Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Charting a Course for the Next Generation

What kind of values and wisdom do we hope to pass on to the next generation? It's an age old question, but I'm hard pressed to say what it is that our culture and often our churches have to say in response to that question. With three young adult sons of my own who've challenged me to find some answers to what I hope the world will become with their involvement, I keep looking for answers myself.

Marian Wright Edelman's new book The Sea is so Wide and my Boat is so Small offers up another marvelous book of "Letters" to a wide audience of leaders, citizens, and groups who bear responsibility for the shaping of the next generations. Marian Wright Edelman is a national treasure for her advocacy and leadership of the Children's Defense Fund, an organization based in Washington, D.C. that speaks for the poorest of our nation's children. She's also a parent who has tried to pass on wisdom and faith to her own children through books like "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours", a book I highly recommend.

Here's the issue, as Marian Wright Edelman describes it:
"While thirteen million privileged children in the richest nation on earth are growing up in indefensible poverty without the most basic necessities of life and a fair chance to envisage a better future, millions of overprivileged children are growing up infected with the affluenza virus- the spiritual poverty of having too much that is worth too little.
Given every material thing they desire- cell phones, iPods, fancy cars, and the latest trendy fashions-while living in big houses in well-to-do neighborhoods, many lack sufficient parental and community attention, limit-setting, spiritual guidance, and moral example...These lost, out of control children are desperately crying out for attention, direction, and protection from parents and other responsible adults."

Marian Wright Edelman wrights letters the old-fashioned way. They are meant to be read and re-read and savored for the long term. They aren't digitized emails that are quickly read and moved to the deleted file. Her letters bear up to the challenges of real life and authentic moral struggle. Here are a few distilled principles for living a rich and rewarding life that Edelman wrote for her grandchildren. Edelman writes, "I wish you..."

  1. An optimistic and determined spirit. Edelman quotes Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf shortly after her birth, and wrote, "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."
  2. A courageous and just spirit willing to speak up for right and against wrong. Being courageous is not being unafraid. It is being able to do what you have to do even when you are afraid.
  3. A forgiving spirit. "Hate is a very heavy burden to carry," is an understanding that Edelman gained from the great singer Marian Anderson during the Civil Rights struggle.
  4. A passionate and persevering spirit. Find and pursue your passions. .. Don't let closed doors deter you. Keep knocking on them.
  5. A can-do spirit devoted to making a positive difference in the lives of others.
  6. A generous spirit. How difficult that can be in our society, when we are told that our value is measured by what we get and not by what we give.
  7. A resilient spirit. Don't dwell on your failures, Edelman writes to her grandchildren. Learn from them and move on. Don't dwell on your weaknesses or on what you wish you could do but can't. Do what you can do. Build on your strengths.
  8. A calm spirit. Try to take time to be silent and to listen to your inner self, where God lives. Be able to be alone without being lonely.
These are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom that Marian Wright Edelman seeks to pass on to future generations. I'm wondering, what do we as parents and as people of faith and as members of the larger human family plan to do in "charting a course for the next generations." What do you plan to offer? Each of us can do something.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Some Sunshine for Your Day

from the Steve Winwood new album "Nine Lives"

On a brave new morning, smiling at the sky
Every shadow of the past whispers goodbye
There is hope, if you can see
I give it all to you, you give it all to me
Every winter has the sun within its heart
And everything we think we knew we can forget
Maybe far but not apart
I know it's getting better and it will be better yet

So fly
'Cause I know what you're feeling
When it turns out that way
And that emotion is healing
And we can fly


The great Steve Winwood has returned with a magnificent new album titled "Nine Lives".
Get it and you'll find some sun-drenched hope in the midst of this awful calamity we are experiencing in our economy. "Nine Lives" says it all. Life is stronger than death.
Hope is more powerful than Fear! If we people of faith don't believe that, what do we have to offer the world ?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Dismal Science

Out on the bike trail this afternoon, I pulled up to the top of a hill overlooking a lake, where I met a man on a recumbent bike who had cycled up from the opposite side of the hill. "Nice bike," I said as we both stopped to admire the view and catch our breath. We struck up a conversation about the advantages of different styles of bikes, one thing led to another, and we exchanged first names and a little personal information.

What do you do? he asked. Well, I'm a Presbyterian pastor, I responded. Interesting my new friend remarked. "Are you finding more people coming back to church during this awful economic crisis?" he asked. Not in large numbers, I responded.

It was an interesting conversation up there on top of the dam, as we looked out over the lake.
How often do people speak about faith and the economy in the same breath? In my experience, not very often. Yet Jesus spoke about the stewardship of wealth in his parables and teaching frequently. In fact, "wealth and its stewardship" was one of Jesus' favorite topics. Someone once said that it's safer in our society to talk about sex, than it is to discuss one's personal finances. I don't know about that, but it looks like we are headed toward a social and economic crisis that may press us all to open up about personal stewardship and the fate of our collective economic condition.

One suggestion. Over at Sojourner's Magazine, in its online version, editor Jim Wallis has addressed the economy and faith on his personal blog "God's Politics" today. Wallis intends to open up an ongoing conversation on faith and the economy. It should be thought provoking.

My new friend asked, "Are people coming back to church to help deal with their fear and anxiety over the economy?" It's really too soon to tell, I think. But I wonder about this. What would people find if they did return to church. Would they find pastors and congregations willing to address this topic of our shared economic crisis in open forums and in sermons? Can you envision churches planning a learning series about the justice of our economy? I think that would be intriguing. Imagine planning a series with some local professors from nearby colleges.
And how about an ecumenical cluster of churches together sponsoring a forum in which local congressional leaders would be invited to address this topic. Finding a trained theologian/ethicist to speak about the topic from a faith perspective could add depth and breadth to an ongoing conversation.

"The dismal science"; that's what we have called economics. I wonder if we can afford not to learn more about the key elements of the ways in which nations and communities create, distribute, and conserve all the facets of wealth production and consumption. It is a justice issue. It is a crucial issue for human betterment that can no longer be ignored and left in the hands of Wall St. "masters of the universe."

For spiritual and theological reflection on our current crisis, consider the comments of
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430 from the City of God (Book I, Chapter 20).
Here Augustine speaks about the crisis of the great city of Rome, in a parallel to our own times of anxiety. This is what Augustine wrote:

They lost all they had [in the sack of Rome]. Their faith?
Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart,
which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose
these? For these are the wealth of Christians, to whom the wealthy
apostle said, "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we
brought nothing into this world, find it is certain we can carry
nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith
content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a
snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in
destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all
evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the
faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Perhaps this could be a start in inviting people of faith to engage in conversation about our current spiritual and economic challenges.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Three Cups of Tea.. a journey toward peace and spiritual encounter

If you've seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet you will recall the story of one man's spiritual odyssey in the high himalayan mountains, in the land of the Dalai Lama and in the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. It's a stirring adventure story among a peace loving people who will face the militant challenge of China in our own day. Everyone loves a Buddhist goes the saying. Who loves the Muslim?

That's really the story of the book Three Cups of Tea, which begins in 1993 when high up in the Himalayan mountains American mountain climber Greg Mortenson stumbles lost and near death into a remote village after a failed attempt to climb K2, the world's most dangerous peak. The people of a desperately poor village in Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya took in Greg Mortenson and nursed him back to health over the course of 6 weeks. These were simple Muslims in a land that is now considered among the most violent and dangerous places in the world for Americans to venture. It's the epicenter in some views of world-wide terrorism and the cultivation of militant Islam. But Mortenson was extended a life-saving hospitality that would transform his life and send him on a grand adventure more challenging and worthwhile than any climb he had made into the Himalayan mountains. Hospitality can be just that life changing!

As Mortenson came to appreciate the villagers of Korphe who rescued him, he came to an understanding of them as a people who had hopes and dreams for their children like people all over the world. They hungered for a better life for their sons and daughters, after seeing that the government of Pakistan failed repeatedly in its promises to build schools. No books, no supplies, no school building, no teachers. Mortenson surveyed the situation and made a rash promise. He would return from America and build a school for the children of Korphe. One school only! From that small step a movement developed that led to the foundation of an organization known as the Central Asia Institute (CAI), with Mortenson as its executive. But from that day in 1993 to today's unfolding mission by CAI there's an adventure story worth telling that rivals and exceed Pitt's Tibetan movie.

Along the way, Greg Mortenson came to love the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the children of those countries. The subtitle of the book Three Cups of Tea spells out the mission of CAI: "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at a Time".

Along this voyage of discovery, Mortenson found surprising and often unlikely allies and supporters both in the United States and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His central learning was this: "If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."
Mortenson has pursued his vision and the growing strategy of CAI in a land that most Amerians fear. It isn't the land of gentle Buddhism. It's the land of Islam, which many Americans unfairly caricature as largely centered on violence.

Mortenson doesn't downplay the intent of terrorist organizations, but he offers us this perspective. "'I've learned," observes Mortenson, "that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." That's a difficult principle for many Americans to embrace during this long struggle with terrorism, when most of our responses as a nation have been fear based. Mortenson's mission is clear and I find compelling, when he argues that the war on terrorism will be won with books, not bombs. The real enemy is ignorance.

My favorite passage in Three Cups of Tea occurs after Mortenson has returned to the village of Korphe, after an amazing and most unlikely success in raising the funds to build a school. That is a remarkable achievement in itself. But when Mortenson returns to head up the building effort you learn his spiritual journey has just begun. In his obsessive goal to build the school, Mortenson drives the village members so hard, that he loses sight of the larger need they have to celebrate this achievement in a land where life unfolds slowly and at a different pace than he is accustomed to. After all, these people measure time in years and centuries, not just in hours and minutes.

Haji Ali, the villager chief and elder, who has played such a significant role in Mortenson's life from the day he stumbled into Korphe, takes this American aside after the frustration of the villagers has grown unbearable. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan (their region)," says Haji Ali to Mortenso, "you must respect our ways."

"The first time you share tea with a Balti; you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," Haji Ali says to his young American friend.

"Dr. Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time," said Haji Ali