Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Butterfly Surprise

"Do caterpillars know they're going to be butterflies, or does God surprise them?" (Family Circus, Bil Keane, Feb. 23, 2007)

Last fall I watched the caterpillars crawling for safety.  It was a slow, long crawl to a destination I did not know. I don’t know if they did either.

This summer I saw the transformed butterflies in my backyard enjoying the plants. It appears their long crawl was successful.

I wonder what it was like that first day when they awoke to find themselves flying instead of crawling?

Was this a long-winter’s night dream come true or a shocking revelation?

So much of life is lived like a caterpillar crawling for food, for shelter, for security, for safety. 

But then, one day, or maybe several “one days”, we wake up and discover we have wings and we are doing things we only dreamed.

Whether we knew such a day was coming or not, it always has an element of complete surprise.  I can fly? I can fly!

May God grant you a butterfly surprise, my friends, sooner than you imagined, and not later than you need.  And may you remember to thank God for the wings.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Praying For a Better Day

Tuesday was not a good day. In fact, it was a bad day; not the worst, but still, all things considered, beyond disappointing and approaching depressing. The details of why this was so don’t really matter to my point. You have had, and may be having one of those days right now, and you certainly will in the future. Generally, the badness of Tuesday involved people I love, the denomination I belong to, and the nation in which I live.

Beyond just wanting such a day to be over, the other key feature of such a day is wondering where in the world God is hiding and what in the world God is up to in my life, the life of those I love and in the battle against evil in this world.  The questions are the oldest ones facing humanity once we got past the point of figuring out food and fire, and maybe the wheel and how to sharpen stones. If you read the forever relevant book of Job you will see all of these questions and more, and you will see the suggestion that it might be better to just deny, or at least abandon one’s faith in God when confronted with the overwhelming sense of defeat.  So, I went to bed feeling despondent, without hope.

Wednesday morning I awoke and I had to decide whether I could engage God in my morning prayers.  It was not as hard as I thought it would be. God allowed me to vent a bit, and then a strange sense of calm, the budding of hope, began to take over my mind. God was still speaking to me. In the shower (not a sight you want to visualize, but important to the story) I started to think of something to sing, which is a sure elixir of hope.  My mind settled on an old theatre audition piece:

When you're down and out
Lift up your head and shout
There's gonna be a great day
Angels in the sky
Promise that by and by
There's gonna be a great day…
(Barbra Streisand, “(It’s Gonna Be) A Great Day”)

Which reminded me of this prophetic word:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
(Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Wednesday was better than Tuesday. Some days that is sufficient.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Making of a Hero

You know his name.  That’s why they can just put his picture on the cover. No name needs to accompany the photo because you know his name.  And he made it so.

Before his name was Muhammad Ali he was Cassius Clay.  That’s when I was introduced to him, as an impressionable boy looking for heroes.  Mr. Clay, as he was known in 1964, wrote a piece for a sports magazine before his big fight against Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. I became a fan of championship boxing during these years, and even as I write this I marvel at this because it seems so out of character for the rest of my self-image.  I attribute it to the name change, Clay became Ali, and all that followed the decision to change his name, to re-identify himself.

Mr. Ali went on to beat many opponents, and only some of them were in the ring. I think that is why I was attracted to him. He proclaimed himself to be “The Greatest” and he lived into that proclamation. I wonder if he was the greatest boxing champion of all time because of his physical skill and mental determination, or did he create a persona that he forced himself to live into?  I think it was the former, that he really was that good, and all he needed was the world to know what he knew. But I think that when people like Mr. Ali set the bar for themselves so impossibly high, it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He tells the world “I am the greatest”, and now he has to prove it.

He admitted that the behavior which made him famous was what I call “performance art.”  He was a self-promotion machine who the media fed on in a frenzy, and the sports-obsessed public loved to hate him. Until they loved to love him.  He wrote in 1964: “Where do you think I would be if I didn’t know how to shout and holler…. I would be poor…and I would probably be down…in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yes, suh’ and ‘no suh’ and knowing my place. Instead of that, I’m saying that…I’m the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public is saying to me, ‘Put up or shut up.’” And he did. (SI, 6/13/16. C. Clay)

Every boy and every girl needs a hero.  Someone whose picture needs no name.  The problem is that one day all of the heroes die.  But One.  You know his name.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Cost of A Handshake

You know the saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans”, right?  Well, Switzerland has given new meaning to that old maxim.  Switzerland’s northern canton of Basel-Landschaft follows the national tradition which one reporter describes as follows: “(s)haking a teacher’s hand before and after class is part of Switzerland’s social fabric, and is considered a sign of politeness and respect.”  The tradition became a problem when two Syrian immigrant brothers refused to shake the hands of their female teachers. At first the authorities fashioned a compromise in which the brothers would not shake the hands of the male or female teachers.  This caused a national uproar, which led to the eventual adoption of a law requiring the parents of students who refuse to shake the hands of their teachers to pay a fine of up to $5,050 (5000 francs).

The issue arises from a clash of social custom and religious practice. The Syrian brothers, ages 14 and 16, are devout Muslims and interpret Islam’s ban on having physical contact with the opposite sex (except for immediate family) to mean that they cannot shake the hands of their female teachers.  The social custom advocates say that this breach of tradition will harm the students incorporation into society and run afoul of the goal of creating equality among men and women. The problem of integrating immigrants is not limited to Switzerland.  Germany proposes to require all immigrants who desire citizenship to learn German and follow all local laws and customs. One community in Denmark voted to require public day care centers and kindergartens to include pork in the meat on their lunch menus. (Source: D. Bilefsky, NY Times, 5/26/16)

Should religion bow to social custom or social custom bow to religion?  Paul writes: “Accept the one who is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters”; “…let us stop passing judgment on one another”; “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”; “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.”; “Accept one another…just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 14-15)  The church should “do as the Romans” when Christians are the immigrants, and it should welcome immigrants into their communities without requiring them to adopt traditions which will cause distress and division.  The way of Christ is one of humble service to all people in all places.  Except in matters which are not disputable, e.g. worshiping God alone, Christians should forego their “rights” and “customs” as an act of sacrificial love. Such is the way of Christ. Let’s shake on it. Or not.