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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.

 

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.

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.

Unity, Schism, or Something In-between?

The bishops of The United Methodist Church proposed a path forward that forestalled debate on human sexuality when they offered a plan of action to the delegates of the 2016 General Conference of the church in Portland.

The plan includes a call to an extended time of prayer, review of the sections of the church’s law book referring to human sexuality, the creation of a commission to consider how to move the church forward and the possibility for a called session of General Conference at some future date to consider how the church manages its conflict over human sexuality.

Exclusionary policies regarding homosexuality spelled out in the law book of the church, called the Book of Discipline, are the source of the dispute.

I watched as an outsider after having been part of the general church staff for a number of years.

Parliamentary procedure became a proxy for action in a session that looked like the church was slowly unraveling. Delegates called for multiple points of order and made amendments to motions that brought the proceedings to a standstill.

One delegate even made an unprecedented request (at least I can find no precedent) to ask the bishop presiding over the session to step down due to “bias” and allow another to take his place.

This was an indication of how brutal the situation has become and how deeply entrenched are the different factions.

A Theological Problem

At root, this is a theological problem of great importance. But it also a cultural issue. And even some conservatives who are holding fast to exclusion concede that it is a battle lost. The church is fighting over values from a world that is already past, but not yet fully accepted by some.

It seems reasonable to say that there is no theological solution to the division. The differences are too great. The hurts too deep. The positions too fixed.

The denomination, once a cornerstone of mainline theology, has become irrelevant in the public conversation about human sexuality in the United States due to its exclusionary policies and practices.

On this issue, it is now in league with theologies that are more accurately situated in 19th and 20th century fundamentalism than in the traditions, teachings and practices of Christian faith over the centuries.

For a lucid discussion of this, see a statement by Timothy Eberhart, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Only time will tell if the proposed commission can provide alternatives that keep the church from making a formal split. On the other hand, it may determine that a split is preferable to the theological differences that are eating away at the church’s mission and witness.

Revisiting Regionalism

Past proposals for reorganization into semi-autonomous regional bodies will likely be given greater consideration. This would, in theory, make it possible for the church in different parts of the world to follow the theological perspective most acceptable to that region—schism without calling it schism.

What it would do to common mission and witness is open to question. What it would do to the nature of the community and how United Methodists view themselves in the world is worth considering as well.

Discipleship and the Kingdom of God

The call to discipleship is a call to see oneself in relationship to the whole world that is God’s good Creation. It is not a call to sectarianism, chauvinism, or cultural isolation.

In fact, these are the very things that are tearing the world apart, many of them under the guise of religious extremism.

If the church moves toward regionalism and does not simultaneously begin to teach more intentionally that to follow Jesus is to become a citizen of a kingdom that knows no geography, and that demands that one become a globally aware citizen who stands for justice for all and respects the sacredness of human personality, it will have failed its missional responsibility.

The call to be a disciple is the call to rise above the divisiveness that so characterizes religion in these days, contributes to the diminishment of the global community, and continues to do great harm to people around the world.

This is the challenge the church must face.

______________________________

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28.

______________________________

This discussion by David Brooks of social fragmentation and decentralization is pertinent to the deliberations that will be conducted in The United Methodist Church in the future.

A One Year Anniversary and a New Life

Two Roads Diverged

Two Roads Diverged

In a few days it will be one year since I exited the formal work environment. It’s been a year of reflection, learning, activity and renewal; and the beginning of a new life.

I’m healthier than I’ve been in several years. I get more exercise but for the time when I was a young person active in various sports.

I wake each morning looking forward genuinely excited about the new day. Sometimes I even find myself whistling! That’s a surprise to me.

When I considered making this move, I wasn’t sure how I would use my time. A  job provides its own structure and time commitment. Being out of that environment means you’re responsible for your own use of time, setting priorities, and making engagements.

It’s a self-directed life in which you set your own agenda.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that on most days there’s not enough time to do all that I want to do. Any fears of boredom or ennui quickly faded.

I’ve taken a hiatus from writing in favor of daily hikes of 3 or 4 miles, concentrating on photography, and being outside in nature.

I’ve met lots of interesting people and had many enjoyable conversations. I’ve discovered new interests and activities.

I also have time to read books and articles that interest me, no matter how unrelated the topics, but not one book on organizational dynamics, leadership, or management.

After positions in which I traveled internationally, most recently about 40% of the time, I haven’t gotten on an airplane but once this past year, and that was to deliver three addresses to a group in Dallas about communicating faith in the 21st Century.

Until Sharon grew tired of hearing it, I’d often say, as a plane flew overhead, “Thank God I’m not on that.”

All of this leads me to reflections on what I’ve discovered as I’ve stepped out of the institution and into the so-called “real world.”

I’ll be writing about this in the next few posts and I’ll welcome hearing from you about your perspectives on life in this rapidly changing, sometimes harsh and difficult world.

But that’s not the whole picture. I’m more interested in how we celebrate life, find the sacred in our daily activities, and discover hope and meaning in a world of great blessing.

So I hope you’ll stop by and engage in that conversation.

Oprah on Belief

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 9.11.54 PMIn a conference call on Monday night, Oprah Winfrey told the 800 people who connected that her calling is to share ideas through storytelling to connect people.

The call was designed to promote the series Belief that she produced and will air beginning Oct. 18 -24 on the OWN channel.

The series was three years in the making and tells stories of faith from around the world. She said “the way to connect people to their own life story is to allow them to see their story in another’s story.”

“Stories help us to understand what makes us unique but also show us the beautiful things that we have in common,” she said.

The series is built on the belief that the thread of love is the same across all the world’s major religions. When we hear stories of love, we understand each other differently and find out we have more in common that we knew before, Oprah said.

This isn’t a new concept but it comes at a time when religion is being used to divide us and spread hateful rhetoric that does harm.

Jim Winkler, President and chief executive of the National Council of Churches told the group the individual stories illustrate the power of faith for good in the world. He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of a movement built on moral and spiritual values.

He said the interfaith stories on Belief had inspired him to consider extending interfaith dialogue through the NCCUSA to include conversations with Buddhists and Hindus.

The thought that stories of belief can connect us is a helpful corrective to the pervasive cultural narrative of individualism and isolation in Western societies that has been documented by Robert Putnam and Shirley Turkle.

It’s particularly notable that faith is being presented as unifying. The isolation fostered by technology in common spaces increases our sense of loss of community and connection. For example, sit in an airport public lounge and see how common space has become more atomized as we turn to handheld devices to avoid the invasive ads, noise, and television monitors that distract and annoy us today.

Religious belief offers us many helpful tools, but one of the most distinctive and constructive may be that it provides us with a sense of connection with others and, at its best, a unifying spirit in a world of diversity.

The Belief team is calling on people to organize watch parties and conversation groups and to promote the series on social media.

By using her resources and celebrity to encourage a more unifying spirit and reinforce the thought that belief can have value if it teaches compassion and offers healing, Oprah is giving the world a valuable and timely gift.

Aylan, When Did We See You?

NY Times Page (1 of 1)I awoke this morning from what I thought was a dream, or nightmare. I had dreamt I was profoundly sad and on the verge of tears.

I saw in my mind’s eye the photo of a little boy who was a refugee.

He had drowned. His body washed ashore and was picked up by a Turkish gendarme.

I touched my arm and realized if I was dreaming I was now awake and the scene was not a dream, it is reality.

The body of 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach has galvanized the world to become aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

News reports say his mother and sister died as well when their overloaded boat sank in rough seas. They were trying to get from Syria to Europe.

11 million Syrians have been displaced by war and more than 2,600 Syrians and Africans have died this year trying to make the crossing.

The most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that 20,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe from the African continent through extrajudicial means in the past two decades.

The Global Crisis

Opinions about the crisis abound. World leaders, particularly European politicians and policymakers, have ignored the humanitarian tragedy that’s been underway for years.

The U.S., neighboring Middle Eastern countries, and other civil leaders could have done more, sooner.

I am complicit, too. I wrote to leaders of my own religious community meeting in Europe asking them to speak publicly and they chose not to. And I did nothing more.

At that moment, I became part of the problem. One more inattentive, distracted, distant person whose empathy means little if it does not lead to action.

I awoke this morning to the guilt of my own complicity. And it’s painful.

There’s enough blame to go around. But blame won’t solve anything.

Nor will guilt. Guilt isn’t enough. It’s only useful as a motivator.

I hope the visual awareness that comes from that stunning photograph is motivation for millions to do more than feel guilty for a brief moment.

Global Citizenship

I hope, for example, that for those who, like me, try to follow the values that are in the teachings of Jesus, recognize that we are called to be citizens in a different way.

We are citizens of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is much greater than our neighborhood, state, region or nation.

To be in this kingdom is to be called to global citizenship, caring for and taking responsibility for how the dispossessed, vulnerable and voiceless are treated, no matter where they reside.

In this kingdom we are connected, and responsible for one another; even in the conflicted, messy, complicated, and difficult to understand world we inhabit.

The image of a lifeless child lying on a beach reminds us of the consequences when we forget this connection.

Jesus was clear about what it means to follow him. It means to live into this understanding of our global responsibilities and to act on them.

In explaining what is expected he said, “When you have done it (provided food, shelter, clothing, water, comfort) for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25: 40 Common English Bible)

We have seen Jesus. His body washed ashore on a beach three days ago.

Making Personal Change

What must happen? First, I must change my interior.

It’s too easy for me to distance myself from the suffering of those an ocean away in a culture I don’t understand caught in a conflict so complicated I cannot fathom.

But I can understand the human suffering that results. This is a starting point.

In his current meditation series, Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the practice of tonglen as a pathway to interior change.

In  tonglen we “breathe in” others’ pain, “so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

This builds our awareness and also gives us insight into our own brokenness and need for wholeness. A quick read of his meditation gives a more complete description.

Championing Institutional Change

I believe I must advocate for a change in budget priorities including greater amounts for humanitarian aid and changes in foreign policies that seek peaceful resolution to conflicts over armed force.

In a commentary in The Guardian, Sabrina Hersi Issa writes: “To continue to under-fundundermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because of xenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin.”

There are many worthy organizations at work relieving the suffering. We can take immediate steps to support them with financial and material aid. Others are working on policy. And Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to take in the refugees.

Seeking Wholeness

It’s clear that the systems that allowed Aylan to die are broken.

And it’s also clear that we who live in these systems are broken and must seek wholeness.

The way to healing is to seek change–individually and collectively.

We need not ask, as did those who followed Jesus centuries ago, “Lord, when did we see you?” We already know what we have seen. And who.

 

 

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Juvenile Barred Owl

Juvenile Barred Owl

The headline is tongue in cheek. But since taking leave from my work responsibilities in early May, I’ve also taken hiatus from blogging.

In the next few posts I’ll catch up. So, as children returning to school write about their summer vacations, I plan to follow suit.

I was concerned that in stepping away from the office work routine I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Was I ever wrong about that! Summer has been a time of non-stop activity.

Sharon and I have walked approximately 4 miles daily, mostly in a nature preserve near our home. It’s a wonderful learning experience, a time of meditation and contemplation, and, most importantly, a time to be together.

We’ve made new friends and enjoyed seeing and hearing the narrative of the woods. I’ve practiced refining techniques of wildlife and nature photography and learned a program to process the photos digitally. One of the great gifts has been watching the growth of the juvenile barred owls at Radnor Lake Nature Preserve in Nashville.

I’ve read four books: My Life: Willie Nelson, an autobiography; The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan; The Fly Trap, Fredrik Sjöberg; and Dorothea Lange:A Photographter’s Life, Milton Meltzer. I’m well into Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve also been re-reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I’m often asked what I miss most since I’ve left. The only thing I miss is daily contact with the some of the finest staff colleagues I’ve been privileged to work with.

Because I traveled for my work, today every time an airplane flies overhead I catch myself saying, “Thank God I’m not on that.”

I’ve been exploring new growth in spiritual practice and concepts, which I’ll write about in future posts.

I’ve become aware that many of the things I used to worry about in the wee hours of the morning don’t matter that much at all. That worry was wasted time and many of the issues largely irrelevant. That’s biblical. We learn.

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