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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog


Real old-timey worship

A fascinating article from Smithsonian Magazine, now available online, includes a brief description and remarkable pictures from the oldest known humanly constructed place of worship. Gobekli Tepe (translation, "Belly Hill"), a 22 acre site in southern Turkey that contains multiple rings of carefully carved seven-ton stones, may be 11,000 years old -- predating the domestication of animals and even the cultivation of grain crops.

Indeed, one of the more intriguing proposals put forward by excavator Klaus Schmidt is that the mammoth organizational effort required to carve the stones (with stone tools!) and construct the sacred site may have inspired the shift from a society of hunter-gatherers to a more settled form of civilization. Previously, it's been thought that humans would not have had the leisure to pursue such spiritual quests until after they'd settled into farming communities.

I haven't been in southern Turkey, but I once stood near the summit of a mountain in Armenia, just to the north, and the stars were amazing. It's not hard to imagine that the view from Gobekli Tepe would have inspired thoughts of divinity.

For a fascinating read, take a look at the article and the pictures. Then take a few moments to ponder the powerful urge we have to worship something/someone bigger than ourselves -- and do so.

[Photo from Mathilda's Anthropology Blog]


Here and there

America's economic woes, a drop in investment income, and perhaps a declining interest in denominational entities have left many religious groups struggling to make ends meet, Baptists among them. A series of articles from Baptist Press (summarized in this one) has cataloged the damage among Southern Baptists: New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is cutting the budget, cutting salaries, and expanding the teaching load of its professors to make up for a shortfall of more than a million dollars. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is eliminating 20 full-time and 15 part-time staff positions and cutting back on travel and other expenses in an effort to keep all its professors while dealing with income that's $3.7 million less than its $30 million annual budget. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has closed its child care center and made other budget cuts totaling $3.5 to $4 million, about 10 percent less than originally budgeted.

Meanwhile, employees of the North American Mission Board have been instructed to operate on 90 percent of what they had originally planned to spend, and staff members in the national Woman's Missionary Union offices will share the pain by each being required to take a four-week unpaid furlough sometime between January and August. That and other cuts should trim $1.4 million from the organization's budget, now adjusted to $9.6 million for the year. Last fall, LifeWay Christian Resources announced that it was reducing its workforce by five percent along with other cost-cutting measures to make up for lagging sales.

Closer to home (for those who live in North Carolina, at least), year-end reports for the Baptist State Convention show that income was a whopping $4.5 million, or 11.5 percent, below the approved budget for 2008, and $1.7 million, or about five percent, beneath the previous year's giving. With the state convention's elimination of giving options preferred by moderates, some of that money has been shifting to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, one of the few religious organizations with a growing budget. We can be sure that more churches will shift funding from the BSCNC to CBFNC in the future -- but most of the disappearing funds are staying at home, or not being made at all.

It all sounds like troublesome news, until you consider that, though they may be giving less, American believers remain completely free to support their churches and favored denominational or institutional entities as much and as often as they want to. They may have fewer dollars, but their freedom is unhindered.

Meanwhile, we read that a missionary couple in Gambia has been been sentenced to a year's hard labor for criticizing the nation's dictator-president in an e-mail, authorities in Burma/Myanmar are cracking down on Christian gatherings in homes, a pastor in Bangladesh was attacked and his wife was gang-raped, while in Eritrea several people imprisoned for their faith have recently died while in jail, and authorities in Tajikistan are closing down houses of worship all over the capital city of Dushanbe -- and that's just a small sample of stories about religious intolerance and persecution in many parts of our world.

Believers in America may be tightening our belts, but we can thank God we don't have to worry about being beaten with them.

While giving thanks, we can pray that religious freedom may ring for others, too.


A certain kind of quiet

There's a certain kind of quiet that comes with a soft blanket of snow that swirls easily down and settles where it lands, making cars and mailboxes and boxwoods stand out like so many cakes adorned with a fat layer of icing.

I like it best in the woods, where straggling leaves wear white hats and stark branches double their thickness beneath the cold blanket of snow.

We don't get much snow where I live, so we soak it in while we can.

Amid the silence of the trees, God shouts.


Fifteen years

I'm writing this post on January 18, and remembering.

Remembering that, 15 years ago, January 18 was a cold, clear Tuesday.

Remembering the first three hours of a road trip, driving our daughter Bethany back from a year-round-school January break visit to my parents, her grandparents, down in Georgia.

Remembering the last glimpse I had of her alive, just a flicker in the corner of my eye as I focused on a speeding black pickup that had suddenly crossed the center line.

She was looking up.

In the space of a heartbeat, she was looking down.

Parents in the "I've lost a child club" can't help but wonder what their child's life would be like if he or she had had the chance to live it. Jan was also wondering today.

Bethany was seven years old when she died, about seven weeks short of eight. Second grade. Loved by her classmates, who liked her jokes, and by her teachers, and by her friends at church.

Would she have kept her blond hair and her sense of humor and her bubbly spirit through high school? Would she have finished college in four years and be settled in her first real job by now? Would she have found someone special to love? Would she have remained close to her parents?

I don't know.

What would she think of the world these days? Would she be in full postmodern mode, or more traditional? Would she be focused on making money and having fun, or making the world a better place? Would she have wanted to join the Peace Corps or be a missionary?

I don't know.

But, I've learned it's okay not to know. Questions about what might have been, in the end, are all moot.

What I know is that Bethany lived a full life for those seven years and ten months or so that she was here. She brought great warmth and joy to her family and her friends and her God -- who offers hope that we will see her again.

No one can take that away.

I write these words, remembering ...


Kudos to the captain

Praise is due to the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, who achieved hero status yesterday by deftly guiding his stricken plane -- filled with both passengers and fuel -- to a life-saving belly landing in New York's Hudson River. All passengers and crew survived and escaped from the plane, which fortuitously came to rest near a harbor at 40th street, from which a flotilla of boats was able to rescue all aboard from the frigid waters. We'll long remember the incredible images of passengers standing on the wings of the partially submerged plane, looking for all the world as if they were walking on the water.

And I hope we'll remember Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, whose combination of practiced skill and cool-headed flying gave passengers a chance to try out those funky airline life vests, rather than just going down with them.

The plane crash, thought to have been caused by a flock of birds, upstaged the swan song of President George W. Bush, who gave an unapologetic farewell speech before leaving office. It would be hard to deny that President Bush, with the manipulating guidance of co-pilot Dick Cheney, captained the country into a series of avoidable crashes ranging from the greed-driven flameout of the financial markets to the ill-fated war in Iraq and the loss of American stature around the world.

With inauguration day approaching, hopes are high that a new captain can guide the economy to a soft landing while also piloting the country out of the war and returning America's global standing to its accustomed heights.

It will be a tall order, beset by many obstacles. President-elect Barack Obama will need our prayers and our patience: let's not be stingy with either.

[Photo by Janis Krums, who used Twitter to upload the image while riding a ferry boat en route to rescuing passengers.]