Month: October 2019

The things of earth

In 1918,  Helen Lemmel  (1863-1961) read a tract entitled “Focused,” which included these words: “So then, turn your eyes upon him, look full into his face and you will find that the things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.” This inspired her best-known hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

Sometimes I hum this chorus as “background music” when I encounter the rampant tribalism that has infected and fragmented today’s politics, religions and social fabric. I offer Lemmel’s hymn as background music for this and the next few posts about dualistic, “us versus them” thinking. Divisive things are temporary. Unifying things are eternal.

On Reformation Day, it’s appropriate to acknowledge a painful “us versus them” chapter in Western history. I’m grateful to be part of a deeper unity between the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, largely a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). My life as a pastor began in 1970, after Protestants began to reclaim important parts of the larger Christian tradition.

In the mid-1970s, at a dinner meeting for Birmingham pastors, the speaker referred to a person who was converted “from Catholicism to Christianity.” I hope that organization now views Roman Catholics as “us” rather than “them.” Such divisions are among the things of earth that grow strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

The big question

The big question for me is this: Can I live a coherent, unitive life? Can my attitude toward all others—consistent with Jesus and Francis of Assisi—be gracious and respectful? Can this effort include those whose politics, religion, philosophy or behaviors are most offensive to me? To frame the question in biblical terms, can I love my enemies?

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45, NRSV)

This brief excerpt from Jesus’ sermon on the mount acknowledges that persecution occurs, that God does not withhold sunshine and rain (and I would add, grace and gain) from the unrighteous, and that when we love our enemies, we live into the reality that we are children of God (and by extension, brothers and sisters of all creatures).

I believe the logical end result of Jesus’ call to “love your enemies” is to get to the point where I do not see “enemy” when I look at the other person, but rather “brother” or “sister.” I’m using “I” here rather than “we” because I realize how radical this is. I’m not there yet, but this is the goal for which I strive. I’m convinced this is the most important thing I can do on planet earth in 2019. What about you? What’s the “big question” for you? What’s the most important thing you can do on planet earth in 2019?

In the next few posts, I’ll sketch some of the challenges I see in striving to love in a unitive, all-inclusive way.

We’re better than this

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered the biblical lands in 333 BC, bringing the Greek language and culture, and a dualistic way of thinking, sometimes called “Greek dualism.”  

In New Testament times, Gnosticism was a well-known form of dualism. Gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge.” Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge (about religion, etc.). We are more familiar with the term “agnostic,” which refers to someone who claims to have no knowledge or no opinion about a particular matter, such as religion.

As I see it, there’s some dualism in each of us. I have my “either/or,” “my way or the highway” moments. But, I strive for a “both/and,” “let us work it out” temperament. I try to acknowledge my prejudices when I encounter someone whose worldview seems dominated by an “us versus them” attitude. Dualism is on the rise today in the form of tribalism.  

I decided to devote the next few posts to this theme when the Game 5 World Series crowd greeted President Trump with chants of “lock him up.” Regardless of the target and who’s doing the chanting, I take wise counsel from the words of the late Elijah Cummings: “We’re better than this!”

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

Dog lessons

Some things I’ve learned from Friar:

Acknowledge my impulses. Labs stay hungry. Friar has taught me that taming my impulses begins with befriending them. Discipline leads to freedom. Friar has never had human food, so he goes to his bed when he hears the ice-maker. He’s learned that mealtime manners earn him a treat from his favorite bag.

Friar at 10 weeks, discovering the source of his pleasure

Touch is important. Friar learned at his breeder’s home in those first weeks the power of touch–snuggling with his 10 litter mates, being cradled after food each morning, and being held at times during the day. Sometimes when I rub his chin I wonder if he remembers that first morning at the airport.

Friar at 8 weeks, October, 2016

We’re all family. Francis of Assisi sang praise for “brother sun” and “sister moon.” When dying he asked his friars to help him get off his bed to embrace the earth. Friar sees every dog, cat and human as a potential playmate, and this seems to include squirrels, deer and curious birds that appear at the door.

Life is good. We can be content. A daily routine helps: A wake-up belly rub in the kennel, then hurry (the command for “toilet”), breakfast, cradling (to practice submission) and a one-mile walk. Somehow Friar knows 8:30 pm is time to put his toys in the box, earning a treat for each–prior to sleep in the kennel. Naps are a gift.

Relaxation therapy from Reba and Friar
Mid-morning, Christmas 2018, after a midnight Christmas Eve service

Pay attention (the essence of prayer). Friar instinctively comforts those who are hurting with a “visit” (putting his chin on a knee or lap). Sometimes he reminds me to be cautious, telling me with his body that a nighttime visitor has left an unfriendly scent. Running, playing, laughing (or tail-wagging) is therapeutic. Friends are important.

From left: Reba’s litter mate Rudy, Friar and Reba–with flotation devices
Reba’s Lake Martin fashion statement

A four-legged friar

Friar is a lab/golden retriever mix, bred by non-profit Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California. He was one of 11 puppies in the “F” litter. CCI names the pups. All litter mates share the same first letter. Cathey is a CCI volunteer puppy raiser. At eight weeks, Friar arrived in Birmingham one morning after an overnight flight from San Francisco. Puppy raisers agree to use a particular brand (and amount) of food for meals and treats, teach numerous behaviors and at least 30 commands, provide monthly reports and weigh-ins, regular vet exams, and twice monthly sessions with a professional dog-trainer.

At age 18-20 months, dogs are “turned in” for 6-9 months of training and socialization at one of six CCI regional facilities, or what I call “dog college.” They receive medical exams and close observation to see what type of service the dog is best suited to provide. Volunteers cover puppy-raising costs. Corporate and individual donors enable CCI to place dogs at no cost, though there’s a waiting list and recipients pass a rigorous process to make sure the dogs will be properly cared for, including two weeks of on-site interaction with prospective matches.

When Cathey was notified that her puppy’s name is Friar, I told friends that the name seems appropriate since he would be celibate and wear a collar.

CCI keeps meticulous records and carefully breeds dogs for health, intelligence and temperament. Only about 40% of puppies-in-training make it to placement, but CCI has placed 6,000 service dogs since 1975. After one month at dog college, Friar was released from the program for stress and allergies. Puppy raisers are given the first chance to receive a released dog and Cathey exercised that option. So, Friar is now a “change-of-career” dog, aka “pet,” though CCI can repossess him if he isn’t properly cared for.

When Friar was a service puppy-in-training, he made numerous visits to a local special needs class. It was amazing to watch the children “come alive” and I hoped he would be placed with a special needs child. But he is a great role model for Cathey’s second CCI puppy, Reba. His patience and gentleness toward children is extended to her. He has facilitated some of Reba’s self-confidence. She’s the “alpha dog,” which will serve her well in her career. I’ve told friends that Reba is smarter than Friar, but in truth she is smarter because of Friar.

Tomorrow, I’ll share what I’ve learned from this “old soul,” four-legged Franciscan.

Reba’s favorite pillow

Friar Richard

Roman Catholic priest Richard Rohr (born 1943) is a friar in the Franciscan order. He has led the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1986. I was part of a study group that spent a few days with Richard in January, 2011. He had just finished the manuscript for his book Falling Upward, which was published in April, 2011. When I read the book, I could hear Richard’s voice on each page. Our time with Richard was for me the most meaningful component of our three-year experience. In our sessions with Richard, he was accompanied by Venus, his Labrador retriever.

Richard’s books and the Albuquerque experience have been formative for me, but of greater importance are the meditations I receive by email each day from CAC. These meditations help me “connect the dots” between daily life and the deepest themes of faith. One example: The theme for the week of September 22-28 was “Oneness.” The September 22 meditation about “The Suffering of God” was particularly helpful to me. Richard wrote that in her last days, Venus taught him that every individual suffering unites us with God and with all who suffer.

A work of art is chosen each week as a banner for the meditations. The banner for the “Oneness” week was an 1837 painting by Edwin Landseer (1802-1873).

The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1837,
the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Three friars

After Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a lighter note seems appropriate, so I’ll share what I’m learning from three friars.

“Friar” is from the Latin, frater, or “brother,” via the old French frere. The first friar I knew was Walt Disney’s Friar Tuck. Then I learned about the mendicant (beggar) friars of the 13th Century, such as Francis of Assisi, Italy (1182-1226) and Dominic of Caleneuga, Spain (1170-1221), hence the Franciscans and Dominicans. The Carmelites began when some hermits on Mount Carmel (near Haifa, Israel) formed an order around 1206-1214. The Augustinians formed in 1244 in Tuscany, Italy after Augustine of Hippo (354-430). These four orders, and others such as the Poor Clares, after Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), brought new life to the church.

I wrote about Francis in the October 4 post. Today, I’ll simply remind you of the familiar prayer attributed to him:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

My two contemporary friar mentors are Richard (a two-legged) and Friar. More about them will be forthcoming.


Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (1938) is available as a free PDF download here. Chapter 1, “Community,” describes Christ’s power to create and shape community. Chapter 2, “The Day with Others,” outlines a daily rhythm of gratitude and prayer.

For me, the heart of the book is Chapter 3, “The Day Alone,” which deals with a crucial paradox: “Let (one) who cannot be alone beware of community,” and “Let (one) who is not in community beware of being alone.” Bonhoeffer urged the community to spend time each day in meditation: “Silence…. needs to be practiced and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails.”

Chapters 4, “Ministry,” and 5, “Confession and Communion,” deal with forgiveness and freedom. Bonhoeffer’s words flow from his personal experience: “The early morning belongs to the Church of the Risen Christ. At the break of light it remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to (humankind).”

In the Introduction, translator John W. Doberstein quoted a British officer and fellow prisoner: “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy … and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive …. He was one of the very few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near…. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of us all. … He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.’ That had only one meaning for all prisoners—the gallows. We said good-by to him. He took me aside: ‘This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.’ The next day (at dawn) he was hanged….” His text for that last message was Isaiah 53:5, “with his stripes we are healed.”

The Music of Terezin

He played the conservatives

Two days after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address, in which he said: “If the leader tries to become the idol … then the image of the leader shifts to one of a mis-leader. Then the leader is acting improperly….The radio station silenced his microphone in mid-speech. Bonhoeffer later joined the Hitler resistance and it cost him his life.

Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, was interviewed by Glenn Beck in 2010. Here’s part of what Metaxas said:

Metaxas: “So, he plays — I mean, this is the danger, when you have a nation that is sort of Christian in a very surfacey way … you’re very susceptible.

“So, Hitler … plays the conservatives. He basically says … I’m against the communists, I’m for values, and so on and so forth.

“And so, he speaks, he talks the talk, but he is fundamentally opposed to actual Christianity. But he hides it…. If he revealed it, he loses everything.”

Beck: “When did Bonhoeffer first figure him out? Because he was the first guy from the beginning, right?”

Metaxas: “Yes. From day one … Bonhoeffer’s father was a scientist. And the whole Bonhoeffer family was trained to think rigorously. They were not able to be fooled. …

“…. So, number one, Bonhoeffer thinks very clearly. Number two, his family was very well-connected in social circles in Berlin, so they knew people who were in the know.

“And they knew before Hitler became chancellor who he was. That he’s a vulgar, fundamentally anti-German, anti-Christian narcissist.”

Tomorrow, we’ll conclude our brief look at Bonhoeffer with his classic little book, Life Together.


A simple way

Both Jesus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked underneath public expressions of religion. What truths, values or principles are expressed? Bonhoeffer wrote from prison (p. 167), “The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls (us), not to a new religion, but to life.”

As I reflected on this, Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for October 21 arrived in my e-mail inbox.  Rohr wrote:

“As a general rule, I would say that institutional religion tends to think of people as very simple, and therefore the law must be very complex to protect them in every situation. Jesus does the opposite: He treats people as very complex—different in religion, lifestyle, virtue, temperament, and success—and keeps the law very simple in order to bring them to God:

A legal expert put him to the test: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ He replied to him, ‘You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.’ This is the first and foremost, and the second is like it: ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hangs everything in the Law and in the Prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

From Runner’s World