Wide right

Are you ready for some football?  This afternoon eighty thousand fans will pack NRG Stadium specially expanded to accommodate the Super Bowl LI crowd.  Beyond that, an estimated two million visitors have come to Houston this past week, increasing by half the population of our fair city (as you may have noticed if you attempted to drive anywhere).[i]  In scarcely a week’s time, we’ll see an estimated $500 million infusion into our economy.[ii]  Whether or not you like football, you’re bound to like that!

Well, I do like football.  A whole lot.  And while the occupational hazard of working on Sunday has prevented me from paying much attention to professional football for many years, I have some great NFL memories from earlier in my life.  Growing up, I was both a Cowboys and an Oilers fan.  I realize that’s anathema to native Texans, but in Arkansas we were blissfully unaware of the Houston-Dallas family dysfunction, and in our ignorance we could love both Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett.

The best Super Bowl I ever watched was during my senior year of high school: Super Bowl XXV, pitting the Buffalo Bills against the New York Giants.  The Bills were the NFL’s most prolific offense that year, scoring more points than any other team.  The Giants, by contrast, had the NFL’s stingiest defense—led by the fearsome Lawrence Taylor, after all—and gave up the fewest points in the league.  The two teams had met in a cross-conference game earlier in the season, with the Bills squeaking out a 17-13 victory.  Super Bowl XXV had all the promise of a game for the ages.

super-bowl-xxv

It did not disappoint.  At the half, Buffalo led 12-10.  Both star running backs, Ottis Anderson and Thurman Thomas, ran for over 100 yards.  Jim Kelly’s throwing arm was absurdly accurate.  Right until the end, the only thing to mar an otherwise sublime football game was the halftime show, performed by the odious boy band “New Kids on the Block.”  (You can’t have everything.)

Right until the end.  With two minutes, sixteen seconds remaining, and down 20-19, Buffalo received the ball at their own ten yard line and quickly drove the ball down the field into field goal range.  With eight seconds left, Bills placekicker Scott Norwood walked onto the field to seal a two-point victory.  The snap was good; Norwood’s foot connected solidly with the ball…and the football sailed wide right of the upright.  Norwood missed.  The Giants won, and Scott Norwood became the only kicker in Super Bowl history to lose the championship off his toe.

Overnight, Scott Norwood became infamous.  He was the talk of sports radio and television.  Reporter Scott Pitoniak reminds us, “The following season [Norwood] was bombarded with the same inquiries. Over and over and over again. Each kick prompted references to The Miss. The jokes became callous and pervasive. Talk show callers referred to him as Scott NorWIDE.”  Norwood himself said, “I’d be at a restaurant and I’d hear people say things like, ‘If Scott Norwood walked in here, I’d punch him in the face.’”[iii]

But the attention wasn’t merely local.  In 1994, Jim Carrey’s movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective parodied Norwood.  In 1998, the film Buffalo ’66 went further with a plot line in which a disgruntled fan tries to murder a Bills kicker for missing a Super Bowl-winning field goal.

scott-norwood

Wide right

Scott Norwood played one more season for the Bills, until he was cut from the roster and intentionally receded from public view.   For years after his career ended, he avoided Buffalo and the Bills organization.  In a 1997 interview, he spoke poignantly about the awkwardness and disappointment of being distanced from a team to which he’d given his talent and his heart.[iv]  And it is true: Scott Norwood became defined by his lowest moment, by his worst self.

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In today’s Gospel, Jesus has just finished reciting the Beatitudes.  He has, in one breath, shared with those who would follow him where bliss is to be found: not in material things, or in the approval of the world, or, it might be said, in the revelry of a football game.  Rather, bliss is found in a life that allows the desires of God to be its compass and its motivation.

In the very next breath, Jesus says, using a rare Greek subject form that is so pointed as to be pushy[v], ‘You—not someone else, not the person sitting next to you, not my theoretical follower, and not at some point in the future—but you, right here, right now are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You are the one to live these Beatitudes, or else no one will.  If you are not salt, then the world will lose its saltiness.  Its compassion will become weak and bland.  If you are not light, then dusk and twilight will become the way of things.  It is up to you.”

And, of course, the “you” is us.  The Gospel travels effortlessly across space and time, so that Jesus speaks to a room of Houston Episcopalians on Super Bowl Sunday just as pointedly as he speaks to a hillside of Palestinian Jews two thousand years ago.

Jesus is equally clear about where the danger lies.  In his telling, no one can leach the salt from us.  No one can snuff our light.  No one, that is, except us.  And the way we hide our light under a bushel, the way we silence our voices from speaking words of grace, is by defining ourselves by our lowest moments, by our worst self.

lamp-under-a-bushel

We are all susceptible.  Whether our worst self is publicly known, due to an indiscretion, a mistake, a failure, or a opinion loudly voiced and then revealed to be foolish; or whether our worst self consists of passions, grudges, doubts, and prejudices hidden within and known only to ourselves, it is the commonest thing in creation to define ourselves by that low, and then to ask ourselves, “Who am I to speak?  Who am I to take a risk and act in love?  I am the failure.  I am the mistake.  I am the missed opportunity.  I am the let down in the clutch moment, wide right in life.  I have no seasoning to offer, no light to shine.”

In his brilliant little book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a parade of ghosts who travel from hell to the grassy plain that is the forecourt to heaven.  Every ghost is invited into heaven, but few accept.  In every case, the decision turns on how the ghosts define themselves.  Again and again, they describe themselves and the world around them in terms of their lowest moments, their most negative self-understanding.  Again and again, they are surprised and confused when the angels counter.  God, say the celestials, defines you by your very best self.  God sees you as your very best self.  You, right here, right now, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

For a few ghosts, admittedly, that best self was little more than a singular moment in a virtual lifetime of error, a solitary act of grace or word of kindness amidst years marked by grudges and mistakes.  But that is gracious plenty with which the God of love can work!  The smallest pinch of salt can season the whole. A single flicker of flame can light the room.  With only that, God can redeem each one of us.  We can begin to see ourselves as God has always seen us, through our best moments and not our worst.  And through that vision, life can go from hell to heaven, if we will allow it.

Scott Norwood was a Pro Bowl kicker.  For years, he held the record as the all-time leading scorer for the Buffalo Bills franchise.  The season after Super Bowl XXV, he never missed a kick in the post season and made the clinching field goal against the Denver Broncos to win the AFC championship game.  More importantly, after leaving the NFL, Norwood became a substitute teacher, tutored kids who hoped to be kickers, spoke to church youth groups, and started a family with his wife.[vi]   Others attempted to define Scott by his lowest moment, but he would not.  He is not Wide Right.  He is salt, and he is light.

God sees us as our very best moment, and God invites us to remove the bushel and let our light shine. God asks us to season the world with love and grace, and he claims us as just the people to do so.  The world surely needs our seasoning.  It needs our light.  Blessed are those…  May we shine.

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[i] http://www.forbes.com/sites/roberttuchman/2017/01/18/is-houston-the-nfls-best-super-bowl-host-city/#463a383594b1

[ii] http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/morning_call/2016/02/heres-how-much-the-super-bowl-could-bring-houston.html

[iii] http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19971214&slug=2577936

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Brunner, Federick Dale.  The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 187.

[vi] http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19971214&slug=2577936

Fish for people

It was one of those great spring days in the South, when the sky is clear and the breeze is light, but before the sun has become so scorching hot as to make outdoor activity nearly unbearable.  I was seventeen and a junior in high school.  My friends and I on the Ridgrecrest High School track team lounged in the middle of the football field at Harmon Playfield, picking grass, occasionally wrestling, and doing our best to outdo each other with bawdy jokes. We were there, and not in school, because that day was the elementary school’s Track & Field Day.  Very soon kids from kindergarten to fifth grade poured into the stadium to run races, throw Frisbees, jump around in burlap potato sacks, and toss softballs.  The high school track team ran the events and timed the races.  It was essentially a day out of school for us, a day free from math, chemistry, and English literature, and it felt like heaven.

track-and-field-day

Here’s a photo of Track and Field Day years earlier, when I was in the 5th grade.  That’s me on the left, racing in… an Izod shirt.  

At midday the events suspended and all the elementary school kids moved into the bleachers and opened sack lunches.  Coach Carter let us, the track team, walk across the street for lunch at Osey’s Barbeque.  We filled most of the stools at the counter and ordered the kind of jumbo sized pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwiches that only seventeen year old boys can fully appreciate.  We were halfway through our lunch break when an elderly man sitting next to me at the end of the counter (who had gotten increasingly sullen the longer we were there) spoke up.

He glared at us and challenged, “Why aren’t you boys in school?”

One of us explained to him what we were doing, but to the man—a Mr. Oates, I came to find out—our reason was insufficient.  We were, to him, vagrants.  Our joking and the noisy volume of our high school conversation suggested to him that we were lost souls.  And he began to evangelize.  Big time.

“The road to hell!” he cried out to us with his jaw set in stone.  He clearly intended this phrase to be the predicate of an unspoken subject, such as, “The heinous way you boys are acting while enjoying your Sloppy Joes is the road to hell.”

Mr. Oates spoke of our need to repent.  He expressed to us the urgency that we believe in Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior.  Some of us meekly tried to speak up and tell him that we were members of churches, but he preempted us by firing back, “Denominations!  Not churches, denominations!  Not Jesus’ churches; not Jesus’ churches!”

Well, we finished our sandwiches with markedly less enthusiasm than we’d begun them, and we slunk out of Osey’s Barbeque.  As we walked back to the stadium, two things struck me.  The first was, perhaps obviously, that I felt I’d been verbally and spiritually manhandled.  Mr. Oates’ tongue lashing hurt, almost the way physical blows would have hurt.  But the second was oddly more positive.  It also struck me that by evangelizing to us, Mr. Oates was doing something he felt absolutely convicted to do.  I don’t imagine that an elderly old man relished confronting a line of high school boys much stronger and more impertinent than himself.  Who knows how we might have reacted?  But he did not hold back.  He spoke a word that he truly believed needed to be spoken.  And even in my hurt, there was something awesome about that.

Two years later I was a sophomore in college.  My freshman year had been much like the freshmen years that so many college students experience, and by the following fall I was feeling a striking need to kneel in church!  On a Tuesday night I wandered into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, and within the first five minutes of that service, I experienced a number of irrevocably life-changing things.  It would be self-indulgent and take too much time to go into all of them, but the one thing I must mention is the priest.  A female priest.  The first I’d ever seen.  Her name was Peggy Hays.  She was probably sixty-five and had that dignified air of someone like Anne Bancroft in her later years.  Peggy moved slowly through the liturgy, being quietly intentional about every motion.  Her respect for the prayers and the altar spoke more volumes that any words could.

Rev. Peggy Hays

The Reverend Peggy Hays

When the service ended, Peggy was interested in me.  She was interested in hearing why I was there.  And when I was reticent to go into many details, she was respectful.  But she made a point to say she hoped I’d come back, and I felt as though she meant it.  After shaking her hand, I walked to the door but waited there for a few moments to watch Peggy engage the other few people who’d attended the Tuesday night service.  She was present to each of them.  Some approached her with looks of concern on their faces, and as they interacted I could see the muscles and lines in those faces relax.  It was remarkable.

I did go back, again and again.  And each time I was nourished and fed.  I cannot recall any single conversation that I ever had with Peggy in the same detail as I recall the only conversation I ever had with Mr. Oates, but I can tell you that each conversation with Peggy was infinitely more important to my soul.

I have no doubt that both Mr. Oates and Peggy Hays had studied today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew.  In fact, I would bet that for each of them this very passage served as a primary motivating factor in their lives, as central to who they were.  And yet, they read this passage in two very different ways.

In this fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew from their work on the boat.  In his calling, he gives them the formula for the new life of grace which he offers.  He says, “Repent; follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  The first two elements in this formula are clearly vocative, but the third is less obvious in its meaning:  I will make you fish for people.  What is “fish” here?  The question is important, and the answer makes all the difference in how we follow Jesus.  Will Jesus make us fish for people?  Or will Jesus make us fish for people?  Is “fish” a verb or a noun?

For Mr. Oates at Osey’s Barbeque that spring day in 1990, fish was clearly a verb.  For Jesus to make him fish for people meant for him to evangelize with power and courage, to speak a word that might lead me and the other members of the Ridgecrest track team to repentance and belief.  His fidelity to Jesus’ call meant that he proclaimed this message with a prophetic fervor that would not allow him to listen to us or entertain that we might also have something to share with him.  In him, there was urgency; there was conviction…  And not a word he said transformed us.  He fished, but his nets came back empty.

Somehow Peggy Hays relayed the same vital formula of repentance and belief to those around her, but she did so without the vitriol and bluster of Mr. Oates.  In her demeanor, we saw someone who was clearly at peace with God, someone who had repented.  In her actions, we saw someone who truly, deeply, and palpably believed in the grace and love of Jesus.  And in our contact with her person, we experienced nourishment.  She became that through which Christ conveyed himself.  She became fish for us.  Fish the noun, not the verb.  This reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew is in concert with the larger image of fish in the Gospels.  Throughout, a meal of fish often serves as the medium through which the risen Jesus communicates grace: after walking the road to Emmaus in Luke; on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in John.

calling-the-disicples-mosaic

I will make you fish for people.

Now, do not misunderstand.  This doesn’t mean that Peggy failed to verbalize her faith, and neither can we.  But the ears around her were rendered able to listen to her words because her life first so transparently embodied them.  The Gospel she spoke was first incarnate in the lived relationship with grace that was expressed through her very being.  Before any words were spoken, she became fish for us.

Jesus’ calling is clear.  If we are to experience the life of grace, we must repent, and we must follow.  But how will this look in our lives?  In what way will we follow Jesus, like Mr. Oates or Peggy Hays?  Is fish a verb or a noun?  If we are to transform our own lives and the world for the Gospel, then the way we read Matthew’s tale may make all the difference.

Fractured and bleeding with light

Last May I traveled to what is, by far, the most desolate and inhospitable place I’ve ever encountered.  Twenty minutes east of Jerusalem, it is among the lowest and driest places on earth.  It is the area spoken of throughout the Holy Scripture as merely “the Wilderness.”

The climate and topography of Israel are varied.  In Galilee, the land is fertile, the climate is mild, and in the mountains there is annual snowfall.  In Jerusalem, further south, annual rainfall is actually roughly equivalent to that of London.  But just a few miles east of Jerusalem, in the Wilderness, moisture evaporates, vegetation disappears, and life becomes tenuous.  The Wilderness is a true desert.

The Judean Wilderness serves as the Bible’s badlands.  It is there that those sinful and irredeemable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located.  It is there to which young David fled for his life from the angry King Saul.  It is there, on the old Jericho Road, where the man in Jesus’ parable was set upon by bandits and was saved from the ditch by the Good Samaritan.  In the sacred story, if someone is seeking to hide, or escape, or do himself harm, the Wilderness is the setting.  Everything about the Wilderness is bleak.  And it is in this setting that John the Baptist decides to preach and baptize.

judean-wilderness

The Judean Wilderness

I began my ordained career as a church planter, and I can tell you that it’s all about location, location, location.  In order to have the best chance of having one’s message heard and of building a congregation, one needs to find an attractive and easily accessible place, near a major thoroughfare, and in a high-growth area.  John the Baptist seems willfully to have ignored each of these principles.  To get to the stretch of the Jordan River at which John preached and baptized in the first century, one had to leave the well-beaten path and risk scorching heat, desperate thirst, and ever-present bandits.  And yet, Matthew tells us just before today’s reading that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.”

John was attracting a crowd of people, and it wasn’t the refreshments at coffee hour that was drawing them.  What, then, was it?  To understand, we first must grasp the role of the River Jordan in the mythic understanding of Israel.  The Jordan, though a narrow stream then as now, appears on ancient maps as huge, wide as the Mississippi and deep as the Congo.  Rather than a thin crack in the earth, it appears as a chasm.  The ancient mapmakers weren’t simple or dumb.  They knew that their representations didn’t correspond to geography.  But that wasn’t the point.  The Jordan wasn’t just a river; it was the river.  It was the boundary the Jews’ ancestors had first crossed into God’s land of promise. Moving through its waters symbolized the end of one world and the beginning of another.  And so the Jordan has continued to be in our religious imagination.  In the spirituals of nineteenth century African-American slaves, crossing the Jordan symbolizes escape to freedom.  In Christian hymns—like “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah”—it refers to the passage from our earthly to our heavenly lives.  The Jordan is a crack between worlds.

John is preaching that baptism in the waters of the Jordan can, for those present, do what the river crossing did for the ancient Hebrews.  It can be a new beginning, freedom, a different life.  It can spell the end of whatever world one wants to shed and the start of a new world, in which the cracks in one’s old life are washed clean and away.

And so you see, those who travel from the safety of town through the wild danger of the wilderness are not on a pleasant Sunday outing.  They aren’t headed to a garden party on a grass-lined bank, and they haven’t come for casual conversation.  The wilderness through which they walk symbolizes the wilderness in their lives.  They are not solid, well put together people.  They are people whose lives have cracked at the seams.  They are broken, and they are willing to do anything—even confront the desert, both geographically and existentially—for the chance to have their cracks and fissures fixed and made whole.

john-baptizing-jesus

And Jesus is among them.  Theologians, commentators, and even the Evangelists don’t really know what to make of that.  Jesus’ life surely isn’t cracked at the seams, is it?  Well, we would say that Jesus is without sin, but we also say that Jesus is fully human, and humanity includes the cracks and fissures.  To be human is, often, to be aimless, or confused, or anxious, or even regretful, and it is thoroughly orthodox to allow that Jesus, like so many others, walked through the Wilderness in hope that the Jordan could allow him, too, to leave an old life behind, to cross its existential threshold into something new.

But notice:  With Jesus, it doesn’t work quite like expected.  When Jesus is baptized, the sky above the river cracks in mirror image.  And through that new fracture, Jesus encounters God.  For the first of only two times in the Gospels, God speaks directly, and without requirement or condition God says of the young man in the river, who has come with doubts and anxieties known only to himself, “This is my priceless son. I am deeply pleased with him.”[i]

By cracking open the heavens, the divine response to Jesus’ yearning to be renewed, to be whole, is not a decrease in the cracks and fissures, but an increase.  I think this is crucial.  I think it is the very wisdom the dove of God imparts to Jesus.  Let me explain with a more contemporary story.

Several years ago, the sculptor Paige Bradley found herself at a standstill.  Her style wasn’t en vogue with critics.  Galleries declined to show her work.  In frustration one day, Paige says, “I took a perfectly good wax sculpture—a piece I had sculpted with precision over several months—an image of a woman meditating in the lotus position, and just dropped it on the floor.  I destroyed what I had made.  It shattered into so many pieces.  [I thought] ‘What have I done?’”[ii]

But as she stared at the broken sculpture, Paige saw a truth that was hidden in the whole.  She picked up the pieces and reassembled them, but she didn’t try to mend the fractures or fill the cracks.  Instead, she placed a lantern within the sculpture and turned it on.  The result is stunning.  Blazing light shines through every fissure.  One critic describes the woman as “fractured [but] bleeding with light.”[iii]  Paige Bradley’s career took off because she began to see the light through brokenness rather than seeking perfection.  The sculpture, entitled “Expansion,” is now known worldwide and shows in London, California, and New York.

The great lyricist Leonard Cohen, who died last year, said, “Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”[iv]  It’s also how the light gets out.

expansion-by-paige-bradley

“Expansion,” by Paige Bradley

That is the truth God conveys to Jesus at his own baptism.  Not by doing away with whatever fractures Jesus carries, but by saying, without condition, cracks and all, that Jesus is priceless and pleasing does God give Jesus strength and direction.  It is only after this experience of complete acceptance that Jesus is able to match wits with the devil, preach grace, heal others, and find the courage to undergo the Passion.

More than anything else, that truth is what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry from, for instance, that of the Pharisees.  They require perfection; he knows perfection is impossible.  They expect to see a veneer of spit and polish; he can see that deep inside we’re a mess.  They want every crack sealed; he knows that it’s only through the cracks, and not solid armor, that we experience light.  And Jesus came to know this truth on his own baptismal day, when he entered the waters of the Jordan, when the very heavens cracked open above, and when he was told by the Creator of all things that he is priceless.

We’ve entered Epiphany.  It is the season of surprises, gifts from unexpected places, transfigurations on mountaintops, and most importantly of God’s spirit entering through the fractures in our lives.  Our New Year’s resolutions are always about getting a bit closer to perfect.  What if, instead, we made an Epiphany resolution, to be open to the ways God will meet us as we are, to the ways God may redeem rather than fix us, allowing even our fissures to stream with light?

We don’t know what burdens all comers carried to John at the Jordan all those centuries ago.  We don’t know their particular regrets, or failures, or anxieties.  But we each know our own, and we understand what it feels like for the soul to be trekking through the wilderness and parched in the desert.  We, too, want to cross a boundary that will allow us to be renewed.  The epiphany is that we can, that the God of grace wants us to.  But God will not “fix” us.  The epiphany is that even while we are fractured and imperfect, we are priceless, and that there is no crack God cannot infuse with light.

[i] This translation is Frederick Dale Bruner’s in his commentary, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, pg. 111.

[ii] http://mymodernmet.com/riveting-story-behind-that/

[iii] http://mymodernmet.com/striking-sculpture-reflects

[iv] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/anthem.html

God is not dead, nor does God sleep

Even two thousand years removed, the image effortlessly captures our imagination.  There is a desperate family, far from home.  There are no friendly faces, few helping hands.  The closest thing to shelter the family has been able to find is a stable behind an inn, a rough-hewn thing suitable only for animals.  We like to envision those animals as doe-eyed Disney cartoons, but in reality they, and the darkness, and the dirt mock this vulnerable family in their most vulnerable moment.  She is young, and she is scared, because the baby is coming.  He is frustrated and panicked, because he cannot figure out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced the couple’s ability to manage them.  Things are happening to them now, and all they can do is allow these things to transpire.

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What an ugly year we’ve just lived:

  • One of the worst years on record for worldwide natural disasters[i], including earthquakes in Taiwan, Burma, New Zealand, and Italy, as well as devastating floods just to the east of us in Louisiana, where thirteen people were killed and thousands lost their homes.
  • Acts of terror is such locations as Nice in the south of France, which intends to be a place of unguarded rest, and, just this week, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Square in Berlin, which exists as a monument to the very futility of violence.
  • An election cycle that brought out the very worst in us.
truck-attack-nice-france

Aftermath of the terror attack in Nice, France, July 14, 2016

Perhaps the Nativity story still so captures us because its anxiety, frustration, and panic are emotions with which we can relate.  We’re having trouble figuring out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced our ability to manage them.  Things are happening to us, and we can’t seem to do anything but allow them to transpire.

_______________

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is, perhaps, America’s greatest poet.[ii]  He was born in 1807 of solid colonial stock and to means that allowed him to travel the world before adulthood.  He studied languages and taught first at Bowdoin College and then Harvard.  Through his work, Longfellow was celebrated and enjoyed both fame and great monetary reward.  And then in 1861, as happened to all Americans, events outpaced the ability to manage them.  The Civil War erupted from the nation’s cauldron of sectional resentment.  Then, two months after the firing on Fort Sumter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and the mother of his six children struck a match that accidentally caught her dress on fire.  Despite Longfellow’s attempts to put out the flames with his own body, his wife died.  His own face was so scarred with burns that he wore a heavy beard for the rest of his life.

Less than two years later, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, volunteered to join the Union Army.  Charles was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and in late November he was shot through the shoulder, with the bullet skimming his spine.  Charles was very nearly paralyzed. Henry Longfellow tended to his son during a long and difficult recuperation.  For the second time in as many years, Longfellow was frustrated and panicked, because he could not figure out how to make things safe and right for those he loved.  Things were happening to them, and all Longfellow could seem to do was allow those things to transpire.

longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And then, on the morning of that December 25, in the midst of his uncertainty and despair, Longfellow heard the sound of Cambridge’s church bells ringing sharply into the air of Christmas Day.  Their peal was clear.  It pierced through the gloom of grief and wound and war to proclaim that something else, some counterbalance, was at work in the world.  Longfellow moved swiftly to his writing desk, and he penned in that moment the beloved poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem begins with joy, but its power endures one hundred-fifty years later because unlike so many other Christmas poems and songs, it is not syrupy or maudlin.  Longfellow does not use the Nativity as a gauzy screen to mask the difficulties of life.  Almost as soon as he begins, the gloom resettles.  The poem goes on:

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Existentially and emotionally, Henry Longfellow has taken us back to Bethlehem, to the stable, to the moments in the midst of Mary’s labor when so much can go so horribly wrong, just as everything else has gone wrong for her and for Joseph on that day.

nativity-caravaggio

The Nativity, by Caravaggio (1609)

But then, the child emerges.  He is born, and with him something enters the world as clear and true as the Cambridge bells in the morning air.  The baby cries, as babies do.  The heavens open, and the angels sing to the shepherds, who are struggling with their own nightmares.  In this most unassuming of ways, in this common miracle made cosmically uncommon, God enters our world, alive and awake.

Back in Cambridge, the second peal of the bells scatters Longfellow’s desperate haze.  Almost by surprise, hope is born anew in him.  He doesn’t understand it, but he cannot but proclaim it:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead; nor doth [God] sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Here, at the end of 2016, a year we would just as soon forget, we don’t understand it.  But here, in the wee hours of this morning, hope is born anew in us.  The peal is clear.  It may appear that events in the world are merely transpiring, but in truth God is not dead, nor does God sleep.  God is born into this world.  Hope lives!  Peace on earth, dear friends, good will to all.  And Merry Christmas.

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[i] http://www.aol.com/article/weather/2016/12/09/the-worst-natural-disasters-of-2016/21623406/

[ii] For more details of the story that follows, see Ace Collins’ Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001) and https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/12/21/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.

7 O’Clock news

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Exactly fifty years ago in 1966, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released their third studio album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  The record was a hit and consists of an eclectic playlist that includes the wistful “Homeward Bound,” the conflicted “Dangling Conversation,” and the light-hearted “Feelin’ Groovy.”  The final track on the album surprised many first-time listeners, because it differs from all the others in both substance and style.  It begins as a traditional Christmas carol:

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.  Round yon virgin, mother and child; holy infant so tender and mild…

As soon as it begins, however, the carol is interrupted by background static overlaid on the track, almost as if a second radio station is interfering with the song.  As the song goes on, the background voice becomes louder and more distinct.  It says something about President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights bill.  Slowly the listener realizes that the voice is a newscaster, and next he says, clearly, “In Los Angeles today, comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be a narcotics overdose.  Bruce was forty-two years old.”

At that point, as if in rebellion against the bad news, the duet’s voices crescendo:

Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.

But the newscaster drones on, ever louder, “Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero…The police in Cicero said they would ask that the National Guard be called out if it is held…In Chicago, Richard Speck, accused murderer of nine student nurses, was brought before a grand jury today for indictment.  The nurses were found stabbed and strangled in their Chicago apartment.”

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And so it goes.  The news gets worse, if you can believe it.  The newscaster reports stories about Vietnam and anti-war protests.  He mentions the conspiratorial theories of Congress’ Un-American Activities Committee.  The tumult of the news attempts to take center stage, but all the while Simon and Garfunkel will not allow the light in their harmony to be snuffed.  They claim the soundwaves:

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin, mother and child; holy infant, so tender and mild.  Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.

The newscaster ends by saying, “That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news.  Goodnight,” as Simon and Garfunkel’s last refrain echoes in the air.

The final track on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, titled “7 O’Clock News” is masterful.  It expertly captures the tension of Advent, which existed fifty years ago in 1966, existed two thousand years ago in Palestine, and still exists today.  We read today the precious story that the Holy Spirit of God conceives with Mary, and an angel of the Lord announces to Joseph that this child will be Emmanuel, God-with-us.  With the angel’s annunciation comes the nascent hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled.  We wait all year for this reading.  We wait all year to kneel and sing Silent Night, which we will do on Saturday next, to rest in the warm and hopeful glow of the Christ Child’s birth.

But we also live in the world.  And our newscasters, this very week, seek to drown out the blessed melody with reports of ongoing violence in Syria, as well as dozens of Coptic Christians—the world’s oldest enduring Christian sect—being blown up along with their ancient cathedral by terrorists in Egypt.  The newscasters tell us of Russians hacking our political system.  They report on the ominous rise of old prejudices and racially motivated hate groups that we had hoped were long gone.  And increasingly, they reveal that some of our news isn’t even news, but rather consists of stories fabricated whole cloth to discredit and sow fear and manipulate people.

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Coptic Cathedral bombing in Cairo, Egypt

Yes, we live in a fearful and uncertain world and a fearful and uncertain time.  The question for us—the pivotal Advent question—is which do we believe has the final say: The Nativity or the newscast?  Which do we believe prevails in the end?

The angel’s first words to Joseph are “Do not be afraid.”  The angel says the same to Mary in Luke’s version of the story.[i]  It is also the repeated refrain of Jesus to the disciples throughout the Gospels whenever the world seems about to overwhelm them.[ii]  Do not be afraid.

But Jesus and the angel don’t offer this encouragement to pretend that everything in these days will work out o.k.  They do not mean that every cancer will be healed, every job preserved, that every politician will earn our trust, every social fracture will mend, or all religious violence will end.  Mary’s heart, after all, was broken along with Jesus’ body on the cross.  The angel’s promise at the annunciation did not prevent her real and deep pain at the crucifixion.

Our encouragement not to fear is, rather, the promise that since that first Advent, since the Incarnation of God on Christmas, we do not walk through this world alone.  Our courage comes not from the illusion of well-being provided by rose colored glasses, but from the sure knowledge that even if we walk through fire in this world, God is with us.  Emmanuel.  No matter the 7 o’clock newscast, no matter the static it overlays on our days, no matter how loud its bad news, the sacred melody always also plays.  It will not be drowned out.  God is with us.

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And there is more, even than that.  Advent is not only about looking backward to the Nativity.  It is also about looking forward to Christ’s return, to that day on the far side of the newscast, beyond the worst the world can throw at God’s children, when God will finally say, “Enough!” and the one who begins as the babe in the manger will reign in love over all things.  After the newscast forever ends, the carol’s final refrain will go on, not as an echo, but as the world’s only truth.  That is Advent hope.  That is what we are to anticipate with expectancy.  Believe it, friends, and do not be afraid.

[i] Luke 1:30

[ii] Cf. Mark 4:40, Mark 5:36, John 14:27, etc.

A dozen movies (sixteen, really) I’ll watch again and again

I love movies, though these days I rarely seem to have the time to go to the theatre.  Here are my personal favorites.  Some are cinematic masterpieces, some…aren’t.  But I love each one, because they make me think, or laugh, or count my blessings, or discomfit me upon each viewing.  Which movies do you love?

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12.  Waking the Dead (2000)

Waking the Dead is one of those rare instances in which the film is superior to the book.  Based on Scott Spencer’s novel, the film chronicles the stormy relationship between Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams (played by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly).  He is a rising political star; she is an idealistic social justice crusader.  She dies (no spoiler; it happens at the very beginning), and the movie begs questions about the lingering effects upon us of those we love.  Fielding is haunted by Sarah’s memory (and maybe by more than that), as he struggles to be a better man while navigating the hardscrabble life of Chicago politics.

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11.  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

What makes a person great?  What grants meaning?  What imputes value?  There is no better measure for these things than the impact one has on the lives of those around him.  George Bailey is given the gift of seeing what Bedford Falls would have been like had he not been born, and the story is told as only Frank Capra can.  Plus, even seventy years removed, Donna Reed is stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful.

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10.  The Others (2001)

This is one of the spookiest movies you’ll ever see.  Set on a fog shrouded Channel island, a mother and her two children are unnerved by slamming doors, voices, and apparitions.  Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast, right down to her alabaster skin.  Theologically, the film begs the question, “Is anyone forgotten?”

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9. The Breakfast Club (1985)

As a child of the 80’s, I had to include a John Hughes film on my list of favorites, and this is his best, in my opinion.  Virtually no one likes himself or herself in high school, and in that stage of life we all secretly yearn for a place in where we can let our guard down and be real people to one another.  (“Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns!”)

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8.  Three Amigos (1986)

Of all of Chevy Chase’s, Steve Martin’s, and Martin’s Short’s ridiculous 80’s movies, this John Landis classic is my favorite.  To this day, I can recite lines of dialogue to some of my junior high school-era friends, and they can reply without missing a beat.  Dusty Roads, Lucky Day, and Ned Nederlander save a Mexican village from the marauding El Guapo, who is infamous (IN-famous; it means “more than famous”).  They use a plethora of strategies.  Along the way, they try tequila, which is like beer.

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7. The Godfather (1972); The Godfather, Part II (1974); The Godfather, Part III (1990)

There’s no better film than The Godfather, and Parts II and III (yes, Part III too) are nearly as good.  Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy chronicling Michael Corleone’s road from idealistic war hero, to ruthless Mafia don, to old man seeking redemption, is a masterpiece of storytelling.  I’ve seen the movies a dozen times, and I still get emotional when Sonny is gunned down, when Michael confronts Fredo in Havana, and when Mary Corleone (admittedly, horribly cast  with Sophia Coppola) is killed.

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6. Big Fish (2003)

I often use Big Fish as a teaching tool, a window into the myriad ways truth can run far deeper—and is not entirely dependent upon—facts.  The film is also a story about fathers and sons, and about the virtue of granting oneself permission to know someone again for the first time.

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5. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977); The Empire Strikes Back (1980); The Return of the Jedi (1983)

My  inclusion of these films on my list of favorites is as much about the holistic experience of my childhood as the movies themselves.  I saw Star Wars in the theatre when I was five years old; I saw Empire Strikes Back at the Cinema 150 in Little Rock (a proto-IMAX experience); and I saw Return of the Jedi on opening day at the Malco in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  My brother, Robert, and I had every Kenner action figure and play set.  We added to them with cardboard constructions of our own.  For years, EVERYTHING was about Star Wars.  And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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4. True Grit (2010)

I recognize that to some people it is blasphemy to prefer the remake to the John Wayne original, but the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit is a masterpiece.  The story of the pursuit of vengeance—and the pitfalls of that pursuit, even when vengeance is entirely righteous—is expertly told and filmed.  The dialogue is true to the language of Charles Portis’ novel, and it is different enough from the cadences of our everyday speech that it keeps the viewer’s attention.  Though many folks prefer The Dude, I believe Rooster Cogburn is the role Jeff Bridges was born to play.

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3.  A Christmas Story (1983)

Along with my #1 film, A Christmas Story is a movie that I watch every year.  We’ve all known a Scott Farkus in our lives, and who hasn’t been triple-dog-dared to put his tongue on a frozen flagpole?  I taught my sixteen year old son how to change a flat tire a few weeks ago, and I channeled Ralphie’s dad about the importance of protecting the lug nuts.  (“Fuuuuuuuudge!”)

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2.  Blazing Saddles (1974)

Watching Blazing Saddles in 2016 is an exercise in uncomfortable, side-splitting laughter.  With ruthless satirical humor, Mel Brooks exposes the absurdity of American racism.  I don’t think Brooks could make this film today (just as I don’t believe Norman Lear could make All In The Family).  Our collective ability to grasp such satire has given way to a less nuanced outrage at anything that discomfits us.  Rest in peace, Waco Kid.

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1.  The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)

Bart Freundlich’s debut film (and the one on which he met his life partner Julianne Moore) is my favorite movie by a fair margin.  I watch it every year in the week prior to Thanksgiving, since it chronicles a dysfunctional family who have come together for the Thanksgiving holiday.  It debuted at Sundance in 1997, and its cast consists of actors who were then on the cusp of becoming A-list (in addition to already-veterans Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner).  The film is all about the high cost of reconciliation and the desire to substitute it with a thin veneer of agreeability. (Tip: After seeing the movie, don’t go to Barnes and Noble and ask for a copy of Scream of the Rabbits.  It doesn’t exist.)

The Mystic Chords: Post-Election Thoughts

In the 1960s television sitcom “Get Smart” (whose reruns I watched as a kid every afternoon on Super Station WTBS), at the most crucial moments of discernment and decision, Max, Agent 99, and the Chief would sit across a table and activate “the cone of silence.”  The futuristic, Plexiglass cone would descend from the ceiling and envelop all the conversation partners.  But the cone never worked correctly.  It was an echo chamber.  Rather than facilitating listening, the cone of silence prevented anyone from hearing anyone else. Max, Agent 99, and the Chief could make out only a word here or a phrase there, and through their partial hearing they often came to the wrong conclusions.  They ended up frustrated and confused, unable to discern how to move forward.  The irony was that, at the very moment in which listening to one another was most important, the characters created conditions in which listening was impossible.

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On Wednesday morning of this past week, roughly half of the voters in our nation were relieved at the presidential election’s outcome, while the other half were shocked and saddened by it.  And, both sides also immediately called down the proverbial cone of silence, in which the echo chamber completely cut them off from hearing any divergent voices. Consequently, we have thus far heard only the sounds of our own disappointment or joy, fear or relief.  Indeed, more than a few people—again, representing both sides of the divide—have actually and honestly said to me that they aren’t interested in hearing from someone who cast a vote different from their own.  In our digital day and age that avoidance is easy.  Our cones of silence are so impermeable that even the Facebook algorithm, we now know, sends us only those news items that track with our own already-expressed opinions.

This across-the-board response is, of course, the fevered extension of what was surely the most toxic election cycle in my lifetime, and perhaps in our nation’s history.  Epithets and reckless speech first lobbed from the top then bounced down until common citizens began to believe the worst motives of one another.  Sound bytes prevailed; real conversation among people ceased; and even among folks who’ve known each other for years, suspicion began to take root.  At our Dean’s Hour forum just last week, Ambassador Linnet Deily shared poignantly, “I’ve never seen an election that has divided friends and family such as this has.”

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Of course, such a failure to listen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is human nature that when one feels unheard, one begins to speak more loudly, more vociferously, with less care, and with greater abandon.  Since Tuesday, some elements among both the relieved and the fearful have responded in ways that should concern us deeply.

On one side of the divide, news outlets report numerous instances of threat and actual physical assault across the country against Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans.  Perhaps most distressingly, several of these events have occurred in high schools and middle schools, which reveal the extent to which our children also hear the bits and pieces of our rhetoric and respond in their contexts.  It is as if we have forgotten that we form our children in particular ways by careless words.  They are mirrors to us, and we should see ourselves in their actions.[i]  People of color and religious minorities are afraid, and their fear is real.  They wonder if the America they thought they knew—and in many cases the American dream that drew them here—is an illusion.

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Post-election graffiti at Maple Grove High School, Minnesota

On the other side, CBS News reports that a man in Chicago was pulled from his car and assaulted after a traffic altercation, while his attackers vocally cited the man’s support for Donald Trump as their motivation.[ii]  National Public Radio reports that the protests of the past few days in some American cities have becomes riots, with rioters attacking both police and the very livelihoods of small business owners, engaging in, according to police, “criminal and dangerous behavior.”[iii]

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Protest turned into riot in Portland, Oregon

As you know, in preparation for the fall Dean’s Hour series, I have spent the past several months studying the faith, lives, and leadership of four of the greatest presidents who have ever served our country.  As I have struggled through this election cycle, their words have sustained me in ways I did not expect.  This past week, as I have watched our nation and felt the echo chamber descend, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address have come back to me again and again.  On the cusp of conflict far deeper than our own, the President reminded his fellow citizens:

“We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”[iv]

This begins here, at Christ Church Cathedral and places like it.  Here, we must model the better angels of our nature.  For us, of course, Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory extend all the way back to the days of Jesus and Isaiah.  They are our inspirations and models; they, and not today’s political candidates or elected officials, are the ones who rightly form our beliefs, our convictions, and our actions.  It is either serendipity or grace that today both the Prophet and the Savior remind us of what God will do in the midst of turbulent times.  Isaiah shares with us God’s promise to “create a new heaven and a new earth,” one in which distress and weeping are heard no more.  But, friends, until the Lord returns, the vanguard of that new heaven and new earth is no one but us.

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“The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This is daunting, and never more so than in conflicted times.  But Jesus adds today the promise that he will grant us words and wisdom that no one can withstand or contradict.  In my past two sermons, as the election approached, I sought to convey the character and content of those words and that wisdom.  Three weeks ago, I conveyed St. Paul’s last will and testament, when Paul says, in the end, all that matters is that we hold fast to the faith and love of Jesus, and share it in all our words and actions.[v]

Last week, I talked about the bliss of communion with God that is felt most deeply when we recognize, in our most vulnerable moments, how we are connected with all who suffer and are vulnerable.  Not when you and I are strong and triumphant, Jesus says, but when we are weak, or afraid, or on the very precipice of life is the time to take note of that experience, so that we always remember, in both times of strength and weakness, to do good to those with whom we disagree; to stand up for those in need; to be kind, and be merciful.[vi]

As long as Christ Church Cathedral endures, I pray we will do these things, not because of politics on the right or the left, but because the prophets and the Savior compel us.  (What does it mean to be Christians, after all, other than follow the Way of Jesus?)  I pray we will deny the echo chamber and listen to those who differ from us.  That will not always lead to agreement–nor should it–but it will move us toward understanding and away from imputing false motives to one another. And I pray we will, without doubt or hesitation, stand with and for all of God’s children who are vulnerable and fearful in this world, whatever their color, creed, religion, lifestyle, or political belief.

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Riaz Patel

Yesterday I read a remarkable blog post[i] by Riaz Patel, a Muslim, Pakistani-American, gay man who supported Hillary Clinton.  In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Riaz wanted to shed his echo chamber, to hear and understand those who supported Donald Trump.  So Riaz traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska to visit with third-generation fishermen who were themselves fearful of economic displacement from proposed environmental regulations that would upend their ability to make a living from the sea.  In a diner called The Landing, Riaz and his husband broke bread with locals Nicole, Jim, and Paula.  Together, they were a motley crew who could not have been more different in virtually every way, but they all spoke openly.  They all shared their fears and concerns.  In their conversation, the mystic chords held, and the better angels of their nature prevailed.  I daresay that neither Riaz nor his conversation partners changed their vote, but I have no doubt that their connection altered the way they saw one another and, God willing, their commitment to one another in time of trial and need.

We do well to embrace the words of Jesus and the words of those two prophets, Isaiah and Abraham Lincoln.  Today, tomorrow, next year, and until the Lord returns, we are called by God to embody the better angels of our nature. We are called to shed our echo chambers and listen to those who differ from us, to see the best in them and hope the best for them.  We are called to stand unequivocally with those who are vulnerable.  We are called to receive grace and reflect grace.  In these ways, and no others, will the mystic chords and bonds of affection that bind us as a nation be preserved.  In these ways, and no others, will we, at Christ Church, be the vanguard of God’s new heaven and new earth.

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[i] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-president-supporters-attack-muslims-hijab-hispanics-lgbt-hate-crime-wave-us-election-a7410166.html

[ii] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/you-voted-donald-trump-yelled-man-beaten-chicago-streets/

[iii] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/11/501685976/anti-trump-protest-in-portland-ore-turns-destructive-declared-a-riot

[iv] http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html

[v] https://rectorspage.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/thinking-about-death/

[vi] https://rectorspage.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/the-election-god-and-our-bliss/

[vii] http://www.glennbeck.com/2016/11/10/what-a-gay-muslim-pakistani-american-immigrant-learned-traveling-to-rural-alaska-the-week-before-the-election/