Saturday, November 23, 2013

I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 
- 1 Peter 2:9

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” - Luke 23:33-43

This is Christ the King Sunday.

Somewhere along the way, church wordsmiths renamed it “Reign of Christ” Sunday. All kings are dudes, they reasoned, and it seemed chauvinistic to refer to Jesus as a King.

It is also difficult for us dwellers of the 21st century to identify with kings, kingdoms, and other monarchial paraphernalia. 

The monarch most of us can name is the saintly Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, but we fully understand she is merely glitter on the ordinariness of a pinstriped parliamentary democracy. She has no power and even the most miscreant members of her court know they can safely misbehave without losing their heads.

It has been a long time since there were monarchs around we could look up to as metaphors to help us comprehend the ascendant royalty of Jesus. If we compare him to Queen Elizabeth, Christ the King might be seen as beautiful stained glass camouflage on a lackluster church.

But when have kings and kingdoms ever been a useful analogy to help people understand Jesus? 

Even those who first heard the comparison would have thought immediately of King Herod or the Emperor Tiberius, both known for their brutality and debauchery.

Or, if the more scripturally literate chose to reflect on Kings David or Solomon, it would be instantly clear that neither one of them was Christlike. David was an adulterer who consummated his enamors by having Bathsheba’s husband neatly dispatched, and Solomon was an enthusiastic polygamist whose wives led him down the path to serial to idolatry (I Kings 11:9-13).

Has there ever been a monarch whose reign reminded us of God’s reign? It is, in fact, very difficult to survey the monarchies of Europe, Asia, or Africa without reaching the conclusion the kings and queens were, with few exceptions, murderously megalomaniacal and calculatingly cruel. 

Even the greatest rulers – Henry VIII, Catherine the Great, Shaka Zulu, Emperor Jai Jing – survived by killing, jailing, or torturing their challengers. 

And the most saintly of monarchs, Good King Wenceslaus I (907-935 C.E.), was a mediocre king whose reputation was enhanced by his assassination at the hands of his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, himself a bad comparison for the reign of Christ.

Even so, it’s obvious that peoples over the centuries tended to revere their kings, especially if the king kept the peace, made it possible for the surfs to live without starving, and kept pogroms to a minimum. 

Many of us like to think standards of good kinging were established in the legends of King Arthur and popularized by librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe in Camelot:

Camelot! Camelot!
I know it gives a person pause,
But in Camelot, Camelot
Those are the legal laws.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

Camelot might tempt us to compare it to the reign of God, but as we English majors know, the realm eventually collapsed in seduction and treachery.

In Shalom Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof, we detect a more realistic picture of how people revere their monarchs. When the rabbi is asked if there is a prayer for the Tsar, he replies, “May the Lord bless and keep the Tsar – far away from us.” No doubt that was a familiar prayer in all cultures.

But if kings and queens were never good models for Christ the King, they became even less so after the First World War when most of the monarchies of Europe were wiped away, and the monarchs who survived became empty fronts for democratically elected prime ministers. 

So when we think of “Christ the King,” what is it, exactly, that we are supposed to imagine?

When I was in college, I occasionally worshipped in a Mennonite living room church pastored by Dr. John L. Ruth, professor of English at Eastern Baptist College. John wore the traditional Mennonite plain coat, which made him look distinctly unworldly (unless one mistook his garb for a Nehru jacket). 

In fact, he had a Ph.D. from Harvard and he was an important mentor for me during my undergraduate years.
John never stopped being a Mennonite pastor, and worship services in his small house were quietly spiritual and occasionally unpredictable. 

One Sunday the sermon was provided by a vinyl LP record: Jesus Christ, Superstar.

I don’t recall ever hearing of the popular musical before then. As he put the disc on his ancient turntable, John said, “It probably doesn’t mean anything to us when we talk about Christ the King. What other metaphors would give us a clearer idea of who Jesus is and the kind of impact he has on society and our individual lives?”

As the needle began to hiss on the record, John said: “How about, ‘Superstar’?”

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think about your friends at the top
Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop
Buddha was he where it's all? Is he where you are?
Could Mahomet move a mountain or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?
Don't you get me wrong - I only wanna know

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Jesus as superstar was an interesting idea in the late sixties. Mass media shined klieg lights on certain individuals and raised them far above mere mortals. Back then it was Elvis, not one of the Windsors, who was King. The Beatles attracted more people to their concerts than any church. John Lennon didn’t lie when he said, fully realizing the irony, “We’re more popular than Jesus.”

Alas, in 2013, there are no superstars around who make us think of Jesus the King. Elvis died on a toilet. The Beatles broke up. A long litany of the stars of my generation – Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, and more – died of drug overdoses. 

Today, even the most popular teen idols go out of their way to avoid being seen as models for youth. Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber may be widely acclaimed and the Kardashians may be the best-known family on earth. But they are not the kind of superstars who tempt us to compare them with Christ the King.

So on Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2013, are their any regal models we can point to as examples of what the reign of Christ is like?

Perhaps so, but I doubt they are either famous or regal. Jesus gave us a large hint about those who would be models of Christ’s reign when the mother of James and John came to Jesus and asked him to make her sons superstars. 

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:20-28

The models we are seeking to represent Christ’s reign are neither monarchs nor superstars. 

The models we are seeking are those everyday women and men, most of them unknown to the media and invisible to us, who have discovered they have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light; and all they ask in return is to proclaim Jesus’ love and God’s mighty acts. 

That calling alone is what makes them a royal priesthood in the realm of Christ.

There was certainly no one lowlier or more obscure than the thief who found himself crucified next to Jesus, and no one can say this man lived a virtuous life. But he recognized God’s marvelous light when so many around him were blind to it. And by using his last agonized breaths to declare his faith, Jesus welcomed him into the royal priesthood of the reign of Christ.

It may be good to be the King, and there may be fame and fortune in celebrity and superstardom.

But in regal sweepstakes of the reign of Christ, Jesus reminded us, it is the last who shall be first and the first who shall be last.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Glimpses of the Great I AM

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM who I AM.’ Exodus 3:13-14

The Jews answered Jesus, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8:48-59

Here we are, 10 a.m., November 17, 2013.

Where were you a year ago today?

A year ago on November 17,  Martha and I were at home in Port Chester, enjoying a visit from our daughter Victoria.

Five years ago on November 17, I had just returned from Denver, Colorado, where the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches held its annual meeting. It was a quiet Monday, and I came home from work early to take Katie to an appointment.

Ten years ago on November 17, 2003, it was also Monday. Martha was up early to drive to work in Manhattan. Still living at home, Victoria was a Port Chester seventh grader. Katie was a student at Ardsley High School and I was a freelance writer and independent communications consultant working at home.

The calendar is a marker for our personal lives and a tool for historians. But can the calendar also be a mystical mirror into the eye of God? 

Fifty years ago at this time today, November 17, 1963, John F. Kennedy had just finished a Sunday breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and coffee. He was relaxing at his family home in Palm Beach, Florida, and anticipating a busy week that would take him to Tampa, Miami, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on Tuesday, November 17, 1863, Abraham Lincoln was in the White House reading dispatches from Tennessee, where the siege of Knoxville had begun. Whenever he had a free moment, Mr. Lincoln mentally polished the 272 word speech he planned to give two days later at the dedication of the new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Eighty years ago at this time today, 10:20 a.m. November 17, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was meeting in the Oval Office with William C. Bullit and Maxim Litvinov to formalize U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union. In a historic first, Litvinov telephoned his wife and son in Russia.

Seventy years ago at this time today, 10:30 a.m. November 17, 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt was pursuing a busy schedule in her Manhattan apartment as her husband was on a ship en route to a World War II summit meeting with Stalin and Churchill in Tehran.

The participants in all these historic and mundane events are, of course, long gone. But just how gone are they?

When I was a very small boy growing up in Morrisville, N.Y., there was a very old woman on our street who remembered Lincoln. She never met Lincoln, but she was a young girl when all Americans were directly affected by what he said and what he did.  

Today, no one alive remembers Lincoln. Those who remember the Roosevelts and President Kennedy are no longer young, and soon there will be no one left who remembers them. This is inevitable. As Woody Allen observed, every 150 years the world gets a whole new set of people.

So, one must ask, what happens when the memories are gone? What is the substance of long passed events once they have faded beneath the dusty pages of an old history book? And it’s not just an abstract question because the implications are so personal. What could possibly be the consequence, on November 17, 2163, of the lives you and I are living out so hopefully on November 17, 2013?

If we are going to ask these doleful questions, this is the week to do it. Before we see another Sunday, we will mark two bygone events that will be remembered by the whole new set of people who will replace us in 150 years: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address delivered 150 years ago this Tuesday; and the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this Friday.

Of course, our view of these events is blurred by the fact that we think of them in the past tense. Abraham and John were. They have no connection with us, who are. And looking ahead to what will be, we cannot know how they will be remembered by future generations.

But if the memory of these two events does not impact our present tense, what memory would?

Volumes, of course, have be written about the Gettysburg Address. One of the best is Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, by Garry Wills. Wills makes the case that Lincoln’s brief utterance did more to redefine the U.S. as a popular democracy than the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Civil War itself. 

And for many of us sitting here on November 17, 2013, the Kennedy assassination is a memory we will carry to the end of our days. Its images are indelibly etched in our brains and its emotional burden is no less heavy with each passing year.

Michael R. Beschloss , one of my favorite historians, tweets photos of historic events several times a day. (@BeschlossDC) The photos breathe new color and new life into long gone events. Whether Beschloss posts pictures of Boston Red Sox player George Herman “Babe” Ruth in the 1918 World Series, or images of a darkened Times Square in 1945, he resurrects old memories of things that were.

This week, Beschloss’s postings have created an eerie simultaneity of the past and present by posting pictures of the grassy knoll in Dallas taken in November 1963 and November 2013. The knoll has not changed in 50 years. This is doubtless by design of the chamber of commerce as thousands flock to the site every year to see where history happened. If you look carefully on Elm Street in front of the knoll, a white X marks the spot where JFK was fatally hit.

For me, the murder of President Kennedy lives in my memory as if it happened yesterday. 

I am 17 years old and I am walking into my high school homeroom. Several students with stricken faces are gathered around the teacher, Mr. Nickel, who quietly repeats the same sentence every time someone else joins the huddle. “Yes, President Kennedy is dead. He was assassinated.” I am stunned. All the dead people I know lingered for weeks before they drew their final breaths. I can’t believe the President of the United States could be extinguished in a second. In fact, I don’t believe it. I look down on my shirt and touch the Kennedy for President button I had been wearing since the 1960 campaign. I sit at my student desk fighting back tears. My father, a teacher whose homeroom is two doors down the hall, steps into Mr. Nickel’s room and looks at me silently. Mrs. Drake, the librarian across the hall, walks in several times to impart the latest rumor. “Johnson has had a heart attack.”  “Jackie has fainted.” “The Russians are going to attack.” 

None of my memories of that day are hazy or uncertain. The memories have not dimmed. When I close my eyes, it is as if President Kennedy has just died. 

Assuming the brain is not the sole receptacle of the soul, it is remarkable how effective it is in keeping the past alive.  Some memories seem to get brighter as the brain begins to dim. As my father-in-law descended deeper into Alzheimer’s, he seemed to dwell in a place no one else could see. It seemed to be a happy place, probably his old village in Cuba. Long after he no longer recognized his wife or his daughter or his grandchildren, he would occasionally claim to see a loved one who had been dead for years. Strangely, the only member of his family he seemed to greet by name was me, although it was not my real name and I think it was because I look like some important figure who dwelled in the past. He would call me “Jefe.”

Memory, as we know, plays tricks on you. But one of those tricks, I like to think, is a fleeting trailer of the epic that is God’s eternal plan.

Doctors say there is no one area of the brain that contains all our memories, and that may be why some memories fade while others remain forever bright. While our instinct is to separate the past from the present and from the future, the brain sometimes performs the ultimate mind meld, mystically merging the past with the present. If nothing else, such déjà vu can remind us that for God, there are no such tenses as “was” or “will be.” God always is, the great “I AM.” Any god who “was” is useless, and any god who “will be” is idol speculation. The God who provides the ground for all being is the God who is.

None of us would say, as Jesus did, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” But on rare occasions, it seems the Arranger of our Gray Cells permits us to perceive what God’s eternity is like.

In the Great Continuum of Existence emanating from the Great I AM  there is no past or future. Jesus never “was,” but always is. 

Similarly, in God’s Eye, Abraham Lincoln is not past tense. He, in the view of the Great I AM, is; and November 17, 1863 is not long past but is happening now in God’s Eye.

On occasion I have seen apparitions that I have taken to be friendly ghosts: a gray figure wearing a three-cornered hat on a misty night in Valley Forge park, or a human shape glimpsed fleetingly out of the corner of my eye.  Sometimes I amuse myself by thinking – based on no metaphysical or scientific evidence whatsoever – that these phantasms are not ghosts but haphazard previews into the Great I AM.  For example, when Winston Churchill claimed he saw Lincoln sitting in a chair in his White House guestroom in 1942, he assumed it was a ghost. But could it have been a brief foretaste of the divine continuum of time where Lincoln, exhausted by his labors, still sits in the darkness where it is eternally 1862? 

Amateur metaphysicists (and some theologians) theorize that there are times when the veil between life and eternity is so thin it becomes transparent. Perhaps the more intense the memory the thinner the veil. 

Even so, none of us sitting here on November 17, 2013 have any idea what is happening on the other side of the veil, although it can be entertaining to speculate. 

As a history buff, I like to imagine that beyond the veil, the earthly forms of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt can be viewed as God views them, in an eternal present. And I like to think the day will come when I will step behind the veil into the presence of the Great I AM, and stand beside the liberated souls of Abraham and John and Eleanor, gazing with mutual bemusement into the mysterious mirrors of 1863, 1943, and 1963, watching their historical bodies pursue their erstwhile earthly labors.

That’s a historian’s voyeuristic pipe dream, of course, but it has some enlightening possibilities. When we are reminded that God, the author of existence, has no past or future but exists in perpetual present, we may be led to a marvelous revelation about the nature of eternal life. 

No doubt you have heard people say, “I don’t want to live forever,” or, “I’ve lived long enough and I just want it to be over.”

But the God I AM will liberate us from all our dreary yesterdays and scary tomorrows, and no matter what we did or suffered on earth – crime, illness, crushing responsibility, betrayal, defeat, assassination – welcome us into the eternal present.

When we shuffle off this mortal coil, we will not  face the dubious prospect of continuing to live forever – and ever – as one potentially dreary millennium fades into the next. For many, that does not sound like heaven. It sounds like vampire immortality.

This, then, is God’s promise: When our human bodies are liberated from their bondage to the calendar, to the past, and to the unknown future, we will be united with the Great I AM in a glorious now where bliss never fades and grace never ends and love never fails.

Our memories of the past and the biological blips in our brains may offer some hints of what that eternity will be like.

But even more reassuring are the words of Jesus himself, who stepped across the veil to enter our frustrating earthly world that is so in bondage the past that it fearful of the present and terrified by what the future may hold. 

Stop worrying, Jesus said. There is no past and there is no future. Only the Great I AM.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ John 8:12

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thank you for your service

Monday is Veterans Day.

The observation was originally named Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the Great War on November 11, 1918. That was 95 years ago.

Until then, there had been no bloodier conflict. The First World War nearly obliterated Europe. 

The unprecedented bloodletting did have its public relations apologists, though it was years before we recognized the irony behind the catch phrases: the war to end wars; the war to save democracy. 

It was, at first, a popular war. In the United States, the acclaim was wildly enthusiastic and nearly unanimous in 1917 when President Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany. 

Millions of young men – including my maternal and paternal grandfathers and probably yours, too – swarmed into recruitment centers to join the endless stream of doughboys heading “over there.”

Both of my grandpas survived the war, although 9,722,620 soldiers did not. Military deaths in the United States alone totaled 116,708.

World War I inspired Americans to a frenzy of patriotic and religious fervor. The general idea – certainly endorsed by my grandpas – was that God was assuredly on our side. It was during World War I that the U.S. flag appeared in the chancels of most U.S. churches. 

Some preachers worried that placing the flag near the cross denoted a civil religion that was both unchristian and unconstitutional. Pastors who dared suggest that the United States was not a Christian nation, or that God does not choose sides in battles, were sometimes run out of town. 

A lot of church leaders feel the same way today, but show me a pastor who suggests removing the flag from the chancel, and I’ll show you a pastor about to be reassigned to Death Valley.

The truth is, World War I and its bloodier successor, World War II, were popular conflicts in the sense that most people thought they were necessary and unavoidable. 

But it is also true that World War I inspired a detectable movement of Christian pacifists. And some of its most notable participants were Baptists. One pastor I knew fairly well was Edwin T. Dahlberg, a conscientious objector in World War I and a prophet of pacifism in World War II.

Edwin Dahlberg was one of the most Christian men I ever met. He lived the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount, which included not hating your enemies or striking back at persons who assault you. Ed worked tirelessly as a pastor to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to achieve fair treatment for factory workers and their families, to seek justice for the persecuted, and provide the gospel of salvation for those without faith. 

In his old age, when I knew him, Ed habitually picked up hitchhikers and brushed aside his family’s concerns that the habit could be dangerous. If the hitchhikers talked about their worries or personal problems, Ed made sure they knew their local church was the place to seek guidance because it was there they would find a loving Jesus. 

When Ed Dahlberg died in 1986, I wrote in The American Baptist magazine:

“Everything about Dahlberg – his pacifism, his social activism, his teaching, his preaching – focused on the need for individuals top turn their lives over to Jesus and to live as disciples. His parishioners and many friends – even those who disagreed with his social stands – always understood that . . . . He was great because he taught us all how to find our fellow human beings wherever they were and give them a simple message: ‘Stay close to the Lord. Read the Bible. Remember what you learn in church.’”

It was Dahlberg’s pacifism that fascinated me more than anything else. I didn’t know any pacifists when I was growing up in post-World War II Morrisville, N.Y. 

My dad and all his male friends served in the war, many of them in major battles. They rarely talked about the war but we knew they were heroes every Veteran’s Day when they put on their legionnaire caps and marched behind the high school band in the annual parade. I did know a man who disappeared during such festivities because he had been 4-F during the war – ineligible for military service for – and it was an ignominy that cast a shadow over his life. Eventually he moved to some place where no one knew him or wondered why he wasn’t marching on November 11. Not to serve in uniform when your country needed you, I perceived, was a humiliating shame. There are stories of 4-F men who committed suicide rather than let their neighbors see them loitering on the street in civilian clothes.

But Ed Dahlberg had been one of those men of military age who never registered for the draft during World War I, and who supported other conscientious objectors in World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars. His disability was not physical; it was spiritual. He believed Jesus didn’t want him to go to war.

By the time I met Dahlberg, I had become a quasi-pacifist myself. I spent my first four years out of high school in the Air Force – “fighting the Cold War” I explain to friends to make clear I served in England rather than Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. A lot of veterans found it difficult to support U.S. policy in Vietnam because it seemed to be killing a lot of our friends for no heroic purpose. When I started college in 1968 I became active in the Veterans for Peace movement, which, among other things in the fractious sixties was a great chick magnet. And thanks to the teachings of Edwin Dahlberg, his mentor Walter Rauschenbusch, and the witness of John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister and language arts professor, I was converted to the dogma of pacifism. It was a logical conclusion. Even if you didn’t ask WWJD – what would Jesus do? – it was impossible to imagine Jesus supporting an active participation in war.

Even so, Edwin Dahlberg never condemned men and women who chose to serve in uniform; quite the contrary. As a pastor in St. Paul, St. Louis, Syracuse, and elsewhere, he provided a loving and compassionate ministry to military families and to anyone else who chose a career path or life style different than his. 

I think the current pope summed up Dahlberg's attitude succinctly: “Who am I to judge?”

That’s a handy philosophy to bring to Veterans Day, which commemorates the bravery and self-sacrifice of millions of veterans who served in necessary and unnecessary wars.

Last month I spent several weeks transcribing my father’s World War II Diary, and posted it on line at

Years ago, I read the diary aloud to Dad and recorded some of his comments. Dad died 14 years ago, but retyping his diary turned out to be a deeply spiritual experience. It used to be that my closest moments with Dad were when we sat together at the kitchen table smoking our pipes. This time I seemed to feel his presence just as tangibly as I sat at the computer.  I could almost hear his voice as he recorded his experiences in Australia and New Guinea: the boredom, the loneliness, the horniness, the discomfort of jungle heat, the delirium of malarial fevers, the terror of combat.

Most vivid was his account of a dark night in New Guinea shortly after Christmas 1942:

I took the safety off my gun and held it on my knees, ready for what might come. I saw two men, small, not clothed, moving towards us from the right. They couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 feet away when I first saw them, and they moved in a stooped, crouched walk, coming very quietly, almost catlike. I raised my gun. Apparently they didn’t see me and … I pulled the trigger and fired on them right over the head of the runner. (He later said he thought I was firing right at his face.) One … fell to the ground without a sound, and the other took off straight away from me. I didn’t dare fire again because there were other (U.S.) men around, and I couldn’t throw a grenade for the same reason. I wasn’t sure in the dark just where our men had placed their holes.

“I had never,” Dad added unnecessarily, “been so scared in my life.”

Reading my father’s diary again, I thought of Edwin Dahlberg, the Baptist pacifist from Minnesota whose philosophy had influenced so much of my life. Dad, by contrast, grew up in a Methodist family whose sons had served in U.S. armies as far back as the Revolution.

Surely, it occurred to me, my father had sat in the Methodist church in Oneonta listening to the same sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, on loving your enemy, on turning the other cheek. And yet when war came, Dad thought it was his Christian duty to put on a uniform to defend his country, even if it meant killing his enemy.

Who was being the more faithful Christian: Ed Dahlberg and the thousands of conscientious objectors of believed Jesus called to be peacemakers? Or my father and the millions who believed Jesus was calling them to military service?

Who am I to judge?

But this Veterans Day I’m pretty sure that Jesus blessed both my dad and Dahlberg because each chose to follow his conscience, to do right as God gave them to see the right. They both acted out of faith and with significant courage to risk everything for what they believed. Their daring and valor is to be greatly admired, and I’m proud to have known them both.

This Veterans Day I look forward to greeting both Veterans and conscientious objectors in the same grateful spirit:

Thank you for your service.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Trick or Treat: Is That Jesus Knocking?

How did you dress on Halloween?

Actually, I had lost interest in Halloween until reporters asked Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey how he intended to dress, and he replied, as Savannah Guthrie.

The Governor reminded me how much fun it can be to have a secret identity on Halloween.

Halloween is the day when ghosts, goblins, and other weird creatures break their surly bonds and stream into our neighborhoods, knock on doors and, secure in their anonymity, extort candy.

Halloween is a major holiday in my family. My sister-in-law Colleen, an incredibly talented artist, organizes an annual party in St. Cloud, Fla., where friends and relatives don bizarre disguises and celebrate the joys of silly surreptitiousness. The family award for the costume that looks the most like the person wearing it goes to my brother Paul who dressed as a leprechaun. 

Indeed, Halloween inspires profound creativity in many people. NPR’s Scott Simon tweeted that one of his daughters dressed as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while his other daughter portrayed the NSA agent eavesdropping on Merkel’s cellphone calls. 

Locally, an ingenuous lad dressed in ordinary school clothes but draped a sign on his chest: “Nudist on strike.” At home, daughter Katie wondered about the authenticity of her hippie costume, clearly unimpressed by my unimpeachable authority. I dressed as a hippie every day for five years in the sixties.

My personal award for the best trick-or-treat metaphor goes to niece Devin, mother of three in Williams, Ariz.: “Trick or treating makes me feel like a border collie, yipping at kids to herd them into place.”

And finally, my award for best candid shot captures the horrified expression on my grandson Philip’s face when he is told about the Day of the Dead while eating corn chips. When the picture was posted on Facebook, a brilliant observer I don’t know but would love to meet added the caption, “Dia de Doritos.”

How much fun it is to dress up as super heroes and thumb our noses at cemeteries, ghouls, ghosts, and everything that frightens us. Sometimes there is security in disguise. And sometimes the mystery goes deeper than whatever it is that is hidden by make-up or a mask.

Remember the passage in Luke (24:13-25) in which two travelers encounter the resurrected Jesus on the road and didn't recognize him. And he was not wearing a mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The hands of Jesus,” she said. “The hands of Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloppy Jalopy? Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was that guy?