Tag Archives: Christianity

Did these 10 prayers really change the world?

March 28, 2016

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Ten Prayers coverThroughout the centuries believers of every faith tradition have appealed to God or gods for help when human means fail.

But is there such a thing as divine intervention in response to prayer?

Author Jean-Pierre Isbouts isn’t naive enough not to see that prayer has not stopped evil and suffering from happening throughout human history. He asks if, given the deaths of 40 million people during the world wars of the last century and the violent extremists of ISIS and Boko Haran who delight in beheading people for the glory of Allah, it is still possible to believe in a merciful God?

His response to that question is “Ten Prayers that Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History.”

Quoting Plato, Isbouts writes that there is “a spark of the divine” in every person,  and it is “a beacon through which God can speak to us and we can speak to him. . . . “All that we need to figure out is the right bandwidth by which to reach him. Some call that spirituality; others call it prayer.

He adds, “I think of it as whispers of God — whispers that have and incredible power to stir our mind, urge us to action, and make us do things we didn’t think we were capable of.”

From Abraham’s prayer to spare his son, Isaac, to Jesus’ prayer that has become the “Our Father,” on to Constantine and the granting of religious freedom to Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, George Washington, and more, the stories are as much history lessons as affirmation that prayer has had an impact on world events.

Catholics in particular will find a worthwhile summary of Luther’s story.

And did you know that the well-loved “Prayer of St. Francis” wasn’t written during the lifetime of the 13th-century saint but in 1912?

Outside of Abraham, only Ganhdi breaks into what is otherwise an all-Christian line-up of the 10 prayers. And frankly, the prayer for fair weather that Gen. George Patton’s chaplains composed so the Allied Army could relieve the troops surrounded by Nazi German forces at Bastogne during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge — as good a story as it is — seems to pale in comparison to the impact the other nine have had on human history.

 

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52 lessons from ‘A Christmas Carol’

December 21, 2015

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In the 1938 movie version of "A Christmas Carol," Leo G.Carroll-plays Marley’s Ghost and Reginald Owen is Scrooge. File photo

In the 1938 movie version of “A Christmas Carol,” Leo G. Carroll (left) plays Marley’s Ghost and Reginald Owen is Scrooge. File photo

After you’ve once again this year watched Jacob Marley’s ghost scare the bejeezus out of poor ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge, and Bob Cratchit hoist Tiny Tim upon his shoulder to wish God’s blessings on one and all, consider picking up a self-improvement book that could end up carrying you through all of 2016.

In “52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol,” Bob Welch has extracted enough good reflections from the classic Charles Dickens work to spread out one per week for the next year.

Sure, you could read the 224 pages in a single setting, but frankly, the depth of each of the lessons deserves a lengthier examination of conscience.

Take some of these lesson titles in the Nelson Books work:

“Growing wiser means getting uncomfortable”

“You make the chains that shackle you”

“Showing trumps telling”

“Learning begins with listening”

“You can’t wish away the uncomfortable.”

And that’s just five of the 52. Each is brief, just a few pages, but with much to chew on.

Welch, a journalist, teacher and prolific author from Oregon, writes, “Beyond entertaining us, Dickens wanted to make us uncomfortable, because it’s only after we get a touch uneasy with ourselves that we open ourselves to change.”

In his author’s notes, Welch expresses his hope that after reading his “52 Lessons” readers will not only know Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” better, but will know themselves better. He admitted, “I certainly gained perspective on myself from researching and writing it, not that I’m particularly proud of all I discovered. . . . And can’t we all benefit from reexamining who we’ve become in our own life stories?”

In the lesson headlined “It’s about more than Christmas,” Welch decodes the words of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who points out how Christmas seems to bring out the best in people and open up their hearts.

“For Dickens, Christmas becomes a metaphor for life itself,” Welch notes, “the unwritten suggestion that in keeping Christmas we are, in essence, keeping Christ — the one on whom the celebration rests.”

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8 steps toward Catholic-Protestant understanding

October 5, 2015

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Forming a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis' book, "The Church of Mercy," is one step to take toward Christian unity say the authors of "Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar."

Forming a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis’ book, “The Church of Mercy,” is one step to take toward Christian unity say the authors of “Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar.”

If there is ever to be unity among Christians, people will have to take practical steps that bring them wisdom and understanding about Christian traditions other than their own.

book coverPresbyterians Pastor Paul Rock and Bill Tammeus offer ideas for those steps at the conclusion of their Westminster John Knox Press paperback, “Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar.”

The ones below apply to Catholics, but the original list offered similar steps for Protestants:

  1. Visit a Protestant worship service; “Go with someone who can explain what’s happening while it’s happening and what it means.”
  2. Ask a well-versed Protestant to speak to an adult education class at your church about “why he or she has chosen that tradition and what it looks and feels like from the inside.”
  3. Form a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis’ book “The Church of Mercy,” together.
  4. Explore the official websites of major Protestant denominations, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Southern Baptist.
  5. Visit websites of local Protestant congregations to learn about their activities and widely different statements of belief.
  6. Find out if your community has an interfaith organization that sponsors gatherings and learning opportunities.
  7. Read a book on world religions and discuss it with a group from your church “to expand your knowledge beyond the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
  8. Form a group to read and study Stephen Prothero’s book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.”
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This Christmas, remember who was an angel in your life

December 19, 2011

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Here’s an idea we just tried at our Advent wreath prayer that you might find would add meaning to your family’s Christmas gathering.

Giving everybody a couple days notice, we invited them to think of a time when someone was an angel in their life, and then to share that story with everyone around the Advent wreath. This would be great around the Christmas tree, especially with aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas and cousins.

Minutes after the e-mail invitation went out I got replies from everyone that they were in — and they knew just what they were going to share.

If you try this, you may want to have a box of tissues handy. A couple people in our little gathering got pretty emotional in telling about the angels who were there when they really needed someone.

The angels that sang Gloria in Excelsis Deo on that first Christmas give you the perfect into to make this year’s a Christmas party that doesn’t bypass the messages Jesus taught when he walked this earth. I guarantee it will be a Christmas everyone will remember.

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Catholic and want to know more about Jesus?

June 28, 2010

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Jesus cover

“Jesus,”

by Paul Johnson

Ever felt uncomfortable discussing religion in a mixed-faith setting because you don’t feel you’ve really “kept up” with matters of faith?

Paul Johnson’s brief (226 pages) easy-reading story of Jesus — subtitled “A Biography from a Believer” — will get you up to speed with some facts Catholics should know. It will also remind you what Christianity values and why you value your faith life. Johnson is an unabashed cheerleader for the faith, and he writes early on that he wants to share “the joy and nourishment” of following Jesus’ footsteps and pondering his words.

Although I’ve read a lot of religious material, reading “Jesus” gave me a much better mental picture of the era in which he walked this earth, helping me place his life in the time of not just Julius Caesar but Ovid, Livy and Seneca, the Romans whose writing has put life in the Roman Empire into our hands.

But I’d hesitate before giving Johnson my complete trust as a biographer or historian, and I think he’d find that perfectly acceptable.

Meet a new Jesus

In my notes I kept jotting down “first I’ve heard of that,” which did make me suspicious that some of Johnson’s “biography” might be suspect. For example, he writes that Mary was a source for Luke’s gospel, that Jesus’ baptism was witnessed by a large crowd, that one task of the apostles was to “protect” Jesus, and that Jesus’ “few days of rest were spent fishing.”

What these might very well be called would be “guesses.” Johnson says they are “mere deductive supposition.” When he describes Jesus’ appearance and the way he held himself, I’d call that analysis without basis of fact. Yes, Jesus did teach at meal time, but did he “love” to?

But whether or not Jesus could recite Homer and Virgil is less important than the aura of Jesus that I think readers will get about the subject of this “biography.” You’ll meet a new Jesus here, one you’ve likely never thought about in the same way.

Johnson offers us a pleasant, colloquial way of absorbing Jesus’ teachings in somewhat of a condensed version of the gospels, and he follows up by explaining why Jesus taught those lessons.

Don’t miss the homilies

The most useful section of the book may be Johnson’s explanation of why Jesus came and what Johnson charges might be a “New Ten Commandments” Jesus taught. You can see the list below, but it’s Johnson’s writes a page or more about each, and every one could serve as a homily worth hearing.

Johnson calls Jesus’ teachings a moral and social framework that have been invaluable to our world, and, if this book were this section alone it would be enough to inspire every Christian to re-commit themselves to following Jesus’ more closely. Here’s the best part:

“Human progress has proved an illusion as often as not. In many ways our society is no better organized and led than in those weary days two m ago when men like Herod and Pilate ruled. Insofar as we have improved — in the way we look after the poor, the sick, the infirm, the powerless; in our treatment of children; in moral education and training; in penology and the redressing of grievances; in the effort to spread material welfare and to encourage people to show kindness to one another and help their neighbors in difficult times — these improvements have come about because we have had the sense, the sensibility, the intelligence, and the pertinacity to follow where Jesus led. If goodness has a place in our twenty-first century world, it is because Jesus, by his worlds and actions, showed us how to put it there. No other man in history has had this effect over so long a time, over the whole of the earth’s surface, and over such a range of issues.”

If that’s not enough evidence to believe in God, I don’t know what would be. — bz

“Jesus’ New Ten Commandments”

1. Each of us must develop a true personality. We have a duty to be aware of our existence as an act of God’s creation

2. Accept and abide by, universality. Each soul is unique, but each is part of humanity.

3. Respect the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes.

4. Love is a must in human relationships, at all times and in every situation.

5. We are to show mercy just as God shows mercy to us.

6. Keep balanced; don’t be an extremist.

7. Cultivate an open mind.

8. The pursuit of truth, unabridged, simple and pure, unstained by passion, is the most valuable of human activities.

9. Use power carefully, and pay due respect to the powerless.

10. Show courage.

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When Jesus walked the Earth? Well, not quite

April 25, 2010

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life in year one cover

“Life in Year One,”

by Scott Korb

Perhaps my expectations were too high.

I thought “Life in Year One” would make me feel as though I were walking through Israel 2,009 years ago, taking in the sights Jesus would see, smelling the scents Jesus would smell, feeling the atmosphere of the places where Jesus walked.

Author Scott Korb does his best to piece together snatches of what is known about the period of time when Jesus lived and a few decades after his death, but I’m afraid the odds were against him being able to give readers that palpable sense of place that I was looking forward to.

After all, unlike later periods of human history, there are no diaries to rely on other than the gospels, and the major history was written by Josephus, a Jew who found it worth his while to cozy up to the conquering Romans, and Korb several times points out the exaggerations that make Josephus’ history suspect.

Readers will learn about money, food, bathing and buildings during Jesus’ time on Earth. It’s information that’s interesting enough, although a bit of repetition has bulked up what is a relatively short book here, only 208 pages.

Faith at the heart

The most interesting information involves religion, especially the fact that while there were numerous divisions within the unity of the Hebrew faith, a lot of the debating happened at the so-called upper levels was unimportant to people who lived away from the heated discussions among members of competing sects. Korb notes, “When it comes to religion as it was really and truly lived and things were really and truly believed, the people who seem to have been in charge were probably a little out of touch.”

The most important analysis Korb makes, in my view, is explaining the deep connection between the people of Israel and their religion:

“You cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief in the God who put them there. More to the point, you cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief that God had put them there.”

To the Jewish believers God was “the central piece of history itself,” Korb writes, and the typical Jew of the time felt and understood that God was involved in everything — that “what came from the ground, what lived in the trees, every hair on your, belonged to God” — as it had for your ancestors. It was a belief passed down genetically.

Because of the centrality of religion in the lives of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, the synagogue was the center of a community’s life — and not just for worship. The synagogues that Jesus would have attended would have served as well as a soup kitchen, a town hall, a hostel and a school. As Korb notes:

“The people came and fed one another, taught one another. The place bustled all week. A visitor always knew he’d have a place to stay. And the Sabbath was hardly more important than the rest of the week. This tradition had been passed down through their genes. And despite all their disagreements and debates, even despite the power of Rome and the culture of Greece, they always had that. Tradition. And the synagogue was the place to practice it.”

If only we knew more

“Life in Year One” does a solid job of helping readers appreciate what it was like for the Jews to have been absorbed into the Roman Empire and actively work at keeping their Jewish identity while under Roman rule. Korb does a great service in bringing that feeling to the surface.

After reading “The Pacific” recently — a wonderful account of World War II in that part of the world, thanks to diaries written by marines and documents kept by the government — I couldn’t help but wish that Mary, for example, had written a diary and that some day it will be discovered in an archaeological dig.  There’s a book I’d love to read. — bz

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Let Dietrich Bonhoeffer guide your prayer, but don’t get too comfortable

March 17, 2010

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Bonhoeffer cover

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Meditation and Prayer,”

edited by Peter Frick

The Lutheran Pastor who conspired to assassinate Adolph Hitler and lost his life as a result left a handful of writings that challenge Christians yet today to be Christian.

Peter Frick, a college educator, has drawn excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works to be used to encourage the daily practice of meditation and prayer. It was a practice Bonhoeffer encouraged when, while part of the resistance movement, he directed an underground seminary in Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1937, before his opposition to Germany’s warring leadership led to his eventual arrest and hanging.

That activism, that engagement, that hard-core brand of following Jesus Christ — even when difficult — no, especially when difficult — permeates the 56 pages of this slim-but-powerful purse-sized paperback from Liturgical Press (www.litpress.org).

Bonhoeffer has gifts to share about self-reflection, about self-deception, about silence, about a community praying for one another, about temptation, about suffering. Frick invites his readers to absorb them one day at a time, focusing on one thought throughout the day or even for several days.

They are so meaty that you can. Each meditation is less than a page, but page after page I found myself stopping to internalize the thought there in black and white. Take Bonhoeffer’s warning against “cheap grace”:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession.”

Bonhoeffer’s faith is a faith of meditation, prayer and then action or consequence. His is not a half-way Christianity. He preaches the Gospel put into action in the world. Check out these excerpts:

“…it is certainly never pious to close the eyes that God gave us to see our neighbor and his or her need, simply to avoid seeing whatever is sad or dreadful.”

“Nothing is more ruinous for life together than to mistrust the spontaneity of others and suspect their motives. To psychologize and analyze people . . . is to destroy all trust. . . . People don’t exist to look into the abyss of each other’s hearts . . . but to encounter and accept eath other just as they are.”

“It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. But not before.”

There’s more where that came from. — bz

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Look and learn about the places you’ve read about in the Bible

July 16, 2009

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“Oxford Bible Atlas,”
Edited by Adrian Curtis

If you’ve never been to the Holy Land or other places mentioned in the Bible, this is the book to take you there in absentia.

If you’ve been to any of those ancient sites, this Oxford University Press large-format paperback is the book to rekindle memories.

It was nearly 50 years ago that the Oxford Bible Atlas first appeared in print, and this fourth edition blossoms like none of its predecessors thanks to color photography throughout. As you might imagine, satellite photos of the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, and that portion of Earth from Egypt to the Arabian Penisula weren’t in that first edition in 1962.

As Adrian Curtis explains, the primary aim of the atlas is to provide the reader with an awareness of the world in which the biblical stories are set. Aerial photographs do what one’s imagination never can to show what the hills of Galilee, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and the City of Jerusalem are really like.

While many of us are accustomed to looking at an atlas for directions, the Oxford Bible Atlas does so much more, offering not just geography and history but archaeology and geology, too. There is as much text and photography as there are maps.
We don’t just see where Babylon is on the map, for example, but we learn how the exile of the Jews there came about.
Curtis, a Methodist lay preacher, is an excellent teacher with a background as a lecturer on the Hebrew Bible for 40 years at the University of Manchester in Great Britain.

You can very easily sit down with the atlas and read it as any other work of nonfiction, chapter by chapter. It would be great for Bible study, small group, faith sharing or adult faith formation purposes, reading a chapter a week. Most chapters are just a few pages, with full-page maps included, and they tend to read chronologically.

Where did the Ephesians live?
While many are likely to have a fairly good idea where Damascus is (in Syria, north and east of Israel), how many times have those of us in the pews heard the lector proclaim names of biblical places such as “Cappadocia” or “Ephesus” (Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians!) and not had a clue that both are part of modern-day Turkey?

A couple of the later chapters offer a real education in archaeology, including a two-page spread on ancient writing systems.

I enjoyed reading and finding my way along on the maps, but I could see where others might enjoy and learn about biblical lands just by looking at the many photos and reading the captions. That alone is an education.
Bravo to all involved in bringing Bible places to life. — bz
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‘The Shack’: Interesting novel/catechism turns hateful

September 29, 2008

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‘The Shack,’

by Wm. Paul Young

Wm. Paul Young had me for 178 pages.

Through 178 pages the author of this New York Times bestseller offered a creative approach to teaching readers about all kinds of elements of Christian faith.

In the paperback version of this “catechism-as-dramatic-novel/fantasy,” the first 178 pages are a painless way to be forced to think about our — yours and mine — relationship with God.

Through a hurting father’s meeting with the triune God, the first 178 pages of “The Shack” present convincing explanations about the concept of free will, unconditional love, good and evil, human frailties, the Trinity and more.

For 178 pages Young, the child of missionary parents, makes us reflect about our image and understanding of God, reinforcing the idea that God is always with us, always loves us, even as we stumble and fall.

Then comes page 179.

Religion one of ‘trinity of terrors’?

That’s where Young’s Jesus starts a diatribe against organized religion, using the kind of language Catholics used to see only in the hate pamphlets that carried drawings of the pope as the devil — horns and tail included.

The character of Jesus who inhabits Young’s fanciful “shack” says he’s “not too big on religion,” and lumps religion in with politics and economics in a way most Christians would describe as, well, unchristian.

Religion, politics and economics, this Jesus claims, “are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about. What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?”

But there’s more.

Young’s Jesus says, “Put simply, these terrors are tools that many use to prop up their illusions of security and control. People are afraid of uncertainty, afraid of the future. These institutions, these structures and ideologies, are all a vain effort to create some sense of certainty and security where there isn’t any. It’s all false!”

But wait, there’s more.

Two pages later it is all the world’s systems that are the problem. Jesus of “The Shack” says,

“Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.”

So, none of what humanity — created in the image and likeness of God — has developed through the centuries does any good? It’s “well-intentioned” but evil? Hard to believe. And, if you’re like me, those last couple of sentences in the quote above sound similar to the Catholic Church’s advice that its members are to be counter cultural, in the world but not of it, part of society but not caught up in its less noble pursuits. But you don’t hear Young’s Jesus acknowledging that.

Now who’s being judgmental?

Perhaps the attack on organized religion wouldn’t come off as so hypocritical if it hadn’t come after a whole chapter in which Mackenzie — the book’s main character — goes through an agonizing trial that teaches him not to be judgmental.

Far be it for any Catholic to ignore the failings of our church — its members and its leaders — throughout history and even to the present day. But any author does readers an enormous disservice by ignoring the positive motives, positive actions and positive results that organized religions have brought to the world throughout history and continue to bring today.

Our churches — of many denominations — deserve credit for upholding moral standards that easily go by the wayside in a laissez-faire society.

The Catholic Church in particular has earned the admiration of many for creating the concept of higher education.

People — organized through their church affiliations — feed the hungry, care for the sick, shelter the homeless — in a better way when they do so in organized ways.

The list could go on. Sadly, Wm. Paul Young has chosen to ignore the good and instead judge others in a way he tells his readers not to.

Sad, too, is that it took 179 pages for him to show his true colors. — bz
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