We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Condor Happiness

According to a recent article on the CNN news website, the California Condor has come back from the brink of extinction.  It now numbers close to 400 birds in total with nearly 200 living in the wild.  Evidently, it has taken a massive conservation effort involving government, business, and non-profit agencies to save the species, which was done to its last to its last 27 birds just 25 years ago.  And the effort to save the Condor has had a positive impact on several other endangered species as well.  so, while the world may not be all that hunky-dory environmentally speaking, there are success stories out there.

"If you happen to find a bird's nest in a tree or on the ground with the mother bird sitting either on the eggs or with her young, you are not to take the mother bird.  You may take the young birds, but you must let the mother bird go, so that you will live a long and prosperous life." (Dueteronomy 22:6)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Good For You, New York

Yesterday's main post, reported on the findings of the recently published "United State Peace Index - 2011"  by the Institute for Economics & Peace.  New Yorkers can take particular pride in one of the findings of the report, namely the State of New York showed the most marked improvement in decreasing violence of any state in the U.S.  In 1991, New York ranked 49th of the 50 states in peacefulness (defined as a lack of violence).  Today, it ranks 29th, still not great but a vast improvement in 20 years.  The state showed marked improvement in all of the indicators of decreasing violence including a dwindling prison population.  We saw yesterday that America's bloated prison population is a key drag on decreasing the level of violence in the nation.  Large prison populations, the index reveals, increase rather than decrease the level of violence in our nation.  The report does not provide other reasons for the marked decrease in violence in New York, although it does suggest that a decrease in the poverty rate was a contributing factor.

Just to keep things in perspective, however, our neighbors to the east in New England are the least violent people in the nation by a large factor.  Of all 50 states, Maine ranks first, New Hampshire second, and Vermont third in peacefulness.  Maine has an index score of 1.34.  New York's score is 2.69.  Louisiana is the most violent state in the nation with a score of 3.97.  So, even though there's a long way to go, good for you, New York!  Keep up the good work.  Please.

Words to Live by From a Sister Faith

"Smile, breathe, and go slowly"
  -  Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review Notice

There is a new book review on Rom Phra Khun Reviews. It reviews Borg & Wright's book, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.

A Less Violent Nation

The Institute for Economics & Peace has recently issued a report on peace in the United States, the "United State Peace Index - 2011."  The purpose of the peace index is to look back over a period of years to determine whether or not the U.S. is becoming more or less peaceful.  The index defines peace as the absence of violence, so that it is really an index of violence rather than peace (peace being much more than just the absence of violence).  The index reports an 8% improvement in peace, largely because of substantial drops in murder and other violent crimes.  It states, however, that these gains were partially offset by a large increase in the nation's prison population.  Even so, the nation is less violent today than it was twenty years ago.

One of the report's most interesting and important findings is that, according to the Executive Summary,
“Peace is linked to opportunity, health, education and the economy. States that rank higher on these social and economic factors tend to have higher scores in peace - indicating that having access to basic services, having an education, being in good health and ultimately being given the opportunity to succeed, are linked to peace. Improving these factors would also create additional economic activity.” (p. 2)
That is to say, states that offer the most opportunities to get ahead, which includes access to education and income, are the ones that are the most peaceful.

The index report also reveals that the U.S.  does not measure up  to the rest of the world a swell as one might think.  It is slightly below the global average for national peacefulness.  One important reason is our nations's huge prison population, which  correlates with more, not less violence.

In sum, we are headed in the right direction as a nation when it comes to violence.  If we can only get over the apparent need to fill our jails to overcrowding we will do even better.  One worry, however, is that at the moment we seem bent on cutting social service and reducing the quality of education— two indicators of a peaceful society—so we can keep our taxes unreasonably low.  Only time will tell whether we can continue to reduce national violence in spite of cuts in these areas in the years to come.

Just in Case

For those who may harbor any lingering doubts about where President Obama was born, here is the link to his long-form birth certificate, which the White House released just today.  It is certified by the Hawaii State Registrar and shows that the President was born on August 4, 1961 at the Kapiolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu.  The other pertinent details are there.  And, no, it does not list his religion as Muslim.  And, no, it does not contain a different name for his father.  So, we have still more proof that FactCheck.org has been correct all along when it reported in 2008 after a thorough investigation that, "The evidence is clear: Barack Obama was born in the U.S.A."  If you haven't seen it, you may want to watch today's brief press conference where the President addressed the so-called "birther" issue.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Participatory Eschatology

Brian McLaren in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, describes his view of the future as being "participatory eschatology," by which he means that we have a hand in shaping the future with God.  He writes that because of this view of the future,
"...we are not frantic to get this world and its history over with as soon as possible, so a perfect forever can begin, any more than a musician is frantic to get to the last note of a beautiful song; we understand that every note of the song is precious and should be played with all we can give it.  The point of history, like a song, is not in the ending or finishing of it, but in the passionate playing of it, every moment." (p. 199)
"I have a dream ..."  Dr. M. L. King, 1963
McLaren goes on to say that if we accept that we are participating in establishing the Kingdom of God as a future, this-world reality, we are inspired by the Spirit with a passion to do good.  We are inspired with courage because we trust that the Spirit will bring the Kingdom to completion.  We are inspired with a sense of urgency because we have a stake in the Kingdom.  We are inspired, finally, with humility and kindness because we realize our own shortcomings in bringing the Kingdom to fruition. (p. 200)

In other words, the prayer, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," is not just so many pious words.  It, rather, gives us our purpose in life as Christians.  It gives us hope.  It gives us a vision for the future.  It lies, in sum, at the heart of our faith.  Amen

Note: the word  "eschatology" means the study of end times and usually includes the Kingdom of God, the Second Coming, and the end of the world as we know it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Freed From Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

From Inward/Outward:

"Those who live in grace are freed from the necessity of taking themselves, their circumstances, their morality and opinions, their piety and beliefs, too seriously. They are free to laugh and play as children of God. As important as repentance is, we are not saved by our much weeping, any more than we are saved by acts of penitence. And the expression of salvation freely given and received is not weeping but laughter, or at least a weeping become laughter. Laughter and lightheartedness, at their fullest and freest, are the gift of divine grace."

Conrad Hyers
And God Created Laughter, 1987

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Pachamama Protection Law

The parliament of Bolivia will soon pass a new set of laws, called "The Law of Mother Earth," which are designed to  give nature equal protection under the law to humans.  According to an article, "Bolivia enshrines natural world's rights with equal status for Mother Earth," published recently in the Manchester Guardian, these laws will establish eleven new rights for nature including,
"the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered" among other rights.
The Guardian article states that these laws have been heavily influenced by an indigenous faith focused on the deity Pachamama, best translated as "Mother World."  The laws thus seek to establish a harmony between nature and humanity in the face of the massive exploitation of Bolivia's natural resources by international corporations and the threat global warming poses to the nation's agricultural life.  The article quotes one Bolivian official as saying that Pachamama "is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos. She is comprised of all ecosystems and living beings, and their self-organisation."  The Law of Mother Earth, in sum, is based on religious and spiritual principles.

Indigenous peoples (a.k.a. "tribal" or "hill" people) often have a degree of spirituality and sensitivity to the natural world that the rest of us can learn from.  Without romanticizing them (or demonizing them as some do), it is still true that they generally tend to fit themselves into the natural world in ways that are less exploitive and less aggressive than the rest of us.  As peoples, they often are more Christ-like than Jesus' own followers, and when they do become Christians they usually retain a healthy dose of indigenous spirituality.  In Bolivia's case, we can only pray that the Law of Mother Earth brings real change to that nation and sets an example for the rest of us—one we follow!  Amen

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Spiritually Considered

In the thinking of many Christians, the cross overshadows the empty tomb.  They emphasize that Jesus had to die for our sins, that his crucifixion buys our salvation from those sins.  It is for them a powerful and profoundly meaningful view of the cross.  The resurrection, from this vantage point, has a somewhat secondary role to play.  It proves the fact of Christ's divinity, that he is the Son of God and thus confirms the precious sacrifice God made in Christ on the cross.  The resurrection, that is, bears witness to the power of the cross.

There are many faithful Christians, however, for whom this traditional view of the death of Christ on the cross is no longer powerful or profound.  It is based on ancient concepts of animal sacrifices to appease angry gods and of the scapegoat, which is sacrificed to pay for the sins of the person making the sacrifice.  Such ancient practices and beliefs have lost their compelling power for most people today and, if anything, only serve to remind us of how violent life was in ancient times.  For these Christians, it is not the cross but the resurrection that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

For Jesus' disciples, in fact, it is clear that it was not the cross that blew their minds.  They may not have expected that Jesus would die on a cross, but in hindsight it was hardly surprising that he did.  The thing that changed their lives was their experience with the risen Lord.  They were not animated by the cross but by the resurrection.  In the resurrection, God transcended the violence of the cross, changed despair into hope, and showed the disciples the way into the future.  Easter, thus, overshadowed Good Friday by transforming one rabbi's violent senselessness death into the hope for new life.  The crucifixion was but a prelude to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene,is a case in point.  Her hope was not reborn when she stood at the foot of the cross and witnessed her rabbi's death.  The risen Jesus, instead, rekindled that hope when he spoke her name there by the empty tomb (John 20:11-18).   In a violent world seemingly dominated by a multitude of forms of death, death did not and does not have the last word.  From our own lives we know that hard times and difficult experiences, when handled prayerfully and humbly, lead us to new beginnings.  Time and again, we find God's Spirit prompting us, guiding us, renewing us, and carrying us forward.  So that while we do have our crosses to bear, our salvation is not in them but in the transforming power of God in Christ, which takes us from death to life.

That is to say, it is not by the "blood of the Lamb" that we are saved.  Our salvation, rather, is through our faith in God in Christ, the One who Brings Life out of Death.  It is the risen rabbi's voice not his crown of thorns that calls us to life abundantly lived.  Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Historically Considered

From the perspective of history, it seems reasonably clear that "something happened" at the end of Jesus' life, which his followers called a resurrection.  Did his reanimated corpse stand up and walk out of the tomb?  If there was a bodily resurrection, did it involve his horribly abused original body or a new "spiritual" body?  Many years later, the Apostle Paul saw a vision of Christ and lumped himself in with those who had seen the risen Lord (I Corinthians 15:8).  Was the resurrection, thus, a mass vision?  Was it, maybe, some deep emotional feeling of the presence of the crucified Christ shared by his followers?  Perhaps, but the gospels insist that Jesus returned in physical form.

For the professional historian, this evidence from Paul and the gospels is highly suspect.  First, it reports an incredibly unlikely event, a resurrection.  Second, it comes from a religious sect that had a vested interest in concocting a story purporting the resurrection of its beloved leader.  Third, people in ancient times could believe things happened that did not actually happen.

Historically speaking, then, the only evidence we have that "something happened" is the bare fact that Jesus' movement did not die away when he died.  There had been messiahs before, but their movements always ended with their death.  If nothing special happened, how was it possible that a motley group of common folks could defy the authorities, overcome their grief and loss, invent a patently ridiculous story about a bodily resurrection, and jump start a religious movement that rapidly gained adherents?  How could this happen in Jerusalem, which was small enough so that people would have known if the disciples had just made up the story?  No, something happened, and it was not just your ordinary, every day, garden variety "something."  Something strange and apparently spiritually powerful happened.

That is the most we can say historically, and obviously most strictly secular historians are not willing to say even that much.  But, in refusing to do so they cannot come up with any other reasonable explanation for the Jesus movement, which eventually became the Christian movement.  The thing is, Jesus' disciples did not base their claims about the resurrection on the empty tomb or the absence of a corpse.  They, rather, claimed that they saw their risen Lord.  Something happened.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Good is Government?

All we hear about day after day is how bad government is.  It wastes money.  It is "Big Brother" messing in our lives.  The drive to cut government funding has become overwhelming in the face of the lingering Great Recession of 2008.  While it is true that government does not hold all the solutions to our problems and that government spending is sometimes (hugely) wasteful, we have lost perspective on how important government and government spending is to us.

One example: the Great Lakes are seriously deteriorating in the face of a host of environmental problems including toxic contaminants, invasive species, polluted watersheds, loss of wetlands, and deteriorating beaches.  In recent decades Congress has passed a number of bills aimed at restoring the Great Lakes, the most recent being the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative of 2010.  Designed to address the environmental degradation of the Great Lakes, it began as an impressive effort that engaged in numerous projects from Minnesota to New York, which were beginning to make a difference.  Now, however, according to a Politifact.com posting the recent cut-to-the-bone frenzy on Capitol Hill has adversely affected the funding of restoration projects sufficiently to render the whole initiative "stalled."  Given the way our planet is progressively losing natural habitat after habitat, "stalled" is not really stalled.  It represents just one more failure to effectively address the conditions that are destroying our natural environment.

In the white heat of today's angry, irrational political environment, we have lost our sense of balance and put short-term irritations at the top of the agenda and long-term needs and solutions at the bottom.  Those who are so desperate to reduce government spending drastically should realize what we are losing in the process—much that is good, worthy, and open to no other solutions than by that spending.  The Great Lakes lay at the very heart of our continent, and their slow but evidently inevitable death will have a huge impact on all of us.  Coupled with the horrific things we have done to the Gulf of Mexico, one can only feel a deep sadness at what we have already lost and troubled at what we are going to lose.

Announcing Rom Phra Khun Reviews

As of today, I've added a second, supplementary blog site to Rom Phra Khun, called Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  The LINK is on the right at the very top of the column.  As the name indicates, it is a site dedicated to reviewing books, articles, and whatever else comes to hand.  It will not be nearly as active as Rom Phra Khun, but I hope that it will also have its value.  The reviews will be longer, sometimes much longer, than what I think is appropriate here, which is why I started it.  We'll see how it goes.  Herb

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Open Theism & Quantum Theology

Does God know everything that will happen in the future?  Our immediate inclination is to say, well, of course she does.  How could he not?  Apparently, there has been a theological debate raging in conservative evangelical circles for two or more decades over “Open Theism,” the belief that God does not know what will happen in the future because the future does not yet exist.  God, according to “open theists,” knows all of the possible futures that exist at any one time, but God does not know which particular future will come about because of our human free-will choices.  Thus, when the Bible says that God changes God’s mind, according to open theism God does just that.  God reacts to our actions.  Open theists contend that the Bible, the findings of science, and common sense all support their views.
Open Theism (from Mudpreacher.org)
Does it make sense to talk about God this way?  Open theists assume that God must act in ways that are reasonable to us.  They think it unreasonable to believe that God knows the future because then, they argue, the future is closed to God’s action.  God cannot undo what God already knows God has done.  God cannot logically answer prayers because no matter what is prayed the future is already determined.  Everything is already set in stone if God knows the future.
That’s all well and good, but as we saw in yesterday's posting in the quantum world a particle can be in two places at the same time or appear somewhere before it appears there.  So, then, why cannot the Creator of the quantum world have foreknowledge of all that will happen and still “change his mind” by answering our prayers?  Open theologians write about God in ways that may make sense to fallible, culture-bound human reason, but one doubts that their logic has much to do with God who is Beyond All That Is.

Truth be told, open theism is not really about God at all.  Its underlying agenda is to defend the biblical view of God, which is that God answers prayers, reacts to human actions, and otherwise changes the divine mind at the drop of a hat.  The open theologians believe that the Bible must be interpreted literally, which raises for modern minds the problem of God's knowledge of the future and the notion that God changes her mind.  Open theism is one attempt to deal with these questions and others like them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quantum Theology

The scientific field of quantum mechanics has discovered an infinitely tiny sub-sub microscopic world where the rules of physics as we know them "up here" in the macro-world don't apply.  In the quantum world, apparently, a particle  can exist in two place at once and can appear somewhere before it appears there.  The basic unit of reality is a "string" that is a bundle of energy until it is directly observed when it turns into a particle.  It is a wild and wacky world down there, one that has thrown our understanding of reality for a loop.

The findings of quantum mechanics, surprisingly, don't necessarily throw our theological world into that same loop.  Working, rather,  from the traditional Christian theological principle that nature is God's first revelation (the Bible being the second one), we discover the possibility of understanding central Christian doctrines in fascinatingly new ways.  If God, for example, has created a universe where particles can be appear somewhere before they appear there or can be in two places at once, then we should not have too much trouble in believing that God can be both Utterly Beyond the Cosmos and Intimately Present on Earth.  It should not be so difficult for us to affirm that God who is Beyond does not answer prayers, especially ones that call for weather changes, and yet as God who is Present answers those very prayers.  Or again,  the ancient formula of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, God-man, and man-God makes more sense from a quantum perspective.  If "strings" can be one state when unobserved and another under observation, it seems possible for us to affirm that Jesus was a fallible mortal just like the rest of us who was not a fallible mortal like the rest of us.   Suddenly, it seems entirely possible that the Infinite can inhabit the finite, that God could be fully present in Jesus in some way we do not understand but that does make sense in the world science describes.

Quantum physics does not give us license to believe any old silly nonsense we want to believe.  By the same token, however, it does encourage us to think about the so-called real world in new, quirkier ways.  And it opens up the possibility that in some important ways the "spiritual world" of our faith parallels or has aspects similar to the quantum world.

Who said that theology is boring?  Not today!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jesus & Exclusive Dualism

The Rev. Rob Bell is pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, near Grand Rapids.  The Mars Hill Church is an independent mega-church that has gained a national reputation, and Bell has become a well-known evangelical figure.  Now, he is also a controversial one.  His recently published book, Love Wins, has provoked an intense debate among conservative evangelicals because it seems to them to deny the existence of a literal hell after death, and they feel it smacks of "universalism,.”  “Universalism,” as they see it, is a heretical doctrine that proclaims an easy salvation where everyone goes to heaven whether they believe in Christ or not.  Rob Bell, some think, is guilty of this heresy because he appears to proclaim a “generous salvation” by which God saves most people irrespective of their earthly lives or beliefs.
In the end, such debates are not so much about God as they are about which human ideology we accept.  Bell’s detractors are “dualistic exclusivists.”  That is, they see humanity as being divided into two camps, the faithful and the faithless (that’s dualism). They believe that the faithful go to heaven and the faithless to hell (that’s exclusivism).  So, those who have “a saving faith in Christ” are declared faithful and heaven-bound by the grace of God.  All others are “rebels against God,” faithless, and going to hell.
Dualistic exclusivism is a cultural artifact, a way by which people of a particular culture make sense of their world.  It happens to be a dominant way in the West, notably the United States.  In Southeast Asia, by way of contrast, the prevailing social way of making sense of the world is neither dualistic or exclusivist—but rather non-dualistic and inclusive.  It is thus commonplace for people in Thailand to say (as they do repeatedly) that “all religions teach the same thing.” They teach people “to be good.”
When I look into the face of Christ as the gospels portray him, I just cannot see a God who is bound by a human ideology that casts the great majority of humanity into eternal torment.  I see rather a prophet who defied the narrowly exclusivist ideology of his society.  He ate with tax collectors, spoke with Samaritan women, touched lepers, and forgave prostitutes.  After his resurrection, his followers opened the circle of their faith to include Gentiles.  Women exercised unusually significant (for Roman times) leadership in their congregations.  None of this sounds like dualistic exclusivism at all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

For Food Addicts (Like Me)

A recent article in Health Day entitled, "Compulsive Eaters May Have 'Food Addiction,' Study Finds," reports the findings of a recent study of a group of women and their eating habits.  It found that women who have a food addiction react to food as if it were a drug.  For  food addicts, that is, food has the same addictive attraction, the same need for a high, and the same tendency to grow worse over time as each "dose" gives less and less pleasure.  The study found that just the image of certain tantalizing foods sets food addict's brains "racing" in anticipation.

The article quoted one of the lead researchers, Ashley N. Gearhardt of Yale University, as saying,
"What I see as a bigger concern is really our food environment. If you think of these cues as starting to trigger the problem, the worst environment you could possibly be in is the one we have," said Gearhardt. "All the billboards, all the vending machines. If you changed each of these into an alcohol cue and you were trying to recover from alcoholism, it would be impossible."
Scary stuff for those of us who struggle with weight.  Losing weight is not impossible; people do it all the time.  But those who do want to lose weight have to take into account two important factors.  First, many of us (most of us?) are struggling with an addiction.  Second,  society is our enemy in our struggle.  It is filled with advertising that is aimed at defeating us, and we face daily sometimes hourly opportunities to fall off the wagon—often at the hands of well-meaning friends with their "aw, one piece can't hurt" invitation to failure.  Churches, truth be told, play their part, too in promoting food addiction.  Most church social events include a tempting array of cakes, cookies, and other things just not good for the food addict to be around.

It is good (and important) to know, however, that each pound we do lose, each day we do stick at it, is a victory.  The trick is to win today and pray for tomorrow.  Perhaps someone reading this posting will support a friend or a loved one struggling with food addiction by not putting and even pushing them into harm's way with tempting treats and invitations to eat what they should not eat.  Amen.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dueling Visions

One vision of the next 50 years takes the human race to the brink of extinction as global warming increases and the world’s oceans begin to rise dramatically.  Whole nations will disappear under the sea, and the resulting economic and social dislocation will lead to a severe “die back” of the human race.  The entire planet will enter a long dark age, the end of which we cannot see.
Nanotechnology & Cancer (a future cure)
Another vision of the next 50 years has medical science finding a cure for death and science developing an array of creative solutions to the challenges facing the globe, many of them growing out of exciting developments in nanotechnology.  The human race will begin to move off of Earth in growing numbers and make use of the resources of our whole solar system.  We will enter a golden age, the end of which we cannot see.
Visionaries of both stripes point to current developments and say, “See, it’s inevitable…” whichever “it” they believe in.
More likely, what we will see in the next 50 years is something of both.  The waters will rise but not as high as the gloomy visionaries envision and hard times will continue for hundreds of millions of people and many nations, but we won’t enter a new dark age either.  Nanotechnology will meet some challenges we face and create others.  Medical science will continue to lengthen our lives and improve the quality of life for us as we live longer, but the benefits will not be accessible to all people equally.  The wealthy will live longer and better.  The poor won’t.
Meanwhile, sadly, we will continue to fail to develop the spiritual technologies long, long available to us that can truly transform life on our planet.  Our Christian vision of the Kingdom of God—when peace, justice, & compassion will reign—will remain a vision.  That may sound gloomy, but it isn’t.  We have been pursuing the Kingdom for 20 centuries, and we will still be at it another half-century into the future. And that is a good thing.
If you are interested, by the way, in the potential of medical nanotechnology, you might find this article worth a look.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sorta Red, Sorta Purple and FPC, Lowville

Yesterday's posting, "Lewis County, NY - Sorta Red, Sorta Purple" drew on a recent survey of the county, which suggests that Lewis County is more politically/ideologically diverse than one might think.  On reflection, the survey's data also suggests that there is an important place for a "purple" church in our "sorta purple" county.  A purple church is an open, inclusive church that values and practices diversity.  It understands that there are a variety of entirely faithful ways of following Christ—one can do so as a "conservative Christian" or a "liberal Christian" or "non-ideological" Christian or a large number of other "kinds" of Christian.  A purple church preaches social as well as personal salvation.  It affirms the authority of the Bible, looking to Christ as the measure of scripture.  The Bible is the "word of God written," while only Christ is the Word of God (John 1).  A purple church provides a spiritual home for those who are uncomfortable with a strongly ideological or fundamentalist message and practice.  It does not live in a "black-and-white" world or rely on human so-called "absolutes".  A purple church lives by faith, which is primarily a matter of trust in God and only secondarily concerns itself with beliefs about God .

First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, seeks to be just such a church.  Its members embrace the fact that they see and live out the Christian faith in different ways.  They look beyond the labels and can listen with interest to and learn from views not their own.  As a congregation, they value preaching that asks hard answers.  They feel uneasy with conventional answers.  It is good, thus, to have some statistical confirmation that there is ample room for this purple-leaning church in sorta purple Lewis County.  Amen.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lewis County, NY - Sorta Red, Sorta Purple

Jefferson Community College’s Center for Community Studies conducts annual community surveys for both Jefferson and Lewis Counties.  The 2010 survey report for Lewis County is now available, and it is a fascinating read.
Lewis County, NY, Windmills
One of the most intriguing findings reported in the survey is the county’s ideological-political profile.  The researchers found that 9% of Lewis County residents consider themselves “very conservative” and just 3% “very liberal.”  Another 27% label themselves “conservative” and 9% call themselves “liberal,” which comes to 36% conservative and 12% liberal.  That conservatives outnumber liberals by a three to one margin is hardly surprising, but what is a little surprising is that 41% of those surveyed selected “middle of the road” from the survey while only 12% (the 9% very conservative and 3% very liberal) are ideologically hardcore.  The general image most people have of Lewis County is that it is deep red Republican turf.  Certainly, the county—like the nation—tends to be conservative, but if these figures are correct the “lean to the right” is less pronounced and the county more balanced than is generally supposed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Spirit Moves

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, is a city of about 40,000 residents located 175 miles south of Tunis, the national capital.  Until this past December, its only claim to fame was as the site of a World War II battle.  Now, it is also famous as the epicenter of the people’s revolt that brought down the government of
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January after 23 years in power.
Mohamed Bouazizi
The movement that led to his fall began with an insignificant event in this insignificant place.  A petty government official seized the cart of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.  It had happened before.  He had also had to pay small bribes and suffer a continuing series of petty indignities.  This time, he tried to get his cart back, but he couldn’t even get in the door of the local official who could help him.  Tired of the humiliation, Bouazzi went home and got some fuel oil and matches. He returned to the government office where he had been turned away and set himself on fire.  Bouazzi had been locally popular, known for his generosity and good nature, and his death set off local protests that quickly went national and eventually international.
It is in moments like this that the Holy Spirit breaks to the surface transforming the despair of injustice into a struggle for change.  It was not the Spirit that moved Bouazizi to suicide but, rather, the Spirit was present in the response to his death, working  for justice.  Often, the power of human greed and arrogance successfully holds back the Spirit sometimes for many decades, but the Spirit still moves quietly like a mountain stream finding its way to its source.  And always, always, the Spirit lies in wait for moments when the desire for peace and justice momentarily overwhelms us, and in these "open moments" it inspires us to behave, if only briefly, in ways that God created us to behave.
Undoubtedly, the revolts we see in the Middle East will not all turn out well.  Some, maybe most, will end badly in one way or another.  That does not mean the Spirit is not at work.  If all of this were easy, Christ would never have died on the cross.

A Second Soul

"To have another language is to possess a second soul."

Charlemagne (ca. 742 - 814)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where’s the Laughter Going?

Here’s a troubling little statistic for you.  It has to do with laughing and clapping during worship in Presbyterian churches.  According to a recent survey published by the Research Services of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in 2001 55% of Presbyterian respondents reported laughing and/or clapping during worship.  In 2009, just eight years later, the number dropped to 40%.  That’s is a 15% drop in laughter and clapping in worship in just eight years.
One reason we are laughing and clapping less in worship might be that the researchers collected their 2009 data during the worst economic crisis we’ve faced since the 1930s.  But, there may be another reason as well.  In 2001, according to the report, 28% of the respondents belonged to churches that had experienced significant conflict in the past five years that led people to leave their church.  By 2009, 41% of the respondents reported belonging to conflicted churches—an increase in conflict of 13% in that same eight-year period.
We Presbyterians are evidently fighting more frequently and walking away from each other more often—and that is no laughing matter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

During Hard Times

During hard times
our minds stretch
like a larvae in a cocoon
bursting to become a Butterfly…
The longing for freedom
has us reaching for simplicity
The extraordinary in everyday things
a walk in the park
flowers shaped like a heart…
Seeing with new eyes
the world becomes
our paradise…

by Kimberly A. Cavanagh
with permission  (Thank you,Kim)
April 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

You Would Think It Would Make a Difference

Chief Yonaguska
Here is a thought that should give us pause:

"It [the Bible] seems to be a good book; strange that the white people are not better after having had it so long."

Quoted in McLoughlin, The Cherokees and Christianity, 1794-1870 (1994), 12.

As Christians, we can respond in a number of ways.  We can go into a guilt mode, a denial mode, a rant mode, or even a "who cares?" mode.  The best course, however, might be to answer Chief Yonaguska by saying, "Yes, OK, we see your point.  But consider how much worse we would have been without this good book."  As for how long it is taking us to catch on, about all we can say is that we in the West don't seem to be much slower at things spiritual than are most other peoples of the world—slower than some, possibly a little faster than others.  But, you're right, Chief.  It is taking us a long, long time to catch on.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Daily Dose

If you’re looking for a daily moment of thought and possibly inspiration, take a look at  Inward-Outward, a website sponsored by the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.  Select “subscribe,” and a short daily quotation is sent to your email address every morning.  It’s worth a look.

A Crucial Issue

There may be no more important theological issue facing local churches today than how we deal with science and, more generally, the spirit of critical inquiry underlying the sciences.  In the past two centuries, every aspect of our religious faith has been subjected to the scrutiny of critical inquiry.  In the old days, most people lived in a local village and religious faith was accepted as the norm.  Today we live in a global village that is less and less openly religious with each passing decade.  The influence and role of religious institutions is dwindling even in rural and conservative places like Lewis County, New York.
An important segment of the larger church has responded to the challenges of science and modern critical inquiry with defensive anger and disdain.  These faithful Christians reject the facts of biological evolution and much else that science teaches.  Their primary goal is to protect what they believe to be the factual truth of Genesis 1.  Rejection of science is a strategy that might work in the short run, but in the long run it is doomed to failure.  Science has fundamentally changed the way we look at reality.  We may retreat into the walls of rejection and find safety there, but fewer and fewer of our children will do so.  Rejection of science isn’t going to work for the long haul.
Ignoring the issue is not going to work either.  It cannot be ignored away.
The one viable alternative is to learn how to reshape our faith in ways that make sense in a world of science.  We Christians have been adapting our faith to changing times and cultures from the beginning, and in fact Christianity would not even exist today if our long-ago ancestors in the faith hadn’t made the cultural leap from Judaism and Jewish culture to Roman-Greek culture and religious thinking.  The barbarian cultures of Europe, later on, had a huge impact on the Christian faith.  We need only do again in the 21st century what we did in the 1st century and the 11th century, namely learn to think about Christ with contemporary minds and communicate him in contemporary ways.  The important thing, of course, is to think also about our contemporary world with Christian minds, minds inspired by the Spirit, informed by the Bible, and rooted in local churches.
We have long put it this way: we are to be in the world but not of the world.  Our world is shaped by science, and we must embrace the world as it is in order to continue for yet another generation to share Christ with the world in ways that the world can understand.  If we reject science, we choose to be aliens in the contemporary world—strange and maybe even comical aliens not worthy of serious consideration.  If we ignore the challenge of science, we will drop the ball entirely (not even pick it up, actually).  If we are going to live in a world profoundly influenced by science, then we must learn how to speak its language in ways that make sense both to science and to faith.  What a fantastic, exciting challenge!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting Started with Rom Phra Khun

Welcome to the very first installment of this blog. My purpose is to share thoughts, ideas, and insights with you, the reader. This is a pastor’s blog, and I have named it Rom Phra Khun, which is one translation of “grace” in the Thai Bible. It means, literally, “the shade of grace.” Rom is shade (also umbrella) and can be used to mean protection. In the hot sub-tropical sun of Southeast Asia, shade is a blessing—a place of coolness, safety, escape, and relief.  Phra khun can mean kindness or benevolence, and it is a word that is associated with highly respected persons such as royalty, religious figures, and divine beings. Thai Christians use rom phra khun to mean the grace of God.
The term rom phra khun is a beautiful metaphor for understanding the Christian faith.  God’s grace is cool shade, protection from the hot sun of the world. My hope is that this blog itself will be rom phra khun for its readers—that it will give you an opportunity, however, brief, to walk out of the hot sun of the daily grind into the shade of God’s grace in Christ.

I am pastor of First Presbyterian Church (FPC), Lowville, NY.  I started with the church in September 2011, and my wife Runee and I quickly came to love both the church and the community.  I grew up in a small town out on the prairie of southwest Minnesota (Luverne, MN, to be specific) so moving to Lowville has felt something like coming home.  And while I hope that members of the FPC family will visit Rom Phra Khun from time to time, it is a personal blog.  The church is not responsible for its contents.  It is meant to be shade from the sun for you and a playground for me.  Peace & blessings, Herb
Rom phra khun, by the way, is pronounced “rome prĂ¡ kun (or koon as in Daniel Boone).