Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hope in the Midst of Tragedy

Five years after hurricane Katrina struck, many in the media are revisiting New Orleans and other places in the gulf devastated the storm (and in the case of New Orleans, devastated by faults within the levy system that gave way). Successes are celebrated as well as questions of why has more not been done. The following is an article I wrote which appeared as a guest editorial in The Birmingham News five years ago. I posted a version of this essay after the earthquake in Haiti and I re-visit it here as a reminder of one way we find hope when tragedy strikes.

Finding Hope After Katrina
by Charles Kinnaird

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
~ Viktor Frankl in
Man’s Search for Meaning

Christianity has a problem that arises from three basic precepts:
1. God is all-powerful and all-knowing;
2. God is loving and good; and
3. Evil is real.

This is a recipe for dissonance. In two thousand years, these theological concepts have never been reconciled nor have they been abandoned. I am in no position to try to debunk any of these three notions, but I am in a position to feel the ache and the loss for words in response to that perennial question, “How could a loving God allow such devastation and loss of innocent life?”

Hurricane Katrina is the latest tragic event that causes many to ask, is there really is a God out there, or is this just a barren, meaningless universe? It has even prompted some to claim that God is punishing sinners. Preachers and theologians have always felt the tension of trying to communicate faith and hope to people in light of intellectual honesty and trying times. Harold Kushner’s popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, managed to affirm that God is a loving God and that evil is certainly real, while rejecting the idea that God is really all-powerful. Some religions and sects will question whether evil is real, or just an illusion in order to explain the presence of suffering and evil. Many preachers like to remind us of the fact that someone brought sin into the world, and don’t forget that old chestnut of free will. Theology likes to create nice tidy boxes to put things in, but the problem is that life is not nice and tidy.

It would be a cruel understatement to say that Katrina was an untidy incident. I’ll be honest, for days I tried to avoid the emotional impact. I tried to keep some distance as I viewed the news reports. Then the reality began to hit, and along with it, the tears that one tries to fight back, the deep sighs, the heaviness that weighs upon the chest and the brow. There came inevitable shock and the sorrow of so much devastation. I returned to a book that I had found very helpful when I first read it many years ago. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning came out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His was the only voice I could think of that might be appropriate to listen to in the wake of our current storm. The core of that book for me was a passage close to the middle of the work which is quoted above. Frankl goes on to say, “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead start thinking of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

If we are being questioned by life, what is our response? Here are some things I heard in the week following the storm: I heard anger that response was so slow. I heard outrage that the poor, the handicapped and the needy were being overlooked and neglected. I saw bitter tears over the loss of life and the suffering of children. I saw responses from some individuals who were determined to do whatever they could to help. I heard scorn heaped upon the comfortable wealthy bureaucrats in Washington who seemed literally unmoved by the massive suffering. When I read the words of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, God is described by these very same responses.

I cannot put this into a tidy box that will resolve all questions and ease the tensions of living, but I can say that in the midst of the chaos and horror that followed Katrina, I saw and heard God in our midst. I saw God in your face and heard God in your voice when the sorrow and outrage was expressed. As real people began to move to care for the evacuees by offering help, refuge, and hope, I took heart. There were people showing great care for life, even lending aid to pets that were displaced. I saw how we respond when we are questioned by life, and that response gives me hope in the midst of tragedy.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fasting and Feasting During Ramadan

I promised to say a word about my visit to a local mosque. The month of Ramadan is a sacred month to Muslims. The days are spent fasting. They abstain from water and food from dawn until dusk and then they break the fast each day with a meal, iftar, after evening prayers are said. The local Muslim community has for years used this time to invite those outside their faith to come and share a meal and learn about Islam. There were about twelve or fifteen of us guests the night I attended. Our group included Baptists and Presbyterians who were there to listen and learn. We were welcomed by our Islamic hosts and given some time for a slide presentation and question & answer time prior to evening prayer.

Not All Are Arab

I should hasten to say, especially since my last blog post referred to my learning more about Arabs, that “Muslim” does not equal “Arab.” This fact was emphasized during the presentation were heard at the mosque. The gentleman leading the discussion told us that he grew up Muslim in a non-Arab country. The most populous Islamic country, we learned, is Indonesia. Of course, there are large Muslim populations throughout Africa and Asia as well as Europe. Islam is a world religion and an international faith. Actually, Arab Muslims constitute only 20 percent of the Muslim population worldwide. Because Arabic is the language of their sacred text, the Quran, faithful Muslims will study the language in order to understand the words as they are heard in public. A faithful Muslim, we were told, must know enough Arabic to say the basic prayers offered in worship.

Sharia, Women and Islam

Because there has been some public fear and recent news items regarding sharia law, there were many questions regarding sharia. Our hosts tried to explain to us a few aspects of sharia, emphasizing that while there are practices and customs for faithful Muslims which are prescribed by Islamic law (e.g. no consumption of pork or alcohol, no gambling, and no charging or payment of interest in monetary matters); it is also the duty of faithful Muslims to abide by the laws of whatever country they live in. It was obvious that our Muslim hosts wish to live peaceably among us and to promote an understanding of who they are. They are distressed by the fringe elements who commit terrorist acts and even do things that are against Islamic law (such as killing innocent people) in the name of Islam.

There were some Muslim women there, at least one of whom was an American convert, who shared with us about the role of women. We learned that Muslims do not date, that marriages are arranged, with the woman having final say. The women speaking told us that they had more security with this marriage arrangement because if there is a problem, there is the larger extended family to intervene. Also, if there is a marriage prospect in a man, brothers and uncles of the woman will do all they can to know what that man’s true character is before any plans are made. The women sharing with us also stated that the traditional Muslim dress was liberating to them. They do not have to worry about conforming to the highly fashion-conscious and sexualized images that are so predominant in Western culture, but were instead free to be themselves. Moreover, they don’t have to worry about a “bad hair day” with their traditional head coverings.

The Worship Space

During Ramadan, Muslims will first break their fast with water and dates. We were offered some dates prior to entering the mosque for prayer. Men and women enter from different doors and are separated by a screened partition during worship. When I attended iftar last year, it was at the Islamic Center which is a multi-use facility that includes a prayer room. This year, we were at a mosque located on the other side of town. The building had been a Christian church at one time and had been remodeled to accommodate Muslim worship. The most obvious difference in the layout is that there are no pews. The sanctuary is a large, carpeted space where people gather to say prayers. I almost forgot to mention the other most obvious difference between a mosque and a church is that shoes are removed prior to entering the sanctuary. There are shelves at the doorway on which every person entering may place shoes before proceeding to prayer. Of course, any Christian or Jew who has heard the story of Moses and the burning bush would readily understand the significance of taking off shoes.

The other difference in the worship space we encountered at the mosque is that it is oriented to ensure the facing of Mecca during prayer. There are lines within the carpet that allow worshipers to align themselves so that they are geographically facing Mecca. In the back of the sanctuary were some folding chairs where we non-Muslim observers could sit while prayers were offered. We observed five brief cycles of prayer. The prayers were in Arabic, and there were three basic postures taken by the Muslims at various points in the prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrating. The prayer leader was located in an alcove at the front and center of the room. The marble alcove had an archway with Arabic writing in a very clean, aesthetic script.

A Surprising Connection

After the prayers had ended, our host gave us a tour of the sanctuary and explained the elements of the room. I was astounded by his explanation of the alcove in front from which the prayers were led. It is called a Mihrab, or prayer niche. The Mihrab, which is located in many mosques, is in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus! The words in Arabic over the Mihrab were from the Quran. An English translation of the text reads:

"Every time that he entered (her) Mihrab to see her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said, 'O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?' She said, 'From God. For God provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.'" (Qur'an 3:37).

The text refers to Zacharias, a priest in the temple at Jerusalem who was assigned to care for Mary, according to Islamic legend. He would enter the temple and find Mary in her prayer niche, and she was sustained by God.

Islam, as you may know, does not allow images, but displaying sacred texts is allowed. As I stood there in the mosque, hearing our host explain the Mihrab while looking upon that beautiful white marble structure with Arabic writing, I was amazed. There are two churches where I ordinarily pray. One is a Roman Catholic Church. There is a large Hispanic population there, and in one part of the sanctuary is a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also within the church is a more European version of Mary in a simple wooden statue. The other church is Episcopalian which holds to an Anglo-catholic tradition. At the front of the sanctuary is the Lady Chapel. What I like about this church is that the chapel door remains open during the worship service allowing full view of a beautiful statue of Mary in her more “English” representation. How remarkable that Mary became a common bond as I stood there in the mosque! It was as though in my head I was seeing Rome, London, Mexico City, and now Mecca all coming into alignment in honor of Mary.

I have no illusions of any kind of “one world religion” where everyone sings “Kumbaya” and goes happily on their way (nor do I think that would even be desirable). For me, though, that night, the sudden visualization of Mary within the context of prayer and worship was something to celebrate. If you read my essay from my Ramadan experience last year, you will know that the commonality I felt then was that my host and I were both former Baptists. As I said then, you celebrate whatever commonality you can find while respecting and honoring the differences.

Let's Eat!

As we left the sanctuary, we were escorted back to where our meal awaited. The feast spread out on the table before us included meatballs in tomato sauce, manicotti, garlic bread and tossed salad. I had been expecting something in a curry, or a Mediterranean cuisine. "What is this, Italian Night?" I asked. Our host who had been leading our discussion prior to the prayers said, "Yes! My wife is Italian and she prepared this for us!"


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Outer Travels, Inner Changes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
~ Samuel Clemens

I grew up under an apartheid system in the Deep South and came of age in the wake of the civil rights movement. I was 15 years old when our schools finally integrated. It was also at that time when as an adolescent I made an adult commitment to the Christian faith that was nurtured in me as a child. I came to see that a tearing down of my own prejudices was a part of my spiritual growth. Such a tearing down required many outer conversations and much interior work – and it certainly did not occur overnight. To this day, I have to deal with an automatic inner prejudicial response that is not programmed in my own daughter’s psyche because she did not grow up under a system of widespread apartheid consciousness. All of this is to say that prejudice is not easily overcome and it is not a once-and-for-all occurrence.

Fast forward ten years or so: I was in my late twenties when I took a job teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College as a Baptist missionary. I had just spent three years in California studying in seminary. The traveling from Alabama to California to live in a culture different from my own was perhaps more educational than my academic studies. Living in Hong Kong, I was in yet another cultural environment in the Far East. It was a culture that I could easily love, with its blend of Chinese culture, urban living, and remnants of British Empire. While I was in Hong Kong reflecting on my own inner prejudices and noting my changes in attitude, I became aware that I was carrying a deep-seated prejudice toward Arab people. I had never known anyone of Arab descent. I suppose the stories I had heard of the Muslim world (from people who had never been there) had fed my attitudes.

Because of my own history of dealing with ingrained prejudices against African Americans, I knew that the attitudes I carried toward the Arab world were another hurdle to overcome. During my first summer overseas, in between school terms, I decided to do more traveling. I flew to Bangkok, Thailand, did some sight-seeing and then took the train from Bangkok through Malaysia to Singapore. While in Kuala Lumpur, Maylasia, I heard my first call to prayer from the Islamic minarets in that city. I knew that when I arrived in Singapore, I would be able to see Arab culture first-hand.

Singapore is a remarkable island/city/state, clean and well-ordered, where a large population of Malay, Chinese, Hindus, and Arabs manage to dwell peaceably together. I had been living among Chinese people in Hong Kong, so I made it a point while in Singapore to visit the Hindu and Arab sections of the island. I wanted to witness each of those worlds while given the remarkable opportunity to go from one world to the other by taking a simple bus ride from one part of the city to the next. In each place, I was able to sit in the marketplace, eat their respective native cuisines, and visit both Hindu and Muslim houses of worship. I was able to experience some of what Mark Twain referred to when he said prejudice and bigotry cannot survive the effects of travel. In my own case, however, I think that inner preparation beforehand helped me to achieve a greater openness once I arrived.

That trip to Singapore was really my first step in actively seeking some understanding of Islamic culture. In my next post I will talk about my visit this week at a local mosque for a Ramadan iftar (breaking of the fast) and evening prayer.

[All photos for this post were taken by me during my trip to Singapore in 1982. Pictured here, clockwise from the left: a Hindu temple, a marketplace in downtown Singapore, a mosque in the Arab section, and a view of chinatown. Up at the top: the panoramic view is one that I shot while hanging over a balcony and living to tell about it; the other shot is the famous Singapore merlion.]


Monday, August 16, 2010

A Time to Listen

There has been much buzz in the news about the "Ground zero mosque." Much of the discussion I have heard has arisen form fear and has generated more heat than light. Then there was that recent comment by a Tennessee political candidate in Tennessee referring to Islam as a "cult." "Ground zero mosque" is a misnomer, and I suspect an intentionally inflammatory label. It is not at ground zero and the proposed development is not a mosque, but an Islamic cultural center called "Cordoba House."

Amidst all of the uproar, it is all the more important to take time to listen. A blog site called Ephphatha Poetry has some important information about Cordoba House, its founders, and the neighborhood in New York that you can read here. Also, my friend Joe Burt just posted a blog today that speaks of appropriate ways of grieving and remembering those we have lost, including those lives lost in New York on 9/11. You can read his comments here.

The season of Ramadan is here and it is an excellent time to learn more about our Muslim neighbors. In my town, the Muslim community invites guests to share a meal together (iftar is the name of the meal to break the fast at the end of each day during Ramadan). It is used as a time for local Muslims to share information with the community about who they are. Maybe your town has similar offerings. I went last year and I have already made plans to visit this year. You can read here about my experience last year.


Thunder on the Mountain

After a record heat wave and a long dry spell, it was nice to hear thunder on the mountain this weekend. It's also good to listen to "Thunder on the Mountain" by Bob Dylan (from Modern Times).

Thunder on the Mountain
By Bob Dylan

Thunder on the mountain, and there's fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

Thunder on the mountain, rollin' like A drum
Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from
I don't need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day

The pistols are poppin' and the power is down
I'd like to try somethin' but I'm so far from town
The sun keeps shinin' and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

I've been sittin' down studyin' the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king
I wouldn't betray your love or any other thing

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church, said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of A thousand cows

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don't wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I've already confessed - no need to confess again

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself


Friday, August 6, 2010

Hiroshima Day and the Transfiguration

On the liturgical calendar, August 6 marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, celebrating the event witnessed by Peter, James and John of Jesus' transformation into a being of light. Since WWII, it has also been Hiroshima Day. It was the juxtaposition of these two commemorations on the same day that inspired the following poem.

Jerusalem and Hiroshima:
Legacies of Concentrated Effort

We are told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
But the peace of Jerusalem
I would wish upon no one.
Centuries of placing our noblest causes
and highest callings
In one geographical area
Has produced, not the heavenly city,
But rather a wasteland of unending struggle.

In Hiroshima, they do not just pray for peace.
They demand it.
It was there that our greatest minds with our human nature
Brought hell on earth in our fight for freedom.

Let us keep Jerusalem,
And let us embrace Hiroshima
To remind us not to try such things again.

                                                     ~ CK

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Art of the Film

I make no claims to be an expert on the art of cinematography, but I love a good movie and I’m always wonderfully impressed when art and craft are evident in the film. Recently I happened to catch Three Days of the Condor (directed by Sydney Pollack) on television. I remembered that I had been impressed with the movie years ago when I was in college. I remembered that it had something to do with a secret organization within the CIA, but I didn’t remember the details, so I decided to sit back and watch it again.

[Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen this one yet, I’m about to talk about the end of the movie] Three Days of the Condor a great suspense/thriller that keeps you on the edge as Robert Redford is on the run, trying to find out who is trying to kill him and why. He figures out that his small job of reading novels and books from all over the world and feeding plot themes into a CIA computer had uncovered a covert operation.

The problem is that it was a covert ring within the CIA, and those guys had to kill everyone who might be on to it. It is thrilling to see Redford narrowly escaping on several occasions and outwitting the CIA operatives. He just doesn’t know what their beef with him is until toward the end when he is able to put the pieces together. He realizes the whole operation was about oil and how to control and manipulate oil producing states. When he manages to put CIA deputy director Cliff Robertson on the trail of the covert ring, Redford is able to finally escape danger. (CIA chief John Houseman had reluctantly agreed to let Robertson hire their cool and genial hit man, Max von Sydow to eliminate the covert ring leader). Redford then asks Cliff Robertson, “Is there a plan to invade the Middle East?” Robertson tells him there is no plan, just games. They are constantly coming up with games to present, ideas about the cheapest way to destabilize a government for the United States’ advantage. The troublesome secret ring just took the game too seriously.

Early on in his run from the unknown assailants out to kill him, Redford forces himself into the company of a lovely young Faye Dunaway and goes to her apartment for his own protection. All she knows is that this guy has held her at gun point and demanded that she drive him to her place. He tries to explain things, but at this point, he doesn’t know much himself about what is happening. He needs time to figure it out. Here the film itself introduces the role of art within the drama. Redford sees some photographs on the wall that Dunaway has taken. He observes that they are all pictures of empty places, trees without leaves, etc. “They look lonely... like winter… not quite winter. They look like November.” Later on, there is a love scene which seems to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem realistic, perhaps the obligatory gratuitous love scene. But on another level it is making use of the art of the film to convey something about the characters. The love scene is interspersed with shots of those lonely black and white photographs that Redford and Dunaway had been talking about. These were two people who were each alone, perhaps hoping to connect with someone someday.

Getting back to the suspense/murder/intrigue, After Redford manages to outwit the CIA in this cat-and-mouse drama, CIA agent Robertson meets up with him again at an appointed time and place. Robertson tells Redford that because he knows what he knows, they have to keep him inside the Company. Redford wants to be free of the CIA, he tells Robertson he has done something to protect him on the outside – he gave the story to the New York Times. He starts to walk away. Robertson asks him, “How do you know they’ll print it?” casting doubt in Redford’s mind. Redford says, a little shakily, “They’ll print it.”

Here’s where the art and craft really come into play. Redford and Robertson are having this conversation out on the street in New York City, it’s Christmas time, and a Salvation Army group is singing carols. We hear in the background the words from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen": … to save us all from Satan’s power… At this point, after two hours of suspense and intrigue, the viewer is ready to be free from “Satan’s power” and would like for Robert Redford to walk free. Then the carolers begin the chorus, it would be “O-oh tidings of comfort and joy…” as Redford is walking away – except we don’t hear that because the film ends with a freeze frame. All we hear is the first two notes of the chorus in an ominous, “O-oh…” and we see in the still photo Redford turning back to look over his shoulder. Will he be safe? Will he find comfort and joy? Will he always be on the run, always looking over his shoulder? Will he manage to meet up with Faye Dunaway again? Will it always seem like November – not quite winter? It’s all up for grabs. Who knows what happens after that freeze frame? All we are left with is an ominous “o-ohh…”

When good writing, good acting, good plot line, and expert directing all come together, it makes for a rewarding cinematic experience. When cinematic art and craft are added to convey symbol, innuendo and meaning, the experience is all the more captivating and memorable. Three Days of the Condor is one I’ll have to revisit. I’m sure there were some brilliant details and turns that I missed. Maybe some of you are familiar with the film and can provide some additions or corrections to my observations.

(I hope you don’t mind that I used the actors’ real names instead of the characters – it just seemed to be a more immediate way to try to give you a picture of the action since most are probably familiar with the actors.) For the film purists, here is the impressive cast of characters:

• Robert Redford as Joseph Turner
• Faye Dunaway as Kathy Hale
• Cliff Robertson as J. Higgins
• Max von Sydow as G. Joubert
• John Houseman as Wabash
• Addison Powell as Leonard Atwood
• Walter McGinn as Sam Barber
• Tina Chen as Janice Chon
• Michael Kane as S.W. Wicks
• Don McHenry as Dr. Ferdinand Lappe
• Michael B. Miller as Fowler
• Jess Osuna as The Major
• Dino Narizzano as Harold
• Helen Stenborg as Mrs. Edwina Russell
• Patrick Gorman as Martin
• Russell Johnson as Intelligence Officer at Briefing

Three Days of the Condor, released in 1975, was produced by Stanley Schneider and directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay, by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, was adapted from the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.

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