Andrew In Akron

Congratulations to our nephew Andrew Kishman.  He’s accepted a position as Mission Minister at the Miller Avenue United Church of Christ in Akron.

Andrew says he is excited to be part of a closely knit worshiping community and hopes to combine social vision with spiritual passion at his new position.  He’s going to live in the Summit Lake neighborhood where the church is found, and his first goal is to start an after-school mentoring program for youth in the area.

I’m not a religious person, but I admire selfless people like Andrew who are eager to dedicate their lives to service and helping others.  Andrew will bring a lot of energy and ideas and commitment to his job, and I’m sure he will make an excellent pastor.  I’m glad that he will be there in my old home town, working to make the City of Rubber an even better city in which to live.  Way to go, Andrew!

Searching For A Scientific Explanation Of Near-Death Experiences

If you’ve ever heard someone recount a near-death experience, you know it can be chilling.  They speak with absolute conviction about the sensation of rising out of their body, seeing their surroundings from above, and then moving rapidly to a bright yet soothing light — among other common themes.

IMG_0770Is there a scientific explanation for the fact that so many people who have gone to the brink have the same perceptions?  This week researchers reported on studies of rats that showed a huge surge in brain activity after the heart stops beating.  The study found a spike in high frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations, to even higher levels than exist in alive, awake rats.  The brain activity was consistent with perception of visual activity, conscious processing, and heightened communication among different parts of the brain.  Then, of course, the rats die and brain activity ceases.

The study has provoked a lot of speculation about whether the rat experience is replicated in humans, and whether it could explain the vivid encounters reported by those who have had a close brush with death.  The theory is that the surge in brain activity after the oxygen flow stops produces the sharp visual sensations and altered sense of time that are reported by many survivors.  As the Washington Post reports, however, there is skepticism and dispute within the scientific community about whether the rat study can tell us much about the human experience and can explain the uncanny similarity of the experiences reported by people of different cultures and religious faiths.

We know that there are many people who have had a near-death experience and who believe that what they saw and felt was real, deeply meaningful, and had an intensely spiritual, even cosmic significance.  Entire websites are devoted to discussing such experiences and large conventions are held so that survivors can share their perceptions.  Many people, including those who have just lost a loved one, find great comfort in hearing about these experiences.

What really happens when we die?  It is the eternal question, and one that science probably cannot answer. We’ll just have to find out when it happens to us.

The Mission Trail


The church at the Mission San Jose

San Antonio and its environs are home to four of the early Spanish missions — or at least, what remains of them.  From an historical preservation standpoint, the centuries have not been kind.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit two of the four missions, San Jose and Concepcion.  San Jose is the most complete mission, with its outer wall intact and the small rooms where Indian converts and visitors lived available for a look.  They are spartan, but practical — about what you would expect in a development that was intended to be an outpost of civilization in an untamed land.  Some of the outbuildings and outdoor ovens also may be found there, as well as the ruins of a convent.


The facade of the cathedral at Mission San Jose

The centerpiece of the missions, of course, was the cathedral, and the church at San Jose Mission is striking — with a beautiful facade that features statuary of the saints and renderings of hearts, shells, and other meaningful symbols.  I wasn’t able to see the interior of the cathedral, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.  At one time the church was covered with brightly colored tile that must have presented a dazzling sight for weary travelers on the dusty Texas plains, but most of the tiles are gone and the church now stands as a stone monument.

Mission Concepcion, which is found in the middle of a neighborhood, is much less complete.  It consists of a church, a well, some ruins, and a prayer area.  The church itself is simple, and what you would expect to find at a Spanish mission, with whitewashed interior walls.  Some signs of the former frescoes in the church may be seen, but for the most part the church interior has been decorated with modern paintings and furnishings.

The two missions must be popular wedding options.  When I visited yesterday, both were busy hosting nuptial ceremonies — which is why I was unable to see the interior of the church at San Jose.  That was disappointing, but I found myself feeling good about the fact that the churches were still being used as churches.  A lot of work went into building these missions, which served as agents of colonialism but also as a testament to the power of religious faith.  It’s nice to see that, centuries later, that part of the mission is still being served.


At Mission Concepcion

Sacred Circle

IMG_3827This neat little architectural flourish is found on an otherwise unremarkable downtown Columbus office building.  Seeing it raises the age-old question:  which is cherubim, and which is seraphim?  If I recall correctly, one of them is supposed to be a head with wings, and one is supposed to be a baby with wings.  Which is which?

Whatever . . . I like the fact that someone saw fit to add a nifty bit of ornamentation to a blank wall.

Please, Read Our Nephew’s Scholarly Paper!

Our nephew, Andrew, is attending divinity school, and he’s apparently reached a kind of crisis point.

He’s busy writing papers for his classes, and he’s wondering whether anyone will ever read them — or for that matter will ever care about what he thinks.

So, on his Facebook page, Andrew has posted one of his scholarly papers and invited comment.  The paper is available to all here.  It’s called The Primal Force of New Testament Composition:  Existential Dread.  It’s about the New Testament, the historical Jesus, existential dread, igneous and sedimentary rock, and other scholarly concepts that fit pretty well in  the context of this holiday season.

I don’t want this budding religious scholar and social activist to feel like his hard work is for naught.  So what do you say, Webner House readers?  Is anyone out there willing to tackle this scholarly paper and let our nephew know that his work actually has been read by living, breathing humans?

Average Folks, Talking About Someone They Admire

Tonight (so far, at least) the Republican National Convention has been largely devoted to average folks talking about Mitt Romney — as a member of his church, as a friend and neighbor, and as an executive with Bain Capital.

It’s a bit jarring to hear people defending a venture capital firm — the kind of educated risk-taking business that is crucial in a capitalist economy, but which is so easily depicted as a blood-sucking, money-grubbing blight on society — and speaking so openly about the Mormon faith, because these aren’t the kind of things you normally see on TV.   I think it’s been refreshing, and effective, to hear from these average folks, talking about a man they know and like and appreciate.

We see enough of the airbrushed crowd, with their permatans and carefully coiffed hairdos, their carefully scripted remarks and rehearsed moves.  Seeing Joe and Jane America walking onto a political convention stage, speaking from the heart about someone who helped them, and whom they admire, is corny — but it’s a nice change of pace.

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

In a courtroom in Cleveland, a federal judge is presiding over jury selection in a federal criminal action.  The case does not involve drug trafficking, or terrorism, or any of the other offenses typically at issue in federal criminal cases.  Instead, the trial will address the actions of a breakaway Amish sect who disciplined recalcitrant members by, among other things, cutting the beards of Amish men.

The defendants insist their actions in “disciplining” disobedient sect members are expressions of religious freedom, not federal crimes.  The federal government says the defendants’ actions are part of a campaign of intimidation designed to humiliate the uncooperative men, because the Amish believe adult males should be fully bearded.  The defendants are being prosecuted for conspiracy to commit “hate crimes” in violation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

It’s odd to see the Amish in the news.  Ohio has a huge Amish population that is largely confined to remote, rural areas of the state.  If you are on a country road it’s not unusual to see a buggy up ahead — but other than that, it’s rare to encounter the Amish.  They keep to themselves and tend to trouble no one.

Of equal interest is the question whether the beard-cutting actions of the Amish sect should really be prosecuted as a federal offense.  Presumably the beard-cutters could have been charged with assault and battery under state law, if the men who were their victims chose to press charges.  Why should the full weight of the federal government be brought to bear against the defendants who did not kill or physically injure anyone — and who, besides, can plausibly claim to be embroiled in a religious dispute, however bizarre the dispute might seem to the rest of us?

Apocalypse (Not Quite) Now

Weird things are happening in the French Pyrenees.  New Agers have descended on the village of Bugarach because they’re convinced that aliens will emerge from a nearby mountain on December 21, the date that marks the end of the Mayan “long count” calendar.  The helpful aliens will cart all humans in the vicinity off to, in the words of one believer, a new era celebrating the “energies of tomorrow.”

The aliens expect we humans to perform some bizarre stunts in order to get a seat on the spaceship to the coming age.  Groups of naked believers regularly hike to the top of the mountain, which they believe emits special magnetic waves.  Some have been seen carrying a ball and a golden ring connected by a single thread on their hikes.  Is it some kind of a communicator?  An exercise device?  One of those desktop time-wasters, like the five silver balls that clack together until they become annoying?  No one knows for sure.

It’s hard to believe that aliens who are capable of living undetected under the Pyrenees would need — or, for that matter, want — to see a bunch of naked humans trudging up a magnetic mountain with a ball and ring.  Mountaintops can be cold; aren’t the aliens even a bit concerned that the humans might suffer from (ahem) exposure?  But maybe that’s just part of the aliens’ careful plan.  Perhaps it’s not going to be easy in the new era filled with the “energies of tomorrow,” and they have to separate the hardy few from the rest of us luxury-loving softies.

It’s hard to call what’s happening over in Bugarach a cult, because there doesn’t seem to be the standard “charismatic leader” who makes everyone wear a new track suit and carry a roll of quarters before they drink the Kool-Aid.  Still, you can’t help but reflect on how apocalyptic scenarios have changed over history.  In the past, religions often emphasized doing good deeds (at least, as the religion defined them) during this lifetime, so that when Judgment Day came your efforts would be assessed and found not wanting.  Now, people don’t really need to do much of anything to qualify for the next life — they just have to be present when the benevolent super-beings decide it’s time to save a few of us.

In these New Age scenarios, humans are little more than science experiments, to be rescued from the grimy Petri dish of our world by those helpful aliens.  Let’s hope they don’t just wash out the Petri dish, take their ball, string, and ring, and decide it’s time to head back to Andromeda.

In A Saxon Grave

The BBC has a story about the discovery of a Saxon grave dating from the mid-seventh century A.D.  The burial site was discovered near Cambridge.

The interesting aspect of the find is that the individual who was buried, thought to be a 16-year-old girl, was found with an exquisite gold and garnet cross on her chest.  Scientists believe that the burial site dates from the point at which Christianity was introduced to the otherwise pagan British Isles, and therefore the cross indicates the girl may have been one of the early converts.  Even more interesting, the girl was buried with a bag of precious stones and a small knife — which indicates that some of the pagan beliefs that the body would need material goods at some point still held sway.  The cross, precious stones, and knife also suggest that the girl was from a noble family, and perhaps even royalty.

Although I think the find is interesting, because you learn a lot about a people from what they choose to be buried with, it always makes me uneasy when scientists invade gravesites.  I don’t care how ancient they may be, human remains deserve to lie undisturbed.

Bumper Sticker People

I’ve never put a bumper sticker of any kind on my car.  I think they make your car look trashy as they inevitably fade and peel — and my car looks trashy enough without that extra assistance.

I also don’t understand the point of political and quasi-political bumper stickers.  Are they supposed to just make people who are like-minded feel better, because the bumper stickers show that others share their views and aren’t afraid to advertise that fact publicly?  Or, are they supposed to help wavering people make their final decision through the weight of views expressed on the bumpers that happen to be on that section of road at that time?

If there really are people so feeble-minded that their votes are swaying by bumper stickers, do they pay attention to the drivers of the cars that sport the sticker?  If a guy drives like a jackass and cuts me off so he can edge in to the turnoff at the last minute, and the last thing I see is his “Obama 2012” bumper sticker, I’m not exactly in the mood to adopt his political views as well-reasoned.

And what of the cars with multiple bumper stickers?  Isn’t there a mixed message issue there?  Which one am I supposed to read as it zooms by?

Of all the bumper stickers I’ve seen recently, the one that I find the most puzzling is the “Coexist” sticker on which the letters are replaced by different symbols.  Is the message that we should coexist?  If so, don’t the religions all coexist already, as evidenced by the fact that their symbols are sufficiently well-known to make it onto an insipid, mass-produced bumper sticker?  Or, is the message that we should coexist better — by, perhaps, not slaughtering or slandering people of different religious beliefs?  If it is the latter, do we really think that a drive-by glance at someone’s rear bumper is going to convert a religious bigot into a thoughtful proponent of tolerance?

By the way, do people with those “Coexist” bumper stickers on their cars ever get victimized by road rage incidents? If so, do they just shrug and point to their bumpers?  And is there any way to study whether “Coexist” drivers are targeted for road rage because of the stickers?

It seems like an awful lot is expected of that little blue sticker.  I’d rather leave my car as is.

Faith As A Selling Point

Why do politicians running for office seem to speak so often about their religious beliefs and religious themes?  I suspect that it is due, in part, to their belief that their acknowledgement of their faith somehow legitimizes them as decent and dependable.  They hope that voters see their churchgoing habits as a sign that they are someone to be trusted.

I’m sure such protestations of faith appeal to some voters, but for me they tend to set off alarm bells.  In my experience, vendors who advertise their religious beliefs — say, with a cross on their Yellow Pages ad or a religious saying on the sides of their panel trucks — often turn out to be less than scrupulous.  It’s as if such people use the overt religious symbols and sayings as selling points for their services, in an effort to entice the unwary.  They appear at your house to give you a quote, sprinkle some Bible phrases or references to “the Lord” or “Christ Jesus” in their presentations, and hope that you let down their guard.  And then, weeks later when the job has been done poorly or not done at all, you can’t reach them.

I’m not saying that businessmen who talk openly about their religious views are all a bunch of crooks, but I am saying that, in the business context, people who wear their faith on their sleeve tend to raise my level of skepticism.  That same heightened skepticism applies to politicians who dwell upon their religious views.  Being religious doesn’t make a person a better plumber or house painter — and I don’t think it makes a politician any more likely to live up to his campaign promises.


The Saint In St. Valentine’s Day

Today Americans mark “Valentine’s Day” — a day for lovers throughout the land.  At one point, however, February 14 was celebrated at St. Valentine’s Day.

Who was the person who inspired a day that is a favorite of card makers, florists, jewelers, and candy companies?  When you’ve got a question about saints, you logically turn to Catholic websites like Catholic Online — whose website posting on St. Valentine, ironically, features a banner ad that says “Wow her this Valentine’s.”

According to the website, nobody knows for sure who St. Valentine was, or even how many Valentines there were.  The authorities believe there was at least one such person, however, because archaeologists have uncovered an ancient church and catacomb dedicated to him.  The prevailing view seems to be that he was a Roman priest named Valentinus who was martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth; February the 14th was identified as the official date of his martyrdom by papal decree in 496 A.D.

Valentinus is said to have helped persecuted Christians, married couples in outlawed Christian ceremonies, and refused to renounce his faith when he was caught.  Like most early saints, he met a grisly end — he was beaten and stoned, then beheaded.  Before that happened, however, he is supposed to have cured his jailer’s daughter of blindness and then sent her a note saying “from your Valentine.”

St. Valentine is the patron saint of love, lovers, engaged couples, and happy marriages — and also of epilepsy, plague, bee keepers, fainting, travelers, and young people.  He apparently was a busy guy with broad-ranging interests before he lost his head.

Tebow, Schmeebow

Tonight Tim Tebow leads the Denver Broncos in an NFL playoff game against the New England Patriots.  I won’t be watching.

Even though the Drudge Report seems to feature him daily, and others appear to be watching his every move, I really don’t care much one way or the other about Tim Tebow.  I rooted against him when he was part of the Florida team that spanked Ohio State in the national championship game years ago, but now I’m just ambivalent.  I’m not swept up in Tebow Mania, I haven’t “Tebowed,” and I don’t plan to do so.

Tim Tebow isn’t the best quarterback in the NFL, and the Broncos aren’t the best team.  The only reason Tim Tebow is the subject of so much attention is that he is open and demonstrative about his religious faith.  I don’t begrudge him his beliefs, and I don’t doubt that they are heartfelt — but I don’t think they make him a major culture figure.  The fact that Tim Tebow is a devout Christian is about as relevant to evaluating him as an NFL quarterback as a minister’s ability to throw a tight spiral is to determining whether he is a good leader of his flock.

I don’t care whether Denver or New England wins tonight, and I doubt that any higher power does, either.

The Friendly Road To Cincinnati

Last week on the drive down to Cincinnati I passed this sign along I-71, as I always do.  There are two billboards, actually, with warnings about hell on one side and the Ten Commandments on the other.  (I’ve been doing pretty well on that graven image one, by the way.)

I always wonder what the judgmental owner of the property thinks this grim sign will accomplish.  Does he imagine a scenario where an unrepentant sinner is driving down the road, perhaps whistling in pleasant recollection of his various misdeeds?  Does he believe that the sinner will catch a glimpse of this sign as it flashes past, suddenly realize, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, the many errors of his ways, and then decide to follow the path of righteousness?  Does he expect the driver to make both a literal and figurative U-turn and be illuminated by the Ten Commandments on his return path to redemption?

I think hell certainly can be real, and it may well be found in very close proximity to this sign.