Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blogless in Sandwich

Twice in the past week people asked me why I have not written a blog post recently. Others have said the same thing in recent months. It is not that I don’t have anything to say. It is just that my thoughts are not publishable.

I have written articles and never posted them. Sometimes they were printed in the local newspaper in the religion column I write for. But hardly anyone reads that, so it is almost the same as not publishing them!

Some of my articles are still sitting in a folder on my laptop. Others I deleted after writing, being too controversial for a small town pastor to voice publicly. Still others disappeared when my hard drive crashed a few months ago. I see that as divine intervention.

I have been thinking a lot about persecution of Christians in the world. The destruction of ancient Christian communities and public executions of Christians have been weighing heavy on my heart. I have been thinking about the rise of Islamic extremism. I have been watching with concern the marginalization of religion and the eroding of religious liberty in our country.

I have been thinking of the growing crop of presidential hopefuls. (Lord, save us from them!)  I have been thinking about the ruling class in America. I am increasingly disgusted with the two main political parties, and I wonder how anyone can believe in them anymore.

I have been increasingly amazed by the senseless tripe that is paraded as news on the major networks. Every channel runs exactly the same stories, with the same footage. They run the same stories night after night. New, unique, and important events are happening every day in the world, and they are ignored by the media.

You see? That is why I have not written anything. I get upset. I feel like I am in a Wachowski movie. I have chosen the red pill, and sometimes wish I had taken the blue one. Life is so much easier when you believe whatever you want to believe. I have also been reading the novels of Philip K. Dick recently. That does not help.

I am increasingly dismayed at Christian religion in America - mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity. The anti-scientific bias in Christianity – liberal and conservative - astounds me. The narcissistic introversion of popular spirituality amazes me. The cultural captivity and herd mentality of both progressive and evangelical Christianity repulses me. Where is Kierkegaard when you need him?

You see, I am already saying too much. I probably should have kept some of those thoughts in the folder on my laptop. Anyway, this is why I have been blogless. Now you know. But who knows? Perhaps this post will be the beginning of a change.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rise of the Planet of the Nones

New research released a month ago by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the religiously unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the United States.

Nationally those who respond “None” to religious affiliation surveys are 22%. White evangelical Protestants come in second at 18%. White Mainline Protestants are third at 14%. White Catholics are 13%, followed by Black Protestants and Hispanic Protestants, both at 8%. All the rest are 5% or under.

In thirteen states the “Nones” comprise the largest group, including in New Hampshire. In fact among all fifty states New Hampshire is second only to Oregon in having the highest percentage of “Nones.” 

In the Granite State 35% are unaffiliated, 28% are White Catholic, and 16% are White Mainline Protestant. White Evangelicals come in fourth in New Hampshire at 9%.  All the rest of the groups are 2% or under.

Of course I could argue with the way the groups were divided along racial and ethnic lines. (For example, I don’t see Black or Hispanic Protestants as religiously different than White Protestants!) But no matter how you look at it, I am part of a minority group.

On the world scene the situation is much more serious. It is open hunting season on Christians of all kinds as persecution and destruction of historic Christian communities accelerate.

Back here in the United States, there is no persecution of Christians. Just an ongoing loss of numbers, power, prestige, and influence. And that is alright. Many Christians bemoan the ongoing cultural shift and wring their hands in despair. I kind of like it, as long as it does not turn into intolerance.

To tell the truth I never cared for the so-called “glory days” of American Protestantism, as my church in Lowell, Massachusetts, used to call the 1950’s and 60’s. I grew up in that era. I remember those days well, and I didn't like them. That was the type of Christianity that I, like so many Baby Boomers, rebelled against.

It was the time when pews were filled, and Mainstream Protestantism had power and influence. If you wanted to get ahead in business or society, you had to be a member of a church. That is no longer true. Good riddance. It fostered a hypocritical form of Christianity.

Nowadays it is counter-cultural for a person to be a part of a church. That fits me better. It is now culturally “in” to be a skeptic, agnostic, atheist, or at least “spiritual but not religious.” Although recent studies have shown that this last group is actually better described as “neither spiritual nor religious.”

Christianity has always been at its best when the underdog.  That is why it thrived in the first three hundred years of the Christian Era. Only when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the empire in the fourth century, did the real problems begin. Masses of people joined the church for reasons other than religious conviction.

That was the downfall of the Christianity. Since then believers have always been “a church within a church.” Nowadays people come to church for much better reasons. Sure, there are those who come mostly for the social dimension, and that is fine. We all need community and friends. But there is now a much more sincere search for, and finding, a sense of the Presence of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, than ever before.

So I will not complain about the Nones or their growing numbers. It just means there are that many more people to reach with the gospel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Unloving Wall

I have been following the election in Israel, and it has caused me to think back to the times I have visited the Holy Land. It has been many years now since I traveled to Israel. The last time was in the year 2000. I still have a sun-faded cap with the words “Jerusalem 2000” on it. There are many reasons I have not returned, but now I have one more. It would break my heart to see the wall.

I am referring to the security wall built between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israel had already built a wall around the Gaza Strip in the 1990’s, but now a wall has been built around the whole West Bank. It is a serpentine scar on the landscape of this beautiful land.

In 2013 a 145 mile fence was constructed at the Egyptian border, and a new fence was built in the Golan Heights at the border with Syria in the same year. Now all that remains is to construct a barricade at the peaceful border with Jordan. Then the Israeli fortress will be complete.

I have been told that this wall adjoins Tantur, the Ecumenical Institute where I and my whole family lived for a semester in 1991.  In those more peaceful times we had only hand-thrown stones, rubber bullets and tear gas to contend with. Yet we were unafraid to walk regularly over the border into Bethlehem.

We used to walk unobstructed from our flat at Tantur into Bethlehem to shop for pita bread and fruit at a nearby market. We would walk past Rachel’s tomb, all the way to Manger Square to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’s birth. That experience made such an impression on me that every Christmas Eve I still remember the smell of the incense in that church.

To take that journey into Bethlehem now, one would have to go through a military checkpoint.  My experience contrasts sharply with that of my brother-in-law, who is presently visiting a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. I have urged him repeatedly to visit the site of our Savior’s birth, but it is not as easy as it used to be. Here is a Christian walled out from a holy site.

Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.” That something that doesn't love a wall lives in me. Part of me want to shout a paraphrase of JFK, “Ich bin ein Bethlehemer” and Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall.”

Robert Frost wrote:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

The stated purpose of the wall is to wall out terrorists. They say it has worked, pointing to the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing since 2009. If I was a Jew in Israel, I might see the wall this way also – as a protection from terror. But I know that something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.

I also know that the wall has stopped ordinary commerce and interactions between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians are severely restricted in their travel to Israel.  Israelis are banned from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Many young Israelis have never met a Palestinian face to face, and vice versa.

This lack of social contact between the two peoples breeds ignorance, which breeds fear and hatred, which breeds violence. It is easier – on both sides - to dehumanize a faceless, nameless enemy, whose only identity is formed from our own imaginations and government propaganda. Perhaps the wall has decreased one type of violence, but I fear it is also planting the seeds of another type of violence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

I pray for a ground swell in the Holy Land.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Best Christmas Blog Ever

I wrote an interesting post for this blog. I think it might have been my best blog post ever. It was all about Advent and Christmas and how God works in your life. It was called “Planting Grass in Winter.” Too bad you will never read it.

I lost it. No, my dog did not eat my homework. I don’t have a dog. My cat did not eat it either. The hard drive on my laptop crashed, and I lost it. It was a good thing that I had just printed the week’s sermon an hour earlier, or my congregation would have gotten an excuse like this on Sunday morning.

I had backed up most of my important documents, but I lost everything I had been working on that day, including that article and some other things. I also lost all my software because I did not have the good sense to make a recovery disk.

Then I lost a lot of time calling the retail store where I bought the computer (they weren’t any help) and the computer manufacturer, (more helpful). I spent quality time listening to elevator music while on hold waiting to talk with a human. The laptop was only six months old! It should not have failed. I was not a happy preacher. The bad holiday music did not help.

But then I thought: why not make lemonade? You know, when life gives you lemons ….  Life always throws us curves. Things never turn out the way we expect. We are traveling along the road of life, minding our own business, when all of a sudden our hard drive crashes. Or something more serious.

A broken computer is a minor inconvenience compared to other things that come our way. Cancer, Alzheimer's, divorce, family conflict, death, financial problems, etc. But the principle is the same. We can catch the pass we are thrown or fumble the ball. (I’ve been watching the Patriots.)

Personally I believe that God is in control and that all things work out for good, even when I cannot see the good clearly. That goes for holidays. Christmas never turns out exactly like we expect. The Norman Rockwell paintings are not always replicated in our dining rooms.

Even the first Christmas did not turn out the way Mary and Joseph planned. A barn in a strange town was not Mary’s first choice of birthing venues. Fleeing the murderous intentions of King Herod and living as refugees in Egypt was not Joseph’s plan for his son’s early childhood years.

But then there was the good stuff too. Serenaded by angels, the star of Bethlehem, visited by kings – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Pretty cool! God knows how to do it right, even if it is not how we would have done it.

The holidays might not turn out exactly the way we want. That is alright. It is even alright to be sad when things are not the way we want. That is why we have a Blue Christmas service at our church. The holidays don’t have to live up to society’s expectations. God is still in control, just like he was the first Christmas.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Invisible Epidemic

The subject of suicide is taboo. It is spoken about in hushed voices. Indeed, some people may not be happy that I am addressing it in this spiritual blog. Why not write about something more uplifting and inspirational? But a recent UN report has shocked me into addressing the issue.

A study by the World Health Organization was released in September. It is the UN agency's first report on the subject. It analyzed data on suicides from 172 countries and took a decade to compile. It found that there are more than 800,000 suicides a year. That is one every forty seconds.

Someone will take their own life before you get halfway through this article. It is likely that the rate is actually much higher than this figure because suicide tends to be unreported for cultural reasons.

The statistic that really caught my attention was that suicide kills more people each year than military conflicts and natural catastrophes combined. Suicide accounts for more than half of the world's 1.5 million violent deaths annually. Many more die of suicide than homicide.

My first reaction was: why am I only hearing about this now? Every night on the evening news I am subjected to reports of wars, school shootings, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders, and terrorism. But suicide kills more people than all of these! Why is no one reporting this?

As a pastor I regularly deal with people having difficulty dealing with the stress and emotional traumas of life. I have become acutely aware of the lack of adequate mental healthcare in our nation. It takes too long and is too difficult to obtain adequate care. Health insurance coverage is inadequate, as well as the number of beds available in facilities that treat mental illness.

How about the religious dimension of suicide? Is it a sin? I hear people say that Christianity teaches that those who commit suicide are condemned to hell. No, it does not!

Nearly everyone I have known who has died in this manner has died of mental illness, in my opinion. Most died of depression. Depression is a physical illness just as much as cancer or heart disease. It just happens to affect the brain instead of some other body organ, but it is just as deadly when left untreated.

Mental Illness is a serious problem in our nation. Even though the suicide of the young gets most of the media attention, this report said that the highest rate of suicide is among those over 70 years of age. Furthermore the rate is higher in wealthy countries than low and middle-income nations. That fits the demographic of my town of Sandwich, New Hampshire, USA.

Suicide is an invisible epidemic. It is not listed in obituaries as a cause of death and seldom mentioned at funerals. Sometimes only the family knows – and the preacher. It is widely talked about only when a celebrity dies. Then it hits the headlines for a little while, inspires copycat suicides, but is soon replaced with more profitable news.

If you, or someone you love, is depressed or suffering from mental illness, please seek help. Talk to your family, your primary care physician and your pastor. The New Hampshire suicide hotline is (603) 225-9000 or 1-800-852-3388. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Go to the ER if that is your only immediate option. Depression does not have to be a terminal illness … or an invisible one. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Community Church

It is now official. As of September 3 we are the Community Church of Sandwich! It feels strange to say that name. I have known this congregation as the Federated Church of Sandwich for over thirty years. Many of you have known it by that name for much longer than I have.

It will be strange to write out my tithe check each week to the Community Church and see it on our website and Facebook page. It feels strange on my tongue to now tell people that I am the pastor of the Community Church of Sandwich.

Part of me will be sorry to see the old Federated Church name move into the history books. Part of me is glad not to have to explain one more time what a federated church is! Mostly I am excited about entering a new phase of our life as a Christian community in Sandwich.

As I ponder our new name, my first thought is koinonia. That is the Greek word used in the New Testament for community or fellowship. It is the unique quality of divine love that binds believers together. The Book of Acts describes the early Christian church with these words: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.”

The early church father Tertullian said that love was the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian church in his day. People outside the church regularly remarked of Christians, “Look how they love one another!" I hope that will be the reputation of the Community Church of Sandwich.

The other aspect of our new name emphasizes our connection to the town. We are the “Community Church of Sandwich.” We are connected to the wider Sandwich community beyond the church walls … and beyond Sandwich. We are not an introverted group of religious people cut off from the town. We are an integral part of the community.

One man - who does not attend church - remarked to me that he considers our church as the heart of Sandwich. I view the church as the soul of Sandwich. As the steeples of our historic meetinghouses point to heaven, so (I hope) our church directs people’s attention to God.

I also hope that our new name we will inspire us to reach into the community with renewed vigor. We are the Community Church of Sandwich. Let us live up to our new name!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Godspell Revisited

Recently I went to see a summer stock production of Godspell. It had been many years since I had seen it. To tell the truth I remember the 1973 movie version better than the 1971 stage version. Godspell was an important milestone on my spiritual journey. Godspell’s appearance on the American cultural scene coincided with my personal acceptance of the gospel.

I remember singing “Day by Day” like a mantra in those early heady days after my conversion. The words summed up the intentions of my heart. “Day by day, oh, dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

My college girlfriend at the time (now my wife of 40 years) could belt out “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in a voice that sounded like a born again Janis Joplin. The song “God Save the People” still moves me.

So my wife and I (along with some friends from church) went to see Godspell on a Sunday afternoon, expecting to take a stroll down Nostalgia Lane, reliving the Jesus Movement days when it was hip to be a hippie and a Christian. I did not realize that the musical had been reworked in 2011 for its 40th anniversary. It is not the Godspell I remember.

I noticed something was amiss as soon as the curtains parted and a huge G could be seen hanging from the stage rafters. I wondered if I had accidently walked into a Masonic gathering. Isn’t that supposed to be an S like on the Superman shirt that Jesus wears in the show?

When Jesus came on the stage he was not wearing long hair, a superman shirt and clown makeup like I remembered him from my youth. Instead he was a clean cut young man wearing some type of navy blazer with a faux military emblem on the sleeve.

I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be a naval officer or a member of the local yacht club. He reminded me of a younger version of Thurston Howell III, the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. That is not my idea of Jesus. I do not picture Christ as either an admiral or a millionaire.

These actors were not pretending to be 1970’s hippies. These young’uns looked like they had stepped off the set of the television show Glee. Oh, I get it! That is what the big hanging G stands for! This is GleeSpell. That is why the cast is so neatly dressed and coiffed!

Then the cast started singing rap music, and making references to Obamacare and Donald Trump. Okay. This is certainly a new type of Godspell. I tried to get into it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t just that it was visually and musically different. It was the spirit.

The original Godspell communicated the Spirit of the gospel in the culture of the early 1970’s. It was genuinely Christian. I was hoping that this reworked Godspell would translate the Christian gospel into 21st century culture. But it didn’t. The culture came through clearly, but not the gospel.

The actors and musicians were talented. I am not being critical of their abilities. But it felt like they didn’t really get it. It was like listening to someone sing the blues who had never suffered. Or like listening to a love song sung by someone who had never been in love.

This cast was talented but clueless about the gospel. This was demonstrated in the constant dissonance between the body language and the words of the script. Jesus’s parables were presented by the cast, but the way they reacted to the words make it clear that the actors had no idea what they meant. The gospel is missing from Godspell. Now it is just another lively Broadway musical touring America’s small stages.

How did this happen? Perhaps Godspell is simply reflecting Christian culture. In the past forty years American Christianity has gradually become more entertainment than gospel. Worship services in contemporary churches feel more like performance art than spiritual worship. Godspell is the canary in the mine. But at least the canary can sing … for the time being.