All posts by Anthony

Like a Goldfish

There are perhaps a double handful of podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis. This week, I caught wind of John Biewen’s Scene on Radio’s series “Seeing White,” from the  Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. I binge-listened (is that a thing?) to the first several episodes over the weekend.

You can find the podcast here: http://podcast.cdsporch.org/

Typically, when white people start talking about race in the U.S., we emphasize the racperspective of racial minorities. This strategy is useful, because the experiences of the African-American, Latino, and Asian communities in the U.S. have been vastly downplayed, even outright overlooked, in our teaching of history.

What’s much harder for us to do, as the controversy over Confederate monuments has shown us, is to look directly at the racial history of whiteness. Why do we think of ourselves as “white?” When did we start using that term? (Hint: it wasn’t that long ago). What are the implications of this way of thinking about ourselves? And what does it mean for the people of color who are fellow citizens, neighbors, co-workers, and congregants along with us? The answers to these questions will equip us to love our neighbor.

This isn’t attempt to cause divisions, or to pick at scabs. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that, for the most part, we give no more thought to the culture of whiteness in America than the goldfish swimming in his bowl, unaware of the water he breathes. Culture is like that for those living inside it. Invisible. Transparent.

What I’m suggesting is that we squint a bit together. Really focus and see what we can learn about the culture that surrounds us. If you want to know more about the history and implications of whiteness in America, I’d recommend this podcast. I warn you: it’s hard. Unflinching. Unwhitewashed, if you will. Some of it may make you angry. Some of it may cause you to weep. Listen anyway. It will be worth it.

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The Enduring Passion

 

“The little bit you and me might change the world,” Malloy smiled, “it wouldn’t show up until a hundred years after we were dead. We’d never see it.”
“But it’d be there.”

~James Jones, From Here to Eternity

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.

~ The Book of Judges 2:10

Our ancestors gazed into the heavens and saw the vast array of stars. With no streetlights, no cars, and only the light of their cook fires, they could look deep into the cosmos and see beauty that few humans today will ever behold. By those stars they observed the passage of months, and years, and lifetimes. Later, they would learn to sail ships and travel the seas, guided by the position of the stars that they had traced in the sky over millennia.

They worshiped what they did not know, building what Paul would later call “altars to an unknown god.” Not knowing their Creator, they revered instead what He had created, dragging massive stones more than a hundred miles to this high plain they’d selected. From start to finish, the construction took them over a thousand years.

Think of it – with an average life expectancy of only 30-40 years, how many generations did it take to move these stones? They left no written records, had nothing but spoken words to pass to their children. How could they sustain such an effort to completion? How did they pass along this passion for worship from one generation to the next? And the next? And the next?

On a cold and rainy day last July, I stood on this high plain and contemplated their monument to the stars. How many nights did they sleep in the shadow of these stones?  How many mornings did they awaken to this grey fog, chilled to the bone, with the slippery rain soaking their furs? And on how many days, over a thousand years, did they take up their ropes and their tools, and place their hands against the cold stone once again?

How quickly we abandon what we once desired to create. How soon we grow bored with one form of entertainment and are ready to move on to the next. We have convinced ourselves that anything worth having can be achieved quickly, and that our problems can be resolved within the boundaries of a 30 minute sitcom, such that now we can barely focus our attention on an idea for a single generation, let alone ten. Or twenty. Or thirty. We struggle to pray for but five minutes, and our mind begins to wander to the shopping list and the car repairs and the row we had with our wife last night.

Could we sustain one singular passion for our lives, and pass it on to our children, and they to theirs? Could we devote ourselves to worship for a thousand years? Can we learn again to be pilgrims, spending our lives on the journey to the Father’s house, learning to love the Way, even as we long for Home?

Under a Spell

I ran across the following excerpt from a 1943 essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled After Ten Years, and I realized that it is as timely, just as important, today as it was more than 70 years ago. Bonhoeffer was a young German pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the resistance.The book in which this essay is published, Essays and Letters From Prison, serves as a sort of last will and testament.

In recent days we’ve seen a resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. We are appalled, and rightly so. But in a way, I’m grateful that they’ve revealed themselves, because once the hood comes off, once the mask is lowered, the true face of evil is exposed and we can push back against it. But foolishness is an altogether different matter, and requires a different kind of caution as Bonhoeffer notes below:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. You can protest against evil, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defense against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than evil. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.

To deal adequately with folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are men of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain circumstances where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the  operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed. Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an independent judgement, and they give up trying–more or less
unconsciously–to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.

But it is just at this point that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state of affairs we can well understand why it is no use trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why this question is also so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words, the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God. But there is a grain of consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances. What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgement and their shrewdness of mind.

The Devoted Life

I was honored this evening to spend some time in the presence of Jim Downing, Navy Veteran, fellow Missourian, and Pearl Harbor survivor. Jim joined the Navy at the Hannibal recruiting station in 1932. He would spend the next 10 years on the USS West Virginia.

At 103 years old, Jim is still speaking and traveling around the country.  His experience of December 7th, 1941 has img_1534been captured by LIFE VR in the room-scale virtual reality experience Remembering Pearl Harbor. This week he was in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast, which led to our meeting tonight at a local church where he was speaking. Jim is also an early member of the Navigators, a Christian discipling ministry that helps people grow in Christ as they navigate life. In the 1930’s, Dawson Trotman began teaching high school students and local Sunday Schools in California. Soon, he expanded that ministry to Navy sailors in the area. Before long he was working with Les Spencer, a sailor aboard the USS West Virginia, where Jim also served. Dawson Trotman is often referred to as Navigator #1. Jim is Navigator #6.

After his talk tonight, Jim took questions from the group, which consisted mostly of high school and college students, and Naval Academy midshipmen. One young lady asked a particularly good question, and Jim gave an answer that worth sharing. She asked, “Many people who are much younger than you are retired or talking about retiring. At 103 years old, what keeps you going?”

Jim’s answer struck me because, at its core, it had nothing to do with stamina or health or the typical things you might think a centenarian would talk about. Instead, he talked about a sense of calling, and how it drives him, even now, to continue. And he described four responsibilities that we all have regarding our gifts, responsibilities that he still takes seriously.

  1. Discover your gifts. Take the time to consider what God has made you passionate about, and how he’s equipped you uniquely.
  2. Dedicate your gifts. Since God has given you unique talents, resolve now to dedicate them to his service. Make a plan to use them for his glory.
  3. Develop your gifts. Work hard at becoming the best you can be. This is where determining what you’re passionate about really pays off; a person who has found their calling will find it easy to put in the effort that it takes to develop their talents.
  4. Deploy your gifts. Get out there and use what you have. Hold nothing back.

Jim continues to live out this philosophy, even the age of 103. He’s an inspiration, and it was a delight to spend even a little time listening to and learning from a man who has been living out his faith for so long.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Jim’s story, he’s recently written a book about his experiences, The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War. He is also the author of Living Legacy: Reflections on Dawson Trotman and Lorne Sanny, and Meditation, a practical guide to the Christian life. 

The Great Challenge of the Hour

I have something to ask of you today. It’s important. Today, we mustn’t stop at quotes. Please don’t let today be about memes. Don’t let it be about clipping only the tamest, acceptable sections from some of the 20th century’s most powerful, challenging, and dangerous (to some) speeches and sermons. This is not the day to allow social media to serve up only what is comfortable, only what is agreeable, only those quotes at which we can nod and smilingly approve.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And we have serious work to do.

Let’s make it a day of change.

The federal holiday is designed to be a day of service. That’s great. We should go out into our communities, feed people, help people, clean things up. But we cannot stop there. Service cannot, must not, be limited to one day a year. By all means, let’s serve today, and then let’s make a commitment to find a place in service throughout the year.

Today, in 2017, that persistent and urgent question – What are you doing for others? – continues to tug at the hem of our garment. Our communities cry out for care. Love for, and service to, our neighbor is still required of us. There are children who need extra tutoring, immigrants who are struggling to learn English, student athletes to coach, elderly neighbors who would delight in a visit or a phone call or a loaf of bread. We are capable of these things. Dr. King longed to see us, all of us together, seeking after the Kingdom of God through acts of service and kindness.

If you’re not sure where to begin, start here. The need is great; there are more opportunities to serve in your community than you could imagine.

Then, let’s make it a day of learning.

Dedicate some time today to read some of Dr. King’s more challenging works, and let’s not placate ourselves with the comfortable excerpts from speeches that are served up for us on social media. Take the harder path, and challenge yourself with his sterner legacy. Dr. King faced down the racist, violent culture that was woven into the fabric of our nation from the beginning. He challenged the rest of us to face it, too. And he, along with Civil Rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis, put their bodies and lives in harm’s way to make their message heard. Not unafraid, but certainly undaunted. So today, read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, read his Letter to American Christians, or get yourself a copy of Why We Can’t Wait. These are not easy to read – for those of us in the majority, they are humbling texts that challenge our self-assessment, both as individuals and as a nation. They should cause us to grapple with the hard questions. Who are we called to be as a nation? What do we want the legacy of our time to be? What must we do to make this a nation of justice for all? Today of all days, let’s ask the questions.

Finally, let’s make it a day of self-examination.

We live in a world that we know is not as it ought to be. Our nation has made so much progress in racial justice over the last 50 years, but we know that we have not yet arrived. Some days it seems like we move backwards. Some days it seems like Justice is sound asleep. It takes courage to admit that the world we’ve shaped with our actions is not the way it should be, and a hard-eyed resolve  and tearful repentance to view it as it truly is – a world still afflicted by cruelty, by hatred, and by injustice.

So it’s fitting that we spend some time in personal self-reflection today. Who do I wish to be in the world? How can I embody the kind of mercy, kindness, justice, and love that Jesus calls me to, in a world that outright rejects these attributes, even believes them to be naive and foolish? Let’s gather together as families, as churches, and communities to consider what God is calling us to, and who he’s calling us to be for his Kingdom.

I’ll close with this thought: we live in a world that cries out for just and thoughtful, reasoned leadership. It’s especially fitting that we consider each his or her own place in leadership and service as, this week, our nation engages in a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations, delivered in St. Louis in April, 1957. It seems appropriate for the day.

This is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.

Oh, God give us leaders.
A time like this demands great leaders.
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill;
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy;
Leaders who possess opinions and will;
Leaders who will not lie;
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.

And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice.

God grant that ministers,
and lay leaders,
and civic leaders,
and businessmen,
and professional people all over the nation
will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge of the hour.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Best Wishes for a Happy New Year

In the turning over of the calendar every year, we strive to leave behind the strife, the grief, and the hardship of the year that has come before, and to experience both physical and spiritual renewal. May it be so for you, for your families, and your communities in 2017.  Happy New Year!

Ring Out, Wild Bells

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

This poem is in the public domain.

Reflections at the Manger

The virgin birth has never been a major stumbling block in my struggle with Christianity; it’s far less mind-boggling than the Power of all Creation stooping so low as to become one of us.

Madeline L’Engle, A Stone for a Pillow

Just ‘cause something’s important doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small.

Frank the Pug, Men in Black

It is Christmas night, and all is dark and quiet. The presents have all been opened, the meal devoured, and bits of wrapping paper and bows are still strewn across the carpet. The shepherds, who have just rushed in from their fields on the other side of the living room in search of the One that the angels foretold, have now made their way to the crèche to find the Christ Child there in his mother’s arms. The three sages are not far behind, and though greatly wearied by their journey, are currently scheduled to arrive by Epiphany. The tiny porcelain manger is faintly illuminated by the light of the Christmas tree, guarded by angels, attended by a few sheep and a solitary heifer.  All is calm. All is bright.

But within the confines of this miniature scene we must understand that there is far more happening than the finite human mind can comprehend.  This manger is a universe in a bottle, a tiny feeding trough with a greater capacity than we can imagine, for this night it contains worlds; tonight the very Creator, the one who set the stars in their places, dozes peacefully there, bundled up in cloths and nestled into straw.

Christmas is a mystery, beloved, and do not believe anyone who tells you that it is not, who would have you believe that it is merely a humdrum holiday about the importance of family, or charity, or generosity, or presents. No, it is a great mystery, and a two-fold one that announces itself from this manger of wood and straw, first en sotto voce that the world is about to change, then thundering from the heavens as the dark cold midnight is shattered apart by ten thousand blinding angelic diamonds, announcing God’s great love for mankind as shepherds cower in the dirt. The first mystery which presents itself to us is this – that a God of infinite worth, of complete perfection and total sovereignty would willingly debase himself and come into the world through the violent, pain-filled portal of human birth. This is not the Christmas story of greeting cards, or even of Christmas carols. It contains no snow-covered pines, no sheep safely grazing, no holly, nor ivy, nor silent nights, but a Savior who comes into the world screaming, covered in blood and placenta, an infinite God shoved into seven and half pound of infant flesh. Messiah appears, yes, but in the most vulnerable form imaginable, who must suckle at his mother’s breast, or die.

And it is a dark and violent world into which this Prince of Peace descends. He is a reconciler under the threat of political assassination before he is even born, his parents on the brink of becoming political refugees under the rule of a paranoid madman. In his humanity, he will touch every kind of physical and moral filth imaginable, beginning here, in a place where animals are kept. Later, he will willingly reach out and place his hands upon a leper and make him whole again, and before this story ends, he will take upon himself the sin of the entire world and call it his own – yes, even those acts so filthy as to be indescribable. He will bear it all, every last repugnant piece of it, because he chooses to, and in the moment of his death, as he reaches out to his Father for comfort, he will find . . . nothing. Only stillness and darkness, grief and pain.

So when I say that the first mystery is that he debased himself, I mean simply that he was under no obligation to expose his holy, pristine Being to the stain of sin that covers this world, let alone take responsibility for it and own it, as if he had somehow committed these sins himself.  Even so, the King of Glory lies as helpless babe tonight, and he does so not because some ancient contract forced his hand, but freely, out of the abundance of his love. The God who walked with Adam in the Garden had a will to pursue mankind as friends, to walk alongside us once again. This not being an end that we ourselves could accomplish, it is the Son who takes on the responsibility to step into our space, to become, not God distant from us, but God With Us. This is the first mystery.

The second mystery, then, is this – that the infinite could ever pour Itself into the mold of the finite, that the Godhead could ever put on flesh, the Maker now contained within that which he made. We marvel that all of the Trinity’s Second Person could find his greatest expression in the form of an infant, but how could it be otherwise? For to show how full was his love for us, he had to express that love by becoming fully human, by completely taking on our burden, and fully living as one of us. God’s love for you was so great, so infinitely vast, that he could only show you its measure by sending his Son, his beloved, to walk side by side with you and experience life as you experience it. Volumes have already been written by Very Learned Men on the subject of incarnation; they have probed it deeply from their pastoral studies and monasteries and seminary libraries, but they cannot understand the Word made flesh in any sense completely, any better than you or I can, for while its secret is contained in this tiny manger before us, our minds cannot expand enough to hold it. Seminarians fall to their knees in worship, same as you, when they encounter the Verbum caro factum, for it is not a philosophy to be unpacked by the mind, but a mystery for our hearts to hold. Mary marvels at it as she reclines upon the straw to nurse, for she and Joseph alone know the secret. Let all mortal flesh keep silent, indeed, and the six-winged seraph cover their faces and cry hallelujah.

And with this second mystery, he asks us to accept a third, greater still. He asks us to believe that our own hearts, sinful, wretched, unkind, could become the home for his immense Spirit, to once again believe that infinite can be poured into finite, but now the flesh that is filled is our own, God becoming one with his people and dwelling among them for all eternity. The story has been leading us this way since the very beginning, beloved, from that first walk in the Garden together and then the Shattering, this Creator has been seeking a holy reunion. He reached out first to a man called Abram, and through covenant called that man and all his descendants his own. Then he spoke through fire and cloud and smoke, thundering from the mountaintop, living amongst his people but separated by a thick temple curtain, teaching through Moses, admonishing through a series of prophets. The days of intimate garden walks, in the evenings when the dew came up and ground was cool, were so far away. But still he longed to be reunited with his people, and with every mouth that he opened to speak on his behalf he invited those he loved to return to him.

It is here, on this night, in the most ordinary of places, in the most humble of circumstances, that the King of Kings is birthed into the world, to walk among his people again and to usher in the kingdom of God. The story begins in a garden, and it certainly does not end here in this manger. Tonight God has taken a step nearer to mankind, pursuing those he loves, to walk in intimacy with them again. This manger is the fulfillment of all of the covenants, all of the prophesies, the answer to an ancient promise made to a heart-broken Eve in a garden long before. It is a cosmic response to a dilemma as old as mankind. But tonight, beloved, all that you need know is that here, amongst the cattle, the Ancient of Days is snuggled into his mother’s arms, warm against her body and preparing for his role in the reconciliation of God and Man. The King has come. Prepare him room.