You Will Laugh

My last few posts have been on the heavy side, though the last one in particular struck a chord for lots of folks--indeed, I've never had a post on The Twelve that was subsequently mentioned as often by my fellow bloggers as that last one on this "sad summer."  So maybe something a bit lighter, albeit relating to something that in and of itself is not light: the death of Robin Williams.

I wish Mr. Williams were still alive for all kinds of human and Christian reasons.  But I am surely glad he came our way.  Oh, I know, he had lots of personal problems and was not above cutting loose with language that offends us religious folks.   But he was natively funny and he made us laugh, and that is a gift I think we sometimes undervalue.  Even some comedians downplay their role in the grander scheme of things, acknowledging that what they do is not exactly akin to cancer research, the work of heart surgeons, or relief workers in disaster zones.  Still, laughter is a gift and even the Bible--and Jesus himself--are funnier than most Christians tend to realize or acknowledge. 

So let me share the biggest laugh Robin Williams ever gave me.   It came in a scene from the movie Mrs. Doubtfire.  Robin's character, Daniel Hillard, is in disguise as the housekeeper Mrs. Doubtfire and is having a conversation with his ex-wife,  Miranda, who, of course, has no idea she is putting the groceries away with her ex-husband.   At one point Mrs. Doubtfire is putting away some plastic-wrapped packages of hamburger and says, "Ohhh, handling this cold meat reminds me of my dead husband, Winston."

"How did he die?" Miranda asks.

"Well, you see, he was quite fond of the drink.  In fact, it was the drink that killed him."

"Ah, he was an alcoholic?"

"No, he was hit by a Guinness truck.    So you see it was quite literally the drink that killed him."

My wife and I watched this movie on a VHS rental tape a few years after it came out.   But my wife had to stop the tape for a couple of minutes following this scene because I had fallen off the sofa and was convulsed with mirth on the den floor. 

Laughter like that may not be the most important thing in life.  But as it happened, at the time we watched Mrs. Doubtfire, I was going through a very turbulent time in the congregation I was serving.  Stinging missives, barbed emails, and cutting comments had been coming my way fast and furious for a while until I was feeling pretty well beat down--it was a "smoldering wick and bruised reed" time in ministry. 

Not only did it feel good, then, to laugh as hard as I did at this silly scene, it was somehow restorative.  I felt better after the movie.   Laughter does that.  Over the years my family and I have watched over and over again a few other VHS tapes that feature Johnny Carson's favorite moments from his years of hosting The Tonight Show.  Like Robin Williams, Johnny had his problems in life and was in many ways hardly a moral role model.  But he was funny and made me laugh, and the antics with animals and funny guests he helped to foster have made my whole family howl together in laughter (even when watching some of them for the 15th time).   And I somehow think that laughing together as a family is, to riff on a Raymond Carver line, "a small good thing."

Though I cannot approve of everything Robin Williams said and did in his career, I am glad he made us laugh because wherever the ability to be funny fits in the grand scheme of things, it is a gift in its own way.

On a more sober note (after all), one thing I have not seen anyone pick up on is how another Robin Williams film ends.  In Dead Poets Society one of the young men who comes under the influence of the teacher, Mr. Keating, commits suicide at the end of the film after his stern, cruel, and controlling father makes it clear he will crush his son's every ambition to be an actor.  Mr. Keating gets blamed for the death and becomes the school's fall guy.   He is summarily fired.   But as he cleans out his stuff from the classroom cloakroom, his remaining students catch a glimpse of him and in a now-famous scene, many of them signal their support of Keating by standing on their desks and shouting the Whitman line Keating had taught them, "O Captain, my Captain!"

Some of us have echoed this now following Williams's own real-life suicide.   "O Captain, my Captain--thanks for passing this way.   And remember as Someone once said: Blessed are you who mourn now, for you will laugh."



This Sad Summer

Well we've slid into August now and so we're just a few blinks away from Labor Day and the semi-official end of all things summer.  For those who can enjoy a different cadence of life during summertime months and look forward at some point to an extended vacation period, summer's demise is always accompanied with a bit of melancholy.   Soon enough schoolday routines will take over our households again even as piano lessons and soccer practices and what-all-not will start to hurtle us toward the year's end and winter's return.

But in some other ways this summer cannot end too quickly, and no one reading this needs me to detail why (though I will anyway).  Lately every time I click on the CNN or New York Times websites, I hold my breath a little to see what grim story will be this hour's "Breaking News."  This summer has featured stories of children left to suffocate in hot cars, airliners shot out of the sky and raining down people and pieces of people, other planes disappearing over an African desert or in Taiwan, an Ebola outbreak which is properly alarming, refugee children from Honduras coming to the U.S. for help and being met with sneers and epithets, and a war between Israel and Hamas that is every day reducing ordinary civilians--including so very, very many little children--to smears of blood on pavement.  And just to keep everything partisan and ugly on the homefront, Congress voted to sue the President before going home for some election year campainging--rallies and speeches that are sure to be more about spewing hatred and fomenting divisiveness than doing anything to help this be a better, more just nation.

In all of this, it is the suffering and the death of the children that all but smother my spirit.   Last week in her first blog since returning from a bit of maternity leave, Theresa Latini wrote a lyric piece on the wonder of being a mother and the splendor of a new child.   And what Theresa wrote there is very much how life is supposed to be.   But in too many parts of this world children are in a very different situation.  As Pulitzer-prize winning author Sonia Nazario (author of the newly relevant Enrique's Journey) has reminded us, the children fleeing to the U.S. from Honduras really are fleeing for their lives as the drug cartels have taken over and are now forcing 12-year-olds to become either junkies or drug dealers or both.  And instead of helping these desperate kids, we have turned them into a political football who have a good chance of being shot by Rick Perry's National Guard troops or ballyhooed as criminals and worse by Tea Party folks whose "America First" attitude puts a big piece of duct tape over Lady Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor" plaque. 

Meanwhile, why do children have to be blown to bits while hiding out in a school?  Why do they have to fall 33,000 feet because someone thought it was a good idea to give idiots one of the world's most sophisticated missiles? 

The scene you most want to forget from The Brothers Karamazov is the report of the cruelty of Turkish soldiers who let innocent babies play with the barrel of a pistol as though it were a toy only to then pull the trigger and blast the baby's skull to pieces.   But such cruelty to innocent children gets repeated all the time as wars rage, injustice reigns, and selfishness coarsens people to the suffering of others, including that of little ones.

The so-called "problem of evil" exists on many levels but the evil of little ones suffering and dying casts this "problem" into the boldest possible relief.  

It has been noted that the more comfortable any person's--or any group's--life is, the less often that person or group ponders the coming of God's kingdom or what is often referred to as "heaven" in popular parlance.   Where life is nasty and brutish (and sometimes short), longing for heaven is sharpened (think of African-American spirituals that emerged from slavery: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot").   Even in the early years of the 20th century sermons and hymns that referred to heaven were much more frequent than in recent years when such a focus has all-but disappeared in some traditions.  We are less likely to cry "Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus" when things are good and we have any number of upcoming events to which we are looking forward.

But at the end of this sad summer of carnage and injustice, of bickering and cruelty, we do well to cry out for God's justice, both now and in the long run of Jesus' return to make all things new.  If we don't pine for this for ourselves, then we pine for it for the world's children: for the refugee, the orphan, the abused, the terrorized, the injured, the dead.   For them, then, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.  Come with healing in your wings.



Only Something Nice?

Last week one day I was reviewing some of the audio sermons available in the archive of my Center for Excellence in Preaching website.  One sermon I listened to was preached by my friend Tom Long at the Worship Symposium some years ago and in which, at one point, Tom singled out a very troubling comment and line of thought that was expressed by Joel Osteen in his book Your Best Life Now.  Afterwards, I remember Tom coming in for some criticism from some of the other people and pastors at the conference.  Some felt it was just wrong to attack or criticize in a sermon someone who professes to be a fellow Christian.

But I don't need to recall just my friend's experience in this regard--I've had my fair share of similar commentary.   In one sermon years ago, I was talking about the damage that hypocrisy causes to the Christian life and to the wider church.  This was right at the time when some new Nixon White House audio tapes were made public in which Dr. Billy Graham was heard making clearly anti-Semitic remarks to the President.  The remarks were at odds with more public things Graham had said about the Jews such that his comments recorded in private (and in secret) were clearly an instance of hypocrisy, of saying one thing in public and completely opposite things in private.  So I used this as an unhappy illustration of hypocrisy in my sermon.  But after that sermon I was assailed at the church door--and in a letter again the next day--by a man from my church who said I had besmirched a great man in that sermon.   "You should never criticize a fellow Christian in a sermon" he said.   Over the years a few others said similar things when I singled out dreadfully arrogant and judgmental public comments by Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson (particularly following 9/11).

 "If you can't say something nice" the old bromide has it, "then don't say anything at all."   And let's admit that preaching should not be a time in which a primary thing that happens is the preacher beats up on anyone and everyone he or she does not like.  As it is, there is too much preaching that happens in which the sermon reads more like a diatribe against secular society, the ACLU, liberals, or anyone else whose lifestyle or viewpoints are different from the views of that particular congregation.  Preaching is supposed to be Good News, not Bad News; it is supposed to leave people with the hope and joy that come from seeing God's grace in action not with the smug satisfaction that comes from giving your opponents in the world a really good tongue lashing.

True enough.   But does this mean that a preacher may never single out people--including Christian people--whose views or statements represent heresy, bad teaching, or some other potentially injurious way by which to present the Christian faith?   Are there any lines or boundaries to be observed in this regard?

Well, I suppose one line that the preacher should not cross would be reporting a private conversation with a fellow Christian and then holding up that person--perhaps by name--in some illustrative way in a sermon.   And probably we'd all agree that it is unfair (and itself worthy of critique) to hold up caricatures of another person's views or a too-simple caricature of the teachings of a whole denomination or tradition within the wider church.   It certainly would do no one any good for the preacher to criticize fellow preachers in the area in case conversations with such local colleagues had revealed political or doctrinal disagreements.

But what about fellow Christians who put their views out there for all to see?  What about people who write books (including books that sell very well and so influence potentially many) that state incorrect or troubling views?   What about the people who promote those views on television or in newspaper interviews or on websites?   What about the church across town--past which many people from one's own congregation drive multiple times each week--whose church sign slogans are ugly broadsides against gays or some other groups?   When such views are publicly aired by the persons in question--and so publicly promoted and defended and disseminated--would it not in fact be a kind of homiletical malpractice if the preacher failed to countenance--if not counteract--ideas that had the potential to lead his or her own congregation astray?  Didn't even Jesus call out the Pharisees again and again in a similar way?  (And notice: fellow religious people--or those who professed to have God on their side--were just about the only people Jesus mentioned in his teachings.  You never find Jesus, for instance, singling out for scathing critique the Caesar or Herod or Pilate.)

As with so much else involved in preaching, great thoughtfulness is called for in case a specific person is mentioned in a negative light in a sermon.   Maybe we preachers always need to hedge just a bit with caveats about not necessarily questioning the author's sincerity or not making any final assessments on the other person's faith.  Certainly if the person whose views are mentioned subsequently apologized, that fact should at the very least be mentioned and just possibly such a retraction might mean it is no longer necessary to mention that view (or at least the person who expressed that view) at all.

The Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament make it clear that as the early church matured a bit and as it encountered more and more conflicting views from the surrounding culture, there was a high premium placed on sound teaching.  Timothy and Titus are repeatedly urged by Paul to promote good doctrine and sound (literally "healthy") teaching in their sermons.  Doing so inevitably had to involve mentioning sound teaching's opposites now and then, including perhaps those who promoted those opposing views. 

Preaching should mostly be about saying something nice, but not at the cost of saying nothing at all in case the soundness of the faith is threatened.





Much has been written and said about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision last week.   And here's some more!   I doubt I will share anything particularly unique or novel but I write this out of a sense of some internal theological conflict.

After all and on the one hand, we Christians are called to witness to our identity in Christ and one way we do this is by not going along with every trend or whim of the wider society in which we find ourselves.   Christians are supposed to be different.  We are resident aliens, strangers in a world often hostile to our faith and even to our very Lord.  Just because the law of the land might call on you to renounce your faith, you would not do so even upon the possible pain of death.   If the laws of the land discriminate against a group of people (as happened in the era of Jim Crow in especially the American South), then religious people (on religious grounds) protest and resist.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and company may have done so non-violently but the resistance--rooted in biblical and theological beliefs--was real and warranted nonetheless.   It also involved the violation of the law.    The law might be unjust and dumb (people of color could not sit at a Walgreen's lunch counter, for instance) but it was nonetheless the law such that sitting at the counter anyway was an arrestable offense.  Yet those people were right to do so.

At the same time and on the other hand, there is the matter of recognizing and appreciating the differences between what is properly the sphere of the church and the sphere of the wider society.  Most Reformed types are justly nervous about the Theonomist belief in legislating people into Christian patterns of behavior.  Similarly, we may have strongly held beliefs, but the New Testament generally (and the example of Jesus specifically) indicates that we are not to be hostile screamers who shove those beliefs down the throats of any and all we meet.  The Apostle Peter (as I have blogged about before here on The Twelve) was particularly noteworthy for advocating for civility, for gentleness and respect and politeness even when (or maybe it is especially when) laying out Christian beliefs and in presenting a defense for the hope that is in us.   In Romans 13 Paul also famously recommended the paying of taxes and overall support of the "deacon" of the state, even though he knew full well that in Rome the state in question used that tax money for all kinds of terrible things, not least of which was now and then the active persecution of the church.  But who knows how many other practices and customs were funded by Roman tax money but that were practices good Christian people would find deeply immoral.  Nevertheless, Paul said, pay the tax.

Christians are called to live with a certain amount of unresolved tension, in other words.   This side of Revelation 21, the dwelling of God is not fully on this earth and all of us dual-citizen folks in the meantime need to negotiate a lot of issues that are not pleasant, neat, or comfortable.  We should actually expect this.

But here is another main source of the conflict I feel theologically: in her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered if the door had not been opened for rafts of similar exceptions.   Muslims, she noted, are deeply offended at the eating of anything associated with pigs.  But a great many medications contain gelatin, which is finally a pig product.   What would prevent a Muslim business owner to refuse any insurance coverage that would include pig-based pills or caplets as purchased with insurance money by any of his employees?   And the list goes on: certain faiths are offended by blood transfusions, by vaccinations, by antidepressants.

These are by no means examples of a reductio ad absurdam but are all clearly in the same ballpark as the Hobby Lobby objection to just a few certain medications on faith-based grounds. 

But maybe there is a legal answer to all that and maybe Bader Ginsburg's colleagues like Justice Alito are all over this.  Fine.  

But here is where this intersects with my own theological conflict: whether or not there is a way to prevent Muslims or Hindus or others from refusing to provide insurance coverage for pig-based gelatin caplets, the fact is that most of the same Christians in this country who have cheered the Hobby Lobby decision would likely roll their eyes and shake their heads over any claim for a faith-based exception for any religion other than the Christian one.   (A similar reaction would come if someone suggested that it's fine to post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms provided that a list of the Five Pillars of Islam be similarly posted--most Christians who advocate for the former would find the latter to be merely absurd.)

And this, then, is what bothers me: I worry that under the cloak of being resident aliens--of being in the world but not of the world, of resisting an unjust law as a Christian citizen of the kingdom--what is really going on is a desire to privilege the Christian faith in American society.   Christians want their faith and their convictions honored and accommodated despite having something akin to zero interest in seeing a person of any other faith being similarly accommodated.   Probably this does not describe everybody.   But if and where this is true, then this becomes a matter of power and privilege in a society that is supposed to be free and open and religiously neutral.  Then it becomes less about Christ-like humility and witness and more about some other postures that seem less noble and less Christ-like.

Look, if the owners of Hobby Lobby really believe that certain medications take a human life, then on faith-based grounds they are right to seek a way not to participate in providing the means that make that happen.   But if this is really all about Christian witness, humility, and a sincere desire to serve others as Christ served us, then a good many of us Christians in this country need to wonder much more often than it seems we typically do about what it means to make room for others who may not share our beliefs but whose religious sincerity is no less ardent.  (Jesus never said to love and to serve only those who agree with you after all.)

We may have to swallow hard to do so but I don't doubt that as he sat in a Roman jail cell, Paul also had to grit his teeth a bit in telling the Romans to pay the taxes that helped to operate the very prison in which he found himself.



Do We All Do This?

Who knows what will be happening on certain international fronts by the time this blog gets posted but of necessity I am writing this about 5 days before it will appear.  So if anything seems already to be dated, that's why.

But I write today out of a sense of both frustration and wonder.  Most everyone knows that in recent weeks the situation in Iraq has deteriorated as old splits between Sunnis and Shiites--as well as the surging of a terrorist group so extreme even al Qaeda rejects it--are once again causing chaos and threatening stability.

And a great many folks in Washington D.C. know that as sure as God made little green apples, this is all the fault of Barack Obama and his weak-kneed administration.  Lindsay Graham went on national television to call the President stubborn and pig-headed and said the current mess is completely Obama's doing.   John McCain has been holding forth in the well of the Senate, assailing the man he could not manage to defeat at the ballot box in 2008 for pulling troops out of Iraq a few years ago.

Of course, what neither of these two men--and so many other people like them in Washington right now--will admit is that they were all wrong about the reasons for invading Iraq in the first place back in 2003.   You can play the tapes (as Jon Stewart does quite well on "The Daily Show") and hear these political powerhouses assuring the world of things that proved to be something on the order of 100% incorrect.   But no matter: we can trust that they have things right THIS time, that when they say they know exactly how this could have been headed off in Iraq today, they know what they are talking about.  And above all we can be sure that when they blame Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq, that much at least is certainly correct.

Except that of course it is not.   Guess who said the following: "I am also looking forward to signing the joint statement here affirming two landmark agreements that solidify Iraq's democratic gains, that recognize Iraq's sovereignty, and that puts the relations between our two countries on a solid footing today and a solid footing tomorrow. They cement a strategic partnership between our two countries, and they pave the way for American forces to return home, as the war in Iraq approaches a successful end."

Was that Barack Obama caving in and turning tail on Iraq in order to bring our troops home?  No, that was President George W. Bush on December 14, 2008, speaking in the presidential palace in Baghdad and standing next to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.   That was the day (and I am getting this from the official White House website from the Bush presidency) President Bush signed an agreement that said, "As we further transition security responsibilities to the Iraqi Security Forces, military commanders will continue to move U.S. combat forces out of major populated areas so that they are all out by June 30, 2009.   The Security Agreement also sets a date of December 31, 2011, for all U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq.  This date reflects the increasing capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces as demonstrated in operations this year throughout Iraq, as well as an improved regional atmosphere towards Iraq, an expanding Iraqi economy, and an increasingly confident Iraqi government."

Lindsay Graham and John McCain know this (and if they don't, shame on them for speaking on the subject in public.  It took me only a 6-minute Google search to find the above-quoted material so I don't know why they cannot look it up in case their memories are too foggy to recall it the usual way).   They know they are mischaracterizing our troop withdrawal from Iraq so as to beat up on a president they clearly despise.

But here's the bottom line: people like Lindsay Graham and others have their past misstatements, errors, and such recorded such that they can be replayed over and over.  Yet they don't own those past statements and errors and in fact continue to position themselves as experts you can trust.    

With few exceptions, most of us don't have our past remarks preserved that well.   For most of us, if someone brings up something they claim we said in the past, it's our word against theirs and we can certainly deny it easily enough, especially if doing so preserves our dignity or protects whatever positions we occupy in life (and from which we wish to continue to speak as experts in whatever field we find ourselves in).   In other words, it's even easier for most of us to deny our past or revise our past than it is for politicians, and I worry that we tend to do it altogether too often.

Or I worry that I do this.  Personally, I think a lot of political rhetoric on all sides of the aisle is very often shameful, self-serving, historically revisionist, and so flat out dishonest.    The current piling on in Washington over Iraq is just this week's example.   It is definitely a bipartisan trait (and note that I say this despite my lead example in this blog coming primarily from one side against the other).

But I wonder, "Do we all do this?"   Maybe to some degree we do and, if so, instead of merely getting annoyed by politics as usual, maybe what I need to do is worry about my own rhetoric as well as how we all speak with one another in our faith communities.   In the New Testament--and this comes out most clearly in Peter's letters (maybe because Peter knew a thing or two about rash speech)--one of the ways we Christians are called to distinguish ourselves from the rest of society is in how we speak. 

And so perhaps this latest political spectacle is an occasion for us to wonder about just that.