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.”

HEADlines: The Constant Battle of Fighting the Numbness of Our Comfort

Published in the Mustard Seed Sentinel, Saturday, February 22, 2020~

There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is begging to pray. Why don’t you give it its freedom?” (161)

In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, author and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn presents Ivan, a man yearning to be released from the Soviet gulag. Near the end of the one day the book depicts, Ivan has a conversation with Alyosha, a Christian whose joy defies the prison atmosphere.
In their exchange, Ivan acknowledges the existence of God but he’s seen corruption in the church. Alyosha replies, “It’s because their faith is unstable that they’re not in prison.” Only those with steadfast faith go to jail.

Only the faithful pay a price.

As the conversation continues, Ivan questions the power of prayer. “However much you pray it doesn’t shorten your stretch. You’ll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow.”

What Alyosha says in response is surprising. Stunning, in fact.

“Why do you want freedom? In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds” (163).

Now there’s a thought that seldom creeps into the minds of American Christians. For two centuries, America has been the land where faith is free. There is little if any cost. We only see advantages to our freedom, never disadvantages.

But in Russia, where Solzhenitsyn hailed from, it’s been a different story for a long time. And Solzhenitsyn wasn’t the only Russian writer to understand that story. And he wasn’t the only Russian author to name a faithful character Alyosha.

In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Fyodor Dostoevsky presents Alyosha, a priest, who is generous and loving. His brother Ivan is an atheist who plans to live until he is thirty and then commit suicide.

The two discuss a parable Ivan has written. The conversation is a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov—“The Grand Inquisitor.”

In Ivan’s parable, a 16th century Cardinal/inquisitor talks to a silent Christ who has returned to earth for the day. Christ sits silently while the inquisitor tells how he and others in power have replaced God and improved upon His plan. They have convinced the populace to willingly relinquish their freedom.

Christ had brought freedom with the promise of heavenly bread. But He did not bring guarantees of earthly bread or even happiness—something we American Christians tend to think should naturally proceed from freedom. The inquisitor instead offers people earthly bread at the cost of their freedom. Not having to pursue their own bread, the people will be happy, the inquisitor claims:

“Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? ‘Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!’ that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple.”

Published in 1880, Dostoevsky was prophetic. Much of the world has turned to the bread of socialism. They don’t, however, seem any happier for having done so.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson promised America freedom and happiness. He admitted he did not have the “full answer” to America’s woes. But he determined to find “the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America.”
His speech marks a turning in America, certainly not the first—or the last—from the wisdom of God to the wisdom of man.

“The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation.” The government’s new goal was to effect personal happiness in its citizens. Without it, according to this administration, the nation was a failure.

Johnson’s Great Society would result in “abundance and liberty for all” and require “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”

It’s been more than half a century since LBJ promised that programs could produce a heyday of peace and prosperity, a heaven on earth utopia. But it was not to be.

It cannot be.

The pursuit of happiness is not something that anyone–including the government–can chase on someone else’s behalf. It comes, not in bread, but in purpose—a specific purpose.

In response to the inquisitor, Dostoevsky’s Christ remains silent. His only response is kissing the inquisitor before He departs.

Ivan thinks he has figured out how to fix the world. But Ivan still isn’t happy. Before they part, Alyosha kisses him.

Alyosha knows happiness does not come in the form of bread. It comes in the form of love. And that kind of love comes only through Christ—not through personal comfort. Solzhenitsyn agreed.

He said, “Even biology tells us that a high degree of habitual well-being is not advantageous to a living organism.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn

At Harvard’s commencement in 1978, Solzhenitsyn spoke to the graduating class, the future academic, business, and political leaders of America. He told them that “intense suffering” had produced spiritual development in the East, and that our comfortable lifestyle in the West had produced in us a state of “spiritual exhaustion.”

Solzhenitsyn said that Americans had “lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” He said we needed “voluntary, inspired self-restraint” to “raise man above the world stream of materialism.”

We needed to step away from our comfort because our comfort had made us numb. Comfort had put us to sleep. Self-imposed discomfort would awaken our spiritual senses and take us back to God.

The Harvard students booed him off the stage.

It’s difficult to accept discomfort intentionally, difficult to convince ourselves we need to pursue less comfort, difficult to see happiness in giving instead of in receiving.

And comfort is always a relative term. In 1978, Americans weren’t nearly as comfortable as they had been in through the fifties and sixties, nor as comfortable as they would be in the eighties.

But through those years, we were always more comfortable than much of the world. Comfort softens us. Discomfort stretches us to new purpose.

Discomfort makes us look up. Peggy Noonan tells us to “embrace” crisis “as a blessing” and that, if we have not been so blessed, to “pray for one” (82).

It’s always my natural bent to claim that my blessings in that department have been more than adequately fulfilled, thanks anyway.

We always want to avoid the pain of trials. And for the most part, we don’t get to choose. But even after suffering some involuntary (but largely self-inflicted) discomfort in life, I still have to work to enter someone else’s grief and see their need.

Fighting the numbness of our comfort is a constant battle. Many Christians of the East today choose discomfort simply by choosing faith. At the least they realize that they are at risk of suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Along with Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn was a prophet. America didn’t listen to him in 1978. But we can listen now. If we can shake off our numbness and embrace the discomfort of giving, of purpose, of love.

Photo Credit: Ben White

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. 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.”

Accord in Action

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.[i]

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.[ii] Before Graham’s arrival, Wojtyla had been overseeing a “radical partnership” between a Catholic youth renewal movement and Campus Crusade for Christ.[iii] 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.[iv] 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.[v]

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.[vi]

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.[vii] 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.”[viii] 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. Within the next ten to fifteen years, China is on track to become the most Christian nation in the world.[ix] 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.

John Paul II began his papacy by hoping to visit his Catholic homeland. A faithful prayer warrior, he no doubt prayed for the people of his native land. The echoes of his first trek to Poland resonate around the world and into eternity. Christianity and the call for freedom have gone hand in hand throughout history because Christianity is the truest form of freedom. It frees us from the bonds of sin and points us to eternal concerns and away from irrelevant earthly ones.

The more freedom and opportunity we have, the more God expects of us, but it seems that the more personal comfort we have, the less we do for each other. In America’s large cities, our neighborhoods are more alienated than ever. Fear, anger, and misunderstanding separate us. Many of us feed a selfishness that wants to gain comfort others already have. Some of us just want to hang on to our own level of comfort.

Historically, as Christianity emerges in a hostile society, Christians have come together to further the gospel. Pope, now Saint, John Paul II and Billy Graham showed us the difference accord can make in oppressed nations like Poland once was. But accord is also apparent in oppressed China.

I had the blessing of meeting one of the Chinese student protesters who turned to Christ after Tiananmen Square. I asked him about separation within the Chinese church. “Denomination is not important in China,” was his reply.


[i] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor, 203.

[ii] 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.” Michael Ireland, “Billy Graham: Pope John Paul II Was Most Influential Voice in 100 Years,” CBN.com transcript of CNN’s Larry King Live, broadcast April 2, 2005.

[iii] David Scott, “The Pope We Never Knew,” Christianity Today, April 19, 2005, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/may/13.34.html.

[iv] Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father (New York: Penguin, 2005), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30–31.

[vi] Ibid., 31.

[vii] Nicholas D. Kristof and Special to the New York Times, “China’s Hero of Democracy: Gorbachev,” archives 1989, accessed May 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/14/world/china-s-hero-of-democracy-gorbachev.html.

[viii] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 171.

[ix] Tom Phillips, “China on Course to Become ‘World’s Most Christian Nation’ within 15 Years,” London Telegraph, April 19, 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.

Excerpted from Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered. Get your copy here!

Photo Credit: Churchpop

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.”

Revisiting the Election Year of Grown-Up Mean Children

When I was in fifth grade, I suffered a humiliating episode of isolation. Something had happened between the two most popular girls in the class causing them to hate each other with a previously unparalleled venom.

Each girl began to draw allies to her side and against the other girl. Soon two distinct groups formed with all the girls in one group hating all the girls in the other group and vice versa.

Somehow, I managed to miss the drama of how it had all unfolded.  Maybe I had been sick at home or just not paying attention on the playground.  I wasn’t part of either group. But sadly, not for lack of trying.

Once the groups coalesced, I tried to join first one, then another.  Neither group would have me.  It was nice that nobody hated me enough to form a club of Nancy Haters, Inc. But I was sad that I couldn’t get into one of the clubs.  I didn’t even care which one.  I just wanted to fit in too.

Continue reading “Revisiting the Election Year of Grown-Up Mean Children”

The Election Year of Grown Up Mean Children

When I was in fifth grade, I suffered a humiliating episode of isolation. Something had happened between the two most popular girls in the class causing them to hate each other with a previously unparalleled venom.

Each girl began to draw allies to her side and against the other girl. Soon two distinct groups formed with all the girls in one group hating all the girls in the other group and vice versa.

Somehow, I managed to miss the drama of how it had all unfolded.  Maybe I had been sick at home or just not paying attention on the playground.  I wasn’t part of either group. But sadly, not for lack of trying. Continue reading “The Election Year of Grown Up Mean Children”