Sunday, April 20, 2014

Celebrating Hope

Today is Easter Sunday, and it has different meanings to different people. The practice of coloring, hiding, and finding Easter eggs seems to be an ongoing custom that is likely to be observed, and enjoyed, today in most homes with small children.
Some other Easter activities, though, definitely seem to be a thing of the past. Easter Sunday used to be a time for wearing new clothes and even a time for women to wear new hats.
Remember the Irving Berlin song “Easter Parade”? In the 1948 musical by the same name, Fred Astaire sings, “Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet / And of the girl, I'm taking to the Easter Parade.”
I wonder how long it has been since any of you ladies reading this has worn an Easter bonnet—and how long it has been, if ever, that any of you has been to an Easter Parade.
I am currently reading “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” (2011) by Martin Thielen, a Methodist pastor in Tennessee: In spite of its tongue-in-cheek title, it is quite a good book. Chapter 17 is titled “Jesus’ Resurrection: Is There Hope?” and I found it quite thought-provoking.
From time to time (like on 4/10), I write about movies I have seen. The chapter just mentioned begins with the author talking about a significant movie he had seen: “Cast Away” (2000). June and I just watched for the first time this month after reading about it in Rev. Thielen’s book. Perhaps many of you have seen that intriguing film starring Tom Hanks.
In the movie, Hanks is Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee stranded on an uninhabited island after the airplane he was on crashed in the South Pacific. Alone there on the island he opened many of the FedEx packages that washed up on shore. But he keeps one unopened.
He even takes the unopened package with him on the raft when he leaves the island after four long years there by himself—and still has it when he is finally rescued.
At the end of the movie, he takes the unopened FedEx package to return it to its sender. But no one is at home. So he leaves the package at the door with a note saying that the package saved his life.
There is no reason given in the movie why Chuck would write that on the package. Thielen’s interpretation is that the package represented hope.
Thielen goes on to write about “The Shawshank Redemption,” another meaningful movie I have seen a couple of times. It, too, is about hope. But one of the inmates in the brutal state penitentiary is quite negative about it. He exclaims, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Those words remind me of a paragraph in State of Wonder (2011), an excellent novel by Ann Patchett. A wife whose husband is presumably dead, exclaims,
Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it (p. 43).
There is such a thing as false hope. And people don’t always get what they hope for. Nevertheless, there is also well-grounded and well-founded hope. That’s what we have in Easter.
Thielen is correct when he contends that “hope is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about.”
Happy Easter! And may today be, truly, a celebration of hope.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Admiration of John Dear

Years ago when I first heard the name John Dear, being a farm boy I immediately thought of John Deere tractors. But as I quipped in my 4/5 blog article, John Dear is not a tractor but detractor of the nation’s weapons of war.
For many years I have admired the man whose name really is John Dear, and I was very happy to meet him and hear him talk earlier this month. And what a talk it was!
Dear’s newest book is “The Nonviolent Life” (2013), and his passionate talk was based upon it. He contends that the life of nonviolence requires three simultaneous attributes: being nonviolent toward ourselves; being nonviolent to all people, all creatures, and all creation; and joining the global grassroots movement of nonviolence.

Dear (b. 1959) is an American Catholic priest (a former Jesuit), a Christian pacifist, and an author & lecturer. He has been highly involved in nonviolent action for three decades, having been greatly influenced by Daniel Berrigan, whom he joined in the Plowshares movement.
Remarkably, Dear has been arrested over 75 times for his acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war, injustice and nuclear weapons. The first time he was arrested was at the Pentagon 30 years ago, on April 17, 1984.
In 1994 he spent eight months in jail for his Plowshares action of civil disobedience. That followed his arrest, along with three others, in December 1993 for hammering on an F-15 nuclear capable fighter bomber at an Air Force base in North Carolina—symbolically beating swords into plowshares.
I have just purchased and begun to read Dear’s 2011 book “Lazarus, Come Forth!: How Jesus Confronts the Culture of Death and Invites Us into the New Life of Peace.”
Since this is Passion Week, I’ve just read “Washing Each Other’s Feet” in the book just mentioned. As one might expect from Dear, he says the biblical account of Jesus’ activity on the night before his crucifixion has generally been misunderstood.
“The episode is not meant to inspire us to service. It is not meant to urge us toward self-humiliation. Rather it is a ritual of preparing our feet to walk Jesus’ road of nonviolence” (p. 162).
Dear ends the chapter contending that Jesus “calls us out of our addiction to violence. He calls us into the freedom of resurrection, into the new life of peace and nonviolence” (p. 166).
In his 2007 book “Transformation” Dear declared:
One day when the people of the United States finally wake up; dismantle their nuclear weapons; spend their billions of dollars to eradicate hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy, and unemployment; clean up the oceans and the earth; and renounce war forever, humanity itself will be transfigured and the light of Christ will shine brightly and lead us to an astonishing breakthrough of global hope and encouragement.
Not only because of what he has written, but especially because he has had the courage over the past 30 years to plead for peace by participating in non-violent protests, many resulting in his being arrested and jailed, I write this with deep admiration for John Dear. He continues to be an inspiring advocate for peace and justice.
In closing, from the very beginning of his 2011 book, here are Dear’s words for us to ponder—and to pray:
Lead me from death to life,
from falsehood to truth
from despair to hope,
from fear to trust,
from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill my heart.
Let peace fill my world.
Let peace fill the universe.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

“Lilies of the Field”

The 86th Academy Awards ceremony was held on March 2, 2014. I didn’t watch it, but I was interested in reading the results the next morning.
Fifty years ago, the 36th Academy Awards were presented on April 13, 1964. I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch that ceremony either, but I was especially interested when I learned that Sidney Poitier was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field.” 
That was notable, for it was the first time that award had been given to an African-American.
Back when we were poor students [clarification: we were good students but quite poor financially], we hardly ever went to the movies. But we did see “The Defiant Ones” (1958), starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.
That remarkable black and white film tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and who must co-operate in order to survive. We were quite moved by it, and after seeing it we became fans of Poitier, who was nominated for Best Actor for his role in that film.
So we were happy when Poitier then won the Oscar in 1964.
Poitier was born (prematurely) to Bahamian parents in 1927 while they were visiting in Miami. He was raised in the Bahamas until he was 15, but then lived in the U.S. from that age on.
After various struggles, he debuted in his first film, “No Way Out” (1950), when he was only 23. That was the beginning of his long, successful career as an actor, film director, author, and diplomat.
In 1968, Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, so he is officially Sir Sidney. Nearly 30 years later, in 1997, Poitier was appointed the Bahamian ambassador to Japan, and he served in that position until 2012 (although some sources say 2007).
Poitier also served as Bahamas’ ambassador to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007. And then in August 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in the U.S.
A few days before writing this article, June and I watched “Lilies of the Field” again, the first time since we saw it in the 1960s. Little did we know then that the location of the movie would become quite familiar to us. The opening scene of the movie shows the mountains north of Tucson in the background, near to where we spent the nights during the last week of December when we visited our daughter and her family there.
Pointier plays the part of Homer Smith, a vivacious young man who stops by a house of nuns to get some water for his car’s radiator. Headed by Mother Maria, the nuns, escapees from East Germany, latch on to Homer as a man sent by God to help them build a church on their property. (Lilia Skala, who played Maria, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her sterling performance.)
While the movie seems rather unsophisticated compared to most movies now, it was a delight to watch. It depicts well how good-will and friendliness can overcome racial, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. (Homer was a Baptist.)
The spirit of the movie is captured well by the repeated singing of “Amen,” a joyful gospel song written by Jester Hairston (1901-2000), who also dubbed the singing of it for Poitier, who is said to be tone deaf.
Yes, “Lilies of the Field” is a delightful movie. I highly recommend it—as well as the Bible verse from which the title comes.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Embarrassed Christian

In my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism” there is a short section titled “An Embarrassed Southern Baptist.” Since then my embarrassment has expanded somewhat, so now in many ways I have become an embarrassed Christian.

The primary problem is that the media mainly reports on the outlandish actions of “Christians.” And there is certainly a lot of that kind of stuff to report on. I have written about some of that on my blog postings this year. For example,
    * In my 2/4 blog article, I wrote about Christians seeking in the name of religious freedom to be exempt from providing insurance coverage from their employees. I am embarrassed when I think of Christians like the CEO of Hobby Lobby and those who support him.
    * My 2/18 posting was about Westboro Baptist Church and about some states seeking to legislate discrimination against gays/lesbians in the name of religious freedom. Westboro’s founder pastor Fred Phelps has since died, but the hateful protests of that church continue.
    * On 2/28 my blog article was about racism in Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of religious people (mostly Christians) in the U.S. (And just two days ago an anti-gay discrimination bill was passed in Mississippi—and that action was praised by the Miss. Baptist Convention.)
Then not long ago there was segment on TRMS about the anti-scientific attitudes of national politicians—such as U.S Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). In an address in August 2012 at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga., Broun said, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
Rep. Broun, a medical doctor by training, serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That is troubling, for a few years ago he received a round of applause from GOP colleagues when he claimed that man-made global warming is a “hoax” with “no scientific consensus.”
Of course, in many other ways I am certainly not embarrassed to be a Christian. For example, I am not embarrassed to be a part of the Christian group north of the Missouri River in greater Kansas City known as Northland Faith Voices. I was happy to be a part of that group as they planned and a rally for economic justice and dignity on Feb. 27.
Although I am not personally involved in their fine service activities, I certainly not embarrassed by the 8,600 churches, including a number of local churches, who are an active part of Love INC (In the Name of Christ).
Similarly, there are also many Christians serving others through the In As Much Ministry, a food and clothes pantry that serves the Liberty area where I live.
I am also not at all embarrassed when I hear outstanding Christian scholars/activists such as those I have heard in the past couple of weeks: Anglican N. T. (Tom) Wright, Mennonite J. Denny Weaver, and Catholic John Dear (who is not a tractor but a detractor of the nation’s weapons of war!).
There are Christian organizations like these, and outstanding scholars/activists like these, all across the country (and world). But they seldom make the news. The general non-Christian public rarely has a chance to hear about the kind of Christians who are lovingly serving people in need and propounding a thoughtful interpretation and implementation of Christianity.
And that’s a shame.
If there were more coverage of the positive and true things Christians do and say, I (we) wouldn’t have to be so embarrassed.