Saturday, August 31, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

Interfaith prayers this week: continued prayers from the previous two weeks, and now in particular for a PEACEFUL response and peaceful solutions to the conflict Syria.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MOW Anniversary

On this fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King's famous speech, I share this very thought provoking article that a Facebook friend found and shared: "Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did" by Hamden Rice (Aug. 29 2011).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Good Article about Depression

I've had dysthymia (mild chronic depression) since childhood. I don't usually write about it because, well, writing makes me happy, and so I'm not experiencing "the blues" whenever I write. (I did write about depression in this blog post:

Music does the same thing, so I often have music playing during the day (although other times, the silence of a quiet house or the sounds of the outdoors are more enjoyable). Teaching makes me happy, too. I also love do things like antique-shopping with the family, taking walks with the family, and so on. I think it's good sometimes to treat yourself with something silly; for instance, in nice weather I might stay barefooted for an errand or a walk or drive. Hobbies are wonderful: I used to do pencil-sketching, and I still do photography. If my life has a good balance among work, family, friends, service, and leisure activities, I'm much less prone to sadness.

Sometimes the funk is difficult to shake, and I muddle along and have poor energy even for favorite things. (The dearth of blog posts and tweets this past week betrays a recent struggle for optimism.) Nevertheless, I keep moving forward until, finally, the sadness "breaks," like a fever.

I do have more "spiritual" approaches to the blues, too, but I don't want to say anything foolish or cliched---like a nimrod I once knew who said, "Have you prayed about it?" When I'm blue, I do enjoy reading devotional literature and helpful authors like Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others---people who really stress the promise of God's love amid life's struggles. I know that reading academic books about the Bible isn't everyone's taste, but that is also something I like to do---learning new things about the biblical text. If any of us are prone to the blues, we can seek God's guidance for the kinds of activities and hobbies through which God consoles us.

These are all aspects of my own experience. I would never imply that my experience is normative, or that the things that help me would help others---they may or may not. Someone with major depression, for instance, would not be helped by my simple little techniques. If you feel depressed, please talk to good folk in your life to determine ways to help you, if you haven't already.

I very much appreciated this excellent piece about depression and its effects. This description of depression is so good and so apt, and I've memorized it in order to help myself: "[Depression is] like your brain is wearing a full-body armor designed to keep only the good things out. Bad things -- negative comments from your boss, getting rejected by an OKCupid date, petty complaints from your mother -- get ushered in instantly, like VIPs."

Parables of Commitment

Over the past few months, I’ve been studying the parables of Jesus via two books, one (by Jeremias) that I’ve owned since college and the other (by Wehrli) that I picked up on a used book display more recently.(1)

Chapter 7 of Wehrli is “Entering the Kingdom,” a major theme among the parables. He notes that a contrast exists in the parables. On one hand, the kingdom of God is a wonderful gift, given to all kinds of people without regard to their merit. On the other hand, the kingdom demands absolute commitment and unconditional surrender, “one hundred percent of our loyalty and being” (p. 69).

Wehrli gives several examples. For instance, the parable of the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44) and the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46). Whether the kingdom is stumbled upon or searched for is not the point; the point is that the kingdom demands our utmost commitment. Also, we should consider that cost beforehand, as in the parable of the costly tower (Luke 14:28-30) and the parable of the rash king (Luke 14:31-32). The parable of the talents, which has different details in its two versions (Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27), stress the need to venture for the kingdom, while the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15) teaches the need to have faith as one shares the good news of the kingdom, even though the odds for success may seem slim.

These parables of Jesus are stressful!  No disrespect to Wehrli (a distinguished teacher and leader at Eden Seminary, where I'm an adjunct), but commentators like him are likely to reiterate Jesus’ claim: we need absolute obedience, we need to surrender to God, we need to give all our loyalty to God. But this approach to the parables simply raises all kinds of practical questions. Short of becoming renunciates, how do we give all our loyalty to God? What do we do? How can we ever measure up? Even someone like Thomas Merton, who did indeed give up all that he had, struggled with these questions.

For those of us who do want to be disciples and take these parables seriously, we might second-guess ourselves and worry whether we have ever done enough to be Christ’s followers. Or, we feel haughty and proud of the extent of our surrender (perhaps introducing a kind of professionalism into our discipleship) and then look down our noses on the lack of quality of someone else’s commitment.

Neither are good responses. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is not that they’re Jewish leaders but that (as depicted in the gospels) they display an attitude that is never uncommon among any group of religious people. But if we always feel self-condemnatory, like the sorrowful publican of Luke 18:9-14, we neglect the Bible’s frequent admonitions to “be not afraid” and have peace in our hearts (Matt. 28:10, Luke 2:10, Luke 24:38-39, John 14:27, John 15:11, John 16:33, John 20:19 and 26, Rom. 5:1-2, Phil. 4:7, and others).

I think we really have to connect these kingdom parables of Jesus with the famous “love” passage of 1 Cor. 13:1-7. As Paul writes there, even loyalty to the utmost extent gains nothing if not motivated and guided by love. Our obedience and loyalty to the kingdom is never separable from the love that we show----and love is something in which we’re always growing, through the grace of God.

But we also have to connect these parables to what Walter Brueggemann calls God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant”(2). Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are, after all, based upon the Old Testament expectation of God’s kingdom that is in turn connected to God’s covenant with his people Israel. As the kingdom is eventually preached to the Gentiles, we Gentiles too become recipients of God’s unswerving loyalty: thus, according to the covenant relationship, God demands loyalty in return.

But God knows us. God knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14), and because we are dust, God shows us abundant mercy. That word hesed translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, a divine love which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God. Loyalty to God's kingdom involves carrying that love into the world, while trusting (as in the parable of the sower) that God's power is at work in our meager efforts.

Commitment to the kingdom is always a two-sided thing. We’re human, we always struggle, we fail every day. Jesus' demands elude our best efforts. But "best efforts" isn't the point; grace is. We know that there is plenteous grace, forgiveness, and fierce love for those who know their need for God, who seek God with humble, loving hearts.  


1. Eugene S. Wehrli, Exploring the Parables (United Church Press, 1963), and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

2. Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon Press, 1994), 842.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Back to Teaching

Tomorrow is the first day of my school. I teach undergraduates at Webster University in St. Louis. I’ve two back-to-back philosophy courses in the morning, and an online course on which I’ll log on each day. Every semester, I’m nervous for a few days before classes begin, and then when classes start, I feel happy and positive.

I look back on my own college years. I felt very Charlie Brown-ish in college, willing to get in there and try but never feeling quite in sync. (At the time you could go into the campus prayer room and write your prayers anonymously in a notebook. There, I realized how many other students struggled with similar feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. I wish we could've figured out how to get together.) And yet …. I liked many fellow students, enjoyed almost all my classes, appreciated most of my professors, adored the well-supplied library, and as I’ve reconnected with ol’ college friends on Facebook, and I realize, to my chagrin and gratitude, how much people liked me back in those days. “Good grief,” as Charlie would say.

The college (and, obviously, God’s grace) put my life and vocation on permanent paths. I had caring mentors who were a huge influence, one in particular but also others. I rededicated my life to Christ during my first year, began to explore spiritual and theological work, and went to seminary in the fall of 1979. At least since the 1980s, I've contributed monetarily to my college each year.

I have a book by Gloria Durka, The Teacher's Calling: A Spirituality for Those Who Teach (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002). I like this quote (page 57; emphasis in text).

"Everything we do as teachers has moral implications. Through dialogue, modeling, practice and the assignment of best motive, a caring teacher nurtures the ethical idea. What we reflect to our students contributes to the enhancement of that ideal if we meet our students as they are and find something admirable in them. As a result of this confirmation, our students may find the strength to become even more admirable. We leave them with an image that is lovelier than the one they had of themselves. We do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What we must do is to be present to each student as she or he addresses us.

"In sum, to teach morally, we need to care."

I did have three profs at my college (not in my major areas) who made me feel very hurt when they were arrogant with me and dismissive---they certainly didn't try to meet me where I was. I feel frustrated at the memory as much for general as specific reasons: we Christians so often spoil our witness and potential influence by failing to be kind and caring. None of us are perfect, but as I've grown in my own teaching, I prefer to err on the side of compassion when students come to me with a question or concern. Thanks to the ability to keep in touch with people via Facebook, I send cards to former students when they get married, have babies, and so on.

Years ago, I considered writing my doctoral dissertation on the Neo-Thomist philosopher Joseph Maréchal, S.J. I recall reading an intro to Maréchal’s work which said something to the effect that Maréchal was so brilliant but had to spend his career teaching undergraduates. That remark makes me angry to remember. I personally feel very blessed that God has included undergraduate education in his call to me to serve him! The commitment of my teachers at my college became a wonderful example. My feelings of loneliness and uncertainty in college was also instructive; what a great blessing a kind and interested professor (like my mentors there) can be to a student, not just in the subject but possibly for his or her life.

Interfaith Prayers

Interfaith prayers this week: continued prayers from last week, in particular for Syria and Egypt. News report indicate that a million Syrian children have become refugees from the country, in turn causing a crisis in Lebanon and also Jordan and Turkey. Meanwhile, Gaza has been closed since a recent attack on Egyptian police.

On many people's hearts and minds this week is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Old Homes and Grace

When I was little, growing up east of St. Louis, we sometimes visited relatives in the city--and now, my family and I live in St. Louis, so I've been newly nostalgic about those childhood times.

My great-aunt Jean, her daughter and son-in-law (who worked for the Missouri Pacific) and their daughter lived south of downtown St. Louis in the 1960s, in what I later realized is the Dutchtown neighborhood. But during that same decade, they moved out to the suburban community of Crestwood, MO. I know they had moved there by 1965 (I was eight that year) because I remember the relatives sitting in the living room and talking about the wedding in Inger Stevens' TV series "The Farmer's Daughter." Funny the things that stay in your mind over the years.

Aunt Jean died in 1971, and the family subsequently moved to Florida--to the chagrin of my parents, who for whatever reason thought the goodbyes weren’t done very well. I think the cousins extolled the virtues of Florida so frequently that my parents didn't feel very missed. (We did visit the cousins in 1975, an epic fail of a vacation that I’ll write about another time.) Thus ended my childhood and adolescent visits to St. Louis, other than shopping trips and occasional visits to the zoo or the Arch.

But I remembered our relatives' two homes. The one was a turn-of-the-century two-story house, typical of an urban neighborhood, and the other was a ranch house in the suburbs. Cousin Jim had bars in both houses, which intrigued me as a kid because of (what I would now call) their 1960s ambience associated with the show “Mad Men.” These visits bored me to death, since I'd no cousins my age with whom to play, but Aunt Jean sometimes cornered me and talked about family history, the Bible, and other topics. Her death when I was 14 was devastating.(1) Yesterday, in fact, was her birthday (she was born in 1892), which I still remember.

But I would never have remembered the addresses of these homes. That was too many years ago. But looking through our basement storage room, I finally found a plastic box with family photos and old letters, including letters Aunt Jean wrote to me---with a return address of the Crestwood house. Also, there was a letter Aunt Jean had given to me from my grandfather Joe Crawford (her brother) with the return address of the Dutchtown home. (That letter was sad in retrospect, because Joe wrote about his poor health and how he missed his sisters, and in fact he died a month later.)

Not long after discovering the letters, my family and I were driving through Crestwood and I detoured about a block off Watson Road (old Route 66) and found the house. From the outside, it was as I remembered it. On another day, by myself, I drove to Dutchtown---following old 66 through town east from Watson Road to Chippewa to Gravois, and then south a few blocks to Ohio Avenue. The house was still there. My last visit to the place was so distant in my younger childhood. But the exterior conforms to my faint memories.

People come in and out of our lives; obviously these folks exist independently of us, but we tend to recall them in terms of their relationship to us. So it is with places. Whose lives have been defined by their time in these two houses, or any of the homes in which I’ve lived, or any of us? When my family and I lived in Kentucky, several families had lived in our house before we came, but only one had lived in our Flagstaff, AZ home, but the folks who purchased that house subsequently raised their children there. Who has lived in these two houses---about 120 years old and 50 years old---that were for a while homes for my relatives?

No one will ever write the biography of a place with respect to the people who’ve lived there, but each place has such a history that can’t be expressed in realtors’ data. Each place contains a history of grace: the ways God touched different people's lives within familiar surroundings. “If these walls could talk …”


Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Favorite Drive

All my blog posts for this week are still half-finished.  But because I've been busy working on an interfaith project, I thought of the synagogue (now closed) in Centralia, IL, which I visited when I was 10 years old in Vacation Bible School and became interested in other faiths. I also thought of the way to Centralia, highway 51, which I wrote about here: What is a favorite road of yours? Is there a highway in your life that combines religious faith, nostalgia, and favorite communities?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for Egypt, where the violence has worsened this past week. According to BBC news 638 people including 43 police officers were killed just on Wednesday. Demonstrations followed Friday prayers.  Islamists attacked Christian churches ( The Muslim Brotherhood faces a government ban:

Thousands of refugees from Syria have been moving to Kurdistan this past week.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon will tour Middle Eastern countries this week in order to support the peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Roadside in Baquba near Baghdad killed 14 people and wounded 26 as Ramadan came to an end. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for similar attacks; that group “has been boosted by the war in neighbouring Syria and discontent among Iraq's minority Sunni population,” according to a Reuters report.

In Japan, cabinet minsters and other lawmakers visited the Yasukuni shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, a visit which drew criticism from China and South Korean, where the shrine symbolizes Japan’s 1930s and 1940s war effort. The shrine has religious meaning but obviously also political meaning:

The economy in India has drawn concern recently as the rupee drops in value against the dollar:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ninety-Nine Most Beautiful Names of God

During the recent month of Ramadan, I found some of my textbooks about Islam and reread some chapters. In his book about Islam (which I've used in my world religions research for several years), Solomon Nignosian writes about the beautiful names of God (1):

“Submission to the will of God is, by its very nature, an acknowledgment of the mystery that surrounds God. Humans are finite beings and therefore cannot describe or characterize God in an absolute sense. However, indefinability does not preclude, especially in addressing God, the use of devotional forms of address expressed in human terms. Islamic theology provides one of the most comprehensive lists of devotional expressions about God. It consists of ninety-nine ‘most beautiful names’ (asma‘ al-husna) of God.” (p. 143). He mentions that Muslims recite these names “by running their fingers three times through a rosary consisting of thirty-three beads with a tassel,” and that they chose a name that’s closest to their particular petition. “The purpose of reciting the whole sequence of names is to make Muslims constantly aware of God’s sovereignty over all affairs. It is not intended as an intellectual exercise or test” (p. 144).

He provides a list of the beautiful names on page 143. I found several lists online, one here in the form of an exercise for home schoolers:

This Sufi site has the list, too:

And Wikipedia has a list that includes links to the Qur’an passages in which they appear.

For someone like me, learning about Islam and not an Arabic speaker, a good exercise is to print these lists and compare the differences in English translation, to think about the broad meanings of the Arabic words, and thus to think more deeply about the attributes of God revealed in the Qur'an and discussed in the Muslim tradition. An additional exercise would be to use that Wikipedia resource to look up the specific Qur'an passages. How are the names of God similar or different to a Christian theology about God?


1. Solomon Nigosian, Islam: The Way of Submission (Crucible, 1987).

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Passion Play on Tour, 1973

The old Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis came up in a church conversation recently, which in turn reminded me of seeing Jethro Tull there. Forty year ago this past May, the parents of my best friend took him and me and our dates to see the show, which, including Brewer and Shipley’s opening set, ran about three hours.

As I recall, Tull performed all of Passion Play (which had yet to be released), about half of Thick as a Brick, and songs from other albums like “Aqualung,” “My God,” and “Locomotive Breath,” interconnected with other music so that the band played almost continuously (broken up by a shtik, a telephone on the center of the stage ringing, causing the whole band to stop while Ian Anderson answered it). Tull’s show opened with a short film of a dead ballerina (who appeared on the album’s cover) raising, dancing, and smashing through glass. I found a set list online and would have sworn that the band also played “To Cry You a Song.” There are also clips on YouTube from different shows on Tull’s 1973 tour, which are fun to see after all this time. I remember bassist Jeffrey Hammond skipping around the stage in his cream-colored outfit and hat. Martin Barre, John Evan, and Barrie Barlow all took solos.

In my young mind, this concert was a very significant life experience. Never a big concert-goer, I basked in the joy of this one for a long time. My cousins’ gift shop in downtown Vandalia included LPs---I think that's where I purchased the 1972 collection Living in the Past, and for sure Thick as a Brick---and I watched each week for Passion Play to be released on LP, which it finally did in August. To tide me over, I purchased a 45 with two then-unnamed sections from Passion Play's side 2, “Overseer Overture” and “Flight from Lucifer.” I even asked the band director if I could learn to play a soprano saxophone, an instrument that featured as prominently on the album as Anderson's flute. He was patient and explained that I should stick with my clarinet.

If anyone is interested in reading about this complex and perhaps impenetrable album, I found a pair of sites with quite a bit of information (don’t forget the sidebars).
The first includes Ian Anderson’s assessment (which I sensed but in my enthusiasm couldn’t bring myself to admit) that the album needed the humor of Thick as a Brick. In fact, if I relisten to Tull now, Thick as a Brick is the one I turn to; combined with the newspaper of the LP release, it was musically enjoyable and also good satire in a Monty Python vein. I purchased that album at my cousins' store and then found a shady tree at the county courthouse under which to sit and read the famous newspaper cover.

Speaking of John Evan (upper left in this picture), the few things I’ve read about Thick as a Brick do not mention something about that album: how keyboard-driven it is. His work really carries the music.

A college friend, who reconnected with me on Facebook, remembered that I was a big Tull fan. But at the time, I thought “Bungle in the Jungle” was such a stupid song that my ardor cooled somewhat after the next album, War Child. (I was being snobbish. I also didn’t know that this song was part of an album that Tull tried to record after Thick as a Brick and abandoned.) I loved subsequent albums Minstrel in the Gallery and Songs from the Wood but then segued into other areas of music. Something about the epic prog-rock songs that filled one or two sides of a record---which Tull did on two albums and which ELP and Yes continued to do during the 1970s---appealed to me somehow. (You’d think I’d like Mahler’s symphonies, which I don't particularly.)

Whatever happened to my date to the concert? I found her on Facebook once and was glad to learn she’s married and working somewhere. Of course I didn’t friend her or message her, which would be inappropriate, and I didn't linger on her page. But I still know some of my best buddy’s family, and I visited his dad when he was in the same nursing home as my mom. “Life is a long song,” as Ian Anderson sings on a Living in the Past cut.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Religion and Democracy

I’ve been working through a good book for an upcoming seminar class that I'm co-designing. The book is World Religions and Democracy, edited by Larry Diamon, Marc F. Plattner, and Philip J. Costopoulos (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

In the introduction, Costopoulos points out that, contrary to the expectations of many 20th century observers who thought that modernization would contribute to a lessening of worldwide religious belief, religion and religious identity have spread and strengthened during recent decades. At the same time, democracy has also increased; though democracy was mostly located in historically Christian plans prior to World War II, today democracy is found in places of many religious traditions (pp. ix-x).

Are religion and democracy compatible? Secularists have thought not, but Tocqueville thought so (p. ix). Always the go-to guy on issues such as this, Tocqueville described well the conditions in the U.S. that have made both democracy and religion thrive, and commentators afterward have built upon his insights. In this book's opening chapter, Alfred Stepan writes about the “twin tolerations” necessary for their compatibility: as Costopoulos puts it: “political authorities agree to allow free religious activity within broad and equally applied limits, while religious persons and bodies agree to relinquish claims to wield direct political power even as they remain free to use all available means of peaceful persuasion (including the votes of religious people) in seeking to shape public policy as they prefer” (pp. x-xi).

There is also the principle of “differentiation,” which is the “principled distinction between religious and political authority, based on the understanding that each belongs to a conceptually distinct (albeit interrelated) sphere of human life with its own proper aims, methods, and forms of thought, discourse, and action” (p. xi).

There are different social and governmental forms that reject differentiation and twin toleration. One is the kind of secularism represented by the USSR, Ba’athism in Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and classical Kemalism in Turkey. Another is the kind of religious authoritarism that we see in the heirs of Iran’s Khomenini and Saudi Wahabism. Costopoulos comments that part of the difficulty of democracy in the Middle East are the forces that, instead of creating a true liberal democracy, would instead inculcate a strict and punitive theocratic fundamentalism, “tarted up with populist slogans and a Potemkin parliament” (p. xi).

Many of us honor Martin Luther for his theological achievements; we even praise God for his insights and courage. But it’s good to be reminded of some historical contexts and tragedies. For instance Costopoulos points out that Luther was by no means a modernist; he wanted a united Christendom the same as the pope. Furthermore, the 130 years following the 95 Theses saw hideous violence and warfare throughout Europe. “Commentators who speak blithey today about how Islam needs its own Luther and its own ‘Reformation’ should perhaps be careful what they wish for” (p. xiii). Upon this bloody history saw the seeds of modern liberal democracy, but it would be preferable if democracy could characterize modern nations without something like the Thirty Years War.

Half the essays in the book consider the possibilities of inculcating the differentiation principle within Islam, thereby overcoming illiberal fundamentalism and illiberal secularization. Other essays examine the other religions of the book and also Eastern faiths. An interesting essay by Hillel Fradkin notes that the Torah is by no means a blueprint for democracy or differentiation, but there are seeds within the Torah---not to mention the experiences of Jews within the modern world---that have made Jews some of the world’s most eager democrats. Within Roman Catholic Christianity, Vatican II became a catalyst for more political involvement from the church in numerous societies, while within Protestantism, the 19th century advocacy of the elimination of slavery tended to be a very democratic force. But in our contemporary world, it remains to be seen how the growth of Protestant Christianity in the global south will encourage democratic movements or not. Within Hinduism, democracy has emerged from religious roots without, of course, the historical and theological background of Christian cultures where democracy became strong. In other Asian cultures, writers discern roots within Confucianism and Buddhism that are congenial to differentiation.

Finally, in the epilogue, we return to a basic tension between religion and democracy: the former’s tendency toward hierarchy and the normative aspects of past events and teachings, and the latter’s tendency to encourage a leveling of distinctions among persons and its connection to secularism and modernism. Tocqueville was cautious about predicting that the American form of democracy would work in other countries, but as the writer Hillel Fradkin puts it, “It may be the case... that over the long run other democracies will not thrive unless religion plays a role similar to that which it has played in America” (p. 252).

The book’s essays and authors are:

A Conceptual Framework
1 Religion, Democracy, and the “Twin Tolerations” by Alfred Stepan.

Eastern Religions
2 The Ironies of Confucianism, by Hahm Chaibong
3 Confucianism and Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama
4 Hinduism and Self-Rule, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
5 Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy, by his Holiness the Dalai Lama
6 Burma’s Quest for Democracy, by Aung San Suu Kyi

Judaism and Christianity
7 Judaism and Political Life, by Hillel Fradkin
8 The Catholic Wave, by Daniel Philpott
9 Pioneering Protestants, by Robert D. Woodberry and Timothy S. Shah
10 The Ambivalent Orthodox, by Elizabeth Prodromou
11 Christianity: The Global Picture, by Peter L. Berger

12 Muslims and Democracy, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
13 A Historical Overview, by Bernard Lewis
14 Two Visions of Reformation, by Robin Wright
15 The Challenge of Secularization, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
16 The Sources of Enlightened Muslim Thought, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
17 The Elusive Reformation, by Abdelwahab El-Affendi
18 The Silenced Majority, by Radwan A. Masmoudi
19 Faith and Modernity, by Laith Kubba
20 Terror, Islam, and Democracy, by Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand

Epilogue: Does Democracy Need Religion? by Hillel Fradkin

And on this same subject.... The New York Times today had an article about democracy in Egypt during that nation's current crisis.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wu-Wei and the Dao

The Daoist idea of wu-wei has always fascinated me, the idea of non-action or creative quietude. It is work without coercion, work that is spontaneous and effortless, as well as freed from anxiety. A frequent illustration is the butcher whose knife never goes dull, because the butcher knows where to cut between bones rather than through them.

I knew this principle when I was young and realized that, when I skipped a day practicing the piano, I somehow played better when I returned to the music. My mother just thought I was slacking off.

If I may use a non-Christian principle for church ministry (and I’m going to anyway, LOL), I wonder if some efforts at church growth struggle (or fail) because the effort is forced and pressured. Instead, the leaders behind the growth plan could discern points of resistance (there are many in change agency) and work with the difficulties instead of against them.

I also see this principle in writing: sometimes the writing flows and the creativity is strong, and sometimes nothing is flowing and the resulting prose or poetry isn’t very good.

Friendships are a prime area where the principle of wu-wei applies. If you like someone and want to be friends, it's best to see if the friendship develops in a spontaneously mutual way. Overthinking the friendship is a sure sign that you'll stay acquaintances.

Obviously I don’t want to conflate wu-wei with the Holy Spirit. But this passage in Acts 16 has always intrigued me:

[Paul and Timothy, and presumably Luke and others] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (vss. 6-10).

Why did the Holy Spirit guide them this way---one journey was the right one but others were not----and how did they discern the Spirit? Visions, perhaps (vs. 10). How have you discerned the Spirit? Have you ever felt guided by God in ways you didn’t expect? You probably have---I certainly have! On the other hand, have you ever thought yourself guided by God and then realized, in hindsight, that you were just rolling along as you wanted to?

A key difference between the Daoist principle and the Christian view of providence is that the guidance of the latter is a personal God rather than a quality of the universe that is not necessarily personal. But on the other hand, the Bible does teach that consequences follow actions without attributing those consequences always to divine agency. (The scripture for tomorrow morning, Isaiah 1:1-20, is one example.) Good consequences also result from good and wise, well-approached actions. I like the idea of approaching one's actions via the basic “flow” of life, whereby a person can work without anxiety and compulsion. Hard work that has good results can, paradoxically, be non-effortful.

Here are selections from the Dao Dejing, reflecting some aspects of Eastern philosophy (which of course has differences with Christian theology) as well as the principle of non-effortful work. The reference is at the end.

Chapter 8
The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao
Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing
Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach

Chapter 13
Favor and disgrace make one fearful
The greatest misfortune is the self
What does "favor and disgrace make one fearful" mean?
Favor is high; disgrace is low
Having it makes one fearful
Losing it makes one fearful
This is "favor and disgrace make one fearful"
What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have?
So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world

Chapter 16
Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return
Everything flourishes; each returns to its root
Returning to the root is called tranquility
Tranquility is called returning to one's nature
Returning to one's nature is called constancy
Knowing constancy is called clarity
Not knowing constancy, one recklessly causes trouble
Knowing constancy is acceptance
Acceptance is impartiality
Impartiality is sovereign
Sovereign is Heaven
Heaven is Tao
Tao is eternal
The self is no more, without danger

Chapter 37
The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do....

Chapter 48
Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

Chapter 55
....Knowing harmony is said to be constancy
Knowing constancy is said to be clarity
Excessive vitality is said to be inauspicious
Mind overusing energy is said to be aggressive
Things become strong and then grow old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao will soon perish

Chapter 81
True words are not beautiful
Beautiful words are not true
Those who are good do not debate
Those who debate are not good
Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know
Sages do not accumulate
The more they assist others, the more they possess
The more they give to others, the more they gain
The Tao of heaven
Benefits and does not harm
The Tao of sages
Assists and does not contend (or in another translation, "the Tao of the sage is work without effort") 

(Translation by Derek Lin, from and Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, published by SkyLight Paths in 2006.)

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for conflicts in Syria, Egypt, and Myanmar. In addition to other aspects of the current controversies in Egypt, the Coptic Christian minority is in a tense situation:

Continued prayers for Middle Eastern peace talks; this week, the status of Jerusalem is a major topic.

Prayers for Muslims who have commemorated Eid this past week and who consider the challenges for Muslims in different parts of the world:

Also prayers for families and other persons connected to the Fort Hood shootings as the trail is underway.;_ylt=A2KJ2UafGQZSgGQAhw_QtDMD

Friday, August 9, 2013


The original Star Trek series ran on television for three seasons from 1966-1969. I was in fourth through sixth grade during those years.

I recall playing adventure games with classmates on the playground of my elementary school. These were pretend-games in which we made-up and narrated stories, with a more or less Western theme, and which involved a lot of chasing and running around. Usually the way we incapacitated someone was by shooting them with our hands (the index finger and thumb functioning as the gun: this was thirty years before school shootings, or we probably would've ended up in the principal's office or worse for even pretending to have a gun). But we also used the Vulcan nerve pinch. “Spock!” you’d declare as you pinched someone at the base of the neck, and he would be expected to fall to the ground. Like finger-shooting, this had a remarkably short-term effect on the kid; he just got up after a few seconds and resumed the adventure.

I looked online for information about the nerve pinch. Apparently Trekkers disagree on the exact nature of this procedure: whether it temporarily interrupts neural signals to the brain, or perhaps it involves some kind of Vulcan telepathy. My favorite example of the nerve pinch of the movie Star Trek IV where Spock knocks out an obnoxious person on a bus.

I (lightheartedly) thought about uses, if humans had this ability. Meetings could certainly go faster if loquacious people knew they might be rendered unconscious by an annoyed colleague.

People on their cell phones! They're prime targets for spocking! My daughter and I were in line at the store yesterday, and the person in front of us was on her phone, talking loudly and rapidly, during the whole transaction. She hardly made eye contact with the cashier.

“Tom, she told me yada yada yada and this afternoon yada yada yada and if you don’t come over Thursday night you’ll have to come Saturday because all day Friday we’re ---” Spock! ("Customer spocked in lane 6 …”)

Actually, anyone who is having a conversation that disturbs other people (parents at a band concert, for instance) could be “spocked.” So many folks seem oblivious to their surroundings these days and the volume of their voices. Chatty folks in movie theaters: spock! People who cut in line: spock!

I’m still not used to young people who employ the F-word in casual conversation. “And I thought, 'What the f---?' Why don’t you--” Spock!

Of course, people could spock you and me, too! We’d have to be careful of our actions and conversation. Oh, no! That’s much harder than pointing out the faults of others! A common trait of human nature is that we excuse our own bad behavior but feel angry at the behavior of others.

How might we treat one another with more courtesy, kindness and respect if we faced the possibility of a Vulcan nerve pinch? How might we treat one another with more respect, anyway?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Christ's Transfiguration

from wikipedia
The Facebook page of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, has a lovely piece today in commemoration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, observed on August 6 in many churches. (A former student is a nun at that Byzantine Catholic monastery.) I found the quoted-from book and the passage:

"The disciple must see 'Jesus only', Jesus in his humility. If, at rare moments, his image does seem to us to be clothed in light, and if we seen to hear the voice of the Father commending the Son to our love, these lightning flashes do not last; and we must immediately find Jesus again where he is normally to be found, in the midst of our humble and sometimes difficult everyday duties. To see 'Jesus only' also means: to concentrate our attention and our gaze on Jesus alone, and not to allow ourselves to be distracted either by the things of this world or by the men and women we meet, in short, to make Jesus supreme and unique in our lives. Does this mean that we must shut our eyes to the world that surrounds us and often needs us? Some of us are called to be absolutely alone with the Master: let them be faithful to this vocation. But most of Jesus' disciples, who live in the midst of the world, can give another interpretation to the words 'Jesus only'. Without renouncing a grateful contact with created things, and a loving and devoted contact with men, they can attain a degree of faith and love which will allow Jesus to become transparent through both men and things; all natural beauty, all human beauty will become the fringe of the beauty that is itself Christ's; we will see its reflection in everything which attracts and merits our sympathy in others; in short, we shall have 'transfigured' the world, and we shall find 'Jesus only' in all those on whom we open our eyes."

--- from "The Year of Grace of Our Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church" by a Monk of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992), 241-242.

“Your Armpits Smell Like Chicken Soup and I Like It (Dubstep Remix)”

On a recent episode of the Cooking Channel show “Bitchin’ Kitchen,” the comedian-chef-host Nadia G devoted the show to “bucket list dishes.” One of her shtiks was that she had fulfilled a “bucket list” goal, an album. The "song title" that I used for this post was one of several "songs" on her album, like “I Get Mad at Old People,” “When I Say LOL, It Means I Hate You,” “Die, Brooklyn Hipster Foodie, Die,” and others true to her edgy style. Watch the show to get the humor!

That phrase "bucket list" is popular and seems to be of recent origin, while the related expression "to kick the bucket" is much older ( If you survey your own life, what would you like to do (and even HAVE to do) before you kick that bucket?

I began asking that question rather early. When I was in 8th and 9th grade (1970-1972), four close relatives died within a fourteen-month time period. They were members of the older generation, family members who had been influential to my life and faith. (One did smell like home cooking!)

Tragedy and distress can be impediments and even destroyers of faith. Certainly distress has put my own faith to the test many times; I'm dealing with a few things right now. But those long-ago, successive funerals taught me at an impressionable age that we never know what’s ahead in life. Within a few years, this insight became fundamental to my growing faith because I wanted to live my life in a worthwhile manner---no one's life can be perfect or without regrets, but one's life can be worthwhile and beneficial. I knew first hand that we aren’t necessarily protected unexpected loses and different kinds of trouble, so if I wanted to live a faithful, meaningful life, I’d better not delay!

Over the years, I’ve periodically taken stock: what should I be doing right now if I died soon? That might after all be the case, though probably not. Still, it’s been a good thing to think about, not at all in a morbid way, but as a way to think how we are fulfilling some of our goals. Right now, for instance, I saw the chance to write and publish poetry, an aspect of my writing which I abandoned in the 1990s, because of busyness, partly because of self-doubt. There is tremendous satisfaction not only in doing something you love but also returning to a left-behind goal, or acting on a recent goal.

What would you like to be doing? What is holding you back, and can it be surmounted? How might your goal help others, in the Lord's name? Who in your life could encourage you and pray for you?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Parable of the Rich Fool

I've been reading about Jesus' parables for the past several weeks, and today's lectionary lesson was the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. It's a wonderful lesson (although depressing for the fool himself...) about having our priorities straight regarding life, our possessions, the things that makes us happy, and our faith in God.

In his book, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive (p. 140).

Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent culture (p. 141). Abundance isn't bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it (p. 141). Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensuous pleasure (pp. 143-144). But the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13, craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18) (p. 142). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition (pp. 144-145).

On the other hand, Morris tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy (pp. 147-149).

Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may make us feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message about money---or, it might plant a seed in our hearts and minds. (This morning's sermon was of the latter kind!) We can also live to learn "non-possessively in other ways. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we'll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations.

In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We become a little less like the rich fool, impressed with what he has and ready to make room for more. We think about those in need and how they can be helped. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other over bananas.

Scodanibbio's "Voyage That Never Ends"

I started Sunday with a very interesting “soundscape” by a composer I just discovered, Stefano Scodanibbio.

He was born in Italy in 1956 and died of ALS in Mexico in 2012. Beginning in the 1980s he became known for his performances on the contrabass. Several composers like Xenakis wrote works for him, and he wrote his own works as well. According to his website bio, “He has created new techniques extending the colours and range of the double bass heretofore thought impossible... He collaborated for a long time with Luigi Nono... and with Giacinto Scelsi. He regularly plays in Duo with Rohan de Saram and... with Markus Stockhausen...Of particular important is his collaboration with Terry Riley and with Edoardo Sanguineti.” Scodanibbio was also active with choreographers and with the authors in the theatre.

After reading a review of a CD of Scodanibbio’s “reinventions” of Bach and others, I downloaded a 45-minute piece called “Voyage That Never Ends” on the New Albion label. A reviewer on Amazon writes, “The music is hard to describe--imagine Hovnanian's ‘The Bass as a Frum’, Bottesini's ‘Tarentella’, Adams' ‘Nixon in China’, Bartok's SQ4, Hendrix's ‘Star Spangled Banner’, and Bach's ‘Chaconne’ for unaccompanied violin, all rolled into a cohesive whole.”

Here is the second movement of “Voyage”:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"Health Policy: The Decade Ahead"

Not long ago I encountered a helpful book, James M. Brasfield’s Health Policy: The Decade Ahead (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). Brasfield is professor of management and director of the Master of Health Administration program at Webster University, where I also teach (and where my wife Beth is president). He was giving an interview about the book in the library coffee shop, as I was drinking coffee, prepping for class, and listening to the interview. Afterward, when I introduced myself and commented that the book sounded so interesting, he gave me a copy and signed it. I decided on my own to share information about the book on this blog.

Of course, our health care system and the Affordable Care Act continue to be discussed in this country. A Facebook friend shared an article--- asked his friends for their opinions. I recommend Brasfield’s book for those who would like to read and learn more about this contemporary issue. He is balanced in his approach---presenting different health care approaches as well as political philosophies---and makes difficult issues clear.

He discusses several topics and issues in nine chapters.

1. The political economy of health care
In this chapter, he provides some of the basic economic aspects of health care, including a brief summary of health care in the 20th century. By 2019, health care will entail nearly 20% of the GNP, up from just under 14% in 2000 and currently 17%.

2. The health policy system
He discusses the basics of government policy-shaping and legislative work concerning health care, in particular that of Congress, and also various government agencies.

3  Medicare: national health insurance for older americans
The Medicare bill was signed by President Johnson in 1965. Brasfield discusses aspects of the program over the past nearly 50 years and considers its long-term prospects.

4. Medicaid: the accidental program
This chapter covers history of this program, and its prospects during the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 administrations.

5. Too much money: uncontrolled costs
Brasfield asks why health care is so expensive in the US compared to some other countries and considers different ideas for addressing high costs. He gives three scenarios for the future.

6. Long-term care: the sleeping giant
He discusses nursing homes and other forms of long-term care, including mental health. This is an important chapter for those of us with family members with needs for ongoing care.

7. Health care reform: the dream deferred
Brasfield discusses the Affordable Care Acts, its background, the aspects of its passage, its key provisions, its costs and cost savings, and its possible future.

8. How other countries do it
The health care systems of the UK, Germany and Canada are examined, as comparisons with the US.

9.  What can we expect by 2021?
What might American health care look like, ten years from this book’s publication?

Interfaith Prayers

This week, and part of next week, marks the 400th anniversary commemoration of the agreement between the Iroquois and Dutch settlers in upstate New York. The commemoration has included an appreciation of water as a source of life.  It’s a good occasion to remember, in our prayers, places in the world where water is scarce. There is also a continuing debate about how the distribution of water should be accomplished, especially in urban areas. Should a basic human necessity be managed by private companies or the public sector?

As in previous Saturday posts: continued prayers for the situations in Egypt, Myanmar, and Syria, and for the peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.

In Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa, urging Iranians to avoid members of the banned Baha’i section. Baha’is and human rights groups  fear further crackdowns against members of the faith, which originated in Iran in the 19th century.

Issues of religion and race have been topics in Malaysia recently. Of course, the U.S. has its own challenges of race relations and justice. Prayers for justice and peace in our and other countries.

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Meaning is Better Than Happiness"

A Facebook friend shared this article by Emily Esfahani Smith, "Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness," from The Atlantic (August 1, 2013).

Smith reports research to the effect that meaning in life, and not just happiness, is essential not only for a good life but for physical health. Two representative paragraphs:

"'Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,' the authors of the study wrote. 'If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.' While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, 'Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.'”...

"It’s important to understand that for many people, a sense of meaning and happiness in life overlap; many people score jointly high (or jointly low) on the happiness and meaning measures in the study. But for many others, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants. Only one quarter of the study participants had what the researchers call 'eudaimonic predominance' — that is, their sense of meaning outpaced their feelings of happiness.

"This is too bad given the more beneficial gene expression pattern associated with meaningfulness."...