Jordan: Awe-inspiring beauty, culture, people

Temple of Hercules ruins, Amman

Ruins of the Temple of Hercules at the Roman Citadel, Amman

Standing in the Roman Citadel on the highest point of the modern city of Amman, Jordan before sunrise, the pale light of dawn revealed the ruins of the great temple of Hercules built by the Romans around 30 BC.

The site is considered by some experts to be among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places with pottery shards dating from the Neolithic period.

I felt my heart beat with excitement as I set a tripod to catch the gathering light. “It can’t get any better than this,” I thought.

Later, when we entered the Roman colonnade city of Jerash before sunset, the blue sky was punctuated by puffy white clouds that would bring a brief shower.

Hadrian's Arch, Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash

The orange glow lit Hadrian’s arch, the impressive entrance to the city, constructed around 129 AD. And I thought one more time, “It can’t get any better than this.”

The next evening as we turned in for the night at the Dead Sea, I watched the sun set over Jerusalem across the way as the sunlight splayed like diamonds on the surface of the water, and I thought once again, “It can’t get any better…”

And so it went for 9 days across the country of Jordan, a feast of history, culture, food, wonderful people and haunting beauty.

Wadi Rum sunset

Wadi Rum sunset

From Amman to Jerash; from the Dead Sea to the evocative beauty of the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum (where the movie The Martian was filmed); from the ancient city of Petra carved into the sandstone cliffs to Dana, the northernmost point of the Great Rift Valley that extends southward through east Africa, each day brought its own awe.

I was traveling with a group of seven photographers led by noted photographer Ken Keminesky of Discovery Photo Tours. In addition to our Jordanian guide, we were an eclectic collection of ages and nationalities from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Singapore, the U.S., and a U.S. expatriate living in the Netherlands.

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

Traveling with the group was a joy in itself. Our travel time was marked by bright conversation, humor, and helpful sharing of ideas and information.

I will be posting photos from the trip on my Facebook photography page as well as my personal Facebook page and Instagram. I hope you’ll take a moment to view these brief photo stories and I hope they convey the wonders of Jordan that so captivated me.

The People, The Science, The Eclipse

A sunspot stands out in the lower section of the sun’s orb.

Having never experienced one, I’m looking forward to the eclipse on August 21, 2017. 

Totality is said to be a life-changing event. Some claim to find spiritual renewal, while others report it leads them to new or renewed interest in understanding the natural world, cosmology, and a broader appreciation of science.

In a day when science is under assault from the religious right–and some corporate and political leaders–it’s worth recalling how science helps us to understand the universe and our place in it.

In his wonderful account of the American eclipse of 1878, David Baron assesses the unique role of the people in a democratic society in support of the advancement of science.

Baron reports that Simon Newcomb (an American astronomer in 1878) wrote, ‘“In other intellectual nations, science has a fostering mother,…in Germany the universities, in France the government, in England the scientific societies…The only one it can look to here is the educated public.”’ 

Baron concludes: “In a democratic and egalitarian America, the citizenry was in charge of the nation’s destiny, and therefore advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.” 

The support and curiosity of citizens made it possible for scientists to mount expeditions to observe the eclipse of 1878 in the western territories, and many of those expeditions experienced great hardship.

In this light, the debate about science and religion today is even more vital.

The science of global warming, genetic intervention, evolution, and the potential for a sixth mass extinction, makes it critically important to reflect how we approach scientific curiosity today, and how we view our place in creation. 

Father Richard Rohr makes a key point when he writes, “The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.”

The dichotomy between religion and science is false. Father Rohr says, “The basic ‘sacramental principle’ is this: we can know spiritual things through the physical world and bodily actions.”

I’m looking to the eclipse with both spiritual and scientific curiosity. Annie Dillard says it best for me: “We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so that each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other…Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.” 

Sharon and I will be watching with friends on a hillside in Tennessee. I’m waiting with great anticipation for the illuminating darkness.

_____________________________________________

When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?

Psalm 8:3-4 Common English Bible

 

Impending Famine

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

I just finished watching We Who Remain, a new virtual reality film from the New York Times about survivors of the Sudan civil war. They are from the Nuba mountain region that was retained by the government in the north when South Sudan was created.

But rebels from the south continued to operate in the Nuba mountains, resulting in ongoing warfare between the northern government and southern combatants.

The immersive film, which is viewed by placing a cellphone into a simple two lens cardboard device, provides a 360° view into the lives of those who remain in the region. It’s also viewable without the 360° viewer.

While they feel trapped by the horrific fighting, this is their home. They have no place to which they can flee, so they remain.

Their stories are touching, engaging and sad. Children have seen bodies dismembered by bombs dropped from the air. They have learned to jump into large holes dug into the earth when the bombs drop or the shooting starts.

This is, unfortunately, not a new story. It’s one of the oldest conflicts in recent history. 

Social Conflict

It’s continued, in part, because the region for many years was not viewed as strategically important to the Cold War powers. After the end of the Cold War, Eritrean separatists fought and won independence from Ethiopia. Somalia came apart and descended into anarchy. And in Sudan rebels in the south took up arms and won independence from the north.

Then the Middle East region became a hotbed of violence. Today the U.S. has a base in Djoubti and China is moving in next door. After displacing its residents and leasing it from the British, the U.S. established a base on the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia. The area is strategic due to its position between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

I’ve traveled in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia several times and the region looks today much as it did when I was there several years ago. Southern Sudan, including the Nuba mountains, is an arid, bare landscape. The people have adapted by learning to live on the edge of survival, primarily by tending cattle.

Many of the children have grown up knowing nothing but social conflict. Many have lost parents, siblings and whole families. The conflict seems intractable and the suffering unending. Only days ago seven humanitarian aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan.

Perhaps this intractability is why it doesn’t attract much attention anymore. But that’s an unsatisfactory reason for not attempting to alleviate the human suffering that is growing by the day.

Impending Famine

The United Nations says it needs $4.4 billion by July to prevent famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Famine threatens 20 million people. Some reports claim it could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In addition, millions of Syrians are displaced and living in temporary conditions that are miserable, or worse. 

While this global crisis develops, the U.S. and some European nations are engaged in interminable debates over national politics to the neglect of a world that is broken and divided. We are preoccupied by a nationalist, nativist ideological dispute that detracts from global perspective.

For people of goodwill, and most especially, for people of Christian faith, this is also a distraction from the historic teachings of the faith. Scripture tells us we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and that our responsibilities for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering water to the thirsty and making peace have no boundaries. It is all God’s world. And we share responsibility for its nurture and care.

A World of Abundance

Thus, despite the false preaching that offers Bible-blessed nationalism, the call to Christians today is to maintain a global view and to act accordingly. This means to provide aid to those who are vulnerable, those who for no reason but birth, find themselves living in life-threatening conditions. It means caring for people within the borders of our own nation and beyond. It means understanding that there’s enough for all. We live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity.

And it means advocating for funding for humanitarian aid and keeping foreign assistance.  

Among those groups that I support offering direct service and advocacy are the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service. Both organizations help me keep this perspective.

 

A Walk in the Woods

Radnor Lake at sunrise

For the past 2 1/2 years, I have made it a point to walk approximately three miles every day. Most often I walk at a wildlife conservation area with many trails and a lake within the city limits of metropolitan Nashville.

I made a goal to post one photo a day of nature or wildlife on Facebook and other social media.

This has been a remarkably positive experience. A cold morning this week was especially so.

I arrived just after sunrise but before the sun rose above the hills that encircle the lake.

When I started my walk the temperature was 22° but Accuweather said it felt like 17°.

Small birds were prolific, unlike the previous day when the woods seemed unusually quiet.

A doe watched as I stood nearby

A doe watched as I stood nearby

A family group of does watched me as I approached, lifting their heads and turning as I walked along.

The younger ones were playful and scampered back and forth into the woods. The older ones kept their eyes on me until I stopped and lowered myself to appear smaller. They eventually returned to their grazing.

I walked on and saw several yellow-rumped warblers and eastern phoebes feeding on trees at the edge of the lake. More of these birds are showing up now than were here over the winter.

Tree swallows in sunrise fog

Tree swallows in sunrise fog

A flock of tree swallows flew by. Fog was rising from the water. As the sun crept above the hills, the swallows flew into the orange haze. I fired a couple of clicks of the shutter.

A horned grebe swam away from the bank below me, the sole grebe on the lake.

A green-winged teal circled and landed toward the middle of the lake behind a group of ring-necked ducks bobbing for food.

As I walked along the paved pedestrian road a hermit thrush froze in place on a tree within a few feet of me. Then a golden-crowned kinglet busily worked the next tree and I stopped to watch and attempt a photograph.

Eastern phoebes flew ahead of me along the bank. They didn’t seem panicked or afraid.They were casual, staying ahead of me as they searched the trees for insects.

A great blue heron sunning in early morning light

A great blue heron sunning in early morning light

A great blue heron flew from its resting place on a log near the shore as I passed by. I found another sunning itself on a log jutting from the bank. I stopped and took a picture. It stood there, aware of my presence but unperturbed.

The horned grebe muddled along the bank.

I walked to the road that runs atop the dam where I discovered another hermit thrush. It was not concerned about me. I walked within a few feet and it continued to hop along the ground searching for insects.

The thrush perched, raising and lowering its tail as it observed the ground for moving insects.

 

Hermit thrush seemed unconcerned that I was nearby

A hermit thrush seemed unconcerned that I was nearbyThe barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

I worked to get a photo clear of foreground brush. I stalked the bird for 20 minutes, taking several photos while it was on the ground and perched in small trees on the bank.

Two rusty blackbirds drink at lake cove

Two rusty blackbirds drinking at a lake cove

I continued along the lake trail to a cove where I saw a large flock of rusty blackbirds drinking at the edge of the lake.

 

 

I’ve been looking for this species for three years to no avail. Now, here they are with the sun shining on them and no obstructions to block my view. I knelt down to become smaller and started taking pictures. They remained at this drinking spot for ten minutes before flying away.

I was thinking, “This may the best day I’ve had in the woods since I started coming here over two years ago.” I might even work up to a whistling mood.

I walked the rest of the trail, my feet crunching the frozen ground. I was alone on the trail. That’s quite unusual. I had the place to myself.

Barred owl on street sign

Barred owl on street sign

I went to my pickup truck and had a snack before starting home. As I was leaving the entrance to the wildlife area, I spotted a barred owl sitting on a street sign near the gate. I stopped and took a photo through the open window.

I edged the truck forward and took a second photo. The owl sat there looking at me.

 

The barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

The barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

I moved even with the owl, expecting it to fly. It sat looking at me. I snapped a closeup photo and drove away, chuckling.

Today was typical only in that I walked the trail observing the wildlife and enjoyed being outdoors. It was atypical in that I was alone for most of the time and the wildlife unperturbed allowed me to get close, unusually close.

It was a great day.

On Reading Again–and a tongue in cheek thank you

I suppose I should thank Donald Trump because in a roundabout way he has caused me to become a reader again. I got so frustrated during the campaign that I stopped watching network television news. I also turned off NPR.
 
This was a major change for me. I was an information junkie. I was always tuned in to some form of electronic information source.
 
I weaned myself from these media for three reasons. The false equivalence of the journalistic method. The imbalance in airtime given to Mrs. Clinton vs. Donald Trump. (Ratings, ratings, ratings.) The unwillingness early on to call out falsehoods.
 
These led me to say, “enough!”
 
I turned to print publications and online news sources I trust.
 
I also returned to reading books. Not books about politics. Books about everything I’m interested in, which is almost everything.
 
I had become concerned about my inability to read long form journalism anyway. I noticed I was having trouble staying with longer pieces. I’d gotten accustomed to 500 word posts online. And I had acclimated to the ridiculous sound bite journalism of electronic media.
 
I committed to giving 15 minutes a day to reading and sticking with it. I turned off the radio, TV, cellphone, and put away all the devices.
 
The joy of reading began to return. Before long I found myself reading beyond my 15-minute limit.
 
Then I discovered I was becoming engrossed in books and articles. I was moving beyond my self-defined short-term attention deficit disorder.
 
Since the election, here’s what I’ve been reading:
 
The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr. Franciscan Father Rohr is attempting to “rebuild Christian teaching from the bottom up.” A formidable task, but well worth the effort. In this book he reframes teaching about the trinity in Christian religion. Rohr is providing hope-filled teaching. In this time of declining interest in a judgmental, punitive, exclusive faith, that’s wonderful.
 
A Christian Justice for the Common Good by Dr. Tex Sample. Dr. Sample provides a theological rationale for a justice for the common good. And he discusses how to apply it in today’s social environment.
 
Deep South by Paul Theroux. The veteran travel writer turns his attention to people of the U.S. South whose stories are rarely told. It’s an insightful reporting of conversations and attitudes about the South. It’s a reminder that as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
 
Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams by Mark Ribowsky. A detailed look into the tragic life of country music’s most iconic star. It’s amazing that Hank accomplished so much in so short a time, and his life was such a tragic mess.
 
The Air Castle of the South: WSM and the making of Music City by Craig Havighurst. This is a well-written history of radio station WSM. The station made a contribution to the city of Nashville, the national culture, and to radio. I saw a small part of that history many years ago. As part of a training event run by Dennis Benson, I got permission to sit in on the all-night show of DJ Ralph Emery. He interviewed country singers after they had played sets in downtown honky tonks. The night I was there he interviewed a young blonde woman named Dolly. We all know the rest of that story.
 
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy. This is a collection of papers, blog posts, and letters by this wonderful southern writer. He died in 2016. The papers reveal his affecting human qualities.
 
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. From 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society gathered an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the streets of New York City. They were put on “orphan trains” bound for families in midwestern states. Some found loving homes, but many did not. They became indentured servants, often facing cruel abuse and hardship beyond words. This novel captures their grim existence. It also tells of their strength of spirit, and the occasional goodwill of adults around them. Baker Kline uses a storytelling device that’s compelling in its own right. I won’t give it away.
 
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I grew up hearing about the Dust Bowl from my grandparents in Oklahoma. They lived east of the land affected by the great blows. But they experienced the Great Depression. Like many in the western part of the state, they also experienced displacement. Both of my grandfathers had to abandon farming and move their families to town. It was heart-wrenching. Egan captures the pathos of this hardship using the stories of survivors.
 
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I decided to re-read McCourt’s memoir about his childhood in New York and Ireland. I wanted to refresh my understanding of memoir. This story is as powerfully moving as it gets.
 
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall. Oh, if I only had a mind for understanding physics, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. I don’t. But that doesn’t make reading Randall less interesting. Her explanations are helping me to grasp an elementary understanding of these things. What is dark matter and what does it do? What’s the difference between asteroids, meteoroids, and comets? What does this have to do with the dinosaurs?
 
As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, offering disparate views of the world. Always an intriguing world. I’d recommend each of them without reserve.
 
Oh, and I’m still getting news. I’m reading the NY Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, and VOX, online or in hard copy. I also turn to the BBC, Reuters and other sources for both video and narrative reporting.
 
Life is more interesting when I manage media more purposefully. I probably wouldn’t have done it without Donald. So, thanks, I guess.
 
But, to be clear. Still, I resist.

A Trump Anti-Inauguration Plan

How does a person of faith and a concerned citizen respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump which is only days away?

The question is especially pertinent if you believe Trump is a danger to the country, if not the world, and articulates opinions and policies that are clearly in conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

Much damage has been done to the impression of Christians by white evangelicals and other Christians who voted for Trump despite his obvious moral failings, racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, ignorance of policy and global affairs.

I think it’s important to reclaim the faith from the fear and warped theology that political operatives on the right have used to infect Christian teaching.

And I’m not alone in this. A plethora of email appeals to resist, repudiate, and protest Trump’s leadership and policies come daily. What to do?

Moral Response

A moral response based on faith is not only possible, it can be a witness to the teachings of Jesus from a different perspective.

A recent column by Charles M. Blow, while not written with religion in mind, provided helpful guidance. Blow writes that it’s not enough to be negative. Negative actions must be balanced with constructive response that reinforces principles and values. 

This resonates with me. Christian faith is embodied in constructive action. Faith is a way of living. In fact, in its earliest days, it was called “the way.”

Blow proposes a personal plan for making your opposition known. He says we must also deny that Trump and his behavior are normal. Blow calls it an “anti-inauguration plan.”

Like many others, I’ve been developing my own response to the election of Trump and I find Blow’s plan a helpful tool. 

So, with appreciation to Mr. Blow for his template, here’s my plan:

Pray

Prayer is lifting to consciousness our deepest concerns, hopes, fears, and joys, and baring them before God. Prayer is not limited to petitioning God for personal favors, or blessing others.

Prayer is also about perceiving and responding to the sacred in our lives. It is active engagement.

Since I left the workplace, I have been concentrating on nature and wildlife photography, not merely as a hobby but as a form of prayer.

The meditation time this provides, the awareness of the sacred it brings to consciousness, and the sharing it allows has become more meaningful than I anticipated when I began.

I believe when we bring our creativity to expression in concrete ways, we are are engaging in a sacred conversation. 

My photography not only expresses my creative impulses, it also is a reminder to me of the sacredness of the natural world. And it’s a way to call attention to the need to preserve and protect the whole of God’s good creation.

Protest

Protests are being organized around the country. I will join those in my city who proclaim that the policies proposed by Trump and some of his cabinet selections do not represent values and policies that I endorse. Some are antithetical to civil liberties, immigrants, women, and the environment. I intend to protest these harmful policies. 

Donate

Since the election, my spouse and I have donated to four organizations that are working to conserve wildlife and natural sites, one that is assisting people to utilize sustainable technology to improve their lives, a couple that work in public policy advocacy, and one that is speaking publicly from religious values to call the Trump administration to accountability.

Subscribe

We believe that a free press, flawed as electronic journalism is, remains an important line of defense in these troubling days. While I have stopped watching television news and public affairs programming and eliminated NPR from my information-gathering habits, I have subscribed to three newspapers and a magazine rooted in Christian teachings that focuses on justice and reducing poverty .

Remember that subscriptions also open the channel to online reading of content.

Read

It’s clear that an informed public is essential to the common good. I spend less time with TV and more time reading since we now have a president who seems averse to reading much of anything of substance.

In particular, I am re-reading Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer prize winning “Collapse”, and Dr. Tex Sample’s “A Christian Theology for the Common Good.”

Write

I have made my views known to my national and state legislators in the past but since the Trump election I have been much more frequent in writing to elected representatives to advocate for public policy that I believe is more humane, just, and consistent with the Constitution and the moral imperatives that Jesus taught.

Hearing from me more often, I assume also identifies me to them and reminds them of values that I advocate.

Letters to the editor, op-ed opinion pieces, radio call-in shows, feedback to news media about stories, and outreach through social media are means to voice support for fundamental moral issues of justice.

Connect

I have sought to re-connect with family and friends because we live in a society that is isolating and destructive of community. This disintegration of community is what fed the discontent and fears of Trump voters, and he was successful in exploiting discontent and fear.

People of faith also have local communities called congregations in which they can worship and find spiritual strength, develop friendships, and study the teachings of Jesus that are the basis for a life lived with meaning and purpose.

But to be frank about it, some of these communities have not been places where honest discussion of justice and faithfulness to the common good have been addressed forthrightly. It’s time to reclaim this lost territory for religious values that are humanizing and biblically sound, to call ourselves and our religious leaders to accountability before God.

We live in a society that has broken the bonds of community. The mantra of individualism has damaged community. It is based on a doctrine that the interests of the individual are, or ought to be, ethically paramount. Taken to excess, this doctrine today fosters hyper-individualism. 

Our housing developments are not created to encourage community. Houses are made to isolate us. Our social media intercede to substitute for direct person-to-person communication. 

Hyper-individualism is in direct conflict with the call of Jesus to be self-emptying in service to others. In this way, Christian faith is counter-cultural because it calls us to be concerned for one another, especially those who live in poverty conditions and those who are vulnerable.

We are discovering that no amount of things makes up for the loss of friends and communal interaction. We must rebuild our connection with others and re-discover the call to servanthood contained in the gospel of Matthew in chapter 25.

Volunteer

There are myriad ways to volunteer to assist people in local communities, and church people are usually at the head of the line. From groups that serve disadvantaged children, abused women, immigrants, the homeless, environmental protection, to missional efforts through local churches, there are ways to engage to make for a better world and repudiate divisiveness and fear of the ‘the other.”

These are some of the ways that I see myself participating in society today and making a difference. I am motivated by my understanding of the demands of faith, and by my concern that citizenship carries the responsibility to participate in a way that supports and protects the vulnerable.

I’d be interested in hearing about yours.

_________________

 

Here is useful resource: Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.

Hope in a Post-truth World

In a helpful analysis of the uses of social media by the water protectors at Standing Rock, Ginny Underwood points out how social media were used to tell the story of the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The analysis was published by United Methodist News Service, the news arm of The United Methodist Church.

Ginny points out how the water protectors used social media strategically to overcome lack of coverage by mainstream media. In doing this, she notes the people were enabled to tell their own story, something that’s been more difficult in the past because of lack of access to media controlled by others.

Key to Success

A key to the success of the resistance was the strategic use of social media to tell a story that for many weeks was not told by mainstream media. The water protectors built a movement through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media from a remote hillside in the middle of the country far from the communication hubs of the established media.

They told a story that was easy to understand and with which anyone could identify. When dogs and rubber bullets were used by local authorities and water cannons turned on the protestors, it was on Facebook within minutes. 

Creating a Movement

Out of this communication a movement was built. A movement can defeat the establishment almost every time if it holds together and if it communicates effectively.

There are other components of this story that bear attention.

UMNS published this analysis before any other media outlet recognized the importance of the communication strategy. This is an important and appropriate role for the church’s communication arm to fulfill.

UMNS (for which I once had executive responsibility) should be an authoritative information source for the stories of those without voice, on the margins, and otherwise at a disadvantage in a media environment dominated by big money and big corporations.

It’s not a public relations function that serves on behalf of the church.

Truth-telling Rooted in the Gospel

It is the truth-teller rooted in the church’s claim of the Gospel of Jesus that the truth will set us free.

In the post-truth world of Trump, and the fact-free disinformation of fake news, the mainline religious traditions should be standing in the breach doing truth-telling and fact-finding, and enabling those who lack the capacity to tell their own stories without an assist to do so.

Mainstream electronic media, subject to the greed of corporate executives and the demand for ratings, failed us at truth telling in the past election. Don’t look for this to change.

Mainstream Fail

Mainstream religious institutions have failed and continue to fail to engage the public conversation about just treatment of people, fair wages, economic justice, humane ways to resolve conflict, and the global environmental crisis.

The mainline denominations have decimated their news services. In doing so they have removed their capacity to fulfill one of their most sacred responsibilities, to speak truth to power, and to do what Jesus asked us to do, to identify with the poor and oppressed and to raise our voice on their behalf for justice and equity.

When religious institutions fail to protect us from the principalities and powers, other means must be found. In the DAPL issue, the water protectors are playing that important role.

And it’s important that communicators like Ginny Underwood and services like United Methodist News Service fulfill their responsibilities to tell the stories of the people.

Sacred Stories, Spirit Movement

That’s because these are sacred stories. They will be overlooked by those who serve corporate masters and moneyed interests.

At this moment in global history, there may be no more important role for religious communicators than to be the story-tellers who inform us of the movement of the Spirit to protect, heal and save us from our own hubris, greed and false worship of power.

_______________________

Postscript: Faith in Public Life (FPL) is providing religious leaders with the means to speak to moral issues by providing a platform for exposure. The Rev. William Barber, for example, is an effective public voice for justice and FPL has assisted him and others with media access. I am a board member of FPL.

The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-7-57-10-pmI have watched one news program on television since the election, BBC America.

I’ve kept up wth the news through online reading and Reuters video among others.

When I started writing this post my intent was to explain why I was turning away from watching TV news. After the way television news programs handled the Trump campaign I resolved to personally boycott TV news. Given a plethora of options for information today, that’s not a radical step, I admit.

But it’s a big change me.  For most of my life I’ve been an information junkie. I’ve worked in and around TV news for most of my adult life.

I devoured newspapers and TV news programs. But, that has come to an end.

Rather than a total boycott, I’ve become a cautious skeptic, watching only to get information about those stories that I know are current and unfolding. (The fires in the Smoky Mountains are the most recent example.)

And I rely on other media for substance and perspective.

Election coverage turned me off TV news. Here’s why.

1.The willingness of TV executives to allow Trump to dominate airtime.

Trump manipulated the media and many TV journalists and program executives were willing accomplices in his manipulation. CBS President Les Moonves made a boast that was irresponsible, greedy, and lacking in civic principles when he said of Donald Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

NBC decided to put Matt Lauer, an entertainment show host, in a primetime role as host of a “candidate forum” which had the effect of mixing politics and entertainment, and subsequently blew up in Lauer’s face when he failed to fact-check Trump and shorted Sec. Clinton.

According to one study, Trump received $3 billion in free air time. This started even before he had begun to raise funds for his campaign and was invisible in the Republican primaries.

He dominated the airwaves not because he had better ideas but because his outlandish comments, media savvy, and constant availability drew an audience and made the TV networks money.

Journalism is about more than money and entertainment. It’s about providing accurate information so people can be well-informed and make considered decisions.

What we got with coverage of Trump was politics as entertainment laced with lies and extremism.

2. Unfiltered airing of Trump speeches including outrageous claims made with virtually no fact-checking until after the claims had circled the world.

Media exposure has a legitimizing effect. It’s invisible, subtle, and often denied. But I learned early in my career as a journalist that when I told the stories of people in poverty in the U.S. and the developing world, it was validating and legitimizing.

Journalism isn’t only about reporting what’s happening. 

It’s about exposure. Under certain circumstances exposure can mean a platform for presenting your ideas. It cannot be otherwise. How this is managed is crucial, and for too long in the primaries and for the early months of the election, this crucial management was treated too lightly by TV news.

By providing a platform for Trump to tell his stories unchecked to millions of people, media exposure served to legitimize extremism and bring it into the mainstream.

3. Applying euphemisms to Trump’s remarks and treating Trump as if he were a political candidate like traditional candidates of the past—as if he had a platform and vision.

The traditional journalistic practice is to present at least two opposing claims with quotes from both sides, giving each equal attention. But Trump is a liar and a demagogue. To give his conspiracy claims status equal to the policy proposals of his primary opponents, and later to Sec. Clinton, was to elevate a charlatan to respectability, and to diminish serious policy discussion.

The traditional journalism model and its business plan undermined responsible decision-making in this election. Where it will lead us is still open to question.

4. Covering the campaign as a horse race without pressing the candidates for substance.

By emphasizing polls and ignoring policy discussions, this campaign lacked vital substance. Polls over policy.

We face a global environmental crisis. We’re hearing about potential mass extinction of wildlife. But the environmental crisis, along with many other critical issues affecting us, was completely invisible during this campaign. Not one question was posed in any debate about our common environmental global future. This was irresponsibility to the maximum.

Journalists covered the election as if it were a horse race. They have done this before. In this election, however, it put us at peril.

5. The hunt for scandal.

Subjecting Sec. Clinton to a higher level of scrutiny over email practices, as if this were scandalous, not to mention a major indicator of integrity (when it was not), diverted attention from a body of historical reporting about Trump that told us exactly who he is.

Past Secretaries of State had followed the same practices as Clinton and Snopes clarified that roughly 22 million White House e-mails exchanged via private servers during the G.W. Bush administration were deleted instead of being archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The electronic media emphasis on an email scandal that wasn’t created a straw man that continued as a diversion throughout the campaign.

6. Repeating the politically generated claim that Clinton could not be trusted.

This became a self-fulfilling loop.

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who has extensive experience covering the Clintons, wrote in The Guardian, that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

Such reporting, however, was not the norm. The norm was to repeat the polls that showed voters believed the trumped up claim that she was dishonest. Couple this with the on-going crudeness of Donald Trump’s “lying Hillary” mantra and the media provided a platform to undermine the integrity of Sec. Clinton.

And so, we now have President-elect Donald Trump. An idea once laughable is now a reality.

Are the media the sole reason for Trump’s election? No. But they are a significant player through the misapplication of traditional journalistic practices applied uncritically to an untraditional, dangerous, and manipulative candidate. Trump played the media, especially the television journalists.

TV executives who let greed lead them over principled civic responsibility played along. They now bear a burden that they must face as Trump threatens a free press.

There was too much stenography and too little truth-telling, too much greed and too little concern for the common good. Too much entertainment value and too little concern for policies that will shape our lives and the well-being of the world.

This is not good for America nor CBS.

There were journalists, print and electronic, who did not fall victim to the manipulation. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provided a lesson in investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, for example.

But in this election, the media lost and foremost among the losers was TV news.

Adam Hamilton on How to Talk with Congregations About Controversial Issues

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-2-27-06-pmFor faith leaders, talking with our congregations about controversial issues is very challenging — and very important. How can we provide moral leadership and address the issues that affect our communities while remaining nonpartisan and not alienating people?
I hear a lot of people struggling with these questions. Fortunately, some wise leaders have found ways to strike a balance while speaking out. Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, has led his ideologically diverse congregation through dialogues seeking common ground on some of the most divisive issues of the day, from gun laws to immigration.

That’s why Faith in Public Life is holding a special 1-hour clergy conference call with Rev. Hamilton next Thursday, October 13th, at 4pm Eastern. You can register here.

Please sign up here.

Rev. Hamilton will share his story of how he approached this project and talk about lessons learned. We’ll also have dialogue and Q&A.

With the 2016 election around the corner, it’s more important than ever to approach our public leadership in a spirit of boldness and wisdom, not fear. I hope you can join us!

WHAT:     A clergy conference call with Rev. Adam Hamilton, and FPL CEO Rev. Jen Butler
 
WHEN:    Thursday, October 13th, at 4PM  Eastern.

HOW:      You can register here and Faith in Public Life will send you the dial-in information.

Pursuing Beauty

We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty–Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

 

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked how I achieved a particular look for photos I post on Facebook.

It’s interesting that in the digital age this question comes up often. “How did you do that?”

In my reckoning, it was not so in the age of film, despite the fact that prints from film were heavily processed. Back then the photo seemed to speak for itself. We’ve become so technologized today that we just assume a photo has been manipulated in some way.

I’ll answer the questions in the next few posts by writing about my workflow which results in the look I’m trying to capture. But there are a couple of prior steps and I don’t want to ignore them.

Photography as Prayer

For me photography is more than the sum of techniques and technical skills. It’s an experience. It’s the act of creating art.

Sometimes it’s a spiritual act.

I once produced a video on at-risk teenage Native Americans. In a class on crafts, a wise grandmother told the kids, “When you do something that’s creative and constructive, it’s a prayer. You pray with more than words. You pray when you dance, when you sing, when you work with your hands.”

Photography can be a prayer.

She also told them that they should never do creative work when they are in a bad mood because that spirit will enter into the outcome. “Even if you’re making soup for someone who is feeling bad,” she said, “you should not make that soup if you’re not in a good mood. Your bad feelings will enter into the soup and it won’t be healthy for them.”

My photography is my soup-making. It’s both an experience and the act of creating.

Creation is Beautiful

I don’t try to achieve an effect so much as to capture the beauty that I see before me, and to share it online with friends who have the same appreciation for the natural world as I have.

Often I’m awed at the simplest of things that I see; the flight of a common bird, the shape of a leaf on a tree, the shimmer of light on water. I know some think this is naive, and others mere sentimentalism.

But it’s how I feel and what I see.

Sometimes nature, especially landscapes, lead me into a meditative state. How wonder-filled is the earth that we call our Mother?

Sometimes nature is, by human judgment, cruel. We’ve seen examples. Birds of prey are graceful but merciless. They are killing machines. Large cats, muscles straining, attack the young, weak or old in a herd. It seems an unfair match.

These are pieces of the whole reality, and they challenge the perception of an idealized natural world. It’s not all beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Never the less, it always comes back to beauty. The Creation is a beautiful thing. It nurtures us and feeds our souls.

It calls us to protect and preserve it. We need reminders of this call, and we need to visualize it.

The Hunger for Beauty

In her excellent newsletter Brainpickings, Maria Popova quotes the poet John O’Donahue on beauty. “We can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us,” he writes.

“The human soul is hungry for beauty,” says O’Donahue. “When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”

He goes on to say we feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful because it meets the needs of our soul. It brings a sense of completeness and sureness, says O’Donahue.

Nature photography—birds, animals, landscapes—isn’t simply about the photos. It’s about the pursuit of beauty, about our wholeness, about coming home.

It’s a prayer.

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