Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Three-Legged Stool

There are three elements in a wholistic Christian faith.  “These three,” wrote Elton Trueblood, “are like three legs of a stool, the smallest number possible if the stool is to stand upright.  The three necessary elements in any genuine Christianity are, first, the experience of inner vitality that comes by the life of prayer (the life of devotion), second, the experience of outer action in which the Christian carries on a healing ministry (the life of service), both to individuals and to social institutions, and third, the experience of careful thinking (the life  of the mind) by which the credibility of the entire operation may be supported.”  Elton was simply spinning off on Jesus’ own four-legged stool:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30-31).  

Many Christians pray and many Christians give their lives in service to others and to society, but the third leg of the stool is sometimes ignored.  The stool won’t stand with only two legs.  The life of devotion is essential.  The life of service is necessary.  But we also have to think!  And, according to Mark’s rendition of the first commandment, we must do all three with all our strength.

To pray without thought or to serve without thought will not suffice. “Service without devotion is rootless; devotion without service is fruitless.”  We have to think.  We have to be rational. We must not only read the Bible; we must study it and apply all our mind to what we find there.  As the Apostle Paul put it, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (I Corinthians 14:15).  

A mindless Christianity is not an authentic faith.  Faith does not mean a blind acceptance without giving the matter any thought.  A Christian must be a rationalist—a person who has sound reasons for his or her faith. We are called to pray, to serve, and to think, and we are called to do all three together with all our strength.

No stool can stand without at least three legs. Christianity will not stand if any one of its three elements are missing.  Edith Hamilton suggested that “People hate being made to think.”  In this day and age, it seems to me that Christians hate being made to think.  

Monday, February 18, 2019

My Lazy Day

Yesterday was one of those days.  I’m sure you know what I mean.  It was one of those days when I didn’t feel like doing anything.  I didn’t have any ambition. I had no gumption at all. I had a good number of books from the library to read—but I didn’t want to read.  I had some household chores to do, but I didn’t want to do them.  It was as if my “get up and go” had “got up and went!”  It was one of those lazy days.  Do you know what I mean?  Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard would know and understand.  They all sang the song that kept coming to my mind yesterday, “It’s My Lazy Day.”

Well, I might have gone fishin’, I got to thinkin’ it over
The road to the river is a mighty long way
Well, it must be the reason, no rhyme or no reason
I’m takin’ it easy, it’s my lazy day. 

I did manage to prepare lunch and dinner. I even managed to finish the job, started the day before, of re-arranging the pantry.  But I did it all without much enthusiasm.  I was just plain lazy; just wanted to take it easy.  I sat down to read, but decided to turn on the TV instead.  I watched the 1963 film “Bye, Bye Birdie,” starring Ann-Margaret and Dick Van Dyke.  It was a really silly movie, but Ann-Margaret’s dancing and singing made it worth while. Then I watched “Oliver!” This was a 1968 British film based on Charles Dickens’s novel “Oliver Twist.” I’d never seen the movie before.  I watched the whole thing and learned a new song or two, like “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.”  

This movie was followed by one of my favorite musical films: “South Pacific.”  I like it because of the Roger & Hammerstein music, but also because the film deals with some really deep and serious issues (love, prejudice, age, youth, loneliness, war, bigotry, death, poverty, etc.).  I first saw “South Pacific” in 1959.  I remember the timing because my African-American friend, Tony Tebout was with me in the theater.  We were “Younger Than Springtime” then and filled with teenage hopes and altruisms.  But when we heard Lt. Joe Cable sing “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” that youthful idealism was met with the real world’s fear, hate, and bigotry, which still hangs on and disrupted my lazy day.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

God And the churches

I’ve spent most of my life within the Church, or perhaps I should say; yes, I must say it differently,  I’ve spent most of my life within the churches.  The churches, like myself, and everybody else,  are on a pilgrimage—a pilgrimage to become what they are meant to be (the Church).  I am on a pilgrimage to become what I am meant to be—a fully functional human being.  The churches haven’t arrived yet, and neither have I or anyone else that I know of. 

The churches are frail things these days and I suppose have always been so. Jacques Ellul said   some fifty years ago, that the churches in France were so “debilitated and apostate that a Christian can hardly bear to remain in a church.”  I think a similar thing has occurred within American churches.  Throughout my life and ministry in the churches I have been an outspoken critic. I have never been shy in my protests and complaints against the churches.  I’ve had little tolerance for the superstitions and heresies of the churches and have attempted to exorcise them.  At the same time, I’ve tried always to be conscious of my own responsibility (as a member of the churches) for the shape the churches are in.  

Looking back now with hindsight (which isn’t always 20/20 vision) at my feeble attempts within the churches, I realize I assumed something about the churches that probably most people assume.  I assumed that God needed the churches!  Without the churches, how in the world would people find God?  Even in the midst of all my vehement protests and complaints, I thought the churches were needed to give witness to the existence of God.  And that is true, the churches are to give witness—but God doesn’t need that witness.  God makes His own witness in the world and does so even in the very weakness of the churches which are quite often an affront to His name.

Nor is God especially or exclusively present in the churches.  God's presence is in the world.  As William Stringfellow wrote, “The Church (churches) exists only as that community in the world which cares about, observes, and testifies about God's presence in the world in all things, at every time and place. But it is not first of all the Church (churches) which has introduced God to the world.”  God needs no introduction.  God knows the world; it is His own—without the churches.  

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bad Apples

In his book, The Way We Talk Now, Geoff Nunberg writes, “Proverbs are like other traditions—they owe their longevity to how easy it is to reinterpret what they mean.”  He goes on to explain.  The proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” suggests a traditional wisdom about travel, but the Scots say it means “moving around keeps you fresh and free.” The English, on the other hand, use it to mean “moving around keeps you poor and rootless.” Americans use the proverb both ways. “If it is a proverb, it can’t help being wise,” says Nunberg.

We use the proverb about “a few bad apples,” whenever misconduct occurs in the midst of some organization.  It’s an ancient wisdom, “whether it’s said of bad apples or rotten ones, or of bushels, barrels, baskets, or bins.”  Benjamin Franklin said  “the rotten apple soils his companion,” which comes directly from Shakespeare’s time.  “A bad apple spoils the bin,” one journalist wrote in 1898 of the Dreyfus Affair; if one officer is capable of forgery then why wouldn’t others be as well?”

In 1970, the Osmond Brothers reversed the meaning of this proverb about the “bad apple” in their first number one hit, “One Bad Apple (Don’t Spoil the Whole Bunch, Girl).”  And it seems that a lot of people think that is how the proverb goes nowadays, even if it doesn’t make agronomical sense.  Those who know their apples know better—but few of us know about apples these days since we don’t have to worry about long-term storage and the only bins of apples we see are in the grocery, and the rotten ones usually never make it that far.

The statement “Like and Share” if you Support our Military or our Police, etc., often appears on my Facebook Timeline.  The whole basket is put out there without any sorting out of the bad actors (apples) who as Franklin said, “soil…companions.”  The fact that bad actors are in the military and among the police is well-known, from the U.S. atrocities (hardly ever recognized) of WWII, Vietnam, and  Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Police across the nation have bad apples too.  

One of the spoils of any kind of war (cultural, political, or otherwise) is that of writing its history. Not only do those who win get to set the terms of the surrender and peace, but they also get to recast the past so as to reshape the future.  Our history books say little about our own war crimes—our own bad apples—but always describes the crimes of the enemy.  So, too, in this day of alternate realities, we are attempting to recast the image of our military and our police.  Not all military, not all police, are good apples (heroes).  Not all the generation Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest” were great.  That’s reality—and while I, like so many others, would like for the story to be different, would like an alternative reality—the facts do not support it.  It is said that “A proverb can’t lie.”  The Osmond Brothers song is a statement of an alternative reality.   “A bad apple,” does indeed, “spoil the bin.”  We’d like to say that there are “just a few bad apples” or “only a few rotten apples” and not enough to taint the group.  Or we’d like to say “There are always going to be a few bad apples,” which is like saying there is evil in the world; just get over it!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mom's Chocolate Pie

As I grow older I find myself indulging more and more in nostalgia about the days of yore.  I ponder my childhood exploits and recall my treks along the babbling brook near my childhood home. Sometimes I get a great urge to walk that trek again. Just a week or so ago, I developed a deep craving for my mother’s chocolate pie.  That craving just would not go away.  Finally I baked a chocolate pie of my own.  The pie turned out well, but it didn’t quite measure up to my mother’s.  I used a prepared pie crust.  My mother made her own pie crust from scratch.  I used the only pudding I could find at the grocery store—an “instant” chocolate pie filling.  My mother labored over the stove top to make her pudding.  She didn’t have access to the “instant” stuff. No wonder my chocolate pie didn’t quite measure up!

As much as I would like to have a piece of my mother’s chocolate pie, or my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes or her homemade bread (made on her wood-burning stove and its oven), I cannot.  The ingredients are just no longer available.  And, even if they were, I still would not have access to a wood-burning stove and oven.  Besides the “lard” used back then is deemed unhealthy for us these days.

This nostalgia for what once was affects us all.  We’d like to taste again Mom’s chocolate pie or grandmother’s blueberry pancakes. We’d like to have things the way they once were and as we remember them.  “Make America Great Again” implies that such is possible.  But the ingredients and the wood-burning stove aren’t there for us anymore.  We can’t replicate the pies, the pancakes, or the bread.  We live in a new and different world now.

When I indulge in nostalgia about my early days I find myself creating a “fictional past.”  I ignore the uncomfortable things or fail to remember them at all.  I remember the chocolate pie, the blueberry pancakes and the oven-baked bread, but ignore the fact that back then our society was a segregated one, that LBGT people were ostracized, and life wasn’t all that easy.  The ingredients and the wood-burning stoves of yesterday are no longer available.  It is a new day of prepared pie crusts and instant pudding!  

Martin Luther King said, “…social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of a status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.”  But that old order is already gone—a new order, a new age has come and we must face it rather than an indulgence in nostalgia of a fictional past.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day

I might have been in the 3rd or 4th grade when I first read a story in my Spelling Workbook about how Valentine’s Day came to be.  I recall being quite caught up in it and even today I remember the highlights.

My Spelling Workbook story told me that St. Valentine was a priest in third century Rome.  The Pope at the time decided that single men made better soldiers than those who had wives and children.  He issued a decree that forbade young men from getting married.  Valentine thought this was unjust and defied the Pope’s decree by performing marriages for young lovers in secret.  He was sentenced to death and sent to prison.  While there he was often visited by his jailor’s daughter.  He fell in love with her and before his death he wrote her a poignant love letter, signed “From your Valentine.”  And, my friends, that’s how it all started—believe it or not!

In those early school days all the students brought Valentine cards on February 14th.  The cards were deposited in a decorative box and later in the day distributed.  I gave Valentine cards to Bill, Dale, Fred, Annabelle, Alice and all my friends.  All the other students did the same.  But after reading the story of Valentine’s Day in my Spelling Book, I didn’t feel right giving cards to Bill, Dale and Fred anymore.  My whole focus changed and from then on I gave Valentine cards to only Arlene’s and Marie’s and Patricia’s—to “All the girls I’ve Loved Before,” as Willie Nelson would have it.  I’m sure I signed those cards “From your Valentine.”  

I was always taken aback in those early years when I received a Valentine card from my Grandad.  It just didn’t seem appropriate.  After all, I’d given up giving Valentine cards to Bill, Dale and Fred.  It has taken me a long, long time to realize that “Love” is not simply a romantic notion—and that it reaches out to include and embrace all people.

“From your Valentine” 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Throwing Stones

Representative Omar (D-Minn) apologized on Monday for her anti-Semitic comments on Sunday.  Ms Omar and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) are the first Muslim women to be elected to the House of Representatives.  Omar’s comments were deemed offensive by both sides of the House.  Republicans called on Democrats to remove Omar from the Committee on Foreign Affairs.  But, after her apology, the Democrats have decided to permit her to retain her seat.

Yesterday, Mr. Trump weighed in on the issue.  He called for Omar to resign or be barred from serving on any congressional committees as punishment for her remarks.  “Anti-Semitism,” he said, “ has no place in the United States Congress.  And I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”  This statement comes from a person who says, “Never apologize.”  It comes from a person who has consistently made inflammatory statements of his own.

Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) was removed from his committee assignments a few weeks ago because of his comments about the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist.”  Mr. Trump campaigned for King’s re-election and suggested that he and King were of the same mind about many things.

The State of Virginia is now undergoing deep turmoil over the past behavior of their Governor, Lt. Governor and the State Attorney General.  Should they resign?  

It is easy to throw stones at others because in doing so we avoid dealing with our own mistakes and misdeeds.  Our hypocrisy is so evident, especially my own.  We feed on others mistakes and misdeeds so we can ignore our own.  Is there a perfect person anywhere?  I do not know of any, do you?