Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Gospel of Nice

There is a new book entitled “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church” by Kenda Creasy Dean, a Methodist minister and a professor of youth and church culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. It is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, which conducted in-depth interviews with 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.

She says that teen Christians have bought into a form of Christianity she calls "moralistic therapeutic deism," a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.

Another book, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Dentonis, is based on the same research. It says that teens’ faith is a hodgepodge of banal, self-serving, feel-good beliefs that bears little resemblance to traditional Christianity.

It is not the kids’ fault, they say. This “mutant” form of Christianity (as Dean calls it) is not a result of youth culture; it is the religious product now being taught by churches to adults as well as children. It has been produced by the economic need to fill pews and offering plates.

Traditional Christianity is too scandalous and controversial to boost attendance, so a watered down version has taken its place, one that will offend no one. Part of this new form of Christianity is what Dean calls a "gospel of niceness," where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers.

Being Christian has become equivalent to being nice. Christians are nice people with big smiles and happy words. I watched a television interview with a Texas pastor and his wife recently. They were advocating a one-day “fast” from Facebook. I thought the idea was interesting, although a bit trivial in the light of what is happening in the world these days.

But I could barely watch the whole interview because of the goony smiles on their faces. Ugh! Every once in a while the façade fell away to reveal the vacant expressions beneath. But quickly the wide grins would return, accompanied with smiley words. I felt like I was watching a comedic caricature of Christians from Saturday Night Live rather than a real pastor and his wife.

I’m sorry if it seems like I am not being nice to say such things. I am sure this pastor is a very nice man, and that his wife is very nice, and that his church is filled with nice people who do lots of nice things. I am sure he preaches nice sermons and that his church building is very, very nice. But if this is the face of contemporary Christianity, please count me out.

Do you think Jesus walked around with a smiley face all the time? I don’t think so! There are no smiley words recorded in the gospels.  He challenged people, and he made people angry enough to crucify him. Jesus was not nice! Did you hear that? The cross was not nice! The Christian gospel is not a gospel of niceness.

It is a tough teaching filled with “difficult sayings” that clever exegesis cannot completely explain away. Jesus regularly offended people. That is how he saved them. Nice words and smiles may make you feel good and fill churches, but they cannot bring about repentance, salvation or justice. Only truth does that. Christianity can be either nice or true, but not both.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

If Obama Were a Muslim

Most Americans don’t know the religion of their president. That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Only a third of Americans know Obama is a Christian. A fifth think he is Muslim, and almost half don’t have a clue what faith he espouses.

The increase in the number of people who think that he is a Muslim (11% to 18%) and the corresponding decrease in those who think he is a Christian (48% to 34%) is causing most of the uproar. The White House is responding by insisting that Obama is - and has always been - a Christian.

I have several observations. First, what does it matter? I couldn’t figure out what religion Ronald Reagan was the whole time he was in the White House! He never went to church, didn’t seem to believe much of anything, yet he was the darling of the Religious Right.

Furthermore, what is wrong with giving the First Family a little privacy when it comes to their faith? The publicity surrounding their religious practice has made it impossible for them to worship with a Washington congregation like other presidential families. That doesn’t seem quite right.

Second, conservatives ought to be celebrating the fact that Obama says he is a Christian. They ought to be encouraging him in his faith, rather than alienating him by suggesting he might not really be a Christian. They ought to be celebrating his first name – Barak – named after the Biblical Hebrew general – rather than pointing to his middle name – Hussein – named after the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. But you don’t hear anyone suggesting that because of his first name he might be Jewish.

Third … and the most radical idea for my Christian brethren to fathom … I wouldn’t mind if Obama were a Muslim! So what if he were a Muslim? That should be the response of the White House these days!

It would be fine with me if we had a Muslim in the White House – for the same reason that I think it is great that we have an African American president. Having a non-Christian president would signal that we have achieved true religious tolerance in this country, as well as give us a much-needed rapport with the Arab world.

Of course I don’t want a Taliban in the White House instituting Sharia law. But that wouldn’t happen anyway. That is the scare tactic behind the rumor that Obama is a “secret Muslim.” But having a moderate Muslim president – like having moderate Christian presidents - could a boon for America and the world. At the very least if would force us to learn about Islam.

There is a plague of religious illiteracy in America, especially when it comes to Islam. The ignorance spewing from the debate about the mosque proposed near Ground Zero has revealed that. Perhaps having a Muslim in the White House would raise the level of religious discussion above placards and slogans.

But maybe not. Having Jimmy Carter in the White House really didn’t help the image of Southern Baptists. We have had two Southern Baptists presidents in recent decades – Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – and yet people still connect Southern Baptists with Republican presidents Reagan (a Presbyterian) and Bush (a Methodist)!

Theoretically I wish we had more godly followers of Jesus Christ in Washington. I think it would be good for the country. But I also think that religious diversity in high places is good for the country. That is why I am disturbed that there are presently no Protestant Christians serving on the Supreme Court  … but that is another blog.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Walking on Water

It was a cool rainy day on Monday, so we went to see the new movie “Eat, Pray, Love.” I was hoping for a film about a spiritual quest. What I got was superficial self-indulgence. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if the book is any better, but the movie is as shallow as a wadi in the dry season.

When I wasn’t bored, I wanted to jump up and do some preaching in the theatre. (I am sure that would have gone over big!) At every turn of the film, there were missed opportunities and misdirections. Even the lessons that Liz (the Julia Roberts character) learned during her year of self-discovery were more like fortune cookie wisdom than real truth.

Then yesterday I woke up to a beautiful morning and went out on my porch with my morning cup of tea. There I heard a wisdom much more profound than anything I heard in that theatre. I heard it again in the afternoon when I hiked a mountain and saw the view from the summit. 

I heard it echoing a third time when I knelt for my afternoon time of prayer. What I heard was silence. I thought to myself, “This is it!” This is what that sad woman in the film was searching for in recipes, religion and romance.

In the film the main character was visiting an ashram in India when she was asked what she was looking for. She answered “Peace.” That is what the silence of creation provides – a peace born of silence, which books and films, ashrams and gurus cannot give. There is a silence beneath it all.

It is a powerful silence, always flowing like an aquifer beneath our feet. It is the living water that Jesus shared with the Samaritan woman at the well. This is the goal of all spiritual quests. It is the source of life. It flows in our veins and rings in our ears, strong and clear.

I read recently that a system of huge underground rivers has been discovered beneath the Simpson Desert of the Australian outback. The surface landscape is dry and barren, but one hundred feet below the surface is a system of rivers that covers hundreds of miles. These rivers and streams are the oldest in the world, at least 50 million years old, dating from the late Cretaceous period when the desert was green and wet.

This is the spiritual landscape of today. The religious landscape of our post-modern world is barren and dry, covered with the wrecks of worn-out fundamentalism, tired liberalism, and faddish contemporary spirituality. But beneath our feet is the river of life, the source of creation. It is under the desert landscape of our thoughts and emotions also. All we have to do is dig a well.

The Samaritan woman complained that she was thirsty. The village well was deep and she had no vessel with which to draw water. Jesus replied, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” He said later, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

In other words, he is the source; we are the well. As the prophet Isaiah said, “For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”
Image is of the Simpson Desert, Australia

Monday, August 23, 2010

Flannel Shirt Weather

It’s only been sixteen years since I lived year-round in New Hampshire, but I had forgotten how cool it could get here in the summer. While packing for a two month stay, we brought a mixture of summer and fall clothing, thinking we would not need the autumn apparel for quite a while. After all, we left Pennsylvania with temperatures in the eighties and with a forecast of 92 degrees the following day.

Well, we got up here Saturday night, and by Sunday night we had all the windows closed and had broken out the flannel. Some people were even wearing their parkas in church yesterday! I am not expecting a frost anytime soon, but it is a significant drop from what we were used to.

My wife read the forecast for the next few days and kept repeating, “I don’t like this weather! I don’t like this weather!” I didn’t say this to her, but I will whisper it here, “I like this weather.” After a summer of extreme heat, it is nice to have some God-made air conditioning.

There is something about flannel shirts and blue jeans that suit me. I am one of those rare birds who would rather be cold than hot. You can always put on more clothing to get warm. You can only take off so much to get cool.

I could never retire to Florida, even though much of my family (by marriage) loves it. (My biological family has more sense.) My parents-in-law think it is like heaven down there, but it feels more like hell to me … at least most of the year. January and February aren’t too bad. When I read about the Infernal Region in the Bible, I picture it as 95-degree weather with 95-percent humidity - just like Orlando in August. 

But we won’t be getting out the snow shovel here in NH anytime soon. They say it will stop raining, and the sun will come out here in a few days. I am sure I will be putting on my swimming suit and taking a dip in the lake later this week. Of course, first we will have to break the ice.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Simple Spirituality

Sometimes I don’t get it! I don’t understand why there is so much drama surrounding the spiritual search. Monstrous buildings, obscene budgets and rich men in expensive suits or elaborate vestments. On the other extreme are self-loathing and ascetic mortification. What is all this drama about? What do these theatrics have to do with God?

Spirituality is really quite simple. In fact, it is the simplest thing in the world. We are looking for inner peace, but the one place that people don’t look is in their souls. Instead they look inside buildings or inside books. They look outside in people or religions or things or places. But where else would you look for inner peace than where that inner people must ultimately reside?

People are looking for meaning and purpose. These are values of the heart. Where else would one look for them but the heart? But people look in the external world of things, work and causes.

People look for someone to look up to, but they don’t look up! They look out at politicians and celebrities, gurus or saints. They look around, searching and searching and searching. The truth is that the One you are searching for is already present. No need to seek. Just open your eyes.

To see God the best place to start is to look at the image of God. Not painted icons or carved idols but living humans who are the image of God. Look long and deep into the image of God and you see the One the image reflects.

The image is not God, but the image reflects our gaze toward God. It is an Escherean mirror reflecting infinite regressions toward God. Never-ending of course, or else God would not be God. But when the mirror is clear enough, it can see beyond the horizon into the throne room of God.

The end of the spiritual search is that there is no search - at least not a search that you make. You are already found. The door is already open; your prayers are already answered. It is just a matter of stopping long enough to see. Just turn your eyes around, and the search is over. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!

Peace abundant and full resides at the center. Truth surrounds us and enfolds us. Meaning permeates us. Living water flows up from within into eternal life. Christ is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, Creator and Created, the Savior in the form of the one who is saved, the Word beyond words.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Burning Qurans

What is it that causes a person to burn what is sacred to others? The Nazis did it with books in the 1930’s. Anti-American mobs do it overseas when they burn American flags. The Taliban did it in Afghanistan when they dynamited the ancient statues of the Buddha in the Bamyan Valley in 2001. A church in Florida is planning to do it next month when they burn Qurans.

The Dove World Outreach Center, a non-denominational church in Gainesville, Florida, is planning to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning Qurans. They are calling it "International Burn-A-Quran Day." Pastor Terry Jones explained his motives. "We feel, as Christians, one of our jobs is to warn." The goal of the event is to give Muslims an opportunity to convert, he said.

It is one thing to discard books or objects that are part of your own past that you want to leave behind. In Acts 19 Christians believers burned their own occult books as a way to make a psychological break with their past. If people want to destroy their own property, then that is their business.

But publicly destroying other persons’ sacred books and objects just to make a statement is a different matter. It does not bring about any good. If Pastor Jones really thinks this is going to cause Muslims to convert, then he is delusional. It is obviously going to give propaganda ammunition to Al-Qaeda, which recruits members by portraying the West as at war with Islam.

What is it in a person that needs to destroy that which is sacred to another? I think it is fear – fear that “the others” may be right. Book burners are afraid of the ideas in the books. The flag burners are afraid of what the flag stands for. We seek to destroy that which we fear.

That means that the members of the Florida church are acknowledging their fear of  the Quran. It is really a testament to their own spiritual weakness and insecurity. They are afraid the Islamic holy book holds power that they cannot withstand, so they must destroy it.

In a backhanded sort of way, the Quran-burning event is a compliment to Islam. But the Muslims will not see it that way. If you think Muslims got upset when a cartoonist in Denmark drew a caricature of Muhammad, wait until you see their reaction to videos of Christians burning Qurans in the United States!

We seem to be entering a dangerous era of religious extremism in our world. Religious intolerance is increasing around the globe, and along with it comes the persecution of minority religions. It did not take the Nazis very long to go from burning books to burning Jews.

The National Association of Evangelicals has condemned the Quran-burning. “The proposed burning of Qurans would be profoundly offensive to Muslims worldwide, just as Christians would be insulted by the burning of Bibles,” an NAE statement said. In other words, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to ignore the book-burners. Why give them the media attention that they desire? It only adds fuel to the fire and continues the cycle of extremism. The best way to extinguish a fire is to cut off its oxygen supply. If the media would just ignore the religious crazies in Florida on September 11, the world would be a lot better off.
Photo is a burned Quran found in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in January 2010.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Religious Liberty at Ground Zero

President Obama recently jumped into the controversy about the mosque to be built near Ground Zero and promptly got his head bitten off. Therefore it is probably foolish of me to wade into the same shark infested waters.  But this is an issue of essential interest to Baptists.

Baptists have historically been champions of religious freedom and tolerance. Baptists were born of persecution ... persecution by other Christians in England and America in the 17th century. We were the first voice for religious liberty in the “new world.” A century and a half later the United States wisely came to adopt those Baptist values.

Now those values are in danger – spoken against even by some Baptists. I saw a placard that said, “They can build a mosque at Ground Zero when Christians can build a church in Saudi Arabia.” Do we really want to model our standard of freedom after the Saudis?

First of all, let me say I believe it is a bad idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero. In fact I think it is a stupid idea. The Islamic group planning to build this huge Islamic Center called Cordoba House is showing incredible insensitivity to the families of the victims and to the national wound that has still not healed from 9/11.

I think it is a mistake to build a mosque near that location. But in this country religious people have the right to do stupid, insensitive, and even wrong things… as long as they do not hurt others or infringe on the rights of others to believe and do equally stupid, insensitive, and wrong things. That is the nature of religious freedom. Religious freedom means that people have the right to believe things we think are wrong and worship in ways we think are wrong.

The Pilgrims who sat around that first Thanksgiving table thought the early Baptists were wrong. In fact those Puritans thought Baptists were so wrong that they kicked the first American Baptist – Roger Williams - out of Massachusetts. He fled the Bay State in the middle of the winter and eventually made it to Rhode Island where he founded the first colony built on true religious tolerance and freedom in America. He called that colony Providence.

The initiators of the Cordoba House are not Islamic radicals or jihadists. They are not the ones who flew the airliners into the World Trade Center, nor do they agree with their politics of intolerance. In fact, Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the leader of the Cordoba Initiative, is a Sufi. He has been the imam of a Sufi mosque called Masjid al-Farah in New York City since 1983.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Sufis have been persecuted in both Shia and Sunni Islamic countries like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and also in India. Jihadists consider them heretics. They hate Sufis almost as much as they hate Christians.

Abdul-Rauf is no saint, and he is not perfect. He can also say and do stupid things. But one doesn’t have to be a saint or perfect to build a house of worship in this country. If that were true, there would be no churches in this land.

At least one other Sufi leader agrees that the Cordoba House is a bad idea. Sufi Suleiman Schwartz said that building a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is inconsistent with the Sufi values of simplicity of faith and sensitivity towards others.

I still hope that this Islamic Center in not built where it is planned. But if it is built in this location, I pray that it would become a place of religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue that might undermine the jihadist agenda in this country and around the world. If it did, my Baptist forebears would be proud.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

God Willing

I find myself using the phrase “God willing” a lot these days. The phrase prefaces most statements I make concerning the future. It is not a thoughtless habit or cliché, like when someone mindlessly says “God bless you” when you sneeze.

When I say “God willing” I mean it. I am sensing the uncertainty of my plans. I make my plans, but I have no ultimate control over whether or not they will happen. God decides. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”

Being a student of religions, I am conscious that this pattern is a very Muslim habit. Arabic-speaking folk often say “In sha' Allah” (إن شاء الله). Long ago Christians used to say the Latin phrase “Deo volente” or simply DV. However you say it, the concept is becoming a part of my everyday consciousness.

I make plans, but I am increasingly aware that my plans don’t really mean a thing. I am not in control; God is. At best I can hope and pray is that my plans align with God’s prior plans. I had planned to be a fulltime pastor until I was of traditional retirement age. Then all of a sudden God had other plans.

I plan to go to New Hampshire on Friday, but I know there is a doctor’s appointment earlier this week that could change that. A pastor friend called me from New Hampshire the other day asking me when I would arrive; he wanted to talk. I said, “God willing I will be there Saturday or Sunday.

We are going to New Hampshire for the birth of a new grandchild, due to arrive in three weeks. The child is already more than seven pounds in the womb. I do not worry, neither am I anxious. I trust God, but also I know too well the dangers inherent in childbirth. So I pray fervently for the health and safety of mother and child.  But in the back of my mind I utter the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will but Thine be done.” That is how it is anyway, whether or not I think it or say it. God is in control.

I have been invited to preach at an historic pulpit in September that has not heard a preacher’s voice in almost two hundred years. I am excited at the opportunity. But I know what could happen between now and then, so I say “God willing, I will preach…” I am meeting tomorrow with someone who can open doors of ministry for me here in Pennsylvania. I am excited to hear what possibilities God may have placed in this man’s mind. It is God’s will.

I have a sense of being carried in the hands of God, guided step by step. Over the years many people have come to me for advice in discerning God’s will. They agonize over decisions. So I say, “It is God’s will.” They are relieved to hear they are making the right choice. The truth is that they do not choose – God does.

The apostle James wrote: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.'”

The Quran echoes James words: “And never say of anything, 'I shall do such and such thing tomorrow.' Except with the saying: 'If God wills!'" To this timeless truth that transcends the differences between religions, I say “Amen.”
The image is the Arabic word "Inshallah" (God willing) in decorative script.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Meow Mind

Buddhists call it the “monkey mind” or the “mind monkey.” It describes the restless nature of our thoughts. I don’t know much about monkeys, but I know something about cats. I have had a cat as a pet for almost my entire life.

I have heard some people speak about cats in glowing spiritual terms, as if they were natural born sages embodying spiritual virtue. One guy calls it “the power of meow.” Cute.

Well, he has not met my cat. I love my cat, but he can be a pest. Like when I need to cut his claws, or put him in his animal carrier. He is especially a pest when we are trying to sleep at night.

We do not have central air in our home. That means that these dog days of summer can be very uncomfortable. But we have a window air conditioner in our bedroom, so that we can at least get a good night’s sleep. That means our bedroom door must remain closed.

Our cat cannot decide whether he would rather sleep in the coolness with us or be free to roam the rest of our hot home. In and out, in and out, all night long. It is the closed door he hates. Whenever he sees a door, he wants to go through it. He meows and scratches relentlessly until it is opened. Once he is inside, he wants out again.

It is not just this cat. We once had a cat named Arminius (his name is another story) who accidentally shut himself in our basement bathroom. He succeeded in ripping up my newly laid vinyl flooring in his attempt to get out. Robert Frost penned, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down!" If he had owned a cat he would have written a poem about doors.

My mind is like my cat … but not in a good way. When I go into my prayer room, close the door and kneel to pray, my mind wants out. Something there is that doesn’t love prayer, that wants out!

What is it about the silence of prayer that raises my restless animal nature? The apostle Paul calls it the flesh, often mistakenly identified with the body. It is not the body that is the enemy. That is why some biblical translators refer to it more accurately as the “sin nature.” Paul elsewhere refers to it as “the old man.” It is our unredeemed nature.

It feels deeply instinctive, as if it were originating in the reptilian core of my brain. It is definitely bestial and primal. It is in rebellion against God and his salvation. It is not the true me, at least not my best me. My true nature is the one who watches the cat nature in me and is annoyed at its restlessness.

Once my cat was literally closed in my prayer room. He had been sleeping under the guest bed and emerged from hiding shortly after I was engrossed in prayer. He started scratching at the door wanting out. When I ignored him, he came up to me, put his paws on my chest and nose in my face to let me know he needed attention. Just like my inner cat mind. I found that if I just patted him a little and spoke gently to him, he would curl up at my feet and let me pray. It works for the cat mind too.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


While on vacation this summer, both in Hawaii and New Hampshire, my wife and I enjoyed many hours swimming. Actually we mostly floated on inflatable tubes. As we drifted many yards from shore, we marveled at the clarity of the Hawaiian ocean and the New Hampshire lakes. In both locales the water was virtually transparent.

The word “transparency” is used a lot these days in the news. People talk about transparency in economic matters and transparency in government. I want transparency in spiritual matters. I am not talking about religious affairs. It would be nice if religious organizations were more transparent, but I do not expect that to happen. Religious institutions tend to build more walls than windows.

I want transparency in prayer. When I pray, it is the darkness of my own soul that I want to eliminate. I know intellectually that God sees me clearly just as I am; I cannot hide anything from the Lord. But I want to experience that transparency. I want to see God as clearly as God sees me ... and live to tell the tale. I want to see myself as God sees me, and see God as Jesus sees God. I want transparency of soul.

But when I kneel to pray, I find myself in muddy water. There is murkiness in the depths of my heart. When I consciously attempt to be more fully open to the presence of God, my soul shoots out an ink screen like an octopus. My emotions instinctively try to protect me from God. My sins drag me into the windowless back rooms of my soul.

My mind plays games to avoid transparency. One of those mind games is thinking profound thoughts. Part of me thinks that if I can fill my mind with spiritual thoughts, then that is sufficient. But doctrines are not enough. Theological thoughts can be helpful aids to approaching God, especially in the early stages of the spiritual life. But in my experience they are often barriers to experiencing the God who is higher than our thoughts.

So the goal of my time of prayer is to become transparent to the Holy Spirit. I seek to be a clear window, without dust to obscure the view. I want there to be no distortions, no filters between God and me. I want to be over my head in deep water so clear that I can see God’s face.

So I calm the waters of the heart and silence the chatter of my mind. Prayer for me is not reciting a wish list of things I want God to do for me. Prayer is not trying to bend God’s will to fit my idea of how things ought to be on earth; it is submitting my will to God without a ripple of dissent.

Prayer is more about seeing God than influencing God. It is more about being in the will of God than changing the mind of God. It is about being transparent, so that I can see God, and others can see God through me. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That is transparency - to be unseen, so that Christ may be seen through us.
Art is “Gate of Eden” by Ben Goossens.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rice Christian

While I was vacationing in Hawaii, I heard the news that Anne Rice had quit Christianity. I was never a fan of her vampire series, but I came to respect her Christian books. Her historical novels about the life of Jesus bring the Savior alive in a powerful way. As I read the books, I thought that this was a woman who knew and loved Christ. Maybe that is why she could no longer put up with the church that bears his name.

Characteristic of our high tech age, Rice quit Christianity on Facebook. She wrote: "I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

She continued: "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

I am not surprised. When I read her spiritual autobiography, "Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession," I thought that her return to Catholicism was more about personal nostalgia than spiritual commitment. She seemed to be returning to a childish trust in a human institution, and I knew that was not healthy. So I was not too surprised when she quit the Catholic Church.

I share many of Rice's feelings about organized religion. I too feel like an outsider. But unlike Rice I have not quit Christianity or the church. I quit my particular Baptist denomination, which had become (to use Rice's words) a "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group."

But I promptly joined another Baptist denomination that has its own infamous history. Furthermore I now regularly attend a church of another mainline Protestant denomination that is embroiled in the same controversies that prompted my departure from my first denomination.

It seems that there is no escaping the sinfulness of churches, denominations or Christians without leaving Christian community altogether. That type of churchless Christianity is too dangerous for a sinner like me. Without a regular community of faith, we are left to wallow in our own individual narcissistic sinfulness, which is much worse!

So I have opted to remain a Christian but focus on the spiritual core of Christianity that transcends the political, social, and moral agendas that churches tend to fight about. I have returned to the center of my faith - my first love - which is Jesus Christ.

I tend toward the mystical - what is loosely called spirituality these days. I spend more time in prayer and meditation than in theology or polity. Furthermore I chose not to judge churches any longer for not living up to my ideals. After all, I don't live up to them either.