Ferguson Through Colored Glasses

Looking Through Colored Glasses

I’ve struggled with what to say or whether to say anything at all about Ferguson. It seems that most folks have already decided what they think and read the news through their own set of “colored” glasses. And, yes, I put the word in quotes as a reminder of the way that term was used when I was growing up.

The “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs may have come down, but their insidious influence still colors some of the ways we think and live. There are other factors at work, of course, but the people I know who deny the remnants of racism in America all happen to be white.

As a white person, I know that, like most white people, I have far too few friendships with black people and that in spite of my best attempts to clean my glasses, my view of the world is still tinted by the continuing benefit of “white bias” in culture. As a general rule, if you put a white police officer and a young black man on the scales, folks like me will automatically tilt the scales in favor of the white man.

But wiser people than I have spilled truckloads of printers ink wrestling with those issues. As a follower of Christ, I have to ask a deeper question, namely, where is the Kingdom of God in all of this?

Signs of the Kingdom

If Jesus was correct that the Kingdom – the rule of God’s saving, reconciling, redeeming love – which will ultimately be the way in which God’s will gets done in this world is, in fact, already present with us, then where can we find signs of that Kingdom in Ferguson and in our own community today?

The stories that have dominated the news are the pain-soaked, frustration-laden stories that reoccur with sad regularity in our world. To find the Kingdom stories, Jesus said you have to look for small things like mustard seeds growing in the earth or like leaven in a loaf of newly baked bread.

Some of those stories finally made the “The New York Times” today.

On Thanksgiving, there were people who “brought paint brushes and prayers, thermoses of coffee and trays of drop biscuits, hoping to counterbalance the arsons, angry protests and racial strife.” Darcy Edwin was painting an oak tree on the plywood that was covering a destroyed shop when she said, “This is a really small thing. It’s not going to fix any big issue.” Probably not, but you never know what God will do with the visual image of a tree growing in a burned out neighborhood. And then there was this:

A teenage protester whose face had been hidden behind a ski mask lowered his headgear, approached a police commander and gave him a hug.

“Good to see you, man,” the commander, Lt. Jerry Lohr of the St. Louis County Police, said to the teenager,Joshua Williams.

“How’ve you been? How’s your mom doing? I saw her out here earlier.”

Lieutenant Lohr, 41, had a scratch on his left eyelid from a scuffle that broke out during an arrest the previous night and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. He wore no riot gear — just a standard-issue brown uniform — and held not a baton in his hand but his knit cap.

“We going to have a good night?” he asked Mr. Williams.

“Yeah,” Mr. Williams, 19, said.

It’s not a cure for the systemic issues that fed the fires in Ferguson, it’s not a way of avoiding the hard work of racial reconciliation, and it’s not an excuse for hiding behind my own colored glasses, but it’s a small sign of hope that God hasn’t given up on us yet.

Thanks be to God.

Jim

Christmas in No Man’s Land

Jesus Showed Up in No Man’s Land

We went to Ruth Eckerd Hall last week to hear “Celtic Thunder,” five Irish singers who really know how to move a crowd.  It was their Christmas concert, loaded with favorite carols and pop songs.  They did a powerful song I had never heard before.  It told the amazing story of the way peace broke out between the trenches on the first Christmas of the “The Great War,” better known in the United States as WWI.

During the applause that followed, I overheard an older man’s voice behind us say, “Some people don’t realize that it actually happened.”  But it did.

In spite of being denied by military officials on both sides and being hidden by the propaganda machines in both Great Britain and Germany — truth is always the first casualty of war — the story still got out. You can read about it in “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub.

The Christmas truce is being remembered in the UK with a deeply moving television commercial this year.  You really need to see it.  If you watch it here you can also see a background piece that includes readings from the letters and journals of men in the trenches.

Remembering History 

Edmund Burke may have been the first to say, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” While I’m all for expressing appreciation for people who served in the military, severing Veteran’s Day from Armistice Day has helped insulate us from a history we cannot escape.

In many ways, WWI continues to haunt us, not the least of which is that it planted the seeds for WWII.  Another is the way the British and French invented Iraq without paying attention to the ethic and cultural history of the region.  Equally ignoring that history, the folks who led us into our own incursion into Iraq popped the cork on those ancient conflicts, with one of the untended consequences being the horrendous evil that is being unleashed by ISIS.

The centennial of the beginning of WWI is a good time for any of us who care about the future to do some remembering of the past.  Fortunately, The Great War produced a flood of great literature.  A good place to begin is with Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, “The Guns of August.”  I’ve also appreciated Adam Hochschild’s “To End All Wars” and “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell.  You can sample the amazing flood of poetry that flowed from the war at  The Poetry Foundation.

Understanding what happened in the past doesn’t justify evil actions in the present, but when we fail to remember the past we are, in fact, doomed to repeat it.

Jesus In the Trenches

But for people of faith, the story of the Christmas truce goes much deeper than simply retelling a great story. It stands as a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, coming on earth, in the middle of the hellish mess we make of things, as a gift of grace.  It’s a small reminder that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:5)  It’s a vivid witness to the words of Samuel Ryan:

A candle-light is a protest at midnight.
It is a non-conformist.
It says to the darkness,
‘I beg to differ.’

As we light our candles during this Advent season, may the memory of Christmas, 1915 inspire us to be among those who “beg to differ” with the violence, conflict, and hatred of a darkened world.

Grace and peace,

Jim

The Songs Wear Well

Their Songs Wear Well

I was channel surfing when I came across a performance by James Taylor with the Utah Symphony Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  It’s replaying several times this month on www.byutv.org and it’s well worth watching.

Taylor is one year younger than I am.  He’s bald, now, and the wrinkles in his face bear the signs of the wear and tear of his younger life.  But the guy just gets better as he gets older.  His voice is as clear and strong as it ever was, but there is a calm warmth, personal depth, and something like genuine humility that comes through in both his singing and the way he relates to the audience and the other performers on the stage.

One of the best musical events Marsha and I have ever experienced was seeing Taylor and Carole King when they performed together in Tampa.  Wow! What a night!  Taylor told the story of how King gave him her song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” and he’s been singing it ever since.  One of the things that made the concert so powerful was the energy of the long friendship they shared.

Getting Bitter or Getting Better

I had a sudden reminder that I must be getting older in spite of how I feel, when Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stokey were on Morning Joe last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Fifty years?  You’ve got to be kidding!  Mary died several years ago.  Like Taylor, both Yarrow and Stokey are bald.  (At least I still have some hair!) But like Taylor, they and their songs have aged very well. The convictions behind the songs are just as strong today as they were when we were all young.

Watching these aging singers reminded me of a poster that hung on the wall of my college dorm room with the words of Dag Hammarskjold: “If only I may grow: firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer.”

We might as well face it: getting older isn’t for wimps.  The question is whether we get bitter or get better.  We get to choose whether we will continue singing our songs or stop singing along the way.  We can continue to hold onto the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God, coming on earth as it is in heaven, or we can give in to the brokenness of the culture around us.

A Song of Ascents

I’ve been re-reading the spiritual autobiography of E. Stanley Jones.  The title, “A Song of Ascents,” comes from the Psalms 120-134.  They are called the “songs of ascent” because they are the songs pilgrims sang on their way up to the Temple.  Read through them, you will see that they are not all cheerful little ditties to whistle in the dark.  Some are painful songs that cry out for mercy, strength, and peace.  But they are always moving forward; always looking toward the fulfillment of their journey when they reach Mt. Zion and are (in the words of Charles Wesley) “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Jones wrote:“My song is of the pilgrimage I am making from what I was to what God is making of me. I say ‘what God is making of me,’ for the best that I can say about myself is that I’m a Christian-in-the-making. Not yet ‘made,’ but only in the making at eighty-three.”

In worship yesterday I realized that my singing voice isn’t what it used to be, but the songs wear well.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Reflections of a Halloween Curmudgeon

Halloween Curmudgeon

We took Mattie, our one-year-old granddaughter, trick-or-treating last night.  Dressed in her Winnie the Poo costume and riding in her red wagon, she had to be the cutest kid in her neighborhood!  It reminded me of the way I did that with our daughters more than three decades ago.

Call me a curmudgeon, but beyond kids in costumes looking for candy, I have a hard time getting into all the hype that has turned Halloween into the second largest commercial holiday of the year.  I have no interest in “Halloween Horror Nights” and am appalled by the “Hell Houses” that some churches offer.  I’m more concerned about the hellish mess our world is in now than I am about scaring people about a hell to come.

The Morning After 

By contrast, one of the best things to happen in the church during my years in ministry has been the recovery of All Saints’ Day.  The Church co-opted some ancient Celtic traditions and transformed them into a celebration of the victory of the resurrection over all the powers of darkness, evil and death.

Growing up in the hyper-Protestant days before Vatican II, we left anything having to do with saints to the Catholics.  I never entered the Immaculate Conception Church on Main Street, though I passed it nearly every day.  I instinctively knew that whatever was going on in there was at best mistaken and probably wrong. Gratefully, those days are long gone.

My rediscovery of All Saints Day began while I was serving the little church in Crescent City.  Across the years that have passed, I’ve come to understand why John Wesley called it “a day I peculiarly love.”  It’s a “thin space” where earth and heaven meet as we gather around the table of the Lord “with angels, and archangels and all the company of heaven.”  It’s the day on which we are reminded of what it means to believe in “the communion of the saints.”

All Gathered Together 

A South Carolina colleague reminded me of the Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart.”  It’s the story of  a young woman, played by Sally Field, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas in the 1930s.  Early in the movie, her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away her farm — the only thing he left her and her two small children.

The final scene finds the town folks in worship, scattered around the sanctuary with empty space between them. As they pass the bread and cup of communion, the empty spaces are mysteriously filled in with the people — good and bad — who have been a part of the story.  Finally, the elements are passed to the children and their mother and beside her is her husband.  They are all gathered together in the mystery of the communion of saints.

Living in the Middle 

Ogen Nash wrote a poem entitled “The Middle”

When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

That’s where we live — in the middle space between those we love who have gone on before us and those we love who will come after us.  It’s  not a bad place to be.  In fact, it might just be the place where Heaven touches earth.

Grace and peace,

Jim