Friday, December 16, 2011

Brief Reflections on Christopher Hitchens

The very first time I saw a photograph of Christopher Hitchens - one of many where he held a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey in the other - I thought to myself that here was a man who didn't want to see or be bothered by anyone.

Hitchens was a fantastic writer, articulate, insightful and - more often than not - spot on in his arguments. Each book and article was a gift, and I knew that I was going to be smarter - whether I agreed or not - after having read them. As time passed, the image of the gruff contrarian I had built up in my mind no longer matched the words on the page.

A few years ago, I thought I was on the receiving end of this perceived gruffness. I wrote a letter to Hitchens, asking whether - in lieu of my sending copies of all of his books to him for signing - he would consent to send me several signed bookplates to put in each. Month after month passed without the slightest hint of a response, and I had visions of my letter surfacing in the in-box on his desk and then being tossed aside with a scowl, an exclamation of "Bloody hell!", and the general response that any unwanted bill or letter would get. And then, one day, an envelope appeared; Hitchens had apparently tired of my letter continuing to circulate through his correspondence, thought "I'm putting an end to this NOW!", and sent off a reply. There was no note, no "thanks for writing", nothing - just a half-dozen strips of paper which he had apparently torn from a piece of Xerox paper, scrawled his signature on, and then shoved them in the envelope.

I grinned at the thought of him muttering "That takes care of THAT!" as he dropped the mail in the post.

In June 2010, in conjunction with the book tour surrounding the release of his autobiography, Hitch 22, Hitchens came to Politics and Prose here in Washington. I, of course, was determined not to miss it, expecting to see the grumpy, "leave me alone!" contrarian who didn't really want to be there, but had to if he wanted to sell some books.

However, I quickly discovered something that many people have discovered over the years. Christopher Hitchens, the man who always struck me as not wanting to be bothered with anything, who wanted to be left alone with his computer, his cigarettes, and his liquor, was in fact a charming, engaging, and interested man. During the Q&A session there were those in attendance who knew in their heart of hearts - mistakenly, of course - that they could best him in an intellectual duel. There were the requisite questions about his support for the war in Iraq and his atheism, all of which he answered with great wit and great skill - triumphant in yet more debates. If memory serves, one person who had lost the "Hitchens intellectual challenge" immediately left the shop; even if my memory is flawed, it's still a wonderfully hilarious picture to have in mind.

I met him later, during the signing, and he was absolutely fascinating - one of those rare people who, even in the 2 or 3 minutes you have with them, seems genuinely interested in what you're saying. There were flashes of his wit, a few laughs, and a look of pleasant surprise when I mentioned the name of a mutual acquaintance. It was a wonderful time, one which I really enjoyed - and while pictures weren't allowed, the lady in front of me in line was kind enough to sneak this one for me. Naturally, it didn't catch the laughter or conversation; instead, he's looking at me like - yes - he can't be bothered.

And now he is gone, claimed by the cancer which he had been fighting valiantly for some time. My sister wondered aloud this morning if Hitchens had perhaps now found what he had been looking for - an answer to the debate he had engaged in, with great spirit, for many years: whether the God whose existence he had denied would greet him at the gate.

I don't know how to answer that - but if I had to guess, he probably can't be bothered with it now, anyway...

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Your Role in the Nativity: Shepherd, King - or Innkeeper?

Assume for a moment that you have been transported back two millenia and find yourself in Bethlehem (or Nazareth, depending on which of the scholars you take as more reliable) the night of Christ's birth. Now that you are there, let's say that you have the opportunity to be any of the secondary characters involved in the event (aside from Mary, Joseph or the child).

Who would you be?

Instinctively, I think most people would want to assume the role of one of the shepherds or visitors from the East who have come to praise the child and bring gifts. After all, don't we always want to be someone cast in the best possible light, one who adds something rather than one who impedes, one who assists rather than one who ignores?

But in reality, deep down, aren't many of us - for good or bad, by choice or by impulse - more like the innkeeper? Someone who takes the easy way out and gives less than they could, if anything at all, to help someone in need? Isn't it really someone else's problem? And aren't the distractions in our own lives enough to worry about without having to help another through his or her own difficulties?

Somewhere I heard or read (alas, I can't recall) that the innkeeper was a decent person who legitimately had nothing and did all he could to help - and perhaps felt guilt that he couldn't do more. If true, that would be wonderful - but somehow, no matter how many times I read and hear the Nativity story, the more the pessimistic view of the presumed "host" is the one that tends to win out.

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the cynicism I still tend to feel when approached by people on the street - and how I should work harder to recognize the face of Christ in everyone. Depending on how you look at it, that same cynicism could have been found in the innkeeper - someone who looked with a very wary eye upon the pregnant teenage girl and the disheveled, tired man leading her on a donkey through the darkened streets of the town.

"May we have a room?" - "Do you have a dollar so that I can get something to eat?" In both instances, his answer - and, invariably, mine - are "I have nothing."

In his collection of essays entitled Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes of the innkeeper this way:

"'Do you know what it is like to run an inn - to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million tress,' said the Innkeeper, 'and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

"'Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet - just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window - just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle ofthem all. The whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere - only the wind, the wind...'"

Examine the way you help others - not through an intermediary organization, or by sending a check to nameless, faceless person, but when confronted face to face by someone in need. Will you be a shepherd and do what you can by simply offering praises for the person for who they are? Will you be as the visitors from the East, who brought gifts of enormous value and gave them freely? Or will you be like the innkeeper, who says "I have nothing here; go over there?"

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Pushes a Man from Activism to Revolution?

What is it that moves a man from activist to violent revolutionary? Where is the very fine line between the two located, and what pushes people to - and over - that line?

I kept thinking about these this weekend as I watched a series of films on Cuba, the Cuban Revolution, and Che Guevara. The questions seemed particularly relevant as I was watching "Motorcycle Diaries", the story of Guevara's 1952 journey across South America with his friend Alberto Granado, based on both Guevara's journals and a book written by Granado. During the course of their journey - especially in Peru where, following the breakdown of their motorcyle, they were forced to accept rides in trucks - they came in direct contact with a significant number of people who, regardless of their country, were subjected to extreme poverty.

A husband and wife who left their children with trusted friends so that they could travel to find work in the mines. A Peruvian farmer who banded together with other farmers to help each other with their crops and plowing, and who was also forced to move in order to earn money to send his children to school. A hospital devoted to the care of those suffering from leprosy, but which was split in half by the Amazon River - patients on one side, staff on the other. Indigenous people who, as Guevara noted, were refugees in their own country.

All of this changed Che, and he became intensely interested in helping to change a system were people were faced with injustice every day and where (and I cannot recall where I read this) tomorrow is the only horizon these people can see. But what happened? How did he go from a physician and someone who was devoted to helping people overcome the obstacles in their lives to one of the leaders of a nation which executed thousands of political opponents - many at his own direction?

This, of course, brings me back to my original question: what pushes a man over that line, from activist to revolutionary, doctor to murderer? Guevara's life is already an enigma - a saint to some, a terror to others. Two sides to the same coin, perhaps - hero and villain? His entire life seems divided by that fine, but very visible line - but what forces moved him, and many others throughout history, across that divide?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tweeting the Scriptures: Bad for the Church or Good for the Faith?

Lisa Miller, the former religion editor for Newsweek magazine and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, has written an article for on the future of the church. Her article, entitled "How technology could bring down the church", compares the general population gaining access to the Bible in the common vernacular four centuries ago - and the changes which that brought about - with the new trend for making the Bible available to today's religious consumers in digital format (tweets, Bible apps, etc.).

At the heart of her article is the statement, "Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it." Miller then goes on to approach these developments from two angles: first, there is the aspect that people with easier access to the Bible have an opportunity to develop their own thoughts and interpretations and discuss them with others without depending on a pastor or minister to interpret it for them ("the interpretive lens of established authorities", as Miller says). However, as she says in her second point, traditionalists are concerned that this sort of access and freedom of interpretation moves people away from committing to an established "church home".

I personally applaud making the Bible available to a much wider audience, and if it makes people think, question and debate with others about their particular interpretations, so much the better. Yes, I can understand the concerns of those Miller identifies as "traditionalists" that perhaps making the Bible available in these there-at-your fingertips formats will dissuade people from going to Sunday services. But does it necessarily have to?

One point left out of this story - and I have no way of knowing whether the traditionalists didn't mention it, Miller didn't include it, or the editors stripped it out - is Matthew 18:20: "Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them." Isolating this verse, of course, as a rationale for not going to church certainly brings along its own potential for controversy. On the website, columnist Wayne Jackson argues against this verse being used as justification for personal assemblies outside of organized church. Jackson says, "Such attempts to manipulate the Holy Scriptures for frivolous purposes are shameful travesties that bring no credit to those who so employ them."

But Jackson also uses the example of thinking that four people getting together on the golf course will allow Jesus to be in their midst - which I feel is a frivolous example (to use his word). What about a group of four or five who gather with their iPads to discuss the scripture passage of the day? What about a group of ten who gathers in a home for worship and prayer because they no longer feel welcome in the church where they have been congregants for many years?

I suppose that at the end, I agree with Miller's basic premise: that making the Bible available in a manner that utilizes today's technology will change the church as we know it.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bin Laden is Dead - But is Celebrating It a Legitimate Reason to Set Aside Christian Behavior?

When the news broke late last night that a naval SEAL team had infiltrated Osama bin Laden's compound just outside of Islamabad, Pakistan and killed him, I - along with millions of others - watched as spontaneous celebrations broke out in Washington, New York, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. What should have been a time of pride in America and the work of our intelligence forces and military, however, instead resulted in a time of emotional conflict for me.

In watching the celebrations, I was stunned by the feelings of vengeance and hatred spilling from the mouths of many in attendance. I was appalled by the newspaper headlines screaming phrases such as "Rot in Hell!" Truthfully, I was discouraged by the actions of men and women who were acting in a manner which would have provoked outrage were they watching crowds in the Middle East carrying out similar "protests".

Moreover, I have been feeling a very deep sadness. I remember very well where I was on September 11, 2001, and the tremendous - almost overwhelming - sense of sadness that we all felt on that day, both here in the United States and around the world. At that time, families across the country turned to the church and to their faith to sustain them through that difficult time. In watching the news last night, however, the one thing that I didn't see was anything close to prayer. Instead, I saw many people turning to the Old Testament theology of "an eye for an eye" - which completely discounts the message of the New Testament. And how long can we - how long should we - continue to take an eye for an eye? As a friend of mine pointed out today, if we continue doing so we will put ourselves in a position of being simply the blind leading the blind.

I am proud to be an American, but distraught by much of what I have seen during the past 24 hours from Americans.

I remember what Diana Butler Bass wrote about her daughter's reaction in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. After hearing a radio report about what had happened, she asked Diana whether bin Laden was the one who hurt all of those people; when Diana responded yes her daughter said, "Maybe we should pray for him". It was a powerful thing to say then - forgiveness of our enemies, from the mouth of a child - but it seems to have been forgotten since.

I talked to several friends today - all clergy - who were kind enough to listen to my doubts and guilt. Yes, guilt - guilt that if I were to talk about any of my feelings out loud, my feelings of anger at the jubilant reaction of fellow Americans, I would somehow be labeled as being un-American. The question in my mind, despite the guilt, was whether it is even more important to exercise our faith and be models of Christiaity at this time.

One friend asked me - setting aside, for a moment, what I think I should be feeling - what it is that I would express to God. My answer was a rambling one: the frustration at the reaction of many among the crowds. Anger and sadness over the fact that, even today, people cling to the "eye for an eye" mentality. Disappointment that a country where 78 percent of the population claim to be Christian, and yet quickly throw that out the window when it is easier and more expedient to express joy over a death. Sadness that the evil in the world never ends, the killing never ends, and the need for retribution never ends.

Her response really gave me pause for thought: "You know how I keep saying that the things we criticize in others are the things we struggle with in ourselves? Here it is. We criticize them for their anger while the emotion we feel toward them is anger."

Another response also hit me, but from a completely different direction. This, in an email response to me from Archbishop Tutu: "You are wonderfully sensitive and God is proud of you. A Jewish saying when the Israelites were celebrating the drowning of the Egyptians during the Exodus. God asks them, 'How can you celebrate when my children have drowned?'"

Taken together, these two responses have brought together a reflection in my mirror of a flawed person - a person whom God loves, who grieves when people celebrate the death of another, and who has anger towards others because of their anger.

Yes, I am flawed. You are flawed. We humans are all flawed. But if we weren't, I don't think there would have been/be any need for Christ to come into the world.

If there has been any comfort in my struggle today - aside from the support received from family, friends, and one big mentor - it has been the quotations and prayers that many have shared. In particular, many have turned to the "Prayer for Our Enemies" from the Book of Common Prayer. It reads:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would echo that: deliver us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge - and deliver me from my doubts, sadness, disappointment, and anger.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

People Worshipping in Glass Churches Shouldn't Throw Stones: The Outrage About Rob Bell

In considering the subject of arguments, it occurs to me that there are two major ways in which one or another of the participants could approach a resolution. One would be to handle it in a diplomatic manner, where the two parties begin from points of agreement and work towards addressing the differences. The alternative would be to argue from diametrically opposed positions, make no effort to move to the middle, and try and shout each other down until one person gives up. It's this latter option which appears to be the dominant method of discussing Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins.

Over the past several days, as I've read numerous Tweets and blog posts attacking both the book and its author, I couldn't help but wonder how many of those throwing stones had actually taken the time to open the book and read it - even if it was just a few pages. One of my pet peeves is seeing someone arguing against a position without the slightest bit of knowledge or evidence to back up their points. It strikes me as being highly lazy - and exceedingly uninformed - to rely on what someone else has to say, rather than taking time to investigate and draw your own conclusions.

If I understand the main thrust of the opposition correctly, the contention is that Bell has tossed aside thousands of years of traditional thought on the subject of heaven and hell, and how many people go to one or the other. The author, many say, is casting a very wide net in his interpretation of what the New Testament says about hell, and in his attempt to get at possible answers to questions that many of us have (how does one get to heaven; what sort of life does one need to leave; is there a hell; how can I avoid going there) he is completely stripping away the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And a large majority of opponents are tossing out the "u" word - universalist.

Is it just me, or are those who are least confident in their beliefs and position are the ones who argue the loudest? And aren't those Christians who are the most objectionable in terms of their approach to those with whom they disagree the exact opposite of the way Jesus would handle similar discussions?

I want to see for myself and form my own opinions, so I will be beginning the book tonight and blogging my thoughts. Admittedly, I am coming into this with a blank slate; until last week, when his book caused the collective heart to stop beating and he appeared in Time magazine on the list of 100 influential people, I had never heard of Rob Bell. I have no idea what his beliefs are, what he preaches, or just what goes on at Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan. And to me, all of this is good - I have no preconceived notions and (aside from the rantings of an earnest few) no idea what to expect.

Might I end up throwing stones myself at Bell and his book? Certainly - but I should be careful that I'm not throwing them through the walls of my own glass church.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Five Minutes with My Daughter and the Gospel of John

Every night for homework, my oldest daughter is required to read a short book - typically one from her class, but sometimes one she chooses from her shelf at home - and answer a series of questions about the story. Tonight, she selected a short volume from The Little Golden Book series, about Easter. For the most part, it deals with Easter as a time of rebirth, flowers blooming, sun shining, spring arriving, etc.

But there is one particular picture which shows family looking out the window of their house and gazing at a hill in the distance, upon which stand three empty crosses. When doing the question where she has to list three things that happened in the story, MB chose that scene as one of the three events - and then she paused and asked me how Jesus died.

It certainly wasn't a question I was prepared to receive when we first starting doing her homework, and on short notice it was difficult to come up with what I felt was an adequate - and simple - summary for her. I muddled my way through it - Jesus was hung on a cross and died, he was put in the tomb, and three days later he was once again alive. MB contemplated all of this for a moment, and then asked, "How did he come back to life?" I then went into a short description of how it was as a result of God's power; I thought that would be simple enough.

She again thoughtfully considered my (admittedly) short answer, and then asked, "Well, did Jesus have powers?" "Yes, he did!" I responded. "He made blind people see, he made people who couldn't walk walk, and he even brought dead people back to life." Immediately, MB cut in: "The little girl!" "Yes, the little girl, and a man named Lazarus, too."

MB then asked, "Who was Lazarus?" I went and got my Bible, flipped to the Gospel of John, and started to read. I then stopped and thought, why not give her a little extra reading homework? So I pointed to this passage, and she started to read to me:

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." (Jn. 11:43-44)

This story had no grand conclusion; MB said, "Hmmm" and handed the Bible back to me. Then, it was off to draw in her notebook. She may not remember this particular moment beyond tonight, but it's a time with her that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Episcopal Church in 140 Characters or Less

One of the wonderful things I've noted with great pleasure in recent years is the manner in which Episcopal parishes and dioceses across the country have taken to utilizing social media. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook: they have all become valuable tools for bishops, priests, deacons and laity to share the Good News - the Good News of Christ, the Good News of their faith, and the Good News of their works. Being a member of the vestry in my own parish, I subscribe to a significant number of Twitter feeds, read a large number of blogs, and have "friended" or "liked" many parishes and clergy - all in an effort to say the many ways in which the Episcopal Church is at work in the world today.

One of my favorite posters is the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, Kirk Smith, who writes a great blog and maintains a very active Twitter presence (he can be found as azbishop). During the just-concluded five-day conference of the House of Bishops at the Kanuga Conference Center, Bishop Smith provided a great number of updates on the topics of discussion during the conference, including the Presiding Bishop's vision of the future of the church and the debate over the Anglican Covenant which is still under discussion. For those without the ability to participate in these meetings, tweets such as "PB church needs outward focused ministry. Our primary mission is to world." and "PB shares vision of a local ordained ministry. A sacramental icon in every school and workplace." give us a great sense of the direction of the meetings and the powerful comments being made.

But then, apparently, some in the House raised concerns over tweeting from within the conference, and there was level of debate about what to allow, if anything, in the way of social media reports from within the conference. As reported today by Episcopal News Service, "Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith used the social networking service Twitter to share live updates for much of the meeting, but ceased posting messages when issues of confidentiality were raised by some members of the house. Smith continued to blog throughout the meeting. 'There is a real tension between using the technology we are all becoming used to, and the confidentiality of the house and particularly sending out electronic communication quoting specific people when, in fact, we are simply partway through a discussion and may have reached no conclusions,' retired Bishop Christopher Epting wrote on his blog."

Being a member of a vestry, I recognize that there are certain times where it is necessary to hold closed-door discussions - hence the option of going into executive session. The same is true for the House of Bishops, or any ecclesiastical gathering; certain things should be said in confidence. But by even debating the use of social media in these types of gatherings - and, by implication, debating cutting off a vital form of communication to the wider Episcopal church - isn't the House of Bishops coming close to isolating itself and reverting to the old way of press releases and post-session press conferences? Don't we as Episcopalians have a right to know what is being discussed, without the filter of statements and the passage of time between something being said and it finally reaching our ears? And don't we - shouldn't we - trust the discretion of bishops like Kirk Smith to know when to say something via Twitter and when to avoid it?

One of the elements of the Anglican Covenant now under debate and discussion is that of trust. I would hope that, as we work to resolve the fissures within the Anglican Communion and bring about a strong feeling of trust there, the House of Bishops ensures that we can also retain our trust in them by promoting as much transparency as possible and allowing our elected bishops to let us know what is going on.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Crossan on Grace

A wonderful passage on the meaning of grace, from In Search of Paul. Crossan presents perhaps one of the simplest ways to understand this often difficult concept.

"Think, for a moment, of a physical example such as the air itself. It is there for us all the time, equally available for everyone in every place at every time. We do not need to do anything to obtain it. We could not do anything to obtain it. It is not a question of whether we deserve it or not. It is absolutely transcendent in the sense that we depend on it totally. It is absolutely immanent in the sense that it is everywhere inside us and outside us, all around us. And we hardly notice it unless something goes wrong with us or with it. But air does demand the reaction of awareness, the reply of acceptance, and the response of cooperation. Or, better, it does ont demand that we breathe so much as we need to breathe to avoid either asphyxiation or hyperventilation. And, if you choose asphyxiation or hyperventilation, do not say that the air is punishing you. It is only and always a matter of collaboration. A grace gift is like a free upgrade but, of course, there too, you need at least to download it."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

One Photo from Cairo Shows the Way the World Could Be...

Take a moment to look at this photo, which is one of thousands taken in Cairo over the past few days. Look at the people in the center who are in the midst of their prayers. Notice the two in the foreground who have linked hands to protect them.

Think about what this photo means to you, and what you think it says about the situation in Egypt.

Now, add one more small point to your contemplation: the two men in front are Christians, part of a much larger group of Christians who have joined hands in a giant circle to protect their Muslim brethren from outside interference during their time of prayer.

Christians protecting Muslims? you may be asking. Aren't Muslims - all Muslims - sworn to kill Christians, who they see as infidels? To my way of thinking, this photograph shows things not as many - pundits, fear mongers, and the like - would like us to see them, but as they really are. Two religions - two faiths - joined together in a time of great upheaval in their country, in a tremendous sign of both respect and trust: Christians protecting Muslims and respecting their right to pray, and Muslims trusting in the support of Christians.

I cannot help but wonder if this is something we would ever see in the United States - not the violence and revolutionary atmostphere, but the joining togther of Christians and Muslims in a time of prayer. And as you think about that, remember the quote of Robert Kennedy: "Some men see things as they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask why not?"

Not every man is your enemy, but any man can be your brother.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Words of Dr. King for a New Generation of Listeners

As we walked into Washington National Cathedral today for the annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was immediately struck by two thoughts. One, the crowd was absolutely enormous, the type of gathering that shows that are many, many people in this city - in this world, in fact (as we were to discover, the congregation included visitors from Brazil, Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands, among many other places) - who are still concerned about the work left unfinished at the time of Dr. King's death.

The other thought which struck me was that, fifty years, ago, this type of gathering would have been rare. A service where blacks and whites could sit together, laugh together, smile together, sing together, and pray together ... a rare event indeed.

Thank God the world into which I was born, and in which my daughters are being raised, is better. Not perfect, mind you, but much better.

Thanks to Dr. King and many others like him.

We were all seated, the prelude ended, and Dean Lloyd took to the stage. A few brief words of welcome, silence ... and then, the voice. Echoing off the walls and vaults of the massive cathedral in a moment that, each time I experience it, brings me to tears ... the voice. The voice of Dr. King, recorded in the pulpit of that cathedral just days before his death, on March 31, 1968. The deliberate, passionate, Spirit-filled, God-driven voice, preaching on the topic, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". The voice that brought the thousands in attendance this afternoon to a hard stop ... absolute silence ... and, despite my own eyes being closed, I'm certain brought more tears to many eyes.

And these are the words that echoed off of those walls, the words that moved me today, the words that forever tie Dr. King to that sacred space:

"We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured."

We had to leave before the end of the event, before the singing of "We Shall Overcome". But we were there, and more importantly, our daughters were there. No, they may not remember the songs of the Children's Chorus of Washington, or the words of the Interfaith Voices, or the dance of CityDance Early Arts. I do hope, however, that they remember that they were there ... that they heard the voice of Dr. King ... that they saw a community united in tribute to this great man ... that they prayed for justice and peace.

Above all, I hope that they absorb and revisit these moments, these lessons, so that they - and their generation - can continue to overcome.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bonhoeffer Sermon Series: 1928 Sermon on Psalm 62

Last week, I began to lead a six-week course on the sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the adults in our parish congregation. Week one consisted of excerpts of an outstanding documentary on the life of the famed German theologian, entitled "Hanged on a Twisted Cross". Today, we discussed the first of the sermons, delivered by Bonhoeffer on July 13, 1928 during his one year term as vicar for the German congregation in Barcelona, Spain. I'd like to share the background and discussion questions I prepared, as well as the text of the sermon (which is available in the works of Bonhoeffer published by Augsburg Fortress Press).


As part of his training for ordination as a pastor, Bonhoeffer spent the year February 1928 – February 1929 as curate of the Protestant congregation in Barcelona, Spain. At that time, the city of Barcelona had a German population of approximately 6,000, of which 300 were members of the congregation and an average of 50 would attend Sunday services. Bonhoeffer built up the children’s service, organized a Christmas pageant, proposed a plan for religious instruction in the church school, and started a discussion group for older adolescents. Because of his work, he became very popular with the young people and their parents, a cause for jealousy for the pastor Fritz Olbricht. During this year, Bonhoeffer also worked mornings in the office of the German relief organization Deutsche Hilfsverein, founded in 1868 by German expatriates in Barcelona.

Bonhoeffer’s 19 sermons during this time were all based on biblical texts, with all except the one below and one taken from the Song of Songs based on the New Testament. While written out in long sentences and reading like lectures, occasionally Bonhoeffer would memorize his sermons and use notes to deliver them extemporaneously.


“My soul is silent before God, who helps me.” (Psalm 62:2)

Sermon Text

Thousands of years ago, at a distant place far to the east, a pious man, standing amid the storms of life, knelt down before God in the solitude and silence of the holy Jewish temple, deeply partaking of that holy silence, drinking it into the depth of his soul, and spoke these words: “My soul is silent before God, who helps me.” Oh, you ancient singer of our psalm, you sensed the bliss and sweetness of God’s peace on this earth; you are like the image of a gentle dream to us, so longed for and yet so distant, ah, so distant. We love your image, but we no longer understand it, no longer want to understand it. Ah, come close to us, very close in this sacred hour and tell us about the silence of the soul, about silence before God. Imprint your image deep into our hearts and show us something of your bliss, for we know you have much to say to us.

My soul is silent before God. Like a song from ancient times, like a medieval picture, painted on a gilt background, like a childhood memory, this strange, alien statement about the soul drifts down to us in the twentieth century. Is there still something like the soul in an age such as ours, an age of machines, of economic competition, of the dominance of fashion and sports; is this nothing more than a cherished childhood memory, like so much else? It just sounds so strange and peculiar amid the confusion and loud voices extolling themselves, this little word “soul”. It speaks such a gentle, quiet language that we hardly hear it anymore amid the tumult and chaos inside us. Yet it speaks a language full of the greatest responsibility and of profound seriousness; you, human being, have a soul; beware, lest you lose it, lest you awaken one day amid the frenzy of life – in both work and private life – and find that inwardly you have become empty, a plaything of events, a leaf before the wind, driven to and fro and blown away – that you have lost your soul. Watch out for your soul. What should we say about this soul? It is the life God gave us; it is what God loves in us, what God has touched from eternity. It is the love within us and the longing and the sacred restlessness and the responsibility and joy and pain. It is the divine breath breathed into a transitory being. Human being, you have a soul. This is no sweet childhood memory, no dream, but accurate reality; and thus a weighty, serious responsibility has been laid upon us and for which we will one day have to give account in eternity.

Now, however, perhaps this person or that realizes indeed that he has a soul. But, ah, look what has become of it down through the years! A restless, distracted, tormented, despondent thing, shaken to and fro by daily events, a thing that knows not whether it’s coming or going. And now it encounters the statement: my soul is silent before God. It is primarily about this silence of the soul that we want to speak today.

We can probably say that not many people have even an inkling what this silence of the soul means, fewer still are those who know something of the silence of the soul waiting for God. Yoked to the day’s work, people hardly have time to catch their breath before society – so-called entertainment – seizes them and sucks what energy is left over from work. No wonder that, left alone, people are only able to attend to their physical needs. And yet our entire being thirsts for solitude, for silence, since ultimately we have all, at one time or another, experienced such silence and have not forgotten the benefits of such hours. Today, however, we are not talking about being silent while reading a book or listening to a song or something like that, but about being silent before God.

But what does this mean? Ah, it is something so great and so sacred that one can speak of it only in human metaphors. My soul is silent before God. Like the infant who is nursed and becomes calmed at its mother’s breast and finds all its wishes fulfilled here, like the young boy who is speechless gazing upon his hero and leader, like the crying child that yearns for its mother to lay her gentle hand upon its brow and dispel and silence all its cares, like the young girl who quietly reflects on the prospect of one day becoming a mother, like the man who finds all his passion and restlessness calmed by the gaze of his beloved woman, like the person who becomes quiet before the eyes of a loyal friend, like a sick person who is calmed by the physician, like the old person who becomes calm before the face of death, like all of us who are silenced in reverence and awe at the heart of nature, under the starry heavens – just so should the soul be calmed from all the restlessness and chaos and haste, before the eyes of God; here it should quench its thirst, here its desire should become bliss, here its longing should be fulfilled, here it should find rest from the heat of the day in the protective shadow of God’s hand, here it should cast off its burdens and troubles and become free and calm beholding God, here fall silent and quiet in worship and reverence. My soul is silent before God. Becoming silent means genuinely not being able to say anything, means feeling as if an alien but beneficent hand is laid upon our lips, telling us to be silent. Being silent means blissfully beholding the one who is yearned for, the beloved, means surrendering oneself entirely, capitulating before the superior power of the other, the wholly other; it means not being ourselves for a moment but rather merely beholding the other, but it also means waiting, specifically for what the other has to say to us. Being silent before God means yielding to God the right to have the first and last word concerning us, and means accepting that word whatever it may be, for all eternity. It means not trying to justify oneself but rather listening to what God might have to say about our justification. Being silent does not mean doing nothing but means breathing in God’s will, means tensely listening and being prepared to obey. The hour of silence is an hour of serious responsibility, of being genuinely serious with God and with ourselves, and yet is also always an hour of bliss since it is an hour lived in the calmness of God. My soul becomes silent before God. That means speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

My soul becomes silent before God, who helps me. God’s hours are hours of succor and comfort. God has an answer for every distress of our soul, and this answer is always one and the same regardless of who receives it. To the man who rescues himself out of the frenzy and commotion of daily life, to the sick person who comes to God in misery, to the person lamenting the death of a loved one, to those burdened by guilt, to the man and the woman, the elderly and the child, God speaks the enticing words: I love you. Admittedly, the fire of God’s love consumes all that is inauthentic and bad in human beings, and that hurts profoundly. Being silent before God means being small before him; it creates the pain of remorse, but also the joy of love and grace beyond all measure. My soul is silent before God, who helps me. If our soul has but found its way to God, he will help us as surely he is God. I listen attentively to God’s word and drink deeply of it, the statement: It is you, you I love, abide with me, I am your real father.

Well, of course, some might say, you’re telling us all these wonderful things, but why is it that so few actually get this far? It must be something that requires special power or grace.

There are two simple reasons. First, we are afraid of silence. We are so accustomed to commotion and noise that we are uncomfortable amid silence; we flee silence; we race from activity to activity to avoid having to be alone with ourselves for even a moment, to avoid having to look at ourselves in the mirror. We are bored with ourselves, and often the most desperate, wasted hours are those we are forced to spend by ourselves. Not only are we afraid of ourselves, of discovering and unmasking ourselves, but even more we are afraid of God, that he might disturb our aloneness and discover and unmask us, that God might draw us into partnership and do with us whatever he wants. Because we fear such unnerving, lonely encounters with God, we avoid them, avoid even the thought of God lest he suddenly get too close to us. Suddenly having to look into God’s eyes, having to be accountable before him, is too dreadful a notion; our perpetual smile might fade, things might get completely serious in a way to which we are not at all accustomed. This anxiety characterizes our entire age. We live in perpetual fear of suddenly being seized and called to task by the infinite and would rather socialize or go to the movies or theater until we are finally carried to our grave, anything rather than having to bear a single minute before God. Let us examine ourselves and see to whom some of this does not apply. That is one reason. The other is that we are too lethargic and lazy in our religious lives. Maybe we once made a good start, but, ah, how quickly it lapsed. We protest that we are just not in the mood, that religion is a matter of mood and one must wait until that mood comes upon us; and then we wait, and often wait for years, maybe even to the very end of our lives until we are once again in the mood to be religious. But this position conceals a great deception. Fine, let religion be a matter of mood; but God is not a matter of mood; God is there even if we are not in the mood to come together with him. Does this thought not worry us at all? Those who depend on their moods become impoverished. A painted who paints only when in the mood will not get very far. In religion, as in art and science, times of high tension alternate with times of sober work and practice. Contact with God must be practiced; otherwise we can never find the right tone, the right word, the right language when God surprises us. We must learn the language of God, laboriously learn that language; we must work so that we, too, are able to speak with God. Prayer must also be practiced through serious work. Confusing religion with emotional daydreaming is a grievous, fateful error. Religion takes work, perhaps the hardest and certainly the most sacred work a person can undertake. It’s pathetic to make do with the assertion, “I’m just not religiously inclined” – when there is a God who wants us. That’s just an excuse. No doubt, it’s more difficult for some than for others. But we can be sure that no one has attained it without serious effort. And this is why silence before God, too, requires work and practice. Such silence requires the daily courage to expose oneself to God’s word and allow oneself to be judged by it; it requires the spontaneity to rejoice in God’s love every day. But this already brings us to the question: What are we supposed to do to penetrate through to this silence of God? Here I can say a bit to you based on my own modest experience. None of us is so rushed that we cannot find ten minutes a day during the morning or evening to be silent, to focus on eternity alone, allow eternity to speak, to query it concerning ourselves, and in the process look deeply into ourselves and far beyond ourselves, either by reading a couple of biblical passages or, even better, by becoming completely free and allowing our soul to travel to the house of the Father, to the home in which it finds peace. And those who seriously apply themselves to such exercises day after day will amply experience the golden abundance of the fruit such hours yield. Of course, it’s always difficult at the beginning, and anyone who embarks on such an undertaking will feel rather funny, indeed perhaps even quiet empty the first few times. Before long, however, the soul is filled; it begins to come alive and feel stronger, experiencing the eternal silence residing in God’s love, and the distress and worries, restlessness and haste, noise and commotion, tears and anxiety are all hushed within it, and it becomes silent before God, from whom its salvation comes. My soul is silent before God, who helps me.

One law of the world is that there can be no rest and satisfaction in it. No passion is totally quenched here. Fulfillment itself already contains the urge to move beyond what has been attained. The rich want to get richer, the powerful more powerful. The reason is that in this world nothing is whole, so that every success, be it ever so great, is still only a partial success. If peace and quiet are to be found anywhere, that can only e where the whole has already been attained; but that means in God. All human activity and searching is ultimately directed toward God and finds its ultimate fulfillment only in him. Only in God is there genuine peace and quiet, something the great church father Augustine superbly expressed nit h words, “You have made us for yourself, and our soul is restless until it rests in you.” May God grant something of this rest to all of us, may God draw us into his stillness and solitude, and we will be grateful to him. Amen.

Discussion Questions

1. What was your overall impression of the sermon?

2. Bonhoeffer say that being silent before God means yielding the right for God to have the first and last word. How difficult is that for you to do?

3. Are you afraid of silence? Do you try and fill your life with so much to do to avoid it?

4. Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s contention that being silent before God can create the pain of remorse (along with joy) – particularly since part of silence can be used for confessing and/or unburdening?

5. Bonhoeffer talks about the soul being lost in a time such as ours (with machines, economic competition, etc.). Do you ever feel that you have lost track of your soul because of the rush of life? How much attention tdo you pay to your soul?

6. Is there anything Bonhoeffer has said with which you disagree?

7. In a letter written by Bonhoeffer one month after this sermon, he said he used to believe that sermons had a center, and that if that center was hit it would move anyone or confront them with a decision. He later changed his view, but I’m curious as to whether this sermon moved or confronted you.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In Honor of Dr. King: A Mighty Eloquence

Today, on the occasion of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have nothing to say. No original thoughts about this remarkable man are coming to mind. I have no eloquent comments about his life and legacy. I have no tears of my own to shed, for as the event in Tuscon last week have proven, individual tears have been lost in the torrent that today, 42 years after his death, is still being shed by the nation.

In truth, I don't feel like I should have anything to say. I shouldn't try to be eloquent or original. I should let Dr. King's eloquence speak for itself. As such, the most appropriate thing I can do is to share his own words. Here, I have included an excerpt from his sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct", delivered in February 1968. The entire sermon is worth reading - and listening to; it is available in many places on the Internet.

As you read this excerpt, thing of this man, his life, and his legacy. Think of how far this nation has come in 42 years ... and thing about how far we still have to go.

And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.