Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Suffer the Children

“Let the little children come to me, Jesus said, and do not hinder them -- for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison. God has called them all home."

That is how President Obama closed his remarks to the family of the murdered children in Newtown, Connecticut. He read their names one by one as the evening news flashed photographs of the children. It was too much for me. It made me cry, and it made me angry. I shouted at the television, “What does God have to do with this?!”

I confess to you that I am having a difficult time with this tragedy, even though I knew none of the victims or their families personally. Perhaps it was the proximity of the shooting to Christmas. Perhaps it was the name Noah in the list, which made me think of my little grandson, who is thankfully safe and sound.

It brought back powerful memories of a triple funeral I performed in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1995. Three children of my church there were murdered in much the same fashion. A fourth child – a girl - was saved when her brother jumped in front of her and took multiple bullets. I will never forget the three open caskets in front of my church or having to physically restrain the grieving mother from climbing into the grave at the cemetery.

The Gospel of Matthew records the Epiphany story of “the slaughter of the innocents.” The visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem was followed by a killing spree as brutal as that at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Seeking to kill the child Jesus, King Herod ordered his soldiers to murder every child in Bethlehem age two and under. Yet God warned Jesus’ family to escape to Egypt. Why did God warn only that family?

This tragedy in Newtown came on the heels of our church’s five week study of the Jewish Holocaust. There were moving presentations by eyewitnesses to the events. Many of the stories focused on the children saved and the children who were not saved. This had already got me struggling anew with the problem that theologians call theodicy: how can God allow such evil to happen to so many innocent children?

On the Sunday after the shooting I stood in the pulpit and shared my thoughts and feelings. I told the congregation that I did not have the answers. All I knew to do was to pray and grieve. After worship I had a long discussion with a friend who is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary. He had sung “Be Not Afraid” in church that morning; in my living room that afternoon we debated this age-old problem of evil and suffering.

I wish I had pulpit-worthy answers to proclaim that make sense of this terrible event. I wish I understood why these children had to die. I wish I knew why God chose not to intervene. Why did he not jam the killer’s guns, or cause his car to refuse to start, or have a police cruiser drive by the school as the killer arrived that morning? These would be such small things for Omnipotence to arrange, and they would have saved these innocent lives.

I know that pastors are supposed to have the answers. But this pastor has more questions than answers when it comes to the slaughter of innocents. For years I have studied the theological answers to this issue. To be honest, most of them make me cringe. I would never repeat any of them to anyone in grief or pain. It is better just to remain silent and suffer with them. That is the literal meaning of the word compassion.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” is the traditional wording of the verse quoted by the president in his address. My answer to that is “Amen.”

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Not Dead Yet

For a week in August I was dying. The doctor solemnly informed my wife and me that he strongly suspected that I had pancreatic cancer. He was ordering a CT scan to confirm his diagnosis. He suggested we get people praying for us and assured us that he would also pray for us.

That was on a Tuesday - my wife’s 60th birthday - which certainly put a damper on the birthday celebration! Due to insurance and administrative snafus (and my allergy to the injection used for CT scans), it was not until the following Monday that I had the test performed; it was another 24 hours until I heard the results. So we began a week of waiting.

For that week I thought I was dying. It took only a quick internet search to confirm that pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of the disease. Seventy-five percent of those diagnosed with this disease die within a year. 96% are dead in five years. I was probably dead within months.

I grieved. I woke up in the middle of the night and wept for the grandchildren I would never see grow up. I cried alone in the dark. I hugged Jude and we cried together. I grieved for her loss; I grieved for our children’s loss. I remembered what it was like to lose my father to cancer when he was 64 years old.

I planned everything I needed to do to get my financial affairs in order. I talked to our son, the banker, about annuities for Jude. I did not want to make any definite decisions until the test confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis, but I was pretty certain I was as good as dead.

When the results came in, the doctor phoned immediately. My CT scan was clear. Except for a few minor issues (such as kidneys full of stones) I was healthy. At hearing the news my wife immediately fell to her knees in thanksgiving to God. Then she got on the phone to share the good news with our prayer partners.

I was relieved, but strangely I had no strong emotional response to the news. As I write this article three weeks (and one gallbladder surgery) later, I still remain stoic concerning my newfound longevity. 

Of course I am glad I am not dying of cancer. I hope to live many more years. In fact the forty pounds I have lost to this mysterious ailment (probably gall bladder disease) will likely increase my chances of living longer. My cholesterol levels have never been better!

I now view that week of dying as a gift from God. It is one thing to intellectually know one is mortal. It is another thing to emotionally experience imminent mortality … and live to tell the story. I received the gift of dying before I died. I had a near death experience, but without the bright light and angels.

My brief experiment in dying has helped me appreciate the emotional depths of those who are diagnosed with life-threatening illness. It has put things in clearer perspective in my life. It has helped Jude and I to cherish each day as a gift from God, to value our family, our friends, our community, and our church. Dying has helped me live.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Christ Alone

My life begins and ends with Christ. This is the only way I can describe my spiritual journey. Christ is the only reality of which I am certain. Christ alone is the Rock upon which I stand. He is my door into the transcendent reality that is God.

When theodicy causes me to doubt God, Christ is real. When the Scriptures seem unbelievable, self-contradictory and in places immoral, the figure of Jesus shines from them like a beacon. When the Church and church people betray Christian values, Christ never fails.

In my intellectual life I am continually reexamining my beliefs. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” If that is true, then the old Athenian would consider my life very worthwhile. I question everything all the time. I am a Christian skeptic.

I accept nothing on blind faith. On Easter evening I would have lined up behind doubting Thomas to touch the wounds of Christ. Even then I would have thought Thomas too quick to believe his own senses! Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of this day by teaching them to question everything. He would have welcomed me as a co-conspirator. I never stop questioning.

Sometimes I wish I were not so distrustful of Christianity. How much easier my life would be as a pastor if I could just accept Church teachings on faith! How nice it must be to never question one’s religious beliefs or assumptions! I envy believers who never doubt and are absolutely certain of everything Christian. I am not one of them. I am certain of nothing … but Christ.

Time and again, when I come to the end of a rigorous bout of spiritual self-examination, Christ remains true. This Christ is not just a subjective Savior apprehended by personal faith; I am talking about the historical Jesus. When I ruthlessly examine the Scriptures with the most critical eye, I repeatedly come to the conclusion that Jesus is the real thing.

In particular Jesus’ resurrection is irrefutable. I have studied all the arguments of the atheists and radical Biblical scholars. When all the arguments have been examined carefully, it is clear that as far as we can know anything about the past through historical science, then we can know this: Jesus’ tomb was empty that Sunday morning. As improbable as it seems, the most reasonable explanation for the empty tomb is that Christ had risen from the dead.

If you doubt this is true, then I suggest you do your own investigation. Please do not take my word for it; I wouldn’t if I were you. Examine all the possibilities; look at all the evidence. Leave nothing out. As part of your search you might want to read a book that recently finished entitled “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics” by William Lane Craig, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He does a very thorough job of exploring all the relevant issues.

If this is true – if Jesus truly rose from the grave - that changes everything. It changes the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. It changes the historical arguments for Jesus’ miracles. It changes our understanding of death. It changes our hopes and dreams. It changes our lives. It changes my life – over and over again. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Skipping Church

I skipped church today.  Yes, I am on vacation and had no official responsibilities, and therefore my truancy is justifiable. But still it feels strange. I know that millions of people stay home from worship every Sunday and do not feel the least bit uncomfortable with it. For them attending worship would feel strange. Even many Christians regularly miss worship on little more than a whim and don’t give it a second thought.

But not me. Even during the year that I was out of ministry, I never missed a Sunday. I was a faithful pew-warmer even when I wasn’t in the pulpit. I have even made it a point to find a place to worship while on the road traveling long distances. I have had very interesting experiences visiting churches right off highway exits. But not this Sunday. This Sunday I was on vacation in Maine, and I chose the beach over the pew.

I was amazed at how many people were not going to church with me. I should not have been surprised. I have read the statistics on church attendance, especially in New England. But it still took me aback to see all these Sabbath-breakers in the flesh. And I am one of them.

Are these the ones who say, “I can worship God just as well in nature as in church?” Are these the people that the megachurches cater to? The “seekers” who are diligently searching for God?  I don’t think so. I think my fellow church-skippers were not giving a single thought to the Creator. They were busy building sand castles, deepening their tans, and cooling off in the surf.

As for me, I skipped church because I was tired. I needed to get away from church, if only for one Sunday. It didn’t stop me from thinking about God. Even while spending Sunday morning under a beach umbrella, I was reading a book on Christian apologetics and sharing theological insights with my wife. But every once in a while - every twenty or thirty years or so - skipping church just feels like the right thing to do.  

Friday, June 29, 2012

Struggling with God

Call me Israel. For I have wrestled with God. In Genesis Jacob wrestled with God all night and persevered until he received God’s blessing. In the morning God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God.”

I chose this Biblical passage as the text for the first sermon I ever preached. I expounded it to a tiny congregation in rural Kentucky in 1974 while a seminarian. I have returned to this passage many times in the past thirty-eight years. I have proclaimed this scripture from other pulpits since then, each time approaching it differently. I am still wrestling.

I have struggled with faith, ministry, and theology all my life. Many times I almost quit. Recently I did quit ministry for more than a year. I assumed Christianity would get easier the more I studied the Bible and theology, and the more I matured in my faith. But in fact the struggle has become more difficult. My struggle has been compounded by sharing the struggles of my parishioners for so many years.

I have seen good people struggle through very difficult situations. People struggle to hold onto their faith – to believe and trust God in times of crisis. As their pastor I am there to share their pain, help them, and give them words of encouragement and hope. But many of these faithful Christians tell me that they experience no answer from God to their earnest prayers at such times. For many Christians God does not seem to be present when He is needed most.

Furthermore the problem of evil and suffering bothers me more than it used to. Maybe it is because I have seen evil firsthand. Child abuse, teen suicides, elder suicides, murder, good people facing deep depression worse than death. In one of my churches, four of our Sunday School children were shot in the head by the angry boyfriend of the mother. Conducting that multiple funeral changed my life.

If I had known that these shootings were going to happen, I would have done everything humanly possible to prevent it. God knew; God is omniscient. Yet He did not stop it. If I had been present in that apartment I would fought the man to stop those murders, risking my own life to do so. I would have killed him if necessary. God was present; God is omnipresent and omnipotent. Yet God choose not to act.

My experience with evil is insignificant compared to the experience of the parents of millions of infants who die of hunger, violence or disease each year. My familiarity with evil pales in comparison to the experience of Elie Wiesel. Listen to his description of arriving at the Birkenau Nazi concentration camp:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

I know the standard answers to the problem of theodicy. I have quoted them to hurting people a thousand times: “All things work together for good to them that love God…” Sorry, I don’t see the good that justifies such evil. Then there is the answer of “free will.” I could tolerate a little less free will for the perpetrators of evil if there was less suffering for the most vulnerable and innocent.

Many people quote this paraphrase of scripture: “God never gives us more than we can bear.”  Sorry, I don’t buy it. I have seen too many people given more than they can bear. The apologetic “ace in the hole” is that God’s reasons for allowing such evil and suffering are beyond our understanding; therefore we should just have faith.

That argument silenced Job, but it doesn’t stop my questioning. I need to know why, even if I can’t understand it fully. Throw me a bone, Lord. I have been struggling for a long time over this, and the night is far spent. But for now I will keep wrestling in the dark hoping that God will bless me with some tidbit of insight. Any answer is better than bad answers or no answer at all.

– Art is “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” by Karen Laub-Novak

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Praying on Memorial Day

I am often asked to pray at public events. It is an occupational hazard. I am the official pray-er at community functions. Town meetings, school board meetings, graduations, baccalaureate services, public dinners, weddings, funerals - you name it. If the preacher is in attendance he is asked to pray.

Not that I mind it. It is a wonderful opportunity to usher people into the presence of God. I even get to do some disguised preaching. Those who would never sit in a pew and listen to a sermon will unintentionally hear a message in a prayer.

One of the most solemn occasions I am asked to pray is at Memorial Day ceremonies. There is a reverence surrounding these ceremonies that is absent at other times. It has to do with the atmosphere of sacrifice that permeates the service.

It is not too often that we can truthfully say that something is “a matter of life or death.” This is one of those times. Especially these days when we are in the midst of the longest war that America has ever fought.

I heard one young soldier say that when he came home from Afghanistan he tried to talk to his old school buddies about the war. Some of them were surprised to hear that our country was still fighting there. Afghanistan has become a forgotten war before it is even over. That is why I am honored to pray at Memorial Day services. It is my way of making sure their service is not forgotten.

It does not matter whether we think the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf or Vietnam were good foreign policy. All that matters is that these men and women put their lives on the line.  Many thousands gave their lives. Thousands more are continuing to give each day as they live with the physical and emotional wounds of war.

To pray is the least I can do. As my congregation knows, I do not pray for them only once a year on Memorial Day. I pray for soldiers  every Sunday morning in my pastoral prayer. I want to make sure that no one in my congregation ever forgets the great sacrifice given by so many.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Meeting Myself

I met Marshall Davis last Saturday night. I am not kidding. I went to hear a speaker in Madison, New Hampshire. A young man and I both drove up to the wrong location looking for the same program. We eventually found the correct building, and were greeted by one of the organizers of the event. 

She asked my name and I replied, “Marshall.” The young man said his name was Marshall also. What a coincidence. I asked him his last name. He replied, “Davis.” “You are kidding me!” I said. He wasn’t. We were the first Marshall Davis that either of us had ever met. There were only 30 people at the event, and two were Marshall Davis. I was glad we were not asked to wear name tags. 

I felt like I was looking at myself forty years younger, like I was in some type of time travel movie. I wanted to tell him that when I was his age I had as much hair on my head as he does now, but I didn’t have the heart. I wanted to tell him to take care of his teeth or he will be missing a few by my age, and root canals and dental implants aren’t fun. But I didn’t want to scare him. 

I wonder what he thought of me? I doubt that he thought he was meeting an older version of himself. “No,” he would think, “I will never become that bald or heavy … or wrinkled!” You just wait, Marshall Davis! Time has a way of doing things that you would never imagine!

The really strange thing is that when the program began, the speaker talked about our sense of personal identity. His main point concerned the illusory nature of the self. It felt like God was hitting me over the head with a message. “Listen up, Marshall Davis! Get this lesson through your hard heart!”

I did not talk much more with my namesake. He was a college student, and soon some of his college friends showed up. He spent the next few minutes before the program began chatting with them. Perhaps he had enough of Marshall Davis. Sometimes I feel the same way.

It was fun to meet myself. I looked good. I seemed happy and healthy. I hope Marshall Davis has a good, long and blessed life. I hope he meets the love of his life, and has a long happy marriage, as I have. I hope his spiritual quest results in knowing Truth intimately, as mine has. I hope he has a fulfilling career, and children and grandchildren. And I hope that forty years from now he meets Marshall Davis  ... again. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Grandfatherly Thoughts

I am starting to get used to this. Grandfatherhood, that is. We have three grandchildren; the youngest is just two weeks old. They are all boys, and all bear the names of Hebrew prophets - Noah, Jonah, Elijah. We call them the OTG - the Old Testament Gang.

The three year-old calls me Gandpa and my wife Gamma. (He can’t yet say his Rs.) The one and a half year-old calls me something similar, but it is hard to make out exactly what. 

While I was driving the other day I waited while an elderly man slowly crossed the parking lot that I was trying to exit. “Come on, Grandpa!” I mumbled impatiently under my breath. Then I realized that I was a grandpa too! I quickly changed my tune . “Take all the time you want, great-grandpa. One day I will be you, God willing.”

As I look at my newborn grandson - so small - just seven pounds, I contemplate the incarnations that we go through in life. Our bodies grow, change and age. I read somewhere that every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. That means that physically we are entirely new persons many times during our lives.

I have been through eight bodily reincarnations since my birth, and I am halfway through my ninth. When contemplating this phenomenon, it is clear that I am not my bodies. They come and go, yet I remain. Neither am I my beliefs - whether political, social, ethical, or religious. I have changed those so many times I have lost count.

Neither are we are our personalities. Those are not permanent either. The thoughts, emotions, preferences, and memories that make up our personalities are dependent on the health of our brains, as any family of an Alzheimer's patient knows.

Yet I have always had the sense that I am me, even though my self-understanding has changed. But if I am not my body, my beliefs, or my personality, then who am I? Am I just the fleeting illusion of a self created by the firing of brain synapses. If that is true, then I will perish when my brain dies.

If I am more than the illusion of a self, then I must be what remains when all that is temporary passes away. I must be what is permanent. I am who I was before my body was born and who I will be when my body is dead. 

I held my newest grandson minutes after he was born. Who is he? His name means “The Lord is God.” Who was he a year earlier? Who will he be a hundred years from now? I look into his eyes and see the answer. This is who I was, and am, and will be - the image of God - created to reflect God on earth and for all eternity.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dangers of Neo-Atheism

I love atheists. That might seem to be a strange thing for a Christian pastor to say, but that is the way I feel. I have read many of the best selling books by the New Atheists. They force me to examine my deepest convictions and assumptions in a way that religious books do not. They make me a better Christian. I read the eSkeptic newsletter published weekly by Skeptic magazine. I love atheism’s attitude of “prove it to me” and their unwillingness to accept things simply on tradition.
Religious people can learn a lot from atheists. Too often we religious folks are too gullible and accepting of ideas that ought to be rejected outright as foolishness. Perhaps it is my scientific education in college that bends me in this direction. I was a geology major before I was a religion major. I dated rocks in terms of millions of years while I was still a teenager. Young earth creationism never made much sense to me. For me religion always needs to be held in the context of scientific fact. 

Therefore it was with distress that I followed the news coverage of the Reason Rally that took place recently in Washington, DC. On April 2, twenty thousand representatives of twenty atheist, secular and humanist organizations gathered in our nation’s capital, purportedly to celebrate reason. 

But it didn’t seem like reason. It seemed more like an unreasonable attack on religion. The rally host Paul Provenza said in his opening announcement: “We're not here today to bash anyone's religion… but, hey, if it happens it happens.” There were placards proclaiming animosity toward religious people. One placard read, “Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion... I am!” Another read, “So many Christians, so few lions.”

In his address to the crowd, atheist writer Richard Dawkins said that religious beliefs “should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.” He singled out Roman Catholicism and its doctrines for special scorn, saying, "Mock them, ridicule them in public." 

This type of attitude doesn’t sound like reason to me. It sounds more like the French Revolution, which used a guillotine to fill the streets with the blood of tens of thousands of people in the name of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The French Revolution established a Cult of Reason which advocated anti-clerical violence in the name of Enlightenment rationalism. Although I do not expect a similar Reign of Terror to sweep America, the rhetoric is too similar to ignore. 

The New Atheism movement seems to have become an Anti-theism movement. Their books bear such titles as “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.“ Other titles include “God Hates You. Hate Him Back” and “The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.” 

These writers and groups are not content with presenting atheism as a viable alternative to religious worldviews. They publicly disparage religion and openly proclaim their desire to eliminate it. It is not too strong to say that this is anti-religious bigotry. Do you think I am exaggerating or over-reacting? Just substitute the names of other maligned groups in the titles of their books and judge for yourself.

Imagine if there were bestsellers with titles like “Israel is Not Great: How Jews Poison Everything” or “Blacks Hate You. Hate Them Back” or “The Gay Virus: How Homosexuality Infects Our Lives and Our Culture.” What if there was a rally where placards read, “So many blacks, so few lynchings?” What if the organizer of a rally proclaimed, “We're not here today to bash anyone's race but, hey, if it happens it happens.”

If such racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic books were to hit the bestseller lists, or such remarks were made at a rally in Washington, there would be public outrage. But these Neo-Atheist books are reviewed respectfully in America's newspapers. There is a growing anti-religious sentiment in this country which utilizes uncivil rhetoric.

Religion is so widespread and so strong in this country that there is no real threat from nonbelievers - at least not at the present time. But it is disheartening to hear the democratic values of religious freedom and tolerance attacked. Sure, atheists should have the right to gather in public and present their views. But they must remember that in the First Amendment the right to religious freedom is listed before freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. 

Religious liberty is among the most precious values that we have in this nation. But for it to persist, it needs to be defended in the streets and in the pulpits and not just in our country’s founding documents. This value used to be the special concern of the early Baptists and Quakers. Where are their voices now? 

Confronting anti-religious prejudice in the American atheist movement is not without its price. Those who question the motives of the Reason Rally are labeled as “anti-atheist bigots” and Nazis, as evidenced in one  blog entitled “Media Distortions of the Reason Rally.” This atheist blogger goes on to say that one should not judge the whole rally by the “bottom 10%” who voice hateful comments. But that argument is hard to swallow when the “bottom 10%” are the leaders!

America has fought hard for its civil liberties, and they must not be compromised by coddling groups that espouse intolerance. Philosophical atheism is an honorable school of thought and needs to be respected as such. But when it degenerates into anti-religious bigotry, then it needs to be challenged as forcefully as one would challenge any other form of prejudice. 

It is clear that politicians, journalists and academics have no stomach for advocating this particular human right, so let the churches once again be the champions of religious liberty, tolerance, and civility in public discourse..

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games

I read the book before I knew I was too old. It was only when I was through with the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy that I found out that it was “young adult fiction.” I guess I must be young at heart because I loved it. In my opinion it is much more profound than most of the “old adult fiction” I have read recently.

I am always looking for interesting books to read. As a pastor I try to keep in touch with what mainstream society is reading and thinking. So I regularly peruse the best-seller lists and buy books that linger in the top ten. (The exception to that rule is the romance novels. Sorry, I can’t bring myself to read this so-called “mommy porn.”)

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books have been on the USA Today Best Seller list for over two years. Today they hold the top three slots. They are science fiction, a genre that I enjoy. More specifically they are set in a dystopian future, like the Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle and started reading. I could not stop reading until I was finished with all three novels.

For those who are unfamiliar with the books, they take place in the not-too-distant future in North America. The United States has been destroyed by an apocalyptic event and replaced with Panem, with its Capitol in the Rocky Mountains.  The continent is divided into twelve districts, one of which was later destroyed for its rebellion against the state.

To keep the districts under its thumb, the Capitol annually requires each district to choose two teenagers to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games, an event which is a believable hybrid of the TV show Survivor and the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome.

I will tell you why I like the books. First of all they are a scathing critique of American popular culture and politics. The painted coiffed residents of the Capitol are too reminiscent of the cultural elite of our nation. I felt like I was watching the Oscars!

The economy of Panem is easily recognizable as the class warfare decried by Occupy movement - the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. The government of Panem is the oligarchy of American politics. It is the Demopublican party of the USA, which sends its young men and women to die in war as a way to keep itself in power.

The heroine of the novels is a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen. She is the perfect heroine for our time because she is not perfect. She is a deeply flawed and wounded person; in other words she is real. She is deeply spiritually connected with nature; she regularly escapes the prison of her urban ghetto to hunt in the forests of the former West Virginia.

Most important she is willing to lay down her life. At the Reaping (where the tributes from each district are chosen by lot) Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Prim. She is Christ at Gabbatha, the one who saves another by taking her place. Later at the end of the Game, she offers her life again, showing this was no fleeting emotional outburst, but the core of her character.

And she is a warrior.  This is a theme that is missing from much of Christianity today. I was reacquainted with it when I read John Bunyan’s book “The Holy War,” a book just as profound as his more well-known Pilgrim’s Progress. She fights! But she sees that the true fight is not against the flesh and blood of the other tributes in the arena, but against the principalities and powers operating behind the scenes.

This is a deeply spiritual book, even though I do not know if the author is traditionally religious. There are other important themes as well. I will only mention one. There is the secondary theme of the power of art to transform and save. True art is practiced by the hero Peeta versus the faux art of the culture. It is redeeming art, which is deeply connected to Nature, the human soul and the power of love.

That is all I have room to say here. You will have to read the books for yourself. But I warn you. They are revolutionary. If the youth of our nation are inspired by books like these, the future will not be like our present.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reflections in Solitude

I have been spending more time alone recently. I wish I could say it was intentional – that I am setting aside time to go on solitary retreats to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation. But that is not the case. My wife has simply been away more than usual.

First it was her mother’s illness and subsequent death in Florida last summer. Then she spent some time with her dad after her mom’s passing. More recently she has been on “baby watch” with our daughter in western Pennsylvania in anticipation of the arrival of our new grandson.

So I have been “batching it” in New Hampshire. I keep busy during the day and many evenings doing church work. But when the work is over, I am home alone. These times of solitude have helped me to understand the lifestyles of many of my church members.

Time Magazine recently published an issue on “Ten Ideas That are Changing Your Life.”  First on the list was: “Living Alone Is the New Norm.” In 1950, only 9 percent of Americans lived alone. Now people who live alone make up 28 percent of American households. That is a 300% increase during my lifetime!

Many of those living alone are older folks. Another article said that one of the top three concerns of the elderly is loneliness. (The other two are depression and a feeling of uselessness.) These are ministry needs that need to be addressed by congregations.

Spirituality is different for people who live alone. Community becomes more important. That is one of the reasons we moved back to this small town of Sandwich, New Hampshire. We experience community here more than in any other place we have ever lived. I have a theory: the smaller the town, the more people you know.

One’s relationship to God is different when alone. When you are sitting by yourself in the evening, you can’t escape God. God is not a distant Father you visit on Sunday morning or in a half hour of daily devotions. Whenever I am alone, God is here.

I could distract myself with television, internet, books or even writing. But even then, God hovers at the edges of my awareness. I simply have to turn my attention, and God fills my vision. God’s presence can be overwhelming. The silence shouts God.

Sometimes it feels like God is too present. I know that might sound ungodly for a minister to admit, but I am being honest here. I understand why Adam and Eve hid from God in forest of Eden. They just wanted some time alone.

God’s presence can be overpowering. When I am alone with God, my sense of being a separate self feels contrived. When God is present, I am so tiny in comparison that I barely exist. My little self disappears in the omnipresence of God’s Self. The prophet Isaiah experienced this and cried out, “Woe is me! I am undone!”

Sometimes I imagine that is what death must be like – the permanent undoing of “I” and the eternal awareness of God’s “I AM.” When I contemplate this, it seems like I exist only to mirror God; I am like a reflection in still waters.

Perhaps that is what the Genesis creation story means when it says that humans are made in the image of God. Maybe we are no more than the image of the Creator reflected in the waters of His Creation. Then the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, and the image disappears. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Burning Bibles and Qurans

Every so often someone will ask me how to dispose of old Bibles. Is it proper to burn them? Should they be buried? Is it okay to throw them in the trash or bring them to the dump? I tell them to treat them like any other book. But because it is “the Holy Bible” people are hesitant to treat them in any manner that might be sacrilegious.
We learn as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts the proper way to dispose of American flags. Certainly there must be an equivalent procedure for Holy Scriptures. To tell the truth, there isn’t. Some denominations have developed ceremonies in response to parishioners concerns, but most Christians simply do not have an official protocol for disposing of Scriptures.
This is why we do not understand the outrage of Muslims in Afghanistan when American soldiers disposed of old Qurans by burning them this February. The soldiers were not intentionally disrespecting the Islamic holy book. They didn’t know any better. They were treating them like they might treat old Bibles. The problem is that Muslims do not view the Quran the way we view the Bible.
For Muslims the Quran is more than a book; it is divine. They believe that it exists eternally in heaven in Arabic and was verbally dictated to Muhammad. While studying in Israel, I heard an Islamic scholar say that Muslims view the Quran the way Christians view Christ – as the incarnate Word of God.  That should cause us to ponder the implications of Quran burnings!
If our soldiers had been more knowledgeable about religious traditions, then we would not be in the situation of having a top American military commander and the president of the United States publically apologize to Muslims. But Americans are so afraid of indoctrinating American public schoolchildren with Christian dogma that we have not adequately educated our children about religious beliefs and practices.
Consequently we have produced a generation of religiously illiterate adults unequipped for life in a pluralistic world. Students don’t know enough about the Bible to understand Shakespeare, much less know anything about the Quran!
I have read the entire Quran several times; I took a doctoral seminar in Islam at my Baptist seminary. I wish that all Christian ministers were required to study other religions. I have had lengthy theological discussions with a Sunni imam on a series of radio programs where we both were guests. I visited his mosque in Pittsburgh and graciously received from him an inscribed copy of the Quran. Personally I do not accept the Quran as scripture nor believe its teachings, but I would never think of treating the book disrespectfully.
I am also very wary of present-day Islam. My study of Islamic history enables me to see through the well-meaning rhetoric that insists that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Muhammad was a warrior who spread Islam by the sword. I have viewed his sword in a museum in Istanbul! In the same way, the word “jihad” is often said to mean nothing more than spiritual struggle – not violence. That may be true for today’s moderate Muslims, but throughout Islam’s history jihad has primarily meant military conquest. No postmodern rewriting of history can erase these facts.
I hope that Islam can be reformed by religious moderates and truly become a religion of peace. It is still a young religion, and this is certainly possible. Christianity outgrew the Crusades and Islam can do the same. But I doubt if it will happen in our lifetimes. Unfortunately 21st century Islam is moving in the opposite direction. In my opinion, the current radicalization of Islam is a much more serious threat to democracy, religious liberty, and world peace than Soviet communism ever was.
But I am also a strong defender of religious liberty and tolerance, even when that tolerance is not reciprocated. Therefore Muslims – especially in our country - need to be treated with respect. Above all I am a believer in religious literacy. We must move beyond the religious stereotypes that infest the worldviews of both the political right and left in our country. If we encouraged more reading of Scriptures and less burning of them, our grandchildren would inherit a much safer world. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Last Church Standing

           The last church in Afghanistan was recently demolished. No new building permits are being issued for churches. It is not because there are no Christians or no need for churches. The American-supported government in Afghanistan is following a systematic policy of discrimination against Christianity. What is troubling is that this has happened while American servicemen and women are fighting for the Afghans’ freedom. What about religious freedom?

The same thing has happened in Iraq. There are only one third as many Christians in Iraq today as when the Iraq War began, due to bombings of churches and assassinations of church leaders. The so-called Arab Spring has not been kind to Christians in other countries either. Church burnings and persecution against Christians in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, have been widespread and brutal. The rise of militant Islam to a position of power in these countries does not bode well for the Christian minority populations.

What is most troubling is that there is no outcry in America from either the Republicans or Democrats. Religious liberty is not a topic for presidential debates or campaign stump speeches. People are more concerned about whether the Mormon Romney is a true Christian or whether Obama is a Christian than if Afghans have the freedom to be Christians. 

I guess I should not be too surprised. I see prejudice against Christians in our land as well. There are too many Christian voters to allow it to degenerate into full-blown persecution, but the anti-Christian attitude is clearly present and growing. It was most recently seen in New York City when churches were prohibited from meeting in school buildings on Sundays for no other reason than that they are religious.

Best-selling books by the New Atheists spew hatred of religion in general and the Christian religion in particular (with titles such as “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”) I cringe when I listen to audiences applaud while Bill Maher ridicules people of faith.  Anti-Christian prejudice is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in this country. People are scolded by society for saying anything anti-Semitic, racist or even homophobic. But you can say anything you want against Christians, and people will smile or laugh.

This bigotry in American society usually comes in the form of derogatory comments about “organized religion.” When people use this phrase they are not talking about synagogues or yoga centers; it is a euphemism for Christianity. The term “fundamentalist” is used in a pejorative sense to refer to any Christian who holds to traditional Christian doctrine or morals. The insinuation is that evangelicals are spiritual cousins of the jihadists who fly airliners into buildings.

There is a deep-seated prejudice against Christians held by people who are otherwise quite tolerant of diversity in our society. It is time for this anti-Christian bigotry to be exposed for what it is. So the next time someone disparages “organized religion” or the “institutional church,” politely point out that anti-religious language is not different from other forms of hate speech. 

If enough people stand up for religious tolerance, our society would be a much more civil place in which to live. Hopefully we will never find ourselves in the position of Afghanistan, where the church in our community becomes the last church standing.