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Friday, October 13, 2017

Braving Horror

         Don’t tell anybody, but when I walk with my children through the old Speedway neighborhood on Halloween I’m as frightened as any child over two years of age. 
        I suspect this discomfort stems from my own childhood.  Most of my Hoosier school friends grew up laughing at the local celebrity, Sammy Terry, who introduced horror movies on a local channel in the 1970’s. He scared me out of my wits.  While my friends giggled at modest fright, I suffered from nightmares.   They tried to reassure me that the fanciful supernatural elements in these movies “were not real,” but I knew the horror genre traded on fears which were all too realistic. 
      So, for twenty years I’ve hidden this discomfort, dressed the kids up in their costumes, and went into the neighborhood trying to play in the face of death.  There was only one year nobody took kids “trick or treating.”  In 2001 when the threat of mass terrorism was still only a month old, nobody came to my church’s long-planned Festival of Light. Horror was too real for the community to feel safe playing around with matters of life and death. At that time my old horror movie fears seemed well-founded. 
      Given all the cultural instability, I’m thankful my children can still go “trick or treating.” I’m really touched by the amount of trust which still exists in the American Midwest.  It takes a bit of good feeling to let your kids go door to door and eat hundreds of neighbors’ stuff. 

      My neighborhood still does this despite our modest fears. As much as we want to protect our families, we know that ultimately we have to place them in God’s hands.  While we may want to make our world moderately safer, we know we will seldom agree on how to do that.  We know ultimately the only fully safe place in the world is in the center of the will of God.  Only He has the power to swallow up death.  He is a refuge from the horrors of societal breakdown.  The fear of God is the only thing that will save us from the fear of one another.   

Monday, October 9, 2017

Ken Burns' Complexity

From National Archives
      I was glued to Ken Burn’s series on the Vietnam War.  Burns knows how to listen.  That’s why he can document American history in a way that leaves all of us all feeling heard.
     In his 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Burns wove the voices of Barbara Fields and Shelby Foot together without there being the slightest hint of an argument.  Seven years later, in the film, Thomas Jefferson, it was harder for me to imagine George Will and Gore Vidal agreeing about anything, but Burns had me sympathizing with them both. 
      Now, Burns has taken on the monumental task of listening to all the parties in the Vietnam War.   North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese officials, as well as diverse American soldiers and marines—they all have their say.  Their stories are woven into a coherent whole that leaves me wanting to carry along something from all of them. 
       Very few public figures can still convene such conversations.  If Burns is not America’s poet laureate, he is something more important.  For two generations he has used his combination of images, words and music to become our national storyteller.  He is one of our few remaining shapers of national identity precisely because he listens generously to everyone.
       Burn’s current film highlights that America failed in Southeast Asia precisely because we refused to listen to people on the ground.  We willfully ignored complexities.     
       Being able to feel what other people’s lives are really like is what Christians call compassion.  Compassion is a capacity to understand others even when their motivations for behaving like they do are complex or even contradictory.  Agreement is not necessary.  Compassion is something more fundamental.   It comes from the Father of all compassion.  It imitates the Son, who came into our world in order to sympathize with weaknesses.  Compassion is empowered by the Spirit who resides within us. This Spirit interprets our complex groans to ourselves, one another, and to God.  Compassion is very slow to speak and always quick to listen—even when it’s complicated.
        Only this kind of compassion is qualified to speak.

Aging Eyes

       My fingers seldom tap the keyboard without remembering Gene, my mentor in devotional writing.  In my early life his column helped to see that a Christian writer does not search for illustrations as much as he learns to see God’s activity in everyday experience.   
       While I was in my thirties I came to appreciate how this sacredness of the ordinary speaks to people from every denomination and walk of life.
     But by the time I was 40, I feared he was leaving young people behind.   I chuckled with my wife: “No matter what Gene writes about these days, he’s really writing about aging.” 
     Now that I am in my fifties, I know better why he did.  A month ago I went to the eye doctor for my annual exam, and he told me that I was less nearsighted this year than last.  I blinked. 
    “You’re kidding!” I said.  Every year since 1974, my optometrists have told me with experienced grace that my eyes were a half-diopter more nearsighted.  But after 43 years of this ritual, the athletic kid now doing my examination blithely told me my eyes had started to ossify. He teased about my having cataracts (and yellowing of the vision) to look forward to. 
     For a split second I wanted to challenge him to a bench press contest.  But he had no way of understanding how difficult this obvious metaphor would be for me.  The notion that my eyes had stretched as far as they were going to, and are hardening into a more rigid condition, devoid of creativity and growing insight frightened me.  I don't want to be old in mind. 

    Then, last Sunday, I experienced what’s since been diagnosed as a retinal tear.  The retinal debris and internal bleeding caused me to lose much of my sight in my dominant eye.  My optical surgeon assures me all should be well.  Yet, this week of impaired vision has helped me see clearly that all things will always be “all manner of well.” Whether my thinking is considered fresh or stale, I need not worry.  At any age even blind eyes fixed on Jesus are always given what is important to behold.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rewriting History

      For 25 years I’ve wondered what the Speedway class of 1976 put in their time capsule at the town hall.   What did that class intentionally try to remember?  If I’m alive in 2026, when they plan to open the capsule on our nation’s 250th anniversary, I want to watch.   A generation’s collective memory is a holy thing.
      Thomas Jefferson’s declining health prevented him from attending the 50th anniversary of his Declaration of Independence. In fact, by July 1, 1826 he was on what would be his deathbed.  Nevertheless, he rousted himself to receive Henry Lee, whose father had written a popular memoir critical of Jefferson. 
      The younger Lee had told the former president that he’d like to issue another addition of his Father’s memoirs, revising some parts that were objectionable to Jefferson if the ailing man could provide additional documentation. 
     Jefferson desperately wanted to get his version of events to the public.  Chief Justice, John Marshall, who had exclusive access to George Washington’s papers, had written a history of the Revolution which Jefferson believed drew the wrong moral and political conclusions.  Getting the history of the American Revolution retold was foremost in the dying president’s mind, so  with only three days to live, the sage of Monticello spent several of his last coherent hours trying to rewrite history.
      That’s what healthy people do.  
      Folks who are growing older need to tell their story in order to make sense of the present.  From the distance of fifty years the class of 1976 will be able to see how much of what occupied their time around the bicentennial ended up being trivial, while other barely noticed events will now loom large.  That’s not “Revisionist history,” or “playing loose with the facts.” It is in such retelling of stories that we acquire wisdom.

     One thing is for sure, if there is no such thing as transcendent Wisdom to be discovered, then all our story-telling is just a cynical attempt to selfishly edit other people’s memory.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


      One of the treasures of having lived in Speedway over the last 25 years has been the opportunity to reflect with Professor Gerald Janzen, a brilliant Anglican scholar from Canada, who has been a fixture at Christian Theological Seminary for years.
      In his commentary on Exodus Janzen tells the story of his teenage son coming down to the kitchen late one morning, groggy from too much sleep. The youngster opened the refrigerator and started complaining about why there was never anything for breakfast.  When told that it was nearly lunch time, he returned to the fridge and replied,
     “Oh, well, I will look again under a different pretext.”
      When the Israelites found themselves victims of oppression in Egypt, they began crying out for help.  But the fertility god of their nomadic ancestors didn’t seem relevant to their new situation in a sophisticated, beaurocratic state.  Wanting a liberator, Israel felt it had outgrown the God of nursemaids.
      A similar experience has befallen many Americans.  Recently I spoke with Krista Tippet, now the host of the religious National Public Radio program, On Being.  She says that at one time the God of her rural Oklahoma upbringing made no sense to her.  Many Americans, likewise, have closed the refrigerator door on Christianity because it is not serving up their kind of breakfast.
      God’s response in such situations is to reveal himself as Yahweh, which means “I will be who I will be.”  It turns out the God of ancestral tradition was much broader than what Israel’s assumptions about God had allowed.   God was free to defeat Pharaoh and send bread from heaven, which the Israelites needed, but which they had not yet learned to crave.  Yet, this God of self-sustaining Fire refuses to be carved, in the image of his people’s breakfast appetites. 
       God’s invitation is for us to open the door again to ancestral Wisdom, this time under a different pretext. We may discover in that storehouse what our grandparents once saw, and experience with surprising freshness, that it is now time for a heavenly lunch for which we thought we were not looking.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Dunkirk Moments

     I made the mistake of subjecting my wife’s poor ears to the IMAX version of the movie, Dunkirk last week.  The background music, more than the German bombing, left us both rattled.   I think I’ll enjoy this movie of the British escape in 1940 more on DVD with reduced volume and the subtitles.
      Movie watchers my age grew up accustomed to historical features assuring us of the story’s wider historical background and significance for future generations.  Times have changed.
      In fact, Dunkirk’s strength is the way it thrusts the viewer into the immediate time of three separate stories: a week-long attempt of a British soldier to escape France, a day-long effort of a fishing boat owner to rescue drowning troops, and a one-hour flight of an RAF pilot trying to cover the withdrawal.  All of these characters choose to sacrifice themselves without any assurance that their efforts will do any good.
      Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, characters in Dunkirk have legitimate excuses to do nothing; nevertheless, they make dangerously sacrificial decisions in real time.  Fishermen are not obligated to go with their civilian crafts into a war zone.  Pilots are even ordered to turn back before their gas reserves expire. Nevertheless, pilots choose to die or be captured rather than leave hundreds unprotected.  A blind man, who would be exempted from service by all, nevertheless insists on being at the docks to greet returning soldiers with a blanket.
     Such courage is not lost on us here in Speedway.  Saturday I watched a man fall unconscious as his van narrowly missed one pedestrian, crashing at high speed through a concrete block garage.  Within a minute there were a dozen people trying to care for him and give comfort to his passenger granddaughter.

     People congregate at accidents because they sense a spiritual need to help in a way that transcends themselves. There is a profound urge to matter to others.  Often the tragedy at such scenes is that folks, who want to help, seem insensible to the spiritual and emotional emergencies going on all the time.  It doesn’t require a war, flood or accident to seize moments in which to give ourselves to our neighbor.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dreamer's Prayer

Oh Father of the alien and stranger,
we confess that we often act as insular bunches of home boys,
Fearful and protective of what we pretend is our turf.
Comfort us as we receive and practice the forgiveness of sins,
welcoming the gifts of others
in holy fear for our souls.

Oh Christ, victor over evil in high office,
we confess aged resentments over systems that favor the proud
subsidize evil, and addict those disadvantaged at birth.
Redeem us from Pharaoh’s wisdom
that we may serve in the power of your weakness
With loving patience—full of hope.

Oh Spirit of power, love and self-discipline,
we confess that we are often timid young girls,
fearful of not belonging, vainly trying to prove our worth.
Forgive those with social power over us
that we may be truly free from sin, doing your will

until all knees bow in but one shared home.