Spirituality

Alternative Seasonal Reading

THE DAYS shorten and the scriptures get wild and woolly and Advent begins. Meanwhile, the secular holiday season builds in a frenzy of car commercials (does anyone really get a car for Christmas?), sale flyers, and often-forced cheer. Here are a few books—memoirs, spiritual writings, and art—that can be interesting, grounding, and inspiring companions for a complicated time of year. (They also are much easier to wrap than a car.)

LIFE STORIES

Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith, by Holly Burkhalter. Convergent Books. Decades in political and human rights work convinced Holly Burkhalter that there couldn’t be a loving God—until she became a believer at age 52.

Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write, edited by Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah W. Bartlett. Orbis. I was in prison, and you listened to my story. Moving works from inside a Vermont prison.

God on the Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith, by Phil Madeira. Jericho Books. Nashville songwriter, producer, and musician Phil Madeira offers lyrical, wry observations on faith and life, from his evangelical roots to musing on a God who “knows she’s a mystery.”

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, by Christian Wiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Wiman, a poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, tells of his harrowing illness and a return to faith.

The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, by Jeanne Murray Walker. Center Street. A moving, honest, and often surprisingly hopeful account of a writer and her sister accompanying their mother as she experiences dementia.

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Waiting for the Coming

ADVENT IS UPON US: Waiting for the coming of Christ. But do we really know who he is or what his kingdom brings? His Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount are good reminders.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount simply has “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). Taking Matthew and Luke together, the kingdom will become a blessing to those who are afflicted by both spiritual and material poverty. The physical oppression of the poor will be a regular subject in this kingdom, but the spiritual impoverishment of the affluent will also be addressed and healed. Spiritual poverty is often the result of having too much and no longer depending on God. Jesus offers blessings and healing to those who are both poor and poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Those who have the capacity to mourn and weep for the world will be comforted by the coming of this new order. Jesus’ disciples would later hear him say that loving their neighbor as themselves was one of the two great commandments (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). To feel the pain of the world is to participate in the very heart of God and one of the defining characteristics of God’s people.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Christ’s kingdom turns our understanding of power upside-down. Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, promises the same when she prays about what Christ’s coming means: “He has scattered the proud ... brought down the powerful from their thrones ... lifted up the lowly ... filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). And when Jesus is asked who will be first in his kingdom, he tells them it will be the servants of all.

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My Brother John: A Eulogy for the Living

Stone cherub in London cemetery, nagib / Shutterstock.com
Stone cherub in London cemetery, nagib / Shutterstock.com

For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.

I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.

But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.

“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”

So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.

Dear Young Christians: Reject Legalism, NOT Discipline!

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com
Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com

Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity

When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.

Meet the ‘Nominals’ Who Are Drifting From Judaism and Christianity

 Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com
Deposition from the cross. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

They’re rarely at worship services and indifferent to doctrine. And they’re surprisingly fuzzy on Jesus.

These are the Jewish Americans sketched in a new Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of whom said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry and just 15 percent who said it’s about religious belief.

But it’s not just Jews. It’s a phenomenon among U.S. Christians, too.

Meet the “Nominals” — people who claim a religious identity but may live it in name only.

Rewriting the Lord's Prayer: What If How We Prayed Matched How We Live?

Lord's Prayer, Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com
Lord's Prayer, Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com

After reciting what we call the Lord’s prayer one Sunday, I got to thinking about how many times I’d said those words. Thousands? But how many times have I actually thought about what the words mean?

If we pay attention, it’s a prayer that makes us very uncomfortable.* These words of a peasant Jewish rabbi from 2,000 years ago challenge so much about the way we live — all of us, regardless of what religion we follow. If we’re honest, most of us don’t like it and have no intention of living by what it says.

Which presents a question: Isn’t it a problem if we pray one way and live another? Shouldn’t our prayers reflect how we actually try to live?

Along those lines, perhaps we should rewrite the Lord’s prayer and make it conform to what we really believe. In that spirit, here’s a rough draft of what it might sound like if the Lord‘s prayer was actually our prayer.

Rival to Miss World Will Crown a Pious Muslim Woman

Nina Septiani of Indonesia was crowned Miss World Muslimah 2012. Via RNS/The World Muslimah Beauty/Facebook

After hardline Islamists voiced opposition to the Miss World contest now being staged in Muslim-majority Indonesia, a rival World Muslimah beauty contest exclusively for Muslim women will announce its winner on Wednesday in the capital of Jakarta, though the U.S. candidate suddenly dropped out.

“Muslimah World is a beauty pageant, but the requirements are very different from Miss World,” the pageant’s founder Eka Shanti told Agence France-Presse.

“You have to be pious, be a positive role model and show how you balance a life of spirituality in today’s modernized world,” she said.

The Thing: Who Do You Say That I Am?

So, here's the thing. I just met Rev. Alfred Williams. He's a retired UCC pastor. At 81, he's still preaching and teaching. He's still asking great questions and pushing congregations to do the same. When I am his age, I hope to be as passionate. Hell, I wish I were as passionate now. With that introduction, I want to share this sermon that he preached on Aug.18 of at Ladera Community Church. 

I think this sermon serves to blow apart some of our assumptions about generational differences within church leadership. He preached on Mark 8:27-33.

On Scripture: The Power of Love

Woman praising, irima / Shutterstock.com
Woman praising, irima / Shutterstock.com

We know neither her name nor the location from which she comes. All we know is that she was “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” and that, “[s]he was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” (Lk. 13:11) We don’t know from the text exactly what causes this spirit to lash out at this woman. We do know, though, the power of this spirit is to slowly and deliberately destroy this woman’s life. Whether this spirit manifesting its wicked power in this way is a result of the woman’s sinfulness or was it simply the way she was born we do not know. So weighted down by its power is she that she can’t “stand up straight.”

All we know is that bent over, exhausted, worn, and arid from the despair that comes from the power of this spirit, pushed to the margins of society, and dead inside, this woman comes in from the heat of the day to seek shelter in the synagogue.

They are nameless when they arrive at Magdalene. Seeking shelter – relief – from the power of the spirit whose work it had been to destroy them through drugs and prostitution, they come completely exhausted and desperate. Like the woman in the text, these women of Magdalene live on the edge between death and life. Living in the shadows, under the oppressive weight of the spirit whose power it had been to press the life right out of them, these women, like the woman in this text from Luke, “can’t stand up straight.”

The Fake Church v. the Real Church

Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com
Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com

The “secular world” has liars and thieves, adulterers, cheaters, and hypocrites. It’s a place full of child molesters, domestic abusers, and addicts. Where loneliness is rampant, mental illness is on the rise, and individuals routinely try to numb their pain via drugs, alcohol, and sex. Divorce is everywhere, pornography infects the minds of millions, and infidelity occurs on a regular basis.

The church often presents itself as an alternative to the “real world,” a place where these things don’t exist.

Many churches refuse to admit that these problems are affecting them. In reality, there is little statistical difference between Christians and non-Christians relating to these issues. Christians don’t receive a special pass that protects them from experiencing mental illness, suffering, struggling with addiction, abusing other people, being abused, or failing.

Our faith in Christ gives us hope and strength and courage, but it doesn’t erase reality, and it isn’t meant to create a flawless utopia where we can escape from the world’s problems. But many churches attempt to do just that — trying to create the perception of perfection.

In some church communities, there is the appearance that porn, sexual abuse, and rampant sin don’t exist. Even non-sinful things (mental illness, poverty, etc.) are treated as stigmas that are intentionally shunned. This is often misinterpreted as holiness — it’s not.

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