After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering the Fallen

   Memorial Day is an occasion of special importance to all Americans, because it is a day sacred to the memory of all those Americans who made the supreme sacrifice for the liberties we enjoy. We will never forget or fail to honor these heroes to whom we owe so much. We honor them best when we resolve to cherish and defend the liberties for which they gave their lives. Let us resolve to do all in our power to assure the survival and the success of liberty so that our children and their children for generations to come can live in an America in which freedom’s light continues to shine.
   The Congress, in establishing Memorial Day, called for it to be a day of tribute to America’s fallen, and also a day of national prayer for lasting peace. This Nation has always sought true peace. We seek it still. Our goal is peace in which the highest aspirations of our people, and people everywhere, are secure: peace with freedom, with justice, and with opportunity for human development. This is the permanent peace for which we pray, not only for ourselves but for all generations.
   The defense of peace, like the defense of liberty, requires more than lip service. It requires vigilance, military strength, and the willingness to take risks and to make sacrifices. The surest guarantor of both peace and liberty is our unflinching resolve to defend that which has been purchased for us by our fallen heroes.
   On Memorial Day, let us pray for peace — not only for ourselves, but for all those who seek freedom and justice.

Ronald Reagan, 1987
 (Photo courtesy of Q&O.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!"

   It's one of my favorite movie lines, from the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. It resonates with me because it is so matter-of-fact. And it also has meaning because it sums up an important spiritual truth.
   So many Christians live tiresome, defeated lives because of one basic reason: they are trying to live a tireless, victorious life. Yet whether you try for a week, a year, or a lifetime, you'll never do it.
   The reason is simple, albeit easily avoidable. No one can please God all the time. Or even most of the time.
   But isn't that what God expects? Isn't the whole point of the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to the Beatitudes, that we should behave and operate in a way that will please God? Isn't that why we're punished by God sometimes for doing wrong, and rewarded for doing right? Shouldn't we, like Agent 007, be asking, "Do you expect me to always do good, to be kind to animals, read my Bible and brush my teeth?"
    The answer to that question, if properly asked of God, is as jarring and as final as Goldfinger's answer to Mr. Bond. And that's because it is the same answer:
"No, I expect you to die."
    For that is the secret to living a life that pleases God. It is exchanging our soiled, pitiful life for that of the spotless, powerful Savior. It is to surrender (something Bond would never do, I agree) in order to win. As Matthew quotes Jesus:
"He who has found his life will lose it, and
he who has lost his life for My sake will find it."
   So what does God expect of us? Good choices? Living right? Nope. He expects us to die. Every day. Every moment. To give all we are aware of that is ours to Him.
   To please Him? No. Who is pleased by being given what they deserve? 
   To get into heaven? No. That ticket requires a different payment, and has already been paid anyway.
   To make life easier here? No, although it should make your life more meaningful.
Allow me to offer an answer in the words of the always thoughtful C. S. Lewis:
"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!"
—Wayne S. C. S. Lewis quote is from Mere Christianity.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Love and Aloha

    If I wen talk all da diffren kine languages, da peopo kine language an even da angel kine languages, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? I ony talking rubbish kine, jalike one junk kine bell o one kalangalang cymbal.
   An if I was one talka fo God, an I wen know all kine secret stuffs an all da kine stuffs dat da smart guys know, an if I wen trus God all da way so I can even make da mountains move, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? I worth notting, dass wat.
   If I wen sell all my stuffs an use da money fo give food to da poor peopo, an even sacrifice my body in da fire, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? Poho, wase time!
   Wen you get love an aloha, you can handle all kine pilikia an hang in dea long time. You get good heart fo help da odda peopo. You no get jealous cuz da odda guy get someting you like. 
   Wen you get love an aloha, you no need talk big. You no mo big head. You no ack pilau kine. You no ack like everybody gotta do everyting yoa way. You no get huhu fast. 
   Wen you get love an aloha, you no goin rememba all da bad kine stuff peopo wen do to you. You no feel good inside wen somebody do someting dass wrong, but you feel plenny good inside wen somebody tell da trut.
   Wen you get love an aloha, you can hang in dea fo everyting an no give up eva. You always trus God bout everyting. You know everyting goin come okay bumbye. You can stand strong everytime.
   Wen you get love an aloha, dat no goin pau eva. Da guys dat talk fo God, bumbye no need fo da tings dey say. Wen peopo talk diffren kine, bumbye nobody goin talk lidat. Da stuff da smart guys know, no matta, bumbye no need. You know, we ony know litto bit. 
   Wen we talk fo God, we get ony litto bit fo tell. Bumbye, goin come da time wen everyting stay perfeck. Dat time, no need fo da litto bit kine stuff no moa. Small kid time, I wen talk jalike one small kid. I wen tink jalike one small kid. I wen figga everyting jalike one small kid. Now, I big, dass why I no do da tings da same way da small kids do um.
   Right now, us guys can see stuff, but ony jalike wit one junk mirror. Hard fo figga wat we see dea. But bumbye, goin be clear. Us guys goin see everyting jalike was right dea in front our face. Right now, I ony know litto bit. But bumbye, I goin undastan everyting, jalike God undastan everyting bout me.
   So now, get three tings dat stay: we can trus God, an we can know everyting goin come out okay bumbye, an we get love an aloha. From da three tings, da love an aloha kine, dass da main ting, an da bestes way.
—from Numba 1 Fo Da Corint Peopo, in the Hawai'i Pidgin Bible.   (photo by Cheryl S. Click to enlarge.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Buechner on the Gospel

   As everybody knows by now, Gospel means Good News. Ironically, it is some of the Gospel's most ardent fans who try to turn it into Bad News. For instance:
   "It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that's all you have to worry about." What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time even loving out family and friends very effectively.
   "Jesus was a great teacher and the best example we have of how we ought to live." As a teacher, Jesus is at least matched by, for instance, Siddhartha Gautama. As an example, we can only look at Jesus and despair.
   "The Resurrection is a a poetic way of saying that the spirit of Jesus lives on as a constant inspiration to us all." If all the Resurrection means is that Jesus' spirit lives on like Abraham Lincoln's or Adolph Hitler's but that otherwise he is just as dead as anybody else who cashed in two thousand years ago, then as Saint Paul puts it, "our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14). If the enemies of Jesus succeeded for all practical purposes in killing him permanently around A.D. 30, then like Socrates, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on, he is simply another saintly victim of the wickedness and folly of humankind, and the cross is a symbol of ultimate defeat.
   What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other in the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.
   What is both Good and New about the Good News is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments (q.v.) but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off ourselves.
   Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob to a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. On the contrary. Childbirth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear live to our slobbery.
--Frederich Buechner from Wishful Thinking, A Seeker's ABC
(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, courtesy of Life Magazine. Click to enlarge).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A lone raindrop in the desert

   After spending a few days on the coast of  Kauai, one can be forgiven for thinking that, in the battle of rock versus water, rock always wins. My wife and I witnessed countless huge waves drive fruitlessly into the ancient lava and rock shores, only to have to regroup and come again. These islands, and these rock shores, have stood for millennia  (sorry, young earthers) and have yielded little.
   But not always. On April 1, 1946, a tsunami raked the northern coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. The giant wave blasted a hole in the middle of a small sandstone island that sits right off La'ie Point on Oahu, leaving behind an unique sight.
(click to enlarge)
As La'ie Point proves, on occasion the water comes with such force that even stone cannot resist. Here's an interesting paragraph from the book The Lighthouse Stevensons, the story of the Scottish family of lighthouse builders, and the ancestors of author Robert Louis Stevenson:
When finally finished, long after Louis had departed for more promising places, the breakwater stood intact for four years until a spectacular storm in December 1872 destroyed the entire harbor, shifting one massive block of stone weighing 1,350 tons and folding the whole structure into the sea. Tom was devastated. In fact, his reaction was far more extreme than the incident warranted. But he had based his professional faith on studying the sea, learning its moods, its tempers, and its breaking points, and the discovery that much of his life's work was founded on a miscalculation was almost unbearable. The early studies he had made of the force of waves were based on the movements of ten- or fifteen-ton blocks, not of something that weighed as much as the whole mass of Bell Rock Lighthouse. His reaction was initially incredulous, then defensive. He published papers complaining of the force of the elements the Stevensons contended with, photographs of immense waves smashing against the harbor walls,  anything that might vindicate his position. Eventually, once the disputing was over, the breakwater was rebuilt, this time with a 2,600 ton foundation block in place. In 1877 another apocalyptic storm washed it away. Tom could do nothing but turn away in disgust.
   A five-million-plus pound rock moved by the force of the sea! We must all react with awe at that fact. As my favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, says: "Nature is boss, and she is pitiless."
   If there is no God, which is Hitchens's presumption, then we must indeed, allow that Nature is supreme, at least over man. But if there is a God, which is my presumption (to be fair), then the power that spews acidic clouds into the air from Iceland (Hitchens's topic), or punches a hole into an island of rock, or tosses a multi-million pound stone like a toy, is no more than a lone raindrop falling in a vast desert.

         More than the sounds of many waters,
         Than the mighty breakers of the sea,
         The LORD on high is mighty.  Psalm. 93:4.

—Wayne S.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Stairway to Heaven

   During our recent visit to the island of Oahu, Hawaii, my wife and I were being squired about the island by our resident friend, Bonnie Sanders, and her two oldest children, Tabby and Corbin. After taking the H3 Interstate (yes, interstate—I have no idea) through a tunnel in one of the mountains, we popped out on the other side. While the view to the left of us was commanding (looking down onto Kaneohe Bay), my eyes were distracted by the large and precipitous mountain we had just transected. Suddenly, I saw something that seemed to defy reason.
   It was a stairway—a very narrow stairway—beginning somewhere below the roadway and angling erratically up the large face of the mountain before disappearing in the clouds.
   Our host Paul, an Army surgeon, told us later as he reviewed the video that the stairway is called the "Stairway to Heaven." First built in 1943, the stairway allowed workers to first build and then man military radio equipment on the peak. It was replaced by a metal stairway (of nearly 4,000 steps!) in the 1950s. The military installation was decommissioned in 1987, and the trail was closed. Yet the occasional intrepid hiker will attempt the summit.
   Sometimes my spiritual pilgrimage seems to resemble what a climb like this must feel like. No matter where I look, only stairs remain—either up into the mist or down into the gloom. It seems I may never reach the top, while the bottom seems to grudgingly, slowly drop away. For days I never move at all.
   But my theology tells me a different story. It says that, at the moment I realized my ability to climb was futile, and confessed as much, the Master of the mountain took me from the precarious and never-ending climb and placed me at the summit. It is still misty, and I can't really see what's there yet, but I am safe, in a different place.  A different kingdom, as it were.
   So why do I sometimes wake up and think I am on the path again, trying to scale the unscalable?
   Good question.
Wayne S.
(Click picture to enlarge. For more info, see here.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Josh Ritter on Inspiration

The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it "The Muse," but I've never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden. I don't know much about it, but I know that it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path. You shovel everything you've got--a long-handled snow shovel works best--into its big toothy mouth, and it chews everything up and sighs once again. It never says "thank you," and you don't expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you'll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn't give away much, but if you know your monster, that's all you need to see. —Josh Ritter, musician, in Paste Magazine, April/May 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

In any language

My wife and I just returned from 10 days in Hawaii--three on Oahu and seven on Kauai. I am resisting the temptation to show you my 700 or so photos (of which maybe 25 are very good). But I would like to tell you of two observations:
God does His best work in small places: The island of Kauai, at 552 square miles, is smaller than the metropolitan Atlanta area where I live. It is only 25 percent inhabited. Some of it is only accessible by helicopter. Yet in such a small place there is variety in geography, ethnicity, climate, altitude and flora and fauna unmatched anywhere else. Beauty and surprises await around every corner.
God loves to astound and delight His Children. One of our dear friends, who along with his wife accompanied us on the trip, made this comment: "When I see this, I can't help but think 'My Father made this.'" Amen. On the last night of our stay, we went to a luau at the next-door Hyatt resort. The Hyatt is a monument to conspicuous consumption (suites go for $4500 a night), and the luau was no exception. Liquor flowed freely, the food was mountainous in volume, and the mood was festive. That why it came as a surprise to us when the emcee announced to the crowd that, before we ate, he would like to offer a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the meal, as most Hawaiians do. What we heard, in a rich, baritone voice, quieted the crowd to silence, and lifted our hearts.
Here is a version performed by the Kamehameha Schools Children's Chorus, along with just a few pictures of my Father's work. Enjoy and be blessed. --Wayne S.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Color of Water

The Color of Water by James McBride. A book review.
   In one sense, it is a remarkable story about a mother who married two good men and raised twelve children, among them medical doctors, university professors, journalists and musicians. In another, it is a story of faith, as Ruth McBride goes on, with her husband, to co-found a Baptist church in New York. Yet it is made all the more noteworthy because Ruth was a white, Jewish woman, and both her husbands were black. In the ultimate sense, therefore, the most redemptive part of this story may be how God raised her above prejudice—Jew against gentile, white against black, black against white, even dark-skinned blacks versus light-skinned—and gave her, her twelve children, and her grandchildren a wonderful gift.
   Ruchel Dwara Zylska, the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, fled her native Poland with her family in 1921 and settled in Suffolk, Virginia. Her father was a cruel man who abused his crippled wife and mistreated his daughter. Along with this harsh treatment, she and her family were ostracized in the South because they were not white, but “Jews.”
   Working long hours in her father’s mercantile store in a black community, she began to identify with the black children her age, also marginalized and discriminated against. Ruth Shilsky (her Americanized name) fled persecution once again when, at seventeen, she moved to New York. There she met Andrew Dennis McBride, a violinist from North Carolina studying music. He was a deacon and choir member at a Harlem church, where she began attending, and where something else happened:
   In 1942, Ruth said to Andrew Dennis McBride, “I want to accept Jesus Christ into my life and join the church.”
   Dennis said, “Are you sure you want to do this, Ruth? You know what this means?”
   I told him, “I’m sure.” I was totally sure.
When it became apparent that Ruth intended to marry Dennis, her Jewish family sat shiva for her, proclaiming her dead to them. From that moment on, her community was the black community of her husband and her soon-to-follow children.
   The author, James McBride, tells his own story beside hers. Her vivid recollections, dictated reluctantly at first, match perfectly James’s story of growing up with “the strange, middle-aged white lady riding her ancient bicycle.” In places the story is hard (both of Ruth’s husbands die, leaving her with eight and then twelve children to raise; James faces the hurdles of inner-city gangs and drugs), and finding their way was hard for both James and Ruth. Yet it is a powerful story of God’s grace. James became
a jazz musician, journalist and author, and Ruth earned a B.A. in Social Work at age 65.
   The evocative title comes from a conversation between mother and son:
[O]ne afternoon, on the way home from church, I asked her if God was black or white.
A deep sigh, “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
—Wayne Steadham