Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Guy in the Flannel Shirt

For the LORD
takes pleasure
in his people;
he adorns the humble
with victory.

Psalm 149:4

Today I am wearing a red plaid flannel shirt in honor of Joe Garrahy who passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-one.

I was not a big fan of Governor Garrahy when he took office in 1977. The idea that our governor was a former beer salesman who never finished college, and worked his way up the political ladder by not offending anyone seemed like the punch line to a bad Rhode Island joke. Looking back, the ability to get along with people seems more valuable in a politician now than it did then.

Those of us who were here for the “Blizzard of ‘78” remember Governor Garrahy’s daily updates on television wearing a plaid flannel shirt. His steady and reassuring presence was an important part of guiding the state through that emergency and that is the image that most Rhode Islanders will remember.

Possibly in the spring of that same year, I was in my office at Mathewson Street Church in Providence late in the afternoon when the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is Joe Garrahy, is this Reverend Trench?” At that time, I chaired the Social Action Department of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. We had taken a stand in opposition to something that the Governor was advocating, and he called to discuss the issue. He explained why he was taking the position that he did and I explained the concerns raised by the Council of Churches. He did not change my mind, but he did change how I thought about him, and the conversation led me to reflect more deeply on the issues.

In an overwhelmingly Catholic state, the Council of Churches has never been a big player in state politics, so I was amazed that he would call at all. And he didn’t have is secretary set up the call. And he did not introduce himself as “Governor Garrahy.” He was just “Joe.”

Later the Council worked with the Governor to pass a hand-gun safety bill and I was invited to his office for the signing. On that issue he stood up to considerable pressure from the gun lobby and went against many in his own party. In many ways he was the ultimate political insider and the consummate party politician, but he had principles and he did not like the wheeling and dealing that goes with the political games.

As he prepared to leave office in late 1984, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He said that he hoped Rhode Islanders would remember him as "conscientious" and "sensitive."

"I hope they remember me as a governor who worked hard and tried to do the best he could for his state, and that when I made decisions, I always tried to make them in what I thought was the best interest of the entire state."

I have seen Governor Garrahy twice in the last few years. Both times he was attending funerals for former members of our church. On each occasion he was careful not to call attention to himself. With his wife, Margherite, he was there for friends. It was not about him.

Joe Garrahy was not a great political theorist. He was not a policy wonk. He was not a charismatic public speaker. He was not a crusader. And he was not without his faults. But if we remember him as just “a nice guy,” we miss the point. He was a good person, who simply wanted to do the best he could for his state. He did good things, and he had no great sense of his own importance, and that is rarer than it should be.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Lament for the Kicker

Turn to me, O LORD, and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Psalm 25:16-17, 21
For real football fans the two weeks between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl are a secular version of Lent or maybe Purgatory, only worse. We enter into a wilderness of inane chatter and silly predictions. The history of every player will be presented as a morality play and the GAME will be talked about as if it had cosmic consequences. And in the end, most of the time, when we finally get to the Super Bowl it will not live up to the hype and the football will be lost in an avalanche of long (but clever!) advertisements, and a half-time show that will seem to go on for eternity.

Why can’t they just play the game?

But yesterday was wonderful.

And sad at the same time. The games were close and they were exciting. But in the end they were won on mistakes rather than accomplishments. The Giants won because of a fumbled punt return. And the Patriots won because of a missed field goal.

When he was asked about the missed field goal, Raven’s linebacker Ray Lewis said, “One play didn’t win or lose the game. There is no one man who has ever lost a game . . . It happens. Move on, move on, because life doesn’t stop.”

And it’s true. The Ravens had many chances to win. And the Patriots had many chances to put the game out of reach. But the missed field goal was the one that ended it. And that is the one that will be remembered.

Years ago there was a study of fan reactions, and one of the conclusions was that the pain felt in losing lasted longer than the joy felt in winning. I think it was a study of Pittsburgh Steeler fans. And I think it was during their great Super Bowl years in the mid-seventies. (And I could be just remembering it that way because it fits my narrative.) In any case, it rings true.

And within all of that, field goal kickers have a special place. Most of the time, we can’t see the missed assignments. We don’t know what a defensive scheme was really supposed to look like. And we don’t know how a play was supposed to be run. But we can see the kicker. And we can see whether he makes it or misses it. And it does not look as hard as it is.

So Billy Cundiff will be remembered as Scott Norwood is remembered.

A year or two ago he was in the Pro Bowl. And this year he was very accurate inside of forty yards. But none of that mattered on Sunday.

He answered the inevitable questions with class and dignity. The field goal was makeable. He just missed it. There were no excuses.

“It’s one of those situations that will strengthen me in the end,” Cundiff said. “Throughout my career, I’ve had challenging situations and I’m still standing here today. It’s something that is going to be tough for a while, but I’ve got two kids and there are some lessons I need to teach them. First and foremost is to stand up and face the music and move on.”

I would have been happier if the Patriots had just made a couple of first downs on their last drive.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tim Tebow's God

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Luke 11:1
The Tim Tebow debate continues.

An extraordinary number of people are offended by his public piety. I am not a big fan of public piety. And, as I have said before, I doubt that I would agree with him on theology or social issues. But I am much more concerned about the language of the debate, which reveals that a large number of supposedly educated people don’t know very much about Christian theology.

A common statement from Tebow’s “defenders” is that he has every right to “pray to his God.”

It sounds like Tebow is praying to his personal Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods who protected hearth and home. Every Roman family had its own guardian deity, called the Lar familiaris to protect them. Statues were placed on the table at meal times and special family events, and kept in a sacred family shrine. The gods were convenient, portable, dependable, and uncomplicated.

Does it matter? I think it matters a lot.

Consider the difference in these two statements:
Tim Tebow has every right to pray.
Tim Tebow has every right to pray to his God.
Isn’t the second statement more limited?

Matthew says that Jesus went up to the mountain alone to pray. He didn’t pray “to his God.” He just prayed. And the same is true for us. We just pray.

Of course, we pray to God, but we don’t pray to our own personal “god.” (Okay, some people really do pray to their own personal “gods,” but that’s not considered a Christian practice.)

When Jesus instructs his disciples to say, “Our Father,” it is a universal reference. It does not limit God, but expands our understanding. We are all sisters and brothers. When the prophet Micah says what the Lord requires, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God,” it is a universal reference. The point is not that God belongs to us, but that we belong to God. We don’t possess God. God possesses us. As the Psalm says, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.”

To speak of Tim Tebow’s right to “pray to his God,” diminishes and limits our understanding of what prayer is and who God is. It makes God (seem) smaller. It is like speaking of God with a small “g.” God is the Ground of our Being and the Ultimate Reality in our lives. You can’t put that in your pocket or carry it on a key chain.

Monday, January 9, 2012

We Don't Know How to Pray

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.Romans 8:26-27
Yesterday in worship, as we were sharing our celebrations in preparation for our prayer time, one of our folks gave thanks that he was leading in a family football pool organized by another member of the church. This led me to share my dismay that it appeared that the Steelers would be playing our Patriots next week. “I’ll be praying for Tim Tebow,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Obviously, our worship service is fairly casual.

It was all in good fun. Though I did worry a little that someone might think I actually prayed about football games. And I worried a little more after Denver pulled off what seemed a miraculous win.

But in a larger sense, it got me thinking about prayer. It is the most common and probably also the most misunderstood of Christian practices.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul makes an amazing confession. He says that we do not know how to pray.

Although the Gospels had not been written when Paul wrote his letters, it is almost certain that he would have known the story of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. And he would have known the prayer that Jesus taught them, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And he would have known all of the Jewish prayers by heart and used them daily.

But Paul is talking about something that is much deeper than the words we use. He is talking about the nature of prayer itself.

In his wonderful sermon on this text, Paul Tillich explains that, “According to Paul, it is humanly impossible. This we should never forget when we pray: We do something humanly impossible. We talk to somebody who is not somebody else, but who is nearer to us than we ourselves are. We address somebody who can never become an object of our address because he is always subject, always acting, always creating. We tell something to Him who knows not only what we tell Him but also all the unconscious tendencies out of which our conscious words grow. This is the reason why prayer is humanly impossible.”
From this insight into the impossibility of prayer, Paul gives us a mysterious answer. God intercedes for us. It is God to whom we pray, and it is God who prays through us. Paul gives us a picture, which is absurd if we take it literally, but profoundly true if we understand the symbolism. God intercedes for us before God. Through us, God speaks to Godself.

Like most pastors, I work hard to craft a pastoral prayer for Sunday worship. I want it to be profound and poetic and moving. Parts of the prayer are intercessory, meaning that in a formal sense we “intercede” for one another before God.

But in a deeper sense, the language of public prayer is for the congregation rather than for God. What we hope is that the words we use will help individuals open themselves to God in prayer. The words themselves are not the prayer; they are the invitation to prayer. The real prayer is what happens “when the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Darkness Brings on Blindness

Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates a brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.
I John 2:9-11

Today is Epiphany, the first day of the season of light. We celebrate the light of the world, which we see in Jesus. And we remind ourselves that we believe in light rather than darkness.

It is a powerful image, which speaks to the heart of our spiritual journey. We are always seeking more light; always doing our best to choose light over darkness; reminding ourselves that we can trust the light.

It is a struggle, because we are tempted by the darkness. Often the world seems to love darkness more than light. And there are some who will try to make us believe that darkness is light, and light is darkness.

Sometimes the campaign against the light is led by people who call themselves Christian.

One such campaign is led by a group which goes by the ironic acronym, “FACT.” The Family Action Council of Tennessee is promoting a bill to amend the state’s anti-bullying law to provide an exemption for expressions of religious belief.

The amendment would do two critical things. First, it allows an exemption for religious and philosophical statements of belief, as long as no physical harm is threatened. Students would be permitted to say that God hates gay people, or that gay people are going to hell, as long as they didn’t threaten physical violence. And second, it forbids teachers and administrators from naming protected groups. In other words, a teacher could not tell the class that bullying a gay student was wrong, only that bullying was wrong.

It only takes a nanosecond to realize that both ideas are designed to take away any protection for LGBT students. The amendment is darkness rather than light. It is also mean and stupid.

Epiphany is a good time to remind ourselves that Christians are always called to walk in the light, and choose light over darkness. Bigotry is always wrong. But Christians have a special responsibility to reject bigotry in the name of God. It is blasphemy.

whoever hates a brother or sister is in the darkness,
walks in the darkness,
and does not know the way to go,
because the darkness has brought on blindness.You can read the proposed bill at this link: