Rush to the Exit

I saw a recent news story online that the huge radio network Cumulus may be dropping the Rush Limbaugh show from their stations, due to the high cost of distributing it. Limbaugh’s program is syndicated through a subsidiary of Cumulus’ rival network, Clear Channel. Apparently, Cumulus is also considering dropping Limbaugh’s fellow radio blowhard, Sean Hannity.

I never liked Hannity’s program, either on radio or television. From the outset, I found his shtick off-putting. He found a very marketable way to package third-grade maturity and debating tactics, conducting interviews with all the grace and commitment to honest dialogue of a street thug. Selling to the ideological lowest common denominator while wrapping the product in an American flag is a time-tested formula for success, and he’s used it well in his rise to being the second-most listened to radio talk host in the country, second only to Limbaugh himself. Hannity is certainly an astute marketer of his own brand and reader of populist tea leaves, even if he is little more than a bullying stooge; a two-bit thug in a custom suit who likely spends more in a month on haircare than I do on groceries.

Limbaugh, on the other hand, is a different story. I remember back in the early 1990s, when he had only recently taken to the air. Those were the years that I was most conservative in my politics, and Limbaugh fanned those conservative embers into a flame. I loved Rush; I listened to most of his program most days while I worked. I bought his books, the T shirts, the coffee mugs. I even bought one of his God-awful neckties, realizing it would end up in the back of my closet, too tacky to ever wear in public. I ate lunch at “Rush Rooms” – restaurants which had tapped into the Limbaugh phenomenon by broadcasting his show in their dining rooms over lunchtime. I really, really wanted to go to Dan’s Bake Sale and be part of a national gathering of like-minded Dittoheads.

Back in those days, Limbaugh’s show seemed to be equal parts of conservative information and entertainment. He would feature various “Updates” – feminist updates, homeless updates, environmentalist updates, etc., each with their particular theme song. In the updates, he would poke fun at some outrageous statement made by proponents of those various advocacy movements. And frankly, the bits really were funny, even when you didn’t agree with Limbaugh’s political point. No matter what your own ideology, no matter what issues you support, liberal or conservative, each of those issues have people on the fringe  who say some pretty stupid things, which invite and deserve satire. And back then, when it came to taking funny jabs at liberal positions, no one did it as well as Rush.

Over time, though, something happened. In my opinion, as his ratings soared and caller after caller gushed with compliments about him, Rush realized that he’d actually become a power broker – that his microphone could make major sways in people’s purchasing decisions, whether in the consumer world or in politics. Rush became a king-maker. And when he realized that, it wasn’t just his own personality and self-image that changed. His program changed as well, and for the worse. The humor became less and less a part of the show, being cast aside for the seemingly more important work of increasing the edge of the conservative ideological push, and all with the purpose of exercising that new-found king-making power. The hubris that followed undoubtedly led to a string of failings in his personal life, failings that were utterly inconsistent with the moral views his program ostensibly upheld and which, had they occurred in the lives of his liberal opponents, Rush would have used like a sledge hammer against them. In short, the show became almost uninterrupted political screeds with little or no humor, or for lack of a better word, joy. Rush went from being a radio host that people could, believe it or not, enjoy for the quality of his program even when they disagreed with him, to his being nothing but a testy mouthpiece for one particular strand of conservatism within the Republican party. He just wasn’t entertaining any more. Worse, his own personal failings and his conspicuous love of the finest material things in life – along with his continual blathering about them – began to not sit well with the regular folk who put him at the top of the heap to begin with. I think many of them started listening to him less and less. Rush Rooms began disappearing. Yes, his outrageousness and his commitment to an extreme conservative ideology would always attract new up and coming listeners, but more and more people seemed to be going out the back door as well. And I was one of them.

I don’t know exactly when I quit listening to Rush. I suppose it was probably around 2002 or 2003. On rare occasion now, if I’m changing radio stations and I hear him, I’ll listen to him for a few minutes, only to hear that he’s only gotten worse. In fairness, the time I stopped listening to him was when my own political thoughts began to shift to the left, so it’s likely that my differences with Rush were magnified by us both shifting, and in opposite directions. But it’s also possible that my becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Rush and the increasing mean-spiritedness of his comments were some of the first gentle nudges actually pushing me leftward. That’s possible. Mostly, though, my own shift was because at about that same time, I started seriously digging into my faith. I started to be exposed to strands of thought within the Christian faith that understood and interpreted the scriptures in ways that were different from what I’d been exposed to and taught previously. I began to understand that being serious about one’s faith didn’t require automatically latching on to conservative political ideology, or conservative theology, for that matter. To be certain, this new way of understanding the faith didn’t require a similar automatic acceptance of the liberal party line, either, but through this process I came to understand that faith, and life, were far more nuanced and complex than the simplistic ways of looking at things being preached, whether from the “golden EIB microphone” or from many pulpits, then or now.

As far as I can see – and I admit, I’m certainly not combing the media to keep track of him – Limbaugh’s shift toward mean-spirited outrageousness has only continued. I wonder if that’s nearing the tipping point, in consideration of this pending decision from Cumulus. The high costs of running the program, in conjunction with the lost revenue from numerous advertisers who have now refused to buy spots during his show – indicate that Rush may be on the downward side of the hill of his influence. It was the regular folk who put Rush at the top of the ratings, even if he was serving as the lap dog and mouthpiece of the country’s monied interests who have only scorn for those same regular people. But the regular folk have their limits. The regular folk understand fairness, and when someone has crossed the line. And when regular-folk commercial operations like Sears/K Mart, and John Deere decided to stop advertising on Rush’s show, that’s saying something serious.

I wonder how much longer it will be before Rush heads for the exit. Granted, he’s still at the top of the heap, so that isn’t coming any time in the near future. But people age, and times change. No radio program, and no person, lasts forever; and their ends may be more or less graceful. Will Rush decide to call it quits relatively gracefully, when he’s at least within sight of the peak that he’s certainly already crested? Or will his ego get the better of his business sense and his sense of legacy? Will he cling onto some version of his show, serving a smaller and smaller audience as the world changes around him and he becomes a caricature of his former king-making self? Will Rush eventually become the Pat Robertson of secular political radio – the nutty uncle who’s always saying something crazy, but since he’s just sitting in a corner talking to himself, he isn’t hurting anyone and it doesn’t matter? I wonder. Oddly, even though our politics are vastly different now, I’d probably listen to his program from time to time – occasionally, not obsessively – if he’d ever go back to the more entertaining, light-hearted, and less mean-spirited way his shows were in the early days. That’s not likely to ever happen, of course, but I know that with God, all things are possible, and that through God, people can and do have self-awakenings and humbly change. For his sake, I hope that he might have just such an awakening. On the other hand, if the combination of changing society and his hyperinflated ego do ultimately bring an end to his radio empire, I suppose we’ll all be able to say See, I Told You So.

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Magic Mirror

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When I grew up, a lot of different cities hosted a television show called Romper Room. It always featured an attractive young female teacher of sorts – always Miss So-and-So; when I was that age in the mid-1960s in the Pittsburgh area, the local host was Miss Jayne, or maybe Miss Jan, I can’t quite remember – and maybe a dozen or so preschool-aged children. As far as memory serves, it mostly taught kids simple little games, exercises, and songs that were always centered around teaching the kids to be well-mannered, to be helpful to their parents, and to always walk with good posture, which apparently was considered a major social problem of the time. To help with that, the teacher and the kids would walk around while trying to keep these little, flat-bottomed baskets on top of their heads, while singing, “See me walk so straight and tall; I won’t let my basket fall. Eyes ahead and don’t look down; keep that basket off the ground.” I remember they also did some stretching calisthenics, singing (remember, these were prime Space Race years) “Bend, and stretch; reach for the stars; here comes Jupiter, there goes Mars. Bend, and stretch; reach for the sky, stand on tippy-toes, oh so high…” Watching Romper Room kept us all healthy, socially well-adjusted, and prepared to keep the country free for democracy, all while keeping us out from under our stay-at-home moms’ feet. Of course, they had a full line of merchandise that kids could ask their parents for – those posture baskets, songbooks, different things. One of the parts of the show that always caught my attention was when Miss Whoever would look through her Magic Mirror, right through the television tubes of every preschool child in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and call them out by name – “I see Bobby, and I see Mary, and I see Alex, and I see Susie…” I waited breathlessly each time to see if this day, maybe she caught a glimpse of me through the Magic Mirror, but its superpowers never seemed to reach through the televisions of children with uncommon first names for some reason. Ah well, I’d be a good Do-Bee anyway, it’s what Miss Jayne and the President and Mom would want.

The congregation that I’ve been serving has a small enough Sunday attendance that when we ask for prayer requests during the Prayers of the People, those in attendance will just raise their hand and call out people’s names, and usually a brief explanation of the reason for the request. Thankfully, no one has ever shared that they were asking for prayer for Ethel’s recovery from surgery to remove a hemorrhoid so large that it would be mentioned in the next edition of the Guinness Book. In any case, every Sunday I’ll dutifully jot down the name of the person for whom the prayer of concern or joy was intended, and then during the prayer I’ll mentally collate them and fold their names, more or less list-like, into the prayer in a way that the congregation can briefly consider and pray for each of the people and/or situations. This is absolutely an important part of each service, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t become routine, or worse, that there’s an impression that there’s some sort of Magic Mirror aspect to the prayer – that the Send button for our corporate prayer isn’t actually pushed until I’ve actually mentioned them, by name, in the body of the prayer; and if by chance in the mental sorting process, I accidentally miss a name – something I have, on rare occasion, done – then the prayer didn’t “take” for that person, even though we’ve already vocally lifted up the person for the whole congregation’s consideration just moments before.  Let’s face it: prayer – the amazing, brazen act of conversing, communing with, hearing the transcendent Creator of the cosmos – is an odd activity, pretty much by definition, and thinking about and trying to understand it might be even more odd a task.

I’m not sure who said it – I think it was Anne Lamott, but I’m too lazy to verify that, so I’ll attribute it to her, anyway – but whoever it was said that prayer is a lot less like sitting down and demanding God appear, conjuring up God to have a private, one-on-one conversation with you, and much more like you simply tapping in to a conversation between God and everyone that’s really already and always ongoing, and which is immediately adjacent and accessible to us. For us, entering into prayer is more like picking up the phone on an old-fashioned party line, if you’re ancient enough to actually remember those, or like driving your car up an entry ramp and onto a highway already full of traffic. Our prayer is melded together with everyone else’s prayers; in some mystical way they’re all intertwined and become, in a way, music, where our prayers for others and prayers for ourselves and prayers for all the other pray-ers joining in the song are all one and equal and perfectly in balance. And over, and under, and around, and through it all, is God, penetrating all and hearing all and answering all, and actually becoming part of the song; Bonhoeffer’s cantus firmus,  or maybe just the universe’s most awesome bass line, or something. Actually, Lamott, or whoever, didn’t say all that; I took the core thought and ran with it. There have been many times when I’ve felt that my prayers actually were summoning God into my presence for an individual command performance, and sometimes I’ve felt amazing, wonderful answers to those prayers. But the idea that when we center ourselves and enter into prayer, it’s usually more our entering into that eternal, continuous polyphonous song, has been tremendously helpful to me in my prayer life.

Yesterday, during the Prayers of the People, we prayed for others, trying not to be Magic Mirrorish – for people and situations in dangerous, strange, foreign places like Syria and Egypt and Russia and Zimbabwe and Louisiana; for survivors and families of victims of bus crashes; for a safe and fun time for all at the county fair; for a full recovery for Ethel after her recent surgery. And then, I asked the people there to pray for themselves, in a special way. Borrowing a form of prayer mentioned in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, but tweaking it just a bit, I asked the worshipers to sit upright, but comfortably (Romper Room posture baskets not required), with their arms out in front of them and their palms upward. I asked them to imagine all of their sins, all of their shortcomings, all of the things in their lives that they were ashamed of or struggled with or that were in any way separating them from God and the joyous life God has called us into. I asked them not to think of them abstractly, like a big glop of something in their hands, but to identify each thing, particularly, with specificity. Name them. Anger or hatred that I feel for Joe, or Angela. Worry over a strained relationship with my son, Tim. Anxiousness because I don’t know where next month’s mortgage payment is going to come from, let alone gas money. The agony of watching my father, Sam, slipping further and further into the hell of Alzheimer’s. Whatever. Name each one. Feel the weight, the burden of each one of them, weighing your hands down, lower and lower. And then… still in a state of prayer, turn your palms downward, letting those burdens slide out of your hands. dump them into Christ’s waiting hands. let them all go, even the ones whose familiarity gives you some perverse form of comfort. Let them go. Jesus says come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, not to leave those burdens on you, but to take them away. So let him. Hand them over to him. And then… turn your palms upward. Feel the lightness, the airiness, of those empty hands. Feel them almost float upward in front of you in their lightness. But that’s not all. That’s not enough. Now, ask God to fill that emptiness with God’s very self. Fill every void, every gap, every crevice in your being that those old worries and angers and hatreds had filled before. Feel God in your fingertips, tracing down your arms, racing through your body,  God-beams of grace and mercy and love flowing through you like blood through your arteries. Feel God’s love surrounding you. Hear the cantus firmus, and add your very own life-harmony to it.

It’s a very effective way to meditate and pray. I recommend doing it every so often in your own prayer life. It’s a wonderful way to feel centered, renewed, refreshed, and to feel God’s presence filling you. It’s what all good Do-Bees do. And Miss Jayne would approve.

An Interesting Book, Apparently

This recent Fox News interview is getting a lot of attention; maybe you’ve already seen it. In the interview, Lauren Green, Fox News’ religion correspondent,is interviewing Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American who holds a PhD in the history of religions and who has written several books on the subject. He also happens to be a Muslim, having converted to Islam from Christianity. Aslan, who has a great last name for anyone who is a fan of irony, has apparently stirred up some controversy with his book. Apparently, it calls into question the historicity of some beliefs of orthodox Christianity regarding Jesus. His book is certainly not the first book coming out of academia to draw fire from within the Christian faith for having done that. It was this very issue – scholarly examination of the life of the historical Jesus, and the historical study of the scriptures and their origin – that spurred the reactionary response within Christianity that gave birth to Fundamentalism in the late 19th- and early 20th century. But Aslan is apparently also being targeted for criticism based on the claim that, as a Muslim, he could have no valid interest in Jesus, nor could he have anything of value to add to the Jesus discussion. And it’s this line of thought – that Aslan’s book is an anti-Christian screed full of Muslim bias and misperceptions of the real Jesus, whom only Christians would be able to speak of – that Lauren Green raises in her interview questions.

Green has taken a lot of criticism for the interview, mostly in the form of personal attacks. She’s called stupid, moronic, hateful, a tool of her conservative handlers, etc. etc. I won’t jump on that bandwagon. To be honest, I find that line of attack just as shameful as the attacks that have been made on Aslan. It’s impossible to really know a lot about the true character of a media personality, but from what I’ve seen and heard from Ms. Green in the past, I believe that she’s intelligent and fair. She is very sincere and committed in her Christian faith. She is also a very talented musician. But most importantly, she’s a serious journalist – and on the whole, I think a pretty good one, and even her detractors should grant that.

But her line of questioning in the interview is really troubling. Based on what I’ve seen of her reporting, I’m pretty sure that she’s part of a more conservative strand of the Christian faith than my own. So it isn’t surprising, and frankly, it’s entirely appropriate, that she would question Aslan about the controversy his book has stirred up among more conservative Christians. Frankly, that’s the whole reason for the interview to begin with – digging into that controversy increases viewership and sells advertising for Fox News, and sells books for Aslan. Blessed be the name of the game.  But the whole “why would a Muslim want to write a story about the founder of Christianity?” bit is very troubling to me for several reasons.

Jesus is not only the Head of the Christian Church. He’s also held in the very highest esteem by Muslims as well. Jesus (Isa) is considered a prophet of the highest degree, second only to Muhammed. And while Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God, they do believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah – although it must be noted that Muslims understand that term somewhat differently than Christians do, who, in turn, understand the term differently than do Jews. Muslims do not believe that Jesus actually died on the cross and was resurrected; rather, they believe that he only came near death, and later revived in the coolness of the tomb in which he was laid (a number of admittedly non-orthodox Christians also believe this). On the other hand, Muslims do believe in Jesus’ virgin birth (something that a number of non-orthodox Christians do not believe in, but who continue to believe in Jesus’ divinity, believing the virgin birth to be unnecessary for the mystery of the incarnation).

This is all basic information that any Christian should be aware of – and if they aren’t, shame on them. More accurately, shame on their churches for not educating them in important matters of interfaith relations. All of this points to the fact that any Muslim should have a strong interest in understanding more about the historical Jesus.

But what about the claim that a non-Christian is apparently a biased, or an unreliable source or scholar regarding Jesus? I know that there are some within the full spectrum of Christianity who believe that – I’ve encountered them regularly, and it seems to be those people whom Lauren Green is channeling in her interview with Aslan. The issue of bias should be tossed out from the get-go. Everyone has a bias in their understanding. Everyone. That includes not only Aslan – who, for what it’s worth, makes clear at the very opening of his book that he’s Muslim – but it also includes the people who believe he’s wrong. Each and every one of them hold beliefs that are shaped every bit as much by their own cultural, social, contextual influences. The problem arises when people can’t or won’t admit this reality, and when they think that their particular understanding is some pristene, unbiased norm, the gold standard by which others’ scholarship or beliefs are to be measured.

But beyond that – if non-Christians have no legitimate voice in Jesus and/or Christian scholarship, then we would also have to discredit such scholars as, to name just two, Amy-Jill Levine, the brilliant biblical scholar, author, and professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Vanderbilt Divinity School, who is Jewish; and Bart Ehrman, the prolific author, respected biblical scholar, and professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill – who started out a Fundamentalist Christian, then shifted to become an Evangelical, then a Progressive Christian, and finally became Agnostic, due to his struggling with the question of theodicy – the question of how any all-powerful, all-loving, all-just, and all-knowing God could possibly allow so much pain and suffering within our existence.

But we couldn’t really stop there, either. We’d also have to discount the value of any scholarship or conversation about the historical Jesus that came from any strand of the faith different from one’s own, if we hold that only Christians, and at that, only Christians who believe exactly like ourselves bring anything of value to the discussion. And that’s just plain silly. I have some issues with my own Christian denomination – as of late, those differences are more of a bureaucratic nature, but that’s another story. But one thing that I’m most proud of in our tradition is our official recognition that – go figure – people, individually or collectively, including church councils – err. We/they can, and do, get things wrong. Therefore, we can’t hold to a rigid belief that we’ve got a lock on the absolute truth of the faith, and that everybody else – Christian or non-Christian, for that matter – has got it all wrong. Their voices are an important part of God’s speaking to us, and leading us into a fuller discernment of our understanding of divine/human, and human/human, relationships.

Sectarianism aside, the whole idea that Jesus might not be of interest to anyone other than professing Christians is just contrary to Jesus’ entire earthly mission. I think that most people who dig into Jesus’ life and teachings for themselves is likely to find Jesus fascinating, and would likely want to know more.

I think that some of the heartburn that Aslan’s book causes is the fact that he became an Evangelical Christian as a youth, but ultimately rejected it in favor of Islam; and American Evangelical Christianity takes that rejection personally. In a way, the movement feels a need to attack Aslan in order to defend the brand, as it were. More than that, though, I think that the biggest issue  for some people is that – and I offer this in advance of reading the book – it seems to emphasize that the Roman government correctly understood the radical, revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message. They understood that it posed a threat to the cultural, institutional status quo. Jesus’ words, heard and understood from within their actual historical/social context, weren’t merely some future, pie-in-the-sky words of spirituality disconnected from our physicality and real-world, daily living. They were words of life, both in terms of the hereafter as well as the here and now, and their implications for the here and now were dangerous, downright seditious, to the world of Roman-occupied first-century Palestine.

And, understood from within that context, they are every bit as dangerous and discomforting to much of our American culture today.

Many people have a vested interest in keeping Jesus the relatively harmless, easily managed and marginalized spiritual being, and not seeing him as someone who offers a radical alternative message to the established powers of our current world as much as he did to the ancient Roman world. Many want to deny that Jesus speaks discomforting truth to the power structures of much in our society which is deeply cherished, and often drapes itself in supposed Christianity, but which is quite opposed to Jesus’ actual teachings. In short, that image of Jesus, which the book seems to flesh out, scares some people. Good. It should.

As far as the interview goes, I’m going to write it off as Lauren Green having a bad day, or having incompetent staffers feeding her bad show prep, or both. The interview really was embarrassing, and I believe she’s a better reporter, and frankly, a better person, than it would imply. As far as the book goes, based on the information about it I’ve read online, I haven’t found anything about it that’s different from the work of many other scholars I’ve read, and I certainly haven’t seen anything that makes me want to climb the ramparts with a broken bourbon bottle, as conservative talk radio personality Barry Farber used to say, to defend the honor and truth of my Christian faith. Will I agree with everything in the book when I read it? If I did, it would be the first time that’s happened in a half century of reading (I suppose I even took issue with a line or two of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel), but that’s really not the point. Does it look like a good and interesting book? Definitely, and I plan to read it soon. I only wish that Lauren Green’s staff had done the same before that interview, since it appears that they didn’t.

Talking with God (sermon 7/28/13)

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Genesis 18:20-33

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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I’ve mentioned a couple of movies in the past few weeks. Here’s another one. Maybe you’ve seen the movie “Bruce Almighty.” Without getting into all the details of the movie, Jim Carrey plays Bruce, a cocky TV news reporter who’s having a really bad run of luck. And in the midst of all his problems, he thinks that he could do a much better job of being God than God is apparently doing, at least from his viewpoint. So, as can only happen in Hollywood, God shows up, in the form of Morgan Freeman, and gives him his chance – Bruce is now God, and the real God is going to take a long-overdue vacation. One of the first dilemmas Bruce faces is dealing with all the prayers that he’s constantly hearing in his head, prayers for all sorts of things. With his God-powers, he quickly converts the prayers in his head to a sort of heavenly prayer email system on his computer, but he gets inundated with millions and millions of prayers that pile up faster than he can answer them.  

Have you ever wondered how God keeps track of all the prayer requests? I have. How does God find a way to reply to each and every prayer, even prayers that ask for contradictory, opposite things? With all the prayers from people starving to death, or dying of some dread disease, or having some other life-threatening crisis, do you think God gets annoyed about prayers that some sports team would win their game, or for a politician to win an election, or for a promotion at work, or to just be able to lose ten pounds before the upcoming high school reunion? I don’t know the mind of God, but personally, if I were God, I think I’d get pretty ticked off about those kinds of prayers that would just seem to be clogging up the system.

Both of today’s scripture readings deal with prayer, or at least people talking with God. Prayer is the central, primary way that God uses to commune with us, and to transform us, to make us more fully agents of the reign of God in the world. In the gospel text, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, as if they hadn’t already been praying their whole lives, and Jesus offers them Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Simple, to the point: pray for your daily sustenance, ask for forgiveness for your shortcomings, and to be saved from the time of trial. Life’s basics. And Jesus assures them that God will indeed hear and answer our prayers. All through the gospels, and especially in Luke, we read about Jesus’ prayer life. How he would regularly go off by himself, alone, to some secluded and quiet place, to meditate, and pray, and commune with God the Father. As busy as Jesus was, he made the time to get away and pray. It wasn’t in place of the communal worship that he still did in the Temple or in the synagogues, as a good, devout Jew. And it wasn’t in place of his studying of the scriptures, in order for him to teach and preach. This was in addition to the rest of that. This was time for him to connect with God, to let God hear his deepest thoughts, and to hear God’s guidance in return. Jesus taught his disciples that this kind of meditating on God, and praying to God, was absolutely essential to their relationship with God. And this deliberate, intentional setting aside of time on a routine basis to mediate and pray and be in this kind of communion with God is essential to each of our lives of faith, too. The early church fathers called this time “holy leisure” – a time set aside from the rest of the day’s activities, something that creates a sense of balance in our lives. It’s a way to be at peace, and to learn more about God by appreciating the intricacy and beauty of creation and of our human relationships. Jesus teaches us that we need to have these times of “holy leisure.”

But that isn’t realistic, is it? I mean, we all have busy lives. We all have work commitments, and family commitments, all kinds of things that keep our daily calendars completely filled. We can’t just tell people that we can’t do this or that thing, or take on that commitment or another, because we have to carve out an hour a day to just sit in contemplation and prayer. Plus, it just sounds kind of weird. We’re all just too busy; we can’t do that. Can we? In light of the terrible damage caused to us by our constantly busy lifestyles, the psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that “Hurry is not *of* the Devil; it *is* the Devil.” And maybe he was right.

The next time we’re upset, feeling like we’ve been praying for something and God hasn’t answered our prayer, maybe we should ask ourselves if maybe God’s been answering us all along, but we just haven’t placed ourselves in a position spiritually to hear that answer. Maybe we haven’t drawn off to that quiet place away from all the surrounding noise, where we can hear God’s voice speaking to us. Maybe we haven’t allowed ourselves to be open and willing to accept the changes within ourselves that God’s answers might actually require. So it’s like we’re a television that’s only hooked up to basic cable, and God’s answers to our prayers are that great movie showing on HBO that we can’t get. It’s really right there, all around us, it’s just on a frequency that we aren’t set to receive. And then we get discouraged and say that God hasn’t answered our prayers. We have to pay attention to our dedication, and our discipline, of taking time out for meditation and prayer, and just as importantly, being willing to hear God’s answers and accepting whatever change in ourselves those answered prayers will require.

The idea that God most definitely hears us, and is willing to grant us what we ask – that God is even willing to change his mind in order to grant what we ask – is seen in the passage we read from Genesis today. Abraham and God and the two angels are sitting together, communing with one another in the shade of a grove of oak trees, when God and the angels have to leave. They’ve got work to do; God has decided to destroy the city of Sodom due to its great wickedness and sinfulness. What exactly was that sin; that wickedness? We’re never really told in the actual account in Genesis, but we’re told in Ezekiel 16 that their sin was that they were prideful. They lived lives of great prosperity. They had abundant food and other material things, but they didn’t use them to help the poor and the needy in their midst. The sin of Sodom that had caused God’s anger against them was that the people were self-centered and greedy; they didn’t extend compassion to those in need.

And of course, it’s in this passage where we find the great story of Abraham’s bargaining, haggling with God in order to save the city. Abraham makes his case to God, playing on God’s sense of fairness. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the good along with the bad. Would you bring an end to the city if there were 50 good and righteous people within it? If there were 45 left? If there were 40 left? And he keeps bargaining God all the way down to God agreeing not to bring an end to the city even if there were only ten good and righteous people left within its walls. God answered Abraham’s plea. And God answers our pleas, too.

But we know the rest of the story here; the part beyond what we read today. We know that God’s answer came with a twist that Abraham hadn’t really expected. God agreed not to bring an end to the city if there were any good and righteous people left within it – so God’s angels went to the city and told all the good people to leave, to get out of the city – and then the city, emptied of its good people, was brought down. And just as God’s answer to Abraham came with an unexpected twist, often times the answer to our prayers come with unexpected twists, too.

And following God’s direction had to be scary for Lot and his family. Put yourself in their place: God called them all away from the only way of life that most of them had ever known. A good, prosperous life, a happy life, a familiar life. And now, they were being told to leave it all behind and set off in a new direction, and fast, before it was too late. Don’t pack up the silverware or Grandma’s dishes; no time to grab the wedding album or the shoebox full of family photos. Just go. Everything they knew and valued and cherished had to be left behind. No looking back; no idolizing the past; Lot’s wife was our warning not to do that, I suppose. The places they worked, and shopped. The home they’d lived in, and the place they worshiped God since they were children, all gone now, with God leading them away from that past and into a new, uncharted, unfamiliar future. It had to be terrifying for them, to be sure. But because they allowed themselves to be open to God’s voice, and because they accepted the changes that God’s word required of them, they were able to respond to God’s call, and they were saved. They survived, even if the city didn’t.

Accepting that kind of challenge was scary for Lot, and facing that kind of challenge from God is scary for us to face, too. But we can be confident that if we do make that time in our daily schedules to sit and meditate and pray and commune with God, we already have within us all that it takes to be faithful, and open, to hear whatever God’s answer to our prayer is, and to be strong enough to accept whatever changes that answer might require within us. We were given all that we need to do these things in our baptism. We have been given the strength and the boldness of God’s own Holy Spirit, working within us and making us able to do those difficult things. We don’t have to be superhuman; we don’t have to have any great willpower. Just the opposite, actually. We just have to set aside our own pride, and humbly allow God’s Spirit to work within us.

In the midst of “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce ends up losing his girlfriend – who, with all the subtlety of a brick, is named Grace. He wanted to get Grace back, and he was clinging onto all sorts of wrong-headed ideas of his own to get Grace back in his life by way of exercising his Godly superpowers. But in the end, all his efforts were a failure. And he finally set his own agenda and his own selfishness aside, and he came to the understanding that he loved her so much that his prayer to God was that all he wanted was for her to be happy and to have a good life, with or without him. Whether it looked like his picture of the way things should be or not. Whether it worked out to his personal benefit or not. And *that*, God told him, was a real prayer. Of course, since this is a movie out of Hollywood, as soon as Bruce has this epiphany everything is set right. His life turns completely around for the better, and he gets Grace back. But as far removed from Hollywood as our own lives are, if we open ourselves up through meditation and prayer and communion with God, if we humble ourselves and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the unexpected twists in God’s answers to us, if we’re willing to accept the changes that it might require of us, then we really will hear the answer to our prayers. We really will hear the voice of God speaking to us. And just like Bruce, we’ll have grace in our lives, too.

 Thanks be to God.

Listen, Honey…

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I was thinking this morning about an incident that occurred to me while I was in the midst of my Clinical Pastoral Education. I had only recently started making calls on hospital patients, trying to apply what I was learning in the didactic portion of the training and just trying to fumble my way through what was a completely new thing for me without saying or doing the wrong thing. On this particular day, I was making rounds on the unit I’d been assigned to. I entered one room to visit a very elderly female patient, and after her saying that she’d welcome a visit, I sat down in a chair alongside her bed. We started talking, and while she was in the middle of telling me stories from her youth, she ended up pushing her sheet aside, and since her hospital gown was pushed up it left her completely exposed. As a minor point, we’d been told in our training that this kind of thing would likely happen at times, and if it did, to discreetly and without fanfare, just cover the patient back up. So I started to talk with her, asking her some question about what she’d been telling me, and without taking my eyes off of hers, I gently took the sheet with one hand and pulled it back across her nether regions. But as it turned out, a few minutes later, as she was continuing to tell me about her life and her medical condition, her hand managed to push the sheet away from her again. So, following the same game plan, I kept up my end of the conversation, while without comment I recovered her. A few minutes later, while we continued our chat, she pushed the sheet away a third time. I tried once again to pull the sheet back over her while we continued talking, but this time when I tried, her thin, bony arm darted out and she grabbed me by the wrist. Hey eyes locked onto mine and she said, “Listen, honey, I’m 87 years old, and I’ll put my sheet wherever I damned well want to.”

I started laughing, and I said that yes, she’d earned that right, so she could put her sheet wherever she wanted and I wouldn’t interfere with her any more. It was funny, but it was also a very important lesson to me about remembering that no matter how old we are, we keep our own thoughts and wishes, for better or worse, and that these deserve to be respected.

I know that this story came to mind today because I was in a nursing home visiting someone, and I saw some visitors, and some of the staff, talking with the residents in “that voice.” You know the voice I mean; that tone that you use with a toddler, or a dog, or maybe a houseplant. That voice that assumes that the person, or thing, that you’re addressing has little or no real ability to think or feel for themselves, or to have legitimate wishes, likes, or dislikes that should be respected. That demeaning voice that takes away the dignity of the person being spoken to. That’s probably more harsh than I really mean, and  I know that that voice usually comes out of a desire to be compassionate. But I’ve also heard it being used with older people who may be unable to take care of themselves physically, but who are still mentally very alert and who have all the same kinds of feelings and thoughts and likes and dislikes as anyone else. And talking with these people in the equivalent of baby-talk, and not taking the time to appreciate the person for who they are, and giving them the dignity and respect that they’re due and that we’d want in return, unnecessarily robs them of even more of their humanity. Someone once asked me for tips on how to conduct hospital visitations – what to do, what not to do, what to say. I told them that different people would offer different opinions about that checklist of questions, but the most important thing about visiting with people is that first and foremost, you just have to give a damn. You can’t fake it. You have to make it very clear to the person that you really, truly care about them as a person, and that you aren’t putting on artificial attitude or blowing smoke up their rear end with mindless and condescending chatter. Care about who they really are. Look into their face, and try to imagine them as they would have looked at different stages in their lives. Imagine that you’re talking with each and every one of those people simultaneously. Imagine that you’re the one in the bed. And considering all that together, what tone of voice do you think is appropriate and respectful when speaking with them? How would you want someone to talk with you – whether they’re talking with you about deep spiritual, existential things, or whether they just want to know if you want any more of your green beans? I know that if I ever find myself mentally alert but physically dependent and in a nursing home, I would consider it having been condemned to hell to have to hear that kind of dismissive, even if well-intentioned, sing-song way of being addressed, day in and day out, talking to me as if I were a child. I’ll want people to still treat me like a thinking human being, whose spirit and intellect should still be respected. And yes, I suppose I’ll put my sheets wherever I damned well want to. Consider yourselves warned.

Hometown

I’ve been thinking a bit about my hometown, Masontown, Pennsylvania, lately. Once a bustling, wealthy, hyperactive boom town in the heart of Pennsylvania’s bituminous coalfields, it’s barely struggling to survive now that the boom is long-since over. Once-grand buildings get boarded up or town down, people continue to leave or to hunker down even more as things steadily decline. It’s really sad. I lived there almost all of my time on earth until I was 18, and while the decline was already underway then – the 1960s through late ’70s – it was a much more vibrant place then than it is now. There were so many great memories, and memorable people, and formative moments that I’ll always take away from that place. There were also lots of negatives, to be sure; so many that despite the warm memories I knew that my life and future lay elsewhere. Not only is it true that you can never go back, despite my fondness for the place I never really wanted to, either. Still, it’s very sad to see the town as it is today. It’s been in the news lately because the Hatfield Ferry coal-burning power plant that sits adjacent to the town along the Monongahela River and which has been a major employer since I was a kid, has been slated for closing in October. A number of years ago, Greenpeace broke into the place and climbed one of its huge smokestacks and unfurled a big banner on it – at the time, it was maybe the dirtiest, most polluting power plant in the country.

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I grew up in the shadow of these smokestacks. And I blame a persistent cough that I’ve had most of my life on the crap that belched out of them and dumped onto all of us below. So from a health and environmental standpoint, the closing is a good thing. But the economic effect of this decision is devastating to the town – just another in a long line of economic hits to a depleted and demoralized area. It really is a human tragedy, one with no easy answers and few if any that are clear-cut right or wrong.

I was actually hired to design a new city hall for the town a few years back – renovating a vacant drugstore at the main intersection in town to accommodate the new use. I was driving through what’s left of downtown early one sunny morning, with its picket fence appearance of remaining buildings interspersed with vacant lots where buildings used to be but which now remain only in my memories. The decline of the place, and the lost aspirations and hope that the empty lots and the empty wallets represented really struck me that morning. As I drove by, the following poem came to mind almost verbatim, almost immediately. It only took a few mental tweaks and was done by the time I’d reached my destination and could right it down. So…

Hometown

A mishmash of
vacant lots and buildings
where once a town had been.

Harsh beams of sun
where tall brick and mortar
once cast happy shadows –

a gap-toothed taunt
of dead men’s long-dead plans,
mocking the life that was.