Presenting, the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir:

For more on crazy stuff students at Houston’s Rice University (Harvard On the Bayou) have done over the decades, go to this great read from the great magazine Texas Monthly (online).

FISH ON A VOLVO: Another Rice University original.

FISH ON A VOLVO: Another Rice University original.

M.L.K. Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered largely for his famous “Dream” speech–and for good reason.

But his output of eloquent and pointed writing of all kinds–of letters as well as sermons and speeches–reflects not only his rare kind of courage and conviction, but also his love of God and Jesus and the prophets, his theological depth and a most sophisticated mind.

I go back every year on this holiday and marvel at “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (first published in The Atlantic as “The Negro Is Your Brother”)

Remember, it was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. They wanted him to tone down his “radical insistence” for immediate change, but he would have none of it. It’s in this letter that he famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (inspired by St. Augustine).

He was one of the most courageous American leaders who ever lived and, in my view, quite possibly the most courageous and high-minded American of the entire 20th century–always ahead of his time. (Consider that his turn against the Vietnam War outraged even his friends and fellow soldiers in the civil rights movement, who feared it would detract from their cause. He insisted on coming out against the war because of his conviction that it was simply the right thing. That stance–which turned out to be shared by most of the country over time–required courage on top of courage in the turbulent sixties.)

Here’s a book I read and re-read while in seminary in working out my own theology–a book I commend to everyone for reading with an eye toward just how great this thinker and man of God was.

With no further ado, I commend the letter to you:

    August 1963
    Letter from Birmingham Jail
    by Martin Luther King Jr.

    While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

    I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of “outsiders coming in.”

    I am in Birmingham because injustice is here …I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider …

    We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience …

    You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality …

    There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.

    Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

    We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws …

    I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here …If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands …

    Never before have I written a letter this long—or should I say a book? I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?

    If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

    Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Bishop McKee gets down to eye level with a fellow Methodist.

Bishop McKee gets down to eye level with a fellow Methodist.

Bishop Michael McKee is the Bishop of the North Texas Annual (i.e. regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church, which, in the Methodist clergy world, makes him my bishop.*

The bishop is leading an online study of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (also written by Luke the physician and the best writer in the Bible in my humble opinion) this year, and recently posted the first lesson.

In addition to commending the bishop’s study to you for you to join in, I recommend something for your consideration that the bishop advises about how to study the Bible.

This is what Bishop McKee recommends:

    For your study, I invite you to read the chapter several times. What words resonate with your soul? What themes emerge for you? If this account of the life of Jesus is written to you, a lover of God, what are you sensing God is saying to you?

    Whether you are studying this privately or with a group, I commend a set of questions that I have been using for 40 years when I read a Biblical text. These questions do not probe at a historical-critical method, but they can make the reading of the Bible deeply and faithfully meaningful. The questions are not mine, but I remember Dick Murray, a Perkins professor,** sharing them with groups.

    — What does the text say about God?

    — What does the text say about human beings?

    — What does the text say about the relationship between God and human beings?

    — What am I going to do about or what will I change about myself? This is the so-what question. I am reminded that we can possess all knowledge but if we have no love then . . .

    May God bless you in your studying.

    Bishop Michael McKee
    Bishop of The North Texas Conference
    The United Methodist Church

*For those new to the blog: I’m an ordained United Methodist deacon, currently on voluntary leave of absence from the church, but still accountable to my conference and its episcopal leader Bishop McKee.
**Perkins is Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where I attended seminary and obtained the Master of Divinity degree.

For sure, by Mother's measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten--poverty comes in a number of different forms.

For sure, by Mother’s measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten–poverty comes in a number of different forms.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the prolific author and senior pastor of America’s largest United Methodist Church (The UM Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas), recently posted on his Facebook page a most incisive theological reflection on suffering–one that begs for sharing.

So here’s what Pastor Adam wrote:

    “Many of you have asked for a copy of the quote on suffering Ray Firestone shared with me years ago. I have never been able to find the original source. I’ve quoted it in [my book] Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and I think in my little book, Why?

    Here’s the quote:

    “Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

That’s profound stuff. Especially to someone like me, whose call to ministry was largely to be a pastoral caregiver to those laid low by illness, impending death, and grief and suffering in all their manifestations.

That said, I was also called as one who, for whatever mysterious reason, always had a heart for the poor, and an abiding, theological interest in poverty and all its dynamics.

The bible makes it clear on almost every page that material poverty is not God’s desire for anybody–and in fact is an evil. But poverty “occurs in the process of life” as surely as suffering.

Suffering is in fact pretty much synonymous with being poor. Consider what happens with Adam Hamilton’s take on suffering if we substitute the word “suffering” with the word “poverty,” as in material poverty:

    Poverty is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Poverty is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Poverty is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Poverty does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human poverty to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through poverty his purposes are achieved. Poverty can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

Just the other day I posted a blurb here at the blog about the death of my denomination’s much-respected and influential retired Bishop Rueben P. Job. In that posting I quoted him as saying this in his memoir (Life Stories) about his upbringing in North Dakota:

    “My life on our family farm was good. We were incredibly poor (my italics for emphasis), but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.”

The bishop went on describe quite an idyllic life in spite of poverty. It hardly sounds from his book as if he and “everyone else” suffered in poverty.

But I’ve also written here at the blog before about my mother’s upbringing in poverty after her father abandoned her, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle back in the Depression times. My grandmother married as a teen to escape farm life–a life that was anything but idyllic in a time when so many farmers wanted to have as many children as they could for child labor on the farms.

She in her girlhood farm life learned just enough in her schooling to read and write at a barely literate level, so that when my grandfather abandoned her, she was left to suffer with three children, no literacy or skills, no “job opportunities” (which were scarce enough)–not even anything to do on a farm since she had escaped one. She’d married to get off the farm and the back-breaking labor her own father imposed on her.

So it was quite a different experience from that of Bishop Job.

And I don’t say that by any means as a rap on Bishop Job, who–to frame it in Buddhist terms–rose up like a beautiful lotus flower out of the mud of poverty that he grew up in, as so many people do. (And, in fact, as my mother and her family did.)

I suppose that everyone’s experience of poverty is as different as everybody’s experience of being wealthy or whatever lies in-between. For sure, some people can grow up in poverty and find success and achievement in life with the character that poverty built up in them. Some can look back fondly on it–“everybody else was poor back on the farm” is a truism in so many lives.

But for the most part, I think, poverty creates a hell of suffering throughout the big world that no one wants–suffering that is an evil in that it cuts down health and well-being and causes premature death.

There is just too much suffering in poverty in this world that is unnecessary–and often imposed by the wealthy and powerful–not to fight and speak out at every turn for greater justice, equality and fairness for the poor among us.

And as my mother used to say–she who never forgot the hells of hunger pangs and indignities she felt in her time as a poor girl–“That’s all there is to it.”

“For the power Thou has given me to lay hold of things unseen:

“For the strong sense I have that this is not my home:

“For my restless heart which nothing finite can satisfy:

“I give thee thanks, O God.”

— From A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie

Rubens' Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany--the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

Rubens’ Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany–the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

The year is 1960 and it’s a cold and very cold December night in my little Texas hometown.

I’m ten-years-old, turning eleven soon. Like a lot of kids in town I’m popping firecrackers and launching bottle rockets in the street in front of my yard. Christmas is fast approaching.

There’s no such thing as “light pollution” in my town. It’s 1960, remember, and you don’t have to escape to some remote place far from the maddening crowds and urban sprawl to marvel at the cosmos. The night is dark but the Milky Way and the scatterings of stars above are a marvel.

As I’ve done on many cloudless nights in these growing-up years, I look up and scan the skies and quietly stand in awe of it all. Suddenly, I’m gripped by a feeling of utter love, peace and splendor–a sensation so surreal and precious that I’ve never felt anything like it before. Nor have I ever felt and experienced anything remotely like that sensation in the many years since that night in my boyhood.

Call it a miracle, an epiphany, a revelation, a religious experience–whatever it may have been, it put the holy whammy on me.

To my way of thinking, it can only be described as a mystical experience–a sensation of total or near-total union with God. Though it’s something I’ve rarely told anyone about, if only because it defies descriptive words, I’ve hoped all of my life since to recapture that sensation just once more, knowing that you can’t recapture an act of God.

(I’ve also been hesitant to share it out of concern that people will think I must be much disturbed in the noggin–a concern common to people who experience what used to be most commonly called “a religious experience.” When I was a hospice chaplain a patient confided in me that she had awakened in the middle of the night to see Jesus standing and smiling warmly at the foot of her bed, glowing like a blue light in the darkness. She asked me if I thought she was crazy. By no means, I assured her, sharing my own mystical experience with her.)*

* * * *

I prefer to describe my childhood experience as a sensation because I didn’t “feel” it in the usual sense of a mere feeling of awe. Like everybody else, I’ve had my share of feelings of breathtaking wonder and awe one feels in, say, standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, or snorkeling in the beautiful Blue Barrier Reef (the “Blue Hole,” as it’s commonly known) off the shores of Belize, where I’m blessed now to live.

But even in the biggest, most bustling city, anyone can become so enraptured by the sight of, say, a big, blue moon rising as to feel like the tiniest and most insignificant atom in God’s magnificent Creation. A city dweller can be as filled with an intense sense of wonder and awe as a any sight-seer at the Grand Canyon or a kid under the stars in a little Texas town.

Many are the wonders that can grab us and touch our spirits at levels as deep within us as the Grand Canyon or the ocean blue.

* * * *

So am I some kind of special VIP for having experienced a close encounter of such a grace-filled kind? Is it arrogant of me even to believe that God took hold of me, at the tender age of eleven, and shed God’s grace on me in such a powerful way?

Or might I have been born somehow predisposed to high spirituality–born with a spiritual sixth sense of some kind? After all, some people seem to be born with a strong sense of spirituality and others seem not to have so much as a smudge.

The answer to the first question above is a resounding no, I’m no more special than anyone else in God’s eyes. As for the other questions, I’ve mulled on them over the years. But I always come back to the certainty that my mystical experience under the stars so many moons ago was so very real to me as to defy reason–and reason is something I value very much. I’ve never been one to believe that you have to check your brain in at the church door, as they say, to be a Christian. And yet my very real mystical experience–for lack of a better description–defied reason and marked my life and my life’s entire journey in a profound way. While I value reason and believe strongly in it, I also believe in a God who has the power and grace to shatter any and all idols, reason included.

On this day of Epiphany, just know that God is out there and in you too–and may God shed His grace on thee in ways powerful and gripping and in those powerfully quiet little “aha!” moments too.
. ————-

    * In his great series of lectures and book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James found that one mark of a mystical experience is its ineffability.

    “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. . . . No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.”


Rueben P. Job, a longtime United Methodist bishop who I’d dare say was one of the most grace-filled and spiritually productive bishops in the history of Methodist bishops, died the other day at age 86.

He faced even the dying process with that amazing grace for which he was so admired. As a prolific and gifted spiritual writer, he noted in his 2006 book Living Fully, Dying Well that he had no fear of death.

“I have no anxiety about my own death,” he wrote. “I just had a stent put in, and for a person of my age — with a third of my heart function remaining — it’s a risky venture. But I went into that operating room with the same confidence that I lie down in my bed every night. Had I awakened in another world, I don’t believe I would have been surprised or afraid.”

Did I mention that he was a man of amazing grace?

I had the great pleasure in my time as a church journalist to meet Bishop Job a few times, but I’ve been mourning his loss as if he was a close friend. That’s a testament to the power of his writings and his influence in my beloved United Methodist Church.

For sure, a lot of people who were touched by the bish are feeling the same way.

Here’s an excerpt from another of his books, Life Stories:

    My life on our [North Dakota] family farm was good. We were incredibly poor, but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.

    We usually rode a horse to school, as did the other children who attended. The barn on the school ground was filled with hay every fall and our horses were inside eating while we were in school. Of course, we had no ponies, only plow horses, so in the springtime when my father and, later, my older brother needed the horses in the field, my brother next to me in age and I walked to and from school.

    School was dismissed at four in the afternoon and I would walk the short way home, unless there was too much water from melting snow, in which case I would follow the road. But either way, I would approach our farmstead from a small hill. When I got to the top of the hill, I could see our house about three blocks away.

    I would begin running down that hill, unbuttoning my jacket, and, if it was warm, my shirt. Bursting into the kitchen, I would always find it filled with the aroma of fresh bread or cookies prepared by my mother, just waiting for my arrival.

    I loved school, the excitement of learning, and the fun of being with other children, but there was no place like home and the loving welcome for me there. So I ran the last few blocks, slipping off my ‘school clothes’ in preparation for putting on my ‘home clothes.’

    One day you will hear Reuben has died. Let there be no sorrow, but instead celebration as you remind each other, “He just slipped out of his school clothes and put on his home clothes. He is at home now” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

R.I.P., Bishop.

As Howard Thurman wrote in his eloquent book of meditations The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations, “the work of Christmas” now begins.

But I’m sure His Greatness Thurman would have agreed that “the work of Christmas” never ends, being the endless “labor of love” that it is.

One of the eloquent books of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman.

One of the eloquent books of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman.

I posted the following blurb on my Facebook page on Christmas Eve and I’m sharing it here since it garnered a considerable number of Facebook “likes” and “shares”:

    Mother Teresa said:

    “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

    By Mother’s measure, a lot of people are living in poverty who are by no means hungry or clothed in somebody’s thrown-away threads or living in cars.

    Rather than fretting over a media-manufactured “War on Christmas,” try doing this to observe Christmas in the remainder of the Christmas season:

    Just go out and be Christmas!

    That is, get out of the house and the mall and go be the SPIRIT of Christmas–which is to be the Spirit of Christ–by going to see someone who feels unwanted, unloved or uncared for.

    Call, or better yet call and then go by and see those who suffered losses of their loved ones this year (or last year for that matter, as grief has no time limit), and just let them know you are thinking of them and that you know it must be hard for them at this time of year. And then just be quietly present with them, without trying to lift them up or make them feel good if they’re not feeling so joyous right now. (Trying to “rescue” someone from their grief by trying to make them happy is seldom an effective way of helping someone in grief anyway, no matter how good the intention.)

    But to “be Christmas,” you might also take some of that leftover food you’ll cram into the fridge tonight to people who indeed are hungry and cold and feeling unwanted in a nation that can be nothing short of hostile to those who are in fact hungry, naked and homeless.

    Go into the world nearest you and just make someone feel loved, wanted and cared for. Go and feed someone; go and be with the sick and grieving; start ASAP to know a prisoner on a personal level and show him or her what “the love that came down at Christmas” looks like and acts like.

    That’s what “being” Christmas is about.

So that’s what I posted on Christmas Eve. Then today on Facebook, a friend and colleague in ministry posted the following wisdom from Howard Thurman, he who was one of the greatest of preachers and peacemakers in the last century:


The exhausting, consumer-driven, Dec. 25th Christmas that most people of all faiths and no faiths observe to some extent in wealthy countries is over (and none too soon).

Now comes the sometimes difficult challenge for devout followers of Christ to live out Christmas–to keep the faith and live the “Good News” in the ordinary days that fill the calendar. As Thurman put it, “the work of Christmas” begins. And that sacrificial work can be a difficult challenge indeed.

And yet as difficult as “the work” of Christian living can be–and anything of value requires hard work and all the blood, sweat and sacrifice that goes with it–the difficulty or challenge of Christian labor, of living out the birth as well as the life, ministry, sacrifice and resurrection of Christ day in and day out, turns out to be its own reward.

The joy of the secular-driven Christmas runs a mile wide and an inch deep. The truest joy in life is sustained by the living waters drawn daily–365 days a year–from the deep wells of salvation. (See “the Christmas Prophet” Isaiah, Isa. 12: 3.)


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