Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Kristof--a voice of reason

Nicholas Kristof speaks to me. I love to read his column in the NYTimes because he is pretty liberal, but he's--well--kind. I hope he doesn't mind that description, because it may sound very unjournalistic not to be described as bombastic, scathing, cynical, or strident. But in the national media, it's refreshing to read someone intelligent, analytical, but kind. He has spent a good bit of time this year writing on the sex trade in the Far East. While "on location" he ran into some International Justice Mission types, and seemed touched by their comittment. He said something nice about evangelicals.This shows he is not only kind, but courageous. Today he weighed in on the Micheal Moore phenomena. He broaches the Bush as liar rhetoric like this:

"A consensus is emerging on the left that Mr. Bush is fundamentally dishonest, perhaps even evil — a nut, yes, but mostly a liar and a schemer. That view is at the heart of Michael Moore's scathing new documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

In the 1990's, nothing made conservatives look more petty and simple-minded than their demonization of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were even accused of spending their spare time killing Vince Foster and others. Mr. Clinton, in other words, left the right wing addled. Now Mr. Bush is doing the same to the left. For example, Mr. Moore hints that the real reason Mr. Bush invaded Afghanistan was to give his cronies a chance to profit by building an oil pipeline there.

"I'm just raising what I think is a legitimate question," Mr. Moore told me, a touch defensively, adding, "I'm just posing a question."

Right. And right-wing nuts were "just posing a question" about whether Mr. Clinton was a serial killer.

I'm against the "liar" label for two reasons. First, it further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern. Second, insults and rage impede understanding."

Kristof values understanding. Kristof, kind and courageous.
His writing raises hard questions, but I'm sorry, it just has a kind tone to it. Robert Coles (Pulitizer Prize winner who wrote the Moral Intelligence of Children) distills the meaning of morality as basic kindness. So hats off to a liberal with MORALS. Fancy that.

I dont' know how to do links yet, so here's the URL for Kristof today.

Zach Blair's skin; Bev Blair's heart

Today Zac Blair, Bev and Bob's gorgeous 20-something ministerial student son, goes under the surgeon's knife. The doctors will excise two lymph nodes and some more skin to check for cancer cells. It seems to me that Zac ought to just be off at Camp Shiloh in upstate New York working with inner city kids in the name of Jesus. Seems that way to Zac, Bev, and Bob, too. 

Five years ago on the Friday before Labor Day, Bev called me to say she was starting chemotherapy in the next morning for chronic myelogic leukemia. My husband Ken bought me an airline ticket, and I was there on Saturday morning when the nurse brought that first dose. Hundreds of people prayed for month after month for Bev's recovery from leukemia. After more than a year of frustration and unsatisfactory treatment options, she was able to be part of a "mercy trial" for Gleevec, a new drug that targets only the cancer cells. Last check, the oncologists can't find a red blood cell that tests positive for the disease.

So today, we hit the knee for Zac's skin and Bev and Bob's hearts. May God grant good health and inexplicable peace.

Bev, I wish that could be sitting in that waiting room with you.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Can we talk?

Over the utlimate suburban lunch at LaMadelines, she asked for help in reconciling her feelings about the discussions of politics at church. We attend a 90% white congregation in an affluent suburb of Atlanta. She is African-American married to a white man. She and the other black members at our congregation frequently feel offense at the presumption that all God-loving members of the flock vote Republican, love George Bush, resent (maybe even hate?) Bill Clinton, enjoy Rush Limbaugh and admire Sean Hannity. She expressed great concern about the morality of the abortion issue and gay rights, but feels that there are other issues with moral import---care for the sick, the poor, along with stewardship of the environment. So here's the discussion I would like to have. Are there some guidelines or suggestions we can make at our various congregations as this election approaches that will increase the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace, and minimize the divisiveness of politics? I believe it is safe to assume that the Republican party will be organized to mobilize voters even at the congregational level. What will the leaders of our congregations do?

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Walgreen Caribean blues

Blue eyes like the blue in the Caribbean Sea. She checks you out a Walgreens. Maybe you didn't notice her eyes because, like me, you are in a hurry. You grab the pack of gum, magazine, and bottle of lotion and head back to the car. But next time, when she checks you out, look at her for a second and tell her to have a good day. Maybe you could even strike up a short conversation if there isn't a long line. Say something about the weather in these parts and you will find out, she didn't grow up here. Maybe you could even sneak in a invitation to church. If nothing else, just a moment of warmth that conveys that you see her humanity and her worth. As you go out the door, say a prayer for her.

She might be my cousin. My beautiful cousin with Caribbean blue eyes. I saw her a few weeks ago, and asked what work she was doing. Her blue eyes turned bleary, her voice quivered and she replied with something like 'I'm just a cashier at Walgreen's. I'm just a dummy with a worthless job.' All the whys and hows that lead to that response hold a lifetime of hurts. When I think of the pain that little girl-grown woman's heart has held, it makes me a little short of breath. I feel something like physical pain in my chest. At the moment she said it, there were no words to fix it. There are no words now. But there is the Father. There is Jesus. There is the Holy Spirit. And there you are. Here I am. Maybe today when I see her, when you see her, we can ask on her behalf that she feel the love of the Father, the comfort of the Spirit, and redemption of the Son. We can look her in the eye, recognize her humanity and speak to her.

Friday, June 25, 2004

best friend

She's my best friend.
She's Beverly Birdwell Blair.
We were best friends when we were two years old. We were best friends before I remember being best friends. I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know her.

I don't know how many Beverlys there are in the world, but in Warren, Michigan in the 1950s, I think maybe we were the only ones.

We met regularly in the basement of the ugliest church building in Warren, Michigan.Our families attended the Van Dyke Church of Christ on Nine Mile Road. Most of the other church buildings were Catholic or Lutheran, which were quite beautiful. The Van Dyke Baptist Church was really only prettier because they had a neon cross that beamed "Jesus Saves". The Van Dyke Church of Christ building with its red brick,flat roof, and beige linoleum with little brown streaks, sat next to the Sportman's Alibi Bar. We played tag on the lawn between the church and the bar, and the side of the bar was "goul." For those of you who did not grow up on the east side of Detroit, "goul" is the equivalent of "base" for hide and seek and tag.

Oh yes, we sat next to each other in bible class and in worship services in theater seats. Theater seats. I am not sure why we had theater seats,instead of pews, but I think it had something to do with being neither "Catholic, Protestant, nor Jew." Without fail, Beverly and Beverly were there every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night of our young lives, unless we were properly "providentially hindered."

Miss Maude Hall taught our pre-school Sunday School Class in, well, it was the ladies' bathroom. There we were, in the depths of the building, part of the Motor City, singing "This little Christian Light of Mine." The teacher was trying to teach us the song. We got through the "hide it under a bushel, NO!" verse, then the "don't let Satan pouf it" part and then came the last verse. Maude sang, "All around the neighborhood, I'm gonna let it shine." I remember Beverly Birdwell said, "No, no, no teacher! It's 'all around Gaineboro Road' I'm gonna let it shine." Gaineboro, was Beverly Birdwell's parent's hometown, way down in Jackson County Tennessee.

That architecturally challenged building housed a spiritual and cultural experience born from the poorest and richest of the South. Many of the South's poorest people came to work in those shops in and around Detroit, but for what our families lacked in money, they possessed an abundance of love.

Beverly and I grew up in and around and through that strange structure, that Van Dyke Church of Christ. Most of our visits to each other's homes began at the church building. We played house, pioneers, school, and church. In pretend church we preached and lead singing, but not in real church. We memorized our Bible verses and filled out our "Gospel Treasures" Sunday school lessons, on January 5, 1964, we were both baptized into Christ.

The two Beverlys dated the same boys, but never at the same time. We traveled from Detroit to Tennessee to Paris together. We traveled from the 50s to through the 60s together. We sat in those theater seats while the men of the church prayed for our security during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We rode together home from chorus practice in Detroit the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, sad and frightened. We watched the smoke rising from Detroit during riots and waved at the National Guard in full battle regalia patrol our neighborhoods. We traveled together from childhood to womanhood sharing secrets in the stairwells of the church building.

Incidentally, in 1966 our Dads and the other deacons worked together to provide a new Van Dyke Church building with pews and stained glass.

On a chilly Michigan fall in November of 1970, our senior year, Bev sat by my side while we heard that my Dad died from a heart attack. We began our grown up journey of faith. The next fall we were at separate universities and began our adult lives apart. Since then we have both married, born sons, and buried Beverly's dad.

That Van Dyke Church of Christ experience, with of its theological, cultural, and architectural eccentricities, besides introducing us to Jesus gave us the experience of being best friends IN JESUS. Beverly let her little shine all around Gainesboro Road when she visited her cousins in the summers, all around Centerline High when she excelled in all academics and student leadership, and all around Abilene Christian University and Central Michigan University. Now she shines all around the schools where she teaches special education, all around her home where loves and nurtures four of the world's best looking men, and all around my life where, though time and space keep us at a distance, she remains my best friend.

Now, I hope I have made up for leaving her name out of my blog on a cappella music.

Monday, June 21, 2004

"Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity"

If he had been born a few years earlier he would have been in Hitler's Youth. A young school-aged child, he and his single mother dodged Allied bombs in a besieged Berlin. She ended up in the brutal fray of the fallen capital, ravaged by Russian soldiers. Mother and son survived on potato peelings and hope, and finally escaped from a Russian detention camp. As the buildings cooled and survivors picked through the rubble of their lives and their city, the Allies arranged the joint occupation of Berlin. Determined missionaries from the Church of Christ, part of the Stone-Campbell restoration movement, led by a deeply loved preacher, Otis Gatewood, reached the young mother with a simple gospel message. Sometime after her baptism, she met and married an American G.I. The couple returned to the states, bringing the young man to complete his education in America.

Enthusiasm for history and social issues characterized this young man as he grew. I met him when he was an undergraduate at a Christian college. He married my next-door neighbor, and became a secondary social studies teacher. Two indelible impressions from him informed my political socialization and to a certain extent influenced my approach to Christian thought. First, he taught me the word "ethnocentrism" when I was ten years old, clearly showing its insidious nature. Secondly, he had a small sheet of paper posted above his desk that bore these words, "Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity."

To an American evangelical in these early days of the millennium, the first idea may not be a cause for alarm, but the latter may smack of something sinister. Post 9/11, even the baby boomers disillusioned by Vietnam found their way to Wal-Mart to buy an American flag. I know I cut an American flag out of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on 9/12, laminated it, and hung it on my classroom wall. It hangs there today. 9/11 and many other factors have lead to an increasingly close relationship between evangelical Christianity and patriotism. This tie, strenghthened by radio talk shows, websites, interest groups, and a secular news network confirming its leanings, alarms me. My experience today raised concern.

First, the AJC reported that the National Association of Evangelicals is "mulling over guidelines that would warn the faithful against allying themselves too closely with any one political party, 'lest nonbelievers think that the Christian faith is essentially political in nature." The mulling over process is a start.

Next, only a few pages over, the AJC ran a story headlined "Christian 'exodus’ to S.C. planned-Texan envisions state free of liberal meddling". Determined to stop the federal government from "imposing what he considers its liberal will, he wants South Carolina to secede." This fellow wants to get 12,000 Christians to move to South Carolina in order to take over the state government and enact a set of laws friendly to his political ideology, which he bases on his interpretation of scripture. It brought some relief to read that the conservative speaker of the State House in South Carolina and a spokesman from Bob Jones University both panned the idea. Nonetheless, 600 folks have signed up. According to the AJC, he's been given some positive press from conservative talk show personalities and websites.

Today I sat in a class of teachers preparing to teach Advanced Placement Comparative Politics and Government. I wish some of my precious Christian friends could hear the perceptions they have of Christians. These perceptions come directly from the stridency and partisanship of the current political climate. It hit me as ironic when the distinguished professor came to a brief discussion of "the functions of ideology". One such function, political scientists assert, is to give one the ability to get along---to be socially accepted. My understanding of the Word is that our spiritual kinship in Jesus makes us one of the bunch. However, the climate today among my believing friends is so partisan and nationalistic, that some look askance if you indicate that you question the current administration's policies. Some believers assume that their interpretation of politics is so right and righteous, that they bring to the assembly of Christians political statements, both serious ones and others they consider funny. For example, just this past Sunday, one of my dearest friends and a brother in Christ asked, in an organized Bible study setting, “So, who is going to buy Bill Clinton’s book this week?” His tone was intentionally pejorative.

My over “three score and ten” mother, a Roosevelt Democrat, replied, “I plan to buy the book; I love Bill Clinton.” The group fell completely silent, and the teacher dropped the topic. Oops. Political ideology did not function to make her part of the group.

What is a person possessing a different political persuasion to do? Counter partisan political remarks, therefore sounding argumentative, or sit silently in order to keep peace? Keeping silent on political remarks to keep the peace may have a biblical basis. This could be an equal opportunity silence. Presuming partisanship and demanding a form of patriotism is not the ideology Christ declared would bring us together.

The NAE indicates that it wants its members to avoid the excesses of nationalism, but encourages “maintaining a commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad and opposition to some specified social evils---alcohol, drugs, abortion, and stem-cell research.” Profound problems and debates surround the issues listed, but even the comments of this disclaimer make it no wonder "nonbelievers think that Christianity may be essentially political in nature."

What if the NAE said, "Let's avoid the excesses of nationalism and concentrate instead on making disciples, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and otherwise helping the poor--especially single mothers and fatherless children. Let's be known for healing the sick, welcoming immigrants to our community, and spending time with prostitutes, drug addicts, and other social misfits. Let's count it a joy if the state persecutes us for the sake of the faith and, by all means, let us be peacemakers." Some believers might look askance and even decide they better join the exodus to South Carolina.

Sadly,the nonbelieving public hears exponentially more about evangelical views on a political issues than they do about the many good works done, but this statement by the NAE confirms, it is not just the liberal media waylaying the message.Evangelicals and other conservative Christians need to own up to their part in obscuring the core of the gospel to nonbelievers, and by their presumption, creating wedges between members of the Christian community.

“Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity.” This statement is extremist, even outrageous to us, but the warning appeared on my neighbor's wall as a legacy of national spirit gone wrong. Certainly, thoughtful civic concern and action will not hammer a nail in the coffin of Christianity, but speaking and acting in such a way that the greater society mistakes the nature of the kingdom, seems worthy of at least a surgeon general's warning.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The a cappella stage--screen memories from a Campbellite dreamer

I grew up between 8 Mile and 9 Mile in suburban Detroit. Strangely, I lived in a neighborhood with about seven households who worshipped with the Church of Christ. In case you are not familiar with the Church of Christ, most congregations of this “tribe” worship a cappella. Other than those seven households, there was one Lutheran family, and EVERYONE else I knew was Catholic. After I got out of high school, I met a Presbyterian.

My senior year in high school, our congregation was in a period of what seemed to me spiritual vigor, and my best friend, Beverly Birdwell Blair and I happily invited our public school friends to worship. When a handful of Catholic friends showed up, my anxiety spiked, especially when I thought about the singing. After all, it was Sunday night. The crowd boasted the usual ½ of Sunday morning, and the song leader, well, no boasting there. If I recall, possible selections, sweet and meaningful to me, consisted mostly of “gospel music” of which, I have heard critics assert, was “not really gospel and not music either.” I held my breath momentarily when the singing started. What would our friends think? They, accustomed to the majestic organ of St. Mark’s Catholic Church. In spite of the small crowd, teenaged song leader, and less than elegant music, we truly sensed a sweet spirit in the place. Heartfelt prayers and sermon uttered by men with Jackson County Tennessee accents, provided an audio and spiritual feast for our Polish and Italian pals.

Afterwards I felt rather sheepish about my trepidation. My friends’ response was so warm and reflective. They marveled at the sincerity, spontaneity, and the laity of it all.

I saw it as a treasure.

For weeks before my wedding, thirty years ago this August, I had a recurring bad dream. The dream always took place at the church. I stood in the second floor nursery, looking down from the enormous window up there, over the ceremony. The music turned out to be bizarre in some way. I don't know if what made it bizarre was the avocado green carpet and curtain, but an analyst might find at the root some psychospiritual infantile experience of singing a hymn along with an instrument and later hearing from church members the eternal danger of anything but a cappella. Adding to the psychological damage might have been the hermeneutics double-bind created by being told to obey all kinds of Old Testament examples, but to avoid at the possible cost of hell, clapping or use of the harp, lyre, and cymbal.

No interpretation of dreams took place, but I must admit, in my most conscious state, to experiencing waves of anxiety about the effect of the a cappella music on my wedding guests who came from very different traditions.

The guest I worried the most about, was Mrs. Dorsett. Mrs. Dorsett, in her early eighties, played the organ for a large Presbyterian Church in Detroit. She was an extraordinary music teacher. Among her credits, back in the late 30s and early 40s she was an adjunct music professor at Harding university who taught diction to none other than Dr. Kenneth “Uncle Bud” Davis. I do believe the factor of being a Presbyterian teaching at what was then a small church of Christ related college is the reason for the adjunct in her title.

As we contemplated the music for the ceremony, we would think of this fellow or that fellow who might perform, but each one we would consider, we would say, “No, he’s in the wedding.” After saying this six times we decided to have the groomsmen sing. Each of them had been vocal performers in colleges with a strong tradition of great a cappella music. For the bridesmaids’ processional they sang “O God our Help in Ages Past” and for the bride (me!) they sang “God of Our Fathers.”

Weeks later Ken and I went to visit Mrs. Dorsett, music teacher and organist extraordinaire who asked us in a most formal tone and her Michigan accent, “By the way, where did you find that ‘mah-vel-ous' ensemble to perform for your wedding?” She could hear better than she could see.

These two experiences lightened my load of self-consciousness about our tradition of a cappella singing, opening my eyes to the unique beauty of it. Knowing spirit-filled folks from many communions and hearing great Bible teaching released me to enjoy many other expressions of music in worship. I think the more we outgrow self-consciousness and the need to make our identity by boundary markers from other believers, the more we can confidently revel in the wonder of worship.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Prince Albert goes to war

Today every flag in America is flying at half-mast in of honor the Gipper, former President Ronald Reagan, a tribute fitting, of course, for a man who for eight years held the presidency of the world's most powerful nation. But each time I rode by a flag today, I pretended it was also at half-mast for my mother's last living sibling, Uncle Bill. We attended his memorial service at a small funeral home chapel in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

My grandpa, Uncle Bill's father, born in 1869 and named Prince Albert, passed this distinguished name on to his son. These men were not named for the tobacco, but for the actual prince, the husband of Queen Victoria. So my mother's brother, born in Dardenelle, Arkansas in 1922, became the ninth of ten children in a early 20th century yours, mine, and ours blend. Unlike most of the late 20th century blended families, this family was engineered by a combination of natural disaster and a sense of biblical responsibility. Lettie Brown Johnson Evans lost her first husband, Dimmit Evans, in the Flu Epidemic of 1918. Reminiscent of the kinsman redeemers of the Israelites, Lettie Brown Johnson Evans, Uncle Bill's mother, was rescued from her lonely state by Dimmit's widowed older brother, the aforementioned Prince Albert Evans.

So when did Prince Albert become Bill? Nicknames evolved in the Evans family somewhat like they did in the Cherokee community where my dad grew up. Traits observed in children led the elders to assign them a name. Toddling Prince Albert moved at a pretty quick pace. I am sure all babies seemed pretty quick moving to Prince Albert, the father, seeing as he was in his late fifties already! At any rate, Prince Albert, the toddler, was dubbed, "Wild Bill."

My mom, Emma Jo Evans Choate, can recount many stories about the rough and tumble days of their Arkansas youth, but the innocence of that youth was cut short by the call of Pearl Harbor. When Prince Albert the younger signed up with Uncle Sam, he signed in as Bill Evans and no questions were asked. He went to war with the hundreds of thousands of others of his generation and survived the horrors of the South Pacific theater including Okinawa and the Philippines.

Bill came home in 1945 and the burdens of being Wild Bill, Private Bill, husband Bill, and father Bill challenged his being. There was warfare for his soul, and for many years he wandered through the maze of life without committment to the LORD. I remember my mom, his baby sis, praying aloud EVERY night of my life, "Lord, please, help Bill to know that the best thing in life is pure and undefiled religion before you." My mom tended to utter certain prayers in King James English. Note: King James of England preceeded Prince Albert and Victoria by about 250 years.

So, through the 50s she prayed. In the 60s she prayed. Today my cousin J.D. Cash, eulogized Uncle Bill, saying that Uncle Bill's baptism in the 60s was a start, but Uncle Bill's life lacked the peace and the practice that one might want for his life in Christ. Mom still prayed that same prayer all through my high school years.

It was in 70s that Uncle Bill began demonstrating the new life of the spirit he had been granted. He finally put on the full armor of God.He repented publicly of his his ways. He gave up destructive habits. He began to worship with Christians. He renewed his devotion to his immediate family and to his extended family. Over the last thirty years, after the untimely death of his son, he took great care of his grandaughter. He provided heroic care for his wife, and for his widowed sisters in their old age. He repaired their cars and cut their grass. Uncle Bill drove them to doctor's appointments. In their later years, he feed them lunch at the nursing home and packed up their houses when they passed away.

So Toddling Prince Albert became Wild Bill. Wild Bill became Private Bill. Bill Evans became grown-up citizen, husband, and father. He struggled. He missed many years of blessings.But he became a New Creature. Through many "dangers, toils, and snares" by God's grace,he showed himself one who understood "true religion." He kept himself "unspotted from the world and cared for widows and orphans in their affliction."

This week, the world says goodbye to a popular US president. Today, our family said goodbye to a prince, not just in name, but in reality. He lost some battles, but by the grace of God, he won the war. A child of the King. Prince Bill.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

pottery barn policy

Bob Woodward, in Plan of Attack, recounts a conversation between Powell and the President in the run up to the war in which Powell prods the president to take into consideration the necessity of owning potential problems in Iraq. Powell told the president, "You break it; you own it." Once Plan of Attack hit the bookstands, the episode and expression were repeatedly broadcast. Pottery Barn, offended by the association, publicly defended their company's consumer friendly culture by stating clearly there is NO SUCH policy at the Pottery Barn.

Terry Gross recalled hearing Tom Friedman, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, use that expression on her show and reading it in his column multiple times before the invasion of Iraq. Friedman, in an interview broadcast today with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, explained. Friedman used the expression in a conversation with Richard Armitage, who used it in a conversation with Powell. Powell repeated it to the president, unaware of origins of the expression or the customer service policies of the Pottery Barn. Bob Woodward records it for posterity.

Powell explained the whole story last week on Larry King live. Friedman joked that no one was particularly concerned with the origins of the expression until Pottery Barn showed their ire.

So is this a little parable?