and seldom raised her voice. Her name was Miss Beggs. Surely other teachers along the way challenged me more. But Miss Beggs I will always remember. She walked with me across a bridge my parents could not walk. She taught me about a world bigger and finer than I had ever known. There would be no going back—this was the point of no return. I still remember that she held my hand as we walked to recess, to the rest room and to the lunchroom that first year. She must have known I was shy and afraid. The passing of the years often adds far richer colors than are present in real life. Yet as I think of Miss Beggs I really believe the kindness that I remember was truly there.

I don’t recall if she taught at our school more than a year. I never remember seeing her after that first grade experience. Where did she come from and where did she go? It hardly matters. What did matter was that she took me by the hand, she pointed the way. I love school and books and studying to this very day. She opened windows and doors that could never be shut again. Is it any wonder that after all these years I can still see her face and I still remember her name?

(The picture featured in this article is my second grade class and teacher. I am on the front row, on the left side (barefooted) next to the boy on the end. I couldn't find a picture of my first grade class--and I would give anything to have a picture of Miss Beggs.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Challenge of Health Care

(The largest challenge of our time is health care. The debate rages on. Two prophetic voices offer thought and challenge for such a time as this. I wanted to share Jim Wallis of Sojourners comments and the challenge of good friend and masterful preacher John Killinger because they both are right on target.)

Truth-telling and Responsibility in Health Care

I have said that one important moral principle for the health-care debate is truth-telling. For decades, the physical health and well-being of our country has been a proxy battle for partisan politics. Industry interests and partisan fighting are once again threatening the current opportunity for a public dialogue about what is best for our health-care system. What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform with half-truths and misinformation.

Yet in recent weeks, conservative radio ads have claimed that health-care reform will kill the elderly (it won’t), that it will include federal funding for abortion (it doesn’t), and that it is a socialist takeover of the health-care system (it isn’t). The organizations promoting these claims, including some Religious Right groups, are either badly misinformed, or they are deliberately distorting reality.

A particularly egregious example is an ad that the Family Research Council has run in selected states. It depicts an elderly man and his wife sitting at their kitchen table. He turns to his wife and says, “They won’t pay for my surgery. What are we going to do?” He continues, “and to think that Planned Parenthood is included in the government-run health-care plan and spending tax dollars on abortion. They won’t pay for my surgery, but we’re forced to pay for abortion.”

These kinds of ads should be stopped. They do not contribute to the debate that is needed to ensure that all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care. It is rather exactly the kind of misinformation campaign that could destroy needed reform. We should all denounce these ads and urge that the debate be about the real issues.

President Obama said, “I think we also have a tradition of, in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care. Rather than wade into that issue at this point, I think that it's appropriate for us to figure out how to just deliver on the cost savings, and not get distracted by the abortion debate at this station.” There is growing agreement from both pro-life and pro-choice that health-care reform should not include funding for abortion, but should be abortion-neutral. We will continue monitoring the ongoing legislative process to maintain that principle.

Even worse than advertising, since Congress has gone into its summer recess, organized protests are being mounted at local town hall meetings. The Washington Post reported this morning that Democrats have been met by taunts, jeers, and, in one case, an effigy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) was confronted by some 200 people holding signs calling him a "traitor to Texas" and a "devil to all people." And the Post cited a “‘strategy memo,’ issued by the Connecticut-based group Right Principles, which calls on conservatives to ‘pack the hall’ and ‘yell out and challenge’ lawmakers.”

We must all say loudly and strongly that misinformation and angry mobs are not how democracy functions. While freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are certainly our rights, those rights must always be exercised with responsibility and accountability.Health-care reform that will provide quality, affordable health care for all Americans is essential. It is a moral imperative that in a nation as prosperous as ours, no American should go without health care, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Reasonable people may differ on how best to accomplish this goal, and I welcome the rigorous policy debate currently under way in the House and Senate. But in the final analysis, it should be a moral priority for all of us.

I urge you to write your member of Congress, attend local town meetings in your communities, and respectfully but strongly make these points. It is our moral obligation as people of faith.

(Here are Killinger's fine words)

to do it. Well, the when is NOW! There hasn't been an opportunity
like this in our lifetimes, when the U.S. Congress is poised to act or
(perish the thought) not act on the question of HEALTH CARE FOR THE

Forget all the smokescreens thrown up by those who represent the HMOs,
hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies, to the effect that
75% of Americans are satisfied with their present health care
arrangements; that having comprehensive health care would break the
bank; that a public option would weaken other plans and disincentivize
physicians; that Congress couldn't make a paper airplane that could
fly, much less create a health system that would work.

legislation that would enable the poor of America––45 million strong––
to live with actual health care and stop depending on ER treatment and
over-the-counter medications to get by when they and their children
fall seriously ill. What is it going to take for Congress to find the
courage to step up to the plate and hit this one out of the park?
Nothing short of a unified, no-holds-barred push from the American

So why are the pastors of America's churches so quiet about this? IT
ISN'T A POLITICAL ISSUE. They don't have to worry about the thin and
often wavering or broken line between politics and religion. They
should be mounting their soap boxes and crying out to their
TO THE AID OF THE POOR!" We can't eliminate poverty; Jesus was right
when he said we would always have the poor with us. But we can damned
well do something now as a people to make life a little easier for our
poor and see that they are accorded basic health care, an amenity most
of us enjoy as citizens of the richest industrial nation in the world!!

Any pastor who does not speak out on this matter OUGHT TO BE DEFROCKED

Any pastor who does not demand that Congress act now to relieve the
poor of medical injustice is NOT WORTHY TO IMAGINE THAT HE OR SHE IS A
OUTCAST, whatever it cost him in social status or coziness with the
wealthier people in his audience.

Any pastor who finks out on this one should quietly turn in his or her
ordination papers and slink off into the highways and byways to perish
of shame and self-disgust as A TRAITOR TO GOD AND THE ANGELS IN HEAVEN.

I PROPOSE that the pastors who have the right stuff, the ones who can
still muster a sense of faithfulness to Christ and his little ones,
should designate Sunday, September 6, as HEALTH CARE SUNDAY in their
churches, and use their pulpits on that day to reexamine three things
for their congregations: (1) the role of Jesus as healer; (2) the love
of Jesus for the poor and very poor; and (3) the saying of Jesus that

September 6 is of course LABOR DAY Sunday, and there could be no more
fitting time to address this important issue in behalf of America's
laboring classes. Nor does it hurt that this Sunday will coincide
with the return of America's lawmakers to Washington and the
resumption of discussions about the whole health care issue. YOU
OF YOUR SERMON, and demand that they stop politicizing a humanitarian
issue and get back to doing what they are paid so well to do, namely,
represent the PEOPLE of their states and districts.

September 6, Mark 7:24-37, offers one of the finest texts in the Bible
for a HEALTH CARE SERMON. It is the story of Jesus' healing of the
Syrophoenician woman's little daughter after she begs him for help.

At first, Jesus refused to help, saying he could not give what he had
to offer to "the dogs"––a first century slam against Gentiles. But
the woman, who had risked so much by approaching a strange man in
public, wasn't about to stop with that. Yes, she said, but even the
"little dogs" (Greek "kunariois" for the pedants among you) get to eat
the crumbs that fall from the children's table.

Yielding to her importunity, Jesus healed her daughter and this
Jesus stopped taking his message to the Jews alone and BEGAN TO GO TO
THE GENTILES. Note the feeding of the 5000 before this text, which
was on Jewish soil and for Jews, and the feeding of the 4000 that
follows it, which is on Gentile soil and for Greeks or Gentiles.


What text could be more appropriate? This could well be the finest
hour this text has ever known, when thousands of ministers take it up
to talk about national health care in America!

It might also be the finest hour in a long time for America's clergy,
who have been dawdling along in disuse and marginality for a very long
time. We could very well help to turn the tide on this one, people.
God might use the insignificant to do something significant!

Pray about it. Step up to the plate. And DO THIS FOR JESUS!=

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Old Dog--New Tricks

My age must be showing. My son and daughter keep trying to drag my wife and me into the twenty-first century. We are resisting, of course. “You’ve got to keep up, Daddy—you’ve got to learn new things.” In his part of my makeover my son gave me a $50.00 gift certificate to the Apple Store for Father’s Day. “I want you to make this a down payment on your new I-Pod.” “Huh,” I said. “I don’t know anything about the I-Pod.” He sang of course it’s praises. After his rave review I decided maybe I ought to at least go by the Apple Store.

Getting there, I thought it was Christmas. This was the week that the new I-Phone had come out and the lines stretched all the way from the back of the store to the front door. People were everywhere—mostly to order their new I Phones. Not me. I was there to learn something about the I-Pod. A friendly lady led me like I was a doddering old man over to the display. The I-pods were about six inches long, paper thin. They came in all colors, even chartreuse. She explained that I could hear music, which I was supposed to download. Any of my CD’s could be downloaded without any cost. If I wanted to venture out into the I Tunes category (which supposedly has every song that ever was recorded)—I could get most of these instantly for about a dollar each. I could put all my computerized pictures on this new gadget. I could even download pod casts—this new vocabulary makes my head swim. A lot of pod casts are free and all you have to do is to download them through your computer to the I-Pod. The woman said if you have any questions just type in ipodblah.blah or something and they will give you instructions about anything you ask. Well, at home alone—not exactly knowing what to do I typed in the web site. Guess what? The instructions were 88 pages long.

When my thirteen year old granddaughter came over she took charge of her Granddaddy.
She connected me. She downloaded some of my songs. She showed me a little about the pod-casts and then left me to my own devices.

Well, I have now loaded some CD’s that I love. She put all my pictures which were on the computer on to the I-Pod. I even figured out (sorta) how to get to the podcasts and download a few. Why I discovered Garrison Keillor has some kind of daily devotional that lasts about five minutes. All the NPR programs can be downloaded for free. (I just don’t know how to erase them after I get through listening.)

I went down to Wal-Mart and purchased this I-Pod holder which looks a little like an IV—so that when I work out with all the other twenty-thirty-somethings I can be in style. I keep looking at the gizmo just before I leave for the Y. I have yet to put it on—I am afraid I won’t know 1) How to get the program I want; 2) Change albums or channels, etc.; 3) How to avoid getting tangled up in the wires; 4)That I might drop some weights on my head trying to listen and sweat.

I guess you could say I am sorta getting there. Next week I may yet take my maiden voyage to the gym with my new I-Pod. Until then I just look at it as if it was a mouse not knowing exactly what to do. Perhaps when you see my picture in the Strength and Health Magazine you will know that this I-Pod thing really has changed my life.

Yelling and Thinking

Winston Pearce, great preacher of yesterday used to tell a funny story. Seems like a man that was running for Congress came to town and was speaking at the County Courthouse. Two old farmers decided to go and see what was happening. Quite a crowd had gathered when they got there. Lot of noise, lot of yelling, a lot of people screaming to the top of their lungs. One farmer turned to the other and said, “Well, what do you think?” His buddy said, “I didn’t come here to think—I come here to holler.”

This current carefully organized effort to gather a crowd and shout down whatever governmental official is trying to explain health care or whatever is scary. These folk do not listen to reason—they only want to holler. I can understand some of this hollering. Some don’t have jobs. Some have families that are falling apart. Many have children that cannot afford to pay their bills. Some have lost a son or daughter in Iraq. And many are just plain scared of the future. Others just do not want to face the facts about anything.

Shouting and disruption solves nothing. It will not help us one whit. Serving as Interim Pastor one of the first things I have always had to do was to try to turn the temperature down. Anxiety levels were often going off the charts. You can’t make wise decisions that way. One of the many things I like about our President is that he is trying desperately to turn down the temperature. Our anxiety level in this country is much too high.

I hope this movement to yell and shout down anybody you disagree with backfires. Most folk do not like yelling or confusion. We need to find out the facts about this health care situation. We need to begin to listen to one another. The yellers are important but we can’t hear their concerns until they stop screaming. Yelling does nothing but create confusion and rage. They may not want to think…but they sure don’t need to holler. Anything we can all do to turn down the temperature might just help the whole community. Reckon this is one of the tasks of the church in our time?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Watch the Pronouns

Of all the talk we have heard about the President’s health care plan—my concern has been the pronouns that keep popping up. Listen closely and you hear my insurance plan, my doctor, my family’s medical treatment and my Medicare. All these are appropriate concerns. But listening closely I hear few responses beyond the I’s, the me’s and mine. What about all those other pronouns? Nobody much is talking about those 47 million who have no health care of any kind. I remember hearing Tony Campolo says that 30,000 kids die every day of sickness and malnutrition. Wonder how many of these are Americans? When the 47 million figure crops up lately we have heard a lot of snarls about giving 20 million illegals health care--not to speak of what they call the other deadbeats. The words we hear often are they and them.

Whatever happened to the common good? Whatever happened to that old vision of liberty and justice for all? Did those words of Jesus, “I was sick and you visited me…” get lost in the shuffle of self-interest and fear and most of all: greed? Where are the “us’s” and the “we’s?” Few who oppose health care reform offer any solution whatsoever to those 47 million who have no coverage. I haven’t heard any sermons on this subject. Maybe I have not been listening closely enough.

It looks like the united interests of pharmaceutical companies, for-profit hospitals and insurance companies and a multitude of doctors have poured millions of dollars to maintain the status quo. Chances of health care for all looks bleak from my corner of the woods.

The naysayers won’t go away. Lately they have tried to drown out all the voices for health care. Maybe it is time for us “sayers” to speak up. How can Congressmen and Senators who have the finest health care in the world even after they leave office—how can they ignore all their constituents who have no insurance? What should we do? Pray, write letters to our elected officials. Maybe we ought to raise our voices in letters to the editor and let everyone know how we feel.

We’re in this together. We have to get beyond the me and mine and the you and yours. We need some we’s. We need some us’s—we need, once again a vision of a united states. Ours is an unfinished business. The promise of the future is scary indeed. It took the children of Israel 40 years to go 400 miles. The theologian Kosuke Koyuma used to call this The Three Mile an Hour God. One of the reasons for their painfully slow movement was that they had to bring everyone along. The old, the children, the rebels and the difficult. Can we afford, at this time in our history to leave behind 47 million of our brothers and sisters on our journey? Listen to the pronouns when health care is being discussed. Me and mine. You and Yours. We and us. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We all came over here on separate boats but we are all on the same ship.”