Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Intolerant Christ

Well, this was a head-scratcher.
You may have seen the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Versions of the story ran in most major newspapers on Tuesday.
The survey finds that a majority of those who are affiliated with a religion do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation.
Now, there’s nothing extraordinary about that in and of itself. After all, this idea of polytheism has been circulating since antiquity.
What is surprising is that the survey indicates that 57 percent of those who described themselves as evangelical Christians hold that view.
At this point, I add my own data: 57 percent of those who describe themselves as evangelical Christians aren’t.
Now I know this is going to seem like a harsh assessment. It may even sound mean-spirited, disrespectful, I realize.
That sort of thinking simply does not conform with the Cult of Tolerance, which is apparently the god of this age.
But sometimes intolerance is the only real choice.
The fact is, we demand intolerance in many important areas of our lives.
For example, it is intolerant that 2 +2 = 4. There are pre-schoolers out there for whom a tolerant view of the equation would allow for the answer to be 5 or 7 and 34. A child who adds 2 and 2 and gets 5 is no less sincere and honorable than the child that arrives at 4.
And while it may bruise a child’s ego to be told that his addition is faulty, it is better for him to suffer that shame than continue in error. Common sense tells us that much.
No doubt, it is harsh when the doctor arrives with a grim prognosis, but no one is his right mind would expect the doctor to tell his patient he has the flu when the doctor knows the patient has cancer. It is better, in this case, not to spare the truth to in order to spare one’s feelings.
So what do you think? Is it intolerant to claim that the only way to God is through the Christian faith? Before we get to that, I think it's important to recognize the true nature of tolerance.
Genuine tolerance, the sort that should be advocated, is simply this: Impose your beliefs on no one; share them on anyone who inquires. That is what I have tried to do. It is consistent with my faith while being generous to those outside my faith.
During the darkest days of my recent journey, I've been most comforted by people of other faiths. People like Ann Rosenberg and Lowell Cohn, both Jewish, have been so kind and sharing that I know that I will never be able to repay the debt of gratitude I owe them.
So, even though my faith differs from theirs, I do not believe that either would suggest that I am intolerant.
But when it comes to Christians, I can speak with certainty on this point, although I am only a layman.. To wit: A Christian simply cannot hold the view that there are other paths that lead to God outside the Christian faith.
Rather than take my word for it, better to go to the authority on this subject. So what did Jesus have to say on the matter?
Here’s what:
“I am the way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.’’ (John 14:6, emphasis is mine)
There is nothing ambiguous in that statment, no grounds on which to arrive at a diffferent interpretation that would open the door for the validity of other faith systems.
Notice, Jesus did not say, “I am one way, one truth and one life. Some men cometh unto the Father by me.’’
The implications are obvious: The person who believes that salvation can come from a source other than Christ contradicts Christ himself and, by extension, cannot seriously consider himself a Christian. I don’t know what that person is, quite frankly.
Like I said, it’s a head-scratcher.
And it should be a wake-up call to the clergy.
These days, you will hear a lot of ministers lamenting the demise of Christian ideals in the public arena. But I wonder if that angst isn't misdirected in light of the Pew survey. Seems to me those ideals are as scarce in the church house and the home as they are in the schools and court house.
Which, do you think, represents a greater threat to the faith?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

You can cancel my Library card

I had just boarded the 62 Hardy North bus on the way to visit a friend who is gravely ill and being treated at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa. It’s about a 2-hour trip.
No sooner had I settled into my seat than I got a call from the man’s wife, who said the doctor’s were performing a procedure and that he would not be allowed any visitors for 24 hours.
Since I was already on the bus, I decided just to ride along to the end of the route, which happens to end at the ASU campus. From there, I made my way over to the Mill Ave. District.
It was about 3 p.m., and one of those blistering hot June days. The first few weeks of summer are the worst, I think, because it takes about a month or so of 100-plus temps to get acclimated. You could tell that nobody on Mill Ave. was acclimated. People moved very slowly. It was so hot, in fact, that I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking.
Normally, when I visit Mill Ave., I head to the Borders to drink coffee and look through books. But it was so hot that coffee didn’t seem all that appealing. So I stopped in at a bar/ restaurant on the corner of 5th St. and Mill Ave. to suck down some ice tea. There were only a handful of folks there. Several men were sitting at the bar, flirting clumsily with the 20-something blonde bartender. A family sat at one of the tables enjoying a late lunch.
The name of the establishment is called The Library. If you are at all familiar with Mill Ave., you have probably heard of it. It struck me as an interesting motif for a restaurant/bar. After all, most people don’t associate a library with food and drink. In fact, most libraries discourage the presence of food and drink.
Of course, I have no formal training in marketing, so what do I know.
Anyway, the motif was established by the presence of lots and lots of books. Book cases lined all the walls.
So here we have a theme for the bar/restaurant. OK. Now, consider the efforts made to carry out the motif with all those books. Naturally, you would expect the wait staff, bartenders, etc. to be dressed as, well - I don't know - librarians, maybe?
How silly of me.
The wait staff, I can assure you, were not dressed that way. It was at this precise point that the theme was abandoned.
I looked around. I did not see a single severe-looking lady with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, clothed in an ankle-length gray dress with cat’s-eye glasses and sensible shoes. No one hissed, “SSSHHHH!!’’ as the conversation swelled at the bar.
Instead, the wait staff, made up of what I can only assume were co-eds. They were dressed as if they were cast members in a particularly tasteless porn movie about wayward Catholic school girls. By that, I mean they wore plaid skirts so short that modestly - if they had had any - would have prevented them from bending in even the slightest manner. Some of them work knee-high stockings. The ensemble was completed by a sleeveless white shirt, tied at the bottom to expose a bare midriff and unbuttoned in order to expose as much cleavage as the law permits. The law permits a lot, by the way.
It was overt sexuality and I suppose there some valid marketing research encourages the ownership to insist on that sort of uniform. I suspect the girls don’t spend too much time bothering about how they are being objectified. Hey, the tips are good. The general strategy seems to be: Let's exploit our young staff so they can, in turn, exploit the customers. Everybody wins!
Shoot me if I ever get into that business, OK?
Now, I know I am going to be dismissed by some as a hopeless prude at this point, but the whole scene struck me as tacky, demeaning, juvenile. So, as the middle-aged guys at the bar tried out their best and crudest lines on the little blonde bartender, I started looking at the bookshelves.
But rather than being a suitable diversion, it only made things worse.
Maybe it is my writer’s sensibilities at work here, but I started thinking about what those books represented to the people who wrote them. Without a doubt, each of those books was the fulfillment of something extremely important to the author. Each volume was a testament to the endless hours of toil, of doubt, of lonely struggle. A book is the window to a writer’s soul. It is something very personal, very intimate. It is the author’s passion and purpose. It is the realization of a dream, a validation of an original idea. A triumph.
But here, as the patrons ogled the wait staff and the wait staff wriggled and giggled and the air filled with clumsy innuendo and booze, the books on the shelves served only as props to fulfill a silly theme.
Any book lover would be offended, I think.
I know I was.
Fortunately, there are other, better places to have an iced tea.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The book I would have written

Just about everybody I know suggests that I write a book. Up until now, I’ve dismissed that as flattery.
But recently, I’ve been giving it some serious thought.
In fact, last week I made up my mind to write a book, although I doubt it is the book any of my acquaintances would have expected.
The book is about a whole bunch of desperate people, told through the experiences of one family. This family - we’ll call them the Garcias - were farmers. In fact, generations of their family had lived and worked the same land.
Unless you have an instinctive hatred for poor folks, you will like the Garcias, I think. They are a good, decent hard-working family. They have been swept up in circumstances beyond their control. If they are to survive, they will have to leave.
So the Garcias, like so many of their friends and neighbors, packed up their few meager belongings and headed for a land of promise hundreds of miles away. California.
That far-away land represented a fresh start, a better life. Some of their relatives had made the same journey years before and had encouraged them to join them. California was a land of milk and honey, they all said.
Well, really, what options did they have anyway? It was California or ruin.
The book begins with the beginning of the Garcias’ journey.
It was a tough trek over difficult terrain. The little money they had was soon exhausted and they were forced to make do the best they could. Sometimes, they were helped by other travelers, who were pursuing the same dream.
Sadly, Abuela Garcia dies, broken-hearted, along the way. With no money for a proper burial, the family simply buries her in the desert and moves on.
When the Garcias finally arrive in California, they are completely destitute. What’s more, times have changed. The boom days are over and even relatively prosperous Californians are beginning to feel the effects of a faltering economy.
Years before, these refugees had been welcomed and accepted. In fact, a lot of their culture was adopted into the community. There was a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation. The residents appreciated their willingness to do all the jobs nobody else wanted to do, for pay that no one else would stand for. The immigrants simply appreciated the opportunity to build a better life.
Now? The visitors are treated with suspicion, even hatred. “We have our own people to take care of,’’ the thinking went. “These people are just a drain on our resources.’’
So, they were told to go back where they belonged, even though a return trip would sentence them to a hopeless future. Going home was not an option, so they hid as best they could, sneaking out only to look for work.
Before long, politicians and law enforcement, sensitive to the fear and prejudices of the residents, began to make political hay of the situation. Laws that had been simply ignored for years were suddenly dusted off and implemented with great vigor. Lock 'em up or send 'em home, came the cry.
And the plight of the Garcias grew worse. Residents sneered at them, called them names. Cops rounded them up, beat them down, generally abused them.
And if they dared complain, they were told, “Go back where you came from. You have no right to be here!’’
Soon, employers - fearful of government reprisal and the hostility of the residents - refused to give them any work at all.
Without work, some resorted to stealing, so desperate had their blight become. Others, as is the case with any mass migration, were simply criminals at heart. It didn’t take long for that distinction to be lost to the residents, though. “They’re just a bunch of criminals, little better than animals,’’ was the general opinion.
The book chronicles the demise of the Garcias, and many others like them.
I was pretty excited about writing that book.
And then, I realized something:
This book had already been written. In fact, it was written almost 70 years ago, by John Steinbeck.
It’s called, “The Grapes of Wrath.’’
Oh, there are a few differences between the book I imagined and Steinbeck’s. The family in Steinbeck’s book are the Joads, not the Garcias. And they were from Oklahoma rather than Mexico.
Beyond that, it’s the same story.
With the same implications.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Gospel According To Fred

OK. This morning I’m reading my devotional and, because lack of focus has been a lifelong infirmity, my mind drifted back to a moment more than a year ago when I was at Florence West prison.
There was this inmate by the name of Wells Vaughn who one day made the statement that Luke was the most prolific writer in the Bible.
Now, I was pretty sure this was wrong, but I raised my objection very delicately - and for a very good reason. Wells was prone to outbursts of anger. He was a bare-knuckled believer, a distinct sect you find only in prison. If you’ve ever been to prison, you know what I’m talking about. It’s all, “Come to Jesus or I’ll pound ya!’’
So when Wells makes his statement about Luke‘s writing, I chose my words carefully.
“Gee, I didn’t know that,’’ I said softly, careful not to make direct eye contact. “All along, I thought Paul wrote the most in the Bible.’’
Now, Paul is generally credited as the author of at least 13 of the books in the New Testament. A 14th, the Epistle to the Hebrews, was initially attributed to him. Nobody is saying flat-out that Paul didn’t write Hebrews, but those who are inclined to dismiss Paul as the author point out that the style of writing found in Hebrews differs greatly from his universally accepted works.
So Paul wrote 13 or 14 of the books of the New Testament.
That made Wells’ pronouncement that Luke was the most prolific writer in the Bible suspect in my view. The only books that are attributed to Luke are The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. By my scorecard, that’s Paul 13, Luke 2. And that’s not even giving credit to Paul for Hebrews. Heck, let’s give Hebrews to Luke. He’s still way behind, right?
When I meekly raised this objection, Wells said that while he conceded that Paul wrote more books, when you counted the words in the books written by the two men, you would realize that Luke wrote more of the words in the Bible than Paul.
And since Wells seemed to me precisely the sort of guy who would bother to count the exact number of words, I let it pass. Nothing to get a broken nose over, I figured.
Of course, some time later, as I considered Wells’ reasoning it struck me that, if you went by word count, Moses - credited as the author of the first five books of the Bible - wrote more words that Paul and Luke put together. Moses was like the Tolstoy of the ancient writers. Moses wrote some seriously long books.
But just this morning , it occurred to me that if you ask, “Who wrote the most in the Bible?’’ you first must clarify which Bible you are talking about.
Because as I skimmed through the pages of the Bible I was holding this morning, a new candidate emerged:
Fred Smith.
Now, before you dismiss this as some sort of heresy, perhaps an effort to invent some new pseudo-Christian belief system (Fred Smith is not Joseph Smith’s lesser-known brother, for example), I ask for your patience.
Fred Smith is my dad.
The Bible I read from is one of his things that came into my possession after he died three years ago. It is a faded brown leather King James version, roughly 5x7 inches and about a inch thick with pages so thin you can almost see through them when you hold them up to the light.
Near the front, there is a page that carries a message. Written there in my mother’s elegant hand in faded blue ink, is this: “Presented to Fred Smith by Mattie Jewel (my mom’s name) on Feb. 13th, 1971.''
That means the Bible was a present from mom to commemorate Dad’s 53rd birthday.
You can tell it was a pretty expensive Bible. I’m not sure how much it set mom back, but I can’t see how that really matters. The worth of a thing is seldom measured by its cost.
But it is obvious that the gift was of great value to Dad, for it bears the evidence of more than 30 years of diligent use.
That is why, if you ask me who wrote the most in the Bible - at least MY Bible - I have to include Fred Smith as a contender.
It’s a pretty beat-up old book, which rather than being a sign of neglect is a testament to its use. There are notations writing in my dad’s often indecipherable hand from cover to cover. OK, there are long stretches in the Old Testament that don’t carry any extra ink. But when you get to the New Testament, I find my dad’s scribbling on just about every page.
There are passages underlined and circled. There are passages where he has written in the tiny margin with words that I cannot make out in whole or part. Then there are some notations that seem sure to remain a mystery. For example, the number “6628’’ is written on one of the blank pages at the front. Who know what that means? It could be a house number or the last four digits of a phone number, which would be all you needed in our small town since everybody had the same “842‘’ prefix.
But, really, who knows? Jack Van Impe might argue that it was divine revelation of the second coming - June 6, 2028 - if you‘re into that sort of thing . I am not
Of the margin notes that I can make out, one is particularly interesting to me. Dad had bracketed Acts 20, verses 17-38. This is the account where Paul is saying his final goodbye to his congregation in Ephesus. In the margin, Dad wrote, “Bro. Steve‘s last sermon.’’
I don’t know “Bro. Steve.’’ He must have arrived as pastor at my parents' church some time after I began by prodigal journey. I don’t know when Brother Steve arrived, when he left or why.
But thanks to Dad’s note in th margin, I do know what Brother Steve talked about on his last Sunday morning at East Heights Baptist Church in Tupelo, Miss. It was important enough for Dad to note, which means that Brother Steve must have been someone very dear to Dad, who never was the sort to show emotion.
So, if you know Brother Steve, you might pass that along, which is a long shot, I realize
Now, I have quite a few Bibles. In some respects, the others are superior to Dad’s beat-up old KJV. The new translations are easier to understand, have more study aids and commentary and are not dog-eared, torn and generally worn out.
But I find that Dad’s Bible is the one I use the most and not merely for sentimental reasons.
I’ve always loved to borrow books from people who make notes on the margins and underline captivating passages. Often, the original owner will highlight something or make a comment in the margin that helps me see the narrative in a new or more insightful way or call my attention to something I might otherwise have neglected.
And so it is with Dad’s Bible. When I come across an underlined passage, I pause to reflect on what it must have meant to him. Often, I find that he has helped inspire me to consider a passage more carefully.
You know, my dad worked two or three jobs all through my childhood. We were never wealthy, but we had what we needed, mainly because dad was determined to be a good provider.
When he passed, he left each of his six kids about $18,000 which is truly remarkable when you consider that he never made more than $8 per hour and had six kids to raise.
That money is long gone. But I have some other little things that serve as a reminder. I have a pair of his blue coveralls. Much to Mom’s dismay, Dad basically lived in coveralls. Except on Sunday mornings, of course, when - like most folks of his time and place - he “dressed’’ for church. I have reminders of that, too, in the form of a handful of his “clip-on’’ ties, fabulously loud ties at that. I smile every time I see them.
Besides that stuff, I am beginning to realize that Dad left me something of much greater value. He left me his Godly example. I can't imagine a better, more enduring gift from a father to a son, really.
His example is never farther away than his memory, and I find further evidence of it all through the pages of that worn-out King James Bible.
Yes, Moses, Paul, Luke. They wrote plenty in the Bible. I leave it to Wells to hash out who wrote the most.
But on the pages of the Bible I read each day, I say with all reverence that I have been left with another account of the Gospel, written by a simple, hard-working man who happened to be my dad:
The Gospel According To Fred.
Amen, Dad.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Father's Day, confound it!

Sunday is Father’s Day, but I’m sort of on the periphery of that holiday this year. My kids, Corey and Abby, are back in Mississippi, 1,500 miles away, so this is the first Father’s Day we’ve been apart. Since I’ve already been through a Thanksgiving and a Christmas without seeing them, I do not expect Father’s Day to be too difficult, though. We’ll talk on the phone and I’ll find that to be a blessing. There will be other Father’s Days when we can be together, God willing.
My own dad died in September 2005, which means BOTH of my fathers are in heaven now.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think of Fred Austin Smith, especially this time of year.
I cannot say that I knew my dad all that well. He was always working, more out of necessity than anything else. He worked two or three jobs throughout my childhood, which is what comes with trying to raise six kids with the benefit of only a high-school education.
He loved to hunt and fish, although he rarely had time for those interests. After he finally retired, he would play golf occasionally. The only time he played golf was when one of us kids came home for a visit.
The fact that he never had a golf lesson and played about two rounds of golf per year did not diminish his expectations, though. Dad was a natural athlete and a competitor, a fierce one at that.
One of my fondest mental images of Dad is of him deep in a green-side bunker, flailing away in a comically futile bid to extract a golf ball from the sandy depths.
Now, my dad was a fine Christian man, a deacon and a revered Sunday School teacher for 40 years.
That meant he did not swear. In fact, I cannot recall a single cuss word escaping my dad’s lips, even though there were many occasions when that might have been expected, given the mischief six kids will inevitably get in to.
So, in obedience to his faith, my dad swore off swearing, you might say. But the competitor in him had to have some outlet in times of great duress. So it was that my dad perfected the art of swearing without swearing.
His favorite non-cuss, cuss-words were “Confound it!’’ He would yell it with great conviction in times of deep frustration.
So I see him down in that bunker, hacking at that golf ball in the much the same manner as a man trying to kill a python with a leaf rake - violently jabbing at that ball with great, thunderous utterances of “CONFOUND IT!!!’ with each failed attempt.
He was a good man, loved and respected by all who knew him.
Dad, I want you to know that I love you and miss you something awful.
What I wouldn’t give to play another round of golf with you
That can’t happen, of course, so the memories will have to suffice.