September 15, 2010

We've moved!

The Christian Century just launched a new Web site, where we're now hosting our blog. We've also renamed the blog "Century blog" and are introducing some new features—read more here.

If you read us by RSS, update your feed reader with our new feed. We'll leave this site up, but for archival purposes only. Thanks for reading.

September 14, 2010

Muhammad Musri, peacemaker

by Amy Frykholm

There are a lot of ways to look at what happened with Terry Jones, the pastor from Florida who wanted to burn the Qur’an on Saturday but later thought better of it. We can accuse the media, as Jason Linkins does. We can blame a frightening wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric and action, enflamed by people whose political interests it serves. We can examine the dynamics of a small church and a big world. But there's another story here.

In the spotlight of the controversy was Muhammad Musri, director of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, who went to meet with Terry Jones last Wednesday. Few details of their conversation were offered to the media, but those details were telling. Jones’s meeting with Musri marked a turning point in Jones’s rhetoric and accomplished what long-distance denunciations by world leaders could not.

When Musri waded into a difficult and tense situation, he used exceptional skills at interfaith dialogue:
  • He took a risk. Musri had little to gain from wading into the controversy. It would have been safer to sit on the sidelines and wait for the drama to play out. He risked failing, looking like a fool and making everyone angrier.

  • He entered the conversation with a premise that few of us would have offered. “I believe that Terry Jones is a good person at heart,” he told CNN. He spoke, as a Quaker might say, to “that of God” in Jones. Jones cited the imam’s expression of respect as crucial to their conversation.

  • He sought common ground, agreeing with Jones about the need to stand against terrorism and suggesting room for dialogue on the issue of the mosque in New York. While this was tricky, it provided space for more dialogue.

  • He used an empathetic understanding of Jones’s religion to move the conversation forward. “He [Jones] will pray about it,” Musri told reporters. “I told him that Christ in the Bible has offered a different solution, a different way.”
Jones did pray about it, and remarkably, he heard God telling him to stop. Musri has since been accused of “religious blackmail.” Bloggers immediately began to try to dismantle his reputation. But Musri succeeded in having a conversation and made a careful, but dramatic, step toward peacemaking.

See also the Christian Science Monitor’s profile of Musri, along with AOL's post on Musri's other moments in the spotlight.

September 13, 2010

Blogging toward Sunday: Simply grieving

17th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 20)
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79: 1-9

by MacKenzie Scott

Any national leader who would willingly engage in war when other alternatives exist should read Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt. The author was an Italian journalist assigned to cover campaigns by Axis allies. He wrote a “secret history” of his life amid the carnage and cruelty of war. It is a poetic, personal perspective.

One thing that makes the book effective is Malaparte’s selection of scenes and victims, from dead horses to individual Jews unable to escape their doom. He is sophisticated, even debonair, but his stylish writing only enhances the disgust and sorrow. It is as if the terrible scenes he witnessed were given an appointed chronicler so that war’s shameful destruction might be stripped of political cant or romantic pretense—and so that the lost might be properly mourned.

One problem with photos and video is that they come to the viewer relatively undigested. Images of the Twin Towers struck by jetliners, or of tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib, haunt people with their horror. People need guidance in how to express their sadness, fear and anger. In our time political commentators are supplying that guidance, and the misery of human inhumanity becomes ammunition for argument.

It seems there is no time simply to weep over the wrong of the world. The public’s instinct that we have a share in victims’ suffering doesn’t find a fit way to grieve just for them.

Jeremiah has plenty of political purpose in his pronouncements, but he knows enough to admit his inability to mourn adequately —“would that I could cry a river!”—and to spend time sorrowing over those slain by war before drawing morals. He has been so impatient of fools and bold in denunciation that it gives his deep anguish all the more impact. Like Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, Jeremiah betrays a tenderheartedness and sympathy with human vulnerability not always evident in God’s self-revelation.

Psalm 79 is another lament over slaughtered people and a defeated nation. The psalmist asks when God’s anger will be averted—and if it can’t be turned on those who humiliated God’s people. The extent of the judgment is more than one generation can have deserved, so the psalmist asks that forebears be forgiven as well as his own time and people. God’s compassion is invoked, and God’s purpose in having a people to bear his name is recalled, with the hope that God will rescue them for God’s sake if not their own.

The psalm, in its tentative hints of causes for tragedy, goes farther than Jeremiah. It remains poetry, however, and the evocative and suggestive power of its poetry keep the psalmist’s efforts at sense-making from seeming presumptuous. Several things come to mind—the anger of God, the sin of the people, the puzzling failure of the manifestly equally sinful enemy to suffer anything comparable—but it is more like thinking aloud than building a case.

Grieving itself, with its mixture of consternation and indignation, puzzlement and pain, is response enough. Like Jeremiah, the psalmist is reacting, and upholding the place of mourning by not feeling obliged to solve problems or suggest policy. One hopes that further developments, influenced by God, will come soon. Now is a time to cry.

For all its religious rhetoric, our time is less persuaded that events are in God’s hands. Suggesting that there is merit in grieving all by itself, that there is healing in lamentation and perspective in despair, runs counter to the grain of our culture and our time.

Such a suggestion could, however, chase the phantoms of our self-reliance and remind people of faith of the obligations and opportunities that exist in calling and waiting on God. A world impatient with recourse to prayer would have to ask itself if our efforts—fearing, blaming, killing, torturing and intimidating people—have really proved better solutions to the shocks and sorrows of our time.

MacKenzie Scott is pastor of First Baptist Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Additional lectionary columns by Scott appear in the September 7 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.

September 10, 2010

The obituary page

by Richard A. Kauffman

I used to think my grandfather had a strange affliction. He not only read the obituaries, but he kept a log of the deaths of relatives, friends and people he knew. If there were ever any questions about who died when, he’d retrieve his notebook and give us the facts.

My mother also kept a log for a while, though I'm not sure she still does. I do know she reads and clips newspaper obituaries. She has stacks of them on her desk, mixed together with financial papers that my sister and brother-in-law help her keep straight.

This affliction is apparently hereditary. Somewhere on the path toward “maturity,” I too started noticing and reading the obituaries. I’m as apt to read obituaries about people I don’t know as those I do know. I’m amused when people’s accomplishments are trumpeted while their feet of clay are left unexposed. Obituaries stand as monuments to the persons whose lives they recount, a testament to the fact their lives really mattered.

When I asked my friends on Facebook whether they read obituaries, one pastor in Kansas said it’s in the job description for small-town pastors. Another said he likes to read obituaries in small towns while traveling and imagine the lives of people who live there. Another reported that her grandmother liked to say that she’d start her day reading the obits, and if she didn’t find her name there she’d get on with her day. She lived to 102. Does reading obituaries prolong life?

One friend reported that her brother died unexpectedly this past February at age 37. She and her family were very thankful for all the people who showed up at the wake because they had seen his obituary. Now she reads them herself.

I read obituaries for reasons similar to why I like memoirs and biographies. I’m intrigued by the way other people have lived their lives, the roads they’ve taken, the roads rejected.

I also read obituaries to remind me of my own mortality. Sometimes I even imagine what it will be like for others to read my obituary. That’s not being morbid; it’s being realistic about the end of our days. As St. Benedict put it, “Remember every day, you will die.”

September 9, 2010

On the shelf: Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz

by Richard A. Kauffman

Lee Kravitz loved his job as editor in chief of Parade magazine. But like his ancestors before him, he was a workaholic. Most of the men in his family worked until they died, usually from heart attacks in their early 60s.

When he was at home his mind was still at work. His wife complained that he was never there for her. One of his 11-year-old twins was afraid to approach him. What’s more, he had become alienated from his boss, and was working in a field—journalism—that was going through drastic changes, including extensive job losses. One day an executive met him in the hallway and told him he no longer had a job. The conversation lasted less than a minute.

With time on his hands, Kravitz began to reflect back on his life. He realized that he had a lot of regrets, especially about the relationships that had gone bad or had ended due to neglect. Instead of beginning the search for a new job, he decided to spend a year making amends and trying to reconnect with people who mattered to him. He interpreted what he was going to do in religious terms: it would be a form of atonement not unlike Yom Kippur, which he enjoyed observing in his youth.

The most heartrending stories involve reconnecting with family members. He visited his Aunt Fern, whom he adored as a child. She had been hospitalized years earlier for mental illness and largely forgotten by the rest of his family. He tried to get his father and an uncle communicating with each other again—they were nursing grievances against each other going back to their childhood.

Kravitz attempted to make good on a promise to supply a young Kenyan boy's impoverished village with a library, and he visited a high school buddy who had converted to Greek Orthodoxy and co-founded a monastery in California.

Kravitz slips into self-indulgence at points, but profiles of some remarkable characters in his life save the book from total self-absorption. Chief among these is Father F. Washington Jarvis III, an Episcopal priest who was headmaster and philosophy teacher at the private high school Kravitz attended. Under Jarvis’s tutelage, Kravitz read Camus and Rand, Buber and Frankl, and became convinced that the search for meaning in life begins with the realization that we all will die someday. When Kravitz reconnects with this mentor, he is teaching at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

While Kravitz appears to be a secular Jew, he has a capacity for pondering religious questions. During his visit to Jarvis, Kravitz admitted that he does something like pray to someone or something that he increasingly calls God. But he doesn’t know if what he’s doing could be called prayer. Jarvis wisely told him to stop denying his impulse to pray. “Prayer is our deepest human instinct,” Jarvis said.
It begins with the recognition that we are weak and need help. There is so much in life that is beyond our control. So we have to offer up. That’s what prayer is: the crying out, the offering up of the mess we’re in.
Kravitz's story about unfinished business, part of the human condition, is a cautionary tale for all of us. As he puts it,
Even when you’re not aware of it on a day-to-day basis, your unfinished business weighs down your soul. Then one day, when you least expect it, it makes itself known.
It makes itself known if you’re lucky, that is, and you’re aware enough to notice. What you do about unfinished business in your life is up to you.

September 7, 2010

Blogging toward Sunday: More brutal than nature

16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19)
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

by MacKenzie Scott

In the September 7 issue of the Century, MacKenzie Scott observes that this week's readings find the world's wrongs addressed, but not "by some goddess with a blindfold." Here Scott looks further at the problem of injustice especially as found in nature. To read the original column, subscribe to the magazine. --Ed.

Bruce’s dog intruded on the Easter sunrise service. It had caught a bunny, of all things, and choked while attempting to eat it. This little reminder of nature red in tooth and claw marred the morning’s tranquility. The God emptying the borrowed grave in order to bring life and immortality to light seemed complicit in the routine reality of a dog-eat-bunny creation.

Of course we were in the Real World then, outside the confines of church walls. Nature, which up to that point had been seeming wondrously attuned to the miraculous—fleeing shadows, a growing chorus of birdsong, each bead of damp a prism for the dawning sun—now seemed violent, appetitive and prone to black humor.

We are not yet at that place where the lion and lamb rest together peacefully and the adder disdains to bite the infant’s exploring hand. There is a deeper suffusion of God’s nature in creation coming, at God’s initiative, by and by. For now we are still post-Eden, with all the other creatures innocent of moral qualities, and ourselves distinguished by having, both to our loss and our gain, eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The dog, by long association with our species, looked ashamed once it had been chastised. It was not, however, seeing things our way. Food in the wild was simply food; the necessity for hunting as opposed to showing up at the food dish was no great shift in perspective. Its experience was that meat is desirable and then that choking is uncomfortable.

It was also uncomfortable to have displeased its master, but that doesn’t mean it was guilty. Guilt exists in a moral universe, and the way Genesis sees it, we have moral obligations in our relations to other creatures but they have no moral natures in themselves. Their unreflective participation in the food chain is part of their innocence.

That’s not the innocence Easter was celebrating. We were there to share a dawning day marking both resurrection and rebirth. The old had passed away, behold, the new had come! God through Christ had reconciled the world to himself.

We looked away from the dog’s botched breakfast. We weren’t prepared to see how a realm of routine predation, of the innocent caught in the jaws of fate, was the world redeemed by Jesus. It is though. Our own path is not always standing amid friends at a hopeful sunrise. We live in a world inured to grosser brutalities than the natural world knows.

Jesus’ own experience of suspicion, opposition, betrayal, injustice, torture and death finds its end in Easter; but that world is not at an end. Our advantage is that we’ve seen the final act, the empty tomb and the living Christ, not defeated. That’s our hope in an environment which can be beautiful or bleak, meaningful or absurd.

The benefit of a beloved pet’s exposing the world’s violence and insecurity is that it keeps our religion fit for the real world. Otherwise we might imagine, like Jesus’ contemporaries who didn’t like him consorting with sinners, that it should be possible to be God’s person by refusing to be part of the world into which we are born.

MacKenzie Scott is pastor of First Baptist Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

September 2, 2010

Islamophobia by the numbers

by Steve Thorngate

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 54 percent of New York State voters agree "that because of American freedom of religion, Muslims have the right to build the mosque near Ground Zero." That strikes me as a shockingly small majority—almost half don’t feel that “religious freedom” by definition applies to all religions, even when the question’s put that way?—but hey, glad to hear of majority support for basic American principles, right?

Well, not quite. Fifty-three percent of the same group agree that “because of the sensitivities of 9/11 relatives, Muslims should not be allowed to build the mosque near Ground Zero.” So a majority thinks that Muslims have the same rights as everyone else, and a similar majority thinks that in this case, those rights somehow shouldn’t apply. The 7 percent or so who flipped between these two questions are doing some remarkable hairsplitting: it’s not that people don’t have rights, it’s that they don’t have them right now.

That 71 percent agree “that because of the opposition of Ground Zero relatives, the Muslim group should voluntarily build the mosque somewhere else” doesn’t alarm me. I think that people should voluntarily refrain from doing all kinds of things they have every right to do. Most of the time they go ahead and do them. So what?

In other bizarre-Islamophobia-related-statistics news, apparently 24 percent (pdf) of Americans now think the president is a Muslim (yet another way, as Jonathan Zimmerman points out, in which Obama’s presidency recalls Lincoln’s). I’m guessing the first family might soon experience a change of heart about their decision not to join and regularly attend a church.

September 1, 2010

Legal standing

by David Heim

A fascinating legal question has emerged in the aftermath of Judge Vaughn Walker’s overturning of Proposition 8 in California: Who has standing to appeal the decision? Amy Davidson spells this out in the New Yorker, and this summary from the San Jose Mercury News includes comments from leading scholars on court precedent on the matter.

The question boils down to who can show that they are harmed by gay marriage. It isn’t enough, in other words, just to be a citizen or group of citizens opposed to gay marriage. To have standing in court, you have to be in a position to show how it has caused you actual injury. Can anybody do that?

Perhaps the larger question, only touched on in these stories, is whether it is good for the country, and the cause of gay marriage, for the issue to be settled by the courts rather than legislatures. Are we priming for a culture war like the one prompted by Roe v. Wade? Perhaps not, says Ruth Marcus, in an interesting exchange with Michael Gerson.

August 31, 2010

Counting the cost

by David Heim

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” That consciously obvious claim—a favored bumper sticker in the 1960s—came to mind while reading a report in USA Today saying that one in four soldiers at the nation’s largest army post have been in counseling during the past year.

The number would probably be even higher if the mental health services at Fort Hood, Texas, could keep up with all the requests for help. The number of demands overwhelm the counselors—and that’s despite the fact that acknowledging a need for counseling still carries a stigma in the military.

Depression and post-traumatic stress are common problems, especially among those who have gone through several deployments in war zones.

"I don't think we fully understand the total effect of nine years of continuous conflict on a force this size," said Peter Chiarelli, an army chief of staff. Don’t understand that waging war is not healthy for human beings?

August 30, 2010

Blogging toward Sunday: Fearful and wonderful and ordinary

15th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18)
Psalm 139

by Patrick J. Willson

Here in Tidewater, Virginia, we make our way from city to city via a series of tunnels. As we approach each tunnel a series of signs warn us: “No HAZMATS” and “HAZMATS must exit here.” Trucks carrying hazardous materials of one sort or another provide a danger anywhere, but in tunnels the risk is magnified.

But although we're aware of hazardous truck cargo, we are usually oblivious to hazardous materials that are traveling through the tunnels of our bodies. Only occasionally do circumstances make us aware of this other threat.

As I stood alongside a hospital bed, a parishioner shyly asked me, “Would be it okay to pray for a bowel movement?” After a horrendous round of surgeries and repairs to surgeries, the bowel had been successfully resectioned, but there had been no evidence of that success. In worship a lay reader invites worshipers to pray together the “prayer for illumination” before reading the scriptures. That sometimes sounds like “prayer for elimination,” which is funny only until you are like this patient, hoping for a return to health.

Is it acceptable to call the attention of the high and holy one to a necessity as ordinary or even profane as defecation? The Lord God had knit together that bowel and the surgeon had sewn it back together, and what was needed that afternoon was the daring to trust in the creator’s continuing interest.

Although the psalter attributes the 139th psalm to David, biblical scholars regard it as an anonymous composition. We may be quite certain, however, that certain people did not write it. It was not that fellow modeling Calvin Klein underwear in the billboard that towers above Times Square, and it was not one of the sprites from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

This psalmist who is “fearfully and wonderfully made” inhabits an ordinary body that is inevitably aging, balding, graying, sagging, sometimes limping, sometimes aching, sometimes desperately ill and almost always healing from some strain or wound. Our quotidian physical existence provides occasion to exult: “I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

St. Augustine shook his head in bewilderment that people “go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.” In our day we delight in and heap praise upon our iPod or iPhone or iPad, and ignore the astonishing person who's pushing the keys. Fascinating as the computer circuitry may be, it is vastly less complex than the mind that conjures the words that express the images that are signified by individual keystrokes.

We human creatures created such tools because we are “fearfully and wonderfully” created.

Patrick J. Willson is pastor of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Additional lectionary columns by Willson appear in the August 24 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.

August 26, 2010

What's a "top college"?

by Steve Thorngate

Maybe it’s because I need easily digestible print reading for my train commute. Maybe it’s my inevitable post-20s loss of hipster cred. Whatever the reason, I seem to be reading a lot less of the humor writing at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a lot more of Joel Stein’s Time column.

I don’t often agree with Stein’s take on the world, but I enjoy his breezy prose and his punchlines, equal parts smart-aleck and goofball. He took some heat for a July column that came off as xenophobic, but it’s this week’s entry that has me irked. Stein is defending elitism, specifically the Ivy-to-power-elite track that dominates the resumés of most big-time journalists and the people they cover. He begins:
I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.
He’s being funny, of course, in an I-actually-mean-this-but-want-to-play-it-as-a-joke kind of way. He goes on to criticize the “cancer” of anti-elitism and the culture’s affection for inclusive mediocrity. Yeah, yeah. We all saw The Incredibles, which at least was more entertaining than Stein at his best, to say nothing of Stein here.

The whole piece is irritating, but I’ll focus on “I went to a better college than you did.” That’s probably true—I liked Wheaton well enough, but unlike some chapel speakers, I’m not eager to argue that it’s superior to Stanford, Stein’s alma mater. But Stein is assuming a lot in that statement, namely that the concept of a “better college” is built around solid evidence and consensus.

He takes this for granted, anticipating many objections to his argument but not this one: our American system of understanding which schools are the best is based largely on two mutually reinforcing factors—the opinions of the elites who go to these schools and the rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report.

U.S. News's main considerations include the assessments of peer administrators, the proportion of applicants accepted, per-student spending and alumni giving rate. If you think this sounds like an easily manipulated formula for self-perpetuating elitism, education expert Kevin Carey agrees.

While Carey and others were writing their white papers, the Washington Monthly began in 2006 publishing an alternative set of annual college rankings—a great example of hybrid advocacy/service journalism. Here are the magazine’s three criteria:
  • community service: participation in ROTC, alumni in the Peace Corps, work-study money channeled toward service projects

  • research: production of research in the sciences and humanities

  • social mobility: the matriculation and graduation of lower-income students
In short, schools are ranked as to how well they promote the common good. The fact that this sounds radical is part of the problem.

WaMo’s new rankings are out, and Stanford ranks fourth among national universities—but it’s the only school to crack each publication’s top five. Yes, Stein went to a great school by any standard; but there are multiple standards with very different aims and results. It’s a shame that for many, “top school” is an uncritical euphemism for “school that trades in carefully preserved elitism.” Good for the Washington Monthly for working to correct this.

August 25, 2010

On the shelf: Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

by Debra Bendis

“Today, we live with this illusion that we know the world," says William Dalrymple. "The reality, of course, is. . .that there's huge parts of the world which we know absolutely nothing about, particularly in areas of religion and philosophy." For most of us, India is one of those places. With the third largest population in the world, and an economy that’s growing almost as fast as China’s, one can understand why old ways are being snuffed out.

But Dalyrmple sought out “places suspended between modernity and tradition” where religion is in “a state of fascinating and unpredictable flux.”

In villages or small towns, he interviewed people whose religions are expressed in what seem—to Westerners at least—rash, dangerous and peculiar ways. Here are some of the people he found:
  • In a lifelong effort to become unencumbered and reach for “liberation,” a 38-year-old Jain monk renounces nearly everything: hair, relationship attachments, meat and all but one meal a day.

  • For most of the year, Hari Das is scorned as an untouchable member of the Dalit caste, but for three months every year he dons makeup and heavy headdresses and becomes a respected Hindi theyyam dancer, who performs elaborate dances when he is possessed by the god God Vishnu. For those three months, he is worshiped by Brahmins who scorn him during the rest of the year.

  • In the northernmost tip of India, an old Tibetan tells of how he gave up his Buddhist monastic vows to fight the invading Chinese. Overwhelmed by the enemy, he fled to Dharamsala, where he took up his vows and is spending his last days anxiously repenting of his participation in war.
Dalyrmple is a keen observer, reporting on what he’s seen and heard, then adding religious context to help the reader place each person's story into the larger story of India. I was intrigued by these snapshots, even though I realized I'd had only a glimpse of this vast, complex, crowded and enigmatic country.

August 24, 2010

My Neopagan pen pal

by Bob Cornwall

I thought that interfaith dialogue had its limits—until I started talking with a Wiccan.

For many, paganism generally and Wicca in particular are synonymous with the occult, even Satanism. The presence of Wiccans at the groundbreaking for an interfaith chapel at a Disciples of Christ-related university brought streams of protests and a flurry of questions from the faithful. People asked/demanded: Why were they present?

This was the same sort of worry that led some Christians to raise concerns about the Harry Potter books and movies. They denounced the series because they feared that exposing children to magic—as if Disney movies hadn’t already done that a generation earlier—might lead them into witchcraft. The concern was that Harry made witchcraft look too good.

While Neopaganism and Wicca have exploded onto the religious scene in recent years—bookstores have shelves of books on these new-old religions—their popularity seems to derive not from an embrace of evil but from their noninstitutionalized character. They’re also popular for an emphasis on communing with nature, in a time when we face the prospects of global warming, overpopulation, urban sprawl and pollution. (Critics of environmentalism have thus equated that movement with the occult.)

I had never seriously considered engaging in conversation with a Neopagan or Wiccan until I wrote about Harry Potter in the local paper and received e-mails from Wiccans and Neopagans who thanked me for offering kind words about Harry Potter. My article was posted on Wiccan sites, where respondents expressed surprise that a Christian pastor could have an open mind and compassionate spirit toward Wiccans. Many said they've experienced persecution and discrimination from Christians. They feel that their religion has been mischaracterized.

In series of e-mails with a Neopagan, I got to know a man who is married, has adult children, a job and endeavors to live in peace with his neighbors. I think he’s fairly representative—although he admitted that, like anything else, Neopaganism has its oddballs.

One e-mail from my pen pal raised the issue of the Veteran’s Administration’s refusal to allow Wiccans to use the pentacle on VA-sponsored memorials. (The VA doesn’t recognize Wicca as a religion.) I don't understand why we would allow someone to die serving his country but not recognize his or her religious affiliation.

Of course, people of other religions experience similar discrimination. In Tennessee the candidate for lieutenant governor has suggested that Muslims don’t deserve to be covered by the constitutional provisions of religious freedom, because in his mind, Islam isn’t a religion.

Those of us who are members of the religious majority have a responsibility to speak up for those whose religious identities are mischaracterized and smeared. If we had a few more conversations with those who are different from us, life would be better for all of us.

Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey, part of the CCblogs network.

August 23, 2010

Blogging toward Sunday: Discerning the body

14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17)
Luke 14:1, 7-14

by Patrick J. Willson

“When you give a banquet,” Jesus said, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” but he didn’t say anything about atheists. Jesus apparently did not run into many atheists, but we certainly do. What happens when an atheist is among those who “come from east and west, from north and south,” to “eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29)?

Improbable though it may sound, Texas Presbyterians have been dealing with this very problem. A self-professed atheist joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin. Christ and his community this man found utterly appealing; the logic of theism, less so. The oddness of this affiliation generated publicity, and other Presbyterians protested. Evidently enthusiasm for evangelism has its limits.

Christ’s calling disrupts the church’s desire to get everything in order. According to the Westminster Confession this calling operates by “God’s free and special grace alone” and “not from anything at all foreseen” in us. All qualifications are disqualified. Christ calls, “Friend, come up higher,” and hearing that call is sufficient.

For some years my own congregation has welcomed members who are unable to make a profession of faith. Once upon a time they could, but now they come in the care of their spouses or children. Alzheimer’s and other damnable dementias do their work of erasing memory and personality, but the church remembers its calling and tries to preserve its character as a place of Christ’s hospitality. We break the bread and share the cup of his feast. What this action may mean in the clouded consciousness of these women and men we cannot know, but we can recognize the unmistakable grace of Christ’s invitation.

The contours of this banquet welcoming “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are extravagantly described in the July-December 2009 special issue of the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, edited by William C. Gaventa. This mixture of thoughtful articles and occasional anecdotes is a treasure trove for pastors and churches wishing to explore the extravagance of Christ’s generosity.

In one astonishing piece Richard Sparrow remembers a worship service in which a somber-looking, three-piece-suited deacon serving communion noticed a woman in her wheelchair with her companion guide dog. Sizing up the situation theologically, the deacon served the woman and then bent down to give a piece of bread to the dog.

Many years ago Charles M. Nielsen wrote a parody about serving communion to dogs called “Abendmahl für Hunde.” But in this case it could be argued that the deacon was going about “discerning the body” (1 Cor. 11:29) and recognized that this dog was not merely a pet but an irreplaceable part of the body. The one presiding in the liturgy is supposed to “bound the table,” but Jesus’ invitation leaps the bounds of our imagination.

Patrick J. Willson is pastor of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Additional lectionary columns by Willson appear in the August 24 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.