Kennedy: Perhaps another ‘man after God’s own heart’

Edward Kennedy in 2008
Edward Kennedy in 2008

Thinking about Sen. Edward Kennedy this week, I found my mind oddly drifting toward King David, that renowned ruler of old Israel.

Sunday school lessons highlight David’s heroics – his life as a simple shepherd, his showdown with Goliath, his psalms. But his political career and family intrigues actually resemble scenes from “The Godfather.”

As a warrior, David earned such a blood-soaked reputation that God refused to let him build a temple. His worst moment combined dereliction of duty, adultery, deception and murder, starting a chain of events that spiraled down to open rebellion by his oldest and favorite son and generations of trouble.

Even near the end of his long life, when he was feeble and perhaps senile, David gave more than the throne to his son Solomon. He also passed along a hit list. David spectacularly broke almost all of the Ten Commandments.

And yet God kept David in his pocket. He was, according to the Bible, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Perhaps that was because David ultimately threw himself before God, whether it was challenging giants or dancing nearly naked in the streets during a worship procession.

He composed psalms that questioned and railed at God in fear and frustration, cried to him for vengeance against enemies and gloated over their downfall. But knowing his sins, he invariably came pleading for mercy and forgiveness. He always praised God in the end, seeking him wherever he might find him – under the stars, below the mountains, in the temple, in his bedroom, through the valley of the shadow of death. Despite everything, this womanizing, scandalized, troubled chieftain could still write, “My help comes from the Lord.”

Maybe it was that relentless if imperfect pursuit that warmed God’s heart.

Culture and circumstance – not to mention 3,000 years – put a lot of distance between King David and Sen. Kennedy. Even so, elements in Kennedy’s life and career sound familiar.

Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.
Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.

The senator for years lived a kind of high-wire act, often played out in public, that tried to balance great personal gifts, high ambitions, deep flaws, terrible tragedies and a durable faith.

As one of the most effective legislators in American history, he likely made a more profound impact on the nation than his celebrated brothers. Along the way, he showed graciousness in an ungracious town, whether dealing with political allies or foes, junior staffers or people on the street.

The best-known and perhaps most powerful Roman Catholic politician in the country, Kennedy cited his faith as one of his central motivations in his commitment to helping ordinary people through education, higher wages and, above all, health care. In what was for him typical bipartisan fashion, he worked with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, an effort to relieve governmental burdens on the exercise of religion.

But Kennedy didn’t walk lockstep with his church, and he put himself at odds with Roman Catholic teaching most severely with his support of abortion rights, an inconsistency that not even the famous Kennedy mystique could overcome. And despite the personal peace that his second marriage brought him, divorce and remarriage offended many fellow believers.

Kennedy was a flawed person, and he knew it. In a 1991 speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Kennedy openly addressed “the faults in the conduct” of his private life.

“I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them,” he said.

Despite this – or possibly because of this – by all accounts he found strength and comfort in his faith, especially during his last years. The Cape Cod parish priest regularly visited the Kennedy home and held a private family Mass there every Sunday. Kennedy led his family in prayer after the death of his sister Eunice three weeks ago, and he spent his own last hours in prayer.

“He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable,” wrote John Broder in The New York Times obituary this week. “He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly.”

Something about Edward Kennedy makes me hope that, like King David, he was finally a man after God’s own heart.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 29 Aug 2009.

American Ramadan

happy ramadanThe discipline of Ramadan is daunting: While the sun is up each day during Islam’s holiest month, Muslims will fast from food and water and sex and be extra careful about what they say and hear. It’s a time to purify the body, an avenue for purifying the soul.

It sounds stringent enough in a place with a temperate climate, like East Tennessee. But consider that most Muslims live in southern Asia, Indonesia and Africa, and that the lunar calendar nudges Ramadan into high summer every few years. Long days of triple-digit temperatures and not even a sip of water – it sounds like a recipe for misery.

On the contrary, Muslims say, Ramadan is the most wonderful time of the year.

I sat down with six members of the Muslim community at their masjid, or mosque, on Antioch Road this week, to talk about the holiday, which celebrates the revealing of the Koran, which Muslims regard as God’s word, to the prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Arabic calendar, begins this weekend, the moment when the slightest sliver of the new crescent moon becomes visible. It will conclude at the end of the four-week lunar cycle, marked by Eid-al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast.

The group was full of anticipation. Although most of them have lived in the U.S. for decades and are American citizens, they recalled memories from their homelands.

“You feel different, and there is a liveliness during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Atyia, a pharmacist originally from Egypt. “Fasting is good for your body, to cleanse it and give it a rest. You feel sad after the month ends.”

It is a month not only to change habits, said Taneem Aziz, an engineer and the Muslim Community’s president, but also a month of extra blessing. The effect of good deeds is literally multiplied 10 times, the Koran says.

“All the senses are focused on worship,” said Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh. “With the discipline, it is God making it easy for us to feel good and celebrate.”

People are friendlier and try to be more patient during the month. Crime goes down. Homes open up to family, friends and strangers like no other time of the year.

“The community is one of the reasons we are excited,” said Aziz’s daughter, Imani, a 19-year-old student at East Tennessee State University and the only American-born Muslim in this conversation. “Every night, we worship together.”

Life slows down during the day in Muslim countries. Families rise long before dawn to eat together. People who go to work feel unhurried, but many businesses just shut down. The normal daily prayers continue, perhaps with greater attention and attendance at the mosques.

But when prayers are finished at sundown, communities spring to life in a different way. The Koran commands Muslims to break the fast as soon as they can each night, and they do it with gusto.

Food comes out from almost every house, spread on tables lining the streets or served under colorful, open-air tents. Festive tin lanterns with colored glass glow in windows. As people pass by, whether or not they are strangers or Muslims, they are likely to be invited to stop for food – and conversations and games and songs and prayers and extended readings from the Koran. The nightly celebrations can last almost until the early morning meal begins the daily round again.

“It’s like having Christmas for a month,” Natalia Suit, a Christian friend who lived in Cairo, told me later. “Ramadan really is the best time of the year there.”

The holiday, of course, takes on a different cast in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority in the same way Christians are a minority in Pakistan or Egypt. No one expressed any resentment or regret. They accept the differences.

“We don’t feel conflicted, living in America,” said Yusuf Gangat, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. “The purpose is to worship God in everything. It’s a very easy life, once you accept it.”

Besides, they agreed, the times are changing, and non-Muslim Americans are growing more aware of Ramadan. They notice in ways both small and significant, from seeing their holidays printed on calendars to having employers provide time off.

Imani Aziz was smiling broadly during the entire conversation. She simply enjoyed thinking about the month to come, she explained.

“I’m just excited it’s almost here,” she said.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 22 Aug 2009.

PS: The health-care debate, the UK and US

It's not quite like this anymore.
The trucks are newer, and so is the system.

I’ve been getting a lot of feedback (relatively speaking) to last Saturday’s column. Most of the comments have been complimentary, which is gratifying — but also a little worrying. When I shipped the column to the paper, I didn’t think it was particularly strong or insightful. Saying people should treat each other with civility? (Hey, let’s try the Golden Rule!) should be a no-brainer. But it apparently struck a nerve. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I’m pretty sure that says more about the state of the debate — and maybe the culture — than about my acumen.

NPR’s Morning Edition ran an interesting segment today, an interview with Lord Ara Darzi, a surgeon and British government adviser, about Britain’s National Health Service, which you can read or listen to here. Darzi was debunking misinformation being circulated about the NHS by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and the Club for Growth, a conservative group, among others. PolitiFact, which, as its name implies, tries to sort out political truth from fiction — and has a pretty good track record –  labeled the CFG ad “misleading.”

My family and I lived in England for five years in the 1980s, working in a church in the north of the country, near Manchester and Liverpool. This was during Maggie Thatcher’s years as prime minister, long before the reforms that took hold in the last decade. The NHS certainly had serious problems at the time. A woman in our church, for instance, waited three years for knee surgery.

Mrs. Thatcher, a Conservative (or “Tory,” in the jargon) set about “reforming” the system (along with other major industries and the whole economy), and there’s little doubt the NHS needed fixing. It was hemorraging money. There was a brain drain, with physicians leaving the country for better paying positions — in the U.S., for instance.

One of the loud social debates at the time was whether it was morally defensible for people to buy private supplementary insurance, which was just becoming commercially available at the time. Such coverage wouldn’t replace NHS coverage, but it was intended to help policyholders avoid situations like three-year waits for knee surgery. The question was whether we wanted a society where people could get better medical care just because they had enough money to pay for private insurance. It didn’t seem right to many people, including the majority in my part of the country, which was dominated by the Labour Party.

Even so, no major voices seriously proposed killing the NHS. Reform it, rebuild it — yes. Eliminate it — no way. It was a national institution, a social contract.

And I must say that, despite the problems even then — which I believe were much more serious than they are now — the NHS was a good service. Both our daughters were born there, and the prenatal (“antenatal”) care was superb and comprehensive, as was the care in the hospital and in the weeks following the births, with midwives and home health aides and even our GP (general practioner, our family doctor) visiting the new mother and babies at our home. Ordinary care, including dental, was at least as good as anything we experienced in the U.S.

We had no forms to fill out, after registering with the local health care authority. On our first few visits to the doctor or dentist, I’d offer to pay. We were guests, I reasoned, and not even asked to pay taxes to Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue. But I’d get strange looks from the receptionists. The first time I offered to pay at our dentist’s office, the woman behind the counter waved me off. “You live here,” was all she said.

Even in the worst days of the NHS while we were there, when I was a minister who performed almost three dozen funerals in less than five years and made more hospital and sick calls than I can recall — most of them on elderly people — I never once got a whiff of any NHS version of “death panels” or suggestions that we should “pull the plug on Grandma.” It’s just not part of the equation.

I don’t know what the American health care system should look like. (The status quo isn’t working well for far too many people.) Britain’s model may not be the right one for us. But at the very least, I hope we stop using the British system as a red herring, particularly since the fearful scenes painted by Grassley and the Club for Growth resemble the fiction of Stephen King more than reality.

Critical condition: The health-care debate isn’t too healthy right now

Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania got shouted down in a town-hall meeting about health care, as did some citizens who just wanted to ask a few questions.

When President Barack Obama spoke in New Hampshire, protesters outside compared him to Adolf Hitler, repeating the stupidity of left-wingers who compared George W. Bush to Hitler a few years ago. (Note to activists: The fastest way to get reasonable people to stop listening to you is to compare someone to Hitler.)

All this followed a few weeks when national leaders, including former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, repeated scary lies about what was being proposed in the health-care plans.

Several weeks earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, was a little too frank for his own good when he approached health care more as a political weapon than a problem for his constituents. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” he said. “It will break him.”

Watching these videos and listening to these reports, I thought, “This isn’t good for the nation’s soul.”

I usually don’t think of the nation literally having a “soul.” I take it as a metaphor, a poetic way of talking about our society’s values. But however we think about it, something corrosive and discouraging and damaging is going on.

It’s not the issue itself. Health care and insurance is perhaps the most important domestic question of our generation and we need to have a good, open debate about it.

But that’s the problem: Right now, the debate, or at least the part that is getting the most attention, is neither good nor open. Not when political leaders are blatantly more interested in making partisan gains than in addressing national problems. Not when a fellow citizen can’t ask an honest question in a public meeting without getting screamed at. Not when talk-show hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh joke about killing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Not when people carry concealed weapons to town-hall meetings, as happened in Arizona last week.

Angry reactions are predictable. Log in to a left-wing blog or the comments section of any big news organization, and you’ll find plenty of broad-brushed insults labeling conservatives as kooks, idiots and threats to the nation.

Even some conservatives are getting concerned.

“The guns are coming out. The risks are real,” wrote David Frum this week in his New Majority blog. “It’s not enough for conservatives to repudiate violence, as some are belatedly beginning to do. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

“But he is not. He is an ambitious, liberal president who is spending too much money and emitting too much debt. His health-care ideas are too over-reaching and his climate plans are too interventionist. The president can be met and bested on the field of reason—but only by people who are themselves reasonable.”

Some people in the self-styled “mob” who disrupt town-hall meetings claim the American Revolution as their inspiration. They should remember that the revolution was framed by appeals to reason and defended with lengthy argument, and that a declaration of independence – which didn’t pass with a unanimous vote – emerged from the Continental Congress, where formal rules of order allowed representatives to debate passionately, speak honestly and produce something of value.

The health-care issue calls for our best efforts, our best thinking and our best examples of citizenship. Lives are literally at stake.

Today we’re not at our best. The strident and sometimes threatening town-hall rants, the lies and the distortions – all tactics closer to “fascism” than anything Obama has ever suggested – are distracting us from actual issues and getting in the way of potential solutions.

Since I’m not even sure we can talk about the nation having a soul, it might be a stretch to think that some simple scriptural words might help carry on an emotional debate: Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Maybe the Golden Rule even sounds naïve. But it’s a start.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 15 August 2009.

We do believe in spooks. We do. We do. We do.

 Ghost poster


That’s the word in pop culture. It’s hard to keep up with the revolving doors of TV programming, but the primetime schedule is well populated with psychics (“Medium”), ghosts (“Ghost Whisperer”), vampires (“True Blood”), demons (“Supernatural”) and other paranormal wonders (“Heroes,” “Lost,” etc.). That’s not even counting the movies, the books and the blogs.

Some observers wonder if this fascination with things that go bump in the night indicates a rising interest in so-called alternative realities.

A rising interest? It’s already high. Gallup polls consistently find that about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal, including extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling.

This is old news in East Tennessee, which has long offered fertile ground for supernatural stories – and little wonder, with its hills and hollers, its spiritual fervor and its long heritage of early Native American and Scots-Irish settlers (who brought tales from the old countries).

It’s all familiar territory for Nancy Hamblen Acuff, a well-known researcher into alternative realities for three decades, about as long as she taught developmental psychology at ETSU before retiring in 1993. As the official historian for her native Sullivan County, she dug into local folklore – and that led her to ghost hunting.

“I started to collect these stories and began to realize there’s more to this than folklore,” she explained in a phone interview. “With my background in psychology, I had to say this is not just someone’s fantasy or mental illness. This is something else.”

She started to research what that something else might be, including investigating reports of unexplainable events.

“When someone calls me about a problem, I follow it almost as a detective would,” Acuff said. “What kind of occurrence is this? How often does it occur? What was the person’s religious and ethnic background? There are hundreds of questions.”

She recalled a sighting in Johnson City, where a woman who bought an old home kept seeing a man in a World War I army uniform carrying an umbrella. She also heard children’s voices and a barking dog.

Acuff discovered that a minister lived there around 1920, and he was so proud of his wartime service as a chaplain that he often wore his uniform around the property. His family owned a dog.

“I think he was simply captured in time, a true ghost,” Acuff said. “Sounds and images are frozen in time … like a shadow or part of a photograph left in a place. It may diffuse over time. But you’re hearing that puppy from 1920.”

Acuff, who earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State University, also believes in what she calls spirits, “the essence of the person, an entity that can move even in places where they didn’t live in their lifetime.”

The 1990 hit movie Ghost was “one of the more sensitively and accurately done” portrayals of that phenomenon, she said. She thinks the movie may have been a turning point in American acceptance of supernatural phenomena.

Acuff, who was reared as a Christian and now considers herself a “real unitarian, who believes Jesus is the messiah,” believes that acceptance is a good thing.

 “We do not handle death well in this society,” she said. “We are just now moving into a state when we’re beginning to recognize our mortality.”

Acuff suspects more traditional societies, such as those of Native Americans, held a better grasp on death than more complex ones.

“They accepted death as an integral part of the life cycle,” she said. “More complex societies run into so much denial.”

In other words, people in a more modern society find it easier to believe we’re able to keep death at bay with technology, whether it’s chemotherapy or cryogenics or cloning.

But Acuff thinks American views about life, death and afterlife – including how they think about ghosts and spirits – are growing up.

“I think we’re coming into a time of great spiritual maturity,” she said.

That maturity, according to Acuff, understands that life exists in different dimensions, even though we live in only one of them. The mysterious events that stretch the limits of belief – those are strange and rare openings into alternative dimensions.

 “And that’s all right,” she said. “Maybe we’re not supposed to know about the other dimensions. Maybe it’s only by accident that we do know.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 8 Aug. 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 29 Oct. 2005.)

Cowardly lion

So a church cancels its worship services to go serve, and then calls it worship. Confused yet?

work worshipA lot of organizations, from scouting troops to sororities, help their communities with service projects.

Congregations do so as well, but there’s a difference. Virtually every act carries some kind of theological meaning. It goes with the territory. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and religious bodies gotta make religious statements.

So last Sunday, when Grace Fellowship Church canceled its worship services so members could spend the morning painting, mowing, cooking, repairing and otherwise serving at 32 local nonprofit organizations and homes, it wasn’t just a work day. It was also a theological declaration.

“Most people think that Sunday mornings are about ‘going to a service,’” Lead Pastor Tom Oyler wrote to the congregation earlier this year. “But on this day, we remind ourselves that we exist to serve others as well.… For many people, seeing a sermon in action is more effective than hearing one.”

The community service, he wrote, would be “a sort of good demonstration of how the body of Christ is designed to work.” The results would extend beyond Sunday: “Bridges will be built. Seeds will be planted.…. Grace will happen. God will be pleased. That’s about as good as it gets!”

By all accounts, the day was a success and, as Sue Guinn Legg reported in the Johnson City Press on Monday, a real benefit to the organizations. When the event’s main organizer, Connections Coordinator Malia Grant, reviewed the sign-up sheets this week, she found 1,065 people had participated. The church typically draws about 1,200 people during the summer. The day went so well that church leaders are already thinking of turning it into an annual event.

 “Though it was different from a typical Sunday, we got great response,” Grant said. “We wanted to make sure as many people could participate as possible, of every age. It was just as important as any worship service they would attend.”

Even preschool children got involved at “Echo Village,” a display area at the church building where they could help with some task, such as filling small bags with laundry detergent for families at Interfaith Hospitality Network, a ministry for homeless people.

The idea for Echo Sunday came up early this year, when church leaders realized the construction on their new building might leave the congregation without a meeting place for one Sunday. Someone suggested going into the community to serve that Sunday, and the idea stuck, even when it later became clear the construction wouldn’t interfere with the schedule.

So if every action of a church makes some kind of theological statement, what did “Echo Sunday” say?

Christian teaching has always emphasized the need for believers to gather to praise and pray to God, to observe communion and other sacraments, and to hear from Scripture in some fashion. In short, “ministry of word and sacrament” has always been central to Christian worship.

That didn’t exactly happen at Grace Fellowship last Sunday.

 “I’d have a problem if we did this consistently,” Oyler said in a phone interview this week. “Gathering for worship is important, a priority of the church. But by doing this on Sunday, people could focus on service. Reaching into the community is not a side thing. We take this seriously.”

Their service was another form of worship, according to Oyler, saying it squared with Jesus’ words to strict Jewish teachers who criticized him for healing people on the Sabbath.

“In our theology, we would feel free to do this again,” Oyler said.

Besides, he noted, the church did gather on Sunday when members returned to the church building to share pizza, pray and talk about their experiences.

“Gathering was an important part of the day,” Oyler said. “For example, a group of 15 teenagers went to the Children’s Hospital. They took donuts to the nurses and talked with the children. (The teens) were blown away by the experience. The nurses called on Monday, to say how much the visit meant to them.”

Oyler and Grant were quick to point out other churches serve the community too. Grace isn’t unique, they said. Just this day was different.

“We’re trying to imbed this idea of servanthood and being engaged in the community,” Oyler said. “A lot of people expect Christians to gather away from them, but they’re encouraged by Christians going to them. And our people felt the impact of going into the community. Our church will remember this for a long time.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 1 August 2009.