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Archive for the ‘What I’m Reading These Days’ Category

Thanks to Facebook friend Ron Lusk for sharing this article from Wired.com:  “The Crisis of Attention Theft: Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing In Return”

Pull-quote: “…in overstimulated lives, moments do matter, and indeed sometimes few things matter more than a few chosen minutes of silence. The important question is the aggregate effect of all of these various intrusions on both our health and that precious thing known as autonomy.”

I’m old enough to remember a time when ads were not everywhere, all the time. It’s amazing how quiet my childhood memories are: not silent, but filled with the sounds of nature and/or family and neighbors.  TV and radio commercials were limited to a one-or-two-sentence “sponsored by” acknowledgement (the kind of acknowledgement Public TV used to use — they’ve got full-fledged commercials now).

And the generation before mine grew up with nothing more obnoxious than roadside Burma-Shave ads.

Is it a coincidence that, in a time when we are being force-fed ads, and denied so much as an “off” button, we’re also being told what we must believe about politicians, religion, foreign countries, etc? Is it a coincidence that voices of dissent and change — like those found in the Green Party, the American Solidarity Party, or the Jesuits for that matter — are consistently marginalized or ignored?

If you doubt the power and pervasiveness of ads today, try this experiment: see if you can get through an entire day without seeing the words “Xfinity” or “Verizon”.  I tried every day for a month before I admitted failure.

Did you ever agree to give these corporations this much real estate in your mind? I know I didn’t.

The constant 24/7/365 over-stimulation of every person in the Western world can’t be healthy mentally, psychologically, or spiritually.

Awareness is a start.  Next steps?

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(Note: This letter was originally written for the newsletters of the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches but I wanted to make it available in its entirety to a wider audience.)

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the near future our Partnership will be asking for food donations for newly-arrived refugees in our Partnership neighborhoods, in conjunction with the South Hills Interfaith Movement.

I know a number of people have questions about refugees: where they’re coming from, why they left home, why they’re here in the U.S., if their backgrounds have been properly checked. To give brief answers: refugees come from all over: South America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. Here in Pittsburgh the majority have been from the Far East until 2016 when the Middle East began to take the lead. The refugees never wanted to leave home; they were forced to leave by war, natural disaster, persecution, or other life-threatening circumstances. That’s the legal definition of a refugee; as opposed to a ‘migrant’ (someone who travels across borders) or ‘illegal alien’ (someone who crosses our borders without permission). They wanted to come here because, like so many refugees before them, they’ve heard wonderful things about the United States.  The background checks before they can enter the U.S take an average of two years, plus more interviews and tests once they’re here.

Those are the facts. But like most things in life, facts don’t tell the whole story.

I have known a number of refugees, and without exception I am better for having known them. One is a classmate by  the name of Abraham. abrahamnhialAbraham was one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan. When he was a child during the Sudanese civil war, soldiers attacked his village, burned it to the ground, and killed the people. Abraham survived only because he was in the fields tending the cows. He saw his village burning and knew if he went home he would be killed, so he ran. As he traveled east – walking a distance of nearly 300 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia – he met up with other ‘lost boys’ who also survived, and they helped each other. From Ethiopia they were brought to the United States, where they were able to finish their educations, and Abraham trained to become an Anglican priest. He said: “I am going to go back to Sudan and find the men who killed my family and tell them about the love of Jesus.” Abraham is now serving as a Bishop in the Anglican church of South Sudan.

menrefugeechildOne refugee family I met here in Pittsburgh – an extended family of two brothers, their two wives and many children – are from Aleppo, Syria. They became refugees when their home and city were bombed. They are anxious to learn about their new country, and eager to hear about Jesus, so they invited about a half-dozen people connected to the seminary to visit for dinner. What a spread! Tabbouleh, grape leaves, chicken, salads, naan bread… more than we could possibly eat… followed by tea and coffee.  Their elementary-school-age children know more English than their parents, so they carried the evening.  And though we couldn’t communicate much, I indicated my appreciation to the one mother who had done all this cooking while very pregnant. She smiled and pointed to her belly and said “American!” – so proud to be the mother of a future American! I haven’t been able to visit again but the family is now hosting an international Bible study in their home every other week, which friends of mine attend.

I could talk about facts and figures… point out that right now there are more than 65 million people in the world who are without a country… but numbers like these are too big to get our minds around.  Consider instead the words of one refugee: “you don’t put your children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

I believe this refugee crisis will be the defining moment of our generation. The repercussions of so many homeless people will change the course of world history for decades to come. How we respond to the crisis will determine not only the future of the refugees but our future as well – because care for the stranger is so important to God, and so central to what God requires of His people.

There’s little most of us can do, from where we live, to ease this crisis that’s happening so far away. But what little we can do, we need to do. At a time like this, every act of kindness makes a difference.

Thank you,

Rev. Peg Bowman

 

A few statistics to think on

Where refugees come from… (in millions)
(notice Colombia, South America, is in the Top Ten)  (source: Buzzfeed)

buzzfeed1

…and where they go (in millions) (source: Buzzfeed)

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Refugee travel routes to Europe (source: Human Rights Watch)
Countries that were formerly “destination countries” — like Libya and Jordan — are now becoming source countries themselves.

buzzfeed3

Syrian refugees accepted into the U.S.
(actual numbers, not thousands or millions) (source: CDC)

buzzfeed4

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Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30

Last week we looked at a pair of scripture readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew that had to do with being prepared for the coming of Christ.

This week again we have a pair of readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew, and this time the focus is on not the coming of Christ but on what we need to do in the meantime… how to live our lives between now and the time we meet Jesus.

Both of today’s passages describe a contrast between (as Paul says) “children of darkness” and “children of light” or as Jesus says in Matthew, between good and wicked servants.

Words like these can make us uncomfortable because we don’t like to think of people as being ‘children of darkness’. But the fact is, when God gave human beings free will, he gave us the ability to say ‘no’ to what is right. God gave us the ability to dislike God, to rebel against God, or to damage God’s creation. And in these two readings that’s what we see happening.

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ parable in Matthew. This is a familiar story: a story of a man who has three servants. He entrusts them with his estate while he goes on a long journey. Two of the servants do well and make a profit and they are rewarded; but third servant does not and he is punished. Even though we don’t have servants in our day and age, the story makes sense. Employees, for example, are expected to look after the interests of their employers – anyone who’s ever held a job understands the scenario.

But there’s a huge question mark in this story. As employees (or as retired employees in some cases) we know that not all employers are equal. Some employers are generous, others are stingy. Some are fair, others play favorites. Some care about their employees, others don’t. If all employers were good, if all of them lived by God’s values, labor unions would never have been needed. Workers’ pensions would be secure instead of being unstable and in some cases, missing.

In Jesus’ parable, the question of whether this particular employer is worthy of his employees’ loyalty is not addressed directly. So we are left to ask: are the two loyal servants just playing along, getting their share of the pie? Is this employer worth working for? Or is the third servant right? Is this employer a harsh one, greedy, turning profits where he hasn’t invested?

This week as I was thinking over this passage I thought, what if this story took place today? What would it look like in our world? What if it was, let’s say, an episode of The Apprentice – the reality show where Donald Trump hires up-and-coming executives and pits them against each other to see which are the best and then fires the rest? This parable actually does remind me of that. On the show, Trump presents a business challenge, and the young people who come up winners are the ones who take his seed money and invest in a project, and bring all their skill and experience to bear to turn a profit. The ones who lose are the ones who waste time forming alliances, cooking up schemes to bring the others down, manipulating others into doing work they themselves should be doing. And they always have someone else to blame when their plans don’t work out. Some of them even mouth off at Donald Trump, blame him for creating an unfair competition. You can see it coming. Trump looks at them and says, “You’re fired!”

But the TV show never answers the question, ‘is this employer worth working for?’ Is he fair? Is he generous? Are the projects he invests in worth spending a piece of your life on? Where it comes to The Apprentice I’ll leave it to you all to answer those questions. But these are the questions being raised in Jesus’ parable. So what do we know about the ‘boss’ in this parable?

Since Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, the ‘boss’ in this story is God. The servants are all of us; and the talents are gifts and abilities and opportunities that we’re given in life: that little tiny part of the universe over which we have control, and for which we have responsibility. God gives each person a piece of his estate; a wee bit of God’s property; and God, as our master, has instructed us to care for it. Depending on what we’ve been given, some of us might be caring for the environment; or raising children and grandchildren; or teaching; or building – houses or businesses; or protecting the country; or protecting the community; or running an honest business that produces things people need and provides jobs; or visiting the sick or people in prison.

As a side note I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest pieces of celestial property God gives us in this life is time. I was reading some Jewish theology recently and the author, a rabbi, was explaining that in Jewish spirituality what happens in time is more important than what happens in space. In other words, how we spend our time is more important than what we physically do or make. That’s why parenting, for example, is such an important job – because it’s investing time in another person’s life.

At any rate there are so many ways to invest what God has entrusted to us! Those of us who love and honor God want to find ways we can use the gifts God has given us to invest in ourselves, our homes, our families, our communities, and our churches.

So in Jesus’ parable, the first two servants respect their master and invest their part of the estate wisely, taking well-calculated risks, and they turn a profit. The third servant tells a different story. He doesn’t squander God’s property, he doesn’t lose it – he hides it. Buries it. He doesn’t use it at all. Jesus doesn’t tell us what this third servant does do with the rest of the time his master is away. The master is away for a long time, so what is he doing with all this time? We don’t know. But again, if I re-cast the story into modern day, into our fictitious Donald Trump scenario, I can imagine what might have happened. Servant #3 would have taken Trump’s money – the ‘seed money’ he was given to build a business with – and hid it somewhere. Then he would start talking business deals, trading on Trump’s name rather than on the actual money, living the high life and producing nothing.

So the third servant then projects his own guilt and selfish motives onto the master! He says: “master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow…” when the truth is it’s the third servant who has been reaping what he did not sow, living on the generosity and trusting natures of other people.

One more side note: the word “harsh” the third servant uses to describe the master struck me as an odd choice of words, so I looked it up in the Greek. The Greek word is “skleros” – which means “hardening”. Today we find the word in medical terminology: scleroderma – hardening of the skin; atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries; multiple sclerosis – hardening of the nerve cells in the brain. Skleros implies a hardening of something that should not be hard, and it’s a hardening that leads to suffering and ultimately death. Servant #3 is accusing God of the very hardness that is in his own heart… projecting his own pathology and mortal nature onto God.

Servant #3 goes on to say, “and I was afraid, and I went away and hid…” In this story he hid the treasure, but we’ve heard these words before: in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they heard God coming and they hid. Genesis 3:10 – Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid.”

A wise old Christian once said there are two reasons a person might be afraid of God:

  1. God is so much greater than we are, and we are so small and powerless by comparison. A person who fears God for this reason IS in touch with reality! Because this is very true: God is great, and we are small by comparison. But people who feel this way haven’t yet taken to heart the words of today’s reading from I Thessalonians. Paul writes, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” That’s why Paul says “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.” Faith, hope, and love are what protect our hearts and minds from fearing God in an unhealthy way. We believe in God, we have hope in God, we know that God loves us and we love God. Secure in the knowledge of these things we don’t need to ever be afraid of God’s greatness.
  2. The other reason a person might be afraid of God is because they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, or aren’t doing. They may have been squandering God’s property, refusing to invest in the people in their lives. Maybe they have mistreated God’s creation. Or maybe they’ve been lazy, living on the work or the wealth of others. Or maybe they’ve been harsh, abusive… all things servant #3 accuses God of being.

The amazing thing to me is God actually answers Servant #3’s accusations, and with real restraint. God does not set out to defend his own character; or assert his rights as master of both the servant and the assets. Instead God quotes back the servant’s own words and says, “if that’s really the way I am, you should have invested the money with the bankers so at least I’d have interest.” ‘If you knew I was so mean, why weren’t you wise enough to make just a little bit of profit to cover your own tail?’ Even self-serving motivations tell us it’s not wise to provoke God to anger! But Servant #3 lacks even that much wisdom, and ends up losing what little he has.

This parable makes me a little nervous sometimes. When I read it I sometimes wonder: how can I know if I’ve done enough? How can I know if I’ve managed to double God’s investment? I look around at other Christians and I see them going on mission trips, or bringing dozens of people to faith, or teaching Sunday School for thirty years….

Here’s the thing: when God gives us talents to use, our instructions are not to compare ourselves with others. The servant who has two talents is not expected to make five. The servant with two talents is honored by God when he makes another two. All this talk about talents isn’t a competition – it’s a challenge. God gives us what is appropriate to us: “to each according to his ability” as it says in verse 15. God’s expectations are realistic and fair and perfectly tailored to each person. As Jesus himself says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This doesn’t mean life will always be easy, but it means the talents God gives us fit who we are perfectly.

A few weeks ago I read a book written by a man who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. I imagine if anyone ever had an excuse to give up and say “I have nothing left to give” it would be him. He was dying, his mind was going, and he couldn’t always remember what he had said or done a day before, or even a minute before. But he was a believer, and he wanted to keep on serving the Lord he loved as long as he could. So, with his wife’s help, he wrote – or dictated, as the disease progressed – a journal of his experience having Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote down what the symptoms were, what the doctors said, what treatments they tried, how friends and family were effected, what his emotions were, how he and his wife fought the depression that often comes with the disease, what parts of his mind still worked when other parts started to go, and how he and his wife learned that everyone is a valued child of God no matter what condition their body or mind is in. The book has become standard reading for people who train as chaplains in hospitals and hospices. What a gift! Each one of us has gifts to give, and a purpose in life… no matter where we are in life or what our circumstances are.

One more thing comes to mind when I look at this parable. All this talk about serving God, investing in the kingdom, raises an important question: aren’t we saved by faith? Believing in Jesus? Yes, we are. But if we love God, we say ‘thank you’ for what God has given us by putting it to good use. And we do this with joy, because discovering and using what God has created in us is the greatest joy life has to offer. “Enter into the joy of your master,” Jesus says. God has given us a piece of the heavenly homestead, and it’s good.

So the greatest goal in life is not “whoever dies with the most toys wins”. The goal is not to do more than the person next to us. The goal is to invest whatever gifts we’ve been given, working from hearts that trust in God’s love. And we look forward to the day when we will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of much. Enter into the joy of your master.” AMEN.

 

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The more I learn about race, gender, and history, the more I discover the issues of racial equality and women’s rights are inextricably intertwined.

Chains

Inspired by friend and artist Betty Douglas, I’ve been reading a book written back in 1839 entitled American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.  The book is a collection of first-hand, eyewitness descriptions of slavery in the southern United States, compiled by the American Anti-Slavery Society, one of the early abolitionist groups in the US, founded by former southerners who fled the south rather than live with the horrors they saw.

The book is heartbreaking.  It rings true as only eyewitness accounts can.  I read slowly, a few pages at a time.

Today I came across something that never would have entered my mind in a million years.  An excerpt from page 25, from the section Testimony of the late Rev. John Graham:

        “I walked up to the Court House to day, where I heard one of the most interesting cases I ever heard. I say interesting, on account of its novelty to me, though it had no novelty for the people, as such cases are of frequent occurrence. The case was this: To know whether two ladies, present in court, were white or black. The ladies were dressed well, seemed modest, and were retiring and neat in their look, having blue eyes, black hair, and appeared to understand much of the etiquette of southern behaviour.

“A man, more avaricious than humane, as is the case with most of the rich planters, laid a remote claim to those two modest, unassuming, innocent and free young ladies as his property, with the design of putting them into the field, and thus increasing his STOCK! As well as the people of Concord are known to be of a peaceful disposition, and for their love of good order, I verily believe if a similar trial should be brought forward there and conducted as this was, the good people would drive the lawyers out of the house. Such would be their indignation at their language, and at the mean under-handed manner of trying to ruin those young ladies, as to their standing in society in this district, if they could not succeed in dooming them for life to the degraded condition of slavery, and all its intolerable cruelties. Oh slavery! if statues of marble could curse you, they would speak. If bricks could speak, they would all surely thunder out their anathemas against you, accursed thing! How many white sons and daughters, have bled and groaned under the lash in this sultry climate.”

These plantation owners made slaves out of their own race as well as the Africans.

It may seem obvious that it takes generosity of spirit, or at least openness of spirit, to accept different kinds of people.

What has taken me longer to see is that the opposite is equally true: it takes the same crookedness of spirit, the same evil intent, to refuse to do so: that someone who hates on racial grounds will hate just as quickly on the grounds of gender, or poverty, or any other reason; that someone who craves power or desires to be cruel doesn’t care what means they use or who their victims are.

As a teacher I know – not just believe, but KNOW – that students only excel if their teacher can see good in them and encourage the good to grow.

What will mystify me to my dying day is why some people insist on refusing the good in themselves, insist on living in darkness, insist on depriving others of liberty and well-being, as if cruelty will ever satisfy their longings.

The Civil War never really ends.

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