Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Living In The Past

OK. So I've borrowed the title from a Jethro Tull album.

All around I see signs of wishing for a return of the past.

A friend e-mailed me a collection of World War II posters. They weren't campaign posters for a political party. They weren't about an upcoming election, the promotion of a new product or to announce the
concert appearance by American Idol stars or the latest gaggle of ice skaters on tour.

It was a different America. The people in the pictures were all white. None were overweight. Ideal. If we were honest about the "freedom of speech poster", we wouldn't want to hang with 75% of the ideal people in the picture. We wouldn't want them in our cars or homes today. Why? Because their clothes, fingertips and breath reeked of cigarette smoke.
I remember family Christmas gatherings that rotated around the homes of aunts and uncles. I always hated it when it was our turn to host Dad's side of the family. My uncle Elmer smoked cigarettes, and he would do so right in our living room. It was expected that hosts had to accommodate the smoker, not the other way around. We had this metal ashtray on a stand that you could set alongside whatever chair Elmer was seated in. It had a bowl on top with rests for the smoldering white paper tube of dead plant leaves. Once the butt was finished, you could push a button to open a little trapdoor in the bottom of the bowl so that the butts and ashes would drop into a larger bowl below.
Outta sight, outta mind. Or not. My uncle Rudy liked to smoke a cigar after a meal. Whoa, baby! To a family not accustomed to smoke at all, those dog turds were like setting off poison gas canisters in your house.

Now we wonder what to do with our elders. It's a growing problem, especially since they don't look like so many of the youngsters that will someday be responsible for producing all the goods and services and revenue it takes to run this country. And many of these youngsters don't look so hot. Huge numbers are overweight, obese, have type II diabetes--in elementary school.
They don't come from families where brothers would lie about their ages in order to get into the armed forces when a world war was going on. They think "meals" consist of opening a package of something whenever the urge comes, walking to the convenience store, hitting the vending machine at school. They haven't actually sat down at a table where prayer preceded the munching, all electronic devices were extinguished and adults and youngsters who had been together all their lives engaged in the two most basic activities of survival besides breathing: taking nourishment together and renewing their familial bonds. Or at least their associations.
The lofty concept of freedom is not secured or nurtured by war. It cannot be. It can exist only in fully formed and functioning human beings. Don't get me wrong. Fully formed and functioning human beings can be of any race, creed or color. All it takes is, as my uncle Obert used to say, "some fire in the pants".
How's the battle going on that front today?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bagpipes in Oklahoma

Timothy McVey.

The Murrah Federal Building.

Pre-schoolers in the ground floor daycare center.

A rental truck filled with granulated fertilizer mixed with diesel fuel.

These are memories of 15 years ago in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Then-Senator Bob Dole was quick to call it the work of Islamic terrorists. They would indeed leave their mark six years later. This proved to be homegrown, apple pie, USA terrorism by someone with military experience--experience in our military. 160+ lives were lost, each marked by the unusual empty glass chairs of the Oklahoma City memorial.

Now, I've been to Oklahoma. I used to live south of there in Texas. I'm always amazed to see footage of memorial ceremonies--whether for firefighters, policemen, soldiers or storm victims--when bagpipers are present in places like that. If you were a guy and wore a skirt and white spats to school, to the rodeo or the honky tonk, something as bad as the OKC bombing might happen to you and your household. For sure your pickup wouldn't survive out in the parking lot.

It's ironic that this odd-sounding musical instrument born of sheepskin, wooden flutes and tinkering in the highlands of the British Isles has become the ubiquitous voice of mournful melodies and reflective moments when stump speeches and solemn exhortations take a rest.

I always thought the true Scotsmen in their native highlands wore red tartan plaids and that some of the Protestant Scots who were sent to supplant the feared Catholics in Ireland by William of Orange became those who wore the green tartan plaids. In some ways, it's the embodiment of what led to 600 years of civil war and terrorism between two groups of people who both call themselves Christians.

My, my, how we weave tangled plots, we humans and our territories, our kingdoms and our unforgiving, warring hearts.

I hope bagpipes are forever played in the Scottish Highlands. And I hope those skirls forever resound across those crags and meadows to sing the grace of God and the wonder of creation. And I hope we always remember that this extraordinarily odd and unique instrument had a life before it became synonymous with mourning, funerals and memorials.

May we always mourn when we should. But may we always live when we must.



Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gone Fishin'. Don't Forget the Bread!

John 21:1-19:
Sven: You go fishin' den, Ole?
Ole: Ja, I been fishin'.
Sven: You catch da fish den, Ole?
Ole: Ja, I catch da fish. Lotta fish den.
Sven: How many fish you catch den, Ole?
Ole: You guess how many, Sven, I let you have dem both.
Sven: Vell, den, I guess it was tree fish.
Ole: Sven, you crasy Norvegian! It vass fife!
The things in the background of Bible stories are often just as important as the words. Peter says, "Well, boys, I don't know about you. Our bud, Jesus, is gone. It was quite a ride while it lasted, but that finale scared the crap outta me! I've had it with this itinerant stuff. I'm going back to fishing, to what I know. Anybody with me?" They all are, for the most part. Only problem, the fish aren't cooperating, All night and nothing to show for it.
Approaching the shore, they see him again: Jesus. Standing near a fire broiling some fish. He has the gumption to ask, "Haf you no fish, den, Sven, Ole and Peter?"
No. Bad night, you know. The wind came up a bit. Sea kinda rough, you know. Nothing...
"Put in your net on the right side of the boat," the mysterious Jesus on the shore says.
OK, now have you ever told the vision of a person you know/knew to be dead to buzz off? Don't think so! The net goes in as Jesus says. It fills. Hard to drag that sucker to shore without breaking it. It holds. In the net, 153 of those babies that eluded them all night.
Jesus takes bread, blesses it, shares the fish. Gee, where have we seen Jesus before in the company of mysteriously abundant bread and fish? Did the multitude run short? No! Kinda went the other way, actually. They end up with more than they started with.
There's something else caught in the net. The net in Peter's soul. Three times Peter denied. The first time, he was scared, caught by surprise, didn't have time to think. The second time, it was to save face, be consistent. The third time... Well, by that time he had already dug the hole too deep.
Jesus gives Peter a chance to undo each denial. If Peter had denied five times, Jesus would have asked five times. But there's more: the invitation, "Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep."
"I need you," Jesus says, "I want you, I invite you, I forgive you."
Pretty good deal, if you ask me. Jesus, the bread and the fish are what will feed the world. There will be enough to go around. In fact, there will be more at the end than we started with.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mixed Media, Mixed Message

Reading Isaiah is not an easy thing to do. Practically every metaphor, every phrase, every word, needs to have some kind of context in order to have meaning.

What did those words mean for and to the people of the day?

What could those words mean for us today?

Not a simple task. Not simply a matter of saying, "The Bible is the literal truth spoken and inspried by God, so all we have to do is do what it says."

Isaiah can be tiresome that way. On the one hand, it repeatedly cautions Israel, "Don't flirt with Egypt. Don't think that making an unholy alliance with Egypt will protect you against Assyria." On the other hand, Isaiah says YHWH will use unholy Assyria to essentially do holy work. Isaiah also envisions a coming together, a three-way unification of Assyrians, Egyptians and Israelites who will all worship God together.

Systematically throughout the book, every geographic place name in the world of Israel's vaguest knowledge gets the same prescription from YHWH: I will flatten you. Then I will build you up. Again and again, Israel hears the warning: Your hearts have been hardened and your worship is empty and your leaders are corrupt. I will punish you. Then I will restore you.

Or, at least a remnant.

It's core material in Judaism and Christianity. No wonder some struggling souls have concluded over the years that the God of the New Covenant is not the same God as the God of the First Covenant(s).

Isaiah's global sense was basically a radius of about 500 miles. Mt. Zion was clearly the center of that circle. Only problem is, every other civilization on the planet considered itself to be the center of everything else as well. How would you have ever convinced ancient Americans living around Harney Peak in the Black Hills that Mt. Zion was where God spoke, and the ONLY place where God spoke to people (after speaking at Mt. Sinai)?

And what about the people who lived around what we today call Ayers Rock near Alice Springs, Australia? Actually, they'd probably have had a much easier time accepting a prophet who walked around naked for three years...

Ever tried evangelizing someone alienated from the church after being abused by the church with the image of a prophet who exposed himself for a thousand days?

It's an awful lot to reckon with as we sing "The King of love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never. I nothing lack if I am his, and He is mine forever."

That's Old Covenant also and seen best in the person and work of Christ. And through the Christ in us. WE make the God in Christ real and believable to people when the Christ in us is real and believable to people.

If Portland cops need mental health professionals to ride along with them, I sometimes wonder if we don't also need mental health professionals to ride along with us in daily life and in our walks of faith. And in walking through Isaiah or Jeremiah or Revelation or Daniel or Ezekiel. Or even Psalm 23. Oh, and don't forget Romans, the book Luther said we should know by heart.

After all, there are a lot of mixed messages and mixed media out there.

Lead us, Good Shepherd!



Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Rock and the Gates of Hell

Matthew 16:18 (KJV)

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Roman Catholics maintain that this verse is the locus for the ordination of Peter at the first pope and the reason that all popes from thence to the return of Christ shall be known as the Vicar of Christ on earth.

Lutherans, and presumably other "prods" (as my colorful Catholic former co-worker Randy used to call us), maintain that the rock, the foundation of all Christ followers, is not Peter but the confession of faith that comes before in Mt. 16:16:
Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Let me tell you, Catholics and prods ain't gonna resolve that one before the cows come home. Or before the chickens come home to roost.

Mostly I try to look away when I see pictures of the pope in royal vestments standing on a high perch before the sea of humanity inside the oval collonade of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Don't ever take me there. Don't ever force me to go there. Keep me out of jail.

If I went there, my conscience and my faith would compel me to commit a crime of some sort. I would do what I could with my bare hands and maybe a crowbar to tear down a few stones. I would be promptly stopped and arrested by the security guards of the Holy See. "Why," you ask?

Because St. Peter's Basilica was built on contributions extracted from the sweat and toil of the poor, from terrorized consciences of people deliberately kept in the dark, from whom the Scriptures and the good news of the gospel were systematically and deliberately withheld, from people led to believe that the church held unyielding power over their immortal souls that could only be kept from the eternal flames of hell by paying, paying more, and pre-paying for the forgiveness of sins by the purchase of indulgences and paying the ransom of the souls of departed loved ones who were in the limbo of purgatory until the unrepented sin in their lives at the time of their death should have been properly purged by sufficient penitential giving by the living--as determined by their priest, bishop, cardinal or the pope himself if they were people of great earthly power and means.

No wonder Martin Luther could not contain himself. Just read a few of his 95 Theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Luther wanted to shed the light of day on these practices by subjecting them to open discussion where he could expose them for what they were: elaborate and diabolical hoaxes with no biblical basis whatsoever.

Does it surprise you that the debate never happened, at least not on the 95 Theses? A debate on a toned down list of 20 topics did take place in Heidelberg several years later, but the true confrontation Luther sought never came about. He was excommunicated, condemened to death and became a fugitive. Thank God he survived and lived.

I know Catholics today who are dear and sincere people of faith, followers of Christ, workers of compassion and love moved and motivated by the gospel of the kingdom of God and the saving work of Christ. This ain't about being anti-Catholic or anti-church. It's about Christ.

Luther's simple one-question standard for judging what the church believes, teaches, does, builds and hangs onto has proven to be timeless and should be implemented today everywhere:


So I say today in the fashion of President Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall,

Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Mr. Ratzinger-flesh-and-blood-sinful-human-being-just-like-the-rest-of-us:


Sell the the broken chunks of stone as souvenirs. Sell the artwork. Use the money to build housing, to restore the land and create employment in Haiti. Fund soil conservation projects, water conservation projects, health clinics, sustainable energy for the globe, education and employment for the poor, the waging of peace and the demilitarization of the planet.

Uncircle the wagons. Repent. For Christ's sake do the right thing. And that ain't taking Christ's name in vain. It's taking it seriously.
And the same goes for every other segment and enclave of what has ever been built on the foundation laid in Matthew 16. We must never ask anyone else to do what we have not first already done ourselves. Repent.

Let's prevail against the gates of hell.



Sunday, April 11, 2010

In the Bread

Maybe it's not in the rolls or the buns.

Maybe it's in the bread, specifically the breaking of it. That means it got shared and passed around.

That's how the two discouraged folks walking to Emmaus recognized the traveler who joined them and the one who sat down to break bread with them at the evening meal: Jesus.

Jesus raised by God from the dead. Read about it in Luke 24:13-35.

In addition to the little creeds and psalms written to be sung (see Philippians 2:5-11, for example) and said whenever they got together, the followers of Jesus broke bread and shared the cup of wine, those ritual elements of the Passover meal given to his closest disciples as the sign of a new covenant: the sacrifice of his body and blood for them. For you and me.

In the earliest life and worship of the communities of Christ followers, the bread and cup were shared in the context of a meal. As with everything, the meal occasionally lost its way and needed to be redirected in people's minds (1 Cor. 11:23 and following verses). It really was about discerning the presence of Christ in people's daily lives--especially in the sharing of what has come to be called Holy Communion.

It's not to be locked away in some church closet, hidden behind screens and veils blocking the altar. It's not to be a commodity that the church sells or withholds. It's to be a gift of love that people share in faith.

As at the feeding of the 5,000, all are to eat and be satisfied and filled. And what remains are the fragments that when gathered amount to way more than we ever started out with.

I know of no other bread like that. He lives!

Thanks be to God!


Friday, April 9, 2010

It's __________ History Month!

I'm glad for some relatives who have gone to the effort to construct family history and genealogies. Thanks to them, I have learned that on my father's side of the family, the Wittman branch arrived in the U.S. and settled in northern Kentucky. Eight years later, they lost a son in the War Between the States, as my late friend Jack insisted that we call it.

I've always wondered how those recent immigrants felt about their loss and their recently adopted new homeland.

The same branch of the family went on to produce my great uncle Narvin O. Wittman, a Naval Aviator in World War II who made a craeer of the Navy and worked in aircraft engineering. He went on to take command of the engineering and maintenance of all U.S. Navy aircraft in the Pacific Fleet for a portion of the Vietnam War--which would have included the aircraft in which a young renegade pilot named John McCain was shot down over N. Vietnam. About this time, that same great uncle experienced the loss of his firstborn son, Narvin, Jr., a Lance Corporal in the USMC in S. Vietnam in August 1967.

Narvin, Sr. went on to attain the rank of Rear Admiral before retiring but as a changed man and a father with a grievous loss.

The Governor of Virginia wants to inaugurate Confederate History Month in his state. I say, "OK, go ahead." But at the end of the line will we actually be more informed and thoughtful about the fissures in our land, past and present?

We've had Black History Month for some years now. But do we really understand our history of slavery and the utterly disgraceful fact that a Civil Rights Movement was required in this country at at time when we were already flying around in jet aircraft and launching people into space?

Do we know much more than some vague connection between a guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fuzzy words "I have a dream"? Do we have a clue what else he saw or said about our country, peace, war, faith in Jesus Christ and the call of discipleship?

I'm still wondering when we'll ever get around to Vietnam War History Month. That line I wrote a dozen years ago in the script of the play I dedicated to my cousin Narvin, Jr. and my friends Jack and Wes still haunts me:

World War II we won and Korea we forgot, but Vietnam we just never wanted to know.

The other day I saw a jacked up 4WD pickup in full camo colors and with big off-road tires. It sported full-size Stars 'n Stripes and Stars 'n Bars flying from staffs mounted in the bed. I wondered what message the owner was sending, what I should take from that. Could have been a good conversation starter or a door-slammer, depending on what we thought at the outset.

But would we learn anything if we had the conversation?

One day, we may get around to asking, "What were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all about, and is our country better for them?" Since only 1-2% of our population now serves in the military, will we even care except to say, "Yeah, that was the time when our country went bankrupt."

Why are suicides of members of our armed forces at an all-time high?

If we can't do Vietnam with over 58,000 dead and 3.5 million veterans, whatcha suppose we'll do with reflecting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Have we ever really wanted to know?

I'd recommend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1967 book Chaos or Community: Where Do We Go From Here? as a good place to start.

He wrote these words in the United States of America. He should never have had to because there should never have been a need to. What could we learn from that?

Pray for what we do not know,


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Seeking the Living Among The Dead: I'm Listening!

Luke 24:1-13.

After most have denied him or cowered in the shadows at the foot of the cross, they retire to safe cover as the sun sets and Sabbath begins.

One Joseph of Arimathea makes a plea for the lifeless body of one Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem under tax enrollment upheaval and displacement.

Now, ordinarily the one being executed might have taken a little longer to die, had he not already been so weakened by scourging, blood loss and dehydration. Then the Romans would have left the body on the cross to be picked at by crows and swarmed by blowflys and maggots while rotting in the sun: Let this be a reminder, tax evaders, insurgents, revolutionaries and those who claim that anyone besides Caesar is the son of God.

Not this time. Pilate does not accede to the temple leaders' requests to revise "The King of the Jews" to "He said he was the King of the Jews." Pilate does not appear to believe Jesus should be put to death. He probably grudgingly gives the order so as to leave nothing to chance about possible insurgent leaders while placating the priestly class who could foment rebellion themselves. He signs the death warrant. But it's probably as much a poke in the eye back at 'em when Pilate grants Joseph of A-town the body.

The women go out to do the dirty work of finishing preparation of Jesus' body early on the first day of the week. They go expecting to find nothing but a body. They find a very different scene instead. They hear the words from beings of light "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

It hadn't occurred to them that they were doing that. The words seemed like nonsense. They go back to tell the male disciples. The women's words seemed like nonsense to the men. I think the Bible and translators are being kind. I think the men probably responded with words more in the category of unprintables.

Hint, guys (gals, too!): Never make fun of somebody who has seen angels! Not unless you have seen something better.

In the days and hours and years and decades and centuries and millennia to follow, people have come to know and experience a powerful relationship with a living Christ.

Do those words seem like nonsense? Are we listening? Or are our lives still seeking the living among the dead?

He lives! Not just because the Bible tells me so. I know.

And here's a little tip. If death has been vanquished, sin doesn't stand a chance.

Er ist nicht hier. Aber er ist auferstanden. (German. Sounds like nonsense until you understand what the words mean.)



Monday, April 5, 2010

Happy 103, Mom!

You're the best Mommy in the world!

Thanks for all the joy, love, hard work and grace of God you have given to our family for generations!

You're the best Mommy in the world!

God grace your remaining years as you have graced us.


Roger, Jean and Hilary

Saturday, April 3, 2010

For All The Saints

On Wednesday, as we always do in the middle of Holy Week, we had a memorial service at the St. Vincent dePaul Downtown Chapel. We sang, we heard readings and prayers from many faiths. I read a new memorial poem "In Their Season."

We read the names of the year's downtown fallen, the homesteaders of our streets and bridges and doorways. A candle was lighted for every one. And we remembered the 50 more whose names weren't on the list, the seventeen casualties of area murder suicides and domestic violence over the past year.

For everyone, this day is for you. This is the day that says there is an answer to all that does not make sense, that defies explanation. God has the last words, and they are the same as the first: love and life.

This day is for you. This day is for all the saints.

He is risen!

Thanks be to God!



Friday, April 2, 2010

Happy Homecoming!

Dear Jean,

Thirty nine years ago this evening, you stepped off an Austrian Airlines DC-9 jet at Istanbul's Yesilkoy Airport. It was the final leg of a charter flight journey that took you from Buffalo to Philadelphia to Vienna to Istanbul. It was before cell phones and e-mail. We just knew that you were leaving the United States on April 1 and arriving in Istanbul sometime on April 2, or 3, or???.

You had no idea what your actual itinerary was until you were underway. You had no idea where you would change planes, what airline you would travel on, exactly when you would arrive. You would have had no earthly idea how to contact me if I had not been at the airport.

We traveled on, lived on, a lot of faith. And hope. Love had begun but wasn't really built yet.

So I got to Istanbul's decrepit airport as early as I could on April 2. I waited. There were no seats in a passenger lounge anywhere. Whole families were there with huge collections of huge bags. These were people flying to Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe to take jobs as Gastarbeiter, guest workers. They would rush the counter at each departure hoping to get cut-rate standy seats on unfilled airplanes.

I didn't know enough Turkish to understand the announcements over the airport PA system. All I could do was wait and crowd into the seas of people that greeted each arriving flight. After being there all day, the Turkish customs agents got used to seeing me. Finally, they didn't even kick me out of the arrival area. I found a chair with three legs that I could prop into a corner and actually sit on to take a load off my feet. I sat for hours.

And I waited. I would wait all night, all the next day, as long as it took. My 22-year-old new wife was out there somewhere. At last that little white and red DC-9 landed around 10:30 at night. I wasn't sure I should even get up to scan the faces of all the arriving passengers. "Surely," I thought, "she would be on a PanAm or TWA flight. Or maybe a Lufthansa or a BOAC. " I never dreamed that you would be on AUA--Austrian Airlines.

Suddenly, there was a tall young woman wearing a familiar white denim trench coat with a hood and embrodered trim on the placket. She was wearing familiar tall brown vinyl boots. I knew her. She was my wife!

We spent the night at the Park Oteli (Park Hotel), mainly because it was the only hotel name I really knew and could tell the driver to take us to. We rode there in the back seat of a nice old '55 Chevrolet BelAire 4-door sedan taxi. It turned out to be a lovely old hotel, and I could get us a room by speaking German to the desk clerk. The next day, we took another taxi to the Galata Bridge ferry terminals, for the final two-hour voyage. Then, after a short walk, I carried you across the threshold of 56 Dort Yol Sokak, Daire 5 (apt. 5): our new home.

Then our life together began.

Thanks for being there, and being here all these years!