Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vacation is good for the soul

Even God rested for a day. So I'm heading out for a week to see some friends and family out west and enjoy the mountains and the ocean. If I get a chance I'll post some pictures, but I may decide I don't want to work at all, and I'll bore you with vacation details upon my return.

Take care.

Amazing forgiveness

Not only did Bill Ebarb forgive the man who shot his brother, but he wants to see him released from prison.

I heard Ebarb's story Wednesday at a program for National Crime Victims Week at David Wade Correctional Center, and it's one of those that forces you to think. His journey wasn't an easy one, but still, would I have the courage to do that if it were my brother?

We spoke after the presentation and he said something I always love to hear - "you probably won't print this." Then he continued saying he wishes the pardon board would consider the changes in a man when they look at commuting a sentence. The man who killed his brother has shown great remorse and become a solid Christian man, Ebarb said. But all the pardon application asks for is a prison record and the basic details of the crime and initial sentence.

"I think a lot of guys shouldn't spend the rest of their life here," Ebarb said.

Pretty amazing turnaround from a guy who planned to kill his brother's killer. But I have to admit, I sometimes wonder the same thing when I've visited David Wade for various stories. I've had the pleasure of meeting the men who have changed their lives and attitudes, usually through religion of some kind. One man in particular, Henry Alford exemplifies the rehabilitation that I think is one goal of the prison system.

He's in for life and has served 40 years between Angola and David Wade. He even escaped from Angola, but somewhere he found God. He knows he did a terrible thing.

Although he can't correct what he did, he has devoted his time in prison to other people. Now, he's almost serene in his approach to prison life. He regularly works with the younger men trying to set them straight so they don't come back to prison once released. He is president of the Lifer's Association which has raised money for various charities on the "outside."

"I ask God to bless them, and I ask God to bless my soul," he said. "It's hard knowing you've torn someone's life apart."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Did you know?

Catechisms began in the Protestant church. I had no idea until I received Barksdale Baptist's newsletter this week.

The word comes from a Greek word meaning "to teach," and the books use a question and answer format to explain the faith. According to my church history class, Catholic catechisms developed to counter those written by reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. But somehow the term catechism became synonymous with Catholic religious education. That probably came from the famous Baltimore Catechism, which all Catholics of a certain age can still quote reflexively.

So back to Barksdale Baptist - the pastor there has dug up a catechism written by Benjamin Keach, a 17th century English Baptist pastor, and he's using that in his Wednesday night prayer meetings. It's certainly an old-school format, but it's probably full of great information in a fairly easy to digest format. I would be interested to see what his members think...

And as part of my quest to find similarities in denominations here's a couple of excerpts:

From Keach's Catechism:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. (1 Cor. 10:31, Psalm 73:25-26)

From the Baltimore Catechism section titled "End of Man":
Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Celebrating life

From the thrilling to the somber, my weekend revolved around extremes.

Saturday, I and 100,000 other people had our spirits lifted by the power and dedication on display at Barksdale's annual air show. Watching the jets come screaming by and maneuvering in seemingly unnatural ways inspires a sense of awe and pride - in the intelligence of men, in our country and in the commitment of the men and women of the military. In a way, it's a spiritual thing that brings you outside and above yourself and reminds you why its good to be alive.

Sunday, many of us from The Times and the rest of the community said good-bye to our friend and co-worker Tim Greening. The service was poignant and sometimes funny (thanks Teddy) - a combination Tim always manged to handle well in his columns. It was a celebration of his life and the life he brought to the people around him in his 38 years.

Both events reminded me to cherish this time we have here on Earth and the people who share it with us.
Photo: The Thunderbird's performance on Saturday. Val Horvath/The Times

Thursday, April 19, 2007

More Va. Tech thoughts

In many of the reports and discussions about the tragedy at Virginia Tech, people have talked about how 32 students were killed, leaving out the 33rd - the gunman. The Rev. Ken Irby, pastor of Broadmoor United Methodist Church (and a very good writer), addressed that possibly touchy subject in his pastor's column this week. He referred to a memorial where a bell tolled only 32 times:

But does someone need to ring 33? Maybe a church somewhere. Anger toward this man is understandable.

It is incomprehensible, what he did and why he would do it. All the wasted life makes me sad and mad and very confused. But somewhere, is there a bell for his wasted life? A life lost to what — mental illness, depression, rage, antisocial behavior?

Many labels will be offered. None, in the end, will fully explain. But in the midst of all this loss, his was another wasted life.

If somebody doesn’t ring 33 bells, I’m afraid it will be one more way we ignore the need around us. If somebody doesn’t ring 33 bells, it sends the message that not all human life is sacred, which must be some of the thinking that would lead someone to so easily kill. If somebody doesn’t ring 33 bells, can we ever fully grieve the other 32?

My faith tells me that at least one place, 33 bells were rung. Surely God grieves the loss of every one of God’s children.

Still no answers

God isn't making much sense this week.

The massacre at Virginia Tech left enough loss and unanswered questions. Then, yesterday, sadness hit here in the newsroom when we learned of the death of our friend and co-worker Tim Greening.

People in the community often asked me what it was like to work with Tim. I think they expected me to say he was one of those loud, class clown types. But he wasn't. He was very quiet and understated -- until something struck him as funny. Then he'd make some comment just to the people around him or send an e-mail that would have everyone else laughing instantly.

Frankly, it just wasn't supposed to be this way. I'm of that age, where I'm beyond thinking of myself and people my age as invincible, but they aren't expected to just collapse. And now I'm left with the same questions I had earlier this week. Why?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


As more details surface about the massacre at Virginia Tech Monday, it makes less and less sense. Who was this man? Why would he do this?

From a religious perspective, the questions increase exponentially. I start to think about the problems of evil, because no other explanation for such horror makes sense. What is evil? Where does it come from? How does God fit into that picture? How do we pray about this?

Theologians have always and probably will always wrestle with these questions. But I'll open it up to you. How do you make sense of this actions when looking through eyes of faith (any faith)?

UPDATE: College students at Centenary found the verse I was looking for earlier today and used it in their Memorial service today: "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." (Rom. 8:26)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dòminus vobìscum

Five minutes before Mass yesterday, I squeezed into a seat behind a pole at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans for the first Latin Mass said there in years. Then the ushers started coming in with chairs packing people in wherever they could. Still, folks were standing in the vestibule just to listen to the nearly extinct language. And no, they weren't all old. Families and young adults were as well represented as they would have been at any other service.

I'm not sure why everyone was there. My guess is sheer curiosity had something to do with it. Maybe a sense of grasping onto a tradition and heritage that has been lost. For the older worshippers, it was probably a chance to experience the Mass as they learned it.

For the first time, it was a little awkward. It helped that this is the Mass as we know it, so it was easy to follow the format. And of course the readings and sermon were in English. But I spent time going back and forth to the missal so I didn't miss a response. Many of the responses are chanted so a lot of us were just guessing at the tune. As well, it was obvious many of us were fudging our way through the pronunciations (and hoping we weren't saying something blasphemous in the process). Others, however, recalled the prayers from an earlier life and went full speed ahead.

In general though, it was a beautiful experience. But I found myself paying a lot more attention to the words than I normally do at Mass. And the foreign language heightened the already complex mystery of the Eucharist. I also have to say congratulations to the Gregorian chant choir - they sounded great and gave the Mass that extra bit of something special.

With that sort of response, I'm guessing that the Latin Mass will return sooner rather than later.
Photo: Cathedral of St. John Berchmans choir loft. Shane Bevel/The Times

Friday, April 13, 2007

Red-clay Jesus?

The folks at KTBS/Channel 3 have a story about a Plain Dealing woman who said the face of Jesus appeared in the dirt beneath some pine trees across from her home. I can see the face -though I'm not sure about the Jesus part. Regardless, it's going on my wall of "apparitions."

What do you think?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Local authors

I'm always amazed at the paths that people take because of their faith. I first met Dr. Bruce Hennigan for a story about the creation debate and his involvement with the group Reasons to Believe.

In the midst of the Easter/Passover onslaught, I received a book that I almost over looked, The 13th Demon. Books show up on my desk all the time, but I looked again and said, Hey I know the author. It's a spiritual warfare themed novel, set in Louisiana, and sounds like it could be a pretty good read, especially if you're into that stuff.

I'm planning to write something for the paper, but I wanted to give y'all a heads up. The website is pretty cool as well. It even includes a video clip of a scene from the book.

When I actually get a chance to sit down and read it, I'll let you know what I think.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Big time preaching

In my four years of this job, I've come to appreciate good preaching, and I heard some of the best last night at Peaceful Rest Baptist Church in Shreveport. Dr. Stephen Thurston, president of the 3.5 million member National Baptist Convention of America, is the featured speaker at Peaceful Rest's two-day revival this week.

Like all visiting preachers, he covered a wide variety of topics, but they all tied back to his text from the gospel of Matthew about the money changers in the temple.

Thurston talked about how changing our practices is necessary to becoming better Christians, "Our salvation is authenticated by a change. If you never got changed, you really have nothing more than a tinkling cymbal."

In the passage, he said, Jesus wasn't condeming the act of selling goods in the church (I'm sure all the ladies' auxilliaries and youth groups were glad to hear that), but theivery, which he saw in the vendors. A similar sort of thievery he said can been seen in the church today when people come expecting great things from God without wanting to give anything.

"Even right here at the Peaceful Rest Baptist Church, some thievery is going on. Some of you came not to give God anything but to rob God of something," he said. "That’s one of the problems I have with some of what we’re hearing in the pulpits now – that which relates to prosperity."

He continued by reminding them that God doesn't owe anyone anything.

"You’re not doing God a favor by showing up here. You’re not adding anything to God," he said. "You didn’t get up this morning because you were so good or so holy. You are here by the grace of God."

If you want to hear more from Thurston, he'll preach again tonight at 7 p.m. at the church, 8200 St. Vincent Ave., Shreveport. And as a side note, their choir is awesome - I would have been happy to listen to them for two hours, but it wouldn't have left me much to write about.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy retirement Fr. Paul

As I asked people last week about the Rev. Kenneth Paul retiring, many of them kind of chuckled and said something like "We'll never be able to replace him."

I'm not sure why they laughed. It's absolutely true. Fr. Paul is one of those unique individuals you never forget, from his British accent (I assume acquired in his time at Oxford) to his stories about his father to his love of liturgy and his endless compassion for the poor and the outcast.

One thing I didn't really get to explore in the stories is the fact that with Fr. Paul Shreveport-Bossier is also losing its most prominent voice for liberal theology. I could always count on Fr. Paul to provide an eloquent defense of the left side of any controversial issue. He never worried that his might be the minority opinion. He just stuck to his convictions, as any person of faith should.

Here's a few of his observations from my interview about his retirement that didn't make it to the paper:

One of his guiding principles: "All God's creation is sacred - humanity, the environment, everything."

Challenges to ministry that he has seen, "people who think that God is static, who believe that one person is better than another because of socioeconomic status or sexual preference."

"Morality has to do with all of life. It has to do with the way we handle the things of life: sex, money the environment."

"(The religious community) needs to do two things: stop talking so much about God as if he was speaking to us directly all the time. And in that silence adore the silent one who speaks to us as a community of faith. The community is a covenant community called into being by God. We hear him most clearly in the life of the community."

Photo: Greg Pearson/The Times

Good work!

Thanks so much to Alexandyr Kent and Greg Pearson for all their help with Friday's Way of the Cross! They put together an audio slideshow that gives a great feel for what happened as 375 people walked through downtown Shreveport in prayer Friday in ways that I certainly couldn't in print.

Happy Easter!

We made it through the Lenten fast, and I hope you all enjoyed beautiful services and big feasts on Sunday! Now. we return to a question that the Rev. Benedict Songy of St. Matthias asked more than 40 days ago.

"Are we better people on Easter than we were on Ash Wednesday?"

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday reflections from Dr. Holoubek

Why did Jesus die? I think it's the question all Christians have to confront at one time or another, especially on this day, Good Friday.

Well, Dr. Joe Holoubek wrote an article looking at it from a medical perspective because people who were crucified usually took more than 24 hours to die. Jesus died in three hours. Here's pieces of the article:

Jesus died when He willed it.

For decades (my wife) Dr. Alice and I gave presentations on the sufferings of Christ at Calvary. We also researched and published scholarly articles on the subject.

I discovered, for instance, that there are 78 documented cases of hematidrosis or bloody sweat in medical literature. Other people, under severe stress, have sweat blood through unbroken skin.

In our more than 300 public meditations on the death of Jesus, Dr. Alice would show images of the Shroud of Turin, an ancient burial cloth of a man who was crucified, and discuss what the stains tell us about the wounds and battered condition of the body. But she refused to pin down a medical cause for Christ’s early death. Jesus died, she would say, when He wished to die....

There’s no doubt Christ was weak. He’d had no sleep for at least 30 hours, having walked to Jerusalem from Ephraim. He’d had nothing to eat or drink for about 20 hours—since the Passover meal. At the house of Annas and later, He took several heavy blows to the face and head. Then He was scourged and crowned with thorns. And yet Jesus was able to walk to the home of Pontius Pilate, to the palace of Herod and back.

He had to carry a 90-pound crosspiece on the path to Calvary. It surely was a stumbling procession, even with the help of Simon the Cyrene. And yet Jesus was able to talk clearly with the women on the scene.

His was a routine and professional crucifixion. Nails were driven through His hands and feet with excruciating pain but a minimum of bleeding.

Jesus probably coughed continuously from congestion of the lung. But He received enough blood to the brain to forgive his enemies, entrust his mother to John the apostle, and speak to the thieves crucified alongside him.

No one in a state of shock could have said all of this, especially from an upright position. Blood pressure would be too low or completely absent.

Then the dying Jesus let out a final cry. It is consummated. Or, in another translation, It is finished.

What was consummated? What was finished? It has to be that Jesus had completed the work his Father had sent Him to do.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lent is over, sort of

Tonight's Holy Thursday services officially mark the end of Lent. But don't get out your chocolate quite yet. Christians now enter a period of greater reflection and fasting as we remember the death and burial of Jesus on Good Friday.

I attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, where as always we heard from the gospel of John about Jesus washing his disciples' feet. Then the priest called up 12 members of the congregation to wash their feet as a re-enactment. But the Rev. Peter Mangum, pastor at the Cathedral, told those of us still in the pews not to imagine ourselves in the place of those receiving the foot washing, but in his place as the servant.

"What would happen," he asked "if in Israel, Jews and Palestinians would washing each other's feet? If in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants would wash each other's feet? If in our own country, people of different races, would wash each other's feet?"

Do you have a grip?

Newly-elected state Rep. Patrick Williams says he does. He's referring to the new church/movement led by Roosevelt "Brother Ro" Wright, called The GRIP. It was hosting a series of services this week and I attended last night for a future story.

Several politicians also decided it was the place to be. Councilwoman Joyce Bowman was there introducing herself and saying "I love the Lord!" She promised she would be back. Williams said he was hesitant to visit churches during his campaign, which ended Saturday.

"I do not play with God," he said. "It's only because of him I'm here today."

Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover was expected, but he hadn't arrived by the time I left (about an hour into the service).
Photo: Patrick Williams

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Childhood memories

The scads of church-sponsored Easter egg hunts this weekend kept me here late last night. Many are being held on Holy Saturday (which, personally, I find enormously liturgically incorrect - but I suppose that's a matter of debate), with kids chasing after the brightly colored balls filled with treats.

I couldn't find any good explanation for the history of Easter Egg Hunts, but I do remember some childhood distress. Not being a terribly competitive person, I was always the kid who only got two eggs when my younger brother would have a basket full. So Mom would say share with your inept sister - or something like that.

Looking back, the whole game is more about real world skills, think fast, act faster and in the end, it's just a plastic egg. Easter is about a lot more than that.

Photo: Times file photo from a hunt last year

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Faith and politics

In an effort to hear from all facets of the community, U.S. Sen. David Vitter met with about 10 local pastors this morning for breakfast at Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal. The meeting and place was requested by Vitter.

SBCR spokesman David Westerfield said the conversation ranged from international conflicts such as Iraq, Israel and Darfuf to more local trends like keeping young adults here in Shreveport. In talking about hurricane recovery, the pastors reminded Vitter that the churches opened their doors and got involved before government showed up. Westerfield said Vitter mostly just listened and then encouraged the pastors to challenge their members to get involved in the community and do something about the concerns they see.

Those attending the hour-long meeting included many of the elite clergy from a pretty good mix of congregations: The Rev. Fred Lowery of First Baptist - Bossier, Bishop Larry Brandon of Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral, the Rev. Ken Irby of Broadmoor United Methodist, the Rev. M.L. Agnew of St. Mark's Cathedral and others. Westerfield said the men were pretty quiet at first, and I'm guessing that's because a lot of these guys rarely sit in the same room.

"Part of the idea (of Community Renewal) is to bring people together," Westerfield said.

Monday, April 02, 2007

More thoughts on Holy Week

One of the best reflections on Holy Week that I've seen recently comes from the Rev. Greg Hunt at First Baptist - Shreveport. This is an excerpt from the church's weekly bulletin.

Sunday, April 1 to Sunday, April 8 is Holy Week. Everything about our faith gets compressed into these 8 incredible days. Holy Week shows humanity at its worst
It shows God at his best. It points in dramatic fashion to the problems that ail us. It points in dramatic fashion to the remedy that is Christ.

In the history of our faith, these are the days of Jesus’ fateful confrontation with authorities. On Sunday he rides into Jerusalem to the adulation of an adoring crowd. By the end of the week he is listening to their jeers and standing condemned as a blasphemer and an insurrectionist.

In the daylight hours of Holy Week Jesus carries on a grinding public life characterized by conflict with religious leaders. In the evenings he retreats to more private places and draws strength from friends. During a Passover meal on Thursday night he gives new meaning to the bread and the wine, instituting what we now know as the Lord’s Supper. Then he loses his freedom, and finally his life.

Easter’s glory only makes sense against the backdrop of this rollercoaster of highs and lows. The brightness of its joy gains its luster from the darkness of Good Friday. Christ takes all that death can give and gets back up again, glorified and triumphant.

Holy Week for everyone

Sorry about the blog slacking at the end of last week. As a priest I talked to put it, Holy Week is not the hard one, it's the week of preparation before that's tough.

Due to a rare convergence of events, this week will feature a veritable smorgasbord of religious events regardless of your persuasion. Holy Week began yesterday (Palm Sunday) for both Eastern and Western Christians, which marks the days leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection. Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation from Egypt begins tonight.

This means there are services nearly every day if you're interested. The Eastern Orthodox are having two services a day, most days. Seder meals for the Jewish community will be today and tomorrow (though I think all of those required reservations). Several black churches are having revivals the first part of the week. Other Christian services kick into high gear on Thursday. Churches are getting pretty creative this year. As I typed up the religion bulletins, I saw several featuring living last suppers on Maundy Thursday and a couple of silent breakfasts on Friday.

Whatever your beliefs, may it be a blessed week!