Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Suffering for faith

It's been almost a week, and I'm still in some degree of pain from the wisdom teeth extraction. So I turned to my friends at Beliefnet to see what various religions have to say about suffering. For the most part it boils down to "suck it up, it makes you stronger."

Buddhism began when the Buddha saw that suffering is unavoidable and set out to find a way to overcome it. His path of ridding yourself of earthly desires became a new religion.

Some traditions such as Hinduism or some varieties of Christianity that feel that suffering is somehow punishment from God.

Other varieties of Christianity and Islam somehow through suffering we can grow closer to God. The Beliefnet article quoted St. Augustine, "God would not allow any evil to exist unless out of it he could draw a greater good. This is part of the wisdom and goodness of God."

Judaism seems to chalk suffering up to the mystery of God. Job is often held as the model of suffering after God allowed his children and livelihood to be taken from him. After he was afflicted with painful sores from head to toe, his wife is ready to give up and tells Job to "Curse God and die!" He replies "Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?"

How do you reconcile the idea of God who allows suffering?

Lenten reflection

In the Catholic tradition, new members are welcomed into the church at Easter, so Lent has a particularly special meaning for the candidates as they think about starting a new life in Christ. I work with the new member class (known as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at my church and last night we compiled some prayers that will be said during Mass over the next few weeks. To guide the discussion we were asked some questions that could probably serve as a great reflection for anyone at this time of year:

What do we want to be freed FROM?
What do we want to be freed FOR?
And which groups of people suffer from society's collective sins and need our prayers?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Recovery reading

Before I wrote a story about Christian romance novels a couple of weeks ago, the whole idea seemed like some sort of oxymoron. But the genre is huge. It targets women who want a good love story but don't want to read a bout a relationship that contradicts their own morality.

Recovering from oral surgery this weekend left me in that state where I felt OK, but I was too tired to do much of anything. So I picked up local author Betsy Ann St. Amant's just published Midnight Angel. How refreshing - a book I could pass on to my mom or even my grandmother and have to enclose some sort of disclaimer. The relationship in the story developed in a natural healthy way, and didn't need any sort of steamy sex scene to indicate the characters attraction.

Prayer and the idea of seeking God's will was a recurring theme. The background f the characters spiritual life was missing and sometimes the language about God seemed a little forced. But their spiritual struggle was real and was resolved by the end.

I'm no literary critic, but it was an enjoyable read. I'm impressed with anyone willing to buck their own industries trend to stand by their beliefs.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Until I wake up...

I'll be out for the next couple of days to have my wisdom teeth removed -ugh. So send good thoughts my way. If the pain meds wear off and I can compose a lucid sentence, I may log in from home - probably with some thoughts about suffering.

In the meantime, here's a little boy who needs a lot more prayers than I do. A story about baby Ethan is forthcoming in the pages of The Times.

Happy Lent

The radio was silent on my way to work this morning.

That's one of the disciplines I've started over the years during Lent to give myself that much more silence during the day. Our world doesn't think much of quiet reflection anymore, so I figure my car is one space I can control for the next 40 days.

In addition to giving up that minor distraction (which is surprisingly difficult), I'm also trying to DO something extra this Lent, which several area pastors recommended. Doing something means giving up one of our most precious commoditites: time. Actually, I guess it's not so much giving up time as it is reprioritizing it. I'll do my best to make it to Daily Mass or say morning and evening prayer.

I realize that today's scripture from Matthew reminds us not to be so public about our prayer and fasting, but I think there's something to be said for accountability. So that's my plan for the Lenten season - feel free to hold me to it.

I'd love to hear from you. What does Lent mean to you? And how do you observe the season?

Photo: Greg Pearson/The Times

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Happy Mardi Gras!

Mardi Gras in North Louisiana always makes me want to laugh and cringe at the same time. We seem to have appropriated all of the party, while relatively few will actually honor the religious season of fasting that is supposed to follow.

Ash Wednesday - tomorrow - begins a serious, somber period of fasting and reflection for Catholics and mainline Christians (our Orthodox friends began on Sunday). But here in Shreveport, where most folks belong to Evangelical, non-liturgical traditions, that season is not recognized. For example, a couple of neighborhoods are even having parades this weekend!

All we have to do is look to the words behind the season to remember. The word carnival comes from the Latin words meaning "to take meat away." Mardi Gras is the last day for folks to eat their meat and sweets.

Mardi Gras is also called Shrove Tuesday. In previous generations, it was the day folks went to confession, so they could do their penance during Lent. Today that terms lives on in Shrove Tuesday pancake dinners, such as the one at Shreveport's St. James Episcopal Church tonight. The pancakes were a way to use up all the milk and eggs in the house, which at one time were not permitted during Lent (and still aren't for Orthodox Christians).

So enjoy your King Cake! (I'm eating my last piece as I write this) Tomorrow, you can start worrying about whether chicken bouillon cubes count as meat.

Photo: Krewe of Highland parade by Val Horvath/The Times

Friday, February 16, 2007

If you build it...

House of Purpose Full Gospel Baptist Church is hoping they will come. The congregation has less than 100 members but they have just finished building a new sanctuary to seat 500.

"It's really been a faith-based ministry," proud member Lori Sykes said.

After a processional caravan from the old site on Eatman Street in Bossier City, they will dedicate the new building at 2 p.m. Sunday at 4500 Benton Road, Bossier City.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Go red!

Deborah Jacques lost her mother to heart disease and she's getting tired of visiting her church sisters in the hospital with similar issues. So she has spearheaded an awareness campaign at her church, Mount Chapel Baptist, to have their own Go Red for Women Sunday this weekend. She's encouraging everyone to wear red to church and the bulletins will have special inserts with information about women and heart disease.

Her pastor, the Rev. Clarence Rice, is encouraging other churches to follow suit.


Yesterday, I was privileged enough to preview the black church directory that Little Union Baptist Church has compiled. It's very professional looking and includes a ton of information, particularly to help people connect with social services that the churches provide.

The editor, Sharme Kelley, made a particular effort to make all the pages look the same whether large churches or storefront congregations. It should be published in the next couple of weeks, and would probably be an invaluable resource for any other social service agency.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

The Times lobby looks like a florist's shop this morning with red and pink flowers pouring in for lucky ladies (at least, I assume they're ladies) in the building.

But remember, this holiday of love and chocolate and cupid is really the feast of St. Valentine. Lttle fact is known about him, but Beliefnet produced a cute cartoon "based very loosely on one of the legends of St. Valentine."
Photo: Times archive

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hebrew grammar and time

We had a fascinating discussion about time, tense and Biblical Hebrew in the class I'm taking at B'nai Zion yesterday. I hope I don't botch this, but if I understood correctly, Dr. J said that in Biblical Hebrew the grammatical construction of a word or phrase might look like it's future tense, but it refers to the past. As well, other words might appear to be completed actions but really the phrase refers to an incomplete action.

It gives the scriptures a sort of timeless quality with the grammar itself indicating that God is always and has always been and will always be working. Pretty cool stuff.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Monday morning inspiration

I heard a nun tell this story recently and it seems appropriate for the beginning of the week...

A reporter went out to a construction site to interview several bricklayers about the project. He starts with the first worker and asks, "What are you doing?"
"I'm laying bricks, what does it look like?" the man replied.
So the reporter moves to the next guy with the same question.
"I'm building a wall," he said.
The third man received the same question and responded with awe in his voice.
"I'm building a great cathedral, where people can come together for worship."
Impressed, the reporter asked the last of the bricklayers: "What are you doing?"
"I'm building the kingdom of God."

Friday, February 09, 2007

Who do you pray to?

In hopes of some mindless entertainment, I watched Talladega Nights, last night. Who knew that a Will Ferrell movie about NASCAR would bring up a pretty interesting spiritual question? During a scene around the dinner table, the characters have this exchange:

Ricky Bobby: Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the south call you,jesuz, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family.....
Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny infant Jesus...
Carley Bobby: Hey, um... you know sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby. It's a bit odd and off puttin' to pray to a baby.
Ricky Bobby: Well look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.

So what image of God do you have in prayer? How does that affect your spirituality?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The "king" in King Cake

In the rest of the world, the Holidays end Jan. 1. Here in Louisiana, we move into Mardi Gras and King Cake season with all of its cinnamon sugary (or pecan praline or strawberry-cream cheese) goodness.

For those of you who are new to the area or only know that King Cakes involve a baby and a promise of more parties, there is some religious signifiance. According to various Internet sources here and here, the tradition started in 12th century France with a cake made for Epiphany, the Jan. 6 religious holiday that marks the visit of the three wise men to the baby Jesus.

French settlers brought the tradition to Louisiana where it became part of the Carnival season. The Tweltfhth Night Revelers had the first King Cake party in 1870, where the woman receiving the bean in the cake became queen of the ball.

The oval shape resembles the route that the magi took to avoid Herod on their way back to the east. and cake is usually covered with colored sugar: Purple for justice; green for faith and gold for power. The plastic baby inserted in the cake represents the Christ Child and people hunt for it not unlike the three magi searched for Jesus.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Presbyterian lessons for all

Dressed in black pants and a blue-green jacket, with her hair tucked back in a neat ponytail, Joan Gray looked like any of the other women attending a lunch in honor of the leader of their church. Of course, Rev. Gray is the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), who was visiting Shreveport Monday. Ladies serving lunch at the event kept apologizing for not recognizing her, but she wouldn't hear of it. Gray impressed everyone there with her rare balance of honesty about the tough issues confronting Presbyterians and her compassion and sense of the spiritual.

While the moderator has no power to make policy, she is the face of the church and tries to interpret the decisions made at the General Assembly meeting. Here are some snippets of what she said that I was not able to fit in the paper today:

"I've been going around the church for the last seven months basically talking to unhappy people, and I have to say its a joy to come to Shreveport. I have spent the morning at Evergreen and Providence House and at the Youth Justice ministry at First Presbyterian and I'm so encouraged about the good things going on. It's wonderful."

On tough questions:
"I don't have all the answers."

On homosexuality and gay/lesbian clergy:
"It's Biblical interpretation, and as I've listened to people on both sides of this issue and in the middle, what I hear are different ways of interpreting the Bible and different ways of interpreting the Bible around the question of what is sin and what is not sin. To me, that's the crux of the matter.... Trying to figure out what the bible says about sexuality in general and how you interpret that is a big question."

On moving forward from those controversies:
"We all wish it were over, and that we wish we could get on with the business of the church... God is in charge and I belief that God is working in all things somehow, seriously beyond what I can understand to bring God's kingdom into the world. That's what keeps me going."

"We have got to figure out how to live together and be church together in the midst of our differences.... My hunch is that God is trying to teach us something in the midst of this wrangling. My suspicion is God is saying to us you've reached an impasse and you can't fix it really, why don't you call out to me. I might could do something for you."

On churches leaving the denomination:
"It grieves me that we have folks that feel like they can't be part of this body anymore.... It offends my notion of what it means to be the body of Christ.... Presbyterians have always believed that when we say Body of Christ we mean that literally and to depart from the Body of Christ or from our part of it would be like trying to depart your thumb from your hand."

On church growth and ministry:
"We're much more comfortable as Presbyterians walking by sight instead of by faith. We're much more comfortable living and planning around the money we have in the bank... That is - as we would say in North Georgia - backasswards. We need to be asking what is God calling us to do in this community and in this church in the coming year? And then trust that God will provide."

"It's so easy to get in to the heresy of thinking we are doing church for the people who are already members. If that's our attitude, we are running a social club. Jesus Christ said go ye into all the world and make disciples. The church exists for the sake of people who are not yet members."

I know this is a long post, but a lot of what she had to say (especially the last part) is something congregations of any faith could take to heart.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Be still - part 1

Modern life and even modern Christianity doesn't leave us much room for stillness or silence. We seem to have completely forgotten the story of Elijah from the book of Kings when God was not in the earthquake or the fire of the rushing wind. When all was quiet, Elijah heard God's "still, small voice."

But a few local congregations are embracing the idea of silence and I visited one this weekend. On the first Friday of each month, First Presbyterian Church hosts Taize Prayer. The service format originated in an ecumenical monastery in Taize, France, where the brothers are dedicated to "great simplicity of life."

Walking into the chapel, it was immediately obvious something different was going to happen here. Although it was about half full, the room was quiet. The lights were dim and candles covered the altar area.

Everyone was given an order of service at at 5:30, it began with no fanfare or instructions -- not that it really required any. The heart of the service is meditative singing. Short refrains are sung several times to bring your focus to God. Members of the congregation read scripture passages taken from the Old Testament, a Psalm and a Gospel without leaving their seats.

In the middle, we spent about 10 minutes in total silence. I had to fight the urge to fall asleep, since that's what seems to happen to me every time I stop for more than 5 minutes. I don't think God minded me wanting to crash - it was probably his way of telling me I need to sleep more. It was truly a blessing to just be with all of these other people and in the presence of God.

Intercessory prayer and more singing followed the silence. As it began, the service concluded with no fanfare. No one seemed to want to leave for a moment and when they did, they all looked as if they had found a little bit of peace.

The next service will be held at 5:30 p.m. March 3 at the church, 900 Jordan St., Shreveport.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Putting their money where their mouths are

Broadmoor Baptist Church members gave more than $1.1 million to various Southern Baptist mission programs last year. They were recognized in this week's Baptist Message (the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention) as being the top missions contributor in the State Convention. About 1,700 people attend the church each Sunday and they have a long tradition of giving to missions with both their time and money.

Other local churches also mentioned among the top givers included First Baptist of Bossier, Woodridge and Brookwood.

Calling all Presbyterians

The general assembly moderator will be here to speak and listen to your questions. The Rev. Joan Gray of Atlanta was elected to be head of the denomination last summer and will speak to the faithful at noon Monday at Broadmoor Presbyterian Church, 1915 Grover Place.

In a refreshing display of honesty, the press release says "she doesn't have many answers for the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s problems but is willing to let God lead the way." Like many mainline churches, the Presbyterians have had to confront declining membership and questions of sexual morality.
I'll be there Monday and you can check The Times for updates during the day, and whatever won't fit in the paper I'll probably post here.
Photo: from by Danny Bolin

Thursday, February 01, 2007

In honor of Black History Month

Little Union Baptist Church is compiling a list of black churches and their benevolent ministries. I'm sure it's a pretty impressive list.

Pastor C.E. McLain reminded me that we often look at individuals during February, but we sometimes forget black institutions like the church, which was the center of the Civil Rights movement. It was the only place blacks could gather for meetings and one of few places black men could hold leadership positions.

As a result, churches were targets of hate. Churches across the south were bombed and McLain's own church was invaded by police department horses. But the church did not back down.

"People could always count on the church," McLain said. "I'm proud of our effort."
Photo: Little Union in 1963. Times archives.

Is this a football game?

Or a church service? Or both?, the Miami Herald, USA Today and probably a bunch of other news outlets I've failed to mention have spent a lot of time and ink talking about the prayers of the coaches and players involved in this year's SuperBowl.

If you want to hear more from the men themselves, Noel Memorial United Methodist here in town is hostng a breakfast simulcast on Saturday where some of the players will talk about what's really behind those drives down the field. The breakfast is from 7 to 9 a.m. at the church, 520 Herndon St., Shreveport. Click on the above link to register.