Happy Birthday Dad!

Today is my dad’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would be 78 years old. It has been over 4 years since my dad died from pancreatic cancer. He was a strong and kind man. Dad taught me a lot about loving one’s neighbors. In our rural neighborhood, dad would give out produce from our garden to all our neighbors and repair things (plumbing or eyeglasses or lawnmowers) for neighbors for free all the time. Dad knew nearly everyone in our small town it seemed, and was always going to visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, and even funeral homes. What a wonderful example he was of how to care for and love one’s neighbors. He claimed the name, “Christian” and showed the love of Christ to others. Today especially, on the day of his birth, I honor and give thanks for my dad and his wonderful example.

Happy Birthday Dad!

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Silence of this Day – 9/11

Eleven years ago I sat in my first year of graduate school (seminary) as a full-time student. I had moved from East Tennessee to central Ohio. The class was Multicultural Ministry with Dr. Joon-Sik Park. Word came that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers in New York. What a tragedy! People are bound to have been killed – both in the plane and in the building we thought. We paused for a moment of silence and then Dr. Park ended that moment of silence with a collective prayer.

Shortly afterwards the word came that the second tower had a plane crash into it, then the Pentagon, then the field in Pennsylvania. I remember someone saying the words, “We are under attack!”

It was easy to allow anxiousness and fear to grip one’s heart and mind. But then we got a new word. Classes dismissed, and all persons are invited to the Centrum (chapel and community space where all special events took place). We gathered in this hallowed space and sang songs, and sat in silence. We would have a prayer, and then sit in silence. Someone read a scripture text, and then more silence. It took the silence of our hearts and souls to pierce the darkness and allow us to truly see what matters in life.

Life is about relationships and community. All else fades away when placed beside them. Silence allows us to view inside our hearts and minds, and perhaps better see the world. “Be still and know that I am God” scripture says.

On this day, we remember in silence. May our silence bring light and life and hope to a world searching for meaning.

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Life is Difficult

“Life is difficult.” – That is the opening three words to Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled.” Could those little three words explain perhaps why the book has sold more than 7 million copies?

Many times it seems that we must “act” a certain way; that we must put on a smile; that we must pretend to be something we are not because it is what society demands of us. The question comes, “How you doin’?” And the expected and anticipated response is “Fine, how you doin’?” I am not quite sure we even want another answer or if we are truly asking the question….or attempting to be polite.

The fact is that while “Fine, how are you?” may be an expected response, it may not always be an appropriate response. Sometimes we are not fine. “Life is difficult.” Sometimes we all struggle. We deal with grief over loss relationships, death, etc. We deal with doubts about faith, church, job, etc. and then we feel guilty perhaps for having doubts. Somedays we may wonder if we need serious therapy, or perhaps a second therapist because one just isn’t enough. “Life is difficult.”

So here is my question – why do we pretend that it is not?

Don’t get me wrong here….I believe life is grand as well. I am thankful for every single day and for my little place within it. But dare we pretend that life is all roses without the occasional thorns?

Here is my proposal. The next time someone asks “How you doing?” Think about it before you answer and attempt to answer truthfully. You don’t have to share your life story, but if you feel like you just slid down a mountain of razors and landed in a pond of alcohol buck naked – please don’t say, “Fine, how are you?” and then walk on by. Pause, take a deep breath, and think before you respond. It may be that the person asking is hoping to find someone, anyone, just one person who is not pretending like the rest of society. After all, everyone needs a role model. How you doin’ today?

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Choosing a toothpaste…..

When I walk down the aisle to get toothpaste at either the grocery store or pharmacy, I am rather overwhelmed these days by the sheer volume. I remember when we had three or four choices: Crest, AIM, Colgate, and I actually remember when Aquafresh came along. That is all that I remember. Each brand had one toothpaste. Each was in the same size squeeze tube. Today, nearly half of an aisle is nothing but toothpastes – it seems like thousands to me as I stare at the wall of them like a deer caught in headlights. There are different flavors, different sizes, they specilize in different things like “sensative gums”, or “whitening”, or “tartar control”, or “prevention of cavities”, or “protection of gingivitus”, and then a mere 30 or 40 of them claim to do it all.

As I stand there staring, my heart begins to beat faster and faster as I feel flooded with too many choices – a wave of angst comes over me, followed by anger, followed by dispondence and a general disdain as to which darn paste I will choose.

I really doubt that there is only one toothpaste that is the absolute best. Many of them seem to have similar ingredients albeit in different amounts and arranged differently. Some of them have a flavor that frankly reminds me of childhood “throw-up” (I tend to stay clear of those now). Other flavors are not that bad, but I prefer simple mint – not orange mint or raspberry mint, but mint mint. I think it is spearmint (or perhaps peppermint would do). I do generally only buy one if it is approved by the ADA because I assume that dentists know more about toothpaste than I do …. although admittingly the whole thing could just be a way of companies selling more toothpaste. I “test” different brands on occasion, but I seem to always come back to the one I grew up with. Perhaps I am brain-washed or perhaps it is somewhat more comfortable, even though it has changed drastically from one tube to a bagazillion kinds in tubes and other contraptions that “make no mess” or are “easier than tubes” or “new and improved.”

Right about now, if not ten times previously, you are probably wondering why I am talking about toothpaste. Toothpaste is a lot like religion these days. Today there are about 9,900 religions in the world with 2 or 3 new ones beginning each day according to David Barett (a former Anglican missionary who has tracked world religions since the 1970’s). That is a big wall to stare at …. especially if one is not too familiar with any of them except for what you see on TV (I do believe that the American general knowledge of religion is lacking…. to put it nicely).

Now let me be honest – many of the 9,900 religions of the world are just silly flavors (in my opinion) that probably tastes like child-hood “throw-up” or reeks of coercion. No one should be force-fed a tube of toothpaste! Yuck! Others do not take converts, and still others add hallucinogens to the tube and frankly, I would personally recommend staying away from those. Still yet, that leaves a number of viable options. Just a generation ago, the choices were not as great it seems, and most folks would simply buy the tube they have always bought – the one their mom and dad bought and the one that their mom and dad bought, etc. Today, brand loyalty is harder to find. The world has grown smaller. Nearly one in three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. Gone are the days of “just give me that old-time religion.”

Some say that all toothpaste is really just baking soda and peroxide so all brands are essentially true and good as long as those essential elements are met. While this may be somewhat true, it looks over the uniqueness and specialty of each brand. We certainly do not say this about anything else do we? Are all governments the same? Are all countries the same? Are all corporations equally true and good? No, of course not. That is not to say that many of them have very good qualities, and some of them are similar in ways, but to say that all are the same is equal to saying none are any good. It is simply not the truth.

Some others claim that their toothpaste is really the ONLY toothpaste that is valid, true, and good …. even though Crest may have one hundred different kinds just within Crest. And is Colgate really that much different? Or what about other Proctor and Gamble brands?

So today we find ourselves in a religiously confused world. We stare like deer caught in headlights. No longer is the option simply to take the one off the shelf that your folks bought because it has changed ingredients anyway, or has been repackaged at the least. That is the way it goes. So we as Americans stare, sometimes hopelessly, at that wall and we walk away because we can’t decide which one will be best or even with the bagazillion choices, none of them seem to be an exact fit. After a while, our teeth begin to rot because we forgot the whole purpose of toothpaste in the first place. It is to clean our teeth and prevent holes from forming – to provide a healthier and happier mouth here and now – to give hope that in the future we will continue to taste life’s goodness.

The seventeenth-century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, coined the term “God-shaped hole”. It was a term used to describe the gapping cavity or hole within humankind. We will always attempt to fill the hole with something. The suggestion might be “why not try filling the hole with God?”

Let us not forget the purpose of religion while we stand staring from a distance. The purpose of religion is to “fill the hole” – to answer the mythical questions that reason and science cannot, nor attempt to answer – Why are we here? What are our purposes in life? What happens after death? What should we do with our lives? How are we to live? The purpose of religion is to cultivate compassion and love in our lives and to make life better in the here and now. The purpose of religion is to give hope in spite of suffering, to give hope in new births and new possibilities, to give hope in the future.

I cannot say that only one religion can do that anymore than I could say only one toothpaste will prevent cavities. I can say that one religion has done that for me. But I certainly would imagine that different brands or flavors can still work to “fill the holes” but for goodness sakes, don’t just stare from a distance or walk away because you are confused by the sheer volume and kinds of brands. Talk to friends and family, explore, and choose one that comes recommended …. and remember….. attempting to fill a “God-shaped hole” with anything but God simply will not work in the long run.

One more thing….don’t buy into it and leave it sitting in the medicine cabinet. Take it out….use it…..live it….until it is a part of what you do each and every day.

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Is this your favorite time of year?

Yesterday, besides being World AIDS Day, was a great day here at C2. I led an OPEN DOOR workshop on religious diversity, attended the Senior Spanish students presentations (which were all fabulous), and then listened to the choirs of Columbia College give their fall concert. What a great way to wrap up the semester.

This morning I was asked by a faculty member if this was my most favorite time of the year. Without much thought I said something like “Uggh well, I don’t know, I don’t think so.”

I was caught off-guard by the question initially and my mind immediately went to the dark, cold evenings. I really do not like the fact that it is dark when I get home in the evenings. All the leaves are dried up or fallen off. Everything seems bare and the brown grass isn’t as “pretty” as the green.

But then I thought about yesterday. I thought about the music and the songs, the semester-end presentations. As I strolled through “the mall” today and students were set up for a craft fair and Christmas music was blasting over the speakers, and the sun was shining and the sky was blue and everything was cheery and bright….. I thought to myself, this is a nice time of year.

It is a time of hope. That is Advent – a time of waiting and expecting the sun to shine again, the leaves to return to the trees, the grass to change from brown to green – a time of waiting and expecting new birth to occur. A new birth that changes the world each and every time it happens.

At our faculty coffee time this morning another faculty member talked about his favorite tv Christmas show: Charlie Brown. He read from the Gospel of Luke the Christmas story heard in Charlie Brown and I allowed that message of new birth and hope to sink in and thought to myself…..I am still not quite sure this is my favorite time of year, but it certainly is a special time of year indeed.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’.”

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The Serpent Paradox

Excerpt from Numbers 21: 4-9

“So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”


How interesting! That which harms may also heal. This of course became our symbol (more or less) for modern medicine. It makes me think of fire. Fire gives warmth and light and it gave the ability for humans to cook food and evolve . . . and yet, it can devastate and destroy a home, a forest, a village, and many lives when not controlled.

Moses and his gang were wandering in the desert wilderness after leaving their bondage in Egypt complaining to God all the way with their words, actions, and relations. I wonder how many times our words or actions or relationships have been like a serpent – biting, stinging, and harming at one moment but comforting, strength-giving, and healing the next. It is absolutely amazing that the same person who deeply offended us and made us angry at the world can often times heal us with a true and meaningful apology.

It is one of the great paradoxes of life – that which gives life can also take it away: serpent, fire, water, blood, breath ….but also words and relationships …. perhaps that is the point of the story to remember. Are we going to allow our words and actions and relationships to be poisonous or healing? The serpent on the pole was a visual reminder to the wandering pilgrims.

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Chemicals, Pesticides, and Toxins Oh My!

Jesus – “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” – Mark 7.15

Buddha – “Stealing, deceiving, adultery; this is defilement. Not the eating of meat.” – Sutta Nipata 242

I have spent a lot of time recently looking at the labels on package foods. The list of ingredients continues to grow. All sorts of things that few people can pronounce, let alone be able to describe exactly what it is. The latest, that seems to be sprayed on everything these days “to preserve freshness” is TBHQ or BHT (both derivatives of butane). Frankly it probably isn’t the worst stuff we put into our bodies. It actually begins with the genetically modified seeds. They are modified to resist pesticides so that entire fields can be sprayed down several times over the course of the season with harmful toxins and pesticides, but the seeds and plants are now made to resist the toxins. The problem of course is that our bodies are not.

So cancer in North America affects one in every four people today and continues to grow. Needless to say, Jesus nor Buddha ever suspected that we would purposefully put such toxins in our bodies. They were addressing different issues. But surely these chemical, pesticides, and toxins do defile.

What Buddha and Jesus are talking about though are our actions, and especially our actions towards how we treat others: the words we say, the looks we give, the tone of voice, the way we act and treat one another, etc. Their point was that cultural expectations and laws are not as important as love, compassion, and respect.

Funny, not laughing funny, but strange funny that we have had this message of these two religious leaders for a few thousand years (Buddha’s message roughly 500 years longer than that of Jesus, but their ethical messages I consider to be the same) and we still don’t seem to get it. Is it possible that we simply have not been listening? Are our hearts closed or hardened?

Some days I wonder . . . . . . . .

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