From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Practicing resurrection: Easter as a verb

The Raising of Lazarus (Artist: Duccio, 1260-1318)
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat's 2013 Easter gift to readers is one that keeps on giving.

This week's Spirituality & Practice newsletter features their inspiring article titled Easter:
Resurrection as a Spiritual Practice.  After pointing out that "Easter is more than just a day," they deepen the discussion by asking:  What happens when we think of it as a verb?

The Brussats proceed to identify ways in which "we can practice resurrection in our daily lives."   Mind you, these are not parlor tricks designed to conjure up ghostly images.  They are instead human and humane means by which many can at least metaphorically "bring people back from the dead."

Whatever your plans for Easter may be, here are some resurrection ideas for this very day: forgive someone; listen to others; engage in little acts of kindness; cherish each moment as a gift; laugh; play; be silent; welcome change; stand up for the oppressed; feed the hungry; speak truth to power; nurture yourself; rest; exercise; experience wonder; respect mystery; sing; express gratitude; encourage hope; pray; open your heart; make connections; accept grace; imagine; love your neighbor; eat healthy food; make peace; revere life; and copartner with the Holy One.

In other words, as Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood of the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn once preached:  Every time I see a man hug his son, there's a resurrection goin' on.        


Copyright March 31, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Paschal Full Moon: Easter is nigh

(Photo by Gregory H. Revera)
This month, March 2013, the full moon officially "began" at 5:27 a.m. EDT on the 27th. explains that there are many names for the March full moon - among them "Worm Moon" (earthworm castings become available to robins with the ground's softening), "Crow Moon" (sounds of crows signal winter's end), "Crust Moon" (the snow thaws by day and freezes by night), and "Sap Moon" (maple syrup anyone?).

Of course, there's one more:  "Paschal Full Moon."  This name refers to Easter, which according to the Gregorian calendar, will arrive on the Sunday after the first full moon in spring (if the moon itself is on a Sunday, then Easter would occur on the following Sunday).  According to these Gregorian calculations, "Easter can fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25 in any given year."  This year's date is March 31st.

If this system sounds relatively complicated, it is.  Especially so when the astronomical calendar is at odds with the ecclesiastical one (which occurred in 1981, and will again occur in 2038)…  Therefore, "a proposal to change Easter to a fixed holiday rather than a movable one has been widely circulated…  The second
Sunday in April has been suggested as the most likely date."


Copyright March 30, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 29, 2013

Locusts in Egypt: Shades of Passover

The Seventh Plague  (Artist: John Martin)
Earlier this month, MSN Now reported that a "punctual plague of locusts" swarmed into Egypt just in time for Passover.

Agricultural areas near Cairo were devastated by these "millions upon millions" of voracious bugs.  Egyptian armed forces were brought in to deal with the problem, which was deemed far too intense for civilian do-it-yourself efforts.  The only noted "silver lining" was that locusts themselves are edible. 

And so, what comes around, goes around… 

This saying seems to also hold true for the ancient Pharaoh from the Exodus story. When repeatedly implored to free the Israelite slaves, he adamantly refused.  Yahweh therefore responded with ten plagues that were allegedly intended to compare the power of the Israelite God with the relative impotence of the Ancient Egyptian gods.

According to Wikipedia, these ten plagues were as follows:  water that turned to blood; frogs, lice, flies and wild animals; livestock disease; incurable boils; thunder and fiery hail; locusts; darkness; and death of the firstborn of all Egyptian humans and animals. "Passover" received its name because God "passed over" those Israelite homes that were marked with the sacrificial blood of the Paschal lamb (the significance of which was later also emphasized within Christianity).

Historians have long wondered whether such plagues might have actually occurred.  These "natural explanations" have been proposed:  volcanic silt from the eruption of Santorini circa 1600 BC could have caused the Nile to turn blood red; this water pollution could have caused a multitude of frogs to die; insects that frogs normally eat would have therefore greatly proliferated; the "biting flies" in particular could have spread livestock illnesses; Santorini's activity could have severely altered weather patterns, thus causing thunder and fiery (lightning) hail; locusts might have increased due to a lack of usual predators; the volcanic ash might have also caused extreme darkness; and death of the firstborn could have been from food polluted by either locusts or "the black mold Cladosporium" (the Egyptian firstborn would have been most affected because they generally received the first servings from these crops).


Copyright March 29, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 28, 2013

God Bless America, India, China, et al.

(Oops!  Wrong map...)
According to Rajiv Malhotra, author of Being Different:  An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, America should be rethinking its Western (i.e., white European Christian) "roots."

Malhotra disputes the notion that "America is a Western nation with the Bible as its foundation."  He calls this "a racist assumption which ignores that for most of its 10,000 year history America was unknown to Europeans and was inhabited by the Native Americans, originally from Asia."

For those who might play the "past is past - but hey, look at us now" card, Malhotra furthermore points out that "by 2050, whites (i.e., people of European or "Western" descent) will be less than half of the population of America."   America will then be more "a microcosm of the world's diverse peoples" than it will be "a Eurocentric nation."

In terms of what this might mean for the ongoing urges to teach Bible studies in the public schools, Malhotra has a solution.  With the goal being to educate rather than proselytize, he suggests that numerous world classics (including Buddha's, Gandhi's and Patanjali's) should be taught.  He explains that "the library of major works from India alone is far greater than the Greek and Roman classics combined" - and also refers to "the classics of other civilizations such as China."

And let's not forget why America was allegedly "discovered" in the first place.  In other words, which country was Columbus actually looking for when he mistakenly sailed to North America?  (Hint:  Why were Native Americans formerly called Indians?)


Copyright March 28, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Urban attention sprawl: Stepford lives

Up Close and Personal (Public Domain)
Although the robotic essence of Ira Levin's Stepford Wives caused their frightening lack of awareness, the blinders that urban denizens
tend to develop may also be a cause for alarm.

If you've ever wondered whether tree-hugging has any intrinsic value, listen up.  In an article titled "City Life Changes How Our Brains Deal With Distractions," The Atlantic Cities reports that "city dwellers have developed a form of attention that puts priority on 'the search for potential dangers or new opportunities…' - which "comes at the cost of a generally reduced level of attentional selectivity."  What this means to mindfulness-oriented folks is that meditation, contemplation, or other pursuits that require healthy doses of concentrated attention might be way more challenging within an urban environment.

Writer Eric Jaffe presents relevant findings from the research team at Goldsmiths' College in London.  After conducting a study of "the
Himba people of Namibia" (traditionally rural cattle herders), this team found that those Himba who remained in remote regions "showed more focused attention" during "a basic spatial attention task" than others of their group who had moved to "the nearby town of Opuwo."  After comparing the Opuwo group's attention spans with those of Londoners, these researchers found the spans in question to be quite similar.

This might help explain the tendency of urban people to "explore the ever-changing conditions of city life," while their rural counterparts are more prone "to focus on the task at hand" (such as actively appreciating trees).      


Copyright March 27, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hiking meditation: Nature's good tidings

(Photo by Kkmd)
Although many don't seem ready for a cross-country pilgrimage, most bipeds are up for a short hike within natural surroundings.

Since the miracles of Creation are everywhere, we don't have to go very far in order to experience that which John Muir describes here:  Climb the
mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you like falling leaves.

Kay Peterson – "a psychotherapist, wilderness guide, and Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Instructor," has found a way to combine all of these disciplines into one sacred activity.  Within a program called "Waking up to the Wild: Hiking as Meditation" that she will be offering at the Far Horizons Retreat Center in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, Peterson offers "techniques for synchronizing mind and body that restore balance, clarity and an overall sense of well-being."

These outcomes might not sound quite as poetic as John Muir's claims, but they are similar nevertheless.  Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh's "Walking Meditation" is another likeminded practice.  Bodhipaksa, a walking-meditation teacher, described his student's experience of blending walking meditation with hiking:  Hiking can be pretty tough going, especially when the weather gets bad and you feel exhausted…  she just kept letting go of negative thoughts as she hiked, and chose instead to simply be aware of her physical experience…  she managed to stay in a balanced and positive frame of mind, even although her body was aching.


Copyright March 26, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 25, 2013

Matzo: Bread of affliction

Handmade Matzo (Photo: Yoninah)
Those who enjoy munching on matzo (aka matza or matzah) with butter or cream cheese might not see it as the "bread of affliction."

Nevertheless, the Torah calls it such.  With reference to the Exodus theme of Passover, Deuteronomy 16:3 (NIV) states:  Do not eat it with bread made of yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste – so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.

Matzo is also looked upon as "poor man's bread" (aka lechem oni). Wikipedia explains that because leaven "puffs up," it sometimes symbolizes pride and arrogance.  Eating this unleavened "bread of affliction" can therefore serve as a reminder of humility. 

In western countries, matzo is usually "cracker-like in both appearance and taste."  Most Sephardic and Ashkenazic groups use this type.  Yemenite and Iraqi Jews instead "traditionally made a form of soft matza which may look like a Greek pita or like a tortilla."  Although as biblically compatible as hard matzo, the soft kind doesn't keep very long unless frozen.

Matzo meal is produced when matzot (plural of matzo) are ground into either a bread-crumb or powder consistency.  Matzo balls (soup dumplings) and matzo farfel (small pieces) are two well-known Ashkenazi dishes.  However, some Ashkenazi Jews fear cooking with matzo during Passover because it might become leavened after coming into contact with water.


Copyright March 25, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jesuit pope: Means what exactly?

(Society of Jesus Emblem)
The media is filled with reports that Francis I is the first Jesuit pope to ever be elected.  But what exactly does that adjective mean?

"Jesuit" is an epithet that has been applied (and not always favorably) to members of the Society of Jesus (also known as Societas Iesu, S. J., SJ, or SI).  Wikipedia tells us that this society is "a Christian male religious order of the Roman Catholic Church."  Jesuits have also been sometimes referred to as "God's Marines" - partially because of the military background of their founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

After being injured in battle, Saint Ignatius experienced a religious conversion.  He then put forth an "original vision" for a "new order."  This vision was expressed within his Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus, and began with these now-famous words:  Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the
Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.

"What follows" includes these practices:  promoting the Word of God through public preaching, lectures,
retreats, education of children and "unlettered persons in Christianity" – plus "the spiritual consolation of
Christ's faithful" by hearing confessions, administering sacraments, reconciling the estranged, compassionately
serving those in hospitals and prisons, and performing other works of charity for "the glory of God and the
common good."

Looking back at the life of Pope Francis, many of these Jesuit influences can be found.  His personal emphasis upon education – both as a student and a teacher, plus his relatively simple and service-oriented lifestyle, have helped to forge him into one of God's soldiers.   


Copyright March 24, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Manischewitz wine: How sweet it is

Concord Grapes (Public Domain)
Those who enjoy puckering up for a glass of dry white wine might need some "getting used to" when first encountering the sugary taste of Manischewitz.

Comedian Jackie Mason once proclaimed that a "seder without sweet Manischewitz" is akin to such calamities as  "a shul without a complaint" and "a yenta without a big mouth."  Nevertheless, not everyone is as fond of this sweetness as Mason apparently is. Some (smart alecks, no doubt) are even calling it "The 11th Plague" of Passover.

Others are daring to wonder where this sweeter-than-sweet tradition originated from.  Although some might suspect that Manischewitz grapes first grew in the Garden of Eden, they would
be wrong.  In fact, Manischewitz grapes first grew (and not without a whole lot of human intervention) in Concord, Massachusetts.

Not only does Manischewitz use Concord grapes in their wine, but then goes ahead and also adds either corn syrup or cane syrup to the mix.  Wikipedia explains this tradition in the following way:  "The combination of a limited choice of grape varieties that could grow in the areas where Jews had settled, along with the limited time available to produce the wine and a market dominated by hard cider, yielded a bitter wine that had to be sweetened to make it palatable."

Since the production of kosher foods needs to be closely monitored, Manischewitz also wanted a grape that could be grown nearby (or at least a lot closer to its New Jersey base than California or France).  The Atlantic mentions that "Concord grapes could be harvested, and turned into wine, under local rabbinical supervision."


Copyright March 23, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 22, 2013

Helen Kutsher: Catskills maven

Borscht (Photo by Berloga) 
Since the "Herring Maven" heyday of the 1960s, the term "maven" hasn't been used as much.  From the Hebrew mevin ("one who understands"), and then passed on to English via Yiddish, this word continues to mean "a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others."

Such was Helen Kutsher, who died just this week at the age of 89.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that Helen "doted on generations of guests at one of the most famous 'Borscht Belt' hotels…"  Wikipedia explains that the "Borscht Belt" was so named because of the "largely Jewish-American clientele that made the Catskills the primary vacation destination for Jews in the Northeastern United States."  Helen, along with her husband Milton (who died in 1998), developed what once was Kutsher's Brothers Farm House into a "1,500 acre property that included a 400-room resort, condos, two bungalow colonies, two summer camps, an 18-hole golf course and lakefront."  Over the years, this "empire" hosted the likes of Red Auerbach, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, Leon Spinks, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Seinfeld, Dean Martin and Woody Allen.

The Wall Street Journal describes Helen as "the face of the resort , gregariously greeting guests with a smile… and making sure that their needs were met."  Her daughter, Mary Prowler, said that Helen "made sure people felt that they were pretty special."  She accomplished this by honoring birthdays, gifting children, and being "the heart of the hotel."


Copyright March 22, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 21, 2013

'The Bible' series: Miracles abound

Viper (Photo by H. Krisp)
Miracles certainly abound within the Bible.  Therefore, any biblical series would be sure to portray some.  However, "uber-producer"
Mark Burnett recently revealed that not all miracles connected with The Bible hit series were contained within the script.

Burnett told Entertainment Weekly that "weird things" began happening on the production set.   He attributed this to "the hand of God," and said that people would just look at one another as if to say, "Whoa…"  Not only that, both the actors and the edit "came together perfectly" – feats that are quite rare "in the biz."

One "weird thing" that Burnett referred to occurred during "a scene with Jesus and Nicodemus."  When the actor who played Jesus said, "The Holy Spirit is like the wind," a huge natural wind blew over them for approximately 20 seconds.  This wind was so intense that it "almost blew the set over."

Then there was the case of the "missing frock."  After the Baptism of Jesus scene was filmed, a portion of the actor's costume was lost in the water.  These special-made costumes are very difficult to replace, especially while filming in the desert.  Nevertheless, "a kid showed up from many, many, many miles away" four days later with the costume piece in hand.  The child said that he wasn't sure why, but he knew he just had to return it.

Last, there were the "cobras at the cross."  The snake wrangler (yes, snake wrangler) who was hired for the
desert production managed to remove one or two snakes from the set each day.  However, on the day that the Crucifixion was filmed, he wrangled a total of 48 venomous snakes (cobras and vipers) out from under the rocks around the cross.  


Copyright March 21, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring fever: Play and pray

(Photo by Barry Goyette)
If Spring makes you feel like kicking up your heels and thanking God for the beautiful gifts of Creation, you're not alone.

Welcome to the National Institute of Play, a "non-profit public benefit corporation committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life."  Its founder, psychiatrist Stuart Brown, "first discovered the
importance of play by discerning its absence in a carefully studied group of homicidal young males…"  When Brown tried to further study the importance of play, he found that human-based research was not conclusive.  According to the institute's website, "a science and evidence-based way of understanding" human play has been lacking.   

Brown therefore turned his attention to research on "animal play in the wild."  He found that play is a "long evolved behavior important for the well being and survival of animals."  He has also been cataloging the human benefits of play, as well as the "negative consequences that inevitably accumulate in a play-deprived life."  Interestingly, even "rough and tumble play" (often stifled by schools which view it as something that must be tightly controlled) has been linked to "social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism."

So - no matter what your age - get out there and play!  If work-ethic guilt begins to overtake your puritanical
psyche, pray for the ability to truly enjoy (be mindfully within the joy) of God's beautiful Creation.


Copyright March 20, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pope Francis: All are God's children

(from Wikimedia Commons)
While recently addressing an audience
of journalists, Pope Francis made what
Reuters called "a gesture to non-believers
and members of other religions" with this
affirming statement:  I told you I would
willingly give you a blessing.  Since many
of you do not belong to the Catholic Church
and others are non-believers, from the bottom
of my heart I give this silent blessing to each
and every one of you, respecting the conscience
of each one of you but knowing that each one of
you is a child of God.  May God bless all of you.

Saint Francis of Assisi couldn't have said it better. 
Always one to honor the essence of Gospel teachings,
he too showed great respect for those on paths that
differed from his own.  Paul Moses, author of  The
Saint and the Sultan, explained that from "early in
his ministry, Francis thirsted to reach out to Muslims." 
First he tried traveling to Morocco, but "had to turn
back after reaching Spain."  Another attempt "ended
in a storm on the Mediterranean."  A third journey
finally resulted in a visit to Egypt, during which the
historic interfaith meeting between Saint Francis and
Sultan al-Kamil took place.

Paul Moses ends with these conclusions:  Like
[Saint] Francis and the Sultan, the religious leaders…
[of today] need to recover what is best in their own
traditions…  Leaders of the world's religions should
be prepared to risk being unpopular with segments
of their own people if that's what is needed to show
that religion must be a force for peace and harmony,
not violence and division.

It's no accident that the pope told these same journalists
that Saint Francis was "the man who gives us this spirit
of peace…"


Copyright March 19, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 18, 2013

Valerie Harper: More than hope

(Photo by Maggie)
Valerie Harper is not just sitting around waiting to die.  Like the rest of us, she knows that death is inevitable – but like the rest of us, she doesn't know exactly when it will come.

Sure, doctors have guessed at some figures:  one week, three months, perhaps years.  Come to think of it, that's all any of us might really have this time around.

And doctors are careful these days…  They tuck their pronouncements about her leptomeningeal carcinomatosis (rare brain cancer) into phrases such as "incurable thus far."  But Valerie is not hanging onto the "incurable" part.  She's sticking with the "thus far."

She recently (and courageously) appeared on the Today show with Savannah Guthrie.  During that interview, Harper proclaimed:  I'm not dying until I do.  This may sound somewhat trite, but for the realization that so many with a "clean bill of health" have already died within.

As for hope?  Valerie did say that she was hopeful, but immediately added:  More than hopeful…  I have an intention to live each …moment fully.  It is said that "intention" is more powerful than even hope.  Closely aligned with the force of love, she is also affirming – along with Saint Paul and her own very devoted family – that "the greatest of these [faith, hope, love] is love…"   


Copyright March 18, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Taylor Swift: Lucky thirteen

Imam Ali Shrine, pre-2006 (by Toushiro)
There are many who view thirteen as an unlucky number.  Fear of this number has been so great in certain circles that the term
"triskaidekaphobia" was coined in 1911.  Tall buildings sometimes deliberately lack a thirteenth floor, and Friday the 13th is considered to be a very inauspicious day.

Nevertheless, thirteen has been heartily praised by some who seem to be extremely lucky (talent notwithstanding).  A 2009 MTV News article explained that Taylor Swift had "been seen around London… with the number 13 drawn on her hand."  This was not just another celebrity fashion ploy, but rather a testament to her faith in that numeral.

Swift herself has said:  I paint this [13] on my hand before every show because 13 is my lucky number – for a lot of reasons…  These reasons include the following:  Swift was born on the 13th of December; she turned 13 on Friday the 13th; her first album went gold within 13 weeks; her first number-one song had a 13-second introduction; and so on…  Coincidence?  Swift thinks not.  She is convinced that "whenever a
13 comes up" in her life, "it's a good thing."

Wikipedia adds a number of other "13-blessings" to the fortuitous mix. In Roman Catholicism, Saint Anthony is strongly associated with a devotional practice called Thirteen Tuesdays.  In Judaism, youths become mature members of the faith at age 13.  Imam Ali of Shia Islam was born on the thirteenth day of the month of Rajab.  A number of religions have one Messiah or Prophet plus 12 followers, thus totaling 13.

Copyright March 17, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 16, 2013

European Muslims: 'Francis' a hopeful name

(St. Francis and the Sultan) 
Reuters reports that Muslim leaders in countries such as Italy, France and Germany are viewing the pope's name "Francis" as "a particularly hopeful sign."

That is because it harkens back to the historic meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in 1219 CE.  Irving Karchmar of Darvish tells us that during this 13th-century era the "Holy Roman Empire" was locked into a "culture of war."  Not only did city fight city within the empire, but "the empire united in a series of Crusades against Moslems, Jews and 'heretics.'"

It was within this virulent political climate that St. Francis dared to wage peace.  His first step was to implore the Christian commander, Cardinal Pelagius, to cease fighting.  When Pelagius refused, St. Francis risked it all by setting out unarmed (along with Brother Illuminatus) into "enemy" ranks to beg the same of Sultan al-Kamil.  When they were later dragged (beaten and exhausted) before the Sultan, al-Kamil displayed curiosity about their motives.  According to Saint Bonaventure, "Francis replied that they had been sent by God, not by men… to
proclaim the truth of the Gospel message."

Karchmar further explains that because Francis shared his "good news" with the Sultan "without insulting Islam or refuting Mohammed," both leaders were transformed.  It is said that Francis was particularly impressed by "the Moslem five times daily prayer" and subsequently urged Christians to make prayer a greater part of their daily lives.  It is also said that the Sultan began to treat Christian prisoners "with unprecedented kindness and generosity."

These interfaith friendships of so long ago can hopefully inspire today's leaders to set similar examples.  The Italian Islamic Religious Community has already stated that the chosen name "Francis" can serve as an important reminder.


Copyright March 16, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pope Francis: Reaching out to Italian Jews

Synagogue of Rome (sonofgroucho)
One of the earliest priorities of Pope Francis' papacy was reaching out to Rome's Jewish community.  Reuters reported that the new pope already "sent a message to Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, inviting him to his inaugural Mass at the Vatican on March 19."

Wikipedia reports that "Italian Jews can be traced back as far as the 2nd century BCE…"  Although at that time there was "a branch
community in Rome," most of these ancient Jews lived in "the far South of Italy."  Many spoke Greek, and it is believed that some were much later "deported from Judaea by the emperor Titus in 70 CE."

During the Middle Ages, there were major communities of Italian Jews "in southern cities such as Bari and Otranto." After Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of Naples in 1533, their "centre of gravity shifted to Rome and the north."  During the early 1900s, many Italian Jews relocated to Israel.  Decades later, approximately "7,000 Italian Jews were deported and murdered during the Holocaust."

Wikipedia highlights the achievements of two Italian Jews in particular.  Zedekiah ben Abraham Anaw (13th century CE) preserved a tremendous amount of information on Jewish practices ("laws, regulations, and ceremonies…") by organizing, editing and compiling passages from previous sources into one grand work titled Shibbole ha-Leket ("Ears of Gleaning").  Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 - 1746 CE) "was a prominent
Italian Jewish rabbi, kabbalist and philosopher."  He was not only a master of the Tanakh and Talmud, but is also considered to be "the founder of modern Hebrew literature."


Copyright March 15, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis: Pray first, act later

(Artist:  Albrecht Durer)
The very first words that Pope Francis shared with his "brothers and sisters" were filled with prayer.

When the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina "delivered his first blessing and message to Rome and the world," he did so with simplicity and humility.  Almost immediately after beginning his talk, the new pope asked that all pray together with him for Benedict XVI "so that the Lord may bless him and that the Madonna may protect him."  According to the Reuters transcript, Pope Francis then proceeded in Italian with the "Lord's Prayer,"
the "Hail Mary," and the "Glory Be" – choices which easily lent themselves to mass participation.

This flow of grace among the faithful was further encouraged by his statements that followed:  And now let us start this journey, bishop and people, bishop and people…  Let us always pray for us, one for the other, let us pray for the whole world, so that there may be a great fraternity.

And then, before giving his blessing to the crowd, Francis asked for one more prayer – for "the prayer of the people who are asking for the blessing of their bishop…"  He explained:  I ask that you pray to the Lord so that he blesses me…  In silence let us say this prayer of you for me.

This circle of prayer – bishop with people, people with bishop – is one that can steer the papacy in many a righteous direction.  There will be plenty of time for action, but first things first.  Prayers today, prayers tomorrow, and in between:  Good night and have a good rest.


Copyright March 14, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New York City judges: Upholding freedom

Lady Justice (Photo by Carptrash) 
Whether freedom is of a dietary or religious nature, New York City judges have been upholding it lately.

This week, two seemingly diverse rulings were made: one dealing a "significant blow" to Mayor Bloomberg's attempts to put some "limits on large sugary drinks," and the other rejecting a "lawyer's request that Jewish people be excluded from a jury…"

Although the latter case seems qualitatively different from the former one, they both illustrate the dangers of too much power in the hands of too few people.  The New York Times reports that Justice Milton A.
Tingling of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan deemed Bloomberg's initiative to be "arbitrary and capricious."  Tingling also pointed out that "the Board of Health, which is appointed by the mayor, had overreached in approving the plan…"  He even referred to this alliance between the city's leadership and the board as a potential "administrative Leviathan" that would be "limited only by its own imagination."

ABC News reports that Prosecutor William Sarratt of the latter case did not mince words either.  Lawyer
Frederick Cohn - representing Abdel Hameed Shehadeh (who is "accused of lying about plans to kill Americans in Afghanistan") - had initially told federal Judge Eric Vitaliano the following:  Your Honor…  as you know, I'm not wild about having Jews on the jury in this case.  Given that there's going to be inflammatory testimony about Jews and Zionism, I think it would be hard for Jews to set aside any innate antipathy.  Sarrett therefore responded with this vigorous statement:  I don't think [the magistrate overseeing jury selection] will be ready to violate the Constitution and exclude people from the jury on the basis of their religious beliefs.

This is not the first time that an anti-Semitic request of this nature has been made.  In 2010, Aafia Siddiqui
(who was "accused of killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, and plotting an attack in New York") asked another federal judge to give DNA tests to prospective jurors in order to exclude Jews.


Copyright March 13, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tim Tebow's 'game theory'

(Photo by Julio Reis)
Okay, so maybe it wasn't the most professionally astute thing for Tim Tebow to recently announce that "in the end, football is a just silly game."  But when he followed it up with "Greatness comes from serving," he seemed to be spiritually right on target.

These statements were made before a crowd of over 10,000 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The Convocation at which Tebow was speaking is billed as "North America's largest weekly gathering of Christian students…"  He also explained to this
Evangelical group that "…we serve a big God and your goals should be as big as the God we serve."

Although football may indeed be a "silly game" (especially considering those injured-for-life players), the
"game" aspect of it is not the problem.  Calling something a "game" used to denote something frivolous (Candy Land comes to mind).  Since the advent of mathematical "game theory" back in the 1940s, however, the term has come into its own.  Nowadays, game theory can be so complex that even scholars find it challenging.

Nevertheless, this theory has paved the way for "Everyman" and his cousins to view life itself as a game. Steve Pavlina, a self-proclaimed specialist in "personal development for smart people," looks at it this way:  "Having been a game designer myself, I found it easy to start seeing life as a game filled with compelling choices…  We're presented with a wide variety of choices for skill building, resource acquisition, relationships, and more."

The "and more" is what Tebow was emphasizing.  Why just fill in the gap between birth and death with worldly stuff (and nonsense)?  Why not make it really count by focusing upon spiritual goals?  Concluding with a "silly football" analogy, Tim warned:  You don't know when you are in your fourth quarterYou don't know how much time you have left.  He then asked these urgent questions:  Are you ready?  Are you willing to finish strong? 


Copyright March 12, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 11, 2013

Earth as in Heaven: Living with the dead

Cairo's City of the Dead (Photo by Rgoogin)
Some people long for the day when Earth is just a distant memory.  They can't wait to pass into Heaven and meet up with all of their "dearly departed" friends and family.

However, there are those who don't wish to wait that long.  One such enterprising soul has found a way to live with the dead right here on Earth.  He might seem homeless to those who sink into soft beds each night, but Bratislav Stojanovic isn't complaining (at least not to those who can hear him).  This Serbian "former construction worker" has been "grave squatting" for the past 15 years.

What does that mean exactly?  International Business Times offers this brief description of Stojanovic's inner sanctum:  Home for him is a garbage-filled concrete space, spanning only two square yards.  Given his choice of homestead, headroom is at a premium, with his dwelling just one yard high.

Talk about claustrophobic!  Plus, he can't even eat his troubles away.  Dietary options depend upon scraps foraged from garbage cans.  It's also incredibly lonely.  Even the names on Stojanovic's borrowed headstone have eroded beyond recognition.

Nevertheless, Stojanovic has found the silver (lead?) lining within this situation.  He states:  I was afraid in the beginning, but I got used to it in time.  Now I am more afraid of the living than of the dead.


Copyright March 11, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Billy Ray Harris: Happily ever after

Father Frost (Public Domain)
When the Seventh (or Eighth) Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") meets up with the Law of Karma ("What goes around comes around"), fairy-tale finales can occur.

A Kansas City homeless man named Billy Ray Harris recently decided that God's "Thou" meant him.  He therefore returned an expensive engagement ring to Sarah Darling after she accidentally dropped it into his "begging bowl" along with her donation. End of story?  Not quite.

Today Good News! reports that this good deed then "went viral."  Bill Krejci, now Sarah's husband, went ahead and launched a Give Forward donations page for Harris.  As of this writing, 7897 donations total $180,756.   Sarah and Bill have also developed a
close friendship with Harris and "hope to stay in touch with him in the long run."  Bill Krejci has also been helping Harris to "navigate the paperwork to get his life back in order."

All this is surely wonderful news.  But perhaps the best news yet is that Harris has been reunited with his family of origin.  When his sister Robin (who had been searching for her long lost brother for years) came across an article about Harris' good deed, she "was finally able to connect with him on the phone last month…"  It had been "a decade and a half" since they last spoke to one another.  Robin has since put Harris in touch with other siblings, and with many nieces and nephews ("some of whom he didn't even know existed").

Harris' life has already improved dramatically.  He currently works as a roadie for a local jazz band and stays at one of the member's home.  Once his identification documents are in order, Harris can open up a bank account and access the Give Forward donations.  At that point, he will be able to afford his own apartment plus family visits. 

His happily-ever-after seems just within reach.


Copyright March 10, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Adam's birthdaY: 340,000 candles

Elohim Creating Adam (William Blake)
There's an old saying that goes like this:  Statistics don't lie, but liars use statistics.

The plot grows even thicker when theorists get involved.  Although theorists are not necessarily liars, they do tend to play with words and numbers in ways that defy some commonly-accepted versions of truth.

Take Virgil Valduva, for instance.  His Planet Preterist website is billed as "a place of refuge for those seeking answers to difficult questions…"  These aren't the average-type questions that other
websites emphasize (How do I save a buck?  What is Beyonce's astrological sign?  Why am I gaining
weight in the hips?).  These are questions about such things as end-time issues, eschatology, and history's unsolved mystery:  How Long Since the Creation of Adam and Eve?

Virgil tackles this last question with mathematics and aplomb.  After combing through the genealogies in Genesis, Galatians, 1 Kings, 2 Chronicles - as well as through chronologies within Daniel and Ezra –  he came to this conclusion:  …Adam and Eve were created around 3911 BC.  Since this clashes with mainstream historical teachings (e.g., "that the Egyptian and Chinese dynasties occurred between 3000-5000 BC"), Virgil furthermore concludes that "we have many serious problems with our ancient history textbooks…"

If history weren't confusing enough, science is now jumping onto the "Adam's BirthdaY" bandwagon.  New Scientist recently reported on a Y chromosome which allegedly"proves" that  "The Father of All Men is 340,000 Years Old." 

To which we say "Mazel Tov" as we blow out the omnipresent candles on his Mother of All Cakes…    


Copyright March 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 8, 2013

Feeling misunderstood? Join the ranks

(Photo by Idontknowtheworldtoday)
Misunderstood?  Imagine how God feels…  This message on a local church billboard was soon a blur as I went whizzing past it to work one day.

Although the sign disappeared from my rear view mirror in no time, thoughts about it still remain.  It seems as though feeling misunderstood is an epidemic – present within everyone from my dog (who wishes I could know why she doesn't need to eat those gooey vitamins every day), to my neighbor (who claims that anyone who doesn't like opera just doesn't "get" its cultural significance), to me (who readily admits that nothing in this world of smoke and mirrors seems fully comprehensible).

This alienated feeling is so pervasive that Billy Joel once felt impelled to write a song about it.   The Stranger contains a verse that goes partly like this:  Well we all fall in love   But we disregard the danger   Though we share so many secrets   There are some we never tell…

Some secrets "we never tell" because we're afraid to.  Others, however, we're just plain ignorant of.  This is because we understand our own Selves about as little as we understand what others are truly about.

As for understanding God?  Bart Willard of the Christian rock band Mercy Me wrote the words to a poignant song called I Can Only Imagine.  His father had recently died, and Willard was riding a bus in the middle of the night – trying so hard to fathom what meeting the Lord "face to face" must be like.  The lyrics
then pretty much wrote themselves in all of ten minutes.  Here is the opening verse:  I can only imagine what it will be like   When I walk by your side   I can only imagine what my eyes will see   When your face is before me   I can only imagine   I can only imagine…


Copyright March 8, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Hugo Chavez: So-called Christian responses

Ezekiel Icon (Public Domain)
Okay, so Hugo Chavez wasn't the most innocent kid on the block.  However, should those who profess to be Christians be casting post-mortem stones?

Jonathan Merritt tackles this very question in his article Should Christians Celebrate the Death of Hugo Chavez?  He cited these rather disturbing responses to Chavez' death:  "The good news is now Saddam, Osama and Adolf have a fourth for Canasta" (this from Todd Starnes, an "outspoken Christian"); "Hell is burning a little bit brighter tonight" (another jab from Starnes); "A moment of silence…  OK, I spent my moment picturing you enjoying hell… (this from "logical Christian" Loren Heal).

Dancing on graves is a sport that is bound to trip people up sooner or later.  It seems more based upon viciousness than upon any
semblance of Christian love.  As Merritt points out, these vengeful responses are a far cry from Ezekiel's words:  "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live" (33:11).

Ironically, the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports that Chavez died "in the bosom of the Church."  CNA claims that a "reliable source in Venezuela has revealed" that he "received spiritual direction and the sacraments in his last days."

CNA adds that although Chavez had "butted heads continuously with the Catholic Church" since he assumed power in 1999, the Archdiocese of Caracas "sent its condolences" after his death.


Copyright March 7, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Women of the Wall: Seeking renewal

New Moon Phase (by Daniel Kmiec)
The "New Moon" (Rosh Chodosh) has long held a special significance within Judaism. tells us that the Jewish calendar is based upon the reappearance of the moon each month. Its days and months reflect the very heart of Judaism – as expressed through traditional and seasonal festivals.   Rosh Chodosh also "symbolizes renewal, the ability of the Jewish People to rise up from oblivion and restore itself to its past
greatness."  When the ancient Syrian-Greeks attempted to stifle this renewal by outlawing the observance of  Rosh Chodosh, the Jewish People "rose up in defense of the Torah and the Temple."  Chanukah, "the festival of renewal," continues to commemorate their triumphant outcome.

Last month's Rosh Chodosh Adar was recently observed at the Kotel by the Women of the Wall. According to their website mission statement, they "aim to change the status-quo that is currently preventing women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall."  They work to further this mission via "social
advocacy, education and empowerment."   

Daniel Estrin of the Associated Press (AP) reports that these women conducted "certain rituals, such as wearing prayer shawls and skullcaps and singing out loud, practices reserved for men under strict Orthodox
interpretations of Judaism."  Israeli police detained ten of them "because they acted against court-ordered regulations that bar women from wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall…"

Women of the Wall have been "rising up" in this manner almost every Rosh Chodosh.  They seek spiritual renewal via social justice, as did their revered ancestors.


Copyright March 6, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Brain stain: Evil incarnate?

(PET Image of Brain)
Forget the Devil.  According to Fox News, German neurologist Gerhard Roth has found what he calls an "evil spot" in the human brain, which he claims is a "genetic source for violent behavior."

Roth came to this conclusion via a series of experiments with "violent convicted offenders."  His study, which "was conducted for the German government," involved the showing of violent film scenes to these offenders.  The section of the brain that would generally react to such violence showed none of the activity that is usually associated with "compassion and sorrow."  Roth therefore called this the "dark spot" within their brains.  Roth stated that this "is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks."

There are many theologians who would disagree with this strictly-biological pronouncement about the nature of evil.  There are also some scientists who heartily beg to differ.  Fox News offers this quote from Dr. Steven Galetta, Chairman of the Neurology Department at the NYU School of Medicine:  "People look at the blood flow to one area [of the brain] and they say, 'aha, this is the evil patch.'  It's probably a lot more
complex than that…  it's probably not as simple as X marks the spot for a particular behavior."

Dr. Terre Constantine, Executive Director of the Brain Research Foundation, also "expressed skepticism" about Roth's conclusion.  She too indicates that evil cannot be pinned down to one particular spot.  Her quote:  "This may be one of the spots [in the brain], but I'd be surprised if it were the spot."

And the Devil?  Perhaps he's laughing all the way to the lab and back…           

Copyright March 5, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 4, 2013

House alert: Anti-Semitism on the rise

(Bundesarchiv, 1941) 
Anyone who thinks that "it can't happen here" or that "it can't happen again" had better pay close heed to what Congressman Chris Smith has been saying about the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

Rep. Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the House's Global Human Rights Subcommittee, recently called a hearing regarding this threat to Jews, to other faiths, and to democracy itself.  During the hearing, Smith (also Co-Chair of the House Bi-Partisan Coalition for Combating anti-Semitism) reported the following:  Unparalleled since the dark ages of the Second World War, Jewish communities on a global scale are facing verbal harassment, and sometimes violent attacks against synagogues, Jewish
cultural sites, cemeteries and individuals.  He went on to make this emphatic point:  It is an ugly reality that won't go away by ignoring or wishing it away.  It must be defeated…

Interfaith panelists then made their own statements about this growing "cancer" of hatred.  Zudhi Jasser, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, referred to anti-Semitism as the "canary in the coal mine" regarding threats to all people.  John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America, called anti-Semitism "intrinsically wrong" because it "violates human dignity" by denying the rights to religious freedom and equality.  He also deplored it as an attack upon all Abrahamic religions.  Elisa Massimino, President of Human Rights First, pointed out that today's anti-Semitism "combines the ancient roots and forms… with new political elements."
She explained that "trigger events" in the Middle East are often "followed by sharp increases of attacks on Jewish institutions and on ordinary Jews living in Europe and North America."       


Copyright March 4, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Faith alert: Most "Nones" are "Somes"

Faith (photo by sailko)
There's a joke going around church billboards that reads something like this:  If you think religion stinks, then we've got a pew for you.

Based upon information provided by Sean McCloud of the Huffington Post Blog, this may be more true than it is funny.  McCloud, Associate Professor of Religion at Charlotte's University of North Carolina, points out that the 19.6% of Americans whom the October 2012 Pew Poll dubbed "Nones" (as having "no religious affiliation") actually includes many (55% of this 19.6%) that "hold to concepts such as god, gods, supernatural powers and ghosts."  McCloud contends that the reason Pew pronounced them all "Nones" is because Pew "constructs 'religion' as something institutional."

This narrow definition of religion tends to automatically exclude all those who believe in a non-institutional version of the divine.  McCloud instead offers a "combinative" concept of religion - one that embraces the "many Americans" who "pick and mix ideas and practices from a variety of religious traditions, and then further combine these things with other cultural, folk and popular traditions concerning the supernatural."

There are many examples of combinative "Somes" in American culture.  Although Harris Polls have indicated that 42-51% of respondents "think ghosts exist," there are few religious institutions in the United States that officially condone this belief.   Another common "disconnect" concerns the pervasive belief in reincarnation.  The Harris Poll has suggested within the past decade that 20-27% of Americans "believe that when they died they would be born on earth again as a human being to live another life."  Nevertheless, approximately only 1-3 % of Americans belong to religious traditions that "officially" include reincarnation theory.

Copyright March 3, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved