Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Thomas Merton

Growing up in rural northwest Missouri, I didn’t have much opportunity to know people who belonged to the Catholic Church.
And then during my years in two Baptist colleges and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that didn’t afford much possibility of getting to know Catholics, either.
Actually, as I think back, I guess my first Catholic friend was Zénon Yelle, a Canadian priest who lived in the same city in Japan. In the 1970s he became a member of a book discussion group that June and I attended monthly.
Fr. Yelle was a thoughtful man and a good scholar, and getting to know him helped me gain a more positive idea about Catholics.
It was also probably in the 1970s that I first became aware of, and then read a book by, Thomas Merton, an outstanding Catholic thinker and prolific author who was born 100 years ago tomorrow, on January 31, 1915 (exactly six weeks before my father).
The first of Merton’s more than 70 books that I read was “New Seeds of Contemplation” (1962), and I have read it a time or two since. And then a few years ago I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948), his highly acclaimed autobiography.
Partly in honor of his memory, this month I have read Merton’s “No Man Is an Island” (1955), one of his most widely-read books on what he calls “the spiritual life.” These books are quite beneficial for Protestants as well as Catholics.
In 1941 Merton became a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. That was his home for the next 27 years before his untimely death.
Dr. E. Glenn Hinson was one of my teachers at Southern Seminary in the spring semester of 1960—and after all these years I still exchange emails with him regularly.
In the fall of 1960 Dr. Hinson (b. 1931) began taking students to Gethsemani. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in any of his classes that did that, so I never had the privilege of meeting Merton or hearing him speak—or of learning more about Catholics then.
But the contact with Merton was quite meaningful to the seminary students who did go to Gethsemani with Dr. Hinson, and in a recent email Dr. Hinson wrote, “Merton had a very profound impact on my life and ministry.”
Through the years, Merton became a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, engaging in deep discussions with Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In December 1968, Merton went to Thailand to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. From there he intended to go on to Japan to learn more about Zen Buddhism. After speaking at the conference in Thailand, though, he suddenly died.
It is generally concluded that while stepping out of his bath, he was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan. It was a tragic loss to the religious world and to all who knew him.
It is impossible to know how much more good he could have done if he had lived 39 more years as my father did.
One chapter in “New Seeds of Contemplation” is titled “The Root of War is Fear.” Several times I have quoted the concluding words of that chapter, and they are words worth remembering and worth considering over and over again:

If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another (p. 122).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Super Bowl Idolatry

Like many Americans, I enjoy a good football game. While not particularly a professional football fan, I do follow the Kansas City Chiefs. (As many of you know, the Chiefs played in the very first Super Bowl, which was on Jan. 15, 1967.) I watched at least some of almost all the Chiefs games in their rather mediocre 2014 season.
Next Sunday I am going to be preaching for the first time in many months, so I am looking forward to doing that. As one of the lectionary Scripture passages is from 1 Corinthians 8, I decided to preach about idolatry, past and present.
Upon realizing that February 1 is Super Bowl Sunday, I began to reflect upon the idolatrous characteristics of the Super Bowl. In searching the Internet, I found that I am not the first to have such thoughts.
Thus, I may not watch any of the Super Bowl—mainly because with all of the hype it seems to border on being idolatrous.

New USAmerican "Golden Calf"?

Consider the cost of attending the Super Bowl. Five days ago I checked to see what it would cost to purchase a ticket. The most expensive one, and there was only one at this price, was $115,000!
Most were much cheaper: I found 64 tickets priced from $10,000 to $13,500. The cheapest tickets, and there were 226 of them left, were $2,491.35. That is the price for just one football game! And even the parking costs more than $100.
In addition, millions are spent for the television advertisements: it is reported that a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl costs $4,500,000—not to mention the cost of making the ads.
In addition to those exorbitant prices, the football “idols” make outlandish salaries. For this past season, the top twenty players in the NFL made salaries of from $14,000,000 to $22,000,000. Some made more than $1,000,000 a game!
Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots who will be playing in the Super Bowl, isn’t even in the top 20. But he, and others, makes a great sum of money from endorsements.
Of course, there are other idolatrous segments of American society, such as is seen in the world of entertainment and advertisement. For example, Tom Brady’s wife is Gisele Bundchen, a model.
According to this August 2014 article on, since 2002 Gisele has made more money than any other model in the world. “At 34, she is still sitting pretty at the top of the world’s highest-paid models list, pulling in an estimated $47 million before taxes and fees in the last 12 months.”
The article goes on to say, “Bundchen also made about $16 million more than quarterback husband Tom Brady’s $31.3 million annual paycheck.”
Actually, Super Bowl is just one part of the extensive hedonistic idolatry of this country with such excessive emphasis placed on pleasure and consumption, spurred on by millionaire models and multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ads.
In a Jan. 22 online article in Christianity Today, Kutter Callaway of Fuller Theological Seminary says, “The NFL is, in a real sense, our civic religion. It has Sunday worship services, mid-week Thursday celebrations, patron saints (Hall of Famers), and a liturgical calendar that begins with the NFL draft (in April) and ends with the Super Bowl (in February).”
But rather than confronting Super Bowl idolatry, many churches buy into the hype and have watch parties and other activities embracing it. even suggests making Super Bowl day “Football Sunday.”
There is a legitimate place for athletic contests, even championship football games. But let’s not make an idol of them!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“On the Pulse of Morning”

January 20, 1993, was a big day for the woman who was born in 1928 and named Marguerite Ann Johnson.
You probably don’t know her by that name, for she was introduced as Maya Angelou before reading one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as POTUS on that January day 22 years ago today.
Angelou was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Also, she was the first woman as well as the first African-American to do so.
The poem Angelou recited at President Clinton’s inauguration was titled “On the Pulse of Morning.” It ended with these words:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sisters eyes,
And into your brothers face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply /
With hope
Good morning.
It was a very suitable poem for the new President from Hope, Arkansas.

Marguerite was born in St. Louis but mostly spent her early years, from age three to twelve, living with her grandmother in Stamps, Ark., a small town not far north of the Louisiana border.
Reading about the indignities she suffered as a little black girl in Arkansas helps us to understand Martin Luther King Jr’s passion for changing unjust laws, for he was just a year younger than Maya.
The town of Stamps is about 65 miles southwest of Bearden, Ark., where black theologian James Cone was reared. And even though he was born ten years after Maya, the violence against African-Americans in Arkansas, and elsewhere, led Cone to write his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” (2011).
In 1940, after Bailey, Maya’s brother, saw the body of a black man who had been lynched, “Momma,” their grandmother, decided to take the two children to their mother, who then lived in California.
Bailey, a year older than his sister, is the one who gave Marguerite her new first name. When they were small, he referred to her as “my-a sister” and then the nickname Maya stuck. Around 1953, after she became a night club performer in San Francisco, she took the name Angelou for her stage name.
Angelou’s most widely-read book is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969). It is her autobiography from the age of three, when she and Bailey were sent to Arkansas, until she was 17. I just finished reading it for the first time last night. It is a beautifully written book, and definitely one well worth reading.
Maya had a wide variety of experiences between the age of 17 and when she was 64 in January 1993. Among other things, by then she was a nationally known author and poet. And in 1991 she had become a professor at Wake Forest University.
Her memorial service was held at WFU’s Wait Chapel on June 7 last year, ten days after her passing at the age of 86.
It is amazing how people can rise from humble circumstances to great heights. That fact is clearly seen in the outstanding life Maya Angelou. It was also true for Bill Clinton, who was born just about 30 miles north of Stamps.
Amazing Maya Angelou left the world many good poems and other words worth considering well, such as these from her book “Celebrations” (2006):
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Clarina Nichols, Frontier Feminist

Like many of you, for many years I have known the names of and something about leading U.S. feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). However, I knew nothing about Clarina Nichols, another outstanding feminist, until rather recently.
But Clarina is also a woman definitely worth knowing about.
Fairly recently, June and I have become friends with Diane Eickhoff and her husband Aaron Barnhart. After becoming acquainted with Diane, I found out that she had written a book titled “Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights” (2006).
I decided to read Diane’s book and discovered that not only was it very well written, but Ms. Nichols was also a remarkable woman. I was happy to learn about her life and achievements.
Clarina Irene Howard was born in Vermont on January 25, 1810. At the age of 20 she married Justin Carpenter, who turned out to be a weak man, unable to provide for his wife and their three children. They separated in 1839, and her divorce in 1843 was granted on the basis of “cruelty, unkindness, and intolerable severity.”
Clarina then married George Nichols, a newspaper editor and a widower twenty-eight years her senior. Clarina became an editor alongside, and then in place of, her husband, and from that position became one of this country’s earliest advocates for women’s rights.
In 1854 she pulled up stakes to pioneer in “bleeding Kansas” when that part of the country was enmeshed in the struggle over slavery, another issue that greatly concerned her. 
According to Diane, “As an independent, self-supporting woman, . . . she challenged conservative clergy, championed abused wives, and changed laws affecting women in several states.”
Clarina Nichols died 130 years ago this past Sunday, on January 11, 1885. Interestingly, Alice Paul was born on that very same day. Alice grew up to be an indefatigable advocate for women’s suffrage, which Clarina dreamed of and worked for so laboriously but without success.
Finally, because of Alice’s efforts, along with those of many others, in 1920 woman in this country finally were given the right to vote, 35 years after Clarina’s death.
Some of you might be interested in reading Diane’s book. And some of you might have already seen, or may want to see, “Iron Jawed Angels,” the engaging 2004 film about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their struggle that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Ms. Paul is admirably played by talented actress Hilary Swank. (Last June when I was in Maloy, Iowa, visiting Brian Terrell whom I wrote about here, I heard that Hilary Swank’s father, Steve who had grown up in Ringgold County where Maloy is located, had bought the old Catholic church in that village and lives in the former church rectory.)
It was because of women such as Clarina and Alice that all U.S. women finally acquired voting rights. But there is still a long way to go for there to be gender equality in this nation. For example, in the 114th U.S. Congress that convened for the first time this month, there are 84 women in the House of Representatives and 20 women serving in the Senate.
But even though women make up half of the population, women still comprise only about 20% of those serving in Congress. That percentage is growing, though—and from what I hear there is a strong possibility that the next POTUS will be a woman.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Beloved Community

First coined in the early days of the 20th century by the philosopher/theologian Josiah Royce, “The Beloved Community” is a term that was popularized and invested with a deeper meaning by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The website of the King Center gives a two-page explanation of “the beloved community” as envisioned by Dr. King. Foremost in his thinking for creating such a community were the characteristics of brotherhood and sisterhood, nonviolence, and justice.
To a significant degree, those of us who are a part of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas, experience the joys of being in a beloved community. As an Anabaptist church, RMC regularly emphasizes the characteristics just mentioned.
Although King was a Baptist pastor, his emphasis on nonviolence is especially much more in harmony with the Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups than with most of the Baptist churches in the U.S. And one of King’s closest colleagues was the Mennonite scholar Vincent Harding, who passed away last May at the age of 82.
The goal of RMC is to accept all people “regardless of race, ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic or other life circumstances” (words from RMC’s homepage). The picture below, which shows those who served Communion at RMC this past Sunday, is one small expression of what that looks like.

As a rule, the Communion service is led by the pastor assisted by the worship leader for the day, who last Sunday was Carmen, and the deacon in charge of preparations, who happened to be me. In the picture Pastor Ruth Harder is handing the cup to Amy, who was helping serve Communion for the first time.
There are six deacons at RMC, always three women and three men, and they rotate being in charge of Communion preparation. Being in charge includes enlisting three other servers. In addition to Amy, I had asked Fred, an older African-American man June and I sit next to almost every Sunday, and Emma, a high school student who was baptized last year, to help serve. Because of the snow that morning, Fred didn’t make it, so Dave substituted for him.
At RMC there is no “qualification” for being a Communion server other than being a part of the “beloved community.” In the Baptist churches I had been part of in the States, the Lord’s Supper was always, as far as I can remember, served by the deacons—who except for the last Baptist church I was a member of were always white men.
It was in Japan that I first experienced women serving as deacons and serving Communion. And then for years and years at the Fukuoka International Church that June and I help start and which I served as (part-time) pastor for 24 years, there were no deacons. So the servers for the Lord’s Supper were more like those at RMC—except there were usually only two beside the presiding pastor.
By “the beloved community,” King meant more than local church congregations. But local congregations are a good place to start. If our churches don’t find ways to transcend race, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic differences, how can we possibly expect to see the emergence of the beloved community in the larger society?
This coming Wednesday, January 14, is the regular monthly meeting of Vital Conversations at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Gladstone (Mo.). The discussion topic will be “The Beloved Community” and several local African-American guests are expected to be present for the meeting, which begins at 1 p.m. Visitors are cordially welcome.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Prayers for 2015

In this first blog article of 2015, I am reflecting back on the year that has just ended and am sharing some of my prayers for the year that lies ahead.
First, I pray for health and happiness for all of you, my dear readers. I much appreciate each of you who have read most, or even some, of my articles this year.
Although I would like to have heard from more of you, comments have been posted by and emails received from readers all across the U.S. and Canada as well as from overseas. I sincerely appreciate all the comments received, even those that did not agree with what I wrote.
No one knows who, but some of us probably won’t be here at the end of 2015. Some to whom I regularly sent blog links by email and others to whom I sent printed articles occasionally are no longer living.
So while I pray for our health and happiness, none of us know how many days we have left. Since they may not be as many as we would like to think, I pray that we will make the most of those we have.

Now looking out across our country and world and again reflecting on the events of this past year, I pray that there will be a lessening of racial tensions and of bad relations between police officers and ordinary citizens, especially people of color.
As you know, since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York—and especially since the police officers involved in those death were not indicted—there have been widespread protests and some violence across the country. And then on Dec. 20, two police officers were senselessly murdered by an apparently demented man.
Lord God, I pray that in this new year everyone will come to realize, indeed, that “black lives matter” and that the lives of police officers matter, too.
One of the most tragic events of this year has been the warring activities of ISIL, or ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State (IS). Their atrocious activities led to the U.S. response of bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria.
Lord, I pray that in 2015 fighting in the Near East may begin to wind down, that the hostilities of IS will be contained, and that all people of good will in that troubled part of the world can begin working together for peace.
The Ebola outbreak in western Africa and fears of that terrible disease spreading in this country was one of the scariest news stories of the year, and my prayer is one of gratitude that it did not become a problem of note in the U.S. and one of intercession for those still suffering from Ebola in Liberia and the surrounding countries where the effects of that crisis linger.
One of the biggest political events in the U.S. last year was the capture of the Senate by Republicans, who did well in the November elections. The 114th Congress will convene tomorrow, January 6, and it remains to be seen how it will fare. My prayer is that there can be increased working “across the aisle” and meaningful legislation can be passed for the well-being of people across the country.
Gracious God, thank you for the new year and the hope of good things coming to pass in it. May your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.