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Archive for September, 2008

St. Paul Medal

In September, while attending the Religion Newswriters Association convention in Washington D.C., I found myself in the gift shop of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – more about that in a future post. I have never in my life seen so many rosaries (you can see a few here) – there must have been hundreds, of all different colors, different types of beads and with different medals and carrying cases. I was overwhelmed and soon bypassed them for the shop’s excellent display of medals.

I started digging through the tiny pewter disks, arranged so that each patron saint had his or her own little drawer. I wasn’t really looking for anything, just killing time until the presentation we were there to see began. But then I wondered if there isn’t a patron saint of writers or reporters – I seemed to remember that there was – but couldn’t come up with who it was! A quick look at a nearby rack of prayer cards showed me that Saint Paul the Apostle was my guy, and out I walked with three tiny medals bearing the saint’s supposed likeness and a prayer card  – with the image at left on the cover – telling me a bit about my very own patron saint. I think I spent about $4.00.

Here is some of what the prayer card I bought says about Saint Paul: Born a Jew in Tarsus, Paul saw Christians as enemies and witnessed the stoning of the martyr Stephen. On the road to Damascus, a vision of Christ came to him and asked why Paul was persecuting him. For three days he was struck blind. When he awoke from his trance, he converted to Christianity and traveled the limits of the known world preaching the gospel. His letters – epistles – to the faithful became the basis of the church’s doctrine. His Feast Day is June 29; his name means “The Small One”; and according to my card he is the patron saint of authors, lay people, evangelists, reporters and publishers.

First, let me say I have some issues with Saint Paul the Apostle. I mean, he’s the one who said women should be silent in the church and all that good stuff. But he was quite the writer and I can admire him for that, as well as for the depth of his faith. So I am putting this little medal on one of my many strands of prayer beads, right on top of the cross or other terminal charm. The other two I gave to two friends of mine at the conference, one who is on the home stretch of a book and the other who was recently laid off from his long-time post as a religion reporter. Best $4 I ever spent.

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I am just this morning back from a ten-day trip to Charlotte, Va., Washington, D.C. and New York City. And while I have much to blog about from my trip, I came home to find this in my email box this morning and thought it was worth passing on:

Dear Friends,

On Thursday, September 25, 2008, Episcopalians in the United States, in solidarity with people of faith around the world, will respond to the Anglican Communion’s call for a day of prayer, fasting, and witness for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Anglican Communion’s witness is happening as the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York City to review progress towards meeting the MDGs by 2015. All of us can pray for a creative realization of the MDGs. You can also turn your prayer into a powerful witness for the MDGs by submitting a prayer for inclusion in Lifting Women’s Voices: Ending Poverty Through Prayer and Action.

Agreed to by all member states of the United Nations, the MDGs are intended to improve radically the lives of the world’s extreme poor. The goals are:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger             Achieve universal primary education

Promote gender equality and empower women     Reduce child mortality

Improve maternal health                             Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Ensure environmental sustainability             Develop a global partnership for development

I hope you will remember the world’s extreme poor, and the MDGs, in your prayer tomorrow. And that you will express your commitment to the MDGs by submitting a prayer to Lifting Women’s Voices: Ending Poverty Through Prayer and Action, due to be published in spring 2009.

Send your prayer to prayers@cpg.org. To learn about the Day of Prayer, go to http://www.e4gr.org/sept25.html. And please forward this email to your friends and colleagues.

Lift your voice. Say a prayer. Change the world.

Sincerely,

Nancy Fitzgerald

Executive Editor

Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc.

Nancy is my editor at Morehouse and worked with me on both Bead One, Pray Too and Fabric of Faith, so if she says pray, I take it seriously. Let me hear from those of you who send in prayers. Maybe you’ll be published in the new book!

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I am sorry it has taken me so long to get this post up, but my computer crashed! For a freelancer, this is disaster! But somehow – perhaps a miracle (see my upcoming blog post on laying on of medals) – it started up today just right! Keep your fingers crossed.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my visit to two Washington DC churches. After I left National City Christian Church, I decided my serendipitous style of touring was really, really paying off, so I decided to continue just poking around.

WOW.

I headed down Vermont Avenue towards Thomas Circle, gawking at the Victorian row houses and fantasizing what living inside one might be like. About halfway to the Circle, I came to the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House. The front door was open and a sign outside informed me the National Park Service operated it. I had never heard of MMB, but I decided to follow the spirit that led me there and go inside.

After ringing the bell, I was greeted by Alex, a NPS ranger. He showed me in – and I immediately realized I was THE ONLY TOURIST VISITING THE SITE. At first, I thought, Oh, dear! I should leave! I become shy under too much undivided attention. But I didn’t – and for the next hour I was treated to a private tour of this three (possibly four?) story house that was the original home of the National Council of Negro Women.

Now, none of this has to do with prayer beads. But MMB, the first president of the NANWC was a woman of great faith who faced unbelievable obstacles in her life and always relied on God – and very hard work – to get her through. She was the 11th child born to two former slaves and their first free-born child. She was sent to a school for Negro children run by a Quaker woman and learned to read and write. She was very smart – and very ambitious and dedicated – and wound up at Moody Bible College. her dream – to become a missionary. But she was told that no one wanted a black missionary. You can read the rest of her story on the House’s website.

A quick trip back to my hotel and then I decided to walk to Georgetown and find a place to have a nice meal. About an hour later, I was wandering through Gtown’s crowded streets when I got tired of looking at stores I could find in any mall and I turned down a side street towards the water. I could see a red-stone church down the block and headed there. As sign said “Grace Church” and told me it was an Episcopal congregation.

I started taking pictures of the church, just because it was pretty, when I saw a sign on the church’s red wooden door. It said “The Bible and the Washington Post” and promised a discussion of the two would occur tonight. Here I am, a journalist in town for The Religion Newswriters Association convention, and a discussion about a newspaper and the bible is starting in 10 minutes? How could I not go in?

I am so glad I did!

Inside the church’s Rose Room, I found two guys sitting around a table – John, the pastor and Ed, a church member. They welcomed me warmly, offered me sandwiches and iced tea and once we were joined by Beth, another church member, off we went.

It seems that John reads the Post looking for stories – not necessarily religion stories, as that day’s choice was about the current market crisis – that he can use to illustrate aspects of the faith. He prints out the story – this one was about how we anthropomorphize the market, calling it a bear or a bull or giving it other human or animal characteristics. Then he picks out Bible verses that he hopes will cast the story as a faith lesson – in this case, verses from Genesis, Job and Revelation.

We sat for an hour, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us from different lifystyles – and discussed the Bible in utter harmony. When I left, I was absolutely exhilarated and felt my faith in mankind restored. I didn’t even make it into the sanctuary to tell you if it is a nice place to pray or not – but how can it not be? As a place where people of such tolerance and love and respect meet, how can it be anything but a place worthy of prayer. When you are in DC, stop by and say HI to John. And if it is a Wed. night and you some great company and conversation, drop in on the discussion.

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I am in Washington DC this week, here to attend the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference. Today was the first official day of the conference (there were pre-conference events) and it started this morning with a press conference given by The Institute for the Study of Religion at Baylor University, a Southern Baptist school.

The Institute has conducted a survey of the religious practices of Americans for a number of years and has released the findings in “waves.” You can download Wave One – American Piety in the 21st Century. Today they released the data in Wave Two.

The data was collected last fall from a national random sample, in partnership with Gallup. The Institute sent out a survey booklet and received 1,648 responses. This is a very small sample – compare it with the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which surveyed more than 30,000 people. But the beauty of the study lies in the kinds of questions asked. Instead of asking “Do you believe in God?” (that was covered in Wave One), they asked, “Do you think God is angry?” and “Do you think God wants women to stay at home?”

The press conference was given by Chris Bader, Rodney Johnson, Carson Mencken and Rodney Stark.

Much of what they told us was not surprising: we are a very religious country. But there were a few surprises.

Megachurches (churches with congregations of more than 1,000) – The pollsters were surprised at the depth of the commitment, connection and volunteerism of their members. They found that members of these churches were more likely to have close personal friends in their congregations that those in smaller churches. They are more likely to agree that heaven “absolutely” exists and that God rewards good behavior with success. I’d love to hear from some of you about this.

Atheism – The study found that only 4% of Americans are atheists. They told us that this was unchanged from a Gallup poll conducted 63 years ago. I would urge you to compare this with the Pew Study, which found a higher rate. Dr. Stark chalked up the difference to people not really knowing the definition of atheism – a belief that there is no God – and mistaking it for having no religious affiliation.”What they are really saying is I have no church,” Dr. Stark said. “But they believe things and they do things” in religious spheres and contexts. Readers, what do you think? If there are so few atheists, how to all those atheism books become bestsellers?

Mystical experiences – the study found that mystical experiences (hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God, speaking in tongues, believing in guardian angels or witnessing a miraculous healing) are central to many religious people – 45% – a rate the pollsters found surprising. After 15 years on the religion beat, I do not find this at all surprising. Dr. Stark said he expected the rate to be about 15%. Readers? Any comments?

There were other findings, which can be found in Dr. Stark’s new book, What Americans Really Believe which they are releasing concurrently with the study results. The book is written for a wide audience, not just sociologists, Johnson told us. “This is a book that we hope touches a lot of people,” he said. “People who otherwise might not get their hands on this information.”

After the press conference the Council for America’s First Freedom (that would be religious liberty) treated us to a lovely lunch and a talk by its president Robert Seiple. I strongly encourage you all to visit their excellent website. Seiple discussed his travels around the world to places where there was little or no religious freedom. His travels had taught him a mantra: “understand your own faith . . . Understand who the heroes of the faith are, where the persectution came from . . . . Then know enough about your neighbors faith in order to show it respect.” He said respect and understanding must go hand in hand if we are to promote freedom of religion:  “Religious liberty means you walk side by side with people.”

In the afternoon, we were addressed by Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and now an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. He was supposed to discuss religion and politics with us – and he did to a degree. But this is my blog and I can write about anything I want here, and I found what he had to say about Obama, McCain and Palin so unfair and objectionable I choose not to repeat it here. Perhaps one of my colleagues will write a story about his speech. Look for it in tomorrow’s papers.

Gerson was followed by Amy Sullivan, a national correspondent for Time magazine. Her mission – to tell us about religion and the Democrats: how successful are they at closing the “God-Gap.” But since I refrained from telling you about the Republican speaker, I’ll refrain from telling you about the Democratic one. Again, look for the stories tomorrow.

More to come . . .

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Praying in DC – Part One

I have just arrived in Washington DC for the three-day Religion Newswriters Association conference, an event I travel to every year. The conference actually begins tomorrow afternoon, so I had almost a full free day to roam the city and find some good places to pray with beads.

Sometimes, when I visit a city, I prepare. I mean, really prepare. I read the guide books, plan the sites I will visit and the routes I will take (see my Seattle entries!). This time, because of a couple of things I was writing just before leaving, I did not have the time to prepare. So, as I walked out of the conference hotel at about 12:30, I had no set place in mind. I looked to my right – the White House was somewhere over there – and I looked to my left. Three church spires loomed in the distance, and off I went in that direction.

Sometimes, giving things over to the power of serendipity – or whatever higher power you might aspire to – pays off.

The first church I came to was Luther Place Memorial Church, an 18th century red stone church on a point formed by the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 14th Street, just across from Thomas Circle. I rang the church bell and a nice young lady – I think I remember her name was Allison (and if it wasn’t, please accept my apologies now – I am 44 and my memory just does not hold things like it should anymore!) let me in and offered me a personal guided tour of the sanctuary.

Allison told me a bit of the history of this great red lady of a church. It was built in the 1870s as a memorial to the Civil War and the statue of Martin Luther that dominates the grounds is a replica of the one of Luther in Worms and was sent by Germany to commemorate the old reformer’s 400th birthday.

In 1968, following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there were riots in the neighborhood and some hooligans set fire to nearby houses. People sought refuge from the violence at the church, which was advised by its insurers not to open its doors. But the pastor and other church leaders had other ideas – a church should be a place of sanctuary and they opened the doors. Over five days, more than 10,000 people came to the church to be sheltered and fed.

I loved the inside of this church, with its high wooden beams and its silver organ pipes and the stained glass windows depicting reformers and martyrs, including King, Luther, John Wesley, Harriet Tubman and others. I think its quiet and the filtered sunlight make it a great place to meditate and pray with beads – but I did not take the time to do it today because I did not want to inconvenience Allison, who works in the church in the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies. She was unfailingly gracious to me, and I am sure the church and its employees would be to anyone who wants to visit. I suggest you call first – 202-667-1377.

Here is a picture of my favorite Luther Place windows:

After leaving Luther Place Memorial Church, I walked across the street to the National City Christian Church, a columned church made of grey square stones and sporting a high steeple with bells. I walked into the office, signed in with the receptionist who gave me directions to the circa 1884 sanctuary.

Folks, this is a church. It reminded my of my trip to St. James Cathedral in Seattle – the utter stillness inside the urban sanctuary. It was a complete pool of calmness and silence in the middle of one of the country’s most bustling cities. Take a look at these stained glass windows. Look at the absolute jewelled quality of the light that falls through. And look at this picture of the altar – a wooden carving of the Last Supper.

I took a seat on one of the crimson pew cushions and took out my prayer beads – in this case, an Anglican set I made from rose quartz and green jade.

As I have written here before, when I visit a church to pray, I like to find something in the church – a bulletin, a hymnal, a missal – from which to draw my prayers. It makes me feel connected to the congregation, who I will never see or worship with. This time, no bulletins! But up on the altar was a Bible, open to Psalm 31 and Psalm 32 (see my beads in the picture?).  Those Psalms are very close to one of my favorite verses, so here is what I prayed on the weeks:

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

This verse has special meaning to me. It was the subject of a sermon preached once by one of my favorite pastors, the Rev K Karpen, when he was the associate pastor at my old home church, St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC in NYC. K ( and he just goes by the initial) had us repeat the phrase in unison – the whole congregation. If I remember the gist of th sermon, it was about the fact that the UMC had failed to (yet again) pass a resolution welcoming and affirming persons of all sexual lifestyles. The idea was that we were weeping now, but eventually we would triumph. I remember it as one of the most invigorating sermons I had ever heard. How interesting that the Bible at this church would be open to that page.

I left feeling refreshed and reconnected to my old church. All this in the middle of a strange city in which I was a solitary traveler. Not bad for serendipity.

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Several months ago, I posted a link here to a great radio story I heard on National Public Radio about Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, a 36-year-old Hare Krishna monk and Hindu chaplain at Columbia University. I loved the story, which was kind of a day-in-the-life feature, and was thrilled when a photo accompanying the story showed Pandit praying with prayer beads.

I sent a link to that post to Pandit in New York, and he sent me a lovely reply and agreed to a phone interview about his prayer beads and how he uses them. We talked last month.

Pandit was born in India and raised in the U.S. in a Hindu family where prayer beads were a part of everyday life. His parents had a temple room – a room dedicated to family prayer and worship – where there were several sets of japa malas – Hindu prayer beads – made from the wood of the neem tree. “It was a very commonplace thing for us,” he said. “There were always a few of them in the temple room and you just pick one up and use it to chant the mantra that you were chanting.”

In the 1990s, Pandit became affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and became a priest there in 2004. During his time of study and initiation, he was given a mala by his spiritual teacher. Before presenting him with the gift, his teacher first prayed on the beads, chanting with a special intention for Pandit’s own spiritual journey on each of the 108 beads. “This sanctifies them and establishes my relationship with my spiritual teacher,” Pandit said. “I really feel that my spiritual life is protected and guided by him, and when I hold those beads I feel that they are very sacred and special because they were given to me by him on the day I officially made a commitment to a certain kind of spiritual practice.”

Pandit’s mala is made of wood from the tulsi, or tulasi, tree, a tree sacred to Lord Krishna, who Hare Krishna devotees revere as God. To pray, he sits cross-legged on the floor and holds the first bead between the thumb and middle finger of his right hand and recites the Hare Krishna mantra, sometimes called the “maha mantra,” or great mantra, on each bead:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

The prayer is taken from one of the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text, in which the god Brahma describes these 16 names of Krishna as able to destroy evil. You can hear a recording of the Hare Krishna mantra here.

The Hare Krishna mantra is supposed to be prayed out loud, not silently. “Our understanding is that the name of Krishna will enter the ear and purify the heart,” Pandit said. “So that is our meditation, the sound vibration.” Pandit said he chants the mantra softly to himself. “Others may just hear a murmuring, but I am doing it so that I can hear it.”

Pandit prays with his beads for two hours a day everyday, beginning at 5 a.m. He carries his beads everywhere in a small cloth bag that he keeps with him. He prays with the beads everywhere he goes in New York City – on the streets, in the subways and on the buses. “What happens is the hand goes in the bag and they are being fingered in the bag. A separate strand of 16 counter beads hang off the bag and you move a bead after each round.” 108 x 16 = HOW MANY prayers a day.

Pandit said there is an underlying prayer to the chanting of the mantra which he described as “Krishna, please engage me in your service.” “That is the mood in the heart,” Pandit said. “And we are to chant with the intensity of a child crying for its mother.”

Pandit has his own website, http://www.nycpandit.com. I want to thank him for all his time and for sharing these great pictures.

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Lutheran chaplain John Dorheim posted the following comment to the last blog entry:

“While serving as a hospital chaplain, as a Lutheran, I learned how to make prayer beads and three or four years later, I am still making them and encouraging other Lutherans to adopt them.
I buy most of my beads locally which is somewhat limiting and I wonder how you go about determining color combinations. Sometimes, I think that what I think looks good might not be shared. Also, I tend to use two spacer beads between the week beads. Of course, this adds another color decision. I’d appreciate any suggestions which you might have.”

This a good question, Rev. Dorheim, and one I think I may not have discussed deeply enough here. For those of you have Bead One, Pray Too, I do discuss the choice of color in Chapter 8 (page 101). One of the things I advise is if you are making a set of prayer beads for a specific person – someone you know – try and find out what colors they like. What colors did they use to decorate their house? What colors do they wear?

If you don’t know who you are making prayer beads for, a look at color theory can help determine some good color combinations.

That’s why God made color wheels! You can buy a color wheel at any arts supply store, or even a good craft store, or you can print one from the internet. Here’s a good link.

I like to make my prayer beads with three – or at least two – colors: one for the connector beads, one for the weeks/decades beads and one for the cruciform/Our Father beads. I usually choose an invitatory bead (on the Anglican Rosary) that is the same color, or includes the same color, as the weeks/decades or cruciform/Our Father beads.

So, as I said, I like three, or at least two, colors. If you look at the color wheel and pick a single color – let’s say violet – you will notice it coordinates with the two colors on its right and left side – your first possible combination of three coordinating colors. Also, if you pick a single color – this time let’s say yellow – you will see it also coordinates with the color exactly opposite its position on the wheel AND the two colors on the right and left side of that color. That gives you SIX color possibilities that will all go together. In the case of yellow, it matches the yellow-green and orange-yellow AND the violet, violet-red and blue-violet opposite.

You should also pay attention to the colors people wear. When they wear a red shirt, they often have blue, black or white pants or skirt. Next time you go to a department store or big box store, glance at the clothes on display. Last season, there were lots of pink and brown combinations, the year before that lots of green and purple (among my own favorites). Look at flowers – the leaves are green and almost every floral color, both pastel and bold, go with green

Another inspiration: colors of the church seasons. I like the combination of purple and blue (Advent) and aqua and olive (Ordinary Time) and light green and bronze (also Ordinary Time).

The point is that the inspiration is all around you – in the color combinations of the sheets you sleep on, the dishes you eat on, the clothes in your closet, the flowers in your garden, etc.

But if you are still unsure, pick up a handful of the beads you are thinking of using – a couple of each color – and see how they look in your hand. Does any one color stand out as ICK? Get rid of it and throw another one in. It also might help if have an Ott-Lite or other true color light, which artists and crafters use to make sure they are seeing the real qualities of their colors.

Another tip – silver and gold go with anything. Consider always using one of those for your connector beads. That’s one color choice down. Then, you can decide if you want to pick one other color for the counted beads, or two. Similarly, black and white match everything, too.

All that said, here are a few of my favorite color combinations, matched with silver or gold connector beads:
olive and lavender
pink and white
pink and lavender
turquoise and spring green
pale yellow and pale blue

Does this help at all? I hope so. Any other readers have any more suggestions?

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