Thursday, July 14, 2011

MLB Almost Allstar Game

I watched half of the MLB allstar game this week. It was like an "almost" allstar game because so many of the real allstars did not show up. Some were injured, although, the fan questions how injured, really. Some were pitchers who pitched the weekend before and so were not available to pitch. If the allstar game really mattered maybe, the fan wonders, if the allstar pitchers should be held back so they could appear in the game this is supposed to be for the fans. Then, there are those allstars who felt like they needed the rest more than the allstar game needed them. Derek Jeter was one of those allstars. He said he was emotionally and physically drained from his pursuit of the milestone of 3000 hits which he reached the weekend before the allstar game. At this halfway point in the season, most of the ballplayers could use a three day rest. Jeter among them. It is a grind to play this game almost every day. But, it is a game. It is not life. It is not as emotionally stressful as serving in Iraq, or in one of our public schools. It is not as tiring as working construction all day. It is not as vital to our communities as fighting fires or keeping the streets safe. And the ballplayers are paid very, very well for their labors. Especially the allstars. On top of Jeter's salary which is mega millions he is autographing baseballs and shirts, and bats commemorating his 3000 hit milestone. An autographed bat will set the fan back $1100. Not blaming Jeter. Fans want the merchandise so there is a market for it. Just saying ballplayers are well compensated for their work.

If the players feel like it is too much to show up for an allstar game and they need rest more showing up for one more game, then why doesn't MLB just have a three day interlude in the season. It's a joke and an insult to the fan to watch an allstar game with "almost" allstars.

The Ten Commandments

Most of us know what the Ten Commandments are. We may not be able to list all of them. Most people could tell you what one or two of them are. But we know they are a list of God's Rules. We know they must be important. Some of us remember when they were posted in public places to remind people of their importance. We can read them in the Bible in a couple minutes. Do not steal. Do not lie. Don't commit adultery. Do not kill. If we think about them for longer than a few minutes our minds come up with questions and reservations. Is it always wrong to lie? What if a lie saves a life or a relationship? What about killing? In a war? Or in self defense? What is adultery and why is God against it? It seems pretty out of date.

Even though the actual Ten Commandments take up only a few verses in the whole Bible, their ethos is fundamental to understanding what it means to be God's People in the world today. They need interpretation because history changes and the challenges we face today as God's People are not the same ones that Israel faced. But, it's amazing how often the Ten Commandments keep turning up in the Bible. The many nuances of the Ten Commandments are explored in the Books of the Law, and in the prophets and in the New Testament, as well. Jesus spoke about them in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul references them, too. It is assumed that God's People know them. They are part of our theological foundation. We are meant to build our lives on their foundation. They are a short list on purpose so they can be memorized and passed on to our children. But, to memorize them is only the beginning - that is not all we do with them! As the Bible shows us, we continue to explore them and interpret them in the many changing situations of our lives. They are most certainly not a static list of rules; they are a living, breathing source of inspiration and guidance throughout our lives. They guide our relationship with God and with each other. The first half speaks about our relationship with God and then moves right into our relationship with others and how we treat others, and how we value life, and what kind of life God desires for us. It is a personal manifesto but also a community document. It was given at first, to describe what a community of God looks like. It is our identity as God's People.

We can read the Ten Commandments quickly but this Fall in church we will explore how each commandment is picked up over and over in the Bible and study their many nuances. We will see how they are used to describe and explain what is relevant in our lives right now and how they can be life giving in our community.

A good place to begin would be to memorize them.

The Beechers

This summer I read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time. It has been called one of the most important books in our nation's history. I would agree. President Lincoln himself gave it credit for turning the tide of popular opinion overwhelmingly against slavery. It is one of those books we all know about but few of us have read. Then, I went on to David Reynold's book, Mightier Than the Sword, which tells about the influence of Stowe's book and the pushback from Southern authors. Then, I wanted to know more about Stowe's famous and fascinating family. She was one of 13 children born to the most influential Puritan preacher of his day, Lyman Beecher. Beecher began his ministry in New England and was the leading voice of Puritan theology in the church. Later, he was called to Cincinnati (the "west" at that time) to bring a renewal of Puritan theology out there. He became president of Lane Theological Seminary which became a hotbed of abolitionism. It was there Harriet became a Stowe marrying Calvin Stowe who was a professor at the seminary. Her brother, Henry, was the closest to Harriet of all the siblings both in age and passions. He became a famous preacher and reformer. His antislavery preaching changed the minds of many northerners and inflamed the minds of just as many southerners (and some northerners too). After taking the pastorates of two small churches out "west" (in Ohio, and Indiana) he was called to a prominent pulpit in Brooklyn which at that time was a thriving, growing, 100,000 people, most of whom worked in Manhattan. From a two room house where Henry Beecher and his wife scraped by he suddenly found himself in one of the most influential pulpits in the country. Plymouth Congregational had many of the wealthiest businessmen in the country on its board. As the church prospered under Beecher's preaching so did his financial fortunes. He was a spellbinding orator at a time when public speaking was the main form of entertainment in the city. Nearly all of his sermons were published in a newspaper owned by a friend and trustee of the church. Soon, he was nationally known and famous. He was a counselor to presidents; Lincoln even came to meet him and listen to him during his presidential run. People wanted to hear what Beecher had to say on most topics. He was a strong opponent of slavery and was not afraid to say that one could not be a Christian and own slaves. Beecher found that his father's Puritanism didn't preach well and as he aged his theology changed. He was never much for study although he read widely but you get a sense from his biographer Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America) that he preached what seemed to work the best. In his later years, during the Civil War, remarkably, he seemed to waffle on his antislavery views. Not that he changed them as much as he moderated them. It was almost as if he was hiding something or hiding from something and the confusion in the pulpit masked a confusion in his own life. He had become famous and rich. He had several homes and trips to California and even Europe which were underwritten by his wealthy church members. He was home less and less and as he was in demand as a speaker all over the country. He developed several highly questionable relationships with women in his church which eventually got him into trouble. He had too many irons in the fire and he finally got burned.

To be fair to Henry Beecher he had to deal with a lot of pain and suffering in his life. His mother died when he was young, and he buried several of his young children. His strong antislavery views and the theological battles of the time must have drained his energies. He was vulnerable to the applause and praise of men and women and it seems like he believed it. He got sloppy in his theology and in his personal life. There were not many friends or family who would confront him. If a friend questioned what he was doing, he would simply move on to some other adoring supporter of whom there were many.

Beecher was a flawed man. He was a great preacher but some of his gifts became his greatest curses. God used his vision and his passion - and his talents - to make a strong case against one of the most critical social issues in our history. His was a prophetic voice - one of the most powerful at the time. His life shows us it is never easy to be a prophet and few of us can handle the dangers of wealth and power.

Friday, July 1, 2011

No Uncle Tom

I was reading an interesting essay in a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called, The Death of Adam. This particular essay was about McGuffey (of the McGuffey Readers) and the abolitionists. McGuffey's readers were a staple of American education in the mid-1800s. Some of the readers were used in high schools and colleges. Not too much is known about McGuffey -he was born in Pennsylvania and became a college professor and Presbyterian minister. Although he preached and taught for a long time he left no lectures, sermons or books behind. He settled in Cincinnati where he was president of Cincinnati College and began the public school system in Ohio. Cincinnati in the mid 1800's was a pro-slavery city and yet it was also a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, who produced 13 children with two wives (the first one died when her nine children were still young - many becoming leading social reformers), was a famous pastor in the East but was challenged to come West and lead a new seminary that was attended mostly by students who shared a radical commitment to end slavery. Lyman Beecher was a respected preacher in his own right but one of his sons, Henry, would go back East to the Bronx and become even more famous than his father. One of Beecher's daughters, Catharine, was a leading educational reformer, abolitionist and college president, and she was approached by the benefactor of the McGuffey Readers, William Smith, to be the first editor of the Readers (if she had taken the job would they have been called Beecher Readers?). She turned down the proposal and suggested McGuffey. McGuffey gathered an amazing array of writers for the Readers - most of them with solid reform and abolitionist credentials. Since the Readers became so popular all over the country they had to write with great tact and not show all their radical colors. One of the writers for McGuffey was Harriet Beecher Stowe. She, of course, is best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting her said, so this is the little woman whose book caused this great war (or something to that effect).

My point is that after reading this essay on McGuffey I realized I had never read Stowe's book. It has been named one of the most important books of American history and yet, how many people today can say they have read it. We all know names and themes from the book, like, Simon Legree the cruel slave holder and, of course, Uncle Tom himself who has become identified with those who were seen as traitors to their race because they did not stand up to the majority white culture. Since I was one of those who thought he knew what Uncle Tom's Cabin meant without ever reading it, I decided to read it. What a surprise! It was not what I thought it was. It is a very well written book, an amazing work. Stowe wrote at a time when much of the country was religious, even the non-religious were reacting to the religion of the day which was Christianity. Most ministers were pro-slavery as an institution. They provided Biblical reasons for slavery or at least did not think they could get away with attacking it. Some who tried to raise questions about it's Biblical basis did not have their jobs very long. Stowe is devastating in her satirical attacks on this majority religious point of view. She is relentless in her ridicule of those Christians who think they are practicing Christianity just because they are mouthing the same untenable beliefs of the majority church. Their practice of gospel Christianity is hopelessly hypocritical. For instance, while speaking about a Bishop who would not question slavery she noted that some of the first Bishops who came before him in the early church were, indeed, Black!). While showing in great detail the unreasonable prejudices of the White culture she was also able to let that culture get inside the skin of Black slaves to feel what they must feel as slaves: when their children were sold out from under them; when marriages were split up; when slave women were sexually exploited; when they were beaten by cruel masters; when they had no freedoms, no rights, no hope. She tells the story about people who are just like "us" for one of the lies that defined slavery was racial: "they are a race that are not like "us". In fact, she shows how the Black slaves were often more Christian than the Christian majority. Her central character is a Christ figure. Uncle Tom is a preacher and a pray-er. He counsels his kin to forgive, to love those who persecute you, to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek, to abhor violence. He is a walking, talking Sermon on the Mount. For what has been perceived as passivity in the face in the justice his name has become synonymous with others who are seen as weak and cowardly in the face of injustice. But, Uncle Tom is no Uncle Tom. There is a strength and power in his life that transformed the way people looked at slavery. His death at the cruel hands of the nasty slavemaster Legree - was a sacrificial death. He died so others might live, freely. His way of non-violence was incorporated later into the civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King (who was also criticized as an Uncle Tom by some).

Stowe's book may be the most important book in American history that no one reads today.