Wednesday, December 10, 2008

APOSTLES OF FEAR

Christians, says the famous cop-out, 'are not perfect, just forgiven'.
But some imperfect Christians have a higher profile, and their evil is
more sinister, than others'.

Of course such imperfections/evil are not confined to one branch of
Christ's Church. Catholic bishops moving predatory priests from one
parish to another; the Exclusive Brethren's nasty habit of breaking up
families; the Presbyterian-based Melbourne cult 'The Fellowship' doing
the same [1]... the list goes on.

Morag's is the second book I've read about the malpractices of some
Australian Pentecostal leaders. The other: Barry Chant's 'Heart of Fire'
(1973, 1984, 1998). Barry has been, and Morag will be, vilified for
their exposes. My response in principle: the more whistleblowers of
their ilk, the better.

'Apostles of Fear' traces the sordid history of a cult-like Pentecostal
movement, whose churches (Melbourne Christian Fellowship, Brisbane
Christian Fellowship, et. al.) attracted people via promises of
doctrinal certainty (what, you haven't heard of 'Latter Rain'?), an
infallible route to Christian 'perfection', and their appealing music.

'Cults' as we're using the term here, are religious groups whose leaders
make concerted efforts at influence and control of their adherents.
Members, former members, and supporters of cults are manipulated,
exploited, or even abused. The followers zealously adhere to the
leaders' belief system: no dissent is allowed. The leadership dictates,
sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. The
group works hard to protect itself from all the evils in the outside
world, or emanating from other groups. [2]

One of the key founders of Immanuel/Christian Fellowship Churches, Ray
Jackson, had the misfortune to have succumbed in a big way to all three
of the classical evils - abuses of money, sex, and power. Morag
interviewed people 'in the know' who claimed that Jackson probably paid
no taxes, and had a habit of carrying around large amounts of money in
paper bags. I have heard first-hand accounts of his and others' sexual
predations. He and his co-leaders mastered the art of sending followers
on 'guilt trips': blaming people for deaths in their families, and
especially by uttering terrible warnings against 'touching the Lord's
anointed' to keep critics in line. (I still occasionally hear this text
used in abusive/threatening ways in fundamentalist and Pentecostal
churches). Jackson was a really a classical small-time dictator: he
maintained a bevy of flatterers and informers, and lived in luxury
whilst expecting his followers to make extreme sacrifices (including
'double-tithing') to maintain the leaders' lifestyles. The 2008 ABC Four
Corners program [3] covered quite thoroughly the current abuses of power
in the Brisbane Christian Fellowship in particular. (How could an
eminent doctor be seduced by all this, to the extent that his marriage
came apart?).

I know personally half a dozen people mentioned in Morag's
well-researched book. I have the highest regard for one of them, Kevin
Conner, a godly and gracious servant-leader, who separated himself and
his family from Jackson's immediate influence by going in 1971 to the
U.S. to minister. I'm somewhat mystified by Kevin Conner's inability/
unwillingness to expose Jackson's misdeeds other than privately. The
whole nation rightly castigated Anglican Bishop Hollingworth for a
similar silence about sexual abuse, when he had the opportunity to deal
with it more justly.

Morag Zwartz did a thorough job of investigating this cult. She says she
left out a lot of bad stuff (alleged incest, questionable paternity,
predatory behaviour, suicide etc.). Sometimes she lands a judgment on
someone without supporting evidence, though we can be sure she has the
allegations well-covered within her extensive research. Some of the
details in the book (lists of names etc.) won't interest anyone other
than those in some way associated with these events, but at least they
underline the widespread dysfunction in this movement. (A minor
correction: there were no Montanists in the first century, as Morag
asserts (pp. 15, 18). Montanus started prophesying in the second
century, and his movement took off from the third century onwards -
until probably the 7th or 8th centuries. At least the Montanists
demonstrate that the essence of 'Pentecostalism' predated the Azusa
Street 'Revival'.)

We are in Morag Zwartz' debt: she interviewed all the relevant people
willing to talk (obviously some key people refused) and the result is a
wake-up call for all of us.

[1] See Morag Zwartz' 'Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne
Church Cult'
http://www.religionnewsblog.com/9982/the-story-of-a-melbourne-cult

[2] More: http://jmm.aaa.net.au/catalog/keyword/c-29.htm

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2008/s2282791.htm

Rowland Croucher

December 10, 2008.

*****

Responses:

"I am currently reading the recently released book by Morag Zwartz. It
is a tragic story and the injustices done to so many people over so many
years needs bringing to the light and confronting appropriately.

My dad, Kevin Conner, was involved in Immanuel (now Melbourne Christian
Fellowship) in the very early years. Ray Jackson was the leader of the
church at the time and after becoming aware of some of the immorality
taking place, my dad confronted Ray directly. Unfortunately, Ray did not
respond and he began to shut my dad down and eventually excommunicated
him from the church. My dad continued to help people as he was able but
was basically cut off from the church. Our family moved to the USA in
1971 where we lived for 10 years. When we returned in 1981 we became
involved with Richard Holland and Waverley Christian Fellowship. By this
time Richard had cut off all relationship with Immanuel. Essentially, my
dad has had nothing much to do with Immanuel since 1971.

Morag had a brief meeting with my dad and I while doing research for her
book. Unfortunately, because my dad didn't know Morag, he chose not to
say very much at all to her about his experiences with Immanuel. As a
result, Morag ends up shedding a fairly negative light on my dad and his
perceived lack of action in confronting issues within this church. Due
to people such as my dad not saying much to Morag, she makes a number of
unsubstantiated claims in her book and she lacks some of the details
needed to paint a complete picture of what actually took place.

What I do know is that my dad has been very saddened by the developments
that have taken place in Immanuel after his departure and the many
people who have been hurt. He believes that he did all he could at the
time in confronting Ray Jackson and he has helped as many people who
have left as he has been able to.

Hopefully, this book will be a wakeup call against all forms of abusive
leadership within any church, a leadership style which is so
un-Christlike. I pray it will also encourage those within cultic groups
characterised by fear, manipulation, and control to leave and to know
that there is hope and healing available for them."

Mark Conner
Senior Minister
CityLife Church

Thursday, November 06, 2008


F W Boreham: A Packet of Surprises, John Broadbanks Publishing, 2008

I've been a Boreham collector for 50 years, and have often reflected on why he's still so popular. Yes, he's an outstanding wordsmith (how often have you alluded to 'rich clusters of tawny filberts' in passing?); yes, he's widely read (at least a book a week for most of his adult life); and yes he touches issues about which 'the common man' has a deep interest.

Boreham had a prodigious memory. I have in my possession a photocopy of one of his 10cm x 15 cm cards with hand-written headings from which he preached. His biographer Howard Crago tells us each sermon was preached from memory in almost the exact words in which it was printed.

But I reckon there's another reason for his popularity: respect. Frank Boreham had such an abiding respect for his audiences, that, bower-bird-like, he assiduously collected thousands of quotes, literary allusions, stories and ideas - and indexed everything. This discipline produced some astonishing 'connections' in his sermons and essays.

This new volume of 'the best of the best' of Boreham's essays and sermons begins with Dr Geoff Pound's introduction/rationale for making his selection; then there's a profile of Boreham's life and work by Howard Crago (whom I was privileged to know, when I was his pastor for eight years). At the back there's a subject and name index.

From his first pastorate Boreham resolved 'never to condemn anything but always present a positive aspect. (As he put it) "the best way to prove a stick is crooked is to lay a straight one beside it".' His many hearers and readers obviously appreciated this softer irenic approach: in each of his three pastorates he doubled the membership. (But, if I might add a footnote to that, many drifted away from at least one of those churches - Armadale Baptist Church in Melbourne - when he left).

Each of these chapters is just long enough to develop a theme, to be read in a short sitting. (But they're never so long that you flip to see if you're near the end. People wonder about that with sermons in church too, don't they?). The longest chapter here (15 pages) is from his first major book - The Whisper of God - with its thesis: 'The truth of a whisper is as great as the truth of a shout. A whisper from God is enough to tell me that God is, it is enough to tell me that he cares for me... God never thunders if a whisper will do'.

Here are some examples of his wonderful 'turns of phrase':

* '... Our best Sunday clothes, with clean collar, brightly polished boots and finger-nails destitute of any funereal suggestion...'

* 'There are books that we bought by mistake; books that we know to be valueless; books whose room is of much more value than their company'

* 'I drew aside to collect my thoughts. But my thoughts politely, but firmly, declined to be collected'

And a rare mixed metaphor: 'No menagerie since the world began could hold a candle to it'

We meet Frank Boreham the man here: a couple of his favourite places were the Melbourne Art Gallery, and Melbourne Cricket Ground. He writes about one of his major detestations - 'ready-made clothes'; another was the telephone (he's in good company there!).

Some of his most famous sermons are here: 'He Made as Though' (on the story of the Emmaus Road); A Prophet's Pilgrimage (Jonah); The Powder Magazine (Paul and Barnabas's dispute over John Mark); and perhaps the best in the book - and maybe in all of Boreham - his great missionary sermon 'The Candle and the Bird' (with its thesis: 'a period of spiritual sterility invariably represents, not the extinguishing of a candle, but the frightening away of a bird').

He has an essay on the astonishing coincidences in his own life, and elsewhere (pp 245 ff.). I won't spoil it for you by mentioning them, but Boreham has the impertinence to suggest that any one of us will find 'a wealthy hoard' of similar coincidences stowed away in our memories. Well, most won't, sir, at least not on this scale!

The chapter on Interruptions is brilliant. I remember an experienced minister reminding me early in my pastoral career that most of Jesus' healings were the result of interruptions: 'Interruptions,' my wise friend said, 'are not disturbing your ministry-plans: they *are* your ministry!'

Finally, a few insightful and/or memorable tid-bits:

* (The cryptic utterance of a parishioner): 'When I've shut the door, I've shut the door'

* 'Doubt is a very human and a very sacred thing...'

* 'The gravest mistake made by educationalists is [to suppose] that those who know little are good enough to teach those who know less'

* 'Ritualism [is] perilous. "Now abideth"... what? Altars? vestments? crosses? creeds? catechisms? confessions? Now abideth faith, hope love - these three; and the greatest of these is love'

* 'Orthodoxy and heterodoxy stand related to truth just as those wonderful wickerwork stands and plaster busts that adorn every dressmaker's establishment stand related to the grace and beauty of the female form'

A minor complaint: Boreham would not have liked his writing being 'corrupted' by American spellings (luster, favorite, gray, molded, behavior; but interestingly 'gaol' is retained). If we're going to fiddle with spellings, why not do the same with his sexist language? Now that would be a challenge!

See also http://tinyurl.com/6rzr5g

Rowland Croucher

November 2008.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

BARACK OBAMA'S VICTORY SPEECH

One of the most inspiring speeches I've ever heard:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

CRAZY TALK

Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms, ed. Rolf Jacobson, Augsburg, 2008.

If the authors have German names, the book is published by Augsburg Press, has a chapter on Reformation, and prefers 'Communion' to 'Eucharist/Mass', you'll guess it has an 'Evangelical Lutheran' flavour. Here's a racy - yes, sometimes crazy - easy-to-read little pocketbook which is an excellent introduction to many theological terms, without dumbing it all down too much.

But first: If this book is for beginners, try defining these terms: Adiophora, Adoptionism, Happy Exchange, Hypostatic Union; Kenosis, Ontology, Perichoresis, Theodicy.

Still breathing?

Adiophora = 'something not worth fighting about', like human traditions; Adoptionism = the heresy which believes that Jesus didn't become God's Son until the age of about 30; Happy Exchange = Christ carries our sins/burdens on the Cross, but we are, in baptism, 'clothed with Christ'; Hypostatic Union = the two natures of Jesus, divine and human, are united in one person (but it's a bit more complicated than that); Kenosis = Christ emptying himself to become truly human (ditto about complication); Ontology = 'metaphysical reflection on the qualitative difference between the essence of various entities, for example, margarine and butter' (which is why 'you'll be reassured to know that nobody has a full-time job as an ontologist - at least not a paid one)'; Perichoresis = 'the attempt to describe the numbers "three" and "one" without using math'; Theodicy = 'the attempt to explain why the one who created everything and saved everyone doesn't live up to our expectations'.

'Saved everyone'? Well, there is a chapter on hell (but not universalism: this book's written by Evangelical Lutherans, remember) which says, in part: 'In the New Testament, hell is pictured as a place where there will be much gnashing of teeth - and where there will be no dental plan or health care of any kind. And there's a lake of fire but no indication of what lakeshore property is going for... Hell is the place where there is no relationship with God. In any case, you can trust Jesus to steer you toward much better real estate. As in all real estate, remember: location, location, location!'

A book which can reduce very serious matters to such absurdities can't be all that bad.

Rowland Croucher

October 2008

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

F. W. Boreham, Second Thoughts


Dr F W Boreham was introduced at an international conference of pastors in 1936 as 'the man whose name is on all our lips, whose books are on all our shelves and whose illustrations are in all our sermons.'

Frank Boreham lived in England, New Zealand and Australia between 1871 and 1959. He authored 55 books, wrote 3,000 editorials in major papers and was a premiere preacher. He is the most 'collectible' religious author Australia has produced.

Michael Dalton (USA) and Geoff Pound (UAE) have teamed up to establish John Broadbanks Publishing to produce new books by or about F W Boreham. So far, All the Blessings of Life: The Best Stories of F W Boreham (2007), Lover of Life: A Tribute to F W Boreham's Mentor (2007), Second Thoughts (2007) and The Chalice of Life: Reflections on the Significant Stages of Life (2008) have come off the press.

Second Thoughts comprises five of Boreham's typically brilliant essays - Second-Hand Things, The Second Crop, Second Fiddles, Our Second Wind, and Second Thoughts. This last week I've read one each day. (Ravi Zacharias in his Introduction/Tribute says he tries to read one Boreham chapter every day: a wonderful discipline).

How about this for a wordsmith's brilliance (in Second Hand Things): 'Hester Spanton - Auntie Hester, as everybody called her - was the tenant of a large second-hand store and a small asthmatic body. I used at times to think that the adjectives might be regarded as interchangeable...' Or this: 'The lamp by which my path is lit all day, the lamp that burns in heaven's eternal noon, is second-hand...'.

When I was pastor of a Baptist Church in Melbourne, a couple of our parishioners were members of a church where Boreham was an interim minister (Kew Baptist Church). They showed me a note he wrote to them on an important milestone in their lives, and affirmed him as a 'wonderful encourager and friend'. The story of Dan and Mollie (The Second Crop) has priceless pastoral insights. The text was from Obadiah: 'The house of Jacob shall possess their possessions.' The message (as we would put it today): one person can have lots of stuff, and not enjoy any of it; another just a few possessions and enjoy them all. (I must give away more books I won't need again).

The chapter on The Second Fiddle really got to me. Is a person a 'first fiddle' because he or she cannot be a 'second fiddle'? Gladstone and Disraeli were both first fiddles, and had to form separate political parties because neither could tolerate being a second fiddle...

About endurance in stressful times: 'The Duke of Wellington used to say that British soldiers were no braver than Frenchmen, but they could be brave *five minutes longer*.

And an idea I've never thought before: 'Conscience expresses itself like the lightning, instantaneously; the mutterings of reason and self-interest, like the thunder, come lumbering along later.'

As Geoff Pound writes in the Preface, 'Frank Boreham said that within the everyday, commonplace things there was a romance, a quality that was usually not immediately apparent.' So true.

If you see any Borehams in second-hand bookstores or church fetes, snap them up. Keep them at your bedside, and read a chapter a day. You won't be disappointed.

Visit http://fwboreham.blogspot.com/ to order.

Rowland Croucher
http://jmm.aaa.net.au/

October 2008


Thursday, August 28, 2008

THE THREE KEYS TO ALL RELATIONSHIPS

Here's a precis of the talk I gave to the Australian World Vision staff yesterday:

Friends, it's good to be here again. Early in the 1980s World Vision Executive Director Harold Henderson asked me to work for WV as a 'Leadership Enhancement Consultant'. My job: to wander around the country and be a resource for pastors and churches. A secondary mandate: the churches generally were suspicious - even resentful - of World Vision 'taking money from our people'. I think we were able to turn that around: I don't hear complaints like that very much these days...

They were heady times: I spoke to about 100 pastors' conferences in Australia and in other places; and to about 700 churches. We produced a Leadership Letter - 'GRID' - which I was told was the only literature sent to all the pastors (and others) in Australia - 23,000 of them. Some of those articles can be found on the John Mark Ministries website (see, e.g. http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8202.htm, http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8109.htm etc.).

Part of my responsibility was to take Church leaders to various parts of the world to meet 'the poorest of the poor'. On one of these trips I vividly remember Pedro, a day-labourer who with his wife Isabella lived in one of the 400 favellas/slums around Fortaleza, in north-east Brazil. They had five children (from nine live births) - all malnourished. Pedro could only get work about every third day; Isabella made clothes on a basic sewing-machine lent by World Vision. But sometimes they had no food at night, and to stop their starving kids crying from hunger Isabella would feed them little balls of rolled-up moistened newspaper, sprinkled with sugar. These had almost no nutritional value, but at least the children wouldn't cry so much and Pedro could get some sleep. They'd owned a black bean farm, inherited from Pedro's father and grandfather, and one day the police, bribed by a wealthy landowner, drove them off their farm. They had no legal redress - the authorities were in the pockets of the rich.

We asked this couple, through an interpreter: 'What do you need?' Isabella replied, 'We have only one blanket for the children, and when the roof leaks they get wet and cold and sick, and many children here have died. I would like a blanket for each child.' And Pedro: 'I need a job every day to feed my family.' What else? Pedro: 'I want my farm back, and for justice to be done in my country.' Anything else? 'Yes, where is the God we worship at Mass every Sunday? Why are we treated like 'the scum of the earth'?

Hold that in a part of your memory-bank: we'll return to that story...

How are we supposed to relate to one another in a Christian organization like World Vision? One short answer: As Martin Luther put it: 'Act as Christs to each other' (or, conversely, treat others as if they were Jesus). Another: Learn to view one another as more than role-players (IT person, HR person, PA to an executive staff-member etc.). Don't let what *describes* someone/yourself *define* them. To paraphrase C S Lewis: we look around this room and see others with various roles, with whom we work, or see in the cafeteria... If we really understood who they were, created in God's image, we'd be tempted to fall down and worship *them*!

This morning I want to offer some thoughts on three aspects of relating Christianly to others. These three concepts underlie *all* relationships between humans, between humans and God, and even between humans and animals...

Now another story. Being an itinerant ('hit-run') preacher since those days has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions... They knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue.

'Who knows who the Pharisees were?' They did. 'The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament - especially Matthew.'

'Now tell me all the *good* things you can think of about the Pharisees.' I wrote them up on a blackboard:

The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their 'church'; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended 'church' regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they'd even cross the ocean - a fearful thing for Jews - to win a convert).

There was a deep silence. I asked 'Peter' sitting at the front: 'What's wrong?' He pointed to the list and said 'That's us!' 'Is it?" I responded. 'Well,' I said, 'You've got a problem: Jesus said these people were children of the devil!'

Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: 'What's so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?' Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like 'This is the greatest/most important thing of all...' none of the above were emphasized by him.

What were his emphases? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King ... And, from two Gospel verses the Evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed - Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 - justice/love, mercy, faith. Jesus paraphrased the famous Micah 6:8 summary of what life is all about: justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God...

There they are - the three underlying dynamics in all relationships:

[1] First, Justice. Social justice, a major theme of the biblical prophets, is essentially about the right use of power. Injustice is the abuse, misuse, non-use of power. Each of us - psychologically - is the sum-total of all the powerful things said or done to us, positively or negatively... Think about that. We believe about ourselves essentially what others - or our society - have told us we're worth, in terms of achievements, appearance, what-have-you.

But each of us is more powerful than we might realize in terms of encouraging others. As James says in the New Testament epistle that bears his name, our words have great power.

In our marriage enrichment seminars Jan and I talk about the negative power of anger in her life. Her father was an angry and violent man, who beat his children up to the age of about 18. If ever I appear angry with Jan (which thankfully is very rare), she reacts fearfully.

We cannot live as adults as if we did not have these powerful inputs into our lives as children.

Think: * What's the difference between 'power' and 'authority'?

* What gives a person 'power' over another?

[2] Mercy is love-in-action. Where justice/power addresses the origins of someone's personhood (or pain) mercy or compassion addresses the symptoms. Christian love (agape) is the relationship between subject and object which creates worth in the object, rather than responding to worth.

Pause: * What does that mean in terms of the uniquely Christian notion of unconditional love?

* What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

An essential element of empathy is 'attending' to the other: being 'present' for them as they share a life-story. If we are distracted, or using their words to think up how we can then be heard, we are not truly empathetic (as the Brits say) or empathic (the term used by Americans). See the article 'How to Help Your Friend - and Others' ( http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8541.htm )

A retired clergyman asked what I was going to do with the rest of the day? 'Talk confidentially to a pastor who's thinking of leaving parish ministry.' His question: 'What will you say to him?' My response: 'I want to hear his story first before I can appropriately walk with him through whatever options might be there for him...'

[3] Faith is the third dimension in all relationships. We trust that what we are experiencing with others is true. When faith is tested by, for example, lying, we mistrust others. Faith in God is essentially a commitment that God *is*, and that God is there for us, as God was with his people in the past. Were they always delivered from danger, disease and death? No, and that's the ultimate mystery.

I used to discuss 'faith matters' with an alcoholic parishioner whose family was highly dysfunctional. She'd had nine major operations, including a double mastectomy, and was physically beaten and abused by her drunken family-members. But a miracle occurred for her. What was it? She died at about 70 years of age *of natural causes*! She persevered with the faith she had, and survived, where others might have given up - perhaps given up on life itself. Miracles come in many forms, but most of them are slow and steady!

We have more power than we realize in building up others' faith...

So as we interact with one another today, let us humbly acknowledge where our powerlessness and/or our power lies, and employ power with love. Let us ask ourselves, as the good Samaritan did, 'What resource can I be for this one, or for others, today?' And finally, how can we 'stir up one another's faith' today?

Final exercise: Back to the story of Pedro and Isabella: how do these universal Christian principles relate to their situation?

--


Shalom/Salaam/Pax! Rowland Croucher

http://jmm.aaa.net.au/

Sunday, July 20, 2008

TAKING GOD TO HEART (Brian Gallagher)

Review: Taking God to Heart, by Brian Gallagher MSC, St Pauls 2008.

When our family returned home in 1983 after a couple of years in North America, I had two important questions to ask my friends: 'Who is reputed to be the most discerning Spiritual Director in Melbourne? And who's the best teacher of Spiritual Direction here?' A name for each emerged, and (cheekily) I asked one to be my Director, and audited a course by the other!

The course was taught by Brian Gallagher at the Catholic Yarra Theological Union. He had just set up the Heart of Life Spirituality Centre, and he impressed me as someone who had his feet firmly on the ground, while being an authentic person, and pray-er, and a keen student about how humans relate to God.

'Taking God to Heart', writes Father Gallagher is not primarily about Spiritual Direction, though a lot of Brian's approach to this classical discipline is here. It's also not about prayer as such, but about authentic living - including being 'truly present' for others. So the most-repeated 'mantra' is Dom John Chapman's well-known advice 'Pray as you can, not as you can't' (see the Wikipedia article on Chapman for more).

Prayer is about life ('church is the place you go out from' as Martin Luther King said famously). We experience down times, but we can learn (from John of the Cross and others) that such darkness in our relationship with God can be a gift of grace. 'God's presence is not defined by our feeling such presence.' In our busyness, too, many of us have to learn that 'silence is the language of God.'

Brian Gallagher's teachers come from many traditions. A random search (eg. pp. 38-39) has him quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, Jean-Paul de Caussade, Abraham Heschel, and H A Williams - a Buddhist, a Jesuit, a Jew, and an Anglican. He reproduces the famous Australian poet and environmentalist Judith Wright's poem 'Grace', with its evocative last two lines: 'Maybe there was once a word for it. Call it grace/I have seen it, once or twice, through a human face' (p. 70).

Brian Gallagher loves the idea of 'God at work in everyone/everywhere': 'The minister's role is to help people to recognize the God already present and active, to awaken people to the gift they already have' (p. 71). But he's also a traditionalist in some ways: 'Spiritual directors... need to be aware of the work of God's Spirit and any spirits not of God in their own lives, if they are to ensure that their own unfreedoms do not affect their listening to others' (p. 72).

I now will go away to a solitary place and read this wonderful little book a fourth time.

Rowland Croucher
July 2008.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth


BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth by Robert Tilley (St Pauls Publications 2007).

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter ‘Deus Caritas Est’ was a revelation to me. I’d heard from my progressive Catholic friends that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a hardliner – more concerned, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with enforcing his traditional brand of ‘truth’ than in showing love. But apparently he’s been saying/writing for decades that the path of truth leads to love; and love is the perfection of what it is to be human.

The author of this volume has a PhD from the University of Sydney but teaches philosophy at an inner-city homeless men’s refuge. His language is sometimes dense, sometimes racy.

Two examples, respectively: ‘Meaning is perfected in reason; reason is perfected in philosophy; and philosophy is perfected in metaphysics’ (p. 217). I hope the homeless men can understand that. But at least we were warned, earlier (p. 18): ‘You might find your eyes beginning to glaze over, but resist the temptation; shake your head, go for a walk, get a coffee, and then we’ll continue.’ I did all that, but couldn’t stop the eyes glazing over sometimes.

Tilley’s aim in this 245-page, amply footnoted volume is to ‘help us get a grip on Benedict’s thinking, to discern the logic that informs his writings.’ I’m not sure that this reviewer, with his basic philosophy 101-level understandings, got a grip on Benedict’s theology, but I certainly developed an admiration for this simple man with his complex ideas...

Benedict’s ideological bĂȘte noir is Western relativism and its denial of ‘objective truth’, especially moral ‘truths’. His primary authority: the doctrines of the Church (not just the Bible), informed by reason. God’s eternal Reason is embedded in his creation, and everything derives its meaning from Christ. The Eucharist is the ‘causal principle’ of the Church; the Church ‘draws her life’ from the Eucharist.
How does all this work in practice? Here Benedict majors on the necessity of ‘loving community’: union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself; we cannot possess Christ just for ourselves, but also in union with those who have become, or who will become, his own.

So, Tilley writes, there is a close connection between a rejection of metaphysics and the dissolution of the sense of communion: hence the modern rise of the dominant notion of the person as primarily an autonomous individual. And the main error of modern liberalism is that it takes as a given that no absolute religious or philosophical claim is true.

Is Benedict – and Ratzinger before him – a ‘company man’ who could not tolerate criticism of the Church? Colm O’Gorman, Irish founder of the ‘One in Four’ Counselling Centre (referring to the proportion of Irish adults said to have suffered sexual abuse as children) said, in 2005, ‘The Vatican has never, ever accepted responsibility for clerical sexual abuse at all. Never.’ Like John Paul II before him, Benedict has – until recently, when he made some significant statements on his visit to the U.S. – shown little interest in reforming some of the basic policies adversely affecting the lives of ordinary Catholics.

So here we have a brilliant man, a holy man (for whom ‘prayer is a life and death matter’), a complex man. Read all about him: but be prepared for your eyes to glaze over sometimes.

Rowland Croucher

May 2008.

Friday, May 16, 2008

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS TODAY

Thorwald Lorenzen, Toward a Culture of Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments Today (Cascade Books, 2008).

Thorwald Lorenzen, currently Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, is one of Australia’s most gifted theologians. His other books include Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections and Theological Consequences (1995, 2003), and Resurrection-Discipleship-Justice: Affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Today (2003).

He brings two special strengths to his work as a theologian: he is a pastor (most recently, Canberra Baptist Church in Australia’s capital city) and his cross-cultural background (he has taught in Europe and Australia, and is fluent in German and English, as well as the Biblical languages).

This volume on the Torah’s ‘Ten Words’ reads like something produced in a theologian’s study, but honed in real-life situations. So the chapters begin with a few pages of theological comments but then apply the ethical principles of the Judeo-Christian commandments to life, and to contemporary global questions. The book is a marvellous resource for preaching on the Decalogue.

Thorwald Lorenzen is a progressive theologian (as I read him), but who takes the biblical text seriously. So the conservatives – except for some in Eastern Europe who ‘wrote him off’ for not sharing their views about a personal Devil – will generally benefit if they have an open mind about how a competent biblical exegete unpacks the text. And the progressives will connect, for example, with his refusal to use masculine – or any - pronouns for God; Deuteronomy was written in the 7th century BCE etc.

The ‘ten words’, writes Lorenzen, are not restrictive, seeking to spoil humans’ fun. Rather they are liberating, aimed at our enjoyment of life. ‘The ten words are guidelines in our quest to affirm life.’ They’re not intended to be laws or dogmas (note that in the four Gospels Jesus did not quote all of the commandments).

It’s packed full of marvellous insights. How about this, for example: ‘A generation that ignores the wisdom and errors, achievements and failures of its predecessors is ill-prepared to face the future. Would the revolutions of Germany’s youth in the 1960s and of America’s youth in the 1970s have happened if their parents had talked about their war experiences and the associated horror and guilt and doubts?’ (p. 86). Ever thought of that?

Another profundity: ‘Each of us has, or rather is, a conscience. Conscience is the centre of our personhood. It makes us who we are. It shapes our identity. It is worth understanding and caring for’ (p. 20).

And throughout Thorwald writes as a prophet. Try this, for example: ‘When some reformers in the sixteenth century took down the pictures and removed the statues from the churches, they wanted to make room for the living voice of the gospel. They wanted to celebrate Jesus as the one word that we need to hear, trust and obey in life and in death. But soon others, lesser minds and lesser hearts, came along and put a book where the pictures had been. So for many Christians the living voice of the gospel has been frozen into a book, the Bible. And around the world there are many Christians who spend more time and energy fighting about the Bible than in worshipping and obeying the Christ to whom the Bible points’ (p. 52).

Challenging stuff. If you’re a pastor, ‘Preach it, sister/brother!’

Rowland Croucher

May 2008




Monday, May 05, 2008

SEVEN WAYS TO CHANGE THE WORLD

Jim Wallis: Seven Ways to Change the World: reviving faith and politics (2008).

Jim Wallis is probably America’s highest-profile ‘progressive evangelical’ and advocate for Christian left-wing causes, especially peace and justice issues. His ‘flagship’ publication is Sojourners magazine. Other well-known books include 'The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America' and 'God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.'

Wallis is especially scornful of the Religious Right’s misuse of the Bible: ‘Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question ... [t]here are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation.’

'Seven Ways…' has forewords by Jimmy Carter and Tim Costello. In a commendation of the book, British PM Gordon Brown wrote, ‘Jim Wallis challenges us to create a society which both addresses injustice and stresses personal responsibility, and his call for a global covenant through which rich countries meet their obligations to the poor will have a resonance across the world.’

Jim’s style is readable, racy, and autobiographical. The people he likes – Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, William Stringfellow, et. al - are quoted often.

His thesis: the Religious Right in America, which has campaigned, negatively, against abortion and homosexual marriage under the rubric of ‘moral values’ is diversifying. The issue of climate change, for example, previously treated with disdain by conservatives, is now – albeit often reluctantly - on many of their agendas. After all, shouldn't ‘family values’ have something to say about the world we leave to our children and grandchildren? Many younger Evangelicals, in particular, are ‘taking back the faith’ as he urged in his book God’s Politics. They’re concerned about poverty and economic injustice, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, Darfur, Iraq. We’re experiencing another ‘wave of revival’ similar to the spiritual awakenings that led to the abolition of the slave trade. Even megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are getting on board. Barack Obama is linking faith and politics in a dynamic way which appeals to younger generations of Christians - and others. Even conservative columnist George Will is saying that the economic ideology that runs American society has eroded family and cultural stability.

But the shift away from the Religious Right is not necessarily a shift to the Left. This new generation is looking for a ‘Religious Centre’. The progressive Evangelicals in this group are reading theologians like Bishop N T Wright, who in a little book (Simply Christian) introducing thoughtful people to Christianity covers topics such as poverty, the environment and human rights. Thirty years ago, says Wright, these were secondary issues. They’re majoring on Jesus rather than Paul; their commission for mission is in Luke 4 (good news for the poor) as well as Matthew 28 (go and preach). They’re studying the prophets, with the help of scholars like Walter Brueggeman, and re-discovering that God hates injustice, everywhere.

Wallis writes that his concern for social justice has led him to embrace many aspects of Catholic social teaching, with its emphases on the well-being of the community as well as the rights of the individual.

There’s a wonderful tribute to Jim’s dad in an appendix. A list of discussion questions would have been a good idea.

Writing as a fellow-traveler with Jim Wallis en route from conservative Plymouth Brethrenism to following Jesus and the prophets, (I too was taught that the Sermon on the Mount didn't apply to us, but belonged to 'another dispensation') there’s not much here I’d want to argue with. In fact the only bit I marked negatively was his attribution of the famous quote (gleaned from the John Mark Ministries website rather than an original source) in the index to Richard rather than Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘The worst evils in the world are not done by evil people, but by good people who do not know that they are not doing good’ (p. 214).

Buy this book for every person under 35 who's prepared to re-think their childhood faith and/or their inherited conservative political stance!

Rowland Croucher
May 2008


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

THE BEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ

My journey as a Christian, lover/husband, father, and pastor/teacher/ evangelist has covered different terrains during threescore and ten years. Here’s a rough chronological journey listing books that influenced me ‘at the time’. Remember, I’m not ‘back there’, stuck where-I-was. I was brought up in a ‘gentle fundamentalist’ church (Open or Plymouth Brethren) and I’m still ‘evangelical’ but now also somewhat ‘progressive’ and ‘catholic’, conservative about a few things but also radical, encouraging individual initiative but also committed to social justice, compassion and community. As Richard Rohr says in his latest book (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality) we must incorporate - not reject - Torah/tradition, Prophetic/dissenting perspectives and Wisdom/mysticism – all of these - into a full and complete life of faith, hope and love...

Another caveat: My calling is to minister mainly to practising pastors and to ex-pastors, so this list is slanted towards ‘pastoral theology’ rather than, say, academic theology, or missiology etc. Other gaps in this list include social issues like homosexuality, corporate worship, counselling, pastoral leadership/management, general literature (novels, poetry) - important areas but which would require many more words/titles. I’ve also majored on recommending authors who were pastors for a substantial period of their lives as well as being well-read scholars (Sangster, Claypool, Peterson, Rohr, McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor etc.). A longer list compiled half a decade ago can be found here.

1. THE BIBLE. As a youngster I was captivated by the wonderful stories of God’s grace in the Bible (KJV), and also its magnificent poetry (eg. Isaiah 40, which as a teenager I learned off by heart). I knew more about ‘dispensational prophecy’ than the apostles did, and read the Bible through several times. (The most readable recent translation: Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The best for study and corporate worship: the NRSV.)

2. ADVENTURE STORIES – especially R M Ballantyne’s; and the William, Biggles and Deerfoot books - gave me as a child a love of reading for pleasure.

3. THE KNEELING CHRISTIAN (by ‘An Unknown Christian’) instilled in me the conviction that genuine Christian commitment is nothing if not fervent. BIOGRAPHIES – of people like George Muller, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, C H Spurgeon and the Ecuador Martyrs – inspired me in my formative years to ‘be the best I can be’ for God and others.

4. C S LEWIS (especially Mere Christianity) and JOHN STOTT (Basic Christianity) were helpful in my accepting orthodox Christian tenets as ‘believable’.

5. MILLAR’S SCM COMMENTARY ON LUKE and (later) WALTER BRUEGGEMANN’S ON THE PSALMS (among others, eg, Abraham Heschel) encouraged me to believe that expounding the Scriptures can be instructive, and interesting and challenging.

6. W E SANGSTER’S sermons, books on homiletics, and magnum opus The Pure in Heart (on spirituality) were wonderful ‘integrative’ elements in my formation as a young pastor. Two decades later Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and later again his Streams of Living Water helped in the quest for an overview of historical/ecumenical spirituality.

7. I got JOHN CLAYPOOL’S sermons once a month by mail for many years, and stopped everything to read them: he’s still the best ‘writing preacher’ in the English language, I reckon. His Tracks of a Fellow Struggler – sermons on Job while his 9 year old daughter Laura Lue was dying of leukemia – has comforted many in their grief. Following Claypool, I think Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons delight me the most.

8. Three Catholic authors who have enriched/inspired: THOMAS MERTON (his best - New Seeds of Contemplation), DOM HELDER CAMARA (especially A Thousand Reasons for Living), and HENRI NOUWEN (start with either The Wounded Healer or Creative Ministry).

9. My favourite contemporary author is RICHARD ROHR. Start (slowly) with his latest book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, then Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer.

10. For young/new Christians no one beats BRIAN McLAREN. His best, I think, is A Generous Orthodoxy. For those enquiring about Christianity give them Finding Faith: A Search for What is Real.

11. Interfaith? Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky: ‘There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.’ Now here’s a surprise choice perhaps: begin with KHALED HOSSEINI’S The Kite Runner. It gives us brilliant insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).

12. The number one issue in western theology is the current ‘Jesus Quest’. Conservatives will like CRAIG EVANS’ Fabricating Jesus (2007) or BEN WITHERINGTON’S What Have they done With Jesus? (2006), but I would suggest that a wider stance should be explored – most easily with the dialogues TOM WRIGHT had with MARCUS BORG on The Meaning of Jesus (2000) and JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN on The Resurrection of Jesus (2006).

13. Christianity and Social Justice? Start with JIM WALLIS’S Seven Ways to Change the World (2008).

14. Finally, anything by EUGENE PETERSON is excellent (though there’s quite a bit of repetition in his various writings). His Take and Read: Spiritual Reading, an Annotated List is a good guide, and his recent books on Spiritual Theology – Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (2005) and The Jesus Way (2007) – are an excellent summary/miscellany of his ideas.

Ponder: ‘Beware of the man of one book’ (Thomas Aquinas). ‘The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency - the belief that the here and now is all there is.’ (Allan Bloom ).

In another article I’ll look at best/favourite blogs and websites.

Rowland Croucher

April 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

DEAR MR RUDD (Ed. Robert Manne)


The Gist of DEAR MR RUDD (Ed. Robert Manne, 2008).

Here’s a book addressed to Australia’s recently-elected Prime Minister,
in which 20 experts (mostly left-of-centre, as you’d expect if they’re
chosen by Robert Manne) offer ideas and suggestions for Australia’s
future. This was a rush-job, written and edited during the couple of
months after the November 2007 election, but with some brilliant
offerings by academics and others on such key issues as Aboriginal
affairs, climate change, the economy, human rights, education, health,
the republic... and much more.

Here I’ve selected a fairly representative miscellany of
opinions/suggestions – one from each contributor. Add these to the 2020
Summit ideas, and Mr Rudd has quite an agenda in front of him, eh?

‘”Dear Mr Rudd” hopes to help resume the conversation between public
intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the
Howard years’ (Robert Manne)

‘On what basis should Australia remain a constitutional monarchy? There
is no credible argument left... If the queen died tomorrow, the streets
of our cities and towns would not be lined with thousands of mourners as
they were in January 1936 with the death of George V, when the empire
“stood still and silent in grief”’ (Mark McKenna)

‘Over the last decade, this nation has experienced a diatribe from
ultra-conservatives attacking Indigenous people’s quest for recognition
as a distinct culture and acknowledgement of past injustices’ (Pat Dodson)

‘John Howard presented himself as the protector of the national culture
against the social engineering of the left-wing elites who had got their
hands on state power’ (Geoff Gallop)

‘Viewers of the televised segments of [Question Time in Parliament]
would be surprised to learn that past speakers’ rulings... forbid the
barracking, cat-calling and other nonsense that moves so many of those
viewers to write furious letters about the poor quality of their
representatives’ (Harry Evans)

‘”Yes Minister’s” Sir Humphrey put it epigrammatically: “If you want to
do those damn silly things, don’t do them in such a damn silly way”.
Ministers need their departments’ help... There has not been a single
case since 1901 when a minister has been forced to resign for actions of
the public service about which he did not know or could not reasonably
have been expected to know’ (Patrick Weller)

‘After almost 120 years it is time to cut the labour movement’s Gordian
knot, that most intricate relationship between the fortunes of the
political wing (the Australian Labor Party) and the industrial wing
(trade unions affiliated to the ALP’ (Mark Aarons, no less!)

‘Howard [built] his credentials as a national security leader largely on
his close identification with the personality and policies of the US
president, and his standing suffered accordingly as the president and
his policies were discredited... American policy is drifting in a
dangerous direction – towards an attempt to build a coalition of
democracies designed to contain China’s challenge to American primacy’
(Hugh White)

‘[Minister for Foreign Affairs] Stephen Smith... is well-placed to
engage with neighbouring states in a civil rather than a patronising
manner... The Tampa affair ... was orchestrated to win back the votes
of bigots... Achieving one’s [foreign policy] goals requires a
willingness to listen rather than preach’ (William Maley)

‘When arguments get heated, battles so often occur over words: are
asylum-seekers refugees or queue-jumpers? Is Hamas a terrorist
organization or liberation movement? Was Australia settled or invaded?’
(Martin Krygier)

‘[Professor Ross] Garnaut described the response to climate change as
“the defining challenge of our time”... Over the years the aluminium
industry has made more threats than any other to take its business to
countries without emission restrictions, and has bankrolled the
greenhouse mafia... If unconstrained, aviation emissions will account
for half or more of Australia’s total emissions by 2050 and will
undermine all other efforts’ (Clive Hamilton)

‘An independent, expertise-based Murray-Darling Basin Authority... like
the Reserve Bank [should] be required to communicate with great
discipline, always mindful of the weight given to its statements’ (Mike
Young)

‘The fundamental economic fact of Rudd’s victory is that he won in a
boom. This is rare... Ultimately, economic growth comes from two
sources: you can get more people into work and/or get the existing
people to work more efficiently... Australia is suffering a skills
shortage, as several industries struggle to find the qualified employees
they need to expand and grow’ (Andrew Charlton)

‘The Australian health-care “system” is a structural and organizational
shambles that has nevertheless produced world-class results... In the
absence of any grand over-arching vision, the system is a product of one
hundred years of short-term fixes... We have too few staff for too many
hospitals, many [of which] are located where people used to live rather
than where they live now’ (Bill Bowtell)

‘Australia is the only [OECD] nation with the dubious distinction of
combining long hours – over one-fifth of all employees work more than
fifty hours per week – with very high levels of casualization... In his
essay on Bonhoeffer, Rudd wrote that “the time has come for a vision for
Australia not limited bythe narrowest of definitions of our national
self-interest.” The family must not be “sacrificed on the altar of
market reality.” Two large British studies... concluded that “high
levels of group care before the age of three (and particularly before
the age of two) were associated with higher levels of antisocial
behaviour at age three”.’ (Anne Manne)

‘The “Bringing Them Home” report... found that race-based child-removal
policies were a special instance of genocide... This is crystal clear,
for instance, in Western Australia, where the instructions and
justification were aimed at eliminating the entire “race”... Throughout
the last decade , Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and their ilk have
engaged... in polluting Australian political debate with a vicious
account of the nation’s history... I have heard the life stories of many
of the victims and read the documentary evidence’ (Marcia Langton)

‘The ALP’s “Forward with Fairness” policy [re workplace relations]
adopts the notion of “fairness” as its underpinning ethical principle.
By contrast, the Howard government’s WorkChoices revolution arose
primarily from an economic perspective...’ (Jill Murray)

‘House prices are now less affordable in Australia than in almost all
other developed countries... Our three levels of government should
cooperate in providing... a scheme to provide subsidies and other
incentives for institutional investors in low-rent housing... At least
initially, the scheme should be managed by non-profit organizations’
(Julian Disney)

‘Australia has just two universities in the top 100 [Shanghai Jiao Tong]
universities [in the world]... ANU at fifty-seven and Melbourne at
seventy-nine. Canada... has two universities in the top forty’ (Simon
Marginson)

‘The arts need government patronage because they create minds that
matter... The optimistic claims made by Keating: “Culture creates
wealth... Culture employs... Culture adds value”... Artist fees in most
art forms remain pitifully low’ (Juliana Engberg).

(After reading these chapters with hundreds more generalizations and
suggestions like the above, I’ve moved Mr. Rudd up my prayer-list!)

Rowland Croucher

April 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

THE KITE RUNNER

The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini).

If the first casualty of the War on Terror (as with any war) is truth, Hosseini’s best-sellers The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) are a terrific read if you want an insider’s view of the situation in Afghanistan. Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky (Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem): ‘There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.’ Hosseini gives us an insider’s insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).

Here we’ll look briefly at The Kite Runner. However, as the Chilean writer, Isabel Allende says, A Thousand Splendid Suns is ‘unforgettable’. For a review of that book visit here and for a summary of the Taliban’s less-than-creative (!) ways of taking the fun out of life start here.

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul (1965) and with his family sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1980. He is now a medico and an envoy for the UNHCR, deeply involved in the plight of refugees throughout the world.

Last time I looked there were 2348 customer reviews on Amazon.com for The Kite Runner. It was Hosseini’s debut novel, and offers dramatic insights into Afghanistan’s political turmoil, from the last days of the monarchy to the collapse of the Taliban regime. All that is backdrop to the story of two boys - Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant (who are ethnic Hazaras). The boys are inseparable; they compete in kite-running competitions, and share dreams and stories, until something unspeakable happens, severing the relationship. After Amir and his father flee to America, the guilt and shame of that event still haunts Amir, who later returns to his war-torn country to rescue Hassan’s son after the Taliban murdered his parents.

Many of the great themes of literature and life are here: guilt and redemption, character and country, betrayal and loyalty, courage and cowardice and hope, war and terror and tragedy, children who are motherless and/or fatherless, bullying, rape, and the persecution of minorities...

We have to remind ourselves that this is a (haunting) morality tale – a novel, not a memoir. The plot twists are quite amazing (if sometimes implausible). When we meet ordinary people like these who are swept up in the turmoil of history, it ‘gives pause’ to our simplistic views about (a) how to relate to refugees, and (b) the kaleidoscopic varieties of belief inhabiting all major religions, in this case Islam.

The Kite Runner
was also produced as an audiobook read by the author, and was adapted into a film of the same name released in December, 2007. Hosseini’s official website is here.

Rowland Croucher
April 2008.



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

THINGS HIDDEN (Richard Rohr)


THINGS HIDDEN: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr (2008).

Franciscan prophet and teacher Richard Rohr is a mystic rather than a systematic theologian: indeed he believes ‘systematizing’ theology runs the risk of doing it violence and missing the point: theology is to be experienced in a life of faith, hope and love, not organized into creeds.

Is he ‘evangelical’? I would say ‘yes’ though he doesn’t use the term of himself: he has an unqualified commitment to Jesus as Lord and God’s special revelation of God’s character. Is he ‘progressive’? Yes: for example he likes Marcus Borg and reads the mainline liberal biblical scholars. Is he a dogmatist/ fundamentalist? Definitely not: any exclusionary system which divides humans made in God’s image into ‘our people’ and ‘those [heretics] not like us’ is alien to the will of God as experienced in the life and teaching of Jesus.

He writes in the Introduction: ‘Only when inner and outer authority come together do we have true spiritual wisdom. We have for too long insisted on outer authority alone, without any teaching of prayer, inner journey and maturing consciousness. The results for the world and for religion have been disastrous… I offer these reflections to again unite what should never have been separated: sacred Scripture and Christian spirituality.’

He quotes Eugene Ionesco with approval: ‘Overexplanation separates us from astonishment.’ Example: the humble recipient of God’s love in the Eucharist/communion, who gazes at Christ on the cross with awe and wonder and love, is far more likely to ‘get the point’ than a theologian who organizes dogma into theories of the atonement.

Here are some representative quotes:

• ‘Suffering seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering… as “whenever you are not in control”.’

• ‘If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. Immature religion creates a high degree of “cognitively rigid” people. If you want to hate somebody… do it for religious reasons… do it thinking you’re following some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right”.’

• ‘It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50-51)… Until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim”. Insiders are by nature dualistic, because they divide themselves from the so-called outsiders.’

• ‘Law is the thesis; it lays the ground against which the Prophets develop a positive antithesis… the Wisdom books are a synthesis and integration of the first two. Transcendance to higher levels of consciousness always means inclusion of the previous levels. Walter Brueggeman finds [a similar progression] in the Psalms: Psalms of Orientation (confirming Tradition), Psalms of Disorientation (the prophetic recognition of things not working or not being true) and Psalms of Reorientation (the Wisdom level of a new faith-synthesis). All three levels are affirmed in the Psalms, and unlike today, one or the other level is not called heretical or faithless. (Although people trapped at stage one will normally call people at the other two levels “sinners” or “heretics”, which is what we see happening in the Gospels.) True transcendence always includes the previous stages and does not dismiss them.’

• ‘True orthodoxy (“right ideas”) is important, but in the Bible orthodoxy is never defined as something that happens only in the head… Jesus consistently declares people to be saved or healed who are in right relationship with him, and he never grills them on their belief or belonging systems… I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers.’

• ‘Prayer and suffering are the two primary paths of transformation. Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way.’

• ‘My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion.’

It’s the best book I’ve read for a couple of years. And it’s best read devotionally, in small doses…

Rowland Croucher
April 2008

Monday, April 07, 2008

HISTORY'S WORST DECISIONS AND GREATEST SCANDALS

History’s Worst Decisions (Stephen Weir, 2005), History’s Greatest Scandals (Ed Wright et. al, 2006), (Murdoch Books/Pier 9).

If you want to occupy part of your holidays – as I have just done – reading about history’s idiots/ idiotics, you can’t go past these two 250-page volumes.

But first, a quiz to test your knowledge of some Very Important Trivia:

(Greatest Scandals): 1. America’s ‘worst president’, who according to e e cummings was ‘the only man, woman or child who could write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors’.

2. Another US president who was ‘an introvert in an extrovert’s job’ who spent his last night in office drinking, sobbing and praying.

3. He said ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’.

4. Among her lingerie she had a bullet-proof bra.

5. This statement got into Bartlett’s ‘Familiar Quotations’: ‘If “is” means is and never has been, that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.’

6. When she died at 67 tales persisted that she’d been crushed by a horse while attempting to have sex.

7. ‘Demons made me do it but Oral Roberts cast them out over the phone’.

8. He created headlines like ‘Man Raped by Banana’.

9. This evangelist amassed a personal fortune of $158 million which he stashed in 47 different accounts – and they were only the ones in his name.

10. Neighbours in the Sydney suburb of Palm Beach heard her crying at night for months on end.

(Worst Decisions): 11. He tried to kill his mother, three times with poison, and one by rigging the ceiling to cave in while she lay in bed.

12. This pope lasted only a month before a papal sceptre was broken over him and he was carried off to a monastery.

13. His army was destroyed because the enemy moved backwards faster than his could move forwards.

14. His rabbits migrated faster than any colonizing mammal anywhere in the world.

15. Stanley delivered a territory 80 times larger than Belgium to him, and was then deemed his private property – a personal domain probably without precedent in history.

16. It was then the world’s largest movable object – with four funnels, only three of which were actually usable; one was just for ostentation.

17. He was good in history and weak in geography, and ordered a ridiculous assault with inexperienced soldiers against an impregnable terrain with no strategic importance at all. He also said ‘I don’t understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.’

18. Another military leader ordered operations which resulted in over a million casualties in six months with absolutely no gain whatsoever.

19. He killed half the leadership of his country during two years.

20. ‘This outstandingly safe drug can be given with complete safety to pregnant mothers without adverse effects on mother or child.’ Result: 12,000 born with birth defects, and of those one-third died in their first year.

You get the idea. The authors are British, but the Idiotica covers a good selection from all times and places (the earliest – Adam and Eve!). They write interestingly, but the proof-readers did a poor job (with, for example, a couple of dozen wrongly hyphenated words in the middle of lines).

Richard Rohr says we all need a good experience of humiliation every day. These 80-odd humiliations are of a magnitude that is staggering. You’ll gratefully pray through these chapters, as I did, ‘There but for the grace of God go I… Thank you Lord that my stupidities were played out on a much smaller stage.’ And the famous line from George Santayana kept going through my head: ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.’

1. Warren Harding 2. Richard Nixon 3. Henry Kissinger 4. Imelda Marcos 5. Bill Clinton 6. Catherine the Great 7, Jimmy Swaggart 8. Rev. Canaan Banana, president of Zimbabwe 1980-87) 9. Jim Bakker 10. Evdokia Petrov 11. Nero 12. Benedict V 13. Napoleon 14. Thomas Austin 15. King Leopold 16. The Titanic 17. Winston Churchill (Gallipoli) 18. Douglas Haig 19. Joseph Stalin 20. Drug company Grunenthal’s drug thalidomide.

Rowland Croucher
April 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

NICODEMUS AS HEROIC RISK-TAKER


(Expanded version: excerpts are preached relevant to the context).

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17.

We were living in Canada when Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled hit the best-seller lists. His thesis: life is risky; it’s not trouble-free. We’ve done a better job in modern Western cultures of ensuring that life is less trouble-free than any previous generations. But the degree to which trouble surprises us, says Peck, will be the degree of our vulnerability to various neuroses... The riskiest option is to try to live without risk….

Life itself is inherently risky – especially if you did not choose your parents well! When you marry you take a huge risk. Having children is risky. Mothers giving birth – especially if they’re teenage girls in places like Ethiopia – face awesome risks. Being a politician is risky: and as we witnessed this ‘Sorry’ week, being PM or leader of the Opposition is risky.

When a few of us began a ministry to ex-pastors on April Fools’ Day 1991, without the promise of a dollar’s support from anyone, that was risky!

Social and Management Scientists (who tell us ‘what everyone knows in language no one can understand’) say that what we do in every significant action is actually ‘risk assessment’ – we do a ‘costs/benefits analysis’ to judge whether the costs of taking a certain course of action are justified by the expected benefits.

When I ‘speak the truth in love’ to conservative Christian groups, I generally have to encourage them to move beyond legalism and/or dogma: these risk-avoidance stances are inherently inhibiting their growth in faith, hope and love.

But some live with too much risk. Last week at a friend’s 80th birthday ‘bash’ I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who’d died recently. She’d moved interstate, and would phone me every couple of months when she was drunk. She’d had nine major operations, including a double mastectomy; was physically abused by her husband and sons: the boys, when they’d been drinking, sometimes swung her by the hair around the room. I conducted the funeral of one of them, who’d shot himself through the mouth... But she stayed with her family: I was with her when her husband died, and buried him too... This humble, abused woman kept her faith until the end. How do you get that kind of courage?

Our friend Dawn Rowan took huge risks in challenging two governments: she took them to court and won. But even though she’s innocent, she’s likely to lose everything she owns. (Look up her name in Google to read her amazing story).

You can say three things about all the biblical leaders: they took risks, they all failed at some point, and they all spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts... You can put the heading ‘Risk-taking’ over just about every page of the Bible. In the lectionary readings for today we heard about two ‘risk-takers’ – Abraham and Nicodemus.

About 4,000 years ago a family of Semitic nomads left the country we call Iraq and settled in Haran, (now Turkey, on the Syrian border). There Abraham, 75, who was enjoying retirement – ‘in his slippers and growing geraniums’ - received a divine command: ‘Leave your country, your people… and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). So ‘Abram left, as the Lord had told him’ (Genesis 12:4), and journeyed south-west towards the land of Canaan.

His epitaph, in Hebrews 11: ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called… and he set out, not knowing where he was going’. The Hebrew risk-taker par excellence!

The encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3 is one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Gospels. How many of you learned to recite John 3:16 when you were young? Our grandmothers used to crochet John 3:16. Martin Luther called this text ‘the Gospel in miniature’. There’s a guy who travels the world’s major sporting and other events holding up a John 3:16 sign for the TV cameras; the spectators at the Super Bowl saw it on a banner pulled by a small plane. (Actually Jesus’ words to Nicodemus probably end at 3:15, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel tacks on another discourse from verse 16.)

Only John of the four Gospels tells us about Nicodemus – in chapters 3, 7, and 19. Nicodemus had a good education and position, power and wealth as a Pharisee. He always got the best seats at the synagogues. He had considerable authority as a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin: something like Archbishop Peter Hollingworth who became Australia’s Governor-General for a while. (Only in two modern countries, I think, are religious leaders ex-officio in the legislature – the British House of Lords, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

Jesus said something quite startling to him: ‘You must be born again.’ There’s a word-play here which is difficult to translate into English. Jesus could either mean ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’: certainly both. Nicodemus latched on to the first meaning. Actually Ezekiel had said something similar: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you… I will put my spirit within you…’ Jesus too talked to Nicodemus about the ‘Spirit’ being God’s agent in this process. Later Paul and others taught about ‘regeneration’ – roughly the same idea.

Jesus said Nicodemus must be born of water and of the Spirit. The Church through the centuries has taken this to refer to baptism – the outward sign of the new birth. For Nicodemus, as for many Christian believers in many parts of the world, to be publicly baptized would have been a huge risk. Nicodemus might have thought of John the Baptist out there in the desert, baptizing people, among them some of Nicodemus’s priest-friends. As we think back to our baptism – maybe it was a risk committing ourselves to a life of obedience to Christ, and some of us might have been persecuted for that.

Indeed, the act of baptism by immersion is itself a risky venture. I sometimes say to candidates who are ‘baptized backwards’: ‘I’m going to lower you right under the water, and after a second or two I’ll lift you up. You are utterly dependant on my physical strength for that to happen. I could hold you under – a kind of death – and in a sense that’s what baptism is all about…’

In the U.S. the phrase ‘born again’ has entered the common religious and political language . The Southern Baptist republican candidate Mike Huckabee, I heard on the news last week, will appeal to ‘born againers’, evangelical Christians.

Jesus in the Gospels said only to one person – Nicodemus – ‘you must be born again, if you want to see the kingdom of God’. To another who asked how he could gain eternal life, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, ‘and you will have treasure in heaven.’ It’s interesting that we’ve universalized the ‘born again’ idea – everyone has to experience it if they want to get to heaven - but we’ve relativized the other: apparently not everyone has to sell up everything. Phew!

But there’s something else here: In the clause ‘You must be born again’ “you” is plural. In English we have one pronoun which can be both singular and plural. Jesus said to him ‘You – plural – you Pharisees; you the religious establishment must be renewed from above’.

What was wrong with the Pharisees, and why did they hate Jesus? The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’: they separated themselves from the rest of humanity to keep the Law of Moses – and all the other laws the Scribes had added over the centuries - in every detail. The Sabbath laws are the best known. Here’s the problem: Moses said the Sabbath was to be kept holy, and no work was to be done on that day. The Jews over many generations defined and redefined what exactly ‘work’ meant, and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day had it all tied down. For example, Jeremiah (17:21-24) said you weren’t to carry burdens on the Sabbath day. Now what’s a ‘burden’? How heavy is a ‘burden’? They asked ‘If a woman wears jewelry is that a burden? Or if a man has a wooden leg? Or if you lift a child?’ and so on ad infinitum.

Jesus cut across all this religious nonsense, and said the Sabbath was made for the well-being of people, and not the other way around. The Pharisees were actually very ‘good’ people, but ‘good in the worst sense of the word.’ They were guilty of the ‘neurosis of scrupulosity’ as some of my Catholic friends put it. So laws are codified into ‘constitutions’ and the doctrines organized into ‘systematic theology’. I’ve met people and groups like that: haven’t you? And when they become ‘thought police’ like the Pharisees, they’re quite obnoxious…

I read this in an online sermon: ‘If anyone could be trusted to know what the Bible had to say about anything, it was the Pharisees. Nicodemus’s opening line, when he meets Jesus is, ‘Rabbi, we know ... blah, blah, blah.’ ‘We Pharisees, we know...’ And although what he is claiming to know is quite positive and affirming of Jesus, his certainty that they already know who he is and what he is about has already got Jesus challenging him. Jesus doesn’t quite say, “You don’t know nothing,” but he might as well have.’

He comes to Jesus at night. Why? The sermons I’ve heard suggest he was fearful of being discovered talking to this radical prophet. Possibly: Pharisees were known to advocate death to infidels. Or, he simply desired a private conversation uninterrupted by the crowds; or he wanted to ‘vet’ Jesus and his teaching before he made any judgment about him. Whatever the reason, Jesus seems to have won him over: later, when the Sanhedrin was trying to arrest Jesus Nicodemus defended him: a very risky thing to do. And when they finally crucified Jesus he brought expensive spices to prepare Jesus' body for burial.

So how does the story of this risk-taking theologian Nicodemus challenge us? Let me, in closing, make five brief suggestions:

First, the most important thing about being a Christian is not slavery to a belief-system or a commitment to a codified set of laws. It’s about ‘following Jesus’. Resist any religion which is driven by dogma and legalism.

Second, don’t be afraid of a new idea: ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.’ Who was it said ‘When I resist a new idea simply because it’s new, please begin to dig my grave’?

Third, let us develop what my radical friends call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ about all ‘received’ wisdom – particularly entrenched ideas that prevent us seeing God at work, even in unlikely people and places... And let us never forget that, as sociologist Robert Merton and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others have taught us: the evil in institutions is likely to be greater than the sum of the evil of the people within them. ‘The worst evils in the world are not committed by evil people, but by good people who do not know they’re not doing good!’ (Niebuhr). It was institutional evil, perpetrated by Nicodemus’s colleagues, that got an innocent man, Jesus, crucified.

Fourth: knowing the Bible off by heart – as many of the Pharisees proudly boasted – does not guarantee godly behaviour, or even good theology. You can know the Bible off by heart and miss the whole point.

Fifth: let’s not forget our brothers and sisters for whom being a Christian is very risky, and who suffer from institutional evil in many places in our world.. This news item landed in my inbox last week: The Eritrean government has imprisoned more than 2,000 Christians. Some of the imprisoned Christians are kept in metal shipping containers and routinely tortured. As a result there have been cases of prisoners who have died, lost their sight, and/or have been paralysed. Due to the severity of persecution, many churches have gone underground and many Christians have been forced to flee the country.

Sermons on this passage were prepared this amazing week by Australian pastors in the context of our saying Sorry to the indigenous peoples of our land. From one Baptist pastor: ‘Like many Australians, I watched and wept as our newly-elected Prime Minister delivered the long-awaited and long-overdue apology this morning. I wept in shame. Shame for the ways in which previous governments have acted and legislated so atrociously towards our indigenous sisters and brothers, on my and my parents' and grandparents' behalf; shame at the thought that many church organizations, no doubt with the best of intentions, were nonetheless part of the machinery that enabled so many children to be removed; and shame at the memory of my childhood when, as a kid who used to spend his summer holidays on my grandparents' farm in wheatbelt Western Australia, I was ushered to the 'Whites Only' swimming pool, which was separated by barbed-wire from the 'Blacks' Pool'.

‘But I wept also with joy - because as I read through the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, I was brought to John 3: the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. And in that encounter, in which Jesus so profoundly speaks about 'new birth', I realized afresh what the core of the gospel is: that our past no longer needs condemn us to a particular future; that my tomorrows are not imprisoned by my yesterdays; that in Christ, there is a new and more hopeful reality that is brought into vision. Today's apology was, for me at least, truly a Lenten miracle, and one that served to highlight powerfully the world-shaking wonder of the gospel of which John 3 speaks.’

Let us pray: Lord help us to understand grace: that the good news is about a gift: a gift of a new birth, a new life, a new relationship with the living God: a life which is eternal – here and now, and also forever. Amen.

As we go into the world to live out a risky faith, let us be challenged by the great prayer of St Ignatius:

Dearest Lord
Teach me to be generous
teach me to serve you as you deserve –
to give and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds
to toil, and not to seek for rest
to labour, and not to ask reward
except that of knowing
that we do your holy will. Amen.

….

Day by day
Dear Lord, three things we pray:
To see you more clearly,
To love you more dearly,
To follow you more nearly,
Day by day…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sirit. Amen.


Rowland Croucher
February/ March 2008.





Tuesday, March 18, 2008

BARACK OBAMA'S SPEECH ON RACE

The following is a transcript of Sen. Barack Obama's speech, as provided by Obama's campaign, (in response to controversial comments by his ex-pastor).

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.

Sen. Barack Obama has said the controversy over his ex-pastor's remarks has been "a distraction" to the campaign.

****

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy.

Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.

What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk -- to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together -- unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.

I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.

Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough."

We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action, that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.

On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation -- that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain.

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice.

Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America, a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?

And I confess that if all that I knew of Rev. Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.

He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine, who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth -- by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, "Dreams From My Father," I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note -- hope! -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.

"Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope -- became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.

"Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish -- and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety -- the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger.

Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.

Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork.

We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.

And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.

But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.

That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families -- a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.

And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.

What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it -- those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination.

That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations -- those young men and, increasingly, young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.

For the men and women of Rev. Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.

That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Rev. Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.

Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.

They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.

Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.

And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy -- particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.

But it also means binding our particular grievances -- for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs -- to the larger aspirations of all Americans, the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

And it means taking full responsibility for own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American -- and yes, conservative -- notion of self-help found frequent expression in Rev. Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed.

Not just with words, but with deeds -- by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the O.J. trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina -- or as fodder for the nightly news.

We can play Rev. Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.

We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.

This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st Century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.

This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.

We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for president if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation -- the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today -- a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was 9 years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents, too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time.

And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

March 19, 2008

(From the CNN website)

****

Beliefnet's Washington Editor, David Kuo; Politics Editor, Dan Gilgoff
and Beliefnet Editor in Chief and author of the new book FOUNDING FAITH:
Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America and
other bloggers are weighing in on Senator Obama's "A More Perfect Union"
speech today.

Here's a quick rundown of pre-speech posts and points of view:

-- David Kuo: Obama's decision to stand by his church is good
Spirituality "He didn't forego his spiritual home for political
convenience. Whether or not that is good politics is yet to be seen.
That it is good spiritually should be applauded."

-- Steven Waldman: Obama can't be held responsible for all Wright's
statements, but he needs to say where he agrees and disagrees.

"Some stay because the Sunday school is terrific. More commonly, I hear
people say something like, "I don't like the minister's sermons, but he
was so wonderful when my father died." We should remember that the main

purpose of a minister is spiritual. If he helps someone get closer to
God, or find meaning, that matters tremendously."

-- Dan Gilgoff (God-o-Meter): With Trinity UCC lashing out at the media
this weekend, this controversy is sticking around for a while.

"One of the main arguments Obama's surrogates have been making in the
face of the Wright flare-up is that voters want to hear about issues
like health care and the economy, not about the ravings of Obama's
pastor. This weekend's ravings from the church are fuel to the fire,
promising the story ain't going anywhere soon."

-- Rod Dreher: Rev. Jeremiah Wright is no MLK: "Martin Luther King....
was a true prophet, in the Old Testament sense,

who did not damn America, but called her to be true to herself. It's
easy to imagine King denouncing the grave sins of this country, because
he did that. It's impossible to imagine him denouncing this country in
the fanatical terms used by Jeremiah Wright. Had he done so, we would be
living in a different country today, and a worse one.

-- Jim Wallis: This controversy is all about race, not religion.

"There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African
American community in the U.S. And those feelings are borne of the
concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked
opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted....

In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of
black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial which,
very sadly, is where many white Americans are."


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Rowland Croucher

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