Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On Race

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years. 
The theme for the Fall 2015 Issue of Connect Journal was "Race," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . . 

The Hearts of the Fathers

So, I know the theme of this issue is “Race.”  And in thinking on that topic, I keep coming back to something more fundamental, in a way:  Parents.  Here’s my story . . .

I grew up in a horrible town of great beauty and potential.  An awful place that millions of people happily come to visit each year.  As a tourist, you zip into town, you see the sights, and you flee before finding out what life is like for the residents.  That’s kind of the best way to visit a scary place: See the good, and get out before the bad.

Since prohibition, this border town has had one foot in the underworld of the Mafia.  However, with the 21st Amendment, the Mob has been on a bit of a slide, locally.  The underlings and their descendants stuck around, but the big names moved on.  This left the “soldiers” in a position of having mob-like mentalities, in average-Joe workplaces.  A guy who once turned out pockets is now turning wrench.  A fellow who once busted kneecaps is now busting rocks.

The children and grandchildren of these has-been big shots were our classmates.  The kids came to school knocked around and knocked up, beaten and beating, furious and frustrated.  It was just understood that minor disagreements were solved with fists and steel-toed boots, while more serious conflicts involved lead pipes and knives.

Each year, our high school lost somewhere between 3 and 10 children to some kind of violence or accidents.  Every year.  So, it was never surprising to any of us—or at least not to me.  (My wife, who grew up in small-town Ohio still really can’t believe I’m not exaggerating when I tell her such things.)  To those who grew up in that scary tourist mecca, it was just the way things were, and it never occurred to any of us to imagine a world where things were different.  Violence, not intelligence, was how problems got solved.

In hindsight, it seems obvious how this all came to be: Fathers succeeded by lawbreaking and terror.  When the Prohibition success went away, the lawbreaking and terror remained, but got funneled into labor unions and local government.  This set the tone for the next generation, and I was born into the generation after that.  Elliot Ness didn’t come to Niagara Falls.  Robert Kennedy didn’t notice my neighborhood.  No one stepped in to say, “This is not how society is meant to be.”  Niagara just kept falling.

People who could get out got out.  It’s a place to be from, but nobody ever moves back there.  It is still unstable, dangerous, and just plain sad.  The easiest thing to do is walk away, and that’s what we did.  Sure, once in a while you go back and drive around Goat Island, marveling at the power of nature.  But because of the power of habit, you’d never seriously consider moving back.  The evil has been passed down for so long that no one knows any other way.  It’s just the way things are.

Now I live in Cleveland, where Elliot Ness made his mark, and where the DOJ recently issued a scathing review of the Police Department.  And somehow, this all seems connected to me.  Parents, and kids, and violence, and fleeing, and race, and poverty.  It all gets played out in the lives—and deaths—of children, but it comes from somewhere else.  It starts in the home, and in our better moments, it starts to change in the home as well.

And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.  —Malichi 4:6

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Marriage of Julia and Mitch

The Marriage of Julia and Mitch
Song of Solomon 2:10 -13; 8:6- 7
John 15:9-12

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You know, I think any time we hear the word “commandment,” we all tense up just a little.  Because we think of  a “commandment” as something against our will, or something we’re going to fail at.  Either it’s a list of rules we can’t keep, or it’s some requirement that is going to take away our fun.  The obvious example is the Ten Commandments, which we might have had a chance of keeping, if pesky Jesus hadn’t come along and ramped them all up with his talks to his disciples. 

We’re not good with commandments, especially when we know we can’t keep them.  That’s why the term makes us nervous.  In today’s Gospel reading from John, which we just heard, Jesus uses the word “commandment” three times.  And with such a short reading, that’s a lot!  And, as is typical of John’s Gospel, there’s a lot of logic and if/then kind of stuff going on.  John is often hard to follow for that very reason.  Like you have to pick it apart to see what he is saying.  And, as the priest, today it is my job to do the picking.

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  That’s pretty straight forward, right?  Jesus loves us like the Father loves him, and he says: abide in his love.  Got it.  So . . . How exactly do we abide in his love?  Well, Jesus answers our question: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Uh oh.  If and then are bad news, and I think it starts to make us sweat a little.  Because now there’s a condition attached, right?  And the condition is attached to our old nemesis, “commandment.”  IF we keep Jesus’ commandments, THEN we will abide in his love. 

We all know that Jesus’ commandments are a mile long right?  And then, Jesus ratchets it up by saying, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  So now, on top of if, then, and commandments, we’ve got long-term goals, right?  We will abide in his love, IF we keep his commandments.  And if we keep his commandments,  our joy will be complete.

So there’s a lot riding on getting this right, right?  We would like to abide in Jesus.  We would hope to keep his commandments.  And we certainly want for our joy to be complete.  Okay.  Alright.  Let’s have it Jesus.  What are your commandments?  Seriously, just go ahead and give us the bad news.

And Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Seriously?  That’s it?  Nothing about shellfish or coveting or gluttony?  Nothing about adultery in our hearts and killing with evil thoughts?  Just . . . love one another?  Oh, wait.  Love one another as you have loved us.  You knew there had to be a catch, right?  We’ve got to see what it means to love like Jesus loves.  So, let’s consider the question:  How does Jesus love us?

Ah.  And this gets us right back to why we are gathered here today, and maybe why Julia and Mitch chose this verse for today’s reading.  Jesus loves us unconditionally.  Whether we are rich or poor.  In sickness and in health.  For better or for worse, you cannot make Jesus stop loving you.  You’re stuck with him, whether you like it or not.  Jesus will always love you.

So if we want to work backwards through the chain of John’s logic, it could go like this.  Our joy will be complete if we follow the example of Jesus and love one another unconditionally.  Do you want to be truly happy?  Love people.  Do you want joy in your own life?  Love people.  And here’s where it all comes back to today:  Do you want Mitch and Julia to live a life filled with joy?

Then love them.  Unconditionally.  Support them in their love for one another.  Forgive them, encourage them, and walk with them.  And, if you do this, your joy will be complete, because you will love them as Jesus loves them.