|February 25, 2013||The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Tour||9 comments|
|June 18, 2012||The Marriage Gamble: How Divorce Rates are Skewed||2 comments|
|April 06, 2012||The Funeral Called Forty||no comments|
|March 19, 2012||The Republic's Religious Foundations||8 comments|
|February 29, 2012||Through a Lost Wallet: Finding Faith in People||1 comments|
|December 23, 2011||2 comments|
|December 02, 2011||The Best Sermon I Ever Heard||2 comments|
Eric Metaxas spoke on February 21 at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta. He is the widely acclaimed author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, which has been heaped with awards and praise since its 2010 publication.
It was this book that led Metaxas to meet former President George W. Bush, who has never made a secret of his Christian faith, and then President Barack Obama at the 2012 Prayer Breakfast at which Metaxas was the keynote speaker. Metaxas is also well known for having been a writer on the very popular Veggie Tales series for children and for his work with the noted Christian Evangelical leader Chuck Colson.
Though it was impossible to count all of the other people who had converged in Buckhead on an overcast Thursday night to hear more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian whose opposition to Hitler landed him on the gallows just a few weeks before the end of World War II, I would estimate a crowd of close to two thousand. Surveying the full pews in front of him, Metaxas—an always articulate and funny spokesman—quipped, “For the cerebral Christian, this is what a revival looks like.”
Indeed, much of Metaxas’s speech focused on the idea that Bonhoeffer was a serious intellectual from a family that understood the value of education and rational thinking. In fact, Bonheoffer’s father was an influential psychiatrist and neurologist, and his mother had a teaching degree, which she used to home-school her eight, brilliant children.
In highlighting such biographical facts—and then Bonhoeffer’s own record of study—Metaxas underscored how a man can worship God with not just blind emotion but with an attempt at whole understanding.
This is an important message for people living in a society that often mocks religion.
Having grown up in a church-going house that did not dig into those deeper questions of faith, Metaxas mentioned how he himself had been a young man who went off to university completely unequipped to defend any sense he’d once had of God. With a sardonic smile, he then advised the lesson learned was, “If you go to a place like Yale, don’t go with an open mind.”
Apparently Metaxas felt he had opened himself up too completely because whatever faith he had enjoyed as a child was quickly stripped away in a profoundly secular environment. This set him adrift in the inevitable darkness that shadows the thinking of purposeless atheism.
Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no slouch as an academic, played a large part in reigniting within Metaxas the light that would lead him back to a belief in Christ. After all, Bonhoeffer earned his PhD from Berlin University at the astonishingly young age of twenty-one, and thus had views that were undergirded with serious study and careful consideration.
Personally, I found this point one of the most interesting in the talk.
Consider for a moment that many Americans have a foundation in faith that is cultural and emotional. This was true for Eric Metaxas, and this foundation quickly crumbled under the weight of intellectual challenges.
However, Bonhoeffer’s faith—per our understanding of his life—was always based on reason. When he worshipped in Harlem while studying in New York, Bonhoeffer discovered a more personal and interactive relationship with a living God. It was at this point that emotion was added on top of solid knowledge, and his relationship with Christ only deepened.
In other words, Bonhoeffer’s foundation was intellectual. He had a strong framework of faith that could not be easily shaken by the skepticism that so often topples those who are steeped in ignorance about their own religions. With learning came love.
His beliefs fully cemented, Bonhoeffer could not in good faith stand silent in the face of Nazi oppression. He spoke up for Christianity in even the early days as Hitler’s regime began to hollow out the church and twist it into something evil and unrecognizable.
Further scorning the concept of “easy grace,” he then actively took part in the resistance movement. For this, his corpse would eventually be burned at Flossenburg and mingled with the ashes of the Jews he had been called by God to defend. Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to his death knowing exactly what he was doing.
Ultimately, in bringing attention to this great man’s story, Eric Metaxas is exhorting others to seriously consider the meaning of their own faiths and the extent to which they live their beliefs.
On this front, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy is one of clear inspiration.
For as long as I can remember, I have heard that half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. That means fifty percent of all marriages fail, so if you ever attend a double wedding, you should expect one bright-eyed couple to become broken hearted, right? It’s no wonder they smash wedding cake into each other’s faces.
Since the 1970s, this discouraging statistic has been easily used to justify lifestyle choices that do not require the legal entanglements of a more formal union. After all, fifty-fifty odds create a fool’s game that makes the marriage bet worth reconsidering. This is especially true when houses, cars, and 401-Ks are put on the line. We’re talking serious poker chips in the until-death-do-us-part pot. Some would rather just split the rent and play black jack in Vegas.
But statistics are funny things. When presented to prop up an argument, they can look like your reflection looks in a fun house mirror. Sure, you’re seeing a picture that comes from your real self, but everything about you is suddenly, grotesquely, laughably distorted.
Of course it is impossible to deny that divorce is not uncommon in the United States. Everyone knows children with bedrooms in two different houses. It’s no longer safe to assume that a mother and a child will share a surname, and one only needs to buy a copy of People Magazine to delight in the antics of Hollywood folk who discard husbands and wives as casually as last season’s fashions.
But the truth is new couples do not face fifty-fifty odds.
So how are these numbers derived? The data to create the statistics comes from a variety of sources that do not take into account the whole picture. To simplify, let me use an anecdotal illustration that sheds light on how the numbers add—and don’t add—up.
My parents have been married for almost fifty years. My grandparents on both sides were married until death sundered their respective unions. My husband’s grandparents on both sides also fit that description.
However, my husband’s parents divorced when he was a young boy. His mother had two more marriages that ended in divorce. His father had one more marriage that ended in divorce.
If you’re keeping track, you’ll see I have listed five marriages that were successful. There are also five marriages that failed. (I count my husband’s father as having two failed marriages, my husband’s mother as having three failed marriages.)
If you go by those numbers, we can derive that fifty percent of all marriages fail, right? Those statistics create a completely accurate picture, right?
Well, yes and no.
Remember, we’re looking into a fun house mirror.
The number of marriages that fail might be fifty percent in this case, but the number of people who had failed marriages is not fifty percent. The statistic is misleading.
And while I’ve offered you anecdotal evidence, the above scenario can be exploded out into the larger world of marital statistics because, basically, the data is collected from states by the Center of Disease Control without taking into account finer points like how many times a bride has been a bride.
In other words, the 50-50 numbers don’t give you the real odds because of how they are presented to you. They are like a distorted reflection of the facts: real but not accurate.
If you really want to make bets on whether or not a couple will stay together, you must know more about them apart from when they said, “I do.” Age, education, and shared religious outlooks all tip the scales in a major way, and it’s not likely high school sweethearts with different financial goals will make a lasting commitment.
Of course, if you look hard enough, you will find that couple married at nineteen, barely out of high school, with no money in the bank who managed to make it work, but this is much more rare than finding a more mature, established couple with a shared life vision that have been able to stick it out to achieve happily ever after.
In either case, there are no guarantees.
Sometimes, when all the indicators say a couple will stay together forever, really good people still choose to hire lawyers and split apart.
Marriage, after all, is a partnership between people, and people are not perfect. Sometimes the problem is they are simply not perfect enough for each other.
Regardless, the fifty-fifty statistic that we bandy about is irksome because it undermines the viability of marriage in general. It makes people cynical about an institution that undergirds society. It makes it too easy for that bright-eyed bride and groom to file for that no contest divorce when the going gets tough because… well… chances are they weren't going to make it anyway.
That’s a shame.
While a divorce was much more uncommon in my grandparents’ day—something that should be taken into account when looking at the figures—it’s easy to prove that the number of people who break up in my own generation is not nearly as high as the public example of people like Kim Kardashian might lead us to think.
In fact, my husband and I and our siblings may sometimes feel as if we live in fun houses, but we are all happily married and have never been divorced.
I’d say we’re beating the odds, but the truth is we’re simply reflecting the majority outcome for marriage in the United States.
That’s a winning image.
Birthdays are powerful milestones. They give us permission to drive, to drink, to rent cars in Europe. They are a sweet opportunity to reflect upon where we are going, what is left to do, and who we are yet to become. But most of all, birthdays allow us to celebrate where we have been, the other people with whom we've journeyed. On such occasions, the love of family gives Hallmark the most power to make us misty, but one should never underestimate the joy to be found in the gift of good friends.
On that note, most of my life I've heard turning forty marks the top of some metaphorical hill that has a giant, black arrow pointing adamantly towards a future of steep decline. Gone are the sun-dripped days of youth, the green offshoots of possibility. Gone are the hot afternoons of summer in which one commands each waking hour of day's prime. Certainly, any reader of glossy magazines like Cosmo knows all that's left for women after forty is the shaded autumn, the somber ochre and muted yellow that are like dying embers in the fire before we're enveloped in the coming clouds of grey. Or plastic surgery.
Depressing stuff, really: becoming middle aged in America.
So when I turned forty, three of my good friends approached my birthday with the honest recognition of what that truly means. There would be no sparkly confetti, hired clowns or noisemakers at a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey sort of keg party one might host in previous decades. Rather, those who know me well did the appropriate thing for my personality. They threw my youth a funeral because my youth is dead.
The semi-somber event was held at an outside table on Canton Street in Roswell. Amazingly, even though the calendar proclaimed my life is over, I didn't feel any less vital or any more wrinkled as I sat sipping wine in the warm night breeze.
This is perhaps because the mock wake for bygone days was conducted Dixieland jazz style, replete with black balloons, Mardi Gras beads, and a funeral dirge played loudly over the restaurant's speakers. Besides, like the belles of a ball, we were holding court, we four queens of twilight. Adorned with stylish black fascinator hats in silver touched hair, we stood out from the crowd like a proper royal party: noble, dignified and tastefully accessorized with feathers.
As the evening wore on, we must have been glowing with the warm recollection of my past decades - flushed pink with that second bottle of pinot - as we attracted a steady stream of folk who stopped by our table to convivially ask why we were so dressed up. A black and yellow Harley made a u-turn on the street simply so we could nod and wave in the driver's direction: that cupped palm sort of wave reserved for monarchs. A complete stranger in flip-flops quietly laid the plucked stem of a snapdragon by my dinner plate before melting away into shadows.
I felt that evocative power that emanates from the collective aura of people our age: the permanent beauty of women who are finally comfortable in their own skins.
Then the cake came, and unlike that child who carelessly blows out her candles while wishing for a pony or a facelift, I found myself thanking God for the simple blessing of spiritually symbolic processions led by friends I hold in high esteem.
After all, I know leaving youth behind is not really like going to a funeral. Rather it's like discarding insecurity, uncertainty, and frivolity on the path already trodden. It's no longer looking to Cosmo for affirmation but finding wisdom in the realness of other women. It's understanding that reaching the top of any mountain means we will finally get to see the blazing seasons that stretch before us on the other side, on the way down.
Indeed, all birthdays are about taking the time to assess where we are on our life's journey. If you think about it, whether twenty, forty or ninety, the more we see of time, the less time we seem to get, so one must be careful not to waste any of it.
For my part, I say rest in peace, youth. I loved you. Now I raise a glass to toast those family and friends who have made the past worthy of celebration. I knock glasses with those who walk forward with me into the future. I suspect it'll be a glorious adventure.
May the second half of life commence!
My friend countered democratic ideals predate Christianity and cannot be married to religion. I asked for examples, but we arrived at his stop, he disembarked, and I was left alone on the train yelling inside my head, “And I’m not talking about the Greeks!”
Of course telepathy is not a viable option for continuing a conversation, so I sank into a seat, stared out a window, and got so lost in my own thoughts that I promptly missed my transfer station and added a half hour to my journey home.
But why do I think the way I do? Is there any basis for my firm belief that Christian tenants of faith were so important to the development of the American republic that they were actually the germinating seeds, which blossomed into our current system? Or is this thinking so influenced by my own ideology that I’m blinded to the real history?
It is inarguable that democracy was born thousands of years before any upstart Colonials wrote the Declaration of Independence and hundreds of years before a man called Jesus was even born. However, we remember that version of democracy did not really promote equality amongst peoples. Of course, our nascent republic did not practice equality amongst peoples, but the ideal of equality was there from the very beginning, and that ideal was self-evident because people are creations of God. In other words, in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian beliefs undergirded the philosophies that were necessary intellectual elements for American self-government to eventually extend opportunity to all.
So what was the foundation for Greek democracy? The Greeks also had a religious framework upon which they hung their politics, but that framework was one with arbitrary gods who did not value individuals. As we recall, Socrates was put to death for not ascribing to the government’s endorsed views on religion. He was sacrificed for the needs of the state. There was no reason to develop any notions about human equality that would extend to all people. For this we would need a different kind of theology: a God who valued slaves and women as much as He valued each and every man.
The Roman Republic is a similar story. While having many characteristics worthy of admiration, the idea of “equal” in Rome did not include the barbarians at the gate, and the “worth” of Romans themselves was determined by military conquest rather than something that was intrinsically good. By the time Constantine changed this vast empire into a Christian one, the Republic had long fallen, and the problems of the state were so entrenched that the empire itself was destined for decline.
But that’s antiquity, so let’s fast-forward a decade beyond 1776 to the French Revolution, which also threw off the shackles of monarchy and was built solely on the secular philosophies of the day, no God to temper the passions of man. Here the Cult of Reason eschewed religion entirely for “liberty” in France, and the aristocrats who painted Paris with their blood were butchered in such a way as to horrify most Americans. Nobles, supposedly, were not “equals” in the new brotherhood, as neither God nor reason ruled. Nor, might I note, did that republic last.
So whilst one cannot deny that American ideology has sometimes been at war with itself, it is hard for me to not return to my original premise. The American republic as it stands today would not have evolved into what it is without the influence of Judeo-Christian thinking in the beginning. Of course, there are other factors, but the cultural supremacy of the individual especially can be tied to this religious foundation… the radical teachings of Christ.
It goes without saying that these are giant ideas, difficult to put into smaller sections in three stops on the MARTA or a short blog post. However, I would like to thank my classmate for challenging my thoughts on the matter.
I’m still thinking…
Late for a sporting event, my son and I pulled up to an Exxon on Johnson Ferry to fill his gas tank. Of course, we were running late, and I was moving on autopilot. Somehow—perhaps after I’d suffered a small stroke over the cost of a gallon of gas—my wallet ended up on the roof of my son’s car where it would remain for… oh… who can say? By the time my brain had actually switched back on, and I realized what I’d done, we were cruising up 400.
With a crash and burn feeling exploding in the pit of my stomach, I went through a mental inventory of my wallet’s contents: money, American Express, driver’s license, and—thanks to a recent trip to Human Resources—my social security card.
All the scary infomercials about identity theft that I’ve ever heard flashed through my mind and planted fear in my spirit.
I just knew that ubiquitous, bad someone was already on a spending spree at Phipps Plaza with my VISA or hopping a jet to go snorkeling on a yacht in the Bahamas. Maybe that person would access my paltry retirement, shut down my checking account, fool my husband into thinking he was married to her instead of me, steal my dog right from under my nose, and basically blot me out of existence.
But what could I do when the world started spinning further out of control except take a deep breath and comfort myself with the knowledge that a thief would surely be sadly disappointed by the state of my credit limit? Banks are closed on the weekends, and the “lost check card” telephone number only gets you a conversation with a bilingual robot that doesn’t seem capable of empathizing with panic.
Little did I know that at about the time I started popping TUMS like M & Ms at the event to which I’d been late, Martha and Katherine Siewert were also driving around town, going about their business. Katherine is a 7 th grader at Dickerson Middle School. She must have the eyes of an eagle because she spotted my wallet where it had flown off my son’s car to bounce into the grass. Rather than ignoring it, Katherine asked her mother to pull over.
Now let me tell you, finding my wallet was one thing. Going to the effort of tracking me down was quite another. Yet good people make the effort.
While I was feeling dejected by the fact that I would either have to spend hours of time on the phone canceling my life or end up destitute in a van down by the river because someone was stealing my stuff, the mother and daughter superhero duo were driving to the address on my driver’s license. In a world where time is the greatest asset, they made the choice to stop spinning in their lives for just a moment to go out of their way to help a complete stranger because… well… they thought it was the decent thing to do.
Who says we don’t live in a nice community?
Who says people aren’t kind?
Who says it is best to be cynical about the intentions of our fellow human beings?
Thank you, Martha and Katherine.
You’re out of this world, and I thank you.
My family and I were in London on Christmas Eve in 2008, so we attended Midnight Mass in Westminster Abbey. This lovely English church is steeped in history. British monarchs for hundreds of years have been crowned there, so I knew the First Eucharist conducted to praise and worship the king of all kings would be a moving and memorable experience. Indeed, it turned out to be just what I'd expected... once we got inside.
Grabbing one of my son's mittened hands and petulantly cursing England, we had plodded back to the church, hungry. With nose running, I wondered if Mary and Joseph had managed to avoid the temptation of bickering while traveling. I pondered if it was sacrilegious to think they might have enjoyed a spiked eggnog on their way to the Inn.
Waiting in a long line as the temperature continued to plummet, I fantasized about conducting a tailgate for God, dressing the queue of people around me in matching Snuggies, sitting on fold-out stadium seats, and eating from a bucket of fried chicken. I wondered how the British would react to my family if we truly got into a tailgating spirit, built a small fire, and passed around Tupperware bowls full of baked beans and coleslaw as if we were in Athens, Georgia instead of the United Kingdom.
As it was, in the solemn shadow of the seven hundred year old building, we shivered in our properly formal attire--me in a black velvet hat, houndstooth dress, and painfully thin pantyhose--and carefully split a pack of orange Tic-Tacs, hoping our growling stomachs didn't mark us out as Ugly Americans.
The stars formed like ice crystals above us. The night was cold and hushed. I was feeling small and grumpy. In that moment, I didn't even like Christmas.
Finally, the church opened, and we gratefully moved as part of a long stream into the warmth of religion. Heat returned to our extremities, and our jaws dropped at the beauty of the vaulted Gothic ceilings. I imagined the ghosts of those interred around us--Queen Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin--as we found our seats near the High Altar. We had a great view of the gentleman up on a podium giving the sermon. He was as pink-cheeked as any other man, woman, and child who had braved the cold to join the congregation, and his words of promise, hope and love felt somehow humble despite that grandiose setting.
On that note, while the famous choir was in angelic harmony throughout the service, the man lifting his tenor voice behind my family during "O, Come All Ye Faithful" was most touching. He joyfully sang each stanza slightly off-key, and I smiled broadly, thinking he was so perfectly... human.
It goes without saying that Westminster Abbey is a wonderful place to celebrate one's faith, but as we filed out into the freezing night again, coins tinkling into collection plates for the poor of London, I felt the exact same peace I feel every year: the same sense that something wonderful was about to happen, something wonderful had already happened.
The people who had waited in solemn silence outside the church before the service were laughing and talking on their way to cabs and cars, full of anticipation for the promise of Christmas morning. Beside the mighty Thames, we moved as one with them, hand-in-hand, part of that same happy current flowing out of the iron fence. It did not matter we were from another nation, thousands of miles away from home. For a perfectly redeeming moment, there was nothing else to see or feel but the glory of God, good will towards men.
I love Christmas.
The jeep snaked up a lonely road into the hills until finally we stopped at the top of a mini-mountain. It was a gorgeous blue day, and we had a view of the Army base where we lived spread out to one side below us. I think it was the only hill in Kansas. My father had us unload and sit on the jeep's bumper as he stepped in front of us to pace back and forth like General Patton. White socks pulled high on his calves, his silence commanded our attention. The air was cold, but the sun felt good as it soaked into my cheeks.
"Look that way, kids," Dad finally said, pointing with his cigar towards an endless sky feathered with wispy clouds. A living sea of green trees stretched towards the horizon. "That's what God makes." We gazed for a silent moment at all the glory of nature.
"Now look there." He directed our eyes back behind the jeep to an abandoned Army bunker, a skeleton of a building. VAN HALEN RULES was scrawled across the broken door in faded blue paint. Empty beer bottles littered the ground around it. Twisted cigarette butts yellowed in decay where they'd been discarded. "That's what man makes."
He raised his eyebrows as he casually lit his cigar. "Which do you think is more impressive?" He looked sternly at the two of us as a puff of smoke escaped his full lips, then he smiled broadly, hazel eyes twinkling. "Mass is done. Say 'amen.' Let's go hiking."
I still think about that morning's sermon.
Whatever one thinks about religion, my father-preacher's message was simply inspiring.