Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Scripts and Improvisation


If you have ever watched a Christopher Guest-directed film you know what a treat the experience is. Waiting for Guffman is about a small-town community theater troupe the members of which think that a Broadway producer is going to attend their production. Best in Show is about dog owners who have entered their pooches in a major dog competition. A Mighty Wind is about a memorial concert bringing three old-time folk groups together. And For Your Consideration is about the effect that the Oscar buzz surrounding an independent production called Home for Purim (the title of which is changed to Home for Thanksgiving to attract a broader audience) has on the cast, crew, and various interested parties.

The scripts of those good-naturedly satirical films are supplemented by a lot of improvisation; the cast members are very accomplished at such improvisation because they have practiced it a lot. The ways in which the actors play off of the script, off of situations, and off of each other is truly remarkable, not to mention frequently hilarious.

It seems to me that a life well lived involves both following the script and practicing improvisation.

The problem with our script is that we don’t know exactly what it says. Oh, people will certainly offer suggestions as to what it should say, suggestions that will range from helpful advice based on real interest in our lives to harmful interference rooted in a desire to run our lives. In some ways our paths are at least partially predetermined by accident of birth: for example, we don’t choose our family background, our genetic makeup, or our social and religious context.

Then there is God to consider. By faith we believe that God in God’s grace has a purpose toward which the ongoing events of creation and history are moving and that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world was, is, and will be the pivotal event in God’s working out of that purpose. By faith we believe that by God’s grace we are caught up in and play a role in the working out of God’s purpose. The truth is, though, that we know more about where the script leads, at least in a general sense, than we do about the details of how it gets us there.

When Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, was published my Good Wife acquired a copy and immediately turned to the last chapter. “What are you doing?” I inquired, shocked that someone would forego the excitement of reading that revolves around not knowing what will happen. “If Rhett and Scarlett are not going to get together in the end,” she replied, “I’m not going to waste my time reading the book!” Well, they did and she did. It was not a total waste of time, though, since she didn’t know how they would get to that point of resolution.

We trust that there will be a resolution but we don’t know how we will get there.

And that is where improvisation comes in.

Now, some people would say that the Bible is our script but that’s not accurate. The Bible offers the record of the interplay between God and people who came before us but who were trying to find their way just like we are. As such, it provides a reflection on the choices they made and on the results of those choices but leaves us aware that there were other choices they could have made along the way that, while they would not have changed the ultimate purposes of God, would have changed many decisions, actions, events, and relationships along the way. The Bible is an excellent guide—indeed, the best one available—but it is neither a road map nor an instruction manual, much less a script. It is rather a reflection on the struggle of other people to live faithfully and creatively under God in their historical, social, and religious setting and is thus a help to us in our struggles. As such the Bible provides us with a necessary and dependable foundation from which we can work as we live our lives.

But the life of faith is not about knowing and keeping all the rules in the Bible or in tradition; it is not even about reading in our Bibles about how the heroes of the faith lived their lives and then trying to emulate them. The life of faith is rather about living as close to God as we can, paying as much attention to our own spirit as we can, learning as much about the world as we can, trying to live as fully and attentively in the moment as we can, and adjusting to developing situations as much as we can—practices in which we are helped by the Spirit, by Scripture, by experience, and by sisters and brothers in the faith.

We can rest in the knowledge that God knows the ultimate outcome and is moving creation toward it.

We can also rest in the knowledge that God is with us as we engage in the risky but rewarding practice of improvisation …

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Body of Christ in the Age of Terrorism

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; Christ is in us and we are in the world. We are Christ’s hands, feet, ears, and mouth; through us his love, grace, and mercy continue to be shared with the world. Through us his life continues to be shared with the world.

And the world sure needs us to be who we are as the body of Christ. There is always good reason to say that but the good reason that is on my mind right now arises from the recent attacks by Muslim extremists. We are all aware of the seventeen people in Paris, France who were killed in the recent attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and on a kosher grocery store. We may not be as aware—although we should be—of recent brutal attacks in Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorist organization that have left over 2,000 people dead.

When we watch news reports of such attacks we can hardly help but be reminded of the 9/11 attacks on our country and of the possibility of more such attacks. We should breathe a prayer of thanks for those whose vigilant and faithful efforts have kept us safe in recent years; we should also breathe a prayer that we will continue to be protected. Being the body of Christ, though, we should pray just as much—if not more so—for people all over the world; as the body of Christ, we are privileged to care even more for others than we do for ourselves just as Jesus put the needs of others ahead of his own.

So praying for other people is one way that we live as the body of Christ in this age of terrorism. What might some other ways be? I believe that some of the most important ways are a matter of developing improved vision; how do we see ourselves, the world, and our place in it? How can we better live as the body of Christ in the world by growing toward seeing the world and the people in it as Jesus showed us God sees them?

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing the big picture. Jesus was the embodiment of the kingdom of God; in Jesus the kingdom of God broke into the world. We as Christ’s body are the continuing embodiment of God’s kingdom. We therefore try to see as best we can and to live in light of as best we can God’s goals for the world and indeed for all of creation. Even when we cannot understand—and we often will not be able to—we live trusting that God is working God’s purposes out; we therefore live in hope rather than despair. The world needs us to see it through the lens of God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus so that we will be a hopeful presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing our identity as more of an opportunity than a privilege. Jesus came not to serve but to be served; while we are privileged to be the body of Christ we can always be growing in our understanding that our identity is inextricably connected with Jesus’ identity so therefore we are here to serve, too. Jesus calls us to do what he did—to give our lives over fully to serving God by serving people. We are not privileged to be superior to others; we have the opportunity to give ourselves away in service to others. While that does not mean that we are to voluntarily submit ourselves to acts of terror, it does mean that we are to give ourselves over to doing whatever we can to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. The world needs us to see ourselves in a way that leads us to be a positive, helpful, and healing presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing people as God sees them. While it is true that only God can see a person’s heart, it is also true that God is present with us and in us through the Holy Spirit and so we can grow in our ability to see people with God’s eyes. How will we see people as we grow in seeing them as God sees them? First and foremost we will come to see them as beloved creations of God for whom Christ died. When we see them that way loving them will be our only option. The world needs us to see people as loved by God so much that Jesus died for them; it needs us to see them as worthy of every sacrificial effort we can make to show love to them.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing wounds as openings for God’s love and grace. That does not mean that we seek either to receive or to inflict wounds or that God desires the wounds that we inflict on each other. It does mean, however, that we see the wounds that inevitably come to others and to us in this world, whether randomly and accidentally or purposely and cruelly, as openings through which God’s grace and love can be experienced. Our world, our nations, our communities, our churches, and our families are all populated with hurting, broken, and bleeding people. It is by the wounds that Christ received that we are healed; it is by the wounds that Christians receive and bear that we can channel Christ’s healing to others who are wounded. The world needs us to see ourselves as wounded people who are sisters and brothers to all the other wounded people in the world; it needs us to seek neither to be victims nor to create victims but humbly to offer the wounds of Christ and our own wounds as means of sharing love and grace with them in their woundedness.

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; we can and should be growing every day in continuing the life, the ministry, and the witness of Jesus. In this time of terrorism—as indeed in all times— the world and the people in it need us to see, to live, to love, to serve, and to help in ways that befit our identity as the body of Christ.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Barnesville Christmas, Circa 1967

My family had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rituals during my childhood in Barnesville, Georgia.

Interestingly, though, even though my parents were the kind of Christians who were at the church every time the doors were opened, none of our rituals involved the worship of God for the sending of Jesus into the world. That was because our Baptist church provided no opportunities for such worship unless Christmas Eve or Day happened to fall on a Sunday. Our church rituals were two: (1) a Christmas play held on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas Day; while it was not exactly a pageant they did manage to work a nativity scene into it somehow, usually in a dream sequence, and (2) the coming of Santa Claus to the sanctuary on the Wednesday night immediately preceding the big day; we had the most awful-looking Christmas tree you have ever seen (actually, the tree was fine—the decorations were awful; we even had those lights with bubbling water in them) right there in front of the altar (the closest thing Baptists had to a Holy of Holies) and everybody got a bag filled with fruit and nuts.

We live in better days when even we Baptists have discovered the value of such high church practices as Advent and Christmas Eve worship; some of us are even paying some attention to the Twelve Days of Christmas, attention which is really helpful since during the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany we’re finished with Santa Claus and presents and can give our full attention to Jesus.

Well, to Jesus and to college football bowl games.

Still, like I said, my family, which consisted of Mama and Daddy and me, did have our traditions. Christmas morning in particular followed a set pattern. I would arise at the break of dawn and slip into my parents’ bedroom to wake them up. I was not allowed to enter the living room where the Christmas tree was located until preparations had been made: Mama would go in to “see if Santa Claus has come” and to turn on the Christmas tree lights while Daddy fired up his Brownie 8mm movie camera with its attached bank of spotlights. Then and only then was I allowed to make my entrance, bathed in the glow of the spotlights and of the generosity of Santa.

After I had seen, identified, analyzed, critiqued, and played with my many new toys, Mama and Daddy would open their gifts from each other. Daddy would thank Mama for his pajamas or shirt or tie or whatever. Mama would then open her beautifully wrapped gift, open the box, unfold the tissue paper, look at the gorgeous dress, and say, “That is so pretty. I’ll take it back.”

Then they would kiss and all would be right with the world.

Mama’s beautiful dress that she never kept always came from Deraney’s Department Store. Every year a few days before Christmas Daddy would go visit Mrs. Mable Deraney and they would spend an hour or so looking at dresses. He would finally go with one of Mrs. Deraney’s recommendations and she would wrap it up and send him and his gift on their way. Daddy would proudly give it to Mama on Christmas morning and she would be so pleased to get it and even more pleased to return it.

I sort of wondered about it all but was too busy playing with my new G. I. Joes to give it too much thought. The truth was that Mrs. Deraney and my mother just had different tastes; one was not better than the other, rather, one was just different than the other.

I thought about those long ago Christmas mornings when I learned of Mable Deraney’s recent passing. I thought about some other ways in which Mrs. Deraney was different than my mother and in which the Deraney family was different than my family. One major difference was that the Deraneys were Catholic while my family was Baptist. As a matter of fact, so far as I can remember, during my growing up years the Deraneys were the only Catholic family I knew and the Wisebrams were the only Jewish family I knew. Back in the day, downtown Barnesville was the center of Lamar County’s ecumenical relationships! I wish that I had spent some time and effort really getting to know those families; it would have done me good to have my very limited childhood worldview expanded.

Mrs. Mable and Mr. Joe always struck me as being a bit exotic—and, believe it or not, we didn’t have a lot of exotic in Lamar County back then! Now, five decades later, I look back with gratitude for the flavor that Mable Deraney and others added to the mix that was my hometown.

Oh, remind me to tell you sometime about that time that I tried on a pair of bell-bottom jeans that dragged the floor and Mr. Elijah Wisebram offered to cut them off to “make them fit …”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

As Slow as Christmas

It was late on Christmas Day; the sun had set and my parents and I were somewhere between Yatesville and Barnesville on our way back home after the day-long celebration of Christ’s birth through the eating of food and the exchanging of gifts. Into the quietness of the moment broke my father’s voice; he said, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days!” And my ten-year-old heart sank. How on earth and under heaven could I wait 365 days for next Christmas to arrive?

At that age the phrase “as slow as Christmas” was still packed with meaning for me. The period from one Christmas to the next seemed to stretch on for a decade. The closer Christmas got, the slower time seemed to move; during the last few days before the big day the second hand on my Timex watch appeared to tick once every ten seconds. “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast,” the Chipmunks sang, but it never did; “Christmas, don’t be late,” they also sang, but it always was.

I confess that to my child’s mind it was the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas—an aspect that is filled with its own special brand of wonder mixed with anxiety—that made time move so slowly for me. Looking back, though, I realize that there was a great benefit to the mysterious, if imaginary, slowing down of time in the days leading up to Christmas: it created space in which I could experience the real mystery and wonder of the season. In that space I could and did marvel over what God had done in Christ.

Another reason that time seemed to slow to a crawl for me back then was that once school let out for the holidays I had nothing to do until Christmas Day arrived. That has changed, too; I have not had “nothing to do” since 1975.

That’s not all that has changed. Now the phrase “as slow as Christmas” mocks me and my lifestyle; now 365 days go by as if they are 36.5 days. It seems as if we celebrated Christmas just a few months ago. Whereas pre-Christmas time slowed down of its own accord during my childhood, now I have to take intentional steps to create space in which I can experience the mystery and wonder of the great act of love and grace that was carried out by Almighty God in the birth of Jesus Christ.

That’s why I am so grateful that somewhere along the way I became aware of the Christian practice of observing the Season of Advent; it gives some structure and meaning to this time of waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It also provides some incentive and some reminders for me to take some time out during these days to think about and to pray over the great love of God—a love that we can never fathom but can grow to appreciate more and more and to live in light of more and more.

Time did not really slow down when I was a child; it just seemed like it.

We cannot really slow time down now; we can, however, set some time aside to read about, to reflect upon, and to marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

It would be a good thing, too, if the practice of slowing down and being present with the God who loves us enough to come to us would carry over into the rest of our year and into the rest of our life …

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m White

On October 3, 1995, a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Watching the news that evening I saw film of a group of young African-Americans—I think they were college students—bursting out in cheers and applause when they heard the verdict.

I was puzzled by their reaction; it seemed to me that they were celebrating a miscarriage of justice. I wondered how anyone could cheer when two people had been brutally murdered and their likely killer had been set free. I had not viewed the trial as “the case of a famous black man who had allegedly killed his white ex-wife and her white friend” but rather as the trial of a man who had allegedly murdered two human beings.

Clearly that group of young people saw it differently.

I suspect that their celebration was not fueled by a belief that Simpson had not committed the crimes and thus an innocent man had been freed. I am certain that they did not think that a person who killed two other people should not be held accountable for his crimes.

I think maybe they were celebrating because the legal system that had in so many cases failed to provide justice to African-Americans had, in a very public way, worked in favor of a black person. Perhaps, while I’m sure those celebrating held no animosity toward the victims and probably felt sympathy for their families, there was even a wry pleasure taken in the very real possibility that Simpson had actually done the deed; after all, how many times had African-Americans been victimized—suspected of, charged with, and even convicted of crimes they did not commit— by the justice system? How many times had it seemed that whites had been unfairly acquitted of crimes against blacks (the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had just occurred in 1992)?

But I’m not black. So I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what those students were thinking and feeling. I’m admittedly guessing and that’s dangerous.

What I am is a white man who has always lived in a predominantly white culture and so I have difficulty putting myself in the place of someone living as a member of a minority in that culture and dealing with systems of power that seem not to offer justice to me and my kind.

I have listened to African-American commentators talk during the coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri situation—and these are very accomplished, professional people—about how they had to teach their children, and especially their sons, how to act when confronted by a police officer; they offered such advice as “Keep your hands in plain sight” and “Don’t talk back.” The shocking thing to me was that they had to assume that their sons would be so confronted, and probably confronted many times, whether or not they had done anything wrong.

My father never had such a conversation with me. The assumption in our house was that police officers (and all people in authority, for that matter) were our friends who were there to protect us. The further assumption was that if a police officer stopped me he would have a very good reason for doing so and that I’d probably be safer in jail than I would be at home under such circumstances.

So now we have the Ferguson crisis before us. I do not know what actually happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I do not know if justice was or was not done in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I do know that there are serious systemic issues in Ferguson that hopefully its citizens will work together on improving. I also know that the rioting and looting hurt and don’t help the situation. I know that I have serious questions about the increasing militarization of our law enforcement entities and the possible role it plays in exacerbating such situations.

But I don’t know how black people in Ferguson, Missouri feel. Shoot, I don’t know how black people anywhere feel. How could I? I’m a white man in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t know how other white people feel, either. Sometimes some of them say and do things that puzzle me just as much as did the reaction of that group of black students to the Simpson verdict. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how anybody else feels. And sometimes I’m not real sure that I really know how I feel.

It seems to me that one key to improving race relations and other kinds of relations in this country is for each one of us to face up to who we are and to how our individual identity is shaped by such factors as race, economic status, education, sexuality, religion, genetics, and community. We need to understand and accept who we are, insofar as we are able to see who we are, so that we can analyze the place from which we begin to deal with situations that challenge our societal relationships and with the people involved in those situations and relationships.

As for me, I’m a white straight middle-class professional Protestant Southern male who is respected in my community so that the assumption about me of those in power is that I am not in any way a threat to anybody. While I would not go so far as to say that I’m treated with deference, I would go so far as to say that I am always given the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a close call, I can live comfortably in the knowledge that it’s probably going to go my way.

In other words, I have it made; the only way I could have it more made in this country, or at least in my part of it, would be to have more money.

It is very helpful for me and my kind to remember that before we claim to know too much and before we talk too much about the experiences and reactions of people who don’t have the privilege of having it made.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that that reality really ought to have a good bit of impact on how I feel about, think about, pray about, and treat other people, even those that I don’t understand.

Which is, after all, everybody …

Monday, November 24, 2014

So Very Kind of Pretty Much Thankful

On the one hand, I have an easy time giving thanks.

On the other hand, I have a difficult time giving thanks.

Let me try to explain.

Giving thanks comes easy to me because I have so very much for which to be thankful.

I am thankful for my family. My Good Wife and I have been married now for going on thirty-seven years; I am thankful for the love, grace, commitment, tenacity, and joy that have characterized our relationship so that it has been fulfilling as well as enduring. Our two children are grown, educated, employed, out of our house, and happily married. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my career. I sensed God calling me to the ministry over four decades ago and I have been privileged to pursue and to live out that calling ever since. While my ministry has taken various forms and my career has careened down some interesting paths, I have had and still have a career that intrigues and challenges me and hopefully does some good in the lives of some folks. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my growing wholeness. I can honestly testify that at this point, after almost six decades of living, I am relatively sound in my spirit. Given the struggle that it has always been for me to have a sense of peace, I am most grateful to be at the place I am. I do not think that I am as whole and sound as I will become; I also know that things will happen that will challenge even the level of wholeness and soundness at which I think I have arrived. Life is, after all, a journey. Still, because of the grace shown to me by the Lord in allowing me to learn some ways to approach proactively the development of our relationship, I am spiritually healthier than I have ever been. I am so thankful.

Yes, I am truly thankful. And yet I have difficulty expressing whole-hearted thanks. Why is that?

I think—I hope—it’s because of my love for other people, a love that has grown as my sense of being loved by God and as my love for God have grown.

So while I am thankful for my family I am also mindful of people who have no family, whose families are busted and broken, and whose families are characterized by manipulation and by abuse.

So while I am thankful for my career, I am also mindful of those who are unemployed, who are underemployed, who are in unsatisfying careers, or who find no meaning in their work other than the making of money.

So while I am thankful for my increased and increasing wholeness, I am also mindful of those who are struggling, who see no light at the end of their particular tunnel, and who would give anything to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for them.

I think—I hope— that it is my growing and developing Christian faith that causes me simultaneously to be thankful and not thankful. On the one hand, I am so thankful to God for all the blessings that are mine. On the other hand, how can I be truly thankful so long as so many others are struggling to find the blessings for which I am so thankful in my own life?

So during this Thanksgiving week as I give thanks to God for all of my blessings I am also asking God to bless those who are struggling to know blessing—and to show me how to help them and thereby bless them.

Perhaps you will join me in such prayers …