Thursday, February 28, 2013

Happy Kiju, Glen Stassen!

Noted Baptist ethicist/theologian (and Thinking Friend) Dr. Glen Stassen was born on February 29, 1936. (I’m not revealing any secrets, for he has included his birth date on his Facebook page.)
Even though there is no February 29 this year, Glen was still born 77 years ago, which means that this would be a time of special celebration if he were Japanese (or in Japan). One’s 77th birthday in Japan is called kiju, which literally means “joyful longevity.”
So, please join me in wishing Dr. Stassen a Happy Birthday at this auspicious time in his life.
After serving for 20 years as an ethics professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Stassen joined the Fuller Theological Seminary faculty in 1997 and is now the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics there.
Glen is the author of several books, and he is particularly known for his emphasis on “just peacemaking.” His book Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace was published in 1992, and since then he has edited two other books (published in 1998 and 2008) on the same theme.

In addition to his birthday greeting, I am writing this to recommend Dr. Stassen’s new book, A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age (2012).

Academics have been using “thick” and “thin” to talk about interpretations and arguments at least since anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ used those terms in his book The Interpretations of Cultures (1973). A “thick” interpretation gives more than the basic information about a culture, or a person; it emphasizes historical context.
Accordingly, Dr. Stassen states the purpose of his new book: "Mainline churches need a clearer and deeper theology and ethics, and theology needs to focus on a thicker Jesus. . . . Evangelical churches and seeker-friendly churches need a thicker Jesus to guard their members against being coopted by political ideologies . . .” (p. x).
In the second chapter, then, he writes about how incarnational discipleship embraces “a thick, historically-embodied, realistic understanding of Jesus Christ” (p. 16).
The climactic eleventh chapter, “War: Jesus’ Transforming Initiatives and Just Peacemaking’s Initiatives,” elaborates on his ongoing emphasis.
The book ends with “one remaining question: Will you join in the apostolic witness to a thicker Jesus—in the tradition of incarnational discipleship?” (p. 221).
A Thicker Jesus is a significant book, one that deserves to be widely read. And carefully considering its contents should be especially helpful to all who are concerned with what it means, or should mean, to be a follower of Jesus in world today.
In this secular age when Jesus is often sentimentalized, commercialized, and trivialized in various ways, it is gratifying to have Dr. Stassen publish this significant book emphasizing a thicker Jesus.
And in this age that often presents a very thin interpretation of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, it is helpful to have this new book, in the tradition of the Anabaptists and also of Bonhoeffer (who is rather extensively treated), emphasize the meaning and importance of incarnational discipleship.
So, again, happy kiju, Glen. And thanks for this new book and for your ongoing emphasis on the challenge of just peacemaking. Many happy returns!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

In Fond Memory of Tenko-san

Not many Americans know about him, but Nishida Tenko was an outstanding man who deserves to be known and appreciated more widely. He died 45 years ago this week (on 2/29/68) at the age of 96. Even though I never had the privilege of meeting him personally, I have very fond memories of the days I spent at Itto-en, the Christian/Zen commune he started on the eastern edge of Kyoto City, Japan.
As a young man (in 1904) Tenko-san had a deep religious experience, partly from reading Leo Tolstoy’s “Confession” (sometimes published under the title My Religion). Through Tolstoy, he was greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Partially because of that influence, later in the year of his “conversion” Tenko-san started Itto-en (“Garden of One Light”), which was finally able to acquire its first building in 1913.
Perhaps Tenko-san lived by literal teachings of the Sermon on the Mount more than anyone after Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. And for more than a century now, the community life and activities of Itto-en have demonstrated a fascinating blend of Jesus’ teachings and Zen Buddhist spirituality.
The best source for learning about Tenko-san and Itto-en in English is the book A New Road to Ancient Truth, first published in 1969. Mostly a collection of sayings by Tenko-san, the book’s entire “Author's Foreword” are words expressing one of his most profound insights: In having nothing lies inexhaustible wealth.”
(There is also a website with information about Itto-en at this link.)
In the 1970s, just a few years after Tenko-san’s passing, I traveled to Itto-en with a few of my students for a week’s training session. It was a very memorable experience, one that I still treasure. There were lectures explaining Tenko-san’s teachings, and then we participants engaged in some of the same activities that those who lived at Itto-en did regularly.
Cleaning toilets (bathrooms) has been considered (especially in the past) a very disagreeable activity in Japan. As a means of fostering a spirit of humble service, Itto-en members (and participants in training sessions there) have systematically gone throughout the Kyoto area, knocking on doors and asking for the “privilege” of entering their house in order to clean their toilet. That was, truly, an interesting experience. (Imagine the surprise of a Kyoto housewife opening her door to find a foreigner with a reddish beard, me, offering to clean her toilet!)
The next day we were taken to a nearby area where, with absolutely no money, we were told to offer our time in service, helping other people. If we were offered something to eat or drink, we could accept it. But we were not supposed to beg. I was fortunate to find a woman working in her rather large vegetable garden. She allowed me to use her hoe while she rested and gave me instructions on what to do. Then she graciously offered to fix me lunch, which I was more than happy to accept. (As we were eating her delicious meal, she told how her husband’s family had lived on this same property for more than 400 years!)
Trusting in God to provide for one’s needs, living in community and helping one another, humbly serving others with a heart of compassion: these are principles that Tenko-san learned from the Sermon on the Mount and put into practice at Itto-en. Even though he died 45 years ago, Itto-en remains and still seeks to practice those principles. And there are people who still learn from, and many like me who fondly remember, the teachings and example of Tenko-san.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sequestration is Coming!

“Sequestration” was originally a legal term referring to the act of property being taken into custody and locked away for safekeeping, usually to prevent that property from being disposed of before a dispute over its ownership could be resolved.
Recently, however, “sequestration” has also come to mean automatic cuts to federal budget expenditures if Congress cannot agree on fiscal matters before a given date. Right now, unless Congress acts to make significant economic decisions before the end of this month, sequestration will begin on March 1.
If such sequestration does occur, it will not be good news for the U.S. economy in the weeks or months ahead, and who knows what the long term effects might be. Some agreement will surely be made in the next week, but who knows? Maybe not.
Regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t do, though, sequestration of quite a different sort is definitely coming in March.
As was widely and repeatedly reported in the news last week, Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, effective on February 28 at 8 p.m. (CET). Consequently, the conclave of Cardinals responsible for electing a new pope will convene in Vatican City in mid-March, and from the time of their first meeting until their decision is made, they (the Cardinals eligible to vote) will be sequestered within Vatican City and will take an oath of secrecy.
There are currently 209 Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, but only the 117 who are under the age of 80 will be a part of the papal conclave. By far, the largest percentage (just under 61%) of them are Europeans, and 67 of the 117 (57%) have been appointed by Benedict XVI, the resigning pope. But there is a real possibility that the first non-European pope since Gregory III (731-741) will be selected by the sequestered Cardinals.
Any baptized Catholic male is eligible for the papacy, but since 1389 the Cardinals have always elected a fellow Cardinal. It is hard to think that that will not be the case again this time. Those appearing at the top of the lists compiled by odds makers are Cardinals Arinze of Nigeria, Ouelette of Canada, Sandri of Argentina, and Turkson of Ghana—with the latter having the greatest support.
Of course, Italian Cardinals Bagnasco, Bertone, and Scola have strong credentials, and few would be surprised if one of them, or another Italian, is elected.
There have been three African popes previously, although the last, Gelasius I (492-496), may have been born in Rome of a North African family. All three of the African popes, however, seem to have been Caucasian, but that is not the case for Cardinals Arinze and Turkson. What would it mean to have a Black pope?
Personally, I hope that Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines will be elected, although he is likely much too young (55) to be selected by colleagues who all older than he is, except for one. There is something to be said for popes being up in years when they are elected; that is, perhaps it is better for a pope not to be in office for decades. Still, I like the idea of an Asian Pope. Maybe next time.
At any rate, it is going to be interesting to see how sequestration turns out, both in regards to the U.S. budget and to the election of the next pope.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Alzheimer’s: The Long, Sad Goodbye


Had she not passed away in 2008, last Wednesday (2/13) would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. But as sad as it was, it was a blessing she passed away when she did. Although she was never officially diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease (AD), it was sadly clear that she was experiencing progressive dementia, which was most probably AD.
When June and I returned to the States in August of 2004, there were some signs that Mom was having some cognitive difficulties, but nothing that seemed very serious. Over the next three and a half years, though, we saw a fairly steady decline. When I saw the poignant online article about Alzheimer’s being the disease that leads to a “long, sad goodbye,” I knew firsthand what it was talking about.
I have recently learned about David Hilfiker, a social activist, author, and retired medical doctor. He lives in Washington, D.C., and Keith (my older son) knows him personally. Dr. Hilfiker (b. 1945) went through Yale University on scholarships before going to medical school and becoming a doctor. But now, sadly, he has AD.
Recently on his website, Dr. Hilfiker posted “Watching the Lights Go Out: An Autobiography.” That touching article begins abruptly with these stark words: “I have Alzheimer’s disease.” Very candidly he then shares the first indications (in September 2012) that he has “progressive cognitive impairment,” which he thinks is almost certainly the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
“As a retired physician who has seen his share of mentally declining patients,” Dr. Hilfiker writes, “I know what’s most likely in store as the disease gets worse: A long, progressive mental decline (to the point, for instance, where I don’t recognize my family), nursing home care, and early death from complications of the disease.”
But he is trying to make the most of the time that remains for him to write, sharing what it is like to fight the dreaded disease known as Alzheimer’s. It will be interesting to see how long he will be able to write about his experiences, and what he has say about them. Perhaps the greatest help will come from his honest sharing, squarely facing the problems caused by AD and dealing actively with the issues it raises, rather than trying to deny its existence. That’s something that all AD patients and the families need to do.
Perhaps falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most prevalent fears of the future for all of us who are over the age of 65. Statistically speaking, it will hit many of us—and the longer we live the greater the chance is that we will suffer from AD before our demise.
The hope, of course, is that soon there will be an effective treatment for those with Alzheimer’s, one which will greatly slow the process if not curtail it altogether. The federal government has made prevention of AD a goal to reach by the year 2025. But for some of us, that will not be soon enough.

So each of us older people live in hope that we will not become a victim of AD in the first place or that if we do, there will be some effective medication we can take so our loved ones will not be forced, as so many people have been up until the present, to say a long, sad goodbye.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Giving Up Meat for Lent

Like most of you who grew up as Baptists or other “low church” Protestants, I heard almost nothing about Lent as a boy and for a long time I had no interest in observing Lent. And I am still not particularly fond of the “church year” with its annual emphasis on observing both Advent and Lent.
Nevertheless, for many years now I have made some conscious effort to observe Lent—and for many years now I have given up sweets for Lent. I have done this largely for health reasons, that is, as a way to lower my body weight, which always seems to be a little more than it should be.
But this year I am considering something that I have never thought of doing before: giving up eating meat for Lent. In fact, I am thinking about doing this as a test to see if I could become a vegetarian.
As a farm boy, raising and selling cattle and hogs was the major source of our family’s income, so eating beef and pork (as well as chicken) was a normal practice, one that was never questioned.
But recently I have become friends with a man who is an atheist—and a vegetarian, largely for ethical reasons it seems. I have also recently listened to “Honoring God’s Creation,” YouTube videos produced by the Christian Vegetarian Association.
I have been particularly impressed with the “arguments” of John Dear, a Jesuit priest whom I have long admired because of his advocacy for world peace. Dear (b. 1959) became a vegetarian in his early 20s, and he argues persuasively for such an eating lifestyle in Christianity and Vegetarianism (1990), which is summarized here.
People become vegetarians for different reasons. Some eschew (don’t chew!) meat for health reasons. I am not convinced, though, that a vegetarian diet is necessarily a healthier one (depending maybe on how much red meat is consumed), and I am not considering giving up meat because of health concerns.
Many seem to choose vegetarianism because of “animal rights.” When I hear what Dear says about that, I can’t dismiss that argument completely. But I am not yet convinced that there is intrinsically anything wrong with humans eating animals.
In the past some theologians (Kierkegaard, Barth) have emphasized the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and humans. Infinite or not, isn’t there a similar qualitative difference between humans and the animal world? Do some (or most?) of those who speak of “animal rights” do so because they have a Darwinian worldview that sees humans only as highly developed animals that are not qualitatively different from other animals?
The most important argument for me is the one related to world hunger. For some reason, that appeal for vegetarianism seemed to be more prevalent in the 1970s than now, but it was a central emphasis of Frances Moore Lappé’s influential book Diet for a Small Planet. (By the time the 20th anniversary edition was published in 1991, it had already sold nearly 3,000,000 copies.)
The use of land and grain to produce meat, especially beef, is highly questionable in a world where many people don’t have enough to eat. According to the oft-quoted statistic, it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef.
Giving up meat (becoming a vegetarian) doesn’t automatically mean that grain used for producing meat will suddenly become available to those who don’t have enough to eat. But maybe giving up meat (for Lent, or altogether) is a symbolic step in the right direction.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Praise of Roger Williams

February 5, 1631. That is the date on which the Lyon, a British ship, “anchored safe amid great and dangerous ice floes in Boston harbor.” On board that ship (which had set sail from Bristol, England, on December 1) were Roger Williams and his wife Mary.
The words quoted in the above paragraph are from the new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (2012). In it the author, noted historian John M. Barry, tells the story of one of the most important people in American history.
Roger Williams was probably born in 1603, the year Queen Elizabeth died and James I was crowned King of England. Roger became a well-educated English clergyman, graduating from Cambridge University in 1627. (As a longtime admirer of Williams, when I visited Cambridge for the first time in 2004 I thought, “Wow! This is where Roger Williams walked 375 years ago.”)
Although ordained by the Church of England, Williams became a Puritan and decided to sail with other Puritans to the “new world.” The massive movement of Puritans to New England had begun the year before. In 1630 John Winthrop (c.1587-1649) led a group of colonists to the New World and later that year became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a post he held at four different times for a total of around 13 years.
It was Winthrop who first spoke of the new colony being “a city on a hill” that would shine for all the world to see. He and those Puritans who arrived with him believed that they were chosen and blessed by God, and they sought to build a Christian country.
In his first years in New England, Williams served as a minister in Salem and Plymouth, but his disapproval of the Puritan church in Massachusetts led to his banishment from the colony. Williams’s criticism was twofold: he did not think that the civil government had the right to force people to hold prescribed religious beliefs. Further, he thought it was not right for the Englishmen to take lands from the Native Americans without compensating them.
Consequently, in order to escape deportation Williams fled into the wilderness in January 1636, and later that year he (and others who had come to join him) established the settlement that he named Providence, which is now the capital of Rhode Island. (Interestingly, Barry, the author of the book mentioned above, was born in Providence in 1947.) Two years later Williams founded the first Baptist church in the New World.
Several years later, in 1644 Williams wrote his most important book. It was published under the less than inspiring title The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, For Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace. Basically, this treatise calls for true freedom of religion and absolute separation of church and state.
In his new book A Thicker Jesus (2012), the noted Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen points out in The Bloudy Tenent, Williams contends that the bloodshed of war “is largely caused by religious persecution. Relief from this bloodshed and from the hypocrisy of people who merely pretend to embrace a faith because they fear persecution, will result from establishing religious liberty” (p. 199). That may have been more nearly true in the 17th century than now, but it is still a point worth considering. 
All of us who believe in, and appreciate having, religious freedom (or freedom from religion) should be continually grateful to Roger Williams and his significant positive impact upon “the American soul.”