I have gotten so used to stories of violence in the news every morning that I confess they don't move me as much as they should, or used to. Today: Three straight days of killing in Karachi with 42 dead; Syrian tanks shelling the city of Hama, where more than 100 people have died since Sunday; U.N. peacekeepers killed by a landmine in Sudan; daily deaths in Libya; bombings in Baghdad and assassinations in Kandahar. It goes on and on.
John Stott died this Wednesday. He was 90 years old. What many people don't understand is that he was the most influential 20th-century evangelical leader in the world, with the exception of Billy Graham. Stott became the Anglican rector of All Souls Church in downtown London at the age of 29 in 1950, and he stayed there for his entire ministry. But from his parish at Langham Place in the city's West End, and right across from BBC headquarters, John Stott spoke to the world with 50 books that sold 8 million copies. He also traveled the globe , speaking, teaching, convening, mentoring, and bird watching -- a personal passion.
Perhaps the most telling thing about this man is all the personal stories about "Uncle John" that the world is now hearing, from many Christian leaders around the world who were profoundly influenced, encouraged, and supported by John Stott. And secondly, how such a giant in the Christian world remained so humble, as testified to by those who knew him who say how "Christ-like" he was.
[Editors' note: Rev. John Stott, one of the world's most influential evangelical figures over the past half-century, died this Wednesday at age 90. Rev. Stott served as a contributing editor for Sojourners magazine, when we were known as The Post American, and wrote this article for the November/December, 1973 issue of the magazine. We will always remember Rev. Stott for his profound contributions to our community and the Church.]
It seems to be a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon mind to enjoy inhabiting the "polar regions" of truth. If we could straddle both poles simultaneously, we would exhibit a healthy balance. Instead, we tend to "polarize". We push some of our brothers to one pole, while keeping the other as our own preserve.
What I am thinking of now is not so much questions of theology as questions of temperament, and in particular the tension between the "conservative" and the "radical."
The markets are watching, the Republicans are watching, the Democrats are watching, the media are watching, the pollsters and pundits are watching. The public is watching and is disgusted with Washington, D.C.
When it comes to the bitter and ultra-partisan battles over the budget, the deficit, and the fast-approaching deadline for America defaulting on its financial commitments, the whole nation and even the world is watching.
But God is watching too.
"And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children." --Matthew 14:13-21
Immediately before the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer's head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the multitude fed on the beach (a detail unique to Matthew's version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John's demise: Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and serves up the plated head to her mother. (That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew's gospel - recall also the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one -- is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas's 1990 essay in Theology Today).
There's something special about the bookends of our lifetimes. I became a first-time father seven months ago and a hospice chaplain just one month past. Growing up and growing old, especially the first and last months of our lives, can be surprisingly similar experiences.
I fed my daughter sweet potatoes for the first time last night. Introducing her to solid foods has been a treat. While we're trying our best to teach her the sign language words for "food", "more", and " all done", Robin still finds closed-mouth grumble-whines to be the best way to let us know she thinks sweet potatoes aren't all that hot. Another subtly nuanced whine might instead wonder, "You don't happen to have any more mashed banana or applesauce around, would you?" My attempt to turn the filled spoon into an acrobatic and roaring airplane met with scant success.
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
--Excerpts from Matthew 13
It's been a rough weekend. Watching the devastation that the combination of mental illness and fundamentalism brought to the people of Norway. Watching what the combination of drug addiction and fame brought to a talented singer, who, like so many who went before her, is now dead at the age of 27. Something they don't tell you when you get clean and sober is that if, by the grace of God, you manage to stay that way -- you get a much better life -- but year after year you also watch people you love die of the same disease. So yesterday when I heard that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her home, it brought me back to nine years ago when my dear friend PJ was also found dead in his home.
photo © 2007 Laura Askelin | more info (via: Wylio)Though I like a rousing round of ave maria's as much as the next person, the past few centuries of church prayer trends have eschewed Latin in favor of the vernacular -- that is, the language of the people. And to the tune of 450 million copies in more than 70 translations (and counting), it's clear that people the world around speak the language of Harry Potter. Or rather, the story of Harry Potter speaks to them.
So as I watched the final Hogwarts Express depart from Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II this past weekend (slightly teary-eyed, I confess), I started to wonder: What might it sound like to pray in the language of Harry Potter -- language that clearly resonates with folks around the world? Would it be cheesy? Probably. Profane? Perhaps. But I figured the God who relied on earthly parables about wineskins and fig trees to explain the Kingdom would understand.
photo © 2010 Zhao ! | more info (via: Wylio)Sales of printed books are down 9 percent this year, supplanted in part by digital versions on Kindles, Nooks, and even iPhone apps. But the real threat to long-form, hard-copy reading -- that is, paper books -- is inside our heads, according to Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent in London.
"The mental space [books] occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all," Hari told me last week. "It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books."
[Okay, I admit I didn't actually talk with Hari. The quote is from his newspaper column. But pop over to Twitter, and you can see how, in effect, he gave me permission to paraquote him at #interviewbyhari.]
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, long-form reading. Hari quotes David Ulin, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, who wrote that he "became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read." Ulin wrote that he would sit down with a book, and find his mind wandering, enticing him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. "What I'm struggling with," he writes, "is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there's something out there that merits my attention."
After having spoken at the Greenbelt Festival in England a number of times now, we at the Center for Action and Contemplation always hoped and planned that we create a similar festival for spirituality and the arts in the United States. We had nothing comparable, and it was a niche waiting and needing to be filled. Therefore, we were honored to be a part of the first Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina last June, and hope that we can convene a truly ecumenical, radical, and socially engaged crowd of people living at the intersection of justice, spirituality, and creativity -- and those who want to be!
photo © 2004 Phil Whitehouse | more info (via: Wylio)Even I can't help admitting that there is a bunch of stuff in the Bible that's hard to relate to. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 to 4,000 years, and I have no form of reference for shepherds and agrarian life, and I don't know what it's like to have a king or a Caesar, and I don't know a single fisherman, much less a centurion, and I guess I can't speak for all of you but personally I've never felt I might need to sacrifice a goat for my sins. That's the thing about our sacred text being so dang old -- it can sometimes be difficult to relate to. Things have changed a bit over the millennia.
But one thing has not changed even a little bit is the human condition. Parts of the Bible can feel hard to relate to until you get to a thing like this reading from Romans 7, in which Paul says, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
Finally. Something I can relate to. This I know about. I too do not understand my own actions. I too can't manage to consistently do what I know is right. Paul's simple description of the human condition is perhaps a most elegantly put definition of what we now call addiction.
It's no secret that I am a recovering alcoholic. By the grace of God I have been clean and sober for more than 19 years. But, boy, do I remember that feeling of powerlessness that comes from not being able to control your drinking. I'd wake up each morning and have a little talk with myself: "OK Nadia, get it together. Today is going to be different. You just need a little will power." Then, inevitably, later that day I'd say, "Well, just one drink would be OK," or, "I'll only drink wine and not vodka," or, "I'll drink a glass of water between drinks so that I won't get drunk." And sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn't. In the end, my will was just never "strong enough" Like Paul, I did the thing I hated. But that's addiction for you. It's ugly. Yet on some level I feel like we recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have it easy. I mean, our addictions are so obvious. The emotional, spiritual, and physical wreckage caused by alcoholism and drug addiction has a certain conspicuousness to it.
photo © 2009 World Economic Forum | more info (via: Wylio)Most people know now that Rupert Murdoch presides over the News Corp media empire, and that he is fighting for his reputation after being forced to sink his scandal-laiden British newspaper News of the World, the most widely read English tabloid in the world. But few people know that Murdoch also owns Zondervan, the world's largest publisher of Bibles. For 23 years, the News Corp family has included the leading seller of the best-selling book in history.
The other day I read some interesting statistics about how social media is shaping our lives . It is interesting to see the response to this and recognize the different ways in which we grapple with deluge of social media in relation to our faith. There are lots of resources emerging to help us maintain a strong and vibrant faith in the midst of this. I wanted to highlight a couple that I have found very useful
Our current practice in the U.S. actually reflects the earlier legal reality of coverture: In the process of the "two becoming one flesh," the wife lost her rights to property, legal representation in court, and even her public identity as her husband became the sole representative for the family. This combination of identities (or, rather, the wife becoming lost in her husband's identity) led to wives taking their husbands' last names. For me, losing my surname would have represented silent assent to this oppressive practice.
Life is hard. It is full of pain, disappointments, and challenges of every kind. When hard times come our way, we often ask, Why me? And the answer comes: Why not you? We sometimes think that God has forsaken us, and sometimes God is silent. It is difficult to remember the Biblical wisdom that explains why believers, children of God, the beloved of God go through difficult times.
My favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings are the Ents -- an ancient race of giant living, talking, breathing trees in J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional land, Middle Earth. I have a little confession to make: Whenever I hear a reading from Isaiah 55 where it says, "The mountains and hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands," I always picture the Giant Ents from The Lord of the Rings. And then I picture these clapping trees from Isaiah holding little Hobbits in their branch arms in what ends up a willful conflation of Middle Earth and Major Prophet.
You don't need a ton of proof to know that more and more churches are struggling to survive. It seems churches that are in this predicament have one of two options: revive or die. There are a lot of books, seminars, and workshops given on how to go about reviving a church. However, there is not one cookie cutter, full-proof, and effective strategy in reviving a church. Having said that, it doesn't mean that it is impossible. There are many examples of struggling churches that have successfully revived the congregation, increased the health of the church, and expanded their ministry.
I was not one of the 1,500 who attended the inaugural Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, North Carolina last month, but I did grow up going to Christian summer camp. What’s the connection, you ask, between a festival and summer camp? Summer camp -- like festivals and extended retreats -- is often deeply formative because it gives kids (and adult counselors, for that matter) a glimpse at a kingdom lifestyle.
Ten days after 9/11, Rais Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh, was working at a gas station in Dallas, Texas when a man walked in with a gun. Thinking the store was being robbed, Bhuiyan opened the cash register