samedi, décembre 28, 2013

Where do they (the Methodists) go from here?

I have to admit that when I speak with clergy in the United Methodist Church, I have this feeling of deja vu.

All over again.

That's not surprising, because this denomination has been struggling with the same questions around gay ordination and gay unions/marriages as has the Episcopal Church.

And though their struggle has made front-page news recently, with medieval-sounding ecclesiastical trials, defrockings and meetings to probe clergy orthodoxy, the UMC has been in the thick of it for as long as the Anglicans.

In the case of the Episcopal Church, conservatives, many of them, decided to find another church home.

That, sadly, may also be the case with some of the dissidents in the United Methodist Church. It's rather hard to see how the center will hold.

Because they are a global church, and meet as one in General Conference, they are even more prone to being influenced by the growing congregations of Africa and their more conservative point of view than were the Episcopalians (though we are part of the Anglican Communion).

As I interviewed area clergy I was impressed by how deeply divided they are, how weary of the controversy, and yet how compelled these clergy are to adhere to their different positions.

We (Episcopalians) are a much smaller shop. Because of that, what happened to us may matter less than a split among Methodist ranks.

I hope, for their sake, that it doesn't happen. Perhaps, like the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), clergy, laity and congregations will find ways to stay together in spite of their disagreements.

But whatever the result of this long, drawn out fight, one thing seems clear -- it is not going to make churches more winsome to newcomers and those seeking to find a spiritual identity amid growing American secularism.

In the meantime, though, they are, as we were, a reliable source of interesting news stories.

mercredi, décembre 25, 2013

Logs -- and the current

I'd forgotten what this kind of grief was like, how it claws at your insides and renders you mute, or crazed, or afraid.

But under all of these emotions is a deep sense of helplessness, and one of incredulity.

Over and over again, I go over the steps that led us here, and wonder what I could have done differently.

Having lost a sibling when he was young, I am acquainted with the kind of loss that changes your life forever.

After my brother died, I decided that, as much as I could,  my life would be bent towards hope, and open to possibility.

Every Christmas since the one in which he did not come home to see us, his New York family, I have learned, as one using a prosthetic limb, to navigate more easily, with less pain and fonder memories.

But not this one. For reasons which I cannot share here, this holiday has become a festival of horror.

Family splintered.

Relationships sundered.

And over, just over the horizon, the spectre of illness and of potential loss.

What hubris to think that I could create a happier home, and fill it with wisdom, temperance and laughter.

Those aren't my gifts to give. Or perhaps it's fairer to say that they are, in my hands, fleeting and volatile.

It is possible that being a parent will break me, I think sometimes.

My struggle to rescue my fading relationship with one of my children has already broken my heart.

In the wake of the devastation of the past few weeks, no choice seems right.

There are moments when I am free to laugh, to listen, to question.  Blessed with a natural, or perhaps an unnatural degree of curiosity, there are times when I can lose myself in my work.

Is all lost?

I wish I had an answer to that question. I wish I knew if, even if one child is lost to you, it is possible to walk again towards healing -- or if I will limp so much that people will often notice.

One thing is sure -- I am blessed in my friends.  Though I cannot share with all, I have been compelled to alert a few.

They have been wonderful.  Finding the right word at the right time, they comfort me and challenge me to keep forgiving, keep moving, look ahead.

Most of all, they find something worthy in me when I look on the floor and see broken shards of a life I once dreamed could be redeemed, and even, in some small way, redemptive.

It is your words, my friends, that get me through the long darkness of the nights -- and give me strength to face the morning.

If this is indeed grace, and I assume it is, I wish I didn't need so darned much of it.

Not that I am turning help away.

Every step I take in the roiling water is due to God's mercy and the log a friend puts in my path.

Else I should be lost.

vendredi, décembre 20, 2013

Ecumenical dialogue veterans ask: what will Pope Francis do?

My column in Reuters FaithWorld today includes comments from some high-ranking Protestants, among them the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Where do you think the pontiff will take ecumenical discussions?

What will be the "hot-button" issues?

Or will the Vatican focus more on housecleaning.

Please feel free to share your ideas.

samedi, décembre 14, 2013

Can we follow where he leads?

The man of the year washes the feet of prisoners, reaches out to gays and atheists, has a reformer's passion for change -- and wears orthopedic shoes instead of the scarlet footwear of the Fisherman (not that many actual fisherman wear bright red shoes.

But can we do more than admire him?

Can we actually imitate him (as in "imitatio Christi")?

I have to admit, I wonder how much of the popularity of this Pope is due to the fact that we like what he preaches.

Which doesn't mean that we are really all that good at practicing it.  Read my Lancaster column, and let me know what YOU think.

lundi, décembre 09, 2013

The end of Advent? And how to bring it back.

Before, I could rest in the bliss of virtual ignorance.

Now, because of Facebook, I am aware that many of my friends already have their trees up.

Not only are they standing in foyers and living rooms, but the trees are actually adorned with shiny bulbs, and ribbons, and lights, glimmering out into the darkness.

Not in our home.

We've got a tradition of waiting until it's almost Christmas Eve before we commit to a tree.

A few days before the holiday, I race down to Dan Messner's farm, and choose one of the last ones.

And we certainly don't decorate our tree before Christmas Eve.

Until then, (or so I learned as a new Christian), it was Advent.

Greenery? Appropriate.

A few chaste ribbons? Lovely.

But an abundance of lights and metal and gorgeous frippery?  That's meant for the season of Christmastide.

I was, in other words, an Advent purist (I also am allergic to Christmas music 24/7 for a month before the actual day, so perhaps that makes me an Advent snob).

But a few days ago, I realized something incredibly elementary: it's possible to separate a large, decorated, fragrant fir tree from a man crucified on a tree.  Or even from a small baby asleep in his crib, surrounded by the a family and barnyard cows.

After all, the fashion of adorning trees with ornaments came in with, let's see, Prince Albert. I believe it was the German priest who married young Victoria who really introduced the celebration to England. From thence, like many other wonderful traditions, it made its way over here to the former colonies.

Not to mention that we mark the birth of the Christ child around the time of an ancient pagan festival, the Saturnalia.

In other words, Christmas can be celebrated in ways both secular and sacred.

The secular celebration doesn't have to start the night before Christmas (when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, because, you see, we have two cats...).

I do object to Christmas at Thanksgiving (or, even worse, Christmas in October), but to each his or her own.

Not everyone who commemorates the holiday is a Christian, and this is a secular country. So if you like an abundance of decorations, music and greens, bring 'em on.

What troubles me is that we seem so caught up in rushing around that, even those of us who follow Christ seem to have closeted, tamed,  and forgotten the reason we celebrate the liturgical season of Advent.

What ever happened to waiting, watching, forgiveness and expectancy?

I happen to be a fan of the liturgical calendar, but in many churches, including my own, it has taken a back seat to other priorities.

The calendar disciplines us, teaches us. The ancient stories of the prophets, the Baptists, the birth remind us that we are timebound creatures.

That sometimes, all we can do is wait.

This waiting itself is a gift from a generous God.

Sometimes we don't know what fruit that waiting will bear until it (he?) appears.

I'm not even sure (perhaps this sounds a wee bit like heresy) that we need to celebrate the birth of the Christchild at Christmas.

Perhaps what I ought to say is that as long as we celebrate God's coming among us in every season, it's o.k. to indulge in all of the very secular festivus that goes along with this particular day in December.

And, while we're at it, let's not confine expectation to Advent. 

Hope, and humility, fear and awe, joy and fulfillment are part of a life lived in the shadow of grace.

Maybe we'll buy a tree a few days early this year.  And perhaps I'll try to see more, feel more...wait more.

After all, I don't want to miss any signs of His presence among us.

Even if he shows up before December 25.

samedi, décembre 07, 2013

Why I indulge in 50 Shades of Gray

 I'm surrounded by partisans, fire-breathing men and women of strong convictions.

They know black from white (sorry if you thought I might be WHIPPING a dead horse in this post, or CHAINED to reviewing a certain novel).

They sleep well at night.  They aren't dogged by questions, don't wonder if they got it right, veer from ambiguity like a mediocre wine.

They are my friends, my colleagues, my sounding boards. I have many friends who would as soon agree with each other on political, religious or ethical matters as swim the English Channel. In winter. In a bikini.

I'm in the muddled middle -- which can be, and often is, a rather lonely place.

Part of my inability to commit stems, as I confessed to a friend recently, from my understanding of history as a playground, oftentimes a battleground, of competing ideas.

Men and women have behaved nobly in the past.  They have also treated one another with disdain, ignorance and violence.

Reforming movements have bred bad outcomes. Evil men and women have accidentally done good.

(I'm sure, at this point, I've ticked a few people off. After all, how can corruption breed anything but ill?).

Another element of my ambivalence? I have a family that includes a multitude of political viewpoints. We choose to live together and love each other, even when we drive one another crazy.

It's hard to think you have cornered the market on righteousness when your second cousin once removed has a very different point of view.

There are a few matters on which I am absolutely, some would say rigidly, convinced that science and reason are on my side.

Yet as a convert to Christian faith, I am also very much an outsider.  In some ways that is a gift -- but an equivocal gift indeed.

Belonging to any clan, or sect, is often an outgrowth of where, when and with whom you grew up.

I am a wanderer, a pilgrim, a jongleur, a curiosity.

If you allow, I'll sit down beside you, listen to your story, and ask if I can walk beside you for a while.

But whether by choice or by nature, I find, I cannot stay in one place for long.

I envy you who can.

samedi, novembre 30, 2013

What we lose when we lose Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving -- it really didn't begin with the Pilgrims.  Yes, they had days of thanksgiving for the harvest, for God's providence, and for their ability to survive in this new land.  (I don't know if they dealt with the moral complexity of surviving at the expense of native peoples. That's a fascinating question for those who have dug deep into early American literature).

But Thanksgiving, the holiday was institutionalized by President Lincoln in 1863. It became a reality during the Civil War, when we really probably could not have been more torn as a nation.

It was, and is, a day when families get together (and strangers are invited to share a meal). A time for celebration. A moment in the year when we take a Sabbath (broadly defined) from our divisions.

That's the ideal, anyway.  As I said in a previous post, the reality is that we are a very divided country right now -- and this Thanksgiving had, at least in the media, a distinct air of anxiety.

To my mind, opening the stores and besieging us with coupons and emails is a slap in the face of our traditions, and our sense of community.

Going shopping on Thanksgiving is so...Donald Trump.

Being behind a cash register on Thanksgiving because you have been coerced into it is so..."Brave New World."

From my perspective,  it's time to rebel against the ongoing onslaught of commerce that has infested every corner of our life.

For our health.

For our sanity.

For our brothers and sisters sake. That, in part, is what my column is about -- my attempt to rabblerouse and to stir you up a little bit.

What's your opinion? Have I overreacted?


mercredi, novembre 27, 2013

The end of Thanksgiving as we know it?

If your nutty aunt Sally argues that the earth is flat tomorrow over the stuffing and gravy, I have some advice for ya.

Sip. Nod. Sip. Nod.

Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite family celebrations.

But apparently a lot of us are concerned the celebration will be marred by battles over politics.

That's the media theme that started to erupt this week, like a pot just waiting to fly off the stove.

Thanksgiving could turn out to be a real brawl -- a knockdown drag-out fight.

In other words -- be scared. Be very scared.

Buy lots of wine. Keep the pills on hand.

Candidly, I was starting to get kind of nervous. And I'm a big fan, since childhood.

First my friend Mollie Hemingway and her husband Mark wrote an article for The Federalist about what would happen if your "crazy uncle" showed up on Thanksgiving primed to discussObamacare. He's a scary fellow.

Oh my gosh.  JUST as you are refuting your mixed-up relatives's goofy infatuation with the huge system fail that is government sponsored health care, who ELSE shows up but his most hated cousin Hank.

Hank hates the ACA as much as his cousin loves it.  Over at the Huffington Post, writers Ashtari and Grim have provided you a script for coping with his Obamacare and Obama libels.

At the Washington Post, Sarah Kliff constructed (nicely done) a guide for coming out of Thanksgiving Obamacare debates -- alive.

Trust me, I know about eccentric uncles.

When they made appearances at our family birthday parties for elderly relatives, their most idle chatter would swiftly become the grist of legend.

Sadly, most of my uncles are gone. And I never really knew the crazy ones too well.

But I gotta be honest. I don't want to talk about Obamacare at Thanksgiving.

As the week went on, I began to develop a feeling of dread.

Let's just tally the number of media interventions we've had today.

Our local talk show, "Radio Times" had a whole hour on how to deal with conflicts at the dinner table.

"All Things Considered" did a segment with Amy of "Ask Amy" on how to deal with the nuances of Thanksgiving get together.

CNN had a segment on potential conflicts that can occur when good friends and family get together, but I honestly can't remember who spoke or what they said.  I was hiding under the elliptical.

 Is there some reason this holiday is morphing into a cross between an episode of "Crossfire" and a World Wrestling Federation match?

Perhaps we're on edge. Perhaps we're anxious. Possibly we live in a deeply divided, partisan country.

But let's not get so whooped up that we let those malign influences ruin what is a time for gratitude, family, friends and rest.

(No one, by the way, can convince me that large corporations bullying their employees into working on one of the few national holidays we all share is a good idea).

So if the conversation around your dining room threatens to become heated, take a stand for civility.

Remember that blood is thicker than water.

And for Pete's sake, find something else to talk about.

How about the latest episode of "The Hunger Games"?

samedi, novembre 23, 2013

What next for the United Methodists?

The story I did this week on reax to the sentencing of the Rev. Frank Schaefer for presiding at the marriage of his gay son (back in 2007 - yes, the timing of the complaint was strange) brought back many memories.

The Methodists are an international bodies, with approximately 12 million members around the world. But this was quite the local story.  Schaefer (who is on leave from his position) is a clergyman in Lebanon County, and his

As most of you know, if you follow religion news, the Episcopal Church was consumed, for more than a decade, with internal strife over the ordination of practicing homosexuals and whether or not clergy could officiate at gay unions.

Now we've straightened most of that out, as it were.  But we are a much smaller denomination, at least in the United States (the Anglican Communion is still one of the biggest Christian bodies in the world), with conservatives having decamped, either for other denominations, or new ones they created.

I couldn't include it in the story, because investigating it would have taken the article in a completely different direction but I heard concerns about outside bodies meddling in church affairs.

But there's a bigger concern among some clergy: that the internal battles over these issues are going to split the denomination... and repel those who already think Christians are out of touch.

Please read, and feel free to comment on where you think the UMC is going -- and what it means for Christian practice in the United States.

lundi, novembre 18, 2013

Monday morning heroes

WHY don't we get together and figure out some sane gun laws?

WHY don't the anti-abortion-rights and pro-abortion-rights advocates collaborate on an alternative choice for the shocking numbers of women who have abortions (one-in-three in the U.S.)?

WHY can't nations get together and figure out how to curb the greenhouse gases that promote climate change before we cause irreversible harm to this planet we claim to love?

There are moments when I think I'm gonna turn from a cynic into someone who is just maddening to be around -- 24/7.

But then I think of  people like Cathleen Falsani (a.k.a "godgrrl"), Keith Bradsher, and some dude named Mark in East Portland, Oregon -- and damned if I don't start to feel better about humanity.

Without men and women to inspire us, this world would be a bleak place indeed.

Sadly, we can't look to our Congress, or our President, or even our local leaders to do that for us (regardless of our veneration of the founding fathers, I don't know if even they lived up to our inflated and perhaps misguided ideas).

Men and women of faith are going to let us down at some point (though Pope Frances is giving us a good run for our money).

And while many of us believe that Jesus saves, or have faith in God or humanity, we all need some boots on the ground inspiration.

So let me tell you a bit about Cathleen, and Keith, and Mark of Portlandia.

I haven't met the God Grrl in the flesh, (not yet anyway).  Because we both write about religion, and have a set of mutual friends/acquaintances we started to follow each other on Twitter, and then "friended' each other on Facebook.

She just wrapped up the three-day "find a cure for breast cancer" walk.

That's very cool.

But what impresses me most about her, what I observe on Facebook, is how kind she is, to flesh-friend and relative stranger alike -- kind enough to adjust the lighting on my column photo to warm it up and humanize me a little bit.

Kind enough to share her enthusiasm with us.

Kind enough to have friends all over the country who reach out across the miles and engage her in conversation with reciprocal warmth.

(Not to mention smart and creative and an excellent writer).

Kindness has as big an impact as cruelty -- perhaps bigger, because it is, sadly, often rarer.

I don't know where she learned such open-hearted generosity, but I'd like to be more like that.

And then there's someone I don't know at all (although we exchanged a few brief emails).  He's Keith Bradsher, the Hong Kong bureau chief for the New York Times.

Right now, Mr. Bradsher is in Tacloban. Actually, right  now, I have no idea where he is, but he's been covering the devastation in the Philippines.  In this story from the Times, he took questions from readers via Twitter and Facebook.  In this paragraph,. he answers a reader's question about how he and others are managing to do their work themselves amidst unimaginable disaster:

"This has been a tough story for logistics, starting with the Tacloban airport, which had been completely gutted by the storm surge. I slept outdoors next to a makeshift Filipino civil aviation command post on my first night here, lying in my clothes on a piece of plasterboard debris that I placed on the concrete slab. I was under a yardwide extended roof and chose the downwind side of the damaged concrete structure, which was fortunate as it rained very heavily that night, but I stayed dry. Security was a question mark, as hungry and thirsty refugees were milling around, even asking for paper from my notebook to write notes to missing loved ones, which I provided."

But it was Bradsher's story about the 27-year-old farmer who died from an untreated leg wound  that prompted me to shoot him an email.  

To call this story heartbreaking is a gross understatement. 

Hard to read.  But imagine sitting by this man's bedside, talking to him, day after day, and watching him die (he was the main breadwinner for his family) because of the chaos around him.
Even to step into that situation in virtual time feels dangerous, frightening.

Most of us will never walk the ruined streets of a city where, for hours that stretched into days, death seemed to have the last word.

Keith Bradsher did it for us.

And for that -- for all of the correspondents who risk their lives to bring us the story while people like me sit behind our monitors and pontificate -- I am profoundly indebted to him (and to them).

A toast to Keith Bradsher!

Finally, for tonight, anyway,  I present to you a Portland activist named Mark.  Featured on NPR's "State of the Union," Mark lives in a part of Portland that has been suffering from neglect, benign  or not, from city authorities, until pretty recently. (It only became part of the city in the 1980s, according to the report.)

So Mark didn't wait around for the government to pave all the streets and provide the basics the rest of town seems to get. Like sidewalks. Groceries. Even convenience stores.

In a neighborhood where they do have any retail shops within a mile and a half radius, he opened a food truck.

On his lawn.

He doesn't charge more than four dollars for anything.

Instead of waiting around for the authorities to get their act together, Mark is one big cog in the wheel,  the change he wants to see.

(Not that he's letting the city fathers and mothers get off that easy).

These stories warm my heart, and inspire me.  Next time my mood threatens to turn sour because there doesn't seem to be much good news out there,  I'm going to try to remind myself that those who make a difference  tend to deal with life the way it is, not the way they hope it would be -- one act of mercy, bravery, and compassion at a time.

Like Fred Rogers, I'm looking for the helpers.

Who are your Monday morning heroes?


mercredi, novembre 13, 2013

When the darkness falls

When a global disaster occurs, Americans open up their checkbooks, put the cash into the offering plane, and punch the "donate" button on the charitable websites.

We're known for our generosity (disturbingly, I wonder whether that means that some other nations might not be).  Perhaps it's because, even in times of huge economic inequality, we are aware of how much more we have than some other countries.

Ten, twenty, who knows how many years ago, climate scientists predicted that countries like Bangladesh would be hugely affected by bigger storms, rising seas. Well, apparently, that country constructed stronger shelters for its population, thus reducing the terrible toll of the virulent storms.

I don't know if the strongest shelter would have protected Filipinos against the horrors of these winds.

But I do believe that we need to stand with them, with all poor nations, as they attempt to cope with the unnatural fury of a nature that we have had a part in inciting to such terrible passion. 

samedi, novembre 09, 2013

Almost 100 years after massacre in Armenia: is there a global war on Christians

The facts are indisputable.

Christians in many countries are suffering.  Many are dying.  If they can, many are leaving the lands of their births as these countries are torn by internal conflict or repression from external powers.

Beyond that, there's a lot up for grabs.

Are Christians in Muslim majority nations targeted because of a violent strain within Islam itself? Are Christians being imprisoned and killed simply because they are believers -- or because they are seen as part of the degenerate West?

Does the media and/or the government underestimate or underplay it when Christians are targeted because (implication is) they don't want to offend Muslim sensibilities?

This is a genuine hot potato in media circles, with respected journalists and analysts weighing in on both or many sides.

Read what they say -- and judge for yourself.

vendredi, novembre 08, 2013

All the single ladies (and guys)? We're not "the problem."

The past few Friday nights I've had meet-ups planned with friends.

But many Fridays, perhaps most Fridays, I'm at the gym, or at home reading a book.  The weekend (at least until Saturday evening, when Mr. C. comes home) often looms lonely.

It is then that the thoughts may start to creep into my mind, as I pick up an escapist novel. I bet my married friends, by and large, aren't feeling lonely.

They are having dinner with their spouses, out at a movie, sharing a nice night out with another couple.

Laughing at some joke only they think is amusing, staring lovingly into each other's eyes...well, you get the picture.

And it's not as though I have always been single (though the ranks of the NEVER-married 18 and above in the US far outweigh those of the divorced and widowed).

I'm one half of a failed marriage, a split family, a broken home.

People of my economic class and education just don't do what I've done -- or they don't do it as much as those who earn less money and have less education (that's what the numbers say).

But here's the reality, one which my married friends simply don't seem to want to hear -- my ex and I get along much better apart than we did together. We are better parents than we would have been if we'd remained in a household divided by such a cold, bitter truce.

In spite of some truly difficult times, we parent better together than we do apart. And we live far, far happier lives apart than we did together.

But it is also a fact that the largest percentage of unmarried and divorced parents don't have the resources that I do.   Here's some interesting data from the American Psychological Association on what may keep a couple together:

Ethnicity is a factor.

"Asian women and foreign-born Hispanic men, for example, have the highest chance of the demographic groups studied that their marriages will last 20 years (70 percent), while black women have the lowest rate of reaching the two-decade mark (37 percent). For white men and women as well as black men, the chances are just more than 50 percent, NCHS reports."
Education makes a difference.
"Women with at least a bachelor's degree have a 78 percent shot that their marriages will last 20 years, compared with a 41 percent chance among women with only a high school diploma, according to the NCHS data. Age at marriage is also a predictor of marital success: Couples who wed in their teens are more likely to divorce than those who wait to marry. In addition, a person whose first child is born after the wedding is more likely to stay married than one who enters a marriage already a parent."

And money? Money talks.

A 2009 report from the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, for example, showed that couples with no assets are 70 percent more likely to divorce within three years than couples with $10,000 in assets. That comes as no surprise to Terri Orbuch, PhD, of the University of Michigan and Oakland University, who says arguments over money — how to spend, save and split it — plague even well-off couples. In her work with the Early Years of Marriage Project, a longitudinal study of 373 couples who married in 1986 (funded by the National Institutes of Health), Orbuch has found that seven out of 10 pairs name finances a cause of relationship trouble. "Money is the No. 1 source of conflict or tension," she says.

Simply put -- if you have more assets, you have more choices. 

That's true whether you are single or married. But it's part of the reason why divorce can often lead to a lower standard of living -- pooled assets are now split up, and running two households can be very expensive.

While I'm by no means rich, I don't have to worry about buying food or putting gas in the tank. But if your husband walks out on you, and you are a woman working two jobs with three kids at home, your choices become much more difficult.

Saying "stay married" to someone in that situation is like telling someone who has put on ten pounds just to show more will-power. 

Sure, there are many people with unrealistic expectations of married life -- people who probably could have stayed together if they'd had someone to talk to and a supportive community.

But those aren't always available, particularly to the poor. In addition to psychological and spiritual help, they also need material support. I've seen tremendously capable and frankly, courageous women and men struggle mightily to keep their children clothed and fed in the face of tremendous adversity.  While I'm sure that there are those who take advantage of our social welfare safety net (I'm quite positive there are many of all races and ethnicities), there are also many who choose to apply for help as a last option.

I've heard the "there but for the grace of God go I" lines from some of my wedded friends slip out when I've shared my search for friends and now and then loneliness.

I don't really blame you. There's joy in companionship. I don't begrudge you that.

And I'm pretty strong. Where I once might have let the opinions of others define me, I'm not as quick to do so today.

But I do ask for your respect, and understanding that my experience has been different than yours.

And I beg you not to use the sword of marriage as a stick to beat the poor without doing something concrete to support them. Marriage may be part of the answer, but it isn't the universal cure.

And until we admit that we are still struggling, as a society, with how to help those who don't have security, safety and faith that they live in a world in which opportunity is possible -- wedlock is going to be more of a taunt than a blessing. 

mercredi, novembre 06, 2013

God doesn't love pretty people

I usually enjoy Sunday worship.  But as good as it was this past week, I have to admit, I let my mind wander.

Speaking in the broadest terms, I realized that I was surrounded, SURROUNDED, by folk with some pretty down-deep ugliness: pornographers, addicts, the self-righteous, adulterers, and men and women with anger management problems. 

Not to mention, Have a few hours, or a day?

I'm not pretty inside and out, either. And these aren't minor sins.  There's nothing "lovable" about my foibles. 

Or about yours. 

Remember that old bumper sticker : "I'm not perfect, just forgiven"? 
Though it's a cliché, there's a grain of authenticity.
Only if we admit to our true ugliness can we truly hang on to the love of a merciful God.

Only if we stop justifying our compromises, shady dealings, and inability to do what God wants of us can we seek forgiveness.

As I've noted before, part of what I like about our particular church is how imperfect it is.

We're not slick. We're not always synchronized. We don't have sermons that promise us better relationships in five weeks.

When it comes to politics, or even the finer points of Biblical interpretation, we don't always agree with each other.

But I'm not just talking about the flaws of the people in the congregation where my son and I worship.

I'm pondering the communion of the freakin' saints here on earth.

We are seriously screwed-up.

And it's when we try to pretend we aren't that we get into the biggest trouble. 

Jesus didn't die for a bunch of genteel sinners.  He died for us.

Today I heard about another church-themed scandal.  Frankly, it sounded heart-breaking.

And as much as I hated to see us exposed again, I wondered what it would be like if we could own up to our poor choices and hurtful, often brutal ways. 

I wonder what it would be like if we could apologize for taking people down with us.

I wonder what those who think Christians are hugely hypocritical and or/self-righteous would think if we could seek reconciliation with each other -- even after the dreadful deeds were done.

God doesn't love "pretty" people.

But I'm hoping, really hoping, that God loves ugly ol' me.

And you too, by the way. 

dimanche, novembre 03, 2013

Life among the Victorians (lady botanists)

Gotta say that though I thoroughly enjoyed "Eat, Pray, Love," it was with a tince of Jewish guilt.

Having now read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," I can say that Elizabeth Gilbert's tale of self-discovery, while charming and engaging, had the neatness of a journey neatly edited to exorcise that which didn't fit the writer's desired narrative.

To be just,  I don't know how you can stay totally authentic while describing experiences that are years in the past. Even a journal requires a certain kind of artifice -- unless it is the journal of a madwoman.

In fact, that's one of the great things about writing, particularly writing about grief or confusion -- it gives your rambling mind a frame in which to exercise itself, like a nervous stallion, until it is exhausted and more docile.

I can't really blame Elizabeth Gilbert for delineating  'spiritual, not religious' to a T -- it's not her job to be a member of the paid religious class, a professor or priest.

But I did wish that she would use that fine mind to delve deeper into some of life's big questions.

In "The Signature of All Things" she has, indeed, tackled some of the biggest questions Victorian intellectuals had about biology, spirituality, sex, love and the meaning of life.  Part of the reasons the 19th century still seems so close and yet so far away is because we are still asking many of these questions today.

Be prepared to be satisfied and frustrated, confused and enlightened, exhausted and awed.

Just like Alma, the novel's heroine.

And possibly, very possibly, just like Ms. Gilbert herself, a woman of apparently boundless curiosity.

samedi, novembre 02, 2013

Out of night

It's always amazing to me how much we "normalize" our own experiences -- until and unless someone else's voice comes in and touches us.

That's why, in part being around people who are different races, or ethnicities, or have less money than you do, is so crucially important.

Otherwise, sometimes, you create a world in your own image.

In this brief venture into the genocidal horrors of the 20th-century, I was shaken and touched by the burdens other people bear.  But, in a way, I also found comfort in the fact we aren't alone.

In the telling of the story, there is catharsis. However momentary, it makes us feel part of the greater human family -- and to be advocates for people in danger because a bigot, or a nationalist, a zealot or a fool, judges that they do not "fit."

lundi, octobre 21, 2013

Pro-life? Lock up your guns

We don't need any more dead heroes.

I doubt I was the only one weeping as I learned about math teacher Michael Landsberry, a veteran with a wife and two stepdaughters.

Landsberry, from what we know, was a veteran of a number of tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He probably didn't imagine that he would be killed protecting children from a homicidal (and then suicidal) student who had taken his parent's handgun to Sparks Middle School.

Law enforcement officials in the Nevada town say that they don't know if the student intended to kill certain people, or was on a random "spree" (hate that word).

Whether he was the intended target or not, Michael Landsberry is still a hero.  And he's still dead.

I often wonder about the bifurcation of American political ideologies.

How can the Republican Party, that claims to respect the rights of the unborn be so harshly wed to a blindered and perspective on the Second Amendment? I really, really doubt our Founding Fathers gave us the sacred right to slaughter each other -- or to take guns and turn them on ourselves.  Suicide by gun is much more common than is self-defense.

And lethal weapons used in places where we, particularly our vulnerable kids, have a right to feel safe, negate pretty much everything else that matters. Except, perhaps, heroism -- but oh, at what a price.

As we have seen again and again in violent incidents that play out on televisions in boardrooms and airports, bedrooms and gyms, none of the other parts of our Constitution really matter when someone is waving a gun around.

And how can the opposing party, the Democrats, so concerned about the social welfare of the less advantaged, be arbitrarily willing to say that they know when life begins?

Though the focus on a woman's body and a woman's choice may be rooted in a reaction to patriarchy, it is now in danger, if not part of a conversation about the common good and the greater good, another way of saying that life itself can be reduced to a series of rationalizations.

And then there is the violence.

We share that.

Video games. Mixed-martial arts. Boxing.  Even, all too often, football.

Sexual abuse of girls and child abuse in general leave physical and psychological scars that we can see.

Ignoring the fact that about a fifth of our children are "food insecure" or frankly hungry every day? We tolerate that kind of brutality by ignoring it, walling it off, pretending it doesn't exist.

Until, of course, our social and private wounds erupt like a volcano, bringing us a Newtown or a Sparks.

Those two towns will symbolize our American tragedy as effectively as Salem reminds us that we used to put witches on trial.

I am beginning to believe that this fight against the night in our nation's soul is not a political one, although it is framed in candidate's speeches. It is not solely about individuals and their principles.

To choose peace, life, renewal, whether we put those in secular or religious terms, we must first face into our own love affair with the darkness.

Today, outside that school, evil yowled and stamped its feet in triumph.

When we don't treat lethal weapons with the respect and seriousness they deserve, when there are no consequences for parents who allow their kids to access them, when we treat guns like sacred totems instead of killing machines, bad things are going to happen.

But reading about a Michael Landsberry, or the six courageous teachers who died in Newtown, Connecticut, doesn't make accepting that any easier.

"What will it take to change our gun culture?" I've wondered during previous gun violence incidents.

Tonight, I'm not at all sure that it will change.  I'd like to believe that this time will be different -- that there will be a tide of sorrow and disgust so strong our most testosterone-laden legislators cannot resist.

I'd like to think that people will embrace the sacredness of the life around us -- what we can't see and what we can.

But I don't think teachable moments come drenched in blood (though if they do, judging by the links next to the article posted here, Nevada gets more than its fair share).

Instead, as I pray for Landsberry's grieving widow, stepdaughters and students tonight, I'm going to ask that my eyes will be open to see the shadows in my own life.  At the moment, I find, it's all that I can do.


vendredi, octobre 18, 2013

Can Rebecca's death change us?

In the midst of this past week's shutdown and uncivil war in Washington, you might not have been paying attention to the story of the Florida preteen who jumped off a cement tower and killed herself in September.

Two girls, one 14 and one 12, have been charged with felony aggravated stalking in the wake of Rebecca Sedwick's death. 

The mother of one of the accused,  alleged to have beaten several children, has been arrested on unrelated charges today. They include child neglect and child abuse. She apparently told authorities she was "having a bad day."

It's really hard not to speculate on the family environment that created a teenager who could relentlessly taunt a younger girl, and perhaps even drive her to her death.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. It always is -- complicated.  But there's no getting around that what these two girls are alleged to have done ("drink bleach and die", "kill yourself" because you are "ugly" they said to Rebecca on Facebook) was evil.

I don't see any difference between tormenting her online while she was alive and being gleeful, as they apparently were, after she died. 

Both behaviors were the products of depraved minds.

Nothing will bring little Rebecca back. This case will get attention for a while, and then things will quiet down for a bit.

But I wonder what lesson we adults can take from it -- one that may keep the memory of a vulnerable young woman alive in a meaningful way.

For this isn't just about two  mean girls and their victim. It's not just about cyberbullying and students. It's not even about depression, or poor parenting.

Part of the problem here is us.

I've been pondering a commentary by my former editor, Jana Riess, in her blog "Flunking Sainthood" (she writes it for Religion News Service).

Jana, who is compassionate, gentle, and tactful, talks about what it's like to be "unfriended" on Facebook.

" I think it’s precisely the lack of awkward silences or ugly confrontations that hurts most. The hollowness I feel is made worse by the fact that other people tend to regard Facebook relationships so casually," she concludes.
I'd go one step further than Jana.  When we converse online, we are tempted not solely to treat each other casually, but to de-humanize the "other" altogether.
Our "friends can become objects. At our worst, we use them for target practice, to score points with someone else, or to reinforce our own sense of moral superiority.
Many conversations are polite and restrained  -- others descend rapidly into name-calling and ugliness.
It's easier that way, is it not?  After all, if the person on the other end of the monitor is a disembodied mind or a voice in your monologue, then they can't really be wounded by our vitriol.
If you are a Christian, that happens to be heresy.  If you are a member of the same species, well, it's frightening.
I don't know why Rebecca Sedwick jumped off that cement tower.  I wonder what adults were paying attention to her. I wonder if anyone was watching when she dated a 13-year-old, or checked her Facebook page, or asked her if she was blue.
But I can't change what happened to Rebecca. I can, however, monitor the way I treat other people online -- and pray that we all recognize the power of this tool.
In the wrong hands, it can be deadly. 


samedi, octobre 12, 2013

@Kairyssdal and the twittertocracy: the sound of some hands clapping

First: a caveat.

I love Kai Ryssdal.  He's the host of NPR's "Marketplace," the show tailored for those of us who hate those little scrolling numbers in CNBC. 

I like listening to him so much that when I told a pal that he has the same casual, clever, quirky persona going on when he preaches, it was a compliment of a very high order.

I like his interview style, slightly goofy without being at all unprofessional.

Even though I roll my eyes a bit when he says: " Good, as always, to have you with us" and I know it's partly a shtick, I still believe he means it. Wherever I am, whether it's in the car, hiking the hills around my exurban community, or occasionally listening at home,  he draws me in.

And also, he's a Yankees fan. Hated by the rest of the country, even when we are out of the playoffs and other teams get all the glory,  we have to stick together. It's a persecution thang. 

But when I saw this tweet from Ryssdal's online persona,  @KaiRyssdal,  I did a little brood.

For those of you who don't need or want to be part of the Twitter pecking order, Ryssdal is responding to a tweet from @TheStalwart: 

"Good q tho. What's the response/follower threshold? “: I almost responded to an inane tweet from someone with no followers.” "

Really? I thought. Really? I can understand not answering someone spouting nonsense -- but does it matter that much if he or she has followers?

I watch some of the people I respect to see how they treat their followers.

Do folk with famous names only respond to other famous names? Do they only retweet or respond to the witticisms of their media buddies? 

Is Twitter becoming a larger, bi-coastal version of "This Town" with a little West Coast street cred?

I'm a small fish in a tiny pond.

I write about religion. That usually only draws notice from the rest of the media when something goes really awry or kinky.  

I'm not even a famous religion writer, someone with a presence in a large media outlet.

I'm not young and well-known, drawing thousands of followers.

I'm not even OLD and famous. Just another middle-aged writer, with a penchant for the bon mot and the wrong mot.

I'll admit straight up that I only have 300 followers and change. For a long time, I didn't bother to cultivate my Twitter connections. I don't have much interest in rituals like Follow Friday, and I don't always follow someone who follows me.  

 Some happen to be pretty well-known.
Many are colleagues, some are friends, others are media contacts in other fields. Then there is a sizable group of clergy and laypeople interested in spirituality and in religions.

I don't know most of them -- but I often (though not always) profit by paying attention to what they tweet.

Oh yes, there are morons and trolls out there. But the vast majority of my followers, and certainly the people I choose to follow, have something to add to the threads, the memes, and the more-than-occasional frivolity of the Twitterverse.

I hope that Kai Ryssdal, and others of his media class, choose to respond to tweets because they make a relevant point, or are logical, or clever: (even better, of course is the "holy grail tweet" : logical, topical and clever, all at the same time).

After all, he works in public radio: if it's not quite vox populi, you can tell that many of those who work there are making a good-faith, whole-hearted attempt to present other points of view.

There's no obligation on the part of well-known media figures to pay any attention to the hoi polloi. Most of us will continue to observe their behavior whether they reciprocate, or not. But I'd like to think that a civil society is based, at least in part, on mutual respect -- and attention.

Some Twitter personalities seem consistently gracious and engaged.

I'm always impressed, for example,  by how much Jim Roberts, late of the New York Times and now of Reuters, engages with his Twitter readers. Of  course, he is, in many ways, a digital media pioneer. Frankly, that's part of his work.

As I said at the start of this post, I'm not slamming Kai Ryssdal -- after all, he didn't pose an answer to his own question.  So I really have no idea if he thinks there is a threshold below which someone is not worthy of a response.

Of course, many of these media folk work under grinding pressure, and don't have much time to be Twitter personalities.  

 More important:  Ryssdal is a darned good journalist/anchor, with a keen nose for the funny and sometimes seamy underbelly of business news and American culture.

But I'd hate to see Twitter become like, well, high school. 

Remember how awful it could be if you weren't the jock, the cheerleader or the AP student? 

When we graduated, we promised that we

So don't. 

Speaking truth to power

 Can a religious leader play a constructive role when politicians can't get the job done?

I have to admit that I was skeptical about how useful or even proper it is for elected leaders to have a chaplain.

 I've never been a fan of civil religion.  In fact, from my perspective, the way God gets dragged into our disputes can do more harm than good.

But I'm rethinking that.  Not just because it seems as though Admiral and Reverend Barry Black speaks for we the people with a clear and convincing voice in the Senate chamber.

History itself leaves a more equivocal witness (would Lincoln's words at Gettysburg have as much power without his divine invocation (that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom ) )?

An atheist would undoubtedly answer differently. But in times when the very nature of democracy itself seems under assault, I find it not only inspiring but also appropriate to hear the voice of divine presence and tradition echo through the halls of a once-revered institution.

Thank you, Chaplain Black.  When our leaders have failed us, you are not only God's representative, but ours.

samedi, septembre 28, 2013

Godbeat shifts: the state of the state

As someone who has written for the secular press as a freelancer for most of my ADHD career, I've always admired my fulltime colleagues and their immersion and dedication to the religion beat. I've never made that much money from the work I do, but I also feel passionate about it.

I still do admire them, perhaps even more so now, when they have embraced an uncertain future with grace and grit. Perhaps we all need to go back and read our George Eliot, Austen and Dickens, who so vividly evoke what it's like to watch a way of life disappear.

New generations will expect change and perhaps turmoil.  Mine has to adjust -- or get out of the way.

 Take a read. And let me know if you agree.

mercredi, septembre 25, 2013

The ghosts of Antietam

Like many of you,  much of what I know about the Civil War is taken from the PBS series produced by Ken Burns more than two decades ago. It was, in fact, the most-watched series on American public television - ever.

Ignorance reigned.  I could tell you more about the Civil War in seventeenth-century England than I could about the conflict that divided our whole country. 

I'm not huge on tactics, and my son is much better, at 16, at recalling the names of the battles and the generals than I ever will be.

But I do remember what it was like to see the pictures taken by Matthew Brady and his employees.

You have probably seen them, but if you haven't,  see if you can find some online.  Once you have, you won't forget them.

Bodies lying against stone walls, on hills, in fields.  Dead horses and guns everywhere beneath the trees.

This was the first time, I believe that photographs had been taken of battlefields, particularly before the men were interred.

As this article from the New York Times documents, we now believe that around 750,000 men died during the Civil War, the highest toll in any war we've ever fought in (we used to think that the number was around 620,000).

I can't conceptualize 23,000, the number estimated to have died in a few days at Antietam.

Harper's Ferry has a bloody history, in part because of the capture and death of the abolitionist John Brown by Lee's forces (Lee, at that point, was working for the Feds).

But Harper's Ferry, which is a lovely, quiet town, is tranquil contrasted to Antietam.

I'd been to Gettysburg with the same friend a few years ago. They say that the battlefields are haunted. Although we went on a "ghost tour" of Gettysburg, we saw no spectres, thank goodness.

But I'm not sure about Antietam.

First we saw the movie, that described with terrible gravity the way that Confederates and Union soldiers cut each other down in the fields, across a bridges, over the ledges.

Then we walked through the cornfield, where thousands of men met their death in hand to hand combat.

A year later, we learned,  when Lee took roughly the same route on the way to Gettysburg, one soldier wrote of stepping on the skeletons of his unburied friends.

On that warm day, the sun glinting above the shorn corn stalks, walking on the ground where so much human blood had been spilled, we were, in a way, witnesses to the insanity of September 17, 1862.

The bloodiest single day in our history.

There is nothing pretty, nothing romantic about war. And if I could, I would douse those embers that glow in men's souls (particularly men).

Dolce est decorum est pro patria mori?


Tell that to the woman who waited in the South for her husband or son to come back to plow the fields and take back the farm.

Tell it to the war widow in the North whose husband, an African-American, had fought side by side with white men to free his brothers and sisters from the damnable yoke of slavery.

Tell it to the spouse who has to tell his or her kids that dad or mom has killed himself because he or she could not bear the ghosts of Iraq or Afghanistan.

It is an honor to live in a society where we do not have to be master and slave.  We honor the sacrifice of the men (and women) who died to take that grim burden away from our brothers and sisters, and to lift the curse upon our country.

But there was nothing sweet about it.

My friend and I stood for a few minutes in the national cemetery in Antietam. It is quiet, and was totally empty that afternoon -- except for the rows of graves.  Some were marked, simply, with a name and a date. Some stones, smaller, did not have names.

Is Antietam haunted?

No one has told me of ghosts.

But I wish we were all more haunted.  For if we were, perhaps we would be less blithe with other people's lives.

vendredi, septembre 20, 2013

Poly on the prowl

Those of you who have followed my blog for a long time know that I have occasionally written about the polyamorous lifestyle.  That's because, in part,  there was a point at which I was seriously considering writing a feature article about it for a local newspaper. I'm always looking for the eclectic, the unconventional and the unpredictable.

Trust me, if you had written about religion in a fairly small town for seven or so years, you would do the same.

I have also written about polyamory because I have developed respect for some of its practitioners.  In the process of researching my article, I spoke with a number of people who publicly represent polyamory. One thing they emphasized, over and over again, is that integrity is crucial to "the lifestyle." 

From my conversations, I have deduced that one big difference between polyamorists and married folk on the low down is that they are candid about their other relationships, and work to enable communication between all the parties in the relationships.

To all my friends whose blood pressure rises when they hear the descriptor: I want to be clear here.  I'm not endorsing a poly lifestyle. I'm not opposing it, either. As a journalist, my job is to write about it, and let you make up your own minds.

And just in case you are wondering,  I'm not inclined to polyamory.  Trust me, there's a reason I'm telling you this.

I do, however, have my profile on a dating site that lets cheetahs, polys, and others into more alternative lifestyle post profiles.

Some are straight up about their status: "married."

Others call themselves "alternative."

I don't usually converse with guys who reach out to me from the "alternative" side of the dating cosmos.

Once in a blue moon, however, my curiosity gets me very close to hot water.

Let's call the hot water in this case "Bob" (as in Bob, Carol, Ted & Alice).

To all appearances,  Mid-Atlantic Bob works in the health care industry for, let's say, big pharma, (just an educated guess).  

He identified himself to me as a fellow writer.  Quoting from my own profile, he said "Looking forward to the 'dignity and interest' treatment if you care to chat. You're very attractive."

I responded: "Forgive me for being so bold, but are you married, living with your wife?"

Within moments, he came back at me: "I am "seeing" somebody, but a long way from being convinced that we're good for the long haul."

"But I shouldn't lead you on", I said. Then I noted that not only was I geographically limited, but I was also an ordained minister (this often scares guys away, and, as you can imagine, I sometimes wait until an actual conversation to mention it).

I was already wondering  why my  virtual pal hadn't talked to his girlfriend about his issues. Besides, it was late at night, and honestly, I rarely come across smart men online.  

Teach me to avoid the smart ones.

Turns out (he says) he's got a pal who is an Episcopal minister -- and a doctor, would ya believe it? "But yes, the moral dilemmas are legion" he wrote, and getting involved with me would probably confront you with some of them, although I wouldn't be able to predict which ones."

Me neither.

After a few comments about how, as I grow older, I have come to appreciate transparency and openness, I shared my blog URL, and advised him not to settle for 'good enough."

"I hope I treated with you dignity and respect" I concluded, thinking we were done.

The next morning, he wrote back: "Have you ever considered the concept of polyamory"?

Here's where I made a mistake. I will talk to almost anyone about anything -- I figure I might learn something new.  I asked him if he was considering it -- and shared my own take, which is that it takes a lot of emotional maturity, can often work to the advantage of the male (if there is a male), and can bring with it a fair amount of drama.

We went back and forth on this topic throughout the day, on and off.  I asked him if he was considering adding a partner to his own relationship. He wrote back: "The short answer is that I'm not totally satisfied, and I don't want to dump her, either. She's a good person and doesn't deserve to be dumped just because my heart wanders and she can't be everything to me. Maybe somebody could, but I'm increasingly skeptical about that."

I asked him if he'd be candid with his partner about his wishes.

"Yes, I've told her I've been exploring the concept. She's nervous about it, and says she might want to connect with an old boyfriend if I do, but says she doesn't want to dump me either. So far it's all talk for both of us.'

Throughout this dialogue, I never gave him any reason to suppose that I had more than an intellectual curiosity about polyamory. But I did, perhaps, give him enough feedback to continue the dialogue. In retrospect, perhaps that was an error. But in retrospect, perhaps, he was trying to lay a trap for me.

That might account for what happened next.

Short story: I reiterated that I wasn't poly material. He asked to meet me as a friend,  "offline." First I suggested that perhaps we talk on the phone, because I didn't have enough information. Later that night, I told him that I was growing increasingly uneasy  -- perhaps it was because I wondered why he would WANT to meet someone who would be merely a friend.

"Hurting some other woman? I can't imagine doing that," I wrote him. I was a hundred percent certain that I didn't want to be other than a friend.

"No problem" wrote my "friend " the next morning. "Too bad, though, because your fears of the worst are what my "Carol" says are, in her words, "OTT." She had already agreed to meet you for lunch/dinner to answer your questions about polyamory and our relationship." 

Not only are Bob and Carol polyamorous, but they also have a "hot bi babe". Pretty much nothing of what he'd told me about the practicalities of his life were true.  

Then he did a "je t'accuse." "Literally nobody on... even the most intellectually adventurous such as yourself, seem to have the courage to accept and engage with me on the basis that it's possible to be successful in polyamory -- as we have for five years now."

Seriously -- you accuse ME of lack of courage?

For about ten minutes, I was stunned. Frankly, I imagined showing up for a "friendly" lunch, and meeting Bob and his partner.  

Would I have tipped a glass of water down his pants? Or would I have taken out a notebook? 

That's one story that won't get written, gentle reader.

Bob had commented on my "congenial, compatible mind." Perhaps his Carol was not as educated as he is. He's looking for more -- and more.  "He's not a polyamorist, he's a glutton:" commented a friend when I shared this story.

I'm a journalist, I warned him. I like stories. 

I tell stories. And actually, this is a pretty good one.

And beneath my initial astonishment is a less naive perspective. 

I had put polyamorists on a bit of a pedestal, because they seem so much more honest than the reams of cheaters out there. 

Now I know better. Every group has its cads. 

And lots of them hang out online. 

samedi, septembre 14, 2013

Words you might want to think about before you say them

I have a friend who is an all round good man.  He's intelligent, a great family guy, funny, and really good at what he does.

But he's got a habit that drives me crazy.  When I ask him how thing are going are home, he'll tell me: "We've really been blessed."

At that point, I have to do some quick mental gymnastics --  after all, that's a term of common use among Christians, particularly evangelical Christians.

Perhaps you also are "blessed."  You have elderly parents in good health.  Or your kids are all doing well in school.  You have babies on your schedule, not on someone else's. You met the love of your life in college, and things have been going just great ever since.

Of course, if you are a person of faith, you would ascribe this to God's good favor working in your family, your business, your love life, and even your, forgive me fertility cycle.

The only problem with this term?

The man next to you in church might be watching his sixty something mom die painfully of cancer.  The person three pews down could have a teenage boy who is hostile, distant and down most of the time -- every night she goes home from work afraid of what she's going to find.

The pastor preaching that upbeat sermon might be struggling with an alcohol addiction that threatens to take over his life -- it's a genetic thing in his family.

Wait... you mean that they aren't blessed? Well, what are they then? Cursed?

This isn't easy stuff.  At various times in my life, which has had some struggles and some frank tragedy, I have wondered why some people's lives seem to go without incident, and others are laced with horror.

People in Colorado: blessed or cursed?

People in Syria?


Bestselling authors? Brilliant writers whose manuscripts never get published?

I do believe that God works in this world.  But I admit that I'm not sure how, though I have experienced times of  feeling blessed in so many ways.

 I don't believe that God picks and chooses who will be given "normal" lives, and who will have to wrest meaning from them with tears and sadness and doubt.

Many of us have times of  normalcy, happiness and grief.

I have heard people who are terribly ill, or those who have lost someone they love say those words -- and been thankful that they can find grace and character and beauty in the twilight.

So I don't honestly have a theologically correct, nicely packaged answer to this dilemma.  My concern is mostly pastoral.

The next time you are exuberant, and those words are about to flow from your lips, please think at least once. Take a look at the person or people who will hear or read them.

And take care, my brothers and sisters, that your "blessing"  cannot be heard as their condemnation.

vendredi, septembre 13, 2013

Faith Fridays: "The Happy Atheist" A Review

There's a certain piquant, perhaps even slightly lurid quality about a woman of the cloth reviewing a tome by an atheist professor of biology (with a prize-winning science blog, yet!) 

In the old days, perhaps one might have even packed this reflection between brown-paper and sold it under cover of night at your local newsstand.  After all, weren't women clergy an impossibility?

But in an age in which aspiring politicians sext young women on Twitter and butlers steal documents from the Vatican bedchambers, alas, nothing seems astonishing. 

As long as there have been theists (going back at least as far as the epics of the ancient world), there have been atheists. History is threaded with the writings and lives of famous non-believers. 

But the explosion of electronic communication, the secularization of Western Europe, and the surging number of Americans who don't identify with an institutional religious practice has amplified the voice and perhaps the influence of the no-God party. 

Atheism (as much as a non-believer with a polemical edge like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins would dislike this way of putting it) part of the dialogue about faith in the public square.

And if P Z Myers had his druthers, human beings would root out past errors, and give God, described as a "useless old fart"  and a "cranky old geezer" (metaphorically, of course, for God doesn't exist in Myersworld), his "pink slip."

In this series of sketches on such topics as "The Top Ten Reasons Religion Is Like Pornography"  Myers sets out to mock, rend, and generally deride the beliefs of any and every person of faith (except, of course, for those who have faith in science).

"Science and religion," he writes, "are two different ways of looking at the universe, and changing the world, and I believe that you must set one aside to follow the other. One works; the other doesn't."

Sometimes, however, Myers has sympathy for believers -- believers like Florida pastor (unlikely to be considered more than a huge nuisance, embarrassment or fraud by many Christians) Terry Jones, who has several times attempted to burn copies of the Koran.  After all, to Myers, the Koran and the Bible are only  books of superstitions and those who believe they are sacred texts ignorant dupes.

Myers writes scathingly of the misogynistic and patriarchal qualities of a faith born amidst ancient sheepherders and a God who is leader, master, commander.

In decimating this unreal, metaphorical God, those with no faith will realize that while they are alone in the universe, "we're all alone together."  That realization, and acceptance of the basics of evolution, will allow humans to be able to become free actors, able to choose to collaborate, and shoulder responsibilities far more weighty than that of fealty to a "trail boss."

There is much in this book that will outrage, and infuriate, many people of faith.  That's not a good reason to stay away from it, however.  If your beliefs cannot contend in the marketplace of ideas, are they really yours?

But it's hard to believe that this volume reveals Myers at his most convincing (here he sings to the choir).  Instead of "The Happy Atheist," this volume might more appropriately be called "The Snarky Atheist."

A bigger issue? We live in an age in which many have unlimited faith in both science and reason -- two disciplines that have let us down again and again. 

There are, as well, many scientists who see no contradiction between faith and science (it is difficult to think, for example,  of Dr. Francis Collins as a dupe or an idiot).

Far safe for Myers to dwell in the realm of parody than engage the messy realities that lie behind the puppet show he has set up.

For real exposure to a rigorous and nuanced atheism, turn to neuroscientist Sam Harris, or the late Christopher Hitchens. Hell, turn to Myers himself -- his blog, which explores all manner of topics scientific and (anti) religious, fascinates.

But unless you can take being annoyed, and only sporadically  enlightened, don't turn to him here.