Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Meditation

"You crown the year with your bounty" (Psalm 65:11).

What is the meaning of the "year"? The earth laps the sun once more, the seasons pass: leaves gather, grow thick and luxuriant, then dazzle us with gold, red, then browner, falling to the earth. Life is not just a single arrow flying, but a circle, a web, life given, life lost, life renewed, so natural, God's constancy played out annually.

The Christian marking of time is not the fiscal year, not the calendar year. We begin, rather weirdly, just after Thanksgiving, with Advent, a little ahead of everybody else, and when the darkness is long. Every year we re-rehearse the full Bible story: Jesus is born, is baptized, tempted - and so we observe a 40 day fast during Lent. Jesus is raised, the Holy Spirit comes - and so we observe Easter and Pentecost. Every year of our lives, we rewind and re-watch the Bible's dramatic epic; we live inside the story, and discover our place on the stage - not asking Is the Bible relevant to my life? but Is my life relevant given the Bible?

In his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan asked "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Maybe the Christian asks each year, Am I closer to God than last year? Am I serving more faithfully? Have I grown in my giving? in my prayer? in holiness? It's just one more year - but then recall how fraught with profound meaning the numbers we attach to a year can be. 1967? My grandfather died. 1986? I got married. 2001? 9-11. 2012? That was the year I got serious about my faith...
My grandfather’s tombstone shows eight numbers with a little dash in the middle: 1904-1967. Peek under any such dash and you see a year, and more years (and there never seem to be enough of them when you love the person), a moment here, an act there, a lazy afternoon, working past dusk, a trying week, a blissful month, a year of anxiety, three years of declining health, a decade on the best job you ever had. Our attention spans are short (and getting shorter all the time) - but Christians, especially at the turn of the year, take the long view, as God does: “A thousand years in Your sight are like a day” (Psalm 90:4). We stop, step back, soar up high, and gauge the broad sweep of time, in which this afternoon's situation is merely a pebble on the beach, in which my entire life is a single measure in the triumphant symphony of God’s great composition of the universe.

How many years will I have? and what would make them “full”? In faith, we look back: can you remember what God has done in your life? Rifle through the boxes of old photos in your memory and notice a hand, a smile, a circumstance, a moment, and notice what God has done to bring you to this place. There are wounds, too - and you go there, and let God’s healing mercy heal.
But like Janus, we look back, and then turn forward. Inevitably our orientation is toward the future, God’s future. Today’s agonizing sorrow, or today’s heady success, will be eclipsed. Martin Luther King, coping with terrible setbacks, said “I am no longer optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” Optimism says everything will be better tomorrow; but hope is prepared for whatever happens tomorrow. Optimism depends on you and me doing better; but hope depends on God. The year to come is in God’s hands, and I would put myself into God’s hands now, and all year long.

And so we pray that classic John Wesley prayer for the New Year: I am no longer my own, but yours. Put met to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Message 2011

This is not a column about Christopher Hitchens, although his death (or rather, his life) and the losses and doings of Steve Jobs, Kim Jong Il, and whomever it is you wish were here today are why I’m writing. But not really: I am writing to try to explain the Christian message to those the Church has confused, or wounded, and maybe even for satisfied Christians who’ve missed the point, as we all do from time to time.

Within minutes of the announcement of Hitchens’s death, I received multiple inquiries: is he in heaven now? How to respond? “I hope so,” or “I guess he knows now God really is great”? His book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, bugged me. Religion really has poisoned lots of things – but not everything. We poison things quite well on our own without religion, and we’re the ones who poisoned religion – including Christmas. Jesus in heaven must look down and shake his head over all the froth, the frenzy of self-indulgence. Sure, we remember to toss in a little spasm of charity, a toy for some child we’ll never meet – and then we paste a “Jesus is the reason for the season” sticker on it all so we whose true religion is consumerism feel semi-righteous?

What is Christianity? It is not that God is great. Rather, God is small. What we believe is that God’s greatness is that God became small to win our hearts. Absolute power, the kind Kim Jong Il wielded, intimidates; God wants to be as unscary as possible. Who’s scared of a child? And who can’t identify with God’s self-revelation as an infant? If God became tall, witty, muscular, or rich (or even a mother or father), many of us couldn’t connect. You once were small, vulnerable, dependent, needing lots of love, like Jesus.

And you will be vulnerable and needing the love again one day. We are mortal; our truest carol phrase is “Lo, the days are hastening on.” One day you won’t be here to do Christmas any longer – and you know this, because there is somebody you couldn’t imagine living without who won’t be there Christmas morning, or ever again. I mention this, not to frighten or manipulate. Rather, it’s just reality that we are transient beings, not here for so long – but we never feel comfortable about that. We want more, we yearn for a future, for deeper meaning.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs, and his awful gadgets that require us to be somewhere we aren’t. I fume when I’m with somebody who isn’t there; he’s pecking at a screen, he’s someplace else, but not there either. And yet, this impulse to find meaning somewhere else, this urge to reach for a linkage beyond the room where I am is absolutely on target. This world isn’t enough; we are hardwired to reach beyond. Children know this: they daydream, their world is enchanted, they can believe in the unseen. The story of Christmas is that God is – and God is, even if we are tone deaf to God, even if we are mean to God like Christopher Hitchens or mean to other people like Kim Jong Il.

I suspect this is why God thought the best way to reach us was by way of a child. Big people can make you fight, defend, grab. But a child evokes tenderness. How could a child be the solution to our really large problems, like economic and political turmoil or even violence? If we could remember the little children (as Jesus said once he got bigger) we really would get our priorities straight and stop shooting, grabbing greedily, and bickering. Think Jerry Sandusky. Every one of us is mortified: no one should stand by and let a child be hurt! So God showed us God in the shape of a child, inviting us to rise up and refuse to settle for injustice; children elicit goodness in us.

Notice there is no judgmental attitude in this message. To consider the idea that God entered our world as a child isn’t harsh judgment on anybody. Jesus didn’t sit up in the manger and denounce others, or deliver a lecture entitled “We are right, everybody else is wrong!” Jesus is the affirmation of all people, including you and me. Jesus isn’t my trump card defeating you. The idea of God-down-here is something special we treasure, and it causes us to treasure you, or we’ve missed the point. Jesus is the truth that we are all indelibly noble, worth loving and protecting, and that we can’t help but love other people, and not merely with a toy in December but with food and shelter (which Jesus’ parents had a hard time finding!) all year round.

And so, let’s contemplate the wisdom and hope in God being not great but small, and discover that God really does want to get close, the child being the only hope for such wonderful things as goodness, hope and love.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Prayer for Thanksgiving Day 2011

O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good (Psalm 118:1). What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty? I will lift up the sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:17).

Almighty, gracious, compassionate and faithful God, we get confused about giving You thanks, as we are more likely to bow our heads and enumerate the things we have achieved for ourselves than to realize what You have actually given, more likely to notice what distinguishes us from or vaunts us above other people than to recognize how, like a good Father, You love and bless all Your children.
So on this Thanksgiving day, we choose to “be still, and know that You are God” (Psalm 46:10), that “You have made us, not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:3). We thank You then
for Dependence, even in a culture that prizes independence, for we need You, we cannot take a breath without You; we are utterly dependent upon You, the way a flower needs rain and sunshine, the way a child needs mother’s caress – and therefore we thank You then

for Life, and not just the fact that I am still surviving, but for the fullness of life, the goodness of being able to see a face, and be seen, my heart beating, the breath I just took for granted, the wonder of rising in the morning to say “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24), the calm that can weather troubles and anxieties because we cherish the simple fact of being – and therefore we thank You then

for Recollection, as the richness of life is not merely now, but the memories of those we have loved, some of whom we have lost, magical moments, words spoken, kindnesses received, and coming to understand the plot of Your goodness over many years, certainly in the days of Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Paul, and in the lives of the saints, but also in our days and years, and we gladly bear the light burden and humbled delight of gratitude as we reminisce, tell stories, gaze at old photos – which reminds us to thank You then

for the Senses, without which we could not see a smile, the harvest moon, the trees or a deer, without which we could not hear a child’s giggle or words of love, without which we could not smell a bouquet of flowers or danger from the car’s engine; without the sense we could not feel an embrace, or taste our food; and without our senses we would not be able to visualize Jesus, who was God in human form, with eyes and ears, who touched and fed, and made us then to be His eyes, ears and hands, and so we see and feel what breaks God’s heart, giving us more cause for thanks for the privilege of being the answer to somebody else’s prayer to God for help – and therefore, strangely, we thank You then

for Frustration, that inner instinct You have woven into our souls about how things ought to be, a keen awareness that the world is broken, and that things are out of sync not just with our wishes but with your will, so we know to right things, not to be complacent, and thus we thank You for the labors of justice and mercy You to which You call us – and therefore we even realize to thank You

for the Outcasts, the people nobody else wants, the despised, ostracized, or hurt, who are never invited to anything or honored by anybody, who strike us as weird or scary, and yet we know they are not weird to You, but much beloved – and so we thank You for them as they remind us of the breadth and depth of Your love, they help us to reconcile with the secret strangenesses in our own selves, and gift us with the lovely labor of hospitality – something on which was founded another cause for gratitude,

for our Nation, that like all people on God’s good earth, we take pride in our homeland, and pray for better, truer days when we live out our ideals of virtue and striving together for the common good; we might actually be grateful for who we are, and pray for our leaders more than we rage and complain, and even find the way to peace with others who love their nations – and to do so we are aided in all these endeavors by the special people You have raised up to bless us, as we thank You

for Heroes and Saints, many of whom we have known, and miss this day, many we have only read about in storybooks or the Scriptures, and yet they inspire us, and prove the nobility You have planted deeply in all of us, which we will never realize until we learn to give You thanks

for Sacrifice, increasingly undervalued and shunned in our society; yet we rejoice that sacrifice has always been at the very heart of Your way in saving us, and sacrifice remains the highest calling to which we might aspire – and the very idea of “aspiring” stirs us to give thanks to You

for Transcendence, that implacable desire to reach beyond merely what we see, or what we can achieve for ourselves, to soar beyond all we can know or manage, and reach out to You, only to discover You have been not just reaching out to but also embracing us all along when we were too foolish to notice, and that our restlessness is nothing less than You calling us home to Your own loving heart – glimpses of which You grant us constantly, as we thank You  

for Beauty, not the shiny baubles we can purchase, but the wrinkled smiling face of a grandmother, the stunning hues in the clouds at sunset, the pinpricks of nighttime light that have been streaming our way for years, a wildflower, a country hillside, an old white A-frame church, a family photo, the autumn leaves, whose beauty is defined in their moment of death, whose frightening specter gives us cause for perhaps the deepest gratitude of all –

for Hope, that there is a future, even beyond what we get done in this life, a day with no sorrow, no failure of gratitude, and all will be praise, celebration, and delight, and we will cavort with saints, and sinners, outcasts and those we have lost, praising you forever and ever.

O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good (Psalm 118:1). What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty? I will lift up the sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:17).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Change or Die, by Alan Deutschman

Alan Deutschman opens Change or Die by citing baffling statistics that expose the brutal truth about something in our nature. Knowing change is required, we just don’t change – and sometimes we quite literally die because of it. “A relatively small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of the health care budget for diseases that are very well known and by and large behavioral. That is, they’re sick because of how they choose to lead their lives. Around 80% of the health care budget is consumed by just five primarily behavioral issues: too much smoking, drinking, and eating, too much stress, and not enough exercise.”

Now healthy folks who exercise, don’t smoke, eat carefully and drink moderately might feel smug – but Deutschman points to health issues in order to expose something more fundamental in human nature. We all indulge in something that is self-destructive – but the point of his book is How can change happen? Mistaken notions dominate American thinking about change. Deutschman speaks of the 3 F’s: facts, fear, and force. We think If we just let people know the facts, they will change – but this is not true. We think fear motivates change, but scaring people with regard to their addictions or their deeply rooted habits only casts a cloud of trembling gloom without producing change. We think force will make change happen – but try forcing an alcoholic not to drink, or a teenager to behave, or … well, fill in the blanks.

Deutschman has studied many programs that work, and interviewed experts in psychology and behavioral dynamics, and his “mission is to replace those three misconceptions about change (facts, fear and force)” with a new threesome, the 3 R’s: Relate, Repeat, Reframe.

Relate: “You form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. If you face a situation that a reasonable person would consider ‘hopeless,’ you need the influence of seemingly ‘unreasonable’ people to restore your hope – to make you believe that you can change and expect that you will chance. This is an act of persuasion – really, it’s ‘selling.’” This is why the inspirational hero, the caring mentor, and even a new community of positive folks around you will actually cause change to happen, change that can never happen without a dreamer who can believe in your future, without healthy relationships that foster growth.

Repeat: “The new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. It takes a lot of repetition over time before new patterns of behavior become automatic and seem natural… Change doesn’t involve just ‘selling’; it requires ‘training.’” Change takes practice, patience, something like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, acting as if you have changed perhaps before you’ve actually come to embrace change on the inside.

Reframe: “The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life. Ultimately, you look at the world in a way that would have been so foreign to you that it wouldn’t have made any sense before you changed. These are the three keys to change: relate, repeat, and reframe. New hope, new skills, and new thinking.”

Deutschman points to an interesting study that compared various therapeutical approaches in counseling – and as it turns out, they all work about the same! “The common denominator, it turned out, was that going to therapy inspired a new sense of hope for the patients… The key factor was the chemistry of the emotionally charged relationship formed by the patient and the therapist or the group, not the specific theories or techniques that differentiated the particular school of therapy.”

The Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco has an unbeatable track record when it comes to the reform of criminal and drug addicts. The secrets seem to be that inmates are given broad responsibility for the program; they are asked to lead – and from the beginning they are required to behave and dress as if they are professional people. As they begin to act in noble ways, the inner psyche catches up to the outward habits being practiced, and deep lasting change dawns.

Studying turnarounds in corporate America, Deutschman demonstrates that the 3 R’s work not just at the personal level. New thinking, new leadership, and new habits can revolutionize even disastrously dysfunctional businesses. Sometimes even past success can be a barrier to the new changes required for a new day; so change is the one constant! “When you’re locked into the mindset that helped you succeed, then it’s difficult even to think about the profound changes you’ll have to respond to. But if you practice change, if you keep up your ability to change, if you use it rather than lose it, then you’ll be ready to change whenever you have to.”

There are powerful barriers, always, to change. Denial: “When we find ourselves in seemingly intolerable situations and feel overwhelmed by tension, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness, or when the harsh realities of our lives threaten to crush our self-esteem, our minds unconsciously activate a number of powerful, built-in, automatic psychological strategies to help us cope. We shield ourselves from the threatening and humiliating facts. We banish the bad news from our conscious awareness. And who among us hasn’t been guilty, now and then, of Projection – blaming other people for our own faults? And does a day not go by before every one of us engages in Rationalization? But while our defense mechanisms are helpful in the short run – getting us through the day or the week – they block us from solving our persistent problems.”

Figuring out how to grapple with our past, and even pronounce our past a failure, can be paradoxically a self-defeating battle. Change “demands new explanations for a past that’s now cast in a darker light. The New Self has to come to terms with the Old Self. If it turns out that you can live as a sober, responsible, peaceful, and productive member of society, then why didn’t you live that way in the first place? One of the reasons we resist change, unconsciously at least, is that it invalidates years of earlier behavior.”

To make any progress, we need to recognize how essential it is to celebrate Short-term Wins: in corporations, in recovery programs, in marriages, in politics, “when organizations of all kinds try to change the habitual ways their members think, feel, and act, they need victories that nourish faith in the change effort, emotionally reward the hard workers, keep the critics at bay, and build momentum. Without sufficient wins that are visible, timely, unambiguous, and meaningful to others, change efforts invariably run into serious problems.”

And yet sometimes radical, big change must occur, given the complexities of small changes. Sometimes radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes “are sometimes easier for people than small, incremental ones. People who make moderate changes in their diets get the worst of both worlds: They feel deprived and hungry because they aren’t eating everything they want, but they aren’t making big enough changes to see an improvement in how they feel, or in measurements such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol.”

Then there is the principle that we change when we help others change. Studies have shown that therapy is “astonishingly therapeutic for the therapist…" At Delancey the convicts could develop self-respect from helping one another, even though their own knowledge and skills were limited.

All this syncs well with what we believe within Christianity about change.  Jesus never mailed out a bunch of scary facts and threatened people into change - although Jesus' churches have tried such tactics.  It's about relationships, and a stunningly marvelous vision, empowerment, trust - and yes, practice, developing new habits over time as we begin to become holy, children of God, followers of Christ.

Friday, September 9, 2011

10 Years after 9-11

   By noon on 9/11, a steady stream of people with a crazed mix of emotions, numb, panicky, teary, enraged, and confused, not knowing what else to do, showed up at churches like mine, even though it was a Tuesday. Much was said that week about God, sanctuaries were packed on Friday and again on Sunday – and now ten years have elapsed.

  I try to think of all that has transpired, what has changed, how we are different. We might have hoped America would rise up like a phoenix from the ashes into a grand new epoch of greatness. But the overwhelming emotion I read in my gut is simple, deep sadness. Let me reflect on the sadness, the acknowledgment of which might be the best way to rediscover hope.

   I know precisely where I heard the news, with whom I watched the unfolding horror, and the absolute urgency of needing to speak with and hug those I love but took for granted earlier that morning. A friend’s brother was in one of the towers: he phoned, said he was helping others to get out, and not to worry; we never heard from him again. 

We all felt helpless, watching the utter and devastating helplessness of the unrescuable; I wonder about the long-term paralyzing effects of these harrowing images etched in our souls.

   I could not sleep that week, and spent the wee hours in my children’s rooms, watching them sleep, grieving that they would grow up in such a violent world, praying for children I did not know by name whose parents had died in the attacks, or in efforts to rescue others.

   Ten years ago, national pride swelled, and some vow was made to rid the world of evil.  Ten years later, the economy is in shambles, and we are still mired in an unwinnable war (launched on the basis of dicey suspicions that proved to be wrong). Saddam and Osama are dead, but evil and violence still stalk the earth. The troubles of the world are so overwhelming we feel impotent, and don’t trust anybody any more.  And perhaps we are less willing than ever to ask hard moral questions about the way we pursue security.  We may be meaner than we were ten years ago; but if we are, it is because we are scared.

   I’m a bit embarrassed we've proven to be shallow people.  A decade ago this week, there was much talk about our unity as a nation, and that a great spiritual revival would sweep over our people. That marvelous feeling of unity lasted less than a month. Now the rage we should reserve for enemies in distant places is heaped on one another. We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us; politics is an embarrassment, and we have become a bitter, angry people.

   The hypothetical spiritual revival was even more short-lived. Attendance in worship boomed – for about a week. Now, if anything, religion has been discredited. Wasn’t it a crazed, twisted faith that motivated the killers? And who looks more foolish? Those who say God orchestrated the events to judge us? or those who’d naively believed God would always protect us?

   Where is the blessing from 9/11? If there’s a God, this deity isn’t a genie who shelters us but not others. If there’s a God, it must be a God who cares about all people, all countries, and until we think about a good God in all places, and the way that goodness in God can and should manifest itself through all religions, we will shrivel into permanently frightened, angry victims.

   As a country, we now know what all other countries have experienced through history. Perhaps knowing, we can sympathize, and not intimidate so much as befriend, and maybe move toward the forgiveness and reconciliation that are at the heart of our faiths. We’ve learned that the immense power we wield (as our military still dwarfs all other militaries combined) cannot insulate us from harm; perhaps we can learn to ask how our bigness might foster understanding and peace. Perhaps we renew our claim to the moral high ground.

   Where should 9/11 rank among the days? To me, 9/11 is like 12/7/41, or the day my grandfather died, or the day a tornado touched down and killed a friend, or a shooter rampaged through Virginia Tech – tragic days, solidly and thankfully in the past. Evil probably loves so much attention being lavished on such a dark, violent day. 
   More crucial, and hopeful world-changing days in the past for us Americans might be not 9/11 but 7/4, when the good of independence was declared, or 1/1/1863, when the unjustly enslaved were emancipated. My children’s birthdates merit pomp and circumstance, for they are days that celebrate life, not death. Is Ground Zero sacred ground – a place where evil pumped its fist? Or is it the labor & delivery room? Or our sanctuaries where we pray and hope? or the classroom where a student gets a bold idea?

   What dates changed history? Christians point to Easter, Jews to the Passover liberation from bondage in Egypt; other traditions have their sacred, life-giving days as well. A graduation?  A wedding?  These are days with a future, with hope and joyful optimism. After a decade of grieving, fear and anger, might our next decade become one of a revival of courage and hope? Can we shake off the numbness and come back to life, to be the people who’ve been knocked down but get back up, unified not by rage but by hope, the kinds of people envisioned by those who signed on 7/4, the noble who celebrate Easter, Passover, birthdays, weddings or graduations? We reached out for meaning and help, love and hope, on 9/11. Might the best memorial be a new reaching out, and forward? Perhaps we may hope this 9/11 that there is such a God who can open a new window of hope, and the phoenix of goodness does finally rise from the ashes.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mental Illness and Great Leadership

     Okay, so I enjoy the Colbert report far more than most sermons I hear (including my own).  In a recent episode, I giggled as Stephen Colbert interviewed an author – and I promptly ordered the book:  A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  This poor author, Nassir Ghaemi, not surprisingly was bested by Colbert (and gently criticized in The New York Times), but the book is wonderfully thought-provoking, and perhaps could prompt some intriguing discussion among religious professionals.

    Himself a psychiatrist (and specialist in mood disorders) who teaches at Tufts, Ghaemi explains with great clarity various dimensions of depression, mania, hyperthermia, neuroticism, and other mood disorders, and then assesses the way some of our most brilliant leaders – especially during times of crisis – have suffered from these at-times debilitating illnesses.  We may be familiar with Churchill’s “black dog,” or the intense darkness into which Lincoln would plunge, the overwhelming depression of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the near-suicidal bouts of agony endured by Gandhi, the scary symptoms exhibited by Gen. William Sherman, or the frantic mania of media mogul Ted Turner – not to mention the self-evident insanity of tyrants like Adolf Hitler.

     What we are unfamiliar with is Ghaemi’s best insight into the function of the suffering.  It is not that these titans overcame their illness, or managed to achieve much despite their illness.  Ghaemi persuasively illustrates the way depression fosters not just sympathy but realistic assessments, the way the manic can be energetic and creative when others are sunk in despair, the way survivors of inner torment develop a kind of resilience, without which leadership breaks down during times of duress. The sane, men like Neville Chamberlain or George W. Bush, simply do not have the stuff during a crisis; they do fine when all is running smoothly; but in times of peril and national distress, they simply cannot rise up and lead heroically, having never suffered much themselves.  For those who combat mental illness, darkness is not a strange land; horror is not an unfamiliar terrain.

     Can you say “theology of the cross”?  How many of the great saints, theologians and heroes through Church history might Ghaemi analyze and discern to be laden with mental illness?  Luther, surely; Francis, no doubt; Teresa of Avila, beyond question; and all those freakish ascetics like Simeon Stylies (squatting on a pillar for a few decades? Are you kidding?).  And what might this mean for ministry, and even for clergy evaluations (on which I wrote last month)?  Can we imagine a search committee pleased that a prospective pastor suffers bouts of depression?  Can we conceive of a day when a minister’s self-reported manic-depression would be cause for the people to think “Now we are on the verge of stellar leadership”?  Don’t we hide our darkness? and at best seek ultra-confidential support if something is awry in our heads?  We all know we all struggle internally, but isn’t there a game of pretend or obtuse optimism that, even if everybody else wages dreaded combat against mental issues, it is the clergy person who should be immune – or long since healed?

   Eugene Rogers (After the Spirit) wrote that the Spirit has so arranged things that our limitations are intended for our benefit.  Could it be that our darkness, our craziness, is not merely a burden to be overcome, but an actual gift of the Spirit to the Church? and not merely to those individuals among the Body who battle darkness, but actually the Church as the endangered institution that is is?  If the Church is indeed in its own “dark night” (as Elaine Heath wisely claims in The Mystic Way of Evangelism), don’t we need the unstable, those who have barely hung on by a thread, women and men who’ve been to the abyss to lead, for the unromanticized and terrifying but yet peculiarly hopeful gifts of inner pain to be used for the benefit of God’s Church?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Knowledge, Learning and God

     Knowledge is underrated these days – in at least three ways, and all three are of profound important for the Christian enterprise.
     We hear all the time that what you know doesn’t matter so much as what you do. But how is action driven by knowledge, or perspective, or viewpoint? Isn’t knowledge the springboard, the impetus for behavior? If we had more solid thought, wouldn’t our action be more purposeful, and anchored in something meaningful, instead of mere frenetic busy-ness (even in the name of God)?

     In our society, knowledge is reduced to a the lowly status of a means to an end. We get an education – but why? To get a good job, to make money, to get ahead. But once upon a time, knowledge was simply good. To know a fact from history wasn’t potentially valuable; it was itself of great value. If we know something, our minds are then close to God, for God knows history, all that has happened; God knows science, how things work and why they are as they are (since, after all, God made all things); God is the ultimate mind, and when we know, we are close to God.

     Who gave you your brain? God gave us minds whose potential we barely tap. I think God wants us to learn, to know, to be aware, to believe truth matters, to sift through the garbage of chatter and get to the marrow of things. God wants us not to think as the political cranks wish for us to think, all ideology and no fact; God wants us to think deeply, factually, but with wisdom, and perspective – to see what God sees, to understand as God understands.

     Some foolishly think knowledge is at odds with God - that faith is somehow anti-intellectual, or the abandonment of thinking.  God is puzzled, and saddened by this misconception.  God wants more knowledge, always, for truth is at the very heart of God.

     We can’t say I’m too old, or I already know what I need to know. We learn all the time; it may be news of heat in the Midwest, or that a FB friend’s kitten did something cute (with photos supplied); it may be a new conviction you’ve come to after listening to a pundit, or politician, or perhaps Steven Colbert. What am I learning? And from whom? Whom do I trust as teacher? Political ideologues? Novels? My neighbor, or coworker (after a few cocktails)? Jesus invites us to be attentive to what we know, what we focus upon, what we soak up, and why what matters actually matters to us – and if any of what we know brings us closer to God, or makes us wiser.

     Finally, knowledge changes things. Dictators and muckrackers want to shelter us from facts; they prefer we buy into their ideological hysteria. When we know, we understand; when we know, we cut through the nonsense that becomes idolatry and misleads us into bogus behavior and prejudicial judgment. If we know others, we know their foibles, but we also see the image of God in the other person; social psychologists teach us that “familiarity breeds liking” (not contempt). When we know the hard facts, we are motivated to act, to demand things not stay the way they are. We wake up, we now know.

     Jesus didn’t call do-gooders or piety specialists. He called “disciples,” and the word means “students.” Jesus as the teacher, and we are the students, and not just in Sunday School when we are seven years old. Lifelong learning, a quest to plumb the depths of the very soul of God, to think God’s thoughts ever more clearly, to adopt the divine perspective on whatever we perceive in our lives and in the world.

     Nothing is more important for you, for me, and for the future of humanity, than learning. And so we sign up, we embrace some curriculum, not because it is perfect, but because it is there, it is our best chance at knowledge, at mimicking the mind of Christ.

     Our Church, like many churches, offers the marvelous, intriguing, informative set of programs under the banner of Disciple. But we have much more – and even the stuff we put online, emails, YouTubes, and much more, are trustworthy projects to help all of us, together, to know God, and to know what God knows, and to value what God values.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reason for Education?

     My son Noah and I have been visiting colleges, touring the likes of Jefferson's University of Virginia and the new surprise near the top of his list, the University of Richmond, schools with teams I've cheered against for years (University of Georgia? and will I really pay a nickel for him to set foot in Chapel Hill?), schools I attended (Duke, University of South Carolina)... and while we're enjoying making the rounds, we're getting a bit bored, as the information sessions led by some admissions staffer, and the campus tours, led by an enthusiastic student, all sound alike.  Everybody has special groups for freshmen, flexibility in choosing your major, no rush until 2nd semester, rapid response from campus security, meal cards and stellar food, accessible professors, intramural sports, countless clubs (and you can start your own if you'd like!), and every students has tremendous fun... blah blah blah.  Good stuff, but I may lead the next tour, on some campus I've never even seen before.  I really could do it.

     What is most startling is the hype, the braggadocio - and not just the sales pitch, but what the presenters know will sell.  All this may strike you as obvious - which is why I'm writing this blog.  Every school touts their business school, great jobs on the back side of graduation, internships, contacts in the business world, and rankings, rankings, rankings.  Every school is #3 or #11 in business, or earnings for their grads, or in med school admissions.  When they ask, Are there any questions? I find myself wanting to say Tell me 4 things this school does poorly...

     Actually, I'm more curious about what happened to old-timey notions of what education was for.  Aristotle, and most deep thinkers until the past century, would have said the purpose of learning is something like Wisdom.  Eleanor Roosevelt said the purpose of education was to become a good citizen.  For centuries, knowledge was precious in and of itself, like gold - not because it would earn you some gold, but because it was itself the treasure. 
     Knowledge is good - but wait, that was the motto of Faber College in Animal House, where Bluto, Otter and the other Deltas party raucously - but then, even though they made a mockery of their education, most became grand successes in the world post-Faber. 

     Certainly I want my son to get a degree so he can get a job.  And I want him to have great fun, and make lifelong friends during college.  But shouldn't college be the time you explore the deepest questions, and gain a fair amount of depth yourself?  Shouldn't college be a time to learn, not to get some loot when we're done, but simply to know, and to cherish that we have a grasp of history, science, philosophy, literature, the arts, old rocks, simply because human civilization is nothing less than all the accumulation of such knowledge gathered together?  Shouldn't education help us to be good? and thus good citizens? and people with insight?  Might it be that as we go deep into knowledge and wisdom we might wind up earning less money, and find ourselves ranked not at the top of a Forbes survey, but in some lowly place with humble or needy people?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter - It All Ends for Parents Too

The other day, my children and I walked past a Harry Potter movie poster that said, assuming we’d know the film title and history, simply “It All Ends 7/15.” My son observed that he had, quite literally, grown up with Harry Potter, and so he has. From the first film, during which I had to carry him from the theater, so terrified was he by the chess scene, to the last, when he was old enough to drive himself to a midnight showing, Harry, Dumbledore, Voldemort and company have been prominent figures in our lives. I offered to go, in costume, with him and his friends. He laughed, I laughed – and felt some curious mix of silliness, rich memory, and maudlin sadness.

With Harry, we got a head start on many people. Friends from Great Britain had a copy of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, with its pricetag listed as 2£ - and recommended it enthusiastically. I read it aloud to my daughters (the last book we would ever read out loud together!), and then purchased one of the first copies of the American hardback, with its oddly changed title, Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter landed in my sermons. The duly famous “Mirror of Erised” scene: in the inner recesses of Hogwarts, Harry discovers a mysterious mirror, featuring the words, Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi, which is quite simply I show not your face but your heart’s desire backwards. Dumbledore explains that this mirror shows us, not what we want, but “nothing more or less than the deepest and most desperate desire of our hearts.” I placed a lovely wooden floor length mirror at the front of the nave, positioned so that when worshippers came up for Holy Communion they would catch a glimpse of themselves being handed a piece of bread.

My deepest desire probably would have been for J.K. Rowling to stop writing books, and for no more movies to be made, and for my children to stay young, in those glorious moments when parents and children share the sound of stories, having climbed into a bed together, and when children, when frightened, bury their heads on their father’s shoulder. I lost track of Harry Potter after the third book, and have seen some but not all the films. My children began reading them, and going to movies, on their own, or with friends.

This is, of course, the way of the earth, and I am happy they have grown up with tales of good versus evil, where children make mistakes and yet have magical powers and understand the battle for the good, and exhibit considerable courage. A minister friend, of a very different denomination, went public with his rage against Harry Potter. I tried to talk with him, and he shouted that the popular books and films were creating wizards and sorcerers. I explained to him that my children loved Harry Potter but, try as they might, they could never get a broom to respond to the command, “Up!” 

But my children though have grown Up! 
That mirror of Erised doesn’t predict the future, but it does give a bit of a glimpse into the past. Harry sees his deceased parents – and as I gaze into it, now that “It All Ends,” I think of the ending of a childhood, or three actually, and wonder if, when all is said and done, I might be the man Dumbledore described: “The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself, exactly how he is." Or perhaps see himself, with his children, their ages a bit blurry now, the desire a grand memory to be cherished, and never forgotten.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day and Sunday morning

   So, after receiving hundreds of emails and Facebook posts in response to my conversation-starter about how to think about Memorial Day on a Sunday morning in worship, I came up with this sermon - and it seems to me that after 30 years of dancing around or oversimplifying things, this is a fair, theologically robust approach.  I'd love for you to watch/listen (click here), and let me know what you think.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Disturbing Attendance Trends

When denominational authorities toss out the word “metrics,” I get very nervous, and I detect a morale crusher for clergy serving faithfully in daunting parishes. But I do find myself caring about numbers. The fact that we count bugs a few folks, but I like to say I would far rather than 1,483 instead of 1,482 in worship, because it’s the one, who counts.

Here is the most disturbing numerical trend I’ve noticed over the past decade. But first, a couple of good numbers to establish context. I believe a reasonable measure of a congregation’s health is attendance at high holy, non-Sunday worship moments. A major goal of mine in the four parishes I’ve served has been heightening the importance of Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. In the parish where I serve, attendance at these has quadruped over the past decade. I hate braggadocio attached to such numbers – but as these are sorrowful, penitential days, there’s no real triumphalism in this claim. People have gotten more interested in the Theology of the Cross, and I’d count that as a positive metric.

During this same decade, our membership is higher, and attendance at Easter (when even Donald Trump attends Church wherever he is) has climbed upward more than 50%. So here’s the distressing, deeply troubling numbers. The so-called “low Sundays” (the Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after Christmas, the Sunday after school lets out) have seen, during this decade of growth, astonishing shrinkage. Our Sunday after Christmas attendance has shriveled, gradually, by about 60% over the past 10 years. July and early August numbers are drifting downwards, and noticeably.

What about Mother’s Day? When I first entered the ministry 30 years ago, Mother’s Day rivaled Easter: packed houses, immense enthusiasm. But here we crossed an intriguing threshold six years ago: Mother’s Day, for the past 6 years, has had fewer in attendance than either the first or third Sundays in May.

I wonder if other clergy can corroborate such utterly unscientific but accurate enough metrics. What does it mean when the genuinely optional Sundays (as opposed to Easter, which is mandatory even for pagans) create a yawn, or a fishing or golf junket? What does it mean when Mother’s Day, when Church once was simply part and parcel of honoring Mother, becomes a seizable opportunity to relax by the pool or head to the coast? What if summer, for increasing numbers of our folks, becomes a vacation from worship? Even an uptick on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday: this self-evident measure of spiritual progress might be an illusion – as those coming might be seeking a kind of temporary fix, getting into the “experience” of Holy Week, which is a far cry from actually making constant worship as basic to life as breathing.

I know wiser people than I counter, saying people may not attend so much, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care. I know people are downloading sermons on their iPods. But if a growing Church, which can corral big crowds some of the time, witnesses a lackluster commitment over the long haul, what does this mean for the ongoing life of the Church? I have no good answers for these questions, but quite a few gloomy ones.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conducting Beethoven's 6th

What a treat: today we drove to hear the marvelous Winston-Salem Symphony perform Beethoven's 6th symphony. I'm positive no one in the room enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. When I was a little boy, for some reason, we owned an album of the lovely "Pastoral" symphony, and I listened to it (why?) over and over, until I knew every note. I would stand in my basement, put the needle to the vinyl, and begin conducting my imaginary orchestra, small flicks of the wrist for the soft moments, grand gestures for the booming crescendos.
When I saw the brilliant maestro, Robert Moody, guiding the orchestra, I could have sworn he had to have been peeping through a window in my childhood home. What a thrill it was seeing and hearing, live! for the very first time, this music I have loved for nearly five decades. I saw the violins, and the crucial woodwinds, and noticed the crowd thrilling to the music.
Music imprints something profound on the soul, resurrecting memories, pointing us toward the sublime, instilling gratitude and a swelling of hope. I wish I had words to explain the joy, the emotion - but this would be like summarizing the meaning of a poem in a single sentence, or explaining a painting. It's a symphony, one that has stood the test of time, and this one even passed the notoriously daunting kid test: a child fell in love, and remembered, and finally saw.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Homosexuality and Ordination

Like everyone with a pulse, I've been interested to read what the Presbyterians are doing with respect to ordination and homosexuality - and am getting peppered with questions about us Methodists. The polity differs in an interesting way: a Presbytery can say Gays can be ordained, but Presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. In Methodism, if we ordain anyone, that person might become the minister of any Church. So Methodists, predictably, are... more nervous? about such decisions.

We also have debated this every 4 years, and will again next year; the usual outcome is a majority wish to uphold the traditional stance of not accepting homosexuality as a blessed lifestyle, and not ordaining homosexuals. When we did this in 2008, I tried to guide through what I thought was a productive way out of the impasse: to declare that we quite simply disagree on the matter. This was defeated by a 54-46% margin - which left us in the peculiar position of, by a small majority, saying we don't disagree??

Here is my odd thought, and I don't know of anyone else who has made this case: the issue of ordination is totally different from the question of whether we accept homosexuality in general - and I certainly don't mean we might accept homosexuality in general but not ordain. To me, ordination is about God calling someone into holy vocation - so who are we to say God can't call, or hasn't called, or will not call, anybody into ministry? Ordination is the recognition of God's claim on someone for a holy vocation, which isn't about a preference of partners or a lifestyle. To debate lifestyle choices seems like something we ought to do. But to question whom God might call into ministry?

In the Bible, God seems to use all sorts of people, because God quite simply wants to use them. Who am I to say God didn't call someone into this ministerial vocation?
If any of you reading have any thoughts on this notion of the separation of the question of ordination from that of sexual preference in general, I'd love to continue the conversation.

Monday, May 2, 2011

cheering bin Laden's fall?

I was a minute from falling asleep when Lisa said “Osama bin Laden is dead.” My mind raced to process this. Was he found dead in some remote place? We switched on the news, and the details began to reveal a stunning story. Some swirl of emotions were touched off in me. Finally!

But I (perhaps alone…) was a little bit puzzled, and then mortified, to see my fellow citizens swiftly taking to the streets, shouting, waving flags, pumping fists… and I wanted to text each one of them to say “No, no, stay home, be quiet.” I think, like everyone else, I am disturbed, and frankly a bit fearful, when I see news video from other countries, and a rabid throng is shouting approval for some terrorist act, for the downfall of some American citizen/soldier. Somehow I want us to be different, not to match evil cheer for cheer, but to be humble in the face of death.

Yet I do not yet know what to think. Maybe the wise take a few days to let the news settle in, to reflect, and only then to respond. Yes, evil must be kept in check if at all possible; brave Navy SEALS apprehended a criminal - which had to be done. After 9/11, I agreed with those who said it isn’t so much a war on some vague “terror” out there; rather we are faced with criminal activity which must be dealt with. And we have also seen the face of sin, revolt against God, who is not pleased with terrorism.

I noticed a quick Facebook post just minutes after the news broke. Lots of people were typing in various Bible verses about victory over evil – but this post quoted Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” Is that right? I think of the old rabbi who was asked if the angels in heaven celebrated the drowning of Pharaoh and his chariots in the sea when Israel escaped, and he said No, they wept.

Christians, and frankly all sane people, have no cause to be sympathetic with Osama bin Laden. But the wave of glee seems a bit out of kilter for followers of Jesus, just not the right mood somehow. Good: justice was done – but I’m feeling quiet, humbled, grieving if anything over the past decades of so much anger and loss of life across this planet associated with bin Laden. I guess I’m realizing the craziness of the world, the tense rage that afflicts this planet that gave rise to Osama bin Laden, is still out there.

So I wish we could just be still, and pray, and wait for wisdom. Heroic soldiers did their duty; but it’s not a sporting event, it’s a moment of the specter of death in a chilling history of human sorrow. I can’t see cheering, but maybe that’s just my weirdness, and after a few days of tossing these events around, I’ll wave a flag and holler for a while.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

How wonderful of Miroslav Volf, a native of Croatia, distinguished author and professor of theology at Yale, and friend of Christian and Muslim thinkers around the world, to write such a thoughtful, helpful book: Allah: A Christian Response. Understanding from personal experience and astute observation all that is at stake in the conversation between Islam and Christianity, and grasping why it breaks down most of the time, Volf declares that his book “is about the extraordinary promise contained in the proper Christian response to the God of Muslims for easing animosities and overcoming conflicts.”

Acknowledging what many in the public may not realize – that “most conflicts between Muslims and Christians are not of a strictly religious nature,” that much of the violence is about oil, politics, rage, economics, and race – Volf notes that religion does play an important role in what’s tense in our world. Holy sites pose problems, as do evangelistic efforts by both parties, and legal and moral issues in places where Muslims and Christians live side by side.

Volf’s primary question is: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” His firm, and brilliantly fathomed answer, is Yes. And he isn’t a simplistic pundit blandly declaring that all paths to God are valid, or that all religions are really the same. He writes as one of Christianity’s wisest, most faithful theologians, who embraces classical, orthodox expressions of the faith. He also doesn’t allow that extremist versions of Islam or of Christianity speak for the faiths as a whole. Let me restate some of his argument with some block quotations:

“Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God… What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today… Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, describe God as loving and just… The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship – the one and only God – commands that we love our neighbors… Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together… Christians should see Muslims, who give ultimate allegiance to God as the supreme good, as allies in resisting the tendency in contemporary culture to see mere pleasure, rather than justice and love, as the hallmark of the good life… What matters is whether you love God with all your heart.”
Some common distinctions observers make between Islam and Christianity turn out to be off the mark. The idea of Christianity as “reasonable” and Islam are “pure will” is faulty. Islam’s God, Allah, has many names, none of which permit a capricious, sheer violence; Allah’s names include the Merciful, the Just, the Seeing, the Hearing, the Knowing, the Loving, and the Gentle. We see in Islam “the self-binding of God to mercy, justice, truth, and reason.”
Volf muses on the two greatest commandments as Jesus Christ formulated them in the Gospels. Muslims need some convincing that Christians believe in just one God; Christians need some convincing that Islam is about love of God and neighbor. He strives to explain the true unity in the often-misunderstood doctrine of the Trinity, and in the divinity of Jesus. Regarding Islamic love, Volf reminds his readers the “only a minuscule fraction of 1.6 billion Muslims are suicide terrorists and only a small minority of Muslims approve of their acts… Normative Islam condemns suicide as well as the killing of innocent.” Citing the Qur’an and many Islamic theologians, Volf concludes: “Like Christianity, Islam is a religion of love. Indeed, many Muslims might even argue that in practice Islam is much more a religion of love than Christianity because, over the course of its history, they believe, it has been less violent than Christianity… When some Christians, for instance, insist that Muslims worship a violent deity bent on war whereas they worship the God of love, this may be true with regard to a specific group of Muslims (say, the takfiris and the jihadists). But this is not true with regard to the God of the Qur’an as interpreted by the great Muslim teachers throughout history.”
As a footnote to his lengthy case that Islam is a religion of love, Volf does allow a slight distinction: “Christians affirm unequivocally that God commands people to love even their enemies. As God loves the ungodly, we should love our enemies. Though Muslims insist that we should be kind to all, including those who do us harm, most reject the idea that the love of neighbor includes the love of enemy.”

So do we believe in the same God? Obviously what we believe about God has similarities, and yet differences. Volf points out that “we don’t need to subscribe to identical descriptions of God to be referring to the same object.” Quite obviously, “Muslim and Christian descriptions of God are clearly not “completely identical.” But Volf, probing whether we focus on differences or similarities, asks where our hearts are: “Those who take the ‘differences’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in wrongdoing. Those who take the ‘commonalities’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth.”
What do we have in common? Many things, as it turns out. “The oneness of God (tawhid) is the principle at the very heart of Islam – and Christianity, once we grasp the essence of the Trinity. God is good in God’s own being and beneficent toward creatures. As it turns out, Christians and Muslims agree on this. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). In the Hadith (authentic sayings of Muhammad): “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”
We begin to notice “quite a few things on which we agree: 1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being, 2. God created everything that is not God, 3. God is radically different from everything that is not god, 4. God is good, 5. God commands that we love God with our whole being, 6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.”
What about language? “Should Christians reject ‘Allah’ as a term for God?...They should not. ‘Allah’ is simply Arabic for ‘God’… Thus all Arabic Christian Bible translations of John 3:16 say, ‘For Allah so loved the world…”
Volf tries to answer common Muslim objections to Christianity – such as the idea that God might “beget” a son. “The issue here is the meaning of the word ‘begotten,’ not the substance of our understanding of God. Christians do not think of ‘begetting’ when applied to God as a physical act…. The divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity)? Moreover, ‘begetting’ in God does not result in an offspring spatially distinct or in any way independent from God, a godlike being or another god. ‘Begetting’ is a metaphor used to express the idea that the Word, which was from eternity with God, is neither a creature nor some sort of lesser divinity...” “Christians reject worshipping Christ or anyone else in place of God… The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews… The beliefs of some Christians can be contrary to what Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers advocate… In statements that address the doctrine of the Trinity, the Qur’an may well be targeting the beliefs of such Christians, for what the Qur’an rejects in this regard, Christians ought to reject as well.”
Volf urges Muslims, and Christians, to remember “how different God is from any creature, how profoundly mysterious God is…but also beyond numbers. ‘One’ and ‘three’ do not apply to God the way they apply to human beings or to any other thing in the world… God’s oneness is not such that God is one more in any numerable series whatever. God is not one thing among many other things in the universe…”
In all these matters, Volf makes a careful distinction between the God in which we believe and the way we understand, describe, or worship that God. We do not often reflect on Christianity and Judaism when thinking of Christianity and Islam – but Volf correctly reminds us that “the New Testament writers, mostly Jews, assumed consistently that the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God of their fellow Jews was the very same God they worshipped… The debate with Jews was about how to describe God properly…and how to worship God truly… The debate with Jews was never whether Jews and Christians worshipped the same God.”
Within Christianity, there has been and is intense disagreement about how to speak of God. Volf roams through the annals of history, assessing Sabellius’s God, Arius’s God, Athanasius’s God, Luther’s God… all of whom differ even in crucial respects, yet we never have thought they were describing different Gods, or even an idol or a false God. “The debates were not about which god was the true God, but which description of the one true God was correct. I suggest that we understand the debates between Muslims and Christians about the nature of God in a similar way. They are about how to describe truthfully the one God in whom both believe.”

Volf’s largest interest is in us learning to coexist peacefully on this planet. He calmly suggests that “if Christians and Muslims (along with other religions) are to live under the same roof, it is important for them to affirm political pluralism and not just democracy… The world God created is one as well, the defenders of monotheism rightly insist… A single unifying truth binds all human beings, and the same demands of justice apply equally to all.”
Volf believes we can be passionate about our own faith, even downright evangelical about it, and still coexist peacefully with those of another faith who also are passionate and evangelical. “Some Muslims and Christians are committed religious pluralists. Most of them, however, are religious exclusivists… Can religions exclusivists be political pluralists, however?... I mean the view that all religions, though not considered to be equally true by those who embrace them, are equally welcome in a given nation or state. A state like Britain, for instance, where Christianity is an established religion, may prefer one religion to all others for historical or practical reasons and yet give full freedom to others and seek to be impartial toward them within these constraints. From my perspective, such a state would count as politically pluralistic… It is an uncontested fact that many Christian and Muslim religious exclusivists endorse the impartiality of the state toward all religions and the right of each to engage in public debates… Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim socioreligious organization (with over 40 million members)… avowedly pro-democracy and pro-pluralism.”
There is a message Christians need to hear: “The church is not the church of any nation or people. For both Christians and Muslims, God is not a tribal deity; since God is one, God is never ‘our’ God as opposed to ‘their’ God. If possessive pronouns are appropriate at all, ‘our’ God is as much ‘theirs’ as ‘ours.’ Both Muslims and Christians agree that their common God is just and merciful and requires human beings to be just and merciful in all their dealings.
Volf even speculates about the way to discourage extremism – in Islam or Christianity. “Extremism thrives where reasoned debate about important issues of public concern is absent… Religious truth claims, like any other truth claims, invite counterclaims and encourage public debate. Respectful debate about the truth claims of religious groups is one of the best antidotes against religiously motivated or legitimized violence. Acknowledgment of a common God: For Muslims and Christians each to worship a different God would mean that one group is made up of idolaters while the other worships the true God… Adherence to the command to love neighbors… a stand against prejudice: Prejudice and demonization are forms of falsehood… We don’t need to agree with the views of Muslims; we just need to be civil rather than mean-spirited as we disagree.”

Volf's deft negotiation of unity and difference, otherness and sameness, is consistent with his earlier work for which he has become duly famous. In this case, his generous but rigorous assessment of the connections and differences between Christianity and Islam help us know ourselves and others better, and might stand a chance at bringing a little peace...