Friday, June 28, 2013

Rainbows Today

And Jesus sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Luke 9:52-55

Cartoonist Chan Lowe could have been reading this week’s selection from the Revised Standard Lectionary.

Lowe’s cartoon in the South Florida Sun Sentinel Wednesday  shows a winged figure on a cloud, gazing intently downward.

“Boss,” the figure says, “the Zealots are calling for lightning strikes on the Supreme Court.”

A disembodied voice above him replies, “Tell ‘em all I’ve got in stock today are rainbows.”

That is Jesus’ approximate response when the disciples suggest barbecuing a group of uncooperative Samaritans with fire from heaven. Luke leaves out a few details when he says Jesus “turned and rebuked them,” and we can only guess what choice words he used. 

No doubt he expressed his frustration that, nearly three years into his earthly ministry, his closest followers were clueless about his true purpose. Jesus didn’t come to incinerate people. He came to love them.

If their angry reactions to this week’s Supreme Court decisions are an indication, some church folk are still ignorant of Jesus’ purpose. 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court announced 5-4 decisions that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, and declining to interfere with lower court decisions that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. Both measures said marriage was for heterosexual couples only.

But angry church folk denounced the decisions, basing their angst on two mistaken notions.

The first mistaken notion is that the United States is a Christian nation and the laws of the land should be based on narrowly defined Christian principles. 

But in fact, the United States is founded on the principle that the law should apply equally to all citizens. Achieving this ideal is an unfulfilled process that has been evolving for 237 years. But the nation’s founders, whose parents endured state-sanctioned religious persecution, insisted religion should be kept out of the affairs of the state. The majority of the court applied these principles to its decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8.

As a matter of equal justice under the law, it is logical to conclude the same marital rights should apply to all persons who make loving commitments – who look into each other’s eyes and declare, “I take thee.” When interfering parties start imposing reasons these rights ought not apply to certain couples, it is no longer equal justice under the law.

There are, of course, circumstances when civil authorities should intervene, as when one or more parties are too young to make logical decisions about marriage, or are being forced into an unwanted relationship. Clearly bans against pedophilia, incest, and rape are necessary, moral, and constitutional.

But pious legislators have often ventured into bedrooms where normal, consensual, and loving sexual activity is taking place.

For centuries, anti-miscegenation laws prescribed long jail sentences for persons of different races who married or voluntarily shared living quarters. It was not until 1967, in a case appropriately entitled Loving v. Virginia, that the Supreme Court struck down these laws.

In some states, laws have been passed against all manner of pre-marital, consensual, or private sexual activity, often encouraging law enforcement officers to violate fundamental rights of privacy.

Prior to 1962, sodomy was a felony in every state. In 1778, the broadminded Thomas Jefferson sought to liberalize sodomy laws in Virginia by making the act punishable by castration rather than summary execution. Until 2003, when the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional, persons convicted in Idaho of engaging voluntarily in the act could spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Today, I daresay most people don’t want legislators and magistrates interfering in people’s sex lives, or making arbitrary judgments about what sex is good and what sex is bad.

That kind of judgment is a matter of individual morality. And one can easily make the case that standards of sexual morality are in the purview of the church. 

But here is where the U.S. Constitution is revealed to be a marvelously ingenious document. Under the first amendment, the government must stay out of the church’s discussions about sex. And the church must not dictate sex legislation to the government. 

Which brings us to the second unfounded position of church folk who are reacting so bitterly against the Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8.

That unfounded position is based on the assumption that all religious people, especially Christians and Jews, have an ironclad consensus on the subject. 

Actually, we don’t. 

Many wise and loving church leaders believe scripture condemns homosexuality as “an abomination,” and therefore marriage between persons of the same gender must be offensive to God.  Given the deep convictions of these religious leaders, I would never suggest they stop preaching what they believe.

But I would hope they would stop trying to implement their beliefs in civil law. A lot of persons of faith believe God cannot possibly be offended by gay and lesbian couples who make a commitment to share God’s unconditional love.

Sure there are Levitical laws that appear to condemn homosexuality (chapters 18 and 20), and many well-meaning people elevate these scriptural laws above all others to defend their homophobia.

But these laws have no more significance than other Levitical condemnations, including the eating of any animal that has paws (11:27), picking up grapes that have fallen in your vineyard (19:10), mixing fabrics in clothing (19:19), cross-breeding animals (19:19), getting tattoos (19:28), not standing in the presence of senior citizens (19:32), mistreating immigrants (19:33-34), or selling your land permanently (25:23). 

Most of us no longer see the sense of these laws. Neither does it make sense to honor iron-age condemnations of same-sex encounters. Five-thousand years ago, sheep-herding patriarchs had no concept of homosexuality.  They thought perversely minded straight people were deliberately taunting God, and to them it was an abomination. 

Even today, some well-meaning Christians assume homosexuality is an option. They think some people choose gayness arbitrarily as a mark of rebellion against God and society.

But that makes no sense. Most people – including psychiatric professionals – understand that one does not choose to be gay. 

One is born gay, or lesbian, or bi-sexual, or transsexual. One’s sexual orientation is a determined by a loving God Who also determines one’s race, ethnicity, hair color, male pattern baldness, artistic gifts, and other marks of our basic humanity.

Who could possibly argue that God would abominate that which God so lovingly creates?

Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s great spiritual and human rights leader said this:

The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing -- their race -- and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about -- their gender; hence my support for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Equally, I cannot keep quiet while people are being penalized for something about which they can do nothing -- their sexuality. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as apartheid ever was.

For those who are distracted by archaic Levitical laws, it is helpful to remember what Jesus said about the law:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in favor of all persons – and all couples – who dedicate their lives to carry out God’s commandment to love unconditionally.

That’s equal justice under the law. 

The court's decision also eliminated two painful laws that got in the way of God’s love and opened a pathway to God’s justice for all the Creator's adored and cherished creatures.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Can't Anyone Here Play This Game?

Item. For the second year in a row, the House of Representatives defeated the Farm Bill, this time by a vote of 234-195. Usually the Farm Bill is the least controversial legislation before the House, but 62 Republicans complained it was too expensive. Democrats opposed it because GOP cuts in food stamps were considered too much. (New York Times)

Anyone who watches Congress today must be reminded of Casey Stengel’s anguished remark during the New York Mets’ 1962 season: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

Republicans and Democrats have barricaded themselves behind ideological stonewalls. No one talks, no one bargains, no one practices the political art of compromise. Only gray heads like me remember when representatives regularly crossed party lines for constructive bipartisan action.

How I long for those days.

When I was growing up in Central New York State in the 1950s, almost everyone I knew was a good Republican. My father wore a red plastic elephant on his lapel and I coveted the pin for its cartoon-like charm. My grandparents on both sides were solid Republicans.

Grandpa Emerson talked of having lunch with Theodore Roosevelt, although he never said if it was just Grandpa and Teddy or if a thousand other Republicans were there, too.

Grandpa Jenks was the Republican who ran the armory in Oneonta during the New Deal, and when he wanted to cuss really bad, he said, “Eleanor.” 

The biggest family party of the fifties was when Grandma and Grandma Jenks drove to Morrisville from Oneonta to watch the 1952 election returns on our 12-inch Admiral television. We cheered when Eisenhower was swept into office after 20 years of Democrat misrule. I still get giddy when I think about it. 

I knew only one other self-confessed Democrat in Morrisville, LaVerne Darrow, the village barber. LaVerne was a genial chap who wore a crisp white smock like his Mayberry counterpart, Floyd. LaVerne never talked politics with his Republican customers because that would have been bad business, but it was generally whispered about that he was not like the rest of us. 

My mother, it turned out, was a closet Democrat. Much to Grandpa Emerson's consternation, she voted for FDR in 1944 and JFK in 1960. I think she voted with the Democrats fairly consistently until 1980 when she switched to Ronald Reagan, co-star of her favorite film, King's Row. 

Looking back, I can easily imagine myself registering Republican, if only to get one of those cool plastic elephants for my lapel. John F. Kennedy changed that forever. JFK captured a generation of young idealists, made us think politics was honorable and good, and challenged us to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country.

But back then there wasn’t that much of a difference between Republicans and Democrats. Even Richard Nixon, despite the escalating paranoia that eventually ruined him, was a moderate Republican. And some of his best friends were Democrats.

Back then I, too, thought some of my best friends were Republicans. It had to be. My mother kept her politics to her self so I assumed my barber and I were the only Democrats in Morrisville. And in the early 60s, if I had any chance of following my political interests in Madison County, N.Y., it had to involve Republicans. 

Happily, there were some great Republicans around. Governor Nelson Rockefeller came to Colgate University, eight miles from Morrisville, to address the annual Boy's State gathering and my father, a Boy's State counselor, arranged for me to be in the balcony for the Governor's speech. Rocky was extroverted, charming and charismatic, and I thought then that when JFK retired from politics I could be a Rockefeller Republican. (Attica, the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and Megan Marshack were still in the future.) Too, the U.S. Senators from New York State, were Jacob Javits, a liberal Civil Rights advocate, and Kenneth Keating, a smiling moderate who parted his white hair like Floyd the barber. Despite my partisan enthusiasm for the New Frontier, all the Republicans I knew were decent, hardworking and open-minded public servants. 

Alexander Pirnie was my favorite, and certainly the most accessible of the area pols. Pirnie, a lawyer and businessman from Utica, was a World War II hero with a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit who represented us in Congress from 1959 to 1972. 

I don't remember what Pirnie's politics were exactly, but he couldn't have been elected in Central New York without being a conservative. I do know he was extremely responsive to his constituents, including a 16-year-old kid who couldn't vote.

I made sure I attended as many of Pirnie's visits to Morrisville as I could. He came to the dedication of the new post office in 1961 and presented the postmistress (Hannah Curtis, a Democrat appointed to the job during the Truman Administration) with a flag that had flown over the capitol. The huge portrait of JFK that hung in the post office lobby did not dismay Pirnie, and his greeting to the crowd was one of my first encounters with political palaver. 

“I’m always introduced by someone who says, ‘Well, here's the latest dope from Washington,’” he began, followed by a brief recap of legislation facing the House. He was great.

After his speech I decided to ask Pirnie how many flags flew over the Capitol before they were presented to post offices in the Congressional Districts. He leaned his head toward me attentively and his mouth dropped open a little when I asked, “Is there some guy there who raises and lowers flags all day?” 

He stood up and smiled. “Well, not all day, I don't think.”
“Are you going to vote for Sam Rayburn for Speaker?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Well, we Republicans are going to vote for Mr. Halleck (Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, House Minority Leader),” Pirnie replied. “But if he doesn't win …” he smiled broadly and winked … “I'll be happy to work with Mr. Rayburn.” 

Back then, who knew how radical that promise would sound fifty years later?

During my high school years I wrote to a wide variety of politicians in Washington, primarily to see if they would write back, or to collect autographs from the President, Vice President and other notables.

Pirnie was one of the politicians I wrote nearly every week -- so often that my name must have been too familiar to a harried typist who once mistyped the Congressman's signature block, “Alexander Jenks.” 

I joined the Air Force in 1964 and entered a period of my life where it was more important to write to old girl friends than to old congressmen, so I lost touch with Pirnie.

It wasn't until December 1, 1969, when I was in my freshman year at Eastern Baptist College, that I saw Pirnie on television, reaching into a large glass jar to draw a date for the Selective Service System draft lottery that would be the birthday of the first young men called to service. The look of concentration on his face was the same look he used to give me when I'd ask him how often they raised and lowered flags over the Capitol. 

Years later, in June 1982, I was attending an American Baptist meeting in Green Lake, Wis., when I read in the Milwaukee paper that former Congressman Alexander Pirnie had driven off the road in Canastota, probably after suffering a heart attack, and died. 

I put the paper down and remarked, “Hey, Alexander Pirnie died.” But the Baptists in the room just stared at me blankly. Pirnie was not an internationally known politician. 
He was just a good one. 

In Al Pirnie’s political era, Republicans and Democrats were bi-partisan and believed it was patriotic to cooperate with each other when it came to the public interest.

Today, political ideologies are sequestered (I use the term advisedly) behind wide, stagnant moats. Tea Party Republicans refuse to budge on any issue and recalcitrant Democrats stand stubbornly against their opponents. Neither side is talking and nothing is happening.

I think back with fondness on the days when the competition between Republicans and Democrats led to legislative milestones and made each party stronger.

Who knows if that spirit of bi-partisan cooperation will ever re-emerge.

If it does, it will take some major moderation on both sides. Weak and sometimes spiteful leadership by Democratic congressional leaders are part of the problem. But even more problematical, I dare day, is the GOP, which has been hijacked by Tea Party extremists who slash programs for the poor and push tax cuts for the rich.
Until thinking Republicans break free of the stranglehold of obdurate radicals, one has to wonder: Where are the heirs of Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith, Jack Javits, John Heinz, Harold Stassen, William Scranton, Bob Dole, and Mark Hatfield?

One can only hope their patriotic spirit is not gone forever.

Al Pirnie, won't you please come home?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Swine and the Divine

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Luke 8:32-33

We bible buffs have read this passage too often to grasp its full meaning or to realize how appalling it is.

I mean, we’re talking demons and pigs here – a legion of fiends and two thousand filthy, stinking, snorting, disgusting pigs. 

If you think about it, this dramatis personae has the making of a summer blockbuster similar to World War Z  or Dawn of the Dead.  

But this is more than a repulsively thrilling story. It is a reminder that dark forces share our world with us, spirits and demons exist, and Jesus has power over the forces of evil.

Jesus is fairly casual in his response to the man whose soul has been displaced by hundreds of foul demons. 

Frankly, most of us are ambivalent about the notion of demon possession. In the 1973 thriller The Exorcist,  I was horrified by the vivid scenes of a little girl possessed by a hideous demon, but I stepped out of the darkened theater and reminded myself, “Of course demons don’t exist.”

These days, exorcisms are rare and most experts regard demonic behavior as the manifestation of schizophrenia, sociopathic personality, or bi-polar syndrome. 

But to most of us, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that dangerously crazy people are controlled by demons. How else can we explain why fiends take guns into theaters, elementary school classrooms, or political rallies?

In 1970, a young German woman named Anneliese Michel began hearing voices that told her she was damned and going to hell. As her condition worsened, she saw Satan’s face leering at her several times a day. 

When anti-psychotic drugs had no effect, Anneliese and her parents concluded she was possessed by a demon. They dismissed the doctors and hired two priest exorcists. According to one account, 67 exorcism sessions lasting up to four hours, were performed for ten months. 

During the grueling process, Anneliese refused to eat and died at her home. The autopsy stated the cause of death as malnutrition and dehydration from almost a year of semi-starvation while exorcisms were performed. She weighed 68 pounds at death. Both Anneliese’s parents and the priest exorcists were charged with negligent homicide.

But the question won’t go away: was Anneliese possessed like the demoniac Jesus confronted? Or did she have a mental illness that could have been cured by psychopharmacology?

The incident with the demoniac on the Sea of Galilee also stimulates modern skepticism about miracle cures and faith healing. There are those who believe stories of Jesus’ miracles were made up by the evangelists for dramatic effect, or if people were really cured, it was accomplished by Jesus’ charismatic powers of suggestion.

Perhaps you were listening to NPR’s Radio Lab Saturday  as hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich guided listeners through the Placebo Effect. This is a well-known phenomenon in which people are cured by the power of suggestion. Anecdotes included tales of witch doctors who knew they were using trickery in their trade but cured people of their illnesses anyway. The hosts interviewed a woman whose carpal tunnel syndrome was cured – temporarily – by an evangelical faith healer.

But the program suggested the placebo effect also happens outside of faith settings. A physician reported his experience with the electrodes that are implanted in the brain to halt the hand tremors of Parkinson’s Disease. The doctor said he would tell the patient he was sending a mild current through the implants that would cause the tremors stop. And so it would. But when he failed to send the current and didn't tell the patients, their tremors also stopped.

All these accounts are enough to make one downright skeptical. Demons don’t exist. Miracle cures are a psychosomatic, mere figments of the mind. There no mysteries left in life. How boring is that?

Thank God for the pigs. These disgusting and certainly unwilling players are convincing evidence that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our feeble philosophies.

The story appears in all three synoptic gospels: Jesus converses coolly with a man full of demons.  The eerie scene forces us to face the possibility of eternal damnation, where unredeemed sinners darn socks that smell.

The man’s demons frankly terrify us mere mortals, but it is immediately clear that the demons are terrified of Jesus. Shouting out to him in a monstrous chorus, they beg him not to cast them back into hell.

Instead, they spy a herd of two thousand pigs – as if one could miss a herd of two thousand pigs in Israel – and beg Jesus to cast them into the belching, farting creatures.

Two thousand pigs.

I can’t even imagine a herd that big. Never in my life have I seen so many pigs in one place. 

Even one pig is too protuberant to ignore. In Cuba, many of our relatives and their friends keep a prize hog in a pen behind their tiny houses. The creatures are hard to miss. They serve as a convenient garbage disposal but mostly they are a hedge against starvation. A small family can eat for months on a single swine.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I occasionally drove past roadside pits where a half dozen enormous porkers submerged themselves in fecal mud, luxuriating in orange rinds, potato peels, corncobs and other items of the compost du jour. You could smell them a mile away.

So cover your nose and try to imagine two thousand stinking pigs scattered across an acre of ground reeking with decaying dung and muck. 

The more I think about it, the more appalling the scene becomes.  

Now close your eyes and imagine two thousand pigs suddenly rousting themselves from their personal stys, shaking off chunks of half-chewed garbage from their sodden jaws. Listen the deafening roar as eight thousand cloven hooves assault the muck and the beasts violently jostle one another as they charge off the precipice into the lake.  Watch as the impact of the monstrous herd churns geysers of fetid water high into the air as pigs drown in the lake without so much as a “th- th- that’s all folks.”

Is there a more bizarre scene in all of scripture? Certainly no scene in Man of Steel is messier, louder, or more expensive to produce.

But bizarre or not, one has to ask: who could make up such a thing? The story of Jesus, the demoniac and the pigs captured the attention of thousands of people and it was passed down by oral tradition for dozens of years until it arrived intact in three separate gospels.

The reason the story remains unchallenged two thousand years later is that it has the ring of truth. The unmistakable message:

The dark side exists, and it is populated with atrocious demons and hideous fiends.

The thunderous massacre of two thousand pigs got everyone’s attention, then and now.

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. Luke 8:37-39.

Two thousand years later, the message is clear: 

God has given Jesus the ultimate authority over us all: the good, the righteous, the weak, the tempted, even the repugnant creatures of the nether regions.

And those who bask in the warmth of that authority will always have Jesus’ protection from the evil one. 

And they will safely reside forever in the presence of the God of infinite love. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Deus Ex Superman

In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge told us how to really enjoy Man of Steel, the summer blockbuster that opens this weekend.

As every fastidious English major knows, Coleridge suggested “willing suspension of disbelief.” 

He meant the act of will that enables us to believe the unbelievable in fiction, film, Fox News, and professional wrestling. 

It’s that willingness that makes the ridiculous sublime. Sure, we know Mary Martin and the Flying Nun didn’t really take wing, and there are no vampires sustained by True Blood extract. But it’s fun to pretend, and it’s good exercise for the left side of our brains to briefly embrace what cannot be. When Alice tells the Mad Hatter she sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast, she is at the height of her mental health.

Vivid imaginations and active fantasies can be good for you, and millions of moviegoers will emerge from 3D IMAX viewings of Man of Steel as happier, healthier persons because of their 144-minute break from reality.

And because Superman is such an unambiguously messianic character (see my 1979 commentary about that here), many will step into the light with renewed questions and new insights about the relationship between fantasy and faith. 

Do we have to suspend disbelief in order to believe in God? 

My experience with Superman dates back to early childhood when I believed everything I saw. The twelve-inch black-and-white screen of our Admiral television was a rich source of information that began each evening with John Cameron Swayze’s Camel Caravan of the News

Brother Larry and I were cautioned to be quiet when the 15-minute newscast began so Daddy could listen to the sober reports. There was no reason to doubt any of the images on the screen, including the boxes of Camel cigarettes that clapped together before Swayze’s unsmiling face. I remember Swayze beginning each broadcast with carefully enunciated syllables (“PREZ-a-dent TROO-man said today …”) followed by grainy newsreel footage of Korean War action.

There was no doubt in my mind that television showed stuff that was real. 

One day I happened to be sitting alone in front of the TV. The show appeared to be some kind of a cops and robbers drama because there were people sitting in a jail with long steel bars. Suddenly a man dressed in skin-tight pajamas with a long towel trailing behind him jumped into the scene and pulled the bars apart so the people could escape.

The fact that I remember this scene so vividly after 60 years shows what an impact it had on me. I was stunned. I quickly ran to tell my father about it: “And there was this really strong guy, and he bended open the jail bars, and he ran away …” If I had stayed in front of the TV long enough to see him jump out a window and fly away, I would have probably wet my pants.

What I was watching, of course, was The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. 

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to view this scene at a time when I couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, when the most mundane things were mystic and magical. I didn’t have to willingly suspend my disbelief because I already believed it. The long years that followed have been, as they are for us all, harsh reality baths that convert us from starry-eyed children to jaded adults. But how wonderful it is to be able to remember how we viewed the world when it was enchanting and new.

My most vivid childhood memories, in fact, are of those times when I struggled to tell the difference between what was real and what was pretend.

I remember, for example, Sunday school teachers who talked admiringly of Jesus and General Douglas MacArthur, often in the same sentence. I had difficulty deciding if Jesus and MacArthur were different people and at one point theorized that Jesus sometimes wore dark glasses and smoked a pipe.

My working image of Jesus, of course, was Salman’s Head of Christ. When Pastor Bergner said in a sermon that Jesus was coming back, I envisioned Salman’s expressionless Jesus dressed in a tailored black suit, sitting behind the pastor waiting to be introduced to the congregation. 

When I asked Mrs. Dutton how Jesus died, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “He died on a cross of nails.” I don’t know why she put it quite that way, but I immediately imagined Salman’s Jesus in his white robe, laying on hundreds of nails hammered into a large white X that looked like a Yogi’s bed. 

Eventually I developed a more traditional Christology, but all of these images remain in my head.

I did not, I should make clear, think of Superman as a Jesus-like figure sent by his loving father into the world to champion good people and fight evil. That archetype may have been in the unconscious minds of Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, his creators in 1933, but it didn’t occur to me for years.

Even so, there was something thrilling and enchanted about the Man of Steel as George Reeves portrayed him in the 1950s. 

And the Action Comics that brought Superman’s adventures to newsstands provided a tangible religious experience for me as a would-be cartoonist. 

As I approached my teen years, I spent hours in my room, drawing and re-drawing Superman. I conscientiously copied the work of artists Wayne Boring and Kurt Swan who set the standard for Superman iconography. To me, these guys were no mere cartoonists but artists whose depiction of the human form in action provided free lessons as I traced them with my nubby pencils and broken crayons.

Of course it is also true that Superman taught moral lessons. He set high standards of conduct, brought evildoers to justice, and never abused his super powers for selfish reasons.

Too, he was always available to persons in need, cruising cityscapes and villages to save people not only from criminals but also from fires, floods, earthquakes, and airplane malfunctions. He was a deus ex machina – a God in the Machine – who swooped into dramas at the last minute to rescue people from certain injury or death.

This is what makes Superman a messianic figure.  His exploits in Man of Steel – light years beyond the technology that sent Reeves and Reeve into the stratosphere – may deify actor Henry Cavill as well. The last 45 minutes of the film, filled with what the New York Times calls “bludgeoning excesses,” will undoubtedly make moviegoers grateful the Messiah in Blue Tights is around to save the day.

That will require a willing suspension of our disbelief that the whole idea of Superman is absurd and was made up by a couple of cartoonists from Cleveland in 1933.

But that willing suspension can provide both a healthy respite from the realities of life and an opportunity to open our minds to new realities. 

For 80 years, Superman has been a morality tale that points us in the direction of greater truths. 

Beneath all the legends, special effects and imaginary scenarios, there is an actual loving father who sent his beloved son to earth to rescue us from evil and death. 

That son, Jesus, is the original Superman.

And one way to comprehend the real messiah is through a day at the movies that renews our childlike imagination and  childlike faith.

That imagination and faith are the most powerful gifts we have because they exceed the capacity of any cartoonist or film maker to open our hearts and minds to the ultimate reality: the loving God. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Really Most Sincerely Dead

“As Coroner I must aver,
I thoroughly examined her,
and she’s not only merely dead,
she’s really most sincerely dead.”

In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the coroner confirms the passing of wicked witch of the east with a sweet tonality and no regret.

Death, life’s ultimate mystery, is rarely celebrated unless it involves wicked witches or Osama Bin Laden. The lawyer Clarence Darrow spoke for many of us when he said, “I have never killed a man but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”

Apart from moments like this, most of us avoid thinking about death. This is easy enough when we have our health and can deceive ourselves that all will be well, that our loved ones and friends will always be at our side, that our annual lab tests will always be fine, that we will always cross busy streets without mishap.

But, as Paul Newman said in the 1963 movie Hud, “Nobody gets out of life alive.” And some days death is uncomfortably close.

Death is the topic of two scripture passages highlighted for this week by the Revised Common Lectionary

In I Kings 17:17-24, Elijah successfully intervenes with God to restore the life of a young man. In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus raises a widow’s only son from the dead.

There are, indeed, several scripture professions of God’s power to rescue people from death. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, the most famous is the raising of Lazarus (John 12:38-44), Jesus’ raising of a little girl (Mark 5:41), and Peter’s raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:37-41).

My favorite story is the raising of a young man named Eutychus who dozed during one of Paul’s interminable sermons and fell out a third-story window. The young man, according to Acts 20:9-12, was “picked up dead.” This was not the intended result of Paul’s sermon, and he rushed downstairs to restore the young man to life. It was the least he could do.

I confess I listen to these hopeful stories of resurrection with cynicism and sadness.

These biblical references to folks being raised from the dead are encouraging, but they are also hard to believe.

And I confess I have been thinking about death lately, not a lot, but more than usual. In April I was deeply affected by the sudden death of Bob Edgar, my friend and boss at the National Council of Churches. Bob, who was president and CEO of Common Cause when he died, was a man of vitality, energy, compassion, and humor, the very essence of what we mean by the life force. The fact that his essence could be so suddenly extinguished – he had a massive heart attack on his treadmill one Tuesday morning – was a reminder of the fragility of life. I wept as soon as I heard the news and I couldn’t stop weeping. Martha, ever la pastora, reminded me that Bob’s death forced me to confront my own inevitable mortality. When the bells tolled for Bob, they tolled for me - for all of us.

More recently I was affected by a death that took place more than four years ago but became known to me only this week. This time it was the passing of someone younger than me, a girl I had known in the Air Force, the daughter of a pilot. She was a member of the Protestant Youth of the Chapel group that I supervised and I remember her exuberance and mirth, her zest for life.

I came across her name in her father’s obituary and was surprised to see that she had predeceased him in 2008.I could find no additional information about her on the internet.

In my mind, her image persists as a bright-eyed, laughing child. I’m not sure why the passing of someone I have not seen for 46 years had such an impact, except that the past seems a safe place where people never grow old, where my parents are a lovely young couple, where grandparents still smile dotingly, where JFK is still president, where death never happens.

But on some days death's harsh reality rears its empty cowl, and we are forced to remember death means the end.

My mother pointed that out to me in 1962, when her brother died after a long battle with cancer. Mom sat at Uncle Maurice’s bedside in his final hours. “I could tell the moment he died,” she said. “He was no longer there. He was gone.”

Millions have observed this. As a newspaper reporter in the early nineties, I witnessed some grisly scenes – auto wrecks, small plane crashes, parachute accidents – and I could see the stark difference between the quick and the dead.

Death is usually obvious long before the coroner arrives to confirm it. Death deprives us of the twinkling in our eyes, our smiles, our laughter, our warmth, our love, our need to be loved, our essence. It’s one thing for the priest to mutter, “Remember, thou art dust” when ashes are smeared on our forehead, and quite another to remember the intermediary stage when our bodies are desiccated, unrecognizable shells.

Usually I avoid thinking  about death. I grant it is inevitable, and unless I live to be 132, I must acknowledge that my life is way passed half over.

But I would prefer to live in denial. Like William Saroyan, I know everyone dies but I want to assume an exception will be made for me.

Yet there is no way out of biological death, no reprieve, no Elijah pleading with God to breathe air into your limp lungs, no Paul to take you in his arms to revive you when you fall to your death out a three-story window.

For those who have seen it, biological death seems banal and ordinary, hackneyed and prosaic. In death we are a dead raccoon on the side of the road, unpleasant to behold but beneath our notice. There is nothing unique about it, nothing mysterious. One moment we are, the next we are not.

But that in itself is mysterious.

And the mystery lies in the obvious question: If death means we are gone, where do we go?

It’s easy to answer that question with clich├ęd images of angels on clouds, or pearly gates, or tunnels of light where Jesus and loved ones await, or the far, far side of Jordan.

But who really knows?

I am indebted to my friend Randy Creath for uncovering a quote from Bob Edgar I had never seen.

“I admit that I do not give much thought to the afterlife personally, if only because I am keeping plenty busy here on Earth and I trust God to sort out eternity,” said Bob, a United Methodist minister. “The promise of heaven and the threat of hell were simply not central themes in the faith tradition I was taught. But all people of faith can agree that there is work to do in this world, no matter what we believe awaits us on the other side. There is too much that is broken in our world to rest our souls on a theology of waiting.”

Amen, Bob.

The universality and routine of death may make us wonder what, if anything, awaits us beyond the grave. Certainly there are more mysteries than certainties about it.

But God does give us occasional insights.

In A Man Called Peter, her 1951 biography of her husband, Catherine Marshall reports one of those insights:

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Peter Marshall preached to the regiment of midshipmen in the Naval Academy at Annapolis. A strange feeling which he couldn’t shake off led him to change his announced topic to an entirely different homiletical theme based on James 4:14: For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away. In the chapel before him was the December graduating class, young men who in a few days would receive their commissions and go on active duty. In that sermon titled Go Down Death, Peter Marshall used this illustration.
In a home of which I know, a little boy—the only son—was ill with an incurable disease. Month after month the mother had tenderly nursed him, read to him, and played with him, hoping to keep him from realizing the dreadful finality of the doctor’s diagnosis. But as the weeks went on and he grew no better, the little fellow gradually began to understand that he would never be like the other boys he saw playing outside his window and, small as he was, he began to understand the meaning of the term death, and he, too, knew that he was to die.
One day his mother had been reading to him the stirring tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table: of Lancelot and Guinevere and Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat, and of that last glorious battle in which so many fair knights met their death.
As she closed the book, the boy sat silent for an instant as though deeply stirred with the trumpet call of the old English tale, and then asked the question that had been weighing on his childish heart: “Mother, what is it like to die? Mother, does it hurt?” Quick tears sprang to her eyes and she fled to the kitchen supposedly to tend to something on the stove. She knew it was a question with deep significance. She knew it must be answered satisfactorily. So she leaned for an instant against the kitchen cabinet, her knuckles pressed white against the smooth surface, and breathed a hurried prayer that the Lord would keep her from breaking down before the boy and would tell her how to answer him.
And the Lord did tell her. Immediately she knew how to explain it to him.
“Kenneth,” she said as she returned to the next room, “you remember when you were a tiny boy how you used to play so hard all day that when night came you would be too tired even to undress, and you would tumble into mother’s bed and fall asleep? That was not your bed…it was not where you belonged. And you stayed there only a little while. In the morning, much to your surprise, you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room. You were there because someone had loved you and taken care of you. Your father had come—with big strong arms—and carried you away. Kenneth, death is just like that. We just wake up some morning to find ourselves in the other room—our own room where we belong—because the Lord Jesus loved us.”
The lad’s shining, trusting face looking up into hers told her that the point had gone home and that there would be no more fear … only love and trust in his little heart as he went to meet the Father in Heaven.
After Peter Marshall had finished the service at Annapolis and as he and his wife Catherine were driving back to Washington that afternoon, suddenly the program on the car radio was interrupted. The announcer’s voice was grave: “Ladies and Gentlemen. Stand by for an important announcement. This morning the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was bombed…..”
Within a month many of the boys to whom Peter Marshall had just preached would go down to hero’s graves in strange waters. Soon all of them would be exposed to the risks and dangers of war, and Peter Marshall, under God’s direction, that very morning had offered them the defining metaphor about the reality of eternal life.
How did Peter Marshall know to change his sermon at the last minute?

That is impossible to say, but such premonitions are not unusual. When I was in high school, I followed the presidential campaign of 1960 with interest, yearning for the election of my boyhood idol, John Kennedy.

My enthusiasm was only slightly dimmed by separate pronouncements, emanating that fall from the tables of my mother’s monthly bridge club. Both my mother and my 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Dorrance, had the same conviction: “There will be a Democrat elected president,” both said. “And he will be assassinated in his first term.”

How did they know?

That is impossible to say, and no one can deny both Peter Marshall and the eerie pronouncement of the Morrisville Ladies’ Bridge Club may be entirely coincidental.

But there remains a sufficient mystery around death that it cannot be dismissed as the end of everything.

Elijah, Jesus, Peter, Paul – all demonstrated that God alone has the power to free us from death.

Henri J.M. Nouwen put it this way:

“Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die.  But love will remain.  Love is eternal.  Love comes from God and returns to God.  When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love.  The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us.  It is the divine, indestructible core of our being.  This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.”

Just what it will be like, as Bob Edgar said, cannot be known. And there is far too much to be done on this earth to spend all our time wondering and waiting.

But we do know this: Our bodies will one day be dust, but the love of God that is within us is indestructible.

And Saroyan would have been comforted to know that everyone dies. But thanks to the love of God as expressed by Jesus and sustained by the Holy Spirit, an exception will be made for each of us.

See a similar treatment of this topic at