HEADlines: Common Ground

Published in The Mustard Seed Sentinel, May 30, 2020.

As a college junior, she was a latecomer to my freshman English class. The subject of our discussion was the 2001 book Peace like a River by Leif Enger. Filled with allusions to the Bible, historic events, and Zane Grey westerns, the book has plenty of fodder for discussion in a college-level composition course.

What caught this particular student’s eye was a line that repeats throughout the text as the narrator/main character, an 11 year old boy, advises the reader to “make of it what you will.” The it he refers to is Christian faith, faith in the miraculous works that come only from God. The narrator isn’t pushy about faith. He simply unfolds the miracles and invites the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

My student found that very appealing. She explained that she had rejected faith because it had always been a source of contention in her home. Her father had come from one denomination, her mother from another. They had never been able to find the peace that Christ offers and Enger depicts.

As the product of a ‘mixed marriage’ myself, I encountered no such conflict growing up. Dad was Catholic; Mom was Methodist. They taught us the difference between right and wrong. They encouraged us to believe in God.

We prayed together before dinner every evening, and they taught us to pray before we went to sleep at night. Mother read us Bible stories. Like any married couple, they had conflicts, but never over faith matters, at least never in front of us. Their marriage was a model of faithfulness “for better or for worse.” And there was enough “worse” to make it real.

But when I was in high school, one of my brothers and I introduced a new dynamic into the mix when we became evangelical Christians.

The beginning of my faith journey has some features in common with that of John Riccardo. His father was Catholic and his mother was Methodist too. His three older sisters became evangelicals. Two of them eventually returned to their Catholic roots where John and his brother had remained. After 26 years of marriage, his mother converted to Catholicism.

In college, John met a group of guys who were enthusiastic evangelists—Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Catholics and evangelicals working together to evangelize for Christ.

“Catholics and Protestants together,” he says. “That’s been my whole life, really, working together.”

Today, John Riccardo is Father John Riccardo, a Catholic priest.

In a recorded conversation entitled “Common Ground: What Protestants and Catholics Can Learn from Each Other,” Father John, as his parishioners call him, and Pastor Steve Andrews, of Kensington Community Church, discuss the “tremendous mistrust” and “unbelievable chasm” that existed between evangelicals and Catholics in their fathers’ generation.

That generation was also my father’s—and my mother’s. But my parents, like Father John’s, didn’t foster that mistrust and expand that chasm. For the Riccardo children, my brother, and me, the marriages of these Catholic men and Methodist women cultivated the soil of our hearts and planted the seeds of faith in that soil.

But the mistrust and the chasm are still present in our generation; they also inhabit the generations that follow. There is no expiration date on misunderstanding. When we stand our separate grounds, the ground of our children’s hearts becomes hardened. That’s what happened to my student. When we find common ground, faith grows and faith communities grow.

“We’re saved by grace,” Father John tells his evangelical colleague. “By faith alone, so long as we know what we’re talking about,” so long as our faith is real.

That is the ground where the younger John and his Catholic and evangelical college friends stood. It is the ground where Father John and Pastor Steve stand today.

But there is another example of ground sharing that perhaps is less famous than it should be. In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. Not only was he not Italian; he was from Poland, a country where the government despised the Church. This new pope was different. Younger than any other pope in the previous century, he had survived the Nazi occupation only to endure Soviet oppression. He knew the suffering that is oppression, and it infused his ministry with vivid colors.

When Wojtyla was in Rome becoming the new pope, Billy Graham was in Poland preaching from Wojtyla’s pulpit, having come at Wojtyla’s invitation. No other Polish Catholic leader would agree to invite Graham, and he couldn’t go without an invitation. Graham would later preach in Orthodox and Reformed churches, a Jewish synagogue, and an Orthodox monastery during his European travels.

Wojtyla and Graham had planned to get together during Graham’s visit, but Wojtyla’s call to Rome for the papal election delayed their meeting. Before Graham’s arrival, Wojtyla had been overseeing a “radical partnership” between a Catholic youth renewal movement and Campus Crusade for Christ. His work to light local flames of faith in the young kindled a global bonfire he could never have imagined.

In 1979, the new pope returned to his homeland where more than one million Poles lined the streets to welcome him and millions more came to hear him. Lech Walesa, firebrand of the Solidarity movement in Poland, told Peggy Noonan in 2002 that “we knew the minute [John Paul] touched the foundations of communism, it would collapse.” Walesa credited “heaven and the Holy Father” as most responsible for destroying communism in Poland.

The pope’s visit to Poland was a tiny pebble dropped into a steaming pond. The resulting ripples turned into a tidal wave. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet premier, he saw the handwriting on the wall in Poland and began to implement reforms across the Soviet Union. He hoped to save communism by reforming it.

But by then, the cracks in the foundation of communism were too deep. Ten years after the pope’s return to his homeland in 1979, the Berlin Wall fell along with the Iron Curtain. The ripples of reform and freedom in Eastern Europe would reverberate across the globe.

Nineteen-eighty-nine was also the year Hu Yaobang died in China. Hu was a high-ranking communist official in the People’s Republic. He had fallen out of favor with party power brokers because he supported reforms, loosening controls on the press and the people. Inspired by student protests in America and South Korea they had seen on television, Chinese college students gathered in Beijing at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu, their advocate for democratic reform.

The marathon sit-in lasted seven weeks. Demonstrations weren’t unheard of in China, but the international broadcast of such demonstrations was. The international press was in town to cover Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. Because of his attempts to reform communism, the protesting Chinese students considered him a champion of democracy. The presence of the international press made possible our knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In front of the international media, the Chinese government, having lost face in the weeks’ long standoff, sent the army into the square, killing thousands and capturing surviving protesters.

Eastern European Christians would ultimately see freedom. The Chinese students, on the other hand, did not get the change they had hoped for, but change is what China would see. The Beijing massacre and imprisonment of surviving demonstrators prompted Chinese youth, especially students, to look for a new form of freedom. Many found that freedom in Christ.

Why did young Chinese college students suddenly develop a passionate interest in the Christian faith? David Aikman writes that one “suggestion was that China’s traditional Confucian view of man as inherently good was shattered under the tanks that rolled onto the center of Beijing.” The Chinese students had put their faith in their government, and their government turned on them and attacked them. Now they would look elsewhere for someone to trust. Today, China is on track to become the most Christian nation in the world.

The new wave of freedom that started in Catholic Poland ultimately sparked an explosion of evangelical Christianity halfway around the world. Pope John Paul II helped ignite that spark.

The pope would later visit with Graham in Rome multiple times, and the two corresponded through letters. When John Paul died, Graham said this pope had been the “most influential voice for morality and peace in the world in the last 100 years.”

Graham and now Saint Pope John Paul II are both in eternity. May 2020 marks 100 years since the birth of John Paul. If he were still living, Graham would be 101 years old.

A century of influence. Two men who stood on the common ground of the cross an unfathomable difference for the fate of countless human beings. We can still pursue common ground today.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Assessing and Looking Foward

Last year, I resolved to read more and included a photo of the books I intended to read in 2019.

Someone commented on that post that he need not finish every book he starts. He resolved “to free [him]self from boring books by freely abandoning them.” 

Without realizing it, he gave me permission to do the same. And I did, more than once. Yet here I invoke a paraphrase of Reagan’s eleventh commandment that no writer say anything bad about another. And my cup of tea may just not suit you.

As is always the case, the list of books I finished is quite different from those I wrote about a year ago. Other books just shouted to go to the head of the line. And I brought them forward.

So this year, my list still contains a few books from last year. I still resolve to read more by managing television and internet time better than I did in 2018 and then in 2019.

Two books that jumped to the front of the line immediately upon my acquiring them were both by Abby Johnson. Unplanned (the basis for the film of last year) and The Walls are Talking are Johnson’s accounts of having worked in the abortion industry and now working to help others escape employment therein.

I read them out of order, reading The Walls first and following up with Unplanned. In her Preface to The Walls, she states, “This will not be an enjoyable read. It is a necessary one[.]”

She is correct on both counts.

Also jumping to the front of the line last year was My Father Left Me Ireland by Michael Brendan Dougherty. My son gave me this book for Mothers’ Day ahead of my journey with my husband to the land of my heritage. The book provided a solid context about Ireland’s history of the Easter Rising and the Troubles. As an American who grew up in a single-parent family, Dougherty also provides a clear diagnosis of the crisis America faces today.

I read one and a half other books on Ireland–but neither matches Dougherty poetic and profound account.

Among the books on last year’s list that I finished is Everything Happens for a Reason–Kate Bowler’s stellar, sometimes humorous, discussion of what it’s like to live with a terminal diagnosis–emphasis on live.

I also consumed A Pope and A President by Paul Kengor. This book allowed me to relive some of the history I’d seen on the evening news over the decades and to get a behind the scenes, in-depth understanding of God’s working in that historic news. There’s always so much more to the story–and Kengor provides it.

I’m still working through Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak–an amazing piece of literature. I get the sense Zusak may have been trying to stay off the Young Adult shelf in America where The Book Thief had landed from his native Australia. However, some of the language he uses in the book’s dialogue does seem to accurately reflect the way teen boys would talk without an authority figure directing them otherwise.

An off-list book I continue to work through is Raising Jesus: The Skeptic’s Guide to Faith in the Resurrection. E.J. Sweeney’s book offers an amazing discussion of the reasons we can trust the veracity of Christ rising from the dead–from a viewpoint skeptical of the miraculous. I frequently underline and make notations as I read.

Even if you’re not a skeptic, this book is still a great apologetic tool for any discussion you may have with someone resistant to faith. I don’t agree with all Sweeney writes (I’m not that skeptical), yet his scholarship is dead on, and his arguments sound.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is one I had planned to read in 2019 but didn’t get to. It’s on my list for 2020. I was gratified to see a student reading it on campus last semester. He assured me that it’s a worthy read.

I plan to pick up Man and Woman, He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by Saint-Pope John Paul II again this year. You can read this book as you would a devotional. It seems meant to be digested slowly.

Sonia Pernell’s A Woman of No Importance is on my list for the new year upon the recommendation of a trusted friend.

Also in my pile of books are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. You might think that watching a couple of episodes of the Tale on Hulu would discourage such a goal in me, but articles like this one and this one push me the other way.

On my list–but not yet in my pile–is Robert Sarah’s The Day Is Now Far Spent. I thoroughly enjoyed his The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, another book you can read as a devotional.

On my list but not pictured is Out of the Ashes by Anthony Esolen, a book about what we should do when we find the civilization around us crumbling. Sounds timely.

And I couldn’t resist John Zmirak’s title The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins. I’ve thumbed through the book and read most of the introduction. Zmirak seems orthodox in his faith and hilarious in his outlook.

Blessings to you this New Year. What do you plan to read?

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Connecting the Dots on a Divine Plan

“Look how evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened.” Ronald Reagan~

They lived on different continents, but their lives unfolded in parallel lines that would one day intersect into friendship.

When each was eight years old, their mothers suffered a terrible illness.

Both of their fathers died in 1941.

As they were growing up, they both participated in acting and athletics.

They faced assassins’ bullets six weeks apart–and survived. They credited God with saving their lives–preserving them for a divine purpose.

Ronald Reagan and Karol Wytola–better known as Saint Pope John Paul II–are the subjects of Paul Kengor’s book A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Untold Story of the Twentieth Century.

Kengor’s research is impeccable and deep. The book takes details that seem disconnected and draws lines between dots that no one else had yet connected.

Kengor ties those details together throughout to make a tapestry of key events that changed the world in the twentieth century.

I remember the day Ronald Reagan was shot on the way to his car after a speaking engagement. For the rest of the day, I was in front of the television.

I remember Secretary of State Alexander Haig saying, “I am in control here.”

Reagan was in the hospital and the nation wasn’t sure whether he would survive. And the vice-president–George H. W. Bush–was out of town. After the shooting and until we fully understood that John Hinckley acted alone, our military was on high alert.

Haig knew the Soviet Union. He wanted America not to look weak at a moment when we felt weakened.

The press lambasted Haig that day and beyond. How dare he assert his own authority?

What the press didn’t put together, but in this book Kengor does, is that Haig’s statement very likely was a solution to a problem he didn’t know he could affect.

That solution likely helped to prevent the Soviet Army from invading Poland.

Solidarity had disrupted Poland to the point that the puppet government had declared martial law. The Soviet military was lined up at the border much as the Chinese army today stands at the ready to invade Hong Kong.

While Haig knew the Soviet Union’s mindset, the Soviets also knew Haig’s since he had been a NATO commander in Europe.

Kengor’s research outlines interviews with a US agent who had been monitoring Soviet communications, anticipating the possibility of a USSR invasion of Poland.

After the shooting and after Haig’s statement, the communications went silent. The Soviets never invaded.

Six weeks later, Reagan was recovering from the attempt on his life when he learned that Pope John Paul II was shot in Vatican City. Their friendship grew on a foundation of shared experience.

The two men, however, shared more than similar childhood experiences, more than the experience of having been shot without deadly result.

Kengor writes that they “shared an understanding of the reinforcing relationship of faith and freedom, the importance of ordered liberty, and the evil of atheistic, totalitarian communism.”

The Haig incident is a small piece of an engaging book. Kengor shows how a Protestant President and a Catholic Pope worked together and separately to defeat what President Reagan called the “evil empire.”

Kengor shows us what Reagan called the DP–the Divine Plan–which saved two lives evil had marked for death–two lives destined to meet and change the world.

There is a divine plan still today. Perhaps you and I play a bigger part in that plan than we realize. Perhaps no one will write a book that lets people know how the dots of your life and mine connected to change the world.

But if we have hope and faith and never quit, the world will change for the good.

“I plead with you–never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.” Saint Pope John Paul II~

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”