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?”
Standing in line. A beautiful sight. Go vote. Live with the outcome. Work for peace and justice. Love God and your neighbors.
[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and Read the rest of this entry
NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?
Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval. He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?” He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith. If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person. I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry
The Brexit vote in the UK set off a global panic. In part, because we assumed that people in England, if not the rest of the United Kingdom, would always think about a decision and be sensible. They would never vote without knowing what the implications of that issue might be. Apparently, we’ve been wrong.
The first problem is the word “Brexit.” It’s a combination word, and I think that is why Europe is coming apart. We are not using enough words now. Words were a way, in the olden times, like the 1990s, to actually describe something in detail and debate it. Think of the most powerful places to communicate now—non-existent “platforms” named, ironically, “Twitter,” “Instagram,” “Facebook” and “YouTube.” Four major media with only 27 letters total between them. We don’t use enough letters and words anymore.
Because we now use pictures instead of words—after all a picture is worth a thousand, so 20 pix is 20K, right? The core problem is the flopendemic of Slurrds (for old people, this means, “a flood and epidemic of slurring words together.” Get with it, Geriatrics). Brexit is the chief example. Brexit sounds like a breakfast cereal. When I went to England years ago, there was a cereal called, “Wheatabix.” I am sure confused many voters. “Exit from cereal? Read the rest of this entry
“WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM OF PRIMITIVE RELIGIONS! Step this way and now look at the peculiar display on the subject of idolatry. We modern people cannot comprehend how superstitious were the ancients, such that the Hebrews prohibited carving little statues and bowing down to them…”
Since we religious folk have a 3,000 year old tradition and an ancient story crossing several cultures of the ancient world, I thought I would try to explain a word that seems so outdated and dull: idolatry. The prohibition of it is one of the Ten Commandments, and so it would seem rather quaint for our time. After all, we have a show called “American Idol” and we talk about “idolizing” someone. The ancients would have been terrified at such casual talk, but since we’re fairly casual about everything, maybe a museum lecture would be interesting.
In the ancient world, people represented their faith all sorts of ways–they worshiped trees, poles, statues, images, rocks, and projected divinities upon all of nature. Generally, they created these images with the understanding toat there might be a little sympathetic magic possible–to guarantee a good crop, success in life, or victory in war, by appeasing the god with offerings.
The Hebrews were forbidden this luxury. Only the mysterious God of Moses, a God who would not even reveal his name except as another mystery, was the true God. They could not control this God, manipulate the Lord for their own purposes or take God for granted as a national plaything or prop for the king. This God demaned justice, brought them to judgment when they failed and humbled kings when they became too haughty.
Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is, essentially, confusing Creator and creation. When we elevate anything created into the place only rightly for God, it becomes idolatrous. Thus, Paul in Colossians, moves from concern about greed to idolatry (NRSV Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
It is idolatrous precisely because it rules over our life. Addictions are the idolatry of that which was created good–but not ultimate! Thus, food, sex, work, even family, patriotism, religion, can all be “idolatrous” if we do not live loosely attached to them–that is, understanding our right relationship to them. They and we will pass away. It is not worth ruining one’s spiritual life, for example, simply to feed the bottomless need for affirmation, fame, money or stuff. Food, sex, work, family, country and religion are all also good. But they are not ultimate.
It is equally idolatrous to want to be the most spiritual person in the world, to identify one’s own interpretations of God’s word and will with God’s word and will. This is the most dangerous of all. Idolatry is twofold–to lift up the earthly to the place of God and forget God. It is equally and also the desire to bring “god” down to earth, to create a manageable god who doesn’t ask too much of us, who is always just what we want God to be, our “buddy,” and never our judge or mystery. To understand God truly is to never forget that only God is God, and that our attempts to know God are never all that God is. To remember this is the beginning of wisdom.
The only way, then, to rightly live in this world is with contentment regarding what we have and humility with regards to our self-understanding, and for that to be enough. It is to be humble with regards to who we are, and to accept ourselves as God made us, and accept and care for others as they are, not imposing ourselves on them. To demand the impossible of oneself or others is also to stand at the border of idolatry. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and what is right is the aim of life. It is enough to see what God has made and simply say, “It is good. This is enough.”
Healthy self-regard means accurate, balanced, true self-understanding and to accept oneself. Period. It is the delusional need to project ourselves upon the world to deny our limits that can lead to wars, violence, self-hatred and hate of others. And it is precisely here that we understand why both politics and religion are so often destructive. We elevate our own views, demands and needs beyond criticism, discussion and conversation with God’s other creatures. Rather than listening to one another and figuring out the best way, we engage in the most expensive and nefarious games to avoid ever telling or admitting another’s truth. “Spin” is simply another word for deceit, even if it is oneself who is deceived. The motive for the deceit is the real culprit, and both religion and politicians should spend much more time and energy there, for the good of themselves and the rest of us. When one is more consumed with preserving ones own position, power or advantage than the good of our neighbor, an idol is nearly complete.
“Thanks for your patience, folks. I hope you found this interesting. That ends our museum lecture from these primitive people so long ago. Quaint, isn’t it? Well, back to our progressive, technologically superior world. Fortunately, we are more evolved. Our politics more humane. Someday, we’ll live together in peace and everyone will have what they need. Humankind never had it so good. There is no problem we cannot solve, is there? And if we can just get our people elected, the sky’s the limit…”
“Forgiveness” is my wife’s favorite song on my new CD. (Click HERE to listen to the song) The chorus goes:
It’s impossible to give forgiveness
It’s even worse to have to ask
If letting go is the answer
Living like it’s gone is the task.
How else you going to deal with the past?
Lance Armstrong and General Petraeus in one year are maybe more than we can take, even in our jaded time. I find myself turning it all off more and more just to preserve my soul. Cynicism can cripple the spirit. It can rest on the
belief that everything is a con, everybody is out to get you, all politicians are evil, and all human beings’ motives are bad. While Christians might be seen to have a lot in common with that, what with the fall of humanity and all, I’m here to say, “Not really.”
The Christian gospel is not as much about how bad we are as that God knows it and loves us anyway. Sin is not what lives on at the end of the day. Its moment is the middle of a Friday with a dark sky and a rugged cross and a man yelling, “It is finished.” But the last word is an empty tomb, followed by a hopeful church, a Holy Spirit, and a kingdom to come.
So as Thanksgiving approaches, it might do well for us to think about how to defeat it in our lives. I want to offer two helpful practices from our faith that can be an antidote to cynicism. Read the rest of this entry
I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess. I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.
Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around. They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote. Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of
diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion. We have to run for election every year. It’s called “the budget.” A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long. Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.
So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before. He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?” And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”
A little unsolicited advice:
- You have to learn how to build consensus. Winning 51-49 is not winning. You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
- You will learn humility willingly or eventually. Willingly is much less painful.
- Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one: “Learn to tell a story. Keep it simple. Tell the truth. Truth doesn’t need help.”
- The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end. They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
- It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement. Even if you and your mother think so. God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
- Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
- You have to trust others to make real changes. Nobody does it by themselves.
- Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
- Forgive and move on. It’s just that simple. Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
- Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall. There are worse things than losing your job.
- Believe in Someone or Something larger than you. Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
- It’s not your church. It’s not their church. It’s God’s church. Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
- If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it. It’s not rocket science.
- Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
- A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
- Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular. Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
- No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
- Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
- Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
- As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
- Love really is the great truth of life. Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.
It is the day after Memorial Day. I get way too many emails, but I’m 57. I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire. Other times you GET retired. See “getting fired.”
Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.” Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.
Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama. I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center. It was a lovely setting. The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama. I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus. Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through. Something I always wanted to do, but never had before. So I did it. Glorious, insightful, even after all these years. And “retreat” came to be more meaningful. You retreat when your forces are being obliterated. A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”) But sometimes you just run for your life. Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you. No strategic about it, just run, dummy.
Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that. Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth. There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now. What can you do? Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then. Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him. It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. But this is a crazy time, too. Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’” I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo. And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall. A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure. We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.
So, all in all, retreating is not so bad. I still know too many people looking for work. I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday. I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better. No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how. No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now. Elections can wait.” No one is saying, “that’s not news. It’s stupid. Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”
Sound the retreat!
As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there. They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election. Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes. Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church. Oxymoron?
One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers. You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good. It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yeah, I thought, I like that.
Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country. But it was worth it. A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.” Hallelujah! At last!
Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle. I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world. Not so bad.
RETREAT! RUN AWAY!
The 24-7 news cycle has changed our lives and made even
the most meaningless information a way to waste time on the planet.
A story on the morning news recentlywas about a local election in Arizona. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a law this week that banned a woman who could not speak English proficiently from running in a local city council race. The
point of those who sued to remove her was that a certain level of sophistication in the English language was essential to being an elected official. Who in the world came up with THAT?
The woman, who spoke in elemental English, was actually given a hearing in which she was examined for her language skills. A clip on the news showed a lawyer asking the following:
Lawyer: “And when did you go to high school?”
Woman: “In the 1980s.”
Lawyer: “And where was that at?”
Excuse me? Buddy, you just dangled a participle. My old-school English teachers would be all over you. If you can be a lawyer without proficiency in grammar, it seems reasonable that you could run for office and let the voters decide.
It is the silliest of seasons, that is, an election year. Actually, “election year” has followed the 24-7 news cycle to become a 24-7 political season. Pols immediately begin re-election campaigns the day after they get elected now. Since there are only about 18 minutes of actual newsworthy occurrences each day and the major news networks only cover about 11 of that, it leaves a lot of time to fill. Fortunately, tomfoolery and goofiness fills the void.
There are now three major forms of commentators that have evolved in this present environment. First, there are the pioneers, the radio partisans and their television counterparts.
The Wingnuts of every kind dominate here. The form is simple: you go on the air/television and talk ceaselessly to an imaginary person for hours. You would never respond to an enraged man walking down the street like this, fuming and talking to an imaginary person.. You would call 911 and report him so the state hospital could come pick him up before he hurts himself or someone else.
The second form is more sophisticated. People sit together and argue about politics in front of everyone watching. There is more value perhaps, but still, not much is left to say after, oh, about four minutes on a particular item.
C. S. Lewis said in his autobiography that his father and their friends would often sit and discuss politics. He and his brother concluded that nothing very interesting ever came of these discussions. Their real passion was the world of imagination and ideas. So at least we have politics to thank for Narnia and The Great Divorce. A great thesis for some Oxford young don: “Boredom’s Contribution to the Imaginative Work of C. S. Lewis.”
The third, of course, is comedy politics. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have cornered the market here. Colbert is the more sophisticated—he pretends to be the very things he ridicules and takes it to hyperbolic excess. He exaggerates, too. One has to observe, this is too easy. Read the rest of this entry