Thursday, June 27, 2013

Saint of the Month: Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace

Hello, Friends! In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the general interest in things relating to the American Civil War, I'd like to pay a small tribute to one of the finest Americans most people have never heard of, Major General Lew Wallace.
Lewis Wallace.jpg
Recently, while giving a lesson on Biblical prophets, I asked a group of Confirmation students to tell me about famous people they found inspirational. The only name mentioned by these earnest young scholars was that of Kim Kardashian. Based on that answer, I began to suspect that our society was in really deep trouble.
For the next lesson, I produced a series of pictures of famous people whom I have found inspiring. These saints, whether officially canonized or not, have by their lives, works, and examples, furthered the Kingdom of God.
Lew Wallace (1827-1905) would be impressive as a purely secular hero. As you can tell from his photograph above, he served as a major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. In spite of a controversial episode during the Battle of Shiloh, he proved a very able soldier, battling a vastly superior force at the Battle of Monocacy and saving Washington, D.C. from Confederate capture. As an attorney, he distinguished himself in two landmark trials: that of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and as president of the country's first war crimes trial, that of Henry Wirz, the commander of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. As a politician, Wallace governed the New Mexico Territory and worked diligently to end the Lincoln County War--even offering a pardon to Billy the Kid. As a clandestine agent of the federal government, he worked to overthrow French control of Mexico. As a diplomat, he made the first overture to the Ottoman Turks and opened the way for American involvement in the Middle East. Wallace was also a talented sketch artist, a devoted husband, and a popular and gifted author and novelist. Indeed, it is this last achievement to which his lasting fame belongs.
In 1880, while serving as Governor of New Mexico, Wallace published his classic novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Many of us know the movie version with Charlton Heston, famous for its epic chariot race; however, not many people know that this book was the best-selling American book of the last half of the 19th Century, outselling every book in print except the Bible, and remained the best-read American work until the publication of  Gone With the Wind in the 1930's. It has never been out of print in 130 years.

Although not initially an abolitionist, Wallace was won to the Republican cause through his personal relationship with and respect for Abraham Lincoln. After seeing first-hand the brutality of human slavery during the war, Wallace became a firm and committed crusader for freedom and human dignity. It is not hard to imagine that the galley slave episode in Ben Hur may have been inspired by the horrors Wallace witnessed personally.

Wallace's Christian faith developed over time. He was not, initially, an extremely pious man; nevertheless, deep contemplation led him to a sound system of belief. I imagine that his faith evolved through his struggles with the most pivotal event of his illustrious life--the Battle of Shiloh.

On April 6, 1862, Wallace commanded a reserve division near Adamsville, TN. Ambiguous orders from General Ulysses S. Grant at the front caused Wallace to march his division in the wrong direction when ordered forward to relieve the beleaguered troops of General William Sherman. Wallace soon realized his error and counter marched his troops, arriving at the skirmish at sunset. On the following day Wallace's division fought bravely, and greatly assisted in the Union victory. Unfortunately, the civilian outcry over the enormous  amount of casualties from this battle caused the Army command to look for a scapegoat. Wallace was blamed for the carnage, and relieved of command.

The sting of this rebuke haunted Wallace for the remainder of his days. In letters to Grant he continually begged to have the record set straight. Although Grant later admitted to the confusing orders at Shiloh, his published autobiography still blamed Wallace.

There is much conjecture that the wound Shiloh did to Wallace's reputation is at the core of his great opus, Ben Hur. The title character and his family suffer persecution from an accidental injury done to an influential man (inspired by Grant, perhaps?). Ben Hur first seeks revenge against this antagonist, but is later moved to forgiveness by the example of Jesus Christ. In the crucifixion chapter which concludes the novel Wallace imagines the thoughts of his hero at the foot of the cross:

" men repeat a question to grasp and fix the meaning, he asked gazing at the figure on the hill fainting under its crown, Who the Resurrection? and who the Life? 'I AM,' the figure seemed to say--and say it for him; for instantly he was sensible of a peace such as he had never known--the peace which is the end of doubt and mystery, and the beginning of faith and love and clear understanding."

Wallace's novel was scrupulously researched for historic detail. It's publication gave the Christians of 19th Century America two stirring gifts: first, an imaginative look at the historical Jesus, and, second, a strong doctrinal theme of justification by faith in God's grace alone and the power which flows from forgiveness. The work would be called the most influential Christian book of the 19th Century, making Wallace one of the century's most influential Christians.

For me, the lesson of Lew Wallace's life is that we do not need our enemies to be contrite in order to forgive them--and forgive them we must because no peace can be found otherwise. Similarly, no amount of personal achievement can free us and heal us like the power of Christ's blood. Finally, Wallace's personal faith in the face of disgrace and misfortune inspires me to remember that some of our most creative moments are born out of our deepest pain.

Thank you for allowing me to share this obscure saint's story with you. Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Do You Believe in Demons? (Reflections on Pentecost 5)

So where are you on the subject of Evil Spirits? This Sunday's gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary is a spooky tale from Luke's gospel (Luke 8:26-39) better suited to Halloween than the breezy days of summer. It concerns a wild man with superhuman strength who runs around naked in a graveyard and is possessed by a "legion" of demons.

In Jesus' day, those who suffered with mental illness were considered to be possessed by demons. I have to confess that I have always been--as I suspect you are too--uneasy around the mentally unhinged. The loss of one's faculties is, after all, a pretty scary thing. Maybe seeing craziness in others makes me fear it in myself. When I was a chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania I was often called to enter the locked psychiatric ward, and I did so with a sense of dread as if I were entering a House of Horrors. It took me a long time to see the mentally afflicted as God's children. Today I'm happy to report that I can enter the secured dementia ward at the Veteran's Home where I volunteer without hesitation. But it took me a while to get to this point.

(Maybe being a parish pastor for so many years helped me get used to craziness. I don't have enough space here  to tell you about all of the whack-o characters who have found their way to my church door over the years, but--believe me..!--the word "eccentric" doesn't even begin to apply!)

But back to my question: Do you believe in demons? Are there any evil spirits in your life? Some describe those addicted to alcohol and drugs as being possessed by a demon. There are also demons of fear and anger. I've heard that those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feel as if something unnatural has invaded their minds and forced them to behave in ways they've never intended. Is an eating disorder a demon? Such a disorder is a destructive urge which robs a person of self control.

And then there are the demons of our own insecurities and wounded egos. Even when life seems to be going well, a sinful desire to turn from gratitude to God and curve in on ourselves makes us ruin the blessings we've been given.

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But on to the Lectionary. Here are a couple of thoughts I had while reading this gospel story:

First, the people in the country of the Gerasenes try to restrain this poor demonically possessed fellow with chains and shackles--which seems pretty cruel if you ask me. Still, it suggests to me how hard we try to subdue the destructive urges of our loved ones to no avail. The demoniac breaks the chains (v. 29). No one can be healed of their demons by another person.

It seems that the very nature of these demons is self-destruction. They drive the man into the tombs, the place of death. Everything they do defies life and wholeness. They find the forgiving and loving presence of Jesus to be a "torment," (v. 28) preferring the misery they know to the wholeness which they do not know. Strangely, the demons want to be known. They beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss (v.31) and desire suicide rather than obscurity (v. 33). Sometime I think that our fame -obsessed culture--in which young people tout their most embarrassing moments on facebook--is a sort of demon.

No good deed goes unpunished. The Gerasenes are afraid when they see the demoniac healed (v.37). Maybe they felt better having a poor soul upon whom they could look down. The man's new-found wholeness reflects their own stagnation, their own demon of complacency. Similarly, the demon of their greed values the monetary worth of the herd of swine more than the wellness of their brother. Don't we find this demon running loose in our American culture in which a balanced federal budget is prized more highly than the health of the poor or the education of the young? The Gerasenes want nothing to do with this man, Jesus. The one who casts out the demons is himself cast out (v. 37). I'm reminded of saying by a Baptist preacher from North Philly, Bill Moore: "If the Devil ain't botherin' you, you ain't botherin' the Devil!"

Finally, the former demoniac is filled with a missionary zeal and begs to be one of Jesus' followers. Jesus, however, advises a more cautious path. It's one thing to be newly cleansed and want to make a spectacular change in our life's direction. But Jesus tells him to stay at home and let the gift of healing sink in. "Return to your home," he says, "and declare how much God has done for you."

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I'll be honest. My demons attack me from time to time. I get depressed, angry, and anxious. My ego afflicts me at the worst times. What can I do? I try to take Martin Luther's advice and "fart at the Devil." That is, I try not to take myself so seriously. I look for the comedy and I remember that it is God who made me, and God who makes me whole. It's not about me.

Thanks for reading, friends. May God protect you from the demons, and may you live in light and the joy of the Lord!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Top 10 Insights From This Week's Gospel (Reflections on Pentecost 3)

You know what bugs me? The fact that the gospel stories in the post-Pentecost season in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary are so darn good! Why does this distress me, you ask? Because the post-Pentecost season comes during the summer months when so many people choose to skip church. Hey! I have to tell you: If you're soaking up the sun at the Jersey shore this Sunday morning, you're missing out on a really good read from sacred scripture.

Fortunately for you, my friend, your Old Religious Guy--in an homage to David Letterman--will now present you with the Top 10 insights from this Sunday's lesson.

The gospel reading assigned for Pentecost 3 is from Luke 7: 11-17 and tells the story of how Jesus raises a widow's only son from the dead to the astonishment of the people of a town called Nain. Here are my Top 10 insights on this miraculous tale:

NUMBER ONE: No one should ever have to bury their own child. The tragic irony of parenthood is that we have complete responsibility for a life over which we ultimately have no control. When our children are born we meet both supreme joy and supreme terror. We cannot imagine the pain of losing such a precious gift. And if our child dies, there is no consolation. We may learn to function, but we are never the same again.

In the world of this Bible story, the death of this woman's only son is even more catastrophic. As a widow with no son to protect her, she will be reduced to a life of dependency on other family member or a life of begging. She will be considered abandoned by God.

NUMBER TWO: Jesus touches the bier of the dead man. Ick! Who wants to touch dead things? Think about it. Do you like to go to funerals? Are you comfortable with other people's pain and grief? Are you willing to enter into emotionally devastating places with someone else? Or do you choose to avoid the subject? Can you deal with questions of mortality? Can you go into a hospital room and face a cancer patient whose body is wasted away, whose hair has been sacrificed to chemo therapy, who is impaled with IV needles, whose arms are purple with bruises? Can you enter a nursing home and tolerate the smell of urine and feces and imminent death?

Jesus can.

NUMBER THREE: Jesus raises the young man from the dead. This is a troublesome miracle for folks in the post-modern world. We might have a tendency to try and explain it away. A neurologist at the hospital where I serve as on-call clergy keeps telling me that "dead" may not be as dead as we think. That is, our scientific methods for determining brain death may not be accurate, and some patients might actually have the possibility of revival after appearing to have demised. But if we apply this interpretation to the gospel story, we rob it of its miraculous character.

Unfortunately, purely miraculous thinking can lead us down a troubling path, too. I was once called to the above-mentioned hospital to minister to an African-Caribbean family who had just lost a twenty-year-old son to a long-time illness. Through her sobs the boy's mother asked me if I could raise her son back to life. I had to tell her, "No."

What do we do with a story like this one in Luke's gospel? I think it's best just to take it at face value: In this particular incident, a miracle occurred. And sometimes they do. Yesterday, a woman was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building in Philadelphia after having been buried in debris for thirteen hours. This was a miracle. Other people died under the same collapsing roof. This was tragedy. It's best for us not to impose a meaning on any of it. Doing so only leads to guilt or a lack of faith.

NUMBER FOUR: The entire community gave glory to God. A cynic might say that the people of Nain rejoice when this boy is raised to life because they know they're off the hook for taking care of the boy's mother. Still, I'm convinced that there are other issues at play here. First, the people rejoice that there is a prophet in the land (verse 16), and that God has not abandoned them. No matter how lost we get in our own misery, God always has a word of hope for us should we be willing to hear it and believe it. Second, these folks know how to rejoice with each other. There is a complete lack of selfishness in this community. If one person is blessed, they are all blessed together. How very unlike our competitive culture!

Perhaps we could take a lesson from these first century folks and learn how to mourn and rejoice together as a people. How would it feel to be part of a community willing to enter into grief without fear and enter into joy without selfishness?  Imagine a screaming baby in church, and the whole congregation smiling because a family has been blessed with a child (however disruptive!).

NUMBERS FIVE through TEN: There are no numbers five through ten. I just thought "Top 10" sounded better than "Top Four."

Thanks for visiting, my friends. May you have a lovely summer, and may God's peace be with you!