Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Time and Eternity

We never give up. Our bodies are gradually dying, but we ourselves are being made stronger each day. These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing. Things that are seen don’t last forever, but things that are not seen are eternal. That’s why we keep our minds on the things that cannot be seen. (2 Corinthians 4:16-19, Contemporary English Version)

On this last day of the year and on the cusp of a new year, we are drawn into thinking about the passage of time. And some of us have seen a considerable passage of time: for example, today is the 27,898th day since I was born.
Perhaps all of us who have passed the 27,000th day mark realize that our physical bodies “are gradually dying.” But I hope we are also experiencing “ourselves” as “being made stronger each day.” Unfortunately, I am afraid that not all of us are experiencing that.

It seems that many people now do not recognize the actuality of “an eternal glory” and do not keep their minds “on the things that cannot be seen.”
Across the country and around the world, I fear there has been a considerable loss of a sense of eternity even among those who are Christian believers. Except for those who are firmly entrenched in the world of conservative evangelicalism, the reality of eternity seems to be becoming dimmer and dimmer.
In the Christianity of the past there was often too much emphasis on Heaven and not enough emphasis on this world and its present ills. There was too much stress on “the sweet by and by” and not enough on “the dirty here and now.”
With all the emphasis on eternity, the hope of Heaven was sometimes used to justify deplorable conditions on earth in the present. For example, slaves were told to be patient and to endure their current suffering steadfastly, for soon they would be walking on the streets of gold.
In many Christian circles, the idea of Hell as everlasting punishment has been discarded—and most of us would say “Good riddance.” (I have long understood Hell as annihilation.)
It also seems that more and more the idea of Heaven as everlasting bliss to be enjoyed in the future by individual human beings is also fading.
Part of the reason for this change may be a common misunderstanding of the meaning of “eternal,” long considered to be unending time. Properly understood, however, eternity refers to a state of timelessness, not to time which goes on endlessly.
Eternity is the realm of God, Creator of Heaven and earth—and of time. To God, all space is Here and all time is Now. God’s “existence” is in what some theologians refer to as the “eternal now.”
This juxtaposition of the Creator and the created, or time and eternity, causes many to focus only on the created world and on matters that exist in time while questioning and even rejecting ideas about God and eternity. This problem is due to what Kierkegaard referred to as the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humans.
So today and tomorrow as we think about time passing from 2014 to 2015, this is a good time to reflect also on the meaning and significance of eternity and to focus our minds on the things that cannot be seen—as well as to give attention to things, and people, that can be seen and need our care and kindness.
We humans were wonderfully created to live simultaneously in both time and eternity.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Amazing Christmas Truce of 1914

As has been noted from time to time this year, the Great War, later to be called World War I, began one hundred years ago this past summer. By August 1914, Britain and France were fully engaged in war against Germany.
In September trench warfare began as troops from both sides constructed opposing fortifications and dugouts protected by barbed wire, machine-gun nests, snipers, and mortars, with an in-between area called No Man’s Land. The 450-mile “Western front” stretched from the English Channel coast southward through Belgium and Eastern France to Switzerland.
Living in and fighting from the trenches was a terrible experience, one of considerable squalor with so many men living in a very constrained space. Here is how one website describes trench life:
Scraps of discarded food, empty tins and other waste, the nearby presence of the latrine, the general dirt of living half underground and being unable to wash or change for days or weeks at a time created conditions of severe health risk (and that is not counting the military risks). Vermin including rats and lice were very numerous; disease was spread both by them, and by the maggots and flies that thrived on the nearby remains of decomposing human and animal corpses.
But at Christmastime in many places along the Western front, there was an unofficial truce as some of the men on both sides decided to celebrate the joy of Christmas rather than fight.
The Wall Street Journal began its Dec. 19 article “The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce” with these words written by Frank Richards, a British soldier:
On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. . . . Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
From The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches"
The amazing story of the events of Dec. 25, 1914, is engagingly told by Stanley Weintraub in his 2001 book, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.” Weintraub ended his book with the closing words of “A Carol from Flanders” by Frederick Niven, whom Weintraub calls a “very minor Scottish poet of Great War vintage.”
Niven wrote, “O ye who read this truthful rime / From Flanders, kneel and say: / God speed the time when every day / Shall be as Christmas Day.”
Even if they were not as spectacular as sometimes dramatized, still those events 100 years ago are worth considering—and they are being widely remembered this week at various commemorative activities being held around the world. That amazing Christmas truce of 1914 was a ray of hope at a very dark time in the history of the world.
That ray of hope still shines, and is still much needed now, 100 years later. There is so much that is dark is the world today: racial tension across the U.S., fierce fighting in Iraq and across the Middle East, hunger and poverty stunting lives in city slums around the world, and so forth.
But Christmas is the time of the year for renewed hope for the future and renewed determination to work to make every day to be like Christmas Day. I pray that the good news of Christ, the Prince of Peace, will lodge in all our hearts.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appropriate and Inappropriate Missionary Activity

Should missionaries ever seek to change social practices and work to make laws that would change what is thought unacceptable in the countries to which they go? Most Christians now would probably say No, although perhaps they would allow for some exceptions, such as in cases such as sati (suttee) in India and foot binding in China.
Sati, the practice or burning widows on the pyres of their dead husbands, was strongly opposed by English Baptist missionary William Carey for 25 years, and in 1829 it was finally banned in India.
Partly as the result of considerable opposition by Christian missionaries in China, the cruel practice of mutilating the feet of young girls, usually called “foot binding,” was outlawed there in 1912.
In both of these cases, missionaries were opposed to customs that were unlike Western practices because of the perceived harm done to people they wanted to liberate from inhumane practices.
But in very recent years there is the odd phenomenon of some missionaries promoting legislation that most Western countries now reject. The main case in point is the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was exactly a year ago, on Dec. 20, 2013, that the Ugandan legislature passed a harsh law authorizing severe punishment for homosexual activity in that African country.
As has been widely publicized, and severely criticized, by many Westerners, some of the impetus behind that Ugandan anti-gay legislation was the outspoken support of some Christian missionaries and U.S. pastors.
Earlier this year I watched “God Loves Uganda,” the 2013 documentary about those working for and against anti-homosexuality legislation in that country.
The movie starts with scenes from Kansas City and clips of Lou Engle, one of the co-founders of IHOP in 1999. Throughout the film there are many references to IHOP missionaries working for the anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
IHOP (the International House of Prayer) is considered by many to be a Christian cult. But one of the best students I had one semester three or four years ago was a member of IHOP, and she had nothing but praise for her “church.”
And in stark contrast to what is depicted in the documentary, IHOP has disavowed any connection with the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. (Here is the link to an interview with Mike Bickle, the main leader of IHOP from its beginning, about that matter.)
In spite of IHOP’s disclaimer, however, it is hard to think that the makers of “God Loves Uganda” fabricated the footage of IHOP-linked missionaries being strong advocates of the anti-gay legislation.
On the other hand, the documentary also shows some Ugandan Christian leaders (especially Christopher Senyonjo, a retired bishop in the Church of Uganda and Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest) staunchly opposing the anti-homosexuality bill. 

At the end of the film it was noted that the “Anti-Homosexuality Act” was signed by the Ugandan president on Feb. 25, 2014. In August, however, that law was declared unconstitutional on a technicality. But an equally harsh, or even harsher, law is still very much in the works, it seems.
There are some efforts for cultural change and legislation that are legitimate for missionaries to be engaged in. That includes, for example, anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) activities at the present.
People who are mistreated, demeaned, or treated unjustly need to be liberated from customs and practices that seem clearly to be in opposition to the teaching and example of Jesus. Thus, those born with homosexual orientation are appropriately included with people needing liberation and they should never be made the target of unjust laws.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Remembering Glenn Miller

Most of you know well who Glenn Miller was. You likely listened to and enjoyed his music years ago—and maybe even recently. As I write this, I am listening to a 2005 CD titled “The Essential Glenn Miller.” It got me “in the mood” to write about the talented musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader. 

I am writing about Miller at this particular time because it was on December 15, 1944, that his airplane went missing over the English Channel. It is thus assumed that he died 70 years ago today.
Most of you may not know that Glenn got his first trombone and had the beginning of his musical career in the little town of Grant City, Missouri—which just happens to be my hometown. Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa, on March 1, 1904, but in 1915 his family moved to Grant City where they resided until 1918.
According to the memorial erected on the courthouse lawn by the Worth County Historical Society in 1999, it was in the county seat town of Grant City that Glenn “acquired his first trombone and taught to play by John Mosbarger, the town band director. Young Miller worked as a shoe shine boy in Mosbarger’s cleaning parlor.”
I couldn’t find it documented anywhere, but I remember hearing how some of the people in the Grant City town band didn’t particularly like for young Glenn, who apparently looked sort of tacky, to march with them. In response to their grumbling, Mr. Mosbarger (1881-1956) told them than if they didn’t want Glenn to march with them, then he could walk with him at the front of the band.
On the front page of the June 11 issue of The Times-Tribune, my hometown weekly newspaper, there was an article titled “70 years After His Death, Glenn Miller’s Legacy Lives On.” That weekend was the 39th annual Glenn Miller Festival in Clarinda.
I wish I could have attended those festivities, for in addition to the current Glenn Miller Orchestra being there, the Tamana Girls High School Band from Japan also performed. (Tamana is a town about 60 miles from where I lived in Japan for so many years.)
The 1954 movie “The Glenn Miller Story” premiered in Clarinda. During my high school years in Grant City, my only girlfriend was Chloris King. Her mother, Verga (1896-1974), was John Mosbarger’s sister, and I remember Chloris telling about her parents going to Clarinda with Uncle John and his wife Effie for the premier of that film. Jimmy Stewart, who played Miller in the movie, was there for that gala opening.
People from Worth County were disappointed that the movie started after the Miller family had moved away from Grant City, so the town is not mentioned at all. But Grant City is referred to in various online websites about Glenn Miller, including Wikipedia.
The town is also mentioned in Scott Stanton’s 2003 book “The Trombone Tourist,” and John Mosbarger is quoted: “Grant City, Missouri, in 1917 wasn’t a very big place, and when a strong-lunged youngster cut loose on a trombone, you heard him all over town” (p. 171).
In 1942 Miller, at the age of 38, volunteered for the U.S. military and formed the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. On Dec. 15, 1944, Glenn boarded an airplane in England and set off for France, where he was going to perform in a Christmas program. He was never heard from again; his plane apparently crashed in the English Channel. What a tragedy!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Would King say about Ferguson?

Fifty years ago today, on Dec. 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was 35 years old, and at the time was the youngest person ever to be given the Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901.
King gave an acceptance speech upon receiving the prodigious prize on that December day, and on the 11th he delivered the Nobel Lecture. 

From 1960 until his death in 1968, King and his father were co-pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (That is also where one of King’s funerals was held on 4/9/68.) Last Monday (Dec. 1) Attorney-General Holder met with community leaders of Atlanta in Ebenezer BC.
That gathering was publicized under the name “The Community Speaks: A Service. A Forum. A Place to be Heard.” Prior to that meeting Ebenezer Church’s Facebook page explained,
This service is designed to provide a sacred space for interfaith prayer, solidarity, communal lament, and constructive outlets for community involvement that furthers the work of social justice locally, nationally and globally.
What would King have said last week if he had been there at Ebenezer? (If he had not been assassinated, at age 85 he might have been.)
King would, no doubt, have expressed great sadness at the shooting death of an unarmed black teen-ager. And it is most likely that he would have also expressed grave reservations about the grand jury’s refusal to indict Darren Wilson.
Doubtlessly, King would also have decried the violence that has marred the protest in Ferguson and elsewhere. As he did in the 1950s and ’60s, he would have appealed for nonviolent demonstrations.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, King declared that “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time,” and that it is necessary for humans “to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”
King also declared in his Nobel lecture, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.”
Further, “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.” And then, “Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
If King were to have come back, Rip van Winkle style, to Ebenezer last week, he would quite likely have expressed great disappointment that the racial situation has not improved more than it has since 1964.
In his Nobel lecture, King talked about racial injustice, poverty, and war. Sadly, not very much has changed in 50 years.
In that lecture, King spoke about how we humans suffer from
a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers [and sisters].
King’s acceptance speech was full of hope, though. To some that may have sounded then, and maybe especially now, as “liberal” or humanistic optimism. But there is a distinct difference between hope and optimism.
King was not, and most likely would not today be, optimistic about race relations in the country. But he was hopeful then, and as a man of deep Christian faith, he would be hopeful now.

That hope rests partly in people of good will truly seeking freedom and justice for all. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Banality of Evil

"Banality” is not a word that we often hear. The dictionary I consulted defines it as “the condition or quality of being banal, or devoid of freshness or originality.” “Triteness,” “staleness,” and “unimaginativeness” are synonyms for banality.
Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish woman, created quite a stir in 1963 when her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” was published.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
The 2012 movie “Hannah Arendt” depicts well the life and work of this fascinating intellectual, who died in New York City on December 4, 1975.
Adolf Eichmann, a high ranking Nazi leader and the primary instigator of the Jewish Holocaust, was captured in Argentina and brought to trial in May 1960. He faced 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.
Found guilty on many of the charges against him, Eichmann was sentenced to death and was hanged on May 31, 1962.
In her study of that trial, Arendt concluded that Eichmann was the embodiment of the “banality of evil,” asserting that he appeared to be ordinary and sane, yet displayed neither guilt nor hatred.
In a similar vein, Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor, said this about Eichmann: “We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”
In wartime, most killing, even by those we consider enemies, is done by people who are just doing their duty rather than by people who are especially vile or evil. That is true even for the pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor on the “day of infamy” that we remember on Sunday.
There are some Americans who even to this day are prejudiced toward Japanese people because of Pearl Harbor.
But if even the deeds of a man like Eichmann can be described as an expression of the banality of evil, as I think they probably can, certainly that can be said about most of the “rank and file” members of any army or air force.
Those who plan war and order others to fight may well be evil, but individual soldiers as a rule are no more evil than anyone else.
The same can be said about other tragic situations. For example, on Nov. 24 the grand jury in St. Louis County decided not to indict policeman Darren Wilson for killing Ferguson teen-ager Michael Brown.
As you know, that touched off senseless violence and protests not only in Ferguson but across the country and even in London.
A young man was killed, and his family and many other people think it was a needless and unjust act of murder.
We certainly don’t know whether the use of lethal force against an unarmed teen-ager was justified, but surely there was some other means for Wilson to get out of harm’s way.
But also quite certainly, Wilson was/is not an evil man. Rather, this is perhaps another example of the banality of evil.
In an interview on Nov. 25, Wilson said, “I just did my job. I did what I was paid to do and that was my job. I followed my training, the training took over, the training led me to what happened.”
So, as enacted by most individuals, including soldiers and policemen, perhaps most evil is banal. The problem is with evil systems that train, and order, people to kill, in war or at other times.