Thursday, June 30, 2016

And The Beat Goes On

Ken was 25 years old and just out of seminary when he with his wife, Bonita, came to our little rural church many years ago.  I was just 11 years old!  What a joy it was to visit them a few days ago.  They moved into a retirement village last year and celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago.  Ken was born and raised in an affluent family in the Bronx;  Bonita was one of eleven children from the impoverished mountains of Tennessee.  

They spent three short years in that little church and made an immense difference in many lives, including my own.  It was their “servant ministry” that first prompted the inner whisperings of the call to ministry within me.  One summer when my mother had just come home from the hospital they came to visit us.  On the back porch were three or four bushels of peaches awaiting “canning.”  Realizing that my mother would not be able to accomplish the task, they jumped right in, giving each son or daughter (six of us) a job, and canned those peaches!  That act of kindness and that kind of ministry (both words and deeds) spoke to a deep place within me.  

I was baptized, along with my father and mother and several of my siblings, during Ken’s ministry in that little church.  I recall telling Ken of my interest in the ministry back then and his response:  “Be open and search out all other professions first,” he said, “and if none of them fit you, you can be sure that your call is genuine.”  

Ken and my father--Seminary graduation
Through all the years since, through every chapter of my journey, Ken and Bonita have been there with me and for me. The full story is much too long to record here. When the whisperings concerning the ministry continued to be heard within,  it was Ken who encouraged me not to take any short-cuts in terms of education. Ken and Bonita were there when I graduated from the same seminary he had attended.  I was with him when he retired from his ministry of over 50 years.  They were with me and our family when my father died, and he officiated at my mother’s memorial service almost two years ago at the age of 85.   I was with them and they were with me just a few days ago!  I am so grateful that they came to that little rural church sixty-two years ago.

Monday, June 27, 2016


“Obscurantism is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known. There are two common historical and intellectual denotations to Obscurantism: (1) deliberately restricting knowledge — opposition to the dissemination of knowledge, and, (2) deliberate obscurity — an abstruse style (as in literature and art) characterized by deliberate vagueness.  An obscurantist is someone who actively opposes social reform and enlightenment, a type of anti-intellectual.”

Scientists the world over have affirmed “climate change” as a real and present danger, yet there are many who, in spite of the evidence, deny that it is happening.   The British pound crashed last Friday and the global markets went berserk, yet someone posted the following on FB:  “People are panicking over England voting to leave the EU. The truth of the matter is that there is no difference in the value of England's economy today than its value last week.”  Another example is the “talk” about mass killings being the work of Muslim terrorists, when most of the mass killings in the United States have been committed by non-Muslim citizens.  This is a fact—but a fact no one really wants to hear.  Obscurantism is the way we handle it—blaming terrorists responsible for one mass killing for all mass killings!

Sunset on the Mississippi
Innuendo (“an allusive or oblique remark or hint, typically a suggestive or disparaging one”) is not necessarily truth or fact, but it becomes a useful tool of obscurantism.  The post on FB about the EU economy goes on to say, “What we are seeing is a people who say that they want more freedom from government and bureaucrats…I hope the people of America start demanding the same thing.”  Oh, really?  The truth—the facts—about the UK referendum go a lot deeper than that!  The “push” to leave the EU may be more about immigrants, nativism, and a scream of defiance against history, than it is about “freedom from government and bureaucrats.”  And, here is a fact, the “government and the bureaucrats” will still be in business in the UK.

Obscurantism is so prevalent these days that the “human intellect,” the ability to think things through and study the evidence available is fading away.  God save us from such decay!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Great Delusion: Liberty (Independence)

Most of us picture our American democracy as an affluent cornucopia pouring out opportunities and privileges.  “All things are ours!” We can think freely, speak freely, do freely, and enjoy freely.  But a democracy interpreted as “the right to do as we please,” is a phony one and cannot survive.  Liberty, if taken by itself, creates irresponsible individuals.  Liberty alone, ignores what we might contribute to the nation, but rather emphasizes what we can get out of it.   President Kennedy recognized this  when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Liberty’s synonym is “independence”—my personal independence, my right to do whatever I please, without any interference from others, including the “government.”  Democracy ceases to be if there is only “liberty” (the right to do as we please) and independence (my right to do whatever I please without interference).  

There are two other words necessary for a democracy to endure: “interdependence”—for the very essence of a democracy is cooperation; and “dependence”—dependence on the world community.  To lift up independence without recognizing interdependence and dependence is one of the greatest delusions in our present situation.  It is liberty without loyalty and without loyalty (interdependence and dependence) there is no room for others, no room for compromise, no room for negotiation; it is only my personal rights that count, because all others do not count.

It took loyalty to create this democracy we are privileged to live in.  John Adams, the founding father, wrote:  “Posterity!  you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom!  I hope you will make good use of it.  If you do not, I shall repent it in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”
The USS Arizona (underwater) in Pearl Harbor

Saturday, June 25, 2016

An Exit from Reality

My thoughts and prayers this morning are focused on those in the United Kingdom who have chosen to “go back” (to wherever) and for the European Union member states who will now have to decide whether to “move forward” or “go back” (to wherever).  I also think of those in the UK who wanted to “move forward,” who voted to “remain” a part of the Union in spite of all the difficulties, risks, and unknowns involved in it.  How will they manage as a minority (in terms of vote) going back (to wherever)?  What about the young people in the UK who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the Union? There are many reasons for this great divide between those who want to go forward and those who want to go back (to wherever) in many nations today, including our own.  

After the world markets went berserk yesterday we should all know, without doubt, the truth expressed in John Donne’s poem, “No Man Is An Island.”  We are a global village and we cannot go back to some other time and ignore this fact.  (Unless, of course, you are Donald Trump, who can now attract many to his new golf course in Scotland because the “pound” has crashed).  Anti-globalism spurred Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK to seek “independence”.  Theirs was a “scream of defiance” against reality.  That is what “going back” is all about—it is an attempt to  defy history, “which is moving in the direction of a multicultural, multiglobal identity for the entire human race on a beleaguered planet.”  There is no way to escape this reality in spite of the UK’s vote to “exit” reality!  

Lake Powell, Page AZ
After World War I, the United States rejected the League of Nations with a “scream of defiance” and tried to step back from the rest of the world and reality.  Within a few years we were again engaged in a World War because we thought we could live without paying attention to and being part of the whole world. We, along with the UK, are in danger of doing that again.  

Ants are born with wings and know the wonder and the rapture of flight, but then they tear them off deliberately and live their whole lives as crawling insects on a limited piece of ground.  We are born with wings, too, wings to carry us to new heights of understanding, into new realms of human community, new vistas of peace and goodwill—but here we are deliberately tearing off our wings, going backward, defying our very nature and crawling on our own little island, attempting to divorce ourselves from that which we are called to be and to do.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Discovered: Jesus’ Own Old Testament

Did you know that we have Jesus’ own Old Testament?  Yes, we do!  It is worn and well-used, yellowed by age and much use.  He must have memorized large portions of it for he thought and spoke in its very words and phrases.  He found things in it that stood out and he marked these with a star.  He read passages through which he heard God speak to him and he underlined them.  He found other passages that encouraged him and he marked them with an asterisk. There were passages that raised questions for him and he marked these with a question mark.  He found other passages that didn’t jive with some others and attempted to determine which passage best described the God he was experiencing.  

There is little doubt that one of his favorite books was Deuteronomy.  He quoted from it often (but only parts of it).  When he was tempted each of his replies to the rebellious spirit were from that book.  He often quoted from Hosea too, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.”  He often referenced a Psalm or something from Isaiah.  He seemed to emphasize neglected passages that the religious people of his time overlooked just as we neglect them in our time.  “You have learned that our forefathers were told” and then he lifts up those neglected texts and opened deaf ears to hear them:  “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but what I tell you is this….”  

Jesus’  Old Testament is found in our New Testament, in four little segments, written long after his death, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In these gospels, we find Jesus’ Old Testament—at least we find what he found to be the most important things in his Old Testament—those things he underlined, marked with a star, an asterisk, or a question mark and shared with those who would hear him.

Glacier National Park

Thomas Jefferson read the four gospels and discovered meaningful passages which spoke to him.   As he read, he underlined certain verses, marked some with a star, and others with an asterisk, or a question mark—then he sorted them out and using those most meaningful to him, wrote down his testament:  The Jefferson Bible.

Through the years people have asked me how they are to read the Bible.  My answer was and is:  first, read it, then mark it. Underline what speaks to you, put a star alongside this verse, an asterisk along side another, a question mark by that verse, etc., and then sort the passages out and take the most meaningful to you and make that your testament. Jesus’ own Old Testament became the New Testament.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

“Oh, Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee”

Some mornings, like this morning,  the strangest things come to mind.  In 1957, the Bobbettes released their first hit song “Mr. Lee” in which the narrator proclaimed her devotion to her crush—her school teacher, Mr. Lee.  A few years before that, when I was in the seventh grade, a new English teacher came to our school by the name of Mr. Lee. 

Mr. Lee was a tall,  ruggedly handsome man, with a scar on his right cheek that gave him a stern look.  He was single, but I doubt that any of the girls had a crush on him.  He didn’t own a car and it was his habit to walk the three or so miles to school each day.  At that time very few people walked for exercise or Fitbit, and Mr. Lee’s penchant for walking seemed strange to us.  Mr. Lee walked everywhere and sometimes rather long distances.  On weekends he walked the highways and byways of our rural area and often past my home several miles outside of town. We laughed at Mr. Lee’s behavior.  We considered him a bit odd and made up stories about him.

In the classroom he was a master teacher.  I can still see him “declining sentences” on the chalk board.  He encouraged reading and helped us broaden our vocabularies.  But still we looked upon him as a bit strange.

One weekend when I saw Mr. Lee walking past our house, I went out to meet him and walked with him.  I told him about the caves down along the Walkill River and he said he’d like to see them.  So it was that I began to walk with Mr. Lee and came to know him. During one of those walks I asked him if he would be willing to help at our Boy Scout meetings.  Mr. Lee agreed and our scout troop benefited from his being with us.

Walking alongside Mr. Lee made all the difference for me.  It is amazing how we see looking from a distance—and how we see when we get up close?  Mr. Lee was a Korean War veteran and his walking was not some strange act, but his way of dealing with a leg wound he had received in the war.  Mr. Lee came into a town and a school as a stranger and “strangers” are made “strange” by those who refuse to receive them.  I learned a valuable lesson from Mr. Lee.  There are no strangers unless we make them so.    “One, two, three.  Look at Mr. Lee.  Three, four, five.  Look at him jive, Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee.  Oh, Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee!”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Our Fouled-Up Perceptions

There is a story in the Gospel of Mark that has long fascinated me.  It is the story of Jesus attempting to heal a blind man:

Then putting spittle on his eyes, and laying his hands on him, he asked, “Can you see anything?”  The man, who was beginning to see, replied, “I see people; they look like trees to me, but they are walking about”  (Mark 8:23-24, JB).

The man was able to see, he said,  but his seeing was distorted.  His view of things didn’t capture reality.  How is it that two people can look at the same thing and see it differently?  Why is it that two people, listening to another speak, hear what that person is saying in two very different ways, and neither of them really getting hold of what the person is trying to say?  Eye witnesses to a certain happening seldom see the same thing or understand it in the same way.  It would seem that we are still half-blind and our vision distorted.  Why?  Why the wide differences of opinion in Britain about whether or not to remain in the European Union?  Why the sharp distinctions in our own nation about so many things?   It has always been so—it is nothing new.  It is a matter of perception—“the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.”  Our experiences (all the way back into our childhood) and our prejudices and mixed-up learnings give us a wrong impression of what we hear and what we see.  All of us are caught up in our perceptions.  “The trees that seem like people walking about, are a blown-up picture of how we are all seeing things”  (Elizabeth O’Connor).  We do not see things as they really are.

"Bleedng Heart"
Keith Miller, in his book, “A Second Touch,” used this story from Mark’s gospel to suggest that we are all wounded people and that everything we do, see, experience, etc., is most often a distorted vision of reality, colored by our own unconscious and conscious experiences on life’s pilgrimage.  To see clearly we must deal with those things that have fouled up our perception of reality.  We need a second touch—to recover from what is now a distorted vision.

Then he laid his hands on the man’s eyes again and he was cured, and he could see everything plainly and distinctly (Mark 8:25, JB).  

It is not “them” who need a second touch.  It is each and every one of us who need a second touch in order to see reality and to connect with Love, which is at the heart of all things.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Two Sides to Every Story (Perceptions: Unspoken Givens and Shared Assumptions May Not Be…)

Where this story came from I do not know, but it speaks so well that it is worthy of sharing this morning.
“About a century ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome.  Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community.  So the Pope made a deal.  He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community.  If the Jew won, the Jews could stay.  If the Pope won the Jews would leave.

The Jews realized that they had no choice.  They looked around for a champion who would defend their faith, but no one wanted to volunteer.  It was too risky.  So they finally picked an old man named Moishe, who spent his life sweeping up after people, to represent them.  Being old and poor, he had less to lose, so he agreed. Moishe asked only for one addition to the debate rules.  Not being used to saying very much as he cleaned up around the settlement, he asked that neither side be allowed to talk.  The Pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came.  Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.  Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger.

The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head.  Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine.  Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said ‘I give up.  This man is too good.  The Jews can stay.’

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened.  The Pope said, ‘First, I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity.  He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions.  ‘Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us.  He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was also right here with us.  ‘I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.  He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin.  He had an answer for everything.  What could I do?’

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe, amazed that this old, almost feeble-minded man had done what their scholars had insisted was impossible!  ‘What happened?’ they asked.  ‘Well,’ said Moishe, ‘first, he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here.  I told him that no one of us was leaving.  Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews.  I let him know that we were staying right here.’  ‘And then,’ asked a woman.

‘I don’t know,’ said Moishe.  ‘He took out his lunch and I took out mine.’”

Monday, June 20, 2016

Empathy or Hate?

We have witnessed in recent days an outpouring of empathy in Orlando and across the country after a senseless tragedy.  Why it takes a tragic moment to call that empathy forth I do not know.  A similar outpouring of empathy has occurred in England as a result of the brutal murder of a young member of Parliament.  This empathy brings people together; it builds community, and we need desperately to exercise it not only in moments of darkness, but in all moments and for all people.  It does not take a rocket scientist to get hold of the fact that most people (even though they appear so calm and assured) have an incredible amount of tumult and pain in their lives.  Every human being is wounded.  Every human being needs someone to love them, listen to them, care for them, not superficially, but with the deepest empathy (“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”).

Simultaneously, both here and in Britain, the very opposite of empathy (indifference, hatred, disagreement, discord, disunity, apathy, misunderstanding, unfeelingness) continues to run rampant (even though, in England, the “Get Britain Out” campaign has been suspended for a time).  One English journalist wrote:  

“Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realize any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.”

Yes, we are all wounded (it is universal) and our wounds are revealed in our perceptions of reality.  Our wounds may be revealed in our fear, anger, lack of trust, our mixed-up values, our prejudices, our hates, and our self-centeredness. How we perceive the world around us makes all the difference.  Is this a friendly world or is everyone out to do us in?  Empathy or apathy?  Empathy or hate? 

We need more beautiful (how be it “wounded”) people in our world as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross reminds us.  “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Hodge Podge

Father’s Day brings back memories of my Dad.  I wonder where he went to “Parenting School?”  As far as I know, there were no such schools back then, but he must have had some kind of sound training in parenting (perhaps from my grandfather?).  Dad did a good job as a father.    He worked day and night (literally) to provide for his brood of seven children. What a treat it was for me and my siblings to get a 5-cent Hershey candy bar when Dad brought in the groceries on a Friday night.  Not every Friday—but some!  Little things mean a lot, and the “meaning” grows as the years slip by.  

A few days ago I wrote about “inclusive prejudice” where we tend to lump individuals into a group.  The examples I used were Islam, Refugees and Mexicans.  There is another side of inclusive prejudice that I failed to mention.  We tend to lump  all fathers in an inclusive group on Father’s Day.  Lumping all fathers as one group is just as bad as lumping all Muslims or refugees together as a group.  Some fathers have failed at being fathers!  Some fathers have not been good to their children! We do the same with our law enforcement—most police officers are genuinely faithful to their duty—others abuse it.  There are bad apples among all groups.  It is a mistake to just simply lump them all into one basket and say they are all good or they are all bad!

Rufus Jones wrote about “The Gospel According to You,” suggesting that this “fifth Gospel” is one written out of one’s own experience, full of things just as wonderful and exciting as anything in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  As I turn the pages of “My Gospel” this morning, I remember the moment I sensed the call to ministry and what the response to that call has meant over the years.  I see once again the dark days, when God brought light; the difficult days, when God encouraged; the good days, when God danced along side of me.  It really is “Good News” no matter how much I have frustrated all that God has dreamed and still dreams for me. 

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.

I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Father’s Day Joy

William Hazlitt, a 19th century literary critic wrote of Wordsworth’s poetry:  “He sits at the center of his own being; he does not waste a thought on others; he thrusts aside all other subjects, all other interests, with impatience, to unfold the precious stones of a mind ever brooding on itself.”  

How many of us live such an island life, absorbed with our own affairs and little else?  Many are unaffected by what happens outside the narrow borders of their own lives.  Many draw a curtain around their cozy little world and are scarcely aware of the difficulties and issues of those around them.  Even a nation can live this kind of island life, concerned only with itself and shutting out those who are frantically dealing with starvation, disease, and the ravages of war.  In a world of social media and instantaneous “breaking news” on TV, many still live isolated in their own living rooms.  They shake their heads and say, “Oh, what a terrible world out there,” without any sympathy, tears,  concern, or urge to “feel” the pain and agony of it all.  Few feel as Walt Whitman felt, when he wrote, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments.  I do not ask the wounded person how he feels.  I myself become the wounded person.  And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral dressed in his shroud.”

Jesus says that humanity only becomes “whole” when it widens its sympathies and enlarges its territory.  Isaiah, long ago, told us that we grow and thrive only when we reach out to take others into “our family.”  The Apostle Paul suggests that no man [person} lives for himself alone (or a nation).  John Donne tells us “No man is an island, entire unto itself.”  “Me first” or “America first” is a contradiction of the concepts of a “neighborhood,” a “global village,” a “world community”—it is a contradiction of the Gospel.

Some mornings in this retirement chapter of my life, I feel like I’m falling into an island lifestyle, “a mind ever brooding on itself.”  I resist it and I fight against it by taking time to intercede on behalf of those I know, those I do not know, and for the world as a whole, so full of  hurt and breaking hearts. Today, my son, his wife, and my grandson are on their way to spend a week in Appalachia to help fix somebody’s home.  In the process of doing that, they will touch and be touched by “their neighbors” in the mountains.  It brings great joy to this father’s heart to know that his son and his son’s family refuse to live on an island.

Enlarge the limits of your home
spread wide the curtains of your tent
Let out its ropes to the full

and drive the pegs home (Isa. 54:2, NEB).

Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Is God So Quiet?

In these tumultuous days of crises after crises, with the noisy sounds of hate, fear, and bigotry so loud and constant, I feel the need to make noise against it, to speak out as loud as I can to protest it.  I cannot keep silent.  But I wonder this morning why God is so silent!  Has anyone heard  any noise from God lately?  O, I know someone will say that amid the earthquakes, winds, and fires ravaging the world, God moves like a still, small voice, but that is precisely what is troubling me.  Why doesn’t God speak up?  Why should injustice and evil make all the noise, and Love always be a still, small voice?  This question is bugging me this morning and my mind churns….

Photo by Nancy Reynolds
We are sensitive to noise.  It gets our attention.  A baby cries and immediately gets mother’s attention.  What motivates the mother: the crying (noise) or her deep love and care for her child? She speaks to her child with a still, small voice, perhaps hums a quiet lullaby, or simply holds her baby close.  The crying (noise) eventually fades away.  Does God have to respond to noise with  more noise?  Or does God react to the noise the way a loving mother reacts to her baby’s cry?  

Noise is momentary. All that made noise in ancient Israel is gone, even the great Temple of which they boasted, but the faith of the psalmists and the insights of the prophets have not vanished.  They live on.  All that made noise in first-century Palestine is gone, and the only thing that causes anyone to think about it these days is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who made little noise in his time.  (I wonder if Jesus had come in our time if he would have made enough noise to be “breaking news” on the networks)? All that made noise in ancient Greece is gone, but the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the works of Plato have not gone.  All that made noise in ancient Rome has vanished, the great coliseum where once gladiators fought and Christians martyred is a crumpled pile of stones, the Caesars dead and gone, but the works of Ovid, Vergil and Horace remain.   It would appear that the really important and enduring things are often the quiet things.
Noise dominates or so it seems.  But I think of all the great personalities of the past (Augustine, St. Francis,  St. Teresa of Calcutta, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who said they heard a still, small voice, and with little noise or clamor, obeyed that voice.  They made a quiet difference that lingers on.  Maybe I should make less noise?  Or does the still, small voice bid me make more noise?

“Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways….Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm.”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Strangers and Pilgrims

Human beings were not created good, or perfect, or programmed.  Human beings were created free.  This, for me, is what it means when we say human beings were created in the image of God.  God is free and God made us free.  We are free to choose love or hate, free to choose God’s way or our way, we are free to be!

The Bible is the story of this “free human being” who chose to be other than God wanted him/her to be.  The biblical story is the record of what God did to win that free creature back—the story of the Lover seeking the beloved.  God’s dream is that of a “friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky,”  where human beings choose love, community, peace, etc. 

Will this dream ever become reality (the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of God)?  Who knows?  My calling is to dream the dream of God and to work for its fulfillment in my small corner of this broken world.  Do I think hate will cease and wars end?  Do I believe that the world is going to become better and better and someday God will congratulate us on bringing God’s dream to fruition.  Of course not!  Quite the contrary is true.   Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and all the rest of the New Testament personalities never seriously considered human perfectibility in this world.  Rather it seems, they saw this life as preparation, the training-ground, the place where God begins God’s work of loving us, wooing us (in our freedom) to become all God means for us to be.

Zion National Park
We are told (in the New Testament) again and again not to value this world as our home.  Neither our security nor our true wealth is rooted in this passing life.  We are strangers and pilgrims and, while we are under the pressure of God’s dream to do all that we can to help bring that dream to reality, we do not expect a world which is now largely Love-resisting to become some earthly paradise.  The World Beyond penetrates this world in which we live and from which we shall someday go—and that  World Beyond is our home.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

George and Me

Nine years ago today, I conducted the funeral service of George B. Prettyman, Jr well-known teacher, author and newspaper columnist of Zion, Maryland, who died at the age of 94.  George came to Zion when he was five years old (when his father was appointed pastor of the Zion Methodist Church) and George stayed on in Zion for eighty-plus years.  I was appointed pastor of Zion Methodist Church in 1968 and George took me under his wing and kept me there for nearly forty years.  I remember George being hospitalized several times during my time at Zion.  When I would visit him in the hospital the nurses thought I must be his son, because they saw some similarity in looks.  George told them that if they looked closely they would know better,  “I have the big ears,” he said, “and he has big feet.”

George helped me through a difficult graduate school thesis project back then.  I received an A on the thesis and the professor said it ought to be published.  The professor didn’t know that the thesis was written “by George” (which is how George signed off on each of his weekly “Rural Ramblin’s” newspaper columns for over fifty years).

George Prettyman helped a good many people write their life’s story through his teaching, writing, friendship, encouragement and counsel.  I’m grateful to be just one of the many.  Someday, I keep saying, I need to write down this story of George and me.  But how could I do that without George around to help me?  (The following message explains…)

“This is from Me-George to Me-Hal:
Now, the old English teacher comes out in me now and then and I am doing this, not to criticize you, but to help you with the only grammatical stumble I ever see you make.  You use the word ‘for Cher and I.’ Delete Cher from that line—not from your life, however—and read the line.  ‘Would you say ‘for I?’  That’s the test.  ‘Me” is the object of the preposition ‘for’ in this case—not ‘I.’  I know you know this already.  I am only trying to reinforce what you already know but have allowed to become ‘rusted.’  I hope you understand the ‘old teacher’ who is just trying to keep your grammar totally clean.”  (Later, that same day) “I am sorry I have the audacity to correct your grammar.  I who can’t type well nor spell worth a hoot!  I am ashamed of me.  I ask your forgiveness.”

Two large notebooks in my study contain forty-years of letters, emails, columns, and other stuff “by George.”  Every once in a while I’ll pull one out and look through it.  Each time I do that, as I did this morning, I miss George!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Inclusive Prejudice

When Phillip went to his friend Nathaniel to tell him about a new acquaintance, a man named  Jesus, Nathaniel asked, “Where is he from?”  Phillip replied, “He’s from Nazareth.”  Nathaniel (a man without guile, Jesus would later say) responded, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”  Nathaniel, you see,  had a prejudice against all Nazarenes.  Why?  Perhaps he had had bad dealings with someone from that town, or maybe he had just heard things about them.  Who knows?  I do wonder what prompted his inclusive contempt?  Nathaniel did not think  of the men, women, and children of Nazareth as persons, he just lumped them all together and tagged them all with one label and despised them all.  Nathaniel’s inclusive prejudice is a classic example of the kind of prejudice that curses our country today.

A Smoldering Volcano (Hawaii)
Many people today are subscribing to an inclusive prejudice with reference to Islam, Syria, refugees, Mexicans (you name the group) without recognizing either the public menace in it or its implicit denial of the American Dream or its implicit denial of every basic Christian idea of God and man.  

Hitler sought a new world order based on this kind of group prejudice—anti-Semitism.  The cost of that prejudice—the death of millions in concentration camps.  For God’s sake, don’t be a Nazi!  

In 1940, William Temple, later the Archbishop of Canterbury, made the following statement:  “The spirit in which we fight matters more than our winning.  If we go Nazi and then win, it will be the same for the world as if the Nazis win.  But if we keep charity alive with courage, our victory will be a boon to mankind and our defeat would be a redemptive agony.”  We need to heed that admonition right now because the growth of certain Nazi elements in America is appalling—and one of these is inclusive prejudice.

No matter what the emotional provocation may be, to lump a whole race, a certain group of people, a religion, or a nation in an inclusive prejudice and hatred is as ignorant and insane as it is unchristian. Something good came out of Nazareth. 

Diagnoses Before Prescription

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  (Mark Twain)

David Grayson, an essayist of the early 20th century and author of The Friendly Road, which I mentioned some weeks ago, also wrote a little book called Adventures in Solitude.  In this book he writes of being seriously ill and hospitalized for several months.  Reflecting on that experience he wrote:

“As I thought during those long days, it seemed to me that the hospital cherishes a spirit, or an attitude, that the Church sadly lacks.  I felt in it a respect for the human body and for human life beyond that in the Church, as it stands today, for the spirit of man.

The hospital diagnoses before it prescribes; the Church prescribes before it diagnoses.  The physician stands humble before the human body, studies it, doubts about it, wonders at it; labors to fit his remedies to the exact disease.  Is there in any church an equivalent humility in the presence of the spirit of man?  Is the priest willing to inquire and doubt and wonder?  Does he/she know before trying a cure?  Must the Church cultivate certainty lest knowledge turn and rend it?”

Hospitals may have changed since Grayson’s time, but his comment, “the Church prescribes before it diagnoses” has not changed.  There are those who will immediately come to the defense of the Church and say that the Church holds a divine prescription as well as a divine diagnosis.  Well, that may be true, but the souls of men and women are delicate, fragile, and complex and their spiritual needs (or any other needs they have) are never going to be met by a mass prescription.  (Fact, Truth, Reality, before pronouncements)

Today, it seems to me, it is not only the Church which “prescribes before it diagnoses.”  The news media, the social media, and society as a whole has developed this tendency.  People cannot be lumped together—each person is unique, each is complex—diagnosis is necessary before we prescribe.
The rapids of life are experienced differently by each of us,
even though we are in the same raft.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hope Abides

My inner spirit is overshadowed this morning by the tragedy in Orlando.  My heart goes out to those slain and to their families and friends, to the people of Orlando, and those who serve that community, and to the perpetrator and his family.  

There is a phrase from the Psalmist that I use often in my prayers:  “Do not disappoint my hope.” My hope is in God’s dream.   That dream is that one day we shall live together as brothers and sisters, regardless of all the labels used to define us, and that we will love one another.  That hope is embedded in all of us in one form or another and we can readily see it budding each time some tragedy occurs.  Most people (as in Orlando) bond together, weep together, and hold one another.  This is simply a prelude to the dream’s fulfillment.  We are, we can, and we will, really be brothers and sisters someday.   There are always some, however, who disappoint my hope and what I believe to be God’s dream by reacting in contrary ways and I fervently pray today “do not disappoint our hope,”  do not frustrate the dream. 

In the midst of a senseless tragedy it is sometimes difficult to see “Love at the heart of all things.”  Indeed, I’m struggling with that this morning.  Albert Einstein was once asked, “What is the most important question you can ask of life?”  Einstein answered, “Is the universe a friendly place or not?”  I believe it is a friendly place in spite of—that is the one thing I cling to—it is my hope.  “Oh, God, please do not disappoint my hope.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thinking About Miracles

Science tells us there are natural laws that govern both physical and human nature.  Man cannot break these laws and God does not break them (at least not very often).  This scientific idea is the basis of everything we think and do these days, and it has led to a popular “dogmatic” notion that if miracle means breaking or suspending natural laws, then miracles just can’t happen.  This attitude really goes against the grain of true scientific inquiry.  Science is not a closed system.  It believes that the impossible may turn out to be true and the incredible may become fact. It has happened many times in the realm of science. If a cure for cancer is impossible then why bother to continue research for a cure?  Indeed, a cure for cancer would be an incredible thing and considered a miracle, a true breakthrough.  

Now if science is able to use the processes of natural law to do the marvelous and the amazing, the unpredictable and the unexpected, to unveil the mysteries and to transform life, how silly of us to make the assertion that God cannot do the same with the laws God has ordained to hold the universe together.  It is a wholly unscientific idea!  Science, when true to itself, is not a set of dogmas, but an open-ended method always willing to reach new conclusions in the light of new evidence.  Science knows that whatever present knowledge we have now is at best fragmentary.

Now if knowledge is fragmentary (as true science admits—and religions ought to do the same) then it may be a mistake for us to think that we live in a closed system of impersonal natural laws.  It is thinkable (and reasonable) that there could be invasions into this world of natural law.  To believe that God cannot affect events in the world or that God is not superior to what we call natural law is worse than no belief at all!  To even consider that God may exist means we are entering a world beyond natural law—the world of the supernatural.

To reject the idea that the impossible may be possible and the incredible could be, to reject revelation and the unpredictable will leave us prisoners in a closed system.  Just as without a vision a people will perish, so without a sense of the miraculous, we will lose hope.  Scripture reports that Jesus could do no mighty works in a certain town because of their unbelief.  Is that why we are missing the miraculous?  

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thinking of the Children to Come

In the Old Testament (Judges 13) a man named Manoah and his wife are visited by an angel who told them they were going to have a son.    Manoah’s response to that promise finds an echo in me this morning and probably in every person the world over.  Manoah prayed, “O Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again unto us, and teach us what we shall do unto the child that shall be born.”  What are we, the world over,  going to do to the children that shall be born?

In this nation and throughout the world sons and daughters are being born.  In war-torn Afghanistan, Syria, and Somali, there are children yet to be born.  What are we going to do about these children?  There is something universal about a little child whatever the race or nationality.  A newborn baby is not yet an American or a Russian, not yet a Muslim, Jew or Christian.  The newborn child is a new piece of humanity not yet tainted by false labels or enslaved by them.  Who knows or cares into what nation or race or religion a child is born?  What will we do with the child?

When Jesus’ disciples were discussing who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God, Jesus placed a little child in the midst of them, a teachable, humble, open-minded child with the possibilities of growth, and said,“Except you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Another time Jesus talked about what it means to welcome the Divine into our lives as a guest of our souls, and he said, “Whoso shall receive one such little child…receives me.”

In this catastrophic world with its wars and hates, a little child seems pathetically small, but in our intelligent moments we know he/she is not.  The child of today and the child of tomorrow are the future tense of our world.  The love of children is a universal bond that across all racial, religious and national barriers makes all of us brothers and sisters.  If we can’t buy into God’s Dream as a reality, at least, I hope, we can join Manoah in prayer, “Oh, Lord,…teach us what we shall do unto the child that shall be born.”

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ringing the Bell

There is a remarkable story told by Harry Emerson Fosdick about the College of William and Mary in Virginia.  The school was damaged and closed during the Civil War.  When the war was over the college opened for a short time, but for some reason it was necessary for it to close again for a period of seven years. But every morning during those seven years the President rang the chapel bell.  There were no students, no faculty, all the buildings were empty, the campus desolate.  But President Ewell still rang the bell!  Why?  He rang the bell every morning as a way of sending a message:  "Despite this present situation, the intellectual life will come back again and fill these empty halls with reality once more and be a dynamic power."  

This morning I’m thinking about how my vocation through the years has been about “ringing the bell.”  Whether anyone heard the bell or paid any attention to it’s ringing made no difference then and it makes no difference now.  It is my duty and joy (I can do no other) to ring the bell; to send the message: “Love is at the heart of all things.”

Hope is a form of faith and produces what it sees.  Despair is a form of faith, too, and it tends to produce what it sees.  What do you see when confronted with a problem?  Do you see new possibilities growing out of the struggle or do you give way to cynicism and despair?  Hope hangs in; despair quits.

What if Moses had quit after the eighth plague in the story of the Exodus?  No one could have blamed him.  Pharaoh wouldn’t budge even after the waters of the Nile had been turned to blood, the frogs, the lice, the flies, the disease that killed the livestock, the boils, the hail and the locust swarms.  It must have seemed to Moses that nothing was going to work.  He had every cause to despair—and to quit!  But Moses stood his ground with hope and after just two more “plagues” Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew slaves.

Do you live in hope or despair?  Don’t quit! Choose hope!  Hang in there!