Hope: Ring Them Bells

Hope: Ring Them Bells

Tonight I had a moving experience, but not in the way I thought it would be.

My family went to the Living Nativity put on by Discovery Baptist Church in Gig Harbor, Washington.  I expected a relatively trite or cheesy live performance of the tenderest parts of the Christmas story.  What I got was a historically honest depiction of a few of the characteristics of first-century Israel: Roman centurions, tax collectors, merchants vying for our denarii, and a corrupt king Herod cooperating with his Roman occupiers to retain his make-believe power.

One actor in particular caught my attention as he stood in a merchant’s booth with his sheep.  He wore no guise, nor appeared to “act the part.”  Instead, he spoke plainly and wondered if perhaps the news from the shepherds meant that there was hope that God had not abandoned his people.

His authenticity, coupled with the meticulously designed, multi-sensory experience (rabbis handing out messianic prophecies written in Hebrew and English, Jews dragged away by centurions for not paying their taxes, and the whole marketplace filled with the aroma of Frankincense), led to a fresh experience of the perceived hopelessness into which Jesus was born.  Believe in his Christ-ship or not, here was a child born of two Galilean nobody’s at a time when their people had no choice but to obey their Roman masters…or feel the sword.  Here was a child who in all likelihood may not have been born had his earthly father chosen to accuse his mother of adultery.  Here was a child who barely escaped being murdered by his own king.  Here was a child who, by the most incalculably improbable odds, somehow gave hope to a dozen guys, a few hundred followers, and eventually to billions of people across the globe.  Again: believe in him or not, taken in its historical context the significance of the birth of Jesus is enough to boggle the mind.

It made me think of 2015.  Today.  And how after two-thousand and fifteen (give or take a few hundred) recitations of this story it can become as trite as overplayed Christmas music, or worn out like great-grandma’s placemats.  But it need not be so.  What has changed, after all, between Jesus’ time and our own?  Electricity?  Democracy?  But what of the human heart has changed?  Aren’t we still gripped by the fear that someone will come and take our freedom?  Someone who is more willing to shed blood and less willing to take prisoners?  Aren’t we still vying for people’s business, trying to make ends meet, and wondering what tomorrow holds  Aren’t we still wondering whether or not we’re good enough for this life, let alone for an eternal one?

I’m afraid combustion engines and cell phones have done very little to solve our actual problems, which are still the culprits behind persistent human hopelessness.  And I’m afraid I remain unconvinced that reason alone can do the job, either.  The Enlightenment was a revolutionary time, but reason alone has done as little as anything else to make lasting change in the human heart.  So the question I’m asking myself this holiday season is: What will give us lasting Hope?  I admire the original tellers of the Christmas story for having the courage to hold fast to an outrageous story — yes, it would have been outrageous even then — that is either true cause for hope, or the most evil practical joke of all time.  I have spoken with people and read books which argue for the latter option but fail to provide ample motive for such a lie.  So again…I wonder…

I want to close with lyrics from a song by Bob Dylan called “Ring Them Bells.”  Like most Bob Dylan songs, I’m not sure I know what it means.  But I know how it makes me feel (and I imagine that’s really what Bob wants.)  It makes me feel hopeful.

“Ring Them Bells”

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world is on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride

Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow

Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies

Ring them bells for Saint Catherine from the top of the room
Ring them bells from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.

(Lyrics from Google Play)


Charlie’s Chaplain Mike


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A Prayer before AP Exams

I have been thinking lately: What is the difference between praying for someone and merely wishing for someone?  Especially since there is no guarantee that one’s prayer will be answered with a “yes”?  When we pray for something we need, what is our mental posture?  Are we asking with a confidence the answer will be “yes?”  Are we asking skeptically, really thinking the answer will be “no” or that no one is listening?  Or do we believe in our most honest moment that we are kind of just talking to ourselves, thinking wishfully about what the world wants or needs?

Well, I would love to write a series on this blog about prayer — its expressions in various religions, and even its various forms and contents within a religion.  Perhaps if I get some requests to, I will.  But for now, consider this–wishing for something and praying for something differ at the very least in the notion that despite the outcome, the prayer is being received by someone or something who is conscious and cares about the situation.

Now, if that is the case, then the question becomes, “Does that divine consciousness (i.e., God) care about everything?  I mean, where does God draw the line?”  Many people believe that God does not draw the line at all.  God cares about everything from refugees to HIV to prison to global warming to…the list is boundless, of course.  If that is the case, then I wonder if God cares about Advanced Placement Exams.

As a school chaplain, I don’t face many brutal realities.  But I do see a lot of young people who see their choices and (more emotionally) their efforts as determining their future well-being.  Many kids who are sitting down at AP exams this week aren’t just thinking “I hope I do well.”  They are thinking or feeling, “I hope I do well so that I can afford to skip a year of college so I can afford to graduate, so I can get to work paying off my loans, so I can afford to…live a comfortable and rewarding life.”

Whether kids know it or not, when the clock starts, that is what is gurgling around in their emotional center, while their brain is trying to remember micro-economics or French or calculus.  It’s a tough place to be.

What the heck is my point, you should probably be wondering if you haven’t clicked away by now?  It’s just this — it’s worth saying a prayer for the kids taking APs this week.  It’s reasonable to believe that God cares about the kids, and thus about their experience in front of that blank test, and after they hear their results.  So here’s a prayer for those taking AP exams:

Loving Creator,

The earth is yours and everything within it; the world and all who live in it.

You created the things we study.

You created the brains with which we study.

You give us the wisdom to plan for our futures.

You hold our futures in your hands.

In your grace, be present in the exam rooms, in the minds, and in the hearts of the young people being examined this week.  May they feel peace knowing their efforts are not in vain and that their worth is defined by who they are, which reaches beyond what they can accomplish.

May it be so.  Amen.


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The Dollars and Sense of Hope

The Dollars and Sense of Hope

The Dollars and Cents of Fighting Cancer

I wanted to take a moment and thank the students who have stepped up this year on the Charles Wright Relay for Life team!  This will be the fifth year we’ve had a team, and we keep learning more and more about fun and effective ways to make whatever difference we can in the ongoing struggle against one of humanity’s greatest foes — cancer.

Today we held a hot chocolate sale (Drink Cocoa. Cure Cancer.)  And as I was counting up the proceeds I just had this visual of the nitty gritty of service.  I so wish that fighting cancer looked more like Jack Bauer fighting off the latest terrorist threat (yes, I am basically a child.)  But it just doesn’t.  It looks like scrubbing pots and pans, counting nickels, photocopying flyers, and sweet-talking contributors.  It’s hard work.  It’s not always exciting.  But it’s the reality of it.

I recently went through some of the creation narrative of Genesis with my 9th grade Religious Studies class, and we looked at the curses that resulted from people’s choice to eat the forbidden fruit.  One of them was that it would take great toil to produce food from the ground.  Survival is tough.  But we’re not just trying to survive.  We’re trying to thrive, to help, to tip the scales in the direction of life and hope.  Why would we expect anything less than toil in the effort?

That said, there were a lot of smiling teenagers walking away with cups of cocoa today, and that’s always gratifying.  Several of them told us to keep the change, and a few just contributed money for free.  I’m very thankful for the daily ways I witness divine grace seeping through the cracks of life .

Thanks to all the students who helped!

Charlie’s Chaplain Mike


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2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 590 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 10 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


Religion or Superstition?

I read a great article in the Oct 12, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated called “Penitence Race.”  

  David Simon narrates his own experience of being a 10-year-old Jew in Maryland in 1970 and making a vow to God to be a more obedient Jew in exchange for a Mike Epstein homer.  Simon’s voice is authentic and humorous as he combines baseball history with some critical theological thought. 

Epstein did go yard. On the very next pitch. But doubting that his prayerful vow to God influenced the Sens win that year, Simon labels such a prayer as superstition: 

“Any god who actually exists has to be playing for larger stakes than a playoff win or, worse, a five-year contract with built-in incentives.”  

I am inclined to agree, of course.  Religious actions can be as self-serving as rubbing a rabbit’s foot. But Simon’s example of other people’s religious acts, and his implication that all such acts are inherently superstitious, might be presumptuous:

“The sight of a wide receiver falling to one knee and crossing himself in the end zone is an affront to any theology that can matter.”

Simon’s presumption is that the hypothetical (and notably Christian) player is thanking God for a touchdown. And this may sometimes be the case. But it need not always be. Is it possible for an athlete to thank God, say, for the opportunity to inspire others?  A healthy body?  The joy of the game?  Could the player be praying that his cancer-ridden father be blessed in his final days by the sight of his son facing and overcoming his challenges as he progresses from boy to man–albeit with the journey played out through the manufactured vehicle of a football game?  Could be. 

Simon later describes his 2015 experience of Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement before God) which he shared with baseball icon, “Superjew” Mike Epstein.  Admittedly not “particularly observant,” Simon nevertheless dons his prayer shawl, opens his prayer book, and goes through the motions.  A curious reader might wonder: Why?  What is Simon trying to accomplish?  Is he seeking actual reconciliation with a living being whom he wronged 45 years ago?  Or is he simply trying to shake off what feels like the 1970s Senators string of horrible…dare I say, luck?

In the end each of us must decide if we care about the difference between religion and personal spirituality, prayer and superstition.  In the meantime, perhaps the best posture is one of humility as we observe others’ religious rituals and wonder whether or not those rituals are reflecting a glimmer of ultimate truth. 

Or maybe it’s just more fun to have your team go to the playoffs. 


Charlie’s Chaplain Mike

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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Religion, Spirituality, Uncategorized


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A New Year…A Test of Faith?

In school communities across the country, families with school-aged children are experiencing their own kind of “New Year.”  That is, of course, the new school year.

Do new things test our faith?

Some districts have already begun, and some will begin in a week or so.  But all of the students and their families experience a newness that is unique — simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

Think about that first day of full-time school.  For me, it was first grade.  Before then, school was a half-day affair.  Mom would have a PBJ and chocolate milk waiting for me at home around lunchtime, which was the end of my school day.  The rest of the afternoon was, of course, filled with childhood freedom.  But I recall the first day I prepared myself for all-day school.  It meant eating at school.  Eating!  Unprecedented.  And I was duly nervous about being away from my Aurora, Colorado home for that long.  While I don’t remember her words, I do remember my mom talking earnestly with me, sitting on the foot of her bed with me standing in front of her.  I remember sensing that she wanted me to have courage, and that she was convinced I would be all right.  32 years later, I think she was right.

But that’s my story.  Millions of other kids have their own “new year” stories from late summer.  Nevertheless, I think something that all transitional times have in common is that they test our faith.

“But I am not a religious person,” one might think.  Perhaps.  But we all place faith in something.  And times of transition can draw the objects of our faith into question.  The examples are too numerous to even begin a sample list!  But think of it — new teacher, new locker, new classmates, new schedule.  New subjects, new students, new lunch menu, new recess games.  New opportunities, new challenges, new bodies, new family dynamics.  There are so many new things that I’m finding it difficult to think of much that stays the same!

And yet, it is that which remains unchanged in which we are often inclined to place our faith.  A parent’s love.  A friend’s phone call.  The presence of God.  The peacefulness of meditation.

So these rambling thoughts lead me to a question I’ll ask myself, and which I’ll ask you, too — during times of great change, in what do you place your faith?  What is the anchor that holds you while the sea churns?  And do times of transition put your faith to the test?

This reflection was inspired by the August 29 entry in Oswald Chamber’s familiar collection, My Utmost for His Highest.

Many blessings, and to those of you beginning a new school year, “Happy New Year!”

Charlie’s Chaplain Mike

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Posted by on August 29, 2015 in Uncategorized


Religious Questions After the Quake

Over the years, I have been asked one question perhaps more than any other: “Why do bad things happen?”  Of course, the question is loaded with several presuppositions (what is “bad”; is there a power that could prevent “bad” things, etc.).  And other times it is given the condition: “…to good people.”  But the underlying question is about why “bad” things happen at all.  We have documentary evidence, like the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures, that the question has been asked for millennia.  So if you have ever wondered about it, you’re in good company.

Narendra Shrestha—EPA.

In the light of the earthquake in Nepal, I found myself curious to know how Hindus and Buddhists, the predominant religions of the area, interpret tragedy.  In particular, I wanted to know how they view tragedy that is not of human origin (i.e., “natural”).  I found the following article a bit too brief and anecdotal.  Nevertheless, it’s a good start at understanding not only how some people view causality, but the fact that some attribute no cause at all to natural disasters.

How Hindus and Buddhists View Nepal’s Devastating Earthquake

I do have a few comments on what I read:

1) Buddhists do not all agree on the nature of the “soul” which the article calls “consciousness.”  I think it is dangerously generalized to see Buddhist and Hindu beliefs in the soul and reincarnation as differentiated in name only.  The nature of their beliefs are quite different and have a bearing on what one believes about the nature of the deceased.  If you’d like to know more about the Buddha’s teaching of “anatta,” ask a CWA ninth grader as they’ve all learned about it in Religious Studies!  Or, of course, a friend or colleague who is also familiar with the idea.  You can also read about it in some of my textbooks.

2)  I have gotten questions about whether or not deities like Avalokiteshvara are subject to the laws of karma.  I think questions like that are quite relevant now, as many people have been praying to the bodhisattva of compassion for help, and also since the quake occurred during a ceremony in the deity’s honor.   The article doesn’t address it, but it’s worth looking into.

3) There is an obvious conflict between the idea of a creator god, Brahma, who might be able to help re-create after a tragedy, and the idea that things “just happen.”  If there is a creator god like Brahma, then these Hindus might be faced with the same question as any monotheist: “Rather than reacting to the tragedy, why didn’t he/she/it just prevent it in the first place?”

4) Regarding the view that an event like this earthquake has no cause (as the article summarizes it, “Stuff happens,”) I find myself perplexed at any response that invokes the supernatural.  I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a theological system that incorporates a non-conscious, natural force that just “does stuff” without the influence of anything supernatural.  But it does raise questions like “What, then, makes something super-natural?  Can something be called supernatural if it is subject to the laws of nature?  If not, what is the point of a deity if it must react to natural disasters just as human beings do?”  These aren’t rhetorical questions; I would like to know how Hindus and Buddhists harmonize these concepts.

While it wasn’t the purpose of CNN’s article to develop all of these ideas, I was left pondering them and concerned that the average online news reader would close that window thinking “Now I understand everything about Hindu and Buddhist beliefs about gods, causality, and the afterlife.”  The article was far too general to satisfy an inquisitive reader, but sufficed to offer an introduction. 

Didn’t have anything to think about this Monday morning?  Well, if you’re like me, now you do!  If you have some education in these beliefs and would like to offer some constructive feedback, I welcome it!

Blessings and Peace,

Charlie’s Chaplain Mike


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