January 2, 2014

hunger for spiritual leadership

As I was reading through my emails on New Year’s Eve I came across this well-written piece on Pope Francis and spiritual leadership. I found it thought provoking, and felt it was well worth sharing. Please let me know your response.

The following article was written by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. It is unedited and reprinted in its entirety:

The Frances Phenomenon and America’s Yearning for Values, Leadership and God

 Posted: 12/31/2013 6:00 pm

There is much vigorous discussion about what the election of Pope Francis will mean for the future of the Catholic Church. Speculation about such matters and all matters of Church doctrine and theology are best left to Catholic believers to address. But of interest to us all is the impact that the Pope has already had on our country, and what the response to him says about religion in American society.

 This is a difficult time for America. Ours is a discouraged and disheartened country. Many of our citizens are experiencing what Martin Luther King called “the dark and desolate valleys of despair.” Families are struggling and unemployment is high. America is uncertain about what course to take at home and abroad. And meanwhile, political leaders disappoint us at every turn. They are long on doublespeak, bombast, and the intricate art of self-preservation, but short on solutions and inspiration.

 In the past, religion was an answer in times such as these; when life was hard, we found comfort and community in our churches and synagogues. But according to conventional wisdom, this time around Americans are looking in other places. Seemingly more secular, wary of dogmas and distrustful of institutions, 20% of Americans assert that they have no religious identity at all; these are the famous “nones.” And among those ages 18 to 29, an astonishing 32% are “nones.”

 America is a religious country. Never, since modern polling began, have Americans distanced themselves in such large numbers from formal religious identification. And commentators have seized upon this data to suggest that America is at a watershed. The preferences of the young, it is argued, foreshadow the coming collapse of organized religion as we have come to understand it. Tradition, religion and devotion are categories of the past; Americans are setting aside the great religious systems and hierarchies of our day and searching for answers elsewhere,

 Enter Pope Francis, whose sky-high popularity upends all of these theories.

 Not only does the Pope have an approval rating of almost 90% among American Catholics, but among all Americans, nearly 3 in 4 view him favorably. In the very early days of his papacy, the interest and excitement in his selection could be seen as a media-generated blip; but, 10 months later, there is clearly something more at work here. What could possibly account for the affection and regard in which this man — the ultimate “establishment” religious figure, head of the largest religious bureaucracy in the world — is held?

 It is not, I suggest, primarily a matter of his political views. Those on the left have applauded what they see as a dramatic leftward turn in the Pope’s statement; those on the right claim a change in political style rather than substance. While I like the political dimensions of his message, I don’t exaggerate their significance. His political positions are not that different from what his predecessors have said, and in any case, Americans as a whole — and Catholics too, I suspect — do not see Francis primarily as a “political pope.”

 What they do see, I think, is the profound authenticity of his leadership. Hungry for role models and desperate for authority figures with credible values and a true moral center, Americans are drawn to Pope Francis because of their sense that he speaks from principle and actually lives the values that he teaches. And not only that; he also radiates compassion and humility, as well as respect for those in our human family with whom he differs. The result is that for Americans, he generates hope among the murk and morass of everyday life, keeping us facing, even in tough times, in the direction of humanity.

 That the Pope has done this in such a brief time is a tribute to his leadership and his understanding of the human condition. That he has done so as the head of a massive religious bureaucracy that, until recently, was seen as scandal- and corruption-ridden, is nothing short of astonishing.

 But there is more to it. Yes, Americans crave leadership, but there is no way to separate Pope Francis from the spiritual values that he embodies. The Pope is not just a leader; he is a religious leader who, precisely because of his religious vitality, has succeeded in touching human hearts. The Pope Francis phenomenon is a reminder, yet again, that spirituality and not secularity is the driving force of modern life; it is his spiritual intensity that sets him apart and that provides the best answer to the spiritual emptiness of our time.

 It is simply impossible to understand the reactions of Americans to the Pope without recognizing the religious undercurrents that remain deeply embedded in American culture. Americans — whatever their religious affiliation, or lack thereof — sense his spiritual power. And that spiritual power is the key to comprehending his remarks on capitalism in Evangelii Gaudium: I read them not as a left-wing political platform, but as recognition that any society built solely on market values and individual effort will steadily erode the bonds of solidarity, morality, and trust that flow from a commitment to the sacred and a belief in God.

 None of this should be taken to mean that we should embrace religious institutions and creeds as they are. Pope Francis, it seems to me, has caught the imagination of the American public by suggesting the opposite. I cannot say what his papacy will mean for the Catholic Church, but among the American people, he is seen as both deeply rooted in an ancient religious tradition while also open to retrieving and transforming old symbols and beliefs. And he has caught the attention of Americans, and especially young Americans, who affirm modernity but are amenable to a more spiritual way of perceiving the world.

 Pope Francis is a man of incomparable gifts. All of us who do religious work in this country can learn from his example.

 

December 20, 2013

praying for the Pope

Jesus wasn’t crucified for telling his listeners to consider the lilies and how they grow. He was nailed to the cross for pointing to the thieves and saying look how they steal. And the thieves to which he was pointing were the religious leaders who were most loudly proclaiming their religiosity.

Jesus was crucified because he was threatening the established religious order. The religious leaders in Jerusalem encouraged the Roman government to take care of the growing menace Jesus posed to their control of the faithful.  Jesus was drawing far too much attention to the disparity between their sanctimonious proclamations and the ugly reality of their lifestyles. He had to be silenced.

The Romans pulled the trigger. But it was the religious leaders that pointed the gun.

All of that is to say that I am praying daily for Pope Francis. He continues to demonstrate true prophetic courage in addressing the critical issues of our day. And there is true danger in that.

The Pope’s humility is real, but so is his call for change.  George Weigel, a conservative Catholic, recently wrote that, “Pope Francis is a revolutionary. The revolution he proposes, however, is not a matter of economic or political prescription, but a revolution in the self-understanding of the Catholic Church.”

I  disagree. Pope Francis is definitely working to clean out the thieves from the temple and put the Catholic Church back into order. But, he has also demonstrated he is committed to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just mouthing platitudes.

Pope Francis is addressing the economic inequities of our world and he is doing it in a manner that points a finger at those in positions of power. He is truly showing preferential treatment towards the poor, the weak and the dispossessed. Such  prophetic faithfulness is powerful. It is also imminently dangerous. It was in Jerusalem. And it certainly is in Rome.

 

December 18, 2013

what still shocks the world

As anyone who follows my blog must realize, I am not a big fan of organized religion. That has to sound strange coming from an ordained clergyperson of over 40 years, but it’s certainly not the strangest facet of my life.

The fact is that I am almost always disappointed by organized religion. And although I am much more conversant with Christianity, my disappointment with organized religion extends to all the major faith groups with which I have be associated across the years. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all equally fail to deliver what they promise.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a ardent follower of Christ, and firmly believe that an authentic spirituality is the only realistic foundation for a meaningful life. Yet for the most part, what I see in the organized church brings me to tears. Then it makes me angry.  We have the power to heal our broken world yet we absolutely refuse to do it.

I was once privileged to hear Dr. Elton Trueblood speak. During his presentation Dr. Trueblood said that the world was equally shocked by two things. The first was to hear Christianity criticized. The second thing, even more shocking to the world, was to see Christianity practiced.

Our world continues to change. No longer is anyone especially shocked to hear the church or organized religion criticized, and rightfully so.  No institution deserves respect for what it once stood for and what it once represented. But, what still shocks the world is to see Christianity actually practiced.

When that changes, and I pray that it does, maybe my opinion of organized religion will, as well.

 

 

December 17, 2013

a life worth living

Today’s post is written by Mike Giancola, a close friend and one of the finest leaders I know. He exlemplifies caring, compassion and commitment. And he doesn’t just talk about service above self. He lives it.  I encourage each of you to help him in any way possible. In his words, it is when we give the most that we receive the most.

I first traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2000 with my students from NC State University as part of a Habitat for Humanity service-learning trip.   During that trip, I met one of the Habitat beneficiary families including Lourdes Yanet Angeles Gomez and her four daughters:  Francisca, Prenda, Yanela and Franyelis – ranging from 9 years to 11 months old.   Their house is a very modest cinderblock structure about 300 sq ft – a vast improvement over the approximate 100 sq ft wood and tin shack they lived in before.

During the week when we weren’t on the worksite, we spent time teaching the girls how to speak English and they taught me how to speak Spanish.  It wasn’t all work – we laughed a lot and I taught them how to juggle with rocks.  Amazing how much you can communicate with another person even if you don’t (really) speak the same language.  I still remember sitting on their front porch holding  Franyelis when a man on a motorcycle pulled up to the house, introduced himself as the girls’ father and told me, “My casa es tu casa”  He went inside to grab his lunch and then proceeded to leave on his motorcycle as I was still sitting on the porch holding his daughter.

I have been fortunate to visit them several times over the years as part of service-learning trips, including a visit in 2007 in which my mom joined me.  Each time, we picked up where we left off since our last visit or letter.   Lots of laughs (mostly over our miscommunications caused by the language barrier) but also discussions about family, faith and food.  It warms my heart to see the girls doing well in school over the years and growing up to be wonderful young women.

Amazing how Facebook has further connected the world and over the past 2 years I have been able to stay in closer contact with Francisca.  She has completed her college degree (no small accomplishment given the lack of resources and opportunities).  She is now a special education teacher.  During my most recent visit, she was beaming as she told me about her work…I didn’t miss the opportunity to tell her, “La profesora es muy inteligente!”  She shared that I was her inspiration for becoming a teacher – very humbling given the relative short (but meaningful) amounts of time we have spent together over the years.

About a month ago, Francisca informed me that her mother, now 40, has been diagnosed with a tumor in her throat, most likely cancer.  During our next few chats, she expressed her faith in God but also worried that her mom would not be able to afford the life saving surgery she needs.  In  the Dominican Republic if you can’t afford to pay for surgery, your options are to delay the surgery until you can or as several people told us, “you die”.  This reality was hard to accept given the life saving procedure I had two years ago after my heart attack…while we are still paying the hospital bill and will be for several years to come, I never for a minute had to think about not having the procedure due to the cost.  (Ok, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, but you get the point).

Over the past 4 months, my mom and mother-in-law both have had life saving surgeries.  As they both are continuing to recover, we are very appreciative of the outstanding care they have received and are thankful to have health insurance that covered most of the cost.  I cannot accept that any of our lives are more important just because we were born with a zip code that has access to quality medical care or live in a country where there is a system of health insurance.   We are no more worthy of receiving health care than any other human being (This is not intended to be a political statement…just a statement of belief)

Francisca became more worried and recently asked for help.  I prayed for direction and thought about how to best answer her call for help.  After talking with Jenn (insert incredibly supportive wife here), we decided I should go to the DR and visit.

On December 9, I traveled to the Dominican Republic with my friend (and former student and staff member CJ Barnes).  He also has an extremely supportive wife (Thanks Veronica and CJ!)  During our visit, we reminisced about previous visits,  looked at pictures from over the years and got acquainted with the two new additions to the family (Lourdes’ grandchildren, Prendali and Alvin).   We talked about her diagnosis.  She showed us the x-rays, but you could also see the tumor on her neck.  She said she was feeling a little better, but you could tell she was tired and not her usual self.  I asked her to see the estimate for the surgery – $445,235 pesos ($10,600 USD).  Lourdes told us her family and friends are trying to save the money, but as you can imagine, there are limits to what they can raise on their own.  She said she tried not to think about it too much and knew that God would provide.  Talk about faith!

After our visit, we asked the girls if we could take them to buy Christmas presents.  They were excited and so we went to lunch and then to the clothing store.  The first two stores we entered, the girls were not really looking at the clothes.  I asked what the problem was and they said, “These clothes are too expensive” and they wanted to go to another store.  When we arrived at the third store, CJ and I were about “done” with shopping, but knowing this was a special occasion, we persevered.  I asked Lourdes to pick out an outfit for her granddaughter.    Prendali was so excited, she refused to take the outfit off so we could pay for it…needless to say, she wore the outfit home.  I asked Prenda if she found an outfit yet and she said, “No, I would rather buy diapers and milk for Prendali”  Another example of how well Lourdes has raised these girls and a wonderful act of selflessness from a 20 year old young women.  After a visit to the grocery store, Francisca asked me if I enjoyed shopping with her family to which I replied in Spanish, “My heart is very happy right now, but I don’t even enjoy shopping with my family!”  It was a special moment after a special day and a reminder that it is when we give, that we receive the most.  I enjoy observing the true joy this family experiences and their appreciation for what they have, instead of fretting on what they don’t.  They are truly a wealthy family indeed.

I am hopeful that Lourdes will have many more days to watch her girls grow up to be wonderful young women.  I pray that she has more grandchildren to love on.  And that she is able to have the life saving surgery she needs.  As I reflected on this list, I realized I was receiving the answer to my prayers for direction.

I serve on the board of directors for a non-profit called Together We Can.  Our vision is to work with individuals and groups committed to making significant and meaningful changes in their communities, both locally and internationally.  We have no paid staff so 100% of donations go to support the work we do.  You can learn more about TWC at http://togetherwecaninc.org/  As an organization, we are trying to raise the funds to help Lourdes.  You can make a tax deductible donation by sending a check made out to Together We Can (put DR-Lourdes on the memo line and send to me at Mike Giancola, 7416 Ladora Drive, Willow Spring, NC 27592)  All funds will go directly to the hospital so Lourdes can receive the care she needs.  Just like Stop Hunger Now, when people come together as a community, we move towards a more just world.  In fact, we become more human.  TOGETHER WE CAN!

Mike Giancola

December 6, 2013

the loss of a moral champion

The world  has lost one of its true giants. Even though I knew it would soon happen, I was stunned yesterday when I heard of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

Like so many others of my generation, Nelson Mandela was a larger-than-life hero to me. He was in the ranks of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu as real people who lived out their beliefs and never flinched when facing the ugly reality of global injustice. He was a flesh and blood champion of the poor and oppressed and demonstrated that one person can make a real difference in the world.

Living out his convictions, Nelson Mandela was a leader that helped change the world. He was a champion of peace, and never ceased to fight against injustice and hatred. Mandela recognized that hunger needed to be addressed as a moral issue. He was a constant inspiration to me and I have often used his wisdom and words in my writing. Was he perfect? Certainly not. But he was truly one of the greatest men of our time, and our world is a smaller, meaner place without him.

So today, with the rest of the world, I mourn the loss of a courageous leader and moral hero.  The following is an excerpt from a news release from the United Nations WFP.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today is mourning the loss of President Nelson Mandela. WFP, in a statement today said Mandela was “a champion against injustice and a true ally in the fight against hunger.”

Mandela delivered a special message to WFP’s staff in 2004, stating, “Hunger is an issue of social justice and not economics. Our economic approach to food and its distribution reflects our basic moral values. There are relatively poor countries where almost everyone is reasonably fed and richer ones where there is widespread malnutrition. The economic systems in these countries vary. Those who have succeeded have done so because they have made it a priority to end it. Hunger is a moral issue.”

May he rest in peace.

December 2, 2013

live alive, my friends

Today is the six month anniversary of my daughter Amy’s death.  I still miss her terribly, as does all her family and friends. And yet, life goes on. Even as I recognize and accept the emptiness left by her passing, I celebrate her life and the fullness with which she lived.

Amy loved life and it showed. She lived alive. She was strong in her illness and faced her passing without fear. For those of us left behind to do anything less would be to dishonor her memory.

Life goes on, but naturally, it will never be the same for those of us who loved her. As a Christian I believe Amy is in a far better place, one prepared by a loving God, a place without pain or suffering. Yet, we all still grieve, and will for a long time to come. That’s to be expected.

But, even in the midst of our grief and feeling of loss there is continued growth. And in that there’s hope and promise. Each of her children carry her spirit, and each in their own unique way reflects Amy’s goodness and love.

Mark Twain wrote that we each need to live in such a way that even the undertaker will be sorry when we die. Amy lived that kind of a life.

Live alive, my friends! Our time here is not a dress rehearsal.

November 25, 2013

back from the Philippines

It’s almost 8am and the temperature is a balmy 15 degrees. It’s quite a change from the heat of the Philippines, yet it is always good to be back in the states after a trip abroad.

Allen and I returned late Saturday after seven days of work in the Philippines. I admit I was feeling rough and dragging a little by the time we got back to Raleigh. I was also fighting a cold and bad throat. I slept for 14 hours straight and then napped even more Sunday afternoon. I slept well again last night and am now again feeling human.

It was a good trip. In fact, it was an excellent trip. We accomplished all we had set out to do, and even more.

  • We were able to assess the extent of the typhoon damage and see the desperate need in one of the impacted areas in northern Cebu.
  • We were able to meet with numerous Philippine partners to help coordinate ongoing relief efforts.
  • We coordinated the distribution of the million & a half Stop Hunger Now meals arriving to help feed typhoon victims
  • We delivered over 1100 Sawyer water filters for distribution in the impacted areas.
  • We were able to share quality time with one of our supporters and allow him to see the impact of our work in the field.
  • We spent time with Tiki Keh, the Executive Director of Stop Hunger Now Malaysia.
  • We participated along with almost 500 volunteers in a 120,000 Stop Hunger Now meal packaging event totally organized and run by Philippine Rotarians.
  • We deepened our partnership with Wine to Water and again demonstrated the power of working together for the greater good.

We live in a world growing ever more depersonalized, Electronic communication often replaces everything else.  Being with our friends in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan demonstrates that there are times, however, when nothing compares to personal relationships and caring enough to be present.

 

November 21, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan’s aftermath in northern Cebu

Here are a few photos from the Stop Hunger Now team’s assessment trip to north Cebu. Although not as devastated as Taclibon, the needs of this area are immense and will be for months to come. Food, water and shelter are needed for immediate relief, but long-term aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction is also going to be essential, as well.

Only the church remains in this community

Only the church remains in this community

waterfront areas were hit hrd

waterfront areas were hit hard

palm tree snapped like matchsticks

palm trees snapped like matchsticks

homeless survivors now living in cemetery crypts

homeless survivors now living in cemetery crypts