Friday, June 29, 2018

Perhaps A Different Kind of Independence Day Crown

"The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion.  That evil should appear in the form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, social justice is absolutely bewildering for one coming from the world of ethical concepts that we have received.  For the Christian who lives by the Bible, it is the very confirmation of the abysmal wickedness of evil."                     ----Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian -- an academic; a Lutheran.  It's not the likeliest description of one predisposed to public activism -- at least in our usual stereotype.  We more likely picture classrooms and libraries and lofty lectures and papers.  Certainly there are and have always been noisy exceptions, but I suspect that Bonhoeffer would not have included himself among them.  He was a pastor, a prolific writer on the spiritual life; he was a musician and wrote fiction and poetry.

But the spine anchoring all those other descriptions was his faithfulness.  His most famous book, after all, is titled, The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer read the prophetic calls for a different relationship with each other and God -- one that finds treasure in the diverse uniqueness of every part of creation, and welcomes the stranger along with the outcast; one that embraces and enfleshes the divine purpose in love -- and took them to heart.  He watched and took as exemplary Jesus' way in the world, internalizing his teachings about the least, the lost and the last; and was convicted by Jesus' willingness to lose himself on behalf of those he loved.

And so it was that he "left the classroom," so to speak.  Unlike most of us -- myself included -- who mutter among our friends or mouth off on Facebook from time to time and call it enough, Bonhoeffer got to the end of his rope with the "huge masquerade of evil" that had "thrown all ethical concepts into confusion"  and confronted that evil with his life.  Joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, in whom he came to believe that masquerade of evil had become embodied, Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned when the plot failed, housed in a concentration camp, and ultimately brought quite literally to the end of his rope; executed by hanging at the ripe old age of 39.

I quite frankly don't know what to do with Bonhoeffer's example.  I won't backseat drive his choices.  I wasn't there; I wasn't in the thick of it.  It was, indeed, a despicable, dehumanizing time.  It's impossible to condone assassination, but then I suspect he, under other circumstances, wouldn't either.  And yet there he was, choosing what I have to imagine seemed to him to be a lesser evil to overcome one still greater.

And then I wonder what his counsel would be today when it feels, for all the world, like the "huge masquerade of evil" has thrown everything, not merely ethical concepts, into even greater confusion?  What would he say, and more importantly, what would he do?

At the very least he would speak the truth as the gospel had trained him to see it.  Since he did so in his own moment I have no doubt that he would caution, indeed chastise, those in ours who elevate patriotism over discipleship -- or dare to conflate the two.  He would condemn those would build walls in protection of their own at the expense of those who have nothing left to protect.  He would scoff at our collective celebration of flash and fizz; our contentment with facade; our capitulation to empty and paternalistic promises.  He would recoil at the deification of "economic forces" and tribal allegiances and would weep at the trivialization and contamination of our "life together."

If, as he once said, "The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children," ours would almost certainly earn a failing grade.  We eat garbage.  We talk trash.  This once-noble experiment in governance and culture on different and better terms is bequeathing our children a fetid inheritance.

As our calendar inexorably shoves us toward July 4 and tempts us with the usual self-congratulatory celebrations, maybe we could choose a different course.  Instead of telling ourselves how wonderful we are -- "the greatest nation in the world" -- perhaps we could prayerfully reflect upon the kind of nobility to which those founders aspired, reaching back behind the mere words of the documents to the aspirational soul to which they hoped to give voice.  This year, maybe lamentation should take the place of celebration -- the candles of penitent confession rather than the fireworks of proud assertion.

Whatever else, I'm sure Bonhoeffer would insist that it's worth the effort.  Surely we have not been so corrupted that we can no longer recognize the corruption; the decay.

This week my dentist affixed a crown to repair a broken tooth.  It wasn't as easy as snapping over the fracture a hardened and durable cover.  A week or so before, some drilling was required to remove the resulting decay; a mold was taken so as fashion the desired replacement and a temporary "fix" was put in place with the admonishment to be careful what and where I chew.  The "meantime," after all, is fragile.  And then this week the more permanent fix.  That, too, involved air on exposed nerves, a little more drilling and wincing and tapping and capping.  The process was tedious and laborious and hardly free of pain.  But it was worth it. 

 Maybe that's the kind of work that could begin this 4th of July:  naming the cracks, drilling the decay, remolding nobler intent, and submitting to the nerves and the need to heal.

It's just a thought.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Runnin’ On...Full

Growing up, I knew all of Jackson Browne’s songs.  I don’t mean that I was simply acquainted with his catalogue or knew all the lyrics.  I mean I KNEW them.  I bought (OK, my Mother bought for me) all the printed music folios for each of his albums, and I learned to play them.

Every song.

I had to.  I had to be ready.

Normal kids fantasize about going to the moon or running off with the circus, or becoming President (thought these days those three sound redundant).  I, meanwhile, fantasized about filling in for Jackson Browne.  What if something happened to him in the rough and shuffle of touring?  What if he tripped over a speaker cable and broke a finger in the fall?  What if the piano lid unexpectedly fell on his hands?  What if the bus door closed too quickly and caught his fingers as he entered?  He could still sing just fine, but he couldn’t possibly handle the piano or his guitar.  The cry would go out near and far, “Does anybody know how to play these songs?”

Shyly, but confidently, I would raise my hand and step forward.  I was perpetually ready.  The concert could go on as planned.

Understand, I didn’t want anything very bad to happen to him.  Certainly nothing permanent.  After all, I idolized him.  I merely wanted to help out.  And I needed to be ready.

OK, so it was a self-serving fantasy.  But, then, who ever has selfless fantasies?  Regardless, and alas, I was never needed.  Abilene never seemed to make it onto his tour schedule.  

The closest he came was Fort Worth in my freshman year of college.  It was his “Runnin’ On Empty” tour and I wasn’t about to miss it.  How I had the money for it I haven’t a clue.  But I even took a date — a dear friend from high school then attending Baylor University.  Clear evidence of adolescent insanity, I borrowed a fraternity brother’s car, drove the 90 miles south to Waco, picked her up, drove back to Fort Worth for the concert, and then back to Waco to take her back to her dorm, before getting back into the car to head back to Fort Worth where I no doubt fell into bed...exhausted but still humming.  And smiling.  

I’ve seen him a dozen times since — with a band and more lately solo acoustic.  It doesn’t matter to me.  As long as I get to hear him.  He typically honors requests shouted out from the audience.  Somehow always asks for “Rosie” and he always smirks and replies, “Oh, so you are THAT kind of crowd,” before playing the song.  Everybody laughs.

He’s still going strong, writing and recording, though I’m guessing, given the vagaries of broadcast media, his new stuff doesn’t get as much radio time as his old.  The latter certainly shows up in the rotations of “oldies” stations, but that necessarily precludes the current material.  That’s alright by me; I don’t much listen to the radio anyway.

And so it is that tonight Lori and I will once again take our seats in his audience — “the best darn seats,” to borrow a line from Bill Murray, “in our price range.”  And I’ll be smiling; no longer fantasizing, but simply relishing the joy of being there, listening.  Runnin’ On Full.

I’m trusting that he’s healthy. I’m long since out of practice, although I can still bang out a pretty good “Doctor My Eyes” and “The Pretender.”  

Besides, at our age, neither Jackson nor I need anybody wishing us ill.  We need all the positive energy we can get, if we are to keep runnin' at all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I Guess We’ll Have to Stay

“Here’s how we are going to do this,” he said matter-of-factly over the phone.  

 After living my entire life in one part of Texas or another I had accepted the call of a congregation in Des Moines, Iowa.  I didn't know the first thing about Des Moines.  Its neighborhoods were foreign lands to me; its style and norms were unknown.  But I had to find a place to live.  I had spent the better part of two weekends “house hunting” in the company of Jerry Aldrich, a longtime member of the church and even longer-time realtor, and had finally identified a potential residential candidate.  

But in the course of assembling my financials to make an offer and apply for a mortgage it became absurdly clear to Jerry that I was ill-prepared for securing a mortgage.  Having lived in church-owned parsonages up to that point, I had no equity.  My credit rating, while not altogether bad, was flaccid enough to invite any bank’s rejection.  And as for assets, there weren’t any.  As for consumer debt, there was too much. To most eyes — including my own — this all added up to a hopeless dead end.  But not to Jerry.

I have no idea how many phone calls he made, or what sales pitch he employed — all without my knowledge—but in a matter of days the phone rang.  “Here’s how we are going to do this,” he said from a thousand miles away.  He gave me the name and address of a then-faceless couple in the church and said that I would be making my monthly payments to them.  I didn’t understand the technicalities until much later, but in essence Jerry had arranged for that couple to buy the house outright and then sell it to me — at the current mortgage rate — on contract.  

And that was that.

Until about 20 years later when I once again found myself over my head with a very different real estate challenge.  His life had changed considerably in the ensuing years, as had mine; in fact it was in the process of changing, still.  

I had been claimed by the cockamamie conviction that I needed to learn how to grow food.  As the idea fleshed itself out it was obvious that the townhome in which we were living offered very few agricultural options.  Some friends had pointed out a property they thought might interest us.  And it did — at least it interested me.  Lori was the rational one who readily comprehended the lunacy of us purchasing it.  It was too big, too far, too fraught with managerial complications, and too expensive.  Nonetheless, we visited several times with the listing agent, but when it all reached the point of put up or shut up we thought we should have our own agent.  In stepped Jerry.  And when our meager offer was summarily and conclusively rejected by the sellers, Jerry waited a few compassionate seconds (to honor my disappointment and Lori’s relief) and said, “I know of some other properties that might better suit you.”

And indeed he did.  After internalizing our various criteria — our “must haves” and then our “want to haves” — Jerry methodically went to work.  Over the subsequent few weeks we placed our necks in Jerry’s yoke and visited several possibilities, ultimately settling on this one that has happily and gratefully been our home for nearly seven years.  

Throughout the process of purchase, and in the cracks and crevices of life in the subsequent years, we talked through the ups and downs of church life, world affairs, family life, cancer, ballroom dancing and soil composition.  He even gifted me several of his geology books from college.  

When I visited him last month I had to wait for him to complete the final frames of a Wii bowling tournament he was enjoying with neighbors down the hall in the care center.  Once back in his room he pointed to the calendar and noted the date by which time he was supposed to be dead:  the last day of the month.  He wasn’t morose about it.  Indeed, he was concerned that he was, thus far, too healthy to make that date.  With true business pragmatism — like he had exhibited to me for the previous 25 years — he lamented how much this heightened level of care was costing him, and how he hated the thought that those expenses would spill into a new month.

When I prepared to take my leave I asked him if he wanted me to have a prayer. After responding in the affirmative, Jerry went on to coach me as to the prayer’s needed content.  “Ask Him to move this process along.  Tell Him I’m not having any fun down here.”

Jerry missed his deadline by 18 days, a fact that no doubt rankled him.  But albeit late, he ultimately got his wish.  He always told me that he intended to beat this cancer, and at last he has succeeded.  

Whatever else his passing means, and along with my sadness and multiple layers of gratitude, I’m guessing it means that we, too, are finally home.  I don’t know how we would ever move without him.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Needing to Tinker Again With the Engine

We were push mower people throughout my childhood years, but there was one aberrant interlude when a riding mower graced our shed.  Throughout the circuits of our lawn I fantasized the turf as the asphalt of the Indianapolis Speedway.  Or at least a go-cart track.  It was, indeed, a fantasy because in reality the mower was a study in slowness.  It could go even slower if throttled down, but its top speed would lose to a casual walk. 

When the mower passed out of lawn service my Dad agreed that my brother and I could “tinker” with it.  I charitably include myself in that permission knowing full well that I am not a tinkerer — neither then nor now.  My brother, on the other hand, is another story.  Whether by exploration, hearsay, or the kind of knowledge gleaned from the quivering harmonics of the universe to which I have always been deaf, he somehow discovered and subsequently manipulated a fascinating element of that riding mower’s Briggs and Stratton engine called a “governor”.  The governor’s assigned function on the engine was to limit speed.  The engine, in other words, had all kinds of power.  It was simply being restrained by this simple mechanical device, quite probably to keep adolescent boys from racing around the neighborhood — which, having liberated the horsepower from the Governor, we promptly proceeded to do.

I was thinking about that old mower in recent days while lamenting with some friends what we described as “the coursening” of our culture.  If once upon a time there were generally accepted mores about decency and decorum — common courtesy, if you will, among acquaintances and strangers alike — those days seem to be gone.  We’ve become a profane citizenry of grunters and scoffers and name callers who mock and belittle, castigate and denigrate, always in all-caps or disregarding volume.  What once was known as courteous respect is now derided as mere “political correctness.”  We’ve become…course — rough, sharp and prickly — hellbent on, or indifferent to, inflicting as many social abrasions as possible.

Somehow we’ve lost our governor.

In an earlier time the religious community served that function, but not anymore.  Churches are routinely and cynically — and in large measure correctly — viewed as mere shills for one political party or another.  Elected representatives once contributed to that role — actually governing; demonstrating diplomacy and respectfulness in the milieu of diverse opinions— but that arena has become the most course and mean-spirited of all; “statesmanship”, alas, as elusive as unicorns; political “rising stars” from both parties routinely grounded by revelations of despicable behaviors that contradict their glossy public personae.  This, as the nation’s chief executive — who has replaced the White House organic garden with a mud wrestling pit (thus far, at least, only metaphorically) — elevates repulsiveness and repugnance to patriotic duty; who according to his own braggadocio grabs, fondles, despises, manipulates and bullies.  Meanwhile, true journalists have largely been replaced by talk show hosts and commentators whose ratings require ever more strident theatrics.  And have you seen the things we say to each other on social media?

But who is to tell us anything different?  What we need is a governor — the cultural equivalent of the level-headed spouse who can catch our eye or speak our name or touch our elbow in just that discreet way that ineffably communicates that we are perilously close to encroaching on the borderlands of decency.  Or to change the imagery, perhaps we need some new Galileo-like visionary who can help us rediscover some awareness of a “true north” of which we have completely lost touch.

I’m pretty much out of ideas, so I think I’ll call my brother.  He’s the tinkerer.  Once upon a time he figured out how to disarm the engine’s governor to give us a little more speed.  It was fun for awhile, but now I’m thinking it hasn’t gotten us very far.  It’s not that all this mess is in any way his fault — after all, we weren't trying to corrupt the world.  We were just kids hoping for a little more wind in our short cut hair.  But maybe it's time we slowed back down.  So I’m thinking that maybe with a little time and encouragement and methodical tinkering surely he can figure out how to activate it again.

The governor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

On Reclaiming the Tender, Respectful Care of Words

"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."
"I love words," I clumsily blurted out some way into my first date with the brilliant and beautiful woman who, even after this curious admission, would go on to become my wife.  I no longer recall what prompted the comment, and to this day I have no insight into why I thought this information was important to share.  "They are like paints," I recall continuing, "with which you can paint whole worlds."

And though all these years later I still feel sheepish about that courtship conversation, I stand by both parts of my comment.  I do love words, and they are, indeed, beautifully and evocatively potent.  Which is why even at an early age I somehow sensed the absurd falsehood of that familiar childhood chant.  Words can hurt a lot -- even moreso than sticks and stones -- because they are not simply beautiful; they are powerful, and touch or bruise not simply the skin, but the heart.

People who read religious texts have encountered this notion before.  In the very first words of Hebrew scripture God, the Prime Mover, creates a world...with words.  Out of nothing, something.  In the same way that a candle flame overwhelms a dark room, the divinely spoken word transformed the silence.  I wonder if it felt, to God, like work or like fun?  Like construction, or like art?  All we know is that God stuck with it, talking and speaking us and all into being.  Only blasphemous fools assert that God, alone, has that power -- that only the words passing through God's lips amount to anything of consequence. 

We act as if that were true.  Increasingly I have come to lament the tawdry state of vocabulary in our culture.  We spew and strew words cheaply, as if they were so much water through a fire hose.  We tweet them, we text them, we shout and mutter and disregard them.  Marketers cleverly co-opt and trivialize them; politicians gratuitously bend and capitalize on them, all to the end that we scarcely know what words mean any longer -- if, as we cynically wonder, they mean anything at all. 

But though we dismissively convince ourselves that we have beaten words into submission, making of them whatever we choose at any given time, Eugene Peterson -- that wise and careful intellectual poet of the soul -- has a warning:
"We cannot be too careful about the words we use.  
We start out using them, and they end up using us."
I hope and suspect I'll spend the rest of my life pondering what he means by that, and the myriad ways my words are using me.  But at the very least, his insight prompts me to form them in my mind and mouth more cautiously, more reverently, more circumspectly.

They are powerful things, after all -- beautiful, yes, and as precious as gold.

But powerful, above all. 

So let us be careful with them; for whether or not we could ever break them, they can surely break us.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Holy Determination to Lose Absolutely Nothing

“Why does it say, ‘I won’t lose anyTHING he has given me’?” a classmate asked in the Sunday School class this morning.  “It seems like it should be ‘anyONE.’”

We were reflecting on the story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life.”  In the course of his sermon on the subject Jesus notes that, “…I won’t send away anyone who comes to me,” but then expands that theme to acknowledge more.  “I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me.  This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me.”

It’s a wonderfully wide embrace; one that ought to puncture and start letting the air out of the various prejudices we have erroneously assumed God props up as vigilantly as have the rest of us. “Whites, but not blacks.”  “Protestants, but not Catholics.”  “Christians, but not the Jews who gave us spiritual birth, or Muslims, our spiritual siblings.”  “Straight people, but not those LGBTQ+ folks.”  “Us, but not them.”  “America first,” which might make political sense but is ultimately as spiritually blind as it is relationally na├»ve.

As I pondered my classmate’s good and observant question I thought about the old adage that “history is written by the victors.”  At least those who consider themselves victorious.  Which reminded me of Galileo and Copernicus before him (this, alas, is the way my mind works, even in Sunday School).  Theirs is a sad and tragic story, not simply because of the harsh and despicable treatment they received, but because despite what the science books attest and the astronauts observe, those ancient thinkers never really convinced the rest of us.  We still blindly and arrogantly believe that we are the center of the universe — racially, religiously, ethnically, sexually, geopolitically…

... even humanly.  We like to believe that we are the big “it” — as though the sequence in Genesis’ first account of Creation was in order of importance.  Lowly light, up through critters and crawlers, flowers and flyers, until God finally worked God’s way up to the really important stuff; the crown jewel of it all:  us.  But of course that’s not what it says.  What Genesis actually says is that God looked back over everything made and declared it special.  “Very good!” 


And so it makes sense, when I think about it, that the will of this One who made it is not to lose anyTHING.  Not merely anyONE, but anyTHING.  We seem to be the only part of God’s creation unconcerned about and completely content with the prospect of losing the mountains and the trees, the aquifers and the streams, the air and the birds that flutter on its breezes, the soil and the billions of life forms contained in every teaspoon of it.  Or, as the old hymn poeticized it, “rocks and trees and skies and seas…” You know, all those THINGS out there that aren’t human.  All that stuff that isn’t us.

But the tear contained in every drop of rain is God’s knowing lament that we all survive together, or we don’t survive at all.  I suspect that the sun — firstborn of creation and orbiting anchor of all that subsequently came to be — chuckles in bemused amazement that we (the caboose in the creative train) ever thought of it any other way.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Because there Must Be A Better Way

Here we go again.  I’m referring not only to the news of another mass shooting — this time at a Florida high school —but also to the inevitable collision of knee-jerk reactions.  “If only we had stricter gun control laws this kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen.”  “If only more law-abiding citizens carried firearms this kind of tragedy could be contained.”  We trot out these tired, stalemating alternatives, replete with statistics and global comparisons, constitutional protections and religious prohibitions in the aftermath of every such offense against humanity as soon as the ambulances have driven away the bodies.  Churches themselves offer little clarity, having become wholly-owned subsidiaries of one political party or another. There is no real political discourse, our elected representatives little more than shills for vested interests. And so nothing happens. No, that’s not true:  people continue to senselessly die in the course of everyday, benign pursuits like attending concerts, dancing in a nightclub, and going to school.

Even if we cannot agree on a solution to these increasingly common outbreaks of anger, terror and fear, surely we can agree by now that our entrenched ways of responding to them aren’t helping.  Indeed, our deadlocked insistences are only holding open the space for more violence to occur.

It’s time we declare a moratorium on trumpeting these binary alternatives.  Regardless of the hypothetical merits of our respective points of view we are not convincing anyone with our “all” or “none” debates.  Collectively we merely end up frustrated, increasingly estranged and entrenched, and doing nothing, blaming the recalcitrant “other.”  Surely we can demonstrate more creativity than we have thus far brought to the problem. 

Years ago Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advocated “third alternative” thinking as a way to harness the synergies of conflicted voices.  Neither “my way” nor “your way”, third alternative thinking likewise moves beyond watered down compromises between the two.  Covey held up the belief that when patient, sincere advocates set their minds to possibilities beyond their original convictions third alternative solutions emerge that are better, richer and more resourceful.  Hasn’t the time long-since arrived for us to give the pursuit of a third alternative a try?

So here we are again.  How many times must we return here?  I have my biases and convictions, but I don’t know the solution.  The fact is you don’t either.  I am convinced, however, that somewhere in our collective imagination, honestly and fervently joined, there is one to be found that years from now our children, who have actually lived to ponder the question, will wonder, “What took you so long?”