Archive for July, 2016


To everything there is a season and this is a time for listening.

So I was pleased to hear the reconciling words of Sen. Marco Rubio last week, who acknowledged that despite decades of racial progress on many fronts, “millions of our fellow Americans feel they are treated differently, and they are scared.”

He urged Americans to stop stoking fear and anger, saying:

    “We can feed this anger through posts on social media and careless words. We can stoke the fear by choosing sides and squaring off. We can choose to continue to divide ourselves along the lines of class, or race, or partisan politics. …

    “We Americans are a complicated, imperfect, and diverse people. We most certainly don’t see eye to eye on everything, and not everyone is pure of heart. But I truly believe that the vast majority of us all want the same things.”

I agree with Marco Rubio about 15 percent of the time at most, but I’m all in with him on this, mindful that some of my own, more stridently liberal friends will dismiss Rubio, who is running for Senate (after vowing he wouldn’t), of political expediency.

And Newt Gingrich, btw, was equally graceful and reconciling in his reaction to all the race-related carnage last week. Good for him.

I say that as an incorrigible political junkie and political observer who has long loathed Newt Gingrich’s politics and I’ll call out him or Rubio or, for that matter, a Clinton or Obama, if I see them as playing fast and loose with the truth.

But I’ve never believed that everybody in politics or punditry (and certainly not in religion!) is always right or always wrong.

Even that old broken clock gets it right twice a day.


At some point we have to let go of our hyper-cynical mistrust of each other and find a way of engaging without holding hammers over each other’s heads.

Everybody’s denigrating and demeaning every body else and nobody’s listening to each other the way full-grown adults are supposed to do.

Nobody seems to want to do the hard work of working out conflict by sitting down and listening to one another.

Which is understandable.

What’s so hard about the art of listening at any level–personal or private or in public–is the requirement that I let my guard down, remaining open to your candidness.

As a real listener I’m required to stand in vulnerability and yield some time and space to hear what you have to say and not what I want to believe you’re saying out of your wrong-headness, which might be my own wrong-headedness.

That’s a daunting requirement. It’s so much easier for me get defensive by responding to you with a crushing offense before you’re even through talking.

Gosh, if I let you speak too frankly to me, I might have to take a hard look at myself in the mirror.

And I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror and see anything that’s not admirable.

* * *

Here’s how the cycle goes:

I get defensive because I don’t want to hear any hard truths about myself and my convictions. That would make me uncomfortable and might give me some pain.

God forbid, it might make me feel weak. And I ain’t no Namby-Pamby shrinking violet. I ain’t no loser.

In conflict, I’m gonna be the winner every time out of the gate.

I going to pound you with the truth that you so obviously don’t want to face up to.

You can’t possibly be right about anything you have to say.

You are so wrong in your position that it’s my mission as a truth teller, by God, to get your mind right.

We all know that “the truth hurts.” So I’ll inflict all the hurt I can on you by hitting you with the truth that you by-God don’t want to hear.

I’ve got a lock on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So be warned, if you somehow hit on a truth about me, that hurtful truth is going to bounce right off my flak jacket and I’m coming at you again with more shouting, screaming, blaming, accusing and name calling because the truth about me is too scary and uncomfortable for me to face.

The trouble with this win-or-lose approach is that even tough-minded debate is not about winning or losing in the first place.

It’s about defusing or resolving conflicting convictions in such a way that even if the truth hurts we won’t walk away bleeding from words that are as hurtful as bullets to the psyche.

* * *

Spiritual maturity is “ego-strength”–the ability to withstand criticism whether it’s fair or not, constructive or not–without feeling threatened, without getting scared and angry with a vengeance.

Ego-strength gives me the ability to let go of the side of my ego that so wants to dominate others–that “shadow side” where my own imperfections are buried so deep that I can’t see them myself.

Ego-strength empowers me to let my guard down and listen so openly to you as to take in whatever legitimate point you might make and momentarily sit with it without feeling humiliated by you no matter how angry or candid you may get.

Jesus had the healthiest, strongest ego of anyone who ever lived. In making himself vulnerable, humbling himself all the way to the cross, he was incapable of being humiliated by anyone’s words or actions. Paul understood this so well in acknowledging that in his weakness he was plenty strong.

Nobody can rightfully accuse Jesus of being weak or anything less than very tough-minded. Like him, we can live in the tension of tough-mindedness and love, grace and humility.

* * *

If I have the ego-strength to take even a moment to think before I speak (or hit the send button on social media)–if I can hear what you actually said to me without a reactionary punch. . . maybe we can find a path to common ground.

Maybe we can start to talk about how to resolve our differences in creative ways.

The art of listening doesn’t require that I engage you in conflict from a position of weakness that makes me your doormat.

To the contrary, as counter-intuitive as it may be, if I can listen openly to you by seeing you as equal to me in your humanity, I’m engaging you from the center-point of a strong but healthy ego.

If I can remain mindful that we’re both made in the image of God and that we’re both flawed, imperfect human beings, we can work things out by imagining new ways of living together in healthy ways.

We can imagine alternative routes to arrive at that point where, as Marco Rubio said, “we all want the same things.”

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Moments before last night's shooting in Dallas.

Moments before last night’s shooting in Dallas.

I’ve always felt like I have a small Texas hometown–the place where I was born and raised–and a big hometown, Dallas.

I fell in love with the city the first time I saw it when I was 14, on the occasion of the wedding of my brother and sister-in-law. They’ve lived in Dallas County their entire adult lives. Their children and grandchildren have lived in Dallas County from birth.

Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas.

Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas.

Most of my many friends live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. I attended both undergraduate and graduate school at two of the area’s outstanding institutions, the University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University.

I served as a chaplain at two of the city’s biggest and highest quality hospitals, always working nights in Emergency Rooms and ICUs where I was in constant contact with law enforcement officers. (I remember one night when a Dallas officer was shot, not too seriously as it turned out, and I ushered the Dallas PD chaplain to the cop’s room. There were so many officers on and off-duty, in and around the hospital, that I wondered if there were any officers on patrol anywhere.)

My heart was always secretly in Dallas even when I worked for 14 years for a Houston newspaper.

I revel in some kind of intangible vibe every time I drive or fly into Dallas and see that beautiful, iconic, unique skyline.

My big hometown

My big hometown

At least one United Methodist clergy friend of mine was at that now famously peaceful protest rally but left before last night’s now famous shooting broke out. The son of another clergy friend noted on Facebook this morning that his son was 150 feet away from the first officer who was shot.

It’s overwhelming to think of the number of Dallas people in shock ranging from staggering to crippling this morning.

I would give anything to stand on Dallas soil with so many dear friends for the interfaith service at the city’s beautiful Thanksgiving Square at noon today.

I will be there in heart and spirit, praying for the healing of the city and all the victims and their families and for all of us hurting all over America and abroad.

I am praying with all of my broken heart that the redemptive power of love for one another regardless of race or creed will prevail over racism, fear and anger.

I pray that we will come together as one nation under God and for liberty and justice for all.

Come to us today, Lord, come.

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People in the long-suffering city of Baghdad in Iraq are in mourning. They suffer pain just like Americans and people everywhere do in the wake of massive carnage.

People in the long-suffering city of Baghdad in Iraq are in mourning. They suffer pain just like Americans and people everywhere do in the wake of massive carnage.

The death toll from Sunday’s suicide bombing in the Iraqi capital Baghdad has risen to 250.

That astounding number far exceeds the death tolls from bombings in America and other Western cities by ISIS.

This happened Saturday when a lorry full of explosives was detonated in a well-to-do part of the Iraqi city while families were shopping during the Ramadan holiday.

Now, imagine the outcry if 250 innocent Americans were blown up–God forbid–in the international city that is Houston, while shopping during the Christian holiday that is Christmas.

Pleas for prayers for the families and people of Houston would be trending endlessly on social media. Facebook would offer a standardized meme to overlay on profile pages.

Or let’s consider this scenario: what if two or 10 or 20 Americans had been killed in the Baghdad coming? What would our Christian response in America have been?

ISIS doesn’t care if you’re a Christian or an atheist or a Buddhist in Houston or New York or London or Orlando.

Maybe we should drop the debate on what to call ISIS terrorists and call them “ISIS psychos.”

A homicidal ISIS psycho who’s bought into the killing machine’s evil ideology doesn’t care if you’re a Muslim shopping in a well-to-do section of the long-suffering city of Baghdad during the Muslim holidays or a Christian cowgirl shopping for a hat during the Christmas holiday.

The thought for the day is, who cares when the carnage is “over there?”–“there,” where I’ve heard Christians say “Who cares? All they do is kill each other over there.”

Think and pray, Christians. We’re all in this together.

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Here’s the kind of story that makes you go “Wow!” in a feel-good way–and God knows we need something to feel good about.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary today.*

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter talk about their years together in his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta on June 22, 2016. They will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary July 7. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter talk about their years together in his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta on June 22, 2016. They will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary July 7. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

This is all the more Wow-worthy because Jimmy Carter, 91 years old and sharp as a tack, is a walking miracle. Even the former President himself thought he had maybe two weeks left when cancer was discovered in his liver and brain last year.

* * *

I voted for Jimmy Carter all those years ago because, like everybody else at the time, I was suffering a political hangover from paranoid Richard Nixon and his steely, bloodless minions Haldeman (Nixon’s Chief of Staff and Ehrlichman (the counsel and advisor).

I don’t think people who came of age after the Watergate years can fathom how dark the mood of the country was in the wake of the double-whammy of Vietnam and Watergate.

Gerald Ford was a much-respected Congressman when he took over the Presidency, and the very decent and genuine Carter was his equal in terms of decency and down-to-earthness.

But Ford’s sin was pardoning Nixon in a time when nobody in the country was in the mood for letting Nixon off the hook.

Smilin’ Jimmy Carter, complete with his eccentric mother and crazy redneck brother and the whole down-home Carter clan, was like a national breath of fresh air.

Smilin’ Jimmy also a record of accomplishment that wouldn’t quit.

He was a salt-of-the-earth family farmer at a time when family farmers (remember them?) were the most admired of Americans.

Furthermore, Jimmy Carter of the big open grin was a graduate of the Naval Academy who had done time as a Navy officer. And in running for President one always has instant credibility being a popular governor, which Carter was.

To top it all off, he was a born-again Christian and longtime Sunday School teacher–an evangelical who wore God’s grace with quiet integrity.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. As a President, he was a micro-managing, detail-oriented disaster–a desperate scrambler rather than an inspiring leader.

To hear the President of the United States inform you that you’re suffering from a “national malaise” without offering a prescription for relief and an encouraging word is like having a counselor hear your story of woe only to tell you, “Man, it sucks to be you.”

* * *

In fairness, Jimmy’s determined efforts to bring the leaders of Egypt and Israel together in a peace pact was a huge accomplishment in the context of the times. Too bad it’s the sort of accomplishment that the average American voter could care less about.

Whatever admiration Americans have for Carter and the First Lady Rosaylnn has grown exponentially through the years since that night they famously danced together down on the farm after being defeated by the peppy visionary Ronald Reagan.

They got up the morning after defeat, prayed, and worked on the week’s Sunday school lesson.

Personally, I admire Carter all the more for his courageous and very unpopular opinions on conflicts in the Middle East as much as I admire him for his devout faith and deeds and commitment to God, country and his sweetheart of 70 amazing years.

Long may they live.

*See a June story from Atlanta Constitution here.

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Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

From the powerful and haunting 100-page Holocaust book Night, by Elie Wiesel

"Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." -- Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize Aceptance Speech (AP photo by Bebeto Matthews)

“Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize Aceptance Speech (AP photo by Bebeto Matthews)

    “Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing … And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.

    “And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

    “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’
    “And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

    “‘Where He is? This is where–-hanging here from this gallows…’”

From Associated Press in New York:

    Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor whose classic Night became a landmark testament to the Nazis’ crimes and launched Wiesel’s long career as one of the world’s foremost witnesses and humanitarians, has died at age 87.

    His death was announced Saturday by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. No other details were immediately available.

    The short, sad-eyed Wiesel, his face an ongoing reminder of one man’s endurance of a shattering past, summed up his mission in 1986 when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

    For more than a half-century, he voiced his passionate beliefs to world leaders, celebrities and general audiences in the name of victims of violence and oppression. He wrote more than 40 books, but his most influential by far was Night, a classic ranked with Anne Frank’s diary as standard reading about the Holocaust.

    Night was his first book, and its journey to publication crossed both time and language. It began in the mid-1950s as an 800-page story in Yiddish, was trimmed to under 300 pages for an edition released in Argentina, cut again to under 200 pages for the French market and finally published in the United States, in 1960, at just over 100 pages.

    “Night is the most devastating account of the Holocaust that I have ever read,” wrote Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and author of A Thousand Darknesses,” a study of Holocaust literature that was published in 2010.

    “There are no epiphanies in Night. There is no extraneous detail, no analysis, no speculation. There is only a story: Eliezer’s account of what happened, spoken in his voice.”

    Wiesel began working on Night just a decade after the end of World War II, when memories were too raw for many survivors to even try telling their stories. Frank’s diary had been an accidental success, a book discovered after her death, and its entries end before Frank and her family was captured and deported. Wiesel’s book was among the first popular accounts written by a witness to the very worst, and it documented what Frank could hardly have imagined.

    Night was so bleak that publishers doubted it would appeal to readers. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wiesel recalled that the book attracted little notice at first. “The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies. And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many million copies in print.”

At Buchenwald, April 16, 1945: Elie Wiesel, second row, seventh from the left

At Buchenwald, April 16, 1945: Elie Wiesel, second row, seventh from the left

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