Monday, January 15, 2018

The Rev. Dr. King

One of my duties at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is to compile the daily Almanac — things that happen on a particular date, celebrity birthdays and a “thought for today,” much of which comes from the Associated Press. The AP noted, and rightly so, that civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born on this date in 1929.

I took it upon myself to make one small addition — “the Rev.”

We often tend to forget that Dr. King, before becoming a household name, was simply a local Baptist pastor who became, shall we say, a “community organizer” whose passion for justice and reconciliation sprang from his Christian commitment. Indeed, the pastor of my diverse evangelical church referred to him yesterday as “born-again.”

That might sound like a stretch, but as a pre-teen attending a Christian academy in the 1970s I got it.

I didn’t come from a classically Christian family but, after reading some child-oriented material on Dr. King, then dead about four years, that my parents had left around the house, I noticed that he was doing things in the “street” that I was learning in school and the church I was attending at the time. Because I had some behavior issues at the time I became quite a handful, and yet the people there didn’t react the way I thought, and was told, they would. Eventually, they conquered me.

I didn’t realize exactly what happened to me until I read these words from his message “Loving your enemies”: “We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

It was then that I perceived Dr. King’s long-term strategy. I didn’t say so at the time, but I immediately recognized him as a Christian leader and that ultimately he called upon the Holy Spirit to cause those changes.

And that creates a dilemma for both sides of the political aisle. Though politically he leaned left, secular liberals often downplay the spiritual side of the movement, while many conservatives still don’t appreciate the obstacles, often placed or at least supported by other “Christians,” that he had to overcome. It’s one reason why I’ve always rejected modern conservatism as congruent with the Gospel; in key ways it certainly isn’t.

One friend who was formerly an elementary teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and openly Christian, in teaching about the civil-rights movement, encouraged her students to sing hymns in class. Administrators really couldn’t do anything about that since participants in the movement did sing hymns — call her efforts subversive if you will, but the sentiment was entirely accurate.

Perhaps it’s time that we as a nation understood that the dismantling of Jim Crow laws happened not just through legal challenges but because God Himself changed hearts and minds to a point where injustices were recognized for what they were — opposition to the intention of God Himself. And Dr. King should be recognized not just for what he did but also how and why he did it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Making amends

One of the major tenets of 12-Step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous — I’ve attended meetings, but not specifically AA, off-and-on since 1983 — is that of “making amends.” Specifically, step 8 reads: “Made a list of persons we had harmed and were willing to make amends to them all”; with the subsequent step reading: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” (It should be noted that the program is an offshoot of the Wesleyan revival during the turn of the last century.)

If there’s a problem with our political and social discourse today it’s the unwillingness to do so, even among Christians. I find that sad because I would think that people who recognize their fallen condition would be willing not just to have their sins forgiven but to address the effects of their sin on other people. Indeed, I don’t believe that you can appreciate on a theological level just how bad you’ve been unless and until you recognize and own up to the way you’re hurt others. (For me, that began on a church retreat 34 years ago, and I have since attempted to mend fences with a number of people against whom I had sinned.)

The Christian Gospel was never merely about sins being forgiven so people can go to heaven; it represents a complete change of life which might, should and probably will mean a complete renunciation of underhanded dealings, gossip, resentment and other things not always “covered” among the typical sins surrounding sex, stealing and lying that comprise the heart of the culture wars. This is one reason why “preaching the Gospel,” at least in this country, isn’t enough to cause change — in many cases, hearts truly aren’t changed.

Nowhere do I see this more starkly than in politics, where since 1980 malicious gossip against primarily Democratic candidates for high office is not only not condemned but often even justified. If you wonder why our society is so divided these days, start there because if you’re focused on defeating an enemy by any means necessary I have to question your spiritual maturity. It’s also why I don’t believe that President Donald Trump’s alleged Christian conversion is genuine — not only at no time has he ever delivered any sincere apology for his actions but he’s never even mentioned just how his life has been changed as a result of meeting the living LORD and thus tried to make things right.

And I believe that resistance to “making amends” comes from a refusal to embrace humility. Saying “I was wrong” isn’t easy, you know, because it makes you vulnerable, but it has to be done for the sake of healing of everyone involved. Any married couple who won’t confess their faults to each other won’t last long, nor will a church survive without the regular confession of sin.

We in the church should be a model for the rest of the world because of our supposed commitment to reconciliation. Too bad that it hasn’t worked out that way, and the spiritual awakening we want can't or won't happen unless we can say to each other, “I messed up.”

This is of course the birth month of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., my hero of the Christian faith who was denigrated in his day and in some cases resented to this day because he unearthed the sin of racism. He was quick to say, of course, that not doing so would cause the wounds continue to fester; indeed, his very last message, never delivered, was entitled “Why America Might Go to Hell.”

I’m not going to tell you at this time exactly what’s required for reconciliation, whether money, reputation or anything else, because each circumstance is different. I will say, however, that if you’re not willing to eat humble pie because you can’t admit your failings I have to question your commitment to the Christian message.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Oprah for president?

Longtime television personality Oprah Winfrey delivered a stirring speech during last night’s Golden Globes awards, which I admit I didn’t watch. Some people are thinking and saying that she should run for president.

Frankly, I hope she doesn’t. We don’t need another celebrity in the White House.

Unlike many, I don’t have a problem with celebrities embracing politics and causes or sharing their views — this is a free country, after all, and I appreciate their willingness to become informed. But I certainly don’t want anyone actually running a country without any experience in government.

See, it’s really easy to go on the stump and say what you’ll do if you win. It’s another entirely to deal with lawmakers, lobbyists, media and representatives from other nations, among other things — and do so simultaneously. In our system the president isn’t a monarch to be worshipped; he or she is an administrator that needs to put people in different jobs, nominate judges and other things. If you understand basic civics, these should be understood immediately.

And as such, being simply well-known doesn’t make a qualification for any office. Unfortunately, we Americans don’t seem to get that, believing that a transition to government service should be seamless. As we’re seeing now, it isn’t that simple because, like it or not, nations need a “political class” because it takes more than a desire to be involved.

If Ms. Winfrey really wants to contribute, let her run for something else first. Being president is simply too much at this point.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Sure, it hurts — but I’d do it again

Lately I’ve had reason to remember the old dictum “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

As I write I’m dealing with some grief but, in those times when I can look at the situation objectively, I’m seeing as a good thing that my heart can break in the way that it has done so. It means I’m not hiding it away under lock and key and was willing to take a risk to open it up.

Basically, I was reminded that I do have love to give and am thus refusing to become cynical.

It’s well understood that much music — most notably, the blues — is created in the midst of pain, and as a musician myself I’ve experienced that a number of times. It isn’t pleasant at the time but can lead to beauty in the end.

Six years ago I did a big-band arrangement of a tune I had composed a quarter-century earlier under similar circumstances; though I thought the tune was good, though simple, it took on a whole different air once I started working on the arrangement. After I finished it and my band went through it, our then-singer called it “heartfelt” — and I knew in that instant that I had succeeded. It has become the closest thing I have to a masterpiece, though I’d written many charts before and have since.

A few years ago I learned another, this one spiritual, reason for going through heartbreak; I actually heard from God, “Now you know how I feel.” Time and time again He waits for us to come to Him but we run away, perhaps because we’re afraid to trust, and that grieves Him. But this time, rather than share my affliction with others, I went to Him first. 

Indeed, the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
That sympathy helped me recently, as on Sunday just after a service I spotted a churchmate whom I knew had recently lost her father to death and waited for her to give her an extended hug. As she sobbed into my shoulder I was thinking, This is what it’s all about.

Don’t get me wrong — I still have to go through the process and face the temptation to short-circuit it. But on the other hand, a part of me can’t wait to see just what else will come from it. As written in Psalms 30:5b, “[W]eeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Total depravity' and supply-side economics

When I first heard the theory behind “supply-side economics” in the 1980s I immediately smelled a rat. The idea that cutting taxes on the wealthy would benefit everyone else down the road because they would invest their money I suspected from the start to be complete nonsense.

Here’s what might surprise you: I got that idea from my Calvinist background — specifically, the doctrine of “total depravity,” which holds that sin has affected every area of life. That is to say, when some supposedly foolproof idea comes to the forefront with a lot of flash-and-dash I start looking for the sin.

The truth is that such tax cuts not only haven’t led to such investment but probably were never designed to do so in the first place; it was always a justification for straight-up greed because our economic culture was shifting toward short-term (read: immediate) gains.

I learned nearly 20 years ago that a healthy economy comes from money turning over several times in a community before it leaves, and in such a mentality that’s never happened in the neighborhoods that could use it the most. Folks complain about the poor being on welfare, but 1) If the jobs aren’t in those neighborhoods, what is someone to do?; and 2) They still have to buy stuff from stores that might employ people.

That’s why the new tax-reform bill — probably better referred to as “tax-deform” — being voted on in Congress will have no lasting positive effect. Numerous analysts have noted that under the proposed plan federal taxes on people making $100,000 per year or less will actually rise in 10 years. Basically, the sin I’m talking about is not only greed but outright lying about its long-term effects.

Last month a group of left-leaning religious leaders were arrested while protesting in the Hart Senate Building; they recognized that it would hurt the poor, so they read a number of Bible verses about justice for the poor, numbering around 2,000, in the rotunda. Of course, when people like Isaiah made some of the same claims they paid with their lives.

I’m thinking — and hoping — that we’ll see more of this.