Thursday, December 14, 2017


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“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (I Corinthians 1:27)

While I was in Boston last month, I went to a Boston Bruins game at the Boston Garden. It was fun, except for a trip to the concession stand to get Nancy and me two cups of gelato. By the time I started back to my seat, I missed about 8 minutes of the second period, including a goal. That would have been bad enough, but on my way back up the stairs with the treat, a young man, trying to be kind, offered me some assistance. “Can I help you?” he asked. The only thing missing was “old timer.” It was a kind gesture, but it found it’s way under my skin. I thought to myself, “Do I look that old and feeble?” I should have said, “Thanks, but I’m okay,” but I didn’t. My retort was sharp, to the point. “Of course I don’t need any help...I’m fine!”

I’ve wondered since what that young man might have said to his wife or significant other after the game. “Man, an old timer practically bit my head off when I offered to help him. See if I ever offer kindness to the elderly again.”

Christmas is almost here. For the past three or four years, I’ve spent good parts of this time of year reading the Christmas narrative from the Book of Luke, with most of my time spent in the second chapter. I’ve always loved reading from Luke. He was a writer with immense skills. I think if he were around today, he might be winning Pulitzers. He was that good.

Most scholars believe Luke was a physician, which may be why in some Christian circles he’s known as the patron saint of physicians and surgeons, in addition to being the patron saint of bachelors and butchers.

About halfway through the second chapter, we’re introduced to a man named Simeon. There’s nothing earlier in the narrative that says anything about him, nor does Biblical history have much to offer. He comes upon the scene at a time when Israel has been conquered over and over again. The Babylonians have gone, as have the Assyrians. The Seleucids/Greeks have come and gone. The Romans are now in charge. Religiously, Israel is a shell of what it had once been. There are religious groups like the Pharisees, the up tight, legalistic band, and the Sadducees, who don’t believe in an afterlife.

Religious hope, if there is any, seems hidden from the view of most. This is where we see Simeon. Luke describes him as a man who, mysteriously, has come to believe that he won’t die until he sees Israel’s messiah face to face. His friends, if he had any, must have thought he was quite amusing. When they talked about him in polite company, the conversations must have been sprinkled with skepticism and rhetorical jabs. “That’s just Simeon being Simeon. Don’t pay him any mind, he’s really harmless.” “Simeon? He’s just a half a bubble off plumb. Just nod your head and pretend  you believe him.”

If there was any chatter in the background about him, Simeon didn’t seem to mind. He persisted. Every time I read the account, I’m amazed. He must have been a baby inspector, questioning God about every child who passed through his hands. “Is this him, Lord?” “No, you say.” “I’m still holding you to your promise. I believe you.”

How long did the pattern repeat itself? I don’t know, but I do know something special happened when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to him in accordance with tradition. Simeon cradled Jesus in his arms and made a startling declaration: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations.”

Simeon knew what the so called wise and strong of his time couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see.

As the years pass, I sometimes wonder how old Simeon was. Was he 75, the mile marker I just passed? Was he 35? We’re not told, and I suppose that’s the point. The story of Jesus is a story for people at any age, young or old.

That means a lot to me. Jesus promised a second advent, which tells me I can go on looking ahead to an even more profound “consolation.” It doesn’t have anything to do with my age. It has everything to do with the amazing way God often does his work outside any culture’s approved streams of wisdom and power.

Simeon saw this and it would be good for us to consider it also.

Friday, December 01, 2017


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I had a homecoming of sorts to celebrate my 75th birthday. It came in the form of a surprise trip to Boston.

Nancy had told me we were going to Chicago and I was quite content with that.  But, when the skycap told me we were actually going to Boston, my jaw dropped. Then, when I saw my kids were waiting for Nancy and me at the departure gate, my jaw hit the floor.

I had a wonderful time. On our first night there I got to see a Boston Bruins hockey game, complete with lots of goals, a fight (which Nancy loved), a rare penalty shot, an even rarer save, and an empty net goal to cap the evening off. For the rest of the week we spent most of our time walking along Freedom Trail, stopping at historic sites like Faneuil Hall, the Bunker Hill monument, Quincy Market, Paul Revere’s house, Old Ironsides, and the Old North Church. On the 8th, we celebrated my birthday, along with Nancy, my kids, and my brother and his family, at a wonderful Italian restaurant in Boston’s “North End” neighborhood.

On the day before we came back to Kansas City, Nancy, my son Jarrod, his girlfriend Julie, and I took the subway over to Harvard Square, then walked over to Christ Church, the church I attended when I was young. I was amazed at how familiar everything looked - the Revolutionary War bullet hole at the entrance to the sanctuary, the short, circular staircase going up to the 18th century pulpit, and the kneeling benches in front of the altar.

My brother and I were acolytes. I had the responsibility of lighting the altar candles before the service and snuffing them out when the service was over. My brother led the procession, carrying the cross at the beginning and end of the service.

As I walked around the sanctuary, I got caught up in old memories and the mystery of the religion I was trying to understand. As I knelt at the altar, I was almost always aware that there was a “presence” near me, but I never could quite tune in to the frequency of that presence. Part of it stemmed from the fact that, after the priest recited a couple of collects (collective prayers), I would find myself swaying from side to side, feeling sick to my stomach. I’m not sure whether the feeling came from an allergy to the flowers at the altar or the sins of my youth convicting me, but about the time we got to the collect of confession, with the priest reciting, “We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us,” I’d be ready to go. One of the choir members, a young African-American college student, would take me to the restroom where I’d heave my guts up. He’d then wash my face and we’d get back to the sanctuary in time for the end of the service.

It happened so often I began to believe that God had it in for me. I don’t think I ever got to hear the last part of the collect of confession - “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent.” If I had, I might still be an Episcopalian today.

The impressions of youth are often quite powerful. My impressions of God as a cosmic killjoy stayed with me for almost fifteen years, until a series of personal crises led me back “home.”

I thought about my young experiences this morning as I was reading Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he outlined the un-Christian manner far too many Christian leaders are approaching the intersection of religion, politics, and ethics. Speaking primarily about evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Flip Benham, or politicians like Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler, Douthat accuses them, rightly so, of being hypocritical in their strenuous defense of Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Douthat's words were pointed and powerful - “younger evangelicals (are being) betrayed by older pastors who insisted on the importance of moral character and then abandoned these preachments for the sake of partisanship — revealing their own commitments as essentially idolatrous.”

Douthat is right. Do these men really believe that the young in their flocks or political action committees can’t see the hypocrisy and idolatry? Well, they can and they will abandon this Christian tribalism and self-serving politics and replace it with religion and politics that are new and vibrant.

The change can’t come soon enough. We’re desperate for it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


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The news is a bit dated now, but it’s still important. Paul Manafort, one of Donald Trump's former campaign managers, has been indicted by a federal jury for money laundering and tax evasion. What's next? There's an old proverb that says a very good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich if he had a mind to. Robert Mueller is very good at what he does, so, we'll see.
Lest you think I’m being flippant, let me assure you that I understand the seriousness of the charges Mr. Manafort faces. In fact, If he had contacted me several years ago, I could have warned him about the dangers of money laundering.   
I’m married to an eagle-eyed accounting whiz. She’s meticulous and she’s as honest as the day is 24 hours long. There are days when I may be working on something here on the second floor while she’s on the third floor reconciling our books in Quicken. Just about the time a bolt of inspiration is about to strike me, I hear the dreaded words. “Okay, Slick, what did you buy at Wal-Mart last week? It cost 97 cents.” My response is almost always “I dunno.” I think you can guess what’s next. I go upstairs and read the receipt. “FLTLS HEAVY 0017500207222...0.097” I haven’t got a clue. I then go to Wal-Mart’s customer service and discover that it’s spray starch. I’m tempted to ask why they didn’t they didn’t label the receipt “spray starch,” but realize that would be pointless. When all's said and done, my accountant gets the information she needs and I try to find that lightning bolt that was about the strike me before I was interrupted.
What does this have to do with money laundering? A lot.

Most of us have occasionally left a stray dollar in the wash. In our house, that money becomes Nancy’s property even if I’m the one who carelessly leaves it in my jeans prior to depositing them in the washer. It’s usually not a problem, but sometimes there’s more than a buck at stake.

A while ago, Nancy inadvertently left four twenty dollar bills in a pair of her jeans. They went through the fill, wash, rinse, and spin cycles, along with scads of loose change I’d been leaving in my jeans for who knows how long. When she retrieved the jeans, the twenties had been thoroughly shredded. We worked feverishly to put the money back together, piece by piece, thanks to Nancy’s eagle eye, I was able to take the pieced together money to the bank and retrieve sixty of the eighty dollars that had been laundered.

But, there’s more to the story. All the loose change I’d been laundering broke the washer. I can’t remember the exact amount of money Jim, Guion’s repairman, dug out of the washer in the process, but it was enough to buy us a couple of burgers at J’s Carry Out. I don’t know how much the repairs cost, but suffice it to say good professional help these days isn’t cheap.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons when the smoke cleared. First, a good accountant is a godsend. Second, money laundering can get quite expensive. If only Paul Manafort had spoken to me before he launched into what might become his very expensive adventure.

What a witch’s brew we have. Our political air is full of shady deals with foreign powers, money laundering, collusion, conspiracy, tax evasion, under the table sales, and dossiers. I suppose I should be discouraged, but I think I should try to look at the bright side. This whole mess is about the only  thing about our politics that’s bipartisan right now.  Michael Flynn is nowhere to be found. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of Trump the younger for some time. The Podesta boys, who were locked arm and arm with Mr. Manafort, are scurrying for the hills, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Hillary’s just written her best imitation of a Greek tragedy,  buying dossiers, selling  “smidgens” of uranium to the Russians on the sly, while the Russians are probably selling it to the North Koreans and Iranians. Bill made a half a million bucks for a speech he made in Moscow, thanks to the generosity of Vladimir Putin’s bankers.

It’s enough to make my head spin.

I’m not sure this is going to end well. I think it might look a bit the old slaughter operations at Tyson. Folks who worked there used to tell me that cows came in one end and everything after that was a bloody mess.

How can those of us on the sidelines escape what’s coming? About the only advice I can offer comes from  Hamlet’s words to Ophelia - “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Thursday, November 02, 2017


"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."  

  • From Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy to George Washington (1799)

The above statement would almost surely have been accepted by most Americans as true until a few days ago. Then, on October 26th, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, banished our first President from his place of honor. In a letter to their congregation, the church’s vestry said they were going to remove two plaques that had been erected in 1870, one honoring Washington and another honoring Robert E. Lee. They explained their reason for doing so this way:

“Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some you have entertained angels unawares.” Christ Church lives into this call, feeding the hungry with our Lazarus ministry, welcoming the stranger in our refugee ministry, and inviting all to worship with us. The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

Washington’s history with Christ Church goes  back to 1773, when he purchased pew number five. The Washington Papers project credits him with being a vestryman and a lifelong contributor to the church (source Rod Dreher’s “American Conservative,” October 28th).

What had Washington done to merit such rejection? While it’s true that he was a slave owner, it’s also true that he emancipated a large number of them in the 1780’s. He would have emancipated all of them if he hadn’t been legally prevented from doing so by the language of a will.

Was it from the way he put down the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790’s, when he led a 10,000 man state militia into Pennsylvania that crushed the rebellious farmers who had refused to pay the federal excise that had been levied on liquor?

Some of our Presidents have done far worse. Woodrow Wilson used the Espionage Act of 1917 to suppress and imprison socialist Eugene Debs. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and savior of the American union, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental American legal right. Franklin Roosevelt, who shepherded the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, put thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Richard Nixon gave us Watergate.

Does the vestry of Christ Church really expect us to believe the reason they’re relegating George Washington to the catacombs or wherever else they’re going to plant the plaque because a symbol honoring him is making some people “feel unsafe or unwelcome?” Who are these people? How many are there? Rod Dreher’s words here are exquisitely insightful - “Find five people who did this. I dare you.”

I spent a few of my formative years as an acolyte at Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As it is with its sister church in Alexandria, Virginia, the church I attended has a long,  storied history. It was founded in the early 1760’s. I can still see in my mind’s eye a plaque in the narthex wall commemorating what the vestry in those times claimed was the “first shot fired in the American Revolution.” Legend has it that some brave patriot taunted the British as they were on their way to Lexington and Concord and a stray shot aimed at him wound up in the narthex wall.

There is another plaque in honor of Abraham Lincoln, who visited the church some time during the Civil War. There was also one other plaque. It was there to honor George Washington!

So, what’s next? Should the Christ Church I attended remove the plaque honoring our first President? Should it be removed for the sake of ecclesiastical symmetry? Should Lincoln’s plaque stay until some offended soul complains about the way he suspended habeas corpus? Or, should it go right now?  And, what of the plaque below the bullet hole in the narthex wall? Shouldn’t it stay? After all, a bit of historical fantasy is good for tourism. Right?

Is it any wonder that the number of baptized Episcopalians in America has declined by 25% since 1980?  (source: Covenant - the Living Church, July 2017)

I’m am really getting tired of the offense and willful blindness of our history that some self-absorbed leaders are taking at every turn. I realize that our history hasn’t always been pretty. We’ve done some good. We’ve  done some bad. It’s all part of who we are. If those taking umbrage don’t like it, they need to stay at home, lock their doors, turn off the TV, radio, computers, and steer clear of social media. That way, they won’t have to deal with us and we won’t have to deal with them.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


There’s a lot of media buzz about the heroic defense of our First Amendment professional football players have mounted in response to our President’s intemperate remarks about what they’re doing.

Many in the media seems to want us to embrace them as heroes, but I can’t bring myself to that place. The players were well within their rights to protest, but calling their actions heroic is a bridge too far.

I can think of others who stood for what they believed who were truly heroic, not only because they stood up for what they believed, but also because they did so willingly, at considerable risk to themselves.

On October 22nd, 1965, not long after I’d arrived in Vietnam, a young Chicagoan named Milton Olive, who was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was killed in action. He and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle on a search and destroy mission. The Viet Cong started lobbing grenades at them. They were in trouble. Image result for milton olive

The medal of honor citation speaks eloquently of the type of man Milton Olive was: “Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body.”

Milton Olive risked everything for his fellow soldiers. He didn’t have to. He had surely felt the sting of prejudice during his life. He was African-American. Further, one of the men he saved, Robert Toporek, was southerner. He and Olive had fought one another before they arrived in Vietnam. Somehow, that fight opened the door for brotherhood. Toporek, who survived the firefight, described how it happened - “After that, we were brothers. We were fighting the same Viet Cong. We didn’t care what color your skin was, what race you were.”

Robert Toporek, the white southerner, lived. Milton Olive, the African-American from Chicago, died to save him. That’s heroism born out of love.

Sophie Scholl was born in Germany in 1921, to what has been described as “free-thinking Christian parents.” She grew up reading Socrates, Augustine, and Pascal. She learned from the Bible that “words must be made real in actions.” (James 1:22) Her father taught her that “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” By the time she was 21, she had seen the evil of the Third Reich and believed that time for both words and action had come. She helped form an organization called “the White Rose” in 1942. For about a year they secretly printed anti-Nazi literature and distributed it. The sentiments were printed in bold fonts with simple messages - “LONG LIVE FREEDOM’”or “DOWN WITH HITLER.”  It wasn’t a glamorous protest, with media breathlessly hanging on every word they published.

In 1943, she and her “co-conspirators” were caught and subjected to a show trial. The Nazi judge’s verdict was a foregone conclusion. Sophie was to be executed on the guillotine. Her last recorded words to her cellmate spoke volumes - “Such a glorious, sunny day and I must go...What will my death matter if, because of our actions, thousands of people will be awakened and stirred to action.”

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Sophie Scholl was 22 when she died. She could have remained silent in the face of the evil around her, but remaining steadfast in principle meant more to her than life itself. That’s heroism of the highest order.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Catholic order of nuns that was founded in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan. Her mission statement for the order was simple - “My little ones, never forget that the poor are Our Lord; in caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus – what a great grace!”

The American branch of the order provides food, shelter, and nurture to the old, infirm, and poor. They ask nothing for themselves. They own their dignity and faith, nothing more. They take vows of poverty in order to do their good work.

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Yet, the Little Sisters have run afoul of our government. They’ve refused to obey what they believe to be an immoral Obamacare mandate to provide abortifacients to those they employ. They’ve been threatened with fines so steep they would have to shut down their operations.

Their case has gone to the Supreme Court. It’s still in limbo. The Little Sisters are standing firm. They’re risking everything for what they believe. That, I submit to you, is heroism.

I have no axes to grind with the N.F.L. I just don’t consider what they’re doing heroic. When it comes to heroism, there are plenty of candidates who are more worthy of that honor.