(originally scheduled for January 18, but was postponed due to snow.)
I want to offer some comments ‘in praise of Christianity.’ It was the religion of my birth and boyhood, and I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the ministers and Sunday school teachers who introduced me to Jesus, whose name is synonymous with Christianity- Jesus of Nazareth.
But first I want to read an article I wrote, which I titled: ‘In Memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ It was published in the Minuteman’s ‘For Heaven’s Sake,’ column on January 15, the 75th anniversary of his birth.
“Today is the 75th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In a cruel twist of fate, this man who preached a doctrine of non-violence, was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
“The man who had the most influence on him was, Mohandas K. Gandhi, called the Mahatma, the Hindu term for respect-the term literally means spirit.
“All too rarely, but from time to time, a person of peace emerges in this violent world and makes a significant impact. Gandhi used a system of non-violent civil disobedience to force Great Britain to grant independence to India in 1947.
“Henry David Thoreau, our New England guru, wrote an essay On Civil Disobedience. Gandhi read it and carried with him. All three of these important peacemakers were influenced by the non-violent teaching of Jesus, whose life also came to a bitter end, but whose spirit-whose influence–lives on.
“In his most famous sermon Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was a peacemaker, winning the Nobel Prize For Peace in 1964. In his acceptance speech King said, ‘I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners — all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty — and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.’
“Like Jesus, whose life and teaching had such an impact on him, King did not live to see his 40th birthday. But the influence of these powerful peacemakers grows greater with the years.
“At the height of the violence in Vietnam, and the heat of racial tensions in America, King said, ‘We have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.’
“He preached against violence, but he purposely worked to create tension in order to bring about change. He said, ‘I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.’
“Less than a year after King’s assassination I enrolled in Boston University School of Theology, from which he took his Ph. D. in 1955. His influence at the seminary was palpable. The pulpit in Marsh Chapel rang with words from ‘Martin,’ again and again,
“The peace prize, which he called a ‘precious heirloom,’ has been passed on to us. The holiday we call Martin Luther King Day runs the risk of being just another day off, another long weekend to shop, ski or rest. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things, but we need to be reminded that the precious heirloom-the hope for peace and justice–is now in our hands.
“Who will come forward to be the peacemakers of our time? When will we learn that a violent response to violence only creates more violence? You’ve taken time to read this little remembrance, which indicates your willingness to work for peace. On behalf of Martin, and all those who have given their lives for peace, I thank you.
“Peace be with you.”
The religion that Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out was the brand of Christianity I was taught: that your religion is the way you live your life; that religion is about this day-to-day, down-to-earth world; that Jesus was a living example of that religion.
I was challenged to do this sermon by someone who told me that I’ve helped to create a place here at the Unitarian Church in Westport that is friendly to all the religions of the world; a place that is Jewish friendly and Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist friendly–a place where we are challenged to re-think old ideas about religion, and to live our religion in our day-to-day lives.
“But,” she said,’ “I wish you had more good things to say about the Christian religion.” She added, “You seem to be more critical of Christianity than you are of the other religions.”
I took that comment home with me and I’ve been mulling it over. She’s absolutely right, of course. I can be more critical of Christianity for a few reasons: first of all, it’s my religion of origin–it’s like family. We’re always most critical of the folks in the family; and to some extent my criticisms of Christianity are self-critical. Each of us is, of necessity, self-critical. How else do we grow?
Another reason I’ve been more critical of Christianity is that there are so many brands of Christianity that are at odds with one another. There are literally thousands of Christian sects, many of which are at odds with the Christianity I was taught in my youth, and very much at odds with the Christianity I can ‘praise.’
If someone tells you they are Jewish, the first question you might very well ask is, “Are you a practicing Jew?” They know what you mean. If the answer is ‘yes,’ you then press further to see if they are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or one of the other sub-sets.
When I was growing up in the Boston area all people were put in one of three categories: Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. Most were Catholic. Boston is known for it, of course.
In fact, I was christened Catholic as an infant.
When it came time for our religious training, however, my parents took us to the Congregational Church. We were living in West Medford then, just outside of Boston. It was a Protestant church. I don’t remember attaching the word Christian to it, as such. I’m sure the adults used the term ‘Christian,’ in some ways. But to me it was Protestant, so I was Protestant because I went to the Congregational church.
I have no idea what kind of conversation went on between my Catholic mother and my Protestant father. I know that one Easter four of my brothers and I were baptized together in the Congregational Church. I know because there’s a photograph of the five of us in Easter outfits.
We are what we remember-we become what we cling to.
Easter was an important religious day-not only because we got a basket with candy, but because it was a joyous time. I loved going to sunrise services, and if no one else in the family went, I would go alone. I have a strong memory of standing outside waiting for the sun to come up-it would be chilly, and we didn’t see the sun rise on cloudy Easter mornings, but it didn’t matter.
I was the fourth of nine children. There was a sister I never met-she died before I was born. So there were six boys, then the two girls.
Church, for me, was a special place, set aside. It was different from home where there was so much upheaval-so many storms that would suddenly erupt, and brawls that would break out between the boys. It was exciting and challenging.
But church was a very peaceful place with a sense of order, discipline and civility. It felt very safe and secure. I don’t remember thinking those things in a conscious way at that time, but it’s what comes to mind about church in retrospect.
In addition to that, I got special recognition in church. In the seventh grade I won a prize for memorizing the most psalms. I was affirmed in the Congregational church-never confirmed, but always affirmed!
I naturally I loved it. I felt a deep and lasting sense of connection to God, and even as a very young child I had a sense of God’s presence within me, as well as a wonderful child-like sense of God watching over me.
Jesus was God’s son, so I could relate-I was somebody’s son, too. Since God was the Father, Jesus was more like a big brother. Jesus was not ‘God.’ Years later I would learn about the debate at the first church council, at Nicea, where the decision was made that Jesus was and ‘is’ God; Jesus is God in human flesh, brought to suffer and die for our sins-vicarious atonement. But that’s a much later chapter in my story.
In all honesty, I can’t say that I remember in any precise way things that I believed about God and Jesus, except that they were good feelings, and they were connected with what I thought of as my religion, and that Jesus was very human.
I knew that the Catholic kids had a different religion-I don’t remember thinking that we were both Christian. Catholics were one thing, Protestants were another, just the way the Irish were different from the Italians, and we had a lot of both in the neighborhood of Boston! In the Catholic church Jesus was Christ, and he was on the cross, bleeding.
Sometimes I would go into St. Charles, the Catholic Church in Woburn to wait for my friends who had to go to confession. I was intrigued, but just as glad I didn’t have to go into that little closet to tell somebody stuff I didn’t want my parents to know about, and glad I didn’t have to go kneel down to say a certain number of Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s. Not that it was a big deal punishment, but I remember that it somehow seemed demeaning for the kids to have to kneel and say prayers because of what they told the priest in the confession box.
I was glad I didn’t have to go to Saturday school, as they called it-glad I didn’t have to learn the catechism they had to memorize, without questioning it. I asked if they questioned things in the catechism. The priests’ favorite answer to theological questions like, ‘Who made God,’ was, “Well, that’s one of the mysteries of the church, you know,” usually said with a Boston Irish accent.
I remember smiling at that answer, but later came to realize the depth of truth in it. But that, too, is a much later chapter in my journey.
What I do remember about going into St. Charles church is that I liked the place. I liked the sense of mystery-the semi darkness with light coming through stained glass windows on which there were saints-you could tell they were saints because they had haloes. I liked the candles at the altar or little side chapels, and the smell, a musty smell with hint of incense. I liked the statues.
I was intrigued with the nuns. They had an aura about them, a combination of saintliness and mystery. They were set apart from the regular people with their habits and those tight white wimples that framed their faces-freshly washed faces without makeup.
I was intrigued with the suffering, bleeding Christ on the cross. Our cross was empty, and our Jesus wasn’t bleeding. Their Jesus was called Christ-I don’t remember my Catholic friends talking about Jesus, who was just a man. They talked about Christ, who was mysteriously holy.
I remember my Catholic grandmother saying, “Everybody has a cross to bear.” She was talking from personal experience-she had suffered a great deal. She taught us to pray at home. She taught us the simple ‘now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.’ It seemed a little scary, but it gave me permission to walk up to death and look at it head on.
She taught us the ‘thank-you’ prayer: “God bless Mommy and Daddy,” and so forth. It was a prayer of appreciation, which I would later come to realize is the basis of all prayer: ‘thank you.’ But that came much later. Praying with Nana was saying to God, ‘Thank you for Mommy and Daddy, and for my brothers, (the same brothers with whom I might have been fighting fifteen minutes before, but we could pray together with my grandmother as she tucked us in.)
Indeed, there was nothing I didn’t like about religion. I was intrigued, the way other boys were intrigued with baseball or bicycles-both of which I enjoyed. But religion took hold of me in a different, deep way.
At the end of the third grade Sunday school class I was given a Bible with my own name engraved in gold, and a potted geranium to bring home to my mother.
I gave the flower to my mother and I took the Bible to a private place-the stairway leading upstairs–a place where I could be alone and start to read the Bible-not just any Bible, but my very own Bible, the Bible with my name engraved in gold. I decided that I should read it from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, the books whose names I had memorized.
Oh, what I would give to know what was going through my mind in those days–on that day in June, for example, when I was sitting in the stairway reading my very own Bible, and looking at the picture of Jesus and the colored maps. I remember how thin the pages were–they seemed so delicate, they seemed ‘holy.’
I don’t remember how far I got–how much I read that day. I remember using it a few years later to read and memorize Psalms from my Bible.
That Bible, and the church, and religion in general became ‘my thing.’ None of my brothers took to it. My mother told me years later-after I had become a minister-that she used to call me her ‘little minister,’ when I was only five or six years old.
Not that she pushed religion on us-she didn’t. But she lived it.
One of the ways my mother lived her religion had to do with forgiveness-a forgiveness that went both ways.
At the heart of the Christianity I praise is forgiveness and reconciliation.
I remember learning about the Parable of the Prodigal Son-how the father welcomed his son home with open arms. I had an experience of that at age 17, having walked out of the house in a huff after an argument with my father. I stayed away, living with a high school friend for a few weeks. Then I came home. My father happened to be standing in front of the house when I drove up, got out of the car, and he said, “Well, the Prodigal Son returns.” We embraced.
The Christianity I praise is characterized by forgiveness–the religion of Jesus, rather than a religion about Jesus. Martin Luther King preached and practiced that kind of Christianity. So did my father.
One of my favorite Bible quotes in the New Testament is from I John which says, “God is love.” I remember learning that quote early on, and it stayed with me. I could feel it in church, so the Christianity I praise is simply about love.
It’s about the inherent worth and dignity of each person comes at birth-it is inborn-but it must be nurtured, just as the body is nurtured and nourished. This is the essential message of Jesus that I was given.
I remember being told the story about Jesus being asked by a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus responded with a question, “What does it say in the Torah?” To which the man responded, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In typical Jewish fashion the man responded to Jesus with another question: “Who is my neighbor?”
This is the point in the story where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, about the man who was beaten and robbed and left naked and bleeding on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The pious one who had his head in the clouds; the letter-of-the law one, who was memorizing Torah; both walked past him without noticing, or, if they noticed, they didn’t stop to help.
The victim is naked, and this is an important detail, since one’s clothes identified a person as rich or poor, or as a member of a particular clan.
Also, the one who stopped to help was a Samaritan-an outsider, one who was not part of the clan, one who would not be expected or obliged to help. The man’s nakedness is significant, and Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan acting as neighbor is significant.
You know the story-you don’t need to be Christian. It’s a universal story. The Samaritan binds up the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, pays the innkeeper to provide food and a room-a place for the man to recuperate-and he even says, “If there’s more expense I’ll pay you on my return.”
This is what I love about Christianity-not only the Christianity with which I was brought up, but the best in Christianity which I see today. It’s summarized in the Golden Rule, ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ Or, maybe even better, the negative way of stating the same thing: ‘do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Do you see the difference?
Of course Christianity is also about the interior life, the spiritual life. That’s why a prayer life needs to be developed and nurtured.
When Jesus was asked by his disciples how they should pray, he said, “Go into your room and shut your door and pray in secret, and your Father who hears in secret will answer.” Then he taught the famous prayer about ‘forgiving your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you.’
The religion of Jesus, the Christianity I praise, cannot be practiced in a room alone. Time spent in the room alone, in prayer, or reading, or thinking, or meditating, helps you to return to those with whom you’ve made a commitment-spouse, lover, family. It’s about the way you relate to the people around you, it’s about stopping to notice the wounded ones, it’s about expressing gratitude out loud to those from whom you have received something, and it’s about the ongoing process of growth and change-the lifelong process of learning about yourself and trying to understand others.
Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced that kind of Christianity. He stood out as a visible example of Christianity at its best, Christianity in action. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He looked clearly at the way things were-especially injustice in all its forms; he held up the vile institution of racism in America so all who were willing to look could see, and he had a dream for the future-for the way things could be.
The Nobel Prize is a bit of irony. Alfred Nobel made a fortune with his invention of powerful explosives-the same kind of explosives used every day in Iraq and Israel today.
I was struck by the genesis of the Nobel Prize, and it relates to the topic:
When Alfred Nobel’s brother died a newspaper printed an obituary of Alfred instead of his deceased brother. It identified him as the wealthy inventor of dynamite, used to make weapons of mass destruction.
This provided Alfred Nobel a wonderful opportunity: he had a chance to read his own obituary! He saw the way he would be remembered-a merchant of death and destruction.
It shook him to the core. He used his fortune to establish the Nobel Peace Prize, and other Nobel Prizes-to be awarded a Nobel Prize is the most esteemed honor in the world today, given to those whose accomplishments contribute to the betterment of Humankind.
That’s the bottom line. This is the kind of Christianity Dr. King lived. He acknowledged Gandhi’s influence, and Gandhi acknowledged Thoreau’s influence. And I try to acknowledge those who have influenced me.those who inspired me and those who continue to provide challenge and encouragement-we all need both.
I’ll continue to criticize religion that offends me, including certain brands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
I’ll try to do a better job of offering praise for that kind of Christianity that nurtured me–the kind of religion that is summarized in our usual benediction, the words I first heard from my friend and colleague Dick Drinon:
“Now say to thyself, ‘If there’s any good thing I can do or any kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”