Friday, December 26, 2008

Stephen, the first martyr

Because I'm one of those "crazy pacifists," I am sometimes challenged to defend its apparent impracticality. In other words, challengers will say, it sounds great as an ideal, but we live in the "real world," and we all know what happens in the "real world" if you "turn the other cheek": your other cheek gets hit, and harder!

Of course, this objection is true. On the other hand, making peace was never offered to followers of Jesus as a recipe for "success," and in fact, if anyone portrays it as such, they're sadly mistaken. The truth is that, at least sometimes and perhaps often, it will not "work." But "success" and "work" are in quote marks here because their use in the objection employs definitions that Christians cannot accept: they are definitions of worldly power constructed by marketplace values. As Christians, "success" has to be defined by our faithfulness to the one we follow. This is why Christians have always esteemed martyrs: they have been successful.

Today is the feast day of Stephen, the first martyr. You can read his story in Acts 6:8-7:2,44-8:1. The following comment on Stephen's martyrdom is from a sermon of St. Fulgentius of Ruspe.

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.

Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

God, you wouldn’t do THAT, would you?

I have prostate cancer. Actually, I can now officially say “had.” Yesterday’s robotic surgery removed the prostate and ALL of the cancer with it. I’ve been overwhelmed with the prayers and concern, and truly humbled by it. Many, many prayers have been offered and answered positively.
Many of you already know the story, and I’m sorry if this is repetitive (but you can stop reading, can’t you?), and I really do not want to be melodramatic. In fact, I made sure to make one old friend promise to NOT start a world-wide 24/7 prayer chain on my behalf. Not that I don’t want prayers or think they don’t mean anything, but I’m a firm believer in God’s gracious guidance over my life, and a firm believer that God will do what is best for the people who mean the most to me. God and I have had a continual 3½ month conversation about this thing, so he’s well aware of all the angles I can possibly conceive.
So, here’s the story. I had a routine blood screen a few weeks ago, on September 5, because my prescription for cholesterol medicine had run out and I didn’t have more refills without having my liver enzymes checked, i.e., a blood test. The routine blood test showed an elevated PSA level – about 7 – which raised a “yellow flag” for Dr. Geoff Hoover. Geoff sent me to a specialist, Dr. Stephen Archer, a urologist, for further investigation.
Dr. Archer, on September 26, examined me. (Now comes the gory details, so if you don’t want to know, skip a few paragraphs!) First, I had to give a urine sample, which turned up negative. Dr. Archer even asked if I’d been sick on the day they took the blood at Dr. Hoover’s office, to which I answered no. He then had to do the “DRE” (if you don’t know what that is, consider yourself very fortunate! Thank God for doctors with small hands.)
The DRE showed nothing, so he ordered another blood test, which again showed an elevated PSA, this time up to 11. When the results came back from that test the next week, he ordered a biopsy, which he did on October 10. The biopsy showed cancer in both sides of the prostate.
Next step was to try to determine whether or not the cancer was isolated in the prostate or had spread. On Monday of this week, October 20, I had a bone scan. The next day, Tuesday, October 21, I had a CAT scan.
Apparently, something turned up on the bone scan, so Dr. Archer ordered an Xray on the 8th and 9th ribs. That was done on October 24 in place of the consultation with the Dr. we’d had scheduled for that day. That was more than a little disconcerting, and we had to wait over the weekend – the consultation was pushed back to the 28th (the next Tuesday). But Dr. Archer got the results on Monday morning, and called immediately to tell me that the Xray was negative – which meant that the cancer had not spread outside of the prostate.
At that point, we began thinking about treatments. Because of my “young age” (at least for this kind of disease ;-) ), surgery was the recommended treatment. Radiation might allow the cancer to re-emerge in the prostate at a later date, or ro re-emerge somewhere else, and if I have radiation now it would no longer be a possibility in the future. Even the “proton therapy” is radiation – though with a newer and presumably better method of delivery. Despite potential problems, surgery is the cure here.
So, we decided to look into the robotic surgery method, which led us to go to Dr. Mays in Midwest City, who works out of Midwest Regional Medical Center where they have one of the robots (the “DaVinci” robot). Everything about this process seemed positive, so we elected to have the surgery on Dec. 17th. The robotic procedure is less radical than the “strip mining” old method, with less recovery time, less blood loss, and fewer side effects afterward. Sounds great, but waiting from early November until December 17th seemed like a bit of a risk, especially to Mendy, so Dr. Mays recommended a hormone shot to keep the cancer from spreading until the surgery. I had that shot back on November 7th. The side effects have been minimal.
At any rate, last Sunday was the feast day of St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic and poet and truly one of the great spiritual giants in the history of Christianity. I noticed Friday as I read about him that he had died at age 49. Rats. I’m 49. On the other hand, there are so few other parallels between my life and John of the Cross that. . . . Well, you get the picture.
Further, December 17 was the feast day of . . . Lazarus. Yeah, you know – they guy who Jesus let die and then resurrected him. That was NOT what I wanted to hear! I wanted something like Saint George who slew the dragon! Why couldn’t Wednesday have been HIS feast day?
And finally, those of you who know me well know how much I “love” Stamps-Baxter songs (just as much as I love reality shows and Barry Manilow and, well, cancer!), and last Sunday in church the last song we sang was one of those: “Victory in Jesus!” God, you wouldn’t make my last ever song sung in church one of those, would you? No way. Of course, I could have just refused to sing it, but the song just before it, though not of the Stamps-Baxter genre, was just as bad, and I’d sang along with it already. So I went ahead and sang along with “Victory in Jesus,” knowing I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
On a serious note, some of my friends have wondered about my recent obsession (?) with the saints of the Roman Catholic calendar. Not really an obsession, but I admire holiness, and these folks were indeed (usually) incredibly holy. If the writer of the sermon we call “Hebrews” in the New Testament can call upon a “great cloud of witnesses” with the knowledge that these are God’s holy ones who apparently now dwell with God yet continue to witness to the gospel, well, maybe a few of these can also fill that role.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

America's Role in World Politics

Last week I heard a prayer offered on behalf of our upcoming election. The prayer asked for national guidance that we would select the man who would lead America in such a manner that "it would rise again to be the most powerful nation on the face of the earth."

Many people, including me, had a problem with that, especially a number of non-Americans in the congregation at that time! Personally, I'm thinking about petitioning the elders to supply barf bags in the song book racks.

I probably don't need to offer any comment on that prayer -- the blatant nationalism, the subjugation of God to our national agenda -- these are clear. On the other hand, why not?

A little more subtle assumption of this prayer is that America has LOST its prominence! How interesting. Darn it, W, how could you let that happen? You need a louder rattle on your sabre! Maybe you should take that $700,000,000,000 (gotta stop -- running out of zeros) and spend it on more military might! That'll show those turds who's boss! Obviously you've been spending way too much time at the negotiating table and not enough where it really counts! Obviously the last eight years have been a miserable failure. Go figure -- W dodged his military service (for the most part). What we need now is a seasoned war hero! Let's hit 'em with a little McPain! (Or would that violate the Geneva Convention's definition of torture? O, wait -- we don't care about that. Sorry, my bad.)

I could go on, but it's Saturday morning, and I've only had one cup of espresso (so far).

But, another assumption: God WANTS the U.S. to dominate! Well, aren't we the most righteous, most just, fairest nation of them all? Mirror, mirror, on the wall. . . . If we would just actually look into the mirror we would see that such claims are preposterous. In fact, I doubt that ANY nation should make ANY claim to "righteousness." Almost by definition, nations pursue self-interest, and national self-interest always comes at the expense of the self-interests of other nations. In fact, "self-interest" itself is nowhere near any Christian virtue! Events in the history of our westward expansion could be cited here to debunk the "righteous nation" claim, but let's not go there. Would God want us to dominate the world? I can't imagine why.

Third assumption: that God might actually answer the prayer! We just ASSUME God is on our side -- because of our righteousness, I guess. Let's see, going back to the thoughts of the previous paragraph: "No one is righteous, no not one." "All our righteousness is like 'filthy rags'" (if you don't know what the "filthy rags" refers to, look it up -- pretty gruesome analogy). So, we're just asking God to underwrite our national agenda. (Sarcasm begins here.) So, of COURSE he'll do that! I mean, clearly we're God's chosen nation -- the ones God wants to bless! We're such great people, and he wants us to spread the gospel of democracy to all the world, right? So, we have the mandate to spread democracy even to people who don't want it or don't understand it, and if they resist, well, we have the God-given right to cram it down their throats, wrapped around the barrel of our guns if necessary. (End sarcasm . . . for now.)

"But what about Romans 13?" I can hear someone asking. Doesn't that state that God puts all governments in place? Therefore if we win a battle or war, it's because God wills it. And since we indeed have been the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, that's God's tacit endorsement of our nation and its agenda of world domination.

I've written on this in a previous post, so now I'll briefly comment: no. It doesn't mean that. If anything, it shows that we are in the position of the nations in the OT that God moves around like chess pieces on a board in order to maintain relative peace in the world. Being utilized by God in that sense says absolutely NOTHING about our alleged "righteousness." In fact, since God uses all things to work for good, it means he can even turn evil into good. And it's not that God causes evil things to happen, but that he can take the evil that humans create and perform on each other to somehow work for general good. So God can take the evil inclinations of a nation and use them for his own purposes. I mean, if nations are going to do evil anyway, why not try to bring some good out of it?!

Finally, there is the assumption, built onto the previous assumptions, that helping the US attain world domination is inherently Christian -- something Christians should endorse (because it is clearly God's purpose and work) and in which they should participate.

On the other hand, if it is truly an inherently evil and selfish goal, and merely one more example of God using selfish national interests to somehow keep relative peace in the world, then Romans 13 cannot be used to validate Christian participation in such enterprises.

Funny how "freedom of religion," as one of our "basic rights," can turn us into warriors for the Prince of Peace. Ok, not so funny.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Photo Essay by Phillip Toledano

Photo essay called "America: The Gift Shop," Toledano's commentary on the Bush administration. Thanks to Michael O'Keefe, Professor of Art and Design at Oklahoma Christian University, for pointing me to this work.

Perhaps you may want to start with this introduction/commentary on the display from the Word Press blogs.

The direct link to the display is:

I would love to be proud of my country. Right now, I'm not.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I've noticed lots of Facebook status notes about people remembering where they were on the morning of 9/11/2001 when the planes hit the WTC in New York and the Pentagon, and crashed in Pennsylvania. Personally, I was jarred. It was heart-rending. I have a difficult time watching even fictional television shows that depict horrendous violence -- especially on children -- because of grief over the amount of hate in the world. Events like this make me apologize to God on behalf of the human race. We're a sorry lot. Period.

Unfortunately, such events happen in our world on almost a daily basis. We here in the U. S. just aren't used to such things -- they usually only happen in distant countries we can barely pronounce, let alone find on a map. But they are there, every day. Every day there are people somewhere whose lives are torn apart by horrendous and unnecessary evil. But in the U.S., we're more or less insulated from those stories, and this insulation has led us to believe that we're somehow exempt -- or should be -- from such violence. Well, EVERYONE should be, not just Americans.

Christians long ago gave a name to such horrendous, pervasive evil: original sin. Yes, I believe in original sin -- though not the Augustinian version that focuses on a (more or less) "genetic defect" handed down through the sex-act by which a person is conceived. I believe in what I think is Thomas Aquinas's version of the doctrine: that "original sin" names what is essentially a sociological phenomenon. In other words, "original sin" names the pervasiveness of evil -- the ubiquitous nature of evil that so deeply inhabits our world that no individual can escape it, save Jesus.

Read Ephesians 2.1-2 and think about what it means for one to be "dead in trespasses." What does it mean to be dead? "Dead" in verse 1 is the same as verse 3's "we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else." In other words, there is something here about who we are at our deepest level.

Now, Ephesians 4.17-22: notice the effects of sin on the human person. It goes to the very depths of the person, to the point that one's thinking itself becomes corrupt: what is right seems wrong, and what is wrong seems right.
In other words, for me it is a mistake to think about 9-11 as something "those evil people did to us," "us" meaning "the good guys." We're not any less evil, on the whole, than those who hijacked the planes. This "war" we're fighting is not a "good vs. evil" war -- President Bush's claims notwithstanding.

Now, I know some people have just quit reading because they will think what I just said is completely ridiculous. Fair enough -- some minds can't be changed (another characteristic of the power of evil!). On the other hand, there is evidence. Let's think about it from the point of view of those who are at war with us.

Why are they at war with us? I mean -- doesn't everyone want to be American? They must be jealous -- right? Jealous of our freedoms -- that's why President Bush repeatedly says that "they hate our freedoms."

Well, I suspect they do hate our freedoms, because they value certain moral injunctions more than they value American-style freedoms. They don't WANT their young women to dress the way many young women dress in America -- nor do they want their young men to dress like American young men! They don't WANT to go to the movies and see the things common in American movies. They don't WANT to be able to download porn on the internet. And the list, I'm sure, could go on much further. (Yes, I know there are political issues as well.) If it is true that "they hate our freedom," then perhaps we can see why.

So, in their understanding (the understanding of the radical Muslims who declare themselves at war with us = only a small minority of Muslims) they are fighting against evil. It is an evil so dark that it, in their minds, is worth killing or being killed over. And many American Christians would agree with the idea that our society as a whole is sex-obsessed, violent and corrupt.

A second issue, however, is also important to note at this point -- and here's what got me thinking in this direction. Because the anniversary of 9/11 has just came and went, some attention was drawn to the event itself and to the U.S.'s response to it -- i.e., the "war on terror." Sorrow over loss was mingled with calls for patriotism and revenge. I ran across this video. Take a look. I'll wait here.

Now, I know the person who put it together has really good intentions. I don't know his/her religious affilation (if any), but putting the bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" behind some of the pics at least puts it in the "Christian Ballpark" (if there is such a thing). And the person who sent it to me (with approval) is a Christian. As I watched it, I found myself asking: "Where's the grace?" as the bagpipes rang out. Indeed -- where is the grace? Where is the forgiveness? Where is the love for our enemies? Aren't we told that vengeance belongs to God alone?

No, we shouldn't forget what happened seven years ago on September 11. Those who were killed were killed unjustly and even criminally. Real families suffered real loss of people of tremendous importance in their lives -- people who can never be replaced. You don't "get over" that kind of loss. You merely learn to live with it, if you're lucky.

I wish Christians in the United States would learn to love our enemies. Loving them wouldn't mean saying that they were right in attacking us, or in the continuation of suicide bombings in Bahgdad and other cities in Iraq. But it does mean letting go of the vengeance motive. It means recognizing real hurt, but foregoing the hate rather than contributing to the amount of hate already in the world.

I believe the power to do this comes through Jesus -- the one who saw the complete picture of evil in the world, felt it come down on his shoulders, and willingly succumbed to it. And he died with forgiveness on his lips.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Getting the News

There is a lot of talk out there about how biased the news agencies are in the US. "Conservatives" talk about "liberal bias," and "liberals" talk about "conservative bias."

First, I think the labels "liberal" and "conservative" are completely useless and misleading -- except that they tell more about the one using them than about those they're labeling! The only thing "conservative" means is "that person is somewhere to my right" on the ideological or theological scale, and "liberal" means only "that person is somewhere to my left" on one (or both) of those scales. So, if you really want people to know where YOU are, go around labeling others! Let me know how that works out.

Second, in the historical sense the word "liberal" has functioned as the opposite of "conservative." So, what is a "conservative"? Well, it's someone who wants to conserve something -- some tradition he or she thinks is important. "Liberals," on the other hand, are those who want "tradition" to go away and want everyone to "think for themselves." This is what the philosophical movement known as "The Enlightenment" preached: "think for yourself," which Kant said meant to think independently of tradition, community, church, political authorities, religious authorities and even the Bible (witness his famous book, Religion Within The Bounds of Reason Alone). This "Enlightenment" itself became a tradition, of course (see the works of Alasdair MacIntyre to see this history laid out clearly) -- to the point that the very concept "think for yourself" became completely unquestionable.

But, what it meant was "think without tradition." Those who consciously and conscientiously thought within the tradition were the "conservatives" who wanted to conserve the tradition. Those who purported to "think for themselves" were the liberals.

So, since in our culture the concept of thinking for oneself has become part of our intellectual and cognitive furniture, we by definition are liberals. Now, in our country there are indeed a variety of types of liberals: there are "right-wing" liberals like Rush Limbaugh, and "left-wing" liberals like Al Gore, but they're all still liberals because they all claim to be thinking for themselves without the benefit of tradition. In our country we think everyone has to figure it all out for themselves.

The truth is that no one really can do that. We all rely on the thoughts of others, whether it's great minds of the past (like Kant, or Thomas Aquinas or Einstein), or just the books we've read. We all think within communities, and communities have histories that are called "traditions." The Enlightenment itself became a tradition! We learn what it means to be "rational" because of traditions of thought, and we learn what counts as evidence. In essence, we learn what is a "good thought" and what is not a good thought. These things are just handed on to us as "the way things work." They are part of our intellectual and rational furniture.

So, OF COURSE the news agencies have biases! Though they want to claim they are completely unbiased, to be unbiased is impossible. And in the United States, even the "liberal" news agencies (if such there are) are still very much slanted toward providing the news that seems relevant to people in the US, and that is generally pro-American. It's the same with the "liberals" as with the "conservatives." They all provide news that is biased toward the viewers -- toward citizens of the United States. Even NPR ("National Public Radio"), which I like very much and listen to almost daily, and may be the best news agency in the US, is biased.

So, since I don't trust ANY news agency to give me all the relevant news or all of the details of any one story that may be important, I make it a point to read news written by non-Americans. I have three RSS feeds on my web browser: NPR, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and the Arab news service Al Jazeera (yes, the one that publishes Osama bin Laden's videos every now and then).

In addition, I pay attention to "Alternet," an organization that is decidedly liberal in its politics and ethics, but frequently gives a side to stories that you won't typically get on major US news programs. Frankly, it's often refreshing, though very much biased against religious views.

So: get the news. Don't believe everything you hear on the US news outlets -- they're owned by major corporations and they serve their owners' interests, not the interests of the American people. By the same token, don't believe everything you hear on NPR, BBC, Alternet or Al Jazeera! But at least give yourself a chance to hear different points of view so you can make an informed decision. One thing traditionally valued by Christians is good information, and loving our enemies by hearing their voices.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Glibity. Probably not a real word. On the other hand, it certainly seems to be a leading characteristic for worship leaders. It seems that the primary quality for a worship leader is glibity = the ability to get up in front of an audience and not put people to sleep within ten minutes.

Not a bad quality, of course. But when it becomes primary, or even solitary, we gots problems. And oh, do we gots problems!

We want our worship NOT to lead us into contact with God, but to be "worship lite": we want to praise God from a great, great distance. We want to maintain our dignity! True worship might rob us of dignity because we might be forced to do something, well, UNDIGNIFIED!

I can just hear the protests: "God wouldn't ask us to do anything undignified!" Which is, essentially, to believe that God is a good American who wants and requires a good American response to him -- a good American encounter that is superficial and ends with "lets do lunch!"

But I see Abraham, asked to sacrifice that which was most precious to him. I see David dancing around the Ark of the Covenant. I see Isaiah falling on his face, sure that God should kill him. I see Peter bowing down in the bottom of his fishing boat and asking Jesus to go away. I see the apostle John even bowing before an angel -- not even GOD! -- and having to be told not to do that (so: even being in the near vicinity of holiness ought to cause us fear!).

But instead, we prefer glibity -- because we don't want to encounter the living God. We do "worship lite," then do lunch.

It means we don't take God seriously. First, we probably don't even really believe God will show up. Does anything really happen when the church gathers for worship? Or are we just meeting together because God told us to do it and we have to get our card punched each week? I don't think God is about that. God wants us to worship, not because he has an ego problem and needs our praise once a week or so in order to maintain his fragile ego, but because he wants to be with us -- and not with us in the usual manner (along the lines of "lo, I am with you always"), but in some kind of special -- in fact UNusual -- way. But most Protestants stopped believing that long, long ago (in the bid to reject the RC doctrine of transubstantiation, most of us decided that Jesus doesn't really show up in the Lord's Supper at all; did the baby go out with the bathwater?).

Second, we probably don't believe that God's grace and love are large enough to allow him to show up and pay any attention at all to us. I mean, after all, we're a pretty stinky people, right? And God should probably kill us all because of our sin, right?

Right. He should. We deserve it. On the other hand, his grace and love ARE big enough to allow him to forgive and to pay attention to our feeble, paltry efforts to praise him. It is WE who have the ego problem, then: we think this whole thing depends on us! We've made OURSELVES the centerpiece of the whole operation, and Luther's dictum is true again: homo incurvatus in se (roughly, we "curve" everything back on ourselves, again and again making ourselves the center of the universe).

I love how Annie Dillard put it: if we really believed God, we'd come to church wearing crash helmets. We are, she says, like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. Do we really have any idea of who God is -- the God we ask to be present with us?

But we don't wear crash helmets. We want our worship to be lighthearted and glib, with just a faint whiff or goldleaf thin layer of holiness in order to make us think we've done something right.

Please do away with glibity and begin to employ the reverence due to the Creator! I'm so tired of going to church and coming away feeling like I've been to a Rotary business meeting (with apologies to Rotary Club members!) or to a group hug and/or group therapy program. Those things can be ok, but the only healing for what really ails us is the encounter with God. And that will force us to our knees or flat on our faces. It won't be pretty, and it won't be glib.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Christian Diversity and Taize

Traveling the world is a special privilege. I'm so blessed to be able to do a little travel now and then. This summer has been especially blessed -- 6 weeks in Europe and 2 weeks in Singapore. One of the greatest blessings is seeing Christian faith in people so diverse!

Do you know about Taize? Read their email bulletin I'm pasting below. This is a world-wide youth movement that has a powerful witness. I love reading this, and maybe a few others will as well. Their URL is near the bottom of the bulletin.

News from Taizé by email
Taizé, Monday 21 July 2008
* The summer meetings in Taizé
* Sydney: prayers at Saint James'
* From Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi
* The brothers in Bangladesh
* Prayer

The summer meetings in Taizé
At mid July the meetings are at their height. For the brothers, the
summer means being astonished again every year: why do so many young
adults keep coming back to the hill? This week, those from Europe have
come from over thirty different countries, from the Atlantic to the
Urals. Others, less numerous, have travelled much further, from thirty
countries of America, Africa and Asia.

This week, among those who have travelled farthest are volunteers who
will stay for three months, from India, Guatemala, and Uganda and from
Indonesia, Laos and Colombia.

What brings everyone together, brothers and young people from all over
is certainly the prayer. The multiple facets of the summer meetings give
a place more and more central to these times together, morning, noon and
evening, in the Church of Reconciliation. In the great diversity of
languages and cultures, in the very broad denominational palette that
brings together Christians of many backgrounds, in the variety of the
themes proposed each day for reflection, the one who gathers all
together is the Risen Christ.

He brings us together, and he calls as well: during the Saturday evening
prayer, a young man from the Netherlands responded to that call when he
received from Brother Alois the prayer garment of the brothers. It was a
beautiful witness, for everyone present, of a practical commitment in
the footsteps of Christ.

* "Remaining faithful to the end"
During the summer, some of the young people choose as their daily Bible
introduction a deeper study of the first three chapters of Revelation
(Theme: "Remaining faithful to the end"). Amandine, from Geneva, chose
this group. She underlines the importance of the times of sharing that
follow the explanation of the day's passage by one of the brothers. "In
the discussion groups, we tried to respond to the - sometimes complex -
questions with the help of our Bibles and our personal experience. Even
if our knowledge was limited, as the week progressed we were able to
acquire new knowledge and to familiarise ourselves with the text." This
Bible introduction enables many people to discover a book that at first
sight seems difficult to approach, but which in fact gives a profound
witness to the love of God.

* "The silk road"
The young people from Asia arriving in Taizé at the beginning of the
summer quickly began their experience of prayer and meeting with young
people from other countries and continents. With some other Asians,
Ajeng, a theology student from Singapore, was asked to prepare two
workshops which they entitled "The Silk Road". She writes:
"All the Asian volunteers were very excited, knowing that we had to
present our countries and cultures. In fact, this has been a means of
bonding for us, for we have got to know each another better, personally
as well as culturally. The theme proposed made us do some "small
preliminary research" and trace back our backgrounds. It is surprising
to discover that Asian people share many things now because of the Silk
Road period! Just as the traders travelled a long distance to exchange
something precious like silk, we too have travelled all the way here to
Taizé, to seek God, who is so precious for us. Yet we realize that we
can not become mere "consumers" of faith. We were invited to tell our
stories and to listen to other people's stories as well. With
discernment, this exchange can be a positive way of building up our faith."

* "Difficult to say goodbye!"
Two young people from Madagascar, Ravaka and Victorien, arrived to be
volunteers in Taizé a few weeks ago. They have just finished leading a
week at Olinda, the house for young families. For the young adults from
other continents who come to spend several months in Taizé, this is a
quite new experience, which Ravaka sums up like this: "The real
challenge is to create a good atmosphere in the group. For not only do
you have a group of thirty children to care for, but in addition they
speak several languages and their cultures are sometimes very different
from ours!" Every week the children are split up into different groups
according to age. For example, for the oldest – between 12 and 14 – two
activities are proposed: sharing on a Bible text and discovering the
different countries represented in the group. Victorien adds, "In the
afternoons, it was the leaders' turn to present a play. The last day, we
received a card expressing the thanks of the parents... it was difficult
for the children and the leaders to say goodbye!"
"Echoes of the young adults meetings":

Sydney: prayers at Saint James's
For a whole week Sydney's streets and railways stations echoed to the
sounds of animated young people from all the continents of the world.
World Youth Day had attracted a quarter of a million pilgrims who came
together to celebrate their faith and their hopes. Where the massive
buildings of the commercial district meet the large park opposite St
Mary's Cathedral is the lovely, warm sand stone church building of the
Anglican Church of St James. And it was in this church that people came
to join some of the brothers of Taizé in prayer each day. As the week
progressed, more and more young people began crowding into the church
until by the end of the week not everyone who wanted to get in were able
to – even with up to four prayers in an afternoon and evening...
There were always people of different denominations present. Young
people read the Scriptures in up to six different languages. They also
helped lead the intercessions. On three of the evenings, Brother Alois
spoke to the young pilgrims.
At the close of the final evening prayer each day the cross was laid on
the floor and people waited patiently in a long line for an opportunity
to entrust to Christ some of their anxieties and fears and hopes. At the
final prayer, the Prime Minister of Australia who had earlier in the
week spoken to the young pilgrims at the opening event, attended with
his family, staying for two hours to pray with the young people.

From Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi
I am a Tanzanian aged 25 years old. I am from Dar es Salaam, and I am a
laboratory technician by profession. I was in Taizé, France during the
summer months of 2006. Currently I am on my annual leave so I decided to
spend some days as a volunteer, to help with the preparation of the
meeting in Nairobi.... The way I see the preparation for the November
meeting is that things are moving at quite a good pace. It seems to be
well organised. This meeting will be a golden opportunity for the youth
to discover themselves and spend quality time for their spiritual life
and growth in the Church and stop, listen and reflect to what our rapid
changing societies are offering us today. On a very personal note, I
thank God for giving us this opportunity to be part of this pilgrimage
of trust in East Africa and Africa as a Continent. It will be a time for
us to discover and learn something from other youth coming from several
African countries. And for the youth coming from outside Africa it will
be a memorable time to know more about our peoples, lives, culture and
give Africa a new face. ... Keep the spirit high up "Kwa pamoja tutafuta
njia ya matumaini" Together seeking paths of Hope. Karibuni Sana!!
Kwenye mkutano wa vijana tarehe 26-30 Novemba 2008. Ahsante! Makolo
Christopher Ludosha.

The meeting in Nairobi will take place from 26 to 30 November 2008:
Practical information and registration:
To Nairobi from South Africa:

The brothers in Bangladesh
I have just come back from visiting some families in the region of
Dinajpur. There were marriages in the families of young people we know
and who work with us in Mymensingh. It was raining and everything took
place in the mud.... But it was really good to see many people again.
Dipok, who is in Taizé at present, comes from this region.
After many attempts that did not succeed, we finally had a pilgrimage of
trust with disabled people in Khulna. There were 200 disabled
Christians, with their families, a large group of young volunteers (many
of whom took part in the meeting in Kolkata) and on the Saturday over
fifty disabled Muslims and their families came as well. There was a big
gathering for the inter-religious prayer at noon: beautiful Muslim songs
sung by a young blind man and some very poor mothers – of families where
there is no father – shared their stories. Mgr Theo was present, and the
local bishop came for the end. I went with several young people to help
– the journey lasted ten hours by bus! Much gratitude on all sides. The
prayer with the candles on the Saturday evening was a feast! ...

God of peace, your presence is often a mystery for us; to welcome you we
need a heart that is simple, and filled with trust.


News from Taizé by email is available in English, Croatian, French, German,
Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.
Subscription is free.

New subscribers: To receive News from Taizé regularly, go to

To stop receiving News from Taizé by email, send a message to: LISTSERV@LISTSERV.ND.EDU
with a single line in the message body: UNSUBSCRIBE TAIZE-L

or go to:

Send your comments, suggestions and ideas on the contents of the mailings to:

Send any technical questions to

To subscribe to The Letter from Taizé (printed): or email:

Taizé website:

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"America is Drowning in Pretend Patriotism"

Click Here.

This is a link to an insightful article by Robert Scheer of Truthdig.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Jimmy Carter on the Palestinian Humanitarian Crisis

Click here for a quick summary by the Ekklesia Project.

Click here for the full article by Jimmy Carter in The Guardian.

Former President Carter has recently visited the Gaza Strip and has seen first hand the suffering of the Palestinians. Our nation is largely responsible for this situation, and we need to change our national policy. Send these articles to your senators and state reps!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More from Human Smoke

Someone asked Mohandas Gandhi about English pacifists. It was May 1938.

The problem with the English pacifists, Gandhi said, was that they made moral calculations: "When they speak of pacifism they do so with the mental reservation that when pacifism fails, arms might be used." A true pacifist never calculated. "Someone has to arise in England with the living faith to say that England, whatever happens, shall not use arms," said Gandhi. "They are a nation fully armed, and if they having the power deliberately refuse to use arms, theirs will be the first example of Christianity in active practice on a mass scale. That will be a real miracle."
No miracle occurred.

Oswald Garrison Villard, an editor of The Nation, wrote that great armaments were the road to fascism. "They bring with them increased worship of the State, increased nationalism, increased State service, and therefore play into the hands of those like Hitler and Mussolini who declare that the citizen is made for the State and not the State for the citizen," he said. It was July 2, 1938.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Happy Birthday, Israel: 60 years of. . . .

I wanted to say "screwing the Palestinians," but that would be rude. God forbid we be rude and say a word like "screw." Someone might get upset.

But we don't get upset over 60 years of oppression of the Palestinian peoples. Go to for a good account of the history of this oppression.

Church leaders around the world are signing on to a document that states clearly the oppression of the Palestinians, and Christian complicity in that oppression. Click here to read about it.

Part of the story recounted in Human Smoke (the history of the beginnings of WWII I'm currently reading) is that the Jews were sent to Palestine because no one else would take them. Great Britain refused. The United States refused. No one would let the Jews from Germany emigrate because everyone hated Jews. Everyone else in the Western world shared the antisemitism of Hitler and Goebbels and Goering. So we refused to let them emigrate to our countries, largely leaving them in Germany to be slaughtered, then afterward sending them to Palestine and thus giving away the land that had belonged to the Palestinians for centuries. Yes, the western nations gave away land that wasn't theirs. Why? Because we could. We had the military might to make it stick. The Palestinians couldn't resist against it.

So, Jews were slaughtered in Germany because of German/European antisemitism; Jews were banished to Palestine because of British and American antisemitism. We continue to suffer from terrorism today because of an antisemitic past. And here's the really neat trick: we disguise it by creating a Jewish state! So, it LOOKS like we are "Pro-Jewish"!!! Ingenious!

We owe both sides a deep apology.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Human Smoke

From Human Smoke, the book I'm currently reading:

Captain Philip S. Mumford, a former British officer in Iraq, joined the Peace Pledge Union. He gave a speech about why. "What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies?" he asked. "There is none."
Good question. Good point.


The church bells in Guernica begain ringing. It was market day, Monday, at 4:30 P.M., on April 28, 1937. German pilots were in the air. They wore the badge of the Kondor Legion: a condor plunging earthward with a bomb held in its claws.
They were over the town for three hours. The curate of the Church of Santa Maria de Guernica wrote: "Before God and my country I bear witness that the airplanes threw incendiary bombs." The Times of London wrote: "The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces." A reporter for the Daily Mail wrote: "A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refugio."
Later Hermann Goering said that Guernica had been a testing ground for the Luftwaffe. "It was a pity," he said, "but we could not do otherwise, as we had nowhere else to try out our machines."
Read this book.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On Being Alien

A good friend currently wonders if he "fits here anymore." Here is my late-night response.

I suppose that depends in part on what you mean by "here." Abilene? Church of Christ? Earth? You probably don't fit any of them very well, especially given the fallenness of them all. But the last two (!) are what God is working on redeeming (certainly he's abandoned Abilene??? :-) ), and I think that's where we "fit" into the world -- with the memory that it is God's, that God isn't happy with it in its present state because God doesn't "fit" here anymore, either. I mean -- when's the last time you saw God walking around in the garden? The world has done its best to kick God out. No wonder that we who are imago dei also feel like it's a bad fit (when we're aware, at least). The only way we can "fit" is to join forces with God, which means to be fighting against the way the world is, which means NOT to "fit." A paradox. May God have mercy.

Monday, February 25, 2008

How Would Jesus Vote?

A good article on Evangelical Christian democrats by Amy Sullivan in the Washington Post:

Be sure to read the discussion with Amy about the topic and about her book here.

In the discussion she points out that about 1/3 of Democrats are pro-life. Hurray! But that's not as high as the percentage of Republicans that are pro-choice! Weird.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Pacifism and Romans 13

I'm a pacifist. I think all Christians should be peaceful people = non-violent. I think being a disciple of Jesus means that we should not resort to violence to protect our material interests -- which means that Christians should not serve in the military or on police forces where they are obligated to take other human lives. Period.

There is more to the position than that, but that's pretty much as far as I get with some folks before they toss Romans 13 into the conversation as a rebuttal. After all, the claim goes, governments are all appointed by God to keep the peace. Therefore, our armed forces are just doing God's work, which means Christians obviously can and perhaps even SHOULD participate.

Here is the relevant part of Romans 13 (from the New Revised Standard Version, found on

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing.

7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Now, we can ask ourselves what this text actually does say, and then also what it does NOT say. First of all, historical context. The writer is Paul the Apostle, a Jewish Rabbi who has come to believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Both Paul and his readers (who are Christians in Rome) live in and under the authority of the Roman Empire. Nero was likely the emperor at the time -- not a big fan of Christians, to say the least. The Christians in Rome seem to be a group made up of Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus.

Paul's theology of government seems to me based in the Jewish scriptures, particularly in the stories of the later history of the Jewish kingdoms (north and south) found in Kings and Chronicles and in the prophetic works that correspond to those events. To summarize, God is in charge of all of these kingdoms and/or governments. He moves them around like pieces on a chess board to accomplish his own purposes, of which humans are not necessarily aware.

Though there had been a short period of time, during the reign of King David, in which Israel had truly been a theocracy, this was not the norm. In fact, even during David's son's reign (Solomon), it seems clear that God was not being relied on for the security of the kingdom. Ask yourself this: how many wives and/or concubines did Solomon have? Answer: 1 Kings 11:3 -- "Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines." Wow! This guy had at least (!) 1k women at his disposal! "At least," because the text says "among his wives"! We don't know how many more there were, but the 1k women were "among" the total number! I'm impressed!

Now, as yourself this question: how many children did Solomon have?

Go ahead, ask. Search it out in Kings and Chronicles. I'm waiting. Ok, times' up. Answer: 1 (ONE, as in A WHOLE NUMBER THAT IS LESS THAN TWO AND MORE THAN ZERO). Yes, only one.

How in the world did that happen? Well, it seems to me there are a couple of possibilities. One, there was something physically wrong with the man. After all, that one son, Rehoboam, was advised to prove to the people that his little finger was thicker than his father's loins! But as Freud is purported to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar -- and a metaphor is just a metaphor.

A second possibility is that Solomon had more children that weren't mentioned in the text -- perhaps because Solomon had them killed. At least one of the "foreign gods" Solomon worshiped with his wives ("Molech": see 1 Kings 11 and 2 Kings 23:10) demanded child sacrifice. It could be that Solomon had had other children that he sacrificed. On the other hand, if that were the case, why wouldn't the text mention this in the process of listing Solomon's sins at the end of his life? It doesn't appear that the text is trying to put a positive spin on Solomon and sweep his sins out of sight under the rug (Chronicles is guilty of this, but not Kings).

The third possibility is this: Solomon was not a hedonist, and these marriages were all political alliances. The security of the nation under Solomon was not in the protection of God, but in the marriage-alliances Solomon had made with all the nations around them. Because of Solomon's marriage-alliances, he had also worshiped the gods of all of his wives, and he actually built shrines for them all. (Trivia question: how many temples did Solomon build? Answer: more than one, and perhaps as many as 1000 -- for each of the gods of each of his wives and concubines.) Because he worshiped all those other gods, the kingdom was split after his death and divided between his own son, Rehoboam, and a rival, Jeroboam. This was God's action.

Further, later in the story God actually turns against the Israelite kingdoms and brings the armies of foreign nations against them to defeat them. Pieces on the chessboard.

The point is that for Paul the Apostle, though there had been that brief moment in Israelite history in which God had ruled through David, that was long past and irrelevant to his own situation under the Romans. It hadn't worked out well anyway! And that Maccabean period? Well, again, it had ended badly, and besides that, Jesus had said things like "My kingdom is not of this world."

So, in Romans 13, Paul is affirming the truth that God is ultimately in charge, and that he uses world governments to keep relative peace in the world. Romans 13 is NOT a call for Christians to get involved! In fact, Christian involvement in the Roman government could not even be on Paul's radar screen (had he had one)! For Paul and the early Christians, God has put Rome in charge, and this is NOT an indication that God is on the side of the Roman gods, nor that the Roman government is in any sense "Christian." It is merely an indication that God is using the Romans as he has always used human governments, and Christians have nothing to fear so long as they avoid committing crimes.

On the other hand, we Christians do generally recognize that there is a time when we would be forced to invoke Peter's statement that
"We must obey God rather than any human authority." But here's how I sometimes hear this one used: Christians MUST be willing to kill on behalf of our government if the government says kill.

So, if someone had been drafted and sent to Viet Nam back in the 60s or 70s, that person would have been obligated to kill, and it would have been godly to do so.

But, by the same logic, Nazi soldiers in WWII were just "obeying God" because they were "obeying orders." Those in charge of the extermination camps tried to use the "Nuremberg Defense": "we were just obeying orders." It didn't work -- they were held to have been morally responsible. By that logic Iraqi soldiers are on God's side now, and American soldiers are fighting against God because we deposed a ruler who had been set up by God. Etc., etc. Oh -- and that "American Revolution"? Uh oh. Now we're in trouble. We opposed a government set up by God. Shoot. I hate it when that happens.

You see, in Paul's situation under the Roman Empire, his words are certainly true: in essence, Christians are to stay out of the way of what God is doing with the Empire and it's power. That's it. But our situation is different, and perhaps more complicated, since we do have some element of voice in our government. Paul and the early church didn't.

Final note: Paul says "give honor to whom honor is due." I wonder if that's a blanket statement for us always to honor those in power, or if it means we have to discern who is, actually, due "honor." Of course, this statement echoes Jesus' statement about giving "to Caesar that which is Caesar's." A quick note about that story: it's one of the really great jokes of the New Testament. Jesus is talking to a bunch of Jewish scholars who are trying to entrap him, and they get trapped in their own false logic. Any Jew worthy of that title should have known that God is creator and that it all really belongs to him. Jesus threw a feint -- a "false punch" -- by pointing to the face on the coin. They went for it, and Jesus walks away without a scratch. THAT'S FUNNY!

To summarize: I don't think anyone can legitimately use Romans 13 to justify Christian participation in any kind of killing. It simply says "God will do what God will do with governments, so stay out of their way." We must always remember that we live by a different standard than the world, and that sometimes "We must obey God rather than any human authority."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Monty Python theology

Ok, here's a good exercise for you if you're feeling like you're (to quote Karen Carpenter, that famous optimist) "On Top of the World," or if you have begun to think that the world is really a quite happy place (you are disqualified if your "office" has padded walls) and/or that humanity is making progress -- every day, in every way, we're getting better and better!!!

Go to the Barnes & Noble website, browse the "Religion and Spirituality" section, specifically the "Books under $10" section. You will likely find some of the following.

First, The Joke's on Ewe: Jokes, Riddles and Funny Stories Little David Told his Sheep. Now, I'm aware that solitude can have strange affects on people, and some people believe that their pets answer when they talk to them, but this scares me. On the other hand, now the story of David "feigning" madness in front of the Philistine kings makes much more sense. And it's obvious that David was called to be in Saul's court not just because he could pluck a harp -- he was doing standup. Maybe Henny Youngman was a direct descendant.

Then, there are various books containing "church jokes" (mostly written by Nietzsche?), and "Fun Facts About the Bible," not to mention God Plays Golf.

You see here how hard some people will work to try to make following Jesus seem palatable -- or even fun. I mean, if God plays golf, maybe I can get into the Heavenly Country Club!!! (Hmmm -- I wonder what the girl on the beverage cart sells there? Or would it be free? O -- wait -- we couldn't be thirsty in heaven!!! Ha!!! On the other hand, what fun would golf be if. . . . Nevermind.).

Ok, here's another: Sinners in the Hands of God Made Easier to Read. Is this what it means?

I can almost hear Jonathan Edwards proclaiming boldly: "Those who are morally challenged need to maximize their opportunities to create a positive trend in their self-talk, creating a behavior-change that will result in better relationships, greater contentment and less guilt and negativity. If those people do NOT do that, God will, quite possibly, create a situation in which the negative self-talk and negative choices may bring about further negative consequences that will encourage deeper self-examination that will motivate one to relinquish the guilt and negativity and trend toward behaviors that bring positive self-talk and positive relationships, toward the goal of full acceptance of oneself as a beloved creature of God with whom God wishes full fellowship, intimate communion and communication." Jonathan Edwards meets Joel Osteen.

A friend of mine who no longer professes Christian faith has this gripe against church: churches lie. They're not truthful about the gospel, grace, sin and/or judgment, not to mention about who God is (assuming that churches actually do know who God is!). He says that if churches told the truth about those things, our songs would essentially tell us that we suck and deserve to go to hell. In other words, we would stop sugar-coating the gospel and our own very human need for redemption and grace. Some more contemporary churches are discovering the same thing. It's one thing to go to church to get a good free show, complete with rock and roll and laser lights. It's quite another thing to go to church and have an Isaiah 6 experience -- where face to face with the Holy God, we are compelled to hit the deck and cover the backs of our heads. I mean, this is bigger than any tornado drill -- or the real tornado, come to think of it.

A few years back the acting troupe Monty Python made a movie called The Life of Brian. According to a documentary on the group, they started out to satirize Jesus. But after reading the gospels, they decided there was no content there to be made fun of, so they trained their sights on how churches present Jesus. I've still not seen the whole movie straight through (though I own a copy), but one scene I've caught a number of times is the crucifixion scene which features the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a quite cheery tune with bright and carefree whistling -- sung by those being crucified, and joined in by the gathered crowds. In other words, this is what Monty Python apparently thought was what churches presented as the message of Jesus (best if spoken with a fake British accent): "just keep your chin up; things will get better! Always look on the bright side!" As if that was what Jesus' life and death were all about. Bull.

I told my teenage son about this scene one time, and for years we had our own little private gag (!) going on in church. Whenever one of us would hear some part of a sermon that aligned with the "look on the bright side" message, we would (very quietly) whistle a bit of that tune, and then stifle our laughter.

Annie Dillard has said that no one really takes seriously what we profess to be doing in church -- that if we did, we'd go to church wearing crash helmets -- and that we're like children mixing up a batch of TNT in our new chemistry sets to kill a Sunday morning. She's right. We're killing ourselves with kindness, not to mention laughter.

We do this because we think people need to hear something nice about themselves -- for instance, that God loves them unconditionally. Certainly this is true. But all heresy is a matter of overemphasis. To emphasize God's love and grace in such a way that it excludes or hides from us God's holiness becomes heresy, not to mention falsehood. It's shallow.

I recently heard a sermon series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, in which the essence of Jesus sermon was presented as a message of self-esteem and lowering one's stress level. I could have whistled through the whole thing.

So, if you hear me whistling in church, you'll know why. Pay attention. And if I miss one, you have my permission to whistle.