Sunday, June 30, 2019

Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

I’m feeling a bit of mild melancholy this morning.  I have a “feeling of pensive sadness”…without any obvious cause.”  Perhaps, though,  this “feeling” began at the funeral service yesterday for a dear friend for over 45 years.  (I officiated at the weddings of her two daughters, baptized her grandchildren, attended her 75th birthday party, etc.  She died at the age of 96). She served in the U.S. Navy from 1945 to 1958—and she was one of the first six enlisted women to be sworn into the Regular Navy on July 7, 1948.  Her husband, also in the Navy, was lost at sea on the USS Scorpion in 1968.  Military funeral honors were rendered by the local American Legion Post and representatives of the U.S. Navy, complete with the three-volley salute, the playing of “Taps,” and the presentation of the flag to her family “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

My pensive (thoughtful, thinking, reflecting, musing) mood probably started there.  It led me later in the day to recall all those funerals I’ve officiated where military honors were rendered.  More than that, this pensive mood led me to remember the men and women so honored.  They were more than veterans, they were more than parishioners, many of them were my friends.  I visited them in their homes, in hospitals, in their joys and in their griefs, in their good times and in their bad times. We were comrades who shared a common bond—our military service—some of us in peacetime and some in times of war.

Bob, Alfred, Ray, Byron, Jack, Larry, Ernie, Bud, and Willard gathered together one Veteran’s Day  (2002, maybe) for a photo.  Most of them had served in WWII and/or the Korean War era.  They are all deceased now—I officiated at each of their funerals—where military honors were rendered for their service and a flag presented to their family “on behalf of a grateful nation.” 

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now my friends are dead and gone…
Phantom faces in the window,
Phantom shadows on the floor,
Empty chairs at empty tables 
where my friends will meet no more.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Unfinished Business

In a world of such wonder as ours is, why should it seem incredible that the loving purpose of the Living God for us should cease when our life in this world comes to an end?  

The Apostle Paul wrestled with this question and ended up saying:  “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, not height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Disappointing as human life may be, and often is, it seems always to be an unfinished business.  It makes one wonder if there isn’t something more to it than just living out three-score and ten years or more.  Even in ancient times, men and women had an inkling that something else was in store for them.  They did not know what—it was a mystery—and it still is.  But, just in case, the Egyptian pharaohs went ahead prepared—their tombs included the things they thought they might need should their “inkling” turn out to be true.

Emerson wrote in his journal:  “If a man carefully examine his thoughts he will be surprised to find how much he lives in the future.  His well being is always ahead.  Such a creature is probably immortal.” 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Two Important Gifts

Baron Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925)  is visiting with me this morning.  He has been a mentor and friend (through the written word) for over fifty years.  He wrote a number of books, including The Reality of God and Mystical Elements of Religion.  His writing is not easy to read and I’ve been wading through his writing for years. In spite of that, von Hugel has helped me in two specific ways.

The first thing von Hugel helped me understand is that my religious experience is not the norm or the only “right” experience.  Other people have their own unique spiritual experiences and those experiences will most likely be unlike my own, but no less real.  Therefore, I must never try to shape other souls to be like my own.  “One is enough,” Ralph Waldo Emerson warned a teacher  who sought to stamp his pupils with his own signet, attempting to make them carbon-copies of himself.  Von Hugel often repeated the final sentence of a lecture on Ignatius of Loyola, to make this point: “this think, my dear brethren, is St. Ignatius’ way to heaven:  and thank God, it is not the only way.”  

My way is not the only way, nor is my way your way. One of “me” is enough!  One of “you” is probably enough too!  We must avoid attempting make others carbon copies of ourselves, or to allow others to make us carbon copies of who they are.  This is true in all matters and not just in the realm of religion.  

The second way von Hugel helped me was by encouraging me to spend a little time each day reading a devotional book.  His favorites were the Bible,  St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a’Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  (There are, of course, many other religious classics  ranging from John Donne’s Devotions, Thomas Kelly’s, A Testament of Devotion, John Woolman’s Journal,  to William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life).  

Such devotional reading is “to lift the sights…It is to reengage the soul in its divine vocation.  It is read in the hope that some phrase or line in it may single out the reader’s condition, may be an occasion in which God may speak to him, may perhaps convict him of sin or of untilled ground in his life that he has been reserving, or may lure him on in something that may have long since been undertaken but that is lagging.”

Von Hugel wrote to his niece, “Such reading is, of course, meant as directly as possible to feed the heart, to fortify the will—to put these into contact with God—thus, by the book, to get away from the book, to the realities it suggest…”. Then he adds, But I would not exceed fifteen minutes at any one time; you would sink to ordinary reading if you did.”  

How grateful I am for these gifts given by Baron von Hugel. He reminds me, with his visit this morning, how important these two gifts have been in my journey.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Dance Then...Wherever You May Be

Liz was my next door neighbor and every time I walked down the street to the church building, we exchanged greetings.  She was not a church-goer, but she was always friendly and neighborly and liked to tell me the kind of stories church members would never tell the preacher.  In the beginning I think she was just trying to “egg” me on and hoping to make me blush.  She was Liz—everywhere!  No phoniness, no mask, no game-playing, she was just who she was.  She played the piano and often times as I walked past her home in the evenings and heard her music, I would go up on her porch and do a little dance.  She got quite a kick out of the “preacher” dancing on her porch and later as we became good friends, she would say, “I don’t know how you ever became a preacher!”  I took that as one of the greatest compliments anyone could possibly give me.  (By the way, I don’t like the words “preacher, reverend,” etc).

You see, preachers (including me) and church people often exhibit dullness.  We cover up our real selves and become Pharisees, Sadducees, and staid religious folk (sometimes just on Sundays—and sometimes all the time). I know this to be true because I have been caught up in it myself from time to time. Liz was Liz all the time and she was fun to be around just because she was Liz.  

Jesus said that his message was “living water;” living water dances, it flashes, it ripples, it sings!  Contemporary followers of Jesus seem to have a lot of trouble with “living water!” Remember how those who first saw him reacted to him?  They turned away from him because he wasn’t the “religious type.”  They couldn’t figure out how he ever became a preacher.  He broke all the rules!  And though sad, it is true, religious people ever since have sought to bring Jesus (and his followers) into conformity with their supposed “religious person” stereotype.  Jesus’ message to us is the gospel, the shout of good news:  and good news makes for a party, where people dance,  laugh, sing, and celebrate. Somehow that good news has become garbled, distorted, and overshadowed.  We have become dull!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

“First” and “Second” Churches

I’ve spent most of my life within some expression of the Christian Church—first, in the Baptist Church and then in the Methodist Church.  In the military I was categorized as a Protestant Chaplain, as opposed to a Catholic Chaplain or a Jewish Chaplain.  But, chaplains are meant to be chaplains to all—of any faith or of no faith at all.  I preferred this ministry of being a priest for any and all far more than my ministry within the confines of a congregation, and still do.  With the exception of one congregation with a few African Americans, all the congregations I served as a pastor were white, just like the one I grew up in.

Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:  “A racially segregated church is in my judgment wickedly unchristian any way.  To profess devotion to the task of winning all races and nations to Christ and then to shut out those thus Christianized from our fellowship is downright apostasy.”  I don’t think any person who takes the Christian faith seriously can argue this point.  Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

When I was 14 years old, I invited my friend Tony (Tony and his sister were the only black students in our public school) to the youth fellowship meetings at my church.   No one objected.  But when I invited Tony to attend Sunday morning worship with me, one of my former “Sunday school teachers” came to me and said something to this effect:  “This is the First Baptist Church; there is a Second Baptist Church in his neighborhood, which is where your friend belongs.”  I shall never forget that encounter nor the reactions of others in that congregation to Tony’s presence.  So, one might ask, why did I continue in the church?   That’s a good question.  Perhaps like Peter, I was led and carried where I did not want to go (John 21:18).

“First” and “Second” churches—“Third” and “Fourth” churches abound—a “wickedly unchristian” situation.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

God's Will

What is God’s will?  Does God have a plan for me, for you, and for our world?  And if God has a plan can we know what that plan might be?  Or, is God’s will a flexible will, like my own?  In other words, is God’s will so fixed that it is inflexible and absolute or can God change His/Her mind?  Or is it absurd to try to change the will of God?  If so, why do we bother to pray?  William Stringfellow wrote, “It is the essence of human sin for man to boast of the power to discern what is good and what is evil and thus be like God.”  I suspect that would apply to any attempt by any of us to say that we can discern God’s will.  

Many presume to know the will of God—to know what God wants—to know what God is “for” and what God is “against.”   Where do they get such knowledge?  They get it from the Bible, or so they say, and they usually have a “chapter and verse” to substantiate their claim of knowing “God’s Will.”

Was it God’s will that my father die at the age of 82?  Was it God’s will that a young man die in an automobile accident after a night of drinking?  Was it God’s will that a young woman develop a brain tumor and die?  Is it God’s will that a mother give birth to a mentally or physically disabled child? Is it God’s will that some develop cancer and others do not? So many presume they know when they say, “It is God’s will.”  What kind of a God would that be?   Or they might presume to say, “It was his/her time,” as if God has already determined what will be!  Are we predestined to live the life we live? What kind of God is that?

Is God “against” homosexuality?  Is God only “for” heterosexual people?  Is God “against” this group or that group and only “for” some special group of people?  Those who presume to know (including the Church) presume too much.  

My presumption is that God is like Jesus, and if so, the assumptions about what is or is not God’s will are all turned upside down!

Monday, June 24, 2019

On Prayer

I pray because Christ prayed.  When I pray I am following His example and His teaching.  He encouraged his followers to pray.  Jesus prayed at every crisis in His journey.  He prayed on the cross:  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”  He prayed all night long before choosing the Twelve disciples.  He prayed in the Garden:  “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; take this cup away from me.  Yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”  He prayed for Simon Peter, “Simon, Simon,…I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”  He prayed that we all might all be one as He and His Father were one.  Jesus prayed, His followers prayed, and, therefore, we pray.

It is immediately apparent in the Gospel that many prayers are not answered affirmatively or at all.  Jesus prayed for the cup to be taken away from Him—it was not!  He prayed for Simon, but the sad truth is that Peter’s faith did fail.  He prayed that we might be one—but we are far from being unified either in the Christian community or in the world!   I’ve prayed for many things over the years—most of those prayers have gone unanswered or unfulfilled.  (Looking back I’m so very thankful many of them received no response).

When prayers go unanswered or are ignored we often say it was not in God’s plan or God will.  The truth of the matter, if we think at all, is that God’s will is not being done in my life or in the world.  God probably has a will for my life, but  I know I have frustrated that plan time and time again in my willfulness, stubbornness, and freedom.  Can anyone say that it is God’s will for things to be as they are in this world?  

Prayer is not telling God what to do; it is telling God what we “think we need.”  Prayer is not an effort to change God’s will, but to promote God’s will, whereas without our prayer it might be frustrated.  Prayer is not a matter of fancy words, or telling God what’s up in my life or somebody else’s, or in the world—for God already understands our hearts, our sins, our motives, our regrets.  “There is not a word on my tongue, but , lo, O Lord, thou knowest it all together” (Psalm 139:4).

Prayer is communion with Jesus’ Father.  It is a relationship—and not a one-sided one.  It is, and is meant to be, a dialogue—a conversation with the Living God.  That’s something really special—not the answer received or not received as a result of prayer—but the very act of prayer itself.

Sunday, June 23, 2019


In 1623, English poet John Donne, wrote, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man (person) is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Donne was comparing people to countries and arguing for “the interconnectedness of all people with God.“  Donne meant all people, not just Jews alone, or Christians alone, or Muslims alone, but all people.  Long before Donne, Jesus said the same.  Donne, living in the 17th century, suggested that no one suffers alone, and being aware of another’s pain only makes us stronger and more able to live.  Donne was talking about “community.”  Is anyone talking about “community” these days?  

“The painful, fearful, wonderful message of the modern world,” wrote Elizabeth O’Connor (singing the refrain of Jesus and John Donne) “is that we are members one of the other, and that we cannot live if we are not in communion with each other,”   Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote about the creation of the beloved community as the only hope for mankind (not just for Christians, not just for Jews, not just for Muslims, not just for white, or black or brown people, citizens or migrants, but for all people).  

Jean Vanier, in his book “Community and Growth” writes that one of the most meaningful passages in the Bible is Hosea 2:23:  “And I will say…’You are my people;’ and he shall say ‘Thou art my God.’”  Jesse Jackson delivering a speech some years ago, said “My people are humiliated.”  Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, “My people are hungry.”  “My people” is the hallmark of the beloved community—whether we are near of far away—all are “my people”—my brothers and sisters, and they are written within us.  We are to carry them, and they, us.  “My people” means that they are mine as I am theirs. 

Community is created when we make the transition from “a community for myself” to “myself for the community,” when each person’s heart is opening to all others, without exception.  It is a movement from egoism to love, from death to resurrection; it is Easter, the passover of the Lord.  

Is anyone talking about “community” these days?  “No man is an island, entire of itself; every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”  No nation is an island, entire of itself…every nation is part of the main….

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A Good-Natured Pessimist

It is easy to become a pessimist these days.  I am trying hard not to become one by reading Mark Twain—one of the great pessimists.

Mark Twain wrote about the “The Nightmare of History” before the end of the 19th century.  He had come to a place where he began to think that the brotherhood of man (community) was unattainable; that man’s desire for power was stronger than his desire for love; that selfishness, not altruism, determined human actions.  His historical vision was a cyclical one, similar to the view held by Henry Adams and others of his time. 

Twain saw the history of mankind as a nightmare, a nightmare of repetitious events—endlessly repeating itself—“mankind struggling out of ignorance and slavery to gain freedom and knowledge, only to be led by its own cowardice and greed into fooling away its chances and being returned to its chains.”  He wrote in his notebook in 1867:  “Fame is a vapor—popularity an accident—the only earthly certainty oblivion.”  

Mark Twain was not only a pessimist in terms of world history, but also wrote about the nightmare side of his own personal history.  He saw his own history as a “foolish dream” in which he himself had arrived at a place of desolation:  “Old Age, white-headed, the temple empty, the idols broken, the worshippers in their graves, nothing left but You, a remnant, a tradition, belated fag-end of a foolish dream, a dream that was so ingeniously dreamed that it seemed real all the time; nothing left but You, center of a snowy desolation, perched on the ice-summit, gazing out over the stages of that long trek and asking Yourself ‘would you do it again if you had the chance?’”

How did such a pessimist ever become a great humorist (“the greatest humorist this country has ever produced”)—one who made people laugh at the world’s shenanigans and their own?  Perhaps some of his own comments about humor will help us understand:

“Humor is a great thing, the saving thing after all.  The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

“Humor is the good-natured side of truth.”  

I’m trying, as hard as I can, to avoid being a pessimist, but if I end up being a pessimist, I want  to be a good-natured one.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Trouble In the Amen Corner

Mark Twain in his satire “The Second Advent” writes about an “Indignation Committee.”  Every church community has one, though it may not be called by that name.  The following song written by Archie Campbell and made popular by country music singer Porter Wagoner popped into my head because it illustrates how the “Indignation Committee” often gets things done.

“It was a stylish congregation you could see they’d been around.  And they had the biggest pipe organ of any church in town.  But over in the Amen Corner of that church sat Brother Ira and he insisted every Sunday on singing in the choir.  His voice was cracked and broken, age had touched his vocal cords and nearly every Sunday he’d get behind and miss the words.  Well, at last the storm cloud burst and the church was told in vine that Brother Ira must stop his singing or the choir was gonna resign.

So the pastor appointed a committee.  I think it was three or four and they got in their big fine car and drove up to Ira’s door.  They found the choir’s great trouble sittin’ in an old arm chair and the summer’s golden sunbeams lay upon his snow white hair.  Said York, we’re here dear Brother with the best res approbation to discuss a little matter that affects the congregation.  Now it is our understanding when we bargained for the choir, that they were to relieve us, that is, they’d do the singin’ for us.  Now we don’t want no singin’ except what we’ve bought.  The newest tunes are all the rage the old ones stand for nought.  And so we have decided:  Are you listenin’ Brother Ira?  You’ll have to stop your singin,’ it’s messin’ up our choir.

The old man raised his head, a sign that he did hear and on his cheek the three men caught the glitter of a tear.  His feeble hands pushed back the locks as white as silky snow and he answered the committee in a voice both soft and low.  

I’ve sung the songs of David nearly eighty years said he, they’ve been my staff and comfort all along life’s dreary way.  I’m sorry if I disturbed the choir.  I guess I’m doin’ wrong, but when my heart is filled with praise I can’t hold back a song.  I wonder if beyond the tide that’s breaking at my feet—In that far off heavenly temple where my Master I shall meet.  Yes, I wonder if when I try to sing the songs of God up higher; I wonder if they’ll kick me out up there for singin’ in Heaven’s choir.

A silence filled the little room.  The old man bowed his head.  The committee went on back to town, but Brother Ira was dead.  Oh, the choir missed him for a while, but he was soon forgot and a few church goers watched the door but the old man entered not.  Far away his voice is sweet and he sings his heart’s desire, where there is no church committees and no fashionable choirs.”

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Tit for Tat

Tit-for-Tat means inflicting injury or insult in return after one has been injured or insulted.  The game is being played all the time these days in the political realm and I find myself caught up in it.  I don’t want to be caught up in it.  I don’t want to play the game. 

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” did not originate with the Hebrew or Christian Bible, though it is used in Exodus 21-24 and in Leviticus 24:19-21 and in Matthew 5:38-42.  The words actually come from the Code of Hammurabi.  Hammurabi was king of Babylon in 1792-1750 BC.   

Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye,” and I’m assuming his favorite is the one found in Exodus (he did not give a chapter and verse).  It certainly is not the one found in Matthew 5:38-42, where Jesus repudiates even the notion of “an eye for an eye.”  

In 2015 Trump said his favorite verse (we don’t know which one) in the Bible had greatly impacted his thinking and his character.  “Well, I think many, I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many.  So many…And some people—look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.  That’s not particularly a nice thing.  But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us….And we have to be firm and have to be very strong.  And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”  Yes, we can, Mr. Trump, especially if we read all of it—including Matthew 5:38-42!

Mr. Trump often mentions the Bible as his favorite book, with “The Art of the Deal” as his favorite second.  I suspect there are many Christians (supposedly the people of the New Covenant) who share Mr. Trump’s favorite verse from the Old Covenant, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” regardless of Christ’s repudiation of that Tit-for-Tat game.   Indeed, Trump’s “spiritual advisor,” Paula White, implied the “eye for an eye” mentality in her opening prayer at Trump’s rally in Orlando this week, praying:  “Let every demonic network (did she mean the “treasonous media”) that has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.”   That means  Jesus’ repudiation of an eye for an eye— that means the Christian faith—that means “me”—are to be broken and torn down—because we are aligned against “the purpose!”

Backyard wonders continue...

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Wile E. Coyote or Foxy Fox?

Most people are familiar with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner as cartoon characters from Looney Tunes.  In each episode, Wile Coyote attempts to catch that fast-running ground bird, the Roadrunner, but is never successful.  Coyote comes up with all kinds of absurd and complex contraptions to try to catch his prey—and all of them “backfire” with Coyote losing the game.

The term “foxy fox” implies a person who is “cunningly shrewd.”  Erwin Eugen Rommel, the German general and military theorist, was nicknamed the “Desert Fox” during the African campaign in World War II.  

A fox is very adept at concealment and can run with great speed for long periods of time.  A fox has tremendous stamina.  One of the fox’s cleverest hunting techniques is “charming” or “conning” its victim. When it gets close to its prey, the fox will slyly perform some rather weird antics—leaping, jumping, rolling, chasing itself—thus charming the prey’s attention.  Meanwhile the fox is moving closer and closer for the kill.

How do we characterize Donald Trump? Is he a Wile E. Coyote or a foxy fox?  Like the Coyote, he has come up with all kinds of absurd statements and slogans to conn us, but unlike the Coyote, he seems always to avoid the “backfire,” typically by providing an alternative reality.

Perhaps he is more like the fox. He does seem to have a strange, but cunning shrewdness.  His weird antics continue to charm his base.  He has “joked” about the possibility of a third term (in spite the two- term mandated by the Constitution).  He tweeted last weekend: “(do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?…).  In March 2018 he said of the Chinese President:  “He’s now president for life.  President for life.  No, he’s great.  And look, he was able to do that.  I think its great.  Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”  He said at an event at the White House just a month or so ago: “I was going to joke…and say at least for 10-14 years, but we would cause bedlam if I said that, so we’ll say six.”  I wonder if there might be a “document locked up in a vault in the White House that has a 10-step plan to make Donald Trump president for life.”  Trump’s antics, strange as they may seem, have a purpose—to conn his prey.  Whether he can be characterized as Wile E. Coyote or a foxy fox, yours truly will remain the Roadrunner, creating “backfire” not only for an illegal third term, but a “backfire” to avoid even a  second term.

Another Backyard Wonder....

Monday, June 17, 2019

Two Ways of Thinking

When we deal with religious questions and scientific questions we are dealing with two different ways of describing reality.  I do not mean that one or the other is some kind of alternative reality as is fashionable just now in the political arena.  I mean that religion and science deal with the same reality, but have  a different way of describing it and the two should not be confused.  The book of Genesis in the Bible is not a scientific account of creation, and it should not be interpreted as scientific.  The book of Genesis asks, “Why?” and its answer is “God.”  Science looks at the world and asks, “How?” and its answer is that the world has evolved over millions of centuries—an answer that does not in any way undermine belief in God.

Robert McAfee Brown used four statements to make this point:
I love you.
Babe Ruth hit 619 home runs in his major league career.
I love you too.

The first and the third statements are of a different order from statements two and four.  One and three are factually verifiable:  “you can look them up.”  Statements two and four cannot be “proved” in the same way; but they can be just as “true” for a meaningful living of life as any of the “factual” statements. 

Shakespeare in the play, As You Like It, tells us that there are “…tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.”  He is saying that there are lessons to be learned from the woods and the metaphors he uses help underline the truth of his statement.  But the statement is obviously not “TRUE” as an actual literal set of facts.  A proof-reader would revise the statement to read:  not “tongues” in trees—but “trunks in trees, stones in the running brooks, sermons in books.”  That would make the statement factually true—that is, scientifically accurate, but quite unimportant.  Shakespeare’s statement is a valuable description of the woods while the proof-reader’s factual version is pointless.

Science can tell us how old the world is and how it has developed  by analyzing the evidence.  Science cannot tell us why the world has come into being. We live in the same reality—we just have two different ways of describing it.  One asks, “How” and the other asks, “Why.”  (It really isn’t that simple, but I thought my thoughts on the matter might help someone).

Back yard wonders continue...

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Mark Twain Speaks to Our Present Bellicosity

Mark Twain wrote an essay on the duty of righteous dissent in the early 1900’s.  Twain’s concern was the American military actions in the Philippines and the reaction of the American public to that event.  The essay, though written over a hundred years ago, speaks to our present bellicosity toward our allies, Iran, and the rest of the world.

Twain was astounded by the public response to the war (prohibiting independence to the Philippines), which seemed to him to say, “Our Country, right or wrong.”  “…every man,” he wrote, “who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor—none but those others were patriots.  To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, ‘Our Country, right or wrong,’ and urge on the little war.  Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?”

He goes on, “For in a republic, who is ‘the country?’  Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle?  Why, the Government is merely a servant—merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.  Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.  Who, then, is ‘the country?’”

In modern day terms, Twain asked:  Is it the media?  Is it the churches?  Is it the President? “Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command.”  They are but one in a thousand; it is the thousand that  “command.” It is “they who must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.”

“Who are the thousand—that is to say, who are ‘the country?’  In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people.  Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility must speak.  And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of the pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians.  Each must for himself decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t….To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country—hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Who are “the country?”  It remains a good question.  Is it the current Administration, “right or wrong”?  Is it Congress?  Is it the press?  No, it is you and me who decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.  It is you and me who decide right and wrong.  Twain’s reaction to “Our Country, right or wrong” hits the nail on the head—“Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?”

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Human Situation

One of the great assets of the Christian faith is that it helps us avoid being naive about the human situation.  Authentic Christianity does not preach natural human goodness.  While there is in every person “that of God” there is also the recognition that we humans and the whole of creation (including our institutions which the Bible calls “principalities”)  are in a “fallen state.”  We are not yet what we could be.

Dr. Karl Menninger in his book (Whatever Became of Sin?)  written in 1973, reminded his readers, that “sin” is still in existence and that sin is the most prevalent malady of our modern world.” Sin is not drinking, playing cards, sex, etc. Sin is a much bigger and deeper thing.  Sin is “missing the mark,” the “mark” being “that of God” in us.  

Now we could blame this problem on God, because God did not create us “good” or “perfect” or “programmed.”  God created us FREE!  We, above all other creatures, have a choice of whether to respond to “that of God” in us, or to go another way.  The biblical “Fall” was our choice—we decided to go our own way—missing what it means to be created in the image of God.  “All we like sheep have gone astray.”  The Bible “is a great love story of God, the Lover, wooing human beings, the beloved, to choose Love over self.

With Frank Sinatra we can all sing, “I Did It My Way.”  This is the potential in every human heart because we are free—the choice is ours—and we typically choose our own way.  You can call it “self-centeredness” if you want.  

Any Christian who understands his or her faith is never Utopian.  We can do all we can to help make a better world, but we also realize that, a thousand years from now, if there are people on the earth at that time, there will still be self-centeredness (sin) because it is the price of person-hood.  We were created free.

Backyard wonders

Friday, June 14, 2019

Dark Days

As the nineteenth century concluded and the twentieth began, Mark Twain found the world scene darkened by military actions of the so-called Christian powers; nation preyed upon nation, the strong upon the weak.  “The time is grave,” he wrote.  “The future is blacker than has been any future which any person now living has tried to peer into.”

Now in this early twenty-first century there are those of us who feel that Mark Twain’s comment fits our present dilemma.  James Bridle’s book, New Dark Age, suggests that it is technology which will bring on this darkness, while others suggest it is in our attempt to go backward to another time, or the erosion of  character, tolerance, and good manners and decency, or the current pendulum swing toward nationalism.  

Sinclair Lewis affirmed Mark Twain’s view of his time and my view of our time when he wrote: “We can go back to the Dark Ages!  The crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin!”  The “Dark Ages” in history refers to the Middle Ages—the term,  “Dark Age,” originated with Petrarch in the 1330’s.  Most modern scholars reject the term “Dark Ages” nowadays, finding it misleading and inaccurate to describe that period in history as a time of backwardness and ignorance. Some good things, the scholars say, some flashes of light, illumined the darkness of the time.

“The time is grave,” as Mark Twain put it and we can, as Sinclair Lewis wrote: “go back to the Dark Ages! For the crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin.”  These are words that describe the reality of our time.  They also describe the beginning of the twentieth century that Mark Twain observed.  The words also describe the rise of Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century, and I’m convinced they speak of our own time and of “a future blacker than has been any future which any person now living has tried to peer into.”

BUT, we must not despair.  I do not know if there will actually be a new Dark Age or not, for the gift of prediction is not given me, but I do know that it is my task (and yours) to keep a light burning in the midst of the present darkness.  My faith is that we can overcome and that morning will come.  

As the Astilbe blooms each June without fail, so too there is in our nature
a reason for hope rather than despair

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

On Using the Right Word

Ignorance is not stupidity.  I am wholly ignorant (but not stupid) when it comes to dealing with mechanical things.  I lack knowledge, information, and understanding about how an automobile engine works and have not the slightest idea of what to do when the engine won’t start.  I take my vehicle to a mechanic, that is, someone who does have knowledge, information, and understanding about that kind of thing.  If you call me “ignorant” in regard to mechanical things I would not be offended or insulted.  I recognize my lack of knowledge in this area.  If you called me an “ignoramus” (synonyms include words like idiot, dunce, moron, or simpleton) I might take offense, because that word implies that I am unable to learn anything about mechanical things.  You would be implying by the use of that word that I am stupid rather than ignorant.

I have learned how to jump start a car battery—in fact, I recently installed a new battery in my lawn mower (but only after getting advice and instructions from a mechanic as to just how to do it).  One of the benefits of YouTube are the “How To” presentations. I recently installed a new rack in our dishwasher by watching a YouTube video.  It works!  I can learn how to do things that I am currently ignorant about.

Geniuses are ignorant of all sorts of things, but they are not stupid.  They just don’t have the knowledge or information needed to know about or to accomplish certain tasks.  

The word “stupid” means that one lacks the intellectual capacity to learn, to know, to understand, and to do.  Do you see the difference in the use of these two words?  An ignorant person has the intellectual capacity to learn, to know, and to be informed, but just hasn’t gotten around to it.  

It has been reported that only 3% of the American people have read the Mueller Report.  That means that 97% of the American people are ignorant about what that report actually contains.  It doesn’t mean they are stupid.  It simply means that they have not taken the time to peruse that information. They do not know what the report says, just as I am ignorant about my vehicle’s engine.  They are ignorant of it, but not stupid, because they have the intellectual capacity to read it and know what it says.  They just haven’t done so. If that is the case, then 97% of the people ought to admit ignorance in that regard.

Yorkminster speaks with architecture rather
than words.