Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturday Haiku: Gentle Rain


                                  softly the raindrops
change the rhythm of the day
bringing soulful rest

                        ~ CK

Photo: Rain collecting on a forest leaf
Credit: Jon Sullivan
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Can We Do the Right Thing?

I was in a discussion last week with some friends and the topic of sin came up, particularly the Christian concept of sin as found in the New Testament Greek term, hamartia, which is often translated, “missing the mark” (The same word was used in ancient Greek drama to describe a "tragic flaw" in the protagonist). The discussion with my friends reminded me of some thoughts I shared several years ago at the Birmingham Unitarian Church when I was asked to participate in one of their services. In preparing for that service, I had harked back to one of my most eye-opening days in seminary when my pastoral care professor, Dr. J. Lyn Elder, shared his translation of hamartia

The Greek word begins with the negative "a" (as in agnostic, atheist, amoral, etc.) but we pronounce it ha-martia because it is one of those Greek words with the "breath mark" at the beginning: μαρτία. Dr. Elder translated the word as "non-involvement," stating that "martia" was a term often used to describe military involvement, thus “a-martia” could be understood as non-involvement.  I did a quick online check (not claiming that to be a scholarly act) and found that according to Strong's Greek Lexicon, the word hamartia comes from the Greek root words, "not a part of." If martia was a military term, that might explain the common translation of hamartia to mean "missing the mark" as in not hitting the target, but the concept of non-involvement gave me a whole new take on the New Testament concept of sin. The translation of a single Greek word does not by any means convey the sum of all truth, but it can often open up new ways to think about a topic.  Here is the idea as I presented it to my Unitarian friends:

My Understanding of Sin

by Charles Kinnaird

My earliest understanding of sin probably was formed before I even had heard the word. When I think back on my early childhood, I had been given definite views of right and wrong. I understood from my parents and from my interactions with siblings and playmates that it was wrong to be selfish, wrong to be greedy, and wrong to do anything that would hurt others. I remember hearing the Golden Rule in Sunday School when I was about six years old, and it made complete sense to me. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," was uncomplicated and easily grasped, though often not attained by the impulsive child that I was (nor by the impulsive human that I am).

When I became older, I remember hearing about sin, always in a religious context, and with it came a list of things not to do because they displeased God. By the time I was a teenager there was an ever growing laundry list of things that were considered to be sinful. Among Evangelical Christians it was popular to define sin as "missing the mark," supposedly a translation of the Greek New Testament word hamartia. It was not until I was an adult that I heard a translation of that word that made sense. I learned that the Greek word martia was a term that meant involvement. Thus the term hamartia is the negative which can be translated "non-involvement." So as a young adult I began to understand sin as non-involvement in what God is doing. My understanding of what God is doing is that God creates, nurtures, and helps beings to grow toward their full potential. So if we are not involved in creativity, if we are not involved in nurturing the environment, if our actions do not contribute to well-being of others, then we are not involved in doing what God does.

I still hold to that concept of sin being non-involvement. But to be honest I can't be involved in everything that I consider to be a worthy endeavor. I have to trust that there are others to pick up my slack. Even so, whether an action is deemed right or not may be measured by how that action is one of nurturing, healing, helping or creating.  The older I get, the more I go back to my earliest understanding of sin and how to avoid it: don't be greedy, don't be selfish, don't hurt others, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Monday Music: Be Here Now

This is another Life Illuminated video by Scott Wright. The song is by Ray LaMontagne. Enjoy the beautiful music along with Scott Wright's beautiful photography.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Haiku: Mountain Rock

    rugged rock
    facing elements
    spirit rests
         ~ CK

Photo: Grey Man of the Merrick
          (Natural rock formation located near Loch Enoch)
Credit: James Hearton
This photo is part of the Geograph Project


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Problem with Being Male

It happened again last week. Male sexual misbehavior made the cover of Time Magazine. We have seen this before. This time the topic was rape on college campuses. We have seen similar news items about sports teams, coaches, movie celebrities, military personnel,  and clergy.  Sometimes it involves taking advantage of women in subordinate roles, sometimes it is child abuse, but all too often it is a specifically male problem of men mishandling their sexual drives.

Why is there such a seemingly prevalent problem with men’s sex drives? Is it a problem born of nature? When one observes the natural world, one sees that the drive toward life is flagrantly abundant, scattering millions of seeds and eggs throughout the environment so that a fraction of those life forms will make it to maturity, with the rest serving as food and fodder. Life is also incredibly tenacious, with trees clinging to rocky mountaintops, bacteria growing in superheated lava flows beneath the ocean, and desert tadpole shrimp whose eggs can survive through decades of drought until rains come to the dry landscape. The drive toward life is seemingly relentless and nature seemingly strives to fill every available bit of habitable space with some form of life. We human beings are the inheritors of a drive for life that seems to be as large as the universe and is at least as large as the world itself.

Look around and you will see that we are part of a grand and glorious enterprise, this marvelous thing called life that is occurring within this grand thing called the universe. A problem seems to arise with human consciousness regarding the sexual drive – we are not quite sure how to handle the strong and primal drive of life that is embedded within us. We seem to have a combination of noble, higher aspirations while remaining subject to a flagrant propagation instinct. It is as though the drive for life is too large to rest comfortably within an individual. 

Modern Fables and Ancient Myths

African elephant in musth
The fables we tell speak of our uncontrollable urges. For example, the writers of the science fiction series Star Trek developed the Vulcan concept of pon-farr in which the sexual drive periodically completely overcomes the otherwise rational and logical Vulcan psyche. We also see it in nature as when a bull elephant in musth (even the ordinarily docile and domesticated Indian elephant) becomes dangerous, unpredictable and destructive. Michael Dowd, in his book, Thank God for Evolution, says that we modern humans live with miss-matched instincts. He points out that instincts which served our ancestors well in allowing them to survive as a species in eons past can become destructive in our modern society. The problem of how to handle the sexual drive seems to be a particularly male problem.

The initiation rites of primitive tribes observed by anthropologists today might give us a clue that ancient cultures had as much trouble reigning in adolescent drives as modern society does.  Tribal rituals guide adolescent boys into manhood. Those rituals can often be harsh, making sure that young boys entering manhood understand their responsibilities to the tribe as well as the proper use of their sexuality. Today with the numerous problems we hear about regarding sexual predators in society, one wonders if perhaps we need a return to harsh initiation rites to drive it home to men that they have a duty with regard to sexual drives. There is the responsibility to consider the well-being of another. In issues of rape, professionals will tell you that it is not just about sex – it is an act of violence. Robert Bly, the poet who became associated with the Men's Movement back in the 1990s, believes that what is missing on our society is a proper initiation of young men with older men as wise mentors. His best-selling book, Iron John: A Book about Men, elaborates his view of how men can reconnect by regaining the ancient wisdom of earlier times. (You can read a review of the book here. To read an interview with Robert Bly in which he discusses the problem of male violence in society, go here.) 

Indiscretions of Trusted Leaders

It is particularly distressing when we hear about people being abused and young lives shattered by the sexual misconduct of adults, usually men. Most men, one would hope, understand the sexual drive and that one must accommodate that drive to rules that make our society work and also protect the vulnerable. On the other hand, in addition to those rules of expected behavior, there are also industries of pornography, prostitution and human trafficking that appeal to and accommodate the darker side of the male sexual drive. Moreover, we see trusted men in authority taking advantage of women and molesting children. After reeling for several years from accounts of priests abusing children, there has been in the news recently renewed discussion of allegations regarding abusive behavior by filmmaker Woody Allen as well as a history of sexual misconduct by respected Mennonite theologian John Yoder.

Too often, we have looked the other way or refused to acknowledge the damage resulting from the sexual misbehavior of men in power. When these incidents become known, then the problems become even more complicated.   For example, I now have difficulty even thinking of watching Woody Allen's movie, Annie Hall, which was seen as a classic commentary on our society with both comedic and sociological insight. In the same way, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' groundbreaking pastoral letters from the 1980s concerning peace and economic justice that were such inspiring prophetic documents cannot escape the taint that those same bishops who were making such profound statements of social justice were also protecting pedophile priests. Likewise, the late John Yoder, whose work did so much to validate a pacifist theology for peace, cannot be viewed the same way in light of evidence of his unwanted sexual advances on women.

Calling them Out

It is past time to start holding people accountable for sexual abuse. There is no place for excuses such as “boys will be boys,” or “everyone has their sexual needs.” When we look the other way, people get hurt and we also do a disservice to the larger community. Where can we find the answer to this "male problem?" I do not claim to have the complete answer, nor can we expect a simple solution, but we must acknowledge that the problem lies for the most part in the male of the species. We must also admit that men in power are significant contributors to the problem. As a man, it is not a pleasant thing for me to admit that men are causing such problems. It is a discomforting thing, which may be why we are not talking about the problem enough. I know many men (most men I know, in fact) who conduct themselves decently and appropriately. The fact remains, however, that we have a male problem that needs to be addressed. We can write about it in science fiction tales, but we need to acknowledge it in our midst as well.  Perhaps we men need to speak more loudly to our peers about what behaviors are out of bounds. Perhaps our culture needs healthier ways to guide and "initiate" our young men into the world.  I have no simple answer to offer here. I welcome any comments from readers about how you see the problem or how you think the problem should be addressed.  How can we better guide our young people and hold adults accountable? We owe it to our children, our society, and our future to find a way to rein in our damaging behaviors.   

Photo of African bull elephant by Yathin S Krishnappa
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Music: Sweetheart Like You

                          "They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings;
                           Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king"
                                                                                                            ~ Bob Dylan

From one of Dylan's best albums, Infidels. The recorded track here is much better than the visual, which to me distracts from the captivating lyrics and the superb instrumentation. I'm always grateful, however, to have a good recording of Bob Dylan available since Sony, which owns much of Dylan's music, is notorious for removing videos with his music.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday Haiku: Poppy Field

        scarlet blooms
        scattered on the hill
        joyful hearts

                            ~ CK

Photo: Poppy field in Notinghamshire, Great Britain
Credit:  Lynne Kirton
This photo is part of the Geograph Project
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dying Churches and Post-Modern Religion in a Secular Age

Predictions are Never Easy

So much is being written now about the future of the church and whether faith will be relevant in the years ahead.  Predicting the future is a tricky thing, even when predicting the near future. We can think we have all the facts that allow us to foresee how events will unfold, and still be surprised at how things really shake out. I witnessed one example of failure to predict the future when I was a senior in college. The year was 1977, and one spring day, the headline in the morning paper read, “Speed Limit will be 90 by the year 2000.” The headline caught my attention, as I am sure it was intended to do. The reasoning laid out in the lead article was that with the country converting to the metric system, the current speed limit of 55 mph would be equal to 88.5 kilometers per hour. Since dashboards would be divided in degrees of ten, 90 kilometers per hour would quite logically be the speed limit under the new metric system.

As I read the article, it made perfect sense. The country was in the process of converting to the metric system. We had been seeing Celsius temperature readings along with Fahrenheit on time-temperature clocks at banks around town for some time. We were even beginning to see a few kilometer signs posted along some highways. Furthermore, with the oil crisis that we were still emerging from, everyone knew that our 55 mph speed limit was in place to stay. It was a matter of conservation in light of limited fossil fuels and uneasy Middle East alliances. Moreover, we had found that the lower speed limit on our highways was actually reducing accidents and saving lives. There was no reason to doubt that the metric system would be fully in place and the speed limit would remain at 55 mph.

The reality turned out differently, however. Metrication soon foundered. I don’t know if people thought is was too European, to communist, or too hard to figure out, but the whole metric idea in the U.S. was abandoned. The next big surprise was that when oil prices came down, congress eventually figured that with a seemingly endless supply of cheap oil, there was no reason to keep to a 55 mph speed limit. Thus, my hometown paper’s very reasonable prediction of the near future was a total miss.   

The Future of the Church

Sojourners magazine is running an interesting series, “Letters to Dying Churches.” One recent installment by Brandon Robertson, “To the Dying Church from a Millennial,” is an interesting take from an evangelical perspective.  He expresses the idea that it is not the church that is dying, but rather “Christendom,” or the institutions and structures that propelled a triumphalist Eurocentric culture which included Christianity.  While we are seeing a death which many of us recognize, it is not necessarily the death that we imagined.  Robertson sees a church whose "best days are ahead," yet in new forms and formats that are different from the accustomed institutions of the past (you can read the essay here).  While some mainline churches are lamenting their decline in numbers, and the sight of once vibrant churches closing their doors saddens many, there are others who are proclaiming that the Christian faith is nowhere near dead.

Embrace the Secular City – Imagine No Religion

Reading the Sojourners article reminded me of my experience in college reading Harvey Cox’s The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Cox foresaw a kind of end to organized religion as it reconfigured to address the needs of the modern age. He stated, “The age of the secular city … is an age of no religion at all.” He focused on the positive aspects of what can happen in a secular age as long as “secularization” rather than “secularism” takes hold. Cox saw that the anonymity and mobility found in the city were changing the way we relate to one another. The author cited the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of helping someone in need even when anonymity precludes a personal relationship. Harvey Cox was exploring the implications of how new social norms would affect the practice of faith. His book was one of the seminal documents of modern faith that was being taught when I entered college in 1973.

The Secular City still has important things to say even today.  In the mid-1960s, it presented readers with a prescient view of how urbanization and secular orientation would influence the world. The future, however, unfolded a bit differently from the way Harvey Cox envisioned. Twenty years later he would write and equally exciting book, Religion in the Secular City. In that book, Cox acknowledges that the modern city has indeed seen an expansion of religion rather than no religion. He examines two of the dynamic religious forces at work: the resurgence of fundamentalism and the rise of Liberation theology. You can read an academic review of the book here

Harvey Cox would later write an article for The Christian Century, “The Secular City, 25 Years Later.” It is quite interesting to read Cox’s thoughts as he takes into account unforeseen movements and so many changes, good and bad, that have occurred in the intervening time. Bear in mind, this article itself is dated, having been written in 1990. You can read the entire article here, but toward the end of the essay, Cox writes:

“Tucked away on page 177 of The Secular City comes a little-noticed paragraph that perhaps I should have used as an epigraph for this essay, or maybe it should be put in italics. Secularization, I wrote, "is not the Messiah. But neither is it anti-Christ. It is rather a dangerous liberation." It "raises the stakes," vastly increasing the range both of human freedom and of human responsibility. It poses risks "of a larger order than those it displaces. But the promise exceeds the peril, or at least makes it worth taking the risk.

“All I could add today is that we really have no choice about whether we take the risk. We already live in the world-city and there is no return. God has placed us in this urban exile, and is teaching us a more mature faith, for it is a quality of unfaith to have to flee from complexity and disruption, or to scurry around trying to relate every segment of experience to some comforting inclusive whole, as though the universe might implode unless we hold it together with our own conceptualizations. God is teaching us to approach life in the illegible city without feeling the need for a Big Key.”

Intergenerational Voices, Many possibilities

Harvey Cox has made some brilliant observations about the realities of faith lived out in the world. He is still around and represents the generation that preceded my own. Brandon Robertson, the millennial who wrote the piece for Sojourners, represents the generation after mine.  In other words, I am looking at views spanning three modern generations. The insights shared by these two writers demonstrate that faith in the modern age is quite a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon. It is also something of a cautionary tale to see that often our best predictions are quite different from what actually unfolds (as in no religion in the secular city, or the metric system in the USA).

We are certainly witnessing a state of flux in the realm of faith and spirituality.  In addition to the position stated by Robertson in Sojourners, many evangelicals are finding new meaning in the older liturgies of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalian churches.  People from Jewish as well as Christian backgrounds are finding their center in Buddhism. Indeed, in the U.S. many of the world's religions are living in proximity as never before. One thing about the current generation that was not seen as frequently in past generations is that people more readily move from the faith expression they inherited to another faith expression that suits them better (that's what happened with me). While some faith expressions seem to be dying, others seem to be rising. It is a great time to be alive if you are a seeker. Many of us may hazard a guess as to what faith will look like in the future, but there are sure to be surprises as the future continues to unfold.

Upper: Church steeple of First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.
Middle: Stained glass window St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Birmingham, Ala
Lower: St. Simenon's Orthodox Church, Birmingham, Ala. 
All photographs taken by Charles Kinnaird


Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Music: Ancient Mother

Robert Gass has produced many recordings of sacred chant, taking cues from Western as well as Eastern and Native American sacred traditions. "Ancient Mother" is one that I first heard when I was a member of the Unitarian Church Choir and we sang the song during a Sunday morning service (I have sung in Baptist, Episcopal, Unitarian, and Catholic choirs and learned some wonderful music in each place). The  recording here is produced by Robert Gass from the album, Chant: Spirit in Sound, accompanied by beautiful scenes from the ocean and other nature venues.  


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Haiku: Springtime Buds

    warmth of day
    new buds of springtime
    life dances

                           ~ CK

Photo: Bee on Plum Flower
Credit: Angelynn Ursulo Gill
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When Freedom Becomes another Word for Empire

We have special times in which we appropriately honor those soldiers who have served our country. Veteran’s Day in November is a day to honor those who have served in the military. There are also those times when we particularly honor and pay tribute to those soldiers who have died in the line of duty, paying the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Memorial Day, coming up later this month is a day to honor the fallen. I should state at the outset that I am opposed to war and have often stated that opposition in my blog posts. Last year in the essay, “On the Waging of War,” I outlined my opposition to drone warfare as well as my stance against war in general. While I believe that we should honor those who serve in the military, and I am truly grateful for their service, I believe that war, especially in the modern era, is not the best option and is never an ethical choice. The Quakers have rightly stood as reminders to society that there are better ways than war to resolve conflict.   

Rumors of War

I came of age during the Viet Nam War (we stopped calling them wars after WWII, but then when we look back on them we realize they were wars, regardless of what we called them at the time, but that’s a story for another essay). During the Viet Nam conflict our country was torn. Some thought we were fighting communism, some thought we had no business meddling in another country half-way around the world. Many were worried about being drafted into military service. Congress, for the first (and only) time made the National Guard  a refuge for the favored sons so that they could appear to be fulfilling their military service without having to actually fight overseas. We later found out that it was not a threat of communism, but a trumped up incident at the Gulf of Tonkin along with a military leadership that was eager to flex its muscle that plunged us into a long war that took the lives of many and left many more scarred – not to mention the devastation visited upon the Vietnamese people.

Today, we seem to be in a constant state of war. We have a populace that sincerely, and rightly, wishes to honor the brave men and women who serve our country in the military. Yet at the same time there is not the political will to challenge the country’s leadership about why we are fighting. It occurred to me about a year ago that something was sadly amiss when I watched a news release about Prince Harry laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery. Prince Harry of Wales (Captain Wales in the British army) laid a wreath with the message, “To my comrades-in-arms of the United States of America, who have paid the ultimate price in the cause of freedom.” That is when it came to me that today freedom has become just another word for empire.

It is not, after all, freedom that we are fighting for.  Freedom for the American people was not truly at stake. It is not for freedom around the world for which we send our military troops. It is for the protection of what is deemed to be vital U.S. interests that we are now sacrificing our youth and our treasure. That vital U.S. interest translates into what is best for corporate America, as in access to oil. If there had actually ever been any threat to our country, would the general populace not have been asked to make some sacrifices for the effort, instead of being told to just go shopping?

Early Protests

We heard some protests back before the U.S. entered into war with Iraq. “No Blood of Oil” was the slogan, and the country was pretty much evenly divided over whether we should invade Iraq. There were marches in Washington, D.C. and across the country, but they got little media coverage. Today, it is pretty clear that the war in Iraq was another case of trumped up claims and false pretenses. Since that day, with the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, we seem to be unable to extricate ourselves from military action in that region. Our current president continues to allow drone missile strikes in Pakistan as part of some nebulous “war on terror,” yet we are participating in much of that terror by killing innocent civilians in a country where we are not even engaged in military conflict. For whatever reason, even a president who campaigned on a sincere desire to end the war cannot get us out of armed conflict. Our young soldiers continue to be called to tours of duty overseas. 

Our own freedom in this country was not at issue. The political leadership stoked national fears by saying that we needed to engage the enemy over there in order to keep from have to engage them here at home. The result of engaging the enemy over there has only increased the likelihood of terrorism here at home, yet we continue with military action that includes boots on the ground and drones in the air.  Freedom has become just another word for Empire, and we are now expected to serve that Empire without question – because it would be “short-sighted” and “unpatriotic” to question this country’s military involvement.

A Conflicted Sense of Honor and Duty

I believe that our soldiers should be honored for their bravery, their efforts, and for the hardships they and their families endure. I have colleagues at work who are in the National Guard and the Reserves who have been called to duty in Afghanistan, and before that to Iraq. They are fine people and they represent the true substance of American life.  My conflict is that I do not think that our young soldiers, who are revved up, dedicated, and ready to give their best for our country should be called up to serve in wars that are unnecessary and which are not even in our best national interests. It is as though our national consciousness cannot imagine anything but armed conflict in response to global challenges.

What’s more, our congress, which asks such sacrifice from its soldiers, is not willing to fund legislation to appropriately care for wounded soldiers and their families. Instead, we see commercials from non-profit groups appealing to the public for money so that they can help to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. Why shouldn’t our government, which asks soldiers to give their all, step up to care for those wounded in service to their country? Instead, our country makes use of the kindness and empathy of its citizens, asking us all to donate.  It is bad enough that the down-and-out, those lost on the streets, must rely upon charity. It hurts that dogs in animal shelters are at the mercy of our charitable acts. It is unconscionable that our own soldiers must rely upon that same well of charitable giving for their own well-being.    

Few of us ordinary citizens have felt the brunt of war that soldiers and their families have experienced. Politicians have carried on with business as usual. Corporations have actually prospered, yet there is no call to come to the aid of those soldiers who are fighting corporate America’s wars. Some corporations actually shift operations overseas to avoid paying taxes which could support some patriotic efforts toward our veterans. We have become that military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned, chewing up citizens in the name of patriotism, offering meager help to those cast aside in service to the country.

Are We Powerless to Question Authority?

We have never spoken more loudly of freedom, honor and patriotism. Never have flags been waved so wildly. Never have we been more vocal in our words of thanks to our soldiers. Yet we have turned freedom into just another word for Empire – an empire that demands patriotism and service and which tolerates no challenge to its agenda. Indeed, we are often threatened with fear of losing our standard of living, and, yes, a fear of losing our freedom if we do not meet “the enemy” with sufficient force “over there.”

I’m sorry, but never in my life time have the words “Thank you for your service” been so painful. We are all genuinely thankful for our young men and women in the military, yet we are powerless to stop the war machine as it continues to call up our sons and daughters to dangerous and questionable service.  In our fearful fight for country, we have exchanged the joy of freedom for the oppression of Empire.   

Photos: Tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery
            Public Domain
            Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

            Peace Rally in Sacramento, CA, 2003, prior to Iraq invasion
            Public Domain
            Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday Music: Ave Maria (Lauridsen)

There are many feast days devoted to Mary throughout the year. May is traditionally a month especially dedicated to Mary, with May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary practiced by many within the Catholic faith. Here is a twentieth century composition of Ave Maria by Morten Lauridsen accompanied by images from the works of  Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Santi.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday Haiku: Morning Light

           morning light 
           casting long shadows
           new thoughts rise

                                 ~ CK

Photo: Early morning sun From the south side of the West Lyn River
Credit: Author Roger Gittins 
From the Geograph project collection

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