Friday, March 26, 2010

Reasoning Together

Come, let us reason together.
Isaiah 1:18

I remembered a speech in which Lyndon Johnson used those words. I remembered it as a speech about the Viet Nam War, but I wondered if it could have been a speech about Civil Rights.

As it turns out, that was one of President Johnson’s favorite Bible verses and he used it all the time. And when I went back to read contemporary accounts of his Presidency, I found that one of his great goals was building consensus.

Those words come back to me now because this is a time, as a nation, when we need to reason together. We need to listen to each other. We need to think. As John Wesley said, “We need to think and let think.”

Jesus calls to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God. And we are promised that God will meet us in the future. But sometimes I find myself going backwards, with a deep sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be. The challenge, of course, is to maintain the enduring values of the past and carry them into the future.

In the 1980’s when Congress was debating President Reagan’s plan to cut spending and taxes, I was serving Mathewson Street Church in Providence. A woman on our staff spoke with me about one small part of that plan, which would cut early intervention services for children with developmental delays and other congenital problems. Nancy’s daughter, Carol, had been born with Spina Bifida. At that time she was a little girl; a brilliant little girl with a wonderful talent for music and a million dollar smile. Later she would become a wheel chair athlete.

Nancy explained that one reason Carol had transcended her disabilities was that she had benefited from early intervention and that these services would be cut under the plan being considered in Congress. Their family could have purchased those services on their own, and they would have done that, but they were more fortunate than most. Other children would just be left behind. “And,” said Nancy, “once they miss that early intervention, they can never make it up.”

Together we decided to visit Senator John Chafee, one of the most influential leaders in Congress. The meeting lasted perhaps half an hour. After listening to Nancy’s concern for a few minutes, he got up and went into the next room to get a staff person to take notes. He asked questions and listened carefully. Nancy explained how money spent on intervention early in a child’s life would not only benefit the child; it would also save money on support services later. He did not promise to change the legislation, but he did promise to raise the issue and talk with other senators and with staff people. A few months later, the legislation was passed, and the early intervention program had been restored.

The point is not that he agreed with us, although he apparently did. The point is that he was willing to listen and that he really did want to do what was best for the country. I miss John Chafee.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Racism and Shame

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:10-12

During the Civil Rights marches we saw the same scenes repeated over and over again across the south. Non-violent protestors were met with violence and hatred. Little girls had their dresses soaked with spit, just because they were trying to go to a school that had previously been open only to whites. Men and women were brutally beaten.

And the news photos show angry white men and women, shaking their fists, their faces contorted with hatred. Over the years, as I have looked at the pictures and watched the films, I have thought how terrible it must be to have yourself recorded for posterity shouting hateful things. Often the faces are clearly visible. Children and grandchildren must be able to recognize them. How would you explain that to a grandchild?

Forty-five years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a march from Selma to Montgomery. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were beaten and turned back by state troopers, but they regrouped and eventually marched to the capitol. It was on that bridge forty-five years ago this month, that Representative John Lewis was severely beaten.

This past Saturday in Washington as Lewis and other African-American legislators walked up the steps into the Capitol, they heard racial slurs and epithets which made them feel as if they were in a time warp. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, who is also a United Methodist pastor, was spit on. The issue this time was health care, not Civil Rights, but the racism was still there.

In terms of Jesus’ blessings, Representative Lewis had the odd experience of playing two roles. He is persecuted today. And he was persecuted, like the prophets, years before. We may argue about whether this particular piece of legislation qualifies as “righteousness” and justice for Jesus’ sake, but we cannot argue about the slurs and epithets.

Racism is not the same now as it was forty-five years ago. We have made progress. In fact, we have made unbelievable progress. But the past still haunts us.

I have often thought, when looking at those old photographs, at how ashamed those folks must feel today. The incidents on Saturday tell me that there are some people who simply have no sense of shame.

(For another discussion of Dr. King’s speech at the end of the Montgomery march, forty-five years ago this Friday, see my blog from November 9, 2009.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jesus Is Just All Right with Me

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.
John 3:36

Jesus is just all right with me
Jesus is just all right,
Oh yeah Jesus is just all right with me
Jesus is just all right
(the Doobie Brothers)

This morning I drove North on Route 295 to meet a colleague for breakfast. As I passed the malls I saw a huge billboard. It advertises a toll free number to call and asks a question, “HEAVEN” (with appropriate blue sky and faint clouds) or “HELL” (with red orange flames filling half of the billboard). And under that it gives a scripture reference, John 3:36.

In the Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases that verse this way, “Whoever accepts and trusts the Son gets in on everything, life complete and forever, but the person who avoids and distrusts the Son is in the dark and doesn’t see life. All he experiences of God is darkness, and an angry darkness at that.”

Ironically, the folks who put up the billboard chose their scripture well. They experience God as an angry darkness. And they threaten others with that same vision.

On the car radio I had “Cool 102” from Cape Cod. And at that very moment they were playing the Doobie Brothers singing, “Jesus is just all right with me.” On the way back to the church as I passed the same billboard, the song “Spirit in the Sky,” by Norman Greenbaum came on.

How amazing is that? You probably do not remember Greenbaum, who had only that one hit record (they were records then). The website “Songfacts” reports that Greenbaum wanted to write a religious rock song. He is Jewish, but instead of using a traditional Jewish word for God, he used “Jesus” because he thought it would sell better. It certainly sold well; the song has been used to sell all sorts of things. In the advertisements, they either use only the music, or they cut and splice to avoid Jesus.

We could spend a long time meditating on that.

If you paste this link in your browser,
you will hear the song and see some now and then pictures of Greenbaum. (And you will be happy for the rest of the day). You can also visit the Norman Greenbaum website at

How bizarre it is that the rock songs are closer to the spirit of Jesus than the devout and dedicated (but unbelievably judgmental) people responsible for the billboard?

The billboard folks might want to ponder the penalty for “disobeying the Son." But on a brighter note (a Rock and Roll note or notes) it reminds me that the spirit lives and will not be confined to our narrow visions. God is at work in unlikely places.

It is a Lenten reminder that Christ is risen. Or as the song says,

Jesus is just all right with me
Jesus is just all right, Oh yeah

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saving the World

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:1-10

The Messiah is the one who “seeks and saves the lost.”

On my Facebook page I have a favorite quotation from H. Richard Niebuhr. He writes, “By Jesus Christ people have been and are empowered to become children of God—not as those who are saved out of a perishing world, but as those who know that the world is being saved.”

But what does it mean, to be saved?

It occurred to me, as I looked at that quotation and thought about the “friends of friends” who would see it, that many would have a very limited understanding of Christian faith. They would assume, I think, that Jesus is called the Savior because he saves us from eternal damnation in hell.

But that’s not what Niebuhr means. And it’s not what we see in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus.

Salvation is about finding, healing, and liberating.

We do not like to think of ourselves as being lost. (I don’t like to think of myself as being lost. “I have a great sense of direction,” I will tell you. And I don’t get lost.) But that is really just more evidence of how lost we are. Sometimes we don’t notice that we have lost our way because we have lost any sense of where the path really is. But the truth is that we are lost more frequently and more seriously than we like to admit. And the one constant in our lives is that there is One who seeks us, and finds us, and calls us home.

The second meaning of salvation is healing and wholeness. Much of the time we are broken and hurting. That is not the whole story. We are also people of remarkable strength and resilience. Our brokenness and our strength are within us at the same time. But we deny the brokenness at our peril. We cannot live authentically unless we admit our faults and failings.

Finally, salvation is about being liberated and set free. To be saved is to live into the freedom of God’s grace. In the first century, the Emperor was called “the Savior,” because he was the one who brought “freedom” to the people. When Jesus claimed that title for himself, and the early church proclaimed that message, they were making a political statement about the true meaning of freedom and liberation.

When Niebuhr says that Christians are “those who know that the world is being saved.” He is talking about the love of God in Christ, finding, healing and liberating the world. Christians are not those who believe that they are being rescued, while the rest of the world is going to hell. They are those who know that God’s saving work is all around us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

No More Nomar

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but they have been justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:23-24


“No-mah! No-mah! No-mah!”

A decade ago, that was the chant that rocked Fenway Park all summer long.

Ted Williams compared him to Joe DiMaggio. At his peak, he was a great player. In 1999 he batted .357 and in 2000 he hit .372. Ted loved Nomar’s ability to put the bat on the ball and hit it hard almost every time. In those two years, he struck a combined total of just 89 times. That’s Ted Williams territory.

It seems long ago, but in those years when people argued about who was the best shortstop, the big three were Nomar, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. In the early summer of 2004 I remember looking at the batting stats in the paper. Jeter was in a slump and Nomar was on a tear, and I thought that the argument would finally be put to rest, and our guy would be the unanimous choice. But before that year was over, Nomar had been traded and his baseball career went into a steep decline.

I will always be sorry that he was not part of the 2004 championship. Others argue that he had a bad attitude at the end, and the team had to move him. Nomar was unhappy then, in part because he was always paid a lot less than the other great shortstops. He accepted that for a long time without complaint, and when he did complain, he was gone.

But yesterday he came back to the Red Sox for one day. It was always his wish, he said, to retire in a Red Sox uniform. His heart, he said, had always been in Boston.

On the radio, in the land of sports talk, the trend was heavily anti-Nomar. They suspected him of being dishonest when he said he loved Boston. There were strange conspiracy theories about why he had done this, and what the Red Sox had to gain.

Why is it so hard for us to accept things at face value?

Why do we feel so compelled to look for hidden motives?

Why do we so often think the worst of others?

Why do we find it so hard to forgive the real and imagined slights of others?

The answer, says the Apostle Paul, is buried deep in our own lives. We are sinners. And we project our inner conflicts, contradictions and estrangement on the rest of the world. Nomar, of course, is as guilty as the rest of us. We all fall short. We all have mixed motives. But by God’s grace made visible in Christ Jesus, we are made whole. Our estrangement is overcome. We are at home.

Yesterday Nomar came home to the Red Sox. That's where he belongs. If he could still play shortstop, if would be perfect.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Health Care and Reconciliation

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Matthew 23:27-28

Until quite recently, I thought that “COBRA” was an acronym somehow related to the insurance that families could buy when they were cut off from a health insurance program through their employers. When Carolyn graduated from Smith and was no longer eligible to be on our insurance policy, we were able to make “Cobra payments” to maintain her insurance.

COBRA actually stands for “Congressional Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.” It just happened that the original law regulating that health insurance issue was passed as part of a budget reconciliation act and it became known as "Cobra."

Now, as Congress considers passing health insurance reform by “reconciliation,” Republicans are shocked (shocked!) and outraged that “reconciliation” should be used in this way. The fact is that it has been used this way many times in the past, and often by Republicans.

But there is more than enough hypocrisy to go around.

When the Republicans were using “reconciliation,” it was the Democrats who told us that the sky was falling and that the use of the reconciliation process was trampling on the rights of the minority.

We may disagree about whether our leaders in Congress even look "righteous on the outside," but on this issue they are "full of hypocrisy."