Wednesday, December 30, 2009

RE-entry into work and some reflections on how important it is to treat people like people

It has been alright getting back to work after what was a real week off. Part of what helped was that both of the days in court were not too heavy, which meant I had less than ten clients and time to actually talk to my clients like they were human beings. On Tuesday, I even had the luxury of sitting down at a table across from my clients and discussing their legal situation and their life situation! Public Defender work really does stretch you at times. Most the time I know very well what to do legally to get my client a good deal, but I don't have time to let my client know what is going on or that I know what is going on. But, by the way I do things, they can at least tell I know what is going on, and what I am doing. But, I hate leaving them out of it all, as if they didn't matter, when its their life in the balance. I remember being in court several times and telling a client: "If you will just shut up, I'll get you out of jail." Another time I remember saying: "When we go in front of the judge, just keep your mouth shut; it is what I say that will get you out of jail." And, I do produce. I get people good deals; I get people out of jail.

But, when I have a couple of days like I did this week, I can really enjoy practicing law. Because I had the time and took it - to just talk with my clients and get to know them a little.

I remember one terrible day at the Public Defender's Office. We had a young woman (mid-20's) who had a couple of minor charges. The only reason she remained in jail was that she hadn't paid her court costs in an old case. I had briefly dealt with one of her cases a couple of days before, and then that Friday morning she went to court for the court cost case which was holding her in jail. And, one of our attorneys went in front of the judge and presented her case, and the judge ordered her held for two weeks until the hearing date (this was all over $2oo or $300 she hadn't paid). I remember she had stitches in her head, because she had had a seizure and fallen and hit her head. And, right after the judge ordered her held, they took her back to the holding cell. She told the guard that she wasn't feeling well - could she go back down to the jail now. He took her down. When she got down there, she found a belt and hung herself.

Our attorney that was in court that day felt terrible. He was rushed, under pressure with about 20 cases to deal with. I felt bad too, because I remember sort of rushing through talking to her on her case a couple of days before.

If anyone had taken the time to treat her like a human being, she might be alive today. And, why in the hell was it worth putting her in jail over court costs? I really hate our legal system here in Blount County sometimes. A few dollars weigh more than human life and human concerns on many days. And, many times we fight against this inhumanity of the system in our office, but there are days that we are just another part of this inhumane system that crushes people.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Quote from St. Augustine

"We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand?
If you do understand, then it is not God."

- St. Augustine

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thinking about Lawyering and Living

Now that I am off from work at the Public Defender's Office for a whole week, I have been thinking on and off about what it means for me to practice law. I practice almost solely as a criminal defense attorney, representing people charged with crimes who don't have enough money to hire an attorney.

And, that brings up one thing I really like about doing a good job as a public defender. If I am really doing a good job, then that means that a poor person in Blount Co, TN has as good a defense attorney as a rich person. It makes me happy to think about that. What makes me even happier is that our Public Defender's Office clearly provides better legal representation to clients than most of the private attorneys in our area who practice criminal defense.

Being an attorney in the area of criminal defense means "standing with someone in trouble." Now, oftentimes, the person is in trouble because they have violated the law; sometimes, like a man I had a trial for last week, people are in trouble because an officer charged them with a crime they didn't commit. But, whether my client is actually guilty or innocent or somewhere in between (that happens - life is complicated!), it is my duty to stand with them in the legal system - a system in which the government has decided to "prosecute" them.

Until you are being prosecuted, or are close to someone who is being prosecuted, it is hard to understand what it is like. For the government to decide they want to charge you with a crime is not simply someone saying: "hey, you did something wrong:" it is the most powerful authority saying: "you violated our state's laws, and we are going to punish you for it. We are going to put you in jail; then bring you to court; then try to get you stamped with a criminal conviction which you can carry around on your record everytime you apply for a job, or a school, etc. We are going to threaten you with jail time, etc. or at least probation and costs and fines."

I think the biggest thing that is hard to understand is how a person gets falsely charged. When that happens to a person, it becomes clear just how powerful the executive branch of government is (law enforcement/DAs), and just how inept the judicial system can be as a protection against wrongful prosecution. What happens is fairly simple. Here's an example:

A crime is committed. Let's say a really terrible crime: a child has been raped. Law enforcement feels pressure to solve the crime for obvious reasons. And, a suspect is identified. Let's say a neighbor saw this suspect around the child's house where the rape occurred on that same day. The suspect does not live in that neighborhood. The suspect has been convicted of assault and burglary before, and has a sexual assault charge as a juvenile. The suspect begins to look like a real possibility and becomes the focus of the investigation. Being influenced by law enforcement, the child picks the suspect out of a lineup (not real convincingly, but then more convincingly as time goes on). The suspect is interviewed regarding his whereabouts that day. He admits to being in that neighborhood, but can't give a good reason why he was there. He can't provide an alibi to show he wasn't in the neighborhood at the time the crime was committed. He is caught in a couple of inconsistencies. Now, law enforcement begins to gather all sorts of evidence that would support him being the rapist. And, law enforcement ignores any evidence that does not support him being the rapist.

It is amazing how strong a case you can make against someone if you only take account of those things which support guilt while ignoring all things which don't support guilt.

The example given above is pretty close to what happened in a North Carolina investigation twenty years ago, an investigation which resulted in an innocent man being convicted and a guilty man not being charged. Eventually the error was discovered by DNA testing, and after 11 years in prison, the innocent man was freed, and the guilty man was located - a previously convicted sex offender and charged.

But, the weight of the prosecuting branch of government on a single human being is a very heavy weight, and the protective power of the court system can be very weak.

Now, I don't want to act as if this is a common occurrence, but in real serious crimes it is probably more common than we would like to think. And, most criminal investigations don't go this wrong. But, many criminal investigations go a little and lot wrong, this way and that, because of a rush to judgment, and the desire to resolve a situation by blaming someone. Somehow human beings feel better when someone can be blamed for a terrible thing. We don't do well with "not knowing."

That's what I am thinking about today. How important it is in life to be able to live with "not knowing." If you can do that, you can consider more facts, can keep your mind and heart open to more things, before you try to decide something. Scientists are supposed to be able to do this. Judges are supposed to be able to do this. Truth is: scientists and judges often fail as often as the common man on the street in enduring "not knowing." But, they shouldn't. And, we as human beings shouldn't. To live with "not knowing" is to live in harmony with the way things really are in the world. There are always so many things that we will never quite understand, so many things which don't make much sense. It is not particularly easy to admit or accept this; but, in the long run it is a far more peaceful and humane way to live. It takes an enormous amount of effort to grate against reality; it is like swimming against the current of life. To be in harmony with life is to understand things, but the greatest part of understanding is when you realize how much you don't know.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Forgiveness: 3rd Post on dealing with anger

Maybe we have stated the problem in the wrong way - the problem we think we are getting at when we talk about the struggle to forgive. Isn't the real issue what to do with anger? Anger comes when injustice or unfairness is experienced. Anger is born when our inner world explodes because our outer world is so at odds with our hopes and expectations.

And, once that anger comes to life in our hearts and minds, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes a force that must be reckoned with. Anger is a force in our inner world that has its effect, one way or another.

Whether we consider ourselves to have forgiven someone who has wronged us, or whether we consider ourselves to have not forgiven, there remains a reality within us which I will call our anger at what has happened to us. Anger in this sense is like a reverberation or aftershock from a terrible shaking of our being. There is a sense in which anger is a biological and psychic reality that is inevitable after serious trauma.

This force may or may not be expressed outwardly. It may or may not be expressed directly. But, it affects and shapes our inner reality and eventually how we express ourselves, how we act.

On one hand, we can have conscious strategies for dealing with our anger (or upset if you want to call it that), but on the other hand, so much of how we 'process' difficult events is unconscious. That is, the reverberations within our selves are channeled, controlled, interpreted, etc. without conscious awareness that such "channeling, controlling, interpreting" is going on. We have what I will call our "direct" strategy for dealing with upset, but we also have our "indirect" strategy or basic ways of finding meaning and hope and peace in life which in time shape how we respond to upset in our lives.

These two levels of response: the first conscious; the second more unconscious; the first direct; the second more indirect; the first a trouble-shooting type of approach; the second more of a way of living/habit type of approach.

The dominant focus of religious people seems to be on "direct, conscious, trouble-shooting" type of approaches to problems. At least, this is the way of most Western religion. You have a conflict, face it; you have a problem, solve it. But, our best resolutions usually come when we aren't working directly on our problem. The answers to our greatest challenges often come when we aren't dealing directly with these challenges, or at least when we are not consciously trying to solve these problems. Scientists and mathematicians and inventors have had this experience, as have writers and other artists. If the mind and heart are committed to working on a problem, then the work goes on even when the problem is "out of sight and out of conscious thought."

What brings new resolutions and revolutions in understanding and creativity is when a person carries a concern hopefully and with commitment and dedication to resolution of the difficulty. There is a "faith" at the heart of this positive movement towards understanding, reconciliation, resolution. There is a way of carrying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings new life and new understanding. And, there is a way of carrying or perhaps burying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings death and prevents understanding (breeds misunderstanding).

If you are backpacking, there is a way of "shouldering" the pack that makes walking easier. It is worthwhile to stop and adjust the way you are carrying the pack, getting it to fit as naturally as you can to your back. In the same way, it is worthwhile to stop and adjust mentally and spiritually the way you are carrying burdens of anger and hurt, so that you can carry them in a natural way, fitting to your psychical make-up. When you are hiking with a pack,and everything is going just right, and you are enjoying the view and when the exertion itself seems natural, then you don't even feel the weight of the pack. The burden of the pack is resolved by being swallowed up by other experiences and desires and goals.

This is an analogy for how we deal with anger indirectly, how we deal well with upset in our lives indirectly. If the pack is our anger and upset, then we carry it best when we don't allow its weight to distract us from our deepest concerns, dreams, hopes and goals. When its weight is keeping us from going forward, we need to stop and adjust the way we are carrying our trouble. When we do this, our anger doesn't consume our attention. That thing we are upset about, or that person we are mad at, is only one concern of our lives - not the concern. As we take a break from thinking about what we are mad about in order to focus on other duties and desires, that is when we tend to find the answer to our conflict, a way out of our conflicts.

The great teaching of Jesus is this: "Seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you as well." He also helpfully says: "He who sets his hand to the plow but looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God." That saying seems harsh as it is spoken to the son who wants to care for his aging father, but the only way to resolve many difficulties is to renounce their hold on your life. By stepping outside of a conflict, and seeing what life has to offer, you begin to live free from being controlled by the conflict or the anger, and in the end probably find a way to resolve it when you get caught up in other concerns and forget about being mad.

The Universal Reach of Christmas

In Luke 2:14, it is written that the angels were singing:

"Glory to God among those on high, and peace among humankind with whom God is well-pleased."

According to many scholars, the Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" are to be translated "to human beings upon whom God's favor rests or with whom God is well-pleased." These scholars rely on evidence of the use of this Greek phrase in the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the mid-1900's. The old King James translated the same Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" as "good will to men."

So, the King James renders Luke 2:14 as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace, goodwill to men."

Some other scholars have translated the same verse as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace upon human beings of good will." But, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears that this translation has lost much of its support. And, I am glad about that. Because, if God's peace was only for those who had good will at the coming of Christ, then where is our hope for this world? Of course, the translation that I favor: "Glory to God among those on high, and peace among human beings with whom God is well-pleased" could be understood as referring to a certain group of human beings that are "the elect" and "chosen" of God. But, I think to understand things this way would be to have the same misunderstanding that so many in Israel had of the salvation that would come through the Messiah. That is why Jesus provoked some real outrage among the scribes and Pharisees. He proclaimed a salvation that was coming from God to all people. In fact, if you read scripture closely, it appears at times that God was pouring out that salvation to the Gentiles and Samaritans through Jesus before Jesus was preaching the universal reach of it. I am reflecting now on the times when Jesus recognizes genuine faith in Gentiles and Samaritans and others who were not considered among the "elect" of God. But, Jesus in the end does proclaim a message that encompasses all humanity or better put: "Jesus is the Word of God spoken as a blessing over all humanity."

And, that gets me back to Luke 2:14. It is a remarkable message, what those angels are reported to have sung:


I think of Jesus being baptized by John, and a voice from the heavens says: "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased" or in Mark's Gospel: "You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased." The Greek word that is translated here as "well-pleased" is the verb form of the same word used in Luke "eudokias."

Several years ago the deep connection between these two announcements from the heavens struck me. Both of them are about the parental joy of God, the rejoicing of the father in his son - the joyfulness of God at the birth of Jesus, a joyfulness that causes God to embrace the entire human race with that fatherly care and pride. To see that newborn child, who was flesh of our flesh, but also just as deeply of God's very being, was for God to fall in love all over again with human life in all of its fragility and beauty and tragedy and joy.

I don't know how else to say it than to say: "God threw in his lot with us that day. He gave himself into the life of humanity for better or worse. He made the heavens shake with the joy of his love for all human beings." God's heart was so full of love at the sight of the newborn Jesus that that love overflowed to all people, and has ever since.

But, to love, to really love another, is to become vulnerable. When you love someone else, you are affected by what happens with them and to them. When you love someone outside yourself, you might just take a risk in that love to help or even try to rescue another. God came among us so humbly, so simply, so joyfully, without pretense or pomp. The purity of the Christ awakened the hope of many, but also caused shame and hiding among those who loved their impurity.

God was revealed in this love, in this flesh and blood of Jesus, whose very flesh was able to fully bear the life-giving Spirit of God in this world. Yes, for God to do this, it must have been just as the angels said on that day of Jesus' birth:

"Glory to God among those on high (they were praising and congratulating God with all their might), and peace among those on earth (below) whom God loves beyond all imagining."

When Jesus was born, we were all reborn in the heart of God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Forgiveness: 2nd post

If you can ask the question: "Should I forgive or not?" then you don't understand the troubled situation you are in. If it is a matter of whether we should forgive or not . . . if the issue is put that way, then the battle is already lost. And, the battle is with evil and condemnation and all that is against the way of Christ in this world. It is not that it is easy "to forgive." If you think it is your right to decide whether or not to forgive, it is damn near impossible to forgive in certain situations.

For me to say "I forgive you" to someone who has done me wrong just doesn't seem right to me. If I can take up that God-like position over someone who has wronged me, then I can't be a channel of God's grace. Truth is: we simply don't have the right to sit on the throne of judgment. If we did, maybe we could withhold or grant forgiveness. If you come down from that throne and lose all desire to ever ascend to that throne in judgment over anyone . . . well if you do that, God's will is done; God's grace flows through you; God's peace comes to you.

In the full humanity of his flesh and blood existence, Jesus comes "not to condemn, but to save."

He is the way and the truth and the light; and his way doesn't include making decisions about whether to forgive or not. If that is a decision we have a right to make, then we remain in bondage to sin. If we get to the point where we simply don't have it in us to condemn, then we have come out from under sin.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I'll be reflecting some on this later today. It seems that Jesus' view was that it was God's business whether to forgive or not. It seems to be in the "job description" of the divine, and outside the scope of our business. That is, from what Jesus says, and from what he does, true humanity simply passes on God's forgiveness, acts as a channel of it. It is, in that sense, not any great deed to forgive, just "par for the course."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thinking Back to College

I was remembering late nights at Wake Forest reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and then Barth. And, I remember blowing off class occasionally for a "roadtrip." A roadtrip for me could happen on any day of the week. And, my roadtrips were usually just me and a friend, maybe two or three friends, but usually just one other person. It was when we just wanted to leave behind what was going on at school, and go to a place where we could be free for a while. I always remember my best college roadtripping friend, Joe Westmoreland. Joe and I usually would take off mid-week, in the evening, without any planning. Just when we wanted to go (gas was real cheap back then, and I had a diesel/45 cents a gallon/45 miles per gallon!). We would leave Winston-Salem, go to High Point, Thomasville, Concord, Davidson, whereever, just talking all the way like we were in another land and weren't coming back. We talked freely, and told the truth and tested out our ideas and vented our frustrations. And, then at some point we would decide to head back to Wake Forest. And, when we got back, we were redeemed. We felt freer. Because we knew something other students didn't know. We knew we could get away. We knew that our true selves were out there somewhere on the road. We knew we could continue to dream even amidst the confines of class and the college social world. We knew we were free. Me and my friend Joe.

And, there were some other great roadtrippers at Wake. My wife, Sue. My dear friend, John. And, there was Chuck. My friend, Susan. And, there were the roadtrippers from Davidson Summer Tennis Camp - Susan, Amy. And, from Clemson, Jim and Carol and Eddie Iskowski(that was an ill-advised roadtrip!).

But, nobody could be ready to go at anytime like Joe. Nobody, but maybe my Dad and my Grandfather. Some people have just got "roadtrip" in their blood.

Friday, November 27, 2009

John the Baptist and Advent

As I prepare for the first Sunday in the Church's Advent season, I really do have my mind directed towards the coming of Christ. But, that coming on the human side of things was prepared for by John the Baptist. I am fascinated by this prophet, John the Baptizer. He went out to the desert, lived among the wild animals, dressed in animal skins, ate bugs for his main source of protein. And, he began to preach a new message about repenting and believing that God's kingdom was drawing near. I wonder exactly what was so new in John's preaching. I guess it sounded new because it hearkened back to that which was very, very old in Israel: the days of the true prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea. Days when the way of holiness was understood as unified to the way of justice and mercy in human life. Yes, John brought this message - very old, but always very new. Because, whenever we awaken to the profound depths of such a word like that spoken by Amos: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts. I am sick of the noise of your songs at your solemn assemblies. Your sacrifices and rituals make me sick to my stomach. But, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!" When these words get a real hearing, they open human hearts to the coming of God's redemption. That's what John was doing - shaking people back to their foundations - waking them up that God was the only authority that was worth obeying and bowing down to.

And, when John saw Jesus he must have felt this huge weight come off his shoulders. That weight of holding on and getting ready and trying so hard to open the hearts of people to God's truth and help. But, when John saw Jesus, he saw that HELP had arrived. "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The sin of the world. That is the real problem we face. The sin of the world. That includes our own individual, family, societal sin, but goes even farther than that. The sin of the world. The twistedness of this world even while there is so much good and promise. The twistedness even of the best people, and the pervertedness of the worst. The sin of the world. The hatred of one nation for another; one group of religious people for another; people of lighter skin hating people of darker skin. The sin of the world.

So, as Advent draws near, I say those hopeful words that John first said: "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

O, Lord, please come and take away the sin of the world. Take away the sin from my heart, from our hearts, from all hearts, and remove the vestiges of bondage to sin. That at your coming, Lord, we might be free - free at last, free at last, thank God almighty - free at last!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making Sense of Life Without Religion

Paul Tillich (well known 20th century theologian) once said: Most religious people are practical atheists for most of their lives. What Tillich meant was that even though there are quite a number of people who profess to believe that there is a God who created the universe and even a God who cares about the universe and is involved in it, most of such "religious" people make sense of their lives and make decisions in their lives without being influenced at all by this belief.

There was a movement in the 1960's called "the Death of God" movement, which was a group of theologians who were constructing a new type of religious belief based on the experience of modernity, the experience as they said in which "human beings were gaining mastery over natural forces that everyone had assumed were only subject to divine control." The experience of discoveries that helped control or obliterate diseases, the creation of machines, and even the beginning of the exploration of space caused many people to have a tremendous confidence in modern science as the means of resolving the great problems of human life and society.

Of course, there remained that nasty reality called "death."

Still, theologians, interpreting some comments in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters written towards the end of his life, began to speak of living in the world as if there was no God as being the only way to live in faith.

But, Bonhoeffer had a deep trust in the reality and presence and goodness of God. What he was getting at was the "way in which God was in the world." That was the new aspect of Bonhoeffer's thought. Bonhoeffer experienced God as "burdened by life," and not distant from human life. It was for Bonhoeffer as if God was hidden in the depths of human suffering, but, still, God was at the root and at the heart of life.

If God was revealed in the execution of Jesus, then God's presence is in the dark hiddeness of human suffering.

Well, as you might glean from this post, I am not one who makes sense of life without religion. I am most of the time one who makes sense of life with the assumption of the reality of God. But, nonetheless, my understanding of the reality of God is and remains deeply influenced by my experience of human life. And, I believe that God is hidden in this world, and only experienced in places in which common wisdom would not expect God to be present.

I am also, as Tillich says, a practical atheist on many days as well, if he means by that that I live and experience a number of things as if I am separated from the reality of God. But, I lean very strongly towards Bonhoeffer's way and the way of the mystics: faith is a strange combination of the experience of God's presence and the experience of God's absence; but, even in the absence, you are somehow touched by the presence.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End of the Week and a time to stop

Sunday evening is the end of the week for me. Sunday evening is the time of rest for me. I am very grateful for Sunday afternoon, about 3:30 p.m. when I get home. Though I wasn't particularly happy with my sermon today, nonetheless, the week is done for me. Tommorrow will come and it will start all over for me, but, for now, I am enjoying the "sabbath."

Of course, Sunday is traditionally the first day of the week, but for me, Sunday is the last day of the week. I like everything about Sunday. From a time to worship, to a time to do what is important, not simply what is most pressing. And, then to the time when it all slows down when I get home.

We need times to stop, to really stop. At least, when we are in those periods of our lives when work and home have many demands. But, when our lives seem to have less pressure, we still carry a certain amount of pressure just to live and face the challenges of living well. And, those of us who may not have as many things pressing upon us, still have that burden of living and caring for others in their living. And, we all need times to stop, to be still and know that the Lord is God.

"O Lord, my heart is not lifted up. My eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great or marvelous for me. But, I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a child that is quieted at its mother's breast, like a child that is quieted, is my soul."


Monday, November 9, 2009

Arrogance, humility and how things get done

The older I get, the more I see how nothing gets done without a dose of arrogance and nothing endures without a large measure of humility. I really get tired these days when I have to rev up the confidence level to an unbearable level just to get something done in my work. And, after its over, I am worn out because I don't enjoy flights into arrogance. I'd rather stay calm, shoot straight, but that won't always get done what is necessary in either the law or in religion. But, I'm having a little more success lately in the religious area with just speaking the truth, staying calm and letting the chips fall where they will. In matters of faith, maybe it is just an illusion to think you have accomplished anything when you act contrary to the way of faith to get it done.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Religion, hatred, and killing

Right in the middle of some of the most violently cruel conflicts in the world is RELIGION. Religion, as a general proposition, is not that great a thing. The simple acceptance that 'religion is good for humanity' reveals a poor understanding of human history, human nature, and religion.

When I was a graduate student in Religion at Vandy, Sue and I got to the be friends with a couple from Yugoslavia: Ronco (husband) and Branca (wife). He was a mechanical engineering graduate student, and he told me that he was Serbian, but had absolutely no use for religion. He did say: "But, I am impressed that you don't kill each other over your religion. That's all I know of religion from my country." Freedom from religion was for him freedom from bloodshed and prejudice and all sorts of crazy misunderstandings.

Of course, in the U.S., we had our days of hatred between Protestant and Catholic, but those days are pretty much over. An anti-semitic strand won't seem to go away. But, we have had a few decades of religious peace in our country, where there has seemed to be a growing tolerance. But, now, since we have joined the centuries old East v. West religious battle, we are learning what my friend from Yugolslavia knew: RELIGION CAN BRING HELL ON EARTH.

And, the anti-human, anti-God nature of violent extremist religion shouldn't make us proud of our own religion, but critical of it, as we acknowledge the hatred and self-interest we smuggle into something that started with a deeply holy experience. Religion in the end gets to be about humans and not about God, unless we criticize our religion by confronting it with our genuine experience of the living God. A man, filled with the spirit of his "religion" and devoid of any experience of the living God filled 31 people full of bullet holes. Now that is what I call bringing hell to earth.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Love of Family

God, thank you for your grace and your mercy - your faithfulness in the life of my family. Thank you for seeing us through our struggles to find a way in our own way that hopefully finds your way for us in this world. We have borne the burdens of worry, of even being tempted to doubt each other, but the faith that comes from you has held us together - the love you have for us has bound us together when it seemed we would fall apart.

And, we celebrate today, O Lord! We celebrate that love which is eternal, and we praise you from the depths of our lives. For you, O Lord, are the source of all goodness, the bringer of new life, the dreamer of a new reality. You continued to dream for us when we had quit dreaming for ourselves. In your grace and by your goodness we are dreaming again - dreaming again those wonderful dreams of faith, hope and love. Amen and Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Almost everything I do, whether in court, at church, at home goes so much better if I listen to others. When I have the attention to really listen to another person, it means I am at peace and focused. Paying attention to what is going on around you, even right in front of you is a way of listening. And, there is also an inner listening: listening to the movements of your own heart and mind. Buddhists speak of "mindfulness." I like that word.

But, so many days are spent in anxious movements, both physical and mental. And, so many conversations are nothing but alternating making noises come out of our respective mouths. When speech arises out of real listening, then it is part of an engaged conversation. That's when good things come to us, through us, and among us.

When we don't pay attention to what is really going on around us, in front of us . . . when we aren't listening to others . . . when we are unable to listen to the movements within ourselves; that is being in a state of "mindlessness." Mindlessness leads to meaninglessness which lands us in despair. Listening, really listening, is like sending roots down into the source of life. In listening we are renewed. Maybe we have to be renewed in our souls to be able to listen, but maybe in the simple act of listening, the renewal begins.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

These three things I want to be rid of

It's Sunday evening. I'm typing slowly because I smashed my finger in the church door today. That is a big, old door, and my right middle finger is feeling it as it turns a darker shade of blue every hour or so.

Three things I ask to be delivered from: a spirit of anxiety; a spirit of self-importance; a spirit of criticism. These three problems came to me clearly a couple of years ago. Clearly, the anxiety is primal, at the deepest level. If I trust at that deep level in God, then the other evil spirits don't arise. But, my trust is lacking and so a spirit of self-importance arises and then with it criticism of others to justify my spirit of self-importance.

These three things I have learned in my almost 49 years of living. Three things I pray of you, O God:

Rid me of a spirit of anxiety
Banish that spirit of self-importance within me
Do away with that spirit of criticism (of others) within me


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Post-conviction DNA testing

As of January of 2009, there had been 229 exonerations through DNA testing of people convicted of very serious crimes in this country. That means that physical evidence that had been preserved from the crime scene was tested (for the presence of DNA) that established the actual innocence of the person that had been found guilty. One man who was acquitted was Dwayne Dail, who had served 18 1/2 years for the rape of a 12 year old girl. This 12 year old girl was raped, but by a man other than Dwayne Dail. On testing the sample from the crime scene, it was established that the rapist was not Dwayne Dail, but was another man about 10 years older (I think this other man was a convicted sex offender, but I'm not sure).

If you want to look at stories of two men who were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison, there are fairly detailed interviews on the internet. Just Google: "Dwayne Dail" or "Ronald Cotton."

When I went to this Post-conviction DNA conference in January, the most amazing thing I learned was that 20% of those proven innocent by DNA testing had actually confessed (and, pled guilty) to the crimes. That is really something to think about. It not only raises questions about errors in the investigative processes of law enforcement and the judical system; it raises some real concerns about real power of coercion involved in the criminal justice system. If we are concerned with justice, and if we do have respect for the right against self-incrimination; then, it should really worry us that 20% of those proven innocent by scientific testing actually confessed to crimes they didn't commit. That's what torture is supposed to produce, not a system that respects the dignity of human beings. Talking about getting it not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. It is frightening to think that this statistic about false confessions may just be "the tip of the iceberg." I hope that's not the case.

If I have a client who is on tape confessing to a crime, I think absolutely that that client is guilty. He did it if he said he did it, especially in a detailed account. But, that's what Bruce Godschalk did, in Pennsylvania v. Godschalk. He admitted to two rapes, with a fair amount of detail given. But, then insisted he was innocent. Years later after being in prison for about a decade, a lawyer convinced a Federal District Court Judge that Mr. Godschalk had a due process right to be conduct DNA testing on available samples from the evidence preserved in his case. The lawyer who convinced the judge to order DNA testing didn't think his client was innocent - nobody did. HE HAD CONFESSED IN DETAIL TO THE CRIMES. But, when the testing was done, it was proven that Mr. Godschalk was innocent of these rapes! When the whole story was told or revealed, serious law enforcement misconduct on was discovered and Mr. Godschalk and his lawyer settled for a fairly large sum, I am told.

That's the kind of worries I am talking about. Wondering about a process that can bring an innocent man to confess. It is something to wonder about. Perhaps we need to reconsider that old saying: "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Those detectives in Godschalk didn't use any "sticks or stones," only words.

Friday, October 9, 2009

So Many Things Left Undone

As our lives come to an end, so many of us have "so many things left undone." There is always another thing you want to get finished, a person you want to see make it through trouble, and young person you really want to see grow into adulthood. But, we don't have too much control over the ending of our lives, just like we don't have any control over the beginning.

So, we might as well accept that we will die with many things left undone. But, we have this day, and there are things we can do or not do today. Maybe the most important ones to do are not the things we think we "need to get done," but the things that deep down in our hearts we would really like to do.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"On the Outside Looking In"

That 10th commandment, "You shall not covet . . . " gets to something very deep and very tragic and twisted in human beings. It really means "don't become envious of others."

Soren Kierkegaard says: "envy is admiration grown sick." It is twisted or perverted admiration.

Envy is when we feel ourselves "on the outside looking in." The Indigo Girls have a song called: "Love Will Come to You" that expresses the longing of human beings for love, and the experience of being "on the outside looking in."

The words are vivid: "my face pressed up against love's glass . . . to see that shiny toy I've been hoping for, the one I never can afford . . . "

It is that haunting feeling that comes around for us that what we really long for is just out of reach.

Now, I know that sometimes a deep longing is very good and ought to be nurtured even if it is not fulfilled. But, I can't help think that so many of our "deep longings" are created out of some real brokenness and twistedness inside of us. What I am talking about is the tendency of human beings to manufacture a series of dreams that are just out of reach to keep ourselves miserable and in a state of always feeling like we are on the outside looking in. Watching a movie and feeling how wonderful it must be to share a love with another like it is portrayed in the movie, while you've got somebody back in the living room who loves you and would enjoy talking with you and sharing a hug with you right now. Not enjoying the nice place to live that we have because it's not as big and expensive a place as the family next door. Not appreciating the healthy body we have because we don't quite meet the standards for Miss or Mr. Universe.

Maybe when we feel like we are on the outside looking in, we ought to take some time to look inside of ourselves. The true longing of human beings is not to live up to some standard in the world outside of us, but to conform ourselves to a mystery deep within us. Now, with regard to that mystery, we may be "on the outside looking in."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Afternoon and the Feeling of Fall

On Sunday afternoon, I feel like I have finished my work week. And, that is when I can settle down and think on a few things.

I am thinking in a solemn sort of way this afternoon, some might call it a depressed sort of way. But, it is not depression. No, depression cuts you off from reality. This feeling is more in tune with reality, a feeling that slows you down inside, makes you feel the weight of this life.

Maybe it's just Fall, in all of its slowing down, in all of its melancholy, in all of its beauty.

The big experiences and commitments in my life have all come in the Fall: in my junior year in college when my grandmother and grandfather were dying of cancer, I was talking out loud to myself driving home from Clemson to see my grandmother in the hospital, and I felt this overwhelming sense of God's presence and purpose, and I just felt this joy inside, this joy to respond and say: "Yes, that's what my life is to be about!" I'm still not sure exactly what I said "yes" to, except that at the time I was thinking about four or five people that were suffering deeply that I cared very much for. I do feel very confident that I said 'yes' to God, whom I experienced then and experience now as being deeply given to the troubles of this world. That is my calling. Lately, I go back and forth as to whether I am carrying out my calling more as a lawyer with the Public Defender's Office or a pastor at my church. As I said I am not sure exactly "what" I said 'yes' to, but I am very sure about "whom" I said 'yes' to.

And, out of that experience came my application to transfer from Clemson to either Davidson or Wake Forest. What a great decision!

Two years later at Wake Forest, in the Fall again, I got to know someone that I fell in love with.

These experiences, these commitments, made during Fall. I do love Fall, the depths of it, the deep experiences that I still haven't figured out how to honor.

I can't help but think of sitting in the parking lot of the Wake Forest library in the Fall of 1982 with Sue, talking with each other like nothing else mattered.

Experiences and commitments. The openness of heart to really experience life and the joy and certainty of commitment arising out of these experiences. That is the heart of life.

And, it was in the Fall of 1990, that I decided I was going to apply to law school, leave my full-time work as a pastor, and become a part-time pastor, and move back home to Knoxville. Of course, our family moved, I took a part-time pastor position in South Knoxville, and hoped I would get in to UT Law School. I didn't apply anywhere else. In March, three months after we had already moved to Knoxville, I heard that I had gotten into law school.

But, before we moved, during the Fall of 1990, I remember two things real well: I remember that my Dad and I and Jimmy went out in the boat on Tellico Lake and saw the biggest bird I have ever seen in my life: a huge Golden Eagle, whose wings reflected that beautiful Fall sun as it turned and flew away from us. And, I remember discussing my plans to attend law school while keeping on being a minister. And, I remember that my Dad felt very good about it. He was always like that when I was confident in my plans. He could tell that Waters' determination when he saw it! I think if I had said that I was real sure that I was going to attempt to climb Mount Everest next month, and that if I was real committed to it, then Dad would have supported me. Of course, I never had to worry about Mom's support. That was just always there. That's the way good mothers are, and good mothers aren't all that common. But, those of us that have them -we take that wonderful love and support for granted too often.

And, I remember going to visit my friend Jeff's mother, who was dying of cancer at the time. She was in bed and weak, but when she heard I was planning to go to law school and continue being a minister, she said: "perfect, you think like a lawyer -perfect!"

Most people thought I was either giving up on ministry or going crazy when I said I was going to law school, but for those three or four that it made sense to, well, that was important to me. Three or four or five, that's about all you need in life to understand you. And, one or two is really enough if the understanding is deep. I guess I have been very fortunate to have had someone at about every point where the great decisions of life are made to look back at me with hope and faith. It's hard on those who start to commit themselves to a course of life and don't have that support. Of course, I am a Waters; I probably would have taken the same course if everyone I had known had told me I was crazy! Even so, I deeply appreciate the understanding. I do not take it for granted, especially not at this stage of life.

I really love Fall. And, I remember all of these things as the air begins to cool and the leaves begin to fall.

Exercising Authority and Luther's Saying: "Sin Boldly"

Martin Luther found himself in the middle of a religious and political revolution in 16th century Western Europe. He had only wanted to be a good Augustine monk when he entered the monastery. But, in this struggle, he was taken by surprise, almost like Paul was taken by surprise on the way to Damascus around the middle of the 1st century. What Luther was taken by surprise by was the living God, who to Luther's joy, was intent on saving, not condemning.

And, as Luther bore witness to what he had received, a mighty awakening occurred in Western Europe that shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church and the foundations of the social order. Luther was not prepared to be consulting with political leaders, but he had to. He learned in this difficult role that no matter what decision he made in public affairs, some bad would come of it. As he saw lay people revolting against the clergy/priests, he was horrified that priests were being killed. So, Luther took the side of the local authorities, who then went and cruelly killed hordes of innocent townspeople who were uninvolved in violence against priests. Luther felt at times like he would so much rather be dead than at the middle of this change. In this context, he took heart, and tried to proclaim what it really means to live by faith in such times: "Sin boldly," he said. What he meant was that we are to rely on God, seek God's glory, but not be afraid to act, knowing nonetheless that our actions will be tainted with sin. Nonetheless, we must act.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ecclesiastes: Admitting that life doesn't make sense

This book in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) that is called "Ecclesiastes" is a book that acknowledges that when you step back from life and reflect on it - well, it just doesn't make sense. The good don't necessarily get blessed, and the evil don't necessarily get cursed.

The only sense that Ecclesiastes finds in life is in the day to day living of it: "to eat, drink and find enjoyment in your toil."

To do a good day's work, to do a good job, to be able to say at the end of a project: "that was a job well done." To have given yourself to the task at hand and complete it. That is a good day. How it affects the rest of the world, you can't necessarily control. Nor can you control whether the man or woman who builds on what you have done does a good job and messes everything up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Faith Against Religion

When I was in college I read Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans and, though that commentary was written in 1919, it read like the most contemporary comment I had ever read. Barth was interpreting Paul's Letter to the Romans and Christian faith through the lens of his present experience of God, which included Barth's dissatisfaction with the liberal Protestant theology of Germany, but which also included Barth's identification with Soren Kierkegaard's criticism of the Christianity of his day and some identification with the growing power of existentialism in 20th Century Europe.

Barth read Romans as God's resounding NO to all human religion, and, for Barth, that meant an attack on Christendom, particularly his own Protestant Christianity in Western Europe. Barth saw Christianity, both conservative and liberal, as co-opted by views of the world which had human beings and not God in the center. Maybe it is surprising to many of our present day liberals in the church that the liberal theologians in Germany saluted Hitler just as quickly, and, perhaps even more quickly than the conservatives. But, when the 1930's rolled around and the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Barth issued a holy "f. u." to Hitler and all his theology professors. Barth stood with the Jews, speaking in Berlin on public radio in an address: "Jesus, the Jew." Barth's criticism of human religion was so devastating and so Biblical that it caused an earthquake in Christian theology, an earthquake which hasn't been resolved. Barth found God's Word in the reckage of human thought, in the dissolution of human systems of philosophy and theology. And, he stood up with his Bible and preached in a way that nobody much had preached in a long while. And, Hitler hated his guts.

Thank God for Karl Barth. But, his influence was never too deep in the United States. His attack on the optimistic philosophies and theologies never really caught on in America. Theology students studied Barth in the 50's, 60's, 70's, and even 80's, but they didn't "get him." But, for those of us who really took Barth to heart, it has been hard to be Christians in the U.S.A., and it has been hard to keep up the fellowship with churches that seem to think that God takes marching orders from the church, and that the Bible is some book that is under the control of preachers and religious functionaries.

Barth's faith was about a radical reverence for God, and a radical criticism of all human authority. Barth thought that was what Jesus was about. And, as Liberation Theologians who understood Barth realized, faith inevitably gave rise to the criticism of human authority.

I preached today on "God's great NO to all humanity in Jesus Christ." This was Barth's great prophetic message that he proclaimed 90 years ago. But, as Barth would say, Paul proclaimed it almost 2000 years ago. I don't think most who were listening had ever heard the "cross" talked about as the criticism of all human authority and all human religion and all human ideology. But, Paul really puts this at the forefront of his interpretation of the death of Jesus. See 1 Corinthians 1!

Now, I said that the great NO is one with the great YES to all humanity in Christ. But, you can never hear the YES without hearing the NO, and you can't hear the NO without the radical hope of the YES in Christ from God. See Romans 5:15 to the end of the chapter.

Well, it's time to close. I close with one thought. How do I expect to have anyone who will listen to a preacher who criticizes the religion he is supposed to be propagating? All I can say is what Paul said long ago: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

From the Liturgy of Malabar, 5th Century

At the close of our communion service yesterday, we read the words that have been used in the church after communion since the 5th Century:

"Grant, O Lord Jesus, that the ears which have heard the voice of your songs may be closed to the voice of dispute; that the eyes which have seen your great love may also behold your blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung your praise may speak the truth in love; that the feet which have walked in your courts may walk in the region of light; and that the bodies which have received your living body may be restored in newness of life. Glory to you for your inexpressible gift."


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Our Common Humanity: What We Share

It occurred to me as I watched people coming into the courtroom this morning that we human beings are all so much like each other, but we are obsessed with our differences. Of course, it is nice that we have differences. But, the truth is we share almost all of our DNA.

Somehow it just hit me in the depths of my heart this morning: we are so much like each other. Maybe if there was another race populating our earth who could do about what we could do, and we didn't take our alikeness/our commonality so much for granted, then maybe we would be glad just to see another human face, to hear a human voice, to be glad that we had someone who walked like we walked, talked, shared the same types of experiences of sickness, joy and death.

John Donne's poem "No Man is an Island" comes to mind.

"No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee."

We only come to appreciate our differences if we first have a deep sense of our sameness, that we are bound to each other in the depths of our flesh and blood and spirit.

This morning, I had three clients that I was particularly concerned with. One was a woman who has a very low intellectual capacity, one has been diagnosed as schizophrenic (with paranoid features), and another was a very small man who seemed just fine but was in jail for driving without a licence and the federal government had a hold on him for being an illegal immigrant (he is from Guatamala). And, what hit me as I talked and listened (I actually did that this morning!) to these three clients was just how much like me that each of them was. The woman who was "mentally retarded" wanted to stay with somebody who cared about her, and was nice to her; the man with the mental illness wanted to be out walking on the roads - to be free again, to be left alone; the man from Guatamala just wanted to be able to talk to his family members.

From the scientific point of view, we share 99 plus % of our DNA with every other human being (of course, we also share not too much less than that with all kinds of other non-human animals as well!). Sometimes beginning from science can be a real help. If we would begin our way of approaching others with a deep sense of our commonality, then we would properly understand and appreciate our differences. But, when this deep sense of solidarity is absent, everything goes wrong. This deep sense of solidarity is at the very heart of true faith from God. Where that sense is evident, I believe real faith is there in that person whether they know it or not.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Eastern and Western Thoughts about the Self: making a start, making broad statements and looking for some comments

In Eastern thought, meaning is in being; in Western thought meaning is in doing. Or, so summaries of philosophy and religion say. But, for a Buddhist or Hindu, certainly "being" doesn't mean a static state, but can be a pattern of active living or passive living. The Easterner, I think, is very concerned with living in harmony with BEING itself. And, the Easterner tends to believe that the way to that harmony lies within, deep within. And, the best I can tell, in Eastern thought there is no real concept of the self in the sense of the developed concept of "personality" that we in the West have. But, now I am really stepping into territory where I need to do some reading. Maybe it would be better to say that though the Eastern thinker reflects on inner feelings, and pays a lot of attention to the inner life, the Eastern way doesn't think the self can stake out any territory for itself. What I mean is that in the Eastern way, the self does not define itself over against other things and selves, but in continuity with other things and selves. The human person is a center of meaningful apprehension as well as being a center of activity, but in Eastern thought I think the meaning apprehension is the key, the center and that apprehension abides in any meaningful activity.

I am going to stop here and ask for some clarifications from others before I move on. Some of you have read and analyzed primary writings of Eastern thinkers. A little help from you would be appreciated.

Let me tell you where I am going with this. I have been having this feeling for some time that Paul's thought and that of most of the New Testament is so deeply "Eastern" in how it views and represents the human person that the hijacking of Paul's categories by "Western" theology (Roman theology) is a drastic corruption of the holy tradition of faith. I think that this hijacking began with a first anti-semitic movement in Church history away from Jewish thought (which is deeply Eastern in its own peculiar way). But, later on, when it was not popular to be anti-semitic, biblical scholars defined Jewish thought over against other eastern thought in such an extreme way and in such a western way that the Jewish way of thinking was considered the seed of all western thought. So, everything in Hebrew thought that didn't fit with western categories of thought was excised and forgotten. So, when scholars then turned to the New Testament with thoroughly western assumptions in place, Paul and even Jesus are seen through western eyes, which means not seen at all.

Now, I have to agree that there are some real distinctive aspects of the Hebrew view of God and creation and history, but these distinctive aspects of Hebrew theology need to be understood within an Eastern social/philosophical/psychological context. Christian theology and the Christian view of self implicit in this theology arise out of Hebrew thought, or out of a particularly dramatic reinterpretation of Hebrew thought through Jesus. To not know this intellectually - for scholars - and, to not know this intuitively for people of faith in general is to miss the heart and power of the Gospel of God in Jesus, the Christ.

Now, that I have stepped into such broad statements of abstract thought, I do want to acknowledge the deep influence of Christian theology on western philosophy and western society. And, not all of this can be attributed to a false apprehension of early Christian categories of thought. Maybe I would be on more solid ground if I said it this way: the intersection of Christianity with western philosophy gave rise to a profound and far-reaching interpretation of God's revelation in Jesus. Thus, Christianity was incarnated in the west. But, the intersection of Christianity with eastern philosophy and with thought patterns more eastern gave rise to a profound interpretation of God's revelation in Jesus that is not as widely known by westerners, but that may have more to say to current western societies because it is a new word, a word that sees the distortions of western Christianity. In many ways, Western theology has taken us too far in its direction; the fundamental resources of its thought have been "mined" and are exhausted. Eastern theology is a resource older than western, more primal, and speaks in a still small voice for those who can hear.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Greatest Strength, Greatest Weakness and Thoughts about Being Human

If you understand your greatest strength - really understand it so as to understand yourself in it - then, you will also understand that this greatest strength of yours is also your greatest weakness.

Examples of strengths: compassion for others; abililty to lead others; ability to endure loneliness; ability to reason; ability to feel deeply; openness to the moment.

All of these "strengths" have a shadow side, which is to say they arise from the light places within us, but can arise and tie into the dark places as well. Compassion arises from an ability to identify with and understand the emotions of others, but for a person whose character has gone bad, this ability to understand others emotionally can be used to manipulate and con others. It can also develop into a need to needed, which is a strange way of being controlled by others but also controlling them by keeping them needy. The ability to lead others, though it can fill a great need in groups and in society, can become a dark power if put in the service of bad and selfish goals. It can also isolate a person to the extent that they no longer listen to or respect others. The ability to feel deeply can arouse one to action, but it can also paralyze one and prevent action. Those who are sensitive to others' feelings, are generally pretty sensitive to their own feelings. Emotional paralysis can set in when we get too absorbed in our own feelings. Openness to the moment can allow a person to enjoy and understand what is right before their eyes and in their hearing; but, if not combined with commitment to a longer course of goals, openness to the moment can result in a string of emotional binges and the failure of commitment.

The ability to figure things out through thinking is a great ability, however, there are some things you can't figure out through thinking, such as your deepests commitments; they are matters of the heart and require some real risk-taking to "figure out." Jesus first said to his disciples: "follow me." After that he began to engage them in discussion and trying to think things out. Those who listened to Jesus and were interested and who were trying to figure it all out in their heads always figured out some reason that they couldn't follow him - at least, not just yet. One had to take care of his business; another take care of his older father; another makes sense of it all intellectually. Whatever it was, and whatever it is, there is always some good reason "not to take action." And, so this strength of intellect when not expressed outwardly in action, builds an internal prison: one long course of figuring out why it makes more sense to do nothing than to do something.

When I think of these various and other personal strengths that people tend to have, it seems like the real key to tapping into the positive is a genuine commitment to other people and the courage to act upon that commitment. [As Augustine said to the young convert who 'just wasn't feeling the faith:' "do what you know you should do, and the feelings will follow in due course."] That means an inward conviction of the value of others which finds expression in outward action for others. But, in these others I should include animals other than humans and the environment as well. A genuine commitment to creatures and the creation inwardly which leads to outward action in conformity with this inward commitment also brings a human being on a good path and allows one's personal strengths to develop for good and not for evil. And, I mean good as that which enhances life, and evil as that which distorts and twists and destroys life. When we don't allow our strengths to be expressed in helping someone or something outside of ourselves, then the shadow side of our characteristic arises, causing trouble sometimes for others who deal with us or causing trouble for ourselves.

Lions are meant to dominate other animals and find prey. A lion who is dominated by other animals and fails to find prey dies. There is such a thing as "sinning against your nature." When a human being who is deeply concerned for others and has abilities to help others, well, when that person in fact applies these abilities to carrying out this inward concern, then that person really lives (does what is in accord with his nature). When a person has intellectual abilities to invent machines that ease burdens in this world, and when that person applies these abilities to inventing machines -say an x-ray machine or an electric wheel chair - then that person lives. When a man whose mind is flooded with beautiful poems finds a way to express that beauty to others, that man lives. When a person who has a deep gift of patience with those who have difficulty learning shares that patience with those in need and gives them hope to learn, that person lives. True life is awakened inside of us, but it is incomplete until it finds expression in some action, often some meaningful interaction with other human beings.

Think of times in your life when you were engaged in something and you really felt the best - felt like all of your internal tensions were released because you were truly engaged in something that was good and right for you.

When you sin against your nature, you fight against and tear down yourself. Of course, we all have things we aren't too good at. I am not well organized with paperwork, files, etc. For me to be a little messy in that way is to sin with (not against) my nature. But, I am generally open to a variety of ideas and views, so that when I become very ungracious and judgmental of others views, then I am sinning against my nature. It doesn't hurt me inside to be a little messy with my files; but, it really does hurt me inside - even tears me down - when I become ungracious and start condemning of others. I tend to be very committed to my friends and family. If I fail in my commitments to friends or family, it tears me down on the inside. If a person is the kind of person you can count on, and they become a person you can't count on, that person is probably sinning against their nature. I am also not very good at meeting new people at social events. If I fail at that, it is not that big a deal. However, I am very good at meeting an individual in trouble and hearing them out and giving some decent advice. If I fail at that, it is a big deal.

If I could manage to get myself into some line of work where I wouldn't deal with people who had trouble, and if I could get myself into some office where I could sit and carry on without being interrupted by the problems of others; well, it might seem peaceful for a while, but pretty soon, it would start to tear me down inside, because I would be living a lie. I am here to deal with problems, the problems of people. That is who I am. My mind works to solve problems, to apply some insight greater than my own to help relieve burdens that I also share in this world.

This life is not meant to be a picnic, though it is great that we get to have picnics along the way. No, there is work to do - work that comes from within and flows into action. There will be a day when I can't do the work I am doing today. But, I hope that there will always be some work I can do. Work is a gracious word for me. Because I am not really alive until I meet the challenges of "work." I am something that "happens." The human self is not something static that dwells within us, encapsulated in our bodies. No, the human self is something dynamic that ebbs and flows like the waves of the ocean, and it "happens" in the act of meeting the world's needs with who we really are - co-workers (I hesitate to use this term) of a Spirit much greater than anything we can dream or imagine.

A Thought

If you are available to everybody, you're not really available to anybody.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Good Word from the Book of James

"The wrath of man* worketh not the righteousness of God."

- James 1:20

From the Old King James Translation of the Bible

*inclusive language note: The wrath of "woman" worketh it not either.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Representing Santa Claus: a memory from early in my law practice

It was early December of 1996 or 97, and I was appointed to represent a “Mall Santa Claus,” Mr. C., who was charged with doing a very unchristmaslike thing – he was alleged to have fondled two young teenage girls who had been sitting on his lap for a picture. Santa adamantly denied the charges, and it was frankly very hard to tell who was telling the truth: the girls or Santa (he really did look like Santa).

Well, after much preparation, the trial date came, and I had subpoenaed Santa’s elf, who was to testify to what he had seen. But, first, the State had called the girls to testify about how Santa had touched them a little here and a little there and been looking down one of the girl’s blouses, and every chance the D.A. got she threw in some comment about how it was all done for his sexual gratification. We heard from the girls that they had gotten onto his lap for a picture.

After the girls and the detective had testified, I called my first witness – the elf. He was to be my star witness. The man who was dressed up as an elf at the time of the events in question had seen these two girls with Santa during the picture taking, and said he had not noticed anything out of the ordinary, certainly no fondling. But, before he got to that crucial part of his elfish testimony, I was asking him a few preliminary, background questions. I asked: “When were you first employed at the Mall?” He, in his very strong East Tennessee accent, said: “I got “hard on” in November.” And, although he meant “hired on,” we all at once heard “HARD ON,” and we didn’t hear “in November”. No, it all stopped for us at “ I got hard on!” A wave of laughter was building. I saw it in opposing counsel’s look, noticed the judge looking down, and I was feeling this huge almost overwhelming insane desire to approach the bench for a side bar and ask the judge and D.A.: "did he really say 'I got hard on?' and then watch them lose it. As I tried to ask the next question, the words caught as I suppressed my laughter, and I couldn’t move on. I paced back and forth trying to regain my composure, but all I could hear echoing in my head was the very funny answer of the elf: “I got hard on” in this case about the alleged fondling at the Christmas scene in the mall, and after all of the D.A.’s talk about Santa having done this for sexual gratification. I wondered if maybe I could pin it on the Elf! It was at least good, I thought, that Santa Claus hadn’t answered this way.

It seemed like it took me five minutes to move on with questioning, but I think it only took about a minute. It was the longest minute I have ever endured in court, and one of the funniest. I would pace towards the witness, start to break a smile, and turn and pace back towards the defense table to get it back together. It was like being in church during communion when the guy next to you farts. It is the funniest thing that has ever happened in the history of the world - at least in that moment - and you could laugh so loud if you let it out that you would blow the roof off! I really never gained my composure for the rest of that trial in General Sessions Court. Everytime I relaxed just a little bit, I felt like I was going to start laughing and just give in to it and say: "I'm done for today! You can just take me away if you need to!" And, just give in to maniacal laughter. I’m sure the judge would have removed me from court, but probably would have shown some mercy later (I could see him fighting the same demon of laughter up there on the bench). And, to make it worse, I noticed something on the other side of the court room. A few minutes after the elf's answer had gotten to most us, I noticed the one D.A. who was wiping back tears from her eyes whisper to the other new D.A. who apparently hadn't "caught on yet." And, then I see the other new D.A. shaking uncontrollably as she "got it." I had really gathered myself and was doing fine until then. The internal battle started again.

Well, we lost that trial, but appealed to a higher court (in Tennessee, when you lose a trial in General Sessions Court, you have the right to appeal and start over again in Circuit Court). Santa was in jail for a few hours until he got out on an appeal bond. A couple of months later, we won in our new trial before a higher court. The second time around we were entitled to hear the girls’ taped interview with the police right before I cross-examined them. The interview was very revealing. Although the judge didn’t hear the recording of this interview, I was able to question them about what they had previously said, and that was fairly revealing and cast some serious doubt on what had really happened. In the end, the judge said he thought that Santa was too careless in his dealings with girls that age, but that he didn’t believe the State had proven that Santa had any intent to sexually molest anybody.

I think the judge really got that one right. The girls and their families really thought the judge got that one wrong. So, part of this story was very funny, and part of it was very sad. Sad because someone had either been falsely accused of a very bad thing and had to deal with that for months and sad because these girls may very well have exaggerated what happened without concern for harm to another. Or, sad because the girls had been really touched in a way that was very wrong and they communicated it to others in such a way that they just weren't very believable even though they were really telling the truth. As I said at the outset of this, frankly it was very hard to tell who was telling the truth. That is the reason I said that the judge had gotten it right. When it is like that, the State has not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and "not guilty" is the only verdict to announce. I had the feeling my guy was telling the truth, but as I saw those two girls crying at the end (one looked like she was really crying; the other one like she was trying to look like she was really crying) and looking at me like I was Satan himself, I felt the burden of not knowing for sure. That is a burden we bear in this life and as an attorney. You play your role and get some kind of verdict, but then never really get to the root of the problem. Those two girls really did have a problem (or, at least one did). The only question was whether Santa had caused it or whether someone before Santa had caused it and he had just been at the wrong place and the wrong time and gotten caught up in her problem. So, I defended Santa Claus and he was acquitted. That was the end of the legal case. My client died a few years later from cancer, and one of his family members told me how deeply he had appreciated my help in this case - what a burden it had lifted for people to know he was not guilty of such a thing. I wonder how things went for those two girls who are now probably in their mid-20s. If they were lying, the verdict may have helped them. There is nothing worse than being left in our lies when we are growing up. If they were telling something close to the truth, the verdict may have had a bad affect on them.

And, oh yeah, at the second trial I was very careful in how I questioned the elf! Everyone dared me to ask the question about employment the same way I did in the first hearing. Truth was I was scared to call him as a witness after that first experience, but I had to. I was not about to stir that pot again though, so I came up with a simple strategy. I asked a leading question: “You started working at the Mall in November of 1996?” And, it worked like a charm. He said: “yes,” and I moved on. All down hill after that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Day in Court for a Couple of Assistant District Public Defenders

We had two lawyers in court today to represent around 50 clients. We started court at 9:00 a.m. and we went straight through until 4:30 p.m. without any lunch-break. Some clients had to wait a long time before we even talked to them. There were about 15 people in jail and the rest sitting out in the court room. Now that I think of it, we probably had closer to 60 clients, but that's the point, I don't even know for sure, there were so many. And, we were supposed to carry out our professional duty as criminal defense attorneys for every single person. I had one guy with an aggravated assault charge, another woman with an aggravated robbery charge, and there were a few lower level felonies and the rest misdemeanors: DUIs, misdemeanor thefts (shoplifting), Driving on Revoked License, Drug possession, Assault, Vandalism, Criminal Impersonation, etc. At times I was talking to two or three clients outside the courtroom in the hallway; at other times, I was talking to the D.A. about three or four cases at once; other times, I was talking to one of my clients in the inmate group, and then interviewing an officer about a case I was dealing with. A few clients would let me know they really needed to get through to get to a job or a medical appointment or because the person who gave them a ride was having low blood sugar trouble and needed to go. I basically said: "I'll get you out of court as soon as I can. We have a few too many cases today."

And, there was a point today when we weren't even adversaries with the D.A. - hell, I think we even felt sorry for her, and she felt sorry for us! She even picked up my lunch I had left over at the Public Defender's Office and I wolfed it down why we were working out cases. What an overwhelming mess of human problems to handle, whatever side you were on. We could see it in her face, and she could see it in our eyes - "if we get through with today, I will find another job, live another life, never come back here again!!!" So many people, so many upset people, so many people who are expecting this and that. So many people in so much trouble, so much of it such stupid trouble. So many people without jobs, without anything much to do, not taking care of much of anything very well. Just living on. Most of these criminal defendants were not doing anything too awful, but just plain not seeming to do much at all very good either. It is the doing nothing much that really lands them in such deep shit. When you do nothing over and over and over again, you dig a pit that's very hard to get out of. And, then a number of our clients have just made some mistakes as young people that so many of us made without getting caught.

In the Public Defender's Office, we get some sense of the pit our clients are in, and we try to help them take a step or two out of it - then the rest is up to them. It seems like we ought to walk at least a few more steps with them. But, we are damn good at helping people get another chance, helping them make it out of the pit. We can't get everybody another chance, but we do it a whole lot. And, sometimes with so many people, they've been down for so long and without anyone standing by them for so long, that when you take their case, assert their rights, and win something for them; it may not change their life; but, they do have the experience of having someone take their side, stand beside them for a while. And, we are proud to do that, especially for those who didn't think anybody would really listen to their side and consider their side of the story worth standing up for. And, truth is, we just don't like authority. And, when authority gets out of hand and tries to smash our client like a bug - well, then authority finds out that there are forces stronger than authority.

Tommorrow morning I'll be back in court with about 15 clients, not sure how many in jail, how many out. It will mostly be misdemeanors, violations of probation, but maybe something serious as well. We never know what new cases we will get. There will be young women with babies watching boyfriends in jail suits, grandmothers asking about their grandsons, probably a pregnant woman crying as she is getting put in jail for violating her probation, a mentally ill inmate or two. Most of our clients will be pretty nice; one or two will be real obnoxious and bug the hell out of us. Somebody will tell us something so wierd that we will have to take each other aside a second to talk about it. One of us will get real pissed at either the judge or one of the D.A.s and we will have to take each other aside and talk about it, and then back to business. I'll get paged two or three times about why somebody is late to court. We will be giving advice right and left, making decisions on cases every few minutes, telling our clients their odds on winning their case, on going to jail or not if they don't win their case, etc. Finding out how much jail time our clients would accept and then telling the D.A. that our clients would accept less than they really would, in order to get what our clients would accept.

When you've handled cases for 20 or more clients in a day, it leaves you tired. It is like my nervous energy is all stirred up, and at some point somewhere inside you start to wonder whether you gave people what you should have given them today. Sometimes you get the legal work right, but the people work wrong. Sometimes just taking one extra minute makes such a difference to a person who is worried about what is going to happen to them. I keep trying to find those extra minutes during the court day. It may be that in finding those few extra minutes for clients that we remember what it means to be human. One thing it means is to remember that the person you are dealing with is a human being, which is a damn important thing to be.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Meaning of Jesus' Death from a Theocentric Faith

In Romans 3:21-27, Paul makes use of an early interpretation of Jesus death through use of sacrificial imagery. 3:24: "they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation for sin by his blood." Paul very, very rarely uses this sacrificial imagery to interpet/declare the meaning of Jesus' death. In fact, I can only think of anything close to this sacrifical imagery in two other places in Paul's letters: 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4. Pauline scholars think that in these places Paul is using early creedal statements from the Jewish Christian tradition and drawing them into his way of understanding Jesus' death, which is not in legal/sacrificial categories of thought.

Scholar Paul Meyer, who taught at Princeton for a long time, and was a wonderful man too, says of Paul's use of this sacrificial imagery (expiation for sin) in speaking of Jesus' death:

"What God has undertaken, in the formula Paul quotes, is "expiation," a means for dealing with human sin, and not "propitiation," a means for meeting God's wrath by offering something to appease it. In all Paul's references to atonement, Christ was crucified "for us," never for God; always as a gift, never as punishment.

"That leads to a second point. Paul does not play God's graciousness off against his righteousness. Instead, God's gift in the death of Jesus is itself a manifestation of God's righteousness apart from the Mosaic law. . . the righteousness of God is in the first place his saving action in coming to the aid of his people."

Paul Meyer, "Commentary on Romans," in The Word in this World, pp. 169.

Though Paul did not utilize legal/juristic as his central way of understanding and proclaiming the meaning of Jesus' death; the Western Christian tradition completely subsumed all other ways of understanding Jesus' death under the legal/juristic (Jesus dies because God can't forgive our sins because he is righteous and demands perfection, whereas we are sinful and can't give it, except by virtue of clinging to Jesus by faith). This Western interpretation didn't come to full form until sometime after Anselm's classic statement of western atonement theology in the 11th century. Eastern Christianity has always had a more Biblical/Pauline approach to Jesus' death, seeing in it as the work of God, who, as Paul says: "was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them." 2 Corinthians 5:19. The Gospel of John also sees the death of Jesus as flowing from the love of God for humanity ("for God so loved the world that he gave his only son" and "the son was sent into the world not to condemn, but to save the world").

The real point which was important to John Calvin, and perhaps was missed somewhat by Luther, was of a "God-centered" understanding of atonement, not a "Christ-centered" understanding. It all starts with God whose will is done by Jesus, who through his complete obedience to God accomplishes God's faithfulness and complete love for humanity. Any understanding of Christ's death that leads people to trust Jesus in any way apart from trusting God is really a type of idolatry and Jews are right to object to that. When one looks at Jesus with the eyes of faith, that one sees through Jesus to God. If you don't see through Jesus to God, you are seeing something besides the Jesus who said "not my will, but thy will be done," whose goal in all of life was not his glory but the glory of God on earth.

This post may not make sense as I have written it. But, the point I am searching to make is one that feels very critical to me as a follower of Jesus. A God-centered understanding of Jesus opens the heart to all humanity. A Jesus-centered understanding of Jesus closes the heart to those outside of this perspective.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Bible as Holy Ground

I started this blog back in March with a post about "the Bible as Holy Ground." I deleted that post sometime along the way -not because I had changed my mind about it -but because I wanted to develop the theme more fully later on. So, here I am getting back to the theme.

First, I wish I could find a copy of Karl Barth's essay: "The Strange New World of the Bible," which inspired me very much in college as I began to find the words to express what I had experienced in reading and interpreting and hearing the Bible. Barth's position was in contrast to the fundamentalist modernist (conservative) and the historical-critical modernist (liberal). The liberal and the conservative had reduced the Bible to a text that could be manipulated through historical-critical method or through so-called "literal interpretation" to represent any modern ideology (conservatives used their biblical interpretation to uphold slavery; liberals used their intepretation to sanction Hitler's regime). Following very much in the spirit of Barth's teaching (which began at the close of WWI), it seems to me that conservatives and liberals don't look at the Bible as "holy ground." I walk on to the ground of the Bible, not real sure of what might happen, because I think it is "holy ground" where I lose my footing and wait upon the voice of the living God. The fundamentalist thinks the voice of God has been deposited in the book and is contained in the book- as if you had all the "words God had ever spoken" on a CD and could just play them over and over again word for word (maybe it reduces anxiety to think you've got the Holy One in a book). The liberal, on the other hand, thinks that with the Bible, we have no more than people's "words about God," words that may have arisen from the origins of our religious faith as Jews and Christians and Muslims, but, nonetheless just "words of human beings bearing witness to their understanding of God and themselves." That is sort of an anxiety reducer too, because then you never entertain the possibility that something someone wrote in the Bible might just be "God's truth" and have a claim on you.

What I mean when I say the Bible is "holy ground" is that human words in scripture can be truly experienced as God's word to humans. But, not unless, you accept that these words are truly human words, spoken and written by human beings. And, not unless, you accept that these words could not have been spoken unless there was a divine Word that they were in contact with. The Bible is best thought of as a sacred and authoritative "witness" to the Living God and as that "holy ground" upon which God calls us to "remove the sandals" of our understanding and receive the beginning of wisdom from the divine. The conservative way and the liberal way are both too arrogant to approach the Bible properly. The conservative think the meaning is already deposited in the book, and that it is there for him to use as he will. The liberal thinks there is no given meaning at all in the book, and that the sacred writings are great material that can be used by the interpreter who provides the meaning. But, neither liberal nor conservative seems to be under the authority of the Scripture, but seems to be in authority over Scripture. In a frightening, idolatrous sense, the fundamentalist seems to think he or she "has got God in a book," to be used to further whatever projects the fundamentalist deeply loves. The fundamentalist seems to have substituted the Bible for God. What I really miss when I hear conservative sermons is the experience of a living God, the sense that God is acting and speaking now. That's basically what I miss in liberal sermons too. The liberal criticizes the fundamentalist's misuse of scripture and bibliolatry (making of the Bible an idol), but the liberal "brings down the Bible" and raises up his or her own ideology as well, but simply doesn't think he or she needs biblical support for it.

Both fundamentalist and liberal views of the Bible lack the two things truly necessary for a real engagement with the Bible: REVERENCE FOR THE LIVING GOD, and EXPECTATION THAT THE LIVING GOD MAKES USE OF THE SCRIPTURE TO REVEAL HIS LIVING WORD TO HUMAN BEINGS.

That means to believe that God speaks now, not just back in Bible Days! It also means that God spoke back in Bible Days, not just now.

It might be good if I would deal with a couple of passages directly and explain how these different views of the scripture really affect understanding of scripture. And, I'll do that sometime later. I do that at times on my Church Bible Blog as I am currently studying Romans. As I ran into the verses in Romans 1 where Paul talks about the immorality that comes of idolatry and refers to homosexual acts in the list of immoral conduct, I began to discuss how we were to take this reference in our day. Maybe I'll conclude that discussion by some analysis of how the liberal and conservative approaches to the Bible affect interpretation of this passage and how the "Bible as Holy Ground" way is different. I am sure that my interpretation tends one way or another depending upon the views I hold - but . . . interpretation of the Bible doesn't stop there. My feeling and initial understanding of a passage only starts the holy struggle for meaning, a meaning that surprises, that comes from beyond my meanings, but graciously allows me to participate in the process of understanding. On this 'holy ground' we eventually become silent until the truth that was not possible for us is given as a new possibility for us - what is not possible for humans is possible for God. In the end, the Word of God is that impossible possibility that brings life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, love out of hatred. When you read scripture and come to that experience, you have been on holy ground.

Well, that's enough for now.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saturday Morning and I'm Not Preaching Tommorrow

The few of you that read this post have probably woken up by now on Saturday morning or will pretty soon. And, for about all of you "it's Saturday morning and you're not preaching tommorrow." I have spent 20 years waking up on Saturday morning, and turning my thoughts towards the sermon I am going to preach the next morning. Some weeks, I was about ready; some weeks I hadn't even gotten a start. But, I have always gotten up and worked on the sermon on Saturday morning. Normally, I think on it during the week; even writing out notes on two or three prospective sermons. But, Saturday is when it has to start coming together (not to say I haven't started from scratch on some Sunday mornings).

This process of sermon preparation is a very personal process and a process that I realize has helped my life over the years. But, over the past twenty years, I didn't really think much about what preparing a sermon was all about, I just did it. It wasn't until I started having Sundays off from preaching that I realized what it was about. And, I have to admit that I really miss preaching when I am not preaching. I don't miss it too much on Sunday morning as much as I miss it on Saturday morning. Like I am missing it this morning. But, what is it I like about knowing I will preach the next day?

Part of it seems to be that there is something about it that is just deep down who I am, and when you are involved in doing something that is deep down who you are, it renews your life. When you are involved in something you feel is in a sense part of your good destiny, then it takes the burden away from you, and makes you feel like you are floating on the current of something much greater than you.

Part of it has to do with the challenge of "making sense of life" to yourself and to others every week, by looking to ancient scriptures, seeking an experience of the Holy One in the present, and trying to put that into words. Sometimes what I am putting into words in the sermon is simply the experience of trying to make sense of life in this process, even if I am not too successful in "making sense of life" that week. The struggle to do it, to understand and experience the deepest in life, is a holy and good struggle, even when you seem to come up empty. So, part of it is that the process of working towards a sermon is a deeply human struggle for meaning in a world that often drains us of meaning. It is like going home each week, and the way back to home each week is never too easy or direct, and I never know which way I will get there, and sometimes I don't really get there. More Sundays I am standing before the congregation talking about the dark and twisting path of faith and the hope of getting back to a place where there is energy and peace and purpose. But, there are those Sundays, when I find my way - when it all comes together - just every once in a while. And, when you get there in a sermon, people get there with you. It's hard to describe it unless you have been there in a service. And, believe me, it is not very often at all when I seem to get there. And, I don't know it ahead of time; it is just like somehow, our struggle together is blessed by a gracious and beautiful presence - it is like for a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds, we experience together that God is completely beautiful and gracious and good - sharing a goodness with us that awakens the joy in living that we thought had died 100 times over.

As I look towards tommorrow, I wish there was some way that others who are not preaching could share in this experience of preparing for the sermon that I have gone through for the past couple of decades. There have been times, when I was so empty that I just had nothing at all to say, and sometimes a word came and sometimes it didn't. There have been times when I have just thought it was crazy that I was going to stand up and try to say anything about God and life and faith. At the depths of my experience has been the experience that whatever has come to me in life, I have to make sense of it all again week by week, and that the sense I made of it in the past is never enough, and that the only real sense I can make of life comes from beyond me, comes from a word that I can never hear until everything in me is at an end, in silence, in confusion, or in peaceful nothingness. There is an experience of disorientation at the heart of true orientation in life - the disorientation comes of our human struggle, the orientation comes as sheer grace - true orientation comes in ecstatic joy at just being alive, sometimes it comes in the most difficult of times. It comes from God.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Worship, Responsibility for Others, and the Search for Meaning

Worship, responsibility for others, and the search for meaning: I guess those are why I am part of a church. There is something primal, deep down about worshipping in a service with others. Of course, often worship services get too far away from these raw depths, but there is something deep down that wants to worship the Creator and to do so with others. And, deep within, for me, there is this conviction that is very basic - that one basic reason I am alive is to help others out in their living. And, another yearning that won't be silenced within me is the desire to make sense of things, to find a meaning in life, and even in death.

These are some basic reasons I am part of a church. Of course, these are also basic yearnings that I carry out in my daily work and living that are not specifically tied to church. Many weeks I worship God more clearly, more intensely in my inner world, and when away from church, than when I am gathered for worship with others. Some days, I just look out at the mountains and am filled with a joy and a praise for God. Many days I discover and carry out my responsibilities to others better in my so-called "secular" job than in my work as a minister of a church. And, I sometimes find great meaning in reading an essay or a poem or listening to a song. Sometimes I turn to these "secular" sources more than to "sacred" sources like scripture or theology or other books written to encourage religious faith. Lately, I have been drawn back into the strange world of the Bible, particularly Paul's letters. And, I have gone a step back down to the primary level of the New Testament by looking at the Greek. Even though my Greek has slipped, reading in the Greek somehow just opens up new connections, new ways of meaning. It is like getting back to where the meanings are being formed and understanding that the step of "translation" from Greek to English is actually a decisive step of "interpretation." It is like getting back a step closer to something real and raw and true. When that happens you come to the point of not-knowing before you begin to experience any real knowing. I am amazed as I look at Paul again. How could he have been hijacked by Western categories - he is so thoroughly Eastern!

O, what was I talking about? About basic reasons I am part of a church, which are yearnings basic to being human as well. At the bottom, church is about reminding us of what is essential to human life, because we tend to forget in the give and take of life. Church is to be about reminding and restoring those deep yearnings that make us human: the yearning to celebrate the goodness of life and praise the giver of life; the desire to share life and bear life with others; the drive to understand and find meaning.

Many people have come to church needing reminding, needing restoring, and finding that these deeply human yearnings were not only not encouraged in church, but discouraged or even manipulated to bad end. But, people also come to church to escape from these deep human needs. And, some churches provide large doses of what Marx called "the opiate of the masses," by which Marx meant a way of deluding people into accepting the frustration of their deepest longings on earth through assuring people that they would have all their longings satisfied in heaven.

This reference to Marx raises some complicated issues about human longing and religion. Because, for many on this earth, life is an unending struggle to survive burdened with horrible suffering. Consider life in Somalia, or Darfur, or the genocide in Rawanda. What about the history of horror for Jews in Germany and in Russia? How is life for citizens of Afghanistan now or Palestinians? Or, what about a mother who just lost her child in Knoxville last week? Or, a father of four young children who has just found out he has an inoperable brain tumor? What I am getting at is the truth that many people in this world seem to have their deepest desires crushed by the course of their sufferings and the injustices they experience in their lives. Everyone, to some extent, suffers the disappointment of deeply good desires and hopes in life.

Marx central point was this: "You workers who are living in misery, dying young, are suffering because of the greed of your factory owners who care nothing at all for you. It's time to get up off your knees (in prayer) and revolt against this corrupt economic system. How dare they tell you to wait until you get to heaven while they enjoy their's on earth!"

And, that part of Marx is good and holy and deserving of not just respect but celebration and hopeful action - whether revolutionary or reformist.

But, even the most fortunate lives in this world always bear a heavy residue of pain, unresolved conflicts, unrealized dreams, and unreasonable results. Marx didn't set out to address this. What he wanted to counteract was the bad faith of a system that had disproportionately placed the heavy residue, conflict, suffering, pain and misery on one segment of the population who served as a barrier against such suffering for another segment of the population. True religion appreciates Marx. False religion is scared to death of him. He gets too close to the truth, and, as Jesus said: "the truth will set you free," free from false religion.