Monday, October 26, 2015

Come Hell or High Water--or Even Zombies

I took my 11 year old granddaughter to the movies the other night.  She's a charming little girl who has had a rather challenging year as her parents have gone through a separation, and she has moved from her old home--where she had lived for her entire life --to dividing her time between her parents' two different apartments.  That night she told me she missed the old house . . . but I think it goes deeper than that.  I think she misses the sense of stability that she once had.  But enough of the psychoanalyzing!  She seems to be weathering it all fairly well.

While we were making our way to the movie theater we talked about the upcoming holiday.  I asked her about her costume. 

"What are you going to be for Halloween?" 

"A Zombie prom queen," she said.  "Mommy is going to help make the costume."  And then she proceeded to tell me all about their plan for assembling the various elements of the outfit.  I was pleased to here my daughter-in-law was encouraging such creativity, even if I would have preferred to hear my granddaughter was going to be a firefighter or something a little less gruesome. 

But then I got to thinking about it a bit.  And I remembered something I once heard about Disney movies, back in the old days of "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" and other great animated classics.  Frequently, it seems folks would complain about the fact that Disney movies included evil characters and even acts of violence.  (Albeit, mild by today's standards!)  Especially the death of Bambi's mother.  You remember that scene?  Where a hunter kills the mother deer, leaving a grieving fawn behind?  At any rate, one time I heard someone defend such inclusions on a psychological basis. Such things, they said,  allow children to work out some of their fears, some of their concerns, in a fictional setting, making it easier to cope in the real world when they are confronted by the challenges of reality. 

It made sense to me back then--and it still does today.  Yes, it all can get carried too far--and today often is.  But children do need safe outlets for expressing the feelings we all experience of fear and anger and sadness.  I'd still prefer a firefighter or princess for my eleven year old granddaughter.  But maybe a zombie prom queen is just what she needs in this challenging year.  Whatever the case, I think she knows that no matter what changes she may face in life, she's got a grandfather who loves her come hell or high water--or even zombies!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Putting a Different Spin On It (So to Speak!)

Yesterday I preached a sermon called "Not Again!"  My text was Mark 10:32-45.  In case that doesn't instantly bring the story to mind, it takes place as Jesus and his disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for what will be the climatic last week of his life.  It begins with Jesus warning the Twelve that he will be facing great opposition when they get to the capital city, and furthermore, that he will be arrested, tried, and executed. The disciples, though, only hear what they want to hear:  they are going to Jerusalem, and that must mean that Jesus is about to make his move, and take his rightful place as King.

Two of the disciples, James and John, decide to put in a bid for special positions in Jesus' court.  Jesus uses the occasion to teach them and the others a lesson.  "Whoever must be great among you," he says, "must be your servant."  (Mark 10:43b)   I had begun the sermon by sharing a few quotations from various well known folks about politicians in general. They were not flattering.    I then  juxtapositioned the concept of servant leadership with what usually happens.  "Imagine,"  I said, "if that was the  attitude of all our elected officials!  They would be true public servants."

After the service one parishioner who came through the line at the back door, a parishioner who is very politically savvy, shook my hand, and said, while she liked the general thrust of the sermon, she wasn't very crazy about the wisecracks about politicians.  "We need to support those who are doing the right thing," she said, "those who are placing others ahead of themselves." 

I got to thinking about her observation, and remembered my daughter's middle school.  Back in the nineties, when she was in seventh grade, the school had a slogan that applies.  In an attempt to look at student behavior in a new way they had strung a big banner that read, "Catch Me Doing Something Right."  In child development circles it's called positive reinforcement.  And it can be very effective.

So what if we applied that to elected officials?  We often hear about the bad things they do--the mistakes they make.  Lots of ink and air time is devoted to pointing out the failures of government, and that is probably necessary.  But what if we devoted equal amounts of time and energy to celebrating the times when public officials put the public interest ahead of their own?  What if we celebrated those politicians who do address the needs of the poor and the marginalized?

We desperately need more servant leaders in government, in the church, in business and the not-for profit sector.  But we already have some.  And it is right for us to celebrate their good work.  Let's catch them doing something right--and then let's tell folks about it.  I'd love to hear about such folks--so send me an e-mail, let me know about the servant leaders you've encountered along the way. 

(The sermon can be found on our website,

Monday, October 12, 2015

Muslims and a Wise Word from C. S. Lewis

I am currently teaching a class here at the church on the theology of C. S. Lewis.  Best known, perhaps, for his children's books about the fantasy world of Narnia, Lewis was also a prolific apologist for the Christian faith.  He did not consider himself a theologian (he was an English professor)--but he had a way of making sense of complex theological concepts that appealed to everyday folks.

In the class we are going to be examining one of the chapters of Lewis' book Mere Christianity.  Based on a number of BBC radio talks he gave in the forties, it has continued to be a best seller even now, decades after its publication.  Now you need to understand something:  I greatly appreciate Lewis, but I often disagree with him.  He is far more orthodox, far more traditional, in his understandings of the faith than I am.  Still, he is a well-reasoned thinker, and his use of words is often quite beautiful.

Lewis opens the chapter we'll be discussing with these words (originally addressed to his radio audience):  "I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe.  If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."  (Mere Christianity, 43)

That quote came to mind as I read about the anti-Islam, anti Muslim rallies that were organized this past weekend.  Some of the organizers even called on attendees to come with weapons!  And often, all this was (and is) in the name of Christianity.

I've got to tell you, I get so tired of the kind of thinking that says to love one thing you have to hate another.  And especially when Christianity is placed over and against other faith traditions.  You know, thinking that suggest to be a good Christian, you have to hate Jews.  To be a good Christian you have to say Islam is bad.  To be a good Christian . . . well, you get my point.  But it seems to me Jesus suggests there are only two requirements when it comes to being a good Christian:  loving God, and loving your neighbor.  Your Jewish neighbor.  Your Buddhist neighbor.  And yes, your Muslim neighbor.

Maybe we'd be better off if instead of looking at other people of faith as the enemy, we viewed them as neighbors.  And maybe then we can not only begin to address the common problems we share as human beings, maybe we can actually learn something.  Because Lewis is right:  "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Moving Mother (or Not)

Last Sunday, as the sabbatical wound down, I went to church with my mother.  She is a member of Frist Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Barbourville, Kentucky.  Let me amend that--not just a member, she is one of the tiny congregation's four Elders.  In fact she was only the second woman named an Elder in the congregation's history!  Normally, she also serves as the congregation's lector, reading the scriptures in her clear, contralto voice.  But she's had a bit of a health scare recently, and Sunday was her first day back in several week's, so she just took a place in one of the pews, next to her visiting preacher son.

There couldn't have been more than twenty of us in attendance.  At 62, I probably brought the average age down a notch or two.  There were no children present, and none from my children's generation.  Gray was the color of the day!  But there lack of numbers was and is not due to a lack of goodwill!  I was personally greeted by almost everyone in attendance.  Granted, many of them know me by name.  Mother has been there over twenty-five years, and so I've worshipped in that church many times--even preached there once or twice.  And I co-officiated at my father's funeral service that was held there several years back.

Barbourville is a small place, and on this trip we made a couple of visits to lawyer and accountant types--making sure mother's legal and financial houses were in order.  Both her accountant, who I hadn't seen in years, and her lawyer, who I had only met once before, instantly recognized me, and commented on my rendition of "Ol' Man River" at my father's funeral (it had been Dad's favorite).

There are times when I really wish she lived closer.  Nearer to a city with the cultural offerings she enjoys so much.  I'd love to move her to Florida where I could take her to bookstores and concerts and plays and art galleries more readily.  But then I reflect on her role in Barbourville.  She is, in more than one sense of the word, one of the community elders now.  Well-respected.  Viewed as a wise and courageous woman.  And she is, indeed, both of those things.  When  I call the local florist to deliver her some flowers for Mother's Day or Christmas, the florist always tells me she'll make sure they get to Connie right away.  I even have a house account for the billing!  Whenever we walk into a store or bank, somebody knows her, if only by reputation.  Oh, they'll say, you're the professor who took care of her husband after he was hit by that drunk driver.

Yes, I'd love to move her down to Florida.  But then I stop and remember her role, her place, in Barbourville, and I realize, that's where she belongs.  Because . . . that's where she belongs.  Really belongs.

(Photo:  Mother, delivering the charge at my Service of Installation in Sanibel, 2010)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A War Story, A Love Story--and a Band of Gold

They had "kept company"--as it was called back then--for close to four years.  But then he was called away to serve his country.  It was to be a short tour of duty, but then he received notice that his term   was to be extended indefinitely.  He was stationed in South Carolina at the time, and when he called his sweetheart to tell her the news, and that he was to be shipped overseas, she told him she wanted to come right down from New York.  So they could get married.

She did--and now many years later, in the second decade of another century, they are preparing to celebrate their seventy-fourth wedding anniversary.  She's turning ninety-five, he's ninety-seven.  And my wife Linda's Aunt Lil and Uncle Tony still live in the house they've occupied for most of their lives.

This last week of the sabbatical includes the usual measure of study as I continue to focus on the abolition movement, but it also involves some family visits in upstate New York and Kentucky.  And today's visiting was highlighted by our lunch with Tony and Lil.

While we were chatting the conversation turned to rings.  And Uncle Tony told us a story.  He loves to tell stories--and he often tells good ones!

Tony served as a medic in the War.  (For his generation "the War" always means World War II).  And his time was largely spent in the European theater.  Part of his time he was stationed in northern Africa.

"It got really hot there," he told us.  "We used to keep thermometers in a glass jar filled with alcohol on a stand.   When a sick soldier would come into our tent, we'd take one of them out, shake it off, and stick it in his mouth.  Well one day, it was really, really hot--something like 115 degrees.  And the thermometers only went up to 108. 

"So this guy comes in, and I stuck one I his mouth.  Suddenly he says, 'Ow!  That pricked me.'  I took out the thermometer and it had broken.  I looked at the others in the jar of alcohol, and when I stuck in my hand to check them out, they were all broken.  They had exploded in the heat!  And my hand was covered with mercury.  We didn't know it was so poisonous back then."  Tony wiped off the mercury, but his gold wedding ring had turned all silver." 

The next morning, when he woke up, the ring had turned brittle, and  broke into three pieces.

"I sent it home to Lil," he told us.  "I wanted her to get it fixed."

"Yeah," she said.  "But it was going to cost as much as a new one."

"I know," said Tony, "but I wanted to keep the original."

And, as he twirled the restored ring around his finger, I couldn't help but think it wasn't just the original ring he kept.  He, and she, have kept their vows for more years than many people live!

Seventy-four years!  Amazing!  God bless them both--and God bless all those who keep their vows.