Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?
Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.
His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular. This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others. The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection. Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread. Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.
It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)
I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”
My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.
Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.
It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry
Last weekend, our family gathered in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. I must hasten to add, my folks are still relatively young—they married right out of high school, had me by age twenty, and the avalanche of four kids and their spouses, twelve grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, along with spouses, dogs, cats, and horses. We spent the weekend sharing a Holiday Inn Express breakfast area and their home—telling stories, laughing late into the night, and torrid games of Uno at the hotel with three of our aunts who came to help and their spouses.
I was humbled as I listened to my elders tell stories about us, realizing how large the protective covering of love was for us. My Dad was one of nine, my mother one of eight, and one who died at birth. A large family is chaotic sometime, but as my Aunt Johnnie philosophically puts it, “Oh, we argue and fuss and get mad but we always keep getting together.”
We have known our share of heartbreaks, losses, tragedies and struggles, all of us. But we keep getting together. There is something astounding about families, something enduring, durable, that transcends politics and economics. Dirt poor was always not as poor as the people down the road, and besides, “we always had each other and enough to eat. So we didn’t think we were poor.” That despite clothes made out of anything mothers could find and food they grew themselves. Read the rest of this entry
Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:
Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of
(Imaginary Press Release) The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands. Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit. They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.
They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather. They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally. The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated. If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.
Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team. They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.
The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases. Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place. The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.
In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed. While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.
Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands. Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.
The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies. Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts. Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security. Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs. Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not. In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them. The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.
A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday. The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation. “This affects millions of voters…er, people. We have to fix this.” Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.
Ten Commandments for Working for Change (Kingdom of God Version)
I am not sure why I started this. I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are. And yet, I hope. I still think things can be better. This is mysterious. I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.
- First Things First. The ministry of healing requires clear priorities. The First Commandment is always the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” “Let God be God,” is redundant. God IS
God. The only question is, “Will we rail against God and the universe and the Way It REALLY Is or not?” All of our spiritual traditions say God doesn’t care for human deities running around lording themselves over the rest of us. This keeps motives clear, priorities arranged and a healthy dose of humility in all of our efforts.
- Caring IS change. We are changed the moment we care. The poor are my neighbors, friends, or estranged kin, not problems to be eliminated or solved. Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, once said that sin entered the world when God was first spoken of in the third person by Satan: “Did God REALLY say?” Maybe the same is true of our neighbors—when we talk about them in place of “I-Thou,” as Martin Buber called it, we get, well, what we have. Listening, being present, loving our neighbors has already changed the conversation. Until you care, nothing changes. Not caring is a tempting way of protecting from the hurt, but it is ultimately impossible for being really alive.
- Politics alone cannot heal. It can facilitate genuine healing or get in its way. The same can be said of all the “principalities and powers”—economy, power, business, civic life, and even religion. They are instruments to occasionally use but never of eternal value for themselves. Sometimes it is the obstacle to go around, sometimes the opposition to ignore but never a god in whom we trust wholly. Politics is pretty important, which is why it is always overestimating itself
- Epiphanies are doorways! Real change begins with ideas, relationships, and genuine connection. Money, power and importance can only follow them if the change is genuine and the commitment unwaivering. Money, fame, and power are not usually agents of change so much as instruments of resistance. They get on board when it suits them, and left to themselves tend to prefer comfort, control and micromanaging (i.e., spiritual anesthesia). Because change will always bring the Unholy Trio into question, they become anxious because they will decrease if things do change. They do not like this, but sometimes the numbers just aren’t with them any more. Epiphanies are fast track connections.
- The Power of the Question. Before transformation was the question and it must be asked by right person at the right time. “Questioning” can be a somewhat self-righteous exercise, however, even a delusional self-perception (this was franchised in the United States in the 1970s, causing the number of people who were at Woodstock to quadruple). Real questions, like real change, have the element of self-involved investment/caring/suffering.
Part Two tomorrow…
So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State? An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger
every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning. Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.
The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago. I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis. The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days. After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order. “What will that do?” I asked. “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.” So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.
Things have changed for the better. But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought. There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals. In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.
There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here. College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too. When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere. Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.
There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves. It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young? Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently. In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.
Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy. The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs. According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,
Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.
As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners
to be so modest. They nearly always say, “I just did my job.” The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success. Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on. He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle. A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died. The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”
At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers. It is that trust in each other on which lives depend. Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life. Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?
Duty is not always glamorous. It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification. Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world. It’s all about the money, too often, for us. Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside. We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness. We reap bitterly from this harvest.
Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable. Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it. So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile. Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.
Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era. He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.” His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides. He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day, not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us. Without doing our duty, can we long survive?