Thursday, December 29, 2011

My 2011 Top Ten

Everybody seems to be doing a year-end Top Ten. Okay, I'll chime in. 

These are persons or events that most captured my attention and imagination during 2011.

1. Anna Hazare. This 21-century Gandhi-esque man led a nonviolent protest against government corruption in the autumn that engaged millions of Indians.  His fast and savvy actions led to a major breakthrough on anti-corruption laws in the world's largest democracy. Best low-profile story of the year.

2. Tahrir Square. Nothing captured my imagination like the freedom movement in Egypt this past spring and summer.  The drama and dynamics of this peaceful movement brought about the downfall of US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak and brought hope for an authentic democracy.

3. Libyan liberation. It started nonviolent, but turned bloody quickly and ultimately relied on limited air support from NATO allies.  The initial impact is that the dictator Gaddafi is gone and there is hope for an emerging democracy in Libya.  Most importantly, Libya's future is in the people's hands.  I think President Obama's handling of this was stellar.

4. Greece in protest.  Partly because Becky and I waded through the middle of one day of the protests in Athens (our eyes burning from tear gas haze), and partly because what happens in Greece impacts much of the rest of the Eurozone.  All of Greece is in angst amid austerity measures and a terrible economy.  The heart of the birthplace of democracy is aching.

5. Occupy Wall Street.  At the beginning of the year, no one could have imagined it: a group of mostly young people decided that since Wall Street influence occupied our government leaders they would occupy Wall Street for the sake of the 99% of Americans. Their extended and ameobic protest would spark a world-wide movement. I participated in the initial Occupy Indianapolis day and spent time with Occupy London protesters in October.

6. Gabby Giffords.  I was on a fundraising bicycle ride in Vietnam when Gabby Giffords and her entourage was attacked with deadly violence--a violence derived directly from politician- and news media-fomented venom.  Condemnation was swift and widespread. For a while, at least, the tone of public discourse changed. I think this episode marks the beginning of the end of the Tea Party's ascendance and credibility.

7. Inept Congress.  House Speaker John Boehner and the conservative bloc of the House of Representatives have demonstrated and symbolized all that is broken in American political process at the moment.  But they aren't alone.  Time for a radical change in Congressional process.

8. Last Shuttle flight.  American space flight has captured and fueled my imagination since I was a young child.  The last shuttle flight in late summer signaled the end of an era for America and for me.  What's next?

9. Penn State sex scandal.  This tragic ordeal reveals so many layers of cover-up, complicity and unreported sexual abuse that are more usual than we want to believe across the nation.  May healing come to the boys (now young men) who were abused. May justice and, after that, mercy come to all who perpetrated or failed act to end these abuses.

10. Out of Iraq.  Over 4,000 American lives, over 100,000 Iraqi lives and over a trillion American taxpayer dollars late.  President Obama kept an important promise by getting US troops out of Iraq.  But the fact that none of the politicians who led America into this fiasco have been held accountable is a travesty.  That, too, is a legacy of President Obama.  But many of us shall not forget who insisted on this greatest and most costly foreign policy blunder in US history.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Four Calling Birds

A Reflection for the Fourth Day of Christmas

[This is from a book I self-published a few years ago.  Twelve Days: A Spiritual Journey offers daily readings and reflections from Christmas to Epiphany using the traditional carol as a framework. This is the reading for the December 28th, the fourth day of Christmas.]

"On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… four calling birds."

Four Calling Birds = the Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which convey the Good News of God reconciling the world in Jesus.
Read: Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 7:21-23; John 20:30-31

PUTTING AWAY CHRISTMAS ALREADY? Still celebrating Christmas? Still basking in the afterglow of the Word (logos) become flesh? As we start to put away Christmas decorations, and as the gifts we have received merge into our wardrobe or take their place in the household to become part of the fabric of living, keep the candle of Christmas glowing. We have received greater gifts. And we are yet to receive more!

GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. Open the gifts for the fourth day of Christmas: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Calling birds, indeed! Good News like no other. It is a story told from four different perspectives that is above all other stories. It is a story--a meta-narrative--in which we can find ourselves and through which we can live our own stories authentically.

JUBILEE BEGUN. Pay close attention to the Scripture readings today. Isaiah 61 describes the year of Jubilee, a comprehensive and radical personal and social reordering of life according to God’s reign. Jesus proclaimed Jubilee fulfilled in his coming. Luke 7:21-23 offers confirmation to the followers of John the Baptist that, in fact, Jesus is the Good News for which generations of people had longed. John 20:30-31 makes clear that the Gospel writers did not--could not--capture it all. It also makes clear the intent of the Gospel writing itself: that we may believe and have life through Jesus Christ.

WIDENING THE IMPACT. What Christmas implies and promises, the Gospels write large by walking us through the life of Jesus with heart-opening lucidity. The Gospels document and detail evidence that the hopes and fears of all the years were, indeed, met in Jesus Christ. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke conspicuously hint at the broad, troubling, and grace-bearing impact Jesus would have. And John’s eloquent introduction sets the stage for a story in which "as many as received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God."

FOUR DISTINCT PERSPECTIVES. The four Gospels make no attempt to reconcile differences in details or to paint a seamless, air-brushed picture of Jesus. Each is written from a different perspective for a different audience at a different time and from a different place. The fact that they are individually so raw and make no pretense at orchestrating events so as to present a united front seems to argue for their authenticity and believability. Though incredibly diverse, the common threads and penetrating message of the Gospels witnesses to something that has forever changed the world.

AWAKENING TO WHAT I KNEW. I grew up saturated with stories from the Gospels. It was a gift unappreciated and taken for granted. I didn’t awaken to the radical nature of the Gospel message and its claims upon my life and the community of faith until I was well into my twenties. I am still waking up to this gift, still being converted by the challenging invitation, still being apprehended by the call. I am still realizing this is, indeed, Good News for all humanity, for every person, even for me.

THEIR TERMS, NOT MINE. The Gospels are Good News on their own terms, not mine. Only as I let go of my flimsy excuses, shallow attachments, grandiose notions, self-serving interpretations, and less-thancertain certitudes, the Gospel finds me and I find my home in the Gospel. Our own stories are significant when they find their place in the Story. Every person takes his or her place in the Gospels; we must to decide, however, how the Gospels tell our stories.

Tomorrow: "Five Gold Rings" - The five books of Torah (the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Work of Christmas

Howard Thurman suggests "next steps" after Christmas

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart."

from The Moods of Christmas

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas is for Adults

My poem reminds the adults amongst us to let the season change us

I wrote the following poem just a few years ago, when our house was full of kiddos--they're now young adults.  I was thinking about the possibility of Christmas making a spiritual change in the hearts of adults, not just children.

It is not enough to say
"Christmas is for children."
So it is, and ever so.
But it is especially for adults,
those routinous creatures

with furrowed brows wrapped
in self-absorbing pursuits.

These lamentable beings need
Christmas if they are ever
to be whole again.
They are so forgetful of
things that matter
and so clamorous for
things that don't.

Christmas, if it can pierce
their thick facade and
deflate their oversized egos,
may touch a forgotten place--
an abandoned but still
life-giving place--
in adult souls.

Christmas invites children
and adults alike to a place

where room is made for
a Child and that Child

is adored and honored
as a gift, a hope--even salvation--
for one and all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chesterton's Take on Christmas

The rotund English Catholic and prolific journalist pumped up Christmas like few have before or since

"It is in the old Christmas carols, hymns, and traditions--those which date from the Middle Ages--that we find not only what makes Christmas poetic and soothing and stately, but first and foremost what makes Christmas exciting. The exciting quality of Christmas rests on an ancient and admitted paradox. It rests upon the paradox that the power and center of the whole universe may be found in some seemingly small matter, that the stars in their courses may move like a moving wheel around the neglected outhouse of an inn.” — G. K. Chesterton

Monday, December 12, 2011


If chains shall be broken, we will have a hand in breaking them. Enough hand-wringing. Let's do what we know is right and just.

Luke shares words attributed to a pregnant Mary: "He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." Luke 1:53

How does that happen?

Has it happened?

Is it yet to occur?

How are we to receive, understand, interpret and apply this and the other radical liberation statements in Mary's Song (Magnificat)?  I reject the notion that this is merely literary flourish, that it is not to be taken literally.  Too much of Old Testament prophecy and the words and actions of Jesus echo it (or it echoes them).

And, while we're at it, how do we get from who Jesus was and what he did to what Jesus makes possible for us and calls us now to be and do?

"Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother," we sing in the stirring Christmas anthem "O Holy Night," "and in his name all oppression shall oppression shall cease."  Amen!  

But, tell me, if Jesus has done this, or made this possible or started the process, what part do you and I have in it?  Is it just hope-so someday?  Is it an eventuality?  Is it "stand back and wait for God to do something?"  I don't think so and most serious Bible scholars don't think so.  But the vast majority of the church has played a some-day, hand-wringing game for two millennia.   Too often the church has invested more of its energies in church empire than in "Thy kingdom come," leaving people victimized by dominating people, institutions and systems to fend for themselves or hope for something better in the world to come.

If chains shall be broken, we shall have a hand in breaking them.  If oppression shall cease, it begins with us to stop oppressing and pretending like we aren't implicated and complicit in oppression on a global scale.  If the hungry are to be filled with good things, it should be through those of us who follow Jesus, who say we take him seriously, who will lay aside our over-the-top wealth and act now to fill the hungry with good things.

Today, there are more people enslaved in our world than ever before.  Millions of people--many of them under age 14--labor in virtual slavery, are trafficked in the sex industry, or are used as pawns in paying off someone else's debts.  Learn about 21st-century slavery and the new abolitionist movement at Get involved.

Enough games-playing.  Enough excusing.  Enough hand-wringing.  Enough hope-so.  Enough obfuscation.  Enough putting off.  It's way past time to do what Jesus did and instructed his followers to do.  Do that; that's all that's required.

Let's break some chains.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Context is everything. Without it, a basic grasp of Nativity--then and now--is lost. But what happens when we locate the story among undocumented aliens surviving at the margins of empire? 

Dorothee Soelle, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent & Christmas (Plough Publishing, 2001) writes:

"How and under what conditions had people lived then in Galilee? Political oppression, legal degradation, economic plunder, and religious neutrality in the scope of the religio lictia ('permitted religion') were realities that the writer Luke kept in view in his story, which is so sublime and yet so focused on the center of all conceivable power."

"At last I saw the imperium from the perspective of those dominated by it. I recognized torturers and informers behind the coercive measure, 'All went…to be registered' (v. 3). Finally I comprehended the peace of the angels 'on earth' and not only in the souls of individual people. I understood for the first time the propaganda terms of the Roman writers who spoke of pax and jus when they really meant grain prices and militarization of the earth known at that time (all this can be confirmed by research today)."

"Of course my rereading was politically colored. I too was surrounded by propaganda ('freedom and democracy'). While in the narrative I heard the boot of the empire crush everything in its way from Bethlehem to Golgotha, I saw the carpet bombings in the poor districts of San Salvador right behind the glittering displays on Fifth Avenue in New York..."

"In Paul the causes of misery are called the reign of sin. Without understanding this imperium ('reign') in its economic and ecological power of death, we also cannot see the light of Christmas shine. Living in the pretended social market economy, we do not even seem to need this light!"

"Whoever wants to proclaim something about this light has to free the stifled longing of people. An interpretation of the Bible that takes seriously concrete, everyday human cares and does not make light of the dying of children from hunger and neglect is helpful in this regard. By showing up the incomparable power of violence in our world today, it deepens our yearning for true peace."

"Luke refers to the praxis of transmission and proclamation. The frightened shepherds become God’s messengers. They organize, make haste, find others, and speak with them. Do we not all want to become shepherds and catch sight of the angel? I think so."

"But without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. Yet, when we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Seeing the Signs

After it wakes us up, Advent calls for us to see and discern critically

“At every turn in the Christmas story there appears an absurd mismatch: a woman and a dragon, a babe and the kings of this world, a messiah of utter folly and the power of death. But that is precisely the method that God has chosen in the Incarnation. God risks everything on the power of powerlessness.”

The topic of Christmas is whether we have the eyes to see it. And the heart to follow. Many did not recognize God’s coming to them in Jesus. But some did. Christmas has to do with seeing the signs, with recognition, with discerning God’s presence in the world.”

“As William Stringfellow said, ‘Discerning signs does not seek spectacular proofs or await the miraculous, but, rather, it means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death’s vitality in all that happens.’ Lord, for such a comprehension in this season and all, grant us the heart!”

— Bill Wylie Kellerman in Seasons of Faith and Conscience

For contemplation:

What do we see?

How do we see?

At how many levels and from which different angles dare we perceive?

I am struck by the widely varied responses to the Occupy movement. Our reactions or responses reveal what we are able or willing to see in our society and ourselves, it seems to me.

God, help me see more fully--both what is sabotaging community and the grace that is reweaving it--and not forget or neglect to act here and now in anticipation of what is possible and shall surely be for all who long for your appearing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

God's Slow Work

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin challenges my anxiousness and encourages me to embrace the murky middle 

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. 
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.
Yet it is the law that all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on as though
you could be today what time
— that is to say, grace–
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. 1881-1955