Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech/Sermon

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as POTUS on March 4, 1865. The brief inaugural address he gave that day has been called “Lincoln’s greatest speech.”
That evaluation of Lincoln’s 1865 address has been made often. It is also the title of a book by Ronald C. White, Jr., who was professor of American Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary when his impressive book was published in 2002.
Remarkably, White takes more than 180 pages to examine, to explain, and to evaluate Lincoln’s 703-word speech delivered 150 years ago. (To give you some sense of how short that inaugural address was, my blog articles are generally around 600 words.)
I greatly enjoyed reading White’s book this month and highly recommend it.
Remarkably, Lincoln’s inaugural speech is also the first chapter of the book The Greatest Sermons Ever Preached (2005), compiled by Tracey D. Lawrence. That book includes sermons by John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham—and also Tony Campolo’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’” that I recently mentioned (here).
For a President’s inaugural speech to be included in a book of only 19 of the greatest sermons ever preached is quite amazing. But calling it a sermon is not something new. On the day he heard it, African-American statesman Frederick Douglass remarked, “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”
Since the Civil War was drawing to a close and the Union victory close at hand, many thought Lincoln would talk about the triumph of the North over the South, or even the triumph of good over evil. But the President sought to be conciliatory rather than divisive and to be compassionate rather than vindictive.
Lincoln talked about what the people of the country had in common, not about their differences. According to White, Lincoln “spoke out against a tribal God, on the side of the North, and spoke instead of an inclusive God—inclusive, as Lincoln would explain, in both judgment and reconciliation” (p. 113).
White writes (in 2002), “No president, before or since, has so courageously pointed to a malady that resides at the very center of the American national family” (p 150). And, “While the audience wanted to hear words of self-congratulation, Lincoln continued to explain the implications of the judgment of God” (p. 203).
In reading these statements, I couldn’t help but think how the current President resembles Lincoln in many ways. And just as in the present day there are some who have nothing good to say about President Obama, most of Lincoln’s critics responded only negatively to his inaugural address.
One of the most positive appraisals was by The Spectator, the venerable British magazine:
Mr. Lincoln has persevered through all without ever giving way to anger, or despondency, or exultation, or popular arrogance, or sectarian fanaticism, or caste prejudice, visibly growing in force of character, in self-possession, and in magnanimity.
Lincoln’s closing paragraph is especially powerful. It begins with those oft-quoted words,
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Powerful words! And words our national leaders badly need to hear and to heed today. May they do so! 
Excerpt from Manuscript of Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address

Monday, February 23, 2015

Did the President Misrepresent Christianity?

President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, as you know, and that speech unleashed considerable negative reaction—mostly from the same people that have criticized him for about everything he has said or done since 2009.
Most of the criticism centered on remarks he made about Christianity in the context of talking about the Islamic State. His words about the latter were not minced: he described ISIL as
a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism—terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
Shortly after that clear censure of the Islamic terrorist organization, the President went on to ask his hearers to
remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
It was this latter statement that elicited strong criticism from his political opponents.
The President’s talk came shortly after the barbaric burning of a Jordanian hostage by ISIL. But consider these historical burnings of Christians by Christians.
In 1415 the Moravian Christian leader Jan Hus (John Huss) went to the Council of Constance (in Germany), the 16th Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Hus was promised safe passage, but ended up being burned at the stake. Here is an image portraying his tragic martyrdom:
 In 1527, the Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler was also tortured and then burned at the stake by Catholics in Rottenburg, Germany. Other Anabaptists, beginning with Felix Manz in January 1527, were killed by the Reformed Church in in Switzerland. Here is an image depicting Sattler’s martyrdom:
One more example: in 1555, Queen Mary in England sentenced Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to be killed by burning. Here is a drawing from “Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s” (1563) showing their martyrdom: 
Some say, though, “But all that was a long time ago!” Quite true. But it was also in the 16th century that the Augsburg Confession (1530) was adopted by the Lutherans, and it remains as a primary doctrinal statement or Lutherans today.
Further, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion was a document adopted by the Church of England in 1563 (finalized in 1571). Incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, that is still the basic statement of Anglican/Episcopal doctrine.
My point is this: it is not logically consistent to dismiss some events of the 16th century as being done by ancient people who are not like us today while affirming 16th century religious statements as still being authoritative.
Moreover, the Christian atrocities mentioned above weren’t done by some radical fringe group, such as the so-called Islamic State (which is neither truly Islamic or a state) is, but by the most prominent Christian authorities of the time.
Of course, the President also referred to events of the 20th century, not just of the Middle Ages.
On the same day as the President’s Prayer Breakfast talk, noted political commentator Bill Moyers posted “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree, Brutality’s Never Far Away” on Apparently before the President’s talk, Moyers was writing about the very sort of thing the President mentioned—and has been criticized for.
If you aren’t convinced by the brutality of past Christianity depicted in the pictures above, check out Moyers’s article. The President, sadly, wasn’t misrepresenting Christianity.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“Remember You Are Dust”

Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t hear much about Ash Wednesday or Lent. In my years in the States before going to Japan, including the nine years I was a Baptist pastor, I don’t recall hearing or making any mention of them as a part of worship or Christian practice.
For several years, however, I have observed Lent to a certain extent and have attended a few Ash Wednesday services, which concluded with a cross being made on my forehead with ashes.
For some reason, until last year I had never paid much attention to the words that were spoken then. Perhaps different words were used in the previous services I had attended, but last year the minister said, Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I was moved to think about my own mortality by those simple words, maybe more than ever before. Of course, I had never been 75 years old before. Those of us who are 75 or older surely need to think about our mortality, for most of us have only a few years left on this earth.
But even for you who are much younger, the end of your time on this earth is coming, too.
Dr. Wayne Oates, my pastoral counseling professor whom I wrote about last October, was talking in class one day about visiting people who were terminally ill. He mentioned that it is common to say about such people, “Well, it is just a matter of time now.”
Dr. Oates then looked intently at us students and said something like this: “But never forget: that is true for all of us. Some have more time left than others, but it is just a matter of time for everyone.”
People do all sorts of things to keep from thinking about the fact that someday they are going to die—and certainly it is morbid to think about one’s mortality too much. But, regrettably, many people don’t want to think about it at all. 
Last week I read the following words in a Facebook posting by Carol, a woman about my same age who now lives in my hometown:

Someone added beneath those words, “Slow down. Enjoy the day. Live in the moment. It all goes so fast.” And Carol made this brief comment: “So true.” I agree—and would also add, “But don’t forget to prepare for the end.”
One of my favorite people is Dr. Tony Campolo, professor emeritus in sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. As many of you know, he is also an ordained Baptist minister, a popular speaker and a prolific author—and next Wednesday, Feb. 25, is his 80th birthday.
One year on Good Friday, Dr. Campolo heard a fellow minister preach a sermon regularly repeating the phrase, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.” Campolo later wrote a book published (in 1984) under that title.
So today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, that 40-day period of reflection and preparation for the celebration of Easter, which will be on April 5 this year. This evening I have the privilege of leading the Ash Wednesday service at the Rosedale Congregational Church in Kansas City, Kansas, where I am serving as interim pastor this month.
When making a cross with ashes on the foreheads of those who come for that purpose, I am going to add to the traditional words. I plan to say to each one “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—to wait for your glorious resurrection.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, but Easter’s coming!  

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Nie wieder Krieg!"

February 13 was a special day when I was growing up, for it was my mother’s birthday. I wrote about that last year at this time, for it was the 100th anniversary of her birth. She was born on Friday the 13th and this year the 13th (today) fell on Friday again.
Little did I know as a boy that February 13 was also the beginning of one of the great tragedies in modern history. It wasn’t a Friday, but February 13, 1945, was an incredibly “unlucky” day for the people of Dresden, Germany. The firebombing of Dresden began on that day 70 years ago.
That catastrophe has been called “the worst war crime of WWII,” even worse than the atomic devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. While that is a very questionable claim, there is no doubt that the bombing of Dresden was a terribly tragic event.
In the 1950s I learned at least something of the horrors of the bombings in Japan, long before I went to Japan to live and work—and to visit the sites of those bombings. But it was not until the early 1970s when I first became aware of the horrible devastation of Dresden.

My introduction to the bombing of Dresden came via the book “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, who was actually a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time. He survived the firebombing by being held in Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse 5).
Vonnegut’s book is a satirical novel about the experiences of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who experienced, and survived, the firebombing of Dresden. But it is clearly semi-autobiographical, for Vonnegut was there as a 22-year-old U.S. army private who had been a POW since December 1944.
I was much impressed by Vonnegut’s book, in spite of (or because of?) all its eccentricities. Later when composing a list of my “top ten” novels, “Slaughterhouse-Five” made that list.
Last fall after reading it again, I made this notation: “Very much enjoyed reading this book again; it was as engaging as I had remembered from the first time & still on my top ten.” That is largely because in its own surreal way, Vonnegut’s masterful book carries a powerful anti-war message.
But Vonnegut’s work is a work of fiction and perhaps includes, and has led to, some exaggerations, both as regards the total number of causalities and the sinister motives behind the bombing.
Recent books, such as “Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945” (2004) by British historian Frederick Taylor, give more historically accurate information.
In the concluding paragraph of the preface of his tome of more than 500 pages, Taylor writes,
Perhaps if there is a moral conclusion it can only be found in the German phrase that I heard again and again from the lips of Dresdeners, spoken with a passion born of terrible experience: Nie wieder Krieg. Never again war. With the terrible weapons of mass destruction at its disposal, humanity can no longer afford intolerance and war, and that is the ultimate lesson of the bombing of Dresden.
I think Vonnegut, who died in 2007, would have agreed with Taylor’s powerful statement.
But now with the ruthlessness and barbarity of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), which is neither truly Islamic nor a real state, there seems to be growing clamor for the U.S. to use greater military force to crush that evil terrorist organization.
But is that wise? And might that possibly lead to another Dresden, or even to another Hiroshima?
Nie wieder Krieg! That is my deep hope and fervent prayer.