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, September 29, 2012

Nanotechnology and Medicine: It is the Real Deal

In the increasingly near future, the medical applications of nanotechnology are going to revolutionize the practice of medicine and the quality of life for those who can afford the treatments.  The latest evidence supporting this all but certainty comes from an ABC article entitled, "Tiny particles target hearing loss," which reports on research being conducted at the University of Melbourne. The team is investigating the possibility of using engineered nanoscale particles to deliver minute amounts of medicine to the structures of the inner ear, which will help them ward off deterioration that leads to hearing loss. The technology they are developing will have many other applications, so much so that Professor Frank Caruso, head of the team, states, "I think the area of engineering materials at the nanoscale offers enormous promise for healthcare medicine into the future." (Dr. Caruso is head of the Nanostructured Interfaces and Materials Science Group at Melbourne University).

The bottom line is that medical applications of nanotechnology offers the possibility of greatly extended life spans within a few decades, at most.  Lots of people laugh at the idea and dismiss it out of hand, but the possibility is very real and growing more so by the year.  Laugh, if you like.  Our grandchildren will be faced with choices and issues that boggle the mind.  One prays them the spiritual maturity to make those decisions wisely.  Amen.

Friday, September 28, 2012

When Angels Appear (Watch Out!)

Two posting back (here), I reported on the church-state controversy that has erupted over faith and football in Walker County, Georgia.  A local high school football coach, Mark Mariakas, has been accused by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) of imposing his Christian faith on his team in a number of different ways, all of which are unconstitutional.  The FFRF is threatening to take the Walker County School System to court if the coach doesn't change his behavior.  The school system stands behind the coach, arguing that the FFRF has relied on misinformation and has misconstrued the situation.  In our last posting (here), we heard from a local columnist who supports the FFRF.   Today, I would like to reflect on another local columnist, Mr. Dennis Norwood, who has written a column (here) supporting Coach Mariakas.  He entitled it, "Beware the Faith Stealers."

Norwood's main point is that the FFRF itself violates the rights of those who believe in Christ and prayer.  He expresses his admiration for Mariakas and a very real feeling that enough is enough when it comes to attacks on prayer.  His main concern, however, is that these attempts to limit prayer will become more and more invasive over time.  Soon, Christians won't be able to pray in restaurants before a meal, and eventually there could be raids on private homes to break up prayer groups. He writes, "We must beware the faith-stealers, for that is exactly what they want to do — steal our faith and have us join them in their unbelief."  Norwood, however, also believes that God is involved in all of these events and wonders what it is that God is calling on Christians to do in response to them.  He expresses his sadness for those who do not have a saving faith, and he affirms what for his is the fact that in the end faith will win.  He says, "...there is good news. I've read the back of the Book and we do win in the end."

In this column, Norwood sees a point and misses a point.  The point he raises is that people have a right to pray and historically the United States has been a praying nation.  If public prayer causes some distress, its absence cause distress to others.  The actual point for those living in Walker County is that the majority believe in prayer and believe it is important to approach public as well private matters in prayer.  They have a long tradition of public prayer.  Isn't it a violation of the rights of the majority to force that to change?

In principle, those of us who share his faith (but not his theology) might well agree.  The problem here is, however, the point that Norwood does not speak to—the local issue having to do specifically with Coach Mariakas.  IF the FFRF is correct, then the coach does seem to be in danger of imposing his faith on some who do not share it or want it.  As I wrote in the last posting, Mariakas in relationship to his players is a power figure.  It is, thus, one thing for a group of players to pray together on their own but another thing for the coach to "invite" the whole team to pray.  In the power relationship, one can reasonably argue that the coach is not reflecting the love and the humility of Christ nor actual concern for the well-being of all of his players.

Beyond the constitutional and legal issues involved, the issue for us as followers of Christ is how we best reflect his love for those around us.  As a rule, mainline church goers seldom take opportunities to share their faith and evangelical church goers do so too often.  The one doesn't talk enough and the other talks too much.  Finding a balance in particular real-life situations is difficult and requires both sensitivity and courage.  Mainliners need courage to speak more often, and evangelicals need the courage to know when to share by example rather than words.

One final thought.  Taken in faith, the FFRF in this case can be seen as an angel, that is as an agency that opens doors to a deeper faith in God in Christ.  Angels tend to be unlooked for and "inconvenient".  They tend to push us outside of our comfort zone and demand that we think outside the box.  Norwood does ask the right question when he wonders what God is up to in all of this.  He fails to see that the FFRF may well hold the answer to his question.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When is Faith Sharing Not Sharing?

FFRF billboard
Yesterday's posting (here) reported on a controversy that has erupted in Walker County, Georgia, concerning the separation of church and state.  Coach Mark Mariakas, head football coach of the Ridgeland High School Panthers apparently mixes faith with football in a way that the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) claims is unconstitutional.  It has called on the Walker County School System to cease and desist, but the school system stands behind the coach.

On August 25th, Christi McEntyre posted a column on all of this, entitled, "Column by Christi McEntyre: Freedom of the majority," which is worth our attention.  McEntyre's opening sentences, immediately raise one distracting issue, namely the self-absorption of a certain group of atheists.  She begins, "Hi, I’m Christi, and I’m an atheist."  In the reader's face, inviting reaction.  Especially in the context of Bible Belt Georgia, she starts out seeking to shock and scandalize.

However, McEntyre does go on to raise important points that reflect something more than her personal pique with red state Christianity.  She raises especially the question of the relationship of the private beliefs and the public role of Coach Mariakas and all other public school teachers.  She writes, "No matter what his or her personal beliefs, a teacher must mentally and emotionally shed the robe of the personal and put on the robe of the public whenever acting in his or her position."  She continues, "That is the inherent trust that parents put on public school teachers and coaches – that they will treat every student equally and work hard to give them all the best possible instruction in the task at hand, without any unnecessary interference from personal bias or beliefs."  Any overt use of prayer, Bible, or preaching in the classroom or on the football field, she reasons, betrays that trust.

OK.  Were things only that simple and clear-cut.  One does not simply shed one's personal beliefs and values at the front door of the school building and then put them back on when they leave.  Teachers don't cease to be who they believe themselves to be when they teach.  Indeed, American teachers share any number of biases, attitudes, and values with McEntyre that a foreign student moving into an American public school can feel oppressive, embarrassing, or unsettling; but she is not asking teachers to shed those things at the door—because they don't bother her.  She is an American as are the teachers.  It is an American school.  It is unrealistic of McEntyre to think that a person of faith who happens to be a teacher is not going to live out her or his faith in the classroom and on the football field.

In her posting, McEntyre objects to the imposing of religion on students partly because it can be embarrassing or uncomfortable or confusing for some students.  By that measure, one wonders what teachers can actually do in a classroom because different students are liable to find different things "difficult."  Where does one draw the line?  When does this concern for what bothers a student become a barrier to teaching and a violation of the rights of the teacher and the other students who are not bothered?

Reading this editorial posting, it is clear that McEntyre is in parting reflecting her own biography, her own distaste for religion, and possibly her own experiences as an atheist student in a Christian-dominated school culture.  One can sympathize, but why should the personal discomfort of a student about the religious faith of the teacher trump the teacher's faith?  On the face of it, does not the teacher have a right to live out her or his personal faith in the classroom and on the football field?

That being said, McEntyre also raises a deeper question, which people of faith need to pay careful attention to—that is the issue of imposition.  There is no question but what an important segment of American Christians are insensitive to the religious sensitivities of others.  They "share" their religious beliefs in ways that are felt to be an imposition on others.  They talk religion at people.  They demand that "non-believers" (including liberal Presbyterians!) conform to their beliefs.  There is a thin line between making a student feel uncomfortable and imposing one's religion on the student.

In the fog of controversy, it is difficult to tell whether or not Coach Mariakas has crossed that line or not, but it is an issue worth raising.  If the charges leveled against him are true, he seems to have at least skirted that fine line, and it does not hurt to remind him that faith is something to be shared not imposed—and shared with a sensitivity to the fact that not everyone wants to be on the getting end of the sharing.  A Christian football coach is a person of power as well as faith, and thus what might seem like faith "sharing" to him or her could well be the imposition of the coach's belief-system on a student, who is a person without power (or of inferior power).  We are only faithful to Christ to the degree that we use our faith for the benefit of the other, which means paying close attention to what "the other" feels is good. It doesn't hurt in the least for the coach, the teaching staff, and the administration of the Walker County School System to be reminded of that fact.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

One MInd, One Heart, One Team - or not?

Coach Mariakis
According to an online news posting entitled, "Freedom From Religion Foundation files complaint against Walker County coach," on August 21st, 2012,  the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint against Mr. Mark Mariakas, head football coach at Ridgeland High School, Walker County, Georgia.  Ridgeland is part of the Walker County School System.  The complaint charges Mr. Mariakas with unconstitutional behavior, specifically that he, "prayed with his team, used Bible verses in motivational speeches and on team shirts, and held Christian football camps during summer break." The team also attended a dinner held at a local church, which included religious activities. A representative from the FFRF is quoted as saying, “I do have reservations about (Mariakis’) ability to keep his religion out of his job,” Seidel said. “He seems to be very proud that he mixes football and God, which would be fine if he were at a private Christian school. But as a public high school coach, that’s unconstitutional.”  The FFRF's concern is that religion is being forced on players so that if they don't conform they won't get to play on the team.

This action by the FFRF has generated some controversy in Walker County, located in the northwest corner of Georgia.  Within a week, the Superintendent of the Walker County School System held a press conference at which he expressed the official support of the system for Coach Mariakas.  He rejected the FFRF's complaints as being based on incomplete and incorrect information and affirmed that the school system and the coach were behaving properly according to the law.  According to online statistics (here), Coach Mariakas has proven himself to be a successful coach, leading his team to winning seasons in 6 of his previous eight years, including two 9 - 2 years.  He was quoted at the press conference as saying, ""At this point, I think the issues have been aired and all questions have been carefully addressed. High school athletics, along with academics, are a very important part of the lives of many of our students. We will continue to foster positive relationships with our players as we strive for excellence on the field of play. Like all worthwhile endeavors, successful sports programs require a great commitment of time, effort and hard work. Now is the time for the Ridgeland football team to stay on task and focus on the football season. We have one mind, one heart and one team."

Whatever the merits of each side's case in Walker County, once again two basic rights appear to be in conflict.  Coach Mariakis has a right to live out his faith.  The FFRF appears to be calling on him to compartmentalize that faith, while the coach clearly sees his faith as an important part of his coaching.  He would probably argue that his success as a winning coach is built partly on his faith.  On the other hand, the FFRF claims that its complaint originated with one of the players.  Ridgeland is a public school, and students have a right not to have the religious beliefs of a teacher imposed on them in any way shape or form.

Does the coach cross a line?  Does he impose his religious views on his players?  Or, is he the victim of that apparently unreasonable atheist mentality that will not allow him any expressions of faith (at work) on principle?  Relying only on press accounts, we're not likely to ever know, but I'd like to return to the larger issues involved "next time."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Come to Jesus

Alaska former governor, Sarah Palin, is quoted (here) recently as saying, "America desperately needs to have a 'come to Jesus' moment in discussing our big dysfunctional, disconnected, and debt-ridden federal government,"  She went on to, of course, attack the president for failing to tackle the national debt and, instead, irresponsibly leaving it for later generations to deal with.

While I strongly disagree with most of what Gov. Palin said this time and usually says, she is not wrong to argue that we need a "come to Jesus moment" in the U.S.  The Jesus I'm thinking of, however, is not hers but Martin Luther King's Jesus.  It is the Jesus who inspired Gandhi.  This Jesus preached good news to the 47%, virtually teaching that one day, in the Kingdom, they would be the first of the land.  God will spread the banquet out for them.  The 1% (to mix figures) will be left standing outside the gates.  If we were to "come to Jesus" in this sense, what we would find is that fiscal responsibility is a peace and justice issue.  Balancing the budget and paying down the debt is important, but how we balance and who pays is just as important.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

We long for the past and what once was.  We miss that past, its places and people.  And we long for the future.  Even later in life we look forward, maybe to new places and people—maybe just to visits from those we love.  We miss the past, and in a strange sort of way in our longing for the future, we miss what is to come as well.  The past is everything that was.  The future is everything that will be.  And the present rests on a knife's edge between them, so infinitesimal in time, so incredibly momentary that it almost doesn't exist.  Almost.  But, it is on this knife's edge between yesterday and tomorrow where we live, move, and have our becoming.  From the moment of our birth until we die, we are constantly becoming so that the true art in living is not to live for past or future or even the present.  It is, rather, being at rest in motion—growing out of the past without clinging, growing into the future without anxiety, and growing in the present without haste or regret.  At rest in motion.  Amen.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Letter to Pastors

"The following letter appeared recently in the Presbyterian Outlook under the title of "A reflection to and for pastors in these troubled times."


"I don’t know how things are where you are serving, but in the center of the country it is a rocky season for pastors. We have had several pastors with decades of experience come to a precipitous end of a call in the last few months. And, for those who are still hanging on, it is a rough row to hoe (how’s that for a Midwest analogy?) We have (as of today) 104 congregations. I cannot possibly get to the studies of each of our pastors to sit with him or her to let them tell me about how this is not what they expected their ministries to be like. So, I sent them the attached letter last week and I have heard from several of them that it came just at the right time. It is based on II Timothy. I share it with you just in case something like this might be of help to your pastors. [note: I haven't included the letter referred to here in RPK.  Follow the above link to the article if you would like to read it.]

"Why is it so rough out there? I think there are several contributing factors. Most Presbyterians did not grow up in the Presbyterian church yet many of our churches continue to imagine that they do not really need to teach their new elders anything about Reformed theology and the polity that arises from it. We continue to act like they should just know it and pastors get cross-ways with their sessions. Second, with several of our congregations leaving us for other affiliations, it seems to have created an atmosphere where any authority that the presbytery might once have had is being diminished. We may go to a church and say our rules say “this” and they reply with an attitude of “make me.” Third, and most importantly, I think we have reached the tipping point in many of our churches. The people who are in our sanctuaries on Sunday morning look around and see that there are fewer and older people. They remember all of the things that used to happen at church that have gone by the wayside. They know in their guts that they need to change, but they do not want to do so. Then the pastor gets up on Sunday morning and sits in session meetings and tells them that they need to change. Again, they don’t want to. Instead of deciding that it is time to change themselves, they are deciding that the easiest way to stop having to think about change is to get rid of the person who is talking about change. So they fire their 63 ½ year old pastor who has been with them for 21 years and so on.

"Certainly an interesting time to be working in leadership in the church. I wish you well as you continue your ministry with your COM and help us to navigate these new waters."

 Susan D. Krummel,  General Presbyter and Stated Clerk,  Presbytery of Great Rivers

Krummel makes three points: (1) Presbyterian local leaders no longer understand the system under which we operate; (2) the structures of the denomination are losing their authority; and (3) where pastors advocate change, the churches they serve resist it to the point of getting rid of the pastor.  Krummel is right in her observation that the third is the most important of the three.  She fails to mention a deeper factor, however, which is still more important.  Most of our churches lack spiritual integrity and depth.  They are not communities of prayer.  We have ceded spirituality to the evangelical churches, which is a shame because they are not particularly good stewards of a full gospel spirituality.  They are good at personal religion but deficient in working for social justice.  In any event, these are troubled times for Presbyterian churches and their pastors.  One can't help but wonder if it isn't the Spirit that is quietly causing the trouble (or, at least, piggy backing on it).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Chris Kluwe
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe writes a blog, "Out of Bounds."  and in a recent posting entitled, "Smiling Faces, Hidden Places," Kluwe writes about what it means to lose in sports. He opens the posting by saying that, "Losing sucks. It’s the absolute worst feeling in the world, and anyone who tells you that losing is ok is lying to both you and themselves. The sensation is like a colony of fire ants gnawing away at your inner abdominals, spitting their venom all over your insides until you feel you have to scream to release the pain."  He goes on to write that losers can't say much in public other than, "We've put it behind us and are focused on the next game."  Publicly they have to take losing stoically.  Inside, however, it hurts and the hurt never really goes away.  He then writes,
 It fades after a while, the angry introspection of defeat, but it’s always there, always lurking in that mental prison, pacing restlessly behind its bars like a caged tiger, eyes agleam with savage hunger to rend and tear. You can never let that beast out though, lest it wreak your life and those around you. Some placate it with alcohol, some with religion, some with sex, some even with the hard earned serenity of acceptance, the realization that what’s done is done and you can’t change the past no matter how much it hurts.
Last year, the Vikings were 3-13.  This year they are in a "building year," which is football code speak for "expect more losses."  That's a lot of hurt.

It is important, however, that in the above paragraph he offers what seems to be the only effective way to cope, namely "the hard earned serenity of acceptance."  He doesn't equate serenity with religion, which he lumps together with alcohol and sex.  He also doesn't define it and doesn't seem to feel that serenity for himself.

It is telling that Kluwe lumps religion together with sex and alcohol as addictive coping strategies that are, evidently, unhealthy.  We can understand why he might do that, and in many cases he may not be wrong.  My own take would be, however, that Christian faith at its best takes us in the direction of serenity.  We lose at a lot more in life than sports, and we have to accept many things that we would just rather not accept.  A faith rooted in Christ will help us to navigate the losses.  At the end of loss is the possibility of comfort and serenity.  Without claiming that any of this is easy, one of the things faith should do for us is to open us up to embracing that comfort, which in turn should lead us to discover "the hard earned serenity of acceptance."  Amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Understanding Jesus

It is the outcasts who really get the message of Jesus. It is the people pushed to the fringe, the rejected members of the establishment, who understand what Jesus means when he says, Come, follow me. They know what it means to suffer. Jesus makes it simple for us. In his command to love, he condenses all the written and unwritten rules of the covenant into two basic principles: love God and love your neighbor. 

 Joe Nassal
 Source: The Conspiracy of Compassion

Monday, September 17, 2012

On Jesus' Trajectory

In the opening verses of John chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man, and the disciples ask him whose fault it was that the man was born blind.  They assumed that sin was the root cause and wondered who it was that sinned.  Jesus answered them, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (9:3 NRSV)  In other words, it was the will of God that this man be blind until such time as Jesus came along and healed him and demonstrated the healing power of God in Christ.

In 2012, that feels ugly and unworthy of God.  It is reasonable to argue that God being God could figure out some other way to reveal divine power without forcing this man into blindness for all of his life up to the point of healing.  The counter-argument would be that God actually doubly blessed him because he unexpectedly gained his sight, something that had to cause him great joy.  If, however, any human authority consciously blinded someone under its authority so that it could later prove a point we would rightly condemn the inhumanity of that authority.  We thus can't give God a pass.

There is another way to look at the story, however, one that puts this event in its historical context and sees where Jesus was headed in his teachings.  At the heart of it, Jesus freed the man's condition from sin.  He removed the religiously based social stigma and prejudice attached to blindness and other physical maladies.  For his own time, this was liberating and in and of itself healing.  Even more revolutionary was his insistence that this blind man had a positive role to play in the plans of God.  God did not condemn him with blindness but favored him with it.  His condition was a holy one.

In 21st century terms, we may still not be satisfied with the "fact" that God caused the man's blindness in order to fulfill some divine plan. In first century terms, however, we see Jesus redefining blindness in a liberating way—but doing so within the framework of the first century.  He accepted the fundamental idea that God caused blindness because that was only common sense.   What else could cause blindness but God?  He then reshaped common sense in ways that were more humane, affirming, and caring.  He thus set us on a trajectory away from prejudice, stereotyping, and disdain and toward compassion.  To be faithful to Christ in 2012, we need but follow the trajectory while rejecting out of hand the idea that God causes blindness and other forms of human suffering.  God works for healing, not hurt.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Church & Women

The following video clip of an interview with Ben Witherington, a biblical scholar,  contains an excellent brief description of the place and role of women in the early church and the implications of the status of women for our understanding of the role of women in today's church.  It runs for just under eight minutes and is well worth the time.  Enjoy!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Beyond the Talking Points

One of the talking points of fundamentalist atheism is that religion is in and of itself evil.  The world would be a better place without it.  A recent review (here) of the book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster, 2010), by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell,  provides further evidence that these folks are just plain wrong.

The book is an investigation of the place and role of religion in American society.  Putnam, the key author, began the research on which it is based with the assumption that "large doses of religion would be toxic to democracy."  What he and Campbell found is something very different.  In spite of the almost intensive religiosity of American society and its deep religious divisions, their research shows that Americans are notably tolerant of other faiths.  The authors account for American religious tolerance by something they call the "Aunt Susan Effect."  Almost everybody has relatives or friends who belong to a faith other than their own, which fact encourages them to be more tolerant of other faiths than they might otherwise be.  Their research also suggests that "religiously observant" people tend to be more civic-minded and "nicer" than others.  The reviewer observes that, "While such a claim produces rancorous debate, it can’t be denied is that these results point to something unique about a religious community that isn’t found elsewhere, providing something positive and enriching for society."

Two thoughts.  First, if we get beyond the talking points it is a simple fact that most of the time religious faith is more likely to encourage people to be better citizens and neighbors than not.  Religions are human inventions and share in all of the imperfection of our race.  Still, they tap into something deeper within us that tends to encourage us to be better people than we are inclined to be.  Religion can be bigoted.  It can be used to evil ends.  There is no question about that.  Yet, more often faith nudges us in better rather than worse directions.

Second, the "Aunt Susan Effect" might be one reason we tolerate each other religiously in spite of deep differences, but it is not likely to be the only reason—and maybe not the most important.  The legal separation of church and state, for example, limits any action one religion might take against another.  We have to tolerate each other because most overt forms of intolerance are illegal.  The growing secularity of American society also encourages tolerance because religion is becoming less and less significant, and we are less inclined to fight over things that are perceived to be inconsequential.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores....There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions.

Sigurd Olson, Singing Wilderness (1956)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Biblical Birtherism

Birtherism is built on a falsehood so patently false that it betrays its own source: fear of the Other who is not us.  There is a racialist factor involved.  The President of the United States is a "person of color," and for a certain segment of the American public that fact is unsettling.  It demands a reaction, and for these folks that reaction is to deny that Barack Obama was born in the United States and has the legal right to hold the office of president.  They deny his right to be the president.

Would you believe there is biblical precedent?  In the Gospel of John, Jesus finds himself repeatedly in conflict with "the Jews," that is the educated, powerful ruling elite of his day.  For them, his message is outrageous, impious, and dangerous.  John records numerous confrontations between Jesus and these leaders.  In the heat of one of them, "the Jews" say to Jesus,"Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" (John 8:48, NRSV)

For these wealthy establishment types, Jesus was the Other—a lower-class, uneducated Galilean who challenged their power and their way of looking at the world.  They responded to him in a number of ways including the charge that he was not "really" Jewish.  He was not "really" one of them.  As a despised Samaritan, he was their enemy and a faithless heretic.  In this way, they could dismiss him and justify their disdain for him.  It is interesting that they chose a racialist approach, one that removed Jesus from the race of God's people, the Jews, and reassigned him a place in the devil's race, the Samaritans.

Birtherism, in sum, is the reinvention of a very old wheel.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Wilderness Experience

The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition "Be still and know that I am God," and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.

Sigurd Olson, Singing Wilderness (1956), pp. 130-131.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Good Weekend in Minnesota

Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx
Those of you who stop by Rom Phra Khun regularly know that I'm a former Minnesotan who remains a fan of Minnesota sports, which means I belong to an often-frustrated, seldom really happy tribe.  But, once-in-awhile, it is good.  This past weekend was one of those golden moments.  The Gopher's led off on Saturday with a dominant win over a lesser opponent, which was heartening given the way they have in recent years frequently lost to apparently lesser opponents.  Then, yesterday, Sunday, the Lynx won handily for their 11th win in a row, the Twins won a walk-off game against the Cleveland Indians; and (can it be true?) the Vikings snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat in an overtime win over Jacksonville (usually the snatching goes the other way).  It all makes for a nice Monday morning.  And for the icing on the cake, my home town Luverne (MN) Cardinals won their second game of the young football season.

It is nice to see the sun peek out from behind the clouds now and again!


According to John 6:3-15, in the course of his ministry Jesus went off to the mountains with his disciples and a large crowd followed them.  Beyond all expectation, Jesus saw to the feeding of this crowd, which numbered five thousand men and an undetermined number of women and children.  He started with five loaves and two fishes, and ended up with a feast so sumptuous that twelve baskets of bread pieces were left over afterward.  The story closes with two comments.  The crowd was impressed and concluded that Jesus really was the messiah.  But, Jesus went further up the mountain to avoid being abducted by them and forced to become king.

The question before us is not, "Did this really happen?"  Rather, the question we need to ask esp. in our mainline churches is, "Is this happening?"  When will it happen?  How does it happen?  In ancient times, Christian biblical commentators frequently treated the stories of scripture allegorically.  The stories have layers of meaning, and the trick is to get to the deeper, non-literal meanings.  In modern times, we have gotten so wrapped up in the debate over the literal, historical meaning of the Bible that we've lost our playful, spiritual ability to discover for ourselves those layers of meaning.

This story's allegorical meaning seems obvious.  Jesus feeds those who come to him seeking spiritual sustenance.  In his grace and compassion, he more than meets the needs of those who seek him out.  But, there is a surprising element to Christ.  His disciples did not expect that he would feed the people this way.  They thought the situation was impossible.  There is even a warning about believing in Jesus at the end of the story.  Once the crowd believed in Jesus, he had to flee them!  He feared that they would seize him and force him to become their kind of a king.

This story, in sum, can be seen to teach us that Christ can provide deep spiritual meaning and life for those who seek it from him, in ways beyond the expectations of his "official" disciples (read, clergy and lay leaders in our mainline churches today).  But, faith in Christ does not guarantee that one understands God's will or the person of Christ.  In our enthusiasm for the faith, we can actually become a danger to Christ.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

All Theology is Local

Sigurd Olson (1899-1980)
Tip O'Neill famously claimed that, "All politics is local."  We, that is, see national issues through the lens of what is happening around us and, to a degree, judge what is best for the nation by what we believe is best for our own community and family.  I'm not sure that we can say the same for our belief systems, our theologies, but we probably should.  If all theology is not local, it should be.  We do not experience God and do not understand God in the same way in the United States as do Christians in Thailand.  The Thai language and Thai society profoundly influence Thai theology.  By the same token, God walks the streets of Syracuse wearing a different mask from the one "she" wears on N. State St., Lowville.  There is, or at least there should be, a Lewis County theology.

Two sources one might turn to for insights into what Lewis County theology might look like are two Presbyterians, one deceased and one still living.  The first is Sigurd Olson, an author and environmentalist who was born in Wisconsin and lived most of his life in northern Minnesota ("Up North" as it is known there).  Out of his own experience, Olson came to see the North Country, the wilderness, as a spiritual reality that calls us back to our deepest roots.  The wilderness is a place for mystical experiences born out of the quiet of the deep woods, lakes, and loons.    (See, David Backes, "The Land Beyond the Rim: Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Theology").  Lewis County is partly wilderness, partly loons & lakes & forest, precisely the mystical land Olson wrote about.
Kathleen Norris

The second sources is Kathleen Norris, particularly her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (2001).  (See my review here). Norris lived for some years in the small town of Lemmon, South Dakota, which is out on the high plains, and her book reflects on the spiritual impact of life in rural America and on the prairies.  Lowville is, of course, a very different place, and yet it is still small town America and has its own spiritual realities that parallel those of Lemmon.

Lewis County is rural farm country.  It is also North Country wilderness.  And it is out of these slices of reality that one might construct a Lewis County Theology.  Olson and Norris would be helpful in that happy task.  Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

You Will Be Comforted

The second Beatitude (Matthew 5:4) says, "Blessings on the mourners!  You're going to be comforted."  (N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament)  In context, Jesus was speaking to his disciples and making the larger point that those who suffered under the spiritually and socially oppressive realities of that day would one day enter the Kingdom.  In the Kingdom, they would find comfort, justice, mercy, and peace.  Taken out of that context, the second Beatitude is a powerful reminder of the way in which God's grace is embedded in our lives, whoever we are and whatever we believe.

It is one of the deepest spiritual truths that God, experienced as the Holy Spirit, brings comfort to those who mourn.  The following video clip of Vice President Biden speaking to families of soldiers who died serving their country is not a political video.  It is commentary on the second Beatitude.  The clip runs for about 20 minutes, and it makes the point to families feeling deep loss that one day the memory of their loved one will bring a smile to their lips before it brings tears to their eyes.  The Vice President knows what he is talking about.  In a tragic auto accident, he lost his wife and daughter.  He mentions God in this clip only to as the One with whom he was angry, but lurking in his words we can hear the committed Catholic affirming the truth of God's grace without going pious.  This is worth 20 minutes of your day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

We Will Not Waiver

There are some with differing opinions, some who say "Fight back." While I'm respectful of those individuals, let me be clear: We must not and will not waiver in accepting responsibility and reality. We'll take decisive actions to right wrongs, change and improve processes and operations, and demonstrate values-based leadership in all we do.

Karen Peetz,
Chair, Board of Trustees
Pennsylvania  State University
Speaking about Penn State's situation after the Sandusky scandal
Quoted (here)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ships Passing In the Night

Bill Nye, a well-known science educator, has just released a brief video entitled, "Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children," which interested readers can view below.  In this video, Nye argues that parents should not teach creationism to their children even if they believe it themselves.  It is not fair to the kids and harmful to our national good as the world's leading technological society (along with Japan, he thinks) for creationist parents to impose their own world view on their children.  The youtube index in which his video is listed shows that his remarks have spawned quite a few creationist rebuttals, which is hardly surprising.

Nye advocates a standard pro-evolution, pro-science perspective, but there is one point at which I think he is off base.  Toward the end of his remarks, he says to creationists,
"Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don't believe in evolution. I mean, here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star but they're at a different point in their lifecycle. The idea of deep time, of this billions of years, explains so much of the world around us. If you try to ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent."
It is common for partisans on both sides of the science vs. religion debate to describe their opponents' views as irrational because for them those opposing views literally do not make sense.  Nye is wrong when he calls creationist views "crazy" and "untenable".  Those who are convinced in the literal truth of the Bible find his views equally crazy and untenable—from their point of view.  They see Nye's views as being just as dangerous from a creationist perspective as he feels theirs are from his.  And while he is correct that creationism is inconsistent with the facts of science, which for him is reality, his views are inconsistent with the Bible from a literalist perspective, which for them is reality.  Social scientists have long pointed out that we create our realities socially, based on inherited worldviews.  The "real world" is what our social group says that it is.  Now, I personally am persuaded that  science represents reality, but I know reasonably intelligent, rational, and logical thinkers who believe that Genesis 1 defines reality.  They live in a social world of relationships, websites, books, and religious leaders who all support their view of reality and make it tenable.

I agree with Nye that their view of reality is wrong, but I disagree with him when he styles their views as being crazy or untenable.  Creationism is for biblical literalists entirely rational and consistent given their social and ideological world.  It serves no purpose for us to shout across the chasm that separates us, "You are stupid, crazy, and irrational!!!"  All that comes back is an echo.  It is exactly like  trying to "communicate" with a person who doesn't speak our language by shouting at him.  No matter how loudly we yell, she does not understand.

Note: according to a CNN news posting (here) Nye's video has "gone viral" and indeed sparked a backlash among creationists.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Definitions Matter

Taj McWilliams-Franklin
On last Thursday evening into early Friday morning, the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team won an "ugly" game against a less than stellar opponent.  Afterward, one of the Gophers was quoted (here) as saying, "An ugly win is better than a pretty loss." Friday evening, the Minnesota Lynx struggled early against a weaker opponent and had to pull out a victory in the second half. One of the Lynx's players, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, said (here) of the game, "Champions find ways to win in the face of challenges.'' She went on to say, "Michael Jordan had his moments when he didn't play well against lower teams, but he found ways in the end."

In sports, these sentiments are hardly remarkable.  Whatever the sport, its players play to win.  Good teams and good players have off days, but they still need to find a way to win.  It is better to win ugly than to loose pretty.  As a rule, it is better to play poorly but come out on top rather than playing well but still lose the game.

The question is whether or not this basic rule translates well into the rest of life and especially into the church.  A case can be made that it does, even for church folks.  "Winning ugly" suggests a scrappy, never-say-die attitude that works through adversity.  It also reflects a certain level of self-confidence and creativity when these qualities are especially necessary.

There is a difference, however, between winning ugly in sports and winning ugly in the church, and that difference is in the definition of "winning".  In the church, "winning" is often a matter of losing, coming out second rather than first, giving credit rather than getting it, remaining silent and in the background, and pursuing the example of Christ, the ultimate servant of all.  The thing is, this kind of "losing" has all of the marks that sports folks equate with "winning".  In the Kingdom, it is the losers who win and the winners who lose.  Amen.