Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not Acceptable

Preface. This Sunday, Martha, other volunteers and I are joining Katie in the annual autism walk. Marching as “Kate’s Mates,” our team will join thousands of persons all over the country in an effort to raise money for autism research. Kate, 24, has autism – a syndrome with a wide spectrum and a myriad of manifestations. Katie’s particular diagnosis is Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), and she is childlike, charming and (as all her friends know) extremely verbal. Like virtually all individuals in her situation, Katie is too often referred to – usually behind her back – as a retard. That is why her mother and I literally stood and cheered when Glee co-stars Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter appeared in a public service announcement about the use of the R word: “It’s not acceptable.” It’s a message Jane Lynch and her delightfully devious TV character, Sue Sylvester, have been preaching for several seasons. A year ago, when Sue was revealed to be the devoted caretaker of a sister with Down syndrome, Katie's mom asked Sue to make a clear public statement against the indiscriminate use of the R word. Read Martha's blog here: http://martha-antojitosyalabanzas.blogspot.com/

Not long ago an item in The Onion shook me to the core. It made me wonder if I was experiencing early-onset crankiness and was losing my sense of humor.

The Onion published an article was about a person with developmental disabilities. The headline read: “Autistic reporter Michael Falk says the stainless steel CometLiner2 car was lucky enough to escape unharmed from its collision with a man.”

Usually, I think The Onion is very funny. Articles in Our Dumb Century left me chortling for days, especially the story, “Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand spreads fear at Archduke Convention.” I laughed out loud at “Area Bird Creeped Out by Bird Watcher.” I thought, “Violent Death of Human Being Terrific News for Once” (on bin Laden) was responsible social commentary.

But not this story about an autistic reporter. I found it offensive. When I came across the story on Facebook, I added a comment that The Onion had crossed a line. Presidents, popes, archdukes and bird watchers are all fair game because they knew their chosen predilections would attract critics and controversy. But I saw nothing funny about making fun of the disordered thought processes of an autistic man.

One or two persons checked “like” on my Facebook complaint, but clearly most Onion fans thought I was a tight-assed whiner.

“I have two autistic children and I thought the story was funny as hell,” wrote one reader. Another wrote, “I am autistic and I thought it was frickin’ funny.”

So maybe I’m missing something. Clearly, a lot of people think it’s amusing to mimic the demeanor or vocabulary of developmentally disabled persons, who they dismiss as “retards.” One of the most insightful commentators of our day – Jon Stewart of The Daily Show – often uses the words “retard” or “retarded” to label eccentric political views. “Retard” use abounds, not only on Comedy Central but in high schools, college campuses, offices and churches. For adolescents learning to deal with life’s capriciousness, it’s a useful descriptive – stronger than “goofy” and more adult than “stoopid.” But it is a biting epithet, especially to the parents and siblings of disabled children.

Some studies report that 3 percent of the U.S. population is mentally disabled, although one in 100 persons may be born with a harder-to-detect form of autism. It’s understandable that very few persons understand mental retardation or its devastating affects on individuals and families. One of the better known anecdotes is the life of Rosemary Kennedy, daughter of an ambassador, sister of a president and two senators, who was born with a mild form of retardation. For reasons that have never been fully documented, her father – Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. – was so disturbed by her atypical behavior that he ordered her treated with a prefrontal lobotomy when she was 23. The operation incapacitated her for the rest of her life.

As rare as mental retardation may be, it affects many families. My cousin Donnie, who I haven’t seen in nearly 60 years, had Down syndrome. He was a year or so older than me and I remember playing with him on the floor of Grandpa’s living room in the Catskills. He was a happy, laughing child, oblivious to the fact that the adults seemed deeply disturbed by his behavior. I do not recall his behavior being any stranger than my own at 5 or 6. One day Grandma distributed a pack of candy cigarettes to the kids – peppermint sticks with red tips to simulate burning ash – and we pretended we were smoking like our parents (this was circa 1952). Donnie stuck the red end in his mouth and made happy sucking sounds while we kids laughed and imitated him. But Grandma jumped up and pulled the candy out of his mouth and said, “No! Bad!” To us kids, Donnie was a great playmate. To Grandma, he was a bad example.

Not long afterwards, Donnie’s parents moved to California and I never saw him again. Decades later, when I was a traveling church bureaucrat, I stopped by Auntie’s house in Sacramento to say hello. Her oldest son – Donnie’s brother – was visiting, too. We chatted amiably, updating each other about family news. I wanted to ask about Donnie, who I knew had been placed in institutional care shortly after his family moved west. But I knew well the family sensitivities and didn’t want to ask a direct question.

Finally, I said, “I remember how much fun it was when we kids were all together at Grandpa and Grandma’s. I remember how much I enjoyed playing with Donnie.”

Auntie did not react, nor did her son. But in a few moments they moved on to a different subject, about how bad the winters were in the Catskills and how much better it was in California.

I don’t know whatever happened to Donnie, and clearly it was painful for Auntie to talk about him. He could be in his sixties today, but it’s unlikely. Statistically, a Down syndrome child born in the 1940s would not live past his twenties. But that is changing now and life expectancy is dramatically improving.

Probably Donnie lived long enough to hear himself labeled a retard. He certainly didn’t hear the word from his young cousins because no one ever told us that he had a disability and none of us noticed. He didn’t seem different to us. To us he was not lacking in any of the gifts that made him a great playmate: joy, humor, and a special talent for having fun.

It’s a shame you have to be six years old to know that everyone comes into the world with special gifts and the infinite value God assigns to all God’s children. Later in life, we try to be more analytical about it. But a child’s instinct can be fairly profound. We might not have been able to put it into words, but we knew: Donnie was created in the image of God. Calling him a retard would have been blasphemous.

Also, it's
not acceptable.

Afterward, May 31, 2017. Katie, now 30, lives happily in a Westchester Jewish Community Services group home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She loves the independence of living in her own home, which is a 20 minute drive from “Mom’s House” in Port Chester.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What Would Jesus Do? (While we run for cover)

No one knows who was writing under the name of Peter – maybe it was the Rock himself – but one thing seems sure. In the third chapter of the first epistle of that name, Peter was preaching to a choir that no longer exists.

“Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” he asks ingenuously. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”

Yeah, right.

There’s little evidence that U.S. Christians are eager to take risks to do “what is right.” A 2002 Gallup poll suggests four in five Americans would rather be secure than free, and four in ten are worried terrorists will get them. About a third would be glad to allow the government to read their email or listen in on their telephone conversations if that will make them safer. Seventy percent want U.S. citizens to carry ID cards with finger prints.

Security and comfort first, Americans are telling pollsters. They may not openly object to Peter’s view – that “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” – but many are adding a silent caveat: “So long as it doesn’t involve risks.”

This obsession with security is one of the reasons people danced in the streets and sang the Star Spangled Banner when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. The elimination of the quintessential terrorist may not have made us safer, but it made us feel safer. And perhaps the only spending issue Democrats and Republicans agree on these days is national security. The proposed Homeland Security budget for 2012 is $57 billion and the Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2010 totals $670.9 billion.

But true security, like tomorrow, is promised to no one. And the world faced by Christians in the early centuries was dangerous and uncertain. When Peter advised Christians to be ready for abuse, he wasn’t talking in metaphors. All of his listeners knew about the violent hatred of Christians by the government authorities.

The date of the epistle is uncertain. Some scholars speculate it was written long after the Rock himself had died, possibly between 75 and 112 A.D., by which time the anti-Christian venom of the Roman emperors came in daily doses. The emperors would have included Caligula, whose depravity and madness were so entertainingly captured by actor John Hurt in I, Claudius, and Nero, under whose rule Peter and Paul are said to have been crucified in Rome. The official persecution of Christians lasted for 300 years and included forcing Christians to face hungry lions in the arena – the subject of many a droll cartoon today, but probably less amusing to those who faced the big cats.

The situation changed dramatically for Christians in 312 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine I, facing the battle of the Milvian Bridge, saw a cross (actually, a chi rho) in the sky and went on to kick ass. He concluded his blood letting must have been blessed by Jesus so he converted to Christianity. Where the emperor prays, the empire stays, so the once despised religion became the dogma of the day.

That didn’t necessarily mean Christians were more secure. Missionaries and desert fathers were always prey to pagan tribes as they sought to spread the gospel throughout Europe and Asia. A millennium and a half after Jesus’ resurrection, the Reformation begat the Inquisition and Christians commenced drawing, quartering, burning and beheading one another. Soon they began to encounter enemies more brutal than the lions: themselves.

The really disturbing thing is, regardless of which side of the smoldering stake they stood, Christians believed they were acting Christlike. Saint Thomas More, the man for all seasons, ordered the execution of six Lutheran reformers in England. More’s sanctimony was noted accurately (and perhaps inadvertently in the otherwise spurious but erotically entertaining Showtime series) The Tudors.

King Henry: I hear you’ve been burning heretics, Thomas.
Thomas More: Yes, Majesty, and they were well done.

One of the more vivid examples of misplaced sanctimony took place in Holland in 1569. A Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was so sure he was acting Christlike by rejecting the state church that he refused to back down when his Dutch Protestant neighbors jailed him for heresy. When Willems escaped from jail, his Protestant neighbors, in order to be Christlike, hotly pursued him. In the heat of the chase across a frozen pond, one Protestant fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, being Christlike, stopped running and pulled the man to safety. The Protestant, being Christlike, arrested Willems immediately – and burned him at the stake. This must have been why Peter was warning us about suffering for doing good.

It’s no wonder that oppressed religious minorities hopped on the first Mayflower to the new world, where freedom from persecution seemed assured. But freedom didn’t come immediately. The Puritans – one of whom was Oliver Cromwell, infamous for his genocidal murders of Catholics in Ireland – sought religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. In 1651, the Puritan establishment in Boston arrested and whipped the flesh off the back of Baptist Obadiah Holmes because he held an unauthorized worship service in Lynn, Mass.

Today, of course, Christians are more ecumenical, and in 2011 we find it painful to remember how much our ancestors deviated from the path of the Prince of Peace. Not that we have changed that much. “I like your Christ,” said the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

That has always been the most difficult challenge before us: acting like our Christ. Looking back on our Christian past, we see immediately that our efforts to act like Jesus brought out the worst in us. It’s not surprising that many American Christians have nestled in their beds on Sunday mornings, avoiding their uncomfortable churches and enjoying the security of the sheets. No Christian in the United States is in danger of suffering for the faith, we tell ourselves. No one who wishes to harm us could even get close to us, not in our modern society, complete with window bars, double door locks and ubiquitous security cameras. The dangers of being Christian, we adjure ourselves, are past. We are safe at last, safe at last, thank God almighty, we are safe at last.

But safety is as much an illusion in 2011 as it was in the year 11. And even the religious safety assured by the First Amendment is not entirely guaranteed. In fact, it’s a bit awkward to brag about it when so many of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world do not enjoy religious safety. A quick scan of recent press releases from the National Council of Churches reminds us how unsafe they are:

In 2005, four members of the Christian Peacemakers organization were kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq.

In January 2007, an Armenian Orthodox editor in Instanbul, Hrant Dink, was assassinated following accusations by the Turkish government that his writings about the 1915 genocide of Armenians by Turkish Muslims made Turkey look bad.

In March 2007, a delegation of Filipinos told church leaders in the U.S. that Christians in the Philippines known for their support of the poor were being accused by the Philippine government of being Communist provocateurs and harassed or imprisoned.

In September 2009, the Episcopal bishop of Lahore, Pakistan, told U.S. religious leaders that tensions between Muslims and the Christian minority in Pakistan were high and that Christians were routinely harassed and threatened by religious fanatics “who have a mindset that all Westerners and Christian and all Christians are Westerners.”

In Istanbul, Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarch – known as the “first among equals” of all Orthodox Christian patriarchs – resides in an isolated compound subject to constant threats from the surrounding community.

Last Easter, Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land were restricted from visiting Christian holy sites by the Israeli government, who considered them to be a threat to its security. The same restrictions often prevent Palestinians from visiting hospitals, grocery stores, their crops and places of employment.

In April 2010, the National Council of Churches asked the secretaries of state and defense to advocate greater security for Christians in Iraq, thousands of whom have fled their homes because of violent attacks.

Last January, New year’s eve worshippers in All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, were bombed and many died.

Last March, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet, was assassinated by a Muslim group because he favored easing restrictions on Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

And the threats to Christian minorities are not unique to Muslim countries (where, it should be noted, most Muslims reject the violence of the extremists among them). In Myanmar, the Christian minority – mostly products of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society – are under constant threat from the military junta.

Nor do you have to step outside the United States to experience the violence. Barely 20 years ago, hundreds of African American churches in the south were targets of mysterious acts of arson. And millions of Christians who happen to be gays and lesbians continue to be targets of taunts and threats from other Christians who regard their behavior as Christlike.

The sad fact of life is clear: it’s dangerous to be a Christian. It’s dangerous to live. True security does not exist. There is simply no way you can step out of your house this morning with the unconditional assurance that you will return safely tonight. The odds are on your side, but life offers no warranties.

Last week, nearly a thousand Christians from around the globe attended the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, to commemorated the close of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence. Violent behavior, they concluded, is an inevitable byproduct of insecurity.

Dr. Lisa Schirch, professor of peace-building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., told the gathering, “Governments tend to attempt to justify large-scale military action – at its worst, nuclear warfare - in the name of ‘security.’”

But Schirch called into question what security should mean for Christians.

"Jesus doesn't use the word 'security,'” she said. “The language of the church is much more about justice and peace than about security.”

When visiting Iraq in 2005, Schirch worked with Iraqis who were peace-building at a community level. "They told me this: security does not land in a helicopter; it grows from the ground up."

Even so, security founded on justice and peace doesn’t offer any guarantees, either. But perhaps the path to redemption was never intended to be secure. And the epistle writer in I Peter puts it in context:

“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil,” he writes. “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

That’s the one thing that is guaranteed.

Death, pain and suffering may be our inevitable lot. But in Christ, we are made alive – and then and only then are we surely safe.

I Peter 3:13-22 (NRSV)

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered* for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Friday, May 20, 2011


I often wonder what it would have been like to follow Jesus around Palestine and Judea.

It sounds beatific in the NRSV, but I suspect it wasn’t easy: slapping down sandals all day with big, sweaty apostles, flushed by the heat, sneezing the dust, wondering where your next sip of cool water was coming from and keeping an eye out for pissed-off Pharisees carrying rocks. You try to listen to the rabbi in case you’re called upon to write a gospel someday, but your mind wanders. Sweat trickles down your face, you swat at a fly. Suddenly you realize the rabbi has just said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”


Thomas tunes in like he’s been on another planet. Imagine the chutzpa it took to interrupt the rabbi’s smooth delivery to tell him you missed something.

“Um. Where are you going?”

Actually, this exchange reveals the fallacy in the question, “What Would Jesus Do – WWJD?” The guys who walked, ate and slept with Jesus rarely had a clue what he was about to do, so it seems unlikely we would be any clearer about it. What would Jesus do? And where is he going? And who knows the way? What?

These are interesting theological metaphors. Any attempt at finding your way in an unmarked desert, and figuring out where to go next, is a theological exercise. That’s how we spend our lives: we wander in uncertainty, we search for the bread crumbs that previous wanderers have left to mark the way, and occasionally we discover a great truth. But mostly we wander.

This passage of scripture makes me think of a man who did a lot of figurative wandering in the intellectual deserts of the sixties, and in 1969 he literally wandered the Dead Sea wilderness, lost his way and died. You could say he was a famous bishop, although the term is oxymoronic for most people these days. You could also say he was media-savvy and had a knack for attracting attention.

James Albert Pike was an agnostic attorney who found God, attended Union Theological Seminary, and served as rector of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie. He then became chaplain at Columbia University and dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In the fifties he attracted media attention by challenging Senator Joseph McCarthy’s claim that 7,000 U.S. clergy were part of the Kremlin conspiracy. In 1960 as Episcopal Bishop of California, he opposed Catholic Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential nomination because he thought it threatened the separation of church and state. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. He championed LGBT rights. He wandered so far ahead of his time his followers had trouble spotting him.

But Jim Pike didn’t become famous in the modern media sense until he challenged the basic tenets of the faith, including the virgin birth of Jesus, the doctrine of hell, and the Trinity. All of this was too much for his church and his fellow bishops, and in 1966 he was censured and forced to resign his bishopric.

I met Jim Pike in 1966 when he was on a spiritual retreat in England. I have no idea what the senior USAF chaplain in England – an American Baptist – was thinking when he invited Pike to address the Protestant Men of the Chapel annual banquet at RAF Lakenheath. Probably ninety percent of the people in the room thought Pike was a hell-bound heretic.

I was an Air Force chaplain’s assistant and attended the banquet with my boss, Chaplain Harland Getts.

I thought Pike was quite charming. Wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and a dark pin-striped suit with a purple Rabat – and reeking of cigarettes – Pike arrived early. He walked up and down the rows of tables, shaking hands and chatting amiably with everyone in the room. I was seated next to Chaplain Getts, a Southern Baptist with conservative views and a baby face. Pike noticed the latter and reached out to muss my boss’s hair and give him a paternal pat on the head. Harland flushed deeply. I turned away and smirked.

Shuffling just behind his dad was Pike’s son, Jim, who was attending college in England. Young Jim wore his hair stylishly long – something you noticed if you were in the Air Force – and sported a mod blazer and faded blue jeans. We were about the same age, so when we shook hands I asked him, “Did your dad make you come?” He smiled and said, “Naw, I came to keep an eye on him.”

Weeks later, in a hotel room in New York, young Jim committed suicide. The rest of the story filled newspapers and television news programs for weeks. The elder Pike began reporting poltergeist phenomena at home: books vanishing and reappearing, clothes in the closet disarranged and rumpled, and safety pins appearing out of nowhere opened to the approximate the time of young Jim’s death.

Convinced his son was trying to get a message to him, Pike consulted spiritualists and clairvoyants. In 1967 he appeared on national television with Arthur Ford, a Disciples of Christ minister who claimed to talk with the dead. Pike was convinced his son had contacted him through Ford. Pike’s former church colleagues were convinced he had finally taken leave of all his senses.

(Parenthetically, I don’t know what to make of clairvoyancy. Like most people, I’ve experienced my share of spooky phenomena – especially when I was stationed in England – but I’m a skeptic. Years ago, when I worked for the Baptists, I drove from Philadelphia to a meeting in Pittsburgh with a friend, a seminary professor. It’s a long drive and after we had exhausted all the gossipy subjects we could think of, my friend surprised me by announcing he knew Arthur Ford. My friend’s wife had died years earlier – by her own hand, I learned later – and my friend had been eager to contact her on the other side. The professor said that in a séance, Ford convinced him he was really talking to his dead wife – all the intimate details were in place, dates and times of key events in their lives, the couple’s private moments, even the minor experiences of their children. But his dead wife, who was supposedly communicating through Ford, got the middle name of their daughter wrong. My friend said he concluded that his wife deliberately gave him wrong information to warn him that further efforts to contact her might jeopardize his soul. We drove several miles in silence and I speculated how much of the private wifely information Ford knew about could have been gotten from newspaper clippings, obituaries, correspondence and other non-spiritual sources. Probably most of it, I concluded – right down to the details of sexual intimacy, which I suspect are common to most couples. As we neared our western Pennsylvania destination, my friend spoke again, softly to himself: “I wonder what that says about the empty tomb.”)

Both Jim Pike and my friend lost loved ones to suicide, and no doubt both were desperate to know how much they had contributed to their beloved’s final despair. I can understand how an obsession to contact someone on the other side might make you believe you had done it. I don’t judge either man, or jump to the conclusion that their journeys were delusions. But each man was clearly wandering in search of the way. In the midst of their tragic reveries, both men were jarred awake by Jesus’ distant voice: “And you know the place where I am going.” And both men realized they were no longer sure what Jesus was talking about.

Jim Pike’s story ended in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He and his wife, Diane, who he had met at a clairvoyance convention, rented a car and drove alone into the desert. Jim wanted to experience what Jesus felt when he was tempted in the wilderness for forty days: the scalding sun, the thirst, the hunger. He wanted to know what the voice of God sounded like under the desolate circumstances.

Unguided, the couple turned off the main road and drove toward the Dead Sea until the tires sank beneath the crusty surface of the sand. Spinning the wheels dug them deeper and eventually Jim and Diane decided to retrace their route back to the road on foot. But they got lost, and soon the 56-year-old Jim – an overweight, chain smoking alcoholic – collapsed in exhaustion. He told Diane to go find help. “If I don’t make it by the time you get back,” he told her, “I am at peace.”

It took Diane many hours to stumble onto the main road and a passing motorist picked her up and took her to the police station in Bethlehem. Israeli soldiers launched a massive search for Jim. They found the rental car, which started immediately once they pushed it out of the rut, but found no sign of Pike. The search took several days until his badly decomposed body was found in a box canyon where he had apparently slipped and fallen.

I was a sophomore at Eastern Baptist College when all this took place in September 1969, and I followed media coverage of the missing Bishop with interest. The first report after he was found was that his body was discovered in a kneeling, praying position, but I don’t think that was true. He may have been praying, but he had fallen off a small cliff and was sprawled painfully on the rocks. Jim Pike’s wilderness journey was over.

Having opined that wandering in the wilderness is a theological metaphor, I’m now wondering how to make sense of Jim Pike’s last journey. His critics would say he lost his way decades before his excursion into the Judean desert. He started out as an agnostic and ended up as deluded spiritualist. In between, he abandoned the creeds of Christianity – the virgin birth, the trinity, the doctrine of hell – and finally he was abandoned by his fellow bishops.

No one knows what went through Jim Pike’s mind in September 1969 when he was alone in the same wilderness where Jesus fasted and prayed. No one knows the state of his soul, or what God said to him as he scratched his way through crevices and sun-baked rocks. All we know is what he told his wife: “I am at peace.”

But I would like to think God’s still, small voice would have reminded Pike – a biblical scholar – that the way through the spiritual desert need not be as twisted and torturous as we perceive it.

Two thousand years ago, when the rabbi was addressing his puzzled apostles, he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

And then he said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

That was when Thomas woke up and said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Jim Pike was a publicity hound, a drinker, a bounder, a chain smoker, probably a sex addict, a lousy husband (three times), a failed father, and an arrogant doubter of God and the church. Yet his last act on earth was to search the Judean desert for clues to what the historical Jesus experienced when he talked to God.

What God said to Jim Pike on the day of his death must remain a mystery on this side of Jordan. But it could have been this:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Our own wanderings may not be as dramatic or as attention-getting as Jim Pike’s. But all of us have periods of wandering. And for each of us, the promise of Jesus remains, clear and unmistakable:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. John 14:1-14

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sell! Sell!

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Where did we go wrong?

We read on good authority that the early Christians "would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

If I could speak on behalf of Michele Bachman or Glenn Beck - which I can't, but if I could - I'd grab an existential bullhorn to transcend the tiresome dimensions of time and tell these primitives what us modern Christians think of them.


What the hell are you doing, giving away all your stuff? Not only does Luke's subversive prose plant treacherous ideas in modern brains - like, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need"? - it was inevitable that these early share-the-wealth deals died with the disciples. The history of the last 2,000 years vindicates the Tea Party platform that we all have a God-give right to keep whatever we can get our hands on. The Christian monarchs of Europe, most of whom believed they reigned by divine right, were wealthy beyond our wildest imagination, and most were careful to keep their abundance in the family. Perhaps the closest any of us get to first-century socialism is when our grandmothers invite us to their cluttered parlors and tell us, "If you see anything you like, put your name on it and you can have it after my funeral."

There are, of course, generous Christian philanthropists who endow new church roofs, soup kitchens and ecumenical programs, but none of them give everything they have to the poor. And why would that surprise us? Who expects anyone to give everything to the poor?

Who? Well, that's a bit of an awkward question. Bill Gates doesn't expect anyone to tell him to do that, nor does Warren Buffet. But chances are, neither of them have put the question directly to Jesus: what good deed must I do to have eternal life?

The question leads us to another meddlesome scripture verse in Matthew, chapter 19, verses 16-26.

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him ... ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ ... The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Poor dude. No one knows what happened to this rich young man or what he thought of Jesus' two-step salvation plan. Maybe he eventually wiped a tear from his eye and gave all his money to the poor, but our instincts make us doubt it. For one thing, there was no tax incentive for that kind of largesse, and for another, none of us know any rich people who would give the idea a second thought. So, good-bye, Jesus.

Each Sunday when I climb the staircase of North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y., I pass a black-and-white print of a painting by Johann Michael Ferdinand Heinrich Hoffman, a German painter in the late 19th and 20th centuries whose paintings depicted the life of Jesus.

The center figure in the picture is Jesus, gesturing with both hands toward a bearded old man who represents the poor and sick. At the right of the painting is a well dressed young man who places his left hand on his hip and turns his sad face away from Jesus. The young man has clearly heard something that appalls him. Daughter Katie, who also passes the picture every Sunday, loves it. She thinks the young man looks like her when she is told something she doesn't like - right down to the hand on the hip and the diverted pout. Katie is almost correct. In fact, the disappointed young man looks like all of us.

The Hoffman painting is "Christ and the Rich Young Ruler." The original can be viewed across the street from the God Box, where Martha and I work, in Riverside Church. Two companion Hoffman works are also there: "Christ in the Temple," and - one of the most reproduced paintings in the world - "Christ in Gethsemane."

The paintings were purchased and given to the church by the same man whose fortune endowed its construction: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller - known as St. John the Divine among American Baptists who benefitted from his generosity over many years, including those of us who enjoy the fruits of the ABC Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. Junior was by all reports a good man. The turning point of his life may have been in April 1914 when a riot occurred at a coal-mining company where Junior owned a controlling interest and served as an absentee director. Twenty men, women and children died in the incident and Junior was called to testify in January 1915. He encountered the charismatic union organizer, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, and in his testimony admitted fault. Some historians say his courage restored the family's reputation; others say his honesty introduced a new era of union relations in the United States. At the end of his life, there were few parallels to the sheer volume of philanthropy he initiated.

But, as we strict biblical constructionists are bound to point out, he didn't give away all that he had to the poor. His sons and their heirs sit on a leftover bundle that makes Scrooge McDuck's money bin look like chump change.

Martha and I met Steven Rockefeller, professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College, at last year's rededication of The Interchurch Center where we work. Steven, son of Nelson, was there to represent his grandfather, the late Junior, without whose generosity the God Box would still be a series of breezy tennis courts on the Hudson. Tall and bald, as if he emerged from the Daddy Warbucks school of central casting, Steven's dignified demeanor makes you forget his youthful escapade in which he married one of the family's downstairs maids. He's a respected theologian and academician, with the minor caveat that when you're a Rockefeller, people tend to think every mumble and belch that comes out of your mouth is deep. When I shook Steven's hand, Jesus' admonishment to the rich young ruler crossed my mind. I might have asked him if he had plans to give all his money to the poor, but I'm not as dim as I look. I smiled and thanked him for his brilliant - brilliant - speech.

So, what about Jesus' message to the rich young ruler? Was Jesus baiting the poor dude, just to see how far his crest would fall? Or was the young man asking for it, ingratiating himself with the famous rabbi, and arrogantly limiting the price of admission to heaven to one "good deed"?

No doubt it has been argued by thousands of ecclesiastical lawyers that Jesus is not really setting an impossibly high bar to heaven. Initially, the young man asked how to win eternal life, and Jesus told him to obey the commandments, which the young man said he did. Score. Then Jesus said, if you want to be perfect, give away all you have to the poor and follow me. Ah, there's the catch. You don't have to be perfect to get into heaven. If you did, heaven would be as empty as a hotel bar during an American Baptist biennial meeting.

The gospel writer took pains to record the scene when the disconsolate young man slouched away from Jesus. You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he comments: "Truly, I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven." He adds the famous line that Elton Trueblood believed was a messianic wisecrack: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:23)

But the apostles didn't laugh. They choked on their matzos and shouted, "Jesus Christ! Then who can be saved?" Jesus stared into their eyes and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (25-26)

The rich young man should have stayed to listen. Heaven is not a meritocracy. Good deeds won't get you there, and you can't buy your admission by bartering everything you own. As Jesus perseverated throughout his ministry, it's faith, not fortune, that opens those doors. Faith first - then good works.

The farther back in Christian history you go, the more likely you are to find Christians who got it right. The church in Acts was an example - symbolically enduring but historically fleeting. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

As the years passed, the disappearance of this utopian community was sudden and heart breaking. A few centuries later, Christians were gathering opposing armies, burning each other at stakes and beheading the apostates.

Some church historians blame the decline of the church on the end of the Sunday school movement, or the rise of liberalism, or the ecumenical movement, or - probably more to the point - the rise of Sunday morning athletic events and the end of Sunday evening prayer services that conflicted with the Ed Sullivan show. But it may well be that church decline began the first time a medieval bishop or monarch heard a sermon they didn't like, and ordered the preacher burned or beheaded.

We don't know a lot about the first century church described in Acts, and a lot of modern bishops and monarchs fret that the second chapter of Acts bears the seeds of the Communist manifesto. Down with the rich. Down with the upper classes. Up with the workers. Up with the same standard of living for everyone.

Too bad. Those early Christians were on to something. And while they were living a life style of equal sharing, they were never more popular. "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple," Luke writes, "they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

What a great period in history. These were not perfect people, nor were they devoid of comfort or home or food or goodwill. But their faith taught them that was all they needed. And each day, more people joined their little group to share the experience.

I sometimes wonder if the rich young man who walked away from Jesus ever discovered this Christian community. In their midst, would he have found it easier to sell all he had and give it to the poor? Or would he, like so many of us, stand like reeking camels before the eyes of impossibly tiny needles?

For us, and perhaps for the rich young ruler, entrance into the kingdom would be impossible. But for God, all things are possible. And in that grace lies our salvation.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who was that masked man?

Recently I've been thinking about that passage in Luke (24:13-25) in which two travelers encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road and didn't recognize him.

Puzzling, is it not? These two walkers (one of whom doesn't get a name, which leads some scholars to think that Luke either had a lousy copy editor or the unnamed person was a woman) had known Jesus for years and should have remembered what he looked like. But they were clueless.

I can understand that. For one thing, Jesus probably looked a lot better than he did the last time they saw him, scourged raw, his face twisted in the agony of crucifixion. For another, Jesus may have been wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab head dress that could hide his face. Many artists and cartoonists, themselves puzzled as to why Jesus was unrecognizable, have drawn a keffiyeh into the picture when they portray this scene on the road to Emmaus. Works for me.

But I think the traumatic events of the past several days also played a role. Death is disorienting. When I was 15, my mother's 32-year-old brother, my Uncle Maurice, died after a painful bout with cancer. At his funeral, I noticed my mother and other family members watched me intently as I approached the open casket to pay my respects. I learned later that everyone thought he looked exactly like me – straight brown hair, high forehead, black horn rimmed glasses, pursed lips. They thought I was going to see myself in the box and freak. But under circumstances like these, people may not see what others expect them to see. I looked at my uncle sadly and thought, "Damn, he was a good looking guy."

We'll never really know why the two travelers – Cleopas and what's-her-name - didn't recognize Jesus. Not only didn't they recognize him, they actually seemed to feel superior to this stranger they encountered on the road. "What's up?" Jesus asked, all friendly-like, and they snapped at him. "You don't know, man?" they said, or as the New Revised Standard bible puts it, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" And Jesus – who could resist many temptations but not the urge to bait his friends – said, "What things?" So Cleopas and what's-her-name immediately begin to proclaim the gospel story of Jesus' resurrection, which is ironic when you think about it, because their first efforts at evangelical witness were to grab Jesus by the robe and tell him to believe.

At the end of the story, Luke reports that "their eyes were opened" and they recognized Jesus. As soon as they did Jesus, apparently still playing them, abruptly disappeared.

The story, known as the Emmaus Road Encounter, is uncomfortable territory for those of us who have trouble recognizing Jesus when we see him. We don't, of course, know exactly what he looked like. Two thousand years of art have rendered millions of iconic faces, Renaissance portraits and pre-Raphaelite paintings of Jesus, all of them remarkably different. The Jesus I would recognize on the road would have to look like Sallman's head of Christ, first sketched in charcoal by Warner Elias Sallman in 1924 and rendered in oil in 1935. The portrait, first titled "Son of Man," has been reproduced more than 500 million times. My Sunday school teachers at the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., gave us baseball card size versions of it at Christmas so we could memorize the face. When I think of Jesus, I think of Sallman's head of Christ.

Is the portrait an accurate representation of the face of Jesus, shown with straight, light brown hair, aquiline nose, and white skin? No. But the image is certainly imbedded in our culture. Most of the Jesi of cinema look like Sallman's image:
The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ. Perhaps the blondest Jesus of all appeared in Gospel Road, the film produced in 1973 by my idol, Johnny Cash.

Anthropologists are clear that, unless he was a genetic freak, a man born a Jew in Bethlehem two millennia ago would have black hair, dark skin, and would likely brandish uncut
payots, or sideburns, mandated by Leviticus 19.27. Not the kind of Jesus who could have hidden in a crowd where I grew up.

Theologically, of course, the race and ethnicity of the incarnate God is irrelevant and artists have portrayed Jesus as African, Asian and European. Whatever works.

Besides, it's not a good idea to get obsessed about what he really looked like. In 2002, the Washington Post published a feature, "The Face of Christ," that included a face described by readers as a brutish-looking man in a police mug shot. The face was created by forensic experts who based it on a half dozen 2000-year-old skulls found in Jerusalem. Readers were told that the latest tools of science were used to get a clearer idea what Jesus really looked like. (See above).

As our friends on the Emmaus road demonstrated, it's not easy to recognize Jesus in our midst at any time in history, whether we know what he looks like or not. But one thing is sure: if we're going to pick out Jesus in a crowd, we'll have to ditch the Sallman image – and we'll have to ditch our own presuppositions, the "my Jesus" that limits him to our personal biases, and makes him hard to spot.

A pastor friend of mine once told the story of having a late-night visitor at the Manse. The visitor was a homeless woman who obviously hadn't bathed in weeks. "Please, Reverend," she said. "I hate to bother you but I'm living in my car and I haven't eaten in days. I'm not a druggy, Reverend. I need food."

Pastors hear stories like this all the time. But it was late at night and my friend was tired, so he went to a box in his office where he kept "The Deacon's Fund" – ready cash for emergencies. The only cash in the box was a $20 bill – far too much for a meal. But he sighed, and handed it to the woman.

The woman gasped at his unanticipated generosity and grabbed my friend's hands.

"The hands of Jesus," she said. "The hands of Jesus."

Embarrassed, my friend freed his hands and sent the woman on her way. But as he lay awake in bed, he had a sudden thought. "She wasn't talking about
my hands," he exclaimed.

In that same church there was a regular worshipper named Dick Jalopy – not his real name, but it rhymes with the mocking moniker his friends called him when he was in high school: Sloppy Jalopy. Dick was a recovering addict and not a little strange. He believed too much of the national budget was being spent on the Vietnam War and too little on services to the poor, and he carried his protest to political meetings dressed in a false white beard, red cap, red jacket, Bermuda shorts and decaying high tops. He called himself "Santa Cause." And even without the costume, he looked creepy with his pock-marked skin, long snarly hair and bandy legs. He also smoked constantly, explaining with a cough, "A lot of addicts beat the drugs but never the cancer sticks."

I used to watch Dick come into church on Sunday mornings. He had his preferred pew (as most Baptists do) and members of the congregation knew to sit far away from him. But he was tolerated because that's what Baptist do, or try to do. I don't think he ever joined the church, but he never missed a Sunday.

One Sunday during the organ prelude, I stared at the back of Dick's head. What's up with you, Dick? I mused to myself. Sure, you love God and you love people and your faith keeps you clean. But you're strange, smelly and you make people uncomfortable. And no one knows where you live.

Suddenly the organ swelled with the strains of, "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," and in the process of standing I was so surprised I lost my balance.

My God, Dick, I thought. Are you Jesus, man?

Sloppy Jalopy? Jesus?

It's the kind of thought one has when one misses the morning coffee, and I quickly dismissed it. But for years, every time I saw Dick, I'd think: that's exactly what Jesus would look like to us. Strange. Eccentric. And he would make us uncomfortable.

Okay, probably Dick Jalopy was not Jesus. But that's also true of the Jesi we carry in our hearts, white and blonde and holy like Sallman's head, or glowing and red-bearded like the Holman Hunt figure standing at our door and knocking. These images don't make us think of the Jesus who violated religious traditions by healing the sick on the Sabbath, or by declaring to his followers that none of this is about
you, but about the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed and those drowning in economic injustice.

No wonder Cleopas and what's-her-name didn't quite grasp who Jesus was when they fixed their gaze upon him.

"Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets declared," Jesus told the couple, and they still didn't recognize him. "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

In a strange way, Jesus was more Santa Cause than Sallman's head. His defiance of tradition and convention made people uncomfortable, and they turned away from him.

That's why the Emmaus Road story can be disturbing. And I've got to wonder. Would I recognize Jesus if he joined me on a stroll up Broadway? Or would I dismiss him as a strange and eccentric figure who doesn't meet my expectations. Would my heart burn within me as he talked, or would my mind wander because he was saying things I didn't understand?

And when he went on his way, would I go with him to the judgment? Or would I be like the sheriff and prospector in the old movies who stayed behind and watched the good guy ride away, and ask myself:

Who was that masked man?