Category Archives: Culture
Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?
Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.
His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular. This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others. The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection. Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread. Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.
It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)
I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”
Yesterday I listened to an NPR story on the radio in my car about Noel Anaya. According to the piece on their website Anaya
was just a year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that’s the age when people in foster care “age out” of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system. (to listen to his letter, go to NPR
While the news is filled with hearings and floods, refugees and wars, this touched me. This young man now launches, out on his own, still searching for a family to love him. Today, I was reflecting on families in pain, intact and broken, and penned this prayer.
God of night and day, dark and light, Lord over joy and pain,
Holder of nations and blesser of babies, witness of Creation and the fall of a single sparrow,
This day, we are comforted that you see the brokenness of your children,
And the brokenness of our children.
In this moment where the road is uncertain, the way unclear
The fog seems to never end, and the light fades ahead,
The path littered with human pain and the wreckage of sorrow,
Help us to look up from our stumbling,
Into the face of Christ,
Who alone knelt in the night of the Garden and remained awake
Who knows what we suffer, for he himself has suffered,
Who was betrayed by his own, hauled away by conspirators of hate and fear,
Tried by those who loved only their own places of entitlement and safety
And condemned by the ignorant and the powerful alike
To die alone with the burdens of the whole world on Him,
And in that face to hear those blessed words,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
But he also looked into the face of his anguished mother
And his beloved disciple and made them into family.
“Mother, behold your Son.”
“Son, behold your mother.”
Give us ears attuned to the cries of the ignored,
Eyes to see the invisible ones,
Hearts to understand and welcome the lonely.
Show us the way,
Hold our hands,
Sturdy our resolve,
Settle our doubts,
And empower us to trust that we can keep walking forward
In our own Gethsemanes and Calvaries of the soul.
How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims? They came to America to find freedom, we remember. Religious freedom. They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church. They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with
the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide. As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”
First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom. Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden. All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well. They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.
So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World. They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back. Only the Mayflower made it.
During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.” The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.
There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route. They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November. Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry
Standing in line. A beautiful sight. Go vote. Live with the outcome. Work for peace and justice. Love God and your neighbors.
[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and Read the rest of this entry
“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things
about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,
I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”
After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.
A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all riled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat. Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.
And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Read the rest of this entry
NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?
Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval. He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?” He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith. If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person. I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry
My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.
Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.
It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry
The Brexit vote in the UK set off a global panic. In part, because we assumed that people in England, if not the rest of the United Kingdom, would always think about a decision and be sensible. They would never vote without knowing what the implications of that issue might be. Apparently, we’ve been wrong.
The first problem is the word “Brexit.” It’s a combination word, and I think that is why Europe is coming apart. We are not using enough words now. Words were a way, in the olden times, like the 1990s, to actually describe something in detail and debate it. Think of the most powerful places to communicate now—non-existent “platforms” named, ironically, “Twitter,” “Instagram,” “Facebook” and “YouTube.” Four major media with only 27 letters total between them. We don’t use enough letters and words anymore.
Because we now use pictures instead of words—after all a picture is worth a thousand, so 20 pix is 20K, right? The core problem is the flopendemic of Slurrds (for old people, this means, “a flood and epidemic of slurring words together.” Get with it, Geriatrics). Brexit is the chief example. Brexit sounds like a breakfast cereal. When I went to England years ago, there was a cereal called, “Wheatabix.” I am sure confused many voters. “Exit from cereal? Read the rest of this entry
It is a daunting task to look for books. The book of Ecclesiastes had it right. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Ecclesiastes 12:12 While I in no way can vouch for everything below, it is my best effort to find some useful guides to children’s books. I welcome any additions and helps. Parents are often the best resources for one another, but when it comes to faith, we often feel inadequate. I do, too, especially in the subject of children’s books. Many childrens religious books are trivial, superficial and some are downright wrong about God. You have to be careful when talking about heaven, God, Jesus, death and faith. So, here are some things that helped me.
The Teaching Children Philosophy site is the work of Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from Mount Holyoke College is an interesting site with a terrific booklist, each one having a study guide with summary about the books and suggested questions for discussion. Click here to go to the site. Although it is not specifically a faith-based site, the issues and questions it raises overlaps with faith. A New York Times article about the author gives some background on how it came to be. Spend some time looking around. The summaries are very helpful!
University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has a similar site and has put together a guide also with summaries and issues. It is well-researched, and can help a parent have substantial conversations with children.
In 2013 the New York Public Library published the 100 Great Children’s Books For 100 Years list of the most read (i.e., checked out) and favorite books of all time of the past century. It is a wonderful list of books from 1913-2013, and most of us will recognize some of our favorites, but it’s also a good way to find some new ones. It was chosen by their Children’s librarians.
Amazon books and other booksellers offer similar lists, although they are proprietors and may be a little different and about marketing rather than other criteria. Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime is found at
When it comes to religious books for children, I was overwhelmed by the choices. And not always in a good way. From Mommyblogs to homeschoolers, these were all over the place. So I would say, “Search at your own risk.” You will find whatever you’re looking for, which is pretty much the problem of the internet to begin with—the lack of “guidance” for the uninformed. A good teacher matters! There are lists everywhere—NY Times booklists, Goodreads, Listopia, Religious Tolerance, denominational books, and so on. Oddly, sometimes they are some of the worst books for teaching faith, because they are either so overtly religious and pedantic that they lack the quality of inspiring curiosity, or they are theologically questionable. Still, there are treasures out there. Magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century occasionally make recommendations, and even the Mommyblogs can have some good suggestions. Just read them with a critical eye. Someone’s entusiastic recommendation does not a classic make… Read the rest of this entry