21 December 2015

Advent people

“We are living in Advent and are preparing the way for the Coming One.” (105)  Jürgen Moltmann, in his book A Broad Place, isn’t simply referring to the liturgical season of Advent.  He’s referring to life itself, especially the life of faith (and Christian life in particular).  He’s exploring a theme from his classic work Theology of Hope from four decades earlier.  He says, “The foundation of hope
is not utopia and the exploration of unknown future possibilities; it is the new beginning and the beginning of the new, here and now, today.”

Advent is possibly my favorite season in the church calendar, and still, somehow it eludes me.  It is always “not yet,” at least “not yet” for me.  I still have trouble wrapping my head and spirit around it.  I get the theology, the meaning, of it.  (Or at least I tell myself I do!)  But does it change the way I live?  Do I have the determined commitment to prepare the way?

The epistle reading for Year A of the 1st Sunday of Advent is from Romans 13.  St. Paul says that “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… …the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).  As Advent people, we are called to wake from our slumber.

Maybe that’s why Advent seems so vague to me.  Am I too reluctant to “lay aside the works of darkness”?  We do need darkness to sleep—and sleeping is so comfortable.  (But sleeping through life!)  And our culture, with its shiny gadgets, and people filling us with fear, and reminding us of our duty to consume…

Advent says that now is the time to prepare the way.  Tomorrow never comes.

09 December 2015


Human Rights Day is tomorrow, and after listening to the madness of Donald Trump’s comments about barring entry by Muslims into the US, I told my wife that I needed to bathe my mind in the sanity of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I was reminded of him while watching a replay of last Sunday’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in which he had a cameo appearance.  So I tuned into the excellent show he did, the updated version of Cosmos, which I’ve been revisiting.

As fate (?) would have it, the episode appearing was “Hiding in the Light,” which features, among others, Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.) One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.

In 2005, Brian Turner, a US veteran who had served in Bosnia and Iraq, published a book of poetry called Here, Bullet.  I mentioned this eight years ago.  I made special attention to his poem, “Alhazen of Basra.”  Here it is again:

“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn’t ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind’s great repository
of dream, and whether he’s studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.”

On previous Human Rights Days, I’ve focused purely on the meaning of the day.  I wanted to go a little more “right brained” this time.  So what better way to rail against the darkness of human rights violations and small-minded bigotry than to focus on the light?

05 December 2015


“The expensive people are those who, because they are not simple, make complicated demands—people to whom we cannot respond spontaneously and simply, without anxiety.  They need not be abnormal to exact these complicated responses; it is enough that they should be untruthful or touchy or hypersensitive or that they have an exaggerated idea of their own importance or that they have a pose.” (24)  [My emphasis.]  This is from A Child in Winter, selections from the writings of Caryll Houselander, with Thomas Hoffman doing the editing and providing commentary.

Expensive people.  As you might guess, Houselander isn’t limiting this to those with extravagant tastes.  They aren’t simply those who turn their nose up at a Honda Fit and insist on something like a BMW 7 Series.  Nor are they those who praise to the high heavens a chocolatey, nutty microbrew, while dismissing anything with the word “Budweiser” on it as rancid swill.  (Okay, maybe I have to go along with that one!)

Expensive people are those who maintain a façade, an outer image, who lack a genuine sense of humor; they have a rigid, defensive posture.  Taking oneself too seriously often results in setting artificial standards for others—and for oneself.  Houselander observes, “In time, our relationship with them becomes unreal.”

Still, maybe that description of unreality is closer to home than we would like.  I fear that too often the mirror shows us someone who is unreal.  I wonder: might this be an extreme version of what St. Paul calls the “old self”?  (Rom 6:6 & Eph 4:22, among other places).  It’s this appearance of the illusory self that we struggle mightily to preserve.

She goes on, “The individual who is simple, who accepts themselves as they are, makes only a minimum demand on others in their relations with them…  This is an example of the truth that whatever sanctifies our own soul does, at the same time, benefit everyone who comes into our life.” (25)

There is within all of us—and some endearing souls humbly excel at giving free rein to it—a place of lightness and bliss and divine foolishness.  In this place, there is no need to pose.  In this place, we aren’t a weight around the necks of others.  In this place, our opinions need not carry the day.

Moving, not posing, through life is just fine!

[The image is by French photographer Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy.]

12 November 2015

14 November 1995, or Jesus, the stroke victim

Saturday the 14th, for me, is one of those dates that represent life-changing events.  (Nothing too dramatic here!)  Twenty years ago, I had brain surgery to remove a malignant tumor.  That followed the absence seizure two days earlier which led to the diagnosis.  (Twenty years ago today.)

This anniversary is especially meaningful, since I recently used the story of my experience of cancer as part of a coaching process.  And it was quite an experience.

After surgery, I was put on anti-seizure medication—which I still take.  For a few weeks, I had a special treat: taking a steroid to prevent swelling of the brain.  As we know, steroids have interesting side-effects.  One of them is stimulation of the appetite.  Before the surgery, I had always been skinny (and even scrawny)!  I was at 160 pounds.  Afterwards, packing away a voluminous amount of calories, I bulked up to 200 pounds, which for a 6’4” man, is about normal.  (Here are the “before” and “after” photos I posted a few years ago.  That's Banu
sitting next to me.)

But the emotional effects were even more interesting.  I’m a pretty even-tempered person, but steroidal influence can be a bit noteworthy.  I’ll just mention one incident.

At our seminary, the top three floors of the main building had apartments and dorm rooms.  Banu and I lived on the top floor.  She and a couple of our friends were downstairs in the lobby, putting up Christmas decorations.  I was in the apartment, watching an episode of Star Trek (I don’t remember which series!).  The phone rang, and I was requested to come down and hang up an ornament.

While descending the staircase, a feeling of anger began to swell over me.  How dare they interrupt my watching Star Trek!  I found that they had a ladder poised under the spot which was destined for the decoration.  “Why did they call for me?” I thought.  “Any of them could have just as easily used the ladder!”  They knew I was upset; I was giving them the silent treatment.

It wasn’t long before I knew I was out of line.  I went back and apologized for my steroid-induced behavior.  One of our friends blew it off.  She said, “Now you know how PMS feels.”  If it took getting my head cut open to only minutely identify with the woes of women, so be it!

Actually, my whole experience of cancer has helped me to better empathize with those who have mental and physical problems, those who are compulsive and forgetful.  I won’t overstate the case, since I have some problems of my own!

I want to finish this post with an icon that is familiar to many.  It is Christ Pantocrator, an icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.  It dates back to the sixth century.  Often noted are the two sides of the face, representing the divine and human natures of Christ.  Some also say that they represent the masculine and feminine natures of the Christ.  (Noting that the man Jesus also exhibited “masculine” and “feminine” qualities in his personality.)

Bringing this to the main reason for this blog post, I have noticed something about the right side of the face (from the viewer’s standpoint).  Considering its long history, there’s no way I’m the only one to see this.  That side of the face seems to have an illness or infirmed condition.  I see it as the result of a stroke.  One of my names for this icon is “Jesus, the Stroke Victim”!  To me, that suggests a genuine identification with the sick.  We can see that in the gospels.  Jesus dares to touch those who are ritually unclean—even physically unclean. 

My puny empathy with the ill is but a faint shadow of that displayed by Jesus Christ.  How ironic—or appropriate—that the Pantocrator (Greek for “Almighty”) is demonstrated by one who reflects and embodies sickness and weakness.

04 November 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I commented on how St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule begins.  (Something about the care of souls being “the art of arts.”)  That silver-tongued fellow does something just as artistic at the end of his opus:

“Alas, I am like a poor painter who tries to paint the ideal man.  [Again], I am trying to point others to the shore of perfection, as I am tossed back and forth by the waves of sin.  But in the shipwreck of this life, I beg you to sustain me with the plank of your prayers, so that your merit-filled hands might lift me up, since my own weight causes me to sink.”

He refers to his own failings “in the shipwreck of this life.”  As I read that, a song that has received plenty of airplay on alt-rock stations came to mind.  Florence and the Machines’ “Ship to Wreck” deals with self-destructive tendencies—something that our friend Gregory might also ponder.  “Did I drink too much?  Am I losing touch?  Did I build this ship to wreck?”  (Who knows how much of that stuff Gregory would identify with?) 

In recent months, I’ve been working through issues that might be considered “shipwrecks.”  Sometimes what appear to be dreamboats reveal themselves as shipwrecks!  It’s fascinating how much stuff can be jettisoned when your ship is taking on water.