This week a careless backhoe operator hit a clearly marked water line in my neighborhood while digging a hole for the installation of fiber optic cable. The project promises 100% faster Internet for subscribers. But now, because of the accident, we must boil water until test results come back sometime Monday. I commented to a friend how ironic it is that in our quest for faster speeds to stream movies and download whatever, we were thrust back to the Dark Ages, having to purify our water as if it came from a creek.

Such ironies in fact abound in our so-called “connected” day. We walk around with our ears to or our eyes on our phones and pay little attention to the people or the sights around us. We have 1000 friends or followers on social media, but don’t know the person down the street. We display some of our worst tendencies toward cruelty and stupidity sometimes when commenting on a news story or someone’s “status.” Our technology has not improved the human heart. Indeed, it has given us new and more efficient ways to humiliate and kill each other.

I’m no Luddite. The irony of my writing a blog post about the evils of how we use our fancy tools does not escape me. But I wonder sometimes if in our quest for speed and efficiency, we have forgotten how to slow down, take time truly to listen or merely enjoy silence. If we could do that, I think we would begin to recover our essential humanity, the wholeness God desires.

And that really would be progress.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State University, has given up more than $90,000 of his salary so university workers earning minimum wage could have their earnings increased to $10.25 an hour from the current $7.25.

Burse, a former president of the university, retired from an executive position with GE with good benefits and says he doesn’t need to work. His voluntary salary reduction is a way to recognize the needs and importance of those who are on the lower end of the pay scale, but, as he says, “do the hard work and heavy lifting.” “I did this for the people,” he explained. He still will make almost $260,000 for his twelve months as interim (note 1).

Burse has set a wonderful example of real leadership that every high-paid executive (is there any other kind?) could and should follow. What if the “Christian” CEOs of a well-known big box store and a certain craft chain that has been in the news would take similar steps to ensure that their employees make a wage that would lift them out of poverty, so the cashiers and stockroom workers wouldn’t have to rely on food stamps for groceries and could afford basic health care? Suppose football coaches, paid obscene salaries and benefits by universities, didn’t live in million-dollar homes, but insisted on lower pay that would go to fund the custodians’ and groundskeepers’ and cafeteria workers’ wages? Or maybe the “rock-star” preachers on TV could donate the royalties of their books and videos to Habitat for Humanity or their local food pantries.

Pope Francis recently said that “Jesus teaches us to put the needs of the poor above our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor, who lack the necessities of life.” He has set an example by driving a Ford instead of some luxury car and living in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Palace (note 2). Of course, his opinions and lifestyle have not endeared him to some “Christians” in our Congress. Too “liberal.”

If two men, one in a secular university, the other the world leader of a church, can live so, why can’t others with wealth and power? Why can’t some do with a (relatively) little less so others may simply have enough? Those who keep amassing more and more while other suffer want may not answer me or you, but they will have to answer to Jesus.

Note 1: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/08/01/3361549/ksu-presidents-gives-up-90000.html

Note 2: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/06/pope-francis-poor_n_5654732.html

“The name of [the] infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations: 57).

“Prayer in personal worship may be expressed in various ways….One may contemplate God, moving beyond words and thoughts to communion of one’s spirit with the Spirit of God” (PC[USA] Book of Order W-5.4002).

++++++

Earlier this week I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a package of romaine hearts. None of them seemed fresh. It was the 15th, and each one I picked up was stamped “use by 7/14.” I kept looking, though, and way underneath the stack were some marked “use by 7/21.” I wasn’t satisfied, wanting something still fresher. I was still searching when I heard a deep voice behind me. Another guy shopping was trying to save me some trouble. “They’re all the 14th,” he lamented. “You’d do better getting this” (pointing to a loose bunch of leaf lettuce). “Thanks,” I replied, “but I did find some good till the 21st.” “I should have dug deeper,” he said.

Sometimes we all have to dig deeper.

We have to when we’re angry with or hurt by someone, and we have to go way down inside ourselves in order to keep silent, refusing to let our heated or wounded emotions rule us and make a bad situation worse.

We need to dig deeper when we must find the courage to speak up for a person or a group of persons being ridiculed, marginalized, robbed of voice.

We mine the depths of our hearts when we are asked to take on a task we know will be incredibly difficult, like becoming a caregiver, but it’s the right thing to do.

We have to dig deeper when our prayers seem pointless, and/or we have no idea what to say, to a place beyond words, where the Spirit’s sighs are the only sound.

And in the depths*, we find something fresh and new (2 Corinthians 7:14).

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

*In Orthodox tradition this spiritual practice or way of doing theology is called apophasis, seeking and encountering the mystery of God beyond words and images. See, for example, http://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/what-is-apophatic-theology/

When the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision came out earlier this week, I said to my wife that it sounded a great deal like the 16th century principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the realm, his the religion”), an agreement reached in 1555 in which the religion of a ruler within a territory of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) determined that of the ruled. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism were legal. Calvinism and any Anabaptist spin on Christian faith were outlawed. Those who practiced anything but the two legal religions were considered heretics and subject to execution. Should someone wish to follow one’s conscience rather than the dictates of the state, he or she could leave the territory with his or her possessions.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby and other “closely-held” companies, in which the owner’s religion trumps a woman’s right to insurance that covers certain contraceptives. Even if the woman does not share the owner’s viewpoint, her conscience and what she may do with her life are effectively held hostage to the CEO’s faith. If she wants her company’s insurance carrier to pay for an IUD, which may be prohibitively expensive at minimum wage, then she can either somehow pay for it herself or leave and find new employment where the religion of the one doesn’t trump the right of conscience of the many. This situation is exactly the same as cuius regio. Just change “territory of the HRE” to “corporation.” What’s next? Having all employees of closely-held for-profits sign statements of faith?

I am really, really tired of seeing “religious freedom” used as an excuse for selfish, oppressive, unjust practices which would make Jesus weep. Here is One who in fact sought to free people–especially the vulnerable, common folk–from the demands of a religion and its leaders that sought to control every detail of their lives. He said, in the lectionary reading for this Sunday: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The demands of those now using “religious freedom” to push all kinds of hateful, oppressive agendas, indeed to lay the groundwork for a theocracy, are diametrically opposed to the gentle, lowly care of Jesus. If this is what a “Christian” is, then those who of us who indeed seek to follow the humble, loving Lord need to find a new name for our faith. 

Religion has become a cruel idol, before which some demand we bow or else. Paul Tillich, in a late 1940s sermon entitled “The Yoke of Religion,” warned of the danger of what has in fact come to pass in 2014, but also of the possibility if we truly follow Christ: “We are all permanently in danger of abusing Jesus by stating that He is the founder of a new religion, and the bringer of another, more refined, and more enslaving law. And so we see in all Christian Churches the toiling and laboring of people who are called Christians, serious Christians, under innumerable laws which they cannot fulfill, from which they flee, to which they return, or which they replace by other laws. This is the yoke from which Jesus wants to liberate us. He is more than a priest or a prophet or a religious genius. These all subject us to religion. He frees us from religion. They all make new religious laws; He overcomes the religious law.”

God help us and make us truly free!

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void” (Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail).

“Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

On any day in the fall of 520 BCE, the average citizen of Jerusalem could look around and see…boring, inadequate, disappointing structures and little evidence of progress. Nothing like the golden age and magnificent edifices he or she had dreamed of in exile in Babylon. Not much of a homecoming. Those who had chosen to return when Cyrus gave the order were sometimes in conflict over land and ownership with the people who had not been carried off by the Babylonians. The latter had claimed abandoned parcels, since their owners were hundreds of miles away, and who knew if they would ever return? The temple project languished; 18 years after the return, there was still no central gathering place for worship, community life, and civic matters. The prophet Haggai especially urged the high priest and the Persian-appointed governor to ramp up progress on the building, promising God’s blessing if they did.

Haggai’s colleague Zechariah sought to reassure those who despised what he termed “the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:8). Better times were ahead! The governor, Zerubbabel, was going to oversee personally the laying of the foundation of the new temple; the prophet saw a “plummet” (to ensure straight walls) in the official’s hand, signifying his personal, on-site investment in the project.

I think Zechariah gave in to the complainers too quickly. Yes, at this remove, it’s easy to criticize. He probably needed to say something to get the arm-chair quarterback grumblers off his back and give some pastoral comfort to those who were genuinely distressed. But I wish he had pointed out that even the meager, the miserable, the marginal, and the misshapen can be and are the signs and vessels, the harbingers and heralds of the presence and action of God. Sometimes it is especially small things that point us to the divine. 

We may want to live large and don’t do so because of lack of opportunity or gifts or because we lack the ambition or the willingness to risk that it might take to gain the celebrity, acclaim or riches we crave. But what if we choose to delight in small things and reject the big and flashy and spectacular? Suppose we have resources, but live below our means, pay off the credit card every month, dwell in a modest home? What if we enjoy the color of a bird, the sound of a word, the antics of a pet, a quiet evening at home with our spouse? Suppose we got our noses out of our phones and paid attention to the details of the world around us? Isn’t God in the routine, the ordinary, the silent, the everyday? There is nothing so quotidian and tiny that it cannot be shot through with the goodness and presence of the divine. It is in such things that God communicates to us his rich and abundant grace.

The prophet we call “Second Zechariah” (Zechariah 9-14), maybe two hundred years later, got it right. At the very end of the book, he wrote: “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice” (Zechariah 14:20-21). Cooking pots. Horses’ bells. Small, ordinary things, holy to the Lord.

Every day is a sacrament.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“…[R]acism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage…” (writer Ta-Nehisi Coates).

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities…. And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

Last Saturday, and then again at the beginning of this week, my wife and I watched “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I knew nothing about it when I put it on our Netflix queue, other than it was a great movie based on the true story of an African-American butler who had been with the White House through eight administrations.

The very next day, Sunday, after seeing the film, I taught one segment of a six-week Lenten course on the minor prophets, dealing with Zephaniah and Obadiah. The latter condemns the Edomites (descendants of Esau) for their failure to come to the aid of their relatives in Judah when that nation was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the Temple destroyed. Not only did the Edomites not do anything to prevent the suffering of their neighbors, they cheered on the enemy, joined in looting, and turned over refugees to the Babylonian forces.

The film was difficult to watch the first time, given what I discovered was its subject matter. But it was especially hard to see it again after reflecting with my church school class on Obadiah’s call to be a neighbor to those who are suffering. That’s because the movie is about the Civil Rights movement from the late ‘50s through the Reagan presidency and the conflict between father and son against the backdrop of those turbulent times.

As the archival and acted footage of demonstrations, arrests, and brutality played on the screen, I thought about those days and growing up in a virulently racist household and community in south Georgia. I remember the “white” and “colored” water fountains in the JC Penny store and other literal signs of systemic racism. But mostly I recall my dad’s hatred of anyone black, and indeed, anyone different in any way.

Daddy was only two generations removed from a South Carolina plantation where our family had owned slaves, and his father had taught him well, as my great-grandfather had done for his son. My dad used the n-word exclusively to refer to black people, which by the way, he did not actually consider to be people. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face appeared on the cover of a Presbyterian magazine, Daddy promptly and angrily cancelled the subscription.  No black woman was ever legitimately married, according to him; all black children were therefore bastards. And no black man deserved to be treated as anything but a servant boy, no matter what his status or age. Christianity was a white man’s religion, Daddy claimed, which the n—–s had rejected.

I did little or nothing to counter these beliefs. What could I do? I was a boy, totally dependent on my father for everything. When I made some attempt to speak up, such as objecting that black people were human beings or that it was OK for a band to be of mixed race, I got a royal dressing down. Eventually, when I grew up, Daddy and I simply did not talk about religion, politics, race or really much of anything.  He went to his grave having only moderated a little.

I call myself a progressive, but really what have I done to undo the legacy of my father and those like him? I voted for Obama. My wife and I called my sister’s son down one time for making a racist comment about the president. I’m troubled by Stand Your Ground laws that result in the deaths of young black men like Jordan Davis in Florida. I’m cordial with my African-American ministerial colleagues. But how substantive is any of that?

The movie and Obadiah brought to the surface such memories and thoughts. And I’m not sure now what to do with them.

But there are still plenty of days left in Lent.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

There seems to be an epidemic of carelessness these days about most everything, whether speech or behavior or assistance, from people who should know and do better. For example, a national news channel had a story about the Dalai Lama. The caption? “Diving intervention.” It was supposed to say “divine intervention,” but nobody noticed. Probably too busy checking Facebook.

Here’s another. I recently switched plans with my cable company. Fifteen minutes after I got off the phone, my Internet was gone, and one of my email addresses had been “disassociated” from my account. The problem? A “coding error” by “customer service,” reminding me of similar headaches with a bank account back in the day, when someone who either didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t care also entered the wrong code. It took a great deal of effort to fix the banking problem. Fortunately, my cable company’s tech people were on the ball and got me back up and running almost as soon as the problem was discovered.

Still more: ordination exams in my denomination rife with grammatical, spelling, and usage errors; documents sent by an insurance company to a national rather than local office, causing delays in the completion of projects and in payment to contractors; business people concerned with trivia and distracted by personal matters while neglecting weighty matters and making big mistakes; and of course, the usual inattentive and reckless driving seen everywhere on local streets and highways.

Isn’t Lent a time for us to say “no” to such carelessness? Think about that word. When we are careless, you and I say “I could care less” how our sloppy, distracted, unfocused work or our poor behavior affect others or reflect on you and me or the organization we represent with the public. Why not adopt as a Lenten discipline caring more, whether about the tone of our voices, the thoughtfulness of our speech, the detail of our work or the attention paid to the needs of our neighbors? 

Who knows? Someone may be so touched and helped by our work and example that he or she regards our carefulness as diving divine intervention.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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