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Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday, the passion of
Christ.

One by one, the disciples remove themselves from Jesus. Each denies knowing him. The religious leaders deny the truth of his teaching. The civil leaders deny responsibility for his fate, leaving it to the crowd to decide. At our Maundy Thursday service each disciple is represented by a candle which is extinguished and removed from the table holding the Last Supper. Slowly the light leaves the room, until finally the deed is done; the Christ candle is extinguished and there is no light.

One could settle into darkness and find comfort, I think, so the darkness itself is not disturbing. It is the conspiring and the denial that brings the darkness that makes it so disturbing. It’s the plotting and the denial that makes this darkness so engulfing. There is no comfort in this darkness that is absent the goodness, the purity and the innocence.

This is the darkness of conspiracy, collaboration and denial. The religious leaders conspire to put an end to goodness. The Roman civil leaders conspire to hold onto power and control over others. And to save themselves the disciples each deny knowing him, willingly sacrificing the one who comes to include all, to set us free and to call us out of concern for self to live sacrificially and generously toward others.

But this is too threatening. And so we conspire, and the darkness surrounds us until we can no longer see the light.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

With the passing of the Rev. William Sloane
Coffin, Jr. we have lost a consummate communicator of Christian faith and a
conscience for the nation.
(Revised April 23, 2006)

Thanks to Tim at a believer’s blog for linking to these comments by Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. last year when he was honored at Yale Divinity School. His remarks, as always, are worth noting.

With the passing of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. we have lost a consummate communicator of Christian principles and a conscience for all humankind. He called us to be better than we thought we could be. He made us think we could achieve that higher state, and he did it with grace and compassion. May his voice continue to call us to justice, peace and inclusion.

The Morality of Gen Y

Following my post on a conversation with a
member of Gen X, this review of a Harvard study of college-age young adults–Gen
Y–offers yet another view of the morality of young people today. They are
concerned about justice, not the tired rhetoric of the past.

Whoever
understands
the religious
center will
do well in
the 2008
general election
John Della Volpe,
pollster

Young adults in college are concerned about justice in politics and religion. More so than some of their predecessor generations, according to a recent survey by Harvard reported in the Christian Science Monitor.

I’ve noted that the young folks I talk with are more informed and concerned about the morality of major issues than previous generations. This is an encouraging sign. They question. They assert themselves. They have opinions.

What’s more, they’re not walking in lock-step with any particular group, name-brand denomination, political party, nor the religious right. They have their own mind and they seem to be quite able to articulate their own concerns, thank you.

An interesting development as these young people come to voting age, enter the work force and assume leadership will be to see how they influence the center. They’re not, for the most part, on the extremes and don’t subscribe to extremist positions.

Breaking Trust with Gen X and Gen Y

Attending a conference of media
professionals affords me the opportunity to get outside my normal stomping
grounds and meet folks from a wider area of professional responsibilities–and
to learn from them. I think the mainline denominations, along with a lot of
others including politicians, clergy and celebrities, have broken trust with
Generation X and Generation Y, and we’ve forced them into an attitude of
skepticism that’s necessary for survival in a world they believe is treacherous
and unfair.

I got an earful about religion, skepticism and the role of the church in our lives in a sideline conversation with a young adult who works for a media database organization at a conference for media professionals this week

The short version of her philosophy is that she, like most young adults her age, are skeptics; spiritual, practical skeptics. As an active Roman Catholic, she believes in religious principles but remains skeptical of nearly everyone, if not every teaching. Her experiences in media lead her to conclude that everyone has an agenda. For example, she says celebrities posture for the camera when they promote benevolence but there is little if any authentic commitment in their pronouncements or appeals.

She concludes that no one can be taken at face value, and, at worst, no one can be trusted, not even religious people.

Enron, WMDs, FEMA, clergy sexual abuse, Jason Blair at the New York Times, Jack Kelley at USA Today–all reinforce this skepticism, and the list is much longer, of course.

It’s a damning critique. A generation let down by leadership, the inflated claims of products and the failure of institutions to deliver on their promises concludes that skepticism is necessary to survive. The brighter you are, this young woman contends, the less likely you are to believe in the goodness of humankind.

Politicians, journalists, clergy, actors. In a celebrity culture trust is futile because it’s all about image and facade. Authenticity and truthfulness take a back seat.

I won’t universalize one conversation as if it represents a whole generation. However, there’s enough similarity in this young woman’s words to correspond with many other conversations I’ve had and much of the research I’ve read, to lead me to conclude her thoughts aren’t unique. This generation has experienced trust betrayed, and regaining their trust won’t be easy, if at all. And sadly, some don’t even want to.

One speaker told us “Generation X is history. Gen Y, gone. Today it’s about Generation My Space.”

A generation betrayed, now cast-off for the next new thing. No wonder they take refuge in skepticism.

Individualism and the loss of Community

Individualism and the loss of
community.

Individualism may be the last refuge for the exploited, abused and forgotten. Instead of being, as conservatives claim, the bedrock of a responsible society, what if, instead, it’s the last refuge people seek after having been worked over by corrupt politicians, uncaring corporations, unresponsive institutions and lying leaders?

Sound too harsh?

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas reveals the diversity of
the early Christian movement.

The authentication and release of the Gospel of Judas is being widely discussed. One of the most intriguing points being made by biblical scholars is that this gospel reveals the diversity of interpretations and opinions that sought acceptance in the early Christian movement. Having the actual manuscript offers a much different insight into this process because it’s tangible. It’s different to see written pages, even if we can’t read them for ourselves, than it is to read about them in a history book. It makes the competing ideas more real and the process of claiming a space in history more clear. This BBC video news clip offers a concise overview.

Children Dying Needlessly

That our children continue to die needlessly
from gun violence must call us to action.

Marquis Hudson, a nine-year-old boy, was killed in his aunt’s living room in Nashville recently when someone fired a gun blindly through the door. It’s outrageous, but there really wasn’t that much public outrage, at least, not enough as I see it. No comment from the mayor, no clergyperson calling for an end to senseless violence, no large group taking to the streets to reclaim the neighborhood. Apparently it’s all been said and done, to no avail. And so, children continue to die.

I wonder if we have become so accustomed to gun violence that the killing of children in this country, even in a southern city of hospitable gentility like Nashville, is no longer cause for outrage. Is a child gunned down so frequently in this nation that we no longer believe we can prevent it? Have we become so enamored with the idea that life is all about individuals that we’ve lost our understanding of community responsibility?

In our better thoughts we know community makes a difference. I was moved to tears during the baptism of an infant in our local church recently, in part, because the parents and their families movingly displayed deep and obvious affection in their commitment to each other and the children in their care. But where I choked is at these words of congregational response: We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in trust of God, and be found faithful in service to others. We will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

In contrast, however, adding to the sorry tale of Marquis’ death, his funeral was interrupted by fisticuffs between two men over the appropriateness of a T-shirt one wore memorializing the child. Fearing more gun violence, the funeral director removed the child’s body to the graveside where he was buried, his eulogy never delivered.

But let’s not say there’s nothing we can do. We can stop undermining public education every chance we get and pay taxes to support public schools instead of creating private academies that only the affluent can afford. We can adequately fund Headstart and other services for economically disadvantaged children. We can support job training and a living wage. We can advocate for health care for all, and open community-based health clinics for low-income persons in local churches. We can support the Benefit Bank initiative by the National Council of Churches that seeks to connect poor people with benefits to improve their economic and health status. We can study economic policies that affect all of us around the globe and find ways to change those that don’t benefit the common good. Both the NCC and Sojourners offer helpful guides. The Children’s Defense Fund offers both background information and analysis about actions we can take to create this community of concern for all children.

We can question the assumption that poverty is a product of individual initiative, unrelated to policies and practices that exploit the poor and working poor and that result in tax cuts that benefit the affluent and undercut working people and those trapped in poverty. We can at least hear and stand with the police chiefs of nearly every city in the country when they tell us hand guns need to be controlled.

And perhaps every mainline denomination should commit itself to opening a storefront church, partnering with an urban congregation or opening a multipurpose center in a neglected neighborhood for every new suburban church they plant.

As moving and important as it is, It’s not enough to commit ourselves to one child on Sunday morning. Our words will ring hollow when the next child is shot dead, and the next, until we truly surround all children with a community of love so they may walk in the way that leads to life.

A Nashville Story

Nashville Story

Living in Nashville offers its own unique experiences. Yesterday I preached at Edgehill United Methodist Church, the local church we attend, which is only a couple of blocks from Music Row. I had one of those uniquely Nashville experiences. (Parenthetically, I’ve put the manuscript here as someone asked me for a copy.)

In the sermon, I refer to the Hank Williams classic, “I Saw the Light.” The words connect well with the interplay between light and darkness in the Bible, an interplay that leads in many different directions.

The conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus as reported in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, is one more illustration of this intriguing interplay. The commentary in the Interpreter’s Bible enlarges on this and was helpful.

After worship, a friend came to me and said, matter-of-factly, “I talked with Sarah Cannon about that song and she told me she sat with Hank in the back of a car one night riding to an appearance and asked him if he had seen the light. He said he hadn’t, but wouldn’t it be wonderful?” And, my friend continued, “She said in a wistful voice, ‘I don’t know if he ever saw the light.'”

For those who don’t know, Sarah Cannon created the country comedy character known on-stage as Minnie Pearl. She was a friend and confidant to many country music stars. She achieved fame in the late 1940’s and remained a staple of the Grand Ol’ Opry for decades. She died in 1996.

Where else but Nashville can you talk after church with someone who had a conversation with Minnie Pearl who, in turn, tells about a personal moment with Hank Williams, and not be name-dropping? It was the just telling of a fond remembrance.

I then spoke with another person in the congregation who is connected to the music and he reflected upon the way songs such as “I Saw the Light” reveal the personal struggles the musicians are going through. Hank Williams wrote it in 1948 when the music was even more autobiographical than it is now.

It was a choice experience to have these two brief conversations after worship about music and how we react to it. This kind of music points us to ourselves and our experiences of life. It doesn’t stand for something else, or represent anything else, as Michael Bugeja writes. It simply is. And, if it’s true that Hank didn’t see the light, we’re saddened because we all want to see the light, and I think we care if others see it too, whatever the light means to each of us individually.
The music somehow gets to our common ground and speaks to us in a deep way that becomes both personal and unifying.

Just a passing thought about living and worshipping in Nashville two blocks off Music Row.

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