Friday, January 29, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye

I have played every role, taken every part,
so that I might save each one.
I Corinthians 9:22

When I was at North United Methodist Church in Manchester, Connecticut, we had an annual fall picnic at Penwood Park in Simsbury. On a fall Sunday after church we drove out to the park. With a large group of adults and children we hiked the trails and then had a picnic together.

The trail runs along the top of a mountain ridge next to the Farmington River Valley. At several points there are wonderful views of the valley. In the fall, with the leaves turning, it is spectacular.

As we hiked, the group tended to separate into smaller groups. Children ran back and forth between the groups and then came back to their parents. At one point we left the main trail to climb a promontory with a great view. The trail ended abruptly at a cliff. Cresting the hill, it looked like the trail went on, but when we reached the summit, it was a cliff.

I was with one of the lead groups, and when we reached the cliff we sent one of the older children back to tell the groups behind us to be careful. Almost as soon as our messenger left, there was a commotion on the trail and a little boy came flying through the woods. When he saw us, he knew that he was near the front of the line and he wanted to pass us. I caught him with an outstretched arm.

He was unhappy and upset with me for stopping him, totally unaware that the only thing beyond us was empty air. I was shaking from what could have happened and thrilled that I had stopped him.

For that brief instant, I was (at least in my own mind) the Catcher in the Rye. And it was a great feeling.

Near the end of J.D. Salinger’s great novel, Holden Caulfield says to his sister, Phoebe, "You know that song, 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'?..." And Phoebe corrects him, "It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!... It's a poem. By Robert Burns."

Then Holden completes his thought,"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."

Me too.

J.D. Salinger

Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody. ~J.D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger died yesterday at the age of 91. The news came to me like a death in the family. Although if I’m really honest I have to say that I didn’t know he was still alive until I found out that he had died. So it was more like the death of a distant uncle you had forgotten about, and now you feel bad because it reminds you that long ago you actually cared about him.

Long ago I did care about J.D. Salinger. And when I heard that he had died, it came back to me. He had a way with words. And at one time I had lots of Salinger quotations on index cards. I wrote term papers and essays about Salinger. In my mind, at least, he was writing about the mystery of ordinary life. And I was intrigued that he stopped writing. For me there was something sacred about it. When he wrote about the emptiness of life, I took it as an implicit affirmation. If you can face the emptiness honestly, then there is hope. St. Paul said that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Words are holy and sacred. For Christians, words are windows on the infinite. They point beyond themselves. And with them we do our best to describe what cannot be described. Words, even the best words, fall short. But in many ways, they are still the best we have.

John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Also at the end.

Monday, January 25, 2010


God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:45

Two confessions:

First, I love sports. I love the competition of participating and the entertainment of watching. I love the unpredictability. And I love the drama. Long ago, when ABC began televising the “Wide World of Sports,” I was completely enthralled by “The drama of athletic competition. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Eventually, “Wide World of Sports” gave way to ESPN and the twenty-four hour cycle of sports news and hype. Just more evidence of the goodness of God's creation.

Second, I am a Brett Favre fan. This has not always been the case. I did not like him in Green Bay. I hated him when Green Bay beat the Patriots (and Drew Bledsoe) in 1996. But the man is now forty years old and he still plays in the NFL, for crying out loud! How is that even possible? Watching Favre is not as much fun as seeing Doug Flutie run for a touchdown when he was the same age. But any guy who can play quarterback at that age is my hero.

(And I will be rooting for Lance Armstrong in the Tour De France.)

As I write this I am wearing my Wrangler Jeans, which really are, as Brett says in the ads, “Real. Comfortable. Jeans. You can pay more, but you won’t get more.” In the ad, he is playing touch football with friends. Of course, I know they are really actors, but they look like friends. And I can easily imagine Brett playing touch football with friends. By comparison, does Tom Brady even have friends? I know he doesn’t wear Wrangler Jeans.

Anyone who doesn’t already know that the Brett Favre Vikings lost to the Saints in the NFC Championship yesterday probably stopped reading this a few paragraphs ago. But just in case. The Vikings lost in overtime. They could have won the game in regulation. And they would have won the game in regulation if Favre had not thrown an interception when his team was in position to try to for the winning field goal. Of course, there were plenty of other things that went wrong, but the general theme of the commentators was that Favre threw it away, “Like he always does in the playoffs.” Because, "that's who Brett Favre is."

Since I have not forgiven the young Favre for beating my Patriots, there is a certain sense of Karma in this for me. So I am totally okay with Brett losing.

What I am not okay with, is the tendency of sports analysts to believe (yes, I have finally gotten to the point) that every athletic contest is a morality tale. It isn’t just a bad t throw, or even a bad judgment, it’s a character flaw.

When a kicker misses a field goal, or a receiver drops a pass that could have won the game, it becomes a character issue. The truth teaches a more difficult and more valuable lesson, success is not the same as character. The good guys don’t always win.

And sometimes there are good guys on both sides. How can anyone root against the Saints?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Votes for Sale

You shall take no bribe.
For a bribe blinds the yes of the officials,
and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
Exodus 23:8

Yesterday in a 5-4 ruling the Supreme Court overturned both laws and legal precedents to declare that corporations can enter directly into political campaigns.

Apparently they believe that the rich and powerful are underrepresented in public life. We already have powerful lobbyists trying to buy votes after our leaders are elected. Now they can buy them first.

It’s not hard to imagine what the Prophets of Israel would say about this. And the New Testament perspective is consistent with Hebrew Scripture. When we read the Bible, one of the things that is clear from beginning to end is that the biblical writers had a keen sense of the interconnection between justice and economics. They knew that wealth and power went together, and they decried the tendency of the rich to oppress the poor.

Micah, Isaiah and Amos all spoke out against the ways that the rich had perverted justice. This is not because the rich are bad and the poor are good. All people, rich and poor, share a tendency to look out for their own self-interest. The biblical perspective is not that rich people are somehow more selfish than poor people, but that they have more power to realize their self-interest. The great American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, called this view Christian Realism.

When John McCain and Russ Feingold joined together to reform the election process and eventually passed the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, they were acting on a widely shared bi-partisan sense that elections were too greatly influenced by rich and powerful groups and individuals. The goal was to level the playing field, or at least reduce the angle. The act was not perfect and it has always had many critics, but most ordinary Americans would agree that electoral politics should not be big business.

The Supreme Court has decided otherwise. I’m guessing this is a case where the right wing will not complain about “Activist Judges” overturning laws passed by elected representatives, although that is precisely what happened.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

God and the Devil in Haiti

Even thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Psalm 23:4

President Obama called the destruction in Haiti “incomprehensible.” As the news reports come in, it is overwhelming. And for some it brings up eternal questions about the mystery of suffering in the world.

But for those who want certain answers, Evangelist Pat Robertson is eager to tell us why it happened. He told viewers of his nationwide TV program that Haiti has been "cursed by one thing after another" since they "swore a pact to the devil." “People might not want to talk about it,” said Robertson, but that’s what happened. And then he explained:

"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it’s a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."

Faithful Christians know that Haiti’s suffering has nothing to do with making a pact with the devil two hundred years ago. We know that because we know that the devil does not exist. Evil exists. And evil is real. And symbolically we talk about the devil as a way to talk about the persistent and pernicious presence of evil in the world. (In that sense, one can “make a pact with the devil,” as the Red Sox did when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.)

Unfortunately, Robertson has a large audience, and some people even outside of his TV viewers take him as a spokesperson for Christianity. For that reason, what he says matters. In the New York Times this morning, Pooja Bhatia, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, has an opinion column titled, “Haiti’s Angry God.” He uses the idea of the earthquake-as- punishment as a way to criticize the faith of Haitian Christians, and by implication, all Christians. He concludes:

“Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.”

Tragically, the people of Haiti have walked through the valley of the shadow too many times. And for too long. In between the disasters there has been an ongoing story of poverty and disease. I just spoke with Bishop Peter Peter Weaver, who said, “Now everyone is talking about the disaster in Haiti. Haiti has been a disaster for a long time, and we haven’t done enough about it.”

But even in the chaos and destruction, there is good news. We already have mission teams on the ground, at work in Haiti. Our mission teams got there BERFORE the earthquake. They were already at work. And they will be there long after the television cameras and news anchors have left.

God is not hiding. Even in the valley of the shadow, especially in the valley of the shadow, God is there.

For more information on relief in Haiti, go to the United Methodist Committee on Relief. You can Google UMCOR, or click on the links through our web site.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Game Change

They went over and over every thing that he said,
looking for ways to trap him with his own words.
Luke 11:54

The book goes on sale today, I think, but it has been preceded by a publicity campaign reminiscent of the Super Bowl. Hyperbole abounds. The book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is called “Game Change,” and it is their account of the 2008 election. An on line column in The Atlantic revealed a controversial conversation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Noting that his encouragement of Senator Obama’s campaign was unwavering, they write:

He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

Comparing his remarks to those of Senator Trent Lott in 2002, critics on the right have called on Reid to resign, and decried the “double standard” that allows Black Democrats to support Reid, while they attacked Lott. I have two comments.

First, the remarks are very different. Trent Lott was speaking at the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond, and in his birthday good wishes he recalled that his home state of Mississippi had voted for Thurmond when he ran for President in 1948 on a Segregationist platform, and said that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected. He was speaking off the cuff and attempting to interject some light humor, but implying that we would be better off if the country were segregated is racist no matter how much he was reaching for humor. Reid, on the other hand, was commenting on the state of the country. In his opinion the country was ready to accept a Black President, especially one with an Ivy League education, whose manner and speech reflected that education. As President Obama said in accepting Reid’s apology, the remarks were clumsy, but not racist.

Second, it is not good for us as a nation to constantly “look for ways to trap” each other with our own words. I love words and I believe that words are important. But they are important because of the ideas they convey, not because “anything you say can and will be used against you . . . .” It serves no good purpose to play a constant and never-ending game of “gotcha.” We are focused on form rather than substance.

Cable news shows are filled with commentators asking other commentators to condemn the remarks of someone who shares their political perspective. Instead of talking about the ideas and issues themselves, we talk about what someone said about someone on one side or the other, and how this one or that one really ought to condemn the speaker in question.

Enough already. We need a real "Game Change."

Instead of talking about the very real problems of racism in America, we are talking about whether Harry Reid’s reference to “Negro dialect” means that he is a racist. A conversation on racism would be helpful. Deconstructing Harry Reid’s “inartful” comments is not.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Guns and Role Models

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. 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.
Philippians 4:8-9

If you have been following sports over the past week, you have heard, seen and read a great deal about injured athletes. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy had to leave the National Championship football game with an injured shoulder after completing two passes on the opening drive. Tim Welker blew out his knee last Sunday and will not play for the Patriots again this season. Red Sox third-baseman Mike Lowell was traded to Texas and then sent back because a physical revealed a thumb injury. One assumes he also has more than a little wounded pride after Boston basically said that they did not want him on the team. And speaking of wounded pride, imagine how Jacoby Ellsbury feels after listening all week to people saying that he really isn’t a very good defensive outfielder.

But sometimes the worst injuries are self-inflicted. And they are often not physical. When it comes to self-inflicted harm, few athletes can match Gilbert Arenas, a star basketball player with the Washington Wizards.

The details are fuzzy, but the basic outline of the story is clear. Arenas got into an argument with a teammate over a gambling debt, and he brought four unloaded handguns (for which he had no permit) to the Wizards locker room. He laid out the weapons and invited his teammate to choose one. More recently, we learned that the teammate, determined not to be outdone, then picked up his own pistol, loaded it and had a bullet ready to fire.

Commenting in the New York Times, Gail Collins writes, “I would like to offer two comments about this. One is that professional athletes should not Twitter. . . . The second thought is that the average Tiger Woods fan is a middle-aged guy who is frequently too tired at night to behave badly if he wanted to, and that we have spent the last month worrying about the wrong role model.”

That second thought is worth pondering.

Not that we should all apologize to Tiger, of course. But our fixation with Tiger was not just about his celebrity, it was also about sex, and about our understanding of sin. I have often said that when modern people think about sin, they think about sex or dessert. There was more hand-wringing over Tiger than over Arenas. But for kids, basketball stars are much more important than golfers. And guns actually kill people.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Gene Autry and the Theology of Santa Claus

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane.
Vixen and Blitzen, and all his reindeer Pulling on the reins.
Bells are ringing, children singing,
All is merry and bright.
Hang your stockings and say a prayer,
'cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

One of our local radio stations began broadcasting Christmas music on November first. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Non-stop. By “Christmas Music,” of course, I mean secular Christmas Music. I don’t mean hymns and carols.

I remarked on this in a sermon, and said (again) that I am not a big fan of secular Christmas Music. In response, a friend gave me the new Bob Dylan Christmas CD, “Christmas in the Heart.” It is a strange thing to hear Dylan singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “The First Noel.” But I liked the album and I found myself paying attention to the words in a new way. Which brings me back to Santa Claus.

The lyrics to “Here Comes Santa Claus” provide a wonderful insight into the theology of Santa Claus. But they tell us even more about the shared beliefs of Americans in the middle of the twentieth century. The song was written in 1947 by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” was in many ways the embodiment of early to mid twentieth century Americana. He sang from the heart of the national ethos. Autry was riding his horse, Champion (I think it was actually the second “Champion”), down Hollywood Boulevard in the annual Christmas parade, when children in the crowd shouted over and over, “Here comes Santa Claus!” As I listened to Bob Dylan sing it, I was amazed at the way secular ideas of Santa were mixed with traditional religious language. The secular (and selfish) admonition to “hang your stockings,” is immediately followed by the reminder to “say a prayer.”

In one phrase, characteristics usually ascribed to God are given to Santa, and in the next phrase we are thanking God for Santa’s impending arrival.

He doesn't care if you're a rich or poor,
He loves you just the same.

If that sounds like Santa is confused with God, the next lines correct that impression.

Santa knows that we're God's children,
That makes everything right.

And then the song closes with my favorite lines:

Peace on earth will come to all
If we just follow the light

So in a very strange way it is about God and Santa, and the Kingdom of God on earth. There is a vision that calls us back to the angel chorus in Luke’s account of the nativity. It comes from a time when our nation shared a broad theological consensus. The song and the images are the product of the Liberal Theology of mid-twentieth century America. It was vague and shallow, and naive, but it was also inclusive, hopeful, and ethically grounded. Sometimes Santa and God get confused. Other times we are reminded that the Christmas story demands a response. God provides the light. We need to follow it.

It’s simple but it’s true:

Peace on earth will come to all
If we just follow the light

The full text of
"Here Comes Santa Claus"
words & music by Gene Autry – Oakley Haldeman

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane.
Vixen and Blitzen, and all his reindeer
Pulling on the reins.
Bells are ringing, children singing,
All is merry and bright.
Hang your stockings and say a prayer,
'cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Riding down Santa Claus lane.
He's got a bag that's filled with toys
For boys and girls again.
Hear those sleigh bells jingle jangle,
What a beautiful sight.
Jump in bed and cover up your head,
’cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane.
He doesn't care if you're a rich or poor,
He loves you just the same.
Santa knows that we're God's children,
That makes everything right.
Fill your hearts with Christmas cheer,
'cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane.
He'll come around when the chimes ring out
It's Christmas morn again.
Peace on earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
Let's give thanks to the Lord above,
'cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

'cause Santa Claus comes tonight