Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween

It's Halloween again. After living in a neighborhood with virtually no children for three years, we again live in an area with kids, and this evening we'll have quite a few folks come to our house for goodies. 

We live in St. Louis, which seems to have a unique Halloween convention: kids tell a joke when they trick or treat.  I'd never heard of that before. A local author, interviewed on this morning's news, said that the custom may have originated from the Irish who settled the city.  

Our neighborhood has good sidewalks, but my childhood neighborhood had none. So I usually trick or treated with a buddy who lived on my hometown's First Street. First and Second Street were part of a nicely quiet neighborhood, safe-feeling with well-lit sidewalks, and somewhat set apart by the widening of Third Street (Kennedy Blvd./U.S. 40-51). After gathering our candy from neighbors, we watched the premiere of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on his family's color TV.

I should add that my hometown is small, 5500 at the 1960 census (these memories of mine are from the mid- and late-1960s), and First through Eighth are the major numbered streets: there is no Ninth, and Tenth is just a few blocks long. I tell this to my friend who works in Manhattan, just to give him a chuckle.

Another year, my church had a "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program. We fanned out along Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets and collected change. What a nice way to instill social awareness in little kids!  I've a memory of standing on a house's porch at Eighth and Jackson, waiting for friends to catch up from another house---a weird memory, why was I standing on someone's porch? When you're a little kid, the concept of "trespassing" is rather vague, particularly on Halloween.

One of the highlights of childhood Halloweens was the local parade, when kids gathered in the parking lot of the county courthouse, on South Seventh Street, and marched straight down Gallatin Street (the main drag) into the downtown. The kids with the best costumes got little prizes. I don't remember if I ever did, but the idea of walking in the middle of the street was a huge thrill!  Vandalia's business district was busy and quite a few stores were open in the evening.

My daughter, whose field is actually theatre costume design, enjoyed trick or treating for many years. Over the years she was Disney's Jasmine, Pokemon's Pikachu, the Phantom of the Opera, and lots of other characters.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hump Day Prayers

from the Sojourners
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Dear Lord, we come before you in mid-week to thank you for the many blessings that we take for granted. When we have good health, financial security, friends and family, reliable transportation, and functioning services, we're prone to forget what our lives would be like without them. Help us to have positive attitudes as we go about our week---now midway through---appreciating what we have. 

We raise to you people we know: friends and family, friends with whom we share time on social media, people whom we know at work, and people we know through volunteer organizations to which we belong.  

Where I live, the weather is foggy. I heard a news report of severe dust storms in Arizona, along with traffic accidents caused by that storm. We ask for safety and awareness as we drive in any kind of inclement or risky weather, and we ask for your help to persons hurt in accidents.  

I meditate on the blessings that are ours through the Lord’s passion and crucifixion, his resurrection and ascension, and the consolation and counseling of the Holy Spirit. Help us deal with difficult things in our emotions and memories. Help us to gain insight into our motivations and reactions. Help us to gain self-confidence when we feel down, and to gain humility when we look down on others.   

We raise to you specific sorrows in our hearts................ and we name specific requests for ourselves.............. and for others.................. We ask for your help for this situations in our nation and world.......................

For all blessings and your eternal presence with and for us, we thank you. In Christ’s name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Between Reformation and All Saints'

Back in the 1970s, when I was in college, one of the Lutheran pastors in my hometown was named Arthur Cullen Bryant. A descendant of poet William Cullen Bryant, he was a native of Brooklyn, if I remember correctly, and he had served as a pastor in New York and also Chicago before being assigned to our small town, Vandalia, IL.

I forget how I met him, but he was interested in local history and we both attended meetings of the historical and genealogical societies. I was exploring a call to ministry at that time, and we met informally to chat about the work. He showed me an article that he had written on a social issue and gave me encouragement. I liked him very much.

The summer before I left for divinity school, he died of a heart attack at the age of 51. His wife Marion was also ill from cancer, and she died later that year. He had pastored both in town and at a rural Lutheran church, and he and Marion were buried in the country cemetery associated with the latter church.

I try to thank people who have been helpful to me or a witness to me, but sometimes that's not possible. I did acknowledge Art and Marion in the introduction of my first book, a history of Vandalia, and I visit their graves during many visits to my hometown. I regret not being able to update him about my progress through school and church work, but of course my regret pales next to regret their children surely feel at the early loss of their parents.

Yesterday, for Reformation Sunday, we sang "A Mighty Fortress" in church, which was sung at Pastor Bryant's funeral. The yearly proximity of Reformation Sunday to All Saints' Day struck me particularly this year as I thought again of my years-ago friend and his family.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Prayers

Dear Lord, as always, we ask you to guide and support those who will be leading and participating in worship services this morning. Guide and support teachers of church classes. Help students and worshipers have a sense of purpose, openness, and focus. 

Please be with those who are struggling with illness, physical pain, and mental pain. Provide your healing and help---and a sense of patience in us if your answers to our prayers take place over a period of time. 

Protect people who are traveling this week. Always protect persons who travel professionally as they transport the products on which we rely.  

Protect young people and their family members who will be trick-or-treating this week, as they walk on dark streets during this fun yearly occasion. 

Open all of us to a fresh sense of your Holy Spirit that brings us together, teaches us, and inspires us to support one another in our faith journeys. In Christ's name.  Amen.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"How Science Goes Wrong"

Several years ago I wrote a book, What about Religion and Science? for Abingdon Press’ FaithQuestions curriculum series. I was grateful to have the chance to help educate church people on the important issues in science and the relationship (which to me should be complementary) between religion and science.

One point that I made was the striving in science for integrity of investigation and for self-correction. With that in mind, I was interested in the current issue of The Economist (October 19-25, 2013), with the cover story “How Science Goes Wrong.” The article “Trouble at the lab” (pp. 26-30) noted a problem in recent priming research (in psychology: the idea that certain kinds of stimuli will influence a later decision or response). In scientific inquiry, a study should be able to be replicated so that similar or identifcal results are found by other researchers doing the same study, but in this case, the results were not. The article goes on to say that irreproducibility is more widespread and among other fields, threatening a foundation of science. “Various factors contribute to the problem. Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or others appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A career structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems” (p. 26).

The author of the introductory essay in that issue also comments that the “publish or perish” rule of academic existence, plus careerism and the cut-throat completition for academic positions, lead to this problem: “nowadays verification (the replication of other people’s results) does little to advance a researcher’s career. And without verification, dubious findings live on to mislead” (p. 13). Plus, papers that publish “negative results” are no longer offered for publication as they once were, but “failure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effort exploring blind alleys already investigated by other scientists” (p. 13). The author suggests better peer reviews, an allocation of space in journals for “ ‘uninteresting’ work,” and also “research protocols... registered in advance and monitored in virtual notebooks” (p. 13).  “Science still commands enormous---if sometimes bemused---respect. But its privileged status is founded on the capacity to be right most of the time and to correct its mistakes when it gets things wrong” (p. 13).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hump Day Prayers

Dear Lord, we come before you in mid-week to thank you for the many ways in which we share a common life with others. In my own circle I raise to you the people I know: my friends and family, my friends with whom I share time on social media, the students and staff and custodial staff at the school where I work, the people with whom I worship you at our local congregation, even the people with whom I share the road.

We also share in your life, as I meditate on the blessings that are ours through the Lord’s passion and crucifixion, his resurrection and ascension, and the consolation and counseling of the Holy Spirit. As we share in your life, help us to gain the peace and joy of sins forgiven, stupid decisions forgotten, and help and guidance gained.

Remove all hatred and malice and regret from our hearts. Console us as we miss particular people in our lives (and in some cases, when we miss pet companions who have died). Assure us when we feel our self-confidence weaken, when we don't feel appreciated, when our spirits grow tired.

As the weather begins to change and grow colder, provide protection for those who work outdoors and for those who do not have adequate shelter.

We raise to you specific sorrows in our hearts................ and we name specific requests for ourselves.............. and for others.................. We ask for your help for this situations in our nation and world.......................

Keep us safe from trouble and help us when distress comes as we go about our lives during the remainder of this week. In Christ’s name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Looking Up

As I read the devotion for today in the Catholic guide Living Faith, I saw that one of the lectionary lessons for today is Psalm 121.

A few years ago I found a sweet book at a used book website: Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, written by J. R. Miller and published in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago—my grandparents were young in 1899—and the strength another person derived from these same verses as he read them in a different time.

Miller writes, “Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay in the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.”(4)

He continues, “We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen.”(5) It’s not just unbelievers whom Miller describes, but also people of faith who neglect looking to God, for one reason or another.

“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. Negative people are a drag upon one’s morale. Unfortunately, negative people find kinship with one another, feed each other's negativity, and soon you have a group of negative people who make you depressed! (Fellow Christians can be just as big a drag on your morale as anyone, if they’re negative people, and congregations can be “downer” kinds of places, too. TV and radio commentators most definitely feed people's anger and negativity, as well.)

But looking up in the theological sense means to focus our feelings, plans, opinions, and everyday lives upon God. Remember that famous set of verses in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). That doesn’t mean we should jump, foolishly and headlong, into a circumstance: insight is one of the precious ways we can discover God’s will (along with prayer, the advice of friends, serendipitous reassurances, and so on). But our insight also does not substitute for God’s all-knowing wisdom! By trusting in and acknowledging God we affirm his overall guidance.

I never look forward to life’s trials, and their prospect worries me. Having an optimistic outlook isn't natural to me because of my tendency to feel anxious and blue about certain things. But I’ve a long series of amazing evidences of God’s guidance in my life to which I can and do look. I can affirm that God has never failed to be with me in every situation and circumstance, even those I can’t understand.

One of the greatest things about “looking up” to God, is that God does not at all rely upon either our attentiveness or faithfulness before doing great things!

Luke 24 illustrates how Jesus takes the initiative even when we’re not in a good spiritual “place”. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. Jesus appeared to them unrecognized and talked with them. They did not even recognize after he talked with them a long time. Finally he became recognizable to them when they shared bread. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” They thought there was no longer reason to look to Jesus. And yet their hearts must’ve been sufficiently open that, when Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly knew the truth.

Isaiah 42:3 reads, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Sometimes the smallest flicker of faith is all we have, but God's goodness and power are already at work on our behalf.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Between Seasons

This is the time of year when we (my family and I) aren't sure whether to turn off the summertime AC for good, because some days become warm.  Then at nighttime or the early morning, we debate whether to turn on the heat. Clothing styles reflect the temperature range. Some folks wear hoodies and coats while also wearing flip-flops, or warm tops with shorts.

“Between the times” has theological meaning. We live between the first and second comings of Christ. To think of ourselves “between the times” is to embrace the certainty of God’s grace and promises while knowing that we are still struggling---with problems, with imperfect undertanding, with personal flaws and a suffering world. The upcoming Advent season specially reminds of us Christ's two arrivals, past and future.

The phrase is otherwise useful. Zwischen den Zeiten was the journal in which Karl Barth and his colleagues expounded “dialectical theology” in the 1920s and early 1930s. They rethought Christian discourse from what they considered the dead-ends of earlier liberalism toward a new articulation of the divine promises.

Sometimes in our lives, we’re between times, and this can be confusing. God seems to have led us to a certain situation, but the resources we need from God are not (or seem not to be) forthcoming. We’re not sure whether to “keep on” or to change course, and we seek God’s help with those decisions. In the meantime, we’re not altogether comfortable, and perhaps are even miserable.

But other times, things are going well, and all we need is to periodically make “tweaks,” the way we turn up the temperature in the morning for a little while we that we shivver in the bathroom, getting ready for the new day: low in the 40s, high in the 70s.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Prayers

Dear Lord, please guide and support those who will be leading and participating in worship services this morning. Guide and support teachers of church classes. Help students and worshipers have a sense of purpose, openness, and focus. If pastors and teachers feel discouraged in their work---from criticism, from a lack of encouragement, from tiredness---help them instead feel encouraged, rested, and appreciated. Open all of us to a fresh sense of your Holy Spirit that brings us together, teaches us, and inspires us to support one another in our faith journeys. In Christ's name.  Amen.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

In addition to ongoing prayers from the previous posts, let’s be thankful for the end of the government shutdown and pray for the well-being of persons who lost salary and otherwise suffered during that time.

Food supplies in rebel-held areas in Syria is running out, where civilians are starving.

A gunman opened fire on a Coptic Christian wedding in Egypt, killing two and wounding seven.

At least 67 people died during the Kenya Mall siege. Al Shabab, which claimed responsibility, is an Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group that fosters radical Islam.

 I found an interesting story about a revival of “born again” Christian faith in New York City:

This past week was Eid Al-Adha for American Muslims:

Sikhs have been suffering harassment in New York and Mississippi:

Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians continue, but reports of new Israeli housing starts on the West Bank may jeopardize the talks.

A magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck the central Philippines this past Tuesday. The death toll has rise to 183, and over 8600 homes were destroyed in Quezon City.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

In addition to the ongoing prayers from my last post---- is the day American Muslims mark the conclusion of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, with communal prayers and celebrations at places around the country.  Meanwhile, it's interesting to read of culture, politics, and religion in Malaysia:

Another topic are the Iran nuclear talks, and the American and Iranian leaders communicating for the first time since the hostage crisis years ago.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Happy 200, Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi was born 200 years ago today (or possibly yesterday). Here is a link to a Verdi-related post earlier this year:  Now I'm going to end my day with some Verdi arias...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hump Day Prayer

My friend and former classmate Jim Kane has a blog called "Le padre ver livre," for which I'm signed up for alerts, and on which he includes weekly "Hump Day Prayers." (He also has excellent sermons and book reviews at the site). I love that idea of midweek prayers and realized I needed one today my energy and mood sagged a bit.  Here is the first of what I hope will be ongoing Wednesday prayers.

Dear Lord, we thank you for the signs of autumn that have already begun: leaves scattered upon the ground and sidewalks, trees turning color, acorns on the ground (crunched beneath tires). As the psalmist says, we are foolish if we do not recognize your glory in the glories of the natural world.

We ask your blessings and help for the problems and challenges that other people are facing, some because of larger problems in our government, society, and world. Help us to know the ways, even very small ways, in which we can contribution in your name to a better world.

We ask for your grace and help for the leaders of our religious organizations and local communities. We name persons in our hearts who have certain needs this week: ____________________.

Help us to have renewed spirits and stamina as we continue through our tasks of this particular week. We also for your help as we seek to grow in trust and faith through everyday challenges. Forgive us when we allow small annoyances to dictate the way we treat others.

As my friend Jim puts it, "May the glorious color of our fall reflect the glorious color of who You are - loving, gracious, merciful, just, and holy."


Friday, October 4, 2013

Do You Need More Faith?

Do you ever feel like your faith isn’t as strong as it could be (whatever that may mean)? Do you wish God could help you believe more strongly and confidently? This week, a group of friends discussed this coming Sunday’s lectionary gospel, Luke 17:5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” 

What an interesting passage! In verses 1-4, Jesus had taught “his disciples” (a large group of his followers) about being on guard against sin, and about the need to forgive a person who sins against you. Then in verse 5, “the apostles” (that is, the Twelve) ask him to increase their faith. But Jesus responds that even a small amount of faith is sufficient, because it can be used by God for amazing things. Furthermore, in verses 7-10, he seems to indicate the servants of the Lord will undertake the challenges they need to do, without expecting a lot of fanfare. (It would be wonderful to know if Jesus is being scolding in his tone, or lovingly teasing to his friends.)

After our group talked about how much slavery offends our modern sensibilities, we wondered if Christians (1) are sometimes dissatisfied with our own faith, without trusting God’s use of the faith we have (since God’s grace is everything, after all), and (2) we expect to be praised and affirmed and patted on the back, when we should be doing things that serve the Lord and one another in humility.

The gospel lesson dovetails well with the epistle lesson from 2 Timothy 1, especially the words: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Here, Timothy has faith (and a family heritage of faith). But the word “rekindle” implies that his faith needs to be renewed (rather than “relit,” another meaning of "rekindle," since the gift of God is not extinguished altogether but is still within Timothy).

Perhaps one way to rekindle our own faith, when we feel like it's lacking, is just to get back to work serving the Lord and one another, without a lot of folderol and insecurity.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

For the current government shut-down; that Congress will put the well being of people over politics.

For victims and families of a NC church group hurt or killed in a bus crash near Dandridge, NC.

For victims of mob violence in Madagascar.

For elections and well being in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

For ongoing violence in Myanmar., and ongoing prayers for Syria and Egypt.

For victims and families after the migrant boat shipwreck near Italy.

For a new round of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the end of religious extremism and intolerance in the world, as pointed out by UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor.