May 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how courtesy is in short supply. Subsequent to that post, I ran across an article in an AARP publication about restoring civility. Here is the online version, by etiquette expert Sara Hacala, author of Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude, and Attitude for a Polite Planet: While written for people over 50, the article contains helps for anyone of any age. Also worth checking out is Ms. Hacala’s blog at


We observe Memorial Day this Monday. Here is a site I found for the organization No Greater Love, which promotes a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 PM your local time: It reminds us that Memorial Day is not the unofficial beginning of summer (“the day the pool opens” as some school kids put it to the organization’s founder) nor is it about war. It’s about people, most of them young, who gave their lives, whether dying on the battlefield or in war-zone accidents or from emotional wounds that later led them to take their own lives. I commend the website to you this Memorial Day.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 


Every Wednesday and Sunday I drive past a billboard that tells drivers that they “deserve more than 15 minutes.” It’s an ad placed by a local agent of a rival of the insurance company that invites consumers to give them 15 minutes and save 15% of more on auto policies.

The billboard bothers me because it’s such a bad misreading or even misrepresentation of the intent of the company’s slogan. The idea isn’t that a potential client will only be given 15 minutes. Instead, it’s the consumer who is so busy he or she only has 15 minutes. It’s a promise to give something worthwhile without a lot of hassle, energy or time.

The local insurance agent, trying to get business away from a national company, represented them as saying something they did not intend. He’s like a good many people of a certain theological stripe who purport to be Bible believers. Yes, they read the Bible, know its stories, can quote “chapter and verse,” and have a prooftext for everything. But they haven’t really listened to what the scriptures say. They come to them with their minds already made up, clouded with cultural prejudices. The prooftexts they cite are pretexts for their own animosity and hatred and fear.

A blog I read recently put the matter succinctly. These folks are reading the Bible accurately, said the author (Aaron Taylor), but they are reading it in the wrong spirit. Whatever we find in Scripture must be read through the lens of Jesus, the Word of God. How did he live? What did he teach? How did he read his own scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament?

The blogger cited the story of a couple of Jesus’ disciples who wanted to call down fire from heaven on a town, like Elijah did. “[T]he disciples took the story literally, meaning they believed that the story applied to them in their day in the same way that it applied to another people at another time and place.

“And Jesus nailed them for it.

“Jesus said, ‘You don’t know what kind of spirit you are of’” (see footnote).

When we use the Bible to justify our hatred and rejection of those who are different, our oppression and disdain of our neighbors, our pursuit of our own selfish agendas (religious or political), then we are misreading it. We have the wrong spirit.

That’s so obvious it’s as if it were plastered on a highway billboard.


© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:1-7).

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:9, 10).

Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. Care about them as much as you care about yourselves and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought… (Philippians 2:3-5a; CEV).

Last Sunday in church school, a member of the class talked about driving in Atlanta on the crowded interstate. She remarked how Christian it was that drivers on the highway let those on the ramps merge easily. Without that kindness, she noted, no one would ever get on the interstate.

She has a point, doesn’t she? For so much in our lives, we depend on the courtesy and good will of others like our neighbors, co-workers, strangers or families. Whether it’s driving on a congested highway or doing a task at home or at work or expressing an opinion which we believe is worthy of someone’s attention, we want to be treated with fairness and dignity, regarded as important.

Sadly, courtesy and civility, even toward members of our own family, is in short supply these days. How often have we lamented the loudmouth on his or her cell at the movie or in the grocery store? How many times while driving has someone cut us off or pulled out in front of us? How many teens feel ignored by their parents? How many spouses don’t listen to each other or treat each other with respect, much less love?  How about those churches that don’t regard other communities of faith as Christian? And of course, political and religious discourse in this nation has descended to such depths of nastiness that I wonder if we will ever recover any semblance of  caring for the interests and concerns of those with whom we disagree.

So, yes, being courteous is indeed Christian. In fact, it may even be subversive of the dominant culture. The tests cited above make it clear that courtesy, by whatever name (showing honor, regarding others as more important) is the essence of Christian ethics and action. And it all starts with one person daring to act with kindness and civility toward another, maybe even while driving on the interstate.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

As it slowly dies, the Presbyterian Church (USA), like other oldline denominations, endlessly tinkers with the adminstrative apparatus of religion, rather like a terminally ill patient wanting to rearrange the furniture in the room. Pointless and useless to stave off the inevitable. We Presbyterians seem to have an astounding capacity for inflicting upon ourselves bureaucratic nonsense, then congratulating ourselves on how well we did with the process. We tinker with language, spend precious time and energy on making sure the details are right, and bog down in a mire of procedures, even when we have a supposedly more flexible and mission-focused Form of Government in our Book of Order. Some of our “teaching elders” (ministers) are not satisfied unless and until they hear exact textbook theological language from new folk coming into the district, who must be examined for admission. I often come away from meetings of the area council (presbytery) distraught and despondent because of what we have become.

But then God gives me a gift to remind me that all that stuff is not the Church, but rather the sometimes idolatrous trappings of human-devised religion. His largess came to me Wednesday night as a one year-old girl, Lillie, took her first steps at a church dinner, right after we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Imagine my joy and that of everyone! This is what it’s all about, I said to myself: a child toddling about in the midst of a community of folk who love her, her brothers, her parents, and her grandparents. The Church is not procedures and rules, but relationships. It’s the sheer delight of witnessing God’s wonders, like a little girl who one moment was not walking, then the next was taking steps on her own. It’s supporting each other as Lillie did herself when she grabbed a kiddie chair and used it as a walker to get from one place to another. It’s welcome and encouragement and celebration like numerous church members gave to Lillie when she tried to walk, then sat down on her bottom, but then took a few more steps, to be congratulated and welcomed literally with open arms. It’s remembering Jesus’ words: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

The first step is the hardest.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.