No One Is Innocent

Current events bring back days gone by.  Nothing unusual about that.  Of course the key is to have an imbalance—make that healthy imbalance—of having what we experience today and envision for tomorrow to be more frequent and weightier than where we’ve been.  My often-stated mantra is to glance at the rear-view mirror and look with full vision and hope through the windshield.

Two cases in point: Ron Artest and Hugh Hefner.

In reverse order. 

I met Hugh Hefner, but that’s not my main memory.  A tweak on that, both memories, have to do with Anson Mount.  I had been referred to Anson, in 1966 when I got to Chicago, by a clergy friend.  At the time Anson wore two hats for Playboy Magazine, the religion editor and sports editor.

On the former his most riveting moment was he requested an article from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King wrote the first draft and personally placed it in a mail box.  That was the morning which later became one of the most regretted days in American history—for that day Dr. King was assassinated.  Anson received the document on Monday and worked with Coretta King to finish the article.

My contact with Anson was more social than anything else.  We’d have lunch occasionally, mainly to talk about church-stuff.  Then one afternoon Anson called me, remember it was a Friday.  “Hey, wanna go hear a Bishop?”

Well, it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill bishop, but John A.T. Robinson , who had just written one of the most compelling theological books of the time, Honest to God, that brought forth what came to be known as “Situation Ethics,” a declaration that not rules but situation mandated how one should act and live.  That is, the key question that Robinson pushed was Jesus’ primary agenda, to look at a circumstance and answer the question, “How can loved be best served now?”

Of course it was controversial because it said that people and their needs were most important.  It put the onus of decision-making on the situation.  That was unacceptable to all kinds of folk.

The Bishop lectured at a northern Chicago suburb university.  I was very impressed with his speech that essentially summarized his book.

I thought, Wonder what happens after the speech—maybe dinner somewhere?  For Anson hadn’t said.  Rather he drove to Chicago’s near north side, Dearborn Avenue to be precise.  He stopped the car outside a very regal looking residence—a man came out and took the car for us.

Turns out it was the Playboy mansion.

My first impression was, What am I doing here—is this something to keep secreted—a minister spending Friday night in the Playboy mansion—something that would be hard to sell to the ladies of the Frauenverein at St. Pauls?  It was September of 1968.

We went up two flights and before us was what was called The Great Room—not overstated—with huge pillows circled, a large, low table in the center.

Bishop Robinson, Anson Mount and a rookie clergyman.

Sitting there was Malcolm Boyd, another Episcopal Priest, who was nationally known for a book of prayers he has written, Are You Running With Me Jesus?.  I learned he was staying in the mansion so he could write a biography of Hefner. 

Whatever.

We sat and visited.  About an hour later two new visitors arrived—one was Jesse Jackson and one of his assistants.  This was getting interesting.  Jackson had been with Dr. King when he was assassinated, so the conversation leaned in that direction.

Then, probably about 2 a.m., Hefner arrived with his girlfriend, Barbi Benton. 

We sat in that circle until 6 in the morning, and of all things, we didn’t talk about the purpose of Playboy, although at one point, pushing testiness, Jackson looked at Hefner, “Hef, your father’s a Methodist minister; how can you justify your wealth and the manner in which you achieve it?”

Whoa.

But Hefner answered in a somewhat staccato manner, saying something about the end justifies the means.  I wasn’t sure what either was, but hey, being a houseguest with all these people, believe it or not I listened more than contributed, although I did answer Benton’s questions about St. Pauls.  Not that she ever planned to attend.

But, other than the Friday night events, what I remember most was a check from the Playboy Foundation for $500.

I’ve shared earlier that my primary responsibility at St. Pauls, after leading the high school youth group, teaching confirmation [a 2-year program for 7-8th graders] and worship was to lead a summer day camp for 120 kids aged 7-12, that lasted six weeks, three days, Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.—5 p.m.

Anson had asked about the program with a question, “Do you have enough money to run it?  I imagine the kids from Green-Cabrini Homes cannot afford it.  Who pays for their bussing?   Why don’t you give me a Foundation grant request letter?”

Which I did.  The letter—and I’m sure moreso Anson’s handprint on the request—resulted in $500 that was to help with our Day Camp expenses.

I remember returning to St. Pauls with the check and showing it to Herb Davis, one of our pastors, and a couple in the room.  The couple was to teach a cooking workshop for our Day Camp.

Three days later I received a rather lengthy letter telling me it was a gross sin to accept such tainted money and I should return the $500 or else they would quit the Day Camp Workshop Staff, would leave the church and would picket our worship the next Sunday.

Well.

We didn’t return the check, but the question was engaged, “Is there money you shouldn’t accept?”

I knew the Playboy Foundation gave money to the Boy and Girl Scout organization and I think also the Red Cross.  So I joined the camp of receivers.

But I also maintained that only if the money were designated for purposes I considered unacceptable [e.g. use the money to make white sheets for the KKK] I wouldn’t refuse it.  Besides, if we refused it, how in the world could we ignore the manner in which our parishioners earned the money they contributed?  I could not see it, but used the rationale, “If we return the Playboy Foundation money, then we’ll have to quiz every parishioner on the manner in which their money was earned.”

Okay, somewhat circuitous, but we kept the $500—for that year and then again the next.  All triggered by the news this morning that Hugh Hefner is engaged—he in his 80’s to a former playmate of the month, whom I believe is in her early 20’s.

Now, that’s a discussion we might look into another day.

On to Ron Artest.

Ron Artest plays professional basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.  He was interviewed earlier this year when the Lakers won the NBA championship and made it clear his psychiatrist should get lots of credit for how well Artest played, following which affirmation Artest admitted his mental-health “issues.”

This morning it was announced that Artest’s giving away his championship ring to the winner of a raffle, the proceeds of which—all of them—are being given to mental health clinics and programs.

I had two thoughts.

First, how incredibly thoughtful for Artest to do this—to be full-out on his mental problems and generous in gifting his only championship ring in a raffle, the full proceeds of which go directly to mental health causes.  Evidently the money raised exceeded $500,000.

But then my thoughts this morning pushed deeper, thinking about parishioners who have had mental problems, who struggle with hate, fear, ego, events that tear them apart.

I remembered standing with a parishioner alongside a flooded creek raging over its banks as the firemen in scuba gear found her 2-year old son caught in underwater bushes.  They carried his body to her and we stood there, silence overwhelming the tragedy, as she held her dead son. 

I thought of the parents of Skip Sirnic and his wife, Karen, how crushing it was for them to learn their day-brightening son and daughter had been bludgeoned to death in their sleep by the Railroad Killer in Weimar, Texas.  Skip was the pastor of that beloved congregation and Karen the secretary for our Conference Board of Directors.  I remember the next Sunday was Mother’s Day and as I preached, both sets of parents sat toward the front of the sanctuary.  Yes, evil was more than a fear; it was a harsh, brutal reality.

I thought of parishioners who have/had mental problems.  I remember one clergy calling me very early in the morning, perhaps very late in the night, to announce his wrath that the parsonage toilet had sunk through the floor and that it was caused by parishioners who were out to get him.  Paranoia is a terrible thing, causing this minister to consider everyone an enemy who was purposed to do him in.

Well, this can go on and on about church members and clergy with whom I worked, who “weren’t quite even with the day and their own living.”

But what strikes me this morning, with Christmas music still playing, is this:  Who is innocent?  Who isn’t in need of forgiveness, the assurance of pardon?  Who doesn’t have mental “issues”?

Yep, none of us is beyond or above or apart from the vicissitudes of life [love that word!].   As a friend once put it—actually two statements in one, Everyone is wacky, just to different degrees, and even if a guy’s paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out to get him…or her!

As we enter a new year and as I glance at the rear-view mirror prompted by two events this morning focused upon Hugh Hefner and Ron Artest, I’m hoping.  I’m hoping with hope and beyond hope, that the New Year, identified as 2011, will experience more health than ill-health and will realize that God, the One who sent Jesus to us so we can finally realize what a worthier manner of living is all about, will relate to us, very much so and with no exception with what is crucial. In this manner,

A willingness to listen and care and understand that is much stronger and more evident than a need to judge.

How about you? 

Does that work as you live and breathe and take new steps into a New Year?

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About Mark H Miller

Diane and I live in Leander, Texas. This past June 17, 2015 I celebrated the 49th anniversary of my ordination. We returned to Texas after three years in Washington, during which I served as interim minister in Bellevue/Eastgate and Mercer Island. Am planning to begin a 5th novel that will have my protagonist, Tricia Gleason, serve a year in licensed ministry in Snoqualmie, Washington. The novel, "The Lemon Drop Didn't Melt," will find Tricia wrestling with ministry challenges. None of which more daunting than someone wanting her breathing to stop. All the published novels are available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle under Mark Henry Miller. A primary goal in our return to Texas is to make sure grandchildren get lots of attention--here and in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Traveling is definitely an activity that will not slow down. With that, of course, fishing will happen. To that the t-shirt is apt, "I fish; therefore I am." In addition to novels, the book of Blogs, "Voice Of My Heart," is also available on Amazon.
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