News from an Errant Boy

News from an Errant Boy

Near the end of a route
he glances back
still carrying a basketful of undelivered scuttlebutt
unwelcomed, unfaked news
few eagerly bought.

images

A carrier, spreader of tales, features, opinion, infectious dis-ease
tucked in Tribune, Courier or Star,
each carefully rolled or banded
made ready to fly
in predawn raids on a neighborhood.

Mounted on a shiny Schwinn red stallion
he slalomed the streets,
loosing a flock of ink-stained sparrows
into boxwoods, across rooftops, and through roses,
most dropping arm’s-length from a door.

If not distracted by shooting star or northern light
he kept score
like a major leaguer
ninety-five percent on a great day,
Santo or Banks zipping it to first.

At collection time, dogs barked, doors cracked, curtains parted, or simply silence,
some away, others hiding, many grumbling,
and a few tipping
if only with a smile
But Mrs. Arnholt had warm cookies and milk.

Later, he couriered along other routes –  
conferences, sermons, lectures, reports,
audits, inventories, evaluations and strategic plans.
some landed on roofs, some sailed through boxwoods or into roses,
a few slid to a place near the door.

At such collection times, dogs barked, doors cracked, curtains parted,
mostly there was silence
many hid, some grumbled, and a few, generous beyond expectation,
opened imaginations and purses like
Mrs. Arnholt offering warm cookies and milk.

Dear boy, still on his fool’s errands,
casting fish wrapped delicacies, tinged with gospel mystery, hither and yon.
Little scoring among fear-filled Kool-Aid drinkers.
Some deliveries will never land – near the heart
Still he peddles toward the finish, basket overflowing.

images-3

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

images-1

Who or what will wash away the tears?  On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying.  It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment.  I had arrived home from travels late the night before.  Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.”  I didn’t know what he meant.  “Regular,” I remember saying.  Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.

Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away.  The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968.  They continue to echo fifty years later.

I wept on that cool sunny morning.  Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever.  I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts.  Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice.  And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism.  I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address.  I had not joined in any marches by then.   Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.

(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on.  I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.)  I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.  A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral. 

images

We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta.  I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass.   At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children.  There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson.  The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by.  More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs.  Men hanging on telephone polls singing.  One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.

“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs.  I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough.  Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then.  My racism.  Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others.  Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives.  There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin.  Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims.  It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed. 

It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity.  No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students.  It was then I had my first African-American friends.  Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends.  I was growing toward understanding, but slowly.  At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege. 

My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed.  This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes.  I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.

Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church.  This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School.  Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation.  The African-American students were about half of those enrolled. 

Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me.  I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion.  Didn’t we share both? I wondered. 

Years and study have followed.  I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed.  Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough.  Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society.  I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.”  What more might I have done?  Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever.  There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.”  Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.

It is true, tears are not enough.  Nor are songs, or sermons, or books.  But they are all essential, I have come to discover.  These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics. 

So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules.  All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness. 

And, yes, then there are the upcoming elections…

 

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 

IMG_4799

In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.