Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C
Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.
But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. Along the way, I got to thinking how the powers that be are the ones causing us to be so cynical. Maybe that is part of their plan — to actually cause and create more cynicism in order to prevent the kind of personal commitments that would threaten them with change.
And this is where faith comes in.
While everyone was blowing up the Twittersphere decrying the injustices of the Oscars, as movies like Argo walked away with Best Picture honors, I was sitting in a Philadelphia hotel lobby trying to chew on everything I’d heard and seen at this year’s Justice Conference.
The two-day event brought together more than 5,000 people to promote dialogue around justice-related issues, like poverty and human trafficking; featured internationally acclaimed speakers such as Gary Haugen, Shane Claiborne, and Eugene Cho; and exhibited hundreds of humanitarian organizations.
While there is certainly more thinking and processing to be done, here are four things that stood out.
Growing up I shadowed my father to a great deal of community and board meetings, public hearings, and church events. By the time I was 2 years old, my father had already been elected to represent a working-class district of East Baltimore City. The example of public service and the principles of stewardship and goodwill that my father carries became some of the most important things that contributed to the way I view our world and the way I treat our people.
I hear people “brag” on a fairly regular basis about how little sleep they get, how many hours on end they work or how poorly they eat because of the demands of their schedules. Sorry, but this is not something to be proud of; it’s a sickness.
It’s no wonder, then, that on the rare occasion we actually slow down long enough to pray, worship, reflect or simply be in the moment, we have no idea how to do it. I watch people in church, and it’s clear from the body language that we don’t know how to slow down. I had a friend back in Texas who was so bad about overworking himself that he’d get sick every single time he took a vacation.
Some might argue this is a case for not taking time off in the first place, but that’s ignorant. Just because we can hold off the effects of frantic, disembodied living by pushing harder doesn’t mean we ever outrun the consequences.
Taken further, I think that such living is un-Biblical.
A friend of mine — one who’s wiser and kinder and more thoughtful than I — knows the difficult, painful unweaving I’m talking about. She, too, was carroted down the rabbit trail of a hope-filled future shared with someone, only to discover her bed was left just as cold as the promises she’d so earnestly trusted.
“Falling in love is totally magical and beautiful and gives you this insane ability to operate on 4 hours of sleep a night for a long time,” she said. “It chooses you and that gift is one of life’s best ones. You have to choose it back, though.” She paused, her voice cracking, and I knew she meant it. “At some point, you become more real to each other and the hard work sets in. So you try and try, and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out. And when that happens, you’ll be ok.” I was looking at her across the table.
“Just let it be sad,” she concluded. “Ironically, sadness will be your guide out of sadness.”
"Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success."
- Thomas Merton
As my extended family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the market crash in 2008, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: "more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger."
A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, "poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller."
When Sojourners started in 1970, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American.
We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country, and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.
For more than a decade we lived with a common economic pot and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.
It’s been a bad year, and the 2012 election year looks to be even worse.
Don’t get me wrong — there were many good and even wonderful things about 2011. I can point to weddings, great things in our family lives, wonderful moments with our children, acts of courage in our local and our global communities, and heroic accomplishments by people of faith and others of good will.
But when it comes to politics and to the media, 2011 was an abysmal year.
Washington is a dysfunctional place where we make the most important decisions about how our public resources should be allocated amidst artificial deadlines set entirely by ideological politics instead of the common good. Rational, thoughtful ideas for reducing the national deficit (while at the same time protecting our vital social safety nets and producing needed jobs) have been replaced by the politics of blame and fear.
And winning — at seemingly any cost — has trumped governing. To disagree with the opposition isn’t enough. Now politicians and pundits feel compelled to destroy their opponents’ character, integrity, patriotism, and even attack their faith.
The real Dunder Mifflin Paper Co., the goods and evils of the pepper-spraying cop, N.T. Wright's fiery predecessor, the belt of the Virgin Mary closes Russian tour, Parker J. Palmer, and more.
The atlas also documents other dramatic trends, including the fragmentation of Christianity. New denominations, often borne out of strife and division, multiply endlessly. In Korea, for instance, there are now 69 different Presbyterian denominations. At the rate we are going, by 2025 there will be 55,000 separate denominations in the world!
That is an utter mess fueled by rivalry and confusion that hampers the church's witness and makes a mockery of God's call to live as parts of one body.
The atlas also documents the dramatic rise of revival movements throughout the world, and charts the story of Pentecostalism's rise. From its beginning a century ago, Pentecostalism now comprises a quarter of all Christians in the world. This fundamental change in Christianity's global composition, along with its geographical transformation, has created a dramatically different Christian footprint in the world.
Just a few days after I returned from my respite in the mountains, Israeli forces killed eight Turkish nationals and one American on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Protests erupted all over Israel and Palestine.
In the midst of this tragic chaos I found myself visiting my yoga center more often than usual, hoping to find another glimpse of the peace I had tasted so vividly just a few days before. Perhaps these wise, centered people could offer a perspective that would look forward to a vision of understanding, or reconciliation -- a vision too often missed by politicians, military officials, media, and even activists.
Ten years on, I'm remembering the literature I read and the music that kept me going in the days and months after 9/11. I had Rumi and Whitman on my bedside table, reading them back to back, alternating between selections of the Mathnawi and poems from Leaves of Grass, sometimes feeling like the two were one, the soul of America, and that the soul of Islam were intersecting at some point beyond where the eye could see:
Whoever you are!, motion and reflection are especially for you, The divine ship sails the divine sea for you. -- Walt Whitman
Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, Ours is not a caravan of despair. Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times It doesn't matter Come, come yet again, come. -- Rumi
Until then, the Quran for me was a book of personal spiritual guidance, a convening symbol for my religious community. But after 9/11, I viewed it as a balm for my country's pain, especially lines from Ayat al-Kursi: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them."
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C. getting ready to go to Sojourners' office. I was upstairs listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our three-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the north tower. I still remember my first response to Joy, "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.
Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which became far greater than any of us imagined at first. Rather, my first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our country and our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.
"The man who can articulate the movements of his inner life," the late Christian apologist and author Henri Nouwen said, "need no longer be a victim of himself, but is able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering."
Throughout the ages, how Christian believers have chosen to articulate their inner lives has had many manifestations in literature, music, architecture, and other artistic endeavors.
As a means of communicating and wrestling with his inner life -- his journey of faith -- Greg Fromholz, an American expatriate youth worker for the Church of Ireland in Dublin, wrote a book titled Liberate Eden, but traditional publishing houses found that his work was a bit too iconoclastic for their tastes.
"It is just too different to be Christian," one publisher pronounced.