Monday, July 30, 2012


I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Ephesians 4:1-7

One of the scriptures suggested this week by the Revised Common Lectionary is the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Christians in Ephesus to behave themselves.

No one can say for sure what was happening in Ephesus at the time, but Paul’s  pleas seemed aimed at getting unruly Christians to stop arguing and remember whose they are.

This requires nothing less, Paul writes, than putting animosities aside and “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

That’s a tall order, and no doubt preachers – especially Baptist preachers – will take this passage in many different directions. Truth be told, congregational schism is one of the reasons we Baptists have so many churches. But Paul’s call for “humility and gentleness, with patience … in love” could apply to most any group, including Catholic bishops attempting to slap the hands of nuns for showing too much independence of thought.

All you have to do is tune into Fox News (not recommended) to get a sense of how rare it is to lead lives of “humility, gentleness, and patience,” or to bear “with one another in love.” You can take that collapse almost anywhere, but the specific breakdown few of us can get out of our heads began July 20 with the mass shootings in an Aurora, Colo. cinema, and the deeply divided reactions to them.

Last Monday, 24-year-old James Holmes was charged with 12 counts of first-degree murder, 12 counts of murder with extreme indifference, and 116 counts of attempted murder.

A dozen people died and 58 were injured when a gunman opened fire at random in the crowded movie theater near Denver. Four of 10 victims still hospitalized remain in critical condition.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will argue at length that the shooter was mad, and of course mad gunmen cannot be expected to rationally ponder Pauline epistles.

But the bitter debate on whether guns should be readily available to anyone who wants them must be a matter of deep reflection for Christians and all persons of faith.

Perhaps the most lucid response to the shootings came from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who immediately renewed his call for stricter gun control and criticized presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for backing away from the issue.

“The president has spent the last three years trying to avoid the issue,” Bloomberg complained on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

If anything, Obama’s and Romney’s dithering is a chilling reminder of the power of the gun lobby, which champions the right of every American to own unlimited numbers of guns ranging from small caliber pistols to powerful automatic weapons.

But this is madness. And although Paul never saw a gun in his life, his call to lead lives worthy of Jesus gives us a strong hint what he would have thought about them.

The July 20 shootings in Aurora sent me searching for a column I wrote for The American Baptist magazine after the December 8, 1980 murder of John Lennon. The omnipresence of firearms has gotten worse in 32 years, and so has power of the gun lobby. When “Jesus and the Gun” appeared as a February 1981 editorial in The American Baptist – along with my cartoon depicting Jesus gazing at a handgun in the sky – it elicited a viciously angry response from gun owners and lobbyists, most of them Christians. (The column is reprinted below).

As I re-read the column more than three decades later, I was disappointed in it. Clearly it was written in anger and it provided anecdotes, not rational arguments.

If I could re-write the column today, I would concede that it is not necessarily unchristian to use firearms. There are many sporting uses for guns ranging from target practice to hunting, and many Christians use guns responsibly. I do stand by one assertion in the 1981 column: I still can’t imagine Jesus with a pistol strapped to his hip or slinging a rifle over his shoulder. Not in a million years.

Too, if I could rewrite the column, I would have put in a good word for the National Rifle Association. NRA members are not universally nutty, even when their urge to collect guns seems born of an obsessive compulsive disorder, or when their non-historical re-interpretation of the Second Amendment seems a bit callow. That’s their right.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I was once a member of the National Rifle Association. Indeed, NRA membership was a rite of passage in Central New York where 14-year-old boys felt called to hunt varmints and their parents felt they should do it safely. The NRA provided the best gun-safety guidelines ever devised. And my Dad, a veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II, was an NRA instructor.

That said, I hasten to add that Dad was no gun nut. He did keep them around the house and he made sure his four sons and daughter knew how to use them safely. He encouraged me to take my .22 rifle into the woods from time to time. But Dad had preferred to keep guns at arms length. And he had no use for hunting.

There is a picture of Dad taken a couple of years after he returned from Papua New Guinea, where he experienced combat at close range. The picture (above) was taken during his first year as a teacher at Morrisville-Eaton Central School in Central New York. His principal invited Dad and other teachers to join him on his annual deer hunting outing.

“I didn’t think I should say no,” was all Dad would say about it, but the picture is eloquent. Naturally Dad, a former infantry lieutenant, was a fair shot, so he got the deer. But he wasn’t happy about it. Dad was photographed kneeling beside the buck, lifting its head. The haunted expression on his face says it all.

Christians will continue to debate the morality of using guns and other weapons for sport of self defense, but for me there are issues that have already been settled.

In an average year, 100,000 Americans are shot or wounded with a gun. Every day, on average, 300 persons are victims of gun violence and 85 people die. Over 40,000 deaths are caused each year by citizens shooting other citizens, whether intentional, accidental, suicidal or drug or gang related.

Speaking the truth in love: to allow this go on is no way to lead lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Jesus and the Gun

[Reprinted from The American Baptist Magazine, February 1981]

This time it was John Lennon.

Once it was Vernon Jordan, crumpled in agony in a hotel parking lot with a bullet in his back.

And it was Jerry Ford, crouching in alarm just short of the safety of his limousine as a bullet was diverted from his head.
And it was Medgar Evers. And Malcolm. And John Kennedy. And Martin. And Bobby. And George Wallace.

It has been written that this nation has a harsh way of dealing with its leaders and symbols, who spend their lives in the shadow of violence.

But it goes deeper than that. The gun is a disease, like cancer, that leaves few American families untouched. It may be that no one has shot your sister; but it is likely you know someone who has experienced a tragedy – or a near miss.

One time I was sitting next to a young woman on a bus, on the way to a Billy Graham crusade in London. The woman’s husband was an Air Force major, and she hadn’t seen him for several weeks because he was away on an exercise. She missed him. “Every time he’s away, I realize how much I need him,” she said. “He’s my all.”

Several months later, after the young woman and the major returned to the United States, we heard that they were sitting in their living room one night. She was reading. He was cleaning a handgun. The gun went off, and she was fatally shot in the stomach.

Another woman I know recalls that when she was a child she had a tendency to walk in her sleep. Her father kept a gun in the house to protect the family. One night she arose from her bed and walked, still sleeping, outside the house and into the yard. Her father heard noises and grabbed his gun. He realized in time that the intruder was his only child, and he lowered the gun. Later he put the gun away forever. Lucky chances don’t happen twice.

Six years ago this magazine told the story of a 17-year-old high school honor student from Olean, N.Y. He climbed to the third story of his high school one day and began firing his gun as passing automobiles. When it was over, three people were dead and eleven were wounded. Later the young man was killed in prison.

One time I was spending the summer on a work crew on a small college campus. Late one night I received a telephone call from a professor’s wife whose husband was away and who said she heard a prowler outside her window. She couldn’t reach the campus security office by phone. Foolishly, I crept outside to look. By that time, the security office had been notified and the campus guard walked up the hill. All he saw was a suspicious looking figure lurking in the dark. He pulled his gun, and shouted, “Halt!”

I raised my hands in panic. Fortunately, the guard was not the skittish type. He didn’t shoot.

You add your own anecdotes. The problem is, guns are an epidemic. Especially handguns, which exist for no other purpose than to kill human beings. Those who now raise their voices in favor of strict gun control know what they are talking about. We need to put a halt to the damnable things.

Maybe there are worthwhile political, social, and constitutional arguments to be heard in favor of gun possession. Fine, let them be heard. But none of these arguments have anything to do with Christianity.

The fact will always remain that Jesus and guns are antithetical. Just apply the acid test: “What would Jesus do?”

Would Jesus wear a gun? No. He would not. Jesus and guns are simply irreconcilable. The Lord who ordered his apostle to put away his sword is not encouraging Americans to strap on a holster. And the Lord who told us to turn the other cheek is not now suggesting that we waste our enemies.

Gun control. Now. Before it gets any later.

Please see two of my earlier columns on the subject of guns:


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why Write? A Memoir of a Would-Be Writer

Somewhere in the attic there are carbon copies of every letter I sent home from Air Force bases Bentwaters and Woodbridge, England, where I was stationed from 1965 to 1968.

I must remember to find them and destroy them.

The letters, typed on a Government Issue typewriter in the base chapel where I worked, recorded little fact and a lot of fiction about my life as a virgin airman. I made carbon copies of the letters and looked forward to collating them as a coherent journal of my experiences as a Cold Warrior.

But the contradictory accounts of my exploits limit their usefulness as a Pepsyian paean to my youth. When I wrote to my old high school pal John Nickel, I lied about my erotic triumphs. When I wrote to my mother, I exaggerated my chastity and never mentioned my frequent visits to the Taboo Exotic Dance Club in London’s Soho district. When I wrote to old girl friends, I stressed my lonely devotion. Sometimes I even wrote pure fiction, following the salutation with crude imitations of Aldous Huxley or J.D. Salinger and leaving the recipient to wonder if I had slipped into non sequitur madness.

Typing letters actually kept me sane on lonely nights away from home, but I now question whether it was wise to keep copies. Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, I have no desire to revisit these typewritten records of hormonal chaos.

But the letters did serve a useful purpose. They introduced me to the typewriter keyboard as a place where I could safely explore my innermost thoughts while developing a rhetorical style.

For it was in the Air Force that I first became a successful writer, not as a diarist but as a chapel supply airman.

The duty of the chapel supply airman was to order any accoutrement the chaplain felt was needed to operate a successful chapel program.

Conversely, the corresponding duty of the supply NCO was to protect the Vietnam War effort by rejecting requests for expensive, gratuitous or unnecessary items to duty sections.

That tension created a cordially adversarial relationship between the chapel supply airman and the supply sergeant. Virtually all the chapel’s equipment needs were gratuitous and expensive: gold patens, chalices or monstrances, sacristy wine, padded folding chairs, hundreds of pounds of ground coffee, even gallons of Hawaiian Punch.

“The hell you need Hawaiian Punch for?” Master Sergeant Cyril J. Garafano, NCOIC of supply, would inflate his barrel chest and chew his cigar to shreds as he interrogated me.

“Protestant Youth of the Chapel,” I’d reply. “They wouldn’t come if I didn’t serve it.”

“Shoot,” Garafano would say, or a word to that effect. “Fill out a [adjective deleted] requisition form.”

Filling out requisition forms – justifying to the Air Force why the chapel couldn’t function without something it didn’t actually need – was how I learned to write creatively.

“The prie dieus in the chapel date back to the Normandy invasion and can no longer be trusted to bear the full weight of the wing commander who, as is commonly known, is a very pious Episcopalian. As President Johnson said recently, “The men who have guided the destiny of the United States have found the strength for their tasks by going to their knees. The private unity of public men and their God is an enduring source of reassurance for the people of America.” In this time of war, when freedom is in danger at home and abroad, there can be no greater weapon than the faith of our fighting men and women as it is nurtured by the time they spend on their knees. If they are to continue to do so without fear of sudden injury, the prie dieus in the chapel need to be replaced.  ASAP.”

I don’t know if Sergeant Garafano actually read the forms but he never turned down one of my requests. He raised his eyebrows only slightly when I submitted a sacristy request in the form of a Haiku:

Our red wine is sour, Cyril.
Replace it now to
enable blood redemption.

I wish I had kept copies of the requisition forms I filled out. They probably provided a more accurate record of what Air Force life was like than my whimsical letters home.

As I ascended to the rank of buck sergeant, I was given more official opportunities to write. I wrote articles and drew cartoons for the chapel bulletin, the Bentwaters monthly newspaper, and other media. My career as a cartoonist ended when the wing commander complained that all the officers I drew “look like potato-bellied cockroaches.” On some nights I took courses in British history offered on base by the University of Maryland extension school and wrote protracted term papers about Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. By the time I rotated back to the States in 1968, I was in the habit of writing almost every day.

I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College in September 1968 with a goal of earning a bachelor’s degree as soon as possible, continuing on to seminary and possibly getting a commission as an Air Force chaplain.

The idea of returning to the Air Force faded as I became involved in the student peace movement in the Philadelphia area. I began writing anti-Vietnam War essays for the student newspaper while honing my rhetorical rhythms in term papers under the tutelage of some extremely gifted professors.

The first course I took as a freshman was a writing class taught by Professor Caroline L. Cherry, a recent Ph.D graduate who was about my age. Her first assignment was to write an essay entitled, “The Culture Hero of the Sixties.”

I don’t recall whether I labored over the essay or breezed through it. Nor can I remember why I chose not to write about my own heroes, John F. Kennedy or Pope John XXIII. Perhaps I thought it would take too much time to do the necessary research about them. Whatever the reason, I decided to write about the Charlie Brown, Charles Schultz’s beleaguered Peanuts character. The essay required little research because, as a devoted consumer of the comics, everything I needed was in my head. I wrote it, typed it on a small portable typewriter, and handed it in.

The paper was returned with an A, and Caroline was generous with her assessment. She encouraged me to keep writing, and gradually I shifted my major to English Writing, with minors in history and psychology.

I began submitting cartoons and articles to the college newspaper, The Spotlight. By the end of my freshman year I was spending more time in the newspaper office than in class, and by the time I was a senior I was the editor. I busied myself writing scathing criticisms of President Nixon’s war policy and Supreme Court appointments, and – because it was the sixties – indulged in open criticism of the college’s conservative administration. Although The Spotlight’s circulation never numbered more that 500 students, most of whom tossed the paper in the trash, I was exhilarated by the power of the pen.

If there was ever a decisive moment in my resolve to become a writer, it would have been when Caroline told me she and her husband, Charles, were writing a text book called Contemporary Composition [Prentice-Hall, 1970] to assist students in the art of writing and critical thinking. She asked my permission to include “The Culture Hero of the Sixties” among the essays in the book.

I was exhilarated and astonished by her request, but when the book finally appeared, my mind was – as we said then – blown. There in an actual Prentice-Hall font was my small essay, nestled among offerings by Langston Hughes, John F. Kennedy, and John Updike. Only another would-be writer knows the near orgasmic intensity of seeing one’s own words in type. I never deluded myself that I might become another Updike: but I knew then I wanted to devote my life to writing.

After college, I managed to secure a temporary assignment as a reporter for Today’s Post, a small daily newspaper in King of Prussia, Pa. It was my first experience writing on a daily deadline and I quickly learned that accurate reporting wasn’t as easy as it looked. I almost never calculated correctly the average tax hit for every millage increase in the township, or the average rise in a household electric bill when the utility company raised its rates. Reporting on fires, car wrecks or school board motions was rarely straightforward because firefighters, EMT’s and board members had differing opinions about what happened. It was also a challenge to walk the narrow line between misquoting the police chief or quoting him accurately and making him look stupid. The only story I wrote that caught the editor’s full attention reported the arrival of the township Christmas tree. “The erection,” I wrote, “took 35 minutes and required the use of a crane.” I saw nothing amusing about it, but editors and reporters laughed and quoted it to me almost every day.

One of the columnists at Today’s Post was Dr. Frank A. Sharp, whose main job was director of American Baptist News Service. Frank knew who I was because of our mutual Baptist ties.

In April of 1972, he and other Baptist staff were busily preparing for the annual American Baptist convention slated for Denver in May. One weekend Frank’s primary news writer, a woman in her forties, was struck by an aneurysm and suddenly died.

I’m sure Frank mourned her passing although, as a taciturn Yankee, he rarely showed any emotion. But the fact that he was suddenly without a press room aid and news writer on the eve of the denomination’s most important meeting left him in a state of near panic.

Frank called me to his office in the “Holy Doughnut” – the circular American Baptist mission center in King of Prussia – and didn’t ask me to sit down. I slouched against his door jam as he studied me, probably trying form an opinion about my shoulder-length hair.

“Can you write?” he asked finally.

“Yes,” I replied with youthful confidence.

Frank scratched his balding head.

“Think you could lift a typewriter?”


“How about a carton of mimeograph paper?” 


“Can you start tomorrow?”

It was the briefest and most productive job interview I had ever had, before or since.

Obviously Frank’s most pressing need was for someone to haul reams of paper and operate mimeograph machines more than he needed a writer, and he needed that person fast. I was unceremoniously added to the staff.

Before long I was the primary press release writer for American Baptists while Frank turned his attention to writing columns for Today’s Post and submitting contributions to William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. (The only response he got from Buckley was a single sentence on plain bond paper: “Thank you, Doctor, but you really needn’t bother.”)

For the next two years I wrote news copy for American Baptist News Service and feature articles for The American Baptist magazine.  The American Baptist was edited by Norman R. De Puy, an erstwhile pastor and brilliant writer who specialized in iconoclastic thinking and dazzling turns of phrase. His monthly column in The American Baptist, “The Bible Alive,” was written with insight and laugh-out-loud humor and was widely co-opted by preachers looking for a last-minute sermon.

Norman, who had grown up in Pennsylvania coal country, had a prodigious sense of humor and a vast lexicon of colorful metaphors and off-color jokes. He was also a perfectionist who openly confronted colleagues – most often his superiors – when he felt they were doing shoddy work.  His particular management style was to create a crisis where none existed and then move resolutely to resolve it.

I learned from Norman that crisis management was something I needed to avoid at all cost, but I loved working for him and quickly adjusted to his occasionally mercurial personality (he referred to his volcanic eruptions as “French fits”). He was a loyal and supportive boss, and I like to think I was helpful to him on many occasions – particularly the month his “Bible Alive” column was entitled, “Jesus was no Pussy Cat”

In the early 1970s, type for The American Baptist was set by a composition machine that printed out justified columns of type. The type was trimmed by a razor and affixed with wax to a layout master, which was photographed for photo-offset printing. Usually the process worked fine, but as I stood next to the web press that night I noticed that part of the headline for “The Bible Alive” had disappeared: the word “Cat” was missing.

Whether the missing word was an accident or an act of sabotage will never be known, but it did give me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shout, “Stop the presses!”

In 1974, Norman decided to leave his position as editor to accept a call as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dearborn, Mich.

Norman called me into his office and asked me to sit down.
“Look,” he said. “I’m leaving and you’re my candidate to replace me.”

I had no management experience, I had no editorial experience, but I was 28 and had no idea how unqualified I was for the job. Looking back, I can only regard the offer as one of Norman’s more unorthodox management experiments. Then, I thought it was an exciting idea. Looking back, it made no sense.

“You’ll do fine,” Norman Said. “I’m going to tell you what to do.”

As I sat speechless in his office, Norman outlined a campaign strategy to convince the board that I could do the job.

“First,” he said, looking at my shaggy hair and rumpled double knit baggie pants, “You’ve got to start dressing for success. Put on a tie.”

He ticked off the necessary steps as if he had been thinking about the all week.

“Second, don’t get all democratic and stay in your two-holer. Move into my office as soon as I’m gone.” Norman classified the offices in the circular American Baptist mission center by the number of windows they had: most staff had “two holers.” Division heads like Norman had “three holers.” The General Secretary, Bob Campbell, had a “four holer.”

“Third,” he said, “you should start writing a monthly column for the magazine.”

It was the third point that gave me pause. The thought of writing a monthly for a national audience was daunting. I was pretty sure I could write one decent column, perhaps two. But where was I going to come up with something new to say each month?

This kind of anxiety, of course, will be familiar to pastors who have to come up with profound homilectical insights every week.

I began to sweat. Writing a monthly column was a scarier prospect than editing a magazine or supervising writers.
I paced and fretted for a week, and finally turned to scripture for inspiration. I decided to call the column, “The Little Scroll,” based on the reference on Revelation 10:2-7:

And I saw another mighty angel coming down from the heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll in his hand.

I’m sure I had no idea what that meant, although today I might be tempted to exegete the rainbow into a heavenly affirmation of gay power.

The column’s debut in March 1974 broke no theological ground. It was entitled, “Mighty Maggie,” a commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to head the British government.

“When we as a denomination stop withholding our leadership jobs from people who happen to be women, or conversely, when we stop patting ourselves on the back when we find jobs for women,” I ventured, “then we’ll be on our way to making some significant progress toward the fulfillment of our Christian mission.”

I’m sure I struggled over that column for days, and could have struggled a bit longer to make it less wordy. Letters to the editor did not affirm my commitment to women leaders but some complained about my demeaning use of “Maggie” to refer to the P.M. I could see from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to be easy.

I wrote “The Little Scroll” each month for 20 years, shifting formats from editorials to personal commentaries to poems to single-scene dramas to cartoons. Often it was more important to me to submit the column on deadline (so as not to delay publication of the entire issue) than to make an important theological declaration. As I look back on the pile of editorials that accumulated between 1974 and 1992, I’m reminded of an old newsroom maxim: I never missed a deadline but I wrote a lot of crap.

I discontinued “The Little Scroll” when I left the American Baptist Office of Communication in 1993 to return to newspaper reporting.

Perhaps that’s where I should have left it.

Then in March 2009, as I was looking for an outlet to express some thoughts, I discovered the modern format of the blog. “The Little Scroll” reappeared, haphazardly and irregularly, in this space.

In August 2010, I was invited by the blessed remnant of North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y., to be their lay preacher.
Though few in number, rarely exceeding the prescribed twos and threes who gather in Jesus’ name to qualify for his presence, the congregation proved to be welcoming and uncritical. Their unwritten understanding with me is that I would preach as if I was addressing a packed house. I would mount the pulpit, turn on the mike, and shout to the rafters so we could all go home and say we had been in church.

I also quickly discovered that this loving and tolerant remnant was happy to listen to almost anything I had to say, regardless of scholarly acumen or theological orthodoxy. That made me more conscientious about following the prescriptions of the Revised Common Lectionary and the views of known theologians on most issues. If I strayed from orthodoxy, it was inadvertent and attributable to the fact that I am an untutored Baptist layman, driven by curiosity about God’s word but prone to error.

After a few weeks of sermonizing, I decided to upload the text of each discourse online. Immodestly, I persuaded myself this would be a good evangelical tool and – who knows? – I might even be able to double the number of people tuned in to my ruminations. The online version of “The Little Scroll” became a weekly homily following the lead of the Revised Common Lectionary.

This amalgamation of the blog as sermon – or the sermon as a blog – has become a profoundly personal devotional experience for me.

Someday I may gather these columns and other musings between two covers as a means of sharing that devotional experience with others. If that happens, let the reader beware: there are no profound insights or metaphysical discoveries in these columns. They are merely, as the subtitle claims, accounts of misplaced sandals on holy ground.

But each time I sit down at the keyboard, my prayer is that the next spiritual journey, however imperfect, will bring me closer to the mysterious, confounding, puzzling, and loving God who is at the center of all our lives.

The Culture Hero of the Sixties

[The following essay represents the first time I was published. It was written in 1968 for Caroline Cherry, then my professor and now my friend, as a one of the requirements of her Freshman class in English composition. The essay was included in a textbook two years later. I am self-indulgently reproducing it here for the record – while steadfastly resisting the temptation to rewrite the callow rhetoric of  my youth. Thanks, as always, to Caroline for  the initial thrill of seeing my stuff in print. Reprinted from Contemporary  Composition, by Charles L. And Caroline L. Cherry, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1970]

“History,” President Kennedy said, “is the final judge of our deeds.”

When the conversation dies around the dinner tables in a thousand villages and towns, it is fascinating to bring up the subject of the current decade. What verdict will history have on our poor efforts in this confusing age? Will we be remembered as the generation in which man’s enlightenment was put into full harness for the good of humanity, or will we simply be remembered as inhabitants of the period in which God died? Will we be remembered as the forebears of a Great Society, or merely as the generation that shrank from its responsibility of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger?

The nineteen-sixties signaled the coming of a new age. The post-war period was over and man was reaching beyond his planet into the mysterious realms of space. There was a young president in Washington and government was fun, even entertaining. “They” (the enigmatic powers which do everything that ever gets done) gave a Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King.  A jolly old Pope in Rome was able to awaken a new interest in religion, and church leaders from all over the world congregated in the Eternal City in a humane effort to tidy up Christianity so God would not be able to see the mess from His death bed. On a couple of occasions, “they” steered the national course so close to the brink of nuclear war (just to see what would happen), but nobody worried about it much. “After all,” Bob Hope said, “we had a president who was young enough to get drafted.” It was an age, indeed, when the world hearkened to a noble cry to “get moving again,” and Americans watched with approval and did all they could do, short of actually getting involved.

As in all ages, the nineteen-sixties awakened in American hearts the desire to crown a national hero who would symbolize with breath-taking simplicity the frustrating complexities of the age. President Kennedy was the foremost candidate in many hearts, but he was found to be the antithesis rather than the symbol of the decade. He was young and handsome, stylish and cultured, intelligent and forceful, rich and established, and eternally victorious – a perfect composite, in fact, of all the virtues the generation lacked. But while Americans were loving President Kennedy for being everything they could not be, the true hero of the sixties was reaching maturity in a world of newsprint and India ink. His name was Charlie Brown.

Charlie Brown was born at the tip of a pen wielded by cartoonist Charlie Schultz. By Schultz’s own description, Charlie Brown is the neurotic product of society. Charlie Brown is a “nobody,” and by virtue of that very act he becomes everybody. In an age when heroes are idolized, Charlie Brown has become the classic anti-hero. A Schultz cartoon finds two of Charlie Brown’s young friends discussing a recent episode in his life. “I’ve got to hand it to Charlie Brown,” says one. “He was being chased by five fourth graders on the playground today. Suddenly he stopped running and organized a discussion group.”

In an age demanding decisiveness and singleness of purpose, Charlie Brown is wishy-washy. His great ambition in life is to meet and talk with the little red-haired girl who sits across the playground from him during the school lunch hour. A hundred times he decides to “just get right up” and talk with her. A hundred times he fails to leave the security of the bench. When the little red-haired girl walks within whispering distance of Charlie Brown he summons great moral courage and ties his peanut butter sandwich into a knot.

In an age in which victors are acclaimed by the multitudes, Charlie Brown is the eternal loser. With admirable persistence he struggles to get his kite into the air – to send it skyward, free as a bird, in the pursuit of its own destinies. A faithful reader of Schultz, however, well knows that the kite is doomed to end its journey in the merciless branches of the nearest “kite-eating” tree. One is convinced that if Charlie Brown were to attempt to fly his kite in the most barren of deserts, the kite would shortly find its way to the only tree for miles around.

In an age in which one must be charismatic and popular in order to gain approval, Charlie Brown must walk a lonely road, unliked and unwanted.  If, on Valentine’s Day, his mailbox were to overflow with Valentine cards, every card would be addressed not to him, but to his faithful dog, Snoopy. Society requires much strength, and Charlie Brown is weak. He fails to adjust.

Why does America love Charlie Brown? Why does America identify with him? An indication of his appeal may lie in the fact that although America idolizes a victor, she fosters a greater admiration for the loser. America’s great folk heroes are not the unbeatable General Grants, but the General Custers who demonstrate great talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. President Kennedy noticed that his popularity in the polls rose sharply immediately after his admission of responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster. “My God,” he exclaimed, “It’s as bad as Eisenhower! The worse I do, he more popular I get!”

The average reader of Schultz cartoons can also find in Charlie Brown’s poor endeavors a reminder of his own childhood. Charlie Brown’s failure to meet and talk with the little red-haired girl reminds the reader of his own personal dreams that were never fulfilled. Charlie Brown is the embodiment of the great times that never were.

Every man who roots for Charlie Brown roots for himself. Because he is not a “winner,” he demonstrates most poignantly the inborn desire of all men to win. Because he is unpopular, he is a vivid example of man’s need to be popular. Those who love Charlie Brown love him not for what he is, but for what he could be. Those who can identify with his inability to adjust to society are confident that in the end – somewhere, somehow – Charlie Brown will eventually “make it.” In some glorious future, Charlie Brown will get his kite high in the air. Someday Charlie Brown will meet and talk with and (who knows?) eventually marry the little red-haired girl. And someday Charlie Brown’s mailbox will overflow with greeting cards from all his many fans.

When that day comes, Charlie Brown’s appeal to the people will be over. When Charlie Brown finally “makes it” (as we all know he will), he will join the ranks of Flash Gordon and Barney Google and Smilin’ Jack and all the other forgotten heroes of yesterday’s comics. In the meantime, Charlie Brown’s special appeal lies in the fact that there is nothing so admired or so closely followed in today’s society than the detailed, blow-by-blow account of the Great All-American Failure Story.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Take a Break

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
Psalm 23:2-3

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31

Familiar bible verses, like oldies rock songs, come heavy laden with clandestine memories.

The 23rd Psalm takes me back to fourth grade Sunday school in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., circa 1956.

The old church is gone, long ago reduced to ashes by undetected frayed wiring.

The teachers have adjourned to the village cemetery on Cedar Street.

The students have grown old and gray and only pretend to recognize one another at mid-century reunions.

But the words of the psalm bring them all back with uncanny clarity:

The crew cut boys’ in pressed white shirts and clip-on bowties.

The pony-tailed girls in billowing crinoline skirts and ankle socks.

The dusty green chalk board propped kitty-corner on wobbly wheels in the front of the room.

The smell of well-thumbed India paper in the tattered Authorized bibles we borrowed from our parents, books we caressed with our hands and pressed to our noses to experience the tactile comfort of the holy. 

We memorized the 23rd Psalm in King James English, motivated by the promise that our diligence would be rewarded by a gift of our own personal bible.

Some of us memorized the 100th Psalm, or John 3:16, or tried to stuff the Beatitudes and all ten commandments into our callow lobes.

But all of us memorized the 23rd Psalm and took our turns standing nervously in the front of the class, lisping Jacobean fricatives.

I think I was good at it. And so were Donnie and Joan and Jack and Reese and Mary Linda. I had known each of them all my life, but the first thing I think of, when I think of them, is how they stood tensely in the front of the classroom to recite the 23rd Psalm:

“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over …”

The poetry was delicious even to 10-year-olds, although we didn’t know it was early 16th century English so we assumed it was the way God talked.

It was a shock, then, when we received our newly published Revised Standard Version presentation bibles to discover God had taken a few steps toward assimilation into 1950s American English.

“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows …”

(See my article on the RSV as a 1953 best seller at

By 1989, when the National Council of Churches issued the New Revised Standard Version, God’s linguistic assimilation had advanced:

“…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows…”

The meaning is clearer, perhaps, but my generation memorized long passages of scripture when God still spoke with an old world accent. And when the 23rd Psalm is summoned to mind, the King James Version is planted in our brains in deep furrows.

So it was in 1983 when my mother lay dying in a Syracuse hospital. Her first bout with chemotherapy weakened her to the extent that she required intubation to assist her respiration. The prospect of a second chemo assault frightened her.

Throughout the ordeal she had exuded optimism about her future, but she was a registered nurse and she knew the odds were not on her side.

One dark night I stood beside her bed feeling helpless because the intubation tube prevented her from talking and I knew my nervous perseveration was not helping either of us. She tapped on a bible that lay open beside her and I picked it up. It was open to the 23rd Psalm.

As soon as I began reading aloud she smiled behind the mask and her whole body began to relax.

“…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me …”

I stopped reading and she nodded to ask me to keep going. I sat back in the chair beside her bed and slowly read and re-read the psalm aloud. I began to relax, too.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”

Today when I recite the psalm I am transported back in time to two very disparate eras of my life: my childhood, when I first sought to memorize the sacred words; and to my young adulthood, sitting beside my mother’s hospital bed, reciting words that once were a promise of gifts to come and now were a reassuring benediction of closing. 

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of David. Perhaps he wrote it when he was a shepherd boy, or perhaps he wrote it years later when he was bent down by the burdens of kingship, wistfully remembering the day when all he had to worry about was wayward sheep.

The power of the psalm is its reassurance that, no matter how complicated or stressful or threatening life becomes, God looks over us as a good shepherd. The metaphor of lying down in green pastures or lapping from cool, still waters is probably meant for sheep, but it is no less appealing to us humans. And the psalm assures us that God relieves our stress, offers peace and recreation in the midst of overwork, and promises us a safe outcome – in this world or the next – when we face mortal dangers.

This relationship to God the good shepherd works best when we think of ourselves as sheep, and when we make it a point to avail ourselves of God’s offer to relieve the strains and worries of life.

But a lot of us tend to gird ourselves with the pervious armors of own self-sufficiency, because we think reaching out for help – to God, to anyone – is a sign of weakness.

That dubious and often self-destructive approach is particularly common among the shepherds themselves: pastors, executives, parents, teachers, anyone given charge over others. For them, shepherding may be perceived as so essential a calling that it must take precedence over personal needs. Naps, days off, vacations, or sabbaticals are postponed indefinitely lest they take time away from vital ministries or dependent sheep.

For the record, Jesus didn’t call anyone to such an exhausting, soul-draining ministry.

Nor did he set that kind of example. He napped when he was tired, dined and imbibed with friends, and encouraged his hard-working apostles to take breaks when they needed them.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31

That is a message of crucial importance. It’s too bad we don’t encourage kids to memorize it along with the Beatitudes and Decalogue. We may not realize it when we are 10, but almost certainly our lives will devolve to the point at which our jobs and careers will keep us coming and going until we don’t have time to rest and eat.

If we don’t get that under control, we will lose our ability to employ the gifts God has given us to carry out the tasks and ministries to which we have been called.

It’s an alternative form of the Peter Principle, which observes that companies and institutions, including the church, keep promoting their best people until they rise to a level at which they no longer have competence.

In the alternative, gifted shepherds work so unremittingly hard that they burn themselves out and are no longer useful to their sheep or to themselves.

There have always been leaders who work themselves to irrelevance, but it’s hard to think of a time when it has been more prevalent than now.

In thousands of non-profit service organizations, denominations, and congregations around the country, leaders are pushing themselves to the brink of collapse to keep their ministries alive.

The Great Recession of 2008 still has a death grip around the neck of the churches. There is not a mainline denomination in the United States that has not been forced to cut critical programs and hundreds of employees to minimize financial deficits.

Once august and indispensable ecumenical councils, no longer able to depend on contributions from struggling member churches to maintain their ministries, have slashed programs and staff until they are mere shadows of their former selves.

The resulting dynamic is that surviving staff feel obligated to work harder – often at significantly reduced salaries – to maintain the same level of ministry as before. The reality is that no one individual, however gifted and eager, can do the work of five or ten fired colleagues.

In most cases, the well meaning CEO’s and boards of church institutions can do nothing about it.

Their statements exalting the creativity and devotion of overworked staff are necessarily mitigated by periodic memoranda announcing salary reductions and furloughs.

But these staff are not mere bureaucrats; they are shepherds who have heard God’s call. The more their hours and salary are cut, the more energy and time they pour into their jobs.

In too many cases, it becomes a race to see who will expire first: the fiscally beleaguered institution or the savagely overworked shepherd.

Certainly these harsh realities are not restricted to the church. These are harsh times, and unemployment figures remain unacceptably high. Congress continues to propose budget cuts to programs that support individuals and families living on the edge and below the poverty line.

People are exhausted, struggling and stressed out. And the greater the stress, the harder it is to hear Jesus’ voice amid the tumult:

“Come away … rest a while.”

So let’s stop whatever we’re doing, take a deep breath, and listen.

“Come away,” Jesus said. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Jesus, we should note, is not saying, “Come away because what you’ve been doing is not important,” or, “Come away because we’ve decided to cut your program.” When he says, “Come away,” he means there is nothing more important to him or to you than your mental, physical, and spiritual health. And in order to maintain that, you’ve got to come away and rest a while.

No doubt those of us who take a break from important ministries will soon discover God has other plans for us. In the same chapter of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are back to work almost immediately – tanned, rested and preaching to the multitudes.

But none of us will be of any use to future ministries if we don’t take a break when it’s offered, and when we need it so badly.

So this is the Scripture message of the day:

Take a moment.

Lie down in a green pasture with a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and an iPad of verse.

And let the good shepherd restoreth your soul.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Super Stars

NOTE: These weekly musings are prepared as sermons for the blessed remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. -- a small but gracious group of folks who indulgently tolerate most anything they hear. May their tribe increase. P.E.J.

Celebrity and charisma.

These are two of the more overworked words in our modern lexicon, and both are difficult to define.

The words come to mind because the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost offers two interesting variations on biblical charisma.

The first, from 2 Samuel 5, takes us to King David’s salad days when he was heroic and popular and exuding contagious optimism in his first days as undisputed monarch. The second, from Mark 6, returns us to an awkward moment in Jesus’ ministry when the people who knew him best – his family and friends – couldn’t believe he was special. Quite the opposite. When they saw him acting all Messiah like on the street, they were appalled and contemptuous.

What can we learn about celebrity and charisma from these distinctly polar episodes?

When I was a reporter for the Pottstown, Pa., Mercury, covering an occasional trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, one of the regular journalists was Jay Lloyd, the suburban bureau chief for KYW News Radio.

KYW, like 1010 WINS in New York, had millions of listeners so Jay’s voice was immediately recognizable throughout the Philadelphia area.

Physically, Jay is unremarkable. He’s short with a prominent schnoz and a mop of thinning white hair. When I knew him his hair was steel gray and he wore it like a furry lampshade covering his ears. He wore a suit and tie – unusual for a radio personality – and if you saw him in the courthouse hallway you might think he was a jury clerk. You probably wouldn’t give him a second look.

A few years before I worked for the Mercury I was director of communication for American Baptist Churches in Valley Forge. One steamy summer the Ku Klux Klan decided to hold a rally in Valley Forge National Park adjacent to the Baptist offices. The Baptists issued a press release to say the Klan was evil, ignorant, racist, and repugnant, but entitled to meet in the park under the protection of the First Amendment. Many editors and producers thought that was an unusual stance and they sent their reporters to our offices to cover the story.

One afternoon a short, shaggy-haired guy with a double-knit sports jacket and beige shoes wandered through our door. He stood in front of the receptionist’s desk and waited patiently while the woman talked on the phone. Sleepily, she looked up at him and saw no reason to hurry her conversation.

A minute later she put down the phone and stifled a yawn.

“Can I help you?” she asked.


The little guy’s stentorian voice filled the room and the woman recognized it immediately.

“Aren’t you – aren’t you …?


The woman, who was nearly 6 feet tall, arose giddily as all vestiges of sleepiness vanished. Jay craned his neck upwards to maintain eye contact.

“Jay Lloyd!” she cooed. “I listen to you all the time!”


“I love your voice!”


The woman began sorting through papers on her desk. She produced a pink message pad and held it out to Jay.

“Would you sign this please?”

Jay beamed. Radio news guys don’t often get that question. He scribbled happily on the pad.

I assume Jay got to speak to the general secretary or some other Baptist spokesperson, but all I remember is his brief encounter with the office receptionist. It illustrates how difficult it is to define celebrity and charisma. One moment he was an annoying interruption to a receptionist’s day. The next he was a famous media guy and the receptionist would spend the rest of the afternoon telephoning her friends to tell them, “I met Jay Lloyd!”

Possibly, celebrity and charisma are not qualities you have as much as attributes people project on to you. If you don’t know someone is famous, you may not notice that person’s exceptional qualities.

Years ago in New York I boarded an El Al 747 to Tel Aviv. As I fastened my seatbelt I noticed the flight attendants were staring deferentially at a middle-aged man dragging his suitcase down the aisle. As the unassuming man trudged past succeeding rows of seats, the passengers would stop talking and gape at him.

He was a pleasant enough looking chap but I couldn’t place him. Perhaps he was a notorious Israeli counterfeiter or Golda Meir’s illegitimate son.

I gestured to one of the stewards. “What’s going on?” I asked.

She leaned down so she wouldn’t have to shout. “That’s so-and-so,” she said, uttering a name I had never heard and don’t remember. I shook my head quizzically, and she added emphatically: “He’s the Elvis Presley of Israel!”

As I turned back to look for him, some of the passengers applauded quietly as he passed.

I’m not sure how to interpret the comparison of an Israeli singer to Elvis. If this had been a domestic flight and the real Elvis walked down the aisle (he was still alive at the time), I am sure the passengers would have been more effusive in their greeting, probably screaming and shouting greetings to the King. But fame and charisma – and our response to fame and charisma – defy explanation.

It’s also true, I think, that our response to a famous person depends on our familiarity with them; the more familiar we are, the less excited we will get. Former President Harry Truman was virtually ignored by his neighbors in Independence, Mo., when he took his morning walks because to them he wasn’t the erstwhile leader of the free world: he was just Harry.

One might even assert that familiarity may breed contempt. “No man is a hero,” goes the old saw, “to his wife.” (Variations on that bit of dubious wisdom include, “No man is a hero … to his valet … to his domestic partner … to his wife’s psychiatrist … to his sled dogs …” Of course you can switch the gender for clarity. “No woman is a hero to her pubescent daughter … teenage son … Brazilian waxer ...”)

In the passages offered by the lectionary, these principles appear to apply to two of the bible’s most charismatic figures.

King David is one of the Bible’s unabashed super heroes. Even before he was anointed king, he had slain the giant Goliath with a primitive sling shot, commanded armies that produced many victories over the Philistines, and eluded plots by King Saul to eliminate him, all while forming a band of merry men and assuming a Robin Hood role to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. When David’s nemesis King Saul and his comrade and possible domestic partner Jonathan were killed in battle at Mt. Gilboa, he had little time to mourn. David was the obvious heir to the throne, and the people loved him. He was charismatic and he made their hearts beat faster.

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.
David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.
At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and
Judah thirty-three years.
David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward.
And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him. (2 Samuel 5:1-5; 9-10)

What a shame the story doesn’t end there. David was a towering figure, an undisputed celebrity, the single most charismatic leader of the Hebrew bible, a legendary figure whose renown and seed helped define Jesus and whose fame is more widely spread today than when he lived circa 970 BCE.

But the story of David also illustrates two modern axioms: power is an aphrodisiac, and power corrupts.

Davis lusted for the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, and when she became pregnant he sent Uriah into battle to be killed.

It was a dastardly deed and God dealt severely with David, taking the life of his son by Bathsheba.

Later, David’s son Absalom rebelled against his father and their armies confronted one another at Ephraim Wood. In a tragi-comic scene, Absalom’s long hair  got tangled in the branch of an oak tree and David’s general Joab killed him as he dangled. David’s agonized lament, Lear-like in its intensity, has sounded across many ages and many cultures:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

 In his old age, the king faced another insurrection by his son Adonijah who sought to usurp the throne prematurely. Fearing that Adonijah would murder his beloved wife Bathsheba, David hastily handed his power to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba. And he died.

Looking at the whole of David’s life, it becomes obvious that charisma and celebrity are not palliatives to self aggrandizement and stupidity. They didn’t protect David from a life of tragedy and despair. David’s gifts and his virtues are well known, but so is his ruthless pursuit of power and his deadly adultery.  History, like the prophet Nathan, is prone to point its finger at David as it utters its verdict of weakness and sin: “Thou art the man.” He was a great man who loved God and understood God’s commandments: but David’s weaknesses were as monumental as his strengths.

Perhaps it is this very human combination of strength and weakness that exudes charisma. In our era, we have seen it often: good and even great men and women who become irresistible to us when they succumb to temptation and their own human frailty. Jack Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Bill Clinton. And, very possibly, even the relatively non-charismatic person we see in our mirrors every morning.

But if it takes character flaws to be interesting, how do we explain the crowd’s reaction to Jesus in Mark 6?

On the sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief. Mark 6:2-6.

No one is saying Jesus had no charisma. The most casual reader of the New Testament will sense the overwhelming power of his personality. People followed him wherever he went; crowds formed when he stopped walking and surrounded him, hanging on every word; rich young rulers and centurions and Pharisees and blind men and tax collectors and prostitutes sought him out. A single word or a glance from him changed lives forever. A tug at his cloak sent healing power surging through the bodies of persons who brushed against him. There is no record of anyone encountering him, however briefly, who ever forgot him. No one who met him ever doubted that he was something very special, an unprecedented phenomenon of God.

No one, that is, but those who grew up around him and saw him every day.

To these unfortunate folks, Jesus was merely Joseph the Carpenter’s boy. He bore an obvious resemblance to his bushy browed brothers James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and to all his brown-skinned sisters with their modest scarves and calloused fingers; and everyone knew there was nothing special about any of them. No wonder the neighbors were asking, where did he get all this, what made him think he was all that?

A little too much familiarity with their carpenter neighbor from Nazareth was breeding contempt. And you can hardly blame the neighbors. Imagine, if you will, your nephew Josh who you watched tug at his mother’s breast, take his first steps, learn how to hold a saw, and cobble wood pieces into stools so crude they rocked in the dirt. So far as you could tell, Josh is a perfectly pleasant but obviously ordinary young man. And suddenly there he is: teaching in the synagogue like he knows what he’s talking about and curing headaches and abdominal pains and other maladies with a casual gesture and intimating a special relationship to God – a relationship you don’t have.

No wonder they took offense. They didn’t understand him and what people don’t understand makes them mad.

Jesus didn’t like their attitude, but he understood it. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Of course he was entitled to be amazed at their lack of belief.

It’s too bad Jesus’ hometown crowd was at such a disadvantage. Everywhere else, Jesus was followed by admiring and growing crowds of enthusiastic believers. Ironically, those who knew him best knew him least.

The two passages before us – one from the Hebrew Scriptures, one from the Gospel of Mark – suggest very different lessons to us.

In the case of King David, I think the lesson is this: do not be overwhelmed or overly impressed by charisma and celebrity. It’s likely we are projecting those attributes on the persons who impress us than, and in many cases the imagined charisma may be obscuring important aspects of their personalities. There was more to the king than met the eye – some of it good, some of it bad – and all of it was an important part of the story. David was a super star but he was just a man. And we won’t fully appreciate God’s love and intentions for him if we don’t understand that.

Jesus, on the other hand, is both a super star and God’s anointed son. That’s interesting. But for those of us who grew up with his story, heard it repeated ad infinitum in church and Sunday school, memorized his parables and recited his sermons, he’s becoming a little too familiar. We’ve been with him so long we no longer sense his power. For many of us, he’s just Joe the Carpenter’s kid. And we’re asking ourselves, “where did this man get all this?” Too often, we have formed the hometown that fails to honor the prophet.

In telling that story, Mark is reminding each of us: don’t get too used to Jesus. Don’t let him get so close we stifle his charismatic power.

Mark’s message is this: Jesus is in the house. And when he touches us with his hands and his robe brushes against us, we are being re-introduced to the infinite love and unbounded power of the creator of all that exists.

And it is from the loving God, Mark reminds us, that this man gets all this.