31 March 2009

last snow in Jamestown

I was greeted yesterday morning by a layer of snow that had fallen overnight. We'll soon be moving out of reach of lake effect snow. (Maybe I'm insane, but I will miss it!) I took this photo from our back porch.

Three or four years ago, our dog Duncan was sticking his nose into the drain before him. I wondered what he was doing and heard, as he obviously did, chirping sounds within. At first, I thought a bird had fallen into it. Instead, it was a chipmunk. It came running out, and off went Duncan after it!
Now, if I ask him, "Where's the chipmunk?" he runs to the drain, barking and pawing at it.

Calvin and Hobbes "ralling" downhill

Here are a couple more cartoons that I took from the wall in my home office while preparing for our move—which, by the way, will indeed be to the Finger Lakes area of New York. The first is one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. My copy is hardly in mint condition. I clipped it from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995, which was the last year he drew the cartoon.

Calvin’s meditation on the meaning of life, or lack thereof, follows in the tradition of philosophers down through the ages. (Although I doubt that many of them did so while racing toward a cliff, accompanied by a stuffed tiger who they alone saw as alive.)

The second cartoon, done by Ted Rall, was taken from Philadelphia City Paper. Its particular focus is on Christmas spending, but I think the overall theme of buying for the sake of buying—consuming for the sake of consuming—is one we’re familiar with 365¼ days per year.

29 March 2009


There’s a quote in the current issue of Utne Reader that I find fascinating. It’s in the article, “The Lonely American.” I’ll confess that my understanding of cultural anthropology is not the best, but to me, this seems entirely plausible:

“A culture’s attitude toward the ties that bind pervasively shapes how its members interact with the world. These cultural blinders are made clear by a favorite question in cross-cultural research. People are asked to complete the sentence ‘I love my mother but…’ In Western countries, the usual response is critical and distancing, something along the lines of ‘I love my mother but…she’s just so difficult.’ In Southeast Asia, the usual response is ‘I love my mother but…I can never repay all that she has done for me.’ What makes the exercise so powerful is that most people cannot imagine the other response until they are presented with it. As self-reliant Americans, we are automatically prepared to question the value of our strongest bonds and to step away from them when necessary, relying instead on ourselves.”

There have been all kinds of studies done on how Americans increasingly have fewer and fewer true friends. (I’m not talking about Facebook friends!) Debate currently rages if online communities actually are (or better, can become) “community.” I cautiously say “yes.”

The article also states, “Small daily choices—whether to go to a local store or order off the Internet, whether to pick up a ringing telephone or let it go to voice mail, whether to get together with a friend or pop in a DVD—end up defining one’s social world. These little decisions are cumulative.”

I’m the first to admit that sometimes I just don’t feel like being social! But there’s a danger in that: we can allow our world to become too small. Technology can give us a false sense of connection. There’s simply no substitute for meeting with someone “in the flesh.”

God is not a woman!

I keep digging up goodies as I pack for our impending move. Here's a ten year old cartoon from Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur.

Do not refer to the deity with a feminine pronoun!

26 March 2009

dusty sermon notes

Last week, I mentioned how overjoyed I was at the prospect of packing stuff for our upcoming change of address. (I have begun packing.) Among the things I’ve come across are some papers containing sermon notes from the early 90s. I had these handed out to the people just before I preached my sermons.

The first one is a Q and A on “Who is my neighbor?” Starting with the parable of the Good Samaritan, I tried to cast a pretty wide net. Of course, I also felt that adorning the document with the duck I’ve mentioned before added the right touch. (That, and the various Christian symbols in the lower right corner.)

The second page was the outline of a sermon suggesting that women should be deacons. (How dare I be that impertinent?) And yes, this was a church that still didn’t permit that. I tried to ease into the issue by speaking of moving past our comfort zone; I mentioned a Greek Orthodox Christmas Eve service, which at the time, was very new to me. I proceeded to Joel 2:28-29, a favorite Old Testament text among Pentecostals. (“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”) Then there is the case of Phoebe, the deacon who is commended by the apostle Paul.

My quote, “the vision thing,” is about George H. W. Bush’s admission that he apparently lacked enough vision to inspire people. But it’s not just his problem: vision is what we need, whoever we are, to see beyond our current boundaries.

Anyway, that’s what I dug up as I was packing.

19 March 2009

I hate packing

I’m issuing an open invitation to anyone who wants to haul away items of all description to come to my house and do so.

My wife and I will soon be moving, and so, we are packing up stuff. I hate packing. During the time I was in college and seminary—that is, until I was married—I tried to bring less and less with each semester and school year that passed. Maybe one clue suggesting my dislike of packing is that, instead of doing it, I’m writing a blog post about it.

I would like to think I’m making some kind of political statement about our insane consumerist society—or maybe a spiritual statement about drowning ourselves in possessions. And it is true that I get depressed when I feel crowded by “stuff.” I’ve never considered myself a practitioner of feng shui, but maybe there’s something to it! Then again, maybe I’m making up excuses.

By the way, did I say that I hate packing?

16 March 2009

change(continuity) we can(not) believe in

There is a growing chorus of voices who fear that President Obama’s policies in the “war on terror” are more symbolic than substantial. He has announced the closing of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, directed CIA interrogators to abide by the Army Field Manual, and ordered the closing of secret CIA prisons. (Being “secret” prisons run by the CIA, one wonders how that will take place!) And recently, Obama said that Bush-era detainees will no longer be labeled “enemy combatants.” Despite the renaming, the legal status of these detainees has largely remained the same.

One piece of evidence suggesting that these are still symbolic gestures is the legal brief submitted by the Obama administration last Friday. In it, the Obama Department of Justice leaves almost completely intact the Bush DOJ’s argument for presidential authority to order indefinite detention.

Last year, then-Senator Obama voted to grant retroactive immunity to telecom companies who broke the law by assisting Bush in spying on Americans. At the time, I feared that when push came to shove, Obama would be unable to resist the increased power that the Bush presidency had grabbed for itself.

Say it ain’t so, Barack! Or better, prove it ain’t so!

08 March 2009

let's sign it and get going

As I did last year, I’m noting that today is International Women’s Day. It’s also being noted that the United States is one of the tiny handful of nations that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Besides the US, the only UN members that have not ratified CEDAW are Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, Iran, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga. America is the lone democracy to not sign on to this treaty protecting women’s rights.

“The treaty is worse than useless,” said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America. “It gives legitimacy to regimes that are committing some of the worst abuses against women.” There’s a serious flaw in this logic. Without question, merely signing a document doesn’t guarantee that the words written on it will be carried out. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to CEDAW, and it’s hard to find a country in which women are treated in a more dismal fashion.

But does that mean we shouldn’t sign treaties because other signatories might choose to disregard part, or all, of it? We ourselves have insisted on qualifications that gut much of the effectiveness of this and other treaties. Can’t we just take the high road and set an example for others?

In a world where women and girls are raped as an instrument of war—and acid gets thrown in their faces—maybe this treaty does set a high bar. But as a Christian, I say the law of love is the way to go!

03 March 2009

a "mea culpa" re art

I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “God’s work of art,” the subject of my blog post yesterday. One thing it does not mean is allowing our creative vision to be squelched. In the March-April issue of Utne Reader, there are some interesting thoughts regarding the way groups can lose their focus with too much funding from foundations. The comments deal specifically with nonprofit organizations, but they also apply to churches and other communities of faith.

There’s a warning about being “no longer accountable to our…members because we don’t depend on them for our existence.” When we rely on foundations, “we try to prove to them that we are still relevant and efficient and thus worthy of continued funding.” In a way, nonprofit groups (and our churches) can “become mini-corporations, because on some level, we have internalized the idea that power—the ability to create change—equals money.” (p. 45)

By no means am I saying that there isn’t a place for philanthropic organizations. They provide invaluable service to our society and our world. Still, accepting money from outside sources is loaded with hidden consequences. It can be seductive. It can cause us to change our nature. And…it can be mind-numbingly tedious! How many of us actually enjoy the process of grant writing? (I know that there are some who do, God bless them!) Madonna Thunder Hawk, from the group Women of All Red Nations, says this about their tax-exempt status: “we let it lapse. It was too complicated. No one wanted to sit in the office and write reports with time and energy that could be used to advance our movement.” (p. 46)

I think the church that Banu and I served for almost nine years suffered from that malady a bit. Months of grant writing (and rewriting a certain grant, but that’s a topic for another day!) managed to suck more than its share of energy and creativity from us. For that, my own mea culpa should be offered.

When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students said, “If you want to kill a congregation, establish an endowment fund.” I think his point was that relying on other sources of income too often lulls people into thinking that it’s not their responsibility to keep things going. It dulls their creativity and sense of commitment. It doesn't have to, but it too often does.

That’s no way to do, and to be, God’s work of art!

02 March 2009

you're a work of art

Has anyone ever told you that you’re a work of art? Well, the apostle Paul thinks so!

The epistle reading for the fourth Sunday in Lent comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in chapter 2. Right after the familiar words of verses 8 and 9, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” we hear this in verse 10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

That phrase, “what he has made us,” is also translated as “his handiwork” or simply, “his work.” It’s the Greek word poiema. It’s where we get our word “poem.” Just as we speak of a “work” as something constructed with bricks and mortar—or with ideas and words—the same was true in ancient times. The New Jerusalem Bible brings this out clearly: “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.”

But we’re not just any work of art; we’re not just any poem. We’ve been designed for good works. It’s our true nature. When we deny the best within us, we vandalize God’s art.

We need God’s help to make something of ourselves; but God needs our help in turning us into a masterpiece. We co-create with God. In his Anchor Bible commentary, Markus Barth says that “completion of the work done in Christ includes not only the will of God, Christ, and the Spirit, but also the mission, conduct, and action of the saints.”

How much different would the world be—how much different would we be—if we were determined to be artists with God? Our canvas can become life itself.

01 March 2009

a jubilee of rebooting the economy

In recent weeks, there has been no shortage of opinions expressed about the various economic stimulus packages in this country, as well as those implemented in countries all over the globe. One description that I’ve found particularly interesting is that it represents a “rebooting” of the economy. It’s an interesting term, since “rebooting” means to shut down the power and start again.

I don’t think any of the economic plans around the world are quite that radical. Certainly, none of them are as radical as what the Bible describes in Leviticus 25 as the year of jubilee. That’s when the Israelites were to “hallow the fiftieth year and…proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family” (v. 10). After seven times seven years—in the fiftieth year—all Hebrew slaves were to be released and all property was to revert to the original owners or descendants.

This is really rebooting the economy! Following this principle would prevent gross inequities in society; it would help prevent the formation of a permanent underclass. It isn’t known if the Israelites ever actually observed the year of jubilee. There are hints of partial observance, but not much else. Of course, today’s economy is vastly different from what existed then. If the year of jubilee was deemed unworkable then, how much more would it be now?

One lesson of the year of jubilee is that we’re all in this together. The few can’t be allowed to prosper at the expense of the many. No one is “self-made.” We all rely on others; ultimately, we rely on God. I’m hardly an economist, but it seems that keeping that in view will go a long way toward re-thinking how we structure our economy and society in the 21st century.