Death’s Unbroken Gaze

February 27th, 2009

We met last night like countless other Christian communities to remember our mortality. It was Ash Wednesday and like other Protestant congregations, we’re beginning the long, slow process of appreciation and understanding of Lent that sees our remembrance as fully a part of everything important we do in the church to help us focus on God’s providence and grace as we reflect upon our humanness.

For this season that began last night with Ash Wednesday and marches on for 40 days until we gather at the open tomb to celebrate Christ’s victory over death, we will trudge through the season of Lent. It’s a journey of exploration when we consider our being made from dust and our return to dust. There is a depth of experience that comes whenever we consider we are temporal beings housed in bodies that will eventually return to the dust from which they have been made. But we will continue … that’s what our faith has to offer us, namely, that we will continue on in the form of spirit.

I’ve come to appreciate what Theodore Roethke penned when he wrote:

How body from spirit slowly does unwind

Until we are pure spirit at the end.


A few years back, upon the death of Browning Ware, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Austin, I wrote a tribute piece to his wisdom and his willingness to reflect upon this sense of mortality that was soon to claim him too. Here’s that essay written in 2002:  Near the shadow of death, Browning Ware unflinchingly shared what it was like to stand that close to the doorway separating mortality from eternity.

That’s the effect thoughts of our dying have upon us. It’s like a long stare into the piercing, unflinching look from another.  I meet with all sorts of people in all sorts of places in relation to their own death. Sometimes the prospective death is their own. They stand in the doorway and wonder whether they have the courage to go on. On other occasions I meet with the surviving loved ones who must plan a memorial service. We meet in homes, hospitals and funeral homes and think out loud what must be said and what must be remembered.

Browning Ware was pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin for many years. He also had had prostate and bone cancer. He died on Oct. 29. Not long before his death, Ware shared in The Austin American-Statesman what it meant to him for his body to carry such an invasive disease.

Near the shadow of death, he unflinchingly shared what it was like to stand that close to the doorway separating mortality from eternity.

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Several of my friends believe that I know a secret. They are convinced that my illness has invested wisdom in me that is rare, difficult to come by, but worthy of exploration. I get the feeling that they want me to report on what is hidden around life’s last limiting corner. ‘Browning, what do you see beyond the horizon?’  I don’t observe as much detail as some of my friends would prefer. I have no magic vision of my future beyond death. I trust my traveling companion, Jesus. He promised to be with me. He is enough.

But, my friends return and press their questions:  What do you want your best, your last thoughts to be?

This is my answer: I want to be present, as fully present as is possible, to what is happening around me and within me. I desire no special exemptions, but simply the pleasure of answering ‘Present’ when my name is called. want to be glad when these moments are fully mine.

Ware’s article stirred up a response from the Austin community of readers eager to know more. He obliged: I recently shared my desire to be fully present to what is happening in my life. A teacher friend agreed. He said many of his students, however, envisioning their own death, want to die suddenly in an accident or to die quietly in their sleep. I want to be there when it happens!
The story of my friends plying me for secret wisdom reminded me of the incident surrounding David Hume’s death. The arch skeptic carried on a life-long exchange with a divine who was convinced that Hume would recant on his deathbed. The minister made frequent trips to Hume’s bedside and had the good fortune to visit Hume on the morning he died. To the minister’s chagrin, the old skeptic Hume died peacefully and happy.

The truth is, I suspect we die pretty much like we lived.

Ware’s unbroken gaze encouraged those of us who wish to be present at every stage of our lives. To be fully alive and aware of God’s present mercies is our goal.

Things That Can’t Be Undone

February 25th, 2009

The spoken word

A hurtful rumor

Anger irretrievably lost

The written word – followed by hitting “send”

The breaking of a window

The shooting of a bird

Wrecking the family car

Slipping on ice

Oversleeping a final exam

Toothpaste squeezed out of the tube

Using an ink pen on a crossword puzzle

Singing one beat earlier than everyone around you

The falling of bird poop

The backseat of a car

Saying “I do”

Losing your wedding ring

Telling a lie

An affair

Hurtful words

Lost trust

A fork in the road

Identity theft

Missing a pressure putt

Dropping a pop fly

Remembering to zip up your fly

Forgetting the baking soda in a recipe

The lingering smell of burnt popcorn

The bitter taste of scalded soup

A tooth extracted

The smell of a fart on a crowded elevator

A prank that goes woefully wrong

An act of sheer meanness

A tattoo

A personal confession on Facebook

Shameful photos of the personal kind on the Internet

The unfolding stages on the arc of life


Dancing With the Stars

February 18th, 2009

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Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross speculated in her studies of terminally ill patients that the dying go through five distinct stages of grief preceding their deaths (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Those studies produced a book On Death and Dying that brought the forbidden topic of terminal illness into the public discourse. The result of that was the development of hospice care as a means to care for patients in their dying days with dignity.

Just a few years ago, she died herself after her own bout with cancer. Her son observed, “For her, death wasn’t something to fear. It was like a graduation.”

Kübler-Ross moved to Arizona in the mid-1990’s after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed. She lived ready for death. In a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic she said she was ready to die:  “I told God last night he’s a damned procrastinator.”

As she grew ever closer to her death, she continued to enjoy her few satisfying habits of smoking cigarettes and by eating Swiss chocolates and shopping. A while back she wrote, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow.”

Her former research assistant, Dennis Klass, said, “That soft-spoken, iron-willed, sometimes crazy, interpersonal, little woman went around the world and changed the way people thought about themselves and their families and how they thought about life and death.”

Awaiting death was not such a challenge for her, her son reported. “Her only problem with facing death as patience. She was looking forward to dancing with the stars.”

What’s just around the corner? Mostly we don’t know. Not even the Bible gives us much to work on other than a few mysteries it doesn’t know how to adequately explain. “Through a glass dimly” isn’t much of a hint.

Watching a West Wing episode last week, I watched as Dr. Bartlett, wife of President Jed Bartlett was forced to help him put on his pants as he had grown more disabled from his multiple sclerosis. He simply couldn’t manage his own pants and as she bent down before him to slip each foot down a pants leg, he whispered this line:  How body from spirit does slowly unwind until we are pure spirit at the end.

“So you’re going to quote poetry to me at this moment?” she said back to him sassily. “Yes,” he replied with a slight smile. “Is this what it means when we said ‘for better or worse’” she asked? “Yes,” he said to her.

I looked the poet’s line up on the Internet. It’s from Theodore Roethke in the early 60’s. Surely that helps explain things … until we are pure spirit at the end.

Two Halves of the Same Whole

February 13th, 2009

When young lovers stand before God and family and friends to say their vows of commitment to one another, it’s not uncommon that someone reads from Paul’s love chapter: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal … Gosh, those are great words! So inspiring, so romantic, and yet often so untrue. Most of them look more like the little boy wearing his father’s shoes or the young girl playing with her mother’s makeup. They are “projects of love” we might say. The foundation for a marriage has been laid, but the verdict of their vows is not yet certain.

But Paul’s letter on love only gets worse: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. See what I mean? The first handful of years after the wedding are often like a dark comedy where each tries vainly to not only figure out who this person is they’ve married, but who they are too.

Like most ministers, I give the couples that come to me to marry them several pre-marital counseling sessions together. We plan the wedding but we also talk about some important concerns designed to keep the couple together long enough to survive the early years.

I also give them a warranty for their wedding that’s only as good as their willingness to avail themselves of it. In issuing them a warranty, I make them a deal:  “Call me before you call a lawyer.” I figure once a lawyer has been hired, it’s usually too late to save the marriage.

Last week Birdie told me about her long marriage to Earl. “Reverend, when Earl and I got married we were two fools in love without much else going for us. We went through some bumpy years before we finally learned to quit fighting and to love one another.”
I actually love the time I spend in pre-marital work with a couple. It may be my best work as a pastor, but it’s only a hopeful wish of helping them succeed in building a marriage. I believe in the hopefulness of what Paul wrote to help believers strive to keep the commandment to love one another. But in reality, it only describes the love they hope to grow into. There’s no way they can know all they will know while their love shines so brightly. There’s no way they can become what they are only beginning to discover about themselves and each other. What they learn after the wedding is there’s a life ahead of them that will seek to crush the selfishness out of them and will help them learn who they are and what limits they have but haven’t yet discovered.

Instead, I’ve come to think about the love chapter’s claims after a couple has proven they’re up to it. Give them a few decades together until their kids are pushed out of the nest and grandchildren are on the scene to guarantee the next generation is established. Let a couple settle into those last stages of life together to see what love is really about like the two tottering adults who lean on one another to get by. They’ve learned to love to the point they finish each other’s sentences as if they share even their thoughts with one another.

When I look over the heads of our congregation, I see a good number of gray heads. Some of them are widows or occasionally a widower, but others are long-married couples. The oldest among them are a fragile blessing to observe. I visit them when they go to the hospital. I watch them stand vigil for one another praying that the day of separation by death won’t be today. They help each other get along in life when the other cannot go without the other’s support. Sometimes they are half of what they were, but together they form two halves of the same whole.

And now Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Maybe that’s the kind of love Paul was describing.

Birdie knows all about this as she and Earl had a 43-year marriage until Earl died a few years back. They had their share of speed bumps but they found a way to hang together through the rough spots.

I’m performing the marriage for Birdie and Earl’s grandson soon so she stopped by encourage me. “Brother Pastor, when you meet with my grandson and his fiancé next week, would you help them get it right? You know how much they love one another … give them your best!”

“Birdie, you know better than most how mysterious the whole endeavor of marriage is. I will do my best, but the mystery’s in their hands.”

Dedicated to Delbert and Libby who taught me to love.

Traveling Abroad with Members of the Flat Earth Society

February 12th, 2009

For the life of me I can’t remember where I was when I first heard the term, “Members of the Flat-Earth Society” used to describe someone who was so anti-science in their faith they flattened the earth in pre-Copernicus style for the sake of religious fidelity. While conservative Christianity has struggled with what’s been historically labeled as “modernity,” I couldn’t say I actually had ever personally met someone who took biblical literalism so seriously they could qualify for membership in the Flat Earth Society. But last year, I made a trip to the Middle East and was the only person on the trip who didn’t believe in what’s called “the young earth” theory. [FYI: “The young earth theory” is the belief that the earth was created in a literal 6-day period approximately 6,000 years ago generally according to the plan devised by Bishop Ussher in the 19th century. Before the moment of creation, they believe, nothing at all existed. More about that later…]

I’ve been a watcher and observer of the arguments among Baptists over biblical inerrancy since seminary when the purge against so-called liberalism was conducted with all the ignorant and mean-spirited innuendo of the McCarthy era. We Baptists were duped in those days with the blatant lie “there are liberals teaching in our seminaries.” I can attest we had theological inquiry but not theological liberalism. We had honest scholarship but not dirty rotten liberals teaching in our Baptist “finishing schools for preachers.” Realize we should come clean with our use of the terms, “liberal” or “conservative,” admitting that as a whole they are descriptors in the eye of the beholder and not of much good otherwise. Besides, the whole Baptist world should be considered right of center from top to bottom in my estimation in light of true theological liberalism.

Ralph Elliott? Superb Old Testament scholar. Dale Moody? My goodness, he outbelieved the fundamentalists on what the Bible actually said. The list goes on and on … HBC member Kim Snyder was a student at Southwestern Seminary when the trustees of that school fired President Russell Dilday. Was Dilday a liberal? Gosh no! He was guilty of not being afraid of the Board that had slowly shifted in composition from mainstream Baptists who were concerned about training and graduating the best of the brightest of Baptist young adults who were called to ministry. Dilday declared the emperor had no clothes and was fired for his commitment to truth and integrity. The accusation of who’s liberal and who’s not depends on who makes the accusations and for what purpose the accusations have been made.

Last year at this time, I was the thumb on the theological hand by being one of the pastor-pilgrims traveling in Israel on what’s called a pastor’s familiarization tour. That’s a trip sponsored by the Israeli Department of Tourism, El Al Airlines and various hotels and travel agents who all cut their fees in order to entice American clergymen and clergywomen into seeing Israel with the intent of encouraging them to go home where they might organize a group trip from their churches such as we did last month.

This group I was traveling with, however, was comprised fully and completely of persons who had a direct connection to Bob Jones University. Previously I only knew Bob Jones University was the school that reportedly tossed young Billy Graham from its student body. I heard years ago it was because he was too liberal for them. Yikes! Billy Graham for goodness sake!

So when I met my fellow travelers standing in line in the terminal at JFK International Airport, I knew I was in trouble. I learned later after we arrived in Israel the members of the Flat Earth Society were in constant conflict with our tour guide for suggesting that certain archaelogical sites were older than 4,000 years B.C.E., thus not truthful since the earth had not existed prior to that time.

One night at dinner, I asked the oldest male minister (knowing how male patriarchal systems exist) to help me understand their belief about the Creation story of Genesis 1 & 2. He happily acknowledged that they did indeed believe in the young earth.

I asked him then the following question, “So if I’m hearing you correctly, what do you do with the speed of light?”
“What about it?” he asked in return. “Well,” I ventured, “if the speed of light is the distance light travels in a year, an incredibly huge distance so great it’s more easily measured in the distance traveled in a whole year, what do you do with what we’re learning from the discoveries of the Hubble Telescope? Scientists are measuring light from such remote places in the vast reaches of the universe, distances so vast it’s hard for our brains to even imagine. When they tell us the light from a certain star traveled 50,000 light years to reach us on the planet Earth, as a believer in a young earth of only 6,000 years, are you telling me that when the moment of creation occurred, God placed that light in transit at the moment of its creation 44,000 light years from the planet already streaking on its way to the Earth?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “That’s how we would do the math. God can not only create light, but God can fling the light across the universe as if it’s been headed that way for years as a result of putting each star in its place.”

I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to me they were conveniently shoe-horning the scientific world into their singular version of creation that would ignore natural phenomenon and the science used to describe what is observed. Facts were force-fit to match the worldview, not seeing the world derived from what we observe and learn about the world.

It’s tough to win an argument with the members of the Flat Earth Society and it’s tough to spend ten days criss-crossing the land of the ancient Bible with such a limited view of the world without feeling we must run our science through our Bibles, thus sanitizing the truth about the world as the Bible describes it in literalistic terms.

Thursday, February 12, is the 200th birthday for President Abraham Lincoln, a lover of truth and inquiry and faith.

It’s also the 200th birthday for the birth of Charles Darwin, the one who looked at the natural world so intently, he wrote a theory of evolution that is a good descriptor to those of us of the faith so that we might know more fully how the world has continued to grow and develop in the creation. Darwin was raised as an Anglican and later confessed being an Agnostic. By the mid-point of adulthood, he would walk his wife and children to church but not join them. Rather, he used the morning for himself to walk and think.

In  1879, a letter came to him asking if he believed in God. The writer also wanted to know if theism and evolution were compatible. He wrote back that a man, “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” He himself had never turned to atheism thus denouncing the existence of a God. Rather, Darwin became an advocate for free thought on all subjects whether it was science or Christianity.

At the end of his life, when interred at Westminster Abbey, after a long and distinguished career as a botanist and free thinker, he was embraced by the national pride of his country. Religious writers of all backgrounds praised his “noble character and his ardent pursuit of truth.”

The church has changed significantly since his death and most observably in our own time as it snuffs out open dialogue by shaming such conversations as “unfaith,” and labeling those who have an innate need to question how the world is put together or who simply color outside the lines of orthodoxy asking questions that make the pious nervous. I tend to believe the God we worship is fully capable of sitting with us in our moments of honest inquiry unworried we might ask or say something beyond what we know in the spirit of wanting to grow our faith or our knowledge (or both).
How about that? “Growing our faith or our knowledge” sounds a lot like evolution, doesn’t it?

Happy 200th Birthday Charles Darwin! May the spirit of honest inquiry continue to flourish in science and in faith.

Putting Feet to Our Prayers

February 7th, 2009

When your neighborhood becomes known as “the murder factory” for the whole state of Missouri (likely qualifying it for the whole Midwest), something has gone terribly amiss. Most by now have read the 3-part series published last week by The Kansas City Star written by reporter Tony Rizzo identifying the zip code of 64130 as the most violent zip code in Missouri. This single beleaguered area of town has recorded more than a thousand deaths in the last decade alone and produced more incarcerated killers than any other zip code in the state as a result of that violence.

Kansas City recorded 126 murders in this zip code in 2008 alone which was a 30% increase over 2007. That fact has bounced around in our church (not located in 64130) for two weeks and a good number of questions have been raised about what this means for us. “What should we do in light of these things?” seems to be the common thread of those questions and it’s the right response.

Some of you grew up in that neighborhood in happier days than now. Some of you even have relatives still living there and this kind of news was probably not news to you. In reality, it’s a neighorbhood not all that far from a high percentage of HBC members no matter where you live in metropolitan Kansas City.

Our members bounced responses around via email networks that include individual prayers, prayer walks, prayer groups and other forms of lifting to God this embattled neighborhood. I’ve seen a few suggestions that Holmeswood partner with a community church from 64130 recognizing that change must begin from within - and that “within the neighborhood” resources such as churches that are a part of that community may need outside alliances with other churches willing to be involved. I like these ideas and feel they have merit. Knowing what to do in response to our wish to help must be driven by smarts, planning and commitment.

But the biggest hindrance to our honest efforts to see changes made to make this a safer, healthier community is within us, not within our neighbors. Our Baptist heritage of piety makes it difficult for us to see any other solutions other than exercises of piety such as prayer and worship. Apart from some of our Baptist cousins such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Will Campbell, Clarence Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a handful of other Baptist prophets, our history has been short on hands-on community engagement. Our Baptist heritage has had more concern with conversions than community. Of course, the question centers on help and what kinds of help are really needed.

Lately I’ve been reading from the writings of Norman Maclean, known best for A River Runs Through It although I’d give a hearty recommendation for Young Men and Fire as well. Maclean didn’t write for the public until he was in his 70’s after a distinguished career as a professor of literature at the University of Chicago. Two stories haunted him throughout his life and prompted him to write:  the violent death of his younger brother Paul at a young age and the tragic deaths of 13 firejumpers that died in the Mann Gulch fire in Montana back in the late 1940’s.

Together with his grieving parents, Norman pondered the nature of wanting to help his younger brother who consistently resisted their help and was brutally beaten to death in a back alley in Chicago due to his addiction to gambling. Here’s an excerpt from the book in the days following Paul’s death:


He (Norman’s father who was a Presbyterian pastor in Montana) went to the door and looked out and when he came back he didn’t ask me any questions. He tried to tell me. He spoke in the abstract, but he had spent his life fitting abstractions to listeners so that listeners would have no trouble fitting his abstractions to the particulars of their lives.

“Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.”

 ”So it is,” he said, using an old homiletical transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give  any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not needed.

And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed …”

I told him, “You make it too tough. Help doesn’t have to be anything that big …”

“Do you think you help him?” he asked me.

“I try to,” I said. “My trouble is I don’t know him. In fact, one of my troubles is that I don’t even know whether he needs help. I don’t know, that’s my trouble.”

“That should have been my text,” he concluded. “We are willing to help, Lord, but what if anything is needed?”

[Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, 81-2]


So the question should be raised among us, “What can we do that would really help, not just help us feel as though we’ve done something sacrificial, but help in terms of making a difference in the lives of those who live under such conditions?”

While we surface many good options of things we can do, spiritual energies being no small thing, there are also things we can do as a people of God in this community that can make significant differences in how the community is put together and when that happens, people’s lives can be altered and hopefully enriched.

There are faith groups like ours who have joined together as a united voice willing to stand for communities like 64130 (and the many other communities who need believers to stand for them). The best one I know of is MORE2 (Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equity). Holmeswood has church friends in the form of other churches … churches like Prairie Baptist Church, pastored by Heather Entrekin, Community Church of Christ, pastored by Robert Hill, and the Crossroads Church, pastored by Jack Price - all friends of mine by pastoring churches in this KC area. These church friends are all invested in MORE2.

MORE2 (commonly called “MORE Squared”) is a coalition of churches that have determined to make a difference for the citizens of communities where a united voice by an interfaith community can get the attention of the decision-makers of this town. They’ve recently targeted the availability of health care clinics and the hiring practices of companies that are building in the area - places where equal opportunity hiring can lift a community. MORE2 is also working with city planners to encourage the placement of a grocery store where healthy food can be available for minority families. Ever notice the absence of grocery stores and other needed commerce in these kinds of communities and in their place is an abundance of liquor stores and payday loan offices? How can these families do well under those oppressive systems?

This week, go to and read about their interests. Could Holmeswood members partner with these goals? Is God calling us to participate with other faith families to determine we’ll speak into the greatest needs of the community? God may be calling you and suggesting you consider becoming a part of this community-based group in the name of this good church.

All of you know the score on the price that must be paid whenever we seek answers to big prayers … we must be open to how God might call us to actually be involved in answering the prayer. That’s why on occasion when we pray about someone’s need at our Wednesday evening prayer gatherings, I mention in the prayer that perhaps God wants to answer that particular prayer by using one of us in the life of the one we’re praying for.

“Frederick Douglass said that in the days of his slavery he often used to pray for freedom, but that his prayer was not answered until it got down into his own heels and he ran away.”

[Taken from Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer, Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1976, 28]

Makes you wonder whether we should give up praying unless we’re willing to be activists for change down in the trenches where people live …

The Way of Love … a meditation on Jesus’ call to “fish for people”

January 30th, 2009

At our best I think we’re half-hearted lovers. Even in our best moments, we love with hesitation and we place qualifications on love.

Tell me, how is it Jesus could love such an unlovable group of people as we read in the gospels? Winos and poor folks … shysters and street kids … people with issues of all kinds, “God’s little broken people,” we might even call them. Jesus challenged our limited definitions of love by offering himself as friend and companion to persons most of us would have trouble accepting. And to this world, he called us to “follow” in order that we become fishers of men and women.

That’s the problem with the vision of us modern-day followers who are commanded to love. The command to love is what “fishing for people” is all about, isn’t it? I suspect our fishing abilities are rather limited as we’re often more interested in the limits of love.

We’re more interested in placing boundaries around love because loving others is hard to do.  We say with our lips that love has no limits and cite Jesus as the example for that kind of care, but in our most honest moments, we recognize our hearts are empty of love and often full of hate and prejudice. Nevertheless, the Jesus we worship compels us to love the unlovables. We’re to love the crazies. We’re to love the despised and the destitute. We’re to fish and whatever comes up from the dark waters of life God intends us to love.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus called his first disciples. The Greek word used here expresses union, likeness, and a way. It’s used literally as they actually put down their nets and “they followed him.” But it’s not limited in that meaning because implied is a metaphorical meaning that suggests a way of discipleship.

In other words, they followed him literally wherever he went and that led them to follow every aspect of him with the desire in their hearts that they would be like him. This notion of following Christ is used 77 times in the gospels and each time but one this dual meaning is implied, both in the literal sense and in the metaphorical sense that describes our own following of Jesus in our day.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people” he tells them. Jesus called followers who were willing to go out into the world to announce the kind of good news that would set people free from their twisted and wounded selves. To all those people who had lost their way and had ruined their lives, Jesus wanted a band of women and men who believed enough in the freedom of Christ, they would be willing to love even the unlovable.

But Susan Johnson reminds us, “we cannot be fishers of men and women if in our hearts we are haters of them.” Our announcements of Christ’s love are just words blowing in the wind if they are not carried along on the actions of Christ-like loving-kindness …

Hope’s Hard Work

January 21st, 2009

We all took a step forward yesterday as our 44th President was sworn into office. With nearly two million Americans huddled against the cutting cold, it was an amazing demonstration in support of the power of our democracy. For many Americans, it was a moment many thought was still over the horizon and beyond imagination. Was it real? Will hope be reignited? Will we move forward and out of the morass of partisan politics, cynicism and despair? President Obama clearly believes we will, but not without a unification of the American people.

Listening to NPR this morning, a host of persons were interviewed yesterday by reporters. One woman said proudly, “I’m proud to be an American today, not just an African-American, but proud to be an American.” Another added, “For the first time, I feel like an American.” That kind of generous inclusive spirit has been missing from our world as the price paid for putting racism and nationalism before our God-given humanity. But black Americans are not the only ones who have suffered from oppression because all of us have paid a dear price for the ignorance and arrogance of racial segregation. All Americans have foundered under the burden of guilt and shame of 400 years of the evil of slavery and the denial of the equality of citizen rights.

When former President Jimmy Carter spoke to a college crowd last fall, he asked whether they were familiar with the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. One bright young student raised his hand and quickly answered, “It gave women the right to vote!” Carter smiled and answered kindly, “You are only partially right. The Nineteenth Amendment only gave white women the right to vote.”

I recall hearing Baptist preacher Will Campbell describe how he had alienated himself from white Southern Baptists by working to change the country’s discriminatory views of segregation during the Civil Rights Movement, something the white church of the South resisted as strongly as any social institution. But Campbell understood rightly that racism is a two-edged sword that cuts in both directions. So he made a trip to the prison where a white prisoner was held who had been the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Campbell paid a pastoral visit to this man and shared communion with him in the process. He broke the bread of Christ’s body and shared the cup of Christ’s blood with this man who had stoked the fires of hatred, fires that mercilessly tortured and killed the sons and daughters of slavery in order to intimidate them and keep them oppressed under white rule.

While he had crossed the color lines in order to work for justice and mercy on behalf of the oppressed African-Americans who had suffered from slavery and endured the stinging criticism of the conservative status quo crowd, he then took criticism from the liberal leftists who could not fathom how Campbell could minister to this son of Adam who had perpetuated the continuance of slavery’s oppression. In Campbell’s way of seeing clearly, both the oppressor and the oppressed had been injured by racism.

The election of Barack Obama to the Office of the President won’t end racism for racism is still very much with us. It’s felt every time we look upon any other person different from us and think subconsciously, “I am better than them and they are less than me.” The isms of race, economics, education, sexual orientation, and religion have always been with us.

The walls of the gulag of Guantánamo containing those who serve a never-ending sentence for crimes not identified or tried will come down, as they should. The strategy of wars being waged on two fronts will likely change and we will fight terrorism with different tactics by relying less upon military power alone. The economy that has suffered at the hands of greedy corporate con men will need attention and the American citizenry will need to consider ways in which we must share the burden of moving in a new direction.

All of those things were implied in Obama’s inaugural speech on Tuesday. Together we have crossed over into a new way of existing with the break point of change having been launched. Hopefully, the enthusiasm of this new reality will continue as the hard work of true change begins.

Taking the Road Less Traveled

December 23rd, 2008

Scott Peck said it succinctly in his groundbreaking book The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” Standing alone, admittedly these three words don’t amount to much. But with more thought we recognize how important it is we come to accept this foundational truth. Peck added to it to help us understand its simplicity, “It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.” Thus, he challenges us to think more deeply about the saying and to resist it as what he later calls the sin of “simplism.”

Later in Further Along the Road Less Traveled, he added a second line of thinking: “Life is complicated.” In this thought, Peck drew upon his wealth of knowledge about human growth as a psychiatrist and combined it with wisdom derived from a deep spiritual thirst. The result was a map to help us understand our journey more fully. I think he wanted us to understand as peaceably as possible what it means to be human on the arduous path of life. Finally he added to his trilogy on growth in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond by offering this last thought, “There are no easy answers.”

Each of those simple statements is loaded with meaning. I recommend reading him if you’ve never done so. Recently I’ve been reading The Road Less Traveled and Beyond as it’s sat on my shelves for several years and I’d never cracked it open. As a psychiatrist Peck has a gift of taking complicated psychological theories and translating them so the rest of us can understand them. As a fellow believer Peck takes what we’ve heard from our faith all our lives and fills them with new life so they speak anew to us in ways that become fresh and helpful.

I heard Dr. Peck lecture after the release of his first book and shortly after he had become a Christian. Like most new believers, the spiritual transformation from “old to new” had begun but he was not yet swallowed up in a religious attitude that had turned staid and boring. After his lecture, an arrogant youth minister took him to task for his smoking habit, something leftover from his old life. It was a weird moment that someone half his age and twice as pompous would challenge him - rather his accuser chose to ignore the wisdom to think the thought without giving words to it. After the challenger posed his question, the room went silent as Peck thought before he spoke. I liked that Peck didn’t try to dodge the question or resort to belittling his young questioner.

Instead of retaliation he spoke right into the heart of the insubordination of this young idealist who had used shame to begrudge Peck for his lifelong habit. “Cut me some slack,” Dr. Peck said to his challenger, “I’m new at faith and this is a part of my journey.”

Frankly, I thought it was a great answer and obviously honest. He was still “on his way,” and not any further down the path than where he was at he seemed to be saying. While I thought he might have been privately peeved at the umbrage of his accuser, he didn’t step outside the stream of his story of being a new believer just because someone in the back of the room was rude to him.

Peck helps us understand more deeply what is like to face our problems rather than living wishfully that our problems would simply go away. While some mask their problems by deflecting the blame onto others who inflicted them upon us, Peck chose to face his problems directly and thus helps us understand that only when we face our own situations squarely will we find productive solutions that deepen our lives. “Problems do not go away” he explains, “They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.”

We live in an anxious time these days. Some are worried about the status of jobs, of relationships or any number of other anxiety-producing concerns. Peck explains how our problems can be paths to a deeper kind of wisdom: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Thus, we are travelers on the same journey … a journey toward wholeness. The path toward wholeness doesn’t run around our problems, it runs right through them!

The Power of a Good Doolally Moment

December 17th, 2008


I just love a good “doolally” moment, don’t you? Honestly, who hasn’t acted like a doolally person every now and then and thought afterward, “Wasn’t that lovely?” I thought I knew what a doolally was about until I received today’s A.Word.A.Day published online by Anu Garg. I guessed it was a word derived from a similar silly-sounding word, “lollygaggle.” They look related, don’t they? Doolally, however, has nothing at all to do with lollygaggle. They’re so completely afar from one another as to border on the ludicrous. Doolally is an adjective meaning, “irrational, deranged, or insane.”

Maybe that’s what happened to the Iraqi news reporter who took off his shoes and threw them at President Bush the other day. How dare he become a doolally journalist thus insulting the President of the United States!

In the aftermath of an incident that occurred while Bush was saying goodbye to Iraq and the war he unleashed there but cannot seem to end, Muntader al-Zaidi, a 29-year old news journalist exploded in anger at a news conference with Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. As Bush was speaking, Muntader al-Zaidi rose and shouted angrily, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” Then he threw his shoe at the President, narrowly missing him as Bush dodged the throw.

Before Iraqi security guards could stop him, al-Zaidi shouted again, “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” He then threw his other shoe, missing high and to the left. al-Zaidi was then subdued and beaten by members of the Prime Minister’s security team who carried him from the room in only his sock-feet. Bush laughed the incident off as if this had happened to him many times before.

So was al-Zaidi behaving like a doolally person? Or was it the response of someone fully sane and expressing the sentiment of a nation that’s had enough of the rebuilding effort that’s been more of an occupation than a rebuilding? Needless to say, a storm of response has been unleashed in the Arab world. In Damascus, shop owner named Muhammad said he was on his way to celebrate the shoe-throwing incident with friends. “This is like a holiday,” he said. “This is just what we needed for revenge.”

Worried that al-Zaidi won’t be able to hire a lawyer to defend himself? More than a hundred lawyers from around the world have said they would represent him for free. Not formally charged as yet, he could face up to 7 years in prison for committing an act of aggression against a visiting head of state.

In Saudi Arabia, an American ally (sort of), a newspaper reported a man has offered ten million dollars to buy just one of al-Zaidi’s black dress shoes. Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s daughter offered him a medal of courage.

The New York Times pointed out that calling someone “son of a shoe” is one of the worst insults in Iraq. But this simple act, this doolally deed, if you will, has caused people in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City to remove their footwear and place them on the end of long poles, waving them high in the air in his honor.

Maybe al-Zaidi was simply having his doolally moment on the biggest stage available to him. Call him insane, call him rude, but chunking his shoes at the President has united the Arab world into calling him a folk hero. Who knows? Perhaps Bush should have sat down with him and listened to his complaints. Maybe he had a point worth consideration.