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.
This issue contains an important article on a region unfamiliar to many of us—the turbulent Muslim countries of central Asia that border Afghanistan—and two thoughtful essays on topics theological types often avoid—market economics and the practices of American corporations. All of the articles serve as reminders of the complex challenges and dangers before us.
I love Eugene Peterson’s remark that “if you are called to it, being a pastor is the best life there is” (see David Wood’s interview). Like every pastor I have days and seasons when I’m not sure of that.
I received a phone call once from a good friend, a member of my congregation with whom I had been carrying on an extended theological conversation for several years. She was a believer on most days, she said, and she was absolutely unafraid to doubt and hold up to scrutiny everything she thought the Christian church insisted she believe.
This issue contains some personal musings and reflections on how and when theological education happens—or perhaps doesn’t happen. Many of us have our own musings and memories about situations in which teachers and students become engaged and motivated.
In the small lobby of the offices of the Christian Century hang two large mounted posters. Each contains a familiar photograph of a major figure in American Christianity, along with a brief quotation from one of the articles he wrote for the Century. One poster features Reinhold Niebuhr; the other, Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s a truism in my trade that one negative comment about the sermon can pretty much ruin your Sunday. We preachers position ourselves at a sanctuary door or in front of the chancel to greet the members of our congregation after worship, many if not most of whom tell us that they liked or enjoyed or appreciated our sermon. The rest smile and say, “Good morning.”
It is generally not a good idea to refer to one’s children in sermon or print, but I’ve concluded that when it comes to grandchildren, such rules are suspended. Rachel goes to Cardinal Bernardin School in Chicago, and as her mother was putting her to bed one night last year during Advent, she asked Rachel if she had learned any new songs at school recently.
It’s a cliché to observe that since September 11 we are living in a different world, that everything seems different now. But it is true. I heard Harvard’s Peter Gomes say recently that things sound different now. Phrases read and spoken for thousands of years suddenly sound immediate, as if they were written last week for us.
My brother was the first to call. We chatted about Barry Bonds: What justice is there in his going four for 27 in the 1991 play-offs as a Pittsburgh Pirate (our favorite team as young fans), and then, as a San Francisco Giant, hitting 73 home runs, four of them in his last six times at bat? Suddenly my brother let me have it. “Are you sure it was the Second Inaugural?” he asked.
This preacher was grateful for the lectionary during September. I often argue with the choices of texts for particular Sundays. But when the events of September 11 replaced all other agendas, including my carefully planned preaching topics, I turned to the lectionary with gratitude.
We must not expect our nation’s wound to heal quickly: It is too deep and the pain is too profound. We Americans expect instant healing. “Let’s put it behind us—get over it—get on with life,” we say, as if it were inappropriate to allow tragedy to be tragic for more than a day or two.
At the end of summer my mother would launch her annual canning process. She retrieved large Ball jars from the cellar, sterilized them in boiling water and sealed tomatoes, beans and rhubarb from Dad’s garden into them. The food would appear on our dinner table throughout the winter.
For most pastors, the question of how the church should relate to the state and to the society and culture around it arises in a very mundane way—in the form of a phone call asking you to deliver an invocation at a meeting of the city council or the PTA, or at a school sports banquet. Whenever this happens, I agonize a bit about it. Should I baptize a secular event with a little piety?
The intersection of religion, government and social needs is where this journal has positioned itself throughout its history, so I accepted an invitation from the Aspen Institute to listen in on a discussion of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative.