Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermons, Integrity and Richard Nixon

If you google "sermon illustrations" and "love your enemies," you will pretty quickly come across this anecdote:
Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”*

Great story, right?  Turns out it may be almost true.

We weren't sure at first.

We found the story repeated verbatim herehere and here.  The verbatim part makes us suspicious, since preachers are notorious for passing around the same old stories, with little concertn for pesky old factuality.The last source is Maxie Dunnam's Irresistible Invitation, published in 2010; further research finds that Dunnam has been telling this story at least since his 1998 This is Christianity.  So ... did Dunnam clip this little tidbit out of a newsmagazine, or find it somewhere else?  The question is made harder to answer by the fact that  Newsweek's archives are owned by The Daily Beast, but have not been digitized or made available to anybody except Beast employees.

There is an alternate version of the story that is easy to trace.  Remember that Humphrey and Nixon were political rivals, and the 1968 election was one of the closest and hardest fought in history.  After Watergate, Nixon's reputation was at an ebb so low it may be hard for young people to imagine.  He was hated, reviled, shunned by virtually the whole of the Establishment.  And then, in 1977, his old rival developed urinary cancer.

Then-Senator Dave Durenberger tells the rest of the story, in the Congressional Record (2 May 1994):

When my predecessor in this office -- the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey -- was dying of cancer in Lake Waverly, MN, he called former President Nixon and asked him to attend his -- Humphrey's -- funeral. 
Humphrey knew that the funeral was not going to be long in coming -- and he arranged that Richard Nixon be received at that ceremony with the full honor due to a former President. Young people who watched the TV coverage of President Nixon's death and funeral -- coverage that I understand was generally positive in tone -- might find nothing remarkable in this. But back in 1977, the scars of the Watergate scandal were far from healed. Many of Senator Humphrey's liberal colleagues -- and even a substantial number of moderates and conservatives -- viewed Nixon as deserving a state of permanent disgrace.
Hubert Humphrey demonstrated true nobility of character by making his historic gesture to President Nixon. He realized that whether you share Nixon's views or no,you have to recognize his value to public life. Humphrey had known Nixon for decades -- and knew that ostracizing Nixon would hurt America's future more than it would help.
Today, let us continue in the tradition of my distinguished predecessor. Let us join Hubert Humphrey in recognizing that all public-spirited Americans, whatever their ideology, have a constructive role to play in building our country's future.

Ah.  Now that is a beautiful story, and -- when you subtract the political blather -- a better preaching illustration as well.

Larry King tells a shorter but compatible version in his 2009 memoir, My Remarkable Journey.  In King's version, which he says he heard from Humphrey, it was Nixon who called Humphrey, in the hospital, on Christmas Eve.  (With a rope?)

But in neither Durenberger's version nor King's is there any mention of Jimmy Carter.  For a while, we thought that the homiletic version was a fabrication.  But then we found a 1994 article in The New York Review of Books, which tells the story of how Nixon fought his way back from ignominy.  And lo and behold, it cites Newsweek's 19 May 1986 issue, on the cover of which a victorious Nixon appeared, under the proud headline "He's Back!"  The Newsweek story begins:

Suddenly he [Nixon] was in the room, and the conversation died. As Howard Baker tells it, Richard Nixon “looked like he was four feet tall, all shrunk up in himself and gray as a ghost.” It was January 1978, in Baker’s Senate office, where the notables were mustering for Hubert Humphrey’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. “Nobody would get near him. Nobody would talk to him. The hush lasted until President Jimmy Carter walked over, shook Nixon’s hand and welcomed him.
If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, that was it.

This version was shortened for use in a 1999 sermon by Arthur Ferry.  Ferry glosses a little, saying that Carter welcomed Nixon "back to Washington."  Ferry also adds the words "humanity and compassion," attributing them -- wrongly -- to Newsweek.  The supposed quotation, "Welcome home, Mr. President," occurs in neither Newsweek nor Ferry. 

The version published by Maxie Dunnam and often copied by other preachers is less faithful to Newsweek than the one in Ferry's sermon.  Dunnam turns "humanity" to "love," and adds the "Welcome home, Mr. President." We thought at first that Dunnam had copied from Ferry, but perhaps he has simply strayed further from a common source.  Still, if Newsweek is to be trusted, the Dunnam/Ferry version is largely accurate, apart from some dialogue and editorial moralizing.  The dialogue seems likely to be Dunnam's creation.

We prefer Durenberger's version, with its emphasis upon Humphrey's kindness rather than Carter's. In any case, the earliest telling -- Newsweek's -- comes almost a decade after the fact, and should be treated with some caution.

We shouldn't care about this.  As readers now know, we at the Egg have no more integrity than Nixon himself.  But still, we do think it is better for everyone, and especially for the credibility of the Gospel, when the stories in sermons are demonstrably true.

"The Vicar of Snark"

GetReligion has a droll piece on Pope Francis, arguing that the press has wrongly painted him as a nice guy, when in fact he sometimes says mean things.  In contrast, the piece argues, Benedict actually was a nice guy.

The lede is sheer genius.  It offers this example of Papa F. denouncing journalists:

Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.

"Oh, my, my," shouts GR in the voice of the SNL Church Lady. " Did the Pope just call journalists a bunch of shit-loving shit-eaters?  Or was it somebody else?  Like maybe ... Satan?"

They go on to argue that Bergoglio is really just a meanie who says these terrible things, unlike that kindly old Dr. Ratzinger.  But the argument fails from the outset, because GR misses the obvious fact, which its article then goes on to prove with further examples:  Francis is a funny man.

Acerbic, sure.  But funny.  The Week, from which our title is borrowed, says he is "practically an insult comic," and offers some jolly examples.  When annoyed, Francis has referred to people as "querulous and disillusioned pessimists," "museum mummies," "priest-tycoons".  They don't mention the most famous, the reference in Evangelii Gaudium to "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism."  (Zuhlsdorf will sell you a mug with those words printed on it.) Best of all, Francis has called the Vatican hierarchy "the leprosy of the papacy."

No, it's not vintage Don Rickles.  But in context, it's all pretty good.

Perhaps it is because we spend so much time reading Reformation-era polemical writing.  Or perhaps it is that we secretly prefer Dorothy Parker to Dorothy Day.  But we find this sort of stuff refreshing.

Of course, we also thought that Benedict's much-derided Regensburg lecture on the use of force in religion was a delightful, if poorly timed, example of donnish provocation.  Maybe we're just soft on popes in general.

Anyway, GR is trying to counteract what it perceives as a lefty effort to soften Bergoglio's image, by arguing that he says unkind things about people he doesn't like -- including (heaven forbid!) journalists.  Because the article insists on contrasting him to his predecessor, this winds up looking like a gentler form of the Bergoglio-bashing we have already seen from Rorate Caeli & Co.  This misses the point somewhat.

We will be greatly relieved when people on both sides stop treating these two elderly celibate men, chosen as leaders of the same organization by basically the same group of their own friends and associates, as though they stood in radical opposition to one another.  They don't.  While they may have differences of personal style and even some theological substance, they are both self-evidently committed to the perpetuation and prolongation of  the same institution.  It's just that one is funnier than the other.  There's nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by acting as though they were enemies, or opposites, or whatever.

So grow up, people.  Relax and enjoy the show.  He'll be here all week, and we hear the veal is good.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Luther Sells Out

This morning Last week, students at Luther Seminary learned that their dorms were going to be privatized.*

Well, sort of.  The seminary has arranged to sell two apartment buildings, which are currently used for student housing.  The purchasers have agreed to make some improvements to the property, and to allow current students to continue renting.  Their rent, students have been assured, will not increase by more than 10%.  In turn, the seminary will be able to pay off some or all of the money it borrowed from its endowment fund.

At least that's the plan.  Will the new owners turn out to be what in New York are called "Dracula Landlords," the kind who charge too much and offer too little, turning the neighborhood into a slum?  Will the improvements cost so much that, to recoup their losses, the landlords gradually edge out students in favor of some more monied class of renters?  Will they try to "flip" the building when the market turns, or begin the process of turning the buildings into co-ops?

Who knows?

We're told that there's a great deal of anxiety on the campus today, which is to be expected.  We'd be anxious, too.

To be honest, though, this could be a good thing for the seminary without being a particularly bad one for its students.  Schools, like churches, sometimes wind up in the landlord business without being particularly well-equipped for it.  It's not their core mission, and there's a pretty good argument that they shouldn't waste resources playing catch-up ball.  Since 1999, the Army has been privatizing its base housing -- getting out of residential real estate, which isn't its core mission either -- apparently with no ill effects.

We're generally cynical about maneuvers like this.  Many congregations have sold their parsonage to make a much-needed upfront buck, but then found themselves unable to compensate a new pastor for local housing.  But the situation here is different, if only because of the numbers.  Student bodies rise and shrink; maintenance costs on an apartment are relatively fixed.  A building that can house 50 people becomes a terrible strain on a school that needs housing for 25.

If congregations all over America are in a crisis, seminaries are in a worse one.  And compared to the the half-assed ideas that are being floated in the world of theological education these days -- dropping Greek and Hebrew, "terminal internships," cutting whole years out of the experience that should in theory prepare a pastor for a lifetime of ministry -- selling off a few buildings looks like genius.

* Thanks to Vicar Dan for the timeline correction; see his note below for information on the poor condition of the buildings at present.

Failed Politician Turns Sex Tourist in Africa

One former congressman has been arrested.  Shockingly, the others have not.

Mel Reynolds has been arrested in Zimbabwe.  He has been living there since November, apparently without filing the correct immigration paperwork.  In those four months, Reynolds has rung up a $25,000 unpaid hotel bill.

Reuters also mentions that he was found to possess pornography, which is a crime in Zimbabwe.  The report does not specify what kind of pornography we are talking about.  A few dog-eared Playboys, for example, would hardly shock most of Reynolds' erstwhile constituents.

But we don't think that's it.

Reynolds was, again per Reuters, "a rising star in the Democratic Party" until
... he was forced to resign in 1995 after being convicted of sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography.
Ah.  Now we get it.

Yesterday, we'd never heard of Congressman Reynolds, perhaps for the good reason that he only served one two-year term, in the early 90s.  He has spent more time in prison than he ever did in Congress, first following a conviction for statutory rape and then following a separate conviction for bank fraud.

Ick.  Just ... ick.

It almost seems cruel to add that, in 2004, Reynolds attempted to regain his seat, the Illinois 2nd, and was crushed by the incumbent -- Jesse Jackson, Jr.  When you can't beat Jesse Jr., it's time to get out of the game.

Anyway, we point out Rep. Reynolds' problems only to observe that there is somebody, somewhere, who has less integrity than we ourselves.  Small victories, people.

Monday, February 17, 2014

We Have No Integrity!

This just in:  Father Anonymous has no integrity!

Regular readers will no doubt find this unsurprising.  Way back in 2010, we expressed our willingness to blog for money -- to shamelessly promote any product for a fee, and the right products in exchange for samples.  We mentioned a particular interest in wristwatches, books and clerical haberdashery.  (Sinn, Continuum [which is now part of Bloomsbury] and Slabbinck came in for particular mention.  These days, we'd happily take a look at some fancy camping gear as well.  Are you listening, Arc'teryx?). To our great regret, no manufacturers or distributors have actually taken us up on this offer -- yet.

But the point remains: Father A. is  sellout by nature, sadly lacking in the ascetical rigor implicit in his vocation.  Miserere nobis, Domine!

Our only comfort was the thought that this abject moral poverty was a somewhat private affair, known only to ourselves and to the minuscule coterie of regular Egg-beaters.  Imagine, then, the shame - the Kristevan horreur -- that we felt when we were called to account by no less august a community than the Facebook  ELCA Pastors' Group.

A group member offered for consideration a paragraph from our first reflection on l'affaire Justman.  It was a rather good paragraph, although we had forgotten writing it.  (Perhaps, indeed, we stole it -- that's how little integrity we have!)  Here it is:

Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down.  The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad.  You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority.  Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.

We will stand by those remarks.  They describe, to our mind, the extraordinarily challenging position in which ELCA bishops find themselves.  The office of bishop in the ELCA is poorly defined, and it is frankly miraculous that any of the people who hold it manage to get anything done.  By the same token,  the only real surprise when a bishop resigns is that ten others haven't resigned as well.

The same thing can be said, incidentally, of pastors.  A glance at the ELCA Model Constitution shows why.  Article 9, concerning the office of the pastor, seems to go on forever, much of its length spent assigning the pastor duties without granting any corresponding executive authority, and even more of it spent on just how to get rid of him (or her).  Lutherans have a long and complex history of interpreting the offices of pastor and bsihop, from nearly idolatrous worship of Herr Pastor to the undisguised anticlericalism of the Pietists; both constitution and parish practice reflect this history.  We are divided between our need for strong pastoral leadership and our fear of pastoral tyranny, and act on that division by both loving our pastors and seeking to destroy them.

Somebody once told us that the best example of passive aggressive behavior is the dog who jumps up to lick your face while simultaneously peeing on your leg.  There, in a nutshell, is the Lutheran approach to pastors and, except even more so, to bishops.

However, the Facebook group sees it differently.  Members read the offending paragraph as a criticism not of the office and how it is defined, but of the people who hold it.  The very first commenter claimed to have known every ELCA bishop ever, and to have seen in them models of solid leadership -- two claims that are difficult to reconcile, given what we know about the catastrophic failure of a few bishops.  Others chimed in accordingly.  The instinct to defend one's bishop, as well as one's friend, is a very good one, displaying just the sort of integrity that the Egg so prominently lacks.  We applaud it, however completely beside the point in question it may be.

Another commenter sniffed that "leadership is hard," an observation which is ... sort of what we were trying to say.

We'll say this more clearly, in case you missed it:  there are many fine bishops in the ELCA, as there are many fine pastors.  We've been privileged to know some of them.  Their presence is proof, however, of God's providence rather than of any human wisdom, because their church has given them a ridiculous job, one which could scarcely be better designed if its goal were to drive them to booze, broads, or bigger parishes -- the three customary causes of an episcopal dimission.

Anyway, back to our integrity -- or lack thereof.

The Facebook ELCA Clergy Group has a number of distinguishing characteristics.  One is that its participants are generally on the young side, and seem not to have fully integrated all the lessons of their priestly formation.  Rather than consult a book, or -- one hopes -- their own memory of the relevant course, they seem to instinctively crowdsource every question.  Some questions are quite naturally resolved this way (e.g., "Where to buy black shirts cheap?"); others are not ("Why can't we make up our own creeds?"  "What is that poncho thing some pastors wear at the Eucharist?" "Does anybody really use Greek?")  It is a little dispiriting to watch.  Older pastors try to dispense such theological learning and practical wisdom as they are able, but generally despair quickly.  (Our biretta is permanently off to Frs. Murphy and Stoffregen, who are tireless dispensers of all that is good and true and beautiful.)

Another characteristic, common to many online discussions, is that threads often meander.  The question of where to buy shirts, for example, can easily turn into a  pissing match among those who insist on black clericals, those who champion the multicolored, and those who dismiss the whole subject as reeking of potpourri -- sorry, we meant popery.  This particular topic, which comes up every couple of months, is as theologically neutral as one can imagine, and yet it predictably preciptates a nasty exchange of self-righteous truisms.

In the case at hand, for example, the question of how Lutherans have defined the episcopal office never really got talked about, even when the OP herself tried to raise it again.  People seemed more interested in talking about how well the bishops of their acquaintance had performed -- and how evil Fr. A. was. for suggesting otherwise, even though he hadn't.

Their gravest objection seemed to be that Father Anonymous was ... anonymous.  It was this that seems to have raised the question of his integrity, although just how anonymity and integrity are connected was never made clear.

A few people muttered politely that anonymity has a long history in journalism.  (Paging Xavier Rynne! Not to mention the only newsmagazine that's actually any good.  Oh, and that gutless wonder Thomas Paine). We thank them, but the Egg is hardly journalism.  It's the periodic ramble of a prematurely senile minister, more concerned with John Donne's mystagogy, John Mason Neale's hymnody and Dick Cheney's predilection for sexual congress with billy goats than with any matters of present-day concern.

Likewise, a few faithful readers rose to our defense, and their kind words are music to our tone-deaf ears.  (Literally tone-deaf.  Can't chant a freaking note, despite the weekly attempt.)  But the truth is that our critics are right:  we have no integrity.  Our critics are right, because how could so intellectually sophisticated a group possibly be wrong?

We offer no defense; it would be pointless.  We will only observe, as we have before, that our "anonymity" is pretty thin stuff.  We adopted it, back in the innocent days of 2005, to prevent our private ramblings about sex and politics from disturbing the peace of the parish.  But over time, it has grown ever more notional.  Most regular readers know pretty much exactly who "Father Anonymous" is; quite a number have entertained him in their homes, served with him on a parish council, chatted with him over brewskis or via the Internet, prayed his eccentric version of the Daily Office.  According to the Egg's Dept. of Statistics, fully one-tenth of our readers actually gave birth to us.  (And btw, thanks for doing that, Mom.)

While it is possible to learn the notorious little cleric's secret identity with two mouse clicks, navigating from this very page, that may be too much work for kids nowadays.  (Durn entitled Millennials -- get offa my lawn!) Still, there's a com-box on every page, and we're busy but by no means bashful.  So if you want to know a guy's name, there's one tried-and-true-method, which is to ask.

But really, why bother?  This blog has no integrity.  It's certainly not a labor of love, nor an expression of care for the church and its theology.  On the contrary, we're just in it for the swag.