Sunday, February 20, 2011


What’s clear in America is that not everyone loves every president. More often than not we elect our top governing official by the narrowest of margins and given our somewhat obtuse system of the Electoral College it’s possible for an elected president to lose the popular vote but still hold office. That happened as recently as 2000. Even in the most lopsided of recent elections, a significant minority of citizens cast their vote for the person who did not win. Yet, in spite of strong opinions as to the politics and ideology of a particular president, and one’s support or opposition thereof, I believe it nearly impossible to find an American who does not hold the office of President of the United States in high regard. We may, at varying times, have strong disagreement, even disgust, for the policies, decisions, and direction of the person in the office; but few, if any, deride the office itself.

Presidential Libraries then provide a glimpse, albeit glossed over and somewhat sanitized, of both the person and the office. While they were created to be a repository of the papers and historically significant documents of a presidency, they are better known as part museum and part living monument. A “Bucket List” item of mine is to visit all 13 and I began this week with a trip to Boston and the JFK Library on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.

As a self-confessed political junkie, most things about politics interest me, but it’s the presidency that fascinates. I’m intrigued by a combination of the pomp and circumstance, the hints of royalty and secrecy, along with the complexity and depth of demand put on one individual and the overwhelming responsibility of the office. The most accessible way for a commoner to venture into those realms is in hindsight through the doors of a library.

JFK had his flaws and faults – that’s undisputed. He was president during an incredibly tumultuous time in our country’s history and as the youngest person elected to the office, he ushered in a new generation of leadership in our country. Yet behind the glamour and days of “Camelot,” he faced challenges and obstacles which have become defining moments of our national trajectory. From Vietnam to Civil Rights to the Cold War to the Space Race – in his short tenure as our Commander in Chief, the full gamut of challenges reared their faces.

Yet, I believe, that despite his youth, he displayed a depth of wisdom and insight beyond his years, as is evidenced in his inaugural speech, for tucked behind the famous “ask not” homiletical pinnacle are these simple sentences:
All of this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

But. This simple conjunction signals a shift in direction or mood or cadence. Kennedy apparently recognized that much was expected of his young administration with its vitality and fresh faces. Home from a victorious war, ready to take the reins of leadership, much was expected and hoped for of what would become to some, “the greatest generation.” Yet like a man betrothed, Kennedy knew it best to keep expectations low for fear that discontentment would set in before the honeymoon was over.

In a nod to moderation, but not retreat, he escalates momentum. His words build from a hundred days, to a thousand days, to over 1400 days, to even a lifetime – BUT, he intones, well never get there if we don’t take the first step. The journey may be long, arduous, full of setbacks and disappointments, and we may not live to see our destination – but let us begin.

Regardless of political affiliation or party loyalty – it’s good rhetoric. Kennedy’s speech of 1280 words, less than most sermons preached from this pulpit, was the shortest in recent history – by design and intention. Kennedy was fearful of speaking too long, of being perceived as a “windbag” and as a theme, he wanted the country to know that the “spirit of the Revolution still is here, still is a part of this country.”

I wonder if that’s true today, 50 years later, that the spirit of the Revolution is a part of this county. It’s hard not to wonder what it was like then – during the days and years leading up to the Revolution—when one wanders the streets of Boston. On our short visit we walked the “Freedom Trail” and visited the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home, the USS Constitution, and saw the Bunker Hill memorial and it was not simply moving, but challenging and compelling as well.

At what point did a critical mass of people decide that settlement in the New World was progressing just fine, BUT it was time to break away and declare their independence from British rule? At what moment did the colonists decide that leadership must not come from across the Atlantic, BUT from within the ranks of the settlers? At what juncture did the early Americans decide that there future might be secure and predictable with King George, BUT that they were willing to take the risk to venture on their own? Simple words, conjunctions, which changed the course of American and world history.

Simple words came to Moses that changed the course of human history. Our text for today is basically the script for a speech God has prepared for Moses.

In what is clearly among the most ignored books of the Bible in the Christian church, Leviticus is composed of almost exclusively those simple words of God.

The first 16 chapters and the last chapter make up the Priestly Code, with rules for ritual cleanliness and sin-offerings. Chapters 17–26 contain the Holiness Code. The book is largely concerned with "abominations", largely dietary and sexual restrictions. The rules are generally addressed to the Israelites, except for several prohibitions applied equally to "the strangers that sojourn in Israel."
Speak to the congregation of Israel. Tell them, Be holy because I, God, your God, am holy.

"When you harvest your land, don't harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don't strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.

"Don't steal.

"Don't lie.

"Don't deceive anyone.

"Don't swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God. I am God.

"Don't exploit your friend or rob him.

"Don't hold back the wages of a hired hand overnight.

"Don't curse the deaf; don't put a stumbling block in front of the blind; fear your God. I am God.

"Don't pervert justice. Don't show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right.

"Don't spread gossip and rumors.

"Don't just stand by when your neighbor's life is in danger. I am God.

"Don't secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt.

"Don't seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people.

BUT "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God

Now, of course, we know where Jesus found the Greatest Commandment! Tucked away in the muck and mire of a book of injunctions no longer practiced by Christians are these 10 verses of social and moral ethic amidst a sea of dietary and cleanliness prohibitions. The greatest of which is set apart by a simple conjunction. But…love your neighbor as yourself.

What we might easily miss in those last verses leading up to the crescendo of ethical love is that the boundaries expand. The NRSV uses this language:

You shall not hate any of your kin;
You shall not reprove your neighbor.
You shall not bear a grudge against your people.

From kin to neighbor to people. Concentric circles of relationship ever expanding our horizon of social responsibility – beyond family, beyond friends, beyond acquaintances, and beyond fellow citizens. It begs the question: where does our responsibility end?

For a church this has practical implications. Should we focus our energy and resources in downtown Wilmington? Great Wilmington? New Castle County? Above the canal? Delaware? Delmarva Penninsula? East Coast? East of the Mississippi? The United States? North America?

Leviticus seems to be saying, yes, all of the above, and don’t stop there, BUT, love your neighbor as yourself. Be holy, for I God, am holy!

Those two admonitions linked, merged even, to one compound injunction: love neighbor—be holy. Be holy. Two simple words we don’t hear much in a Presbyterian church.

We get lots and lots of speeches and rhetoric about caring for the least of our sisters and brothers, or advocating for the ignored and overlooked, or Good Samaritan type stories – but “be holy?”

It could be that “love neighbor” and “be holy” are two sides of the same coin. It could be that our lives with God and others is a practical expression of our holiness. Becoming holy is becoming more like God. In some churches they talk about “sanctification” – the process of becoming more and more like God, of becoming holy. God, in essence is saying, “in company with me, you shall grow to be like me!” We become, it’s fairly obvious, what we worship!

So the work of being holy is just that: work. It’s swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways. It’s all of those “don’t” in the speech from Leviticus, it’s the part after the conjunction, and it’s all means of living a life closer to God.

Sanctification, becoming holy, living a life closer to God is a long and lengthy process. It’s work without immediate results or satisfaction. It’s arduous, has setbacks and disappointments, and is full of pitfalls. It takes time to chart a course to change not all of human history – but just one human’s history.

All of it will not be finished in one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in one thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.

But let us begin.

Friday, February 18, 2011

All This Will Not Be Finished...

It only took three years for Walle and I to make a trip we've been talking about since July of 2008 when a very generous congregation presented us with the gift of a visit to a Presidential Library. It's a "bucket list" item for me -- to visit all 13 (only since Hoover) libraries. After the fun we had in Boston we're also thinking that it should be a Valentine's Day tradition for us!

We flew up on Tuesday and after navigating the "T" subway system and checking into our hotel, we headed over to Cambridge to walk the hallowed grounds of Harvard. Call me a snob, but it's rarefied air over there. As we just wandered and enjoyed the atmosphere, lo and behold, we walked over to the Chapel only to discover that our former Associate Pastor in Santa Barbara is the featured preacher this coming week. We were thrilled to see her name and had to, of course, take a picture of the sign and send it to her!

The next day we headed over to the UMass Boston campus to tour the JFK Presidential Library and it was terrific. As it's the 50th anniversary of his inaugural speech, there were a number of special exhibits on display and given the time of year and temperature (way cold!) we basically had the museum to ourselves. We spent a little over 3 hours and savored each and every item on display. For a political junkie -- this was a large slice of heaven right here on earth. It was a very inspiring day that we capped off with an hour at the Museum of Fine Arts Early American show.

Lastly -- this morning we walked the Freedom Trail and visited the Old North Church, Paul Revere's home, the USS Constitution, and other sites pivotal in the Revolution. I was reminded again and again that this is a country founded on ideals and principles that I value above nearly all others and that in the pulpit of a church whose roots precede the founding of this country, I stand in a long line of preachers who also viewed the church as a vital agent of societal and cultural change.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Grease of Society

Manners, we were told by a professor in seminary, are the grease of society. Manners are those well-timed small squirts of oil on the gears of our social interactions that keep things running smoothly while avoiding undue friction. How many times does a simple “thank you”, or “please”, or “excuse me” make a world of difference defusing what could have been a run up to something akin to “road rage,” but instead evokes a polite and civil exchange.

First & Central folks, and some others, tutor second graders every Wednesday afternoon at East Side Charter School. This is a public school that’s nearly at the bottom of rankings for test scores and has among the highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch prices. Yet just this past week, I was struck by the level of politeness and etiquette of the young students. One needed to get passed me in the hallway and simply said, “excuse me.” I help the door for yet another and she said, “thank you.” When one held the door for me and I said “thanks,” he responded, “you’re welcome, sir.”

All is not lost in a culture when basic civility is practiced and folks remember that simple gestures such as “please” and “thank you” are the grease of society.

In our generation, no one epitomizes polite company more than Judith Martin, better known as “Miss Manners.” In a recent article in Psychology Today she remarked,

Etiquette is about all of human social behavior. Behavior is regulated by law when etiquette breaks down or when the stakes are high--violations of life, limb, property, and so on. Barring that, etiquette is a little social contract we make that we well restrain some of our more provocative impulses in return for living more or less harmoniously in a community.

Of course, when you throw etiquette aside, as has been roundly done over the last few decades, you end up with the "road rage" phenomenon. People say very proudly, "I don't care about etiquette," because they don't understand what it is. They have the mistaken idea that etiquette is some kind of little ritual for snobs. But when you throw it away. the violence, the frivolous lawsuits, and the not-so-frivolous lawsuits, follow very quickly.

She’s right, of course, and without the grease that manners and etiquette provide society, cultural transactions grind and heat up leading to road rage and beyond, and so our little rituals are for more than snobs.

Etiquette, manners, and civil laws allow the members of a society to live freely, to know the boundaries, to bridle their own “provocative impulses in return for living more or less harmoniously in a community.” The grease of society.

We Christians have had, historically at least, a snobbish attitude toward to the Jewish adoration of law, of the Torah. We stick our Protestant noses in the air and say, “We don’t care about the Law – we have Jesus!” We do have Jesus, but Jesus and the law are not mutually exclusive. Jesus himself never claimed to have superseded the Law of Moses and in fact, is quoted quite to the contrary.

Yet nothing in the Christian canon approaches a celebration of Jewish law—something we might consider archaic, restrictive, or obsolete – yet, like manners in modern society, the Law of Moses, the Torah, provided the children of Israel with the grease needed to thrive as a people.

More than grease, actually. The Torah provided a constitution, a means of government, a Bill of Rights, a structure upon which to build a society, and the boundaries within which to freely move and transact business – social and financial.

So that generation after generation might know and embody this code of conduct, teachers, rabbis, wrote poems, songs, and other mnemonic devices to transmit a deep appreciation and even reverence for the law.

Enter, then, Psalm 119.

It has the dubious honor of not just the longest psalm, but of the longest chapter anywhere in the Bible. It is 176 verses long. Not only does the number of words give it recognition, but its form and design are held up as architectural wonders. Like the Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House, the CN Tower in Toronto, or The Guggenheim Museum in Spain, the structure of this psalm frequently overshadows its content or purpose.

Much of the commentary written about this work dismisses the message in favor of the design. How it looks garners far more attention than what it says. We deprive ourselves if we stop at the architecture, if we consider only what’s on the outside.

The 119th Psalm is, as mentioned, 176 verses long, which are organized into 22 stanzas of 8 verses each. The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters, all consonants, hence the psalm is an acrostic – each of the verses in the first stanza begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, known as ‘aleph, the next grouping begin with the second letter, and so on. Remember the old classic song “Mother”? “M is for the many things she gave me…” (Now, of course, I’ve completely lost you and you’re trying to remember what “O” stood for!)

The theme of Psalm 119 isn’t “mother”, it’s “the law” – now I recognize in some households they are one in the same, but for the Hebrews, the law was elevated and revered and it was crucial to pass it on from generation to generation.

For young students of the tradition this psalm was deliberately didactic – literally the A-B-C’s of the Torah! In its entirety, it makes a comprehensive statement of a Torah-oriented life, covers all of human existence from A to Z, or from ‘Aleph to Taw! But more importantly, the design doesn’t mask the message it instead broadcasts something that is reliable, symmetrical, predicable and as complete as the movement of the psalm.

What we may have to remember is that the writer of the psalm wasn’t worried about legalism for they simply didn’t see the Torah in that light. The law for the Hebrews was not simple-minded or reductionist, it wasn’t one-dimensional but was seen and used as a gateway, a starting point, a launching pad for an on-going conversation with God. The law, simply put, was not the whole of the faith but the beginning.

“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart.”

These first two verses summarize and capture the remaining 174. Happiness comes from people of integrity. The law points to an intellectual or instructional perspective, but it’s those who seek relationship, who “walk in the law” who find the spiritual nature of the Torah, who embark on a journey of spiritual growth and conversion who are truly happy.

That’s the hard part.

A cartoon in The New Yorker recently shows a young person being interviewed in a career counseling center who tells the interviewer, “There’s a lot I want to experience, but not a lot I actually want to do!”

I think that’s a fairly common approach to spirituality. Most of us would love to experience a vibrant spiritual life but few of us are willing to do what it takes to get there. Partially that’s due to knowledge and direction; and partially it’s due to initiative and tenacity.

The psalmist knew that a journey of spiritual growth began with the first step of hearing, of learning, of being taught. Then one has to make the conscious choice to follow and follow-through. Through the doing, a relationship forms until one discovers they have incorporated a practice or belief.

If you think back on any number of things that have become important in your life – from a fitness regimen, to changing eating habits, to practicing yoga, to attending classes or pursuing a degree, to learning a new skill. The pattern moves from learning to practice to relationship.

The same is true with spiritual growth. It begins with learning. For the Hebrew people – it began with Psalm 119 – but it doesn’t stop there.

You can read all of the text books, training manuals, self-help guides ever printed – you can even read the Bible cover to cover – but until we move from learning to practice there’s no possibility of relationship. In the language of the psalm – until we “walk in the way” do we discover our relationship, our passion, our calling.

For Christians it’s simply this: until we seek and embrace a relationship with Jesus this is all merely an intellectual exercise, pageantry, or a waste of a perfectly good Sunday morning. Until we know that Christ is the Lord of our lives and the means of grace and purpose, we’re no more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Until we can believe and say,
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and, while smiling, have called out my name. Now with you, I will seek other seas.

Friends – we are gathered as the people of God, as the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses in this time and place for that which God has done in our lives and has called us to be and do.

Our challenge is to pursue substance and relationship in favor of design. We are a lovely church, a beautiful sanctuary, an architectural wonder on Rodney Square – but are we in relationship with one another and with Jesus? Does the splendor of the exterior resonate with the humility and gratitude of the interior?

If manners are the grease of society, then relationships borne of justice, compassion, and love are the engine. May we strive, in all of our days, to walk in the way of the Lord, to keep God’s decrees, and to seek God always with our whole heart.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Church of Five Guys

After picking up my car yesterday noontime at Smith VW, I stopped by Staples for a few supplies for the church. Given that it was lunchtime, I scoped out Prices Corner shopping center for food and found Five Guys. Cheeseburgers and fries never disappoint -- until it's time to work off all of those delicious greasy calories... Five Guys is a model of a great customer experience. The menu is simple, written in huge letters, the pricing is basic, and the service is friendly and quick. One basically orders a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with or without fries, with or without a drink. Everything is out in the open so you can watch your order go from fridge to grill to bun to bag. While you wait, there is a huge bucket of peanuts to crack and eat, and watching the cooking process is surprisingly entertaining.

The best part, however, is when your order is assembled. Into a plain brown paper bag goes a large cup of fresh, hot, salty fries and your tightly wrapped burger steaming and melting, and then, the order assembler, takes yet another scoop of hot fries and just throws them into the bag -- for fun! Something for "nothing" -- and something to eat on the drive back to church. My "free" fries "hit the spot" and I enjoyed every bite on I-95!

Five Guys -- they keep it simple, use good quality ingredients, keep the process transparent, and toss in a little more than you expected or paid for. Customer satisfaction has to be off the charts. Nothing fancy and they not only deliver as advertised, but a little more.

Begs the would Five Guys run a church? I wonder if our "customers" leave feeling like they got more than expected or if anyone considers what we do simple and transparent? It was easy to move around, I knew what was expected, and how to respond. One of the most off-putting experiences a person can have is an awkward first impression, of sensing that they are the only ones who don't know the routing, the secret handshake.

A hamburger joint may not be the most applicable model for a tall-steeple church -- but there's a lot be said for satisfied customers eager to return.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Presidents, Prayer, Patriotism, and Pride

I caught a 5:00 a.m. Amtrak to Washington DC this morning so that I could get to the Washington Hilton by 7:15 a.m. in time to attend the National Prayer Breakfast at the invitation of Senator Coons. This was the 59th annual breakfast, a tradition started by Pres. Eisenhower (who was the inspiration for my middle name), and every president since has attended and spoke. This year was no exception and by the luck of the draw, I was all of 30 feet from the President and Mrs. Obama. (Cameras were not allowed so I had to sneak a picture with my cellphone -- hence the poor quality!)

Although I was clearly enjoying the event and seeing folks in person I've been watching on TV for years, there were three especially notable speakers:
Jose Enriquez, one of the Chilean miners rescued last month
Randall Wallace, film maker, writer (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers)
Capt. Mark Kelly, USN and NASA astronaut, and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was shot last month in Tuscon, AZ

Randall Wallace was the keynote and is an amazing storyteller -- no notes, no teleprompter -- just spoke for about 15 minutes and moved effortlessly between humor and personal tragedy and faith and conviction. Terrific in all respects. Mr. Enriquez and Capt. Kelly received sustained and emotional ovations and both spoke with clarity and neither squandered the goodwill or capital extended by the audience of 3,500 in the ballroom.

One of the other notable aspects of the morning is that I was seated next to a Minister of Foreign Affairs of a European country, a very gifted woman who has been in politics for most of her adult life. We talked some about the extremely difficult times her country has endured and how it's recovering, but what she really seemed to want to talk about were the trials and tribulations of raising a 16-year-old boy! He's apparently a star athlete in his high school and while he can't drive until he's 18, he's clearly noticed girls...and vice versa! With his mother on the other side of a very large ocean -- she's understandably anxious! It was a lovely reminder that despite very different circumstances -- raising a teenager appears to be a unifying event!

On a similar note, I find it impossible to drive or walk through the streets of our nation's capital and not be in awe of the wonder that is our system of government and is our country. Surely, we have our debates and disagreements, but it's hard not to proud of our common heritage while walking the streets of Washington DC.

One humorous thing -- when I arrived at the hotel I wasn't at all sure where to go or even which entrance to use. At that moment a motorcade pulled up and out of a gaggle of black Suburbans I recognized some familiar faces from the TV news so I simply fell in line with their entourage of interns and staff members. Because of that, I breezed through like a member of the staff -- until they figured out I wasn't meant to be there! I was wearing my collar so they were very nice, didn't have me arrested, and even helped me find my table!

Amtrak had me back in Wilmington by 1:30 p.m. -- which, by the way, is a most civilized and enjoyable means of transportation. My ticket was $80 round trip and completely effortless, comfortable, and entertaining.