On the eve of Passover

On the eve of Passover

By Steve Beard

“Lord, have mercy,” was really the only exasperated prayer I could offer after hearing the news of a deranged neo-Nazi shooting people outside of a Jewish Community Center in Kansas. When I heard that one of the victims was a teenage boy, I immediately texted my 17-year-old son to remind him that I love him.

It was Palm Sunday afternoon when the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, Kansas, heard about the tragic bloodlust and death. All three of the victims in the shootings had a connection to the church.

My heart was broken for the families. My heart was heavy for Hamilton, an old friend of mine, who was going to be walking church members through the valley of the shadow of death during Holy Week.

“Help us, O Lord, to grieve as people of hope,” said Hamilton at the evening Palm Sunday service. The dark and gruesome reality of Good Friday came five days early. On the eve of Passover, the symbolism of blood splattered over a doorpost to spare first-born sons was replaced with the spilled blood of a 14-year-old grandson and grandfather in a parking lot.

“I will fear no evil,” the psalmist writes, “for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Not long after the tragedy, I contacted Hamilton to let him know that I was praying for him and that we wanted to honor the victims.

Terri LaManno was killed while she was visiting her mother at Village Shalom senior center. A member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, LaManno’s nephew is a staff member at the Church of the Resurrection.

Bill Corporon, the grandfather who had taken his grandson to the community center for a singing audition, was a very active member of Church of the Resurrection, along with Melinda, his wife of 49 years. “Bill was a family physician who, during his years in practice in Oklahoma touched the lives of thousands of people,” Hamilton reported. “He and Melinda moved to Kansas City to be closer to their daughter Mindy, her husband Len and especially their grandchildren Reat and Lukas. Bill loved his grandkids.”

“Reat [Underwood] was confirmed just last year and made his profession of faith in Christ,” Hamilton said. “He regularly volunteered in our children’s ministry. Reat loved to sing. He was loved by his classmates and was a remarkable young man.”

In hopes of killing Jews, a deranged white supremacist killed two United Methodists and a precious Roman Catholic. Lord, have mercy.

In the midst of the dark cloud of tragedy, Mindy Underwood – Reat’s mother and Bill’s daughter – has been a remarkably public beacon of what St. Paul referred to as the “peace which passes all understanding” as she has spoken to the media after the loss of her father and son. Providentially, Mindy was able to hear the songs Reat was going to sing at the audition before he left, kiss him goodbye, and tell her son that she loved him.

“I’m lifted by my belief in Christ and I’m lifted by my belief that Reat and my dad are in heaven,” Underwood testified on the Today Show. “And I know that Mrs. LaMonna is in heaven and we pray for their family also.” Her sense of peace is anchored to her faith and to her belief that the three victims are now in the arms of their Redeemer. “Literally, when I saw my father laying there I heard God say, ‘He’s in heaven.’ It was horrific – but comforting.”

“Mindy has shown such remarkable faith,” Hamilton told me. “We’re celebrating the lives of Bill and Reat on Good Friday, remembering Christ’s suffering and how God used this for the redemption of the world. Mindy and her family are praying that God will bring good from the tragic death of Bill and Reat.”

Our prayers should be the same.

 

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

There is no music like that music

By Steve Beard

Even Cicely Tyson was surprised. As a seasoned and award-winning 80-year old actress of the screen and stage, you would imagine that few things in show business would catch her off-guard. “I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson told The New York Times.

Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson

In June, she won a Tony award for her portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Watts in the Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” When referring to the audience joining in, Ms. Tyson was talking about the audience singing the classic hymn “Blessed Assurance” as she sang it during an emotional section of the second act.

“From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its mostly black cast, draws in large numbers,” reported the Times. “When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.”

Once Ms. Tyson discovered that the audience was singing along, she found it thrilling. “Thrilling but unexpected,” the Times points out. “Under normal circumstances the Broadway experience does not include audience participation, even when catchy songs from classic musicals are being performed. The ‘Blessed Assurance’ phenomenon is peculiar, perhaps even unheard-of, but the hymn itself is something out of the ordinary,” the Times admits.

The hymn was written 140 years ago by Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp, both members of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan — merely five miles down road from where Ms. Tyson performed her role on Broadway.

Some audience members interviewed by the Times seemed startled that someone might not be familiar with the hymn. “A lot of people in the audience grew up with that song,” said Michelle Crawford, who learned it while attending the Thessalonia Baptist Church in the Bronx as a child. “Nobody had to put the words out there in front of anybody. They knew that song.”

The audience singalong struck many in the audience as unremarkable. “I chimed in,” said Pinkey Headley, who sings the hymn at her Methodist church in Brooklyn. “It’s the natural thing to do.”

Denise Wells agreed. She attends Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens. “It’s an old Sunday song,” she told the reporter. She then put her hand over her “heart and began declaiming the hymn’s opening verse, nodding emphatically after each line: ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!’”

While the audience reaction was a surprise to Ms. Tyson, the song was not new to her. “It was one of my mother’s favorites,” she reported. “I don’t remember any Sunday, when she was in the kitchen making family dinner, when she wasn’t singing a hymn.” The song is so meaningful to the memory of her mother that Ms. Tyson endowed a pew at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem that has a plaque reading: “To Mother — Blessed Assurance.”

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

There is a palpable magnetism and processional authority to hymns and gospel music. “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord,” wrote novelist James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, a book about race and religion he wrote in 1963.

Although he was a teenage Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin eventually left the church. Even outside the church, however, he would not deny the unique dynamism found within the sanctuary. “I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to ‘rock.’ Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when … the church and I were one,” he confessed. “ Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs … and their cries of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ and ‘Yes, Lord!,’ ‘Praise His name!,’ ‘Preach it, brother!’ sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar.”

As Baldwin poignantly observed, “There is no music like that music.” Ms Tyson was reminded by her audience of that revelation while on a Broadway stage. I was most memorably reminded of that truth in the House of Blues in New Orleans.

A few years ago, my best friend and I were invited to a CD release party for the Neville Brothers while we were in the Big Easy. The Neville family has been a New Orleans music institution for more than fifty years, and the brothers (Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril) were in their hometown promoting Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life — a hip-hopish album of French Quarter funk, jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues.

Out of all the brothers, there is one who stands out. There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incongruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the distinctive mole above his right eye, the numerous tattoos—including the dagger on his left cheek.

neville

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville sings with a sincere earnestness borne of his heartache and his eventual victory over heroin. He is the least flamboyant on the stage with his brothers, yet he is the most intense when he lays down his vocal offering—treating each note and harmony with the precision of a heart surgeon.

The crowd was mesmerized as Aaron sang his classic ballad “Tell it Like it Is.” Forty-six years ago, that song shot to the top of the charts. The heartbreak behind the hit is that although it was selling 40,000 copies a week and was being played nationwide on the radio, Neville’s recording label was in a tailspin. He never saw the song’s royalties. Someone was getting rich off his artistry, but it sure was not him. While the song was topping the charts, he was busting his back as a longshoreman at the docks of New Orleans in order to feed his family.

Neville was raised in a God-fearing home. His dad was Methodist and his mom was Catholic. He attended Saint Monica, a school in New Orleans run by nuns who used to get death threats from the Ku Klux Klan for teaching black kids. “They were caring women who taught me about love,” he remembers.

The lessons he learned from the nuns faded for a time, but the core message never went away. Although he was a thug-lookin’ junkie with a criminal record, Neville wanted to be something different. “If you saw into my mind…and looked into my heart, you’d see someone who just wanted to sing,” he has testified. “Sing with the Madonna. Sing with the angels. Sing the dreamy doo-wop, sing like Gene Autry out on the range, sing the old love songs, sing my prayer to God to find a way to get off the dope that was turning my mind to black night.”

The revelry of the Neville Brothers gig at the House of Blues came to an astounding and respectful silence when Brother Aaron began singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” There was no mumbling and the chatter ceased. There was a holy hush.

Without preaching, the testimony went forth. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.”

I looked around and people to my left and to my right were wiping tears from their eyes. John Newton’s hymn is universally beloved — even in the midst of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Even if we are not all ready to walk through the front door of the house of redemption, we still like to know the porch light is on.

There is no music like that music.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

 

10 years without Cash

IMG_6266By Steve Beard

Providentially, my last trip to Nashville dovetailed with the grand opening of the Johnny Cash Museum — right down the street from the Ryman Auditorium and all the honky-tonks. I’ve been a life-long fan. Quite literally, I distinctly recall the Johnny Cash in the Holy Land album cover and his rich and deep voice booming out of the speakers of my parents’ record player. I was 5 years old.

It has been a decade since the death of Johnny Cash. For fans, it has been even longer since the closing of the House of Cash headquarters in nearby Hendersonville due to flood damage. The new Cash museum in Nashville is a fascinating and interactive musical and spiritual pilgrimage for the fans who loved The Man in Black.

Cash died at age 71 of complications from his long-standing bout with diabetes in September 2003, nearly four months after the passing of his beloved wife June Carter.

IMG_6289If American music had a Mount Rushmore, Cash’s distinctive profile would be prominently chiseled into the rock. He is most widely known for hits such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” and “I Walk the Line,” selling more than 50 million records throughout his career. He is the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His audiences have included presidents, prisoners, and everyone in between.

Throughout his illustrative life, Cash wrote books, hosted a popular television show, starred in and produced movies, and recorded 1,500 songs that can be found on 500 albums. His appeal is recognized by everyone from gangsta rappers to roughneck steel workers because of his charismatic magnetism that spanned five decades of popular culture. “Locust and honey … not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness,” is how U2’s Bono described him. “The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.”

His song writing orbited around the universal human condition of sin and redemption, murder and grace, darkness and light. His last three-album collection was titled Love God Murder. What you saw is what you got with Cash. There was never a manufactured feeling to his art. When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the gunpowder of a smoking revolver, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ.

In 1968, he recorded his now famous album Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and produced Live At San Quentin the following year. The prison albums were some of his most expressive and impressive work. “I was in the prison band in San Quentin when I first saw Johnny Cash,” remembered country singer Merle Haggard. “I was impressed with his ability to take 5,000 convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers. That’s pretty hard to do.”

IMG_6361Of course, Cash spent his fair share of time behind bars for incidents surrounding his alcohol and drug use — mostly overnights in holding cells. He turned to drugs as his career began to take off in 1958. At first, he looked upon them as a divine favor from above. He once told Larry King, “I honestly thought it was a blessing — a gift from God.” But it did not take him long to realize that he was deceiving himself and that the drugs were trinkets of the Devil, luring him deeper into retreat mode from unresolved issues in his life. “Drugs were an escape for me, a crutch — a substitute for what I now feel. I was looking for a spiritual high to put myself above my problems,” he recalled, “and I guess I was running from a lot of things. I was running from family, I was running from God, and from everything I knew I should be doing but wasn’t.”

Throughout this entire time, he never stopped singing gospel songs. He was stoned on amphetamines while he sang “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” one of his most beloved songs. “I used to sing all those gospel songs, but I really never felt them,” he recalled. “And maybe I was a little bit ashamed of myself at the time because of the hypocrisy of it all: there I was, singing the praises of the Lord and singing about the beauty and the peace you can find in him — and I was stoned.” He was in a drug-addled hell but these old gospel songs were etched deeply in his DNA. “They were the first songs I ever heard — and I know this sounds corny, but they’re the songs my mother sang to me.”Cash’s freedom from long-term drug addiction came through the power of prayer and the stern hand of his wife, who walked by his side through the dark night of the soul. Looking back on the difficult years, Cash said that the drugs “devastated me physically and emotionally — and spiritually. That last one hurt so much: to put myself in such a low state that I couldn’t communicate with God. There’s no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn’t even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But he came back. And I came back.”

Back in the 1970s when he became more serious about his faith, Cash said it was Billy Graham who advised him to “keep singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ and all those other outlaw songs if that’s what people wanted to hear — and then, when it came time to do a gospel song, give it everything I had. Put my heart and soul into all my music, in fact; never compromise; take no prisoners.” Cash subsequently sang in the sold-out honky-tonks of the world and the jam-packed arenas of the Billy Graham crusades — never allowing himself to be too easily pigeonholed by the holy or the heathens.

Johnny Cash was an irreplaceable American original who will be remembered as a cross between Jesse James and Moses — an enigmatic man in black, with a heart of gold, and a voice that could raise the dead.

East of Eden: Finding God in Paradise

IMG_7496The following sermon by Steve Beard was delivered July 21, 2013, in the Honolua United Methodist Church in Maui, Hawaii.

Yesterday, there was a young woman sunning herself in the ocean on one of those personal air mattress rafts just a few miles down the beach from this church. One moment she was basking in the sun, and the next moment she was flailing around, attempting to sit up on the flotation device because a sea turtle – the size of a small Volkswagen – was swimming next to her.

Such is life in Maui. Aloha!

As I saw her panicked – and yet excitable and gleeful – I thought of the ancient text from Genesis, “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.’ So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”

I love that. Subtle and provocative: He saw that it was good!

Gratitude

I want to thank the Rev. Tevita Maile for sharing his pulpit this morning in such a beautiful sanctuary. Mahalo.

I live in Houston, Texas. And every single day, I get up and see a poster hanging in my home for the 2000 Triple Crown surf contest on the North Shore of Oahu. I have been to the North Shore a handful of times and for the last 20 years, the small town of Haleiwa has been my vision of paradise. It is filled with tropical beauty, vivid colors, and stunning surf – and it is far away from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu.

This is my first time to the island of Maui and I am overwhelmed with the same profound beauty. In response, allow me to take a few moments this morning and ponder the question: Is it easier or more difficult to find God in paradise?

I am greatly relieved that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. Not heaven, but paradise – the front porch to eternity. The lush gardens with the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis and The Book of Revelation.

• Genesis 2:8-9: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

• Revelation 2:7: Writing to the church at Ephesus: “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Let me make a few observations about the gardens of paradise.

1. Living in paradise is what God intended for you. It was his first choice. It was his first plan. It was his heart’s desire.

AdamEveEatChoices have been set before us in life and you are free to choose according to your desires. According to the Scripture, Adam and Eve made a choice and the trajectory of history was changed forever.

There are consequences to the choices we make, but they are not unforgivable nor unredeemable.

Whether you are at the entrance gate of adulthood or the exit gate of this earthly life, it is important to remember that the Tree of Life and the garden of paradise is God’s first choice for you.

The truth of the matter is that the Bible is loaded with specific geographical hotspots where man encountered God. There are so many gardens in the Bible you need a weedwacker to get through them all. We are told that the garden of Eden was in the east. But there are also mountaintop experiences described. Wandering in the wilderness. Even Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert.

Currently, we are approximately 8,447 miles east of what is commonly thought to be the Garden of Eden. I only mention that because God takes our locations in life very seriously. He takes your place in life very seriously.

Not long ago, I was getting my hair cut and I asked the stylist if she was from Houston. She said, “Yes sir! I’m from right here. I don’t even want a passport because I have everything that I need right here.” I was startled by her response. After all, let’s be honest, not even Sam Houston wanted to live in Houston because of the humidity.

Nevertheless, we all have our ideas of paradise. You have heard of a surfers paradise, shoppers paradise, tourist paradise, foodie paradise. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because we all want a little bit of that.

2. Paradise is so alluring that it can throw our spiritual compass off track. The Rev. Lillian Daniel recently wrote a remarkable book entitled, “When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough.” She tells the story of a man who wanted to share his testimony with her when he found out she was a pastor. Apparently after having a tumultuous life within the church, he embraced a different path.

lillianHe found himself spending Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading the New York Times or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. “I worship nature,” he told her. “I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.”

Rev. Lillian responds: “I was not shocked or upset by the man’s story. I had heard it many times before — so many times I could have supplied the details. Let me guess, you read the New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of that than the sermon? Let me guess, you find God in nature? And especially in sunsets?”

She continues: “As if the people who attend church had never encountered all those psalms that praise God for the beauty of natural creation, and as if we never left the church building ourselves. God in nature? Really? The theme can be found throughout the Bible. When you push on this self-developed spirituality, you don’t find much. God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?”

The point Lillian Daniel is driving home is this: Sunsets are pretty, but they will not hold your hand at the doctor’s office. The crashing waves are dynamic, but they will not help you rebuild your house after a fire. Waterfalls are breathtaking, but they won’t hold you while you weep.

She would say that it is the messed-up and sometimes nutty folks in a local church who do what nature is incapable of doing.

Go ahead, hug a tree. But do yourself a favor and put your faith in the One who shaped the Grand Canyon with the pressing down of his thumb, and created the Alps with his fingertips, and created Maui with a smile.

3. Your finest hours of victory and greatest defeats can be found in the lush gardens in your life. For Jesus, it was in a garden that he sweat drops of blood. It was in a garden that he experienced his greatest agony, his greatest suffering, his most profound loneliness, his greatest betrayal.

Do not be deceived by the beauty surrounding you. The devil rolled out the red carpet for original sin like a slick-talking car salesman with a trunkful of snappy red delicious apples – in a garden. Sometimes the garden is the anti-paradise. Sometimes it is the playground for your loneliness, shame, and fear.

But gardens are also your reminders of hope. The women who first saw the risen Christ mistook him for a gardner – in a garden. New life was announced in a garden. “Death does not win” was punctuated from a garden. The devil’s foiled plan was danced upon in a garden.

Three days prior, dangling half naked from a tree, it was Jesus who proclaimed to a thief that he would be with him in paradise. Imagine that. The man merely asked to be remembered. Covered in blood and spit and humiliation, the thief knew his place. He knew his heart, he needed no sermon.

Those around the thief mocked and jeered and taunted. According to theologian N.T. Wright, “Jesus was telling that thief that he would pass from the scaffold of shame into the joy of God’s presence forever.”

Paradise awaits!

Corrie Ten Boom said it so clearly, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have!”

Where we are headed, my friends, is a place of immeasurable beauty. Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you…. So that where I am, there you may also be.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “One design you are to pursue to the end of time – the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity.” We are not often invited to enjoy God, but let us pursue it!

The unseen kingdom

Several years ago, the band U2 released an album called: All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The very title was an interesting concept about the spiritual life. After all, you can leave behind your Cadillac and your condo and your cash – and you will! You will also leave behind this mortal shell.

Your soul is a different aspect of you. On the song “Walk On,” Bono sings, “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed, to be seen.” This is what Jesus was saying to the thief. This is what Jesus whispers to you and me.

Our vantage point must change to perceive this alternative reality. Don’t be surprised or scandalized. To discover the heavens, we turn to the telescope. To discover what is happening inside the human body, we depend upon the x-ray machine. To discover what is coursing through your veins, we utilize a microscope. To discover the unseen kingdom of Heaven, we must embrace a vision of faith.

St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

From a different angle, Voltaire observed, “Paradise was made for tender hearts; hell, for loveless hearts.”

The-Holy-Land-coverWhen I was young, my mom and dad had a “Johnny Cash in the Holy Land” album. It was 1969. And there is a section of the album where he was describing what it was like on the Mount of Olives and then entering into the Garden of Gethsemane. “Olive trees are probably two thousand years old or more,” said Cash. “And now there’s a possibility and a very strong possibility that beneath or around some of these very same olive trees that we see here, Jesus himself sat or stood with his disciples.”

I will never forget hearing Cash describe that place. I can imagine Johnny and June moving from tree to tree in order to possibly stand in the very same spot where Jesus knelt and sweat drops of blood – in a garden.

Two years before that, Elvis Presley recorded a song called “In the Garden.” We used to sing that song in my United Methodist church as I was growing up. Perhaps you’ve heard it.

“I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear / The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me / And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.

“He speaks, and the sound of His voice / Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me / Within my heart is ringing.
I’d stay in the garden with Him / Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe / His voice to me is calling.”

That beloved hymn was written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912. It speaks of such intimacy, vividness, and beauty. According to his great-granddaughter, the song, however, was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it, let alone a view of a garden.”

That should not startle us. For the kingdom of God is both already and not yet. And it is something to believe in, in order to be seen. And yet, it is something that can be experienced without eyesight. Counterintuitively, we can walk through the garden of paradise while sitting in a windowless basement.

St. Paul reminds us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

And that, my friends, will be true paradise.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Iconic Norman Rockwell paintings to be auctioned

rockwellSomeone is going to get a nice Christmas gift. Sotheby’s will be auctioning off three of Norman Rockwell’s most popular visions of small-town Americana. “Saying Grace,” “The Gossips” and “Walking to Church” all appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

Of Rockwell’s 322 covers for The Post, the three images were particularly popular. ‘Saying Grace’ — a crowded restaurant with a boy and an old woman bowing their heads in prayer — was considered Rockwell’s masterpiece, topping a readers’ poll in 1955,” reported The New York Times. “’The Gossips’ was a finger-wagging montage of friends, neighbors and even the artist himself. ‘Walking to Church’ was another timeless favorite.”

“Sotheby’s estimates that ‘Saying Grace,’ on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1951, issue, could bring at least $15 million to $20 million,” reported the Times. “The painting hung in Kenneth J. Stuart’s office at The Saturday Evening Post and later in his family’s living room in Wilton, Conn. ‘Walking to Church,’ thought to bring between $3 million to $5 million, was in the bedroom of his wife, Katharine.”

To read the rest of the story, click HERE

Remembering the heroes of 9-11

IMG_6306In the aftermath of the 9-11 attack, innumerable stories emerged of courage, bravery, and heroism. This is the story that stuck out most profoundly to me.

Like troops before battle
By Peggy Noonan
We have learned, as a minister put it, that the age of the genius is over and the age of the hero begun. The observation is that of Father George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest who ran to the Trade Center when the towers were hit. As New York’s firemen, the first and still greatest warriors of World War IV, passed the priest on the way to the buildings they’d pause for a moment and ask for prayers, for a blessing, for the sacrament of confession. Soon they were lined up to talk to him in rows, “like troops before battle,” he told me. He took quick confessions, and finally gave general absolution “the way you do in a war, for this was a war.”

When I heard this story it stopped me dead in my tracks because it told me what I’d wondered. They knew. The firemen knew exactly what they were running into, knew the odds, and yet they stood in line, received the sacrament, hoisted the hoses on their backs and charged.

When Father Rutler hears sirens now his eyes fill with tears. There was so much goodness in that terrible place! And he saw it, saw the huge towers burning, melting, saw a thousand Americans hit the scene and lead what is now known, in New York, as the greatest and most successful rescue effort on American soil in all of American history.

The priest, Father Rutler, who was at Ground Zero was, a few days later, on a train on the East Coast. He fell into conversation with a young man on his way back to college. He told the young man what he’d seen, what the firemen had done, how none of them turned back or turned away. And the boy listened and said, “They must have been sick.” The priest was startled; he thought to himself that the boy was a victim of modern philosophy, of the deconstructionist spirit, of modernity.

“They were heroes.” “They were sick.” That’s a division, but it’s not a question, because most of us know what they were. It’s something else we’ve learned since 9/11. And I don’t think we’ll be forgetting it any time soon.

Peggy Noonan is the author of many books and a cherished columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This is a brief excerpt of her Journal column on November 23, 2001.

The long arc toward justice

By Steve Beard

Photo by Greg  Campbell. (L to R) the Rev. Keith Tonkel, Rev. Tim Thompson, Rev. Maxie Dunnam, Myrlie Evers, and Rev. Kathy Price.

Photo by Greg
Campbell. (L to R) the Rev. Keith Tonkel, Rev. Tim Thompson, Rev. Maxie Dunnam, Myrlie Evers, and Rev. Kathy Price.

History sometimes takes a long time to heal itself. The course corrections are often patchworked together over decades. “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in a famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama, on the steps of the State Capitol after completing the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Later in the speech, he answered the question with his trademark eloquence. “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

A few years before King’s speech, 28 Methodist ministers of the then all-white Mississippi Conference issued a statement called “Born of Conviction,” written in response to the violent and fatal riots stirred by the admission of James Meredith, a courageous black student, to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that all men are brothers,” read the statement published three months after the violent protests surrounding Meredith’s admission. “He permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed.” To modern day sensibilities, the statement does not read like a radical manifesto. It was birthed out of the signers’ frustration that leaders in their Conference were tragically mute when it came to responding to the racial violence. Someone needed to issue a pastoral and prophetic Christian response in the wake of bloody turmoil.

On June 9, 2013, the Mississippi Annual Conference officially recognized the men who envisioned the long arc toward justice so long ago. Fifty years after the document was signed, The Commission on Religion and Race of the Mississippi Conference honored the 28 ministers with an award established in honor of Emma Elzy, an African American Methodist laywoman who spent her life as a racial relations advocate.

Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, presented the award to the Revs. Maxie Dunnam and Keith Tonkel on behalf of all the signers. Fifteen of the ministers who signed the document are still alive.

The introduction of the 1963 statement read, “confronted with the grave crises precipitated by racial discord within our state in recent months, and the genuine dilemma facing persons of Christian conscience, we are compelled to voice publicly our convictions. Indeed, as Christian ministers, and as native Mississippians, sharing the anguish of our people, we have a particular obligation to speak.”

“In Mississippi parlance, all hell broke loose,” Dunnam told me when I asked about his experience. In his roles as world editor of The Upper Room, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, senior pastor of Christ UM Church in Memphis, president of the World Methodist Council, and co-founder of The Confessing Movement, I have known Maxie Dunnam personally and professionally for many years. Despite our lengthy friendship, I had no idea about this chapter of his life. All I knew was that we both had roots in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. I just had no idea how or why he landed in Southern California.

“Unfortunately, the Mississippi Annual Conference was crippled by internal ecclesiastical politics, making it impossible for the conference to speak with one voice on any issue,” Dunnam recalled. “To keep our statement out of that political arena, we four writers of the statement decided we would invite only younger clergy to join us in issuing the statement to the conference and the public. We wanted the issues to be kept clear. Twenty-four others joined us in signing.”

At the time of the document’s publication in the Mississippi Methodist Advocate, Dunnam was the organizing pastor of a church in Gulfport. He joined with three other ministers to write the document at his river camp in southern Mississippi.

“It was a bombshell in white Mississippi Methodism and in white Mississippi,” Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, a professor at Emory & Henry College in Virginia, told Good News. All the daily newspapers reported on it because it was the most public statement that went against the belief that all whites in Mississippi wanted segregation. “It was a crack in the wall of supposed unanimity among Mississippi whites” reported Reiff, a United Methodist minister who grew up in Mississippi who is writing a book about the statement.

“After the Ole Miss debacle [September 30/October 1, 1962], these 28 ministers believed that someone needed to say publicly that this was not true, and they were frustrated that their bishop and conference leaders – the white Mississippi Conference, which was the southern half of the state then – had said nothing in response to the Ole Miss riot/insurrection.

“Although the statement was written by four primary ministers, it was not generally known who had written it when it was published,” Reiff said. “Thus all 28 signers deserve equal credit for the statement. Some had a harder time than others in the aftermath; none had it easy.”

Over the next few years, many of the signers were compelled to leave Mississippi and serve in other areas throughout the United States because of public and private threats and condemnation. Dunnam and seven others found a new home in California. Eight of the clergymen served their ministerial tenure in Mississippi.

Steve Beard

Beard

On June 9, the Revs. Keith Tonkel and Maxie Dunnam received recognition of prophetic foresight and fortitude. “I have no notion about whether we deserve to be honored, but it is good to know that memory sometimes serves us well,” Dunnam said.

It is in moments like these that we remember the heroes of the civil rights movement and the tremendous sacrifice of all those who worked, suffered, and strived for racial justice. We remember this all in the light of Dr. King’s observation that the moral arc bends toward justice.

“Maxie Dunnam was one of the early prophets in Mississippi in a time when most clergy remained silent in the face of racial inequality,” said Memphis Bishop William T. McAlilly, a Mississippi native. “He and his colleagues who were willing to speak truth to power gave courage to many.”

To all the men and their families who were honored, we say thank you.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

The gospel according to Brennan Manning

By Steve Beard

He was the most beloved alcoholic within Christendom, a sinner who whispered grace through a megaphone, a ragtag saint who poked at your soul with eloquence until you began to catch the drift of God’s ridiculous, unreasonable, and insatiable love for men and women, boys and girls.

Brennan Manning (April 27, 1934 – April 12, 2013) was author of innumerable books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child, and the Signature of Jesus. Those volumes can be found dogeared and marked up and stained with tears on the shelves and bedstands of United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, evangelicals, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals. It was great news for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt out. In tribute to his ministry as an evangelist of grace, we remember him with some of his best known statements of faith.

• “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”

• “I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. ”

• “The Word we study has to be the Word we pray. My personal experience of the relentless tenderness of God came not from exegetes, theologians, and spiritual writers, but from sitting still in the presence of the living Word and beseeching Him to help me understand with my head and heart His written Word. Sheer scholarship alone cannot reveal to us the gospel of grace. We must never allow the authority of books, institutions, or leaders to replace the authority of ‘knowing’ Jesus Christ personally and directly. When the religious views of others interpose between us and the primary experience of Jesus as the Christ, we become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited.”

• “The Christ within who is our hope of glory is not a matter of theological debate or philosophical speculation. He is not a hobby, a part-time project, a good theme for a book, or a last resort when all human effort fails. He is our life, the most real fact about us. He is the power and wisdom of God dwelling within us.”

• “Accepting the reality of our sinfulness means accepting our authentic self. Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could. The latter befriended the impostor within; the former raged against him.”

• “To ignore, repress, or dismiss our feelings is to fail to listen to the stirrings of the Spirit within our emotional life. Jesus listened. In John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was moved with the deepest emotions (11:33)… The gospel portrait of the beloved Child of Abba is that of a man exquisitely attuned to His emotions and uninhibited in expressing them. The Son of Man did not scorn or reject feelings as fickle and unreliable. They were sensitive antennae to which He listened carefully and through which He perceived the will of His Father for congruent speech and action.”

• “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God… It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked but straight path.’ It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”

Brennan Manning, in the arms of your Abba, may you rest in peace.

Zombies are us, theorize faith writers

By Terry Mattingly

The Knoxville News Sentinel 

It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends — especially folks who don’t go to church — talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds.

“It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you’re going to run into some kind zombie comment,” said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.

“Someone will say something like, ‘When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we’re all at so-and-so’s house so we can stick together.’ It’s all a wink-and-a-nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time.”

Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti, and these movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, which led to his “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” Other directors followed suit, with hits such as “28 Days Later,” ‘’Zombieland,” ‘’The Evil Dead” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Next up, Brad Pitt in the epic “World War Z,” due June 21, which could turn into a multimovie franchise.

In bookstores, classic-literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Also, video-game fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the “Resident Evil” series, and these games have inspired countless others.

But anyone who is interested in the worldview — if not the theology — of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.

Truth is, “The Walking Dead” is not “about zombies. It’s a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living,” he stressed in a telephone interview.

“How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy? … Where is God in all of this? That’s the unspoken question.”

In his classic book “Gospel of the Living Dead,” religious-studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero’s zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante’s “Inferno” — that hell’s worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.

As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero — who was raised Catholic — added cannibalism to the zombie myth.

‘’Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies,” argues Paffenroth. Thus, the “whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state.”

The point, he added, is that “we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each (other’s) misery.”

This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.

Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?

“One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole ‘Do zombies have souls?’ thing,” said Beard. “But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in ‘The Walking Dead’ and other zombie stories. …

“If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soulless? If you have a soul, how do you hang onto it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?”

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at tmattingly@cccu.org or www.tmatt.net.