Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is - Or, Think of What Aid We Could Have Rendered With the $40 Million We've Wasted On T.V. Commericals

HEBREWS 13.1-2 Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

PSALM 46.1-7 1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present* help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city;
* it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.*Selah

The clich├ęs are all spent.

Even hyperbole can’t touch the full scope of what’s going on.

We have refugees in America – by the tens of thousands. In Memphis, we currently have 10,000 displaced folks. Thousands more are expected.

Unlike most disasters when we are called to go render aid – this time, we are called to open our lives to receive the stranger. And as we are called to give ourselves to them, to take them in, we think we’re doing a “good” thing.

No, we’re doing what we’re commanded to do. We’re doing what “people of the Way” automatically do, without thinking, without processing it – without considering what’s in it for us. We do it. It's actualizing the Acts 2-4 church. Everything from sharing with all who have need from the resources of our own lives.

My spiritual forebear, John Wesley, was often derided for the very thing that distinguished his “method” from the carefully contrived theological head trips of his Oxford fellows – that theology without action means nothing. The Letter of James says, "faith without works is dead." JW was on to something, I think.

His was called “practical divinity,” not because it’s supposed to make sense, but because it’s supposed to match acts of devotion, piety and worship with acts of compassion, mercy and justice. To have the former without the latter, is to commit spiritual fraud.

Well, for this time in our lives, maybe not to be matched in quite this way ever again, here it is, big as life, right in front of us. And whether you live close to the Gulf Coast, or a world away, doing nothing is not an option.

In ways we never thought we could or would, let’s actually live into that slogan we’ve wasted $40 million on to say how “open” we are.

Be it.

Do it.


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Painful Flashback

Anyone who has ever lived through a natural disaster gets a knot in the stomach when you watch someone else go through it.

Let me just stomach's been in knots in the past day.

Back in January of 1999, my family lived through the first batch of tornadoes that tore through Jackson, Tennessee.

I was serving in a part of town I grew up in as a teenager. The Jackson-Madison area has several lines of cultural and economic demarcation, and south Jackson is where I'm most at home. Sure, there are nice enough folks who live in northside (let me tell you, that's a huge concession that should display my "maturity" as opposed to my opinions when I was a kid!), but the heart, soul, the hard living of folks in south Jackson was what most resonates with me. And in the late 90's, I served a milltown village in the area called Bemis.

It was a strange Sunday night. My wife was gone, working with the youth at the church. I was at home in a 100 year old parsonage. It's a huge house. It was the manager of mill's house. two floors with 12 foot ceilings, an attic that was a floor unto itself, and a stairway that let up to the "widow's walk," which was, as Bemis-lore goes, the highest point in the village. But on that night, it was the cellar that occupied my attention. My two boys and I were at home watching the NFC Championship football game. It was an hot day. Too hot for January, and my own internal sensors were up. Just before the power went out, the Memphis weatherboys were tracking the storm with their new fancy-ancy radar. When they said tornado warning, Madison County, on the ground in Mercer moving toward Bemis...

Well, nobody on the news says "Bemis." Sure enough, that distinctive green/gray hue was in the sky...the winds started blowing, and I grabbed the kids to go to the cellar. Dark, dank, musty..all kinds of beasts lived down there, but it was our safe haven. The noise was unbelievable, my kids were scared. Shoot, I was, too. You could feel the change in air pressure, like a huge vacuum cleaner on the outside door of the cellar. It's a memory burned in me. And we held on and sang "Veggie-Tale" tunes, because that was the "in-thing" at the time.

God is bigger than the boogie-man, he's bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on T.V. Oh, God is bigger than the boogie-man, and he's watching out for you and me.

That's the hokey the tune my kids wanted to sing, and frankly, so did I.

When it was over, we were o.k. We heard our dog crying from her crate, and I regretted not going to get her, but I was left with the choice of what I knew, and that was, I had two kids in my arms, and that's what mattered most. I was worried about Kristy, and the church. When I went outside it was completely black. I didn't know the sum of what had all happened, but on the driveway of my house, lay someone's front door.

Not good.

Not one-half block from our house, homes were destroyed. That close.

The turf of my youth was devastated. My parish area scarred forever.

Eight people killed.

Let me tell you in the terms of my Western Kentucky roots -

an F4 tornado is an evil SON OF A BITCH, and I think it's mother is a hurricane named Katrina.

If you've ever survived a natural disaster, you know. It's a story you have to tell, and it's one that you only feel prompted to tell whenever you see someone else going through something as bad, or, in this case, so much worse.

It's the look in the eyes of those who are surviving in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport that's caused me to remember. Well, more than remember. Somehow it triggers a form of post traumatic stress. There's a shock, a sense of survivor's guilt, a glazed over look that says,

overload...all systems shutting down.

The night of the tornado I lived through found me driving in the pitch black dark of a city trying to ascertain the welfare of a number of my parishioners who were at ground zero. At the light of day, I learned that the home of one of my lifelong friends' parents was destroyed while they were in it, hunkered down in a closet. With work boots and gloves, I went over to see what I could do. Jack and Penny are as second parents to me. I spent many a night in their home growing up. That day, I was no longer the Methodist preacher in the neighborhood, I was Johnny, one of their own, who grew up with their son, David, just trying to help do...something.

Pieces of furniture survived, and I was helping David, my old friend, move anything salvageable to storage. As we navigated through what was the family room with a piece of furniture, I was aware that I was walking on their family pictures, now strewn in the floor as if they were so much trash, and no one was working to pick them up, even though everyone seemed aware they were there. I don't know if I've ever felt more awkward in that moment. These people I loved, who helped raise me, and here I am walking on the shards of glass that held the wind and watered damaged photographic record of their lives. But I haven't forgotten the look in their eyes...I've seen it again on television from the Gulf Coast.

Or, the sense of what happens only days later as the next round of violent weather comes through, and the alert sirens blare all night long, and after awhile, so numbed and fatigued, so scared of what could be knowing all too well what had happened a few days before that I begin to hear the siren even when it's no longer on.

Like a said, a SOB.

I was out of town yesterday at a Board of Ministry meeting with our probationary deacons and elders at Lakeshore as Katrina was making way toward Memphis. My wife, a half a state away at work for the week. And at home with my children was my mother. The meeting was supposed to last two days, but nobody could keep their minds on the agenda. We were only preoccupied with what was going on, what was coming (and where I was they were forecasting 60MPH winds and 8 inches of rain).

All I wanted to do was go home. And I drove that night through the beginnings of Tropical Storm Katrina's approach to Shelby County. I just needed to hold my boys, and if nothing else revisit that lame, stupid, bad theology, old Veggie Tales tune.

For their benefit, of course.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Dog Ate My Excuse


The dog ate my homework.

I didn't knowingly take steroids.

I didn't intentionally reveal the name of a covert operative to a member of the media.

Saddam and 9/11 are connected.

It all depends on what your definition of "is" is.

Why do people lie? When our back's up against the wall, and we're placed in one of those "fish or cut bait" moments (let me see what other tired cliches' I can muster before I'm done with this), there's a conscious choice that we all face - that, at the end of the day (last one, promise!) do we go with unadulterated truth, or do we "spin" it to shield us from taking responsibility.

When we look at highly publicized episodes where the "mighty" have had to dance around the truth, there is something strangely entertaining about it. "Whew, better them than me," or, "Wonder how they'll get out of that one?"

I remember well the words of the confessional liturgies of my youth, which included the words
"forgive us, O God, our sins of commission and omission."

I've come to understand this confession a bit differently over the years. Too often, our sins of commission are thought of as those things we intentionally do to another. The sins of omission, those things left undone that we should have had presence of mind to do.

Because we do have what Charles Wesley calls our "bent toward sinning," those sins of commission may also include that intentional choice to bend the truth either toward us if it favors us, or away if we want to avoid the consequences the light of such truths may shine upon us.

Part of the role of "watching over one another in love," it seems to me, is to keep the truth from being bent in any regard whatsoever, and honoring it for what it is. And if the truth indicts us, so be it. But we can't know what grace looks like until we're held accountable for who we are.

The courage it takes to be truthful isn't nearly as great as the courage required to hold someone to the truth, especially when you know they've violated it--and then love them anyway.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Some Thoughts on Cindy Sheehan

What entitles someone to speak?

What license is anyone given to have a point of view?

You know what folks say about opinions and what they are likened to...

I think about this when I watch how Cindy Sheehan camps out in Texas not too far from where the President is enjoying his five week, brush-clearing, bike riding vacation (I believe this is where Mel Brooks would look into the camera and with that smirk of exaltation announce, "it's good to be the king!").

Vultures from all sides of the political spectrum are working to make her a pawn or patsy in their game that dehumanizes anyone who would stand in the way of their ideology.

If you're on Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh's list (I don't count Bill O'Reilly, here, not because he's relevant, but because he's an absolute joke..I mean, really, anybody who would tell John McCain that torture is effective treatment of P.O.W.'s cannot be taken seriously), then you get my attention. What color does the "threat level" have to be toward W or to the body politic of the Republicans that constitutes a "contract" being placed upon this woman?

It's not that I think the President has sent folks to engage in the assassination of this woman's character. It's just the posture some folks take when a counterpoint arises. And even if the White House did not knowingly unleash the goons (like W's buddy Raphael Palmeiro didn't knowingly take steroids), they're sure not trying to stop it. Oh, yea, there's always that "plausible deniability" thing to consider, too.

I'm not clear what's happened to dissent in America. There was something noble about it once upon a time. We no longer honor dissent, we crush it. We discredit it.

But with Cindy Sheehan, who is, without any question, anti-war, politically liberal - there is this one point that gives her the right to have any opinion she chooses - she's a Gold Star Mother.

She's earned it.

She's paid a price that blowhards who hide behind their mics haven't the courage to consider.

And truth be told, if I suffered the same loss, I'd surely want to be clear in my own heart that there was a good answer to the question, "for what noble cause did my son die?"

The men and women who serve in the armed forces are to be respected and their service honored. All of which means, there needs to be some level of clarity that what they are being called to do carries with it the requisite justifications required to pull the proverbial trigger.

Mr. President, these are men and women who have, are, and will kill and die in the belief that what they are doing has honor for no other reason than that you say it does. So it's fair to ask, does it?

That's a question for politicos to answer, I guess, ... or, maybe those folks who would fail to honor this essential plank of the American voice, dissent, are afraid of what a growing number of Americans are starting to believe about why we're even there in the first place. This isn't about whether the President should give one lowly citizen an audience to field her question. On it's face, it's a silly proposition. One lowly citizen seeking a redress of her grievances from the powers that be....yep, pretty damn stupid.

But her question isn't hers alone, although she feels it with a passion that most of us do not. No, this is about something else. And it's about that which is not even hidden anymore - a carefully constructed and orchestrated machine that shields the Power from voices who counter the party line.

If the Commander in Chief who ordered Cindy Sheehan's son in harm's way can't, or won't, answer her inquiry because he fears dissent, such ignobility might also reflect upon whether there is any nobility in the elected leaders who lusted for this military action in the first place.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Conversation Continuum - Or, "Hey Hal, We're Still Here, & So Are You, So - Has the Rapture Happened Yet & We Both Missed It?"

When I was a youth in the 1970's, there was a preoccupation in the theologies of most churches that the end was near. And no doubt about it, the cloak and dagger of the Cold War instilled a sense of impending doom. The military philosophy of the U.S.A and the U.S.S.R., MAD (mutually assured destruction) approached the prospect of total annihilation from the standpoint of "they won't do it to us, because we'd do it to them, too."

Brilliant, freakin' brilliant. It's truly a miraclewe even made it out of the 70's.

But for Christians, and mostly Protestant Christians, the thing that contributed most to visions of mushroom clouds was this cute little book by Hal Lindsey called "The Late Great Planet Earth." Hal (if I can be so informal as to call him "Hal"), was hardly the first to announce with some certainty that the end was coming, and soon. Since Jesus ascended folks have been working on that one. Across the landscape of Christendom, there has always been some belief that Jesus' return is imminent. And when it comes, literally, all hell's gonna break loose. Oh, and if you're not on the God-side of this equation, it's not going to be pretty. Most likely, you'll be in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing your teeth (props to brother Matthew).

For Lindsey, though, this would have been the first such book, mass-produced, during a time when we could actually conceive the end of human life on our planet. As a commercial prospect of demand (laced in some form of spirituality), and supply (folks have used the Bible to make whatever point suited them from time immemorial), this was a harmonic convergence if ever there was one. And for some, this all played into the strange, masochistic spirituality that God was in on this deal.

Taken together with such films as "The Exorcist," and "The Omen," Christian people, folks like the ones I went to church with, were convinced that the signs are too prominent to be ignored.

In the late 70's, a "movie" version of the book was made and shown at the picture show in the town we lived in at the time. Now, let me say, I loved that youth group deeply; I loved the people who were my counselors. They were good people and to this day, when I think of youth groups that mattered most to me, my UMYF group from Malesus UMC is deeply held and cherished.

My counselors were so convinced that the end was coming, that they wanted to take us to the movie. So, we went. But before we went, my Dad pulled me aside and said,

"Son, you're going to see some things in this movie that you're going to have questions about. And most of it, I think is wrong. But you go see it, and when you get back, let's have a conversation about it and you can makeup your own mind."
My dad is good that way, always pushing me to think and come to a conclusion, and not indoctrinate me. And sure enough, that movie blew my mind. Mostly, I was left thinking, "what world am I living in, and who are these people?" So, Dad and I talked alright. I don't know if he thought he was going to have to debrief or detox me. Truth is, although I had not yet formed classical theological language to frame (seminary's got be good for something, you know), it rubbed up against and grated on everything I had come to understand, at that time, about what being a person of faith invested in God's world meant. It was the antithesis of engagement in the word. Rather, it was more like:

"we're at a point of no return, and if you don't get right with Jesus, you're going to be incinerated in a nuclear mushroom cloud because that's just what Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation(s) says is going to happen."

Some of the youth in my group were so scared by this that they swore they'd never do those things that young men and women do (allegedly) as they explore their humanity with one another. Others swore of drinkin', cussin', and smokin.' Jesus was on his way, and the Commies were going to invade Israel, and because Israel is God's chosen people (even though they killed Jesus and are going straight to hell for it) we (the U.S. of A) would be obliged to get involved thus fulfilling the prophecies of Armageddon, and it was going to be brutal. And when all that happened, they were not going to be caught (even from the backseat of daddy's car) doing something that would make Jesus mad.

Me? The whole thing just ticked me off.

I thought, "What makes this time in history so important? Why are we so special to think that whatever the end looks like, it's coming "soon?" It made no sense to me then, and makes none now. This whole "better get right with the Lord, right now" or else - was just so offensive, and still is.

I didn't need to have the conversation with Dad after seeing the movie, because the many conversations, worship services, sermons, and life with my biological and spiritual families told me that this was not what the Christian faith was about.

But the willingness even to let me go at all, and then the offer to talk after experiencing something so counter my belief system, was truly gracious and I've never forgotten it.

Oh, and the "conversions" of my sister and brother youth so long ago? You know how it is. Fear is a short term motivator, and it is usually always nullified by testosterone and pheromones (allegedly).

In fact, this episode of my adolescence has come back fully into my consciousness in the past few days. My oldest son has a friend who is a member at Bellevue Baptist. And yesterday, he went to church with him. The stuff of my inner monologue was saying "hell, no!" to such a thought. Thank God, sometimes our better angels get to our mouths first. And in the truest since of deja vu', I repeated an offer made to me by my dad just a bit shy of 30 years ago.

It is time for my son to find his way, and ask his questions, and it's time for me to trust that our life together is the continuing conversation we're having to respond to that which is so counter our experience. And that, we can take it in, look at it honestly, and frame a faithful response even to that which is intended to scare us to death.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

In the World of What Should Have Been & Would Be If I Were King--"The Tonight Show, Starring David Letterman"

Ok, let me just say from the outset, I'm no fan of Jay Leno. Oh, I'm sure he's a nice guy. At least that's what we hear from everyone, how "nice" he is. My problem, other than that he's an awful interviewer, and he generally seems to be trying too hard to get a laugh, and he keeps pilfering other shows' talent and ideas, is simply this - David Letterman should be at that desk and not Jay.

It's all water way under the bridge, I know, but since this is my place to be relevant or mundane, I choose the latter - and with this rant, I commence. Plus, I'm on vacation, so what do you want from me!
Was their anything more awkward on the night of the first Tonight Show following Johnny Carson's death, to hear Jay attempt to be somehow appreciative of Johnny's career. Hey Jay, what about on the night of your first Tonight Show in '92, and you refused to thank Johnny in life? It was tacky. It showed no class.

I'm just saying....

Was their anything more poignant than on the night of the first Late Show after Johnny died, to hear Dave's true appreciation of Johnny's talent (still star-struck and awestruck), tell jokes in his monologue that Johnny had written for Dave, and celebrate his mentor's unique contributions to poplar culture? I have that Late Show recorded from back in January, and I can't make myself erase it. Dave captured Johnny's spirit that night not through trolling Don Rickles out one more time, but through music. Johnny always fancied himself a drummer in the lineage of Buddy Rich. So, why wouldn't you pay tribute through Doc, Tommy and Ed playing "Here Comes That Rainy Day." In the language of that time (and with all due respect to my high school jazz band teacher, Jackie Thomas, who, I swear, talked this way all the time because he was time warped in the 60's), "Cool, man, it was a monster, crazy!"

Affairs of network politics are not my thing. To be sure, Dave doesn't need Jay's Tonight Show, and why would he want it--it's (insert remarkably crude phrase most guys learned as teenagers when wondering whether or not to ask a girl out who had previously been involved with someone else). He had earned Johnny's Tonight Show, and it was denied him. But make no mistake, NBC screwed him, and you always got the sense that they did it to Johnny, too.

Ironically, the man who would be king of late night has been able to do with his successor, Conan, what was denied the true King of late night - name an heir.

I grew up with Johnny Carson, as we all did - and my rebellious side was honed on the work of Letterman. Much has been said of Johnny's career. I can't think of him without thinking of my grandparents. When I'd stay with them, there was no greater treat than to be able to stay up at least for Johnny's monologue, enjoy some popcorn and a Diet Rite, and listen to my grandfather laugh. I mean, good belly laughs (and he had quite a belly). Anything that could make him do something I never saw him do, must be magic, and I wanted in to share the moment with him.

Dave came later for me. His late night show premiered at the start of my senior year in high school. It was so different. So fresh. Dave was the "anti-Johnny," only being Johnny was all he ever aspired to. Throughout his tenure at NBC, and then in the move to CBS, there was always an implict appreciation given to the art of television and for the pioneering work of those who'd gone before in that medium.

With Jay, you've got a standup comic who's really never been more than that. There's nothing wrong with standup. I love it. It's just that standup is what happens during a show. It isn't THE show. As a guy who comes from behind the curtain and does six minutes of primo material, Jay was actually really good. You stretch that into an hour, it gets tired.

Dave's act has surely changed over the years. He doesn't come out from the behind the desk as much. He puts his other minions up to the physical comedy. I miss that from him. But a more acerbic wit you will not find, still.

His first program after the 9/11 attack was among the most powerful hours of television he's ever produced. A guy who makes a living making you laugh, talked openly about the absurdity of such a notion as the nation was in shock. There will be a time to laugh, but not now. So, he talked about what our lives, NYC, the nation endured.

Back in the day, folks fretted coming on his show because he was perceived as mean. What that was, I think, was an effort to keep folks honest. You never get the feeling that Dave's too "wowed" by Hollywood. So, if you show up on his show with attitude, your tail is his, and he won't have any trouble handing it to you on national television. But if you show up to have some fun and have a little humility, he'll make you look like a star at his expense.

A lesson he's learned, no doubt, from the master of the craft.