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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Adapting to the New Climate

As described in yesterday's posting, "Church Decline & Not Knowing What is Going On For Sure," local congregations of all denominations and faiths in the United States are having to adapt to a new social and cultural climate, one that is colder and less hospitable.  This is less true, apparently, in the South than the rest of the country and especially true of the Northeast, but on the whole we live in a new religious environment, at least a Little Ice Age.  The challenge is to adapt.

The evidence at hand suggests that American churches are finding it hard to adapt.  Thus, as one small example, Thom Rainer's posting, "12 Biggest Challenges Pastors and Church Staff Face," which lists the responses to what he calls a "non-scientific Twitter survey" in which he asked pastors and church staff members, "What is your biggest challenge in ministry?"  According to his respondents, the churches they serve are apathetic, inwardly focused, lacking in lay leadership, and financially challenged.  They cling to their traditions, focus on trivial matters, and some members devote themselves to criticizing pastoral leadership. Rainer concludes, "What is fascinating, if not discouraging, about this survey is that virtually all of the challenges noted by these pastors and staff were internal challenges. It appears that many of our churches in America are not effective conduits of the gospel because the members spend so much energy concerned about their own needs and preferences."

The weather has turned cold.  It is harder to find game, which is also dying off.  The crops we've been depending upon can't survive in this new, harsher climate.  Church folks are mostly hunkering down, shivering, and not very happy in these new conditions.  But here and there old churches are adapting, new forms of churches are emerging.  Religion is taking new forms.  And it is worth a thought that all of this is encompassed in the providence of God.  We're still headed in the direction of the Kingdom.  Amen.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Church Decline & Not Knowing What is Going On For Sure

In a posting entitled, "The Great Decline: 60 years of religion in one graph," blogger Tobin Grant begins his comments on the graph displayed on the left by stating, "Religiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.’ Previous declines in religion pale in comparison. Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s."  Scary stuff, that, for those of us who labor in the church.

Some months back, however, I shared with readers in a posting entitled, "Rethinking the 'Nones'," the helpful speculation of Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief at Gallup, that what may be happening is not a decline in religiosity, let alone spirituality, but rather a change in the way people answer questionnaires. I wrote that according to Newport, "it is becoming easier or more acceptable for people to say to pollsters that they are they are atheists, agnostics, or otherwise not religious. [Newport] argues that the number of religious people has not been declining, at least not very much."

On further reflection, it is likely that what we are experiencing is a sea change in the place of organized religion in American society and culture.  As is widely observed, outside of the South churches no longer occupy the honored, central place they once held.  As they continue to lose their privileged place in society, they shed members who were not really all that interested in the first place but in the past felt a social need to be part of a church.  As a consequence, churches that adapted themselves to the 1950s climate of hey-day religiosity are being challenged to adapt to a new climate, a colder and less hospitable one.  Many are simply not adapting.  But others are and will continue to do so.

All of this is not to say that churches are not in any less jeopardy than they clearly are in.  It is to say that for the foreseeable future viable, even exciting congregations of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other faiths will continue to thrive as they find new ways to pursue their faiths.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Breathing In - Breathing Out

In meditation, the meditator's breath is her guide and anchor.  Breathing in, he is aware that he is breathing in — breathing out, she knows that she is breathing out.  Breathing is the most fundamental, necessary fact of life.  Nothing is simpler nor more necessary.  To breathe is to live.  Outside of the practice of meditation, however, we seldom think about our breathing unless it is threatened or even momentarily interrupted.  When we can't get our breath, suddenly and anxiously we are aware of just how important it is to breathe.  Otherwise, we seldom pay attention to it.

Meditation encourages us to be awake to our breathing—to see it as the core of all of our spiritual technologies and the simplest to practice.  It can be done anywhere.  All it requires is breathing and knowing we are breathing.

And one thing that we might discover in our meditation is that breathing in (Lord, I know I am breathing in) is not like breathing out (Lord, I know I am breathing out).  Regarded mindfully and gently, breathing in gathers energy and breathing out expels anxiety.  Together they are a dualism, the dualism that circumscribes our lives.  They are much more than a physiological mechanism for delivering oxygen to our body.  They define the flow and ebb of life.  Lord, we breathe in our suffering, Lord, we breathe out our healing.  Lord, we breathe in tension, Lord, we breathe out relaxation.  Lord, we breathe in experience, Lord, we breathe out learning.   Yin and yang.  God's gift of the Spirit created in us at the very core of what it means to live.  Lord, we breathe compassion in, Lord, we breathe ministry out.  Amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sitting & Non-sitting Time

We have so many compartments in our lives.  How can we bring meditation out of the meditation hall and into the kitchen, and the office?  In the meditation hall we sit quietly, and try to be aware of each breath.  How can our sitting influence our non-sitting time?  When a doctor gives you an injection, not only your arm but your whole body benefits from it.  When you practice half an hour of sitting meditation a day, that time should be for all twenty-four hours, and not just for that half-hour.

Thich Naht Hanh,
Peace is Every Step, 34

How, indeed, do we in our Christian tradition transform non-worship time with our worship?  How do we teleport our hymns, litanies, prayers, and readings into the kitchen and the office?  This is a question that every church, pastor, church board, and national church agency should be wrestling with.  The question of injecting non-sitting time with sitting time injections is, in fact, a core question and central challenge for all of religion.

Friday, January 24, 2014

No Easy Answer

Just fifteen years ago, Fuller Seminary professor Wilbert R. Shenk, published an article entitled, "The Priority of Mission for Renewal of the Church," in which he states in a highlighted sentence that, "Authentic renewal will only come with a return to the theological roots of the church in Scripture along with missionary engagement of its culture."  He then proposes a strategy for church renewal, which is to recapture the missio Dei, that is the mission of God, for our time and context.  "Mission" he concludes is the most appropriate symbol for the church and is its reason for being. He states, "At the heart of mission is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) and witness to the reign of God. The church is that community earnestly seeking, albeit imperfectly, to embody the justice/righteousness of God’s new order."  He then comes full circle and argues that recapturing God's mission for our time and place means that churches will respond compassionately to the hurt of the world and read the Bible in light of the world's suffering so that it will be better able to respond to that suffering.

It sounds good.  In recent years, there has been a ton of talk about "the missional church."  There has been another ton about how churches need to base themselves in scripture, which often is taken to mean reading it "the right way," whichever way that might be.

The past fifteen years, however, have only served to prove that church renewal is not something that can be neatly packaged in this way.  Where it happens, personalities are involved, circumstances shape events, and an uncontrollable element of serendipity that we associate with the Holy Spirit is usually at work.  There are no magic bullets apart from commitment, wisdom, and openness to the Spirit by the faithful.  In one church, the renovation of a narthex surprisingly takes it down the path of renewal.  In another church, a concerted effort to generate a revival leads only to division, discouragement, and accelerated decline.  In still another church, the unlooked for emergence of a small-group movement reorients the future of the congregation.  In a fourth small, rural church, an elder prays week after month after year for his church to grow without answer—until, one day, a family begins to attend who prove to be a catalyst for renewal.  Sometimes conflict leads to renewal because it breaks a logjam of dysfunctional relationships; sometimes (more often, actually) conflict leads churches in the opposite direction.  You just can never tell, not for sure.

What seems to be constant in the stories of renewal is that courage, vision, prayer, and humility are usually involved.  Renewal means change, which means courage.  Somewhere in the church there has to be a vision, a hunger even for renewal.  Humility is crucial, meaning a compassionate, self-aware, disinclination to force or push, demand or judge.  Prayer is key as well.  These things can be channels for the Spirit.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rounding the Circle of the Human Spirit

[Buddhism] is quite rich material about what I call the inner world.  Modern science is very highly developed in matters concerning the material world. These two things separately are not complete. Together, the external and the internal worlds are complete.

Dr. James W. Wagner,
President,  Emory University
Quoted in Kim Severson,
"A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith,"
NY Times, Oct. 11, 2013

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Toward a Pedagogy of Suffering

In an article appearing in the Clinical Law Review, 19, 2 (Spring, 2013) and entitled, "Painful Injustices: Encountering Social Suffering in Clinical Legal Education," Law professor Sarah Buhler proposes a "pedagogy of suffering" aimed at helping clients and lawyers address the sources of social suffering to the end that larger questions of injustice might also be addressed.  In her conclusion, Buhler writes,
It is important for clinical law teachers to be prepared, during class discussions, case rounds, or routine supervisory interactions with students, to critically interrogate dominant discourse about suffering, and to urge students to ask questions about the proper terrain of legal practice. This may require clinicians to push students into examining their own emotional responses, and to help them to develop a critical vocabulary for understanding and contextualizing these experiences. A critical pedagogy of suffering would entail a deliberate challenge to the tendency to suppress or divert emotional responses within the clinical classroom, and to encourage students to understand their own sadness or distress about their clients’ stories as resources for thinking about larger questions of justice and injustice in society.
In the Christian tradition rooted in Judaism, we have from the beginning recognized the instructional value of suffering.  Traditional theology held that God is the source of all suffering, which is intended not so much to punish sin as to offer sinners the opportunity to change their ways.  In more recent times and in many Christian circles, the idea that God purposefully causes suffering in specific instances has lost favor, but we cannot escape the underlying fact that suffering is a part of the world that God has created.  God does not kill innocent children, yet their deaths are somehow encompassed within divine providence.  And suffering still has its value, if it is not so painful that healing cannot take place.

One of the key uses of our set of spiritual practices is to focus our attention on the lessons we can learn from our suffering and that of those around us.  Prayer and meditation, as key examples, are thus not ways to avoid suffering or escape its consequences.  They are the means rather for processing suffering, and as we engage in them we learn that frequently we are complicit in our own suffering.  We are a source of suffering in others.  The suffering itself is simply a physiological, including mental and emotional, phenomenon.  What it can teach us if we are mindful of it is, ultimately, spiritual and vastly important to our well-being.

Monday, January 20, 2014

If Only

In 1957 when Governor Faubus of Arkansas refused to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, if President Eisenhower with all of his enormous prestige had personally led a black child up the step to where the authorities were blocking the school entrance, it might have been one of the great moments in history.  It is heart-breaking to think of the opportunity missed.

Frederick Buechner,
Listening to Your Life , 55

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Paying Attention

Suffering in all of its manifold manifestations lies at the heart of the human experience.  It is physical, emotional, and spiritual.  The world with its natural, social, political, and economic crises and processes causes us to suffer.  Others hurt us.  We ourselves are the source of a goodly portion of our own suffering.

Faith in Christ does not prevent suffering.  Indeed, people of Christian faith often suffer because they are attuned to the suffering around them—at least somewhat.  What faith does do is to help us process suffering in a way that breaks its cycles.  It helps us to better see, however imperfectly, the ways in which we perpetuate our suffering and that of others around us.  It gives us tools for better managing suffering.  Sometimes, it even allows the Holy Spirit to wend its healing way through us into situations of pain, reducing the pain and bringing resolutions that are a foreshadowing of the Kingdom.

When we ground ourselves in faith that is even somewhat open to the Holy Spirit, our faith helps us to creatively pay attention to our suffering and that of others in a way that removes us from the deadly cycles of hurt.

Other religious faiths than Christianity also provide ways through pain and suffering.  We don't have a corner on the market.  The insight of our particular  faith, however, is that like Christ we have to walk our way through the Valley of the Shadow.  We can't reach the high peaks and grand vistas without walking through the forests, the swamps, and all of the other obstacles on the Way.  The cross is not the end of the journey, but it is the way to the end—not something we seek but something we endure and learn from.

It remains unclear to me, at least, why the Creator would construct our reality in this way.  But, somehow, what we are to become is intimately tied to what we must suffer through to become what we are being created to be.  The trick is to not be defeated by suffering, not rendered insensitive by it, and learn what lessons we can from it.  Like a child who has to learn painfully not to stick her hand in a fire, so too does our safety lies in the way through our suffering.  The story we Christians put our trust in is the story of Jesus, the Galilean who walked that way with and for us.  Amen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What We Are Losing

A recent news posting on Aljazeera America entitled, "Missouri's paw-paw French dialect fading into silence," describes the demise of an old, old American French dialect also known as Missouri French, which was spoken in the region around St. Louis.  Today, there are no fluent speakers of paw-paw French still living and few that can speak even a little of it.  Descended from the time when the region was part of New France, paw-paw French was a people's language that apparently wasn't written down or taught formally in schools.  It came to be considered a low-class language spoken only by ignorant people, which seems to be an important reason why it has all but died out.  People, esp. younger people, did not want to be labelled as backward by the fact that they spoke paw-paw French, and evidently parents often discouraged their children from learning it for the same reason.

In one sense, it is a little silly to get all sentimental about the loss of a dialect that has apparently lost its reason-for-being.  It has been centuries since Missouri was a part of New France.  People naturally use the language that best fits their social and cultural needs, and English was that language, especially as native language speakers of English flooded into the Mississippi Valley after the Louisiana Purchase.

On the other hand, when a language or a dialect dies away something important is lost with that death. In a posting from March 2012, entitled, "Learning to Speak Sami," I wrote, "There is more at stake than the loss of just [a] language. Language is a primary carrier of culture, and where a language is dying away it is certain that a culture is dying as well—ways of dressing, eating, and living together in a unique society. Cultural diversity is important because it maintains the richness of human life."  Culturally speaking, Missouri and the U.S. are just a little poorer culturally for the loss of paw-paw French.  A piece of our living history, stored in the memories and experiences of people is lost.  A living link to the past is lost, and the void is not filled by the sound recordings and video tapes collected by scholars.  Stories and songs have lost their meaning and remain only curiosities for non-native language speakers where they are preserved at all.

This kind of loss has always been a part of our cultural experience.  Old English morphed into Middle English, which morphed into something else.  The dialects of American English spoken back in the 1920s, the 1950s are dying away.  When I refer to something as "mickey mouse," even young adults in their 20s and 30s haven't a clue as to what I mean.  Still the loss of a whole dialect is lamentable.  We are poorer for it.

For photographs from Old Mines, Missouri, which is the center for the few people who still speak paw-paw French, see a posting entitled, "La Fête de l'Automne 2012 and Missouri French."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A New Review at RPKR

I have just posted a review of David Backes, A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson (Univ. of Minnesota, 1997) on Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  Olson was a woodsman, educator, writer, conservationist, and rough-hewn philosopher-theologian who had a wide following beginning in the 1950s.  Backes' biography of him is a good book.  More is told in the review, which I recommend to you.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"In the folds of tender grass"

Psalm 23 (from the Bay Psalm Book, 1640)

1 The Lord to me a shepherd is,
Want therefore I shall not,
He in the folds of tender grass
Doth make me down to lie

2 To waters calm he gently leads
Restore my soul doth he
He doth in paths of righteousness
For his names sake lead me.

3 Yea though in valley of death’s shade
I walk none ill I’ll fear,
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.

4 For me a table thou hast spread
In presence of my foes;
Thou dost annoint my head with oil
My cup it over–flows.

5 Goodness and mercy surely shall
All my days follow me;
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
So long as days shall be.

Source: VirtualLit Interactive Fiction Tutorial

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Faith Line

As described in my last posting, back in November the United Kingdom and United States Provinces of the Catholic Xaverian Missionaries convened a conference at the Conforti Institute, Coatbridge, Scotland, on the topic, “Common Ground: A Conversation Between Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics.”  In this posting, I would like to continue to reflect on Jeremy Rodell's response to the conference in his thoughtful blog posting entitled, "A humanist perspective on the 'Common Ground' conference."  He is the Chair of South West London Humanists.

As we saw in the last posting, Rodell felt that the "Common Ground" conference was a good experience during which genuine dialogue took place.  He reminds his readers, however, that they should not be naïve. He writes, "There are people within almost all religion and belief communities who have no interest in dialogue – they know they’re right and at best want either to isolate themselves, or to argue, and at worst to impose their views by force. They’re just not interested in listening and understanding people they consider to be 'the enemy'." On the other hand, "...there are people in these same communities who understand that we live in a plural world in which mutual understanding is essential for peace, and where it is often possible to find common ground with those with whom we disagree." Between these two groups, there stands a "faith line," a concept introduced by the interfaith activist, Eboo Patel. Patel states (quoted here), "“On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”

The reality of the faith line points to a serious limitation, even weakness, of interfaith dialogue.  To a large degree, it isn't really really "interfaith" at all.  Those of us who stand on the pluralist side of the line generally feel more comfortable with and better able to speak honestly with those of other faiths that share our pluralist orientation.  Below our differences, we recognize a common spirit.  It is, on the other hand, all impossible to dialogue with those who don't want to listen, share, reflect, and listen again.  We stand on different sides of the faith line.

There is, at the same time, another line separating people of faith, which we might call the "dialogue line."  I saw this in Thailand where serious practitioners of Buddhism were simply not interested in dialogue.  They were content with their own way and did not feel a need to talk with people of other ways.  They happily accepted the validity of those other ways for those who practiced them, but like a person who prefers Thai cuisine and wouldn't even bother to enter an Italian restaurant they just weren't interested.  "Each to their own," was their motto.

The utility of dialogue, thus, is limited to those who are willing to engage in it.  For them, it can be an exciting experience.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Common Ground

Back in November, the United Kingdom and United States Provinces of the Catholic Xaverian Missionaries convened a conference at the Conforti Institute, Coatbridge, Scotland, on the topic, “Common Ground: A Conversation Between Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics.”  A news posting on the conference by Brian Pellot was subsequently published by the RNS under the title, "Atheists and believers seek common ground in Scotland."

Jeremy Rodell, Chair of South West London Humanists, reflected on his impressions of the conference and the issues it addressed in a thoughtful blog posting entitled, "A humanist perspective on the 'Common Ground' conference," which I would like to reflect upon in one or maybe two postings here.
According to Rodell, "Common Ground" was "a bold initiative" and "an example of dialogue in action," which among other things brought him face to face with Christian missionaries for the first time—missionaries who did not fit his stereotype of "a Bible-bashing neo-colonialist."  They were, instead, thoughtful individuals who are making a positive difference in the world.

He goes on to observe,
My main “takeaway” was that, at its core, this is all about human relationships. If people from different backgrounds know each other and have listened carefully enough to understand where the other person is coming from – and perhaps have worked together for a common cause – then it becomes almost impossible to demonise “The Other”. That doesn’t mean they will agree on everything. What Chris Stedman referred to as “Kumbaya” interfaith, where everyone loves one another and genuine differences are suppressed, has limited potential. But we were able to demonstrate at the end of the conference that, once trust has been established, it is possible to articulate conflicting views on controversial issues while maintaining mutual respect.
These sentiments summarize an excellent brief description of the process of interfaith dialogue.  The heart of dialogue is relationships built on getting to know "the Other," listening to one another, and gaining respect for one another.  Dialogue in and of itself requires that its partners work together on the common cause of mutual understanding.  In a world torn apart by intolerance over religion, dialogue is one key to a less violent, less hateful, and more peaceful global community.  Events like this are far less common than they should be, but that they take place at all provides a measure of hope for a better world.  Amen.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Focusing On the Things of the Spirit

Romans 8:1-8 teaches among other things that if we follow Christ by focusing on the things of the Spirit that same Spirit will work through us to the end that that we will have life and peace.  One practical question this raises is how do we do this.  Focusing on the Spirit is not only a matter of engaging in certain practices.  It also requires a certain level of insight into "the things of the Spirit," which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Focusing on the things of the Spirit, means seeking to live a life filled with these qualities, which taken together are the fruit of the Spirit.

Our intention thus is not to demonstrate a certain level of piety or impress others with our spirituality, knowledge of the Bible, or goodness.  It is not to pursue or promulgate a certain ideological or theological position.  It is not an ego trip.  Our goal, rather, is to live a life grounded in the fruit of the Spirit.

Over the centuries, our Christian traditions have variously developed a technology for focusing on the Spirit that includes most importantly prayer and meditation, the study of the Bible, fellowship with other Christians, and intentional service of others.  There are other techniques such as fasting or going on pilgrimage that we might call upon, but these four stand at the heart of our pursuit of life and peace in the Spirit.  Still more to the point, the goal our prayer and meditation, Bible study, fellowship, and service is not ultimately life and peace for us alone or even primarily.  The goal is life and peace for family, friends, colleagues, our community, and our world.  The thing is we cannot share with others what we do not have ourselves.  Amen.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Contemplating the End of Aging as We Know It

"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." - Ben Franklin

What we have long considered to be a natural part of life, aging, now turns out to be a degenerative disease that can be cured.  That is the direction medical research and science is headed.  Undoubtedly, I've stated the matter too simplistically, but however we slice it aging does seem increasingly to be something that is not inevitable.  It apparently can be cured and the basket of medical procedures and treatments that will lead to its cure are now being assembled piece by piece.  The latest bit of information along these lines is research on aging in mice reported in a new posting entitled, "A New—and Reversible—Cause of Aging: A naturally produced compound rewinds aspects of age-related demise in mice."  The posting begins by stating that,
Researchers have discovered a cause of aging in mammals that may be reversible. The essence of this finding is a series of molecular events that enable communication inside cells between the nucleus and mitochondria. As communication breaks down, aging accelerates. By administering a molecule naturally produced by the human body, scientists restored the communication network in older mice. Subsequent tissue samples showed key biological hallmarks that were comparable to those of much younger animals.
It concludes with a statement by the lead researcher of the team that has been studying aging in mice that, "There’s clearly much more work to be done here, but if these results stand, then certain aspects of aging may be reversible if caught early."

Contemplate for a moment a time when the various aspects of aging can be caught early enough and reversed, a society that is where death by old age is not inevitable.  The questions such a prospect generates are profound.  How then does a person's life come to an end?  Do we wait for the inevitable accident or natural catastrophe?  How do we learn to reverse population growth?  What strains does a non-aging population put on our already almost catastrophically abused natural environment?  Assume, furthermore, that the treatments involved in reversing aging are costly and likely not available to everyone.  In this future we are imagining, all Swedes can get the treatments because their government covers them.  Some (many?) Americans can't because we still haven't figured out how to deliver quality health care to all of our citizens.  How will that work?  Does the withholding of again treatments under any circumstances amount to murder?  What strains will it put on a society where some people age and some don't?  The reversal of aging, according to this scenario, will be as much of an ethical and spiritual challenge as it is a medical, social, and environmental one.

It would be nice to think that we will work out answers to these and many other questions before we put the technologies and treatments for aging, but that isn't likely to be what happens.