Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Preaching in this political crisis

I'm starting a feature here in Tips for the Times specifically about preaching in our present crisis without mentioning names or political parties. I'm collecting examples from the news and will list them, adding to them as the weeks go by. These illustrations for sermons offer examples of what I believe should be the empowering message of every sermon: Because the crucified Jesus is victor, even the smallest actions of the "least of these" count for a great deal. It is a great mistake for Christian people to think that their small contributions are too meager to make a difference. As a preacher said in a memorable Christmas Eve sermon that I heard long ago, referring to the innkeeper with no rooms who offered the stable as a substitute, "No one can do everything. But everybody can do something." I believe that offering examples of a manageable nature is much more encouraging and empowering than sermons along the lines of "we are called to...[some impossibly great task of do-goodism]...." which have the effect of making most people feel impotent and vaguely guilty.

("Jesus is Victor" was the clarion call of the father and son who are often today called simply "the Blumhardts." On the family tree of apocalyptic theology, the Blumhardts of Bad Boll in Germany are great-grandfathers.)

The newer posts will be identified with letters instead of numbers.

A) I have just met Ruby Sales, at Episcopal High School in Alexandria where she was the speaker in a program endowed by my husband. Ruby Sales was a 17 year-old black girl when, in "Bloody Lowndes" County, Alabama, during the civil rights movement, her life was saved by Jonathan Daniels, who was shot to death by an enraged, violent white man. Ruby Sales is now a notable advocate and tireless spokeswoman for social justice. Her conversation is unforgettable; she reminds me a little of Barbara Jordan. One of many things she said that stuck in my mind is in reference to her incarceration, along with Daniels and other civil rights workers, for six days in a tiny cell in rural Alabama without adequate sanitation, water, or food. She said of her malicious jailers that they could rob her of her freedom, but, as she put it, "You can't make me hate you." Thus she exercised her moral freedom. She still speaks this way, without even a trace of bitterness, even though the man that killed Daniels point-blank in broad daylight was completely acquitted in the Alabama court.
B) There has been much attention to the fact that there has been no violence in Tulsa since the shooting of Terence Crutcher, a black man. The New York Times reported that "The driving force of the black community in Tulsa remains its pastors and religious leaders, who saw no value in taking to the streets." The mayor of Tulsa, Dewey Bartlett, has been attending worship in black churches on "most weekends" and is credited with helping to keep the lines of communication open. Here is the article, headlined "Tulsa's Prayers, and Scars, Kept City Calm After Shooting":
Please, readers, see also my post called "We don't deserve the forbearance of the black church," in Ruminations

C) Here is an article from The New York Times 9/29/2016. I can't imagine anyone who would not be inspired to use this in a sermon. If the white churches in and around Phenix City, Alabama, embraced this man and his project, what a difference it would make!

Here are some earlier-yet-still-very-current illustrations from the news in August and September:

1) A striking article in The NYTimes, which ordinarily pays little positive attention to evangelical churches, describes how a young (23) man in Marietta, Georgia, gives up his time after work to help a Syrian refugee family learn English. His church, Johnson Ferry Baptist, under the leadership of its pastor, has adopted Syrian families. The Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution in June to "encourage Southern Baptist Churches to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes" as a Christian witness. The 23-year-old man, William Stocks, said, simply and beautifully, "My job is to serve these people, because they need to be served." Read the article here:

2) A recent NYTimes article describes the economic crisis suffered by the residents of the island of Lesbos, Greece. The news stories about the overwhelming number of desperate refugees arriving on the island in their pathetically inadequate boats have driven virtually all the tourists away, depriving the islanders of their livelihood. The locals have taken in the frantic refugees by the thousands, truly trying to help them--especially the children, whose plight has touched their hearts--but tourists in search of tranquil beaches and unimpeded views do not want to see encampments of suffering migrants.
And yet--here is the point--islanders say they would do it again. They are driven, in part, by the memory of the Greek genocide (yes; check it out online) and being exiled from Turkey by the hundreds of thousands; Greek Orthodox Christians were especially targeted. So they are answering the Biblical call: "You shall do good to the stranger and sojourner among you; for you were slaves in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord."

A specific story mentioning Lesbos follows:

As a good example of "everybody can do something," here is a story (New York Times, 8/2/16) about a young Olympic swimmer, Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria with her sister last August under conditions that we privileged ones in America can scarcely get our minds around. When they finally made it to Germany, the two of them were named by the Olympic Committee to a "Refugee Team" of stateless people who would otherwise be unable to compete at the Games in Rio.

The journey to Germany from Syria was harrowing beyond the capacity of most of us to imagine. After a month-long overland journey of hardship and danger, the two sisters and a larger group met with smugglers in some woods near Izmir in Turkey to get their boat. Their dinghy was meant for 6 but was packed with 20 people. When it began to founder, the two girls, powerful swimmers, guided the flimsy boat for three and a half hours in the gathering darkness to Lesbos. That was just the beginning. They walked for days at a time, sleeping in fields, or churches (perhaps to the churches' credit?). But here is the point of the story for preaching. Even though they had money, they were poorly treated in Europe. Taxis would not stop for them, and restaurants refused to serve them. Yusra remembered, though, that "there were good people, too." She told how, when she first arrived, she had no shoes. There was a Greek girl about her age who saw her and gave her the shoes off her own feet.

"Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something..." in the name of the Lord, and the small loaves and fishes will be multiplied by the Spirit.

3) At the top of the front page of the NYTimes for July 24, there is a stunning nighttime photograph: it shows two automobiles and two men with heads bowed, one gripping the shoulders of the other in a sort of embrace, both of them silhouetted against the glare of their headlights. One man is a large, tall, youngish-looking cop. The other is a smaller, much older man with grey hair. The caption explains that Pastor Dwayne Hewett of Hiram, GA, has pulled over to lay on hands and pray for the safety of Deputy Matt Stachowicz.
(This is the sort of thing I was saying in my Rumination about the black church. The NYTimes has little respect for prayer, as a rule, but the African-American church still commands respect. )
This photo is accompanied by a long article ("One Shift: Officers Patrol an Anxious America").  Ten reporters in ten different parts of the country rode along with cops on their shifts. It's a rich portrait. I especially liked the vignette about a Houston cop, just a few days after the massacre in Dallas, who responds to an urgent dispatch about a man waving a gun in front of a laundromat. The cop goes--alone--to investigate. He finds three Hispanic men and one black man in the street. He requires them to lie face down, handcuffed, on the pavement. Finding them unarmed, he lets them go. One of the men puts up his hands and, smiling, says, "Thanks for not shooting me." The cop says as he drives away, "Y'all have a good one."

4) There are two police stories of special note in a long account of the hours during the standoff as the Dallas massacre unfolded: one is about the care that the cops took of a young black mother, Shetamia Taylor, who was seriously wounded (they drove her to a hospital in a squad car with no rims, the tires having been shot out). The other story is about two cops who were very close to one another, Jaime Castro and Lorne Ahrens. Officer Castro (Hispanic) rushed to the hospital when he heard reports of officers being shot. When he arrived, he learned that officer Ahrens (Caucasian) was fighting for his life. Castro recalled a night when the two were in danger. Ahrens told him he'd stay right with him: "I'll take a bullet for you." Now it was Castro, watching through the glass window at the hospital, who silently pledged himself to his critically injured comrade. As he recounted later, "I wanted to grab the surgeon and say, "Get back in there. Does he need an organ? Does he need one of my organs? I'm here, get it."
Officer Ahrens died soon after. But it does not take much stretch of the imagination to see how these offers of life-in-death across ethnic boundaries remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for everyone, without regard to race or political views.

The two stories are in a long article: (headline in the NYTimes: "The Fog of War, Unfolding In Dallas Streets"):

5) Here's an inspiring quote about what's possible in America, from Michelle Obama yesterday (OK, yes, that's mentioning a name...but it is so clearly nonpartisan, appealing to the better angels of all our natures, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln):
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."
6) There are many stories about how Jesus "sees" people in a way that no one else does, not even themselves. He "sees" the Samaritan woman at the well. He sees Zacchaeus in the tree. He sees into the heart of the Roman centurion, and the man with the epileptic son, and the woman who touched his garment in the crowd. He sees a blind beggar who cannot see him and whom everyone else is so used to seeing as a beggar by the road that they don't see a full human being.  The word "see" in the Bible, as most of us know, usually implies profound, revelatory insight, not just visual apprehension: "was blind, but now I see."
The Commissioner of the NYPD, Wm. J. Bratton, has frequently turned in recent months to the words of an African-American activist known as Sweet Alice Harris, whom he knew in LA, years ago. Especially after the massacre of the Dallas police officers, he has called upon her words. She said to him, "We need to find ways to see each other." 
Commissioner Bratton says that the department was "struggling, struggling"  with how to teach its officers about their "implicit bias," the often subconscious racial bias they may carry. "It's very difficult," he said. The ultimate goal is to open officers' eyes to others' perspectives, Mr. Bratton said. "That includes opening my own mind."
"Bratton, Face of 'Broken Windows,' Aims to Mend Racial Fences"--NYTimes, July 26, 2016.

7) James Alan McPherson, the African-American writer, died this week. In 1981, he was in the very first group of 21 people to win the "genius grant" (the MacArthur), and was professor emeritus at the celebrated Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa. Born in strictly segregated Savannah in 1943, the son of an electrician and a maid, he watched his father's painful struggle to overcome prejudice and gain a license as the first black master electrician in the state. He attended segregated schools and worked as a railroad car waiter, eventually finding his way to Harvard Law School. After graduation he decided against law, went to the Writers' Workshop, and became a well-respected writer of fiction and essays, winning the  Pulitzer in 1978.
The important thing for the purposes of preaching is his description of what it means to be an American. In The Atlantic in 1978, he wrote that "each United States citizen would attempt to approximate the ideals of the nation, be on conversant terms with all its diversity, carry the mainstream of the culture inside himself....As an American, by trying to wear these clothes, he would be a synthesis of high and low, black and white, provincial and universal. If he could live with these contradictions, he would be...a representative American.
He continued, "I believe that if one can experience diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned the right to call oneself 'citizen of the United States.' "
There, it seems to me, a black man is calling for something akin to what Christians do when the Church is working the way it's supposed to. Definitely not easy, and requiring both courage and patience, but together, we can be the salt and light that Jesus refers to in the Sermon on the Mount.

8) Get your pocket Constitution! If I were preaching this Sunday, I would refer to Barbara Jordan, who grew up in the black church (her father was a Baptist preacher). Most people today are too young to remember her electrifying appearance, oceanic voice, and "Churchillian" eloquence during the Nixon impeachment hearings in Congress. I heard her live on television and it was a defining moment in my life. I can hear still her "voice of God" saying,
My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."
Here's an obituary:


To be continued....

Monday, July 18, 2016

Donald Trump's ghostwriter speaks out

Possibly the most important article yet about Donald Trump comes from Jane Mayer in this week's New Yorker.  Ms. Mayer conducted extensive interviews with Tony Schwartz, the man who ghostwrote The Art of the Deal and made a great deal of money in his share of the royalties for it. He spent a year with Trump in order to produce the fabulously successful book, and is now deeply repentant for his part in promoting its putative author. Toward the end of the article, Ms. Mayer writes,

Trump approached Schwartz about writing a sequel, for which Trump had been offered a seven-figure advance. This time, however, he offered Schwartz only a third of the profits. He pointed out that, because the advance was much bigger, the payout would be, too. But Schwartz said no. Feeling deeply alienated, he instead wrote a book called “What Really Matters,” about the search for meaning in life. After working with Trump, Schwartz writes, he felt a “gnawing emptiness” and became a “seeker,” longing to “be connected to something timeless and essential, more real.”
Schwartz told me that he has decided to pledge all royalties from sales of “The Art of the Deal” in 2016 to pointedly chosen charities: the National Immigration Law Center, Human Rights Watch, the Center for the Victims of Torture, the National Immigration Forum, and the Tahirih Justice Center. He doesn’t feel that the gesture absolves him. “I’ll carry this until the end of my life,” he said. “There’s no righting it. But I like the idea that, the more copies that ‘The Art of the Deal’ sells, the more money I can donate to the people whose rights Trump seeks to abridge.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

How the USA could become France in a heartbeat

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Don Lemon on CNN. The speaker is Robert Baer, a former CIA operative:

"You have a very large disaffected North African community. They are French citizens now...but they've been excluded from French society. I went to school in France...I worked there and they are really totally excluded.  And it keeps getting worse since the attacks in Paris because [the police] are using profiling and they are stopping people who look like Arabs on trains and buses, checking their IDs, which we don't even do in this country [USA]. The French have been very aggressive...radicalization of people of North African origin is actually picking up rather than lessening."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Serena, Queen of the Amazons, and her symbolic power

Here's a wonderful article about Serena Williams, if you can access it. Be sure not to skip the last paragraphs.

The only thing missing is the extraordinary fact that when she accepted her French Open trophy, she did it in French. Imagine that! Remember how John Kerry was ridiculed for the sin of being fluent in French?  (As a lifelong Francophile, I resented that. Besides, it was ignorant and stupid.) Now here is one of the most potent symbols of American sport for all time, speaking the language of the "effete" French. Vive Serena!

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

An admirable woman, found in the obits

Sometimes I think that one could gain a fairly complete education by reading the New York Times obituaries every day, including the paid ones, which are occasionally more striking than the featured ones. Even more, one gains inspiration and, even allowing for the airbrushing and enhancing common to paid obits, renewed faith in human nature. Here is an example. I was so moved by this obituary for Whitney Burnett MacLeod that I sent a contribution to the Center for the Victims of Torture in her memory. I suppose I see her somewhat as a woman like myself; WASP, family name for first name, wife and mother, devotee of the arts. I also see her as a woman I might have aspired to be: born New Yorker, tireless community leader, opera singer, supporter of the Harlem School for the Arts, humanitarian, mentor to youth, incredibly adventurous and courageous even when cancer was catching up with her. And, withal, devoted to the West End Collegiate Church in NYC.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Battle of the Somme, "The Lord of the Rings," and apocalyptic theology

Today is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which is generally considered the most hellish battle ever fought in modern times, if not indeed in human history. The attack of the British army against the dug-in German positions along the Western Front in France resulted in the death of more than nineteen thousand British soldiers, most within the first hour of the assault. The horrors of trench warfare, and its effect on civilization, have been recovered in modern memory during the last decade, as the 100th anniversary of World War I approached. For all of those who seek to think biblically and theologically, it's important to recall the effect of the war on Enlightenment optimism about human nature.

J. R. R. Tolkein took part in the battle of the Somme, and it changed him. The Lord of the Rings was written by a man who took no joy in combat. More to the point, Tolkien came to believe that "the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures." At the time of the Armistice in 1918, he wrote in a letter, "The War is not over...Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint!" 

I feel myself "growing faint" when I contemplate the anti-torture movement, on which front I "fought" in the 2000s. I thought we had won that battle when Obama declared the end of torture by the US in 2008. That was stupid of me, and it is unfaithful now to think that we have "won" this battle. Donald Trump rallies his troops to the call of "waterboarding and worse" on a regular basis. 

I like to recall that Flannery O'Connor sometimes took delight in rereading her own stories. Once in a while I reread bits of my Battle for Middle-earth, as if someone other than myself had written it (it's my favorite of all my books).  Here is the last paragraph of my Introduction:
In a letter, Tolkien used a haunting phrase of Galadriel’s to explain that he did not expect History to be anything other than “a long defeat.” Wars are never won, and the Shadow will always grow again. In this respect there is a profound melancholy throughout his tale. There is an unsleeping Enemy bent on our destruction, and Tolkien’s epic narrative conveys the biblical message that human nature left to itself is incapable of effective resistance. But, as the Ring saga so wonderfully shows us, we are not left to ourselves. The Writer of the Story takes an active part in history, and, as Tolkien has said, the stories, myths, and legends that are based in this knowledge and grounded in this promise are capable of offering the reader an unforgettable and transforming vision of the ultimate Victory that is yet to come. (Quotation from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 193)


The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) was founded by my colleague Professor George Hunsinger, who organized a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2006. Since then, the organization has grown to become a force to reckon with:

I was honored to preach at the opening conference. The sermon, "My Enemy, Myself," was published in a volume of many powerful essays, Torture is a Moral Issue, George Hunsinger, ed., Eerdmans, 2006.

Two days after I posted this, a good piece about Tolkien and the Somme appeared: