Do Not Let This Suffering Be Normal

Last month, after being kidnapped by one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups, the world learned that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller died at the hands of ISIS.  Kayla’s tragic death brought her into the attention of the world. If ISIS had not taken Kayla Mueller in Syria, we may not have known anything about her. However, the nature of her death gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of an inspiring young woman—a refugee and aid worker that followed her call to sit with people in extreme suffering.

Of course no one is perfect, but Kayla clearly exhibited a profound depth of compassion and self-sacrifice at a young age. She took enormous risks, working in some of the most desperate and dangerous parts of the world, and did so with a sense of joy and deep purpose.  She felt a vocational call to alleviate the suffering of people without hope and to stand in solidarity with them. As a girl growing up in Prescott, Arizona, Kayla Mueller demonstrated a distinct sensitivity to the poor and suffering, especially those ravaged by society’s injustices. The depth of her identification with those on the margins of society is revealed in a letter she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011. She was 23 at the time:

mueller-kayla_vert-176962cb347a5b83106e3a279426d61ca73f525b-s800-c15_CreditNPR“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine.  If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.  I will always seek God.  Some people find God in church.  Some people find God in nature.  Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

(Kayla pictured right, source: www.NPR.org)

In high school, Kayla was active in the Save Darfur coalition, took part in environmental causes, and even won a local award for her volunteer work with organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and AmeriCorps. After graduating in 2009 from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she decided to embrace the pain of the world in a more direct way, moving to India and Israel to work with refugees, and later in 2012 to the Turkey/Syria border.  In August of 2013, Kayla was kidnapped by ISIS as she was leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. She had been spending time in a Spanish Doctors without Borders hospital, sitting with patients and hearing their stories.

Some of us stumble through life looking for our life’s mission; others seem to know what they are destined to do from the time they are born. It appears Kayla knew at a young age that she had the brass ring in life (compared to the world’s standards) and decided to leave it behind and dedicate her life to bringing comfort to those with less security, comfort, and opportunity. A local Arizona paper quoted Kayla as saying:

“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal …. It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are.”

As a young altruistic woman getting her hands dirty in the depths of the world’s pain and violence, Kayla didn’t demonstrate youthful self-righteousness.  She didn’t challenge others to sell their positions and make the kind of radical commitment she did. Rather, in a world marked by the crucifixion of hope and opportunity, she recommended that everyone stop and recognize their privilege. It appears she had already learned the complicated spiritual truth that gratitude and thanksgiving, rather than guilt, is the pathway for the deepest personal transformations, the kinds that crack us open to feel the suffering of others.

After years of working in the world’s most despairing places, Kayla still managed to see a sister and brother in almost any face. Despite growing up in divided times, and coming from a state known for discriminatory laws, she cultivated an almost unfathomable ability to forgive. She even managed to engage her ISIS captors in basic acts of shared humanity. In the last days of her life, Kayla spent more time worrying about her loved ones than herself:

Barack-Obama-Confirms-Hostage-Is-Dead-Us-President-Barack-Obama-Confirms-Us-Hostage-Is-Dead-252219“I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but) … I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else…. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well.”
(Kayla’s letter pictured left, source: www.express.co.uk)

As soon as her death became public, the media flocked to Arizona to piece together a story that might explain Kayla’s journey from her comfortable middle class life to a war-torn place like Syria. Blog sites exploded with tidbits of information about a humanitarian who always knew she wanted to pour out her life for others.

In the midst of these news stories, I became curious about her mother and father. I wanted to know how her parents introduced her to a world filled with the tension of both great blessings and horrible suffering. How did they raise a daughter with this kind of love for the downtrodden of the world? Where did they get the strength to let go when she decided to march into harm’s way? How would they cope in the future, especially in those silent moments of desolation and grief that is only known by parents who have buried a child? We all want our children to be good – but maybe not too good.

kayla-mueller_Aunt0I also wanted to know more about the people who influenced the inner dynamics of thought and feeling that shaped her ability to look at the agonies of the world with an unblinking gaze of compassion. I wanted to interview her ministers, her teachers, all the people who watched her grow up and helped her form the ideals that fueled her belief in a personal agency to transform the world around her. I wanted to meet the people who gave her early opportunities to experience the joy of serving others and witnessed her capacity to hold the wounds of the world in her heart and hands. I wondered how our students at the School of Theology and Ministry might influence others in the same way. Here at the school we take the time in our class sessions, in community groups and in other gatherings to name the inequity and inequality that we find in our world and reflectively engage real-world problems. Many of our students echo the sentiments that Kayla penned in her own words. They seek to use their own tools to relieve suffering—to work for a more just and humane world—and holistically develop as grounded, authentic ministers that encourage others to also live into their own potential.
(Kayla Mueller’s Aunt pictured right, source: www.Newsweek.com)

There are millions of young people setting off for adult life with a dedication to do something beyond themselves. They seek to find ways to contribute to society, carrying a lifetime of memories of human suffering that will never allow them to let the world’s problems become “normal.” Some, like Kayla, will have their young lives flame out like Roman candles—flaring brilliantly for a short time before they disappear.  We may never hear about most of those daring souls. However, we should never think that an interrupted life like Kayla’s fails to accomplish as much as those who live “long enough.” Often through history, the stories of young altruistic lives lost too early shape the moral imagination and inspiration of dynamic future leaders who bring the world to an entirely new place.

Aloysis Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka, and John Berchmans were Jesuits who all died young – Gonzaga at 23, Berchmans at 22, and Kostka at 17.  These three Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “Christ’s cadets,” stood out from the crowd because of their care for others, and became role models for generations of young people trying to decide what to do with their lives. They inspired others forming their ideals to dare to do something different than follow the status quo. Although their lives were short, they inspired a revolutionary pope to transform the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Church began with his youthful meditation on the lives of these three “cadets,” young men known more for their promise than the accomplishments of their short, interrupted lives. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he called into session a worldwide council of reformation.  The Second Vatican Council opened Catholicism to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, put the Church’s social justice commitment into hyper-drive, and set loose a chain of events that has transformed the lives of millions and millions of people across the world.

All Saints Day Ceremony at Kabul International AirportAs shown by the lives of these young Jesuits and Kayla Mueller, if someone sets out to notice and diminish suffering in the world, you never know (and they may never know) what they will accomplish. But, more importantly, you never know who they might later influence by the witness of their life. After her death, Kayla’s parents issued a statement:

“We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.”

We can take inspiration from the way Kayla lived her life. How easy it is to let suffering become normal. We are inundated with tragedy and suffering on the news, in our cities and maybe in our own lives. We are faced daily with the choice to let ourselves become jaded by the hurt of the world. Yet we are also faced with opportunity—the opportunity to welcome those on the margins. Like Kayla, we can choose to see a sister or brother in the stranger and treat them with dignity—to seek and encounter God in the face of suffering. Yet, in our ministry we are called, like Kayla, to find strength and urgency in our vocation. We are challenged to recognize the places of privilege in which we find ourselves, commit to deep transformation, and break ourselves open to the deep joys and sufferings of others.

I hope Kayla’s parents are aware that their child’s legacy is not just the work she did in trying to lessen suffering in Arizona, India, Palestine, Israel and Syria. Because the world knows about her, Kayla may change the world even more through her death than the great works she accomplished in life. That won’t heal the hole in her parent’s hearts, but maybe they’ll find some comfort in imagining Kayla’s fingerprints in the work of all the people inspired by a girl from Arizona who loved the suffering people in Syria enough to lose her life for them. Following in Kayla’s example, let us not allow this suffering become normal.

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When it Comes to Resolutions…

As we enter 2015, we have the chance once again to leave behind a previous year and cross into the liminal space between what has been and what might become.   On one level the transition from December 31 and January 1 is just the passing of another day.  But, over the centuries humans have projected onto this transition something much more profound—the hope for lasting change.

Many of us drum out the old year with tradition and ritual – champagne, special parties and meals, and since 1788, in many western cultures, the singing of a Scottish tune, Auld Lang Syne.  The song is based on a poem usually attributed to the poet Robert Burns and has the literal meaning of “Old Long Since,” or more colloquially “long, long ago” or “days gone by.”  The song is designed to elicit nostalgia – a peculiar affective response that mixes joy and regret, sweetness and bitterness – an emotional tuning fork for saying good-bye and hello at the same time.

NYESpaceNeedle2155623908_8f2dfbc5bc_zAnother familiar tradition is the New Year’s Resolution, a promise we make to ourselves to become someone different (and better) in the future.  Last year the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology published research on American habits regarding resolutions.   According to the study, 45% of the people in the nation usually make New Year’s resolutions while 17% do so infrequently.  It is telling of the human condition that of the 62% of us who sought to make resolutions for self-betterment in 2014 only 8% of us were successful and 75% fail within the first week.  For those of us who think we’ve modified our lives to fit our resolutions, 46% of us break down within 6 months.(www.statisticbrain.com)

Every year I make several New Year’s resolutions.  One is to get my French back up to conversation level; the other is to dramatically advance my improvisation skills on the guitar or mandolin.  A third resolution is to remain committed to leaving the world a better place when I take my last breath than it was when I took my first.   Sadly, most years I fail to join the 8% of successful resolution keepers mentioned in the Scranton study.

Although we sometimes feel discouraged, I still think New Year’s resolutions are important because they renew our hope for the possibility of change.  It is not surprising that the Scranton study found 47% of American New Year’s resolutions are for with self-improvement and education, and 31% with initiating relationship-related self-pledges. We want to believe, and perhaps need to believe, that we can become agents of change, and a good percentage of us realize that such change has to begin with our own behaviors, values, thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps the best lesson in these resolutions is that change takes commitment and often happens slowly. The disappointment that accompanies broken resolutions invites spiritual virtues of humility, patience, and resolve in the midst of failure and set-backs.

We_March_With_Selma_cph.3c35695GoogleThere is a popular movie out this winter season that portrays a group of people who made resolutions to themselves, and to each other, to change something – the way the United States treated people of African ancestry.  The movie, Selma, chronicles the events leading up to the famous peace protest march in Selma, Alabama, that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965.   The movie highlights the passion and personal conflict occurring between the individuals and groups involved in planning and implementing the march, as well as the powerful people and political undercurrents attempting to stop the event.   Selma demonstrates the inherent tensions that exist in efforts to change something from what is to what it might become.  You see the egos, the clashes of vision, the disagreements over strategies, the blindspots of personalities under pressure, and the pettiness and meanness that can sometimes mark our interactions with each other.  A subtext of the film shows that the brightest and darkest elements of humanity are writ large in the crucible of important social movements and cultural transitions. Change can be uncomfortable—even painful. But is it worth it? Can we imagine a better future for ourselves?

Bloody_Sunday-officers_await_demonstratorsGoogleMany Civil Rights leaders, including King, came to question the effectiveness of reasoning with a corrupt system—a system that told them that their lives mattered less than others—to convince it of its shortcomings.  The Selma march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday was an effort to press the nation’s latent racism into cultural consciousness by increasing the tension in institutional structures.

Movies, books, theater and music can allow us to process the emotions associated with the social dynamics we experience in our daily lives in order to have new insights about who we are as individuals and as a community and nation.  It can also motivate us to make new commitments and decisions about the kind of people we would like to become.

Unfortunately, real life struggles for humanity and justice require something more than the emotional catharsis of a painting, a movie or a book.  The flaws of our society, and even within our own personalities, are not resolved in an hour or two.  In most cases they haunt us for most, if not all of our life.  In fact, when it comes to self-betterment, whether for ourselves or the whole of society, if often seems with every step we take forward we take one or two steps backwards.

&"The racial conflicts of 2014 demonstrate quite conclusively that American society has not changed as much as many would like to think.  For blacks in professions once closed to them, including the man occupying the White House, it is absurd to argue that nothing has changed since the historical Selma march.  But, the killings of young black men that haunted 2014 are ample testimony that racial suspicion and hatred still bubble beneath the surface of too many of our personalities and too much of our society.  Indeed, a recent PEW survey found that 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, fewer than half (45%) of all Americans say the country has made substantial racial equality.  Another 49% say “a lot more” still has to be done.

So, like our New Year’s resolutions, the real world demands that we recognize that everything in life changes slowly, including ourselves, and all true change requires a life long commitment.   Our failed resolutions expose a difficult truth.  We are not just human beings; we are human becomings, and some of these becomings will remain in labor throughout our lives.  Aborted New Year’s resolutions will not let us forget that we have limits on our ability to shape our own lives and personalities, let alone the world.  Yet, the strength of our human spirit allows us to continue to resolve for change.

The lyrics of Auld Lang Syne capture with compelling metaphors the rough terrain we crossed in the past year: “we’ve wandered many a weary foot,” the song notes, and the journey, despite our best efforts, doesn’t always end with a successful arrival.  Sometimes we can actually lose ground on our goals.  “We two have paddled in the stream from morning to night … but now have broad seas roaring between us,” a second verse reminds us from the original poem.

All real social change agents have learned in their lives that on-going personal resolutions to change ideas, behavior and even precious dreams for ourselves and our world, is a prerequisite for aspiring to alter the world in any substantive way.  We don’t need to pledge to change ourselves and our world just one time; we need to do so over and over to fit the modifying context of the world at any given time.  And, we need to become just as at home with our failures and inability to make changes, as we are with celebrating what we accomplish.

Examenp922169049-3There is a key spiritual practice in Jesuit spirituality known as the Examen.  This is a daily exercise conducted in the evening with the goal of reflecting on the activities and choices made over the course of the day.   The Examen is a discipline designed to help a person accept the good and the bad of the day with gratitude, and to pray for the grace to resolve to act more in keeping with the spirit of Christ over the course of the next day, changing ideas and behaviors as necessary.  Each day Examen practitioners get to make New Year’s resolutions.  It allows them to review the choices made in the previous 14 or 16 hours and to resolve to begin again with the rising of each sun.

I wonder sometimes if Martin Luther King, Jr., would consider the sacrifice of his life at the young age of 39 a worthwhile choice for the unfinished civil rights advances of the past 50 years.  Would he consider what he helped to accomplish worth the cost of missing out on watching his children grow up?  Would the goals achieved over a half century seem sufficient for leaving his wife, Coretta Scott King, a widow for the rest of her life?  The same questions can be asked of any social change agent who gives away her or his life for their cause.  Our choices and resolutions will almost certainly not achieve the utopia we all dream will occur, however,  we must continue to choose and resolve nonetheless, and we must live with the less than perfect results.

Sparkler_CreativeCommons3219004793_a0d5a6de82_zAs to my New Year’s resolutions: Each year I realize that my French really didn’t get much better, and though I may have learned some new rifts in select keys on the guitar or the mandolin, I’ll never get a request to go on tour.  Life will inevitably get in the way.  But, the one resolution that I have seemed to be able to keep each year, due in large part to the kind of work I get to do and the people with whom I do it, is striving to make the world a better place. I have lived long enough to know that of all my resolutions that is ultimately the most important choice I can make each year.

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Hope for a More Just and Humane World

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” ~ Nelson Mandela

As racial tensions erupt throughout the United States, the Islamic State continues its murderous rampage, Russia jockeys for Cold War influence, and random gun violence shatters our confidence in safe environments for our children, it is little wonder many people feel anxious and uncertain about the future.  At the brink of the winter of 2015 we are faced with a sad realization: we are once again in dark times that cry out for the hope of new possibilities in our world.  Once more we agonize for new resources for our own troubled and fearful hearts so we return to the work of building a more just and humane world.

The flames of hope are fanned at some times in history more than others.  But, inevitably times of hope are usually brief before a raft of issues rattle our trust in the possibilities of a new kind of human community.  Perhaps this is the hardest lesson we assimilate in the task of becoming fully functioning humans: circumstances can capsize the ship of our life and can do so on the turn of a dime.  Without hope we are a dingy adrift in high seas.

In the past few decades, we have had a new feature added to the natural patterns that construct and deconstruct our hope.  It appears the world shifts back and forth on shorter cycles between times of hopefulness and hopelessness.  Consequently, it doesn’t seem like we can hope for very long.

The great losers in these shorten cycles, I fear, are the young.  Research continues to show that they are becoming increasingly crippled by an unending deconstruction of their hopes for life and the world.  According to the Parent Resource Program of the Jason Foundation, each day there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and the third leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.  More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease.

Meanwhile, large numbers of young adults consider the world’s institutions undependable, those with power corrupt, inept or both, and social and political advancements unreliable and overturned by the next election or leader.  Although some young people remain engaged in the world and manage not to lose heart, others respond to these uncertain times with anger, and large numbers fall into indifference or despair.

Of course, if you have historical consciousness and a global perspective, you know that every moment of human history is a time of crisis with a desperate need of hope for someone.  It is hope, in fact, that provides the ultimate human resource for facing the next wave of chaos that will swirl around us.  Every generation needs to find its own paths to hope, if they are to achieve anything significant.  For most of human history, the path most frequently traveled has been found in religious and spiritual wisdom that ignites and sustains hope.  Every historic tradition brings a different set of resources to the world’s hope-destroying challenges.

2407292423_68143fd8de_zHere are just a few from the Christian well of wisdom: Bishop Desmond Tutu, growing up in the Anglican tradition, has the following reflection: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”  Maturing in the heart of the American Baptist tradition, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., found solace in his many disappointments struggling for civil rights by realizing his crushed dreams were merely a “finite” reality, while the deep, pulsing hope that motivated him was grounded in something “infinite.”  As someone raised in the Calvinist tradition, poet Emily Dickinson came to think of hope in the metaphor of feathers and singing: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Whether suffering under the boot of an oppressor, dealing with plagues, famines, droughts, or natural and human tragedies, small groups of people have always huddled around small candles of hope during the most desperate times of human history.  We are all here, and enjoying whatever freedoms and comforts we have, because they did.  History proves that hope is one of the keys in creating an indomitable spirit, and such spirits are the salvation of the human condition.

7258773288_f6c372c90e_z (1)Despite the headlines, and even our own feelings, hope is all around us, no matter where we live or what the circumstances.  It exists in every bittersweet longing for a horizon for the better days; it murmurs in the depths of the quiet confidence of parents pressured and overwhelmed by life’s demands and disappointments, who keep getting out of bed each morning to work for a shared belief in the future of their children.  Hope manifests itself in the humor shared between people at difficult times, forcing the fear and despair created by a situation to surrender its ground to laughter.

You see hope in any people struggling for humanity and freedom in totalitarian governments, the American mother in an impoverished inner city community who believes her child will one day attend college, or the Native American father who trusts in his ability to break a cycle of poverty for his family.  You see it in the Latina daughter who goes off to university as the first child to attend college, and instead of majoring in something leading to a more lucrative career, majors in education in order to return to the migrant community she came from to inspire the next generation with hope in a different world.  You see it in the Vietnamese father and mother living in a poor region who mortgage their home in order for their daughter to pursue a degree in another country.

Hope manifests itself in every act in which nobility, character, self-less sacrifice and honor touch a human soul.  It provides the ballast for a buoyant soul that can float above chaos and become a beacon to others of a promise in a different kind of human condition.

15786375696_5d105eb54cThe news is filled with stories of such hope, although the negative spin in many news cycles may require you to look closely to see it.  When someone like Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, the U.S. Army Ranger and medic turned humanitarian in Syria, defiantly refused to become a propaganda pawn before he was killed by his ISIS murderers, hope took a stand. Only his friends and family may have known the reason he did not read a prepared statement before he was killed like other hostages—Kassig hoped in something bigger than his captors could understand.

People of hope recognize truth in the words of international shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married former first lady Jackie Kennedy, after she lost her husband, President John F. Kennedy: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest,” Onassis once said.  “We must learn to sail in high winds.”  People of hope can sail under any circumstances.

5319347783_a02946c4d3_zThe season of Advent, which began on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, is an entire religious season focused specifically on celebrating and strengthening hope.  The importance of this annual liturgical reflection cycle on hope for the ancient Christian community is demonstrated by the amount of liturgical time that is dedicated to this season.  Advent constitutes 7.5% of the liturgical year.  It is also not an accident that early Christians positioned the season of Advent at a time of the year when days grow shorter.  In darkness we learn to look for life, and in nature’s annual cycle of death we discover the relentless emergence of new life.  Lastly, it is in times of cold that we learn to appreciate the warmth of human caring and touch and its ultimate transcendence of circumstances.

In the past, many religious traditions, perhaps Christianity most of all, erred in concentrating the objects of hope on what awaits us beyond the grave.  There was too much talk spent on personal salvation, and too little on our agency as people of faith and hope to change the institutions of the world, and even find creative ways to beat the brokenness of nature.  Beginning with the Social Gospel and Catholic social teachings in the late 1800s, which was built on the foundation of older traditions of distributive justice and the cardinal virtues, most denominations began a course correction that is still underway.  Other religious traditions have had similar renewals of those aspects of their traditions that call people to place their hope in service to combating the dehumanizing elements of our societies.   We can’t bring heaven to earth, but we can bring glimpses of it.

As the forces of secularization in the 20th century moved the goal posts in most western cultures closer to the immediate needs of the world and away from such distant horizons as “life after death,” at times religious traditions have fought the process.  But, a benefit of these movements of secularization has been that they have helped communities of faith to see more clearly that it is grossly insufficient to tell the poor, hungry and homeless that their reward will come on the other side of the goal post of life.

Even as religious traditions found new ways to work for a more humane world, the quest for hope, and the religious symbolism associated with it, found new ways of manifesting itself.  Hope infiltrated the culture with less and less direct association with religious ideals and principles.  You can see an example of this kind of evolution by looking at one song in American history that deals with hope.

8157875628_4e0b3ef926_zIn 1939, the “godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), wrote a popular song called, “This Train.”  Tharpe, a Gospel singer, was a music superstar in the 1930s and 1940s.  She built off a fan base in the black churches to become a cultural troubadour bringing spiritual lyrics into harmony with a kind of pre-rock and roll musical score.  Tharpe inspired many future music megastars, including performers as divergent as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

In the dreary ending of the decade of the Great Depression, “This Train,” used the metaphor of a train chugging toward a land of hope.  The train was filled with people who had achieved a certain moral purity, and were headed for the world of humanity’s dreams (See here).  Mumford and Sons also did a version of this American classic song in a New Orleans jazz and country fusion (See here).

Tharpe had one foot in the church and one in the world, but proposed an image of hope that found a new audience in a later generation through Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 song, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Springsteen’s tune has become a cultural icon of the power of hope, particularly in times of struggle.  Politicians have used  “Land of Hope and Dreams” to rally the base, activists to inspire volunteers and donors to contribute to hurricane relief, and many other individuals and groups to stir up the excitement and muster the resolve for social justice initiatives.  Rolling Stone magazine once called Springstein’s version the “rock & roll ambassador’s default tune for the dispossessed,” and the Associated Press named it “ a roar and call to arms” for building a better world.

With Springsteen’s version, Tharpe’s appeal to moral purity as a ticket to the train is muted, and replaced with a message of hope for an inclusive audience.   His locomotive makes room for the many different kinds of people in the diverse world we now call home.   These people are looking for a better life for themselves and their loved ones.  Springsteen identifies the passengers this way: “… This train carries saints and sinners … losers and winners .., whores and gamblers … lost souls … the broken-hearted .. thieves and sweet souls departed .. fools and kings.” On Springsteen’s train “dreams will not be thwarted,” and in a kiss to Tharpe’s original version: “faith (and saints) will be rewarded …”

You don’t need to believe in the concept of the incarnation, which is celebrated in the Christian Advent, to appreciate the importance of building and maintaining a capacity for expectant waiting and hope, which are the core values of the Christian season.   Most faith traditions recognize the divine spark in the human personality – the dignity residing in every human being regardless of the person’s social location, educational level, personality strengths and flaws.  It is this deep level in the human psyche that Martin Luther King’s infinite love dwells.

For centuries, people of faith have realized that it is important to spend concentrated reflection time each year focusing on the virtue of hope and the beacon it provides for imagining a different kind of world.  Whether we hope with a horizon that reaches beyond this world and life, like Tharpe, or within the limitations of what we know on this side of death, like Springsteen, we are still engaged in hope.

David Whyte, the poet, puts it this way: “Remember the way you are all possibilities you can see, and how you live best as a appreciator of horizons, whether you reach them or not.”   Hope lets us touch, taste and smell the horizon, even if like Moses we are unable to enter the Promised Land.

May this Advent season leave us all more hopeful, and may we come to experience the train of life as an opportunity to embrace the closing vision of Springsteen’s ode to hope, a vision taken right out of the Hebrew prophets:

“For this part of the ride

Leave behind your sorrows

Let this day be the last

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine

And all this darkness past.”

Hope may not get you there.  But, it will give you strength to keep trying, and that makes all the difference in the world

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When Religion Becomes Just, Plain Embarrassing…

Over the past few decades, since the emergence of fundamentalism on a grand worldwide scale, there has been much written about identifying the characteristics that can turn religion toward the vicious, psychotic and destructive. Scott Appleby’s, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, and Charles Kimbell’s, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, define some of the terrain that takes religious adherents down the path to hatred and the devaluation of life. Appleby’s book, in particular, tries to describe the distorting factors of belief that lead religions from formational paths to peace and a flourishing life to an instigator of pathological evil.

Unfortunately, much less is written about religion when it becomes embarrassing, although it is a far more common phenomenon in Western cultures.  Many of us have at least one sibling, cousin, uncle, aunt, neighbor or member of a church who models religious belief as an embarrassing spectacle, projecting the image that religion is primarily a coping mechanism for the simple of mind or the troubled of heart.  Religious detractors discredit the entire enterprise of personal and corporate faith by pointing to the silliness of religion as much as the malignancies.  As a matter of fact, hard-boiled secularists get a lot of mileage out of cartoons of ancient religious traditions that are on display by some religious believers.  Comedian Bill Maher’s popular movie/documentary, Religulous: The Truth is Near, is the classic example. I would wager most people in Western nations who avoid churches, temples, mosques or other religious gathering places are kept away more by the crazy and embarrassing things explored in Religulous than the violent and evil.

Every time Looney-Tune representations of religion occur, the mission of a faith tradition, and all serious religion, is tarnished.  I think one of the major conflicts serious people of faith or spirituality have with embarrassing religion is that it is difficult to distinguish oneself and a faith tradition from the awkward, ignorant statement, the goofy assertion, or the obnoxious action.

When I was younger, I felt the urge to confront the cartoonish public display of religious belief, but quickly learned such confrontation created two spectacles, instead of just one. Now I want to hide under a rock when I see people of faith do clownish or stupid things in public; I recently had such an experience while on a work trip in San Francisco.

Three men were walking down Fisherman’s Wharf, two carrying signs calling for repentance, with threats of the fires of hell for those who did not, and one talking fast with a loudspeaker strapped to his back. Hebrew and Christian scriptural verses dealing with judgment and condemnation poured from the street preacher’s mouth like the waters of Niagara, and he frequently stopped to yell into the open doors of bars and restaurants.

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In a particularly outrageous act, the man approached a woman standing outside a store and told her she was going to hell unless she repented and accepted Jesus as her personal savior.  She replied to him that she and God were fine, just as a boyfriend or husband appeared in the doorway and shooed the street preacher away. As the preacher turned, he said over his shoulder through the loud speaker with a cocksure voice: “I have news for you, young lady, you are not okay and are headed for hell.”

You rarely get a chance to see such spiritual arrogance and religious foolishness on full display in the middle of a busy street. The man with the loud speaker seemed to think he understood the Christian notions of salvation and judgment so thoroughly that he could apply that knowledge to the life of a young woman, even though he apparently knew nothing at all about her.

Understanding salvation and judgment in the Christian tradition requires a profound understanding of ancient Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. Both concepts require a great deal of nuance and context, as the meaning of both terms shifted according to many factors impacting both religious traditions. Making application of these concepts to lived reality requires a heart and mind schooled in justice and mercy and how the two interrelate in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Only then can someone speak of the Christian notions of salvation and judgment with any real meaning. Forget passing judgment on what awaits an individual on the other side of the grave. Although such prognostications are delusional within the context of the meaning of the two words, it did not stop the fellow with the loudspeaker.

The Internet recently experienced an equally obnoxious example of people talking about religion with insufficient knowledge of their subject.  During the HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian and famous atheist author Sam Harris made sweeping generalizations about Islam and set in motion an embarrassing conversation about the merits and demerits of this ancient tradition.

The actor Ben Affleck passionately disagreed with their comments, called them “gross” and “racist,” and sent the panel discussion (if you can call it that) into a spiral. (If you missed the action, you can see the interview here)

After the show, the Internet lit up to pass judgment on the scattered discussion:  “Ben Affleck Goes Ballistic,” opined one blogger; “Liberals can’t handle the truth about Islam’s woes,” claimed an op-ed in the New York Post; “Bill Maher and Sam Harris Debate ‘Islamaphobia’ with a Defensive Ben Affleck,” asserted a writer on Patheos.com; and a columnist in Psychology Today referred to “Affleck’s incoherent rant.” On the other hand, fans lined up behind the actor.  “Why Ben Affleck is Right, Bill Maher is Wrong, and Sam Harris is Jaded About Islam,” wrote a columnist for the Huffington Post.  Meanwhile on the pop scene CNN commentator, Piers Morgan, tweeted, “Brilliant by Ben Affleck,” and actress Rosie O’Donnell tweeted, “Ben Affleck for President.”

If you take faith seriously and have committed much time trying to understand it, the Real Time conversation wasn’t very serious. You can decide the people you think won the argument, but I think everyone lost.

Harris received so many negative reactions that he devoted a long post-mortem on his blog trying to explain what he was trying to say. Bill Maher gave an interview to Salon.com, in the hopes of articulating why he and Harris were not demonstrating bigotry, but rather defending liberal principles based on solid research. It appears Affleck has decided not to further explain his thoughts or motivations.  (Incidentally, Christopher Ingraham, formerly with the Pew Research Center, checked the “facts” of both Maher and Affleck, based on Pew data that Maher brought up in the argument. Based on the data, he found they were both wrong (see here).

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Aggravated voices, unfinished thoughts cut off by talk overs, vague references to “facts,” sloppy arguments, and a host of untested assumptions. This is the kind of style and tone in conversation that we labor not to have at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. These are unproductive ways to communicate, but sometimes such embarrassing encounters expose the deeper values and assumptions that are the real source of disagreements.

In the case of the Real Time “word brawl” Maher and Harris exhibited a fundamentalist point of view about religion that is not too dissimilar from the narrow perspective of the street preacher in San Francisco. Their biases toward religion have so shrouded their thinking that they cannot really test their underlying assumption: religion is primarily twisted, deluded, and dangerous to the common good.

Maher and Harris will concede that there are good people of faith in the world. But, they see these individuals as peripheral, perhaps even accidental, to the religious enterprise. Serious people of faith believe – and experience – the exact opposite.

Sam Harris described his view of religion with a telling metaphor. He suggested that Islam’s believers exist in concentric circles of acceptance of the tenets of the religion’s doctrines (the enemy for him is religious ideas and the behavior resulting from those beliefs.) In the center of the religion, he said, are the jihadists, who find life cheap and extinguishable.  In a second concentric ring from the center, Harris places Islamists, who want to reestablish the Islamic controlled culture of a caliphate, but would not strap dynamite to their bodies to do so. On a third ring is the conservative Muslim population, repulsed by violence but holding all kinds of “illiberal” ideas about women, homosexuals and other issues that are incompatible with a democratic way of life. One can assume faithful, but critically thinking Muslims exist somewhere on the periphery of the concentric circles, but he didn’t consider them worthy of mention.

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Later in the discussion Harris makes an even more revealing comment: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS. And, we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform” Islam. Translation: people who are enlightened enough to see religion as a cultural encrustation (i.e., who are smart enough to think like Harris) are the potential “reformers” of evil and embarrassing religion.

This is a particularly American idea. A reformer rides into town on his white steed, kills off the bad guys, gives the town folk some backbone and purpose for their simple life, and then mounts his horse and rides off in to the sunset. Of course, this kind of narrative can make a decent Western, but people from outside institutions do not transform systems, whether religious or not. Reform comes from within, led by women and men connecting with the depth of a religious tradition’s wisdom.

Just for the record, those of us who take faith seriously find religion an indispensable source of wisdom. It isn’t the only wisdom in the world, but it is a type of insight that helps us grow into more caring, thoughtful and compassionate human beings. It gives us strength to endure the profound challenges we face in life, and assists us in overcoming and even laughing at adversity. It inspires us to live our lives, bury our dead, and even face our own last moments with hope and anticipation. For us, the inner ring of religion is occupied by those who enflesh the core beliefs of our traditions, not the behaviors that emanate from what Miroslav Volf refers to as the “malfunctions” of faith.

Members of the Islamic tradition, not Sam Harris, would need to identify the believers that should reside in the inner concentric circle of that religion. But as a friend of many Muslims and as someone with a keen interest in the nobility in the tradition, I would put 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable Pakistani girl who survived a gunshot in the face and just won a Nobel Prize, in the first circle. I would also place next to her Iranian civil rights activists Shirin Ebadi, and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Nicholas Kristof mentions Dadkhah in the Affleck-Harris conversation. The Iranian lawyer was recently given a nine-year sentence for defending marginalized people in Iran in the court system, including many Christians.

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From my own tradition, the Christian inner circle would not consist of people bombing abortion clinics, wearing sheets at KKK meetings, or burning Korans. It would include Christians throughout history who advanced education, promoted health care, established social service agencies, took a front row seat in the abolition, child labor law, women’s rights and Civil Rights movements. The inner circle would consist of people who inspired their generation to think beyond a materialistic frame of reference to dream of a richer world of liberty matured by justice, people like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. More contemporary individuals would consist of Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjöld, and lesser known people like Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan – the four women abducted, raped, and shot to death in El Salvador in 1980 because of their work with the poor.

Maher and Harris are bright guys, but their assumptions about religion are so pockmarked with blind spots that when it comes to this subject they are really not too far removed from the San Francisco street preacher. All three have one thing in common: they really don’t understand religion or the role faith plays in the lives of millions upon millions of people who do not use religious ideas to promote evil or silliness, but rather use it to inspire themselves and others to make substantive contributions to the human race.

When religion becomes embarrassing, either at the hands of those who love it or hate it, I guess the best response really isn’t to hide under a rock. But, God knows that rock can look mighty attractive sometimes.

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Welcome to A New Year of Ultimate Makeovers

Welcome to the start of another academic year, as Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry begins a new year of “ultimate makeovers.” The makeovers will occur in various degrees, with different intensities for students, faculty, staff, attendees at educational programs for the community, and the cloud of supporters that have given life to the school. Ultimate makeovers are our “business.”

Although one definition of a makeover is “a complete transformation or remodeling of something, especially a person’s hairstyle, makeup, or clothes,” we will not have cosmetologists or image consultants available. Our kind of makeover deals with something less tangible but no less dramatically altering.

The idea of a make over was first used, according to Merriam-Webster in 1546, referring to the remodeling or “refashioning” of something, such as an old building or other structure, in order to make it useful for new needs. It appears the concept became one word, and started getting applied to the refashioning of one’s personal image around 1927.

Makeovers are now a fundamental part of modern life in many cultures and an enormous industry. According to Mint.com, a free web-based personal financial management service, beauty products alone are a $382 billion industry worldwide. (See here) In the highly unstable industry of journalism, some of the most stable magazines are devoted to ideas for personal makeovers: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Glamour, Allure are all designed for women. But, this is not just a female phenomenon. The male fashion market in 2014 will exceed $402 billion, and male grooming products are estimated to reach $33 billion in 2015. GQ, the men’s fashion magazine, has had a following since 1957 and there are well-established magazine counterparts throughout the world, especially in Europe.

For those who are particularly tired of their look, you can even get “extreme makeovers,” which require boot camp like exercise programs, radical diets, and plastic surgery. You can get these high-octane refurbishings for yourself or your house. A popular television show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” surprises poor families, or those suffering from natural disasters, with dramatic overhauls of their homes.

There is nothing inherently wrong with makeovers. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to spend much time in the work world to discover that our self-presentation usually makes a significant difference in how people perceive our competence.

But, there is another kind of makeover that is more important than our external appearance—the kind of makeover you get from education. Education remakes our interiority. Good education buffs up our confidence in responding to the complexity of the problems we face; it tucks in the flabby edges of our understanding of our world and ourselves; and, it gives us an eyelift that expands our field of vision so we begin to see more of what is happening around us.

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Theological education takes this refashioning of human interiority one step further. It provides an environment to receive an ultimate makeover for future counselors, chaplains, ministers, and leaders in non-profits, business and government. Theological education exists on the premise that the human person can be remade through intimate dialogue with the Mystery expressed and interpreted in an ancient religious tradition. The image of God as Potter and we as clay in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah has been a primary metaphor for describing the kind of ultimate makeover achievable through surrendering oneself to the wisdom, practices, and sacred sensitivity interlaced into the life and teachings of an ancient religious heritage. The Potter’s wheel will spin all year at the School of Theology and Ministry here at Seattle University.

At this level of makeover, our understanding of the world expands to a “metaphysical” horizon, reaching beyond what we can encounter merely through our senses. An ultimate makeover awakens us to the constellation of personal and moral issues underlying every challenge we face as members of the human race. It also builds confidence in our own abilities to impact the relationships, groups, organizations and work that God brings into our daily living, and heightens our trust that the necessary inspiration, strength and focus will come to us in situations when and where we will need it. The ultimate makeover of theological education hones our skills in discerning our vocational call, even as we try to operationalize this call in the changing contexts of our lives.

It will spin during our study, prayer, conversation, debate, “stretch” experiences, mistakes and missteps, successes, opportunities for learning and unlearning; crossing through moments of new awareness that bring disillusionment and discouragement, as well as revelatory “eurekas;” and, by way of laughter, tears, and buckets of reflection. Collectively, in the process we will all undergo an incremental interior re-making.  Many will not see all of these changes in us, and some of our more significant transformations will likely go unnoticed by all but those closest to us. But, a theological education can make all the difference in the way we live our lives. This is the difference between an interior makeover that is part of a life of pilgrimage, and other kinds of makeovers.

In retail marketing there has been an interesting parallel to the concept of makeover: the overused oxymoron, “new and improved.” (How is it possible to improve something that is new?) One of the oldest “new and improved” promises is an 1861 advertisement in a Boston newspaper touting superior spectacles. “Sore, weak and inflamed eyes scientifically doctored and a cure in every case warranted,” the ad promises. (See here: oldadsarefunny.blogspot.com)  Most of us can all live side-by-side with an oxymoron like new and improved because we all desperately want improvement and newness in our lives. In some first encounters with many poor homes in America it can rattle ministers and social workers to discover the piles of clutter – booty acquired from Goodwill, the Salvation Army, church bazaars, garage sales, Wal-Mart – mounds of clothes and plastic in all shapes and sizes, each offering a few moments of refreshing newness, a chance to feel as if it is possible to start things over.

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The ultimate makeovers in theological education depart company with other makeovers when it comes to new and improved. In every generation this kind of education becomes “improved,” but it is never really something new. It has roots in the wisdom acquired through centuries of women and men struggling to understand the real meaning of human existence, and trying to develop the skills and perspectives needed to build a new kind of world according to the design of a different sort of Architect. With an ancient, always improved, but never new ultimate makeover you create a new chapter in the human condition for each generation. You remake yourself so others might become inspired to remake themselves. You engage the world with a metaphysical and moral compass that allows you to navigate the worst the human condition can throw at you, and to respond to evil with a transforming goodness.

Terrorist groups recently released hideous videos from Syria showing the execution of three men by laying them face down on the ground and slowly beheading them with a knife. I accidentally stumbled across the video while looking for news. At the time, it was believed that one of the men killed was a Franciscan priest, although this now seems unlikely. Crowds are shown standing around the doomed men, many of them filming the gruesome act on their cell phones, while periodically turning to look blankly into the camera of the videographer. I have never witnessed a more perfect example of what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil.” She used this as a description of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who showed neither hatred nor remorse for his leadership in the task of sending Jews to death camps during World War II. He was just doing his job, and felt no moral obligation or personal investment in what his actions meant to others or the broader scheme of things. The image of the video from Syria, and the banality of its evil, is yet another reminder that no other species is capable of such a loathsome act, and our world is still in desperate need of ultimate makeovers.

In the past, such makeovers have produced saintly ministers and religious leaders, moral government and military civil servants, altruistic educators and health care workers, and torchbearing journalists, social workers and business leaders. Remarkably, these people emerged in times and barbaric environments like the one shown in the video out of Syria.

As we begin this school year, let us remember that the time we spend together in this holy enterprise is critically important to the future of the church and the world.  Many have come before us who had this kind of education, and used it to change the world in the most unlikely places, because when you have an extreme makeover your path to true happiness occurs only by following your inner call, no matter where it takes you.

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