Friday, April 29, 2011

Doubting it

    This week President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate. As all but a handful of disingenuous propagandists have known all along, it proves that he was born August 4, 1961 at 7:24 p.m. in Honolulu.
    That's interesting but it won't satisfy "birthers" who have their own reasons for defying fact and logic. But even if their straw-grasping efforts to undermine the president continue, I hope we can dispense with the temptation to call them "doubting Thomases." Thomas the Doubter may have been a lot of things, but he was not a crazy opportunist.
    The anecdote that made Thomas famous will be read in thousands of Christian churches this week. It's from John 20:24-25, one of the accounts of Jesus' appearances after his resurrection.
    "But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’" (NRSV)
    So Thomas didn't believe dead people get up and walk. That's not a hard position to defend. It's impossible to believe.
    A lot of things are impossible to believe. Thomas would have been appalled by the approach conceived 1800 years later by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.
    "Sometimes," Alice says after interacting comfortably with a talking white rabbit, a disappearing cat and a mad hatter, "I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
    What an admirable trait: establishing a quota for the number of impossible things you will believe. I don't know where Baptists would be without it – and how American it is. We all know people who can believe just about anything. What a blessing that is. Doubt is so dark and lonely, while belief is so comforting, so blissful.
     What's your personal record for believing impossible things?
    If you haven't eaten breakfast yet, here are some impossible things that thousands of people devoutly believe and insist on convincing their family and friends.
    One, NASA scientists have discovered a "missing day" in time which corresponds to biblical accounts of the sun standing still for a day.
    (Actually, the "missing day" discovery goes back to a book written by Harry Rimmer in 1890, titled, The Harmony of Science and Scripture. The discovery has been particularly popular since at least 1936, when it began to be reported by radio preachers. I can't begin to understand the math that would reveal a missing day in history, but perhaps that is not important.
    Second, Scientists drilling in Siberia went too far and ended up punching a hole through to Hell, where the screams of the damned drifted up to them.
    Accompanying this report are possibly contradictory, possibly plausible stories that the scientists (a) ran screaming from the hole, shouting, "I can't listen to the agony," or (b) promptly accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or (c) both.
    Third, a group known as "The Second Coming Project" is seeking to clone Jesus from the DNA of holy relics, such as the Shroud of Turin.
    It's hard to tell from these reports whether the project was inspired by Jurassic Park, the novel and movie in which long extinct dinosaurs are cloned when scientists retrieve their DNA from mosquitoes trapped in prehistoric tree sap, or whether the scientists knew that carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin reveals it to be 1500 years too young to have been Jesus' burial garment. The curious thing is that no one from the Second Coming Project has been interviewed by Fox News.
    Fourth, airlines will not pair Christian pilots and co-pilots out of fear that the rapture will snatch away both crew members capable of landing the flight.
     I can't remember when I first heard this report, and there are several versions of it. It may be the reason the Wright brothers didn't fly together at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
    Fifth, a Christian woman dies leaping through her car's sunroof when events convince her that Jesus has returned.
    The rest of this story involves 13 people being injured in a 20-car pile-up that occurred when drivers on an interstate swerved their cars to miss the woman, who had jumped out of her car screaming, "He's back, he's back." She got this impression when 12 life-sized helium-filled human sex dolls escaped from a delivery truck and floated sublimely into the air. This story was later used in a script written for an HBO series about funeral directors, Six Feet Under.
    Finally, sixth, and one of my favorites, atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hare is circulating a petition to the FCC to have religious programming banned from broadcasting.
    O'Hare, as you may recall, is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending government sponsored prayer in U.S. public schools. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America.
    All of these six impossible things to believe have one thing in common: none of them are true. All of them have been debunked by reputable journalists, and you can read the truth about them at, a website that debunks urban legends. (Just be cautious if you use Snopes to prove to people that their dumb ass ideas have no basis in reality. I've learned on several occasions that people are happiest when left alone with their delusions.)
    The O'Hare legend is one I encountered frequently when I worked for American Baptist communications. Thousands of well-intentioned American Baptists called upon their denominational leaders to publically disavow O'Hare's petition to end religious programming on television. Literally millions wrote to the Federal Communication Commission demanding that the O'Hare petition be summarily rejected. The FCC, despite being a federal bureaucracy, did not have the means of telling everyone that there was no such petition, so the rumor persisted for years. Although it has slowed down some, it still pops up in the email and telephone voicemail of church communicators - despite the fact that Madalyn Murray O'Hare died in 1995 when she was kidnapped and murdered, along with her son and granddaughter, by a member of her organization. (That was a shock because one expects better from atheists.)
    So chalk up all these impossible things to believe as belonging in the same category as
    Barack Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or some place outside of the United States,
    and, perhaps most implausible of all,
   Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
    Thomas will be remembered as "Thomas the Doubter" until the end of time, and many Christians reserve a special place of scorn for him. How, we ask ourselves, could this ingrate doubt that his Lord has been raised from the dead?
    Despite our derision, it seems likely that we would have been in the same place as Thomas. If there is one thing we have learned about life, one thing we have seen with our own eyes, one thing we have experienced as irrefutable and irreversible truth, it is that death is the end.
    The dead do not rise.
    As soon as life leaves the body, the body's inner parasites multiply exponentially and the body begins its inevitable return to dust. "I will not believe," Thomas says. And when you come right down to it: why would he? Would you?
    Let's give Thomas credit: he says what he means and he isn't trying to deceive anybody. You don't often encounter that kind of integrity in the church.
    I have a social media friend who tells about an experience she had while visiting a church. The pastor – no doubt one of those chubby guys who brandishes his broadly beaming mug on his webpage and on Facebook – told the congregation: "If you don't have a smile on your face, you shouldn't be here. Christianity is a religion of joy."
    The woman, whose daughter is seriously ill, fled the service in tears. She did not come to church to smile. She was looking for comfort and she was told that God dismissed her because she was not smiling.
    When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were in no mood to smile, either. They had every reason to expect that their fate would be the same as Jesus' fate – in fact, Jesus had predicted that would come to pass. In days following Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, they had abandoned him and hid themselves in shame, tortured by a gnawing sense of failure. But when Jesus found them in hiding, all he said was, "Peace be with you."
    Thomas, as we all know, responded to the offering of peace with an unequivocal declaration: "My Lord, and my God."
    Thomas was a doubter and he said so. What a great model he was for the rest of us doubters. We may come under some social pressure to falsify our testimony, and we may be told we are Judases if every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before. But Jesus never wears a happy face, and I suspect he doesn't expect us to wear one, either.
    As many people know, Thomas was very busy following his final appearances in scripture. After he had embraced Jesus as "my Lord and my God," he embarked on a missionary journey that rivaled Paul's. He traveled thousands of miles to South Asia, and founded two of the world's oldest Christian churches - the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Mar Thoma Church of India. The testimony of these two churches thrives today, and their message is the same Jesus brought to the disciples, and the same we are compelled to bring to our neighbors everywhere: Peace be with you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Curt and me

With thanks to certain writers -- you know who you are -- for liberating autobiography from the harsh restraints of truth.

I was probably the best Latrine Queen in the Air Force.

Anyway, that's what Curt LeMay said. Just ask him.

Oh, right. He's dead.

But you can believe me.

It all began in October 1964. I was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, struggling to find my niche in the military hegemony. I got a nearly perfect score in the Air Force aptitude test in mechanics, achieved by guessing my way through several pages of multiple choice questions, and I tested high in typing. Early on, it looked like I'd be spending four years repairing jets or typing supply requisitions. Neither possibility seemed heroic (although as I think about, it's improbable that jets maintained by me would stay in the air long enough to liberate the Mekong Delta). I began to question whether volunteering for military service had been such a good idea.

Then one morning Sergeant Ellefson, our barracks chief, said he detected stubble on my face. This was likely a ruse because, at 18, I had never shaved a day in my life, but sergeants had a highly personalized view of reality and it was rarely a good idea to challenge it. So I checked an impulse to stroke my fuzz-free cheeks and said, "Yes, Sergeant."

"And this is what I'm gonna do about it," Ellefson said. He led me into the barracks latrine -- a room equipped with an open-bay shower, 12 sinks and two rows of redolent commodes facing each other -- and said the words that would change my life.

"You're gonna be my Latrine Queen," Ellefson said. "And every morning I wanna see these commodes so clean General LeMay can eat breakfast out of 'em."

Ellefson didn't seem like the kind of guy who used hyperbole, so I said, "How does he like his eggs?"

"You'll find out," he said, and left me alone in the Latrine.

At first I was stunned, alone with so much stained porcelain. But I had grown up in a household where clean toilets and godliness were theologically fused and I knew exactly what to do. I armed myself with sponges, scowering powder and cans of pungent disinfectant and set to work. By the end of the day, my nose smarted with lingering fumes of ammonia. More to the point, the harsh glare of white porcelain that glowed like our transfigured Lord, brought tears to my eyes.

"God DAMN," the sergeant said, inspecting my work. "God DAMN." He stroked the silvery faucet of one of the sinks, and admired his unblemished reflection in one of the mirrors. He stepped back to view the full pristine panorama and he began to smile. "God DAMN."

Sergeant Ellefson placed me on full-time latrine duty, which was fine with me because it replaced the more onerous trials of boot camp, like precision drilling and olfactory comparison drills to prove you could tell the difference between tear gas and human pheromones. Latrine Queen also proved to be an extremely powerful position because it gave me the authority to develop such time-saving measures as requiring my barracks mates to use the mess hall latrines and shower in the rain. But as the eight weeks of basic training neared at end, I began to worry what the next four years might hold. There were no medals for exceptional commode cleansing, nor did a four year career of urinal polishing seem like it could generate diverting tales to spin in American Legion bars.

Then one day as I was using a cotton swab to clear calcium deposits from the shower heads, I heard a commotion in the barracks. A high-pitched voice yelled, "Ten HUT," followed by a thunderous rumble as fifty guys leaped off their bunks and slammed their brogues on the linoleum floor.

"Where's the latrine?" a gravely voice shouted with urgency. "Gotta crap." This was not an unusual occurrence in San Antonio where northeastern stomachs were unused to Tex-Mex burritos. After lunch, stricken officers often found it necessary to pop into the first barracks they passed.

"This way, Sir." Ellefson's muffled voice sounded uncharacteristically polite.

"Outa my way, goddam it."

The latrine door sprung open and in marched a scowling officer clenching in his teeth a huge Cuban Cohiba -- unusual even in the earliest days of the Cuban economic boycott. The officer was barrel-chested with thick steel-gray hair and there were four twinkling silver stars on each of his shoulders.

Before I could exclaim, "General LeMay, Sir," he pushed me out of his way and moved earnestly toward the bank of sparkling commodes. But the unblemished souls of his spit-shined low-quarter shoes were too new to resist the polished tiles of the cleanest latrine in the Air Force. Down went the general.

I watched with considerable interest as the general's feet rose and his posterior descended in a fluidly graceful motion, and his arms shot out like a uniformed cruciform. Abruptly, he was on his back with his limbs fully extended like DaVinci's Vitruvian man. His wide body spun in a clockwise motion on the shiny floor.

The general's gabardine uniform offered little resistance to the polished tiles, but when he stopped revolving he surrendered the back of his head to the hard floor. He appeared to be carefully assessing his situation, like the great tactician he was.

I could think of no chapter in the USAF Customs and Courtesies manual that addressed this particular situation. I stood cautiously over the general and leaned forward to make eye contact with him. He scowled upwards at me, furiously chewing the Cohiba.

"General LeMay," I ventured.

The general narrowed his eyes menacingly. I think he said, "Grempf," but he might have been swallowing a piece of tobacco.

"How do you like your eggs?"

He briefly appeared to think about it, but then he spat the wetly chewed cigar out of his mouth so forcefully that it smacked against a urinal on the far side of the room.
 "Help me up, goddam it. Gotta crap."

I placed my hands under his arms and pulled him to his feet. As soon as he was erect, he shoved me aside and skidded toward the commodes. He dropped his gabardine drawers and plopped down on the seat. I had gotten used to seeing young basic-trainees seated in the humiliating ritual of exposed collective crapping, but the Air Force chief of staff seemed incongruous in the room. The general carried it off with dignity but never stopped scowling at me. I wasn't sure what the rules called for, but I assumed it had something to do with standing at strict attention. I refrained from saluting.

Soon (and I spare the reader the auditory and olfactory details of the scene) the general was finished. He stood and tightened his belt.

General LeMay walked to one of the sinks. As he washed his hands he looked around the cleanest latrine in the Air Force.

"Goddam," he said. "This must be the cleanest latrine in the Air Force."

Now seemed like an appropriate time to salute. I snapped my right hand rigidly to my forehead, and he responded a more casual gesture that looked as if he were shooing a fly from his face.

Without another word, the general pulled a neatly folded towel from the shelf and dried his hands. When he walked out, I picked up the disgusting cigar butt and threw it away.

General LeMay retired from active duty early in my Air Force career, but I saw him a few times after that. Most of these encounters took place when the chief of staff was called to accompany President Lyndon B. Johnson on his visits to military installations. For the remainder of the general's career, whenever word came down that LBJ was planning to visit the base, I got a call from a chief master sergeant the chief's Pentagon office.

"The old man wants the President to have access to the cleanest latrine in the Air Force," the sergeant would say. "You're on."

On such occasions I would spend a week getting the presidential latrine in shape for presidential elimination, whichever form it might take. On occasion, General LeMay would invite me outside to shake hands with the president.

"Goddam," LBJ would say. "That must have the cleanest latrine in the Air Force," as General LeMay nodded happily. And I would stand modestly between the two men, trying not to reveal the pride that was swelling in my chest.

I was probably the best Latrine Queen in the Air Force.

Anyway, that's what Curt LeMay said. Just ask him.

Oh, right. He's dead.

But you can believe me.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

No news here

For the past several months I've been preaching to what must be called a faithful remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y.

Just standing in that pulpit is an honor. The three Tiffany windows over my shoulder and other arrays of stained glass make it one of the most beautiful worship centers I've known, and the church's storied past also includes a pastor to whom I am now married, the Divine M, ten inches shorter but always over me in the Lord.

But the church has seen better years and most Sundays the congregation approaches the minimal requirement for Jesus' presence, two or three gathered faithfully. But I work as hard on the sermons as if I was preaching in Riverside Church, and although the congregation looks like a small prayer group, I preach from the elevated pulpit so we all feel like we're really in church.

Un-ordained and un-adorned as I am, I have never preached on Easter so I've been pouring through scriptures and commentaries all week. By Saturday morning, I was leafing through dusty volumes of The American Baptist magazine, where I used to publish editorial homilies. As any columnist knows, an approaching deadline may put the Muse to sleep. That must have happened in the spring of 1980, because I didn't write an Easter message that year. I drew a cartoon instead. (See

The cartoon is hastily drawn and shaded with press-on screens that had to be shaped by Exacto knives and pressed on to the paper. The drawing shows a TV news van pulling up to a tomb carved out of rocks in the middle of a barren desert. A reporter with a microphone emerges from the empty hole as a videographer waits tensely from his perch atop the van.

"Just an empty tomb," the reporter calls to the camera guy. "Signal the assignment desk. That news tip musta been a joke."

Ha, I must have thought at the time. Irony. Very funny. But for me, the agony and ecstasy of art was still to come.

About a month after the cartoon appeared, I was one of a thousand or more participants in Religion Communication Congress 1980, a once-a-decade event for religious communicators. That was the year the newly elected Pope John Paul II addressed the gathering by videotape, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was a keynoter.

I watched Harvey from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium. He was -- and is -- a major American Baptist celebrity and he was idolized by a Roman Catholic chaplain I had worked for in the Air Force. Chaplain Kucharski, one of the young liberals swept into the church by the fresh air of Vatican II, quoted Harvey Cox incessantly, especially paragraphs from Harvey's best-selling book, The Secular City. Years later when I joined the American Baptist staff I met Harvey and even edited some essays he wrote for The American Baptist magazine. I made plans to casually run into Kucharski one day so I could pinch my fingers together and tell him, "Yeah, me and Harvey are like this!" Sadly, the next time I heard about Kucharski, he had dropped out of the priesthood, gotten married, and died. But I never think of Harvey without thinking of Father Kuch.

As I was settling in the rafters of the auditorium on that warm spring day in 1980, I was astonished to hear Harvey say, "I saw a cartoon recently that summarizes the state of the church." I was stunned and then breathless as Harvey went on to describe my drawing and quote the caption as a smattering of applause broke out in the audience. Whoa, I thought. Is this my 15 minutes of fame?

I don't remember what Harvey said after that (although I think he ended his speech by quoting the cartoon again). After he finished I made my way through the crowd to shake his hand. He smiled toothily at me and I thanked him for the endorsement.

"What?" he said. He lowered his ear in a quizzical manner.

I realized instantly that he had no idea what I was talking about. He had forgotten where he had seen the cartoon or the magazine that printed it.

I thanked him again and stepped back so the rest of the admiring crowd could get to him. My fifteen minutes of fame expired in the footlights.

It was a harsher lesson then, when I was in my early 30s, than it would be now. Three decades later I've accumulated a sufficient number of humbling experiences to handle them with a modicum of aplomb. Perhaps the real message back then was that there's no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.

But I'd like to think that the message of that cartoon still has meaning this Easter.

The fact that Jesus' tomb is empty is big news. But it no longer tops the news hour or appears on page one above the fold. Seasoned reporters don't get it. It's the most overlooked headline of our times.

Maybe that's the message I'll preach to the faithful remnant at North Baptist Church on Easter morning.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hey Gov, Pass the Soap

It’s a five hour drive from Manhattan to Utica, and the Divine M and I made it just south of Albany before we needed to pull into the Thruway’s Malden service center. We were on our way to a scholarship awards ceremony for our daughter Victoria and were driving happily through late season snow squalls and driving rain.

The first order of business, of course, was a visit to the restrooms. Martha carried a flannel shirt and slacks so she could change into more comfortable driving attire, and I slipped unencumbered into the men’s room.

As every guy knows, public bathrooms are places for minding one’s own business and – except for unexpected developments known as the “Senator Larry Craig Exception” – what happens in men’s rooms stays in men’s rooms.

This time, however, two men entered just behind me and faced the wall on either side of me. Both wore well-cut gray suits. Both pulled their jackets slightly apart, and soon all three of us were gazing slightly upwards and heaving contented sighs.

As we completed our missions, each affixing his gaze on the tiles in front of us, we readjusted our clothing and moved toward the row of sinks. Out of the corner of my eye I realized that one of the men seemed familiar and I stole a glance at his face. It was the former governor of New York, David Paterson.

The other man may have been an aide or a security agent. The three of us washed diligently and shook the water from our hands. Two of us stood back so the ex-gov could have first dibs at the paper towels, and then we departed.

Outside the bathroom, I watched as other customers began to recognize Paterson, who was simultaneously smiling and nodding and quickening his pace to get out of the place. He stopped ever so briefly to shake hands with a puzzled child whose parents were pushing her toward him, and then he escaped through the open doors. As almost everyone knows, the former governor is legally blind, but that didn’t slow him down. In an instant he was gone.
It was several minutes before Martha emerged from the women’s room. As seasoned journalists, we try not to be impressed by celebrities, but this was one story on which I could not sit.

“You’ll never guess who was in there,” I said, gesturing to the men’s room. “Governor Paterson!”
“You’re kidding. Where is he?”
“He left,” I said.
“Did you get his picture?”
“Um. Nooo.”
“Why not?”
“It was the men’s room,” I said. “There are certain protocols to be observed in the men’s room.”
“You should have gotten a picture.”
We bought some food and carried it to a table. I grabbed my ‘Droid and tapped an update to my Facebook status:
Ran into ex-Gov David Paterson in the men's room at the Malden service area on the Thruway,” I wrote. “Was he ever surprised to see me.”
Three hours later we pulled into a small motel in Utica and began to unwind for the day. I pulled out my phone to see if there were any messages. There on the small screen was evidence that meeting celebrities in bathrooms may be a universal and memorable experience. The first Facebook response was from a prominent American Baptist leader:
Several years ago I was in the men's room at the train station in NYC.” He wrote. “Looking straight ahead, as we've been taught to do, doing my man thing, I heard two voices that sounded really familiar to me. I looked around. To my right was Jesse Jackson. To my left was Al Sharpton. I managed to resist the temptation to try to shake hands.”
I read the response to Martha, who said all the talk about Men’s Room Protocols made her think of the lyrics to “Lovely Ladies” in the musical Les Miserables. 

Old men, young men, take 'em as they come, 
Harbor rats and alley cats and every kind of         scum:
Poor men, rich men, leaders of the land,
See them with their trousers off they're never     quite as grand. 
All it takes is money in your hand!
She also recalled standing in a long line to the ladies’ room in a Broadway theater with an unexpectedly patient Liza Minelli. (“There is no parity in lines to Broadway bathrooms,” Martha added.)
My brother Jim added his experience to Facebook: “I once peed next to Ed Bradley at a Broadway show. He still talks about it.”
Amid several additional FB comments, my friend Martin Bailey observed, “Sounds like you’ve got the makings of a great book.”
Now there’s an idea. The proposition jogged my memory of an event years ago in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. The 1976 presidential campaign had begun, and the church hosted an ecumenical gathering called, “Religion and the Presidency.” All the major Democratic candidates attended except the ultimate winner, Jimmy Carter – but no one cared because it was early in the campaign and he was a long shot. The other candidates were more prominent and more likely: Sargent Shriver, Eugene McCarthy, Morris Udall, and Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp.

At one point during that hectic meeting I joined the testosteronal crowd that jammed into the bathroom with all these potential leaders of the free world. I stood unobtrusively next to Sargent Shriver, but the image that sticks with me is of the petite Shapp squeezed unwillingly between ex-basketball star Udall and the lanky McCarthy. There is no parity in men’s rooms either.
What’s the big deal about meeting famous people in toilets?

Jon Fox, a one-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, was delighted to discover that his House office had once been occupied by Congressman Richard M. Nixon. Fox routinely escorted his visitors to the bathroom so they could share an historic commode with a disgraced former president.

I had a similar experience at the original Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. had offices. During a World Council of Churches meeting in the church dining hall, I excused myself to use the bathroom. And as I stared into the scratched and stained urinal, a shiver came over me. Is this, I asked myself, the urinal – he – used? 
There’s no real secret to the feelings that come over us when we engage in a universal and necessary act with rich or prominently powerful people. In this over-mediated age where film and video and blue tooth elevate the merely famous to demigods, it’s reassuring to be reminded that it’s merely an illusion. All human beings are created in the image of God, but God did not create all of us as stars. On a high-res flat screen TV, your governor or president is elevated far above you. But standing next to the dude at a urinal, you remember that God made us all the same.
The late Bob Campbell, general secretary of American Baptist Churches in the seventies and eighties, used to tell a colorful bathroom story. I assume the story is apocryphal, but it makes the point.
According to Bob, several Orthodox clergy gathered in the Interchurch Center in New York for an ecumenical meeting. During a break all of the priests adjourned to the men’s room – including Iakovos, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
“Your Eminence,” one of the young priests said, “How shall we conduct ourselves in such a place? Shall we line up according to ecclesial rank? Shall we address each other by our titles?”
Bob told the story dozens of times, and it may even have been true.
“Brothers, relax” Iakovos said. 
“In here we are all peers.”