A wide spot in my imagination.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Telling Time Twice

There are two clocks on the piano in our living room.

One clock, the big one, is old. It belonged to my grandmother. She inherited it from her father. My guess is that it's a product of the 1950s, though it was designed to look older. It's a mantel clock, that sits squarely and squatly in its place. It's faux marble, plastic really. And when you look up close, you can see the seams in the plastic and the cracks along the tiny pillars. The hands on the clock are metal, and the second hand is missing. Somewhere along the way, somebody (maybe a grandkid) painted the hands purple. They may even be covered with melted crayon. Maybe the work of a grandmother and grandchild working together.

When I was a child, that clock sat imperiously on the mantel of my grandparents' farm house. It chimed with deep-throated dignity each hour and dinged cheerfully the quarter-hour, half-hour and three quarters-hour. On rare and special occasions, my grandmother would let me wind the clock, gently, gently, careful not to twist the innards too far. (Winding the clock was fun. But this was the same grandmother who made out cleaning brush to be a party and cleaning the fish pond more fun than going to an amusement park.)

That clock, the big one, sits on top of the piano, passed down where my children -- the fifth generation now to have its company -- can see it.

That clock no longer works. But still it keeps time. That clock -- plastic facade, purple-painted hands, and sadly-sprung innards -- reaches across generations and keeps my present in time with the past and the future.

The other clock on our piano is small. Plastic also, it marks the minutes and seconds with digital enthusiasm. Set to some satellite in the atmosphere it silently runs and perhaps will forever. It is the clock for keeping track of the details of our daily schedules: "How long have your practiced the piano?" "Is my 'screen time' over?" "Brush your teeth, it's time to go to school."

The little clock, new and dependable, measures my minutes. The big clock, old and broken, tells the time of generations. I think I need them both. Time needs telling in at least two ways.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glenn Beck is right .... and very, very, wrong

Glenn Beck is right. He said "social justice" isn't in the Bible. (At least I think that's part of what he said in his recent Fox News rant.) But that's the true, the phrase "social justice" is not to be found in the sacred texts of Judaism or Christianity. Lots of words that are key to our faith are not found in the Bible. "Easter" is not there. Neither is "Christmas." Some theological words -- such as "Trinity" -- aren't there. And tried-and-true church traditions -- such as "potluck supper," "committee meeting," or "Sunday School." For that matter, "air conditioning," "automobile," and the "Dallas Cowboys" won't be found in the Bible either.

But, Glenn Beck is very, very wrong. To say that Christians should flee from churches that preach social justice (I know Beck said that: I heard it with my own boggled ears) demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the call of the church.

Even though the exact words "social justice" are not found in the Bible, the scriptures are full of examples of, definitions of, and calls to social justice.

The farmer-prophet Micah defined religion, at its core, as "doing justice" (along with loving kindness and walking humbly). The poet-prophet Isaiah painted a picture of the world as God sees it: where enemies lie down together, where weapons become garden tools. The carpenter-preacher Jesus said to give clothes to poor people, feed the hungry, and care for the sick (among other things). The writer James said that religion is about caring for orphans and widows in their distress. Each of these things is social justice. Each of these is a call to make society more just. That's what we faith-followers are supposed to do.

Yes, there are other aspects of Christianity. And, sure, maybe some people sometimes get carried away with their social justice work. And the relationship of church and state in doing justice can be tricky. But anyway you look at it, the work of social justice is central to the call of the church.

In fact, to take a page from Glenn Beck's suggestions and turn it around, I would tell people to take a look at their churches. If they don't hear -- or better yet, see -- social justice in the works, don't leave. Instead, get busy. Go to work. Make society more just. Care for God's people.

Here's where Mr. Beck really missed the boat: he talked about churches where social justice is preached. As a professional, paid preacher, I would like to think that preaching is all that's needed. How cool would that be if I could stroll into the pulpit a time or two a week, hold forth on feeding the poor, and -- poof! -- there would be chicken enchiladas in every pot, health care for all, affordable housing, fair wages for good work, good schools, and equal rights. Alas, no preacher I know is that good. (Certainly I'm not.)

So, don't tell Mr. Beck, but churches that preach social justice are no big deal. Church people who do social justice are, well, that's a different story -- in fact, that's "the old, old story of Jesus and his love" (as one hymn writer put it). So, the real work of social justice is church people lobbying members of Congress, talking to city council members, building cross-boundary coalitions, hammering out solutions with educators. That's social justice. It's hard work. It's needed.

One more word about Glenn Beck's controversy over social justice... I should have seen it coming. A few months ago, our church started a yoga group. The very next week, Pat Robertson and crew said yoga was a tool of the devil. Last week, a church member emailed me about beginning a social justice group at our church. Within days, Glenn Beck says to flee social justice churches. Maybe we should have a pro-war rally at church so that Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly would become pacifists. If we declare universal health care to be the work of the anti-Christ, would John Boehner and Michelle Bachman decide it's the birthright of all Americans? Maybe we should just stick to the social justice that Jesus set forth.....

Monday, March 8, 2010

Reading Life

Our seven year-old is home sick today.

While I'm checking email in a chair in the corner, she's curled up with a book on the bed.

Just a moment ago, she turned to me with the sparkly glimmer of a new-found idea and said, "Daddy, you can hear this sentence. You can hear it in your head." Then she read the sentence to me: "Listen to the applause." She listened. I listened.

"Can't you just hear the clapping," she asked.

The book was alive, as only books can be.

Sometimes sick days are good days.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Gospel According to Willie Nelson

During the season of Lent, we're having mid-week services here at our place. A potluck supper in the Fellowship Hall, followed by brief times of quiet contemplation in the Sanctuary.

Last week, the church member in charge of the sound system popped in a CD during supper. It was instrumental recordings of pop tunes, old and new. Not exactly "church" music (which can be a good thing), and it certainly added groovy vibe to the gathering. Somewhere along the way, as people moved from supper to service, the CD changed from Top 40 faves to Taize chants. But as I walking into the sanctuary, that change had not yet occured.

So, as I walked into the darkened room, lights dimmed for calming and quieting, candles flickering for focus and feeling, I heard the opening strains of, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." It was an instrumental version, but in my mind, I could hear Willie Nelson crooning. It struck me as funny. So I commented to the bulletin-passer-outer, "Hey, listen, it's that great Lenten hymn...'To All the Girls I've Loved Before.'" We giggled the irreverent giggles of those confronted with blending of "sacred" and "profane."

A few minutes later, the CD faded into French chanting of "holy" words or some such churchy sounds. But for six days now, Willie's words have been wandering through my mind. "To all the girls I've loved before..." And I think there's a Lenten lesson in that tune.

The shorthand understanding of Lent is that it is about giving up, chopping off, coming to a screaching halt with some horribe "sin" such as eating chocolate or drinking beer. For forty days, people give up cussing or desserts and pretend that they have in some way sacrified for the faith.

"To All the Girls I've Loved Before" offers a different take. The song seems whistful. The singer (Willie or the other dozens of folks who've recorded it) seem to remember fondly past "sins," some of which you get the impression the singer really misses, others of which the singer is glad to be shed of, and still some you think the singer would hop into bed with right away if possible, even though they were wrong or dangerous or damning.

So, what if, "To All the Girls of I've Loved Before," became the official song of Lent? What if, instead of chopping off some past "sin" (which modern Lent seems to encourage indulging in again just as soon as the Easter Bunny pops out of the tomb), we, instead, embrace who we are, who we've been, what we've done, where we're going? What if we took Lent as a time -- not to give up -- but to gaze upon: to gaze upon who we really are, to gaze upon who we might become? What if Lent were the time to try to know ourselves "even as we shall be known," to quote to the old apostle.

"I am a part of all I have met," Tennyson wrote.

"No man is an island," John Donne said.

"I am an unclean man," Isaiah said, "and I have seen God."

"The good, the bad and the ugly," we say. "Warts and all."

"To all the girls I've loved before," sings Willie over the loud speakers in our Lenten minds.

To be aware, truly aware, of who we are, what we've done, who we might become. Lent does not call us to radical discontinuity, so much as to clear vision of life as it is. That is the whistfulness of Lent.