28 December 2009

Morgan Freeman: The Power of Words

On the church calendar, today we remember the Holy Innocents. They were the little boys ordered killed by Herod in his desire to make sure the Messiah that the Magi spoke of would not live (Matthew 2).
Unfortunately, extrajudicial killing, torture, and "disappearances" continue. Please help.

25 December 2009

let it get loud

“It might get loud.” So says the Edge, U2’s innovative guitarist. In the movie of the same name, director Davis Guggenheim brings together Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White to discuss their love of—and to play—the electric guitar.

Page does the Edge the honor of referring to his playing as “sonic architecture.” The movie begins with White using a Coke bottle, hammer and nails, wood, a single strand, and a pickup, and he finishes by saying, “Who said you needed to buy a guitar?” Still, when Page—after speaking of the limits of volume and his desire to find sustain, starts playing the momentous chords of “Whole Lotta Love”—that’s when the guitar gods stir from their slumber.

Here’s where I admit my biases. I can appreciate what Jack White is trying to say, but in my humble opinion, Page and the Edge are light years away from him—and, of course, they’re light years away from each other. (Another way of putting it is that I love Zeppelin and U2, but not the White Stripes.) But however different their own styles are, the film brings them back together, and they’re just three guys playing together.

So while my wife is cooking, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of a Christmas day!

11 December 2009

running for running water

We awoke this morning to discover that our water pipes had frozen overnight. With no running water, we drove into town (we live out in the country) to use the bathroom at the church and to buy some bottled water at the store. I’m aware of the ecological nightmare that bottled water is, but this was an emergency! Or so we thought…

Before leaving, we called the plumber and left a message on his machine. Upon returning, we found that he had left a message on our machine. He was planning to arrive in about an hour. After putting some heat tape on the pipes, the water was flowing freely.

In about two hours, we had regained a substance that millions, if not billions, of people around the globe still do not have—clean, easily available water. Something to consider the next time we’re tempted to simply waste some H2O.

03 December 2009

a day to look in the mirror

A week from now, Thursday the 10th, is Human Rights Day.  Unfortunately, it seems like it's becoming a day whose cause fewer Americans care about.  Glenn Greenwald notes that a Pew Research Center poll released today indicates that 54% of Americans believe torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified.

Whatever the statistical margin of error for that percentage, it seems clear that about half of us aren't even as concerned about it as was Ronald Reagan when he signed the UN Convention Against Torture.  Ironically, it was his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who made human rights a key focus of US foreign policy.

Politics aside, it is disturbing that the spiritual state of our nation has regressed to this extent.

26 November 2009

sad soul thankful for the Cowboys

At our local ecumenical Thanksgiving service last Sunday night, I was the preacher. This is how I began my sermon: “This being a special ecumenical service for Thanksgiving, I figured, ‘Well, at least I know what my theme is!’ For some people, the holiday of Thanksgiving is mainly about the history. For others, it’s about the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the (name your favorite food). And for some other very sad souls, it’s about football—especially the Dallas Cowboys!” (By the way, the sermon quickly moved on from there!)

I fully understand that Thanksgiving is not about football, but I must confess to being one of those sad souls for whom the day is missing something if I’m unable to watch the Cowboys play. Having said that, I am thankful that Dallas beat Oakland today!

25 November 2009

here's hope

My latest hope for life on earth, guitaristically speaking, is Marco Sfogli.  I recently discovered the Italian musician by deciding to finally check out James LaBrie's solo album, Elements of Persuasion.  LaBrie, the vocalist for Dream Theater, recruited Sfogli to play on his 2005 release.

With guitar work that great, I had to get Marco's solo instrumental album, which came out last year, There's Hope.  This exceptional guitarist not only excels in the progressive rock and metal genre (which already sets a high bar), but he demonstrates some bluesy, and even country, capabilities.  His appreciation for country (which I lack) is shown at the end of the album with "Texas BBQ," the shortest track.

Okay, so now I finally have a little bit of country music.  It took an Italian rock guitarist to do it!

14 November 2009

heart in space

It just dawned on me that I discovered “Hearts of Space” twenty-five years ago this month.

In November 1984, I was listening to the Vanderbilt University radio station (WRVU) in Nashville. At the time, my musical preferences didn’t extend very far beyond heavy metal. I was an undergraduate in college at the time, so anyone who takes music seriously is required to expand one’s musical taste! (Actually, one should always be open to new sonic influences.)

I had already discovered Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre while in high school, but when these incredible sounds (including narrator Stephen Hill’s voice) reached me from somewhere near the Andromeda galaxy, I experienced a musical metanoia! I still remember the name of the program: “The Way Home.”

13 November 2009


We have had some car repairs today that we didn’t anticipate upon awakening. There are those who would attribute that to the date, those afflicted by the condition known as paraskevidekatriaphobia.

This morning, as my wife Banu was preparing to visit a parishioner who had recently returned from the hospital, I mentioned to her that today is Friday the 13th. About two minutes after she left, the phone rang. She was calling on the cell phone, alerting me to the fact that one of our car’s tires had lost its tread and gone flat. So I called our parishioner and said a rescheduled visit would be necessary.

Our car was about a mile and a half away (and I’m not in the best physical shape of my life!), so it took me a few minutes to arrive on foot. As it turned out, some kind soul had already helped her change the tire. She had begun driving back home toward me. We were able to easily find someone to pick us up at the garage, after driving at 40mph while using that stupid donut spare tire.

As I said, there are those who fear Friday the 13th. But some people say that if one is able to pronounce the name of this condition, then such a person is cured!

The image is taken from savagechickens.com.

09 November 2009

what shall we do?

While checking what I can watch during commercial breaks during Monday Night Football, I came upon one of my favorite movies, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).  It's truly a great movie, set in 1965 Indonesia, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and with a great performance as Billy Kwan, the Oscar-award winning actress, Linda Hunt.

It's especially meaningful as we approach Lectionary Year C during Advent, when we hear the words of the people to John the Baptist, "What should we do?"  Billy Kwan, via Hunt, asks those words to himself/herself.  Billy agonizes over his position of relative affluence in a nation ruled by a military dictatorship.  His tragedy is felt at several different levels.  If you don't know what I mean, do yourself a favor and watch the movie!

31 October 2009

a night for a sonic Sheltie

I would guess that, for his entire life, Halloween has been our dog Duncan's least favorite night.  I don't think it has anything to do with ghosts and goblins.  Rather, it's been the frequent ringing of the doorbell, as trick-or-treaters pay us a visit.  With each ring of the bell, a fusillade of barks has emanated from our Shetland Sheepdog.

I suspect tonight will be different.  Living as we do now, with only one neighboring house in sight, I'm not expecting anything like the deluge, relatively speaking, that we had last Halloween.  (There were at least 150 kids who came by.)

I'll miss it, but I suppose Duncan won't.

23 October 2009

“Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow”

Regardless of how one feels about ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), it is a bit sobering to see how the Congress is pressing its agenda against the group. De-funding the group has become a high priority. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) has had to remind his colleagues something they apparently forgot from their US Constitution classes back in school. Because separation of powers is integrated into our nation’s highest law, legislatures cannot pose as the judiciary. Bills of attainder are prohibited by our Constitution. For those rusty on constitutional law, a bill of attainder declares someone guilty without benefit of a trial. They are declared “tainted.”

If anti-ACORN legislation is to avoid being so narrowly focused on one group so that it is unconstitutional, the net must be cast much wider. As Glenn Greenwald reports, the effort supported by vast numbers of Democrats and Republicans alike “to de-fund ACORN is written so broadly that it literally compels the de-funding, not only of that group, but also the de-funding of, and denial of all government contracts to, any corporation that ‘has filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency.’”

If that’s the standard, then ACORN is peanuts compared with the real heavy hitters, including some major Defense Department contractors. (Is comparing an acorn to peanuts a pun?) Anyway, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have a long history of defrauding the US government. Blackwater, the “private security firm” (a.k.a. mercenaries) is known to have committed murders in Iraq. DynCorp employees were involved in trafficking child prostitutes. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why haven’t we heard the kind of outrage directed at ACORN applied to these other, vastly wealthier, vastly guiltier organizations? And, need I say, even still vastly more funded by the US government?

13 October 2009

gratitude for a backache?

I don’t feel very well today, but I thank God. I’ve been fighting off a sinus cold, but I thank God. I somehow managed to hurt my back, so that movement in most directions is a real pain, but I thank God. I thank God because I have a luxury that some people don’t have: “sick days.” Some people, even if their backs are killing him, still have to get out of bed (sometimes early in the morning) and labor at back-breaking work.

My aching back has reminded me of God’s blessing.

29 September 2009

new possibilities for life

“We believe that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world.”

That’s a quote from Article 3 of the Belhar Confession. We used it in our worship service today at a meeting of the Presbytery of Geneva. We’ve been using it in a year-long process to explore the possibility of including it in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions. As can be surmised from the following statement of faith, the immediate situation in this South African confession was apartheid:

We believe “that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.”

The life giving Word of God enables us “to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society.” How badly we need that in our country, where it seems that we’ve painted ourselves into ideological corners. We’re so suspicious of each other.

But that isn’t the way of Jesus Christ. The way of Christ leads us “to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation.” There are plenty of voices in our society—fearful, paranoid voices who seek to fill us with fear and paranoia—but that is not the way of Christ. These voices are on both the left and the right. These voices deny “in advance the reconciling power of the gospel.” They should be seen for what they are: “ideology and false doctrine.”

17 September 2009

can we say "never again"?

With all the sound and fury of the health care debate grabbing our attention, there’s an issue still lingering in the background. How seriously are we going to investigate torture, which is illegal in both US and international law? Gay Gardner, an Amnesty International member, expresses some things in her letter to President Obama that I often have felt. This is part of Amnesty’s “Ten against Torture” action:

“As a human rights activist and volunteer member of Amnesty International for more than 25 years, I have worked against torture, and to end impunity for torture, in many countries. I never expected that there would come a time when the United States would be the principal focus of my human rights work. It saddens me to hear from current and former officials of my own government many of the same arguments justifying torture and advocating impunity for its practitioners that were made in so many other societies that have grappled with torture and its aftermath…

“We can and must demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we are strong enough to look at the ugliness in our past and determine how to rectify it. This task is a vital part of strengthening our powers of moral suasion with other countries, which will be needed to help solve a host of global challenges. We must show the world that we understand how serious torture is and that we are committed to preventing it in the future. Hiding from our past will project weakness and fear, not confidence and strength.”

For me, this isn’t just political; it’s also an expression of spirituality. Those of us who would worship Jesus Christ must also admit that he is one who was tortured. He was condemned by the state, and considering the crowd he was attracting to himself, it’s not beyond the realm of possibly to see how he could be considered guilty.

As Gardner says, she—and I—hear the exact same arguments and excuses coming from our current leaders that we’ve heard coming from dictatorships all over the world. In his death on a cross, Jesus was executed as the lowest of the low—the worst of criminals. In those tortured today, Jesus is tortured yet again.

12 September 2009

from the sublime to the...

Since I like to watch the show Real Time with Bill Maher, I figured it was about time I got around to seeing Maher’s movie, Religulous (2008). (A fusion of “religion” and “ridiculous.”) First of all, the movie is very funny. And Maher is very up front about where he’s coming from. He even has some scenes with his mother and sister. Having seen his critique of religion before, I pretty much figured where he would be going with it. Maher goes after almost all expressions of faith, but he focuses mainly on Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.

I’ve noticed that Maher tends to commit what philosophers call the “straw man” fallacy. He presents a cartoon version of the faith—which, admittedly, many people have never outgrown. For example, Maher says that Christians believe there was a “talking snake” in Genesis and that Jonah was a guy who lived in a big fish. Articulate people like Cornel West, when he’s appeared on his TV show, don’t let him get away with that!

But did I say that the movie is funny?

11 September 2009

I love being Rushified

“Living in the limelight / The universal dream / For those who wish to seem.
Those who wish to be / Must put aside the alienation / Get on with the fascination / The real relation / The underlying theme.”

I just watched I Love You, Man (2009) on DVD. I’ll admit that it was one of those movies that I didn’t feel worthy of a trip to the theater. Still, a movie that comes up with the word “Rushified” (something I experienced the first time I heard “The Spirit of Radio” from Permanent Waves), can’t be too bad.

The movie plays off the stereotype of men having fewer friends than women. In the character played by Paul Rudd, he has none. Though it is an exaggeration, it’s not too far from the truth. But as we see at the Snakes and Arrows concert, with the roles of Rudd and Jason Segel, Rashida Jones displays the unpardonable sin of not knowing who are the “Holy Trinity” of progressive rock! (By the way, for those who haven’t been Rushified, those lyrics at the beginning are from the awesome song “Limelight” from Moving Pictures.)

“Slapping the bass!”

03 September 2009

those bullies up the hill

I’ve been to HSBC Arena five or six times to see the Buffalo Sabres. One of the signs lining the rink is for Bully Hill Vineyards. (I haven’t been to the Sabres for two or three years; I suppose they still have the sign.) I didn’t know where Bully Hill was. I figured it was a vineyard in western New York!

Anyway, today was Banu’s and my 15th anniversary. We were up above Keuka Lake. September 3 is our anniversary, and several people had birthdays at the restaurant.

Bully Hill has quite a few buildings: winery, gift shop, art gallery, restaurant, and so on. In the gallery, Susan B. Anthony has a poster called “Constitutional Amendment, Mass Meeting.”

And that is Banu is sitting on a boulder next to one of the vineyards. (She bullied me into taking her to Bully Hill!)

01 September 2009

please forgive me...I couldn't resist

I couldn’t resist posting the latest offering from Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World. I could blather on about how we brought this on ourselves by not paying attention / not caring what Cheney and Bush were up to. I could go on a rant about how we’re treading dangerously close to what dictatorships routinely do—violate human rights and commit war crimes with impunity.

But I won’t!  Let the monsters do the talking!

31 August 2009

everything old is new again

Here are yet more cartoons from our unpacking excercise.  They both date back to the mid-90s, and they demonstrate, as the title of this post says, that "everything old is new again."

Now that we have a Democratic president, we've been experiencing a return of the lament against big government regulation, even to the point of it being called "socialist."  (Never mind that with each successive Republican presidency, the government has become larger than ever.  It's just a question of where we spend our money.)  But Democrats are not off the hook!  Both of the major parties are simply two heads on the same corporate beast.
And speaking of corporate, now that Disney has appropriated Marvel to the tune of $4 billion, here's an image for all seasons.  (You'll notice some other recognizable logos!)

24 August 2009

must consume...must consume

The word “consumer” is an insult! That is, the way the word is usually employed by the media, the government, and our society in general makes it an insult.

In his book, Leap Over a Wall (which I mentioned in my last post), Eugene Peterson is comparing “ordinary” people versus those who are “experts.” He makes the observation, “Our culture holds experts and professionals in a regard that’s inflated out of all proportion to reality. The corollary of this is that we regard the layperson as a near idiot, competent only when consulting with or deferring to the expert.” (p. 18)

Including himself as clergy, he notes how this mentality infects the church. We abdicate “the original splendor of a new life in Christ and [decline] into the wretched condition of the consumer. The consumer is passivity objectified: passive in the pew, passive before the TV screen, vulnerable to every sort of exploitation and seduction, whether religious or secular.” (p. 21)

It’s long seemed to me that referring to people as “consumers” is a disparaging command. Especially in America, whether in the church or out of it (sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a difference!), we are given an order to consume. Take the earth’s resources, turn them into all kinds of useless crap, buy them, eat them, put them in off-site storage units, use cheaply-made products which soon break, throw them away, and then consume more in a ridiculous cycle.

But I need to stop now. I’m getting hungry; I need to consume something…

22 August 2009

unpacking a hidden treasure

After four months, my wife Banu and I appear to have landed at a permanent residence. (But then, I'm forced to ask, is any residence on this planet permanent?) Before moving, I expressed my feelings regarding the practice of packing. In recent days, we have been unpacking. I just happened to have stumbled across a hidden treasure in one of my wife's many boxes of books. It is Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall, published in 1997.

I've just begun reading it, but I've already found a little jewel in this book of reflections on the life of David. Peterson talks about the central role that story plays in the scriptures, and how the story of Jesus is linked to the story of David. He makes the (I would think) non-controversial observation that we have more problems with seeing Jesus as human than as divine. We would rather be "spiritual" than "earthy." Now retired, he has elsewhere spoken of his appointment at Regent College in Vancouver as professor of spiritual theology as an "embarrassing position."

On page 8, he says that "the brisk trafficking in gods and religion through the centuries—our own generation not excepted—provides no evidence that it improves competency in being human. If anything, it has a reverse effect: the more religious activity, the less human competency."

Perhaps he's overstating the point, but who can seriously doubt that hiding behind religious jargonand claiming that God has ordered ushas a way of shutting down meaningful discussion? (Especially when we claim that God has ordered us to do things that are anti-human and anti-love!)

19 August 2009

bad theology in the wrong hands

As we Presbyterians sometimes say, "Theology matters."

I received an email from a parishioner of ours, which directed me to a piece by James Haught, editor of the Charleston (WV) Gazette. In his article, "Agog over Bush's comments on Gog and Magog," he notes, "Incredibly, President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible's satanic agents of the Apocalypse.

"Honest. This isn't a joke. The president of the United States, in a top-secret phone call to a major European ally, asked for French troops to join American soldiers in attacking Iraq as a mission from God." This, according to Chirac in an interview with journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, who relates this in his new book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai ("If You Repeat It, I Will Deny").

I am all too familiar with this type of theology. Some refer to it as Christian Zionism. I was once in a church that was comfortable with, if not insistent upon, a view of the scriptures that would lead one to this position.

Now, I present what I believe to be a more faithful understanding of the Bible. Of course, I've never encountered someone who is armed, or far worse, someone with the authority to order thousands of people to their deaths—based, in no small part, on bad theology.

16 August 2009

Jonah, was it the whale breath that got you so mad?

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah. (I have few memories because we didn’t go to church for very long back then!) Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those figures that adhere to a felt backboard. Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me. How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature? How could he breathe? Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

Something I never learned in Sunday school was what an angry fellow Jonah is! That’s something to notice about him: the book bearing his name goes to great effort to point out what a grouch he is. He is sent to call the people of Nineveh to repent—they are part of the Assyrian Empire, enemies of Israel. Can we appreciate the depth of Jonah’s anger? Does his rage make any sense to us? Can we understand why the prophet would be so upset at having to watch his God forego punishing the enemy of his people? And I do intend to stress that pronoun: his God.

There’s a very loose consensus that the book of Jonah was written after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, in either the 5th or 4th century B. C. The idea is that the book was written as a kind of satire, a kind of political joke, intended to warn the Jews about being too inward-looking. By this time, prophets have been saying that they are to be a light to the nations. The hatred that comes from nationalism and hyper-patriotism no longer has a place among the people of God. The awareness is beginning to dawn that they have a responsibility to all the world, including their enemies.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us. Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up. He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city. Can we see ourselves in that bone-headed prophet, caring more for our own comfort than for the welfare of those in desperate need? With all the recent sound and fury over health care, maybe it’s a question we should ask ourselves.

The image is “Jonah Awaits the Destruction of Nineveh.”

12 August 2009

a matter of perspective

I remember reading about the democratic uprising in Burma while a student at Bible college in 1988. Aung San Suu Kyi went on to lead her party, the National League for Democracy, to a decisive win in the 1990 election. However, the military dictators simply ignored the results. Awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, she has spent most of the past twenty years under house arrest. Now her term has been extended for another 18 months. The Burmese generals are terrified of this slender, aging woman.

In our country, we like to throw around incendiary language. Certain talk show hosts compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler. Some figures on the left demonize former Vice President Cheney. I would like to humbly suggest that we really don't know what we're talking about!

05 August 2009

keep fanning the flames

The fellow in the photo holding the threatening sign is symptomatic of an increasingly paranoid quality to American life. (By the way, sir, you have "your" where you should have "you're.") A dangerous trend started at least as far back as Sarah Palin's irresponsible campaign rallies in 2008, when she allowed the flames of hatred to be fanned. The Secret Service reported a spike in the number of death threats issued against Barack Obama.

Now, as President Obama, the Secret Service reports a skyrocketing of death threats, compared with the number received by President Bush. As with any president, the large majority of such threats are hoaxes, but the sheer volume and the sheer venom can't be dismissed.

With town hall meetings turned into town "hell" meetings, with people screaming and refusing to allow others to calmly state their opinions, I do fear that something horrible will happen. One thing we should not be able to claim is that we had no way of seeing it coming.

02 August 2009

radical availability

Tomorrow, 3 August, is a day that I note for several reasons. First, it’s the anniversary of my baptism. (It will be #23.) Secondly, it’s the day which commemorates St. Lydia, who we meet in Acts 16. She has her own baptism story, and she practices some radical hospitality, as well. Plus, she’s a dealer in purple cloth—purple being my favorite color (with green as a close second).

Paul, in the midst of his second missionary voyage, stops at Troas (the ancient city of Troy). It’s there that, in the night, he has a vision of a man pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). Paul and his associates then set sail through the Aegean Sea and arrive in Europe.

They encounter Lydia in Philippi, one of Macedonia’s biggest cities. She is considered to be Paul’s first European convert. After she and her household are baptized, she urges Paul and his friends to “come and stay at my home” (v. 15). Lydia practices availability with a vengeance! I like the way the verse ends in the NRSV: “And she prevailed upon us.” The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “And she would take no refusal.” You’re coming to my house—I insist!

Lydia’s persistence in hospitality serves Paul well after he and Silas are released from jail. The magistrates, realizing that Paul’s and Silas’ rights as Roman citizens have been violated, urge them to get out of town—quickly and quietly. They really don’t want word of this to get out!

Still, having a place in town to stay gives Paul a great opportunity to encourage the church before they leave, an opportunity he refuses to pass up. All because Lydia insisted on being available! If not for her hospitality, none of this would have been possible; she became a great benefit to the church.

Lydia’s availability is a challenge to all of us. What transformations can happen if we practice availability to God and to our neighbors and to our enemies?

31 July 2009

Ignatian decision

Today, the 31st of July, is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain. He was a wild young man. He kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies! While fighting the French at Pamplona in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open his left calf and broke his right shin. Ignatius endured many painful months of recuperation.

While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry. They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints. He experienced his conversion while reading those books. Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ. He became the founder of an order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

In his book, The Spiritual Exercises, he includes a section entitled, “Discerning the Spirits.” His use of the word “spirits” reflects a medieval concept; today, we might say “inclinations.” Discerning the spirits, discerning one’s inclinations, is central to making decisions.

One key Ignatian theme in decision-making is being aware of spiritual desolation: times and events that present a crisis. It is unwise, Ignatius says, to make major decisions during “desolation.” I can recall a time when my mother, without being aware of this terminology, gave me sound Ignatian counsel.

In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should leave school and go to California. My interests had shifted considerably from the time I started college.

My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of religious faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth. (Though probably not wandering as far as Tibet!) Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my youth, San Diego, and get a job in a record store. I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego phone directory (this was in the dark ages before the internet), and found a store near the ocean.

So I called my mom and told her what God was leading me to do! She didn’t have very much to say. She suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought. If God really wanted me to make this fairly major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt.

And after a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me that God really didn’t want me to run off and do my wandering seeker bit!

So, thank you, Mom, and thank you, St. Ignatius…

23 July 2009

circus handlers beating elephants

For those questioning the entertainment value of intelligent animals being forced to do "circus tricks," you're not alone. Regardless of one's opinion of PETA, it doesn't change the backward mentality of these shows.

18 July 2009


Today’s reading in the Rule of Benedict is chapter 39, “The Proper Amount of Food.” It begins, “For the daily meals, whether at noon or in midafternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all the tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other.” We may think, “Wow! Two different kinds of cooked food! What a buffet!” Still, in the 6th century, most people would have felt differently about it than we in the 21st century.

In the second paragraph, Benedict says, “Should it happen that the work is heavier than usual, the abbot or prioress may decide—and they will have the authority—to grant something additional, provided that it is appropriate, and that above all overindulgence is avoided, lest anyone experience indigestion. For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our God says: ‘Take care that your hearts are not weighted down with overindulgence (Lk 21:34).’”

Overindulgence takes many forms. I’m not tempted so much by overeating and drinking. (Although the spiritual practice of fasting isn’t at the top of my list!) And it’s easy for me to display the image of the person addicted to shopping. One of my overindulgences, however, deals with how I jealously regard my time. I’ve always been one to value “my” time. And while we all need to have “our” time respected, we have to remember that even time is a gift from God.

When we forget that, we realize that we’re wasting time…which means, we’re wasting our lives.

13 July 2009

dog in water

I realize that this will be of little interest in the known universe. (Perhaps beings in another dimension will be fascinated by it.) This morning, our Shetland Sheepdog, Duncan, who avoids (liquid) water however it encounters himas rain, in pools and lakes, and certainly as bathsdid something for the first time in his twelve and one-half years on earth. He voluntarily jumped into a body of water.

However, as the photo demonstrates, it appears that he may have had other intentions. His heart probably wasn't set on water, but on waterfowl.

11 July 2009

pax benedictus, pax christi

Today, the 11th of July, is the feast of St. Benedict. Banu and I have learned about Benedict from a number of sources, but the single greatest factor has been as oblates at Mount St. Benedict in Erie. We now live at a three-plus hour drive from Erie, but we don't forget, "The corporate commitment of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie is: To model the Benedictine charism of peace, PAX, by working for disarmament, ecological stewardship, and social justice in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, especially women."

The Pax Christi is "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Ph 4:7). It even surpasses political understanding! We take as our model Jesus, who chose among his disciples, Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans. He also chose Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans. And he chose some fishermen, who (likely) had no particular political allegiances!

The peace of Christ breaks all boundaries.

09 July 2009

this is who we are

What are the odds?

What are the odds that, sitting in a doctor’s office this afternoon, my wife would hand me the current issue of Art in America magazine? Inside it would be the image of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. As it would happen, I would come home and do a Google search for the image. I would find it on the first page, taken from an excellent website dedicated to the TV show Millennium, which was on in the late 90s, starring Lance Henriksen and produced by Chris Carter, of X-Files fame. Fuseli’s painting appeared in an episode titled Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions.” The cable network Chiller has been airing Millennium for some time.

What are the odds that Chiller would air, on the same day, the very episode containing the painting that I Googled after seeing in a magazine in a doctor’s office? Come to think of it, what are the odds that a doctor’s office would have a magazine that is both current and interesting?

What are the odds?

08 July 2009

meet the new boss—same as the old boss (?)

I’ll admit it—I’m beginning to wonder if Barack Obama’s fine words on torture and the rule of law weren’t just that: fine words. He has spoken eloquently about a choice between our values and our security being a false one. The change we had hoped for, so far, has largely been cosmetic. On his TV show, Bill Maher recently wondered when these changes were going to start taking place. I was wondering about that myself in March.

In some ways, Obama is taking the Bush playbook on indefinite detention and running with it. Jeh Johnson, Department of Defense General Counsel, stated yesterday that it is a “policy question” whether acquitted individuals will be released or held indefinitely.

It’s already a perversion of justice that we’ve jailed hundreds of people for years without charging them with anything. But now the Obama White House seems to be saying that even if those caught up in the Bush dragnet are in fact put on trial—and then acquitted—they can be sent right back to prison. That hearkens back to the bad old days of the Soviet Union.

I haven’t given up on Barack. Like all of us, he needs encouragement to do what is right. He needs our prayers (as well as the members of Congress)!

28 June 2009

so close and yet...

After a disappointing couple of games against Brazil and Italy in the group round (with some questionable red cards by the officials), the US took care of business against Egypt, 3-0, and was able to advance to the semifinal of the Confederations Cup. They stunned the football world by defeating top-ranked Spain (who certainly are top-ranked no longer!), 2-0.

The US was on its way to shocking the football world at halftime in the final with a 2-0 lead over Brazil. It looked like the teams had exchanged jerseys. The US was making the plays that they had been so used to seeing Brazil make against them. But less than a minute into the second half, the "Samba Kings" got things going. Three unanswered goals made sure that their hands were the ones holding yet another trophy.

Still, playing Italy, Spain, and Brazil (twice) in one tournament is surely something that will only benefit the US as they prepare to re-visit South Africa next year for the World Cup.

23 June 2009

remember...and act

On Friday the 26th, remember Hebrews 13:3, which says, "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured."
Friday is the International Day against Torture.

The UN Convention against Torture prohibits torture anywhere, anytime, and for any purpose.
Go to
http://www.irct.org to learn about the IRCT's global work to support torture survivors and to combat torture - and see how you can help.

IRCT - International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims

22 June 2009

everyone's waiting for what you leave behind

I just finished watching the series finale (“Everyone’s Waiting”) of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Six Feet Under. (It’s been on HBO on Demand.) The show ended four years ago, and as I revisited it, I had forgotten just how good it is. The final scene of the show seems to be the perfect expression of what was so deeply good, sad, and twisted about it!

Series finales can be a tricky business. As a Star Trek lover, I have to say that the ending of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was my favorite. With its bittersweet tone, “What You Leave Behind,” captured the development of all of the characters. I especially appreciated its final moments. We’re left hanging, wondering when and if Benjamin Sisko (who has one of the most profound life-changing experiences in Star Trek history) will ever return.

18 June 2009

HBO's Bill Maher takes on President Obama

I don't claim to always agree with Bill Maher (not even in this piece from last week's "New Rules"), but understanding that comedians exaggerate for effect, I would have been one of his audience who was applauding.

13 June 2009

the hospitable community

“Some people claim that the pace and distractions of modern life have eroded our sense of community. But perhaps it is the other way around. We are distracted and overextended because we have forgotten how to live in communion with God and others. Lacking spiritual community, our lives become uncentered and filled with distractions.”

That’s from the beginning of chapter 2 of Thomas Hawkins’ little jewel of a book, Cultivating Christian Community. I’m just past the halfway point in it. I would call it a book that is dense. It isn’t “dense” in the sense of difficult to understand, but it’s “dense” in that it is concise. It’s packed with plenty of good stuff! Reflecting on it gave me the idea for a sermon series—actually, some things I’ve tried to underline in the past—but with a fresh take. I’m speaking about listening, dialoguing, and (tentatively right now) being hospitable.

Here’s a “tasty tidbit” from chapter 1: “The reason for Jesus’ crucifixion may not lie in what Jesus preached and taught…What ultimately led to his death were his table manners. Jesus invited the wrong people to the intimacy of table fellowship.”

Hospitality is something that weaves itself into all of life, and it is essential to Christian community.

11 June 2009


Okay, our situation isn’t as grim as that portrayed in Friedrich Pacher’s Christ in Limbo, but it’s getting close! 

We’ve been waiting to close on the purchase of a house for almost two months, after repeated promises from the lender.

I wonder…can I hire that devilish-looking fellow for a special job?

05 June 2009

President Obama's speech in Cairo

I don't agree with all of his speech (only about 99%), but how refreshing it is to hear this coming from an American president.

27 May 2009

answering the bell of Belhar

“We know that such an act of confession and process of reconciliation will necessarily involve much pain and sadness. It demands the pain of repentance, remorse, and confession; the pain of individual and collective renewal and a changed way of life. It places us on a road whose end we can neither foresee nor manipulate to our own desire.”

I went to my first presbytery meeting yesterday since we came to the Presbytery of Geneva. This presbytery has been incorporating the study of the Belhar Confession into its meetings as worship. Yesterday was session four. Belhar emerged from the South African church’s struggle with apartheid—within itself and within the nation. At the General Assembly last year in San Jose, the Presbyterian Church (USA) proposed adding the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

The quote above is taken from the Accompanying Letter to the Belhar Confession. Certainly, the South African church’s “act of confession and process of reconciliation” doesn’t precisely match the conditions in America. Their context isn’t identical to our context. But that’s the case with every confession of faith. That’s the case with the scriptures!

Still, as I listened to that letter being read yesterday, images of what we in this country are going through kept filling my mind. The courage of South African Christians—as well as those of other faiths and no faith—to grapple with the legacy of apartheid has indeed placed them “on a road whose end we can neither foresee nor manipulate to our own desire.”

In America, we have our own grab bag of issues: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We also have the troubling issue of torture. My prayer, using the words of the letter, is that the church can address torture in a spirit that says, “We do not wish to serve any group interests, advance the cause of any factions, promote any theologies, or achieve any ulterior purposes…Our earnest desire is to lay no false stumbling blocks in the way, but to point to the true stumbling block, Jesus Christ the rock.”

(The image is “I Heard the Cry of My People” by Margrit Roussos, South Africa.)

25 May 2009

prayer for memorial day

Gracious God, to whom we belong in both life and in death,
it is on days like this
when we need to be reminded of some things.
For others like me,
sons and daughters of those buried in military cemeteries,
and for all of us, those left standing when wars that never end finally do,
it seems it isn't the subject matter of easy speeches--
nor is it the content of commercials that promise
"super savings, because it's Memorial Day,
and we're having a blowout sale!"
And it isn't the word of those who, in whatever way, great or small,
profit from war,
but it is the silence.
We need to be reminded of the silence--
the silence of those who truly honor the fallen,
they who have made the greatest sacrifice.
God of glory,
teach us how to speak words filled with that silence.

23 May 2009

Exorcising Children in Congo

Here’s what happens when prosperity theology (American superstition) meets African superstition. Add shameless pastors to the “witches brew” and stir. The result is some pretty vile swill.

18 May 2009

here's a good idea for a Bible

"This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in the modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible..." So reads part of the editorial blurb of the American Patriot's Bible, the New King James Version published this month by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

When I first saw this new version of the Bible on Greg Boyd's blog, I honestly thought it was a joke. He was reminded of a bit that Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler did during Weekend Update on SNL.

I wonder how people can fail to see the idolatrous nature of tying the scriptures to America--or to any other nation, for that matter. But if it makes money, maybe that's all that Thomas Nelson is concerned about!

(Hey, maybe I should pitch my idea about seeing Shetland Sheepdogs intertwined into the Biblical story...)

17 May 2009

I made the trek

I finally got around to seeing Star Trek (2009) this afternoon. Director J. J. Abram's fingerprints are all over it. As the executive producer of the TV show Lost, he's fond of inserting time travel into the plot. I would imagine that, if there are any sequels with this new crop of young actors, the destruction of Vulcan will somehow be relegated to an alternate timeline!

Zachary Quinto, who plays the deliciously evil Sylar on Heroes, stands out as the young Spock. The love interest with Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a nice twist on what we'd otherwise expect!

16 May 2009

we can agree on something!


Here's a case in which I actually agree with Rush Limbaugh! I've been so dismayed with his (as I see it) mean-spiritedness, but here's a lesson to me: don't count anyone out!
Rush Limbaugh on Animals & Religion
Audio-Only Clip

Click to watch the video
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09 May 2009

honor your mother's day

In her Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870, Julia Ward Howe (the Unitarian author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) began by saying:

“Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”

Whoa! Hold on! That sounds like she actually intended Mother’s Day to mean something! At least, she intended it to mean something more than buying candy and flowers. She continues:

“From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: ‘Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.”

As should be painfully apparent, Julia’s vision of Mother’s Day never caught on. A few decades later, Anna Jarvis came on the scene, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling for the observance of the day. Unfortunately, Anna came to regret her life’s work in promoting the holiday. She became disgusted with the rampant commercialism surrounding it. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” Jarvis complained, dismissing greeting cards as “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”

A story is told about Jarvis’ “going to the tea room at [the Philadelphia] Wanamaker’s store one year at Mother’s Day. When Jarvis noticed a ‘Mother’s Day Salad’ on the menu, she ordered it, dumped it on the floor, got up and left.” (I sometimes joke with my wife that I’ll tell a restaurant’s staff that I’m refusing a certain dish for “political reasons.” I guess that’s what Anna Jarvis did—unless the people thought she had a grudge against her mother!)

(The image is Picasso’s Mother and Child.)