Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rewriting My Life

All history is interpretation. There is no such thing as “pure history.” We think history should be about objective data – dates, facts, and artifacts. But it is largely a subjective art. History is always an interpretation of selective facts told from a certain perspective. Other people see things differently.

Other facts could have been selected by another writer, which could produce an entirely different history. That is why there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which do not fit together seamlessly, even after piously trimming the edges of some puzzle pieces and omitting others.

Nations write their history in the name of patriotism; cultures do it out of pride. “History is written by the victors,” Machiavelli said. It is also written by the vanquished; it is just a different history. I am vividly aware of this whenever I hear differing accounts of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Every person is writing his own personal history in his head all the time. We fit the events of our lives into a personal narrative that we carry with us, amending it as we go along. In this way we make sense of our lives. We give our lives meaning, and hopefully some dignity.

I write my own personal history from my perspective. Therefore I usually make sure I come out looking pretty good! Unfortunately a lot of it is fiction. I tend to omit or rewrite the bad parts of my life to justify my own failings and shortcomings, and then believe my own fiction.

I skew the facts to fit the image of myself that I want to present. I change the past to coincide with what I think should have happened. I make myself look better in my own eyes and others’ eyes, and most importantly in God’s eyes.

But I know that my interpretation of my life is a fiction. My wife keeps me honest when I get too self-deceptive. But my unwritten autobiography could still qualify as fantasy or even science fiction.

I am painfully aware just how self-deceptive I can be… and self-justifying. I confess that I am self-righteous. I could add hypocritical to that autobiographical portrait. I am not being hard on myself. Sometimes I just see myself a bit more clearly. This seems to happen most often when I am on my knees.

In prayer I can’t get away from the fact that God knows me as I really am. David wrote: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in - behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” 

I had a friend who changed his name – both his first name and last name. He remarried and moved to a foreign country and began a new career. He completely changed his persona in an effort to rewrite the story of his life. He was, I suspect, running from a painful past.

I do not want to hide from the past or fool myself. In my better moments I want to know myself – to know myself as God knows me. The words “Know Thyself” were inscribed over the entrance to the temple at Delphi. The assumption was that you could not approach God unless you were honest with yourself.

As David ended his psalm: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unplugged Spirituality

It has been almost five weeks since I have watched television. It is not because I have decided to live a simpler lifestyle. I am not that holy or disciplined. It is because the house we are renting in New Hampshire has no television reception.

We have a radio, but we get only three static-free radio stations. The highlight of my week is listening to Prairie Home Companion on Saturday night. I actually look forward to it for days! The only news I hear is from Lake Wobegon.

I didn’t know what I was missing until I caught part of a news broadcast in a hospital lobby a couple of weeks ago. It was shortly before the September primary election, and the political commercials were horrendous. After being used to normal people treating other normal people normally, I was taken aback by the nasty things people were saying about other people.

Another thing I noticed was the fast pace of the electronic stream. There was no space to think about what was being said or shown. It seems designed to bypass the mental process of discernment and feed directly into the subconscious. I felt like I was being mentally ambushed by the television.

As I write this, I can hear only the rain dripping from the eaves, an occasional automobile passing by, and the oil furnace kicking on. There is space to think and talk, play games and read, feel and pray.

I have been having a lot of extended conversations this last month. I stop to talk to friends on the street, and a half hour goes by easily. We sit over a nice meal for two or three hours sharing stories, memories and opinions.

I don’t know how I found time for television before… or why. I understand now why my son and his wife decided against having a television. They don’t want themselves or their newborn son exposed to electronic pollution.

What I appreciate the most about being unplugged is the spirituality of silence. To hear God you have to have quiet space - more than just a few minutes a day. You have to breathe in silence for days and weeks.

When I am disconnected from the matrix for a while, my ears slowly begin to adjust to the “still, small voice” of God. It is not that I am hearing heavenly voices. The message is in what I am not hearing. In not hearing the voices of the world, you begin to understand the natural rhythms of God in nature and in people. 

God speaks without words or thoughts. His voice is deeper than intuition or conscience. God speaks beneath silence, before thoughts, deeper than self. It is the language of the Spirit, “speaking spiritual truths in spiritual words,” as the apostle says. To hear God’s voice clearly, it is best to keep the television unplugged.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Color of Soul

It has been a long time since I have seen autumn come to New Hampshire. For years I have returned for a few days each October at the height of the fall foliage season, but I had forgotten what it was like to see the trees begin to change in September. This year I am daily enjoying the gradual transformation of the forest.

The colors start on the fringes of the trees and work inward. It looks like the trees are frosted with gold. The maples are bright red and orange, ash and birch are yellow, and the oaks are golden. Some smaller bushes and shrubs turn dark red. The pines stay green to add contrast.

There are a few trees that wear their full regal colors early, especially those in the wetlands, as if eager for the autumn to come. When the sky is blue and the sun is bright, it seems like heaven has visited earth for a season.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines come to mind: "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pick blackberries." In autumn all of nature is “afire with God.”

I remember hearing the scientific explanation for the changing colors. The bright colors are the natural pigmentation of the leaves. The fall colors are there all along, but are masked by green chlorophyll in spring and summer. Only when the leaves prepare to fall are the real hues revealed.

As I write this blog post, I am watching a line of cars depart the rural cemetery near our house. I recall that a graveside service is being held today for a dear saint of the church. I knew her in her later years, what they call “the autumn of life.” This woman, who was always lovely and gracious, grew even better as she aged.

This is not always the case. Some people harden with age. In either case, people’s true colors are revealed as the years progress. The difficult times of life harden some people and soften others. Some depart this life in a blaze of beautiful color. Others grow dull and dry.

I hope that I am one of the former. Life is too short to let the inevitable hardships of life rob us of our natural joy. Family and friends are too precious to allow differences to divide us. The spiritual dimension of life is too important to let religious squabbles quench it.

So I will enjoy the autumn colors that transform both landscape and lives. And hope others will see the natural color of my soul.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why I Am Not an Atheist

I have been reading books by atheists recently. I just finished “Good Without God” by Greg Epstein, and I am now reading “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens. They challenge me to think about God in ways that Christian writers do not.

Atheist arguments push me to examine my assumptions and presuppositions. Why do I believe in God? Am I fooling myself? Why am I so certain that God exists when these thinkers are so certain he does not?

My first instinct is to appeal to biblical authority; that is the way I have been taught. As the children’s song says, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But arguments based on Biblical authority and inspiration are meaningless to atheists.

Why do I accept the authority of Scripture? Why do I believe what the Bible says about God? When I keep asking myself “Why?” long enough, it comes down to personal experience. Either you have had a spiritual experience that convinces you of God’s reality, or you haven’t.

The bedrock of my faith is a deep and abiding personal awareness of God. Apparently this is something that atheists do not experience. I don’t know why I have this awareness of God and they don’t. Maybe it’s grace. Perhaps it is what the Bible means by election. For me the awareness of the presence of God is strong and sure. Atheists’ arguments against the existence of God are irrelevant when asked in the presence of God.

Am I deceiving myself about my awareness of God? Maybe. But I might be deceiving myself about the presence of the chair I am sitting in or the light shining through the window. But those are physical phenomena provable by science, the skeptics claim. True.

Then how about beauty or art, mathematics or logic, love or music? God’s presence is as real as any of these for me. If I had to compare them, I would say that God is more real – even than the physical world. I am more certain that God exists than that I exist.

How can I describe this awareness of God? Words like existence, being or consciousness come to mind. Wholeness, joy, and peace express it somewhat. The phrases of Paul Tillich are helpful – Ground of Being, Being Itself, Ultimate Concern. But these sound so impersonal. God is not impersonal.

God is personal in a way greater than human persons. People can be so impersonal; God is never impersonal. God is not a superhuman personality – an invisible male in the sky. God is the depth and height of all relationships. God is that in which everything else exists. God is. When Moses pressed God repeatedly to identify himself, God finally responded, “I am who I am.” That is God.

God does not exist; God is. God is who God is. I am who I am in God. Apart from God I am not. I do not exist apart from God. Apart from God nothing exists. This primary awareness of God is where I take my stand. That is why I believe in God.

This consciousness of the presence of God does not feel like an experience to me. Experience assumes a certain distance between the experiencer and the experienced. Experience needs a subject and an object. God is not an Object that I experience. This feels more like an intuitive awareness in which there is no distance between God and me. If I had to describe this as an experience, I would say that I am conscious of God experiencing me.

That may not make a lot of sense, but it is as good as I can do. I am certain it is not good enough for atheists. I am sure they can explain this in naturalistic terms. But it is good enough for me.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thank God For Atheists

 I just finished reading “Good Without God” by Greg Epstein. It is subtitled, “What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. What is a humanist chaplain? Isn’t that title an oxymoron?

A friend loaned me the book. In return I suggested he read William Young’s “The Shack.” I am now a bit embarrassed that I suggested such a lightweight book, whereas he loaned me such a heady volume. It turns out that “Good Without God” is a sort of “Purpose Driven Life” for atheists – but much better written. He even references Rick Warren in his book several times.

You might wonder what a Baptist preacher is doing reading a book about atheism. Well, it turns out that even atheists (he prefers the term Humanist) have a spiritual life. They just don’t attribute it to the Spirit.

In fact the whole volume is an attempt to answer the oft-repeated accusation (voiced by Warren) that there can be no morality without belief in God. To quote Dostoevsky, “Without God all things are permissible.” Epstein counters that argument and builds a case for a humanistic ethic.

The strange thing is that I have been arguing Epstein’s case for years. Whenever Christian colleagues would say that there is no morality without religion, I would argue the contrary. In my experience nonreligious people are just as “good” as Christians. There are studies to back up my argument. For example, in spite of all their talk of “family values” the rate of divorce among evangelical Christians is actually higher than nonchristians!

There is something in human nature that naturally produces ethical systems. You see it throughout history and across cultures. I have argued that ethics is a human phenomenon rather than a religious one. As a Christian I attribute this to the natural revelation of God in human conscience. But those who do not believe in a Creator have no need to find a heavenly cause for the ethical instinct.

As I read “Good Without God” I found it very spiritual, even religious. I guess it is the way he defines atheism. He sees people like the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, American Deist Thomas Jefferson, and even Christian philosopher Paul Tillich as closet humanists. Epstein sees the religion of these men as a nascent form of atheism.

But for all his insights, Epstein falls into the same trap as all atheists. The God that he rejects is not God. It is an image of God; images of God are, by nature, false gods. At one point he quotes his mentor Shewin Wine as saying, “Sometimes the nicest thing you can say about God is that he doesn’t exist.” That is true; the God that atheists don’t believe in doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in that god either.

God is by definition beyond definition. All definitions are by nature idols. As a cultural Jew (he refers to himself as a “Humanist by faith, a Jew by cultural heritage, and a Humanist chaplain and rabbi by profession”) Epstein knows that the first two commandments are not to worship other gods or make images of God. Doctrines are mental images. Theology is an image-making endeavor.

In this regard the atheist is the believer’s best friend. The atheist is an iconoclast, relentlessly tearing down the idols erected by his theistic brethren. Atheists believe that when all gods are revealed to be false, there is nothing left to believe in. From my perspective, when all the man-made gods are shown to be false, what is left is God.

Contemporary atheists do Christians a great service, and we should listen carefully to their voices. They relentlessly expose the idolatries and falsehoods in religion, and thereby reveal the true God.  The Greg Epsteins, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world teach more about God than most popular Christian authors these days. Thank God for atheists.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ontological Illusion

In God I cease to be, and yet I am. It is kind of confusing. That is why I am so hesitant to write about my prayer life. Words seem so sloppy and imprecise. So are ideas. In prayer we dwell in the space between thoughts. Doctrines cannot contain the God of prayer anymore than colanders can hold water. 

In prayer we live in the expanse behind the material world. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. It is not “up there” in heaven, nor “down here” on earth. It is not “out there” or “in here.” Yet it is both up and down, here and there. It is breaking in and yet to come. See what I mean? Words are sloppy.

I use the word God to describe the presence behind the creation because it is the best word I know. But the word “God” has been so distorted by theists and atheists that it would be equally true to say “not God,” by which I mean not the idols we mistake for God.

God is “not me” and “not the world.” Rudolf Otto called God “the wholly other.” Theologians speak of the transcendence of God. I guess that term will work, as long as transcendence is understood to include immanence.

God is present during prayer. No argument can convince me otherwise. I am more certain of the reality of God than I am of my own reality – much more certain. In prayer one perceives a divine depth to existence that is normally in the background of our awareness. But in prayer, we notice it because we are paying attention.

It is like the optical illusion of the vase and the faces, or the hag and the beauty. It is all how you look at things. We tend to look at things the way we have been conditioned. But when we are alone with God, then God nudges us into a new way of seeing – to see the kingdom of God that is hiding in plain sight.

In prayer the vastness of eternity is made known. It is so real that everything else seems like a mist in comparison. It is more real than my individual personality or even the material world.

In the presence of God my personal identity is perceived as little more than a fleshly fiction whose main purpose is to keep me from God. It is where Adam and Eve ran to hide from God, and we have been hiding ever since.

But in prayer we can come out of hiding, and God comes out of hiding. “Truly you are a God who hides himself,” the prophet Isaiah said. But he is also a God who reveals himself. He hides in plain sight. He who has eyes to see, let him see.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One-Third Free

“I stand before you today only one-third free,” said Sarah Shourd, the American hiker freed from Iranian captivity after more than a year. She spoke these words at a recent press conference and was referring to the fact that her fiancé and a friend are still in Iranian custody, accused of espionage.

She continued, “That was the last thing that Josh said to me before I walked through the prison doors. Josh and Shane felt one-third free at that moment and so did I. The only thing that enabled me to cross the Gulf from prison to freedom alone was the knowledge that Shane and Josh wanted with all their heart for my suffering to end.” She then went on to say that she would now turn all her attention to gaining freedom for the remaining hikers.

Being a student of religions, my first thought on hearing her words was the bodhisattva vow. According to Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas take a vow stating that they will strive, for as long as it takes, to free all sentient beings from bondage and lead them to enlightenment. In other words, a bodhisattva will not enter Nirvana until all enter Nirvana.  To use Christian language, they will not enter heaven until all enter heaven. They are not saved until all are saved.

It is a noble sentiment. As a Christian, I wish there was more of this attitude in my Christian religion. But as a pastor I have seen a different attitude. Christians say they believe in eternal heaven and hell, and they rejoice in their salvation. But they do not seem very disturbed at the thought that their neighbors and friends will not be spending eternity with them.

They seem unconcerned that, according to their model of salvation, most of humanity will spend eternity in hell. They certainly would never think of delaying entrance into the pearly gates until all are saved. In fact they seem eager to leave this vale of tears behind and get to their celestial reward.

It is disturbing that the Buddhist religion seems to demonstrate more compassion than Christianity in this regard. It certainly isn’t Jesus’ fault. Christ demonstrated supreme love and compassion. He willingly went to the cross, and experienced death and hell for us!  He worked tirelessly during his ministry and gave his life for our salvation. But I don’t see this Christly attitude in his followers.

When Sarah Shourd stated that she was only one-third free, her words struck a chord in my heart. I don’t know what her religious convictions are, but her attitude felt profoundly Christian. 

Can any human being feel content until all humans are free? Can any Christian enjoy freedom from sin and death until all are free? How can any Christian rest until they do everything they can to ensure that all are saved? How can any person walk through the heavenly gates knowing that loved ones have been left behind?

According to religious statistics from the year 2000, one third of the world’s population is Christian. (That is a very generous figure that includes all forms of Christianity and counts all nominal Christians. The real number of sincere, active, believing Christians is certainly a fraction of this figure.) But if we accept the figure – and furthermore assume that the Christian gospel truly presents the way of salvation - it means that we are only one-third free.

So we either change our apathetic attitude toward those facing eternal imprisonment or we reexamine our model of salvation. Anything else is hypocrisy. We either join Sarah Shourd in directing all our attention to freeing our companions on this earthly journey – or we rethink our doctrines of heaven and hell. 

But to enjoy a life of freedom while believing that others are still facing endless imprisonment and torture is unconscionable … and unchristian.
Photo is of American hikers Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Joy of Words

Thursday night I went to a poetry reading. I do not have many opportunities to do this sort of thing at home in Pennsylvania. But here in the woods of New Hampshire, interesting cultural events are found tucked away in the unlikeliest of places.

This was a reading by Donald Hall, a resident of Danbury, New Hampshire, and the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006-2007. I bought a book of his poetry when he was appointed Poet Laureate, and have read it whenever I was homesick for New Hampshire.

It was a rainy evening, but I gladly drove the forty minutes to Plymouth State University. The event drew about 150 people, many of them college students, who (I assumed from their body language) were required to attend the campus event by their English professor. For me it was a purely voluntary and fascinating evening.

There is something about the spoken word that fills me with joy – especially when voiced by one who knows how to use words well. This poet was difficult to understand. He is getting older now, and neither his voice nor hearing is very strong. I had to strain to make out the words. But in time I adjusted my hearing to his speech.

He spoke of ordinary people and things – items in an attic, baseball games, reading books on a quiet evening, making meatloaf – but the way he said them! The cadence of the words, the way he caught the inflections of the Yankee speech patterns – like Robert Frost used to do so well.

You could feel his joy at creating works of art made entirely of vibrations cast into the air. You can’t get that out of a book! When he spoke of the events of September 11, 2001 in poetic verse, the emotions of that day filled the room. No video footage can do what he did with words!

A question and answer session followed. One mother asked what advice he would give to young poets. (The aspiring poet was seated beside her.) He replied: Read and Revise. “Read the old poets,” he said, “Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Scott … especially poets of the 17th century.” He continued, “No one seems to read anything written before 1970 any more!”

Concerning writing he advised, “Revise each poem at least 200 times before you let anyone else see it. These days, people write a poem in a day and immediately distribute it to friends. Don’t do it. If you do, their voice will get confused with yours. Rewrite it again and again in solitude before anyone sees or hears it.”

The room gave him a standing ovation. The students gathered on the stage to pose for a class picture with the poet. Then the audience recessed into the lobby to purchase books and have them autographed. I asked him to sign a copy of his children’s book, “Ox Cart Man.” I will give it as a gift to our grandchild who was born in Concord as I wrote this blog in the waiting room.

I can’t wait to read it to him – Jonah Michael Davis - and hopefully fill his heart with the joy of words – an old preacher of sacred words passing on the joy of words to the next generation.
Photo of Donald Hall

Friday, September 17, 2010

Preaching on the Edge

Last Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Pulpit Rock in Sandwich Notch, a beautiful outdoor setting in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire. The “Tour Through Sandwich Notch” was composed of many stops along the Sandwich Notch Road with many speakers. It was sponsored by the Sandwich Historical Society and organized by Suzanne Pohl of Sandwich.

Pulpit Rock is a natural rocky outcrop that stands about fifty feet above the Sandwich Notch Road. Resembling one of the high pulpits found in colonial meetinghouses, it has a cliff behind it that acts like a sounding board. The spot is a natural amphitheater allowing the preacher’s voice to reverberate from the opposing hill.

Sunday was a drizzly day, and the climb up the rock was steep and slippery. The lichen and moss, which had gathered on the stone over the centuries, did not help matters any. People suggested that it was too dangerous to ascend the peak and that I should preach from a lower location. But having dreamed of sermonizing from the top of that peak for 28 years, I was not about to let a little weather stop me.

From the top I peered over the edge at my congregation of 50 hardy souls below. I am not one who loves heights, but the thrill of the moment counterbalanced my fear of falling. I preached from Psalm 61:2, “From the end of the earth I will cry to You when my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

I spoke about the Quaker heritage of the site, the value of inner silence, the beauty of God’s natural revelation around us, and the transitory nature of life. I quoted Jesus’ words about the man who built his house upon a rock. I talked about Moses preaching on Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo.

As I preached, I consciously tried to keep my feet firmly planted on solid rock. But as I ended my message, I noticed that I had unconsciously crept dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. This was truly a death-defying sermon!

As I think of the experience, it feels like a metaphor for preaching. It is easy to take the homiletically safe road when preaching - predictable topics, standard scripture texts, traditional doctrines, conventional morality, expected social issues – staying safely within the well-trodden boundaries of Christian pulpiteering. It is the ecclesiastical way. But Jesus clearly said that his way was very narrow and not very safe.

While driving the old dirt road to Pulpit Rock, I had a conversation with a geologist, who was scheduled to speak at another stop. He mentioned Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” I shared what I had heard Frost say (in a recording) about that poem. He said this was his most misunderstood poem. People think it is about the poet taking “the road less traveled by,” but the title of the poem clearly states that it is about the road he did not take.

It is easy to consider oneself to be a bold, prophetic preacher (“I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”), especially when one enjoys freedom of religion, a steady salary, and a retirement fund.  But most Christian preachers in most countries today do not enjoy those luxuries. Just yesterday I read about Christians being persecuted by Buddhist extremists in Bangladesh. Every religion has their bigots.

One of Jesus’ early sermons was so dangerous that his Nazareth congregation forcibly removed him from the pulpit and nearly tossed him off a nearby cliff. (Luke 4:28-30) I am just glad that no one was up on Pulpit Rock to nudge me off if I got too close to uncomfortable truths.

Wait a minute! Come to think of it … there was a woman who climbed up there with me. And she waited on the rock behind me out of sight throughout the message. She said she was just waiting for us to descend the rock together for safety’s sake. But what if she had other instructions I am not aware of? I guess I must have preached a safe sermon after all. I am still alive to tell the tale.
Look carefully at the photo (click on it to enlarge) and you will see me preaching on the top of Pulpit Rock. Photo by Jude Davis.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gospel of the Broken Leg

The Disciple came to the Master and asked how to inherit eternal life. “Keep the commandments,” he replied. “All these I have kept,” he replied. “Then sell all you have and give it to the poor.” So he did, yet he did not inherit eternal life.

He returned to the Master, “I have done all you have asked. I have given away all I have. What more must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Preach the Kingdom of God in the towns and villages,” he replied.

So the Disciple did as the Master requested. As he was returning from his journey, he fell and broke his leg. Immediately the heavens opened, and he saw the Kingdom of God. He returned to the other disciples on crutches, rejoicing in the heavenly blessing.

The other disciples inquired how the illumination occurred. He explained how the heavens opened the instant his leg snapped. So the other disciples immediately began to take up clubs and break their legs!

“Stop,” shouted the Disciple, but it was too late. All their legs had been broken. “How can you now spread the Gospel with broken legs?”

The Master returned to find all his disciples moaning on the ground with splints on their legs. “What happened?” he asked. “Have you been attacked by our enemies?”

“No, Master, they replied. “We have broken our legs in order to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Master looked at his disciples in amazement. “Then you are your own enemies. Nothing you do can bring you into the kingdom,” explained the Master. “The Kingdom of God comes in a manner you do not expect.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Choosing My Ancestors

I take pride in being the descendent of the first settlers in New Hampshire. My direct ancestors were Thomas Roberts and Rebecca Hilton, both among the first boatload of English settlers to arrive at Dover, New Hampshire, in 1623. Thomas later served as the fourth governor of the Dover colony from 1640 until it was annexed by Massachusetts.

In researching their lives I found an interesting account of Thomas Roberts’ religious leanings. In the early 1660’s, after Dover had come under the rule of the Massachusetts Puritans, he protested the treatment of some Quaker missionaries who had arrived in Dover.

At the time his sons, John and Thomas Roberts, Jr., were constables in Dover. In accordance with Massachusetts laws against Quakers and other religious dissidents, they administered 10 stripes to three women Quakers for their religious activities and expelled them from their jurisdiction.

The missionaries, Anne Coleman, Mary Tomkins and Alice Ambrose, were led out of Dover on December 22, 1662, tied with ropes to an ox cart. According to the warrant, the women were stripped to their waists and whipped on their naked backs “not exceeding 10 stripes apiece” as they passed from one town’s jurisdiction to another. (A contemporary Quaker writer declared they had administered 11 stripes for good measure instead of 10.)

After recuperating from their ordeal, these missionary women returned to Dover and resumed their preaching. This time constable Roberts, with the help of some of members of the community, took the missionaries down river and out of Dover bound in an Indian dugout.

According to the Quaker narrative the women were taken from a house and dragged through the deep snow to the river. Alice Ambrose was plunged into the icy water and made to swim beside the boat to escape drowning.

Thomas Roberts publicly rebuked his two sons for their harsh treatment of the Quakers. He refused to attend the local Puritan church services. For his religious insubordination, the town records show he was fined one cow.

I pride myself on being of the noble heritage of Thomas Roberts, one of the early supporters of religious liberty. But I am sad to say that I am also the descendant of his eldest son, constable John Roberts, who treated the Quakers so badly.

There are two strains of Christians in America today, seen clearly in the recent controversies concerning Muslims – events like the recent arson at a Tennessee mosque, the threatened Quran-burning in Florida, and the controversy concerning the building of a mosque in Manhattan.

There are the haters who get all the attention and hide behind the law. Then there are the lovers - simple Christians like Pastor Steve Stone and his Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee. Heartsong opened their church building to a Muslim group that had bought the land adjacent to their church property to build a mosque. Muslims now pray in a Christian church while their mosque is being completed. Instead of intolerance, these Christians showed love.

One side of America is like my ancestor John Roberts and the other like Thomas Roberts. The DNA of both men runs in my veins. But I choose to side with Thomas … and Pastor Stone. That is my heart’s song.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Devil Wears Size Six

Last Sunday I participated in an historical excursion through Sandwich Notch in Sandwich, New Hampshire. It was a marvelous day of exploring 19th century rural New Hampshire life. Local historians, naturalists, archeologists and scientists shared their knowledge; I was along to give some spiritual insight.

At one stop we viewed the “Devil’s Footprints.” These are indentions in the rock that look like the petrified footprints of someone who had walked across the landscape in the distant past.

But these are not human impressions left in the mud of ancient times. A geologist informed us that this is a natural phenomena caused by the erosion of the stone. It is purely accidental that they have the shape of footprints and are spaced at the distance of a person’s stride.

Nevertheless, the local custom is to place your foot in the indentions to see if the devil’s shoe fits. I am relieved to say it doesn’t. Good thing, I was scheduled to preach at Pulpit Rock at the next stop. People might have looked at me askance if the preacher had the devil’s shoe size.

One participant’s sneakers fit exactly into the indentions in the rock. I asked her what size she wore. “Women’s six,” she replied. “That would be a men’s eight,” she added. So I guess the devil is a woman… or a small man. But he/she/it has the stride of a much larger person. And by the depth of the impressions, the devil seems to be carrying quite a heavy load.

There is a poem by Mary Stevenson called “Footprints in the Sand” that people have often asked me to read at funerals.  It describes two sets of footprints  – the Lord’s and ours. The earliest version of this well-known poem (there are at least three!)  concludes:

"You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?" The Lord replied, "The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you."

I saw only one set of footprints in Sandwich Notch, and they are deep. It seems as if the Adversary also carries folks. The apostle Paul writes: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Sometimes he gets more than a foothold in our lives. He might have added, “And don’t let the devil carry you.”

During difficult times it is easy to give in to strong emotions – to let anger, depression, bitterness or discouragement carry us along. At other times God’s grace seems to sustain us beyond our natural strength. In both cases, it may feel like we are just along for the ride.

And we are … it is just a matter of who is carrying us. At such times it is best to look down and check the shoe size. By the way … I have it on good authority that Jesus wore size 12.
Photo is one of the Devil’s Footprints in Sandwich Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Sandwich, NH. Photo by Jude Davis.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dreaming of the Dalai Lama (And Other Dreams within Dreams)

I had a dream last night (I am not kidding) that the Dalai Lama was a dinner guest in our home. He was a pleasant fellow and laughed a lot. But he did not care for the barbeque pork. Then I woke up.

Have you ever awakened from a dream only to still be in a dream? Then you wake up again to discover that you were in a dream within the dream. When that happens I can’t help but wonder if I am still in a dream within a dream within a dream. And if I am, who is doing the dreaming?

The Taoist teacher Chuang Tzu had a dream that he was a butterfly. He woke up to exclaim, “Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

A creation myth says that the universe – and all history – is the dream of God. Is this really so far fetched? The Bible says that God spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. In other words, the universe is nothing more than words spoken into a void. We are thoughts of God spoken out loud.

What is the difference between an idea and a dream? One is conscious and one unconscious. But does that distinction have any validity when we are talking about God?

There is another myth that the universe is the song of God. Another that it is the dance of God. Another that it is a story crafted by God. Didn’t Shakespeare say this?

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158)

Before our birth we are nothing more than ideas in the mind of God. After our death, when we have no substance to bind the spirit to earth, we are once again ideas in the mind of God … and those who loved us. Then the Scriptures say we are spoken into existence again - enfleshed anew at the resurrection.

It is said that words never die, that sound remains as long as it has a medium for propagation. So how can there not be eternal life?
Image is Sound Waves, painting by Ofelia Uz.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Learning to Pray

A man woke up in a cave high in the mountains with a bruised head and no memory. “How did I get here?” he wondered. “And who am I?” He looked at his clothing and saw the rough robe of a monk. He looked around and saw copies of holy books. “I must be a monk,” he concluded.

So he tried to pray. But he did not know how to pray. He asked God to remind him how to pray, but there was no answer from heaven. “The Lord must be busy. I will wait for an answer.”  So he waited and waited, but still no answer came.

“Perhaps I am not worthy enough for God to answer my prayer. I will practice mortifications to purify my body and mind.” So he fasted until he was little more than skin and bones. But still there was no answer. “Perhaps I need to perform acts of charity to be worthy of God’s attention.”

So he descended the mountain and entered a nearby village. He tended the sick and cared for the homeless. He read to them out of the holy books. In return the people of the village fed him. But still he was unable to pray.

In time he returned to his cave disillusioned that he still had not learned to pray. But by now the townspeople had come to respect him as a holy man. They brought him gifts of food and new robes. In return he would read to them from the holy books. In time he knew the books so well he could recite them by heart.

Years passed and the reputation of the monk grew. Kings and philosophers sought his presence. Holy men came to hear his wisdom. But in his heart the man knew that he was an imposter, unworthy of this respect. He did not even know how to pray!

One day an old man came to the cave. “I have come to confess my sins, Abba,” he said.“Many years ago I came to this cave. I was cold and hungry, and the young monk who lived here showed me hospitality. I stayed with him many days. He came to trust me and showed me the treasure hidden deep in the recesses of this cave. I rewarded him by beating him, taking the riches, and leaving him for dead.”

The old monk looked deeply into the eyes of the visitor. “I am that monk,” he replied. “Only now have I remembered those events.”

“Can you forgive me?” asked the old man. “Of course,” replied the monk. “When you left me for dead, you took my identity as well as the riches of this cave. I was a very self-righteous man, proud of my religious knowledge and my holiness. By taking my memory, you gave me my life. It was the kindest thing you could have done. Thank you.” Then the monk began to pray.
Painting is Monk Reading by Rembrandt

Friday, September 10, 2010


While we are here in New Hampshire for a couple of months, we are always on the lookout for wild animals - especially bear and moose.  But we enjoy the foxes, turkeys and smaller animals as well. There is more wildlife here than other places because this town borders the White Mountain National Forest.

We have noticed from our own experience, as well as from the accounts of others, that it is normally at the dawn and twilight that the animals are seen. Wildlife appears in the transition times when the light is slipping into darkness or vice versa.

It is the same with God. Our Lord appears in the transition times. It is no accident that the risen Christ arose “while it was still dark” and appeared on the Emmaus Road “when it was getting dark” and at the Sea of Galilee “early in the morning.”

There are transition times in our lives – times that straddle life and death, employment and unemployment, health and illness. C. S. Lewis called them Shadowlands. Bob Dylan described it as the north country “where the winds hit heavy on the borderline.”

This last year has been a transition time for me. I quit my position as a fulltime pastor a year ago for a full year of intentional hiatus. I am “between churches” as they say in my profession. The year is now officially up. In fact it was up two weeks ago. Now when people ask me what I am doing, I don’t know what to say.

People ask me if I am retired. I reply, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” They laugh as if I were telling a joke, but I am serious. I have gone from an intentional sabbatical to a true transition time. I don’t know what I am doing at the moment. Most people don’t know what to make of my situation. Some are unsettled by it. Some understand.

I met the son of an old friend the other day. His dad had died recently, and he was in a transition time. He also happens to be a life coach. After reminiscing about his father, he asked what I was doing. I explained my situation, and he knew instantly what I was talking about. But most people’s eyes are not adjusted to the gray light of the borderlands. They cannot stand long in the heavy winds of the borderline. They seek shelter in the familiar.

But in this borderland I see God. I am more spiritually aware now than ever before in my life. I see more clearly in the twilight than at noon. I am free to be open to God and to opportunities for ministry.

Last winter I was on a retreat with a man who described himself as a “freelance pastor.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time, and I pressed him on the matter. Now I understand. I might even start using that term when people ask me what I am doing these days.

The Lord walks the borderlands. He is not comfortable in civilized places. They are too mapped out and organized for him. He meets us in the unformed wilderness places of our lives and our souls. At those times and places we are malleable, and he can work with us. In this valley of the shadow, the Lord is with me. I know that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” You know the rest.
Painting is “Shadowlands,” by Jude Woodland, acrylic on canvas

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reading the Quran on September 11

As September 11 approaches, all eyes are on a small nondenominational church in Gainesville, Florida, which is planning an "International Burn-a-Quran Day." The world is wondering if it will be the match that ignites wildfires of protest and retaliation around the world.

General Petraeus has warned about the consequences. The White House has weighed in on it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned it. Interfaith groups have protested it. Christians in Islamic countries are pleading with the pastor to cancel the event.

The most creative response to “Burn-a-Quran Day" is “Read-a-Quran Day.”  Rev. Larry Reimer, minister at the United Church of Gainesville, Florida, has proposed that people protest the burning of Qurans by reading the Quran. That is what I will be doing on September 11.

I have read the Quran completely through several times – more than most Christians have read their own Bible. The first time I read through the Quran was over thirty years ago (back when we called it the Koran). I took a Ph.D. seminar in Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and we had to study the Islamic scriptures as part of the course.

I read the whole Quran again in the wake of September 11, 2001, when I participated in a series of radio discussions with a Sunni imam. I read it again when I visited his mosque in Pittsburgh, and he presented me with an annotated copy of the Quran as a gift.

I am a student of the world’s religions. I have read many sacred scriptures and appreciate them all. As a Christian I have problems with all scriptures … including parts of my own. I have problems with the Quran, especially the parts that advocate warfare and violence against infidels.

But I can’t complain too loudly about those sections of the Quran, because my own Scriptures have passages that are just as violent as those in the Islamic holy book. We are all selective when it comes to reading our holy books. Every believer has a “canon within a canon.” We consciously or unconsciously edit the scriptures to fit our religion, rather than the other way around.

Many Christians have never heard some Bible texts read from a pulpit. I found that out when I preached a series of sermons on the Song of Solomon a few years ago. There are lots of sexy parts in that book, including many euphemisms for body parts that are not supposed to be mentioned by preachers in church! People were shocked. The Bible is X-rated – for both sex and violence!

Back to the Quran…. I imagine that many of the most vocal critics of Islam have never opened the Islamic book. Those who are burning it have likely never read it. (The pastor admitted this to NBC News.) That is probably equally true of those who are condemning Quran-burning. It is easy to be tolerant when you have no idea what you are being tolerant of! It is hard to defend the reading of ideas that seem intolerable.

So I invite you to join with me in reading the Quran on Saturday, September 11. Read more than a few sentences. Take 10 or 15 minutes out of your day to read portions of the Quran. It can be found at Personally I prefer the Authorized English Version translated by Dr. Rashad Khalifa.

Pick a surah (that is what they call their chapters) and start reading. You may be surprised at what you find. You may be shocked. But at least you will be a little more knowledgeable about the book that is at the center of this controversy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

God of the Waters

A young man chanced upon a small clear lake in the forest. As he bent down for a drink he saw his reflection in the calm surface of the water. “This is the abode of the water god,” he declared. “I have seen his face.”

He erected a shrine to the deity at the site of the apparition. He placed wildflowers at the altar daily. People came from miles around to pray, bathe in the water, and be healed of their diseases.

In time thousands of people visited the lake, peered into the water and saw their faces, believing it was the water deity. The various descriptions of their reflections – male and female, young and old, dark or light – became different myths of the water deity, the various faces of God.

A rumor arose that drinking from the water made you immortal after you died. The young man’s son started selling the lake water to those who could not make the journey to the forest. The demand was so great for the water that he employed many helpers to bottle it and ship it to distant locations.

So many bought this water that the small lake dried up, leaving only a muddy basin. “The water deity is dead,” the man declared. “Swallowed by the mud god,” he explained. And he began to sell the mud, which was said to have rejuvenating properties for the skin. People came from miles around to apply the mud to their faces and bodies.

Then the mud was gone, leaving only the hard bedrock beneath. The grandson of the original discoverer of the site began to sell chunks of rock as amulets. They were said to have divining properties, leading the wearer to places where they could dig a well of fresh spring water.

People used the amulets and found water. They dug wells, looked into the water and saw their face. “I have seen the water deity,” the people said.
Painting is “Narcissus” by Caravaggio, 1573-1610, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Roma

Monday, September 6, 2010

Spiritual & Religious

There are esoteric and exoteric dimensions of spirituality. The esoteric is the inner, experiential dimension. The exoteric is the outer, practical dimension. These days the esoteric is called the spiritual, and the exoteric is called the religious.

Many people like the esoteric but not the exoteric. They are “spiritual but not religious.” They have had a spiritual experience, but have no use for organized religion. But Jesus saw the value of both. He regularly attended both the temple and the synagogue “as his custom was.” He knew one’s spiritual life needed balance if it was to remain healthy.

Jesus described the relationship between the inner essence of religion and the outer expressions as the relationship between wine and wineskins. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”

He did not say that you don’t need wineskins. He knew that wineskins are necessary. But they had to be suitable to the wine within. Without skins (or their modern equivalents of barrels and bottles) only vintners would drink wine. Without wineskins, wine could not be transported from place to place, and passed from person to person.  Skins are useful packaging … but they are not the wine.

The wine is the experiential encounter with the divine – salvation, liberation, eternal life, enlightenment - call it what you will. It is the mystical essence of the religious life. It is deeper than emotion but expressed in emotion. It is more than thoughts, but expressed in words.

The wineskins are rituals and creeds, traditions and scriptures, institutions and organizations - that sort of thing. They are useful, but only insofar as they hold and serve wine. Without the wine, the skins are old and dry relics of a spiritually intoxicated past.

But without the wineskins there would be no wine! Grape juice needs containers in which to ferment and become wine. In fact, these days the wine takes on the flavor of the barrels in which the wine is aged. They give it character and flavor.

Jesus says an interesting thing: “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'” Everyone knows that the best wine is old wine. Some vintage bottles of wine can sell for thousands of dollars. Once you have tasted fine old wine, the $5.99 bottles at the supermarket just don’t seem like the same beverage.

New wine is the popular spirituality of our culture - eclectic renditions of ancient spiritual wisdom. They are appropriately labeled as “New Age,” “self-help,” “self-esteem” and “motivational” messages. They are packaged as esoteric wisdom (“The Secret’) and preached by spiritual teachers and self-styled gurus on Oprah and PBS. They aren’t all bad. In fact there are tidbits of truth to be found in them.

On the other hand, some are dangerous. They kill their followers in Arizona sweat lodges or bilk their naïve followers of hard-earned savings. But others are harmless. On the whole they are just new and inexperienced, like their followers. They are inexpensive wine. “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'”
Painting is “The New Wine and the Used Wineskins" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Outlaw Jesus Christ

Today I was reading about Jesus’ encounter with the Sabbath-keepers. (Luke 6:1-11; Mark 2:23-27). They were a law-abiding bunch and hated law-breakers… like Jesus. “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” the Pharisees asked him.

I have studied these Sabbath episodes in my biblical commentaries and preached them in sermons. The standard interpretation is that Jesus was not really breaking the fourth commandment; he was just breaking the Pharisees’ legalistic interpretation of it.

This train of thought says that Jesus was actually fulfilling the real meaning of the Sabbath law, thereby keeping the Sabbath in a deeper manner.  Whew! The Ten Commandments are intact! Maybe. Or maybe Jesus was really breaking the Sabbath.

The Sabbath commandment is one of those divine laws that many people bend to fit their own circumstances. The Bible makes it very clear that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week – Saturday. No other day would do. It was not a holiday that moved to fit a person’s weekly work schedule. The work schedule was supposed to change to fit the Sabbath; that was the whole point.

But apart from the Jews, only the Seventh Day Adventists, and my cousins the Seventh Day Baptists, observe the Sabbath on Saturday. Other Christians have transferred the day of rest to Sunday, the first day of the week, something Scripture never permits.

Even assuming Sunday were the new Sabbath, Christians don’t even observe Sunday as a day of rest any more. Many Christians “have to work” on Sunday; their jobs demand it. Larger churches even provide Saturday evening worship to accommodate their Sunday-Sabbath-breaking members.

So technically speaking, almost all Christians are Sabbath-breakers. Yet we hold up the Ten Commandments as the pinnacle of morality, lauding them as divine non-negotiables and demanding that monuments to them be erected in public places. Maybe we should be honest and edit them down to the Nine Commandments.

I have never been convinced by the sophistry of Christians who rationalize breaking the fourth commandment regularly, yet get bent out of shape at people who break the other nine. It seems kind of hypocritical to me - more like the Pharisees than Jesus.

That is why I like the stories about Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker. He does not justify his behavior as actually “keeping the spirit of the law.” He just points to another famous lawbreaker in Scripture, King David, and says he is just following his great, great, great, great, great granddaddy’s example. Then he announces, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus goes further, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Is he stating a divine principle that supersedes other biblical commands as well? Or is this principle unique to the Sabbath? Does this principle apply to other Scripture texts? Is he possibly saying, “The Scriptures were made for man, not man for the Scriptures?” 

Whoa! That is going too far! Think of the ramifications! But the Pharisees thought Jesus was going too far in regard to the Sabbath command. It says, “But they were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” I can almost hear people discussing what to do with me - the outlaw Marshall Davis. At least I am in good company.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Singing with Agnostics

I am a theist who loves agnostics. (I want to say I am a gnostic who loves agnostics, but that would take too much explaining!) I love agnostics’ honesty and courage, and ability to clearly see through the smokescreen that most of us Christians blow around our churches.

Last night I was listening to Folk Alley, an internet folk radio station. All I get is country and pop radio stations up here in the woods of New Hampshire, so I have resorted to listening to radio via my laptop.

A song came on that I mistook for a gospel song at first … until I listened closely. It was “Probably Not” from Susan Werner’s 2007 album “The Gospel Truth.” The refrain goes: “Is there a god above? Is there eternal love? Probably not. Probably not. Is there a home up in the sky? Will we be there by and by? Probably not. Probably not.” Those would be “fightin words” for most preachers, but I found myself wanting to sing along.

The final verse got me laughing out loud. “But what if I've been wrong, And God's been up there all along. And He hands me a heavenly crown. Would I dare to turn Him down? Probably not. Probably not. And if He sends me down to hell, Would I smile and say ‘oh well?’ Probably not. No, Probably Not.”

Werner describes herself as an “evangelical agnostic.” They are “a passionate but ambivalent group,” she explains. She calls her music “Agnostic Gospel.” From what I can pick up from the lyrics of her songs, she is one of those kids who never could fit into the shoes of her parents’ faith.

She writes in “Lost My Religion” that she lost her religion at age ten. “Lost my religion. I guess it had to be. Lost my religion, or my religion lost me.” In her song “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small” she asks, “If god is great and god is good, why is your heaven so small?”

In her song “Sunday Morning” she sings, “and I went back the other day, closed my eyes and tried to pray. But a voice spoke loud and clear ‘you ask too many questions, dear’ and I said, ‘you ask too few.’ That's why I still don't know quite what to do on Sunday mornings.”

In “Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)” she prays, “Thy kingdom come to every nation. Thy will be done in everything we do.  Lord, lead us not into temptation. And deliver us from those who think they're You.” I could quote every word from every song on the album. I love it. 

I  love agnostics. I love talking about spiritual matters with them. They are so much more interesting than most church folk. They think things and say things that true believers are afraid to think and say… at least to preachers. They question the sacred idols of Christianity.

I am not an agnostic, not even an evangelical agnostic. I am more like an agnostic evangelical. I don’t mind regularly saying, “I don’t know,” which is what agnostic means.

I once said in a sermon “I don’t know,” and a lady came up to me afterward and told me she never heard those words spoken from a pulpit. She said, “Pastors don’t say such things.” She meant it in a good way. She explained that she respects people who admit they do not have all the answers.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. In fact the longer I live, the less I know. It is in this unknowing that I see God. The less I know, the more I know God. That is why I love agnostics. They don’t know either. And unlike most of my Christian brethren, they know they don’t know.
Susan Werner’s website can be found at

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Phed Up With Phobias

The August 30 Time Magazine cover loudly asks the question: Is America Islamophobic? I have been hearing about this new phobia for some time now. My response is weariness of heart. Here is another phobia invented by the thought police to browbeat people. Just when I had recovered from homophobia!

I am not saying there isn’t a widespread distrust and ignorance about Muslims in our land in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There certainly is. But I am tired of this trend of labeling everything as a phobia.

Phobias are legitimate psychological disorders - like agoraphobia and arachnophobia. But now the term has been expanded to contain hundreds of fears. One website “The Phobia List” ( tries to name them all.

As a pastor I have known people with some of them – like homilophobia (fear of sermons), ecclesiophobia (fear of church), and hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (fear of the number 666.) Some people are downright theophobic (fear of God.)

But terms like homophobia have been horribly misused in public discourse. It is a genuine pathological disorder, but now the word is commonly misused as emotional blackmail to disparage those who disagree with gays and lesbians on matters of sexual ethics. Just because someone holds different ethical standards doesn’t mean they have a phobia! To label everyone who disagrees with you as phobic is itself a phobia – fear of people who disagree with you!

Many Americans are now afraid of being seen as phobic. It is a form of phobophobia (fear of phobias). In our society nothing is worse than being called Islamophobic or homophobic or some other politicallyincorrectophobia. Once the phobic label is applied, it ends all civil and intelligent discourse. Where is FDR when we need him? He spoke the famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The rest of the quote from Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address is worth reading. “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”

To get back to Islamophobia … there is a virulent form of militant Islamic fundamentalism growing in the world. It is a genuine threat, and it is healthy – not phobic - to be afraid of this religious extremism. These folks are crazy dangerous! They strap bombs to themselves and fly airliners into buildings! This mutant form of Islam is a cancer that threatens Islamic countries and western civilization. It needs to be addressed. But the best way to do this is by strengthening healthy religious expression, including mainstream Islam – not attacking or fearing Islam as a whole.

In combating this threat our greatest enemy is fear – including the type of fear that labels those whom we do not understand as deviants, and turns our neighbors into pariahs with psychological, social or moral disorders. As a Christian I have been the recipient of hateful labels that I can only describe as Christophobic (fear of Christians.)

If we continue down this path of name-calling we will eventually embody the punchline of the old joke about the Quaker who said: “Everyone is crazy except me and thee, and I am not so sure about thee.”