Monday, March 2, 2015

If It’s March, then It Must Be Lent

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

Song of Solomon 2:10-13

In his hymn to love and to spring, the writer of the Song of Solomon announces joyfully that the winter is past and the rain is over and gone.

Sadly, our winter is not past.

Easter is in April this year, as it most often is. And that is a good thing. Easter belongs in April. April has daffodils. And warm sunshine. And green grass. In this winter of  unending cold, we can’t wait for April and Easter.

In March, most of the time, the wind is still cold. The branches on the trees are bare. We gain more sunlight in March and in any other month, but it does not really warm up until it is nearly April.

This year especially, March is the time when we are almost ready to give up, and resign ourselves to endless winter. March is the time when we can hardly believe that spring is possible.

Lent is always in March. Lent belongs in March. The stark themes of repentance and suffering fit the landscape. Bleak and barren. A time of sharp contrasts. It is too cold to spend much time outside. But in the few days when the sun is warm and it feels like spring, it is a gift. Something unexpected.

I am not sure whether we really need another cold month, but we need Lent. We need some time to sing our songs in a minor key. We need reflection and the renewal that comes with it. I love that time in late April or early May, when in the space of a week the buds turn into leaves. I love it when the daffodils burst into bloom.

But the changes of March are largely unseen. Beneath the surface bulbs are turning into flowers. Without the unseen changes of March, the visible beauty of April and May would be impossible. Our spirits need that same time for unseen growth and change. In the cold darkness, God is at work. Frozen spirits are opening. New life begins.

Monday, February 16, 2015

MG's, Mystical Visions, and Marcus Borg


Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
Matthew 17:5-6

In his book, “Convictions,” the late Marcus Borg describes a series of mystical experiences that convinced him of the reality and the mystery of God.

None of his experiences were as dramatic as the disciples’ experience at the Transfiguration. The Bible does not describe many visions or mystical experiences, and when they are described, a lot of them are negative. There are many instances of “false visions,” in which a false prophet tries to convince the people of Israel that what he wants them to do is really “from the Lord.” Not surprisingly, those episodes tend to end badly for the false prophets. And when the narrative speaks of an authentic vision, as at the Transfiguration, most of the time the response is overwhelming fear.

Marcus Borg’s mystical experiences are reassuring rather than fearful.

Remembering the first of these, he writes, “It happened as I was driving through a sunlit rural Minnesota winter landscape alone in a nine-year old MG two-seater roadster. The only sounds were the drone of the car and the wind through the thin canvas top. I had been on the road for about three hours when I entered a series of S-curves.” Then suddenly everything glowed and looked wondrous and he was amazed.

As you might guess, this brought a lot of questions to my mind.

What model of MG was it?

Was it an MGA?

Or an MGB?

Or (it takes my breath away even to think about it) could it have been an MG TF?

If it was an MG TF, then it would have been mystical, but hardly surprising. The TF’s were the last of the classical MG’s. One of the most beautiful cars ever made. How could anyone drive a TF and not have a mystical experience? Richard Dawkins would have had a mystical experience in a TF.

Theoretically, it could have been an MG Midget. They were the MG version of the Austin Healey Sprite (the later ones, not the “Bug Eye Sprite) and they looked like a miniature version of the MGB. But a mystical experience in an MG Midget would be a true miracle. They were cute and fun, but it’s hard to imagine one experiencing any sort of transcendence in an MG Midget.

Many of my childhood experiences centered on events at the Cape Cod Sports Car Club. Our “Sports Car” was a Volkswagen Beetle, but my dad was a founding member and always very good with all sorts of cars. He spent many hours fixing other peoples’ exotic automobiles.

I was not old enough to drive any of those cars, but I often rode in them, and I remember riding across the Bourne Bridge in an MG TD. The low seating and the low cut doors made it feel like you were in a race car. On that day the sky was clear blue and the sun reflected off of the canal below. I don’t know if I would have called it a mystical experience. But it was close.

A mystical experience in an MG on a sunlit road entering a series of S-curves. I can easily believe that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Just Do What's Right

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8

Over the years, many of my heroes have disappointed me.

But there are some people for whom my admiration grows with time and I later realize that although I may have thought well of them, maybe even idolized them, I also fundamentally underestimated what they had done.

Dean Smith is in the latter group.

I was always a fan. I admired the way he never got flustered, never seemed to lose his temper. He did not gloat when his teams won. He did not whine when they lost. He was gracious in victory and defeat. He seemed to keep it all in perspective. And when he retired after 36 years of coaching basketball at the University of North Carolina, nobody had won more games. And his players actually graduated.

In a book called, “The Carolina Way,” written with Gerald Bell and John Kilgo, Smith said, “My basketball philosophy boils down to six words. Play hard; play together; play smart.”

But there was a lot more to Dean Smith than basketball.

In an article written for the Washington Post, John Feinstein told of researching a feature on Smith. He writes, “One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.”

“You have to remember,” Reverend Seymour told Feinstein, “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.”

So Dean Smith, an assistant coach, not yet 30 years old and a newcomer to Chapel Hill, invited a black member of the church to go to lunch with him at a restaurant where the management knew him because the (all white) basketball team often ate there. They were served without incident, and that was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When Feinstein went back to Smith to ask him for more details on what happened that night, Smith was visibly angry. “Who told you about that?” he demanded.

“Reverend Seymour,” Feinstein answered.

“I wish he hadn’t done that.”

“Why?” asked Feinstein. “You should be proud of doing something like that.”

And then, Feinstein recalled, “He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.’”

In 1988 Smith was part of a delegation of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in a clemency hearing for a man whom Coach Smith had befriended when he brought members of the UNC basketball team to visit inmates on death row.

Smith led the discussion with the governor. Pointing his finger at him, he said, “You’re a murderer!”

And then, one by one, he pointed to members of the PFADP and the pastors in the delegation and said, “And you’re a murderer! And you’re a murderer! And you’re a murderer!” Then with his finger pointing at himself he said, “The death penalty makes us all murderers.”

In “A Coach’s Life” he wrote: “What do you call the worst human beings you know? Human beings loved by the Creator!”

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear these words of mine and do them.” Dean Smith was that kind of Christian.

The Apostle Paul followed his message on truth, justice and excellence with a sentence that Dean Smith would have been too modest to speak, but he is one of the few people who could have said it without exaggerating his values and actions, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

Four Guys on the Roof

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven. . . . Stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

I need to begin with a footnote. The healing stories in the Gospels are always problematic texts for preaching, because all of us know people who have not been healed. At least, not in the way that they would wish. We only have to read the “Fellowship of Concern” in our bulletin to know that that is true. And it is important that Christians never, never burden those who are already suffering with the notion that if they had more faith they would, in fact, be healed. The healing power of God must always remain a mystery. And the forms of God’s healing must also be a mystery. But in spite of that caution, these stories speak to us in a profound way about our need for healing and about God’s healing power.

Let’s look at the story itself.

First, from the perspective of the paralytic and the people who carried him. Four guys. Maybe they were in Capernaum, that’s where Jesus teaching. Maybe they were in Bethsaida, which is not far away. Maybe they were in the hill country not far from town. We don’t know where they were. But some way, somehow, these four guys got together with their friend who was paralyzed. And they began to talk. And someone said, “You know, there’s this rabbi, Yeshua, and people are telling amazing stories about him. There have been healings. We should take you!”

And the man probably protested, telling them they shouldn’t go to all that trouble, they have their own lives, they are too busy. Besides, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. But I imagine they persisted. “WE have nothing to lose. Let’s try this.”

So they picked him up and they carried him. Can’t you imagine them walking through the market and down the village streets, and people looking and wondering what’s going on?

Eventually, they arrived at the house. Not only is it full inside, the crowd spills out through the doorway and into the courtyard. There is no possibility of getting into the house. But these guys are determined.

In those days, in Palestine, houses were often made with a mud and thatch roof. Sometimes they were built into the side of a hill, so that you could actually walk around the side of the hill and up on top of the roof. And that’s what they did. They went around the side and up the hill onto the roof. Then they set their friend down and began digging through the thatch and the mud.

Now, let’s switch perspective. Imagine that we are inside. Rabbi Jesus is teaching, and a group of rabbis are gathered around him, along with the disciples and a crowd of other listeners. The house is so full that it is hard for anyone to move.

The scripture says, “He was teaching them the word,” which probably means he was teaching Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, what we call the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses). Suddenly, things begin to fall from the roof.

Things begin to fall. First dirt and dust sifts down. Pretty soon Jesus can’t even tell his story. Everyone is looking up at the roof, and by now large chunks of things are falling on them. People scramble and cover their heads. And then the roof opens up. Jesus looks up there where there are these four guys looking down, probably pretty proud of themselves. What a great opportunity! They have been able to engage in an act of vandalism and do a good deed, a mizpah, at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Before Jesus can say anything, the four guys are lowering a fifth guy down into the house right in front of Jesus. They lean down as far as they can, and then pass him to those in the house.

Jesus is amazed at what he sees. Mark observes, “When he saw their faith . . . .” Not the faith of the paralyzed man. He is marveling at the faith of the four guys who carried him through town and ripped up the roof. What a risk they took! “When he saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Somehow, Jesus understands that what is paralyzing this man is an overwhelming sense of guilt. There may be fear also, but guilt apparently plays a major role. He is so scared and so guilty, that he cannot even move. Jesus understands that the only way for the man to be healed is for him to feel a sense of grace and forgiveness. He is making a connection between the physical and the spiritual. He turns to the paralyzed man and says, “Take up your mat and walk!”

The man stands up. And takes his mat. And walks out of the house. People are in shock. The crowd gathered around the house saw the man carried up onto the roof, and now they see him walking out the door. They are excited and amazed, and they shout, “We never saw anything like this!” Which is the only proper response to the church in action. When the church is really the church, when we are really being the people God has called us to be, the only proper response is, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” It is always amazing to believers and non-believers alike.

When we look at the church, we often take a whole lot of things for granted. But I will have to say to you, there have been many times in our life together here, when I have looked at what has gone on and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” And I suspect that others of you have said the very same thing. To see God’s grace among us is always amazing.

What are the points of the story?

First, we shouldn’t miss the most obvious point. If you want to preserve your roof, you need to build a ramp, or an elevator, or provide some other access. If you don’t let persons with disabilities in through the door, God may find another way. And the other way may not be as comfortable for you. We can apply this same point to other parts of our lives. Whenever we block someone or something out, God may find another way.

The central point is almost as obvious. The take home message is this: if you are not on the stretcher, then you ought to be carrying it. At a Bible study, we were talking about whether in our understanding of God’s grace there are “shoulds.” Does God speak to us in terms of “should” and “ought”? Or are those words an implicit denial of God’s grace?

Certainly, we ought to be careful in our use of “should” and “ought.” But let me try to explain what I mean when I say that if you are not on the stretcher, then you ought to be carrying it. If I don’t need to be carried, then I need to grab a corner and pick up somebody else.

A word of warning. There are in this life what I would call “pathological helpers,” people who define their own self-worth and the worth of others in solely in terms of their utilitarian value as helpers. If they cannot help, then they feel they have no worth, and they tend to help even those who don’t want to be helped. They help people who don’t want to do things, to do the things that the helper believes the helpee ought to do. If you have ever fallen victim to such a helper, then you know what I am talking about.

But even with that caution, who are the happiest and healthiest people in the story? The guys that carry the mat have to be the happiest people in the story. And they have to be the healthiest people in the story. We cannot be carried and be healthy. If we are carried long enough, eventually our muscles atrophy.

The healthiest and happiest people in this life are those who are able to help others. And we know that in our own experience. The “should” is not because if you don’t help you are naughty. The “should” is because this is what God calls us to do and to be. We are called to be the church in action.

There is another side to this. The other side is that every single one of us has times when he or she needs to be carried. There is not one of us who will go through our lives without needing to be carried multiple times. We are carried at the beginning of life and we are carried at the end. But we also need to be carried over and over again in between. There are times when we need to be physically carried, and there are times when we need to be emotionally carried.

When we need to be carried, emotionally or physically, and refuse that help, we hurt the whole community of faith. Carrying and being carried should be a gift of grace; a gift for the person who is lifted up and carried, and a gift for the persons who do the carrying. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them carry us. Not forever. Not if we are able to get up and do it for ourselves. But until we are able to do that.

My grandfather Gibbs lived all of his life on Cape Cod, and he was a marvelously independent old Yankee. He was a helpful person. And for most of his 90-plus years he was a “carrier.” But there came a time at the end of his life, when he was no longer able to do for others or even for himself. One of the greatest gifts he gave to his family and friends was in the way he responded to the help of others.

Everything that anyone did was always “wonderful.” I remember one summer day when Elaine made him corn muffins. “Best muffins I ever had,” he told her. At the end of a summer day, when we were sitting in the yard, as the sun finally went down, he would turn to me and say, “Well Billy, I guess we got all the good we can out of this day.” I have never been a great conversationalist, by he was just grateful for the company and the sunshine. Everything that anyone did was received as if it were an act of overwhelming generosity.

Of all the things he ever did in his life, and all the help he gave to others, perhaps the most important thing he did in his life was to gratefully and gracefully receive the help of others when that time came. God grant that I should have such a spirit in similar circumstances!

There is an emotional and spiritual connection that Jesus wants us to understand. Jesus wants us to be clear that there is a link between the guilt that this man feels and his need for healing. There is an emotional component to his healing.

Forgiveness comes first. Jesus gives that first, because that is his greatest need. In more modern language, we might say that first comes God’s acceptance.

Then comes the challenge. “Stand up. Take the healing that God has given. Be the person God has called you to be.”

If we allow ourselves to act sick when we are not sick, if we allow ourselves to be carried when we don’t need to be carried, if we refuse to carry others, we will not be healthy. It is impossible. If we refuse the challenge to stand up and walk, we won’t be healthy.

We all know examples of people who use their weakness, their illness, to manipulate and control others. We have all experiences that at one time or another. (And my suspicion is that we have all done it at one time or another. But we are less clear about that).

Jesus brings both a word of grace and a challenge. Receive the healing. Get up and walk. Be responsible. For us to be the church, we need to know that we are healthiest and happiest when we are carrying others, when we are lifting folks up. And we need to know that in those times when we need to be lifted up, there are people who will do that for us.

Finally, we need to know that God loves us and accepts us just the way we are. And with that love and acceptance comes a responsibility to take hold of the life that God has given us and live it to the full.    

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Fulsome Orthodoxy

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

Recently I came across an essay by Mark Tooley, called “Calvinist Evangelicals in a United Methodist Church!” Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a right-wing institution committed to demonizing mainline Christianity. He is a longtime critic of the United Methodist Church, and the essay was predictably negative.

What was surprising was the theology he advocated as an alternative to what he sees as the non-biblical drift of “institutional Methodism.”

He tells of walking by a church that once was home to a healthy United Methodist congregation and now houses a new and vibrant Calvinist church filled with enthusiastic millenials. “I was walking by an old United Methodist sanctuary,” he writes, “and heard uncharacteristic music emanating from the windows. Curiosity drove me inside, where I was surprised to see a full congregation of almost all twenty-somethings singing fulsomely as a band performed behind the altar.”

I don’t think he really meant to say that they were singing “fulsomely.” Fulsome is defined as “offensive to good taste,” “disgusting, sickening,” and “repulsive.” On the other hand, his essay certainly was fulsome.

He is saddened, he says, that there are no comparable United Methodist alternatives. “Sometimes over the years I’ve been asked by friends where their young adult child newly arrived in the nation’s capital might find a vital and orthodox United Methodist church. I’ve told them there really are no options.”

As a pastor who feels blessed to serve a congregation where the worship service is always accompanied by the sounds of babies, I share his sadness that there are not more “vibrant” United Methodist churches filled with enthusiastic millenials. But I was immediately suspicious about what he might mean by “orthodox.”

“Think about it,” writes Tooley. “The most powerful city in the world has almost no vital, orthodox United Methodist churches. Instead there are typically small, liberal congregations that celebrate their diversity but have little capacity for meaningful outreach.”

For Tooley, the key word is “orthodox.” And by orthodox, he means a particular brand of orthodox. He doesn’t mean what most Christian theologians would have called orthodox in the mid-twentieth century. He isn’t talking about something that Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr would have called orthodox.

He quotes approvingly from the website of the church he visited: “We believe in the personal, bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

I don’t believe in the “bodily return” of our Lord, but I can get behind “constant expectancy,” “blessed hope,” “sacrificial service and energetic mission.” I may understand those terms differently than Mark Tooley does, but the terms themselves are familiar to many, if not most, thoughtful Christians.

But we’re not done. In Tooley’s view, the best is yet to come. He quotes again from the website:

“God’s gospel requires a response that has eternal consequences. We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.”
It’s hard to know where to begin. Given enough time and thought, I could make my way around “eternal consequences,” but do they really believe that “God will raise the dead bodily”? Do they really believe in “eternal conscious punishment”? My guess is that many Christians who say they believe in hell would still be a little squeamish about “eternal conscious punishment.” That takes it up a notch or two.

And the dividing line for these eternal consequences is between “believers” and “unbelievers”. Pay no attention that that parable about the sheep and the goats, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc. God only cares about what you believe.

Tooley seems to think that the only thing standing in the way of a massive revival of Methodism in America is our failure to properly believe in hell. When you think about it, it is a remarkably dark and narrow vision.

In contrast to the robust faith he sees in this “orthodox” church, Tooley is appalled by the mission of what he calls “diversity churches.” They have given up a commitment to orthodoxy, he says, and replaced it with “inclusiveness, community building, radical hospitality, affirmation, etc.” And then he quotes the words of welcome from the website of one of these “diversity churches:”

No matter,
– Where you’ve come from or are going;
– What you believe or doubt;
– What you are feeling or just not feeling;
– What you have or don’t have; and
– No matter whom you love
All of who you are
– is welcomed into this community of faith
– by a God who loves you passionately.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Several years ago when our daughter was doing an internship at the Smithsonian, we heard that welcome given by the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church where our daughter was attending. CHUMC was a small congregation, but wonderfully vibrant and faithful.

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is now the new Senior Pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The folks at Foundry would certainly fail Mark Tooley’s test of orthodoxy, but they are vital, and vibrant, and they are not small (in any sense of that word).

My guess is that the millenials attending the church that Mark Tooley visited are more positively engaged by the praise band than by the theology. And I don’t think that such a dark vision of Christianity will be compelling in the long run. In fact, that dark vision, supported by a crudely selective biblical literalism, is one of the major barriers to getting young people to take the Christian church seriously. But that’s not the biggest problem with Tooley’s vision. The biggest problem is that in the deepest sense it is unchristian. He advocates an “orthodoxy” which does violence to the teachings of Jesus.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tom Brady, Shoeless Joe, and the Snowplow Game

You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Legend has it that when “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, left the court building after testifying to a grand jury about his part in a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, a young boy reached out from the crowd and pulled on his coat sleeve. As his eyes filled with tears, the boy pleaded with his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”Joe Jackson answered sadly, “Sorry, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Accounts differ on the wording, and the more likely consensus of baseball historians is that the exchange never took place.

Although Jackson pleaded guilty, many have had a hard time believing that he did anything to contribute to the White Sox losing. He batted .375, played errorless ball in the outfield and even threw a runner out at the plate.

Unless you have been far off the grid for the past week, you have heard (repeatedly) about the long national nightmare known variously as “Ballghazi,” “Deflategate,” or “the latest Patriots scandal.” Even though I know that if you haven’t already heard about it that’s probably because you don’t want to hear about it, I’ll repeat just the briefest outline. The Patriots are accused of intentionally taking some of the air out of the footballs they used to defeat the Indianapolis Colts (45-7) last Sunday.

I know. When you see the score, it makes you wonder whose footballs were deflated. But it’s not about the final score. To paraphrase the passage from Deuteronomy, “You shall only have the full and honest pressure in the football.”

Yesterday morning, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s press conference was covered live by WGBH. That would be National Public Radio’s WGBH. At quarterback Tom Brady’s press conference yesterday afternoon he was questioned more closely than a supreme court nominee.

And Brady did what Shoeless Joe did not do; he said that it wasn’t so.

As I listened, I believed him. He was careful with his words. He was obviously nervous and upset. He was gracious. Turns out I am apparently in a very small minority on this one.

The sports commentators, including those from local media outlets, all thought he was lying. On one of the national shows, Spencer Tillman dismissed Brady’s denial with a reference to the culture of cheating in New England that goes back to the “snowplow game.”


The snowplow game has always been a personal favorite of mine. I think the Patriots were playing the Dolphins in Foxboro. It was snowing hard. The Patriots had hired a guy on work-release from Walpole State Prison (a detail that makes the story even better) to plow snow off of the line markers during time-outs. Late in the game the Patriots were getting ready for a field goal and when the snow plow guy cleared the yard markers he took a little detour to clear the spot from which John Smith would be kicking. Taking advantage of the bare ground, Smith split the uprights for a Patriots win.

Good times. Thanks for the memories, Spencer Tillman, but Tom Brady was in kindergarten when the snowplow guy cleared a spot for John Smith.

Mark Brunelle’s condemnation was less sweeping, but more direct. “I did not believe what Tom had to say” Brunelle began. “Those balls were deflated. Somebody had to do it. I don't believe there's an equipment manager in the NFL that would, on his own initiative, deflate a ball without the starting QB's approval ... That football is our livelihood. If you don't feel good about throwing that ball? Your success on the football field can suffer from that."

If you see the world as black and white, then the Patriots must have cheated. When the referees checked the balls at half-time, they were underinflated. But sports is not just black and white. There is a lot of gray. The gray area is not cheating; it is gamesmanship.

The rules on gamesmanship are a little different. Aaron Rodgers, by his own admission, prefers his footballs to be overinflated. Sometimes when the referees check before the game, they take air out to bring the inflation pressure within the rules. Sometimes, one assumes, they leave his footballs a little harder than the rules allow. No one thinks Aaron Rodgers is cheating.

So where do we draw the line?

I think that’s pretty clear. If the footballs were deflated after the referees checked them, then that is cheating. If the referees passed them and they were underinflated, then that is gamesmanship.

According to the NFL, a referee checked the Patriots’ footballs before the game and they were okay. But we don’t know what that means. Did the ref put a gauge on every football? Or did he give them a squeeze and think they were okay? That’s a big difference.

Of course, I want to believe that the ref passed on the footballs and they weren’t checked with a gauge until half-time. When I think about the alternative, I feel like that little kid questioning Shoeless Joe.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Children of Abraham at Duke

The path to parenthood was not an easy one for Abraham and Sarah. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, but he and Sarah were childless. So Sarah insisted that her servant Hagar would bear child in her place. And she did. But when Sarah finally was able to bear a child of her own, she demanded that Hagar and her son Ishmael be cast out into the wilderness. Abraham sent them away, with just a skin of water, knowing that they had little chance of survival.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
Genesis 21:15-20

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots back to Abraham. For Judaism and Christianity, that line runs through Isaac. For Islam, the line runs through Ishmael.

Though they share a common ancestry, and are often linked as “the three great Abrahamic religions,” Judaism, Christianity and Islam have an uncomfortable tension built into their stories of origin.

In my last post, I wrote about how in Wahhabi extremism that tension often turns deadly.

But it also plays out in less deadly ways.

Recently the good folks at Duke University tried to foster interreligious tolerance and understanding when they announced that every Friday at 1:00 p.m. the chapel would broadcast the adhan, the Muslim call to midday prayers in Arabic and English.

The response was swift if not surprising. The Rev. Franklin Graham, whose extremist views often seem at odds with his kinder and gentler father, responded with his typical thoughtfulness on Facebook:

Ashley Pratte, writing on, saw it as part of a larger sinister pattern. “As campuses continue to foster political correctness,” she wrote, “they use it as a way to favor religions seemingly at war with Western Civilization and Judeo-Christian beliefs.” She went on to observe, “Frequently, we see students fighting for their religious freedom on campus—especially Christians. We hope that Duke University will also allow equal opportunity for Christian students to gather to pray and respect their religious freedom.”

If Ms. Pratte knew anything at all about Duke, she would know Christianity is alive and well. The chapel has regular Christian worship services Sunday mornings at 11:00 a.m., as well as at other times through the week. Every day at 5:00 p.m. they have a carillon concert, audible across the campus, that frequently includes Christian hymns. Duke is also home to a United Methodist seminary, Duke Divinity School, and Duke has maintained a United Methodist connection since its founding.

Ms. Pratte, Rev. Graham and their many allies on cable news can rest easy. Duke has reversed its decision. There will be no broadcast of the call to prayer.

David Graham (no relation to Franklin) reported in The Atlantic on line that Omid Safi, Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center said that the University’s response was understandable since there had been "numerous verified instances of credible threats" against leaders of the University. "My disappointment is primarily directed toward people who find it acceptable to have recourse to violence, even the threat of violence, to make the point they want to make—particularly if they see these threats as being substantiated by their own religious conviction." he explained. "We all know about the Muslim community having our crazies, but it seems like we don’t have a monopoly on it."

To be clear, neither Ms. Pratte nor Rev. Graham was calling for violence, but in our hyper-sensitized times the threats are not surprising.

In the Atlantic article, the other David Graham comments, “Now, one might argue that while Duke's gesture was well-intentioned, the timing was wrong—why rile people up at a moment when nerves are already on edge about Islam? But I think it's the other way around. There's no time when it is as essential to stand on the side of a minority as when that group is under fire.”