Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What the Freak Happened to Thanksgiving?!

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he that made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise.
   Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
   his steadfast love endures for ever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalm 100)

Okay. Every once in a while your Old Religious Guy has to let off steam and act like the grumpy codger I'm slowly becoming. Please excuse my rant, but would someone please tell me just what in the Name of the Most High God has happened to the American Holiday of Thanksgiving??!!

I mean, when I was a kid I'd see decoration of Pilgrims and Native Americans (we called them “Indians” back then, but that's really neither accurate nor respectful) and turkeys. We'd remember just why it was we were gathering and praying on the fourth Thursday of November each year. Now, when I go into a retail establishment I'm greeted by gaudy Halloween crap in September followed immediately by gaudy Christmas crap in October. It's not enough that the culture seems to have lost awareness of the beautiful season of Advent—we've even lost the secular national holiday of Thanksgiving.
Remember folks: That first Thanksgiving in 1621 must have been an emotional, bitter-sweet affair. Half of those well-meaning religious folks had died during the previous year. The remainder were just thankful to be alive. Abe Lincoln declared a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the blood-letting of the American Civil War. Lincoln figured if ever there was a time for God to smite the American people, it would be during this time of wholesale slaughter. He feared both famine and foreign invasion would result from the chaos. Neither occurred. Later, a date was set for the holiday by Franklin Roosevelt during the height of the Great Depression.

Our ancestors, it seems, had a knack for acts of defiant faith—for turning the darkness of tragedy into the light of obedient worship. And God has continued to sustain us. How disrespectful it seems to me that we have substituted a holy day of gratitude with a new, heathen festival worshiping the Baal of covetousness and greed—the so-called “Black Friday.”

Can I just say that I despise the hoopla around this National Day of Shopping Orgy to the depth of my soul? It maddens me to think that retailers like Walmart and Old Navy are calling their employees away from family reunions to prepare for this Feast of Excess.

Let me make an analogy. A distinguished colleague of mine, Pastor Jesse Brown, has tried in vain to fight Philadelphia's attempt to license and promote casino gambling within the city limits. Pastor Jesse's rationale is simple: if casinos are built in poor neighborhoods, poor people will gamble. This will cause greater financial hardship for those who are already suffering.

Using the same logic, I believe that if America promotes a national day of spending frenzy—especially one fueled by so-called “bargains” and the notion that it is both a communal activity and a great adventure—then poor people will feel compelled to participate. This will lead to greater debt burdens on those who are already unfairly encumbered.

Here's my thought: We can't very well order the retailers to close shop for two full days. They'd just create a “Black Saturday” or a “Black Sunday” anyway. But I think we should try to reattach meaning to Thanksgiving. I see a great deal of hope in the way the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday holiday has been transformed into the King Day of Service. Rather than just hanging out and getting a day off of work or school, young people have started celebrating Dr. King's legacy by doing something positive for their communities.

Why don't we try to attach a similar activity to Thanksgiving? Instead of just using the day to eat ourselves into a stupor, let's use the entire week to actively express gratitude. Let's start the tradition of thanking teachers, parents, community leaders, first responders, military or whomever for their service. Let's suggest that every American perform one tangible act—be it cooking a meal, doing a favor, making a donation, or just writing a note of thanks—for an individual, group, or institution for which they feel gratitude. Let's make this a doing holiday and uplift Thanksgiving in the spirit in which the observance was first created.

Martin Luther wrote:

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me from all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all. For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

And I am most grateful to YOU, my friend, for taking the time to read this. May you have a blessed Day of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Christ the King

Kings. We don't seem to have much use for them on this side of the Atlantic. But, incurable anglophile that I am, I have to confess a certain fondness for British royalty. I admit it. I just eat that jazz up. I love to watch those royal weddings. I dig the high church processions and clerical vestments. I'm enthralled by the parades with the Household Cavalry with their red tunics and silver helmets and black horses. All that ritual and pageantry and protocol is just so cool. I mean, I'm really glad they have royal people over there! I can't help it—I'm into that stuff. It's just so regal.

Shortly after Will and Kate got married, one of my Confirmation students asked me just what is it that makes a royal person royal. I had to admit that this was a pretty interesting question. I hadn't thought about it, but I guess I'd have to conclude that royalty comes from having some ancient ancestor who was the biggest bad-ass around—the guy who could whoop everyone else into submission and declare that he was in charge. I mean, how else could we account for it?

But today, royalty has different requirements. The king or queen is the representation of the people. If your picture is going to be on the folding money of a nation, you are required to have a bit more going for you than just your pedigree. The job—which I think is ironically both public and lonely—calls for a certain amount of dignity, uprightness, and love for the people.

The Christian festival of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, originated with Pope Pius XI in 1925. Following hard upon the devastation of the First World War, this wise spiritual leader recognized what earthly kings, kaisers, and czars had done to civilization and urged a return to obedience to the one true king who ruled through peace, love, and forgiveness.

The gospel lesson for this Sunday (Luke 23:33-43) does not depict a monarch ruling through force of arms. Indeed, the image of this gospel, the very image upon which Christians focus when we worship, is that of a man being tortured to death out of love for people he has never met. In the cross of Jesus we see his great dignity—his faith in God's purpose. We see his uprightness as he forgives those who mock him. And, most vital and sacred of all, we see his great love and compassion for the people as he comforts the suffering man dying beside him. Try as hard as the earthly powers could, they could not kill the divine love which reigned within Jesus.

For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”(1 Corinthians 1:25)

I also really like this phrase from Shakespeare's Richard II:

Not all the waters in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord...”

Pontius Pilate's ironic inscription over the cross of Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews” may have been intended as a sneering jab at the dignity of a pathetic people who dared to think one of their own could challenge the might of Imperial Rome. “Here's your king,” the sign says, “He's a naked, broken, bleeding, abandoned, betrayed, helpless wretch dying before your eyes.”

Yes, Pilate. Here is my King.

Like a true king showing compassion for his subjects, my monarch has come down from his palace to walk through the rubble of my life. He's joined me in my confusion and my doubt and my neediness. He's assured me of his presence, and he's suffered with me. And, unlike earthly monarchs who inspect the scenes of disaster and then retreat to the comfort of their palaces, this king is always with me.

In his cross we see not only his dignity, uprightness and love, but we also see the power of Christ. When I look at his bleeding, impaled form, I see the depth of human sin—mine included. But I also see the power of sacrificial love. And not all the parades, banners, horses, soldiers, and trumpet blasts for all the monarchs who've ever reigned can bring my heart to repentance like the sight of my King on the cross.

I owe it to him to be obedient. As a pious Jew is constantly in dialogue with the Law, so I wish to be in constant dialogue with Christ. For Christ the King is not an abstraction. He is love made real

Thanks for reading, my dears. Drop me a line if you wish.

* * *

Hey! October 31st 2017 will be here before we know it. Let's celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in a really BIG way. I'm asking Pope Francis to let Lutherans and Catholics share Holy Communion once again. Do you think I'm crazy? Of course I am, but what the heck..?You won't get if you don't ask. Sign my crazy petition here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Saint of the Month: Marlene Miller

I watched her die. My wife and I looked through the glass wall of the ICU bay as she coded. What seemed like an army of medical personnel charged in with a crash cart and surrounded the bed of this tiny, frail, broken woman.

Heroically, an attending physician stormed through the crowd of nurses and techs, parting them like Moses parted the sea. His arms waiving above his head signaled the command: Stop. No more. Let her go.

For the first time in weeks I saw Marlene open her eyes. Her back arched slightly for an instant, and then she sank back onto the bed, eyes closed forever.

Marlene Miller is not a saint whose name will be found on any hagiology, but she was a special saint and example to the people of Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia. A tiny seven-year-old girl in 1960, disproportionately small even for her age, she watched as a new church was being built in her neighborhood. Her parents were not religiously observant, but the little girl took it into her head that she wanted to go to Sunday School. People were instantly attracted to her because she was so very small and yet seemed so very delighted by this holy place. As she grew up, she sought ways to give expression to her faith. She sang in the church choir and taught in the Sunday School. One of her former students remembered her as the nicest teacher he'd ever had.

Marlene felt called, even as a teenager, to help the disadvantaged. She volunteered at the Woodhaven Center, a home for the developmentally disabled. There she met another volunteer, Tom. They fell in love and were married. They made an amusing couple. He was over six feet in height and she did not even clear five. Nevertheless, she always called him her “soul mate.”

As Marlene aged she managed to bring a unique child-like joy and enthusiasm to all of her volunteer work. I always felt there was just a little more daylight in the room when she was around. It was impossible not to adore her.

But what is remarkable about her is the circumstance under which she lived out her calling. Marlene was born with a rare condition called Turner's Syndrome. Girls with this syndrome have only one x chromosome. Characteristically, they remain small and infertile and are prone to very short life spans. Turner's girls almost always suffer heart defects and kidney abnormalities (Marlene was born with only one kidney). She was frequently ill and it was supposed she would never live to graduate from high school. Yet Marlene survived, even though surviving meant spending her first wedding anniversary in a hospital bed following open heart surgery.

A valve-replacement surgery saved her life, but the length of time she spent intubated caused permanent damage to her throat. Marlene lost her singing voice and could only speak with difficulty. She developed a throaty, wheezy whisper which was difficult for her young Sunday School students to understand.

Shortly after I was called to Faith Lutheran, Marlene suffered a major stroke. She lost a portion of her eyesight and her short-term memory was seriously compromised. When I visited her in the hospital her first question to me was about the attendance at the church's Lenten soup suppers. By Holy Week she had been released and dutifully reported to church for the annual Holy Saturday Easter Egg Hunt. It was a gorgeous spring day, and Marlene bounded into the narthex with ebullient delight. “What a beautiful day for an Easter Egg Hunt!' she exclaimed. After greeting me and some parents, she announced that she would go check on the children. She turned and, with her vision impaired, marched directly into the wall. The accident might have been hysterically funny if it weren't so profoundly tragic.

Marlene's health was not her only burden. Her husband Tom, a social worker, grew increasingly depressed in his occupation. Cigarette smoking and endless hours on his feet resulted in circulatory damage, eventually leading to an amputation. His depression deepened. His use of pain-killers increased, and the couple suffered severe financial strain. Through all of this, Marlene maintained an intrepid cheerfulness. I would often visit her at home to bring her communion, and she'd tell me about her day and ask me about the goings on at the church while her three pampered rescue cats lounged at her feet.

In her early fifties Marlene developed an aphasia of her epiglottis. She could not eat without aspirating food and was constantly hospitalized with pneumonia. Because surgery to close her epiglottis would render her permanently unable to speak, she elected to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach. Nevertheless, she constantly requested the Holy Eucharist. This terrified me because, as a pastor, I have no right to refuse the sacrament. Every time I placed the wafer in Marlene's hand I feared I was killing her. Yet her need to receive Christ was greater than her fear of choking or pneumonia. I confessed my concerns to her, but she was adamant. I marveled at her faith.

In the early fall of 2007 Marlene had a massive brain hemorrhage. It was necessary for the doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital to remove a portion of her skull in order to relieve the pressure on her brain. I was told that she had wakeful and lucid moments following the surgery, but I never experienced any of them. I went to see her several times, to pray for her or sing a hymn, but I could never get her to wake up. For all the time I have spent in hospitals, including my experience as an on-call trauma chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, I have never witnessed a sight as disturbingly violent as the sight of that tiny woman in the ICU. Her hair had been shaved. The flesh sewn up around the missing portion of skull and the misshapen head were like something out of an old horror movie. It all seemed wrong, unjust, and cruel.

But this sight is not my final memory of Marlene. I will remember her best for a visit I'd had with her a few months earlier. She was recuperating from some illness in a dingy nursing home in the Summerton neighborhood. She sat in bed, restricted because of the danger of falling. Her arms were bruised by IV sites and her short-term memory was all but gone. We shared the sacrament, and as I left she spoke the last words I would ever hear her say:

“Pastor, God sure is good, isn't he!”

Yes, Marlene. God sure is good. And I know this all the more because I have known you.

* * *

By the way, I should mention that at Marlene's funeral a neighbor—a Roman Catholic for over seventy years—received Holy Communion for the first time in a Protestant church. As I handed him the wafer he smiled and said, “There's only one God.” As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near, I'm asking Lutherans and Catholics to petition Pope Francis to allow Lutherans to receive the sacrament with our Catholic brothers and sisters. If you agree, sign my petition here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why Does Life Suck? (Reflections on Pentecost 25)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Ironically, it was Charles Dickens' birthday, February 7, an icy winter's day in 1999. Faith Lutheran Church was filled to capacity. Folding chairs were set up to handle an overflow crowd which included a chartered busload of folks from my internship parish in New York, Faith's congregation, and a lot of my family and friends who had come to help me celebrate my ordination mass and see me installed as pastor of this congregation. It was one of the best days of my life.

I was unaware of what had happened to Lisa's son that morning. Michael was riding home from a night out with a friend. The friend had been drinking. The car skidded off the road into a pole. Michael was killed. The driver fled the scene. It was the worst day of Lisa's life.

It would be many years later that Lisa and I crossed paths. Today she is president of Faith's church council, a faithful member of our praise team, and a ferocious advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I don't bring the subject up to her, but I'm certain that every February seventh, while I rejoice over my years in the ministry, Lisa is asking God, “Why?”

The Hebrew Scripture lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost is from that poetic speed bump in the theology of the Old Testament, the book of Job. (Job 19:23-27a) For most of the OT, the idea seems to be if you live a righteous life, God will reward and bless you. If you don't, you're screwed. But along comes Job asking the question, “What happens when I live a righteous life and I'm screwed anyway?”

In this rhapsodic piece of ancient literature Job, the protagonist, is painted as a really good guy. He follows God's law and even makes ritual sacrifices for his kids when they've been out partying. Capriciously it seems, God smites this poor slob. He kills Job's children, destroys his fortunes, and ruins his health with a disgusting skin ailment and a bad case of halitosis. Mrs. Job isn't very helpful. She tells the old man to curse God and die. But Job won't give up so easily. Broke, starving, sick as a dog, and grieving as only a parent can, Job is still faithful to God. He's pissed off, but he's faithful. And he wants an answer.

Wouldn't you?

Most of Job's posse desert him. Yeah, they liked the old boy when he was flush, but now that he's broke, sick, and sad they want nothing to do with him. A few of his buddies hang out with him, however, and try to get him to see that a just God wouldn't simply smite him for no reason. They insist Job must have done something to provoke the Almighty's wrath. But Job isn't buying it. He grows defensive and belligerent and demands that God cough up a good explanation for why his life sucks so much when he's done nothing to deserve it.

God's answer?

None of your freakin' business, Buster! I'm God, and I can do what I want. And just who do you think you are that you even have the right to question me? Hmmm?

Then God leads Job to contemplate the immensity of God's Creation. Which is a good thing, because Job has been getting just a little too introspective lately. God forces Job to pull his head out of his own self-absorption and realize that there is more going on in the world than just his circumstances. Job eventually gets the picture. He pardons the false friends who had been accusing him. Slowly, his fortunes are restored. His ailments abate, his wife bears him more children, and he rebuilds his business. Personally, I don't think he could possibly get over the death of a child, but maybe having experienced so tragic and soul-crushing a loss, his heart has softened. With his new heart, he appreciates his later years more than he had enjoyed his youth. It's a weird thing, but I think the wisdom of pain can bring us to contentment.

I don't know what to say to Lisa. I can't explain why her son had to die that day. All I can do is tell her to hang tough as she navigates the rest of her journey. What I love about the book of Job is Job's angry—almost violent—faith in the face of his own tragedy. When I read this passage, I can almost hear the old guy—his face, arms and legs, covered in puss-oozing rash—screaming in his defiant hopefulness,

For I KNOW that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side...”(Job 19: 25-6)

I love that Job makes a distinction here between “skin” and flesh.” His skin may be rotting off of him, but his flesh—his true self—is still heir to the promise of his faith.

We are not our circumstances. Our age, our bodies, our gender, sexual orientation, surroundings, resources, health, what have you—they may inform our consciousness, but they do not comprise the mystery of our immortal souls. Our circumstances do not speak for or define who we really are. Nor do they speak for or define God.

I'm as guilty as the next guy of curving in on my own stuff and missing the larger picture. I need to take my eyes off of my issues to see the pain around me. And to see the joy and the beauty and the mystery, too. God does not stop being good just because I stop noticing God's goodness. So I keep reminding myself to look up and out. And I will defiantly stand with Job and refuse to accept death and pain as the final answer.

God bless you, my friends. Thanks for reading.

By the way, I also don't accept that Christians can't get along with each other. If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, don't you think it's time we patched things up? I mean, it's been almost 500 years since the Reformation. Let's ask the Pope to open the communion table again. Sign my petition here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Saint of the Month: Basil Rathbone

(NOTE: This post was originally meant for Halloween, but, as you see, I'm a bit late in publishing this week. I hope you enjoy it anyway!)

Happy Halloween!

Can I make a confession? I have a weakness for schlocky horror movies. Once upon a time in my misguided show-biz career, I had a gig as a horror movie host on a midwestern TV station. Okay. I know. The TV horror movie host is possibly the lowest job in the entertainment industry, ranking only a little higher than the guy in the gorilla suit who stands by the roadside holding a sign which reads, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, EVERYTHING MUST GO!” But, hey! I needed the money.

So, in honor of the fact that tonight is Halloween, I'd like to present my Saint of the Month, Basil Rathbone.
Basil Rathbone in Tovarich trailer.jpg

The South African born English actor was trained in Shakespeare. He had a stellar career on Broadway, winning a Tony award in the 1950's, and was also renown for playing suave villains in some of the great MGM and Warner Brothers classics of the 1930's and 1940's. Rathbone is best remembered for his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in more than a dozen films and countless radio broadcasts from those bygone days.

Of course, all actors have to eat, so from time to time Rathbone found himself cast in some schlocky horror movies. He appeared in classics like The Son of Frankenstein and Tales of Terror, but also managed to misuse his talents in total pieces of crap like The Black Sleep, Planet of Blood, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. (Hey! The guy probably needed the money.)

What most film buffs may not know about Rathbone, however, is that he was a pious and devout Christian with a deep passion for the scriptures. In 1929, he went to considerable financial risk by producing, co-authoring, and starring in a Broadway play based on the story of Our Lord's passion. The play was called Judas, and Rathbone played the title character.

In his 1961 autobiography, In and Out of Character, Rathbone wrote:

I think I was still in my teens when the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and Judas-ish-Kerioth first troubled me. At first I was frightened for myself for, 'The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape' and was perhaps 'abusing me to damn me.' And yet over the years the thought pursued me and at last became an obsession. I felt I must think it through and try to arrive at some conclusion. If Judas was the mean, despicable betrayer he is said to have been, why did Jesus choose him to be one of his disciples?At what time in his life did Jesus become aware of his divine mission here on earth? Certainly by the time he made the choice of the twelve.

Rathbone's play followed a now-familiar theory that Judas truly loved Jesus and that his betrayal was a misguided attempt to force a confrontation between Palestine's Roman overlords and a rebellious and oppressed people who had finally found the longed-for Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. Creatively, Rathbone imagined Judas as the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness following the baptism by John. The temptation, of course, would be for Jesus to use his charisma to launch a revolution and be crowned as Israel's king when the Romans were overthrown. Rathbone explained,

I do not believe in a hell of fire and brimstone and human misery as in Dante's Inferno any more than I believe in the devil, in either the Mephistophelean form or the one with the long tail and eyes of fire. As we are born in the grace of God so we are born in original sin and our hell is within us.

Rathbone's sympathetic interpretation of this arch betrayer underscores a basic premise: We are all, at the same time, both lovers of Christ and Christ's betrayers. Both justified and sinner. And, sometimes, with the best of intentions, we are capable of the most hurtful deeds. Simul justus et peccator. (Remember—Halloween is also Reformation Day. I just had to get a little Lutheran doctrine into this post!)

Unfortunately, Rathbone's interpretation proved a little too hip for the audiences of 1929. Christian leaders of several traditions voiced opposition to the play. Rathbone even wrote, in so many words, that a Roman Catholic priest told him such questioning of excepted interpretation of scripture was too dangerous for the average believer. The church of the day seemed more comfortable with a demonized Judas and not yet ready for a Judas for whom one could feel empathy. The play had mixed reviews and closed in three weeks.

This did not end Rathbone's dramatic relationship with biblical villains. A few years later, in 1933, he played a very contrite Pontius Pilate in the movie The Last Days of Pompei. He also appeared as Caiaphas in an Italian movie, Ponzio Pilato in 1961. On stage, Rathbone played the character of Nickles, the devil figure, in Archibald MacLeish's J.B., a poetic interpretation of the biblical story of Job.

I wish I could have met this guy as I'm quite certain we'd get along. Unfortunately, he died when I was still a little kid watching him as Sherlock Holmes on TV (And, for MY money, he will always be the best darn Sherlock Holmes of all time!). Nevertheless, I salute him for being an honest and searching Anglican Christian, a dedicated worker for charity, and an actor known in Hollywood for being both a devoted husband and father and a really, really nice guy—traits unusual in a profession and a town not known for niceness.

Why don't we all challenge accepted interpretations a bit and ask our Roman Catholic friends to share communion with us? Sign my petition here.