Don’t Worry. Re-Focus!

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I.

According to business consultant Cassie Parker, the current trend in our country is that fifty percent of all small businesses fail within their first five years of operation. That’s not the best news I might have shared with you today, but it is useful as a jumping off point. Listen to this. Many hugely successful business owners had at least one failed business before becoming seriously successful. It is really easy to say what I’m about to report AFTER one has become wildly successful. Out of mouths of many who made it: “Failure taught me essential lessons for later success in a way that nothing else would have done.” It all boils down to a process of refocusing.
Individuals must refocus. Organizations must refocus. Churches are among those organizations that need to refocus consistently. I don’t have to tell you what happens to those who won’t or don’t, or do I? Hymn words by Fred Pratt Green:

The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Thom Rainer is a church consultant. He helps churches grow if growth is possible. He helps churches heal. He helps get churches get out of ruts. He helps churches refocus.
In the process of refocussing, there are easy-to-neglect items that must be embraced or re-embraced if the church will do well:

 
1) There must be a passion to draw newbies into the church and all the church offers.
2) There must be genuine concern for what others want for their church and not just any one person’s pet programs. With this, the caustic must be replaced with the conciliatory.
3) There must be clarity as to why the church exists. This means vision, mission, and purpose.
4) The future longed for cannot be the return of an idolized earlier era.

 
If we are failing in any of these ways, then we must refocus, try again, try it a new way.

 
Gertrude Stein submitted poems to hosts of publishers over a 22-year period before having one accepted. John Grisham’s first novel was rejected 25 times before he got an acceptance letter.
Jack Canfield’s and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul received 134 rejections before it found its now filthy rich, visionary publisher. Beatrix Potter had so much trouble publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she finally self-published the first edition. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, received 121 rejections of his book proposal before it was published and quickly became a best seller.

 
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is one of several ways to refocus. Don’t let the W. C. Fields version influence you initially: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” Sometimes, a refocussing process will lead us to see that going back to the drawing board over and over and over again is not working for us. There are times when success means letting go of a cherished project altogether and recreating from scratch.

 
Bottom line, refocusing is for health, and it is a discipline of looking at life through positive lenses rather than through the more readily available negative ones. It is absolutely possible for someone in the best of circumstances to focus only on the negatives. But in contrast it is equally as possible for someone either in challenging circumstances or someone who has recently gone through something powerfully negative to see the possibility for good in the big picture–and I don’t mean playing mind games of trying to talk yourself into seeing a negative as actually positive. What do we choose to focus on, however? And even if we had to focus on something sad or emotionally debilitating, can we now refocus? This is what all of us have to require of ourselves from time to time in order to be worry-free as well as emotionally healthy.

What I’m talking about here is exactly what one of the collected proverbs in Hebrew Scripture is talking about, namely this one: “For as people think within themselves so they are.” As people think within themselves so they are.

 
So am I going to focus on the negative? Is that what is within me? Is this what I will preoccupy myself with? If so, that will tell you a good bit about my level of emotional health, and it will tell you a good bit about the kind of person I am to be to hang out with. If that’s the kind of person I am, then you can expect me to be bleak and suspicious and anxious and critical. And if that’s the kind of company you’re looking for then I would be the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with.

 
On the other hand, let us say I learned some lessons about positive thinking from Marion Symonds or from Norman Vincent Peale or from Captain Kangaroo. And having learned these lessons about positive thinking, those are the possibilities on which I choose to focus. Sometimes it requires refocusing. No question about that. There are experiences in everyday experience that can pull me away from positives so I have to refocus; this is a conscious effort, and it takes emotional energy to maintain. As far as health goes and as far as overcoming worry goes it is the best tool out there.

 

 

II.
Among the many stories about Jesus healing people who were suffering from various infirmities comes an odd one. Jesus has a blind man brought to him with friends of the blind man begging Jesus to touch him so that he could be healed. Jesus, instead of operating with a crowd as was his pattern, takes the man outside the village and has a private healing ceremony. It is a little-odd sounding, perhaps, that Jesus’ means of healing this man was not just to lay his hands upon him in a healing manner but first to spit on the man’s eyes. After spittle and touching, Jesus expects the man to be jumping for joy, and when that doesn’t happen Jesus asks the man, “Don’t you see anything?”

 
“Well, yes,” said the man half-healed. “I see people, but they look more like trees walking around.” We gather the man had to have been able to see at some point in his life and lost his vision through disease or something to that effect because he knew what objects were supposed to look like. It’s fascinating connection between trees and people. In his state of blurred vision, once again I say that in the man’s half-healed condition he saw people walking around, but given his limited eyesight along with shadows and certain lighting and maybe wind blowing he saw what looked more like trees walking around.

 
Now why did those who collected stories about Jesus include this one? This one does not make Jesus look very capable at least not a hundred percent. He doesn’t manage to get the guy healed on the first try. That would have been an embarrassment to the church and for many people who want to make certain statements about God based on Jesus’ capabilities. And yet the story is here and a worthwhile one. Instead of saying, “Tough luck. They’re are plenty more people who need my healing assistance,” Jesus stayed with him and tried again.
Many interpreters blame the problem on the man. He didn’t have enough faith they say and such as that. That’s nonsense; there’s nothing in the story whatsoever to reflect that kind of interpretation. Jesus didn’t get it right the first time.

 
So second try Jesus once again put his hands on the man’s eyes–this time evidently without spittle; and this time the man could see completely. He refocused so people looked like people walking around, and trees stayed planted as they were supposed to. Moral of the story? Getting the true view may require refocusing.
This is not far from what Paul had in mind when we was closing out his letter to the church at Philippi. In trying to give this little congregation a reminder to keep on refocussing he describes as a future challenge what he had already seen them doing–concentrating on the positive, focusing on what is good and beautiful and hopeful regardless of negativity life may have tossed their way. Once again there’s no suggestion here that anyone should try to play games about something that is negative or critical in life. Those need to be confronted with the honest emotions that go with those kinds of things. But we have the chance not to let the negatives have the last word.

 
Even when we have lost a loved one, as painful as that is, it remains a fact that death is not the last word about the person whom we love–either because we believe that she or he has gone to a better place or because it becomes clear to us in the midst of our grief one day that death is not the last word about our loved one; it is only part of a process that ultimately need not diminish or cloud all the joy that she or he experienced. Death cannot take memories from us, intense memories of shared experiences. This is a true sense in which our loved ones live on.

 
Therefore, whatever is pleasing and whatever is commendable whatever is praiseworthy, whatever is excellent–let us think on these things. If it means we have to refocus away from something negative to get to those things that is what we need to do. Good truth not negative truth. Honor. Justice. Glasses half full.

 

 

III.
I’m sure Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, has visited the Silverside pulpit several times across the years. The touching tale is set around a little boy’s toy collection. The stuffed rabbit made of velveteen cloth longs to be a real rabbit instead of a toy. His companion, the Skin Horse, helps him refocus on what being real actually means:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the other toys. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” the Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

Kathryn Tristan of the Washington University School of Medicine came out with a book last December titled Why Worry?, subtitled Stop Coping and Start Living. She has some superior suggestions for retraining our brains along the lines of refocussing. Foundationally, she believes many of us have to redefine perfection and refocus on the result. “Most of us would love to live in a perfect world,” she writes, “where life is always fair, all people love you, good things happen and bad things do not. Unfortunately, real world always clashes with perfect world.”

 
Another refocussing tool she suggests is pushing ourselves to see all life experiences, even those we’d like to have skipped over, as stepping-stones rather than burdens we must carry for life. Tristan mentions a “Japanese philosophy known as wabi-sabi that describes beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It honors all things scratched, dented or worn. Based on Buddhist principles, this view suggests there is beauty in imperfection.” Without requiring ourselves to refocus, most of us would never have known.

 

Amen.

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Don’t Worry. Re-Attribute!

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Silverside Sermons

Sermon Series:  “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”

Sermon Title:  “Don’t Worry.  Re-Attribute.”

September 22, 2013

 

I.

         One of the traits many of us dislike in others is a complete lack of ability ever to see that they might in any way be responsible for anything that goes wrong.  Whatever it is, it is always the fault of someone else.  Must be nice to be perfect.

         In the formal study of critical thinking, courses in which have increasingly found their way into required university curricula across the world, the ability to recognize fallacies in how we process information about ourselves for example, is regarded as a foundational skill.  There are several recurring fallacy-types.  One of those is the “us versus them” reasoning-impairment reflex.  As you would gather from the name of this pattern of processing, there is a tendency in it to blame automatically, for everything that goes wrong, a person or people who are not in your group. 

Within a few hours after the initial 9/11 attacks, one prominent fundamentalist preacher was on television and radio with a blame-game explanation. The attacks had occurred, he pontificated, because certain Americans had pushed God beyond God’s breaking point thereby causing God to remove God’s protective covering from the United States.  Ohhhhhhhhh.  So that was why the major attack was on the World Trade Center with tons of professionals working there who weren’t US American.  Never mind that!  Who were these horrible US Americans among us who brought this unspeakable tragedy upon us?  This pompous preacher had no trouble pointing them out.  Feminists and homosexuals.  Well, anyone could have figured that out with enough reflection.

         In this preacher’s “us” group would be Christian fundamentalists who were straight homophobes and who believed that women have a place never on par with men and who are convinced that God has favorites with the United States of America at the top of the list.  And who were the thems in this preacher’s mind?  Gay and lesbian citizens or straight lesbian and gay friendly types along with women struggling for full gender equality at home and at work and at church/synagogue/mosque.

         This preacher’s god was so exacting, why did his god use such an imprecise shotgun method of attack, leaving the majority of the presumed culprits alive and well?   Why not, strike down just them and their supporters with a new disease; maybe it could be called femino-homo flu or something like that.

         This preacher’s prejudiced perspectives also betrayed his perception that for every effect there must be a cause connected to those who suffered from the ill effects of the crisis or tragedy.  The inability to open the mind’s doors to the possibility of pure randomness reflects limited progress on the pathway to mature reasoning.  That is not a theological putdown; it is a fallacy to watch for in formal critical thinking.

         I’m not saying the 9/11 attacks were random.  They certainly were not that, but some evil IS that. The 9/11 attacks were carefully planned, and the reason they happened is because some radicals who hated our country wanted to hurt us.  They did what they planned to do.  (Incidentally, without a personal testimony or confession of some sort, reasoning on the basis of what we presume another person’s intent is, is also a fallacy in information-processing.)

         Jesus had the crowds following him laughing themselves silly because he was poking fun at the sanctimonious, ever-so-pious Pharisees who made it a part of their self-assigned preoccupation to find out not IF others failed to measure up to Pharisaic standards of keeping all the religious rules anyone had ever been able to think of, but HOW.  Of course, to them, all non-Pharisees had fallen short so the IF wasn’t the issue; it was simply a matter of HOW.

         Jesus found fault with the Pharisees, though—quite a bit of fault it turns out.  This is when the crowds who gathered around him to hear his thoughtful and creative teaching began to roll around on the ground in laughter.  He told the Pharisees right to their faces that they reminded him of a person who’d tell someone she or he had a spec of something in the eye that needed to be removed, and as they pointed to the spec in the other’s eye they had to reach around the branch growing out of their own eyes.

         It’s kinda fun to poke fun at those who can find no fault in anything they themselves do, but it isn’t funny at all to find a sad soul at the other end of the spectrum who holds herself or himself responsible for everything that goes wrong—in her or his life as well as in the lives of anyone to whom she or he is connected.  These people have no personal peace ever because they must berate themselves incessantly for causing the constant flow of calamity that tries to undo them and their loved ones.

II.

         The Superior Court of Fresno, California, has a comprehensive website with details about many aspects of domestic violence—when to call the police, when to leave, how to make sure the children are safe, and so on.  On that site is also a list of some suggested ways to support victims of domestic violence for various individuals or groups who might find themselves in that role.  One group highlighted is the victim’s work circle—supervisor, coworkers, HR staff members, and so on.  You are savvy folk so this may not surprise you, but listen to the list things not to ask or say to the victim if you are a part of her or his workplace:

  • Don’t ask why she or he stays.
  • Don’t tell the victim what you think she or he should do.
  • Don’t ask the victim what she or he did to deserve the abuse.

Now, if that last one is on the list of DO NOT’S, it must have been asked and reported often enough to come to the attention of social workers and court officers; otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the list.  “What did you do to deserve this?”  Seriously?  Could anyone be more crass or callous than that?

         Wait, though.  Sometimes those who ask that question are taking their cues from the victims.  We would hope anyone with common sense would know better, but not so.  What I mean is, the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse—and it’s the same with victims of rape at this point—blame themselves for one or both of the following:  1) for being in a situation where such horrors can occur in the first place; and 2) for making the batterer angry enough to attack. 

         One rape treatment center explains succinctly the impact of rape:

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Feelings of guilt and shame are common reactions following a sexual assault. Because of misconceptions about rape, some victims blame themselves, doubt their own judgment, or wonder if they were in some way responsible for the assault. Feelings of guilt and self-blame may be reinforced by the reactions of others, who, because of prevalent myths about rape, may blame the victim or criticize his or her behavior.  You may also feel ashamed. Some victims describe feeling dirty, devalued, and humiliated as a result of a sexual assault. Feelings of shame are often related to the powerlessness and helplessness victims experience during a sexual assault. Shame may also be a reaction to being forced by the assailant to participate in the crime.

         Self-blaming leads to self-hatred.  Barbara Ann Brennan said:

We base our self-worth on what we expect of ourselves. We demand an impossible perfection from ourselves. Then we judge and reject ourselves when we do not achieve that perfection. We demand a never-ending list of accomplishments from ourselves. As we achieve each one, we ignore and devalue it. We immediately focus on the next hurdle to surmount. We don’t allow time for the accomplishment to sink in or to congratulate ourselves for what we have done or for what we have become through our effort and struggle. We do not give ourselves the gifts that we have achieved or have given to others.

Wow.  Keep these two statements of hers in the forefront of your thinking:  “We demand an impossible perfection from ourselves. Then we judge and reject ourselves when we do not achieve that perfection.”

         The Apostle Paul, once a Pharisee himself, struggled painfully, relentlessly with why he couldn’t live up to the standards he had set for himself—standards he believed God had directed him to set up.  I don’t how many so-called sins Paul blasts in all of his writings taken together, but there would be a pile of them.  Sometimes, as Paul dictated his letters, he’d get off on a tear, and list sin and sin after sin—take a breath—then do it again.  The thing is, Paul was not a hypocrite, though he may have wondered about that with some frequency, and he really did expect himself to live up to every expectation he set up for others.  One way to take care of this sin problem is to join Silverside Church where we don’t believe in sin; we believe in jerks and inappropriate behavior, but we don’t believe in sin for the most part.  Alas, Paul didn’t have a Silverside; all he had was his Pharisaic background and a secondhand listen to the teachings of Jesus since he never met Jesus—only a handful of Jesus’ followers who lived for several years after Jesus’ execution. 

         So when Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, he gets rather personal in a few places, and one of those places is in what is now referred to as the seventh chapter of book of Romans.  You heard Elizabeth read the gist of his heart-rending confession to his readers.  It’s tough for many leaders to be so vulnerable, and yet here Paul was:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I fear that nothing good dwells within me, because I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  I do not do the good I want, but the behavior I do not want is what I do.

         An astute Silversider—could there be any other type?—asked me the other day, “Do you think the Apostle Paul struggled with an addiction?”  I said I didn’t know, but reading what I just read to you could certainly make someone who has had experience living with or working with addicts wonder.  I think the question reveals superior insight and depth of feeling. 

         Whether or not addiction was his struggle, something he did or somethings he did caused him at least to be frustrated with himself and maybe to hate himself.  There’s a good chance of the latter.

 

 

III.

         In the healthy process of trying minimize worry through various dimensions of re-attribution, one may learn to start the harmful cycle of self-blame, which we have seen may well lead to self-hatred.  As well I understand mental health and mental health challenges among those who identify with Christian fundamentalism, I can assure you with no fear of being wrong that after the pompous preacher slammed feminists as well as gay and lesbian citizens in the aftermath of 9/11, some fundamentalist-raised feminists and lesbian and gay citizens who heard him harkened back to childhood times when preachers they had heard had condemned people like them to perdition.  They wondered if just by following their hearts and their values they had had some role in angering God to the point that God said, “You crazy extremists, go kill at three geographical locales to make my point to those godless Americans.”

         So, the process of re-attribution works like this.  Instead of buying in to what you’ve programmed yourself to believe or been programmed to believe about how a careless person like you or a person lacking moral stamina like you, you learn the discipline of considering the possibility of other causes or no causes.  Maybe then, Brother Apostle, Brother Paul, there’s nothing wrong with you at all; maybe you’re a human being after all.  (And let’s never say, “just human.”)  And maybe, therefore, you fall short from time to time of high standards by which you’d like to be able to live at all times. 

         It is not healthy for recovering addicts to be encouraged to avoid taking responsibility for becoming addicts.  At the same time, because many addictions are illnesses, it isn’t healthy or productive to press an addict to say or think, “I’m a worthless scumbag because I let a substance or a behavior control me, because I let a substance or a behavior become my deity into whose demands I will give every time.”

         How about encouraging an addict to say something more along the lines of this?  “I didn’t set out to become an addict.  The last thing I’d ever have wanted to do is to disappoint much less hurt those whom I love.  In accepting full responsibility for what I has happened, I must also keep in mind that the weakness I discovered, which encouraged the addiction, clouded my ability to see things as they really were as did professional pressures to perform, financial demands at home, and a sense of failure as a parent. I, nonetheless, am a person of worth and dignity, and I deserve to be able to love myself even if none of those close to me can say at this moment that they love me.”

         A rape victim, rather than drowning in shame as a result of blaming herself or himself for what happened, needs to be encouraged to re-attribute cause.  Loved ones and professionals need to be able to help or him say, “I am not at fault in any way—regardless of how late I was out or what I wore.  The sole responsible party was the rapist.  If I choose to forgive the rapist, that is a personal choice I will make, but even in that case, the blame for violating my person will always rest squarely on the rapist.  Therefore, there is no reason I should be guilty, no reason I should feel ashamed.”

         A psychologist in London who has made a career of working with victims of rape says that one of the key reasons outsiders looking in are willing to blame the victim is because they think if she or he could have prevented this crime then they, the outsiders, can feel protected from suffering the same fate by telling themselves that they’d never do what he did or what she did to get into that situation in the first place. How self-serving is that?  If the victim, could have prevented it, what do you say of children who have neither the physical prowess to fend off an attack nor the life experience to know what to do when someone whom they have trusted—a neighbor, a teacher, or a parent—commits the abuse? That silly self-protective mind game only serves to make us more callous to the pain of the victim.

         I miss Dr. Pam Cummings around here; I miss her tremendously.  She is loving Houston in terms of being close to her son, Paul, but she is hating Houston in the sense that it’s suffocating her spiritually.  We hope that doesn’t continue, or else Silverside is going to have to get serious about establishing mission posts in places like Houston, Honolulu, Portland—you know the places we need to be.  Well, I have a memento from Pam that hangs on my office door.  If you’ve ever been in the office suite when my door was shut, you’ve seen it.  It’s a bumper sticker because she knows I hate them, but this one has a message I’d love to display on the highways.  It reads:  “Non-Judgment Day Is Near.”

         How about a community that refuses to practice judgmentalism, either for pseudo-religious reasons or because of a need to gossip, refuses to practice judgmentalism to such an extent that all in the community learn to love themselves so much—botches here and there notwithstanding—that self-love prevails and leads to clarity of understanding where the fault for any problem truly lies if there is a source of fault.  Self-loathing would become an impossibility.  Thank you, Pam.

         Amen.

        

Don’t Worry. Re-Label.

Silverside Sermons

September 15, 2013

Sermon Series:  “Don’t Worry.  Be Happy.”

Sermon Title:  “Don’t Worry.  Re-Label.”

Preacher:  Dr. David Albert Farmer

 

 

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I.

          The most important thing I must say as I begin this new sermon series called “Don’t Worry. Be Happy” is that I should not be preaching this sermon series.  This is to say, I should not be preaching this sermon series AS IF I have mastered the art of what I would like to project.  What I SHOULD preach based on my life thus far is a series called something like “Be Happy When You Worry” or “Worry for Fun and Profit” or “Don’t Worry.  Life Will Not Rob You of Opportunities to Fret” or something more like one of those.

          So, why do I persist?  All I can tell you is that the series kept coming into my consciousness as I studied this summer, and so here we are. I can take mild solace from something I read in a preaching textbook back in divinity school, a book called Preaching the Good News by then preaching professor at Princeton Seminary, George Sweazey, who said, and I paraphrase, if you only preach on what you have accomplished your preaching program will be meager indeed.

          For these first four Sundays in the series we will be concentrating on the “don’t worry” part, and then for all the Sundays after that leading right up until the Sunday before Thanksgiving we will be concentrating on the “be happy” parts.  Plan your weekends away accordingly.

          Everything is not as it seems.  What a revelation!  That assessment applies in practically in any context. For our purposes today, that’s a good thing. When I initially perceive negativity in response to a situation about which I have limited information and it causes me worry as an initial knee jerk reaction, I may find out if I gather additional information and ponder the possibilities that it’s not as earth shattering as my worry reflex anticipated.

          Psychology and counseling were interests of mine all along my academic pathway, and at some point I was introduced to a therapeutic model called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.  The simplistic way it was first explained to me was that a therapist using these methods tried to help clients assess the reliability of their emotional reactions to various types of stress.  For example, my professor said, if someone says, “I’m about to lose my job, and that’s the worst thing in the world,” the therapist would help the client think through truly worst case scenarios and consider whether or not a job loss would be up there with a world war or being stuck for hours on a malfunctioning elevator with Mitch McConnell or bumping into members of the Westboro Baptist Church on the way to picket a fallen soldier at her or his funeral or being Paula Deen’s life coach.   

          When I was a youth minister many years ago, before I gave up church lock-ins for Lent and then for good, my pastor occasionally presented a children’s, something at which he was very, very good. And, no wonder.  He was the brother of actor John Cullum and had the same sense of both the comic and the dramatic as does his famous sibling.  I am not gifted in that regard and fortunately for the children here know my limitations.

          So, Brother Cullum’s children’s sermon for the day was on worry.  Long before cell phones were imagined outside an experimental lab somewhere he had a little plastic play telephone in his hand.  He made the phone ring as he paced nervously back and forth across the front of the sanctuary, but he did not answer it. Instead, he allowed the kids to hear him thinking out loud, “Who could that be?  What could they want? Why am I getting a call at this time of day?  Is it a bill collector?  [I don’t think the children knew what that was, but their parents surely did.] Is it someone calling to say I forgot to meet her or him for an appointment that I’d scheduled?  Is somebody in the church sick?”  On and on he went entertaining us all while purportedly speaking just to the kids. Of course the summary message, good for children AND adults, was you can minimize some worry just by being sure you know exactly what’s going on. 

Brother Cullum finally answered the phone.  Wrong number.

 

II.

          As of June, a Gallup Poll showed the top ten issues about which Americans worry the most.  Here they are:  1) our nation’s debt; 2) employment; 3) wars; 4) apathy of elected leaders toward their constituents; 5) availability and cost of healthcare; 6) the sense that our country has regressed in so many areas that we will never be able to recover; 7) the loss of civil liberties; 8) national security; 9) government at all levels abusing power; and 10) the availability and cost of education.  OK.  OK.  I’ll tell you the next five!  11) elder care, Medicare, and Social Security; 12) immigration and border controls; 13) the decline of participation in organized religion and with that the presumed decline of morality; 14) democracy giving way to socialism; and 15) poor leadership in the highest levels of government including the presidency. 

          How about very personally?  What do we worry about?  The Kaiser Family Foundation clocked us as of this past February.  Here are the top six.  It worries me that they didn’t make it an even ten!  1) serious illness hitting self or someone close to us; 2) not being able to afford necessary health care; 3) being the victim of an act of gun violence; 4) losing a job; 5) not being able to pay rent or mortgage; 6) being the victim of a terrorist attack. 

          On the little poster I created for this sermon series, there’s a disclaimer.  It says something like this:  This sermon series will not attempt to advise those going through significant life crisis; any insights offered will be for those living in everydayness.  Of course, there are things we almost have to worry about.  Even if it can be demonstrated that worry doesn’t help one iota in resolving any challenging or threatening situation most of us can’t help giving in to some kind of worry.

          I’m sure you’ve heard some statistics tossed around about how much worry can be construed as potentially worthwhile.  One set of those statistics I remember suggested that 40% of what we dread most never happens, 30% of what we worry about has already happened one way or another before our worry kicks in, 22% of what we worry about we have absolutely zero control over.  That leaves us with 8% of possibly worthwhile worry.

          Karen and Kit and Steve know about a situation that confronted me yesterday afternoon about which I was quite worried, but had little time to engage my worry skills.  I arrived at the Oliver Golf Course to perform a wedding for the office of the Clerk of the Peace.  Bob Faatz, Ron Bergman, and I have all performed off site weddings for that office since it became policy for the Clerk and his deputies not to perform more than a small percentage of weddings away from the Clerk’s office.

          I met with the couple several weeks ago and knew this was to be an outdoor wedding, and a golf course certainly isn’t the most unusual spot I’ve ever been asked to perform a wedding.  That honor would probably go to the wedding I performed with my beloved New Orleans friend, Rabbi Ed Cohn, on the Carousel at City Park.  [Ed, if you’re reading this, love you and miss you!!!]

          So I arrived and got myself robed and such, and the groom found me to let me know he hadn’t changed his mind–usually a good thing–and to ask me if I had any objections to being driven in a golf cart to the green near which the ceremony would be held. I said, “No.  That will be fine,” meaning, “Oh my god! Are you kidding me?  Well, if it’s that far from here, I’d rather ride than walk. So fine.”  I stopped short of thinking about the worst things that could happen under those circumstances because I was distracted by thinking about how entertained my sons would be with another story to add to my repository of wedding ceremony lore.

          Someone in charge told me to wait outside so I did as I was told.  Awaiting my chariot, the best man came up to me and said, “That’s your cart.” 

          I said, “It’s a lovely cart too.  Where’s my driver?” 

          He laughed and said, “You’re your own driver.  You’re not scared are you?  Anybody can drive a golf cart.  Seat, steering wheel, brake, gas.  Get it?”

          For a minute, I was shaken up with worry.  Pressing the gas doesn’t always mean a vehicle will move forward.  Pressing the brake doesn’t always mean a vehicle will stop.  And for my first ever try at this, I have an audience of 100 or so people including a photographer to record the spectacle if my cart didn’t glide as smoothly over the curb as they said it would.

          I’m proud to tell you that I called a halt to all my worry because, truthfully, all the in charge people started speaking to me in elevated volume, “Go.  Hurry.  You have to walk down the aisle first.”  That’s one way to get rid of the pessimism–fear of failure and fear of humiliation!

 

 III.

          The Apostle Paul did some fretting in his day, but as he meditated and prayed about his life’s most pressing challenge or at least his second most pressing challenge, a fascinating insight came to him that gave him finally some personal peace after all those years of worry.  And, by the way, the cause of his worry didn’t go away.

          He called this problem his “thorn in the flesh,” and nobody knows for certain exactly what this was—though that hasn’t kept numerous interpreters including me from speculating. All kinds of possibilities have been tossed about for exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been.  One of our pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church during my growing up years said it was Paul’s mother-in-law, proving that he was not a bachelor after all.  Other more likely options include homosexuality and virtual blindness.  I’d also toss in guilt. 

          There is nothing that I know of in his writings to suggest in any pointed way that he was gay other than many—not all—of the varieties of homosexual expression in his day.  Though never condemning homosexuality wholesale, he was critical of homosexual prostitutes at worship sites, older men becoming too aggressive with boys as was widely practiced and praised in some segments of the Roman Empire, and perhaps with drag.  Don’t let your mind wander, but some read between the lines and wonder if sexual identity was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

          Virtual blindness is a really good guess, and there is more possible evidence for this option.  When Paul, whose name before his dramatic conversion experience was Saul, was knocked off his horse with a thunderous roar and a blinding flash of lightening he initially had no vision at all.  And though his spirituality shifted to a positive place, his eyesight never returned fully.  For someone whose ministry required a tremendous amount of correspondence, this was frustrating and painful; someone had to read letters to him, and someone had to transcribe his responses for him.  He generally couldn’t send out anything written in his own handwriting, which meant a lack of the personal touch.  This troubled the pastoral side of Paul.

          I don’t think it can be contested that Paul was unable ever to get over the fact that prior to his decision to be a follower of Jesus he had been a jealous, zealous Jew who lived for the opportunity to find ways of getting followers of Jesus persecuted—occasionally leading to execution.  The guilt of that never left him; it was with him for the rest of his life’s journey though he renounced his moral flaw.

          As we heard in the reading from 2 Corinthians, he prayed about this thorn in the flesh consistently, pleading with God to take it away from him.  The thorn remained.  Paul worried and fretted and prayed some more, and yet whatever his trouble was it remained.  Finally, in a reflective mode he sensed God saying to him, “…my strength attains its perfection in the midst of weakness” (The New New Testament translation).

          That’s no good, is it?  If God took it away, that would be good, but having to live with it even with some reframing of how he thought about his thorn in the flesh still left the thorn in tact.  The fact that one can survive even when some problem, pain, or distraction persists is evidence of God’s supportive presence.  That relabeling got Paul through.

          Dr. Eda Gorbis is a psychologist who treats extreme worry—pathological anxiety, let us say.  Here is a word from her on relabeling so as not to be crippled by worry:

Whereas simple, everyday awareness is almost automatic and usually quite superficial, mindful awareness is deeper and more precise and is achieved only through focused effort. It requires the conscious recognition and mental registration of the [anxiety]. You should literally make mental notes, such as, “This thought is an obsession….” You must make the effort to manage the intense biologically mediated thoughts and urges that intrude so insistently into consciousness. This means expending the necessary effort to maintain your awareness of what we call the Impartial Spectator, the observing power within us that gives each person the capacity to recognize what’s real and what’s just a symptom and to fend off the pathological urge until it begins to fade and recede. 

          Many of us, too many of us, lose much joy and personal peace because worry overtakes us, and it doesn’t have to be that way much of the time.  Remember that I’m not suggesting you should try to force yourself not to worry about something that really does threaten you or someone you love.  But short of something of such an extreme, re-labeling may help, and not by trying to give us another bumper sticker slogan to live with—rather by helping us discipline ourselves to give the possible good a chance to shine through.

          Amen.

         

 

How Did I Get Here?

NoFatalism

I.

         How did you get to where you are today? Did you have anything to do with what got you here?  If not, did the fickle finger of fate force you here? Or more pointedly for our purposes today, if you had no choice in getting yourself to the point at which you find yourself in life today, was God controlling all the processes that got you here?

         There are certainly innumerable factors impinging on how I got where I am today over which I had absolutely no control. For example, I’m thinking about the family to whom I was born, the country and region of the country in which I was born and raised, the privilege of living in a land devoted to getting me the freedom of speech and the freedom to follow my religious leanings or toss the whole lot, crazy relatives I was told I had to love because they “wuz” kinfolk, and so on and so on ad infinitum.  I obviously had nothing to do with why those factors intertwined to shape my life, but someone was involved in making choices all along the way; and those combined with factors of biology and culture got me into this world and laid the foundations for how I might develop. 

         If God has been calling all the shots, I personally have to count myself fortunate, but the mother who went to bed hungry last night with a crying and also hungry baby at her side may justifiably not feel so lucky.  And in the big pictures of our times, many would conclude–if God has been calling all the shots solo, God has either botched badly or rather stopped caring altogether about the well-being of humanity and our habitat.  The love and care with  which the Creator intricately and creatively fashioned the land, the skies, the plant and animal kingdoms, and humanity itself eventually disappeared and that love and care were replaced by either disdain or oblivion. 

         Worst case scenario, which the writers of the book of Job dared to dramatize:  God is playing games with us by letting God’s pal do the worst to us to see how much we can take before we snap and curse God for allowing such horrors.  Fun huh?  If God is getting divine jollies by seeing how long it takes someone to sizzle, having caught on fire because of a dangerous, makeshift, poor-people heating device in the dead of winter, then let me join in the long line of people who want to curse that god or more, like the Holocaust survivor who having had time to reflect on what had actually happened to him in those living hells called “work camps,” found an automatic weapon, pointed it upward to where he thought God was, and fired and fired until ammunition was depleted. 

         If every evil event in this world were orchestrated by God, I’d long since have done as much as I possibly could have to separate myself, isolate myself from that god.  I sat stunned years ago, as one of my preaching students angry at the notion of such a deity quoted in a sermon the lyrics of a Depeche Mode song:

I don’t want to start a blasphemous rumor,

but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor.

And when I die,

I expect to find God laughing.

To clarify, I was not stunned at the student’s use of those words; he will probably read the online version of the written sermon, but even if he does not, I was very impressed at his choice of a sermon illustration though not as enthused with the type of sermon into which he interjected this shocking image.  [Hello, Uwe!!!]  I was stunned into attentiveness that anybody had carried the picture of a god who must enjoy making humans suffer beyond comprehension to one of its logical conclusions.

         Let’s move a step or two away from the picture of a god who is control of everything and who happens to be demented, taking pleasure in the cruel punishments meted out to practically everyone over to a picture of a god who is just plain angry.  Here, I can’t help thinking about Jonathan Edwards and his infamous Puritan sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” 

…God threatens vengeance upon the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s people and who lived under the means of grace. But, in spite of God’s wonderful works toward them, they remained, “…without sense, having no understanding of the blessings.”  Their works brought forth bitter and poisonous fruit. The expression I have chosen for my text—“…in due time their foot will slip…”, seems to imply that they will fall soon, but haven’t yet….The only reason they have not fallen already, and do not fall now, is that God’s appointed time has not yet come. The passage says “in due time,” that is, in God’s appointed time, they WILL slip.

 

II.

        When it comes to trying to figure out how much power any human being has to influence her or his destiny, the key touchstones for thinking this through are the self, naturally; one or more deities; one or more personal forces of evil; and impersonal powers of fate.  The truth is that when people feel helpless in the face of tragedies over which they could have had no control, whether natural disaster or critical illness, the power causing the attack–if one is trying to pinpoint that–isn’t necessarily well differentiated.  Was it God?  Was it the devil?  Was it karma?  Could it have been two of three?

         In the world of theology, some thinkers believe God is directly or indirectly responsible for everything that happens–from a lottery win to a tsunami.  Some preachers influenced by such thinkers enjoy nothing more than associating God with destructive events intended to punish someone or some community or nation for moral laxity interpreted as intentional rebellion against God.  Other thinkers believe God by God’s very nature can only be involved in what is loving, what promotes well-being.  Therefore, if God is involved in causing an event to occur, you can bet your bottom dollar that the effects of that event will be good for you.  In which of those two camps would you place me?  Don’t answer out loud!

         After the 2004 tsunami, Tina from Holy Love Ministries in Ohio posted this explanation on the internet to explain why the tsunami had occurred:

The world has suffered a great tragedy in loss of life and property in the recent earthquake and tsunami. But while everyone can agree on this event as tragic, most fail to see the greater tragedy–the greater loss of life through the sin of abortion. In the natural disaster the world sees the visible loss of life. In the sin of abortion the truth of the far greater loss of life lays hidden and concealed behind the curtain of lies and compromise. In truth the world should not be surprised by God’s Justice, but should expect it in any form as retribution for the grievous loss of life by abortion. Understand how fragile and vulnerable all life is and learn from the recent tragedy the world now focuses upon.

Well, that was one explanation.  I hope someone called the Weather Channel for their explanation too.

         Here’s another discovered by the folks at religioustolerance.org:

Sheik Fawzan Al-Fawzan said that the tsunami was sent by God to punish South Asian countries because they allowed tourists to engage in immoral sexual activity. Al-Fawzan is a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, and a professor at the Al-Imam University. He is reported as saying: “These great tragedies and collective punishments that are wiping out villages, towns, cities and even entire countries, are Allah’s punishments of the people of these countries, even if they are Muslims. We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in South Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion. That’s when this tragedy took place, striking them all and destroyed everything.

So, there you go, a new way to celebrate the Christmas holiday.

As a kid growing up in Halls Crossroads, on the few occasions when country music wasn’t playing on a radio in earshot, I heard Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.”  What will be, will be.  It was such a sweet way of suggesting that we have absolutely no influence on what ultimately happens to us.  Predestinarians surely were elated that her song was so popular for so long.

         My New Testament Theology professor at Southern Seminary, Dr. Wayne Ward, was not a predestinarian; therefore, when he boarded a plane once and noticed, after the plane was taxiing out for takeoff, that ice was building up on the wings–this was before jets–he raced up the aisle and began pounding on the door to the cockpit.  He demanded that the plane stop and he be allowed to exit.  Having been a military pilot, if I remember correctly, Dr. Ward believed that icy wings meant higher probability of a plane crash, so he was going to do everything he could not to have that happen.  Though he was in trouble with law enforcement later, he managed to have the flight crew let him deplane.  If a bone fide theologian believed that much in his ability to influence his destiny, I knew as he told that story in class that I was with him!

 

III.

         With reference to the compact little theological treatise from the Apostle Paul read by Dot a few minutes ago, I should say that while I admire Paul’s sincerity and his way with words much of the time, I do not agree with him if I understand where he is going with this collection of statements.  Quick refresh.

Those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s unique Child, in order that he–that is Jesus–might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.

         If God as Paul understood God was an all-knowing God, then wouldn’t God have to have known all people from the foundation of the earth—that is, from the moment of creation on?  If so, it was God’s will that all people become a part of the great big family in which Jesus is considered the firstborn.  All the fancy theological words used by Paul in this passage simply mean that in his view God gave every human in her or his birth basket shall we say credentials of full family affiliation. 

         Paul himself may not always have been sure about who was in and who was out of the family of God; certainly others after him, however, read his work, put 2 and 2 together and got 6.  They see in Paul an unquestionable limitation of God’s inclusive practices.  For these readers, “predestination” means predestination of a few to the joys of being fully embraced by God in the here and the hereafter. 

         It is possible that no theologian in history thought more about God as in control of everything including the predetermination, from the point of creation on, of the tiny group that would make it to heaven and of the masses that would spend eternity in a burning hell.  I don’t know how long the word “tulip”—totally the wrong visual image–has been used as the basis of an acrostic to summarize Calvin’s so called double-edged predestination, but it’s been a long it.  A cactus, no offense to that family of plants, may be more appropriate visually to helping us remember the basics of Calvanistic predestination and such.

         For now, we still have tulip.

T:  Total Depravity.  Human beings are overpoweringly sin-tainted and sin-controlled.

U:  Unconditional Election.  God decided at the point of creation, looking out into the future who would be in and who would be out.  Since all would be sin-dominated and thus underserving of anything better than hellfire, God’s decision was based unconditionally on God’s mercy.  What about God’s mercy to those not chosen?  Don’t ask!

L:  Limited Atonement. Whatever benefits there may have been to Jesus’ self-sacrifice, they only apply to those elected to heaven by God.  It doesn’t help the rest of us out at all.  By the way, I’ve never read, and I’m not saying it’s never been done, but I’ve never read anyone writing about who God “elected” who believed she or he had been left off the final draft.

I:  Irresistible Grace.  Those elected by God are incapable of saying, “I prefer to be a part of the Un-elect; thank you very much.  No offense, God, but so many of my friends are going to be in hell I’d just feel more content there despite the temperature issues.”  See if they had a choice, which Calvin insisted they did not, a lot of people would agree with Oscar Wilde:  “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”

P:  Perseverance of the Saints. No one who is in, can for any reason or by any means fall away.

Awwww.  Now, every time you see a beautiful tulip, you can think of Brother Calvin.

         Thank goodness another theologian countered Calvinism, Arminius.  Here are his counterpoints to Calvinism. There’s no acrostic that I know about.

1.   Whatever sin is, if there is such a thing, human beings are not trapped in it.  If they find themselves caught in patterns of hurting themselves and others, there’s a way out.

2.   Those whom God elected at the foundation of the world were those whom God could see would give their lives to the good and not to the evil.

3.   Anyone and everyone has the chance to open up to reality of God’s love in the here and the hereafter.

4.   No one, however, is obligated to sign on.  Free will remains operative at all times.

5.   Once someone signs on, she or he is not obligated to stay in the family.  Someone once in may leave at will, and evidently many have.

If these two extremes can be applied to life in general and not just to matters of spirituality and faith, we can see what our options are.

    I’m going to come down on the side of free will.  I believe that I have great opportunity to shape my destiny.  The challenge of making that choice is that I must be responsible for much of what ensues in my life.  I am grateful for opportunities to learn.  I am grateful for the possibilities of change.  I’d hate being a puppet, even if the puppeteer were taking me to heaven.

    Amen.

Summertime, and the Living…

SS1002_SunnyDaysBorder_SS_A

I.

According to the “Old Farmer’s Almanac,” and I guess I’m getting to be an old Farmer myself–which is something I can poke fun at, but you can’t to my face, summer 2013 began in the wee hours of June 21 and will end on the late afternoon of September 22.  If you connect to nature-focused religious patterns, then the specific beginning and ending times for summer are of more significance to you than to the typical Episcopalian.  If you are a school kid, summer begins when school ends for the academic year and ends when school begins again in the fall.  If you’re a Silverside person, summer begins when the choir moves down into the regular-people-pews and, thankfully, fills in the gaps for the many members and friends who travel to see far-away family members and friends and/or who commune with the gods of brine as they watch the waves ebb and flow; we will have a big ole welcome back Gathering and reception on September 15.

I always loved summer…until I moved to New Orleans.  Even though my family generally couldn’t afford to take a vacation and even though Dad would get the lawn mower out every summer from my eighth year on and say, “Get busy,” I still liked the season.  My sister and my brother and I got to be at home with seemingly endless time to swing and ride bicycles and explore the fields and creeks near our house.  Eccentric relatives from Ohio and California and Georgia would pass through Halls Crossroads.  (I know it’s hard to believe that I could have eccentric relatives, but truth is stranger than fiction.)

Robert Louis Stevenson:

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy’s inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.

Before the effects of global warming began to be so obvious and so dangerous as today, the weather in the foothills of the 
Smokey Mountains was ideal.  Busy days, chores notwithstanding. Ice cold watermelon weekly, and at least a couple of times a month neighbors and/or church friends would gather for some of my Mom’s homemade ice cream.  My nephew and his lovely fiancee will be married in a couple of weekends, and while I was in Knoxville I bought their wedding gift.  One of the items they’d placed on their registry list was an electric ice cream maker.  In view of the countless hours the adult men watched me hand crank the ice cream freezer and gave me pointers (without offering any relief cranking) so they could chow down, I refused to select that item.
Four summers, when I was 9, 10, 11, and 12, I went to a week of summer church camp.  The two years following, I was a junior counselor, and in the summer I was 17 I finally was promoted to senior counselor.  I loved Camp Ba-Yo-Ca.  Smack dab in the Smokies, there was no place anybody could look and fail to see, smell beauty.  Dr. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary and an ordained United Church of Christ minister, has done a fair amount of study on the high number of people who as kids regularly participated in summer church camps and who later enter the ministry.  Interesting connection.
We had our cabins, but we also slept out under the stars and shook with fear in our sleeping bags while listening to one of the counselors tell a scary tale that typically involved ghosts or bears. I perfected my practical joke skills, which entertained me until I graduated from college.
We also had our Camp Pastor who was a rotating volunteer taking a week off from his church in the Knoxville area to be our spiritual advisor and to tell us in language that little Baptist boys could understand that we were all going to hell if we didn’t acknowledge our belief in what he told us we had to believe.  (Just to be clear, I’m not being sexist.  There were no female Baptist clergypersons in Knoxville back then, and as far as I know there are none still today.)
We kids respected our Camp Pastor and listened to what he said.  Some cried because they didn’t want to go to hell.  Some snoozed, and some were sparked to do childhood theological reflection.  By the time we were 12, some of us in that group were getting pretty advanced; someone asked as we left one evening’s visit with thoughts of a devil and his hell, “How long is eternity?”
By the way, I still can’t answer the question about how long eternity is; I nearly flunked the philosophy of time segment of my college Introduction to Philosophy course, but I stopped believing in hell long ago.

 

II.

Good things can happen during summer months.  Our nation declared its independence from Britain in the summer of 1776.  The war between the United States and Japan ended in the summer of 1945.  I became the pastor of Silverside Church in the summer of Y2K.  OK, fine.  It was a good thing to me anyway.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in the summer of the year 6 BCE, BCE because the calendar most folks use today, Jews being a notable exception, is based on a six year miscalculation by a monk in the middle ages whose job was calendaring.  Anyway, Jesus wasn’t born in the cold winter months, though you can forget that if you want before we start singing Christmas carols since I’ve already messed up Christmas for many of you by letting you know that the Magi didn’t call on Jesus until Jesus was two years old.
On Wednesday past, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” became 50 years old.  In the sweltering DC summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people stood on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to hear the speech that with President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” hit the utter apex of oratory and life-changing challenge.
I have never heard anyone explain why one of the hottest times of the year was chosen for this outdoor event, but, again, some surprisingly important events slip into our lives in deceptively slow summer months.  In any case, there they were–250,000 of them, about 60,000 of them Caucasian, hearing the culmination of a day of speakers and more broadly the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were pleased that the event had been planned once they’d been assured there would be no violence, and they together watched the great speech on a television in the Oval Office.  “This guy is damn good,” the President said to his brother as King ended his sermon/speech.  FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, however, was in a stew.  He had long since decided that the Rev. Dr. King was a
Communist so he and his minions heard, “Join the Communist Party,” in every other phrase King spoke.
The state of the art public address system installed for this vital collection of speakers–nine before King spoke, ten if you count the speaker who made the “opening remarks”–was sabotaged earlier in the day, before any of the speakers had a chance to speak.  Attorney General Kennedy called on the Army Corps of Engineers to fix it, and they did. But there was a span of time during which no one knew if any of the speakers would be heard that day by more than those within a few feet of the podium.
A website, americanrhetoric.com, maintained by a hundred or so of the leading speech professors in the U.S., lists the 100 most pivotal speeches of the twentieth century.  It is not a static list, but the number one speech (sermon!) has never lost its ranking established by these public speaking professionals:  Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.”
By the way, Dr. King also currently holds slot #15, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon/speech as well as slot #43, “A Time to Break Silence” which was his condemnation of the war in Vietnam preached to 3000 people at the Riverside Church in New York City exactly one year before his was assassinated.
The dream imagery, by which almost everyone who has ever heard the speech, remembers it had been used by King previously in lesser known sermons/speeches, and his advisors had successfully urged him not to use the dream references in his sermon/speech for that day; in fact, the title of the finished sermon/speech had nothing at all about dreams in it and carried the title, “Normalcy–No More.”  However, Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, who had sung before Dr. King preached and was seated on the platform near him, spoke out at a pause and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”
He took her cue and pushed aside his prepared remarks; in their place came his inspired, essentially spontaneous use of the dream imagery.  This portion of the sermon/speech is what we most readily remember now–the part that almost wasn’t!
The sermon/speech caused a big splash initially, but King historians and speech historians tell us the speech was hardly being mentioned by the time Dr. King was assassinated a little less than five years later.  How in the world could that be?

Drew Hansen, author of The Dream wrote:

…it was largely forgotten — first, because of the crush of events, and later, as King’s earlier optimism began to seem ill-founded and he became more controversial especially for his opposition to the war, it was King’s assassination that led the nation to rediscover the speech.

That was in the spring of the year.

III.

You heard Annie read earlier the snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “Do what we can, summer will have its flies.”  Suddenly, there’s a huge fly in the world’s ointment in the summer of 2013:  Syria and threat of war against that country whose own so-called leaders have massacred Syrian citizens with chemical weapons.
Travesty.  But stop the saber rattling.  Please let the war drums and the threats of war cease instantly.
Did I say I didn’t believe in hell?  Oh, I believe in hells on earth alright.
Pope Francis along with some influential Christian leaders in the Middle East and Europe are speaking out prophetically, and this is exactly what true prophecy is, not predicting what will happen millenia ahead but daring to speak the truth of what is going to happen next week or next month if people continue on a pathway toward self-destruction.  What is the likely result of an attack on Syria spearheaded by the United States, Britain, and France? Possible global conflict.  Preach, Francis!
The Syrian Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, said on Vatican Radio that armed intervention in Syria could unleash a “world war.”  Is there any reason we shouldn’t do everything in our power to stop such a destructive turn?
Last Sunday, the Pope called on all countries anticipating taking military action against Syria to think again.  He pled with them to do everything possible to avoid military action.

The increase in violence in a war between brothers [and sisters], with the proliferation of massacres and atrocities, that we all have been able to see in the terrible images of these days, leads me once again to raise my voice that the clatter of arms may cease. It is not confrontation that offers hope to resolve problems, but rather the ability to meet and dialogue.

I mentioned earlier Dr. King’s sermon/speech at Riverside Church in New York City, right at Columbia University.  King lost a lot of his liberal supporters in that speech because they believed we HAD to be in Vietnam to help those who couldn’t help themselves.  One of his close advisors said that the Riverside speech was his most important contribution, not the “I Have a Dream” sermon/speech as powerfully significant as it turned out to be.
A word from Dr. King that you may not have heard:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered….A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of…filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending [combatants] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death….America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

Summertime…and the living…ain’t easy.