Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Puff Graham..."

With those two simple words--"Puff Graham"--telegraphed to the editors of his vast newspaper holdings, publisher William Randolph Hearst, unwittingly launched the worldwide ministry of Billy Graham. Hearst heard Stuart Hamblen, an entertainer and one of radio's famous "singing cowboys," tell of his conversion on air, and was impressed.Who says God can't speak through the "mainstream media?" Hamblen, by the way, would go on to write a very popular Gospel song, "It Is No Secret, What God Can Do." Billy Graham would go on to become, well, Billy Graham, preaching to kings and princesses, presidents and popes, and even Bolsheviks behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, Wednesday, February 21, it was announced that Billy Graham had died at age 99. An NBC religion reporter described Graham as "an evangelical but not a fundamentalist." I believe that to be an accurate description of the man and his ministry, and this reporter went on to say that Graham's whole life and ministry hinged on a single verse of scripture: For God so loved the world that God sent the only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16) I think that assessment is right as well.

Graham would be the first person to say that he was far from perfect, just a person "saved" by his faith in Jesus Christ. He served as "pastor" to several U.S. presidents, and even got "burned" by getting too close to Richard Nixon as he was spiraling into the Watergate abyss, something Graham would later regret. I'm sure he didn't regret ministering to Nixon, but the few public statements he made in support of Nixon, politically, he did regret for the rest of his life.

Most of us over the age of "39" have friends and acquaintances who owe their Christian faith to hearing a Billy Graham sermon, in person or on TV, or to going to one of the "Billy Graham movies" like Time to Run, produced by his own Worldwide Pictures.  The message was always the same--no matter your situation, status in life, or how "far" you have fallen, "God loves you!" And by confessing faith in Jesus Christ, a person would be forgiven, redeemed, and gain the aid of God's Holy Spirit to put her or his life back together. Friends, that will preach. Graham didn't judge people, and didn't "grade" how strong their faith was. In the last three decades of his life, he refused to say that Christians had an "exclusive" lock on who gets into heaven, declaring that this judgment was beyond his pay grade.

Even with his shortcomings, I never lost respect for the man and his message. I have to confess that I'm greatly aggrieved by the filth, vitriol, and what I see as bad theology being spewed by one of his offspring, Franklin Graham, but on this, the father stayed largely silent. I guess a father always holds out hope for the redemption of his children.

OK, here's my Billy Graham "testimony," something that became popular as a result of his evangelical crusades. I grew up in a wonderful Methodist (became United Methodist in 1968 when I was in the 8th grade) church in a small town. I was active in the youth fellowship and was in church weekly--WEEKLY--with my family. I had made many "commitments" to Christ growing up, as ours was a church where people were urged to do that, and I was OK with it. However, years later, when I was a college freshman, I had a unique and very personal "encounter" with God in my dorm room, late one night. The "encounter," when I felt the presence of God like I never had before, and even deduced a "message" God had for my life (which would later gel into a "call to ministry"), left me curious, and more than a bit shaken the following morning. "Something" told me to go to the college library and look in the religious book section. At this particular non-sectarian school, the religious book section had about 5 volumes, and one was Billy Graham's Peace With God. Having made fun of Graham from time to time when my parents would watch one of his crusades on television, I felt it penitential to read his book now. I turned out to be exactly what I needed at that point in my freshly minted young adult faith experience. To this day, I recommend it to people. I think it's in its 1,000th printing, or something. Peace With God was just like the rest of Graham's message--simple, to the point ("God Loves You!"), and easy to digest. I have felt a special kinship to Billy Graham ever since, and from what I heard of media "testimonies" from religion editors and anchor-persons this morning, on the day of his death, I think millions of others did, too. They said that he preached to over 250 million people, but I bet with radio, TV, his books, and satellite TV globally, it was actually much more than that.

Would Billy Graham have become "Billy Graham" without Hearst's "Puff Graham"? Who knows. But it happened, and the farmer's son who always saw himself as just a "country preacher" would win the world, in more ways than one. The NBC reporter today related that Graham once told him in an interview that Jesus would be his "advocate"--literally lawyer--before God when, someday, he would stand before the Almighty. That reporter then said, "So, Dr. Graham is in court today." His case is already won. Remember, Yinz: God loves you!

Friday, February 16, 2018


"Thoughts and prayers." We pastors often write or speak those words, seeking to comfort a parishioner experiencing some personal challenge, suffering through grief or illness, or facing other emotional trauma. Even then they sometimes feel empty. How empty they indeed are when spoken by gutless legislators or a president who doesn't even mention the word "gun" in a speech designed to "comfort" the families and friends of 17 people gunned down ruthlessly in a high school in Florida. "Thoughts and prayers?"

Imagine if the response to the attack on Pearl Harbor had been "thoughts and prayers," or if "thoughts and prayers" had been all that was done about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Thoughts and prayers"--"there's nothing else we can do..." The gun lobby, that owns this president and most of the U.S. Congress, hides behind the Second Amendment as a "protected right," while my personal, constitutional "rights" are infringed every time I want to go on an airplane, because of our national response to terrorism. A whole raft of freedoms have been taken away because of a desire to halt the kind of attack visited upon us from the sky on 9-11. I've been groped, patted down, X-rayed, forced to walk through scanners on a filthy floor in stocking feet, holding my pants up, and told how much aftershave I could pack in my carry-on because of the fear of terrorism, and 99% of us are happy to put up with it, for the safety of us all. And yet, more people are gunned down every 10 days in America than died in the New York terrorist attacks. Oh, but "thoughts and prayers."

We DO pray for the families and friends of the victims of Parkland. We DO pray for a young man whose messed up head would lead him to murder 17 people in cold blood. We DO pray for the sanity of our nation as we are held hostage by the NRA and their privately owned legislature and White House. We pray for them all. (I won't tell you what I'm praying for, though, when it comes to our government officials and aforementioned NRA, as you might not want to have me as your pastor at this moment, if you knew. ) This morning I heard the wailing cries of the mother of a 14-year-old girl killed at Parkland, and I will never forget it. Never. I have to do something. I'm sure YOU feel you have to do something. Of course, there is always "thoughts and prayers."

Barack Obama said it best, "Don't boo, VOTE." The people we now have in office are so clueless that they don't even act when THEY, THEMSELVES are the "target practice" for some sick, gun-wielding individual while they were playing baseball. How nuts is that? It's time for a new legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that acknowledges that the popular "Originalist" interpretation--that the Founding Fathers put this amendment in the Constitution so citizens could be armed to overthrow their government, should it become oppressive--is no longer valid. That boat's sailed, friends. We can't POSSIBLY own enough weapons to defeat the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. So give up on that argument. Without it, reasonable gun safety laws  are possible.

While I believe in prayer--and I do most sincerely--I also believe that a majority of our prayers are effective when they change PEOPLE, and PEOPLE change things. God has given us incredible gifts, a sound mind, and, in this country at least, the freedom to use them for the common good. Oh, there's a phrase often used and quoted from the Founders--"for the common good." Right now, "for the common good," it is time to rein in the out-of-control idolatry of firearms. We have to find a way to stop these horrible mass shootings, or at least make them less frequent, and possibly save SOME lives, anyway. "Thoughts and prayers" will not get it done alone. It is time for each of us to begin to speak up, to write our State and national representatives for some action on background checks and gun safety. And if this crowd won't listen to their constituents, instead of the big-money gun lobby, then it's time to vote them out and give someone else a chance.

Go to this site as an easy way to begin communicating with your U.S. representatives and senators: Democracy IO

Take some real steps to fight the gun scourge in our country and to help our children be safe at school. Once you've written some letters, made some calls, considered who you will vote for if these people don't respond to the American outcry in the wake of Parkland, THEN you are welcome to add your "thoughts and prayers." Thanks for listening, Yinz...

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


I wish I was a better "natural" listener. As an extrovert, I talk more than I listen, and when I DO listen to another, their sharing tends to spark my brain into remembering other stories, or dredging up past things the "listenee" has told me. Now, as a trained clergy person and counselor, I generally can effectively use "active listening" skills, and have my best listening experiences during counseling sessions with parishioners when I'm putting all of my training to work, in conjunction with my "natural" love of people.

I don't know where you are with this "listening" thing, but my most spotty performance tends to be when my spouse is trying to tell me something important. In premarital counseling, I strongly urge couples to make "a thing" out of listening to each other--turning off the TV, putting down the book or smart phone, and intentionally concentrating on what the other is saying. "Physician, heal thyself," as the saying goes! Dara says that I hear well, but don't often listen. Why is it that many of us (usually the male partner) have a problem with paying attention to our significant other? Maybe it's because we figure they know we love them, having made a lifetime commitment to them, and share the same space with them? I sometimes think my brain says this means I have a level of credibility with Dara that, while I may not listen to everything she tells me, she knows I care. My brain is obviously quite flawed, at this point. Listening IS caring 101. On top of all of these dynamics, Dara is an introvert, meaning she is naturally suspicious that anyone listens to her (a fairly common paranoia of introverts). Add to this the fact that introverts tend to have a strong and continual inner dialogue--so strong that they somehow believe that you are in on it--and we have the makings of a perfect storm, communication-wise. Lately, I've been trying to really listen to Dara when she wants to talk about something important, putting down the smart phone, muting the TV, or turning down the satellite radio in the car, and concentrating only on what she is saying. It is at this point that I may nod off, fueling another "debate," shall we say.

I have come to the conclusion that God is basically an introvert. Anyone who speaks with a "still, small voice" certainly fits this bill. I wonder if God understands how hard it is for an extrovert (especially one that is about 96% on the Myers-Briggs scale) to hear, let alone listen to this kind of thing? Why is God so quiet? I guess because she/he chooses not to dominate us; instead God's presence is through the Spirit who lights paths, lures, and "entices" us in directions that benefit us and others in the wider Realm of God. God won't yell at me like my mother did when she said "Go clean your room!"

If Ash Wednesday is a time when we are beckoned to see for ourselves how dirty and messy our "room" is, then Lent may be a time to learn how to keep it clean, once it has been "redeemed." We do this, I guess, by learning to listen to God. At St. Paul's UMC, our Lenten worship theme is just that: Listen. We're exploring the ways we may hear God's voice. Some of you reading this have probably already thought: "Why doesn't he just read the Bible!?!" Good idea, but many of us never read the instructions, and don't stop to ask for directions (thank God for the GPS navigation system!). Seriously, the Bible is a source for hearing God's message to us, and it's an important one. However, the more "personal" presence of God for us--the still, small voice-- will come from other directions very often. Here's one for you: Take time just to listen for God. The meditators among us call this silence. Extroverts like me think it means there's something wrong (As a former radio and TV person in my career before ministry, dead air usually meant someone was getting fired). In God listening, though, it means opening a channel. While I've made it my practice throughout my 33 years in ministry to provide a moment of silence before leading a pastoral prayer, that has been a much tougher thing to do in my personal spiritual journey. How about you? Are you good at carving out some time to just be silent before God and the Holy Spirit to see what shakes?

The practice of silence is just one of many ways we may open ourselves to listen to God. I'll bet you have tried a few spiritual practices of your own, most likely with varying degrees of success. Why not use the season of Lent as a time to get back in touch with either our past best practices of listening, or take a a couple of new ones for a spin? And may it be a time when we celebrate God's best attempt at extroverting by sending Jesus into the world. What a risk this must have been! Introverts lose so much of their energy when they must extrovert. It's no wonder Jesus had to keep going off by himself to "recharge," and it's also no wonder why he had so much trouble being heard by his own disciples, many of whom seemed to be mouthy extroverts! (Witness Peter--blah, blah, blah; James and John--the "Sons of Thunder"; and Andrew, who didn't meet a single person he didn't drag over to meet Jesus!)

Here's to praying you have a meaningful Lenten season, friends. Keep an open mind, and possibly a closed mouth! Thankfully, God seems to love God's human creation too much to remain terminally passive when we make so much noise in the channel it threatens to drown out the message. Shalom!

Friday, February 9, 2018


February 14 is Ash Wednesday. While we Protestant Christians have embraced the "ashes" thing more during my lifetime, I wonder what we think is going on when we "get the ashes" imposed? In the Hebrew Bible, sackcloth and ashes were an outward and visible of an inward and sinful life or action. When one of the prophets donned the "S & A," it was a symbolic gesture for all to see that Israel had thumbed their nose at God again, and some kind of retribution was on its way. So, as a sign of our own sin, and our desire to confess and repent of same, we get a little smudge of ash on our forehead or the back of our hand. We like to focus on the repentance part of this little spiritual drama.

The word we translate "repentance" is the Greek word, metanoia, which can be translated "change of mind." Now, we should not think of this as "changing my mind" like we have just decided to get the chicken instead of the fish--this "change of mind" means making a conscious decision to turn one's life in a different direction. We are saying to God, "I want to turn my life toward you, O Lord, and away from my self-guided ways." Someone has said repentance means "turning my life Godward." Interestingly, one of the most frequently used Hebrew Bible words for repentance also means "turning," or "returning," meaning returning to God's leading, guiding, and wisdom. I don't know about you, but if I only made this decision one day a year--Ash Wednesday, for instance--I'd be an even lousier Christian than I am, and would probably be as successful at "repenting" as I am with managing my sweets intake. For our act of repentance (changing the way our mind looks at life, God, and others) to truly take root, I'm guessing it should be addressed daily, kind of like medicine for hypertension or high cholesterol. There is a reason that people in Alcoholics Anonymous or some other 12-step program are urged to make frequent meetings--even daily at first: Part of fixing the problem is fixing your gaze upon your Higher Power and then using regular accountability of the meetings to modify one's behavior patterns. So then, does regular worship at church become sort of like our 12-step program? Maybe, although as United Methodist Christians, we believe in the transforming ability of Jesus and of the Spirit Jesus sent to us, so "going to meetings" is not our sole recourse (or maybe that should be "soul recourse?").

Back to the ashes. They are dirty. They get ground into our skin by the pastor or priest, and often feel very gritty. I know that it can take a few days to get my "imposing" thumb fully clean. Dirty is good. It reminds us that self-guided, "sinful" behavior can be bad for us and all of those around us. It also reminds us that our "corporate" or "sins of the society" can be very gritty for those victimized by them. Oppression, queuing, and the dominance of one class or group over another is filthy stuff, and it doesn't "clean up" easily. That smudge of ash on your forehead symbolizes much more than your personal "boo boos." Since we're all getting "imposed" as we share a time of confession, it also reminds us of the ugly things we have allowed to exist, and maybe even encouraged, in our society. May this "smudge" also be wiped clean as we work to see the Realm of God fully come into the world, and may we envision a place where all are equal, accepted, and respected, and none left behind. Maybe this year, with Ash Wednesday also falling on Valentine's Day, we can plant a little mental seed of loving our neighbor as an act of metanoia!

And, as our Lenten journey begins, may we not get all hung up on the negative stuff only--we are a post-resurrection community, and the healing, transforming, and empowering presence of God is in our midst and available to all. With this in mind, Lent is also a time of celebrating all of the parts of our faith that intersect with our friends from other faith traditions, and discovering new ways our common desire for justice and peace may be enjoined through shared work and understanding. May Lent not be just a time of turning "inward" and focusing solely on our United Methodist or Christian experience, but seeking ways to encounter the wider work of God in the world. May the ashes of Ash Wednesday also, therefore, remind us of the "dirty" work of building and creating, as well as fixing that which is broken.

Blessings, Yinz!

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