Friday, May 28, 2010

Religions 1910-2010

The May/June issue of New World Outlook, the mission magazine of The United Methodist Church, had a fascinating brief article comparing religious affiliation around the world in 1910 and 2010. In that one hundred year period, the percentage of the world’s population that proclaims they are Christian has remained about the same 34.8% in 1910 compared to 33.2% in 2010. I know from other sources that there has been a shift in where Christians are to be found, but the relative number of Christians has remained about the same. Islam, on the other hand, has grown tremendously as a percentage of the world’s population in the past one hundred years, from 12.6% in 1910 to 22.4% in 2010. I know some people who seem to equate numerical growth with what God is “blessing” in the world. By that thinking, Islam would seem to be the religion God is blessing most. To my mind, such thinking represents neither good theology nor good sociology. As a pastor, I pay attention to numbers. They matter, but I also know that the factors that influence one’s religious journey are complex. We need a more complex theology, sociology and psychology to dig more deeply into why people become religious adherents and stay or leave their respective religion. What seems even more ironic, for those who might claim in some simple way that numbers represent what God is blessing, by sheer exponential mathematics, the group that has grown the most is agnostics. Just .2% of the population in 1910, they are now 9.3% of the population – 46.5 times as many agnostics in 2010 as in 1910!
But those numbers are not what grabbed my attention most. Notice from the above figures that between Christianity (33.2%) and Islam (22.4%), over half of human kind considers itself either Christian or Muslim. So why is our world such a mess? Why so much war, such deep injustice? Why so many hungry and homeless? Some Christians may say that we are only a third of the population, and if only we grew the world would be better. Some Muslims might say something similar about Islam. Rather than compete with each other, though, might we do better to find those parts of our respective traditions which encourage mutual respect (even while offering witness to our own faith), which enjoin us to build a better world with whomever might join us on this journey? If we fail to do this, we may find the number of agnostics growing even more in the next one hundred years.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, May 22, 2010


Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d lie on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.

“The Beginning of Poetry” Edward Hirsch, The Living Fire

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

From “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” William Carlos Williams

In the first two weeks of May I attended two poetry readings – one given by Robert Bly and the other a joint reading offered by Minnesota poets Connie Wanek and Joyce Sutphen. That I was free both these evenings was something of a miracle. That I could attend these readings was a gift of grace.
I first fell in love with poetry in high school. Words seem to have a certain power, a certain magic and when put together rhythmically and beautifully they plunged deep into my soul. My love affair with poetry waxed and waned over the years, but became intense again as I worked on my doctorate. The PBS series, Voices and Visions came out during that time, and watching it, hearing poems read – Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, others - rekindled a deeper passion that has stayed lit since. Reading poetry has feed my soul, sparked my imagination, ignited my mind, set my heart to dancing. Reading poetry has helped me enormously in my reading of the Bible which is filled with so much poetic language. The brevity of parables has a poetic quality.
And so I read. And so I listen.

To live without rotting from within,
to ignore imperfections of the skin,
to be heavy, and still be chosen,
to please a strict vegetarian,
to end the day full of light.

From “Pumpkin” Connie Wanek, On Speaking Terms

What you wanted was no less than the truth,
something you could hold lightly in your hand.

What you found was this uncertainty,
memory mixed with desire. How we live.

From “How We Live” Joyce Sutphen, First Words

And so I read. And so I listen. And I am changed.

Rene Char
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs,
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts,
let all men believe it
as you have taught me also
to believe it.

From “To a Dog Injured In the Street” William Carlos Williams, Pictures from Brueghel

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Poetry helps me be there.

And the Word became flesh… full of grace and truth. And the grace and truth that became flesh can become word again, often in the words of poets.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gathering Up the Years

At that moment, you gather
up the years like a shawl
and wrap yourself in them,
one corner touching another.

Joyce Sutphen, “How You Learn”

This past Thursday night I attended a poetry reading, the second in as many weeks – a gift of grace. The poets were Connie Wanek and Joyce Sutphen. I was working out some thoughts for a brief essay on poetry for this blog, but then something else occurred which touched me even more deeply. I will return to the essay on poetry soon.
On Friday afternoon, I attended a graduation ceremony for our son, David. David has completed his Master’s degree in Advocacy and Political Leadership from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. When the program was created it was the first of its kind in the nation.
Listening to the program director, the University Chancellor, two UMD honorary degree recipients – a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican, helped me realize what a special program David has been involved with. Listening as the students talked about each other, helped me realize what a unique community he has been involved with. Listening to one of his fellow students describe him filled me with pride and joy. A son who emerged into the world six weeks before he was supposed to, spent his first three weeks in the hospital, has grown into a wonderful human person. The years were gathered like a shawl, and we wrapped ourselves in them, one corner touching another.
As a parent, one hopes that you give your children a solid foundation on which to build a life. When they accomplish something special, you hope you contributed something to that, and you know that they have also done a lot on their own. Julie and I are proud of each of our children. Friday was a wonderful day to celebrate David. Congratulations, son.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 7, 2010

Robinson and Bly (sounds like a law firm!)

So we had traces of snow in March – very unusual for Duluth, and no snow in April, also unusual. Today, May 7, it snowed over four inches. Earlier in the week I had thought I might get the lawn mower ready to roll tomorrow. Guess not!
Well if snow was an unwelcome event in my life, I have had two very pleasant and welcomed events this past week. Two authors whose works I’ve read and enjoyed were in town, and my schedule actually allowed me to hear them both. Last Saturday night Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist lectured at the College of St. Scholastica. Tuesday evening, the poet Robert Bly read at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. I have had the joy of hearing him before, at Southern Methodist University while I was working on my Ph.D.
Robinson’s lecture was rich, densely rich. I would have been glad to have a manuscript to follow along, but the basic theme was arguing against what she views as reductionistic and “scientistic” views of humanity which don’t really account for the wonder and mystery that is human existence. She is out with a new book, based on the Terry Lectures at Yale, and entitled Absence of Mind. Her lecture seems an extension of that book, as best I can tell, not having read it all yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from that work.
Recently I read to a class of young writers a passage from Emerson’s “The American Scholar” in which he says, “In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time, - happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly…. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” These words caused a certain perturbation. The self is no longer assumed to be a thing to be approached with optimism, or to be trusted to see anything truly. Emerson is describing the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood, a privilege foreclosed when the mind is trivialized or thought to be discredited. (xvii-xviii)
Might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change as well? If my metaphor only suggests the possibility that our species is more than an optimized ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are. (135)
Robinson wants to make greater room in our current intellectual and cultural space for the mystery that we humans are. Poetry helps explore that mystery, too, deepening it. A favorite Robert Bly poem of mine, one that has not found its way into most of his selected works, comes from his early book Silence in the Snowy Fields (and how appropriate for this day in Duluth!).

Afternoon Sleep

I was descending from the mountains of sleep.
Asleep I had gazed east over a sunny field,
And sat on the running board of an old Model A.
I awoke happy, for I had dreamt of my wife,
And the loneliness hiding in grass and weeds
That lies near a man over thirty, and suddenly enters.

When Joe Sjolie grew tired, he sold his farm,
Even his bachelor rocker, and did not come back.
He left his dog behind in the cob shed.
The dog refused to take food from strangers.

I drove out to that farm when I awoke;
Alone on a hill, sheltered by trees.
The matted grass lay around the house.
When I climbed the porch, the door was open.
Inside were old abandoned books,
And instructions to Norwegian immigrants.

Sleep, dreams, sex, loneliness, age, death, books – the human mystery indeed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Traveling and Reading

I spent much of this past week on Portland attending a meeting of the United Methodist Commission on General Conference. I serve on the Commission and on the Rules Committee. I enjoy the people and appreciate the work.
The trip to Portland is a rather long one, and a benefit of long trips like this is the time they afford for reading – the time in the airport waiting, the time on the plane, and a little time in the evenings. My reading for the week was eclectic, as I like it.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood was first on the list. A reading group I convene is reading this novel. While I have owned a copy for awhile (it must be “for awhile” – the price on the cover is $2.95!), I had never read it. O’Connor, in an introductory note written ten years after the novel was first published in 1952 calls it a “comic novel,” and so it is, but darkly comic. The chief protagonist, Hazel Motes is a person haunted by Jesus and Christian faith. O’Connor writes in her introductory note: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death had been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” That illuminating introduction ends with these words: “Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery, and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.” Having read the novel, I was a little haunted myself, by the mystery of O’Connor’s work. So I read a couple of her short stories, packaged with the novel – “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” I look forward to discussing O’Connor’s work with others, to see if they too were haunted a bit.
I finished Wise Blood on the trip to Portland and brought only one other book along, a slim volume entitled Psychoanalysis and Moral Values by Heinz Hartmann. Hartmann’s essay seeks to describe “the complexities of moral reality which every application of moral principles has to consider” (19). The book is insightful, but after a strong dose of O’Connor, I was looking for something a little lighter, at least for a time.
Thankfully, the hotel I was staying at was near a bookstore, and this being spring, a good baseball book seemed like a wonderful idea. So I bought and read George Vecsey’s Baseball: a history of America’s favorite game. It was a delightful read, but not removed from the mysteries of freedom and morality. Baseball, being “America’s game” has mirrored some of the beauty and ugliness of our land. There is beauty in this game – wonder that humans create games at all, beauty in the combination of team and individual effort that is baseball, beauty in the history of the game and some of its legendary characters. But baseball has suffered under anti-Semitism, and more especially, racism. Vecsey hides none of this, and his chapter on Jackie Robinson reminded me of the enormous courage of that graceful and determined man.
I am also working my way through the Bible again, and found myself in both Luke and Ezra – an eclectic combination in itself - - - the power of Jesus presence, the hope as exiles return.
Life cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery which eclectic reading deepens, and for that I am grateful.

With Faith and With Feathers,