Brian’s Song

When I was fourteen I watched an ABC movie of the week called “Brian’s Song”. I was moved by the music as I was drawn to the interracial bonds Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo shared, the vast differences in their personas, and the struggles and griefs that were surmounted. The narration opens with Coach Halas saying, “Earnest Hemingway once said, ‘Every true story ends in death.’ Well…. this is a true story.” His closing narration is: “When they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived…. how he did live!!!!”

When I heard the movie was going to be re-broadcast (you couldn’t choose when to watch something then), I grabbed my new Craig “T-stop” cassette tape recorder, held the microphone to the TV mono speaker, and made an audio tape of the music, and some of my favorite speeches that I listened to many times. “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were the only other movie music and speeches I recorded on audio while they re-played on TV.

I once was too ashamed to share that about myself, but I learned during classes with Suzanne Stabile that a “2” on the Enneagram feels other people’s feelings, while having no sense of their own feelings. She also told me that my embarrassment was because male “2s” have a hard time in our culture — at least it’s not as difficult as what female “8s” face.

Maybe I was being prepared by a loving guiding hand in my life-long vocation — the times I’ve spoken out for and worked for racial justice, visited those recovering in hospitals and rehab centers, led youth groups, and the years I spent as a hospice chaplain and minister to grieving families. I’ve appreciated a variety of personas, orientations, views from points, rather than homogeneity. I’ve worked with media across cassettes, 8-tracks, slide/tape shows, video, CDs, DVDs, digital, powerpoint, and streaming. My spirituality has been transformed alongside changes in technology.

On July 6, the actor who played Brian Piccolo, James Caan, died — every true story ends in death. I will remember knowing him through his many magnificent roles throughout my life for which I am grateful. 

What movies had an impact on your life in your youth? How has technology changes affected your way of living? What do you appreciate about James Caan’s lifetime of work on stage and screen?

Set Free for Freedom

Jesus’ apostle named Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Galatian church.

“For freedom God through his anointed one has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

How do these words speak to you today?

Dialogue (Part 1 & 2)… & 3 & 4

Last night our three sisters and brothers-in-law got to see Chicago in concert in Kansas City. The second song was led by the author Robert Lamm — Dialogue (Part 1 & 2). As I “sang” the lyrics I could recall screaming the words with Terry Kath’s voice and guitar on the LP at full volume in our Frat house in college. I still want to shout down war, starvation, and “repression closing round” as I hear others say, “if you had my outlook your feelings would be numb — you’d always think that everything is fine.”

A few years before, the inserts and posters of “Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall” set read: “we can change the system”. Dialogue Part 2 proclaimed “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.”

I wonder what parts of Dialogue 1 & 2 I need to hear today? I wonder what Dialogue Part 3 might be about?

One option could be the dialogue in churches about whether the kingdom of God that Jesus talked most about is someplace you go after you die, or is it a vision for the world now? As Brian McLaren writes in his new book “Do I Stay Christian?”, is the church a refrigeration unit before shipment to a final destination, or does following Jesus mean actively working to change our systems that are leading to the violent or climatic destruction of our whole ecosystem. Is God’s goal to throw away our world like garbage (after pulling “my tribe out”), or is God showing us ways to save creation now?

I believe and I hope Dialogue 4 would repeat 2: “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.” What dialogues do you see going on? When have you heard, “Will you try to change things with the power that you have: the power of a million new ideas”?

Skyhook

Friday’s story was about our three-year-son driving our minivan with minimal damage to objects or persons. How fleeting life can be. The way I saw things at the time, I wondered if God had helped to guide his little hand to shift past catastrophic reverse and into a safe drive of a few inches forward. I don’t see it that way today.

I see God as present in and loving his/her/their entire creation—including me. I don’t see our creator as operating some skyhook that rescues some people from the actions of themselves or others, while leaving others behind. From my tradition, I agree with Jesus: children, your Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Skyhook rescue theology raises concerns for me. I can never answer the “why” question. Why would I be rescued while another suffers who is not rescued?—or the reverse of course! It’s the temptation to act like I am so special, God will rescue me from hitting the ground if I jump off a building (Matthew 4:5-7 and the other accounts of Jesus’ temptations).

Seeing a skyhook is dangerous. The “rapture” conspiracy theory (that is neither Biblical nor faithful as I see it) says God will skyhook people like my tribe before destroying the world. If God doesn’t care about this world and people who are “other” than me, then why should I? Why would I care about others, the environment, or climate change if God is going to throw it all away like garbage?

A divine skyhook takes away our human responsibility to seek answers to rampant violence, including the threat of nuclear destruction. Because God does not and will not rescue us from the consequences of our actions, we might want to reconsider our behavior.

How has skyhook rescue theology been a part of your journey of faith? When have you been reassured by seeing that way? What stumbling blocks came in your path from that perspective?

No Guarantees

Like many towns in the 1980s, we provided an all-night party for all high school seniors the night of their graduation. Parents and community leaders organized a party of celebration, celibacy, and cheer (sans alcohol). A YMCA was transformed into a casino/nightclub/coffee house/activity center for 14 hours. As the preacher, I was assigned the roulette or craps table.

The sub-text was to guarantee the safety of the graduates on a dangerous night. One year I learned there are no guarantees no matter how hard you try.

Two hours after going home at 7 a.m., one graduate drove the two-lane thirty-mile highway to Columbia to buy something. He fell asleep at the wheel, and was killed in the car crash.

24 hours after their graduation, I hosted 24 youth with our mutual shock, silence, sobs, stories, and unanswerable questions. One life lesson we learned was that you can’t guarantee safety, no matter how many safety steps you take. The lesson was not worth the cost.

The next year, after another annual all-night sober celebration, we told the participants to sleep it off.

How have you learned that you can’t guarantee someone’s safety? Given that there are no guarantees, what steps do you take to seek safety for yourself and others? How might this reflection affect your response to this week’s guns and graduations?

What Must I Do to be Saved?

The day after Tuesday’s most recent “massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2:16-18), I opened my mailbox to find the above propaganda from Congresswoman Vicki Hartzler (or her opponent trying to smear her? — one never knows). One of the many images idolizing violent weapons manufactured to kill people looked like Patty Hearst robbing a bank in 1974. Timing is everything.

Acts 16 is one lectionary passage for this Sunday (timing again?). Paul and Silas are put in chains and in jail, because they healed a slave-girl fortune-teller. They interfered with the business of those who profited from her. It seems you suffer if you lovingly interfere with business profits — however abusive that business is. Times haven’t changed much.

An earthquake frees Paul & Silas from their cells of inaction and chains of silence. Their jailer figures the empire will kill him for allowing prisoners to escape. The jailer asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” He was NOT asking, how to get a ticket to heaven when I die; he was asking how to be saved from this empire of violence and vengeance, domination and hate all around him.

He asks what he must DO and the two tell him what to do. Believe, follow, live the life of Jesus and you and your household will be saved. Practice the life of love, sharing, community, equality, justice, peace, non-violent, active resistance to evil, and you will be saved from this system — you and your household. Find ways to participate in grace and peace everyday.

That is the question I keep hearing this week. After another arsenal annihilation, what must I do? What actions am I called to take in response? What must I do to be saved from violence, vengeance, weapons, war, autocrats, businesses profiteers who silence any dissent? What are you called to do? How might you grow in love and non-violent resistance to bring any hope of salvation to this household of our nation and world?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny

When I started reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books 25 years ago, it never occurred to me I’d have a story published in one. I only wrote sermons “weakly”. From April to December, 2020, when I couldn’t visit the members in person, I wrote brief reflections for First Presbyterian in Columbia. I was encouraged to write a book.

In 2021, I took several online writing classes hosted by Brian Allain on “Becoming a Spiritual Writer.” His “Writing for Your Life” presentations helped me visit with my top 5 authors along with helpful resources he makes available.

During one workshop I met the editor of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Amy Newmark said she was accepting about a thousand submissions for a book with humorous stories and they’d publish 101 of those stories sometime next year. 

“Sometime next year” is today! The story I submitted last year is #51 in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL — TOO FUNNY. I avoided my first rejection letter by choosing the best story I told for years at breakfast at pastor’s conferences to watch them spit their milk.

I still enjoy certain songs from the 70s — Vehicle, Mississippi Queen, Spirit in the Sky, Montego Bay, Brandy, etc.—each is a one-hit wonder. Today I joined the one-hit-wonder club with “This Time in Latin”. We’ll see what might come next.

What is your dream for the coming years? Where can you go for resources and support to act on your hope? What might you do if your dream became a reality?

Table-Threat to Empire

We started Lent imagining with Diana Butler Bass that the Table is the central image of Holy Week. A community was celebrating deliverance from bondage to Pharaoh’s Empire at the joyful Jewish Passover meal. Their rabbi, Jesus, says, “Love one another as I have loved you” as he washes feet. The abundant life is expressed in a communal table where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome to eat bread and drink wine in peace and mutuality with each other and God.

This Friday we see that table shattered. John Dominic Crossan taught me to ask, “Why would Rome waste the cost of a garrison, cross, and nails if Jesus were not a threat to the Empire?” If Jesus was just talking about an afterlife, they wouldn’t care. An alternative Kingdom of God on earth was a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar on earth; there’s only room for one king at the top of the pyramid. Public execution of the leader would settle it, and deter anyone else from trying.

Every Empire before and after relies on domination by one group over others, making “the other/outsider/alien” an enemy to be controlled, systems that result in the few having the most while the vast majority possess little, using ever-increasing violence to maintain power and domination. 

Proclaiming a table for all, “each under their own vine and fig tree where no one shall make them afraid”, disarms the violence and fear that maintains the empire’s myth of scarcity. I wonder why people who follow the way of Jesus wear crosses instead of tables? Jesus never took the disciples to the cross after he died. He met them back in their last supper upper room, the Emmaus road table, the seashore breakfast table. 

What powers of domination and violence do you see crushing the table today? What causes you to despair and grieve on this Friday? Where do find your source for hope and strength?

Kitchen Steward

During my Junior year at Emory University I worked for our fraternity, Sigma Chi, as the Kitchen Steward. I wasn’t paid with money; the job was bartered with free meals that year. For 86 brothers plus our “little sisters” on our meal plan, I organized 3 meals a day (Mon-Fri), made contracts with food distributors, and kept our two beloved cooks, Ethel and Pearl, satisfied.

I worked harder than I was paid to keep people with a full spectrum of tastes happy with the choices. My clients were privileged post-pubescents who came from the unique cuisine of their family of origin. It was impossible to keep everyone happy. I worked within a limited budget. Most remained silently satisfied. Some shared their appreciation. The few obnoxious brothers seemed blaming and reactive in most areas of life. Some meals stood out as excellent; most nobody can remember; at the end of  the year we had been well fed.

What an incredible preparation for a calling to church ministry!!!!! I grew from being a Kitchen Steward to preaching parables about stewards.

I worked harder than I was paid to keep individuals as happy as possible. Each church member had a unique idea of what church “should be” based on their history— and/or their hopes. It was impossible to keep everyone happy. I worked within a limited budget. Many remained silently satisfied; many more showed appreciation. Reactive, obnoxious complainers revealed their hurts, as they remained beloved children of God. Some sermons and teachings stood out as excellent; most nobody can remember; in the end we were spiritually fed.

How do your experiences connect with mine? With your personality, how would you imagine being a caretaker for a frat house kitchen? If you are in a spiritual community, how do you seek unity rather than uniformity? How do you hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness in your life and in the world?

Tradition

We experienced the musical “Fidler on the Roof” at the University of Missouri this week. We were transported to a Jewish Russian village in 1905 when the Tsar used “Pogroms” to bury any dissent—even against those who weren’t part of the first revolution. “Pogram” is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” 

As a familiar Bible story gives new meaning in various contexts of our experience, Kyiv’s place in that story had a new place in my heart. I felt for those who experienced unwarranted abuse in a play, an invasive war, and the senate that day.

The opening song “Tradition” transported me to a different place—my high school German class. Our teacher used the German version of “Fiddler on the Roof” as one way to learn German. While I remember the love and drinking songs better, I can still belt out some tradition in German—especially the fiddler intro that we heard a hundred times. 

Maybe that’s why I remember this quote from my 20s: “TRADITION IS THE LIVING FAITH OF DEAD PEOPLE; TRADITIONALISM IS THE DEAD FAITH OF LIVING PEOPLE.” I have sought to live out the traditions that bring us life, while questioning the traditionalisms that kill our spirit. 

Tevye wrestles with traditionalism views of marriage that threaten to destroy his family, while holding onto the life-giving traditions of his community. Each “on the other hand” spoken to God echoes the battle between traditionalism and tradition in equality, justice, marriage, politics, and the church.

When have the arts (a song, movie, play, painting….) given you new insights to your journey? How have traditionalisms drained you of the abundant life? How do traditions of the dead help you live more fully today?