Saturday, January 28, 2012

Anniversary Song

(Today is our fifty-first wedding anniversary. I couldn't find anything more appropriate to say than what I wrote two years ago on our 49th--I still believe it holds true today.)

49 Years.
Where did they go?
49 Years.
What do they mean?
49 Years.
It all began under an October harvest moon.
49 Years.
She was 21 – I was 25.
49 Years.
We are much older now than our parents were
dressed in their finery that snowy evening.
49 Years.
Loving the little girl, then the
little boy who graced our lives.
49 Years.
Wearing a gold ring that never
turned green.
49 Years.
Of struggle, fear, frustration and
fun, fun, fun.
49 Years.
Of lying next to the one
who keeps you warm and safe.
49 Years.
Of packing and moving and packing
and moving and packing and moving.
49 Years.
Of saying goodbye and hello and
goodbye and hello.
49 Years.
Of fighting over the tiniest of things.
49 Years.
On agreeing on what really matters.
49 Years.
Like water on a rock—altering, changing
making smooth and shiny.
49 Years.
Of stretching and forgiving 
and hurting and healing.
49 Years.
Where did they go?
49 Years.
What do they mean?
49 Years.
Finally learning love not an emotion
or an act or a word but much, much more.
49 Years.
Love is a bridge that helped me/us
over many troubled and peaceful waters.
49 Years.
Grateful. Humble. Joy-filled. Maddening.
Comfortable. Confusing and Right.
49 Years.
Where did they go?
49 Years.
Much, much too fast.
49 Years.
What do they mean?
Every thing.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mr. Gingrich and Cheap Grace

" only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or two on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured my sins are forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that. Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace. It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases we have the identical formula--'justification by faith alone.' Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence."
  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

We moved to South Carolina just as the Republican primary here was just beginning to crank up. We’ve heard a lot of cranking from these quarters the last few weeks. Most of the attacks, strangely enough, were not directed toward our sitting President. Most of the missiles were hurled at each other. Since South Carolina has been known to break or make Republican presidential contenders—the candidates have felt much was at stake in this deep-South state.

The most lethal attacks were directed toward the two primary horses in the race—Romney and Gingrich. And those attacks came from the two leading contenders themselves. The ugliness came from Gingrich’s remarks and Romney’s behind-the-scenes advertising. Stephen Cobert weighed in with enough levity to put this whole charade in perspective.

In the last debate on Thursday night I felt it was a cheap shot for Moderator John King to begin this debate by asking Mr. Gingrich about his former wife’s charge that he wanted her to engage in an open marriage arrangement. Gingrich, rightly so, was furious. He lashed back: “I can’t believe you would begin a Presidential debate with a question so scurrilous and inflammatory about my personal life when so much is at stake in this election.” Gingrich was right in his angry retort. This was no way to begin this debate and I felt it was unfair.

And yet—for months Mr. Gingrich has painted a picture of someone who has made serious mistakes in his personal life and yet has joined the Catholic Church and found forgiveness. And yet this third-time husband cannot just sweep his past under the rug. I remember that while he was still married and having affair with his third-wife-to-be he piously said that he would never speak in public again without mentioning Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Certainly there was more than an aroma of hypocrisy about those statements.

I do hope that Mr. Gingrich has found forgiveness and closed the tawdry chapters in his own personal life. Yet I kept thinking about Bonhoeffer’s contrast between cheap grace and costly grace. He wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” He continued: “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares...Cheap grace means justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”

Mr. Gingrich seems to have overlooked or forgotten that we have to live with the consequences of our sins and misdeeds. What happens in Vegas or Washington or Atlanta cannot stay there. The ripples we all make in the stream just go on and on--often with deadly consequences. The debris left behind his affairs and three marriages cannot be swept under the rug so easily.

It is appalling to see so many Evangelicals put aside their principles so casually when it comes to Mr. Gingrich’s marital failings. Bonhoeffer wrote that in supporting a casual grace that makes so few demands on the person ”the Christian (then) can live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Bonhoeffer was right when, in the title of his book, he states that discipleship is always costly. For the Christian, ethics always comes before politics. And when we reverse that order we might remember what happened in Nazi Germany when churchmen and supposedly good Christians forgot what comes first for the followers of Jesus.

Mr. Gingrich is no Hitler. But he has forgotten his Baptist heritage on its good days and his new-found Catholic faith when it, too places its priorities in the proper order. This does not mean that I am not about to get out a Romney for President placard—but it does mean that I do not scrap his name simply because of his Mormon faith.

T.S. Eliot, in another age reminded us:

“Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher,
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will,
O God, help us.”
     --T.S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock'

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Martin Luther King Helps Us Remember

On this birthday of Martin Luther King I wonder what he would think of the state of our nation  today. Behind the hoopla toward our President I cannot but believe if you follow the string far enough back you will find racism pure and simple. I remember reading about the first black football players to break the color line in colleges in the South--they were scorned and spat on and had a hard time. Maybe we ought to remember that change is a long time coming.

What would Dr. King say about the discriminatory laws that have been passed in several states toward immigrants. Republican  Alabama state senator Bill Holtzclaw responding to critics who said the state's immigration law was the meanest in the nation said, "I want you to know I am a Christian. I'm a Methodist, and I voted for this law. This legislation was written by Christians." On the other side Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL recently spoke about she felt about Alabama's new law as it affected migrant families. "I'm wondering when that day will come where they will be asked to wear the yellow star."

Take any social issue and there is a strand of hatred toward anyone who just might be poor or gay or an immigrant. What would Dr. King say about the disciminatory laws passed in several states which require voter ID before someone can vote? Legislators must surely have known there were people in their constituency who had no driver's license or identification card of any kind. Are they first class citizens or should we just ignore them?

On this special day when we honor that "Drum major of justice" my mind goes back to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. On September 16, 1963 a bomb shattered that church on a Sunday morning. When the dust had settled four little girls who had come to Sunday school that morning lay dead. (Spike Lee told that story in his film, "Four Little Girls.") Many were injured that day when the church was damaged. Word of that tragedy spread around the world. And in Cardiff, Wales children began to collect money to help replace the church's shattered glass windows.

An artist, John Petts of that country offered his services to create a special window for the church. A local newspaper editor there launched a campaign to raise money for the venture. The maximum donation would be half a crown (thirty pennies) so that the window would come from all the people of Wales and not just the well-heeled.

The project took two years. Petts delivered his gift from the people of his country to the church when it was completed. If you were to go there today and stand in the pulpit and look out on the rows and rows of pews you could not miss this window. It dominates the whole church. As the light filters through the colored glass it touches those that worship there. A rainbow surrounds a huge black Jesus with his arms outstretched. His right hand pushes away hatred and injustice. His left hand holds out forgiveness. Underneath the figure of Jesus, Petts has etched into the window: You Do It to Me. Underneath the window is inscribed: "Given by the people of Wales."

I wish everyone could see that window. That stained glass memorial is a symbol of forgiveness fashioned out of pain and suffering and racism. On this day when we remember the great King--let us remember where we are as a nation. The mean-spiritedness touches every part of this country. Let us ponder where racism and hatred took us years ago. Let us commit ourselves to a better day and a better time. "Deep in my heart I still believe we shall overcome."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Epiphany Time--Light in Darkness

This is the second Sunday after Christmas. Most of us have taken down the tree, vacuumed up the needles, hauled the boxes down from the attic and filled them up and lugged them all back up again. Out of sight and out of mind. We have rearranged the furniture and then sat down and held our breath as we opened our January Visa statement. Sometime soon IRS forms will arrive. Since the fourth century the church has called these days Epiphany. Once upon a time the season of Epiphany was one of the three great seasons of the church year—Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Advent would become popular later. But this little known season we are in begins at the end of Christmas and extends all the way until Ash Wednesday.

I have been wondering why Epiphany was so popular and why the church loved this season. Two images mark these days—darkness and light. Darkness? Yes. In Isaiah, which is one of the readings for today, the chosen people had been attacked and dragged away into exile. The attackers destroyed everything—cities, their Temple in Jerusalem. They dragged off the best and the brightest. Not just once—there were at least three different deportations. Those exiles lived in cursed Babylon, against their will, for seventy long years. And then word came that they would be set free and could return home. But it was not all joy that homecoming. They hobbled back to a wasteland much like Iraq and Afghanistan must look today. Everything needed attention and work. So they set about the hard task of rebuilding but the work was slow and tedious. They grew discouraged and picked at one another, their leader, and even shook their fists at God Almighty. “You have brought us back to this desolate place of rocks and scorpions and absolute devastation. What kind of a God are you?” Was this the answer to their prayers? They had been promised restoration. We know the words well: “Comfort ye…comfort ye…speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” And then those wonderful words we have grown to love: “Every valley shall be lifted up…and every mountain will be made low…the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places smoothed out.” That was the promise. But everywhere they looked all they could see was dust and work and chaos and misery. Sorting through the rubble day after day it was hard. No wonder they called it the dark. This was the setting of our Isaiah scripture.

Move now to our second reading. We know it well. Matthew 2—and in the middle of that wonderful Christmas story we find the darkness there too. Darkness? Yes. Oh, I know the baby was born—finally. He was all right. He had all the parts including a very healthy pair of lungs. Yes, the Shepherds, those outsiders, listened to an angel and came to see for themselves. And there under that starry, starry night they stood open-mouthed and filled with wonder. No darkness there. Just Silent Night where all was calm…and all was bright.

But way off in Persia Wise men saw that same star. And those outsiders crossed trackless desert lands to find King Herod and this is where the darkness began. The King did not let them know what was up his sleeve. Kings rarely do. But this new baby-king was a threat to all he had worked for. And so Herod was determined to kill the baby whatever the cost. Every male child under the age of two was murdered. And that first Christmas, blood ran like a river through their streets. And in their sadness they quoted Jeremiah: “Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” But even with all that murder the King’s men could not find the newborn king. Joseph took Mary and the baby and under cover of darkness fled like refugees and finally found safety far away in Egypt. You see, the darkness is everywhere even in this Christmas story.

And here it is in January and with Christmas gone--the old darkness returns. William Styron, the great writer was stricken with a depression so severe he called it Darkness Visible. You can see it, he said, you can feel it, and you can almost taste it—the darkness. Some of us here wonder about many things. The economy. The church. The future. The Republican primaries seem simply to reflect our time and our mood. No candidate excites. And that includes how many people feel about our President. This year we seem to be stuck in hopelessness and confusion. We are acquainted with the dark.

And Epiphany came in the middle of a deep despair and Herod’s bloody destruction. And Isaiah wrote to those returning depressed exiles: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Israel, he said, the darkness is real but the light is realer. You will have to rebuild and work hard but your efforts will not be in vain. God will be with you.

And this is where our text from Matthew comes in. Blood and despair and confusion really did run through their streets. The child was at great risk. But they couldn’t stay stuck in their own September 11th. Everything changed. There was this star shining in the darkness. First it came to outsiders—Gentile kings that came from the East. But then it just keeps shining over everything and everyone. Rich and poor and strong and weak and old and young and fundamentalists and liberals and unbelievers and snake handlers and Muslims—all of us. And old John, in his gospel, brushed away the tears as he wrote with crooked fingers on a papyrus scroll what he had discovered pondering that first Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Not yesterday or the day before—the light shines today. And this is Epiphany. Despite the darkness—very real darkness there is also this incredible light. It is the presence of God that keeps calling all of us and each of us forward. And nothing can stop its power.

So here we are: you and me. It is January and it gets dark too quickly in the evening and most of us have friends very sick and very tired. I told my wife when the Christmas letters came I had never read of much sickness and hard times as those letters revealed. I asked her: Is it just because many of the people we know are older? And Epiphany comes and says the strangest thing: we have a choice as God’s people always have. We can give in to the darkness or we can opt for the light. Is it any wonder we called those that followed the star Wise men.

William Inge was a great American playwright. And one of his great plays was The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. It is a drama about Cora and Rubin and their children. Everyone in the play has his or her own darkness and they are scared and don’t know where to turn. In one scene Cora, the mother, tells her boy, Sonny to go on to bed. He says: “Mom.” Cora says: “I told you to go upstairs.” (She can see he is scared.) And so she sighs, “Sonny, why are you afraid of the dark? And he says: “Because you can’t see in front of you and it might be something awful.” Tenderly the mother says: “Sonny, you are the man of the house. You mustn’t be afraid.” And he says: “I’m not afraid if someone’s with me.” And she moves toward her son and takes his hand and says: “Come boy, we’ll go up together…”

There is darkness and there is light. They are both here. Side by side. And we must choose and we must decide. Epiphany says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out. God is here with us. Even in the hard times. Especially in the hard times. This is a brand new year and it is fraught with incredible possibilities despite what the pundits and commentators say. Thanks be to God.