Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ichthus Conference

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

There are few jobs more demanding than general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

I’ve known six general secretaries, and one thing they all have in common is a lack of free time. They rise early, work late and accumulate frequent flier miles like secretaries of state. They lead a diverse membership of nearly 40 communions ranging from Coptic Orthodox Christians to the United Church of Christ. On occasion, general secretaries find it difficult to please everyone. In my experience, there were times when even the most ebullient of them sank exhausted into their swivel chairs at the end of the day.

One of the general secretaries was Bob Edgar. A former member of Congress, member of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, finance director of Senator Paul Simon’s presidential campaign, and a senate candidate himself, Bob was no stranger to hyperactivity. But the job is wearing, and it showed. But once a year Bob would return from the road with a lighter step and easier smile and it was rumored he had discovered some secret font of rejuvenation. 

And perhaps he had. If you looked closely at his calendar each summer, two weeks were blocked out for what appeared to be a dreary and demanding ecumenical conclave: The Ichthus Conference. Ichthus, the Greek word for fish, dates back to the first century when Christians identified themselves to one another by drawing an arc. If the other person responded by drawing a connecting arc, forming a simple fish, they knew they were safe. But in modern terms, ichthus invokes images of ponderous clerics engaged in endless discourse about the various styles of baptism, Eucharist, ministry and trilateral dialogues.

But Bob also used the symbol as a special Christian code. For him, the Ichthus Conference was a two week fishing trip with his brothers, and it did wonders for his mental health. Today, Bob is president and CEO of Common Cause, and I notice he is still attending ichthus conferences once a year.

All the foregoing reflection is inspired, of course, by the appearance of Jonah in today’s Common Language Lectionary. All of us know Jonah had his own ichthus conference. It wasn’t relaxing and recreational, but it was uncommonly motivating.

Most of us were introduced to Jonah in our earliest Sunday school years. Maybe some of us sang the delightful ditty to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down:”

Jonah was swallowed by a whale
By a whale,
By a whale,
Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Swallowed whole!

Jonah prayed to God above
God above,
God above,
Jonah prayed to God above
And was forgiven!

As we grew older we learned something about the species of the creature that hosted Jonah. The subject comes up in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, a fictionalized version of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. I love the dialogue in the 1960 film version between Spencer Tracy, playing Henry Drummond the agnostic lawyer, and Frederick March, playing Matthew Harrison Brady the fundamentalist politician and perennial presidential candidate:

DRUMMOND: Tell me. Do you feel that every word that's written in this book should be taken literally?

BRADY: Everything in the Bible should be accepted, exactly as it is given there.

DRUMMOND. (Leafing through the Bible.) Now take this place where the whale swallows Jonah. Do you figure that actually happened?

BRADY. The Bible does not say "a whale," it says "a big fish."

DRUMMOND. (Finds the place in the Bible, shows it to Brady.) Matter of fact, it says "a great fish." What's your feeling about that?

BRADY. I believe in a God who can make a whale and who can make a man and make both do what He pleases!

The point is made – it’s a great fish, not a whale – but the dialogue continues:

DRUMMOND. I recollect a story about Joshua, making the sun stand still. That's a pretty neat trick. Think Houdini could do that?

BRADY. I do not question or scoff at the miracles of the Lord.

DRUMMOND. Have you ever pondered just what would naturally happen to the earth if the sun stood still?

BRADY. You can testify to that if I get you on the stand.

DRUMMOND. If they say that the sun stood still, they must've had a notion that the sun moves around the earth. Think that's the way of things? Or don't you believe the earth moves around the sun?

BRADY. I have faith in the Bible!

DRUMMOND. You don't have much faith in the solar system.

BRADY. (Doggedly.) The sun stopped.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to this week’s lectionary selection, which actually appears quite late in Jonah – after the cameo appearance of the great fish.

I’m not sure why the best part of the story is left out. If this passage were a movie review, we’d call it a spoiler: It skips the build-up, buries the climax, drowns the denouement, but reveals how everything turns out. Jonah says yes to God, warns Nineveh that God is about to strike them all dead, the Ninevicans repent, God changes God’s mind, and everything is swell. Whoa! Slow down!

One of the best things about Jonah is that it’s a story of struggle, resistance, denial, fearful confrontation, near death, surrender and success – as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. It’s a story we can relate to.

Perhaps you read the cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine about Judith Clark, entitled “Young, Cold Heart.” [See]

Clark, Tom Robbins reported, was one of “a band of militant zealots armed with automatic weapons who tried to rob a Brink’s truck in a shopping mall in Nanuet in Rockland County, N.Y.” The unarmed Clark was a get-away driver in a crime that led to the deaths of two armored car guards and two police officers.

Writer Robbins, who knew Clark in high school, makes no excuses for her participation in a crime that cost four lives. He describes her callous disregard for the charges and her refusal to participate in her own defense. A relative of one of the victims describes “her smiling face as she was led out of the police station in Nyack.” In 1983, an Orange County judge sentenced her to a minimum of 75 years in prison.

Clark remained uncooperative and unrepentant during her first years in prison, once pulling a two-year stint in solitary confinement in Bedford Hills prison.

Robbins writes that it was Clark’s young daughter who helped her break through the cold wall of indifference. Gilda Zwerman, a sociologist, said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did this to your daughter.” Robbins reports, “Clark tried to look defiant, but her lip twitched, and she began to quietly weep.”

The breakthrough began a slow process of re-engagement with the world, and today her rehabilitation is regarded by many observers as nothing short of remarkable.

The prison warden and other officials recommended to New York Governor David Paterson that her 75-year sentence be commuted, but he declined – reportedly because he feared he would be “tarred and feathered” by victims’ rights advocates.

Clark may well remain in prison for the rest of her life, but she claims she feels deep remorse for her role in the 1981 robbery. She remains a model prisoner and appears content with her punishment.

“Not long ago,” Robbins wrote, “Clark spoke at a Bedford Hills event. Her theme was the Book of Jonah. Like Jonah, she told the audience, she had spent years in self-destructive behavior and had been cast overboard into a stormed-tossed sea for her actions. Like Jonah, she found rescue in the belly of the whale, in her case behind bars. ‘In prison,’ she said, ‘I learned who I was.’”

The story of Jonah is the story of everyone who has heard God’s voice and ignored it.

The story of Jonah is shared by all who run away from moral obligations and threaten those around them with their cowardly irresponsibility.

The story of Jonah is the story of all who had to be picked up and cast aside by those whose only livelihood was threatened by their presence.

And the story of Jonah is the story of everyone who needed to be forced -- dragged kicking and screaming – to carry out God’s commands.

In so many ways, the story of Jonah is our story, too.

The good news is that once Jonah learned who he was, a servant of God, he was redeemed. God still wanted him to risk his life by going to Nineveh with the news that God was about to destroy the city. But once Jonah freed himself of his shackles to fear and trusted God, everything began to change. The people of Nineveh repented. God decided not to destroy them. And justice and righteousness were restored.

Was Jonah really swallowed by a great fish? 

Matthew Harrison Brady has no doubt of it. Henry Drummond scoffs.

But surely an intelligent lawyer like Mr. Drummond knows. Beneath the fish story is a far greater truth:

When God calls us to a task, the hardest thing on earth may be to say yes.

But the consequences of shutting God out of our lives are even harder. Taking that path may well remind us how lonely it could be to sleep with  fishes.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Big Mike

This week, the Revised Common Lectionary and a national holiday offer an interesting juxtaposition. The first chapter of John hints at the effortless charisma of Jesus who tells potential disciples, “follow me,” and they drop what they are doing and follow him. And the calendar reminds us this is the 83rd birthday of another charismatic leader, namely, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What these two things have in common is the response to the call of God to abandon everything and enter a new life – and perhaps a dangerous life – of ministry and service.

John, who often adorns Jesus with a nimbus of mysticism, adds precognition to the messianic bag of tricks. There’s Nathanael, standing beneath a fig tree minding his own business, when Philip wanders by, babbling ecstatically about meeting the Messiah, a Nazarene. Nathanael thinks Philip has been tapping the wine skins and cracks wryly that nothing good will come out of Nazareth. But – hey, he has nothing to do besides stand beneath a fig tree – so Nathanael re-laces his sandals and reluctantly follows Philip. Soon, the two encounter Jesus, who shouts out, “Hey, I saw you standing beneath the fig tree when Philip called you.” Nathanael is stunned. That modest act of prestidigitation knocks the wind out of Nathanael. It’s all he needs to sign on for the duration of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus is amazed. “You believe because I saw you beneath the fig tree?” he asks. “You will see greater things than this.”

In our day, we have already seen greater things than the gift of second sight. Every time we walk through Times Square, we know someone is watching us on television. But even greater than that is the power to take a wandering, directionless human being like Nathanael and give him a resolute faith and an unwavering moral purpose.

That kind of power amazes us even in this age of cyber miracles.

From what I hear, Martin Luther King, Jr. had that kind of power.

When I started work at the American Baptist Churches offices in Valley Forge, among the fringe benefits were the many colleagues who had known Martin, marched with him, strategized with him, sat on platforms with him, and befriended him. Martin was dually aligned with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., which was actually formed in 1961 to give him a denominational home, and with the American Baptist Churches USA.
As I listened to stories of Martin, I quickly noticed everyone had a different view of him. If you talk to some of the old ladies at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – also dually aligned with the PNBC and ABC – they will happily regale you with unique stories no one else knows. “Let me tell you,” they will say, leaning close to your ear, “Martin’s favorite hymn was, ‘Amazing Grace.’” But don’t write that down. The next old lady will get a far away look in her eye and say, “I remember Martin telling me how much he loved, ‘Be Not Dismayed whate’er Betide, God Will Take Care of You.’” And later, as, you sit down in the old fellowship hall for dinner and ask your hostess if she knew Martin, she’ll reply, “Oh, my yes, and he once confided to me that his favorite hymn was, ‘It is well, It is Well, With My Soul.’”

It makes you wonder how many people historians have interviewed when they write their books. The one fact about Martin than I’m sure of, because empty bottles of it are prominently displayed among his personal effects in the MLK museum, is that he liked Aramis cologne.

Reminiscences among my American Baptist colleagues also varied. My first boss, Dr. Frank Sharp, who was head of American Baptist News Service in the seventies, regarded M.L. as “a difficult celebrity,” in part because it was Frank who negotiated with Martin’s staff to get him to last-minute meetings and hastily scheduled press conferences on time, an almost impossible task. Dr. William Scott, ABC executive minister in Buffalo, met Martin shortly after the successful resolution of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and wrote in his diary, “He is young and inexperienced and in no way prepared for the leadership that is about to be thrust upon him.”

Dr. William T. McKee, the first African American to head a national American Baptist program board, was responsible for supervising me as director of communications for the ABC, and I would spend hours in Bill’s office as he tried to keep me out of political trouble. Bill, who grew up in Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn, knew Martin well and often got tears in his eyes when he talked about him. When Bill served on the national staff of the ABC Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB) in New York, he was often in contact with Martin England, a white MMBB staff member in the ABC of the South. Both Bill and England were concerned that Martin Luther King had no life or health insurance, and they both pressed him to sign up for MMBB benefits. According to Bill, Martin kept putting it off but finally agreed to sign the application form in 1963, five years before his death. Bill’s eyes would overflow when he talked about that. “If he hadn’t, his wife and children would have had nothing,” he’d say. I heard the story often.

“I called him Mike,” Bill would say quietly, almost as if no one else was in the room. It was from Bill that I learned that Martin and his father had been named Michael King when they were born, and the elder King changed it to Martin Luther King, in part to satisfy the last request of a dying grandfather. But close friends continued to address the two by their original names. Insiders knew them as Big Mike and Little Mike. This is not a secret, of course, but neither is it widely known.

Martin was assassinated in 1968. My kids, all of whom were born after 1976, tended to think of him as a distant historical figure, lost in the archival dust along with Frederick Douglass and Thomas Jefferson. Even before my hair began to thin out and fade to gray, though, the kids suspected I was old enough to have encountered some of these old-time figures. But they figured they had really underestimated my age when they asked if I had known Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No,” I replied. “But I knew his father.”

“His father?” None of the kids ever challenged that. They always had trouble figuring out when I was making things up. They still do.

But I did know Daddy King. He remained a loyal American Baptist all his life and attended many ABC biennial meetings when I was on the staff. One time I stood behind him in the J-K line at the registration tables and listened to a young African American woman on the other side of the table ask his name.

“Martin Luther King Senior,” he said, carefully accentuating each syllable.

The young woman giggled.

“No,” she said nervously. “I really need to know your name.”

I was standing behind him, looking at the back of his large gray head, so I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not. But he did make it clear he was not teasing.

“Young lady, I am Martin – Luther – King – Senior. And I am quite sure of it.”

The chastened young woman handed him a registration card, and the great man wandered away.

I was invited by an ABC colleague to have coffee with Daddy King during that meeting, and not long afterwards The American Baptist magazine interviewed him for an anniversary story honoring his son. He sat serenely at his desk and opened letters with a silver knife as he answered questions. His voice was so deep and cavernous that a staff writer and I argued whether to compare it to “pebbles falling on a tin roof,” but we decided that would be disrespectful. We reported that his voice was “deep.”

We probably asked him questions he had heard before. We asked if he was bitter following the murder of his son and the loss of other family members, and he quoted the King James Bible: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

I don’t recall the exact year of the interview, but it was after Daddy King had lost a second son, A.D. King, who died in a swimming pool accident in 1969; and after and his beloved wife, Alberta, playing the organ in Ebenezer in 1974, was shot by a deranged man who had planned to shoot her husband.

The elder King’s quiet grace and determined forgiveness were almost super human and a marvel to those who witnessed it.

If you talk with aging members of Ebenezer Baptist Church today, there is one thing on which they all agree: Martin Luther King, Sr., was the model of love and the harbinger of justice that molded his oldest son into the singular civil rights leader he became.

Baptists who attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ebenezer Church in April 1968 have many stories to tell: how President Lyndon Johnson sat frowning and drenched in sweat in the middle of the congregation, or how Ralph Abernathy saw Bobby Kennedy in the rear of the church and went to the microphone to invite him to the front.

But many remember a more private moment, when Daddy King saw his son lying in the coffin for the first time. Daddy King began to weep and reached out to his son – some say it was if he was trying to wake him up – and whispered, “He never hated anybody. He never hated anybody.”

Daddy King worshipped at Salem Baptist Church in Atlanta on November 11, 1984. Later that same afternoon he suffered a heart attack and died at 5:41 p.m.

I don’t know what his last words were, but when I heard he died I thought of his four word eulogy for his eldest son: “He never hated anybody.”
What better way to sum up a life? Probably none of us would be comfortable with the opposite assertion, “He loved everybody.” Who among us is capable of that? Even if we have been spared the violent deaths of loved ones, who among us have not experienced insult, bigotry, unfairness, intolerance, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, or discrimination? There are simply persons who cross our paths who are unlovable. And perhaps the hardest commandment of Jesus is to love our enemies. Chances are we cannot, if we are honest, claim that we love everybody.

But with God’s help, it may be possible to get through the snares and thorns of life without hating anybody. That would be grace indeed.

Martin Luther King – Junior and Senior – never hated anyone. But more than that: each had cultivated the divine spark which is planted in all of us but nurtured by few of us.

Daddy and Martin King had what Jesus bestows: the power to live lives of purpose, a power so vivid that it inspires directionless persons to breathe life into their own divine spark, setting them on the path to faith and endowing that faith with an unwavering moral purpose.

Millions were inspired to a higher moral purpose by the example of Martin Luther King – Junior and Senior, Big Mike and Little Mike – and because they lived, the world is very different than the world into which they were born.

But today’s world is still imperfect, and God is still calling each of us to discipleship and diaconal service.

As with the disciples Jesus called so long ago, we may be content to go to him and confess, “You are the son of God, the King of Israel.”

But Jesus continues to push us to greater service, the same way Jesus called Daddy King and Martin Luther King, Jr. to greater service for the good of all.

Jesus’ message is clear: it is not enough to be satisfied with the great things we see now.

With a little bit of effort, Jesus assures us, “You will see greater things than these.”