24 December 2010

"You are My Sunshine"

Here's the scene from the Star Trek: Voyager episode, "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which the holographic doctor (a man with no name) is love-smitten when he teaches Seven of Nine (a female Borg freed from the collective) the song, "You are My Sunshine." The DVD with the episode arrived in well-timed fashion today, Christmas Eve. Now, "my sunshine" can celebrate Christmas, 24th century style.

23 December 2010

pay attention to the body

“All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Our Keukabiblia Bible study is moving to chapters 10 and 11 of 1 Corinthians. Paul’s warning about failure to discern the body appears in verse 29 of the latter chapter. This is part of his critique of the Corinthian church and their observance of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or rather, the lack thereof.

The apostle begins this section in verse 17 with the rather diplomatic statement, “I do not commend you.” It seems that the divisions of rich and poor have not only been maintained among these followers of Christ, but they’ve found expression at the very heart of worship. He speaks of the agape or love feast, which was joined with the Eucharist, in which “each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21). His outrage boils over in the next verse: “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”

This failure of love—this failure of generosity—is due to the aforementioned failure to discern the body, to recognize the body of Christ. Consequently, Paul’s verdict is that “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).

What’s going on here? Verse 28 says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Is this failure in discernment a faulty self-diagnostic? Is it a question of being oblivious to what the body and blood of the Lord are all about? In extreme cases, does that lead to visible effects in health, even resulting in death? (I suppose the opposing maladies of overindulgence and hunger would seem to make that evident!)

There clearly is also in operation a reality that is communal, even political, in nature. Failure to discern the body is in line with one of Paul’s often repeated sentiments, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (10:24). When we fail to love our neighbor, across the street or across the world, we fail to discern the body. We fail to recognize our sisters and brothers and our unity with them.

In his book, Deeper than Words, Brother David Steindl-Rast uses the concept of “the holy catholic church” from the Apostles’ Creed and expands on it. He says that “our horizon has grown wider…Truly catholic is only that faith in Life and its ultimate Source that all humans share. It remains alive in the hearts of humans who are not even aware of it.” (139)

That’s something deserving of our attention!

15 December 2010

Advent Conspiracy 2010

I'm not sure about the figures quoted, but I guess the point is made. We rush through Advent, ignoring its call to renewal and healing, and take the life-giving joy out of Christmas. Advent, in the eyes of our consumer culture, really is a conspiracy!

09 December 2010

tortured truth

Five years ago, the journal Biblical Interpretation published an essay by Jennifer A. Glancy [pictured left] with the eye-catching title, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.” I came across it while researching the gospel of John. In the article, she wonders, echoing Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Continuing, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?” (107)

The introduction to John’s gospel is filled with compelling ideas. Verse 14 of that first chapter serves as a bit of a summary: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” It is that combination of “flesh” and “truth,” as well as the passion overseen by Pilate, that prompts Glancy’s question, “Is it possible to embrace flesh as a locus of truth and still to condemn the practice of torture? Through my carnal reading of the Johannine passion narrative, I attempt to do so. I do not know if I succeed.” (109) I can’t help but appreciate her play on words—the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, carnal.

I also appreciate Glancy’s stated humility, understanding the difficulty of her project. As to that project, she includes as a footnote to her title the statement, “July 10, 2004. I date this manuscript to situate it in a particular moment in the history of torture.” That phrase, “in the history of torture,” is especially appropriate, considering that tomorrow is Human Rights Day. Sadly, we have mirrored the imperial values of Roman law about torture, which meant “the infliction of anguish and agony on the body to elicit the truth.” (108)

We have our own law, or at least legal opinion, that guides our own attempts to wrench truth from flesh. For example, there’s the notorious August 2002 Justice Department memorandum arguing that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to authorize torture (though in legalese, it’s not called that) in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Glancy remarks, “An Empire of torture recognizes no limits in its campaign to force truth from flesh.” (118) I wonder, is that us? Are we “an empire of torture”?

She speaks of three intentions of torture, which sometimes may overlap. There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth. Secondly, there is “penal” torture, which is meant as punishment. Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which “is part of an attempt to control the larger population to which the individual belongs.” (115) When we include the element of sexual humiliation (those crucified were naked), there are uncomfortable parallels with our own behavior in Iraq.

Does it matter that our torture is directed at the (suspected) terrorists? At the enemy? Aside from the stench of its blatant illegality and bankrupt political philosophy (despite whatever fig leaf of legality we devise), Christians should be the first to speak against torture. We worship the tortured one, one who identifies with the tortured.

Commenting on the strangeness of a resurrected body that retains wounds, Glancy uses almost mystical language. “Wounds tell the truth of flesh given for the life of the world, the indelible truth of flesh tortured, perhaps, simply, the truth of flesh…Skin demarcates the boundary of each self from the world, distinguishing what is me from what is not-me, what is you from what is not-you. Jesus’ open wounds blur what is Jesus and what is not-Jesus. Splinters stripe bloody flesh. Slivers of skin are pounded into a wooden beam. The ground is stained a ferrous red with fluid that hemorrhages from Jesus’ side. Jesus’ ‘spaces of absence’ gape open to expose his truth to the world.” (133-4, emphasis added)

Is it too much to hope that, in this new moment in the history of torture—Human Rights Day of 2010—we can repent of and investigate our own torturous practices and allow for some measure of justice?

03 December 2010

Nightwish, "Ghost Love Score"

Here's a band I recently discovered, even though they've been around since the 90s, Nightwish, a Finnish symphonic metal band. This was from their classic concert in Helsinki, which was operatic vocalist Tarja Turunen's final one with them.

30 November 2010

deeper than words, into myth

“Schools could make a decisive contribution to religious tolerance by fostering an appreciation of poetry. We have a crying need for a school system in which the cultivation of a poetic mind ranks high. A sense for poetry is indispensable for the understanding of myths.” (72) That’s from Brother David Steindl-Rast, in his book Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed. (I’ve told my wife that this book is a mystical commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.)

The idea that “mythology” equals “fairy tales” or even “falsehoods” has become entrenched in our minds. This is unfortunate. For many, the very concept of “mythological truth” seems like a contradiction in terms. In our society, we tend to prize scientific and literal terminology alone as ways of searching for, and expressing, the truth.

Still, who can deny that there’s an ocean of wisdom that simply cannot be communicated with cold facts and figures? (Try writing a love letter that way!) That is the power of poetry. That is the power of myth, which Richard Rohr has described as “something that is profoundly true at the deepest levels of life.”

The TV show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly recently did a piece on Brother David and gratitude. Click here to see it.

19 November 2010

shrugging it off

In the last couple of years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand. When I was in my late teens, I had an intellectual “fling” with her myself! There was one day, as a freshman in college, when I was sitting with some friends in the cafeteria, and I asked one of them to read something from her book Atlas Shrugged. I referred to it, only half-jokingly, as “scripture.”

I learned plenty of things from Ayn Rand. One valuable lesson was about the dangers of ideology. I can remember times when I actually caught myself wondering, “Wait. How would Ayn Rand look at this?” I don’t believe that the poor woman (who died in 1982) ever realized how badly she was warped, while a teenager, by the Bolshevik Revolution in her native Russia. She, in tragicomic fashion, called herself an “Objectivist.” Those who consider themselves the objective standard demonstrate how sadly out of touch with reality they are.

Ayn Rand was a living example of narcissism. She proclaimed herself to be the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. In her nonfiction “philosophical” works, she often quotes characters from her fictional books to support her arguments. Eventually, I became disenchanted with her. Her criticism of those who support charitable causes as at least foolish, if not morally decadent, became more than I could stomach. Someone who can label charity (which means “love”) as essentially evil is a horribly twisted individual.

What is especially disturbing to me is that the resurgence of interest in her extends to people in positions of power. Among them is one of the so-called “young guns” in the Republican Party, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin. One of his goals, in true Randian fashion, is to “replace Medicare as we know it and most of Medicaid with a voucher program that would eventually reduce the value of the vouchers.” For someone like me, who needed state help in paying for two brain surgeries, that’s bad news.

10 November 2010

BC and AD

This Sunday the 14th marks the fifteenth anniversary of the surgery needed to excise a malignant brain tumor that somehow had appeared beneath my skull. I say “somehow,” because I asked my neurologist what causes such things, and he responded, “Beats me!” (I’m paraphrasing.)

For a number of reasons, I’ve come to see that day as a watershed moment in my life—another conversion experience. My life prior to 14 November 1995 is BC, “before cancer.” Subsequent to that day is AD, “after diagnosis.” (It’s the best I could do to make it fit the letters!)

The upper photo, BC, is from my surprise birthday party in December 1993. Banu is smiling, knowing that her plan to get me out of the building succeeded. She conspired with our friend Ken, who asked me to go to the grocery store with him. The lower photo is AD, from January 1996. It’s possible that I was listening to WDRE, which was the alternative rock station in Philadelphia at the time.

28 October 2010

more light, less heat

In a couple of days, we’ll try our hand at actually hosting a dialogue.

Here’s something to pray for:  an event that will be successful (in my opinion) if some enlightenment and education happens among all parties involved.

09 October 2010

we need not choose death

Tomorrow, the 10th of October, will be the eighth World Day against the Death Penalty. This year, it is dedicated to the United States, which last year executed 52 people and handed down 106 death sentences. The US and Japan are the final two democracies among the world’s developed nations who still actively execute people. In Europe, only Belarus carries out capital punishment—and no one would mistake Belarus for a democracy. Even Russia has had no executions since 1999.

In carrying out the death penalty, we remain in the same category as China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe. The trend worldwide is toward abolition. The US stubbornly remains on the wrong side of history.

Aside from the numerous political reasons to abolish the death penalty, for me, the most profound is spiritual. As a Christian, I follow one who was executed by the state.

(The image is by Yhonnie Scarce at http://mebehindcamera.blogspot.com/2007/10/world-day-against-death-penalty.html)

30 September 2010

talk talk

Twenty seven years ago, Leonard Swidler (from Temple University in Philly), published “The Dialogue Decalogue.” That would also be known as the Ten Commandments of Dialogue, since “decalogue” means “ten commandments” or “ten words,” just like in Exodus and Deuteronomy. With its reference to Christian-Marxist dialogue as an ongoing process, it looks like it was written twenty seven years ago. However, the principles it espouses are as relevant and badly-needed now (if not more so) as they were then. Last year, I preached a sermon on dialogue which barely scratched the surface of it.

Dialogue is a way of paying respect to another human being. Ultimately, it opens oneself to God. If we’re willing to enter into dialogue, we first must be willing to listen. Swidler’s first commandment of dialogue is to recognize that its “primary purpose…is to learn…and then to act accordingly.” I won’t deal with all of his “commandments.” The document is well worth reading for that.

Dialogue can deal with religious, political, or any number of other aspects of life. Whichever of these we’re engaging, an honesty—indeed, a brutal honesty—needs to be present. That is, it needs to be present if we want to get beyond the false fronts that we too often, and often unknowingly, present to the world. Actually, that’s what Swidler addresses in his third commandment: “Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.”

Some people shun dialogue, because they imagine that it requires selling short who they are and what they believe. But if that is what’s happening, then it isn’t dialogue. It’s yet another way of avoiding opening ourselves to the other.

Dialogue is difficult; maybe that’s why so little of it actually happens. We talk (and shout!) past each other.

Here’s hoping our talk can be a little more fruitful!

27 September 2010

this calls for wisdom

In our Keukabiblia Bible study, we’re approaching the part of the book of Revelation that has probably been scrutinized the most, with varying levels of soundness.

“This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (Revelation 13:18). In his book, Principalities and Powers in the New Testament, Heinrich Schlier says, “It is clear that today we have not the wisdom which the Apocalypse [that is, the book of Revelation] takes for granted.” (89)

That isn’t meant as an insult. (Though, with some of the crazy theories about the number of the beast, it might be well-deserved.) Rather, it’s a reminder that what we’re reading takes place in a series of visions. And visions have rules of their own.

In Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code, he says, “In the last analysis, it is always a choice between the power that operates through inflicting suffering, that is, the power of the beast, and the power that operates through accepting suffering, namely, the power of the Lamb.” (77) That speaks to the essential orientation within the human heart of fear versus love.

Elsewhere, John shows how fear and love exist as opposites: how one hinders and twists faith and the other edifies and enlivens it. In 1 John 4 we read, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18). Without the love that inspires from within, we are left with only “brute” force. We summon nothing more from ourselves than the beast.

This calls for wisdom!

(The top image is from www.flickr.com/photos/philipcdavis/4772209210/sizes/l/in/pool-725307@N25/)

16 September 2010

honoring a soldier

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the death of Specialist Alyssa Peterson. As The Nation reports, she was one of the first female soldiers to die in Iraq. The official Army report was that her death on September 15, 2003 was caused by a “non-hostile weapons discharge.” That isn’t unusual in a war zone. Officials volunteered nothing more than some possible scenarios, “including Peterson’s own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.”

It took the dogged insistence of a radio station reporter from her hometown in Flagstaff, Arizona, to get to the truth. She committed suicide, rather than participate in torturing detainees. Documents describing the interrogation procedures had been destroyed.

For two years, even her parents were kept in the dark.

Her fellow soldiers told her “the old rules no longer applied because this was a different world. This was a new kind of war.” I wonder where they got that? Could it be that they were taking their cues from the very top of our leadership? When we had Vice President Cheney talking about “working the dark side,” we shouldn’t have expected anything but dishonorable results.

Clearly, more than one factor goes into suicide, but when we put people into the position of torturing other human beings, we dehumanize them just as surely as they dehumanize their prisoners.

02 September 2010

sweet sixteen

The two images presented speak volumes about Banu and me on our 16th wedding anniversary, which is tomorrow. They were scanned from photos I took when we were students at Eastern Baptist Seminary. (Since then, its name has been changed to Palmer Seminary.)

The first is a reaction she frequently had then—and now. I often give her grief about…well, many things. If she had to present her own version of Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!,” this might be it. Thanks to me, she’s had plenty of opportunities to refine the technique.

The second image is of something that I, again, frequently witnessed: a meal lovingly prepared and waiting for me when I came home at night (sometimes quite late) from my job at Baskin-Robbins. As I remind her to this day, even sandwiches taste better when she makes them. (I really mean that; it’s not an excuse to avoid the preparation of food!)

So there’s one more reason to celebrate our marriage!

01 September 2010

choosing life

Culture of life. Choose life. That terminology is usually narrowly defined as opposition to abortion. Rarely are matters like capital punishment, war, the environment, or other questions that involve life (or the deprivation thereof) brought into the discussion. And rarely does that discussion extend beyond the political realm.

In yesterday’s daily meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society, entitled “A Choice Calling for Discipline,” we see a vastly broader and deeper framework. “When we look critically at the many thoughts and feelings that fill our minds and hearts, we may come to the horrifying discovery that we often choose death instead of life, curse instead of blessing. Jealousy, envy, anger, resentment, greed, lust, vindictiveness, revenge, hatred…they all float in that large reservoir of our inner life. Often we take them for granted and allow them to be there and do their destructive work.”

We choose death in many different ways. It’s one of the irrational constants of human existence. Clearly, that choice doesn’t always manifest itself in dramatic ways, easily visible ways. The petty squabbling that substitutes for honest and good faith dialogue about our problems seems to be one of our favorite ways of choosing death!

Referencing Deuteronomy 30:15-20, the meditation continues, “But God asks us to choose life and to choose blessing. This choice requires an immense inner discipline. It requires a great attentiveness to the death-forces within us and a great commitment to let the forces of life come to dominate our thoughts and feelings. We cannot always do this alone; often we need a caring guide or a loving community to support us. But it is important that we both make the inner effort and seek the support we need from others to help us choose life.”

Sometimes (maybe usually?) when we possess a dogged certainty that we know we are right (expletive deleted), the “death-forces” are at work. I’m trying not to sound sappily sanguine, but “a culture of life” and “choosing life” involves stuff like love and humility.

21 August 2010

atmosphere of evil

I suppose it seems like it’s in today’s America (and today’s church) that people more readily give way to anger than before. At one level, I know that that isn’t true. It’s not like we’re actually fighting a civil war. Still, terms like the “culture wars” either describe, or add to, collective paranoia.

I’m divulging my own perspective here, but when seemingly innocuous statements and actions result in a crescendo of outrage, I wonder if we all aren’t on a diet of crazy pills. In a previous post, I included an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin asks, “Doesn’t it seem like everybody just shouts at each other nowadays?”

Someone who knew a little bit about anger was Heinrich Schlier, who passed away in 1978. During the Nazi era, he belonged to the Confessing Church, a Christian movement that opposed Hitler’s regime. In his book, Principalities and Powers in the New Testament, he comments on the apostle Paul’s quote in Ephesians 4:26-27: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Please overlook the gender-exclusive language.)

“This may appear exaggerated, for what has a man’s anger to do with the devil?” Good question, especially for a scholarly German theologian. I think his answer is the result of both study and experience. “When a man gives way to anger he makes a place within himself for the devil, and he gives the devil and his ruinous power a foothold in the world. Through his anger the man helps, as it were, to intensify the atmosphere of evil.” (61)

Atmosphere of evil. That’s a good description of an environment in which we spew whatever ill-conceived thought that enters our heads—and then foster conditions for more of the same.

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)

14 August 2010

a Friday and a 13

A few months ago, I commented on paraskevidekatriaphobia, that is, fear of Friday the 13th. I neglected to say whether or not I am one who is afflicted with this fear. I am not. And that’s a good thing, because yesterday we moved into our new abode.

I also do not suffer from a related disorder: triskaidekaphobia, which is fear of the number 13. That also is a good thing, because there are thirteen steps between the first and second floors of our house.

08 August 2010

unconditionally witness

“Good news becomes bad news when it is announced without peace and joy. Anyone who proclaims the forgiving and healing love of Jesus with a bitter heart is a false witness.” That’s from today’s Daily Meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society.

Even if someone has their facts straight, that still doesn’t mean that they’re right! It’s possible to say, “Jesus loves you,” and make it sound like he hates your guts: probably because the one saying those words actually does. If we speak the truth without love, that’s saying more about us than anything else. We are bearing false witness to an idol.

“We are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words, to the great things God has done for us. But this witness must come from a heart that is willing to give without getting anything in return.” If that’s not our source, then we are in the way.

“The more we trust in God’s unconditional love for us, the more able we will be to proclaim the love of Jesus without any inner or outer conditions.” We won’t feel like Jesus needs us to defend him—or to add provisos to his love.

30 July 2010

again, with the packing and moving

In the past, I have commented on my unmitigated joy at the thought of packing up our stuff in preparation for moving. Well, we’re doing it again. Fortunately, this time, we have fewer possessions to bother with. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be moving to the other side of Keuka Lake (where the churches we serve are located).

Acknowledging the fact that most of the Finger Lakes region would be considered to be living in the country, we will be moving to a more densely populated area. (There’s even a four-way stop.)

Our new house has more room—and some shade. Still, I’ve learned to appreciate some things this past year in our lovely little trailer. I’ll miss the frequent visits from our neighbors, the deer and turkeys. I never thought I would say this, but I’ve enjoyed living in the country.

23 July 2010

let this one in

Tonight, for the third time, I watched my favorite Swedish vampire movie—how about one of my favorite vampire movies of all time?—Let the Right One In. Considering that it was done in 2008, it must have made a big impact for me to say “of all time.” Well, it did, and does.

We have Oskar, a twelve year old boy who’s being bullied at school. Enter Eli, a twelve (?) year old girl who suddenly presents herself as his next-door neighbor. She tells him that they can’t be friends, but it doesn’t take long until the opposite is true. And what a girl friend! She gives him tips on dealing with the bully and schools him (in often gruesome fashion) on her vampiric nature.

This is a lovely little fairy tale by Tomas Alfredson. I heard a nasty rumor of this gem being redone for the American audience. I fear that the intelligence and charm will be drained from it, just as surely as Eli drains her ill-fated quarry.

faithful correction

In my psalm reading this week, I came upon this little jewel: “Let the righteous strike me; let the faithful correct me” (141:5). I think it speaks to me—in a rather uncomfortable way. I have felt the need of correction by the faithful. (Not so much striking by the righteous, which I avoided!)

Even though we don’t like it at the time, faithful correction is a gift. It is intended to help us grow beyond ourselves, to spur us on to greater maturity. Unfaithful correction, however, is a very different bird. It doesn’t care about helping us to improve. It’s only interested in itself—and grinding anyone who gets in its way into the dust.

Those who desire a healthy inner life (inner space free of the debris that too often accumulates) are the ones who, like the psalmist, are willing to both receive faithful correction and to faithfully correct.

19 July 2010

Revelation revelations

We’re about to delve into the book of Revelation in our Keukabiblia Bible study. It’s probably the book of the Bible that has received the worst treatment. (By the way, it’s the book of Revelation—not Revelations.) We’ll be using as a companion Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code.

It’s understandable why this book so often gets mishandled and basically looks like the storyline for a horror movie. Apocalyptic literature has dramatic and vivid imagery. (“Apocalypse” itself means “uncovering,” “unveiling,” or “revelation.”) That’s why it lends itself so easily to misunderstanding and mistreatment.

Isn’t it interesting how a revelation can be so obscure?

13 July 2010

sometimes we're full of gas

I’ll admit that I’ve debated whether or not to post something about Gasland. I’m fully aware that director Josh Fox has an agenda. Some have concluded that his movie has plenty of mistruths (some would be less charitable and say “lies”). However, the natural gas companies are hardly without vested interests themselves.

Speaking as someone whose local area has been threatened by the controversial drilling method known as hydrofracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), I’m willing to say, “Let’s wait until we study this procedure further.”

01 July 2010


It makes so much difference when we listen!

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann applies this to King Zedekiah in chapter 37. The king sends delegates to Jeremiah, requesting prayer. Of course, Zedekiah has disregarded what the prophet has been trying to tell him about a number of things—like doing justice and not scheming against the Babylonians.

Brueggemann says, “The central issue is that the king did not ‘listen’ (shema`).” (354) He’s alluding to the Shema (which means “listen” or “hear”) in Deuteronomy 6. It’s a statement of faith that begins with verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

He continues, “No one listened—not the king, not his royal entourage, not the city nor its citizens. ‘Listening’ becomes the key motif for this part of the text.…‘Listening’ is to acknowledge that Yahweh and the torah tradition provide the dominant clues to life and to power. Zedekiah’s refusal to listen is a decision to ignore the tradition, to reject the prophet, to scuttle a theological identity, and to disregard a transcendent purpose in power politics. A refusal to listen is to imagine that the king is autonomous and therefore destined for self-sufficiency. In his refusal to listen, so the text suggests, the king has sealed his own fate and that of his people. His future depends not upon his ingenuity nor his power, but upon his readiness to accept the theological reality of his life and his rule, that is, the reality of Yahweh’s rule.” (354-5)

Refusing to listen isn’t the sole domain of foolish kings. Can we think of ways in which we are Zedekiah-like by ignoring “theological reality”?

25 June 2010

a flower can bloom

“I have come from a shell to a seed and from a seed to a small flower.” That’s the testimony of someone who was tortured—and has been blessed with therapy and rehabilitation.

Tomorrow is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (or for short, the International Day Against Torture). I’ve mentioned this day in previous years.

What a joy it will be when we finally say “no” to this reprehensible practice and actually mean it.

21 June 2010

a really new covenant

In Jeremiah 31, we’re presented with a passage that appears later on this fall in the lectionary. But we’re talking about it now in our Keukabiblia Bible study! In verse 31, here’s the prophet, speaking under the influence of the divine: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

What is this new covenant? As a Christian, I’m familiar with the interpretation that telescopes this ahead six centuries to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Still, how does this speak to Jeremiah and his audience? Are we to believe that it means nothing to them? If we can wrench it from its context, then why is Jeremiah risking life and limb to speak these words? (I should also note that I have similar complaints regarding the way the book of Revelation is treated.)

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann says, “The ‘old’ covenant belongs to that Israelite community which though its sustained disobedience forfeited covenant with God, even as it lost the city of Jerusalem. The ‘new’ covenant now wrought by God also concerns the Israelite community. This is the community formed anew by God among exiles who are now transformed into a community of glad obedience.” (292)

This seems to fit with Jeremiah’s agenda. Up to this point in the book, we’ve heard warnings about impending invasion and exile by the Babylonians. Now, in chapters 30 and 31 (some extend it to chapter 33), we have the so-called “Book of Comfort.” The prophet is stating that the worst is almost past. God is about to do a new thing. But it’s not because the people—including those in exile—have done something to bring this about. It is a completely voluntary act on God’s part; it’s an act of grace.

Again, Brueggemann: “All the newness is possible because Yahweh has forgiven. Indeed, beginning again in and after exile depends upon Yahweh’s willingness to break out of a system of rewards and punishments, for the affront of Israel and Judah could never be satisfied by punishment. God has broken the vicious cycle of sin and punishment; it is this broken cycle that permits Israel to begin again at a different place with new possibility. This is an uncommon statement, utterly Jewish, utterly grace-filled; upon it hangs the whole of reconstituted Judaism out of exile. Jewish faith is deeply rooted in forgiveness.” (294)

“It is of course possible to read this in terms of Jewish triumphalism, but such is not the intent of the text. Indeed, the text invites Jews (and belatedly Christians and others) to stand in grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness, to receive it, and to take from it a new, regenerated life. Thus the promise occasions no arrogance or pride, but only genuine gratitude.” (295)

Imagine how our world would look if we lived lives of grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness!

20 June 2010

replicating life

Tonight BBC America showed the classic sci-fi / gritty cop film noir / love story Blade Runner (1982). What can I say that hasn’t already been said? There are so many great lines (not to mention Vangelis’ soundtrack music).

Near the end of the movie, there’s the scene in which Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty, realizing his pre-ordained expiration date is at hand: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

It’s interesting that Edward James Olmos has been in two storylines in which artificial life forms are referred to as “skin jobs.”

07 June 2010

the world comes to Africa

With apologies to American teams who, by winning the championship in their respective sports, claim that they are “world champs,” a true world championship is about to get underway in South Africa. That’s right, on Friday the 2010 World Cup begins with the host country taking on Mexico.

However, the first really interesting game is this Saturday at 2:30pm Eastern time. That’s when the long-awaited clash between England and the US will occur. Their group also has Algeria and Slovenia. The English and the Americans (in that order) are expected to advance from their group to the next round.

But then, as they say, that’s why they play the game.

03 June 2010

a randfull to deal with

I mention this story more because I’m a fan of Rush than any particular opinion I have of Rand Paul.  After all, I’ve been where Mr. Paul is now.  Rush, like some of us in our youthful days, flirted with libertarianism.  Imagine: cloaking anarchism with respectable clothing.  It gives one a “rush” to be extreme without appearing to be extreme.

But as a Rush fan, I have to ask the question:  has Rand ever bothered to listen to the lyrics of “The Spirit of Radio”?  That song laments the influence of business on the artistic process.  (That’s the private, not public, sector.)  Is that really the message that our dear friend Rand Paul is trying to communicate?

30 May 2010


The image to the left is the triquetra, an ancient symbol which, in the Christian imagination, came to represent the Holy Trinity. This afternoon, while at a mall in the Nashville area, my wife Banu got a temporary tattoo of the triquetra on her arm. (Maybe she’ll decide to get a permanent one—maybe I will!)

Today is Trinity Sunday. This day doesn’t get the attention it deserves, because too often, all people hear about it (if they do hear about it), is basically a description of the Holy Trinity. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest at the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, portrays a deep and mystical view. Here’s an excerpt from today’s email meditation:

“All you can give back to God is who you really are. That’s about the broadest and deepest permission you will ever receive. It is our very incapacity and weakness which becomes the ongoing goad that deepens both our inner desire and our dependency on God alone. It becomes that which prods and invites us into ‘the cosmic dance’ of the Trinity where everybody else is included, and all judgments of others up or down become a waste of time. Remember, the Trinitarian nature of God is saying that God is more a verb than a noun; a flow more than a substance, a love more than an idea, a process more than any fast conclusion.”

19 May 2010

blessing torture

“A political dissident is arrested for leading a movement that threatens the stability of a region. He is ambushed and apprehended by his enemies, detained without a public trial, and tortured by soldiers at the command of their political leaders.

“No, I’m not describing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any other detainee held at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I’m speaking of Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s the way Skye Jethani begins his article, “The Informed Conscience,” in the May/June issue of Liberty magazine. Jethani is the managing editor of Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today. Hardly a wild-eyed radical, he’s an evangelical Christian, ordained in the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

He continues, “The fact that Christians draw their faith, life, and identity from a Messiah who was the victim of political torture seems ironic in light of new research by the Pew Forum that indicates 62 percent of White Evangelicals believe torture of suspected terrorists is ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified. The research shows that people who attend church regularly were more likely to rationalize torture than those who do not go to church. [Emphasis is mine.]

“How do we explain these findings? Are Christians being more influenced by Jack Bauer than Jesus Christ?”

This opens up a big discussion. One of my earliest blog posts was on this topic. It can be easy to drift into support of almost any policy if fear is continually injected into the populace.

Jethani looks at it philosophically, saying, “Lurking behind this passive support of government torture is a utilitarian ethic that believes the ends justify the means—torture is justifiable if the information attained will save innocent lives. But David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today, points out a problem with this argument: ‘But Evangelicals have been eager to reject utilitarian ethics when addressing other issues—embryonic stem-cell research and population-control programs, for example. Even if embryonic stem-cell research turned out to be the best way to cure Parkinson’s disease, most Evangelicals would oppose it, just as we would oppose abortion even if it were shown to reduce, say, food insecurity.’”

The image is from the Pew Forum website, showing the results of the poll, which was taken in April 2009. The wording of the question was, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

In my opinion, the saddest thing is that torture is even seriously debated in the church.

18 May 2010

don't you care?

At the beginning of chapter 16, Jeremiah gets a message from God that he can’t be happy about. He needs to forget any plans he has regarding marriage or a family of his own. In fact, he needs to forget about other aspects of community interaction, such as attending funerals. The reason? “Both great and small shall die in this land” (v. 6a). There’s no point in getting attached; these people are doomed. In verse 8, Jeremiah is forbidden to go to parties—so much for a social life!

So is this just a case of God making the prophet’s life even more miserable than it otherwise would have been? Does Jeremiah have no say in how he lives his life?

In the May 18 issue of the Christian Century, Belden C. Lane writes about “Caring and not Caring.” He refers to the Desert Christians, the desert fathers and mothers: Roman Empire-era monastics who went out and lived in the Egyptian desert. Lane says, “On the one hand, I tend to care entirely too much about others’ approval. I need to ignore it. On the other hand, when I’m not appreciated enough, I’m eaten by resentment and begin to turn inward—and a crippling indifference creeps up. The Desert Christians identified these two very different kinds of indifference as apatheia and acedia. They saw the one [apatheia] as an important virtue (trimming one’s life of trivial matters) and the other [acedia] as the worst of the seven deadly sins (undercutting any possibility of love).” (26) That deadly sin, of course, is sloth.

Today, we have conflated these two aspects of indifference. We rarely, if ever, distinguish between apathy and acedia. The former began as a healthy detachment that ignores what’s unimportant and is needed for spiritual life and growth. The latter is a state of inner listlessness that just doesn’t care—at least, doesn’t care about anything important.

So maybe the choices in Jeremiah 16 aren’t so one-sided after all. Maybe Jeremiah understands the difference between apatheia and acedia. Maybe by seeming not to care, he demonstrates the very depth of caring.

11 May 2010

holding pattern on rule of law

Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be giving in to the push to allow those accused of being terrorists to have their Constitutional rights waived…at least, for a while.

“For months, the administration has defended the criminal justice system as strong enough to handle terrorism cases,” says Charlie Savage, reporter for the New York Times. “Mr. Holder acknowledged the abrupt shift of tone, characterizing the administration’s stance as a ‘new priority’ and ‘big news.’” Holder wants Congress to enact a law allowing for lengthier interrogation without notifying suspects of their Miranda rights—the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

While measures like this may make many of us feel safe, they are short-sighted. When we start monkeying around with the framework of law that protects us from the power of the state, in the long run, it imperils us. Who decides who will be accused of being a terrorist (while pretending that an accusation equals guilt). Who watches the watchers?

(The image is cover art from the band Holding Pattern.)

30 April 2010


When you were a kid, did anyone ever accuse you of having cooties? Did you ever claim someone else had cooties? In this coming Sunday’s reading from Acts, Peter is browbeaten by some of his fellow Jewish believers for associating with Gentiles—and even eating with them. He broke the laws of ritual purity that should have kept him separate from them.

Peter hung out with those people who have cooties.

What about us? Who are some people we think of as having cooties? Do we need the Spirit of God to cure us, just like the folks in our scripture text?

27 April 2010

R.I.P....for now

Throughout the 2009-10 season, the Buffalo Sabres hovered near the top of the NHL’s Eastern Conference. (Of course, the Washington Capitals seized control of the number one spot early on!) So I think we can agree that Sabres fans were thinking with their heads and hearts when they expected their guys to at least get to the second round. Add to that the awesome Olympic goalkeeper, Ryan Miller, and the case should be made. But the Boston Bruins had other ideas…

As for the Nashville Predators, in recent years getting to the playoffs has been a fairly routine procedure. Winning a playoff series remains elusive. So when they drew the Chicago Blackhawks, who boast an Olympian of their own in Patrick Kane, things didn’t look very promising. Still, after going up 2 games to 1, Preds fans had reason to hope. But Nashville’s ineffective power play, which led to the heart-breaking Game 5 loss in Chicago, provided a microcosm of the series.

Oh well, wait ‘til next year.

22 April 2010

thirsty planet

Today is Earth Day, and as I’m drinking my mug of tea, I’m reminded of an article from the BBC News I read a few days ago. It deals with water (especially clean water)—or the lack thereof—all over the world. I mention tea because it takes less to produce it than it does coffee. But both of those pale in comparison to things like steak and a pair of jeans.

Water is the most precious commodity on Earth. (If you don’t believe me, watch Daniel Craig as James Bond in Quantum of Solace!) Water has “fueled” conflict for millennia.

It puts the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” a global spin.

20 April 2010

no room for humor

“This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.”

Who is this traitorous scoundrel referred to, one who refuses to support the troops by echoing the party line? It is none other than Jeremiah the prophet. And as much as he would like to, he can’t ignore the insane path that his country is heading down. This quote comes from chapter 38, verse 4 of the book that bears his name.

As I’ve been planning our Bible study, I’ve thought about my admiration for Jeremiah.  He has to be courageous to endure the stuff that happens to him; it’s too bad that there’s no room for humor. Then again, some of his antics do have a dark comedic feel to them!

13 April 2010

weeping prophet

In late summer and early fall of this, year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, the book of Jeremiah is used for the Sunday Old Testament lessons. But why wait until then? We’re starting a new Bible study tomorrow, and guess who’s the guest of honor? The weeping prophet himself.

Jeremiah did not have an easy life. He lived at a time when Judah was threatened from within—by rampant corruption and decadence—and from without—the seemingly inevitable invasion by the Babylonian Empire. He was frequently misunderstood and maligned. He had multiple arrests and was accused of treason. All of this tore at him, because he truly loved his fellow Judahites.

But the greatest love/hate relationship was with the God who called him and promised to make him “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land” (1:18). How nice! Everyone’s dream job includes having to be a fortress to fend off the attacks of one’s neighbors!

The image is “Prophet Jeremiah” by Marc Chagall.

06 April 2010

truly, no sarcasm

Somehow, I came into possession of tickets to a concert that I figured my wife would greatly enjoy.  This being her birthday, I am willing to make the sacrifice of attending a musical display that I ordinarily would scorn.  (Please, do not tell her that I said that!)

24 March 2010

compromise choice

Today is the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s murder. It was, perhaps, the shot that led to a decade-long civil war. In the movie Romero (1989), Raul Julia plays the title role as archbishop of San Salvador. By the late 1970s, many priests were working with the poor, despite increasing threats and violence from the government and the military. The church hierarchy, not surprisingly, allied itself with the powers-that-be.

The movie shows the low regard in which Romero was held. In 1977 after Archbishop Luis Chavez resigns, there is nervous debate about who will be named his successor. After Romero is named, there’s a scene in which two bishops are discussing him. “He’s a good compromise choice. He’ll make no waves.” The other replies, “He’s a bookworm. The whole country could be running wild, and he wouldn’t even notice it.”

During the course of the movie, we can see how events continually escalate—how the various factions try to co-opt him—and he is increasingly treated with disdain. But he does not compromise.

Are there any lessons for us to learn in our country from Romero? Certainly, we’re nowhere near the level of conflict that existed in El Salvador. Still, this week, we’ve seen the passage of health care legislation that is very much the result of compromise. In response, some lawmakers have demonstrated a lack of civility that, by itself, is nothing terribly serious. Yet they set a poor example for others who are quite willing to resort to violence and hateful acts. They compromise themselves.

20 March 2010

commemoration of courage

“The prophetic mission is a duty of God’s people. So, when I am told in a somewhat mocking tone that I think I am a prophet, I reply: ‘God be praised! You ought to be one too.’ For every Christian, all God’s people, every family, must develop a prophetic awareness, convey an awareness of God’s mission in the world, bring it a divine presence that makes demands and rejections.” SEPTEMBER 10, 1978

This quote from Oscar Romero’s The Violence of Love shows similarities between him and someone else about 32 or 33 centuries earlier. Both Romero and Moses reluctantly accepted the position of speaking on behalf of their people to an oppressive government. And, as we see in Numbers 11, both were convinced that their call wasn’t unique. They longed for others to join them.

[16] So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you…”
[26] Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. [27] And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” [28] And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” [29] But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

(Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.)

19 March 2010

metal life in Iraq

I heard about the movie Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007) a couple of years ago, but only recently decided to check it out. It tells the story of Acrassicauda, the only Iraqi heavy metal band. (Maybe by now, a couple of others have formed.) Directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi follow them over the course of several years, showing the extreme hardships the band and their families are forced to endure. At times, the filmmakers literally risk their lives. But they quickly come to realize that the jeopardy they experience is nothing compared to that of their friends.

Acrassicauda (which we’re told is Latin for “black scorpion”) lives heavy metal. In a nation that’s been invaded—that has had war brought to it—that obviously has more than one meaning. Honesty is revealed, as well as raw emotion: joy, love, frustration, futility, pain, anger. They tell their story of families divided, as they are compelled to flee to Syria, then to Turkey. (“Heavy Metal in Istanbul” is a featurette on the DVD.) A few months after the time period in the movie, the band arrives in the US.

This month, they were finally able to issue a release, an EP called Only the Dead See the End of the War. The “thrash” strain of metal isn’t my favorite (I’m more of the progressive type), but I still give it a thumbs-up.

Still, even if you don’t like heavy metal—or even rock music in general—the movie is well worth watching. It shows the dishonesty of what the mainstream media tells us about the Iraq war, as well as war in general.

10 March 2010

can we truly act like men?

A movie that’s been in our Netflix queue for quite a while, The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008), finally arrived today. I watched it this evening.

So many forms of brutality come together in this film, which is based on a true story, that it makes one’s head swim. Fundamentalist religion, Islamic law, capital punishment, stoning, some other stuff that gets tucked under the name of “faith” and “custom,” and of course, men exercising their thuggish rule over women.

I’m left praying for a swifter evolution of the male psyche, one that isn’t so fearful of women!