28 June 2008

turkish delight

The Germans put an end to their thrilling race through the Euro 2008 tournament. In a 3-2 cliffhanger of a semifinal, the Turkish team was eliminated. After their lackluster opening match against Portugal, the Turks were easily the most exciting team playing. In four straight games, they managed heart-stopping comebacks, including the semifinal. But the sheer number of injured and suspended players took its toll.

For anyone who believes that soccer (that is, football) is boring, make this "note to self": review the Turkish performance in Euro 2008.

26 June 2008

tortured prayer

Today is the International Day Against Torture. This date was chosen by the United Nations because on the same day in 1987, the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into force—and on 26 June 1948 the UN Charter was signed.

On this day, I present no rants or diatribes. Yesterday, while drinking a wild berry smoothie, I admitted that I've struggled with feelings of anger (and if I'm totally honest, even hatred) toward Bush and Cheney because of their policies. In recent years, while writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International, I've noticed that several times I've made appeals to foreign officials to cease doing things that our government admits it does! I don't thump my chest and shout "U-S-A!" while watching our national teams play sports, but there is something to be said for not undercutting any moral high ground America used to have.

But I need to slow down. I'm getting dangerously close to going off on a rant!

My prayer is that we as Americans, and certainly we as the church, can take a deep breath and not let ourselves be driven by fear. Fearful people are capable of anything. One of Jesus' frequently repeated statements was "fear not." Do not be afraid. He experienced quite literally—quite physically—what fearful people can do.

25 June 2008

the language of silence

In her book, When God is Silent, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of "a story from the Sufi tradition about a man who cried, 'Allah! Allah!' until his lips became sweet with the sound. A skeptic who heard him said, 'Well! I have heard you calling out, but where is the answer to your prayer? Have you ever gotten a response?' The man had no answer to that. Sadly, he abandoned his prayers and went to sleep. In his dreams he saw Khazir, the soul guide, walking toward him through a garden.

"'Why did you stop praising?' the saint asked him. 'Because I never heard anything back,' the man said. 'This longing you voice is the return message,' Khazir told him.

"The grief you cry out from draws you toward union / Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup / Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection..."

She's speaking of the words that get in the way of our prayers. But elsewhere in the book, she also comments on the words, the noise, the tide of information that washes over us in today's world. We're so deluged with words that we don't even know how to use them.

When I was much younger (and only slightly more foolish!), I boasted about how prolific a writer I would be. I told people that I would write voluminously; I had so much to say. I have yet to write a book. I need to hear the silence, so that I can speak. Only when we learn the language of silence can we write something truly worth reading. (Or am I just being pretentious?)

24 June 2008

Library detective Mr. Bookman Seinfeld

Philip Baker Hall teaches Jerry a lesson about being overdue with library books--and other subversive activities.

23 June 2008

the constitution? the rule of law? how quaint!

Criticism of the Bush-Cheney administration has tended to focus on, at least according to the major news outlets, the war in Iraq and the economy. Bush's poor environmental and human rights policies have had a bit of light shone on them. There are numerous other issues that have gone almost completely unexamined. Key among them, it seems to me, is that all of this administration's policies flow from a fundamental disdain for constitutional safeguards and respect for the rule of law.

As an American, I find it fascinating that our former president was actually impeached for an offense that comes nowhere close to the constitutional level. In our entire history, only one other president has been subjected to this legal process. During Reconstruction, Andrew Johnson was impeached, but not convicted. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. That's setting the bar for impeachment incredibly low!

If that's all it takes to impeach an American president, then Bush and Cheney surely deserve it many times over! Nowhere is this disregard for obeying the law more evident than in the illegal surveillance that's been carried out. This is an issue that big media has been almost determined not to cover. This is a piece that outlines why this is so foundational to the way our president has conducted business. (Our writer is a bit colorful in his descriptions.)

I must admit, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, I thought no president could be more condescending of the constitution. Compared to Bush, Reagan seems to have been almost a civil libertarian.

18 June 2008

timeline to a deadline

As the evidence continues to mount, one can only wonder if the Bush administration will ever be held accountable for its numerous misdeeds. On Tuesday, retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Baumgartner, Jr., testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about detainee treatment. Formerly with the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school, he spoke of requests from the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and "another agency" (that he wanted to remain nameless) for information on SERE training techniques. By the way, SERE teaches soldiers how to withstand various types of torture, not how to interrogate.

These Bush administration officials were interested in reversing the process. However, as Mark Benjamin reports, "Skilled, experienced interrogators, in fact, say that only a fool would think that the training could somehow be reverse-engineered into effective interrogation techniques. But that's exactly what the Bush government sought to do. As the plan rolled forward, military and law enforcement officials consistently sent up red flags that the SERE-based interrogation program wasn't just wrongheaded, it was probably illegal."

Wrongheaded and illegal. Those are two words that sum up a good bit of the nightmare that the Bush years have meant, for America and for the world.

14 June 2008


I've been catching the occasional match in Euro 2008. At this point, there still are a few days to go in the group round. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals. There have been some surprises, both good and bad. Croatia, with its 2-1 win over Germany, seems to be establishing itself as a real contender. In my opinion, the two most impressive teams have been Portugal (who've beaten the Turks and the Czechs), and without a doubt, the Netherlands. The Dutch spanked both the Italians (3-0) and the French (4-1). Absolutely no one thought those two powerhouses would crumble the way they did.

I don't have a favorite in the tournament, but I did cheer when the Turks scored their first goal of the tournament against the Swiss. They added a second goal to get the win, 2-1. And I'm not weeping any tears over Italy's poor performance. I'll admit that I still have bad feelings over the way the dreadful officiating in the last World Cup (2006 in Germany) basically gave them the game over the Americans. Something for me to confess to God, I suppose!

12 June 2008

an outpouring of the spirit

This past Sunday night and Monday morning, our church hosted Ian Mobsby, one of the leading voices of the emergent church in the Anglican Communion. He spoke about some themes he covers in his new book, The Becoming of G-d. He's especially interested in reaffirming a trinitarian emphasis, which too often has been allowed to languish. Mainline churches have tended to focus on Jesus the Christ. Many Pentecostal churches have focused on the Holy Spirit. All of this results in imbalance.

He also mentioned some traits that emergent churches all over the globe have in common. Among them are an emphasis on orthopraxis, rather than orthodoxy (right "practice," as opposed to right "belief"), a search for genuine community, an awareness that we exist in a postmodern environment (with the difficulty that the word "postmodern" presents), and several other traits, including the use of cyberspace.

During the Sunday night Q & A session, I suggested that one explanation for all these faith communities around the planet exhibiting similar characteristics is due to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I prefaced my comments by saying I had been in the Assemblies of God for several years. Ian responded by outlining how the Pentecostal and charismatic movements have played out in history (that is, the 20th and early 21st centuries). I agree with what he said.

I realize that I didn't make myself clear. In my opinion, what has characterized these movements, emphasis on gifts of the Spirit, especially things like speaking in tongues, prophesying, etc., do not truly mean that the Spirit has been poured out "on all flesh" (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17). So far, I think we've only stuck our toe into the ocean of the Spirit. As we with greater longing yearn for the Spirit, it only makes sense that churches around the globe will find themselves sensing a greater oneness.

The image posted is something Ian displayed during his talk. It represents Jesus wearing a hoodie, with all the ancient-future implications that involves. It includes medieval friars, hip-hop, and skate punks.

11 June 2008

a silver presbyterian anniversary

Yesterday, the PC(USA) became 25 years old. It was formed at the General Assembly in Atlanta in June 1983, when the so-called "northern" and "southern" branches reunited. At the time, I had just finished my first year of college, and I really had no interest in church, Presbyterian or otherwise. But my life was about to undergo some big changes.

Politically, my admiration for Ronald Reagan quickly waned, and I became enamored with the Libertarian Party. For a brief while, I was a member of NORML. (As you might guess, their brand of libertarianism was one I embraced.) That "mind expanding" position had spiritual results. I surrendered my too-intellectual approach and accepted, for lack of a better term, more of a "mystical" approach to life. In time, I realized that the chemical path to spiritual growth was, indeed, no growth at all. The love of Christ led me into the church.

At the same time, I continued my political evolution into a more progressive and green position. I don't mind being called "liberal." I just find that the term carries with it many assumptions, and it's important to say what we mean. (Of course, the same thing is true with "conservative.")

I joined the Presbyterian Church on 10 December 1991, while I was at Eastern Baptist Seminary (now Palmer Seminary), just outside of Philly. I like the fact that it was International Human Rights Day when I joined the church. I didn't plan it that way; it just turned out that way!

10 June 2008

to boldly go

I was all set to preach a sermon based on the call of Abraham this past Sunday. However, life intervened. I needed to take my wife to the hospital to have her blood pressure taken care of. Fortunately, the husband of our director of worship and outreach already had something ready to go. So things apparently went okay. As a result, I'm holding my words on Abraham's call, and I'll deliver them this coming Sunday. I'll no doubt need to revise some stuff.

Abraham is one of those characters who continues to be provocative, all these centuries later. We see how contradictory, how conflicted, he is. As I say in my sermon, we don't know exactly how he responds to God's call. Does he boldly go? It seems that the fact that he at least goes speaks volumes. Are we as willing as this immigrant to plunge into the unknown?