Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Words about the Boston Bomber--Wish I'd Said That

 This 19 year old terrorist, Djhokhor has laid a dilemma at the door of the Christian Church. What are we to say about this terrible situation? Hundreds maimed--funeral after funeral to say goodbye to people who should not be dead at all. This done by a boy who came here when he was eight or nine. What happened? We'll scratch our heads and write our theories. Some will blame us: poor schools, lousy neighborhood, few friends--we should have reached out more. Some will blame Muslims--and write them all off since this young man was one of their number. Some will blame gays, pro or con, abortion, pro or con, the economy or the refusal of a weak Congress to deal with gun control. Some will wistfully whisper: "If we only had a white President!" Some will want us to send the drones or planes somewhere, some place just to let them know that we are tough and you can't mess with Americans. But the best word I have found was written by Phillip E. Jenks on his blogspot. Jenks has served as a news reporter, an editor for publications for the larger church and has a fine blog. He also serves as Pastor of a Church. I'd like to be there some Sunday when he preaches.  He has a powerful piece about this young bomber and how the church must respond to the words and teachings of Jesus even with this young terrorist. Sometimes I want to write a book entitled, "I Wish Jesus Had Not Said That." Oh, but he did and we Christians must somehow do more than ponder his strong words.  Whoever said this journey of faith would be easy must be out of their minds. Read Jenks' wise words and ponder the challenge they bring.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Building Bridges Across our Own Grand Canyons

We were thousands of miles away from home—no newspapers or magazines to tell us how bad it is. Poor TV reception. Mostly cut off from the Breaking news which always seems to be breaking-- we rode a river boat along with some ninety others. It was a rich week of European wonders, great food and fine companions. It was a respite. A real escape. A time to just be. We thought.

And so one evening at dinner beside us sat a retired military man and his wife. Across the table was a retired surgeon from the Mid-west. Dinner proceeded in a fine fashion until the military man began to mutter about Obamacare. How crazy it was. How this program, crammed down our throats, would bankrupt us all. From across the white tablecloth I could see the Surgeon bristle. He couldn’t keep quiet. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “If you saw all the people without insurance I saw you wouldn’t be saying that.” The military man took the bait. “Sounds like you are a Socialist? We’ve got a Hitler as our President. We can’t possibly go on like this.” The tension was heavy around that table. The Surgeon answered. “Hitler. Did you know that I am a Jew? Did you know I had grandparents that died in a concentration camp? I know a Hitler when I see one. You are a disgrace to our country.”  It went on until the military man’s wife nudged him in the ribs and he got quiet. The Surgeon finished his meal, put his napkin down and left.

There is no place to hide. The divisions that we thought we had left behind followed us all the way to France. Both Americans. Both deeply in love with their country. Red-faced they stared across the same chasm of their divides that we had grown accustomed to at home.

We’ve all been there—with relatives, with friends, with people at work. Poles apart on politics, religion, gun control, the President and just about every issue. Somehow we must reach across these enormous gulfs that divide us and build some bridges tentative though they may seem. 

The Surgeon stopped me the next day. “Did I go too far? I felt like I said too much—but I can never apologize to that man. Never. I feel bad but I can’t compromise my convictions.” I told him he had to let it go. “You have to do something”. And he reiterated, “I can’t apologize.” “At least,” I said, “go up and tell him kindly you’re hoping he’s having a good day. Talk a little about the weather or the trip. But keep it light and move on.”

The next day the Doctor cornered me again. “Well, I did what you said. It was hard. I didn’t apologize but I asked him how he was doing. And we talked just a minute. I don’t know if it helped—but I felt better as I walked away”.

Weeks later, back home we all watched the horror in Boston. The response was immediate. It didn’t matter what color you were, what politics you had, if you were religious or a pagan--people put their arms around one another. They cared for the bleeding and held the dying. They did what they could. And when things settled down there were prayers and candles and enormous compassion. This was America at its best. This was the same feeling I had after 9/11 when kindness seemed to be everywhere. But it didn’t last. We simply picked up our old weapons and started all over again.

Martin Luther King told us, “Either we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools.” The Grand Canyons of our divides have got to close. And you and I must build the bridges.

(This blog piece can also be found On Line at The Birmingham News, the Mobile Press.Register and the Huntsville Times. The word were printed in The Greenville News,  (SC), 4/29/13)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Candles in the Dark--Charting a Way in A Tough Time

Cleaning off my desk—I came across some wonderful articles that I wanted to share. I have a file in my mind called: “Wish I’d Said That.” The following writings are superb and looking back they all deal with inclusion, in community, in trying to discover the all-ness that this country has always dreamed about. Let’s face it—we have not lived up to it by a long shot—for the fiftieth anniversary of Martin King’s “Letters to Birmingham Jail” reminded us how very far we were (and are) from the American dream. We all know that we are living today in a fractured society. We cannot continue this way. To segment any group—even if they are Muslim—and isolate them and say they are not welcome is certainly at counter purpose with what it means to be a United America. The Boston attack has left us all heartsick. But we must not make the terrible mistake as we care for the wounded and bury our dying to take actions that would make us more like the terrorists than the free people we are supposed to be.

The New York Times reported this morning just underneath the sad picture of the chaos and maiming in Boston should give us pause to think. The headline reads: "U.S. Practiced Torture After 9/11 Nonpartisan Review Concludes.” A nonpartisan independent review of interrogation and detention practices after September 11, 2001 concludes, “It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” And that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it. It is a 577-page report and hammers the point that brutality is not to be the American way. Surely we need to ponder this report as we search for terrorists once again.

The three articles I recommend all deal with community and the challenge of inclusion. Wendell Berry has written a splendid article “Caught in the Middle,” about his troubled feelings about abortion and homosexuality. He takes on the right and the left and says that we must come to some agreement on these issues and live together. He talks about the difficulties raised by both abortion and homosexuality and in a fair manner calls for us to move beyond the politics of mutual estrangement.

Mark Schloneger is Pastor of a Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. He writes an article entitled, “Altar Politics.” On the eve of the national election for President he planned what he called an Election Day Communion service. He had the strange idea that the table of the Lord ought to bring us together despite however we vote or do not vote. This Pastor has caught a vision of the way Church is to be. A safe place for everyone. The Church everywhere needs to consider the wideness of God’s mercy for all God’s people.

The last article found in the secular Harper’s Magazine deals with the thorny problem of immigration. Ted Genoways has written a piece asking how do we decide who belongs in America. It is a question we have struggled with from the beginning of our nation. In telling terms,  Mr. Genoways points to where we are today.

I wish I had written each of these articles. In a dark time—we still have those that hold up the candles in the dark. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

It's Hope Time for us All

"Here's what I've decided: the very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is to simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That's about it. Right now I'm living in that hope, running down its hallways and touching the walls on both sides. I can't tell you how good it feels."
  --Barbara Kingsolver,  Animal Dreams

We had a crisis in the church. A real crisis. We couldn't keep a Sunday school teacher in the third-grade classroom. We had resignation after resignation. "I"m sorry I can't do this anymore," the teachers would moan. They'd turn in their Sunday school books, shake their heads and just walk away. The next year we had trouble in the fourth grade and the next year the fifth. It was sort of like a virus that moved from grade to grade. Every teacher would say the same thing. "It's Henry. I can't do anything with him. He won't sit down and when he finally does, at his convenience, he's always pinching somebody or disrupting the whole class." One teacher said: "Why one Sunday he set the trash can on fire." Another teacher said: "I was a little late one Sunday morning and when I got there, there wasn't a single child in the room. Henry had forced them to climb out that second-story window and just sit on the roof. Why, they could have fell off and been killed." He went through teachers the way those South American fish could strip the bones clean in three minutes. Everybody shook their heads. "Why," they said, "He's either going to be a serial killer or in prison before he's sixteen."

When we left there Henry was in High School. Older, wiser, smarter--he was still chewing up teachers and spitting them out. And the poor Nominating Committee was still meeting, wringing their hands and saying: "What are we going to do?"

Now let’s turn to our Scripture for today. John wrote three letters at the end of the First century. We think these 3 letters were first a general letter, not written to a specific congregation as much as a word to all the little fragile churches in that part of the known world. John, hoped in writing to help them in a hard, hard time.

Scholars tell us that by the end of that first century the honeymoon was definitely over. Rome, the Judaizers, and just plain pagans made it increasingly difficult to be a Christian. Most of the eyewitnesses had died or been martyred. Apostasy--falling away--was in every church. They would begin with these stars in their eyes--but hard times came and you wouldn't see them as often on Sundays. And then one day, they stopped coming altogether.

Some believed that Jesus would come back in their lifetime. And when that did not happen many of them fell into a deep depression. And so, in a time when much of the church was in despair, John wrote these three letters. Mostly they were a challenge to deepen the spirituality of those fragile believers. They are as practical words as we will find anywhere in the Bible.

   In reading John’s words I have discovered something in the third verse of the third chapter that I have seen before. This is what he said:” We have this hope” and this becomes the central theme of what he was trying to say to his troubled friends.

Listen to what he said in I John 3.2-3: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies themselves as he is pure.”

What does it mean to give each other this hope? What does it mean for any of us to uncover this hope and put it down before the things of our lives? Three things shine out for me in these verses.

John says, first that we are God's children now. In that first verse he had already said: We have been called children of God. But here, in the very next verse he followed it up with: we are God's children now.

Linguists tell us that the Greek here is in the indicative case. What does that mean? Hope is found in what is. We are God's children right now. Moody Smith, a very fine New Testament scholar has said that Christianity has always suffered from an inadequate sense of the indicative. This is what God has done in the here and the now. This indicative tells us that right now, with whatever it is we carry around with us, good or bad, weak or strong: we are God's children right now. Or as we day in the deep South: “Right chere.” Not future. Not you will be some day. No. This is present tense. Indicative. You are God's children now. On April 14, 2013 on Augusta Road..

Most folk I know forget that when God called us his children right where we are--that he was, as the text says, lavishing his love on us. Wendell Berry once said that one of the characteristic diseases of the twenty-first century is the suspicion that they would be greatly improved if they were someplace else. It isn’t only a 21st century problem—John knew in that first century it was hard to believe that God works right where we are.

In the present tense of their lives they were touched by a love that changed them forever. When they realized whom they belonged to they lifted their heads up high and began to walk tall and straight. That story could be repeated a hundred times in the Bible. Start anywhere: Zaccheus, the lame man on a pallet, the woman taken in adultery, Saul murderer of Christians, or even the little children who would weave their way through the crowds and look up and tug at his robe to get his attention. "Jesus," they would say, "Jesus look down here. Look at me. Look at me." And when he looked they giggled and giggled, laughed and laughed. Why? Because their began to see that they were, even little six, seven and eight year olds--children of God. That’s why they loved him so much. 

I love the story about the young black man that lived in the wrong part of town with his grandmother in a three-room white-frame house on a dirt road. Life had been hard. But he was given this gift. He could play football. He was the best player ever to play in that county. And as he moved on up to high school the scouts from all the schools began to take notice. By his Sophomore year the recruiters were making their way down to that tiny little house on a dirt road one by one by one. Finally, he graduated. The first person in his whole family to finish high school. He had already signed with one of the great Universities. On the day in late summer when he was to leave home for the first time and go off to school it was a time of pride and deep emotion for the whole family. His grandmother had invited all the relatives in for a big breakfast before he left. She got up early, started cooking on the wood stove. Grits, country ham, red eye gravy, biscuits as big as saucers, home-made syrup, eggs, lots and lots of eggs.  When breakfast was over and it was time for the boy to leave, he went back to the room and got his little old battered suitcase that held his belongings. Members of his family surrounded him and hugged him and kissed him and slipped a dollar or two in his pocket. His grandmother waited until last. She followed him out on the porch. And then that little wiry woman reached up and grabbed that huge giant grandson in her arms and held him tight. And as she held him, someone heard her whisper: "Son, remember who you is. Always remember who you is." And she kissed him and he picked up the old suitcase, walked down the steps to begin a new life.

It is an old benediction. Remember who we is. It is the best hope I know. John said it years ago. Not only are we called children of God. We are God's children now. In the knowledge of that strong word we can walk into any future there is. For we remember who we is.

But John did not stop there. And I am grateful for this. For to a troubled, troubled church and to Christians surrounded by a world that tested their values everyday--he gave them a further word. And this is the second part of the hope we have. John said: "We are God's children now, but it does not yet appear what we shall be."

Along with the indicative: we are--John places an imperative word: we shall be. "It does not yet appear what we shall be..."Or another translation puts it: "What we will be has not yet been revealed."

We are all works in progress. And this is what it means to be children of God. That here where I am, with the little on-again-off-again commitment there comes this hopeful, hopeful word. So when Paul, from prison would write to his favorite congregation in Philippi, words of hope and thanksgiving and warning. Do you remember what he said there in the opening words: "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion as the day of Jesus Christ.” And then he continued: "It is right for me to feel thus about you all...for you are all partakers with me in the grace...of the gospel." But he still expanded these words: "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment..."(Phil. 1.6,7, 9)

Those little house-churches scattered all over the known world were afraid of the future. Doesn’t it all sound like the church today? Look at any denomination and you will find a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. While we sit here, why down the road cars and streaming into that new thing—policeman everywhere directing traffic—you can’t find a place to sit. What’s wrong with us? Peter Steinke, who works with systems and the church, says that when people become anxious they become rigid and inflexible and seek certainties. This anxiety cuts off hope. They can't see anything but today’s headlines or somebody else’s jazzy church. They have no future. They live on dead-end streets. They are immobilized. They have forgotten the resurrection and its powerful, powerful implications. Why, Easter was just two Sundays ago.

Luther used to say when we got down in the mouth: “I have been baptized!” He would remember his baptism. But baptism, like birthing, is only the beginning. If you ever had a little one you know how wonderful it is. We call everybody we know. We run down to the gift shop and buy balloons that say: "It's a girl!" or "It's a boy"! We put them on the door in her hospital room. We buy twenty-two more balloons and ribbons and put them on the mailbox at home for all the neighbors to see. We order Pizza and have it delivered to the hospital room and we pig out in the afternoon. Your Mama takes off work and cleans your house from top to bottom. The house has been rearranged. The centerpiece, of course, is the baby's room that used to be your office. It has been freshly painted and there is a new baby bed and borders everywhere. It looks like some kind of a shrine. And you will take pictures and video every single moment the baby even twitches.

But none of this holds a candle to that moment, years later, when you sit in the darkness and listen to her or him sing a solo in that choir. Or that night, with a thousand people cheering, your son runs down the field with the ball. Or the day, after all the shuffling of money and priorities, he or she walks across the stage and gets that diploma. It was good back there--but nothing compares to having an adult child sit across the table and you learn from them and they tell you stories of what you don't know and places you will never go. It was wonderful back there--but it doesn't hold a candle to all the wonderful progressions along the way.

What is it that you still can't handle? What parts of you are as pagan as the day you were baptized at age ten? What temptations still trip you up even after all these years? What is it in this church that we have never, ever quite dealt with and left behind? And sometimes we say: "Well, that's just who we are."

But John says: Oh no. We have this hope. This incredible hope. Us—right here—in this place. "We are God's children now. But it does not yet appear what we shall be." And then John gives us a third word: "But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

Do you see what he said? As we get a little older and we change, if you look closely you can see this resemblance forming like a Polaroid picture slowly coming to life. This is the hope that John holds out for all God's children. You may have seen the book with this title: O Lord, I Sound Just Like Mama. And, as we get older we begin to look more like Daddy. Act like him, too.

Back to the story we started this sermon with. Years after I had left that church with the desperate Nominating Committees. I was invited back. In the receiving line after church someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Do you know me?" he asked. I looked up at him. He looked vaguely familiar. He must have been six foot four. Great big man. Handsome. Standing there with this beautiful young woman. She was pregnant. And so you know what he said? This is what he said: "I'm Henry” And I said: "Henry?” And he nodded. "I asked him what he was doing. (Out on parole, I assumed.) And he said, "Well, I graduated from college with honors. Went to Law school and am a lawyer. Got a good job. This is Janie. We got married about two years ago. We're expecting our first baby." Henry and Janie moved on down the line and out the door. Other people filed by. But I couldn't get Henry off my mind. No serial killer. Never even seen the inside of a jail.  Handsome. Contributing citizen. Had on a tie and shoes and looked like he was in his right mind. Acting as civilized as many of the other folk that came through that line.

This is our hope. A hopeful, hopeful word for us all. It reminds me of the prayer of the old slave: “Oh Lord, I ain’t what I should be, and I ain’t what I want to be, but thank you Jesus, I ain’t what I used to be.” "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."  And friends, I am hanging on to these words for dear life. For this is the hope for us all.

(I preached this sermon in a church in Greenville, SC April 14, 2013)


Friday, April 12, 2013

Looks Like the I's Have it--Let's grow Up.

For years we talked about the ‘me” generation. And maybe we never graduated from this word.  Robert Parham, Director for the Baptist Center for Ethics spoke of the current immigration struggle. He said we ought to drop the “I” word from this debate. He was referring to the word illegal which we have heard far too often. I think his suggestion is right. Two years ago, God bless them, the United Methodist Church dropped the ‘I’ word in a national campaign calling for the elimination of this word while discussing immigration. I understand that the Associated Press has already put this word to rest. 

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor has said that the word, illegal is the first step to the gas chambers. He is right. If we can demonize another—put emotional distance between us and them—we can see them as objects and not subjects.   But it seems to me that we ought to drop the ‘I-word’ on a whole cadre of issues today. Demonization is not limited to immigration.

 Funny how politicians use the ‘I’ word all the time while discussing bones of contention. To Gay rights they say: We have to defend our marriages. What will happen to our families if we give in on this issue? Those keeping an anxious pulse on their constituencies—scared of losing the 2014 elections—are using the ‘I’ word more and more. And if they aren’t using this word—it is just beneath the surface of all their protestations.  Sadly they are wise enough to know where their bread is buttered—like a mirror they simply reflect their constituency.  Most of us are pretty wedded to I and me and mine.

 Point in any direction and it looks like the 'I's" have it. What could be more appalling than those parents from Newtown, their grief fresh from December as if it were yesterday listening to our leaders in Washington? These parents and relatives must be dumbfounded. What do they hear? Nobody can take our guns away. We can’t make any ruling on guns—we need our guns—even at church, even at football games, even in dormitories. Guns don’t kill people—people do. 

 Many scream against Obamacare (I hate this word) because it will hurt our interests. Why our policy rates are going to go up. What about all those 45 million plus who have no health care whatsoever? Never a word is said about them. In South Carolina our state has refused the federal government’s aid that health care would provide for those 389,000 not covered in our state. Nobody mentions these—we just hear worries about how the state cannot afford to pick up the 20% we will have to begin to pay in three years.

In just about every issue we bump into the I word. Take taxes to the stalled economy that the politicians keep blocking. They keep saying us and our. What about the common good—us and not just I. On our recent river cruise in France we ate dinner with a couple from Canada. He was a fine lawyer and talked about how everyone in Canada had health care and wondered why, with so many religious people in this country, there was not more concern from the churches about all these people not covered by insurance. It was a question we could not answer except to say you can be religious and selfish at the same time. We have forgotten that Jesus said that we save our lives when we lose our lives.

Watch the pronouns. The I’s are everywhere. There are so many wonderful things about our country—but we still have a hard time with this liberty and justice for all. Maybe we ought to change the words to read: liberty and justice for me and mine. We still have a lot of work to do. Developmentally as infants we all begin with this wonderful discovery of who we are. Our hands, our voices, our hungers. The lesson of identity is primary. But to stay at this elemental level is to cut ourselves off from the wonders of the myriad of relationships that God intended for us all. The opening chapters in the Bible say: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Mr. Parham, Director of the Center of Ethics is on to something by shining the spotlight on this little word, I. Under the spotlight, with all the problems around us, the word shrivels in size even more.