Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40:8

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Psalm 100:5

This will be short. I am aware of the irony of writing twice about Michael Jackson’s death, when my first note said that I found myself unmoved.

That’s still true. But I am fascinated by the attention it has been given, and I can’t resist.

One of the commentators said that his music would live “forever.” That’s a long time. Forever doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God.

I was reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:`
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Death of Michael Jackson

No man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne

I find myself strangely unmoved by the death of Michael Jackson.

On Thursday night, as the cable news networks became all Michael all the time, one of the commentators compared it to the death of JFK, in terms of national impact.

JFK? Maybe Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Elvis Presley. But JFK?

He was a great entertainer, although I do tend to hold him responsible for popularizing the crotch-grabbing which has become so common. Maybe when he did it first, it was a bold move. A symbol of . . .

And now “Billie Jean” is stuck in my head. Part of my problem is that I never adjusted to disco. There were some songs I could tolerate, but I’m with Bob Seeger on “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

When a celebrity dies, we seem to have an enormous cultural need to turn him or her into more than fame. It is as if we have to justify the attention we have given to this person over the years. The people on television tell us that “this is important.” It “transcends” music (or art, or fame, or acting). And maybe it does.

For his family and close friends, it is a terrible loss. He was only fifty years old. There was so much more that could have been. He is, in many ways, a tragic figure. But I find myself thinking instead of all the unknown people who are heroes in their own way. People who live out their lives with honesty and compassion. They are neither rich nor famous, but their lives bring light to the lives of others.

As I thought about Michael Jackson, I found myself meditating on the words of John Donne, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” I remembered it as part of a poem, “No Man Is an Island.”

But when I went looking for the poem, I found instead a meditation in prose. It is a reflection on the connections among human beings. We belong to each other in real and deep ways that transcend every boundary.

So this death, and every death, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the sacredness of life.
The whole of the meditation is below.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Now this bell tolling softly for another,says to me, Thou must die.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Source:Donne, John. The Works of John Donne. vol III.Henry Alford, ed.London: John W. Parker, 1839. 574-5.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wright and Wrong

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

For a serious Christian this is painful. For a pastor who cares about the prophetic role of preaching, this is excruciating. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But it’s not good.

Before he retired, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, where the Barack and Michelle Obama were members for many years. During the Presidential campaign, Wright’s controversial remarks caused Obama to distance himself from his former pastor, and eventually to leave the church.

David Squires of the Daily Press conducted an exclusive interview with Rev. Wright at the 95th annual Hampton University Minister’s Conference, in which he asked Rev. Wright if he had spoken with President Obama since the election. His response was astonishing:

"Them Jews ain't going to let him talk to me," Wright said. "I told my baby daughter that he'll talk to me in five years when he's a lame duck, or in eight years when he's out of office. ...”

Squires’ report goes on to report that, “Wright also said Obama should have sent a U.S. delegation to the World Conference on Racism held recently in Geneva, Switzerland, but that the president did not for fear of offending Jews and Israel. He specifically cited the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group.”

This is way over the top. It is raw anti-Semitism and inexcusable bigotry.

In the past I have felt that the criticism of Rev. Wright reflected the limited perspective of pundits and commentators who knew little about Black Liberation Theology or the biblical tradition of prophetic preaching. And I still believe that was the case. But this one is different.

Sadly, when a pastor makes remarks like that it calls into question every comment that he or she has ever made. If we are certain (as certain as human beings can be) that this remark was bigoted, then it makes us suspect that other remarks, which might have had multiple interpretations, were also mean-spirited.

While Rev. Wright indulged his verbal anti-Semitism, a white supremacist was shooting an African American guard at the Holocaust Museum. James W. von Brunn and Jeremiah Wright make strange bedfellows. And words, however mean, are never the same as bullets. But the feelings and the events cannot be totally separated.

It was not a good moment for Rev. Wright. And that is his business. He will live with the consequences. But it was also not a good moment for anyone who cares about prophetic preaching and speaking.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Remembering Walter Muelder

The Lord said to Moses, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.

Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. Deuteronomy 34:4-7

Walter Muelder died five years ago, on June 12, 2004, at the age of 97. He died of a sudden heart attack. He had not been ill. Like Moses, his mind was “unimpaired.” and “his vigor had not abated.”

He was passionate until the end about peace and justice, and civil rights. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Boston University to pursue a Ph.D., Muelder was Dean of the School of Theology and a Professor of Christian Social Ethics. He was one of Dr. King’s teachers, and Muelder’s ethics made a deep impact on King.

The story of Moses being shown the Promised Land, but unable to go there is always poignant and painful. Dr. King used that same imagery before his own death. But in a larger sense everyone committed to the Kingdom of God will be in that same position. We know that where we are is not where we are called to be. And we know that as we journey forward there will be new challenges and possibilities. We are always looking ahead to the Promised Land.

On June 9, 2004, just three days before he died, Dean Muelder was looking toward another “Promised Land” of equal rights, when he addressed the retired pastors of our United Methodist Conference with this challenge:

We retired ministers have an ongoing role to play in the conflicts, such as those on homosexuality, which threatened to split the church at the last General Conference. We are in constant dialogue with clergy and laity who are rightfully troubled by these issues. We can help hold the church together by reminding people to think comprehensively and holistically about these questions. The positions taken by militant opponents are often narrowly based by appeals to the authority of single verses of Scripture as decisively conclusive.

We need to remind the whole church that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.

As retired ministers we are constantly in contact with members of the contemporary church and hence we are part of its ongoing dialogue to maintain the unity of the church.

Within the biblical word, we have to use the whole Bible. Isolated texts can never be decisive. In the tradition of John Wesley, we have a fourfold basis for arriving at ethical and theological insights: scripture, reason, tradition and experience. And then that wonderful sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” Muelder was convinced that a faithful study of scripture in the context of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, would lead us to the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbian persons in the church.

What a wonderful legacy for the church!

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Silence of Our Friends

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of those in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would cry out.”

Luke 19:37-40

NEWSWEEK has an article on “The American Future,” by historian and social critic Simon Schama. They summarize what they call “the four best bits” from the book. This is number four:

“For many European secularists, American religiosity can seem either dangerous or deluded. But some of the nation’s greatest social movements (anti-slavery, civil rights) would likely not have succeeded without the help, and moral fervor, of religious organizations.”

I would have added the Social Gospel impact on labor laws and social welfare (the American interest in sociology was not academic, it was fueled by the Social Gospel determination to learn how best to help those in poverty). And let’s not forget that Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the great Social Gospel pioneers, drafted the first Social Security plan as part of the Republican Party platform in 1904.

The Social Gospel movement was good for the country, but it was also good for the church. The church is at its most faithful best when it is pressing forward, ahead of the curve, and beyond its own comfort zone on social issues. Our vision of the Kingdom of God, at the center of Jesus’ preaching, calls us to create a more just society.

Karen Izzo, an advocate for Gay Marriage and other issues of concern to the Gay and Lesbian community (you can read her blog at http://www.familiesforequality.blogspot.com/), has a quotation at the bottom of her emails:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sadly, on the issue of Civil Rights for our Gay and Lesbian sisters and brothers, the church has been silent. We have not been faithful. Neither the church nor the nation has been well served by our silence.

As Jesus said when he led his disciples into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday, declaring the Kingdom of God in radical opposition to the violence and injustice of the empire, "Even the stones would cry out".

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

George Tiller Murdered . . . in His Church

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”

Psalm 122:1

Dr. George Tiller was murdered last Sunday morning. For anyone who follows the debates about abortion, it was not a great surprise. Dr. Tiller was one of the few surgeons willing to perform late term abortions. He was vilified by the pro-life movement at “Killer Tiller,” or “Tiller the Killer.”

I have supported a woman’s right to choose abortion for more than three decades. Years ago I had a leadership role in “The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.” My name was often attached to public statements and I frequently testified at the State House. But like many of those who support a woman’s right to choose, I have done so with a deep sense of regret at the number of abortions. Abortion is never a “good” choice. It may be the lesser of two evils, and it may be the best choice available, but it is never “good.” And with late term abortions, the level of moral ambiguity, and my own discomfort with the process, increases dramatically.

Although I had heard a great deal about Dr. Tiller, I had never seen a picture of him, or heard him speak, or even read a single word that he had written. I imagined him to be committed to the cause of legal abortion with a stern zeal. I imagined him as cold and clinical. And I imagined him to be a staunch secularist.

I never imagined that he went to church. It never occurred to me that he might be a serious Christian.

Ironically, his killer did know that. His killer knew that he could be found on Sunday mornings at Reformation Lutheran Church, handing out bulletins, welcoming fellow Christians to worship and helping them find their seats.

He was killed in his church, where he was an usher, where his wife sang in the choir.

Andrew Sullivan, a devout Christian who is pro-life, described the killing as an attack on Christianity. The sanctuary, he said, should be respected. The killing would be wrong anywhere, but because it was in the sanctuary of a church, it should be felt as an attack on all Christians. He went on to say that in his blog, when he decried the murder while re-stating his own opposition to late-term abortions, he received many responses from women who told heart-wrenching stories about their own struggles and the necessity of that last resort.

Murder is always tragic. The pain is always immense. I do not mean to suggest that somehow this is more tragic than some other loss of life. But this feels personal. It makes me think of the dedicated surgeons and physicians who are part of our congregation. None of them is involved in anything so controversial, and yet there are zealots who can find things they believe to be wrong almost anywhere. And medicine has become inherently controversial.

I would like to have had the chance to speak with him about his faith and his work. He knew it was dangerous, but he believed that the needs of his patients out-weighed the personal danger. And I suspect he also may have had deep thoughts about the moral ambiguity of the choices we make.

Martin Luther said that we should love God and sin boldly. By that he meant that sin is unavoidable, and that we need to trust in God’s grace. Sin is the necessary but unintended consequence of our living. It would have been less controversial if he had said that we should love God and live boldly, but it also would have been, for Luther, less than the truth. My guess is that they talked about that more than once at Reformation Lutheran Church.

I have copied the “Welcome” from the Reformation Lutheran Church web-site. The last sentence says, "We respect varying points of view and consider diversity to be one of our attributes." We could say that about our church. It is ordinary, and wonderful, and now poignant.

Welcome to Reformation Lutheran Church! We are a family of warm, welcoming people who enjoy sharing the love of Jesus Christ with each other and new friends.

As a Christ-centered church, we worship one Lord and Savior, confess our faith together, and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We trust deeply in the power of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of God’s grace.

As caring Christians, we respond with love to the needs of others. You will find comfort and acceptance here—the security of support in times of joy and sorrow and when struggling with life’s challenges. We respect varying points of view and consider diversity to be one of our attributes.