What kind of country are we, and what kind of country do we wish to be? Robert Bellah has asked that question many times and in many ways over the years. In Habits of the Heart he explored the American culture of individualism, and he sought to revive a tradition of citizenship and concern for the public good.
Those of us who have had some experience of theological education in a sense live out of that experience for the rest of our lives. Each experience is unique, of course. I showed up at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary at a time when those two schools, along with two others, constituted the Federated Theological Faculty.
No one knows more clearly or more uncomfortably the tensions of life lived between the gospel and economic necessity than a parish clergyperson whose text for the day is “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink . . . look at the birds of the air . . .
I began my ministry as a “new church development” pastor in a small town in northwest Indiana. The new congregation grew out of an older nondenominational church. When the time came to claim a name for our new adventure, we put together, in fine Presbyterian style, a small committee to study the matter and bring recommendations to the congregation.
At the Christian Century lecture in September, about 200 people gathered for a festive evening to meet author Kathleen Norris. Her topic that evening was not exactly festive, however. She spoke personally, thoughtfully and deliberately about sloth and its spiritual expression, acedia (see her article in this issue).
The church I serve is located in the midst of one of the busiest retail merchandizing areas in the country. Our closest neighbors are Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Field and Lord & Taylor. So I have the opportunity to observe firsthand how the stores and the city prepare for Christmas.
When I was a youngster my parents always took me to community Thanksgiving services. I was an unwilling and unhappy participant. I didn’t much like them: there weren’t many people there, I didn’t know most of those who were, and I surely didn’t care for the preaching. “Why do we have to attend these things every year?” My mother answered, “Because of the hymns. They’re the best in the book.”
I am not immune to the seduction of being invited to a White House briefing, nor of being called a “religious leader,” so I flew to Washington in mid-October (at my own expense) and showed up as instructed at the Executive Office Building. There were more than a hundred of us. I recognized three Presbyterian peers, pastors of large churches.
The best part of my job is that Martin Marty occasionally sticks his head into my office, calls me “Boss” with a twinkle in his eye, and sits down to talk—as if he has nothing better to do. Along with Dean Peerman, Marty is a contributing editor and custodian of the magazine’s history and a steward of its favorite stories.
I grew up with books. My parents valued books and taught me to treat books with respect and affection. One of the unexpected pleasures of college was going to the bookstore to purchase the texts I needed and could afford, and carrying them back to my room—my own books. I still have some of them. And I still love the feel of a newly purchased book in my hands.
I must confess I had never heard of Oprah Winfrey before she appeared in the role of Sofia in the 1985 film version of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. It was a difficult and demanding part, and I remember being impressed with the power of her portrayal.
Anniversaries of traumatic events carry an emotional power. A clinical psychiatrist I know says that remembering and even reliving such traumas, as painful as that is, can be an important part of healing. We mark the anniversary of September 11 in this issue with a series of reflections and remembrances.
When my children were younger, they used to call the first Sunday after Labor Day weekend “Opening Day.” They were referring, not to that long-awaited day in early April when the first major league game is played, but to the Sunday when our life as a family began once again to be determined by the rhythm of the church year, church activity and my weekly sermon preparation.
I am probably not alone in deploring both the suicide bombings carried out by young Palestinians against pathetically vulnerable Israeli civilians and the now predictable military attacks by Israel carried out against pathetically vulnerable Palestinian civilians.
One of the reports the stated clerk makes to the General Assembly of my church when it gathers for its annual meeting is about statistics: how many members we gained and lost, how many infants were baptized, how much money the people put in the plate. For Presbyterians—and in varying degrees for Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and others—this is a sobering moment.
I have a dim recollection of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy from a course in college. Utilitarianism appealed to me at a time when I was more certain of myself intellectually and more academically confident that I have been since. It had something to do with being a sophomore, I believe. For utilitarians, moral behavior is that which increases happiness and reduces human suffering.
In his book Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was president of Yale University and commissioner of Major League Baseball before his death in 1989, argues that we can learn far more about a society by studying how it plays than by examining how it goes about its work.
The human race can be divided in various ways. There are people who love baseball and those who don’t; people who love the beach and those who are bored by it; and people who read and those who don’t. Not that the nonreaders never read anything. It’s just that for them reading plays a functional role in life.
At a church staff devotional the other day, a colleague read the passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew about the separating of the sheep and the goats, and about how we minister to Jesus Christ himself in serving the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned.