28 February 2010

light it up

As I continue my reading of Oscar Romero’s The Violence of Love during Lent, I find myself both challenged and encouraged. Romero didn’t seek the position in which he was placed—it was thrust upon him. Still, he played very well the role of what the New Testament calls martus: “witness” or “martyr.”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin identifies two marks of the church: “Wherever we see the Word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” (4.1.9, Henry Beveridge’s translation)

I think Oscar Romero has something to add to that: “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?” (p. 57)

What gospel is that? What good news is that? As he goes on, he demonstrates the opposite of the gospel. “Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in.”

Let’s light it up!

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

27 February 2010


In the March-April issue of Utne Reader, there’s a fascinating article by Maggie Jackson entitled “A Nation Distracted.” She speaks of our national obsession with multi-tasking, our lack of focus, and our short attention spans. That stuff isn’t exactly helpful in forming what she calls “the critical thinking skills that are the bedrock of an informed citizenry and the foundation of scientific and other advancements.”

In the field of cognitive neuroscience, studies of attention among young people in particular are raising some red flags. Surprisingly(!), it seems that kids overestimate their ability to multi-task without problems. (And no, it wasn’t so long ago that I was a teenager that I’ve forgotten what it’s like.)

“Children need to learn to respond to the pace of the world, but also to reason and solve problems within this new era, asserts educator Jane Healy in Endangered Minds (Simon & Schuster, 1990). ‘Perhaps most important,’ she writes, ‘they need to learn what it feels like to be in charge of one’s own brain, actively pursuing a mental or physical trail, inhibiting response to the lure of distractions.’” I think that applies to all of us. One good way to regain control is to take a few moments out of the day; take a little time to meditate.

But what a cool phrase: “to be in charge of one’s own brain.” How often do we feel enslaved to the flow of thoughts that surge through our minds like whitewater rapids? I understand that this isn’t a concern of the article, but how often does sleep elude us, due to that stream that prevents slumber? What about ignoring the inner voices that hinder prayer? In my own case, I try to focus on my breathing. (That is, if I remember my own advice to others.)

But of course, this isn’t just about our own inner states. Distraction affects (impairs) us at cultural and political levels. Jackson says, “Lose the will to focus deeply, to point the compass of our lives in one another’s direction, and we become islands.” We become spiritually autistic.

“Attention is not always within our control,” Jackson concedes. “The unexpected, the changeable, the novel, even the habitual abduct our focus, intrude upon our awareness, and pull us off course for a time. Yet used well and nurtured carefully, our networks of attention are our foremost means to shaping our lives. They give us extraordinary ways to master ourselves and our environment, offering growth, connection, and happiness. Accepting a culture of eroding attention relinquishes this potential for sculpting our futures.” (My emphasis.)

Imagine, we don’t have to give in to distraction!

17 February 2010

a violent Lenten love

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, who was the archbishop of San Salvador. During the Lenten season, I’ll be reading the book The Violence of Love, which is a collection of his thoughts compiled by Romero’s Jesuit biographer, James Brockman. Here are some of his comments following the murder of a priest and many of his parishioners:

“We will be firm in defending our rights—
but with a great love in our hearts,
because when we defend ourselves with love
we are also seeking sinners’ conversion.
That is the Christian’s vengeance.”
JUNE 19, 1977

That entry is footnoted with this: “In mid-May, military forces raided the town of Aguilares, the parish of the murdered Father Rutilio Grande, killed dozens of people, desecrated the church and the eucharist, and deported the three remaining priests. The archbishop was not allowed to visit the parish, which remained occupied for days. By June 19, the parish buildings were once again in church hands, and Archbishop Romero was able to install a new parish team, consisting of a priest and three nuns. Thousands attended the installation Mass and heard the homily from which these selections are taken.”

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

15 February 2010

to my dear Elsie

I first heard of Harry Emerson Fosdick many years ago, but until a few weeks ago, I never paid much attention to him. The book, The Meaning of Faith, which I’ve blogged about, is the first of his writings that I’ve actually taken the time to read. The way this particular volume came to my attention is a story in itself.

At about the time of the Thanksgiving holiday, I discovered the hard cover edition of the book in a basket, along with some other books and magazines of my wife’s. She said she didn’t know how it came to appear in that spot—and who am I to say that she was anything less than completely truthful?

It is obviously an early printing of the work, copyrighted in 1917, published by Association Press in New York in 1922. As attested by some still-legible ink on the first page, the book was a present: “To my dear Elsie, Christmas 1923. Continue to be, as you now are—a joy and blessing to all of us.”

My guess would be that Elsie has departed from us. Pray for us, Elsie. Perhaps some of the love that went into the production of this bound volume—which somehow found its way to my hands—is living on even today.

13 February 2010


The jewels of wisdom I keep finding in The Meaning of Faith by Harry Emerson Fosdick continue to dazzle! (By the way, it’s taking me a while to go through the book because Fosdick divided it into daily readings over a course of twelve weeks, and that’s how I’m proceeding.) In week nine, he addresses “Faith in the Earnest God.” Fosdick speaks of God as “earnest,” that is, serious about calling us to certain tasks—to join us as co-creators and co-workers on earth.

Part of that means God is earnest about social justice. (Please excuse the lack of gender inclusive language in this text.) “To believe in God, therefore—the God who is fighting his way with his children up through ignorance, brutality, and selfishness to ‘new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness’—is no weakly comfortable blessing.” (p. 215) What a phrase: “the God who is fighting his way with his children up through ignorance, brutality, and selfishness”! God truly has to fight through the blankets of resistance with which we wrap our spirits.

Fosdick includes part of a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch. “Smite us with all the conviction that for us ignorance is sin, and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper if our own hand has helped to lay him low. Though increase of knowledge bring increase of sorrow, may we turn without flinching to the light and offer ourselves as instruments of Thy spirit in bringing order and beauty out of disorder and darkness.” (p. 216)

He includes a prayer by W. E. Orchard to rouse us to action, which gives us surer knowledge than if we stop at theoretical reflection: “Eternal God, who hast formed us, and designed us for companionship with Thee; who hast called us to walk with Thee and be not afraid; forgive us, we pray Thee, if craven fear, unworthy thought, or hidden sin has prompted us to hide from Thee.” (p. 217)

One is reminded of the age-old temptation of humanity, to hide from God. (Think of Adam and Eve recognizing their nakedness.) From the beginning, however we envision it—perhaps the first proto-humans to achieve sentience, perhaps feeling alone in the universe—there has been the desire to flee responsibility and to create our own fictitious world.

It takes courage to act on this prayer: “We ask for no far-off vision which shall set us dreaming while opportunities around slip by…We ask Thee not to lift us out of life, but to prove Thy power within it; not for tasks more suited to our strength, but for strength more suited to our tasks.” (p. 217)

I have often felt that we’ve been given just a taste of certain things, certain experiences—or that we’ve dabbled just enough—to get a sense of understanding. Or maybe I just need to speak for myself! Maybe I’m the one who holds back, who lingers at the threshold of life.

10 February 2010

fear, faith, and public policy

In a well-researched and well-written article for The New Yorker, award-winning journalist Jane Mayer reports on “The Trial: Eric Holder and the battle over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” She speaks of the ongoing debate about the Attorney General’s decision to try the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in civilian court. She begins by noting the protest on December 5th in lower Manhattan and some of the events that transpired. There were shouts of “traitor” and “lynch Holder.”

“One protester, Carolyn Walton,” Mayer says, “who works for a water-filtration company in Manhattan, told me that Holder was ‘a Marxist mole.’ She asked, ‘How can someone who is not an American have any right to our rights? Holder wants to help the terrorists.’”

Despite the obvious logical disconnect between linking Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism (worldviews that have very little in common), there is, in my opinion, an almost willful ignorance of the very foundation of American jurisprudence. Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, indeed, America at its best, has always insisted that everyone has equal rights—regardless if one is the bearer of a US passport. If not, then that means that my wife, a Turkish citizen, doesn’t enjoy the same rights that I do.

Mayer addresses the charge that the Attorney General is doing something dramatically different. “Holder, despite the controversy he has inspired, has not actually pushed for radical change. Indeed, critics in left-leaning legal circles have complained that he has kept too many of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies in place…Even some former members of the Bush Administration see more continuity than change. Bradford Berenson, who served as a White House lawyer when the Bush Administration was forging its controversial legal approach to terrorism, told me that ‘from the perspective of a hawkish Bush national-security person the glass is eighty-five per cent full in terms of continuity.’” On more than one occasion, I too, have made similar observations.

At root, these aren’t political issues. They go deeper. Mayer reminds us, “In a debate with his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, [Massachusetts Senator Scott] Brown declared, ‘We’re at war in our airports, we’re at war in our shopping malls. I have to be honest with you, folks…I’m scared at some of the policies I’ve heard.’” She notes later something that Elisa Massimino, the president of Human Rights First, told her. “‘Politically, these issues are poisonous.’ But, she added, ‘You can’t finesse it, and you can’t spin it. The President just has to lead the American people away from fear.’”

That’s a tall order for anyone to do. It’s easier to appeal to the worst in human nature. We have no shortage of figures, political and otherwise, who have been filling people with fear. When people themselves are fearful, it’s pretty hard for them to lead others out of fear. Fearful people can do atrocious things.

In the book I’ve been reading, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith, which was published during the First World War, he speaks of how fear “imprisons” and “paralyzes.” (p. 186) “The shame of our fearful living,” he observes, “is that it circles about self, is narrowed down to mean solicitudes about our own comfort, and is utterly incapable of serving God or seeking first his Kingdom.” (p. 193) Fosdick sees faith as the opposite of fear.

Of course, some of the most fearful people—and fear-inducing people—consider themselves to be people of faith. But we have to ask, what kind of faith? “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” (1 John 4:18). Just as with love, the same is true with faith that has open eyes and open hearts.

This is a faith that doesn’t jettison the best wisdom of the ages. It doesn’t assume that the rule of law can simply be dismissed—no matter how many fearful voices assert the opposite.

04 February 2010

who dat?

Thanks to Church Sign Maker, we've been able to see how some Episcopalians and Presbyterians have been dialoguing about the NFL playoffs (via the signs in front of their places of worship).

Thanks to Dr. Sheltie's investigative work, it seems that the Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the Presbyterian Church, got the thing started with a show of support for New Orleans in the Super Bowl.  They both agree that the New York Jets didn't deserve to get into the playoffs.  And there seems to be some shared consternation about the Dallas Cowboys' postseason exit.

By the way, it appears that a Bible study on Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18 would be of benefit to the Presbyterians.

(And for a totally unrelated reason, it appears that the two sides of the street are in different seasons of the year...)