Sunday, July 19, 2020

Complicated, Infrequent, Maddening: Reflecting on my Dad's Life and Death

   Sigmund Freud said that the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies. If so, that day for me was Wednesday, July 15. My dad turned 95 on March 5, when we last had a good long visit together. On Father’s Day he suffered a stroke, and spiraled down from there. I got to see him briefly, given Covid restrictions, 6 days before he passed.

   Let me work through my thoughts and emotions in front of you now. Helps me, as a writer, to do so in this way – and I suspect my experience of people’s sympathy might help all of us moving forward. With loving intentions, we speak words of comfort to one another. I understand well that when we do so, we inject, we transfer our own feelings about our own family into the stories of others. Surely they feel as I did or would. Comforting words are all comforting, but then at the same time some aren’t so comforting, or aren’t connected to reality, feeling like little pin pricks to fend off. I don’t fault any of the hundreds of people who’ve reached out to me. I am humbled, and so very grateful. I feel loved. My story with my dad probably explains why I need that – but then why everybody else does too.

   My dad, Cecil Artus Howell (known as “Jack” as a young man and in old age) and I had a complicated, infrequent, and maddening relationship. Grieving might just be harder, or at least very different, when this is the case. And I know (given my work!) that our relationship, while unique, was hardly that unusual. I suspect that’s why Jesus stored up his best energy and imagination for that story about the wonderful father who threw a party for his lost son – as if Jesus knew some of us who have a hollow or painful place where “father” is supposed to be would desperately need to know that God is our father and is like that father, instead of like our own fathers.

   Positives: my dad was raised in a warm, hard-working, pious Baptist family in Oakboro, a little town in Stanly County about an hour from Charlotte. Growing up, I spent much time there with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was heavenly, like a womb of compassion and joy. I wonder if God grants some of us an experience of such an “other” place so we will know to long for and even expect that beyond this life there really is a “better place.”

   My dad’s family endured the Great Depression. Tough people - and, like many Depression survivors, always a bit fearful you might run out of money one day. He never went to a day of college, and covered this fact up deftly throughout life, which is not easy. As a mechanical engineer producing nuclear fuel at Westinghouse in his second career, he hired and supervised college- and graduate school-trained people. He always knew he knew more than they did. He could fix or build anything, diagnose what was awry in any machine and make it all good. He changed the oil in his car into his nineties and did his own plumbing, not because he was cheap (which he was), but because he wanted to be sure it was done right.

   As part of that “greatest generation,” he left the small Oakboro school after grade 11 and joined the Army Air Corps. Flew in World War II, the Berlin Air Lift, and briefly into Vietnam. He did what Sarah Palin claimed to do: stationed in Alaska, he and other flyers kept an eye on the Russians, back in the 50's. Like most World War II veterans I’ve known, he was humble about it (even about being shot down over Europe), with no trace of rah-rah patriotism.

   I was born on Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, where we lived until I was 8. My dad earned stripes, and taught me to march and shine my shoes (which were duly inspected every Saturday evening). In 1964, he retired with full benefits, moved us back to North Carolina briefly, then landed his job with Westinghouse in Columbia, SC, where he worked until retirement – which he flunked twice, returning to work after a few weeks of realizing he didn’t have much else to do.

   Having come to adolescence during the Depression, money mattered in a big way to my dad. He was frugal with what he earned, and invested aggressively and smartly in the stock market. After retirement, he became a day trader, watching the ups and downs of stocks all day, every day. If I called and said How are you doing? his answer indicated if the market was up or down. Into his 90’s, he bore that stress all day, every day. His knowledge of corporate America was astonishing. For an uneducated guy with zero family money, he made a lot, and was proud of it. And cheap. I always paid for dinner; he put up no fight at all.

   Now to the harder aspects of things. My dad was, somewhere deep inside, a tender, loving soul. His family was that way. It would peek out now and then. But mostly I experienced him as distant, cold, critical. He never said things like I love you. When he died, many Facebook comments said “I know he was so proud of you.” But this was not something he ever said, to me or anybody else about me. I read the words, and feel a slight jolt of wishing he had been. He was sharply dismissive of my going into the ministry, thinking this was a “waste” of my life. He abounded with criticism. My clothes, my car, my inability to fix a car, my friends. Nothing suited. 

   He was distant: when he was in the Air Force, his work took him away for weeks, even months at a time. When he returned home, he gave great hugs. But then he was gone again. In adult life, he just was distant. His telephone evidently was a one-way contraption. It could receive my calls, but it seemed incapable of calling me. He never ever in calls or visits asked things like How are you doing? How are your children? How is your work? I’ve wondered if he had some kind of narcissistic disorder. Intriguing to diagnose maybe, but not a happy circumstance when it’s your father who’s the narcissist. He very rarely saw my children. I don’t believe he saw my son, his only grandson, until he was nearly 3. He never came to a ballgame or a ballet recital. He rarely remembered anybody’s birthday. He never volunteered. He never made a donation to a non-profit or church.

   I don’t blame him all that much, oddly. He married my mother, and they waged a long, dispiriting, bloody war with one another (like so many marriages, although people cloak this fact and pretend otherwise). Shouting, throwing things, physical battle, stomping out in a rage: this was my home life. It is a gross understatement to say my mother was a prickly, difficult person. Yet he loved her. A touching moment, very late in his life: after he was mired in the nursing home, with no visits allowed due to Covid, I began printing out and mailing him old photos every day – from his teenage and early military years, of his siblings, his parents, his flying buddies. He loved this! I found photos of his wedding to my mother. After hesitating, I sent them anyhow. He phoned me: his phone actually was a 2-way phone! and spoke tenderly of how beautiful she was, how much he had loved her, how he wished he could have made it work.

   But it didn’t work, and their battlefield was littered with the debris that was my childhood, and my sister’s. I remember telling him I was going to college. He seemed puzzled, and tried briefly to dissuade me, suggesting I get a job and support myself. Mind you, he didn’t support me. I worked my own way through school, and with no regrets at all. About that time, he reconnected with an old flame, Bonnie, the deep love of his life. An ugly divorce case ensued – but then he was free from my mother. He and Bonnie spent every waking minute together. In their 30 years of marriage, they spent one night apart. But she was icy, didn’t want to be around my dad’s kids, or my kids.

   And so I don’t blame him so much. Yet, people say “Enjoy your happy memories!” I can recall a handful from childhood. His hugs when returning home. Playing catch a few times. He came to a couple of my football games in high school. But in my entire adult life, it would be hard to point to some moment and say Aha, now that was a happy memory. Naturally, I blame myself too often about this. What could I have done to make things different? I tried. But maybe I was too proud? Did I get this trait from him, along with a tenacious work ethic and a resilient stubbornness?

   I was impressed at times by my dad. His third wife, Lorraine, began to suffer from Alzheimer’s shortly after their marriage. I watched him visit her in the nursing home, when she showed no flash of recognition – and he held her hand, kissed her, spoke tender words of love to her, combed her hair, every day. That is a memory that makes me happy.

   People have said many religious things to me since he died. “He’s with God,” or “You’ll be together in heaven,” or whatever. I most certainly hope so. Yet he not only thought it was a waste of my life to be a pastor. He seemed to believe church was a waste of time. He never said so, but then he never attended. Well, he came to my wedding in a church, and to one of my three children’s baptisms in a church, to an occasional family funeral, and even to worship at Myers Park Church a couple of times, clearly dragged there by Lorraine before her dementia set in. I did ask him late in life if he ever prayed. He laughed, and then growled, “Yeah, I pray for my stocks to go up.”

   So if you believe my dad is in heaven, now, you have to have a pretty expansive theology of who goes to heaven. I have space in my theological mind for people like my dad who don’t go to church, who don’t pray, who don’t believe, who don’t make the slightest effort to follow Jesus, who don’t do anything for anybody else, to be with God forever. I’ve been stridently criticized by church people over many years for writing and thinking such thoughts. Yet I know I am in good company with many of our greatest theologians and church leaders, from Origen to C.S. Lewis to Karl Barth. If you prefer to think of him in eternal perdition, I pity you. I believe he is with God, not because he was my dad, but because of what we know about the heart of God. Fortunately, God has liberated us from having to know or decide on such things. Ours is, of course, to hope.

   I suspect Freud was right in some ways I cannot fathom just now. Since my dad died, I’ve been in a funk. No tears. At least not yet. But a numbness. I’ve not been answering the phone, even when called by my dearest friends. I don’t really have words I can attach to this mood, the drumbeat of feelings that aren’t the usual kind of grief. I’m not mad, or resentful. Even his impassioned admonition to me as a 20 year old who had just announced I was going into the ministry, “You only have one life; don’t waste it,” I still welcome as giving me the laser focus I needed for why I would do such a thing. I think I’m just sad. Maybe. I’m not fond of could’ves or should’ves. My father died. Period. A complicated life. Like everyone’s, I suppose. With lasting impacts on others. Like everyone’s. He was my father. I favor him. He's tangled deep in my soul. Always will be. 

   Thank you, thank you, thank you to every person who has reached out to me. You’ve buoyed me up and encouraged me. I think of the times I have most likely assumed things about relationships that were off kilter, maybe a little hurtful. I hope they too were well-received as bumbling but sincere expressions of love and care. Let’s never assume though. Let us never say I know how you feel. If you ask How do you feel? you might get an earful, like this blog. Or the person might do the best she can muster in the moment, which is to say Fine. We are. And we will be. Mostly likely, and hopefully, forever, if God our Father’s love is as all-encompassing and tender as we dream it surely must be.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

God on Statues, Flags and Monuments

   What does God think about statues being torn down, or preserved? I can’t say for sure. I think of Joseph Heller’s humorous thought in his hilarious God Knows where he envisions David in heaven complaining about Michelangelo’s statue of him in Florence: “It doesn’t look anything like me.” There are beautiful statues, and then some really garish ones of Jesus himself.

   Not surprisingly, our polarized divide in America splits us into those who relish the demolition of statues, and those who are mortified. Some say Symbols matter! Others say It’s just a statue – although we might all recall a certain delight when Saddam’s statue was pulled down, or when Lenin’s lay on the turf. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem I learned in junior high school, testifies to the ultimate tumbling of all monuments to human grandeur.

   When we witness assaults on monuments, and the reflex to save them, what we see isn’t so much about this or that statue or person. It’s rage at a whole world that has failed us – on both sides of the divide. This debate reveals clearly what I’ve said repeatedly – that everyone is afraid. Half of us are afraid that the world we’ve known and treasured is crumbling around us; the other half are afraid that the world they dream of will never actually dawn. If we just fix this, or save that, we'll stave off all we fear. But in our gut we know it's a vain fantasy.

   My questions are: How do we reflect on public images and their hurtful or helpful impact on people? And thus How do we preserve history while understanding why and how it matters? History matters. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, reminding us that the most common word in the Bible for “sin” is to “forget,” declares that “the guardian of conscience is memory… Civilizations begin to die when they forget.”

   Should we forget Robert E. Lee? His statue came down: many were glad, many were miffed. Was he evil – as a person? Or in the cause he life was defined by? By all accounts he was a noble genius – who fought to preserve southernness, including slavery. He was a pious person; but who symbolizes the systematic oppression of black people more than Lee? Does seeing Lee riding Traveler traumatize people? Some, yes. Famously, the Sunday after the war ended, Lee alone responded well when a freed slave walked to the altar of the St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Richmond. Other worshippers were appalled, but Lee knelt next to him at the altar. Not surprisingly, this story is disputed. Should we learn about him, and ponder such a life? Most assuredly.

   When my daughter Sarah was little, our family watched the local news, which featured video of me, as a religious leader, laying a wreath at the base of the Martin Luther King statue downtown – on his holiday. Having paid attention in Sunday School, she chided me: “Daddy, you’re not supposed to worship idols.” King isn’t an idol. No one is. The truth is, all people are deeply flawed. If we remove all statues of people with some embarrassing flaw, we’ll have no statues. Lincoln got syphilis from a prostitute, Jefferson owned slaves, King had affairs. The Boston Tea Party was looting, the wanton destruction of somebody else’s property. The history books are jammed with anti-Semites, racists, philanderers, oppressors.

   One of the lessons of history is we all have our blind spots. You may feel “woke” on this or that issue. But there’s something horrific in you that you flat out are missing. Lauren Winner wrote a book (The Dangers of Christian Practice) about the letters and diaries of plantation wives, who prayed so very devoutly, Lord, how severely should I punish my slave for what he did? Or, Lord, should I purchase 3 more slaves next week? Or, Lord, how should I read the Bible and pray with my slaves? – numbingly blind to the idea that the Lord might want her to let the people go. I wonder what it is in me, enlightened as I like to think of myself as being?

   I totally get that symbols can be hurtful, and can insidiously prop up what alien to our good and noble nature. We have great cause to abolish some symbols. In Germany, if you raise a flag with a swastika, you go to jail. Yet in America, we say the Confederate flag is freedom of speech. But we agree as a democratic people that not every freedom of speech can pass. Nudists can’t express themselves in public. And I’ve found that the people I know who wave a rebel flag and claim freedom of speech rage against a ballplayer taking a knee during the National Anthem. The flag is coded language, shouting to others that they aren't wanted, or included, and had better be very afraid - isn't it?

   During the National Anthem, does God favor taking the knee or standing at attention? Does God want rebel flags or is he more German in his soul? I feel sure the desire is for us first of all to dig beneath the surface and confess we are all broken. We are all hypocrites. We all have blind spots. And then that no image or statue will save us, or destroy us. As the Bible reiterates, the only image of God’s goodness we can trust is the image of God in every person. It’s in me, in you, in the other person you think is amazing and the one whose viewpoint makes you apoplectic.

   I'd guess God wants 3 things from us just now. (1) That we delve deeply into history, for there is so much that is noble, and so much that is tawdry; this is how we understand ourselves, the perils and the hope. (2) That we are gentle and merciful with one another; you are the spitting image of God, you’re deeply broken, you have blind spots – and the same holds for the other guy. And (3) That we aren’t saved by thinking right about statues or flags or parties or positions; they all matter, but they are as substantial as that crumbled statue Shelley portrayed in “Ozymandias.” And so are we. So let's figure all this out. Together. Symbols matter. What they symbolize matters far more. It's the image of God in all of "we the people" that God is focused on, and dreams that we will be too.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Jesus on Statues, Flags and Monuments

   What does Jesus think about statues being torn down, or preserved? I can’t say for sure. I think of Joseph Heller’s humorous thought in his hilarious God Knows where he envisions David in heaven complaining about Michelangelo’s statue of him in Florence: “It doesn’t look anything like me.” There are beautiful statues, and then some really garish ones of Jesus himself.

   Not surprisingly, our polarized divide in America splits us into those who relish the demolition of statues, and those who are mortified. Some say Symbols matter! Others say It’s just a statue – although we might all recall a certain delight when Saddam’s statue was pulled down, or when Lenin’s lay on the turf. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem I learned in junior high school, testifies to the ultimate tumbling of all monuments to human grandeur.

   When we witness assaults on monuments, and the reflex to save them, what we see isn’t so much about this or that statue or person. It’s rage at a whole world that has failed us – on both sides of the divide. This debate reveals clearly what I’ve said repeatedly – that everyone is afraid. Half of us are afraid that the world we’ve known and treasured is crumbling around us; the other half are afraid that the world they dream of will never actually dawn. If we just fix this, or save that, we'll stave off all we fear. But in our gut we know it's a vain fantasy.

   My question is one I think Jesus would ask us: How do we reflect on public images and their hurtful or helpful impact on people? And thus How do we preserve history while understanding why and how it matters? History matters. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, reminding us that the most common word in the Bible for “sin” is to “forget,” declares that “the guardian of conscience is memory… Civilizations begin to die when they forget.”

   Should we forget Robert E. Lee? His statue came down: many were glad, many were miffed. Was he evil – as a person? Or in the cause he life was defined by? By all accounts he was a noble genius – who fought to preserve southernness, including slavery. He was a pious person; but who symbolizes the systematic oppression of black people more than Lee? Does seeing Lee riding Traveler traumatize people? Some, yes. Famously, the Sunday after the war ended, Lee alone responded well when a freed slave walked to the altar of the St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Richmond. Other worshippers were appalled, but Lee knelt next to him at the altar. Not surprisingly, this story is disputed. Should we learn about him, and ponder such a life? Most assuredly.

   When my daughter Sarah was little, our family watched the local news, which featured video of me, as a religious leader, laying a wreath at the base of the Martin Luther King statue downtown – on his holiday. Having paid attention in Sunday School, she chided me: “Daddy, you’re not supposed to worship idols.” King isn’t an idol. No one is. The truth is, all people are deeply flawed. If we remove all statues of people with some embarrassing flaw, we’ll have no statues. Lincoln got syphilis from a prostitute, Jefferson owned slaves, King had affairs. The Boston Tea Party was looting, the wanton destruction of somebody else’s property. The history books are jammed with anti-Semites, racists, philanderers, oppressors. Nothing but us broken sinners down here, O Lord.

   One of the lessons of history is we all have our blind spots. You may feel “woke” on this or that issue. But there’s something horrific in you that you flat out are missing. Lauren Winner wrote a book (The Dangers of Christian Practice) about the letters and diaries of plantation wives, who prayed so very devoutly, Lord, how severely should I punish my slave for what he did? Or, Lord, should I purchase 3 more slaves next week? Or, Lord, how should I read the Bible and pray with my slaves? – numbingly blind to the idea that the Lord might want her to let the people go. I wonder what it is in me, enlightened as I like to think of myself as being?

   I totally get that symbols can be hurtful, and can insidiously prop up what is not of God. We have good cause to abolish some symbols. In Germany, if you raise a flag with a swastika, you go to jail. Yet in America, we say the Confederate flag is freedom of speech. But we agree as a democratic people that not every freedom of speech can pass. Nudists can’t express themselves in public. And I’ve found that the people I know who wave a rebel flag and claim freedom of speech rage against a ballplayer taking a knee during the National Anthem. The flag is coded language, shouting to others that they aren't wanted, or included, and had better be very afraid - isn't it?

   Does Jesus favor taking the knee or standing at attention? Does he want rebel flags or is he more German in his soul? I feel sure Jesus wants us first of all to dig beneath the surface and confess we are all broken. We are all hypocrites. We all have blind spots. And then that no image or statue will save us, or destroy us. As the Bible reiterates, the only image of God’s goodness we can trust is the image of God in Jesus, and the image of God in every person. It’s in me, in you, in the other person you think is amazing and the one whose viewpoint makes you apoplectic.

   Jesus wants 3 things from us just now. (1) That we delve deeply into history, for there is so much that is noble, and so much that is tawdry; this is how we understand ourselves, the perils and the hope. (2) That we are gentle and merciful with one another; you are the spitting image of God, your body is God’s temple, you’re deeply broken, you have blind spots – and the same holds for the other guy. And (3) That we aren’t saved by thinking right about statues or flags or parties or positions; they all matter, but they are as substantial as that crumbled statue Shelley portrayed in “Ozymandias.” God alone is God. God alone can save.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020

My Message on Race to my Church Family


   As your pastor, I’ve had many questions about our church’s response to the turmoil we’re witnessing in our city and nation. We begin of course in grief, in prayer, trying to feel the pain in God’s heart, straining to hear the pain in the hearts of all God’s people. We are to bring healing, to be a light to the nations, the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), the repairers of the breach (Isaiah 58:12). It’s time, past time really, for the Church to be the Church.
   The Church has always been looked to in times of crisis for moral leadership. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, some religious people walked on by; but one stopped to help (Luke 10:29). When something is not of God, we speak up; we do something. We do so peacefully, and full of love.
   I was both praised and criticized for showing up for a protest gathering downtown on Sunday. The clergy of our city are always asked by officials to be present, to stand in the breach as a buffer, to be a calming, peacemaking force. Clergy, on behalf of their churches, show up in communities to show the church cares. I know we all care. As your pastor, I embody your care to others.
   Everyone I know shudders over looting, breaking windows, smashing police cars. These are crimes, to be dealt with as crimes. But we can’t let the tiny fraction of people who take advantage of situations like this (and many truly are instigators from outside our city) drown out the voices of pain. We recall that our country has a long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience. The patriots of the Revolution, seeking freedom, broke laws. The Boston Tea Party was, after all, looting… Martin Luther King, Jr., deliberately and peacefully broke the law, and was more than willing to be imprisoned. Very different from petty looting, isn’t it? And during the Civil Rights movement, a turning point came when TV focused eyes on police brutality. After watching Bull Connor, Americans said “No more.” Jesus himself was a peaceful protester, and it cost him his life.
   Racism persists as a nagging, unsolved challenge to the good society we dream of. And it’s not out there somewhere. I laughed out loud the first time I saw Avenue Q when it came to the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” Like all white people, I carry lingering shadows of attitudes that were deeply ingrained in me at a young age. I have to pray and work on that, as we all do. Studies show white people’s pulses rise when they encounter a black person on a sidewalk. No condemnation of anyone here; as Christians we are always striving to be more faithful and holy.
   What we have to remember, in thinking about race, is that we are all people riddled by fear. Rev. Bill Roth mentioned to me this week that “In the face of fear, we will either acknowledge and feel it, or we’ll act it out, going on the offensive against those we fear.” We see and feel these things constantly. Christian faith is a healing for fear, God’s grace embracing us, telling us we are safe, and there’s comfort, no need to judge or get angry or lash out.
   We had some programs a couple of years ago on Racial Reconciliation, and they were great. My friend Bishop Claude Alexander of The Park here in town pointed out in conversation the other day that “reconciliation” is a misnomer – in that it implies we used to be together, we fell apart, and now we want to reconcile. Whites and blacks were never together as Americans. Blacks were brought here as slaves, and it’s been an uphill battle toward freedom ever since. Somehow for me, James Baldwin’s wisdom resonates with me – that many white Americans may have come to need black Americans, not just to work for them, but to help them feel they’re better than somebody else. As Christians, we trust God’s grace to heal us from any lingering hints of ever thinking anybody’s better than anybody else.
   In times like these, “white privilege” and “white supremacists” are terms tossed around. I am someone who’s worked hard. I paid my own way through school. But no one ever sized me up by skin color and assumed I would turn out poorly. If you befriend people of color (and not just one!), let them share their experiences with you. You may learn about privileges you didn’t realize you had. When we hear “white supremacists,” we might think of rebel-flag-toting guys trying to revive the KKK. I often see and feel something way subtler – when we white people think we understand black people and what they should be doing, although we’ve not really listened to them or lived in their shoes.
   So when people ask What can we do? it’s not like making a donation or saying a prayer or any one thing will change the world. We begin by listening. Make a friend who looks different, stick with that friend over time to build trust, and then listen, learn, share life together. If all the white Christians in Charlotte had longstanding friendships with black Christians in Charlotte, we’d have a very different city. I helped author and signed a statement from white clergy and community leaders simply saying “We are grieved, outraged, remorseful, and weary… We are with you.” Reach out to someone who is black and share your sorrow.
   What can we do? My answer is Everything. Where do you walk, bike, hang out? Whom do your children play with? Where do you shop? How do you vote and why? How do you engage in conversations about other people with your friends? Or at home? Lots of people are finding practical steps to take in this “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” Ask questions. Have you phoned anybody? Lie awake at night. Nathan Arledge and others recommend reading How To Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. Maybe it’s not enough to say I’m not racist. Maybe we have to be anti-racists, working with others against racism.
   For God asks us to be responsible, to be our brother’s keeper, to love the stranger, never to rest until God’s blessings are there for everybody. On this, I love Martin Luther King’s wisdom: “Cowardice asks ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’ There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
   ** Your thoughts and perspectives, and your ideas about what God is calling our church to do and be are welcome! Email input@mpumc.org, or me directly, james@mpumc.org.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Wicked Monotony: George Floyd

There is a wicked monotony to the righteous rage sparked by unjust deaths that lights up Facebook for a few days, which then subsides after a few days when we get distracted again. George Floyd, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown... Who can remember them all? Everyone is SO upset. We trot out our justice memes and strut our credentials as crusaders for justice - and then nothing changes until another name is added to the roll call that condemns, not the police or anybody else, but all of us. 

We get the society we are. We get the institutions we ask for. It's a Democracy. "We the people..." The racism is ours, not somebody else's. The willingness to keep institutions that do unjust harm is ours. The patience with bizarre unacceptability is ours. We complain about our leaders. We get the leaders we vote for. 

Every time there is a mass shooting, we hear the droning chorus of “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims." God must laugh, weep or yawn. Do something! Such prayers are a pathetic salve to make ourselves feel better, while we wait for the next mass shooting to tickle our praying fancy once more. 

So after another race-based, unjust death, filmed for the world to witness, we launch our righteous memes, we shake our heads and shudder with like-minded friends, maybe a sermon dares to express contempt for the sin of racism. God watches, listens – and then God laughs, weeps, or yawns. Surely God, if we could get quiet enough to hear God, is saying Friends, I gave you dominion and freedom. If you're serious, which I question, then change your world. The injustice of unjust deaths, and the injustice of outraged chatter are killing me.

How innocuously we then ask What can one person do? The powerful secret of a Democracy is that one person actually does matter. So a few questions for us individuals who plead feeling overwhelmed and unable: whom do you vote for and why? Where do you hang out? What streets do you walk down? Whom do you have real relationships with? Have you phoned anybody? Have you probed deeply into yourself to detect white privilege and unnoticed bias? What vapid diversion will grab your attention in a few days as George Floyd slides out of mind? 

The answer to What can one person do? is Everything. Look at your whole life and ask questions. Keep asking questions. Converse with others, not the day after a death but three weeks later. Name injustice everywhere. Struggle to sleep at night. Keep shuddering.

I wonder about repentance. I spoke at a local synagogue’s Kristallnacht service a couple of years ago. I veered off from my notes, and found myself saying to the Jewish community, On behalf of Christendom, we are so very sorry. Tellingly, quite a few Jews embraced me in gratitude - but three Christians in the crowd told me I had zero authority to say such a meaningless thing. Isn’t it time for good white Christians, not to condemn racism out there somewhere, but to take a knee in humility before one African American, and then another, maybe whole communities or churches, and say On behalf of white Christendom, we are so very sorry. I don’t think God would laugh, or weep, or yawn. I think God would then say This. Finally. Thank you. So what’s next?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Beauty Will Save the World

   The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, "Only Beauty will save the world." With so much ugliness in the world, I wonder if Jewel’s song lyric might bring us some hope: “Maybe if we are surrounded in beauty, someday we will become what we see.”

   God has strewn beauty all over the place, but we neglect it: we hurry right by and don’t notice, or we have forgotten to name it when we see it. A dandelion, a carefully arranged place setting, an old photograph, the tree in your yard, a wrinkled face, clouds, a tune, a historical moment, commitments, the face in the mirror: beauty is all around, waiting to be noticed, cherished, pointed to, shared. And all of it reveals God’s heart to us. Want to see God? “Every experience of beauty points to infinity” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

   How good of God to stir so much beauty into the mix when God created everything! It could have been all dirt, rock, efficiency, productivity. God, like the artist, created what was unnecessary, inefficient. Why did God not only leave space for beauty, but elevate it to its status as the one thing that thrills the heart and leaves us feeling noble, giving immense dignity to the smallest creature?

   St. Thomas Aquinas’s answer? “God created the universe to make it beautiful for himself by reflecting his own beauty.” God is a great many things – but at the center of it all, God is beauty. Ours is to notice, to be awed, to be delighted.

   We’ve all heard that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but it’s a lie. It’s not a matter of taste, or private preference. When we shrink things down to a private, opinionated list of what I like or don’t like, we’re the losers. As we explore Beauty, we’ll learn to see better, to see what God sees: every person, every thing, pretty or glitzy or not, partakes in the goodness and beauty of God. We’re surrounded in it.

   Sure, beauty also gets twisted and perverted, and there’s so much desecration. Isn’t most ugliness really beauty that’s gotten scared or fallen on hard times? And aren’t we adept at pinpointing what’s ugly when there’s actually beauty there? For instance, there is a beauty in suffering. You may know this from experience… Or the stunning array of colorful leaves in Autumn: what you’re looking at is death.

   Faith isn’t merely a belief God exists, or access to help when you’re in trouble, or your calling card to get into heaven. Faith is seeing as God sees. It’s a readiness to be astonished. It’s inefficient and unproductive, this pondering of beauty – and so it’s like prayer, a wasting of time, and yet what we crave deep in our souls. Nothing else really will satisfy.


   Paul, from a dark, dank stone prison, wrote, “Whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). God has strewn beauty all over the place. The least we can do is notice. Maybe we will become what we see.


  I'm beginning a months-long project on Beauty. Through Facebook (with a special page if you’re in Charlotte) and Instagram I'll be posting stories, photos, quotes and more. I'd love for you to Email me pictures or stories. Not thinking "pretty" or even "attractive" but "beautiful," which may be surprising, subtle, humble, even dark. We have some great programs lined up, with former Mayor Harvey Gantt (Jan. 7), Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge and Duke, Ray Barfield, doctor and theologian, and Chas Fagan, sculptor and painter.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Absolutely Beautiful Face


   The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suggested that "Beauty will save the world." If not beauty, then what would save the world? Might? Money? Fun? Politicians? Arms? Gritting our teeth and trying harder?

   Christians say "Jesus will save the world" - which is true. Dostoevsky, again, said "There is only one face in the whole world which is absolutely beautiful: the face of Christ." Was Jesus handsome? Maybe, maybe not. Jesus must have exhibited something compelling in his persona. He must have been "attractive," in that people were attracted to him. His words intrigued. His compassionate embrace of any and everybody was alluring. People asked him questions endlessly; he usually responded with a question, which says to the other person You too are beautiful and wise, although you might not have been told this before. Busy people dropped everything and traipsed off after him, without knowing where they were going or how things would turn out.

   I love St. Augustine's pensive praise of Jesus: "He is beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth, beautiful in the womb, beautiful in his parents' arms..." He rambled further on this, but I want us to pause and ponder how Jesus was "beautiful in the womb" and then "beautiful in his parents' arms." It's 20 days until Christmas. Don't think shopping days, but imagine Jesus in his mother's womb, with 20 days to go. The Savior of the world, there but not quite having arrived just yet. Dependent, like us. It's dark, like our world. Cramped, with painful squeezes now and then. Before long he'll undergo considerable trauma, exit the dark waters of the womb and land in his parents' arms, out in the air, on the starlit earth, in the manger.

   This wee one would save the world. There's something evangelistic about Beauty. If you see something beautiful, you're compelled to share. Snap a photo, or point; try to describe it. If only others could see this! Isn't that the way the Christian message, the glory that is God gets shared?

   Beauty is so... democratic. It's for everyone. Every person is immensely qualified to notice and appreciate it. Yet so many miss it. You have to slow down. A knack for beauty requires some cultivation. After all, an educated farmer might have a far better chance than a Ph.D. in chemistry when it comes to noticing beauty. Just as each one of us was, at some point, just like Jesus, in our mother's womb, just days from being born, so each one of us is surrounded by beauty. And each instance of beauty is one more kaleidoscopic refraction of the beauty that is the face of Jesus.

   Advent is a season of repentance. Repentance isn't groveling in guilt. It's turning toward God. It's a changed mind. Elaine Scarry says that "beautiful things have been placed here and there in the world to serve as wake-up calls." This Advent, keep an eye out for beauty. Be awakened to it. Turn toward God, who is Beauty. Share with somebody.