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Follow Me

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On Thursday I watched the new Martin Scorsese movie Silence. It’s about two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians. Many Japanese were tortured and killed for their faith. Many more gave up their faith to avoid persecution. At the climax of the movie, one of the missionaries is given a choice – renounce his faith and save the lives of five Japanese Christians or keep his faith and watch them die a cruel and painful death. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what he did, but I will say that it was a difficult film to watch at times.

Like the missionaries in the movie, the earliest disciples had no idea what they were getting themselves into when Jesus called them. The first four, two sets of brothers, were all fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story. What’s impressive is how these men left their nets and followed Jesus IMMEDIATELY when Jesus came and said to them, “Follow me.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Traveling from town to town with a rabbi must have sounded better than doing the same strenuous work day after day. To be sure, Jesus didn’t promise them a rose garden. Not by any means. But he did promise that they’d still be fishermen of sorts. Only instead of catching fish, they’d catch people for God.

I often wish God’s call to me were as clear as the one the disciples received by the lakeshore. Before I went to seminary, I struggled with my calling. I thought I might want to become a psychologist instead of a minster, so I enrolled in a psychology class at the local community college and applied for a graduate studies program in counseling psychology at the University of Florida. In the end, I decided to go into the ministry instead. My wife Amelia and I hitched a U-Haul trailer to our 1974 Chevy Impala, loaded up our furniture and personal belongings, and drove from Florida to North Carolina where I enrolled in seminary. I’d like to tell you that making that leap of faith settled all doubt about my calling. It did not. I continued to struggle with the question of what God wanted me to be. A missionary? A pastor? A Navy chaplain? A college or seminary professor? I didn’t know. I’ve done all those things except for being a missionary. I’ve found good in all of them. I’ve sensed God’s blessing in all of them. But I’ve never heard a voice telling me, “This is the way, walk in it.”

One thing that God has been teaching me lately is the difference between being and doing. Who I am is more important that what I do. God calls everyone to follow him. For some that involves leaving everything and entering full-time ministry like the Jesuit missionaries in the movie Silence. For many following Jesus means being a faithful witness right where we are. No change of employment. No new address. The important thing is that we’re living for Jesus now – this day, in this moment.

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Christmas – Holiday or Holy Day?

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Christmas falls on Sunday this year. Even though it’s special to have the birthday of Jesus fall on the Lord’s day, I expect church attendance to be low. Really low. Maybe half, if we’re lucky. Why is that? Let’s be honest: Christmas has become a holiday. It’s no longer a holy day. To understand why this is we have to look back and see what’s changed.

In pre-modern times, there were two approaches to knowledge: symbolic and rational. The symbolic approach was embedded in the religious stories and rituals. It was the expertise of the prophet, the priest, and the poet. The rational approach helped people understand the stars overhead and the ground beneath their feet. It allowed them to craft better tools, engineer better bridges, and raise healthier animals. Both approaches – symbolic and rational – were held in equally high regard. The same was true in pre-modern Christianity. The sacred stories (Scripture) and rituals (sacraments), on the one hand, and sacred beliefs (theology), on the other, were equally important.

The Greeks called these two approaches: mythos (myth) and logos (reason). In our modern, scientific age the word “myth” has fallen into ill repute and means a story that’s untrue. “Myth,” in this earlier sense of the word, doesn’t mean a fairy tale. As one famous anthropologist explained, it’s “not merely a story told, but a reality lived. […] It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and enforces practical rules for the guidance of man” (Bronislaw Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” 1926). A myth isn’t just something to be understood and believed, like reason. It’s a program for reform. It points to a better way to live.

Myths and rituals are mutually reinforcing. In ancient times the two were always tied together.  As Karen Armstrong explains, “Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.  Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally” (The Case for God).

By rejecting sacred stories and rituals, secular modern man has lost his core. There’s no more grounding for values and no more source for meaning. Jungian psychologist James Hollis puts it neatly: “When the gods are not expressed inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.” That’s why at this time of year the Christmas cookie has replaced the communion wafer. The materialistic rituals of Christmas (gift buying and giving, binge eating and drinking) leave us emptier than before we filled our homes and stomachs with more stuff.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to cancel Christmas. I like a lot of those outward projections. I don’t want to give them up. But when opening presents or cooking Christmas dinner trumps going to church on Christmas Sunday, I think it’s time to call timeout. It’s time to re-evaluate our sacred myths and re-engage with our sacred rituals. Going to church on Christmas morning won’t solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.

Merry Christmas!

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Hungry For Change

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Woman picks through food waste in Kampala, Uganda

October is World Hunger Month. It’s an important time to remember how daunting the problem of hunger is. One billion people in the world are hungry, and over 46 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning they skip meals or cannot afford to eat healthy. That’s surprising since 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually. That’s enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. There’s no shortage of food. There’s an abundance of poverty. Those with enough money eat well whether they live in Washington DC or Timbuktu. There’s also an abundance of greed, corruption, and infrastructure challenges that contribute to the problem of food insecurity.

While I was in Africa I saw up close the devastating effects of a broken global food system. I remember watching a woman picking through a pile of food waste in Uganda and children begging on the streets in war-ravaged Somalia. The hunger problem in America is less obvious. Poor families rely on cheap, unhealthy processed food to get enough calories, which has led to an obesity epidemic. We usually think of skinny, emaciated people as hungry. Overweight people may not be hungry, technically speaking, but obesity is often due to a lack of affordable, healthy food.

Giving food to the hungry is a stop-gap that treats the symptom, not the root problem. What would it look like if we got serious about trying to end hunger and poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem? I’m not sure, but it should start with building relationships with the poor, not just giving them food or money (though sometimes that’s what they need most to help them through a crisis). Using our God-given time, talents, and resources, we could empower those in need to work toward getting out of poverty themselves and helping others to do the same. A hand up rather than a hand out. What’s needed is an approach that captures the spirit of the following quote by Lao Tzu:

Go to the people:

live with them,

learn from them

love them

start with what they know

build with what they have.

 

But of the best leaders,

when the job is done,

the task accomplished,

the people will say:

“We have done it ourselves.”

What would that look like in the context of relief for the poor? Scholarships to help pay for education and job training. Microfinance programs to start small businesses. Childcare co-ops for single mothers. Ride sharing. Community gardens. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes the challenges seem so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. But the problems of poverty and hunger won’t solve themselves. We need to take action. We need to begin. To quote Lao Tzu again, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So let’s get moving.

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Gone Missing

Kindly reader, I am a blog without a blogger

He has gone missing for weeks

and my house is empty. Suffer me awhile,

or go, and if you meet him—

he with a distant look and shambling gait—

tell him the hearth is cooling down.

 

I won’t know a thing for days,

he takes to a walk-about

and never pays me notice.

What kind of life is that?

 

Yet I’ve never expected different—

I’m glad he just comes back at all.

And you could say absence

sometimes makes for a better blog.

 

Adapted from Paul Quenon, “Gone Missing,” in Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014), 13-14. The words “poem” and “poet” have been replaced with “blog” and “blogger.”

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Year’s End

The end of a year is a time of reflection. We remember the highs and lows, the blessings and tragedies of the past while looking forward with hope to a new year. My mother sent me the words of a German hymn yesterday written by Eleonore, Princess of Reuss (1835-1903). You can read the full text in the original here.  I’ve pasted a translation of the first and last verses below. I hope you like it.

Silently The Year Comes To An End

1. Silently the year comes to an end,

Be therefore still my soul.

Into God’s faithful hand

I lay my pains of old,

And ev’ry thing this year encumbered,

Griefs only my God has numbered,

The tears I long to weep,

The wounds still burning deep.

6. Help us through these troubled days

And let our hearts be strong,

Walk beside us on our ways,

Keep us from doing wrong.

And it is here below

So desolate, so alone,

O grant us in your peace

To be blessed now here at home!

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