Global Warming from Mexico to Washington, D.C.

By Ronald J. Brown

The evening of October 9, 2017, I was sitting on the small balcony outside my budget hotel in Palenque, Mexico, when I first met the ancient Maya god Unen Kawiil.

I had learned to expect Mexican cataclysmic manifestations of nature from my many visits there. I experienced earthquakes strong enough to wake me out of a deep sleep, the periodic eruptions of a volcano near Mexico City, rain storms, lightning displays, hurricanes, and roaring thunder enough to make me appreciate the pagan gods who controlled them.

Mexicans are so accustomed to natural disasters and death they have created national holidays to them. The unique Mexican holiday called El Día de los Muertos, “The Day of the Dead,” stretches from October 31 to November 2 and is its most popular holiday. The residents of a death-plagued country spend an entire week honoring death.

My vacation in Mexico from September 25 to October 16 was preceded by natural disasters. On September 7, the state of Chiapas in the southernmost part of the country was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8.1, and aftershocks almost as strong for days afterwards. On September 19, another quake measuring 7.1 struck Mexico City, killing hundreds.

My rich experiences with the powers of nature well-prepared me for the arrival of the Maya god of lightning. I caught my first glimpse of Unen Kawiil announcing his arrival as he crept over the distant jungle. Like a giant, the storm marched across the fertile flat jungle, slowly approaching the base of the Chiapas Mountains and ruins of the many temples and palaces of the city of Palenque that once ruled the plains. Slowly the god crept closer and closer, each time announcing his presence with a flash of lightning from his eye.

Sent ahead to prepare his arrival was a windswept cloak of black clouds and the first pattering of raindrops. By my third glass of wine, he was hovering above, surrounding me with wailing winds, lashing rain, and most importantly, blinding bolts of lightning. It was not the rain or wind that announced the arrival of the god but rather the shattering bolts of lightning.

According to the complex mythology of the kingdom of Palenque, it was such bolts of lightning that first separated the earth from the primal sea and prepared the world for the advent of humanity some 5,319 years ago. According to Palenque inscriptions, Unen Kawiil was born in the year 3,121, only 188 years after creation according to inscriptions.

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Music as Universal Language

By David Eaton

Is music a “universal language” as Longfellow suggested? Or is this merely a platitude, easily debunked as a truism rather than an immutable “truth?”

Most of us would agree with Heinrich Heine, the noted German poet whose poems were set to music by Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn, who averred, “Where words leave off, music begins.”

Regardless of our cultural upbringing, we intuit that music possesses the unique ability to reach places in our soul and psyche in ways that words simply cannot.

Our Founder once said music is analogous to the spiritual realm in that it is invisible, vibratory and touches the heart. We all sense that music “speaks” to us and possesses the ability to convey and express emotions in powerful ways.

Though we may consider music to be a language, the way it speaks to us remains inscrutable and enigmatic. Mendelssohn, a composer whose music exhibits great lyricism and warmth, suggested music is more specific in what it expresses than words written about it could ever be.

That may be true. However, the same piece of music will often “say” different things to different people. Why this happens remains a mystery, but Albert Einstein (who played the violin and loved the music of Mozart) believed there was beauty in the mysterious, and perhaps that’s why we find the transcendent aspects of music to be so enchanting and enticing.

Music’s connection to spirituality and religious ritual can be traced to the earliest civilizations precisely due to its transcendent characteristics. The Sumerians, Chinese and Greeks held to the idea that communication with their gods and ancestors could be more easily facilitated when music worked its conscious-changing magic.

Taking their cue from the Greeks, early Christian philosophers — most notably Boetheus, Augustine and Aquinas — considered music to be a potent moral and ethical force that could either benefit or harm an individual or society due to effects on consciousness — individually and collectively. What music “said” and how it could potentially benefit society became important considerations.

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Collateral Beauty: Generated from the Midst of Chaos

By Jacob David

The last week of July was a horrible week in the political arena in our country.  The conversations that took place between some of the highest officials of our country and members of the press simply cannot be repeated to our children as the language and words used in communication left much to be desired.  I have seen plenty of animosity and hatred in the past.  But I have not heard such obscene and unacceptable language used at the highest level of the political hierarchy.

And now, we are here in this sanctuary to worship a Holy and Righteous God.  We come from such a chaotic world and we see ourselves worshipping and listening to the holy word and singing and praising a holy and loving God.  Here in this sanctuary we do have a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  People from East and West, North and South, come together at this heavenly banquet.  And what we do here has profound significance and there is beauty in what we do.

This is deeply profound.

And here is where I find this beauty generated in the midst of chaos. Remember, Jesus was born also in a chaotic world at a time when there was so much political upheaval, movement, and migration of peoples around the world. He himself was part of a family that was moving – in that sense of the word, unsettled. He came into this world in that context.  Yet, at Christmas time, we celebrate the beauty of his coming into the world.

So, I like to think of this beauty that Jesus embodies as a collateral beauty, where there is a sense of beauty that is coming out of unexpected places, in the midst of events that were pretty chaotic.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a search for fine pearls, on finding one pearl of great value, and a merchant goes and sells all that he had to buy it.  A pearl is a thing of beauty (Matt. 13:45-46). It is fascinating how oysters make pearls.

Unlike diamonds and other gems, as well as gold, a pearl is the product of a living creature. It is also the result of suffering. Down in the depths of the ocean there lives a little animal encased in a shell; we call it an oyster. One day a foreign substance, a grain of sand, intrudes, and pierces its side.

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Culture Wars: Myth or Reality?

By David Eaton

Does the “Culture War” actually exist or is it purely a myth?

In the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, Morris P. Fiorina of the Hoover Institution published Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, in which he contends the idea of America being a “deeply divided” nation is specious.

Offering copious data, he claims a high percentage of Americans possess moderate viewpoints regarding social issues and politics, and we are not as “deeply divided” as those on the fringes of the political spectrum (or the news media) would have us believe.

Yet, the divisiveness that has become so pervasive in our culture indicates that our country is, in fact, highly polarized.

According to Fiorina, these fringe elements tend to confer with coteries who reinforce their particular perspectives and do not represent the large, moderate and politically ambivalent demographic that seeks pragmatic solutions to problems.

This is a countervailing argument to that of Pat Buchanan who has long held America is under siege due to the encroachment of non-traditional religious (or contra-religious) influences and not-so-well intentioned multiculturalists who see little or no value in the Western tradition. For Buchanan, nothing less than the soul of America is at stake.

Fiorina admits, perhaps unwittingly, that there is something to Buchanan’s claim when he states:

“The culture war metaphor refers to a displacement of the classic economic conflicts that animated twentieth-century politics in the advanced democracies by newly emergent moral and cultural ones. Even mainstream media commentators saw a “national fissure” that “remains deep and wide,” and “Two Nations under God.”… [M]any contemporary observers of American politics believe that old disagreements about economics now pale in comparison to new divisions based on sexuality, morality and religion, divisions so deep as to justify fears of violence and talk of war in describing them.”

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“The Circle” and a World of Total Transparency

By Kathy Winings

Is it possible to go too far with our digital technologies? Is total transparency a good thing? If the majority of people in the world were digitally connected and our lives were out in the open, could we have a better, safer world? Are people ready to live in a totally transparent, digital world?

The new film, “The Circle,” attempts to answer these questions. “The Circle” focuses on a young woman, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), who lands an entry-level job in customer service at the Circle, a massive, powerful tech conglomerate, through a good friend who works in the company. Imagine Google, Facebook and Amazon all rolled into one company. That’s the Circle.

Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), CEO and co-founder of the Circle, is an energetic and charismatic leader who appeals to the idealism of his employees — all of whom seem to be under the age of 35. With the personality of a Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg, Bailey and his COO and co-founder, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), emphasize transparency and accountability with each new digital breakthrough they unveil. Much like the practice in today’s big tech firms, there is a regular company-wide gathering in which the new innovative breakthrough of the day is showcased and employees can cheer and marvel as their company pushes the boundaries of technology without questioning it.

Mae is drawn deeper and deeper into the Circle. Bailey is good at coming up with catchy names and phrases and selling the new tech innovations through personal stories that touch the emotions and ignite the idealism of his employees – most especially Mae. In her first week on the job, she is introduced to a webcam the size of a marble that is heralded as a means to a totally transparent world where no one can get away with discrimination, human rights abuses or crime, dubbed “SeeChange.” Bailey’s catchphrase is, “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better.”

Shortly after the launch of SeeChange, a U.S. senator trying to open an investigation against Bailey is forced out of office due to seemingly questionable actions unearthed by Circle technology operating under the guise of transparency.  Mae and her colleagues see this as a reason to celebrate their company’s role in making a change for the better.

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The Birth of American Music

By David Eaton

While attending the 6th World Media Conference in 1983 in Cartagena, Colombia, I had the opportunity with several other musicians to meet with UTS founders, Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon. In the gathering, Rev. Moon expressed interest in the creative process pertaining to musical composition. He encouraged us to study and master the classical tradition, calling it “the foundation” upon which we could carry out our creative endeavors. He then suggested we combine the best elements of other genres — Rock, Jazz, Gospel, Folk — with the classical tradition in an attempt to create “New Age Music.”

In recollecting that meeting, I came to realize that in many ways American music was something akin to what Rev. Moon alluded to. Owing to America’s immigrant nation heritage, American music is a rich amalgam of highly varied styles and influences that arrived from many places. In a very real way American music is “World Music.”

When the Pilgrims landed in 1620 they not only brought their faith tradition, but also the music that accompanied it. Some of the earliest musical expressions of colonial America were Christian hymns sung in churches and schools utilizing the technique known as “shape-note” singing. Many of these were eventually published in 1835 in the hymnal known as Southern Harmony, including the “Garden Hymn,” a song known to Unificationists as “Song of the Garden.”

Eighteenth century Appalachian folk music was also indicative of the cross-fertilization highly evident in most American music. Immigrants from Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland brought their ballads, jigs, reels — and their instruments — with them, and these musical influences found their way across the land.

Gospel Music also had religious roots. The “call-and-response” mode of music-making dates back to the early 1600s. As it evolved from 17th century Negro Spirituals and field hollers, it was the Christian revival movement and Holiness-Pentecostal movement of the late 19th century that spawned this new genre. Gospel historian Robert Darden noted the first published use of the term “Gospel” to describe this music style was in 1874 when Philip P. Bliss edited a revival songbook titled Gospel Songs for use in evangelical meetings and revivals.

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The Battle for Dominion over Time: Thailand’s Many Calendars

By Ronald Brown

Of all the parts of creation that God gave us dominion over, time continues to remain the most elusive.

A calendar is one of the universal building blocks of all religions. For any new religion to succeed or ancient religion to endure it must prove its ability to have dominion over time. The prospect of an endless and meaningless succession of days, years, and centuries, is unsupportable for human beings, to say nothing of religious communities. Calendars are like maps placing an individual and a community firmly in a flow of time that began with the Creation and will end with the Millennium.

In late December and January, during my academic break, I traveled to Thailand. What could have been a pleasant month of travel, beach, wine, dancing, food, and fun turned into a research-filled period. My research was stimulated on the first day in Bangkok when the man at the front desk prepared the receipt for my $7 a night room.

The Confused Calendar of Thailand

He took out his book of receipts, filled in the sum in Thai Baht, misspelled my name, stamped it, and handed it to me. I stuffed it into my pocket and went to my room where I crashed on my hard bed and slept the entire day. It was only later that evening as I was writing my daily journal entry that I glanced at the receipt. I took out glue stick, covered the back of the receipt with glue and attached it to the page. Only then did I notice that he had miswritten the date: the month “12” and day “30” were correct, but in place of 2016 he had simply written “60.” I thought he had simply made a mistake and wrote “60” instead of “16” and thought no more of it. But this strange date stuck in my mind. I had to find out what “60” meant.

The Buddhist Calendar

My second encounter with the wild world of Thai calendars was by accident. Having checked into my hotel, I set off to explore the neighborhood. I strolled up a major road and stopped in the middle of an elegant bridge spanning one of the many canals that crisscrossed the city giving it the name “The Venice of the East.” I glanced at the elegant Thai script that announced I was on the Mahatthai Uthit Bridge and noticed the year of construction was 2457. Puzzled, I checked my handy travel guide and read it was constructed in 1914.

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An Encounter with the Holy Trinity: “The Shack”

by Kathy Winings

It is not often a reflective and innovative film that is deeply theological comes to the big screen – and is worth our time and attention. But “The Shack” fits this bill nicely. Not unlike “Heaven is for Real,” “The Shack” reminds us we are never alone, that God is always there with us. And what “Heaven is for Real” did for reimagining the spiritual world, “The Shack” does for the holy trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The movie tells the heart-wrenching story of Mack Phillips (played by Sam Worthington), a family man who must endure the disappearance and presumed death of his youngest daughter and make sense of a loving God.

The film begins with a brief but critical glimpse of Mack as a young boy who witnesses his abusive yet church-going father beat his mother at the slightest provocation. After Mack confesses to the family pastor about the beatings, his father beats him again, pushing the young boy to take drastic action, which turns into a secret that haunts him throughout his adult life. Mack’s wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), knows he has a secret eating at him but she cannot convince him to talk about it. Nor can his neighbor, Willie (Tim McGraw), a faithful and God-loving man.

As a loving husband and father, it is clear Mack cannot seem to come to terms with a God who is there for us, loves us and to whom we can turn. After all, why did God allow his father to treat his wife and son so terribly? Would an omnipresent loving God really do that? Because he cannot find answers to his questions about God, he forms an uneasy truce with God. At the same time, he feels his wife’s faith is strong enough for both of them for the time being.  What is interesting is his wife’s nickname for God. She calls him “Papa,” with her children following suit.

A catalyzing event occurs one summer when Mack takes his three children camping to their favorite lake while his wife must stay behind. During this fateful trip, his youngest daughter, Missy, suddenly disappears while Mack is focused on saving his other daughter and son who become trapped under their canoe while boating. One moment she is there coloring her pictures and the next minute, she is gone; a parent’s nightmare.

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“Fences” and “Hidden Figures”: Finding Purpose in Unexpected Places

By Kathy Winings

kathy_winings_3_profileTwo recent films, each nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, help white America understand the challenges and struggles of black America from different perspectives. On the one hand, “Fences” is a story that shines a light on the challenges and issues faced by black families in the 1950s. On the other hand, in “Hidden Figures,” we have Hollywood telling the amazing story of three immensely talented black women who made invaluable contributions to NASA and the American space program.

August Wilson has been called one of the finest American playwrights of the 20th century. His plays have highlighted and brought to life African Americans in everyday roles dealing with everyday issues including love, struggle, duty, and betrayal. The impetus behind his plays was so white Americans could begin to see African Americans in a different light; see them dealing with the same issues that define life for most whites so that whites just might treat African Americans differently. “Fences” was one of his best-known plays for which he received both a Pulitzer and a Tony award.  In 2016, “Fences” came to the big screen directed by Denzel Washington.

“Fences” is the story of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh.  Portrayed passionately by Denzel Washington, Maxson is a bitter man whose dream of becoming a professional baseball player died early on because he was too old by the time Major League  Baseball began admitting black players. As a result, after spending time in prison, he now struggles with his own ambitions to find success in his job and as a man needing to feel vibrant and loved. Yet, he looks for this, as the proverbial song says, “in all the wrong places.”

His main support is his long-suffering wife, Rose, played brilliantly by Viola Davis, who won the 2010 Tony for best actress in the role and the 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the same role (her Oscar acceptance speech was deeply moving).

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