Archive for January, 2015

“While I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I’ve heard firsthand from military families over these past few years. . . .

First lady Michelle Obama speaks during the launch event for "Got Your 6," a multifaceted program that includes encouraging film and television to include characters who are veterans, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015, at the National Geographic Society in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

First lady Michelle Obama speaks during the launch event for “Got Your 6,” a multifaceted program that includes encouraging film and television to include characters who are veterans, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015, at the National Geographic Society in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“We have a real opportunity to go way beyond the platitudes of the entertainment industry.

“We love to say, ‘I support the troops!’ and ‘I’ve got a yellow ribbon!’ but there’s an actual, tangible way to make a difference. That’s what the challenge is here.”

— First Lady Michelle Obama on “American Sniper” in her call for Americans to genuinely support our troops, their families and veterans

I haven’t seen “American Sniper,” the mega-hit movie that has Americans sniping at each other, and I’m not going to judge a movie or book or anything else that I haven’t seen or read for myself.

But I do appreciate the First Lady’s words, and especially for her call to genuinely support our troops, their struggling families and the thousands of suffering veterans struggling to cope from the reality of war.

While Americans are debating this movie, homelessness in America is spiking, especially among veterans. (Approximately 144,000 veterans are homeless on any given night according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Within this number, female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experiencing homelessness is increasing, as is the number who have dependent children. See more at this link.)

It’s easy enough to wave the flag and have a “Support Our Troops” sticker on the car, but making a real difference in the lives of military people and vets takes some conscious effort. I appreciate Michelle Obama for tireless and largely unnoticed or unappreciated support of our troops and veterans.

And by the way, a little more conscious prayer support for our military and veterans, and a lot less sniping, might be in order.

Click here to see the whole article about her address to the film industry.

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Children are served lunch at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., in 2012. Of the 708 students at the school during that year, 95 percent qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch because of low family income.  PHOTO BY (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

Children are served lunch at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., in 2012. Of the 708 students at the school during that year, 95 percent qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch because of low family income. PHOTO BY (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

It’s only one teacher’s opinion, but this Colorado teacher’s passionate take on poverty and “educational privilege” comports with the witness I’ve heard from so many of my public-school educator friends for so many years.

A couple of quotable quotes from the teacher, Valerie Strauss:

    “I am angry that when I attend a conference for gifted children—which, make no mistake, I do have in my classroom, though they do not have the same opportunities as their more affluent counterparts—I see such a stark difference between the opportunities afforded to students in affluent areas, and the opportunities afforded to students in my classroom.

    “There has been plenty of talk about privilege lately: the difference in racial privilege, the difference in gender privilege.

    “There’s a difference in educational privilege, too. I see it every day. I live it. I am disgusted by it.”

And this:

    “Where there is money, there is education. Where there isn’t money, there is excessive testing, lack of curricular options, and struggle. There is the struggle to give students the tools they need to fight their way through a system that is designed to hold them back from the moment they take their first breath, from the moment they try to write their first paragraph.”

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“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”  ― Merton

“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”
― Merton

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

― Thomas Merton from one of his most popular spiritual books Thoughts in Solitude

My main man the mystic Mr. Merton–a fellow Aquarian (Water Bearer)–was born 100 years ago this Saturday.

Remembrances of His Greatness have been published around the world all month, but the fine tribute from the very Protestant “Christian Century” magazine is about as good as it gets.

Longtime cultists here at the Cult of the Jitterbug know that Merton has always been high on my list of faith heroes, along with the likes of John Wesley, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, St. Francis, Dr. King Jr. and Dr. Albert Schweitzer and a few others, including the recent addition of faith hero Pope Francis. These are all people who practice or practiced radical, sacrificial love and peacemaking.

What follows is the Christian Century piece on Merton, who took on the name Father Louis at his Kentucky monastery, by Carol Zaleski.

But a better introduction to Merton’s life and times for those unfamiliar with him can be found in 2009 piece at this video link.

by Carol Zaleski

Dear Father Louis,
The sun has run its course in Aquarius one hundred times since your birth on “the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war.” It’s been almost three-quarters of a century since you entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani as a postulant, penitent, and convert; you enclosed yourself in its “four walls of freedom” on December 10, 1941, as the United States was entering the Second World War, a month and a half shy of your 27th birthday. You died on December 10, 1968, exactly 27 years later, after delivering a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Per­spectives” at a meeting in Bangkok. Your life divides into secular and religious halves; and that is almost the only thing about you that can be neatly sorted out.

I first learned of you during my childhood on the fringe of the peace movement in New York; I remember hearing the complaints of some Catholic Worker activists when you refused to endorse draft card burning during the Vietnam War; you had a way of disconcerting even those who considered you a prophet. During my college years I discovered your books, from your classic memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, to your reflections on Zen, Taoism, and Sufism. You convinced me that the contemplative life remains not only viable but essential. My would-be husband figured he could win me over by keeping a copy of Contemplative Prayer in his back pocket; he succeeded. By then you had become what your name anagrammatically suggests, a mentor to millions of people who never had a chance to know you face to face.

But we desire to know you face to face; hence the profusion of notable biographies—among them, the mildly psychoanalytical investigation by Monica Furlong, the Michael Mott biography stuffed to the gills with everyday facts, the sympathetic studies by Lawrence Cunningham and William Shannon, Paul Elie’s group portrait linking you to your fellow American Catholic pilgrims Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, the film biography by Paul Wilkes and Audrey Glynn—and the many picture books by Ed Rice, John Howard Griffin, Jim Forest, and others. How photogenic you were in your white habit and black scapular, set against the fields of grass and alfalfa, or in denim work clothes and straw hat on the porch of your hermitage, or, freed from your four walls of freedom, enjoying the company of newfound brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

And how inscrutable you were, for all the self-revealing writing. You wrote a memoir worthy of comparison to Augustine’s Confessions—were it not marred by a Holden Caulfield–like contemptus mundi. You tapped into the wellsprings of monastic spirituality through scholarship and reflection on the Rule of St. Benedict, the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux—and then you translated that spirituality into an idiom of authenticity and alienation that now seems dated. You restored contemplation to its rightful centrality in Christian life and did much “to reassure the modern world that in the struggle between thought and existence we [monks] are on the side of existence, not on the side of abstraction”—and then you portrayed contemplation as so radically self-emptying that it sheds much of its specific religious content. You fought for the privilege of living as a hermit on the abbey grounds—but you let your hermitage become a gathering place for your nonmonastic friends during a period when you were (as you told Rosemary Radford Ruether) “browned off with and afraid of Catholics.”

On a reductionist psychoanalytic reading, you were an orphan searching for his lost parents, a repressed lover, and a narcissist drowning in his own reflection. On a more discerning Augustinian reading, though, you were an Everyman whose heart is restless until it rests in God; and on a sound monastic reading, you were one of thousands of essentially good monks who strayed but stayed the course. I believe you did stay the course. Had it not been for the faulty electric fan, or the fault in your own heart, I believe you would have returned to Gethsemani to be a model of monastic wisdom after the storms of youth had passed.

You said that the purpose of monasticism is not survival, but prophecy. What you may not have realized—since your entry into monastic life was the high-water mark of its wartime and postwar revival—is that the survival of monasticism is prophecy, a special kind of prophecy that subdues and outlasts political passions.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton gives your parting words at the Bangkok meeting as “So I will disappear.” Quoted in full, however, your words are without valedictory significance: “So I will disappear, and we can all get a Coke or something.” And so you died, with your story unfinished. But we may piece together from your letters, poems, diaries, novels, tracts, and recordings of your lectures to the Gethsemani scholastics the picture of a brilliant writer, committed monk, and fragile man who searched for God with his whole heart and bids us to do the same.


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Martin in an interesting interview with David Shuster on Al Jazeera America, a serious, in-depth news channel.

Martin in an interesting interview with David Shuster on Al Jazeera America, a serious, in-depth news channel.

I happened to catch David Shuster’s interview with the interesting creator of “Game of Thrones” George R.R. Martin on the fine and mighty fine Al Jazeera America News Channel, a most unbiased news agency that takes news and culture with seriousness and depth, btw, that Fox, MSNBC and CNN just don’t. (You’re welcome for that review of the evermore awful, biased, sloppy 24-hour news channels and the one that stands above them for really good broadcast journalism.)

I have to confess that I’m not a fan of Martin’s books or the massively popular TV series “Game of Thrones,” only because the fantasy genre in fiction has never interested me all that much.

But Martin himself interests me because in interviews I’ve read or seen, he’s seems to be a thoughtful, interesting man as well as an accomplished writer. Something that Martin said to Shuster about evil naturally interested me as a clergyman since clergy types have to work out their theology of evil in this world of good and evil.

Here’s the question on good and evil that Shuster posed:

“Time magazine wrote of you, ‘What really distinguishes Martin and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a struggle between good and evil.’ Do you agree?”

Martin said:

    I think the struggle between good and evil is central to fantasy and, indeed, in some ways, central to most fiction. It’s certainly a worthy subject for fiction.

    But I regard the struggle between good and evil as being waged within the individual human heart. (My italics for emphasis.) It’s not waged as fantasy would have it, where a character called the Dark Lord gathers all the evil people together and puts them in black clothing and you know they’re evil ’cause they’re really ugly and all the good people are handsome and they wear white and they meet on a big battlefield. In the real world … very few people get up in the morning and say, “Oh, I’m evil. What evil can I do today? I’m gonna cover the world with darkness, and my legions of evil will rule all.”

    That’s silly. You know, the greatest monsters of history, as we look back on them, thought they were the heroes of the story. You know, the villain is the hero of the other side, as sometimes said. That doesn’t mean that it’s all morally relative. That doesn’t mean that all things are equally good and evil.

    I think there is good and there is evil in the world. But you know, it’s sometimes a struggle to tell one from the other and to make the right choices. And all of us, I’ve always been attracted to great characters, maybe because that’s what I see when I look around the real world, whether I read about it in history books or the news or just people I meet.

    I mean, all of us have it within ourselves to be heroes. All of us have it within ourselves to be villains. We’ve all done good things in our lives, and most of us have also done selfish things, cowardly things, things that we’re ashamed of in later years. And to my mind, that’s, I don’t know, the glory of the human race. We’re such wonderfully contradictory, mixed-up creatures that we’re endlessly fascinating to write about and read about.

A big amen to all that.

It brought to mind this quote from a great Russian writer who suffered enormously at the hands of some nasty Soviets back in the day:

    “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil. (My italics.)

    “Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956″

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Presenting, the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir:

For more on crazy stuff students at Houston’s Rice University (Harvard On the Bayou) have done over the decades, go to this great read from the great magazine Texas Monthly (online).

FISH ON A VOLVO: Another Rice University original.

FISH ON A VOLVO: Another Rice University original.

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M.L.K. Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered largely for his famous “Dream” speech–and for good reason.

But his output of eloquent and pointed writing of all kinds–of letters as well as sermons and speeches–reflects not only his rare kind of courage and conviction, but also his love of God and Jesus and the prophets, his theological depth and a most sophisticated mind.

I go back every year on this holiday and marvel at “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (first published in The Atlantic as “The Negro Is Your Brother”)

Remember, it was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. They wanted him to tone down his “radical insistence” for immediate change, but he would have none of it. It’s in this letter that he famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (inspired by St. Augustine).

He was one of the most courageous American leaders who ever lived and, in my view, quite possibly the most courageous and high-minded American of the entire 20th century–always ahead of his time. (Consider that his turn against the Vietnam War outraged even his friends and fellow soldiers in the civil rights movement, who feared it would detract from their cause. He insisted on coming out against the war because of his conviction that it was simply the right thing. That stance–which turned out to be shared by most of the country over time–required courage on top of courage in the turbulent sixties.)

Here’s a book I read and re-read while in seminary in working out my own theology–a book I commend to everyone for reading with an eye toward just how great this thinker and man of God was.

With no further ado, I commend the letter to you:

    August 1963
    Letter from Birmingham Jail
    by Martin Luther King Jr.

    While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

    I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of “outsiders coming in.”

    I am in Birmingham because injustice is here …I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider …

    We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience …

    You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality …

    There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.

    Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

    We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws …

    I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here …If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands …

    Never before have I written a letter this long—or should I say a book? I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?

    If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

    Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

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Bishop McKee gets down to eye level with a fellow Methodist.

Bishop McKee gets down to eye level with a fellow Methodist.

Bishop Michael McKee is the Bishop of the North Texas Annual (i.e. regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church, which, in the Methodist clergy world, makes him my bishop.*

The bishop is leading an online study of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (also written by Luke the physician and the best writer in the Bible in my humble opinion) this year, and recently posted the first lesson.

In addition to commending the bishop’s study to you for you to join in, I recommend something for your consideration that the bishop advises about how to study the Bible.

This is what Bishop McKee recommends:

    For your study, I invite you to read the chapter several times. What words resonate with your soul? What themes emerge for you? If this account of the life of Jesus is written to you, a lover of God, what are you sensing God is saying to you?

    Whether you are studying this privately or with a group, I commend a set of questions that I have been using for 40 years when I read a Biblical text. These questions do not probe at a historical-critical method, but they can make the reading of the Bible deeply and faithfully meaningful. The questions are not mine, but I remember Dick Murray, a Perkins professor,** sharing them with groups.

    — What does the text say about God?

    — What does the text say about human beings?

    — What does the text say about the relationship between God and human beings?

    — What am I going to do about or what will I change about myself? This is the so-what question. I am reminded that we can possess all knowledge but if we have no love then . . .

    May God bless you in your studying.

    Bishop Michael McKee
    Bishop of The North Texas Conference
    The United Methodist Church

*For those new to the blog: I’m an ordained United Methodist deacon, currently on voluntary leave of absence from the church, but still accountable to my conference and its episcopal leader Bishop McKee.
**Perkins is Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where I attended seminary and obtained the Master of Divinity degree.

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For sure, by Mother's measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten--poverty comes in a number of different forms.

For sure, by Mother’s measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten–poverty comes in a number of different forms.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the prolific author and senior pastor of America’s largest United Methodist Church (The UM Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas), recently posted on his Facebook page a most incisive theological reflection on suffering–one that begs for sharing.

So here’s what Pastor Adam wrote:

    “Many of you have asked for a copy of the quote on suffering Ray Firestone shared with me years ago. I have never been able to find the original source. I’ve quoted it in [my book] Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and I think in my little book, Why?

    Here’s the quote:

    “Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

That’s profound stuff. Especially to someone like me, whose call to ministry was largely to be a pastoral caregiver to those laid low by illness, impending death, and grief and suffering in all their manifestations.

That said, I was also called as one who, for whatever mysterious reason, always had a heart for the poor, and an abiding, theological interest in poverty and all its dynamics.

The bible makes it clear on almost every page that material poverty is not God’s desire for anybody–and in fact is an evil. But poverty “occurs in the process of life” as surely as suffering.

Suffering is in fact pretty much synonymous with being poor. Consider what happens with Adam Hamilton’s take on suffering if we substitute the word “suffering” with the word “poverty,” as in material poverty:

    Poverty is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Poverty is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Poverty is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Poverty does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human poverty to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through poverty his purposes are achieved. Poverty can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

Just the other day I posted a blurb here at the blog about the death of my denomination’s much-respected and influential retired Bishop Rueben P. Job. In that posting I quoted him as saying this in his memoir (Life Stories) about his upbringing in North Dakota:

    “My life on our family farm was good. We were incredibly poor (my italics for emphasis), but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.”

The bishop went on describe quite an idyllic life in spite of poverty. It hardly sounds from his book as if he and “everyone else” suffered in poverty.

But I’ve also written here at the blog before about my mother’s upbringing in poverty after her father abandoned her, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle back in the Depression times. My grandmother married as a teen to escape farm life–a life that was anything but idyllic in a time when so many farmers wanted to have as many children as they could for child labor on the farms.

She in her girlhood farm life learned just enough in her schooling to read and write at a barely literate level, so that when my grandfather abandoned her, she was left to suffer with three children, no literacy or skills, no “job opportunities” (which were scarce enough)–not even anything to do on a farm since she had escaped one. She’d married to get off the farm and the back-breaking labor her own father imposed on her.

So it was quite a different experience from that of Bishop Job.

And I don’t say that by any means as a rap on Bishop Job, who–to frame it in Buddhist terms–rose up like a beautiful lotus flower out of the mud of poverty that he grew up in, as so many people do. (And, in fact, as my mother and her family did.)

I suppose that everyone’s experience of poverty is as different as everybody’s experience of being wealthy or whatever lies in-between. For sure, some people can grow up in poverty and find success and achievement in life with the character that poverty built up in them. Some can look back fondly on it–“everybody else was poor back on the farm” is a truism in so many lives.

But for the most part, I think, poverty creates a hell of suffering throughout the big world that no one wants–suffering that is an evil in that it cuts down health and well-being and causes premature death.

There is just too much suffering in poverty in this world that is unnecessary–and often imposed by the wealthy and powerful–not to fight and speak out at every turn for greater justice, equality and fairness for the poor among us.

And as my mother used to say–she who never forgot the hells of hunger pangs and indignities she felt in her time as a poor girl–“That’s all there is to it.”

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“For the power Thou has given me to lay hold of things unseen:

“For the strong sense I have that this is not my home:

“For my restless heart which nothing finite can satisfy:

“I give thee thanks, O God.”

— From A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie

Rubens' Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany--the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

Rubens’ Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany–the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

The year is 1960 and it’s a cold and very cold December night in my little Texas hometown.

I’m ten-years-old, turning eleven soon. Like a lot of kids in town I’m popping firecrackers and launching bottle rockets in the street in front of my yard. Christmas is fast approaching.

There’s no such thing as “light pollution” in my town. It’s 1960, remember, and you don’t have to escape to some remote place far from the maddening crowds and urban sprawl to marvel at the cosmos. The night is dark but the Milky Way and the scatterings of stars above are a marvel.

As I’ve done on many cloudless nights in these growing-up years, I look up and scan the skies and quietly stand in awe of it all. Suddenly, I’m gripped by a feeling of utter love, peace and splendor–a sensation so surreal and precious that I’ve never felt anything like it before. Nor have I ever felt and experienced anything remotely like that sensation in the many years since that night in my boyhood.

Call it a miracle, an epiphany, a revelation, a religious experience–whatever it may have been, it put the holy whammy on me.

To my way of thinking, it can only be described as a mystical experience–a sensation of total or near-total union with God. Though it’s something I’ve rarely told anyone about, if only because it defies descriptive words, I’ve hoped all of my life since to recapture that sensation just once more, knowing that you can’t recapture an act of God.

(I’ve also been hesitant to share it out of concern that people will think I must be much disturbed in the noggin–a concern common to people who experience what used to be most commonly called “a religious experience.” When I was a hospice chaplain a patient confided in me that she had awakened in the middle of the night to see Jesus standing and smiling warmly at the foot of her bed, glowing like a blue light in the darkness. She asked me if I thought she was crazy. By no means, I assured her, sharing my own mystical experience with her.)*

* * * *

I prefer to describe my childhood experience as a sensation because I didn’t “feel” it in the usual sense of a mere feeling of awe. Like everybody else, I’ve had my share of feelings of breathtaking wonder and awe one feels in, say, standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, or snorkeling in the beautiful Blue Barrier Reef (the “Blue Hole,” as it’s commonly known) off the shores of Belize, where I’m blessed now to live.

But even in the biggest, most bustling city, anyone can become so enraptured by the sight of, say, a big, blue moon rising as to feel like the tiniest and most insignificant atom in God’s magnificent Creation. A city dweller can be as filled with an intense sense of wonder and awe as a any sight-seer at the Grand Canyon or a kid under the stars in a little Texas town.

Many are the wonders that can grab us and touch our spirits at levels as deep within us as the Grand Canyon or the ocean blue.

* * * *

So am I some kind of special VIP for having experienced a close encounter of such a grace-filled kind? Is it arrogant of me even to believe that God took hold of me, at the tender age of eleven, and shed God’s grace on me in such a powerful way?

Or might I have been born somehow predisposed to high spirituality–born with a spiritual sixth sense of some kind? After all, some people seem to be born with a strong sense of spirituality and others seem not to have so much as a smudge.

The answer to the first question above is a resounding no, I’m no more special than anyone else in God’s eyes. As for the other questions, I’ve mulled on them over the years. But I always come back to the certainty that my mystical experience under the stars so many moons ago was so very real to me as to defy reason–and reason is something I value very much. I’ve never been one to believe that you have to check your brain in at the church door, as they say, to be a Christian. And yet my very real mystical experience–for lack of a better description–defied reason and marked my life and my life’s entire journey in a profound way. While I value reason and believe strongly in it, I also believe in a God who has the power and grace to shatter any and all idols, reason included.

On this day of Epiphany, just know that God is out there and in you too–and may God shed His grace on thee in ways powerful and gripping and in those powerfully quiet little “aha!” moments too.
. ————-

    * In his great series of lectures and book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James found that one mark of a mystical experience is its ineffability.

    “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. . . . No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.”

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Rueben P. Job, a longtime United Methodist bishop who I’d dare say was one of the most grace-filled and spiritually productive bishops in the history of Methodist bishops, died the other day at age 86.

He faced even the dying process with that amazing grace for which he was so admired. As a prolific and gifted spiritual writer, he noted in his 2006 book Living Fully, Dying Well that he had no fear of death.

“I have no anxiety about my own death,” he wrote. “I just had a stent put in, and for a person of my age — with a third of my heart function remaining — it’s a risky venture. But I went into that operating room with the same confidence that I lie down in my bed every night. Had I awakened in another world, I don’t believe I would have been surprised or afraid.”

Did I mention that he was a man of amazing grace?

I had the great pleasure in my time as a church journalist to meet Bishop Job a few times, but I’ve been mourning his loss as if he was a close friend. That’s a testament to the power of his writings and his influence in my beloved United Methodist Church.

For sure, a lot of people who were touched by the bish are feeling the same way.

Here’s an excerpt from another of his books, Life Stories:

    My life on our [North Dakota] family farm was good. We were incredibly poor, but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.

    We usually rode a horse to school, as did the other children who attended. The barn on the school ground was filled with hay every fall and our horses were inside eating while we were in school. Of course, we had no ponies, only plow horses, so in the springtime when my father and, later, my older brother needed the horses in the field, my brother next to me in age and I walked to and from school.

    School was dismissed at four in the afternoon and I would walk the short way home, unless there was too much water from melting snow, in which case I would follow the road. But either way, I would approach our farmstead from a small hill. When I got to the top of the hill, I could see our house about three blocks away.

    I would begin running down that hill, unbuttoning my jacket, and, if it was warm, my shirt. Bursting into the kitchen, I would always find it filled with the aroma of fresh bread or cookies prepared by my mother, just waiting for my arrival.

    I loved school, the excitement of learning, and the fun of being with other children, but there was no place like home and the loving welcome for me there. So I ran the last few blocks, slipping off my ‘school clothes’ in preparation for putting on my ‘home clothes.’

    One day you will hear Reuben has died. Let there be no sorrow, but instead celebration as you remind each other, “He just slipped out of his school clothes and put on his home clothes. He is at home now” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

R.I.P., Bishop.

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