George Koch – A Word for Unity from the Chair of the ACT3 Board

Rev. George Koch is the chairman of the ACT3 Network board and pastor of the Jerusalem House of Prayer, a messianic Anglican parish, located in West Chicago, Illinois. George is a great advocate for unity and has a magnificent influence in my life. His video for today is both solid and helpful.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, The Church, Unity of the Church | 6 Comments/Likes

A Common Struggle – An Uncommonly Fine Book

51-pONHfBCL._AA160_Patrick J. Kennedy, the former congressman and youngest child of Senator Ted Kennedy, recently appeared in an interview on the award-winning news broadcast, “CBS 60 Minutes.” The interview that Kennedy gave so intrigued me that I decided to read his new best-selling book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Illness and Addiction (New York: Blue Rider Press: Penguin, 423 pages). 

A Common Struggle, co-authored with Stephen Fried, details Kennedy’s personal and political battle with mental illness and addiction, exploring mental health history in the U.S. alongside his own private struggle. Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman, publicly disclosed his addiction to prescription painkillers in 2006 after he crashed his car into a Capitol barrier in the middle of the night. The true extent of his struggle with bipolar disorder was not known at the time thus his plan to openly seek help caught many off-guard. Given the way public life works in Washington this could have been the end of Kennedy’s public career but instead of the end it proved to be a whole new beginning.

Kennedy went on to become the leading advocate in Congress for mental health and substance abuse care, as well as research and policy. He authored and advocated for numerous mental health and addiction bills that have slowly begun to alter our policies and practices. He also played a significant role in changing insurance coverage of mental health problems. The signal piece of legislation that he helped pass was the landmark Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. This bill was passed after the death of his famous father, Senator Ted Kennedy. Eventually Patrick Kennedy left Congress to devote himself to the public dialogue that surrounds all brain diseases.

In A Common Struggle we hear Kennedy’s private and professional narrative. What we also learn is that for Patrick Kennedy the personal is the political and the political is the personal. I found his philosophy deeply resonated with my faith and public life as a Christian.

iuKennedy unveils his deeply moving story through tell about his silent years leading up to when he “came out” regarding his bipolar disorder and addiction. This personal memoir examines Kennedy’s journey toward recovery and profoundly reflects upon our culture-wide propensity to treat mental illness as a “family secret” that should be hidden from public view. Mental illness, unless it is of the type that we experience through a severe birth defect, is still treated by millions of Americans as something to be ashamed of. Kennedy wants to change this perception and has worked night and day to alter our approach to both mental health and addiction.

But Patrick Kennedy does much more than reveal personal family trials and struggles. He creates a social and political roadmap for equality in the mental health community. His plan for the future of mental health policy is both reasonably offered and truly bold.

A Common Struggle has been rightly called a cry for empathy and a call to action. But it is much more. It reveals the trials and struggles of the entire Kennedy clan in a way that might change your view of this iconic family. For example, has it ever occurred to you that seeing two family patriarchs killed by assassins would extract a massive emotional toll upon generations of Kennedy children? Has it ever occurred to you that being a Kennedy created a high price that few of us can really understand, especially since there are so many Kennedy-haters in the general population?

Patrick Kennedy reveals that in his search for sobriety he decided to attend a private congressional Bible study and prayer group. He was surprised by the response of so many Republicans toward him. They supported him and showed costly love and grace. He notes that the spiritual support he got from them was eight-to-one in comparison to the support he got from fellow Democrats. But he also relates how understanding and gracious Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to him, a fact that others will likely not accept because of their political stance.

Kennedy’s co-author, Stephen Fried, is an award-winning healthcare journalist. and best-selling author Stephen Fried, A Common Struggle is both a cry for empathy and a call to action.

This is one of the most important memoirs on mental health and addiction I have ever read. If you struggle with these issues, either personally or within your own family, I encourage you to read this memoir. If you do not struggle you might also benefit from this readable book by having your understanding radically altered by by a powerful first-person story.

Today Patrick Kennedy is sober, happily married and profoundly enjoying his service for the cause of mental illness and addiction from outside of the Congress. He seems to have finally found the elusive peace that he had sought since he was thirteen years old.

Posted in Books, Current Affairs, Personal, Psychology, Spirituality | 21 Comments/Likes

René Girard: The Passing of an Amazing and Iconic Thinker

I think it is quite unlikely that many readers of this post know the life and thought of René Girard. I discovered him late in life, only about fifteen years ago. I found his work on human desire both insightful and brilliant. Agree or disagree with Girard’s thought he helped us rethink human desire, anthropology and sin. If you reject the idea of evolution please do not let that issue keep you from learning from this great Christian thinker. This presentation by Fr. James Alison is a great, short summary.

You may need to see this several times to actually process Girard’s central thought but this is as good as any short presentation of the man and his thinking I’ve seen.

Posted in Biblical Theology, Culture, Hermeneutics, Philosophy, Religion, Roman Catholicism | 10 Comments/Likes

Catholic-Evangelical Redux 2015

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, Unity of the Church | 2 Comments/Likes

Greg Moser: A Lutheran Pastor Speaks on Christian Unity (Part 2)

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Greg Moser: A Lutheran Pastor Speaks on Christian Unity

Rev. Greg Moser is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, Illinois. He is my pastor, my friend and a member of the ACT3 Network board. Here he speaks on the power and importance of Christian unity.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

Pope Francis and the Faith of Non-Christians

UnknownOn Friday, September 25, Pope Francis visited Ground Zero in New York City to pay respect for life and to pray for healing and peace. Many Christians have expressed dismay that the pope did not mention the name of Jesus at this occasion. Some have specifically stated that he actually proved that he was a religious pluralist who does not believe that Jesus Christ is the true Savior of the world. This entire debate is often absent both the context and the content of his actual words and actions. The pope’s entire address can be read here:

Pope Francis said:

I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset which can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.

I went to this site last July (2014). I have never read words that better reflect precisely how I felt at Ground Zero when I looked at the two huge pools of water in the pit where the Twin Towers once stood. What Pope Francis decried was not Islam, and rightly so, but rather “a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge.” This distinction is immensely important for peacemakers. And it is immensely important that we not connect this act of terror and murder to Islam.

Today I shared the day with a friend who is a priest. My friend was there in the underground museum with the pope on that Friday. He expressed to me the sense of awe that he felt in that incredible place. If you’ve been there you know this scene and you have a hard time explaining what you feel in anything remotely like propositions. You are struck by awe and a sense of silence overwhelms you.

Unknown-2At the end of his remarks Pope Francis said:

This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE. Let us pray in silence.

After a moment of silence the pope concluded with these words:

In this way, the lives of our dear ones will not be lives which will one day be forgotten. Instead, they will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.

So far as I can tell those Christians who criticize the pope for these kinds of remarks, and for his presence with representatives of major religions in this ceremony, offer two major reasons:

  1. He is standing in complete (or subtle) agreement in matters of faith and practice by standing with other religious leaders.
  2. He is compromising his role as a Christian shepherd by not using Jesus’ name in his words and prayer. Unknown-1

I find both of these criticisms unconvincing for three reasons:

  1. The Catholic Church has already agreed (cf. Vatican II) on a great deal of common concern between religions. The decree Nostra Aetate did not give away the Christian faith but rather recognized that there are elements of truth in all faiths that can be expressed in good will. Nostra Aetate is clearly not teaching that all roads lead to Christ but rather than all truth comes from God and whatever truth each religion possesses thus comes from God. This will not please those who want to hear that every religion is “the doctrine of demons” or that non-Christian faiths are totally and entirely false. There is room for continued dialogue about how this works in practice and how it lines up with Scripture.  I freely grant this room for continued discussion. But this much is clear, at least if you read the teaching of the Catholic Church correctly, the pope is not compromising his confidence in Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world.
  2. The pope is not giving away his role as a Christian pastor but rather he is underscoring his role as a Christian peacemaker because of the teaching of Jesus who blessed “peacemakers.” Further, he is living by the Golden Rule and showing how a Christian should respond in the face of great human evil when they are in a religious context where all grieve together. If you read The Joy of the Gospel you will readily see that Pope Francis is a very strong preacher of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
  3. Finally, Pope Francis appropriately serves the whole of humanity in the name of Christ and God’s mercy, not condemnation. His very presence, as the Bishop of Rome, puts him in a unique position where the world already knows that he is the servant of Christ and his people. There is a time and a place under heaven for everything and in this context to overtly preach as an evangelist would be unfaithful to the spirit and love of Jesus. I realize proof-texting will lead to a different conclusion but this is precisely why proof-texting is dangerous to the gospel. Pope Francis clearly understands this and his words and actions reveal it consistently. I thus cannot accept these kinds of criticisms made about this address and the prayer Pope Francis offered in this public context.
Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Islam, Jesus, Personal, Pope Francis, Religion, Roman Catholicism | 6 Comments/Likes

Jimmy Carter: A Full Life

Jimmy-Carter-headshotLike so many I have had a mixture of feelings and responses to President Jimmy Carter over the years. It seems to me that most critics, left and right, have freely attributed to him the label of “poor president” or “political failure.” I wonder what history, long after his death, will actually say. Many thought that Harry Truman was a failure until after his death. Maybe Carter’s legacy will meet a similar fate but I have my doubts. If a president is known for his legislative accomplishments then Carter will always be seen as mediocre at best. Among conservatives he is loathed and even seen as the definition of failure and disappointment. (This was true at least until we elected President Barack Obama, who is now classed as lower than Jimmy Carter ever was by the same critics.)

It is ironic, perhaps, that Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president I actually met in person. (It was brief and not memorable.) I have been to most of the presidential libraries and museums and read a great deal of American history. Presidents fascinate me thus Jimmy Carter truly fascinates me. Who is/was he? What did he do? Why is he seen as such a failure? What did he do that was memorable, if anything? Why did he make some of the decisions he did and what are his personal Christian beliefs. And then, why does he live the way he does right up to age 90?

a-full-life-9781501115639I heard an interview with President Carter a few months ago on NPR. Carter was promoting his new memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015). Shortly after this interview I went to my local library and got on a waiting list to read the book. Now that I’ve finished it I am profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to read this fine book. I will share a few reasons:

  1. President Carter is a very smart man, something that he is rarely given credit for at all. He understood international relations quite superbly and was a true champion of human rights (and religious freedom), the latter a cherished doctrine from mid-twentieth century. He was called “inconsistent” and “hypocritical” by some. I find his grasp of international issues, especially regarding the Middle East, to be superb and thus satisfying to my way of thinking about these complicated issues.
  2. President Carter is humble and willing to allow the reader to see into his soul and his process of decision-making without simply painting a rosy-picture that makes him look great. He admits some of his mistakes but like all of us he does so with caveats.
  3. President Carter loves his wife and family and is a man at peace with God and people. He still engages in some political issues, especially those touching upon civil rights and foreign policy. But he is best known for his good work on fair elections, serving the poor and building Habitat Homes. His work via the Carter Center is impressive to me as well. My visit there was most rewarding. Some have called him our best “former president.” I think this label fits but it is quite often a backhanded compliment.
  4. Jimmy Carter is a truly decent man who struggled with aspects of politics because he was never a cut-throat politician. He was too personally decent. Put simply, I like him for all of this and would love to talk to him in person. As I read this book I felt like I did sit down and talk with him. By the way, most readers know that Carter defeated President Gerald R. Ford. Did you know that the two of them became good friends in the years afterward. This is a marvelous story.
  5. Jimmy Carter’s faith is deep and real. Say what you will but only a completely unfair critic would question his love for Christ and the gospel. Multitudes still flock to hear him teach the Bible and he is said to be a superb teacher. I understand this his views on issues vary from those of some conservative folks but he is a serious and earnest Christian and a knowledgeable Bible teacher. No other president in American history comes close.
  6. The most moving part of the book is seen in a story that occurred when Carter had lost his first election for governor of Georgia. He was emotionally drained and spiritually despondent. His sister, a charismatic evangelist, told him to go on a Southern Baptist mission to Pennsylvania that summer. He did and his faith was restored by witnessing to people door-to-door. The next summer he went to Massachusetts. As he saw people come to know Christ he was moved very deeply. In this context he tells the story of a Cuban-born Baptist minister who he was paired up with in leading people to Christ. I will not tell you more except to say that this story so perfectly captures the thesis of my next book, Our Love Is Too Small, that I included it in the final two pages. (Carter would love my book, or so I think.) I love his spirit and his clear, deep love for Christ, both of which are revealed so profoundly in this memoir. He is loving, wise and non-judgmental in the best way. This does not mean that he does not criticize conservative Christians at some weak points.
  7. People sometimes wonder if Jimmy Carter, while he was president, ever shared his personal faith with world leaders and told them the good news. The answer is yes and the stories he shares are truly interesting. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.

You may have despised this man as president. You may think he did a lot to hurt America. I do not agree. But I want to leave that aside for the moment. I tell you simply that here is a good man who loves God and who sought the kingdom in every part of his long life. I pray for him now as he battles with cancer. May God bless President Jimmy Carter, our brother in Jesus Christ. He did a lot of good for Christ and his kingdom. He will finally answer to God, not to you and me. But then this is true for us all.

Posted in America and Americanism, Books, Civil Rights, Current Affairs, Ethics, History, Leadership, Personal, Spirituality, The Church | 30 Comments/Likes

Reading Maya Angelou

IMG_5286I owe a debt of profound gratitude to my friend Vill Harmon (second from left in this photo with my good friends and two ACT3 board members). Vill is the secretary in the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July (2015) Vill and I shared a conversation about our background, especially in terms of race and the South. Vill is African-American, and a great friend. I have come to cherish her advice and joyful spirit. When Vill encourages me to think about my past, and the present issue of race in America, I try to listen. In July she told me I should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), written by the famous Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014). (Maya’s first name came from her brother Bailey when she was a child.)

9780812980028Maya Angelou was an author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. She was also credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over fifty years. She read several of her poems at the inauguration of President Clinton, appropriately so because Maya grew up in rural Stamps, Arkansas. Ms. Angelou received dozens of awards and more than fifty honorary degrees yet when all is said and done she is best known for her seven autobiographies. These seven books all focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. I had never read any of her highly-acclaimed books until I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House). In this amazing story she tells of events that shaped her life up to age of seventeen. The book brought Maya Angelou international recognition and acclaim, especially after Oprah Winfrey became her fan. I now understand why. Her’s is an utterly amazing story of growing up poor and black in the South. It is also very well written. At times you cry, at others you will laugh aloud. It is prose that moves the soul.

I personally knew poor black people in the South in my 1950s childhood, or I thought I knew them. Yet I never understood their plight and culture as I now do after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also understand why Vill told me to read the book. My depth of understanding has been profoundly altered by it. And my desire to become a more skilled “reconciler” has been powerfully shaped by this book.

thMaya Angelou became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer and cast member for a famous opera. She also became coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a journalist overseas. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Maya was at first timid about getting involved in Civil Rights but she worked with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In the early 1990s, she made numerous lecture appearances each year thereafter into her eighties.

It was with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that Maya Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life not previously known. This personal material makes her book unique and heart-changing. She soon became a spokesperson for black people and women. Her works are now seen by many as a defense of Black culture. Sadly, several attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. As is always the case this only made her work even more highly valued. Some have called Maya Angelou’s major works autobiographical fiction. For the life of me I do not see why. What she did, and this was new at the time in American writing, was to challenge the common structure of the autobiography. She did this by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre in a previously undeveloped way in American literature. Wikipedia says, “Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel.” Quite true!

I will not say more about her life and written corpus since you can discover all that I’ve written online. The Wikipedia article, from which I’ve drawn a great deal of what I wrote above, is quite full. It seems to me to be pretty accurate with all the sources you want.

What I wish to say about this book is quite simple. If you want to understand race in America, especially in the context of family and poverty, you should read this classic memoir/autobiography. It will move you deeply if you have an ounce of compassion at all. I can never think about my childhood in middle Tennessee (my mother and father were both from rural Arkansas) in the same “innocent” way again. Maya Angelou opened my eyes but she also reached into my heart. I only regret that it took me this long to finally read her most famous book. I expect I will read more of her work very soon. Thank you Vill Harmon, my good friend. I am so glad you urged me to read this book last summer. My copy is going back to the Carol Stream Library today. I expect I’ll soon read another of her books very soon. I hope some of you will try this one and see what it does to your heart as a lover of Christ and an agent of reconciliation. If we are to grasp the lives we lead we must know people and read books like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Posted in Books, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Affairs, Freedom, History, Marriage & Family, Personal, Race and Racism | 6 Comments/Likes

Fr. René Constanza on Christian Unity, Part 2

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 3 Comments/Likes